As a pregnant silence reigned outside the supply tent, I did my best to maintain a lesser version inside it. The large, armored shelter was further protected as every barrier not currently protecting a Wayfinder fire team outside was leaned against the sides of the tent, making this the safest place in the camp. I slowly explained that to the few children and elderly people who were gathered here, doing my best to keep up a soothing, quiet stream of chatter since I knew that no one more than twenty feet away from the tent would be able to hear anything from the tent unless we started screaming or shouting.
Which wasn’t entirely off the table at that point, given the look in the eyes of some of the children and one of the elderly Naturalists. The old man was doing his best to keep it together, but I could recognize that agitation that showed his control was rapidly slipping. The kids were doing a better job, since the older teens and adults were staying calm, but if this man lost control, they would as well. I quickly scanned the supply tent, looking for a box I knew would have worked its way to the top of a stack after the Naturalists formally joined the camp.
Spotting it not more than a few feet from the elderly man, I walked over, picked it up, and crouched next to the box the man was sitting on. As I gently placed a hand on his shoulder, I wracked my brain for his name. When he looked up, I let my calming patter drop and smiled at him. “Jerome, right?”
The old man nodded and I gave his shoulder an affirming squeeze. “Can I ask for a favor?” When Jerome nodded again, I smiled even wider. “In this box are a bunch of forms. They’re applications for the Enclave system, which you’ll all need once we get to Des Moines. Nothing that will violate your beliefs, I promise. It’s important for Wayfinder record-keeping and a way for you all to get some assistance from the Enclave when it comes to setting up your new home near them.”
Jerome had stopped tapping his foot on the ground as I spoke to him and some of the panic left his eyes as he glanced between my face and the box. “Sure. Is now the time, though?”
I nodded, dipping my head toward the children and their teenaged minders on the other side of the tent. “We’re just going to record some names, family information, basic stuff. It’ll help keep the kids calm if they have something to do while we’re in here. Might as well use the time we’ve got, you know?”
Jerome took a steadying breath and mustered a small smile by way of response. I gave his shoulder another affirming squeeze. “There’s pencils inside the box as well. Just start handing them out and I’ll do the same.” I stood up and offered Jerome the hand that had been resting on his shoulder. He took it and I pulled him to his feet before popping the top off the box of forms. I handed him a stack of forms resting in the upturned lid and half the stubby pencils sitting at the foot of the box.
A couple of the other elderly Naturalists noticed what we were doing and came over to assist as well. Soon, everyone was busy quietly talking through the forms so I took a step away from the group to turn my attention back to what was happening outside the tent. After a couple minutes of listening, interrupted by occasional directions for filling out the forms, I heard the telltale phfnkt of Wayfinder snipers. I could just barely hear it thanks to the padding of the tent and the quiet talking of the Naturalist elders and children, so I wasn’t surprised when no one reacted to the first shot. After about half a dozen, I relaxed a little bit, certain that no one inside the tent would notice.
About half an hour after I’d called the initial alert signal, I heard snow crunching beneath boots from outside the tent. “One of my Wayfinders is coming in, everyone.” I kept my voice calm and even as I said it, smiling at everyone who looked my way. After I got at least some silent acknowledgement from everyone and the fear had once again faded into the background of Jerome’s eyes, I turned to find Lucas standing just inside the tent, his usual smile hiding everything but the exhaustion written plainly in his eyes.
He gave the tent a friendly wave and dialed up his smile a bit more, doing his best to be reassuring before he stepped over to where I was and leaned in close. “Cam wants to talk. I’m taking over here until you get back.”
I nodded and spoke a bit louder so everyone else could hear me. “I’ll go talk to Lieutenant Cam, then. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”
Lucas nodded, a puzzled look on his face until he glanced around the tent and realized why I was letting everyone know what was happening. “Yeah.” He blinked a few times and gave his head a little shake, trying to clear his mind. “Yeah, I’ll be waiting here with everyone until you get back.”
