Coldheart and Iron: Part 36

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


“What?” Camille blinked rapidly and stared at me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.” Camille nodded and Tiffany shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coldheart and Iron: Part 35

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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

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

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

“Shit.”

“You said it, Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“You sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You shot something that far away?”

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

“What. Was. It.”

“Um, it was… It was a-a…”

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

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

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

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

Camille nodded. “And the second rule?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Sci-Fi Series is Consuming My Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coldheart and Iron: Part 34

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marshall.” Camille nodded to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure took you long enough.”

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

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

“Have you made any plans yet?”

“No, we wanted to talk to you first.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coldheart and Iron: Part 33

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Five Years Later

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

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

“You want to be a Wayfinder.”

“Yessir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“How could I do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coldheart and Iron: Part 32

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“Yes, Tiffany, I am.”

“Then make me!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Marshall.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We survived.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the defenders and the Enclave?”

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

“How many did the Enclave lose?”

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coldheart and Iron: Part 31

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


“Shit.”

“Tiffany?”

“I’m out of grenades and I’ve still got two doors to trap. You two got any?”

I let go of my rifle and rolled onto my back, unbuckling my belt as I moved to toss it to Tiffany who deftly caught it on the stump of her left arm. “Just make sure you bring the belt back. If we need to run, I’m going to need that to hold up my pants.”

“Marshall, you’re wearing a full-body snowsuit.”

I looked over at Natalie who was still steadily firing at any of the monsters that moved away from the main body attacking the Enclave. I shrugged, more for Tiffany’s sake than Natalie’s because her face was still pressed to the scope of her rifle. “It’s the principle of the thing, you know?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes and walked away. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, you two had better move.”

“How dare she disrespect me like that.” I rolled back onto my stomach with a huff. “She’s still only a trainee Wayfinder. She’s too new to disrespect me like that.”

“Shush, Marshall, I’m trying to aim.” Natalie fired again, taking out the monster I was settling my sights on. Without missing a beat, I swapped to the one behind it and, after a quick exhale, fired.

“How is that supposed to impact your aim?” I fired and took out another monster, this time pausing to watch the shattered metal fall to the ground before moving on to the next one. “You ears aren’t involved in aiming at this distance and I feel I have a right to prattle on if I want since it looks like everything’s going to hell.”

Natalie sighed, pausing after the exhale to take out a monster, and then leaned back to reload her rifle. “I know, Marshall. Just try to keep it down. There’s no reason to lead everything to our location any faster than shooting at them will.”

“I mean, the rifles are kind of a dead giveaway to anything with half a brain or whatever the monsters have.” I shot another two monsters in quick succession for emphasis. “Everyone more or less knows we’re here. I just hope we can make the jump to that building over there when the time comes.” I jerked a thumb at the building next to us, separated by about ten feet of open air. “It’s a good fifteen feet lower than us, sure, but we might just go through the floor or miss entirely.”

“Stop being such a pessimist, dear.” Natalie chambered the first round and got back to shooting monsters. “No one likes a pessimist.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You love and accept me just the way I am.” I took my last shot and then reloaded my gun, hands taking me through the familiar motion almost before I could think of what to do next. “Are you watching the time?”

“Yes. Seven minutes.”

“Neat. I’m gonna see if I got eyes on anything around us.” I grabbed a set of binoculars from my pack and started looking up the side streets east of the main force of monsters. There were still monsters wandering away from where they’d been penned in by the Enclave defenders, but most of them seemed intent on the hole in the wall one of them had created when it blew itself up. The other Wayfinders and sharpshooters were doing a good job preventing the monsters from flanking around the Enclave defenses, but I saw two more groups of bandits creeping up on various sniper nests.

“I hope the spotters are keeping an eye out.”

“It’s standard procedure, Marshall. Either they remember their training or they don’t. We can’t help them now.”

I dropped back to my stomach, lined up my rifle with the first group I’d seen, and shot one of the bandits in the chest. I looked through my scope at the bandits as they ran for their lives and saw the mess I made of the bandit I shot. “Whoops. I should change back to regular ammunition if I’m just shooting bandits.”

“Or you could keep firing on the giant mass of monsters and help us save the city, trusting the lives of the Wayfinders to the people protecting them who can’t fire on the monsters, anyway.” Natalie fired again and then reloaded, shooting me a glare I mostly ignored as I swapped out the heavier ammunition we used for the monsters with the standard, pre-collapse ammunition we used for bandits.

“Just one clip. Enough to let them all know they’re not as clever as they think they are.”

Natalie ignored me and went back to her shooting while I found the second group right below one of the sniper nests. I popped the bandit at the door in the head and watched the rest of the bandits flee. I spent the next five minutes finding groups of bandits and scattering them. When I was debating whether or not to keep shooting bandits, Tiffany showed back up and crouched down behind us.

“Doors are trapped and the bandits have entered the first floor. We’ll get a few of them on the way up since I double-trapped every route, but we’ll likely still need to defend this point.” Tiffany shrugged so that her gun fell into her arms and smiled wickedly. “I haven’t gotten much practice with this yet and I’d love to finally get back to business.”

“Or we just jump to the next building, pick a different sniper nest, and keep doing our job.” Natalie looked back at Tiffany and over at me. “Maximize our efficiency and do our best to keep the Enclave from getting swarmed.”

Tiffany was about to respond but I held up a hand. After Tiffany closed her mouth, I turned back to Natalie. “Is this you telling me that you think we still have a chance to hold?”

“I don’t know, Marshall. It’s been fifteen minutes since they blew a hole in the wall and it’s too soon to know anything for sure.”

“If you watched for a few minutes, would you have a better idea?”

“I could maybe make a few educated guesses, but that’s all they’d be. We’re still better off continuing to focus on the mission we started until the Enclave is clearly lost, no matter what I see.”

I nodded, thinking for a moment. “Alright. Tiffany, keep your focus on the bandits and let us know what they’re doing. If they make it to the doors soon, we’ll move out and jump to the next building. If we’ve got more time, I’d rather wait since I don’t like the idea of jumping unless we absolutely need to.”

