Luke was surprised that no one gave him a hard time after the battle. He’d hated himself for slipping behind a building and hyperventilating at the same time Tony marched up and killed the black armor of death, but no one else even seemed to have noticed. They even praised him for coming up with the idea that had freed the traders from the bandits. But Abby had been far more crucial to their success with her ability to act under pressure. When it came to actually doing something in a crisis, Luke was usually worse than useless.
So went the spiral of his thoughts in the aftermath of the fight. It was clear by now that he had a pattern of shutting down during dangerous situations—which cropped up with alarming frequency in this world. Sooner or later, a panic attack would hit him at the wrong time and he or someone else would die because of his inaction. The obvious solution was to avoid danger, but he hadn’t exactly been seeking it out since he’d been dropped here. He spent a few hours wandering, thinking about his issue, but came to no conclusions. Eventually he returned to the rest of the caravan. There were bigger problems to focus on than his own concerns anyway.
While Carver and Felicity had been fending off the cryptsil—as Luke learned was the creature’s name—the rest of the security force had been mopping up the bandits by their base camp. They hadn’t rushed off to help fight the terrifying creature, but they had managed to defeat a group almost three times their size, so no one questioned their bravery. Though between the chaos of the fire and the aid of Hobble’s residents once the threat of the cryptsil was out of the way, it didn’t sound like an impossible task. Only one woman had been hit by the bandits,—shot in the leg—and according to Abby she would recover fine if she refrained from walking, so the only casualty of the day’s fighting from Crater was the security guard who’d been jumped on by the cryptsil.
Nobody was happy about the loss, but there had been little time to dwell on it at first. The first priority had been to get the fire under control, which was eventually managed by digging deep trenches through the middle of the fields and allowing the flames to burn themselves out. All told, Hobble lost about two thirds of their cropland, a crippling blow to the settlement. But that was an issue for the people of Hobble to solve, and no one in the caravan had been privy to their discussions about it. The two groups did come together to agree that the caravan would stay in the valley for at least a night or two, as they would have if Hobble hadn’t been attacked anyway. No one felt like traveling after the day they’d been through, and the security force was still the best equipped of anyone to watch over the prisoners.
When they’d seen the way the fight was going, almost a dozen bandits had surrendered, joining Gil and his friends. A few more stragglers had been picked up in the town and the roads around it, leaving nearly twenty surly captives that no one really wanted to deal with. No one had openly suggested the most expedient solution yet, but it was only a matter of time. They hadn’t actually killed anyone so far as it could be determined, but the fire they started had the potential to be a death sentence anyway. For the time being, they’d been tied up and thrown into one of the buildings with a few armed guards watching over them.
It was early dusk by the time Luke returned to the others, and he quickly joined several others from the caravan in some kind of conference room. They were having another round of discussions with the mayor of Hobble and other prominent people from the settlement. Others from the caravan were doing most of the talking, but Luke had been curious and no one had stopped him from following them inside.
“We can’t give away the foodstuffs we brought for trade, unfortunately,” Ella was saying. She was the primary spokeswoman for the traders, as far as Luke could tell. At least, none of the others had said anything yet. “Our Committee would never authorize us to trade something for nothing, even in circumstances like these. What we have wouldn’t be enough to support so many people for any length of time, anyway.”
The mayor nodded gravely. She was a short, pale woman with stringy blond hair. She seemed unhappy at the news, but didn’t push the issue. “We’d all be much worse off if it wasn’t for you. It was astounding how easy it was for such a small group to take control of our settlement. We have so few guns here…and that’s before that cryptsil even entered the equation. I have little doubt that thing could have killed every man, woman, and child in this valley.”
“Yeah, they’re dangerous, but they’re rare, too,” Simmons said. He had been one of the security guards with the strike team, and had taken quick command in the aftermath. “I’ve never heard of one working with humans. Do you have any idea how they managed to tame it?”
The woman glanced at the people with her and shook her head. “I’ve never even seen one before today. Maybe it was the same place they got all those guns.”
“Maybe,” Simmons said. “There’s been a few of them now who swear up and down they were hired and equipped by someone from Crater. I think we can all agree that’s obviously bullshit?”
One of the men behind the mayor scowled, but she herself nodded. “It wouldn’t have made any sense for Crater to do so even without your group’s intervention. It doesn’t make sense for anyone to have set this up, quite frankly. Especially given the amount of resources it must taken to set it in motion, I can’t begin to guess at their motives. Perhaps it has to do with the orders they had to leave everyone alive.”
