Alishaer was making rounds of the parking lot stepping on his own shadow when Yves waved for his attention, hanging off the side of his truck. Alishaer jogged over as Yves pulled on his jacket and turned on the motor. The truck chortled happily, brown rings of warm, greasy soot chuffing from its pipes.
"We are going now, Mr. Yves?"
Yves nodded. "We are going now."
There was patchy rain across Nebraska, the highway crossed by parades of fat clouds trailing veils of mist with lakes of sunshine in between. Traffic was light but restless, speed vipers struggling through parades of more cautious cars and then blazing on ahead once free. The impatient opportunists irritated Yves, who did his best to open up the way so they could sail past him right into the radar traps. He chuckled to himself moments later as they passed the speeders pulled over at the side of the highway, hemmed in by braces of patrol cars with winking bubble lights.
Yves also noticed the way Alishaer tensed and perspired whenever police vehicles were in view. He said, "Don't have your papers, huh?"
"You're an illegal. Don't bother to deny it. I wasn't born yesterday, pal."
Alishaer looked sheepish and nodded. "I will get my papers," he promised earnestly. "My cousin in New York will help me."
Yves shrugged. "Can't say as I blame you, Al. Everybody in the world wants to come to America. You know that song? On the boats and on the planes, they're comin' to America; never looking back again, they're comin' to America -- today?"
"Well, Neil Diamond is crud anyway. No big loss." Yves paused and assumed a more serious look as his eyes remained pinned to the road. "Was it a tough time for you, getting over here?"
Alishaer's lips twitched. "There were some hardships for me."
The boy said nothing for a moment. "It must suffice to say that...some people will do anything for hope of better life."
"Sure, but I mean like in general," persisted Yves. "Did you stow away on a ship or what?"
Alishaer squirmed. "Please sir. It is not a subject I like to open, Mr. Yves -- with the respect that is due." He took a deep breath. "It is behind me now. You can understand this?"
Yves glanced over at his passenger. "I can respect that. Gotta keep your eye on the prize, huh?"
Alishaer nodded nervously. Yves turned back to the road. Alishaer's discomfort give him the willies. He badly wanted to change the subject because the silence was too thick. After a few minutes he wondered aloud awkwardly whether Alishaer would like to listen to something other than Johnny Cash.
"You're probably not up on our music, but we got a lot of it. I have some CDs. Anything you want, really: country, western, bluegrass..."
"In Turkmenistan we get often the music of Cherry Nuk-Nuk."
"What the hell is that? Like Turkish folk music?"
"No sir, she is the world's most spectacular Inuit pop singer."
"No sir, from Canada."
"Canada, huh? Well." Yves frowned. "I don't really hold with foreign music."
They listened to more Johnny Cash. The sun set behind them. Yves sank into driving space. After passing through the pulsing turnpikes of Omaha the traffic changed, a new melange with a diminished western influence and a bewildering aftertaste of Jersey-style lane defense; at the core a steady thread of clockwork shipping fleets, lines of vessels manned by men Yves could give a friendly nod to.
The citizen band was quiet. Mumbles and squelches.
He glanced over at his passenger who was again sleeping fitfully, hugging himself tightly and rolling his head back and forth. Poor kid.
Before Des Moines Yves pulled into a Texaco to fuel up and grab some chow. Alishaer was preoccupied, quiet, eating mechanically. Yves felt bad. He knew he'd stirred up some mud by asking the kid about his ordeals. He wanted to make it up to him somehow. "Listen," said Yves as he lit up a Camel; "you want to see something cool?"
Alishaer looked up. "Something that is cool?"
Yves nodded and paid the bill, then waved Alishaer after him as he strode out to the lot, glistening under the harsh fluorescents from the recent rain. Under such light everybody looked exhausted and jaundiced, a little bit like ghouls. Yves paused at the rear door of his rig's long white trailer.
"Now," he announced, "I've signed non-disclosures up the wazoo about this stuff, so you got to promise me this is just between us. Right?"
"Right," said Alishaer, eyes glued to the steel doors.
