Coldheart and Iron: Part 15

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I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my eyes, but otherwise lay perfectly still, barely even breathing. After a moment, my eyes started to clear and the dull grey sheen of lamplight reflected off the barrel of a revolver stole my attention.

“Stay still like this, and nobody gets shot.”

I looked past the gun to find a man, perhaps a few years older than me, crouched over me. He wasn’t the one holding the gun, but he was clearly in charge of the much younger man who was. The younger man kept his eyes trained on me, barely even blinking, as he firmly held the business end of his gun to my forehead. I glanced between the three things I could see for a moment, from gun to young man to old man and then back again.

“Good.” The older man smiled, a grim line across his weathered face. “I know you’re Wayfinders and I hope you know I wouldn’t be doing this without enough people to make sure your skills don’t count for anything. You can speak, but only to me. If you shout stuff to other people, you get shot along with anyone who does something because of you.” He looked around the room. “Everyone got that? Just sit tight while I talk to your leader and no one gets hurt.”

“What do you want?” I tried to keep my voice calm, but there was more heat left in my voice than even the older man expected.

“Well, I want your supplies and weapons, of course.” The older man chuckled. “Those are my main interests and all I really need out of this raid.” The laughter disappeared from his eyes and his face returned to its thin smile. “That being said, I wouldn’t mind your laborer.. Building a long-term, permanent base isn’t easy when you haven’t got the skills or manpower to get it done. But you Wayfinders make excellent slaves. Knowledgeable and hard-working.”

“If all we have to look forward to is slavery, what’s to stop us from fighting until all of us or all of you are dead?” I took a deep breath and focused on the older man’s light green eyes, letting all of my anger show for just a moment. “Doesn’t seem like a good idea, letting your captives know they’ve got nothing left to lose.”

The old man leaned back for a moment, and then laughed. “Damn, you’ve got a mean glare. No wonder you’re the leader.” He leaned down for a moment and swiftly threw a punch at the side of my head. I heard a sound a like a stapler being used on a piece of cardboard followed by a ringing in my right ear as my head started to throb.

“You, shitbrains, can call me Al. I’m in charge, now, and the reason you’ll go along with my demands is that I’m going to put all the kids in a chamber full of sharp objects and unscrupulous men and make sure you know exactly what is happening to all them as a result of your behavior.” Al leaned over and slapped me on the cheek, his grim smile once more stretched across his face.

I closed my eyes against the throbbing pain of my temple and tried to pull my thoughts back together. It took me a couple of moments, but Al hadn’t moved when I was able to talk again. “Fine. Congratulations, asshole. You’ve captured the largest group of Wayfinders to pass through the area. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

Al grinned. “You’re damn right, I am. It was easy, too. A couple offers of safety and membership in my clan was all it took to get some of your people to betray you.”

“Trevor.”

“Yep. You really ought to treat your paying customers better.” The grin changed to a smirk. “Seems like he was tired of being told what to do, so he opened the back door for us. Probably wants a little personal revenge, which he’s allowed so long as he doesn’t break you.” Al shrugged and looked toward the doorway. “Seems a little excited at the idea of some time alone with you. That man carries a grudge like no one I’ve met. It’s almost beautiful.”

He turned his face back to me and smiled a genuine smile. “That’s how I knew he’d fit in just fine. Can’t survive out in the wild without some kind of fire in your gut to keep you going when it feels like hell itself has frozen over.”.”

I almost picked my head up to look toward the door, to see if Trevor was watching this, but the young man with the gun must have noticed me tense because he grunted and pressed the gun into my head a little more forcefully than before. Unable to move and suddenly much less curious, I took a few deep breaths and forced myself to make eye contact with Al. “Did you hurt anyone?”

“Only the sentries, but they’ll be fine.” Al sneered. “They put up a small fight, but we beat them into submission. Nothing some rest and a bit of doctoring won’t fix.”

“Can I see my people?”

Al gestured off to the side, at something outside of my field of view. “Sure. But only if you lie still while my two guys here unzip this sleeping bag and zip-tie your hands.” After I nodded, two more men, both even younger than the man with the gun, walked up and flipped me over, so I was face down and the gun was pressed against the back of my head. They unzipped the sleeping bag and, before I had time to do more than simply consider whether or not I should attempt an escape, they had my arms pulled back and bound. After they’d finished pulling the ties tight enough to start cutting into my wrists, they turned me over again and propped me up against their legs.

All around our area were fifty or more of these bandits. They were all men, and all but Al were about half my age or younger. Behind them, standing in the opening to the hallway, was Trevor and a few of his people. I shot them the meanest sneer I could muster with my head still throbbing and then turned my attention to the other Wayfinders around me. The two sentries, a scout and one of the trainees, were slumped against the wall near the entryway, bloody and unconscious, but I could see their chests move as they breathed. The rest of the Wayfinders were in a position similar to my own, either stuck to the ground by the barrel of a gun or in the process of being bound where they lay.

I watched Camille get propped up like I was and I did what I could to catch her eye while still looking around the room. She noticed and, under the guise of shifting her shoulders, shook her head. After that, I turned my attention to Natalie who, from her position on the ground, did the same. Her head was turned toward me as one of the young men finished restraining her, so I got to see the rage that flashed in her eyes when he yanked the zip-tie tight enough to immediately draw blood.. As I watched the blood drip from her wrists to the back of her shirt, I focused on breathing calmly and scanning the room, to see how everyone else was being treated. It took everything I had to stay sitting when I saw everyone get treated with the same brutal disregard as Natalie was. Only two people weren’t bleeding when they finished tying us up and I wasn’t the only one to get punched in the head.

I finally found Lucas, propped up in the corner behind and to my left, just as Al was sauntering around to my front, and I shook my head at him, relaying Camille and Natalie’s message. His eyes looked as angry as I felt and he had a large bruise already forming on one side of his face, but he ducked his head in acknowledgement. When Al squatted down in front of me, I took another deep breath and barely managed to avoid headbutting him in the nose.

“Well, shitbrains? What’ll it be.”

I gritted my teeth and spoke through a clenched jaw. “We’ll cooperate, but only if you promise not to harm anyone further. We’ll build your base, but only if you let us go unharmed and untouched when we’re done.”

Al grinned again, the same grim line again. “I can’t make any promises, shitbrains. My men get a little eager. I can, however, promise they’ll start with your non-paying customers first.”

“The nomads?” It took me a bit longer, focused as I was on trying to remain calm and follow the plan Camille had put together for situations like this one, but what he said earlier about children finally clicked. Getting punched in the head certainly hadn’t helped, either. “Can’t you just let them go? They’re of no use to you. You don’t need to use them to keep us in line.” All of the anger I’d held was quickly drowned in a deluge of rage at the thought of what those children were likely to see before we could pull off our plan.

Al’s grin changed to a toothy smile as he chuckled. “It might be a little late for that, shitbrains. They’ve all been packed up and sent off to our base. Plus, you’re in no position to argue.” He poked me in the temple and the pain flared again. “Plus, I know you’ve got a plan of some kind. Every other group of Wayfinders has. Only a moron would give up free insurance.”

I slumped against the man propping me up, wracking my brain through the fog of pain and nausea  to come up with a way to protect the nomads that didn’t involve throwing away the plan Camille had made. I took several slow breaths to calm my racing heart and looked up at Al. “I’m going to kill you.”

Al’s smiled faded a bit, back to looking like a dark slash across his face, as he shook his head. “You wouldn’t be the first who tried, shitbrains. All you Wayfinders say the same thing.” He slapped me across the face a few times before standing up. “Over a dozen groups, now, and not a single one of them has. I wouldn’t count on succeeding where they failed. It’ll just get you and all your people killed.”

He gestured to the two men behind me and then turned around. “Alright. Get them wrapped up and then start piling all their gear on the sleds. Don’t leave anything behind. And if they resist, start breaking the bones of whichever one is closest.”

Trevor took a step forward. “What about your promise? I want my time with him.” He pointed at me and sneered. “He’ll need rest after I’m done with him and a ride on a sled seems like just the thing to drive home my beating.” I watched him as he spoke, staying near the door and well out of arm’s reach from me, smacking his fist into an open hand. “Maybe I’ll make his people watch. That’d be fun. Or maybe I’ll make him watch me rough up his people. So many options,” Only the fact that two much younger and larger men were holding me up kept me from leaping at him.

Al looked back at me, noting the scuffle that ended as one of the punched me in the other temple a couple of times. “Heh, that’s awful petty of you. But we need to get back to our place right away. You can have your time with him when we’ve gotten everyone settled and him properly manacled.”

Trevor stepped up, anger overriding the unease he’d been showing. “You said I could do it whenever I wanted. Well, I want to kick the shit out of him right now! Half my guys here want the same thing.Who gives a shit if they’re already bloody by the time they get there? ?”

Al shrugged. “Fuck if I care about what you want. You’re in my clan now and you do what I say. If you’ve got a problem with that, you can join the workforce.” A bunch of muttering broke out amongst the other laborers and two of them pulled Trevor back into line with them. Al turned around to face me, smirking. “Guess I can see why you’d be bossing him around. He’s a bit of a shit.”

I didn’t reply. It was taking all of my focus to just pay attention to what was going on around me, much less form a sentence. The last couple of punches had really taken it out of me and, now that I wasn’t going to get any more beaten up, I let my focus go.

They dragged us all out to the entryway, wrapped each of us in a large tarp, and then piled us onto a sled in an uncomfortable tangle before tying us in place like a bunch of crates. After laying there for a while, unable to see what was going on, we finally started moving. The only sound aside from the whisk of the runners in the snow was the tick of my watch as it counted away the seconds until we arrived at our captors fortifications. Around me, I could feel each of the Wayfinders tensing their muscles and stretching as much as they could. The cold was leaking through the tarps, so I stretched as well, trying to keep my body warm and my muscles limber for whenever Camille gave us the single to break free.

After well over ten thousand ticks of my watch, I felt the sled begin to slow. I was freezing cold and my arms were so stiff I wondered if I’d be able to move them at all, much less attempt an escape. The only thing that had kept me conscious as the sled ran was trying to keep track of how many seconds had passed. Part of me wanted to just let go, to let unconsciousness take me, but I needed to stay awake and listening for Camille’s signal. Thankfully, the sled eventually came to a stop and my poor, throbbing head was no longer being bounced around.

We had arrived. I tensed myself for Camille’s signal as people started untying the ropes, but the only sound was the crunch of snow and the rustle of rope. Silence reigned around me and, before I could stop myself, I fell unconscious.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 14

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


After a lot of stretching and a good amount of grumbling, everyone finally broke through the inertia of the last several days and started on their assigned tasks. Leaving two Wayfinders behind to guard our shelter, Natalie took us all north. Three people abreast, we started digging our way through the loosest snow on the top of the drifts and piles. I took point and we dug until we’d passed the powder before moving forward. It was awkward to have three people with snowshoes and shovels digging shoulder-to-shoulder, but we eventually hit our rhythm and started progressing more quickly.

Behind us, led by Natalie, five people dug out the rest of the path, scooping up the packed snow and tossing it back and to the sides were people on snowshoes used it to form barriers to prevent more snow from getting blown into the path we were digging. Anyone who wasn’t a primary digger was ducking into buildings we passed for supplies we hadn’t collected earlier or tidying up behind the heavy diggers.

Every fifteen minutes, the heavy diggers rotated, swapping out with the people who were just toting supplies around. Every hour, the front diggers traded jobs with the people using the heavy snow to border the path. Midway through my fourth shift, we reached the edge of town. There were still drifts beyond the borders of the town, but most of snow had been blown away in the high winds or had caught up against the edge of the town. Some of the drifts reached all the way to the top of the few two-story buildings where the town abruptly shifted from businesses on what used to be the main road to some kind of farmland.

