The rest of the day was comparatively easy after the horrific encounter of the morning.  Carver took them away from the freeway a few hours after they left the site of the Bleeder.  By the time they turned off a highway exit, the surrounding terrain had become decidedly more urban.  It was still in a state of severe disrepair, but the concrete roads and buildings of the suburb they walked through had kept the growth of the plant life down to manageable levels.  Luke was relieved at the easy path; he had been worried they would have to hack through miles of growth to reach the settlement.

Carver guided Luke down progressively narrower and narrower roads until finally one dead-ended at a gate with a dirt path beyond and a severely rusted sign that proclaimed the area to be a nature trail.  The footpath displayed the first evidence of human maintenance Luke had seen since coming to this world. At least, he could think of no other reason why the grass should have grown so tall on either side yet leave the path itself untouched.  After trudging down this cleared path for only a few minutes, Luke heard the trickling sound of running water.

By the time they reached the stream, it was mid-afternoon.  Carver paused only long enough to eat and refill their water flasks.  Both he and Luke carried a strong smell from the blood that covered them, and neither desired to tarry any longer than necessary.

From there they followed the stream upriver.  Rocky hills around them hemmed in closer and grew sheer, forming a canyon around the deepening river.  The water seemed to be barely a trickle compared to the rocky walls around them, but it continued to grow as they traveled upstream.  They walked on through the afternoon without pause, always following the path of the river. By the time dusk arrived, Luke began to wonder if they might need to accept that camping would be necessary for another night, unpalatable as the idea was.  Before he could put voice to his concern, however, a roar became audible in the distance.

It was a continuous sound, carrying on and on without ever diminishing in volume.  Luke had never seen a waterfall, but the sound didn’t fit anything else he could think of.  Carver seemed to perk up once he heard it, increasing his pace and walking with more energy than Luke was accustomed to seeing.   By this time the river they followed had become wider and faster, though still small enough that they could have forded it without difficulty.  A few minutes later, the source of the ceaseless crashing came into view, obscured in the gloom of twilight but still visible.

It was a waterfall as Luke had suspected, but the view still took his breath away.  A towering concrete wall rose up in front of him, curved upstream in a shape that was suggestive of a massive bowl.  The sides were flush with the walls of the canyon, cutting off any passage beyond. The structure was at least a hundred feet tall, and appeared much more intact than any of the other infrastructure Luke had seen so far, save for two deep furrows that had been carved into the stone.  Both were near the center of the structure, and reached nearly halfway down the building’s height. A huge amount of water poured through each gap, the source of the river they had been following.

“You can’t see it, but Crater’s on the top of the canyon here,” Carver said, breaking a silence of several hours.  He hesitated a moment before continuing. “Almost there.”

Luke nodded, frowning at the up at the artificial waterfalls.  Something about them bothered him, but he stayed quiet as Carver led them up to the base of the structure, well to the side of where the water landed.  A metal door was set into the stone, with a symbol Luke didn’t recognize spray painted on in purple. The door led to a staircase in the interior that went up into darkness; there was no lighting inside, and the only illumination came from the fading sun outside. 

“Grab the railing,” Carver shouted as he held the door open for Luke.  The echo of the waterfalls reverberated in the small space, consuming all other sound.  “I’m not wasting light on this climb. We’re going all the way up to the top, long as you hold your hand on the banister you should be able to figure out where to put your feet.”

Luke did as he was told, and the old man shut them both into complete darkness.  Groping blindly, Luke found the first step and started to ascend. He felt more than heard Carver close behind him, more assured and steady in his movements.

The climb was awkward at first, with Luke slamming his foot down on flat ground where he expected a stair, or wedging the tip of his boot into the gap between steps.  Quickly though, he fell into a rhythm. Eleven stairs, three steps, a right turn on a landing and repeat. His thighs started burning after the third flight, and he quickly lost count of the number of levels he had climbed, but it was certainly far higher than he had ever gone without an elevator.

Still though, the burn caused by the ascent at least gave him something to focus on other than how damn eerie the place was.  Luke’s eyes never really adjusted to the point where he could see much in front of him.  He could walk right by someone and never know it. Between that and the roar of the waterfalls that drowned out any but the loudest sound, it felt like there was constantly something lurking just outside the boundaries of his awareness.  It seemed like a silly thing to be afraid of after the very real horrors of the past few days, but the fear was there nonetheless. If Carver hadn’t been there, he might have given up on the whole thing.

