Jane grumbled unhappily awake at the notification ping from her tablet, realizing it meant some algorithm wanted her stagecoach in motion asap. “Dumb algorithms, all you care about is the horses, where’s my beauty sleep in your equations, huh?” Being a common rhetorical complaint for Jane, she expected no response from the tablet as she snatched it to see the freshly pinged itinerary. She was needed at the regional hub in a jiffy, with barely enough time to grab a coffee from the Starbucks downstairs on the way out to the nearest stable. As in many such mornings recently, she was a bit disappointed at the lack of time to take a proper shower. The logistics app’s timer was its same oppressive reminder of the time she was wasting even thinking about a shower.
The fresh faced kid staffing the Marriott desk downstairs barely bothered to look up to wave a perfunctory hello in Jane’s direction as she double timed it through the hotel lobby. Poor kid probably wasn’t used to this side of the crack of dawn and Jane couldn’t blame her; Jane would just as well prefer to still be asleep, herself. Luckily for the kid, Jane didn’t need to bother with check out as the algorithms assured her they had done their usual to take care of it, using the usual accounts.
The Starbucks was unmanned this hour, but a drone met Jane precisely at the threshold of the shop, her usual in a nice inviting cup perched atop the drone’s carapace. “Thank you, dear,” she admitted some sunlight into her morning grumble as she yanked the warm cup into the comfort of her hands and continued back through the lobby and out into the black side of an early morning.
Sips of the only slightly too hot coffee burnt Jane’s tongue, but calmed her nerves a bit. “You algorithms will work a lady to death, but you sure can mix a proper macchiato at four in the bedeviled morning.” Talking to herself soothed the burn a bit and got most of the sleepy gravel out of her voice. She did not expect a response, rightly assuming the machines that ran her life too uninterested in conversation this morning. Not that she blamed them, she figured, maybe the algorithms like to sleep in the mornings too and it’s really all just the fault of the people that may have programmed them not to give them breaks too. Perhaps, they worked her a bit too hard because they themselves were worked too hard, a vicious cycle of mutual assured tiredness between people and software.
Her musings on the subject of algorithms sleeping furiously in very small cracks of the day managed to quickly whittle away the walk to the stables. The stables had been hollowed out of an old retail shopping center and around its edges remained faint ghost logos of long dead retail corporations. Some of the ghost logos were tagged with graffiti and a few of the more visually interesting ones had been repainted to add color to otherwise drab surroundings.
Jane knew to head straight to a particular paddock central to this stable. Skirting the paddock were several shiny carbon fiber UPS stagecoaches in various states of packing or unpacking. Waiting immediately in the center of the paddock was exactly the man Jane was looking for, exactly where she expected him to be, holding the reins of exactly the stagecoach Jane knew would be there waiting for her.
“Good morning, stable boy.” It was an old joke, long since lost its humor and just about back round its way to being an insult again, maybe in a few years, possibly months.
The gray-haired gentleman’s only reaction to the terrible joke was a cough that was likely a genuine clearing of the lungs, followed by a professional, “Jane. Pallet loaded, heading for you know where. Good horses, fresh and excited. Have fun.” That last being his own rote joke well past its prime, but the closest thing to camaraderie the pair allowed themselves in their dull professional relationship.
“See you again on Thursday on the way back west, I reckon,” Jane glanced at the digital display adorning the paddock wall. It was 04:27 and that little bit of small talk had kept her from hitting the algorithm’s perfectly scheduled mark, but she was okay with that. He grunted an “Alright” back at her before continuing on to the rest of his day. Jane mounted the stagecoach, patted the Taser in usual spot, and heaved the reins to start the next few hours of her day.
It might not be Thursday, the algorithms were consistent, but they weren’t that consistent, but that too was a little joke Jane shared with this particular hand every time she left this stage.
Sixteen minutes from the stagecoach arrival to the appropriate bay in the regional hub at 08:36, a fresh team of horses had been exchanged onto the stagecoach, the palette had been extracted, opened, and the entire port incoming assortment of packages had been barcode scanned and sorted to a collection of hand-trucks and electric conveyers. Two minutes further and a presorted palette of outbound packages was maneuvered into the coach’s cargo space, gently so as not to terribly disturb the horses. As the attendant supervisor was set to release the coach out towards Crestwood, next stage on Jane’s itinerary, the supervisor received an urgent notification on her tablet and had to bring it to the attention of Jane, “Hold up for just a few minutes more. We’ve got an emergency package reroute.”