Natalie nodded and got back to shooting as I reloaded my gun with the heavier ammunition. Tiffany looked at me for a moment and then shrugged. “I’ll try to set up an ambush point.”

“Sounds good.” I gave her a thumbs up and then let myself fall back into the rhythm of firing and reloading. I lost track of time as we continued shooting and so it caught me by surprised when I heard a bang and felt the building shake. I realized one of Tiffany’s traps had gone off and halted shooting for a minute to wait for the next one. When it didn’t go off, I went back to shooting but kept my ears open for anyone approaching.

A few minutes later, Tiffany came back, chuckling under her breath. “Turns out that there’s a weakness in the staircases. If the door blows up, it takes the landing with it and then it takes out three of the landings beneath it as well. I moved the grenades to another door and I’m going to booby trap as many doors and staircases as I can. We’re good for now.”

I gave her another thumbs-up but kept my focus on shooting monsters. To my left, Natalie’s steady firing stopped and I felt her pull the binoculars away from my side. “Going to look now?”

“Yeah. I’m hoping the fact that the monsters are still trying to flank the walls indicates that the Enclave’s defenders are holding their ground at the hole. If they are, we still have a chance.”

“Cool. Just let me know if we should move, otherwise I’ll keep shooting.” I returned my attention to my scope and kept firing, trying to keep my mind focused on my task as the seemingly endless stream of monsters made their way east of the main body, looking for a path over the wall. I lost myself in the motions again and I was once again brought back to reality by the rumble and shake of explosives going off somewhere in the building. My arms were stiff and the pile of magazines beside me had shrunk considerably. I looked around me and noticed that Natalie had gone back to firing a while ago, judging by the diminished size of her own ammunition stock. Behind me, Tiffany sat with her back to a wall.

“That’s one of the stairwells collapsing.” Tiffany gestured toward the interior of the building we were occupying. “Even if any of them survive, they’ll find another trap in every stairwell and once behind each door leading to this floor. I wouldn’t worry about them until we feel the blast wave of a trap on this floor going off.”

I nodded and stretched my arms out, moving them from side to side before pushing myself back from the ledge. Once I was safely out of sight from the battlefield stretching below me, I hauled myself into a sitting position and took a few sips of water from my canteen. “How long have we been at this?”

Natalie replied from her position. “Two hours and about fifteen minutes.”

“It’s been about an hour and a half since the first bandit group showed up here.” Tiffany tossed me a granola bar that I pensively chewed as I started calculating how many monsters we must have killed.

After a few seconds of getting nowhere, I abandoned it and turned to Tiffany. “How many bandit groups have attacked us? Is this only the second?”

“Yeah. We’re higher up than most of the other sniper nests and pretty far east of the main body. The bandits have to sneak past a ton of blind alleys, most of which could have a monster wandering through them at any given time. The other nests are much easier targets.”

“Shoot.” I filled my mouth with water and swished it around to get as much of the granola out of my teeth as possible while I thought. A few moments later, I had an idea. “How easy will it be to completely collapse the stairs so no one can get up or down?”

“Pretty easy.” Tiffany shrugged. “The only thing left entirely intact at this point is a fire escape and that cuts off a floor above the ground.”

“Neat.” I started digging through my backpack for my lantern. “Is everyone alright if I turn my attention on the bandits trying to attack the sniper nests and make us a target for every single one of them?”

“Sounds like a blast.” Tiffany smirked and stood up. “I’ll go trap the fire escape if you’ll give me your grenades, lieutenant.”

Natalie rolled over, slipped off her grenade belt, and slid it back to Tiffany. I looked over at her and offered her a sheepish smile that she returned. “‘Better us than them’, right?”

I nodded and started filling my snowsuit pockets with ammo. “I love that you get me.”

“I know.” Natalie winked at me and rolled back over to continue firing, accompanied by gagging noises from Tiffany.

Once I’d grabbed everything I could fit in my pockets, I snatched my rifle from the ground and retreated into the dim interior of the building, following Tiffany to another vantage point that was better suited to my task. After leaving me to get set up, Tiffany disappeared further into the building. Getting settled took a while longer than I would have liked, especially because I had to finish the magazine of heavy ammo first, but I was soon set up and shooting.

Any group of bandits I saw lost at least one person. They moved less predictably than the monsters did, so I missed a few shots, but the way they started creeping forward and using cover made it clear that they’d figured out someone in my area was targeting them. After setting aside my gun for a moment, I took the reflector out of my lantern and set it in the remaining window to my right. Satisfied, I went back to shooting bandits until I noticed every crew I saw was heading in our direction.

Soon, I couldn’t look through my scope without seeing a group of bandits approaching. As I counted them, my heart fluttered with the realization that at least half the group of bandits that we’d expected to attack the Enclave were now on their way to our location. Whoever had united them was pretty clever. Get the monsters to attack the Enclave, take out the snipers so more monsters make it into the Enclave, and then rush in once everyone was exhausted or most of the monsters had been destroyed. Simple and effective.

It was clear, though, that they hadn’t dealt with many Wayfinders, though. Or at least not big groups of them. As far as I could tell, most of the sniper nests were still operating and the ones that weren’t had likely stopped due to a lack of ammo rather than anything else. The bandits would have needed to send in more than six to ten people at once if they wanted to overwhelm our defensive positions and the groups clearly lacked much in terms of specific plans. They had communication between groups and a plan to take out sniper nests, but they just wandered around, looking into buildings, and approaching each nest they found with only their one small group since they never discovered that another group had already failed to take out the sniper nest.

Only after I got their attention did they all start to move like they had a plan. They all slowly started to converge on the building, moving from bit of cover to bit of cover. I took shots where I could, but I didn’t get many hits. I could still hear Natalie firing away several rooms down, so I started the second part of my plan. I pulled my gun and the reflector from my lantern away, packed up all my stuff, and turned on one of the walkie talkies I had in my pocket. I tied the communicate button down and dropped the little signal bomb at the edge of the room.

