Coldheart and Iron: Part 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marshall?”

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

“I- I don’t know.”

“Would you stay?”

“I mean, would I- What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why are you still doing this?”

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

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

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

“Marshall…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coldheart and Iron: Part 24

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Tiffany and I managed to catch up to the sleds after a couple of hours. Tiffany was all too happy to collapse on the sleds rather than try to walk through the pain of her missing hand, but I was anxious because we hadn’t seen anyone from Camille’s ambush group since I’d watched her vanish to the north. Depending on how far north she got before ditching the hand, it could be a while before we got word. The monsters would lock on to the hand they’d marked once the Wayfinders leading them away stopped shooting long enough for their heat signatures to vanish, but there was no telling what would happen after that.

Camille would probably do her best to thin their numbers some more, but there was no knowing if she’d lead them further north as she killed them, or if she’d just take down as many as she could before vanishing into the snow. She could be back in a day or a week. She could send the other Wayfinders back or keep them with her the entire time. There was no way to know until they started showing back up and I fretted over the problem until we found a cave we could shelter in for the night.

While Natalie led everyone else in setting up tents or barricades inside the cave in case we needed to defend ourselves, I set up the one table we’d brought it, sanitized it, and went to work on Tiffany’s arm. It took about an hour to get everything fixed properly and sewn up, but it was a simple procedure compared to the injuries I’d tried to fix several weeks ago. Thanks to the double dose I gave her, Tiffany drowsed through most of it. She was so out of it, I had to get someone else to help me move her into the tent she shared with two other trainees.

I left her in the care of her friends and, after cleaning up, went through the motions of settling in for the night. After the slow build of tension over the last few days and the attack today, I was exhausted. Instead of sleeping, though, I left Natalie and Lucas as they cleaned up from dinner and took the first shift at the cave entrance. I sat in my corner, bundled up in my thermal gear with an extra blanket just in case, watching the snowstorm build and then blow away piles of snow.

I wound up watching all night, waiting for the signs of an attack or for Camille’s group of Wayfinders to come through the door, laughing and congratulating each other on killing more monsters. By the time we were all packed up and ready to go, there was still no sign of them. I managed to keep focused all day, but Natalie and Lucas knew something was up. That night, they insisted on me resting after I’d checked in on Tiffany. I tried to argue, but I knew they were right.

After a proper night’s sleep, the next day was easier. I got us moving a bit faster and managed to find us a cave for the evening, instead of hiding out in the first dense patch of trees we found. As we left the following morning, the blizzard started to subside. By that evening, it had mostly cleared up. Thankfully, there was no sign of the monsters, but we were still waiting for Camille to make it back.

Six days after our hurried departure, the day Tiffany started cutting back on her painkillers, Camille and the four Wayfinders she’d brought with her showed up at our camp perimeter as we settled in for the evening. I barely paused to put on my thermal gear after I heard the sentry call out. By the time I was dressed and outside, Camille was practically to our tent. After moving aside to let her inside, I did a quick visual inspection of her companions. Thankfully, the only injury was Ben’s from a few days ago, and he’d already taken care of it, so I was able to get back into the tent just as Camille was sitting down to eat.

After I’d taken off my gear and cleaned up Camille’s, she’d turned around to face me. I could see the exhaustion clouding her eyes, but we both knew she needed to report first. Once I was ready, I nodded to her.

“After we left, things went about as expected. We drew them north for a full day, before the first few started to catch up. We mowed them down pretty quickly, so we kept going for another day before the rest of the group started to catch up. After that, we ditched the tag and made our way to the rendezvous point. Unfortunately, some of them managed to track us.”

“What?” Lucas leaned forward, almost throwing himself off the campstool he’d been sitting on as he ate. “There’s no way!”

Camille shrugged. “Half a day north of the bunker, the blizzard tapered out so they must have figured out how to follow footprints or we just left worse ones than usual. Whatever the cause, I can’t argue with the results. We hadn’t been heading toward the rendezvous for more than half a day before the first of them started catching up to us.”

“But they haven’t… It’s been over fifteen years since they appeared and they never-”

“Lucas.” Natalie grabbed his bowl before he could drop it. “Calm down and let Camille talk.” Lucas nodded and, after a few slow breaths, took his bowl back.

“Anyway. They tracked us so I used every trick I knew to lose them on the way to the rendezvous. Nothing worked. So we slowed down, went a little out of our way, and then picked up your trail once we knew you’d be passed. I had one of the others scout it for us, to make sure we were staying close but not so close that we might lead them to you guys. Today, after two days without contact, I decided we should be clear of whichever of them found our trail.”

“Did you notice anything else about them that might show a change in their behavior?” I took out a notebook and started writing down everything Camille had said. After I looked back up at her, she shook her head.

“No, nothing that stood out. They were vulnerable in all the usual places, none of them looked any different, and they all still fell for my traps so long as we hid our heat signatures, so I don’t know how to explain this unless someone got tagged.

“As far as I know, only Tiffany got tagged.” I made a couple more notes in my book. “You get some rest, Camille. I’ll go debrief your group quick and ask Tiffany if she has any ideas.”

“Yeah?” Camille leaned back. “How’s she doing? She seemed pretty alright with losing her right hand.”

“She’s been out of it until pretty much today, and she hasn’t really cleared up enough to be talking yet. I’ll need to see if she’s alright with cutting back a little further so we can have a conversation.”

“What a trooper. I haven’t seen anyone else handle it that well.” Camille pulled out her sleeping bag and plopped down on top of it. “Most of them try to hide it or deny that it’s going to be that bad.”

“Well, she’s left-handed so she’ll still be able to be a Wayfinder just fine.” Natalie moved over to Camille and draped one of our blankets over her. “She’ll need to relearn a few things, but a break in Chicago will get her all the time she needs to make up her mind.”

“I think her mind’s pretty made up.” Lucas chuckled as he moved to his own sleeping bag. “She mutters about showing those sons of bitches what a badass she is every time she falls asleep on the sled.”

“Well, she’ll still have time to change her mind or retrain herself once we get to Chicago.” I started putting my thermal gear back on. “Maybe she’ll change her mind once she sees what the retirement package is for someone who loses a limb while Wayfinding.”

“They usually do.” Camille yawned and pulled the blanket over her head.

“I’m glad you made it back safely, Camille.”

“Thanks, Marshall. I’m glad you’re all safe.”

After everyone was covered up, I quickly clambered out of the tent and did my rounds quickly. All of the Wayfinders that had gone with Camille needed to be woken up, but they reported the same things she did. After a few minutes of talking to each of them, I made my way to Tiffany’s tent and, after knocking, let myself in.

“Tiffany?”

“Yes, boss?” Tiffany was sitting up against a pile of backpacks covered in a blanket, trying her boots with one hand.

“You up for a quick chat? Clear enough?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany set her boots aside and picked up the little bottle of pills I gave her every morning. “I’ve only been taking half of what you’ve been giving me at night. I sleep on the sled so much that I mostly use the nights for a bit of exercise and one-hand practice.”

I arched my eyebrows. “One-hand practice?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany poked her boots and waved her right arm at the pile of backpacks behind her. “I’m still struggling with my shoes, but packing is easy. I think the shoes will be easier once I’ve healed up and can use my arm for more than waving.” Tiffany giggled. “Which super weirds people out, when I wave without a hand. It’s hilarious.”

I chuckled along with Tiffany but cleared my throat after a moment. “You sure you’re alright?”

“No, but I’m okay for now and at least I’m alive.”

“Good point.” I sat down across from her and glanced over at her sleeping tent mates. “Are we going to disturb them?”

“Nah, they sleep with earplugs now. We’re good.”

“Okay.” I cracked my knuckles absently and read over the notes I’d been taking. “Can you walk me through what happened when you got tagged? Lieutenant Camille reported seeing some odd behavior while trying to get back to us and I’m trying to figure out what’s been going on.”

“Well, it was pretty straight-forward, really. Almost disappointingly since I lost a hand over it.” Tiffany grabbed her arm near the stump and settled it into her lap. “Ben and I were leading a group of them toward where Lieutenant Camille was waiting, doing a few vital strikes to thin them out a bit. Things were going fine until they started to cluster around Ben a bit. He started shooting at them and I ran to help him out. Only he kept firing instead of doing bursts, so his gun probably lit up like the sun to them, so they started returning fire.

“I couldn’t tell you how he got out of that unscathed, but I caught up to him as he finally stopped firing. One of them, though, a scout, was a few paces away and lined up a tracer shot. Ben couldn’t see it, focused as he was, so I pulled him out of the way. As he fell, the scout fired and hit me in the hand with the tracer round.” Tiffany held up the stump where here hand used to be and smiled ruefully.

“The lieutenant must have seen this happening, because she started firing on the scout and all of the others right about then. After that, you know everything. She yelled at me to remove my glove, tie it off, and take my painkillers. A couple minutes later, you showed up and that’s the last bit I remember.”

“When did Ben get hit, then?”

“What?”

“You said Ben never got shot when they fired at him. When I showed up, though, he had a small wound on his upper left arm.” I gestured to my own arm, showing her where he’d been grazed. “Barely worth addressing beyond the tape to close the hole in his suit.”

“I must have missed that.” Tiffany shrugged. “I was a little busy getting shot to be paying attention to what was going on with him at that point.”

“Fair enough.” I made a couple notes and tried to ignore the icy claw scraping the bottom of my stomach. I checked her dressing quick, asked a few questions about how she was feeling and, left her tent after making sure she was going to be alright until the morning. All the while, I tried to explain away what had been happening as a string of coincidences. I tried to find any excuse I could but, before I knew it, I was outside Ben’s tent.

I went inside and smiled at him. “Sorry to be back again so soon, Ben, but I just wanted to double-check your injury before I went to sleep.”

“Oh.” Ben stood and grabbed his arm self-consciously. “I mean, it’s fine. It was barely a scrape then and it scabbed over before I got a chance to do anything with it.”

“Just to be safe. I’m the group’s medic, now.” I pulled out my medical bag and gestured to the stool near their cook stove. “Just a quick look and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Really, Marshall, I’m fine.”

“Ben, do I need to make it an order?” I crossed my arms but kept my voice calm. “Sit. Down.”

Ben sighed and sat. He held out his arm and looked away as I rolled up his sleeve. When I got past the elbow, I saw a giant white pad of gauze, much larger than he’d need for the simple scrape he claimed he had. I pulled the grimy old tape off and, as I pulled the bandage away, caught sight of a greenish patch of skin with red lines emanating from what looked like a giant pimple.

“Ben.”

“It’s fine, Captain. I empty it every night. There’s no chance for the trace to take effect if I’m constantly draining it!” Ben looked at me, careful to shift so he couldn’t see his arm. “I figured it out. This way, I won’t need to lose my arm for such a little scrape.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Ben. Benjamin. This is the trace. The green, the red lines, the white head, all of it. Your blood is full of it and, if we check your other elbow, we’ll see your veins starting to show just as brightly red as these.”

“But I fixed it, Captain. It was just a tiny hit and I need my arm.”

“Pull down your sleeve, put on your thermal gear, and come with me.” I stood up and slung my bag over my shoulder.

“But I need to rest. I’ve been moving almost without stopping for six days.” Ben clasped his hands and fell to his knees. “Just let me sleep, I don’t need to lose my arm. I’ll be fine! I don’t feel sick at all.”

I nodded. “You’ve got one thing right, Ben. You won’t need to lose your arm.”

Ben smiled and sank down. “Oh, thank god. That’s so good to hear. I’ll just be a minute, Captain, and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t make me come back.”

After he nodded, I left the tent and walked up to where one of the guards was stationed. “As soon as Ben and I leave camp, get Lieutenants Camille and Natalie up. Tell them we need to break camp immediately.”

“Sir?”

“Just do it. I’ll explain once we’re moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

I went back to the tent and waited. When Ben emerged, I grabbed his uninjured arm and pulled him toward the edge of camp, leading him deeper into the forest we’d picked as that night’s camping spot. “C’mon, Ben. We’ve got a little errand to run.”

“Oh, should I grab my gear?”

“No, I’ve got my gun so we should be fine.”

“Okay.” Ben smiled and followed me past the perimeter and into the forest. Occasionally, I’d glance over at him and see the faint red like coming from his face as he leaked radio waves from the trace that had been planted and given time to multiply in his bloodstream. Once we’d walked about an hour into the words, using the excuse of needing some plants to supplement our food stores to keep him focused and quiet, I turned to him.

