June 30, 2011
THE POWER OF ONE
In the West, the comet appeared below the bloody shroud of evening. The sun had already dropped below the mountain tops and the comet hung in the aching twilight, between snow caps and the Nor’ west arch. Isla sat against a wind turbine on her roof, watching the flare of sunset radiating across the cloud pall; watching the brilliance of red darkening to black overhead. The wind had dropped, and barely stirred her long and tangled hair. She sipped at a glass of gin and felt the relief of seeing this day to its end. The Nor’ wester had blown all day; singing in the power lines, bowing the forest trees and churning the autumn leaves around the village, whipping dust from the scree slopes and driving it relentlessly down the great river valley. The valley was darkened now, but the braided waters, so blue in daylight, reflected the evening light. Like rivulets of blood thought Isla.
There had been bloodshed today, and there would be more tomorrow. But tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow would be a day of hunting not defending.
“Isla, we’ve tidied up as much as we can. People want to know if they can go home.” Young Peter, the forester, had come up onto the roof of the power station.
“They are fools. Give them a display of execution and they think all their problems are over. How far do they think the survivors have gone? They’ve still got their guns. They’ll want revenge and they still want this place.” She gestured across the roof top, “Have a drink.” And Isla offered him her glass. He shook his head at the bitter stuff even though he managed the plantation that produced the juniper berries. Peter preferred barley ale.
Three days ago the village had heard by radio that the City had fallen to the Angels. Some in the village had said, “They won’t worry us. There’s nothing here for them.” Isla had called Peter from his autumn pollarding of the chestnut trees and sent him out around the Wire to check it for damage. The Wire had been in place since the
great uprising of 2050. Isla’s grandfather had installed it – a perfect defence against marauders. Perfect then, when the power station still generated electricity. The State had decommissioned the power station five years before, when the lake levels became too low, too often for efficient production. Grandfather Tom had stayed on in the village. There was nothing for an ageing electrical engineer to move on to. The wind farms had never got off the ground. The proposed sites were nearly always too sensitive: socially, culturally, environmentally – and then it was too late and the hydro lakes had shrunk, coal was banned as a fuel and nuclear power looked bad for international trade. Tom continued to maintain what machinery he could, providing enough electricity for the village and nearby Ryton Station. His children had joined him at Coleridge when the oil riots started. And when the Military took control of the State, the growing family moved into the power station and made it their mountain fortress. The Wire was never used then and when one of Isla’s cousins was electrocuted Tom disconnected it.
“Forever,” he said, but he didn’t remove it.
Tom wanted everyone to understand generation, but not all of the children were born engineers. Some preferred to tend the trees that survived in this raw and wind-eaten place. Some farmed the land producing barley and potatoes in sheltered pockets, or marshalled other resources: managing the game stocks on the lake and the surrounding hills, and keeping trade open with Ryton Station and Glentunnel.
Isla absorbed the power station because it was her home. She was born there, and as a child she was sure that she could feel the electricity flowing in her veins; until the solar flare destroyed most of the planet’s electrical equipment. Then Isla knew that she was truly empowered: empowered to see into people and interpret their dreams, to predict outcomes and to heal the sick. In an effort to keep distance between herself and inevitability, she immersed herself in the mechanics of the power house. Tom laughed at her eagerness.
“It’s all over Lass. What’s the point?”
“Tell me Grandad,” she begged, wanting to understand before he was gone. “Tell me,” she said tracing raised letters with a finger, “What does B T H Rugby mean?” Tom chuckled. This was the manufacturer’s stamp on some of the turbine housings.
“British Thompson Houston. That was the engineering company that made the casings in Rugby – in
– last century. They used to make steam turbines early on. Vickers and Peebles, those were similar companies though Peebles was in England . The words on the casings have got nothing to do with what goes on inside.” Scotland
For Isla though they seemed like mystical codes. And she thought, since the insides didn’t work anymore, non-working parts took on new significance. After the solar flare had wrecked the transformers, Tom had been full of restoration, but the power station had never been self-sufficient in parts. Cabling came from the city wound onto great wooden drums or around little cardboard ones. The spinning of electrical cable was energy intensive and the great looms had already reduced production before the solar flare. Small armatures could be rewound on treadle sewing machines for use in light appliances, but industrial scale electric motors became curiosities. Then, at the turn of the century the Alpine Fault heaved; a long anticipated event, but the resulting earthquake blocked the power station’s intake from the lake, and although water still flowed enough to fill irrigation ponds and water tanks, there would be no more hydro generation. Tom was gone by then, but the engineers and others from the village put their energy into building and refining solar panels, wind turbines, and steam engines run on Glentunnel coal. The international ban on burning coal still stood, but in a society fighting for its own survival international law was irrelevant.
