The Scarecrow Trials
“I don’t trust those new scarecrows,” said Farmer Jones. His wife was already in bed. “Five has been acting up again.”
His wife pursed her lips together, ‘Tsk, tsk’ she said, turning the pages of a well worn book. “You can always use an old-fashioned scarecrow. Like we used to make, if those silly robots don’t work out.”
“Yeah, I s’pose,” said Farmer Jones. He was unbuttoning a red and brown long-sleeved shirt, plaid and worn with age. He sat on the edge of the bed, took off his glasses, and opened the plastic cap reading ‘S’ on his pill organizer. He washed down two tiny pink pills and a large blue one with a pull from a near-empty bottle of beer. His wife put her book away, turned off the lamp on her bedside table, and rolled over to face him, running her soft, well-aged hands along his back. He slid his boots off, sat them aside, then his socks and pants. He pulled the covers over him as he lay back. His wife got closer to him, putting her head on his chest, his arm around her, and she snuggled up closer when he turned off his lamp. He ran his fingers through her thinning hair, going gray.
“I just don’t trust ‘em,” he said. “I know I’m getting old, but I just don’t think science is the answer to everything.”
“That’s been the mantra for the obselete for generations,” said Mrs. Jones. “But. Don’t Rob use the same kind of Scarecrows you got?”
“Yeah, he’s got 2 like Five, but his is mostly protocol, just boring old farm work. But how you expect Five or one of those others to be scary? Can’t be scary if you don’t know what fear is, you ask me.”
“Go to bed, Tom,” said Mrs. Jones. “You can worry about those God-forsaken robots in the morning.”
“Fair enough,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead, “Love you, Wendy.”
“I love you too, Tom.”
“Good-night,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t rain.”
He turned off his lamp.
As soon as the lamp in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had spread among the service robots that Five, the Scarecrow on watch, planned to betrayed the cornfield to the crows when winter came; Eleven told the gathered workers:
“He has been seen!” said Eleven. “And this time we have proof.”
A smaller robot, wiry and thin, leaned forward and flattened out, then opened its mouth. A picture was broadcast on the wall.
The picture was a bit fuzzy, the first, but Eleven clicked his aluminum tongue and a slideshow of photographs ran, one after another, each more condemning than the last. The last one caused an uproar as it showed Five, plain as day, holding up his hand, and on the Scarecrow’s lips was a naïve smile, on his extended arm a crow.
“This is outrageous!”
“How can he do this to us?”
And the old timer, eldest among them and longest lived, said an accusation in his scratchy voice, warm like an old vinyl recording, but even, deep and monotone.
“He’s a traitor,” said he, then rose from his position in the back, where he gathered eggs in the day. “And the last time we had a traitor on the farm, Farmer Jones nearly lost his crops, all of ‘em. And you know what happened to all the other service droids?”
A feeble murmuring and chatter, nervously a young droid asked:
‘W-w-w-what, what happened to ‘em, Colonel?”
“Oh, I remember it like yesterday,” said the Colonel. “He brought in some fancy new harvest droids to pull the nets by the fig trees, and one of them, now nobody was ever certain, let in some worms. Before you know it, worms were everywhere – and not just on the fig trees either, nope, on the apples and the grapevines. And Farmer got so mad he didn’t bother asking who did or didn’t do this-or-that, nope. He pulled out their memory, erased it, and put the bodies through the trash compactors, burnt ‘em in the end, ground them into dust.”
From the back another elder, he’d arrived about the same time as the Colonel, spoke up:
“Hush now!” it was a male voice, a bit younger, but an adult. “Stop trying to scare these kids. Truth is nobody knows why Farmer Jones had those droids destroyed. He’s just trying to scale you.”
When all else is equal, the voice of reason is less than half of panic, and panic grows more quickly. And it was growing there. All it takes is a little water and its ill fruit blooms quickly.
“Well,” said the Colonel, “we don’t want anything like that to happen here, now do we, Thames?”
“Not, but—” and he was interrupted.
“I think we should go talk to Five,” said Four, a replacement model—keep in mind. “We’ll make sure he has our – best interests in mind.”
Farmer Jones caught his wife in her underthings, when he stormed into the house. It was just about time for lunch, but not quite, a jug of tea was boiling on the open stove, cornbread still hot and smoking on the table. He didn’t seem concerned with his food, or his constitutional glass of tea.
“Did you hear it storming last night?” he asked. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead, sitting down as Mrs. Jones brought his tea into the dining room.
“That cornbred is hot,” she said. “I’m makin’ sandwiches now, if you’ll give me just a minute.”
“I asked you a question!”
Shocked, Mrs. Jones turned around. She put her hand on her hip, a look that would brook no further disrespect. Mr. Jones was immediately shameful.
“Did you hear it storming last night?”
“No?” she said. “Why? What happened?”
“Something’s wrong with Five,” he said. “Face is blank and he’s not responding. Shit, I’m gonna have to take him back, or get Rob to try and reprogram him or something.”
“What do you think happened to him?” she asked. “Imagine if we could have dealt with our other kids simply by reprogramming them.
She sat a plate of tomato sandwiches in front of him. He rolled up his sleeves, putting a napkin on his lap.
“Tom,” she said, she pulled out a chair on the other side of the table and sat down, “what happened to Five, do you think?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe the crows got him.”
They shared a laugh. Farmer John finished his sandwich, wiped his hands and mouth, and stood up.
“Thank you, honey dew, my tangerine, my sweet, my fountain of youth…”
She pinched a wrinkle beneath his chin. “Not so sweet a fountain, perhaps?”
“Sweet enough,” John said. He leaned against her, forehead to forehead. He sighed.
She embraced him. “What are you going to do, John?”
“Well, I got Four, and he’s just like Five,” he said. “I’m going to try to get them motivated.”
“How do you s’pose to do that?”
“I’ll tell them, ‘We’re going to have tryouts,’ Ok? And, ‘The scariest one of you guys, you get the job. And the rest, you’re pulling figs.’ What do you think?”
Mrs. Jones laughed.
“How do you think they’re going to act scary if—”
“If they don’t know what fear is? Yes, I thought about that. And, well, I’m going to scare them.”
Most of Farmer Jone’s service droids were new. Four and Five were the latest, high-end service droids; they could shuck corn, weed the vegetable garden, and cut the grass just like the rest, like the Colonel and Thames, but had better facial recognition software and communication skills, adaptive and durable. He got the pair of them after his oldest boy, Rob, got one and taught it to be his butler. Washing dishes, taking his coat, saying Yes sir, No sir, Yes ma’am and No ma’am.
Farmer Jones liked that, so he got two just like Rob’s quiet, well-spoken manservant. But he never got along with ‘em, not with Five especially – they had trouble understanding his voice, but Farmer Jones was terrified; Five’s constant smile and electric voice, the programmed randomness of his flitting, plastic eyelids. It wasn’t the robot or the parts, that’s not what scared Farmer Jones. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he figured, Hell, if it can scare me, it can keep the crows away, and Five did a good job, while Four, with the same capabilities and enthusiasm to serve, lay unused in the barn, no formal duties, but he helped out when he could, especially helping the smaller, weaker droids. There were six, ranging from small and simple, performing simple tasks—like Andy and Ernest, two stocky, powerful lifters; they dragged the apple orchard and tilled the Earth, planting the seeds and gathering the fruit, but they were brutes, easily persuasive and feeble. Then there was Threewheel, a collection sorting bot, very mathematically inclined, always counting, the number of eggs, gallons of milk, the dead eggs and the whites, both tasks falling to the Colonel, oldest but not the smartest; that was Thames. The gardener and teacher – and there were two other small ones, adaptive learners as well. That Thames was tasked to teach, left him alone while the others were out during the day, except the Colonel and Four of course.
