The next day, the platoon boarded a truck and headed out on a road that led into hilly, forested country. Around Chess, there was loud, boisterous discussion, but very little mention of the content of their mission. The truck stopped a few hours later.
“This is where we get off, men!” The platoon leader pulled Chess over. “You’re my scout,” he informed him unexpectedly. “There’s a village about three kilometers up into the woods, north west of here. Go check it out.”
Bewildered, Chess stared at him. “What am I looking for?” he finally managed to stammer.
“See if they have lookouts posted, first of all,” the lieutenant explained. “’Cause if they do, we’ll plan our approach differently. We sure don’t want to run into any snipers,” he laughed.
Chess managed a hoarse, fearful sound that approximated a chuckle.
“Also check for guards… get an idea of the number and demographics of the population… what kind of activities they’re involved in.” The lieutenant shrugged. “Take note of everything.”
With an area map and his compass, Chess started off. After a few minutes, the trees closed in behind him and he was, once again, roaming the woods in solitude. Back in the city, he could never have imagined doing this, and he was not sure how he felt about what was evidently his new job.
People had been here, though, at one time. He passed numerous foundations that showed where houses had been. Rusted skeletons of vehicles, along with copious unidentifiable debris from past settlements, lined his way. Then, his path met up with a crumbling, weedy stretch of road that looked like it had not been traveled in years. When the vegetation in and along the road began to thin, and foot-worn paths intersected with the asphalt, he knew that he was getting close to his destination.
When Chess returned, the patrol began to move. It surprised him, actually: the entire team trusting the new guy’s assessment of the village. But when he commented this to the soldier with the accent, the guy just shrugged. “We also have air surveillance by drones.”
They entered the village without incident and, for several hours, the lieutenant sat and talked with the apparent leaders there. Later, the patrol continued on, finally making camp well after dark. For the next few days, they followed this pattern, always with Chess sent ahead to scout the area.
Chess began to get used to the rhythm of his days, along with the terrain and sounds of the forest. It seemed to him that they patrolled the countryside rather casually, stopping in at villages as if they were just checking that all was well. In a way, it felt familiar to him: in his old game from the city, there had been characters called rangers who roamed the countryside, endeavoring to keep the peace, ever-alert for possible threats to the population. It was an occupation that Chess had never aspired to, himself… but, he reasoned, any thief worth his membership in the guild of rogues knew how and when to adapt. Yeah, he felt like a real ranger now: keeping peace in the land.
And, in his imagination, he continued the story that he had begun on the night of army graduation, searching for his now-lost indigo priestess…
Sometimes, during the long days on the road, the group walked through random hotspots where their link-phones could connect and, at one of these times, Chess checked on his bank account.
The wind rustled the leaves around him as he stood, staring at the numbers on the screen.
His buddy, with the accent, laughed and elbowed him. “More than you expected? They pay good money, eh, your companies?”
Chess looked up from his link-screen, and, despite the confusion he felt over his bank balance, he smiled. “My country,” he corrected, “Not company. It’s the government that’s paying us.”
The guy with the accent shook his head. “Private contractor,” he answered. “That’s who you’re working for now.” In response to Chess’s frown, he laughed again. “Don’t think about it too much.”
The patrol continued and, on the morning breeze, an awful stench began to drift toward them.
The lieutenant stopped, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Cows,” he pronounced.
Continued next page...
You’ll be speeding down one of Finney County’s ramrod roads when the empty, dun-colored prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see—which in Kansas is really far. I say “suddenly,” but in fact a swiftly intensifying odor (an aroma whose Proustian echoes are more bus-station-men’s-room than cow-in-the-country) heralds the approach of a feedlot for more than a mile. Then it’s upon you: Poky Feeders, population 37,000. Cattle pens stretch to the horizon...
Power Steer by Michael Pollan, The New York Times Magazine, 31 March 2002
Michael Pollan is another one of those authors who goes to experience a thing and then writes a book about it. (Note: I do not think that this always results in good books. I find many of these kinds of books dull and unnecessary, honestly.) In Pollan’s case, his “thing” is always related to food. In fact, no one has ever made me feel more hypocritical about the food that I eat. While I would just rather not know about the conditions in which livestock live and the antibiotics they are injected with -- and what “free-range” actually means in the real world of big-business farming – Pollan confronts and shares it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
Actually, in the course of doing research for this story, I have learned more than I wanted to know about farming: how livestock is kept, how fields are fertilized and maintained, and the iron grip that companies like Monsanto have over the use of their genetically-modified seeds. (Yeah, Monsanto the chemical company, who once sponsored the Circle Vision 360 in Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World – one of my favorite exhibits! Whose chemists have developed everything from carpets to pharmaceuticals to pesticides: the company is either super-evil or extremely helpful. The same might be said about Pollan’s tales of the food we eat.)
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