Robert and Clayton were struck by déjà vu when the buggy stopped in the middle of the Homestead’s courtyard. Although neither of them had ever been to this specific Homestead, they felt as though they had already been there. There was a train station in the center of the court with a grain elevator and silos nearby; stables off to the side; garages next to the stables; a warehouse looking building in one corner that acts as a recreation center; an identical building to the last that’s a school/daycare; a large cafeteria building – which most of the workers were filing into right now - off to another side; a series of apartment blocks around the courtyard; a fenced off substation that was disguised as a large house; and an actual large house that must be the administration building. Besides some regional differences, Southampton County Homestead no. 224 looked like every other Homestead that Clayton and Robert have visited; and both of them have been to a number of Homesteads. All of the Homestead’s that they had visited, plus every other one they hadn’t been to, were set up in a nearly perfect franchise arrangement.
As Robert was about to leave the buggy, Clayton asked, “Should I stay here?”
“You don’t have to. If this manager knows where we’re headed, then it would probably help to have you there. You know these parts much better than me.”
Clayton steered the horse-and-buggy over to the part of the courtyard that had the stables and garages, then both of them left the vehicle. Clayton put Slush and Mudd in a stable while Robert pushed the hybrid into a garage with the help of one of the Homestead workers. Once completed, they met up and walked towards the administration building.
While walking up the stairs that led to the door, Robert asked, “Have you ever had to deal with a manager?”
“Nope. Not that I can remember. I usually just deal with the people that work in the stables and garages. Ohh, and the cafeteria staff. But I have heard enough about them to know that I probably won’t like them.”
“Alright, maybe leave all the talking to me. For the most part, managers are intolerable, like you’ve heard. I have to deal with these types of people all day at work, so I’m going to try and get this over with as quick as possible.”
“I’m getting pretty hungry myself. The sooner we can get out of here the better.”
Clayton opened the door for Robert. In the front of the building was a secretary desk with a waiting room. Robert had never seen any occupants of the waiting rooms in any of the other Homestead admin buildings that he had visited. It was sort of a vestigial part of the building. Such was the case today.
The secretary, a brunette with glasses that looked to be in her mid-thirties, greeted the visitors. “How may I be of service today?” Robert thought he recognized her, but the familiarity was probably due to the fact that she looked remarkable close to almost every other secretary that he had ever encountered. Sometimes the Homesteads layout wasn’t the only thing that followed franchise protocol; the employees frequently followed suit.
“We’re looking to talk to Gerald Clark.”
“May I ask who you represent?”
Like it mattered, thought Robert. The only visitors that came by were PR agents from the district headquarter cities. Why even bother asking who you represent? They probably know the answer already. On that matter, why even bother having a secretary? They were sort of a vestigial part of the building.
“Mid-Eastern Seaboard District, Public Relations Department.”
“Ohh. The Washington silencer. We have been waiting for you to come by. Gerald is in his office right now. It’s just up the stairs to the right.”
Hearing ‘silencer’ put Robert into an even bitterer mood. Like Clayton, he was hungry from being on the road all day, hence his critiques of the franchiseness of this Homestead and the lack of identity that results because of it, but now, after being called a term that he deeply resents, he was flung into hyper-critical overdrive. ‘Thanks for that piece of useless information,’ he thought of telling the secretary. He already knew where the office was. How could he not? He has been to dozens of other ones, in dozens of other buildings that looked exactly the same that were situated in dozens of other village-compounds that were, no surprise, exactly the same. He would have to be a complete imbecile to not realize that the office was ‘up the stairs to the right.’
Noticing that Robert hadn’t responded to her directions for a few seconds and hadn’t moved a single muscle either, Clayton thanked the secretary then gave a Robert a slight push on his back. He was trying to guide Robert towards the stairs. Robert eventually gathered his wits and made his way towards the staircase.
As they were walking up the stairs, Clayton whispered, “What was that all about?”
“The stalling. It looked like someone flicked a switch and just turned you off back there.”
“Oh, that. I was just in hypercritical overdrive.”
“Hmmm. Say it in English now.”
“Hypercritical overdrive. It’s when I’m in a really bad mood, so to deal with it I tear everything around me to pieces.”
“Sounds like a pretty bad way to deal with a bad mood.”
“That’s just how I am. Instead of going on a rant and pissing off everyone around me, I just do it all up here.” Robert tapped his head. “If it helps me deal with a situation, then let it be.”
“Aight. I hope you got it out of you though. We still gotta meet the boss man, right? I don’t want you standing there like a computer that just got its plugged pulled just because he says something you don’t like.”
They were now in front of the manager’s door.
