“This is the going rate in any Enclave, as established by our union, for the services provided and all the other line items are based on the union ratebooks for those services. This is an entirely reasonable demand for compensation after the services we rendered.”
“We already have a contract that doesn’t require any payment. Do you think that, by doing work you also benefited from, you can just send people an invoice and demand they pay it without an agreement beforehand? What kind of rackets do they let you get away with inside Enclaves?”
“I swear to god, if you call my union a racket one more time, you’ll see why we get to charge for-”
“Enough!” Marshall slammed his hands down on the collapsible table in front of him, causing it to sink a few inches deeper into the floor of the cellar they were in. “This has gone on for too long. There are more important things I should be spending my time on than this waste of heat. The Blizzard arrives in just five more days and we’re going to need to have this all behind us if we’re going to be ready in time.” Marshall stood up and grabbed all of the papers scattered across the table, pulling them in front of him and rapidly swiping through them as he spoke to Representative Alexander and Elder Brianna who had both frozen in place when he broke his silence.
“The laborers you represent will not be paid for the work you’ve done on this trip as our contract expressly stipulates that no payment will be rendered for services provided to create safe, warm, and comfortable places that you occupied for reasons of defense or sleep.” Marshall slid a paper forward, finger pointing to the line item in the contract. “That the Naturalists benefited from it is beside the point as the amended contract you signed with them made no changes to this item, nor did it otherwise mention charging them.
“They also fought and died in the same battle as your bullshit invoice so conveniently ignores.” Marshall pushed the invoice to the side and shook his head. “Plus, if you countermanded orders of your superior officer without an actual break in the chain of command or proof of reckless endangerment, then the soldier’s union would be forcing you to pay back whatever fees you’d already claimed from the job and you’d be paying death benefits for anyone who died as a result of your flight from the battlefield. You haven’t got a leg to stand on anywhere.”
“That’s right, you-”
“Elder Brianna,” Marshall cut the older Naturalist off and glared at her until she snapped her mouth shut. “I understand you lost a lot of people and that you believe Representative Lex is responsible for that, but every single one of these mediated meetings falls apart because you start insulting him, his people, or the organization he works for. From where I’ve been sitting over the last five of these meetings, it seems to me like you’re trying to provoke him into physically attacking you so you can receive a default judgment under the arbitration agreement you both signed two weeks ago. So I’m going to ask that you hold your tongue.”
Marshall looked back at Representative Alexander and shook his head. “I know that you’re frustrated with what happened, that you’re trying to do the best you can for your people, Representative Lex, but you don’t have any legal basis for any of your claims. You can have one more opportunity to provide a legal basis for any of this, but if you don’t, then I’m going to make a ruling against further claims and it will be legally binding until it can be reviewed in an Enclave. Understand?”
Representative Alexander stared at me for a moment, looked over at Elder Brianna, opened his mouth to say something, but then seemed to deflate. He nodded slowly and finally said “yes, Captain Marshall.”
“Elder Brianna.” I turned back to the Naturalist leader to find a glare equal to my own. I barely contained a frustrated sigh as I continued. “I understand you don’t like dealing with these claims and would like me to formally charge Representative Lex with abandoning his post and negligence and whatever else you’ve mentioned today, but that’s not how we do things out here. I don’t have legal standing to charge people. I can banish or kill those who attack us or who bring danger to us as we travel between Enclaves, but I don’t think anyone in this room wants me to get incredibly strict about enforcing that one. The Cultists followed the Naturalists and while it might be true that the Laborers fled a battle early, they are no more responsible for the deaths of those who the Cultists killed in their attack than you and your group are.”
Elder Brianna’s glare was still there, but the set of her shoulders and arms had loosened, a sign of resignation I’d picked up over the last dozen mediation sessions between her and Representative Lex. After almost a full minute of unbroken eye contact, her glare faded and she nodded as well. “Very well.”
“Now, before we depart and go get whatever remains of dinner, do you believe you can come up with legal grounds for any of your monetary claims, Representative Lex, or should I make good on our arbitration agreement, save us some time tomorrow , and rule now? I don’t want to be dealing with this the last night before we’re supposed to arrive in Cedar Rapids, nor do I want this coming up again while we’re sealing our shelter or stockpiling supplies.”