Natalie called a break and I sat down to rest with everyone else, grateful for the chance to give my back a break from all of the shifted and moving. It kept my abs rock-hard, which I appreciated, but my back was starting to protest that I was too old for such heavy labor. Natalie paced around, checking the map she held in her hands against the landscape around us. As I watched her mutter to herself as her head swiveled around, one of the Wayfinder trainees to my right, a woman named Tiffany, nudged my arm.

“Water bottle, Captain.”

I took the proffered water bottle and drank a few small swallows, barely enough to wet my mouth. We had more work to do shortly and I didn’t want to get slowed down. Once I was done, I passed the bottle to my left and settled back against a snow bank to rest for the remainder of the break. A moment later Tiffany grunted.

“I have a hard time believe that map can mean anything in a world like this.”

After a moment’s pause to see if she was talking to someone else, I shrugged, keeping my eyes closed. “If you know what to look for, you can start to see things beneath the snow. Big enough landmarks are usually always visible.”

“How does she know which ones are which, though?”

I opened my eyes in time to see Tiffany waving her arms at the great white expanse that stretched to the horizon, dotted with white pillars and mounds haphazardly spread around. I looked over at Natalie, watching her take a finger off of her map to point at one of the less remarkable white pillars. “Practice, mostly. Plus, she’s got a knack for the kind of visualization required to see beneath the snow.”

“Sure, sure.” Tiffany nodded but then held up her hands in hopeless supplication. “I just want to know how she does it! Any explanation at all.”

“You’d have to ask her, then.” I settled back against the snowbank and closed my eyes again.

Before I had even finished settling into a comfortable position, I heard Tiffany’s voice raised in a half-shout. “Lieutenant Captain Natalie!”

I sighed and opened my eyes, watching Natalie look up from her map, the focused expression she wore being replaced with an annoyed one. “What?”

Tiffany, who’d been waving her hand, slowly dropped it. “Sorry, er, I was wondering how you could figure anything out using maps from years ago when everything is covered in snow.”

As she walked over, Natalie smoothed her facial expression. “I know where roads are and signposts that mark out locations and miles on roads make distinct snow piles. If I can find the roads and the mile markers, I can find out where the other landmarks are by comparing distances between the mile markers and my map.”

Natalie turned the map around to show the satellite imagery map she had marked almost beyond comprehension during our many trips through the Midwest. “I’ve got a lot of notes about how the storms like to pile the snow and the other Navigators in the Wayfinders all take similar notes that we upload to the net, so we can compare how the world around us changes as the snow slowly blankets the world.”

Tiffany, who had been trying to read the map and nodding along as Natalie spoke, caught herself still nodding fifteen seconds after Natalie had stopped talking. Once she stopped her nodding, she cleared her throat. “So, it’s all about your notes and your experiences?”

Natalie shrugged. “Mostly. Other than that, it’s instinct and the confidence to trust my gut.”

“So, I could learn to do that?”

“Of course.” Natalie smiled. “Do you want to?”

Tiffany nodded and stood up as Natalie gestured for her to follow. I watched them walk away from a moment before taking a deep breath to help me refocus on relaxing my sore shoulders and back. After what felt like far too short of a time, Natalie had us all standing again. We dug out the area around the end of our path to make a tall embankment using heavy snow so we had something to prevent more powder from getting blown down our path. After we’d erected the barrier, we turned and headed back, picking up the supplies people had taken stacked in the cleared area as we went.

By the time we got back to our shelter, it was mid-afternoon. After dumping off our supplies, taking a five minute break, and refilling our water bottles, we headed out to help the nomads finish digging the local paths. They’d finished more than we expected, but there was still enough work left to keep us busy until the sun was starting to go down. When we returned to the shelter, we found the laborers tiredly shuffling into their area. While the nomads went to their area and Natalie herded the Wayfinders into ours, I resisted the call of food and bed to go check on the Laborers.

When I got to the door, I found them all huddled around their cooking fire, talking quietly as a group. When I stepped around the wall, Trevor cleared his throat and stood up. “Can I help you, Captain?” The conversation fell silent as every single one of them, to a man, looked over toward me.

I shook my head. “I’m just here to check on your progress, see how you’re doing.”

“We made it to the store.” Trevor smiled wanly, his entire posture speaking to his state of exhaustion. “We spent the extra time we had widening the pathway a bit more so we can make use of the flatbed carts we saw just inside the doors.”

“Excellent thinking!” I mustered up all the enthusiasm I could. “That was a great idea.”

“All thanks to Steven, over there. He’s the one who spotted them.” Trevor gestured to one of the men on my side of the cookfire. “Other than that, everything went about as expected. Smooth sailing.”

I nodded. “Great. Then I will leave you all to your dinner.” I waved and stepped behind the wall, but pantomimed walking away so that my feet grew quieter with every step. After a couple seconds of that, I stopped to listen. Almost a full minute later, I heard the laborers start talking again. Even though I stood and listened for fifteen minutes, I couldn’t hear a word they said. Normally, they were quite loud and rambunctious, but tonight they stayed extremely quiet. Unsettled, I silently made my way back to the Wayfinder area for dinner and sleep. Before I let myself drift off, I made sure to mention what was going on to Camille and Natalie. They agreed it was weird, but the only productive suggestion was Natalie’s. Tomorrow, we would make sure there was a Wayfinder with every group of laborers, to keep an eye on them.

After a long night’s rest, the next morning dawned colder and windier than the day before, but a quick review of the paths showed the embankments were holding strong for now. Natalie started breaking us up into groups to gather more supplies and the day passed quickly. At the end of the day, all of the Wayfinders who had been watching laborers reported that they’d seen nothing out of the ordinary, though they were still a bit more sedate than usual. When I checked on them at night, they were just as quiet. It was a very weird sensation to hear more noise and commotion coming from the nomad area than the laborer area.

Our third day of supply gathering has us mostly focused on raiding the Menards for supplies and using them to turn the shelter into a proper supply depot. Labeled shelves, partially refrigerated storage for medicines that would benefit from it, waterproofing everything, and then finally doors and locks to prevent anyone but Wayfinders from getting in. The finishing touches lasted into the fourth day and then we took the rest of the day to rest, double-check stocks, and prepare for our departure in the morning. We all retired early, some of us sad to be leaving this shelter behind and the rest of us all too happy to finally be on the move again. I flip-flopped between the two groups, from one moment to the next, but I put it from my mind as dark fell and decided to just enjoy my last night of sleeping somewhere warm and dry.

When I work up, it wasn’t to the usual chirp of my water alarm. Instead, I felt a ring of metal poking me in the forehead and heard a voice speaking entirely too loudly for that time of the night. “Make any sudden moves and you and your people will die.”

Coldheart and Iron: Part 13

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I spent most of the first full day of the blizzard napping after one last shift making my signature fruit-and-secret-sugar oatmeal. I had originally planned to sit with a group of the newer Wayfinders and trainees, but I fell asleep as they were telling stories. I woke up in time for lunch and managed to stay awake for another hour but, just like my father would do at every family party we’d ever attended, I fell asleep shortly after sitting down.

Camille woke me in time to help prepare dinner and we had another excellent meal, filled with laughter, good food, and warmth as we all sat in a large circle. After dinner and clean up, Natalie and I managed to find the time to perform a quick review of the storerooms, to double-check that all of our lists were accurate. It wound up taking a little longer than planned, but we wanted to be thorough. Once we’d wrapped up and Natalie had gone away to file the stock reports, I checked on the Laborers and Nomads. They seemed to be getting along well and were hunkered down for the night by the time I walked by.

The second day was a little more quiet and somber. The wind had picked up overnight, which meant the worse of the storm was approaching. There were no restrictions on noise, thankfully, but it was hard to be anything other than quiet. Knowing that the only thing keeping you alive was preparations you had finished a few days ago was frustrating because there was nothing you could do today to fix or improve things. I tried to keep spirits up, but only the Laborers seemed unaffected by the general mood, though I quickly figured it out that their cheer was because they had finished off the last of their smuggled alcohol when the tension started getting to them. Thankfully, no one got too belligerent.

Day three was almost silent as the screaming winds and the occasional thump of debris bouncing off the building cut through any attempts at conversation. Most of the Wayfinders tried to sleep through the day. The others played cards, cleaned their gear, or talked in groups of two or three. The nomads stayed in their rooms and the laborers stayed huddled on their cookfire for the entire day, slowly eating all of the extra food they had saved up from the rations we doled out every day. I got a couple naps in, but mostly I played solitaire while Camille, Natalie, and Lucas played poker for guard shifts.

By the end of the fourth day, restlessness had started to settle in, pushing some of the fear and silence out. People moved around more. Most of the Wayfinders were doing various workout routines to burn some energy and stay in shape while one of the more knowledgeable martial artists gave lessons to anyone who wanted to learn. A surprising number of Laborers showed up, as did all of the Nomads. I watched as the two groups mixed with the Wayfinders in the large, empty storage room Terry had set up as her classroom and was relieved to see that the Laborers practiced with everyone, not just each other. The Nomads stayed a little more insular, but a few of them had started to pick different partners by dinner time.

On the fifth day, the wind and noise started to die down. Everyone’s mood picked up, thought they still spent the day exercising or learning martial arts. A few people, the less athletically inclined, spent a lot of time between their practice sessions complaining about how sore they were, but they refused every offer to sit by the sidelines and play cards. A few of the older Wayfinders, including Natalie and myself, weren’t as stir-crazy, so we spent our day taking care of guard shifts and playing card games while watching the Laborers and Nomads knock each other on their asses. It was a good way to spend the day and, since we were crowded in a corner, it made sense for Natalie and I to sit close to each other.

The sixth day was punctuated by gusts of wind that carried a bit of debris around, slapping it into the building with a surprisingly loud noise. The tension was back, and most people stayed quiet in their own spaces. A few of the nomads and most of the Laborers were sore from the past two days of rigorous exercise, but it was mostly anxiety that kept the Wayfinders quiet. It is one thing to ignore constant wind and the almost ceaseless sound of bits of whatever peppering the sides of the building we were in, but the random gusts lulled people into a false sense of peace unless they kept their guard up the entire time. By the time we were going to bed, though, the wind had stopped and silenced reigned around us.

Day seven started out quietly, carrying over yesterday’s tension, amplified by everyone straining their ears for any sound that didn’t belong to the people around them. It was quiet enough for me to hear the creak of my joints as I went through my daily tasks. By dinner, everyone had started to relax again. The worst of the blizzard should have been over that morning and the lack of any major disturbance meant that the blizzard would end on schedule, in just three more days. All we had to do at this point was wait out the last of the snowfall and wind, and we would finally be able to start digging ourselves out.

The eighth day slowly, people now bored out of their minds and left feeling out of sorts as the tension they’d been holding onto for a week started to drain away. Camille and I broke into some of the stores that Natalie had set aside for turning this place into a base, expanding our meal supplies so we had enough to make dinner for the Laborers and Nomads as well. We had to recruit a few extra hands, the old Nomad woman, Mary, who turned out to be their matriarch and Trevor, to be able to make such a large meal, but bringing everyone together to celebrate making it through the worst of the blizzard did an excellent job of raising spirits.

The ninth day passed in a blur of activity as we started getting everyone ready to start the process of digging through the inevitable snow drifts piled against our door. Natalie handed out a few copies of her supply map that she had produced between cards and exercise routines and I walked Trevor and Mary through Natalie’s plans for gathering supplies and clearing a way out of town. We all went to bed early, everyone worn out from the busy day and the excitement they’d been feeling at the prospect of getting out into the fresh air again. It had gotten rather stuffy and a little smelly over the past couple days, and even cold, snow-filled air would be preferable to the scent of people who’d been working out.

