Luke had never used a pickaxe before in his life, so the rusted metal and rotting wood of the tool did not give him warning that the head might fly off of the tool. Caught off guard, he failed to do anything other than stare in horror when he felt the weight in his hand lighten and saw that he was holding nothing more than a thick stick. Pointed and heavy, the head had been dulled by the years, but was made of solid metal and still looked more than capable of caving someone’s head in. It flew toward Anthony as if he had a magnet on his forehead, but the boy had excellent reflexes and managed to duck under the wayward implement.
He started to glare in Luke’s direction, but collapsed in a fit of laughter instead when he saw the other boy’s face.
“I’m so sorry!” Luke said hastily, running toward him. “I don’t even know how that happened! I was—”
Anthony waved him off as he regained control of himself. “You’re fine. Most of this stuff needs to be reglued anyway. But you looked so scared—” He broke off as another giggle escaped him, the sound oddly contradictory with his large frame.
Embarrassed, Luke grabbed a spare pickaxe to avoid responding and returned to work. He regretted it immediately as his whole body screamed in protest. It was only the second day he had been with the builders, and he had yet to develop the strength needed for this type of manual labor. He had exercised some back home, but it was mostly light running when preparing for a job like this would have required heavy weightlifting. So far the day had been torture, but Luke refused to give up without a proper try, especially with Anthony there.
Anthony—Tony, he reminded himself, he disliked his full name—was one of the main reasons Luke had chosen this assignment in the first place. He had jumped around in the month since he met the Salesman, testing out different jobs to find one he liked best. Sarah had suggested it after Naomi finished showing him everything in town. If Luke had really pushed for it, he might have been able to get away without having a job at all, but that sounded like a nightmare. Sitting around with nothing to do all day while the other residents grew resentful was about the worst scenario he could think of. But he’d never done most of the jobs in Crater, so he’d started testing the waters before committing.
Tony, on the other hand, had been working under his father as long as he could remember. As the Committee member in charge of construction and development, he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and potentially take his place someday. Luke had spent a lot of time around Naomi, but had had little opportunity to get to know everyone else who was at the house the night Abby invited him. So while he doubted that construction would be his calling, he took the opportunity to spend more time around Tony.
Now, however, he was regretting that decision for more reasons than one. His body ached, he was embarrassed of the flying pickaxe, and it was hot. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but even dry as it was Luke was soaked in sweat. He glanced over at Tony. The latino boy had chosen to work barechested rather than suffer, but he had much darker skin and was much more fit. Without easy access to sunscreen, Luke figured he would end up absolutely fried, not to mention look ridiculous if he tried the same thing. Maybe working in construction wouldn’t be the worst thing if he could end up looking like that.
Not that it was really an option anyway. He still planned to leave Crater, at least temporarily. But he needed to move carefully for fear of anyone finding out his motives. They were unlikely to take his plan well, considering that people in Crater had been the ones to arrange for him to be brought over in the first place. He’d already managed the first step, getting permission to go out. After some convincing, Sarah had come around to the idea of his joining the next caravan to go trade with other settlements. It might not be the most useful journey for accomplishing his goals, but it would give him a better idea of what to expect outside the safety of Crater while staying protected with a larger group. Exactly when he’d leave was up in the air, as the schedule depended on the arrival of other caravans, the kinds of goods the Committee wanted to acquire, the weather patterns of the area…it was a complex system that Luke didn’t understand in the slightest.
For now, he was content to work with different groups inside the settlement itself. While construction (a misleading name, since they’d only broken things down during the last two days) was by far the most physically demanding job Luke had tried, Tony was fun to work with. Better than other people he’d been stuck around, anyway. One of the first assignments he’d attempted was working in the kitchens, but quickly learned that the cooks had absolutely no patience for anyone who couldn’t work fast enough, regardless of how inexperienced they were.
Luke had also received an offer from Cael to work at Schellings, the proper name of the old world clothing store that Naomi had graffitied. After long thought, Luke turned him down. He liked the environment of the store, but couldn’t get past the attitude Cael had toward Naomi. She might be a bit wild and occasionally thoughtless, but she was his friend now, and he couldn’t bring himself to work for someone who had treated her so poorly. Even if that treatment might have been justified.
