Still an Accomplishment

Luke placed the trophy on the shelf and took a moment to straighten it so the plaque faced outward. After a quick scan of shapes and words he’d long ago memorized, he sighed and turned to his wife. “One day.”

She nodded. “One day.”

Luke looked around the room at all of his trophies and led Mariah out of the trophy room, leaving the lights to her. Instead of checking on the kids, he moved into the living room and sat down on the couch.

A moment later, Mariah sat down next to him. “You’ll get one eventually. I know it.”

“I guess.” Luke raised and lowered a shoulder. “I’ve been playing sports for almost thirty years and I’ve never won. I’m getting a little tired of second and third place trophies.”

“Yeah, but you have more trophies than anyone I’ve met. That counts for something.”

“Tons of second and third place trophies aren’t an accomplishment.”

“Luke, you play a dozen sports a year. You’re an amazing coach to the kids and none of your teams would have come close to placing without you.”

Luke looked away from Mariah.“It doesn’t feel like anything worth celebrating.” Mariah pushed herself up to kiss him on the cheek and was settling back again when there was a crash from the den. Luke was in the room before she could get up.

When she arrived, she found him standing next to a fallen trophy case, broken trophies scattered on the floor.

Luke looked up to her. “Well, shit.”

Mariah smirked. “You had enough trophies to pull your trophy case off the wall. You don’t think that’s an accomplishment?”

Luke look at her for a moment before busting out laughing. “I guess I’ve come in first when it comes to having too many trophies.”

Mission Control

Ben stepped through the door into his small office and collapse into his chair as it automatically adjusted itself to his profile. As he rubbed his eyes and waved at the coffeemaker on his desk, the lights flickered on, adjusted to his morning profile, and powered up his workstation. The surface flowed into the shape of a keyboard and the screen projects started through their power-on routine, cycling through every color and configuration. It was pleasant to watch, but made his head hurt, so he turned to his wall.

One light on the wall, positioned where there should be a window, slowly changed from the standard full-spectrum white to a square of his favorite vista back on Earth, a section of the Grand Canyon that glowed as the sun rose over the rim. The sun in the picture he’d used to create the Smart Window warmed to a bright ten thousand lumens, helping to push the sleep from his eyes and mind while he waited for the gurgling coffee maker to finish it’s job.

While he waited for what his coworkers called his “old-fashioned dirty bean water,” Ben tapped through the log-in on his desktop and cycled through his team’s off-hours messages. There wasn’t much of interest, just the usual memes and links to YouTube videos for research ideas, so he spun himself around in his chair a few times before switching to his internet browser and checking out a couple of forums. Once the coffee was done, he poured it into the ceramic mug on his desk and set it aside to cool.

He sent a few follow-up messages to one of his coworkers who’d sent him some direct messages and was just about to start digging into one the issues he’d been assigned when someone rapped on his wall. Ben lazily spun around, grabbing his now-drinkable coffee as he went. “What’s up, Christine?”

“Hey, Ben. We’ve got a conference call coming up in ten. Lewis scheduled it half an hour ago but forgot to invite anyone but me, Vince, and Landon. I’m going to need you on that.”

“Really?” Ben sipped his coffee and arched his eyebrows at his senior coworker. “Did he ‘forget’ to include anyone else, or did he actually forget?”

“The universe will never know.” Christine shrugged and leaned against the wall. “But you need to do your thing today. He’s got something to drop on us.”

“Yeah?” Ben sighed and put his coffee down. “You sure? I’d love to not need to be a part of this today. I’d really like to do something else with my first hour of work today.”

“Yeah. He managed to include the right manager and the two people who he’d be able to override, so he’s got something he wants done.”

“You’re too nice, Christine.”

“I mean, he is my boss. I can’t exactly tell him no.”

“Fine, then Vince is being too nice.”

“Landon isn’t going to like it, but no one is listening to him about Lewis anymore. They all think he’s got a vendetta at this point.”

“Yeah, but he’s our manager. It’s his job to represent us to everyone up the chain.”

Christine shrugged and pushed away from the wall. “You’ve got ten minutes now. Best get yourself ready.”

“Fine.” Ben shifted in his chair and it molded to his new position. “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Ben. You’re the best.”

Ben waved a hand and the room’s light changed so his face stood out as the chair raised itself, pushing him into a standing position in the open corner of his office.  When he turned around to look, Christine was gone so he waved the door closed. As the glass pane sealed with the rubber frame, there was a hiss of air from the corner as his temperature preferences got priority over the lab settings. Dropping everything else from his mind, he focused on preparing the right attitude for a call with Lewis.

It was a mixture of frustration, weariness, and assertive stubbornness. Lewis could talk circles around almost anyone and those he couldn’t talk his way past would eventually give up because he was more willing to waste time in a pointless argument than anyone else. Except Ben. Ben was the only person on the team who was more stubborn than Lewis and could keep up with him. Which means he got pulled into meetings sometimes just to tag in for people during long discussions or arguments when Lewis wouldn’t stop talking over people.

As he prepared himself for his least favorite part of his job, he straightened his tie, adjusted his top button, and took a deep breath. Two minutes of organizing his thoughts later, the wall in front of him beeped as it was fed into the conference call Christine was managing. The display showed everyone standing awkwardly as they self-consciously preened in front of the camera. As the youngest by two decades, Ben was the only one who’d never known a phone call that didn’t involve video, so he locked eyes with Lewis and smiled in greeting just as he began to talk.

“Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to see you all today and I wanted to share some good news. We’ve made a new sale to a big customer, TerraFirm, so we’re supporting their first launch to the Mars colony.”

There were a lot of shocked faces on the screen and Ben’s was among them. The first person to speak was Landon, who started very slowly. “Lewis, that’s incredible.” He paused for a moment, clearly searching for words, and then carried on. “But who authorized you to make a sale?”

“No one, Landon. I merely facilitated two people communicating.”

“Grace would have said something to me about a sale that high profile. Who gave you the authorization to make a sale?”

“I just said no one authorized me, but I didn’t make a sale.”

“If I call Grace right now, she’ll tell me you didn’t make the sale?”

“Correct, Landon.”

Landon made a few gestures, typed on the light keyboard that appeared in front of him, and then a new person was added to the call. Grace, the head of sales, was still climbing out of her chair when Landon started talking. “Grace. Sorry to interrupt your morning, but Lewis says you did a sale with TerraFirm for a Mars colony run.”

“What?” Grace’s face went slack in shock. “No! I think I’d know if there was something that high-profile in the works.”

“Could you make sure nothing slipped through the cracks.” While everyone waited for Grace to return to her computer and start cycling through the sales database, Ben kept his attention on Lewis, watching him keep the same placidly neutral face he wore whenever he was lying out his ass about something. Lewis noticed and gave Ben a small smile, throwing in a cocked eyebrow when Ben didn’t react. Just when Ben was about to say something, Grace turned back to the call.

