Abby expected an argument to get the caravan moving faster. Simmons was getting worse by the day as he gathered more influence within the caravan, and she doubted he would care to expend any effort to save Carver’s life. But she pushed the feeling down deep when she went to speak to him, permitting only the concern of an advocate for her patient to blossom within her conscious mind. As a result, she felt little surprise when he quickly agreed to her proposal.
“You’re certain he’ll die if we don’t get to Darkend?” He swallowed a piece of jerky while awaiting her response. Abby only nodded. Exhaustion was a physical process that wasn’t so easy to dismiss when inconvenient, and caring for Carver had taken its toll. The desire to curl up in the back of a wagon, however, was something that could be pushed down. At least up to a point.
“Then we have to move as fast as we can!” Simmons said enthusiastically. “I may disagree with the man, but we certainly can’t allow him to die if we can prevent it!” Most of the toadies around him hastened to agree, but Tony—who had been spending more and more time around the mustached man—frowned at him thoughtfully. Abby made a mental note to speak to him about his choice in friends when she had more time—a thought that grew like a bubble in a cauldron, rising to the top for only a moment before bursting and falling back beneath the surface.
Most of her attention was still devoted to the matter at hand. “Good. I already told the drivers that we have to speed up. We’ll go as soon as you’re done eating.” If she wore no mask, Abby would have hated the necessity of such a political process to save a man’s life, but in her current state the emotion barely registered. Similarly, only a brief flash of annoyance flitted through her when Angela and Ella came over to bombard her with questions. They already knew the answers, of course, but she patiently went over every aspect of their father’s condition anyway. When she wore her caretaker mask she only allowed herself the thoughts and emotions that were suitable for such a situation. None of the feelings were manufactured—she couldn’t force on a mask that would change who she was—but everything that didn’t fit within her role was pushed down to her subconscious. It was only once Ella and Angela left, and Abby was alone, that the mask dropped and the unwanted feelings surfaced.
Foremost in her mind, as it had been for days, was the wish that Adriana was there. Abby was out of her depth caring for Carver, and she worried that everyone she interacted with knew it. Someone better than her might have been able to prevent his infection before it started. She had no business cutting off someone’s foot. It was incredible that no one had even tried to stop her when she had proclaimed it necessary. Instead, Ella and Angela—grown women, both of whom she’d known for years—looked to her for answers. It was astounding.
But there was no one else, so she carried on as best she could. The drivers called out the start of the morning’s journey, and Abby sighed and jogged back toward the wagon Carver was kept in. He was unconscious, but she fell back into her healer persona anyway. It was impossible to imagine caring for him without it. She replaced the lukewarm cloth wrapped around his head, never thinking that it was a poor alternative for a cold compress. There was no consideration that any comfort she could provide was comparable to a drop against the tidal wave of his constant, unending pain.
She was forced to tear a piece of cloth—silk, maybe—that had been meant for trade in order to give Carver a fresh bandage. One of the traders had complained about the loss, but Ella had taken care of that particular problem. The shouting provided a good outlet for her negative emotions.
A brief glow of satisfaction smoldered within her when she saw that the wagons were moving faster than the day before, like a reward for a job accomplished. Then she glanced down at the sick old man, and her mask slipped. The severity of his condition crashed down on her. Even in his sleep he was breathing heavily, and the sweat was shining on his forehead. He’d been unconscious for more than half of the previous day, and when he did awake, his eyes had been glassy and dull. Abby had no idea what resources they had access to in Darkend, but saving him would take a miracle.
After a moment her mask fell back into place and the turmoil of her thoughts ceased. It stayed in place for the rest of the day, which she remembered later only as a haze of tiredness. Roz was capable of changing her own bandages by now, so Carver was her full-time and only responsibility. She did her best to not only care for him, but to create jobs for Ella and Angela to aid her. It was Adriana’s voice that reminded her that making friends and family feel useful, if possible, was a worthwhile endeavor. Although he didn’t improve, Carver also failed to worsen by the day’s end when Abby had to collapse into a bag, unable to even keep up the pretense that she was still capable of caring for him without rest. Her sleep was—thankfully—without dreams.
Abby, without a mask, felt a little more optimistic when she awoke the next morning. A night’s sleep did much to improve her outlook, as did a quick meal of a leftover deer some of the guards had hunted the previous day. Her spirits were buoyed as she returned to the back of the wagon where Carver stayed.
