Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2011: The Windfarmer’s Guest

The Windfarmer’s Guest

by Lucas Ahlsen

 

1.

A hundred feet above ground, Charles gazed across his entire farm. Every few seconds a hooked windmill blade obstructed the view. The dozen machines he maintained churned out electricity for the valley below. Within that basin sat shanties organized into blocks. A massive terrarium loomed over the far end of town. Light barely escaped past the foggy glass dome sheltering the gardens.

On clear nights the moon bathed the land in azure. The windfarmer habitually climbed the main turbine to take advantage of the vista. It reminded him of the green times, before Earth Rot ravaged the land of its flora. But those visions only came to him in dreams and moonlight.

Charles climbed the main turbine that night on business. Another control box failed during the evening, and he saw loose wires dangling in the air like spaghetti.

An automated voice told Charles he received an urgent message. He hooked a carabiner into the service ladder and leaned back. Unlocking the keypad on his communicator, a telegram appeared on its red screen:

Agora Foundation to Windhouse 221

Code Delta. Class 1 Engineer en route. Receive within 24 hrs. Remember password.

Charles scoffed and continued working. He re-spliced the wires and tied them off. A thought gnawed at him while he made the repairs: a gunshot could have caused the damage. He decided it was deliberate vandalism.

That night the Dust spared the windhouse. If the sky spat lightning and dirt Charles would have to stay on call. Checking the watch latched to his belt loop, the windfarmer saw it was midnight.

He returned to ground and felt the dirt rise around his ankles. When he entered the airlock, he put away his ratchets and wrenches and jet torches and screwdrivers. He walked through the hydroponics room into the white foyer. The only view of the outside came from an emergency hatch on the far wall. His nerves tingled at the turbine’s muted hum coming through the ceiling.

The scientist’s foyer doubled as barracks. It smelled musty because real air hadn’t touched the walls in many years. Piles of drawings composed on can labels and torn notes covered every table in the room. The sleeping accommodations sat unused except for two cots. Charles found his ward, an eight year old girl, in one of them.

The child writhed as she suffered a nightmare. Charles rubbed her shoulder with his broad hand until she stirred. She looked up at the grey mustache that ran down the sides of his smile. Without fail this sight made her laugh.

“You’re alive,” she cooed, and hugged his neck.

“Was I dead?” Charles asked. “Get dressed and come outside. You won’t need your mask tonight.”

When she finished tying the speed laces of her big work boots–a hand-me-down from Charles–they went outside and scaled the spiral stairs leading to the observation deck. The girl giggled when they passed the turbine rotor, which let out a metallic groan after every fan revolution.

“You always laugh at that,” Charles noted.

“Sounds like you, grampy. Like when you get up in the morning,” she said.

“You have a strange imagination, Kimberly. First I’m dead, and now I’m an old machine? Sheesh.” Charles looked up at the rotor and tried to remember how long he farmed wind. He used to count the years, at least until the Agora Foundation rationed paper. By then he had collected twenty-three calendars.

When they arrived at the observation deck, Charles handed the girl an antique device.

“Twist it this way,” he said. The tool extended with a clicking sound. “Hundreds of years ago, people called this a spyglass.” He pointed over her shoulder into the valley. “Look there.”

Kim saw beyond the windhouse limits into a town aglow with red and yellow lights. Metal towers fed cable to a fenced off substation that cast a net of wires over the neighborhoods. Spotting people dancing on a lit stage, she listened to their laughter and the strange music rushing up the valley’s rocky walls. Her eye followed the power lines to where they disappeared inside the town’s terrarium.

“That’s why we’re here,” Charles said. “We keep those people alive.”

“Can I make friends there?” the girl asked.

“No, honey. They don’t like us much. Agora needs us to get them on our side. Then they’ll be our friends.”

She lost interest in the town and focused on the stars. “There’s a red ball in the sky,” Kim said.

“That’s Mars–another planet.”

“Another planet?”

“Another world.”

“It’s really red. Not brown like here.”

Charles leaned against the deck railing. “Earth used to be green, you know. All the trees you’ve seen had lots of little leaves on them, and there would be grass and flowers and food growing up from the ground. We wouldn’t need glass domes and airlocks to keep out Earth Rot. Our gardens would be outside, getting rain and sun all by themselves.”

“No fairytales allowed,” the girl said and wrinkled her nose.

“It’s not a fantasy. It’s how things really were.” In a huff he snatched the spyglass away, compressed it, and returned it to his tool belt.

“It’s good to look at the stars,” he continued. “Reminds me I’m not alone out here. Lotsa people watch stars, but they aren’t the same as you or me or what the Agora Foundation thinks we oughta be.”

Kim stared at Charles for a moment before she stole back the spyglass and continued to star-gaze.

A mile away a stranger watched the same stars as the girl and her guardian. Moonlight reflected off his welding goggles. He stared skyward until his neck kinked up. Then he returned to his task, looting the corpses of the armed scouts he ambushed five minutes ago. They had hunted him over the past day, and he grew tired of their meddling.