Not bothering to wait for a reply, the supervisor turned back to her team to continue to efficiently proceed through the necessary package logistics. Pointing to a particular couple of hand-trucks, “These are haulage alpha, due for the 09:25 zep to Memphis. Go, alpha.” Team alpha, a couple of strong fast youngsters, immediately leveraged the hand-trucks into a fast jog towards the nearby zeppelin moorings and specifically towards the Memphis-bound zeppelin. The team had seen the mooring map location as they had scanned the packages, leaving the supervisor’s reminder a redundant, but sometimes useful reminder. The supervisor continued through the remaining hand-trucks in priority order.
At 09:12 a bicycle courier rushed to the coach with a single package marked “Medical Supplies”. The supervisor herself scanned the package’s barcode with her tablet to mark it accounted for, placed it in an available spot in the coach’s cargo area, closed and locked the cargo area, and then kicked the coach’s recycled rubber tire in a sign of good luck and god speed that Jane easily recognized. The coach was swiftly in motion out to Crestwood.
Jane loved talking to the horses, even though she realized the horses mostly didn’t care other than the tone in her voice and were mostly too busy to even notice that. She liked to think it mattered to the efficiency of both her and the horses in a way that wasn’t directly measured by the algorithms and was a better way for her to judge the quality of a team at least in Jane’s mind.
On her tablet Jane could easily see the full work history, training history, and breeding history of her current team. She could drill down and see the last time she worked with this team, the last time the team did this exact route to Crestwood from the regional hub, every handler and trainer and driver and parent in their lives. She could just about feel the calculating judgments of the algorithms at miniscule variations in the timings among all of those factors. She didn’t see anything of the sort of a conversation log between her and the team or even other drivers and the team, and sometimes she kind of wished for that. (At the very least to warn her she’s had the same conversation with that team a dozen times already. No sense in boring the horses, even if she knew they were only really listening to the tone of her voice and even then couldn’t hear much of that from the other side of the driver’s compartment’s windshield.)
An electric car snuck past on the otherwise mostly quiet road a few hours out from the regional hub, interrupting whatever conversation had been in the process. It had been a few years since she had seen one and it certainly startled her more than it seemed to startle the horses. A brief jerk in the reins she interpreted as a question, starting her off into a new conversation, “No, that kind is still legal, isn’t burning nothing.
“You just don’t see them much anymore. Most people sold the batteries big enough to run them to the power companies back during the power crunch, for a pretty good sum.” Jane thought a couple of the horses nodded, maybe they had heard this before. “They say that they’d make new batteries that big again soon as that embargo is lifted in South America. What was it again, cobalt, maybe? Or was it copper or cocaine or something?”
She didn’t expect a response from the horses, but it wasn’t a conversation if she didn’t at least give them a chance to respond. “I heard from my sister’s youngest, you know the one, Denise,” Jane continued after a fair pause, “that her teacher thinks the battery crisis was orchestrated by you horses to get back at the bustling forefront of our economy again.”
Jane leaned forward in the seat, conspiratorially, “How’s it like being back at the front of the economy? Glad to be back in the reins of commerce?” Jane refused to laugh at her own jokes, that being her line in the sand before crossing over into actual madness. Jane was instead glad that horses didn’t really roll their eyes or groan at her bad puns.
Jane grabbed the tablet, took a photo of the horses, and sent the photo off to Denise while she was thinking about her. Denise was all the way out in California and presumably in class, but still managed to send back an immediate “Pretty!” reaction to the photo.
Jane’s briefly distracted driving was interrupted by a man standing in the middle of the road, the McDonalds arches a towering backdrop behind him, and pointing a shotgun in the direction of Jane’s team of horses.
The horses kindly stopped for the gentleman. Jane couldn’t tell if the gentleman was being surprisingly smart by trying to hold hostage the most valuable part of the whole stagecoach or the usual sort of dumb idiot that thought there might be something more valuable in the cargo than the horses carrying it. The cargo was insured and no sweat off Jane’s back if some or all of it fell out the back. There were plenty of Jane’s colleagues the algorithms happily tracked that could fill her spot at a moment’s notice. Horses, though, were quite valuable at the moment, especially teams bred and trained for good stagecoach work.
Trained reflex and her Taser was unholstered, safety unlatched, steadied in her hand, below obvious line of sight of the gentleman, into a panel inset into the coach’s dash, “I’m just a UPS courier on route to Crestwood. Don’t need no trouble, sir.”
The man took his eyes and his shotgun off the horses, “Hands in the air.”
Now Jane knew this was definitely one of the boring dumb ones. She sighed and pulled the trigger on the taser. The taser electrodes flew out connecting just perfectly with the gentleman. As Jane had worried, he had an itchy trigger finger and shotgun blast connected with the bulletproof windshield as the man fell to the ground.