“Don’t worry about me; I know how to deal with these types. I block out my critique sector when I talk to my boss because I know that there’s a 90% chance that I’m not going to like what he has to tell me. So, I’ll just do the same thing here.”
“Yah, well, do it quick.”
Robert looked over at Clayton and pretended to flip a switch on the side of his head. Then they entered the room.
Inside the room was an overweight man with his head down sitting behind a desk. He hadn’t even lifted his head before he started talking. “Look, if you two are in here to discuss the extra work hours as of late, you should come back later. Right now I’m busy.” In front of him lay a half-eaten plate of food.
“That’s not what we’re here to discuss,” said Robert.
The fat man looked up. His beady eyes and jowly face took on a surprised look. “Who are you guys?”
“Hey, that’s no way to treat a visitor,” said Clayton. Robert looked over at Clayton and cupped his hand over his mouth.
“No he’s right,” said the fat man. “That’s no way to treat a guest. I’m Gerald Clarke. I’m the manager of this Homestead.”
“Robert Christiansen. I work for public relations. And this here is my driver, Clayton Johnson.”
“Great, great. The PR man. I’ve been waiting for you to get here.”
“Yah, sorry about that. I ran into a little trouble trying to get out of Washington.”
“Was it this guy’s fault?” asked Gerald as he pointed at Clayton.
Clayton didn’t look too impressed. It took a huge amount of self-restraint for him not to slap Gerald across the face, but he played it cool. Clayton just wanted to get some answers then move on, whereas slapping a manager in the face would just further complicate things. That would mean that they would probably have to spend more time in the office.
“No, no. Delayed train. You know how it is,” responded Robert.
“Oh. I thought you might have brought him into my office so that I could scold him.” Clayton was now practicing self-restraint at a level comparable to a Zen master. “Now it seems a little odd to me why you brought the driver into the office.”
These manager types seemed to all believe in a theoretical hierarchy that justifies talking down to individuals that they think are on a lower level. Gerald wants to reinforce this hierarchy so he’s treating Clayton like a second class citizen. As for Robert, he probably believes that PR people are on par with Homestead managers, so he’ll probably treat Robert more like a human being. In all, this concept is very similar to Doug Armitage’s attitude. Having dealt with him a few days earlier, Robert needed no crash course on how to deal with people who thought they were better than others. So, Robert was going to shrug off the belittling comments and try and suck up to Gerald. This strategy usually works with his own boss and will likely help them get to the cafeteria faster. After this debriefing, Robert is going to have to make several apologies to Clayton because Robert can already guess that Clayton won’t be too happy about Robert’s lack of defense regarding his friend.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Robert. “I guess I forgot. Clayton, do you mind?”
“Not at all. I’ll meet you in the cafeteria. Please, take your time.” Clayton spoke in such a polite manner that he seems to be mocking them. It’s the only way for him to get redemption for the previous comments.
Clayton stepped out of the room. The moment he left, Gerald starting again with the condescension. “You do that. Eat in the cafeteria with the rest of the drones. You know how those drivers are; they’re practically drones. Only, they’re encouraged to leave the Homesteads.”
“I never thought about it that way. It’s true though.”
“Yep. That brings me to the reason you’re here. Too many people are leaving this Homestead.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It’s bad. As our desertion rate goes up, our production rate drops exponentially. If things keep up this way, come harvest time we’re screwed. Completely and utterly fucked.” As Gerald gets more and more angry, the loose skin on his face goes through more exaggerated motions.
“My boss has filled me in.”
“But your boss doesn’t see it first-hand. If he knew about how bad our situation is, he would’ve sent you by freight train like a hobo.”
“Then how would I get to wherever I’m supposed to go?” Robert regretted asking this question the moment his mouth stopped. If Gerald was anything like Doug, Robert figured that Gerald would go off on a two hour lecture about logistics and risk calculations.
“I would let you take one of my vehicles, two of my horses and one of my drones. Problem solved.” Gerald shoved a fork load of mashed potatoes down his gullet. Robert was thankful for this because it meant that Gerald wasn’t going to give a lecture.
Also, watching Gerald eat could make a starving person lose their appetite. This was really benefiting Robert at the moment.
“On behalf of my boss, I can say that we didn’t truly understand the situation. It’s just that, we have never ran into such high desertion rates. We are unprepared.”
“Well, if you succeed, you can write the fucking protocol on how to handle it. But right now, we have a problem that we gotta sort out.”
“Let’s get down to business then. You came here to find out where this threat is coming from, then you’re going to deal with it. Am I right?”
“That’s what my boss told me.”
