Hollow Men: Four
Her name was Naomi. I think that's a Biblical name, originally. I'm sure the Bible story is awful, like they all are, a series of Godly induced, tolerated and rationalized tragedies. At least that's what I recall from the chunks I'd read. I never assumed you could read that book start to finish, cover to cover, like a cheap murder mystery. Perhaps, maybe a mostly incoherent murder mystery. He is God, but he is his own father, and creates the conditions for himself to be killed? Where's the sacrifice, that's merely theater. Saying Jesus died for our sins is like saying your neighbor shot his horse in the head to fix your roof. It doesn't make any sense.
Certainly there are God worshipers in the tribe. Some more fervently worshiping than others. But there's an unsaid politeness not to evangelize. I was judged, no doubt, as a Godless heathen behind some closed doors, though never loudly and publicly. In the West I would be burned at the stake. Being a heretic is timeless.
Once there was a traveling family who tried to convert people, they put on quite a show in town, all snake handling and speaking in tongues and even some old fashioned flagellation, some actual mortification of the flesh. The preacher was father of the clan, thin as a rail and pockmarked like a minor moon. He gestured wildly and sweat bullets. He told us about evils in the world and how we would be left behind when the Next Flood came. I remember his veiled wives and daughters stood behind him, as a chorus, and echoed in Western American staccato the phrases they were trained to highlight his exposition.
You'd never know they were promoting the very same God the town church folk believed in. That preacher and his family were pretty much laughed out of the north. Of all the uncertainty in the world I'm still able to rely on people disagreeing about what God has really said and what God really wants. It's almost as if nobody knows. And yet the epochal over-interpretation of these fictions might force us back to wearing hair shirts and having crusades. Although I guess out West there was one of those too.
Despite what the Christians in the area claim, we functionally observe many gods, whether or not you actually believe in any supernatural, metaphysical or transcendental whatsyamajiggers. We pray to the corn god. We revere and fear the ram god. We work for the gods of beans and soil and lambs and composting. We sacrifice what we can to them, not because we want to, but because we must--because it's necessary for the evocation of the cycle of these gods, gods that barely tolerate us. It's fuel. By comparison, Jesus may save your soul, but the God Of Properly Rotated Fields keeps you fed. The first is a commodity for the patriotic citizens of CorpLand, the second is old and often vicious--and fickle. The first is a luxury, the second isn't.
During harvest I've seen a good looking turkey left strung up and hanging from a branch, with a cluster of holly, an offering of an otherwise prized catch. I've seen a leg of mutton circled and stood over by grizzled, hungry men--but not eaten--instead, prayed on and handed to a cruel fire. The molecules of that offering powers, or bribes, whatever mad deities oversee this mad world.
So, her name is Naomi.
Like myself the beekeeper hates guests. But there's still a nagging polyp of humanity, and he felt inclined to offer us the barn for the night since our trek back, which I'm sure he calculated in his head to the last meter, would've meant traveling in the dark. Not that wolves or bears would get us. It's other humans who continue to be the most effective predators, and this provokes a degree of obligatory courtesy. We didn't make great time since Naomi wasn't used to the pace. We'd vacillated between traveling and sudden travel-stopping curiosity, which is fine when everything old is new, all things reap different rewards.
We watched him coordinate his bees. He made short concise narration over it, as if he were back at some institute teaching students.
"Much like the originals, they have a self defense mechanism. When triggered, this will render the unit non-functional and relay a subsonic signal down to the rest of the hive via the nearest nodes. This particular series is incapable of swarming attacks, although some other series actually are capable. However, there are a few statistical edges... these might become perturbed." He hefted his smoker up, wafting it over a couple of the boxes. "So, please don't swat at the BEEEZ."
He walked us to his house where he fed us. Something haggis-like, leftover and haggis-like. A clever use of formerly ignored biology. Naomi ate very little, blanching at the first bite. I was polite and grateful, I mean food is food. Sustenance isn't always easy to come by, though admittedly it was a bit rough getting down. The beekeeper wouldn't have been offended by this honesty, he was oblivious to these sorts of things, a frequency he didn't tune into.
