His whole world was darkness. Luke floated through an empty void, half-aware, unable to wonder where he was or what had happened. He had no conception of how much time had passed. After a second, or an eternity, light crept in. With nothing to illuminate, there was little to distinguish it from the darkness at first. Then color faded in, breaking the monotony of his blank existence. A building became visible, gray walls that stood resolute within the obscurity. A second structure followed the first, then another, and another, and the leak became a flood as ground, trees, and sky filled in his vision.
As the void gave way to reality, Luke’s mental faculties followed a similar arc. He was capable of recognizing that the images filling in before him were that of Crater, though deserted without sign of habitation. He was able to wonder what had happened to him, though his memory failed to provide any usable answers. By the time the voice called out to him, Luke was aware that he was not thinking as well as he normally did. But he was capable of recognizing the voice.
“You’re in trouble, Luke.” He saw that Sandy wore an uncharacteristically sober expression when he turned to face her. For once, it seemed to reflect her actual mood.
“What happened?” He felt groggy, disjointed. He didn’t think that he normally felt this way when Sandy pulled him into a dream.
“You hit your head. I did what I could, but you’re probably gonna have a pretty big headache when you wake up. But you have bigger issues than that.”
“Why? What’s going on?” As his thoughts returned to him, he started to feel alarmed at Sandy’s solemnity. Even her clothes were muted, a white sundress far less whimsical than her usual attire. “Is it Carver?”
“No, I think he’s fine, it’s not that. There’s people coming your way. A lot of people. With guns.”
Luke put his palm to his head and struggled to think through the fog. “Coming this way…toward Crater?” The elfish girl nodded. “That can’t be good. Did you tell anyone else? Like Sarah?”
“I don’t talk to a lot of people in Crater, and you’re the only one who’s asleep right now. Well, unconscious, but close enough. I don’t know who Sarah is.”
Something seemed off about what she said, but he couldn’t hold the thought long enough to put the pieces together. Forming complex associations was like trying to grab at water with his hands. He focused on what she was saying. “Shit. How long until they’re here?”
“I don’t know. Time’s hard for me out there.” She rolled her eyes continuously for a few seconds. “Less than a day for sure.”
“Ok.” Luke struggled to think of something else that might be helpful. “How many were there? Did you recognize any of them?”
“A lot. More than a hundred, I think? I didn’t see anyone I know.”
“Fuck. I have to tell people. Can you wake me up?”
“Yeah. I’ll do it right now. You’ll be a little groggy, but if I did everything right it shouldn’t last long.” Even as she spoke the words, darkness crept back in as the landscape disappeared.
“Luke,” she said, and before continuing. “Don’t die. Please stay safe.”
Even in his addlement, Luke felt like he should try to comfort her. “I’m not planning on it. Thanks for the head up.” He grinned at her, and a weak reflection of the expression on Sandy’s face was the last thing he saw before the darkness overtook him once more.
Luke awoke in a large room, his head pulsing with pain. He instinctively touched his forehead and felt a cloth wrapped around it. Even with the pain, his mind felt clearer and the dream loomed large in his memory. He sat up, stifling a cry as the pounding intensified, and took a better look at his surroundings.
At least twenty beds filled the room, though only two or three were occupied beyond his own. The walls were white, and raised curtains crisscrossed the ceiling. They looked like they could be lowered to provide privacy for each bed. He caught sight of Abby at a desk near the door and called out.
“Abby—” He tried to say more, but the pain of speaking stunned him into silence. Groaning quietly, he saw the girl turn toward him, surprise evident on her face.
“Luke! You shouldn’t be awake yet—” she hurried over to his bedside. “You took a pretty bad hit. I expected you to be unconscious for another day, at least. You should try to rest.”
“I don’t think there’s time. People are coming.”
Her eyebrows rose. “What are you talking about?”
“I—had a dream.” Too late, Luke realized how ridiculous his story would sound to someone who didn’t know about Sandy. A drumbeat pounded against his skull.
“It’s all right,” Abby said soothingly. “The dream wasn’t real. You’re in Crater now, you’re safe.”
