Previously, we brought you another story set in this same world: Beavers, the Swamp Mermaids. Prepare for a tale of Chicaweiser and The End of the World. We call this one “Terminated.”
Muhammad called himself Moe, because the jerkwater boomtown would be gone after the first frost and that accelerated world had no time for explaining the name Muhammad twice a day every day before harvest.
Jesús knew why they used to call the old phones “smart.” He had one in his hand now, a slab of blue light in the dark, dangling with wires.
“She used her Cal-Pikk account in here yesterday. Most days.” Jesús said, pointing to a double stack of four shipping containers, covered in neon signs and wires, with little piles of spray foam insulation sticking out of the rusted cracks like dried mushrooms on a log.
“Cal-Pikk? I doubt she’s picking tomatoes, but maybe she works in an office or warehouse or something.” Moe said.
The bar was a upturned bowl of light on the black prairie, covered in glowing LEDs that advertised every cheap brand of corn beer, corn whiskey, and rice wine that had come through in the past ten years.
Moe dragged open the beat up blue door, with a squeal and a grind. A battered series of stickers told them that now, the place only accepted Cal-Pikk credits. Other stickers were underneath, payment plans and companies and cards Moe had never heard of.
Inside, soothing algorithmic techno and e-smoke. It didn’t come from the shattered turntable, even more lazy than the slow fan on the low ceiling. Each note was lab-specified to elicit a specific emotion, they were lyricless voices in rapturous chants that needed no translation.
Jesús showed Moe the screen one last time, the tight wrinkles and shaved black head, it was twenty years old, so they figured Doctor Maria Exenoes was at least 90 by now.
“Alright, make a circle, check the place, I’m gonna get us some beers. Chicaweiser okay?” Jesús asked. “I don’t think they’ve got anything else.”
Moe fumbled with the thumb drives and scan chips in his pockets. “”Yeah, that’s fine. I don’t have any Cal-Pikk, just crypto.” He said. Other than Jesús’s weird phone, they didn’t stand out in the crowd. Everyone was dirty, everyone’s skin a bit burnt brown or red, and they all wore tan Cal-Pikk jumpsuits with big ten digit numbers in bold yellow vinyl across the shoulders.
Jesús was tall, with short curly hair and a goatee. In most groups of pickers, he was the tall one, the one who’d wind up with back problems first, but the weathered and heavy hand that came down on his shoulders belonged to someone taller by a foot or more. It was scarred, tattooed, and missing the final joint of each digit. The other hand had less in the way of fingers, and it was raised high with a half-crushed can of cheap Chicha that was dripping on Jesús’s boots.
“You lookin’ for somebody?” The big man asked, taking his hand off Jesús’s shoulder and reaching toward the phone he was trying to slip into his pocket. “You a company dick, seven two one nine four five one nine one nine?” He read off the jumpsuit.
Jesús didn’t need to look at the man’s back to know he’d defaced and taped over his digits.
“Just a picker.” Jesús said, getting pushed away from the man for his honesty. He walked out from the entrance area. It was made from half of one of the shipping containers, a waist-high “railing” constructed from the old wall. Footsteps were loud up top, and at the end of the container a plastic stairwell had been wedged in, the last step a foot short of the next floor. In the middle of the remaining space, long tables had been made by laying plywood on top of old desks and sideways filing cabinets.
The big man - Jesús had dubbed him “Bad Fingers” - didn’t follow him to the vending machines, which sat far from the door against the back wall of the open space. They were battered, caged in with metal mesh and cracked plexiglass, but when Jesús pressed his Cal-Pikk chip against the box, it easily dispensed two cans with a pneumatic whirr and hiss.
“Shit, it’s cold.” He said. He hadn’t had cold beer in months - even if it was Chicaweiser. He kept looking behind him as he moved to a table in the corner, near an old G-search box that had clearly been used for target practice.
“Cold beer? Maybe that’s why she comes here.” Moe said, grabbing one of the red, white, and blue cans. He pointed up at the balcony, where an elderly black woman in scarves and robes was sharing a laugh with two men in navy-blue jumpsuits. They could have been her sons - dark skinned, shaved bald, and if they weren’t twins they were certainly brothers, sharing the same severe cheekbones.
“I think that’s her! Doctor Exenoes!” Moe said. He was trying not to point. “Those dudes aren’t Cal-Pikk, and she doesn’t look like she is, either.”
“No way that’s her. She’s like almost 90. She doesn’t look like she’s aged a day since they took that photograph.”
“You know what they say.” Moe said.
Jesús did not.
“Oh come on, you know, black don’t crack.”
