Coldheart and Iron: Part 11

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I awoke for our first day of preparation, I spent a few minutes savoring the feeling of having solid walls around me and basking in the comfort of knowing our presence was almost undetectable from the outside. I got so used to the constant fear of attack or discovery while between settlements and enclaves that I forgot how nice it was to feel secure or at least not afraid that I woke up because someone was sneaking around my tent. No amount of years spent in the field would ever make that fear go away for me. Anyone who lost it usually wound up dying to bandits or not strictly policing their heat signatures, so I wasn’t in a hurry to get rid of it.

Instead, I lay in my sleeping bag, stared at the ceiling, and wished I had a little privacy so I could wrap myself around Natalie. The Wayfinders had a large room to ourselves, but there was no door for the room and I couldn’t openly date a Wayfinder, even if everyone already knew Natalie and I were together. The chain of command does not allow for romance with one’s subordinates. Like most organizations with a command structure, it prevents the abuse of power by specifically forbidding anything that could seem like an abuse of power.

As the Wayfinders had turned from an informal group of people into a formal, militaristic organization, Natalie and I had discussed our options. We both decided to continue our relationship, but focused a little more on secrecy than before. Since our relationship predated the chain of command, we figured it was fine.

I was the first one awake, which wasn’t surprising since all the usual early risers had been awake for two days to find this place, so I pushed together a few camp stoves and started making a large pot of oatmeal. Using my powers as commanding officer, I requisitioned some of the dried fruit we saved for the days we really needed something less bland than dietary supplements and freeze-dried whatever. Once the oatmeal was simmering, I stirred in the fruit and one of the packets of brown sugar I kept in my personal bag for occasions just like this one.

In a world where most meals consisted of the ever-dwindling supply of grains, preserved meats, and a whole lot of questionable foodstuffs that was generated by whatever sustainable farming initiative our most-recent enclave ran, food variation held a special importance. Living in an enclave meant variety wasn’t terribly hard to come by, even if it wasn’t as wide as it would have been prior to the collapse. Living outside of one meant you ate what lasted a long time and didn’t weigh much.  I made sure that my people got variety on occasion, though. Since we were a larger group, it was easy for us to justify bringing a supply sled or two, depending on the length of the trip, and no one complained about the extra weight of towing frozen meat or root vegetables.

These supplies usually weren’t covered by our requisition allowances, so Camille or I generally bought it ourselves. Only Camille or I could authorize using any of the special supplies and we made sure to do it as a reward or a celebration. Usually one of us cooked it as well, to make sure everyone knew that it was a gift from us to everyone else. The only other time we got meat that wasn’t dried out was when a scout stumbled across a wild animal and could take it down without wasting a bullet.

The brown sugar was my touch, though. And my secret. Even if I dumped all ten pouches in, there wouldn’t be enough to drastically influence the taste, but mixing it in with the fruit gave it a little extra kick of sweetness that everyone enjoyed. When I wanted to give everyone a little boost without the extra time and more limited uses of our non-dried supplies, this was what I did. Got up first and made breakfast.

I got the usual murmurs of thanks as people quietly woke up and went about their morning routines. Every Wayfinder had an assigned job and would be able to take care of it themselves. Most of them were going to spend their day searching for supplies, one would stay here with the thermal reader to organize the laborer and nomad repair crews, and the rest were going to spend the day scouring the town for any humans living in the area. While thermal safety was the biggest priority by a significant amount, we needed to know what we could encounter in terms of less horrible but still possibly lethal dangers.

I spend my day near the building, coordinating the various supply search parties as they came and went, and giving some direction to the repair groups. I wound up sending a few of the more savvy nomads out with Wayfinders when someone reported a big find, but most of them stuck around the building as well, assisting with repairs and the start of modifications to the small office building we’d taken over.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we finally got a clean thermal reading on the building, aside from the front doors that the supply parties were using. There wasn’t much we could do about them other than set up a few things to prevent some of the heat from escaping while the doors were closed and prepare to seal the entryway when the blizzard started. It wasn’t the best solution since it’d get in the way of us fleeing the building if something happened, but it certainly helped with making the building more secure against possible invasion.

The scouts had found one group of humans, living outside the southern side of town in an office park that had been converted into a fortified shelter. They hadn’t been there the last time we had been through this town, but it had been a few years and nomadic groups occasionally settled down. We hadn’t made contact and none of them seemed to go into town, so Camille and I were content to do nothing but keep an eye on them.

Once I called off work for the night, as the final glimmers of sunlight disappeared behind the heavy bank of clouds on the horizon and people had started using their solar-powered lamps to work, we’d made excellent progress. More than I had even hoped, in fact. Trevor had been an amazing help keeping the laborers focused and working, keeping them focused on smaller goals like finishing the insulating quickly and correctly so they could start working on creating a latrine with stalls and privacy for the first time since we left the Madison Enclave.

After that, they’d even started on using some of the cubicle walls and construction supplies the Wayfinders brought to start partitioning their rooms into smaller, private rooms for the people who wanted them. Once the nomads found out that the laborers were willing to do the same for them, a lot of the residual hard feelings disappeared. When Trevor offered to do the same for the Wayfinders when I came to tell them to knock it off for the night, I refused despite my personal preferences. As a group, we spent a lot of time around each other and prefered living in a large group to living separately. Plus, the open room allowed us to better set up fortifications if we needed them and made it easier to do group meals which saved a lot of time, effort, and fuel.

