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.

Wanderlust

James heaved himself out of his car and staggered to the trunk. He looked at everything he owned scattered on the forest floor for a moment before gathering up his backpack, his messenger bag, and whatever else he could fit into his already stuffed bags.

He grabbed a few bottles of water and wrapped his blanket around his shoulders. Once his messenger bag had been shifted so it hung under his backpack, he looked around the woods one last time before starting off at a forty-five degree angle from the direction his car had been going.

He managed to walk for about fifteen minutes before he got light-headed and had to sit. He let himself take five minutes to rest, drink some water, and make sure he wasn’t losing too much blood. Once his five minutes were up, he carried on.

When the sun had set, he’d crossed half a dozen roads, changed directions ten times, and taken a short nap hidden under a pile of leaves. After a brief dig through his backpack, he pulled out his headlamp and carried on, stopping only once to hide his light when he saw a line of flashlights bobbing in the distance.

The next morning came late, hidden behind a light rain, but he still walked until his legs refused to carry him any further. A short rest got him back on his feet and then his feet got him to a dry spot to set up camp. As he ate a protein bar and set out his collapsible cookware to collect water, he hummed a song to himself. As he curled up under his blanket, he sang a few lines as he drifted off.

“And everything must end so something new can start. And I’m on my way back home.”

You Should be Reading “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”

If you are a Human who uses social media, grew up on the internet, are a part of modern society, have regular access to the internet, or sometimes wonder how the world has become as angry and loud as it currently is, you need to read Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” Ideally, everyone should read it. I doubt it’s the first book of its kind, but I don’t know if any other book like it speaks with as much experience, is written with as much clarity, or delivers as powerful a message as Hank Green’s does. This Science Fiction/Coming-of-Age-For-The-Modern-Twenty-Something novel is the beginning of something big that I can’t really put my finger on, but everyone I know who has read it agrees with me so I’m inclined to believe my gut on this one. You should read this so you don’t fall behind. Also, if you someone miss that feeling of something on the horizon or don’t really get what I’m talking about, you’ll at least have read a good book.

Even though this book doesn’t really fit into any of the modern genres, I still think it’s useful to talk about it in those contexts. This is a science fiction novel because it involves a world much like our own with a few changes, all of which could be explained by technological advances. It also talks about the way technology (in this case, social media) impacts civilization and offers some wonderful, insightful commentary on the lives of Humans and on Humanity as a whole. It is a Coming-of-Age novel because it involves the growth of a character from a more “childlike” mindset to a more “adult” one, even if all it really does is show an adult, albeit one in their early-to-mid-twenties, becoming wiser and more responsible as a result of the challenges they face and overcome. The book, at its core, is both of these things done in the best ways possible. The story focuses on a young woman who suddenly finds herself going viral and what she does as a result of that. She makes mistakes, she learns a more about how the world and Humanity works, and she ultimately makes a statement about the Human Condition.

Even though you can’t really separate it from those genres, it still shouldn’t be lumped into them without an asterisk. Instead of the usual coming-of-age story about a child becoming an adult or leaving behind the carefree days of youth for the responsibilities of adulthood, this story is about the uncertainty modern twenty-somethings face and the way that we struggle to find a place to exist in the world. Above all else, though, it’s a story about the internet and how Hank Green feels about it, as told through a fictional setting making use of hyperbole to make a point. If you don’t know who Hank Green is, he’s the younger half of the Vlog Brothers and the person who has most relentlessly pursued a pro-internet agenda. He’s started dozens of companies, or at least started dozens of big projects, like various educational shows with their own YouTube channels, a side channel for his process and projects as a whole, 2D glasses for people like me (well, people like his wife) who get headaches when we watch 3D movies, at least one charity, multiple conventions, and so much more. He has been a huge part of internet culture for a long time and he has firmly advocated that the internet is a good thing.

If you went to one of his book events or have read the book, you know he doesn’t really believe that anymore. Now, he seems pretty clear that the internet is a tool. Whether it is good or bad depends entirely on how it’s used. He has a lot more to say on the topic, but I don’t trust myself to properly recall the talk he gave at his book event and I will update this review with a video about it if he ever posts one (or if I find one he’s previously posted). To summarize, though, we basically failed to establish rules on the internet and that has allowed a lot of very angry and very loud people to have influence we should have denied them. Unlike physical societies or communities, there aren’t strict mores governing how we treat each other on the internet. Closely tied communities like the Nerdfighters (what the fans of the Green Brothers call themselves) might have some, but the internet at large does not, nor do a lot of internet communities. All of which is an important part of understanding what Hank Green says in his book during the times the protagonist, April May, interacts with her fan communities. Or strangers on the internet. Or the communities that sprung up specifically to oppose her. There’s a lot of really good social commentary that feels particularly relevant after the shitshow that was 2015 and 2016 wound up deciding to carry on through the present. There are entire characters, antagonists mostly, who map to some of the negativity and hate that we’ve seen crop up since then, and it’s all shown to us by someone who knows what it is like to be an internet celebrity, to be able to influence thousands of people with a single tweet. Someone who knows what that power can do to people has reached out and shown us what that power can do to the person who has it and wants to use it for good.