“No one says that.” Jesús said.
“They used to.” Moe said.
“That was not a thing, man. Maybe somebody said it or says it, but that’s not like, something I should know. Besides, it sounds racist. I thought they weren’t racist back then, or something.”
“People used to say it. I read it in a G-search archive.”
“Read it my ass, you’ve got to stop watching those old vids, Moe. They’ll rot your brain. People were dumb as hell back then.”
“The videos are good. It was a golden age of television, Jesús. The best ever.”
“Maybe that’s why they were dumbfucks. Look, help me out here, Moe, what kind of outfit is she wearing?”
“How the hell should I know, I’m not a scarf and gown designer.”
“Yeah, but come on, it’s clearly some kind of church thing.”
“I don’t know, man, just because you know everything about Catholics and saints and which bibles are right or whatever, doesn’t mean I know everything about every Muslim on Earth.”
“Yeah, but Doctor Exenoes is supposed to be Greek.” Jesús said.
“Maybe she’s a Greek Muslim.” Moe said.
Jesús nodded. “That’s a thing. I heard of it once. Greek Orthodox, they call it.”
“Well, do you want to go ask if it’s her? I kinda wanna ask her what it was like back then, but I don’t wanna seem weird.” Moe crushed his beer and shook the dregs off before slipping the crumpled disk into his pocket.
“Yeah, sure, whatever, we’ll just go up and say ‘oh, we’re big fans of biotechnology, and hear you keep your brain on a computer, we’re big biology computer science men when we’re not picking tomatoes.” Jesús said.
“I’m not going to say THAT.” Moe was about to tell Jesús what he WOULD say instead when Bad Fingers suddenly appeared to blot out the light at their table. He had a woman with him, the palest human being either Moe or Jesús had ever seen. She was wrinkled and working her jaw, and when she flashed them a smile her teeth were the same beige color as the Cal-Pikk jumpsuits and looked to be softer than the tomatoes they were picking.
“I heard you were lookin’ for Mary Xavier.” Bad Fingers said, hooking half a thumb at the wild-haired Mary.
“No, no, we’re not. Maria Exenoes, not Mary Xavier, I can see how you could make the…” Moe was prevented from launching into a friendly story about confused names when Mary Xavier’s breath interrupted him a moment before her words did.
“I told you, they’re Company Men come to write us up so they can bring bots in to do our damn jobs!” Mary shouted.
“No, I’m a picker! Bots can't pick 'em right, nobody wants a bruised ass tomato!” Moe replied indignantly as Jesús realized he wasn’t going to get any tortilla chips or soy nuts tonight.
“Pigs! Company dicks!” Mary shouted, and it was at that signal that everyone seemed to react in some scripted fashion, taking up old practiced positions and letting loose with mumbled curses.
As if on a choreographic queue, metal screeched on metal as chairs slid across the floor, louder than the sounds of boots headed for the door and mumbling pickers who didn’t want to risk a broken hand as they crowded around the door.
“We should go.” Moe said, but Bad Fingers had jumped onto their table and was shouting at the men who were leaving.
“I got yer fuckin’ numbers you sons of bitches! When we burn this camp down you won't eat! You won't last the night in a bunk from Pierre to Shreveport! Get out! Get!”
Jesús and Moe took this as a que to do just that, but when they started backing away, Bad Fingers hurled a full can of Chicaweiser at Jesús’s feet, sending up a spray of straw-colored liquid. He jumped back, bumping into one of the navy-blue jumpsuited men hurrying down the stairs, flanking Doctor Exenoes. The man shoved him to the steel floor with a stiff palm and bent elbow.
“Sorry, Doc X!” Bad Fingers said, snatching the trucker hat from his head and holding it crunched up against his chest.
Moe watched as someone behind him stomped onto one of the makeshift tables and snapped it in half, then bent down to grab a bench.
“Moe, where the fuck is Pierre?” Jesús said, picking himself off the floor as Moe pushed him toward the door.
On the way out the door Jesús shouted, “RIOT!” then as traditional, “Fuck Cal-Pikk, fuck the police!”
Doctor Exenoes’s entourage made for the door with that, Moe and Jesús right behind them as Bad Fingers started unzipping his pants with stubby fingers. Cans of Chicaweiser came hurling after them, aimed now not at feet and torso, but at face and ears, crashing against the blown-in foam insulation and spewing sour liquid everywhere.
Outside, the people who’d gotten out earlier were already jogging toward the Quonset hut bunks on the fringe of what had once been this suburb. Rotting houses loomed on each corner, collapsing in the dark, dry dusty gardens and fences lay broken in what had once been neat roads that guided self-driving cars to Topeka.