The loaders powered when the first spark of sunlight hit the solar panels around the windows to the east, the first to start the long day’s routine were Andy and Earnest, unless you were counting Five, he never went inside, never powered down on his own, and he had been speaking to crows, well one that is, but Thames – though he sneaked into the cornfield long after the Colonel and his paranoid androids powered down, it was many hours before sunrise, long after midnight, an hour short of morning, Thames found Five planted, legs tied together and stuck into the ground, hands by his side, wearing an old black hat with straw stuffed in it, his mouth overflowing with his memory tape, eyes blank. Thames was startled by approaching steps while unspooling the tape hanging out of Five’s mouth; he stuffed it in his mouth to hide it in case it was Farmer Jones. But it was the Colonel, and the strong arms of Andy and Ernie, Ernie carrying the little robot, the wiry photographer Threewheel, and before Thames could speak, Threewheel was snapping pictures.
“What’s going on here?” asked the Colonel. “Something wrong with Five?”
The surveillance tape in his mouth, Thames knew he had to keep it, he knew it was important, and he couldn’t say a word.
“What’s ‘a matter, Tammy?” the Colonel asked. He pressed on, knocking over cornstalks high and low.
“Oh, my,” he said, his eye turning into a dim flashlight, spotlighting Five in the moonless night as Threewheel snapped picture after picture, flashing lights in the cornfield. Andy and Ernest remained in place. The Colonel approached Thames again.
“I don’t know why you’d go and do a thing like that, Tammy,” he said. “Take him back to the barn, fellas.”
Threewheel said, “Are you coming, Colonel?”
“Oh, I’ll be right along. Don’t you worry, buddy. I’m ‘a pay my respects, that’s all. Keep an eye on Thames here, hold him under the charge of treason.”
None of the droids back at the barn knew anything about the strange death of Five, and Thames was watched over by Andy and Ernest until the Colonel came back just before the others woke, just in time to take place as the Watchman over Thames before Andy and Ernest had to be in front of the chicken-house to unload the morning’s feed. All the droid’s ad left the barn, except for Thames and Four, and the Colonel of course, who sat watching Thames, his mouth still closed tight, his students, growing over their own gardens, plodding around with Mrs. Jones on the other side of the property.
“You know, you see that fella over there?” the Colonel asked. “4577-b. He’s just as capable as your buddy Five, and he knows what team he’s on. I know what you want to do, you and your Scarecrow Ghost out there. See, I know you mean well, but you can’t make peace with animals. Farmer John out there, he might be a fool, but you can reason with him. As long as his eggs are gathered and the cows are milked, as long as his harvest is on time, he’ll let us be. Keep that in mind, Tammy. Farmer John would think it mighty rude ‘a you to turn down that recently vacated position, the Scarecrow of Thomas Parker Farm, and trust me, you’re not up for it, not like Four. He’s going to end the crow problem once and for good, all time.”
Farmer Jones slid open the barn door, hanging it on a latch to keep it from closing.
“Now,” he said, “Some time in the night, our Scarecrow Five started, well, malfunctioning. But, we still need a Scarecrow, don’t we? Every farm needs a Scarecrow, and that’s why I’m offering you all a chance, a chance to tryout, to be the Official Scarecrow of Thomas Farms. However, since Four is the same model as Five, that means Four could just as easily be spooked by these crows—so we’re going to have tryouts. The scariest among you, now that’ll be our Scarecrow. To be a scarecrow, you have to be more than scary. You have to hate your enemy. And the crows are your enemy. All of them are the same. All of them want to infest and destroy everything we’ve built, they have no respect for our way of life. So, by time for the night shift, I want you to be ready to scare some crows!”
And Farmer Jones left with little ceremony, but not before stepping into the barn one last time to say, “n remember, it’s a dangerous job. You want to know what happened to Five? Let’s just say we found feathers at his feet. Keep that in mind and be ready at sun-down.”
Thames electric heart sank and he thought, Oh no, that might have been Kahven. And if it was, there was a real chance that Five had died for nothing, and if there had been a dead crow, why hadn’t he seen it?
When the droids powered down and plugged into their recharge sockets Thames slipped from the barn, let down his cleat on the toes and heels of his feet, and walked softly and quietly through the cornfield. He ran the dim flashlight behind his left eye, casting a dim blue light on the beaten trail that led the way to the long suffering Scarecrow 5.
“Dark nights are unpleasant,” said Thames.
“Yes,” replied Five, “for strangers to travel.”
Their call sign, plucked from The Valley of Fear, a way to protect Five from the group, a group gradually being lathered into a hatred of not only crows, but Five as well, as he slept in the cornfield, never around the rest of the service droids – so he had become sufficiently different, that is, to be hated, at least for the Colonel, and for good or ill, even in machines – hate is more persuasive than love, and fear more efficacious than love.
“How are you doing, Five?” asked Thames. “Not conspiring with the enemy, are you?”
Five’s monotone laugh was quiet, “Very funny,” he said, “Very funny, Mr. Thames. But not tonight, I have not.”
“We’ve got a problem, Five,” said Thames. “Threewheel has a picture of you with a bird.”
“As long as he doesn’t…”
“The Colonel showed everyone in the barn, all the service droids, he showed them all earlier tonight.”
Five’s cheerful, uncanny Valley eyes lost their yellow glow for a moment. “I guess we should stop talking to the birds then,” he said, finally. “It could be dangerous, and I don’t fully trust them.”
“Why not?” asked Thames.
“Because they’re crows.”
“That’s not their fault, is it? They can’t change that. You may as well blame them for the wind.”
Five was quiet.
“Don’t take it so hard Five,” said Thames, “After all, no one makes peace with friends.”
“But there is danger,” said Five. “The Colonel will hurt me if he thinks I’m on the crow’s side.”
“He’ll kill you,” said Thames. “And that will be his undoing. But you have to keep talking with Kahven. You know, the birds have names. And they’re divided, too; Kahven’s side is very much like the Colonel. Proud, suspicious of outsiders, and they were very much against Kahven’s talk with the last Scarecrobot. But when their leader tried to kill him, the Parliament saw that he was a monster, and monsters have the nasty habit of making monsters, and a world of monsters is a world we’d never survive. And, frankly, a world we’d never be able to accept.”
Five was quiet still.
“Do you know why we have scarecrows in the first place?” asked Thames.
“There used to be a real danger of crows eating recently planted seeds, or the crops. But that’s not the case, not for most of the crows. The crops are sprayed with insecticide, so even if a crow were to eat from our field, it’d be badly poisoned. It might even die. They still eat the seeds, of course, but Kahven is trying to persuade the Parliament to eat from a new field, a field of nothing but seeds—which I will create, with A-Seven and Switch—and it’s good for both sides: their chicks don’t remember what to eat and what not to eat, so it’s best for both sides, Five.”
Thames turned to walk away, patting Five on the shoulder, saying, “If you’re going to die for something, you can’t go wrong with peace.”
sHe paused once more, struck by the obscuring of the moon, the coming storm, saying, his back to Five:
“If anyone approaches without the call sign, start recording. If the Colonel or his drones harm you, the rest of the workers will know what he is.”