Even without all that, it’s still a really engaging book that addresses the age-old question of “what would it look like if we had an encounter with an alien species?” The story is about a young woman who finds what looks to be a new art installation in New York City when she’s heading home from work late one night, and how her life changes as she becomes the official face of what the world has taken to calling “the Carls,” which are the exact same art installation that appeared in cities all over the world at the exact same moment. There’s romance, heartbreak, violence, and even a bit of heartwarming friendship all mixed into a plot that could carry the book on its own. April May has to figure out what the art installations are and defend her beliefs about them in front of an international. audience before the people who are senselessly promoting fear and hate get ahead of her, or else she’ll lose what she believes in one of the best opportunities she has to be a force for good in the world.

The writing itself is clean, pleasant, and easy to follow. It reflects the way Hank thinks and talks in his YouTube videos. Hank tends to keep his sentences brisk and direct, heading directly toward his meaning like they’re going to lose out if they don’t get there quickly. It works really well for a book like “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” a story told as if the narrator were speaking to us or writing an informal blog post. There are a few places where that backfires a bit, ending in some grammatically correct but difficult sentences were the verb tenses combine to make a tangle of words, but there’s literally no way to avoid this in the English language if you’re writing a first-person narrative in the past-tense about events that happened but are still sorta of a part of life when the story is being told and specific things might even still be happening the day the reader picks up the book. I don’t really ascribe to the whole “English rifles through the pockets of other languages for loose grammar” derision a lot of people express (I literally studied the languages that combined to become English and the history of the English language, so I’ve got a view-point that most people don’t have), but I will say that past tense talking about events still ongoing is a pain in the ass to write. These moments that no one can avoid are the only burrs in the story and it wouldn’t have been as powerful any other way. Just keep going if you hit them. The meaning of each sentence is clear enough, they just sound weird in your head or out loud.

While we only see one character in detail, we get enough of a picture of the other characters for them to all feel incredibly real. Even the bossy, sorta nasty PR woman who basically takes on all of April May’s publicity and contacts stuff seems like a real person you’ve met even if she’s only in the story a handful of times. The main antagonist, who sees The Carls as something to be feared and hated rather than as something that could unite Humanity, even gets the same treatment. Despite appearing as a caricature of hate (like a lot of internet personalities), Hank Green manages to make it clear that this person has depth to them, even if all we see if their caricature because the narrator doesn’t spend much time on them. More than any one character, though, Humanity as a whole gets one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. We’re depicted as beings who want to simplify and who often define ourselves not by what we support but by what we fight against. Some of whom will embrace hate or fall prey to fear when we’re up against something we don’t understand instead of taking a chance on hope and love. It’s honestly kind of refreshing to see someone who regularly witnesses the best and worst of humanity as an online media presence show us in a truthful and complex light rather than just one extreme or the other.

You should read this book. Everyone should read this book. I’ve bought three copies and am planning to buy more, just so I can give it away to people. If you really want it but can’t afford it, I will try to buy it for you, finances permitting (I can’t afford to buy one for everyone, though I totally would if I could). Buy it for yourself and then treat yourself to an afternoon of reading. Knock it out in one sitting and then bask a book that is the start of something much bigger than itself. Maybe in a few more years, there’ll be an entire genre for books about finding meaning in the twenty-first century and trying to grow as a twenty-something. I can’t wait to see what comes of this movement and I’m going to do my best to be a part of it.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 33

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Five Years Later

“Next, please.” I grabbed the paper application and scanned the top for a name. “Felix?”

“Yessir.” The man before me nodded his head and then clasped his arms behind his back.

“You want to be a Wayfinder.”

“Yessir.”

I skimmed through the application for his aptitude test score and suppressed the urge to whistle. The kid had passed, but only just. His scores were all at the cutoff point. Even one more mark off in any of the tests and he would have failed. I looked up at him and his head snapped up so he was staring at the wall instead of me. I sighed.

“Why do you want to be a Wayfinder, Felix?”

“Sir.” Felix cleared his throat, glanced down at me, and then resumed staring at the wall behind me. “I want a taste of the open air. I want to wander between Enclaves, free to see what’s left of the world my parents lost, and I want to do my part to help Humanity keep moving forward.”

“Did you just read that off the poster behind me?” I turned to look at the wall behind me and found his exact words printed there, on one of Natalie’s old recruitment posters. I turned back to Felix who was suddenly incredibly interested in the edge of my desk. I watched him for a moment before shaking my head. “You’re good enough, Felix. With training, you could be even better. It’s clear your heart really isn’t in it, though.”