The tenth day began quickly. Everyone was awake and ready to go by six, so we began the process of unblocking the front door, carefully peeling away the sealant so we could get a peek outside without letting out too much heat. When we finally glimpsed the outside world again, we were met with the usual light-grey cloud cover and gently falling snow that was adding to at least two feet of snow. The drifts we could see towered above us. Thankfully, the one near the door was off to the side, so we’d be able to dig our way out without needing to go through the deepest part of a drift.

I gave the order to finish unblocking the door and found Trevor and Mary watching nearby. I waved them over and took a few steps away from the door. “We’re going to focus on digging today. Supply gathering will start tomorrow, but I’d like to get paths dug before we get any sun that could turn the top layer of the snow to ice.”

“Could we really get sunlight that soon?” Trevor looked out at the grey sky doubtfully. “We just had a blizzard and you said it’s going to keep snowing for a few more days.”

“Yes, but there’s still a chance we’ll see a few breaks in the clouds.” I gestured toward the giant piles of snow. “Most of the moisture making the clouds is down here now and it will be a while before enough new moisture is gathered to return the clouds to their usual iron-grey color. We’ll get more sun in the next few days than we will in the three months between the return of the clouds and the start of the next blizzard.”

Mary nodded, her face grim. “We always like to do as many outside chores as we can during these days. The sunlight feels good after being trapped inside for over a week.”

Trevor shrugged. “Alright. I trust you. Paths it is. I’ll get my people ready.”

“Thanks.” I smiled and gestured to the map sticking out of Trevor’s breast pocket. “There’s a path going south toward a supply cache, an old Menards, and I’d like for your group to focus on that.”

“South?” Mary pulled out her own map. “Isn’t that going to take them toward the group of people you told us to avoid?”

“Yes, but they’ll be fine. The store is only a mile away and my scouts found no traces of any of them coming that far north.” I pointed at a point three miles further south, past the store. “This is as far north as we’ve found tracks of signs of their passage.” I looked up at Trevor. “As long as you guys stay fairly quietly, the snow will muffle you enough that your group can just shovel right up to the doors and walk away.”

“Excellent.” Trevor smiled and pulled out his map. “I’ll get us ready to go within the hour.”

“Just go straight south. This is the longest path we’ll be digging, so try to go as straight as you can. If you can go around a big drift, do it, but only if it doesn’t take you off the marked streets.”

Trevor bobbed his head in acknowledgment and turned away. He paused and turned back. “How big should the path be?”

I held my arms out to the sides, as far as I could. “About two and a half times the size of the widest person in your group. We want people to be able to pass each other without bumping into each other so we can quickly move supplies.” Trevor gave me a thumbs-up and turned away again.

As Trevor walked away, I gestured toward Mary’s map. “I’d like to get all of your people working on some of the local paths. Feel free to deviate as much as you need to, to get around the big drifts.”

Mary started tracing a few lines on her map with a finger. “Sounds good. I’ll make sure my people know what to do. We used to do similar things around our home, that I will say we relied more on snowshoes than completely clearing a path.” She folded up her map and looked over at me. “We’ll get it done.”

“As soon as the Wayfinders have dug our way out of town, we’ll swing back to help your people finish the local paths.”

Mary pursed her lips. “You think you’re going to be able to make it the mile and a half out of town and then back again before I’m finished?”

I gave Mary a giant grin, imitating Lucas’ signature smile. “Well, we’ve had a lot of practice.”

Mary chuckled and walked away. “Fair enough.”

I watched the Wayfinders finish their job of clearing the door and then, once it was finished, went back into our area to put on my insulated gear. One day of digging, four days of gathering supplies, one day of sorting, and then we’d finally be on our way again. As much as I enjoyed the security and warmth of our shelter, my feet had started to itch as soon as we started opening the door. Safety is always nice, of course, but I was ready to be moving again.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 12

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I woke up early on the day the blizzard was supposed to hit. I lay in my sleeping bag, staring up into the darkness of our room and tried to settled myself down to sleep again. Unfortunately, my mind was awake and already going over the list of things I wanted to do before we got trapped in our shelter. When I hit the backlight button on my watch, the greenish glare nearly blinded me, but I was able to see that was only a quarter past four. Sunrise was still a couple of hours off and I’d only been asleep for about six hours. I sighed and, after one last attempt to sleep, climbed out of my sleeping bag.

I went through my morning routines quickly, foregoing breakfast in favor of checking the guard posts and grabbing a little fresh air. The town was almost as dark as the interior of the building had been. There were no emergency lights with power left at this point and the cloud cover was too heavy for anything but the faintest bit of light to filter through. The air was blowing from the west and I could taste the sharp bitter chill it carried when I inhaled. As I stretched my legs and idly looked around, I could feel the expectant tension in the air as if the town itself new the blizzard was coming.

When I went back inside, I started preparing breakfast. It was still early, but putting a cover on a pot of oatmeal on a low heat will keep it warm and from drying out for hours. When I was scraping up the last of the oatmeal in my bowl, the first people started to wake up. I watched them go through their routines and made small talk as they came to get food, but everyone felt the same tension that I did.

Aside from the various skills training required to qualify as a Wayfinder trainee, there wasn’t much formal training once you’d joined up. Every Wayfinder needed excellent marksmanship, the ability to survive and hide for extended periods of time with no additional resources, and to be in peak physical condition, but all of that was something people did before becoming a Wayfinder. The only bit of training every Wayfinder received once they had been accepted was to be shown a video from the beginning of The Blizzard.

Most people knew what happened to people caught out in a blizzard thanks to the evidence left behind, but few people had ever actually seen it and lived to tell about it. Few recording devices can survive a blizzard and most of those caught nothing but a blinding sheet of white. As far as I knew, and I had checked with every enclave connected to the net, this one video was the only recording to show anything.

One viewing was all it took for every Wayfinder to take it seriously. It was one thing to know that anyone caught out in a blizzard was killed. It was another thing to see it happening the very first time, to people who didn’t know what was coming. To see the carnage before it was covered by several feet of snow. To watch people dying and be unable to see what did it because the snow is too heavy to see more than ten feet away from the camera.

The part that always shocked people was when the tank rolled up in front of the camera. It fires into the snow a few times, but then some device latches onto the tank, pulls it into the snow, and then, after several human screams and the shrieks of stressed metal, a wadded up ball of metal half the size of the original tank rolls back into view. It totters on the screen for a moment before settling down and leaking a dark patina of fluid into the snow. After that, the video is silent and shows nothing but the gradual disappearance of the tank and mixed fluids.

Half of the new Wayfinders wind up quitting after watching the video. Most people want adventure and to get away from the cramped, sedate life of the enclaves. Very few are willing to accept the risks that come with the freedom once they’re aware of why we always need more Wayfinders.

Everyone in this room, making conversation as they went about their morning routines and tried to savor their breakfast, was thinking about that video. I’ve been out in enough blizzards that it doesn’t do much more than set me on edge. Most of the Wayfinders are in similar positions, but most of the trainees are still struggling to adjust. It is difficult to accept that the blizzard is full of dangerous killing machines on the prowl for any heat signature above freezing and we’re just going to sit inside our little building like we’re on vacation so the people we’re guiding don’t get freaked out.

Once the last person was awake, I hauled myself to my feet and moved through the room, encouraging chatter. We had half an hour before sunrise so I tried to get everyone out of their pre-blizzard funks. A few jokes, some lengthy stories of my early days as a Wayfinder, and promises of a dinner they wouldn’t forget did a lot of good. By the time the laborers and nomads were awake and ready to go, the only tension left was the weight of the blizzard itself.

We spent the entire morning searching the buildings Natalie and the scouts had marked, grabbing the stuff they’d set aside and bringing it back to where Natalie was cataloguing supplies and marking off the caches they had set up over the past few days. Every time I came back with an armload of boxes or bags, I was surprised to see how much the stockpile had grown. When I remarked as much to Natalie, she chuckled.

“You got that right, Mar.” She scribbled a few notes and pointed to a clear spot on the floor. “Pile those boxes there. We found an area of the town that hadn’t been picked over much. The area is pretty far from our usual paths since not many people go from Madison to the plains. We’ll be have enough stuff to set up a long-term stockpile. Maybe use this building as a recurring base for the area.”

“That would be wonderful. We could always use another cache since there’s not much in the area.”

“By my estimates, we’ll have enough for a group twice our size before the blizzard hits and, if we take a couple of days during the finals snows, we’ll be able to get this place geared up to be a semi-permanent supply station for the whole area.”

I whistled. “There’s that much stuff here? That’s incredible.”

Natalie directed two nomads and a Wayfinder to stack their boxes on top of mine and I jumped out of their way. “Yes. Now run along and keep working. There’s lots to do and you’re wasting time. Captain.” Natalie winked at me and gave me a mock salute as she ordered me off. I laughed and waved over my shoulder as I went. I passed Camille and Lucas on my way out and gave them both a cheerful grin. Lucas smirked back and Camille gave me a flicker of a smile as she strained with the four giant boxes she was carrying.

Lucas leaned over toward Camille and spoke in the loudest whisper I’d ever heard. “Looks like Captain’s in a good mood. What do you think he and Natalie were doing in the storeroom by themselves.”

Camille looked down at Lucas out of the side of her eye and grimaced. “If you poke me in the ribs because I won’t laugh at your joke, I’m going to dump all of these boxes on top of you.”

Lucas shifted his bags and leapt through the door ahead of Camille, his characteristic smile plastered across his face. “Fine, I’ll go tell Natalie. She’ll laugh at my joke.”

I shook my head and walked out of the shelter, waving at every as I went back to my assigned building to continue collecting boxes. It took a few more trips, but I managed to clean it out on my own. After that, Natalie assigned me a huge job, big enough that she suggested I take the sled in addition to a handful of other people.

By the time seven of us had loaded up the sled and picked the stuff we’d carry back as well, the first snowflakes had started to fall. We hurried back to the shelter and brought everything inside just as the snow started picking up. I did a quick headcount and sighed in relief when the last two Wayfinders came in through the door just as I started asking if anyone had seen them. Natalie stuck to organizing the supplies, focusing now on long-term storage within the shelter rather than just collecting and noting everything, I supervised sealing the front door. A few of the nomads stood around, watching as I sealed us inside the building and it took a few strongly-worded suggestions for them to move along.

Once it was finished and we verified there were no leaks in the seal, I directed the Wayfinders to verify that all of our work was holding up and checked the back exit myself. After they had all reported that we were good to go, I felt the tension in my shoulders start to drain away. We were inside and we were safe. I held on to the last bit of tension and went to help Natalie.

By the time the sun was setting and we started lighting our lanterns, we had finished sorting through the supplies. Camille had started dinner so, by the time I went to help her finish preparing it, there wasn’t much to do other than stir pots, flip frying meat, and keep the hungry Wayfinders back from the cooking area. After Camille had finished and we had dished out food to everyone, I checked in on the other two groups and found them together, cheerfully telling stories over their shared meal.

I watched them for a moment, happy they were getting along. Instead of interrupting their meal to make sure they were settled in for the night, I decided I’d wait a couple of hours. They’d be fine until then and I had a ton of clean up to do since Camille had done most of the cooking. I walked away from their pool of light back toward my own, listening to the howl of the wind as it raced around our building. We were safe and warm, with good food and cheer to help us through the next several days.

I felt the last of the tension drain out of me. We were as safe as we could ever be in this post-collapse world and I was looking forward to my first long rest since the last blizzard. Even if they were incredibly dangerous, I still appreciated them for being the only downtime in my otherwise busy life.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 11

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When I awoke for our first day of preparation, I spent a few minutes savoring the feeling of having solid walls around me and basking in the comfort of knowing our presence was almost undetectable from the outside. I got so used to the constant fear of attack or discovery while between settlements and enclaves that I forgot how nice it was to feel secure or at least not afraid that I woke up because someone was sneaking around my tent. No amount of years spent in the field would ever make that fear go away for me. Anyone who lost it usually wound up dying to bandits or not strictly policing their heat signatures, so I wasn’t in a hurry to get rid of it.

