The Partners

[Note: Here is another chapter that I like but which will ultimately have to be reworked into something more minimal. Before I chop it into oblivion at the behest of my editor. I wanted to capture it.

Eryn and Lem have been studying the book for around 9 months and have returned to Prower for a visit where they meet Edner and he tells them that other people have arrived looking for them. This is when they first get together. ]

Sometime after dinner, Zhan and the other recent arrivals showed up at the Prower Hotel.

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, and Lem’s 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’s charming. Charming and confident. This wasn’t exactly a show, but if it were, Eryn would definitely be stealing it.

“I’ll go first,” he interjected, standing up.

He’d broken Eryn’s rhythm, but she smiled graciously 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. “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?” He could tell she was killing time. He guessed 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 because she said, “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, “Why did you come looking for us?”

“The night everything shut down, my AI woke me from a dead sleep and told me the world was about to change. When it did, people would need my help. No matter what I said, she wouldn’t tell me anything else. I’d never seen her dig in her heels like that about anything. I was pretty shaken up, but eventually I fell back asleep. When I woke up the next morning and stepped outside to see why everything was so quiet, 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 any way I could.

“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 as Harold’s. 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, same envelope. Same instructions. Same deal. At first, I didn’t want to come either. In fact, I was determined not to. 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 where we met Harold and his bike.”

Agnes pointed her chin across the circle to where Zhan was sitting next to Lem. “Hello. 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.

As Eryn was drawing in breath preparing to ask Zhan more questions, 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 an HSCI tech, at DISC right here in Prower. That night, I got word that some of my subjects were not following protocol. So, I was already very much awake.” A secret look from Edner chilled Lem’s heart, but then Ender kept talking. “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. Find Eryn and Lem and help them.”

Lem had questions. Why hadn’t Edner 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 here 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. I was here when the System shut down.”

“Did you make it in time,” Agnes asked. “Did they destroy your home?”

“Huh? Oh. No,” Eryn said.

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 his own explanation. I came to Prower in a blind rage, hoping to destroy the System just before it went POOF! No good way say that. Instead, he offered, “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 obtuseness.

“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 next, “So, what now? We’ve all made it to Prower, we’ve found Eryn and Lem. 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 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.” Everyone looked perplexed, so Lem and Eryn passed around the books 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. He looked at the jumble of letters and symbols there and looked up at Lem questioningly.  

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

Zhan hefted the book she was holding. “It’s huge, but it’s light. These pages are so thin, they look almost two-dimensional,” Zhan marveled.

“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 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.’ ‘Identify and provide for those among you who are willing and able to acquire and disseminate systemic knowledge. Have them study and comprehend this book. Have them meditate upon the Governing Assert until it becomes the kernel of their being. Have them teach this to others.’ We’re pretty sure that’s why we’re all here, to become the system’s last partners. To learn from the books and help keep us out of a new dark age.”

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

“Maybe. We don’t know what all is in there,” Eryn said.

Lem said, “We’ve been reading our books for months now, and haven’t found anything about how to turn the System back on. I figured, if it wanted to be on, it would have just predicted the Calming and avoided it all together.”

“Well,” Eryn said, “we won’t know until we read the whole 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.

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 if 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? Well, something different at least.” 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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