In The Fields

Jones awoke in a state of panic, for he was not in his bed. He was not even in his room. He stood inside the small tool shed attached to his barn, wearing his pajamas, but no slippers. He realized his feet were almost numb from the cold, covered by wet mud that he had tracked onto the damp concrete floor of the shed.

When he returned to the house he was told by his groggy wife, Dolores, that he had always sleepwalked since she had known him, although he had never awoken during an episode, and he rarely went so far. “I suppose it has something to do with stress,” she said as she rubbed sleep from her eyes. “You always start sleepwalking during a difficult time or decision. Is something going on, honey?”

He told her he supposed it was the meeting he was to attend this afternoon. But, well, he was stunned that she had never before managed to mention his somnambulance during their 15 years of marriage. “I didn’t want to worry you; you’ve already had so many changes and decisions to deal with, what’s the use thinking about something you can’t change?”

* * *

The meeting was with an executive from Decantur, and a guest. “James Haley,” the guest introduced himself. He was a reporter for some national rag, doing an exposé on Decantur’s rise to prominence in agriculture and the innovative practices that had driven food prices across the globe to all-time lows. “Mr Jones,” the Decantur executive preened, “was one of the first farmers to partner with us. He took his father’s farm – a 20th century family operation with a deep legacy – and helped shepherd in the automated, distributed, mechanized solutions that our company pioneered. Together we learned how the United States’ agriculture could be converted into the food basket of tomorrow!”

The reporter, Haley, turned to Jones. “So, you’ve had a view from the ground level since the beginning. We know how the suits in their boardrooms have framed this revolution. How have things been from the perspective of an honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth farmer like yourself?”

“Well,” Jones stammered, “I don’t know about all that. I’m not some Silicon Valley genius; it’s simply hard work and common sense that has allowed me to get to this point.”

“Now, Mr Jones,” Haley said, “don’t undersell yourself. I’ve talked to my share of farmers, and it’s always the same line: not too smart, just an honest fellow, a simple man… you may not have the formal learning of the Princeton boys back in the Decantur labs – although I’ve known more than one farmer with a PhD or two – but in my experience you farmers have a knife-sharp intellect. Is it true you built all the infrastructure we see around us?” He gestured at the fields. Towering grain elevators, sweeping watering system armatures, and rumbling transporter mega-trucks dominated the vista. Thresher-harvesters glided through the fields of rippling grain.

“That’s true, although Decantur leases the material kits to us.” Jones scratched his neck. “Perhaps you’d like to see my assembly yard?”

They moved across the property and rounded the back of a garage. On one side of the yard sat a row of fancy cargo containers. An array of half-constructed pieces of equipment stretched out from it. “It usually takes a few days to put together a transporter like you see here. The pieces have embedded hydraulics for partial self-assembly, but then there is quite a bit of wiring to be done.” Jones quirked an unconscious smile. “I can’t say I expected to become so good at making wiring harnesses when I thought about the farming business as a kid.”

“That’s incredible,” Haley said.

“Yes, well, we provide quite detailed and foolproof instructions,” the Decantur executive piped up.

Haley glanced at him askance. “What about repairs? Are there licensed Decantur mechanics that come out?”

“Well, that is a service provided,” Jones said. “Although I don’t know a farmer that uses it. That takes far too long and takes too much out of the bottom line. If a piece of machinery breaks down, I drive out into the fields and diagnose it on the spot. The latest models have a ton of self-diagnosing functions, but back in the day I’d often spend most of my day in the guts of these machines, swapping parts or greasing joints with my head inches from deactivated thresher blades or high voltage solenoids.”

“Our latest models,” the executive interjected again, “will have the ability to interface with automated repair facilities, freeing up the farmer for more important tasks.”

“Speaking of which, I don’t believe you ever answered my original question, Mr Jones. How has your job changed since Decantur got involved with your farm?”

Jones looked at the executive, but receiving no obvious response, he took his thumbs from his pockets and answered truthfully with some sweeping hand gestures. “The big difference is the planning. We would survey the lands and plot the fields. We took soil samples from all across the property and cross-referenced that with seasonal forecasts and crop tolerances in order to determine what to plant in a season, and where to plant it. We’d monitor the fields and schedule chemical treatments, watering, and harvesting based on that.”

“And how would you make those decisions?”

“Just a farmer’s intuition, I suppose. They keep discovering new things about crops all the time, but even in my daddy’s time, it was just years of experience that let you avoid planting in the wrong place or at the wrong time and ending up with a bum crop and a mountain of debt.”

“So how has that changed in recent years?”

“Nowadays I don’t do any of that, to be frank. As I understand it, these systems all talk to each other and use fancy models cooked up in the Decantur labs to know when and where to act.”

