Before Luke could blink, a week had passed. There was no real routine, no set schedule for him to follow, and yet he grew a little more comfortable with his surroundings each day. There was a world of difference between living in Crater and out in the wilderness, almost as though he had been taken to yet another universe.
It was quickly apparent that their residents safety was a preeminent concern for Crater’s leaders, as was creating an environment that felt safe for them. Every entrance and exit from the township was closely monitored at all times, as much to keep non-residents from sneaking in as to take notice of the approach of someone dangerous. Anyone spotted by the security teams was intercepted well away from its borders—and the eyes of its citizens—just as Luke and Carver had been. The armed security also walked through the streets on regular patrols despite the minimal presence of any crime or wrongdoing. Any violation of the short list of Crater’s laws was met by immediate loss of residency, no matter how minor the infraction. A measure that might have been met with cries of tyranny in more peaceful times was now greeted with approval by the majority of citizens. The patrols were mostly unnecessary, but Luke suspected that they were meant more to reassure the populace than to serve any true lawkeeping function. He still found himself comforted by their presence every time he noticed them.
Naomi and his cabin were the only real constants in his life. The energetic girl stayed by his side in her capacity as tour guide, and while Luke appreciated her company, he felt guilty for forcing her to spend her days babysitting him. She never seemed to mind unless they spent too much time in one place, when she started getting antsy and itching to move on. Luke found it quite believable that she would gravitate toward a roamer’s life, out beyond the relative stability of Crater’s borders.
By contrast to Naomi’s welcome company, Luke grew to dread the times when he was alone in his cabin. The aura of security that permeated the rest of Crater seemed to find no purchase within those featureless gray walls. When he tried to sleep, all too often the dead eyes of the Empty kept him awake long past the time he laid down. A part of him was glad that alcohol was a rare luxury in Crater. If he’d had easy access to it, Luke had little doubt that he would drink himself to sleep every night. Instead, he spent as much time as possible with Naomi, thinking up places to ask her to take him long after the rest of the town had returned home. She was more than willing to accommodate him, displaying few signs of tiredness herself.
One welcome discovery came the day after Luke met the others, when he actually saw Crater’s kitchens. It was more of a cafeteria, really, but everyone referred to the communal eatery as the kitchens. With fuel as one of the scarcer resources within the settlement, it was more efficient to cook en masse, prompting the residents to eat most of their meals together in the public dining space. The quality of food there was much higher than the raw produce he’d had so far; he found that Crater’s cooks were skilled at making huge quantities of food for the whole settlement. From what Luke heard, the food was one of the main draws that kept people in Crater even when times became hard. A high priority was placed on ensuring that there were stores enough to provide for all.
But the most interesting landmark Luke was introduced to came at the end of the week when he was taken to the communications center. Located on the outskirts of town, it was a one-story brick building made half again as tall by a huge antenna affixed to its roof. Several smaller antennas dotted the roof as well, lending the structure a more modern look than many of the other buildings in town. The most surprising aspect, however, came once Naomi opened the door and led Luke inside. The distinct hum of a generator was audible from somewhere in the building. Luke looked at Naomi in surprise, but she shook her head and held a hand to her lips, softly walking forward.
“Son of a BITCH!” Loud cursing came from behind a door off to their right. Grinning widely, Naomi stepped forward more quickly and yanked it open.
“I’m back, Sammy! Miss me?” Inside a man was seated in a peeling leather chair, leaning in front of several large black boxes with different switches, knobs, and dials of all sizes. There were a few other objects as well, though Luke could only identify the microphone on a small stand next to the man. He couldn’t begin to guess the function of a mechanical lever with a black knob on the end, though the gadget was hooked up to one of the boxes. It was the most advanced technology Luke had seen since he’d been dropped in this world, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of what its function might be.
The man himself was balding, with a few scraggly hairs combed over the top of his head. He looked sweaty, and the scent Luke caught upon entering the room suggested that he didn’t get out to the bathing system very much. His skin was saggy around his arms and neck, as if he’d once been very fat before losing a great deal of weight. It wasn’t a healthy appearance .
“Naomi. Bad time. This piece of garbage won’t cooperate. I might have to go out to the repeater again, see if something happened to the solar panels.” He spoke without looking at them, turning dials and peering at a display on the black box.
“I’m just showing Luke here around town,” she said, patting him on the back. “Luke, this is Sammy, our radio operator. He’s the only man in Crater who can talk to other settlements without sending someone to talk face-to-face.”
