Waking up wasn’t as bad as his first morning in Crater, but it was far from a pleasant start to the day. Luke had started coming to terms with the idea that his stay in this world would not be a short one, but it was still a blow for his most promising lead to be shot down so quickly. He wasn’t about to give up on going home, but he had to admit that without the option of reversing the process that brought him here in the first place, the task had gotten much harder.
At least the dream hadn’t been entirely negative. He’d managed to make a good impression on Sandy, and weirdo or not it seemed smart to stay on her good side. From what she said, it sounded like she had a way of seeing what happened in the real world, even if she couldn’t interact with it. Luke shivered as he wondered if she was watching him in his room. Maybe someone in town would know more about her capabilities. Carver certainly would, though he doubted that the old man was still hanging around.
Getting up, Luke marveled at how energized he felt from the night’s rest. He couldn’t remember how he’d felt after the last time he had a dream with Sandy, so it was impossible to say whether it was from her influence or just the natural effect of a night without nightmares. Either way, he wasted no time in throwing on a set of clothes and escaping his claustrophobic cabin.
Outside, the sun had already risen and residents were filtering into the streets to start the day’s business, but Luke noticed there were far fewer of them than he usually saw. He was a late riser by Crater’s standards, and normally by the time he left the cabin everyone else had already started their work. Now only a few stragglers were visible, though none of them seemed alarmed or were doing anything out of the ordinary.
Luke frowned, but he didn’t feel prepared to walk up to a stranger to ask what was going on and Naomi wasn’t around. She had told him in no uncertain terms once he’d established his sleeping habits that she would not be waiting outside his door every day. The options she gave Luke were either allowing her to wake him up each morning or finding her himself once he was ready. Luke had hastily picked the second choice. Apart from the fact that he still had trouble getting enough sleep, he was wary of giving his friend enough leeway to pick how to wake him. He thought it unlikely she would be content to gently shake him into consciousness each day. So he started each morning with a walk to the old hotel where she had a room, but today someone laid a hand on his shoulder to stop him before he was even halfway there.
Luke turned around to see Angela, the security woman who had brought him in the first night he came to Crater.
“There you are,” she said. “Come on, change of plans for today.”
“Why? Did something happen to Naomi?”
“Nah,” Angela said, glancing around. “Well not today anyway. I’m confident that girl got dropped on her head as a kid or something, but there’s nothing specifically the matter. No, Sarah wanted to have you see something. Come on.”
“Do you know where everyone is?” Luke asked as she led him down the street. “It’s so empty.”
“Yeah, word got around quick, didn’t it?” Angela said. “It’s a Sales Day, follow me and I’ll show you.”
Before Luke could ask her to elaborate, she turned away toward a side street away from the hotel. He hurried to follow, curious about her vague statement. They took the alley to cut across to another street, one of the main thoroughfares of Crater. Luke was starting to get a decent grasp on the settlement’s layout, small town that it was. If they followed the road they were on, either direction would take them to the two main exits out of Crater, one towards the dam and the other out into the wilderness away from the canyon. The realization was enough to give him pause.
“Wait. Are we leaving town?” Luke had grown comfortable within the settlement, if not entirely happy, but even the thought of leaving the safety of Crater was enough to cause him some anxiety.
But the woman shook her head. “Well, technically, I guess, but we’re not going any further than the dam. He always shows up pretty close.”
Luke sighed in relief. The dam was close enough that he wasn’t worried about going out there. Then he frowned at what she said. “Who’s pretty close?”
Angela said something in response, but Luke didn’t hear her as they turned a corner and he saw where everyone had gone. They lined the sidewalk all the way down the street, crowded in close. Normally the center of the road would be filled as well, but at the moment it was taken up by a pickup truck rolling through the town.
