The New Geek Empire
I woke at my usual early hour and had to untangle from Jax … literally untangle; my braids were stuck under one of his shoulders where he had rolled over on them and he was draped over the rest of me like I was some kind of body pillow. Despite appearances I wasn't going to read too much into it since nothing but some serious sleeping had occurred. We were both still fully dressed; and besides, I'd seen him do the same thing to his bed covers. When I finally managed to get loose he barely registered me leaving which told me he was truly exhausted because except on rare occasions he was nearly as light a sleeper as I was … and still am to this day. I left him and Kelly to sleep a while longer while I got the day started.
I loved the quiet of early morning before everything started dragging on me telling me I had work to do. It was peaceful and I tried to enjoy those few minutes as much as possible. To save time I had baked a whole bunch of bacon and cheese cornmeal muffins the day before and I’d also boiled about a dozen eggs. Some would be eaten for breakfast but I planned on the rest of them going into our picnic dinner basket. I wondered briefly, as I had several times before, if Matt or any of the others had managed to jury rig some kind of refrigeration or whether they had to make do the best they could.
Jax had said Matt and the rest of the crew had been trying to design and build a solar refrigerator but they were having trouble getting the chemical reaction they needed. I remember him asking me, “Got the foggiest idea what Matt was trying to build?”
I smirked, “Sure. And so do you.”
Giving me a suspicious and slightly irritated look at my smirk he asked, “I do?”
“Yep. Where do you think our ice comes from? How do you think we have what amounts to a cold cellar beneath the house?”
“That lens gadget you were all but cussing about when that limb fell and knocked the frame?”
I nodded. “The very same. And don’t act like you are dumb because I know you are not. Matt probably just kept it as secret as he could or tried to make it sound a lot more complicated than it was; of course you know what he is like and probably figured that out for yourself. Just like you know good and well what that lens is for and why I was so upset when that limb hit its frame.”
I looked at him like a kid I had caught trying to pull a fast one in the nursery. He shrugged and gave me a small smirk. “OK … I’m busted. Yeah, I figured out that lens was heating that pipe that holds the refrigerant but I didn’t know it ran the ice maker. I thought that was pulling juice from the solar system.”
“Nope, the cooler is more passive and doesn’t really pull ‘juice.’ Dad said we had a finite amount of electricity we could store and the more passive systems we could put in place the less we’d have to spread that electricity out to too many things pulling on it.” I handed him a plate to put in the cabinet for me and continued. “The ice maker is just icing on the cake of the passive cooling system so to speak. It is like a cycle that feeds on itself. Once we built the solar cooler and got the room to cool down we used the coldest part of the room to freeze two-liter bottles of water. The more frozen two-liter bottles there were the larger the ‘freezer’ section became. Since the Fresnel lens only cycles once a day on a sunny day Dad wanted to come up with a way so that the whole system didn’t have to work so hard and would retain the cold it had created during the day when it was off at night or on days there wasn’t enough sun to get the system to cycle. During the day the refrigerant is the cooling agent but only has to cool a smaller and smaller space as the cooler itself is kept full with as much frozen stuff as possible. At night the temperature is maintained by the frozen water bottles and other cold items in that room giving off their coolness. We have a pretty good equilibrium now.”
Confirming his understanding he said, “That’s why you are so careful about how much goes in and how much comes out of the cooler at any given point.”
I nodded. “Pretty much. Too much warm stuff going in there at one time will force the system work harder and take longer to return to the stable temperature I like to keep it in there – you notice half the room is a “cooler” and the other half nearer the coils is the “freezer” – but removing cold stuff and leaving a gap of air would have the same basic effect by adding air mass that the refrigerant system would need to cool.”
Thinking about that conversation only made me even more suspicious about how Jax would sometimes play at being a dumb good ol’ boy. I hadn’t the foggiest idea why he hid it but he was a lot smarter than he sometimes let on. He may not have been as academically brilliant as Matt but he was no slouch in the brain department. Dad used to say that Jax would make a good replacement for his job when he decided to retire and work on the home place full time. All he needed was some training and a teacher to show him how to think through problems instead of only relying on manuals and cookie cutter policies.