The man found old quarters, a handful of bullets, whisky, scrappy weapons, and a box of matches–very little by way of salvage. The last item he found, a satchel of Agora-brand sedative injectors, interested him enough to take it. He knelt and listened to the silence of the Dust, which he broke with the sound of his filtered breathing.

“Amateur survivalists,” he muttered. When he sighed the air came through his respirator as thin green mist.

The stranger mounted a knoll stripped to the ledge by wind erosion. His destination came into view: a windhouse standing against the night sky. The turbine turned in slow rotations, as the machine itself was asleep.

“Never seen a rig so lonely,” he said.

He ran checks on the machine covering his left forearm. Its chronometer displayed five minutes after midnight; the voltage count read nominal; the liquid green gauge was a quarter tank full. He knew that his pistol still had six rounds. After hesitating, he deactivated three toggle switches on his arm.

“Running on fumes tonight,” he said, and descended the knoll.

The sky stayed clear through the next morning. The stranger passed under the scorched trees lining the windhouse road. Petrified leaves stirred around his feet.

Meanwhile, Charles watched the other man advance through his spyglass. The wind strengthened and blew hard from the northeast. Kim played with imaginary friends while her guardian perched on the windtower stairs.

“Kimmy,” Charles said. “Time to go inside. Hide like I taught you. Remember the rules?”

“Stay quiet and stay put,” she recited.

“And?”

“And take the headshot.”

“Atta girl. I’ll come get you when it’s safe.”

Charles studied the stranger’s deportment: the swagger of a professional clad in wrapped boots, business slacks, a black tie, and two pieces of a three-piece suit. Green light shone from inside his headgear, a balaclava with a respirator and welding goggles worn over it.

On his left arm he wore a blocky control panel wrapped in leather. Wires ran from the machine into the sleeve of his white collared shirt. Charles couldn’t spot a single bit of flesh on the stranger. Even his fingertips were completely covered.

Shutting the spyglass, Charles scrambled down the tower. In his hurry he slipped and banged his knee. He cussed all the way to the airlock. Kim stood in the kitchen, showing her imaginary guests out the door when her guardian burst in.

“Kimberly, get your pistol and hide. Now,” he barked. His knee swelled to the size of his fist.

The little girl whined and stomped away in her over-sized boots. While she hid, the windfarmer opened a cabinet beneath the kitchen sink and fiddled with the number pad on a footlocker. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he tried to remember the combination.

The stranger reached the windhouse airlock and knocked five times, each heavy and resounding. The sound startled Charles, who loaded a revolver in the kitchen. He dropped the box of .45 rounds, their contents spilling across the floor.

Wiping his brow, Charles cut the lighting circuit breakers and hustled to the front door. Three knocks came as he pressed against the wall. He recited the password.

“What is your business?” Charles asked. The stranger pushed his masked face close to the airlock window. He flicked a button on his arm and an LED headlight shot emerald beams into the darkened room. The rays stopped just short of Charles’ position before it disappeared.

“What is your business here?” Charles demanded.

The airlock intercom crackled. “I am not in the business of saving lives,” the stranger replied.

“Then what is your business?”

“To make Earth green again.”

Charles’ paranoia burned in his veins. A dusty glove appeared in the airlock window and slammed a badge against it. It carried the Foundation’s symbol, a bonsai tree twisting up and into “Agora” written in bold lettering.

Charles reluctantly opened the airlock. Dust poured in around the guest, who set the badge into his belt. The wind stirred the torn cowl around his shoulders. When he moved inside, the stranger stepped lightly and stood at five foot nine with two-inch heeled boots, much to Charles’ surprise.

“Good morning. I am the First Class Salvage Engineer sent by the Agora Foundation,” the guest said.

“You don’t have a name?” Charles asked.

“‘The Mechanist’ is the only one that’s stuck. I wouldn’t put it down on a census though.”

Charles folded his arms. “I suppose they black out your identity if you work for the salvage division. Ever go on deep territory missions?”

“I’ve been as far out as the Old Midwest,” the Mechanist said. “Found some twentieth century equipment. Helped build terrarium farms for Agora.” He checked the green gauge on his forearm and coughed.

“Those terrariums are at least twenty-five years old,” Charles deduced.

“They would be, provided they were still standing.”

Charles passed his guest and entered the dining area. A moment later the fluorescent lights flickered on. The windfarmer placed his weapon on the kitchen island and set to making lunch.

“You’re not here to cancel the negotiations with the valley town, are you?” he asked. “In a week, their town council will vote on whether or not to join the Agora Foundation. There’s a thousand people down there. Their community dates back before Earth Rot.” With his guest watching, Charles set out pieces of bread, some mustard, and protein pâté. “But I’ll tell ya it hasn’t been easy. They don’t trust the Agora Foundation. They heard all the rumors about places we ‘liberated’ and ‘converted.’ They spook like a pack of wild animals when I come into town for supplies. I dodged a few bullets from them during my time in the Dust, but they know better than to pick a real fight with me. I shoot back.”

“I don’t care about your mission,” the engineer said. “I’m the one who sent the telegram, not home administration.”