“No, we’re not.” Luke considered how to convince her that he was telling the truth. “I remember I hit my head. On the rock, right?”
“Yes, Tony dragged you to the canyon and we carried you back,” Abby said slowly. She sounded nonplussed by his urgent tone.
“Check me for a concussion. I don’t think I’ll have one.”
“Luke, you are almost certainly concussed. You were hit hard enough that I had to stitch up your wound to staunch the blood. You might have permanent memory issues from this.”
Luke gently touched the side of his head and felt the ribbed edges of the stitching. “Just check,” he pleaded. “Can’t you look at my eyes or something?”
Abby sighed “Follow my finger.” She held up her hand and moved it back and forth in front of Luke’s face. After a moment she frowned and put down her hand. “Hold on one moment.”
She walked to her desk on the other side of the room and returned with a lit candle. She thrust the flame in front of each of Luke’s eyes, frowning deeper as she stared at his pupils. “What’s the name of this settlement?”
“And do you remember where you were before you hit your head?”
“Yeah, the cave by the river,” Luke said clearly. “Past the crevice with Tony, Naomi, Felix, and Felicity.”
“Hmm,” Abby said. “Your memory seems good and you’re more or less clear-headed, with the exception of this dream. It might not be as bad as I thought, which is a relief, but I you should try to get some rest.”
“Please,” Luke said desperately. “Can you just ask Sarah to come here? I’ll relax after that.” There a niggling thought in the back of his mind that she had to know about Sandy, whatever the dream girl said. He couldn’t articulate why.
Abby closed her eyes for a moment. “Fine. I hope she’s not too busy.” She walked over to talk to another clinic staff member nearby. Luke watched the young man she spoke to nod and leave the building. Despite the step forward he’d taken, the knot of tension in his chest didn’t loosen at all.
“All right, Luke. Will you sit back now?”
Reluctantly, he nodded and laid back in his bed. Every moment that passed was torture as he imagined a huge group of armed people shooting their way into the setllement. Realistically, he’d only been awake for a few minutes, but every second felt critical.
There was little else to do, however, until Sarah arrived and he could explain the situation. With nothing else to occupy him, he turned the problem of Sandy’s words over in his mind until he finally realized why it had been so odd that she didn’t know Sarah. When he’d first come to Crater, Sarah had implied that she had been the one to orchestrate his transport between worlds. If Sandy had been the one to actually take him, how would she not know who Sarah was?
It was a question that would be quickly answered, hopefully. Luke forced himself to wait patiently, telling himself that they had plenty of time before the attackers arrived. Nevertheless, he felt a burst of relief when the door opened and the young man Abby had sent out returned. The feeling fell away the moment he saw his face. The young man’s eyes were wide, his expression scared. He had returned alone. Luke knew what was coming next before he spoke.
“There’s people at the entrance. An army! They shot the guards and came through the gate.”
It was already too late.
Abby glanced at Luke before focusing her attention back on the frightened young man.
“How many are there, Innes? How did you get away?” Her voice was steady. Luke wasn’t sure if she was just that calm or hadn’t fully grasped the situation yet.
“I don’t know. I only saw a few before I ran for it. They were pulling people off the street, holding them at gunpoint. I ran back this way before they saw me.” He looked at Abby. “They’ll get here before long, though.”
“Some of the patrols will have to realize what’s happening soon,” Abby said. She sounded like she was thinking out loud. “If we open the armory and get weapons to enough people, maybe we can fight them off. But…” she looked over at Luke.
After a moment she nodded to herself and seemed to come to a decision. “Innes, can I trust you to look after the people here? We can’t move them.” Other than Luke, most of the patients scattered in beds around the room were unconscious.
Though he was ashen-faced, Innes nodded. “What are you going to do?”
“Luke, can you walk?” Abby asked. He got out of the bed slowly, testing his balance. Though his headache flared, the pain seemed to be gradually receding. He didn’t have any problem standing. “I think so.”
“Good. I don’t know if they know you’re a Tether, but we can’t take that chance. We have to get you out of here.”