“You’ve got the trace, Ben. It’s too far progressed to stop at this point. Even cutting your arm off wouldn’t fix it now.” I took a few steps back and leaned against a tree, putting my body so that he wouldn’t be able to see it when I thumbed the safety off.

“We’re close to Chicago, though. They can do something about it there. I’ve heard about treatments that kill the trace and then I won’t need to lose my arm at al.”

“That’s not how it works. Your group kept getting attacked because they were tracking you.” I pointed to him for emphasis. “Now, you can either keep walking on your own, to lead them away, or I’ll kill you quickly now so you don’t need to suffer when they catch up to you.”

“What?”

“You agreed to these terms when we hired you.”

“But, I mean, I can’t-”

“You lied to us and put all our lives in danger. You either choose now or I’ll choose for you.”

“I can’t-” Ben stepped forward and I raised my gun. “I’m- I’m not going to die out here, not for some little scrap.” Ben clenched his fists and took a few steps forward this time. “I refuse! I won’t accept this. You can’t abandon me out here. You can’t leave me to die so you can live. I don’t deserve to die like thi-”

I raised the gun and fired, three times in quick succession. Ben dropped where he was. I grabbed the shell casings from the snow, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and started sprinting back toward the camp. Fifteen minutes later, I explained the whole thing between gasps and we moved out. Everyone looked over their shoulders as we went, fleeing through the forest with the prospect of a monster attack looming over our shoulders.

When we finally stopped to rest, the sun was setting again and even the people riding the sleds were exhausted. We made camp that night, inside another forest, and did our best to put our close call out of our minds. We were still a few weeks away from Chicago and every one of us was thinking only of being able to rest. Despite my exhaustion, all I could think of was Ben’s face as he tried to make excuses and the determination Tiffany had shown when she’d had to sacrifice her hand.

Every time I thought of her, seated in the snow as she waited to have her hand taken off while Ben stood over her and pretended he was fine, I wanted to go back and shoot him again. I wouldn’t get the chance, though. There’d be nothing left by the time I got back there, even if I went right away. The monsters wouldn’t leave much lying around once they finally tracked him down.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 23

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Three days passed without a break in the clouds or the snow. We took shifts holding the keypad outside, hoping enough light made its way down to the tiny solar panel to charge the keypad to the point we could enter the passcode. Unfortunately, not even the light capture array Louis whipped up using all of our mirrors was enough to get it to power on, much less last long enough for us to replace it and enter the code.

While everyone else ate a bland, barely filling meal cobbled together from our dwindling supplies, Natalie, Camille, Lucas, and I discussed our options.

“I think I could whip something up using batteries from one of our lanterns, but I don’t know if I’d be able to guarantee that the lantern or battery would work after that.” Louis picked up the lantern off the ground and switched it off. “I won’t know for sure until I’ve opened everything up and looked, but most rechargeable batteries things aren’t really set up to be used with something other than their specific device.” Lucas shrugged and turned over the lantern in his hands. “Plus, I know I’d at least need to break the casing to get it open.”

“And there’s the question of actually getting power to the keypad.” Natalie held it up for all of us to see. “There’s no screws or detachable parts that would let us access the interior. We’d need to crack the case and then it’s possible that the signal it sends out will be strong enough for something to pick up. I mean, that’s the whole point of having it shielded in the first place. Nothing, or almost nothing, can get out.”

“We don’t really have a lot of options, though.” Camille, with her rifle still over her shoulder, sat in a pile of melting snow she’d tracked in as she called the meeting. “There isn’t much we can hunt around here and even that is only in theory. Tracks don’t last long enough to find and the visibility is so low that it’s pointless to put out traps or set up an ambush.”

Natalie sighed and shook her head. “There aren’t many trees around here. This used to be mostly farmland, so there’s not much left for wildlife to survive on at this point.”

“I still think cracking that thing open is our best bet.” Lucas gestured at the keypad. “Even if there is a signal, the caves should kill it. We’re underground, deep inside a warren of caves, and we’re about as far away as we can get from the nests. Even if that thing was strong enough to be picked up by a satellite on the surface, there’s no way it makes it out of the caves.”

“I still don’t like the risk, not when the sun might come out, soon.” Natalie took a deep breath and then shook her head. “This thing was heavily shielded and buried for a reason.”

“If we don’t see a break in the storm by tomorrow night, we’re going to crack it open and power it ourselves.” I leaned back against the wall of the cave and settled my hands in my lap, trying to suppress the urge to crack my knuckles and pick at my fingernails. “It won’t matter if the snow stops in a few days. Since we’ve been on low rations, we really don’t have much leeway when it comes to missing meals.”

Camille and Lucas nodded in agreement but Natalie just looked at the keypad in her hands. “What if the signal makes it out of the caves.”

“Then we do our jobs.” Camille spoke softly, hands reaching up for her rifle. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we guide people. That’s why we search the ruins of every town we find. That’s what we’re paid to do. Killing bandits makes the world a better place, but that’s not our real job.”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that. Or, I hope it won’t come to that.” I held up my hands to forestall Camille before she got too heated. “I’d like to actively avoid any kind of battle or siege. I don’t want to lose anyone, but need those supplies to survive.” I folded my hands in my lap and smiled reassuringly at my friends. “We’ll have scouts near the entrance with our thermal goggles and a transceiver. If any signal makes it out of the caves, we’ll just grab all the supplies we can and leave while Camille sets up an ambush to kill anything that shows up quickly. Louis, you’ll establish a heavy rear-guard on the sleds, Natalie and I can lead until Camille catches up, and we can let the blizzard cover our tracks. Once we’re far enough away, we can take the time to find somewhere else to rest up like we planned to do here.”

“That’ll take hours, maybe even a day. They’re deep in the cavern and maybe half our people can carry stuff.” Natalie rubber her chin. “We’ve got enough leftover wood that we set aside for repairs to the sleds that we could make a simple cart or two. If we spend tomorrow making carts, then the kids can easily help. That would really save us time…”

I recognized the signs and let Natalie’s wheels turn for a little bit. She was going logistics in her head and she’d have a precise estimate for how much we could get and how long it’d take us to get it in our worst and median case scenarios. While she did that, I turned my attention to Lucas.

“We need a way to power this thing that doesn’t involve taking apart one of our lanterns. Those are too rare to throw one away without trying something else. What are our other options?”

“Well, we could try a chemical reaction.” Lucas rubbed his chin and blankly stared at the lantern. “I think we’ve got medical supplies I could use, if I combined it with some of the battery acid from a hand flashlight.”

“If you can do it using only stuff we can easily replace from the supplies here, go for it.”

“I’ll start getting our gear ready, just in case.” Camille stood up and shook the snow off her pants. “Let me know when I’m needed. After a weapons check, I’m going to make sure the trainees and Nomads know what to do if we’re attacked.”

I nodded and just gestured for her to go as Natalie’s attention snapped back. “We can do it in three to five hours, assuming nothing happened to the supplies. If the stores have been ruined or damaged, we might as well poke the nest to just get it over with. Better than starving to death.”

“Okay, that was a little dark.” Lucas nervously chuckled as he hauled himself to his feet.

“It’s a real possibility since I haven’t gotten a status update on this store room in a couple of years.”

“Still, there’s no need to point it out.” Lucas clutched the lantern in one hand and hobbled off after Camille. “I’m going to do some science. I’ll catch you in the morning.”

After Natalie finished outlining her plan, I told her to go ahead with it and started designing a couple of carts we could make with our leftover wood. They were going to only have three wheels, but that would be enough. As my mind sunk into the details, I was happy to let everything else fade from my attention. Even if we were preparing for the possibility of alerting the monsters by sending out a signal they could pick up, that was still easier for me to consider than the splitting up of my group. At least we could shoot this problem.

The fourth day passed in a blur of work, science reports, preparation, and runners reporting that the snow still hadn’t lessened. The following morning, our fifth in the cave, we ate the last of our supplies and I told Natalie and Lucas to go ahead with cracking the keypad open. Natalie had figured out how to do it without damaging the components inside, so Lucas was mostly there to start and monitor the chemical reaction at her command.

I stood by with the carts and every ambulatory person set up in groups with at least one Wayfinder to guide them through the caves. Camille stood outside with the receiver and a runner waited to bring word to us if anything showed up. After waiting the amount of time Camille requested to get in place, I nodded to Natalie and Lucas who powered up the keypad, hung it back on the wall, and typed in the passcode.

Once the doors were open, I sent the groups in. I watched as the Nomads stumbled as they took in the lush interior of the bunker, clearly caught off guard by how comfortable it looked despite being a glorified stock room. The Wayfinders pulled them along, though, so all of the groups were hard at work collecting supplies when the runner showed up.

“We’ve got a signal, Captain. A strong one.”

“Shit.” I turned to Natalie. “We’ve got a signal. We’re packing up and leaving ASAP.”

“Captain.” Natalie saluted and turned to help gather supplies. I grabbed Lucas and half-carried him as we jogged back to the cavern with all of our injured people. I set Lucas back on his feet and we hurried around, gathering up everyone’s supplies and packing everything that had been left out after breakfast. By the time we’d gotten it all cleaned up and tucked away, the first of the carts showed up.

Lucas organized a human chain to unload the cart and, before the first rumbles of the next cart could be heard, the first cart was on its way back for a second load. The carts moved back and forth steadily for the next four hours. Between cart trips, a few groups of Nomads and Wayfinders would show up, hauling something too big for the carts or too fragile to pile on. During that time, we only got one message from Camille, two hours in, saying there’d been no sightings yet.

When we’d gotten everyone wrapped up, packed, strapped down, and ready to go, it had been just under five hours from the opening of the doors. We’d had no further word from outside, but I led everyone out, heading east toward Chicago. Every Wayfinder had their gun in their hands and there was an injured Wayfinder on each sled, holding a machine gun as we all peered into the snowstorm. Every passing second was horrible as we waited for something to come charging out of the snow at us.

After a minute or two of walking, we found Camille. She was standing next to a tree and, as we walked into view, she waved me over. I signalled to Natalie to keep the group moving and followed Camille into the blizzard. Once the sleds had been swallowed up by the snow, I caught up to her.

“What?”

“We’ve got sixteen confirmed kills. The snow is throwing them off a bit, but we’ve already had two injuries.” Camille grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into a shuffling jog. “They’re not serious, but one of them got tagged during the hit.”

“Tagged?” If Camille hadn’t been pulling me, I’d have frozen in place. “Who?”

“That trainee Natalie’s been teaching.”

“Fuck. Where’d Tiffany get hit?”

“Hand, luckily. We need you there for it, though.”

“Shit. Who has my-”

“I do.” Camille pulled me into a small copse of trees that created a bit of a wind break and, behind the giant snowbank piling up along one side, I found the two injured Wayfinders. One of them was standing on guard, watching the area and doing his best to ignore the woman seated on the ground next to him and the hole punched through the arm of his coat. I tossed the roll of tape from my repair bag to Camille and grabbed the medical bag Camille handed me in exchange.

I bent down next to Tiffany and she smiled up at me, her eyes sharp and brittle. “I did everything Camille said. Took off my glove, tied off at my wrist, and popped my emergency pain killer. Just get it over with.”

I nodded and checked her tourniquet. It was tight enough that her hand was blotchy purple and blue despite the fact that she couldn’t have had her glove off for more than a couple of minutes. “Look away and hold still.”

Tiffany grimaced and shut her eyes. I pulled out a sanitary wipe, swabbed around her wrist at the tourniquet, and then pulled out the bone saw. Swallowing the bile rising in my throat, I quickly cut through her wrist, cleaned up the ragged edges, and made sure to leave enough of a skin flap to sew over the stump. I checked the hand and the stump quickly, looking for the telltale signs of bright red that show how far the tag had spread. Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten further than her palm yet, so she was going to be fine.

Risking the heat loss, I pulled my gloves off and sewed her up. It wasn’t neat, but it just needed to help keep her from bleeding out and hold things in place until we made camp. I’d have to clean it up then, but we’d had more warmth and I could treat the amputation properly. Once that was over, I handed her a bottle with a few more painkillers in it, help her to her feet, and helped her stagger off toward the trail of the sleds.

As I passed Camille, who’d stood over us the entire time and seethed like this was her fault, I shrugged. “I’m just glad it was only a hand. Mind disposing of it?”

“Sure.”

“How many?”