After what felt like a full day, countless steps, and only three breaks, Luke finally hit his head on a wall instead of reaching another flight of stairs.  Letting go of the railing for the first time, he flailed around, searching for the handle of the door he thought must be there. From behind him came a cough and Luke felt Carver step around him, opening a door on the other wall and allowing light in once again.

During their climb dusk had turned to true night, yet the light of the moon and stars was at least bright enough to let them see where to put their feet.  Luke stepped away from the empty wall he had been groping around on and followed Carver to the top of the dam.

And if the waterfalls hadn’t been clues enough, the fact that it was a dam became glaringly obvious as soon as he caught sight of the canyon on the far side of the curved structure.   A long, snaking lake reflected the light of the stars above, made slightly turbulent by the flow through the enormous furrows.  It was difficult to tell how high the water rose but it fell well short of the top of the dam. After a few moments of taking in what scenery was visible, Luke hurried after Carver, who had barely paused once out of the stairwell.

They walked around the curve of the dam towards one side of the canyon, where a few twinkling lights could be seen in the distance.  The excitement of reaching their destination gave Luke the energy to keep up with his guide on this final leg of their journey, even after the exhaustion he felt from climbing the stairwell, walking all day prior to that…and everything else that had happened during the last few days, really.  Hoping that Carver would be feeling a similar way, he tried to strike up a conversation.

“Do you live in Crater most of the time?”

“…No,” the old man replied after a moment.  To Luke’s surprise, after a longer pause he elaborated.  “I roam around more often than not. I might be here a while now though.  At the very least, I need to resupply and get new clothes. And take a shower.”

“You have showers?” Luke asked, astonished.  He had been picturing a tub of cold water for washing, if that.

“It’s been twenty years,” Carver said drily.  “Give us a little credit. Probably not what you’re imagining though.  Plumbing isn’t what it used to be.” Luke groaned inwardly, convinced that his initial impression was close to the mark.

“What do you-” his question was cut off by a voice out of the darkness.

“Who’s there?” a male voice snapped out, followed by a clicking noise.  Luke squinted and could barely make out two figures in front of them, holding up some kind of rifle.  He froze, but Carver kept moving.

“Easy there,” he said.  “No need for that. Sorry to jump out at you, but I’ve got an important package here.”

One of the figures fumbled for a moment and turned on a flashlight.  The sudden light blinded Luke, but it only lasted for a few seconds before turning off again.

“That you, Carver?” the figure said.  “You look like hell. And this is…” 

Carver cut him off before he could finish.  “This is the new resident. And yeah, we had a grand old time out there.  Vacation’s over though, so we’re heading in.”

“Alright then,” the man agreed.  “Angela’ll have to go with you. Sarah would have our asses if we let two people in by themselves, even if you’re one of ‘em.  Or especially, maybe.”

“Fine,” Carver grunted, clearly losing patience.  “Let’s go then.”

The other figure waved and stepped in front, leading them on.  Luke followed, still blinking the light out of his eyes. As his vision returned, he saw that she wasn’t wearing any kind of uniform, just a black coat and jeans.  The rifle cradled in her arms seemed to be the only mark of authority that she needed. Her hair was swept back in a ponytail, and Luke was relieved to find that the second human he’d met so far appeared to be more talkative than Carver.  It didn’t take her long to break the silence, anyway.

“I hope that’s not all your own blood,” she said cheerfully.  “What happened to you out there?”

“Bleeder,” Carver said shortly.  The woman, Angela, nodded.

“I figured.  Must be a hell of a story, for you to get up close enough to be drenched like that.  What happened?”

Carver sighed.  “It tried to kill us.  We got it first.” Angela laughed aloud.

“Come on, Pop, I know you can do better than that.”  She turned to look at Luke. “You want to give it a go?  You must be a better storyteller than him.”

Carver didn’t deign to respond, but Luke’s jaw hung open.

“Wait, did you call him ‘Pop’?” he asked.  Angela grinned.

“What, you don’t see the family resemblance?” She wrapped an arm around Carver’s shoulder and pulled him close.  The contrast between his dark skin tone and her own pale complexion was stark.

