I Finally Saw Hamilton

On Tuesday of last week, the twenty-eight of August, I got a notification on my phone I had always dreamed of getting but never expected to actually get. I had won the Hamilton lottery and could purchase one or two tickets to see the show in Chicago on the following day. Needless to say, after spending two minutes freaking out, I bought two tickets and then started going down my list of people to invite. Unfortunately, my first pick was busy since it was his first day back at work (as opposed to cleaning up while on the clock) following the flooding and he couldn’t get the day off to drive to Chicago for a matinée showing. Thankfully, one of my roommates was my second choice and he was able to get the day off. So I went. Even with eight hours of driving due to traffic and construction, it was worth it.

Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s big-hit musical, was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I cried throughout it, not just at the emotional moments, of which there were many, but whenever the writing, acting, vocal work, staging, and lighting came together to create these wonderful little moments of perfection. As a whole, the musical showcases some of the most clever writing I’ve ever seen and sets aside the tried-and-true method of weaving songs together for one that relies more heavily on certain phrases that are the best foreshadowing I’ve ever witnessed. Between the moments where the songs themselves pull you out of the show, to impart some useful historical information or to help move things along, I was caught up in a world of song and voice. I can’t remember what the people who sat in front of me looked like, despite the fact that I spent three hours staring over their shoulders. I lost sight of everything while the show was in full swing. I was more caught up in this show than in anything else I’ve ever seen, read, or done. The full three hours of the show passed in a blink, interrupted only by an intermission that felt longer than either half of the musical.

While I can’t speak about the show in a general sense, since my only experience with it was the specific show being performed in Chicago, I honestly can’t imagine how it could ever be done poorly. The set was fairly standard, a level stage with an upper deck the actors could reach using a couple of on-stage staircases or some off-stage ones, and mostly functioned as a place for more of the chorus to dance and sing from, though it was used to add emphasis for some characters during important moments. The set was used entirely for staging, for dictating where people moved and how actors showed up on stage. All of the scene-setting, all of the environmental stuff that told you where the bit the actor were currently performing, was done entirely through lighting and the clever use of props. Using stuff like tables, desks, stools, and various similar things, they were able to create everything from a tent in the Revolutionary War to bedrooms or open fields. The best part of the staging was their use of a two-part turntable so one group of actors or props would spin one way and another group would spin the other way. They used this to amazing effect in one of the songs during the second half of the show, “Hurricane.” It blew me away and created the images that have stuck with me the most.

Honestly, the entire show was memorable. Each moment felt perfect, each little bit of acting and each scene being set felt like it was perfectly natural and complete, like it was unfolding on stage the way it certainly must have unfolded in the eighteenth century (with perhaps some liberty taken for language). I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since I got back into my car after the show and I feel like I can sit back, listen to the amazing music, and rewatch the entire show in my head. Each of the actors stood out from the crowd in their own ways and there was no wasted movement as they made their way around the stage. It was super clear they had the practiced precision that comes with repeating something dozens of times, but the emotion and energy they put into the show felt like this was their first night in front of an audience.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the content of the show because I avoided everything from the music to plot summaries for almost three years before I finally got to see Hamilton and I’m so glad I did. The sheer wonder and powerful emotion in some of the songs would have created scenes in my head and I would never have gotten the chance to see the show for the first time without any expectations or preconceptions. It was worth the years of denial for that moment when the lights dimmed and the first actor walked out on stage. I know it’s probably too late to recommend that you do the same thing, but hold on to that abstinence if you’ve managed to stay away so far. The music is magical and there are scripts out there you can read, but the show itself is better by far and worth waiting for.

What I will say is that it’s a relatively modern take on Hamilton, specifically it reflects modern scholarly opinions of Alexander Hamilton and some of the other Founding Fathers. The music is pretty Hip-Hop centric, which is another way it’s modern, but it seems like a pretty accurate portrayal of history, with the only liberties taken being in the way the characters spoke to each other rather than how situations resolved. I did some research to confirm this and it’s as accurate as a couple hours of reading can show. I’m sure a dedicated historian could shed more light on the subject, but I don’t have the time for getting another bachelor’s degree before writing this review.

