A column of smoke rose up from the far side of the valley, a flickering glow visible beneath it as Hobble’s fields burned.
Viewed from above, the settlement looked like a fair-sized town; a third of the land within the valley was devoted to urban development, while the remaining acreage had been converted to farmland. It might have been bigger than Crater by square footage, though that was deceiving as the population was at most a tenth of the size. The fields were on the far side of the valley from the caravan, and from their position it looked like at least a quarter of the land was already aflame. A soft haze coated everything visible below them, the smoke trapped by the higher elevation all around. Half a dozen men and women were visible perhaps half a mile away, spread out around the road that led toward the town. They were looking inward and had yet to see the new arrivals, but the occasional glint off the sun betrayed the guns in their hands.
Predictably, Carver was the first to act.
“Everyone move back down the hill so they don’t see us if they happen to turn around. Leave a few guards with the wagons and noncombatants, but anyone else with a gun who knows how to use it, we’re going down there.”
Despite the general attitude of contempt for roamers from most of the residents, no one argued with him. After complying with his orders to move back, the traders, Luke and his friends, and three guards clustered around the wagon. The rest of the security team moved to Carver, pulling out their weapons.
“What if they’re with Hobble?” A man asked as he inspected his gun. A lot of the attacking group looked pale, with taut, worried expressions. They may have had marksman training, but as far as Luke knew, no one in Crater had been involved in a firefight for years.
“They’re not,” Carver responded grimly. “They’re waiting to catch anyone who runs out of town. There’s probably teams like this posted at all the roads out of Hobble. Whatever they want, they’re making sure no one escapes to spread the story.”
The atmosphere turned even more tense in the wake of his pronouncement. Carver looked around at the group of ten or so with him and nodded.
“All right. There’s no cover between the top of the hill and that first group down there, so we’re going to have to move quickly and hope like hell they don’t turn around until it’s too late. You—”
Felicity, hovering around the edge of the conversation, interrupted Carver’s speech.
“I can get them from the top of the hill.” The old man paused to look at her.
“I’m an unmaker. I don’t need to get any closer.”
Carver considered her words for a moment and nodded.
“If you’re confident you can manage it, do it.”
She walked back to the top of the hill and looked down towards the settlement. Carver stood next to her, watching impassively. Luke couldn’t see what happened next from his vantage point, but after no more than thirty seconds, a single wordless shout floated up from that direction, followed by silence. He saw Carver look at the girl appraisingly.
“That was good. Even if we got them by surprise, my way would have been louder. How much more can you do today?”
“I—A lot, I think,” Felicity said. “The heart’s hollow.” She sounded quiet, and Luke had to strain to hear her words. Carver looked back and beckoned to the attack team.
“All right, you’re coming with us then. No one shoot until you know if someone you see is one of the attackers or if they’re from Hobble. Keep your voices low and stay together.”
With that, the attack team ran over the top of the hill and vanished from sight. Luke crouched down and closed his eyes, focusing on staying calm. He didn’t feel close to having a panic attack, but the speed of his heart worried him. The others spoke in low tones, their voices barely registering to his ears.
“How long are they going to be gone? Do we wait until they get back?”
“He didn’t say to do anything, we should just stay out of sight.”
“Why are we even here? We should have left and let Hobble take care of whatever the hell this is.”
“I notice you didn’t have the guts to say that to his face.” That was Ella. Her voice was angry, cutting. “You think we should leave a whole settlement to die? You heard my Dad. They’re organized and stopping anyone from escaping. This is going to be a slaughter, if it isn’t one already.”
A moment of quiet followed her words. The last person to speak, someone with a nasally voice Luke didn’t recognize, was the first to respond.
“Crater folk can only rely themselves, right? Well that goes two ways. Crater residents are risking their lives down there, using Crater bullets for Hobble’s people. No offense to Carver, but he’s barely a resident. If he wants to get himself killed for people he doesn’t even know, that’s his prerogative. The rest of us are here to trade. We should have moved on to somewhere we can do that and get back home in one piece.”
“You’re pathetic,” Ella sneered. “If you think—”
Luke did his best to tune out the rest, as the argument was only boosting his anxiety.
After a few minutes, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, are you ok?” He glanced up to see Abby looking at him with concern.
“Fine.” While his heart was still beating fast, none of the other symptoms had come on yet. He felt under control at the moment.
“We’re going to be fine,” Abby said. “Crater’s security is the best at what they do. And there can’t be that many people attacking Hobble.” Her words were confident, but the look in her eyes betrayed her worry.
