“Hey, I’m sorry I asked. It’s a super cool place, forget I said anything.” Naomi crouched next to Luke on the curb, clearly at a loss for how to comfort him. “Is there anything you need? Let me know and I’ll try to get it.”
The tears slowed. Luke rubbed at his face, embarrassed by his outburst. The sudden surge of emotion deserted him as quickly as it came, and he got back to his feet, pushing off Naomi’s assistance.
“No, I’m ok. It was just a lot for a second. I’m fine now, thanks.”
Naomi looked at him while holding up her hands as if expecting to have to catch him, but backed off once he showed he was capable of standing on his own.
“Jesus man, don’t scare me like that. I’m responsible for you right now, more or less. You have any idea what Sarah would do to me if something happened to you?”
Luke laughed, a slight waver still present in his voice. “I did pretty much the same thing to her last night, you’re probably fine. I might not be in the most stable mindset right now. There’s a lot going on.”
“You’re telling me.” Naomi shook her head. “Well, if you’re sure you’re ok, we should keep moving. People are looking. Doesn’t matter to me, but you probably don’t want a public breakdown to be your first impression.”
There were indeed several people glancing over and even outright staring at Luke. A few were whispering quietly. He couldn’t hear anything they said, but it wasn’t likely to be complimentary. Naomi was probably right, so he started off in a random direction down the sidewalk. The girl followed.
“I don’t know where to go now. Is there anywhere you think I should see?”
“Ah…” Naomi said. “Not to be a bitch about it, but there’s a bath system not too far from here. The standards in Crater are pretty low, but I’ve gotta be honest. You smell pretty bad.”
“That’s fair,” Luke agreed. “Lead the way.”
After figuring out the ‘bath system’ (a complex series of pulleys that simulated a cold shower without functional plumbing) and removing the last remaining bits of Bleeder stuck to him, Luke’s mood improved immensely. It was amazing how much a shower and fresh set of clothes could lift his spirits. He still certainly wasn’t happy with his circumstances, but he felt more able to face them without becoming a basket case.
The sun had started to set by the time he was clean, and Naomi was getting restless.
“So is there anything else you want to do? Or do you want to hang out at that thing Abby invited you to? If not, I’ll probably get going.”
“I don’t know,” Luke said. “What is it, like a party?”
“No, it’s not anyone’s birthday or anything,” Naomi said with a frown. “We’re just going to an empty house we know after everyone’s done working. You don’t have to go.”
Luke felt torn. On one hand, he still felt unprepared for social interaction after the draining events of the last few days. On the other, the alternative was going back to his drab gray cabin, which seemed depressing. He waffled, unsure what to do.
“Would you just decide?” Naomi asked impatiently after a few moments. “Go or don’t, just make a decision.”
“Ok, fine I’ll go,” Luke said, and immediately regretted it. He’d just agreed to join a bunch of strangers in a ruined house doing God knew what. But the choice was made, and he had no recourse but to follow Naomi when she nodded and started off yet again.
“We can go straight there,” she said. “It’s late enough that the others are probably already out.”
Luke noted that the activity of passersby on the street had indeed lessened from what it had been in the early afternoon. Fewer people walked by carrying tools or boxes, and more were strolling at a more leisurely pace in small groups. It seemed that Crater did go by a fairly regimented working schedule. Further evidence that the bones of a society were still present, even if most advancements and technology had been lost in the wake of the arrival of the Empty.
If he had been dropped in Crater straight away when he came to this world, he might not even have been so desperate to go back as soon as possible. As it was though, Luke couldn’t get the image of the ruined city out of his mind, let alone the terror that the Empty and the Bleeder had inflicted on him. The settlement was no more than a temporary from the horrors present in this world.
The house that Naomi brought him to was fairly unremarkable among the others he had seen. It sat by the end of a residential street, a suburban abode with little to differentiate it from the others nearby. At least, the ones that were still intact. Luke noted that there was a higher number of collapsed or simply absent houses on the street than many of the others he had passed that day.
Naomi opened the door without knocking or ringing the doorbell and walked inside. After a moment of hesitation, Luke followed. A nervousness of quite a different kind than anything else he’d felt recently gripped him as he entered. Voices were audible from within from off to the right. Following the noise, he found a living room off the entryway already occupied with people. Naomi had gone straight for a seat on a couch in the center of the room, leaping over an old wooden coffee table to worm between a pair of twins, their relation obvious from a casual glance at the two of them. The boy and girl greeted her with simultaneous looks of familiar exasperation. Both had the same brown hair and emerald eyes, although the girl’s were surrounded by dark circles and a sickly cast made her skin paler than that of her brother. Her apparent illness didn’t stop her from objecting to Naomi’s appearance with a vehement energy.
