Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 14

In which Jones enjoys some soup

Lost in thought, Jones scuttled along the bleached sidewalk. Grey plaster hemmed him in on all sides. The chattering crowds, deep in virtual lives, blended into a dull hum behind him. Jones saw a flash of shining metal, and glanced around. He thought he saw a dark black t-shirt bobbing in front of him in the crowd. Anxious, Jones picked up his pace and turned sharply around the next corner. His chin collided with a fleshy, hard object. It was a nose. The nose stumbled backwards. Jones saw that it was bleeding. It dripped down onto the other man's khaki t-shirt.

“Hey,” the bloodied man yelled, “I’ve been looking for you!”

Jones shook his head, trying to keep his balance. “Who are you?” he asked. 

“The real question,” mumbled the man, “is who - are you?”

Jones wondered if the man was drunk in the biological sense, or if this too was part of his simulation.

“I’m Information Jones, Database Detective,” said Jones. “Have you seen any cyborgs around here? I’m conducting an investigation.”

“We’re all cyborgs,” the man slurred. 

“What?” asked Jones, alarmed. The man had no tattoos.

“These glasses, these earpieces, this other world - “ The man drifted off while blood ran down his chin. 

“Sir, do you need some water?” Jones asked.

The man laughed and lifted his shirt, showing Jones where an IV line fed into his stomach. “We don’t get hungry, we don’t get thirsty, we only live. That’s what we’re all paying for. Life.” He lowered his shirt, and took a half step towards Jones, grasping for source of support that was not there. His expression changed, becoming vacant, then serious. 

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m the one asking questions around here. Where were you on the night of the 24th of October?”

“I have no idea,” said Jones. He tried to back away, but people kept coming around the corner from behind, preventing him from moving.

“Like bull you don’t! You were at the Starlite Inn, room 34, counting the minutes until Minnie Miller dropped dead and you could collect on the life insurance policy you’d just purchased! Isn’t that right, Mr. Boyd? Or should I say, ‘Mr. Richard Miller?’” Jones shook his head, squinting. The man, in his face now, stared at him triumphantly. The blood from his nose had reached the hem of his shirt. 

“You’ve conned your last widow, Boyd. It’s time for me to put you under citizens’ arrest!”

Jones started to feel his blood pressure rise. He would not be derailed by this man’s authoritarian fantasy. “I’m not who you think I am,” said Jones. “You’re confusing me with someone in your simulation. I’m an innocent bystander.”

The man sneered. “That’s what they all say.” He lunged for Jones. Jones stepped to the side, but tripped. The would-be private eye fell on top of him, trying to get Jones’ wrists behind his back. They grappled on the ground. The asphalt, heated by the sun, burned Jones like a hot iron each time it touched his bare skin. Jones squirmed, trying to keep his stomach from contacting the street. His baseball cap fell off. He snatched it and slapped the man in the face with it over and over, trying to bring him to reality. The man punched Jones in the cheek. Jones heard feet running towards them, then a hand reached down and hauled his antagonist to his feet.

It was one of the staff members of Virtual Vegas, wearing a vest and a fedora. It looked as though he'd thrown them on moments before. “What did I tell you about solo missions?” the staff member scolded. Jones’ would-be arrestor straightened the hem of his polo. “I had my guy. I needed to move fast.”

The staff member gestured at Jones with an icy stare. “That’s not your guy, that’s a bum. He sleeps in the doorway at the corner store over on 42nd. What’s gotten into you?”

Jones’ antagonist looked down, blinking. “I guess you’re right. Dunno how I made that mistake.” He didn’t apologize. The staff member put his hand on the man’s back and escorted him away, commiserating.

As Jones lay on the ground, panting, a man in a windbreaker approached to him. The breast pocket of his jacket had the VV logo embroidered over it. Above the logo read, ‘Security.’ He put his arms under Jones' elbows and hauled him to his feet.

"Hey, thanks," said Jones. The security guard pulled out plastic handcuffs and pulled Jones' arms behind his back, cuffing his wrists together. 

"He started it!" Jones protested. “You must have a way to replay it.” 

"I don't care," said the security guard. "You interfered with his storyline. According to our terms of service, you are officially a nuisance. You need to come with me to the office.” He grabbed Jones' collar and hauled him into yet another one of the squat, grey buildings, dropping him to the floor outside of an empty doorway. Jones leaned against the wall until another guard arrived to glare at him some more.

“Let’s go,” he said. The man hauled Jones off the ground, cut his handcuffs apart, and led him to a small room with a chair and a desk. Apart from a framed lithograph of the Hoover Dam, the room was devoid of texture or color. A dull brown particleboard desk filled most of the space. Jones sat in a hard folding chair, shuffling his feet on the carpet. He was able to give himself several small electric shocks before the security man sat down, straightened his shoulders, and placed his hands on his desk.

“Let me introduce myself. I am Evan Abera, head of security here at Virtual Vegas.”

“You have a serious security problem,” Jones said. “Are you aware of your cyborg infestation?” 

Abrera ignored him. “Are you aware, sir, that our customers are paying for their experience here?" 

Jones nodded.

"Are you aware of how carefully we curate their experience? How much time, effort, and machine learning has gone into the reality we've crafted for each of our clients?” 

"I don't know much about video games,” admitted Jones.

Abera straightened the lapels of his jacket. “I will educate you. We try to avoid dissonance. If one of our clients gets into a fistfight when their program did not intend them to get into a fistfight, that’s confusing. The program needs to be seamless. This is what our clients are paying for - when you interrupt the program, they get distressed. The customer might leave. Someone else might get hurt."