Luke nodded and Abby turned to Innes. “If Adriana finds out what’s happening, she’ll come here first. Just bar the doors and try to hold out until then, hopefully she’ll have a better idea of what to do.”
“Be careful,” he replied. “I didn’t see them shoot anyone once they got in the gates, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t.”
Luke and Abby left the hospital, glancing around the street to see if anyone else was around before stepping out. The area was deserted, an unusual sight for midmorning. Luke wondered how fast word would spread that the settlement had been invaded. Hopefully faster than the invaders could advance.
Abby touched his shoulder and pointed to a cross street. He nodded and followed her lead. They crossed a number of streets in quick succession, heading deeper into the settlement, away from the outskirts. Luke kept his head on a swivel, certain that at any moment he would find the barrel of a gun in his face.
After a few minutes, they started to see others walking around outside once again. Apparently they were traveling faster than news of the attack.
Luke started to ask if they should warn the four or five people out in the open, but as he opened his mouth a gunshot rang out, frighteningly close. He whipped his head around to see a pair of men standing at the end of the street, one with a gun held up in the air.
“Nobody move,” he shouted. An older man, perhaps fifty, started to bolt but froze when the attacker leveled his gun and fired again. It was either a warning shot or he had the worst aim in the world, as the bullet ricocheted off of a stone building a dozen feet to the side.
“That includes you, old man,” the gunman drawled. He looked like a cowboy without the hat, wearing a flannel shirt, tight jeans, and cowboy boots. A shock of red hair blew in the wind, unwashed and disheveled.. His partner, dark-skinned and almost half again as tall, loomed over him wordlessly with his own revolver in hand.
“All right gather up, come together now.” Without lowering his gun, the young man—he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Luke—herded the people to the center of the street, including Luke and Abby. Once there, he glanced around the now empty block.
“Any of you got any friends who’d like to join this little party? No? Guess you wouldn’t tell me if you did, would you? That’s all right, guess you lot will do for now.”
“What are you doing here?” A woman asked. She was clutching at the arm of a man next to her. Though they were in good shape, both had to be in their seventies, easily. “What do you want with us?”
“What I want is for you to march down this street so we can join your pals. Nice Bob and I are just here to make sure you behave.”
“Nice Bob?” the man who tried to run looked at the big man, a tremor running through his voice. The figure glared back at him.
“Yeah. He got the name on account of his sparkling personality. But every nice guy has his breaking point, so I’d still step carefully.
“He likes the sound of his own voice,” Abby murmured. Red Hair glanced their way and Luke didn’t respond.
“All right, everyone get moving. Sooner we go, sooner we’ll get there.”
“Get where?” the scared man asked. Red Hair spat.
“I already told you, with all your friends. One big party for you Crater folk.”
The last member of their group, a mousy woman in her thirties who looked vaguely familiar to Luke raised an eyebrow. “You’re rounding us up? You wouldn’t happen to have been at Hobble, would you?” Her words sparked Luke’s memory. She was one of the traders who’d been on the caravan trip. He’d traveled with her for over a month and never even learned her name.
“Nope. Never heard of the place,” Red Hair said, far too casually. He gestured forward with his gun. “I don’t see you lot moving. Do I gotta shoot a kneecap to get us going? Nice Bob wouldn’t have a problem dragging you over there.”
Nice Bob grinned and cracked his knuckles. Reluctantly, the six of them began shuffling forward. After a few minutes of silence, Abby spoke.
“Where did you come from?”
Red Hair looked at her incredulously. “Do you think I’m that stupid? I’m not gonna start shootin’ my mouth off the second a pretty girl asks a question. Keep walking.”
Luke saw Abby give a tiny sigh.
“At least tell us why you’re doing this,” the older woman said.
“We’re doing this ‘cause you all been making naughty plans,” Red Hair said, wagging his finger. “We ain’t do it now, you’d be doing the same all over in a year’s time.”
“Preposterous,” the man who’d tried to run said. “Crater would never resort to such savagery! How could you possibly believe such nonsense?”
“Right, y’all are just paragons of virtue up here, never hurt a soul in your lives.”