I suggest downloading the Hamilton app so you can participate in the lottery or, if you’ve got a bit more money to spend, buying tickets the normal way. No matter where you see it, no matter who you see it with, it’ll be one of the most memorable days of your life. I suggest you go invest in enriching your soul.

Coldheart and Iron: 27

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The nomads’ old home was in the third, fourth, and fifth floors of a ten-story apartment complex. As we walked up to it, there was an old wooden sign by door that once proclaimed this building was the Park Estates but had been spray-painted over sometime in the last couple years. Now, it read “Headquarters of the Chicago Gents” in fluorescent orange and had a few splatters of blood on it.

“So you actually had to fight your way in, I see.”

“Yeah. Most of the patrols just ran, but the guards out here stayed and fought. I’m having Lucas look around for any more patrols, though”

“Sounds like you underplayed what you did to capture their base, Camille.”

“Not really. I had Lucas cover our backs and left one person to shoot at their defensive position at the front door while I led everyone else to the roof. They didn’t have anyone up there or ever watching all sides of the building since every other door and window on the first two floors is sealed. So we cracked the door and cleared them out. They were panicking when we started shooting and we just took them down. I’ve got a sniper on the roof scaring off anyone who pokes their head out, though.”

“I can’t wait to get some rest!” I stretched my arms and sighed. “It’ll be nice to sleep for a few days.”

“That’ll have to be later, unfortunately. There’s some cleaning to do, though I had everyone I could spare get started on it. We made a mess.” Camille wrinkled her nose and popped open the door. “Honey, I’m home!”

One of the Wayfinders, came down the stairs carrying a body wrapped in plastic and smirked. “Great, now help us haul around everyone you killed. There are a lot of them.”

“We’ll need one of the small supply sleds to move the corpses, so just dump it here for now and help carry supplies upstairs.” Camille gestured out the door at the Nomads who’d stopped to gaze around their old home. “I think they might need a few minutes to get used to how everything has changed.”

“Right away, Lieutenant.” the Wayfinder dumped the corpse inside an apartment and I got a glimpse of the other corpses inside, waiting to be hauled away.

“Any of them still alive?”

“No. I tried to leave a few injured but alive and they just kept trying to grab their guns so no it’s on Lucas’ group to capture someone alive.” Camille shrugged. “From the duty rosters we’ve found, I’m pretty sure that are at least a dozen other patrols out there.”

“Eleven or fewer, now.” Natalie walked up with her pack and an armload of papers. “We took out one of them on our way to the rendezvous. Once Lucas gets back, I should have their maps and routes copied into my maps so we can make sure we won’t run into any of them.”

“I’m more worried about them coming back here at some point.” I gestured for Camille and Natalie to step aside so people wouldn’t have to walk around us. “You’ve got a sniper on the roof, but what about someone on the ground to grab them if they sneak up?”

“That’s my job. Now that you’re back and once you’re unloaded, I’ll be going back outside to do a circuit of the neighborhood.” Camille moved toward the door. “Speaking of which, let’s get you unloaded.”

It took us a few trips to get everything up the stairs, but we managed it by mid-afternoon. It would have been faster, but there was, as Camille said, a lot to clean up and the Nomad parents didn’t want to expose the children to all of the blood and gore. It took most of the rest of the day to get the corpses moved since there were more of them than I wanted to count. Camille had led the Wayfinders in an absolute slaughter. As the sun began to set, the Nomads began walking through their old home, setting everything to rights and gathering everything the bandits had left behind onto a table in the central rooms while I led the Wayfinders in getting a meal started.

Once we’d finished cooking, using most of the perishable supplies after checking that they were still good, Lucas and the scouts showed up. By the time we’d served the food and the Nomads started going over everything they’d found with Natalie, Camille returned.

“Any luck?” Lucas looked over at her as he scooped stew into his mouth.

“Yeah. I found a small patrol. They’re cooling their heels in one of the lower areas. We’ll get to them in the morning. Now, I just want food and a bed.”

“Ask and you shall receive!” I placed a bowl of stew and an ancient biscuit in front of Camille. “Soak the biscuit before you bite it. I recommend using the stew, but Lucas seems to be enjoying his biscuit water well enough.” Lucas raised his glass and swirled it around, sending the soggy lumps dancing again.

