Invisible Hand – Chapter Thirty-Nine: Field Trip

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In which Jean, Natalie, and Niall meet some new folks.

It was time for their first field trip. Though nearly all of the trainees had lived and worked with Payers around them for years, they had never really looked at the world through a payer’s eyes. By joining Payers in the course of their duties and listening to those Payers speak their thoughts and concerns, the apprentice Payers would gain perspectives they simply couldn’t grasp as students in a classroom. This was a chance to be as close to being a Payer as one could get without actually paying anyone.

Most of a Payer’s daily activities consisted of gathering information and transmitting it to the vast database maintained by the accounting computers. The apprentices could participate in this data collection and thereby actually help get the Payer’s job done. For this reason, most Payers were willing to serve as mentors to the beginners. Of course, almost all Payers were sociable types and welcomed company in the course of their work.

Niall was a little uneasy about the trip. He still had no intention at all of becoming a Payer and he knew that if he were asked to pay someone he would have to refuse. He was concerned about losing his present acceptance by the group if he set himself apart by not doing what the others did. He supposed that when his background had been investigated, the others had discovered the terms of his sentence but he assumed that the others were nonetheless thinking of him as someone who would also become a Payer when the training was over.

Therefore, when the opportunity arose to be in a much smaller group who were going to join a rural Payer, Niall jumped at the chance, even though none of the folks from his class were in that group. He justified it to them, casually, as an opportunity to be with his friend Jean (whom the others did not particularly like and whose reputation even in his own barracks was pretty bad). To Niall’s surprise, Natalie also volunteered. For this reason Natalie, Jean, Niall, and a bald, chubby Payer named Felipe [picture Friar Tuck] were the people in the jeep as it wound its way through the foothills of the Manzano Mountains Southeast of Albuquerque.

“You must always notice the hands of the workers to see who has calluses and who does not,” Felipe was saying and gesturing as if the steering wheel really didn’t matter at all. “They talk about automated farms but no matter how much fancy equipment a farmer has there will always be some hard physical labor involved. If their hands are soft, they’re not doing their share of that work no matter how they’re dressed.”

“But how can you tell whose work is more valuable?” Natalie asked.” How does one compare slopping hogs with collecting the eggs?”

“Well, first we have to know what happens to the various products after they leave the farm. Naturally, the computer takes care of that pretty well. Then if one or the other of the workers did most of the work for a certain product, it’s pretty easy to assign a rough percentage of that product’s credit to that worker. There’s also a lot of general farm work like fixing a tractor or working on fences or roads. This kind of work contributes to everything the farm does. So it earns a general percentage on all the products. You also have ideas involved. These are trickier. If someone suggests an improvement which they try and it works, we generally give about 25% of the improvement to the one who suggested it. Then the rest goes to the guys who implement the idea. We also have to stop pay on the technique, equipment or whatever which was replaced and estimate what it would have generated in product if it had been retained. Naturally, we’re shooting in the dark sometimes and mess up but it’s generally a good idea to miss on the side of the change improving things if you’re going to miss. This keeps them trying to think of more improvements. Being willing to change, like with the fertilizer thing a few years ago, is very important to our success.”

“But still, you aren’t there all the time to watch what each person’s doing and see how well they’re doing it,” Natalie persisted. “How do you know what they’ve done?”

“Well of course I talk to the farmers and their hands. You have to remember that even out here a man’s reputation is very important,” Felipe said, wagging a finger at Natalie. “If a farmer lies about what work one of his hands does or how well he’s doing it, that farm hand is not going to be working there next time I come by. The only way you keep your men working is to see that they get credit where credit is due. Of course, if some guy is shirking, you don’t really care if he doesn’t come back or not. If you’re being fair, the word will spread and you’ll have little trouble getting people to come out and work when you need them.”

“But even if they’re telling you the truth, how do you know how much benefit each is responsible for?

“Oh, that’s easy. I only have to assign a percentage to each worker so they each get that percentage of what the farm earned for that period. Remember that I don’t discover most of the benefit that the farm’s products provide except for the small part that’s consumed on the farm. Basically, I contribute to some fields in a big spreadsheet that calculates the actual amount that each person should be paid. Naturally, I look over what the benefits were and who got them to be sure the payment is reasonable before I credit the accounts.”