I gave everyone a cheerful wave and handed off the box of forms I had been slowly collecting and correcting. “Pick up from where I left off. I’ve only done a few of the Wayfinder portions on these and you can probably answer them just as well as I can.”
Lucas blinked down at the forms in the box and then back up at me as I headed toward the entrance to the tent, not waiting for more of a response from him. As soon as I got outside and the flap had dropped closed behind me, I ducked down and started hurrying along the trail Lucas had left. As I went, I scanned the camp and horizon around us for signs of attackers in case I needed to fling myself behind cover before I got shot. The heavy, almost eerie silence and lack of movement anywhere I could see made it seem like nothing had happened yet, though I knew from the shots earlier that this was just a lull between moments of action.
I eventually found Cam at a barricade near the back of the camp, the closest position to the hills, and crouched down beside them, forcing down the instinct to salute. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”
Cam nodded in response, their eyes fixed on the horizon and their rifle was resting on the barricade in front of them, ready to be used at a moment’s notice should Cam catch sight of anything. “Lucas reported contact with a large force of cultists. They fell for the first ambush and his group did serious damage before the cultists could find cover. They also reformed quickly and were able to fend off his group’s second ambush without issue. The third ambush, the last one Lucas’ squad did before returning, was also a success but revealed that the group of cultists they’d been firing at was a vanguard to a much larger force.”
“Uncertain. Lucas said they were noticed as they were leaving the final ambush point and had to leave quickly or risk being surrounded as the two groups turned to chase them. Best estimate he could give was around the size of our group, maybe a little bit bigger.”
I heaved a tired sigh, my mind racing through the implications of what Cam had said, but was unable to say anything before Cam continued.
“Tactics suggest one of those pre-collapse history buff militias or at least leadership that was a part of one. Said they move in a group really well, they’ve got some kind of shields that blocked suppressed sniper fire but couldn’t stop it once they took the suppressors off for the third ambush, and that they’re all heavily armed. They move slow, but so do we, as a group. Can’t count on them resting as long as we do.”
I let a breath out from my nose, trying to quiet my racing mind without much success. “What do you need from me?”
Cam took their eyes off the horizon for a moment to look at me, their face unreadable. “A double-check.”
I nodded slowly, going back through the details Cam had given me, and then gestured for them to go on as they returned their gaze to the horizon.
“I’m moving camp. We’ll need to pack in shifts so we’ve got enough people with eyes on the horizon and at the barricades, but it can’t take more than an hour or their vanguard will start to catch up to us instead of just lone scouts. After that, we’re heading northwest instead of straight west, to an abandoned farm that will have a farmhouse and a huge barn for us to use as cover. Both are also on a bit of a rise with scattered deadwood to the south, so we’ll have clear, long-range visibility from every direction but one.
“I’ll keep a rearguard as we move, dropping back when Lucas and his squad signal us to take out any scouts or the vanguard itself if it catches up to us. We’ll have to risk being out in the open unless we want to pick a hill to fight and probably die on. There’s no good cover anywhere we can reach other than the barn, now that we’re over one hundred and fifty people. Tons of better places if it was just us or maybe even us and the Laborers, but that’s the only place with enough space for all the Naturalists, too.”
I nodded as they spoke, taking in the details and trying to remember if there was anything else in the area, but I hadn’t looked at the map since the previous evening. After a few moments of silence, I sighed and nodded again, unsure of what else to do.“Sounds like you’ve got it pretty well worked out. Our barricades should be able to turn a house and a barn into a decent fortress. Anything else?”
Cam shook their head. “No.” They paused, their stony face suddenly laced with doubt and worry that they forcibly stuffed away. “See it done. I’ll set up the guard and marching order for the Wayfinders. You get the camp packed and everyone else moving once I send people back to the supply tent. Send Lucas to me immediately when you get there. Dismissed.”
