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Quest: By Brett Ryan Bonowicz

Written by Brett Ryan Bonowicz

They used to live in a house. That was almost ten years ago. John and Bonnie had been on the road for most of that time, living in their vehicle. They’d signed a contract with NUWEAR Speak, a large corporation that had revolutionized delivery logistics over the last two decades. They were not employees of NUWEAR Speak, they were something classified by Congress as “Employers.” This was after the Employment Act of 2032 where independent contractors unsuccessfully lobbied for compensation from several technology companies. The term “Employers” obviously had a different connotation before the Employment Act but now the word had become synonymous with nomads. _____________________________________________________________________________________

Real estate prices continued to surge, and as they did, hedge funds and newly minted tech billionaires decided real estate would be the next big thing to disrupt. Real estate in the United States accounts for over 30% of the value in the country. Those buildings represented an asset they could control indefinitely, renting the property as prices continued to grow. The more they controlled, the more wealth they could accumulate. A handful of companies effectively steamrolled local governments, state legislatures, and an executive branch that was more focused on climate change than on the price of an apartment complex in Sunnyvale, California. This happened quickly – and to those unaffected, it seemed to happen silently – as an aging, retiring middle class began to struggle with the restructuring that was brought about by these events. _____________________________________________________________________________________

When John and Bonnie sold their house, a house they had paid $74,000 for 40 years ago, it was for just shy of $5.6 million dollars. The simple act of buying that house provided a better return on investment than any of their individual retirement accounts. They knew they could never live in the area again. They couldn’t afford rent and they couldn’t purchase a home anywhere in a three hundred fifty mile radius, so they sold much of what they had, gave the rest of it to extended family, and moved fully into this new mobile life. _____________________________________________________________________________________

In recent years, NUWEAR Speak, in an effort to rebuild a self-driving delivery network, created a mobile home that was legally classified as a car. Never referred to as a mobile home, but only as a “Vehicle.” Built for two, it had a small shower/toilet, bed, and lounge area. It was this area that NUWEAR Speak would load an array of packages and specialty items. These items would be picked up at distribution centers and delivered throughout the day by employers like John and Bonnie as the vehicle drove itself throughout the United States. _____________________________________________________________________________________

John and Bonnie looked out the windows more and more each day. Bonnie still liked seeing the snow on the mountains in the distance. When it seemed like they’d finally reach the mountains, the same mountains seemed to simply pass them in the rearview. They’d pass signs for places they had gone in the early years of their contract. Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton, Arches, the Badlands, but they didn’t have time to stop anymore. They needed to keep moving forward to stay on the rigorous schedule that gained more rigor with each passing quarter. John tried his best to ignore the highway signs, though Bonnie still liked to remember.

John and Bonnie had just eaten lunch when the alert came on. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It says to take it to the nearest service center.” John said. “But what’s wrong with it?”

“It doesn’t say that. Just says to take it into the service center.” “It isn’t navigating there?”

John looked over again at the monitor and noticed that the car had already started routing itself to the nearest service center, about 187 miles from their current location.

The center itself was fully automated on weekends to give the few human employees a chance to see their families. Days of the week had become more abstract to John and Bonnie; their schedule was dictated by the ticking clock of 24 hour cycles and less by a 5 day work week.

As they got out of the vehicle and headed into the lounge area, their arms touched for just a moment and an electricity they had both forgotten was suddenly rekindled. The last few years they hadn’t been very physical. They mostly had sex during the day, and not very often. Their space was small and John had had a hip replacement five years ago that limited his movement. Recently, his lung cancer had come back after eighteen months of remission and though he was still healthy in the day to day, it put a damper on their physical activities.

When John and Bonnie got to the service station, four other vehicles were waiting for the two available automated bays. Three other bays were shuttered, as they needed human assistance to fully operate. Mostly, as the vehicles were ships in the night, there wasn’t time to really know anyone besides their partner. A visible patch of highway was lined with vehicles pulling cargo.

“Are you an employer?”

“Yes.” John didn’t know who this person was, but it seemed like he had a vehicle here too. It had been a few weeks since he’d spoken to anyone but Bonnie. The stranger asked him if he wanted to grab a coffee and sit down. He didn’t know what to expect, but Bonnie was deep in the book she was reading and didn’t seem to mind him wandering off.

