Three days after the end of the systemic era, Lem was sitting on a rotting log on the shore of Lake Armory. The sun had been a white-hot spot near the center of the sky when he’d first sat down to collect his thoughts. Since then, he’d watched it roll to the far rim of the expanse, swell, soften, and cool. Now he could stare at it for two full seconds before his eyes involuntarily squeezed tight, leaving the memory of it to throb and kaleidoscope in the aching dark.
From where he sat looking out over the lake, it was hard to tell that much had changed. The insects still whined. The great blue heron’s golden eye still kept watch over the lake’s smooth and polished surface, which still reflected the charcoal silhouettes of the trees against the fading flames of the sky.
But there was plenty of evidence of the global calamity if he was paying attention. No planes were overhead. There was no rumble of tires or whispered breath of cars driving on the nearby highway. No trains cantered rhythmically down the nearby tracks. But even before the System died, these things would have been rare out here, so far from the nearest pop-center.
The most obvious clue in the vicinity was the single streetlight that stood where the camp road approached the end of the peninsula and looped back. The light was gray and cold now, its head bent over the road like a surgeon who had died and stiffened before completing an operation.
There was a soft tap on Lem’s shoulder. It sent a shock through him and his back tensed and drew him up straight. He turned and saw Eryn standing behind him shielding her eyes against the glow of the setting sun. “How are you doing?”
He turned back to the lake and didn’t answer. She tapped his hip with the back of her hand, and he moved over to make room for her on the log.
Once Eryn was seated, Sadie the dog lay down on the ground next to her, her chin resting on Eryn’s right foot. Much of the dog’s enthusiasm had disappeared along with her best friend and master. In the days since Thomas died, the dog had slunk along at Eryn’s heels, never straying more than a few feet from her side as they made the hike from Prower to Lake Armory.
Once they had settled in, Eryn said the first thing that came to her mind. “I want to buy something.”
“I don’t know. Anything. Could be a candy bar or a coffee maker. I just want to see some new thing, decide I want it, and acquire it. Just one last time.” She fell silent and they watched the sun slide like a copper coin into a slot in the valley’s western ridge. “Everything is just so quiet. It’s terrifying. I knew this would happen, intellectually, I mean. But I didn’t really understand how deep the System reached into our lives. If you had asked me where music came from I would have told you it was composed by sysBand, and I realized that without the sysBand my stream would be silent. But it never occurred to me that, without sysBand there wouldn’t be any music at all.”
“We’ll figure out how to make music. There are anachronists,” Lem shrugged, “they’ll teach us.”
Lem’s nonchalance seemed to irritate her. “And where will we get instruments? Once we have them, how will we power them? How will anyone hear us from more than a few yards away? How will we know how to make music people want to hear? Everything we’ve ever known, everything we’ve ever enjoyed, has been systemic. I still find it amazing—or ridiculous—that all that could be destroyed by pushing a single button.”
“Disabled, not destroyed,” he corrected. “And it was designed that way. It had to be. What if the System had gone rogue, and started exterminating people or something?”
“That’s ridiculous,” she scoffed.
“Still, if we would have had to establish a committee to vote on shutting the System down and coordinate an international response, it would have been the end of us.”
“Well, one guy pushes a button and look at us now. I’m not sure which is worse.” There was a long silence, and the sky fell a few more tones toward darkness. The night’s first planet appeared. “You’ve been out here half the day. You figure anything out yet?”
“No. I’m still working through it. You?” Eryn closed her eyes and shook her head. “Well, it’s a lot to take in,” he said.
“Right after it all happened, I was in shock, you know? Now that the shock is starting to wear off, I’m trying to understand it all, which isn’t helped by the fact that I have two past versions of myself pressing my current self for validation.”
“Yeah, it’s a total mess in here.” He tapped a finger on the side of his head.
