Coldheart and Iron: Part 22

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The first few days passed easily enough. I had trouble since my leg was only barely better and my muscles had weakened while I was recovering, but I still managed to stay on my feet the entire time. The two Wayfinders who couldn’t stay on their feet, though, were very grateful that we’d built the sleds a little bigger than we absolutely needed to. The Nomads had no trouble keeping up since we started out a little more slowly, but everyone was feeling worn out by our fifth day. After being able to rest in a warm and safe shelter for so long, even with the reminders of what we’d lost to get that shelter, it was especially difficult to be back to camping in the snow and constantly feeling cold.

I did what I could to keep morale up. I made a point of talking to everyone when we made camp, had very public conversations with Natalie about how great our progress was, and did everything I could to make our shared meals more interesting. However, there wasn’t much I could do since most of our rations where the light-weight, easily prepared kind and there wasn’t a lot of them to go around. We were all on full rations, of course, since we were moving, but there wasn’t much beyond the basic requirements. Nutritional supplements to make sure we got our vitamins, oatmeal, vegetable soups, and small portions of dried fruit and meat. Enough to stay healthy, but not enough to really feel like we were eating.

By the end of the first week, we were all sick of the food. There was no variety to be had, though, so there wasn’t much we could do aside from soaking the dried fruit in the oatmeal overnight and sticking the dried meat into the soup. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried that particular delicacy, but it’s basically a bunch of lumps of wet meat floating in soup. There isn’t much flavor mixing that happens. The whole idea is a lie you tell yourself to make the idea of eating the same food over and over again more appetizing.

Our only real stroke of luck as we traveled was finding a stand of fir trees right along our path on the second day. We took a bunch of branches to tie to the last sled so that they rubbed out some of the tracks we left. There were still signs of passage, of course, but it wasn’t clearly a sled and a bunch of people anymore.

At the end of the second week, we were all starting to get angry. We were still on track for rations and progress, but tempers flared every time we ate. There hadn’t been any scuffles and no one seemed inclined to start one, but the camp was a sea of sullen frowns that made it clear that no one wanted to talk to anyone. Not even my best attempts at charm could persuade anyone to talk or boost morale beyond the melancholic neutral it returned to between meals.

Midway through our third week, I called my first staff meeting. It was a little overdue, but we hadn’t really needed one until Lucas limped over to me at the end of the day and requested a private chat. Once we’d all gathered in our tent, I gestured for him to speak.

“One of the more injured Wayfinders, Morgan, slipped back into a coma today. I think the cold, combined with our general lack of access to proper food and more advanced medical treatment, is going to take them. They’re still responsive, but only barely. I couldn’t get them to eat anything but liquids.”

“Shit.” Camille put her face in her hands. “I thought they were fine?”

“Last I’d checked, Morgan was the more stable of the two.” I looked around at my friends. “What changed?”

“Eighteen days on a sled in the cold is barely enough rations to keep us going is what happened.” Lucas clenched a fist around his crutch and looked down. “It doesn’t help that we all feel useless riding along while you guys haul us around.”

“No, it probably doesn’t.” Natalie leaned forward and placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder. “Our only other options are to leave you behind or probably rip open your wounds by forcing you walk. Right now, we need to make good time since we’re already two days behind schedule and that’s not going to get any better if we make you limp.”

Lucas closed his eyes for a moment before taking a deep breath and sitting up, moving his shoulder out of Natalie’s reach. Natalie pulled her hand back and sighed. “C’mon, Lucas. It’ll be another ten days at the most. Then we’ll be there, we can take the time to resupply and wait. There’ll be enough space for all of us to get inside again and tons of food. This is one of our exclusive depots, so it should even have one of Cam and Marshall’s food bags in it. That means meat and bread, at least.”

Lucas shrugged and Camille crossed her arms. Before she could start tearing into him, I jumped in. “Lucas, what’s really the matter? You know we’re not leaving you behind and you know that you’re not going to walk for more than an hour before you’d be back on that sled with your recovery set back a week. What’s really going on?”