“I know, sir.” Felix met my eyes for a brief moment. “I just… It’s the only thing that would get me out of here. I want to get away and be a hero while I’m at it. Learn to fight monsters, kill bandits, and save people. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. Everything else feels pointless in the face of this unending winter.”

I stamped the application in my hand and gave it back to him. “Like I said, you’re good enough. I don’t know if wanting any kind of meaning in your life will get you through your basic training and then three years of shadowing as a trainee, but I’m not going to stop you from trying.”

“Thank you, sir.” Felix saluted and then walked off toward the clerk’s desk, where he’d be assigned to a training group. I watched him for a moment before turning back to my desk and the line of waiting people, all hoping to become Wayfinders.

After well over fifty rejections, two more admissions, and a handful of people I managed to convince not to join, the line had emptied out and I was able to get to work on some of the paperwork I had to file with the Enclave for bringing on new Wayfinders. The new training program was great, and we were seeing a higher rate of trainee survival during the four years I’d been running things out of the Chicago Enclave, but it meant paying Wayfinder trainees for a year before we could use them for anything and that meant leaning on the Enclave a little.

They were completely fine with supporting us, of course, since our training programs kept the area free of bandits and monsters, but it did mean a lot of paperwork. It also meant Camille and I got paid instead of living off our savings, which we both enjoyed. Lucas was the only one who had actually retired and it was increasingly clear that he was glad to be sharing a living space and food with the rest of us since it kept his bills low.

After I finished the paperwork, it was about mid-afternoon, so I decided to call it an early day. Anyone who came after I left could stick their applications in the drop slot in the door of the office I rented, or leave it with Will, the man I’d hired to take care of scheduling and organizing the training programs. He made sure each of the Wayfinder instructors had a full class and kept track of when each new group was full enough to start being taught. He was an ex-Wayfinder as well, missing an arm and a leg, so he was all too happy to demonstrate what the job could cost you even if you were good at it.

It helped get rid of all the people signing up just because I was still popular as one of the heroes of the last monster attack five years ago. Natalie had kept me in the spotlight for a while, letting me ride fame for a bit to get more Wayfinders and to get the Enclave some good will after their last plan resulted in a bandit and monster attack. No one really blamed them, but there’d been a lot of resentment to go around back then and a few almost-riots.

After I’d waved goodbye to Will, I left the office and made my way through the office park to the main road. A couple miles of walking, interrupted by a few conversations with people I walked by every day, got me to the center of the Enclave and the laboratory where Natalie worked. I waved at the same people, made the same comfortable, old jokes, and was waiting on the comfortable, ancient couch in Natalie’s office fifteen minutes after I got there, rifling through the same old science journals she’d been hoarding since someone found an intact library.

At this point, I’d opened them more than her, all while waiting for her. My job was fairly casual since I was mostly just pushing paper for the Wayfinders as a whole and processing applicants after they’d take their tests. Natalie was part of a group of scientists who were trying to figure out a way to beat the monsters for good. She wasn’t able to talk about her work much, but it was clear they were on to something given how excited she’d been lately and how late she’d been working most days.

I wound up taking a short nap while I waited and only woke up once Natalie had plopped down beside me, sighing. “Marshall, sweetie, how nice of you to drop by.”

I blinked and shook my head a bit, trying to clear the sleep from my mind. “Today was slow so I thought I’d come by to make sure you ate dinner.” I yawned and slipped my arm around here shoulders as she got into a more comfortable position on the couch.

“Oh, is that all?” Natalie leaned over to give me a kiss that lasted a bit longer than I expected. “It’s been a while since we’ve both had a few moments to ourselves and are awake enough to put them to use.” Natalie pulled me a little closer and smiled up at me.

“Oh.” I blinked, trying to pull my mind together still and suddenly fighting the battle on two fronts. “What about the offices next door?”

“Everyone’s in the lab.” Natalie pressed a little closer to me and I cleared my throat.

“What about the hallway? That door isn’t very sound proof.” I swallowed. “Or lockable.”

Natalie leaned back and laughed. “You’d think we’d never had to be quiet before! We used to have nothing but the walls of our tent separating us from other people.”

I laughed too, a little less loudly. “Sure, but I’ve kind of gotten used to having privacy.”

“Alright. Let’s go get dinner then and I’ll make sure I’m home before it gets too late.” Natalie winked at me and pushed herself to her feet.

I stood up and stretched, trying to get my heart rate back down again. “How was work?” I grabbed the water bottle off of Natalie’s desk and took a few drinks to clear the sleep taste out of my mouth.

“Fine. I wish I could tell you what I’m working on.” Natalie smiled and gathered up her bag. “You’d love the idea of it.”

“Yeah?” I set the bottle down and followed her into the hallway. She led us through the labyrinth of tunnels, making our down to the cafeteria on one of the bunker levels. Any of the scientists could eat in the cafeteria for free since the Enclave wanted to keep them working here, but the tradeoff was that they were required to report in, with as many family members as they wanted, any time there was an alert. The bunker could house all of them and their laboratories, so they could work on solutions to whatever problems plague the surface.

