True to her word, Camille knew where the guns were. They were a few armories scattered throughout the entire base, one in each wing and two inside the main hall. Unfortunately, the ones in our wing was locked and none of our keys fit. Either Trevor hadn’t been given a key to the armories or Lucas had somehow gotten both. All that really mattered was that we were stuck, weaponless, trying to sneak through the wing and find our companions.
By the time we were eventually discovered, Camille had killed another five guards. In that time, we’d found two Wayfinders, all of the Nomad children, and the old Nomad matriarch. We’d sent them to the far end of the wing, that we cleared first, to wait for weapons and more people, so only Camille and I were getting shot at as we hid around a corner and evaluated our nonexistent options.
“All I’ve got is a few good ‘I surrender’ and ‘please don’t shoot me’ puns, but I don’t think they actually cause people pain, despite what Lucas is always saying.” I gently massaged my bruised temples and tried to ignore the burst of pain that accompanied the report of every gun.
“I’ve got a few throwing knives, but I wouldn’t chance them at this range.”
“That, plus body armor and not being able to take my time while aiming. It’s easy to point and squeeze around a corner, not so much throw a knife.”
“We could just wait until reinforcements show up now that whatever passes for an alarm in this concrete hole has to be going off. Then, when they come around the corner to kill us, we can try to disarm them and take their guns.”
“Or we could quietly leave and find a different way to the other cells?” I picked at a bit of dried blood just below my hairline and, after a moment’s examination, flicked the small brown flakes away. “Though, I don’t really like our chances if they realize we retreated down this long hallway full of nothing but cells.”
“Speaking of.” Camille poked her head around the corner quickly, flipped the bandits at the far end the bird, and then ducked back as the bullets started flying again. “Gotta make sure they know we’re still here.”
“I thought we wanted them to rush us or turn around the corner unaware.”
Camille nodded and flicked a bit of concrete into the open. “That would be good. Risky, but good. Instead of something with a high likelihood of getting us killed, I’m prefer it if Lucas noticed the gunfire from our wing and came to our rescue.”
“That’d be convenient, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Camille poked her head around the corner again, at a different height. “You assholes ready to give up, yet?”
“Come out with your hands up right now and we will not harm you as we return you to your cells.” The same voice that urged our surrender during every lull in the hail of bullets called out again. “We don’t want to keep wasting ammo and none of us are dumb enough to come around the corner to get you.”
Camille pulled her head back and arched an eyebrow as I gestured for her to swap spots with me. “How do we know you’re not just saying that so we let our guard down?” I gestured for Camille to head toward the stairs and winked. “I don’t think shooting at us over something as little as a jailbreak is very trustworthy.”
Camille silently got to her feet and moved past me, heading toward the stairs that led down to the first floor and the only other path out of the wing. I saw her roll her eyes as I continued over the occasional bullet. “I might be willing to give surrender a shot, but I’ll admit I’m worried about you doing the same thing.”
Camille stopped moving as the bullets stopped entirely. Once the commanding voice started speaking, she went right back to creeping down the hallway. “I’m sorry, but are you making puns right now?”
“Yeah. I’m gunning for ‘comedian of the year.’”
There were almost a full minute of silence that I filled with manic laughter, loud enough to continue covering Camille’s movement toward the stairs while still quiet enough to hear if the heavily armed bandits started moving. Finally, the commander spoke again. “You’re making puns. Right now. While we shoot at you.”
As if to prove the absurdity of the situation, someone fired off a few rounds that embedded themselves into the concrete wall opposite me, sending more dust and small composite chips flying through the air. After the echoes died down I watched Camille slip down the stairs as I continued my assault. “You can come get us, if you want, but I’m going to warn you that people who meet me for the first time usually find my behavior rather disarming. I’d really hate to jump the gun on moving to that stage of our relationship.”
In the silence that followed, I heard someone mutter. “Anyone got any grenades?” followed by “That’d destroy the whole hallway. Just give it another minute or two and this will all be over.” Without missing a beat, the first voice muttered “I don’t know if I can take this for another minute or two.”
“Don’t count your bullets before they’re fired!” I poked my head around the corner and threw a couple of the larger chunks of concrete at the bandits. “Also, gun to my head, I’m pretty sure I could take your entire group single-handedly.”
I ducked back as more bullets chipped away at the corner and tried to hold back the tension bubbling out of my throat as laughter. If we weren’t at risk of dying, I’d find the whole thing hilarious. It was so easy to goad them and all they did was waste bullets in response. Five minutes into the dumbest standoff in my entire life and I could barely keep it together because all they had to do is go wide around the corner and they’d have us. Keep a few people on the near wall, but further away, to rush us if they wanted us alive. If it was any of my Wayfinders on the other side of this engagement, it would have been over four and a half minutes ago.
I kept hurling puns and bits of concrete for another two minutes before Camille returned, toting two assault rifles, a few clips of ammo, and a fresh gash in her left arm. I quickly bound it while Camille loaded both guns and parsed the ammo. A minute after I fell silent, as the first brave soul started adventuring forward, Camille and I poked around the corner, guns blazing. Thirty seconds later, we were gathering up all the gear we could before retreating back to where we’d left our companions.
Twice more, we got into a stand-off. Twice more, they tried to outmaneuver us by sending a few people around behind us using the lower floor. Twice more, we killed them all while they dithered about what to do. This time, though, we had more Wayfinders and the old woman Nomad who turned out to be a better shot than me. By the time we’d cleared the wing, we’d gathered up a total of six more Wayfinders, two more Nomads, a dozen extra guns, ammo, and a key to the armory where we found all our insulating gear and some basic body armor.