The jeep swung round a corner while cresting a hill and a beautiful valley was revealed before them. The hills in the middle distance were dark with brilliantly white clouds moving leisurely away from them toward the plains and never quite making it. The ranch house was sheltered by a number of large shade trees and white fencing around the barn matched its trim and attracted the eye toward the working part of the establishment. A truck was unloading hay bales at the barn, using the winch at the eaves over the main door.

Felipe fell silent for the first time since they had met him. He seemed to smell the air and his eyes darted from one thing to another, seeming to see everything but the road. The road came down to near the small stream that had made the valley and the trees growing there blocked their view of the house and barn.

Where the road crossed the stream, Felipe stopped the jeep, got out, and took a box from under the front seat. He went down to the stream with a trio of very curious apprentice Payers following him. At the stream Felipe took a small sample of water and placed it in the box, which proved to be an analysis field kit. After a short time the kit indicated it was satisfied and they returned to the jeep.

“This is all left over from the fertilizer thing about ten years ago,” Felipe explained. “We have to be sure that the streams are free of too much fertilizer. Or in this particular case, too much animal wastes. This gizmo senses its location and reports its findings directly to the computer system. Of course I have to stay close to the spot where I got the sample until it’s finished.”

“What was the ‘fertilizer thing’ you mentioned?” Niall asked. “I was out of the country for about 15 years and just got back a few months ago.”

“You really missed a dustup on that one,” Felipe said laughing. “Some of the science guys did some tests and discovered that most fertilizers were doing more harm than good. Most farmers couldn’t believe it and some wouldn’t believe it but the scientists had the data. So we started cutting pay for the farms that used very much fertilizer. That’s when they gave us these water testers. We were getting samples from ditches and streams and creeks. We even had guys dipping water out of the estuaries and from miles out to sea. We could track the fertilizer used back to who made it and who used it. There were farmers and fertilizer manufacturers mad all over the country. But within a couple of years our agriculture was producing even more than before and the rivers and the ocean were already showing improvements.”

As they pulled into the drive that led to the main house, Niall saw some familiar tanks and pipes behind the barn. “Is that a thermal conversion processing plant there?”

“Sure. Out here it’s too far to truck the stuff to a central plant like they do back East. Most of the larger farms and ranches have their own units. They don’t run full time and they often get loads of hydrocarbons from their smaller neighbors. They usually make enough oil and gas to run all the farm equipment in the area and make all the fertilizer they can use. Of course they don’t use nearly as much as they used to,” he chuckled.

At the main house several people and a couple of dogs came out to welcome them with words of welcome and, from the dogs, inquisitive noses. There were hand-shakes and introductions and invitations to stay for lunch. Felipe winked at the others and he gravely accepted the invitation.

They toured the farm with the farmer’s 13-year-old daughter who appeared to delight in showing off what a good farm it was and bragging unashamedly about what a smart, productive farmer her father was. Felipe got them in hand after about an hour of the tour and took them around to check on the things he felt were worthy of notice. It turned out to actually be a good farm.

Lunch was delicious and Niall began to realize why they had arrived when they did. Felipe was a Payer and a good one but he recognized food that in a city would have been sold in a luxury restaurant. Of course, the fact that much of it was grown on this very farm and was being cooked by the boss of the place (the farmer’s wife) meant that to all intents and purposes it would never be considered a luxury. But Niall had rarely tasted finer.

Niall had inquired about the POM colony he’d heard was in the area and Felipe had agreed to drive them close enough to see the roadblock that the colonists had set up. So they headed deeper into the mountains. There was only about an hour of daylight left as they swung onto an old, crumbling two-lane road. It was clear from the cracks in the pavement and the vegetation growing in the road and overhanging the road that no one was doing any maintenance on it. As the road made a sharp curve around a rocky outcrop, Felipe hit the brakes because there was a small tree down across the road.

They all piled out of the jeep to help pull the tree out of the way. They had just gotten it off the road when four young men appeared. Their clothes were mostly brown and grey with leather hats and crude-looking shoes. Their pants were held up with suspenders and rather than buttons they had tie strings on their shirts. In comparison with the whites and yellows of Niall’s party, the young men’s clothing looked positively crude, primitive even. But there was nothing primitive about the revolver one of the men had in his hand, though it was dangling at his side.