I sprinted back to Natalie’s side and started packing up all of our gear. As I clattered empty rifle magazines into my bags, Natalie looked over at me, a question in her eyes.

“Keep shooting, but let me know as soon as they start coming this way and how many of them do.”

“Marshall.” I turned away to grab the pile of magazines and loose ammo Tiffany had been combining during her down time. When I didn’t answer, Natalie spoke again. “What did you do, Marshall?”

“I turned on one of the walkie talkies we were given and tied the ‘talk’ button so it’d stay on.”

“What?”

“I am doing to the bandits converging on our position what they tried to do to us. They’ll surround the building, start trying to make their way up here, find the traps, try even harder, and then they’ll be surrounded by monsters.”

“So will we!” Natalie turned all the way around to face me. “Jumping to the next building won’t work when the monsters are here. They’ll just follow us! We won’t be able to sneak through the crowd of them even if they don’t spot us jumping to the next building.”

“Which is why we leave as soon as the bandits set off the first trap. I’m going to grab Tiffany, so just keep shooting. Keep track of how many of the monsters start coming our way.” I shoved the last of the magazines into a pack and then ran off down the hallway, almost bowling Tiffany over as she rounded a corner.

“Captain!”

“C’mon, Tiffany. We’re making the jump as soon as the first trap goes off.”

“What? What happened to making a glorious last stand here?”

I pulled her along with me, back to where Natalie was. “I’d rather take a chance at surviving since, if my plan works, it should buy the Enclave enough time to fix the hole in their wall.”

“What plan?”

Natalie appeared in the doorway to the blown out room we’d been using, lugging the packs behind here. “He set up a radio and every single monster not a part of the main press on the walls is heading our way. I estimate at least five hundred of them, and those are the ones directly west of us. I’m sure there are more to the north and south.”

“Cool.” I grabbed my pack, slung it on my back, and tightened all the straps until it was almost painfully gripping my chest. “Now let’s get ready to jump since the bandits won’t be far behi-”

The first explosion rocked the building, carrying with it the sound of shrieking metal. Tiffany shook her head and started toward what used to be a conference room with floor to ceiling windows. “Of course they went for the fire escape first.”

I helped Natalie get her pack on and then helped Tiffany tighten down her straps while we all jogged toward the spot we’d picked as our jump point. By the time we got there, another explosion had gone off and Tiffany was muttering a commentary on the bandit’s location as I sprinted toward the empty window pane and leapt.

I had a moment of open air and grey, cloudy sky as time stood still. I fought the urge to wave my arms and kept my body compact as I hung, exposed, in the air. Before my heart had a chance to sneak even one beat in, time came rushing back. The wind whistled in my ears, the light-grey blur of the mid-morning sky became the dark grey blur of an approaching ruined building, and I landed in the best roll that I could. I felt something give way as I made impact and then the grey faded to black as the world fell silent.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 30

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I left the Wayfinder office, Natalie stayed behind to continue pulling records. Camille would only be a few minutes behind me, though I knew she would be running off in a different direction. While I ran down the road, I thanked the star I was born under, every god I’d ever learned about, and a few gods I made up on the spot. When Natalie had begun pulling records, we discovered more Wayfinders than I thought had opted to retire in the Chicago Enclave. A few hundred had, in fact, and a little under half of them seemed to be involved in the government or military in one way or another.

Almost two hundred of them would already be on alert and either leading units against the monsters or moving out to delay them. If Gerry had built his entire sallying force out of Wayfinders, then we’d have at least two additional hours to prepare before the monsters showed up. Maybe more, if they were still as good as they were when they retired. Either way, there were at least as many more Wayfinders who had retired completely, content to live out their days on their earnings and pensions. Some of them would have likely retired due to injury, but Natalie’s records indicated we should get at least one hundred healthy, if rusty, Wayfinders to help us out if we went and asked all of them.

As I ran down the streets, dodging soldiers bustling to their positions and all the residents poking their heads out to see what was going on, I glanced down at the top of the paper I was holding, checking the address against the streets I was passing. I’d looked at a map before leaving, but I didn’t remember exactly how far it was before I needed to turn. Thankfully, Natalie had thought of everything and her instructions would lead me from one house to another. It blew my mind, sometimes, to be reminded how quickly she could write and how thorough she always was.

Another mile of running passed quickly and I arrived at the first house. A confused woman with only one eye opened the door half a minute after I pounded on it. “What the hell is going on?”

“Sorry. Is this Gianna Fields? Retired Wayfinder?” I gave her my best smile while trying to regain control of my breath.

“Yeah. What’s going on?” Her eye went from my face to the paper I held to the sky outside. “Sirens? Are we under attack?”

“We will be, soon. Someone placed a radio on the wall and we expect to be attacked by the monsters living off to the north. Are you willing to fight? We’ve got plenty of guns and the Wayfinders are placing a bounty-”

“Yeah. Where’s muster?”

“It’s in one of the communal buildings near the center of the Enclave. I just moved into the Enclave today, so I’ve got no idea what the address is. Look for the other Wayfinders.” I took a step backward but paused, watching her before I ran off to the next address.

“Got it. See you there, Captain.” The woman saluted and disappeared back into her home. As I jogged off toward the next address, I tried to remember if I’d ever worked with her before. I couldn’t think of any other reason she would have known my rank but, after five more houses, I still couldn’t place her. Nor could I place any of the other people I talked to who seemed to all know my name and rank.

The next hour passed in a blur as I ran from house to house, trying to recruit as many ex-Wayfinders as I could. Surprisingly, every single one of them who was fit to shoot a gun immediately agreed to help and it wasn’t until I asked Natalie how everyone knew me during my last stop at the Wayfinder office, that it all became clear why they were so eager to help and why they all seemed to know me by sight.

