Hollow Men: One
Last week I rode down to the southern tribe. I brought raw wool, and some knitted things too. You can always count on trading wool, even though there's more demand for other stuff. Honey, horses, ammo, and so on. But it still gets cold up here, so you can't have enough wool. And we have lots of sheep in the northern tribe. Of course sheep come with their own set of troubles, but I've always loved to hear them, the sound of sheep sounds like home.
Any farther south than that, well, everything there is broken. I guess they're used to it.
If you want water down there, and you aren't rich, you have to plug three things together. The rotten pipes plus a black market filter to remove byproducts from the algae blooms, and some way of transporting it. Water is heavy. Some endpoints are safer than others. Many are completely toxic. And then you might get jacked for your fresh haul.
And digital was co-opted a long time ago. Controlled or hacked, whatever. A battleground. Some people don't care. But before you know it, you owe some corp an organ. Lots of people down there owe organs. I avoid the network, we all do up here. When I used to have to use it, I used a pseudo I paid a lot for. One way or another you pay if you want to. They used to talk about oil, now they talk about data.
It guess it didn't really surprise anyone when the nation was sold off. Every year they have a re-branding, up here we know it's just the same tired bullshit. I'm from the Northern Kingdom, I was lucky. We still have good food and good water. Won't last forever though, there are regional forces out there, so it's only a matter of time until one of the hungry ones ignores the corp charter and comes knocking.
But until then, there's the land, and my farm, and my sheep.
I watched the lake dry up. It's almost gone now. I remember when it seemed like an ocean, with waves and birds. There used to be ships on it, they say, big ships. And fish. When I was a kid I ate one. Even though it was bad for you. It was warm and flaky, it's not a taste I think I would recognize anymore.
In bad times I have eaten Powrbarz joylessly.
There's a shoe factory in town. It used to be what they called a mall, where you'd go to buy things. Big place. They ship scrap and trash in, and the factory ships out shoes. They're pretty crappy shoes, honestly, they make people's feet burn.
But we're fortunate to have it up here, they say. People say. I try to avoid 'Casts, but that's where they say it I guess.
There are people that spend all of their time on their 'Casts. Those are hard for me to understand, we don't speak the same language anymore. Not that I'm connected anyway. I'll bet we think differently too. I don't know about better or not better, different. We don't 'Cast up here really. 'Casting isn't against the law, we have a distaste for it. And distrust. Since it's what caused a lot of the problems in the first place. Since everything 'Cast has a motive.
A long time ago, although I don't feel that old, it still seems to me like a long time ago. It was during my parents time, when we broke out. Before that, things weren't so good for us. At least that's what I grew up hearing, learning. I don't have any reason to doubt it, but I know the hollow men, they retell things, it is always a new story. But the same story. They retell everything, every day. The sun rises in the East but they retell it so the sun used to rise in the West. For them it is always today. Today and today and today.
I went down there once. Not all the way, I mean not downtown of course, because I'm not rich. We speak a different language. I'd wanted to see if there was anyway to do some trade. But they only wanted more Powrbarz. Or shoes that burn your feet. Or whatever. I don't know what I was thinking, it was a bad idea.
The hollow men, the screen-faces, the middlemen, mushes, controlled by their 'Casts, split like wood and thrown on the corporate fire, exhausting themselves in boxes and waiting to be ground and grist.
Nothing's perfect up here either. For instance, one of my sheep was stolen.
I counted, then counted again. Yup, one was missing. There's no way she could've gotten out of the gate. I'm very careful, and Dog always helps. How do you lose a sheep? I didn't see any signs of struggle, or blood, or problems with the other sheep or anything. Sheep don't evaporate. This is not what sheep do. At least I'm pretty sure they don't. I'm sure hollow men would argue this point. A whole episode, just on evaporating sheep. Point, counterpoint. So then I start thinking, really, the only thing that could've happened is somebody came and stole her. I played detective. I thought I saw footprints. They were probably mine. But I was worked up. Ya, they were mine.
See, now, if I were a mush, I'd have made a fine 'Cast. Me, my stolen sheep, the unfolding investigation. Vigorous narration. Blame the political opposition. I'd be famous.
This, also, a bad idea.
But my sheep! I had nightmares about it. Not about who stole it. Whoever it was they probably were hungry or whatever, I mean, if it were a gang of thieves, insidious and conniving, why take only a single sheep? Imagine them, a dozen of them, sneaking in the dead of the night, all crouched and snickering with thieving mischievousness--then, one by one, like coordinated dancers, a dark ballet of sheep stealing, they slip into the pen. Uttering a concerted but quiet "huzzah!" pick up my sheep, holding it aloft in the tepid glow of a half moon, they carry it off.
No, the nightmares were about me failing to properly look after her. Guilty dreams. And yet I'm really not actually sure which sheep it was specifically.
