Open Road

It was expensive, but so worth it. Sliding back in the drivers seat, I brushed my fingertips over the central console menu, looking for something entertaining.

Not many people drove themselves, not in the old-time 2k-er sense. It was a hobby reserved for those that were rich enough for the insurance and the extensive permits needed outside the bustling urban center. Not that you would stand a chance in any of the high-volume corridors inside the city.

That required machine precision and nanosecond timing to navigate the city network. The intersections themselves didn’t have a single stop light, there was no need. Rivers of traffic interwove themselves like bustling bees in a hive, with clearances measured in centimeters. Completely out of the range of human senses and reaction times.

Not that I would have to worry about that. Not today.

Semi-opaque poly films still coated the inside, to be removed by the dealer before delivery. I insisted at the dealer they remain so I could peel them off personally, internally disrobing the interior to smells of clinical adhesives and gleaming surfaces. It was almost like foreplay, taking off layers and revealing the hidden treasure beneath.

But I had always been a collector, and this vehicle, a Burov 243, was the finest in all of my garage. I had been checking the forecasts for a week straight, cajoling AI’s and creating personal rulesets for when it would be perfect to take my baby out into the countryside.

The roads were rough, only patched every other month by a fleet of aging automated pavers, scrawled with the angst of bored teenagers and political dissidents. They lumbered by my property on time, laying down fresh material designed to grip older tires. I had moved out here on purpose, just because of this road. There were so few left in service, after the large near-vacuum tubes had been bored under the earth connecting cities.

Pushing a button, the Burov roared to life, another artifact of ancient engineering. If I had neighbors they’d be entering environmental zoning complaints, tagging every errant molecule of monoxide as it wafted skyward. Out here, surrounded by green fields and hills, the only eyes on me and mine were the birds, soaring in the sapphire blue sky.

Powering down to a smooth idle, I let the gear engage and smoothly accelerated forward, the front gates closing behind me as I glided past, wind catching at my scarf.

I must’ve looked a sight, driving down that road with my scarf fluttering and a wild grin on my face.

Not that the truck convoy cared. It came over the hills behind me, hauling multi-segmented trailers like a mechanical centipede. It belonged to one of those econo-shipper outfits. They couldn’t afford the rapid loop tubes between the cities, so they went with a lo-fi version instead.

Large, yellow and pockmarked with grime and insects, they hurled over the landscape with programmed instructions to not stop until their destination. They were pretty old, I could see the ratty mudflaps waving behind the large knobby all-terrain tires.

Sensing trouble, the Burov intoned in its best announcer voice, “Incursion detected, please allow automatic control.”

What? On my day off? Ridiculous.

I ignored the warning and the subsequent red triangle on the heads-up display, batting it away with a motion of my hand. There was no way I was going to let a robot convoy ruin my day out.

The stubby front end of the convoy loomed in my rear view, nearly filling the screen with its grimy geometry. I snorted, and pushed down on the accelerator.

“Warning, exceeding safe limits for current conditions”

Damn it, this Burov was turning into a backseat driver, hollering instructions. Leave me alone, I want to drive.

The chime kept pinging as I increased my speed. I was beyond the rated highway speed, and in trying to best the convoy, I saw to my horror that they were keeping right up. Oh you bastards. They must have been the very cheapest trucking firm, because no one would get that close unless they were trying to take advantage of my low-pressure wake.

I was being waked by a damn autobot trucker. That just does it, I thought.

Multiple warnings were pulsing, minimized in the lower margins of my windshield, like sullen insects staring with uncaring compound eyes.

My foot was all the way down, but the linkage to the old engine wasn’t direct — I wasn’t that rich — so there was some automated regulation involved. Sensing my unrelenting need to get ahead of the convoy, the Burov had decided to forego economy and kick in the full four barrels of the open-aspirated engine.

There I was, white-knuckled on the steering wheel, leaned into the motion of the car like someone possessed, when I heard a “click”. Oh no, I had leaned too far in, and my right knee had touched a button. A physical button, only found on certain models at the insistence of their finicky customers.

I recalled the pitch from the SalesBot:

“The Burov not only ambulates you with ease, it also entertains! Observe! An entire platter of snacks and sundries! Just a small offering of the complete luxury this Burov conveyance provides.”

The platter extended into my gut, retracted, then extended again. I should be reclined, in position to pluck morsels from the selection provided. Not hunched over and intent on beating an automated adversary. Irritated, I took both hands off the wheel and shoved the platter back in.

Then I realized – I had dismissed automatic control.

I careened off the road, clipping an expensive length of siderail before being covered in a sticky mass of collision gel. The gelatinous cloud solidified around me, opaque but permeable. I wouldn’t suffocate, just stew in my own juices until help arrived.

It was then I remembered, had I subscribed to TowCare?

Oh bugger…