“Just once, it would be great if you could go ten seconds without invading someone’s personal space after showing up, Naomi.”
“No point in wishing for what’ll never be, Liss,” Naomi said cheerfully. “Gotta get a seat before they’re all gone.”
“You’re always the last one here! Who’s going to take it from you?”
“Not today, I’m not. Stop being rude and say hi to Luke, Felicity.”
Luke stood awkwardly by the doorway as a chorus of greetings met him. Other than the trio on the couch, Abby sat on a padded chair with faded flower patterns nearby with a thick mug that she raised in his direction.
The girl who’d been speaking to Naomi glanced at him and gave a quick wave before turning back to her original conversation.
“I’m just saying that it wouldn’t kill you to be a little more—”
“Give it up, Liss,” the boy sitting on the other side said. His voice was quieter than that of his sister, though he was large enough that Naomi looked squished in sitting next to him. “You know she’s not going to change. And she’s right, you are being rude.”
The girl rolled her eyes and looked back to Luke. “Welcome to our humble abode. Let us know how we might serve you, stranger.” Sarcasm dripped from her words, and her brother frowned disapprovingly.
“Come on, Liss, it’s too early in the night for you to start being a bitch,” another boy called out from the corner of the room. Luke had missed him entirely on his initial sweep of the space. A few candles were the only light, and the new person was mostly concealed by darkness.
The girl on the couch—Felicity—turned around angrily, but Abby cut in before she could speak. “It’s too early for any of this bullshit. At least tell him your names before you get into it.” She turned to Luke. “Sorry about that. They’re fine once you get to know them. They just…don’t meet a lot of new people. That’s Felix and Felicity.” The twins on the couch waved, the girl with a contrite expression on her face. “Naomi you know, and the broody little shit back there is Anthony. There. You all can keep on making an ass of yourselves now, don’t let me stop you.”
There was silence for a moment, everyone looking suitably chastised. Luke took advantage of the opening to speak.
“Uh, good to meet all of you. Is there a chair I can use, or…?”
“Yeah, one second,” Anthony said. He hopped off the cabinet and walked through a door in the back. Luke looked around the room he stood in. There was an old square bunny-eared TV by one wall, dusty and unused. In fact, the whole room was fairly dirty except for a pair of tables by the back wall where there were a number of bottles and metal containers of different shapes and sizes.
“Drinks,” Abby said, seeing his gaze. “Take anything you want. Left table is beer, mead, and wine, right side is anything harder. None of it’s labeled, but there’s gin, brandy,” she peered at the mug she held. “Moonshine, apparently. Unless you can tell what it is by looking, it’s luck of the draw, really. Just grab a cup to pour it into, don’t drink straight from the glass.”
Luke blinked. She was sipping from her mug like she was drinking tea. If there was moonshine in there, her expression didn’t give any kind of indication. He’d had alcohol before, but he’d never been a big drinker. He wasn’t even twenty-one, though that wasn’t exactly an issue here. Hopefully they wouldn’t expect him to start throwing back shots.
Anthony came back with a wooden chair, as dusty as everything else in the house seemed to be. He dropped it in an open spot in the room and gestured to Luke.
“Thanks,” Luke said as he took a seat.
“Don’t mention it,” he said as he returned to his spot in the corner.
“So how do you like Crater so far?” Felix asked after a moment of awkward silence. “It’s rare for someone to get in who hasn’t lived here for years. They’re pretty strict about keeping the population down.”
“Well, I haven’t seen too much yet,” Luke hedged. “I liked the clothes store though… The Closet?” He’d heard two names for the place, but went with the one that was actually on the building. The name prompted a gale of laughter from Naomi and Felicity. Felix chuckled as well, though Abby just rolled her eyes.
“Cael still hasn’t gotten that stupid spray paint down?” she asked Naomi.
“He hadn’t this afternoon,” Naomi said, still chuckling.
“You realize painting that sign was a good way to get Cael to hate you forever, right? What are you going to do if you need new clothes?”
“Please,” Naomi said scornfully. “I’ll go to the weavers like everyone else. People only go to ‘Schellings’”—she spoke the word with a heavy tone of sarcastic emphasis—“because they like the old world theme. No one under the age of forty gives a shit.”
