*Author’s Note: “The Price of Progress” is a standalone story, set in the same universe as my other Reedsy short-stories, with overlapping characters/events.*
The campfire spat and backfired, as it worked at keeping the pot of stew warm. Dinner had been ready for twenty-minutes, and Guy was anxious to eat.
“Surely he won’t be much longer,” Guy said.
“We’ll eat, together, when my Dad comes back,” I said, watching the path that led to our camp. It was more of a clearing than a path – a break in the trees we’d camped among for extra cover, and protection.
“Fine.” Guy pointed at me with his ladle to punctuate his point, “But don’t complain about my cooking. I’ll just have to keep stirring so the meat doesn’t burn.”
Meat had become a generic term in the Wasteland; it was better not to think about what you ate to stay alive, and asking questions was never wise. Guy’s cooking always smelt better than it tasted, and the aroma was putting the moves on my resolve. But we’d wait for Dad. We had to.
“The light is fading, he’ll be here soon.”
“I can’t hear anything, so he must have failed again.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was close when I left him to it.” As a child I had learned that it was best to give my Dad space when he was concentrating on a difficult task. “But he wouldn’t fire it this evening anyway.”
“Oh okay, that makes sense.” As the cogs in Guy’s brain rotated, so did the stew. “He’d wait until we’d set up camp there to guard it…no point staying here once we know it works, right?”
“No, not for that reason.” Guy was smart, but he was a linear thinker, and our plan was pushing him out of his comfort zone. If it worked, everything would change. “Raising steam is a simple process, but you can’t rush bringing a boiler up to pressure. The faster you fire an engine, the more you stress the metal. So if he’s been able to fix it, we’ll start at first light tomorrow.”
“Slow and steady, makes sense.” Guy left the stew to fetch our purified drinking water. “So he might have done it then?”
“Like I said, he was close.”
“Drink?” Guy asked, after filling his own cup.
My mouth was watering from the stew, and my stomach was growling. I was losing my resolve. I turned my back on the path – a watched kettle never boils – and faced the simmering stew instead. Guy sat down, and drank his water. He looked deep in thought.
“It’s going to be a game changer isn’t it?”
“Like stepping out of the dark ages…literally,” I said. Then one of the logs in the fire popped, and Guy whipped his head towards it, as he zeroed in on the sound. “Like when the first caveman made fire,” I continued.
We both laughed, and for that moment I felt optimistic.
“We’re going to create a real future for ourselves,” Guy said, “where we don’t just survive, but actually live!”
“It’s going to solve a lot of our problems, but might create new ones.” I stopped talking as I saw Guy’s eyes leave mine to look over my shoulder. I turned to follow his gaze, and saw my boiling kettle walking along the path towards us. He hid his emotions from his face, but I could tell by his walk that he’d done it.
“Well,” called out Guy, “put us outta our misery Wiley!?”
Dad held on for as long as he could, then a massive grin burst across his face, and he gave us the double thumbs-up.
“Woohoo!” yelled Guy, and then he lowered his voice as there was a feint returned howl in the distance. “Get that man a cigar.”
Dad did a victory dance as he joined us – he had earned the right to a dad dance – but I wasn’t ready to celebrate yet. His skill with a steam engine had solved most of our current problems, and would bring a new level of civility to this terrible world. But it also brought with it a whole new set of problems.
“Was never in doubt,” I said through a forced smile.
“Your ole man has still got some tricks up his sleeve.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Guy. He wore his genuine smile from ear to ear, and looked the happiest I’d ever seen him. “Shame we don’t have any moonshine left to toast you. ‘To the man that brought civilisation to the uncivilised’.”
“Let’s not celebrate too early. Save your toast for when it raises steam.” Dad took off his rucksack of tools, and dropped it to the floor. “We’ll know when we fire it tomorrow. We’ll start at first light.”
“Slow and steady, so it doesn’t stress the metal too much,” said Guy, chucking a wink in my direction.
“Yeah, exactly. You been swatting up?”
“I pick up the odd nugget of wisdom here and there,” Guy patted Dad on the side of his arm, “let me get you that drink even if it is only water. Saving the world must be thirsty work.”
“Yeah, sit down Dad, and I’ll dish up the stew.” Guy looked up at me, held my eye, then nodded in gratitude for saving him a job.
I filled Dad’s bowl first, as the man of the moment, and the steam from his bowl filled my nostrils. It was close enough to boiling to have burned the meat.
“Thanks,” said Dad, as I handed him his dinner. He held it within his hands, waiting till we were all ready to eat. “I’m as confident as I can be,” he said to Guy; I had already seen our progress made today. “The blower hasn’t been used in anger yet, but worst case scenario we’ll just have to use the bellows to maintain pressure. Or should I say you two will!”
“I have faith,” chuckled Guy, “if you say it will fire tomorrow, that’s good enough for me.”
“It’s only the stationary engine for now though,” confided Dad, “I still can’t fix the steam rollers in the yard until we can get certain parts forged.”