“At least two dozen, so far as I can tell. Standard issue, though. Basic heat-sensing that only picked us up when we started shooting. We tried stabs and cold kills, but there were too many of them for us to handle before they made it to your trail. The rest of the ambush is leading them west.”

“Thank you, Camille.” I hoisted Tiffany’s good arm over my shoulders and pulled her up a bit. “Did you see which one tagged her?”

Camille shook her head. “I didn’t see her. These two were alone and he said it happened too fast for them to be sure. They say they got every single one of the shits, but usually they don’t resort to tagging until they know they’re going to run. Worst case scenario, we’ll have them breathing down our neck all the way to Chicago. Best case, they take the bait and head north.”

“I hope they take the bait. It’d be odd for them to tag someone and then not follow up on it once they’ve regrouped.”

“You can hope for that, if you want.” Camille shouldered her gun and gestured for the other Wayfinder trainee, Ben, to follow her. “I’m going to expect them, though. Just get her back to the sleds and we’ll find out eventually.”

“Stay safe. Please.” I put my free hand on Camille’s shoulder as she turned to leave, but she just kept going, giving me a thumbs-up as she went north, scooping up Tiffany’s hand as she went. Once the snow had swallowed her, I turned my attention back to Tiffany. “Let’s get you someplace you can sleep off the worst of this.” After making sure our gloves were firmly sealed against the weather again, I started double-timing it back to the sled path, silently saying a prayer of thanks to every god I’d ever heard of that it’d only been a hand. If she’d gotten tagged somewhere else, we’d have had to leave her behind.

Give how many people we’d already lost on this trip, we couldn’t afford to lose anyone else if we wanted to stand a chance of making it to Chicago. Nearly half of the Wayfinders who’d started this trip had died and there were probably more people than Lucas thinking seriously about retirement. Unless we were incredibly lucky or no one else died, we wouldn’t make it to the Chicago Enclave alive.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 22

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The first few days passed easily enough. I had trouble since my leg was only barely better and my muscles had weakened while I was recovering, but I still managed to stay on my feet the entire time. The two Wayfinders who couldn’t stay on their feet, though, were very grateful that we’d built the sleds a little bigger than we absolutely needed to. The Nomads had no trouble keeping up since we started out a little more slowly, but everyone was feeling worn out by our fifth day. After being able to rest in a warm and safe shelter for so long, even with the reminders of what we’d lost to get that shelter, it was especially difficult to be back to camping in the snow and constantly feeling cold.

I did what I could to keep morale up. I made a point of talking to everyone when we made camp, had very public conversations with Natalie about how great our progress was, and did everything I could to make our shared meals more interesting. However, there wasn’t much I could do since most of our rations where the light-weight, easily prepared kind and there wasn’t a lot of them to go around. We were all on full rations, of course, since we were moving, but there wasn’t much beyond the basic requirements. Nutritional supplements to make sure we got our vitamins, oatmeal, vegetable soups, and small portions of dried fruit and meat. Enough to stay healthy, but not enough to really feel like we were eating.

By the end of the first week, we were all sick of the food. There was no variety to be had, though, so there wasn’t much we could do aside from soaking the dried fruit in the oatmeal overnight and sticking the dried meat into the soup. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried that particular delicacy, but it’s basically a bunch of lumps of wet meat floating in soup. There isn’t much flavor mixing that happens. The whole idea is a lie you tell yourself to make the idea of eating the same food over and over again more appetizing.

Our only real stroke of luck as we traveled was finding a stand of fir trees right along our path on the second day. We took a bunch of branches to tie to the last sled so that they rubbed out some of the tracks we left. There were still signs of passage, of course, but it wasn’t clearly a sled and a bunch of people anymore.

At the end of the second week, we were all starting to get angry. We were still on track for rations and progress, but tempers flared every time we ate. There hadn’t been any scuffles and no one seemed inclined to start one, but the camp was a sea of sullen frowns that made it clear that no one wanted to talk to anyone. Not even my best attempts at charm could persuade anyone to talk or boost morale beyond the melancholic neutral it returned to between meals.

Midway through our third week, I called my first staff meeting. It was a little overdue, but we hadn’t really needed one until Lucas limped over to me at the end of the day and requested a private chat. Once we’d all gathered in our tent, I gestured for him to speak.

“One of the more injured Wayfinders, Morgan, slipped back into a coma today. I think the cold, combined with our general lack of access to proper food and more advanced medical treatment, is going to take them. They’re still responsive, but only barely. I couldn’t get them to eat anything but liquids.”

“Shit.” Camille put her face in her hands. “I thought they were fine?”

“Last I’d checked, Morgan was the more stable of the two.” I looked around at my friends. “What changed?”

“Eighteen days on a sled in the cold is barely enough rations to keep us going is what happened.” Lucas clenched a fist around his crutch and looked down. “It doesn’t help that we all feel useless riding along while you guys haul us around.”

“No, it probably doesn’t.” Natalie leaned forward and placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder. “Our only other options are to leave you behind or probably rip open your wounds by forcing you walk. Right now, we need to make good time since we’re already two days behind schedule and that’s not going to get any better if we make you limp.”

Lucas closed his eyes for a moment before taking a deep breath and sitting up, moving his shoulder out of Natalie’s reach. Natalie pulled her hand back and sighed. “C’mon, Lucas. It’ll be another ten days at the most. Then we’ll be there, we can take the time to resupply and wait. There’ll be enough space for all of us to get inside again and tons of food. This is one of our exclusive depots, so it should even have one of Cam and Marshall’s food bags in it. That means meat and bread, at least.”

Lucas shrugged and Camille crossed her arms. Before she could start tearing into him, I jumped in. “Lucas, what’s really the matter? You know we’re not leaving you behind and you know that you’re not going to walk for more than an hour before you’d be back on that sled with your recovery set back a week. What’s really going on?”

Lucas looked up at me, his face slack and his eyes more empty than I’d ever seen them before. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore, Marshall. I think that, when we get back to Chicago, I’m done.”

“Oh.”

Lucas looked back down at the ground and folded his hands over his injured leg. Silence reigned for almost a full minute before Natalie cleared her throat, breaking us out of our stunned reverie. “I think that, at the very least, we’re all going to take a long break once we get to Chicago. You’ll have time to rest, Lucas, before you need to for sure make a decision. At the same time,” Natalie turned toward Camille and I, glaring, “will respect whatever decision you make.”

“Of course we will!” Camille nodded, looking indignant. “We all volunteered for this and we love you. We won’t even think less of you! We’re the oldest active Wayfinders by half a dozen years, at least. Most would have retired by now.”

Lucas smiled and a little of the life returned to his face and eyes. While Camille was forcefully positive and Natalie was quietly supportive, I sat back and took it in. Lucas, the best scout I’d ever had and one of my closest friends since I left my parents’ home, was retiring. He’d gotten so worn out that he wanted to quit the organization we’d built together and I hadn’t noticed it was happening.

I folded my hands in my lap and looked down at them, not sure how to feel or what to think beyond the first feelings of guilt for not seeing the trouble my friend was having and the vague, often-ignored thought that I didn’t really have a reason to be out in the tundra anymore. Just as my mind was latching on to that thought, as it started calculating the years everyone I ever knew had been missing and the likelihood of anyone to survive all that time without getting to an enclave where they would have surely heard my name come up as the leader as the most crucial organization to the post-Collapse world, Natalie pulled at my elbow.

“Earth to Marshall. This is Natalie, requesting a comment on recent developments for my story on real life.”

I blinked and gave my head a little shake. “Sorry.” I looked up at Lucas and smiled, refocusing my mind on the friend who’d stuck with me for two decades as I led us all on a fruitless hunt for the people we’d lost. He’d never pushed, but I knew he’d given up on finding anyone well over a decade ago. “Whatever you decide to do, Luke, I’ll support you. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything less for you.”

Lucas’ eyes lit up and he started chuckling. “You all heard that, right? He finally did it. ‘Luke.’ I’ve been trying to get him to call me Luke since the day I met him. Almost thirty years of friendship and he finally dropped his insistence on calling me by my proper name.” Lucas reached up and wiped a couple of tears away. “I love you, you uptight moron.”

After a few hugs and some surreptitious eye-wiping, we all settled in for the night. First thing in the morning, I went to Morgan’s tent to check on them, but I couldn’t find anything I could do to improve their condition. I checked on them throughout the day, but their condition continued to rapidly deteriorate. By midday the next day, they were dead. My pre-lunch check found Morgan with no pulse, so we delayed an extra hour to bury them.

That night, things got worse. A sentry on patrol discovered an open tent flap and, upon investigation, realized that the three occupants were nearly frozen from the cold sweeping in through the gap. We managed to bring them around again, but all three of them, two Nomad children and one of the injured adults, wound up getting incredibly sick. Without the medical supplies the bandits had trashed, we didn’t have anything we could use to treat them. They lingered for a while, a day past when we were supposed to arrive at the depot and three days before we would have access to the medicine they needed, but they all passed away as well. When we finally arrived at our destination, it was a tired, dispirited group of people who finally walked up to the our target, a system of caves, a few hours into the morning as a light dusting of fresh snow started falling from the sky..

After telling the Wayfinders to set up a small perimeter and the Nomads to start unloading our supplies into the first chamber of the caves, I gestured for Natalie to lead the way. In the back of the winding cave system, following a path on a map Natalie produced, there was an old hi-tech bunker that used to belong to some millionaire “prepper” from before the Collapse. The prepper had never used it and, a few years after the Collapse, we’d found it still stocked with food, medical supplies, gadgetry, and batteries. We’d taken all the useful tech and distributed it around the Midwest, but we left all the food and medicine alone. It eventually became our main supply depot, with a group filling it back up once a year and every Wayfinder group that passed through taking stuff from it to resupply the various way stations we’d set up along our travel routes.

The only reason it was still viable at all, though, was because of the caves. The fact that they burrowed deep into the ground blocked all signals from entering or leaving the cave and it’s only connection to the outside world was a solar-powered keypad that unlocked purely mechanical blast doors. Whoever had funded this thing back in the day had been prepared for nuclear fallout and the dangers of EMP. It always amused me that, not only had they failed to use their bunker, the prepper had done everything right for all the wrong reasons.

When I chuckled as we walked finally made it to the bunker doors, Natalie just rolled her eyes. “Every time.”

“Every time. Like a squirrel forgetting a stash of nuts.” I smirked and shook my head. “But let’s just grab the keypad so it can get charged up. I’d like to get inside tonight.”

Natalie punched in the release code and the controller popped off the wall. The battery was dead, but the solar panel on the front was still clean and undamaged. A few hours of charging, maybe less with some direct sunlight, and we’d be good to go.

By the time we got outside, though, the light snowfall had turned into a blizzard. Everyone, even the Wayfinders, had retreated into the cave as powerful gusts of wind whipped the snow up into the air and obliterated any sign that we had passed through the area. It was impossible to see more than ten feet out of the cave and the only light we had came from the LED lanterns a couple of the Nomads held.

“Looks like we’re camping in the caves, tonight.” I sighed as Natalie started directing the Wayfinders. “Grab everything you can carry and follow me into a larger cavern that should be a little warmer. We’ll have to wait until the blizzard has ended to get into the bunker so, until then, make yourselves comfortable.”

A few hours later, after the Nomads had settled in and the Wayfinders had verified the cave system was entirely empty, I met Natalie, Camille, and Lucas in the entry cavern. “Is there any point to leaving that outside?” I pointed to the keypad in Natalie’s hand.

“No.” Natalie shook her head. “And what’s worse is that we’ve only got five days of food if we go on three-quarters rations. If the blizzard doesn’t end before then…”

“We’ll need to forage.” Lucas leaned against the wall of the cavern, looking at the snow. “In a blizzard.”

“Without our best hunters.” Camille folder her arms and joined Lucas is staring at the driving snow blowing past the cave’s entrance. “I could do it, but killing people is my specialty, not sneaking up animals.”

“We’ll figure something out.” I clapped Camille and Lucas on the shoulder. “We’ve got five days. If we start hunting now, we’ll turn up something to augment our supplies. And we’ve still got two scouts in good enough condition to go out if they’ve got someone with them. Don’t make more problems than we already have.” I smiled at them and pulled them back into the caves.

“He’s right.” Natalie made her way to the front of the group. “All we need is a bit more visibility and we should be good. If push comes to shove, if we can’t find any food and the blizzard is still going, I’ve got some ideas we could try.”

