Hollow Men: Seven
"Can always use honey. I'll trade you for it, a night at the farm and some provisions for the honey."
I hadn't realized we looked quite that bad--the Neo-Amish reputation of generosity seemed accurate. I tried to cloak my enthusiasm and not bark out YES like Dog would do. The key to appearing civilized was a small amount of restraint.
"That sounds like a great deal." And I smiled, but I hadn't smiled for a so long it hurt and probably appeared weird and virtual.
"I only have one thing to be asking," and he looked not sideways but directly at Naomi, "there is no 'Casting on the farm."
Naomi paused then did the same strained grin, less of desperation and more of conciliation, and she held her hands up and shook her head vigorously, "no, no, no 3y3 don't cast!"
"Good, as long as that's clear. Get in back, and you can ride next to me. My name is Adam."
I negotiated the wooden step, grasping a many times painted iron seat fixture. Dog and Naomi got in back which looked mostly empty, made me wonder what he'd brought and what he'd gotten.
"What songs do you sing when you travel?" he asked.
"Um, we haven't been singing anything ..."
"Then I'll learn you one! There is some German in the song, do you know German?"
"No," I said.
"That's OK! I think there's one in Englisch for us."
We spent the next hour learning "The Rugged Cross". I didn't grow up singing anything, so the experience was totally foreign to me, making communal sounds and extolling the Lamb of God was frankly a bit embarrassing, I'm too tightly wound to let go like that. Although everything else in me said I should just sing this stuff and pass the time. Naomi gave it a wholehearted try, mixing things up now and again, but plugging away at it. When he noticed that we were lagging behind in tempo or spirit Adam would turn and smile at us and increase his volume as if to encourage us to get down with his mad Godly beats.
A couple hours later we turned off the main road. "Whew," Adam said, "glad to be off the big road?"
The trees here made the ride darker and I could smell the woods, like it would close in around us. The woods of a valley always feel a bit spooked. Vapor that can roll down in from surrounding hills make it seem alive. The road, just dirt, curved around hills and rocks, becoming not large enough for more than one wagon or buggy. Ahead I saw the horses ears bobbing up down as Adam began to sing something in German.
I remembered reading Rip Van Winkle as a kid, and thought of it now, half expecting mischievous sprites to emerge from the thick foliage and challenge us to a game of nine pins, our heads getting fuzzy and our senses indistinct until we became sleepy. We would wake up thirty years later, our King overthrown and the revolution having created a new country. In thirty years I'd definitely be gone, but maybe Naomi could enjoy the results of a magical reset.
Then we ascended, the road moving up out of a valley and there was suddenly a break in the trees, revealing rolling fields and shafts of light coming through the clouds that smacked the ground in a big sunny wallop. I could see signs of the end of the season, things nibbled down to the bottom by whatever hungry harvesting they did.
We arced over a couple of fields until I saw a farm house, or houses, in the distance. And a couple of large red barns right out of some dusty picture book. Far away to the north, I saw the shapes of enormous ad-hoc wind turbines probably held together with duct tape churning like alien flowers about to uproot and begin spraying the land with death rays.
"This is the lower end, our people have farms stretching up the whole way."
I expected to be put in the barn but Adam led us to a small cabin, smaller than a house bigger than a shed, that had a couple of cots. He left us saying we should listen for the supper bell.
"Have you noticed he hasn't asked where in New France we're going or why?" We decided to come up with something in case Adam did, but no matter what we proposed to each other it sounded far-fetched or simply ridiculous. "Perhaps he just won't ask." And we left it at that. There was a small stove in the room and I started it and wondered why getting old made cold weather so exhausting. As a young man I would bound into the frozen day fearlessly. Now the cold felt like the enemy.
I woke with a jolt at the sound of a bell being rung with practiced volume. The food-starved eyes of Dog and Naomi widened. "Yes, now we eat." We walked to the main house. I left Dog on the porch where a young girl who smelled like lavender soap took to him and promised to feed him.
We sat next to Adam who was at the head of a table of a dozen or so people. He said those numbers doubled at the beginning and end of a season, and he named the people around the table but I just heard a buzz of Samuels Jacobs Elams Ruths Hannahs and so on. Some of the greeting was forced on both ends, and I knew if I lifted the corner of courtesy I would reveal downright suspicion, but some of it was genuine too. I mean we were Englisch, and despite the reforms of the schism there still had to be that concept of "Us" and "Them" built in. We were "Them".
