Two pasts

Lem lay in bed next to Eryn, looking up at the wooden planks and beams of the ceiling. Despite their complete isolation, the collapse of society, and an uncertain future, he felt good. Glowingly so. It was the happiest he had felt in all the years since he had lost his family and had to start the lattice treatments. The intermixing of joy with that tragedy made him recoil like he’d touched a hot iron. But then, when it didn’t burn him, he allowed himself to feel it again. It was like taking a sip of cool water after a fever.

More than half a year had passed since he and Eryn had arrived at Thomas’ house. Every time they fixed a thing or ate a meal or returned after a scouting expedition, the home became a little less Thomas’ and a little more theirs.

Their relationship showed a similar incremental momentum. It was like a slowly-forming habit. Every time he woke up, the chaotic start of their relationship slid deeper into the past, became more established as a historical fact, felt more real, less accidental. Every day Lem allowed himself to relax into it a little more.

He loved to listen to her contrast her two pasts, her thoughts about the world and the wonderful things that had left it. She missed the simple feeling of longing for her mother and her home even. She realized all those people, places, and feelings had been created by the lattice, she understood they had never been hers, but she missed their simplicity.

Eryn never talked about them. He felt like a visitor to their relationship someone who might wear out his welcome at any time. He reassured himself that they were physically together, that she was next to him in bed. But that didn’t answer why she was there. Was it circumstance? Convenience? Inertia? Any one of those seemed shaky ground on which to build a life.

He imagined a time when she wasn’t here with him. It filled him with panic and dread. And so he spoke. “Isn’t it crazy how this all worked out.”

Eryn issued the half-hearted grunt she often used as a stand-in for a question.

“You and I here together.” He could hear Eryn breathing through her nose. So, he elaborated. “We lived in different pop-centers separated by thousands of miles. We each have two life stories, two timelines—one where we’re barely friends and one where you came after me like a shark hoping for a bite.”

A single humph escaped her. “I suppose if that’s how you want to remember it…”

“That is exactly how I want to remember it.” He smiled. “No matter which of those paths you decide was real, they both lead here. No matter what, we still ended up together.” When Eryn didn’t show any amazement or spark of interest, he prodded her. “Don’t you find that fascinating or at least perplexing?”

“It’s certainly perplexing.”

Eryn sat up abruptly and walked across the room to the dresser. There was a mahogany swoop of sun-darkened skin that carried the color of her face a little way down her back and chest. She wore the same dark color like a pair of scratched and calloused gloves from the wrists down, but any part of her she could keep covered was the same soft smooth caramel it had been when he’d first seen her. Watching her dress had a distracting effect surprisingly similar to watching her undress. The jumpy sense of anticipation wasn’t there, but the wonder at the sleek rolling strength of her muscles and her powerful grace captured and held him transfixed whenever he saw her naked and in motion. He simply could not get enough of her.

She opened her top dresser drawer, huffed, and slid it closed again. She picked a pair of underwear out from the over-flowing laundry basket, and stepped into them.

“I knew this psychology student when I was in school. He was completely in love with a girl who had decided they were definitely just friends. He’d been trying to break out of that role for years. This friend of mine was an expert in emotional attachment theory. One weekend, when they were away at a conference, he decided to put his knowledge to work. He knew that we tend to associate the heightened emotions of an intense experience with the people who are with us. So he decided to hire a guide to take the two of them up into the nearby cliffs and canyons in hopes that some of the heart-pounding adrenaline of a mountaineering adventure might get transferred to him.”

“How did it go?”

“It worked great. The guide led them to the tops of some sheer cliffs, helped them cross some rocking rope bridges, and dangled them from zip-lines over deep ravines. She spent half the day screaming and half laughing. She was obviously having a great time. At the end of the day, she looked him in the eye all nervous and sincere and said, ‘You know, I just noticed something.’ The boy swallowed hard. ‘I was wondering if you’ve noticed it too…,’ she was growing bashful, and his heart was pounding. ‘Did you notice…how cute that guide was? Do you think I should ask him out?’”

Lem’s heart sank. “Ouch.”

She laughed. “Oh, come on Lem. I’m just saying, don’t underestimate context. We’ve been through a lot together in a very short time. All that’s going to have an effect.” She frowned, when he didn’t see the humor. “You’re right about one thing, though. There is something a bit strange about us having two pasts.”

“There is a lot strange about having two pasts. I have the unshakable feeling that I’m standing in a river downstream of where two forks have come together, and every thought I have is like trying to figure out where a given cupful of water came from.”

She pulled a shirt on and her tightly curled hair sprung out of the neck hole as her head emerged. “That’s definitely unsettling, but I’m starting to come to terms with that bit. But lately there’s something else that’s been bothering me. I went through half a dozen treatments over the last couple of years. How many did you do?”

“About the same.”

“All those sessions, and never did I come away with so much as a feeling of déjà vu, let alone retain full access to an entire life’s worth of artificial history.” A cloud of dust drifted from the front of her shirt as she stretched it into place and shook out the wrinkles.

“Same. This is the first time a lattice removal left behind anything more than dream residue.”

“Exactly. So why now?”

“Well, there was a lot of chaos and insanity going on in those last few minutes. I figure the System just glitched.”

“Those final moments were crazy for us, but not for the System. It knew what was coming. It prepared for it. It printed the big book. It sent us food. It took great care to prepare these divided lattices for us in such a way that made the quality of our natural and our composed pasts indistinguishable to our minds. Say what you want about the System, it didn’t panic, it was never sloppy, and it didn’t make mistakes.

“At first I thought there had to be a reason why it would want to divide our memories like that. I figured there had to be some reason it wanted us to keep both the memories that led us to Prower, and the memories of our real lives.” She sat down on the floor and pulled her jeans on as far as she could.

“I thought it might be some sort of test, you know? We’ve been given a pretty big job, maybe the ability to distinguish fact from fiction was important. Maybe the ability to hold multiple truths in our mind without going insane is a prerequisite to performing our new roles.

“But then I thought, maybe this idea of real verses fake wasn’t the right way to look at it. Maybe the important question isn’t which is real, but which is better? When you think about it, our real pasts are just a selection of memories of random events. But our lattices were designed by the wisest mind in history. Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to outsmart our minds’ natural preference for joy. Maybe we should just let ourselves believe whichever past brings us the most contentment.”

“Easy for you to say. Both my pasts are pretty horrible.”

She hopped into the air and finished pulling on her pants. “Remember why Thomas said he wanted to help us in the first place? He thought it was important for us to have the choice of which past we inhabited. Maybe this divided lattice was another of the System’s parting gifts. It wanted us to experience choice on the most fundamental level.”

Eryn stopped talking and waited for Lem to reply.

“Honestly, I think you’re over-thinking this. You’re asking some very big philosophical questions which I get, but I think you’d be better served with a more simplistic theory. The System was a machine. It thought like a machine. I think the dual memory thing was just the System’s way of cramming two lives worth of knowledge and experience into a single brain.”

“You’re right Lem! Maybe we’re not divided at all. Maybe we’re whole. Maybe we’re multiplied.”

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