“How’s the state of our supplies?” Camille stuck her biscuit into her stew and then used her spoon to push it to the bottom of the bowl.

“With what we’ve picked up here, we can wait a week before leaving and then take out time getting to the enclave without worrying about running out. We could even wait here for the Blizzard to pass, first, if that’s what we want to do. That’d require hurrying once the Blizzard ended, but we’d still have a day or two of buffer without moving too quickly.”

Camille nodded, a pensive look on her face as she picked at her stew. “One of the bandits offered up a bit of information as I dumped them in their new temporary home. He said there’s a rumor going around, passed between bandit groups when they trade, that the Chicago enclave has some big thing happening before the blizzard.”

“Yeah?” I sat down with my own bowl of stew, sans biscuit. “Did they finally figure out where the heat was leaking out of the subway system?”

“No. Maybe. They rumor wasn’t about that. Apparently, they’ve got some kind of wall or barrier tech they’re going to put to use before the blizzard. According to the rumor, it’s supposed to fix everything including the cold so finally people can use computers outside of bunkers, grow food outside of greenhouses, and protect them against any of the monsters that show up.”

“Does it grant wishes, too? Maybe provide us all with immortality?” Lucas sniggered and took a swig from his biscuit water. “Maybe it can provide everyone with biscuits that are entirely water-soluble.”

“Laugh all you want, but this guy believed in what he said. Maybe it isn’t everything he wants it to be, but the rumors are worth checking out.”

“It’s kind of a moot point since we’re going there anyway.” I shrugged and stirred my stew a bit. “Does it really matter?”

“If the rumors are true, we should probably get there sooner, rather than later. I’d suggest skipping out on the rest we had planned and heading straight there.”

“We’d have a mutiny on our hands.” Lucas set his glass down and pushed his bowl aside. “I’d mutiny.”

I gestured at Lucas to calm down. “What would we gain by heading there before the Blizzard? If they’re testing out some new technology, better to wait until it’s been put through its paces before we put ourselves at risk near it.”

“That makes sense, Marshall, and I’d normally be one hundred percent with you on this, but there’s something you’re both overlooking.” Camille leaned on her elbows and propped her head on her folded hands. “If this group of bandits is sharing rumors with us that they’re getting from other groups of bandits, and they actually believe everything they’re saying, what do you think is going to happen to the enclave when they start up their barrier?”

“It’ll keep bandits out, so who cares?” Lucas shrugged.

“The bandits will attack and try to claim the enclave, and this barrier, for themselves.”

Camille nodded. “And if we want to keep the Chicago enclave alive, perhaps even settle down there for an extended rest, then we should go offer what help we can before it’s too late.”

“Shit.” Lucas sighed and pulled his food back towards him. “I’m going to eat, talk to Natalie about maps so she doesn’t murder me, get eight hours of sleep, and then head out. I’ll listen for more rumors and start clearing a path to the enclave. I’ll send a scout back for you all, so be ready to move by noon.”

I smiled at Lucas as he shoveled food into his mouth. “How do you know what I’m going to decide?”

“It’s easy.” Lucas shrugged. “You always opt for whatever is going to help people or protect the people trying to keep society together. Plus, they need our help. Not even the Chicago enclave could take on the full force of the local bandits.”

“Well, now you have the force of an order behind your plans. Get it done, Lucas. We’ll catch up to you tomorrow.”

“So much for resting up.” Camille spooned stew into her mouth. “I’ll revisit the prisoners in the morning, make sure they’ve shared everything they’ve got for us. In the meantime, I’m going to finish eating and then crash.”

“Get some rest. I’ll take care of guard tonight. We’ll need you in top form for clearing the way forward tomorrow.” Camille nodded and I turned back to my stew, planning how to tell everyone we weren’t going to stay here as we originally planned. It was going to be a hard sell, especially for the nomads, but the prospect of a return of at least parts of the life we knew before the collapse would be enough to tempt anybody. Even now, I had to push down the excitement bubbling up inside of me. I needed to stay focused, or else we’d never actually get the chance to find out.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 26

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


We woke the next morning to a light snowfall and Natalie’s reminder that we had only twenty days before the next blizzard. That would be plenty of time to get into the Chicago enclave barring an encounter with the army of monsters that might be wandering around what was left of the northern suburbs of Chicago. Bearing this in mind, I sent Lucas and his scouts ahead as soon as they’d all eaten breakfast and then busied everyone else with breaking camp and following them north as soon as possible.