“I…” Representative Lex looked through his notes and I watched his eyes dart back or forth for a moment before he sighed. “No. I’ve submitted all my claims and while I don’t agree with you, I’m not going to push this pointless conversation any further.” When he looked up from his notes, he met my eyes with a glare and heat began to creep into his voice. “I’ll appeal in Des Moines and I hope you’re ready to take responsibility for this miscarriage of justice, Captain Marshall, but I’ll drop it for now.”
“Done.” I flipped through the papers until I’d found the one with the decision I’d prepared after the second day of them bickering during our slow trek away from the farmhouse where the Cultists had attacked us. “Then the Laborers will receive no compensation, nor will they be charged for abandoning a fight counter to standing orders. The Laborers will no longer exist in the command structure, instead operating with a Wayfinder as their officer in any future engagements. The Naturalists will not be sharing any resources with the Laborers and, outside of the shelter we’ll be preparing for the upcoming Blizzard, will not be brought near the Laborers until after we’ve reached our destination. All of which will stand until it can be brought before the justice system of the Des Moines Enclaved and investigated by the appropriate authorities.”
I bent down and signed the document and then slid it over to Elder Brianna to do the same. After she did, I slid it over to Representative Lex just in time to catch a suspicious, almost incredulous look on his face before it switched to a look of frustration. When he glanced down at the paper and then back up at me, I shook my head. “I came prepared, Representative Lex. Would you like to see the other documents I’ve drafted while you two argued? It wasn’t difficult to see how this was probably going to turn out.”
Representative Lex’s frustration openly gave way to suspicion as he narrowed his eyes at me, but he didn’t say anything. After a moment of silence, I pushed the paper a little closer to him and gestured at it. “Please sign.”
Only taking his eyes off my face long enough to place his pen on the signature line, Representative Lex signed the paper and then pushed it back to me. I nodded my thanks. “Then we’re done here. Please make sure everyone knows the details of the arrangement and make sure that no one attempts to harass anyone in the other group. I don’t want to have to send anyone to die in the cold or The Blizzard, but I absolutely will.” I glanced over the document, looking long enough to make sure they’d both signed it properly, and then looked from face to face. “Any questions?”
After a moment of silence, I nodded and then gestured toward the stairs out of the cellar we’d set up in. Elder Brianna, the closer of the two to the staircase, hurried past Matthews who had been stoically watching us the entire time. I hadn’t let Brianna and Lex know that Matthews was here to act as an extra pair of hands should things turn incredibly ugly between me and them, but they’d both just assumed that the Wayfinder was standing there to help me break up any fights between the two of them that might occur and I did nothing to dispel that assumption.
As Representative Lex gathered up his things, I surreptitiously gave Matthews the signal to head out and moved to stand halfway between the door and the table so that Representative Lex and I were side-by-side as the cellar door slammed shut behind Matthews. “Lex, can I talk to you for a minute?”
Representative Lex paused in his walking and then glanced in my direction with suspicion plain on his face. “I suppose, Captain.” He took a step away and turned to face me. Without the overhead lights near the table or the light from the staircase by the cellar door to illuminate his face, the shadows cast upon it by the rest of the room gave him a blank, haughty expression that was difficult to parse.
“I wanted to bring up something I’d noticed.” I closed my eyes for a moment, steeling myself to speak past the guilt and shame I was still struggling to deal with and all the moments I’d seen the same things reflected in him flashed through my mind. “I know…” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, carefully picking my words as I spoke. “It can be difficult when something like this happens. It takes a lot of work to process what feels like your own failure when you were in charge and people you were in charge of died.”
I resisted the urge to clench my jaw and my fists as I kept my gaze locked slightly to the left and behind of where Representative Lex stood. “I’ve been doing that myself, lately, so I understand it can be difficult to accept the reality of the decisions you made in a moment of pressure when you finally have the benefit of hindsight to look back on them.”
