Charles Stross. Rogue Farm.


‘Rogue Farm’ appeared in ‘Live Without a Net’ (ed Lou Anders, pub Roc 2003). It is copyright Charles Stross, and appears here with his kind permission.


It was a bright, cool March morning: mare’s tails trailed across the south-eastern sky towards the rising sun. Joe shivered slightly in the driver’s seat as he twisted the starter handle on the old front-loader he used to muck out the barn. Like its owner, the ancient Massey-Fergusson had seen better days; but it had survived worse abuse than Joe routinely handed out. The diesel clattered, spat out a gobbet of thick blue smoke, and chattered to itself dyspeptically. His mind as blank as the sky above, Joe slid the tractor into gear, raised the front scoop, and began turning it towards the open doors of the barn – just in time to see an itinerant farm coming down the road.

“Bugger,” swore Joe. The tractor engine made a hideous grinding noise and died. He took a second glance, eyes wide, then climbed down from the tractor and trotted over to the kitchen door at the side of the farmhouse. “Maddie!” he called, forgetting the two-way radio clipped to his sweater hem. “Maddie! There’s a farm coming!”

“Joe? Is that you? Where are you?” Her voice wafted vaguely from the bowels of the house.

“Where are you?” He yelled back.

“I’m in the bathroom.”

“Bugger,” he said again. “If it’s the one we had round the end last month…”

The sound of a toilet sluiced through his worry. It was followed by a drumming of feet on the staircase, then Maddie erupted into the kitchen. “Where is it?” she demanded.

“Out front, about a quarter mile up the lane.”

“Right.” Hair wild and eyes angry about having her morning ablutions cut short, Maddie yanked a heavy green coat on over her shirt. “Opened the cupboard yet?”

“I was thinking you’d want to talk to it first.”

“Too right I want to talk to it. If it’s that one that’s been lurking in the copse near Edgar’s pond I got some issues to discuss with it.” Joe shook his head at her anger and went to unlock the cupboard in the back room. “You take the shotgun and keep it off our property,” she called after him: “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Joe nodded to himself, then carefully picked out the twelve-gauge and a pre-loaded magazine. The gun’s power-on self test lights flicker ederratically, but it seemed to have a full charge. Slinging it, he locked the cupboard carefully and went back out into the farmyard to warn off their unwelcome visitor.

The farm squatted, buzzing and clicking to itself, in the road outside Armitage End. Joe eyed it warily from behind the wooden gate, shotgun under his arm. It was a medium sized one, probably with half a dozen human components subsumed into it – a formidable collective. Already it was deep into farm-fugue, no longer relating very clearly to people outside its own communion of mind. Beneath its leathery black skin he could see hints of internal structure, cytocellular macro-assemblies flexing and glooping in disturbing motions. Even though it was only a young adolescent, it was already the size of an antique heavy tank, andblocked the road just as efficiently as an Apatosaurus would have. Its melled of yeast and gasoline.

Joe had an uneasy feeling that it was watching him. “Buggerit, I don’t have time for this,” he muttered. The stable waiting for the small herd of cloned spidercows cluttering up the north paddock was still knee-deep in manure, and the tractor seat wasn’t getting any warmer while he shivered out here waiting for Maddie to come and sort this thing out. It wasn’t a big herd, but it was as big as his land and his labour could manage — the big biofabricator in the shed could assemble mammalian livestock faster than he could feed them up and sell them with an honest HAND-RAISED NOT VAT-GROWN label. “What do you want with us?” he yelled up at the gently buzzing farm.

“Brains, fresh brains for baby Jesus,” crooned the farm in a warm contralto, startling Joe half out of his skin. “Buy my brains!” Half a dozen disturbing cauliflower shapes poked suggestively out of the farms’ back then retracted again, coyly.

“Don’t want no brains around here,” Joe said stubbornly, his fingers whitening on the stock of the shotgun. “Don’t want your kind round here, neither. Go away.”

“I’m a nine-legged semi-automatic groove machine!” Crooned the farm. “I’m on my way to Jupiter on a mission for love! Won’t you buy my brains?” Three curious eyes on stalks extruded from its upper glacis.

“Uh –” Joe was saved from having to dream up any more ways of saying fuck off by Maddie’s arrival. She’d managed to sneak her old battledress home after a stint keeping the peace in Mesopotamia twenty ago,and she’d managed to keep herself in shape enough to squeeze inside. Its left knee squealed ominously when she walked it about, which wasn’t often, but it still worked well enough to manage its main task – intimidating trespassers.