“I know. I’m just not good in situations like this, but we should be safe over here.” Luke gave her an attempt at a smile and stood back up. While he was trying to calm himself, the rest of the caravan had apparently reached a consensus. No one was arguing, anyway, and Ella was looking around as if daring anyone to complain. Not that it mattered much, Luke figured. Carver and the security team had already left, and it wasn’t as if anyone here was about to go bring them back.
“How do you think the fire started?” he asked Abby, more to occupy himself than out of honest curiosity.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “It looked like it was out in the fields, so someone out there might have been trying to get people’s attention or something…it could get bad if this doesn’t get resolved soon. Putting out fires is hard enough as it is.” Neither of them had to say what the result of that would be. Without crops to feed their residents, Hobble would die as surely as if each of them got a bullet to the head. There was just no other way to feed a few hundred people.
Luke’s thoughts were interrupted by the crack of a gunshot. Rather than far off in the valley, the sound was close enough that he instinctively ducked and covered his head. After a few moments, his ears ringing, Luke turned toward the direction he thought the sound came from to see half a dozen strangers all pointing guns toward the twelve or so people still with the wagons. They were five men and one woman, with no real similarities between their appearance or clothing except for the fact that every article they wore was old and tattered, some of it looking like it should have been tossed long ago. One of them stepped forward, a younger man with one of the sleeves on his shirt torn off.
“Freeze, all of you!” he roared, firing his handgun in the air to punctuate his words. The horses pawed at the ground in discomfort, but none panicked or started running. Out of the corner of his eye, Luke saw two of the security guards still with the caravan draw their own guns. Another of the attackers pushed Sleeveless’ hand down and trained his weapon on the pair of armed security. The rest of the attacking group followed suit.
“There ain’t no reason for things to turn deadly,” the man by Sleeveless said. He was older, his hair receded far to the back and sides of his head. “Two a you ‘gainst six of us ain’t good odds. Put those down and we ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
Before the guards could reply, another close shot rang out, making everyone flinch. One of the men behind Baldy collapsed and started screaming, throwing curses out in the air. The other five exploded into motion as the pair of guards opened fire. Two more of the attackers fell in the opening volley, one writhing on the ground while the other went still where he landed. Those that were still standing fired back, but their aim was poorer and all of their shots went wide of their targets. Everyone without a weapon scattered, running every direction in the chaos.
Luke tried to bolt himself, but failed to look around and took a path that went right in front of Baldy. The older man reached out and grabbed his collar, hauling him in front of himself.
“Put them guns down!” he yelled. He shoved the barrel of his pistol against Luke’s head. Luke felt like his breath evaporated. He couldn’t breathe, didn’t dare move a muscle. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the final bang.
Instead, he heard a clatter and a satisfied grunt from the man holding him. “Good. Your friend too, wherever he’s hidin’. Get out here!”
“Shoot ‘im, Stu!” Sleeveless yelled. He was one of the ones still moving on the ground. “They fuckin’ got me! Kill ‘em!”
“Shut the fuck up,” Baldy said dispassionately. “You made a real fuckin’ group decision when you went out here guns blazing ‘gainst a group twice our size. You got off lucky, far as I can tell. And I’m still waiting for you to get the fuck out here before I blow this kid’s brains out.” He yelled the last sentence loud enough to echo around the hill.
There was a moment of silence in the wake of his words. Luke opened his eyes in time to see the third security member crawl out from behind one of the wagons. She looked vaguely familiar, but he had never learned her name.
“You can’t hurt him,” she said, placing her gun on the ground and stepping away. “He’s a Tether, you’ll fuck up everything.”
“A what?” Stu asked. Luke felt removed from the situation, like it was happening to someone else. “I don’t care if he’s the king of the fucking Empty, you twitch and he’s gone. ‘Melda, go get those guns.” The woman in his group stepped forward carefully to collect the weapons, watching the guards for any sign of movement. Once she was done, the other man behind Stu spoke up.
“Should we tie ‘em up, Stu?”
“With what?” Stu said, glancing back with contempt. “You hiding some rope up your asshole? Nah, we got the guns, we’re just gonna have to give them incentive to behave themselves.” He held his gun up suggestively.
With his other hand, he released Luke, who gasped and fell to his knees once the pressure of the barrel against his skull vanished.
“Any a you know how to bandage a wound?” Stu called out. No one answered, but enough people glanced toward Abby that he pointed at her.
“Bind up Gil and Kian with some of that cloth in the wagon. Leave Tommy, he’s dead or will be soon.”
