Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 42

In which Jones struggles to build up his mental model

Several hours later, Jones realized that his right leg had fallen completely asleep. He blinked. The motel parking lot glowed with the last rays of the evening sun. Jones stood up, stretched, and printed out his research notes. The growling of his stomach and the soreness at the back of his throat reminded him that he’d eaten and drunk very little since arriving in the desert. 

Jones walked back to his room with his printouts and dumped them on the bed. Marvin still wasn’t back from his PTO. He looked over his notes and began to read them out loud, trying to identify a common thread. 

“Spin qubits instead of flip bits. Microwaves. Planck discovered the important constant in 1900. Could predict where quantum computing was going to succeed, or when, but scientists failed for decades to do both correctly at the same time. When the USDA figured it out no one saw it coming. Suggested applications: gene therapy, stock markets, predictive search, math.

“Quantum computing rumored power behind the 6G network in China. Twenty Fortune 500 companies have failed to build a viable quantum supercomputer. DARPA challenge breakthrough. Superposition and entanglement, exponential speed.

“Einstein and Bohr, mortal enemies? Lasers. Training the network required 150 coefficients - technical steering committee. Strengths: sorting, optimization, finding prime numbers.”

Jones cursed himself. Everything had seemed clear moments ago, but that was delirium. There was no thread. Why would Mad Crab would be interested in prime numbers? Why would anyone care so much about such a stubborn subset of the integers? Jones realized he was too hungry to focus on this case any longer. He needed a real meal. Jones left the motel and headed out in search of a restaurant.

Away from the main road, the town was quiet. Jones enjoyed the cool desert air against his skin. Night was falling, and the sky was filling up with stars. In the distance, mountain ridges formed purple slopes against the horizon. Here and there, streetlights blinked on, their buzzing blue glow framing empty lots and discarded shoes. 

After crossing under a highway bypass, Jones found a small neighborhood of bungalows and mobile homes arrayed on a neat, orderly grid. He wondered if anyone had ever had plans for Needles, a vision larger than an accidental clumping of gas station and motels dropped along the side of Route 66. There were still a few palm trees standing in the streets, but most of the residents had followed the last gubernatorial decree and replaced all the water-sucking plants in their yards with rocks. Signs in the the windows advertised the small home businesses that the residents of the town used to meet each other’s needs. “Haircuts by Maude,” read one. A silhouette of shears hung next to it. “Engine Repair,” said another, a large arrow pointing to the back of the house. The driveway was littered with flatted springs and rusted washers.

In the growing twilight, lamps started to go on inside the squat stucco homes. Here and there, the murmur of conversation drifted down the street, but besides Jones, no one else was outside. Finally, on the corner of a block, he found a bungalow with a tidy striped awning, a plastic chair, and an open door. Overlapping conversation drifted out from the inside. The sign in the window said, “Carmela’s Place. Try Our SUPER BURRITO.” 

The place was mostly empty, except for a a booth in the corner. In the booth sat five armadillo-tattooed, leather-clad, exoskeleton-bound members of Mad Crab. Three young men and women crammed into one side, and an older woman sat across from them. The young cyborgs had lots of safety pins in their jackets, and very little hair. The older cyborg wore an orange safety vest. Another young cyborg sat next to her. He wore a black T-shirt that said 'Cyborg' on the back, in white letters. It looked hand painted.

Platters of enchiladas, refried beans, fajitas, rice, and burritos littered their table. It all looked delicious. A few of the cyborgs glanced up at Jones, but then returned to their meal, uninterested. Jones wondered what they knew about him. Were their hearing implants feeding them his bio, his profile? 

The proprietor approached Jones. He wore a long striped apron over stained khakis. “Dining in?” he asked, his eyes wide with hope. Jones nodded.

The owner seated him directly behind the ravenous cyborg crew. Jones was so hungry he didn’t care. Jones studied the menu. A suiza burrito smothered in Denver sauce looked especially appealing. He made eye contact with the owner, who came over. “I’ll have the #1 special,” he said. “With two glasses of water.”

“You wouldn’t like to try the enchilada dinner?” asked his waiter. “It gives you an opportunity to try all three of our specialty sauces. My mother’s recipe. We make them here in-house.”

Jones thought about this for a moment, then yielded. “Why not. I see here that you were voted ‘Best Enchiladas in Needles.’” Jones pointed to the top of the menu. The proprietor stared at the boast glumly. 

“We were. But that was a long time ago.” 

He paused for a long moment, remembering. Jones cleared his throat. "Enchiladas it is."

The owner shook himself free of his reverie and disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing briefly with Jones’ water glasses. Jones leaned back against the padded orange vinyl, sipped the sweet, cold manna of the Colorado River, and tried to overhear what was going on in the booth behind him.