The next day, Luke was shaken out of sleep before it was even truly day, in the pre-dawn hours of the morning.
“You slept plenty,” Carver told him. “It’s time to move.”
Luke usually resisted any attempt to wake him to his utmost ability, but even in his initial confusion some deeper instinct compelled him not to argue. Something in the old man’s voice suggested that it would not end well.
So Luke struggled out of the warmth of his sleeping bag without the benefit of five or six alarms, a novel experience. The remembrance of where he was and what had happened came faster this time, crashing over him in a wave that left him more alert, if not any happier. Getting ready for the day took consisted entirely of the time it took to tie his shoes. He still wore the same hoodie and sweatpants from when everything had started, filthy with mud and plant debris from the long quad ride out of the city. He was also without socks, forced to wear the too-big boots Carver had given him bare. It was the apocalypse, though, so Luke bit back his complaints as he finished lacing and stood up.
Carver was already looking at him impatiently, his handgun holstered at his side and pack slung around his back. The firepit had already been stomped out. As soon as Luke stood up, the older man tossed something toward him and started walking the same way they had been going. Catching the package, Luke saw it was a hunk of some kind of jerky and a bag of dried fruit. The thought of food had yet to even cross his mind, but his stomach rumbled at the reminder and he eagerly wolfed it down while they walked.
Luke hesitated for a while before breaking the silence of the march, but the conversation of the previous night had far from answered all of his questions and after the first hour it was apparent that Carver would be perfectly content to go without talking all the way to…wherever they were going. It seemed like a good idea to stick to less contentious topics than the end of the world, so Luke started with something that had been bothering him since the previous day.
“So are we just abandoning the ATV? It seems pretty useful.”
“Runs on diesel,” Carver grunted. “Pain in the ass keep fueled. I’ll pick it up later.”
Luke nodded, then a thought struck him. “Wait,” he said slowly. “It’s been twenty years. How is there still any diesel left to get? I’m pretty sure it goes bad, right? Do you make it?”
Carver sighed. “I’m not touching that one. Ask someone else when we get there.”
“Ok…” Luke tried a different tack. “Where is ‘there’? Where are we going?”
Carver stopped and whirled around to look at him. “Crater. I’m not here to play Twenty Questions with you. Hold it in until we make camp, if you can manage that.”
Luke blinked. The other man hadn’t been the most effusive talker the previous day, but he had been positively chipper compared to now. He burned to ask what ‘Crater’ was, but couldn’t bring himself to talk again and face Carver’s reproach. They walked on in silence.
They still walked along the freeway, though the number of cars abandoned on the road was steadily climbing. More often than not now, they were traveling on the shoulder, though it could be difficult to determine where that was beneath all the vegetation. There were stretches where long lines of cars were backed up on the side of the road too, places where Luke guessed panic and the need to escape the horrors loosed from the city outweighed the desire to follow traffic laws.
It was chilling, seeing the remains of events that had played out so long ago now that he knew the context behind them. Every car represented someone who had died, or worse than died, years and years ago. The way nature had moved on, reclaiming the leftover bits of civilization might have been comforting to some, but to Luke it was horrifying. Hundreds of thousands of people had lived here, and already the evidence of their existence was disappearing. Within a few more decades, the only signs that this place had once been inhabited would be crumbling rubble and the soulless monsters squatting amidst the ashes of human achievement.
It really made him wish that he was home.
Several times throughout the day he almost spoke his thoughts out loud, but he doubted that Carver would have any patience for his laments of the fall of civilization. After a few more hours, he had them turn away from the road and make their way down a hill through the foliage until they reached a small creek. Carver cupped his hands and sipped a little of the water there. Whatever he tasted must have met his approval because he pulled a pair of metal canteens out of his pack and tossed one to Luke.
Luke eagerly filled the bottle and took huge gulps, draining half the canteen before he took a breath. The jerky had dried his mouth and left him parched and miserable all morning, but he hadn’t dared complain since he hadn’t seen Carver drink anything either. Luke wasn’t exactly scared of the older man, but he was very aware that left alone out in the wilderness, he would probably die rather quickly. He felt it was best to annoy his guide as little as possible.
He found more dried traveling fare laid out after he finished drinking what felt like half the creek and topped off the canteen. Carver was sitting on a rock, munching quietly.
“We stop for twenty minutes,” he said. “You’re not going to pass out again, are you?”
Luke shook his head. The path so far had been uneven but not strenuous, no worse than a number of hikes he had been on. Now that he was watered, the prospect of further traveling wasn’t too onerous. There was a large rock near the creek bed, which he used as a chair while he ate. Silence reigned as it had since Luke had come to this world, but he tried one more time to get Carver talking. There was just so much he didn’t know.