“But I don’t—” Abby protested, but Stu interrupted her.
“I don’t care. If you don’t know how, just tie a knot where it’s bleeding. Either way, load ‘em up in the wagon once you’re done.”
Without any other option, she moved to follow his instructions. She ripped strips off of a length of cloth that had been taken for trade and quickly bound the wounds of the two men. Several traders helped her clear spaces in the wagons and carry them in. Luke couldn’t tell if she did a good job or not, but neither of the men complained.
While she bandaged the attackers, Luke focused on keeping himself under control. The full implications of what had just happened to him were sinking in. Controlling the impending panic attack was difficult. One of his typical symptoms was a feeling of impending doom, and it was hard to convince himself that he was being irrational when a very real danger was actually present. But he managed to regulate his breathing, the biggest factor in his episodes, and stave off the episode. He was functioning for the moment, but Luke wasn’t sure how long that would last.
Once he was able to open his eyes, Luke noted that a few people had escaped in the chaos; there were only eight or nine of them left with the caravan. Ella in particular was nowhere to be found. Where they might have gone, he had no idea. There was no obvious cover on the road or among the low brush that dominated the landscape, but going into town seemed like a stupid idea. Shortly after Abby finished her ministrations, several of the traders hopped back in the driver’s seat of the wagons, following Stu’s demands, and started guiding the horses back up the hill.
It quickly became apparent, if Luke had still harbored any doubts, that Stu was the one in charge of this group of bandits or whatever they were. The others followed his lead and rarely questioned him, even when he went against what they said. In one way this was a positive development. Stu wasn’t trigger happy and didn’t seem eager to kill anyone, even after they had done the same to one of his own. On the other hand, the rest of them seemed pretty dumb, but Stu was smart enough to keep control of his prisoners. He had himself and the two walking members of his group fan out into a semicircle behind the wagons, giving the caravan no direction to move but forward. The pair who had been shot kept a lookout from the back of the wagons to make sure no one snuck up on them.
They followed the road back into the town without incident. Stu noticed the bodies at the entrance, but didn’t react other than to frown and kick one over onto its back. He didn’t seem particularly upset by the casualties, Luke noticed. The bandits didn’t change their formation inside the town itself, but they did appear less sure about which direction to take. Stu called a halt a few minutes after entering to confer with his comrades out of earshot of the caravan group.
While they were occupied, Abby sidled up to Luke.
“How are you holding up?” she murmured. He shrugged, glancing over at their captors to ensure they weren’t looking at him.
“Managing,” he said, staying as quiet as possible.
“Good,” she said. “If we can find Felicity and the others, they should be able to handle this. We just need to find an opportunity.”
“I think we might be able to make our own opportunity,” Luke said. The beginnings of a plan were forming in his mind.
“I need to change his bandage. It’s too loose, he might bleed out.” Stu narrowed his eyes at Abby’s words.
“So now you know how to do it? How’d that change in the last twenty minutes?”
Abby scowled and looked away. “Turns out I don’t have what it takes to watch someone die because of something I did.” Stu looked at her closely. Watching out of the corner of his eye, Luke marveled at Abby’s acting ability under pressure.
After a few moments, Stu sighed. “Fine. Not like you can do much damage with a piece of cloth, anyway.”
Abby walked halfway back to the cart before turning around again. “Can I have someone help me? It’s hard to tie it with one person and you have him looking out.”
“Whatever, just hurry up,” Stu said. He kept the wagons moving in one direction. They seemed to be heading toward the fields that were on fire, though why that might be Luke couldn’t fathom.
“Great. Luke, can you come over here?” Abby asked. He followed her to the wagon where Sleeveless was still watching over the side. Several of the caravan members, including Tony, frowned over at them, but were too wary of the attackers to speak.
Sleeveless glared at them when they came over, but his expression quickly changed when Abby told him what she’d said to Stu.
“I’m gonna die?” he asked, a tremor in his voice. Luke blinked at the one-eighty in his demeanor, but was thankful for it. It was a good sign that the man was so gullible.
“Not if I can help it,” Abby said firmly. “What’s your name?”
“Gil,” he said, closing his eyes. “Oh, God, I already feel woozy. It really hurts.”
“Stay with me, Gil,” Abby said with an admirable attempt at a worried tone. “Let me take a look here.”
She peeled off the blood-stained rag on his leg used as a bandage before—which was quite tight—and hissed at the wound beneath. It looked bad to Luke’s inexperienced eyes, and he wondered if their hasty plan might not have a bit of truth to it.
