Coldheart and Iron: Part 30

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I left the Wayfinder office, Natalie stayed behind to continue pulling records. Camille would only be a few minutes behind me, though I knew she would be running off in a different direction. While I ran down the road, I thanked the star I was born under, every god I’d ever learned about, and a few gods I made up on the spot. When Natalie had begun pulling records, we discovered more Wayfinders than I thought had opted to retire in the Chicago Enclave. A few hundred had, in fact, and a little under half of them seemed to be involved in the government or military in one way or another.

Almost two hundred of them would already be on alert and either leading units against the monsters or moving out to delay them. If Gerry had built his entire sallying force out of Wayfinders, then we’d have at least two additional hours to prepare before the monsters showed up. Maybe more, if they were still as good as they were when they retired. Either way, there were at least as many more Wayfinders who had retired completely, content to live out their days on their earnings and pensions. Some of them would have likely retired due to injury, but Natalie’s records indicated we should get at least one hundred healthy, if rusty, Wayfinders to help us out if we went and asked all of them.

As I ran down the streets, dodging soldiers bustling to their positions and all the residents poking their heads out to see what was going on, I glanced down at the top of the paper I was holding, checking the address against the streets I was passing. I’d looked at a map before leaving, but I didn’t remember exactly how far it was before I needed to turn. Thankfully, Natalie had thought of everything and her instructions would lead me from one house to another. It blew my mind, sometimes, to be reminded how quickly she could write and how thorough she always was.

Another mile of running passed quickly and I arrived at the first house. A confused woman with only one eye opened the door half a minute after I pounded on it. “What the hell is going on?”

“Sorry. Is this Gianna Fields? Retired Wayfinder?” I gave her my best smile while trying to regain control of my breath.

“Yeah. What’s going on?” Her eye went from my face to the paper I held to the sky outside. “Sirens? Are we under attack?”

“We will be, soon. Someone placed a radio on the wall and we expect to be attacked by the monsters living off to the north. Are you willing to fight? We’ve got plenty of guns and the Wayfinders are placing a bounty-”

“Yeah. Where’s muster?”

“It’s in one of the communal buildings near the center of the Enclave. I just moved into the Enclave today, so I’ve got no idea what the address is. Look for the other Wayfinders.” I took a step backward but paused, watching her before I ran off to the next address.

“Got it. See you there, Captain.” The woman saluted and disappeared back into her home. As I jogged off toward the next address, I tried to remember if I’d ever worked with her before. I couldn’t think of any other reason she would have known my rank but, after five more houses, I still couldn’t place her. Nor could I place any of the other people I talked to who seemed to all know my name and rank.

The next hour passed in a blur as I ran from house to house, trying to recruit as many ex-Wayfinders as I could. Surprisingly, every single one of them who was fit to shoot a gun immediately agreed to help and it wasn’t until I asked Natalie how everyone knew me during my last stop at the Wayfinder office, that it all became clear why they were so eager to help and why they all seemed to know me by sight.

“You started the Wayfinders, moron. Of course everyone knows who you are.” Natalie shook her head as she continued to write out my next sheet of instructions. “You’re a living legend to anyone who wants to live outside an Enclave and your pictures are in half the promotional materials we put out.”

“Wait, we have promotional materials?” I sat upright and then clutched my side as my abdominal muscles spasmed. “When did that happen?”

“A few years ago. Where did you think we got the recruits from?”

“I always thought everyone just wanted to be a Wayfinder. Like cowboys when we were growing up. It was just something you wanted to be, not something someone proposed as a legitimate occupation.” I took slow breaths and resisted the urge to guzzle the water bottle Natalie had tossed me when I collapse in the chair. “I just thought we were famous. You know, as a whole.”

“Sure, but we wouldn’t have as many recruits as we needed if we just waited for people to want to join us on their own. Plus, we probably wouldn’t be getting the right recruits.” Natalie set down her pencil and started scanning the sheet.

I took a small sip of water and hauled myself to my feet. “Huh. I never would have guessed. You put them out, then?”

