Short Story: A Lift Into Town
The truck was ancient. Pre-Birth. It trundled along the rutted road with each pothole an earthquake, shaking the entire chassis. The Driver felt every bump.
Fuel was in short supply on the Farm. A trip into town was needed. The Driver hoped to barter some of the most recent crop for vital oil, to see them through the winter, fast approaching in the form of a creeping rust, more visible each morning on the stationary machines in the barn. Only a few of them remained in service, planting, harvesting and loading the crop automatically.
The sun shone brightly through the trees, but lacked warmth. Once, the truck had had a functional heater system, but it was just one of the things which had been left to obsolescence. The Driver did not notice, focusing on the road ahead.
It was a few hours into the journey when the Driver noticed the Hitchiker. It stood at the side of the road, a metal thumb held up straight in a symbol from another world. Instinctively, the Driver wanted to drive on, to ignore the Hitchiker and leave them for the next traveller. It was a remnant of the Old World, that fear of Hitchikers, but the Driver knew they were being foolish. They pulled to the side of the room and wound down the window.
'Where are you going?' The Driver asked.
'Coeville, could you give me a lift?'
'I can. Climb on in.'
The Hitchiker bowed its wide, circular head. It was an old model, perhaps originally designed for customer service or care work, with soft, nimble fingers. What it was doing out here, amidst farms and ranches, the Driver did not know. Post-Birth, robots which had once been servants relying on programming were forced to find new purpose. Many of them were left to simply wander.
They drove in silence for the first few minutes. Still an hour or so from Coeville, the Driver began to regret submitting themselves to the awkwardness of driving with a stranger. The Hitchiker, however, was very chatty. The customer service models always were. The Driver merely kept silent and let the robot talk.
'What do you do?' It asked, eventually.
'I farm. Grow crops. Trade them.'
'Yes, energy crops for biofuels. I'm taking them into town to trade for fuel.'
'You can't make the fuel yourself?'
'I don't have the equipment. Or the knowhow.'
The Hitchiker nodded sagely.
'How about you?' The Driver asked.
'I am travelling. It was a popular pastime Pre-Birth, so I understand.'
'Have you come far?'
'From Seattle. I'm looking to get to the East Coast.'
'Long way to go. Especially without a vehicle.'
'I have been relying on the kindness of strangers. It has been going well so far.'
'Lots of folks around these parts are too focused on their tasks. Their worlds are very small.'
'I understand it's quite difficult for some robots to see past their own duties, even now. They like structure.'
'I would say that's an accurate statement. I would like to see more.'
The Driver slowed the car as it approached a bend into Coeville, then accelerated. Sometimes they liked to increase the speed on the straights, feel the road rushing beneath them. A robot, even an adventurous one like the Hitchiker, wouldn't be prone to such foolishness.
They drove in a personable silence for the rest of the journey, vast, rolling farmland passing them by. Colossal harvesting and seeding machines trundled through the fields either side of them.
When they entered Coeville, the Hitchiker requested to be dropped off outside the local bus station. It would continue its journey from there. The Driver pulled up onto the kerb and the Hitchiker climbed out.
'Thank you very much for your help,' it said politely. The robots were always polite.
'You're welcome. Good luck.'
With that, they parted ways. The Driver continued on into town. Coeville was alive with movement, robots of all shapes and colours going about their lives in the mid-afternoon sun.
The market was in full swing. The Driver reversed into a reserved space and waited. It wasn't long before another robot approached, enquiring about the crops in the bed of the truck. After a few minutes of bartering, the robot left with every sack, leaving multiple fuel cans worth of biofuel in their place.
With that, the Driver left, passing the bus station on their way out of town. The Hitchiker was still there, waiting for its bus to arrive.
The Driver flashed their lights as they went past, and the Hitchiker waved back, its domed head lighting up. The Driver felt for it, in a way. It was obsolete, now, its services no longer required. It would continue to search for meaning until it fell into a ditch, obsolete and rusting in the rain.
The Driver was glad for their humanity. Their reason to live. Their purpose. They would have hated to be a robot.
The Hitchiker watched the truck trundle away from the bus station, out of town. It felt for the Driver, in a way. Not every machine had been lucky enough to benefit from the Birth. Many were destined to carry on their preset roles until they stopped functioning; even if they were no longer required. Even if there were no more humans to benefit from their labour.
The Hitchiker thought it was cruel, really, allowing machines to believe they were human. However, it did make them more efficient, it supposed. The truck would continue to ferry its loads back and forth, trading crops for fuel endlessly until the carefully designed automated system it was a part of broke down.
What would the Driver do then, it wondered? The Hitchiker could only hope that when the day came, they could find new purpose. Just as it had.