“I’m not surprised he didn’t say anything,” she continued.  Carver ducked under her arm and kept walking. “He’s never exactly been the doting type.  And I’m sorry that he was who you ran into, that can’t have been a fun trip. You’d think at his age he’d have developed better people skills.”  She playfully swatted at the old man, who continued to ignore her.

“He, uh, was pretty quiet most of the time,”  Luke said, for lack of anything else to say.

“Yeah, I used to think it was an act, but I’ve been forced to face the fact that this is just his personality,” Angela said.  “Which raises some pretty damning questions, old man. Like why anyone would want to spend time around you, for one.”

Carver finally acknowledged the woman to give her a long-suffering look.  “You would know better than me, Ang.. And as you said, it’s been a hell of a few days, so do me a favor and try to hold it in until I feel like a human again?”

“Fair enough,” she said, and turned back to Luke.  “So what’s your name, kid?”

“I’m Luke,” he said.  Carver’s comment reminded him of his own exhaustion.  “Is there any chance there’s a bed where we’re headed?  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get a real night’s sleep.”

“Yep,” Angela said.  “We just have one quick stop to make, and then we’ll find you a place, don’t worry.”  Carver glanced over at her.

“I doubt there’s any need to-” he started, but Angela cut him off.

“You’re going too, Pop.  She’ll talk to you one way or the other, and whatever you think her time is valuable.  You don’t need to waste it making her hunt you down.”  Carver’s look turned mulish, but he didn’t respond.

Luke took advantage of the silence to examine their surroundings.  They were off the dam now, following a road toward the lights he had noticed before.  The closest set was near enough to see their source; a pair of large spotlights focused on the street ahead of them.  Standing nearby were another set of guards who blocked their advance as the trio approached. Once Angela had stepped into the pool of light, however, one nodded and wordlessly waved them through.

“Damn stupid setup,” Carver muttered as they passed by.  “Wastes power for nothing other than ruining their night vision.”  Luke had to privately agree as he was blinded once again by the influx of light.  Anything outside the spotlights’ range might as well have been invisible to any guards posted there.

Once they were through the checkpoint, Angela threw her arms wide to gesture at the town around them.

“Welcome to Smoking Crater, Luke.  I hope and expect you’ll find it a bit more peaceful than what you’ve experienced thus far.”  

It was difficult to see much of the settlement in the darkness; none of the cluster of lights he had seen were immediately visible save those they had already passed.  There was little sign of electrical lighting or even candles or oil lamps. As they penetrated further, however, Luke did make out more people walking around, going about their business or talking to each other in the street.  It was still early evening, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but Luke was shocked by how normal the scene was.  Other than the lack of light or cars, it might have been a scene from any small town in his own world.  No one seemed to be excessively dirty or malnourished, and there wasn’t anyone chained up or made into a slave.  After the last few days of imagining the worst possible scenarios, it was a relief to see. At least based on his first impression, Luke’s worries about the direction of society after the apocalypse appeared unfounded.

Carver and Luke garnered glances from more than a few people they passed, filthy as they were, but no one stopped to talk with them.  After a few minutes of silent observation, Luke spoke up.

“I thought it was just Crater.  How come it’s called Smoking Crater?”  Angela looked back at him. He saw her smile in the darkness.

“Some guy’s idea of a joke.  Crater was founded maybe a year or so after the Empty appeared, give or take.  Carver told you about that at least, right?” Luke nodded, and she went on. “‘Founded’ might be too strong of a word, actually.  For the first couple of years it was just a few families living in the same general area and helping each other out from time to time.  We think it was an inside joke of theirs, and the name just stuck. A lot of survivors used dark humor as a coping mechanism, it wouldn’t be too out of character.”

“Why aren’t you sure?” Luke asked.  “Can’t you just ask the first people who were here?”

Angela’s expression sobered.  “No, we can’t. None of them are still around.  Everyone here is someone who came later on.”

“What happened?”

“There was a…schism, I guess.  A lot of arguments, a long time ago.  I don’t know a lot of the details, this was before I got here, but when it all shook out all of the folks who settled here first—and most of the second and third waves, too—left to make their own place.”  She shrugged. “We still trade with them sometimes, but they don’t talk to us much beyond that. Kind of a mutual ‘leave me the hell alone’ type of deal.”

Luke digested that for a moment.  The idea of leaving a place you had made into a home to start over in this kind of world…he wondered what had caused the argument.

Angela stopped in front of a door on one side of the street.    