“You started the Wayfinders, moron. Of course everyone knows who you are.” Natalie shook her head as she continued to write out my next sheet of instructions. “You’re a living legend to anyone who wants to live outside an Enclave and your pictures are in half the promotional materials we put out.”

“Wait, we have promotional materials?” I sat upright and then clutched my side as my abdominal muscles spasmed. “When did that happen?”

“A few years ago. Where did you think we got the recruits from?”

“I always thought everyone just wanted to be a Wayfinder. Like cowboys when we were growing up. It was just something you wanted to be, not something someone proposed as a legitimate occupation.” I took slow breaths and resisted the urge to guzzle the water bottle Natalie had tossed me when I collapse in the chair. “I just thought we were famous. You know, as a whole.”

“Sure, but we wouldn’t have as many recruits as we needed if we just waited for people to want to join us on their own. Plus, we probably wouldn’t be getting the right recruits.” Natalie set down her pencil and started scanning the sheet.

I took a small sip of water and hauled myself to my feet. “Huh. I never would have guessed. You put them out, then?”

“Yes. You left me in charge of logistics and having enough people to do our jobs falls under that, so I had something made up more than a decade ago and I bring it up to date whenever we stop in an Enclave.” Natalie held out piece of paper, smiling slightly. “Worked like a charm. Now get running. Camille has done almost half again as many trips as you.”

“That’s not a fair comparison.” I took the paper and one last deep breath before I started around her desk toward the door. “She’s unstoppable. I’ve known her for almost thirty years and I’ve never seen her tired. I’m just some poor Human. How can I expect to keep up with Wonder Woman there?”

“Quit griping and get moving.” Natalie smiled and swatted me on the butt as I turned to go. I smiled to myself and waved over my shoulder as I lumbered out the door and up the street. Half an hour later, I collapsed into a chair inside the commune and started yanking my snowsuit off so I could change into dry clothes. While I gasped for breath and kicked off my boots, I watched Lucas direct traffic through the building.

Wayfinders came in the front door, signed in, picked up their preferred weapon, told Lucas about their particular skills, and then was given a Wayfinder unit number and sent to the Enclave defense council with a message to say they were either to be assigned as a unit or sent out of the city to pick off monsters as they got closer. As either a solo Wayfinder or as a team of just Wayfinders, they’d be able to do stuff Enclave defenders wouldn’t risk.

By the time I’d cooled down, changed into dry clothes, and rehydrated myself, Camille had turned up with a group of the best marksmen she could muster. All of them retired or still-working Wayfinders, of course. I watched them all sign in and pick up through the rifles Lucas and Tiffany had set aside. Camille gathered them up once they’d all picked a gun and all the ammunition they could carry and, without more than a nod to myself and Lucas, lead her sharpshooters away.

“Bit chilling, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Like death just passed through.”

“On that note, I’m off.” Lucas grabbed a gun, slung it over his shoulder, and gestured to all of the Wayfinders we’d brought into the Enclave.

“Wait, what? Who’s going to run the command center?” I hauled myself to my feet and forced myself not to flinch when my muscles spasmed and twitched.

“We don’t need it, Marshall. Everyone has their orders, they all know to follow their training, and no amount of communication from us is going to help them. I suggest grabbing a gun for yourself and Natalie, find a spot for the two of you to hole up that’s outside the city, and make sure you’ve got enough food in your pack for a week.”

“Right.” I slumped back into my chair and suddenly the pain in my muscles didn’t feel as bad as it had before I remembered the city was probably going to fall between the monsters and the bandits. “Did y-”

“Your bags are packed. I’ve got ‘em right here.” Lucas gestured at the other side of one of the kitchen islands. “Rendezvous is the Nomad’s old home. Be there ten days after the fighting is over.”

I nodded and did my best to smile as all of my Wayfinders left until only Lucas and I remained. I watched him head toward the door and paused, one hand on the knob. “I really wanted to retire here, Marshall. I’m sorry there isn’t more we can do.”

“I know, Luke. I know. I’ll see you there. Ten days or less.” After a moment more of hesitation, Lucas stepped through the door and closed it behind him. I stared at where he was for a moment before hauling myself to my feet to see if my snowsuit had dried out yet. While I poked around for damp spots, I muttered to myself. “Stupid defeatist attitude. It’s not over until it’s over. He better come back alive or else I’m going to find his corpse and use him as a scarecrow.”

“Gross.”

I spun around, only barely staying on my feet as my socks slick on the cheap linoleum. “Tiffany? What’re you doing here?”

“I live here, duh.” Tiffany placed both her wrists on her hips and shook her head at me. “I swear, it’s like you forget I’m alive sometimes.”

“No, I just assumed Lucas would have taken you with him.”

“Yeah, if I could hold a gun. Still working on that, since I lost my dominant hand, so I’m going to go with you and Natalie. Act as your spotter.”

“Oh, that’s good thinking.”

“Now c’mon, bossman. We’ve got monsters to shoot and a city to save.” Tiffany smiled and kicked my boots across the room to me. I smiled and started tugging on my snowsuit. While I slipped on and laced-up my boots, Tiffany grabbed three packs from behind the island, and started grabbing rifles. Five minutes later, as I modified the forward grip on one of the semi-automatic rifles and showed Tiffany how to hold it with what remained of her left arm, Natalie walked through the door.

“Everyone’s already gone?”

“Yeah. Lieutenant Lucas left about ten minutes ago with the last of the Wayfinders unless there are a few who haven’t shown up yet. We’re heading out in a couple minutes to find someplace to snipe monsters.” Tiffany smiled as she deftly slung the gun over her shoulder and hooked her pack with her left arm.

“She’s terrifyingly good with that arm already.” I looked over at Natalie who eyed our packs with some apprehension. “She’s been practicing with every spare moment, it seems. It’s almost like she was born one-handed now.”

“Why do you have our bags packed?” Natalie stepped in and hefted her bag. “And why does it feel like there’s enough in here for several days away from the Enclave.”