“See?” I skipped ahead a couple of steps to catch up to Natalie, wrapped my arm around her shoulders. “We’ll be fine. Let’s get back to where it’s warmer and rest for a few days. Even if the food is still bland, it’ll be nice to catch up on our sleep.” I gave Natalie a quick peck on the cheek and then let go of her. Camille picked up my positivity and Lucas laughed as Camille all but shouted cheerful aphorisms at him. I let the smile linger on my face as it vanished from my mind, replaced by thoughts of Lucas’ impending retirement and my own doubts about continuing as an active Wayfinder.

As we joined up with the rest of the Nomads, I pushed the thoughts out of my head again. This time, they didn’t leave completely. They stayed on the periphery of my mind, waiting for a quiet moment they could sneak into. That night, as everyone but the sentries slept around me, I lay awake and contemplated the past and the future.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 21

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Ultimately, we weren’t able to come up with a better solution than to tie our injured people to sleds. We had plenty of great ideas, even without Jonathan’s encyclopedic knowledge to guide us, but we had a severe lack of any kind of materials. Before the Collapse and the ensuing winter, this town had been mostly residential, catering to people passing through on their way to larger towns and the mega farms that used to coat this part of the midwest. There wasn’t a single electric engine to be found in the city and, even if we’d had gasoline, a combustion engine would make us the target of literally everything for miles around, so none of the tractor repair shops could help us.

All of our great ideas were useless, so we stuck to building light-weight wooden sleds with wide runners. They were much bulkier than our typical supply sleds, but we needed to put children and injured adults on them so they had to be. The upside of this was that multiple people could now pull a sled, allowing us to put a little more weight on them than we’d been able to do with the supply sleds. There’d be no mistaking the trail for anything but a large group of people, but we had enough guns and ammo to spray bullets at every problem until they went away.

Material gathering and design took a day, and sled production began in earnest three days after we buried our friends. I’d done some carpentry when I was younger, so I was able to lend our engineer, Jackson, a hand with overseeing the rest of the Wayfinders. We also had a Nomad who used to be a construction carpenter, so we finished the sleds a week before we had to leave.

It felt nice to be able to limp into the small storage room Natalie, Lucas, Camille and I used as our command center with good news. As I hobbled in the door, I smiled at my three friends and waved my free arm triumphantly. “All of the sleds are finished and have passed their preliminary drag tests. We can get four people on a single sled and we should be able to pull all of the Nomad children on one and the injured Wayfinders and supplies on the other without straining ourselves.”

Natalie looked up from her maps and reports. “Eight people? We’re not going to get much in the way of rotation if we need eight people per pulling shift.”

“Sure, but that should mean the shifts can be longer.” I stroked my beard for effect before tossing out the plan I came up with during the drag tests. “Or we can create two groups of two pullers per sled, so we can have five groups per sled rather than just the two. Two hours of pulling followed by three hours of just walking means that they only have to pull four hours out of our ten-hour schedule.”

Natalie absently nodded. “Ten hour days are the minimum, but they should get us there with a week of three-quarters rations to spare, even with the children sticking to full rations.”

“Plus, we won’t need to keep injured adults on the sleds the entire time.” Lucas leaned forward and gingerly tapped the swath of bandages around his leg. “I’ll be good to go about a week out from here, at the latest. Tim and Miles probably won’t be good to walk until after we get to the depot, but everyone else should be by the time I am.”

Camille snorted. “If you’re healed enough to walk before the depot, I will literally kiss my own ass.”

“I’m telling you, this isn’t as bad as it looks!” Lucas slapped his leg waved his crutch at Camille. “I’m just babying it so I can heal faster. Better than Marshall who is up and walking on his leg constantly.” Lucas stabbed his crutch at me and I shrugged. “He won’t even sit down for the end-of-day briefing.”

I shot a guilty look at the chair Camille had set out for me, but shook my head. “I have been sitting all day in the woodshop or the yard. If I have to sit through this, I’m going to gnaw my feet off in frustration. Plus, I haven’t accidentally burst my own stitches twice since getting sewn up and I didn’t get all the muscles in my thigh shredded by a poorly made bullet.”

Lucas opened his mouth to retort, but Camille cut him off. “Tiffany and I have been keeping watch. We haven’t seen any signs of the bandits and Laborers we sent away and I wasn’t able to find a trace of them in the city less than four days old. I’m guessing they moved somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you where, but I know it isn’t the direction we’re going.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Good. Did you still want extra guards? Now that the sleds are built, we won’t need as many people to finish up our last few building projects.”

“Yeah. Even just two people would be great. I’d like to cut down on the length of the shifts Tiff and I are taking and I’ve got a personal project I’d like to work on before we leave.”

“Yeah?” I arched my eyebrows.

“Yeah.” Camille crossed her arms. “It shouldn’t take more than a handful of days, even if I don’t lose any sleep or shifts to it.”

“What is it?” I waggled my eyebrows, trying to get a reaction from Camille. Lucas chuckled as he always did, but Natalie didn’t even look up from her papers.

“You’ll see.”

“Am I going to regret giving you permission?”

“Probably not. I think you’ll enjoy the end result, even if it’s going to be a little dangerous.”

“How dangerous?”

“If I set things up right, and I always do,” Camille leaned forward and looked me right in the eyes, face serious as she ignored my bouncing eyebrows, “it will be perfectly safe to all of our people and one hundred percent lethal to the bandits who come racing back in here as soon as they know we’ve left.

“Ah.” I stopped wiggling my eyebrows and Lucas’ chuckles cut off. “Let me know if you need more than two guards so you can get that done. I’d prioritize it higher, if you can.”

Natalie looked up. “Really?”

“Yes.” I glanced at Natalie. “I don’t want to run the risk that this place goes back to being a base for people preying on people traveling through here.” I turned my attention back to Camille, my face a match for hers. “Whatever it takes.” Camille simply nodded.

“Great!” Lucas hauled himself to his feet and settled his weight on his crutch. “Now that we’ve gotten everything sorted out for today, I’m going to grab some dinner and hit the hay. I’m bushed.”

Natalie nodded and started picking up her papers. I gave her a hand while Camille pushed all of the chairs to the side of the room. While I helped Natalie sort through the messy pile we’d made, Camille helped Lucas out of the room and shut the door behind her. Abandoning the pretense of being busy, I reached out and embraced Natalie. She hugged me back before firmly pushing me in the chair I’d been ignoring.

“Let’s get your leg checked out.”

“I can do it just fine, thank you.” I set my crutch aside and started rolling up my pant leg.

“No, you idiot.” Natalie slapped my hand away. “You’re going to pull all your bandages off if you roll it up. You need to take your pants off.”

“Only if you take off yours.” I winked at Natalie.

Natalie chuckled but shook her head. “Not right now. I’ve got to oversee rationing for dinner and check out our medical stores. I need to know how much longer you’re going to need bandages.”

“Oh, I see how it is.” I pulled my belt off and slid down my pants. “You’re just interested in what’s in my pants, not me.”

“Yep.” Natalie poked at my leg and peeled back a couple of my bandages to inspect the healing wounds behind them. “That’s me. Only interested in one thing. Definitely not concerned with your well-being at all.”

“I bet you say that to all the injured people who let you into their pants.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice. Now put your pants back on. We can check your injuries again later, once I’m finished updating all our stock logs with the supplies we retrieved today.” Natalie winked at me.

I sighed as I carefully pulled my pants back up and cinched my belt tight. “If you want. I’m still pretty wiped so I don’t know if I’ve got enough in me for more than jokes tonight.”

“Marshall!” Natalie gasped in mock surprise as she helped me to my feet, temporarily taking the place of my crutch as we hobbled toward the door. “You really are getting old!”

I laughed and hugged her tightly before stepping out the door and putting my weight back on my crutch. “Maybe I am! Only time will tell, if it hasn’t already.”

Natalie patted my arm and kissed me on the cheek before rushing off to the supply rooms and kitchen with her neat stack of papers. I hobbled after her, a bit more slowly, and waited in the mess hall for whatever dinner tonight’s cooks managed to cobble together.

The next six days passed in a blur. I took up a couple of guard rotations between shifts helping build crates, repair packs, and create tents to replace the ones that had been lost during our capture. Camille disappeared entirely for two days, only to reappear and refuse to answer questions about where she went. Lucas’ wound continued to heal slowly and the two heavily injured Wayfinders finally stabilized to the point of not needing constant observation. By the time we packed up to leave, it was our last night and we were all looking forward to our last properly cooked meal before we ventured out into the cold.

It was a somber affair, as it wound up as a cross between a memorial dinner for the people we lost and a last chance to eat well before the cold and snow forced us to live off of pre-cooked or dried meat and whatever grains we could soak in snowmelt. It was a quiet, sleepy group that set out the following morning, but I could tell everyone was ready to move on. We’d lost a lot, getting here, and everyone just wanted to find someplace safe they could rest until the pain of our losses had started to fade.

Until then, we had four weeks of travel between us and the depot with only five weeks of supplies. Five weeks beyond that lay the safety and shelter of Chicago. If we weren’t delayed, we’d make it with a week and a half before the next storm was supposed to pass. If we were delayed, we were probably going to get caught in a blizzard and wind up dead. It was a sobering thought, but I had faith in Natalie’s plotting. Nothing short of a complete disaster could affect her overall plan and, knowing her, she’d build in enough extra time to account for two such disasters.

I tried to project that confidence as we set out, but it was difficult to do that while strapping a few injured Wayfinders to a sled reminding them that they were responsible for watching our backs. My limp didn’t help, either. I didn’t need a crutch anymore and we’d replaced the few stitches I had with superglue, but it still hurt to move around too much so I was constantly fighting the pain. I’m pretty sure all I projected was a slight amount of frustration mixed with determination to get moving.

Thankfully, everyone seemed to be on the same page so we managed to get under way quickly. We had a long way to go, but it immediately seemed shorter once we got moving. I felt everyone’s spirits lift as we left the town and people saw how easily the sleds moved. In fact, as we completed our first mile outside the city, people started to seem downright happy.

Just as I was about to call out a shift change, though, there was a tremendous explosion behind us, followed shortly by the “whump” of the blastwave flying past us. Thankfully, all it did was startle everyone and knock a couple people over. As the Nomads ran to their children to quiet them, I turned to Camille.

“They didn’t wait very long.” Camille gestured over her shoulder at the giant cloud of smoke rising towards the sky. “They had a lot of dynamite stored up for digging out the underground areas. Now, there’s none left.” Camille shrugged and smiled. “And now there’s no more bandit base.”

I watched the cloud of smoke for a moment longer before turning my attention back to my people. “Alright, first shift change. Let’s get back to moving again. I don’t want stick around to find out what shows up to investigate that explosion.” I saw a few heads nod and, a few moments later, everyone was moving forward again, even faster than before. No one else wanted to find out, either.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 20

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I woke up again, I was back in the bunk room again. Thankfully, I wasn’t strapped to the bed this time and Natalie was waiting beside my bed rather than Lucas. I turned my head over to her and smiled. “Hey, gorgeous.”

Natalie looked up from the papers she had in her lap and smiled back at me. “Ah, sleeping beauty awakes!”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I put my head back down, yawned, and mimed falling back asleep. “I haven’t been woken by true love’s kiss, so I think I might go back to sleep to wait for that.” I closed my eyes and gave a few loud, fake snores.

“Then allow me to be your gallant prince, my sweet.” I heard Natalie’s chair clatter as she stood up and then, as I puckered up for the kiss, I felt a slimy finger stick into my ear.

“Ugh!” I opened my eyes and tried to leap to my feet. As I sat up to do so, Natalie placed her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back down to the bunk, laughing all the while.

“Sorry, Marshall.” Natalie leaned over and kissed me on the lips. “I couldn’t resist!”

“I bet you couldn’t.” I glared at her as I wiped at dampness clinging to my ear. After Natalie returned to her seat, I pulled myself into a sitting position and checked out my leg. Camille must have done a good job because the swath of bandages wasn’t showing the slightest hints of red. A few lances of pain seared through my leg as I twisted it around, but that was it.

“You have been out for almost ten hours. You woke up a little when the painkillers Camille wore off, but only enough to drink a little water.” Natalie picked up her papers again. “Camille is currently out with the prisoners and I’m working on trying to figure out possible routes so we decide what to do once you’re awake.”

I poked at my leg a little, check that it still had feeling. As I turned to Natalie, I poked one of the spots that must have held a larger chunk of shrapnel at one point and the sudden wave of pain almost laid me out again. “How-” I gritted my teeth and forced myself to stay up while silently berating my own idiocy. “How much longer until Camille gets back?”