I asked around. Nicely, not accusing. Not with spite or venom. Not anxiously, but with a calm and inquisitive friendliness. The members of the tribe, I wouldn't think any of them would do that, but you never know. Uncertain in that sense which people are complex and will always harbor a surprise. And everyone was very concerned and told me they would look out for my sheep. I must admit, they must've made the obvious assumption that I'd screwed up and left the pen open or not herded properly and somehow lost her. I don't blame them for thinking that.
So at that point I was pretty sure it was a young person, or young peoples. I'd done some trickery and subterfuge and monkey-wrenching in my own time. I remember, I used to sneak into the Johnson's barn at night and move their horses around. So the next morning the elder Johnson, I imagined, walked in and was paralyzed with perplexity, at first, then swore a blue streak. I entertained myself for hours with these situations. Although, in reality, I never once saw the elder Johnson's reaction. Perhaps he didn't notice. No, he must've. Perhaps he didn't care. He was remarkably stoic. More likely, and this is what settled on me as I grew out of all of this, is that he knew it was me, and that each morning instead of a dramatic entrance, he would walk in with that solid measurable pace he always had until the day he died, and he would look at the first horse in the wrong stall, and he would shake his head and sigh. That would be it.
I'm fairly sure the horses got a kick out of it though. Horses have their own subtle notions of mischief.
The other possibility, one I'm hesitant to think too much about, is that a stray mush, a screen-face who snapped, left the warmth of their nest and stole her.
I know I shouldn't sound so derogatory, they've got their own problems. I'm sure they crack, like everything else, God knows, all things crack. And they head north. Even though they have no idea at all of how to live off that grid, without their 'Casts, without their mouthpiece, without their jabbering head. But the thought any of them would steal one of my sheep is distressing.
For a long time I've worried about this possibility. The cities, The Sprawl, expelling individuals. Scattered to the wind like seeds, laying and planting northwards, taking root and trying to 'Cast it all. Or worse, not being able to and becoming frustrated, swap one thing for another. The 'Cast for the Sheep, the Sheep for the 'Cast.
I suppose I would accept the payment of Sheep for such a thing to never be true. But like the corp and its security forces, they too will eventually run out of water and Powrbarz and remember us up here. That would be a disaster. We do not want to be remembered.
In a fit of anger and paranoia Dog and I spent a couple of nearly sleepless nights on the porch, watching, waiting. By "watching" I mean staring out into almost complete darkness. The vague forms of sheep in the distance. I would count them best I could make out, just to be sure, count them over and over. Those blobs, shifting, with an infrequent soft bleat prompting me to alertness, and Dog a bit of grumble, a yawn, lazily shaking his head so his ears flapped. Then I would drift backwards into a uncomfortable counting stupor. Of course nothing happened.
This is ridiculous, I thought. Even if some screen-face didn't steal Sheep, they've infected me with their neediness, their anxiety, their possessiveness. Even if they never came north why am I distracted by their world? I looked at Dog and sighed and he came up and gave me the Doggish eyebrows, the look of true concern only Dog can give you. And I resolved to abandon this line of inquiry, and imagine any possibilities of a stray mush like a stray bee--having wandered far, a little lost, a little confused, and maybe a touch stingy.
Are bees aware they're bees? Are they upset about the nature of the work? Do they quietly slander their queen bee and seek to remove themselves from the smoothly operating productive structure around themselves? I know this, you piss off one bee and the rest of the Colony might come after you. Take Sheep, please, good riddance, stray bee, have a sheep.
Something in the Powrbarz, you eat them, you can't have kids anymore. At least that's the theory. Down in The Sprawl the mushes devour those things like no tomorrow, partly out of need, partly out of despicable familiarity. I have hungry days. Sometimes they're self imposed, to regulate supplies. Every fifth day is a hungry day. I'm not going to lie, in the past I have succumbed and eliminated this with Powrbarz, but I've stopped that. Not because of the children thing, which I don't entirely believe, I think the problem is bigger, the problem is in everything. Poison is a strong word. Engineering in everything. People in everything. Long before and after gen mod, the problem, humanity inserting itself into all things big and small. Arrogance. Conceptual fuckery. Shrug. This is my bad opinion. It probably really is the Powrbarz.
It's not like I forgot about the sheep. A little time went by. Me and Dog went about our business.
Dog shepherded. Dog dug holes. Dog snapped the neck of a hapless, not nimble enough squirrel. Dog barked at some trees, pronouncing victory over squirreldom.
You know, business.
As for myself, I tend to the remaining sheep. I looked after the garden. I gathered wood. I patched a hole. I cooked squirrel stew. I barked at some trees pronouncing our mutual victory over squirreldom.
