Meet the last generation of human truck drivers before self-guided vehicles replaced them. Photograph: Andrus Ciprian

Specs and Gretchen the Grunt and Okie Kid met for coffee once a week at the truck stop. Self-driving cabs would drop them off, then return to town to serve other customers. The geriatric trio would creak into the small coffee shop at the truck stop and order the first of many rounds for the day.

Around them, self-guided trucks pulled in to recharge and be serviced before heading out on the road again. The only sound violating the hot still desert air was the loud ratcheting of air wrenches removing lug nuts on worn tires and replacing them.

The truck stop could replace a 54-wheeler’s tires and put it back on the road in under two minutes, fully recharge it in under ten.

The company maintained the coffee shop — a tiny room with a few cracked plastic upholstery chairs and a single automated coffee dispenser — as a public relations gesture. Hundreds of coffee shops in hundreds of truck stops around the continent gave old-time truck drivers a place to hang out with other old-time truck drivers.

After international and interstate highways decertified the last human drivers, the lone trucker became a pop culture icon that replaced the earlier outdated icon, the cowboy.

Thousands of popular entertainments — from dramas to songs to immersive environments to induced memories — celebrated old-time truck drivers and followed their fanciful fictional adventures and romances as they roamed from town to town, carrying goods and much-needed supplies from one community to another.

Tales of truckers fighting blizzards proved especially popular in a world without snow, and young children peppered their slang with archaic CB lingo from over a century before.

Specs and Gretchen the Grunt and Okie Kid, now in their eighties and nineties, came from the last generation of human truck drivers before self-guided vehicles replaced them.

“Wasn’t nothing like you see on the screens or feel in the tangies,” said Gretchen the Grunt. “I tell my great-grandkids that, but they keep asking me how many terrorists I caught, how many bank robbers I chased down.”

Okie Kid laughed and held his mug out for another cup of coffee. “My grown grandson is the same way. Programs immersive adventures for a living. Keeps asking me what it was like on the road.

“Boring, I tell him. Boring as hell.”

They all laughed. It had been boring, but not as boring as coming to the coffee shop to swap the same old stories and tall tales and brags and outright lies.

And that was not as boring as sitting at home and wondering what the hell had happened to the world they grew up in.

All around them the automated truck stop purred along effortlessly, recharging and maintaining trucks, speedily sending them on the road again. Specs and Gretchen the Grunt and Okie Kid were the only humans in the place and, except for a perfunctory legally mandated human inspection once a month, the only human visitors all year.

Specs looked out the dust-streaked window as a bright red 54-wheeler pulled up for recharging. His brain, honed from his own driving experience, zeroed his sharp cybernetic replacement eyes in on a damaged section of the undercarriage.

Self-driving trucks rarely displayed damage, but it could happen. An animal might somehow get onto the road, a bird could fly into a speeding vehicle, a rock might tumble down a cliff and ricochet off the side of a truck.

Specs guessed that’s what happened here: A rock smashed the small middle security pod, rendering that side of the second trailer blind. Not a big enough problem to require immediate attention; the truck’s owners would fix it when next it pulled into a company depot.

Something unfolded itself from the undercarriage of the trailer, and Specs’ cybernetic eyes quickly scanned and identified it: A human being.

“Somebody’s under that truck,” Specs said.

Gretchen the Grunt, interrupted in mid-story, looked at him with an angry scowl. “Say what?”

“Somebody’s under that truck,” Specs said.

“There’s nobody under that truck.”

“Oh, how do you know? You didn’t even look!”

Okie Kid hobbled over to the window and peered out. “Specs right,” he said. “That is a person.”

They walked over as fast as they could, keeping a wary eye open for large 54-wheelers pulling into the truck stop.

Fortunately, the self-guidance systems of the trucks and the truck stop’s own traffic control system recognized the three old scarecrows moving gingerly over the tarmac as human beings, and rerouted accordingly.

The person under the truck rested on their hands and knees, a dark green army blanket wrapped around them like a poncho.

None of the trio felt limber enough to kneel to check the figure, but Okie Kid braced one hand against the side of the truck and leaned over to say, “Hey! Hey, you okay? Whatcha doing under that truck?”

The young woman, from her blonde hair and blue eyes a refugee, looked up at him with a pained expression.

Okie Kid and Specs helped her to her feet, Gretchen the Grunt hanging back and watching somewhat disdainfully.

The young woman stood up, then grimaced with pain and almost doubled over again. Her blanket slipped halfway off her shoulders and the three ancient truck drivers all noticed she carried a passenger.