Ever since Thomas had pressed the button that stopped the System’s heart, they each found themselves with two full lives worth of memories. It was as though two pasts had been laid atop each other like sheets of tracing paper with only a few dates and major world events showing through and matching up. On the hike here, he had asked Eryn where she thought she was this time last year. She had two answers and a very hard time deciding which was real. She was both sitting in her basement-level apartment watching personalized sysShows about girls who had lost their mothers to Kumfort addiction, and she was giving the keynote address at an eco-morality conference. For his part, Lem was both happily married and planning a family, and sitting alone in his empty high-rise flat talking to his personalized sysTherapist about his crippling sense of loss.
Eryn reached down to scratch Sadie behind the ears. “If I try really hard, I can eventually figure out which is which, but by the time I do, I’ve usually gone pretty far down the wrong rabbit hole.”
“I think I’m starting to figure out how to tell my pasts apart.”
“I’m not sure you’ll like my answer.” When she didn’t say anything he explained. “I pay attention to the emotional flavor of whatever memory is vying for my attention. If it’s happy or optimistic or nostalgic I can be pretty sure it’s fake. I figure the whole reason the System gave us the lattices in the first place was to help us deal with our sorrow and sadness. So, almost by definition, the lattices have to be the happy bits.” He shrugged. “So, I trust the sadness.”
She gave a burst bubble of a laugh. “Well that’s depressing. What about Thomas? Thomas was good. He cared for me. He was a friend. Real?”
He never really liked Thomas much, but he knew Eryn thought the world of him, and Lem thought the world of Eryn. The transitive property of sorrow weighed down his heart. “Yeah. Thomas was real. The bit at the end sort of gives it away.”
They sat there quiet and watched the slowly-fading molten glow above the ridge.
“So, what do we do now,” Lem asked.
“Eat some dinner I suppose.”
“I mean after dinner. Tomorrow.” It was a probing, optimistic question. He hoped she didn’t notice.
“Keep heading home, I guess.”
Lem experienced this answer as a crisis. He wanted to find a way to will a future into existence where they were still together. He swallowed to moisten a dry spot in his throat. “Really? You would head halfway across the country just to live alone in that basement apartment again?”
“Funny, that place never even crossed my mind. I have this vague notion of home buzzing around in my mind just looking for a place to land. I know that was put there by the System to draw me to Prower. But even after I realized it was all just part of my therapeutic memory, the feeling is still there. Now, it’s settled on Thomas’ place. It makes sense, I guess. He took me in, washed my feet, swaddled me in quilts, and fed me buttered toast, mangoes, and cure-all pills. It’s probably the closest thing I have to an actual home. Plus, it’s Sadie’s home. After everything this girl’s been through, getting her home is the least I could do. So, I guess we head there.”
When Eryn, Lem, and Sadie arrived at Thomas’ house, they found that the entire porch and much of the walk leading up to the house, were buried beneath an enormous collection of standard sized delivery boxes. These were stacked four deep and three across and continued down the walkway for about thirty feet. Lem looked up and scanned the cloudless sky. ”The air must have been thick with drones,” he marveled. He walked over and checked the delivery dates stamped on the labels. “Five days ago. They must have arrived just before the System went down.”
The front door was unlocked, which was to be expected. Over the course of its stewardship, the System had helped humanity resolve nearly all of the social ills that had once led to criminality. As a result, crime had been almost entirely eliminated during the Systemic Era. Out here in the underpopulated sagelands it was completely unheard of. But humanity had paid for their safely unlocked doors with the gray flatness of their lives. Lem wondered how long that arrangement would hold with out the System’s guidance.
Inside the house the air was sweltering and stagnant. The smell of rot burned his eyes and coated his tongue like warm rancid gravy. “Holy shit,” he gagged. “First order of business. You go dig a hole somewhere. I’ll try to figure out what died.”
Eryn left and Lem walked around the house opening doors and windows. There was a bowl on the counter with a single mango slouching into a sticky puddle of its own juice. It smelled over sweet and foul but was not the dominant source of the reek. Lem looked with apprehension toward the refrigerator door, straightened his back and put his hand on the handle. Whatever smells had managed to work their way through the seal would certainly be dwarfed by whatever he was about to unleash.
Inside the dark cavern of the dead refrigerator were several shelves and bins and racks of limp vegetables, pools of brown fluid, and blackening meat. Fortunately, the door had prevented any vermin from getting in. Maggots would have been more than Lem could have handled.