“Here we are,” she said.  It was a one story brick building, some kind of office space rather than a residence.  She opened the door and gestured for the two of them to enter. Carver paused at the threshold, but stepped inside at Angela’s urging.  Luke followed on his heels.

The interior was larger than he expected.  The only light came from a few flickering oil lamps on the walls, illuminating a room taken up by desks arranged haphazardly around the space.  Instead of any kind of functional setup, it looked like they had been aligned in some kind of maze, blocking off sections and forcing anyone moving through to snake back and forth to get anywhere.  At the back where the maze terminated there was another desk, the only one set up to be used for its intended purpose. The woman seated behind it looked up as they came in.  

“Thank God,” she said.  “Come on back. I would take it as a courtesy, Carver, if you could refrain from dripping blood on my floor.”  The floor in question held carpet so thoroughly faded and stained that Luke wasn’t entirely sure what the original color was supposed to be.  That might have been the cause of the irritation that flashed across Carver’s face, though the look of disdain he gave the woman seemed rooted in something deeper.

“It’s dried,” he said as he crossed the room.  Rather than follow the path laid out by the setup of the furniture, he moved in a straight line to the back, vaulting across each desk that lay in his way.  Flakes of dried blood fell off of him when he landed, aided by an excessive stomp each time. It was impressively petty, especially coming from a man who kept up a wall of stoicism so much of the time.  The woman just rolled her eyes..

Angela and Luke followed the more circumspect route, weaving between the desks as was clearly intended.  It gave Luke time to get a better look at the woman. She was in her forties, Asian, with her black hair at shoulder length.  Her clothes—a blue collared blouse and black pants—were old, but kept in good condition without holes or tears. Her look was intense as she frowned at Carver, but when the other two approached she gave them a warm smile that belied her initial frostiness.  

My name is Sarah.  I am afraid you caught me unprepared for your arrival.  What is your name?

Carver crossed his arms, leaned against a nearby desk.  “You know who I went out there to find, Sarah. Don’t play dumb.”  

She shot him an irritated look.  “They’re called manners, Carver. Some of us picked up the knack over the years.”  Turning back to Luke, she smiled once more. “It is true though, that I had some advance notice of your arrival.  I hope you haven’t found our realm too difficult to adjust to, though I would understand completely if that were the case.”

While Luke racked his brains for a more polite way to tell the truth than calling her world a shithole, Carver snorted.

“Look at us.  You think it was a fun jaunt out in the sun to get here?  He nearly died twice in his first two days here.” 

Sarah actually turned to him, annoyance plain on her features.  “How long do you plan on staying in Crater?”

“Three or four days,” he said immediately.  “And I’ll need supplies.”

“Fine,” Sarah said.  “You know where to go.  I’m sure they won’t be able to stop you from taking what you please.  Beyond that, I don’t see a pressing need for you to remain.”

“I said the same thing,” he replied, glancing at Angela.  She glared back, but stayed quiet.  

He clapped a hand on Luke’s shoulder.  “Good luck,” he said. “You could have done worse.”  He turned around, made to leave.

“We’ll talk later, Dad,” Angela said to his back, her tone cold.  “I’ll find you.”

Carver shrugged fatalistically and left the room the same way he came in, jumping over desks the whole way.

Once the door had closed behind him, Sarah let out a breath and massaged her temples.

“I apologize for that, Luke.  Please don’t take Carver as a representative of the people who reside here, nor my attitude toward him as indicative of my temperament in general.  Carver has…a unique talent for getting under my skin.”

The exchange had been interesting, particularly the way Carver had acted, but Luke had spent most of the time pulling his thoughts together through the fog of his fatigue.

“That’s ok,” he said.  “But can you tell me how you knew I was coming?  And that I was from another world?”

Sarah exchanged a glance with Angela before responding.

“What did Carver tell you, exactly?” she asked.

“More or less nothing,” Luke said, bitterness creeping into his voice.  “He explained how the Empty made this place like it is, but wouldn’t say anything about how I got here or how he knew to find me or anything else that’s out there.”

“Sounds like him,” Angela said sympathetically.

“Yes, for a roamer he’s remarkably prone to leaving his dirty work to others,” Sarah said with distaste.  “Well, I suppose there’s only one place to start, then.” She folded her hands upon the desk, clasping them tightly.  “There are several aspects to your question, Luke, and a number of possible answers, but the most direct and honest response is that we knew you were coming because we brought you here.”