Two of the men went immediately to the Jeep and touched it as if they had never seen such a thing before. The gun holder was above average in height and appeared to be in his mid twenties. The others were somewhat younger. The two at the jeep couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20. They were all slender to thin in build, but except for the gun wielder, appeared to have spent quite a lot of time outdoors, based on their complexions and their rough hands.

“Good evening,” Felipe said with a big smile. “Can we help you?”

“Oh, yeah,” the gunman said.” You can help us quite a lot. What have you got in the car, there?”

“Not much, we’re going back to Albuquerque tonight so we just brought some clothes, snacks and water,” Felipe said.

“Aren’t you carrying some guns?” the second man said.

“Shut up, Arnie. Let me do the talking,” the gun holder snapped, clearly somewhat nervous and on edge. “Okay, like he said, you got any guns?”

Felipe held his arms wide and said,” You can see we don’t have any weapons on our bodies and your friends, there, can see there’s nothing in the jeep but our suitcases, food, and water. We have no guns.”

“Okay, Arnie, you go around behind them and search them from behind. I’ll keep the gun on them in case they try anything.”

Arnie moved to comply and began with Niall, patting and squeezing various portions of his clothing.

“Cal, come and see this. There’s a box here that’s real cold inside. It’s neat. And it’s got bottles made out of plastic with water in them,” the short black-haired boyish one said.

“Billy, I’ll get to that later,” Cal said not taking his attention off the party in front of him. “Is that all they got in that car?”

“Yeah, Cal, I searched it good. Them suitcases just got clothes and bottles of stuff in them. The car ain’t got nothin’ in it that we kin use,” the other man at the jeep said.

“Like hell, Steve, these sandwiches are good. You ever seen such fine bread?”

“Billy, we ain’t after a few sandwiches and the creek’s got all the water we need.”

“Would you two shut up!” Cal shouted. “Okay, what have you got on you? You, you seem to do all the talkin’. You got any money on you?” Cal gestured at Felipe.

Felipe smiled broadly and said, “not this trip.”

“No money at all?” Steve was incredulous.

“No money at all,” Felipe said holding out his hands palms up.

Arnie had finished searching Jean and Niall by then, having found only their personal digital assistants in their pockets along with a pocket knife on Jean.

Steve’s eyes got big and he blurted out, “Cal, he’s in all white clothes. You don’t think he’s one of those Godless Payer fellahs do ya? I mean, they ain’t supposed to touch money are they?”

Cal brought the gun up menacingly on Felipe and with a grim mouth asked,” Are you a Payer?”

“Indeed I am, Signore. Felipe Sanchez, at your service,” and he bowed deeply with a flourish of his hat.

“What about you guys? Are you Payers, too?” Cal asked, beginning to sweat despite the relative cool with the sun setting behind the mountain and the altitude. His hand on the gun was visibly trembling.

“Are you gonna kill ‘em, Cal?” Billy asked with an awed look on his face.

“No! We aren’t Payers,” Jean burst out. “We hardly know him. He was just showing us around.”

“How come he was driving, Cal? He must be the boss of these guys. We can’t trust ‘em. You know that Cal. Payers are Satan Spawn. We pretty much have to kill them all,” Steve said, looking scared.

“Wait, wait. Niall’s got money. Lots of it. Doesn’t that prove he ain’t a Payer?” Jean was sounding almost panicky.

The gun swung over to Niall and Cal asked, “Is what he said true. Do you have money?”

“I have enough money. I can buy whatever I need.” Niall answered calmly. His biggest worry was that the men would panic and start shooting without thinking about it. Niall was pretty sure none of the young men had ever actually killed anyone before and he wanted to get them to calm down.

“Show me the money,” Cal said.

“I can’t show it to you, it’s in an account. You know what an account is, don’t you?”

“Anybody can say that. Prove you have money. Prove it or I’ll have to shoot you down now.” Niall could see that Cal’s nervousness was beginning to infect the others.

Arnie said,” Maybe he has something on him a Payer wouldn’t have, you know, like jewelry or something.”

“Well there’s my watch and this ring. It’s made of gold. Payers don’t wear gold rings.” Niall pulled the class ring from college off his finger and held it out to them.

Steve grabbed it and looked inside. “Okay. It says 14k. What does that mean?”

Cal visibly relaxed and said,” It means that the ring is gold. You notice that the Payer doesn’t have any rings. The woman is wearing earrings, too. Maybe they aren’t Payers after all.”