Her words bothered Luke a little, but she didn’t seem to be directing them at him at all. Oblivious to the carelessness of her statement, Naomi turned around to crawl over the couch for a drink.
“Anything else you like about Crater so far, Luke?” Abby asked.
“LIke I said, I haven’t been around much yet. It’s better than anything I saw outside, I can say that for sure.”
“Oh yeah,” Naomi, who was leaning way over the back of the couch to reach the table without standing up, turned her head. “Sarah told me I wasn’t supposed to ask about anything that happened to you, but I’m off the clock now so spill it. How the hell did you end up with a gallon of blood all over you?
“Naomi!” Abby barked, more forcefully than anything she’d said so far. “It’s his business, you don’t—”
“No, it’s ok,” Luke said. His experiences were terrifying, but they seemed far away at that moment. “I don’t mind. It was a Bleeder, Carver and I ran into one about a day outside of Crater.”
“Holy shit,” Felicity said. “Those things are dangerous. You’re not an unmaker, are you?”
Luke frowned, but Naomi interrupted before he could answer. “Wait, you came here with Carver?”
“Oh, here we fucking go,” Anthony muttered from the back.
“How did you meet him? How long were you with him? Did he do anything cool?” Her eyes were practically sparkling.
“Uh, I met him when I first got here, just a couple days, and I guess so?” Luke said, unbalanced by her sudden enthusiasm. “He killed a few Empty up close when he helped me out of the city. And I probably would have died if he didn’t stop the Bleeder. He used a giant knife on it.”
“Wow,” Naomi said. “Did he—”
“Ok, I’m gonna go ahead and nip this in the bud,” Felicity interrupted. “Otherwise she’ll have you describing how his abs glisten by the end of the night. The man has to be three times your age, Naomi.”
The other girl scowled. “It’s not a sex thing, don’t make it weird.” She paused “Although I wouldn’t say no if it came down to it. But he’s been saving people and killing shit as long as we’ve been alive. How is that not cool?”
“Because he doesn’t contribute anything,” Abby interrupted. He’s a roamer, he just runs around doing whatever he wants and them comes and takes our supplies when he runs low. His kids have done ten times as much as he ever did to help build society.”
“And they wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for him!” Naomi shot back, heated. It sounded like an old argument to Luke, one that he had no desire to cut into. Instead, he went to the drink table in the back. He grabbed a bottle from the left and poured it into an empty mug nearby, sipping as he returned to his seat. To his relief, it was some kind of mead, sweet and not very strong.
“What’s an unmaker?” he asked Felicity once he was back in his seat. “You asked me if I am one. I don’t think so, but I’ve never heard of it before.”
“Oh,” Felicity said. She exchanged a glance with her brother. “It’s…I don’t know how to explain it. It’s someone who can make things disappear.”
“Unmake something into nothing,” Felix added, his voice a low rumble. “It’s a skill some people have. Felicity and I can both do it. The way we’ve been told is that it’s an effect of nihil entering this world. We were touched by it, or got too close to an Empty or something. No one really knows why it happens, but if we focus just the right way, we can erase matter from existence.
Luke sat there, stunned. Felix was casually describing the ability to violate one of the fundamental laws of nature. He couldn’t begin to comprehend how something like that would be possible, let alone how it was done by the power of someone’s mind.
“That’s incredible,” he said. “Nothing like that is possible where I’m from.”
Felix shrugged. “We use it less than you’d think. Usually if you want to make something disappear it’s better to take it apart and use the materials for something else. Plus…” He held up his arm to show the inside, where dark patchy blotches of skin stuck out like ridges. They looked like keloid scars, but much wider and irregular than any wound Luke could think of. “There’s always a cost.”
Before Luke could think of something to respond, Naomi yelled from her spot on the couch.
“It’s my decision, Abby! Why can’t you just support me?”
“I know it’s your decision,” Abby said calmly. “I just want you to acknowledge that it affects people other than yourself. And that it’s a little selfish to turn your back on the society that invested so much to help raise you.”
“I wouldn’t be turning my back on it,” Naomi said, sulking. “Roamers can do missions that no one else can. Look at how Carver brought Luke here.”
“But they aren’t truly aligned with Crater’s goals. Their loyalty is ultimately to no one but themselves. To take your example, think of the history between Carver and the elves.”
