Today, in search of inner peace, I venture out of my cozy apartment, choosing to risk my well-being against the slippery, uncleared sidewalks of my area in order to enjoy a bit of untouched winter wonderland walking. After all, the people who clear the snow around my apartment do so in a swift, brutal, and utilitarian manner, churning up not just snow and ice but grass and dirt as well. Trading visual appeal, the health of the plant life on the property, and the occasional bit of property damage for speed, they will clear the sidewalks and then scatter mounds of salt until not just the sidewalks but the insides of our apartments are stained white with the remnants of the crystalline anti-ice measure. It will be safe to walk, then, but bereft of the appealing blankness and weight of a fresh, heavy snow. Whatever joy I might have gained will be gone, replaced by sad reflection on humanity’s drive to conquer and removed nature rather than cohabitate with it.Continue reading
I went for a walk today, the same as almost every day. This time, though, as I grabbed my sweatshirt, put on my shoes, and slipped my coat on overtop, I didn’t pause to check the weather. I needed air. I needed to breath. I needed some space after being cooped up in my apartment for the fourth day in a row. I’ve been sick lately, working from home so I don’t spread this respiratory thing around the office. My head is clear, but my chest aches from the gentle rumble of coughing, muted by cold medicine and cough drops, that never seems to stop so much as briefly pause. I need fresh air now that my stifling apartment is blocked up with plastic so thoroughly that not even a faint puff of air can sneak in to steal away the heat I’ve been so carefully managing to maintain my comfort while sick. So I did not pause to check the forecast or look outside as I ran away from the close confines of my cozy, dim home.Continue reading
It snowed yesterday (here’s my usual reminder that I write these a week ahead of time, so really it was eight days before this posted). It was fairly brief and I only got a bare glimpse of it because I was busy at work. I couldn’t stop to go watch the mixed snow and sleet come down, which was unfortunate, but I did get to see a bunch of people walk down a hallway I can see from my desk and a lot of them were dusted with the stuff. It’s not really the same thing at all, but it was enough for me to know it was snowing and when it eventually stopped. It was a weird occurrence, given that there hadn’t even been rain on the forecast when I went in to work that morning, and weirder still when you consider that we had a 24-hour period that hit the mid-sixties at the lowest just two days prior. Sure, it was above freezing so the snow didn’t stick around upon landing on the ground, but it was still weird to get our first snow in mid October. I mean, just recently I was thinking about how weird it’d be if we got our first snow before Halloween again and here we are, more than half a month beforehand. Now we’ve got a span of days sitting around freezing before we pop back into the sixties and maybe even seventies in about a week. Absolutely normal weather, for sure.Continue reading
Today was one of my favorite kind of days.
Snow is falling, gently drifting to the ground like a curtain of white flakes. There is a light breeze, not quite constant but steady enough that the snow seems to drift in only one direction. It is cold, but the thermometer proclaims it is just above freezing in the same breath that the wind declares it is just below it. There is no sun, but it is still bright out despite the thick haze of falling snowflakes as every bit of light is reflected by every surface. This is a wet snow, after all, hanging at the precipice of melting while the sun is hidden behind the clouds, so it blankets everything.Continue reading
I never really enjoyed babysitting duty. I was a fair shot by military standards and a good sniper by any standards, but all that meant to the Wayfinders was that our average recruit was a better shot than I was. I had a gun because every hand counts in the kind of combat scenarios we usually encountered, but I was always the first one stuck to any essential non-combat task. I was the least useful in terms of killing people. I was better than most Wayfinders at subduing people, due to my history in martial arts prior to the collapse and my skills at dealing with people, but subdual tactics are only ever used against people we’re guiding or within enclave territory. Everyone else gets lethal force because a dead person is someone who isn’t going to go grab their friends and come back for revenge and one less person in any follow-up raiding parties.
Thankfully, there was plenty to do. Children to comfort and hush, an anxious man to calm, an elderly woman to reassure that no, we did not need her to grab a gun and go shoot some bandit assholes. I was tempted to let her, given how angry she looked at the prospect of people attacking her family. Camille’s orders had been clear and this woman wouldn’t be in here without a good reason. She’d have figured out who to send to the reinforced supply tent during potential firefights and I was in no position to contravene her orders. I’d called combat stations and that meant she was in charge.
After the reassuring was done and everyone sat in silence, dreading the moment it would break and wishing for anything to happen if only to end the waiting, I turned my attention to the supply lists and busied myself with checking stock levels. Something to do to in order to appear calm and unconcerned while straining my ears for the sharp report of the rifles or the quiet phfnkt of the silenced sniper rifles.