I paused for a moment, glancing back to gauge how Representative Lex was reacting, but he’d shifted his face down and to the side as I spoke. After a silent sigh, I added “I know it’s difficult to accept this stuff, but if you don’t talk it out with someone or deal with it in some other way, it’s going to build up inside you until you start lashing out at the people around you. Doubly-so during a time when you’re going to be stuck indoors with the same people for about ten days.”
I let the silence hang for a moment, trying to get Representative Lex to say something or at least look up. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, he lifted his face. His blank expression, combined with the shadows, gave me nothing. “I’ve been talking about this with my friends, Captain, and will continue to. I’m glad hindsight has been so kind to you. As you and Elder Brianna always point out, I am the reason so many people died. If that’s not something you actually believe as you seem to be implying here, then I think maybe you shouldn’t have pushed the talks to end the way they did.” He paused for a moment, expression still blank. “Blizzard or no.”
I stared into his eyes for a moment longer, looking for anything I might have missed while also trying to figure out what to say in response to him. He wasn’t entirely wrong, which was the problem, but that didn’t mean he should keep stewing on this anger. If he let this consume him or pull his attention away from our preparations, it would not only harm him, but also harm people he cared about.
As I was about to say as much, he turned away from me and started walking towards the stairs. “If that is all, Captain Marshall, I need to go inform my people about your decision.”
I didn’t say anything and let him walk away. If I pressed him, I’d just wind up being the spark that set off the explosion and he didn’t need more to feel ashamed or guilty about at this point. Better to let him work through this stuff on his own, if he could, or to give him time and space before I brought it up again. He’d had a bit more time for that now that the talks were done and we wouldn’t be eating into our meal and rest time every night to continue a pointless argument.
With a weary sigh, I turned back to the table and started disassembling everything. After a minute, just as I started to pull down the lanterns, Matthews returned. They hesitated in the stairwell, looking around the cellar, and then moved to help me pack up. “Looks like it didn’t go great, Cap.”
“Marshall’s fine, Matthews.”
“Sure thing, Cap.”
I looked up at my subordinate in time to see them shoot a wink in my direction. Instead of addressing it, I just rolled my eyes and snapped the clasps to keep the table folded up. “How’s the dinner situation?”
“Only a little bit left. Probably going to that guy on his way back to camp.” Matthews dimmed the lanterns and then clipped their covers closed, plunging the room into darkness aside from the bit of light provided by the lantern at the stairs. “Captain Cam said to tell you that there’ll be dinner in your tent. Says Lieutenant Jonathan has a final injury report before tomorrow’s arrival, too.”
“Said all that, did they?” I shuffled over to the stairs and started hauling the table, chairs, and my small case of documents up one step at a time, careful not to overbalance with my collection of unwieldy objects. “How nice. Dinner and reports. Definitely at the top of my to-do list after three hours of intense negotiation.”
“Sure, sure. Also said Natalie would be the one to give the reports to you though, since Lieutenant Jonathan and Captain Cam are both on duty tonight. Said you that ought to make you happy.”
“Thank you, Matthews, for reporting all that so faithfully.” I was glad I was ahead of Matthews so the red flush creeping up my face wasn’t visible. “I’ll make sure Captain Cam knows you repeated everything they said.”
“Grand.” Matthews grabbed the last lantern as I pushed the cellar door open so the light of the camp could filter in. “Gimmie the table and chairs. I ate earlier, while you were setting up, so I’ll take this all back. Get you some food and whatever.” Matthews put enough extra emphasis on the last word to make it clear that perhaps Cam and Lucas weren’t the only ones who knew about mine and Natalie’s relationship. I did my best to keep my face turned away from any light source as I shuffled things from my hands to Matthews’
After that, I trudged over to the tent that Natalie and I had to ourselves for the evening since Lucas was away scouting Cedar Rapids with his squad and had an altogether pleasant time discussing reports, eating dinner, and doing whatever. When we woke up the next morning, we took a little bit of extra time for ourselves before we started packing up since it was going to be our last chance to be alone together for a while. Natalie would be double-timing it with her logistics squad to help the forward scouts start securing whatever shelter they’d located and start assembling supplies. Cam and I would be another day behind them with the rest of the group and our injured folks.