“Good to meet you,” Luke said, holding out his hand. The unkempt fellow ignored him completely, focusing instead on the box in front of him. After a moment, Luke took back his hand.
“Luke’s new to Crater,” Naomi continued. “He’s been wanting to visit this place since I met him. Can’t get him to shut up about it.”
Sammy looked up for the first time, glancing at Luke through a pair of eyeglasses with a huge chip in one of the lenses. “You interested in radio? Do you have a rig somewhere? Or even a handheld? Hell, I could even use it if it’s CB, long as it’s functional.”
Luke hesitated. “Uh…no, sorry. I don’t have anything like that.”
Sammy turned back to the radio, apparently dismissing them completely. Naomi rolled her eyes and gave Luke a thumbs down.
“You talk to anyone lately, Sam?” she asked.
“It’s called a QSO,” he said irritably. “And I already gave a report to Sarah yesterday. You want to know, you can read it like everyone else.”
“You know that no one but you has called it that for twenty years, right?”
Sammy went right on fiddling with his equipment in a display of obstinance that would have made Carver proud. He didn’t so much as twitch an eye to suggest that he heard the girl speak.
“It’s ok, Naomi,” Luke said softly. “Maybe we should just go.” She waved him off with a gesture.
“Lack of equipment isn’t what’s going to kill radio, Sammy,” she said. “Someday we’re going to have the ability to make transceivers and microphones again. But we’ll have phones and computers too. We’ll be able to skip radio entirely, unless enough people remember it to want to bring it back. They won’t unless you make them take an interest in it.”
That garnered a real response from the operator, actually making him turn away from his equipment and fold his arms as he glared at Naomi.
“Radio will never die,” he said, sulking. But he kept talking. “Weather’s been good lately so I managed to round up the usual suspects. The man at Hobble’s a pissant, so we didn’t have much to say. The Ark boys are still ranting about the end times or second coming or whatever it is. They aren’t interested in a real conversation and I’m not interested in listening. The only other setup that I can reliably reach is Albrecht’s at Darkend, and no one over there has any interest in talking to someone from Crater unless we come to trade or they want to cuss us out. So no, no new contacts. I’ve been trying to reach out further, but then the damn repeater went and shit itself on me. Without it, I can only get about a fifty mile range at best, and only if the conditions are perfect.”
“What about further than that?” Naomi asked. “You’d better let me know if you ever make contact with Australia again.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Sammy said. “I’ve been on the HF bands, especially lately since the Committee’s been trying to cut my power allotment, but it’s dicey to make a contact that way. It’s the same problem with the weather and conditions, except extended over half the planet. And then if everything does work exactly right, someone still needs to be listening at the other end. I’d be surprised if I ever manage to make a QSO again on another continent.”
Naomi sighed and nodded.
“Is that it?” Sammy asked, slightly less brusque than before.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Naomi said. “Anyone ever tell you that radio’s real boring most of the time?”
The operator’s face darkened, but he just turned to Luke.
“If you ever get tired of dealing with her,” he said, shoving his thumb toward Naomi, “feel free to come back. I could use someone with an interest in the science, even if you don’t have the materials. Now both of you, kindly fuck off.” He turned back to his equipment and once again seemed to forget the existence of the two people behind him.
Naomi stifled a laugh and pointed toward the door. Once they were outside and safely out of earshot, Luke glared at her.
“Why would you tell him I was interested in what he did? I didn’t even know there was a functioning radio here.”
She did laugh now as they walked away from the communications building. “He wouldn’t have even talked to us if I hadn’t said that. Sammy’s not exactly a people person.
“You worked with him?”
“Sure. Where do you think that whole bit about the survival of radio came from? Sarah gave me a script to motivate him when he gets really pigheaded. It’d be impossible to get him to do anything other than fiddle with his rig otherwise. I used to have to convince him to talk to people, sleep, bathe…he got the message eventually so I had to baby him less, but I guess he got back into bad habits since I left. At least he has something to care about.”
“But why did you work at the radio station?” Luke asked. “It’s a lot of sitting and messing with electronics right? Sounds like something that would drive you insane.”