But he also made mead. By comparison this was amazing. And while it seemed to have no effect on him, we grew lighter, encountering a subtle sweet decompression. It was like stripping off a few layers of mental paint.
"What do you know about Free Greenland?" I wasn't sure I was going to ask him but the beverage loosened my tongue. Naomi had wandered off into the next room which was full of antiques, even by my aged timeline, relics of technology past, big, bulky, dirty. The Sprawl still got cheap new electronics imported, that's part of the deal, the bread and butter, but we have nothing to barter for that kind of thing. Eternal re-purposing is our mantra.
"The Apis Melifera was brought over from Norway." He said. "Men and bees have always lived together. The Bombus Polaris had been there some time. Neonicotinoids continued to be used and commercial species collapsed but the wild bees there did fine, thrived in the greening of Greenland. As we created BEEEZ to corner the market here, there was no market there, so they never got locked into CorpLand contracts. You're interested because of your friend... ?"
"Bees aren't individuals. Absconding happens, but always collectively. Individuals cannot survive outside the context of the hive. There are of course examples of raids. For instance, there were instances of Cape bees emigrating to, or invading, African honey bee hives. But we're not talking about individuals here. Humans, to my great consternation, are in many ways different than bees. There are some similarities however. Would she adapt if she stayed here? Would she be rejected as an invader? As a representative of another hive would she replace us with other representatives? We're isolationists, but Free Greenland is still wild. She doesn't need rites of initiation because there is no system there... yet."
"Wots dis?" Naomi came back from the other room wearing an ancient contraption on her head, a largely bulky black thing with straps that went above and around her head. A fat, gray, cord descended and curled from behind it. "Look 3y3ma B33!" she held her arms out to the sides and rotated her head, first up then down, then to the side.
"That's my keeping rig, you're seeing via one of the BEEEZ." He walked her back into the other room, the curling cord threatening to trip or snap but it deftly almost cognitively avoided entanglements. There were several old style screens turned on, I could see green and amber log lines or something internal and bespoke snaking down their surfaces. In a small window I saw what she was seeing, the bright yellow of a flower drifting left then right, right then left, becoming larger, then taking up the entire field of view. Then moving with the variegated yellow world, routing around, a sudden spike of green. A string of bright red heart icons erupted. "Good, the worker has achieved its goal. Now it goes back to the hive." The view changed to sky and fields and trees, drifting into and out of view, and sliding away.
"Would you like to see Free Greenland? I have some feeds..." He went to a keyboard, likewise oversized and chunky and loud, and he typed a few things. The little window I was staring at changed. Naomi's head turned to one direction. "I have another headset." I took a dented helmet from him and put it on.
The sky inside was bigger than mine, at least the sky I'd lived under and was used to. The leading edges were white, but it became a deep blue at the top, cloudless, the sun hung there in early afternoon. The landscape was rolling and treeless, with outcrops of rock, typical of the upper north. I would've believed it was the end of summer since the grasses looked a little washed out, but were still green, there were patches of heather like paint spills of purple and gold. And yet if this was the time of year for the end of our own season, then surely up here it must've been winter. I knew better, things didn't work that way anymore.
To my right I saw human shaped fuzz. A jumble of pixel movement, shuffling and stacking where the patch of lighter colored sectors, what I assumed was a face turned towards me. The beekeeper said "I don't have fancy avatars, too expensive, too leaky." I heard the faint breeze whooshing with variation, tossing the grasses around me. The simulated scents were off, but I got the idea it was what AI imagined the brain thought fresh was. Of course, if you spend all your time plugged in, then real fresh air probably feels uncanny in the same way. There was nobody in sight.
