Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 20

In which Margo and Jeff have their say

Jones rifled through the magazines at the newsstand. A woman whose flight to France had been canceled now ran it as a library. She refused to leave the airport in case she lost her refugee status. Jones flipped through a spread about duck hunters in North Dakota. Nearby, a  television screen flickered and wavered as brownouts ebbed. The screen blinked blue, then white, then a news anchor reappeared. Her face contorted into an expression of deep and troubled processing.  Behind her, a freight train lay derailed in the desert, engulfed in flames. 

“Reports say the train carried valuable ores from Arizona,” the newscaster said. “Its holding corporation has issued a statement of depression and shock. It wishes to remind the public of its high safety rating. No one is sure how the train left the tracks. There were no witnesses. The Bureau of Land Management suspects foul play.”

The screen split to show a guest commentator. Barry Chokowski of the Nevada Central Railroad wore a red striped tie. “Frankly, Marge,” he drawled, “It could have been an attempted hijacking. It’s hard to imagine how someone would have gotten aboard to do it, but our algorithms are very reliable. We haven’t had a single accident in the Mojave desert since we automated twenty years ago!”

The news anchor bobbed her chin in a single, emphatic nod. “Let’s go to drone footage of the scene.”

The camera cut to an arial view of a freight car flat on its side, crushing an ancient Saguaro cactus. Rail employees in hard hats milled around, sidestepping demolition robots. The drone swooped in. One of the employees raised a handgun. The drone retreated, relaying audio. Jones listened as a press relations representative swatted and yelled at the drone.

“That's private property! This is all private property!" 

The drone wheeled back and around to heckle the PR flack. A tall man in a pinstripe suit walked into the frame. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. His hand looked encased in a metal, like a jointed glove. The cyborg glared at the drone as it buzzed past his head. A chyron popped into view: "Metal Mess in the Mojave.”

“That was a cyborg!" exclaimed Jones. The woman leafing through craft magazines next to him did not seem impressed. 

“Damn robots taking all our jobs," she replied. “You think they could get some of those robots to run passenger trains out of town so we could get out of this airport!”

“Sure, go try to get that train back on its tracks. It would take ten human crews ten months to fix that kind of mess." The man next to them wanted to get in on the conversation. He was fit and well-muscled, but Jones didn't notice any mechanical limbs. Jones tried to defuse the argument.

“I didn’t mean the robots,” he said. “There was a cyborg wearing a suit.”

“I meant every one of those damn machines!" snapped the woman. She eyed the man across from her, sizing him up. "What do you do for a living? I bet you program them!”

The software engineer, outed, bristled. “Damn right I do! Have you read the figures on industrial safety rates in the last ten years?"

“What about the safety rates after this so called “Next Economy” rolls out?”

The news anchors came back on. It was a duo Jones was now familiar with, Margot and Jeff. Over the past week, they'd appeared more and more often during the broadcast that ran 24 hours a day.

“So,” Jeff said rhetorically, cocking an eye at the viewers. “Leaks from the World Bank indicate that next steps in preparation for the Next Economy is that the whole country gets let go. Mass layoffs.”

“If you ask me,” replied Margot, “It’s a good thing. Think about all those people slacking off at their jobs, avoiding work, reducing productivity. Now their managers will be spared the pain of firing them.”

“Reducing headcount can be emotionally difficult,” agreed Jeff.

“It’s efficient,” said Margot. “One conversation for everyone. I’ll go further - every single person is better off this way. All those unproductive workers will be spared the pain of going in to work day in and day out, hiding thier inefficiencies, collecting a paycheck for doing nothing, stealing money from capital that could growing at twice the rate! They will no longer have to live a lie.”

“They’ll be living off the land,” chuckled Jeff.

“That’s right,” chuckled Margot. “Living hand to mouth off the land.”

A rolling suitcase sailed through the terminal, smashing the television screen. 

“Margot and Jeff are robots!” a voice cried. “They’re computer simulations!” One of the airline stewardess hurried to power down the screens, but she was too late. Garbage, handbags, and shoes followed the luggage through the air. Jones grabbed a magazine and random and made his way out of the terminal. He couldn’t endure another robot riot.

Jones headed to the taxi stand and scanned the shuttle busses. Two figures in dark clothes caught his eye. It was the cyborgs from the server room, the ones who had let him go. Now they carried heavy backpacks and elbowed their way brusquely through the crowd. They pushed their way to a shuttle bus at the edge of the parking lot. Jones moved closer to get a better view. It was a casino shuttle, with a cartoon cowboy painted on the side. “Ride to Whiskey Pete’s - FREE ICE.”

A car rolled up next to Jones and beeped its horn, twice. Startled, Jones spun around. His through caught with relief. Marvin has pulled up besides him. Jones collapsed, relieved, into the backseat of the car. 

“Sorry I’m late,” said Marvin. “I accidentally accepted a patch update and had to reboot. My air conditioning is going to be 22% more efficient now. Ready to go home?”

“Actually,” said Jones, “Have you ever heard of a place called Whiskey Petes?”