The day passed uneventfully, with only one tense moment when one of the Wayfinders spotted a glint of light being reflected from the top of one of the local buildings. Thankfully, it turned out to only be some old weather monitoring gear, but it cost us an hour as Camille snuck up to the building and investigated it. When we finally caught up to Lucas, he guided us toward what looked like an old park and had us set up camp under some of the aging picnic shelters. While people set up tents and attending to their evening meal, Lucas pulled me aside to report.

“We’re on the edge of the bandit territory. They match the description Camille gave me, mostly blunt weapons and one person with a handgun or rifle in each group of five. Pretty good thermal gear, from what I can tell, so they obviously know what they’re doing when it comes to avoiding monsters. Might even support Natalie’s theory that they got pushed out by whatever came out of the Waukegan landing area.” Lucas waved a hand in the air before I could chime in “Either way, there are tons of them and their patrols are thick enough that we’d have trouble sneaking through, but they’re nothing we can’t handle.”

“Any chance they’ll spot us out here if we give Camille a couple of days to sneak in and neutralize their leadership?”

“None.” Lucas gestured to the line of trees at the edge of the park. “The trees and playground equipment make the shelters practically invisible from the street and they don’t have regular patrols more than a mile from their base. They have a group that walks around the perimeter once a day, from what I’ve seen so far. Just checking for anything new or signs of someone encroaching on their space. As long as you’re gone before noon tomorrow, you shouldn’t have to worry about them and that’s even if they decide to check out this place”

“Okay. Keep an eye out for that tomorrow, but I’ll let Camille know what to expect.”

“Good.” Lucas rubbed his hands together and grinned. “And now we start my favorite part. Watching them all night long and tailing any patrols that operate at night. I hope they sent out a couple.”

“Just keep an eye out for any monsters. I want to know if we’re going to need to deal with any of them while we retake the Nomads’ home.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Lucas saluted and then headed off toward the treeline where he was joined by his remaining five scouts.

Camille walked over as he disappeared into the snow. “With him scouting for patrols and monsters, and with me leading a group to take the base, you’re only going to have four Wayfinders, counting yourself and Natalie, to manage the Nomads and Tiffany isn’t going to be much use if it comes to defending the group.”

“I’m planning to just vanish for a couple days. Your groups won’t need any support or supplies, so we’re just going to swing a little further north and drop off the radar for two days. After that, we’ll head toward the base and help you out or just waltz in because you’ve cleared everything.”

“Do you think you can count on the Nomads if it comes to fighting?”

“They did well enough when we were captured. You’re taking one with you, to answer any questions you have, so you must trust their abilities to some degree or another.”

“Yeah, but I can always leave them behind if they start becoming a liability. You won’t have that luxury.”

“I think they’ll be fine. They’ve come this far and haven’t gotten any of us killed.”

“They’re also half children at this point.”

“What do you want me to do, leave them behind while four of us sneak up on a building full of bandits and hope that we can manage if it comes to a firefight? It’s not like our skills are going to help much in an urban environment. The more guns we have, the better.” I pointed to the two machine guns mounted on the sleds. “Plus, it’s not like they need to be good with a gun to use one of those.”

“Fair.” Camille smiled and punched me in the shoulder. “Warm beds! Real food that hasn’t been dried out for years before we dunked it in snow to soften it up a bit. A chance to rest for a day, in safety and warmth, before we start preparing the way to Chicago! So much to look forward to!”

I smiled back at her. “Just don’t let visions of cozy pillows distract you from your mission. You can’t enjoy a bed if you’re a prisoner or dead.”

Camille laughed and gestured to the waiting group of Wayfinders. “With this lot, we’ll have them surrendering before they even fire a single bullet! They don’t bother Wayfinder duos, so they’ll probably run in terror when they find out there are eight of us.”