The pâté spread across the bread with a slimy sound. “And you did that without a computer?”

The Mechanist raised his machined arm and pointed to it.

“Why not raise me by radio?” Charles asked.

“Sorry, I didn’t bring my radio arm on this trip,” the stranger said with a laugh. “I need supplies. Every windhouse in the Dust has a box marked with a capital delta. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s reserved for salvage engineers who pass through.”

Charles finished the sandwiches, placing each one on a plate. “I suppose you won’t be having lunch then.”

The Mechanist reached into his pocket and thumbed his key ring like a rosary.

“You can stop being sly,” Charles said. “I’ve heard about the prototype salvage engineers. Read about your life support system in an Agora newsletter. Never thought it could work.”

“A miracle of science,” the Mechanist stated.

“Or an abortion of it,” Charles muttered. “You don’t age. Science is about the natural world. Not miracles.” Leaving for the bathroom, Charles took his revolver and told the guest he would return shortly.

The salvage engineer passed through the windhouse rooms and slipped into the foyer where the lights were still off. Again he used the headlight and spread its eerie rays through the room.

Drawings caught his attention and he examined them. Clearly the artist never saw a plant in their life, and yet the artwork portrayed a fantasy of giant flowers with mouths and eyes, misshapen petals, and roots like legs. Others showed frowning men in burning vehicles firing machine guns and rockets. Dust hissed against the room’s emergency hatch as the wind battered the building’s hull.

Lights came on, and from behind the Mechanist a squeaky voice said, “You like my drawings?” A pistol hammer clicked. The guest put his hands up.

“Good work Kimmy,” Charles said, entering the room. “Don’t shoot him. Lunch is ready. Save my sandwich for me this time.” The windfarmer shut the door behind her and faced the engineer. “Seems we’re both at a disadvantage. There’s something you want, and someone I need you to hide.”

The Mechanist cleared his throat before saying, “That little one should be in Agora schools.”

Charles pulled up a chair next to a table and thumbed through the drawings on it. “I found her a mile away. Rode out on the dune buggy when I saw smoke. Raiders destroyed a caravan of refugees. Don’t know where she’s from. Don’t know if she even has a family. She just stood there as if I was her train rolling in. She had all her stuff in a sack.”

The guest folded his arms. “You know the Foundation forbids family structuring. It was foolish of you to take her in.”

“Was it? Then tell me, because I’d like to know if you’d leave a little girl in the Dust like she was a stray dog. She could get eaten or raped or just shrivel up in the sun.”

The Mechanist shook his head.

“She draws. She paints the walls with dye she makes,” Charles continued. “I’ve white washed this room three times. But I can’t make her stop. It’d be like making her write with her right hand instead of her left.”

“You let her use her left hand? Agora will just throw her into a construction camp now. Why didn’t you surrender her in the first place?”

Charles stroked his mustache. “I’d rather blow up the windhouse than let the white suits drag her off. But that’s where you come in. I just don’t know whether or not–”

“–you can trust me if there’s something in it for me,” the Mechanist said.

“If you bring Kimberly to Solace-9, I’ll get you what you need.”

The Mechanist’s head jutted forward. “The Eden Colony? Agora will execute me if the insurgents don’t get to me first. It’s impossible to get in.”

“I know. But you’re also an impossible man.”

2.

The Mechanist coughed. “You think so, huh.”

“Have you heard of any other salvage engineer who survived the Dust for years on end, or returned from the Old Midwest with all of their limbs?” Charles asked.

The guest moved his weight to one leg. “I suppose you have a biography on me too,” he scoffed. “What is it called? ‘Miracle Man?’ ‘Crystal Juicer?'”

Charles grinned at him and went to his footlocker. He sifted through it. “You should read more. Agora dedicated quite a bit of paper to you when it put out newsletters.” He pointed to a bookshelf in the far corner filled with red three-ring binders. “I kept them all.”

The Mechanist browsed the files, which dated back to the inception of the Agora Foundation. He scoured the bold-faced headlines: “Millions Lost to Hunger: Earth Rot Ravages Planet,” “30 Ways to Survive Starvation,” “Agora Presents Miracle Crop Terrariums,” “Raider Defense for the 22nd Century,” “Dust-Eaters and Bubble-Men: Forming Agora Alliances,” and “The ARC Life Support System.” He stirred when he found a photo of a young man. Its caption read, “Worker of the Future: The Prototype Salvage Engineer.” He wore his dark hair short, and the vivacious smile displayed in the photo hadn’t faded from the old newspaper.

“Found something you like?” Charles asked.

“Just a friend. Someone I knew long ago,” the Mechanist said and returned the binder. He turned to look at a slim tube in Charles’ hand. It carried the symbol of the Agora Foundation and a capital delta.

“Get her to the Eden Colony,” Charles said. “Please.”

The Mechanist took the tube and asked, “Why can’t you do this yourself?”

“Ethics. Kimberly is bright, and a treat to tutor. But I have a responsibility here. If the power here fails, the town’s water pumps stop. If their water stops, the terrarium dies. They’ll end up like every other scumbag roaming the Dust, and Agora makes another enemy. I can’t let that happen. But letting her stay here endangers us both.”