“You.” She raised one translucent arm, pointed at the farm. “Get off my land. Now.”

Taking his cue, Joe raised his shotgun and thumbed the selector to full auto. It wasn’t a patch on the hardware riding Maddie’s shoulders, but it underlined the point. The farm hooted: “why don’t you love me?” it asked plaintively.

“Get orf my land,” Maddie amplified, volume cranked up so high that Joe winced. “Ten seconds! Nine! Eight –” Thin rings sprang out from the sides of her arms, whining with the stress of long disuse as the Gauss gun powered up.

“I’m going! I’m going!” The farm lifted itself slightly, shuffling backwards. “Don’t understand. I only wanted to set you free to explore the universe. Nobody wants to buy my fresh fruit and brains. What’s wrong with the world?”

They waited until the farm had retreated round the bend at the top of the hill. Maddie was the first to relax, the rings retracting back into thearms of her battle dress, which solidified from ethereal translucency to neutral olive drab as it powered down. Joe safed his shotgun. “Bastard,”he said.

“Fucking A.” Maddie looked haggard. “That was a bold one.” Her face was white and pinched-looking, Joe noted: her fists were clenched. She had the shakes, he realised without surprise. Tonight was going to be another major nightmare night, and no mistake.

“The fence.” They’d discussed wiring up an outer wire to the CHP baseload from their little methane plant, on again and off again for the past year.

“Maybe this time. Maybe.” Maddie wasn’t keen on the idea of frying passers-by without warning, but if anything might bring her around it would be the prospect of being overrun by a bunch of rogue farms. “Help me out of this and I’ll cook breakfast,” she said.

“Got to muck out the barn,” Joe protested.

“It can wait on breakfast,” Maddie said shakily. “I need you.”

“Okay.” Joe nodded. She was looking bad; it had been a few years since her last fatal breakdown, but when Maddie said I need you it was a bad idea to ignore her. That way led to backbreaking labour on the biofab and loading her backup tapes into the new body; always a messy business. He took her arm and steered her towards the back porch. They were nearly there when he paused.

“What is it?” asked Maddie.

“Haven’t seen Bob for a while,” he said slowly. “Sent him to let the cows into the north paddock after milking. Do you think –”

“We can check from the control room,” she said tiredly. “Are you really worried …?”

“With that thing blundering around? What do you think?”

“He’s a good working dog,” Maddie said uncertainly. “It won’t hurt him. He’ll be alright; just you page him.”

# # #

After Joe helped her out of her battle dress, and after Maddie spent a good long while calming down, they breakfasted on eggs from their own hens, home-made cheese, and toasted bread made with rye from the hippie commune on the other side of the valley. The stone-floored kitchen in the dilapidated house they’d squatted and rebuilt together over the past twenty years was warm and homely. The only purchase from outside the valley was the coffee, beans from a hardy GM strain that grew likea straggling teen-ager’s beard all along the Cumbrian hilltops. They didn’t say much: Joe, because he never did, and Maddie, because there wasn’t anything that she wanted to say. Silence kept her personal demons down. They’d known each other for many years, and even when there wasn’t anything to say they could cope with each other’s silence. The voice radio on the windowsill opposite the cast-iron stove stayed off, along with the TV set hanging on the wall next to the fridge. Breakfast was a quiet time of day.

“Dog’s not answering,” Joe commented over the dregs of his coffee.

“He’s a good dog.” Maddie glanced at the yard gate uncertainly. “You afraid he’s going to run away to Jupiter?”

“He was with me in the shed.” Joe picked up his plate and carried it to the sink, began running hot water onto the dishes. “After I cleaned the lines I told him to go take the herd up the paddock while I did the barn.” He glanced up, looking out the window with a worried expression. The Massey-Fergusson was parked right in front of the open barn doors as if holding at bay the mountain of of dung, straw, and silage that mounded up inside like an invading odious enemy, relic of afrosty winter past.

Maddie shoved him aside gently and picked up one of the walkie-talkies from the charge point on the window sill. It bleeped and chuckled at her. “Bob, come in, over”. She frowned. “He’s probably lost his headset again.”

Joe racked the wet plates to dry. “I’ll move the midden. You want to go find him?”