The executive took up the thread, adding “Our central servers at Decantur headquarters integrate myriad data from satellites, fixed monitoring posts, and on-the-go sensor data from our machines in the fields. This data is fed into our proprietary models, which are constantly updated using state-of-the-art machine learning. The model directs the actions of all the Decantur equipment in the field. The greatest benefit is that now two Decantur farmers next to each other can seamlessly benefit from each other’s data and even each other’s machinery. If one farmer’s field doesn’t need attention, trucks and harvesters can be diverted to the other farmer’s field. They can even store grain in each other’s silos, since we can measure exactly how much is harvested and redistribute it later.”

Haley turned to Jones. “That’s incredible. How do you feel about these radical changes to your family’s profession?”

“Frankly…” Jones looked at the executive, who gazed back. Jones stuck his thumbs in his pockets and continued, “err, I think it’s the future of farming, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

* * *

As Jones awoke the next morning, he felt panic again; but it was quickly tempered by remembrance of his wife’s admonishment. It had happened again. He was outside and his feet were bare and covered in cold mud. But as the fog of sleep lifted, he became confused. It was still dark outside, and the farmhouse was nowhere in sight. He stood in an odd clearing in a planted field. He didn’t even recognize this field – the full moon eerily illuminated the rows of soybeans, rows he was sure he hadn’t overseen the planting of. Even with Decantur’s automation, he still knew his fields.

But then he noticed something – a radio mast in the distance, the same radio mast that lay a dozen miles south of his farm. It was definitely closer. He started pushing through the massed stalks towards a stand of trees, his feet complaining as if they had already walked miles through cold earth and hard pavement. Jones paid little attention – ice cold adrenaline pumped through his veins, spurring him on. Practicing a long-forgotten childhood skill, Jones grappled with one of the trees and hoisted himself into its branches, and gazed over the tall crops.

If he indeed lay beyond the limits of his property, it was not by much. He hadn’t looked at the property line surveys for a few years now – Decantur’s integrated equipment sharing and millimeter-accurate satellite maps made it irrelevant. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t even sure which of his neighbors bordered this patch of land. Gazing longer, Jones saw the fields here had strange clearings and lines carved across them, stretching for hundreds of meters. Crop circles, Jones thought. He had been cold before — now he felt a chill to the bone.

He had to get back. He was close enough to his house; although walking back barefoot would be unpleasant. Fortunately, a thresher-harvester was now trundling through the soybeans a short ways away. He could stand in front of it and trip its vision systems, sending it into manual mode. The warmth of its operator cabin beckoned.

He positively dashed through the field and planted himself in its path, waving his arms furiously as its hellishly bright LED lights struck him. The thresher continued to grind forwards. It was ten meters away when Jones lost his nerve and jumped out of the way.

“What the…” Jones gawked at it from the ground as it rolled past. “What kind of damned fool program is this thing running?” He hopped to his feet, anger replacing all the other emotions of the night. He dashed after the vehicle, shouting “I made you, you infernal thing!” He sprinted to grab the access ladder and hauled himself onto the moving vehicle, throwing open the door to the operator cabin and sliding inside. He mashed the emergency shutdown switch, and the vehicle coughed to a stop.

“I’ll kill whatever tight-collared keyboard monkey put…” Jones mumbled furiously as he called up the log of commands and programs on the vehicle’s main computer. And why had the harvester been processing the field just now? That was a damned strange decision; this crop shouldn’t be harvested until a month or two from now.

There was nothing. No history, no list of message receipts between the control system and Decantur’s command center. It was as if the vehicle had never been running at all.

Jones made to restart the engine — it coughed and died. Jones tried the radio and found it dead as well. “Unbelievable,” he spat. He climbed out of the cab and began the walk back to the farmhouse.

It wasn’t long before he heard the sound of an engine coming towards him. Another harvester. Jones quickened his pace to move out of the vehicle’s path, not trusting its systems to avoid him. But the harvester began a turn, and Jones stayed illuminated by its headlights, even as he started into a jog and then a run. Its thresher blades churned menacingly, and it was growing nearer. Jones’ world shrank, leaving only the harvester and him. He pumped his legs and ran for his life. Ahead was a fence, and a road beyond it. In a single bound, he cleared the fence and tumbled onto the road. Behind him, the harvester slowed and – unbelievably – flicked its headlights once before turning around and lumbering off.

* * *

Decantur’s service representative on the phone was no help. There is no record of any vehicles in that sector, sir. It is absolutely impossible for a Decantur vehicle to malfunction in the way you’ve described, sir. You must be mistaken, sir.

Jones looked at the maps and called up McCallister, whose land bordered Jones’s near the mysterious fields. He described his encounter and asked if McCallister had noticed anything strange. No, he hadn’t, but if this was true something needed to be done about it. Together, they drove out to the plot of land, and they found the crop circles just as Jones had seen them the night before. McCallister scratched his head, and Jones pulled out his phone.