“Well, for the most part, yes,” the same man said. “I can’t speak for the entire settlement, but most of the people here are good. We would never attack those beneath us! Someone has been feeding you lies!”
“Beneath you?” For a moment, his casual air slipped and Red Hair dropped the Southern accent. “Whoever said anything about anyone being beneath you, old man? Seems like it might be the other way around at the moment.”
“Kill him, McGee,” Nice Bob said, speaking for the first time. Red Hair stopped to look at his companion.
“Nah,” he said after a long pause. “You gotta look at the big picture Bob—”
He was cut off as a bullet ripped through his spine, spraying blood through the air and sending him crumpled to the ground. Everyone took off running, and though Luke saw Nice Bob raise his gun, but he turned a corner before the big man fired. He ran for several blocks before he realized no one else was around and slowed down, breathing heavily.
A few moments later, Abby turned a corner and slowed down next to him.
“Thank God. I thought I lost you.”
“Yeah, I just ran out of there. I don’t even know what happened.”
“I think a patrol found us, but truthfully I’m not sure either. I don’t believe anyone was eager to stick around.”
“Do you know what happened to anyone else?”
Abby shook her head. “They could have gone anywhere. I hope they didn’t get caught again.”
“Yeah, that old couple didn’t look like they should be running around too much.”
“Yes, well, they should be fine. Everyone in Crater still pulls their weight, no matter their age.” There was a note of pride in her voice.
“Those guys really didn’t like this place though,” Luke said. He felt a chill remembering the casual tone Nice Bob had used to suggest murder.
Abby looked around. “We need to keep moving. They’re probably all over Crater by now, it’ll be a miracle if we don’t stumble into any more of them.”
Luke nodded, and they resumed walking. Five minutes later, her prediction came true. Abby cut down an alley toward a major thoroughfare, only to back up quickly and put an arm over Luke when she glanced into the street ahead.
“Fuck,” she said in a low voice. Luke carefully peeked out to see eight people making their way down the street, four on each side. Every time they passed a door, they kicked it open and briefly swept through the interior. A single guard was left near the entrance to watch the street while they were inside.
“Can we find another way around?” Luke asked.
“Maybe. We have to cross this street, but if we move farther down we might be able to pass by without attracting notice.” As she spoke, she peered out toward the street and Luke saw her expression darken. He turned himself to see one of the groups exiting a cabin similar to his own, pushing an elderly couple out the door at gunpoint. They looked even frailer than the people that Luke and Abby had been caught with before. One man broke off to lead the couple back down the street, keeping his weapon trained on them the entire way.
“Where the hell are they taking them? I don’t understand what they want.” Abby shook her head, glaring toward the people threatening the terrified couple.
“Me either. But I think that woman might have been on to something back there?”
Abby glanced at him. “You think these are the same people who attacked Hobble?”
“I don’t know. There’s more of them from what Innes said, but it seems like a pretty big coincidence for there to be two well-armed groups running around attacking settlements.”
“Maybe. But that doesn’t help us at the moment. We should back up and find another cross street.”
Luke nodded his agreement, and they turned away back toward the previous road. Abby’s eyes lingered on the retreating forms of the gunmen as they left, but she didn’t say anything. She knew as well as Luke did that they would have little chance against eight armed foes.
They traveled in the opposite direction that they’d seen the invaders, hoping they were still only near the gate they had come in. Luke followed Abby’s lead. He could generally figure out where he was going, but Abby’s knowledge of the side streets and alleys was far superior to his. He noticed while they traveled that the streets were even emptier than before. He could count on one hand the number of people they passed by, and several of them already knew about the attack before they warned them of it. It seemed word was getting around quickly, for which he was grateful.
Eventually they ran into the same main thoroughfare where they’d caught sight of the attackers, now much farther down the street. Luke didn’t see anyone when he glanced around the area, and they moved through the open space quickly and without incident. Once on the other side, Abby led him into a residential area that looked vaguely familiar to Luke. All of the houses were in some amount of disrepair, and a few had been dismantled entirely. Weeds grew tall through cracks in the sidewalk, while the height of the yellow grass in the yards made them look like miniature wheat fields. No one lived there. Luke glanced at Abby, but the girl seemed confident in where she was headed.