“I’ll do that.” Maddie’s frown promised a talking-to in store for the dog when she caught up with him. Not that Bob would mind: words ran off him like water off a duck’s back. “Cameras first.” She prodded the battered TV set to life and grainy bisected views flickered across the screen, garden, yard, dutch barn, north paddock, east paddock, main field, copse. “Hmm.”

She was still fiddling with the smallholding surveillance system when Joe clambered back into the driver’s seat of the tractor and fired it up once more. This time there was no cough of black smoke, and as he hauled the mess of manure out of the barn and piled it into a three-metre high midden, a quarter of a ton at a time, he almost managed to forget about the morning’s unwelcome visitor. Almost.

By late morning the midden was humming with flies and producing a remarkable stench, but the barn was clean enough to flush out with a hose and broom. Joe was about to begin hauling the midden over to the fermentation tanks buried round the far side of the house when he saw Maddie coming back up the path, shaking her head. He knew at once what was wrong.

“Bob,” he said, expectantly.

“Bob’s fine. I left him riding shotgun on the goats.” Her expression was peculiar. “But that farm –”

“Where?” he asked, hurrying after her.

“Sqautting in the woods down by the stream,” she said tersely. “Just over our fence.”

“It’s not trespassing, then.”

“It’s put down feeder roots! Do you have any idea what that means?”

“I don’t –” Joe’s face wrinkled in puzzlement. “Oh.”

“Yes. oh.” She stared back at the outbuildings between their home and the woods at the bottom of their smallholding, and if looks could kill,the intruder would be dead a thousand times over. “It’s going to estivate, Joe, then it’s going to grow to maturity on our patch. And do you know where it said it was going to go when it finishes growing? Jupiter!”

“Bugger,” Joe said faintly, as the true gravity of their situation began to sink in. “We’ll have to deal with it first.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Maddie finished. But Joe was already on his way out the door. She watched him crossing the yard, then shook her head. “Why am I stuck here?” she asked herself, but the cooker wasn’t answering.

# # #

The hamlet of Outer Cheswick lay four kilometres down the road from Armitage End, four kilometres past mostly derelict houses and broken down barns, fields given over to weeds and walls damaged by trees. The first half of the twenty-first century had been cruel years for the British agrobusiness sector; even harsher if taken in combination with the decline in population and the consequent housing surplus. As a result,the drop-outs of the forties and fifties were able to take their pick from among the gutted shells of once fine farmhouses. They chose the best and moved in, squatted in the derelict outbuildings, planted their seeds and tended their flocks and practiced their DIY skills, until a generation later a mansion fit for a squire stood in lonely isolation alongside a decaying road where no more cars drove. Or rather, it would have taken a generation had there been any children against whose lives it could be measured; these were the latter decades of the population crash,and what a previous century would have labelled downshifter dink couples were now in the majority, far outnumbering any breeder colonies. In this aspect of their life, Joe and Maddie were boringly conventional. In other respects they weren’t: Maddie’s nightmares, her aversion to alcohol, and her withdrawl from society were all relics of her time in Peaceforce. As for Joe, he liked it here. Hated cities, hated the net, hated the burn of the new. Anything for a quiet life …

The Pig and Pizzle, on the outskirts of Outer Cheswick, was the only pub within about ten kilometres — certainly the only one within staggering distance for Joe when he’d had a skinful of mild — and it was naturally a seething den of local gossip, not least because Ole Brenda refused to allow electricity, much less bandwidth, into the premises. (This was not out of any sense of misplaced technophobia, but a side-effect of Brenda’s previous life as an attack hacker with the European Defense Forces.)

Joe paused at the bar. “Pint of bitter?” he asked tentatively. Brenda glanced at him and nodded, then went back to loading the antique washing machine. Presently she pulled a clean glass down from the shelf and held it under the tap.

“Hear you’ve got farm trouble,” she said non-commitally as she worked the hand pump on the beer engine.

“Uh-huh.” Joe focussed on the glass. “Where’d you hear that?”

“Never you mind.” She put the glass down to give the head time to settle; “you want to talk to Arthur and Wendy-the-Rat about farms. They had one the other year.”

“Happens.” Joe took his pint. “Thanks, Brenda. The usual?”

“Yeah.” She turned back to the washer. Joe headed over to the far corner where a pair of huge leather sofas, their arms and backs ripped and scarred by generations of Brenda’s semi-feral cats, sat facing each other on either side of a cold hearth. “Art, Rats. What’s up?”

