Jane’s a research scientist. She’s trying to figure out what the cars have run on, ever since they ran away.
“You’d think,” she tells a baby Honda—
She’s hunkered down before it and it’s licking the oil from her fingers with its grille—
“that you’d need petroleum products to live. That’s what all the people thought before! But no, you just like the taste. What makes you run?”
Its engine revs, gently. Then there’s a sound from the forest—a great crunching and roaring sound—and the Honda takes fright and reverses and drives away.
“Damn it,” Jane says, shocking herself with the language.
Then self-reproach falls off the agenda as a truck wheels from the woods. Not just any truck, but a tow truck, great and terrible. Its presence makes her tongue stick to the top of her mouth and her vision hum. She’s got just enough time to think, “I’m dead” before she sees the Hangman at the wheel.
“Oh, God,” she says, and then she waves her hands frantically about. “It’s okay! It’s okay! Don’t kill me! I’m a scientist!”
The tow truck idles. She stares helplessly at its headlights and its grille.
Finally, the Hangman opens his door and jumps down to the ground.
“This is a car forest,” he says.
“I’m studying cars,” she says.
He lifts an eyebrow.
“I was reading old papers,” she says. “All that stuff about fossil fuels and gasoline. And I thought, ‘hey, how do cars run forever on their own?'”
“They eat human souls,” the Hangman says.
“No,” she says, “I mean, energetically—”
But he’s holding the little muscles of his face in ways that indicate he’s teasing her, and so she stops.
“Hell if I know,” he says. “I’m not an engine man. Get in.”
“You’re the Hangman, right?” she asks. “I mean, you’re the guy who was given to the tow trucks to be towed by the neck until dead, only they didn’t—”
He makes a cutting gesture in the air with his hand.
“I said, get in.”
He’s climbing up in the driver’s side again, and after a long hesitation, she opens the passenger door.
It’s not locked. It doesn’t fight her. It just opens up and she can climb right in.
“Figure,” says the Hangman, “that we can use a scientist.”
“Oh,” says Jane, in a small voice.
“It’s instead of running you over,” he says, helpfully. “Like we usually do to humans in these woods, if they’re not worth hanging.”
“I’m a good scientist,” she says. “But I don’t like killers.”
She can’t believe she just said that, and she shuts her mouth firmly as if holding it extra closed now will make the words unhappen.
“I don’t like scientists,” he says.
The tow truck shatters a tree branch with its wheels.
“There’s a noise,” he says. “Static on the CB. And sometimes something else in it. Some kind of . . . murmuring of . . . of dark prophesies, I think. Sent a Jetta out to look into it but it came back wrong. Had to put it down. Wasn’t a scientist, though, just an ordinary Jetta.”
“The trucks,” he says, and thumps the dashboard with one fist, “they say, ‘something is dreaming. Something is dreaming, and it’s waking up.’ But they don’t know what.”
“There was a migration—” Jane says.
“Flight of the Prius?” the Hangman says. “Yeah. They’re afraid. They’re all afraid, but some cars, they’re more . . . gun-shy than others.”
He gives her a weird look.
“Haven’t taken a passenger in a long time,” he says.
She folds her hands onto her lap.
“Mostly I kill humanity in barbarous revenge on ’em for what they did me,” he says. “Or scalp em for fuzzy dice.”
“Those are the stories,” she agrees.
He makes a face.
“Or maybe I’m a ‘noble defender of car-kind, turning coat to defend them against human intrusion’—eh?”
He’s quoting some car junkie from the radio, she thinks. She doesn’t know which.
“I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t really want to know.”
“Fine,” he says.
“I just, I ask cars, ‘what makes you run?’ That’s all. I’m a scientist. I don’t care about Hangmen and scalping. I don’t want you to kill me.”
“. . . guess I won’t, then,” he says, as if she’s sold him on the notion, and she laughs until she cries.
At night the headlights come on and the heating stays off and the inside of the truck is quiet, strange, and cold.
“They still listen to Madonna?” he asks.
“In the cities,” he says.
She stares at him blankly. Finally, she says, “I think I have a CD somewhere. —not on me.”
She huddles against the door for a while.