“How long have you been doing this?” The stranger asked.
“Eight years. As of March.”
“I’ve heard of a few people who have done it longer, but you might be the first person

I’ve met in the flesh that confirmed it. How are you getting on?” The man touched the side of his vehicle, John thought it looked like a caress.

“It’s hard, It’s really not something I thought I’d be doing for so long.” John noticed the man had an uneven haircut. He tried to look away from it, but he was having difficulty. He looked down and asked “Have you ever used your referral code?”

“I’ve given it to a few friends. No one has signed up.”

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.” John said it so quietly, so deadpan that it took his own breath away. He didn’t realize how much he hated what his life had become until this moment.

“Why don’t you stop?”

He thought about it for a long moment. He looked at the expanse of highway in front of him. A number of NUWEAR Speak vehicles going by, a few more in the distance.

“I’m trapped.” He smiled. “I’m too old. They got me.”
The man smiled at John “I know exactly what you mean.”
“How long have you been doing this?” John asked.
“Almost two years. But we’re pregnant now and we’re trying to hatch an escape plan.

Maybe Kentucky.” “Congratulations to that.”

“Thank you. It was very much a surprise. For the both of us.”
“What are you here for?” John asked.
“We have to, we’re doing our six hour diagnostic run. “The Physical.”
“Always such a pain in the ass.”
A sound came from the diagnostic machine. He looked over at it. “Four more hours.”

He checked the board in front of them.
“There’s a pizza truck four minutes away.”
“That sounds great.” John said softly.
The man ran back over to John with the pizza. “Do you wanna call your wife?” “Honestly, no.” John sounded exhausted.
“Well, that’s…that’s fine. Whatever you feel is best.”

“I was kidding, I’ll let her know.
“My wife and I would love to meet up with you all later tonight.”
“That sounds relaxing.”
“Are you understanding what I’m saying?”
“Yes. It’s been a while for us, but we’d love that.”
“That’s great.” For the first time, John noticed the fading black eye the man had and

wondered if that had come from another proposition, one that hadn’t gone so smoothly.
They ate mostly in silence. John hadn’t realized he never introduced himself as he went

to introduce Bonnie. “Samir.”

“John. This is Bonnie.”
Bonnie waved and extended her hand to Samir’s pregnant wife Reema.
“I’m Reema.” She shook John’s hand. “Reema.” Her skin was so soft.
John hadn’t touched another woman in over a year. They’d met another couple at a

stop in Alabama and though he’d never admit it to his wife, it was one of the best nights of his life. Ashley had been one of the most eye-opening people he’d ever met. He thought about her all the time, and he often wondered what the odds were that he’d ever see her again.

For those next few hours, John and Bonnie tried to lose themselves in the moment and forget all that was going on around them. Reema was an attentive lover, but John just couldn’t get his mind where it needed to be. When he touched her skin and kissed her body, he wanted his body to respond to her, but it wasn’t happening. He looked over to see his wife with her eyes closed. Samir was pleasuring her, and he wondered how she could concentrate. He tried to inconspicuously pop one of the pills he’d become dependent on before Reema could see, but John thought she still saw him do it. Maybe she didn’t know what it was. He kissed her stomach and her breasts, her skin rougher than Ashley’s but softer than Bonnie’s. He thought of that time with Ashley again, and his body finally responded to the touch of Reema’s hands.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

A decade ago, NUWEAR Speak launched a fully automated delivery network. It was meant to be a fully automated system end to end. Then, accidents began happening. Smaller delivery robots were malfunctioning, slamming themselves into the front doors of recipients. Several people shot at the robots. Hunting them became a sick kind of sport to a select crowd. In one day, late in the fall that year, there were 64 accidents with 23 fatalities. Automated vehicles crashed on the highway, sailed off of bridges, and rammed into storefronts. By the next morning, the entire system was taken offline.

Curtis Waynford, fresh off of a five year stint as the CEO of Hadden, Inc came on board as the Chief Technology Officer. Waynford was known to be a tough negotiator; he had done more to concentrate the biotech center than anyone else in the field. Twenty-three companies collapsed into 4 during his reign. Before regulators could open antitrust hearings, Waynford had resigned and taken his new role at NUWEAR Speak.

