Shortly after waking with the sun,
Coodah made his way up the spiral staircase to the balcony
of his unfinished timber house. He wore only his terrycloth
bathrobe, which was open at the throat, revealing a set of
binoculars strung on a leather thong necklace.
He grasped the binoculars and held
them to his eyes. Beyond the windmills (which were eight in
number and stood over fifty meters high) there were rollicking
green hills, with tiny thatched huts plotted in the verdant
defilades, spreading as far as the eye could see.
The village of Pangaea was surrounded
with one thin layer of concertina wire. Four guard towers
were plotted equidistant from one another, at the corners
of the unmapped hamlet. Sentries were posted one to each perch,
unarmed save for spyglasses. Coodah, by joint decree with
his wife Lillian, had forbidden any form of weaponry in the
That same decree was heavy on the mind
of the stranger now making his way to the foot of the northwestern-most
tower of the compound. Citizen Maeland flashed a solar panel
toward the mayoral house in deference to Coodah, and then
greeted the well-worn traveler.
"We've been waiting for you,"
Maeland said. He fitted a thick leather glove on his right
hand, and began descending the rungs of the ladder nailed
to the side of his guard tower. When he had reached the bottom,
he grabbed the single strand of wire and brought it aside
for Carlton, who switched his olive-drab canvas bag from his
left to right hand. He was a fat man, and traveling seemed
to have exhausted him.
"Ah," Carlton exhaled, as
he entered the compound. "You should have known that
nothing could keep me from my duties."
"Not even the Gassers?" Maeland
challenged, as Carlton entered the camp, and he secured the
concertina behind him.
"Gassers?" Carlton asked,
contentiously. He nodded toward the old man, surrounded by
his battery of whitewashed giant stilettos. Both men looked
up toward the mayor, as he spied on them with his binoculars.
Carlton said of him, "If he fears
the Gassers so much, why doesn't he let you carry firearms?"
Maeland laughed and ascended his post
in the tower, adding as he went, "I guess Coodah thinks
they're running out of gas."
"Oh, they might not have enough
to run a car," Carlton admitted. "But they have
enough to burn this small village." The humor was suddenly
drained from the conversation. He drank in the serenity of
the place, so different from what he had endured over the
course of the last few months.
A bearded gentleman caught Carlton's
attention as he crossed his path. The man plucked at some
hand-hewn lute hybrid that he had probably carved from local
wood. Beyond the musician, a few acres of irrigated crops
gave off a molting, autumnal odor, which the golden sun heated
to ripe perfection.
There were no farm animals, he noted.
They were vegans who eschewed both firearms and meat. If the
Gassers ever made it here
He tried not to think about it. He
instead focused on the windmills, which had been the brainchild
of Mayor Coodah, who had used salvaged scrap metal left over
from the remnants of the U.S. Army (along with propellers
and reconstituted motors from ancient commercial airliners)
in the construction of his beloved mills.
According to the old man, the windmills
provided for all of the town's energy needs, and Coodah's
ingenuity had been enough to earn him a seat at the head of
the village council.
But the answer to the village's prayers
may have come with a poisoned caveat, one that might eventually
prove more dangerous than the edict against guns. That remained
to be seen, and that was why he, Carlton, was here.
Once Coodah had spotted him, he left
his place at the balcony and began his descent down the spiral
staircase. He then made his way past his wife, Lillian, who
was preparing a barter offering for the itinerant surveyor.
Coodah lifted her hennaed locks and gave her a peck on the
back of her neck, before jogging outside to greet the visitor.
"A hearty hello, wayfarer."
He smiled, wiped the air with his open palm, and clasped Carlton's
hand in his own.
"How do?" Carlton asked.
"We've seen worse days,"
the mayor announced, opening his generous arms wide to display
the expanse his peaceful fiefdom. The village was now in full
swing, brought to life by the arrival of a new face.
Children chased one another, starting
a pickup game of tag as a pretense to get a closer look at
the new man. He gave them even more reason to be curious when
he finally opened his bag, and made his way to the foot of
the first windmill.