They would have plummeted immediately when she was met by Ella at his bedside, had the mask of the healer not already been in place.
“I think he’s worse,” the trader said, glancing toward her father. “He was talking in his sleep last night and thrashing around, even with his leg.”
Abby saw that the old man did look paler than he had the previous day, and he was sweating through his sheets. She could feel the heat radiating from his wound even through the bandage. Gravely, she looked at Ella.
“What do you think the chances are that we make it to Darkend today?”
The trader woman looked around at their surroundings. The climate had been getting gradually drier over the past few days, and the terrain was starting to resemble a legitimate desert.
“I don’t know,” she said. “At the rate we’re going…it’ll either be tonight or sometime tomorrow.”
“It had better be tonight. Once he’s started going downhill like this, it’s hard to stop.” Preserving hope was important, but there was also a time to speak frankly. If anything, she was still overselling his chances.
They informed the traders driving the wagons, who promised to squeeze all the speed they could out of the horses. The healer’s persona permitted a vague worry for the health of the horses, but Carver was her primary charge. At least they had a map of water sources in the area.
The pace of travel proved to be more contentious than it had the previous day. Abby wanted to move even faster than before, and while both horses and people were theoretically capable of such a prolonged trot, complaints started flowing in stea. It wasn’t even half an hour into the day’s travel when the wagon came to a halt. Mentally rewiring herself into her advocate persona, Abby hopped out of the back and walked around to the front to see a number of people clustered around the driver.
“We can’t keep going like this,” one of the traders was complaining. She noted he was one of the larger people in the caravan, his bald head already soaked in sweat. He wasn’t fat, precisely, but he was certainly heavier than the average resident. “You might get to sit up there with the horses, but the rest of us are running behind you.”
“He’s dying,” Ella said, baring her teeth at the man who spoke. “I’ll trade places with any one of you if it’ll get you to shut up, but if it was your dad back in that wagon I bet you’d find a way to keep running.”
“My dad was never responsible for the death of a resident,” a guard said loudly. “Maybe he’s not worth the effort.” Ella stalked toward the man who spoke, but Angela laid a hand on her shoulder.
Abby opened her mouth to speak, but someone else beat her to it. “There’s no need for so much hostility! We’re all from Crater here, surely we can find a solution.” Simmons put his arm across the chest of the guard glaring toward Ella, speaking in a reasonable tone. Suspicion was part of an advocate’s makeup, but Abby listened to what he had to say.
“What about this? If it’s so urgent to get Carver to the nearest settlement, we send his wagon ahead with just a few guards. Everyone else can follow at a slower pace and we’ll meet up at Darkend.”
Ella stared at the mustached man she’d clashed with so often over the last few days. Angela whispered something in her ear. With a sigh, she nodded at him.
“Perfect!” he said, clapping his hands. “Does anyone else have an objection?” No one spoke.
“Then I would be pleased to accompany the wagon myself,” he went on. “I don’t want any man’s death on my conscience when it might have been possible to prevent it.”
His complete reversal in attitude was concerning, but the idea was a good one and Abby could think of no good reason to prevent him from accompanying them. He wouldn’t step anywhere near Carver, though. The healer mask in particular would brook no threats to her patient.
“Ang and I are going too,” Ella said, looking around as if anyone might think of saying otherwise. Abby and the wagon driver rounded out the group, and they left the others behind soon after.
There was barely enough space for Carver and two other people in the wagon bed with all the other trading goods inside. Abby stayed by his side for the entire day, while Ella and Angela switched off every few hours. No one ever offered Simmons a place in the wagon, a fact that didn’t seem to bother him as he ran alongside the trotting horses, in good shape for his age. Occasionally the people on foot would fall behind the wagon, but the horses needed frequent breaks and they were always able to catch back up.
Carver himself floated in and out of consciousness several times. Even when he was awake, he’d often speak in nonsensical ravings, a development that nearly brought Angela to tears when she saw it. The old man’s loss of lucidity was a further sign of his deterioration, but Abby had long since exhausted all the possibilities she had access to for reversing his condition. There was little for her to do but feed him and water him, keep him clean, and try to bring his fever down. The day was unconscionably slow in passing, and Abby still didn’t know if they would make it to Darkend that night. Asking Ella would be counterproductive, as it would do nothing to increase their pace and might add to her worry.