“She left two hours ago, so it’ll probably be another six to ten hours.”

“Alright.” I propped my leg up on the bunk and shifted around so I could lean back comfortably. “What are our options?”

Natalie unfolded what turned out to be a map and pointed to a single green dot in a sea of black lines and little notes. “This is where we are.” She pointed to a few red dots she had marked. “Here are all of the supply cache locations I know of. I suspect there’s one over here and another to the south.” She pointed to two yellow dots. “But I’m not certain. Without Jonathan around, I’m not willing to risk it on my memory alone.”

I nodded. “Why do we need to hit a supply cache? Even if the bandits ate all our food first, we should have had enough stockpiled in our base to entirely resupply.”

Natalie looked down and shook her head. “They’d brought in everything we’d stockpiled and trashed the base.”

I could feel my stomach descending through my body, weighed down by dread. “Then why are we sending people out for supplies? There should be plenty here?”

“The last of the bandit resistance burned the food stores. Almost everything we brought, everything we’d stockpiled, and most of the food the bandits had was destroyed.” Natalie stared down at the map in her hands. “Camille didn’t want to mention that last night, not while you were still so tired.”

“Right.” I sighed and rubbed my face in my hands, ignoring the flashes of pain I felt as I touched bruises from a few days ago. “Which is why we’ve only got three weeks.”

Natalie nodded. “Yes, and that’s only if we go for the closet supply cache, which would mean going due south on a long path toward St. Louis. Any of the others would change how long we can rest.”

“Damn.” I took a few deep breaths while I processed this. “Well, since we’re not taking the laborers to their destination anymore, I suppose our old plans don’t really matter.”

“Yes. The Nomads will follow us wherever we go, since they wouldn’t stand a chance out here on their own, now, even with all the guns we could give them from the arsenals here. Given the extent of our injuries, though, I think we should probably head back north or east, even though that’s one of the furthest caches. We’re too too injured and we’ve lost too many people to maintain our normal operations.”

“How many people do we have, total?” I scratched at my beard and tried to remember the last reports I’d read on the areas outside of our intended path.

“Twelve Wayfinders in good health, two who might still make it, and one who probably won’t. Eleven Nomad adults and all seven Nomad children, all of whom are in excellent condition.”

“Way too many untrained people for stealth, then.” I almost had to physically bite back the desire to which Wayfinder wasn’t likely to survive. There’d be time for that once a decision was made. I took a moment to clear my mind and then nodded to Natalie. “Tell me what we know about all the other routes.”

I listened as she spoke, talking about routes, the last reports she could find, the distance and terrain separating us from the caches along her proposed routes, and the kind of resources we would have available to us at each of our potential end destinations. Eventually, as the silence following the last route outline grew, I sighed. “I guess we’re going to Chicago. We’re going to need a lot of supplies and that is the hub of the midwestern Wayfinders.”

Natalie nodded. “I agree. This is our best long-term option. I’ll start figuring out how we’ll need to ration our supplies in order to get to the cache once Camille returns.”

“Good.” I lay back down on the bunk as Natalie stood and wearily closed my eyes. “Wake me up when she gets back. I need to handle the bandits and Laborers.”

“Of course, Love.” Natalie bent over to give me another kiss and I smiled up at her. “I’ll do my best Prince Charming impression, my sleeping beauty.”

A few hours later, when Natalie woke me with a kiss, I actually managed to get to my feet. The twinges in my leg were still bad, but not so bad that I couldn’t ignore them when I walked. I did a few turns around the room while Natalie watched to make sure I could maintain it before following her out of the room and down the hall to the large storage room we were keeping the prisoners.

When I got there, I found Camille and the two uninjured Wayfinders standing guard at the door. Just inside, there was a large crate with a smaller crate next to it and, beyond that, were all of the prisoners sitting with their arms behind their backs and the legs folded beneath them. I stepped up onto the taller box, flanked by the two Wayfinders who just so happened to be carrying the automatic rifles that Laborers on the balcony had been wielding, and Camille stepped up onto the smaller box beside me.

“You’re all probably going to die.” I glared out at them, resisting the urge to just have them all gunned down where they sat. “Some of you are traitors and the scum of the earth. The rest are lawless bandits preying on innocent travellers.” One of the laborers leaned for, opening his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “I don’t care how you feel or what you think. The only reason you’re not all dead right now is because we had something for you to do. That’s done. The only reason you’re not getting gunned down for your crimes right now is because it would be a waste of bullets.”

A different laborer rushed to his feet and was shot in the chest, three times in rapid succession, by Camille. A couple bandits and a few of the laborers, in the process of following their companion, froze. I chuckled. “There’s always one. For those of you listening, I said you’re only probably going to die. Those of you who aren’t morons know this means you have a chance. That chance disappears if you do anything but silently sit here and listen.”

All of the people frozen in place settled back to the ground and one of the laborers off to the side started weeping. I carried on. “You’re going to be stripped of everything but your clothing and sent out into the city. If you come back here, you’ll be shot dead. If you try to follow us when we leave, you’ll be shot dead. If you can survive until we’ve left here, you can have what’s left of this place once we blow up anything resembling a fortress or a cell.

“There are plenty of supplies and warm nooks in this city, but you’ll have to find them on your own and then stay there. If we see so much as a glimpse of any of you, we’ll assume you’re trying to follow us and kill you. Stay away until we’re gone and you should be able to survive. That is, assuming you’ve got any survival skills and weren’t planning to rely on stealing from people passing by in order to survive. If we get any reports of bandits out this way, I will personally come back here and hunt down every last one of you.”

I looked each one of them in the eye, though most of them wouldn’t meet my gaze. The only laborer who would was the crying laborer who started talking as soon as my eyes landed on him. “Please, Captain Marshall. I had no choice! All of them decided to betray you to the bandits and there was nothing I could do!”

I stepped off the box. “You could have done literally anything to warn us. Leave a message, take one of us aside, help us escape, or just argue against their plans. But you didn’t. You threw your lot in with them and now you will face the same consequences.” I walked over to him and looked down at his red, tear-stained face. “I lost more of my friends and family guaranteeing your safety and the safety of people like you than I want to remember. Thinking about it makes me angry and, the longer I think about how many burials I’ll be attending tonight, the more I want to just shoot you all now.”

I turned around and walked back toward the door. “You will be released one at a time, starting with you.” I pointed to the bandit nearest the door. “Stand up and come with me.”

I guided the shackled man through the hallways of what used to be his base and dropped him off at the processing room where Lucas and one more of his scouts were waiting with thirty sets of winter gear, taken from the storage rooms near were I’d been imprisoned. Once he was uncuffed and suited up, I guided him to the door. “Leave.”

The bandit looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and then took off running. I watched him go for a minute before returning to the detention room for the next bandit. I repeated that for all twenty-eight of our other prisoners and only one person, our third prisoner, tried to escape in the equipment room. Lucas stabbed him through the winter coat he was wearing and then dragged the body out into the snow beside the door. The red stain on the concrete floor seemed to convince everyone else that doing as they were told was their best bet.

By the time the last Laborer was pushed out the door, night was falling. I watched them go and turned around to find Camille behind me. “Thanks, Camille.”

“I’ve always got your back, Marshall.” She punched me in the shoulder and then pulled my arm over her shoulders. “Now let’s get you to the mess hall for dinner and get you a crunch so don’t make your leg any worse.”

“That sounds fine to me.” I sighed and let Camille half-carry me through the hallways. “We’ve got to leave in a week if we’re going to make it to the cache. We’re heading towards Chicago.”

Camille grunted. “Natalie had said as much. I’m going to have to find some snowshoes and build you a snow crutch or something.”

I laughed, imagining how awkward it’d be to hobble around with three snowshoes. Two was hard enough as it was. “I should be better by then.”

Camille was silent for a moment and, when she finally spoke, it was so soft I could barely hear her. “Lucas won’t.”

I nodded. “We’ll figure something out for him and any of the others who are too hurt to walk. We aren’t leaving anyone else behind.”

“Even if they volunteer so they aren’t holding us up?”

“I will personally tie anyone who even suggests that to a sled.”

Camille chuckled a little. “I’d like to see you try that. Almost all of the surviving Wayfinders could kick your ass without breaking a sweat, even as injured as they are.”

I shrugged. “Sure, but they can’t kick yours and you already said you’ve got my back, so you’re stuck fighting all my battles for me while I’m injured.”

I could feel Camille roll her eyes and I smiled as she shifted my arm into a more comfortable position. “Sure thing, Captain.”

“Now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, let’s go get some dinner so we can bury our friends on a full stomach.” My stomach twisted in a knot as I said that, but I had already ordered every Wayfinder to show up at dinner so I couldn’t exactly skip out either. Even if we were eating reduced rations, the icy tundra that was our home wouldn’t forgive us for skipping a meal. It was going to be a rough month without facing starvation in the frozen wilderness and there was no guarantee we’d even be able to avoid that.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 19

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I woke up groaning. My shoulders and back were killing me. I also had a throbbing itch in one of my legs, but I was so caught up in trying to move my upper body without moving my head that I couldn’t tell which one it was. I also couldn’t seem to get my eyes to open. They felt like they were crusted together. I tried to lift my hands to my face to wipe them away, but someone grabbed my hand before I could more than half lift them.

“Cap, stop.”

“Lucas?”

“Yeah, hold on. We had to tie you to the bunk last night so you’d finally get some rest.”

A few hazy images of stumbling around a makeshift operating room until I had to be propped up by one of my assistants wandered to the front of my mind, but they were immediately banished by the memory of why. “Shit.”

“You can be angry as you want, Cap, but you gotta direct it at me because not even Camille was willing to try to stop you. I had to carry you out of there.” Lucas rustled over me for a minute and then I felt the tension on my chest and shoulders lessen. Before I could move, he also pressed a warm, damp cloth into my hands.

“No, not that.” I gingerly lifted my hands to my face and wiped away the built up gunk around my eyes. “Jonathan.”

“Oh.” My first sight, after opening my grimy-feeling eyes, was Lucas looking off toward the door of the bunkroom. “Yeah.”

“Did…” I looked down at my hands and twisted the damp rag until moisture beaded on its surface. “Did anyone make it?”

Lucas nodded. “You managed to save a few lives, Mar. You couldn’t save everyone, but none of them would have had a chance if you hadn’t tried. No one else was able to save anyone, though.”

I nodded, swallowing past the lump in my throat as I remembered trying to find the bullet in Jonathan, only a couple of minutes after he’d been carted away, and feeling his heart spot as I frantically tried to remember what to do about his damaged lung. “Shit, Lucas.”

Lucas turned back to me, wiping at his misty eyes. “We haven’t buried anyone yet. We were waiting for you to wake up while we tended to the minor injurious and prepared everyone for burial. Once you’re ready, we can start.”

I nodded and tried to haul myself to my feet. Only after I’d put weight on my throbbing leg did I remember my shrapnel wounds from the night before. “Double-shit. I need someone to pull some metal out of my leg.”

“What?” Lucas had hauled himself to his feet and pulled a makeshift crutch out from beneath his chair, so his spin to look at me knocked over his chair and the bunk I’d been sitting on. “What’re you talking about?”

“I got hit in the leg and just taped over it.” I gestured to the swath of silver coating my leg. “I need someone to pull the bits out and clean the wounds before they get infected.”

“Right. You’re two doors down from your operating room, so just head there and I’ll send someone over to do that.” Lucas gently pushed the chair out of his way and then hobbled off toward the door. “Glad you’re alright, Mar.”

“You too, Lucas.”

“Want me to send Nat in with Cam, to make the picking and report more palatable?”

“If she can be spared.”

“Of course.” Lucas nodded and, as he turned to leave, muttered “given the shape we’re in, we’re not going anywhere soon.”

I sighed and, after a deep breath that made my head throb, limped down the hall to my trashed operating room. All of the blood had been cleaned up and someone had taken away all the used tools to be sanitized, but there were still piles of bandages in the corner, covered by a giant wad of the sanitary paper mats we used to ensure our people were at least resting on something clean. I spread a new one on the table and settled myself on it to wait for someone with steadier hands. While I waiting, I carefully cut the tape and my pants away from my leg and checked the wound for signs of infection.

Natalie was the first in the door and would have rushed over to me immediately if I wasn’t in the process of poking at one of the sharp metal bits that was actually sticking out of my leg. I was still too tired to feel anything but the pain in my head and the knot in my back, so I was doing my best to check the depth of some of them before it started hurting enough to break through my mental fog. Instead, she walked around behind me, kissed me on the back of the head, and started gently pulling on my shoulders.