Lucas looked up at me, his face slack and his eyes more empty than I’d ever seen them before. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore, Marshall. I think that, when we get back to Chicago, I’m done.”

“Oh.”

Lucas looked back down at the ground and folded his hands over his injured leg. Silence reigned for almost a full minute before Natalie cleared her throat, breaking us out of our stunned reverie. “I think that, at the very least, we’re all going to take a long break once we get to Chicago. You’ll have time to rest, Lucas, before you need to for sure make a decision. At the same time,” Natalie turned toward Camille and I, glaring, “will respect whatever decision you make.”

“Of course we will!” Camille nodded, looking indignant. “We all volunteered for this and we love you. We won’t even think less of you! We’re the oldest active Wayfinders by half a dozen years, at least. Most would have retired by now.”

Lucas smiled and a little of the life returned to his face and eyes. While Camille was forcefully positive and Natalie was quietly supportive, I sat back and took it in. Lucas, the best scout I’d ever had and one of my closest friends since I left my parents’ home, was retiring. He’d gotten so worn out that he wanted to quit the organization we’d built together and I hadn’t noticed it was happening.

I folded my hands in my lap and looked down at them, not sure how to feel or what to think beyond the first feelings of guilt for not seeing the trouble my friend was having and the vague, often-ignored thought that I didn’t really have a reason to be out in the tundra anymore. Just as my mind was latching on to that thought, as it started calculating the years everyone I ever knew had been missing and the likelihood of anyone to survive all that time without getting to an enclave where they would have surely heard my name come up as the leader as the most crucial organization to the post-Collapse world, Natalie pulled at my elbow.

“Earth to Marshall. This is Natalie, requesting a comment on recent developments for my story on real life.”

I blinked and gave my head a little shake. “Sorry.” I looked up at Lucas and smiled, refocusing my mind on the friend who’d stuck with me for two decades as I led us all on a fruitless hunt for the people we’d lost. He’d never pushed, but I knew he’d given up on finding anyone well over a decade ago. “Whatever you decide to do, Luke, I’ll support you. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything less for you.”

Lucas’ eyes lit up and he started chuckling. “You all heard that, right? He finally did it. ‘Luke.’ I’ve been trying to get him to call me Luke since the day I met him. Almost thirty years of friendship and he finally dropped his insistence on calling me by my proper name.” Lucas reached up and wiped a couple of tears away. “I love you, you uptight moron.”

After a few hugs and some surreptitious eye-wiping, we all settled in for the night. First thing in the morning, I went to Morgan’s tent to check on them, but I couldn’t find anything I could do to improve their condition. I checked on them throughout the day, but their condition continued to rapidly deteriorate. By midday the next day, they were dead. My pre-lunch check found Morgan with no pulse, so we delayed an extra hour to bury them.

That night, things got worse. A sentry on patrol discovered an open tent flap and, upon investigation, realized that the three occupants were nearly frozen from the cold sweeping in through the gap. We managed to bring them around again, but all three of them, two Nomad children and one of the injured adults, wound up getting incredibly sick. Without the medical supplies the bandits had trashed, we didn’t have anything we could use to treat them. They lingered for a while, a day past when we were supposed to arrive at the depot and three days before we would have access to the medicine they needed, but they all passed away as well. When we finally arrived at our destination, it was a tired, dispirited group of people who finally walked up to the our target, a system of caves, a few hours into the morning as a light dusting of fresh snow started falling from the sky..

After telling the Wayfinders to set up a small perimeter and the Nomads to start unloading our supplies into the first chamber of the caves, I gestured for Natalie to lead the way. In the back of the winding cave system, following a path on a map Natalie produced, there was an old hi-tech bunker that used to belong to some millionaire “prepper” from before the Collapse. The prepper had never used it and, a few years after the Collapse, we’d found it still stocked with food, medical supplies, gadgetry, and batteries. We’d taken all the useful tech and distributed it around the Midwest, but we left all the food and medicine alone. It eventually became our main supply depot, with a group filling it back up once a year and every Wayfinder group that passed through taking stuff from it to resupply the various way stations we’d set up along our travel routes.