As dusk overtook the day, bathing the landscape in a lurid red glow, the driver stopped the wagon to rest and water the horses. The environment was all low-growing shrubs and dry, baked ground, but they’d stopped at a few streams during the day and weren’t in any danger of dehydration.
“I think we’ll make it,” Ella said, a catch audible in her voice that Abby had never heard before. “If we keep going a little after dark, we can get to Darkend tonight.”
Abby nodded in response. Seeing her father raving had shaken the woman more than she thought.
“Do you think they’ll be able to help him if we get there in time?”
The question was obvious, but not one that either of Carver’s daughters had asked before. Likely because they were dreading the answer. Abby factored that into her response.
“Maybe,” she hedged. “If they have access to any kind of antibiotics, it could help him. If they don’t…it’s hard to say.” Not a lie, but perhaps more optimistic than the truth of the situation.
Ella nodded, squeezing her eyes shut. “It’s a big settlement. They have to have something to help him.” She was speaking to herself more than Abby.
They pressed on at an even harsher pace after resting. The moon was high and near-full in the sky, allowing them to continue even after night fell. No one asked to halt for any longer than necessary for the horses, but a bubble-thought led Abby to wonder how long it would be before the runners were too worn out to continue.
She never found out, as they reached Darkend only an hour into their night travel.
Wooden walls surrounded the boundaries of the town, tall makeshift barriers that were big, but didn’t look like they’d been made with any particular skill or expertise. A pit surrounded the outside of the walls except for a single break where it looked like a gate could rise to allow entry. Peering down, Abby saw that pointed stakes lined the bottom, sharp enough to gut anyone unlucky enough to fall in. Any view of the settlement itself was obscured by the walls, and no one intercepted them or seemed to notice their arrival.
Predictably, Angela was the first one to get over her hesitation and call out.
“Hey! We need help! Is anyone there?”
There was silence for a moment, then a head popped up over the top of the wall. The incongruity of the sight made Abby frown. There had to be walkways up against the other side of the barriers, they were far too high for anyone to see over any other way.
“Ah, hold on,” the woman on top shouted back. “Give me a second.”
The caravan group waited in silence as the woman disappeared back below the wall. After a awkwardly long wait, the squealing sound of rusted metal echoed from within the settlement and the gate began to rise. After the excruciatingly slow mechanism was raised high enough for a person to pass under, the ear-piercing sound finally ceased and a trio of people made their way out from inside the settlement.
In the lead was an older woman with short cut gray hair and lines over her face with a no-nonsense expression. Behind her was the brunette girl who had peeked over at them, glancing around and looking unsure of herself. She wasn’t much older than Abby herself, maybe somewhere in her mid-twenties. On the other side of the older woman was a sleepy looking man who barely seemed to know what was going on. He didn’t offer their group more than a quick glance, anyway, and only yawned in acknowledgement of the strangers. All three did carry handguns holstered at their side, and Abby noticed Simmons’s hand drift toward his own hip.
“All right, who’re you lot then?” the gray-haired woman asked. She had a british accent, and out of the three was the only one who held herself with any semblance of authority. Simmons stepped out in front before anyone else could speak. Officially, the traders were supposed to make any contact with people outside the settlement, but while Ella gritted her teeth, she apparently wasn’t inclined to push the issue at the moment.
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Percival Simmons, and we are an advance group of traders hailing from Crater. We have—”
Instantly, all three of the people facing them stiffened and looked more alert, the young woman actually putting her hand on the butt of her gun. Abby frowned. She wore her advocate mask and wasn’t inclined toward bewilderment, but their reaction was excessive. Relations were tense between Darkend and Crater, but the two settlements still engaged in regular trade.
“You’ll have to leave,” the woman in charge said. “We’re not interested in trading at the moment.”
“Wait!” Ella cried. “We have someone who’s sick! We need your help, he’ll die on the road!”
The woman hesitated, but shook her head. “I’m sorry. We can’t let anyone in—”
“Can you get Carrie? Or Arthur?” Ella asked desperately. “I’ve traded with both of them before, they know me.”
“They can’t overrule this right now. No one’s coming into the settlement.” There was a hint of sympathy in her voice, but both of her companion’s hands still hovered near their guns. “You’ll have to go elsewhere.”
“Surely there’s some way we can—” Simmons started, but Angela spoke over him.
