The road was empty.
“Where did the workers go? The ones ahead of us,” Grace said.
“The mechflesh encampment is nearby,” said Avonaco. “Southwest.”
“How long has it been there?”
“Mass relocation began seventeen months ago.”
“Did they leave in response to compstate hostility, or—?”
“They were forced to go.”
“But not forced out of work.”
“Of course not,” said Avonaco. “Employers need the specialty upgrades their mechflesh workers have. It is better than resorting to robotics. AIs might take over!” He sniffed. “Besides, no one else is willing to work for so little.”
“Folks still use loafers.”
“They are constantly tested. If you look closely, you will see the inspection stamp on each one. And the loafers are dumber than they used to be.”
The wind shifted, and Grace’s hat brim flopped upward. She tugged it back down, wishing she had a proper cowboy hat.
“How many camps are there?” she asked after they’d walked a piece.
“Six. The one called Geneville is just over this hill,” Avonaco said.
Sure enough, it appeared as they crested the hill. Grace paused, looking down at it. Where once was rolling prairie, now squatted a hodgepodge of plastic sheeting, corrugated metal, and stacked earthen blocks. The structures were imitations of proper buildings, seemingly thrown together with whatever scraps Port Casper discarded. Clothes hung on lines strung between buildings, and spliced electrical cables lay across the higher rooftops, servicing lower buildings that remained in the shadows. A barbed wire fence surrounded this side of the camp. She wasn’t sure if the mechflesh had erected it for protection, or whether compstate had done it for imprisonment. She suspected the latter. A breeze brought the sour reek of decaying garbage.
“I can’t believe this exists in compstate,” Grace said, her voice husky.
“You might not believe,” Avonaco said, “but I know better.”
“Compstate was founded on equality. The cooperation between genetic modifiers, cloisterfolk, and mechflesh. The mechflesh perform physical labor, the protectors ensure security, and the gene addicts provide financing and governance.”
“Those who work, those who fight, and those who pray.”
“It is a medieval system,” said Avonaco. “Worse, you seem to think it is some kind of ideal. What kind of history did they teach you in cloister?”
“What, was it better before compstate?”
“The comparison is immaterial,” said Avonaco. He gestured to Geneville. “This is what you have now. The three clades did not include AIs in their bargain. Their terror of people like me rules them now.”
Grace stood still, attention riveted on Geneville. Mechflesh used to be touted as the responsible alternative to thinking machines. Now they were treated like the machines they sought to replace.