Tony shouted to the crew, breaking Luke out of his musing. “We’ve got a good start here. Let’s go eat.” Luke and the other four crew members dropped their tools in relief. Despite his young age, Tony’s experience and family connection meant that he was in charge of the demolition today. They all started off towards the kitchens, Tony hanging back to talk to Luke.
“You’re not bad for someone who says they’ve never swung a hammer,” he observed. “If you can get your flying pickaxe under control, you could make a decent builder.”
“I doubt it,” Luke said. “I’ll probably collapse before I get back to my cabin tonight, we’ll have to see.” Tony gave a short laugh.
“Well, you bitch about it less than the guys who fill in for the regular teams, so you’re okay in my book. It’ll get easier if you stick with it.”
Luke nodded. Tony went on before he could say anything.
“‘Course, I’ll be gone for a while pretty soon if you do decide to stick with it. I’m going with the next group of traders to make the rounds with some of the nearby settlements. I’ll probably be gone a month, at least.”
“Really?” Luke asked, shocked. “Me too! Sarah already approved it.” Then the rest of what Tony said sank in. “Wait, a month? I thought it was going to be a week or two tops.”
He thought the other boy seemed less than surprised at the revelation that Luke would be with the caravan too, but maybe it was just his personality to stay unruffled. In any case, he grinned at Luke’s sudden deflation.
“Nah, we should be going to some of the closest settlements, but even most of those are at least a week away. Plus I heard we might be making a trip up to the elves. I think they’re much farther than anywhere else we might go, so that would make it even longer.”
The elves again…Luke still had trouble accepting that they were real, but no one else seemed to share his incredulity. Hell, no one else had even heard of the things before they appeared in reality. Apparently no one had ever written about elves or dwarves in the fiction of this world. Going up there sounded like a good opportunity, though. Who better to ask about returning home than a group of creatures that had migrated themselves? It gave him hope that this controlled foray out of Crater might be more than a huge waste of time.
“So do you know when we’re leaving, then?”
Tony snorted. “No, but feel free to ask Morton if you want to see him absolutely lose his shit. He hates when people ask him that, not even the traders know ahead of time. I used to hang around them a lot, they complain about it constantly.”
Luke recognized the name as the Committee member who primarily dealt with the logistics of trade with other settlements and population control. He ensured that Crater’s population didn’t rise too high and kept the various caravans on schedule. Apparently he had a reputation for having a bit of a temper.
They arrived at the kitchens and ate with the rest of the crew. All of them were older than Luke and Tony by a good amount, which Luke guessed was why Tony spent more time around him. Residents around their age in their early twenties were very rare, as they would have had to survive as babies when the Empty arrived. Still, the others were friendly enough, and lunch passed without incident.
The rest of the day went smoothly too, if painfully. Luke was relieved when Tony called for them to stop near sunset. The house they were demolishing was more or less in pieces, but they also needed to ensure that all of the materials they took off of it were small enough to transport for later use or trade to the Salesman. It was a long, slow slog to break the stone walls into pieces, one that Luke was more than happy to leave behind. They returned to the kitchens one more time, Tony still poking fun at Luke for losing his pickaxe handle and how slowly he had to move to avoid screaming in pain.
Halfway through their meal, a woman Luke had never met before came and sat down at their table next to Tony.
“Thank God you’re here, I didn’t want to have to run all over looking for you. Morton gave the green light, we’re setting out the day after tomorrow.”
Tony nodded. “Thanks for the heads up Ella, you know Morton wouldn’t have told us anything till we got our asses kicked out of bed that morning.”
She looked toward Luke speculatively at his inclusion, but turned back to Tony. “You might be surprised, actually. He wants everyone who’s going to see him, sunset tomorrow. No idea why. You’d better go, and your friend too if he’s coming with us, or the old man will blow his top.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be there,” Tony said firmly. “And yeah, this is Luke. He’s coming too.” Luke introduced himself to Ella, who it turned out was one of the traders assigned to their caravan. She stayed for a few more minutes, talking to Tony while Luke stayed quiet next to him. After she left, Luke groaned.