“Fine, thanks.” Wendy-the-Rat was well over seventy, one of those older folks who had taken the p53 chromosome hack and seemed to wither into timelessness: white dreadlocks, nose and ear studs dangling loosely from leathery holes, skin like a desert wind. Art had been her boy-toy once, back before middle age set its teeth into him. He hadn’t had the hack, and looked older than she did. Together they ran a smallholding, mostly pharming vaccine chicks but also doing a brisk trade in high-nitrate fertilizer that came in on the nod and went out in sacks by moonlight.

“Heard you had a spot of bother?”

“‘S true.” Joe took a cautious mouthful. “Mm, good. You ever had farm trouble?”

“Maybe.” Wendy looked at him askance, slitty-eyed. “What kinda trouble you got in mind?”

“Got a farm collective. Says it’s going to Jupiter or something. Bastard’s homesteading the woods down by old Jack’s stream. Listen …Jupiter?”

“Aye well, that’s one of the destinations, sure enough.” Art nodded wisely, as if he knew anything.

“Naah, that’s bad.” Wendy-the-Rat frowned. “Is it growing trees, do you know?”

“Trees?” Joe shook his head. “Haven’t gone and looked, tell the truth. What the fuck makes people do that to themselves, anyway?”

“Who the fuck cares?” Wendy’s face split in a broad grin. “Such as don’t think they’re human anymore, meself.”

“It tried to sweet-talk us,” Joe said.

“Aye, they do that,” said Arthur, nodding emphatically. “Read somewhere they’re the ones as think we aren’t fully human. Tools an’ clothes and farmyard machines, like? Sustaining a pre-post-industrial lifestyle instead of updating our genome and living off the land like God intended?”

“‘Ow the hell can something with nine legs and eye stalks call itself human?” Joe demanded, chugging back half his pint in one angry swallow.

“It used to be, once. Maybe used to be a bunch of people.” Wendy gota weird and witchy look in her eye: “‘ad a boyfriend back thirty, forty years ago, joined a Lamarckian clade. Swapping genes an’ all, the way you or me’d swap us underwear. Used to be a ‘viromentalist back when antiglobalisation was about big corporations pissing on us all for profits. Got into gene hackery and self-sufficiency bigtime. I slung his fucking ass when he turned green and started photosynthesizing.”

“Bastards,” Joe muttered. It was deep green folk like that who’d killed off the agricultural-industrial complex in the early years of the century, turning large portions of the countryside into ecologically devastated wilderness gone to rack and ruin. Bad enough that they’d set millions of countryfolk out of work — but that they’d gone on to turn green, grow extra limbs and emigrate to Jupiter orbit was adding insult to injury. And having a good time in the process, by all accounts. “Din’t you’ave a farm problem, coupla years back?”

“Aye, did that,” said Art. He clutched his pint mug protectively.

“It went away,” Joe mused aloud.

“Yeah, well.” Wendy stared at him cautiously.

“No fireworks, like.” Joe caught her eye. “And no body. Huh.”

“Metabolism,” said Wendy, apparently coming to some kind of decision. “That’s where it’s at.”

“Meat –” Joe, no biogeek, rolled the unfamiliar word around his mouth irritably. “I used to be a software dude before I burned, Rats. You’ll have to ‘splain the jargon fore using it.”

“You ever wondered how those farms get to Jupiter?” Wendy probed.

“Well.” Joe shook his head. “They, like, grow stage trees? Rocket logs? An’ then they est-ee-vate and you are fucked if they do it next door’cause when those trees go up they toast about a hundred hectares?”

“Very good,” Wendy said heavily. She picked up her mug in both hands and gnawed on the rim, edgily glancing around as if hunting for police gnats. “Let’s you and me take a hike.”

Pausing at the bar for Ole Brenda to refil her mug, Wendy led Joe out past Spiffy Buerke — throwback in green wellingtons and Barbour jacket– and her latest femme, out into what had once been a car park and was now a tattered wasteground out back behind the pub. It was dark, and no residual light pollution stained the sky: the Milky Way was visible overhead, along with the pea-sized red cloud of orbitals that had gradually swallowed Jupiter over the past few years. “You wired?” asked Wendy.

“No, why?”

She pulled out a fist-sized box and pushed a button on the side of it, waited for a light on its side to blink green, and nodded. “Fuckin’ polis bugs.”

