Three days passed without a break in the clouds or the snow. We took shifts holding the keypad outside, hoping enough light made its way down to the tiny solar panel to charge the keypad to the point we could enter the passcode. Unfortunately, not even the light capture array Louis whipped up using all of our mirrors was enough to get it to power on, much less last long enough for us to replace it and enter the code.
While everyone else ate a bland, barely filling meal cobbled together from our dwindling supplies, Natalie, Camille, Lucas, and I discussed our options.
“I think I could whip something up using batteries from one of our lanterns, but I don’t know if I’d be able to guarantee that the lantern or battery would work after that.” Louis picked up the lantern off the ground and switched it off. “I won’t know for sure until I’ve opened everything up and looked, but most rechargeable batteries things aren’t really set up to be used with something other than their specific device.” Lucas shrugged and turned over the lantern in his hands. “Plus, I know I’d at least need to break the casing to get it open.”
“And there’s the question of actually getting power to the keypad.” Natalie held it up for all of us to see. “There’s no screws or detachable parts that would let us access the interior. We’d need to crack the case and then it’s possible that the signal it sends out will be strong enough for something to pick up. I mean, that’s the whole point of having it shielded in the first place. Nothing, or almost nothing, can get out.”
“We don’t really have a lot of options, though.” Camille, with her rifle still over her shoulder, sat in a pile of melting snow she’d tracked in as she called the meeting. “There isn’t much we can hunt around here and even that is only in theory. Tracks don’t last long enough to find and the visibility is so low that it’s pointless to put out traps or set up an ambush.”
Natalie sighed and shook her head. “There aren’t many trees around here. This used to be mostly farmland, so there’s not much left for wildlife to survive on at this point.”
“I still think cracking that thing open is our best bet.” Lucas gestured at the keypad. “Even if there is a signal, the caves should kill it. We’re underground, deep inside a warren of caves, and we’re about as far away as we can get from the nests. Even if that thing was strong enough to be picked up by a satellite on the surface, there’s no way it makes it out of the caves.”
“I still don’t like the risk, not when the sun might come out, soon.” Natalie took a deep breath and then shook her head. “This thing was heavily shielded and buried for a reason.”
“If we don’t see a break in the storm by tomorrow night, we’re going to crack it open and power it ourselves.” I leaned back against the wall of the cave and settled my hands in my lap, trying to suppress the urge to crack my knuckles and pick at my fingernails. “It won’t matter if the snow stops in a few days. Since we’ve been on low rations, we really don’t have much leeway when it comes to missing meals.”
Camille and Lucas nodded in agreement but Natalie just looked at the keypad in her hands. “What if the signal makes it out of the caves.”
“Then we do our jobs.” Camille spoke softly, hands reaching up for her rifle. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we guide people. That’s why we search the ruins of every town we find. That’s what we’re paid to do. Killing bandits makes the world a better place, but that’s not our real job.”
“I don’t think it’ll come to that. Or, I hope it won’t come to that.” I held up my hands to forestall Camille before she got too heated. “I’d like to actively avoid any kind of battle or siege. I don’t want to lose anyone, but need those supplies to survive.” I folded my hands in my lap and smiled reassuringly at my friends. “We’ll have scouts near the entrance with our thermal goggles and a transceiver. If any signal makes it out of the caves, we’ll just grab all the supplies we can and leave while Camille sets up an ambush to kill anything that shows up quickly. Louis, you’ll establish a heavy rear-guard on the sleds, Natalie and I can lead until Camille catches up, and we can let the blizzard cover our tracks. Once we’re far enough away, we can take the time to find somewhere else to rest up like we planned to do here.”
“That’ll take hours, maybe even a day. They’re deep in the cavern and maybe half our people can carry stuff.” Natalie rubber her chin. “We’ve got enough leftover wood that we set aside for repairs to the sleds that we could make a simple cart or two. If we spend tomorrow making carts, then the kids can easily help. That would really save us time…”
I recognized the signs and let Natalie’s wheels turn for a little bit. She was going logistics in her head and she’d have a precise estimate for how much we could get and how long it’d take us to get it in our worst and median case scenarios. While she did that, I turned my attention to Lucas.