There’d only been one alarm since Natalie started working here and it had been a real pain to have to haul myself out of bed and into the bunker instead of rising to the city’s defense like last time. It had turned out to be a false alarm, thankfully, but I still didn’t much like the idea of having to choose between defending the city and staying with Natalie.

While we ate, we talked about schedules and I let her know that Camille and I would be in the field starting next week while she let me know that they were shutting down the lab the following weekend, to force everyone to take a break and rest, so she’d have a few days entirely free. We made plans and just enjoyed each other’s company until Natalie’s watch started beeping at her.

“Sorry, Marshall, my test is done. I need to go check on the results.”

I picked up our trays and gave her a kiss. “I’ll take care of this and see myself out. See you tonight.”

“See you tonight.” Natalie slapped my butt as I walked away and I chuckled self-consciously as I tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone else in the cafeteria. Once I’d escaped the confusing tunnels of the Enclave research laboratory, I made my way back to the compound. There were fewer people in it now, but we’d done some remodeling so those of us who wanted larger rooms had them. The only other person who still lived there, besides Natalie, Camille, Lucas, and myself was Tiffany.

After she’d figured out how to do everything she wanted to with only one hand and had learned everything Natalie could teach her, she wound up staying in the Enclave, working with Camille as a Wayfinder trainer and helping the Enclave defenders to keep the city clear of bandits and monsters. She spent more nights out of the compound than in it, but she had no desire to find a place of her own. And she still managed to constantly scare me by hiding in plain sight until she wanted something. I just assumed she was around all the time now, even if I saw her walk out the door.

When I finished taking off my snowsuit and boots, I found Camille and Lucas sitting the in the lounge, talking about something quietly. When they noticed me, they both immediately fell silent and then started talking loudly about Camille’s training group. I sighed and just went to the kitchen to grab some water. I’d already tried getting them to talk about whatever it is they were up to, but Camille just played dumb and Lucas told me to talk to Camille about it.

Just as I was about to go find something to read while I made sure I was properly hydrated for the evening, Camille and Lucas sauntered into the kitchen. I looked at them, dreading whatever it was they were about to say. Camille opened her mouth to speak a couple of times, but it was Lucas who eventually broke the silence.

“I’m bored and I wanna go back to Wayfinding. Camille feels the same way and Tiffany won’t admit it to you, but she’s getting super tired of teaching trainees.”

I put down my glass of water, walked over to the kitchen table, sat down, and rubbed my face with my hands. “Is that really what you’ve been secretly talking about for months?”

“Yes.” Camille sad down opposite me, hands folded in front of her. Lucas leaned against the wall behind her.

“Why? What took you so long to say that?” I folded my arms across my chest and leaned back. “I get that maybe you’d be worried about how I’d react, but this doesn’t feel like it was worth months of quiet discussion.”

“It wasn’t.” Camille leaned forward a little bit. “We think you should come with us.”

“Oh.” I looked from one of them to the other. “And Natalie?”

“She won’t want to come.” Lucas stepped forward to stand next to Camille. “She’s clearly enjoying her job at the laboratory and she didn’t really want freedom like the rest of us did. She loved our mission, but she doesn’t feel the same need to be moving that the rest of us do.”

“Okay, that makes sense.” I shook my head slowly, incredulously. “But what makes you think I want to go? I’m perfectly content to take things a bit easier and I love being able to live openly with Natalie instead of having to hide our relationship from rules I created.”

“But you’re clearly just as bored as the two of us.” Camille shrugged and then folded her arms loosely on the table. “You do the same thing every day, putter around the compound every day, and it’s clear to anyone watching you that you’re trying to find comfort in routines that are slowly driving you crazy.”

“What?”

“Marshall, c’mon.” Lucas sat down on the edge of one of the other chairs. “Give us some credit. Natalie may be too busy to notice, but do you really think that we haven’t seen you keep up your Wayfinder training? Or not hear you throwing books around your room in frustration when your days at work have been particularly slow.”

“You’re a lot of things, Marshall, but you’re never one to sit around while things need doing.” Camille smiled. “You’ve fixed everything in the compound twice and would have tripled that number if Tiffany hadn’t taken you to task for fixing things that weren’t broken.”

“Maybe I am bored.” I shrugged, trying to ignore the feeling of being caught in what I’d thought had been a well crafted illusion. “But I definitely don’t want to go back to Wayfinding like we used to. I have a life here, now, and I’d rather stay with Natalie and be bored until the day I die that leave here without her.”

Lucas held up a hand, halting the tirade I was building toward. “What if you didn’t need to leave here?”

“How could I do that?”

“Single trip missions.” Camille pulled a map out of her pocket and laid it out on the table in front of us. “Tiffany has marked every Enclave we can reach and returned from between blizzards. There are even a few that are about a blizzard away that would be perfect for longer trips since we’d be able to easily manage them between blizzards and stay in an Enclave during a blizzard.”