“Crater isn’t the absolute arbiter of the direction society should take,” Felix said, jumping in to the conversation. “The Committee still can’t admit how drastically the world has changed. As long as they keep trying to recreate what was instead of acknowledging what’s in front of them, there are going to be dissidents who won’t stick to their rules.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Abby said, “but Crater is the best chance humanity has to be more than a shadow of what it once was. Whether that means restoring the civilization that existed before the Empty arrived or creating something entirely new, we have to trust that all the intelligence and knowledge concentrated here will find the best path to take.”
Felix started to respond, but Felicity interrupted with a groan. “I swear to God, if you start droning about politics again I will kill everyone in this room and then myself. Why do I hang out with such a bunch of nerds?”
“Aren’t you the one who paid for a scavenged chemistry textbook to read for fun?”
“Shut up, Tony,” she said. “There’s a difference between being educated and a nerd, which I’m not surprised I have to explain to you because you’re ignorant.”
“I’m not a nerd,” Naomi said indignantly.
“No, but that’s about the best thing I can say about you. You are the worst in every single other facet of your existence. But no, you’re not a nerd.”
“Good.” Naomi nodded. “Long as we’ve got that straight.”
“Sorry, I’m still trying to catch up,” Luke said. He’d been unable to get a word in edgewise during the conversation. “Did you say elves?”
“Man, you’re never gonna make it here if your reaction time’s that slow,” Anthony said from the corner.
“Sorry, I’m not as fast as you guys at talking out of my ass.” Luke stiffened at his automatic response, but there were a few chuckles and no one seemed offended so he relaxed. He usually didn’t say things like that. The mead must have hit him harder than he thought.
“Elves are sapient creatures. They almost look like skinny humans, but they have pointed ears, and they’re pretty aloof,” Abby said.
“Right I know that, I saw Lord of the Rings,” Luke said impatiently. “But are you saying that they’re real?”
Silence filled the room for a moment.
“Yes, there’s a colony of them out to the east,” Abby said finally. “You’ve heard of them before?”
“What’s Lord of the Rings?” Naomi asked. Luke ignored her.
“Of course I have! You’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of them. Elves and dwarves and dragons and all that. But they’re just in fiction. They don’t actually exist.”
“That is…extremely interesting,” Abby murmured. “Well, I’ve never read about them. Although to be fair, we have a limited supply of books here. But they do exist here, and actually dwarves do as well.”
“How did they get here? Were they always in this world?” Luke’s head felt like it was spinning.
“No, they weren’t. I don’t know how long ago it was exactly, but they came from a different world. Elves, dwarves, and orcs all together, and they established a settlement east of here. We have…strained relations with them.”
Luke’s eyebrows rose at the mention of orcs, but he supposed it wasn’t too much of a stretch if he accepted the rest of it. The idea as a whole, though…he thought he’d had a handle on what this world was. One conversation was all it took to shatter that belief beyond repair. Creatures from out of a fantasy novel, powers that could break the laws of physics…Luke wondered what other impossible things there were here.
“That’s really weird that someone made up the exact same thing in your world,” Felix said. “I’ve heard of dragons before, but like Abby said not any other of the other stuff. Have you ever read about chromutes? Or cryptsils?”
Luke shook his head. Felix frowned thoughtfully, but Anthony spoke up. “Wait, your world? What are you talking about?”
Felicity gave him a scornful look. “Why do you think they let him in? Try to keep up, Tony.”
The young man’s face flushed a dark red. He looked furious. “I can’t stare at a pile of dirt for half an hour and call it a day. Some of us were born unimportant enough to actually need to work to do our jobs. Turns out you have a lot less time for gossip when that’s the case.”
“Oh yeah, because—” Felicity started hotly, but Abby spoke over her.
“All of us have problems, Tony. It’s fine, I doubt a dozen people know why Luke’s here yet. I only do because Adriana told me. Luke, are you ok with letting everyone know?” She shot a warning look at Felicity, who scowled but stayed quiet.
“Sure,” Luke said. “Sorry, I just assumed everyone knew where I’m from already. They brought me here from another world.” He hesitated. “Sarah said I was a Tether or something? I don’t really know what that means.”
Anthony’s eyes widened, but it was Felix who answered. “It means that you’re the glue that keeps this universe intact.” Luke’s heart sped up again, but Felix shook his head. “I’d say try not to worry about it. You don’t actually have to do anything, you’re already doing it just by being here. And…it means a lot of people would die before they let any harm come to you.”
Luke shifted uncomfortably in the quiet that overtook the room.
“Jesus, Fel,” Felicity said. “You really know how to kill the mood.” Her brother shrugged unapologetically.