Minutes passed. I finished a stock check and started filling out paperwork I’d need at the next city to get IDs and housing for the nomads since they’d never been a part of any enclave. I enlisted the two adults to help me get the information from all of the children and we were just started on the adult forms, half an hour later, when Lucas walked into the tent.
His eyes had lost their usual sparkle, though he kept his usual grin on his face, and he squatted down next to where I sat on a short stack of crates carrying oatmeal. I smiled at him raised an eyebrow.
Still smiling, he spoke. “Millie wants to talk. I’m taking over here.”
I nodded, patted him on the back, and gestured to the form. “Alright. You just pick up from where I left off. All that’s left is information about our group and where you found them.”
I hauled myself to my feet, handed off the pencil, and left the tent. While walking back toward the front of camp, I scanned the area for signs of an attack. I’d been in the tent for about forty-five minutes, but there was still no sign of anyone approaching the horizon. The day was completely silent though, aside from the wind in my ears, and you could feel the tension in the air.
I found Camille at the front barricade and crouched down beside her, saluting as I did so. “What can I do, sir?”
Camille absently returned my salute, never taking her eyes off the horizon. “Lucas reported overnight contact with bandit scouts and, while they fell for the ambush our Wayfinders set, they regrouped quickly, using standard pre-collapse military tactics.”
“Sounds like militia.”
“Yes. All of the actual military groups that were still around after the governments fractured picked an enclave to defend. All of the citizen militias that showed up as every hunter and would-be sharpshooter pulled out their guns either dispersed, were killed as everything went to hell, or turned into bandits. These guys must be ex-military. They’re too organized and professional.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Camille took her eyes off the horizon and looked at me. “I need permission to order us to move camp. This isn’t a good position, given what we’re up against. I need more natural defenses since this camp is too large to defend with the barricades alone.”
“Snipers. We don’t know if we have any following us close enough to hit us today, but it’d be foolish to not assume so. We can leave a rear-guard again, but they’ll still be susceptible to that if the bandits are as good as they seem to be. Staying here isn’t that great either, since we run the same risk anyway, but we have our terrain scouted and all of the best sniper spots taken.”
“Permission granted. If that’s what you think we need to do, I trust your judgment. Set up whatever guards you want however you like and let me know if you want me to get the nomads or laborers to assist.” I saluted again.
“Go relieve Lucas and send him back here. I’ll send a few people to you in half an hour to start packing up. We’ll have to do it in shifts to make sure we’ve got enough lookouts, but we should be able to break camp in an hour.” Camille saluted back and then turned her attention back to the horizon.
Staying low, I hurried to carry out her orders. An hour and a half later, we’d finished breaking camp. Getting the nomads ready was a bigger ordeal than expected as they hadn’t repacked their gear the night before, and the young children did more to hinder than to help since they constantly needed to be reassured. As we started moving out, noisily enough that every Wayfinder was compulsively staring at the horizon, I reported in to Camille.
“Everyone is moving. Scouts are ahead, nomads are on children duty, and I’ve got the laborers reporting to me as they keep an eye out to the north and south.”
“Good.” Camille nodded and slung her gun over her shoulder. “I’ll keep the main force of our Wayfinders back here and our eyes on the east. Where’d Natalie go? I was going to have her lead a squad back here.”
“My apologies, sir. I sent her ahead to look for our defensive position. If we need to hole up there for a prolonged attack, I want to make sure there’s enough local forage to support us.” I nodded to the west. “Map says there are a couple small towns on this route as well, so she’s going to pick through for supplies as she goes.”
“Very well.” Camille saluted and turned away. “Keep everyone tight and going. We’re too large to do the usual single-file, but keep them in a huddled mass no more than four across and the scouts in single-file to the sides. I don’t think they know how many of us there are yet and I’d like to keep it that way.”
I turned away and jogged up to the head of the group, quietly relaying Camille’s orders as I went. Once I got to the head of the group, I gestured for them to continue and let myself fall to the back of the nomads. I stayed there all day, as we hustled through the snow, encouraging people to keep the pack our vanguard was setting and helping anyone who started to struggle. When Camille’s party dropped back, I got everyone down and a couple barricades up, just in time to avoid the few bullets that zinged our way on the tail-end of the thunderous crack of a rifle.
