Day 314, 1 NE
[This is another one of my chapters that is getting cut from it’s current size to about half. Again added here so that, if you cared about what really happened to Lem and Eryn in this town (not just Lem’s version of what happened, then here you go!]
They had been on the road for a week and a half when the group came to a mid-sized pop-center. They had made it a habit to roll through new towns without stopping at first so they could get the lay of the land and see if anything felt off about a town or its people.
The town center was several blocks of three- and four-story brick buildings clustered around a stream still bubbling and bouncing with melt water. In the distance, halfway up the hill that overlooked the town, tight clusters of roofs were visible through the trees.
Storms had been threatening all day. The tall backs of thunder clouds were stacked up on the other side of the nearby mountains. They grumbled thunderously but had yet to roll over the peaks and down into the valley where the road and the town were nestled. When they came upon an empty house west of town, Eryn saw an opportunity to engage in one of her favorite pastimes and explore an abandoned place. When she dismounted and proclaimed she was going in to check it out, the others did not argue. They all dismounted, and followed her inside, seeing in her bravado and curiosity an opportunity to avoid a deep soaking.
Judging by the thin film of dust and the still-closed drawers, the house had sat vacant for less than a year. Perhaps the fear of accumulating snow in early winter had forced the residents into town to be closer to others.
Eryn trotted up the stairs and Lem could hear her opening doors. She yelled down, “I call dibs on the big room!” Lem smiled. He could always count on her to find them the best bed. It almost made him feel bad. But it only made sense really, they were the only couple in the group, and it seemed like it was going to stay that way. Edner was a good twenty years their senior, and Agnes and Zhan showed little interest in poor Harold or each other.
While the other partners followed Eryn’s lead and looked for places to sleep, Lem wandered through the rooms rummaging through drawers and cabinets looking for anything that might be useful. Guns, ammunition. A good sharp knife or some flint and steel, he thought to himself and laughed.
In the kitchen, he found a tel and a cradle for a portable AI. During the Systemic Era, he had never thought of the ubiquitous tech as alive. But now that none of it was powered, it all seemed especially dead—all quiet and tombstone still.
Harold came into the kitchen. “I got a look at the solar array up on the roof as we rode in. There’s a decent number of panels up there. Good quality, not great.”
“You think we can get them working?”
“It’ll take some doing, but I don’t see why not. We’ll need to bypass the systemic control module. I’ll just have to cut and splice some wires. Come on up. I could use the help.”
“Without the controller, will it even work?”
“It’ll get the power flowing. The array won’t track the sun, and the power won’t be optimal—might be a bit spiky—but it’ll be better than no power. Should work enough to get some light in the house, maybe heat some water.”
“Hot water? Sign me up.”
They found a ladder in a shed and climbed up to the array with the small box of tools Harold kept in the truck. Once they were huddled on the platform that supported the array, Harold began explaining the override process to Lem. “First, and most important is that you got to cut the power flowing down from the panels. That’s what this big switch here does.” He flipped the switch. “Now the circuit isn’t energized and you won’t kill yourself.” Next, he pointed out the control module. “These are completely standardized. The System made sure they were all identical. Much easier to produce and maintain that way. This thin black wire here,” he said, tracing the wire’s path with the handle of his wire cutters, “powers the motors that ensure the array tracks the sun. We can just leave that alone. It’s not going to work obviously, but it’s not going to hurt either. The important bits are these thicker wires coming down from the panels. These carry the current. Those go into the inverter. Here.” He tapped on a metal box. Do not mess with the inverter. Then the wires lead from the inverter back into the controller. At this point the controller is trying to determine what to do with the electricity: send it to the building, send it out to the grid, store it, or send it to ground.” As he spoke, he pointed out the different colored wires leaving the controller and snaking off in different directions. “When the System went down, all these units defaulted to ground, and ain’t nothing gonna change that. So, we’ll need to bypass the controller and divert all power to the building.”
“How do you know which are which?”
“By convention, the building wires are always green.”
“So, we clip the wires before the module, cut these green ones after the module, then splice them together.”