"You know what gives America an edge over everybody else in the world?" he asked leadingly.
"Hard work?" guessed Alishaer.
"Well yeah," admitted Yves, "but what does all that hard work lead to? I'll tell ya: technology. America's got the greatest technology anywhere. And, you know: the rest of the world don't know the half of it." He allowed himself a little smile. "I guarantee you ain't never seen anything like this."
Yves stepped up on the bumper and unlocked a small panel. It swung open to reveal a tiny keypad upon which he tapped a long code. From inside the trailer came the quadruple snap of heavy locks disengaging. "I'm only supposed to open her up for inspections, but I'll fudge the log and say I had to check something."
"Okay," said Alishaer breathlessly.
Yves swung open one of the twin doors, then leaned down and offered his hand to help Alishaer up. The kid was surprisingly light. Alishaer blinked in the somber blue glow of the inspection lights, attempting to focus on the hazy forms arrayed beyond a taut wall of plastic sheeting.
Alishaer's eyes went wide. "Are they...?"
Yves nodded with a satisfied grunt. "That's right, Al," he said. "Robots."
Alishaer was transfixed by the rows of motionless shadows, his brow knitted. Upon those closest to the sheet the feeble blue inspection light revealed braided hair, tranquil faces, closed eyes, limp hands, legs locked like horses. "They are all women," he whispered.
Yves looked at his boots and cleared his throat. "Well, yeah son, these here speak to exactly what I was talking about. In America we got men so rich and so smart they don't have time for girls. But they're still men, and they've got needs. Needs nothing inflatable can fill, right?"
Alishaer smiled uncertainly, baffled but fascinated.
"They need something that really looks like a woman," said Yves, thumbs in his belt, "but something you can switch off when there's work needing doing."
"They are like dolls?"
Yves frowned. "Well, maybe. Dolls that dress themselves, and walk around, and even talk to you a little. Dolls with the AI in them. Dolls that'll run you about a quarter billion a piece."
"Amazing," admitted Alishaer.
The trucker grinned, then wiped it away with his knuckle. He unzipped a slit in the plastic and waved Alishaer closer. The air smelled like flowers. Each female form stood in a narrow cylinder with a modest collection of accessories bundled in plastic at their feet. "This batch looks all Asian," said Yves. He snorted. "Asians are real popular." He fished a keycard out of his jacket and flashed it through a slot on the base of the closest container.
A pink light winked on from above, and the woman opened her eyes.
Alishaer gasped. Yves chuckled. "No shit, huh?" he said, elbowing the boy in the ribs in a friendly way. "Pardon my language," he added.
"She is...not real?"
Yves shook his head. "Hell no, Al. That's what I'm saying. This is technology." He rapped suddenly on the side of the container, making Alishaer jump but causing no response in the woman. "See that, Al? She doesn't even flinch."
Alishaer touched his face nervously and backed against the plastic wall. "She blinks!" he whispered.
"Well of course she blinks," chortled Yves. "Like I said, they're supposed to look real. Realer than real. It's really something, huh?"
Alishaer was sweating. "I am needing some air, Mr. Yves, sir." He began to pat the sheet wall in search of the zippered opening. "I am dizzy, sir." He found the slit and fell over himself on the way out.
Yves shut everything up and then hopped to the pavement and swung closed the doors. Alishaer sat on a concrete parking buttress, hugging himself and staring at the stars forlornly. "I am sorry, Mr. Yves," he said quietly. "I did not mean to spoil the cool thing."
The trucker kicked a couple of stones around. "Forget about it. Some guys it freaks out. I thought it was kind of creepy myself the first time I saw them, honestly. You know?"
"Like I said, forget about it. Don't let it get to you. Eye on the prize, right?"
Alishaer nodded again.
"We should get back on the road," said Yves.
Things went bad in Illinois.
The day was overcast. There wasn't a lot of glare. The freeway was thick but constant, moving with purpose. The horizon was tinged with the rustier grey of Chicago's roof of smog. They were passing through the outlying threads of the megalopolis.