Jones met with James Haley, the reporter, later that day. “When you called me it sounded like you had something very interesting to share, Mr Jones. Well, I came as fast as I could.”

“It struck me that you weren’t looking to write a simple puff piece on Decantur.”

“As I said yesterday, you farmers are a smart bunch,” Haley said with a gleam in his eyes.

Jones recounted the previous night’s events. Haley quirked an eyebrow and when they drove out to the fields, Haley laughed at the sight. “You want me to report on crop circles?”

Jones sputtered. “I nearly died, and Decantur claims none of it happened! You’re telling me this isn’t the angle you wanted?”

“Listen, let me meet with your neighbor, this McCallister fellow. And tonight, let’s come out here and if a combine tries to run us down, then I’ll have a story.”

* * *

That night, there was more of a crowd than anybody expected. Haley showed up in his rented sedan with a shady individual in the passenger seat. The man gave his name as simply Alex, no last name. He was dressed like a city kid who had turned against the system; combat boots and a leather jacket. He carried a duffel bag which he referred to as his ‘tools’. “Alex,” Haley said, “is my go-to in these parts when it comes to tech writeups. He’s been all over – Silicon Valley, defense industry, white hat, grey hat.”

McCallister had also brought a guest. “Father Rubel,” the priest introduced himself. When everyone looked at McCallister, he shrugged and said, “It never hurts to have a priest around.”

The group walked out into the fields two hours after sunset. Alex glanced at Jones. “When did you say this all happened last night?”

“Can’t say exactly. As I said, I woke up there after a bout of sleepwalking, so I didn’t exactly have the opportunity to don a wristwatch.” Jones couldn’t keep all the barbs out of his voice; this Alex fellow didn’t rub him the right way at all.

“Well, when did you get back to your house?”

“About 1 in the morning.”

“Seems that all this must have happened around 11pm then, given the distances involved.”


“Then we may have a few hours before any crazy tractors show up, eh?” Alex grinned. Jones only glared back in response.

They set up in one of the clearings in the field. Alex unpacked a small drone and flew it overhead to capture pictures of the field with some sort of night vision camera, then took out a laptop and a small metal box. “I’m patching into Decantur’s satellite communication system,” he explained. “Should be able to see if any commands come down to the vehicles, either from the command center or from any other source.”

Father Rubel watched over Alex’s shoulder. “What other sources could there be?” The priest seemed genuinely curious about the work Alex was doing.

“You never know. It’s not exactly like these tractors are haunted; it’s possible a malicious agent is sending signals from an unlicensed transmitter.”

“You don’t think they are haunted? How can you be sure?”

Alex chuckled. “It just doesn’t seem likely.”

“You don’t believe in spirits? I take it you are an atheist?”

“If you must know,” Alex sighed, “I’m a wiccan.” He paused, as if expecting some outburst from the priest, but Father Rubel simply turned an amused smile. “It isn’t that I don’t believe in spirits, it’s that spirits and machines are about as separate as you can get.”

“How would you define spirit, then?”

“Isn’t that more your domain?” The priest didn’t respond, so Alex sighed and continued. “Spirit is the term we assign to the ineffable component that separates meat from living flesh. The transcendent drive that is not assignable to any single element of the…”

Alex paused to search for the perfect wording. Father Rubel offered, “…mechanism of flesh?”

For the first time, Alex turned a warm expression to the priest, a wry smile. “I see I’ve been led into a trap.”

* * *

As the priest and the hacker talked, the other three in the clearing deliberated. “Sure, these clearings are strange, but I’ve seen nothing that suggests they couldn’t have been cut by you or some other person looking to cause a bit of a stir,” Haley was saying.

“Why would I go about screwing with one of my fields?” Jones had gradually become more and more incandescent at Haley’s casual treatment of the situation. “Do you have any idea how much money is sunk into each acre of land here?”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you have any idea what is invested in this land? As far as I understand, the Decantur systems make all the decisions here, and you’ve been reduced to little but an assembly plant for the robots.”

Jones turned beet red and sputtered for a moment. He abruptly turned and stalked away, fuming.

“You shouldn’t disregard that man so easily,” McCallister said to the reporter. “His family has been farming the land around here for generations – he is dedicated to his craft, and he is no fool. More than any other man I know, if he says he saw what he did, I believe him.”

Just then, the sound of a diesel engine floated across the air to them – they all recognized it at the same time. Alex was running towards them, the priest trailing behind.

“They’re coming!”

Jones turned to Haley. “Convinced yet?” Haley looked uneasy.

The reporter hailed Alex. “What’s going on?”