In retrospect, Luke felt he shouldn’t have been so surprised to see a functioning vehicle for special occasions. Carver had used a quad to get him out of the city, and he was fairly certain someone had actually mentioned using trucks to him before. Still, it was a shock to hear the roar of the engine and watch it move under its own power. The sight alone was oddly nostalgic, for all that it had been less than a month since he had been in a world where cars and trucks were commonplace.
Curious about the cause of the gathering, he sped up his pace toward the crowd. Angela followed without comment. Getting closer, Luke saw that many of the people on the sidewalks held something that they placed in the truck as it passed, different items of all shapes and sizes. Some threw in clothing or blankets, others utensils or books. A few ambitious individuals teamed up to heave a mattress into the pickup, turning it to the side to avoid crushing anything. The most common contributions, he noted, seemed to be anything made of glass. Bottles, snow globes, mirrors, window panes…inevitably, a few items broke when they were placed inside, but no one became too upset when it happened.
Once goods were piled higher than the truck’s walls, the driver honked the horn and waved his arm out the window. Everyone backed up to allow him to pass. Luke saw a few disappointed faces by people still holding on to things they had been unable to pass off. The driver sped up a little—careful to avoid potholes that might disturb the pile in the back—and headed down the street toward the dam.
“What was that about?”
“Offerings,” Angela said. “Technically they should have already handed all of that stuff over, but no one misses a chance to show everyone exactly what they’re giving up for Crater. There’s three or four trucks that’ll probably be going back and forth all day. It’s a huge waste of gas, but I doubt we’d get half the value we do if residents didn’t get the chance to show it off. It got so disruptive that the Committee started calling it a holiday for nonessential workers.”
“Offerings for what?” Luke asked. He didn’t have the faintest idea what the wide variety of goods could possibly all be going towards.
“Trade with the Salesman,” Angela said as if it were obvious. “Come on, let’s go.”
They followed the trail of the truck towards the dam. Many of the people who had already loaded up their goods were filtering out of the crowd, though a good number still waited with their offerings in hand. They passed through the checkpoint that marked the edge of the settlement with no more than a nod from the security team on duty. As they approached the dam, Luke saw that a small team was already unloading the pickup, placing everything on the ground as fast as possible without any kind of sorting or examination. There was already a pile of similar clutter much larger than what could fit on a single truck nearby as well.
Standing a little further near the entrance to the dam interior that Carver and Luke had used what felt like an eternity ago was a semicircle of people facing away from him and Angela. The security woman marched him right up to this group, most of whom glanced toward Luke before turning back to the lone figure that faced them. The boy recognized enough people in the assortment to identify them as the Committee, the council that governed Crater as a whole. Sarah was at the forefront, offering him a small smile before turning back. Luke didn’t know most of the others, though Anthony’s father, Thomas Aguero, had been pointed out to him before. He oversaw construction and development of Crater, as well as producing a good portion of the settlement’s alcohol as a side project. Every member of the Committee was in charge of running one aspect or another of the settlement.
They all stood a fair distance away from the figure they had come to see, as if afraid to get too close. Upon his first look at the man—or whatever he was—Luke had little trouble figuring out why. The Salesman, for there was no one else he could be, looked human at first glance, but the longer Luke stared, the more incongruities in his form began to stand out. His proportions were a little too long, his frame a little too gaunt to be that of a natural human. Nevertheless, he wore a spotless navy suit that fit his abnormal physique perfectly. Gloves covered his hands, so that the only place his gray, pallid skin was visible was in his face. He towered over everyone around him, well over six feet tall. Despite his aberrant appearance, however, his smile lived up to his name. A wide, delighted grin that should have been scary crossed his face, but the expression was so natural and unfeigned that Luke’s discomfort was eased instead.
“And you must be Luke,” he said, though he didn’t extend his hand. His voice was unnaturally deep for someone so thin.
“That’s right,” the boy agreed. “I’m just here to watch, I think.”
Sarah cut in. “Right. Our newest resident has been spending his time getting familiar with the peculiarities of our community. Of course, we couldn’t call his orientation complete without an introduction to one of our most treasured contacts.”