He gazed up at it, standing there like
a totem supplicating at the foot of a merciful god. Its rotors
chopped the air lazily, in slow counterpoint to the brass
rooster weathervane some fifty feet below it, swinging creakily
on the roof of the mayoral house.
"And you think," Carlton
began, removing his RADIAC from the bag, "that there
may be traces of uranium in the base?" The mayor moved
closer, partly to get a look at Carlton's tool, but mostly
to prevent his constituency from eavesdropping. If
they thought that the windmills were somehow dangerous, his
powerbase would dissolve beneath him.
"Well," he said, "after
the coup, when the U.S. Army disbanded, we raided an armory.
I've heard that some of the tanks contained depleted uranium,
and I thought"
Carlton shook his head, interrupting
the mayor. "If this had been England, yes. But this was
America. Very rarely do I encounter depleted uranium in old
American surplus tanks. All the same." The surveyor dowsed
the wand over the base hull of the windmill.
The RADIAC didn't make any noise, not
even the smallest Geiger chirp. Carlton turned it off. "Nothing,"
he said, smiling. The mayor returned his smile, hiding the
depths of his relief from both the surveyor and the onlookers.
"Well, then." The mayor placed
his arm over Carlton's shoulder, and steered him toward the
rear of the house. "All that remains to be tested is
"And not a moment too soon."
Carlton said, wiping beads of perspiration from the flabby
protuberance of his double chin.
He shifted the load of his canvas bag,
and uncapped his deerskin canteen. "I'm quite parched."
The men walked toward a creek. The
water flowed sonorously and unchecked, lubricating moss-covered
rocks and catching golden light from the spilling orb of the
sun. Carlton dipped his canteen until the bladder was full.
Then he put it to his lips. Coodah
watched him, confused. "But you haven't even checked
the purity yet."
Carlton smiled, and as water dribbled
from the sides of his mouth, he said, "Iodine tablets."
Then he took another draught, his head tipping in full profile.
He capped the canteen and added, "As
for you, and the good folk of your town." He fished through
his bag until he found a roll of litmus paper. Then he undid
a strip, and placed it facedown into the rippling water.
The men waited a moment, Carlton scrutinizing
the colors of the paper, Coodah lost in a deeper reverie,
the kind that had motivated him to his present station in
"You know," he said, "someday
I'm going to head all the way to the Coast, and I'm going
to see the ocean. And I'll try to accomplish with hydroelectric
power what I've done with the wind."
He pointed proudly up toward his skyrocketing
children. Then he looked back to Carlton, who seemed more
bemused than impressed. "Conquer the seas, huh?"
The mayor winced, taking some sort
of secret umbrage. His tongue lolled in his mouth, searching
for diplomatic reserves before he attempted to speak again.
Then he said, "'Conquer' is the wrong word. We have no
desire to 'conquer' anything."
That sinking feeling hit Carlton again,
the same one he had felt upon admittance to the small town.
This man, this mayor, wouldn't make it to California without
a small army.
They had built a beautiful little town
here. But they had apparently forgotten the larger world in
the intervening, peaceful years.
And the world was bad. There was no
other way to put it. And there were no flowery, altruistic
alternatives that could be cultivated outside of this small
utopia, whose border might as well have been protected by
tissue paper, or beautiful origami, waiting to burn in the
wake of the Gassers.
Carlton knew it was none of his business,
and that he was here to take readings and take readings only.
But he knew that he would be derelict if he didn't try, at
"You know, sir," he said,
taking the litmus from the creek and wagging it in the air
so that it would dry, "You should really consider arming
yourselves. If you would be willing to build a turbine, a
prototype for a tribe fifty clicks south of here, they would
be willing to barter for"
"Nonsense," the elder said,
waving the spurious offer away with one hand, closing the
matter for good. Carlton felt his heart sink into his stomach,
acidic ulcers pummeling into the organ like a fist. He had
tried and his offer had been rejected. But at least there
was some good news to report in the color.
"The water is good," he said,
smiling wistfully. The elder returned his smile, and all around
them the townsfolk beamed.
Back at the main house, Lillian of
the gray henna locks offered them up a cornucopia, proudly
displaying the contents of the basket to the men. Coodah explained
the items one by one to Carlton, who accepted it all gratefully
into his hands.
