The First Partners

As it happened, Zhan had been the only one home when Edner had brought Lem and Eryn to meet the new arrivals. Lem would have been more than happy to wait in the old house for the rest of the newcomers to return, but Eryn insisted they should not impose on Zhan’s hospitality. So, after a few pleasantries had been exchanged, everyone agreed to meet back at the Prower Hotel later that evening.

Sometime after dinner, the others arrived at the hotel. Edner must have assumed the invitation extended to him and he came along as well.

As the new comers arrived, Lem lit a fire in the fireplace, less for light and heat than to ease his discomfort at meeting new people. He used a small bundle of wood that had probably sat next to the hearth as a decoration for a hundred years. The old dry wood caught quickly, and the hotel lobby quickly filled with smoke. While everyone ran coughing to open doors and windows, Edner came over and reached into the flames with the poker and used the hook to open the flue.

It seemed a terrible way to begin. But once the panic subsided and the smoke cleared, everyone stood about smiling and catching their breath. Lem soon regained his confidence and was trying to think of a self-deprecating joke when Eryn beat him to it. “Thank you all for attending the inaugural meeting of the Prower Volunteer Fire Department, I’ll be your host this evening.”

Everyone chuckled. Eryn smiled warmly and easily. His sense of humiliation returned. Just then, he noticed Zhan watching him. He couldn’t appear overly sensitive in front of these strangers, so he laughed too, not too late to appear genuine, he hoped.

The laughter subsided, and Zhan and her companions chose seats from those Lem had arranged in a semi-circle around the hearth. Edner remained standing, leaning into the shadowed corner where the hearth met the wall. Sadie the dog found a spot near the fireplace and curled up, her nose pointed at the fire so she could watch the flames.

Eryn began. “Edner tells us that you three came to Prower to find Lem and me.” They all nodded. “That’s both flattering and strange. Well then, welcome to Prower and its famed hotel. I suppose introductions are in order.”

Damn she was charming. Charming and confident. This wasn’t exactly a show, but if it were, Eryn was definitely stealing it. “I’ll go first,” he interjected standing up.

He’d broken Eryn’s rhythm, but she smiled and said, “Lem, Ladies and gentlemen.” She took the seat next to him.

“Hello everyone,” he began. “Like Eryn said, I’m Lem Kersands.” Then he realized he had not planned anything else to say. He stood there dumbly. Maybe something about who he was and what he did—what he used to do. He decided to reveal the past that the System had designed for him. “I used to partner with the System at the Department of Systemic Security and Integrity. Detecting breaches, running investigations. That sort of thing.” That was the past that had brought him to Prower. Besides, he thought, no one would have come all the way out here looking for the real Lem Kersands. No one wanted to meet a hyper-lethargic widower.

Eryn’s eyes were focused on him as he took his seat. He pretended not to notice. “All done, Lem?” She was killing time. She was also struggling to decide which version of herself was best suited to the moment. She must have seen the wisdom in Lem’s choice. “I’m Eryn Rutherford. Before the Calming, I used to run eco-morality models for the Department of the Interior.” She blinked away her discomfort. “So, who’s next?” She turned to the man on her left. “Who are you? Did you have a role before the Calming?”

“Harold Bloom. I partnered at a power substation in Zula. That’s a mid-sized pop-center a ten day bike ride from here.”

Eryn asked, “What made you come looking for us?”

“Well, it was the night that everything shut down. I go to bed pretty early, so I was already dead asleep when my AI woke me. Just a blaring alarm, like there was a fire or something. When I asked what the hell was going on, she told me the world was about to change. When it did, it would need my help. She told me that instructions would arrive. When they did I needed to follow them.

“No matter what I did or said, she wouldn’t tell me anymore. It was frustrating. It was the first time she ever dug in her heels about something.

“I was pretty shaken up, but eventually I fell back asleep. When I woke up the next morning the stillness was everywhere. When I stepped outside to see what had happened, there was a large secure envelope on my steps with directions and a message for me to get to Prower, find you two, and help out. It took me a while to come around. Eventually, I realized nothing was ever going to turn back on by itself and I had to do something. But by then winter had come. Once things thawed in the spring, I hopped on a bike, and here I am.”