“Yes. You left me in charge of logistics and having enough people to do our jobs falls under that, so I had something made up more than a decade ago and I bring it up to date whenever we stop in an Enclave.” Natalie held out piece of paper, smiling slightly. “Worked like a charm. Now get running. Camille has done almost half again as many trips as you.”

“That’s not a fair comparison.” I took the paper and one last deep breath before I started around her desk toward the door. “She’s unstoppable. I’ve known her for almost thirty years and I’ve never seen her tired. I’m just some poor Human. How can I expect to keep up with Wonder Woman there?”

“Quit griping and get moving.” Natalie smiled and swatted me on the butt as I turned to go. I smiled to myself and waved over my shoulder as I lumbered out the door and up the street. Half an hour later, I collapsed into a chair inside the commune and started yanking my snowsuit off so I could change into dry clothes. While I gasped for breath and kicked off my boots, I watched Lucas direct traffic through the building.

Wayfinders came in the front door, signed in, picked up their preferred weapon, told Lucas about their particular skills, and then was given a Wayfinder unit number and sent to the Enclave defense council with a message to say they were either to be assigned as a unit or sent out of the city to pick off monsters as they got closer. As either a solo Wayfinder or as a team of just Wayfinders, they’d be able to do stuff Enclave defenders wouldn’t risk.

By the time I’d cooled down, changed into dry clothes, and rehydrated myself, Camille had turned up with a group of the best marksmen she could muster. All of them retired or still-working Wayfinders, of course. I watched them all sign in and pick up through the rifles Lucas and Tiffany had set aside. Camille gathered them up once they’d all picked a gun and all the ammunition they could carry and, without more than a nod to myself and Lucas, lead her sharpshooters away.

“Bit chilling, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Like death just passed through.”

“On that note, I’m off.” Lucas grabbed a gun, slung it over his shoulder, and gestured to all of the Wayfinders we’d brought into the Enclave.

“Wait, what? Who’s going to run the command center?” I hauled myself to my feet and forced myself not to flinch when my muscles spasmed and twitched.

“We don’t need it, Marshall. Everyone has their orders, they all know to follow their training, and no amount of communication from us is going to help them. I suggest grabbing a gun for yourself and Natalie, find a spot for the two of you to hole up that’s outside the city, and make sure you’ve got enough food in your pack for a week.”

“Right.” I slumped back into my chair and suddenly the pain in my muscles didn’t feel as bad as it had before I remembered the city was probably going to fall between the monsters and the bandits. “Did y-”

“Your bags are packed. I’ve got ‘em right here.” Lucas gestured at the other side of one of the kitchen islands. “Rendezvous is the Nomad’s old home. Be there ten days after the fighting is over.”

I nodded and did my best to smile as all of my Wayfinders left until only Lucas and I remained. I watched him head toward the door and paused, one hand on the knob. “I really wanted to retire here, Marshall. I’m sorry there isn’t more we can do.”

“I know, Luke. I know. I’ll see you there. Ten days or less.” After a moment more of hesitation, Lucas stepped through the door and closed it behind him. I stared at where he was for a moment before hauling myself to my feet to see if my snowsuit had dried out yet. While I poked around for damp spots, I muttered to myself. “Stupid defeatist attitude. It’s not over until it’s over. He better come back alive or else I’m going to find his corpse and use him as a scarecrow.”

“Gross.”

I spun around, only barely staying on my feet as my socks slick on the cheap linoleum. “Tiffany? What’re you doing here?”

“I live here, duh.” Tiffany placed both her wrists on her hips and shook her head at me. “I swear, it’s like you forget I’m alive sometimes.”

“No, I just assumed Lucas would have taken you with him.”

“Yeah, if I could hold a gun. Still working on that, since I lost my dominant hand, so I’m going to go with you and Natalie. Act as your spotter.”

“Oh, that’s good thinking.”

