Coldheart and Iron: Part 24

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Tiffany and I managed to catch up to the sleds after a couple of hours. Tiffany was all too happy to collapse on the sleds rather than try to walk through the pain of her missing hand, but I was anxious because we hadn’t seen anyone from Camille’s ambush group since I’d watched her vanish to the north. Depending on how far north she got before ditching the hand, it could be a while before we got word. The monsters would lock on to the hand they’d marked once the Wayfinders leading them away stopped shooting long enough for their heat signatures to vanish, but there was no telling what would happen after that.

Camille would probably do her best to thin their numbers some more, but there was no knowing if she’d lead them further north as she killed them, or if she’d just take down as many as she could before vanishing into the snow. She could be back in a day or a week. She could send the other Wayfinders back or keep them with her the entire time. There was no way to know until they started showing back up and I fretted over the problem until we found a cave we could shelter in for the night.

While Natalie led everyone else in setting up tents or barricades inside the cave in case we needed to defend ourselves, I set up the one table we’d brought it, sanitized it, and went to work on Tiffany’s arm. It took about an hour to get everything fixed properly and sewn up, but it was a simple procedure compared to the injuries I’d tried to fix several weeks ago. Thanks to the double dose I gave her, Tiffany drowsed through most of it. She was so out of it, I had to get someone else to help me move her into the tent she shared with two other trainees.

I left her in the care of her friends and, after cleaning up, went through the motions of settling in for the night. After the slow build of tension over the last few days and the attack today, I was exhausted. Instead of sleeping, though, I left Natalie and Lucas as they cleaned up from dinner and took the first shift at the cave entrance. I sat in my corner, bundled up in my thermal gear with an extra blanket just in case, watching the snowstorm build and then blow away piles of snow.

I wound up watching all night, waiting for the signs of an attack or for Camille’s group of Wayfinders to come through the door, laughing and congratulating each other on killing more monsters. By the time we were all packed up and ready to go, there was still no sign of them. I managed to keep focused all day, but Natalie and Lucas knew something was up. That night, they insisted on me resting after I’d checked in on Tiffany. I tried to argue, but I knew they were right.

After a proper night’s sleep, the next day was easier. I got us moving a bit faster and managed to find us a cave for the evening, instead of hiding out in the first dense patch of trees we found. As we left the following morning, the blizzard started to subside. By that evening, it had mostly cleared up. Thankfully, there was no sign of the monsters, but we were still waiting for Camille to make it back.

Six days after our hurried departure, the day Tiffany started cutting back on her painkillers, Camille and the four Wayfinders she’d brought with her showed up at our camp perimeter as we settled in for the evening. I barely paused to put on my thermal gear after I heard the sentry call out. By the time I was dressed and outside, Camille was practically to our tent. After moving aside to let her inside, I did a quick visual inspection of her companions. Thankfully, the only injury was Ben’s from a few days ago, and he’d already taken care of it, so I was able to get back into the tent just as Camille was sitting down to eat.

After I’d taken off my gear and cleaned up Camille’s, she’d turned around to face me. I could see the exhaustion clouding her eyes, but we both knew she needed to report first. Once I was ready, I nodded to her.

“After we left, things went about as expected. We drew them north for a full day, before the first few started to catch up. We mowed them down pretty quickly, so we kept going for another day before the rest of the group started to catch up. After that, we ditched the tag and made our way to the rendezvous point. Unfortunately, some of them managed to track us.”

“What?” Lucas leaned forward, almost throwing himself off the campstool he’d been sitting on as he ate. “There’s no way!”

Camille shrugged. “Half a day north of the bunker, the blizzard tapered out so they must have figured out how to follow footprints or we just left worse ones than usual. Whatever the cause, I can’t argue with the results. We hadn’t been heading toward the rendezvous for more than half a day before the first of them started catching up to us.”

“But they haven’t… It’s been over fifteen years since they appeared and they never-”

“Lucas.” Natalie grabbed his bowl before he could drop it. “Calm down and let Camille talk.” Lucas nodded and, after a few slow breaths, took his bowl back.

“Anyway. They tracked us so I used every trick I knew to lose them on the way to the rendezvous. Nothing worked. So we slowed down, went a little out of our way, and then picked up your trail once we knew you’d be passed. I had one of the others scout it for us, to make sure we were staying close but not so close that we might lead them to you guys. Today, after two days without contact, I decided we should be clear of whichever of them found our trail.”

“Did you notice anything else about them that might show a change in their behavior?” I took out a notebook and started writing down everything Camille had said. After I looked back up at her, she shook her head.

“No, nothing that stood out. They were vulnerable in all the usual places, none of them looked any different, and they all still fell for my traps so long as we hid our heat signatures, so I don’t know how to explain this unless someone got tagged.

“As far as I know, only Tiffany got tagged.” I made a couple more notes in my book. “You get some rest, Camille. I’ll go debrief your group quick and ask Tiffany if she has any ideas.”