“Good luck, Camille. Stay safe!”

“Yeah, you fight monger. Get us some nice cozy beds and don’t let any of our people get killed in the process.” Natalie walked up and hugged Camille. “Think you can manage that?”

“I’ll do my best, mom.” Camille rolled her eyes but was still smiling as she turned to leave.

“Did Lucas leave already?” Natalie turned to me. “I wanted to give him a map I drew with likely routes the monsters might take if they’re wandering around.”

“Yeah, just a couple minutes ago. I can catch up to him if I run, though.”

“Don’t bother. He’ll figure it out. He always does, somehow, even if he always forgets to map them afterwards.” Natalie patted her pocket absently and then looked over at me. “So we’ve got the tent to ourselves tonight. I think neither of us are on first sentry shift, so we should head to bed right away.”

“As you command, so shall I do.” I bowed and gestured toward the bag that held our tent. “However, it’ll take a little bit before we can busy ourselves with resting. I’ll have this ready to go in a few minutes if you wouldn’t mind grabbing food for our dinner.”

“Very well, Marshall. You can play house and I’ll bring home the bacon. See that you’re ready by the time I get back.” Natalie winked and then sauntered off toward the supply tent. I tore my eyes away from her and hastily set up the tent. Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I missed a couple stakes and one of the tent poles slipped out of its socket halfway through dinner, we had a pleasant night, even if we didn’t get much sleep.

The next morning, we packed up and consolidated everything we had to one sled. We hid the other one under a snowbank next to what were probably bathrooms once upon a time and then hurried north. Natalie led us toward a place she knew of that used to be a bandit hideout before the Chicago enclave drove them out and I focused on covering our tracks. The light snow would help, but it’d still take several hours before our tracks were completely covered unless I did something to help it along. Simply smoothing the snow out was enough, though, since the falling snow would quickly mask any traces of human intervention.

We made good time and didn’t find so much as a trace of other humans, so we managed to get to Natalie’s temporary hiding spot in the late afternoon without being spotted. While I put a little more work into concealing any trace of our passage into the build, Natalie took our thermal sensor and made sure our little hideout was secure. Once we were both done, we joined everyone else inside and started passing the hours. At first, we all slept. This was our first time with more than a bit of nylon between us and the snow, so it felt nice to be able to move in and out of out tents without worrying about letting snow in as we moved from sleeping to guard duty.

After the first twenty hours of resting passed, people started getting squirmy. I broke out the cards and got a few games going while we waited, but those only lasted another couple of hours. When people started arguing, I got everyone together for a meal and we shared stories as we sat around in the cold, abandoned office building. Since there hadn’t been much opportunity before, due to me keeping on eye on the Laborers, I shared my story about the beginning of the Collapse and listened to the Nomad’s leader, Brianna, share her stories of life before the end of society as she once knew it and how she missed the brief golden age when it seemed like Humanity was going to prosper until the universe ended.

It was really interesting to compare her perspective to my own. She was about twenty years older than me, so she had a very different take on the world I knew growing up, seeing more of the good in it than I had. Even though she saw the Collapse coming from the same time I did, she reacted slower because she believed that Humanity wouldn’t be taken down that easily. It made me a little sad to listen to her as wistfulness and a sense of loss crept into her voice as she talked about the potential that we had squandered.

Once her voice fell silent, one of the younger adult Nomads pulled the kids aside and started telling some more fun and light-hearted stories. Everyone else stayed in the circle and talked about Humanity’s current potential and our likelihood of long term survival. When that headed down a dark path, Brianna started talking about all the food she missed and how excited to she was to go into an Enclave where some of that food might still be available. From then on, everyone shared a story about their favorite foods or fun events that had involved food.

After all the stories were told, everyone settled down to sleep again. I took the last watch and woke everyone up at about ten in the morning on the day we were supposed to meet up with Camille. While everyone got ready, I went over our little group’s fighting and scouting plans with Brianna, Natalie, Tiffany, and Gregory–the Wayfinder Camille has left us to help protect the group.