“Alex! Get Alex!” she said loudly. “It’s his dad who’s sick, he can vouch for us.”
“It’s just not pos—his father?” The gray-haired woman stopped short. “Your sick man is Ernest Carver?”
“Yes!” Ella shouted. “Look, he’s right here.”
The Darkend woman glanced in the back of the wagon, then turned back to the two younger people with her.
“Wait with them here. I have to go talk to some people. You all just stay here a minute.” Her companions nodded and she jogged off through the gate back into the settlement. An uncomfortable silence took hold between the two groups.
“We’re not here to do anything,” Angela finally said. “I just want to find help for my dad.” The two guards were at least not poised to pull out their guns anymore, but they were still tense in the presence of the Crater residents.
“It’s nothing personal,” the young woman said. Her voice was high-pitched, perhaps scared. “We have orders that no one from Crater—”
“Shut up, Millie,” the other guard said. He was leaning against Darkend’s wall now, but his eyes scanned their group every few seconds.
“What? They seem like nice people,” Millie said. Her companion rolled his eyes.
“I’m sure you’re all great,” he said, addressing the Crater group. “But let’s wait for Sandra to get back before we start getting all buddy-buddy.”
“What’s the problem?” Ella demanded from behind the wagon. She had gone back to sit next to her father, but now stood up to look down at the two who were with them. “I’ve been here half a dozen times before and it was never like this. Why do you hate Crater all of a sudden?”
The man against the wall shrugged. “You’d have to ask the folks inside. That’s above my pay grade.” He looked meaningfully toward his partner, who nodded hastily.
No one said much after that until the gray-haired woman returned. She carried a long surfboard with her along with several loops of rope.
“All right. We’ll take him. They’re going to treat him inside the settlement, but no one else other than whoever’s been taking care of him can come in.”
“That’s bullshit,” Simmons said. “We’re not going to stand out here and—-”
“That’s fine,” Ella said. “Just hurry, please.” Simmons looked furious, but the three Darkend guards moved quickly to transfer Carver onto the surfboard and tie him to it with the rope. Abby disapproved of their rough handling, but at least they were efficient. It wasn’t long before they were hauling the old man through the gate while she followed close behind.
Once inside, the older woman left the other two to carry their cargo while she laboriously lowered the gate using a nearby turncrank. From the inside, Abby could see the system of walkways that spanned the length of the wall. Ladders were raised at regular intervals to allow access to a ledge high enough to give a view over the structure. Behind them, wooden supports bore the weight of the ledge and reinforced the wall. The gate itself was connected to the turn crank by some kind of pulley system. It was an interesting piece of construction, but Abby quickly put it out of her mind in favor of her patient.
After the gate was back in place, sealing Abby off inside the town, they walked on in silence save for the occasional grunt by one of the guards. The settlement itself was fairly similar to Crater and Hobble, made up of repurposed buildings from the old world, but unlike the bustling streets of Crater, there was not another soul in sight. The eerie quiet would have been unnerving had she not still been wearing her advocate mask, but with it on the feeling was relegated to a remote corner of her mind.
They reached a large building that looked like it might have once been some kind of government center judging by the large bronze seal inlaid on the door that reflected the light of the moon. One of the guards moved to prop open the door, and Abby was momentarily shocked to see actual functioning fluorescent lights buzzing within. Three or four people inside turned their heads toward the new arrivals and ushered them through a door in the back once they saw the unconscious man they were carrying. Abby moved to follow, but stopped short when she got a good look around the first room. All around the walls were shelves stocked to the brim with medical supplies. Gauze, bandages, and tools were all present in quantities rivaling Crater’s own stores, but they were newer and looked more professional than anything Abby had ever seen. Rather than pieces of cloth torn and boiled to be repurposed into bandages, the goods on the shelves actually looked like they’d been designed for medical purposes. It was easily the highest quality medical station Abby had seen in her entire life.
Her astonishment was interrupted when one of the people who’d been inside, a woman in her mid-forties with a haggard look about her, started questioning her about Carver’s condition.
“How long since the infection took hold?”
“Where did all of this come from?” Abby asked. “You can’t have scavenged all of this.”
“We have a man who looks like he’s clinging to life over there,” the woman said, jabbing her thumb at the door they had taken Carver through. “I’m not wasting time on pleasantries. How long has he been sick?”
