New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.
Laura groaned as she watched the young man stagger away. “Can I just shoot him next time?”
“No.” I sighed, my breath puffing into the cold air before I moved my scarf back into place. “You know that would make too much noise.”
“Stabbing it is, then.” Laura smirked as I watched the young man she’d pointedly and repeatedly turned down approach the dwindling fire surrounded by his friends. “Silence is paramount, I guess.”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t kill him at all, but if he keeps this up or, worse, escalates, then I think you’re in the clear.”
“That’s not like you, Captain Marshall.” Laura turned away as the young man plopped down next to his friends, reaching out for a bottle they were no longer trying to hide, despite the rules against alcohol, as he rubbed at what were probably a few bruised, if not cracked, ribs. “Normally you’re all for meting out justice.” Laura drew herself up to equal my height and lowered her voice in a passable impression of me. “‘It only takes one example and the rest fall in line. Works every time.’”
I chuckled as she deflated but stopped when she asked “why not now?”
I sighed again, this time all the moisture catching in my scarf. “He’s part of the Laborer’s Union. If we kill him, there’ll be trouble.”
“We literally have a rule as part of our contracts that says we’re judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to surviving between Enclaves. You remind every group of this fact as we set out. What could they do to us?”
“Lots, Laura.” I turned and gestured for the younger Wayfinder to follow me back toward the supplies we were supposed to be counting. “Just because we won’t be arrested or punished by the Enclaves doesn’t mean the Laborer’s Union won’t make our lives difficult. They could refuse to repair our gear, charge us more for their services, accidentally drop things we’re supposed to be delivering… Use your imagination. We need to mind our steps with them.”
Laura snorted derisively as she cracked open a case and started flipping through meal pouches. “So you’re saying I should just let him get away with that shit?”
“No, I’m saying you should try to deescalate first, like you did today. You’ve done the training. There are a lot of options you can pick before stabbing.” I flicked open a case of my own and started counting pouches, keeping my eyes focused on the task as my bulky gloves prevented me from feeling if I accidentally flipped more than one.
“Says you. It’s a lot easier to get your way when you’re the first Wayfinder. You could talk an Enclave Alder into going on a hike in a blizzard.”
I compared my count to the number on the lid of the case and started sealing it up again when it matched. I set it aside and pulled out another case as I said “You can easily kick his ass, as you’ve just proven. If standard deescalation doesn’t work again, you can beat him up enough that he’ll back down without killing him. ”
Laura snorted and tilted her head to the side in an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Fine. I’ll let the sexual harrasser live.”
“If he does it again, you officially have my permission to do less de-escalation than you did today. Half the attempts. ”
“Acceptable.” Laura nodded and tossed aside her counted and marked case. “I’ll even promise not to break any of the bones he needs to walk.”
“Wow, that’s so generous!” Laura laughed through her scarf and I chuckled. After that, we sat in silence for a while, working our way through the food stores to make sure nothing had gone missing since the night before and that all the seals on the meal pouches were still intact. After a couple minutes, halfway through the count, Laura broke the silence again. “Des Moines, right?”
“Yeah. Just under four weeks from the Madison Enclave, even if everything goes perfectly. So that’s another twenty to twenty-five days.”
Laura sighed and marked another box as accounted for. “I’m not putting up with it for that long, even if he dials it down to a less offensive level.”
“If he bothers you again, by any definition of the word, I’ll let his boss know that he’s in danger of being put out of the group. Even do a formal trial if the union rep requests it. Hopefully he just knocks it off.”
Laura shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe. These young Laborer’s Union guys get the rockstar treatment in most Enclaves, so they’re probably not used to consequences.”
“Regardless of what he thinks, he’s going to face more than a more complete ass-kicking from you if he does it again. I promise you that much, Laura. I’ll handle it personally.”
Laura nodded, still facing the case of meal pouches she was counting, but didn’t speak. I waited a few moments to see if she’d say anything, but eventually turned my attention back to my work when she didn’t.
Ten minutes later, all of the meal pouches were accounted for, the cases had been resealed, and we’d done a full inventory of the fresh produce and meat that the foraging parties had found during the day. Job done, I waved as Laura headed off to the shelter she shared with the rest of her squad and headed toward mine after she returned my wave. It was a boring but important task to tally all the food and track inventory every day. Doing it any less frequently invited problems and problems invited death in the land between Enclaves.
As leader, I made sure I did the mind-numbingly boring chores at least twice as much as everyone else. It set a good example, freed up those with specialized skills that might not be available on a given night for their turn taking inventory or reloading the sledges to keep things from freezing in place, and was pretty soothing for me. I’d always found repetitive, straight-forward tasks relaxing, so it wasn’t much of a burden to pick up extra shifts around the camp.
Most Wayfinders had specialized training that made them an indispensable member of their crew, doubly so for my crew since it was the largest in the Americas. More people meant more danger, and the only effective counter to that was a greater level of skill in the Wayfinders doing the escorting. Almost everyone had a multitude of skills that made them an essential part of the group, and anyone who didn’t have them was in the process of acquiring them. With the exception of me.