He handed the wire cutters to Lem and walked him through the process again step by step. When he was done, Harold reached up and flipped the switch under the panels. Nothing seemed to change. There was no surging hum, the world didn’t light up. But Harold slapped him on the back and said, “That’s it. Now let’s get off this roof before that storm gets here.”
Lem looked up at the ridge. Harold had been right. The lightning storm had finally burst over the ridge and was rushing down on them like a bull escaped from its pen.
Once they were back in the house, it was obvious that the power had come back on. Somewhere a well pump had kicked on, the water pressurized and soon became warm in the taps. Even with the storm raging and flashing outside in the darkening evening, the host of partners had light and warm showers.
In the morning, Eryn went to the bedroom window. “Whoa, what do you think happened there,” she asked pointing through the glass.
When Lem came over, he could see that one of the houses on the hill overlooking the town was charred and smoldering. “Looks like a lightning strike in the night.”
“We can’t know for sure until we go check it out. Come on,” she said gleefully.
For Eryn, mounting a horse was an easy graceful affair. She would leap up, throw her leg over the horse’s back, and sweep up the reins all in one fluid motion. For Lem, there were always several missed steps, the animal’s awkward lean away to counterbalance his climbing weight, and a moment or two to recover his balance and dignity once he was in the saddle.
When he finally pulled up next to Eryn, she touched the imaginary brim of her imaginary hat and drawled, “Howdy Partner.”
“Bet you’ve been holding that one in reserve for a while.”
“Weeks,” she grinned. “Come along little doggy!” She whistled and Sadie appeared out of nowhere and began trotting alongside the horses’ feet.
It was early and most of the town still had not woken up. There were occasional men and women walking down to the stream to fish. Or walking out of town to tend to their nearby fields. These people looked back over their shoulders at Eryn and Lem up high on their horses and squinted one eye against the rising sun. No one said anything to them.
A single road led out of town and up the hill to the cluster of homes. They followed the road as it switched back and forth a few times then leveled off into a cul-de-sac with nearly identical rows of houses on either side of the street.
The burned home was near the middle of the row of houses. It was still smoldering but the flames had burned themselves out. There were smoke stains on the houses on either side of the ruin, but the protective siding prevented the homes from catching. But even the best flame retarding couldn’t withstand the heat of a lightning strike. There was a split log fence between the road and the front yard. They tied their horses to it and Eryn headed up the walk to where the front door used to be.
Lem suddenly felt like he was invading someone’s privacy. “Eryn, get back here, that’s someone’s home.”
“She whispered back to him. If it is someone’s home, then I’m here to help. If no one lives here then it doesn’t matter. Either way, I’m going in. You can stay out here if you want.”
Most of the house was burned to the ground. There were parts of three outside walls still standing, and most of the wall that ran through the middle of the house. There were no more flames, just a few places still venting smoke at the top of the standing walls. The roof was entirely gone leaving everything open to the sky. The soaking rain that had followed on the heels of the lightning storm had doused the fire and kept the cinders and ash from rising as they walked. There was the constant sizzles and puffs of steam as water made its way down into the remaining hot spots.
“Not much left to explore,” Lem said, pushing at a charred and sodden timber with the toe of his boot.
“Hey Lem, look at this.” She had stepped through an opening in the center wall into what had once been the living room. The brick chimney was still standing tall as though it too had just arrived to survey the devastation. “Whoa,” she exclaimed and stepped quickly over bits of fallen roof beams and shingles.
There, sitting casually on a brick ledge built into the chimney, was a large spiral seashell. The rain had rinsed off any smoke or soot that may have stained it, leaving it magically, almost miraculously, clean. As a result, it stood out against the blacked charred devastation as though a light were shining down on it from a break in the clouds.
“I can’t believe it survived.” She picked it up, and turned it over a few times in her hands, looking at it with obvious delight. “It’s very pretty.”
A smile slowly grew on her lips as she began convincing herself to take the shell. He loved her smile. He wanted her to be happy. “Take it.”
“What? No. I couldn’t.”
He swept his hand out indicating the smoking steaming remains of the house. “I don’t see anyone around who would stop you. The house is abandoned Eryn, or they would have stopped the fire. I think it’s as much yours as anyone’s at this point.”