Nodding, Abby took a moment to reorient herself into her professional persona. “Four or five days. He’s declined quickly within the last two.”
She answered a series of rapid-fire questions about Carver’s amputation and the aftermath, but stopped short when she glanced over at the wall again to see someone tipping a liquid from a large jar into a cup with a straw.
“Is that some kind of antibiotic?”
“Focus,” the woman said sternly.
“But there’s so much of it!” Abby said, unable to contain herself. “Why would you even harvest that much? It’ll go bad within a few months.”
“We know what we’re doing here,” her questioner said. “Do you want to save that man’s life or not?”
Tearing her eyes away from the shelves, Abby struggled to put her mask back on. She shut out any thoughts but those that were absolutely necessary to save Carver. Once the woman was finished with her questions, she called the guard back over.
“We’re done here. She can go.”
Reeling from what she’d seen, Abby didn’t protest when the trio who had brought her guided her out of the medical building back toward the gate.
“Don’t bother waiting around,” the gray-haired woman told her on the way. “Tell your friends to move on. He’ll have to find you when he gets better. If he even wants to.”
Her odd words barely registered to Abby, whose mind was still back at the supply shelves that she’d seen. She had always thought—and been told—Crater had the best medical facilities in existence since the old world fell, but the materials in Darkend blew their own supplies right out of the water. It didn’t make sense a settlement a fifth the size of Crater could possibly assemble such impressive stores. Some of what she saw hadn’t been manufactured in twenty years!
There were only a few anchors that tied Abby to who she was as a person, regardless of the mask she wore moment to moment. Foremost among those anchors was the belief that Crater was the best humanity held to offer, that it offered the greatest chance to restore civilization to what it once had been. Seeing her home so casually surpassed within her own field shook her to her core.
Her mind raced through a circular pattern of thoughts over and over without the regulating presence of a persona until the gate was open again and she returned to the wagon. Once the others began questioning her, Abby had no choice but to force the healer’s mask back on.
“Do you think they can help? Does he have a chance?” Ella spoke with urgency while Angela stood next to her.
“I believe your father’s chances are as good here as they would be in Crater itself. Perhaps better.” Both women let out a sigh of relief, tension visibly draining from their frames. Apparently they’d been more cognizant of the precariousness of Carver’s situation than Abby had thought. Maybe her own expressed worry had exacerbated their own fears. She debated whether to caution them that his recovery was still not certain, but Simmons spoke first from the side.
“So how do we get him back then if they won’t let us in? We just wait out here until he’s better?”
Abby looked over to the man, distaste filtering through her imperfect mask. She had little doubt that his aid had only been offered because he saw some kind of profit in his actions.
“No, the guards will not permit us to stay beyond their walls. We will have to move on, and trust that Carver will seek us out on his own when he recovers.”
“That’s unacceptable,” Simmons nearly shouted, then caught himself and moderated his tone. “There has to be some kind of compromise to be had. Surely you won’t leave without seeing your father recovered?”
Ella and Angela glanced at each other. “How long will it be before he improves, do you think?” Angela asked Abby.
“In the best scenario, several days,” she said. “Possibly weeks. It’s difficult to say. He will be quite weak for some time after the fever breaks either way.”
“The caravan can’t wait that long,” Ella said. “Especially since this is the second settlement where we won’t get any trading done. Maybe we can check in on the way back, but…he’ll be staying in Darkend for a long time anyway.”
“Yes, hopefully he’ll have recovered enough to join us on the return journey,” Simmons said. “I suppose there’s no other option.” He turned back to the wagon. “I hope the guards won’t begrudge us one night outside their walls while we wait for the rest of the caravan. I, for one, am quite exhausted after our journey today.”
Abby narrowed her eyes at his back while he pulled a sleeping bag from the wagon. Now that her stewardship of Carver was at an end, she had changed masks almost without realizing it after speaking with Ella and Angela. Suspicion came much more naturally when she acted as a guardian. A thought struck her, but it was neither the time nor the place to voice it. She convinced the others to move away from the walls over Simmon’s objections, and before long they were all laying in their sleeping bags. Once again, Abby’s thoughts drifted freely in the mist between sleep and wakefulness. But time and again they returned to the wall of supplies she had seen in Darkend and their superiority to anything found in Crater. The memory agitated her on a visceral level, and yet she could do nothing to push the image away. Her last thought was a wish that she could manage to keep her mask on even while she slept.