Naomi shrugged. “Yeah, like I told Sammy, it was pretty boring a lot of the time. There were a lot of days I didn’t show up. Still…when he did manage to make a contact, some of the stuff we heard was pretty incredible.” A wistful look appeared in her eyes; she seemed to be staring at something far off in the distance. “Most of the time the farthest we made contact was somewhere on the continent, but even then they would tell us about so much we had never heard of. Different races, new phenomena…some guy down south told us his settlement had seen some kind of creature that shaped itself from the wind. Can you imagine?”
“No, I can’t actually. How would you even see it if its made from the wind?”
She shot an exasperated look his way. “Well, the guy who we talked to spoke mostly Spanish so something probably got lost in translation. Someday I’ll go down there and see for myself. But there was one time that Sammy managed to talk with a woman in Australia. Across the ocean! It was unbelievable.”
Less so to someone who had grown up with cell phones and the internet, but Luke couldn’t bring himself to dampen her enthusiasm. There was an infectious passion in her voice, a sincere energy capable of sweeping up anyone who came into contact with it.
“What did she say?”
“So much,” Naomi said. Her eyes were glowing with excitement. “I have a notebook somewhere where I wrote everything down. But the one that sticks out the most was the Shell. She told me that one day a giant sphere just…appeared on the horizon. It was huge, like an enormous marble with swathes of color all the way through. It’s stayed in the same place ever since, hasn’t moved at all. But she said sometimes the colors shift and they can see two blue dots—like the eyes of something hidden inside.”
“That sounds…terrifying,” Luke said. “Remind me to never go to Australia.”
“What?” Naomi said, disbelieving. “I’d give anything to get there! I have to see it for myself.”
Luke shook his head. He’d be just as happy if he’d never heard of a giant maybe-monster floating over another continent, let alone catch sight of it. It wasn’t as if he lacked for nightmare fuel already. But Naomi was different. Hearing her talk about what she’d heard on the radio, it was easy to see why she would want to be a roamer. She had a completely different mindset from virtually everyone else Luke had met in Crater. Under normal circumstances only farmers, merchants, and the security teams that protected them ventured out on any regular basis, and none of them strayed from the paths that had been forged years ago for them to follow.
Risk aversion was a trait embedded in the cultural milieu of Crater, quite a sensible one to Luke’s mind. With threats unheard of in the old world lurking beyond their borders, it was smart to minimize any potential exposure to danger, even if that meant slowing progress toward the restoration of civilization. Naomi, however, rejected that line of thinking. She wanted to see everything, experience everything, no matter the risk to her own life. It seemed an incompatible mindset with the settlement she lived in. Luke wondered how long it would be before she ran off in the night if she couldn’t get the Committee’s—and Abby’s—blessing to be a roamer.
“Maybe someday after they build boats that can cross the ocean again,” Luke said. He changed the subject to another topic that bothered him. “Why does Sammy get a generator all to himself for communications?”
“It’s not actually just for him,” Naomi explained. “They use that same generator to recharge batteries and for medical stuff. Maybe other things too, I don’t know. But Sammy uses it the most often—and he’s not above exaggerating how much he needs—so they put it in the comm building. It’s one of the few things the Committee is willing to shell out gas to use.”
“Where do they get the gas? There’s no way they produce it, is there?”
“Nah, we get it from the Salesman. He should be coming around any day now, I’m sure they’ll want you to be there when they meet with him. Pretty much everyone’s seen him at least once.”
“Who is he? How does he have gas when it hasn’t been made in two decades?”
Naomi shrugged. “He won’t tell us. You’ll see when you meet him, he’s a weird guy.”
Luke, pressed her for more detail, but she insisted there was none to give. Eventually he gave up and they talked of more inconsequential things while they returned to the kitchens to eat. Afterwards, they took a trip to the old hotel where a large number of Crater’s residents lived, including Naomi herself. It had been fairly shoddy even when the business was functional, and the passing of years had done the building no favors. Luke could understand why most people thought it preferable to live in one of the log cabins, even if he personally associated the blank gray walls with the nightmares that haunted his sleep.
When the time inevitably came that it was too late to continue going anywhere with Naomi, Luke had no choice but to return to his lonely room. He was exhausted, but the idea of sleep still filled him with anxiety and dread. He lay in bed for a long time with his eyes open, and it was even longer before sleep took him.
The deserted road reached out into the night, as fresh and unbroken as the day it had been paved. There was no line of cars stretching out into the darkness, but the location was still immediately recognizable to Luke. It featured in his dreams almost every night, second only to the dead city that had been his introduction to this world. It was the freeway where he and Carver had faced the Bleeder, tidied and newly paved but still capable of inducing a shiver of dread down his spine.