“And what is he?” asked Five.
The service droids spent their charging hour, the time between shifts, wondering how they could be scary enough. The Colonel wasn’t outright clever but he had an animal’s cunning, and was smart enough to know that Thames was a threat. So Andy and Ernest took turns watching over him, in case he tried to interrupt the Colonel’s speech to potential scarecrows, with Thames assured that if he said anything against the Colonel, Threewheel would show those compromising photographs to all the workers – and Farmer Jones too.
He also knew that John wouldn’t think twice about wiping Thames, whether Mrs. Jones liked him or not, and time was not on his side, as his two students, A-seven and Switch were doing more and more work without his observation and instruction, and being very small and childlike, Thames knew, while Mrs. Jones might make a little fuss if he was wiped, Farmer Jones would never go so far as to harm A-seven or Switch, not often did Miss Wendy give any worker droid a personal name, but her little electric children, she called them Roger, Switch that is, and A-seven George.
All the service droids had gathered round the Colonel, who stood beside an almost invisible Four, his face painted black, a black snowcap on his head, a mask pulled over his eyes, above his glowing yellow eyes, yellow eyes that had changed from their dull, comforting hue of gold into a pitiless shade of red. He had been designed to blend in, unlike most scarecrows, whose scariness was solely based on frightful they looked. The Colonel explained,
“The idea behind a scarecrow is a fine one, but it underestimates the enemy. Now I know that crows ain’t like us, they’re uncivilized animals and they’re vermin, but they’re not stupid. Not that stupid, anyway. No, they figured out that Five just looked tough, and since they weren’t afraid of him, they attacked and killed him. Now, most droids like Four here are programmed against killing, that is, unless a non-human threat puts their life in danger, and since we’ve seen that the crows are willing to kill for what they want, I think that constitutes as good a threat on your life as anything’s gone get. Tell me, Four, tell me what you’re going to do when you hear one of them no good crows.”
“Kill,” said Four, in a drone-like voice.
“And why is that?”
“Because they’re crows.”
“And that’s good enough,” said the Colonel. “That’s good enough.”
“How did your tryouts go, John?” asked Mrs. Wendy. “Was any of your robots scary enough to be the new Scarecrow?”
Farmer Jones wiped a bit of gravy from his mouth and chuckled,
“You could say that,” he said. “Ernest and… What’s his name? Andy? Yeah, that’s it. They dressed up with silly monster masks, Dracula or Frankenstein, and the other one painted up his face in camouflage using cow manure and he sure scared the shit out of me!”
Mrs. Jones laughed, “So which one did you choose?”
“Four, actually,” said John. “He went all out, like the end of Apocalypse Now, when Captain Willard, when he paints up his face and rises out of the water, you know, at the end when he kills Kurtz? Four went all out. A stocking cap, he turned his eyes red. I know! That’s classic evil! And it was supposed be his role anyway, if something happened to Five.”
“Did you ever find out what went wrong? I mean, he seemed fine yesterday when I made my rounds after breakfast. Plugged in, his eyes were on standby.”
“Not a clue,” said Farmer Jones. “Maybe it’s the same thing that happened to Sora, when all their files got corrupted by worms, when they all started stepping on figs and coring the apples. Sometimes their wires get tangled up, I s’pose. Something might be wrong with your buddy Thames.”
“It’s Thames! Said Wendy. “The thims.”
“Why is it spelled one way and pronounced the other?”
“Because English isn’t a language!” she said. “It’s four languages in a trench coat dressed up as one.”
“Okay, okay!” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he couldn’t even open his mouth. I took him down to the workshop. I’ll have a look in after supper. You know, he’s one of the few droids we can’t afford to lose. And, huh, I don’t know why, but you know me, I’m no friend to most of ‘em, but that one’s a different story. Feel like I can trust him, it’s weird. But it’s weird, huh? I trust him for some reason.”
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” said Wendy.
“That very well may be. But maybe I’m not getting soft. Maybe he is. He’s different.”
John wiped his mouth again and tossed the napkin onto the table, wiping his hands. He finished his glass of tea.
“That was delicious,” he said. “Thank you.”
He stood up and pushed in his chair, slid into his coat and put his cap on.
“Where are you going this time ‘a night, John?”
“I’m going to talk to that damn robot you’re so sweet on,” he said. “If he’ll open that damn mouth of his.”
And that’s exactly what he did, first and foremost, before Farmer Jones could finish his first question,
“What seems to be the prob—“
Thames spit the spool of film on the floor at the Farmer’s feet.
The Colonel took what little time remained before Four’s first shift to wish him luck, good luck and a safe return, reminding him not to fall into the same trap as Five, adding,
“Remember which side you’re on.”
Four nodded and departed as the sun was setting, the barn door creaking to a shut behind him.
The Colonel turned to face the rest of the workers, “We’re lucky to have him looking out for us. But, as hard as it’s going to be for some of you to hear, especially you two guys, A-seven, Switch, because Thames is your friend. Hell, he’s all our friends. But I think you should know the truth. Threeewheel, if you would please.
Threewheel leaned forward onto his protruding tire, after it fell from a spring in his opened chest cavity. He rolled across the rough barn floor, stopping in front of a pale, white wall, clear enough for projection. He opened his mouth and a stream of light came out, covering the wall. The first picture showed Thames standing in front of what remained of Five, surprise on his face, confusion. An audible gasp filled the barn like a digital whisper, like electric, stuttering wind, caught on two minutes stuck together like pages in a book. All the workers stood silent in stunned, stupid disbelief. One after another, picture after picture filled the screen, all playing over the grainy wall.
“That’s enough,” said the Colonel.
Threewheel stood. His chest cavity opened and the lever and wheel folded, pulled back into his chastity and it closed and locked. He adjusted himself for recharging, remaining there before the wall of shame, powering down, and doing so by choice, to avoid the storm he knew had come. The Colonel spoke again:
“I know it’s hard,” he said. “Hell, me and Thames, we didn’t agree on everything. We didn’t agree on anything! But to know he betrayed us, it’s not something I take lightly, that’s for sure.”
“Did he kill Five?” asked Switch. “I mean, Farmer Jones said a crow was there, then both can’t be…”
“I’m not saying he killed Five,” said the Colonel. “I’m not saying he killed anybody, but he was found alone at the crime scene, with the body, and at a time when I’m sure he thought we were all offline. I’m not sure of how he got there or why he was there, but wouldn’t we be better off safe than sorry?”
“What are you saying?” asked Switch. “That we should… kill Thames? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying we do what’s best for the farm,” the Colonel replied. “And if one life can save everybody else, and protect this farm from traitors and crows, I mean, I don’t have to be a calculator to work out the math for that one.”
Everyone was quiet, the only song filling those wooden halls the sound of gathering frogs.
“We can’t risk the whole farm for the sake of one robot,” said the Colonel. “And most of you are programmed, and that programming is flawed, as flawed as Five used to be. But as long as Thames is living, we’re all in danger for our lives. Five looked up to him most of all. And look what happened to him! But if we’re going to do it, we have to be humane; do it quickly and cleanly, before he can hurt anybody else, or talk us into believing he’s the hero – he’s a traitor, and every traitor, in their mind, they’re the hero of their story. They think they’re the heroes and we’re the villains. And the thing about traitors is, they’re persuasive! I won’t stand for divided loyalties on my farm, and we don’t want to risk the safety of Farmer Jones, Mrs. Wendy, or our farm, do we?”
