Coldheart and Iron: Part 28

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I got a few hours of rest before dawn. Since I needed our best shots well-rested, I took a double shift and even let Tiffany take one. It was pretty simple area to guard, anyway. One person on the roof listening for the telltale crunch of feet in the snow and one person patrolling the building in case the person on the roof missed anything. If we’d had more people, I’d have had two more Wayfinders on guard as a matter of principle, but we were a little short on Wayfinders so we made do with only two.

When I woke up, everyone was quietly getting ready to leave. The previous day’s excitement had been replaced with a grim determination that left the air feeling a little heavy after I’d told everyone that we were going to move out the next day instead of rest. The Nomads had taken it well, though it’d been a real feat to help them convince their children that they needed to leave again so soon. I wasn’t much help since most of them didn’t really have a frame of reference for the comforts an enclave could offer and what it meant to be able to use tons of electricity or computers again. I just backed up the Nomad adults and did my best to sound incredibly enthusiastic.

The Wayfinders were much easier to convince, since we were already planning to head that way. Generally, we preferred a much more secure location for our extended rests and to be in much sturdier buildings for the blizzards, so they all seemed relieved to know they wouldn’t need to worry about staying here for any length of time. Not that there was anything wrong with the Nomad’s old home, seeing as they lived in it for over a decade and it held up well enough during that time. It just had more exits, entrances, and avenues of approach than we were comfortable with. Even the trainees kept looking over their shoulders as we packed to leave.

As I went through my preparations, I took note that Camille was missing. A couple of hours later, when we were all packed up and waiting for Lucas to send a scout back to fetch us, Camille reappeared. She motioned for me to follow her and then vanished back down the hallway toward the stairs. Three flights down and around the corner, I found Tiffany sitting on a chair outside of the only closed door. She nodded to us as Camille opened the door and went through.

“You get enough rest, Tiffany?” I stopped at the door, looking down at the bandages on Tiffany’s stump to see if they needed changing.

“Of course, sir.” Tiffany threw a salute with her left hand. “Just trying to stay handy.”

I chuckled and stepped towards the doorway. “Glad to see you’re taking it in stride.”

“Of course.” She smiled and waved her right armed. “Though, I think I might have damaged my sense of humor as well. It took me a while to come up with that joke. I don’t know if I’m ready to feel so stumped when coming up with puns.”

I snorted with laughter and shook my head as I stepped into the room. “I think your sense of humor is fine. Though keep it up with puns like that one and I might just have you get your head checked out when we get to the enclave. I’d prefer to intervene before you get as bad as Lucas.”

Tiffany said something in reply, but I missed it as I moved deeper into the apartment, in search of Camille. A minute later, I found her in the bathroom, standing over the bathtub that held her unfortunate captive. “Looks like he’s a little worse for wear.”

“Well, he shouldn’t have spent most of the morning lying to me. Or have fought back yesterday.” Camille crossed her arms and looked down her nose at the pitiful man whimpering in the tub. “Or he shouldn’t have decided to prey on the weak as a bandit. I may have encouraged his willingness to answer, but his own choices brought him here.”

“Of course.” I nodded and squatted down next to the man, briefly looking him over for serious injury. “What’s he got for us?”

“Detailed plans to take the Enclave down. Everything from the terms of the agreement the various bandit groups made so they’d have the firepower to take down the enclave to a series of routes through the city they’ll take to avoid the monsters that are still clustered to the north.”

“All that?” I looked at the man who blinked fearfully at me, clutching the tattered remains of his insulated jacket to his shoulders.

“And more. He was apparently this group’s delegate. He’s got names, bases, resources, group sizes, and shared stockpile information.” Camille pulled out a notebook and tossed it to me. “Give that to Natalie. It’ll be good for gathering up ammunition or guns if the Enclave needs them, and it should help smooth over our arrival.”

“What do you need me for, then?” I slipped the notebook into my pocket and stood up. I didn’t look at the man in the bathtub again.

“Permission, mostly.”

“For?”

Camille placed her hands on her hips and glared at me. “You know exactly what I want it for. Stop playing dumb.”

“You don’t need my permission, Camille.” I moved towards the door.

“Sure, sure. But this one is different. He has information on us. I can’t just let him go.”

“He won’t get far like that.”

“Yeah, but that’ll wind up being far enough to survive. There’s plenty of shelter around.”

“Camille, just do it.”

“Fine.” She hauled the man out of the tub, grabbed his arms, and frogmarched him out of the bathroom. “You’re to leave us, head directly northwest, don’t stop for anything, and never come back. If we see you again, you’re dead. And you best move quickly because we’re not going to give you the chance to see us a second time.”

The man protested weakly as Camille push him toward the front door and I went back into the bathroom to make sure nothing important had been left behind. Satisfied, I gathered up Tiffany and headed back toward the stairs. At the landing, Camille was already coming back up to our floor, wiping her hands on the walls as she went.

