Infrared Isolation: Introduction

Not sure what this is or where to go from here? You can find the table of contents Here.

Humans have always been storytellers. From our earliest days until whenever we finally disappear from the universe, we will be telling each other stories. For a while there, we’d figured out a way to make it indirect and widespread, sharing stories across the world via text and then voice and then video. There are still books, and the audio and videos can still be found in a few places, but Humans have shifted back around to direct storytelling. The Collapse has taken access to everything else away from most people, and those who survived adapted.

Now, on the quiet nights when the wind is low and the tundra has been still for long enough that everyone has stopped looking over their shoulders for signs of danger, people gather around the fire to share stories. They are bundled against the cold still, faces peeking out from heavy coats, huddled blankets, and worn out thermal sleeping bags because the warmth of the fire doesn’t spread very far. The banked and shielded coals are kept alive until the morning, when they’ll be needed again, but sitting around even a small, almost dead fire seems to be an important part of the ritual for most.

I like to participate when I can, on the nights when my duties as a Wayfinder don’t keep me busy. These people pay us to guide them from Enclave to Enclave, keeping them warm, fed, and safe as we traverse the arctic remnants of what used to be the midwest of the United States, so I am obligated to attend to my work even if I’d rather listen. I have to set a good example, after all.

The nights I join in, though, I almost always get drawn into the telling. I’m a rarity in the tundra, after all. I’m in my fifties, still traveling between Enclaves despite the harsh cold and nigh-constant snow that makes up our years. Most people don’t even move from one Enclave to another, let alone make a career of guiding people, carrying messages, and mapping the safest routes as the crumbling infrastructure of a lost world slowly decays.

Some do, of course. Not every move from one Enclave to another is by choice. Not every person can live in an Enclave. But most of those who move or make their lives outside the restrictions of an Enclave are on the younger side. Something about old bones needing warmth and the cold leeching away your life, according to the way people outside the Wayfinders tell it. Inside the Wayfinders, we know better. All it takes is one mistake, one error of judgment, and you can lose your life. The longer you do this job, the more likely you are to make a mistake.

The other older members of my Wayfinder crew aren’t really the storytelling type, so their marvelous sheen wears off quickly. Only I am willing to be pulled into telling stories most nights, and since I’ve been around for so long, I have more stories than most. Some real and some imagined or remembered. Tales of my crew’s past exploits as we’ve survived longer than most in the unforgiving frozen world outside the safety of an Enclave and stories I read or heard when I was younger, intermingling and sometimes being combined to create something new for my charges.

Inevitably, someone asks me what the world was like before The Collapse. There are a lot of children and teenagers who have only known the world we see before us, who are tired of hearing the same stories their parents tell them, that the Enclaves tell them. They want to know what my life was like before I became the first Wayfinder, before I started guiding people from bastion of safety to bastion of safety. They want to know what I might tell them that the Enclaves or their parents won’t, about how much better things were.

Unfortunately, few of them are satisfied with the truth. Since all Enclaves still have some kind of power in varying quantities, because they’ve adapted to the restrictions of the world that remains, things aren’t that different, other than the unending winter. Get deep enough in an Enclave–a fortress of contained warmth, safety, and order–and you can almost forget that the snow hasn’t vanished from the ground in over two decades. You can still see the old world in the shadow of the current one, if you know where to look. Human adaptability is so far insurmountable. Our world might be a ruined husk of what it once was, but we get along just fine now that we’ve figured out what we need to do to survive.

If there are no children to seek out stories of the wondrous world they never knew, the swapping of stories will eventually peter out until someone starts talking about where they were when The Collapse happened. If I can, I try to extricate myself at this point because someone will always turn to me, remark that I must have been an adult when it happened, and ask me to tell them my story.

The problem with talking about The Collapse is that it’s a name we came up with years after it happened. There’s still debate in what remains of the scholarly circles of the Net, some of it carried on by members of my own team as we deliver the various data dumps that allow the Enclaves to share information, about what specific event counts as The Collapse. While the debate is over a series of events that played out over the course of about six months, starting with the June snows and ending with the destruction of every population center throughout December that same year, they still argue about what moment in time marks the first event that Humanity couldn’t have recovered from, even if we’d all been unified at the time.

I’m of the opinion that it was years earlier than the general consensus. There was a moment in my early life, only a month out of college, when I saw some ultimately inconsequential piece of news and knew it was already over. That we were just dragging it out and trying to deny the reality we’d made for ourselves. I remember the bitter taste of being called an alarmist as my warnings fell on deaf ears. I remember phone calls going unanswered because people were tired of me begging them to prepare for what felt inevitable.

I try to brush them off, but some insist, implicitly asking me to reinforce the idea that the world we’re in now was unavoidable, that losing so many people was inevitable. If they do, I tell them. I tell them about the phone calls that eventually went unanswered because the people had vanished. About having only three people from my life before The Collapse still alive despite spending my entire life since then searching for my family and friends. About the origin of the Wayfinders being a man desperately trying to find any friends and family who survived the initial waves of destruction and only finding strangers he couldn’t bear to turn his back on.

I tell them that even though we still occasionally find isolated Enclaves and reconnected them with other survivors, I still haven’t found a single person I knew from before The Collapse except the three who are a part of my Wayfinder crew. The only three who listened to my warnings and were ready when the blizzard appeared and left behind destroyed cities in its wake. About frantically searching every updated obituary page for the names of people I knew more than half a lifetime ago because even that would be better than having them all be a part of the massive list of the missing.

The stories usually end after that. There’s not much to be said after an old man tells you why he’s still wandering the frozen wastelands over a decade after a sensible person would have retired to an Enclave. I try to end it on a positive note, by saying that founding the Wayfinders means I’ve got family in every Enclave in the world now, even if I’ve never met most of them, and that my knack for preparation means that they’re all going to get where they’re going safely. Usually they all return to telling stories after that, sometimes with a little help from me and a few choice anecdotes about some of the people I’ve reunited, but they usually stop asking me for stories after that.

Which is fine. Gives me more time to plan, to listen, and to keep watch. After all, as the head of the Wayfinders and the Captain of the only team big and skilled enough to escort large groups through the frozen wastelands, I’ve got a job to do.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1

Some Site News: I’m Gonna Repost My Own Stuff!

I’ve been thinking about making some changes to what I post here. Since I tend to focus on other projects on the weekends, I frequently never get around to writing a Saturday post until I’m into the next week. It isn’t difficult to write an extra post one or two days a week, but I think I might go back through all stuff I’ve written in years past and share it here. Not just anything of course. I’m thinking of either reposting old poetry or doing a re-run of my Coldheart and Iron series. I haven’t really decided, but it’s more of a “which one will I do first?” than a “what should I do?” type question.

Continue reading

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.”

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.