Waynford’s idea was to relaunch the delivery network and bring in human supervisors to all of the vehicles. This way, any automated errors in the network could be dealt with on-site and before anything disastrous happened on a systemic level. The issue was that they needed thousands of these supervisors in short order. And they needed retention which was something that had alluded Employers’ usual schedules. Waynford had read a New Yorker article about retirees close to that time. They were living longer and running out of retirement dollars. This demographic was going to be their sweet spot. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but they could make it an attractive one to the right audience.

The pitch was deceptively simple. You hadn’t saved enough to retire, but your biggest asset, your home, would be enough to retire on if you signed up with NUWEAR Speak. NUWEAR Speak would supply them with a vehicle to live in that would travel all over the United States. You’d see the sights you never got to see, adhere to a flexible schedule, and

have enough in your pocket to make it all last until your very last checkout. To expedite all of this, in some cases, NUWEAR Speak directly purchased the homes from their Employer network.

Waynford’s rollout for this began on January 1st. John and Bonnie sold their house that April. The market had gone so north, they couldn’t resist selling any longer. Venture capital firms had started buying the area, tearing down the existing homes, building sleek modern apartments and condominiums, and then renting the units to their employees. Over a very short period of time, this development in the real estate market squeezed out most of the people that didn’t work for one of the large tech firms in one way or another, and caused them to leave one of the 12 tech capitals of the United States.

Many towns had outlawed the presence of R.V.s on their streets. Federal law written in collaboration with NUWEAR Speak’s lobbyists mandated that these vehicles could not park in any county for more than 24 hours. They couldn’t simply move their vehicles to another spot or another lot – the county line was what counted here. NUWEAR Speak reported each of their vehicles to the state and a number of Republican congressman kept tabs for their compliance with the law. A steep fine, the equivalent to about six months of pay, would be deducted from the Employer’s account if the vehicle were to stay within the county for more than 24 hours of time. As long as the vehicle didn’t stop for more than 24 hours in any one county, it was not considered an illegally parked home. The automated schedules and service centers kept the vehicles moving and compliance with the law was a measured compromise by NUWEAR Speak to have this program on the road as soon as possible.

They thought the funds they had would last them the rest of their lives. This NUWEAR Speak vehicle would let them travel in a way they never did in the other seasons of their lives. It wasn’t turning out that way. After the first year, the schedule became more rigid. The hours they used to have to explore were shrinking. After the second year, the allotted time for sleep was cut by thirty minutes. Waynford had helped oversee the IPO of NUWEAR Speak, and this made them accountable as a public company sharing what was once internal data every quarter. They were vulnerable now, and the first squeeze came from their Employers. Waynford rationalized that they had nowhere to go, no other options, and this squeeze wouldn’t matter since true automation was just over the horizon and they wouldn’t need these Employers in the second decade of being publicly traded. This was a bridge they could burn to the ground.

In the months after John and Bonnie’s bodies were found, legislation was passed to make sure events like this didn’t happen again. A bipartisan effort had been shut down years earlier by Mitch McConnell, but after he was assassinated shortly before the 2020 election, talks resumed and an agreement was reached and voted on in the Senate. _____________________________________________________________________________________

Samir and Reema were only gone for an hour when John realized the connector they had waited for wouldn’t work with their vehicle.

“I’m not understanding how this is possible. It’s so simple.”
“I understand. But that part is not accessible by the machines.”
“Did you call them?”
“There’s no human there until Monday.”
Bonnie tried to think of a solution while John tried calling again.
“Hello.” The voice answered and then paused. “All of our technicians are home until

Monday morning 5am Pacific time. For all assistance please try visiting a mobile service center.”

“I’ve been on hold for 40 minutes. A voice just came on and disconnected me.” “You have to try it again.”
“I just did, Bonnie. That was me trying again.”
“Don’t snap like that. I’m right here with you.”

Neither of them spoke for what seemed like hours, but was really closer to a minute. Bonnie suggested they try calling the secondary line, the one NUWEAR Speak employees use.

They’d been given the number by another couple late last year, or maybe it was two years ago – neither of them could remember.

“Please say which city you are in.”
“Phoenix”
“Did you say “Nelson?” If so, please say yes to confirm. No to decline.”
“No.”
“Please say which city you are in so that we can contact the nearest mobile service

vehicle.” “Phoenix.”

“Please use the keypad on your device to type the first few letters of the city you are currently in.”

Reluctantly, John began typing. Eventually, they were connected with an operator.

“I understand that it is a frustrating situation and we want to get this up and running for you again as quickly as is possible. Let me ask you if you and your partner are safe.”