“I don’t understand. We got a payment today from TerraFirm but I didn’t make any sales.”

“I managed that conversation.” Lewis nodded his head and Grace stared at him. After no one said anything, he continued. “Richard was on the email change when negotiations because, so sales was involved.”

“Lewis…” Ben shook his head and stared at the floor for a moment. “Richard died two years ago. You attended his memorial.”

“So I did, but the deal had his blessing.” Lewis gave the entire call his small, placid smile and Grace abruptly vanished. “I don’t see what the issue is. Dealing with customers is part of my job.”

“No, Lewis.” Landon emphatically shook his head and stepped closer to the camera. “You job is to figure out what they want and bring it to the project team for approval.”

“TerraFirm wanted us as their guidance system for their Mars colony trip and here’s the project team plus several extra people. I don’t see how this is a problem.”

“The problem is, Lewis, that you’re not allowed to make decisions or commitments on behalf of the guidance team!” Landon’s face was almost as red as Ben’s tie as he shook a finger at the camera, now less than an arm’s length from Landon’s red face. “This is the last straw, Lewis.”

Landon’s camera shut off and everyone but Ben and Lewis quickly followed suit. Ben stood where he was, eye’s still locked onto Lewis’ face as Lewis looked around at where each of the other callers would have been as they hung up. After the last of them had disappeared, Lewis pursed his lips in bewilderment. “I don’t see what has everyone so upset.”

“We had a meeting less than twenty-four hours ago about our development plans for the next year and you didn’t bring this sale or customer up. You even agreed to our plan. And now you’ve go-”

“We can still do all that stuff you wanted yesterday.” Lewis’ brow furrowed as he looked away from the wall, toward his computer. “There’s no reason we can’t do both.”

Ben’s face was still pleasantly neutral but he had his hands behind his back and they were clenched so tightly it looked like his tendons were about to break. “You’ve gone and not only made a commitment we aren’t prepared to meet, but you’ve given us less than six months to meet it. TerraFirm’s launch is in one hundred forty days and we have no idea what systems we’ll be integrated, let alone what hardware they’re working with.”

“We do launches all the time. This is just one more.” Lewis waved his hand dismissively and the camera switched to a head-only view for a moment before he remembered to set it back to the full-body picture. “What is so difficult about that?”

“We do low-Earth orbit launches and the occasional lunar mission. Mars is a different beast entirely and we haven’t even run simulations on how to manage something like that. We have no test data and we literally just powered down half of our supercomputers to do firmware and hardware upgrades. It’ll be another month before we have them back up and running again.”

“That’s all development time. Vince is already working on it.” Lewis took a seat in his chair, clearly signalling that he’d like to end the call.

Ben sighed and shook his head. “You’ve got no idea how this works, do you?”

“I used to be a developer, Ben. Of course I know how the process works.”

Ben laughed and smiled. “You’re so out of touch you don’t even know you’re out of touch. Good luck digging yourself out of this one, Lewis. It’s been awful working with you.”

Lewis was pulling himself out of his chair, a startled expression on his face, as Ben waved to terminate the call. Once he’s sat down, grabbed his coffee, and swapped his office back to its standard settings, he saw Christine appear on the other side of the glass as it went transparent again. She nodded to him and swiped the door open.

“I heard that.”

Ben shrugged and took another sip of his coffee. “That’s fine. I’ll say it to anyone.”

“Yeah, but he’s worked here for twenty-five years. You’re on year three. Do you think they’d listen to you or to him?”

“I don’t really care. I don’t want to work for a company that’d pick an employee with an HR record like Lewis’ over a new, promising employee who has had three glowing reviews and several commendations from his peers.”

“Okay.” Christine sighed and leaned on the door frame. “Whatever you say, Ben.”

“Can you really believe he sold a Mars mission?” Ben drained the last of his coffee and set his mug aside. “It’s impressive, considering we’ve only done local traffic.”

“Sure.” Christine folded her arms across her chest and looked down the row of offices to our asset management area with a giant “Mission Control” sign floating over it. “It’ll be a fun project to test, I suppose. I just can’t believe he expects us to have it ready to go in four months.”

“It’ll be awful.” Ben nodded and then turned to face his wall as the call-waiting chime rang in his office. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

As Christine closed the door, Ben rose to his feet and gestured to take the call. Landon appeared before him, still red. “I don’t know what you said to him, Ben, but he’s pissed.”

“Lewis always is, after one of our talks.”

“Well, good job. You got him to quit.”

“Oh.” Ben’s eyebrows rose and Landon laughed.

“Congratulations, there’s a new opening in project management and I know you’ve been looking for a chance to move up.”

“I mean, sure.” Ben shrugged, trying to regain control of his face and failing. “But I’d rather do any other job than this.”

“That’s good.” Landon nodded. “Lewis hasn’t formally tendered his resignation, so I imagine we’ll still see him tomorrow.”

“Ah.” Ben’s was no longer struggling to control his face.

“Yeah. I suggest preparing a timeline for the development he wants since it seems like we’re going to need to do it. Grace says we automatically processed their money as it came in since no one can send us money without a signed contract, so we’re stuck doing the dev and support.”

“Shit.”

“That’s it? I had a lot more colorful words than that.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Landon. That’s all I’ve got right now.” Ben lowered himself into his chair and put his head in his hands. “I can’t believe this.”

“Well, just make sure to get the software proposal done in the next couple days and maybe trick the weight sensors so it’ll not notice an extra two hundred pounds of tall asshole.”

Ben chuckled and smiled at Landon. “I’ll get right on it, bossman.” Landon smiled back, nodded, and hung up. Ben leaned his chair back and closed his eyes, already feeling like it was time to go to bed. After a few minutes of that, he got up from his chair, walked out of his office, and strolled down the row to Christine’s office.

“So, I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah?” Christine spun her chair around to face Ben.

“I’ll need you to help me get Vince to go along with it, but I think the three of us can pull it off.”

“Pull what off?”

Ben winked and smirked. “I’ve got a new mission for us. Operation ‘Lose Lewis.’”

Christine groaned and slapped a hand to her face. “That’s a terrible name. Why would you do that.”

“If we absolutely knock this project out of the park and point out every single instance of Lewis trying to mess up the project, I think we can finally make a strong enough case to have him removed.” Ben pulled out his phone and started tapping notes into the company’s app. “I just need Vince to set up a few things for our daily calls with Lewis and I think he’ll do it if you ask him.”

“Okay, sure.” Christine pulled up her phone and looked at the notes Ben was writing on her virtual wall. “This all seems pretty straight-forward, but how do we get it to stick?”

“We threaten to quit less than an hour before launch. Hold the whole thing hostage until he’s removed.” Ben glanced over his shoulder at Landon’s office on the mezzanine above. “I think Landon would love a reason to do it and no amount of screw-ups is enough to overcome everything Lewis did before he started on his current streak of assholery.”