“So what’s Crater?”
The old man looked at him wryly. “This isn’t camp.”
Luke felt a flare of annoyance despite the answer being more or less what he had expected. He was starting to get the feeling that Carver really didn’t like to answer questions.
“Can we just go then? The sooner we walk, the sooner maybe I can get some goddamn answers.”
Luke slammed his jaw shut, appalled at the words that had flown out of his mouth. Giving attitude was not the way to go, even if it seemed like he was more likely to have a conversation with the rock he was sitting on than the only human he had met in this world. Luke still had little or no idea why the man had helped him, and what he might do if pushed far enough.
He looked at Carver apprehensively, but the old man showed only the briefest flash of what might have been amusement and stood up.
He headed back in the direction of the freeway, and Luke hastened to follow. He ate the rations hurriedly, and it wasn’t long before he regretted his words. The water in his stomach sloshed around uncomfortably, mixing with the food and making him vaguely nauseous. A stitch formed in his side, forcing him to lean to the right as he walked to avoid a sharp pain with every step. He almost called out several times to ask for a break, but embarrassment made him hold his tongue.
More than once, Carver glanced back and raised an eyebrow, but he said nothing. Thankfully, they had reached a section of freeway that was relatively intact, or Luke might have been forced to rest whether it made him look foolish or not. As it was, the day wore on, and Luke’s system gradually rebalanced itself. He walked upright once more, determined to pretend the episode had never occurred.
In what was quickly becoming a routine, not a word was spoken until the sun was well on its way to setting, turning the sky a golden color overhead once more. Carver stopped at a small clearing free of the thorniest shrubs and started gathering rocks into a circle. After a few moments of bewilderment, Luke saw what he intended and moved to assist him. The old man’s reluctance to speak, he reflected, was starting to border on the ridiculous. He wouldn’t even ask for help setting up a damn fire pit! Carver’s one moment of broken reserve had come on the heels of literally pushing Luke to exhaustion. He fully expected the old man to find some way to weasel out of explaining anything once they had the camp set up.
Or not. Carver spoke as soon he had taken a place by the fire, poking at it with a stick in much the same way he had the previous night. Luke looked at him in surprise
“Crater,” Carver said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Crater’s a settlement, where we’re headed. Lots of people, farmland, the whole deal.”
Okay, he had to be fucking with him at this point. Luke stared at the old man.
“And you couldn’t tell me this before because…” he asked.
Carver shrugged, face blank.
“We’ve made camp now.”
Luke looked at him more sharply. There was no trace of humor anywhere in the old man’s features, but Luke was suspicious that there was laughter behind that expressionless mask. After a pause, he decided to let it go in favor of getting more of his questions answered.
“How long until we get there?”
“Tomorrow afternoon or night.” Carver said.
“Do a lot of people live there?”
Even when he was actually talking the man said nothing! It was infuriating.
“…About how many, do you think?” Luke asked, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice.
“Two thousand five hundred,” Carver said immediately. Luke blinked. He’d expected him to have to think about it. The old man seemed to relent and expanded on the statement. “The biggest on the West Coast for certain. Probably the biggest on the continent, though I’ve heard of some out east that might be a similar size.”
Two thousand five hundred. Luke wasn’t sure what he had expected, but the biggest on the whole continent? It had been twenty years since the Empty came. He had no idea how fast populations were supposed to grow, but two and a half thousand people would have been a pretty small town before, at least in the more populated parts of the US. Surely in twenty years a bigger group of people had gathered together. Though there was one ugly explanation that presented itself.
“Is there really that few people left?” Luke asked, somber. For that to be the case, the Empty would have had to exterminate well over ninety-nine percent of the population. What was left would only be remnants. But Carver shook his head.
“It’s not that. There’re settlements scattered all over, but they rarely have more than a couple hundred people each. No one wants to chance the Emps.”
“What do you mean?” Luke said, confused. Carver sighed, as if reluctant to say what came next.
“You remember how I told you after they appeared, Emps went straight for the most populated cities around them?” Luke nodded. “They never stopped. For the most part they just sit around wherever they were created or attacked last, but it’s possible to bring them down on you. There’s a couple factors that go into it, but the biggest by far is population. You get enough people in a close enough radius and you’re guaranteed to be swimming in the fuckers before the week is out. A few different patchwork cities cropped up the first few years after they appeared, and every single one of them got swarmed.”
Carver paused before he went on. Despite his hesitance, now that he had started talking he sounded like a different person. He gave more than single sentence answers, and there was almost a lecturing quality to his voice.