The lucid sensation of the dream was familiar to Luke, so he managed not to jump when the voice sounded out from behind him.
“You really pick some boring places for your dreams, don’t you?”
He turned around to face the same girl who had been in his dreams the night before he came to Crater. Her clothes had changed from the hawaiian tourist apparel to a neatly pressed black suit. Similarly, her hair had gone from blonde to a fiery red, swept to one side and shaved on the other.
“Just since I came here, I think. They were always different before that.”
Luke tried to take the changes in stride. She had been annoyed by his questions before, so now he did his best to project an aura of confidence. He wasn’t even sure why he was trying to impress this woman, but it seemed like a smart policy to try to stay on the good side of supernatural dream entities.
She nodded and stuck her tongue out at him. “So did you ask everyone about me? What did they say?”
“Ah…” In the wake of the Bleeder and everything that came after it, Sandy had taken a back seat to learning how to live in Crater. Her hint that she may have had something to do with bringing him there had been overshadowed by Sarah’s outright declaration. Familiarizing himself with his surroundings had just been more of a priority than her. Which she would take as a huge insult if he were to tell her, Luke was sure. But he didn’t want to lie to her either.
“Carver told me I should listen to you, and that you’re the only reason he’s still alive.”
She opened her eyes wide and tilted her head. “Well, obviously. He’s hopeless. I don’t think he’d know to eat if I wasn’t there to watch over him.”
Luke sighed in relief that she accepted his answer. Sandy was a little like Naomi except worse, flighty and with a tendency to jump from topic to topic.
“I saw that fight with the Bleeder, you know. It looked like fun!”
“Fun?” Luke asked, disbelieving.
“Yeah! Carver smashed his head with that hatchet! It was awesome!” She was literally floating in excitement, hovering above the ground and climbing higher with every word. A cartoonishly wide grin split her face.
“If I was there I would have done this! And this!” She shadowboxed in the air, swinging her fist at a phantom opponent. “He wouldn’t have known what hit him!”
Luke was at a loss for how to respond. He didn’t want to argue with her, but ‘fun’ was one of the very last words he would use to describe the encounter. Then he frowned as something occurred to him.
“How did you see it if you weren’t there? How did you know about the hatchet?”
Sandy blinked at him like an owl, her face blank, but Luke sensed her disapproval. He was starting to grasp her emotions even with the bizarre expressions she often had.
“You’re raining on my patio. Why do you ask so many questions? That’s all you did last time and now you’re doing it again!”
“I think you mean parade, not patio,” Luke said automatically, then cringed when he realized what he said.
“AGH!” Sandy licked her lips ferociously. It was a little gross. “And now you’re correcting me! You’re just like Carver! ‘Sandy, that’s a simile, not a metaphor.’ ‘Sandy, you don’t understand human facial expressions.’ ‘Sandy, that’s not what “vulva” means.’ It never ends!”
“Why do you spend so much time around him if you don’t like him?” Luke asked. He wasn’t about to touch her last statement.
As quickly as she’d gotten worked up, the dream-girl calmed down. She floated back down to the pavement.
“Well I didn’t say that, did I? He’s annoying and grumpy, but if I catch him in a good mood, he tells the best stories ever!”
“Carver? Really?” Luke tried to imagine the taciturn man telling a story and drew a blank. A story that didn’t have to do with how the Empty overthrew society, at least.
“Yes!” Excitement entered her voice again. Her eyes rolled in her head. “He was telling me about a musician who went to the underworld to save his lost love! It was so romantic!”
“Are you talking about Orpheus?” Luke asked. “Did he tell you how that story ends?”
“No, do you know it? A herpornith tried to sneak up on Carver while he was sleeping, so he never got to finish. Does it end with him changing his name? Because it isn’t Orpheus, it’s Arkros.”
That made Luke pause. But the story she described was too specific to be about anyone other than the Greek hero. Sandy was more focused than he’d ever seen her. There seemed to be only one thing he could do. “No, he didn’t change his name. He went down into the realm of Hades, deep beneath the ground where light was only a memory…”
He related the story as best he could remember, embellishing what details he couldn’t recall. Luke didn’t think he was a particularly good storyteller, but he suspected from Sandy’s stillness while he talked that she was hanging on every word. When he reached the end and told her that Orpheus looked back to see if his wife was with him just a few steps from the exit of the Underworld, losing his only chance to be reunited with her, Sandy actually screamed and floated up a few feet in agitation.
