Eryn was sitting at the kitchen table. Her plate was scraped clean, and her mug of water was empty, but she’d not yet cleared them. Instead, she sat looking out the window with her elbows on the table, her chin resting on the knuckles of her folded hands. “What do we do now?”
Lem looked up from what he was reading in the big book: On the purification of water. “I was thinking, we should work on a way to dam the river upstream a bit and divert some of the flow so it’s closer to the house.”
“No, I don’t mean around here. I mean what do we do?”
He laughed. “Feeling a bit antsy?”
“I guess, but aren’t we supposed to be doing something aside from house chores? Don’t we have roles we’re supposed to be performing? Aren’t we supposed to be teaching people things?”
“I figure we’ll start out once we’ve stored up enough food so we can go away and still have enough to see us through next winter.”
“What do you think all the food we were given was for? We’ve planted crops, do we really need to watch them grow?”
“This book is huge. I haven’t gotten through enough to get us situated, let alone teach anything to anyone else.”
“The System mentioned that, like in the first chapter or something. There will never be a time when it will feel right to start. We’ll never feel prepared. We’ll never know what or how to teach until we go ask people what they need. Your problem, Lem, is that you expect to be able to tell them.”
It wasn’t just that Eryn was being hurtful, she was also wrong. The reason Lem didn’t want to go was that he simply didn’t want to leave their home. They were building a life here. A good life. They had food, and shelter, and work that needed doing. They even had a dog. He was finally happy with the life the System had arranged for him. Now he was being asked, once again, to throw away everything in service of the System and its plans.
His pause had been long enough for Eryn to work in an ultimatum. “I’m going regardless. I’ve set out to Prower on my own before, I can do it again.”
“Okay. We’ll go. We’ll set out in the morning.”
“Why not tonight?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, we have things to do, and to pack. It’ll be dark before we get to the lake.”
“There is an infinite list of things to do, but nothing that needs doing. Most of my gear is still in my pack. A little food and some clothes and I can be ready in twenty minutes. If we run out of daylight, we’ll camp along the river.”
The more she talked, the more excited she became, and the more he felt the twisting stretching feeling of things spinning out of control.
“Or,” she continued enthusiastically, “Sadie and I could just head out in a half hour and you could catch us up in Prower. You know the way.”
This idea unsettled him even more. He held up his hands in surrender. “Okay. Slow down. Slow down. Don’t be so hasty. I’ll come. Just give me twenty minutes to gather my things.”
She was right. It took about ten minutes to pack the essentials. This included their books. Lem grumbled about the unwelcome weight in his pack, but really the books were remarkably light. The rest of his allotted time was spent walking around the place looking for things to straighten up, haunted by a feeling of forgetfulness. Eryn finally grumbled and told him to hurry, and he followed. But he never managed to scratch the itchy feeling that he had left something behind.
After two days of hiking and an overnight stay at the Lake Armory campground, Lem and Eryn arrived in Prower. They found the town changed. Where once the town appeared scrubbed clean, now bits of blown sage brush, dust, and even a few actual tumble weeds had begun to gather in corners and around the tires of the lifeless cars parked along the main street. The old mine carts-cum-flower boxes on the sidewalks had not been planted this year, and the brown crispy stalks of last year’s flowers remained. The people who stepped into their doorways to watch them had an exhausted worried look, and their eyes twitched into suspicious slits as they passed.
Though they’d both been to Prower several times—Eryn and Lem were effectively strangers here. But the people of Prower had always been welcoming. If Lem were pressed, he would guess that the town folks’ looks were directed at the ridiculous robes Eryn had insisted they don a mile or so before they came into town. He shouldn’t blame the robes on Eryn. The System had suggested them in section four of the book’s forward. There it claimed that robes were the ideal dress for teachers. Not only were they practical on several levels, but they would also set them apart from the general populous and would lend their lessons a bit of gravitas. Lem complained that they would be hot. Eryn had sewn them out of a set of blackout curtains she had found folded up and tucked away in Thomas’ closet. He had to admit that there was something about wearing the robe that made him stand up straighter, move with more grace, and want to choose his words more carefully. But the black fabric made them look so formal and priestly that the pretense made Lem wince.
The door of the Prower Hotel was unlocked as always. At first glance, everything inside appeared as they’d left it. Chances were that no visitors had come through town since the Calming, and the locals had no need to go into the hotel.
A box whose cover read “Thaden’s Wax Candles” and a smaller one with a wagon wheel and “Prower Hotel” embossed upon it, both lay on the floor near the front desk. Both were empty. So, someone at least had stopped by.
They found the manager curled up like an old spider on the floor behind the front desk where he’d fallen from his chair. He was still dressed in his suit, smiling helpfully, and waiting patiently for a recharge that would never come.
That would explain the dust. It must have followed the tumbleweeds down Main Street and sneaked in through cracks around the windows or the space beneath the door. Without the manager’s constant attention, it had piled up heavy and golden-white on every surface.
There was an awkward moment when Lem looked around for someone to talk to. Eryn struck the bell once and smiled.
“Well, if there’s no one to ask permission, then I guess there’s no one to tell us no,” he shrugged. “Which room shall we take? As I recall, you were rather fond of the Silver Vein.”
“Very glittery,” she agreed.
When they turned away from the front desk, a man with a familiar face was standing in the door as though Eryn had summoned him when she’d rung the bell.