State patrol cars herded the clots like sheep, quietening the fleeters. A long caterpillar of conservatives paraded behind "Papa Rock" Yves LeRoche's trailer, sheltered from the automotive spume by his constancy.
Lightning flashed in the north.
Yves couldn't figure out why he felt so groggy. He knuckled his eyes and frowned, pinched the bridge of his nose and bit the inside of his lip. It had been over an hour since he'd last dropped an upper, and he couldn't explain why it hadn't kicked in yet.
The Johnny Cash disc spun. Yves turned it up.
Alishaer, for his part, looked miserable. He was curled up in a ball against the passenger door, his face pressed into the glass, his eyes unfocused and dancing. His arms quivered and his teeth chattered but he was covered in an even glaze of perspiration.
"You want a blanket or something?" grunted Yves.
Alishaer shook his head without turning. Yves sneered and accelerated a bit, opening up a gulf with his tail. He found himself sceptical that Alishaer had endured much in the way of hardship getting to America if he was fragile enough to go to pieces over seeing a load of sex robots. Yves' contempt for the kid's inability to shake it off was starting to get to him.
"Why don't you take one of my sleepers?" prompted Yves. "It might take the edge off, right?"
"I do not think these pills work for me," said Alishaer hollowly.
"Bullsquat," sniffed Yves. "I don't know what kind of crud you've got in Turkey, but American pills do what they say they do. These aren't street drugs, Al -- these are from a pharmacy. Trust me."
Yves held out his pill organizer and pointed to the right compartment with his thumb while he kept his eyes on the road. Alishaer hesitated and then picked out a pill and swallowed it with a grimace.
"Besides," added Yves dangerously, "these robots don't hurt anybody. They don't go crazy or anything, if that's what you're worried about. I know that's what always happens in the movies. But they got top scientists making these things. They're safer than safe."
"I do not think of them as threatening," said Alishaer.
"You're thinking about what kind of a man would use such a thing, right? I'm not free to tell you specifics, but I happen to know some of the names of the guys who these things are going to. And, like I said, I can't name names but these are top guys. Important people, you know? People who don't have time to dick around with a relationship."
"I do not know what I think of such men."
"You get over the creeps," explained Yves. "I remember just about pissing myself one time when one of the techs at the load-up dialed in some code that made them all come at once -- pardon my language. You know what I mean? Like all moaning and screaming with their lady orgasms, right? Like a kitty concert. It was too funny."
Alishaer swallowed, running his shaking hands over one another. "But how do you know for sure?"
Yves knitted his brow. "What do you mean?"
"How do you know they are robots?"
"This again?" Yves snorted, rubbing his eyes. "Get over it, Al. I've seen those little dollies opened up for servicing -- there's nothing in there but plastic and metal doohickeys and wires and tubes. Believe you me." He chuckled and shook his head.
Suddenly Alishaer tensed. "Cinnamon!" he gasped.
Yves yawned, his eyes burning. "I just can't reckon why I'm so bagged," he muttered.
"Cinnamon!" repeated Alishaer, staring at the trucker intensely.
Yves frowned. "What?"
"I smell cinnamon," he said, grabbing at the silver medical bracelet around his slender wrist. "It is a sign: an attack! Your pills are bringing me an attack!"
Traffic was buckling ahead, deforming around a fender bender in the inside lane. Yves switched smoothly into the outside and geared down as his tired eyes flickered over the mirrors.
"Oh shit," he said. "You're gonna have a seizure, Al? Oh shit. Okay, just calm down, right?"
"I should not have taken another pill," moaned Alishaer.
"Another pill?" echoed Yves. "What are you talking about?"
"I took one of your pills, in the night, to help me sleep," gushed Alishaer, holding his head and breathing quickly. "It made me feel crazy, like my blood is electricity."
The windshield speckled with rain. Brake lights fluttered on and off up and down the line.
With a sinking sensation Yves pulled out his plastic pill organizer and blindly pushed every compartment open with his thumb. He glanced away from the road, looked up again, and then returned to staring at the array of pills -- mixed up, a random sampling of each kind inside every slot. "Everything's all mixed up!" he bellowed. "What the fuck did you do, Al?"