“What’s your problem?” Tony asked, glancing at him.
“There’s no way I’ll be back to normal in two days. I’ll be surprised if I can get out of bed to go to this meeting tomorrow without wanting to die.”
Tony just laughed.
In the end, he made it to the meeting without contemplating suicide, though that had a lot to do with the fact he was getting away from the cabin. In the past month Sandy had visited him several times to hear more stories, but on the nights she was absent the nightmares were as strong as ever. He associated them so strongly with the room he slept in that it was impossible for Luke to even look at the gray walls without shuddering. It had crossed his mind to put up posters or paintings to cover them up, but anything decorative was difficult to come by in Crater.
With the news that they’d be setting out soon, Tony had the two of them taken off the builder crew. The lack of a job and his intense soreness led Luke to stay in bed most of the day and read a book that he’d managed to pick up around town. Near sunset he set off for the meeting, his pain slightly improved. Tony had given him directions to Morton’s office, but even knowing where he was going Luke was the last one to arrive.
Or at least he assumed so. There were so many people crammed into the building that he couldn’t imagine too many more were coming. Aside from Tony and Ella, he was surprised to see a few more familiar faces as well. Angela was present with a contingent of security guards, who went along on any caravan trip. There were more than Luke expected to see however, almost a dozen men and women whose sole job was to provide protection. The real surprise came when he saw Abby and Felicity sitting on the ground together near the back. Luke hesitated when he saw that Tony was over by the traders, but the two women waved him over and he hurried to join them.
“You’re both going on the trip?” he asked. “That’s not normal, is it?”
“Not for me,” Abby said. “Liss goes out on them all the time, though.”
The other girl shrugged. “The traders feel better with an unmaker, even with security.”
Luke still hadn’t seen the girl or her brother ‘unmake’ anything, but he could see how the ability would reassure someone out beyond the settlement.
“Honestly,” she continued, “I probably won’t even have to do anything, no one’s ever been attacked while I was there. It’s a bit of a waste of time, but it’s not like I have much else to do anyway.”
“Really?” Luke asked. “What if you run into something like a Bleeder? Do the security people just take care of it?”
“Those things are rare, Luke,” Abby said. “It was unbelievably bad luck you ran into one on the way here. I can probably count on one hand the number of times anyone in Crater’s even seen one, and there’s always a few caravans circulating through the area.”
“Hmm.” Carver had made it sound like he’d tangled with the things before, but then again he was traveling almost constantly from what Luke could tell. It was reassuring to hear that they weren’t all over the place. “So why are you going, Abby?”
“Medical aid. With this many people, Sarah told Adriana she wanted someone on hand just in case. I offered since Tony and Liss were already going.”
Luke had learned that the woman who Sarah had summoned when he had a panic attack his first night in Crater was actually the head doctor for the settlement. She wasn’t a Committee member, but she was influential nevertheless. Abby worked under her, learning medicine as best it could be done with such limited resources.
He was about to question them further, but at the front of the room a short man with white hair stepped in front of a desk—the only furniture in the space—and slammed his fist down on it, causing silence to overtake the room.
“Quiet! Since everyone who deigned to show up is already here”—he glared toward Ella for some reason, who shrugged—“we might as well start. This is the biggest caravan we’ve sent out for some time, so we need to—SHUT UP!” he roared toward one of the security guards who had been whispering to someone next to her. Morton’s temper had not been oversold to Luke. The small man’s face was turning a violent shade of red, and he waved a yardstick threateningly in the offender’s direction.
“Are you done? Your job is to stay quiet while I talk for the next twenty minutes, or I will shove this stick so far up your ass you’ll be tasting wood for a week. That goes for everyone in this room, including the Tether in the back, there.”
Luke froze like a deer in headlights as everyone’s attention turned to him. His mind went absolutely blank under the pressure, but thankfully after a moment Morton kept talking.
“He’s the reason there’s so many of you going. Gotta give him a tour of the whole fucking world, but naturally we can’t take any chances with his safety. So we need a full security team plus one of the weirdo twins and one of Adriana’s girls.” He paused, and Felicity and Abby waved awkwardly. “Oh, and Tom’s kid is going too. Full fucking house.” Tony rolled his eyes at the underwhelming introduction, but apparently even he didn’t dare interrupt the man.