“I suppose.” Christine starting adding notes to her wall and then waved Ben away. “You get the speeches and proposals ready. I’ll get Vince started.”

Ben gave her a thumbs up and walked back to his office. Once he was inside, he dimmed his lights to his preferred working level, shut the door, put on his favorite synth-rock album, and pulled out his personal phone. It took a moment for it to connect to the satellite network through the metal building, but he was able to open a few personal files when it did.

He set his phone down on the desk and set it to projector more. Once it popped the document up on front of him, he started adding a couple of notes, crossing out items in a list, and humming along to the music. Once all his updates were done, he saved the file and reviewed the events and notes listed in the document.

He scrolled through it a couple of times before checking the box next to a line item that read “Lewis makes a sale he wasn’t authorized to make,” Once the animation finished it’s run, he checked the next three. “Provoke Lewis into threatening to quit,” “Turn down joke job offer from Landon,” and “Convince Christine and Vince to help set up Lewis for launch-day ousting” all had a line drawn through them before fading until they were almost transparent. Lewis looked through the last few items, ending on “Lewis quits job and you are in a position to become a line manager” as he smiled and muttered “all according to plan.”

Analysis Paralysis

Howie sighed for the fifth time,

“I get it, Howie. It’s a tough call.”

“If you did, that wouldn’t be sarcasm, Len.”

I shrugged. “It’s not like we can do anything about it.”

Howie’s brow furrowed and he looked at me. “What?”

“We pass data along, not make decisions.”

“Sure we do!” Howie glared at me. “We have experience they need to make decisions!”

“Howie… We work in a cube in orbit around a distant star, collecting data. No one cares.”

“If we’re the only people reading these reports, then it’s our job to provide analysis. Why do you think we needed to have doctorates?”

“To justify launching us into space?” I shrugged. “It pays well and that’s all I care about.”

“No, you moron.” Howie tossed the tablet to me and I grabbed it. “We’re supposed to think about the data.”

I ran my eyes over the readouts and then did it again while running calculations in my head. Howie smirked and crossed his arms. “Told you.”

There was a huge fluctuation in the energy in the local star system heading straight for the Sol system or the system’s star was acting up. It would take a few days to run the test to know for sure. If we waited, it’d be a month before we could transmit again. If it was something coming out of the star system, the data said it’d get to Earth in two weeks.

“So we have to make a call. Spend billions preparing for whatever this is, or don’t.”

“Oh.” I started chewing on a fingernail. A few minutes later, I was out of fingernails but still couldn’t decide what to do.

“Not so easy, is it.”

“So much for retiring.”

“Better safe than stuck forever.”

I nodded and Howie made the call.

 

An Academic in Ruins

“I suppose I don’t really know what I am doing.”

“Sure, but you’ve never denied that. You just always followed it up by saying no one else did, either, and thus success goes to those who act first.”

“Sure, but I feel like that doesn’t really apply in this scenario. There is so very little I know that is directly applicable to the problems at hand, so action isn’t the problem solver I once thought it was.”

“It still solves more problems than it doesn’t.”

“That’s very true.”

“It would have solved our problems, if you had acted.”

The professor smiled as he surveyed the patch of dirt he’d cleared. The smile was a shallow uptick of his mouth that left his eyes as mirthless and barren as the ground around him. This was one of the first things he’d been taught when they started exploring. Find an opening in the brush, clear a circle of plants, use fire to char anything still sticking out of the ground, and then turn the dirt over until every trace of color but black was gone. A safe, semi-permanent campsite that would stay clear of plants until long after you’d left and clear of bugs or animals until the last of the scent of smoke had faded.

“Acting got us here, though, so I’m still not convinced my old philosophy was truly as sound as I made it seem back in Sargava.” The professor looked up from the campsite he’d cleared to the face of his towering companion, the empty smile still on his face. “Acting has led to far more ruin than success, once the gravity of each has been taken into account.”

The tall man standing off to the side folded his arms over his chest, a familiar action accompanied by the familiar creak of stiffened hide trying to stretch as the pensive warrior measured his words. “That’s the way it seems now, but our journey isn’t finished. If you are correct, and the ruins are out here, then it will all have been worth it.”

“Do you really think so, Amgoroth?”

Amgoroth nodded, his beard and long hair spilling over his face. “I do, Alleck.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“It’s your name. I’ve known you for too long to call you ‘Professor Quiston,’ fancy degree or not.”

The professor dropped to his knees besides his pack and started pulling out his camping gear, smile sliding off his face so smoothly it left no trace it’d ever been there. Amgoroth stayed where he was, watching as he chewed at a bit of his mustache that spilled into his mouth. In the silence, the sounds of distant primates chattering in the trees cut through the ceaseless din of insect and bird calls. The professor had once found them comforting, in a way, but now they reminded him of the frequent silences he endured on a daily basis.

In a desperate bid to chase them away for a while long, he turned back to his companion. “Amg, I really wish you’d call me by my title. I’ve studied long enough to deserve the recognition.”

The big man broke into grin that showed his several missing teeth and pulled at the thin, silver scars covering on side of his face. “But you will always be my friend, Alleck, playing music for us as we romped through the jungles outside our village, looking for monsters to slay.”

“We both moved on from those days.” The professor’s smile came back, but this one was smaller and clearly showed the sadness hiding beneath it. “You became a champion of the wrestling rings and coliseum. I found a benefactor to put me through university. I can literally change the way the world works using my magic and you are an unstoppable juggernaut whose terrifying rages can send even a pack of jaguars running in fear.” He turned back to his bag and finished laying out all the parts of his tent.

“True, but we are still the same where it counts.” Amgoroth walked to the center of the clearing and spread his arms out to soak in the last rays of sunlight coming down through the dense canopy. “I am still looking for dragons to kill and you are still playing music as we go looking for them.”

The professor looked up at his friend and then back down at the disassembled tent, trying to let his hands take over the process of setting it up despite knowing they couldn’t. This was only his second time setting it up, after all. He’d need his full attention for that. Instead, he sat back on his heels and put his hands in his lap. “We’ve a long ways from those children, Amg.”

“We are a long way from where they lived, but we carry them inside us always, so long as we don’t let their dreams go out.” Amgoroth turned his face up to the light and the professor looked over the constellation of scars covering his arms and shoulders, remnants of the one time they’d found a monster as children and the price Amgoroth had paid to save them both from it. After a moment, Amgoroth turned to face his childhood friend and smiled again. “I still want to find dragons and you still want to see what no one else has. That’s why you spent so much time studying ruined cities and digging up old stuff.”

“It’s called Archaeology, Amg.”

“That’s more syllables than I’m willing to say in one word, Alleck.”