Harold turned his head and handed off the conversation to the woman to his left.

“My name is Agnes Ramirez. Before everything broke, I partnered at the Department of Agriculture. My story is almost exactly the same. Asleep. Screeching alarm. AI spouting some ominous BS. I remember waking up that morning.” Her eyes went far away, and she gave a quick shiver. “Remember that? When you could sort of hear the silence? Anyway, there was the same envelope same instructions. Same deal. I didn’t want to come at first either. In fact, I was determined not to. I think I was a bit in shock. But during the long winter, I had nothing to do but think. When everything thawed, I decided to come. It took me a while to find a horse, but eventually I did. Then I headed here.

“I came across Zhan on the road about four days out. Then, on our last night before arriving, we stayed at a campground a few hours’ ride from town. That’s were we met Harold and his bike.”

Agnes pointed her chin across the circle to where Zhan was sitting next to Lem. “Hello. I think everyone’s met me by now. I’m Zhan Lavier. I used to work with informatics at Bismont University.” She turned to Lem, as though looking for his approval. It sent a little thrill through him.

Eryn asked, “And what brought you to Prower?”

“Same as them, except I hiked it.”

“A woman after my own heart,” Eryn smiled. Lem heard the faint intake of breath as Eryn prepared to ask Zhan more questions, but just when she was about to ask, Edner spoke.

“I’m Edner, but I think you all know that.” He’d managed to creep into the circle of firelight without Lem noticing. “I was a Human Systemic Cognition Interface tech, at the Department of Information and Systemic Controls right here in Prower. That night, I got word that some of my subjects were not following protocol. So, I was very much awake. I was in my car heading down to the DISC facility to check everything out when the car pulled over and gave me pretty much the same message as you all. Of course, I was told to stay in Prower, not find it, but everything else was the same. Find Eryn and Lem, and help them.”

Lem had questions. Why hadn’t Edner actually come to find them? Why hadn’t he mentioned the message before? What had he told the others about them before they’d arrived. He couldn’t find any way to ask without blowing the cover Edner had given them by omitting the fact that Eryn and Lem had been his “subjects”.

“So, now for the big question,” Edner asked, eyebrows arched with curiosity, “how did you two get here?”

Lem turned to Eryn to see what she would do. Eryn swallowed. Not a gulp, nothing anyone else would see. But Lem noticed. Finally she said, “I actually grew up in Prower.” Her eyes threw a plea to Edner. She had revealed this past to Edner before. He knew it wasn’t true. But his face gave nothing away, so she continued. “Just before the Calming, I learned that the System had slated my childhood home for demolition, and I came to visit one last time.”

“Did you make it,” Agnes asked.

“Huh?”

“Did they destroy your home?”

“No.”

It hadn’t been a lie, and it had skirted the whole complication of memories and lattices, and the System’s manipulations. All that was probably best left unsaid. Lem considered following suit, but when he ran over the outlines of his story it sounded something like, “I came here to Prower in a rage hoping to destroy the System.” Though it had been Thomas, not Lem, who had actually pressed the button, it would be a complicated thing to explain. “I came here to participate in a psychological experiment.”

“What sort of experiment?”

“Not the sort I thought it was.” He smiled at his own clever obtuseness, “Which, I suppose, is how all experiments are from the subject’s perspective.”

“Did the experiment have anything to do with what Edner was working on,” Agnes asked.

“DISC had a lot going on,” Edner said.

Harold spoke up, “Great. We’ve all made it to Prower and we’ve all found Eryn and Lem. What now? Is something supposed to happen?”

Lem looked at Eryn, and she nodded. Lem reached under his seat and pulled out a box he’d stashed there. “On the night of the Calming, Eryn and I were staying right here in the Prower Hotel.” Lem lifted the lid from the box and let it fall to the floor. He reached into the box and picked up the book on top and held it up for everyone to see. He handed the book to Eryn and pulled the other one out as well. “That night, these were delivered to the front desk.”

