When I next saw Lucas, it took everything in my power not to throw my gun to the ground. He jogged up to the group while we were taking our noon break, waving his way past the sentries. He wore his usual beaming smile, but I can see the worry in his eyes when he stopped in front of me. Behind him, and the reason for my urge to angrily throw my weapon, I could see a large group of people moving on the horizon.
“What did you find?”
“Hold on, Mar.” Lucas held up a hand gestured to a bit of clear space away from the sentries and the resting laborers. “Let’s step over here, quick. Officers only.”
I nodded and beckoned to Camille and Jonathan, our second-in-commands. Once we were a far enough away from everyone to have a whispered conference without being overhead, I took a deep breath and gestured for Lucas to speak.
“It was a group of nomads. Seven families for a total of thirty-one people. Twenty-three of them are combat capable and they have the firearms and ammunition to arm them, but two of them are currently pregnant and five of the rest are under the age of eighteen.” Camille shook her head at that, but I cut off the argument that Lucas was about to start.
“We can discuss child soldiers later, right now just keep giving me your report.”
Lucas grimaced but continued. “They had a semi-permanent residence on the periphery of Chicago, traveling through the old suburbs and living off the supplies they could find in old superstores. They moved out a couple of months ago when a large group of bandits moved into the area and the Chicago enclave decided they were too much trouble to chase off but not enough trouble to worry about.”
“That stacks with the last reports we have from the Wayfinder net.” Jonathan mimed swiping through a touch-screen display. “They’re on the fourth page of the Chicago report, so even the Wayfinders agreed they weren’t a big deal.”
“Makes sense. Those ruins are too picked-over to support anything larger than a few dozen people.”
“That’s what the leaders of this nomad group said, Mar.” Lucas wiped at his eyes, a nervous tic he’d had since we were college students together. “They were doing fine until they headed west. They ran into some bandit scouts, well-armed ones, so they’ve been on the move toward the plains ever since, trying to make themselves more trouble than they’re worth.”
“A few, and only technically. No casualties on either side and only a few rounds shot by the nomads each time they see bandits catching up to them or sneaking up on their camp.”
“They’re trying to figure out their gear.” Camille crossed her arms and growled. “Shitlicking bandits are trying to get them to waste all their ammo on scaring them off so they can sweep in and clean up. We’ve seen tactics like that in the more militarized bandits. They’ve probably got a base they’re operating out of and they’re waiting for their main forces to show up before attacking the nomads.”
“Thanks, Camille.” I nodded toward the horizon, where the large group was growing slowly closer. “So you brought them back with you.”
“Yessir. I couldn’t leave them to die to a bandit attack like that.”
“So you brought them to join us so we could also die in a bandit attack?”
I took my goggles off and pinched the bridge of my nose as I squinted through the glare. Without my goggles to cut the sunlight from this unusually bright day, I couldn’t see the nomads on the horizon anymore. As I put my goggles back on, I spent a moment wishing this decision wasn’t in my hands. Once I’d adjusted the strap again, I cracked my knuckles through my gloves and started issuing orders.
“Lucas, you’re officially in trouble for this. It is against Wayfinder policy to pick up groups of nomads and offer protection to additional people while escorting a group that has paid us. We’ll worry about your punishment later because we can’t risk Mr. Eidetic Memory here when there’s someone else qualified.”
I turned to Jonathan. “Go with Lucas. Start cataloguing their gear and make a note of everything that either is a weapon, can be used as a weapon, or can be made into a weapon. When we make camp, I’ll need you to assess their abilities. Take a few hunting to augment our supplies and see how they stack up. Tell Natalie I’ve given you the run of our supplies outside of basic essentials.”
I turned back to Lucas. “Once you’ve brought them up and introduced me to whoever their leaders are, you are to backtrack until you find traces of bandits or an excellent ambush spot. Take all the scouts and whatever guns you need. Don’t worry about silencers. The more of them that know they’re facing a real force, the fewer we’ll have to shoot.”
“Camille, get this group moving. While I’m dealing with the nomads, you’re in charge of these people. We don’t want them mixing right away. Start figuring out if any of them have skills we can use or if any of them can fight. I don’t want it to come to that, but we need to be ready.”
Once I stopped, I looked each of them in the eyes and nodded. They saluted and hurried off to take care of their tasks. I had a while before the nomads caught up to where I was, so I started getting ready. A few small adjustments to my gear and I looked like the figure on the posters of Wayfinders they post in the hiring offices. I returned to my backpack, finished my meal, and started going through the pockets of my pack. Once I found the notebook and pencil, I flipped through it until I fought a blank page.
Suitably armed for my upcoming encounter, I slung my pack up on my back and started out toward the nomads. By now, they were close enough to make out distinct figures, but I lowered my head and focused on crossing the snowy landscape. Even with the goggles, the glare from the sun made the distance hard to judge. Every few minutes, I’d look up again until I could start to make out distinct features and spot the Wayfinders Lucas had taken that morning, who were scattered around the periphery of the nomads.
When they were a quarter of a mile away, I stopped moving and looked them over. They moved sensibly, the large people out front and the smallest ones in back, with a couple of adults back there to keep an eye on the children and function as a rear guard. They had good coats and packs, so they clearly knew what they were doing, but I could tell from the way they weren’t constantly looking around that they hadn’t fully adjusted to living in the wilder parts of the midwest.
Once they reached me, everyone stopped and started the process of having a quick meal. Three of the people from the front of the group moved over to me and one, a tall woman with a runner’s build, held out a hand.
“I’m Brianna. Your scout told me you were the famous Captain Marshall. I couldn’t believe our luck.”
I took her hand and shook it perfunctorily. “I wouldn’t count yourselves lucky, yet. You’ve got bandits trailing you and I hope you know that your tactics so far haven’t done much.”
“Shooting in their general direction has chased them off. That’s been good enough for me.”
“Well, if you want protection from my Wayfinders, you’re going to need the permission of the group that hired us to guide them and to agree to do everything I tell you without question.”
Brianna nodded. “We will ask and you will have our complete obedience. I know how effective you Wayfinders are and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my people safe.”
“Good.” I counted the heads of the nomads and watched as Jonathan moved the camp, talking to the people who were eating. “We’re officially too big to have any chance of hiding from any group we run into, so there’s going to be a lot of fighting before we get to Des Moines.”
The woman and her two companions nodded. I gestured for them to get back to their meal and went to talk to the closest Wayfinder. After leaving instructions for her to make sure they set a pace to catch up to the other group by nightfall, I started out, heading back toward my company using the trail I’d made getting there. I caught up a couple of hours later and, as the sun was just touching the horizon, the nomads caught up to us. Luckily, the laborers were good sports and, when presented with the results of their hunters, were more than happy to share our guidance and protection.
While the nomads and laborers made friends over their fresh meat, I called all of the Wayfinders together and we made our plans for the first signs of a bandit attack. There was the usual amount of joking and banter among the veterans, but that quickly faded as everyone focused on their roles for the next few nights. Being a Wayfinder might be a prestigious position and one of the few things you could still do in the post-collapse world if you wanted to live freely, but it also had a high mortality rate. Now, we would begin the most dangerous part of our job.