There was general agreement around the room. Though few of the bandits had held anything back when questioned, they’d been kept in the dark almost as much as their targets. None of them had a clue about who’d hired them beyond their insistence that it was a man from Crater. Beyond a generic description of a tall blond man with blue eyes, there had been no consistency in their characterization of the figure. Without more details to go on, it was impossible to try to identify the perpetrator.
The meeting ended soon after, once it was established that the caravan would leave the next day and could do precious little to aid the settlement. Simmons spoke in a low voice once their group left the building.
“Bastards. We lose one of our own saving their sorry asses and they have the balls to ask us for a handout? We should’ve left and let them sort out their own damn problems.”
“Really? I had no idea you felt that way, Sim,” Ella said drily. “Try telling us a little more often.” A few of the traders laughed. The older guard had wasted no time in spreading his opinions regarding the involvement of the caravan in the attack on Hobble. Or how he felt about Carver for spearheading the effort.
“Yeah, well, this is important,” he said in a heated tone. “If Carver hadn’t stuck his nose into this mess, Venker would still be alive.” Ella quirked an eyebrow.
“Right, we all remember when you argued against coming into Hobble. Oh wait, no one said a goddamn word when my dad started issuing orders. Maybe the time to say something was before everything went down.” She stepped up close to the mustached man, staring him down. “And don’t fucking stand there and pretend like he didn’t pay the price for what happened.”
Simmons was taller than her by four or five inches, but he backed up first and turned away without a word. Ella stalked off by herself, and after a moment of hesitation, Luke followed. He still felt less than comfortable with most of the caravan. Once they were removed from the confrontation, Ella’s demeanor altered dramatically. She kept on a tough face around Simmons and the others, but now she looked anxious and worried. Neither of them spoke, but Luke knew she was concerned about her dad.
They returned to the outskirts of town where the caravan had set up camp. Ella headed straight for a small building that Abby had commandeered as her triage center. There wasn’t a huge number of wounded, but all of them had been placed under the young woman’s care. Angela was assisting her, as most of the security team had been trained in basic first aid.
Abby was speaking quietly to the blond woman when Luke and Ella entered. Other than Carver, mattresses had been dragged in for the lone guard who had taken a bullet in the fighting, as well as three or four Hobble residents and several bandits who were injured in one way or another. A few people, including Simmons, had questioned if the last group even warranted treatment of their wounds, but under Abby’s calm direction they’d been placed in the triage house with the rest.
“You can’t do that,” Angela said in a low but forceful voice as they walked up. “There has to be another way.”
“Twenty years ago, maybe,” Abby replied. She spoke in a compassionate tone, while Angela had a look of anguish on her face with no sign of her normal exuberance. “But honestly, even then I doubt they’d have been able to do much. Everything below the ankle is in splinters. Right here and now, with the tools I have available, there’s only one option.”
“Are you talking about Dad?” Ella asked, matching the volume of the other two. She glanced toward his bed, where the old man’s eyes were closed, his expression twisted in a grimace of pain.
“There’s very little I can do for him,” Abby confirmed, rubbing her eyes. “But if something doesn’t change, that foot will be gangrenous by this time tomorrow. It was damaged too badly.” She looked tired. It was hard to believe that everything had been normal that morning, just a few short hours ago. “The only option is to amputate.”
A short silence followed her words. Ella ran a hand through her hair, and Angela looked like she was about to cry. Luke felt like he was intruding on a private moment, and was about to slip away when Ella spoke.
“If that’s the only option then why are we talking about this over here? He’s not gonna thank us for keeping it from him.” She wrapped an arm around Angela’s shoulders and guided her toward their father’s bed. Abby stayed next to Luke as they watched the scene play out.
“I’ve never done an amputation before,” she said suddenly. “I learned the theory of it and I even saw Adriana do one once, but this will be entirely new for me.”
“Maybe don’t tell them that,” Luke said, watching the family talk. Carver’s foot was bandaged and under the sheet, but he’d seen it in the aftermath of the cryptsil fight. He had absolutely no difficulty believing that its removal was necessary.
“I have no intention to,” she said. “I don’t know how well he’ll recover either, even if everything goes perfectly. He’s not a young man.” She shook her head as if clearing her thoughts. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be offloading my doubts onto you. I should check on the others. It’s going to be a long night.”
She walked over to another patient across the room as Carver barked out a short laugh.