A few quiet phfnkt’s later, Camille had us on the move again. Twice more, as the afternoon dragged on, we repeated the same thing. Each time, we were up and ready by the time the bandit snipers were in place. Thanks to Camille’s decision to have the rearguard focus on calling out positions and our best snipers firing back from our collapsible barricades, we didn’t sustain any injuries. Our first encounter with the bandits was a success. They were good, but Wayfinders were better.
We arrived as the sun was setting and the clouds began to drop a serious snow on us. Natalie and her scouts set up camp in an old barn, a couple of miles away from the second of the two abandoned towns. While not bulletproof in the slightest, it was still sturdy and the bandits would be blind-firing if they chose to shoot into it. And in the fact that the barn was next to a relatively recent farmhouse and both were on a small hill and it made the perfect shelter for us. The pump needed to be unfrozen, but we had our first water in a week that wasn’t snowmelt.
With the little light remaining, I got the nomads and laborers to finish setting up camp, cook, and get themselves settled into guard rotations while Camille and Natalie organized the defense. An hour after sunset, Lucas and his three Wayfinders returned. After making sure they were fed, I settled in to wait for the bandit scouts to appear. Everything was in place, every Wayfinder was ready, and the bandits were soon going to learn just what a mistake they had made in giving us time to prepare.
The next morning brought a late dawn, grey skies, light snow, and allegations of infidelity. I’d had a nice night sharing the tent with only Natalie, since Camille was on guard duty and Lucas was still out on his rearguard mission. We’d had a quiet night in while I made dinner and we just chatted about the lives we used to live and some of the better times from the more recent years. Normally, I enjoy waking up on mornings after the nights Natalie and I are in the tent alone, but my pleasant warmth was interrupted by a muffled voice calling my name from outside.
After a quick ten-count to keep my temper, I hollered that I would be out in a few minutes and dressed quickly. Natalie watched me, still hidden in her warm cocoon, and I told her to enjoy the warmth while it lasted before I stepped into the cold. Outside, Camille stood with her rifle in her hands and her face set in the professional stony frown she wore when on duty. Once I was outside the tent and finished zipping the layered fabric up, she saluted.
“I have to report a small scuffle between the nomads and the laborers, sir.”
I saluted back and gestured for her to lead. “What about?”
“One of the married couples.” Camille strode off toward the middle of the camp, eyes darting around as we walked past people. I followed behind her, already seeing the tension sitting in the shoulders of everyone gathered around the supply tent. “One of nomadic men alleges his wife was seduced by one of the laborers and he looks mean enough to cause some damage. The woman doesn’t deny it happened, but insists her husband was fine with it the night before. The laborer doesn’t remember anything and is too hungover from last night’s festivities to follow what is going on.”
“Ah. I assume, then, that the laborers are now out of their smuggled alcohol?”
Camille nodded, her eyes now fixed on the angry-looking men gathered on the edge of the crowd. “And the nomads are through most of their stores of moonshine.”
“Oh.” I cracked my knuckles through my gloves and rolled my neck, trying to keep my muscles from tightening up in the cold. “Well, shit.”
“You said it, sir. Best of luck.” Camille stepped to the side, a dozen paces away from the group of nomads and laborers, and stood at attention with her rifle ready to jump to her shoulder at a moment’s notice. I walked past her and joined the group huddled in the lee of the supply tent, taking shelter from the wind and falling snow.
I set my shoulders and clasped my hands behind my back, going for the same dramatic look I’d established with the nomads the day before. “I want everyone who wasn’t directly involved in what happened last night to return to their tents. Once I have spoken with the involved parties, I will let you all know what is going to happen and we can proceed from there.” I glared at anyone who would meet my eyes and most of them walked away.
At the end, four people remained. Two laborers and two nomads I assumed were the married couple. “I hear from my lieutenant that there is a matter of marital infidelity and that it has almost come to violence. Is that accurate?”
The male nomad lurched forward. “That’s right! This man here slept with my-”
I stepped forward and pushed him back to stand next to his wife. “Shut up.”
The man spluttered, but the firm push and my renewed glare kept him still. After making sure he wasn’t going to say anything, I stepped back and looked at the whole group. “I don’t give a shit about this. You’re adults. Solve the problem between the three or four of you without using violence or I’ll leave you all to wander the tundra on your own. I’m sure the bandits now trailing us wouldn’t mind picking off a few stragglers who were sent their own way. If you make this a problem again, by getting the camp riled up or actually fighting, I’ll just leave you all behind. Now go tell everyone that the problem is resolved and that the group of you is going to discuss things quietly.”