“Cal, maybe this guy with the money in the bank can buy us some guns,” Arnie put in.” They sure aren’t carrying anything worthwhile with them and I can’t imagine people having a car like that unless they were pretty well off. Especially with what’s been going on out here the last 15 years.”

“What are you gonna have us do, walk into a town with four prisoners and ask for the nearest gun store?” Steve asked. “That’s just plain stupid.”

“Look, Cal,” Arnie began.

“No you look Arnie,” Cal said frowning. “I’m the boss here. We’ll do what I say.”

“It’s just a suggestion, Cal. It ain’t like I got the gun. I’m just trying to get us what we come to get. If we go back with nuthin’ more than we got so far the Mayor will still have us over a barrel and Rush will have our guts for garters. I think we could wander these woods for weeks and not get a better chance than these people have just dropped into our laps. If this guy really does have lots of money he should be able to buy us just what we want without having to do more than walk around in a store. Why, hell, Cal, they even brought us something to carry the guns in.”

“But how you gonna make him buy anything, Arnie?” Steve said. “You walk into a store in a town holding a gun on him and you’ll be shot down like a dog.”

“Steve, we got four people here. We hold the other three here and one of us goes with this guy to make sure he gets just what we want. If we ain’t back with the guns in, say, three hours, then you start killing the others, one every couple of hours. I can’t believe he cares nothin’ about them. In fact, there’s a good chance this is his woman here. If he’s got the money you can bet she’d go for him rather than these other guys, even if he is old.”

At this Natalie blushed furiously.

“What makes you think you’re going with him to get the guns?” Cal asked, his attention now more on Arnie than the prisoners.

“Well it just makes sense, Cal,” Arnie replied. “You got to keep the gun with the prisoners and you can’t show the gun in town, so it has to stay here. Rush gave you the gun so you would always be the boss so you have to stay with the gun. You can’t send Billy ‘cause he ain’t got enough sense. Steve here would go after the first pretty girl he seen and forget all about the time and what we come here for. I’m the only one you got left to send.”

“What do you mean, I’d go after the first pretty girl I seen? I’d do a hell of a lot better job than you,” Steve shot out.

“Shut up, both of you,” Cal said sternly. “I’ll decide what to do and what I say is we can’t do anything tonight anyhow, so I’ll think about it until morning. Let’s get the car and these folks back to camp.”

Cal rode in the jeep with Felipe driving and the rest walked ahead of it. They went several hundred yards further and then cut off the road up a rather steep track that led to a sheltered hollow with a crude lean-to and a few blankets marking the camp.

Billy was sent to see if their snares had caught anything for supper and Jean and Niall were set to building a fire and gathering wood. Cal told Natalie how he liked his meat, as if giving orders to a scullery maid. There was a spring that fed a small creek about 30 yards from the tent and Steve was sent there to fill up the plastic bottles with fresh water.

Natalie said she had to use the toilet, so she was shown some bushes and Steve and Arnie went to opposite sides of the brush so she couldn’t escape. It was becoming clear that the young men were assuming that she was the key to controlling the others. So long as they had her, the others wouldn’t give any trouble.

Natalie was feeling miserable and panicky. Her gloves were already getting soiled and she felt like it would be worth her life to touch her face or her hair because of the contamination. The only thing that enabled her to not start screaming was that Niall seemed so calm. She kept telling herself that if Niall were that calm they must be all right. She thought she really didn’t need to relieve herself but had only used that as an excuse to get some privacy. But now that she was in the bushes, so to speak, she found she really would like to go. She made herself a little barrier of brush and did her business and then looked for clean leaves to cleanse herself. Everything was unsatisfactory and she felt like she would never really be clean again. When she used to go camping she had always brought plenty of wipes and such but now… Well they had already called to her twice. She would have to face them sometime. So she came out.

Felipe had said he could find some food in the woods if they’d let him, so Billy went with him and after an hour or so they came back with their arms loaded with what looked very much like salad makings. Felipe insisted that some of them were spices and that the roots were very good, like potatoes.

Felipe took over the cooking, though Natalie said she was willing to help and before long they had delicious odors of roasting meat (two rabbits and a pheasant). They had buried several potatoes under the fire so they had rabbit, pheasant, potatoes and salad for their meal.

At first Natalie had felt too dirty to eat but by using freshly broken twigs as chopsticks she managed to overcome her near nausea and eat. It’s amazing what exercise and outdoor air can do for the appetite.