“Now c’mon, bossman. We’ve got monsters to shoot and a city to save.” Tiffany smiled and kicked my boots across the room to me. I smiled and started tugging on my snowsuit. While I slipped on and laced-up my boots, Tiffany grabbed three packs from behind the island, and started grabbing rifles. Five minutes later, as I modified the forward grip on one of the semi-automatic rifles and showed Tiffany how to hold it with what remained of her left arm, Natalie walked through the door.

“Everyone’s already gone?”

“Yeah. Lieutenant Lucas left about ten minutes ago with the last of the Wayfinders unless there are a few who haven’t shown up yet. We’re heading out in a couple minutes to find someplace to snipe monsters.” Tiffany smiled as she deftly slung the gun over her shoulder and hooked her pack with her left arm.

“She’s terrifyingly good with that arm already.” I looked over at Natalie who eyed our packs with some apprehension. “She’s been practicing with every spare moment, it seems. It’s almost like she was born one-handed now.”

“Why do you have our bags packed?” Natalie stepped in and hefted her bag. “And why does it feel like there’s enough in here for several days away from the Enclave.”

“We’re picking a sniper position outside of the Enclave in case it falls to the monsters or the Bandits.” I looked over at Natalie and caught the grim look in her eye. “I don’t think it will come to that given how prepared the Chicago Enclave is, but it never hurts to be ready. Would we really be Wayfinders if we didn’t plan for this?”

“I suppose not.” Natalie sighed and slipped on her pack. “I suppose you’ve got a place in mind, Marshall?”

Before I could even open my mouth to speak, Tiffany stepped forward. “I picked out a place while Lucas was coordinating. If we leave out the Northern gate and head west, there’s a taller building still standing that we can climb up. If we seal stairwells in the building, we could even fortify the position long enough for us to escape to one of the shorter neighbors in the event that they target us.”

Natalie smiled as Tiffany pulled a map out of her pocket and pointed out our route. “Lead on, Tiffany.”

A little under an hour later, we lay at the edge of a blown-out room on the seventeenth floor of an old office building and surveyed the monster army approaching the Enclave. The group the Enclave defense council had sent out to delay them had done a good job, taking out most of the stragglers and causing the main body of them to bundle up tightly. If we’d had explosives of any kind, we could have taken out most of them right then, but no one had access to the bunkers anymore and using anything with that large of a heat signature would have attracted the attention of every monster in the Midwest. So we boxed them up and waited for them to get in range of the machine guns mounted on the Enclave walls.

Our part would be to start taking out any monsters that tried to break out of their tight formation and swing around to flank the machine guns. The other Wayfinder groups would be doing the same thing, mostly, but also be applying pressure to the rear, taking out any stragglers who fell behind or tried to go further back before swinging wide to flank. The monsters’ tactics were good, but rather static. Any force that survived an encounter with them had a much better chance of surviving a second one.

After Natalie and I placed our rifles, set up our scopes, and had Tiffany start calling out targets, I settled into a groove. The monsters didn’t really care if you shot at them since it was difficult to land a killshot and they’d always ignore snipers in favor of machine guns since they had an easier time finding the giant heat wells machine guns created. Since most snipers posed little threat to a monster, they generally ignored them until the end of the battle.

Wayfinder snipers, though, were different. One of the tests you had to pass in order to become a Wayfinder is to label each and every vital area on a monster from a mile away, no matter which direction they were facing. Most Enclaves trained their people on where the vital areas were, but they didn’t have as exhaustive a test as the Wayfinders did. Most Enclaves also didn’t require you to perform the test using a live monster that you then had to kill in order to join. Wayfinders did. So when Natalie and I started firing, we were dropping one with each shot.

I always felt a little uncomfortable when I looked at the monsters. People had originally called them robots because they used swarm processing and had electrical parts like a lot of the robots Humanity had been producing, but the idea of robots as something humanoid was too strong and people rejected it in favor of ‘monster’ since they were anything but humanoid.