“Not sure. Damn thing nearly ran us over out there. I need to go back to get my gear.”

Haley nodded and turned to the others. “Stay here. If something goes wrong, go for help.” He pushed forwards and Alex, still panting from his run, turned and followed the reporter back the direction he came.

Father Rubel was winded. McCallister stood worriedly at his side, asking if he needed anything. The priest waved off the farmer’s ministrations, and when he straightened, Jones saw a spark of determination in his eyes. “I need my gear,” he declared, and marched off towards their truck.

“Gear?” McCallister seemed dumbfounded.

No sooner had the priest left than Haley and Alex came running back towards the two farmers, dragging various bits of electronic equipment. “This is wack!” Alex shouted, looking back over his shoulder.

“What’s going on?” Jones asked, starting to feel ill from the uncertainty and confusion.

“There are at least three tractors out there. None of them are operating under standard visual safety protocol. One nearly got us,” Haley reported. “I mean, this is a great fucking story!” He grinned and pulled out his phone to start taking pictures of the four others.

“They chewed up my transmitters,” Alex said, setting down a laptop that trailed loose cables. “I did manage to run a couple scans and trace pings before that, though.”

By this time, Father Rubel was returning, carrying a generic black backpack. “And did those scans tell you anything about your unlicensed transmitter theory?”

Alex grimaced. “There are no pirate stations, as far as I can tell. My intrusions into the local network couldn’t find any connected tractors in this sector, and my attempt at connecting directly to the machines totally failed. It’s like those things don’t even exist!”

“So what now? We need to figure out what’s going on,” Haley said. “What do you need, Alex?”

“Next stage,” Alex mused, “would be to gain hardline access to the internal computer on one of them.” He looked at Jones. “You got inside the operator cabin on one, right?”

“Yeah,” Jones said, “but it wasn’t actively trying to run me down, it was just ignoring me.”

“Sounds like we need a new approach,” Father Rubel said. He hefted the backpack he carried. “I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.”

Alex scoffed. “What, are you gonna pray for the tractor to stop?”

Father Rubel smiled back. “What, a wiccan’s never heard of holy water and salt circles? Come on, son. We’ve got work to do.” He walked through the group and headed towards the sound of diesel engines.

Haley shook his head and muttered about how amazing this story was going to be, then followed the priest.

Alex looked at his ragged pile of salvaged equipment, looked at the receding priest, and took a moment to psyche himself up. Then he, too, followed towards the sound of the machines.

McCallister and Jones looked at each other. McCallister coughed. “Look, I don’t know about you, but I’m not following those fellas. They’re off the deep end.”

Jones breathed out. “Boy, I didn’t want to be the one to say it, but yeah, ain’t no way in hell I’m going out there.” 

They trekked back to the truck they had come in, and started up the heater to ward off the night’s chill. Minutes turned to half an hour, and the two started remarking on how long it was taking for the others to return. They each made an abortive suggestion to go and look for the others, but the security of the truck made the uncertain night chill even more ominous. And in truth, the spirits of both of the men were dampened by the simple fear in their belly and the subsequent shame at that fear. Two hours passed. In the end, Jones shifted the truck into drive without a word and he returned to his farmhouse after dropping McCallister at his.

The following morning, there were no new messages on Jones’ phone. He picked up McCallister and they returned to site of the previous night’s escapade to retrieve McCallister’s truck. In the light of day, the whole affair seemed ridiculous and the two men felt even deeper shame at their previous cowardice. Together, they pushed through the rows of soybean stalks.

They stepped into a circular clearing. McCallister turned away, his face pale. The dark, silent form of a thresher-harvester was parked near the middle. Bits of electronics were scattered on the ground, pressed into the earth among the distinctive tracks of tractor tire tracks. The harvester’s angular metal body was criss-crossed with broken lines of what Jones supposed was the priest’s salt. But of course, none of that was what had blanched McCallister. Six red symbols were painted along the side of the harvester, presumably drawn in blood, since a corpse was draped across the harvester and it leaked long trails of an identical color down to soak the soil. Two other bodies lay near the harvester, torn and bloodied, though Jones did not get near enough or look long enough to tell which was the hacker, which was the priest, and which was the reporter.

The police report was terse and straightforward, the sort of half-truth of a provincial department that wished to avoid national scrutiny. A local newspaper picked up the story, but the story failed to break nationally, and Decantur never released an official comment on the matter. A year later, the only artifact that remained was a clipping of the one newspaper story tacked onto the wall of a bar in a nearby town. Neither Jones or McCallister frequented that establishment, and when the occasional indecorous soul inquired about the incident, they did not speak on the matter. Jones’ wife Dolores never asked him what happened on that night but, she later said offhandedly, at least the events seemed to have cured Jones of his somnambulance.