We woke the next morning to a light snowfall and Natalie’s reminder that we had only twenty days before the next blizzard. That would be plenty of time to get into the Chicago enclave barring an encounter with the army of monsters that might be wandering around what was left of the northern suburbs of Chicago. Bearing this in mind, I sent Lucas and his scouts ahead as soon as they’d all eaten breakfast and then busied everyone else with breaking camp and following them north as soon as possible.
The day passed uneventfully, with only one tense moment when one of the Wayfinders spotted a glint of light being reflected from the top of one of the local buildings. Thankfully, it turned out to only be some old weather monitoring gear, but it cost us an hour as Camille snuck up to the building and investigated it. When we finally caught up to Lucas, he guided us toward what looked like an old park and had us set up camp under some of the aging picnic shelters. While people set up tents and attending to their evening meal, Lucas pulled me aside to report.
“We’re on the edge of the bandit territory. They match the description Camille gave me, mostly blunt weapons and one person with a handgun or rifle in each group of five. Pretty good thermal gear, from what I can tell, so they obviously know what they’re doing when it comes to avoiding monsters. Might even support Natalie’s theory that they got pushed out by whatever came out of the Waukegan landing area.” Lucas waved a hand in the air before I could chime in “Either way, there are tons of them and their patrols are thick enough that we’d have trouble sneaking through, but they’re nothing we can’t handle.”
“Any chance they’ll spot us out here if we give Camille a couple of days to sneak in and neutralize their leadership?”
“None.” Lucas gestured to the line of trees at the edge of the park. “The trees and playground equipment make the shelters practically invisible from the street and they don’t have regular patrols more than a mile from their base. They have a group that walks around the perimeter once a day, from what I’ve seen so far. Just checking for anything new or signs of someone encroaching on their space. As long as you’re gone before noon tomorrow, you shouldn’t have to worry about them and that’s even if they decide to check out this place”
“Okay. Keep an eye out for that tomorrow, but I’ll let Camille know what to expect.”
“Good.” Lucas rubbed his hands together and grinned. “And now we start my favorite part. Watching them all night long and tailing any patrols that operate at night. I hope they sent out a couple.”
“Just keep an eye out for any monsters. I want to know if we’re going to need to deal with any of them while we retake the Nomads’ home.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Lucas saluted and then headed off toward the treeline where he was joined by his remaining five scouts.
Camille walked over as he disappeared into the snow. “With him scouting for patrols and monsters, and with me leading a group to take the base, you’re only going to have four Wayfinders, counting yourself and Natalie, to manage the Nomads and Tiffany isn’t going to be much use if it comes to defending the group.”
“I’m planning to just vanish for a couple days. Your groups won’t need any support or supplies, so we’re just going to swing a little further north and drop off the radar for two days. After that, we’ll head toward the base and help you out or just waltz in because you’ve cleared everything.”
“Do you think you can count on the Nomads if it comes to fighting?”
“They did well enough when we were captured. You’re taking one with you, to answer any questions you have, so you must trust their abilities to some degree or another.”
“Yeah, but I can always leave them behind if they start becoming a liability. You won’t have that luxury.”
“I think they’ll be fine. They’ve come this far and haven’t gotten any of us killed.”
“They’re also half children at this point.”
“What do you want me to do, leave them behind while four of us sneak up on a building full of bandits and hope that we can manage if it comes to a firefight? It’s not like our skills are going to help much in an urban environment. The more guns we have, the better.” I pointed to the two machine guns mounted on the sleds. “Plus, it’s not like they need to be good with a gun to use one of those.”
“Fair.” Camille smiled and punched me in the shoulder. “Warm beds! Real food that hasn’t been dried out for years before we dunked it in snow to soften it up a bit. A chance to rest for a day, in safety and warmth, before we start preparing the way to Chicago! So much to look forward to!”
I smiled back at her. “Just don’t let visions of cozy pillows distract you from your mission. You can’t enjoy a bed if you’re a prisoner or dead.”
Camille laughed and gestured to the waiting group of Wayfinders. “With this lot, we’ll have them surrendering before they even fire a single bullet! They don’t bother Wayfinder duos, so they’ll probably run in terror when they find out there are eight of us.”
“Good luck, Camille. Stay safe!”
“Yeah, you fight monger. Get us some nice cozy beds and don’t let any of our people get killed in the process.” Natalie walked up and hugged Camille. “Think you can manage that?”
“I’ll do my best, mom.” Camille rolled her eyes but was still smiling as she turned to leave.
“Did Lucas leave already?” Natalie turned to me. “I wanted to give him a map I drew with likely routes the monsters might take if they’re wandering around.”
“Yeah, just a couple minutes ago. I can catch up to him if I run, though.”
“Don’t bother. He’ll figure it out. He always does, somehow, even if he always forgets to map them afterwards.” Natalie patted her pocket absently and then looked over at me. “So we’ve got the tent to ourselves tonight. I think neither of us are on first sentry shift, so we should head to bed right away.”
“As you command, so shall I do.” I bowed and gestured toward the bag that held our tent. “However, it’ll take a little bit before we can busy ourselves with resting. I’ll have this ready to go in a few minutes if you wouldn’t mind grabbing food for our dinner.”