But one day Dog and I were out. Not that squirrel day, another day. We were out walking the rounds over the lands, what lands we've got up here, and I swear to you Dog and I found some shit. OK, so when you're walking in the woods, finding shit is not, generally, a notable event. But this shit, this was human shit. Right proper poop it was. And this got our attention. Those nights we'd been awake watching over the sheep, and twitching and turning and all anxious to seemingly no avail, perhaps there in the dark, back there in the trees, looking out at us was in fact a screen-face, a lost hollow man savoring over our own northern bounties. The poop was proof. The poop was a call to arms. A redoubling of our efforts to protest sheeps and lands from Powrbarz and mushes and 'Casts. This small pile of shit. As important to Dog and me as anything we'd ever.
The porch was open on two sides. I put up some board on the eastern side because that's the side the wind favored. I took that down and brought out my old sleeping bag and Dog his bed so that we could return to a state of vigilance. We would watch over the farmstead. We would no longer let our guard down from this cultural intrusion. Dog agreed with vigorous and serious tail wagging.
Still nothing, for a couple of nights. This new schedule taking hold of us, Dog and me, so that our senses expanded out beyond our usual sphere into something deeper, something reactive, like 24 hour detectives, always snooping, always sniffing around, at least Dog in this particular aspect.
But again we made discoveries during the walk of the lands. A wrapper. A Powrbarz wrapper, like a multicolored neon blight upon the ground. It stood out immediately. There was nothing else like it for probably fifty miles. Like an artifact. Like a modern marketing exclamation point on the pile of previously discovered shit. I glanced over the list of ingredients listed on the back, looking for a childless conspiracy, but seeing only soy, recycled biomass, and corn syrup.
It was that very next night we saw something. From the low light of the fire we had, from its low flickering, out in the dark came the unmistakable glint of a reflective strip. A reflective strip sewn into clothing. That kind of non-wool covering adorning the mushes, the crinkly waterproof stuff they delicately wrapped themselves in, with the intention of surviving the pollution and heat and damp of The Sprawl. But always with lots of unnecessary reflective bits. Perhaps legally binding, these elements announcing themselves to one another like emblems of their tribe, as markers of their bee-worker position to the cog and machinery of the greater corps.
However, there it was, real and reflecting our fire, and in a moment it went back into the dark. And Dog, you didn't notice this because of your fuzzy Dog eyes, but surely your Dog ears and nose would've sussed this thing? But my notice peaked Dog's attention and he with enthusiastic snout turned himself in that direction and let out a single sharp bark. "HEY!", it meant.
At that point, even with only my weak human senses, I heard a flailing retreat through brush and twigs. I reached for my flash light and powered it on, spreading a beam out far enough to see the last regions of a leg pulled jaggedly back into the thick foliage.
Yup. Definitely the clothing I expect from a screen-face. No doubt now. I thought about yelling, but I felt like Dog had already done that for me. I left the flash light on momentarily, I don't know why, then it was dark again.
In this one-sided interaction I had at least eliminated the previously vexing uncertainty. There was somebody on my land, and I could only assume they had snatched my poor sheep.
What should I do? Tracking into the depths of the land was not my, or Dogs', strongest talents. Even an unskilled prey such as the mush could probably elude us. Farmers we are, hunters only out of desperation or occasional harassment of squirrels.
I could ask other members of the tribe, call in a favor, have them deal with the problem, this, however I was hesitant to do. There had been a story years ago, about a similar case, that a couple of the more enthusiastic tribe members had taken that stray screen-face, hog tied, and brought him back to the top of the Circuit and threw him into a wagon headed back into The Sprawl. That was the story. I wonder if it was really a ditch they threw him into. Not that I think badly of my fellow citizens in the Kingdom. But, I tend to believe it was a ditch. And as much as I would appreciate a solution, I draw the line there, a stand which may appear these days to be righteous or smack of hypocrisy.
But then I saw her.
I was out feeding the chickens, who were grumpy and sluggish. It was a grey day, chilly, the mist clung to the sides of the mountains, the ground and the grass was wet enough to show on my boots. I saw her at the edge of the trees, at the bottom of the hill, right before the field starts. I was near enough that I saw her staring at me. She had close-cropped hair, dyed different colors. She was wearing one of those synthetic outfits, all magical and protective from the evil realities of outside. One of those things with lots of pockets, extraneous pockets, pockets for I don't know what. And it looked like she had buds in, those small white sprouts from the sides of the head, like forest fungi, head fruit. That seemed weird since she certainly couldn't be connected out here, not since we burned all the towers. I guess after a lifetime like that they don't come out of your ears. Maybe they were glued in now, I had no idea, I didn't follow that sort of stuff.
She was staring at me. And I stopped throwing feed from the bucket and stared back. Then she waved. A little hand wave. Tentative hand wave. I found this so strange and disarming that I, almost without hesitation, gave a little hand wave back. She then, quite naturally, as if this was an everyday thing, turned and walked back into the trees. Not entirely deftly. Not with the grace of a slinking predator, I thought, although maybe with the casual ambling of a sheep.