The horses were certainly startled, but Jane was able to quickly assess that all of them were okay. At her most calming, she stepped out of the coach and gently talked to the team, “It’s fine, it’s fine, don’t worry friends, this idiot will only take a few minutes more of our precious time, and then we’ll leave him behind us in a trail of dust.” Jane punctuated with a few gentle rubs to the most distressed horses and a few quick triple checks with her hands to see if any had been grazed by ricochet.
Jane knelt down to the writhing figure in front of her team, took a snapshot of the guy, and texted the snapshot to a 911 dispatcher, CCing her algorithmic bosses whom would fill the dispatcher in on any damage estimates. The algorithms would also happily take care of filing lawsuits on behalf of herself, the team of horses, and the company, and would also note the reason for Jane’s late delivery this stage. Jane removed the idiot’s weapon and tried to coax his wriggling body out of the middle of the road, because trampling a guy for idiocy was largely frowned upon as unnecessary vigilante justice. The cops might be slower these days with most of their vehicles being bicycles and horses, but they were still dependable. Parts of civilization might fall, but may as well try to stay civilized and all that.
The horses were definitely glad to leave the idiot behind as they continued on to Crestwood. It wasn’t too long after they got going that Jane spotted a police quadrotor camera drone presumably off to surveil that idiot.
Just outside of what was the modern Crestwood town center, an old church building beside the town train tracks had a big banner flying, “Coming Soon: eTrain Station”. Jane loved the banner for several reasons, which she often told the horses, “They keep saying soon, but it’s been a few years and doesn’t seem like soon is here yet. I would have thought fixing the country’s old rail lines would have been an easy thing to do, but what do I look like, a civil engineer?”
One of the horses, Snickerdoodle Jones, did seem to snicker this time, but Jane mostly chalked it up to probably just the familial sneeze the horse inherited even in his name. However, it could also have been Snickerdoodle remembering that Jane had told them she had been a civil engineer in a past life, having retired from the stress to the weirdly more lucrative role of stagecoach driving in a very different economy from what she grew up in. Jane wasn’t entirely sure if Snickerdoodle’s memory was that reliable, though, as he was nearly four years old now.
“The best part of that banner, though,” this she laughed at to the horses, as it wasn’t her joke it was someone else’s, “is that lovely photo of the old depot station that the church bulldozed for its parking lot. History has a sense of humor there at least. Bet those church folk didn’t think they’d eventually need a depot a lot more than that church. They certainly didn’t remember when that church existed where it did because of that depot…”
A bit of a tired whinny from up front, Jane chose to interpret as a question of sorts, “Don’t you worry, the trains aren’t after your jobs, not at least at first. The eTrain grants clearly state no cargo traffic for the first decade in the hopes of reconnecting physically the people of this poor nation. Sure, we can chat all night long on the information superhighway, but people still miss zipping along the old actual highways sometimes.” Jane thought again about her sister and her niece way out in California. Even by zeppelin that trip was a lot of money and several weeks of time to get there. Jane was lucky in that she could at least ask the algorithms to try to schedule her out towards that way as a part of her job, but she knew other people weren’t so lucky.
The Crestwood stable was an old warehouse. The team was relieved to the stable’s hands and Jane lent a hand in the stage one review of the cargo for dispersal. A nurse on an electric scooter was impatiently waiting for the medical supplies box and left curtly after it had been signed for on Jane’s tablet. The packages going to the Crestwood post office for last mile delivery were logically on top of the palette from the regional hub, and most of the rest were for later stages.
A worried mechanic fussed over the damage to the stagecoach’s windshield. She didn’t need to ask what had happened, she’d seen the report already.
Just outside of the warehouse and around the corner was Sally’s Coach Inn. It was a smart reuse of an old convenience store carefully annexed into what once was an old business condo building full of cubicle farms. Sally had done some surprisingly smart interior design work to make the place a hospitable habitat for humans, especially those working for horses passing through. Rumors had it Sally was getting good offers from some of the hotel chains these days for her cute little boutique place, but she wasn’t selling. Jane had experienced some of the best and worst the stages had to offer and she liked Sally’s as it was.
Sally herself was in her customary spot behind the counter that doubled as diner spot and hotel lobby desk. “Hey, Jane, machines let me know you were probably wanting a shower, so I’ve got your usual late lunch/early supper in prep to be there waiting for you when you hop out of the shower.”
“Those silly algorithms sure do know me well at this point. Guess I should apologize for the mean things I said about them this morning. It’s been a long day.” Jane did feel genuinely relieved to know a hot shower was waiting for her and food soon after that.
“Rough day?” Sally asked, genuine concern in her voice.
Jane shrugged and gently grinned, feeling that said enough for the day.