The Salesman laughed, a deep, rich sound. Luke wondered where he got the lung capacity for it. It certainly didn’t look like he had room in his chest.
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Sarah,” he said, sounding amused. “But to resume our discussion…”
What followed was the most fast-paced and bewildering negotiation Luke had ever experienced. Both Sarah, the primary speaker for Crater, and the Salesman barked out types and quantities of goods so quickly Luke had difficulty telling who was offering and who was taking. The only clue he had for how well it was going came from an occasional nod or grimace from the other Committee members, whose entire focus was on the exchange. The Salesman’s face never so much as twitched during the discussion.
Luke did pick up a few pieces of information just by the types of goods that were being traded. As he’d gathered from several sources, it seemed the Salesman’s wares included items that should have been impossible to acquire in a world without factories or refineries. Various fuels such as diesel, propane, and gasoline were mentioned frequently, along with bullets of different calibers. Glass also came up often, presumably as something that Crater had to offer. Beyond the items he’d already guessed would be involved in the trade, they moved on to discuss a huge array of goods from cloth to metal to rubber. The negotiation went on at length, until Luke grew bored listening and instead stared out at the lake trapped in the canyon behind the dam.
He only snapped out of his reverie when he realized that both negotiators had fallen silent. The Salesman seemed to be musing while Sarah looked at him with her arms crossed.
“Done, I suppose,” the Salesman said finally. “You drive a hard bargain as always, Sarah. I can respect that.” He held out his hand and the two touched hands in the odd gesture that Luke still hadn’t fully grown accustomed to. Sarah had a wry look on her face as she did it.
“We do what we must to survive. They will likely be dropping off materials for the rest of the day, but I presume anything common may go at the standard rates?” She tilted her head towards him and the Salesman nodded in response. “Good. The drivers will let me know if there’s anything particularly valuable, so if I’m not here when you come back it’s all routine.”
“Lovely. I do have one more request, however. May I have a few minutes of time with young Luke, here?”
An instinctive spasm of discomfort shot through Luke at the idea of getting closer to the Salesman’s disturbing form, but neither Sarah nor the rest of the Committee appeared to be alarmed by the idea.
“I don’t see why not, as long as he agrees,” Sarah said. “One moment, please.” She turned to Luke and steered him a few steps away from the circle, speaking in a low tone. “I will not force you to participate, but I will promise that despite his atypical appearance, he means you no harm. He has made similar requests in the past. I rather think he likes the conversation.”
“What is he?” Luke asked. He looked over at the odd being’s humanlike form, technically correct in the broad strokes but disconcerting in the details.
Sarah shrugged. “I don’t know. What I do know is that we have been dealing with him for nearly a decade without a hint of malice or deception on his part. That’s a higher recommendation than I could give most humans.” She hesitated, but continued on after a moment. “Doing this could also help Crater a great deal. Any scrap of goodwill he has for us can translate into goods that are sorely needed in one way or another.”
So she wouldn’t force him, but she wasn’t above guilting him. Luke sighed, but there was only one choice, really. “All right, fine.” He likely would have acquiesced anyway—a potentially extra dimensional being might be able to help him—but Sarah’s blatant manipulation did little to diminish the ember of resentment that had been burning since the first night he met her.
He returned to stand in front of the tall being. “Ok. What did you want to talk about?”
“Wonderful! Walk with me, if you would.” The Salesman turned towards the twin furrows in the dam. He took long strides with each step, but moved at a slow pace to allow Luke to keep up without jogging. He also kept a respectful distance from Luke, allowing him a generous bubble of personal space. Luke guessed that he deliberately acted as non-threatening as possible to offset his unsettling appearance. “I must confess, I have never had the opportunity to speak to a Tether before. I’m quite curious.”