The Mechanist smoothed out the wrinkles in his vest. “What have those dust-eaters done for you? Do they leave thank you notes on your doorstep? You’ve been out here too long. You should retire in an apartment next to some hanging gardens.”

Charles wrung his meaty hands. “Someday you’ll find something you wish to safeguard, and the burden will kill you. You’re right. It’s Agora’s business to grow plants first and save lives later. But what does that cost? The people down there lived with song and dance and stories for the past fifty years. Something humane about them survived. Agora could learn from that.”

“But they obviously can’t take care of themselves. Neither can you–not without terrariums and irrigation systems,” the Mechanist said.

“That’s all well and good, but Agora doesn’t educate their children. They just grow humans. You’re practically a harvested vegetable.”

The Mechanist’s respirator huffed louder as he grew angry. “Agora makes necessary sacrifices. Humans can’t afford to pay attention to frivolities when Earth’s survival is at stake.”

“By the time Earth Rot is cured we’ll be as desolate as the planet we saved,” Charles said, raising his voice as well. “The only blessing Agora can give is technology. But they don’t actually care about the people.”

“A bleeding heart is the venom that kills progress. History has proven it.”

Charles approached him and balled his hands into fists. “You say that because you grew up without poetry, or song, or drinking and screwing and living. Tell me, what’s left of you behind that mask?”

The Mechanist coughed heavily and his waist buckled. He noticed the green gauge in his arm flashing on and off. “I suppose sending the girl to the Eden Colony is a better alternative to construction camps,” he admitted.

“There used to be laws against child labor,” Charles said. “Still should be. Agora treats orphans like another renewable resource. Ever seen one of those hell holes for yourself?”

“No, but I imagine I’ve seen worse,” the guest said as he struggled into a chair. Twitching, he dropped the delta box. The rock crystals within spilled quietly across the green rug.

“You still don’t know what you’re talking about. ‘Construction camp.’ You forget that Agora’s pretty good at masking the truth. No one remembers what truth stood for before the Agora Foundation.”

“Rhetoric,” the Mechanist said. “You curse the people who gave you a roof. The ones who grow the food. Agora is the only humane group left.”

Charles seized his guest by the mask and pushed his face hard into Kim’s drawings. “My little girl doesn’t believe Earth ever had an ecosystem. She never heard of the color green until I taught her what it was. She doesn’t know we have a history, or a nation. Her parents were either murdered or they sold her to a trader. And even if Agora did something about any of this, they’d make her swing a sledgehammer in chains for the rest of her life. None of that’s humane. It’s just what humanity is now.”

The emergency hatch whispered as more dust blasted it. The Mechanist sat there, his face squished into his mask and the mask grinding into artwork. It portrayed a young girl in a purple dress among a group of dancing saplings. When his anger subsided, Charles let go and set the crystals on the table. He walked away and tore at his white hair.

“You were right,” Charles said. “Legends are dead. Guess that means you are too.”

The door to hydroponics creaked open. Kim peeped inside. “Grampy, there’re more strangers knockin’ at the airlock,” she said.

“Play with the guest here while I take care of business,” Charles replied. “Make sure he stays awake, okay?” He exited the room.

The miracle of science and the girl gazed at each other. Kim entered a staring contest against the guest until she huffed from the strain. Eventually she gathered up her drawings and held them against her chest.

“No, it’s fine,” the Mechanist said. Unclipping a small wrench from his belt, he loosened the bolts on the crystal housing in his machined arm.

Kim shambled forward in her boots. “Cool mask,” she said. “Grampy made me a dust suit too. I think it’s pretty.” She leaned over the table and examined the stranger’s arm piece. She reached out and wiggled the Mechanist’s mask.

“Please stop,” he said, pressing the child’s hand away.

“Just like my dream,” she said. She touched the Mechanist’s goggle lenses and threw back his cowl and poked his respirator. After he swatted her hand away, she scurried off. The Mechanist removed a dark crystal from his wrist and replaced it with a new one from the delta box.

“You’ll take me to the green lands,” she said, pushing an index finger into her drawings. “These are my friends. They’re waiting for me there.”

“Kimberly, we can’t go to the Eden Colony. People will fight to keep us out,” the engineer replied.

Kim laughed at him. “You’re silly, bubble-man. I bet you’re a Sci-fi.” She grabbed him around the waist and squeezed.

“A Sci-fi?” he asked.

“Yeah. Mama called crazy-impossible things that. Grampy says you’re impossible. So you must be a Sci-fi.”

Irritated, he writhed free of the child.  Twenty minutes passed and the green bar on his arm reached full capacity. The mist coming out of his respirator thickened. While standing up on one of the tables, Kim hosted an artwork auction with her imaginary friends.

Eventually she broke the fantasy to ask the Mechanist a question: “Do you ever have dreams?”

“I do,” he said.

Kim gazed out the hatch window. “I have dreams too.”

“I don’t suppose you dance with saplings and roam the world on winged horses,” the Mechanist jeered.