And when individuals fight for their own survival there is no law.
The villagers had gathered from daybreak, driving their geese and goats, carrying babies and chickens, calling their dogs; over the Wire, up the crumbling steps and into the stronghold. The household of Ryton Station had ridden in late the previous evening and their horses were already stabled in the annex. Isla directed: families with differences to opposite ends of the switch room, mothers with babies into her own living quarters, the archers into Iolo’s care. Then she handed over responsibility to her lieutenants; they knew their roles, and took over as Coleridge prepared for siege.
Isla donned her birthday cape: a gift from the people of Ryton Station when she had turned sixty. It was woven from their fine creamy wool and made in the style of a musterer’s coat, but intended to keep her warm in her winter palace. Isla wore it now - sweating in the mild temperatures - to coax the comet into her arms, to announce her presence, to remind intruders of her reputation, to intimidate; but experience had taught her that Empowerment depended on perception and that it was almost all show. But when the Angels came, wind-weary from coaxing aged motorcycles over degraded roads, the White Witch of Coleridge ceased to be a story brought out of the hills by awestruck travellers. She confronted them from the roof of the power station, a tall white-robed figure, with hair writhing in the wind, and a great staff pointing to the sky. There was a baulking, a braking amongst the riders, wheels skewing amongst the ridges of the potato field yellowing on each side of the approach road. Isla saw their confusion and laughed at their uncertainty: superstition riding pillion with brutality. They would be carrying guns she knew, and was hoping that they couldn’t use them while riding, but bikes had been abandoned along the way – aged, unsuited to diverse fuels – and so those riders were riding pillion; guns in hand. The confusion amongst the bikes meant that the first shot at the easy target went wide, but told Isla that the Angels were both armed and incompetent. She was determined to keep up her show of Power; not to scramble for shelter in fear. Carefully Isla retreated across the roof, navigating her way through solar panels and pans of drying apricots. Only when she moved out of sight beyond the parapet did she relax her guard and let the comet-light she had summoned around her, dim for a time. Now it was up to the stokers and the engineers and the archers to add their strength to Isla’s protective web. The stokers had been firing the steam engine relentlessly. There would be no second chance if the dynamo it was driving couldn’t generate the electricity to charge the Wire.
There was no second chance for the Angels who grasped the Wire with both hands in an attempt to hurdle it. There was no second chance for their companions who tried to pull them off the Wire. And for those who realised what was happening, even if they didn’t understand electrocution, there were crossbow bolts shot from close range through tall paned windows.
The Wire collapsed under the weight of bodies, but remained live and the surviving Angels, though armed and helmeted, were vulnerable to the archers at the windows. The crossbow bolts cut through leather jackets as they cut through living hide and the gunmen could only fire at reflective window panes, so they retreated.
Some of the men inside the power station wanted to gather the fallen guns and claim the motorcycles.
“Later,” ordered Iolo. “They’re out there watching us. They have the advantage if they are in the trees. I will lose no one through stupidity.” The only injuries were from broken glass and at least one archer would never aim true again.
As Isla removed the glass from the woman’s eye and dressed the wound, she cursed the faith that people had in her to heal. They thought she could work miracles. Sometimes she did. But she couldn’t save Marama’s eye. And she couldn’t ignore enemy wounded. That was something she wasn’t prepared for; to bring Angels into the stronghold – a man with a bolt through his shoulder, and a lad - barely bearded, who had survived the Wire, but who would die from his internal burns.
The solace of evening was Isla’s reward then, along with the brief interlude when the day-shy comet showed itself before setting after the sun. She knew that tomorrow the archers, with long bows and cross bows, as well as the mounted musterers, would flush out the remaining Angels. They were armed but on unfamiliar territory and raised in city ghettoes; they had none of the stealth for high country stalking that had become a hallmark of the Coleridge game hunters.
Isla raised her glass to the comet, drained it and followed Peter down into the Power Station. ©