Most of my skills had to do with talking to people, organizing people, and convincing people they should listen to me. I handled all of the negotiations at the Enclaves, interviewed all the people looking to hire us, and handled the people who hired us to get them safely to their destination once we left the Enclave. Most smaller groups didn’t need a specialist, using the standard interview process and rate sheets we’d developed over the years, but big groups always had unique needs or concerns and there wasn’t a way to really standardize the process.
As a result, once the negotiations were done, most of my work consisted of being the obvious leader, keeping everything running smoothly, and making sure problems got handled immediately and effectively. Such as young men who drink too much and have trouble taking no for an answer. Which is why I deviated from the path back to my shelter to stomp through the snow over to where one of the guards had hidden themselves. We had a rule that each guard post had to be invisible from every direction the center of camp, so they were usually pretty easy to find while in the camp’s perimeter if you knew what to look for.
Today, it was the heel of a boot sticking out from the burrow that the guard had dug for himself. I greeted the guard at the same time I gave his boot a tap. “Hicks.”
The boot wiggling back and forth was the only acknowledgement I got, Hicks clearly not wanting to dig himself out unless absolutely necessary. Which was enough for my purposes. “Make sure you can keep an eye on the tents tonight. Specifically the L.U. tents. If any of them try to get into one of our tents, use lethal force to prevent it. No second chances tonight.”
The boot wiggled in acknowledgement again and I gave it another gentle tap to let Hicks know I was leaving. I repeated that process around the perimeter of the camp, giving each of the night watch the same message, and then finally headed back to my tent a good half an hour later than I’d intended. By that point, the darkness of the overcast night sky had swallowed most of the camp as all the light within it had been extinguished or covered.
When I finally zipped the layered tent door closed behind me, I found Cam and Natalie sitting around a small camp stove, quietly chatting as Lucas gently snored in the back, mostly hidden beneath a pile of blankets and sleeping bags.
“How’s Laura?” Cam gave me a neutral stare as I took off my outer layers and hung them on my hook beside the door.
“Fine. Kicked his ass a bit. Hopefully that’ll solve it.”
“How’d he wind up?”
“Busted ribs, but alive and capable of keeping up, which is all I care about when it comes to him. And hopefully smarter.”
“Pay up, Nat.” Cam grinned impishly at Natalie who rolled her eyes as she held out a twenty for the smaller person to take.
“I guess I’m sorry for doubting your trainee, Cam.” Natalie gave me a brief smile as I sat down beside the camp stove and lifted the last of the soup off the flame. “I honestly thought she’d break more than just a couple bones.”
“Which is why you should get retrained!” Cam gave me a surreptitious wink as I carefully spooned hot soup into my mouth. “Precision counts for more than brute strength. Why break an arm when you can just crack a couple ribs and have the same effect.”
“Because you can’t just walk off a broken arm if you’re really determined to get what you want.” Natalie turned off the camp stove and started disassembling it, dunking the warm parts into the basin of water she had off to the side for cleaning the dishes. “But we’re not having this discussion again. I’m not going to let you throw me around in the snow just so you can call it training when you start shoving snow down my jacket like a child.”
“Who else was in the pool?” I locked eyes with Cam, heading off the retorting they had ready to go.
Cam sighed and allowed themselves to be sidetracked. “Well, Cap, it’s all the veterans except you and while I was the only one to bet on damaged ribs, a couple will win a bit less because they bet on an ass-kicking rather than specifics. No one bet against Laura coming out on top, but most people expected arm or hand injuries, so we won’t be splitting the winnings too much. Only one person bet on the guy winding up dead since you were involved, but I think Lucas was just trying to stir the pot given how small his bet was.”
“Glad to know I cost Lucas some cash.” I glanced at the fourth sleeping figure in the tent. “Pity he didn’t stay up to find out he’d lost.”
“He’s got second shift tonight, Marshall, as do you.” Natalie turned back from the basin of dishes, tossing a few dry items to Cam to put away. “Hurry up and finish, so you can get some sleep. I’ll take care of cleaning that up.”
I nodded my appreciation, wolfed down the remnants of the soup, and chewed through the hardtack that had been soaking at the bottom. After handing the empty pot off, I downed some water, brushed my teeth, and then bundled myself into my sleeping bag and blankets. It took only moments for me to fall asleep, even with the sound of Cam and Natalie quietly bickering about what is too egregiously violent to count as being playful when doing combat training.
Next thing I knew, I was shaken awake by Lucas as he whispered “C’mon Marshall. Second shift starts in a few minutes. Captain’s orders. You wouldn’t want to disobey your own orders now, would you?”
I blinked as the tall, lanky man came into view, familiar crows feet and laugh lines in full evidence on his face as he quietly chuckled at his own joke. He gave me his signature grin when he saw me wake up and then turned to bustle around the tent, careful to avoid where Cam and Natalie were sleeping.
