A murmur arose in the woods outside of camp. A flock of birds left the canopy in unison startled by the faint rhythmic whine of an ungreased axel. As the squeaking danced nearer, syncopated clomping of wheels on a pathway joined the song, then the shrill soprano of children’s voices. The clamor swelled into a crescendo of excited exclamations as the cacaphony entered the village. The scavenger party had returned from their fourteen day trip.
The fresh haul caught the attention of everyone in the village as they dropped their work to marvel at the spectacle. Gathered at the large tree in the center of camp, a palpable silence came over the crowd as they stared in awe at an object they had all given up hope of finding. On the back of the squeaking cart was a pile of aluminum scaffolding holding up four large black panels, a solar array.
“Does it work?”
“All the parts are here. A little scuffed but Bill wired it all back up this morning.”
Bill nodded to confirm.
“And the batteries?”
“Flat but have been charging all day. Only way to know is to plug something into the inverter.”
He dug around the pile of metal and lifted up a child’s desk lamp with bulb still in tact. With very little ceremony, he plugged in the lamp and flicked the switch. Prometheus with fire in his hands.
Expressions of gratitude flowed as mechanical minds poked and prodded the new machine. Curbing the excitement, everyone agreed to hold a meeting after chores finished to discuss what to do with this new artifact. A buzz in collective imagination stirred inside the village as they returned to their tasks.
When the group rejoined, the mood at camp had shifted. There was now a defensive musk in the air as idealogical factions had formed in the short downtime, fracturing along historical slights and balkanizing along length of relationships.
“I’ll go first. I think we can scavenge the restaurants and find a freezer for storing meat.” A lot of head nods and confirmation. After years of lean eating and hard winters, food security was a top concern.
“I’m not opposed, but that’s a bit optimistic. Even if we could find a freezer, the draw would probably be more than this system can provide, so meat would spoil overnight.”
“Well, make jerky if it’s going bad!” A sarcastic grin floated across his face. “And hey, if there’s meat that needs to be eaten in a hurry, I’ll graciously volunteer my services.”
A few laughs followed.
“Killing and consuming more than we need is what got us here.”
The neo-religious rhetoric deflated the atmosphere. Flames of excitement quashed as tensions rose and conviction flushed in the cheeks. The fractures were widening under white knuckles. The scavengers had already aligned on refrigeration on their walk back. They had found the array and felt entitled to it, now the pious are ruining this blessing, like they ruin everything else. To question the need to feed the camp, surely they are not on the side of God.
“Easy, easy. Let’s shelve this idea and come up with more. Anyone else?”
“Lights for camp. Around the common areas and for late night trips to the outhouses.”
The comment was heavier than the last and the circle got quiet again. Her husband died last year in the middle of the night from a snake bite. They found him in the morning fifty yards outside of camp. He must have gotten disoriented and walked the wrong way or, more likely, he was drunk but regardless it’s a damn shame and not fair to her and her three children.
“Lights might draw raiders.”
“Lights or no lights, raiders will find us.”
“What about the hand-wound flashlights? Are those not enough?” The suggestion fell flat but was correct given the risks.
“Motion lights then to spot raiders?”
“Then they’d know we’re nearby and that we have power. They’d follow the wires right back to us.”
“Not with this setup. You need thousands of volts.”
“Air-conditioning? Or fans for the Martins?” The eldest couple at the camp who were not adapting to the climate well and prone to falls, injuries, and bed rest.
“No, no, we’re okay,” they insistently declined, not wanting to be a burden or asking too much out of overt modesty. They rebuffed all encouragements.
“Noisy, but a good idea. We’d need to find screws and blades as well.”
“What if we had a drone to do scouting?”
“A drone? A drone!? We don’t have a drone. Just like we don’t have medicine that needs refrigerated. Just like we don’t have a refrigerator. We can spend the rest of our lives doing what-ifs but it don’t help us now. What if we had a space ship!? What if we had a magical food replicator!?” The sarcasm wasn’t helping the situation, despite its truth.
Conversations circled back and spiraled as tensions built. A great treasure had appeared yet it exposed disparities in how everyone valued food, safety, and security. The solar array was like a cruel literal genie from the old stories, granting a wish but not in full. The children were generally unaware of what it meant to have electricity, growing up most of their lives without it. Adults had embedded memories of the old world –of cell phones and Internet– but it would take a century to rebuild those. They fantasized about power for so long thinking it’d solve any perceivable problem, but now with it at their fingertips, there wasn’t one plan that fit everyone’s needs and didn’t introduce a potential side effect. No one threatened to leave, but you could see feelings of betrayal were beginning to take root.
A teenage boy –who had remained quiet until now– stood up, “I have an idea.” He then disappeared into his shelter. The adults shrugged to one another. He emerged minutes later holding a familiar glassy black rectangle, a controller, and a small bundle of wires. Eyes lit up, younger children were devoid of context and bewildered at the visceral excitement that had taken over, but wanted to take part.
They propped the device up on the back of the cart and plugged in the necessary elements, the herd of younger children pressed inward toward the obsidian idol, but older children –vicars of this technology– pushed them away. The teenager who had found the system performed the required incantations; popping in a cartridge, pushing the power button, navigating the menus. In minutes they had resurrected an ancient pastime; a holy communion.
The children sat enraptured by the flickering colors, some their first experience. A familiar scene unfolded where the elder kids proritized themselves and the younger kids –too young to truly understand the mechanics– shouted “Unfair!” until placated. An ebb and flow, naturally resolved, sometimes with mild physical violence. One of the middle-aged men attempted to flex his dormant skills on the children but failed miserably, suffering an appropriate amount of social ridicule. He laughed it off but everyone saw the bruise on his ego.
“Well this is fun,” said a matriarchal onlooker.
“Not the most productive use of power, but…”
“…But they’re happy.”
“They’re happy, yes. Hopefully tomorrow cooler heads will prevail and we can make a decision.”
“We will. For now let’s let them enjoy it. They deserve some peace. That seems like not a waste.”
“We’ll have to pry it away from them.”
“Yeah, well… that’s a small problem. And nature may take care of that for us,” she said staring at the clouds that had gathered throughout the day.
As if on command a warning sign flashed and the screen went blank. The batteries had run out. The children groaned at the injustice, ephemeral complaints about who got more turns, but tempers disbanded for dinner. Adults ate bread, drank wine, laughed. The young ones scribbled images of their newfound pantheon of heroes on scraps of cardboard. As the golden hour set, kids floated to their pallets chirping the new sounds and songs which manifested in their lives today. Grownups bid each other good night, unspoken apologies for prior transgressions.
For a brief couple hours their kids were kids, careless and entertained, and not strictly surviving for once in their lives. That night, that treasure, brought a new perspective to the village; a small act of providing something beyond this devastated world for the next generation.