Over the next half hour Morton detailed the routes they’d be using and the settlements they were to visit. Luke got the sense that the traders in the room were already familiar with the different trails and paths, but he was glad to get a sense of scale for the trip. They were indeed scheduled to go to the elvish settlement on the last leg of the journey, a fact which caused some low whispering that even Morton tolerated. For a few seconds anyway.
“Ok, shut your goddamn traps. I know that they’re posted up in the ass end of nowhere, but that’s the way it shakes out. I’m putting the whole trip at a month and a half, and if you fuckers are late it’ll throw off my whole schedule. So help me God, I will keep you out of Crater until you rot if you try to roll back in two months from now. That is not hyperbole, do not test me on this. Stick to the schedule.”
After a few more general threats to the room at large, Morton called a halt to the meeting. Everyone started to filter out in the groups they came in, By mutual agreement, Luke, Abby, and Felicity waited for Tony by the door. He was with the traders, who all laughed as they gathered their things. Luke envied the other boy’s ability to be sociable with nearly anyone he’d seen him with. He wondered if it came from being the son of a Committee member.
“Wonder what had Morton in such a good mood,” Tony said, joining the three of them as they returned to the streets of Crater.
“He did make quite a scene, didn’t he?” Abby observed with small smile.
“Yeah, I thought people were exaggerating about him, but that guy’s insane,” Luke said, shaking his head. “How the hell did he end up in charge?”
Tony shrugged. “The Committee probably wanted a scapegoat for when people have to be kept out of Crater. It’s not an accident that he ended up in charge of population control. It’s a job that pisses a lot of people off, and Morton has absolutely no problem with that.”
“Plus, he’s actually good at it,” Felicity said. Tony glanced at her, but said nothing. Luke hadn’t seen the two of them interact much, but there had been some tension since the night he met them. “He maximizes the number of caravans we send out without letting too many people back inside at once.”
“Is there really that many traders that it’s a problem?” Luke asked.
Felicity made a waffling motion with her hand. “I don’t know for sure, but I think there’s around fifty people out on the trails at any one time. If a caravan’s delayed and they get back late, sometimes they have to camp outside Crater for a while. It probably wouldn’t be an issue, but no one wants to push it. The population’s at the limit of everyone’s comfort level as it is.”
By that time, the sun was nearly set, shrouding everything in the cover of dusk. Abby and Felicity made their goodbyes a few minutes later and turned down a different street, toward the hotel where they both lived. Tony continued on with Luke, as his dad’s house was closer to the cabin.
“Sorry that Morton singled you out like that,” he said, his face hidden in the low light. “To be honest, I think I probably had as much to do with the higher security as you. My dad has been pushing for me to go with a caravan for a long time, but I wouldn’t put it past him to lean on Morton for extra guards.”
“That’s not your fault,” Luke said. “But I hope no one blames me for getting stuck with this assignment.”
“They’d better keep it to themselves if they do,” Tony said, a surprising heat in his voice. “It’s just us once we’re out there, there’s no one else to rely on.”
“What about the other settlements?” Luke asked. “Aren’t they the whole reason we’re going?”
“Sure, but trusting them only goes so far. We trade with them because it’s beneficial to both of us, but everyone we meet out there has different goals and plans. None of them want to see Crater grow at the expense of their own home, it’s only natural. That goes double for when we get up to the elves. They’re not even the same species, the only reason they would offer any support is if it served their own self-interest. If we’re ever going to bring civilization back to what it used to be, Crater folk have to be self-dependent..”
It was a cynical outlook, but some of the points made sense. Luke thought Tony might be a bit too pessimistic about other people’s motives, but he didn’t want to start an argument. He had little doubt the other boy would defend his beliefs vehemently if challenged.
“Have you ever seen an elf?” he asked instead.
Tony shook his head. “No, this’ll be my first time leaving Crater since we settled here. That’s part of the reason my dad’s been pushing me to go. Should be interesting to see someone from another world.”
“You have someone from another world right here,” Luke said, acting insulted.
