They weren’t on the road long before Luke found himself pining for the monotony of the journey prior to their arrival in Hobble. Tension permeated the air of the caravan in a way that it never had before. No one forgot that one of their number had died in the fighting, even when it often went unmentioned. From what Luke could pick up, it had been a long time since anyone had been lost while out trading with other settlements. There had been some talk about cutting their trip short to return to Crater, but a majority vote led to a decision to continue on. For such a comparatively large community, deaths were rare in the settlement, and no one was excited to return with the news that they were the first.
The caravan had changed in other ways, too. A rift had formed, creating discord where there had been none before. Simmons and the others who followed him were angry about the way they had been involved in the events in Crater, arguing that they had no reason to intervene in another settlement’s problems. Carver bore the brunt of their animosity for the way he’d led them to straight into the center of the events. Their resentment only grew worse in the days following the attack as they talked amongst themselves and grew more certain of who was at fault for everything that had happened. A number of others defended the old roamer, most prominently his two daughters. The rest of the caravan had no stake in the growing antagonism between the groups, but still had to bear the constant squabbles and arguments between them.
Luke fell into this last category himself, but he did feel a general dislike for Simmons, as well as sympathy for the old man and what had happened to him. Ella and Angela spent hours in the wagon with him each day, worried about his condition. Two days after they left Crater, Luke managed to catch Abby during a quiet moment to ask her about it.
“It’s infected,” she told him bluntly while they sat in the back of one of the wagons. It was a different one than where Carver stayed, used by Abby while she took a break from caring for him. “Not too bad yet, but if it gets worse there’s not much I can do out here.”
“How did it happen?” Luke asked. She shrugged wearily.
“Who knows? It could have been the night of the amputation. I boiled the tools, but the building I used was far from a sterile facility. I still believe amputation was the correct decision, but depending on how bad it gets he might die anyway. It’s all up to how well his body can fight it off, and he’s at an age where that starts to get difficult.”
Luke couldn’t even imagine the tough old bastard dying. “So if you can’t help him, what are you doing over there all the time?”
Abby shrugged. “Changing his bandages, cleaning his wound, making sure he gets fed. Anything I can do to keep him more comfortable, really. He’d never admit it, but he’s in a lot of pain. I try to keep him distracted with Ella and Angela.”
“Fuck,” Luke breathed, leaning back against the wagon wall. One of the wheels fell into a pothole, jostling the cart and slamming his head into the wood. “Fuck!” he said again, more forcefully. Abby gave a short laugh.
“Yeah, it’s not a comfortable ride in here. Imagine doing it with a freshly lost foot.”
Luke winced at the thought. “I’d probably be screaming the whole trip. Even getting stuck by a needle scares me, that sounds like a nightmare.”
Abby gave him a strange look. “What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I forget occasionally that you’re from another universe. Nobody gets needle injections anymore. I don’t even know if I’ve ever had one.”
“Oh.” There were so many things he didn’t think about that didn’t exist in this world. A bout of homesickness struck him without warning.
“Well, this will probably make Simmons happy when he hears about it,” he said to change the subject. Abby frowned.
“I’m not sure of that. He’s already asked me about Carver’s condition a few times, and he sounds quite eager for him to recover. I can’t imagine why, considering how busy he’s been painting the man as the scourge of humanity, but it’s an interesting development.”
“That’s weird.” Luke tried to imagine why Simmons would want Carver to get better. None of the possibilities seemed like good ones. “At least he’s probably not poisoning him or something.”
Abby laughed harder this time. “Oh believe me, he wouldn’t dare. Ella would slit his throat if he did something like that. Have you noticed he never argues to her face?”
Luke shook his head. Arguments tended to erupt around both of them, so he had tried to stay away as much as he could.
They were both quiet for a moment, watching the scenery pass beyond the wagon before Abby spoke again.
“I’d better get back, Roz’s bandage will need to be changed. Her wound is more manageable, but she’ll still need regular care. Bye, Luke.”
She left the wagon, and he followed soon after. Despite the rough ride, anyone who spent too long in the limited space tended to get glared at by everyone else. As far as Luke could tell, even with the increased tensions in the caravan no one actively disliked him, and he preferred to try to keep it that way.
Nevertheless, he felt compelled to intervene a few hours later when he heard a screaming match break out. He shied away from the confrontation at first, but when he saw that it was Felicity and Tony yelling at each other, he hurried over.