“We need a way to power this thing that doesn’t involve taking apart one of our lanterns. Those are too rare to throw one away without trying something else. What are our other options?”
“Well, we could try a chemical reaction.” Lucas rubbed his chin and blankly stared at the lantern. “I think we’ve got medical supplies I could use, if I combined it with some of the battery acid from a hand flashlight.”
“If you can do it using only stuff we can easily replace from the supplies here, go for it.”
“I’ll start getting our gear ready, just in case.” Camille stood up and shook the snow off her pants. “Let me know when I’m needed. After a weapons check, I’m going to make sure the trainees and Nomads know what to do if we’re attacked.”
I nodded and just gestured for her to go as Natalie’s attention snapped back. “We can do it in three to five hours, assuming nothing happened to the supplies. If the stores have been ruined or damaged, we might as well poke the nest to just get it over with. Better than starving to death.”
“Okay, that was a little dark.” Lucas nervously chuckled as he hauled himself to his feet.
“It’s a real possibility since I haven’t gotten a status update on this store room in a couple of years.”
“Still, there’s no need to point it out.” Lucas clutched the lantern in one hand and hobbled off after Camille. “I’m going to do some science. I’ll catch you in the morning.”
After Natalie finished outlining her plan, I told her to go ahead with it and started designing a couple of carts we could make with our leftover wood. They were going to only have three wheels, but that would be enough. As my mind sunk into the details, I was happy to let everything else fade from my attention. Even if we were preparing for the possibility of alerting the monsters by sending out a signal they could pick up, that was still easier for me to consider than the splitting up of my group. At least we could shoot this problem.
The fourth day passed in a blur of work, science reports, preparation, and runners reporting that the snow still hadn’t lessened. The following morning, our fifth in the cave, we ate the last of our supplies and I told Natalie and Lucas to go ahead with cracking the keypad open. Natalie had figured out how to do it without damaging the components inside, so Lucas was mostly there to start and monitor the chemical reaction at her command.
I stood by with the carts and every ambulatory person set up in groups with at least one Wayfinder to guide them through the caves. Camille stood outside with the receiver and a runner waited to bring word to us if anything showed up. After waiting the amount of time Camille requested to get in place, I nodded to Natalie and Lucas who powered up the keypad, hung it back on the wall, and typed in the passcode.
Once the doors were open, I sent the groups in. I watched as the Nomads stumbled as they took in the lush interior of the bunker, clearly caught off guard by how comfortable it looked despite being a glorified stock room. The Wayfinders pulled them along, though, so all of the groups were hard at work collecting supplies when the runner showed up.
“We’ve got a signal, Captain. A strong one.”
“Shit.” I turned to Natalie. “We’ve got a signal. We’re packing up and leaving ASAP.”
“Captain.” Natalie saluted and turned to help gather supplies. I grabbed Lucas and half-carried him as we jogged back to the cavern with all of our injured people. I set Lucas back on his feet and we hurried around, gathering up everyone’s supplies and packing everything that had been left out after breakfast. By the time we’d gotten it all cleaned up and tucked away, the first of the carts showed up.
Lucas organized a human chain to unload the cart and, before the first rumbles of the next cart could be heard, the first cart was on its way back for a second load. The carts moved back and forth steadily for the next four hours. Between cart trips, a few groups of Nomads and Wayfinders would show up, hauling something too big for the carts or too fragile to pile on. During that time, we only got one message from Camille, two hours in, saying there’d been no sightings yet.
When we’d gotten everyone wrapped up, packed, strapped down, and ready to go, it had been just under five hours from the opening of the doors. We’d had no further word from outside, but I led everyone out, heading east toward Chicago. Every Wayfinder had their gun in their hands and there was an injured Wayfinder on each sled, holding a machine gun as we all peered into the snowstorm. Every passing second was horrible as we waited for something to come charging out of the snow at us.
After a minute or two of walking, we found Camille. She was standing next to a tree and, as we walked into view, she waved me over. I signalled to Natalie to keep the group moving and followed Camille into the blizzard. Once the sleds had been swallowed up by the snow, I caught up to her.