“They show me stuff. I dreamed Grampy found me and so I found him. He’s a lot nicer than the smugglers. You’re not so nice, but you will be.” The child stuck out her tongue.

Charles returned to the room with a haste that matched the terrible burning in his gut.

“Those were representatives from the town council,” he said. “They questioned me about the murder of one of their armed scout patrols.”

The guest straightened up as he remembered the five men he ambushed the night before reaching the windhouse. “Do they suspect you?” he asked.

“Of course. I told you they spook easy, and they will take this place by force if they have to. The surviving victim told them about a man in a ‘weird dust suit’ and ‘a pistol that shot explosions.’ Maybe the gunman is another old friend of yours?”

The Mechanist’s face grew hot inside his mask. He covered the weapon holstered at his hip. “Coincidentally, I do know him.”

“Damn you,” Charles shouted. “You just gave them an excuse to march on up here, guns blazing. I suppose now that you’ve got what you want you’ll mosey on down the road.”

“Don’t be mean to Sci-fi,” Kim said. She ran up and pounded against Charles’ belly. “He’s gonna take me with him.”

“Is this true?” Charles asked.

The Mechanist stood up and adjusted his tool belt. “If it’ll stop your whining, I’ll help you,” he said. “But I won’t head northeast. Not to the Eden Colony.” As he watched the child and the windfarmer express mixed joy, the guest fidgeted. He assumed responsibility for Charles’ new troubles, and guilt bade him to take Kimberly along, though he hated the thought of babysitting.

A dust storm slashed through the land until dusk. The Mechanist exited the windhouse and scaled the main turbine. As he trailed up its spiral steps he felt thankful that, among all the ruin and waste on Earth, the sun never disappointed him. He stretched his machined arm to the sky and the sun rays warmed its metal.

A few minutes later he heard clinking tin coming up the stairs and Charles appeared with a bottle in his hand. The Mechanist never saw its label before. The logo displayed a tree with two snakes coiled around it. At the apex of the symbol the bottle displayed a large painted “S9.”

“When a stranger appeared on a man’s doorstep in ancient times, the host offered gifts, dinner, and drink in exchange for his guest’s story,” the windfarmer said. “Things have changed a lot over a few thousand years. A drink is my only peace offering.”

The Mechanist tapped his mask and shrugged.

“You old fool,” Charles said. “I know it’s an act. The article about you says you can take that mask off for an hour. ‘The Artificial Respiratory Circulator Life System’ is no substitute for real lungs and real air.” He plucked the cork out of his bottle and poured two cups. “You were a handsome fella before the makeover, Mister–”

“Don’t say it,” he protested.

“Then have a drink,” Charles demanded. “You shouldn’t dog-ear my files, Sci-fi. I’ll come along and read what you found so interesting.”

The Mechanist watched the sunset with a tin mug in hand. When the darkness deepened enough he unclipped his mask. There was no sound of released air pressure, clicking machinery, or moving slime, just the creak of tough leather. The mask fell back like a hood and Charles witnessed a poof of hair stretch upward. Then the Mechanist swigged, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth.

“They call it Juniper Juice,” Charles said. “It’s gin made in Solace-9. We’re close enough to it that a few bottles make it through trader caravans.”

“It’s very minty,” the Mechanist said. His voice sounded airy. “You don’t have any tobacco, do you?”

The windfarmer raised an eyebrow and produced a small pack. “I grow a little in the terrarium downstairs.” Sci-fi pushed a button on his arm and a small jet flame sparked out near his fist. He raised it to the cigarette and drew in a long breath. Charles used the lighter too.

“Listen,” he said, “tomorrow won’t be easy. If you leave before dawn I can cover you from the tower–”

“Whoa now, who said you weren’t coming too? I can’t handle a little girl.”

“You have to. I can do the most good up here with a rifle in my hands while you slip out on foot.”

“You’re a windfarmer and a sharpshooter?”

Charles set down his glass. “I’ve guarded the windhouse for many years. Sometimes I shoot dusters. Sometimes I shoot at the town. Depends on who shoots first.”

“So you’ve seen enough action.”

“Enough to make me drink,” Charles murmured. “I have always felt someone in town is just waiting to take this place from me. But as long as I’m alive, that won’t happen.”

Down in the valley, lights and shadows stirred. Dogs barked. Bottles broke. Deals went south. Spouses argued in their kitchens while lovers mated in the alleys. The scent of cooked meat saturated the arid wind. It all flowed up the valley, through the dark and the quiet of rotten Earth.

Before long Charles slurred his words. The Mechanist helped him sit in a lawn chair set on the observation deck. As he reattached his mask a giggle tickled the guest’s ear. He heard light footsteps cascade down the spiral steps like raindrops.

3.

The Mechanist spent the night in the hydroponics lab. He entered one of the terrariums and slept with his arm propped against a grow light. Kim entered from the foyer in her raggedy pajamas. When she noticed the guest sleeping, she rapped her knuckles on his mask.

