Coldheart and Iron: Part 32

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After what felt like an excruciating hour of darkness, pain, and ringing silence, my vision started to clear. I heard a small thump far above me and tried to orient myself. A second thump following the first and them everything was drowned out by a loud bang. The shockwave hitting the building caused dust to fall from above and my brain finally oriented itself.

I was lying face-down on the floor in a pile of rubble, my pack still so tight it was constricting my chest. Rotten wood, rusted pipes, foam insulation, and the weird plasticy material that ceiling tiles were made out of was covering the floor around me. I tried to push myself to my feet, but my right arm wasn’t working properly and there was something heavy on top of it. Gingerly, moving carefully so I didn’t shift anything I could avoid, I pulled a flashlight out of my pocket and shined it around me.

I must have fallen through a weak spot in the floor when I landed in the next building over, somehow pulling more of the floor down with me than I’d landed on.I stuck the flashlight in my mouth and shifted my head so I could look at my right arm. It had vanished beneath a pile of rubble and what looked like a filing cabinet. I tried to wiggle my fingers and was rewarded with a flash of pain and the sensation of some kind of chalky dust against the floor.

Unfortunately, that was about all I could see. I was stuck, face-down, under a pile of rubble and had only one arm free, which I couldn’t really use because I wasn’t sure what might come tumbling down on top of me if I started digging. There was another bang from the next building over and I felt the pile of rubble shift slightly. I fought down the rising tide of panic and counted my heartbeats, trying to keep it slow while I waited.

Three hundred sixty-five beats, later, I heard the approaching thumping of two sets of feet. Then a door slammed open, hitting the pile of rubble, and a few chunks of wood crashed down where my left arm had been when I woke up. “Stop!”

“Marshall? Marshall! You’re alive!” Natalie’s voice was muffled, but I could hear the mixture of fear and relief in her voice.

“Yeah. I’m under all the rubble and it’s not stable at all.”

“Shit, I’m sorry.” I could hear Natalie moving around the pile.

“It’s going to take too long to dig me out right now, with the monsters closing in and the bandits next door. Just leave me here until the fight’s over. I’ll be fine until then.” I looked to my left, were the pile of boards lay and saw the shattered end of a pipe sticking out of the debris ceiling. “There’s a pipe letting in a little light and fresh air, so just leave me here until you can come back to get me.”

“Captain, there’s a giant steel beam hanging over you that might come loose at any second.”

“What?” I tried to think of the floor we’d picked and what I remembered of the conference room. “We shouldn’t have been anywhere near an internal support.”

“Marshall, you fell through four floors.” Natalie had moved around the pile to a closer spot. “I don’t know how you survived it, but the floor beneath the conference room was a storeroom at one point and the floor just collapsed when you hit it, taking you and all the filing cabinets down to the next floor, which was a convention hall of some kind. There’s a bunch of iron truss and some smaller I-beams that are just dangling over the hole now.”

“All the more reason to just leave me here and get out!” I closed my eyes and lay my head down on the floor. “If I made that much noise, the monsters won’t be that far behind. Stop wasting your time and get somewhere safe!”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“Yes, Tiffany, I am.”

“Then make me!”

“Natalie, you need to take her and go. The monsters won’t be able to sense me, so I should be fine. Just go for now and come back later, when the fighting is over. I’ll be fine.” I took as deep a breath as I could with the backpack on and listened for Natalie’s response.

A minute later, I heard her voice by the door. “C’mon,Tiffany. There’s nothing we can do here.”

The small part of me that hoped they’d stay and that everything would still be alright withered away. I scrunched my eyes up even tighter, until my vision went from black to purple and green, as I resisted the urge to ask them to stay.

“But… We can’t just leave him here, Lieutenant. If another few explosions happen, all the beams and truss are coming down. He doesn’t have that long.”

“Do as you’re told, Tiffany.” I could hear the stiffness in Natalie’s voice as the two of them shuffled around the door they’d come in. A moment later, I heard one set of feet walking away. “I love you, Natalie.”

“I love you too, Marshall.”

I heard Natalie’s feet hurry after Tiffany’s and stopped fighting the emotions welling up inside me. I felt a fear tears leak out of my eyes and was just about to get my hand in front of my face to wipe them off when I heard another boom from the next building over followed by a shriek of metal. An eternity later, something huge landed on the pile of debris to my right and the whole thing shifted as dust billowed into the space I occupied..

Once the dust cleared, I noticed the filing cabinet on my arm had shifted so I was able to get it free. The pain that lanced up and down my arm as I pulled it toward me let me know it was probably fractured, but I still had enough control over it to pull it close to my body and begin loosening the straps on my backpack. After I could properly breathe again, I shift my pack so I could grab my canteen. A small drink of water refreshed me and gave me the impetus I needed to wriggled around so I could look at more than the floor.

The entire structure of the pile was held up by the filing cabinets and a piece of metal truss that had fallen with me. There still wasn’t much beneath me other than the carpet from the conference room, plaster chunks, and a few lumpy objects hidden by the carpet, but I was able to find my gun. It took a bit of work using my feet to grab it, but it felt reassuring to have it at hand. Anything that kept me from focusing on being trapped beneath a pile of rubble was a welcome distraction.