I nodded and heaved myself to my feet, staying low as I ran to keep out of sight as much as I could. After I got back to the supply tent and dismissed Lucas, I started rounding up the more calm elders to help me get the children and teens ready to move.
A bit over an hour later, the camp was moving. The Naturalists hadn’t repacked anything the night before, so it took them longer to get ready than Cam gave us, but were finally moving even as the tension started to rise in the Wayfinder rearguard. As I saw the group off, sorted into three thin columns, each no wider than the largest sled we had in order to cut down on how much effort it would take to move through the snow, I turned to find Cam approaching me.
“We’re finally moving. Should get there in a few hours, maybe four or five depending on the exact distance. Scouts are out, split to either side to watch our flanks a bit more than usual, but I thought it prudent. I’ve got a Wayfinder with each group and am using the Naturalist scouts for flank and rear protection.”
Cam chewed their lower lip for a moment, gazing at the columns moving away before reflexively glanced back toward the horizon where any cultist attack would come from. “I’m going to stay with the rearguard, so you’re in command of the main group. Where’d you send Natalie?”
“I’ve got her taking Jonathan’s squad to hit the nearby town for supplies. If there’s anything useful, we’ll swing through there for it on our way to the farmhouse. Maybe even trick the cultists into searching the town before they go back to following us.” I turned to stare at the eastern horizon as well, still nervous despite the hour of silence and lack of interruption. “Then she’ll be moving ahead to the farmhouse to get it ready.”
Cam nodded. “Good. Only stop if you hear a ‘drop’ signal. Otherwise, keep pushing through whatever comes your way unless they’ve gotten ahead of us somehow.”
I snapped a quick salute once it was clear that Cam had nothing more to add and then watched as they jogged back to the barricade they’d been using as cover. After taking a deep breath to get my mind focused on the task at hand, I turned around and started moving through the columns, my ears still straining for the sound of suppressed sniper shots or sharp rifle cracks that would announce that the cultists had caught up to us.
I spent the next fifteen minutes making sure that every group was moving quickly, that no one was giving the Wayfinder in charge of their column a hard time, and that those who were struggling with the tight spacing and faster pace were given what aid I could provide. I reassured children, steadied elders, and made sure the Laborer’s Rep, Lex, didn’t have any issues.
The Laborers had been ready to go first and, as such, were the first column, so they were taking the brunt of the path carving labor. Even though they didn’t have to pull a sled behind them as they moved, I could see there was a bit of grumbling resentment building as they frequently shuffled the column around to make sure no one wore themselves out. Lex seemed confident that it was just the grumbling of youthful spirits and hangovers, so I kept most of my attention focused on helping the Naturalists who were having a rougher time.
After my quick tour, I settled into rotating between the ends of the two columns of Naturalists with an occasional trip forward to the Laborers. Things carried on without issue for the first two hours. It was shortly after Natalie’s squad had reported that there was nothing useful to be found in the town that the first rifle cracks rang out behind us.
I was a few hundred feet behind the third column at the time, taking Natalie’s report out of earshot of the column as Jonathan and his squad headed back to check in with Cam’s rearguard when the first of the rifle shots flew into the snow a few hundred feet from the path we were carving. I fought back the urge to look at where the shot came from, instead turning my attention toward the cries of fear and panic as each of the columns in front of me began to waver. The first two firmed up almost immediately, the quiet but unmistakable commands of the Wayfinders leading them calling them to order. The final column, though, began to break apart as people pushed outward.
Some of the Naturalists started diving into the snow beside our path, trying to make themselves less of a target while others froze in place or turned around to look for the origin of the shot, hands flying to the various guns they carried. I could see the Wayfinder at the head of the column, a veteran named Grant, start calling out his orders, but the rising tide of panic in the column was drowning him out.
I started to run forward but then a rapid series of cracks rang out, followed almost immediately by the zing of bullets burying themselves in the snow to either side of the column. They were still hundreds of feet off their mark where they landed, but it was clear the people in the column weren’t reacting to anything but the sound of the rifles going off. I was still too far away to start pulling the column back together unless I started shouting, but that would only add to the chaos of the moment.
