Coldheart and Iron: Part 35

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Thanks to Camille’s habit of directly approaching people to tell them what she wanted, the fact that I was looking for Wayfinders to join my group doing jobs out of the Chicago Enclave did not stay secret for long. She eventually admitted that she’d started talking to people the day after I said I was interested, but it still seemed incredibly fast to me when I found a line of people waiting outside my office two days after I’d told Camille I was in.

There were fifty people waiting, more even than I saw during the busiest days leading up to the Wayfinder application deadline. Even five would have been way more than I was expecting to see as I hadn’t even told Will that I was leaving yet. I stood, stunned, for a moment, taking in the general hubbub of fifty people crammed into spaces made for two or three people at once while they waited for me to arrive. Once they noticed me, there was a moment of silence before the noise broke out again, even louder this time since all of it was directed at me.

I put on my friendliest face, did some good public relations work, and managed to get into my office after only half an hour of chitchat about everything but why they were there. They all wanted to talk about it and I had nothing to say about it. I closed the door on the foremost of them, shouting that I’d start letting people in one at a time once they formed a proper line instead of that tangled mess and turned to Will once the latch had clicked.

“Shit.”

“You said it, Captain.”

“Will, I’m going back to Wayfinding. Soon. Just based out of the Enclave, but for long enough each season that I’ll need to find someone to do the work I’m doing now.”

Will didn’t even look up from his desk. “I’d heard.”

“How do you already know?” I hung my jacket on the coat rack and started taking off my boots while I did my best to ignore the increasingly loud voices from outside the door. “How does anyone know? I only made up my mind yesterday morning!”

“We’re Wayfinders, Marshall.” Will shrugged. “We chat. We share intel. Everyone knew as soon as someone overheard someone else talking about it.”

“I’m the person doing the interviews and I haven’t even started talking to people about there being a position for them to take. How could anyone know?” I moved over to my desk and collapsed in my chair.

“I mean, it’s you.” Will looked up from his desk and looked me in the eye. “You’re a legend, Captain Marshall. It’s like finding out you’re one of a few hundred people in the world trained to play an instrument and the leader of your favorite band is holding auditions in your city for someone who plays that instrument. You’d tell everyone you know because you were so excited and it wouldn’t even occur to you that other people who love this band would try out even though they’ve never even seen the instrument being used.”

“I have rock star status?” I sat up, eyebrows raised, and looked at the door. “I knew I was popular, but really? Rock star?”

“Really.” Will looked down at his desk and got back to work. “Now you have maybe half an hour before the mob out there decides to try impressing you with how inventively they can circumvent the door. You should use that time to get organized.”

“You’re right about that.” I sighed and got myself situated at my desk. After a moment of idling pushing papers around while I let my thoughts click into place, I turned to Will again. “Want a promotion?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

“Not on your life. This is exactly what I want to be doing. I like being able to be disinterested and cold toward most people. I’d hate to suddenly need to start being polite to them.”

“You’re not nice to the people who come in here?” I frowned. “Will, I think we might need to have a discussion about your attitude.”

Will lazily waved a hand at me. “No. I think I’m quite alright. They just see what I’m missing, not how I’m acting and I’m fine with that. As soon as I become the boss, though, that all changes. Plus, it’s important to have someone who can kick a little ass in that chair.”

“I have never needed to physically intimidate anyone who came through that door.”

“You wouldn’t have to. No one thinks they could take you.”

“Which is hilarious.” I picked up a stack of paper and shuffled through it until I found a blank one. “Pretty much anyone of my Wayfinders from my old group could have kicked my ass. Most of them still could.”

“And thus you see the power of a legend. I hope it helps you during this difficult time.” Will smiled at me and then went back to work.

“Fine.” I grabbed a pen and started jotting down a quick analysis of the strengths of my Wayfinding group as it was. “Be that way.”

Twenty minutes later, when the first person knocked on the door, I had a list of all of the gaps that needed to be filled and had worked out a system to interview everyone who came through that door. After I let the first person in, a man a few years younger than me, I directed him to grab his personnel file out of the cabinet before sitting down across from me. We had a brief discussion about his strengths and what my group was looking for before I had him put his personnel file back into the cabinet backwards as he made his way out the door. That way, when I went to look for additional candidates, I could more easily find files I hadn’t already looked at.