“Professor Quiston, please.”

“I may be your guard on this trip for some lost city, Alleck, but I won’t call you “professor” anything.”

“I’ll dock you a month’s pay.”

“You’re not paying me anything. We left as soon as you heard the rumors. Neither of us is getting paid unless we find the city.” Amgoroth turned away from the light and came over to the professor, sitting down beside him. “We’ve been wandering through this jungle for months, now, and we haven’t found anything.”

“Sure, but you know how to live off the land. We can do this indefinitely.”

“No.” Amgoroth shook his head, temporarily clearing the hair from his face. “You packed food, but it will run out soon. I will not always be able to find food. You’ve been eating your supplies a lot lately and there might not be enough to get home again, even if we knew how to find it.”

“I said I was sorry.” The professor looked down at his hands again, trying to focus on them as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “And I meant it. I still mean it.”

“That does not change the facts, Alleck.”

“What do you want from me, Amg?”

“I just want to keep you safe and alive.” Amgoroth leaned forward and started pointing to the parts of the tent in the order the professor would need them to set it up. After he was done, he gently touched the professor shoulder, so lightly it didn’t even stir his clothing. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To go on adventures and keep you safe. More than dragons.”

The professor nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the first of the tent supports. Without looking back at his friend, he quickly set the tent up, playing the memory of Amgoroth setting his tent up every night for four months in his head as he followed along. By the time he had finished, Amgoroth was gone. The professor stared at the place Amgoroth had occupied and then turned his attention to gathering wood for a fire.

By the time night fell, he’d managed to get a good fire going, set up his tent, and even find a few edible roots Amgoroth had fed them almost every day they’d been trying to find the lost city of Saventh-Yhi. He roasted them over the fire and set a two aside. After he’d eaten his and washed them down with the last of his water, he glanced at the roots as if only then noticing they were there. He turned his head away, back to the place Amgoroth had been, and reached for the harp case leaning against his pack.

He pulled his harp out, tuned it without really noticing what he was doing and, once that routine task was finished, strummed a few chords. He added a couple of words in some ancient tongue and watched Amgoroth shimmer back to life.

“Sorry, Amg. I can’t keep it going if I don’t focus on it.” The professor tucked his hard away and watched his friend, stand up, walk over to the fire, and sit down by the two roots he’d set aside. Amgoroth didn’t say anything as he moved. His leather didn’t creak. He sat without the usual thump of a three hundred pound man hitting the ground, even if the little cloud of charred plants still gusted out. Even as he picked up a root and ate it, he was silent.

After watching for a few moments, the professor sighed and let the magic go. Amgoroth froze in place and, a few seconds later, vanished. The professor stared into the flames and at the campsite Amgoroth had taught him to make. Unable to stand it any longer, he climbed to his feet, harp still in his hands, and started playing a song as he walked out of the clearing. He wandered through the jungle, playing his harp to cut through the noise of the jungle and give him something to think about other than his friend’s death.

The music never really stopped it, but it softened the memories as they washed over him. The morning they’d woken up to find tracks of some large cat around their campsite. Hungry and eager for fresh meat, they’d packed up and chased after it. Right into the den of some kind of plant monster that had snatched Amgoroth off the ground. Amgoroth had been confident he could break free, but there had been so many vines… It pulled him up into the treetops and there was nothing Alleck could do but watch in horror his friend had disappeared.

Half a minute later, as he was looking for a tree to climb, Amgoroth’s shouts fell silent. Alleck had stood there, eyes and ears straining, for any sign of his friend of their attacker. When he’d found nothing, when the noise of the jungle and the silence became too much to bear, he’d pulled out his hard and walked away, playing as loudly as he could.

Once the tide of memory had receded, the professor put away memories of Amgoroth and Alleck. He turned around, retraced his steps, and went back to his camp. He packed up his tent, put out his fire, and wandered off into the jungle again, softly playing his harp as he went in search of the lost civilization he’d lost everything trying to find.

Deck the Hall

I got along great with my neighbors until John Hall moved in next door.

He had points against him moving in because he pushed his father, Jack Hall, out of the house he’d owned his entire life. We all pitched in, but Jack was getting to the point where he couldn’t handle things on his own. So it made some amount of sense, but it still felt awful to come home one day and discover Jack had been stuck in some nursing home before we could say goodbye.

That was only the start. John started throwing parties. Lots of people in beat up old cars attended and they went late into the night, often with frustratingly loud music. I tried to be understanding, but I couldn’t put up with it forever.

John laughed and flipped me off the first time I talked to him so I got the neighborhood association involved. They fined him, but he refused to pay since his father had signed the agreement, not him. I called the police, eventually, in the middle of one of his parties, and a bunch of people got busted for drug possession.

We got a couple years of peace out of that, but Jack was eventually back and John had passed away in the meantime. Instead of throwing parties, he started planting bushes that grew onto my property and sued about property lines. After he lost and had to trim his hedges, he started throwing things into our yard to get our dogs to eat them. Which is why I went over there today to confront him. He said he hoped our dogs died so I decked him.

 

-Statement to the Police regarding assault at 81 Oak Tree Lane on June the twenty-seven between one John Hall and one Lawrence Henderson.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 36

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


“What?” Camille blinked rapidly and stared at me

“Like, we talking Power Rangers or Pacific Rim?” Lucas arched an eyebrow and looked like he was about to bolt through the door to where I’d just been.

“What’re those?” Tiffany shook her head. “Never mind. A robot? Like, a monster kind of robot or like the things people used before the Collapse?”

“The lower half is built a lot like the monsters. Same sort of amorphous body with a bunch of limbs that flow around as needed. Except they’re one hundred times bigger. Thing’s at least one hundred and fifty feet tall, if not taller.” I wiped my hands over my face and cracked my neck as I tried to guess more accurately using the remnants of the skyscrapers in the Chicago Enclave. “Probably about one hundred seventy when I saw it. It might be able to get taller though, if the lower half really works the same as the monsters do.”

After a moment of silence, Camille prompted me. “And the top?”

“Oh. Entirely humanoid. It’s got a face that looks like someone who didn’t understand Human features tried to give it a face like ours. Two arms, but they’ve got a dozen joints instead of two. Hands that seemed pretty normal, but I didn’t get a good look at them since it was wrecking buildings with them. No hair, just normal head-shaped. Maybe a little more cylindrical. Chest was probably to scale from Lucas.”

“It’s attacking the Enclave?” Lucas stopped looking toward the door and directed his attention toward me.

Camille started unslinging her rifle but then paused as if realizing she was too far to shoot it and it was unlikely to have much effect. “Shit.”

“Yeah.” I pulled myself to my feet. “What do we do?”

“Leave.” Lucas shrugged. “We have enough supplies for a couple more days and there’s a hideout to the north we can get more from. Enough to last until the rampage is over and the blizzard has passed.”