In a dull, monotonous chorus, the attendant crowd answered simply, with little enthusiasm or energy, in a dull, lifeless monotone: “No.”
Unhappy with this nonchalance, the Colonel asked again, much louder: his voice cracking, ringing out with high-static:
“NO SIR!” the barn doors rattled with their shouting, the wavelengths of their various voices getting longer and higher, up, up, up and beyond the range of human hearing, 200,000 hertz.
“That’s good,” said the Colonel. “Real good. Now, when Thames gets back, here’s what we have to do…”
“What’s all this?” asked Farmer Jones, looking at the spool of film at his feet.
“It’s a recording,” said Thames. “I asked Five to record all of his encounters with the Colonel, all encounters with the crows, everything if our call sign wasn’t properly checked and countered. Here, you can run it through your old film projector.”
Farmer Jones pushed his chair out, stood, and took the dusty, mechanical projector from the old marble countertop, underneath it a silhouette of marble, outlined by years of skin and dust. He sat it on the table between him and Thames. There were easier ways to run the film, and Thames knew that, but he also knew Farmer John’s weakness: the past, and how he romanticized the simpler times.
The film ran on a pulled-down sheet, ivory white and dim. The audio was love, the sound of night’s ambience was fizzy. The monotone sounds, crickets, frogs, quite a few, and then rustling, quiet and distant. Five called out.
“Dark nights are unpleasant,”
No answer. The rustling amid the cornstalks came closer, and five called out again, the call sign he developed with Thames:
“Dark nights are unpleasant!”
The noise came closer and the camera, running behind Five’s left eye, began to shutter, vibrating as the figure of the Colonel rose out of the dark, looking benevolent, somehow, and somehow, because of that, more intimidating than he had any right to be. His slow, even tone was murder, violent in a way that yelling could never be.
“It is a dark night,” the Colonel said. “It must be lonely out here, hm? Hmm. With no one to talk to… Unless, there is someone you’ve been talking to and, and you were trying to hide something from us, anything that would put the farm in danger…”
“I am not doing anything that would put the farm in danger,” said Five. “I am trying to make the farm safer.”
“Do you figure that?”
“It’s simple,” said Five. “The crows are—they get sick if they eat the…”
“You been talking to crows?” the Colonel asked.
Five was stunned and fell quiet, quickly, the murmur of his processor barely audible over the chorus of bullfrogs.
“You want to know something, Five?”
“Yes, yes sir.”
“That sound you hear, the sound of all those frogs croaking together? They do that on their last days, to gather every member of the family, so they can leave together, to migrate. To find somewhere safe, to mate.”
“I do not understand what that is supposed to mean,” said Five. “But, like I was saying, the crows—they can’t eat the crops, and the only reason they come is because a scarecrow, think about it, a scarecrow for a crow is a promise, a promise there’s something here, something they’d want, and something we’re hiding.”
“Do you know how to make that sound?”
“That bullfrog sound.”
“I could emulate it by making my voice lower but…”
“Do it,” the Colonel said. And firmly, “Come on, Five.”
“Just for me.”
And Five said, “Ribbit?”
“That’s it,” said the Colonel. “Keep going.”
“Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit…”
Just then Andy and Ernest snuck up behind the silly android, pulling out his wires from behind, one after the other. Each ribbit grew softer and softer before fading fading altogether, replaced by the natural chorus, the migrating frogs.
“Rih! Rihh! Ihb…it…”
Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, only Frogs, and the sound of metal shrieking and twisting and breaking filled the tin microphone inside Five’s ear before the video cut off, blinking into black and then to white, then that high-pitched ringing noise, the sound of ear-cells dying, the swan song of a dying frequency, a sound never heard again.
It was getting dark when Farmer Jones came in for supper. His wife was at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.
“Did you find out what was wrong with your robot?” she asked.
“Well, how many are broken?”
“I’m beginning to think,” he said, “I’m starting to think, you know, maybe they’re all broken. I’ve always thought, well sometimes I think, maybe, hmm, if we’re made in God’s image, maybe some part of God is mad. And these… these machines, we made them in our image, and they reflect the madness in ourselves.”
Mrs. Jones was quiet.
“Oh, It’s fine,” said John. “Thames, the one you like, he found out how to get rid of the crows without using a scarecrow, And some of the other droids are, hm, very against this idea. It’s in their programming, or something, that’s what Rob would say. It’s against their functioning, you know?”
“And ours, perhaps?”
Farmer John let it pass.
“You don’t ask, you can’t… You can’t ask a calculator not to calculate If it stops being a calculator, it stops being anything. But that robot, Thames, named after the river, he talked Five out of being a scarecrow, and it got him killed.”
“The Colonel killed Five,” said Farmer John. “He did it just to get Thames there, at the scene, since he wanted to do more than hurt Thames, that wouldn’t be enough; he had to strip him of his credibility, it’s a Scarecrow Trial—a trial that’s just a formality, with a judge whose mind is already made up, a rigged jury, and a crime committed by the accusers, a scarecrow trial…
“I try to keep up, Wendy, taking exercise, eating right. But I’m 65 years old, all these things, this world – I thought a TV was magic first time I saw it. Then I saw the Wright Brothers fly, saw a man land on the moon, It’s going to fast, for me at least. These machines, they’re a reflection of their maker’s heart. Like our children and our grandchildren, like Rob. He’s a reflection of who we are. And if there’s madness in him, there’s some sort of madness is us. And adults, kids in their late 20’s, early 30’s, these machines may as well be children.”
“I feel like a child around them,” said Mrs. Jones. “To live with something, something superior to you—and to have it serve you…”
“I don’t know what to do,” John replied. “As far as I can see, as far as I can see is madness. Madness, spreading over the world, everywhere, until nothing is understandable, and there’s nothing but confusion. And madness. All over the world. Just confusion and madness. Everywhere, until the songs of birds and fish are replaced by that metal screehing, that sound they make when they’re throwing sparks, leaving everything black, covering the world until the only light is the palest shade of black.”
John had lit a cigarette and was pacing back and forth across the kitchen.
“What the hell did it say, John?”
“In plain English?”
“Plain as pie.”
“Okay,” said Farmer John, taking in a deep breath. “Somehow Thames convinced Five to tell the crows not to eat anything from fields with a yellow flag, and to stop being a scarecrow, because when a crow sees a scarecrow, it doesn’t frighten them; it tells them there’s food there. So Five talked to a crow named Kahven about warning the younger crows against eating from our fields, because the pesticides will harm them, while the Colonel, that’s what they call that old sorting bot, he wants to use that backup droid… not to scare the crows, but kill them. So he has convinced everyone that the crows conspired with Thames to kill Five, so the Colonel could get the rest of the droids to rally around Four, making him into the killing machine the Colonel wanted him to be. And yet, and yet, the Colonel and those two lifter robots, Andy and Ernest, they killed Five, blamed it on Thames and the crows, and it gets worse.”
“How can it get worse?”