“I’m not your goddamn maid, asshole!” Felicity shouted. “It’s not my job to fetch you lunch because you swung a pickaxe a few times!!”
“I’m just saying it’s easier for you,” Tony said, his volume matching hers. “We all saw how quick you were at wiping out those bandits in the attack. Why not use it to make yourself useful now?”
Luke stepped up, ready to pull them apart, but Abby appeared first as if by magic. She murmured quietly to Felicity before speaking to Luke.
“Why don’t you take Tony away? I’ll walk with Felicity and both of them can calm down until they can act like adults.” Her last words were spoken with pointed emphasis to the pair in question, both of whom scowled. Luke moved to follow her instructions, pulling Tony away from the argument. Others were already staring at them, and neither spoke until they had moved off the road to walk parallel to the caravan.
“She can be a real bitch sometimes,” Tony said, still frowning. “All I said was—” he broke off as he seemed to realize who he was speaking to.
“Wait,” Luke said quickly. He could already see the beginnings of panic in the other boy’s eyes, but this was the first time they’d been alone together since the kiss. “Can we talk?”
“I don’t know if it’s the best time,” Tony said, averting his eyes. Luke resisted the urge to ask what could possibly make it a bad time, speaking as directly as he could instead.
“I haven’t told anyone what happened. And I won’t if you don’t want me to. But I hate having to avoid you all the time.” His heart was pounding, but it felt like the right decision to start the conversation. His commitment to his earlier decision to let Tony come to him had waned with the passing of days as it became clear that he had no inclination to seek Luke out.
Tony glanced back toward the wagons one more time, then sighed and led Luke farther off the road, away from anyone who might overhear their conversation.
“It was an accident,” he said, looking at Luke as if daring him to disagree. “I was worried that the chromutes were going to find us, and relieved when they disappeared and it just…happened. It didn’t mean anything.”
“Fine,” Luke said. “I get that. But if you want to talk about it, I’m here. That wasn’t my first time kissing another guy. If you want to pretend it never happened, that’s ok too. But I don’t want to never talk to you again.”
“Wait, it wasn’t?” Tony asked, his eyes widening.
“No,” Luke said, amused by his shock. He tried to hide his reaction; his gut said that it was a very bad time to be laughing. “I’m gay, Tony.”
“Wait, really? But I thought—I don’t know, that you just went along with it. I didn’t think—you’re gay?”
Now Luke did have to bite his lip to hold in his laughter. He hoped Tony didn’t notice. “Yep. I came out two years ago in my world. I’ve only been in one real relationship since then, but I’ve never had to hide who I was. It’s a really good feeling. Freeing.”
“And people just…do that where you come from?” Tony spoke as if it was a completely foreign idea.
“Yeah. There’s a lot of places where it’s still not ok to be openly gay, but where I live people mostly just accept it. It’s not like that here?”
“I…don’t know,” Tony said. His voice was quiet, without a trace of bravado. “No one ever talks about it in Crater. I’ve only ever read about it in books. I’ve never met someone who was actually…” He trailed off and stared at Luke. Luke started to get a bad feeling.
“Maybe it’s best if this stays between us for now, then,” he said. “Like I said, it’s mostly accepted, but bad stuff still happens to gay people in my world. I don’t know if it’s the same here.”
Tony was already shaking his head. “I’d never tell anyone, don’t worry.” He glanced over toward the caravan. “We should go back, but…do you think we could talk about this more later? I have to think.”
Tony reached out hesitantly and touched Luke’s shoulder. Then he walked back toward the caravan, shouting out to a guard with his usual confidence. Luke started back himself, only to realize that he never found out what Tony had been arguing about with Felicity.
“The bastard wanted me to hunt food for him and his friends! Like his time is so much more valuable than mine!”
Felicity was still heated when Luke sat with her and Abby that evening.
“And the way he brought up what happened at Hobble, like it wasn’t a big deal—” she broke off, shaking her head. “He can be such an asshole sometimes. Killing that cryptsil swelled his head to about twice the size. I wonder if it hurts to have it shoved so far up his ass.”
“I don’t know,” Luke said, looking over to the fire where Tony sat laughing with Simmons and the other guards he hung around. “Everyone has a reason for how they act.”
Both Abby and Felicity looked at him strangely. “Like what?”
“I don’t know,” Luke said hastily. “I’m just saying, there’s always another point of view.”
“That’s quite an enlightened view,” Abby said, smiling. “But I’m afraid you’ll be here all night if you try to convince Liss of that.”
