Coldheart and Iron: Part 33

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Five Years Later

“Next, please.” I grabbed the paper application and scanned the top for a name. “Felix?”

“Yessir.” The man before me nodded his head and then clasped his arms behind his back.

“You want to be a Wayfinder.”

“Yessir.”

I skimmed through the application for his aptitude test score and suppressed the urge to whistle. The kid had passed, but only just. His scores were all at the cutoff point. Even one more mark off in any of the tests and he would have failed. I looked up at him and his head snapped up so he was staring at the wall instead of me. I sighed.

“Why do you want to be a Wayfinder, Felix?”

“Sir.” Felix cleared his throat, glanced down at me, and then resumed staring at the wall behind me. “I want a taste of the open air. I want to wander between Enclaves, free to see what’s left of the world my parents lost, and I want to do my part to help Humanity keep moving forward.”

“Did you just read that off the poster behind me?” I turned to look at the wall behind me and found his exact words printed there, on one of Natalie’s old recruitment posters. I turned back to Felix who was suddenly incredibly interested in the edge of my desk. I watched him for a moment before shaking my head. “You’re good enough, Felix. With training, you could be even better. It’s clear your heart really isn’t in it, though.”

“I know, sir.” Felix met my eyes for a brief moment. “I just… It’s the only thing that would get me out of here. I want to get away and be a hero while I’m at it. Learn to fight monsters, kill bandits, and save people. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. Everything else feels pointless in the face of this unending winter.”

I stamped the application in my hand and gave it back to him. “Like I said, you’re good enough. I don’t know if wanting any kind of meaning in your life will get you through your basic training and then three years of shadowing as a trainee, but I’m not going to stop you from trying.”

“Thank you, sir.” Felix saluted and then walked off toward the clerk’s desk, where he’d be assigned to a training group. I watched him for a moment before turning back to my desk and the line of waiting people, all hoping to become Wayfinders.

After well over fifty rejections, two more admissions, and a handful of people I managed to convince not to join, the line had emptied out and I was able to get to work on some of the paperwork I had to file with the Enclave for bringing on new Wayfinders. The new training program was great, and we were seeing a higher rate of trainee survival during the four years I’d been running things out of the Chicago Enclave, but it meant paying Wayfinder trainees for a year before we could use them for anything and that meant leaning on the Enclave a little.

They were completely fine with supporting us, of course, since our training programs kept the area free of bandits and monsters, but it did mean a lot of paperwork. It also meant Camille and I got paid instead of living off our savings, which we both enjoyed. Lucas was the only one who had actually retired and it was increasingly clear that he was glad to be sharing a living space and food with the rest of us since it kept his bills low.

After I finished the paperwork, it was about mid-afternoon, so I decided to call it an early day. Anyone who came after I left could stick their applications in the drop slot in the door of the office I rented, or leave it with Will, the man I’d hired to take care of scheduling and organizing the training programs. He made sure each of the Wayfinder instructors had a full class and kept track of when each new group was full enough to start being taught. He was an ex-Wayfinder as well, missing an arm and a leg, so he was all too happy to demonstrate what the job could cost you even if you were good at it.

It helped get rid of all the people signing up just because I was still popular as one of the heroes of the last monster attack five years ago. Natalie had kept me in the spotlight for a while, letting me ride fame for a bit to get more Wayfinders and to get the Enclave some good will after their last plan resulted in a bandit and monster attack. No one really blamed them, but there’d been a lot of resentment to go around back then and a few almost-riots.

After I’d waved goodbye to Will, I left the office and made my way through the office park to the main road. A couple miles of walking, interrupted by a few conversations with people I walked by every day, got me to the center of the Enclave and the laboratory where Natalie worked. I waved at the same people, made the same comfortable, old jokes, and was waiting on the comfortable, ancient couch in Natalie’s office fifteen minutes after I got there, rifling through the same old science journals she’d been hoarding since someone found an intact library.

At this point, I’d opened them more than her, all while waiting for her. My job was fairly casual since I was mostly just pushing paper for the Wayfinders as a whole and processing applicants after they’d take their tests. Natalie was part of a group of scientists who were trying to figure out a way to beat the monsters for good. She wasn’t able to talk about her work much, but it was clear they were on to something given how excited she’d been lately and how late she’d been working most days.

I wound up taking a short nap while I waited and only woke up once Natalie had plopped down beside me, sighing. “Marshall, sweetie, how nice of you to drop by.”

I blinked and shook my head a bit, trying to clear the sleep from my mind. “Today was slow so I thought I’d come by to make sure you ate dinner.” I yawned and slipped my arm around here shoulders as she got into a more comfortable position on the couch.