The nomad stepped forward again, his face now redder than the cold could account for. “But she’s my wife and I-”
“Will resolve this problem quietly and efficiently between the two of you.” I stepped up to him and placed a hand on his chest, forcing him to take a half step back. “Split up or don’t. I don’t care. Just don’t make this my problem again or you will regret having opened your mouth.” I looked each of them in the eyes and got a nod from each of them, except the nomad husband. When I turned my attention back to him, he grimaced and then tried to grab my wrist.
I slapped his hand away and swept one of his legs out and to the side. He managed to stay up, but I pushed his shoulder and tipped him over. As he wiped snow from his face, I stepped over to him and looked down, face neutral. “Am I clear?”
He nodded and slowly pulled himself to his feet. As he wiped himself off, the sober laborer led the clearly still drunk laborer toward a tent a hundred feet away and the female nomad stalked off back to the nomad’s side of the camp. The other man followed shortly after her, shooting a couple looks over his shoulder at the drunk laborer. I took a deep breath and let the tension drain out of me.
“Well done, as always, Captain.”
“You know, you could do this yourself, Camille.” I rubbed my face with a glove and turned to look at my lieutenant and friend. “You have the same authority that I do.”
“Sure, but I don’t really get these kinds of squabbles. I’m not terribly interested in sex and I can’t really understand why people get super agitated about it.” Camille snorted and shook her head. “I tried to sort out such squabble out once, remember? At that bar just after the snows started?”
“I remember.” I sighed and trudged back toward my tent. “This is different though. Now, your approach would work just fine. You’ve seen me do it enough times at this point that you can probably quote me, word for word.”
“And when one of these inevitably goes sideways, I’m not going to have an appropriate response. Better for everyone to let you sort it out. You are the people person, after all. You’ve made it clear several times that people stuff is your job and fighting stuff is my job. I wouldn’t want to infringe on your area of expertise, of course.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed again. “I don’t think this was better for me at all” I muttered as I got back to my tent.
As I bent over to grab the zipper, Camille spoke over her shoulder as she continued on back to her post. “Tell Natalie I am sorry for interrupting you two.”
I felt my face heat a little bit, but I was able to make it inside the tent before anyone else came to talk to me. Inside, Natalie was sitting by the little cook fire, still wrapped in her sleeping bag. She looked up at me when I turned around after closing the tent and taking my boots off. “I made breakfast.”
“I think Camille knows.”
“Mar, she’s asexual, not stupid.”
“I know!” I sat down next to Natalie and took the oatmeal and kiss she offered. “I just thought we did a better job hiding it.”
“Millie has known both of us for at least two decades, Mar. I’m sure she and Lucas both know.”
I ate my oatmeal in silence as Natalie scooped herself a bowl. “Do you think anyone else does?”
Natalie shook her head. “No. No one else shares a tent with us. If anything, they probably think I’m sleeping with Lucas because of how flirty he is with Millie and I. He’s sleeping with a trainee, though, so I’m sure no one thinks it seriously.”
“Damn, now I’ve got to write him up twice.” I spooned the rest of my oatmeal into my mouth and licked my bowl clean. “Anything else I should know about, before I go back out there to lead?”
Natalie leaned over and kissed me on the nose. “Nope. I just hope Lucas is out on rear guard for another few days. And not just because I’d like another night to the two of us.” She kissed me on the mouth and then smiled at me. I smiled back at her as she sat upright and started eating her oatmeal. “I wouldn’t mind knowing there’s more space between us and the bandits than the nomads thought.”
“Me too.” I stood up, grabbed my water, and cleaned my bowl out. I put my boats back on and fixed my coat. “Hopefully we’ll have those nights and the safety they imply.” I unzipped the tent flap and dumped my bowl outside. I tossed it back into the tent to dry near the fire and stepped outside, giving Natalie a wink. “Don’t lay in bed too long. I’d hate to have to come back inside to get you.”
Natalie smiled around a mouthful of food as I stepped away to zip the tent up. When I turned around, broad smile replacing my usual glare, I scanned a morning that seemed brighter than it had the first time I left the tent. I started my morning patrol around the camp, watching everyone wake up and begin the process of packing to leave, and my good mood lasted until I went around the back. There, as I looked for the guard post, I noticed a few figures trailing down out of the hills away to the east. As the dread settled in my stomach like a rock thrown in a pond, I pulled my binoculars out of their pouch and examined the figures.
It was Lucas, returning from his post, and moving fast judging by their complete disregard for the trail they were leaving. I lowered the binoculars and whistled the Wayfinders to alert status. For a couple heartbeats, the camp fell silent. Then, intelligible over the sudden noise of people rushing about, was Camille’s voice.