“Yeah?” Camille leaned back. “How’s she doing? She seemed pretty alright with losing her right hand.”

“She’s been out of it until pretty much today, and she hasn’t really cleared up enough to be talking yet. I’ll need to see if she’s alright with cutting back a little further so we can have a conversation.”

“What a trooper. I haven’t seen anyone else handle it that well.” Camille pulled out her sleeping bag and plopped down on top of it. “Most of them try to hide it or deny that it’s going to be that bad.”

“Well, she’s left-handed so she’ll still be able to be a Wayfinder just fine.” Natalie moved over to Camille and draped one of our blankets over her. “She’ll need to relearn a few things, but a break in Chicago will get her all the time she needs to make up her mind.”

“I think her mind’s pretty made up.” Lucas chuckled as he moved to his own sleeping bag. “She mutters about showing those sons of bitches what a badass she is every time she falls asleep on the sled.”

“Well, she’ll still have time to change her mind or retrain herself once we get to Chicago.” I started putting my thermal gear back on. “Maybe she’ll change her mind once she sees what the retirement package is for someone who loses a limb while Wayfinding.”

“They usually do.” Camille yawned and pulled the blanket over her head.

“I’m glad you made it back safely, Camille.”

“Thanks, Marshall. I’m glad you’re all safe.”

After everyone was covered up, I quickly clambered out of the tent and did my rounds quickly. All of the Wayfinders that had gone with Camille needed to be woken up, but they reported the same things she did. After a few minutes of talking to each of them, I made my way to Tiffany’s tent and, after knocking, let myself in.

“Tiffany?”

“Yes, boss?” Tiffany was sitting up against a pile of backpacks covered in a blanket, trying her boots with one hand.

“You up for a quick chat? Clear enough?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany set her boots aside and picked up the little bottle of pills I gave her every morning. “I’ve only been taking half of what you’ve been giving me at night. I sleep on the sled so much that I mostly use the nights for a bit of exercise and one-hand practice.”

I arched my eyebrows. “One-hand practice?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany poked her boots and waved her right arm at the pile of backpacks behind her. “I’m still struggling with my shoes, but packing is easy. I think the shoes will be easier once I’ve healed up and can use my arm for more than waving.” Tiffany giggled. “Which super weirds people out, when I wave without a hand. It’s hilarious.”

I chuckled along with Tiffany but cleared my throat after a moment. “You sure you’re alright?”

“No, but I’m okay for now and at least I’m alive.”

“Good point.” I sat down across from her and glanced over at her sleeping tent mates. “Are we going to disturb them?”

“Nah, they sleep with earplugs now. We’re good.”

“Okay.” I cracked my knuckles absently and read over the notes I’d been taking. “Can you walk me through what happened when you got tagged? Lieutenant Camille reported seeing some odd behavior while trying to get back to us and I’m trying to figure out what’s been going on.”

“Well, it was pretty straight-forward, really. Almost disappointingly since I lost a hand over it.” Tiffany grabbed her arm near the stump and settled it into her lap. “Ben and I were leading a group of them toward where Lieutenant Camille was waiting, doing a few vital strikes to thin them out a bit. Things were going fine until they started to cluster around Ben a bit. He started shooting at them and I ran to help him out. Only he kept firing instead of doing bursts, so his gun probably lit up like the sun to them, so they started returning fire.

“I couldn’t tell you how he got out of that unscathed, but I caught up to him as he finally stopped firing. One of them, though, a scout, was a few paces away and lined up a tracer shot. Ben couldn’t see it, focused as he was, so I pulled him out of the way. As he fell, the scout fired and hit me in the hand with the tracer round.” Tiffany held up the stump where here hand used to be and smiled ruefully.

“The lieutenant must have seen this happening, because she started firing on the scout and all of the others right about then. After that, you know everything. She yelled at me to remove my glove, tie it off, and take my painkillers. A couple minutes later, you showed up and that’s the last bit I remember.”

“When did Ben get hit, then?”

“What?”

“You said Ben never got shot when they fired at him. When I showed up, though, he had a small wound on his upper left arm.” I gestured to my own arm, showing her where he’d been grazed. “Barely worth addressing beyond the tape to close the hole in his suit.”

“I must have missed that.” Tiffany shrugged. “I was a little busy getting shot to be paying attention to what was going on with him at that point.”

“Fair enough.” I made a couple notes and tried to ignore the icy claw scraping the bottom of my stomach. I checked her dressing quick, asked a few questions about how she was feeling and, left her tent after making sure she was going to be alright until the morning. All the while, I tried to explain away what had been happening as a string of coincidences. I tried to find any excuse I could but, before I knew it, I was outside Ben’s tent.

I went inside and smiled at him. “Sorry to be back again so soon, Ben, but I just wanted to double-check your injury before I went to sleep.”