All told, I did almost one hundred interviews that first day. After that, I did about twenty a day and it only took me three days for some of the interviews to be ones that I had called for. Two weeks after I had told Natalie about my plans, I had a dozen candidates who would fit well into the team I was building. I was looking for another weapons specialist to help Camille, two scouts to assist Lucas, and a technician who was also a backup medic. I’d gotten at least two candidates for each spot, though I had a good deal more weapon specialists than the rest, and all that remained was to see how well they worked with our group.

Finding someone to replace me was easier than I thought. One of the Wayfinders I’d contacted five years ago, when we were preparing for the monster attack, had gone out of their way to help me set up the Wayfinder office. She’d even recommended Will to me and it turned out that she’d been a commander before she lost an eye and decided to retire. It only took one interview to know I’d be leaving the organization in capable hands while I was away. Replacing Camille was similarly easy. One of the specialists I interviewed decided last-minute that they didn’t want to leave the Enclave because of their family so I offered them Camille’s job. They also offered to help around the office as needed, so everything was taken care of except doing test runs with the candidates for my team.

Since we only had six weeks until the blizzard was supposed to start, I planned one trip every week with two of the candidates, lasting five days with two days before the next one to rest, resupply, and review the candidates’ performances. That was long enough for us to get out of town, wander around for two days, and find some bandits or monsters to ambush. For the weapon specialists specifically, we even had a couple abandoned bandit hideouts to clear so they could demonstrate their specialties.

The first three weeks went well enough. There was a little strife in the group here and there, but nothing I didn’t expect from a bunch of people in close quarters who are just getting to know each other. The fourth week was a disaster because the weapon specialist demanded to be referred to as “Combat Specialist Graves” despite his name and rank being Private Reese Mathison. It was like he didn’t realize that we all had access to his personnel file, which he clearly should have because we all interviewed him at the start of the trip and read stuff out of his personnel file. Then he refused to stop trying to one-up Camille when it came to guns or fighting, despite being only a couple of years older than Tiffany.

When we got back after that week, I double-checked all the other candidates to make sure there weren’t any other red flags I missed, which is when I realized almost no one had a “reason for retirement” in their files aside from those who retired due to injury. I looked back through a lot of personnel files only to find the same result. Maybe one percent of all non-injured retirees had a reason listed for their retirement. Which meant people like Mathison could be listed as retired despite clearly having been forced out of Wayfinding.

I left a few instructions with Will and Elise to start trying to track that down during the slow periods between Wayfinder classes. After that, though, the fifth week went surprisingly well. We had a scout and a technician in this group, so we mostly ran around the fields west of the city and quizzed the technician on how to handle computers and injuries. He seemed almost as knowledgeable as I was, and I had basically done everything but become a full-time surgeon once I started getting bored in the Enclave. The two of them got along with the group better than anyone else and they performed just as well as everyone but Mathison did.

By the time the sixth week was wrapping up, with a weapons specialist who’d trained under Camille and a scout as our last two candidates, I was ready for a few days of rest in a comfortable bed that the blizzard would give me. And I missed Natalie. One night a week of seeing here wasn’t enough. She shifted her schedule around so she’d be more available the days I was in the Enclave, but I only had so much time between trips and a lot of that time needed to go toward preparing for the next one.

The latest two candidates were good at their jobs, but nothing special. I had them take last watch in the early morning on the last day before the blizzard was supposed to arrive, so I could talk with Lucas, Tiffany, and Camille about who we wanted to bring with us. I made breakfast while they started comparing notes and we’d just started to eat when we heard a gunshot. Camille and I looked eyes for a moment before we sprang into action.

We tossed our bowls to Lucas, grabbed our guns, and ran toward the roof were the shot came from. The weapons specialist was up there, keeping an eye out from the roof of the three-story apartment building we’d picked as the previous night’s camping spot. As we dashed away, Tiffany started throwing things into packs and cleaning up the campsite in case we needed to get away quickly.