“All the fun of Wayfinding with none of the hassle involved in finding and fortifying shelters. No traipsing across the entire continent for dumb clients who think their life will be better on the west coast than it is on the east coast.” Lucas leaned forward and started pointing out routes. “We could even do shorter trips, if you want time at home. Because of the strength of the Chicago Enclave and their anti-signal net, tons of other Enclaves are sending people back and forth to study it and figure out how to set up something similar in their city.”

Camille started reading off the numbers next to each route. “Thirty-two days. Fifteen days. Forty-five days. They’re all easily reachable in the time between blizzards. We take the jobs we want, stick to our small group, and we should be able to go back to Wayfinding like we used to without a problem.”

“You’d see Natalie at least as much as you see her now.” Lucas smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Maybe even more since she’d make time for you instead of basically ignoring you for six months while she’s busy with some project.”

Lucas was looking up at the ceiling while he spoke, so he didn’t see my face go from nervously interested to angry, but Camille did. Camille immediately whacked Lucas in the check, grabbed the maps, and stood up. “Sorry, Marshall. He didn’t mean it like that. We don’t expect an answer right now, so we’ll going to leave right now and give you some time to think it over.”

“Mean what?” Lucas rubbed his chest as he stood up, glaring at Camille. “I meant what I said, she basically ignores him, comes home late, leaves just before he does. If it wasn’t for the fact that they shared a room, I doubt they were in a relationship.”

Camille stuffed the maps back into her pockets and walked away, apologizing to me again as she went. Lucas looked after her for a moment, and then finally looked at me. He practically ran after her when he saw the stony look on my face and apologized as he went. “Sorry, Marshall. I let my mouth run away with my again. I didn’t mean it like that.” After he disappeared around the corner, he shouted back. “Think about it.”

I tried to stay angry for a while, but I couldn’t. I did feel ignored sometimes, when Natalie got caught up in a project, but I loved how much she cared about the stuff she did so I wouldn’t have wanted her any other way. Plus, they were right. I was bored. Routines were nice, but almost two years of the same thing with no variations aside from the occasional trip to hunt Monsters as part of the graduation ceremony for a trainee Wayfinder left me feeling somewhat numb. It would be nice to get out and doing stuff again. Leave the desk behind for most of the year and get back on my feet.

It was incredibly tempting. So tempting that I was still thinking about it as I lay awake after my evening with Natalie. I held her close to me as I thought about the logistics of the trips and how I sometimes wished to be back in my sleeping bag again, sleeping on the packed snow that was always the wrong shape when you went to sleep up perfectly molded to your body by the time you woke up. Small cook fires that made everyone huddle close, storytelling with the various travelers we guided, the dazzling white of a bright snowy morning in the tundra.

It was so tempting that I was still awake when Natalie’s alarm went off on her watch and she got up to get ready for work.

All Natural

It was one of the parks in the city big enough to let you forget you were surrounded by concrete and glass. Lucia wouldn’t know he was there.

His phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, saw her face, and silenced it as he fought down the rising panic. It was only three in the afternoon and he had plenty of time. As the panic started to win the battle, he hauled himself to his feet and started walking toward the parking lot.

Half an hour later, his bugout bag in hand, he bought a greyhound ticket. Once he got to the state park, it was easy to find someone willing to sell him camping gear. He had plenty of money and most of the people he saw didn’t really want to be camping anyway.

It was early morning by the time he began setting up camp. There was no way anyone would be able to find him. He basked in that peace for two days, surviving off the fat of the land and drinking from crystal springs. But then he approached his campsite one night and heard voices.

Abandoning his gear, he immediately turned around and headed toward the nearby mountain. He walked through the night and didn’t stop until the sun had set again. When he gave up trying to sleep, the sun was rising. He walked toward a cliff to check his surroundings. As he admired the beauty of this national park, his phone rang. He pulled it out and answered.

“Hi, Lucia.”

“Sweetie! Where have you gone?”

Adam pulled the phone away from his face and bellowed. “You’ll never find me, you devil.” He threw his phone as hard as he could, watching it sail into the distance, and shouted after it. “I quit!”

Coldheart and Iron: Part 32

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


After what felt like an excruciating hour of darkness, pain, and ringing silence, my vision started to clear. I heard a small thump far above me and tried to orient myself. A second thump following the first and them everything was drowned out by a loud bang. The shockwave hitting the building caused dust to fall from above and my brain finally oriented itself.

I was lying face-down on the floor in a pile of rubble, my pack still so tight it was constricting my chest. Rotten wood, rusted pipes, foam insulation, and the weird plasticy material that ceiling tiles were made out of was covering the floor around me. I tried to push myself to my feet, but my right arm wasn’t working properly and there was something heavy on top of it. Gingerly, moving carefully so I didn’t shift anything I could avoid, I pulled a flashlight out of my pocket and shined it around me.