A few streets later, they walked into a cul-de-sac and his memory of the area crystallized. Luke saw the house where he’d first met everyone, that first day with Naomi. The roof was sagging in the back, as if it were about to cave in, and what little paint remained looked like the slightest breeze would carry it off into the sky. Abby marched up to the door and pulled out a rusty key from under the doormat. She opened the door after a moment of effort with the lock and they both stepped inside.
The windows had been long since stripped of their glass, but faded curtains still left the room in semi-darkness. Luke saw that the bottles were still there. He vaguely remembered Tony promising to clean them up and smiled.
Abby turned to him. “I think it should be safe here, at least for a while. I doubt they’ll go through every building in town unless they’ve already quashed all resistance.” And then it wouldn’t be safe anywhere. She paused for a moment before continuing. “I’ll try to get someone out here when it’s safe to leave.”
Luke opened his mouth, but before he could say anything the door slammed open. He and Abby both tensed, but when he looked toward the opening he saw Tony running in.
“Dad!” he yelled, stopping short when he saw Luke and Abby inside. “What the hell? What are you guys doing here?”
“Presumably the same thing you are,” Abby replied. “You heard about the attack?”
“Obviously. I was working over by the entrance. I barely got away before they started shooting.”
“And now you’re looking for your dad?” Luke frowned.
“Yeah. This was our panic spot to meet up if something ever happened. If he’s not here…”
“He’s most likely with the Committee,” Abby finished. “I’d imagine they’re a high priority target for the invaders.”
Tony’s face twisted into a grimace. “Fuck. I gotta find him, then we can figure out a plan to stop these bastards.”
“How?” Abby asked bluntly. “By running around a town full of people with guns until you stumble into him?”
“I don’t know!” Tony said. He paced, looking like a caged animal in the confines of the living room. “It’s not like sitting here would be any more useful.”
“Of course not. But walking back out there without a plan is suicide.” Tony stared at her, tense, and she returned his gaze calmly. Luke broke the strained silence.
“There have to be people who are fighting back, right? Didn’t you say something about an armory before?”
Abby glanced at him. “I suppose, but…” her eyebrows creased.
“He’ll be there.” Tony’s voice was certain. “If anyone’s fighting back, they’ll need guns to stand a chance.”
“And if these people were smart, they’d make sure they got over there first,” Abby retorted. “It wouldn’t be difficult to learn where their stored with the number of prisoners they must have.”
Tony shrugged. “It’s a place to start.”
“A place to start getting shot.” But Abby looked at him and sighed. “I suppose you’ve already made up your mind.” He nodded firmly. “Then I’ll go with you.”
Tony’s eyes widened at that, but he nodded again. “I can’t sit back while these fuckers take Crater over.”
“I…agree.” She sounded resigned. “Luke, you should be safe enough here for a time—”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “I’m going too.”
“Is that a good idea?” she asked. “You’re not exactly a fighter.”
“I can protect myself,” Luke said defensively. He looked over to Tony, who wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“I mean, wouldn’t you rather stay where it’s safer? We could die out there.”
“Would you?” Luke retorted. “I’m not gonna sit here while you guys go do dangerous shit.” He imagined sitting there with nothing to do for hours on end, unsure if anyone was alive or dead…anything was better than that.
“What if you have one of your…episodes while we’re out there?” Abby asked. “We probably won’t be able to wait for it to pass.”
“I haven’t had one for a long time,” Luke said, averting his own gaze. “I’ll be fine.”
“Fine,” Tony snapped, losing patience. “Whatever. Can we just go? We don’t have time to stand around arguing all day.”
Luke looked toward Abby, and she nodded reluctantly. “As long as you can swear you won’t shut down out there.”
“I promise.” Even now, scared of facing armed men without so much as a stick to defend himself, Luke didn’t feel the kind of heart palpitations that indicated one of his attacks. Maybe being terrified so often had made him immune.
“All right, let’s get the fuck out of here,” Tony said. “We gotta be fast, they’re probably halfway through the settlement if no one stopped them yet.”
The trio left the ruined home.