Doctor Exenoes and the three serious men headed toward an abandoned strip mall with boarded up storefronts while Jesús and Moe breathed in the musk scent of farm chemicals and compost. Even at night, it was a broiling wind, and they could already see sizzling blue LEDs in the distance, cop cars crossing the blasted plain.
“Fuck the drone cops.” Jesús said.
“Auto-cops.” Moe said.
“Fuck the pig-bots.” Jesús said. They stopped on the other side of the torn up street, where someone had been carefully piling scavenged squares of asphalt, a long time ago.
Moe wondered if the auto-cops were from Cal-Pikk or Topeka, but either way they’d have the same cargo behind the tinted black glass, six drones, mantis-like bodies hanging from a coat-rack, folded into one another like nesting boxes.
“We better get out of here, they’ll blank my phone and your crypto and probably freeze our accounts for this shit.” Jesús said.
“Yeah, let’s get to the woods.” Silently, framed by flickering blue LEDs, sizzling in the dark, Moe led them behind the burnt-out frame of a house, into a line of dessicated willows straining for a stream that had dried up decades ago.
They turned East at the bike. It was an old one, rusting metal instead of the new woven polymers, bent up at the rotten seat, bent down where the willow had grown into the cogs in a tumorous growth. The wheels were gone, the chain, the handlebars. The thing was rusting, skeletal, the same color as the dusty trees, the Cal-Pikk jumpsuit, his boots, the bare trail, and everything else in what used to be Kansas.
The beige, solar-panel topped Cal-Pikk brand Quonset hut that held his bunk – and thirty-nine others - was at the end of the row of papery willows, in the flat cracked bed of whatever pond had once fed that extinct stream.
There were already pickers milling around the doors, handing each other wads of paper, chits and cards, phones and chips and wires.
They turned to watch Moe’s shaky hand hold his Cal-Pikk ID toward the door's sensor.
It flashed a red light. “Sorry, man.” Someone said, clapping him on the back. They were already back to jotting down numbers and exchanging locations and leads on new jobs and friendly places.
“Already?” Jesús said. They opened the door for him, shaking heads.
Inside the hut was the ever-present and always-faded logo of Cal-Pikk, named from when California had been arable, looking down on anyone who walked through the door. Cal-Pikk was an anthropomorphic corncob with googly eyes, a cartoon hand, three fingers and an upward thumb. Jesús couldn’t help but think about Bad Fingers when he saw the logo, now.
Inside, bunk beds in a cubical grid, each box lit with blue screens. Some flickered the omnipresent malevolent steam of network news. Things on fire, masked gunmen, plumes of black smoke, maps of the nation marred with huge red shapes in the center, or crawling blue swaths on the coasts.
On other screens, pornography. Writhing oiled flesh, lithe and lively in HD. Here and were staccato white flashes, someone playing a video game. Everyone was in headphones and glad for them.
The place smelled of sweat and showers and any number of all-male bunks and barracks Jesús and Moe had spent the past 10 years in. Most pickers had multi-sex arrangements, but some weird law prevented it here in Topeka.
Jesús ducked behind a sheet strung up around his cubicle bunk, where a plastic placard was slipped into a holder, “Hedburg, Jesús: Cal-Pikk EIN: 7219451919. Jesús pawed his ID at the reader built into his bunk and swore when it flashed red.
“Terminated?” He shouted over the din of clicking electronics and masterbation. He jabbed his fingers at some screens and yanked a pair of old phones out of a case. They were held together mostly by duct tape, but when he pointed them at the screen, the Cal-Pikk logo went away and was replaced by video feeds. Most were empty greenhouses, dark fields, or shuffling vapers and smokers in front of Quonset huts, but the number of feeds that showed the bar they’d just left was quickly increasing until all the squares on all the scattered screens were video, inside and out, of the place they learned was called C-Reddy’s.
“Hey Moe! Come look at this shit!” Jesús shouted over the noise of his friend yelling “Terminated? Come on! We were barely there!”
The call made Moe flinch. Whenever Jesús said “look at this shit,” trouble was starting.
Jesús held the sheet open, motioned Moe inside. They looked at the screens, leaning on a ball of twine.
On the screen the inside of C-Reddy’s bar looked different, cooler and less grungy. Bad Finger and his crew of old men in defaced jumpsuits were hyping each other up, shouting, breaking glasses, piling chairs and tables up near the door. They had wet black bandanas draped over their faces.