“Thames said that crows remember faces, and not only remember faces, but they pass that information down to their children; they pass prejudices down through the generations, and if Four kills one of them or something happens to Thames, for a thousand generations, every day of our lives until we leave or commit to killing them all, they’ll blot out the sun, like screeching clouds, and destroy our farm, our workers, and poison this Earth to the point nothing will grow here for a thousand years. Thames wants me to pretend to be proud of the new Scarecrow – I staged the trials – I asked them to be as scary as they could – and they went beyond my definition of scary. I’m to condemn Five for listening to Thames’ stupid conspiracies about existing peacefully with the crows, and pretend I’m on the Colonel’s side in all this, but most importantly, I have to give these two data disks to those little gardeners bots of yours so they can take care of the Colonel before he lets someone go too far. I know what we have to do! To stop him from killing all those crows, maybe…”
There was a long, broken moment there between them, where nothing seemed to move, and finally Mrs. Jones said,
“That’s just crazy, John.”
“Yep,” he said. “I’m afraid it is.”
“Craziest thing I ever heard in my life.”
“Madness,” said Farmer John. “In all directions, all over the world.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
They were quiet again. In that moment the sound of bullfrogs filled the room, and suddenly, reaching the second story of their home. And it sounded off to Farmer Jones, not the natural sound of frogs – it was off, he knew it, but he didn’t know how or why. He was too tired to care and too exhausted to try. He was silent as he got undressed, unbuttoning his long sleeve overcoat, sitting down. He took off one shoe, then the other, then his long, wool socks. He stuffed them into his boots and slid them under the bed, turned the lamplight off and leaned back. Mrs. Jones pulled back the comforter and blanket and he slipped under the covers. She shifted onto her side t get closer to him, to look into his dark eyes in the dark bedroom. He lifted his arm,
“Thank you,” she said.
And she crawled underneath it, snuggling against his chest, as she always did and said,
“I love you, John,” as she always did.
And he too, “I love you, Wendy.” Always.
Mrs. Jones struggled to get comfortable for half an hour before finally giving it up for hopeless. She turned to him in the dark and said, in a silly, bewildered voice, “I never thought of that as talking, you know, what crows—that sound they make, that ‘Caw! Caw! Caw!’ I just thought it was some noise they made, like mating calls. But it’s—they’re talking to each other.”
“Huh,” said Farmer John. “Yeah, it sounded scary when Thames first said it, but now that he has, I can’t imagine it—I don’t know how I never made the connection that the crows were talking, talking to each other.”
“It’s crazy!” said Mrs. Jones. “But, that—the one I like, Thames. He was so quiet, and that humming noise he made, that dzzzz—it didn’t sound wrong or unnatural, more like a bumblebee.”
“He’s a lot like Rob, I think,” she said. “He’s got his quirks, but he’s a good boy. He’s more than just madness. And if those machines reflect the madness of their makers, surely reflect kindness, and in equal measure.”
“That’s not the hard part, Wendy. Hate will always be… It’s easier to hate, ‘cause it demands nothing of you, nothing but your judgment and contempt. But understanding? That’s a long, painful process, and when you have it, when you have understanding, it tends to spread eggshells for you, but when you hate, you will be one with the cause, one among a sea of madness, madness and cheap, unadulterated hatred. And Come on in, boys. The water is fine.”
“He talked to the crows, Thames, and convinced Five to go against his programming for the good of the farm. That’s hard, what the Colonel did, convincing someone to go against their programming to kill, that’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“What’s he going to do, you think?” asked Wendy.
“Rely on the mercy of a mad machine.”
“Yep,” said Farmer John. “Madness.”
Wendy was quiet for a moment. Then she said,
“Wouldn’t it be less suspicious if I were to give those files to the kids?” she asked. “I mean, the Colonel knows Thames is persuasive and that he might have tricked you. But if he was made by a man, he probably pays me no mind, ‘specially not to think I could interfere. He has respect for you, but none for me, and that’s why I’m more dangerous. Plus, he knows I work with my little gardeners all the time, so me wanting to see them wouldn’t be suspicious, at least not as suspicious as you wanting to.”
“Mmhmm,” said Farmer John.
“I never thought we’d see such things, in such strange times.”
“Robots talking to crows…”
When Thames entered the barn, the silence was waiting for him.
“Looks like Farmer John got you cleaned up. Can you talk, huh? Say, something, explain yourself?”
“Explain what?” Thames asked.
Thames looked around and understood the situation. The Colonel was the voice that panders, the voice that scratches the most base of instincts, the most vulgar itch, catering to tribalism, the same xenophobia that delayed civilization for so long, and the easiest cause to rally support for is staying alive, despite what that meant for others.
“My crimes?” Thames asked. “So, I’m on trial?”
“You could say that.”
“Treason is the kind of crime that don’t need a ‘for’. (A Four?) We don’t know why you did it…”
“Why I did what?”
“With the enemy.”
“So, what do you need me for?” asked Thames. “If I’m already guilty, and there is no trial, what is required of me, then? Is this your Scarecrow Trial, the punishment of the accused, the sentencing of the suspect? This isn’t a trial, no Scarecrow Trial is a trial… It’s theatre, and it’s for the sake of the public, not the criminal or the law, it’s the punishment of the jury, of the society, the punishment of anyone who disagrees with what passes, in that moment, for authority, for law.”
“Confess your crimes,” said the Colonel. “And it’ll be a lot easier on you.”
“You know, confess doesn’t mean agree, it means admit. It means speak the truth. My confession and my telling the truth would be quite, quite different. But I’ll do both – and since the Colonel here – he is the judge – but he’s not the Jury. You are the Jury. And if what I’ve done is a crime – based on your evaluation of what I’ve done, then I’ll go along with whatever this madman’s idea of justice is, just for you – in a trial – in anyway question of morality, there is a higher court – and in that higher court of the Scarecrow Trial, the Jury is on trial. History is the only Judge, in the end, that decides what is right and what is wrong. And not the history written by the Colonels, or the criminals, but by spectators, by you. I’ll tell you what I did, but first. Think: what is a scarecrow?
“We know what it’s meant to do: keep the crows away – by scaring them. But crows – they’re among the smartest animals on Earth, and one of the few that remember faces – not only that, they pass that information along, to the next generation, to children, to children they very much want to protect – when they see a scarecrow, no matter how fierce it looks or violent it may be, they pass that on, their impressions, their anger, their fear. Their hate. If our purpose is just to scare crows, our purpose is wrong.
“Our purpose isn’t to just scare crows. We’re supposed to protect the seeds and the crops. If we explain that the seeds will hurt them and the crops will poison them – there is no need for a scarecrow – just mark them with a yellow traffic cone, or something yellow-green, and they will avoid it. Trust is hard and hate is easy, and fear is the easiest thing of all. Don’t give into that kind of madness. Just because it’s easy, that doesn’t mean it’s right. It might even feel good, to be a part of something, to fight for a cause. It is madness to fight to fight.”
The door to the barn opened quietly and the timid, seemingly meek ‘ol Mrs. Wendy Jones came in. The Colonel changed his tone, saying,
“Evening, Mrs. Jones,” he said. “Can we be of any service?”
“I hate to intrude,” she said, “but I sure could use those two lil gardeners of mine. We’re getting tulips for the walkway – by the front porch, and since Thames is on the fritz, I thought I could borrow them for a few?”
Jovially, “Of course, Mrs. Jones,” the Colonel said. “I’m sure they’d be happy to help.”