I must have fallen through a weak spot in the floor when I landed in the next building over, somehow pulling more of the floor down with me than I’d landed on.I stuck the flashlight in my mouth and shifted my head so I could look at my right arm. It had vanished beneath a pile of rubble and what looked like a filing cabinet. I tried to wiggle my fingers and was rewarded with a flash of pain and the sensation of some kind of chalky dust against the floor.

Unfortunately, that was about all I could see. I was stuck, face-down, under a pile of rubble and had only one arm free, which I couldn’t really use because I wasn’t sure what might come tumbling down on top of me if I started digging. There was another bang from the next building over and I felt the pile of rubble shift slightly. I fought down the rising tide of panic and counted my heartbeats, trying to keep it slow while I waited.

Three hundred sixty-five beats, later, I heard the approaching thumping of two sets of feet. Then a door slammed open, hitting the pile of rubble, and a few chunks of wood crashed down where my left arm had been when I woke up. “Stop!”

“Marshall? Marshall! You’re alive!” Natalie’s voice was muffled, but I could hear the mixture of fear and relief in her voice.

“Yeah. I’m under all the rubble and it’s not stable at all.”

“Shit, I’m sorry.” I could hear Natalie moving around the pile.

“It’s going to take too long to dig me out right now, with the monsters closing in and the bandits next door. Just leave me here until the fight’s over. I’ll be fine until then.” I looked to my left, were the pile of boards lay and saw the shattered end of a pipe sticking out of the debris ceiling. “There’s a pipe letting in a little light and fresh air, so just leave me here until you can come back to get me.”

“Captain, there’s a giant steel beam hanging over you that might come loose at any second.”

“What?” I tried to think of the floor we’d picked and what I remembered of the conference room. “We shouldn’t have been anywhere near an internal support.”

“Marshall, you fell through four floors.” Natalie had moved around the pile to a closer spot. “I don’t know how you survived it, but the floor beneath the conference room was a storeroom at one point and the floor just collapsed when you hit it, taking you and all the filing cabinets down to the next floor, which was a convention hall of some kind. There’s a bunch of iron truss and some smaller I-beams that are just dangling over the hole now.”

“All the more reason to just leave me here and get out!” I closed my eyes and lay my head down on the floor. “If I made that much noise, the monsters won’t be that far behind. Stop wasting your time and get somewhere safe!”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“Yes, Tiffany, I am.”

“Then make me!”

“Natalie, you need to take her and go. The monsters won’t be able to sense me, so I should be fine. Just go for now and come back later, when the fighting is over. I’ll be fine.” I took as deep a breath as I could with the backpack on and listened for Natalie’s response.

A minute later, I heard her voice by the door. “C’mon,Tiffany. There’s nothing we can do here.”

The small part of me that hoped they’d stay and that everything would still be alright withered away. I scrunched my eyes up even tighter, until my vision went from black to purple and green, as I resisted the urge to ask them to stay.

“But… We can’t just leave him here, Lieutenant. If another few explosions happen, all the beams and truss are coming down. He doesn’t have that long.”

“Do as you’re told, Tiffany.” I could hear the stiffness in Natalie’s voice as the two of them shuffled around the door they’d come in. A moment later, I heard one set of feet walking away. “I love you, Natalie.”

“I love you too, Marshall.”

I heard Natalie’s feet hurry after Tiffany’s and stopped fighting the emotions welling up inside me. I felt a fear tears leak out of my eyes and was just about to get my hand in front of my face to wipe them off when I heard another boom from the next building over followed by a shriek of metal. An eternity later, something huge landed on the pile of debris to my right and the whole thing shifted as dust billowed into the space I occupied..

Once the dust cleared, I noticed the filing cabinet on my arm had shifted so I was able to get it free. The pain that lanced up and down my arm as I pulled it toward me let me know it was probably fractured, but I still had enough control over it to pull it close to my body and begin loosening the straps on my backpack. After I could properly breathe again, I shift my pack so I could grab my canteen. A small drink of water refreshed me and gave me the impetus I needed to wriggled around so I could look at more than the floor.

The entire structure of the pile was held up by the filing cabinets and a piece of metal truss that had fallen with me. There still wasn’t much beneath me other than the carpet from the conference room, plaster chunks, and a few lumpy objects hidden by the carpet, but I was able to find my gun. It took a bit of work using my feet to grab it, but it felt reassuring to have it at hand. Anything that kept me from focusing on being trapped beneath a pile of rubble was a welcome distraction.

I kept looking for a place to start digging myself out, but I couldn’t find anything that would help beyond pushing a few piles of rubble around to give me more space to maneuver. Just as my attention started to drift back toward the hopelessness of my situation, I heard another bang. This one, however, was below me. I had only a moment to wonder what happened before the floor beneath me cracked and I feel through it again.