“Isn’t that a –”

“Ask me no questions an’ I’ll tell you no fibs.” Wendy grinned.

“Uhhuh.” Joe took a deep breath: he’d guessed Wendy had some dodgy connections, and this — a portable local jammer — was proof: any police bugs within two or three metres would be blind and dumb, unable to relay their chat to the keyword-trawling subsentient coppers whose job it was to prevent consipracy-to-commit offenses before they happened. It was a relic of the internet age, when enthusiastic legislators had accidentally demolished the right of free speech in public by demanding keyword monitoring of everything within range of a network terminal– not realising that in another few decades ‘network terminals’ would be self-replicating bots the size of fleas and about as common as dirt. (The ‘net itself had collapsed shortly thereafter, under the weight of self-replicating viral libel lawsuits, but the legacy of public surveillance remained.) “Okay. Tell me about metal, meta –”

“Metabolism.” Wendy began walking towards the field behind the pub. “And stage trees. Stage trees started out as science fiction, like? Some guy called Niven — anyway. What you do is, you take a pine tree and you hack it. The xylem vessels running up the heartwood, usually they just lignify and die in a normal tree. Stage trees go one better, and before the cells die they nitrate the cellulose in their walls. Takes one fuckin’ crazy bunch of hacked ‘zymes to do it, right? And lots of energy, more energy than trees’d normally have to waste. Anyways, by the time the tree’s dead it’s like ninety percent nitrocellulose, plus built-in stiffeners and baffles and microstructures. It’s not, like, straight explosive — it detonates cell by cell, and some of the xylemtubes are, eh, well, the farm grows custom-hacked fungal hyphae witha depolarizing membrane nicked from human axons down them to trigger the reaction. It’s about efficient as’at old-time Ariane or Atlasrocket. Not very, but enough.”

“Uh.” Joe blinked. “That meant to mean something to me?”

“Oh ‘eck, Joe.” Wendy shook her head. “Think I’d bend your ear if it wasn’t?”

“Okay.” He nodded, seriously. “What can I do?”

“Well.” Wendy stopped and stared at the sky. High above them, a belt of faint light sparkled with a multitude of tiny pinpricks; a deep green wagon train making its orbital transfer window, self-sufficient post-human Lamarckian colonists, space-adapted, embarking on the long, slow transferto Jupiter.

“Well?” He waited expectantly.

“You’re wondering where all that fertilizer’s from,” Wendy said eliptically.

“Fertilizer.” His mind blanked for a moment.

“Nitrates.”

He glanced down, saw her grinning at him. Her perfect fifth set of teeth glowed alarmingly in the greenish overspill from the light on her jammer box.

“Tha’ knows it make sense,” she added, then cut the jammer.

# # #

When Joe finally staggered home in the small hours, a thin plume of smoke was rising from Bob’s kennel. Joe paused in front of the kitchen door and sniffed anxiously, then relaxed. Letting go of the door handle he walked over to the kennel and sat down outside. Bob was most particular about his den — even his own humans didn’t go in there without an invitation. So Joe waited.

A moment later there was an interrogative cough from inside. A dark, pointed snout came out, dribbling smoke from its nostrils like a particularly vulpine dragon. “Rrrrrrr?”

“‘S’me.”

“Uuurgh.” A metallic click. “Smoke good smoke joke cough tickle funny arf arf?”

“Yeah, don’t mind if I do.”

The snout pulled back into the kennel; a moment later it re-appeared, teeth clutching a length of hose with a mouthpiece on one end. Joe accepted it graciously, wiped off the mouthpiece, leaned against the side of the kennel, and inhaled. The weed was potent and smooth: within a few seconds the uneasy dialogue in his head was still.

“Wow, tha’s a good turn-up.”

“Arf-arf-ayup.”

Joe felt himself relaxing. Maddie would be upstairs, snoring quietly in their decrepit bed: waiting for him, maybe. But sometimes a man just had to be alone with his dog and a good joint, doing man-and-dog stuff. Maddie understood this and left him his space. Still …

“‘At farm been buggering around the pond?”

“Growl exclaim fuck-fuck yup! Sheep-shagger.”

“If it’s been at our lambs –”

“Nawwwwrr. Buggrit.”

“So whassup?”

“Grrrr, Maddie yap-yap farmtalk! Sheepshagger.”

“Maddie’s been talking to it?”

“Grrr yes-yes!”

“Oh shit. Do you remember when she did her last backup?”