“Wait, are you saying there’s other Tethers out there?” Luke asked. He had assumed he was the only one, though now that he thought about it he wasn’t sure why that would be the case. It wasn’t impossible that there were other ways to cross over than the method Sandy had used with him. In fact there would have to be if he had any hope of going back himself..
The Salesman chuckled. “Certainly. Though I admit I have no particular knowledge of their numbers or whereabouts. I have far too much on my plate to keep track of those kinds of details.”
Luke nodded, unsure how to respond. The man or creature was friendly enough, but the instinctive revulsion Luke felt was even more pronounced up close. Looking at the Salesman too long made him queasy for no reason he could articulate. It made it a little difficult to focus on what he was saying. Luke fixed his gaze on his tie rather than any specific feature in an attempt to combat the issue.
The tall being stopped a few feet in front of the cut in the dam. Luke noted idly that there was no waterfall; the lake level had fallen below that of the gap.
“I was wondering if you knew the method by which you entered this world,” the Salesman said, looking out on the dam across the furrow. “Dimensional crossings are something of an interest of mine, and I confess I am at a loss to explain how yours was accomplished.”
“Is that because you’re from another dimension too?” Luke asked. It seemed rather obvious, given his appearance and access to goods that should no longer exist, but it was as good a starting place as any. If the items he brought came from Luke’s world, maybe it was possible he could take him back. His heart sped up.
“Ah, I’m afraid I’ve neglected to explain myself to you. I do have one ironclad rule for anyone I engage in business with. I don’t deal in information. I will not trade or bargain for knowledge of myself, my wares, my other contacts, or any conditions or hazards I may have encountered on the road. I regret that it’s the only way I’ve found to be successful over the long term.” He did sound sincerely contrite, but Luke frowned at his words.
“I’m not sure I should tell you anything either, then. It sounds like I’d be giving you something for nothing.” He worried that his words would offend the extradimensional being—which he was now near-certain was what the Salesman was—but he seemed unperturbed, still gazing out across the dam.
“I suppose that’s quite fair. It would hardly do to hold others to standards I do not adhere to myself. In fact, I do believe you’ve exposed me as a bit of a hypocrite, even if my question’s only purpose was to assuage my curiosity. That is not how I prefer to do business. Please allow me to retract the inquiry with my apologies.”
“Uh, that’s ok. Don’t worry about it.” Luke was a bit taken aback by his absolute inflexibility about trading information. He’d expected the Salesman to try to negotiate at least a little for what Luke knew, but it seemed he was completely unwilling to share even the most basic facts about himself. It didn’t bode well for his plan to ask him about returning home.
The Salesman laughed, apropos of nothing. “It seems that my stance on the trade of information does make small talk rather difficult, doesn’t it? Ordinarily the only knowledge I seek is whether an individual has any needs that are not being met in order to offer my services. As it appears speaking of other matters would be unproductive, is there any way I can help you in that regard?”
“I don’t think so, unless you have a way to let me trade places with someone back home,” Luke said ruefully. He had no doubt it wouldn’t be that easy, and indeed the Salesman shook his head.
“Such a feat is well beyond my capabilities,” he admitted. “Even if I were able to do so, I suspect that you would be unable to pay the price. There may be methods to do what you seek, but,” he shrugged. “I can’t help you.”
Luke nodded. It was hard to feel too disappointed; he’d only just come up with the idea after all. If anything, the fact that the Salesman suggested it might be possible was encouraging. Whatever he said, Luke was sure he knew far more about the subject than anyone else in Crater.
After a few more pleasantries, the Salesman indicated that they should return to the Committee. Once back with the group, he clapped his hands together. “Well, I believe that concludes the business before us today. With your acquiescence, I will take what’s already been gathered here.” He gestured towards the ever-growing pile dropped off by the trucks. “I shall return tonight for the rest. The shipment will be delivered as usual.”