“No shit,” he said, loud enough for Luke to hear. “Have you seen it? It’s obviously got to come off.” Angela said something softly, but he cut her off in a loud voice. “When have I ever taught you to shy away from what’s got to be done? If this has to happen, it’s happening right now. What the fuck do I get by waiting for it?” He was shouting by the end, and Ella put a hand on his arm. Luke left the triage house as they tried to soothe their father. He felt a little sick. Carver had never seemed anything other than invincible in the short time he’d known the old man. It was wrong somehow, seeing him that vulnerable. He couldn’t imagine how much worse it was for his daughters.
Unsure of what to do, Luke drifted around the camp for a time. Night was falling, and while some few sat alone, somber, most of the caravan had started celebrating with an impromptu feast, breaking out what little alcohol they had access to. Tony was prominent among them, as everyone took their turn to praise him for the way he’d finished off the monster. Luke wanted to talk to him, but couldn’t bring himself to join the jovial atmosphere around the bonfire they were making. He felt it was in poor taste to break out their food stores when the people of Hobble were now wondering whether they’d starve next winter, but no one by the fire seemed to share his reservations.
Luke saw that Felicity was one of those who had abstained from the festivities, and was laying on the ground staring at the sky a little way away from the main group. She was unusually reserved as he approached, staying quiet and staring up while he sat next to her. The first stars had only begun to come out, twinkling in the purple light of the fading dusk.
“They’re having fun over there,” he said, more to break the silence than anything else.
“It’s supposed to be a ‘wake’ for Venkman, the guy who died,” Felicity said. “I was with them for a while, but there’s a weird energy over there. I think a lot of them are celebrating the fact that it wasn’t them more than anything else.”
Luke wasn’t sure what to say to that. He laid next to Felicity to look up as she was. Already a multitude of sparkling lights were visible in the sky.
“There’s so many more stars out here,” he said.
“Compared to what?” she asked.
“My world. Or at least the part where I live. After I left home I always stayed in the city, so the light pollution was really bad.”
“Pollution.” Felicity snorted. “It’s amazing how the only problems in the old world were caused by people. Too many people driving cars and they thought it would be the fall of civilization. Guess they miscalculated on that one, huh?”
“Well, actually it’s mostly corporations that contribute to climate change by—you know what? It doesn’t matter. I guess you’re right. Get enough people together and they cause problems all by themselves.”
“Yeah. Not so much anymore, though. Humans aren’t gonna be why the world ends. Hell, it’s not even just the world that’s in trouble. You know what the biggest problem is now?” Her voice had an odd quality to it that Luke couldn’t identify.
Felicity gestured up toward the sky. “That. Have you ever looked up at the sky since coming here? Like really looked, not just glancing at it.”
“Not really. I never really stargazed that much.”
“Well try it now. Just for a few minutes, look up and really see the universe.”
Her tone brooked no argument, so Luke humored her. She was in an odd mood. He stared at the sky, looking around at all the different stars. Gradually, so slowly he couldn’t even tell when it happened, he noticed a peculiarity. At first all he saw were points of light and the darkness between them. But not all the darkness was the same. If he really concentrated, Luke could see pinpricks, points so small they were nearly nonexistent, where there was nothing. They weren’t black, though that was what his mind tricked him into seeing unless he looked closely. They were an absence, as if reality had infinitesimal tears where existence just…ceased. Once he knew to look for them the holes were all over the sky. There were dozens, hundreds of places where there was nothing. There was a wrongness about it, and Luke felt himself start to hyperventilate a little.
“What the fuck is that?” he asked.
“Those are stars,” Felicity said tonelessly. “Or at least the places where they used to be. There’s fewer of them every year. They’re just gone, swallowed by nihil.”
“Holy shit,” Luke breathed. It was one thing to hear about a force that could rip a hole in the universe, another to see it with his own eyes.
“That is the problem the world faces now,” she said. “And not just the world. All you have to do is look at what’s already happened and extrapolate. Sooner or later, nihil will swallow up the universe, destroying everything, down to the last atom. You being here might slow it down, but it won’t stop. That…absence that you see is the fate of the universe.” She paused, hesitant, and went on. “And some of it is inside me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“How else could I possibly be able to do what I can do? Every law in the universe says that it’s impossible to destroy matter, but that’s exactly what unmaking is. It’s nihil, just on a smaller scale.”
Luke searched for something to say, but she went on in a torrent of words, a dam bursting somewhere inside of her.