Sometimes someone’s just a dick,” the other girl shrugged. “Doesn’t matter what their excuse is, the end result’s the same.”
“Yes, and I could point out more than a few times when you were that ‘someone’,” Abby responded. “It wouldn’t kill you to have a little more empathy for others.”
“Maybe,” Felicity said. “But what does the hero of Hobble over there have to worry about?”
“I have a question,” Luke breaking in before Abby could respond. “I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, Abby. About how this universe is so different from mine, like with the needles. And I realized there’s still a lot of things that I don’t understand about this world.”
“Like what?” Abby asked.
“I don’t know, a lot of social stuff,” Luke said. He hoped his reasoning was convincing enough. “Like if someone’s gay, for example. It probably varies between settlements, but how is that handled in Crater?”
The two women frowned at each other. “I don’t know if anyone’s gay in Crater,” Felicity said slowly. “Nobody I know, for sure.”
“It’s not really an issue,” Abby said. “No one I know of has come in to talk to Adriana or anyone else on the medical team about it, and people talk to us about everything. I don’t think there is anyone like that, at least in the settlement.”
Luke nodded, but he figured in a town of Crater’s size, statistics virtually guaranteed there were least a few homosexuals, even if they kept it to themselves. “But what do you think would happen if someone showed up who was gay? It’s just such a big issue in my world, it’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that it doesn’t happen here.”
“Nothing, I would assume,” Abby said with a shrug. “It just isn’t something we deal with. Is it really that prominent in your world?”
“Definitely,” Luke said. “More in the last ten years or so, but it’s always been something people fight about.”
He tried to explain the argument revolving around homosexuality and the gay rights movement, but when he got to pride parades both women looked at him like he was from another planet.
“The things you people have time for,” Felicity said, shaking her head.
“Well it’s a huge part of their identity for some people,” Luke objected, feeling defensive. “It’s an opportunity to express themselves, so they don’t have to hide who they are from anybody.”
“I think she meant that the resources for such an endeavor would need to be allocated far differently here,” Abby said diplomatically. “In any case, the debate you describe sounds like it centers primarily around religion. That might be why it’s such a non-issue in Crater. Very few people adhere to the formal faiths that were common in the old world.”
“Really?” Luke asked, surprised. “But there’s so many old people there. They have to have been Catholic or whatever, right?”
“It turns out that the end of the world can do a lot to shake people’s belief.” Abby said. “And anyone who still believes tends to join settlements where they can be among others like them. Crater has acquired a reputation for its lack of religious feeling, so it’s become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is something that a few people have talked to Adriana about, feeling ostracized because of their religion.”
Luke was surprised. Religion was so pervasive in his own world that he expected to be the same here. The fact that it was sparse in Crater was potentially a good sign for the general view on homosexuality, but he wasn’t holding out much hope, considering how little Abby and Felicity knew about it. It wasn’t much longer before he bid his friends good night and pulled out his sleeping bag. Luke fell asleep listening to the sound of Tony and the security people with him laughing around a fire late into the night.
There was one more person Luke wanted to speak to after his conversation with Tony, but Abby was with him almost all the time, and he didn’t find an opportunity for several more days.
“He’s getting worse,” she told him when he asked about Carver. “He has a fever, and he’s barely able to sit up in the wagon. I don’t know what to do other than try to get to Darkend sooner, but even there I’m not sure they’ll be able to do much for him.”
She hovered around the old man for most of the day while they traveled, and Luke had to wait for an opportunity when she took one of her rare breaks. He didn’t want her to be around when he brought up the same topics that he’d spoken about with her. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like there was ever a time when at least one of Carver’s daughters weren’t with him, so he resigned himself to Angela’s presence when he went to see the old man. Her smile looked forced, but her greeting was friendly nonetheless.
“Hey, Dad, Luke’s come to say hi.”
The roamer gripped the edge of the wagon to pull himself up, a task that took a few moments. He looked…frail. Far more so than Luke had ever seen him before. His face was deathly pale, and he’d lost weight in the few days since they left Hobble. Every stray bump caused a grimace of pain to cross his face. Bandages were still wrapped around his foot, though it looked like Abby had resorted to tearing some of the cloth for trading to ensure that his entire stump was covered.
“What do you want, kid?” he asked. Even his voice sounded weaker, though he still managed the tone of exasperation Luke had come to expect.
He hesitated before answering. “How are you doing over here?”
“I lost a foot and apparently I’m dying, judging by how often she’s back here,” he said, jamming a thumb toward Angela. “Now what do you want?”
