Iron Manimal

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Chapter 11

Despite our relative detachment from life outside the hive we had managed to figure out a few things. Most of the grounds crew were permanently dead in the traditional sense. They had been riding on the roof despite my many warnings over the years. They said they did it to smoke, but they also ignored my warnings not to smoke inside the train. A cool crisp day on the roof was preferable to riding in the filth and stench of the quarters they were too lazy to ever clean. When disaster struck they were flung in all directions. Inertia had not brought them close enough to the rest of the train, or more importantly, to whatever had leaked out of those barrels. The few that had made it far enough were basically zombies. Whatever was in the barrels had gotten to them first, and while it had been programmed or endowed with some knowledge and instruction, it still needed practice, some real practical experience. The first to survive it were like clockwork compared to the circuitry of those of us to follow. The complexity of their simplicity was maladaptive. Most of their resources were devoted to self maintenance, toward moving and staying alive. A smart phone is infinitely more complicated than a Turing thinking machine but much easier for people to use and interact with, especially if they have no idea of how either works.

They were a pitiful, unlucky lot before and they were again now. Hands might be little more than hooks or pincers, one leg might be made of steel while another was made of rotting wood. They clicked and lurched around the wreck, frequently pausing to scoop up handfuls of dirt and leaves to cram into their ruined mouths. Occasionally, they would find what they considered to be a salvageable piece of tent or furniture or junk and put it into a pile in the woods. They had garbage piles at seemingly random spots all over the forest. Several of the barrels were unbroken and laying in plain sight, maybe the majority of them had survived the wreck and were still buried beneath the rubble, but as in their former lives, the grounds crew appeared to want nothing to do with them.

On the morning of the second day after the crash, they were gone. Lulu sent her bees far and wide but there was no sign of them or any of the others. We guessed that they felt the same way as we did, that they needed time to collect themselves and try to figure out what was going on. We were all too afraid of ourselves and each other to let our guards down, so we were all stuck in relative ignorance and inertia.

“Okay,” said Lulu, “let’s go through it again, but this time, I want you to disagree with me. Agreement is getting us nowhere. I don’t trust this, Scotty. There’s something we’re not seeing and you’re not fooling me, I can tell it’s bothering you, too.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Very funny.”

“No it isn’t. Maybe I’m bothered by this carousel of madness you have us on. Of course we’re missing something, but we should stick to what we can actually see. What’s in the barrels, where it came from, how it works, we don’t have enough information and it’s out of our depth anyway.”

“Agreed. And you don’t have to sugarcoat it.”

“So where do you want to start this time?”

“The barrels. The zombies are not interested in the barrels. And you don’t have to be snippy.”

“Maybe I do and yes they are, but why? They literally can’t chew and walk at the same time.”

I missed Phil and Garbageman Mike. Sometimes you need a third or fourth mind to fill in the gaps, or at least come up with anything new.

“It’s Leon.” I said. “Leon is controlling those poor saps just like he always has. He wants to sell the barrels or get them to whoever he was supposed to deliver them to.”

“No he isn’t you paranoid moron. And if he is controlling them, then why aren’t they taking any of the barrels?”

“They are taking the barrels you stuck up cunt, you’re just too stupid to see it.”

“Oh really? Then why don’t you explain it to me Mr. Smart Guy? And you went a little too far that time.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry for calling you a moron.”

“That’s alright. I am a moron.”

Lulu paused for a second and looked off at nothing, then turned back to me.

“So how are they moving the barrels, moron?”

“What? It’s okay for me to say it, not you. And this moron has you beat by a mile and a half you frigid wannabe whore.”

“Stop stalling, moron. Spit it out. Just like you used to after sucking off your dad.”

It hit me.

“They’re digging them up and hiding them in pieces of tent! And that was nasty, but not completely unexpected coming from you.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean? And I’m sorry. And I’m the moron.”

“We both got duped by a bunch of walking scarecrows.”

Lulu looked up at the ceiling of the hive and exhaled.

“Leon’s testing whatever’s inside the barrels. He doesn’t need a lot to run tests.”

This was all disturbingly plausible but that was all. They could be sneaking barrels out that might be for Leon who might be testing them. But Lulu was already angry and probably rightfully so. Whatever was going on stank to hell.

“That clever bastard. He must have noticed my bees, all those piles of trash he has scattered, the pieces of tent. I know we still need confirmation but this feels like Leon. A bunch of cheap parlor tricks from a second rate carnival barker.”

“Who was our boss.”

“Shut up, Scotty.”

I shut my mouth and tried to shut my brain, but it was becoming harder and harder to block Lulu the more time I spent with her. She told me she wasn’t really reading me, that her previous knowledge of my mind just made it easier for her to read my expressions as any person might, but she agreed that it didn’t really make a difference. Either way, her accuracy was uncanny whether I was blocking her or not.

When we touched there was no way to block her and I could read her to a certain extent as well. So far we had respected each others’ boundaries, but I didn’t really have a choice. There was no way I could take anything from her that she didn’t want to give.

My theory was that Lulu and Leon had died relatively bloodlessly and painlessly in comparison to Roger. Aside from her eyes, a new paleness to her skin, and the artificial warmth of her touch, Lulu looked and felt as she had in life. At night, she could probably pass as a normal, living person.

Death had given all three of them an extra boost, but Roger most of all, perhaps due to the extent of the repair he required. Or maybe because he was a tiger, because he was just that much bigger and more powerful to begin with. And again, order had something to do with it. For once, being last should have worked out for me, but as far as I could tell I was little more than an advanced model of the grounds crew. Lulu confirmed my impression that my light in her mind was average at best, that I was nothing compared to her, Leon, or especially Roger. Death appeared to be the crucial ingredient, and Lulu wasn’t ready to tell me how she had died. I was curious, but I didn’t press the issue. What was more important now was to figure out what she could do. Regular people plant stupid ideas into each others’ heads all the time, powerful, insidiously influential ideas. How much of a leap is it, from reading minds to controlling them outright?

I had no intention of facing Roger or Leon, but if it became unavoidable, I wanted us to be as prepared as possible.

“I was wondering Scotty. You haven’t turned into a wolf or anything since the night you arrived. Can you control it? And if you can turn into a wolf, maybe you can turn into other things, too, or alter yourself in other ways, don’t you think?”

She winked at me and it was even creepier than when she used to wink with her eyes rolled back. Either we were on the same page or she could read me now despite herself and my efforts to block her. It’s difficult to trust or know what’s going on when you don’t know the extent of a person’s power over you. Maybe she didn’t know either.

“Reading minds is a funny thing, Scotty. Who’s really in charge? Who’s leading who? I can’t help but be dragged along with your thoughts. After awhile it becomes difficult to tell, whose thoughts are whose.”

“Or if you’re reading my mind or feeding it. I trust you Lulu. I don’t think you’d do something like that if you could help it, and I don’t think you’re doing it now. For whatever it’s worth, I still feel like myself.”

Lulu was silent for a moment. Maybe she was double checking, to make sure her thoughts were her own.

“I know you want to know, and it’s been selfish of me not to tell you. So I will. But afterward, I need you to leave for a few days.”

“I understand. And honestly, I need some time, too.”

She told me, and I left.

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