“And I can’t help but wonder if I”m not contributing to the death of the universe every time I erase something from existence. Maybe it doesn’t matter that much if it’s just some rocks or whatever, but I killed eleven people today. Eleven fewer beings that nihil has to swallow. I feel like I-I betrayed something, and I don’t even really know what.” She laughed without mirth. “I destroyed them more completely than anyone in the history of the universe. And what were they really doing? They didn’t kill anyone. I killed more people today than all of the bandits combined. Everything that happened today was so…pointless.”
She didn’t seem like she expected Luke to respond, but he tried anyway. “I’ve never killed anyone myself before. But I think what you’re feeling is natural for anyone who’s had to do it. It’s not any worse because of the way it happened. Dead is dead, whether it’s from a bullet to the head or because your heart suddenly vanished. You’re not any worse than anyone who’s ever killed another person, for what that’s worth. And you’re better than a lot of them. It wasn’t pointless, you did it for a reason.”
“Maybe. I hope so.”
“The bandits might not have killed anyone today, but there’s no way anything good was going to happen to the people here. They could have been tortured a week from now if we hadn’t been here. One way or another, you helped save the lives of everyone in this settlement.”
“I don’t know,” Felicity said, but her voice sounded a little lighter. “Either way, it was a pretty shitty day.”
Luke nodded in agreement. They laid in silence for a time, looking up at the stars. Luke tried to focus on the twinkling lights rather than the points of silent absence.
“I wish Felix was here,” Felicity said after a while. There was nothing Luke could say to that. He stayed quiet.
Luke awoke to shouting from somewhere close by. He ripped himself out of his sleeping bag and flew to his feet, scanning the room for the threat. Nothing was visible but other sleeping forms scattered around the floor. The caravan had taken a few buildings as their own, but without enough mattresses, most of them were still in bags on the floor. After the initial moments of confusion, Luke realized the voices he heard were coming from outside the door. The tones were angry, but not panicked, and it sounded more like an argument than a call for alarm. He sat back down for a moment, closing his eyes to try to rein in his wild pulse. A few other people were stirring from the noise, but no one else had reacted the way he did. Shaking his head, he walked outside to see what was happening.
The sun was already filtering through the morning mist, giving an odd glowing quality to the light within the valley. Four or five people were clustered together at a nearby building, the source of the shouting he had heard. He recognized Kaisel, one of the guards who had been taken captive with them, but the others were unfamiliar. He assumed they were from Hobble, but all of them looked furious as they got in Kaisel’s face.
“How could you possibly be this stupid?” one of them asked in a loud voice. “Surely you’ve been on guard duty before. All you have to do is sit and watch and not fall asleep. Is that so hard for you?”
Kaisel, a large German woman, didn’t appear the least bit intimidated by her accuser’s anger. “It happened. What else is there to say? They are gone, but they are without weapons, without food. It is unlikely they will be a further threat to anyone.”
“That’s not the point!” yelled another. “Those people burned our fields and rounded us up like cattle, and now they’ve escaped. They should have paid for what they did!” Kaisel just shrugged, which served only to enrage them further.
Luke had no desire to get in the middle of that, so he walked the other way as quickly as he could. He stayed as far as he could from the building where the prisoners had been held, but a furor spread quickly through the camp when it got out that the captives had escaped. Luke did wonder how it happened. They’d been crammed into a few cells in a small jail in town, so even if Kaisel had fallen asleep they shouldn’t have been able to escape without a key. They were at least able to verify that the prisoners didn’t steal anything when they left, likely because they were afraid of attracting attention.
The attitude of Hobble toward the caravan soured significantly once word got out, and they prepared to leave that day rather than stay another night. There was little to pack up aside from personal belongings, and the wagons were ready to go at the edge of town before noon. Room had been made in the back of one of the wagons for Carver and the wounded guard, but Luke had no chance to look in on them before they left. A fair crowd had assembled to watch them leave, and while several people scattered throughout looked cheerful and waved as they rolled out of the valley, many more had flat expressions while they watched the caravan. It was a far colder farewell than Luke had expected for the people who had saved their settlement. The only explanation he could think was the loss of the prisoners, but he couldn’t understand how it caused such a dramatic shift in their attitudes so quickly.
The fog had cleared away by the time they reached the top of the hill overlooking Hobble, giving Luke a clear view of the settlement when he looked behind one last time. The fields were off to the right from his position, more than half again the size of the town itself. Huges swathes of land were dead and black, like some festering disease that had invaded the valley. Even from where he was, he could see the where they’d digged holes to cut off the path of the fire. If they managed to ration enough food for the short term, it would still be a long time before those fields were as productive as they’d been a week before. Luke turned away and followed the caravan away from Hobble.