When it finally came time to leave the wing, we were met with a steel door. No amount of pushing or shoving would budge it and hammering on it did nothing but make my head ring. One of the Nomads tried to shoot it, but only succeeded in nearly taking out one of the Wayfinders with a ricocheting bullet. After scolding them and taking away their gun, Camille went back to the armory for a few grenades. Blowing the wall up around the door worked better than I thought it would, but it left us with a giant hole down to the first floor.
I volunteered to be the first across, since we could only four people could provide covering fire if it was needed. After they’d all lined up against the walls and Camille gave me the nod, I leapt across the hole, rolled to my feet, and caught the gun one of the other Wayfinders tossed me. I cleared the hallway and gestured for the Wayfinders to follow. The Nomads were going to take refuge in the armory with their children and our gear, so we could focus on sweeping through the bandit stronghold.
Leaving the rest of the Wayfinders behind to protect our backs and hold the hallway connecting the wings and the main hall. Camille and I took off down the eastern wing. As soon as we unbolted the heavy steel door to get into the main part of the wing, we heard gunfire coming from around the corner and started running. We came upon the back of a nearly sealed checkpoint, a steel barricade propped in the hallway with only a few openings in it for the bandits to fire through. Fortunately for us, they were facing the other direction.
Without breaking stride, Camille started firing, mowing down bandits as she charged up to engage in hand-to-hand combat. I dropped to a knee and started putting rounds into the backs of bandits, working my way from the middle to the opposite side from Camille. After I ran out, I ran forward, ejecting the magazine from the rifle as I went. Camille had already disarmed a couple of the surviving bandits, but two still had guns and were about to start shooting again, their allies be damned, until I crashed into them. Using the rifle as a club, I knocked them both senseless quickly and then turned to help Camille with the last couple she was fighting.
While Camille finished off the bandits, I started dislodging the barricade while yelling “don’t shoot! Camille and I killed them all.”
“Took you guys long enough!” Lucas and a couple of the missing Wayfinders poked their heads around the corner. “I thought we were going to have to wait for them to run out of bullets!”
I finished pulling open the barricade and flinched as I finally got a look at what lay around beyond it. Lucas’ group had run into a trap. There were a handful of dead Nomads and two dead Wayfinders lying on the ground, just around the corner. Lucas was being supported by the two Wayfinders with him as he limped toward me with a hole in his thigh. “Sorry, Cap. We’d cleared out two groups already and didn’t think there’d be a barricade. Every other group just collapsed as soon as we rounded the corner. We’ve got a lot of injured.”
I nodded and carefully made my way to the corner. Sitting on the ground was the rest of the nomads and most of the missing Wayfinders. Most of the Wayfinders and Nomads had minor injuries and were getting to their feet, but a few had injuries as bad as Lucas’ leg and two Wayfinders were on the ground, unconscious. Natalie wasn’t anywhere amongst them and the quiet anxiety that had been gnawing at the pit of my stomach roared to life and started taking giant bites.
Before panic could set in, I busied myself with helping the less injured Wayfinders rig up stretchers for the unconscious Wayfinders. After that, we moved back to toward the hallways between the wings and started figuring out how to get everyone across the hole in the floor of the western wing.
By the time we’d gotten everyone collected together and the severely injured down to the first floor of the western wing and into the armory, the bandit base felt eerily quiet. There’d been no sign of movement or sound of any kind from the main hall while we went about fortifying the guards outside of the armory and no one approached us as we gathered outside the door we’d blasted off the wall.
“Natalie and Jonathan are the only Wayfinders unaccounted for.”
Camille nodded. “And we’ve checked every nook and cranny in both wings. There’s nowhere else they could be but the main hall.”
“You hear that, everyone?” I turned to the group of Wayfinders and Nomads, each grimly clutching a rifle and a few extra rounds of ammo. Only a few Wayfinders had grenades, since Camille had used most of what we had to blow up the door and Lucas’ group hadn’t found any. “Check your fire and make sure you’re not shooting one of our people. If anyone surrenders, collected them and bind their hands. We’ve got plenty of heavy-duty zip-ties thanks to all the guards.”
“Keep an eye out for officers and the Laborers.” Camille stepped forward and addressed the Nomads specifically. “Anyone who looks important or familiar. Our people will probably be with them. Try to remember that the Wayfinders will be slim but well-built and a bit older while all of the laborers will be young men with a decent amount of muscle. Shoot the laborers but not the Wayfinders. If you think you’re not going to be able to tell the difference, turn around and go back to the armory. We don’t have time for hesitation.”
After a few seconds, Camille nodded. “Alright, we’re going to go in as fast and as hard as we can. Don’t waste bullets, follow the Wayfinders in your group, and keep an eye out for our people. We need them to survive once we get out of here. Got that?” Every one of the Nomads nodded. “Good. On my signal.”
I turned to Camille. “I’m following you. Lead the way and I’ll sweep up whatever you don’t catch as you go.”
“Always batting cleanup.” Camille smirked and disengaged the safety on her rifle. “I can’t promise there’ll be anything for you to do.”
“As long as we get Natalie and Jonathan back, I don’t care.”
Camille nodded one last time, took a deep breath, and yanked the door open.