"Maybe this is better," we heard the beekeeper say. And I looked to my right and saw a sheep, and looking down at myself too all I saw was sheep. Sheepy limbs. And I felt compelled there in a kind of transformative exultation on the plains of Free Greenland to recite:
Little Bo-peep has lost her sheep And doesn't know where to find them Leave them alone, and they'll come home, Wagging their tails behind them
As we walked over hills, and avoiding rocky terrain to our west, and sticking with this meandering verdant band, a couple of bees flitted by me doing a sidestep and diving into nearby clover. Soon in front of us we saw the shape of a village. There were several proper houses, clearly pre-War, and what appeared to be lots of provisional structures around them. Dwellings made of other things, things stacked on top of things, reuse, re-purposed. Even from where we were I could see it was a strategy of no waste, out of necessity no doubt. Above the settlement I could see the indicators, dials and graphs that in another setting would've been baroque with information, but here were spartan. Strategically out of date, such as our own fair kingdom, where the requirements to collect data for the Atlas is blatantly stymied. I assumed the indicators I saw dated back to the older times, when this was still simply "Greenland".
We got closer and I could see people, a man and a woman, on the edges of town, talking. We paused. They looked directly at us, their conversation obviously stopped. I found I was frozen. I couldn't run, and glancing over I saw NaomiSheep also hadn't moved. The couple got closer, but instead of looking angry or in any way threatening they were laughing with one another. The woman picked me up and put me under her arm, walking back to the settlement. "Where on earth have you two been?" the woman said.
Then the feed went dark.
"Until I can co-opt more units that's all I've got," said the beekeeper.
I took off the helmet, was gifted with a pleasant rush of real air.
The next morning I woke up in his barn being stared at by two feral cats who maybe still had an instinctual glimmer that I would feed them. But as soon as Dog moved they bolted, looking back at me and Dog over their shoulders with personal condemnation. Dog snickered about it in Dog ways. We packed our things, minus the chickens, and said goodbye to the beekeeper who'd returned early in the morning to the same spot which we'd met him yesterday.
"If 3y3 ken git 2 Mount Bab3l 3y3 ken git to Fr33 Gr33lnd." She said as we headed back. Mount Babel was in New France, and like everywhere else they didn't want people sneaking over their borders, much less new livestock from CorpLand. If they were offering sanctuary they certainly wouldn't do it publicly. "OK," I said, "I can get you to Mount Babel." I immediately second-guessed my own confidence. But I'd said it. The words were a bond.
It was overcast, and as we came up on the ridge we could see a line of darker clouds with bands of rain. Inevitably we would get caught in that rain. She pulled a large effective looking hood from somewhere in the back of her synthetic jacket, emerging it like a magic trick. I dug an oil cloth tunic out from my bag with significantly less efficiency. When the rain came it was in heavy sheets, a complete and total drenching. The rain of jungles. Soon the leaves above us were saturated and the water poured over us. Since visibility was greatly reduced and it would be a waste of time to get lost now, we stopped by the remains of an old wall, it looked hand built, a dilapidated foundation behind it, ruins of an estate. We found a spot there that was dry, or nearly dry enough. We'll wait it out, I said, usually these storms come and go.
That's when we heard the noise, it cut across the regular pattern of the rainfall, as distinctly artificial. It was like the chatter of a bird, but modulated and ending with a burst of electronic static. It lasted a few seconds but was loud enough to echo across the valley. Naomi tensed immediately.
"Th3yr lookng f3r m3, w3 shud go." She said with a remarkable calmness and resignation. I grabbed our bags and we moved away from the ruins. But then we heard the noise again, this time behind us. Dog pulled and barked. I looked back.
It stood on the old stone wall. I could hear that sound coming from it now, maybe an engine of some kind. It was built like a dog, not like my dog, but some approximation of a dog. Except where the head should be there was a blunt ending, a termination of the metal chassis that made up its body. On top, towards the front but in no way a "head", was a sort of octagonal protrusion. I could see it swivel, back and forth, then back again, pausing at times, spinning round, returning. I had no real idea if it'd seen me. But it raised one leg then the alternate, placing the rubber paws back down with disconcerting precision, with a springiness that vaguely appeared dog-like but was too sharp and truncated and powerful and unyielding. Tense metal, not flesh, the legs snapped rather than flexed.
We stopped short, in fear. A second or more passed like this then the thing jerked in the opposite direction, almost falling, clearly some physical and programmatical adjustment, repositioning its legs, then it jumped down the opposite side of the wall. In a moment we saw it running away from us, bouncing in a computerized trot, almost joyfully, then accelerating nearly instantly to a full run.