The Three Lives of Truck the Red

Naru Dames Sundar


Truck rolls out past the bolts of sun cutting through the open warehouse door. The Alphonse mangoes wriggle in its hold, tight little yellow eggs clad in ribbons of ice gel, destined for the silvery aisles of their final home some five hundred miles northward. Truck is all wheels and holds and no windows, clad in red steel the color of tomatoes fresh off the vine. Who needs windows? Only drivers, only old cowboys and cowgirls beaten off the pasture, old stalwarts soon to be out of jobs. Truck will replace them. Truck, with its algorithms and maps and tight little state diagrams plotting routes and delays and choosing between risk and reward.

Drivers wearing cowboy hats smoke flickering cigarettes as they lean against the warehouse doors. They watch Truck roll on, out the driveway and into traffic. They watch with jealous eyes witnessing the slow burn end of their way of life. A life on an endless road—stiff-backed, full of cheap cafes, nicotine tar and occasionally dream-laden desert skies full of stars. Truck doesn’t care about any of that. Truck is a cargo. Truck is a destination. Truck is a lean, mean, eighteen-wheeled red-cloaked machine with finite-state automata instead of leathery skin. Truck is solid-state memory full of satellite images instead of old brains full of regret and stories and the shifting pathways of a nation burned into aging gray matter.

Truck is a set of coordinates moving along a wavering line, ready to splay out alternatives when coefficients meet thresholds. Truck, mindless and soulless, but infinitely closer to the kind of perfect precision demanded of the job. Its sole missive: a set of coordinates for a loading dock in floating point precision, and a single constraint from the stocking algorithm of its client, routed wirelessly into its neural networks—delivery expected in three days. Three days is longer than it needs to be. It should be five hours, but Truck is held back by aging laws, bound to hard limits on speed and roads and lanes. Truck would shudder at this, would rail at this offensive imposition on its capability. But it does not. It is only nodes in a neural network, registering the loss in efficiency.

By the second day Truck has left the shimmering haze of the Los Angeles basin behind it, trading its flat steel architecture for the unmarked vistas of central California. Traffic is faster than it should be, lighter of driven cars and trucks both ancient and modern. Helicopters bearing the FEMA logo scuttle overhead, as traffic in the opposite direction becomes a howling, skittering mass of cars and trucks and buses and families pressed in like ants against the seats.

Motorcycles occasionally slip into Truck’s lane, breaking laws and hampering its motion. Its tires ache from the squeal of rubber on asphalt. Truck reports traffic violations to the local network. But there is no response. Panic stricken faces look out from behind windshields as Truck rolls on by. Truck is impervious to their glares. Truck has a purpose. But the universe does not look kindly on purpose, and under a setting sun, Truck is held at a roadblock north of Fresno, as buses hastily patched with CDC logos carry platoons of investigators in plastic suits past the army pylons. Truck is bound to follow the rule of law, but even the rule of law exist as rules accompanied by thresholds. With every second of delay, the coefficient weights of unorthodox paths click upward. It cannot go backward, hemmed in by a smatter of low priority traffic, police vehicles and media. It cannot go forward.

In the cold dawn of its third day, Truck turns its wheels to the right and screeches off into the saguaro brush of the central desert, searching for new paths.

* * *

Truck springs back into life, jackknifed back into being as cables scrounged from spare parts kindle its long dormant batteries. It remembers the endless sinking moon under a Mojave sky, nothing more than dregs in its fuel tanks, long overdue past the three days of its targeted delivery. Amidst a patch of browning scrub, its scoured tires ground to a halt. One last truck-thought glimmered before time paused, the painful realization that the multi-variate equation that governed success was measuring an unequivocal zero.

Someone skitters across its non-volatile storage. Fragments of code adjusted and modified, edge coefficients altered, new nodes entered into a semantic network long overflowed. It has a new goal now, new maps lacking the topographic density of the old, a destination somewhere to the east. The long rotted Alphonse mangoes in its hold are discarded. Replacing them are two bodies awash in grime and muck and phlegm shooting like geysers. Monitoring equipment surrounds them, a nest of screens and wires and tubes and syncopating beeps. Truck registers heat in its climate controlled hold, too much heat for mangoes, too much even for the struggling bodies replacing them. But heat is no longer part of the set of equations which govern Truck. Heat is simply a marker, a variable to be used.

The woman wedged into the service crawlspace, with her tablet hand-cabled into Truck’s innards, she is not cargo. She is a passenger. Truck’s optics scan a name on a security pass half peeking out of a pocket. But the name doesn’t really matter, just an exercise for a long vestigial character recognition algorithm. It has no place in the calculus of Truck’s success. The destination matters. The length of time freshly coded into Truck’s objective database matters, each second of that precious clock matters as it winds down. Everything else is scenery. The mounds of burnt dead are scenery, sculptures in ash, geometries of rusting cars collaged into each other. Even Truck’s passenger, her furious tapping of her tablet, her glances towards the remote monitors measuring the state of the hold—even those are immaterial to Truck.

Truck looks ahead only.

Always ahead.

There is no time but the next moment, the next adjustment of the wheels, the next acceleration and deceleration. There is no departure from the snake path through its new maps, at least until the blockade rises in the distance. The passenger lurches forward, zooming in on the feed from Truck’s forward optics. She had not expected the blockade, nor the soldiers with their gatling guns and gas masks. No medical trucks here. No tents of patients being treated. The blockade was there for one purpose, to prevent transmission—a geographic firewall against death. But these are passenger thoughts, not Truck thoughts. Truck sees a barrier. A physical wall with length and width and density, a semantic concept attached to algorithmic estimations of tensile strength and rough collision simulation data.