“I figured he should know.”
“But how do you know it works?” Luke interjected. “How did you even know that there was another world, or that me coming here actually does anything?”
Everyone in the room seemed to share a significant glance. It would have almost been almost comical if the topic hadn’t been so serious.
“We don’t know,” Felicity said finally. “The Committee—the people who run Crater—won’t even tell Fel and I, and we can usually find out anything if we bother them enough. Everyone in town knows about nihil and the universes and so on, but Committee’s lips are sealed if anyone asks how they found out in the first place.”
“There’s a whole lot of stuff they keep to themselves,” Anthony added. Luke detected a slight slur in his voice. “You wouldn’t believe the shit I wouldn’t know if I didn’t hang around these assholes.”
“It’s always nice to hear how much you value our friendship, Tony,” Felicity said drily.
“Shut up. You’re all alright. I wouldn’t bring over my dad’s bottles if you weren’t.” He waved his mug around in the air, sloshing some on the floor.
“Aww, Tony, you get so sentimental when you’re drunk,” Naomi said. “Which it turns out is absolutely intolerable while I’m this sober. Someone bring me another drink!”
Luke felt more confused than ever, but he let the thread of conversation go. He actually liked the people here, and that seemed more important than pressing them for every scrap of information he could gather. None of them, including him, were going anywhere anytime soon. There would be plenty of opportunities to ask more questions.
As the night wore on, they got steadily drunker and louder by degrees. Luke tried to stick to the left table for his drinks, but was eventually convinced by an insistent Naomi to try something harder. Shortly after, the night became a blur of laughter and bickering. Anthony, it turned out, had hidden a stash of food in the kitchen cabinets, a fact he revealed to general acclaim by the rest of the group. It was a similar collection of fresh fruits and vegetables to the meal Luke had had earlier in the day. He had a moment of disappointment that there was nowhere they could go to get something greasier, but he didn’t voice his thoughts and the moment soon passed.
Later, there would only be a few moments late in the night that remained clear in his memory. One that stuck out came when Felix went to the table to refill his mug and dropped a glass bottle on the tile floor, shattering it. Instantly, everyone else quieted and looked over. Luke was about to shout at him for wasting the drink, but caught the mood of the rest of the room and stayed silent.
“Will your dad notice, Tony?” Felix asked, sounding guilty.
Anthony swayed where he stood, thinking. “Ah, probably, but it’s fine. The Salesman will still take shards, right?” Felix nodded. “Just leave it there and someone can bring a broom tomorrow.”
The interaction puzzled Luke, but by the time he was able to frame a question, everyone else had moved on. Naomi stood on top of the coffee table, wobbling dangerously, and started reading a limerick of her own composition. Felicity splashed water on her from a flask she’d brought. The other girl jumped down and stuck a leg out, sending her tumbling to the floor.
Much later, Anthony pulled out blankets from the kitchen and passed them around the room. He laid down on the tile and fell asleep almost immediately. Felix and Felicity were already passed out sitting on the couch, while Naomi was trying and failing to balance a ruler she’d found on the tip of her forehead.
Abby still sat in the same chair she’d been in when Luke arrived. She was gazing around the room, a small smile on her face. Luke started picking up the mugs and pieces of fruit scattered around, but the girl shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it. Someone has to come back tomorrow to get the bottles, so they’ll clean up anyway. We take turns, I think it might be Felicity.” Her voice was far more steady than anyone else’s, and Luke couldn’t recall how much he had seen her drink.
“Did you ever finish that moonshine?” She shook her head.
“Someone has to look out for them.” The fond smile was still on her face. “It helps if there’s someone who can shut down any particularly stupid ideas.”
“That seems smart.” There was a short pause, punctuated by Naomi cursing at the ruler and laying down among her own blankets. “Thanks for inviting me. I think I needed something like this.”
“I thought so too, when I saw you,” she said, her voice serious. “We don’t all get together like this often, but we try to make sure it happens every once in a while. I don’t think anyone would mind if you kept coming. Moving to a new place is hard enough, let alone what you’re going through.”
It took a few moments for her words to penetrate Luke’s intoxicated mind, but when they did it was all he could do to keep tears from his eyes.
“Thank you,” he whispered. Abby nodded slowly in reply.
He laid his head back on the chair, his eyes closing involuntarily. Sleep came without his noticing. He was alone when he woke the next morning, but a pillow had been put behind his head and a blanket over his body.