“Damn,” said Okie Kid. “Pregnant.”

A gush of clear yellowish fluid poured out from between the refugee’s legs.

Gretchen the Grunt’s military training — eighteen months in uniform two-thirds of a century before — kicked in. Assuming command, she said: “We ain’t got much time before the truck stop will think we’re delaying things and notify the authorities. Get her into the coffee shop.”

Despite not having been behind the wheel for more than half a century, Specs and Okie Kid remained truck drivers first and foremost, and truck drivers just don’t care for authorities that much.

They moved the coffee shop chairs together to form a rough bed for the refugee to lay down on.

“What’s your name, kid?” Specs asked, but her wild darting eyes didn’t seem to trust them and she remained silent.

“This your first baby?” Okie Kid asked.

The refugee focused on him, his accent reassuring her. “Muh first,” she said. “Ow…kin I go to the bathroom? I gotta go poop awful bad.”

“You’re having your baby, sweetie,” said Gretchen the Grunt. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Gretchen the Grunt. “You’re so scrawny we thought you might be younger.

“Okay, now we’re gonna take care of you, but you gotta listen to us and do what we say.”

“Who you?” the teen asked.

“We’re truck drivers,” said Specs. “You can trust us.”

No telling what kind of media the teen used back on her reservation, but the thought of three truck drivers taking care of her seemed to be soothing.

“Okay, I’m taking your jeans and undies off,” said Gretchen the Grunt. “We gotta do this.”

“Whut ’bout them?” the teen asked, jerking her head at Specs and Okie Kid.

“They ain’t having a baby, so they get to keep their pants on,” said Gretchen the Grunt. “No false modesty here, girl. They’re truck drivers, they’ve delivered thousands of babies.”

That was a flat-out lie, but it served its purpose and the teen let Gretchen the Grunt slide her soaked jeans and undies off.

“What’s your name?” Okie Kid asked.

“Susan,” said the teen. “Susan MacDonald. You ain’t gonna turn me in, is you?”

The three truckers looked at each other. When the Collapse hit, the government of the old United States disintegrated and the country along with it. The corporations assumed command of the military and laid down strict martial law.

Those lucky enough (like Specs and Gretchen the Grunt) or smart enough (like Okie Kid and his family) to be north of the Sun Curtain when the full nature of the Collapse became undeniable found themselves in a new nation with a new government and some hope to cling to during an uncertain future.

Those like Susan — or more properly her parents and grandparents — who didn’t get out before the Sun Curtain fell found themselves doomed to stay climate change refugees forever.

We won’t,” Specs said. Okie Kid and Gretchen the Grunt looked sharply at him; they knew the truck stop doubtlessly monitored their conversation and alerted the authorities already, and while the first responders would be medical, the next ones would be refugee services, and Susan and her baby would be south of the Sun Curtain in less than 72 hours.

“First things first,” said Gretchen the Grunt. “You gotta have your baby. Bend your knees and spread your thighs apart.”

Susan giggled almost hysterically. “That’s whut got me knocked up in the fust place.”

But she obeyed and Gretchen the Grunt checked to see how far along the delivery was.

Too far.

“I ain’t no expert,” said Gretchen the Grunt, “but it sure looks like the crown of your baby’s head is starting to appear.

“Specs, go in the bathroom, get me all the paper towels you can. Okie Kid, hold her hand, tell her everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s fine,” Okie Kid said dutifully.

Specs went into the unisex restroom then stuck his head out. “No towels,” he said. “Just a blower.”

“Then get some toilet paper.”

Specs ducked back in, then popped out again. “They’re outta toilet paper.”

“Then get something, dammit!” Gretchen the Grunt yelled.

Specs ducked back then came out with a half-empty pack of paper toilet seat covers. “Best I could do,” he said.

Gretchen the Grunt swore like an ex-soldier, then barked: “Get some hot water.”

Specs put the toilet seat covers by Gretchen the Grunt and gathered up their coffee mugs. He threw the remaining contents in the sink, told the coffee dispenser, “Hot water” and rinsed out the cups, then filled them again.

“What were you doing under that truck?” Okie Kid asked Susan.

“Tryin’ to come north, whatcha think?” Susan said. She sounded testy. Okie Kid decided that was entirely reasonable under the circumstances.

“How did you bypass security?” Okie Kid asked.

“Saw a busted security pod,” said Susan, gritting her teeth. “Figured I’d crawl in and ride north ’til — ” She gasped sharply.

Gretchen the Grunt swore under her breath and said, “Here it comes!”