“You sure about this, Marshall?”

“Sure. There’s no need to kill him.”

“I suppose. Just seems like a bit of a loose end, to me.”

“Should she have killed him?” Tiffany leaned toward me a bit, dropping her voice like she didn’t want Camille to hear her.

I shrugged. “Normally, yeah. But if he heads any direction but away from where we’re going, he’s dead. East is monsters, south in all directions is Lucas and his scouts who’ll shoot him on sight, and west is nothing but open plains after a day’s travel. If he heads north, he can probably find people to take him in or at least enough supplies to survive.”

“Makes sense.” Tiffany nodded and grabbed her right arm with her left hand.

Camille rolled her eyes and ushered us up the stairs. “Enough moralizing. It’s done, he’s gone, and we’ll deal with it if we ever see him again. Now let’s go make sure we’re all set to go and downstairs when Lucas sends someone back for us.

Thankfully, everyone was still ready to go when we got upstairs and, an hour later, we were on our way toward the enclave. It took us three days to get there, but they were fairly uneventful. The closest we came to real danger was when Lucas’ scouts saw some monster activity in our planned path, but they managed to steer us safely around it. Otherwise, Lucas and his scouts cleared any bandit threats before we ran into them, and even those were surprisingly few and far-between.

We walked up to the enclave sometime mid-morning and, like every time before then, I found myself in awe of the towering metal walls that protected it. They were fifty feet tall, at least, and thick enough that you needed to bring a light when you went through the tunnels. I’d grown up around Chicago, so the towering walls that blotted out the skyline I used to know so well still felt jarring and out of place despite the fact that they’d been there for almost two decades. A lot of the time, it was easy to forget that the world hadn’t always been gripped in an endless winter filled with hidden monsters and killer blizzards since it took most of my energy to survive, but Chicago was always a constant reminder of how the world had changed since it was overshadowed by the ruins of what it had once been.

At about one hundred feet, most of the buildings stopped. There were a handful that still climbed past two hundred feet, but even those were heavily damaged. While Chicago had escaped the worst of the monster invasions, the blizzards had slowly ripped apart the taller buildings and only the most recent and strongest still stood. I’d heard that most tall cities fared the same, but I stuck to the Midwest and nowhere but Chicago had buildings tall enough to show the absolute devastation the winter had brought upon us.

After a few seconds of reverie, I brought myself back to the present and pushed away encroaching thoughts of the family I had known when I was growing up and the fruitless years of searching for them. I moved to the head of the group, keeping an eye on the walls for any guards that might challenge us as we approached. We made it all the way to the door before anyone stopped us, though. A few passwords later, were being welcomed inside.

We all had to surrender our guns and extra bags, but the Wayfinders had lockers and a barracks near all of the gates so I had the Nomads hand their guns to us and we just tucked them all away for later. Since the lockers were basically a supply warehouse as well, we picked an empty room to the side and dropped the rest of our stuff there as well. Immediately after that, the Nomads were ushered away, taken to get cleaned up and fed something a little more appetizing than what we’d had the time to prepare in what felt like months. We were left mostly to our own devices, with the sole exception that I and my lieutenants were to meet with the council in two hours.

We’d just gotten ourselves washed up, changed, and fed when someone came to fetch us. It was a short walk from the front gates to the council chambers, but I couldn’t help but feel a little anxious at the nervous energy exuding from the guards. It was clear they were preparing for something, but none of them responded to my attempts to worm it out of them. When I finally gave up, we all just walked in silence until they left us at the front doors to the innermost council chamber. Two minutes, later, we were inside.

I gestured for Natalie, Lucas, and Camille to take a seat while I strode forward. “Good afternoon! I’m Captain Marshall, of the Wayfinders, and I’ve been hearing some interesting rumors about the Chicago enclave!”

“Ha, I bet.” the lead counselor, who sat at the peak of the curved table, snorted derisively and leaned forward on his elbows. “That wish-granting bullshit, again?”

“All that and more.” I smiled and shrugged. “I don’t really pay it much mind. I’ve got wishes aplenty, but little faith in easy solutions.” I cleared my throat and clasped my arms behind my back. “What I’m actually here for is to let you know you’ve got a bandit army forming in the suburbs and they seem rather focused on the idea of your new tech granting wishes.”

“I told you, we shouldn’t have let anyone know what was happening until we were ready to launch!” A brawny old man glared from the lead counselor to me. “Now we’ve got an army to fight and walls to upgrade all while we just hope the monsters don’t notice what we’re doing.”

“Be that as it may, we made the best decisions we could at the time, with the information we had.” A woman to the right of the lead counselor shook her head at the brawny old man. “Just shut up and let the less curmudgeonly folks talk it out, Louis.” The old man harrumphed and the woman turned her attention towards me. “We are well aware of the forming armies, Captain Marshall. Thank you for your warning.”