As we lay in our joined sleeping bags, wrapped around each other and studiously avoiding talk of the impending storm, I walked her through everything that had gone on with the negotiations as a last-ditch effort to keep us there longer. Once I was finished, Natalie tipped her head up from where it had lain on my arm and said “you do an awful lot of weird administrative work for the head of a paramilitary organization, Mar.”
I wheezed out a laugh. “What brought that on?”
“I mean, do you ever think about that? About being the head of maybe the most capable group of sharpshooters and survivalists in the world and then just sitting between two bickering people for hours while they argue with each other rather than preparing their people to survive The Blizzard in a hastily fortified bunker?” Natalie chucked a little and laid her head down again. “How’d we wind up here?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way.” I sighed contently, basking in the warmth we had between us. “I just fix stuff. You know I don’t like to let problems lie.”
“You could afford to hire a lawyer, train them to be a Wayfinder, and have them handle all this for you.” As I opened my mouth to protest, she shook her head so I would up spitting a few stray hairs out of my mouth instead of saying anything. “I know you don’t spend any of your money on anything but gear and food for the next trip. You could retire in Chicago, never work another day in your life, and still have plenty to give away. But here you are. Solving problems between two adults who should know better.”
I thought on that for a moment, thinking about how many hours I’d spent listening to people argue while also doing my best to do something useful with that time, like calculate how long our rations would last now that we were adding more than two weeks onto our trip and might need to feed the Naturalists as well, if they ran out of food while we were all holed up. Eventually, as the sounds of movement outside the tent began to pick up, I sighed. “I’m a people-person. Even if I’m the head of whatever paramilitary army you’ve built in your head, ‘cause we both know there’s no way all the Wayfinders out there would fall in line like that, fixing people stuff is my specialty.”
Natalie scoffed, clearly not accepting my answer, so I gently poked her in the ribs where I knew she was ticklish. My attack was met with a swift reprisal and, eventually, we accidentally shifted the blankets enough that all our warmth began to escape into the tent and we were forced to dress quickly. From there, Natalie headed out with her squad while I packed up our tent and gear before starting my morning routine of rousing the entire camp.
Despite having ended the argument the night before, the Laborers as a whole seemed more tense and angry than ever. It was clear that my decision was not popular amongst them and the Naturalists seemed all too ready to match whatever anger the Laborers brought as I attempted to keep them separate. With Jonathan and his squad on scouting duty and three full squads worth of Wayfinders either in Cedar Rapids or already on their way there, the twenty remaining Wayfinders were hard-pressed to keep order in the camp.
I had to break up a couple fights just as we were packing up and, during the day’s march, we lost another hour or so of walking time, thanks to bickering and a few of the Laborers starting to outright ignore the Wayfinders. Apparently the final warning given to Mitch about raising a hand against the Wayfinders was enough for them to refrain from lashing out at us, but that didn’t stop them from doing their damnedest to make things difficult when they could.
When the Laborers and Naturalists started to slow down in preparation for setting up camp, I kept pushing the group. When they groaned and complained, I told them that the Wayfinders were going to keep walking to make up for lost time since we couldn’t afford to delay with The Blizzard coming soon.
One of the Laborers, a large, muscular woman whose name was Rhonda or Rhoads, I wasn’t sure which, sat down on the sled she’d been helping to pull and shook her head. “I’m not moving. We gotta set up camp or else we’ll be doing it in the dark and you been very clear on that being unacceptable.”
A couple of the other Laborers shuffled around her, moving to stand around the sled in a way that made it clear they were siding with her. The Naturalists made no move in reaction to the Laborers, but they also didn’t get moving again. The Wayfinders all stopped moving as well, looking to me for direction.
I sighed and hung my head. After a second deep breath, I picked my head up, stared up at the sky for a moment, and then strode over to stand a few feet away from the Laborer woman. Loudly enough for everyone to hear, I said “do you know why we call it ‘The Blizzard’? Why we don’t call it anything else but talk about it like it’s a specific thing?”
“Why would I care about how you weirdo misanthropes talk about a snowstorm?” The woman snorted, rolling her eyes.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see Representative Lex hurrying over, but I didn’t wait for him to arrive. “This is The Spring Blizzard. Happens about the same time every year, with a bit of variation from day-to-day. There’s also the Summer Blizzard, the Winter Blizzard, and the Fall Blizzard. The Spring one lasts about ten days. Did you know that?”