Moe could smell that riot smell, the lye and piss and antacid they mixed up and smeared on the bandanas, the sweat and hot breath and nerves. They both knew it.
“I’d have stayed if I knew they were gonna terminate us.” Jesús said.
Moe looked around. Jesús had been busy. He’d filled the bottom bunk - and Moe wondered how he’d gotten rid of his bunkmate - with stuff for sale. There were old computer cases filled with glowing red datasticks, smart slab tablets with cameras covered in black tape.
Trying not to watch the screen, he picked up a Cal-Pikk chip reader. The wires that would send a silent 'no tamper' alarm to the company were neatly cut and covered and on display.
Jesús saw him. “Jail-broken and not just broken!” He said cheerfully, reciting the Jesús business logo. Moe was thinking about the bundle of polymer bills stashed in his spare boots, the payment he'd received for the crates of 'misplaced' heirloom tomatoes.
The grainy feeds caught his eyes while he wondered about tomatoes. On the screen, the barricaded door vanished, yanked outdoors, off the screen, out of the world itself. In the same instant, the first auto-cop pounced inside on four legs, accompanied by a whirring noise like a blender on pulse.
“Fuck.” Moe said. He hated watching the auto-cops in action, they made him uneasy – a feature of the design. Insectoid, they stood on four evenly spread feet, rear legs longer than the front. They weren’t in high definition on the screens, but Moe, and Jesús, and everyone who’d been alive for the past twenty years had seen them on video, evolving on screen, iteration after iteration.
“Older models.” Jesús said, pointing to the screen. Moe felt his age, recalling his childhood, huddled around a phone with his parents in that old house that only had electricity before five PM. Back then, he’d watched them in the endless riots, when they'd had human hands, little plastic things with fingers and palms, and housed their video cameras and sonar systems in their heads, some ingrained human bias, some attempt to humanize them. He remembered playing with the toy versions, how they looked dutiful and tough, their hands nothing like the utilitarian metallic housings for a mancatcher loop, a taser, a baton, or a lobster-claw hand.
These weren’t the newest models that defended Atlanta, or Austin, or Seattle, these were scuffed and stained, they lacked the range of motion in their articulated, segmented semi-humanoid torsos, they moved like an animation missing frames. Each one walked on four legs attached to an assembly of shocks and struts and gyroscopes. Each torso ended in a ceramic face, every single stoic theater mask invariably vandalized, covered in stickers and stains.
“Pig bots.” Jesús said. It was a universal epitaph in every social circle Jesús and Muhammad had ever been a part of. They played pre-recorded messages on badly wired speakers. “Lay down and assume the position! You are under arrest! You are resisting arrest! Get down on the ground and put your hands behind your head!”
Nobody did that. He saw Bad Fingers on the screen, doing the opposite, launching himself into the air like a fat, sadly misshapen torpedo, a makeshift bandana pulled over his face, riotous laborers behind him with hands wrapped in torn clothing. It was a tangle of limbs, metal and flesh, and the number of screens showing the shaking scene seemed to diminish every second or so, so that by the time Bad Fingers was being zip-tied and coated in glue, the only camera left could see nothing but his kicking boots and a semi-circle of bottle-throwing drunks.
There was a bright white light and they could hear it - not through the dead speakers and the suddenly sky-blue screens reading “signal lost.” They could hear the tin-plated explosion of flashbang grenades in the distance, like some echo in a canyon, when the original noise was too far away.
“Do you think they might have traced that?” Moe asked, letting his jaw go slack and opening his mouth to hear better - some trick he’d read in the back of some book somewhere.
Jesús shook his head, but the general commotion in the camp had quieted down, lights had gone dim, the sounds of zippers and rustling bags were overtaking the furious clicking and self-abuse that filled the air earlier.
“Hey Jesús, I've got a guy, well, a girl, coming for those Cherokee Purples tonight.”
“I’ll get my shit.” Jesús said, pushing things into boxes as Moe went to his bunk.
There Moe had his duffel bag, which he’d had the intuition to prep before heading out for someone nicknamed “Doc X.”
Like most pickers, he was ready to leave any minute. It was inevitable that you’d run across the auto-cops and get terminated, or need to close some cash-only hurried deal, or have a company dick find out you were hiding cases of heirloom tomatoes in the woods near a field.
Jesús was already out the back door, slinking into the night toward the dead willows. He had a better setup, a genuine freakout bag, covered in straps and sporting a visible handgun.
“Is open carry legal in Kansas?” Moe asked as flashing blue lights started to silhouette the Quonset hut and the fleeing figures.
“I think it’s mandatory.” Jesús said.