"This," Coodah said, "was
all grown in my wife's garden. The sun dried tomatoes were
my only contribution. The flax seed will do wonders to fortify
your constitution. I can guarantee you, Mr. Carlton, that
as long as you make the sojourn to Pangaea every fall, your
immune system will be iron-clad for the long winters ahead."
"Thank you," Carlton said,
hefting the bag, clutching it in front of the twin bandoliers
formed by his canteen and canvas bag. He gave an obeisant
half-bow to the couple and tried to match their smiles, beaming
until his ears twitched. But he found that he couldn't genuinely
radiate the kind of warmth that seemed to come as second nature
to them, and to most of the citizens, who followed him on
his way out toward the gate.
All but the most obstinate children
had given up by the time he made it to the concertina wire.
He shooed the two boys away, for he would need no extra eyes
or ears around for his next proposition.
He walked to the northwestern-most
tower, the same one where he had entered. There he stopped
at the foot of the scaffolding, and began digging through
The guard, noting his desire to break
camp, sheathed his eyeglass and began descending the tower.
"Leaving so soon?"
"I'm afraid so," Carlton
said. He found what he was looking for, while the guard continued
"It's just as well. An overnight
wouldn't guarantee you anything. All of the women are betrothed.
My wife Heather has a sister somewhere in California, but
that's mighty far away."
California again, Carlton thought.
Then he pulled out the gun. The guard's eyes widened in their
sockets, and he became indignant. "You've violated this
town's edicts by not declaring, then surrendering your firearm.
You know that no weapons are allowed in Pan"
"I don't like guns, myself."
Carlton said. "But take it. Consider it an inoculation
against the forces that want to destroy what you have built,
here in this town. No one has to know." He whispered
the last pleadingly, and pressed it to the guard's chest.
Maeland took it, sensing in the tone
of the surveyor's voice something he wished to impart besides
the gun, something that made the ugly piece of metal feel
"Thank you," Carlton said,
quivering with relief before he departed. Maeland once again
began scaling the wooden planks nailed to the outside of his
post, heavier now a weapon. The gun was smaller than his spyglass,
but it weighed on his conscience like a lodestone boulder.
It dogged his mind until he was relieved
for the nightshift. His replacement was a teenage boy, whose
only distinguishable features in the moonlight seemed to be
a prominent Adam's apple and a hooked nose.
The poor boy would have only a kerosene
torch to guide him through the long shift. The NVG goggles
from the ancient United States armory had broken down long
ago, their lithium-green lights fading to dimness. Coodah,
operating under the assumption that sheep had keen night-vision,
had begun dissecting a lamb's eye in the hopes that he might
somehow isolate the faculty with which the animals had been
blessed. But his researches had yielded naught thus far.
The mayor and his wife were now presently
in House of Worship, burning incense at the altar of their
pantheistic deity. The church was located at the center of
town, a strange Quonset hut whose sides and roof were composed
entirely of solar panels.
Both sat on threadbare prayer rugs.
Lillian's legs were folded beneath her in a crossed yogic
pretzel, while her husband, twenty years older and less limber,
sat on his knees. They held hands and stared at the bronzed
caste of Buddha, a blissful and overfed contrast to the gaunt
and agonized Christ, who was nailed to a cross a few feet
above the Zen deity.
Despite the gulf between the two gods,
Buddha didn't seem to gloat so much as serve as a counterpoint
to the suffering Man-God, a hedging of polytheistic bets on
an afterlife whose pondering made less and less sense, as
the man and wife approached the middle of this millennium.
Perhaps, in a few hundred years, as Mankind moved toward the
end of the third millennium A.D., Jesus would come to reassert
himself, gaining converts with the end-of-timers, in a full
swing of the pendulum. Time would tell, and they would be
On the other side of the village of
Pangaea, in the only other hut still glowing with lamplight,
Maeland lay twined with his wife on a bed of straw. Their
two sons were asleep in an adjacent room, warmed by Domingo,
their faithful Labrador, who was asleep at the foot of their
Maeland's usually affectionate hand
was now occupied with gripping the crosshatch of the gun that
the surveyor had left him. His wife was asleep, lost in dream
and oblivious to the torment playing in her husband's mind.