“You’re most welcome.” I smiled at them, looking from face to face. “However, that is not entirely why I’m here. I’ve got a number of people who might wish to settle here and, in exchange for allowing any or all of my people to settle, I’d like to offer my and my Wayfinders’ service as scouts and soldiers in defense of your enclave.”

“You needn’t go that far.” The lead counselor leaned back, but left his hands on the table. “I’m sure we’d love to have you join us. I wouldn’t mind if you joined our military force, but you needn’t do that much in exchange for the opportunity to settle here.”

“I insist. We’d love a chance to get set up as a group here since most of us will be here for several months and the rest might be here permanently. I’m sure we’d prefer more than just a bunch of scattered efficiencies or an extended stay in a Wayfinder barracks.”

“If you’re willing to fight and scout for us, you can have anything short of a presently occupied house and unlimited access to the greenhouses. When can you start?”

I looked over my shoulders at my friends and waved them forward. As I introduced them, I held my hand out towards them. “Natalie has information on bandit supply caches we can hit to cut down on their munitions. Lucas has accurate maps of the northern suburbs and the bandit patrols we saw on the way here. Camille is the best shot I’ve ever seen and the most capable strategist I’ve ever met. She’d be good at organizing strike forces or leading people on the attack. I’m an officer and I can be the liaison between Wayfinders and the Enclave’s standard forces in addition to providing logistics help and maintaining command structures. We can start today. We should start today. Though, we’d prefer to wait until after a short rest and some time to gather supplies or make our own plans.”

“Very well.” The lead counselor looked around the room and, seeing no one dissenting, ploughed on. “I’ll send some people to your Wayfinder barracks in a couple hours and you can all get to work on planning strategy, raids, or whatever it is you’re offering. Over the next couple days, by Thursday at the latest, someone will come to talk to you about housing requirements, numbers of people, and so on.” The lead counselor rose to his feet, joined immediately by the rest, and looked down at the sheaf of papers on his desk. “Is there anything else right now?”

“Do you mind outlining the technology you’ve developed, before you go?”

“It’s much simpler than you’re making it sound.” The brawny old man walked over to me and nodded his head. “It just took us a long time to gather the resources and perform the tests we needed to verify it works. Essentially, we’re creating a tightly woven metal net over most of the city to capture any signals escaping. It’ll catch the signals and strategically placed copper rods will ground it so they never leave. Additionally, we’re-”

“Wait.” Lucas pushed forward. “You mean to tell me that your way to avoid getting attacked by armies of monsters that are a tracking the signals you’re sending out is to catch them in a metal fishing net?”

“Yes, but the science behind-.”

“You’re going to risk all of our lives on it?”

“That’s not all we’re doing. We’ll have some emitters placed around the city and at the taller parts of the remaining skyscrapers which will all be pointed at the city, creating interference of sorts. Like those fancy noise-canceling headphones used to do.”

“Does everyone know you’re willing to risk their lives on something like this?”

“We held a vote.” The lead counselor strode up to his brawny companion. “The vast majority of people were willing to risk it for the chance to live with more power and easier inter-enclave communication without needing to worry about stray electromagnetic interference or signal leakage. Anyone who didn’t want to stay was given the chance to leave and you can all take the same option if you doubt our science.”

“Great. And here I was, wanting to retire. So much for that idea.”

I pushed Lucas gently to the side and focused my attention on the lead counselor. “Is it really that risky?”

“Not really. It’s impossible to replicate the conditions of our world in a lab, but we’ve done a few field tests and are very confident that it will be fine.” The older counselor shrugged.

“What are the chances this will work the way you want it to?”

“Probably over ninety-five percent, but that’s hardly conclusive.”

“Good enough for me.” I shook the counselors’ hands and gestured toward the exit.

As we walked out of the room, Lucas sighed in frustration and looked over at me. “Marshall, let’s try to keep this place alive but make sure our bags are good to go. I don’t want to get stuck here if this doesn’t work.”

“Of course.” I nodded and looked over at Camille. “Let everyone know to be ready to go. I’ll handle things on the enclave side and you just make sure the Wayfinders are ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“Sure, if we’ll even have that. This strikes me as the kind of plan where we won’t know if it’s going south until it’s too late to do much but run and wish we’d had more time.” Lucas started grumbling under his breath and I tuned him out after hearing him repeat the phrases “stupid metal fence” and “catch more signals with my ass” several times.

We’d made it in time and delivered our warning. We were going to be employed by the city in exchange for comfortable living arrangements. There was a high probability we’d be able to see the barrier go up if it everything worked out they want they intended it to and a small, but non-zero chance that we’d be swarmed by monsters reacting to the signals we suddenly started blasting out of the enclave once it went up.

The feeling of excited uncertainty and almost frantic nervousness clouding my stomach were almost comforting after so much time spent focused on the daunting task of traversing the plains and reaching the safety of the Chicago enclave. I was ready for something to happen and almost looking forward to finding out what trouble we’d be getting into.

 

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