It was a simple plan. Brianna would keep the Nomads organized and enforce my commands. Natalie would pick out route, making sure no detours took us too far from our path. Tiffany would scout ahead, since she was the stealthiest, even without her hand, and Gregory would stay a little bit behind her, ready to spring into action if she needed help or if there was someone who was in our way. I’d stick with the sled and focus on relaying communication between everyone and taking care of any small, isolated threats that poked their head out while we were in motion.

It was a tense four hours as we walked through the snowy city to find Camille and the other Wayfinders, but it went smoothly. There was only one scouting patrol we had to take down, and Gregory handled the whole thing by himself after Tiffany had alerted him. When we got to the rendezvous point Camille had set, we found her sitting out in the open, gun on her shoulder, as she smirked at us.

“What did I say, Cap? They ran without firing a single bullet!” Her smirk grew larger.

“Really?” I looked at her and took in the fact that she still hadn’t really taken her attention off the area outside past her seat. “Looks like you’re making things up so you sound more badass.”

“I’ll admit they shot a few bullets at us, but the they certainly didn’t hurt anyone. We snuck in the back entrance the Nomads had escaped through, killed their commanders, dealt with a little bit of wild shooting once they realized their bosses were dead, and then chased them out. We won’t find much by way of supplies since they grabbed most of the food as they went, but it’s safe and warmer than anything I’ve felt in what feels like years.”

“Sold.” I stepped forward and hauled Camille to her feet. “Let’s go get us some well-deserved rest. You especially.”

“Did they have actual beds?” Natalie took Camille’s pack and slung it over her shoulder.

“No, just giant bundles of feathers that aren’t really beds. They smell kinda funny.”

“That’s what a feather mattress is, Camille. A funny-smelling gigantic bundle of feathers. Though I thought they only came in pillow variety.”

“You’d be surprised at how literal I’m being.”

“You’ll have to show me. It sounds more comfortable than a sleeping bag and the ground, though.”

I watched the two of them walk off for a moment before signaling everyone else to follow. As we walked toward the Nomads old home, I could see their spirits lift and I found myself praying to all the gods I’d ever heard of, once again. This time, I prayed that they wouldn’t be horrified at what they saw when they got there. And that Camille had the foresight to clean up the mess she must have made for a bit before we departed. Whatever happened, I was looking forward to being able to walk around without my thermal gear on and actually sleeping without a tent around me, for once.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 25

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


We spent a whole day resting in the forest. We were too worn out to move right away and I’m pretty sure Camille and the Wayfinders who had been fighting alongside her for six days would have rebelled if I’d even suggested it. We all slept, made plenty of food, and tried to recover as much as we could before we moved on the following day. After about a week, Natalie told me about an old warehouse we could shelter in for a few days, so I could do a better job of checking everyone’s injuries and maybe clear some of the injured Wayfinders to be able to start walking again.

Thankfully, the warehouse was clear and already sealed by some other group of Wayfinders. We took a week to rest and I was able to clear everyone to start walking again, though we kept the sleds because they’d need to take breaks to rest every so often until they had recovered their strength entirely. Fifteen days after we started moving again, we finally made it to the western suburbs of Chicago. We still had a couple days of walking to get to the enclave, but there were things we needed to do first.

When we made camp that night, hidden in what used to be a forest preserver, I called a general meeting. We huddled in a large circle with the kids in the center, while I addressed the group.

“We’re moving into the Chicagoland area tomorrow, so we need to abandon the sleds. We’re moving with only what we can carry on our backs and we’re traveling silently. Wayfinders, keep your guns in hand and keep an eye out. We’ll be going slow so the scouts have a chance to check each building before we pass it. Any questions?”

All of the Wayfinders shook their head. Before heading to Madison to pick up the group of Laborers that betrayed us, we’d handled a group headed north out of Chicago toward Milwaukee, so everyone was familiar with the dangers of walking through the crowded areas around Chicago. The Nomads, it seemed, where not as evidenced by the older woman, Brianna, who raised her hand and said “Every building?”

I nodded and leaned forward a bit. “We’ve had a lot of run-ins with bandits hiding in buildings and shooting anyone who walks by. Better safe than sorry.”

“Oh.” Brianna lowered her hand but kept talking. “If we head back to where we used to live and take care of the bandits there, we should be able to find a safer route. Our old home is about a day’s walk north of here and the north side is usually safer than the west side.”

