The 4th of July found Cath at the register, counting pennies out of the barter jar. They made a steady clink, clink, clink as she moved them, one by one, from the old, ancient now really, glass milk jug into the 5-gallon plastic barrel she kept behind the cafe counter. She kept the milk jug almost but not quite empty — enough coins to give customers the right idea, enough coins to give them the desire to keep chipping in.
People were generous with pennies these days, if they had them. Cath knew this. It seemed there were always enough pennies to go around.
Rumor had it the forge was lighting up next week. Monday, to be exact. The forge, a deep hot-spot in the backlands, sunk between two small hillocks in an otherwise empty, unremarkable bit of plains. Someone had built hot baths out on top of one of the hillbumps a few years ago. When the forge lit up it usually stayed lit for a few weeks — long enough for everyone out in Hastings, Wyoming to get cleaned up real nice. Janet, the town barber, threw a party the second Tuesday of the forging — everyone came and traded their forged goods, sniffed each other’s hair, and got drunk on saffron-flower spiced moonshine the Bently brothers kept them well stocked in.
Cath kick-pushed the plastic-tub back beneath the counter and pulled out her old Lenovo, her battle scarred beast of a computator. She’d been working on the CAD drawings for her next forging for two years now, saving up pennies to make it a reality. She was pretty sure she had enough, the bucket was nearing the top — she only needed four and a half gallons of metal to bring the sketch to life.
Hastings had cut itself off from the outer world two decades ago, a few months after the StarLink sats had gone live, a few weeks after the eighth Wuhan virus strain had morphed into something more deadly, more persistent than the first few resurgent waves. A solar flare had finally cut them off entirely three years ago, when it knocked the SatLinks offline and fried every electronic not kept in the a microwave, as Cath’s Lenovo had been. Anyone who wasn’t directly linked to someone living in Hastings eventually forgot Hastings even existed. Well direct links, and the three-times a year trading caravan that made its way down the worn asphalt trails, bringing them news and fresh supplies. Almost anything you wanted, really. Rumor had it Amazon had started shipping out again, that the SatLinks would be back online next spring.
Regardless, half the town had caravaned out back to the nearest town right after the SatLinks went out. There was more food supplies there, being off of one of the few extant and operating rail-lines. Everyone else in Hastings learned to raise cattle, keep hens, and barter with each other for the small garden plots they al lkept going with hand tools forged when the fires came up.
Cath’s grandfather had been on the team of men that had re-dug the Forge trench three years ago. Only men over 75 had been eligible for the task, given how dangerous the models showed it to be, probably. The models had been mostly right, unfortunately. Grandpop had perished in the first line of mine-men; they skirted too close to a magma vein and their heatshields melted, raining molten copper and lead down on top of them.
The morning of the Forging was overcast. Dark-white clouds hung low along the skyline, dampening the mood and taking the edge off the high summer might-have been heat. Jeth, her twin brother, had driven them both out in their neighbor’s buggy, the family forge-tools rattling in the wagon bed behind them.
They were lucky to have kept horses back before the last Darkening — it kept them busy and had brought them enough money and mobility to start the cafe last year. Barter hard but leave some pennies for good luck, as the saying went.
Cath checked her hand-copied CADs one last time as they pulled up at the Forge hillocks. It had taken her all day yesterday to transcribe them out onto some scavenged paper she had pulled out of Grandpop’s journals. They were the first ones there — the forge door had been left propped open by Janet who’d been scheduled for the last shift yesterday. Janet made smoking pipes every Forging. She traded them with the pass-through barterers these days, as everyone left in Hastings that wanted one had gotten one in the first two years of Forgings. Her pipes were gorgeous, silver snaking things — she used her mother’s dwindling silver set and nickels others gave her to bring her designs to life.
Jeth went to fetch water from the horses from the springs; Cath lowered herself back into the buggy’s wagon bed and pulled on the heavy canvas work overalls, hung the dark glasses around her neck, and draped the thick, ancient leather elbow-high gloves over her shoulder. She let down the buggy back and clamored down. Jeth came over to help her lift down the plastic penny bucket. Together they carried it over to Forge door. Jeth left her just inside, gave her a quick hug for good luck, then headed up to take a dip in the hot springs above. Cath continued down, pulling the bucket behind her, CAD drawings in hand, alone.
A few hours later, Cath emerged from the Forge depths, pushing the plastic bucket now filled with an assortment of rods and metal gears, a large brassy-colored plate tucked under one arm. She carried the parts out to the buggy, wrapped the two-foot square plate with canvas, shed her forging gear, and grabbed the second towel to go join Jeth. Just in time too — Heath had rounded the hillock, dragging a wheeled cart full of stones for his time in the hot depths.
They stayed til the stars peeked through the slowly dissipating cloud cover. It was a moonless night, and dark. The crickets were subdued, barely audible over the spring burbles and far-off low heat roar of the Forge.
At home, Cath spread out the blueprints and unrolled the canvas she and Jeth had unloaded from the buggy, revealing a deep copper metal square that reflected the single gas lamp’s glare back in a warm glow. She pulled up the bucket of parts — rods and axles and gears — and went to work.
The next morning, Jeth found a strange box-frame with geared drives sitting on the table, Cath fiddling with a connection to the Lenovo, deep purple bags starting to show beneath her eyes.
“What is it,” Jeth asked.
“MakerBot Thing-O-Matic" was the reply.