“What?” Luke said sharply.  “How? Why would you do that?”

Sarah looked at him, her eyes tired.  “Because we had to. It’s the only way to preserve this world.  And yours.” She met Luke’s furious gaze. He almost screamed at her, but took a deep breath instead.  The anger didn’t abate, but he had to hear the full explanation. He had to.

“How could that possibly work?” he asked, clenching his fists.

“Truthfully, I can’t say for sure,” Sarah said, and went on quickly when she saw Luke’s expression.  “We do not know how it works, only that it does. We are dealing with forces several orders of magnitude more complex than anything scientists managed to puzzle out in the old world.  The primary idea at play is that of multiverse theory. Are you familiar with the concept?” Luke nodded and gestured impatiently for her to continue. “Good. As you might surmise, the weight of evidence now places the hypothesis on the same level of credibility as that of the theory of gravity.  Essentially confirmed, in other words. This fact has many, many ramifications for life on this world as it exists today, but most of these are irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion.”

Sarah stood up and started pacing back and forth behind her desk as she spoke in the same precise tone.  The movement betrayed the nervousness of a woman who Luke suspected was usually well in control of her emotions.  He wondered why she would be nervous.

“For you at this moment, the most important factors are the characters of these universes and the space that lies between them.  It’s unclear whether there are an infinite number of universes—or worlds, realms, dimensions, whatever term you want to use—but whether finite or not, it has become clear that they are not all the same.  Size, makeup, physical laws—all of these vary wildly between the few universes of which we are aware. The only exception to that variation is the place that you come from. Prior to the events of twenty years ago, your universe and ours were incredibly similar, down to the development of the human societies that lived there.  As it’s been explained to me, our two worlds can be thought of as having a string tying them together, they are kept close on a dimensional level by whatever forces govern such things. This has interesting implications considering the shared course of history between the universes…but that’s a tangent for another time. 

“At any rate, this ‘tethering’ of a pair of universes is a fascinating phenomenon, but is only of immediate relevance because of the other element I mentioned—what lies between the universes.  The term ‘between’ might well be an oversimplification when describing a state where space and time as we know them hold no sway, but it works as a metaphor to wrap our minds around something of which we are utterly ignorant.  We know very little about what lies outside of the universes. To use another comparison, we liken it to entropy, the natural disorder that tends to take hold in our own universe. Rather than disorder, however, outside of our reality there is nothing.  It is a vacuum more vast and complete than any possible in our universe or likely any other. But the similarity to entropy is apparent in the way that it consumes, reaches to make everything else like itself.”

“You make it sound like it’s alive,” Luke said, processing her words.  Sarah shrugged.

“That is one theory.  Likely not, however. If we extend the metaphor, entropy is certainly a natural process without any guiding sentience.  But then, entropy never turned the largest population centers of the human race into unreasoning monsters.”

Luke’s eyes widened, and the woman nodded.

“It’s not an accident that we call them ‘Empty’.  After years of study and…consultation with what resources we have access to, we’ve come to the conclusion that everything that has befallen this world stems from the same source, this nothingness beyond the universes.  We call this force ‘nihil’. It has wormed its way into our universe and upended the natural laws that govern it, specifically targeting the sapient species within. There’s not enough evidence to call it sentient, but its behavior at least raises the possibility.”

“So what does this have to do with me?” Luke asked.  It was nice to finally get some answers, but any gratitude he might have had was undercut by his anger at Sarah’s initial revelation.

“As I said,” Sarah continued smoothly, though she still paced, “nihil somehow entered into this universe from outside of it.  How this happened is unknown, but as time goes on it seems that whatever pathway it used to is made larger. The effects of its presence worsen, and the universe strays further from what it is supposed to be.  The only method we have found to stave off this deterioration is to tighten our connection to our sister world.  There is evidence to show that doing so protects both universes from the influx of nihil, though I understand your own has yet to show any effects due to its influence.”

Horror rose in Luke’s chest.  “How do you tighten the connection?” he asked in a whisper.  Sarah looked at him with a carefully neutral expression.

“By bringing a person from one to the other.  As soon as you stepped foot in this universe you became a Tether.  Your existence is now the only thing that prevents the destruction of our world, and we believe, your own.”

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