“Very well,” Sarah said. “It has been a pleasure as always, Sales. Safe travels.” After short farewells from several other Committee members, the Salesman strode over to the pile of what—to Luke—looked more or less like junk. The tall figure bent down over the nearest item, a glass bottle, and…
The bottle was gone. He didn’t pick it up, and unless he was using some kind of sleight of hand he didn’t stow it in a pocket or pack. No one else seemed to notice; the Committee members were talking amongst themselves, and none of the trucks had returned yet to drop off their haul.
“Um,” Luke said. “How did he—” Several of the Committee members glared at him, and Sarah held up a finger to forestall him.
“Please refrain from any questions until he departs.”
Right. Stymied, Luke returned his attention to the Salesman, determined to see what he was doing to the objects. But no matter how closely he looked, his efforts were in vain. The tall being would no sooner touch whatever item he was interested in than it would disappear, prompting him to move on to the next. He did this with everything—glass, clothes, an old dog collar—but it was when he vanished the mattress that Luke became truly astonished. There was certainly no way he was stuffing that in his back pocket. Eventually, the boy had to concede that all the Salesman was doing was touching the items he’d bought. Perhaps it was similar to the ability Felix and Felicity had described, though he doubted that the being would bargain for everything here only to erase it from existence. It was one thing to discuss something like that with Felix, another to see it with his own eyes.
After the first few minutes, the members of the Committee started drifting away one by one. Luke was too fascinated by the process he was observing to follow suit. Angela stayed back, but otherwise only Sarah remained with him on the dam. Finally, after nearly an hour of making objects vanish, the pile was reduced to nothing. The Salesman looked up and gave them one final wave, before he disappeared as well. There was no fanfare, no light or noise or apparent action on his part; one moment he was there, and gone the next.
“What the fuck,” Luke muttered under his breath. He must have have spoken louder than he thought because Angela nodded her head in agreement.
“I’ve seen it before, but it doesn’t make it any less weird.”
“Indeed,” Sarah agreed. “The Salesman has been perhaps the most vital resource available to Crater for years now, but that fact has done little to make his powers or origin any less inscrutable.”
By unspoken agreement the trio started back towards the town. They didn’t get very far before a truck passed them, loaded up with more bartering goods to drop off at the dam. Apparently Sarah hadn’t exaggerated when she said that the process would be going on all day.
“What do you know about him?” Luke asked. “He told about his information rule, but have you managed to find out anything?”
“Very little,” Sarah said. “As you saw, he has the ability to remove objects from the environment and presumably store them elsewhere, as well as vanish himself. We’ve compared notes with other settlements that he has regular contact with, and he is capable of appearing there far faster than the time it would take to walk. There’s little evidence to show whether this is by teleportation or some other mechanism.”
It made little difference in the end to Luke’s mind. The Salesman had disappeared from the dam to go somewhere else. That was teleportation of one kind or another.
“Clearly, the most likely explanation is that he hails from another universe. We have no way to confirm this theory, but it seems a reasonable assumption. This is further supported by the types of goods that he is most eager to trade for. Most of them were fairly common in the old world, even if production is difficult now. In the past he placed a premium on the barter of any kind of ceramics, particularly processed clay and porcelain. More recently he has started requesting glass over all else, lowering the value he is willing to provide for clay pieces. Why he wants these specific products and why the requests change over time, we have no idea.
“As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, he has access to processed goods that are simply impossible to acquire anywhere else, such as fuel and bullets. It’s not an exaggeration to state that it would be impossible for Crater to support the population it does without the Salesman’s contributions. In addition, he offers a few materials that we suspect do not originate from Earth at all. The walls of your log cabin, for example, were bought from him. Everything he offers is available in near-infinite quantities, or at least enough that he has never expressed a shortage of anything we wish to trade for.”
They passed through the checkpoint at the entrance to Crater, Sarah nodding at the security team as she continued her lecture.