Rhonda, I finally caught sight of her name tag on the backpack she was wearing, shook her head and opened her mouth to say more, but I cut her off. “You know how there’s no buildings over six stories tall anywhere? I’m guessing you’ve noticed that, since you all work in construction and stuff. Ever wondered why that is?” I shifted my gaze to the other Laborers, now joined by Representative Lex who stood off to the side, not saying anything. “Turns out the Spring Blizzard knocks down any building taller than that. Also rips apart anything else in the area, too. Couple Enclaves, some twenty-five years ago, thought the storms were getting weaker and tried to build bigger. Seems like that was before your time, though, so you probably don’t remember hearing about the destruction of Indianapolis and Springfield.”
Representative Lex stepped forward. “Now, Captain Marshall, I won’t have you intimidating my-”
“If you can’t have your people listen to orders and take this upcoming Blizzard seriously, Representative Alexander, I’m going to leave them behind and banish them from the group if they try to follow us. Their lack of care endangers us all.” I leaned forward again, making direct eye contact with Rhonda. “I swear to every god that ever existed that if you don’t take The Blizzard seriously, you and everyone around you will find out whatever hides within them that destroys everything they find in their path and none of you will live to speak of it. Now either get moving again or get off the sled so we don’t let all these supplies go to waste with your and crew of willful idiots.”
Rhonda stood up,fists clenching, seemingly ready to throw a punch, but Representative Lex stepped forward and placed an arm on her shoulder. “I know The Blizzard is dangerous, Captain Marshall. I’ll talk to Rhonda and her friends.”
“Good.” I turned around and took a step away before pausing. Looking back over my shoulder, I added “if I have to spend any more energy on this before The Blizzard, Representative Alexander, I’m just going to start banishing people. We don’t have the time for this nonsense. Make sure your people see that or save us all some time and send them off yourself.”
After that, I turned back to the rest of the Wayfinders and Naturalists and signaled for them to move out. It took about a minute for everyone to get moving again, but the Laborers came with when we did. I pushed the entire group for another hour, picking up the pace to make up for all of our lost time, and then kept a careful eye on the Laborers after that. Whatever they’d been doing before their moment of open rebellion had ended. Representative Lex must have put an end to it, since they were at least compliant for the rest of the evening and the morning after.
By noon, the first scattered collection of still-standing homes around Cedar Rapids were passing by on either side of the path we were following, marked out by occasional flags from the scouts. An hour and a half later, we were pulling the sleds into the front foyer of some old, squat office park. There we found a few rooms already marked by the forward scouts and logistics teams, with separate spaces for the Wayfinders, the Naturalists, and the Laborers, along with a couple extra rooms for supplies and gear. The upper two floors were mostly sealed off, except for one stairway that we could use to get to the roof and a concealed guardpost that Lucas had set up.
Natalie already had the beginnings of a supply map ready for us as we settled down and I went over the next day’s duties with Representative Lex and Elder Brianna separately, handing them a copy of the maps that Jonathan had produced using a handful of city maps Lucas had looted from the ruins of a tourism center a block away from the office park. We had a few busy days of collecting supplies, scouting the area, and fortifying the building ahead of us, but we’d have a five to ten days of rest, a bit of separation, and some marginally cozy rooms to enjoy it all in while The Blizzard raged outside.
All I could do was hope that the new cooperative attitude of the Laborers held out and that the Naturalists didn’t do anything to provoke them. Then, maybe, while they were stuck inside near each other with nothing to do for a week or so, they’d work out their problems. Regardless, just four days of preparation, up to ten days of The Blizzard, a few days to dig ourselves out and resupply, and then one find push towards Des Moines. If we were lucky, we’d be there in three weeks.
As long as I didn’t have to spend all my time running interference between the two groups, that time would pass in an instant. I thought about being able to spend ten days in this building, all sealed up, warm, and cozy, with all of my Wayfinders around me, and fell asleep comforted by the idea that maybe this time, since everyone seemed to know about it already, I’d be able to spend all that time sleeping next to Natalie.