When we got up to the roof, we found Jack, the weapons specialist, lying on his stomach as he looked through the scope of his rifle at something a few blocks away. I shouldered my rifle and looked in the same direction he was while Camille crouched down beside him. “What was it?”

“It’s between the building on forty-fifth street. That’s almost a mile away.”

“You shot something that far away?”

“Yeah! Can you believe that? What a shot!” The kid looked up at Camille, a giant grin on his face, and promptly flinched back.”

“What. Was. It.”

“Um, it was… It was a-a…”

“A monster.” I lowered my rifle and fought the urge to sit down on the roof. I couldn’t stop my heart from sinking into my stomach, though. “He shot and destroyed a monster.”

“Yeah! It’s a new record on a distance kill for a monster!”

“Jack.” Camille grabbed the gun out of his hands rolled him onto his back with the butt. “What is the number one rule I drilled into you about hunting monsters?”

“Uh, never shoot unless you know you can destroy it in one shot?”

Camille nodded. “And the second rule?”

“Never shoot a monster three days… before…” Jack’s face fell as the size of his screw-up finally dawned on him.

“Before a blizzard.” Camille finished. She stood up, shouldered the rifle, and looked down at the young man lying on the ground in front of us. “Why?”

“Because no one survives if one of the monsters gets destroyed this close to a blizzard.”

“What do we do?” Camille was still looking at Jack, but I knew the question was directed at me. I look at the shattered remains of the monster again and then shouldered my rifle as well. “I don’t know, Camille. Alert the Enclave, get prepared for whatever is coming, and try to ride it out? There’s never been an instance where someone killed a blizzard monster near an Enclave before, so maybe we’ll be fine.”

“No one’s been dumb enough to do it for over a decade, is what you mean.”

“I just wanted to impress you guys!” Jack pulled himself to his feet and looked at us. “I’m sorry!”

“‘Sorry’ doesn’t un-kill that monster.” Camille signed and turned towards the stairs. “Let’s hurry and get back. The blizzard isn’t supposed to arrive for another twenty-six hours. Maybe we can get far enough north that it ignores us.”

“Cam.” I followed her down the stairs, both of us ignoring Jack’s whimpering. “We don’t know what’ll happen. We can’t just leave the Enclave to fend for itself. They might need us again.”

“I’m not saying we just head north right now. If we go back to the Enclave, grab our bug-out bags and Natalie, we can still warn them before we head north. We might be able to make it to the edge of the city if we run. That should be far enough.”

“Let’s just focus on getting back for now.” I looked over at Camille, trying to meet her eyes, but she wouldn’t look up. By the time we got back to Lucas and Tiffany, camp was packed up and so we filled them in on our way to collect the scout, Henry. Once we’d grabbed Henry, we started jogging back toward the Enclave. This time of year used to be summer, so it was a bit warmer than most of the rest of the year so the snow wasn’t as heavy, so jogging got us pretty far. Around noon, Jack had caught up to us and we took our lunch break in an old sky scraper so we could get an idea of what was going on around us before we went back to the city.

When We got up to what was left of the eighteenth floor, we sat in a ripped-out apartment with a view of the Enclave so we could eat our lunch of power bars and sterilized snow while still scouting the path ahead. We were so focused on what was between us and the city that we didn’t notice anything until Lucas looked around at us and asked “does anyone hear that?”

Once he pointed it out, the noise was unmistakable. It was some kind of droning sound. Sort of like a the buzz of an industrial machine, but one that was happening at a high enough frequency that we could barely hear it. After a few seconds, Henry turned around and pointed to the west. “It sounds like it’s coming from that way.”

It took us a few minutes to find an apartment with an open wall to the west, but it was worth it. The blizzard should have still been a pile of dark clouds on the horizon, but we could see the shadow it cast falling over the edge of the city already. I watched as it grew noticeably closer with each passing second and knew it would be upon us before we could make it to the Enclave, even if we ran. I looked over at Camille and Lucas, and saw the same knowledge on their faces. Tiffany was still figuring it out, but Henry and Jack were just looking at me instead of the storm.

“Fuck.”