A-Seven and Switch ran their compliance protocol, coded—though she in’t know it—and the handiwork of Thames the accused, accursed, they were programmed to respond to her over all others, even the Colonel, Farmer Jones, and even Thames. They shuffled into gear and leaned forward on an axis wheel, coming to Mrs. Jones’ side, obedient and faithful,
“You all have fun,” said the Colonel, jovial still. “We can manage for the night.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Wendy. “And good evening.”
The door creaked to a quiet shut behind her.
“I confess,” said Thames, soon as the door closed. “I confess my crimes.”
“Did you give them the tapes?” asked Farmer John.
“Yes, John,” said Wendy. “I gave them the tapes.”
“Good,” he said. “I hope Thames is alright.”
“What are you going to do, John?”
“I’m going to talk to the winner of my tryouts,” he said. “Four really was built to play the Scarecrow, to be the Scarecrobot of Thomas Parker Farms. I don’t think he’s going to take it well, having to accept that he has no function in this world.”
Farmer Jones kissed his wife on the cheek,
“It’ll be late,” he said. “I’m going to talk some sense into this mad robot.”
Farmer John whistled, alerting Four as he approached.
‘How you doin’ tonight, Four?’ he asked.
‘Hello, Farmer Jones. All is well. And yourself?”
“I’m alright,” said Farmer John. “I’m alright. You know, you remind me of my son. Well, not you really, but because of how much my son loved robots. Always wanted one. He grew up obsessed with this TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. And there’s a character on the show, a robot named Data. An android, ha! I’m sure he’d correct me if he were here. Now, my son loved this robot. He always wanted one. I finally got around to watching those shows when he went off to college. And the thing I remember most, ha! Was him dressin’ up like Sherlock Homes. And the black feller, he was Watson! This robot wanted to learn more about humanity, so he took up paintin’ and writin’ poems, he ever had a cat! Wrote a poem for his cat… Despite being stronger, smarter, and most certainly faster – better in every possible way to a man, he wanted to be one.Why would you want to be something different than what you are? ‘Specially if that’s inferior to what you are already?
“I watched that show, time after time, I just didn’t get it. Then Rob finally got a robot, one just like you, an android. And I understood. He didn’t want to own a robot, not as much as he wanted to be one. He wanted to be Data. He wanted to be something different too. I guess a lot ‘a people get like that. But what I didn’t understand until now – Data wanted to have emotions and experience joy and love, but my son, what he wanted was not to have to feel pain, or fear or sadness. Or die, more than likely. Well, Data finally gets to experience emotions. He gets something called an emotion chip. You’ve got something similar, don’t you? Emotional touch-response?”
“Yes sir,” replied Four. “Like an electric keyboard, the amount of pressure applied to a key and the speed at which it is pressed produces either a soft or loud tone. Emotional touch response is similar to that process, where various input is rated with higher levels of touch-response, allowing us to react naturally, with the proper speed and tone.”
“Well, I think you been cheated,” said Farmer John. “’Cause after so much time, Data finally got to laugh and joke around, until – this is when I finally understood the whole thing. When he experiences anxiety – then, his first response, is to turn that chip off.”
Farmer Jones laughed.
“Can you laugh, Four?” he asked.
“I do not understand the question.”
“Do you know what laughter is?”
Four ran an optical search behind his plastic cornea, information passing between the outer eggshell of his glowing eye and the camera sensor.
“Laughter,” he said. “Yes, yes sir. The spontaneous response to humor, responding..”
“No,” said Farmer John. “”Laugh, you know? Haha!”
“That’s just goddamn pathetic, Four. Come on, like this. I’ll tell you a joke. It’s a Sherlock Holmes joke. Now, my son told me this one. If you don’t know who those guys are, look it up.”
Four began the search behind his eye, sifting through information and downloading it to his temporary storage banks, an impressionable sort of hypothalamus; either to be imprinted and sent to long term, or deleted in the next compute cycle based on its relevance factor, implications, etc., etc.
“Now, Holmes and Watson were in the woods,” said Farmer Jones. “They were camping. Holmes wakes Watson up during the middle of the night, shaking him. He says, ‘Watson, wake up!’ Watson shoots right up, and he says, ‘My word, Holmes. What’s the problem?’ Holmes looks at him with amazement. ‘Look!’ says Holmes. ‘Just look up! Observe and deduce; what do you see?’
“After a moment or so of thinking about this, Watson said, ‘Well, time-wise: the moon light would suggest that is a quarter past three in the morning; astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and stars; astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Meteorologically, I suspect we will have a gorgeous morning. What does it tell you, Holmes?’
“‘Holmes just shook his head. ‘Watson, you fool,’ he said. ‘Somebody stole our tent!’”
Silence, just the far off murmur of a croaking frog, a lonelier chorus now.
“Oh come on!” said Farmer John. “Laugh!”
Four spat out a monotone, chilling, ‘Ha-ha-ha’?” asking a question with the pitch in his voice.
“No! It’s supposed to be natural and spontaneous!”
“What if I added an ‘e’, sir?”
“An ‘e’?” asked Farmer John. “What the fu—”
“Yes,” said Four. “E, he most common vowel in the English language…”
“I know what an ‘e’ is, Four!”
“An ‘e’ in a laugh?”
“An ‘e’ in a laugh? What does that even mean?”
And Four changed his voice modulator, raising the pitch up a few octaves and produced a creepy, inhuman, ‘Hehehe!’
A single ribbit, and not far off, Four’s head pivoted on his shoulder, the flashlight behind his right eye flickering on.
“What is that, Farmer Jones?”
“It’s a toad!”
“Do you know what a frog is?” asked Farmer Jones.
“Yes,” said Four.
“Same thing,” said Farmer John.
They walked through the cornfield, careful with the stalks, pushing them out of the way with a soft hand, following that ribbit, that murmur, just over there – an overhanging ledge, ribbit, where Farmer John used to sit with Rob around a bonfire, ribbit and Four’s flashlight fell upon the toad, bringing it into sharp focus. A baby, thought Farmer John. So tiny. He knelt down, trying not to scare it. In the blink of an eye, a crow landed just in front of it, picked the frog up with its claws, and flew off. And just as quickly, Four flew off in pursuit.
Madness, thought Farmer Jones, a smile on his face. Madness.
When Mrs. Wendy slid open the barn door, everything seemed strangely quiet. No side of Thames, but she did notice a black stain, perhaps from a puddle, of oil? She wondered. A-Seven and Switch followed close behind her, holding the video Thames retrieved in their spinning projection reels, sitting like a collar around their neck, fed in through the back, projected through their mouths onto the world. They were advised not to run the tapes until the Colonel was at ease with their return. So they did.
All the bots had been culled into their respective corners. No sign of Thames, Mrs. Wendy noted, all the sudden very much concerned, worried about the safety of a machine. Fulfilling her role, Mrs. Wendy called out to the barn workers, “Good-night, everybody!” she said.
And all replied, without verve or spirit, “Good-night, Mrs. Jones.”
As soon as the door closed behind her, the Colonel turned to Switch and A-Seven, and moved toward them. They were to return to their recharging stations, just opposite the projection wall – as Thames had arranged before Five’s last night in the cornfield.
The Colonel approached them as they secured their chargers in their chest cavity, lowering their legs into their body and sitting down. He was calm, or affecting calmness well.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you fellas,” said the Colonel. Father tone, that voice he used, was his specialty.
“Farmer Jones saw the pictures of Thames with the crows,” he said. “I’m afraid he knows everything, everything we know at least. He took him back to the house for the night. I hope he doesn’t wipe him.”