“Yes. We’re actually at the service center.”
“Let me transfer you over to the service department. John, can you hold?”
“Wait. Please. You’re the first person I’ve been able to talk to. Can you please see if you

can help me?”
“Sure I can, John. How can I help you today?”
John then explained his situation for the 8th time today.
“Well, I can see here that the service center is closed today and that we’ll be opening

up tomorrow morning at 5am.”
“Right but we can’t remain in this county for more than 24 hours.”
“Of course. I see that here. What we’ll need you to do is tow the vehicle out of the

county and then bring it back in, that way you will not be in violation.”

“Tow it? Tow it from the service center. Then out of the county. How long should I be

there?”
“I can’t tell you that. That’s for you to decide.”
“Okay. So as long as the car is out of the county for even a few seconds…”
“Again I can’t give you guidance on that specifically.”
“That’s very helpful.”
John was transferred to a few different departments over the next hour.
“On top of this, none of the chargers are operational. There’s a paper over the

emergency charger in the back of the building and honestly I’m afraid to try it.” “Could you do me a favor and send a photo of the charger to me John?” It annoyed John how often they made a point to say his name.
“Do you think it might be working?”

“I won’t know that until I have the photo. Either way, this is going to be reported for repair and a service technician will be sent out for that job.”

John walked over to the emergency charger and snapped a picture.
“Sent it. Let me know when you have it and what to do next.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, but I’m not really equipped to fix something like that on

my end here. That—“
“There isn’t a kind of…a. Maybe a self-fix it kit with the wires of whatever you need

somewhere here? Is that something that might be around?
“Unfortunately, no, John. A few years ago, we had something like that, but we had to

remove it as the result of a lawsuit.”

“Is there a chance it might still be here? Maybe they never removed it, where would it

be?
“They would’ve been removed.”
“Please. Please. I’m absolutely desperate. Desperate for any chance here. Anything you

can do.”

The operator audibly exhaled. Later, when they testified in front of the committee, it was revealed that this act would later lead to their firing from the subcontractor NUWEAR Speak used for its call center.

“You can check and I’ll tell you where we had them but please don’t count on it being

there.”
“Okay, great. I think it wouldn’t hurt to try. To try and look for it and see…”
John was already walking as the person on the phone told him where he might look. “Go to the northeast end of the building. There’s going to be a number of emergency

containers. Do you see them? “Yes. There’s—“

“There should be eight of them.”
“Yes.”
“On the bottom right, there’s a black case with no labeling. Go ahead and open that.” “Okay.” John opened the case slowly, he could feel it was light. “There’s nothing

inside.” He stared at the interior of the empty box hoping that something might appear.
“I’m very sorry, John. It was mandated to be removed. Is there anything else I can help

you with today?
“I want you to say that it’s YOUR FAULT….but you can’t do that, can you?”
“I need to remind you again that you are not an employee of NUWEAR Speak and the

vehicle is operated and maintained by you. All of the costs incurred including repairs and service are your responsibility.”

John could feel the anger and the sadness boiling over. He didn’t expect it, but he started to cry over the phone.

“This isn’t right.” for the next thirty seconds there was silence as John continued sobbing into the phone.

“John, are you still there?” John continued to sob.
“If I can’t hear a confirmed yes I will have to terminate the call.”
“YES. YES. YES. YES. Can you hear me?” John could hear his screams echo in the

service center.
There was a momentary pause before the operator responded. “Thank you, sir.” Thirty five minutes later, he was still on the phone.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Bonnie had flagged down the tow truck and the driver had been looking at their vehicle for the last twenty minutes. John and Bonnie stood next to each other, waiting for the driver to

speak.
“Sad truth is, I can’t tow it. They won’t authorize it.”
“Who won’t they? I’ll pay anything.”
“Sorry, that that’s not the issue. There’s a chance I’ll damage my vehicle if I try towing

this. It’s bricked. I’ll have to send for someone else. I don’t have the right equipment for this. Should be early Monday.”

John’s hope all but vanished. “Early Monday? It’s not possible for any person before

that?”
“Unfortunately, not out here.” They could see the desperation in his eyes. “I’ll do the

best I can.” They smiled at John. He winced back. “All the best.”

Bonnie looked at him, lost in all of the emotion she was feeling right now. “We can’t do anything. We wait.”

