Coldheart and Iron: Part 12

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I woke up early on the day the blizzard was supposed to hit. I lay in my sleeping bag, staring up into the darkness of our room and tried to settled myself down to sleep again. Unfortunately, my mind was awake and already going over the list of things I wanted to do before we got trapped in our shelter. When I hit the backlight button on my watch, the greenish glare nearly blinded me, but I was able to see that was only a quarter past four. Sunrise was still a couple of hours off and I’d only been asleep for about six hours. I sighed and, after one last attempt to sleep, climbed out of my sleeping bag.

I went through my morning routines quickly, foregoing breakfast in favor of checking the guard posts and grabbing a little fresh air. The town was almost as dark as the interior of the building had been. There were no emergency lights with power left at this point and the cloud cover was too heavy for anything but the faintest bit of light to filter through. The air was blowing from the west and I could taste the sharp bitter chill it carried when I inhaled. As I stretched my legs and idly looked around, I could feel the expectant tension in the air as if the town itself new the blizzard was coming.

When I went back inside, I started preparing breakfast. It was still early, but putting a cover on a pot of oatmeal on a low heat will keep it warm and from drying out for hours. When I was scraping up the last of the oatmeal in my bowl, the first people started to wake up. I watched them go through their routines and made small talk as they came to get food, but everyone felt the same tension that I did.

Aside from the various skills training required to qualify as a Wayfinder trainee, there wasn’t much formal training once you’d joined up. Every Wayfinder needed excellent marksmanship, the ability to survive and hide for extended periods of time with no additional resources, and to be in peak physical condition, but all of that was something people did before becoming a Wayfinder. The only bit of training every Wayfinder received once they had been accepted was to be shown a video from the beginning of The Blizzard.

Most people knew what happened to people caught out in a blizzard thanks to the evidence left behind, but few people had ever actually seen it and lived to tell about it. Few recording devices can survive a blizzard and most of those caught nothing but a blinding sheet of white. As far as I knew, and I had checked with every enclave connected to the net, this one video was the only recording to show anything.

One viewing was all it took for every Wayfinder to take it seriously. It was one thing to know that anyone caught out in a blizzard was killed. It was another thing to see it happening the very first time, to people who didn’t know what was coming. To see the carnage before it was covered by several feet of snow. To watch people dying and be unable to see what did it because the snow is too heavy to see more than ten feet away from the camera.

The part that always shocked people was when the tank rolled up in front of the camera. It fires into the snow a few times, but then some device latches onto the tank, pulls it into the snow, and then, after several human screams and the shrieks of stressed metal, a wadded up ball of metal half the size of the original tank rolls back into view. It totters on the screen for a moment before settling down and leaking a dark patina of fluid into the snow. After that, the video is silent and shows nothing but the gradual disappearance of the tank and mixed fluids.

Half of the new Wayfinders wind up quitting after watching the video. Most people want adventure and to get away from the cramped, sedate life of the enclaves. Very few are willing to accept the risks that come with the freedom once they’re aware of why we always need more Wayfinders.

Everyone in this room, making conversation as they went about their morning routines and tried to savor their breakfast, was thinking about that video. I’ve been out in enough blizzards that it doesn’t do much more than set me on edge. Most of the Wayfinders are in similar positions, but most of the trainees are still struggling to adjust. It is difficult to accept that the blizzard is full of dangerous killing machines on the prowl for any heat signature above freezing and we’re just going to sit inside our little building like we’re on vacation so the people we’re guiding don’t get freaked out.

Once the last person was awake, I hauled myself to my feet and moved through the room, encouraging chatter. We had half an hour before sunrise so I tried to get everyone out of their pre-blizzard funks. A few jokes, some lengthy stories of my early days as a Wayfinder, and promises of a dinner they wouldn’t forget did a lot of good. By the time the laborers and nomads were awake and ready to go, the only tension left was the weight of the blizzard itself.