But I hadn't eaten like that in thirty years. Meatloaf. And potatoes. And gravy. And vegetables and butter. We had to sit through grace, which I didn't totally understand since it was mostly in German, but we nodded our heads and held hands and did the solemnity bit. If I was dead wrong and there really was a God, and this is the required bill, for that meatloaf I'd happily convert. The way to a man's soul must be through his stomach. Communion with biscuits and gravy. And then of course pie.
It was towards the end of this meal, at the part with the pie, where I'd already by any measure slipped into a starchy, meaty delirium, that two boys entered the dining room. They weren't old enough to have beards, but they wore the same kind of clothes the adult men wore. The straw hats and suspenders and white shirts. And one of them, very slightly older, came to Adam and whispered something in his ear while the other boy stood awkwardly nearby ogling the pie. Naomi didn't notice these two come in, but I did. And I immediately became anxious. After the first whispered to Adam, Adam looked over to the other boy, as if for confirmation, and Adam with his head lowered and his eyebrows raised elicited a quick but confident nod from that other boy. The shy boy, but the one trusted entirely, evidently. With this Adam rose and left the room with them.
I wolfed down the rest of the pie then I grabbed Naomi who was befuddled by the interruption. I don't know why, but as we left the room I gave some kind of half-assed curtsy like it was the court of Louis XIV. On the way out I picked up Dog who I could see likewise had been fed into a stupor of brotherly love. He was absolutely glowing with leftovers.
"We need to get our stuff together," I said.
"But why? W3 w3r guna stay t3 nit3?"
"I dunno what's up, but something's happened, best to be ready."
We walked back to the cabin away from the farmhouse and it was a perfect chilly autumn night and the thought of going out into the dark was both enticing and frightening, as if the world had become larger than it once was since we'd entered the dining room.
As we were bundling up our things, minus what I considered to be fair payment in honey, Adam and two Neo-Amish showed up at the door. Adam had a wary look in his eyes. Uh-oh, here we go, I thought.
"I believed you two might just be vagabonds. My thinking now is that somebody's wanting you."
I said, "We're on our way, thanks for supper. I left some honey, don't want to be any trouble."
"I don't think you understand what's out there. There's 2 of them, robots. Or dogs. Or dog robots. Whichever you chose."
"Oh, yeah. Those." I could've been back at home, I thought.
"How do you think you'll escape from them? To be quite honest, you're too old and the girl is very sprawl. They'll catch you." His wariness had become a mix of concern and incredulity at our stupidity. "You're on foot, even in the back woods, they'll catch you."
"Maybe." Yes, of course he was right.
"I think I know why you're going to New France. We've had guests like you before. We're a stop on the road to Free Greenland for people like her. Livestock like her. I'm assuming you're going to Mount Babel," Adam said and we both nodded. No point in hiding anything anymore, which was its own kind of relief. Although I had the cloudy feeling that I was the last person in the world to know about most of this. I just wanted my chair and my stove and my sheep back.
"T3y gav m3 a s3r3t fraz3, a ting 2 say."
"Good. You don't need to tell me. But you will need to tell them when we get to Babel."
"There's not a chance you'd make it. You'll ride with us," he said.
I took the rest of the honey out of my bags and left it on the shelf with what was already there. I didn't have enough honey for the scale of this kind of thing, but you do what you can.
"Thank you," Adam said, "we need to hurry and it will be a several hour ride."
"Several hours? In a buggy?" This felt optimistic, I would've expected it to take a couple days at least.
Adam laughed. "We can go a little faster than our horses when we need to. Follow me."
We went with him and the other two speechless men out of the cabin and down a path to the back of one of the smaller barns. They swung open the doors and flipped a switch that bathed the space in sharp LED. Here there were several high end Chinese motorcycles, spotless, like sleeping wasps. Also a kind of three-wheel hybrid that wasn't a motorcycle or a car. This was clearly high end too, although there'd been some modifications--most notably the seating was covered by a black hood reminiscent of their traditional horse drawn buggies. It even had the small oval window in the back.
"Our buggy." Adam grinned huge and beamed that kind of vehicular pride one always sees in enthusiasts of pure, heavenly speed.
Both sides of the space were meticulously organized, an array of tools and storage. There was a gun cabinet the other two men were at and taking out advanced firearms. German I assumed. They slung these over their backs. I imagined Hannah and Ruth in the afternoons together knitting their gun straps. Adam took the AK47 we'd first seen him with. "I like antiques. Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways."