Instead, I lay in my sleeping bag, stared at the ceiling, and wished I had a little privacy so I could wrap myself around Natalie. The Wayfinders had a large room to ourselves, but there was no door for the room and I couldn’t openly date a Wayfinder, even if everyone already knew Natalie and I were together. The chain of command does not allow for romance with one’s subordinates. Like most organizations with a command structure, it prevents the abuse of power by specifically forbidding anything that could seem like an abuse of power.

As the Wayfinders had turned from an informal group of people into a formal, militaristic organization, Natalie and I had discussed our options. We both decided to continue our relationship, but focused a little more on secrecy than before. Since our relationship predated the chain of command, we figured it was fine.

I was the first one awake, which wasn’t surprising since all the usual early risers had been awake for two days to find this place, so I pushed together a few camp stoves and started making a large pot of oatmeal. Using my powers as commanding officer, I requisitioned some of the dried fruit we saved for the days we really needed something less bland than dietary supplements and freeze-dried whatever. Once the oatmeal was simmering, I stirred in the fruit and one of the packets of brown sugar I kept in my personal bag for occasions just like this one.

In a world where most meals consisted of the ever-dwindling supply of grains, preserved meats, and a whole lot of questionable foodstuffs that was generated by whatever sustainable farming initiative our most-recent enclave ran, food variation held a special importance. Living in an enclave meant variety wasn’t terribly hard to come by, even if it wasn’t as wide as it would have been prior to the collapse. Living outside of one meant you ate what lasted a long time and didn’t weigh much.  I made sure that my people got variety on occasion, though. Since we were a larger group, it was easy for us to justify bringing a supply sled or two, depending on the length of the trip, and no one complained about the extra weight of towing frozen meat or root vegetables.

These supplies usually weren’t covered by our requisition allowances, so Camille or I generally bought it ourselves. Only Camille or I could authorize using any of the special supplies and we made sure to do it as a reward or a celebration. Usually one of us cooked it as well, to make sure everyone knew that it was a gift from us to everyone else. The only other time we got meat that wasn’t dried out was when a scout stumbled across a wild animal and could take it down without wasting a bullet.

The brown sugar was my touch, though. And my secret. Even if I dumped all ten pouches in, there wouldn’t be enough to drastically influence the taste, but mixing it in with the fruit gave it a little extra kick of sweetness that everyone enjoyed. When I wanted to give everyone a little boost without the extra time and more limited uses of our non-dried supplies, this was what I did. Got up first and made breakfast.

I got the usual murmurs of thanks as people quietly woke up and went about their morning routines. Every Wayfinder had an assigned job and would be able to take care of it themselves. Most of them were going to spend their day searching for supplies, one would stay here with the thermal reader to organize the laborer and nomad repair crews, and the rest were going to spend the day scouring the town for any humans living in the area. While thermal safety was the biggest priority by a significant amount, we needed to know what we could encounter in terms of less horrible but still possibly lethal dangers.

I spend my day near the building, coordinating the various supply search parties as they came and went, and giving some direction to the repair groups. I wound up sending a few of the more savvy nomads out with Wayfinders when someone reported a big find, but most of them stuck around the building as well, assisting with repairs and the start of modifications to the small office building we’d taken over.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we finally got a clean thermal reading on the building, aside from the front doors that the supply parties were using. There wasn’t much we could do about them other than set up a few things to prevent some of the heat from escaping while the doors were closed and prepare to seal the entryway when the blizzard started. It wasn’t the best solution since it’d get in the way of us fleeing the building if something happened, but it certainly helped with making the building more secure against possible invasion.

The scouts had found one group of humans, living outside the southern side of town in an office park that had been converted into a fortified shelter. They hadn’t been there the last time we had been through this town, but it had been a few years and nomadic groups occasionally settled down. We hadn’t made contact and none of them seemed to go into town, so Camille and I were content to do nothing but keep an eye on them.

Once I called off work for the night, as the final glimmers of sunlight disappeared behind the heavy bank of clouds on the horizon and people had started using their solar-powered lamps to work, we’d made excellent progress. More than I had even hoped, in fact. Trevor had been an amazing help keeping the laborers focused and working, keeping them focused on smaller goals like finishing the insulating quickly and correctly so they could start working on creating a latrine with stalls and privacy for the first time since we left the Madison Enclave.

After that, they’d even started on using some of the cubicle walls and construction supplies the Wayfinders brought to start partitioning their rooms into smaller, private rooms for the people who wanted them. Once the nomads found out that the laborers were willing to do the same for them, a lot of the residual hard feelings disappeared. When Trevor offered to do the same for the Wayfinders when I came to tell them to knock it off for the night, I refused despite my personal preferences. As a group, we spent a lot of time around each other and prefered living in a large group to living separately. Plus, the open room allowed us to better set up fortifications if we needed them and made it easier to do group meals which saved a lot of time, effort, and fuel.

Natalie was as disappointed as I was when I told as we shared cleanup duty after dinner.

“A little privacy would have been nice, Mar. One night every two weeks when neither of us is on duty and both Camille and Lucas are isn’t much.”

I nodded as I scrubbed my way through a stack of plates, handing them to Natalie for drying. “We had twelve days to ourselves just a few months ago.”

“That doesn’t count!” Natalie took the plate I was holding and poked me in the ribs. “We got stranded in a supply cache because we couldn’t make it back to our shelter before a blizzard.”

I winked at her. “And it was just the two of us.”

Natalie rolled her eyes and stacked the dry plate with the others. “I know you made the right choice, but it’s nice to imagine having some privacy.” I nodded as I scrubbed, feeling again the familiar tinge of disappointment that always raced through me when our time alone ended. Natalie took a deep breath and took the pile of dishes and cutlery back to stack beside our camp stove. When she came back, she leaned near me and spoke softly. “Don’t forget to go to the bathroom after making sure everyone has settled down.”

I turned my head toward her and smiled. “Of course not. I would never forget something as important as that.”

After an otherwise uneventful night, the second day dawned bright and surprisingly clear. I set aside our usual plans and had everyone bring out every solar-powered device and battery we owned so we could make sure they were fully charged before the blizzard started. After that, a few scouts went to keep an eye on the other humans, the rest of the Wayfinders returned to searching for supplies, and I started the laborers and nomads on turning our little office park into a fortress.

An old fire escape become a bolt hole that could be easily broken open from inside but almost impossible without explosives on the outside. The front door had barricades set up around the outside and even more in the interior entryway. Every room was fortified so the walls around their doors would stop bullets. I even had a hidden sentry post set up near the front door so someone could keep watch while we slept.

Once all of that was finished, I left the laborers and nomads to finish setting up their individual rooms and started bringing in all of the solar-powered devices. By the time the last Wayfinders had come back and the sun was touching the horizon, our base was ready to handle the blizzard.

As I walked around, inspecting the rooms, I stopped to watch a conversation between a few of the nomads and a small group of laborers headed by Trevor.

“Thank you so much for the rooms! This will definitely help the children relax.” The woman who had the two young children smiled and hugged the two nearest laborers.

Trevor smiled and shook her hand. “I hope it lets you get some rest as well! If we’re really going to be here for a week, then I think dividing the space up will help us not get on each other’s nerves too much.”

I walked in and clapped Trevor on the shoulder, matching his smile. “Seven to ten days, at this time of the year.”

Two of the nomads nodded in agreement and the woman in the front shook her head as she spoke. “At least it isn’t the winter blizzard. That one lasts for at least two weeks.”

“I prefer to be in an enclave for that one if I can swing it. Fifteen to twenty days is far too long to hole up in a building like this one without an equal amount of preparation time.” I idly scratched an ear as I thought back to the one time we’d been caught outside an enclave in a winter blizzard without adequate preparation time. We went through all of our supplies, including the stuff that was supposed to get us the rest of the way through out trip. Everyone had learned a lot that year and we took better precautions since then.

“Are they really that regular?” Trevor’s friend Mitch scratched at the beard he was growing and nervously looked over his shoulder at the entryway. “They never seemed that predictable in the enclave.”

I shrugged. “The Madison enclave hasn’t been connected to the net for a while and that’s a big part of accurate predictions. While the day of their arrival isn’t set in stone, their length is fairly predictable and the four storms circle the globe over the course of a year. Data from other enclaves that just saw the storms pass helps predict their arrival and duration elsewhere. That’s how we know this storm will be in the area some time tomorrow. The seven-to-ten days thing is just how long the spring storm usually lasts.”

I chuckled and stretched my arms. “At least we’re ready for this one and we’ve got the shelter almost ready to go. We should still have plenty of time tomorrow to wrap things up and gather supplies. It’ll be another busy day, so I think we should all settle in for dinner and sleep.”

Mitch and one of the other laborers nodded, but Trevor crossed his arms and looked down. One of the nomads cleared their throat and took a small step forward. “Of course.” He turned to the laborers and held out his hand to Trevor. “Thank you again for all of the assistance. We wouldn’t have been able to get this done without you all and we appreciate that you gave up some of your break time to make sure we were finished today”

Trevor picked his head up and took the man’s hand, smiling once more. “We’re glad to be of assistance. Anything to help out our neighbors and associates.” After a quick one-two pump, the two men released each others hands and lead their respective groups back toward their rooms.

I called out to them as they walked away. “Great job, everyone! Rest well!” I got a few half-hearted waves back and then turned back toward the Wayfinder rooms. Something about the whole exchange I had just witnessed unsettled me. Something else was going on here and I couldn’t think of what it could be. The two groups, who had been nearly ready to kill each other just a few days ago, were acting like nothing had happened. It made my life easier right now, for sure, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t going to do anything but make it more complicated in the long run.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 10

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


In the morning, I told everyone as we that we would need to push hard for the next two days in order to make it to our shelter in time to prepare it for the blizzard. There were a few grumbles, but just people venting spleen about an unpleasant task. After I reminded them that they would also be required to help prepare the shelter once we got there, a couple of the nomads and most of the laborers started shouting. One of the nomads tried argue that they should not be expected to keep up and thus should be exempt from a day’s work because they had children to look after. I cut the argument off before they could start gaining steam, letting them know only people who helped with the shelter got to use it, and nomads who had children quickly shushed the two loudmouths without children.

However, the laborers seemed to unite behind the idea of taking their time and refused to let go. As we prepared to set out, since I made it clear the supplies were leaving with the Wayfinders, regardless of what the laborers chose to do, they huddled together and then sent Trevor to talk to me again. I ignored him as best as I could, letting him know I was busy helping the nomads with their children and taking my turn pulling the supply sled, but he finally cornered me when we broke for a quick lunch.

Initially, I planned to let him just run his mouth. Once he’d run out of steam a bit, I let him know the scouts would be arriving there tomorrow morning, as we were starting our day’s hike, and would have the building selected by the time our group got there in the evening. He backed off then, stewing on what I said, and I had most of the afternoon to focus on my tasks. Any time not spent reviewing supply forms or correcting our course was spent taking a turn helping the nomads by carrying one of the two children that wasn’t strong enough to keep up the pace but was too big to constantly carry. Thankfully, being carried helped the two kids keep up the pace by given them a chance to rest, though they were starting to show their complete exhaustion as sunset approached. The laborers were having no trouble keeping up the pace, though they always seemed to be elsewhere when I wanted to enlist one of them to help with something.