“We’ve got sixteen confirmed kills. The snow is throwing them off a bit, but we’ve already had two injuries.” Camille grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into a shuffling jog. “They’re not serious, but one of them got tagged during the hit.”
“Tagged?” If Camille hadn’t been pulling me, I’d have frozen in place. “Who?”
“That trainee Natalie’s been teaching.”
“Fuck. Where’d Tiffany get hit?”
“Hand, luckily. We need you there for it, though.”
“Shit. Who has my-”
“I do.” Camille pulled me into a small copse of trees that created a bit of a wind break and, behind the giant snowbank piling up along one side, I found the two injured Wayfinders. One of them was standing on guard, watching the area and doing his best to ignore the woman seated on the ground next to him and the hole punched through the arm of his coat. I tossed the roll of tape from my repair bag to Camille and grabbed the medical bag Camille handed me in exchange.
I bent down next to Tiffany and she smiled up at me, her eyes sharp and brittle. “I did everything Camille said. Took off my glove, tied off at my wrist, and popped my emergency pain killer. Just get it over with.”
I nodded and checked her tourniquet. It was tight enough that her hand was blotchy purple and blue despite the fact that she couldn’t have had her glove off for more than a couple of minutes. “Look away and hold still.”
Tiffany grimaced and shut her eyes. I pulled out a sanitary wipe, swabbed around her wrist at the tourniquet, and then pulled out the bone saw. Swallowing the bile rising in my throat, I quickly cut through her wrist, cleaned up the ragged edges, and made sure to leave enough of a skin flap to sew over the stump. I checked the hand and the stump quickly, looking for the telltale signs of bright red that show how far the tag had spread. Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten further than her palm yet, so she was going to be fine.
Risking the heat loss, I pulled my gloves off and sewed her up. It wasn’t neat, but it just needed to help keep her from bleeding out and hold things in place until we made camp. I’d have to clean it up then, but we’d had more warmth and I could treat the amputation properly. Once that was over, I handed her a bottle with a few more painkillers in it, help her to her feet, and helped her stagger off toward the trail of the sleds.
As I passed Camille, who’d stood over us the entire time and seethed like this was her fault, I shrugged. “I’m just glad it was only a hand. Mind disposing of it?”
“At least two dozen, so far as I can tell. Standard issue, though. Basic heat-sensing that only picked us up when we started shooting. We tried stabs and cold kills, but there were too many of them for us to handle before they made it to your trail. The rest of the ambush is leading them west.”
“Thank you, Camille.” I hoisted Tiffany’s good arm over my shoulders and pulled her up a bit. “Did you see which one tagged her?”
Camille shook her head. “I didn’t see her. These two were alone and he said it happened too fast for them to be sure. They say they got every single one of the shits, but usually they don’t resort to tagging until they know they’re going to run. Worst case scenario, we’ll have them breathing down our neck all the way to Chicago. Best case, they take the bait and head north.”
“I hope they take the bait. It’d be odd for them to tag someone and then not follow up on it once they’ve regrouped.”
“You can hope for that, if you want.” Camille shouldered her gun and gestured for the other Wayfinder trainee, Ben, to follow her. “I’m going to expect them, though. Just get her back to the sleds and we’ll find out eventually.”
“Stay safe. Please.” I put my free hand on Camille’s shoulder as she turned to leave, but she just kept going, giving me a thumbs-up as she went north, scooping up Tiffany’s hand as she went. Once the snow had swallowed her, I turned my attention back to Tiffany. “Let’s get you someplace you can sleep off the worst of this.” After making sure our gloves were firmly sealed against the weather again, I started double-timing it back to the sled path, silently saying a prayer of thanks to every god I’d ever heard of that it’d only been a hand. If she’d gotten tagged somewhere else, we’d have had to leave her behind.
Give how many people we’d already lost on this trip, we couldn’t afford to lose anyone else if we wanted to stand a chance of making it to Chicago. Nearly half of the Wayfinders who’d started this trip had died and there were probably more people than Lucas thinking seriously about retirement. Unless we were incredibly lucky or no one else died, we wouldn’t make it to the Chicago Enclave alive.