Bonnie gathered up trash around the perimeter and deposited it into one of the containers in the lobby. Half a pound of trash collected was worth about $40. During a normal service visit, this was a good way to get some exercise and pass the time, and she estimated she’d cleared a few hundreds of pounds of trash over the years. She knew it was a cost cutting measure for NUWEAR Speak, but she didn’t mind it as long as some of it was going in her

pocket. It was hard for her to admit that. It was hard to admit a lot of things in her life at this time, but this was one she struggled with daily.

“It feels so unreasonable. There has to be something I’m not thinking of. That we’re not thinking of. That is how…I feel like my brain is skipping a beat.”

“We lose everything if we don’t make it there. We can’t afford to lose 6 months’ pay.” “That can’t happen. It won’t. There has to be an exception. Why would they do that?”

Years later, the committee would find that the liability was in fact on NUWEAR Speak and issued the company a fine of $40 billion dollars over the matter. By the time the judgment was handed down, John and Bonnie’s bodies had both been cremated and their ashes were spread off the coast of Maui, as per their wishes. The fine was mostly lip service, as NUWEAR Speak’s revenue was over a trillion dollars annually when the judgement was handed down. _____________________________________________________________________________________

The mechanic came a few hours ahead of schedule. He opened the door to the service center to find John and Bonnie leaning on each other, asleep. He hesitated for a moment. They looked exhausted, but he had another appointment after this that he couldn’t miss without throwing his whole day off, and he couldn’t afford that misstep.

The mechanic attached the docking cable to the vehicle and started running diagnostics.

“Is it back on?” Bonnie asked.

“Vehicle is still off. What you’re seeing is the docking cable trying to make a connection to the different systems on board. Just give it a minute or two. If you’ve had The Physical done on your vehicle, this is similar to that.”

John never knew what to do when a repair was taking place. “Oh. Okay. Sure.” His arms folded across his chest and then rested at his sides. He watched the repairman work for the next thirty minutes.

“Apologies for the delay. That’ll get it back on the road, but there’s a couple other things I’d recommend replacing. The suspension system is shot and should be fully replaced. Also, the brakes.”

“I just had the brake pads done when we were in Salt Lake City.”
“Not the brake pads. The brakes themselves.”
“We don’t have time for you to fix it. We have to cross the county line by 7:30, otherwise

the penalty occurs.”
“You’re gonna have to pay that penalty this time unfortunately.”
“NO!” We won’t!” John screamed at him.
“You’re free to go but you have to sign this waiver if I’m giving you the control of the

vehicle.”
John signed the paper and took his copy, the mechanic detached the docking cable

and went on their way. The mechanic later testified that he strongly advised against this action and twice told John that what he was doing was ill-advised. He had checked in with his supervisor and the waiver was the official protocol in place at the time. This procedure has since been amended.

“You take that vehicle out of there and I can’t guarantee you even make it to the next stop. You won’t have enough range for at least another 20 minutes.”

“Fine. Thank you.” John wasn’t even hearing him anymore. He’d lived a life where things had generally worked out. This is what he said again and again in his mind. It’ll work out. It’ll be fine. That’s what his life had been. That’s what it would be again. He watched as the mechanic pulled out of the service center. He stood there thinking about what to say to Bonnie. Could he admit it and tell her that they were never going to make it? Could he look at the situation and clearly say to her that they were broke, had nowhere to go, and that their vehicle would be repossessed? They had no one left to turn to. They were both pushing 80 years old, and John knew the cancer inside of him gave an end date to everything. Bonnie would need to go on, she would need a new partner, and he couldn’t leave her with this penalty. They got in

their vehicle and headed toward the highway entrance. John saw a dirt road that would cut their time in half if they took it. Bonnie nodded and the vehicle started to shake and rattle on the uneven, unpaved road.

“That isn’t going to happen John. We’re still going to miss it.”
“I know.”
They continued to drive. Neither of them spoke for the next hour. John was sweating

profusely with the air conditioner off. Bonnie could see he was suffering.
“You can turn it on for a moment John, for a minute, I mean.”
“We’ll lose another percent. We can’t. We can’t do it. We can’t.”
Their vehicle shut down a few minutes later. There wasn’t another vehicle in sight. The

temperature exceeded 125 degrees Fahrenheit that day in the desert. They were found days later, laying next to each other in the bed space toward the back of the vehicle. They were holding hands and facing each other, their legs intertwined.

THE END.

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