Once everyone looked thoroughly perplexed, Lem and Eryn passed the books around for everyone to look at.

While turning over the book in his hands, Harold said, “Why two books?”

“Don’t know,” Lem shrugged, “as far as we can tell they’re identical.”

“Except for all that stuff at the back,” Eryn said.

Harold stuck his thumb into one of the indentations cut into the fore edge of the book and opened it to the very last section.

Eryn pointed out the mess of random characters on the page. “That stuff is different in each of the books.”

“Is the whole book filled with garbage like this?”

“No,” Eryn said, “It’s just that last section.”

Lem said confidently, “That’s just what a systemic veracity stamp looks like written out. Each one is unique, so of course they’d have to look different.”

Zhan hefted the book she was holding. “It’s huge, but it’s a lot lighter than I would have thought. These pages are so thin, they look almost two-dimensional,” Zhan marveled. “Are these made of nanoweave?”

“I think so. They may be thin, but they’re tough as diamond,” Lem said. “And the words are tiny. There’s a lot packed in there.”

Eryn said, “Which isn’t to say that Lem and I have read everything. But I think those books are why we’re all here.” She held out her hands to Agnes, who was now holding her book, and wiggled her fingers in a gimme gesture. Once Agnes had returned her book, Eryn pinched a red ribbon bookmark and used it to split open the book. She ran her finger down to a section and read aloud.

“This is from a chapter called ‘Processes and Applications.’ It’s from section one verse twelve. There’s a bunch of stuff, but then it says, ‘Identify and provide for those among you who are willing and able to dedicate themselves to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. They should study and comprehend every facet of this book. They should meditate upon the Governing Assert until it becomes the kernel of their being. Then they should teach others.’ I think that’s why Lem and I are here, to teach from these books. And I think that’s why you’re here, to become our partners. To learn from us and then help us teach others so we can all avoid a new dark age.”

Agnes asked, “So, the books explain how to turn everything back on?”

“Who knows what’s in there,” Eryn said. “But from what little we’ve read, its fascinating. If a bit dry,” she added.

Lem said, “The books are broken down into different sections, each corresponding to some aspect of the System. Eryn and I have been reading it through the winter. I haven’t found any information on how to turn the System back on. I don’t really think that was its intention, or else it would have predicted the Calming and avoided it all together.”

“Well,” Eryn said, annoyed for some reason, “we won’t know until we read the damn thing.” When Eryn spoke all eyes in the room went to her, except Zhan’s. Lem kept her in the corner of his vision. She was studying him. Especially when Eryn was talking.

“So what if you’re right? This book is enormous,” Harold complained like a schoolboy.

Eryn said, “I suggest we split up into teams, one for each book. There are twenty-four hours in a day…” She smiled, “We still have hours, right Lem?” He smirked and nodded. “Great. And we definitely need our eight hours of beauty sleep. We’ll want a couple hours each day to discuss what we’ve learned. So, I figure twelve hours a day split three ways, so each of us gets four hours per day with a book.”

Eryn seemed to have put a lot of thought into this scheme without mentioning anything to Lem. He wondered if his annoyance showed. He wondered of Zhan could tell. She was still there keeping an eye on his expressions.

***


After everyone had left, Lem and Eryn lay in bed staring up at the ceiling. The book reveal and meet-and-greet had put Eryn in a good mood. “So, what do you think?”

“About?”

“Our new friends. Our new partners. Pretty exciting, right?”

“I wouldn’t call it exciting.”

“It’s something different at least. Isn’t that exciting?” He wasn’t looking at her, but he could hear the grin in her voice. “And it looks like you’ve picked up an admirer.”

“What? Who?”

“Oh come on. You didn’t see Zhan checking you out the entire night?”

“Oh, she wasn’t either.”

“You’re such a bore that I forget sometimes how incredibly handsome you are,” she laughed.

It was a glancing blow of a compliment, but the thought that Eryn might be a little jealous made Lem smile. He pulled her to him. And for the first time in weeks, she let herself be pulled.

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