“I want two squads with rifles up front, all snipers to your designated flanks, and someone get all these noncoms to the supply tent. I want only one person on babysitting duty and then everyone else to grab five armed travellers. Move, move, move!”
Camille came dashing up, still trailing a bit of snow from where she’d been hiding. As she ran up, I handed off the binoculars to here. “Looks like Lucas and the rest of the Wayfinders I sent with him.”
“Thank you for your opinion, Captain. Kindly get your ass back to the supply tent and send the babysitter up here. We’re down four Wayfinders thanks to Lucas’ rearguard and I need every combatant I can get in case they’re being following.”
“Yes, sir.” I saluted Camille and dashed back through the camp, waving to Natalie as I passed her. She was leading a group of the laborers as they struggled to move one of our portable barriers into place. She nodded at me as I passed. Once I got to the supply tent, I sent Lauren up to Camille and started calming everyone who was too young or too inexperienced to fight.
The camp went from busy to quiet a few seconds later. In only two minutes, every Wayfinder was in position and ready for trouble. The only question left was just how much trouble that would be.
When I next saw Lucas, it took everything in my power not to throw my gun to the ground. He jogged up to the group while we were taking our noon break, waving his way past the sentries. He wore his usual beaming smile, but I can see the worry in his eyes when he stopped in front of me. Behind him, and the reason for my urge to angrily throw my weapon, I could see a large group of people moving on the horizon.
“What did you find?”
“Hold on, Mar.” Lucas held up a hand gestured to a bit of clear space away from the sentries and the resting laborers. “Let’s step over here, quick. Officers only.”
I nodded and beckoned to Camille and Jonathan, our second-in-commands. Once we were a far enough away from everyone to have a whispered conference without being overhead, I took a deep breath and gestured for Lucas to speak.
“It was a group of nomads. Seven families for a total of thirty-one people. Twenty-three of them are combat capable and they have the firearms and ammunition to arm them, but two of them are currently pregnant and five of the rest are under the age of eighteen.” Camille shook her head at that, but I cut off the argument that Lucas was about to start.
“We can discuss child soldiers later, right now just keep giving me your report.”
Lucas grimaced but continued. “They had a semi-permanent residence on the periphery of Chicago, traveling through the old suburbs and living off the supplies they could find in old superstores. They moved out a couple of months ago when a large group of bandits moved into the area and the Chicago enclave decided they were too much trouble to chase off but not enough trouble to worry about.”
“That stacks with the last reports we have from the Wayfinder net.” Jonathan mimed swiping through a touch-screen display. “They’re on the fourth page of the Chicago report, so even the Wayfinders agreed they weren’t a big deal.”
“Makes sense. Those ruins are too picked-over to support anything larger than a few dozen people.”
“That’s what the leaders of this nomad group said, Mar.” Lucas wiped at his eyes, a nervous tic he’d had since we were college students together. “They were doing fine until they headed west. They ran into some bandit scouts, well-armed ones, so they’ve been on the move toward the plains ever since, trying to make themselves more trouble than they’re worth.”
“A few, and only technically. No casualties on either side and only a few rounds shot by the nomads each time they see bandits catching up to them or sneaking up on their camp.”
“They’re trying to figure out their gear.” Camille crossed her arms and growled. “Shitlicking bandits are trying to get them to waste all their ammo on scaring them off so they can sweep in and clean up. We’ve seen tactics like that in the more militarized bandits. They’ve probably got a base they’re operating out of and they’re waiting for their main forces to show up before attacking the nomads.”
“Thanks, Camille.” I nodded toward the horizon, where the large group was growing slowly closer. “So you brought them back with you.”
“Yessir. I couldn’t leave them to die to a bandit attack like that.”
“So you brought them to join us so we could also die in a bandit attack?”
I took my goggles off and pinched the bridge of my nose as I squinted through the glare. Without my goggles to cut the sunlight from this unusually bright day, I couldn’t see the nomads on the horizon anymore. As I put my goggles back on, I spent a moment wishing this decision wasn’t in my hands. Once I’d adjusted the strap again, I cracked my knuckles through my gloves and started issuing orders.
“Lucas, you’re officially in trouble for this. It is against Wayfinder policy to pick up groups of nomads and offer protection to additional people while escorting a group that has paid us. We’ll worry about your punishment later because we can’t risk Mr. Eidetic Memory here when there’s someone else qualified.”