About fifteen more minutes of hiking from the campsite the forward scouts had picked for us, Trevor came up to me again. I was at the head of the group, setting the pace and keeping on eye out to make sure no one fell behind. When I looked back, about to let everyone know we would to our campsite with plenty of time to set up before dark, I found Trevor hustling up to me. I turned back to face the front and ignored him until he fell in beside me and nodded.

“Captain.”

I nodded back, wary and wishing he could have waited just a little longer, when I’d be too busy setting up camp to talk.

“I want to know why we must be rushed. Won’t two and a half days be plenty of time to prepare?”

I sighed and shook my head. “Possibly. Given the nature of our preparations and the inability to be completely accurate about blizzard predictions, it is best to get as much time as possible.”

“Is the four hours of daylight we’ll gain by pushing hard really help us that much?”

“Yes.” I nodded and resumed my silent march.

After a moment of silence, Trevor turned towards me a little bit and spread his hands. “Please, captain. I’m trying to understand. Could you explain why it matters so much?”

I considered ignoring him, but decided against it. If I could get him to quit arguing, maybe he’d get the rest of the laborers to fall in line. That’d make my life much easier. “Alright, but once we hit our campsite I’ll need to focus on making camp.”

I waited for Trevor to nod and then launched into the basics. “Given that we haven’t taken this route in years and this is the first time we’re stopping at this particular town, I would have preferred to have four days or even five. Given that we lost two days to dealing with bandits, we have no time to spare.”

Trevor blew out a deep breath and snorted. “I find it hard to believe that simply setting up a more stable camp would take three days.”

I shot a glare at him and he held his hands up placatingly. “I know you’ve spent most of your time in enclaves, so I would not be surprised to learn that this is the first blizzard you’ve experienced outside the safety of civilization. Correct?” He nodded slightly and I continued. “Now, I’m sure I don’t need to explain why we need shelter during the blizzards. Anyone old enough to understand the stories knows. However, things work a little differently outside of the enclaves.”

I pulled open one of the large velcro pockets on the front of my thermal jacket and handed a few pieces of laminated paper to him. “Here. This is the list of things we need to survive for an entire blizzard, per person and assuming that the blizzard lasts for ten days. Give it a read.”

As his eyes darted down the page, I continued to talk. “Outside of an enclave, an errant heat signature could give us away. That’s why we have such strict rules about were fires can be located, what you can wear, and why you need to stay in your tents at night. In an enclave, the heat is so oddly shaped and in large enough quantities that it confuses the sensors. They’re safe simply because they’re so big and so warm.

“We are not. Especially during blizzards when the ambient temperature drops to its lowest and any amount of extra heat is going to shine like a beacon.” Trevor looked up at me, his face blank. I smiled at him. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be hunted down and killed. So we hole up, hide our heat signatures, and do what we can to pass time until it is safe for us to go outside again.”

Trevor hadn’t even cycled through the papers, but he handed them back to me. “That sounds like a lot of hassle. If we can predict the day the blizzards will strike an area, why don’t people just make sure to be in an enclave when they pass over? Why risk being outside?”

I shrugged. “People aren’t exactly known for making the most sensible choices all the time. Plus, if we restricted all travel that would encounter a blizzard, we’d be doing at most a third of what we do now. They’re fairly frequent, when you consider how long it takes, on average, to go from one enclave to another.” I stuck the papers back into my pocket and sealed it up. “Like I said, I don’t want to be hunted down and killed, nor do I want anyone in our group to be hunted down and killed, so I’m going to push us as hard as I can today and then do the same tomorrow so we can arrive at the shelter my people have picked out before sundown.

“I would appreciate it if you’d stop questioning me while we’re walking and focus on getting your people in line so I can do my job.” I turned my face to Trevor again and let all of my frustration from the day show on my face. “If you or your companions get in the way of me keeping everyone safe, I will leave you behind. Got it?”

Trevor’s steps faltered for a moment, but he nodded. “Alright, alright. I got it.” He nervously rubbed his gloves together and chuckled. “Now that I know what’s going on, I’ll focus on making sure my people keep up the pace and are ready to work. I don’t think any of us wants to get killed, either.”

I let some of the heat fade from my face and shook my head. “If I have to explain every decision I make, we’re going to wind up dead. Do I what I say when I say it and, if we have some down time and you want to know why, I’ll explain it to you.”

“Sure thing.” Trevor smiled and stuck out his hand. I stared at it and then at his face for a moment before taking it and applying slightly more pressure than was strictly necessary. It was an awkward walking handshake, but Trevor seemed to appreciate it.

“Great. Now go get your people ready and convince them that, if we all just pull together on this, we can have time to rest and relax soon. The better they work together, the sooner it’ll be.”

“Right away, Captain.” Trevor nodded and fell back to the rest of the laborers. I watch him talk to them for a moment before focusing my mind back on the task of arriving at our camp and getting every settled for the night. Once all tasks were finished for the night and both groups had settled in for the night, I took half an hour from my guard shift to go through the supply tent and update the logs.

It was always an ordeal, preparing for the blizzard. We had to collect wood for fires to keep us warm since our little kerosene camp stoves would use up what fuel we had with us in a couple of days if we relied solely on them. Even though a few groups of Wayfinders did nothing but travel Wayfinder routes and replenish the hidden stockpiles we used to make sure guiding groups had enough necessities, we couldn’t take enough to keep us warm that long without leaving nothing for any groups that came after us. Food was a lot easier, though. The constant cold helped preserve most of the stockpiles governments had put together as the collapse was happening thanks to some people who believed the early warning signs. Most canned goods lasted well beyond their shelf dates, as long as they stayed dry.

The only other thing we needed, which was the hardest thing to find, was the right building. Most buildings were properly insulated before the collapse and our thermal hand scanner would find any leaks that had developed since then as soon as we put a heat source inside the building. Thankfully, the standards had been raised right before the collapse and any newer building was almost as dead as the snow around it on the thermal reader, even after we started heating it to look for leaks. There were almost always repairs that needed doing, but insulation and nails or glue never went bad and no Wayfinder was certified without the skills to heat seal a building.

Thankfully, we were good on almost everything but kerosene. The nomads had brought plenty of food, but drained our fuel resources much more quickly than we anticipated. I’d have to send some Wayfinders through the town to look for more fuel, if there was any left. If not, I’d have to send a couple of scouts away from our route to hit a cache somewhere. Natalie had the maps and she would know where to find anything around this town. Hopefully we wouldn’t need to start restricting fuel rations before then.

Once I was finished, I settled in for my guard duty. Hidden beneath the fresh powder that was constantly falling from the sky, I kept an eye on the camp and wished that radios were still usable. Natalie and Lucas had been gone since the morning and the quiet anxiety I always felt when my friends didn’t return to the tent at night clawed at my stomach. Lucas was the best we had at solo survival and Natalie was the head of our resource collection, so I knew they’d be fine between the two of them, not to mention the four other Wayfinders and two trainees with them. Natalie and her trainee would be in charge of finding our shelter and combing the ruined town for food to help us survive the five to ten days we would be stuck in our shelter.

Once my shift was over, and I’d gotten as much sleep as I could before I had to start getting the camp moving again, I steeled myself for another morning of arguments and a certain degree of enthusiasm I didn’t actually feel. As I let my mind work through my morning mantra, I cleaned up from breakfast, packed up my bags, and started taking down the tent. Once I was outside and finishing up the packing, I encouraged the camp to continue doing the same. Camille had gotten up before me and started the Wayfinders on their preparations, so all I had to do was get the laborers and the nomads moving.

Thankfully, the nomads were up and moving already. The laborers took a little work to get going, but they didn’t argue and Trevor took it upon himself to make sure they all got ready quickly. We got underway a full fifteen minutes before I had expected and were on our way with minimal disruption. Trevor had the laborers take turns helping with the nomad children and he even took a turn pulling a supply sled, though none of the other laborers offered.

By the time we arrived at the town and had been brought to the building the scouts had selected, it was just before sunset. Room assignments were given, unused rooms were boarded up, and everyone settled in for their first night in a proper shelter in what felt like over a month. Even the barn hadn’t felt as cozy as the solid building around us. As I fell asleep, I banished all of my usual worries from my mind and reveled in the comfort of good shelter and sleeping beside Natalie once again.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 9

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The next morning, we woke up and tried to return to our routines. One of the hardest parts of the morning was reassigning the duties of the two Wayfinders we buried the night before. Harder still was splitting up their gear amongst the rest of us. We couldn’t afford to leave anything behind but the clothes we buried them in. The tundra wasn’t that forgiving. After that and a breakfast of plain oatmeal that tasted especially bland after the hamburgers of the night before, I moved through the barn. The laborers and nomads had slept on opposite sides of the barn and stuck to their groups as they continued to mourn and slowly prepare to set out.

When both groups were finally ready to go, two hours later than planned, the first of the scouts was just reporting back. The coast was clear and they’d found enough landmarks to put our location on a map. Despite our deviation from our intended course, we would be able to make our target town the day after tomorrow. That would mean we’d still have at least three days before the blizzard arrived to prepare and hunker down. I shared the news with everyone, but only the Wayfinders seemed cheered by it. The nomads and the laborers merely nodded, picked up their things, and followed us out of the barn, carefully avoiding each other.

It was a long day of walking. Since we’d left late, I pushed the group until it was almost dark. We had to set up camp quickly, but we still had fifteen minutes before the sun was completely down when I set the last sentry in place. After doing a few patrols of the camp and making note of how far apart the nomads and the laborers had grouped themselves, I headed back to my tent and my friends.

Inside, Natalie and Camille were talking over their dinners while Lucas lay to the side, arms behind his head, and occasionally adding something to the conversation. Without really tuning in to what they were saying, I finished taking off my gear and then helped myself to some of the reconstituted soup. As I took my first bite, their conversation finally filtered through to my brain.

“Hold on, what?” I turned to Natalie. “I thought this was one of the towns we’d scouted on our last trip through. Didn’t someone say it was perfect for us?”

“Yes.” Natalie nodded scraped the last of her soup into her mouth. “The problem is, that was a few years ago. While it is still probably just fine, it won’t be exactly how we found it back then. We’ll probably need to do a little extra work to make sure we find enough new food and safe water.”

Camille grabbed Natalie’s bowl and, placed it insider her own, preparing to wash them out. “That, or we need to dip into our supplies a little more and spend time fortifying our camp. If we haven’t gotten any kind of update on the area since the last time we were through, it is possible there will be more bandits nearby.”

“Though any group small enough to survive in a town this size probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat.” Lucas had propped himself up on his elbows. “If we can make it until the blizzard starts, we’ll be fine for a few days and then we can always sneak out under cover of the end of the blizzard. Most bandits won’t go out in it, but we’d be fine.”

Natalie sighed. “All of these things are true. I’m just frustrated we don’t have any good intel and, aside from basic scouting, we’ll all be too busy preparing for the tri-monthly blizzard to do anything but frantically prep.”

“I can push us harder tomorrow.” I stirred my soup as I thought. “If we can just pick up the pace a little bit, we should be able to get there early tomorrow evening, which will give us three full days to prepare.”

“Or spring a bandit trap.” Camille grabbed a handful of snow from the bucket inside the tent and used it to scour the bowls.

“Yes. Or that.” I had a few more mouthfuls of soup.

“I have a few places on the maps that might work, but only one if we want to let the nomads and laborers keep away from each other. It won’t be great and would require more work, but we should be able to get it ready in time anyway.” Natalie yawned. “Either way, I’m going to bed soon because I’m going to be super busy for the next four days.”

“Me too. Scouting leaves at sunrise.”

“Okay you two, get some sleep.” I pointed to Lucas in mock severity. “That’s an official order from your Captain!”

Lucas nodded and saluted, letting himself fall over backward as he did so. “At once, sir!”