“Marshall, not in front of the kids.” Lucas gave a half-hearted chuckled and then sat down on the floor.

“Shut up, Lucas. I’m your superior officer and I can say whatever the fuck I want when we’re going to die in an hour.”

“God damn it.” Camille sighed and turned to Jack. “This is why we don’t shoot monsters when a blizzard is fewer than four days away. It knows. Something in the blizzard, the parts that destroyed the armies, leveled the military bases, creates an unending number of monsters, and that slowly takes the tops off the skyscrapers, knows when a monster has been destroyed. You probably weren’t even ten yet, the last time this happened.” Camille shook her head. “You still should have known better. Everyone knows better. You never attack a monster when a blizzard is coming.”

Jack didn’t say anything. He just sat down on the floor and put his head in his hands. Henry looked at Jack, then back at me, and finally let his vision come to rest on the storm. “Captain. What do we do?”

“Run. Hide. Wait. Doesn’t matter.” I shrugged, my mind thinking of Natalie and fervently hoping for an afterlife so I could apologize for breaking my promise to her. “Whatever you want, at this point.”

“Anyone want to have end-of-the-world sex?”

Only Tiffany looked at him when Henry said that and she shook her head. “I’ve got better things to do with my last hour than you.”

Henry shrugged and then sat down never to Jack. I looked at them for a minute and then back at the blizzard. “You two can leave if you want. Try to make it back to the Enclave if you want. I won’t stop you.”

Jack leapt to his feet, hauled Henry off the ground, and started backing out the door. “I’d rather die trying to live than standing around waiting for it to happen.”

I waved over my shoulder as they left, my attention cause in the mesmerizing swirl of the blizzard as it came nearer. A couple of minutes later, Camille walked back into the room and took us all to one a few doors down, where we could sit on the edge of the building and watch it come. We sat in silence for the most part, each of us content to silently wait for the end in each other’s company.

When it was almost upon us, when we could see the snow falling only a mile away at that point, I noticed something. The edge of the cloud closest to us was bulging, like there was something pulling that particular at a faster rate than everywhere else. I watched it for a few seconds, as it grew larger, before pointing it out. “What’s going on?”

“There’s something in there.” Lucas pulled out his binoculars and spun the focus knob a bit. “Yeah, there’s definitely something there, but I can’t tell what.” Neither Camille nor I could tell what it was either, but it was now a pronounced lump, impossible to miss.

As I watched it, it suddenly bulged larger and then burst in a swirl of wind and cloud. Suddenly, instead of a blizzard approaching us, it was an object. I fumbled with the binoculars in my hands but, before I could get them to my eyes, it had shifted in the sky and rocketed past us with a deafening roar. I scrambled back into the room, trying not to drop the binoculars, as I shouted at Lucas. “Stay here and keep an eye on the blizzard. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

Without waiting for a response, I dashed through the building back to the place where we’d eaten our lunch and managed to get the binoculars to my eyes in time to see the giant thing stop moving over the Enclave. When I finally got it into focus, pulled the binoculars away from my eyes in disbelief. After a moment of trying to zoom in on it without them, I put the binoculars back up to my face and examined it more closely.

It was obviously made of the same greenish material as the monsters and it seemed to share some of their features, but it was taller than the Enclave walls. It hovered over the Enclave like something out of a giant monster movie, all tendrils and thick limbs like the monsters on its lower half, but much more humanoid on the upper half. It had a torso, shoulders, two arms that ended in hands with fingers, and a head. The head had no features beyond the basic shape, but it spun as it hovered like it was trying to look at the Enclave.

A moment later, it lowered into the Enclave, ripping its way through the signal catch and the heat baffles with a crash I could hear from almost three miles away. It stood there, head swiveling but otherwise still, until it felt like my heart was going to burst with fear, and then it started swinging its arms. It moved through the Enclave, each step accompanied by the screech of warping metal and the rumble of explosions. I watched it for a moment longer before running back to find Lucas, Camille, and Tiffany in the room I’d left.

“Guys.” I tossed the binoculars to Lucas and just collapsed on the floor in utter bewilderment. “There’s a giant robot attacking the Chicago Enclave.”

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