“Oh, is that all?” Natalie leaned over to give me a kiss that lasted a bit longer than I expected. “It’s been a while since we’ve both had a few moments to ourselves and are awake enough to put them to use.” Natalie pulled me a little closer and smiled up at me.

“Oh.” I blinked, trying to pull my mind together still and suddenly fighting the battle on two fronts. “What about the offices next door?”

“Everyone’s in the lab.” Natalie pressed a little closer to me and I cleared my throat.

“What about the hallway? That door isn’t very sound proof.” I swallowed. “Or lockable.”

Natalie leaned back and laughed. “You’d think we’d never had to be quiet before! We used to have nothing but the walls of our tent separating us from other people.”

I laughed too, a little less loudly. “Sure, but I’ve kind of gotten used to having privacy.”

“Alright. Let’s go get dinner then and I’ll make sure I’m home before it gets too late.” Natalie winked at me and pushed herself to her feet.

I stood up and stretched, trying to get my heart rate back down again. “How was work?” I grabbed the water bottle off of Natalie’s desk and took a few drinks to clear the sleep taste out of my mouth.

“Fine. I wish I could tell you what I’m working on.” Natalie smiled and gathered up her bag. “You’d love the idea of it.”

“Yeah?” I set the bottle down and followed her into the hallway. She led us through the labyrinth of tunnels, making our down to the cafeteria on one of the bunker levels. Any of the scientists could eat in the cafeteria for free since the Enclave wanted to keep them working here, but the tradeoff was that they were required to report in, with as many family members as they wanted, any time there was an alert. The bunker could house all of them and their laboratories, so they could work on solutions to whatever problems plague the surface.

There’d only been one alarm since Natalie started working here and it had been a real pain to have to haul myself out of bed and into the bunker instead of rising to the city’s defense like last time. It had turned out to be a false alarm, thankfully, but I still didn’t much like the idea of having to choose between defending the city and staying with Natalie.

While we ate, we talked about schedules and I let her know that Camille and I would be in the field starting next week while she let me know that they were shutting down the lab the following weekend, to force everyone to take a break and rest, so she’d have a few days entirely free. We made plans and just enjoyed each other’s company until Natalie’s watch started beeping at her.

“Sorry, Marshall, my test is done. I need to go check on the results.”

I picked up our trays and gave her a kiss. “I’ll take care of this and see myself out. See you tonight.”

“See you tonight.” Natalie slapped my butt as I walked away and I chuckled self-consciously as I tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone else in the cafeteria. Once I’d escaped the confusing tunnels of the Enclave research laboratory, I made my way back to the compound. There were fewer people in it now, but we’d done some remodeling so those of us who wanted larger rooms had them. The only other person who still lived there, besides Natalie, Camille, Lucas, and myself was Tiffany.

After she’d figured out how to do everything she wanted to with only one hand and had learned everything Natalie could teach her, she wound up staying in the Enclave, working with Camille as a Wayfinder trainer and helping the Enclave defenders to keep the city clear of bandits and monsters. She spent more nights out of the compound than in it, but she had no desire to find a place of her own. And she still managed to constantly scare me by hiding in plain sight until she wanted something. I just assumed she was around all the time now, even if I saw her walk out the door.

When I finished taking off my snowsuit and boots, I found Camille and Lucas sitting the in the lounge, talking about something quietly. When they noticed me, they both immediately fell silent and then started talking loudly about Camille’s training group. I sighed and just went to the kitchen to grab some water. I’d already tried getting them to talk about whatever it is they were up to, but Camille just played dumb and Lucas told me to talk to Camille about it.

Just as I was about to go find something to read while I made sure I was properly hydrated for the evening, Camille and Lucas sauntered into the kitchen. I looked at them, dreading whatever it was they were about to say. Camille opened her mouth to speak a couple of times, but it was Lucas who eventually broke the silence.

“I’m bored and I wanna go back to Wayfinding. Camille feels the same way and Tiffany won’t admit it to you, but she’s getting super tired of teaching trainees.”

I put down my glass of water, walked over to the kitchen table, sat down, and rubbed my face with my hands. “Is that really what you’ve been secretly talking about for months?”

“Yes.” Camille sad down opposite me, hands folded in front of her. Lucas leaned against the wall behind her.

“Why? What took you so long to say that?” I folded my arms across my chest and leaned back. “I get that maybe you’d be worried about how I’d react, but this doesn’t feel like it was worth months of quiet discussion.”

“It wasn’t.” Camille leaned forward a little bit. “We think you should come with us.”

“Oh.” I looked from one of them to the other. “And Natalie?”