“Edner,” Lem said flatly. It was hard to know if he should growl or smile. Depending on which of his pasts Lem chose to believe, Edner was either a kindly HSCI tech helping treat them for hyper-lethergy, or their captor and jailer. This second version of Edner was also an HSCI tech, and also turned out to be rather decent for a kidnapper. A smile would have probably been appropriate.
“I just heard you two wandered back into town.”
Eryn grinned, “Prower’s a lovely place. It’s hard to keep away.”
“What’s with the robes?”
Lem tried to dismiss it, “It’s a long story.”
“Right,” Edner drew the word out. “I must admit, I’m surprised to see you two. I’m not quite sure what’s going on this time.”
Eryn looked at Lem for a moment, confused, but she pieced together Edner’s meaning before Lem managed. She smiled and laughed, “No, it’s nothing like that. No treatments this time around, no crazy story we’re living out.” Her pace slowed as she heard herself explain, “Just two people dressed in weird black robes hiking in to Prower from the desert sent by the System to teach…” she trailed off. Her face grew slack and she looked ill.
“A long story,” Lem interrupted, “Like I said.”
Edner coughed. “I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do with this. I’m not sure how to…help.”
Eryn tried again, a little less sure of herself, “I really don’t think it’s like that this time. For one thing, we know about the other times. We know who we are. We know who you are.”
This only seemed to make Edner more concerned.
Lem had an idea. He took off his pack, and set it on a chair throwing up a cloud of dust. “Here, look at this.” He dug around in his dirty clothes until he found the book. He lifted it out and handed it to Edner. “This is what she’s talking about. The System left that for us on the night of the Calming, the night everything shut off. It came with instructions. It said Eryn and I were supposed to study it, learn everything we could and teach people.”
“What is it?”
“It’s everything,” Eryn said. “Everything the System thought that we would need to know to keep ourselves alive and improve the quality of life after it was gone.”
“We each got one,” Lem added.
Edner gave a single chuckle. “Well, I didn’t see that one coming.” He handed the book back to Lem. “Based on your rather impressive props, and the fact that I have absolutely no idea how to treat you, I’m just going to believe you. And all of that does help explain the others.”
“Others,” Eryn asked?
“First, I wanted to welcome you two back to Prower. So, welcome back. But I also wanted to let you know about the others. They showed up a few days ago, and started asking after you two.”
“Why us,” Eryn asked?
“Don’t know. Might have something to do with the books and the robes though.”
“Did you tell them anything,” Lem asked?
“What was I going to tell them? The last time I saw you two, you were locked up safe in my holding cell. Next thing I knew you’d escaped and were headed out of town. Then the whole world just shut down. Almost like someone flipped a switch.”
There was an uncomfortable moment where no one said anything. Edner held both his tongue and Lem’s gaze long enough to be meaningful. Then he made a single chuckle through his nose, and gave a half-smile. “So, would you like to meet the others, or not?” Edner smiled. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.” When they didn’t immediately follow him, he looked back. He motioned them to come along with a jerk of his head. “Come on. I promise I won’t disappear you again.”
In Lem’s freshest and most emotional memory, Edner had tricked them into captivity and was planning to wipe their minds. But the memories from his other past—the past he knew was real—provided context. He remembered Edner interviewing him to understand the nature of his issues, then later patiently walking him through the risks and benefits of a mnemonic lattice treatment. Given his role with the Department of Interfaces and Systemic Controls, and the nature of the treatments, his actions leading up to the Calming had not been particularly cruel or aggressive. He was doing what he believed needed to be done to safeguard Lem and Eryn’s minds and ensure a successful treatment. What he was actually doing was setting the stage for Thomas to press the button. Just like everyone else, Edner had faithfully and predictably and unwittingly played the role the System had given him to bring about the Calming. In that regard Edner was blameless, or at least no more so than any of them.
So, they followed Edner down Prower’s main street. After a few blocks, they turned and headed toward the railroad and the river. There they came to a large house with a large yard. All houses looked abandoned since the Calming, with yards growing tall and no sounds or lights coming from within. But this house looked more abandoned than most. It was just this side of sinking in on itself like a month old jack-o-lantern. The paint on the trim was flaking away. The front door was caked with a layer of sageland dust that the wind had repeatedly deposited there, to be wet by rain, then baked hard by the sun over years. But it was not quite dilapidated, there was still glass in the window panes, and the door frame looked true.
Edner walked up to the door and knocked out a quick little rhythm with one curled knuckle.
A few moments later they heard steps approaching and a woman opened the door. She had straight black hair that fell just past her shoulders. Her face was smooth and round until it came to an abrupt end at her jaw line. The soft folds of her eyelids came to rest on the lashes of her ink-black eyes. A constellation of freckles reached from cheek to cheek across the bridge of her nose. Lem felt the heat of attraction burst in his solar plexus and rapidly spread through him like a drop of blood in water. The moment he identified the feeling, he felt shame, as though this automatic reaction betrayed Eryn in some way, or worse, that she would pick up on it, and it would somehow diminish him in her mind.
“Edner,” the woman said.
Edner nodded a greeting. “Zhan. I’ve brought you someone.” There was no look of recognition or even interest on Zhan’s face, so Edner offered, “This is Lem and Eryn.”
Zhan’s eyes grew wide, “Lem and Eryn! We’ve been looking for you.” The flat line of her mouth split into a smile showing her—Lem noticed—perfect teeth.