After I finished my dinner and washed my bowl, Camille packed them away while I took care of cleaning the soup pot and turning off the camp stove. Fifteen minutes later, we were all asleep.

The next morning, I woke as the sun started making its existence known. Lucas was already gone and Natalie was in the process of leaving. Her opening the door was what woke me up, but the feeling of the air is what got me out of my sleeping bag an hour before I needed to. Sleep was precious, especially given that I hadn’t had much lately, but something in the air made me anxious.

I quickly dressed and scooped half of the leftover oatmeal out of the pot, shoveling it down as I zipped up my jacket and pants. Once I’d finished and dropped some of the snowmelt from the bucket into the bowl to prevent the oatmeal from sticking, I hurried out the door. Once I was outside, I snuck around the camp. Creeping between buildings and staring out past the perimeter as I went, I kept myself hidden as I looked for whatever had me on edge. Fifteen minutes and two circuits of the camp later, I was forced to look elsewhere.

I went around the camp again, still sneaking, but this time I focused my attention inward. As I made my first round, I realized there was far too much silence coming from the nomad and laborer tents. Even if we had to wake them most mornings, there should have been someone who was up or moving around at that point. All the Wayfinders were waking up at this point, even if I was the only one outside who wasn’t on duty.

I finished my circuit and went to the guard I’d stationed near enough to the laborers and nomads to keep an eye on them. When I got over to him, I nudged him with my boot. “Nichols. What happened?”

Nichols shook the snow off of himself and stretched his impressive length. “Caught a couple of the nomads sneaking around last night, Cap’n. Sent them packing. You know I’ve got a good loom. Spooked them a bit and then told them off, but that’s about it. Did the same thing to a couple groups of laborers who were trying to do the same thing.”

I helped pull Nichols to his feet and the skinny giant towered over me. He was about seven feet tall, but you could practically see through him. He was an excellent sniper and enjoyed the Wayfinder life, but outfitting him was the biggest administrative challenge of my life. After brushing him off a bit, I turned to face the tents. “Can you tell me who?”

“I don’t have any names, Cap’n. I just wanted everyone back in their tents before they caused a ruckus.”

“Thank you, Nichols. I’ll see what I can do about preventing that from happening again.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n.” He stretched again, sighing. “If you want to know, the last group of laborers came out of this tent, here.” He pointed at the nearest tent. “I wouldn’t have caught them if I hadn’t been watching for something by then. They were silent as they snuck out and didn’t say a word when I confronted them.” He cleared his throat and leaned closer. “And they were a bit under-dressed, if you catch my meaning.”

I nodded, keeping a tight leash on the sudden anger I felt, and waved him toward where a couple of wayfinders were preparing breakfast. “Go get yourself some breakfast. I’ll take care of it.” Sneaking around at night was one thing, sneaking around at night without the proper thermal gear was something else entirely.

As the lanky behemoth walked away, I walked over to the tent that belonged to the laborer spokesperson and Mitch, the drunken moron who wouldn’t take no for an answer from one of my trainee Wayfinders. When I was standing right outside it, I could hear the faint sounds of muted conversation coming from inside. I stood and listened for a minute, trying to make out what they were saying, but they were being too quiet. I decided a direct confrontation was probably my best bet, so I unzipped the door to their tent and stepped inside.

There were five laborers sitting around their small camp stove, but they weren’t cooking anything on it. They all turned to look at me, shading their eyes against the morning light. Mitch and his friend, the man acting as their spokesperson, were sitting facing the tent door, so I locked eyes with them first. Mitch looked away quickly, but the other man set his face in the same business-like neutral expression he had used while talking about refunds.

“Good morning, Captain.” He stood up and flashed a perfunctory smile. “To what do we owe your company?”

I zipped the tent closed behind me and kept my tone and face as neutral as his. “Someone told me that the people from this tent were sneaking around at night. Was that you and your friends, Trevor?”

He smiled, trying to be disarming. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Cut the crap.” I stepped forward and let some of my frustration and anger from the past few days heat my voice. “One of my guards saw you come out, confronted you, and told me about it this morning.”

“We didn’t do anyth-” Mitch was in the middle of gingerly clambering to his feet when he was interrupted by his friend, who placed a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back down.

“Fine. We had arranged a small meeting with the nomads last night and didn’t see that it was any business of yours if we chose to talk to them about it. Since they didn’t show up here, we went to find them.” Trevor glared down at his companions. “When we were told by your guard to return to our tent, we did.”

“And what do you want to discuss that isn’t any of my business?” After a moment of silence, a blank look from Trevor, and uneasy stares from everyone else, I sighed and spoke a little louder. “Do I need to remind you that literally everything that happens while I am guiding you is my business? Especially when it involves breaking the rules I set when we left the Madison enclave?”

“We wanted to continue our discussion from last night, about who owed who what as a result of the bandit attack.”

“That wasn’t a discussion, it was a shouting match that would have erupted in violence if my people hadn’t been separating everyone.”

“Be that as it may, we wished to continue to talk and you clearly do not want that to happen.” Trevor crossed his arms, his neutral tone disappearing. “If there’s nothing else, Captain, I’d like for you to leave.”

I nodded. “One last thing, and then I’ll leave.” I stepped forward, dropping my voice to a low, angry snarl. “If you pull any of this shit again, remember that we’re the justice out here and I can promise you that anything you do that might endanger us, like walking around at night or being careless with your heat signatures like you were last night will not go unpunished.”

I stepped closer to the group, leaning over a little. “Were you just careless? Did you think that almost two decades of experience didn’t count for anything? I know you’re all young, but even you should know what happens to groups that get caught outside the enclaves.” Even Trevor was looking away now, unwilling to meet my eyes. “If we get attacked, we’re just going to leave you behind. That single, moronic move was a worse violation than anything that might have happened because of the nomads.”

I straightened up and walked back toward the tent. “Sneaking around at night is a violation, but mostly a harmless one if you really meant to just talk. Sneaking around at night without full thermal gear is beyond moronic. If I or my Wayfinders catch anyone outside without their thermal gear again, we’re just going to bury them in the snow and leave them behind.”

I unzipped the tent and stepped outside. I zipped the tent back up and took a deep breath of the chill morning air. I was still angry. A firefight that ended barely forty-eight hours ago and now people wandering around at night without their insulating gear. Chances were good that we were going to draw attention from something worse than bandits and blizzards unless we make good time and took extra care setting up for the snowstorm. Something we’d be helpless to fight against.

I shuddered and moved away from the laborer tent. I had another group to tell off, still, and then my usual morning duties to attend to. Today was going to be another long day.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 8

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I pushed open the door and took in the scene unfolding in the clear space between empty animal stalls. Standing in two groups, the nomads and laborers were yelling at each other. In between them was Camille and a few Wayfinders with guns trained on the floor. I could see Camille shouting to make herself heard over the hubbub as the rest of the Wayfinders caught between angry mobs uneasily thumbed their safeties. All the other Wayfinders were sitting near their guns and the nomad children were huddled in a corner away from all the commotion with the older woman sitting in front of them.

The scent of hamburgers and my extreme hunger set aside, I tossed my gear to the ground and hurried over to the two groups, waving my arms. As I jogged up, I locked eyes with Camille who grimaced and then fired her gun into the far barn door. As the sharp crack of her rifle faded, silence fell and the two groups became aware that I was shouting at them.

“What is going on here? I want you and you” I pointed to one person from each group, a woman from the nomads and the laborer who stood furthest forward, “to explain to me why you aren’t behaving like adults. While they’re doing that, I want everyone else at opposite sides of the barn. Hands kept clearly visible or I’ll send Wayfinders to find out why they aren’t.” I crossed my arms  and glared from one group to the other. “You couldn’t just sit and eat your dinner in peace?”

The two groups, shepherded by armed Wayfinders, retreated to opposite sides of the barn. A few people from each group shot bashful looks in my direction, but no one split off from their group. After a quick whispered conference, the laborers sent the man I’d pointed at over. He was the friend of the man who had been getting aggressive with Laura a few days ago.  He started to speak, but I held up my finger to silence him while I waited for a nomad to join us. When they finally sent the woman over a couple of minutes later, I pointed at the laborer. “Speak.”

“These idiots led the bandits to us. It is their fault our friends died.” He clenched his fists and his jaw for a moment, but relaxed them a moment later. “We just want them to accept responsibility for these needless deaths.” After a moment of silence, I pointed to the nomad woman who was positively bristling.

“My wife wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for these assholes! If they had any ability to defend themselves, none of the bandits would have gotten close enough to kick down the door and kill my family.” The woman’s voice broke and she clenched her fists. “If only they had been better, Elaine would still be…” She broke into tears and I braced myself to stop her from lunging at the laborer, but the tension drained out of her body and she covered her face.

The laborer turned to step toward the nomad, clearly uncomfortable but unwilling to back down. “If they had come to where we were instead of trying new windows, no one-”

“That’s quite enough.” I grabbed the laborer’s shoulder and pushed him back a couple of steps. “I know both of you lost people today, on top of what must have been an exhausting night and day. I’m not going to ask that you calm down or control yourselves, because grief is important and should not be denied. You should mourn however you see fit, just do it without blaming other people.”

I turned to the laborer. “You all signed waivers. You knew this could happen at any time and that some of you would probably die.” I waved my hand as he started to speak and then put it on his shoulder in an attempt to be somewhat comforting. “Yes, this was awful, but we’re not safe yet. Surviving until after the blizzard should be our focus for right now. We can rest and mourn once we have taken shelter for a few days.” I patted his shoulder and then turned to the nomad.

“Your group has lived outside of an enclave for years. You all knew the risks you took. I’m sorry about your wife and your friends, but the laborers are not to blame for their death. These things happen and we need to stay strong and work together if we’re going to prevent any more loss of life.”

While the laborer stared at the ground and the nomad wiper her tears away, I sighed. “I know how hard it can be to lose people. I’m a Wayfinder because I’ve got no one left to me but this family I’ve created. I’ve buried my own share of people. They were there and then they were gone. There’s no sense to it.” I paused to clear my throat and master the emotion roiling through me before quietly continuing. “I had to do it again today.”

I paused to clear my throat again, letting my feelings of loss and failure to protect my people and those we had taken under our protection wash over me for a moment before pushing them away again. “None of us is alone in our grief. If we want to get through this, we need to support each other. The blame for today’s death lies with the bandits and they’re all dead.”

The laborer shuffled his feet and, after a deep breath, looked up at me. “Thank you for your help, Wayfinder Marshall. I think we all would have died without your aid.” I nodded, and was about to express my condolences, but he cut me off as he stiffened his back and his eyes hardened into a glare. “The thing is, though, we all paid good money to be guided and protected. Sure, we signed a waiver. But we also had a contract!” He crossed his arms and clenched his jaw, but his glistening eyes betrayed the hurt and frustration he felt. “Bringing these people to our group violated that contract!” His voice lost a little bit of its steam and I could hear the hitch in his voice, even if he did his best to hide it. “And it brought the bandits down on us.”

“The person responsible for breaking the contract has been punished according to our rules.” I shifted my stance a little, trying to look a little more stern but still conciliatory. “We did everything we could to guarantee your safety. What’s done is done and I will not tell you who is responsible for that decision. If you have any problems, you come to me. If you try taking issue with any of my people, they will direct you to me.”

“Thank you, Captain, I will make sure to speak with you if anything else comes up.” The laborer nodded, arms still crossed and back rigid, but this time all traces of sadness were gone from his face “In the meantime, I’d like to discuss our refund.”

I hid my surprise and mounting frustration by going into business mode, all expression gone from my face and all emotion gone from my voice. “Your refund.” I arched an eyebrow at him and let a little disbelief and the tiniest trace of humor I didn’t feel seep into my voice.