"My hands are shaking when I take it," moaned Alishaer.
"Oh shit, oh shit," said Yves, rubbing his eyes hard and biting his lip. He realized that not only had the epileptic Alishaer taken uppers, but he himself was sitting in a soup of downers. "Oh shit."
The world seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Alishaer stretched himself into a taut arc, his stomach thrust up off the seat, straining against the belt. His arms and legs pinwheeled and jerked violently, swatting through the air of the cabin viciously as his head reeled back, the veins on his neck pulsing.
Yves swung his view back to the road, his head feeling damp and heavy with an afterwave of ghosted motion. The outside lane ended due to construction. The flashing orange lights of the construction barrier were like spikes in his eyes, throbs of pain. He checked the mirrors for a hole into the next lane, swift as the current was.
He cried out in surprise as one of Alishaer's errant limbs struck him in the shoulder, his racing heart skipping a beat and making his chest feel cold.
Yves began switching lanes, easing the rig over. A red Honda roared up out of nowhere and took his hole. Yves rocked the truck back away from the lane and engaged the engine brakes, the booming complaint echoing across the freeway.
Alishaer cried out in agony, foam flying from his lips.
"Jesus Christ, Al! Are you gonna make it?" he yelled, attempting to manoeuvre the truck with hands that felt numb, arms that felt like lead weights.
A curtain of rain washed over the road. Yves tried to check his mirrors but his head spun when he jerked his eyes. He wanted to scream. His body felt far away. With detached interest he saw the fingers of Chicago's tallest buildings crest the grey horizon between the windshield wipers' sweeps, and thereby recognized that he had somehow turned the wipers on.
He risked a glance over at Alishaer. He had dropped into his seat, his limbs making only tiny flutters of movement. His eyes were open, and he appeared to have wet his pants.
"Are you alive, kid?" Yves tried to cry.
Alishaer looked at him listlessly.
"You had me scared, Al."
Alishaer was looked toward the road. Yves traced his gaze. The concrete abutment was almost at his nose. With a grunt he willed his clumsy arms to wrench the wheel left, flinging the rig blindly into the middle lane. He immediately heard the bang as a car collided with the trailer, felt the rebellious shudder touch him through the wheel. "Oh shit!" said Yves, struggling to keep control.
"I hate cinnamon," murmured Alishaer.
Yves struck a green van from behind. The impact swung the trailer out like a whip, sending a silver sedan spinning into the rails. Yves tried to anticipate the whip of inertia and counter-steer, but he could not get his body to obey. His hands slipped on the wheel, weak and full of pins and needles. His vision faded at the edges.
Frenchy got butterflies in his tummy.
The truck turned over. The wheels left the ground. The engine raced loudly, a plaintive groan. Some of the windows went out and Yves watched the rooster-tailed clouds of cubed glass sparkle through the cabin. Yves and Alishaer thumped around back and forth like ragdolls, held fast to their chairs.
They hit passenger side down and skidded across the pavement, pebbles from the road bouncing against their faces. Yves had just enough together to realize it was a good crash: the cabin was uncompressed, they hadn't jumped the median. They would live.
The rig ground to a halt, and in the moment of comparative silence that followed Yves detected the whine of strained metal that told him the trailer had not yet stopped moving. He saw it swing into view in front before it spun the cabin around, and then felt the crash as it was bisected by a speeding SUV skating sideways across the rain-slick asphalt.
Metal tore, tires screeched.
And the forms of four dozen nude women tumbled out of the eviscerated trailer with all the momentum of several tons of speeding truck. They struck the pavement and bounced, skittered, rolled. Yves waited to see them splinter apart into cogs and tubes and shattered circuit boards, and it took him a long moment to appreciate how this was not, in fact, what was happening.
Their screams were not at all like the kitty concert.
"My God," he said, bile rising in his suddenly constricted throat. "Jesus Christ my God -- they're women."
Alishaer nodded, lazily wiping a rivulet of blood from his temple. "I told you, Mr. Yves," he breathed raggedly; "some people will do anything for hope of better life."