I landed in a heap, on a pile of moldy old cushions and paper, but managed to twist so I fell on my left side instead of my right. Still, the shock of landing caused a pain in my chest to flare up so strongly I nearly blacked out again. Once my vision cleared, I saw Natalie and Tiffany standing at the far side of the room, coated in plaster and coughing triumphantly.

“What the hell?” I groaned and flopped onto my back.

“Lieutenant Natalie blew up just enough of the ceiling to drop you and only some of the debris pile into the room below.” Tiffany walked over and pulled my pack out of the pile of plaster chunks. “She’s really quite good at this sort of thing.”

Natalie walked over and grabbed my left arm. “Come on, Marshall. Time to get going. The monsters will have noticed that for sure and I want to be in the next building before they find their way up here.”

I groaned as I let Natalie haul me to my feet, trying to ignore the wave of pain that flashed through my chest. It was pretty clear I’d hurt my ribs in all of the falling I’d done, but thankfully it only hurt to breathe. I let Tiffany carry my pack but scooped up my rifle as I staggered out of the room. Natalie stayed a step behind me, ready to grab me if it looked like I was going to fall. Thankfully, there were only a couple false alarms as we made our way down nine flights of stairs to the second floor.

There, Tiffany led us out of the stairwell and into another long row of cubicles. Past the cubicles and a few private offices, there was a foyer with a big staircase down to the first floor and, off to the north end of the building, an elevated walkway to a different building. Most of the glass had blown out over the years, but there was enough built up debris that we could crawl across it unseen. While Natalie and I waited for Tiffany to cross and clear the other foyer, I peaked around the wall at the outside

I could see monsters walking through the streets, heading toward the building we’d originally been hiding in, with a few darting off in different directions after what were probably fleeing bandits. I grimaced as I watched them march, glad we had somehow avoided detection so far.

Once we got the signal from Tiffany, I did my best to quickly cross to the other side. It took a lot longer than I would have liked, thanks to my arm and ribs, but I made it across and was still conscious enough to watch Natalie’s back while she crossed. Tiffany then lead us through the building to the north side. An emergency exit let us out into an alley and from there we climbed a fence to continue moving east and north.

Once we’d gotten clear of the area immediately around my signal bomb, the streets cleared up. All of the monsters had converged on the building and the steady crack of gunfire let us know my plan had worked. Natalie pulled out a map at some point and started guiding us a little further north before taking us west toward another sniper nest. Once we’d holed up again, I had them help me bind my arm and find the painkillers I kept in my emergency kit. After that, the rest of the battle is a bit of a haze.

I remember continuing to shoot where Tiffany or Natalie told me to, but the first thing I remember as more than a vague, foggy image was Natalie and Tiffany leading me back toward the Enclave after the sun had set again and the battle was over. Even that trip had a lot of holes in it, despite the drugs starting to wear off. I remember a field hospital near the smoking ruins of the part of the Enclave the monsters had broken into, Natalie turning down more painkillers for me, and a warning bell sometime during the night that roused me long enough for Natalie to notice.

“Bandits are attacking now.” Natalie scooted over to sit beside me and grabbed my hand. “Don’t worry, though. The Enclave is holding strong and most of the Wayfinders are still out there.” I felt her stroke the back of my hand as the warning bell faded and I fell back asleep.

When I woke up, it was the middle of the day and the fighting was over. The Enclave held out against the bandits and now the defenders were patrolling the city, making sure all of the monsters had been destroyed.

“We survived.”

I looked over at Natalie and smiled. “Any word on Camille and Lucas?”

“Nothing yet, but only two sniper nests were wiped out by bandits, so we should see them as soon as the patrols are finished. I don’t think either of would turn down a chance to finish wiping out a bunch of monsters.” Natalie smiled back at me.

“Great.” I lifted my left arm and placed it over my face, blocking out the light in an attempt to quiet the pounding headache I had. “How about some water while we wait?”

After a few cups of water and a large bowl of oatmeal, I was starting to feel a little more alert and entirely aware of how much it hurt to breathe. I did my best to take shallow breaths, but it was more difficult than I expected to hold off the yawns that caused my vision to dim with pain every time they got out. After a few yawns escaped, Natalie gave me another dose of painkillers and I went back to sleep.

This time, when I woke up, it was morning, and Lucas, Camille, and Natalie were all sitting against the wall of my room at the compound. I’d been moved while I slept and now everyone was back. I left them all sleeping there while I got out of bed and went to get a drink of water. Draped around the common room was everyone’s stuff and even a couple extra Wayfinders I had recruited before the fight began. I quietly made my way through the room, got myself some water, and made it back to my room just in time to see Camille wake up.

“Marshall!” Camille started, leaping to her feet and taking the pitcher of water from me. “Get back in bed.”

“It’s just a few cracked ribs and a fractured arm.” I wiggled my shoulder and managed to not flinch when my arm bounced in its sling. “No big deal.”

