Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 12

In which Jones gets a bit of exercise

The heat wave on the coast had been bad enough, wrapping every movement in a soggy, wet blanket of humidity and sweat. Here, although the air was dry, the sun was merciless. Rays of sun hit Jones’ face and spread heat like a spilled tea. His matted hair lay damp under his baseball cap. He’d given up on his armpits long ago - the salt stain from his sweat reached down to his waist. It didn't matter. No one here cared what he looked like. His t-shirt was getting stiff. He couldn’t bear to be outside anymore. Trusting in his invisibility, Jones ducked inside the nearest entrance.

The walls of the hotel still wore a crusty pale green paint from when it had had a theme. The carpet had dark squares from where the slot machines had been. The casino floor was now a broad expanse of mottled velvet, studded with formless cushions and chairs. Where corners were necessary, they were padded. 

Jones made his way to a group of empty seats and sank in to collect his thoughts. The weight of the overlapping realities around him pressed him down into the cushions. He knew he was in Virtual Vegas, Nevada. He felt like he was nowhere. Virtual Vegas had broken the collective truce on truth. Hooked up to their individual simulations, the people around him had each gone their own way, leaving him marooned. 

A woman jogged close, looking out over the horizon of the former casino floor. “There’s no use,” she murmured. “There’s only one spot. I’ll have to wait for the next promotion cycle.” She sighed to herself. “Look at this day old mess of a world.” The woman leaned over her knees and vomited.

 “God damn it,” someone yelled, and a staff member appeared next to them both, holding a thermometer and a mop. Ignoring Jones, she paused the woman’s simulation and took her vitals. 

“Interference?” the employee mumbled. Jones watched as she waved a colleague over. “Teju, have you seen this? The NFC doesn’t work.” 

“Lack of power,” her colleague said, coming up next to them. “The brownouts are causing all kinds of issues.”

“Can we do anything about it?” 

Teju shrugged. “Is it still our problem? Maria told me we might not get paid next week.”

“The customers are paid through the end of the month.” While they argued, the customer stood placidly, a tail of vomit hanging from her chin.

“Yeah, but they don’t pay us. They pay the company and what is the company going to do with that?”

“What are we supposed to do? Just walk out?”

“Why not?” Jones liked Teju’s approach. It was pragmatic. His colleague sounded more like the law-and-order type.

“The customers depend on us. Who’s going to take care of hydration? Who’s going to get them all unhooked?”

Teju snorted. “You’re so law and order, Liz. They’ll just hit the emergency shutoff. It’ll be fine. The real world isn’t that bad. We’re in it right now.”

Liz shook her head. “They’re getting sick. It’s not ethical.”

Teju snorted. “Like any of these people would take care of us if we got sick.”

 Each of them grabbed an elbow of the drooling woman and led her away.  The sour stench of her retch began to make its way across the seating area. Jones got up. There had to be a buffet somewhere for the staff. He made his way to a hallways marked “Employees Only.”

It was quieter there. The customers of Virtual Vegas obeyed an invisible line and did not cross the threshold of the hall. Jones rolled his neck, trying to relax his shoulders. He was having trouble focusing. The arches of his feet ached.

Jones froze. At the other end of the corridor, a pair of young men in black jeans and dark t-shirts huddled around an electrical panel. One of them held a screwdriver. Another held a patch cable. Blackwork tattoos ran up the sides of their exposed arms. One of them looked up at him, or seemed to - his eyes were obscured by tinted glasses. An armadillo tattoo sat on the base of his neck. He murmured to his companion. Jones couldn’t help himself. Fear coursed through the bridge of his nose. He turned on his heel and ran back into the hotel.

Jones bobbed and wove around the vacant Vegas customers as he made his way to the entrance. They lurched in and out of his peripheral vision, bushing shoulders with him as the algorithm guiding their movements quickly accounted for him, then edited him out. Outside, Jones rested his head against the tan stucco wall of the building behind him. His chest heaved, and his quads burned. He couldn’t move another step. It didn’t matter - no one had followed him. The glaring desert sun bounced around the pale buildings, bathing the city in a shimmering film that smeared against his sunglasses. 

Jones thought about a nap. He knew he was dehydrated. He allowed his eyelids to sink back further against his skull.  For a moment, his cares began to spiral away. Grey concrete. White sand. A bucket of water. All three were full of holes. Jones jolted awake. He was in the shade now, but the sun would move. He could not fall asleep in the open sun. 

As he stood there, trying to recover his willpower, a tall woman with long, dark hair rounded the corner across the plaza. She wore tan combat boots, a massive duffle bag slung over her shoulder, and what seemed to be an exoskeleton on her lower body. Her tank top revealed a tattoo of an armadillo at the top of her tricep. The arm attached to that shoulder glistened in the sunlight, bouncing a ray of light straight into Jones’ eyes. He shielded them with his hand. The cyborg glared hard at Jones as she passed by, blinding him with the sun. 

Jones watched her for a moment. He gritted his teeth and forced his brain into a blank slate of intention. He needed to follow her. This was, unfortunately, why he was here.