“Lucas.” Camille threw his name out like she was throwing a dagger. “We can’t just abandon them. Or Natalie!”

“What are we supposed to do against a fifteen to twenty story monster that can just smear people on the ground whenever it wants! This must have been what the army fought at the bases and they lost! There’s a reason they lost and we don’t know what it is so let’s just save ourselves and tell everyone what happened here so no dumbass with a rifle ever causes this to happen again!” Lucas was shouting by the time he stopped. Chest heaving, face flushed, he glared at us all in turn. “I just want to stay alive. That’s it. I stayed as a Wayfinder until it seemed more likely that I’d die out here than survive so I retired and now even that looks like it’s not the bastion of safety everyone assumed it was.

“So now let’s leave. We can survive and maybe even do some good with our lives if we can make it through today and tell the rest of the Enclaves about what’s hiding in the storm. Maybe they can figure out some way to stop it, then. I just know that one more old man with a gun isn’t going to make a difference so we should do what we can to help Humanity instead of just the people we see in front of us.”

Lucas was purple in the face and his jaw worked for a couple of seconds after he finished, as if he was about to say something he decided to keep to himself. He glared at us each in turn and neither Camille or Tiffany had anything to say to him. I could see the despair of the situation weighing on them all, Lucas more than the others.

I looked down at the ground for a moment and then back up at Lucas. “You’re right.”

Camille and Tiffany looked over at me, surprise clearly written on their faces. Before they had a chance to speak, I carried on. “You are correct, Lucas. Someone needs to make it through today and give this information to the other Enclaves if we fail. You’re the fastest of us, the best at surviving alone, so it should be you.”

I dropped my pack to the floor and took all of the food out of it except a few of the protein bars and the water. I offered it all to Lucas. “Take it. You’ll have a better chance of survival if you take the rations.”

“But what about you?” Lucas’ face had gone from purple to pale.

I shrugged, still holding out the food. “I won’t need it. Either we succeed or we don’t. Either way, I won’t need food for tomorrow.”

“But what if you survive and the Enclave is wrecked?”

“There’ll be plenty of food hanging around. I won’t need this.” I stood up from my crouch, walked over to Lucas, and stuck the food into his backpack. While I did so, Camille and Tiffany started unloading the food from their packs as well. I looked at their food and what Lucas had in his backpack. “You should be good for about ten days, using all this. Longer if you ration it a bit. That should be plenty.”

While I loaded him up with the food Camille and Tiffany handed off to me, Lucas looked down at his feet. When I was finished, I walked around to the front of him and stood shoulder to shoulder with Camille and Tiffany. After a moment of avoiding us, Lucas looked up. I could see tears in his eyes for a moment before he wiped them away. “Fine.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’ll go. But only if you promise to meet me at the Wayfinder cache just south of the Wisconsin border sign ten days after the blizzard has cleared up.”

“It’s a deal.” I held out my hand for Lucas to shake. After looking at me for a split second, he grabbed my hand, pulled me close, and hugged me. “Stay safe.” I squeezed him tightly.

“I always do.” He hugged me even more tightly for a moment before letting go. “Don’t take any stupid risks.”

“I never do.” I smiled at my oldest friend and then watched him say goodbye to our other companions. Camille hugged him tightly and they each mumbled something to each other. Lucas awkwardly walked up to Tiffany after legging go of Camille and Tiffany held out her left arm. She’d attached a glove to her stump and Lucas, without a moment’s hesitation, grabbed it to shake. When it came away in his hand, his eyes bugged for a moment and then he burst out laughing. Tiffany leaned over and hugged him tightly for a moment before he pulled away, still chuckling, and disappeared through the door.

I watched the where he’d disappeared and then turned to my friends. “You could have gone with him.”

“Sure.” Camille nodded and Tiffany shrugged.

“I mean, it’s not like we’re going to be able to do anything.” I tightened the straps on my backpack and got my rifle into a comfortable position for a lengthy run.

“Well, now we can all do nothing together.” Tiffany smiled and adjusted her straps as well.

“Very true.” Camille nodded sagely. “I find it is best to be with people when you are doing nothing. It makes it much more enjoyable.”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at both of them. “Seriously. I’m going back for Natalie. If I can save people, great. If not, I’m going to do my best to grab Natalie and get out. There isn’t anything you two would add to this effort since it’s not like you can distract the robot while I do find Natalie.”

“What if we can, though?” Tiffany hoisted her machine gun and shrugged. “This shoots a lot of bullets.”

“And it’s bound to have a weak point somewhere. If it has one, I can find it and shoot it.” Camille grabbed the machine gun from Tiffany and strapped it to Tiffany’s pack. “You never know.”

I took a deep breath. “Fine. Just… Stay alive, alright? If it looks bad, just get out and go find Lucas.” I started at them until they both nodded even though I knew they were lying. I contented myself with sticking the idea in their head. Maybe that’d be enough to convince them to leave if things went as poorly as I expected them to go. I took another deep breath to fortify myself and then stepped through the door.

I jogged through the building to the stairs down and took them at the same pace. It wasn’t quick, but I had a couple of miles to cover and I needed to do them in less than an hour if I wanted there to be anything left of the Enclave by the time I got there. I ignored the urge to count the steps and landings as I went, focusing just on putting one foot in front of the other.

By the time I’d gotten outside, I could hear the booming in the distance once again. I took half a second to orient myself and then took off toward Chicago at a sprint. I heard Camille call out after me, but I didn’t stop or look back. They could take all the time they wanted. They could conserve energy in case they needed it later. They could even turn around right there and go after Lucas. I was on a mission and I wasn’t going to save anything for later.

If I didn’t get there in time, I might never see Natalie again. Even if we both survived the attack, somehow, we’re have to count on luck to bring us together again. Even if we both went to the fall-back rendezvous point I’d set up with her, Lucas, and Camille, we’d still have no idea if the others made it out alive or if they’d even be coming. We’d set it up years ago, back during the chaos of the Collapse. There’s no telling if any of them remembered it. There’s no telling if they’d be healthy enough to get to it.

So I ran. I ran toward a giant monster that stood for everything that had gone wrong in the world since I noticed it starting to fall apart. I put all of the rage I felt at the loss of my friends and family, rage I still felt about being one of the few people who saw the Collapse coming and was unable to do anything about it. All the rage I felt at idiotic people who paid for guidance from one Enclave to another and then recklessly endangered others when they felt like they weren’t getting their way. I put all that rage into each step and used it to propel myself forward. Even the little bit of rage I felt at a dumbass student so caught up in trying to impress us that he signed the death warrant of tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. Everything was used to keep me running past the point I should have collapsed.