“Marshall, leave that alone.”

I did as she said and leaned back against her. “Hi, Natalie.”

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

“How are you? You looked pretty beaten up the last time I saw you.”

Natalie gently patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t anything a good night’s sleep and a shower couldn’t fix. Jonathan and I were trying to play them while we waited for Cam to bust us out.” I felt Natalie stiffen a bit. “It worked pretty well, for the most part.”

I bobbed my head up and down. “I wish I could have saved him.”

“I know. You did your best and you did more than anyone could have hoped. Three people will get to live who probably wouldn’t have without your help.”

“Jonathan could have saved them all. Hell, even Tristan could have. None of them were particularly complicated or difficult for someone who knows-”

“Marshall, stop.”

I considered letting my mouth ramble on for a while, but I trusted Natalie’s opinions. After a moment, she went back to absently patting my shoulder. I leaned back into her for a moment longer before sitting up again. “If no one else gets here soon, I’m going to start pulling shrapnel out on my own”

“Cam will be along in a minute and she’s probably in the best shape to clean you up anyway. She made it through unharmed again, aside from some bruised knuckles.”

“Luckiest woman alive, she is.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Natalie leaned around and kissed me on the side of my jaw that wasn’t bruised. “I think she’s got some competition for that title.”

I was about to turn my head for a proper kiss, tension-be-damned, when the door bounced open and Camille walked in. I sighed and settled for leaning back against Natalie again. “Patch me up, doc.”

“Sure thing. Take two of these and you won’t feel a thing.” Camille handed me a couple of tablets that I popped. “You look like shit, Cap.”

“And you look like you got everything you wanted for Christmas.”

Camille smirked as she grabbed the clean forceps off the table. “I killed a bunch of assholes and, despite being entirely captured, most of us are still alive. We lost a lot of good people, but everyone still alive at this point should stay that way unless I totally botch this.”

“That’s not a status report.” I frowned at Camille who was smiling evilly at me.

Camille’s smile flickered for a moment. “No, I’m waiting until the pain meds start to kick in before I give you that. It’ll make it easier to do if you’re mostly out.”

“Camille…”

“There are a dozen Wayfinders in good health and three more who are still at risk. You did a good job of keeping them alive, but there’s still a chance they might not make it. We have seven Nomad children, only five of which still have both parents. Three of the male Nomads are still alive, as are eight of the Nomad women which includes that badass grandma who killed almost as many bandit shitheads as most of us Wayfinders did. We’ve captured nine Laborers, but it looks like only six will survive their wounds without medical care which I’ve refused to waste on those traitors.

“Let me know if this hurts at all.” Camille bent over my leg and started pulling shards of metal out, slowly and carefully. It twinged a little, but I barely felt it. “We’ve got thirteen bandits who surrendered immediately and about that many who will survive their injuries. Give or take a few. Some of the injured ones tried to escape, and I would be surprised if they survived their additional wounds.”

Natalie pulled out the wing of the table and pressed me down against it. “That would be a small blessing. We’ve only got our original supplies plus maybe another couple of days’ worth. One of the last things the resisting bandits did was burn their larders. Our stuff only survived because it’s still sitting outside to stay cold or in a storeroom in the eastern wing.”

“How’s that going…” I shook my head a little to clear the thickening fog. “Are we going to be alright if we wait here to heal?”

“Only if we are ready to leave in three weeks.” Natalie sighed. “Which isn’t enough time but that’s the maximum time we can stay if we’re going to make it to any of the supply depots I remember. Jonathan had the full list, and I know there are some closer, but I can’t remember exactly where.”

I closed my eyes and nodded, fighting back another pointless wave of guilt. “Got it.”

“And even that is only if we used the healthy bandits and laborers to gather the local supplies I found and then almost immediately send them away.”

Camille looked up at Natalie, her face shifting from concentration to frustration. “We don’t have enough healthy people to monitor a group like that. I’d need at least five people for the twenty-ish people who would include and we’ve only got two other uninjured people.”

“There are a few others who are lightly injured. By the morning, they should be well enough to help out.”

Camille frowned and went back to working on the last couple holes. “I guess. I don’t like it.”

“It’ll only be one trip.” Natalie patted my hand when I grimaced at the sensation of Camille digging around in my leg.

“I guess that’s alright.” I yawned. “I think all the pain was the only thing keeping me–” I yawned again, “–awake.”

“Then sleep. Your face looks like a nightmare.” Camille waved a hand at my face. “Sleep. I’ll take care of turning the prisoners into pack mules before sending them on their way. We’ll take care of the burials tomorrow evening, after I’ve finished with them.”

“Alright.” I gingerly wiped at my eyes. “I love you, Natalie.”

“I love you too, Marshall.” Natalie leaned down and gingerly kissed me on the lips. I felt my face pull into a slightly painful smile as I let myself drift off.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 18

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When we opened the door, the rain of bullets flying out met nothing but empty air. One grenade rolled out, but Camille kicked it back as she and two other Wayfinders chucked a handful of grenades through the door. Half a second later, the bang of the grenades exploding was accompanied by the shriek of metal and the screams of whoever had been trying to keep us out. Camille dropped to the floor, peeked around the door, and then waved us in.

At the end of the hallway, right in front of the next door, was a machine gun mounted on top of what used to be a metal barricade. All that was left of the checkpoint was some gore, twisted metal, and the acrid smell of explosives. I stacked up on the door, two Nomads behind me and Tiffany, one of the Wayfinders trainees, across from me. I nodded to her and, after nodding back, she pulled the door open.

I fired at the first bit of movement I saw and heard someone curse as they dodged away behind one of the I-beam pillars. As I took in the rest of what looked like a large gathering hall, I noticed there were barricades set up around the bases of each of the pillars. A closer looked showed they were our barricades, but I had to duck behind the door again before I could get a count of how many there were.

“They’ve got our barricades set up!” I yelled over the din of gunfire from the gathering hall to Camille who was still looking around the corner at the far end of the hallway. “We’re going to need more grenades.”

“But your barricades!” One of the Nomads, a man who looked maybe a few years older than I was, poked his head out into the open doorway for a moment before a bullet whizzed past his face. He flattened against the wall again, his eyes glassy with a mixture of fear and adrenaline. “Won’t you need them?”

“Not if we’re dead. Pull!” I grabbed one of the grenades tossed forward by Camille and, after pulling the pin and waiting a second, tossed it high into room. It landed behind the barricade my first target had hidden behind and I watched as three bandits scrambled out from cover to get away from the grenade. They weren’t fast enough.

One of the grenades that had landed near the center, short of the others, burst into smoke and, after a few seconds, I waved my group forward. We rushed forward and off to the side, directly toward the now-smoking ruins of the barricades I’d hit with my grenade. With the Nomads covering us, Tiffany and I did our best to reassemble the barricades in a dozen seconds, took cover behind them, and cleared out the next set of barricades from our position. After trading places with the Nomads, Tiffany and I rushed forward again, to the next barricade, moved them around, and then settled in for a longer slug fest.

All across the smoke-filled room, we listened to the crack of rifles as our squads moved through the smoke to engage the bandits. Every so often, a bandit would pop up from behind a barricade to shoot and Tiffany or I would take them out. Just as the smoke started to clear, a grenade sailed out of the smoke and landed next to us. I kicked at it, scooting it across the floor, but Tiffany tackled me away from the barricade, swept around to the front, and then started pulling me around it as the grenade went off.

A few bits of shrapnel hit me in the left leg as I was being dragged around, but the barricades protected us from the worst of it. I started to roll around to the front, but Tiffany slumped over on top of me. I immediately pulled her around the other side of the twisted barricade and fired a few blind shots over it to cover me while I checked her out.

The battle raged around me as I provided first aid to a bullet wound in her side. Thankfully, it had mostly just taken a chunk out of her side as it went rather than going through her or hitting bone, but she was definitely out of the fight. I covered it with gauze, wrapped the whole thing in some duct tape, and then told her to get back to the rest of the injured people when we cleared the room. After she nodded, I wrapped some tape around the oozing shrapnel wounds in my leg, and rejoined the battle.

A few minutes that felt like hours later, we’d cleared the hall, blocked all the doors but the our retreat, and started taking the wounded back to join the rest. No one died, thankfully, but we had two more Wayfinders out of commission, including Tiffany who was angry she wouldn’t be able to help rescue Natalie, and only one Nomad. After collecting the surviving bandits, we took their remaining ammo and grenades before tying them all to tables, spread eagle so they couldn’t move.

While I was heading that up, trying to ignore the pain in my leg as I walked, Camille rigged up traps on every door but the first one we planned to search. There had been no sign of Natalie, Jonathan, or the bandit leader, so we were going to have to search through what the map we found called the dormitory, the training rooms, and the ‘homes,’ which were basically large apartments that went underground rather than further up. Apparently, the bandits had planned to make this a permanent city.

After Camille was finished, we stacked up on the door again and repeated our earlier procedure, this time with the help of the mobile barricades we hadn’t wrecked. Open door, let bullets fly, grenades, approach, cover, return fire, and then throw a couple of grenades or shoot until all bandits are killed.

The first door, to the training rooms, went quickly. There were almost no bandits in there and, after we blew up the checkpoint and machine gun nest, the rest surrendered. The apartments weren’t even dug up yet, so the hallway ended in a gigantic empty concrete room–larger than even the gathering hall–with a dirt floor covered in digging equipment. By Camille’s count, we’d only killed a little over half of the bandits we’d seen and only a handful of the Laborers. As a result, we changed strategies a little bit when it came to assaulting the dormitory.

This time, when we opened the door, we just threw in a few grenades and then slammed the door shut again. After they went off, we opened it back up and fired blindly down the hallway. When no response came, we peeked around the door and found the checkpoint deserted. The machine gun, a chunk of twisted metal at this point, resting on the ruined remains of the metal barricade.

“Camille.”

“Yeah, Cap?”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, Cap.”

“What now?” I stepped into the hallway, following Camille as she silently stalked forward.

Camille shook her head and signaled me to stop following her. I fell back to the door, gesturing for every else to do the same. She held her rifle tightly to her chest and crept forward until she was pressed against the wall next to the door. She carefully put an ear to the door and didn’t move for a couple of minutes. Eventually, when she finally heard whatever she was listening for, her face hardened and she made her way back to us, silently but swiftly.

“They’ve got something prepared on the other side of that door.” Camille was whispering as she pulled everyone back from the hallway and closed the door.

“We need to figure out how to spring their traps safely. Can we blow through the door?” I held up my last grenade.

“Probably not.” Camille held up a single grenade. “We’ve only got five left and it took almost two dozen to get that first door open. I’ve got a different idea.”

I put my grenade back on my belt and stood back. “You’re in command. You don’t need my permission.”

She nodded but I the hard look on her face still hadn’t faded. “Grab some of the injured but still mobile prisoners.”

“Ah.” I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “You sure?”

“I said it, didn’t I?” Camille gestured to two of the Wayfinders. “Each of you pick out a prisoner and bring them back here.”

Five minutes later, hands tied to their empty guns, Camille sent them forward to stack up on the door and, after a moment, open it. Judging from the way the prisoners eagerly went along with the plan, Camille seemed torn about changing it. Before she had a chance to change it, the prisoners rushed forward and yanked open the door. As they did so, we all dove for cover and prepared for the worst.

A moment later, the door into the hallway was blocked by concrete and everyone outside it was covered in aggregate dust. “Shit.” I coughed.

Camille stood up and shook most of the dust off her head. “Everyone up and get your guns on that door way! I want Marshall, Alice, and Lauren to set up barricades to cover our backs if they show up through some secret door. Everyone else, pair up with someone and take turns getting your faces clear. Move!”

A busy minute later, we were all set up around the filled doorway, waiting for something to happen. A few more minutes ticked by until, finally, we heard the voice of the bandit leader somewhere above us.

“A pity that trap didn’t catch more of you. Three should be enough, though. There are so few of you left.”

We all looked up. At the top of the main hall, some thirty feet above the ground at the opposite end that we’d originally entered from, a light had turned on and a small balcony was being lowered. I could see figures standing in the shadows of the alcove that must lead to somewhere in the dormitories.

“You’ve done an excellent job, but it ends here. You’ve got some of my soldiers, and I’ve got some of your commanders. We can trade and you can be on your way with whatever you’ve got in your hands, or we can kill your commanders and then shoot you from up here. There’s not enough cover for you to hide behind, at this angle.”