He slammed the door shut, which bellowed out a miasma of putrid air. Lem put his hands on his knees and tried to breathe, but it only made him feel worse.
He stepped outside to catch his breath and saw the pile of boxes. He opened the first one. It was filled with dehydrated meals. He held his breath, carried the box inside, and dumped it out on the table. He steadied himself and opened the door. By then he needed to breathe and, because he’d been holding his breath, the next one was deep and horrid.
He closed his eyes and began filling the box.
Eryn returned just as he finished and was aggressively sealing the box shut with some tape he found in a drawer. He swallowed down a waxy bubble rising in his throat. “I emptied it, you get to clean it.”
“Or, and hear me out here, we never open that door ever again.”
She led him to the hole a couple hundred paces down wind of the house, which he dropped the box’s into.
When Eryn finished backfilling the hole, she made eye contact with Sadie and pointed at the mound of loose dirt. “No,” she said sternly. The dog’s ears drooped and she slinked away as though Eyrn had read her mind.
Thomas’ inclination toward historical purism was evident throughout his home. He had a small collection of physical books, a wood-burning pot-belly stove, and the fortunate inclusion of actual handles on the faucets. When Lem turned on the sink in the kitchen, water flowed from the taps. “Huh. Must be fed by a water tower. Either that or the well pump runs on solar or wind. Let’s hope it’s a well pump, a water tower would run down pretty quick, and no one’s going to be refilling it.
Eryn filled Sadie’s water bowl, while Lem rehydrated a meal. They ate lunch outdoors in the shade of the house. The smell inside had died down some, but the memory of it was still fresh and any hint of it would have put Lem off his food.
They moved their packs into what Eryn referred to as “her room”. They were hot and sweaty and tired. There was a pink glow about Eryn which made her look vital and lovely. A thought came to Lem and he smiled mischievously at her. She pretended not to notice him, but he thought he’d caught the flash of a stifled smile. She lifted her mass of dark curls and held it up so that the breeze from the open window could reach her grimy neck. “I’m disgusting.” She let her hair fall. “I’m going to see if the shower still works.” This raised another interested look from Lem which she again made a show of ignoring.
When Lem heard the water running, and the bit-back curse of Eryn stepping into the cold stream, the idea of being in there with her instantly lost its appeal. She emerged clean and naked a few minutes later. Her hair was up in a towel leaving the distracting curve of her neck exposed. The radiant pink of her skin had cool to a more natural brown and the sweat was replaced with drops of clean water. She was beautiful. Lem’s breathing became shallow and twitchy when he looked at her. But the cold shower seemed to have put her in a disinterested mood; her nudity more casual than suggestive. Besides, he was still smelly salt-streaked and dusty from the hike. If he tried to convince her to look past all that and failed, it would leave him feeling awkward, dejected, and disappointed. So Lem left her to get dressed, and headed outside to deal with the massive stack of boxes on the front porch.
By the time Eryn and Sadie showed up, Lem had already moved four of the boxes, and he was rummaging through the contents of another he had just cut open. “Food,” he proclaimed, and wrote the word on the side of the box with a fat black marker. “So far everything’s been dehydrated food. I figure each box will probably last us a month or more. I cleared out a space in the garage and have started moving them in there.”
They worked for hours opening boxes, labeling their contents, and moving them to the garage. When the garage was full, they cleared out and filled the tool shed as well, then started a final small pile in the living room.
Not all the boxes contained food. There were seeds, medical supplies, sewing kits, extra water filters, even ammunition that matched the old hunting rifle that hung on the wall over the potbelly stove. Near the bottom of the stack, they came upon a box full of Erasa-delible pens. They exchanged a curious look. Eryn cut open the next box, when she pulled back the flaps, she found it full of hundreds of moleskin journals. “I guess the System wanted us to take up writing.”
Lem picked up a notebook, flipped through it and whistled, “Archival paper, just like the big book. Fancy. And these pens, they start off as erasable as pencil, but over time, the ink sets and becomes molecularly bonded to the paper. These might as well be stone tablets and chisels.”
“I guess we should be careful what we write.”