I kept looking for a place to start digging myself out, but I couldn’t find anything that would help beyond pushing a few piles of rubble around to give me more space to maneuver. Just as my attention started to drift back toward the hopelessness of my situation, I heard another bang. This one, however, was below me. I had only a moment to wonder what happened before the floor beneath me cracked and I feel through it again.

I landed in a heap, on a pile of moldy old cushions and paper, but managed to twist so I fell on my left side instead of my right. Still, the shock of landing caused a pain in my chest to flare up so strongly I nearly blacked out again. Once my vision cleared, I saw Natalie and Tiffany standing at the far side of the room, coated in plaster and coughing triumphantly.

“What the hell?” I groaned and flopped onto my back.

“Lieutenant Natalie blew up just enough of the ceiling to drop you and only some of the debris pile into the room below.” Tiffany walked over and pulled my pack out of the pile of plaster chunks. “She’s really quite good at this sort of thing.”

Natalie walked over and grabbed my left arm. “Come on, Marshall. Time to get going. The monsters will have noticed that for sure and I want to be in the next building before they find their way up here.”

I groaned as I let Natalie haul me to my feet, trying to ignore the wave of pain that flashed through my chest. It was pretty clear I’d hurt my ribs in all of the falling I’d done, but thankfully it only hurt to breathe. I let Tiffany carry my pack but scooped up my rifle as I staggered out of the room. Natalie stayed a step behind me, ready to grab me if it looked like I was going to fall. Thankfully, there were only a couple false alarms as we made our way down nine flights of stairs to the second floor.

There, Tiffany led us out of the stairwell and into another long row of cubicles. Past the cubicles and a few private offices, there was a foyer with a big staircase down to the first floor and, off to the north end of the building, an elevated walkway to a different building. Most of the glass had blown out over the years, but there was enough built up debris that we could crawl across it unseen. While Natalie and I waited for Tiffany to cross and clear the other foyer, I peaked around the wall at the outside

I could see monsters walking through the streets, heading toward the building we’d originally been hiding in, with a few darting off in different directions after what were probably fleeing bandits. I grimaced as I watched them march, glad we had somehow avoided detection so far.

Once we got the signal from Tiffany, I did my best to quickly cross to the other side. It took a lot longer than I would have liked, thanks to my arm and ribs, but I made it across and was still conscious enough to watch Natalie’s back while she crossed. Tiffany then lead us through the building to the north side. An emergency exit let us out into an alley and from there we climbed a fence to continue moving east and north.

Once we’d gotten clear of the area immediately around my signal bomb, the streets cleared up. All of the monsters had converged on the building and the steady crack of gunfire let us know my plan had worked. Natalie pulled out a map at some point and started guiding us a little further north before taking us west toward another sniper nest. Once we’d holed up again, I had them help me bind my arm and find the painkillers I kept in my emergency kit. After that, the rest of the battle is a bit of a haze.

I remember continuing to shoot where Tiffany or Natalie told me to, but the first thing I remember as more than a vague, foggy image was Natalie and Tiffany leading me back toward the Enclave after the sun had set again and the battle was over. Even that trip had a lot of holes in it, despite the drugs starting to wear off. I remember a field hospital near the smoking ruins of the part of the Enclave the monsters had broken into, Natalie turning down more painkillers for me, and a warning bell sometime during the night that roused me long enough for Natalie to notice.

“Bandits are attacking now.” Natalie scooted over to sit beside me and grabbed my hand. “Don’t worry, though. The Enclave is holding strong and most of the Wayfinders are still out there.” I felt her stroke the back of my hand as the warning bell faded and I fell back asleep.

When I woke up, it was the middle of the day and the fighting was over. The Enclave held out against the bandits and now the defenders were patrolling the city, making sure all of the monsters had been destroyed.

“We survived.”

I looked over at Natalie and smiled. “Any word on Camille and Lucas?”

“Nothing yet, but only two sniper nests were wiped out by bandits, so we should see them as soon as the patrols are finished. I don’t think either of would turn down a chance to finish wiping out a bunch of monsters.” Natalie smiled back at me.

“Great.” I lifted my left arm and placed it over my face, blocking out the light in an attempt to quiet the pounding headache I had. “How about some water while we wait?”

After a few cups of water and a large bowl of oatmeal, I was starting to feel a little more alert and entirely aware of how much it hurt to breathe. I did my best to take shallow breaths, but it was more difficult than I expected to hold off the yawns that caused my vision to dim with pain every time they got out. After a few yawns escaped, Natalie gave me another dose of painkillers and I went back to sleep.

This time, when I woke up, it was morning, and Lucas, Camille, and Natalie were all sitting against the wall of my room at the compound. I’d been moved while I slept and now everyone was back. I left them all sleeping there while I got out of bed and went to get a drink of water. Draped around the common room was everyone’s stuff and even a couple extra Wayfinders I had recruited before the fight began. I quietly made my way through the room, got myself some water, and made it back to my room just in time to see Camille wake up.

