When I first saw the farm, I thought I was hallucinating. It seemed impossible that there was this much green in the whole dustbowl of the southwest, that those fields of vegetables survived in a world stripped of defenses against the sun’s glare.
Yet here it was.
I was hungry as hell, my body thin and sickly from living off old canned goods, but I kept myself from just pulling up fistfuls of carrots and eating them right then and there. The one thing I wanted more than proper food was human company, some reassurance that I wasn’t alone in the world. That conversation might not go well if it started with me stealing their crops.
As I approached the farmhouse, I saw a figure working in the fields. My excitement died a little when I saw the squared off silhouette and the gleam of sunlight on metal.
“Greetings,” the robot said as I approached. “How may I assist?”
“Is the owner of this place around?” I asked.
“Master Thomas is indisposed,” the robot said in a deadpan metallic tone.
“Guess I’ll wait until he’s free.” I nodded to a hand-cranked pump standing in the yard. “Alright if I get a drink?”
“Yes,” the robot said, returning to its work.
The pump moved with well-oiled ease and a minute later I was gulping down pure, cold water. This Thomas character sure took care of his farm.
I waited in the shade of an apple tree, my bag on the ground beside me, happy to enjoy the water and a rest. The longer I waited, the more I was taken by the perfection of Thomas’s work, and the more eager I was to meet him.
“Your boss gonna be free soon?” I called out.
The robot paused, the lights in its eyes blinking.
“Master Thomas is indisposed,” it said.
Another two hours passed without sign of the farmer. I was getting impatient.
“I need the john,” I said.
It was true as well as being a good excuse. Not waiting for a response, me and my full bladder headed toward the front door of the farmhouse.
Swift footsteps thudded past me. The robot stood in my way.
“Master Thomas is indisposed,” it said, raising its voice.
“But can’t I just-”
I looked around.
“Guess I’ll go take a leak around the side,” I said. “Is that what you want, someone pissing up against the wall?”
The light’s in the robot’s eyes blinked, then it nodded.
“Yes,” it said, then returned to work.
I got around the side of the house, took a long piss in the dirt, then looked about. Something wasn’t right with this place and that damn robot. Now I wasn’t just in need of human contact. I wanted to know why it was being kept from me.
There was a dirty window to my left. I got my fingers in a gap, levered it open, and clambered through. I found myself in a dining room with a pine sideboard, a matching table, and half a dozen chairs. There were bowls and plates on the table. Someone sat in one of the chairs, his back to me, long grey hair running across a plaid shirt.
“You OK?” I asked quietly, advancing until I could see the guy’s face.
Empty eye sockets stared out from dry, wrinkled skin. There was no flesh beneath that skin, just bones holding up a preserved shell. The jaw hung open.
“Fuck.” I sank into one of the other chairs. My heart pounded and my brain went numb. I just sat staring at the body. Those empty eyes seemed to stare back.
There were noises from the next room, the scrape of furniture over floorboards and then the chock chock chock of someone chopping vegetables. I sat totally still, not wanting to make a sound. If that damn robot had done this to its master, what might it do to me?
Then came the footsteps. I cursed myself for not getting out when I had the chance. As I bolted to my feet, my chair fell over with a bang. I looked down and then back up.
The robot was standing in the doorway, a bowl of salad in its hands.
The lights in its eyes blinked.
“You came to steal Master Thomas’s food,” it said. “Well you can’t have it.”
It placed the salad on the table in front of the corpse. Then it picked up another bowl, one holding the whithered remnants of another meal. It squeezed and the bowl exploded, showering the table with shards of crockery.
“I look after Master Thomas,” the robot said. “Feed him. Protect him.”
“I’ll go,” I said. “I don’t want trouble, I swear. I’ll just go.”
“Yes,” the robot said.
I didn’t dare walk past it to the door, in case it grabbed me. Instead I scrambled back out the window, rushed over to the apple tree, and snatched up my bag, ready to run.
Then I hesitated. It wasn’t just the food. If that was all I’d wanted, I could have found a hiding place nearby, watched the farm, and come down to steal supplies when the robot wasn’t looking. It was something more.
With trembling steps, I approached the farmhouse. The robot stood in the doorway, watching me.
“I could help you grow food,” I said. “Help you feed master Thomas.”
The lights in its eyes blinked. I tensed, ready to duck if it took a grab at me, ready to run for my life.
“Yes,” it said. “I will show you how.”
It walked back into the fields.
“Maybe while we work you could tell me more about master Thomas,” I said. “Or, you know, about whatever.”
“Yes,” the robot said, and I don’t know if it was real or was just my relief, but I swear its metal voice sounded mellower than before. “That would be good.”
* * *
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