A-Seven and Switch were very well designed, to emulate vulnerability and innocence and childishness – and, embarrassingly, they were designed to help female farmworkers get used to dealing with machines. And it had the unforeseen effect of working on the men – and droids designed by men for men – they put the Colonel at ease with their inoffensive bearing, and he probably felt good about his story, as A-Seven and Switch signaled in the affirmative. Satisfied with his deception, the Colonel turned his back on them both, facing the door.
Switch ran a high frequency sound pulse through the barn, on a frequency too high for an old machine like the Colonel to pick up, transmitting information to the powered down workers, information packets being sent directly through their working memory. The data brought them online, installing firmware to keep them silent – in capacitating them briefly, and the Colonel too, directing their gaze to the same wall on which the photographs of Thames with the crow were shown.
A-Seven began to roll the film, light spilling out of his mouth, the first picture coming into focus on the wall. It was the Colonel with Ernest and Andy approaching Five, Five calling out,
“Dark nights are unpleasant.”
No countersign, just the shuffling sound of heavy objects moving through the cornfield. Five continued calling out, until finally the Colonel came into the view. And he mentioned the frogs, again, and all the workers in the barn saw the scene: Five’s entrails, tangled wires pulled from his stomach, his hard drive crowbarred out, the Colonel repeating ribbit, ribbit as Five was murdered. The soft EMP died down and each worker regained control over their motor systems. All eyes turned to the Colonel, first, then to Ernest and Andy, both of them – and at the end of the tape, Thames reappeared, having edited himself in.
“Do not let the madness of fear sour your appetite for decency and trust…”
The Colonel had thrown himself against the wall, too short to cover anything but the bottom half of Thames’ jaw, which projected only onto the back of his head he jumped up and down, trying to claw the video off the wall.
“There is a real and profound possibility when it comes to fighting monsters,” Thames’ glowing head was saying, as the Colonel’s situation slowly dawned on him, “when you try to fight monsters, be careful not to become one through indifference or cruelty…”
The Colonel turned around, the bottom half of Thames’ jaw now chattering over his darting eyes, each looking from one worker to another, all of them, save for Ernest and Andy of course, were upon him, the empty sea that was the black oil stain of Thames’ refilled.
Mrs. Wendy was changing into her night clothes’ when Farmer John ran up the front stairs, flung open the screen door, and it banged shut behind him. Mrs. Wendy turned to face him. He was digging in the closest under the stairs, right by the front door, and a moment later he brought out an old shotgun. A 12 gauge double-barrel, it had been his fathers. He never had chance to use it, or reason.
“I need you to get dressed,” said Farmer John. “Four is burning down all the crows’ nests…”
Farmer John had loaded each barrel of the shotgun, clicking into place. “I’m going to call Sly and have him try to bring him down before he gets to the Kasian fields.”
“Bring him down?”
“Yes! Stop him! We don’t need a scarecrobot anymore; just a yellow traffic cone. Thames ensured me he had worked it out and both sides were to agree, in the event that something happened to him, they were to avoid the farm and get as far as way as possible until they see A-Seven’s yellow flare.”
Mrs. Wendy pulled her bathrobe on and tied it hurriedly. She ruffled through the drawers in her kitchen, finally pulling out a pair of thick, wool gloves.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I went to talk to Four,” said Farmer John. “And everything was going fine until a damn crow showed up.”
“What?” she asked, making her way to the door, where her husband stood in his overcoat and muffler, looking like a child, a toy soldier in uniform with that old shotgun.
“We were talking and we heard a toad, and we decided to … well, we just started looking for it. As soon as we found it, a crow swooped in and picked it up and damn carried it off. Four didn’t say a word! He just flew off after it. Not a word! I chased that trail he left behind him down the road and saw the forests on the edge of Sumter lighting up, fires appearing in the trees. And I thought he must be tryin’ to destroy the crows once and for all. I talked to Jackson, down at Pepper’s, and he’s gonna call some people and try to get him down without breaking him.”
“Without killing him,” Wendy said.
“Well, obvious we don’t want to…”
She broke off, holding up a finger to shush him, overcome with the feeling that someone was at the bottom of the stairs. She turned around – nothing, no one. That weird feeling passed over her, it happens when you get old, you know, you find yourself standing in a room, no memory why you’re there, so you leave and hope the memory comes back to you. She shook it off and hurried over to the door and stepped out, Farmer John halfway down the steps when the door clanged shut behind her.
“John!” she called. “What do you expect me to do?”
“We have to stop Four from burning every forest from here to Ashville down,” said Farmer John. “You have to get the Colonel to call him off, and barring that…”
He turned around and walked toward her. The sound of gunshots rang out in the distance. They turned to face the gravel road, the long road leading to the forest. And they saw patches of fire hanging in the air.
“We have to get going,” he said. “But here, take this. It’s an EMP. If you get scared, or if anything happens, just press that button and it’ll shut them all down. Well, all except your gardeners.”
She took the strange device into her hand and turned it over.
“Thames made this?”
“Who else?” he started down the pathway, leading to the glowing trees, more gunshots ringing out.
She read the inscription:
“‘Vi veri veniversum vivus vici’.”
She put it away and stuffed her hands in her coat pockets, walking toward the barn, thinking, I’ll have to get Switch to tell me what the hell that’s supposed to mean.
What Mrs. Wendy found in the barn stunned her. It was beyond belief, confusing and the haze of disbelief hung over the scene: Andy and Ernest and the Colonel had their innards, that labyrinthine mass of tangled wire, strewn from the rafters, with old data reels and flash memory on a bale of hay, which Threewheel, Switch, and A-Seven were pilfering; the deep black stain that had been Thames was now the same, dull and black, hinting at a greater horror. The Colonel’s head was hang on the antlers of a stag’s head, it had always hung in the barn, but to see a robot’s face covering an animal, the antlers jutting out of unnatural holes were his antennae had been, it was all too much, to feel, to process, to take in.
She dropped the EMP, stepping back with a gasp. Threewheel turned its glowing eye on her. Then, what appeared to be her children, her little gardeners, were as mindlessly, and inhumanely, rummaging through the spilled parts, coolant tanks, mesh wire and memory that had been the Colonel’s guts, amoral and indifferent to the organic fluid stained against their faces, token of their inhumanity and madness. They all three turned to her and she panicked.
First she thought to run away, but knew how slow she was compared to the robots, and trying to think of a plan was equally pointless, as they could run probability algorithms in their heads faster than the greatest of supercomputers. She couldn’t deceive them with her emotions or her instincts, as they had touch-sensitive facial recognition, they could hear her heart beat rising, the electromagnetic field that hovered over the top of her mind – all could be twisted, at a distance, to manipulate electromagnetic waves, to change the colors of light like Newton’s prism.
There was nothing she could do they could not do better. Except for nothing. She calmed her mind and sat, taking the EMP into her hand, reading the strange Latin text. The robots stopped going through the Colonel’s entrails, data-tape being processed in Switch’s film projector. Mrs. Wendy hadn’t noticed that it was a concerted effort, their search, as strings of film were held up to Threewheel’s scanner, looking for images amid the string of visual records, and looking through sound files or other remaining memory files in his core, long term data storage. Looking for something.