Al stepped forward, pulling Natalie by her elbow. From the bloody look of her face, they’d apparently been interrogating her. Jonathan didn’t look any better. They both had their hands restrained behind their backs and both got prodded to the edge of the balcony by Laborers wielding automatic rifles. “If you do anything but lower your guns, we push your people to their deaths.”

“Cam.” I whispered, not even daring to move my mouth. I heard her clear her through and the almost silent click of safeties being released. “How do we know we can trust you? What’s to stop more of your people from gunning us down as soon as we lower our weapons?”

“My word.” Al spread his hands smiled his same, vile little smile. “That’s all the assurance you’ll get fro-”

Five rifles cracked in unison and Al, two bandits, and the two Laborers with their guns trained on Natalie and Jonathan, all fell. Natalie spun, ducked, and pulled her hands around to the front. She grabbed one of the automatic guns and kicked the other to Jonathan. They both opened fired into the alcove and the rest of the Wayfinders weren’t far behind. A few seconds later, it was all over.

I ran forward and started stacking tables with the help of the other Nomads while Camille got the rest of the Wayfinders into a better position to monitor the alcove. Within a few minutes, we had a stack that was high enough for Jonathan and Natalie to drop down onto. Instead of them both hopping down, Natalie lowered Jonathan to me. “Grab him!”

I grabbed Jonathan and helped him to the floor, Natalie following behind. When he got there, I realized he’d been hit in the chest during the firefight, only staying on his feet due to adrenaline. “Shit!”

Natalie swept up, grabbed my first-aid kit, and started cutting off Jonathan’s shirt. “Hold him. I need to see if it came out the back.”

I called over two of the Nomads and we gently rolled Jonathan onto his side as Natalie continued to cut his shirt away. A moment later, I heard her swear. “No exit?”

She shook her head. “It’s still in there, somewhere. Where’s Tristan?”

I gritted my teeth. “He died in an ambush at a checkpoint when we first broke out.”

“Can you do it?”

I looked down at my suddenly nerveless hands. “I can try. I don’t know nearly enough for this, though.”

Jonathan coughed suddenly. “I can…” Jonathan coughed again and I saw blood fly out of his mouth. “W-walk you through it.”

“Sure thing, Jon. Just take it easy.” Right as I turned to yell, two Wayfinders appeared with a stretcher. “Get him on that and get him into one of the storerooms. They’re cleaner than this place, right now. Grab all the first-aid kits you can find and see if they still have Jonathan’s pack in the storage room.”

I leapt to my feet, pulled Natalie to hers, and gave her a kiss. “I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Ow” Natalie winced.

“Sorry.”

“You’re okay. I’m glad you’re safe, too. I love you.” Natalie pushed me toward the door, where the Wayfinders bearing Jonathan had already disappeared.

“I love you, too.” I ran after Jonathan. “While I’m performing my first surgery, send someone else to tell the other injured people to do something longer-term about their injuries.”

“Aye, Captain.” Camille saluted. “We’ll take care of rooting out the rest of the bandits and Laborers. You save our surgeon.”

I fought down the urge to scream as I ran and settled for a single word as I entered the makeshift surgery suite. “Shit.”


 

Coldheart and Iron: Part 17

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


True to her word, Camille knew where the guns were. They were a few armories scattered throughout the entire base, one in each wing and two inside the main hall. Unfortunately, the ones in our wing was locked and none of our keys fit. Either Trevor hadn’t been given a key to the armories or Lucas had somehow gotten both. All that really mattered was that we were stuck, weaponless, trying to sneak through the wing and find our companions.

By the time we were eventually discovered, Camille had killed another five guards. In that time, we’d found two Wayfinders, all of the Nomad children, and the old Nomad matriarch. We’d sent them to the far end of the wing, that we cleared first, to wait for weapons and more people, so only Camille and I were getting shot at as we hid around a corner and evaluated our nonexistent options.

“All I’ve got is a few good ‘I surrender’ and ‘please don’t shoot me’ puns, but I don’t think they actually cause people pain, despite what Lucas is always saying.” I gently massaged my bruised temples and tried to ignore the burst of pain that accompanied the report of every gun.

“I’ve got a few throwing knives, but I wouldn’t chance them at this range.”

“Too far?”

“That, plus body armor and not being able to take my time while aiming. It’s easy to point and squeeze around a corner, not so much throw a knife.”

“Fair.”

“We could just wait until reinforcements show up now that whatever passes for an alarm in this concrete hole has to be going off. Then, when they come around the corner to kill us, we can try to disarm them and take their guns.”

“Or we could quietly leave and find a different way to the other cells?” I picked at a bit of dried blood just below my hairline and, after a moment’s examination, flicked the small brown flakes away. “Though, I don’t really like our chances if they realize we retreated down this long hallway full of nothing but cells.”

“Speaking of.” Camille poked her head around the corner quickly, flipped the bandits at the far end the bird, and then ducked back as the bullets started flying again. “Gotta make sure they know we’re still here.”

“I thought we wanted them to rush us or turn around the corner unaware.”

Camille nodded and flicked a bit of concrete into the open. “That would be good. Risky, but good. Instead of something with a high likelihood of getting us killed, I’m prefer it if Lucas noticed the gunfire from our wing and came to our rescue.”

“That’d be convenient, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Camille poked her head around the corner again, at a different height. “You assholes ready to give up, yet?”

“Come out with your hands up right now and we will not harm you as we return you to your cells.” The same voice that urged our surrender during every lull in the hail of bullets called out again. “We don’t want to keep wasting ammo and none of us are dumb enough to come around the corner to get you.”

Camille pulled her head back and arched an eyebrow as I gestured for her to swap spots with me. “How do we know you’re not just saying that so we let our guard down?” I gestured for Camille to head toward the stairs and winked. “I don’t think shooting at us over something as little as a jailbreak is very trustworthy.”

Camille silently got to her feet and moved past me, heading toward the stairs that led down to the first floor and the only other path out of the wing. I saw her roll her eyes as I continued over the occasional bullet. “I might be willing to give surrender a shot, but I’ll admit I’m worried about you doing the same thing.”

Camille stopped moving as the bullets stopped entirely. Once the commanding voice started speaking, she went right back to creeping down the hallway. “I’m sorry, but are you making puns right now?”

“Yeah. I’m gunning for ‘comedian of the year.’”

There were almost a full minute of silence that I filled with manic laughter, loud enough to continue covering Camille’s movement toward the stairs while still quiet enough to hear if the heavily armed bandits started moving. Finally, the commander spoke again. “You’re making puns. Right now. While we shoot at you.”

As if to prove the absurdity of the situation, someone fired off a few rounds that embedded themselves into the concrete wall opposite me, sending more dust and small composite chips flying through the air. After the echoes died down I watched Camille slip down the stairs as I continued my assault. “You can come get us, if you want, but I’m going to warn you that people who meet me for the first time usually find my behavior rather disarming. I’d really hate to jump the gun on moving to that stage of our relationship.”

In the silence that followed, I heard someone mutter. “Anyone got any grenades?” followed by “That’d destroy the whole hallway. Just give it another minute or two and this will all be over.” Without missing a beat, the first voice muttered “I don’t know if I can take this for another minute or two.”

“Don’t count your bullets before they’re fired!” I poked my head around the corner and threw a couple of the larger chunks of concrete at the bandits. “Also, gun to my head, I’m pretty sure I could take your entire group single-handedly.”

I ducked back as more bullets chipped away at the corner and tried to hold back the tension bubbling out of my throat as laughter. If we weren’t at risk of dying, I’d find the whole thing hilarious. It was so easy to goad them and all they did was waste bullets in response. Five minutes into the dumbest standoff in my entire life and I could barely keep it together because all they had to do is go wide around the corner and they’d have us. Keep a few people on the near wall, but further away, to rush us if they wanted us alive. If it was any of my Wayfinders on the other side of this engagement, it would have been over four and a half minutes ago.

I kept hurling puns and bits of concrete for another two minutes before Camille returned, toting two assault rifles, a few clips of ammo, and a fresh gash in her left arm. I quickly bound it while Camille loaded both guns and parsed the ammo. A minute after I fell silent, as the first brave soul started adventuring forward, Camille and I poked around the corner, guns blazing. Thirty seconds later, we were gathering up all the gear we could before retreating back to where we’d left our companions.

Twice more, we got into a stand-off. Twice more, they tried to outmaneuver us by sending a few people around behind us using the lower floor. Twice more, we killed them all while they dithered about what to do. This time, though, we had more Wayfinders and the old woman Nomad who turned out to be a better shot than me. By the time we’d cleared the wing, we’d gathered up a total of six more Wayfinders, two more Nomads, a dozen extra guns, ammo, and a key to the armory where we found all our insulating gear and some basic body armor.

When it finally came time to leave the wing, we were met with a steel door. No amount of pushing or shoving would budge it and hammering on it did nothing but make my head ring. One of the Nomads tried to shoot it, but only succeeded in nearly taking out one of the Wayfinders with a ricocheting bullet. After scolding them and taking away their gun, Camille went back to the armory for a few grenades. Blowing the wall up around the door worked better than I thought it would, but it left us with a giant hole down to the first floor.

I volunteered to be the first across, since we could only four people could provide covering fire if it was needed. After they’d all lined up against the walls and Camille gave me the nod, I leapt across the hole, rolled to my feet, and caught the gun one of the other Wayfinders tossed me. I cleared the hallway and gestured for the Wayfinders to follow. The Nomads were going to take refuge in the armory with their children and our gear, so we could focus on sweeping through the bandit stronghold.

Leaving the rest of the Wayfinders behind to protect our backs and hold the hallway connecting the wings and the main hall. Camille and I took off down the eastern wing. As soon as we unbolted the heavy steel door to get into the main part of the wing, we heard gunfire coming from around the corner and started running. We came upon the back of a nearly sealed checkpoint, a steel barricade propped in the hallway with only a few openings in it for the bandits to fire through. Fortunately for us, they were facing the other direction.

Without breaking stride, Camille started firing, mowing down bandits as she charged up to engage in hand-to-hand combat. I dropped to a knee and started putting rounds into the backs of bandits, working my way from the middle to the opposite side from Camille. After I ran out, I ran forward, ejecting the magazine from the rifle as I went. Camille had already disarmed a couple of the surviving bandits, but two still had guns and were about to start shooting again, their allies be damned, until I crashed into them. Using the rifle as a club, I knocked them both senseless quickly and then turned to help Camille with the last couple she was fighting.

While Camille finished off the bandits, I started dislodging the barricade while yelling “don’t shoot! Camille and I killed them all.”

“Took you guys long enough!” Lucas and a couple of the missing Wayfinders poked their heads around the corner. “I thought we were going to have to wait for them to run out of bullets!”

I finished pulling open the barricade and flinched as I finally got a look at what lay around beyond it. Lucas’ group had run into a trap. There were a handful of dead Nomads and two dead Wayfinders lying on the ground, just around the corner. Lucas was being supported by the two Wayfinders with him as he limped toward me with a hole in his thigh. “Sorry, Cap. We’d cleared out two groups already and didn’t think there’d be a barricade. Every other group just collapsed as soon as we rounded the corner. We’ve got a lot of injured.”

I nodded and carefully made my way to the corner. Sitting on the ground was the rest of the nomads and most of the missing Wayfinders. Most of the Wayfinders and Nomads had minor injuries and were getting to their feet, but a few had injuries as bad as Lucas’ leg and two Wayfinders were on the ground, unconscious. Natalie wasn’t anywhere amongst them and the quiet anxiety that had been gnawing at the pit of my stomach roared to life and started taking giant bites.

Before panic could set in, I busied myself with helping the less injured Wayfinders rig up stretchers for the unconscious Wayfinders. After that, we moved back to toward the hallways between the wings and started figuring out how to get everyone across the hole in the floor of the western wing.

By the time we’d gotten everyone collected together and the severely injured down to the first floor of the western wing and into the armory, the bandit base felt eerily quiet. There’d been no sign of movement or sound of any kind from the main hall while we went about fortifying the guards outside of the armory and no one approached us as we gathered outside the door we’d blasted off the wall.

“Natalie and Jonathan are the only Wayfinders unaccounted for.”

Camille nodded. “And we’ve checked every nook and cranny in both wings. There’s nowhere else they could be but the main hall.”