The other boy snorted. “You don’t count. I don’t even remember you came from somewhere else most of the time, unless you do dumb shit like trying to grab at peoples’ hands.”
“That was one time!” Luke protested. Naomi had gleefully spread the story around after his first day. “It’s normal in my world!”
“Yeah, well, your world is full of creeps then. I don’t need anyone pulling on me with their dirty fingers.”
“We wash our hands! And it’s not that bad, look.” He took Tony’s arm and positioned his hand into a proper handshake. He took it and stiffly gripped Luke’s hand.
“It’s fine, I guess,” Tony said, but looked uncomfortable.
“Alright, fine,” Luke laughed. “I guess you people aren’t ready for a civilized greeting yet.”
Tony just shrugged. Luke frowned and tried to talk to him again, but his whole demeanor had changed. After several failures to get more than one or two word answers, Tony suddenly stopped at a cross street.
“It’s faster if I go this way,” he said. “Good night. I’ll see you tomorrow, Luke.” He hurried off without waiting for a response.
Luke walked back alone, wondering what had prompted the sudden change. Had the handshake bothered Tony more than he thought? Back in the room that he loathed, he climbed into bed and resolved to apologize the next day. Falling asleep was difficult for a different reason than usual that night; Luke spent hours cringing over his actions with Tony.
They set off early the next day. All told, the caravan consisted of four wagons loaded with goods, eight horses paired off and harnessed to each wagon, and more than twenty people. Luke didn’t expect to know anyone going besides his friends and Angela, but there was one more familiar, scowling face among the band of travelers.
“You’re still here?” Luke asked in surprise. “I thought you left ages ago.”
“Yeah, well,” Carver said, glaring toward Angela. She gave him a sunny smile in response. “That was the plan. Things change.” Characteristically, that appeared to be all he had to say on the subject.
Angela rolled her eyes. “He’s agreed to grace us with his presence as far as Darkend. Although I’m starting to wonder why I bothered.”
“Me too,” Carver said, his voice surly. “I could get there in half the time on my own.”
The pair started bickering, while Luke spotted Tony farther from the wagons. Hurrying over, he saw that Tony was talking to an older man with strong resemblance Luke recognized as his father.
“You listen to the traders and guards while you’re out there, Tony,” his father said. “You’re not in charge, they are. Mind yourself. We haven’t lost anyone in a carvan in a long time, and you’d better not do anything stupid enough to make you the first.”
“I know, dad,” Tony said in a long-suffering tone. “I’ll be careful.” His father wrapped him up in a hug, catching sight of Luke as he broke away.
“Our resident Tether!” he said in a hearty voice. Luke disliked being introduced that way, but stayed quiet. “Tony tells me you two have been talking a little bit!”
Luke nodded, and he went on. “That’s fantastic. I’ve said before it’s a shame he doesn’t get the opportunity to be around many people his age. It’s just too bad you aren’t a young lady, eh?” His tone was playful, but Tony’s expression went flat beside him.
“He was a good boss when I was with the builders,” Luke said. He didn’t intend to touch the other thing with a ten-foot pole.
“Yes, and feel free to come back any time,” the elder Aguero said. “We can always use more strong young men with a work ethic.”
“Thanks,” Luke said awkwardly. “We’ll see when we get back from the trip.”
“Right. This trip,” he said, growing more serious. “I want to ask you for a favor while you’re out there. I know we haven’t spoken much, but please. Watch out for my son.” Tony looked embarrassed, but the worry on his father’s face touched Luke. He was clearly uneasy about his son venturing out, even if it had been his idea.
“Of course I will,” Luke agreed. “We all will.”
“Good. Well I wish you boys and everyone else a safe journey. Maybe you can come on over once everyone’s back safe and sound.”
“Maybe. Thank you.”
Tony and Luke headed back towards the caravan. Luke tried to start his rehearsed apology, but the wagons began rolling out of town and they had to hurry or be left behind. A few other people also jogged over to catch up, including Felicity who had been hugging her brother goodbye. Luke took a deep breath as he walked across the boundary of Crater, back into the world that—he hoped—hid the secret of how he might find a way home.