“It’s impossible to nail down what the cutoff is before you get the Emps’ attention—no one’s been too eager to test it, for obvious reasons—but most estimate it at about three thousand people or so. That’s why Crater’s the biggest settlement around. They flirt right at the edge of annihilation. They’ve survived a long time by enforcing strict population controls to make sure they don’t grow. If they didn’t, if any settlement has more people than that within a certain radius, the Emps sense it somehow and come out in force. The people living there are Emptied or scattered, without exception. .”
“That’s it?” Luke said. “You can’t set up walls or traps or shut them out somehow if you know they’re coming?”
Carver’s eyes flashed in anger, the most emotion he’d expressed that night.
“Of course, why didn’t we think of setting up defenses?” he asked scornfully. “Twenty years and the idea never crossed anyone’s mind. Thank God you came to save us all, kid.”
Luke went silent, hurt by his tone. After a moment Carver spoke again, more calmly.
“I told you before that they have instincts. The fuckers group up, make sure that there’s more of them than us whenever they come calling. Say a settlement starts getting dreams of a new society and builds up their population past the point of no return. They know the Emps are coming for them. Let’s be generous and say their defenses are strong enough to let them kill five of them for every one of their people. That’s doable, at least before they run out of bullets. They fight off the first wave, get a few days to celebrate and take stock of their diminished supplies, and a week later they’re mobbed by a horde that outnumbers them ten to one. It’s a numbers game, and humanity has already fallen too far behind to win. If we try to fight back, we’ll die through sheer, brutal attrition.”
There was no inflection in Carver’s voice, for all the hopelessness his words implied. Only emotionless precision. He seemed to retreat within himself as he had the previous night, and Luke thought that would be all he said. But a few moments later he continued in a low voice.
“We can’t fight them head on. We’ve bled enough to learn that much. We can’t outwait them. They don’t get hungry, they don’t get bored, they don’t die as far as we know unless you put a hole in them. We can’t reason with them, they’ve shown no sign of intelligence beyond what’s needed to hunt us. How humanity survives now is by adapting. The age of sprawling cities and skyscrapers is over. Now we’re a hundred little communities spread over a thousand miles, keeping absolute control over the population and doing whatever’s necessary to avoid the attention of our new apex predator.”
Luke mulled over that in silence. There was emotion in Carver’s tone now, the weary resignation of a battle long since lost. Whatever bout of good cheer had made him more talkative was gone now. He poked at the fire in silence, chewing slowly on a piece of dried fruit.
Something he had said sparked a question for Luke, though. He hesitated, but asked anyway despite the rapid change in Carver’s demeanor.
“What about everywhere else?” he said. Carver only grunted in response, so he elaborated.
“Everything you’ve told me has pretty much been centered on America. Did the Emps appear in Europe? Asia? Everywhere?”
“Hard to say,” Carver said eventually. “Communication was non-existent in the early days. It’s still difficult, but there’s bits and pieces. Some places got it worse than others, but as far as I know there isn’t anywhere that they didn’t appear at all. There are people who would know more about it than me, though.”
Luke took the hint and stopped asking questions. He was still afraid of pushing Carver too far, and the spurt of anger the old man had shown made him wary.
He stayed at the fire for a while after that, eating the jerky and fruit that were the only meal he’d had in this world so far. He was already starting to get tired of the fare, but it was better than starving. Maybe they would have better food at Crater. Luke wondered at the reason for the name, but it was so far down the list of things he didn’t know that the question barely registered. After some time sitting, Carver took his sleeping bag out of his pack and settled within it, leaving the other on the ground for Luke to take.
The young man felt a little bad about getting inside the bag when he’d been sweating for the last two days without a shower or bath, but the prospect of sleeping without the dry shoots of the brush poking into his back was too tempting to ignore. He drifted off as the fire died down to embers behind him.
He stood within the city again as he had not two days past, but now it was whole. The buildings stood tall, the pavement was uncracked, and wildlife did not run rampant through the streets. It was dark, but street lights were lit in rows as far down as the eye could see. For all that, though, the city was still empty as it would never be in reality. Even in the darkest hours of the night people should have been roaming the sidewalks while cars meandered through the streets. Now though, there was nothing, and it was almost as unsettling as the dead, twisted version that he’d recently visited.
There was no dream logic to the scene. Luke wondered at the emptiness around him, then at his capacity to wonder. There was a lucidity that had never been present within his dreams. All he was certain of was that he was dreaming, though he couldn’t have said how he knew. He took his first step down the road, and whirled around as he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him.
The figure grinned and gave a small bow when Luke turned around. She had high cheekbones and an unnaturally sharp face, her chin almost coming to a point. The word elven came to Luke’s mind, though she lacked the pointed ears that were iconic to his understanding of the creatures. Her skin was light, but tan and she appeared to be in her teens or early twenties. She wore a baggy hawaiian shirt and white shorts with sandals, looking for all the world like a tourist come to visit the city. Her blonde hair was short, styled into a pixie cut, and her green eyes looked almost luminescent in the glow under the street light.