“We’re picking a sniper position outside of the Enclave in case it falls to the monsters or the Bandits.” I looked over at Natalie and caught the grim look in her eye. “I don’t think it will come to that given how prepared the Chicago Enclave is, but it never hurts to be ready. Would we really be Wayfinders if we didn’t plan for this?”

“I suppose not.” Natalie sighed and slipped on her pack. “I suppose you’ve got a place in mind, Marshall?”

Before I could even open my mouth to speak, Tiffany stepped forward. “I picked out a place while Lucas was coordinating. If we leave out the Northern gate and head west, there’s a taller building still standing that we can climb up. If we seal stairwells in the building, we could even fortify the position long enough for us to escape to one of the shorter neighbors in the event that they target us.”

Natalie smiled as Tiffany pulled a map out of her pocket and pointed out our route. “Lead on, Tiffany.”

A little under an hour later, we lay at the edge of a blown-out room on the seventeenth floor of an old office building and surveyed the monster army approaching the Enclave. The group the Enclave defense council had sent out to delay them had done a good job, taking out most of the stragglers and causing the main body of them to bundle up tightly. If we’d had explosives of any kind, we could have taken out most of them right then, but no one had access to the bunkers anymore and using anything with that large of a heat signature would have attracted the attention of every monster in the Midwest. So we boxed them up and waited for them to get in range of the machine guns mounted on the Enclave walls.

Our part would be to start taking out any monsters that tried to break out of their tight formation and swing around to flank the machine guns. The other Wayfinder groups would be doing the same thing, mostly, but also be applying pressure to the rear, taking out any stragglers who fell behind or tried to go further back before swinging wide to flank. The monsters’ tactics were good, but rather static. Any force that survived an encounter with them had a much better chance of surviving a second one.

After Natalie and I placed our rifles, set up our scopes, and had Tiffany start calling out targets, I settled into a groove. The monsters didn’t really care if you shot at them since it was difficult to land a killshot and they’d always ignore snipers in favor of machine guns since they had an easier time finding the giant heat wells machine guns created. Since most snipers posed little threat to a monster, they generally ignored them until the end of the battle.

Wayfinder snipers, though, were different. One of the tests you had to pass in order to become a Wayfinder is to label each and every vital area on a monster from a mile away, no matter which direction they were facing. Most Enclaves trained their people on where the vital areas were, but they didn’t have as exhaustive a test as the Wayfinders did. Most Enclaves also didn’t require you to perform the test using a live monster that you then had to kill in order to join. Wayfinders did. So when Natalie and I started firing, we were dropping one with each shot.

I always felt a little uncomfortable when I looked at the monsters. People had originally called them robots because they used swarm processing and had electrical parts like a lot of the robots Humanity had been producing, but the idea of robots as something humanoid was too strong and people rejected it in favor of ‘monster’ since they were anything but humanoid.

They moved around using what can only be described as large limbs, sort of quickly twitching their way forward in a way that bent the mind into strange shapes. Their entire body could flow into one of these limbs so that it resembled a large greenish log than it’s normal tendril, and it would still manage to undulate forward like some kind of nightmare worm. Once they attacked, they pistoned all of their limbs into the ground and fired bullets made of the same greenish metal making up their bodies out of tubes that appeared once they were stabilized. If they wanted to trace you, they’d fire smaller pellets that hit with the same force as a bullet, but their rounder shape meant they generally didn’t punch through and the fact that they were hollow meant they’d disintegrate on impact, enter into the bloodstream, and begin to replicated until one or more of the monsters showed up to kill whoever had been hit.

The closet thing they resembled was a cross between an alligator and an octopus. They had the same sort of heavy bodies and lurching strength as an alligator, but they had the limbs and body fluidity of an octopus. Their shape was closer to the later, but they could be any part of the octopus they wanted to be, and any percentage of it.

As of yet, no one had figured out their tech or the metal alloy they were made of. Attempts to study them had been stopped because even a dead monster was still detectable by it’s fellows and whole labs had been destroyed before we figured that bit out. They had circuitry like you’d imagine robots would, but it contained some kind of liquid electricity we’d taken to calling plasma. They apparently created their own since you could drain one of them of all their plasma without destroying it. It would then it would then proceed to kill you, disappear somewhere to refill it’s plasma circuits, and then return to kill your friends.

The only way to kill them was to hit them in a vital spot that acted a lot like a fault like in a rock. If you could hit it at the right moment, the whole thing would essentially shatter. Whatever parts of it had been pulled in or stretched out would crack, all of its plasma would leak out, and it would collapse. There were other ways to kill them, hitting them with a blunt instrument at one of those points or by cutting open their circuitry until you got to the whirling ball of solid plasma at their center that was basically their heart, but sniping was the most effective because they couldn’t fix a shattered monster. If you cut them open but didn’t destroy the heart or only knocked a limb off, they’d just put the damaged monster right back together again as soon as they’d run you off.

Their smooth movement and ungainly bodies seemed like they should always be at odds with each other, but they never stumbled or tripped on their own. You basically had to take off a limb supporting it to cause it to fall and even then it didn’t fall far before on of the other limbs came in to catch it. It was always satisfying to hit one in a vital spot and watch it crumble to the ground, but there were so many today that I just skipped from shooting one to finding another to shoot.

Between Natalie and I, we took out over one hundred of the monsters, leaving a trail of shattered metal and leaking blue plasma from the nearest building by the wall to the main body of monsters which, despite a steady stream of bullets, seemed to be making headway against the wall. In fact, as I turned my attention back to looking for stragglers, I heard a low rumble followed by Tiffany cursing.

“Shit! One of them blew itself up against the wall. I didn’t know they could do that. Did you?” Tiffany looked between Natalie and I as we shook our heads. Tiffany pressure her scope back to her eye and peered down at the way. “There’s a hole. They’re inside three hours before our worst case scenario projection and there are still thousands of them trickling in. What do we do?”

I looked down my scope at the hold in the wall and watching a slow stream of monsters step through it. “Keep picking them off from out here and hope they’re able to contain the breech. If not, then the city is lost.” Natalie nodded and we both got back to work, trying to shoot faster than we had been before.