“Oh.” Ben stood and grabbed his arm self-consciously. “I mean, it’s fine. It was barely a scrape then and it scabbed over before I got a chance to do anything with it.”

“Just to be safe. I’m the group’s medic, now.” I pulled out my medical bag and gestured to the stool near their cook stove. “Just a quick look and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Really, Marshall, I’m fine.”

“Ben, do I need to make it an order?” I crossed my arms but kept my voice calm. “Sit. Down.”

Ben sighed and sat. He held out his arm and looked away as I rolled up his sleeve. When I got past the elbow, I saw a giant white pad of gauze, much larger than he’d need for the simple scrape he claimed he had. I pulled the grimy old tape off and, as I pulled the bandage away, caught sight of a greenish patch of skin with red lines emanating from what looked like a giant pimple.

“Ben.”

“It’s fine, Captain. I empty it every night. There’s no chance for the trace to take effect if I’m constantly draining it!” Ben looked at me, careful to shift so he couldn’t see his arm. “I figured it out. This way, I won’t need to lose my arm for such a little scrape.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Ben. Benjamin. This is the trace. The green, the red lines, the white head, all of it. Your blood is full of it and, if we check your other elbow, we’ll see your veins starting to show just as brightly red as these.”

“But I fixed it, Captain. It was just a tiny hit and I need my arm.”

“Pull down your sleeve, put on your thermal gear, and come with me.” I stood up and slung my bag over my shoulder.

“But I need to rest. I’ve been moving almost without stopping for six days.” Ben clasped his hands and fell to his knees. “Just let me sleep, I don’t need to lose my arm. I’ll be fine! I don’t feel sick at all.”

I nodded. “You’ve got one thing right, Ben. You won’t need to lose your arm.”

Ben smiled and sank down. “Oh, thank god. That’s so good to hear. I’ll just be a minute, Captain, and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t make me come back.”

After he nodded, I left the tent and walked up to where one of the guards was stationed. “As soon as Ben and I leave camp, get Lieutenants Camille and Natalie up. Tell them we need to break camp immediately.”

“Sir?”

“Just do it. I’ll explain once we’re moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

I went back to the tent and waited. When Ben emerged, I grabbed his uninjured arm and pulled him toward the edge of camp, leading him deeper into the forest we’d picked as that night’s camping spot. “C’mon, Ben. We’ve got a little errand to run.”

“Oh, should I grab my gear?”

“No, I’ve got my gun so we should be fine.”

“Okay.” Ben smiled and followed me past the perimeter and into the forest. Occasionally, I’d glance over at him and see the faint red like coming from his face as he leaked radio waves from the trace that had been planted and given time to multiply in his bloodstream. Once we’d walked about an hour into the words, using the excuse of needing some plants to supplement our food stores to keep him focused and quiet, I turned to him.

“You’ve got the trace, Ben. It’s too far progressed to stop at this point. Even cutting your arm off wouldn’t fix it now.” I took a few steps back and leaned against a tree, putting my body so that he wouldn’t be able to see it when I thumbed the safety off.

“We’re close to Chicago, though. They can do something about it there. I’ve heard about treatments that kill the trace and then I won’t need to lose my arm at al.”

“That’s not how it works. Your group kept getting attacked because they were tracking you.” I pointed to him for emphasis. “Now, you can either keep walking on your own, to lead them away, or I’ll kill you quickly now so you don’t need to suffer when they catch up to you.”

“What?”

“You agreed to these terms when we hired you.”

“But, I mean, I can’t-”

“You lied to us and put all our lives in danger. You either choose now or I’ll choose for you.”

“I can’t-” Ben stepped forward and I raised my gun. “I’m- I’m not going to die out here, not for some little scrap.” Ben clenched his fists and took a few steps forward this time. “I refuse! I won’t accept this. You can’t abandon me out here. You can’t leave me to die so you can live. I don’t deserve to die like thi-”

I raised the gun and fired, three times in quick succession. Ben dropped where he was. I grabbed the shell casings from the snow, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and started sprinting back toward the camp. Fifteen minutes later, I explained the whole thing between gasps and we moved out. Everyone looked over their shoulders as we went, fleeing through the forest with the prospect of a monster attack looming over our shoulders.

When we finally stopped to rest, the sun was setting again and even the people riding the sleds were exhausted. We made camp that night, inside another forest, and did our best to put our close call out of our minds. We were still a few weeks away from Chicago and every one of us was thinking only of being able to rest. Despite my exhaustion, all I could think of was Ben’s face as he tried to make excuses and the determination Tiffany had shown when she’d had to sacrifice her hand.

Every time I thought of her, seated in the snow as she waited to have her hand taken off while Ben stood over her and pretended he was fine, I wanted to go back and shoot him again. I wouldn’t get the chance, though. There’d be nothing left by the time I got back there, even if I went right away. The monsters wouldn’t leave much lying around once they finally tracked him down.

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