Coldheart and Iron: Part 14

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


After a lot of stretching and a good amount of grumbling, everyone finally broke through the inertia of the last several days and started on their assigned tasks. Leaving two Wayfinders behind to guard our shelter, Natalie took us all north. Three people abreast, we started digging our way through the loosest snow on the top of the drifts and piles. I took point and we dug until we’d passed the powder before moving forward. It was awkward to have three people with snowshoes and shovels digging shoulder-to-shoulder, but we eventually hit our rhythm and started progressing more quickly.

Behind us, led by Natalie, five people dug out the rest of the path, scooping up the packed snow and tossing it back and to the sides were people on snowshoes used it to form barriers to prevent more snow from getting blown into the path we were digging. Anyone who wasn’t a primary digger was ducking into buildings we passed for supplies we hadn’t collected earlier or tidying up behind the heavy diggers.

Every fifteen minutes, the heavy diggers rotated, swapping out with the people who were just toting supplies around. Every hour, the front diggers traded jobs with the people using the heavy snow to border the path. Midway through my fourth shift, we reached the edge of town. There were still drifts beyond the borders of the town, but most of snow had been blown away in the high winds or had caught up against the edge of the town. Some of the drifts reached all the way to the top of the few two-story buildings where the town abruptly shifted from businesses on what used to be the main road to some kind of farmland.

Natalie called a break and I sat down to rest with everyone else, grateful for the chance to give my back a break from all of the shifted and moving. It kept my abs rock-hard, which I appreciated, but my back was starting to protest that I was too old for such heavy labor. Natalie paced around, checking the map she held in her hands against the landscape around us. As I watched her mutter to herself as her head swiveled around, one of the Wayfinder trainees to my right, a woman named Tiffany, nudged my arm.

“Water bottle, Captain.”

I took the proffered water bottle and drank a few small swallows, barely enough to wet my mouth. We had more work to do shortly and I didn’t want to get slowed down. Once I was done, I passed the bottle to my left and settled back against a snow bank to rest for the remainder of the break. A moment later Tiffany grunted.

“I have a hard time believe that map can mean anything in a world like this.”

After a moment’s pause to see if she was talking to someone else, I shrugged, keeping my eyes closed. “If you know what to look for, you can start to see things beneath the snow. Big enough landmarks are usually always visible.”

“How does she know which ones are which, though?”

I opened my eyes in time to see Tiffany waving her arms at the great white expanse that stretched to the horizon, dotted with white pillars and mounds haphazardly spread around. I looked over at Natalie, watching her take a finger off of her map to point at one of the less remarkable white pillars. “Practice, mostly. Plus, she’s got a knack for the kind of visualization required to see beneath the snow.”

“Sure, sure.” Tiffany nodded but then held up her hands in hopeless supplication. “I just want to know how she does it! Any explanation at all.”

“You’d have to ask her, then.” I settled back against the snowbank and closed my eyes again.

Before I had even finished settling into a comfortable position, I heard Tiffany’s voice raised in a half-shout. “Lieutenant Captain Natalie!”

I sighed and opened my eyes, watching Natalie look up from her map, the focused expression she wore being replaced with an annoyed one. “What?”

Tiffany, who’d been waving her hand, slowly dropped it. “Sorry, er, I was wondering how you could figure anything out using maps from years ago when everything is covered in snow.”

As she walked over, Natalie smoothed her facial expression. “I know where roads are and signposts that mark out locations and miles on roads make distinct snow piles. If I can find the roads and the mile markers, I can find out where the other landmarks are by comparing distances between the mile markers and my map.”

Natalie turned the map around to show the satellite imagery map she had marked almost beyond comprehension during our many trips through the Midwest. “I’ve got a lot of notes about how the storms like to pile the snow and the other Navigators in the Wayfinders all take similar notes that we upload to the net, so we can compare how the world around us changes as the snow slowly blankets the world.”

Tiffany, who had been trying to read the map and nodding along as Natalie spoke, caught herself still nodding fifteen seconds after Natalie had stopped talking. Once she stopped her nodding, she cleared her throat. “So, it’s all about your notes and your experiences?”