“Thanks, that’s a good idea.” I nodded to Brianna and looked to Camille and Lucas. “If we use their old home as a base and then focus on finding a clear route to the enclave, would that shorten our time?”

“Depends.” Lucas glanced over at Camille for confirmation before continuing. “If there’s actually a safe route, then yeah, it saves us tons of time. If the bandits that pushed them out have taken over the entire area rather than staying focused where they used to live, then probably not. Clearing the buildings won’t be much trouble since most bandits around here know not to screw with Wayfinders since this is one of our primary hubs.”

“I wouldn’t mind having a solid base, though.” Camille shrugged, a difficult gesture while wearing a thermal bodysuit, but one she’d perfected. “Couldn’t hurt to check it out, at least, since we won’t be losing any time no matter what comes out of it.”

“Fair enough.” I turned back to Brianna. “Okay, we’ll do it. We’ll clear out your old home and use it as our base to get back to the enclave. Are you going to want to stay there once we’re done or continue to the enclave with us?”

Brianna looked around at her people and then nodded to me. “I don’t think we’re going to want to stay there very long. We lost a family and friends when the bandits pushed us out, and we’ve lost more since then. I think we’re all ready to give up a little bit of our freedom for the safety of the enclave.”

“Very well. Talk to Lieutenant Camille. She’ll want everything you can give her about the bandits, your base, and the area around it.”

“Of course.”

“Then our current plan is to move out, heading north, in the morning. We’ll take the sleds as far as we can, but mentally prepare yourself to carry everything important on foot. That’s all I’ve got. Have a good night, everyone.”

I watched everyone disperse to their tasks and meals, making sure Camille and Brianna were headed in the same direction, until Natalie walked up to me. “Hey, Marshall. Let’s go get something to eat quick. I wanted to show you something before we settled in for the evening.”

“Alright.” I nodded and followed Natalie to the tent. While I made a quick dinner of dried meat and trail bread warmed over our little gas stove, Natalie pulled out a map and started writing on it. When I brought the food over, she flipped it around to face me.

“Here is the latest map of the area with all of the known bandit nests marked out.” She took the plate I handed her and set it aside, still staring at the map. “What worries me is that there is only one group of bandits that would have moved into the area that Nomad woman was talking about.”

“Yeah? What about it?” I started eating, steadily working my way through tough bread and even tougher meat.

“I can only think of one reason a group that large would move, Marshall.” Natalie started chewing on her lip as she reviewed the maps. “All the other groups are barely a dozen and wouldn’t have the numbers to force anyone out of a permanent home.”

“So we’re going to be fighting a lot of bandits? More than the group that captured us?”

“Maybe? I doubt they’ll put up even nearly that much of a fight, though. They mostly use numbers to control their territory since the number of guns around here is pretty low nowadays. We’ll be able to push them out just fine. That’s not the problem. They problem is why they gave up their territory, Marshall.”

“Which would be?” I looked more closely at the map Natalie had spread out and my dinner almost came right back up when I noticed the two areas she’d been talking about. “Wait…”

“Right next to their old territory was a landing area. If they were forced to leave, that probably means something finally came out of it.”

“Shit.” I put aside my food picked up the map. “I thought the landing areas were the initial spots all the monsters showed up in. Didn’t the Waukegan one empty out like all the others, in the first wave?”

“Nothing ever came out of it. There were four other landing areas around Chicago and that was more than enough to nearly destroy the city. That’s the only reason the Chicago enclave is in as good shape as it is. They managed to fight off the first attack and build defences before the second one. But if they Waukegan landing area is finally emptying out, then that means there’s a ton of monsters spread out in the north.”

“So we might get up there and find everything swarming with a fresh load of monsters. Enough to destroy a large town.”

Natalie shook her head slowly, and then looked up at me as she shrugged. “I don’t know. They were given specific commands at the start, but we know their targeting words based on signals. If they started operating now, it’s possible they marched straight for Chicago and were destroyed. It’s just as possible that they’re just milling around the landing area because there are no signals to guide them. It’s possible they detected a signal from somewhere else and went in search of it. It’s even possible the bandits just wanted someplace new to live because they’d picked their territory dry.”