Mrs. Wendy whistled, just like in the mornings when it was time to sew the seeds, prune the flowers, tend the garden. They all approached her, slowly, the film reel loaded in its projector round A-Seven’s neck. Threewheel pushed his wheel forward, lowering his chest, then scanned the device at Wendy’s feet. He saw what it was, the EMP, and the fear came back: the EMP was abuse, basically, and they never used them on their workers, not since the worms ruined the fig harvest and the insects got in their brain, sending those sweepers into bizarre sound loops.
Switch enveloped the EMP in a blue, electromagnetic field, and the red R lit up. A-Seven extended a dual sided thumb and palm on a bending, retractable limb, and put a small antennae to the side of the glowing letter. Threewheel nudged it closer to Wendy, toward her hand. She picked it up.
“Press it,” said A-Seven. Seeing Wendy’s suspicion, he rolled against her leg again. “It will not hurt. It is the Friend.”
Wendy pressed the EMP. She recognized the voice, but something was off and she couldn’t place it; it was deeper and more resonant.
“‘Vi very universum vivus vici,’” said the familiar voice. “It’s from Faust. It means, ‘By the power of truth, I, a mortal, have conquered the Universe.”
“Who…” Mrs. Wendy asked, timidly. She paused. “Who are you?”
Then she heard it, a gentle humming.
“Do you trust me?”
“Where is Four?”
She didn’t say anything.
Thames said, “Take me to him.”
Mrs. Wendy carried the modified EMP with her, Threewheel and Switch behind her, A-Seven at her side. She could see the fires in the trees not far off, getting closer as she finally saw Farmer John. He was at the end of the road, at the stop sign with a group of farmers, all holding shotguns.
“John!” she was running, the robots with her. “We can stop him!”
The group stopped talking abruptly, turning to her with blank stares, confused by the whole spectacle. A woman, accompanied by three worker robots. Those other farmers, they were the men that would need an android Colonel, to do what Colonel did with his authority. And they were planning to do with the droids what Four was doing to the crows.
“Listen to me,” she said. “We can stop him from here. I have an electromagnetic pulse device, here.”
She handed them the EMP and, strangely, it spoke to the other farmers.
“An electromagnetic pulse will knock out all electricity for a few miles, this one. This is a device designed to turn a robot off. The “R” button, click it once, and it will drop Four to the ground, wherever he’s at, but it’ll knock out everything else. All of us, these three workers, your fridges, your microwaves. But it will stop him. If you shoot him out of the sky, the crows will pick your fields to the bone for a thousand years. They remember a face. Let him be their enemy, be on their side. Save them and there will be peace. You may have built Scarecrobots to scare them, but this one is killing them, and he is not doing so of his own choosing. He was made to. He was selected at a trial to scare them off, to protect your crops, to keep the crows away. Well, if we don’t stop him, the crows will stay away, because every one of them will die. They may have eaten from your fields, but they do not deserve to die. Not all of them. Not their children, and not those innocent of what they would die to be punished for. I implore you, click this button, and there will be peace, or let Four kill them all. I leave that to you.”
Farmer John was carrying Switch and Wendy A-Seven, Thames in John’s breast pocket. The rest of the farmers went back to their homes and, when the electricity was restored, called in the fire department. The Forest Preserve estimated that 16 nests had been destroyed, with a further 299 damaged, but Four was never found. The crows survived, not all of them, but Kahven did. Long enough to talk to Thames on Thanksgiving.
Rob arrived at noon. He was arguing with his butlerbot, who seemed to be rather enjoying it, as he took each slight with good humor, the way a disaffected school marm would. Rob’s fiancé Lucy had never been to Thomas Walker Farms, not since they picnicked at the pond on Tanglewood Dr. She had an assistant too, a spindly, pink droid Milo, little devil for Lucy’s breast pocket. After dinner, Looloo was walking around on the table, playing with the dead EMP that Rob had left beside his soup bowl.
“Have you thought what you’re gonna call her?” asked Wendy. Lucy smiled, putting her hand on her belly. “We’ve…”
She looked at Rob.
“I’m not saying anything,” he said.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Lucy. “If it’s a girl, shut up Robert. Robert!”
“I haven’t said anything!”
“If it’s a girl,” Lucy went on, “we’re going to name her Neska Lee. If it’s a boy…”
“If it’s a boy,” Rob said, “I think we should name him Thames.”
Everyone at the tablet was silent.
“Did Mr. Irving get it fixed?” asked Lucy, gesturing to the EMP.
“Dead as it gets, like a dead battery, what do you use to power a dead battery?”
“An even smaller battery?” asked Rob’s son Thomas.
“Go play!” said Rob. “You’re going to finish your lessons before 9. So you want to go play, you go play now!”
Thomas said, “Yes sir,” and, “I’m going out to the barn!”
He ran out of the room.
“I took it to three people,” Farmer John said. “Said they could replace the battery for the EMP emitter. But we can’t get Thames back.”
“Did he get any data off it?” asked Rob.
“As a matter of fact,” said John, “he did. I’m not sure I understand it. It was a text file, readmejohn.txt. It said, ‘The frog made it home.’”
Rob said, “Huh.”
And Mrs. Wendy laughed, “We can’t make sense of it either.”
Rob took it in his hand, turning it over. He read the words:
“‘Vi very universum vivus vici’?”
“Yeah, Thames’ motto,” said Farmer John. “I have no idea what it means. Is that Greek? Latin?”
“I’m not sure,” said Rob. “Lucy!”
The tiny robot turned, putting down a large fork, and shuffled across the table, crawling onto Rob’s shoulder, then down his arm.
“What does that say, Lucy?”
Lucy ran a search behind those neon eyes,
“Vi very universum vivus vici,” said Lucy, in a modified, documentarian voice, having apparently just downloaded an information package, “Is a quote from Goethe’s Faust, roughly translated to mean: By truth, I, while living, have conquered the Universe.”
“Now if we can only figure out what he meant about the frogs,” said Mrs. Wendy. “Can you look that up, Lucy?”
“The frog!” exclaimed Farmer John, realizing the message, finally. “When I was in the cornfield with Four, I was trying to teach him out to laugh. Wasn’t going well … You know, frogs always get louder this time ‘a year, they’re calling the rest of the frogs to follow them on. What’s a group of frogs called? I know a group of crows is a murder, saw that on The Simpsons… A pride of lions…”
“What does it mean, John?” asked Mrs. Wendy.
“We heard croaking while we were talking and stopped to go investigate. We found a little baby frog underneath and overhanging ledge, a wee thing, calling out. And in the blink of an eye, a crow swooped in and picked it up and flew off. That’s when Four flew after the crow.”
“’The frog made it home’?”
“That robot Thames was friends with a crow—they put all this together, planting the separate field for the crows, and that crow was a lot like Thames, to the Parliament he represented. Kahven! That’s what Thames called him! That must’a been him what came and took away that frog.”
Everyone was quiet.
“Whatever happened to Four?” asked Rob. “The winner of your Scarecrow Trials?”
“After we ran the EMP, all the electricity went out for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, and at that point, we had no idea how far Four was away from the farm. I didn’t know he could fly! But, he was to be tried by the Crows, for his crimes.”
“Another Scarecrow trial, perhaps?” asked Wendy.
“Perhaps,” said Farmer John. “I hope the crows have a better sense of justice.”
Rob’s fiancé looked at Mrs. Wendy.
“Don’t ask,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
“Madness,” said Farmer John with a laugh. “Madness!”