Green mist poured out his respirator as the Mechanist stirred and huffed. Kim knocked on his goggles more. His skull ached as the sound resonated with the bolts in his mask. He checked his chronometer, which read nine o’clock. He slapped the machined arm and cussed.

“The alarm didn’t ring?” he said. “Damn thing, it never goes off. Kimberly, get your dust suit on and come outside.”

The salvage engineer’s once quiet footsteps became heavy stomps as he swept through the compound. He opened the airlock hatch as though it was a flimsy screen door. Hoping to rouse the windfarmer, he shouted.

Charles shushed his guest from above. The Mechanist climbed to the observation deck and found his host drinking, though he possessed too much motor function to be drunk.

“One thing Agora can never strip me of,” Charles said, “is my belief in the hair of the dog.”

“We must leave immediately,” the Mechanist asserted.

“It’s too late. Seems the militia down there worked through the night. They’re waiting on us to make a move. See?” The windfarmer handed the spyglass to the engineer.

The valley town erupted into a staging area overnight. People milled around carrying wrenches, jugs, cords, pieces of metal, and guns. Some even outfitted the dune buggies with wood from their shacks.

“How did they–what the hell are you laughing at,” the Mechanist said.

“I’ve never seen anyone use a spyglass through welding goggles before.”

The Mechanist tossed the instrument at Charles and it thumped on his chest. “You mentioned a dune buggy yesterday. Do you still have it?”

“I do,” Charles groaned. “Hasn’t worked in weeks. Agora won’t give me the parts because they’re a scarce item this far out in the Dust.”

“Don’t give up so easily, old man.”

The windfarmer swung his bottle at the Mechanist and gin sloshed onto the observation deck. “Don’t call me old. I’m younger than you are.”

“I’m still disappointed in you.” The guest disappeared down the spiral steps. “The fight hasn’t even started yet,” he shouted.

Nostalgia swept over Charles. He felt the bloodlust and terror and responsibility that plagued his youth. When he approached the rifle case welded to the observation deck, he instantly remembered its access code. It branded his existence. It was 2081: the year mother Earth died.

The rifle made the joints in his hands ache. Charles recalled its terrible power when he adjusted the scope. Despite his reluctance he held the firearm with confidence. Watching the town militia prepare, he recalled a proverb he heard often in the Dust: the only things that separate a dust-eater from a raider are a short fuse and a rack of guns.

“The hardware looks twenty-first century,” Charles shouted.

“Then it came from the Eden Colony,” the guest replied. “They always use old military surplus.”

Charles rubbed his forehead. “So I’m sending Kimberly to the insurgents that want me gone.”

“Sounds terrible when you say it that way, but yes.”

The windfarmer looked through the rifle scope again. He saw the townspeople checking ammo clips and hooking onto dune buggy frames with carabiners. Some squeezed off rounds in the air and the mob roared in approval.

Leaning over the railing, he watched the Mechanist work on the vehicle. Buggies were standard transportation in the Dust. A trader would sell a steel frame, its guts, a seat and four tires. The rest was up to the owner.

Charles had covered his buggy in scrap metal obtained from years of turbine maintenance. He created a complete hull and windshield to keep the dust out. The equipment in the valley town did not compare to his craftsmanship.

“This place used to be peaceful,” Charles said. “And now a couple bodies later, a fire burns out of control.”

The salvage engineer spoke over his work noise, the sounds of clanking metal and ratchet-turning. “Did you expect them to send you flowers and chocolates before beginning diplomatic negotiations? Peace was always the waste product of war.”

“The force of good still exists. You just don’t believe in it.”

“Rhetoric,” the Mechanist mumbled.

Charles’ dune buggy coughed black clouds into the air.  The sound poured over the rocks and into the valley. Charles cheered. The Mechanist smiled. Kimberly rushed out of the airlock.

Then the band of dune buggies responded from below. A diesel engine joined their chorus. Time ran short on goodbyes. As she scurried around the windhouse to the Mechanist, Kim looked up and saw her guardian waving above.

“Come with us,” she called to him.

“The buggy won’t fit all of us,” Charles said. “But take this with you and keep it safe.” He dropped the spyglass case off the observation deck. It sank into the dirt and Kim scooped it up.

“Okay,” she replied, keeping her eyes fixed on him.

Charles recognized her expression. She wore it the day he found her in the dust, carrying her belongings against the backdrop of a caravan swallowed in flames. “Sci-fi will take care of you. Keep him safe, okay?”

“Don’t worry Grampy, he always survives in my dreams.”

“I’m sure he does.”

“Promise you’ll visit?”

“I’ll try.”

The Mechanist shook his head.

“Run along now,” Charles said, turning away. His guts lost their fortitude for a moment and he swallowed hard.

She went to the single-seat dune buggy and hopped in the Mechanist’s lap. He flinched at her dust suit–it resembled a child-sized version of his own. Charles’ handiwork showed signs of meticulous stitching and modification.

“Hold onto your mask bubble-man,” Kim said. She fiddled with the dashboard switches and grabbed the wheel. “You don’t wanna get your pretty face sunburnt.”