Natalie shrugged. “Mostly. Other than that, it’s instinct and the confidence to trust my gut.”

“So, I could learn to do that?”

“Of course.” Natalie smiled. “Do you want to?”

Tiffany nodded and stood up as Natalie gestured for her to follow. I watched them walk away from a moment before taking a deep breath to help me refocus on relaxing my sore shoulders and back. After what felt like far too short of a time, Natalie had us all standing again. We dug out the area around the end of our path to make a tall embankment using heavy snow so we had something to prevent more powder from getting blown down our path. After we’d erected the barrier, we turned and headed back, picking up the supplies people had taken stacked in the cleared area as we went.

By the time we got back to our shelter, it was mid-afternoon. After dumping off our supplies, taking a five minute break, and refilling our water bottles, we headed out to help the nomads finish digging the local paths. They’d finished more than we expected, but there was still enough work left to keep us busy until the sun was starting to go down. When we returned to the shelter, we found the laborers tiredly shuffling into their area. While the nomads went to their area and Natalie herded the Wayfinders into ours, I resisted the call of food and bed to go check on the Laborers.

When I got to the door, I found them all huddled around their cooking fire, talking quietly as a group. When I stepped around the wall, Trevor cleared his throat and stood up. “Can I help you, Captain?” The conversation fell silent as every single one of them, to a man, looked over toward me.

I shook my head. “I’m just here to check on your progress, see how you’re doing.”

“We made it to the store.” Trevor smiled wanly, his entire posture speaking to his state of exhaustion. “We spent the extra time we had widening the pathway a bit more so we can make use of the flatbed carts we saw just inside the doors.”

“Excellent thinking!” I mustered up all the enthusiasm I could. “That was a great idea.”

“All thanks to Steven, over there. He’s the one who spotted them.” Trevor gestured to one of the men on my side of the cookfire. “Other than that, everything went about as expected. Smooth sailing.”

I nodded. “Great. Then I will leave you all to your dinner.” I waved and stepped behind the wall, but pantomimed walking away so that my feet grew quieter with every step. After a couple seconds of that, I stopped to listen. Almost a full minute later, I heard the laborers start talking again. Even though I stood and listened for fifteen minutes, I couldn’t hear a word they said. Normally, they were quite loud and rambunctious, but tonight they stayed extremely quiet. Unsettled, I silently made my way back to the Wayfinder area for dinner and sleep. Before I let myself drift off, I made sure to mention what was going on to Camille and Natalie. They agreed it was weird, but the only productive suggestion was Natalie’s. Tomorrow, we would make sure there was a Wayfinder with every group of laborers, to keep an eye on them.

After a long night’s rest, the next morning dawned colder and windier than the day before, but a quick review of the paths showed the embankments were holding strong for now. Natalie started breaking us up into groups to gather more supplies and the day passed quickly. At the end of the day, all of the Wayfinders who had been watching laborers reported that they’d seen nothing out of the ordinary, though they were still a bit more sedate than usual. When I checked on them at night, they were just as quiet. It was a very weird sensation to hear more noise and commotion coming from the nomad area than the laborer area.

Our third day of supply gathering has us mostly focused on raiding the Menards for supplies and using them to turn the shelter into a proper supply depot. Labeled shelves, partially refrigerated storage for medicines that would benefit from it, waterproofing everything, and then finally doors and locks to prevent anyone but Wayfinders from getting in. The finishing touches lasted into the fourth day and then we took the rest of the day to rest, double-check stocks, and prepare for our departure in the morning. We all retired early, some of us sad to be leaving this shelter behind and the rest of us all too happy to finally be on the move again. I flip-flopped between the two groups, from one moment to the next, but I put it from my mind as dark fell and decided to just enjoy my last night of sleeping somewhere warm and dry.

When I work up, it wasn’t to the usual chirp of my water alarm. Instead, I felt a ring of metal poking me in the forehead and heard a voice speaking entirely too loudly for that time of the night. “Make any sudden moves and you and your people will die.”

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