“Fuck. I wasn’t sure before, but I think it might have nicked an artery,” Abby said.
“What does that mean?” Gil asked, panicked. “You can fix it, right?”
“Maybe if I was a full doctor—but no. I can slow it down, but you’ll keep losing blood if we don’t get you to someone who knows more than me.” Now Luke thought she might be overdoing the anguish in her voice for someone who’d threatened to shoot her less than an hour ago, but it seemed to work for Gil.
“Wait, but we can get to someone in time right? You can slow it down, we can find someone?”
“What about Adriana?” Luke asked Abby. “She went with the other group, right?”
Her eyes widened. “Yes. She’d definitely know what to do.” She turned to Gil, a glint of hoe visible in his eyes.
“If we ask Stu, would he make a detour so we can find the doctor in our group?” Luke held his breath. This was the important moment. The whole plan hinged on the fact that Stu hadn’t seemed to care whether anyone in his group lived or died, but if it turned out he and Gil were actually cousins or something the whole thing was fucked.
But after a moment of intense thought, Gil’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t think so. That guy’s cold-blooded, he doesn’t give two shits about anyone. There’s no way he’d slow down to take care of me.”
“We have to do something,” Abby said. “I might not be a full doctor, but I won’t let a patient of mine die without a fight.”
“Is there any way we can sneak away?” Luke asked, trying to inject the proper note of concern in his voice.
“Not on that leg,” Abby said, shaking her head. “We’d never make it. We need the wagon.”
Gil’s look turned shifty. “You promise you’ll get me help? When they both nodded, he exhaled hard and spat to the side. “Fuck it. Crater ain’t worth this. We’re gonna have to get him out of the way.”
Both Luke and Abby stiffened at the settlement’s name, but quickly moved past it. There was no time to explore what he meant.
“You’re right. What if we…”
Luke and Abby quickly prodded Gil as best they could into thinking he came up with the plan they’d decided on. After settling the details, Abby finished rewrapping the new bandage and left the wagon with Luke. The pair moved as quickly as they could while remaining discreet to tell a few essential people their roles in the plan. Once everything was in place, Luke met Gil’s eyes and nodded.
“Enemies! Attacking from the front! Come quick!” he yelled loudly. No sooner had he spoken the words than all three wagons came to a halt, one of the drivers giving a knowing glance behind him. The three able-bodied gun holders rushed to the front of the caravan, scanning the terrain ahead of them for the threat. After a few moments, Stu turned around in confusion.
“Gil, what the hell are you—” his words cut off as a gunshot ripped through his body. Droplets of blood flew through the air, splattering his two companions. Before he even fell a second shot hit the man on his right, leaving only the woman uninjured. She ducked behind the nearest wagon as the bullet intended for her went wide, ricocheting off a brick building further down.
Kaisel, the security guard they had entrusted with Gil’s gun, cursed when she saw the third shot miss. She was the best shot among the three guards still with the wagon, and had been the one who’d shot the bandits from under the wagon earlier.
Luke glanced over to the third wagon, relieved to see its driver triumphantly holding up the other injured man’s gun. They’d had to trust the element of surprise and the disadvantage of the bandits’ wounds to allow the traders to wrest away the weapons, tactic that worked out better than Luke could have hoped. Which left the woman hiding behind the wagon as the only loose end. He was officially out of his depth with this kind of situation—for the whole thing, truthfully, but his nerves were shot to hell by this point. He let Kaisel and Abby take the lead.
“Might as well come on out,” the large woman said loudly. She looked like she could have beaten the bandits unconscious even without a gun. “You’re the only one left.” Over by the two recently fallen, the other pair of security guards were reclaiming their own weapons as well as the attackers, keeping a careful eye on the wagon. Luke couldn’t see if either of the wounded were still breathing. He wasn’t even sure where they had been shot.
“Shit, man!” Gil yelled, ignoring or unaware of the tense situation by the other wagon. “I thought you said you were just gonna sideline him, that man’s dead as hell!”
“Shut up, Gil,” Abby said through clenched teeth, her eyes on Kaisel. “We’re dealing with something here.” The turncoat blinked at her change in tone, but thankfully remained quiet.
After a few more tense moments, the woman surrendered peacefully, sliding her gun out on the ground once she heard the other two guards cock their weapons. She came out with her hands up, and the trained security force was quick to cover her. Luke sighed in relief, and Abby nodded at him.
“You did a good job, Luke. That was a great plan.”