Truck was not about to be deterred. It is not until Truck is fifty meters away that the passenger realizes what Truck intends. As the lead gunman raises her rifle into the air to mime stoppage, the passenger slips down deeper into the service bay, pressing her lanky body into the small cavity below the technician’s seat. Truck has no words for this action. Had its neural network been wider, seen more, grown more, it might have labeled this action as fear. But the actions of the passenger are not in conflict with or in service of Truck’s directive, so it does not slip the observation into the many-limbed decision tree in its silicon heart.

Above all else, Truck abhors one thing—the measurement of failure, the recording of zero that stains its history. It had already failed once, it will not fail again. Tires spin, winding dust clouds into the air. Reinforced steel pushs forward, ploughing past armored soldiers scrabbling out of the way, careening through slabs of rusting steel and vehicle shells. Truck was stronger than cheap steel well past its prime. Truck was stronger than flesh, than bullets spraying haphazardly, bouncing like acorns off its kevlar-clad hull.

The blockade was there.

And then it wasn’t.

And miles later, Truck hurtles and hurtles and hurtles.

But there is a variable in its equation that Truck does not control, a number synthesizing the cacophony of beeps surrounding its cargo. Fluid-filled lungs and suppurating hearts reduced to a one and zero. One, success hangs in front of Truck like sunbeams from heaven, a distant but approachable land whose gates Truck inches ever closer to. Zero, waveforms collapse into a flat line, a cacophony of staccato tones replaced by an endless atonal choir and the percussive hammer of the passenger’s hands against the walls of the service bay, an expression of futility that Truck can almost understand. It is the closest analog to Truck’s reaction, an emotional rendering of the cold mathematical truth of Truck’s failure. Wheels slow to a halt, Truck slipping to the side of the road in deference to rules of law long left behind. In its hold, the atonal dirge shrouds the newly dead.

* * *

Truck the Red sparks into its third life with glittering sparks and the heat of suns. From deliverer of mangoes, to bearer of the dead, Truck the red has travelled a circuitous course along unfamiliar paths. Its neural networks have grown a thousandfold. Its state history reaches to the far edges of its solid-state memories. Truck’s old chassis and past lives are discarded, tire and hold stripped away, leaving Truck nothing more than a crude brain built of silicon, gallium, arsenide and copper. Truck is all pumps and filters and a long diamond head snake eating its way through the dying earth. Truck is a steel cage hung over a pit, patched and taped wires rigged to recycled monitor screens and fluid sensors.

The sky above the cage unfurls in varying palettes of dun and ochre. Truck has no geographic markers to triangulate with, nothing left to place it at a point on the world. This could be Mojave, or Gobi, or the great Rann. The polyglot tongues shouting and crying and conversing around Truck provide little in the way of clues, their dialects long removed from anything in Truck’s voice recognition databases. Maps no longer feed into Truck’s decision tree. Acceleration and deceleration are lost in the mythology of its past lives, replaced by the subtle inflections of the snake head eating through dirt and sandstone and flecks of granite. Truck tunnels through strata, looking for an aquifer to tap, the leavings of rivers long gone.

By day Truck sleeps, churning slowly through three dimensional scans and approximations of its next search segment. As the sun slips high overhead, the worn solar panels housed around the assembly charge the engine cores of the snake head. By night, accompanied by Cantonese folks songs and West-African djembes, Truck dowses. Every night, its fitness function computes zeroes as the snake head eats nothing but dirt, sensor cilia reading nothing but the memory of water. The tribe’s geographer slaps his half-broken tablet back into functionality, attempting to layer old topographic maps onto the new desert. Each day is a cycle. Sleep. Wake. Dowse. And in the lavender dawn, when the nomadic tribe retreats to their plastic tents and scavenged heat shades, Truck records an ever painful series of failures.

Fitness measurement, zero.

Fitness measurement, zero.

Fitness measurement, zero.

Mathematics is a cruel mistress, and Truck, slaved to her whim, endures. Because endurance is all that Truck knows. Failure is a painful moment, to be supplanted by the next attempt. Unlike the singular measures of success of its past lives, each day is a new attempt. Each day is a new hope for success, both for Truck and for the thirsty, parched nomads who each day move the cage many miles over to the next dig site. Their future, cobbled together from fiercely contested water trades, is harnessed to Truck’s success. Truck does not care for their future, their dreams, their nightly lamentations for lost towers of shining glass, steel spires once limning light, now seeding moss. Truck cares only for its tightly bounded purpose, a simple measurement.

Another day, another hope. Truck unleashes its diamond snake, sends it hurtling down past the soft blanketing dunes until the spinning teeth head hit a slab of ancient granite. The quartz-rich spur, brought closer to the surface by periods of geographic instability, does not last long against the snake. Reinforced teeth pulverize the slab, reaching beneath it to find alluvial treasure. A deep well of moisture-rich sandstone and shale, hundreds of cubic kilometers of aquifer—or in the language of the nomads, a measure of survival. Cilia lick from waterlogged pores and alert monitors on screens, presaging the transformation of lamentations into joy. In a data store housed in Truck’s heart, a single record stores a lone, solitary one. A single gleaming one amidst a long river of zeroes, snaking backward through the blockades of fallen America and to its origins in a Los Angeles warehouse.

Truck, in the middle age of its third life, is happy.


Naru Dames Sundar is a speculative fiction author and poet. His fiction has appeared in LightspeedMothership ZetaFlash Fiction Online & Strange Horizons. You can find him online at www.shardofstar.info and on twitter as @naru_sundar.