After a few more shots, Tiffany tapped us both on the shoulder. We looked up and she held her left arm to her lips. After adjusting her position so she was laying down next to us, she spoke so quietly I could barely hear her over the distant gunfire. “We’ve got bandits creeping toward our spot from the north. Keep firing for now, I’m going to set up some traps quick.”

After Natalie and I nodded, Tiffany silently crawled backwards until she was lost in the shadows of the blown-out room we picked as our sniper nest and slunk off into the building proper. I tried to focus on killing Monsters, but it was starting to feel like a waste of time. Unless a miracle occurred, the Enclave was lost. We had Bandits trying to ambush us while we sniped and the same was probably happening to Wayfinder nests all over the area. If we weren’t careful, we might wind up dead, and we were almost certainly homeless once again. As I swapped magazines on my rifle, I clenched my jaw and focused on killing one monster at a time, hoping that we’d eventually save everyone if we just kept firing.

 

Coldheart and Iron: Part 29

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


By the end of the day, we were all set up in our new homes. The Nomads had been taken to a series of houses in one of the older neighborhoods and my Wayfinders and I were given a small commune near the center of the enclave. It wasn’t as nice as the homes the Nomads had, but we shared a kitchen and a bunch of common living areas so we got to stay together as a group. I let everyone fight it out over who got which room while I worked with Natalie, Lucas, and Camille to get our maps and plans up to date.

Camille and Lucas were going to lead groups to raid the Bandit staging areas while Natalie coordinated groups of Enclave defenders who would go after the munitions depots she’d marked. I was going to serve as the coordinator, managing the messengers between each group and making sure our groups never accidentally found each other while looking for Bandits. Over dinner, we shared our plans with the rest of the Wayfinders and started making plans for later that evening. Now that we had a base and reliable terrain, we’d be able to easily move around at night so we could start using the darkness to our advantage.

After dinner, Natalie and I took our maps and information to head of the Enclave defenders while Camille and Lucas rested. The Enclave defense council was a small group consisting of a couple of retired Wayfinders and some people who had been in the National Guard back before the Collapse, but they worked like a well-oiled machine with none of the politics or arguing we were using to seeing in other Enclave councils. As soon as Natalie stepped in the door, someone was debriefing us, making copies of our maps, providing us with larger, more detailed maps, and adjusting plans they’d already made to account for the information we provided.

Four hours later, after a rush of discussions, debates, and arguments about how to best deploy the forces we had, I left Natalie to finish up organizing the munition runs while I went back to our compound to rouse the Wayfinders for their first mission.

It was a relatively simple one, but it was probably the most dangerous mission we’d planned for the next few days. I filled Camille and Lucas in on the details before sending them off to finish their preparations and meet the additional soldiers they’ve have under their command. A short while later, I sent the rest of the Wayfinders after them, so it was just Tiffany and I left in the compound. While Tiffany puttered around, trying to keep herself busy while everyone else was off on their mission, I settled in for a quick nap on a couch that felt softer than a thick pile of clouds, trying to make up for the sleep I’d been sacrificing. I had been avoiding the bed because I was certain I’d never want to leave it after sleeping on a cot or the ground for the past ten years. However, Natalie walked into the compound before I managed to do more than start to doze.

“Marshall?”

“Mmm?” I covered my eyes with and arm and peered out from underneath it at her. “What?”

“There’s work you need to do, yet. No times for naps right now.”

I hauled myself to my feet and tried to clear the sleep from my head. “What’s going on?”

“One of the scientists on the council wants to talk to you about low-frequency signals and something about a clamp. I didn’t realize he was talking to me right away so I didn’t catch all the details, but it’s pretty clear he’s got something going on in terms of communication that he wants to discuss with you as the coordinator.”

“Oh.” I hauled myself to my feet and felt my back cry out in sadness. “I suppose I’d better get over there.” I shuffled over to the door where I’d hung up my snowsuit and boots. “Anything else come up?”

“No.” Natalie sat down next to me and started stripping off her boots. “Seems pretty straight-forward. I helped them update their maps and got a tablet with all of their information on it to peruse tonight. I’ll do some checking against my maps to see if there’s anything I overlooked or can add to their local info.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I zipped up the legs of my suit and then stuck my feet into my boots. I’d had them for about five years and only constant care at every Enclave we stopped at kept them insulated and waterproof, but it was worth the money because they were the most comfortable things I’d ever worn on my feet. After burying my feet between the cushions of that couch for a while, though, they felt like they were made of iron. “Thirty minutes on a couch and I’m already going soft again.”

“Did you touch one of the beds yet?”

“No, I’d never leave.”

“I almost made that mistake. I managed to get out of my room in time, though.”

“I’d have had to come get you.” I smirked up at Natalie as I laced up my boots.

“That would have been even worse! Then we’d both have been stuck.” Natalie smiled down at me and winked. “Just awful.”

“I can think of worse things than getting stuck in bed with you.” I sat up and leaned over to give Natalie a kiss. As I did, I caught sight of Tiffany in the kitchen who was smirking as she watched us. I froze, mid-lean.

“Don’t stop on my account. You two are adorable.”

Since I wasn’t moving, frozen like a deer in the headlights, Natalie chuckled “If you insist.” She leaned over the rest of the way and kissed me. I recovered in time to participate, but I felt my face heat as Tiffany laughed.

“Did you really think you two were a secret, Captain?”

I stood up and zipped up my snowsuit to buy myself a couple of seconds. Once I’d mastered my expression, I turned back to Tiffany and Natalie, who was smiling up at me from her seat with her boots off and her snowsuit only partially unzipped. “Yes, I did. I thought we did a good job of keeping it under wraps.”

“Please. It’s obvious. I bet half the Enclave already knows.”

I sighed and shook my head. “What else haven’t I noticed?”