They moved around using what can only be described as large limbs, sort of quickly twitching their way forward in a way that bent the mind into strange shapes. Their entire body could flow into one of these limbs so that it resembled a large greenish log than it’s normal tendril, and it would still manage to undulate forward like some kind of nightmare worm. Once they attacked, they pistoned all of their limbs into the ground and fired bullets made of the same greenish metal making up their bodies out of tubes that appeared once they were stabilized. If they wanted to trace you, they’d fire smaller pellets that hit with the same force as a bullet, but their rounder shape meant they generally didn’t punch through and the fact that they were hollow meant they’d disintegrate on impact, enter into the bloodstream, and begin to replicated until one or more of the monsters showed up to kill whoever had been hit.

The closet thing they resembled was a cross between an alligator and an octopus. They had the same sort of heavy bodies and lurching strength as an alligator, but they had the limbs and body fluidity of an octopus. Their shape was closer to the later, but they could be any part of the octopus they wanted to be, and any percentage of it.

As of yet, no one had figured out their tech or the metal alloy they were made of. Attempts to study them had been stopped because even a dead monster was still detectable by it’s fellows and whole labs had been destroyed before we figured that bit out. They had circuitry like you’d imagine robots would, but it contained some kind of liquid electricity we’d taken to calling plasma. They apparently created their own since you could drain one of them of all their plasma without destroying it. It would then it would then proceed to kill you, disappear somewhere to refill it’s plasma circuits, and then return to kill your friends.

The only way to kill them was to hit them in a vital spot that acted a lot like a fault like in a rock. If you could hit it at the right moment, the whole thing would essentially shatter. Whatever parts of it had been pulled in or stretched out would crack, all of its plasma would leak out, and it would collapse. There were other ways to kill them, hitting them with a blunt instrument at one of those points or by cutting open their circuitry until you got to the whirling ball of solid plasma at their center that was basically their heart, but sniping was the most effective because they couldn’t fix a shattered monster. If you cut them open but didn’t destroy the heart or only knocked a limb off, they’d just put the damaged monster right back together again as soon as they’d run you off.

Their smooth movement and ungainly bodies seemed like they should always be at odds with each other, but they never stumbled or tripped on their own. You basically had to take off a limb supporting it to cause it to fall and even then it didn’t fall far before on of the other limbs came in to catch it. It was always satisfying to hit one in a vital spot and watch it crumble to the ground, but there were so many today that I just skipped from shooting one to finding another to shoot.

Between Natalie and I, we took out over one hundred of the monsters, leaving a trail of shattered metal and leaking blue plasma from the nearest building by the wall to the main body of monsters which, despite a steady stream of bullets, seemed to be making headway against the wall. In fact, as I turned my attention back to looking for stragglers, I heard a low rumble followed by Tiffany cursing.

“Shit! One of them blew itself up against the wall. I didn’t know they could do that. Did you?” Tiffany looked between Natalie and I as we shook our heads. Tiffany pressure her scope back to her eye and peered down at the way. “There’s a hole. They’re inside three hours before our worst case scenario projection and there are still thousands of them trickling in. What do we do?”

I looked down my scope at the hold in the wall and watching a slow stream of monsters step through it. “Keep picking them off from out here and hope they’re able to contain the breech. If not, then the city is lost.” Natalie nodded and we both got back to work, trying to shoot faster than we had been before.

After a few more shots, Tiffany tapped us both on the shoulder. We looked up and she held her left arm to her lips. After adjusting her position so she was laying down next to us, she spoke so quietly I could barely hear her over the distant gunfire. “We’ve got bandits creeping toward our spot from the north. Keep firing for now, I’m going to set up some traps quick.”

After Natalie and I nodded, Tiffany silently crawled backwards until she was lost in the shadows of the blown-out room we picked as our sniper nest and slunk off into the building proper. I tried to focus on killing Monsters, but it was starting to feel like a waste of time. Unless a miracle occurred, the Enclave was lost. We had Bandits trying to ambush us while we sniped and the same was probably happening to Wayfinder nests all over the area. If we weren’t careful, we might wind up dead, and we were almost certainly homeless once again. As I swapped magazines on my rifle, I clenched my jaw and focused on killing one monster at a time, hoping that we’d eventually save everyone if we just kept firing.

 

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