“Thanks,” he said. “It was lucky everything went as well as it did. We should figure out what to do with them before we celebrate, though.” He gestured toward their former captors, now prisoners themselves.
Abby walked over toward Stu and his fallen companion, feeling for their pulse. She didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry as she did so.
“I guess even Gil can call it every once in a while. Stu’s dead, and the other guy won’t be far behind him. I doubt I could help him even if I had the inclination.”
Luke wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The plan had been his, even if he wasn’t the one to fire the gun, and he hadn’t thought it had been a lie when he told Gil they only planned to incapacitate Stu. But Kaisel had been the one risking herself, and had to use her own judgement. Luke put it aside to sort through his feelings later.
“So what do we do with the ones who are still alive?” he asked. One of the drivers grinned.
“Well, unlike these idiots we do have some rope tucked away somewhere. I say we truss them up and stick ‘em in the back to sort out later.”
Kaisel and the other security members agreed, and before long all three prisoners had their hands tied behind their back.
“Hey!” Gil shouted. “Why’m I gettin’ tied up! You’re gonna find that doctor before I die, right?” Abby glanced at him contemptuously.
“You’ll be fine. It was a through-and-through, didn’t hit anything major. You won’t be walking for a while but as long as it doesn’t get infected you’ll survive.”
“You lied to me?” Gil said in a low voice.
“Yeah, you were ready to kill us back on that hill. It’s not something that’s gonna keep me up at night.”
He said nothing in response. That struck Luke as ominous, but he was distracted when Tony came up to Abby and himself.
“Was I the only one who wasn’t in on what was happening?” he demanded. He looked angry, enough that he didn’t seem embarrassed by Luke’s presence. “Everyone else was ready for something, but I didn’t make the cut?”
“It wasn’t like that, Tony,” Abby said when it was clear Luke wasn’t going to say anything. “Everything happened so fast, we barely had enough time to tell who we did. We had to focus on the people essential to the plan .”
Luke knew her words were a mistake as soon as she said them, and sure enough Tony’s face turned red with outrage. “Glad to know I’m useless.” Before either of them could say anything, he turned and stalked away. Abby watched him leave.
“That’s always been a sore spot for him. Feeling important for whatever’s happening.” She shook her head to clear her thoughts. “I’ll talk to him later. We have to keep going right now.”
Luke nodded in agreement. While they were reclaiming the caravan, a few gunshots had gone off. They’d stopped now; Luke wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. The smoke seemed to be thicker too, though it was hard to tell if that was because the fire was spreading or if they were just closer.
The rest of the caravan minus Tony huddled together, discussing their next move.
“We should go find the others. It’s obvious we’re not safe without them, there might be more patrols out there.” That was Kaisel, whose words were greeted with several nods. Her role in their freedom had apparently garnered a lot of respect in their small group.
“No, we should find somewhere to hide!” a small trader said. He was one of the drivers, someone Luke didn’t know. “They’re bound to be in the thick of the fighting, who knows what’s going on over there?”
“Where the hell are we going to hide six horses and three wagons?” another trader demanded. “We don’t have to walk right up to them, but we should at least hole up somewhere nearby so they can help us.”
There was general agreement to this sentiment, and a plan was quickly formed to move carefully in the general direction of the gunshots.
They walked quietly through the town streets, listening for any sign of battle. After a short time, the gunshots returned in an odd pattern. It would stay quiet for three or four seconds, then several shots would ring out in close succession, making a few people jump without fail. Luke was too exhausted to wonder about the odd sequence. For all he knew, that was how every gunfight usually sounded. He wished he could ride in one of the wagons, but even with their hands tied, he didn’t feel comfortable sharing space with the captives. Abby walked beside him, similarly subdued. She kept glancing over at Tony, a worried expression on her face. Luke couldn’t think of anything to reassure her, so he stayed quiet.
Soon, the echo of gunfire sounded close enough to be around the corner. Kaisel called a halt to the caravan and suggested they move forward without the wagons for a short distance. After a quick argument, everyone agreed and they turned down a street in the direction of the reports.
It didn’t take long for them to find what they were looking for. The road terminated in a wide open parking lot that held a large supermarket. Gunshots echoed from inside the building. While they watched, Carver, Felicity, and two of the guards from the strike team burst out of the entrance of the building. They were looking behind them, Carver and the guards holding up their guns.
“Get away! Run!” Felicity yelled, waving her arms at their group. Luke was confused for a moment, but her alarm made sense when a black metallic form followed them out of the market, ripping off the door as if it was made of cardboard.
That was enough to cause a panic attack.