Putting my empty cup of tea in the sink I put the muffins to warm outside in the solar oven and then when out to take care of the animals. My morning chores always included making sure their feeders were full and that they had water for the day. When I was done with the rabbits I looked in on the chickens rolled my eyes at one of the less pleasing aspects of keeping the birds. All chickens like their protein but some chickens like to hunt it up more than others. Back then nothing gacked me out worse than trying to chase down the rooster after he had started running around with a mouse in his beak.
If you have never tried to take something from an ornery Rhode Island Red let me tell you it is no easy task. Stupid thing finally flew to the roof of the coop and just strutted back and forth with that mouse flopping around enough to be totally disgusting. “Ok fine Red, keep your nasty ol’ mouse but I’m telling you right now that you are completely gross.”
I was irritated and sweating and when I turned back to the house to get something to drink it was only to find Jax sitting on the steps feeding Kelly a muffin. Worse, he wasn’t trying very hard to hide the smile on his face. I felt like throwing a bucket at him. “How long have you been sitting there?! I could have used some help you know.”
With a laugh he told me, “Long enough to get the idea that there might be chicken and dumplings in our future.”
“Humph! If that stupid rooster wasn’t such a good mouser he’d been in the pot a long time ago. Problem is I know what he’s been eating so the idea of eating him isn’t what you would call appealing.” I decided it was too hot to stay ticked off and instead said, “I swear, this weather is miserable. I don’t ever remembering it staying this warm this late in the season.”
“It’s been a while, that’s a fact,” he agreed. “But I think the humidity is the worst part. Want me to get you some breakfast?”
I shook my head and flopped on the stairs beside him. “No, I’m too hot to eat right now. I’m just gonna get me some apple juice and try and cool off.” Before I could move he handed me an insulated cup with said cool, sweet liquid sloshing around inside. I thanked him and then took a long draw on it. After a moment I asked him, “Still want to leave right before dark sets in?”
“Uh huh. I want to time it so that by the time anyone from town might be on look out it will already be too late and too dark for them to see us coming in. I don’t want to run with lights so you’ll have to lead us in and I’ll follow in trailing your running lights. First place I’d like to hit is the Feed Depot for sure but I’d also like to hit the tractor dealership next door and if there is time that craft store place that you mentioned for trying to get stuff to make Kelly some clothes with. Heck, I’d even like to squeeze the thrift store in there too if there is time. That’s where I usually got Kelly’s shoes and she needs new ones bad. I could list off a lot of places but those are the primary targets for tonight. The real question is are you still sure the animals will be ok if we leave them alone for two days running.”
I nodded. “You built that automatic water station for the chickens and I’ll put an extra bottle of water in each rabbit cage right before we leave. I’m more concerned about the heat though if this keeps up. We’ll have to make sure that we leave the cross breeze shudders open on the barn but secure them so that predators can’t get in. If you can finish that today then I’m sure that with the big fans going the animals will be fine. In fact, while you do that I’ll finish pulling together our camping gear if it’s all right.”
“Need some help getting it out?” he asked.
“Nope. But I swear if I see one spider you might just be getting it out all on your lonesome. I’m in no mood to deal with those creepy crawly things.”
He got a concerned look on his face and so I felt forced to say, “I’m kidding. C’mon Jax ... don’t go all … I don’t know … protective of me and stuff. That trailer business was a stupid mistake on my part. Done and over with. I’m gonna be packing bug killer in both holsters this time. Not to mention gloves and a hat and a shirt with a collar I can turn up.” I shuddered.
He grabbed the railing and used it to stand up while holding Kelly. “Still … if we can find any more bug bombs while we are out I want to get them. They’ll come in handy if we decide to do anymore salvaging. Who knows what kind of varmints have taken over things.”