“Dad!” Angela said forcefully. “You’re not dying. Don’t be dramatic.”
“It doesn’t feel like living, I can tell you that. But you came over here for something, spit it out.”
“I…had a question, and you’re the only one here who’s not really from Crater.”
He snorted, a sound that turned into a racking, painful cough. He took a moment to catch his breath before speaking. “You don’t know how I feel about answering questions by now?” Despite his words, he gestured impatiently for Luke to continue.
“I was wondering if you knew how people in Crater, and other places I guess, would react to finding out someone was gay?” He was going about his question in a less circumspect way than he had with Felicity and Abby, but he doubted Carver would answer unless he was as direct as possible.
“What, you’re a poof?” he asked.
“Dad!” Angela said sharply. Luke felt like he’d been slapped.
“What? Doesn’t make any difference to me. Stick your genitals wherever you want, I couldn’t care less.” He sighed, and his face tightened in pain when the wagon jostled him around. “Look, it depends on where you go. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s somewhere out east where they’re open about it. People tend to cluster around others like them. In Ark, you’d probably be stoned on the spot if they found out. They’re Old Testament over there. Crater, far as I know, they just don’t talk about it. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Angela glanced at him askance, and Carver looked a little surprised himself at the length of his speech. “Fuck, I’m getting old,” he muttered.
His words more or less confirmed what Luke had suspected about Crater. It sounded like they had some kind of don’t ask, don’t tell policy which was…less than ideal. It could have been worse, but it was a far cry from the acceptance he’d found in the old world. It also went a long way toward explaining why Tony was so confused.
Having gotten the answer he wanted and still embarrassed by Carver’s earlier comment, Luke moved to leave, but was surprised when the old man held up his hand.
Luke paused midway through the act of jumping out of the back to look back at the old man.
“There’s something you need to know,” he said. Even with his infirmity, there was a gravitas to his words, as if what he was saying was a matter of life-or-death. Luke returned to his place in the wagon.
“I just learned that Langrendi, the elvish settlement, is the last stop on this trip,” he said.
“Dad,” Angela said in a warning tone. Luke was impressed with how much mileage she could get out of that one word. Carver waved her off.
“You’re not bad in a fight if you can get over this thing where you shut down,” he went on. “You’re a quick thinker and that’s the most important thing. Everything else can be taught.”
Angela looked torn, but she didn’t interrupt her father.
“There might be trade between elves and humans now, but they weren’t always so friendly toward us. It used to mean a battle every time we ran into each other—dwarves, orcs, all of ‘em. And believe me, someday it’ll be that way again.” He made the effort to reach over and grab Luke’s arm. His grip was still strong despite his illness, and a feverish light blazed in his eyes.
“You can’t trust them. And in a one-on-one fight, any of them have a physical advantage over us. So we have to be smarter.”
“Dad, enough!” Angela said, finally stepping in to take his hand away from Luke. “No one wants to hear this.”
“It doesn’t fucking matter,” Carver snarled. “This world doesn’t reward you for burying your head in the sand and ignoring the truth. Be prepared or be dead. I’ll tell the same thing to every damn human I can get in earshot.” He turned back to Luke. “Elves are faster, much better reflexes than any human. But they tend to react the same way every time. Fake a few shots, then fire where they’re going to be. Dwarves have hard skin, even harder than a cryptsil. But a bullet—or a hammer’s even better—can still bruise or tear their insides without ever breaking the skin. Aim for the head if you can, the brain’s the best target. And orcs are big and strong, but two in the head and two in the chest and they go down easy enough. Just make sure you don’t let them close in on you.”
He spoke quickly, with the cadence of a rehearsed speech. Luke was shocked by the brutality of his words. Angela was uncomfortable, but short of physically intervening with her handicapped father, there was little she could do to stop him. Carver spoke again, saving Luke from the necessity of finding something to say.
“I expect you won’t take me seriously right now—hell, you’ve never even seen the things. But just keep it in mind. When they do start stirring shit up,—and they will—humans will lose if we have to learn all of this over again. And that can’t happen.” He spoke in an entreating tone that Luke had never heard before. Carver believed what he was saying, that the elves and other creatures with them were a threat to humanity.
And then Luke realized something else. Carver truly thought he was going to die. He wouldn’t speak with such urgency otherwise, fight so hard to make sure that Luke of all people knew what he wanted to tell him. Even the thought of an orc charging him was enough to make his legs go wobbly. Not to mention he didn’t even know how to use a gun. But the old man was probably telling the same thing to everyone he could find.