The whole column might have broken and scattered then if it wasn’t for Elder Brianna, who had hopped up on the sled the group was pulling. She called out a dozen names and, without waiting for a response, started slinging orders in a voice more ironclad than any Wayfinder I’d ever heard. With her as a visible signal to rally around, the column quickly reformed. Those still standing teamed up to haul people out of the snow they’d dived into, tossing two onto the sled who looked like they’d been injured in their panicked dive. A few people moved toward the rear of the column, scoped rifles in hand as they walked backwards, all watching the horizon as they went.
I caught up a few seconds later, gesturing for one of the column’s rearguards to lower their gun as I ordered them to focus on moving. “My Wayfinders have us covered. Keep moving unless the column starts getting hit.” There was a moment of tension as it looked like one or two of them might argue, but suddenly Brianna was pushing her way between them
“Do as he says. He’s in charge as far as I’m concerned. Him and every other Wayfinder has leadership right now. Keep your eyes peeled, but not one shot fired until Captain Marshall or I give the command.”
The Naturalists nodded then, their eyes briefly flickering from Brianna’s face to mine before they returned to the horizon behind us. The rank of naturalists behind them turned halfway, putting a hand on each of the rearguard’s shoulders and adjusting their positions as they walked backwards. I nodded in thanks to Brianna who nodded back. As she pushed back into the column, I could see her clench her jaw and square her shoulders as she fought through her own fear to keep her people calm.
Over the next minute, there were a couple dozen more rifle cracks that sounded like they were coming from just over the hill behind us. After that, they started fading out, getting further away and less frequent before they eventually stopped all together. Ten minutes after the first shot, the Wayfinders in the rearguard gave the all-clear and I passed the news onto the columns.
Twice more, our quiet march was interrupted by the sharp crack of rifle fire. Each time, I’d been warned with enough time to give the columns a chance to set up cover. Thankfully, the bullets landed in the snow far to either side of the column again, rather than near it or against the hastily placed barricades, so we made it to the farmhouse in the middle of the afternoon with no injuries other than what turned out to be a few light scrapes and cuts from panicked dives into the snow.
I immediately split the groups up and started them on breaking down the sleds, putting up barriers in the locations marked out by Natalie’s squad, and doing what they could to make camp in the sheltered interior of the sprawling farmhouse and massive barn. The house looked like it had once held a few families, probably built in either the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth, so we were able to get all of the Naturalists and Laborers into it, albeit somewhat uncomfortably.
The noncombatants were already downstairs in the cellar with most of our supplies and disassembled sleds by the time Cam’s rearguard caught up with us an hour later. The Wayfinders were in the middle of gearing up the barn, the place where we planned to try to draw as much of the cultists’ attention as we could, as Cam reclaimed command from me.
By the time the grey sky had fallen completely dark, there was a gentle but growing amount of snow slowly covering the world around us. I watched it from one of the upper sniper holes we’d drilled into the barn’s wall, looking out over the land to the east as our trail slowly disappeared and no sign of the cultists arrived to replace it.
Eventually, I returned from my self-assigned vigil to grab some food from the communal fire we’d set up in the barn, ate in silence with the rest of the Wayfinders who weren’t on guard duty, and then set about making my final preparations. I gave Cam a warm hug, gave Lucas a rough one, hugged or shook hands with every other Wayfinder, and then found a moment to sneak a quick kiss from Natalie.
Pre-battle rituals observed, I settled into my place with the Laborers and Naturalists in the farmhouse. I was going to command them in whatever battle ensued and planned to spend the night in the farmhouse with them just in case the cultists attacked before dawn. I had done what I could to prepare them, helping assemble their defenses and distribute weapons, so now all that remained to us was to wait for the cultists to arrive. If they tried anything tonight, the cultists would quickly learn just how big of a mistake they’d made in giving us time to prepare.