I turned to Jonathan. “Go with Lucas. Start cataloguing their gear and make a note of everything that either is a weapon, can be used as a weapon, or can be made into a weapon. When we make camp, I’ll need you to assess their abilities. Take a few hunting to augment our supplies and see how they stack up. Tell Natalie I’ve given you the run of our supplies outside of basic essentials.”
I turned back to Lucas. “Once you’ve brought them up and introduced me to whoever their leaders are, you are to backtrack until you find traces of bandits or an excellent ambush spot. Take all the scouts and whatever guns you need. Don’t worry about silencers. The more of them that know they’re facing a real force, the fewer we’ll have to shoot.”
“Camille, get this group moving. While I’m dealing with the nomads, you’re in charge of these people. We don’t want them mixing right away. Start figuring out if any of them have skills we can use or if any of them can fight. I don’t want it to come to that, but we need to be ready.”
Once I stopped, I looked each of them in the eyes and nodded. They saluted and hurried off to take care of their tasks. I had a while before the nomads caught up to where I was, so I started getting ready. A few small adjustments to my gear and I looked like the figure on the posters of Wayfinders they post in the hiring offices. I returned to my backpack, finished my meal, and started going through the pockets of my pack. Once I found the notebook and pencil, I flipped through it until I fought a blank page.
Suitably armed for my upcoming encounter, I slung my pack up on my back and started out toward the nomads. By now, they were close enough to make out distinct figures, but I lowered my head and focused on crossing the snowy landscape. Even with the goggles, the glare from the sun made the distance hard to judge. Every few minutes, I’d look up again until I could start to make out distinct features and spot the Wayfinders Lucas had taken that morning, who were scattered around the periphery of the nomads.
When they were a quarter of a mile away, I stopped moving and looked them over. They moved sensibly, the large people out front and the smallest ones in back, with a couple of adults back there to keep an eye on the children and function as a rear guard. They had good coats and packs, so they clearly knew what they were doing, but I could tell from the way they weren’t constantly looking around that they hadn’t fully adjusted to living in the wilder parts of the midwest.
Once they reached me, everyone stopped and started the process of having a quick meal. Three of the people from the front of the group moved over to me and one, a tall woman with a runner’s build, held out a hand.
“I’m Brianna. Your scout told me you were the famous Captain Marshall. I couldn’t believe our luck.”
I took her hand and shook it perfunctorily. “I wouldn’t count yourselves lucky, yet. You’ve got bandits trailing you and I hope you know that your tactics so far haven’t done much.”
“Shooting in their general direction has chased them off. That’s been good enough for me.”
“Well, if you want protection from my Wayfinders, you’re going to need the permission of the group that hired us to guide them and to agree to do everything I tell you without question.”
Brianna nodded. “We will ask and you will have our complete obedience. I know how effective you Wayfinders are and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my people safe.”
“Good.” I counted the heads of the nomads and watched as Jonathan moved the camp, talking to the people who were eating. “We’re officially too big to have any chance of hiding from any group we run into, so there’s going to be a lot of fighting before we get to Des Moines.”
The woman and her two companions nodded. I gestured for them to get back to their meal and went to talk to the closest Wayfinder. After leaving instructions for her to make sure they set a pace to catch up to the other group by nightfall, I started out, heading back toward my company using the trail I’d made getting there. I caught up a couple of hours later and, as the sun was just touching the horizon, the nomads caught up to us. Luckily, the laborers were good sports and, when presented with the results of their hunters, were more than happy to share our guidance and protection.
While the nomads and laborers made friends over their fresh meat, I called all of the Wayfinders together and we made our plans for the first signs of a bandit attack. There was the usual amount of joking and banter among the veterans, but that quickly faded as everyone focused on their roles for the next few nights. Being a Wayfinder might be a prestigious position and one of the few things you could still do in the post-collapse world if you wanted to live freely, but it also had a high mortality rate. Now, we would begin the most dangerous part of our job.
I never liked guiding young men. The worst were always the laborers, young guys who traveled from city to city, shoring up what infrastructure they could and scrapping everything they couldn’t. They’re always drinking smuggled whiskey, forgetting to fill their canteens with snowmelt, and there’s always a few who make passes at some of my Wayfinders. A little over half my team is women and these young men are used to what we once called “Rockstar treatment” since they’re given pretty much whatever they want while working on an enclave in the hopes of getting a skilled metalworker or net tech to settle down.