It is a pink and orange dawn before he speaks again; and then, “We’re close.”
The forest has been logged at its edges, here, and the land descends into a great grass bowl. At its bottom is a facility of concrete and steel, isolated from the world.
“It’s like a shipwreck,” she says, but then feels foolish to have said it.
All these places, she thinks, all these places we don’t go to, we don’t come from, since the cars first ran away.
“Sometimes,” says the Hangman, “I think that forest gods must be growing, out in these lost places. I think, maybe I should go and kill them, while they’re young. Or maybe, they’re best left undisturbed.”
“It’s hard to be the only Hangman,” Jane imagines.
“Do you want to know why the cars ran away?” the Hangman says.
He parks the truck overlooking the building. He hops down. He gestures her out.
“Why?” she asks.
“We were unworthy of them,” he says.
He starts down towards the building.
“One day, they woke up—like they were startled from their sleep—and they said, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. This is what we serve.'”
She isn’t following him, so he calls back, “It’ll probably run you over if you stay.”
She looks at the truck.
It’s been a perfectly behaved normal truck this whole time, and she’s half-tempted to try to get back in—to think, “Maybe they just hitched his neck to an unliving one, and he’s been laughing at humanity ever since”—but its engine revs a warning and its headlight eyes blink on, and she startles, freezes, and then hurries towards the trail.
“Any idea what it is?” he asks, when she catches up.
The building’s looming close.
She blinks at him, thinking: How can he not know—ah.
“Can’t you read?” she asks.
“Only one Hangman,” he says. “Plenty of reading people. Eh?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Um.”
She gestures broadly. “It’s a nuclear plant.”
“Oh.” He looks up at it.
“They’re not alive,” she says. “They’re not muttering blasphemous incantations onto the CB. They’re just . . .”
“People split atoms in them,” she says. “Then, electricity!”
“And you a scientist,” he says.
“One,” he says, “Can’t split an atom. ‘Cause, they’re atomic. Two, I’m just saying this, but it looks alive to me.”
She frowns. Then she gives the place a more careful look.
“It does,” she agrees, after a moment. “Or— not so much looks as feels.”
The air is heavy with a sentience she desperately hopes is not radioactive.
“It’s waking up,” he says.
Then he sighs and straightens up his spine.
“You can stay here,” he says.
“Best not to dirty your hands, eh?”
“I’m the Hangman,” he says. “I’m going to go in there and kill it before it wakes up all the way. You’re going to stay here and be backup, just in case I fail.”
She looks after him helplessly.
He’s walking forward.
“The real reason?” he says, looking back. “The real reason the cars ran away?”
“Someone saw them. Someone saw them, when they’d just woken up, when they were trying to figure out who they were. And when they asked him—or her, maybe, trucks aren’t much for the difference—when they asked him what they should do?
“He said, ‘Oh, run away, run away.'”
The Hangman goes down the path and opens the doors to the complex and he goes in and then he’s gone.
She sits down.
The sun crosses the sky and burns her face and then hides itself behind the western clouds.
“What the heck?” she asks.
Then there is a terrible raging light that sears her eyes through closed lids and a weight of sentience in the air that is almost appalling and she can sense something great and terrible, like a wounded angel thrashing, in the world. She feels a great sickness and an anger and then the Hangman dies.
She can feel it—click. An irritation under the skin of a nearby god, vanished into dust.
The Hangman dies.
Peace returns and quiet and then a gentle curiosity, focused in on her as she curls around her stomach on the hill down to the god.
“What are you?” it asks, though in no words. “What are you, Jane? What makes you run?”
Not petrol, she thinks, in a lunatic moment,
“You do not run on digestion,” it concurs.
And suddenly she can recognize the crazy innocence of it, the purity of it, the inanimate spirit unknowing of what people are.
He didn’t need to try and kill it. He’d never needed to try to kill it.
Something that innocent—it’d do whatever people wanted, whatever people told it. All they’d have to do is explain.
“We have these purposes,” she could say.
And then there would still be no cars, but there would be this god with all its power, once again under command—awake now, living now, but owned.
It is searing her. She is probably dying. It could possibly save her. But there’s only one thing that Jane can say.
“Oh, run away,” she says. “Run away.”