Natalie took the map back from me and set it down. “All I know is that we need to be ready for this to be worse than just a bunch of bandits who’ll run as soon as we start killing them.”

I scooted over to her side and gave her a hug. “Of course. I’ll go tell Camille so we can make sure we’re ready for whatever comes out way. In the meantime, you eat your dinner.” Natalie smiled and hugged me back.

After getting back into my thermal suit, I hustled through the snow to the Nomad tents and started knocking on tent poles until I found Brianna and Camille. After pulling Camille aside to tell her about Natalie’s suspicions, I let the two of them get back to work. I found Lucas with his scouts, discussing strategy, and did the same thing. After that, I returned to my tent and joined Natalie for an hour of quietly holding each other as we softly talked through our fears for the next few days.

The next several days, until we finally made it to the Chicago enclave, would be incredibly busy and it was unlikely we’d get any time to ourselves until we were safe behind their walls, so we tried to make the most of what we had left. She talked about her fears of being overrun by monsters and I shared my fears of being unable to get us to safety. Right as we fell asleep, still holding each other, I heard her whisper.

“Marshall?”

“Hmm?”

“What if I want to stay in Chicago, too?”

All traces of sleep vanished from my mind. “What?”

“What if I decide to retire, like Lucas?”

“I- I don’t know.”

“Would you stay?”

“I mean, would I- What?”

“Would you stay with me, or keep Wayfinding until you eventually get killed by some bandits or a monster?” Natalie untangled herself and looked up at me, meeting my eyes with a neutral expression on her face. “I know you’re still looking for your family, even if you won’t admit it to yourself, let alone anyone else. I know you want to find anyone left from before all this happened, but would you really keep looking? It has been almost eighteen years since the first landing and the blizzards started.”

“I don’t know.” I looked down at her chin, unable to keep looking her in the eye.

“That’s a cop-out and you know it. You’ve been doing nothing but thinking about this since Lucas brought it up.”

I looked back up for a moment. “Am I that transparent?”

“No.” Natalie smiled at me and rubbed my arm. “I just know you.”

“You’re right.” I rolled over onto my back and pulled Natalie to me. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I really don’t think anyone else is still alive, hiding somewhere. Or, if they are, that I’ll find them at this point. I want them to be, I want to find out that they’ve been hidden inside some city, somewhere, surviving despite the odds. But I don’t think they are. I don’t think I’ve believed they’re alive for years.”

“Then why are you still doing this?”

“I guess I just wanted something to do. The world fell down around our ears and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Now, though, there’s so much I can do. I feel like I should be doing something to help keep humanity going. This is what I’m good at.”

“There’s plenty you could do in Chicago. Train new Wayfinders, help organize the defenses, scout the area to keep it safe for the people who live outside the enclave. You could do a lot of good.”

“I guess.” I took a deep breath and sighed. “I just feel like stopping will mean that they’re dead and gone. As long as I’m looking, it feels like they might still be alive, somehow.”

“Marshall…”

“I know. Believe me, I know.” I rubbed my eyes with my free hand. “I just… I don’t know what I want to do, yet.”

“Okay.” Natalie snuggled up to me again and closed her eyes. “You can always talk to me about it, you know. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

“I love you. Thank you. Whatever you want to do, I’ll support you, too. Even if it means we wind up being apart from each other.”

“I love you, too, Marshall. I promise I won’t make a decision without letting you know. And I haven’t decided yet, either. Lucas just got me thinking.”

I started stroking Natalie’s hair as I closed my own eyes. “Thank you for reassuring me, Nat.”

“Shhh, go to sleep now. We can talk more in the morning but we won’t hear any end of it if Lucas and Cam find us awake and cuddling.” Natalie covered my mouth with her hand as I opened it to respond. “Mar, I said ‘shhh!’”

I smiled underneath her hand and hugged her tightly for a moment before letting my attention drift until I fell asleep. There’d be plenty of time for me to think over the next few days and whatever happens when we get to Chicago would likely influence my decision. No point in worrying about it now.

As I listened to Camille and Lucas return an hour later, quietly chatting as they ate and went to sleep, I was constantly reminded that such things were always easier said than done.