“Be still and keep your hands off the wheel,” he demanded. The child retracted her hands, putting them under her armpits.

The dune buggy pulled away from Windhouse 221. Kim hung out the window and waved at Charles. The windfarmer watched her through his rifle scope.

“I’m an old, old, old machine,” he said. “But still useful. Not broken yet.”

As the vigilantes rolled out he loaded the rifle with cartridges. A Dust sentinel once more, he braced against the railing and waited. Five vehicles left the valley town. Three chased after the Mechanist and two drove up the windhouse trail.

All vehicles kicked up dust as they plowed on, affecting Charles’ visibility. The sun hammered him. He felt dehydrated and hungover but reckless too. This bloody task, he realized, would be his legacy.

Charles sighted in on a buggy chasing the Mechanist and made out the shape of the driver’s head. He paused his breath.

The others didn’t hear the shot over the engines, but the crash caught their attention. Kim recoiled into the cockpit as vehicle parts and bodies scrambled off to their right. Her mask fogged up as she started to hyperventilate.

“Don’t move,” the Mechanist bellowed. He held her tight with his machined arm.

Charles found it harder to see through the rising dust cloud. The other buggies continued their advance on the tower, but they had the misfortune of driving uphill with their windshields facing the observation deck.

It took Charles three shots to hit the front driver. The buggy swerved and caught the other vehicle in its side. Smoke gusted from the shoddy engines. Their passengers and the surviving driver, a group of four in all, proceeded on foot. The town stirred as more militia marched out. Charles used this delay to watch over the other two.

The Mechanist struggled to outrun the buggy chasing him, but Charles’ machine lacked the gusto. His pursuer drove up to his side and slammed against them. Though the engineer brought the vehicle under control, it fishtailed violently in the dirt.

Kim squealed when the enemy struck again. Her driver pulled his modified revolver and pointed it out the window. Before he could fire, the other buggy cut its speed and fell back. The Mechanist pulled onto a steep road lined with ashen trees and returned the pistol to its holster. Shock washed over his nerves when a hill’s worth of dirt pushed over his windshield.

The snarl of a diesel engine filled their ears. He shouted Kimberly’s name but the warning came too late. A front-end loader had surged up the side of the road and caught them in its bucket. Parts and tires flew off the buggy as it rolled down the hill and crashed through the brittle corpses of dead trees. Before the Mechanist blacked out, he wrapped both arms around Kim.

Charles panicked when the distant engines idled down. The silence rang in his ears worse than the whine of a decaying fan belt. Too thick to see through, the dust cloud in the distance made him sweat profusely. His rifle had two cartridges left. The weapon rattled in his hands as they shook. He watched the dust clouds swirl even as the vigilantes’ shouts reached him from below.

Ringing awakened the Mechanist. He felt wind on his naked face and tasted dust on his lips. Then, with growing horror, the ringing materialized into the sound of a panicked eight-year old girl. Kim’s voice cracked as she screamed at him to get up.

After so many years of self-control, rage filled the Mechanist. Every preserved part of his body thirsted for violence when he saw a vigilante running at Kimberly.

Guided by instinct, the engineer unclipped the carabiner holding his monkey wrench and hurled it. It struck his foe and knocked the wind out of him. Using this to his advantage, the Mechanist closed the distance and threw a punch with his machined forearm that crunched into his opponent’s face. The militia man crumpled in the dirt.

The engineer’s rage ended with a warning shot. The gunman wore dirty clothes and filth caked his skin. The Mechanist noticed the last dune buggy idling thirty feet away.

“Let’s take a nice walk up the hill,” the vigilante suggested. “The old fart up there has hogged the power since our parents were teenagers. That’s about to change, and you’ll help me do it,” he said. “The Agora Foundation’s taint won’t reach us out here.”

The dust clouds swirled around the three as wind pushed it away with a strong gust. With a whistle and a splat, the man flinched forward, grasped his back, and fell face-first. The report of Charles’ rifle followed in the next instant.

Charles hooted and laughed. But when he heard someone moving up the spiral steps, he pressed flush against the wind tower. A masked man emerged on the deck and the windfarmer socked him in the gut with his rifle butt. Charles pushed him over the railing and down to his friends.

The Mechanist barely secured his mask before hearing a pop. Looking to the wind tower, he saw some of the turbine staircase fall away. Another rifle shot followed. Kim already started running to the dead vigilante’s buggy.

With its diesel engine roaring, the loader came between the pair and their escape vehicle. The Mechanist tried to lure the loader away by running the opposite direction. As his legs pumped the engineer felt his revolver slap against his thigh. Ripping it from the holster, he blind fired at the machine.

The projectile struck the bucket with a fiery “pow” and the loader shuddered under the blow. Then it swerved to face Kimberly and revved up.

The Mechanist steadied his gun with both hands and fired at the operator’s booth. The fiberglass ripped open and the explosion sent an inferno inside the cab. Its operator screamed as the machine lost control and crashed through the rotten oaks and maples lining the road.

Charles heard the powerful handgun fire. It sounded as loud as his rifle, even at a distance. As he reached for more cartridges, gunfire from below punctured through the flooring and ripped through him.