“It’s not a yard anymore,” I said as I filled Guy’s bowl to the brim, “it’s a stronghold now.”
“You still worried about that?” asked Guy, as he took his bowl from me, and the sweet-corn floating on the top sloshed from side to side. “We’re going to be heroes, not victims of the next raider that wanders by.”
“He’s right,” said Dad, “we’re going to be able to help a lot of people. We have a responsibility to help those too weak to help themselves.” I finally began filling my own bowl as I listened to him talk; he was an honest and kind man, and needed me to protect him. “We can build a community. Eventually we’ll be a big, extended family.”
“We’ll be a target,” I snapped back. Then I turned and looked directly into Guy’s wide eyes, “People will come to take what we have.”
Guy’s eyebrows crinkled as he processed what I had just said. Before he realised, I flung my bowl in his face, along with its contents.
“Hey!” he shouted. He’d dropped his own bowl, and rubbed his eyes clear, as a single sweet-corn stuck to his cheek like a beauty spot. While he was distracted, I quickly spun and lifted the pot off the fire. As I lifted it over Guy’s head, I guided the pot down, by placing my right-hand on the hot bottom. As the stew hit its mark, it burned his meat, and he gave out a terrifying, animalistic howl. The birds on their nearby perches took flight, and no wolf was brave enough to reply.
I snatched at Guy’s bowl that was still spinning on the floor, and struck with all my might! Thud. He staggered. Thud. The burn on my hand screamed out at me as I tightened my grip. Thud. Half blood-moons appeared on his temple from the edge of the bowl. Thud. The bowl grew more slippery. Thud. He fell to his knees, steadying himself on his hands. Crack. He went limp. Thud.
“Cameron! What have you done!?”
I unsheathed Guy’s knife, which he wore in the small of his back. I grabbed a clump of his brown-hair that was still dry, and pulled his head back. His opened-mouthed face looked up at me, and his tongue wagged but didn’t speak. I cut into his throat. There was an initial spurt of blood, but it didn’t pulse out…his heart had stopped pumping. He was dead.
I looked back and Dad, who sat completely motionless, like a gnome on its toadstool.
“I had to Dad.” I wiped the blade clean against Guy’s trouser leg, and then cut a strip of his shirt to bandage my hand. He didn’t need it anymore.
“He was going to kill us.” The look in his eyes wasn’t shock, it was like he didn’t recognise me…like he didn’t know me anymore. I couldn’t look at him any longer. I emptied Guy’s cup of water over the burn on my right-hand. Once clean, I gingerly wrapped the bandages around my palm, as the skin began to tighten, and then searched Guy’s pockets.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The engine, he was waiting for you to refurb it, and then he was going to kill us to take it for himself.”
“But…we had a plan. We were going to help everyone. It was his idea to share with those in need.”
“We weren’t part of his plan.” I couldn’t find it in the trouser pockets. Avoiding the pooling blood, I turned the body onto its back, and its arm spread out – as if ready to embrace me. “He wasn’t who we thought he was.”
“Look at me son.” I crouched over his body as I continued my search, and looked up at my dad; the only man I trusted. His look had changed again. “How do you know?” There was still hope in his dark-brown eyes.
I looked away again – I had run out of pockets to search. I knew I was right, but I needed him to know it too. I couldn’t make him live with a stranger.
As my darkest fears sent a chill through me, I was drawn to the long sleeved jacket beneath me. It was a balmy night, Dad and I were both wearing short sleeves. I poured at the sleeves and that’s when I felt a lump. There it was, tied to his wrist.
“This!” I said, as I untied the cord around the capsule. “I saw him pour this into his cup of water this morning. It must be the antidote to whatever poison he put in the stew.”
Dad hadn’t moved an inch since I spilled the stew.
“That’s why I left you early. I didn’t come straight to camp. I watched from the trees, and saw him put something in the pot from his own bag.” My dad was starting to calm down, and his expression saddened, like he was remembering other suspicious behaviour. “I suspected when he offered to cook, after asking all those questions about your progress.” Dad was running out of questions himself. “If you hadn’t done it today, he would’ve slipped some of this into our drinks.”
Dad looked over to the bottle of purified water. It was within easy reach to be spiked; and he finally recognised his son again.
“That’s still a lot of maybes to base taking someone’s life on. Maybe he just wanted to celebrate…do something nice maybe?”
“If you’re so determined to make him the victim, then eat the stew!” I held up the capsule between the thumb and fore-finger of my bandaged hand. “Without this.”
Dad looked down to his bowl, which he had forgotten he was still holding. Steam rose from the bowl, echoing the smoke from the camp-fire; he focused on the flames as they fought each, but this failed to stop his eyes being drawn to the bloodied cook laying on the floor. After a moment of silence for the man he’d lived with for so long, he placed his bowl onto the ground like a mother putting her child to bed.
“We’ll need to build high walls to protect the stationary engine.”
“Once it’s generating electricity, we’ll literally be a beaming light of hope. I don’t think high walls will be enough.”