Normally, I’d refuse and save everyone the hassle, but we’d dropped off the families we’d picked up in the wreckage of Chicago and the only group ready to go and capable of paying had been two dozen men in their twenties. The city’s net connection had been saved by two of the men in this group, and the rest had managed to fix up the shelters so they’d be properly insulated again. I had a soft spot in my heart for the Madison, Wisconsin enclave, having lived there before the collapse, and agreed to take this group as a whole at their request.
Between cities, the Order of Wayfinders is the law. If the people we’re escorting try to report us for anything, the enclaves simply tell them they’re welcome to request a refund and then never be escorted anywhere ever again. We are judge, jury, and executioner outside of the enclaves. There’s no room for arguing or anything but iron-clad authority in the otherwise lawless tundras. We police ourselves, so most Wayfinders who abuse their power wind up as bandits or dead.
We were ten days out of the city, heading southwest toward the great plains of Iowa the first time I had to assert my authority. Generally speaking, my Wayfinders aren’t shy about turning people down if they don’t want someone’s attention. Unfortunately, the amount of self-assurance it takes to brush off a drunk young man who desires you is a skill that often takes time to learn and one of my trainees was struggling. Once she asked for my help, I gave it. I reminded the man bothering her that he was to respect her wishes and, if he ignored her again, I was going to beat him until I was certain he’d learned his lesson.
He was drunk enough to take me seriously at that point, but a couple of nights later, as the full moon peeked between the heavy, grey clouds, he decided I was full of it. He was, after all, six and a half feet of trim muscle while I was only a middle-aged man, beard already showing the first signs of grey around my mouth, of modest stature and height. Once I’d dropped his unconscious ass back into his insulated sleeping bag, I left their shelter and found Laura in the shelter she shared with four of the other trainees.
“He’s out. If he troubles you again tomorrow, punch him squarely in the ribs. I cracked a couple of them, so he should go down easily enough.”
“Thanks, Marshall.” Laura rolled onto her back in her sleeping bag and laced her hands behind her head. “And, after that, I can just shoot him?”
I nodded. “Stabbing would be better. You’re decent at quick kills, so you should be able to do that easily enough. It’d be a lot quieter and you’d save yourself a bullet.”
“Silence Is Paramount.” Laura saluted me from her sleeping bag. “As you wish it, so shall it be.”
I smiled down at her, my beard hiding everything but the crinkle at the corners of my eyes. “Sleep.”
Laura saluted again and I walked out of her shelter, waving my hand dismissively. A few steps away, I found the night-sentry already buried in the snow. “Hicks, keep an eye on the tents tonight, too. If you see any shadows trying to get into a Wayfinder shelter and it doesn’t belong to a Wayfinder, make it dead.”
A thumb poked itself out of the snow and then quickly disappeared again. Satisfied, I walked around the rest of the perimeter, that everyone was either in their shelters or preparing for the morning. After that was done, I retreated to my shelter. Lucas was already asleep, but Camille and Natalie were still awake, huddled around the campfire.
“How’s Laura?” Camille handed me a bowl of thick soup.
“She’s fine.” I started eating.
“And the other guy?”
“Alive and capable of keeping up the pace, but unlikely to do more than that for a few weeks.”
“Pay up, Nat.” Camille held out her hand and took the twenty from Natalie with a look of triumph on her face.
“Sorry for having faith in the newbies, Millie.”
“Who else was in the pool?” I chewed at a tough bit of meat and wiped steam from my beard as I looked at the pile of cash Natalie was rifling through.
“Well, cap, it’s all the vets but you and while I was the only one to bet on the newbie, the safe bet was you beating the young groper so badly he would need a couple of days of rest before he willingly went anywhere. Technically, that still remains to be seen, but I doubt it. We’ve got two other bets on you killing the guy because he fought back well enough to need it.”
I nodded as I swallowed the gristly piece of meat. “Sounds about right. Lucas didn’t want to wait up to see how it turned out?”
“He’s got second guard shift tonight, Marshall, as do you. Finish eating and let me take care of cleaning up so you can get some sleep.” Natalie stuffed the money away and started picking up the cookware and food. I finished my bowl of soup and snatched another out of the pot before Camille sealed it up for the night. After finishing my food and cleaning myself up as best as I could with the last bits of my tube of toothpaste, I wrapped myself in my sleeping back and lost track of time until I was shaken away by Lucas.
“C’mon, cap. Second watch starts in a few minutes. Captain’s orders. You wouldn’t want to disobey an order from yourself now, would you, Captain?” I was still too asleep to see properly, but I’d seen the goofy grin plastered across his face often enough that I didn’t need to see it to know it was there.