I rolled my eyes, “Which reminds me, I got a tick off of one of the rabbits this morning only I have no idea where it came from unless it dropped out of the hay we brought in. We need to make sure and check Kelly all over until the cold weather kicks in knocks the population back.”
He gave me a goofy yet hopeful grin, “Do I get to check you all over for ticks too?”
I snorted, “You’ve been listening to too many old country songs again.” But secretly I was thinking I might not mind getting checked over so long as it was by Jax … and wouldn’t mind doing a little checking of my own.
We both got down to the day’s business after that. First I got the camping gear out of the attic and sorted through it. It was just going to be a one night trip and I tried not to be nervous about it but it would be the first night I had stayed away from home in a long time. And the circumstances of that trip were also way outside of what I was used to. I’d basically forced myself to accept salvaging those trailers and empty houses but going to the outskirts of town to simply take stuff from a business was making me nervous.
I know, I know … if we didn’t take it someone else would. But even after all these years I’ve never quite been able to convince myself that wasn’t just a rationalization for what we did … what a lot of people did. Yeah, it is called surviving; I’ve read all of treaties and journal articles on the phenomena. I know it is still being done to some extent to harvest recyclables to fuel our new power grid structure. But the plain fact of the matter is we didn’t know for sure if no one was going to return to those houses, to those businesses. We didn’t know for sure whether anyone “owned” what we took. We were just operating on what we saw as our own needs and in some cases, as the years have gone by, it has been proven that those rationalizations and excuses have been wrong. Hindsight is 20/20 however and even if I’m still leery of saying it was all justified, that doesn’t mean I haven’t accepted it for what it was and learned to live with it.
Because of the heat and because we were going to be up quite late we didn’t do any kind of major work around the home place. We took a long nap in the middle of the day making me feel a bit lazy and then before I was really ready for it we loaded the last items into the trucks and trailers to take off.
“Let’s maintain radio silence,” Jax said.
Giving him a look I told him, “You sound like those war movies Dad liked to watch. You really think … I mean … you said yourself that Matt and his crew were the largest group in town besides those people at that church. You really think that they meet that same kind of standard of danger that we have to go all commando and junk?”
With an almost incredulous look he asked, “Have you forgotten Sasquatch?! He clocked you without even an apology! Who knows what some of the others would have done given half the chance. Have you forgotten how most of them were dressed and what they were walking around with?”
“Before I took off Sas was looking lost and confused. He …”
Jax shook his head in frustration. “Lydie I know those kids were your friends … geez, Matt’s my cousin. And maybe they are still ‘good guys’ on some level but until we are sure they haven’t totally gone off the deep end like they were threatening to then we need to be careful. We haven’t got a real clue what is going on in town. The radio isn’t telling us much; either they haven’t got the power to run it, we aren’t on the air when they are, or they are becoming as cautious as I want us to be. We also don’t know for sure those two groups are the only ones in town. We might be a little off the beaten track as far as the interstate goes but we aren’t that far off and there are still the highways and county roads to think about outsiders using to travel by. Anyone could have come through and set up camp in town and I’m not sure we would know about it until it was too late.”
I sighed. “OK … ok. I read Dad’s books too. I just don’t want to automatically assume the world has gone all Mad Maxx. This isn’t a story book, this is real life.”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Better safe …”
“ … than sorry. Yeah, I know. I heard that from Dad a lot longer than you did,” I told him in exasperation. “I know, OK?”
Quietly and earnestly the said, “Then let’s just be cautious. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
My nervousness beginning to show through I asked him, “Then why go at all? We’ve got enough to get by here for a long while.”
He leaned against the truck with me while Kelly fidgeted in her car seat. She was going to be riding with me going out. He put his arm around me and answered, “Sure. We have enough to get by for a while. But we don’t know how long this … this situation … is going to last. Things in the larger cities are starting to unravel. You’ve heard it the same as I have. The definition of law and order pretty much depends on who is in charge. You’ve heard the rumors that the government plans to resettle people out into rural areas to put them to work.”
“Yeah and we’ve also heard they are going to resettle people in the rust belt to get manufacturing for the war up and running too. So which is it? What’s the truth?”