But now it seemed he was done talking. He looked tired in the wake of his outburst, and he allowed himself to fall back, propped up by some blankets Angela had laid out for him. She leaped off the wagon with Luke and spoke to him away from her father.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said, shaking her head. “He’s always had a thing about the elves. He was pissed when he found out we’re going up there.”
“Why does he hate them so much?” Luke asked.
She hesitated. “It’s a long story. He wasn’t wrong when he said that we weren’t always on such good terms with them as we are now. There was fighting for a long time, and he was pretty heavily involved in it. He’s never been very good at letting go of old grudges.”
“I guess I learned something, if nothing else,” Luke said. “I’m not sure if it’ll ever be useful, but now I know it.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Angela said with a wry smile. “The elves are probably one of Dad’s worst blind spots, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. It’s been years since there’s been any conflict, and I doubt that’ll change any time soon. It got pretty bad on both sides.”
Luke nodded, and she returned to the wagon to watch over her father. He spent the rest of the day alone, pondering on everything that had happened. There were implications to his conversation with Carver that were interesting, but Tony still occupied most of his thoughts. He went to bed that night resolving to speak with him again the next day.
“I need to talk to you.”
Luke didn’t even jump at the ethereal voice that came from behind him. The moment he’d looked around and seen the empty lot where they’d fought the cryptsil, he knew Sandy was around somewhere.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” he said, turning around. “I thought of a few more stories you might like.” His smile fell as he took in Sandy’s appearance. She looked worried, and while he’d tried to teach her proper facial expressions with some success, he wouldn’t have thought much of itt without the all-black funeral dress she wore, a better indication of her state of mind.
“Is Carver going to die?” she asked, sounding close to tears. “I try to talk to him every night but he won’t let me in his dreams, and I looked at him during the day and his foot’s gone! And he doesn’t move, and he looks like he’s in pain all the time, and he’s pale, and—”
“Hey,” Luke said gently, pulling her into a hug. She was floating in agitation, so his arms were wrapped around her waist, but she clutched at his shoulders anyway. “It’s gonna be ok. He’s been sick, but he’s getting better. His foot might be gone, but he’s not going to die.”
“You promise?” she asked, sounding more like a little girl than ever before. She was very insightful in some ways, but in others she reminded Luke of nothing so much as an eight year old girl.
“Yeah,” he said, trying his best to sound upbeat. He did believe what he was saying. Carver might have been sick, but the strength he’d shown made Luke think that he would eventually recover, even if the man himself thought otherwise.
“Then why won’t he talk to me?” Sandy whined. “Does he not like me anymore?” Luke tried to disengage from the hug, but the floating girl kept holding on.
“Maybe he just doesn’t want to see you when he’s like this,” Luke suggested. “I’m sure he’ll let you in again once he feels better.” He was intensely curious how Carver managed to keep the dream girl out of his head, but it was not the right time to ask. Sandy was truly distraught, and he was a little surprised that she thought that highly of the roamer.
“Ok. I believe you. He’ll be fine. Everything’s going to be fine.” She was muttering to herself and flying higher and higher.
“Uh, Sandy?” Luke said to bring her back down. She gave him a furious look, which he hoped didn’t signal her actual reaction. “Since you’re here, do you want to hear a story? I have a good one.” He thought it might cheer her up, and he spent a lot of time thinking up the stories he wanted to tell her. Mostly he tried to stick to Greek and other mythological tales, but some creative liberties were always necessary.
“All right,” she said, returning to the ground. Her dress changed to another black skirt, but it was more goth rather than funeral attire. She sat on the ground, hugging her legs as she waited for him to start.
“Ok. There was once a man named Daedalus, who worked for a king named, uh—Palpatine…”
The story of Icarus and Daedalus mashed up with Star Wars was a big hit with Sandy. The first draft had included Sharknado, but Luke had rejected that premise. He had his artistic integrity. At the end of the night, Sandy asked him for reassurance one more time.
“He’s really going to be ok? I’ve never seen him look like that before.”
“He’ll be fine. Carver’s the toughest person I know. He won’t let something like this do him in.”
“Ok. You better be right.”
With that, the familiar darkness overtook Luke once more.
He saw Abby when he went to get breakfast. She looked more exhausted than he’d ever seen her, with dark rings around her eyes.
“Unless a miracle happens in the next few days, Carver’s going to die,” she said by way of greeting.