“Sure.” Camille nodded as she ushered me back to bed. “Except your arm is more splintered than fractured and Natalie is going to kill all of us if she wakes up and you’re not where she left you.”

“Too late.” Natalie rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I’ll let it slide, though. This time.” She glared at me and I smiled back at her. My arm still hurt and my chest seared with pain every time I breathed, but all of my friends had made it back safely.

“Was I the only one injured?” I looked at Lucas who was still asleep despite the noise. “He’s fine?”

“Yeah.” Camille stretched and settled back against the wall where she’d been. “Aside from you, our little group came out unscathed aside from a few small cuts and bruises. The Wayfinders are a whole weren’t so lucky, but we only lost a dozen people and half that many were injured enough to warrant medical care, you included.”

“What about the defenders and the Enclave?”

“They lost a good deal more than that.” Natalie looked down at her hands. “The wall breach took a long time to seal and your plan didn’t pull as many of the monsters off the wall as you wanted, though it did do a great job of thinning out the bandit numbers. Almost a third of them died as a result of your plan, so we were able to hold the walls after we’d finished the monsters.”

“How many did the Enclave lose?”

Natalie paused, fishing for words, and Camille cut in. “Preliminary numbers estimate a few hundred civilians and about a quarter of the defenders. Injuries are about twice the casualty numbers for civilians and about the same as the casualties for the defenders.” Camille cleared her throat and, after a moment of silence, carried on. “We’re still waiting on an exact report and Enclave command expects the numbers to be less severe than the estimates as rescue operations are ongoing.”

“Ah.”

“We saved a lot of people, showing up when we did.” Camille shrugged. “They would likely have survived without us, but more of them are alive because we were here to help and organize the Wayfinders.”

“I just feel bad because I missed it all.” I waved with my left hand, trying to encompass the disappointment I felt. “I don’t think there was much I could have done to change things, but I do wish I’d at least been cognizant and able to actively help instead of needing to be helped.”

Natalie nodded and Tiffany, popping up from the other side of the room, shook her head. “You weren’t a burden, Captain. No matter how foggy you felt, you took direction, didn’t need to be carried, and actually hit most of the monsters you aimed at.”

I looked over at Tiffany, trying to figure out how I kept missing her all the time. Unable to come up with an answer, I just asked. “How are you always here and I never see you?”

“I come from a big family.” Tiffany smiled and sat down again. “I’m pretty good at disappearing when I’m not trying to get people’s attention.”

“Fair enough.” I smiled and looked around. “Well, we should probably wake Lucas up for this, but I think it’s time to decide what we want to do long-term.”

Tiffany saluted, leaned over, and poked Lucas in the side until he stirred. After a few moments of groggily looking around the room, his eyes landed on me and he smiled. “Good to see you’re up. The others report in already?”

I nodded. “And now we’re deciding what to do.”

“I still want to retire.” Lucas sleepily shrugged and looked away, a little defensive. “I know the rest of you still want to keep Wayfinding, but I’m ready for a long rest.”

“I kinda am, too.” It was my turn to shrug and look away. I glanced over at Natalie and smiled at her. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I think it might be a good time to retire. I’m not getting any younger and unless I wind up being immortal, there’s no way I’m going to be able to find everyone who went missing.”

“Marshall…” Camille looked at Natalie and then back at me. “Are you sure? I mean, that’s been the driving force behind everything you’ve done for almost two decades.”

“Yeah.” I looked at Camille, Lucas, and then Tiffany before looking back to Natalie. “I think I’m ready for something a little less dangerous. And I’m ready to focus on what I have now rather than what I’ve lost. I think now’s the time.”

Natalie came over to sit on the edge of my bed and gave me a kiss. “I think I’m ready to retire, too.”

Lucas smiled, leapt to his feet, and came over to give us both a hug. After the heart-warming moment was over, we all looked over at Camille who smirked. “I’m totally okay with retiring. I prefer training Wayfinders and hunting monsters to actually guiding people around the tundra and there’s plenty of both of those things to do here.” She came over to sit beside us. “To be honest, I was only still doing it because you all were.”

“Yay!” Tiffany leapt across the bed and hugged us all. “Now I don’t have to be deferential or respectful toward you assholes anymore.”

I smiled. “I’m guessing you’re not retiring, Tiffany.”

“No.” She smiled over at Natalie. “But I’ve got at least a year of relearning to do before I’m ready to be a Wayfinder again and Natalie promised to teach me all about maps and how to use them in the tundra.” She turned to me and glared in mock anger. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily, Marshall.”

I laughed and started pushing people off my bed. “Fair enough. Now go get some rest, everyone. You can’t have slept well on the floor here.” I smiled as everyone but Natalie left. Once they were gone and Camille had closed the door behind her, I scooted over the in the bed and Natalie climbed into it with me. While she slept, I gently stroked her hair and thought that maybe being retired wouldn’t be that bad after all.