By the time I staggered to a halt, gasping and my vision going dark around the edges, I was only a couple of blocks away from the edge of the Enclave wall. The nearest entrance was a few blocks further south, so I still had a good half of a mile to go, but I’d crossed about two miles faster than I ever thought I could. I gave myself a sixty-count to catch my breath and then staggered onward. As my attention returned to the area around me, I finally noticed the constant gunfire and the rumbling crash of some massive weight crushing buildings. The screams that followed it were enough to get me jogging again.

Once I got in sight of the door, a new problem presented itself. The door was clogged to bursting with people trying to leave the Enclave. They were streaming out carrying everything they could hold as they ran out the door and turned south. There was another Enclave, relatively close, in Indiana. Unfortunately, it was one of the smallest and would be filled to bursting by just the people I could see right then, not to mention all the people streaming out the other doors.

I made my way to the door and then just dove into the crowd, shouting at them to get out of my way. No one gave me any space, but I was gradually able to work my way through the door and into the Enclave by staying pressed up against one wall and bodily pushing people out of my way. Getting through the fifty-feet of tunnel into the Enclave took more time than the jog from where I stopped running to the doorway here and it felt like an eternity.

When I finally popped out the other side, tired in more ways than I knew how, I glanced over my shoulder. I caught sight of Camille, her face towering about everyone trying to escape, and waved. She waved back and shooed me onward. After nodding, I turned to face the city and the robot inside it. Even having seen the robot from far away, I was still caught off guard by the immensity of it as it towered over the Enclave. It stole my attention so completely, I didn’t look away until I stumbled over the first corpse. That brought me back to the task at hand and I kept my eyes down as I moved deeper into the Enclave, looking for Natalie.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 35

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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

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

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

“Shit.”

“You said it, Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“You sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You shot something that far away?”

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

“What. Was. It.”

“Um, it was… It was a-a…”

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

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

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

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

Camille nodded. “And the second rule?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth

Arnold left his room in the dead of night, carefully stepping around every creaking board as he made his way downstairs. It was after midnight, his family was asleep, and Arnold had grown hungry.

He made himself a quick sandwich to hold him over while he pre-heated the oven. Once it beeped, and he’d finished the banana he’d taken after the last crumbs of the sandwich had disappeared, he popped a pair of pizzas in to cook.

While he waited the prescribed twelve minutes, he reflected on the constant gnawing hunger he’d felt while at school, where they wouldn’t even let him snack on the bags of pretzels he’d stuffed into his locker. He’d tried to sneak them into class by sticking them in his pockets, but the snap and crunch had given him away instantly. As had his classmates. Not even they understood what he was going through.

His parents got it, though, sort of. They didn’t like seeing him eat as much as he did, but they didn’t question his need for the extra food. He heard his dad saying something to his mom about “puberty” and him being a “growing boy.” He wasn’t sure why they thought that. He was eighteen, a senior in college. He’d gone through puberty years ago.

That being said, he was happy to let them assume whatever they wanted. They wouldn’t understand if he explained it, so he avoided it as much as they did. He hadn’t even seen a doctor about it. He didn’t want to end up in a lab.

So he ate two frozen pizzas, another banana, and then went to bed so the alien parasite growing inside him could get all the nutrients it needed. He was proud to be a dad, especially to such a special child.

This Sci-Fi Series is Consuming My Attention

It is no secret that I love John Scalzi’s books. From the first time I found a copy of Old Man’s War to his recent release, The Consuming Fire, I have always thought of him as one of the best Sci-Fi writers, and not just because Old Man’s War shone like the sun in comparison to The Forever War when it comes to books that critique war in a space-centric futuristic setting. He’s one of two writer’s I’ve gotten to sign my laptop, a request reserved for my favorite writers of a genre I want to write in. All that bias acknowledged, I still think you should take it seriously when I say that the Interdependency Series is one of the best science-fiction series I’ve read in recent years.

The first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, sets a complex, multi-faceted stage. We are introduced to The Interdependency, a series of Human colonies spread through space, connected by something called “The Flow” and ruled by an Emperox who is not only the leader of the government but also the head of the official religion. The Emperox we are introduced to, a younger woman named Cardenia Wu who assumed the throne somewhat unexpectedly after the death of her half-brother. There’s trouble brewing in the system of Human colonies, something vague her dying father only hints at before his death, and she must rise to the challenge of assuming a role she doesn’t really want and convincing the entire Interdependency to take her seriously. Helping her is the son of the scientist who spotted the problem, who is also an accomplished physicist in his own right and who has to escape his home planet and the noble family who wants to grab power during what they think will be a time of great vulnerability for the Interdependency and the Emperox.

All of the characters are incredible. The Emperox is a mixture of a confident, trained leader who has clearly been prepared for their role in society and a woman who never expected to be the head of anything but a few charities. She perfectly rides that line between fitting in with the part she must play in the Interdependency and wanting someone who sees her as a person instead of just as the Emperox. She is sympathetic to the reader, but her character is never dependent on that sympathy. The male scientist, Marce, is a giant nerd who studies The Flow, a series of wormholes that connect our realities to streams of altered space-time that allow ships with properly configured reality bubbles to travel great distances quickly along the flow of said streams, and who is clearly along for the ride when it comes to getting off-planet. He always seems a little bewildered, but never lost. He’s clearly intelligent and it shows as he quickly grasps whatever plans are laid around him, even when he’s clearly out of his element and just trying to keep up with the women who are trying to keep him alive.

Even the antagonists seem Human, showing us not just their plotting but also why they’re trying to grab power when they are. Most of them have a softer side, making it clear they are concerned for the survival of all Humans even if they’re taking this chance to enrich themselves while they try to safeguard Humanity. The only exception is the ring-leader, a woman named Nadashe Nohamapetan, who seems like a cackling villain from the beginning and whose behavior does nothing but reinforce that image of her. I want to believe there’s a chance at redemption for Nadashe coming (I haven’t reading The Consuming Fire yet), but all signs seem to point away from us seeing her as anything but an ambitious woman trying to grab power for herself and her family with little regard for the survival of Humanity.

She’s clearly a political expert, though, given the way she relentlessly positions herself to be in the right place for each step of her plan. Watching the political maneuverings is interesting since the whole system of government is a lot more difficult to influence that it is in more politically focused novels. For instance, in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, the government is ruled by whoever has a claim and sits on the throne. In The Interdependency series, not just anyone can become the Emperox. Anyone can try to grab political and economic power, but the absolute rock-solid certainty of the house of Wu being both the head of the government and the head of the church means that power will almost always tip back to the Emperox in the end. Which means the politics in both The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire are a little tame compared to what people generally look for, but the unique setup of the government of the Interdependency is more than enough to make them interesting.

