“Wes51d3 has left the arena,” announced the female voice, more garbled than before. The screen flashed again. An empty battery symbol replaced the plug-in icon.
“I get it. I get it.” He toggled the keys to initiate the shutdown sequence. Nothing happened.
Stephen removed his headset and held the power button until the whirl of the computer’s fan confirmed complete system shutdown. Why he bothered escaped him. The machine would have powered itself down in another two minutes. It was just one of those things he had gotten into the habit of doing. Once off, he closed the screen and hid the device beneath a loose board in the barn floor.
He rustled the crease in his hair from the headset before stepping out of the barn. The windmill a few yards away caught his gaze. Its propellers remained stationary even though a gust of a fall wind caused Stephen to shiver. He zipped up his cotton jacket. Well, that explains the power.
“Generator’s out again, Ed,” Stephen announced, entering the farmhouse on the other side of a dirt and gravel path connecting the two buildings. A slew of screws, nuts, and metal plates littered the kitchen table. “But it looks like you already knew that.”
Ed Thomas appeared from the other room. A cream and brown cloth wrapped around his left hand highlighted the swath of dark freckles running up the rest of his arm.
“What happened?” Stephen asked.
“I think squirrels must have gotten into it. Again.”
“No. I meant to your hand.” Stephen said, pointing.
“Oh. That. Driver slipped.” Ed gestured at the offending tool on the table. As he did so, Stephen noticed a red circular stain on the cloth. Stephen didn’t need to see the wound underneath to know that it would be ugly. They always were. No doubt in the coming weeks he would have yet another pale line to add to the collection of scars along his hands, arms, and legs—assuming, of course, he’d manage to sew himself up without infection. They’d been lucky so far, but Ed had always been more than a little clumsy and seemed to be growing even more accident-prone every year. A serious injury was no longer an if, but a when.
“Needs a new solenoid.”
“Once again, not what I meant,” Stephen asked, nodding in the direction of the bandage.
“I should live. But I may need you to pick up a little more around here for the next few days.”
Stephen glanced back toward the kitchen door and the barn across the way. Sneaking in thirty minutes between his chores already created a stiff challenge. If he had to pick up Ed’s too, it was going to be difficult if not impossible to get the machine rebuilt in time for the next virtual meet-up with Wes.
“Yeah. Not how I intended to spend my golden years either.” Ed grinned at his joke, but Stephen failed to see the humor in his comment. It wasn’t right. Ed was far from what should have been considered old. He wouldn’t have even been called middle-aged, but now… Stephen glanced again out the window in order to avoid looking at the white-laced hair where fiery red should be or at the spots of age that now dotted his skin in between the freckles.
“You see something?” Ed asked, on guard.
Stephen sighed, rubbing his face as he pulled his gaze from the barn. It didn’t take much to spook the man. Edward’s paranoia made Stephen’s feelings about rats seem downright sensible. “Just checking to see how much sunlight we have left. If I leave now, I can get to Earthaven by nightfall.”
“You aren’t going to Earthaven.” Ed arranged the tools and fasteners on the table in piles organized by indecipherable system-bucking sort of logic.
“Someone has to.” Stephen pointed at the components scattered on the table.
“And where would you go then? You know it’s too dangerous to be out at night.”
“It’s only Earthaven.” Stephen imagined walking over to the table and switching out one bolt for another just to see how long it would take the older man to notice.
“Yes, and there are reasons we’re here and not there.” Components clinked together as Ed moved the piles around.
“But…Earthaven…” Stephen turned his face before Ed could see him roll his eyes.
“Just because nothing has ever happened in the town doesn’t mean nothing ever will.”