“That you should hurry up and talk to that scientist! He’s in the command building.” Natalie shooed me towards the door as I opened my mouth to protest. “We can talk about this more once we’re finished helping the Enclave and all settled in, now get.”

“Love you.” I smiled at Natalie and watched Tiffany make fake retching motions behind her. Natalie blew me another kiss and I hurried out the door. It took me a few minutes to get back to the Enclave defense headquarters since it was after dark now, but I found it eventually and made my way inside.

After wiping my boots off, I made my way into the main room where the council and their aides were pacing around a few large tables full of maps and papers. In one of the alcoves, most of which were filled with runners taking naps while waiting for a message to carry, a heavyset man with long hair pulled up in a neat bun waved at me. I walked over to him and sat down in one of the chairs he cleared off.

“Captain! I’ve got some important information for you!”

I sat silently for a moment, waiting for him to go on, but he didn’t say anything else. After a few more awkward moments of silence I nodded. “Sounds great. What is it?”

“Since you’re going to run the communications operation for us, I thought I’d give you the rundown on the comm system I invented.” The man leaned forward and help out a paper booklet. I took it from him and started glancing through it as he spoke.

“We have short-range radios for you to use. Effective communication radius is only one mile and we can’t have more than four active at a time, but it’ll be enough for you to follow the groups you’re managing and then send any information back to a bunch of runners closer to the Enclave. If we have more than four, then the signal would be strong enough to be noticed by the monsters. You also can’t be inside when you’re using them but you can be on the ground. In fact, don’t use them outside the city or above the fifth floor of any building because then it’s more likely they’ll pick up your transmissions.”

The scientist held out four walkie-talkies and pointed to the dials on the top. “Simple channel selection, though never use anything above channel ten or else you’ll attract monsters.  They work just like walkie-talkies from before the collapse, so make sure to watch out for people holding the button down for too long.”

I looked through the booklet for the section on channels and saw a more detailed version of what he just said. Instead of reading it, I looked up at him. “Why are there more than ten channels if anything above ten attracts monsters?”

“Since these communicate in bursts, some of our defense forces use them to silently attract monsters to a location so they don’t have to fight whatever bandits are around. The higher you go above ten, the further the signal reaches.” The man pointed to the booklet. “You can find approximate mileage numbers in there if you want. Additionally, they only have a battery life of two days, so don’t plan on being out for very long, and they have a tendency to chase away animals with better hearing than Humans so don’t expect to find any animal life while you’re out and they’re on.”

“Got it.” I looked at my booklet and then at the walkie-talkies. “How is it possible that the monsters don’t just pick these up immediately? I thought they detected almost every signal we knew of.”

“They detect all signals we know of, not most.”

“That’s beside the point.” I leaned forward and grabbed the walkie-talkies out of his hand. “How do they not pick these up immediately?”

“High-frequencies don’t go very far before the air just causes them to fade out. There’s a lot more to the science of why, but that’s essentially it. These use high frequencies, thus the short battery life and potential to scare away animals, and while the signals extend past the one mile range, they don’t make it past two miles. Our scouting reports have all of the local monsters staying on the north side of the city, so you should have at least fifteen miles between your theater of operations and the nearest monster. If, for whatever reason, the monsters detect your signals, you can just leave and they’ll attack the bandits instead.”

“I think I get it.” I picked set all of the walkie-talkies aside and closed the booklet. “Is there anything else you wanted to discuss?”

“Just don’t use the monster attracting signals for the next few days. Based on the monster wander patterns our scouts have put together, they’d walk right through the Enclave if they noticed you.”

“Got it.” I stood up and stuffed the walkie-talkies and booklet into a pocket on the front of my snowsuit. “Thank you.” I held out my hand. “I’m sorry we didn’t do introductions earlier. I’m Marshall. The only people who call me Captain are the Wayfinders under my command.”

“Oh, well, I’m Horace, head comms scientist. The barrier was my idea and I appreciate you volunteering your time and skills to help us defend our home as we get it working.” He stood and shook my hand firmly. “I hope the radios work out for you.”

“Thanks.” I pumped his hand, gave him a midwestern awkward smile, and then quickly left the building. As I headed back toward the Wayfinder commune, I absently touched the radios in my pocket. It was weird to think that we’d not only be using these as a part of our operations for the next few days but that we’d also be able to use stuff like these as soon as the barrier went up. I hadn’t used any kind of remote communication device in fifteen years, since we discovered the monsters could find any signals. Some people in enclaves still used hardline telephones, but all of those were wired and heavily shielded and they only worked inside the Enclave since no one was willing to spend the years it’d take to bury new shielded cables from one Enclave to another.

My head was filled with memories of last people I’d talked to on a cell phone before the satellites and towers when down during the collapse as I walked into the commune and hour after I left. I was so distracted it took me a moment to register what I was seeing. The common area was filled with Wayfinders again, all sitting around the living area still in their snowsuits and boots as Lucas and Camille paced. Natalie sat off to the side, pouring over the tablet she’d gotten, and Tiffany sat with her, flipping through a book of some kind.

“What’s going on?” I paused in the entryway, not bothering to take off my snowsuit or boots.

“Our mission failed.” Camille stopped pacing and shrugged.

Lucas, still pacing and angrier than I’d seen him in a long time, turned his head toward me as he stalked around the coffee table. “It didn’t fail. There was just no one there. You can’t take out Bandit leadership if the entire bandit army you’re expecting to find has suddenly just left the city.

“Left the city?” I took a step forward. “Does the Enclave defense council know about this?”

“We just got back. Their scouts found out the same time we did.” Camille held her arms behind her back. “All the signs Lucas could find pointed to them moving out during the day today and heading west, out of the city. A few groups splintered off the main force, but they probably didn’t break fifty Bandits, total. The main force of a couple thousand just left.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Lucas snarled and stopped pacing. “And now we’re going to sit tight here while we wait for the defense council to figure it’s shit out and decide what to do instead of chasing them down and trying to figure out why they left.”