The universe itself is well-developed in exactly the right ways. The specifics of everything aren’t incredibly important and Scalzi tends to brush past them quickly, instead focusing his time and attention on the important details. For instance, there is only one planet in the entire Interdependency on which Humans can live without some kind of habitat. Every other human settlement is either some kind of space station or hive, a bubble of habitability for Humanity to occupying in an otherwise hostile environment. This is important because it means there is only one place all of Humanity can survive for an extended period should something happened to the Interdependency’s linked economies is this planet, End. If the empire actually does collapse as the first book’s title suggests, then it is likely most of Humanity will die out except for those who live on End, a planet called such because it is as far from the center of the Interdependency as it is possible to get. All of the world details we get, from how The Flow works to how the various Human populations behave shows us how connected everything is and how reliant every single Human settlement is on being able to trade with all of the other settlements.

Like all good science-fiction, Scalzi’s books make a few statements about modern Humanity. The way all of the settlements rely on each other for long-term survival closely mirrors the situation we have on Earth, and how our survival as a whole is dependent on us working together in the modern age to fix the problems we’re all facing. The story has yet to show how The Interdependency works together to solve the problem, but I imagine it will fit Humanity’s current process all too well: argue for too long to do anything positive and then find someone to blame for the lack of results. Additionally, the deterioration of The Flow is a decent analogy for the environment and the way The Interdependency as a whole receives Marce’s scientific presentations completely matches the way most governments reacted to the initial findings about Global Warming. Some people take it seriously and a lot of people fear that it is true, but the idea of having to change on that big of a scale is so much more terrifying that people will cover their ears and yell so they can’t hear the truth. As someone who tries to fight that behavior in the real world, it is refreshing to find characters in a book who are trying to do the same thing, albeit in a more fantastic setting.

The entire series is worth reading and The Consuming Fire is even better than I hoped it would be. I would go into it more, but so much of The Collapsing Empire would be entirely spoiled if I did. You should definitely start there and enjoy the various twists and turns of the plot, even if it does pretty much match up with the title. The entire series is a solid chunk of science-fiction and I’m definitely putting this on my list of Christmas gifts for other people so I can spread the love of this series as far as possible. Let me know what you think once you’ve read it!

Coldheart and Iron: Part 34

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


For the twentieth time that morning, I groaned and rubbed my face with my hands while muttering to myself, “I am too old to stay up all night.” I looked down at my desk, giving my eyes the time they needed to focus after opening, and felt another part of my spirit die when they finally focused on a sea of paperwork. All of the forms had gone through yesterday so now I had to fill out personnel sheets, submit additional funding requests for the budgets I had to set for their classes, file payment forms with the Wayfinder organization so the new trainees would have access to their money in whatever Enclave they stopped in, and start sending requests for forms from their doctors, their references, and their emergency contacts.

It was going to take all day and every single page had to have my signature on it. Will would be busy juggling schedules, talking to instructors, and preparing an expense report for a class that had graduated a few weeks ago so the Enclave knew we weren’t wasting their money. I could hire someone else to do it, but then I’d need to fill out reports for that person and would still need to review and sign all of these reports, meaning I’d do another two weeks of work to save myself four to six hours of work.

I shook my head, took a drink of water, and got to work. Fifteen minutes later, I tossed aside the paper and stood up. “Will, I’m going for a walk. Tell anyone who comes looking for me that I’ll be back at ten.”

“Sure thing, Captain Marshall.” Will nodded and I walked out of the building, into the crisp cold air. In the Enclave, you didn’t need to wear an insulated snowsuit everywhere. The metal walls hid the heat signatures lower down and they’d mostly dispersed by the time they rose above the walls, so it was relatively safe to go without. Most people wore them anyway, since it was so cold that being outside without heavy gear of some kind would be dangerous, but a brisk walk through the cold to wake up was exactly what I wanted.

I stayed out a little longer than was advisable, so I was shivering as I walked back into my office. I sat down at my desk, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and fumbled my way through paperwork until I warmed up again. Once I’d gotten so comfortable that I started to fall asleep again, I repeated my walk.

By five in the afternoon, I’d finished most of the paperwork and probably gotten myself sick from repeated exposure to the cold. I still had to sort the papers, stick them in large envelopes to go in the mail, and address the envelopes to their respective departments within the Enclave government, but that could wait until tomorrow. Will had left half an hour an hour earlier, so I took my time pulling on my snowsuit and locking up the office. We didn’t have any built-in lights or heaters to turn off, but there were shutters to close and a few blankets to fold up. Like most businesses except the ones deep underground, we just kept a bunch of blankets and extra jackets handy instead of trying to figure out how to properly insulate our office so we could heat it safely.

As I slowly made my way through the city–talking to the same people I had the day before, traveling the same route I had the day before, and thinking almost the same thoughts as I did the day before–I fought the urge to scream and pull out my hair. All of the people were friendly, everyone I passed basked in our little traditions formed over months of walking past the same places every day, and I genuinely wished the best for all of these people, but I couldn’t deny that there was a part of me that got excited by the idea of an attack on the Enclave. If nothing else, it would certainly break the monotony of my everyday life.

Once I passed out of the markets and workshops, I stopped at a bench for a few minutes to sort through the jumble of thoughts in my head. I was old and getting older. I’d passed my fiftieth birthday a couple of years ago and I was officially older than my father was the last time I saw him. I wouldn’t be able to keep Wayfinding forever and Camille had been right. We were the oldest active Wayfinders. At least Camille and I were. Natalie and Lucas had officially retired, though Lucas would once again take the lead when he came out of retirement and the only Wayfinder I knew of who was older than him was Natalie.

I couldn’t go a full night without sleep anymore. Even though I kept training and working out, I wasn’t as good as I used to be. There’s a difference between training for something and living it every day. I saw that difference every time I went monster hunting or wound up staying awake all night. Even five years of aging couldn’t have accounted for the difference between when I was an active Wayfinder and now.

It was a sobering thought to realize that, even if I wanted to, I might not be able to go back to Wayfinding like I used to. I picked it over for a few minutes and then pushed myself to my feet. I had another mile to walk and dinner to prepare.

After cleaning up from dinner, I sat down in the lounge to read while I waited for Natalie to come home. Fifteen minutes into failing to stay completely awake, Camille, Lucas, and Tiffany walked in the front door together. After they took off their snowsuits, Lucas and Tiffany disappeared into their rooms while Camille came into the lounge. When she sat down in a chair near the couch I was sitting, I pulled myself away from the precipice of sleep, put down my book, and looked over at her.

“Marshall.” Camille nodded to me.

“Camille.” I nodded back. “What’s up?”

“We’ve got a list of people who might be interested in joining us if we decide to start Wayfinding again.” Camille pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket and handed it to me. “A couple experienced people and a few of the most promising recruits from the classes I’ve been teaching. They’re all up for doing trips based out of the Chicago Enclave. I’m thinking we want to pick two or four of them. Six or eight people total would be the best for the kind of trips we want to do.”