Natalie was as disappointed as I was when I told as we shared cleanup duty after dinner.

“A little privacy would have been nice, Mar. One night every two weeks when neither of us is on duty and both Camille and Lucas are isn’t much.”

I nodded as I scrubbed my way through a stack of plates, handing them to Natalie for drying. “We had twelve days to ourselves just a few months ago.”

“That doesn’t count!” Natalie took the plate I was holding and poked me in the ribs. “We got stranded in a supply cache because we couldn’t make it back to our shelter before a blizzard.”

I winked at her. “And it was just the two of us.”

Natalie rolled her eyes and stacked the dry plate with the others. “I know you made the right choice, but it’s nice to imagine having some privacy.” I nodded as I scrubbed, feeling again the familiar tinge of disappointment that always raced through me when our time alone ended. Natalie took a deep breath and took the pile of dishes and cutlery back to stack beside our camp stove. When she came back, she leaned near me and spoke softly. “Don’t forget to go to the bathroom after making sure everyone has settled down.”

I turned my head toward her and smiled. “Of course not. I would never forget something as important as that.”

After an otherwise uneventful night, the second day dawned bright and surprisingly clear. I set aside our usual plans and had everyone bring out every solar-powered device and battery we owned so we could make sure they were fully charged before the blizzard started. After that, a few scouts went to keep an eye on the other humans, the rest of the Wayfinders returned to searching for supplies, and I started the laborers and nomads on turning our little office park into a fortress.

An old fire escape become a bolt hole that could be easily broken open from inside but almost impossible without explosives on the outside. The front door had barricades set up around the outside and even more in the interior entryway. Every room was fortified so the walls around their doors would stop bullets. I even had a hidden sentry post set up near the front door so someone could keep watch while we slept.

Once all of that was finished, I left the laborers and nomads to finish setting up their individual rooms and started bringing in all of the solar-powered devices. By the time the last Wayfinders had come back and the sun was touching the horizon, our base was ready to handle the blizzard.

As I walked around, inspecting the rooms, I stopped to watch a conversation between a few of the nomads and a small group of laborers headed by Trevor.

“Thank you so much for the rooms! This will definitely help the children relax.” The woman who had the two young children smiled and hugged the two nearest laborers.

Trevor smiled and shook her hand. “I hope it lets you get some rest as well! If we’re really going to be here for a week, then I think dividing the space up will help us not get on each other’s nerves too much.”

I walked in and clapped Trevor on the shoulder, matching his smile. “Seven to ten days, at this time of the year.”

Two of the nomads nodded in agreement and the woman in the front shook her head as she spoke. “At least it isn’t the winter blizzard. That one lasts for at least two weeks.”

“I prefer to be in an enclave for that one if I can swing it. Fifteen to twenty days is far too long to hole up in a building like this one without an equal amount of preparation time.” I idly scratched an ear as I thought back to the one time we’d been caught outside an enclave in a winter blizzard without adequate preparation time. We went through all of our supplies, including the stuff that was supposed to get us the rest of the way through out trip. Everyone had learned a lot that year and we took better precautions since then.

“Are they really that regular?” Trevor’s friend Mitch scratched at the beard he was growing and nervously looked over his shoulder at the entryway. “They never seemed that predictable in the enclave.”

I shrugged. “The Madison enclave hasn’t been connected to the net for a while and that’s a big part of accurate predictions. While the day of their arrival isn’t set in stone, their length is fairly predictable and the four storms circle the globe over the course of a year. Data from other enclaves that just saw the storms pass helps predict their arrival and duration elsewhere. That’s how we know this storm will be in the area some time tomorrow. The seven-to-ten days thing is just how long the spring storm usually lasts.”

I chuckled and stretched my arms. “At least we’re ready for this one and we’ve got the shelter almost ready to go. We should still have plenty of time tomorrow to wrap things up and gather supplies. It’ll be another busy day, so I think we should all settle in for dinner and sleep.”

Mitch and one of the other laborers nodded, but Trevor crossed his arms and looked down. One of the nomads cleared their throat and took a small step forward. “Of course.” He turned to the laborers and held out his hand to Trevor. “Thank you again for all of the assistance. We wouldn’t have been able to get this done without you all and we appreciate that you gave up some of your break time to make sure we were finished today”

Trevor picked his head up and took the man’s hand, smiling once more. “We’re glad to be of assistance. Anything to help out our neighbors and associates.” After a quick one-two pump, the two men released each others hands and lead their respective groups back toward their rooms.

I called out to them as they walked away. “Great job, everyone! Rest well!” I got a few half-hearted waves back and then turned back toward the Wayfinder rooms. Something about the whole exchange I had just witnessed unsettled me. Something else was going on here and I couldn’t think of what it could be. The two groups, who had been nearly ready to kill each other just a few days ago, were acting like nothing had happened. It made my life easier right now, for sure, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t going to do anything but make it more complicated in the long run.

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