“Yes.” The laborer cleared his throat. “Since someone in your organization violated our contract, we’d like our money back.”

“We can discuss this later. This is for the two of us to talk about alone, rather than in front of this woman.” I nodded to the nomad woman who was still sniffling. “Is there anything else I can do to help you, ma’am? Or are you and your group ready to retire for the night?”

She nodded and wiped her eyes one last time. “If you cannot guarantee our safety or give us space away from these poor marksmen, we’d prefer to break off on our own.”

I calmly took a deep breath before answering, trying to keep the anger I felt out of my voice. We spent valuable resources and lost people trying to save both of these groups and they were turning on us. “You can do that, if you like. You will have to leave everything we gave you behind, though. All of the weapons and gear we’ve recovered from the bandits, too. Everything you didn’t bring yourselves.”

“No.” She folded her arms across her chest, matching the laborer, and her face went from watery and sad to commanding in an instant. “We fought and died for those. We’re entitled to a one-third share of everything from the bandits.”

“Like hell you are!”  The laborer stepped forward again, dropping his arms and balling his fists. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have been attacked. You’d all be dead if it wasn’t for us!”

She sniffed derisively. “And that’s why we get a share. You defended us, but you wouldn’t have gotten anything without us.”

I stepped in between then, pushing the laborer back as his face turned red and he raised a fist. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but the rest of me wanted to curl up and cry after eating as much as I could. I settled for remaining calm and neutral. “Stop it.” I turned to the woman. “Wayfinders have rights to all items looted as a result of action on their part. You’re using them because it’s worth our while to invest in you protecting yourselves. If you leave, you leave everything but what you brought. We’re guiding you for free and you are lucky we don’t just take everything you have of value in payment.

“And you!” I rounded on the laborer. The physical and emotional exhaustion I felt starting to wear away the calm facade I had been propping up. “Go back to your group and cool off. I’ll come find you after dinner and we can discuss the contract.  I can tell you now that it won’t change anything. You’re not getting your money back.The field decisions clause means any decision I make in the field will not violate the contract. The conditions outside of the enclave cannot be predicted beforehand.” I gestured for him to return to his group. “You should still have the paper copy you all signed. Read through while you wait. Let me know if you find any holes.”

I turned my back on the man, but shot a glance at Camille, who was watching from a dozen steps away. She nodded, letting me know he’d walked away. I turned my attention back to the nomad woman. “Is there anything else?”

She shook her head. “No. We’ll stick with your group, for now. I’m sure you can expect a poor net review when we get to an enclave.”

I laughed as she walked away, absurdity winning out. “The world doesn’t work like that anymore. The net may still exist, but Yelp sure as hell doesn’t.” I was still chuckling but getting close to tears when Camille walked up a minute later.

I nodded, surreptitiously wiping my eyes. “Thanks for keeping an eye on us. I didn’t think it would come to the point where you’d need to intervene, but everyone was a lot angrier than I expected.”

Camille shrugged. “It never hurts to be prepared.” Camille stood to attention and saluted. “I’m officially handing command back to you, sir. We’re back to people stuff and I’m ready for my first sleep in almost three days.”

“Thank you.” I saluted Camille. “Rest up. I have a feeling we’ll need to keep an eye on these two groups for a while yet.”

Camille grunted and walked off toward the Wayfinder campfire and her bedroll. “Yeah. Especially if we’re going to all be cooped up together for a week or more during that blizzard.” I sighed and followed her, trying to be more optimistic about the likely results of our next few weeks. All I could see in our future, though, was a bunch of fist-fights and more anger. Even though it would be ideal, there would be no way for us to have two separate shelters prepared and stocked in the few days we had left before the next blizzard.

 

Coldheart and Iron: Part 7

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The final tally of the dead was worse than I had hoped but not as bad as I had feared. Six dead laborers, a dozen dead nomads, and two dead Wayfinders. Most of the injured survived, except the one Wayfinder whose wounds claimed him about two hours after the battle ended. Most of the dead had been in the farmhouse, where the bandits had crashed through the door on the tail of their flashbang.

The nomads’ medic was one of the guards in the basement, so he got to work right away after we gave them the all-clear and was instrumental in saving a couple of the more injured laborers and nomads. He worked with Jonathan, our medic, to stabilize everyone we could before we moved them all into the barn to recover, rest, and hide while half of the uninjured Wayfinders scouted to make sure there were no more bandits around.

I personally led the squad to follow the tracks of the group that snuck up on us. It was relief to discover they had split off from the main force before they were in sight of the bandit’s base camp, even if it was frustrating to see how our scouting had failed us. We got back to the farmhouse around ten a.m. and immediately went to work digging graves with the other able-bodied Wayfinders. A mass grave for the bandits and individual graves for everyone else.

Around noon, the laborers and nomads emerged from the barn and started lending a hand. They knew as well as we did that the bodies needed to be buried by nightfall, and they wanted time to lay their friends and family to rest. They just needed more recover after the firefight than we did. Around five in the afternoon, the last shovel of dirt was placed, the last words were said, and any Wayfinder not preparing to leave in the morning was busy hiding all traces of the battle.

Camille was busy with after-action reports and Natalie was updating the supply logs with Jonathan, so I took Lucas aside to help me scatter snow over the graves. We worked in silence as the sun set until the last glimmers of light were disappearing through the haze of clouds coating the sky.

“You should have checked with me first.”

Lucas didn’t say anything. He stopped working and started off toward the setting sun. I let him have his silence for another minute before speaking again.

“I know the nomads would have been captured or worse if we hadn’t done anything, but we’ve lost six of the people who paid us to get them safely across the tundra and you broke one of the biggest rules of the Wayfinders. Again.”

“What do you want from me, Marshall?” Lucas turned to look at me, his usual grin replaced by a mixture of sadness and anger.  “I see people in need, and I want to help them. You would do the same thing, if you found people running for their life.” Lucas sighed and looked down at his feet. “Or at least you would have. I don’t know anymore.”

I stared at my oldest friend and tried to keep my roiling emotions off of my face. “We have rules, Lucas.” His head snapped up, eyes meeting mine and face as carefully neutral as mine. “Over the past fifteen years, we’ve added more and more rules as what we’ve done has turned from a past-time to fund our searches into something bigger than-”

“Than helping people?” Lucas stepped toward me, lowering his voice so no one would overhear. “We started this whole organization in order to help people, Marshall, or have you forgotten that?” I clenched my hands but kept my face neutral as the roiling was replaced by indignation and anger. Some part of me knew that we were both tired, Lucas especially so since he hadn’t gotten much rest the night before all of this had started, either. I took a moment of silence to try to calm down a little, to resist the urge to knock him down, but he took my silence as an answer.

He took another step towards me, getting in my face and dropping his voice to a hiss. “Are you so caught up in playing ‘King Cowboy in the New Frontier’ that you don’t remember what this was all about?”

I punched Lucas in the solar plexus and swept one of his legs. It felt good to be standing over him, but I knew he was just as angry as I was, if not angrier. I relaxed my fists and arms, looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath. I acknowledged the part of me that knew I messed up and tried to get the anger I felt under control. This wasn’t the first time we’d had this argument and it probably wouldn’t be the last.

When I looked down again, he was still on the ground, clutching his chest and gasping for breath. I squatted down next to him and, after he’d recovered enough to stop squirming, I grabbed his shoulder. “Dude, you can’t keep saying stuff like this. You know I don’t think that. You know why I started all this. You know why I’m STILL a Wayfinder after almost twenty years of fruitless searching.”

“That’s…” Lucas gasped and coughed. “That’s no excuse. If anything…”

I felt the anger creeping back and tried to keep myself calm. “You know better than anyone else what this disaster has cost me. You’ve got family and friends you could be living with instead of wandering around out here. You chose this life. This life is all I have.” I sat down next to him and rubbed my face.

I took another deep breath and softened my tone a little more, trying to sound a little more apologetic. “I would have helped them, that’s not the problem. That’s not the rule you’re in trouble for breaking. You knowingly led a group of bandits back to our group. You compromised our secrecy and, as a result, people died that otherwise wouldn’t have if you had followed protocol.”

Lucas glared at me as he pushed himself into an upright sitting position. His voice was angrier that mine had been and I was glad that almost everyone else had gone into the barn. No one else would be able to hear us if we started shouting. “Protocol would have meant taking them to Chicago and they had just been chased away from there! What good would that have done them?”

“More good than this would have.” I gestured at the graves we were sitting near. “You could have taken them to Rockford instead. That’s much closer than Chicago and you would have been able to get them there by tomorrow morning if you pushed them hard enough. They’d have been safe behind the walls of the enclave there.”

“And risked getting shot at while trying to push children and elderly at a quick pace? We’d have had to leave that old woman behind in order to have a chance of making it, because she’s too big to carry.”

“At least then everyone else would have had a chance.” I stood up. “Also, I’m pretty sure that old woman could have outpaced most of the other nomads.” I chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.

“Sure, then she would have had an equal chance to get shot in the back, just like everyone else..” Lucas started struggling to his feet. I offered him a hand but he smacked it away and glared at me instead.

“Stop arguing. You know I’m right or else you’d have hit me back by now.”

Lucas slipped in the partially melted snow I’d been sitting on and he fell over again. He shot me another dirty look from his place in the snow before just laying back and covering his eyes. “I can’t even stand up, much less strike a superior officer right now. I’m too tired. Couldn’t this have waited until after we found shelter for next week’s blizzard?” He let his arms fall to the side and picked his head up to meet my eyes. “Or at least until after I’ve gotten some sleep?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry I hit you, Lucas. That was way out of line and I know you don’t really think I’ve forgotten anything. I wish this could wait, but we have to talk about this today. If nothing happens to you, if there isn’t a clear resolution about what happened, then the laborers, the nomads, and the Wayfinder trainees will start to wonder about why their friends and loved ones are dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a problem with the laborers before the week is out.”

I offered Lucas my hand again and, after a moment’s hesitation, he took it. “They paid us to keep them safe.” I grunted as I hauled Lucas to his feet. “They all know that nothing is certain out here and that we couldn’t guarantee their safety, but this will be a hard thing for them to handle. All the trainees now realize just how likely it is that they’ll die out here if they stick to guiding large groups. This will seem like a slap on the wrist to them, but you did break a rule and these are the recommended consequences.”

Lucas took a step back after he gained his feet and brushed the snow off his pants and coat. “Yeah, that you wrote.” His voice was calmer, but I knew I’d need to do more to make it up to him than apologize.

I nodded. “You’re still head of the scouts, but your pay for this trip is going into the death benefits of our dead Wayfinders and you’re demoted to Lieutenant. Once we’re back in an enclave, we’ll look into getting you promoted again since the only reason you’re not higher ranked is that we don’t have higher ranks. No matter what, though, your pay won’t change for future jobs”

I stared at him, stony-eyed, while I waited for him to acknowledge my orders. After a another few swipes at snow that was no longer there and a deep breath, he saluted. “As you say, Captain.”

“Good.” I nodded and gestured toward the barn. “Now let’s finish up so we can go inside, eat, and get some sleep.”

Once we had finished, we walked off toward the barn. Someone had set up a LED floodlight near the door so we could finished up. Once we got near the door and started taking packing up the flood light, my nose detected the first hints of someone making hamburgers. My stomach growled in response and I was suddenly struck by the realization that it had been over twenty-four hours since I had eaten. I was so focused on the hamburgers that it took Lucas pointing it out for me to realize that the noise I was hearing was shouting coming from the inside barn. I left Lucas to finish up and, rushed inside. When I saw what was going on, my heart fell.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 6

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Dawn broke just after six. I’d made two more quick patrols of the grounds, silently moving from post to post, to make sure everyone was alert and ready. Aside from the scouts that Lucas had taken with him to find the bandits forty-eight hours ago, everyone was still alert. The scouts were split up amongst the groups and, aside from a quick scrub of their eyes every so often, were handling their sleep deprivation fairly well. Even us older Wayfinders could handle a couple of days without sleep before our ability to function, and all of the scouts except Lucas were still only in their late twenties.