The only reason it was still viable at all, though, was because of the caves. The fact that they burrowed deep into the ground blocked all signals from entering or leaving the cave and it’s only connection to the outside world was a solar-powered keypad that unlocked purely mechanical blast doors. Whoever had funded this thing back in the day had been prepared for nuclear fallout and the dangers of EMP. It always amused me that, not only had they failed to use their bunker, the prepper had done everything right for all the wrong reasons.

When I chuckled as we walked finally made it to the bunker doors, Natalie just rolled her eyes. “Every time.”

“Every time. Like a squirrel forgetting a stash of nuts.” I smirked and shook my head. “But let’s just grab the keypad so it can get charged up. I’d like to get inside tonight.”

Natalie punched in the release code and the controller popped off the wall. The battery was dead, but the solar panel on the front was still clean and undamaged. A few hours of charging, maybe less with some direct sunlight, and we’d be good to go.

By the time we got outside, though, the light snowfall had turned into a blizzard. Everyone, even the Wayfinders, had retreated into the cave as powerful gusts of wind whipped the snow up into the air and obliterated any sign that we had passed through the area. It was impossible to see more than ten feet out of the cave and the only light we had came from the LED lanterns a couple of the Nomads held.

“Looks like we’re camping in the caves, tonight.” I sighed as Natalie started directing the Wayfinders. “Grab everything you can carry and follow me into a larger cavern that should be a little warmer. We’ll have to wait until the blizzard has ended to get into the bunker so, until then, make yourselves comfortable.”

A few hours later, after the Nomads had settled in and the Wayfinders had verified the cave system was entirely empty, I met Natalie, Camille, and Lucas in the entry cavern. “Is there any point to leaving that outside?” I pointed to the keypad in Natalie’s hand.

“No.” Natalie shook her head. “And what’s worse is that we’ve only got five days of food if we go on three-quarters rations. If the blizzard doesn’t end before then…”

“We’ll need to forage.” Lucas leaned against the wall of the cavern, looking at the snow. “In a blizzard.”

“Without our best hunters.” Camille folder her arms and joined Lucas is staring at the driving snow blowing past the cave’s entrance. “I could do it, but killing people is my specialty, not sneaking up animals.”

“We’ll figure something out.” I clapped Camille and Lucas on the shoulder. “We’ve got five days. If we start hunting now, we’ll turn up something to augment our supplies. And we’ve still got two scouts in good enough condition to go out if they’ve got someone with them. Don’t make more problems than we already have.” I smiled at them and pulled them back into the caves.

“He’s right.” Natalie made her way to the front of the group. “All we need is a bit more visibility and we should be good. If push comes to shove, if we can’t find any food and the blizzard is still going, I’ve got some ideas we could try.”

“See?” I skipped ahead a couple of steps to catch up to Natalie, wrapped my arm around her shoulders. “We’ll be fine. Let’s get back to where it’s warmer and rest for a few days. Even if the food is still bland, it’ll be nice to catch up on our sleep.” I gave Natalie a quick peck on the cheek and then let go of her. Camille picked up my positivity and Lucas laughed as Camille all but shouted cheerful aphorisms at him. I let the smile linger on my face as it vanished from my mind, replaced by thoughts of Lucas’ impending retirement and my own doubts about continuing as an active Wayfinder.

As we joined up with the rest of the Nomads, I pushed the thoughts out of my head again. This time, they didn’t leave completely. They stayed on the periphery of my mind, waiting for a quiet moment they could sneak into. That night, as everyone but the sentries slept around me, I lay awake and contemplated the past and the future.