She held the shell to her chest. “You really think so?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
When they came out of the house, they found a man untethering their horses, and gathering their reins into his fist. “What are you doing with our horses,” Lem asked.
“I don’t know. What are you doing in Veron’s place?” He looked at the shell Eryn was holding. “Looting by the looks of it.”
“You can have the shell back,” Eryn offered.
The man looked at the shell, then at the two horses. “No, that’s okay. You can keep the shell.” He smiled and began leading the horses away.
“Wait,” Eryn cried, beginning to panic. “You can’t just take our horses, we need them.”
“I guess you should have considered that before you broke into my friend’s home and began walking off with his valuables.”
“But you’d be stealing. It wouldn’t be Systemic,” Eryn said.
“There is no System anymore,” the man scoffed and turned away.
This gave Lem an idea. “Don’t you know who we are?”
The man looked them up and down. Some wicked thought pulled his mouth into a sneer. “Can’t say I know, or care.”
“We’re the System.”
“The System is gone you fools.”
“You’re wrong. The System lives on within us.” Considering the roles the System gave us, that’s at least partially true. Still, I wonder what sort of veracity rating the System would give me. “We were charged by the System to travel and teach its wisdom and spread its knowledge. We are its last remaining partners. We’re under the protection of its ever-watchful eye.”
“Bullshit,” the man scoffed.
Lem walked over to a part of the house’s facade that was still standing and patted it. “What do you suppose happened to his house?”
“It was lightning, I saw it.”
“Did you? Did you see a flash, hear a bang?” The man didn’t answer. “I’m telling you, the System did not abandon us. That flash and bang, this fire was not caused by lightning. There’s a satellite up beyond the sky that’s armed with a 30-gigawatt laser. Ask your friend Veron. He’d tell you.” That would certainly earn me a strongly-worded veracity warning from any systemic AIs. But like the man says, they’re all gone now.
The lie seemed to be working. The man’s neck muscles tightened, his eyes grew wide and his face grew pale. “What did Veron do?”
“Funny enough, he thought he could muscle our horses away from us.”
“And so, you killed him?”
“It wasn’t us. He…” Eryn said.
But Lem cut her off. “We didn’t ask for the Eye to do it. The minute the Eye decided we were in trouble, it just happened. Out of nowhere, without warning.”
The man took a step back from the horses. His eyes shot upward as though hoping to see the orbital laser. “But all the tech is dead.”
“I’m sorry about your friend,” Eryn winced. She held out the shell, offering it to him once again. But the man looked her up and down and backed away. He looked at Lem, spit on the ground, then turned and disappeared into his home.
When the man was gone and Lem’s racing heart had slowed, he glanced over at Eryn expecting to share in a celebratory smile. Instead, she was looking at him with a blend of bafflement, wonder, and what appeared to be disgust.
On their ride back to the house and the other partners, it occurred to Lem that, for generations, the System had fact-checked every statement and bit of information produced. As a result, people had long since given up on lying. Now, lying was so rare that people had become like animals in the far corners of the world who had lost all fear of humans. It occurred to him that he might very well be the best liar in the world. He’d always wanted to be the best at something. The thought made him smile.
Later that evening, as Eryn and Lem were getting ready for bed, Lem said, “That was a pretty near thing today with that guy and the horses.”
Eryn gave a single I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it grunt as she sat down on the edge of the bed and undid the laces on her boots.
“Aren’t you going to thank me at least?”
“Thank you? For what exactly?”
“For saving your horse, maybe even you. Who knows what that guy might have done if I hadn’t scared him away?”
“Did you see the look on his face as he left. He thought we were murderers.”
“Well, we’re not. And he left us alone. And you got to keep the shell.”
“You seemed pretty taken by it earlier. I thought you’d be happy to have it.”
She looked at the shell that was now sitting on the bedside table as though it had always been in this room. “I am glad to still have Dixie. And the shell is pretty, I suppose. So, sure. Thanks.”
Lem was smiling as he climbed into his sleep sack. He felt as though he had done something right. But before Eryn lay down next to him, she suddenly wadded up her sleep sack. “I think I saw a couch down in the basement. I’ll see you in the morning.”