There was no hypothetical about it. Jones had a black eye. He wondered if the security boss was threatening to hurt him further. 

"The managed experience," Abera continued, "Is not a business model. It's not a consumer product. "It's not a game. It is…” the man paused, trying to compose his thoughts, "Sorry, he said, “My feed is going in and out. Where was I? Yes. The managed experience is a way to let go of the most tedious, tiring and difficult parts of human experience. It is a means to feel the relief of living without decisions and without consequences."

"Without agency," said Jones. He wasn't sure where this was going. Abrera seemed like the didactic type.

Abrera held up one hand in correction. “With guided agency. In fact, our research has shown time and time again that people don't value agency as much as they think they do! This leads to so much unnecessary suffering. They want a guide to lead them down the path to success. What better leader than an algorithm trained by the best of what Hollywood and Bollywood have to offer? Does this make sense to you?"

"That makes sense," said Jones. "I'd like to feel successful every once in a while."

"Our product will make you feel very successful," said Abera. "That's the core of our value proposition. You understand, then, why we need you to stay out of everyone's way. When our clients run into you, when they engage in a fistfight with you - " he paused, looking depressed.

"They don't feel important, or successful," said Jones.

"No.” Abera said. "There aren't any people like you in their augmented reality. We don't like to remind them that people like you exist at all."

"People like me?" Jones asked, offended. “This is not my hat. It was given to me by a Federal Agent.”

"Spontaneous people," sighed Abrera. "Committed to living spontaneous lives.”

“I’m not spontaneous,” protested Jones.

The security man pursed his lips and stared hard at Jones, thinking. “Let me try demonstrate by example,” he said. “Would you like to try our program? Complimentary, of course.”

“All right,” said Jones. He felt worried. He'd heard of people growing addicted to Virtual Vegas after one trial session. He decided to play it safe. “Can you do taste? Can I eat a bowl of soup?”

“Absolutely,” said Abera. “Give me a few moments, and I’ll hook you up to one of our trial headsets.” He procured a set of glasses from a drawer in his desk and came around to where Jones was sitting. “You’ll feel a pinch at your temples." 

A moment later, Jones was sitting in a noodle shop. A container of chopsticks and napkins rested on the table in front of him next to a tray of condiments. He looked around. A large plastic cat sat on the counter, waving its golden paw. Buns lined up in the display case next to it. The room filled with the low chatter of other patrons scooping up mouthfuls of broth and noodles. 

In the corner, a TV screen played music videos. The room felt cool and green. Anticipatory saliva pooled in his mouth. He was eager for some soup. The soup was on its way. A waitress came by and placed a small plastic bowl of bean sprouts and lime wedges in front of him. She wasn’t wearing a mask, no one in the restaurant was, but Jones didn’t feel afraid. Moments later, she returned with a large steaming bowl of broth filled with noodles, pork belly, and bits of sausage. 

Jones took a spoon and drew up a mouthful of broth with a loud slurp. He tried the noodles. They had a nice texture. A bit bland. He squeezed his lime wedges into the broth, then reached for the condiments. He lifted the metal lid off the jar of hot chili.  It let out of a thin ping of protest. He stirred a spoonful of red chili into the soup. The oil formed small globules on the surface of the broth. Jones took another eager mouthful of noodles. They were perfect.

As he ate, Jones watched the music video. He couldn’t understand the lyrics, but the plot was easy to follow. A young woman dressed in a blue shirt and a white miniskirt gave a homeless man a single flower. The man followed her. They turned out to have a great deal in common. He showed her the hovel where he squatted at night. She sang of her delight. At night, they danced together in the street. Two nurses came, put the woman in a wheelchair, and took her to an asylum. The man, anguished, returned to his hovel, and sang of his grief. It turned out that he was the one who was insane - the woman had been his delusion all along. The dream within a fiction within his simulation devastated Jones. His eyes streamed with tears. They dropped into his soup, salting it. He looked down. The broth was almost gone. A fist slammed into his face and almost knocked him backward off his chair. 

Stunned, Jones tried to regain his balance. Who had done it? The waiter? He hadn’t even had the opportunity to tip yet. The room came back into focus. He was in an office. He was in the office of the head of security at Virtual Vegas.

“How did you like it?” asked Abera. “It’s one of my favorite places from Old Vegas. I went there as a teenager. It’s closed now. They never recovered after the pandemic. I used to go almost every week. The simulation is perfect. Although none of the waiters ever punched me. Didn’t that blow feel spontaneous?”

Jones had to admit that it did.

“Did you enjoy it?” asked Abera.

Jones had to admit he did not.

“When our clients have a spontaneous experience," Abrera continued, cracking his knuckles, "they are dissatisfied. They re-consider the value of their subscription. When our sales representatives reach out to collect the next subscription, the client remembers the fistfight. They wonder if more hand-to-hand combat is in store for them in Virtual Vegas."

Jones nodded. Abera frowned.

“Normally, I’d ask to you leave immediately, but I understand there are some transportation difficulties at the moment. You have 24 hours to get out.” said Abera. “Don’t let us see you talking to a customer again. If we do, I’ll throw you off the side of the Hoover Dam - personally.”

Jones stumbled out of the room. He was eager to take Abrera’s advice. The military grade quantum supercomputer was obviously not here anyway. It was time to get out of town.