Confused I asked, “Huh? Exactly what?”
“Exactly … we don’t know for sure. Everything is crazy. Rumors are flying this way and that. Bottom line for us personally is that right now we have a window of opportunity to set ourselves up so we can … I don’t know what else to call it but survive whatever else is coming down the road. And something is coming. I feel it. Whether you want to admit it or not you feel it. You knew that you needed more than just yourself to get by and you risked a lot to go to town to get it. You trusted those feelings. I felt the same way about needing some place better, safer for Kelly and took a chance to come after you. What we have to do is also trust the feelings we are having now. Something is coming; we don’t know what, but something. We’ve both agreed on that. That something could be good but given everything that’s going on at best it is just going to be just more of the same of same kind of bad that we have had to deal with up to this point; or maybe worse. We need to be logical … and methodical. Let’s go to town, get what we can, and then set up for the winter and see how things play out. Remember what those books of your dad’s emphasized? God, gold, grub, guns, and ground. Basically community and resources. We’ve got God … or at least I think we both believe the same way.” I nodded as we’d both gone to the same church. He continued. “Grub and ground is this home place. It’s good but we could do better if we can find the right tools to work with. Guns … we’ve got some but it will go fast. Your dad taught me how to reload because we had to deal with animals – feral dogs and pigs – out in the timber and the big bosses didn’t like to give us much of a budget to work with. Even hunting will deplete what we have right now so I hope with can find something to help out. Gold … it isn’t important but it could be and I … I think it might not hurt anything to keep our eyes open for stuff like that.”
That was the part I was most uncomfortable with. “Jax … I …”
“I know Lydie. I’m not talking about taking it from anyone that is already holding it. But if we are salvaging and we just happen to run across something of value that we can put away for the future … look, let’s just play that part by ear for a while. You can’t eat gold anyway and we have other more immediate priorities.” He scratched his head a little in frustration at my obstinacy and then just set the issue aside to say, “We’ve got our community – me and you and Kelly – and maybe if Matt is in the right frame of mind we can expand our community. But with or without Matt and the rest of them we will need resources. Maybe we’ll need even more with Matt and the rest of them.”
I started to open my mouth but he stopped me again, this time with a kiss. “I know. Trust me I’ve thought about it. I’m just not prepared to trust them until we’ve done a little investigating. We’ve got a sweet set up here and I don’t want to put it or any of us at risk unnecessarily.”
“I don’t want to be greedy,” I told him.
“We aren’t talking about greed Lydie. Your folks did great things. No way could I ever repay your Dad for all he did for me … and what he keeps doing for me through you. But if I learned nothing else from my mistakes I learned that eventually a man has to take the reins himself if he really plans on being a man, you can’t keep depending on someone else to do it for you. Your dad started the ball rolling; now it is up to us to keep it rolling. We do that by stocking what we can, securing our position, and then waiting to see what is coming … by digging in with the best resources we can. I know you still think it is stealing but it isn’t. The people that could lay claim to that stuff are gone and they are not coming back. What we are doing is securing those resources …”
“Assuming anything is even left at this point,” I interrupted. “Matt or someone else … even Mr. Houchins … could have already taken it.”
He nodded. “Yes, assuming anything is left what we are doing is securing those resources so they can’t be used against us. That’s not greed Babe, that’s commonsense.”
It was pointless to argue about it. We both knew that the plan wasn’t going to change. I said, “Fine. But if we get a chance to help other people we do it. I won’t sit on a mountain of stuff and watch other people starve or whatever.”
“We’ll help … if we can do it without putting ourselves in too much danger.”
Again I knew that was as good a concession as I was going to get from him. And to be honest he was certainly right about feeling something was coming. I wasn’t sure what was causing it … the strange weather, my own personal reality setting in, listening to the craziness on radio from the few people that were still broadcasting, or maybe it was from reading Dad’s books. Whatever “it” was, it felt like a jumping spider just sitting out of my line of sight waiting to make an ambush.