“You hear that, everyone?” I turned to the group of Wayfinders and Nomads, each grimly clutching a rifle and a few extra rounds of ammo. Only a few Wayfinders had grenades, since Camille had used most of what we had to blow up the door and Lucas’ group hadn’t found any. “Check your fire and make sure you’re not shooting one of our people. If anyone surrenders, collected them and bind their hands. We’ve got plenty of heavy-duty zip-ties thanks to all the guards.”

“Keep an eye out for officers and the Laborers.” Camille stepped forward and addressed the Nomads specifically. “Anyone who looks important or familiar. Our people will probably be with them. Try to remember that the Wayfinders will be slim but well-built and a bit older while all of the laborers will be young men with a decent amount of muscle. Shoot the laborers but not the Wayfinders. If you think you’re not going to be able to tell the difference, turn around and go back to the armory. We don’t have time for hesitation.”

After a few seconds, Camille nodded. “Alright, we’re going to go in as fast and as hard as we can. Don’t waste bullets, follow the Wayfinders in your group, and keep an eye out for our people. We need them to survive once we get out of here. Got that?” Every one of the Nomads nodded. “Good. On my signal.”

I turned to Camille. “I’m following you. Lead the way and I’ll sweep up whatever you don’t catch as you go.”

“Always batting cleanup.” Camille smirked and disengaged the safety on her rifle. “I can’t promise there’ll be anything for you to do.”

“As long as we get Natalie and Jonathan back, I don’t care.”

Camille nodded one last time, took a deep breath, and yanked the door open.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 16

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I woke up in a dark room. I had a few confused moments of wondering who had let the lamps burn out before the throbbing of my head started up. As the steady beat of pain pounded against my temple, everything came back. I fought down a surge of panic and settled for quickly standing up. In my haste, I didn’t realize that my hands were still tied behind my back so I pitched forward onto my face.

I lay there for a few minutes, doing my best to let my pain fade a bit while I ignored the bubbling sound my nose made. I didn’t think it was broken, but the sharp pain of landing on it had cleared my head. After the pain of my nose and head faded enough to ignore, I took stock of my surroundings. The room was completely dark, but not entirely soundproof. Every so often, I could hear the shuffle of feet passing by two of the walls. The fact that I could hear it and the rough, cool feeling of stone against my knees told me they’d taken my watch and my insulated gear.

My feet were free, so I rolled onto my back, tucked my legs to my chest, and slipped my hands around to my front. The zipties had been replaced by nylon rope, but it was tied too tight for me to shift my hands at all, so it was still awkward to push myself to my feet. I cautiously stood all the way up and, after encountering no ceiling, I lifted my hands above my head. I couldn’t reach whatever ceiling there was, even standing on my toes, so I shifted my attention to the walls. Careful shuffling footsteps brought me to the wall. I put my hands on the wall and used my feet to measure my room.

I was in a rather large room, some twenty by thirty feet, but there didn’t seem to be anything else in here with me. At least nothing against the walls. As I made my way back to the corner, I stopped every few steps to listen for the shuffling sounds from earlier. Once I’d located them, I stood in the corner and listened to them walk around me. After a few hundred heartbeats, I sat down. There was no way out. I couldn’t see any glimmers of light and I hadn’t felt any seems in the wall as I went, so I was either in a pit or they’d somehow managed to conceal the door from me.

“Hello?” my voice croaked into the empty room, but nothing happened. No one answered and the steps outside didn’t change.

Just as I was settling down to try to sleep off the throbbing pain that covered my head, I heard a few rapid, light steps beside the wall. A moment later, part of the wall near me silently swung open. I was behind the door, so I was saved the worst of it, but I still couldn’t see anything for a few seconds. Just as my eyes started to adjust, the door started to close.

“Hey!” I started coughing as my voice caught. I needed a drink badly, but my attempt had attracted the attention of whoever had opened the door. A tall figure stepped into the room, pulled out a battery lantern, turned it on, and shut the door. I blinked in the harsh fluorescent light, trying to see who it was.

“Here.” I recognized Camille’s voice as the figure held out a water bottle. I took it gratefully, but couldn’t get it open with my hands tied like they were. Camille twisted the cap off, and I downed the water quickly.

“You’re the best.” I dropped the flimsy plastic bottle and leaned back. “Anything you can do about these?” I held up my hands.

“Sure.” Camille reached into her pocket and pulled out a switchblade. “I’m surprised you weren’t able to conceal anything when they stripped you. This is the shoddiest operation I’ve ever seen.” Camille popped the blade out and started cutting through the nylon strands, careful not to hurt my hands. “They didn’t even strip us naked. Half the bandits seemed like they were afraid to touch a woman, so I was able to hide all of my knives easily.”

“Excuse me for my failures.” I watched as Camille slipped the knife between my wrists and cut the last strands without so much as marking me. “I fell unconscious before we were unloaded and I just woke up about half an hour ago.”

“Shit, Marshal, you’re going soft.” She smiled as she pulled me to my feet. “And that mouth on you! No wonder they punched you in the head.”

I shot her a smile that became a grimace when it cause a flare of pain. “Tell me they didn’t ruin my good looks, at least.”

Camille made a show of looking me over in the lantern light before shaking her head. “Nope. Can’t ruin what you didn’t have.” She winked and resisted the urge to smile again.

“Anyway, Mar. You’ve been out for about six hours, then, since that’s how long we’ve been here.” She held up a hand. “I can answer any questions you’ve got, but not right now. Trevor will be here in a couple of minutes and he’s our ticket out of here.”

“Trevor?” I stood to the side as Camille switched places with me.

“Yeah. He’s the leader of the little squad the bandits made from the laborers, so he’s got a few keys, including the one to this room. I heard he was planning to stop by after dinner, so I stole a key and made my way over here as fast as I could.” Camille grabbed a few of the longer strands of nylon and started arranging them on my newly freed wrists.

“Then I’m going to pretend I’m still tied up so he can come inside to beat on me, at which point you’ll jump him and take his keys?”

“More or less.”

“Neat.”

Camille rolled her eyes and picked up the lantern. “Just do what I tell you and we’ll all get out of here alive.”

“Always.” I took a deep breath and went back to my spot on the floor. The entire room was just as empty as I thought and the only signs of the door was that it was a slightly different color. There was no handle, no visible hinges, not even the tiniest gap. Whoever had made the door had been a master. After another moment’s thought, I turned to Camille. “There’s no way to open this door from the inside.”

“Yeah. All the cells or storage rooms are like that.” Camille hunkered down and switched off the lamp.

“What do we do if he doesn’t show up?”

“Wait for someone else to. I should have a few hours before they notice I’m missing.”

I was silent for a few moments, listening for the sounds of people walking around the room. “Thanks, Camille.”

“You’re welcome, Mar.”

I closed my eyes, trying to focus on listening. I lost track of my heartbeats, but eventually a louder set of footsteps appeared and stopped near where the door should be. A moment later, the door opened and I was almost blinded through my eyelids. I opened my eyes the tiniest amount, trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

“Hello, Captain Marshall.” Trevor’s voice made it all too easier to see the sneer on his face. “I guess we get to have our time together today, after all.”

I blinked a bit, trying to pretend I couldn’t see. “Fuck off, asshole.” I took a look out the door and saw two more laborers standing just outside, watching Trevor as he stood a few feet away from me. I glanced over at Camille and cleared my throat twice before turning my attention back to Trevor. “I’m not into guys so either beat me up or leave me alone. Whatever you do, just cut it out with this obnoxious flirting.”

When Trevor growled and stepped forward, Camille silently rose to her feet and pointed from me to Trevor. “I got it.” Camille nodded. “You’re intimidating. Just do whatever you came here to do and get out. I’ve got better things to do that talk to you.”

“Like think about your girlfriend?” I stopped shuffling around and looked him in the eye. He smiled like he’d just won the lottery. “Don’t you worry about her, Captain Shithead. I’ll make sure she sees what horrible shape you’re in after I’m-”

I leapt to my feet from my position on the floor, closed the gap with Trevor, and punched him in the stomach with everything I had. As he doubled over and I grabbed the back of his head to bash his face into my knee, I saw Camille slip around the door. I heard a satisfying krack as I broke his nose and he fell bonelessly to the floor. Trevor groaned and squirmed, trying to clutch his face without actually touching it. I watched him for a moment before kicking him in the nuts for good measure.

By the time I turned my attention back to Camille and the two laborers outside, Camille was already wiping her knives on their jackets. “Grab that one.” She pointed to the one a couple of steps outside the door and then hauled the other dead laborer inside. I leaned out the door and admired the concrete structure around us for a moment before grabbing the other laborer and dragging him inside. Thankfully, neither had bled much, so the floor were still mostly clean. I grabbed the shirt off my laborer and wiped up the floor as best as I could, and then ducked back inside the room.

“Now what?” I dumped my dead laborer next to the other one.

“I take his keys, stab him in the kidney, and we leave.” I watched as Camille did just that and then grabbed the lantern from where she left it. Trevor twitched a little bit, but he’d stopped by the time Camille closed the door behind us. I absently touched my nose, checking to see if it was broken, as I followed Camille down the hallway.

Camille was in her element. She moved almost silently and took out four bandits as we walked down the hallways, killing them so quickly they didn’t have time to do more than register our presence before they died. I did my best to keep up with her between scuffles and stayed out of her way during them. My head was still pounding and I thought longingly about ibuprofen. There had been some in the medical supplies we’d recovered before the blizzard settled in, but Camille and I had higher priorities.

I followed her back to where her cell had been located, and she started going from door to door, checking for more Wayfinders. All of the rooms right around hers were empty, but one at the end of the hall contained Lucas. The bruise on his face had grown darker, but he seemed in better shape than I was. His zip-ties had been replaced with a set of loose manacles on his wrists and ankles. Enough to discourage him from attempting an escape, but not so much that it would restrict him from working.

He grinned up at us as Camille tested keys on his manacles. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. Except you, Marsh. From the sight of you, it looks like you’ve got sore eyes.” He chuckled as Camille found the right key and yanked him to his feet.

I rolled my eyes at Lucas as he started rubbing his wrists. “You’re one to talk. Your face is worse than anything I’ve gotten today, and you’re stuck with it constantly.” I smirked, careful not to move the side of my face that was still throbbing. I glanced around Lucas’ cell while Camille loosely wrapped the manacles around her left arm. It was a small room, about ten feet long and six feet wide with a small pallet that Lucas had been sitting on, a bucket, and a couple rings bolted to the concrete walls.

“How’d you get out, Camille?” Lucas stretched and started cracking his knuckles. “I didn’t manage to conceal anything on me and the bastards didn’t come close enough for me to take them out.”

“I stole my guard’s keys while he was busy watching me strip to be searched.” Camille shrugged. “I just wrapped the keys and my knives in my shirt, stood around in my underwear for a couple of minutes, and got dressed again. Like I told Mar, these young guys seem pretty timid when it comes to anything but pointing guns at people.”

“At least we have that going for us.” I shook my head slowly. “We need to cover more ground. Can we afford to split up?”

“Negative, Captain.” Lucas shook his head. “They have us spread out. We’re going to need to check every door and, if we start killing people now, we’re going to get found out before we’re ready. Better to stick together, hide, and find everyone first.”

I sighed and Camille chuckled. “It’s a bit too late for that, Lukey-boy.” Camille poked Lucas in the ribs and cracked her knuckles. “So far I’ve killed seven people today and four of them are just sitting in hallways.”

“Alright. Speed and murder it is.” Lucas held out a hand. “Give me half the keys and I’ll go check the eastern wing. You guys can handle the western one.”

“Just how big is this place?” I looked from Lucas to Camille. “Did someone give you guys a map? How do you know it so well?”

“Millie struck gold during processing. She asked to see plans for the base, to offer some advice on fortifying it.” Lucas wrapped the keys Camille gave him in the blanket from his pallet and tucked them into his pants. “As a result, we’re going to have to face some meaty checkpoints, but we all got a good look at the blueprints of what this place is supposed to be. It’ll put some of our fortified depots to shame if there’s enough of them alive to finish it when we’re done here. See you guys at the main entrance in thirty.”

Lucas started down the hallway, soundlessly making his way down the hallway. I watched him go for a moment before turning my attention back to Camille who was trying to get the manacles to sit comfortably on her arm. “Did you happen to know where they stuck our things?” She shook her head. “How about where to get some guns?”

Finally satisfied, she started down the hallway after Lucas. “Come on, Mar. Who do you take me for? Of course I know where the guns are!”