Rapidly losing strength in his leg, Charles fell hard. His blood trickled through bullet holes in the observation deck. The vigilantes stopped firing. Charles knew this silence; they could tell he was down. Wearily, he gazed through the rifle scope to see Kimberly reach out to the Mechanist. When the windfarmer’s guest took her hand, Charles’ laughter filled the valley. He drank his last drink of filthy gin while the vigilantes below readied an RPG.

Fear rushed out of Kim when her fingers met the Mechanist’s unnatural grip. Then an explosion split the sky and she turned to see the windhouse tower rip open and fall. Cables writhed in the air as they snapped. They boomed and crackled like munitions as the turbine motor struck the ground. A rush of wind blasted across the Dust. Kim felt the Mechanist urging her to move, but her limbs lost all their power.

“I don’t like it when my bad dreams come true,” she said.

A violent dust storm struck that night, giving the two survivors a chance to escape the vigilantes using one of their buggies. Sparse light posts set along the roads guided the lost pair on their slow trek. Night surrounded them with the whistle and push of shear winds.

As he started to nod off, the Mechanist spotted headlights. He recognized their make and cut the engine. The tire chains of an armored carrier clinked to a stop beside them.

The Mechanist identified an Agora Foundation logo on its hood. A woman in a white dust suit came out the driver side and peeped in. The salvage engineer produced his badge and exited the buggy.

“Good to see you’re still alive,” the white suit said. “What are you doing out here?”

“Returning from a windhouse,” he answered. “Needed crystals. Went a bit far out on the last venture.”

The soldier checked her communicator. “Would that be Windhouse 221 you just left?” She leaned past the Mechanist to examine the buggy. Wind peppered them with dirt clots.

“Yeah. What’s left of it anyway,” the engineer said.

“What happened?”

“Dusters attacked. I escaped with the windfarmer’s granddaughter.”

“Excuse me?”

The Mechanist grimaced beneath his mask. “Her name is Kimberly.”

“How can they be family? Agora policy states–”

“They’re not family exactly. There’s a story behind this.”

“It doesn’t matter. You’re due for re-conditioning back at home administration. These long trips in the Dust will compromise you one day.” The soldier clicked on her submachine gun. “I will bind the orphan. She must be sterilized and treated.”

Sweat beaded on the engineer’s forehead. “Be gentle. She’s asleep.”

“Step aside,” the white suit urged, turning the weapon on him.

The Mechanist bowed his head and moved away.

Kimberly awakened to a woman in a white mask reaching out to her. The child’s eyes bulged, but she calmed as an emerald light flashed behind the white suit. The Mechanist snuck behind her and jammed a sedative injector into her neck. Passing out, the victim collapsed and the Mechanist stored her inside the armored carrier.

Kim hopped out of the buggy with her mask on. She ran up to the Mechanist and craned her neck up to look at him.

“Was that a headshot?” she asked.

“No,” he answered, “I put her to sleep.”

“Was she a bad guy?”

He shook his head and they hijacked the Agora vehicle. Kim arranged the white coat’s arms and legs, playing with her as if she were a doll. The Mechanist liberated the victim of her communicator and read the telegram inbox.

Agora Foundation to Operative 63

Code Omega. Proceed to Windhouse 221. Relieve windfarmer. Execute for mission failure. Radio backup and destroy settlement.

The Mechanist remembered what Charles said about finding a cause in life, about hosts and gifts and stories and strangers. Despite his loyalty to the Foundation, they sent a white coat to bury Charles. Agora grew plants first and saved lives later–just like he said. Even still, the Mechanist never witnessed Agora amputate entire facilities and staff like that.

For a moment the engineer envisioned Charles kicking his feet up in some hanging gardens with a juniper juice in hand. He crushed the communicator. He ground up the plastic shards until it cut his skin and blood soaked into his glove.

Kim squeezed the Mechanist’s arm. He looked at her and she sensed the pain under his hood. The dust storm outside calmed and the girl took the passenger seat. She opened Charles’ spyglass and aimed it out the windshield.

“Stars,” she said.

“What about them,” her new guardian muttered.

Kim’s tone became instructional. “Charles liked stars. He said losta people watch stars too and it means you’re not alone.”

The engineer raised his head. He finally learned his host’s name. “Did he really.”

“Look at ’em, Sci-Fi. Maybe you’ll see what he means.” She smiled and offered the spyglass to him. The Mechanist’s goggles fogged up when she placed it in his hand.

Moonlight graced the carrier as the eye of the dust storm passed overhead. For an hour it didn’t move. Then the Mechanist fired up its engine and drove northeast.

_____________

Lucas Ahlsen grew up in the suburban forests surrounding Portland, Maine. After logging in hours at his day job, he can be found lurking in a shady speakeasy with a manuscript or notepad in hand. He serves on the editorial board for BULL: Men’s Fiction and manages writing workshops for the Glass Jaw Fiction Company, a writer’s collective based in his city. He regularly visits The Mechanist’s facebook page to ask him zany questions.

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