“Very well, Marshall. You can play house and I’ll bring home the bacon. See that you’re ready by the time I get back.” Natalie winked and then sauntered off toward the supply tent. I tore my eyes away from her and hastily set up the tent. Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I missed a couple stakes and one of the tent poles slipped out of its socket halfway through dinner, we had a pleasant night, even if we didn’t get much sleep.
The next morning, we packed up and consolidated everything we had to one sled. We hid the other one under a snowbank next to what were probably bathrooms once upon a time and then hurried north. Natalie led us toward a place she knew of that used to be a bandit hideout before the Chicago enclave drove them out and I focused on covering our tracks. The light snow would help, but it’d still take several hours before our tracks were completely covered unless I did something to help it along. Simply smoothing the snow out was enough, though, since the falling snow would quickly mask any traces of human intervention.
We made good time and didn’t find so much as a trace of other humans, so we managed to get to Natalie’s temporary hiding spot in the late afternoon without being spotted. While I put a little more work into concealing any trace of our passage into the build, Natalie took our thermal sensor and made sure our little hideout was secure. Once we were both done, we joined everyone else inside and started passing the hours. At first, we all slept. This was our first time with more than a bit of nylon between us and the snow, so it felt nice to be able to move in and out of out tents without worrying about letting snow in as we moved from sleeping to guard duty.
After the first twenty hours of resting passed, people started getting squirmy. I broke out the cards and got a few games going while we waited, but those only lasted another couple of hours. When people started arguing, I got everyone together for a meal and we shared stories as we sat around in the cold, abandoned office building. Since there hadn’t been much opportunity before, due to me keeping on eye on the Laborers, I shared my story about the beginning of the Collapse and listened to the Nomad’s leader, Brianna, share her stories of life before the end of society as she once knew it and how she missed the brief golden age when it seemed like Humanity was going to prosper until the universe ended.
It was really interesting to compare her perspective to my own. She was about twenty years older than me, so she had a very different take on the world I knew growing up, seeing more of the good in it than I had. Even though she saw the Collapse coming from the same time I did, she reacted slower because she believed that Humanity wouldn’t be taken down that easily. It made me a little sad to listen to her as wistfulness and a sense of loss crept into her voice as she talked about the potential that we had squandered.
Once her voice fell silent, one of the younger adult Nomads pulled the kids aside and started telling some more fun and light-hearted stories. Everyone else stayed in the circle and talked about Humanity’s current potential and our likelihood of long term survival. When that headed down a dark path, Brianna started talking about all the food she missed and how excited to she was to go into an Enclave where some of that food might still be available. From then on, everyone shared a story about their favorite foods or fun events that had involved food.
After all the stories were told, everyone settled down to sleep again. I took the last watch and woke everyone up at about ten in the morning on the day we were supposed to meet up with Camille. While everyone got ready, I went over our little group’s fighting and scouting plans with Brianna, Natalie, Tiffany, and Gregory–the Wayfinder Camille has left us to help protect the group.
It was a simple plan. Brianna would keep the Nomads organized and enforce my commands. Natalie would pick out route, making sure no detours took us too far from our path. Tiffany would scout ahead, since she was the stealthiest, even without her hand, and Gregory would stay a little bit behind her, ready to spring into action if she needed help or if there was someone who was in our way. I’d stick with the sled and focus on relaying communication between everyone and taking care of any small, isolated threats that poked their head out while we were in motion.
It was a tense four hours as we walked through the snowy city to find Camille and the other Wayfinders, but it went smoothly. There was only one scouting patrol we had to take down, and Gregory handled the whole thing by himself after Tiffany had alerted him. When we got to the rendezvous point Camille had set, we found her sitting out in the open, gun on her shoulder, as she smirked at us.
“What did I say, Cap? They ran without firing a single bullet!” Her smirk grew larger.
“Really?” I looked at her and took in the fact that she still hadn’t really taken her attention off the area outside past her seat. “Looks like you’re making things up so you sound more badass.”
“I’ll admit they shot a few bullets at us, but the they certainly didn’t hurt anyone. We snuck in the back entrance the Nomads had escaped through, killed their commanders, dealt with a little bit of wild shooting once they realized their bosses were dead, and then chased them out. We won’t find much by way of supplies since they grabbed most of the food as they went, but it’s safe and warmer than anything I’ve felt in what feels like years.”
“Sold.” I stepped forward and hauled Camille to her feet. “Let’s go get us some well-deserved rest. You especially.”
“Did they have actual beds?” Natalie took Camille’s pack and slung it over her shoulder.
“No, just giant bundles of feathers that aren’t really beds. They smell kinda funny.”
“That’s what a feather mattress is, Camille. A funny-smelling gigantic bundle of feathers. Though I thought they only came in pillow variety.”
“You’d be surprised at how literal I’m being.”
“You’ll have to show me. It sounds more comfortable than a sleeping bag and the ground, though.”
I watched the two of them walk off for a moment before signaling everyone else to follow. As we walked toward the Nomads old home, I could see their spirits lift and I found myself praying to all the gods I’d ever heard of, once again. This time, I prayed that they wouldn’t be horrified at what they saw when they got there. And that Camille had the foresight to clean up the mess she must have made for a bit before we departed. Whatever happened, I was looking forward to being able to walk around without my thermal gear on and actually sleeping without a tent around me, for once.