“Yeah?” I scanned the list, barely registering the names as I thought about sleeping in the cold every night and forgetting what it felt like to be warm. Eating whatever we could get our hands on that was light and long-lasting. Watching every direction for signs of bandits or monsters. Being buffeted by the heavy winds as we crossed uninhabitable wastelands where farming complexes used to be. “What kind of trips are those?”

“Lots of supply runs, small-group escorts of one or two people, data relays, that sort of thing. Mostly the stuff without people, if I’m honest. We’ll move faster alone and won’t need to worry about bandits as much if we just focus on deliveries. I don’t think Lucas wants to deal with people that much and all of the retired Wayfinders I talked to just want to get back out there again. I know I’m tired of being cooped up behind these walls all the time, if nothing else. Tiffany is, too.”

“Did you know she sleeps outside the Enclave most nights?” I stopped pretending to look at the list, and glanced over at Tiffany’s door to make sure it was still closed. “She dislikes living in an Enclave so much that she camps in abandoned buildings outside the Enclave by herself most nights.”

“I don’t know if she’s actually by herself most nights.” Camille shrugged and smirked. “She usually brings someone along for company and half my students love getting extra survival lessons from here if they can find her when we go outside the Enclave for a lesson.”

I stared at Tiffany’s door for a minute longer and then sighed. I turned my attention back to Camille and smiled ruefully. “I can understand her desire. I think I’m getting cabin fever as well.”

“Sure took you long enough.”

“What can I say?” I held up my hands, palms up. “I’m old. I don’t mind having a proper bed and being warm now and then.”

Camille chuckled and nodded. “Fair enough. I feel the same. I don’t mind having plenty of blankets for cold nights or having tea around to drink in the mornings. I’ll miss snacks most of all, though. Being able to eat whenever I want instead of on a schedule of breaks, not needing to skip meals when something is happening, and being able to just lazily eat something instead of needing to eat it quickly so I can get on with my duties…” Camille sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “That’ll be difficult to get used to again.”

“Have you made any plans yet?”

“No, we wanted to talk to you first.”

“Well, I still need to talk to Natalie.”

“Of course.”

“But I think it would be alright to start making some plans for once I’ve talked to her. Maybe set up a few week-long trips to places around Chicago that need some attention so we can safely get back into the swing of things and see how these people stack up.” I handed the list back to Camille. “Once I talk to Natalie, we’ll start picking dates and stuff. Maybe we can get everything done in the next few weeks and be ready to go for real right after the next blizzard passes.”

“In six weeks?” Camille raised her eyebrows as she tucked the list away in her pocket again. “That’s a tall order, Captain. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible.”

“Well, let’s try. No sense in waiting a quarter of a year to do our first trip.” I stood up and stretched. “Now I’m going to get ready for bed and get some sleep so I can be awake enough to talk about this with Natalie tomorrow.”

“Good night, Marshall.” Camille stood up and walked toward her room.

“Good night, Camille.” I went into mine and Natalie’s room, got dressed for bed, and lay down. I read for a while, trying to get myself back into the calm, sleepy state of mind I’d been in before Camille and I had talked. I turned off the lights after nodding off a couple of times, lay down, and immediately fell asleep.

What felt like only a few moments later, I woke up as someone settled into the bed next to me. I groggily reached out and pulled Natalie closer to me. I kissed the top of her head and fell back to sleep before I remembered I needed to talk to her. When I woke up the following morning, feeling much more awake and alert than I had any right to so soon after sleeping, I stared at the ceiling of the room, trying to figure out what to say to the woman I loved as she quietly snored beside me while I waited for her to wake up.

When her alarm went off, it scattered all my thoughts and I scrambled to pick them up for a moment before just leaving all my carefully worded arguments on the floor of my mind. Instead, I grabbed her arm as she rolled over to get out of bed and pulled her back to me.

“Hey, handsome.” Natalie leaned over and kissed me. “Sorry to wake you up.”

“I was already awake.” I gave her a squeeze but kept my arms around her. “I think I want-” I paused, cleared my throat, and started again a little more firmly. “I want to go back to Wayfinding.”

“What?” Natalie pulled back a bit, trying to get my whole face into view.

“I want to go back to Wayfinding.” I loosened my arms a little so she could get out of bed if she wanted to, but she stayed where she was so I continued. “Not like we used to, but something based out of the Enclave. Trips between blizzards. Supply runs, messenger runs, that kind of stuff. Maybe a few small escorts. Just stuff to get me back outside the walls again.”

“Are you tired of living here?” Natalie tipped her head a little bit, her eyes searching mine.

“No. Not at all.” I raised and lowered one shoulder. “At least, not permanently. I don’t want to live anywhere else, but I need something to shake up my routines. I got used to the excitement of Wayfinding and sitting in an office is slowly draining me of life.”

“So you’d come back here between jobs?”

“Yeah. And probably only one job per season. Gone for a month or so and then back until after the blizzard. Keep them short so I can always take shelter here instead of finding a place out there unless something goes terribly wrong.”

“Like last time.” Natalie kept her eyes locked on mine.

“Yeah.” I looked away for a moment, a little deflated. “Like last time.”

“Marshall…” Natalie reached up and laced her hands behind my head. “I want you to be happy. If this will make you happy, then I support you all the way. You’ve done the same for me.” Natalie pulled me in for another kiss and smiled. “Just promise me you’ll be safe, okay?”

“I’ll make sure we always come back safe and sound.” I smiled and kissed her again. “We’re not even planning to do anything but move around Chicago on some training trips before the next blizzard. I’m going to see if we can get something set up for right after it, though.”

“We?” Natalie arched an eyebrow in mock severity. “Who is ‘we’?”

“Camille, Lucas, Tiffany, and maybe a few more Wayfinders we’ve yet to pick.”

Natalie gasped and frowned, but I could see the smile hiding in her eyes as she huffed in indignation. “Lucas? But he’s the whole reason we retired in the first place! What a hypocrite. To think, my two best friends and my protege are trying to lure my lover away from my bed, to wander the lawless wastelands with them.”

I smiled, playing into her game. “I will always be faithful to you, my love, so long as I shall live. The empty tundra and the beautiful women accompanying me shall have no power over me so long as I know you wait for me here.”

“See that they don’t.” Natalie gave me a stern look and I chuckled, unable to keep a straight face. “Now, before you go haring off, let me remind me of what you’ll be coming back to.” Natalie’s hands drifted lower and my composure completely broke. “I need to make sure you’re properly motivated to make it back here in one piece.”

A while later, while Natalie got ready for work, I lay in bed and let my mind lazily start sorting through contacts and possible jobs. Thanks to my work over the past five years, I had even more contacts than before and would be able to easily find whatever work we wanted. All I’d need to do is find a few people to replace me at the office here, someone to replace Camille, and make sure the interviews for a position as one of my companions stayed a secret. If word got out, I’d have more people trying to join up than I could handle.