Grumbling, I slipped my insulated gear back on and clambered out of my sleeping bag. Lucas disappeared out of the door in a flurry of cold that set the embers to snapping on their logs while I cleaned up my gear. A few minutes later, I’d traded spots with one of the sentries and concealed myself in the snowdrift. The only thing peeking out of the snow was my camouflaged night-vision goggles and the end of my gun’s barrel. Even with my night vision goggles, there was nothing to see but the empty hills we’d camped near.
When the sun and the movement in the camp started to make hiding pointless, I gave in to my desire to move around and creakily pushed myself to my feet. I wasn’t old yet, but lying around in the snow for four hours sure made me feel like I was. As I took stock of the area around the camp and the camp itself, I noticed one of the laborers standing a few paces away. He was friends with the one I had educated the day before.
When I pushed my goggles up and locked eyes with him, he smiled uneasily and stepped forward. “Captain Marshall. I’d like to apologize on behalf of our group and especially Mitch. He’s an asshole and deserved everything you gave him. We’ll do a better job of keeping an eye on him.”
“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” I shouldered my gun and let my face settle into its natural glare.
The man took half a step back and held up his hands. “You’re absolutely right, sir. Mitch and I already apologized to Wayfinder Laura. I just wanted to apologize for the inconvenience of needing to police my group. It will not happen again, Captain Marshall, sir.”
I smoothed the glare from my face and nodded. “See that it doesn’t. Next one gets killed.” I watched him quickly walk away and turned my attention to the rest of the camp. The tension that had started building after I beat the assaulter seemed to have seeped away. While I was looking around, Lucas walked up. When he saluted, I nodded.
“Captain, there’s signs of tracks behind one of the hills to the southeast.”
“What was someone doing out there?”
“As the sun rose, I saw it glinting off of something and took a look through my scope. Empty food wrappers, sir. Curious, I walked over after having my post covered by one of the trainees. There’s a whole trail, sir.”
“They got that close and we didn’t see them?”
“No, sir. Basic camouflage would have concealed them at that range, given they were moving at night.”
“Right, the snow.” I shifted my gun and nodded to a small crowd of Wayfinders that had gathered when they saw the captain talking to the lead scout. “Take a small crew and see what you can find. We’ll continue course as we’ve set it, so meet us at our midday stop with whatever you’ve found.”
“Yessir.” Lucas saluted again and jogged off to the group of Wayfinders. I watched them gear up and head off before heading to the cookpot for breakfast. It was either nomads or bandits. Neither was good news for us. As the sun shone down through a break in the clouds and I helped myself to a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit, I wasn’t sure which would be worse.
The snow came down, coating trees and drifting into mounds beside the road. Rosie didn’t think every drift had a car in it, like the one she was looking at, but the thought pressed on her as she tried to focus.
It was a simple job. Wait for calls on snowy nights and then drive the truck into the snow to rescue unfortunate drivers. This was probably her last call of the night. Once 3 a.m. rolled around, it was someone else’s turn.
After checking with the driver, she towed the car onto the road. Ten minutes of work and talking and the driver was on their way again. As she sat in her car and filled out the last bit of paperwork, her attention kept drifting to the mounds of snow. She’d lived around here all her life. She knew the fields down route 44 were lousy with heavy bushes and hills, but something kept pulling her eyes to the sea of white.
She set the clipboard aside, bundled up, and waded into the snow. It was up to her shins, but a particular mound kept calling to her. She walked up to it and started digging with her hands.
Twenty minutes later, she was back in her truck, driving. It had been only snow over a large bush. As she rounded a bend, looking for the county route home, she got a call. There was someone else who needed to be pulled out on route 44. Dispatch sent her back out, even though her shift was over, since she was close.
She turned the truck around and started looking for a car in the snow. She spotted it a few minutes later and smiled, despite herself. She’d been right about the drift, just half an hour early.
Here’s another “shoot, I really need to get that buffer made” poem to hold you over when I’m too busy to write something new every day for my daily post. Hopefully you’re all have a wonderful holiday season and, for those of you who celebrate it, I hope your Christmas Eve is going well.
As the moon sits, fat and high,
I watch a battle of giants in the sky.
Flashes of light that make no sound
Miles and miles above the ground:
A tumultuous scene of Majestic Weather!
No fluffy clouds, light as a feather
Are these, but dark monstrosities
That dominate the sky, ignoring the breeze.
A scene of beauty like no other
Is the storm that decides to hover
On the horizon like a mountain silhouette,
But infinitely more of a looming threat.
Beauty and violence twisted together
Is this Queen of inclement weather!