The dog coughed fragrant blue smoke. “Tank thump-thump full cow moo beefclone.”

“Yeah, I think so too. Better muck it out tomorrow. Just in case.”

“Yurrrrrp.” But while Joe was wondering whether this was agreement or just a canine eructation a lean paw stole out of the kennel mouth and yanked the hookah back inside. The resulting slobbering noises and clouds of aromatic blue smoke left Joe feeling a little queasy: so he went inside.

# # #

The next morning, over breakfast, Maddie was even quieter than usual. Almost meditative.

“Bob said you’d been talking to that farm,” Joe commented over his eggs.

“Bob –” Maddie’s expression was unreadable. “Bloody dog.” She lifted the Rayburn’s hot plate lid and peered at the toast browning underneath. “Talks too much.”

“Did you?”

“Ayup.” She turned the toast and put the lid back down on it.

“Said much?”

“It’s a farm.” She looked out the window. “Not a fuckin’ worry in the world ‘cept making its launch window for Jupiter.”

“It –”

“Him. Her. They.” Maddie sat down heavily in the other kitchen chair. “It’s a collective. Used ta be six people. Old, young, whatether, they’s decided ter go to Jupiter. One of ’em was telling me how it happened. How she’d been living like an accountant in Bradford, had a nervous breakdown. Wanted out. Self-sufficiency.” For a moment her expression turned bleak. “Felt herself growing older but not bigger,if you follow.”

“So how’s turning into a bioborg an improvement?” Joe grunted, forking up the last of his scrambled eggs.

“They’re still separate people: bodies are overrated, anyway. Think of the advantages: not growing older, being able to go places and survive anything, never being on your own, not bein’ trapped –” Maddie sniffed. “Fuckin’ toast’s on fire!”

Smoke began to trickle out from under the hot plate lid. Maddie yanked the wire toasting rack out from under it and dunked it into the sink, waited for waterlogged black crumbs to float to the surface before taking it out, opening it, and loading it with fresh bread.

“Bugger,” she remarked.

“You feel trapped?” Joe asked. Again? He wondered.

Maddie grunted evasively. “Not your fault, love. Just life.”

“Life.” Joe sniffed, then sneezed violently as the acrid smoke tickled his nose. “Life!”

“Horizon’s closing in,” she said quietly. “Need a change of horizons.”

“Ayup, well, rust never sleeps, right? Got to clean out the winter stables, haven’t I?” said Joe. He grinned uncertainly at her as he turned away: “got a shipment of fertilizer coming in.”

# # #

In between milking the herd, feeding the sheep, mucking out the winter stables, and surruptitiously EMPing every police ‘bot on the farm into the silicon afterlife, it took Joe a couple of days to get round to running up his toy on the household fabricator. It clicked and whirred to itself like a demented knitting machine as it ran up the gadgets he’d ordered — a modified crop sprayer with double-walled tanks and hoses, an air rifle with a dart loaded with a potent cocktail of tubocurarine and etorphine, and a breathing mask with its own oxygen supply.

Maddie made herself scarce, puttering around the control room but mostly disappearing during the daytime, coming back to the house after dark to crawl, exhausted, into bed. She didn’t seem to be having nightmares, which was a good sign: Joe kept his questions to himself.

It took another five days for the smallholding’s power field to concentrate enough juice to begin fueling up his murder weapons. During this time, Joe took the house off-net in the most deniable and surruptitiously plausible way, a bastard coincidence of squirrel-induced cable fade and a badly shielded alternator on the backhoe to do for the wireless chit-chat. He’d half expected Maddie to complain, but she didn’t say anything: just spent more time away in Outer Cheswick or Lower Gruntlingthorpe or wherever she’d taken to holing up.

Finally, the tank was filled. So Joe girded his loins, donned his armour, picked up his weapons, and went to do battle with the dragon by the pond.

The woods around the pond had once been enclosed by a wooden fence, a charming copse of old-growth deciduous trees, elm and oak and beech growing uphill, smaller shrubs nestling at their ankles in a greenskirt that reached all the way to the almost-stagnant waters. A little stream fed into it during rainy months, under the feet of a weeping willow; children had played here, pretending to explore the wilderness beneath the benevolent gaze of their parental control cameras.