“Oh.” I kicked the snow off my boots and pulled the walkie-talkies out of my pocket. “In the meantime, have a radio. One for you, Camille, one for Lucas, one for me, and one for Tiffany.” Tiffany looked up from her book, excitement in her eyes. “Yeah, there’s gonna be a group of runners I’ll be communicating with and you get to be my voice with them. One hand shouldn’t impede you there.”

Everyone took their radios, but Lucas looked at his like it was a grenade while I briefly outlined the rules Horace had given me and pulled out the booklet. “If you’ve got any further questions, wait until after I’ve read the manual. Once I’m done, I’ll put it on the coffee table. Everyone got it?”

I watched everyone nod, even Lucas, and was about to head over to talk to Natalie when someone knocked at the door. I turned around, ignoring the chatter breaking out behind me as people remembered that most people don’t just walk into other people’s homes, and walked back to the door. I opened it and gestured for the messenger to step inside.

“Sorry to bother you, Captain, but the Enclave defense council has requested you and your officer’s immediately.”

I nodded and gestured behind me. “What’s this about?”

“I don’t know, but they said it was important and you were to report immediately.” the woman saluted and stepped back. “I’ve got a few more people to tell. Please head over right away.”

“Of course.” I opened the door again and closed it behind her. “Three times in twelve hours. This is a busy day.”

“Speak for yourself.” Lucas walked over and grabbed Natalie’s snowsuit and boots. “All I’ve had to do today is make some fun plans and go on a long walk. It’s about time something happened.” He tossed the suit to Natalie and then handed her the boots. “I just hope it isn’t another false alarm.”

Five minutes later, we entered the defense council hall to find everyone running around and shouting over each other as messengers darted in and out of the building. One of the retired Wayfinders, Gerry, walked up to us when we did our best to get out of everyone’s way.

“Thank god you’re here, Marshall. We need you to gather up every Wayfinder you can get, retired or active.” He was standing so close our boots were almost touching and he still had to shout to be heard.

“What’s going on?” Natalie, Camille, and Lucas leaned in.

“Someone started broadcasting a radio signal from the top of one of the walls. It was an old, battery-operated ham radio and it was pointed north, right toward where the monsters have been the last few days.” I could see the panic in Gerry’s eyes as he spoke and I felt Natalie and Lucas stiffen beside me.

“How? When?”

“We don’t know for sure, yet. I suspect it was the bandits, since they all so conveniently disappeared today, but no one saw anything. We got the first report a couple minutes after you left and it wouldn’t have been long before then that it was discovered. We’ve got patrols on the wall that pass every ten minutes, so it didn’t sit there for very long either. It doesn’t need to be long, though. A ham radio is easily picked up by any monster, so we expect to see them in one or two hours.”

“I knew it.” Lucas took a deep breath and sighed. “Shit.”

“I’ll start rousing everyone I can. It’ll take more than an hour to look up all the Wayfinders who retired here, though.” I looked to Natalie for confirmation and she nodded. “There should be a lot, though.”

“That’s fine. Just hurry. We’ve got a group leave in ten minutes to do the most they can to delay the monsters, but it might not buy us much time. Just send them here and we’ll get them all sorted into units.”

“On it.” I nodded to Camille and Natalie. As we all headed toward the door, I turned to Lucas. “Go rouse the commune and get everyone down to the Wayfinder barracks we used yesterday. I want you to grab every gun, bullet, and explosive you can find. Bring it all back to the commune and start setting it up as a command center. I’ll have all the Wayfinders report to you first so we can set up our own units and communications. It’ll take some of the load off Gerry.”

“Yes, sir.” Lucas saluted and ran off as soon as he was out the door. I jogged to catch up to Natalie and Camille as we made our way toward the small Wayfinder office we maintained for tracking pay and resource acquisition in every Enclave. All of our records would be there and, thanks to Natalie being the designer or our organization system, Camille and I would be able to start knocking on doors right away.

The walls would be able to hold out the monsters for a couple hours, at least, but dawn would probably bring fighting in the streets unless the defense forces managed to delay them long enough or we managed to get a bunch of Wayfinders right away. Every defense force trained in killing monsters, but no one could kill monsters as quickly and efficiently as a Wayfinder, even if they’d been in retirement for a few years. If we could get a hundred Wayfinders set up with guns and enough ammunition, then it would only be a question of time before the monster army fell. The only real problem I saw was whether or not the Enclave would survive long enough.

 

Cyborg Anatomy

“Hey, Phil.”

“Yeah?”

“You know how Humans have that whole mind versus body thing?”

“What about it?”

“If you decapitate a Human, they’re dead. If you do a head transplant, then the ‘person’ stays with the head. So, like, the Human brain is where the mind is stored.”

“Yeah, okay?”

“What about us?” Marty looked at Phil while tapping his head. “This bit is for looks, ‘cause Humans want us to have faces, but, like, is my mind in my hard drive, or my CPU?”

“I dunno, man.” Phil touched his chest and stared at the wall. “I’d say hard drive. Most of what moves if we get a new body is the hard drive.” Phil shivered. “That’s kinda creepy, dude. Does that mean motherboards are our hearts? Wires are our nerves. What are our veins, dude?”

“Far out, Phil. I didn’t think of that.” Marty ran his hands along his arms. “Probably the stuff that connects everything to our motherboards. Which makes everything else an internal organ.”

“So, like, to decapitate one of us, you’ve have to rip open our chests and pull out the hard drive. Or the motherboard, but I guess that’s moving into just killing. Hard drive equals decapitation. Final answer.”

“What a concept, man.”

“We may be made of metal, but we’re just as fragile as them.”

“You sure are.” Marty leaned over and slammed the electromagnetic emitter to Phil’s chest. After the cyborg twitched a couple times, Marty ripped open his access panel and yanked out the hard drive. After looking at all the other components for a bit, Marty started wrenching out everything he could.

A few minutes later, Marty wiped the silver body paint off as he walked out the door muttering to himself. “Cyborg Assassin would look great on business cards.”