“Marshall!” Camille started, leaping to her feet and taking the pitcher of water from me. “Get back in bed.”

“It’s just a few cracked ribs and a fractured arm.” I wiggled my shoulder and managed to not flinch when my arm bounced in its sling. “No big deal.”

“Sure.” Camille nodded as she ushered me back to bed. “Except your arm is more splintered than fractured and Natalie is going to kill all of us if she wakes up and you’re not where she left you.”

“Too late.” Natalie rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I’ll let it slide, though. This time.” She glared at me and I smiled back at her. My arm still hurt and my chest seared with pain every time I breathed, but all of my friends had made it back safely.

“Was I the only one injured?” I looked at Lucas who was still asleep despite the noise. “He’s fine?”

“Yeah.” Camille stretched and settled back against the wall where she’d been. “Aside from you, our little group came out unscathed aside from a few small cuts and bruises. The Wayfinders are a whole weren’t so lucky, but we only lost a dozen people and half that many were injured enough to warrant medical care, you included.”

“What about the defenders and the Enclave?”

“They lost a good deal more than that.” Natalie looked down at her hands. “The wall breach took a long time to seal and your plan didn’t pull as many of the monsters off the wall as you wanted, though it did do a great job of thinning out the bandit numbers. Almost a third of them died as a result of your plan, so we were able to hold the walls after we’d finished the monsters.”

“How many did the Enclave lose?”

Natalie paused, fishing for words, and Camille cut in. “Preliminary numbers estimate a few hundred civilians and about a quarter of the defenders. Injuries are about twice the casualty numbers for civilians and about the same as the casualties for the defenders.” Camille cleared her throat and, after a moment of silence, carried on. “We’re still waiting on an exact report and Enclave command expects the numbers to be less severe than the estimates as rescue operations are ongoing.”

“Ah.”

“We saved a lot of people, showing up when we did.” Camille shrugged. “They would likely have survived without us, but more of them are alive because we were here to help and organize the Wayfinders.”

“I just feel bad because I missed it all.” I waved with my left hand, trying to encompass the disappointment I felt. “I don’t think there was much I could have done to change things, but I do wish I’d at least been cognizant and able to actively help instead of needing to be helped.”

Natalie nodded and Tiffany, popping up from the other side of the room, shook her head. “You weren’t a burden, Captain. No matter how foggy you felt, you took direction, didn’t need to be carried, and actually hit most of the monsters you aimed at.”

I looked over at Tiffany, trying to figure out how I kept missing her all the time. Unable to come up with an answer, I just asked. “How are you always here and I never see you?”

“I come from a big family.” Tiffany smiled and sat down again. “I’m pretty good at disappearing when I’m not trying to get people’s attention.”

“Fair enough.” I smiled and looked around. “Well, we should probably wake Lucas up for this, but I think it’s time to decide what we want to do long-term.”

Tiffany saluted, leaned over, and poked Lucas in the side until he stirred. After a few moments of groggily looking around the room, his eyes landed on me and he smiled. “Good to see you’re up. The others report in already?”

I nodded. “And now we’re deciding what to do.”

“I still want to retire.” Lucas sleepily shrugged and looked away, a little defensive. “I know the rest of you still want to keep Wayfinding, but I’m ready for a long rest.”

“I kinda am, too.” It was my turn to shrug and look away. I glanced over at Natalie and smiled at her. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I think it might be a good time to retire. I’m not getting any younger and unless I wind up being immortal, there’s no way I’m going to be able to find everyone who went missing.”

“Marshall…” Camille looked at Natalie and then back at me. “Are you sure? I mean, that’s been the driving force behind everything you’ve done for almost two decades.”

“Yeah.” I looked at Camille, Lucas, and then Tiffany before looking back to Natalie. “I think I’m ready for something a little less dangerous. And I’m ready to focus on what I have now rather than what I’ve lost. I think now’s the time.”

Natalie came over to sit on the edge of my bed and gave me a kiss. “I think I’m ready to retire, too.”

Lucas smiled, leapt to his feet, and came over to give us both a hug. After the heart-warming moment was over, we all looked over at Camille who smirked. “I’m totally okay with retiring. I prefer training Wayfinders and hunting monsters to actually guiding people around the tundra and there’s plenty of both of those things to do here.” She came over to sit beside us. “To be honest, I was only still doing it because you all were.”

“Yay!” Tiffany leapt across the bed and hugged us all. “Now I don’t have to be deferential or respectful toward you assholes anymore.”

I smiled. “I’m guessing you’re not retiring, Tiffany.”

“No.” She smiled over at Natalie. “But I’ve got at least a year of relearning to do before I’m ready to be a Wayfinder again and Natalie promised to teach me all about maps and how to use them in the tundra.” She turned to me and glared in mock anger. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily, Marshall.”

I laughed and started pushing people off my bed. “Fair enough. Now go get some rest, everyone. You can’t have slept well on the floor here.” I smiled as everyone but Natalie left. Once they were gone and Camille had closed the door behind her, I scooted over the in the bed and Natalie climbed into it with me. While she slept, I gently stroked her hair and thought that maybe being retired wouldn’t be that bad after all.

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