If Coodah or any one of his surrogates found out about the
gun, all four of them could be banished.
Domingo's sudden barking tore him from
his thoughts, a warning bayed more succinctly than anything
that could have come from the guard-towers at this hour, when
spyglasses were about as useful as soothsayers.
"Maeland," Heather moaned,
still half-lost in sleep. The straw underneath the thin sheets
rustled as she shifted, her nose crinkling at the disturbance.
Maeland stood, and began making his
way into the adjoining room. The walls were built of heavy
clay and there was little risk that Domingo might wake the
neighbors with his barking. But if the dog didn't shut up
soon, both of the boys would wake.
"Domingo!" Maeland hissed.
The dog continued barking, facing in the direction of the
moon, which was hidden by the walls, given a slim silvery
admittance through the one window in the house.
But that wasn't moonlight drawing Maeland's
eye, or his hand, which still unwittingly clutched at the
revolver. That was another kind of light, too bright to be
the sun, or even fire. It was a light so old that time had
rendered it new again.
The light flashed from something that
looked like the tanks Coodah had scrapped to build the windmills.
Only this wasn't a tank. It was something Maeland had grown
unaccustomed to seeing in motion. The sight of it moving was
as galling as witnessing a statue brought to life.
The Hummer did circles around the windmills.
Three or four men with weapons (guns much larger than his)
stood outside of the car and fired up into the sky. Faces
appeared at windows bearing the harried, fearful expressions
of cornered rodents. Only Maeland's face held anything different.
At least, that is what he imagined
as he began to make his way out of the house, instinctively
drawing back the hammer on the revolver, moving to the overhanging
eaves of his own hut, where he hesitated. He couldn't go any
farther. The sight before him was too disgusting.
Somehow, in the time that had elapsed
between the end of his shift and the beginning of the teenager's
(the boy was now probably dead), the marauding Gassers had
roused Coodah from his meditation and climbed the scaffolding
of his windmill, with the poor mayor in tow. They had proceeded
to tie him, one arm to the rotor of a turbine on the left-hand,
the other arm to the windmill on his right.
Then, as they looked on and cackled,
spotlighting him in the beams of their SUV, they had watched
as a crosscurrent draft tugged the windmills in two different
directions, forcing the rotors to twirl and spin like the
heads of maniacal flowers in full bloom. The mayor, screaming
in agony above as his wife wailed below, found himself torn
into two pieces, a red flowing zenith spilling down onto the
Gassers, who lapped up his blood like the hungry dogs that
It was a bitter, ironic defeat for
the man to die that way, at the hands of his own machines,
his beloved windmills. And it had been too much for Maeland,
who finally found himself running, storming from his small
He fired shot after shot from the unfamiliar
weapon, the smell of flint and cordite sparking in the air,
felling one of the four Gassers, scattering the remaining
three back to the Hummer.
They pulled off into the night, leaving
muddy burnout in their wake, the heavy treads of the tires
making light work of the single concertina strand, as their
headlights faded into the hills.
Once he had fully emerged into the
center of the town, Maeland saw that all four guard towers
had been razed and were presently burning. He gave instructions
for the gathering townsfolk to draw water from the creek that
the surveyor had so recently blessed.
The people obeyed, docilely submitting
to the orders of the man who now found himself forced into
the role of leader. He had been propelled from the title of
mayor to the wartime titling of King, in the space of one
He didn't want it any more than he
wanted that smell, which he found more noxious than the odor
of the burning cordite. He had no name for it, and the only
people who could have placed it as carbon monoxide were both
gone, one to another village, the other to another world.
Whoever wasn't presently engaged in
quelling the fires at the distant towers was now gathering
around him. And Maeland wondered why.
Was it the way he had asserted himself
in the aftermath of the events? Was it the simple fact that
he had shouted, and shouted loudly? He would have liked to
have flattered himself, chalked it up to charisma, feeling
the narcissistic blush of a compliment even in the midst of
chaos. But he knew his answer, and hated the reality of it
in his right hand.