Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 25

In which Fred gets the captive audience he clearly craves

Fred wasn’t hard to find. He was standing next to one of the only cars in the lot, a green pickup truck covered in rust spots. Jones guessed that it was 20 years old. He wondered why the ranger didn’t at least have a hybrid, but then realize he wasn’t in a position to judge. At the moment, Fred was perhaps the wealthiest person in the lot. 

“Hey,” Jones called, jogging towards the ranger. “Can I still catch a ride to the preserve?”

“Of course,” said Fred. “As long as you don’t mind riding in the middle. My buddy is going to hitch a ride too. He’s gotta wrap something up but should be here in a few.” The ranger sighed. “Not exactly the relaxing day I had planned.”

A few minutes later, the cyborg, Tasty, ambled out of the casino’s front doors. He headed straight towards them. His walk was off-kilter, as thought his prosthetic arm had permanently distorted his balance. Jones’ breathing tightened. Tasty walked up to Fred and jerked a thumb at Jones. “He’s coming too?”

Jones nodded, trying to sound casual while desperately avoiding any glimpse of the metal digit pointed at him. “Free buffet is never free long enough.”

Tasty squinted at him and said nothing.

For the first half hour drive out of Virtual Vegas, the three men sat thigh to thigh in the pickup truck without speaking. Jones wracked his brain for something to break the agonizing silence.

“So,” he said, choking a bit on the phlegm in his throat. “Read any good books lately?”

Tasty stared ahead stoically. The ranger tapped his nose.

“Can’t say I read as much as I used to,” he said. “You’d be surprised, but keeping an expanse of desert as large at the Mojave National Preserve in good operating condition is pretty time-consuming. We work a 24-hour shift, one on, one off. Of course we sleep, but you know - things happen. In fact I’ve had several near-death experiences in recent months that have changed my perspective on life considerably.”

Alarmed, Jones sat up straighter. The ranger didn’t seem to notice. Tasty continued to stare out the passenger side window. The truck hit a bump in the highway and jolted them back and forth, so Jones was forced first to slide into the ranger, then, agonizingly, into the shoulder of the massive cyborg. The ranger continued.

“The first time was out on the service road north of the preserve. I was coming back late from a supply run and I was pretty tired. Too tired. Want to get one of those robot cars but the BLM won’t approve the budget. Although this manual old thing is coming in handy right now.” The ranger chuckled. 

“Anyway, it was dark, and I was half-asleep, when all of a sudden I see lights flashing around me and a siren and a train horn and the howling of the wind. Of course I was wide awake at once but disoriented as heck. At night it still gets completely dark around here - city people can’t imagine it. I couldn’t tell where the lights were coming from. Obviously I need to get out of the way, but from what? I didn’t know whether to go left, right, and the siren and the horn is getting louder and louder. Finally I decided to let everybody else figure it out. I slammed on my brakes. Skidded to a stop. I didn’t know if I was on the road or not. Covered my head in my hands. From behind, the sirens overtook me, flying by on my right. The lights were getting brighter and at the same moment a freight train flew by on my left, head-on. The truck trembled and shook. I wept until the lights and the sounds all faded away. Then I gathered myself and kept driving. The next day I came back to the spot and realized I must have been on the wrong side of the road. Trying to correct in either direction would have gotten me smashed to bits.”

The ranger drummed on the steering wheel. “All I could think is, what if I’m dead? What if I didn’t really survive, and this present moment is the delusions of a ghost who can’t move on? The uncanny feeling faded eventually but then one night a few weeks ago another strange thing happened. I was doing a foot survey of some of the volcanic terrain around here, verifying some reports, and we got a little rain, which quickly turned into a flash flood. I wasn’t worried, I know how to handle those things, I scrambled up the lava chute I was in and found a nook to rest in. Wouldn’t you know though, I fell asleep! The sun came out and baked me half to death. I woke up, mouth parched, dizzy, shivering and in a cold sweat. God damn, I thought, I’m half a mile on foot from the ranger station and I’m dehydrated and in shock. 

“I couldn’t even get to my feet. I was hyperventilating. I struggled to stay seated. There was still water running through the wash all around me. Imagine drowning in the desert because you fainted from dehydration! I don’t have to imagine it. I came so close. Despite the feeling of shutdown in my internal organs, I had the presence of mind to scoop up rainwater and get it into my mouth. Foul, dirty, but it did the trick. A few minutes later the tingling receded, I could stand, walk, and get myself home. A matter of a moment and I was fine, but a matter of a moment and I could have died. I will tell you, have a few experiences like that, and it will change your whole perspective on life. You’re immortal - until the moment you aren’t.”

The men sat in silence for a long while after the ranger finished. Finally, Tasty grunted.

“That’s why I got my arm,” he said, raising the armored prosthetic. “Worry less.”