Grumbling silently to myself, I heaved myself out of the warm, comforting embrace of my bed and did my best to suppress the shiveres that rushed through me in the chill air of the tent as I wrapped myself back up against the cold. A few minutes later, I parted ways with Lucas as we silently shuffled off to our assigned posts, full gear in tow, and helped dig out Hicks from where he’d buried himself.
He repeated my orders from earlier, delivering his own version of Lucas’ ancient joke about obeying my own commands lest I bring down the hardass captain on myself while I stoically ignored him. As he shuffled off to get some sleep for what remained of the night, shift handed off and obligatory joke delivered, I burrowed myself into the snow until the only thing peeking out was the modified night vision scope that was a default part of every Wayfinder’s kit. Even with the periscope modification that allowed me to shift the small lens in a full circle, there was nothing to see for my whole shift except the hills around us and the gently falling snow.
When the rising sun made the scope impossible to use and the bustling movement in the camp signaled the night was over, I pushed myself out of my burrow, wiped clinging snow from myself, and headed back toward the camp in search of breakfast. I checked in with the scouts who were preparing to head out for the day, officially handing off my watch, and watched the camp finish coming to life as I chased cheap coffee with thick oatmeal and a protein bar.
While I was drinking the last of the coffee from my thermos, trying to enjoy the ritual of sipping despite the cold wind stealing all the warmth it provided, the union rep–a man named Alexander–waved to me from his position in the breakfast line. When I politely waved back, he stepped out of line to approach me, stopping a few steps away and pulling down the high neck of his coat as he did.
“Captain Marshall.” The man gave me an apologetic smile and a bit of a wince, the universal signs of midwestern contrition. “I’d like to apologize on behalf of the Laborer’s Union and Mitch in particular for being a complete asshole. He absolutely deserved everything that happened to him and I swear to you that I’ll personally keep an eye on him so nothing like that happens again.”
“I’m not the person you should be apologizing to.” I kept my expression neutral and my eyes locked on Lex’s as I did my best to get a read on my opposite number.
Lex smiled softly and took a small step forward, hands held up in a conciliatory gesture. “Mitch and I already apologized to Wayfinder Laura this morning and I made the same promise to her. Hopefully we can avoid any further problems. I just wanted to apologize to you, from one leader to another. It won’t happen again, Captain.”
I stared at him for a moment longer and then nodded, expression still carefully neutral. “We will not be having any further problems. If Mitch acts up again, he will be put on trial for harassing a Wayfinder in the course of their duties. We’re not that far from the Madison Enclave right now, but we get further with every passing day and I doubt he knows enough about surviving on his own to make it anywhere safe before the cold gets him.”
“Which is why I will personally make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Lex’s soft smile was a bit more brittle now, but his body language still made it clear he was taking the threat seriously. “Sorry, again. Have a good rest of your morning.”
I nodded at Lex who then returned to the breakfast line, tension draining from his shoulders as he did. I watched the line for a few moments longer, but Lucas striding quickly toward me pulled my attention away.
“What?” I was about to crack a joke about drinking Lucas’ coffee because he was late to breakfast, but the humor died on my lips as he snapped a quick salute.
“Captain.” As I waved away his salute, he launched right into his report, keeping his voice low so no one would overhear. “There’s tracks behind a hill to the southeast.”
I glanced toward the hill in question, easily half a mile away from camp. “What were you doing out that far?”
“As the sun rose, I spotted light glinting off something more than it would have glinted off snow, like light on metal or a scope of some kind. I had someone hold down my watch while I investigated and found a whole trail from the top all the way down to the bottom of the hill and away to the east-southeast.”
“They used the hill to sneak up on us, clever. Didn’t we have scouts out that way yesterday?”
“Yes, sir. Myself, actually. There was no sign of movement prior to last night, so I suspect that they arrived during the night. Perhaps they found a scouting trail and followed it back to the camp.”
I pondered Lucas’ words for a moment. He was the best scout in our group of Wayfinders, maybe in the whole order. It would not have been easy for anyone to follow him back, or for someone to have stumbled across his trail. Chances are that this was a fluke encounter, but the fact that they stayed so expertly hidden from our guards didn’t bode well.
“Take a squad and investigate. Do not make contact. Assess and then report back immediately. We’ll continue course as we’ve set it, but make sure you return well before nightfall so we can fortify our camp if needed.”
“Yes, sir.” Lucas saluted again and moved away through the camp, four other Wayfinders quickly flocking to his side as he went. They disappeared out of the camp to the southeast and I turned my attention back to the camp as a whole, noticing that the slow process of breaking camp had slowed even further as Lucas sped away with his scouting team. I gestured for everyone to return to their work and then drained the rest of the coffee from my thermos.
Out here, so far from any kind of shelter and displaying this level of professional skill meant it would be one of two things. Either exiled Wayfinders or cultists, neither of which boded well for my group. I pulled my scarf up against the cold, did my best to ignore the wafting smell of coffee breath, and strode toward where all of the squad leaders would be gathering for the day’s briefing. Time to let everyone know exactly what kind of day it was going to be.