We spent the entire morning searching the buildings Natalie and the scouts had marked, grabbing the stuff they’d set aside and bringing it back to where Natalie was cataloguing supplies and marking off the caches they had set up over the past few days. Every time I came back with an armload of boxes or bags, I was surprised to see how much the stockpile had grown. When I remarked as much to Natalie, she chuckled.

“You got that right, Mar.” She scribbled a few notes and pointed to a clear spot on the floor. “Pile those boxes there. We found an area of the town that hadn’t been picked over much. The area is pretty far from our usual paths since not many people go from Madison to the plains. We’ll be have enough stuff to set up a long-term stockpile. Maybe use this building as a recurring base for the area.”

“That would be wonderful. We could always use another cache since there’s not much in the area.”

“By my estimates, we’ll have enough for a group twice our size before the blizzard hits and, if we take a couple of days during the finals snows, we’ll be able to get this place geared up to be a semi-permanent supply station for the whole area.”

I whistled. “There’s that much stuff here? That’s incredible.”

Natalie directed two nomads and a Wayfinder to stack their boxes on top of mine and I jumped out of their way. “Yes. Now run along and keep working. There’s lots to do and you’re wasting time. Captain.” Natalie winked at me and gave me a mock salute as she ordered me off. I laughed and waved over my shoulder as I went. I passed Camille and Lucas on my way out and gave them both a cheerful grin. Lucas smirked back and Camille gave me a flicker of a smile as she strained with the four giant boxes she was carrying.

Lucas leaned over toward Camille and spoke in the loudest whisper I’d ever heard. “Looks like Captain’s in a good mood. What do you think he and Natalie were doing in the storeroom by themselves.”

Camille looked down at Lucas out of the side of her eye and grimaced. “If you poke me in the ribs because I won’t laugh at your joke, I’m going to dump all of these boxes on top of you.”

Lucas shifted his bags and leapt through the door ahead of Camille, his characteristic smile plastered across his face. “Fine, I’ll go tell Natalie. She’ll laugh at my joke.”

I shook my head and walked out of the shelter, waving at every as I went back to my assigned building to continue collecting boxes. It took a few more trips, but I managed to clean it out on my own. After that, Natalie assigned me a huge job, big enough that she suggested I take the sled in addition to a handful of other people.

By the time seven of us had loaded up the sled and picked the stuff we’d carry back as well, the first snowflakes had started to fall. We hurried back to the shelter and brought everything inside just as the snow started picking up. I did a quick headcount and sighed in relief when the last two Wayfinders came in through the door just as I started asking if anyone had seen them. Natalie stuck to organizing the supplies, focusing now on long-term storage within the shelter rather than just collecting and noting everything, I supervised sealing the front door. A few of the nomads stood around, watching as I sealed us inside the building and it took a few strongly-worded suggestions for them to move along.

Once it was finished and we verified there were no leaks in the seal, I directed the Wayfinders to verify that all of our work was holding up and checked the back exit myself. After they had all reported that we were good to go, I felt the tension in my shoulders start to drain away. We were inside and we were safe. I held on to the last bit of tension and went to help Natalie.

By the time the sun was setting and we started lighting our lanterns, we had finished sorting through the supplies. Camille had started dinner so, by the time I went to help her finish preparing it, there wasn’t much to do other than stir pots, flip frying meat, and keep the hungry Wayfinders back from the cooking area. After Camille had finished and we had dished out food to everyone, I checked in on the other two groups and found them together, cheerfully telling stories over their shared meal.

I watched them for a moment, happy they were getting along. Instead of interrupting their meal to make sure they were settled in for the night, I decided I’d wait a couple of hours. They’d be fine until then and I had a ton of clean up to do since Camille had done most of the cooking. I walked away from their pool of light back toward my own, listening to the howl of the wind as it raced around our building. We were safe and warm, with good food and cheer to help us through the next several days.

I felt the last of the tension drain out of me. We were as safe as we could ever be in this post-collapse world and I was looking forward to my first long rest since the last blizzard. Even if they were incredibly dangerous, I still appreciated them for being the only downtime in my otherwise busy life.

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