“Hi there,” she said, her voice bubbly and high-pitched. “Sorry, I meant for us to talk sooner, but there are some things that really take it out of a girl, you know?” She blinked, shutting both eyes hard. A moment later, she shut one for much longer than a standard wink. Then she grinned again as if the odd expressions had never happened.
“Um.” Luke said. “Where am I?”
The odd tourist looked around.
“Same city, right? I didn’t mean to move, and the buildings don’t look any different…” She stuck her tongue out as if making fun of him and the landscape in front of Luke shifted rapidly. It flickered between scenes for several seconds at a time. It was always a city street, but it became wider and narrower in turn, while the buildings flanking each side became taller, then shorter, then covered in snow, then rounded, then gone entirely and the street paved with cobblestone, before resolving back into the city where they had started.
“Nope, definitely the right place!” She said cheerfully. “I’d have thought you recognized it, you were here so recently, Luke.”
“Fuck!” Luke said, tottering unsteadily. “That wasn’t what I meant! What was that?”
“Wait a second. How do you know my name?”
“Carver told me!” The tourist said, ignoring Luke’s discomfort. “He was really mad for a while but I cheered him up eventually. He can never stay mad at me for long.”
Luke blinked, trying to think.
“But we haven’t seen anyone since I met him.” He looked around at the empty street, then down at his hands.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The tourist beamed at him and swept into a deep bow, throwing her hand out to the side.
“My name,” she said, “is Sandy. A lot of people call me the Sandman, but that’s not a name. Sandy’s a name.” She bared her teeth at Luke.
“Ok…” he said slowly. “I don’t know what that is, really, but if you’re the Sandman…you’re making this dream?”
“SANDY!” she shouted. She gave Luke a flirtatious look through her lashes. “I just told you my name is Sandy. And yes, welcome to the last ten minutes, you’re in a dream.”
Luke’s mind was reeling, but he tried to sort through what was important.
“Ok, assuming I’m not having some kind of breakdown…you know Carver? What do you want with me?”
“I wanted to meet you,” Sandy said. “I like new people, if they’re nice. Except for Carver, he isn’t nice but I’ve known him the longest.”
“So do you…do this with everyone in this world?” Luke asked. He was starting to wish he could go on dream logic. It would be better than the utter bewilderment he currently felt.
“Oh no, not nearly,” Sandy said airily. “Only the chosen few get to talk to me. You could say I’m more or less a goddess. You should feel honored.” Her eyes rolled wildly in her head.
Luke felt nauseous looking at it, but he tried to ignore the weirdness. Who knew what a dream creature would be offended by if he brought it up?
“I gotta say,” she went on, “you’re not impressing me so far. Kinda boring if I’m being honest.”
“I’m just trying to get my bearings!” Luke said, insulted despite himself. “I was ripped out of my world a few days ago and now I’m having some kind of dream vision. Excuse me for not being at my most charming!”
“You know what? That’s fair,” Sandy said solemnly. “You are excused. Maybe we should try again later. You can get some tips from my adoring fans!” She blinked and winked alternately, the same way as before..
“Uh, right.” Luke said. He knew there were probably questions he could be asking, but his mind was spinning and thinking clearly was difficult. “Thank you?”
Sandy beamed brightly once again. “Well your manners aren’t bad anyway. There could have been worse people for to bring back with me. Off you go for now, we’ll talk soon!”
The street started to dissolve around Luke, becoming darker and distorted, though Sandy herself remained clearly visible.
“Wait!” he yelled. “What are you talking about? Did you bring me here? Can you take me back? Please!”
Sandy spoke over him, ignoring his words. “Oh, and tell Carver to be careful. I don’t have time to go to him, but there’s a Bleeder nearby. It shouldn’t be hard to avoid, but he needs to watch out.”
With that, she disappeared, and the scene darkened into black. Luke stood alone for a few moments before he too disappeared.
He awoke to the sun’s first hesitant rays landing on his face and the ground around him. The dream was crystal clear in his mind, far more so than any dream should be. It was also far more specific than most dreams, and Luke didn’t hold much doubt than it had been more than a figment of his mind.
Carver was cross-legged on the ground, sorting through his pack. Clothes, knives, rations, and other gear were neatly sorted on the ground. He looked up when Luke rose from his bag, but quickly returned to his task.
“I had a dream about someone named Sandy,” Luke said quietly. “I think she said she’s the one who brought me here. Do you know anything about that?”
Carver looked at him and sighed.
“Oh, fuck me,” he said.