“What an idiot! What was he thinking? All he had to do was look straight forward and he couldn’t even manage that! Why was she even with him in the first place? She’s probably better off down with Hades!”
Luke laughed, but Sandy went on ranting at the stupidity of Orpheus, flitting above the empty freeway like an anxious hummingbird. “Hey,” he said. “It’s okay, it’s just a story. It didn’t really happen.”
“That’s even worse! That means that someone made it up and decided that Orpheus was too dumb to follow a single rule.” But she stopped moving around in the air, hovering in one place instead. Out of nowhere, the suit she wore turned into a long red robe, pajama pants, and slippers. “Ok, I’m done being mad.”
She descended back to the ground, twirling around to let Luke see her entire outfit. “I think I like this better than the last one. What do you think?
Nonplussed, Luke nodded, scrambling for something to say. “Yep. Looks good.”
Sandy beamed at him. Smiling was the one expression she consistently used correctly, Luke noticed. The fact that she was so unknowledgeable about facial expressions, yet understood English and different tones of voice was intriguing. He wondered where she had come from, but remembered her reaction to his last question. Not to mention the fact that she had evaded it rather than offering any kind of real answer. It seemed he was destined to be kept in the dark no matter where he went.
“Luke, will you tell me another story?” she asked. “That one was really good up until the end! And Orpheus is a better name than Arkros anyway.”
“Ok…” Luke said slowly. “Sure. I have one. I’ll tell you about Jason and the Argonauts, who set sail to search for the Golden Fleece.”
Greek myths worked once, might as well stick with them. Luke was thankful now for the classics class he took in college. He had a fairly good memory of the story of Jason, though he panicked when he realized he had forgotten why the hero wanted the Fleece in the first place and told Sandy that he wanted to make his best sheep look good. She accepted the explanation without argument. There were also a few trials Luke was certain he forgot, so he threw in the Balrog from Lord of the Rings to make up for it. Sandy didn’t enjoy the Argonauts as much as the story of Orpheus, but she was much more satisfied with the happy ending as Luke stopped at Jason’s triumphant return with the Fleece.
“Wow,” Sandy said when he had finished. “Jason killed a lot more people than Orpheus did.”
“Yep,” Luke agreed. He had left out the fact that Orpheus was actually one of the Argonauts to forestall the inevitable complaining about the musician. “Most Greek heroes killed more people than Orpheus, really.”
“How many are there?” she demanded. “I want to hear about all of them!” She frowned and bared her teeth.
“A lot. How many has Carver told you about?”
“I don’t know,” Sandy said. “He just tells me stories, he doesn’t say where they come from. But they’re all good!”
“I’m sure they are,” Luke said. “I could tell you more too, if you want?”
“Yes! More stories!” Sandy shouted. Then she paused. “Later though. I have to leave soon.”
“Oh. Ok. Before you go, I know that you didn’t like it when I asked questions, but there’s one that I really need to know. Can you help me?
“Oh, fine,” she said. “Go ahead.”
“Last time you said you brought me with you,” Luke said, his heart pounding. “Did you mean that you brought me to this world from the place I’m from? How did you do it?”
“That’s two questions, but I’ll answer both because I’m that nice. First, yes I brought you with me from that other universe. Which is so cool, by the way! There were so many looks and people and hairstyles and clothes that I’d never seen before. I could have stayed there twice as long, even without having anyone to talk to.”
“And how you brought me back?” Luke prompted.
“There’s a LOT of people in that place, did you know that?” Sandy asked. Luke nodded impatiently. “I can pass between worlds with just a few dreams. Consciousness has power, you know? But taking someone else with me is hard. It took a lot more juice than I was expecting. I’d say it had to be more than a billion people, easy, that dreamed about this world just to give me the energy to bring someone over. That’s the last time I do Sarah any favors, believe me. Now I’m really out of time, but I’ll be back soon, I promise! Think of all the stories you know for next time!”
She disappeared, and the highway followed, swallowed by darkness piece by piece. Luke barely noticed. He was dumbstruck. Over a billion people dreaming of this place just to bring him? It was unfathomable. And more than that, there were implications to what she said. If it had taken so many people to move him between worlds…he doubted there were a billion people left alive on this entire planet.
He was well and truly trapped.
The last remaining section of the landscape turned black, and Luke fell into true sleep once more.