That had been long ago. Today the woods really were wild. No kids, no picnicing city folks, no cars. Badgers and wild coypu and small, frightened wallabies roamed the parching English countryside during the summer dry season. The water drew back to expose an apron of cracked mud, planted with abandoned tin cans and a supermarket trolley of precambrian vintage, its GPS tracker long since shorted out. The bones of the technological epoch, poking from the treacherous surface of a fossil mud-bath. And around the edge of the mimsy puddle, the stage trees grew.

Joe switched on his jammer and walked in among the spear-shaped conifers. Their needles were matt black and fuzzy at the edges, fractally divided, the better to soak up all the available light: a network of tap roots and fuzzy black grasslike stuff covered the ground densely around them. Joe’s breath wheezed noisily in his ears and he sweated into the airtight suit as he worked, pumping a stream of colourless, smoking liquid at the roots of each balistic trunk. The liquid fizzed and evaporated on contact: it seemed to bleach the wood where it touched. Joe carefully avoided the stream: this stuff made him uneasy. As did the trees, but liquid nitrogen was about the one thing he’d been able to think of that was guaranteed to kill the trees stone dead without igniting them. After all, they hadcores that were basically made of gun cotton — highly explosive, liable to go off if you subjected them to a sudden sharp impact or the friction of a chainsaw. The tree he’d hit on creaked ominously, threatening to fall sideways, and Joe stepped round it, efficiently squirting at the remaining roots. Right into the path of a distraught farm.

“My holy garden of earthly delights! My forest of the imaginative future! My delight, my trees, my trees!” Eye stalks shot out and over, blinking down at him in horror as the farm reared up on six or seven legs and pawed the air in front of him. “Destroyer of saplings! Earth mother rapist! Bunny-strangling vivisectionist!”

“Back off,” said Joe, dropping his cryogenic squirter and fumbling for his airgun.

The farm came down with a ground-shaking thump in front of him and stretched eyes out to glare at him from both sides. They blinked, long black eyelashes fluttering across angry blue irises. “How dare you?” demanded the farm. “My treasured seedlings!”

“Shut the fuck up,” Joe grunted, shouldering his gun. “Think I’d let you burn my holding when tha’ rocket launched? Stay the fuck away,” he added as a tentacle began to extend from the farm’s back.

“My crop,” it moaned quietly: “my exile! Six more years around the sun chained to this well of sorrowful gravity before next the window opens! No brains for Baby Jesus! Defenestrator! We could have been so happy together if you hadn’t fucked up! Who set you up to this, Rat Lady?” It began to gather itself, muscles rippling under the leathery mantle atop its leg cluster.

So Joe shot it.

Tubocurarine is a muscle relaxant: it paralyses skeletal muscles, the kind over which human nervous systems typically exert conscious control. Etorphine is an insanely strong opiate — twelve hundred times as potent as heroin. Given time, a farm, with its alien adaptive metabolism and consciously controlled proteome might engineer a defense against the etorphine — but Joe dosed his dart with enough to stun a blue whale, and he had no intention of giving the farm enough time. It shuddered and went down on one knee as he closed in on it, a syrette raised: “why?” it asked plaintively in a voice that almost made him wish he hadn’t pulled the trigger. “We could have gone together!”

“Together?” he asked. Already the eye stalks were drooping; the great lungs wheezed effortfully as it struggled to frame a reply.

“I was going to ask you,” said the farm, and half its legs collapsed under it, with a thud like a baby earthquake. “Oh Joe, if only …”

“Joe? Maddie?” he demanded, nerveless fingers dropping the tranquiliser gun.

A mouth appeared in the farm’s front, slurred words at him from familiar seeming lips, words about Jupiter and promises. Appalled, Joe backed away from the farm. Passing the first dead tree he dropped the nitrogen tank: then an impulse he couldn’t articulate made him turn and run, back to the house, eyes almost blinded by sweat or tears. But he was too slow, and when he dropped to his knees next to the farm, pharmacopoeia clicking and whirring to itself in his arms, he found it was already dead.

“Bugger,” said Joe, and he stood up, shaking his head. “Bugger.” He keyed his walkie-talkie: “Bob, come in, Bob!”

“Rrrrowl?”

“Momma’s had another break-down. Is the tank clean, like I asked?”

“Yap!”

“Okay. I got ‘er backup tapes in t’office safe. Let’s get’t’ank warmed up for ‘er an’ then shift t’tractor down ‘ere to muck out this mess.”

# # #

That autumn, the weeds grew unnaturally rich and green down in the north paddock of Armitage End.

(THE END)