By the time they finished eating, it was dark and getting chilly. None of Niall’s party had been planning to spend the night in the open so they had to keep feeding the fire all night and Cal had the other young men take turns on guard duty while Natalie slept in the lean-to.

Felipe told Niall what he’d learned from Billy while they were gathering salad makings and seasonings. It seems that the four were from the local POM colony. There was a “palace revolt” in the making, as the Mayor’s son wanted to overthrow his father. The source of the differences between them was that the son wanted to marry a young woman of the community and his father had his eye on the same girl. The son was sure that the Mayor was going to take the woman, at least as a mistress and maybe even as a second wife. Since the Mayor controlled the police, which was also the army, and therefore the community’s guns, the son figured that the only way his group, which included most of the younger men in the community, could take over was to get guns of their own from outside in the barrens.

It seems that Billy knew all about what life was like outside the POM colony. He knew all about the roving gangs of Communists which were run by Payers who raped and pillaged honest, God-fearing folks. He knew all about how most people were starving and crime and violence were the order of the day. He figured that in a few more years there would be hardly anybody left outside the POM colony and then the members of that community could come out and take the good land that was abandoned and have rich farms and lots to eat. They’d stay away from the cities, he said, because those were filled with pestilence and mutants from the nuclear wars. He said that you could tell the bombs had been used, because at night you could sometimes see the radioactive glow from over the mountains where Albuquerque had been.

Billy knew a lot about the outside world because he’d been listening very carefully when the preacher had told the congregation about how bad it was out there. Billy was very glad that the Payers who had come by the colony after the disaster had been chased away before they could infect the people with their Godless Communism.

By morning, they were all feeling rather uncomfortable from lack of sleep and sore muscles, though the young men were suffering far less than the others.

“All right,” Cal said when he had gathered them together after breakfast (leftovers and more potatoes).”I’ve given this a lot of thought. So long as I got the gun and the woman here, there ain’t much they can do except go along with whatever we want. Billy and I’ll keep the fat old payer here… and the other guy, while Steve and Arnie go see if they can find a place to buy some guns and ammunition. The two of you should be able to take care of one old man between you. And if you ain’t back by dark we’ll bury one of these three and move to that first place we camped after we left town. If you ain’t back by noon the next day we’ll bury another one and if you ain’t back by dark we’ll bury the last one. You got that, mister?”

“Yeah, I got it. We should be back in plenty of time. Just be cool,” Niall said.

“And if you bring anybody else back with you or anybody else shows up here the woman is the one I’ll kill first.” Cal was trembling again.

“Well guys, let’s get started. Natalie, Felipe, Jean, I’ll see all of you in a couple of hours. Don’t worry about a thing. Felipe, you think Monzano is the closest town that probably has a store that sells guns?” Niall said turning to Felipe.

At Felipe’s nod, Niall turned and quickly started for the jeep. Arnie and Steve each were caught unaware by the sudden movement and had to hurry to catch up, even though Niall never went above a brisk walk.

Niall arrived at the jeep first and started to get into the driver’s seat. Both Arnie and Steve yelled at him to stop, that they would be the driver. Then there was a five minute argument between the two of them, settled by Cal when he had Steve drive. Steve almost jumped into the driver’s seat with a mixture of gloating and glee on his face at the prospect of being one up on Arnie and getting to play with the biggest toy he’d ever seen. Naturally, during the walk to camp all three of the young men who were walking had spent a considerable time looking back at the jeep and seeing how Felipe steered. It looked easy.

Niall gave some directions about which foot pedal made it go forward and which stopped it and how to start it and shift gears. After some jerky movements at first, Steve learned how to press the accelerator gently and they started back down the track to the road. There were enough near accidents on the way down the slope that it was a chastened Steve that carefully edged the jeep onto the road and proceeded at a moderate pace back the way the captives had come. Niall was emphasizing that Steve would need to stay to the right side of the road if they met a car coming the other way and asking him to practice using only half the road so they would be sure to miss the other car. Steve continued to drive pretty much down the middle of the road, since he didn’t really expect to meet any other cars. When they came to the highway, the road was wider and the shoulder was not in disrepair, so Niall felt a little easier.

Then the first vehicle they met coming the other way was an 18 wheeler going about 70 miles an hour. Niall drove the rest of the way into Monzano after they got the jeep out of the ditch.

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