“There are limits to what he can acquire, however. Anything too technologically advanced or with too many moving parts is apparently beyond his ability to obtain. Batteries, for example. We’ve had to make do with the few rechargeable batteries we’ve scavenged that are still functional. I have also been curious for some time now as to how he is able to produce bullets of multiple calibers without access to any kind of guns, but as with everything else he remains close-lipped on the matter.”
Sarah shook her head. “I can say that over the over the years of interaction with him, I personally have never found him anything other than honest and forthright. Most of the community leaders had the same reaction upon seeing his appearance that you did, Luke, but I believe it says a great deal about the character he has displayed in his encounters with us that nearly all of them have overcome their initial dislike. Some in the Committee are quite prejudiced against anything or anyone that originates from another world.”
Luke wondered if that included himself. Even the idea made him angry, since the Committee had played a large part in bringing him over in the first place.
Sarah paused for a moment. “What else…to be honest, there is little more information we have about the Salesman. It does sound foolish now that I say it aloud that we know so little about someone so crucial to our settlement, but between his embargo on information and our own desire not to upset him, we have decided it to be prudent not to force the issue. It’s possible other settlements may know more, he does trade with any large enough group, but I am not even certain what avenues they would take to pursue such information. Perhaps I should have Sammy reach out…”
She seemed to be speaking more to herself by that point, but Angela chimed in. “He trades with individuals too. I know for sure Dad barters with him pretty regularly for stuff that he doesn’t get from here.”
Sarah looked over her, a trace of annoyance in her expression. Luke wasn’t sure whether it was from Angela interrupting her musings or the fact that she brought up Carver. Either way, she didn’t have much more to say on the subject. Luke felt bold after his conversation with the Salesman and asked about another subject he’d wanted to bring up for some time.
“What about other sources of information? Like how you found about out nihil and Tethers, could you learn more about the Salesman that way?” He tried to make his tone innocent, but Sarah gave him a piercing look.
“No, that’s…not possible. I can’t expand on the subject any more than that.”
Luke felt a flash of irritation. “Even though it has to do with me directly?”
“Even so. It isn’t just my decision. There’s a number of factors you aren’t aware of…I apologize that I can’t go into any more detail.”
He wanted to push more for her to tell him, but he could tell just by her expression that he wouldn’t get anywhere. After a few more minutes they reached Sarah’s office. There were residents lined up to the door, prompting her to sigh.
“Sales days are some of the most tedious. Everyone feels the need to report their neighbors’ contributions, or lack thereof, to my office personally. I’ll be listening to pointless arguments well into tomorrow, I expect. I suppose I’d better get to it. Luke, Angela.”
She strode into the building, ignoring the pleas of people in line about whatever issue they had. Luke saw through the open door that the maze of desks were used as impromptu barriers, herding the crowd into a back-and-forth line. Two other people were already seated and listening to the residents’ complaints, looking bored.
Once she was gone, Luke quickly said his goodbyes to Angela as well to wander the streets of Crater alone. Between the encounter with Sandy and his introduction to the Salesman, he had a lot to think about. Two potential routes for finding a way home, two dead ends. He didn’t doubt that there were other options he could explore, but unless Sarah had a change of heart and gave him the source of her knowledge—which seemed unlikely at best—he didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin.
His worst problem was a lack of information. Crater was a good place, a safe place, but Luke doubted that the majority of residents would know any more about the kinds of forces he needed to find than he did. They may have been in this world far longer than him, but most of them were perfectly content to stay at home and lead as close to an ordinary life as they could. Under most circumstances, Luke would have been more than happy to do the same, but ‘ordinary’ for him meant returning home to live out his life there. What he needed to know just wasn’t possible to learn in the settlement. Which left only one option, but just the idea of it made Luke break out in a cold sweat. He spent the rest of the day pacing the streets, blind to where he was walking, trying to think of any alternatives. Absent a way to force Sarah or the Committee to tell him where they got their information—which could lead to his expulsion from the settlement if he fucked it up—there was only one option.
He would have to leave Crater.