“She won’t want to come.” Lucas stepped forward to stand next to Camille. “She’s clearly enjoying her job at the laboratory and she didn’t really want freedom like the rest of us did. She loved our mission, but she doesn’t feel the same need to be moving that the rest of us do.”

“Okay, that makes sense.” I shook my head slowly, incredulously. “But what makes you think I want to go? I’m perfectly content to take things a bit easier and I love being able to live openly with Natalie instead of having to hide our relationship from rules I created.”

“But you’re clearly just as bored as the two of us.” Camille shrugged and then folded her arms loosely on the table. “You do the same thing every day, putter around the compound every day, and it’s clear to anyone watching you that you’re trying to find comfort in routines that are slowly driving you crazy.”

“What?”

“Marshall, c’mon.” Lucas sat down on the edge of one of the other chairs. “Give us some credit. Natalie may be too busy to notice, but do you really think that we haven’t seen you keep up your Wayfinder training? Or not hear you throwing books around your room in frustration when your days at work have been particularly slow.”

“You’re a lot of things, Marshall, but you’re never one to sit around while things need doing.” Camille smiled. “You’ve fixed everything in the compound twice and would have tripled that number if Tiffany hadn’t taken you to task for fixing things that weren’t broken.”

“Maybe I am bored.” I shrugged, trying to ignore the feeling of being caught in what I’d thought had been a well crafted illusion. “But I definitely don’t want to go back to Wayfinding like we used to. I have a life here, now, and I’d rather stay with Natalie and be bored until the day I die that leave here without her.”

Lucas held up a hand, halting the tirade I was building toward. “What if you didn’t need to leave here?”

“How could I do that?”

“Single trip missions.” Camille pulled a map out of her pocket and laid it out on the table in front of us. “Tiffany has marked every Enclave we can reach and returned from between blizzards. There are even a few that are about a blizzard away that would be perfect for longer trips since we’d be able to easily manage them between blizzards and stay in an Enclave during a blizzard.”

“All the fun of Wayfinding with none of the hassle involved in finding and fortifying shelters. No traipsing across the entire continent for dumb clients who think their life will be better on the west coast than it is on the east coast.” Lucas leaned forward and started pointing out routes. “We could even do shorter trips, if you want time at home. Because of the strength of the Chicago Enclave and their anti-signal net, tons of other Enclaves are sending people back and forth to study it and figure out how to set up something similar in their city.”

Camille started reading off the numbers next to each route. “Thirty-two days. Fifteen days. Forty-five days. They’re all easily reachable in the time between blizzards. We take the jobs we want, stick to our small group, and we should be able to go back to Wayfinding like we used to without a problem.”

“You’d see Natalie at least as much as you see her now.” Lucas smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Maybe even more since she’d make time for you instead of basically ignoring you for six months while she’s busy with some project.”

Lucas was looking up at the ceiling while he spoke, so he didn’t see my face go from nervously interested to angry, but Camille did. Camille immediately whacked Lucas in the check, grabbed the maps, and stood up. “Sorry, Marshall. He didn’t mean it like that. We don’t expect an answer right now, so we’ll going to leave right now and give you some time to think it over.”

“Mean what?” Lucas rubbed his chest as he stood up, glaring at Camille. “I meant what I said, she basically ignores him, comes home late, leaves just before he does. If it wasn’t for the fact that they shared a room, I doubt they were in a relationship.”

Camille stuffed the maps back into her pockets and walked away, apologizing to me again as she went. Lucas looked after her for a moment, and then finally looked at me. He practically ran after her when he saw the stony look on my face and apologized as he went. “Sorry, Marshall. I let my mouth run away with my again. I didn’t mean it like that.” After he disappeared around the corner, he shouted back. “Think about it.”

I tried to stay angry for a while, but I couldn’t. I did feel ignored sometimes, when Natalie got caught up in a project, but I loved how much she cared about the stuff she did so I wouldn’t have wanted her any other way. Plus, they were right. I was bored. Routines were nice, but almost two years of the same thing with no variations aside from the occasional trip to hunt Monsters as part of the graduation ceremony for a trainee Wayfinder left me feeling somewhat numb. It would be nice to get out and doing stuff again. Leave the desk behind for most of the year and get back on my feet.

It was incredibly tempting. So tempting that I was still thinking about it as I lay awake after my evening with Natalie. I held her close to me as I thought about the logistics of the trips and how I sometimes wished to be back in my sleeping bag again, sleeping on the packed snow that was always the wrong shape when you went to sleep up perfectly molded to your body by the time you woke up. Small cook fires that made everyone huddle close, storytelling with the various travelers we guided, the dazzling white of a bright snowy morning in the tundra.

It was so tempting that I was still awake when Natalie’s alarm went off on her watch and she got up to get ready for work.

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