They got on the bikes while we got in the "buggy". The loudness of powerful engines, noise I wasn't used to, made me clutch my ears for a moment despite it being an embarrassment to my masculinity. Dog flinched and barked in response. They revved the engines a few times as required in the speed-lovers' playbook, then we moved out of the barn onto a second road different than the one we used coming in. The two bikes led, our hybrid buggy followed.
The majority of vehicles I've been in have been tractors or broken down trucks. So this rate of speed was a combination of horrifying and awesome terror. I was sure we would die, any second, a wheel flying off, or an area of the road falls away and we tumble a hundred feet into a gully, or one of the drivers is suddenly afflicted with a seizure and twists the handle bars around then all three vehicles collide, turning into a metal meat fire mutant like some postmodern Indian deity. The idea of enduring hours of these anxieties made me groan.
We'd only been on the road a couple minutes at most. The headlights from the bikes jumped along the dark road and woods beyond, jittering with the unevenness of the surface, pulsating into the foliage as it reached out and receded, reached out and receded.
Suddenly there was something there at the side of the road, we came up on it quickly. One of those dog robots. Or robot dogs. No, two of them together, standing next to one another. The weird hexagonal head stumps spun around when the light hit them. One of them lifted a single leg, in an eerie mocking of something biological. It took only a second to pass them but as we did the horizontal slot on their head stumps clearly moved with us, tracking the third vehicle, the buggy, and I had the very certain and nauseating sensation that they were looking at me.
We passed them. But they turned and moved onto the road. They were positioning themselves, oh god, I thought, they're getting ready. They were now too far away to see clearly in the fading glow of our tail lights, but I could tell they'd crouched down. Then they sprung forward, vaulting into the air and landing with a run, with absurd mimicry and precision. They began to quickly gain on us, it should've been completely impossible, but their strides were longer than themselves, they were leaping at us and I doubted they would stop until they reached us. The hideousness of it, the abnormality or obscenity of movement almost paralyzed me, but I yelled at Adam to look back and go faster.
Adam shouted something in German and the two men in front of us cocked their heads, adjusted their mirrors. As Adam sped up the two bikes in front slowed down. I looked back, our tail lights showed the dogs' unrelenting progress. But then the bikes fell back behind us and I was blinded by their headlights. Adam was accelerating the buggy.
I saw a dog move in front of one of those headlights. I saw it twist, a motion that was more snake-like than dog-like, something programmatically adaptive, then I heard the cutting sound of gunfire. A dozen sharp pops. One of the headlights went out.
"A little longer!" Adam yelled. "There's a truck trap up ahead!" His beard whipped in the wind like a flag.
The other headlight dwindled behind us, and I heard a couple more shots, but I saw one of the dogs still following us, maybe delayed, but gaining again. The red tail light and the night mist coming down off the hills made it look demonic. Soon Adam, I thought.
We banked hard left as we went around a bend in the road. I saw Adam holding a small metal box in his hand, roughly made, with a single green button. As the road straightened out and we sped back up, he pressed that button. Nothing happened for seconds, or what could've been a whole minute, I dunno, time was hard to judge. The dog made it around that corner, sliding sideways a bit, and with some recalibration worked its way back up to speed too.
Then I saw a flash and flicker of light immediately behind us, light obviously coming from the trees. There projected on the road was an ambling group of girl scouts, milling around, digital clones of one another, four at most but replicated dozens of times and controlled by a program that had them move around in a vaguely life-like manner. Step, turn, step, turn, reset.
The dog, bolting, swerved to get around them, or more likely, to avoid the largest center of mass. It's metal brain considered them real. And if they'd been real the dog still would've taken out half a dozen of them as it plowed through. But importantly it had to do a shuffling, a repositioning of legwork, which at that speed put it slightly imbalanced and slightly off trajectory. Then the dog hit the road spikes. While these had been designed for large autotruck tires, the combination of the raised strip and several of the spikes were enough to catch the front legs of the dog and send it spinning end over end. One of the legs was broken but held on by some cabling then subsequently smashed against the others and the body as it spun over the side of the road and presumably down a very steep and rocky hill.
Adam slowed down, stopped, and grabbed his gun. We saw two headlights behind us, moving asynchronously and I could hear the now familiar roar of bike engines. Adam's men seemed unscathed. They exchanged a few words then Adam looked at us and said "This is better for now. But we have to believe these things 'Cast everything. So we still need to move quickly. We don't want to be famous."