“Well, you only have to deal with the second part. I’ve got the first part right here.” Gerald opened up a drawer in his desk, grabbed a piece of folded paper from it, and then put it atop of his desk. “Go on, check it out.”
Robert picked it up and started unfolding it. It turned out to be an old map of Virginia that put much detail into roads, bodies of water, and railway tracks. A red X was marked on the map near Suffolk. The X wasn’t close to any major roads, but it was surrounded by a reservoir and it seemed to be near a railroad track. The last detail was fairly odd to Robert, seeing as most importers/exporters try and locate their establishments as far as possible from train lines.
“That red X is where we think they’re going. We aren’t sure what it is; maybe it’s a commune, maybe a cult, maybe it’s just a huge shiny thing in the sky, you never know with these drones. All we know is that it’s causing our labourers to pack up and head towards it.”
“If you don’t know what it is then how do you know where it is?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“I just need to know if it’s reliable. I don’t want to go on a wild goose chase and end up coming back to Washington with nothing to report.”
“Alright then. I have been told stories from a few of my more trustworthy workers. They tell me that they’ve overheard some of the deserters talking to their friends the day or night before they leave. A number of the deserters say that they’re going to hop the next eastbound train and get off at a crossing near Manning. Don’t ask how they find it, I have no clue, but that’s what my informants have gathered.”
“That leaves me with a lot of questions though. Why haven’t your informants found out what kind of place the deserters are going to? If they could overhear how to get there, you would think they would’ve overheard what it was. And why would it be right by a set of train tracks? Wouldn’t someone think to put it elsewhere so they wouldn’t be spotted so easily? And how do the workers know about this destination in the first place? This all seems odd to me.”
Robert was breaking his rule. He was asking too many questions. This whole debriefing could take hours from this point. However, there was a reason for all of these questions. Since Robert has never had to deal with a desertion situation, he was exceptionally curious. He didn’t know what to expect, so he figured that his interrogation of the manager could help clear some things up. This could potentially make his assignment a whole lot easier.
“Look, buddy, if I knew all the answers then I would give them to you. But frankly, I don’t know everything.” Gerald took another scoopful of mashed potatoes, and before he swallowed them, he started talking again. “You ever try to eavesdrop? It’s tough shit. You can never get everything out of a conversation.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“But since you came all this way, I can take a crack at them.” Gerald stopped talking for a second. Robert guessed that he was probably trying to remember the questions. After he gathered his thoughts, he said, “You know how these things are; a subversive worker who has got some influence in his group gets an idea and then it spreads like a virus. Who knows how it gets from one place to another, it just does. That’s my take on the whole ‘how do they know the destination in the first place’ question. I can’t help you with what type of place it is. I already told you what I think it is.”
“So ideas are like a virus: there’s no hope of extinguishing it? That means there’s always going to be that one person who will stick around to spread it. That’s just great. So there’s no hope of stopping these deserters? That makes my assignment sound a whole lot easier.”
“Easy now. It was just an analogy. You’re looking too into it. And there is a way of stopping it: you just stop the source.”
“Okay. Got any advice on the train track / visible location question? Here’s hoping that it isn’t as dismal.”
“It’s probably just for convenience. You can get more drones to a local if you get them there by train. All Homesteads have access to a train after all.” Gerald thought this one over. “Who would want to leave their life at a Homestead, a life that’s largely taken care of mind you, if they had to walk a hundred miles through brush?”
“Depends how crappy their life on the Homestead is. But that’s beside the point. I just want to know why this commune, or cult or whatever, would put their operations within a mile of a train track. Don’t you think they would have enough sense to locate it someplace where they weren’t at risk of being spotted? Are these people free of paranoia or something? Or are they just insanely oblivious?”
“Hey buddy, it’s Virginia. Trees cover everything. I haven’t ridden on that train line, but I bet you can’t see what’s going on ten meters from the track in broad daylight.”
“Nope. I’ve got the location, so I guess I’m good.”
“Okay good. Now, would you please let me finish the rest of my meal in peace?”
Robert left the room with less confidence than what he walked in with. His goal was sounding increasingly unattainable. Had he stuck around longer, he would have probably gathered more bleak advice from Gerald, which would probably lead him to quit right then and there.
Luckily, he caught Gerald at a bad time. Gerald seemed much more interested in his meal than he did with Robert’s assignment. If Gerald hadn’t been eating, Robert would’ve most likely heard every statistic involving this years projected revenue losses and how this would affect the Homesteads reputation amongst the Mid-Eastern Seaboard rankings. If Robert had to endure that, he probably would’ve just quit before he even got any information about his assignment. So, catching Gerald at a bad time meant that Robert had good timing.