The child’s head emerged slowly. Gretchen the Grunt grabbed one cup of hot water, splashed it on her hands, wincing at the pain but saying nothing, then held her palms under the baby’s head, gently supporting its skull.

“Stay focused on me,” said Okie Kid. “You’re gonna be fine.”

“Don’t care whut happens to me,” Susan said. “Want muh baby to git a chance…”

The shoulders emerged and Gretchen the Grunt resisted the impulse to tug the child out but let it emerge on its own. Her knees and back screamed in agony at squatting for so long by Susan, but she said nothing.

Now the baby’s hips slid out, then the legs, umbilical trailing behind, pulsating from Susan’s heartbeat.

Holding the baby’s head and shoulders in one hand, Gretchen the Grunt lifted his ankles. Mucous flowed out of his mouth. He drew in half a lung of air, then coughed wetly.

“Specs!” Gretchen the Grunt yelled, but Specs already anticipated what they’d need. He crouched by the baby with some plastic coffee stirrers in his hand, tiny thin tubes that could serve as straws.

Gently, he stuck one end in the baby’s mouth and sucked fluid and mucous out. The baby coughed again, explosively this time, inhaled a chest full of air, and bawled full throttle at the top of his lungs.

Everyone smiled. The first part — the easy part — was over and the planet was up one in the human population.

Specs shrugged off his jacket, and they wrapped the baby in it, placing him on Susan’s abdomen.

“Ain’t yuh gonna cut the cord?”

“Medics’ll be here in a couple of minutes,” Gretchen the Grunt said. “We’ll let them do all the fine tuning.”

“Medics? I cain’t let nobuddy know ’bout us! They’ll send us back!”

The three ancient truck drivers looked at each other. Climate refugees enjoyed no rights north of the Sun Curtain.

Okie Kid pried his hand loose from Susan and reached into his pocket, unfolding his ancient phone. A brief pause, then a pick-up on the other end. “Bobby?” Okie Kid said, “It’s your grandpa. You always asked me what kinda adventures I had as a trucker.

“Well, I got a doozy for you if you’re ready to hear it!”

As anticipated, the medical unit arrived first.

The medical robots rolled out, their abstract-yet-angelic features designed to soothe accident victims and emergency patients.

They relieved Gretchen the Grunt of her responsibility and assumed medical jurisdiction, swiftly transferring Susan and her baby to a gurney for transport to the nearest hospital.

They waited for the arrival of refugee services, because refugee services would decide if it would be a regular hospital or one in a detainee center.

Refugee services pulled up on the truck stop tarmac but before the two humans and robot got out, a swarm of newsdrones suddenly descended on the scene.

In the time it took refugee services to respond to the truck stop’s automated alert, Okie Kid’s grandson pitched the story to five different entertainment channels, got bids from all of them, and selected the one that promised to pull strings to get Susan and her baby a special exemption so they could be granted asylum instead of shipped back south of the Sun Curtain.

By the time, refugee services arrived it was already a done deal, and the leading feature on several immersive news media, landing square in the public’s sweet spot, hammocked securely between nostalgia and sentimentality.

There was no way a desperate teen mother and her child, saved by three old truckers, wouldn’t be allowed to stay.

The two humans from refugee services shrugged and smiled for the newsdrones, mouthing platitudes about how their wonderful, noble, and generous bureau delighted in making this special one-time exception.

The robot member of the refugee services team remained silent.

Swarms of newsdrones bombarded Specs and Gretchen the Grunt and Okie Kid with questions and they dutifully answered them, playing to the bogus stereotypes they knew modern audiences liked.

Specs and Gretchen the Grunt and Okie Kid felt very, very old and very, very tired, and they knew they’d be paying for their exertion over the next week with terrible aches and pains, but they also knew it was worth it.

Cabs pulled up to take them home to clean up and prepare for the next round of more in-depth interviews.

If fame proved the price to pay for helping a baby and his mom, well, so be it.

They watched the newsdrones ask Susan questions as the medical robots lifted her and the baby into the ambulance.

“What are you going to name your child?” one newsdrone asked.

“Trucker,” she said.

Buzz Dixon
Buzz Dixon writes oddball TV / movies / games / comics / novels, putting words in the mouths of Superman, Batman, Conan, Optimus Prime, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Scrooge McDuck, Bugs Bunny, plus more G.I. Joes and My Little Ponies than you can shake a stick at. His short fiction appears in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, the Pan Book Of Horror stories, National Lampoon, Analog, and numerous original and “best of” anthologies.