Right as I was about to start my third patrol, one of our snipers gave the signal. A quick, two-beat bird imitation that let us all know the main force had been spotted coming out of the hills. A five-beat version of the bird call let us know we were facing a force of around fifty people. Compared to the scouts, of which there had only been twenty over-confident morons who fell into our trap, they were going to be a significant problem. We’d wiped out the bandit scouts, so our preparations would still be a mystery, but they’d be more cautious and the morning light that was slowly suffusing through the clouds was only going to help them.

After a quick breath to steady my pulse that had jumped up when the warning signal came, I got up from my post by one of the windows and made a silent circuit of the farmhouse, telling everyone to keep their eyes peeled, stick to their assigned window or crevice, and shoot as soon as they see someone walking toward the house or the barn. While reissuing Camille’s orders, I check over the barricades everyone had made. Most were just pieces of scrap wood we had collected, layered around their firing positions so the bandits wouldn’t simply be able to fire through the walls. A sufficiently powerful sniper rifle still could pierce the multiple layers we had set up, but the laborers and nomads would be protected from most stray bullets when they were taking cover or reloading.

My post was a bit better defended, since I was facing the direction the bandits were most-likely coming from. I had my barricade set up underneath my second-story window and I was the only person here so I’d be able to hide entirely behind it. The wall around the windows was layered with more wood, of course, but my barricade would stop anything but the largest caliber rifles. One of Natalie’s most ingenious ideas, the portable barricades had saved countless lives. Lightweight and incredibly durable, they were a lot like body armor you could take cover behind. Most sniper rifles would leave a huge dent in them, but they’d leave you alive as well, and the repairs were fairly easy to do in the field.

I settled in behind my barricade, head down, and eyes waiting on the signal. The seconds thudded by, each measured by the silent passing of seconds on my watch while my heart supplied the sound effects. Five whole minutes of silence and the repeated mantra Camille had taught us when we first realized marksmanship was the only thing we’d be able to depend on as the world fell into chaos around us. Sight, exhale, squeeze. There was a lot more to it than that, but breaking it down into single words that represented the whole made it easier to focus during moments like right now.

Then, so dimly I almost couldn’t see it, was the change in light I was looking for, shining in through the window. I popped up, legs bracing me against my barrier and eyes darting past the flares that were just coming to life on the treeline. I picked my first target and fired. The rifle pushed into my shoulder, the thunderclap boomed through my earplugs, and I saw my target fall. I switched focus to another one and fired off a trio of shots, hoping to get something vital through the bush she was standing behind. She went down. I swapped to another target, but then bullets started flying out of the trees and I ducked back down.

I heard a few cries of pain from the floor below me and more from the woods. A few bullets zipped through my window and out the wall opposite and one blew a hail of splinters out of the reinforced wall as it exploded on impact. I pounded the floor three times, signalling to fire at will and then scooted away from the window on my stomach. I crawled out of the bedroom, down the hallway, and stopped at the top of the stairs. There was a window facing the opposite side of the farm clearing and I carefully poked my head over the sill.

Creeping up the slight incline, through a scattering of grass clumps and bushes, was another group of bandits, almost as large as the group attacking us from the east. I hadn’t taken a close count, but I could definitely tell it was way more than fifty between the two groups. I thumped the floor twice, and fired a few shots out of the window. They group of bandits scattered, but didn’t manage to avoid the rain of bullets coming out of the farmhouse. Most of the laborers weren’t skilled with a gun, but we’d given them all the guns and ammo we’d taken from the bandits, so they were given free-reign to fire as they liked.

Once the bandits started regrouping behind whatever cover they could, I rolled away from the window. I went back to my original position and started adding a dozen potshots to the chaos that had engulfed the area around the barn. When I came up to shoot the last four bullets in my magazine, I added a whistle signal to the roar of my gun. Two beats, two beats, a short pause while I took cover again, and then four beats. Almost forty bandits coming from the west.

A couple of moments later, as I reloaded, I heard Camille’s distinctive whistle pierce the battlefield. A single, long note cut through the bark of combat rifles and then the small contingent of Wayfinders that had hidden in the snow, waiting for the bandits to pass them, went about their work. We sent a few more volleys into the forest, but had to stop soon so we wouldn’t hit our own people. I banged the floor twice, telling the nomads to stop, and then banged it four times. Following my own signal, I returned to my westward facing window and started shooting at the bandits from there.

The bandits seemed content to focus their fire on the first floor, doing their best to chew through the walls around the windows and being rewarded with several screams. I got a faceful of splinters when I rolled off to the side, thankfully avoiding the bullets that ripped the wall up but unable to get my hands up in time to protect my face from the wooden shrapnel. My eyes were fine thanks to my goggles, but I was going to either die with a face like a porcupine or spend a few hours pulling splinters out of my face.

I tugged out the largest ones on the right side of my face and kept firing. One cluster of bandits made a break for the farmhouse and, as I went to fire at them, the remaining two dozen bandits started blind-firing at the farmhouse. They didn’t hit much, but they succeeded in forcing everyone back behind their cover. I blindly emptied my magazine in what I hoped was their direction. A couple of seconds later, as I was reloading, one of the doors crashed open and I heard the unmistakable shriek of a flashbang grenade. I popped over the sill and started shooting at the rest of the bandits that had started running toward the farmhouse, doing my best to ignore the dizziness and ringing in my ears despite my earplugs.

I got almost a dozen with solid body shots before the ones in front realized what I was doing and started shooting back. Bullets flew through the walls and even the floor around me, filling the air with wooden shrapnel that bounced harmlessly off my thermal jacket and pants. I shifted my position to get a better angle on the bandits approaching the house but, as I shifted into a kneeling position, I took a bullet through the meat of my calf. I shouted in rage and pain, trying to keep my balance, but failed. As I crashed to the floor, I kept firing, blindly shooting through the wooden defenses. If more bandits got into the farmhouse, it would be a slaughter. Right now, there was a chance that some of the people would survive. As I slammed a new magazine into my rifle, there was too much shooting inside the house to be just the five or so bandits that had broken down the door. The amount of screaming certainly sounded like everyone down there was dying.

Bullets whizzed past me as I grunted in anger at rapidly devolving situation, rocked back on my uninjured leg, and then threw myself down the stairs. I rolled so my uninjured leg would hit ground first and gritted my teeth against the pain of banging my injured leg against everything I could find. At the bottom, I used my momentum to throw myself to my feet and spun around the corner to face the room where the grenade had gone off.

I looked past all of the collapsed bodies and focused on the still standing ones. A couple of the laborers where struggling with bandits for the control of guns, so I took a quick shot at each bandit, ending the scuffles, and then sighting on the doorway as the rest of the bandits showed up. There were only eight, and they didn’t enter after a flashbang, but I got lucky. I had a direct line of fire on all of them and they were too focused on the laborers screaming and hip-firing right next to the doorway.

Once they were down, I limped my way back to the east-facing side of the farmhouse and peeked through a window. The Wayfinders were cleaning up there, chasing after a group of bandits that had fled and finishing off any bandits left alive. I clicked the safety on my rifle and slung it over my shoulder.

I collapsed into a chair along the wall, popped out my earplugs, pulled out my first-aid kit, and started inspecting my wound. While I let my hands and all my practice take over, I called out. “Any further sign of bandits?”

There was a few moments of silence before a scattered chorus of “no’s” came back. I grunted and held my breath as I started bandaging the wound. A quick plug, then a cotton wrap around my leg to hold it in and prevent my thermal pants from shifting. After securing everything, I tentatively stood up and discovered I couple manage on my leg as it was. I stumped over to the other room and started assessing the mess.

There were a dozen dead bandits lying on the floor near the door, and about that many of the nomads. It seems like they had taken the worst of the flashbang attack, though there were a few dead laborers as well. The cries and whimpers of the injured made it hard to listen for the signals from the Wayfinders, so I set all of the uninjured laborers to clearing the dead bodies away, figuring out how many people had been killed, and collecting all of the gear from the bandits. I had the nomads collect all of the wounded and take them upstairs, away from all of the dead. There was only the one room and a large storage closet up there, but it was a bit room and there weren’t many wounded who would be back on their feet quickly.

While the laborers and nomads shuffled off to do what I had said, I went outside and whistled the all-clear signal. I got one back from the barn and carefully made my way to the big double-doors. Camille met me just inside them.

I saluted. “Getting numbers now, but it looks bad. Lots of dead nomads and laborers. There was a breach and they had flashbangs. I’ve got the survivors taking stock and sorting the injured from the dead right now.”

“We’ve got one dead Wayfinder out here. Diego. Got hit by a few lucky shots when he popped up to provide some covering fire for the snipers to reposition. Still waiting on final injury reports.” Camille saluted and then we took a moment to steady each other. I looked her over and, aside from the stress I could see in her eyes, she seemed fine.

“First is clean up and then a bit of scouting to make sure that was all of them. After that, rest. We’ll stay here for a couple of days to bury the dead and pick over the bandits’ supplies.”

Camille nodded. “I’ll get the scouting parties organized. Once the laborers and nomads are finished taking care of their dead, we’ll need their help collecting the bandits.” Camille turned to face the east, looking off into the woods. “Flashbangs?”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath and shifted my weight so it rested more fully on my uninjured leg. “The way they attacked the farmhouse suggested they have at least a little training. Hopefully they have more grenades they didn’t use.”

Camille shook her head. “That’s not what I’m thinking. I’m just curious about why a group this well-supplied would be attacking nomads or a fortified position like ours. Even by typical bandit standards, this attack was idiotic. They know how to breach and enter a building, have the high-tech gear to do it, and yet used waved tactics to try to get to the barn.”

“And the house.” I sighed and rubbed my eyes, careful to avoid the splinters still stuck in my face. My usual post-battle headache was already forming. “Their approach to the farmhouse was horrible. I was able to just mow them down after the first group breached and they weren’t even using cover as they snuck up to the farmhouse.”

“Sorry about that.” Camille turned back to me, concern on her face as she looked over my pincushioned face and the hasty bandage around my leg. “I was sending the snipers over to your side when Diego went down. The bandits decided to rush then and the barn would have been overwhelmed if we had continued to turn away.”

I shrugged. “I’m alive. We’re going to have to explain what happened to the survivors, so let’s just focus on getting through the next twenty-four hours and then we can start in on all the guilt of losing people we said we’d protect.”

Camille smiled ruefully. “You’d think I’d get used to it after almost fifteen years of this.”

I walked over and put my hand on her shoulder. “Camille, I’d be worried if you didn’t still care.” I looked around and, sure that no one was watching, embraced her. “You did great. Most of us are still alive and that’s more than most would be able to say after a day like that.”

“You bet your ass I did great.” Camille laughed quietly and hugged me back. “Now stop with all this mushy stuff. You don’t need to hug me after every death.”

“No, I don’t.” I stepped back and smiled at my oldest living friend. “But I’m still going to. Makes me feel better.”

Camille punched me in the shoulder and I turned away. “Now, I’m going to check on the non-combatants. I’m going to need to spend some time talking to kids whose parents died.” I closed the barn down behind me and looked up at the overcast sky. The snow was holding off for now, but the skies looked fit to burst. There was light diffusing through the clouds, but the day wasn’t getting any brighter. It would snow soon and we had bodies to bury. I looked back at the ground, ignoring the bloody smears around me and the groans of the injured, and limped off in the direction of the cellar doors. At least the cellar would be a bit warmer.