Mission Control

Ben stepped through the door into his small office and collapse into his chair as it automatically adjusted itself to his profile. As he rubbed his eyes and waved at the coffeemaker on his desk, the lights flickered on, adjusted to his morning profile, and powered up his workstation. The surface flowed into the shape of a keyboard and the screen projects started through their power-on routine, cycling through every color and configuration. It was pleasant to watch, but made his head hurt, so he turned to his wall.

One light on the wall, positioned where there should be a window, slowly changed from the standard full-spectrum white to a square of his favorite vista back on Earth, a section of the Grand Canyon that glowed as the sun rose over the rim. The sun in the picture he’d used to create the Smart Window warmed to a bright ten thousand lumens, helping to push the sleep from his eyes and mind while he waited for the gurgling coffee maker to finish it’s job.

While he waited for what his coworkers called his “old-fashioned dirty bean water,” Ben tapped through the log-in on his desktop and cycled through his team’s off-hours messages. There wasn’t much of interest, just the usual memes and links to YouTube videos for research ideas, so he spun himself around in his chair a few times before switching to his internet browser and checking out a couple of forums. Once the coffee was done, he poured it into the ceramic mug on his desk and set it aside to cool.

He sent a few follow-up messages to one of his coworkers who’d sent him some direct messages and was just about to start digging into one the issues he’d been assigned when someone rapped on his wall. Ben lazily spun around, grabbing his now-drinkable coffee as he went. “What’s up, Christine?”

“Hey, Ben. We’ve got a conference call coming up in ten. Lewis scheduled it half an hour ago but forgot to invite anyone but me, Vince, and Landon. I’m going to need you on that.”

“Really?” Ben sipped his coffee and arched his eyebrows at his senior coworker. “Did he ‘forget’ to include anyone else, or did he actually forget?”

“The universe will never know.” Christine shrugged and leaned against the wall. “But you need to do your thing today. He’s got something to drop on us.”

“Yeah?” Ben sighed and put his coffee down. “You sure? I’d love to not need to be a part of this today. I’d really like to do something else with my first hour of work today.”

“Yeah. He managed to include the right manager and the two people who he’d be able to override, so he’s got something he wants done.”

“You’re too nice, Christine.”

“I mean, he is my boss. I can’t exactly tell him no.”

“Fine, then Vince is being too nice.”

“Landon isn’t going to like it, but no one is listening to him about Lewis anymore. They all think he’s got a vendetta at this point.”

“Yeah, but he’s our manager. It’s his job to represent us to everyone up the chain.”

Christine shrugged and pushed away from the wall. “You’ve got ten minutes now. Best get yourself ready.”

“Fine.” Ben shifted in his chair and it molded to his new position. “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Ben. You’re the best.”

Ben waved a hand and the room’s light changed so his face stood out as the chair raised itself, pushing him into a standing position in the open corner of his office.  When he turned around to look, Christine was gone so he waved the door closed. As the glass pane sealed with the rubber frame, there was a hiss of air from the corner as his temperature preferences got priority over the lab settings. Dropping everything else from his mind, he focused on preparing the right attitude for a call with Lewis.

It was a mixture of frustration, weariness, and assertive stubbornness. Lewis could talk circles around almost anyone and those he couldn’t talk his way past would eventually give up because he was more willing to waste time in a pointless argument than anyone else. Except Ben. Ben was the only person on the team who was more stubborn than Lewis and could keep up with him. Which means he got pulled into meetings sometimes just to tag in for people during long discussions or arguments when Lewis wouldn’t stop talking over people.

As he prepared himself for his least favorite part of his job, he straightened his tie, adjusted his top button, and took a deep breath. Two minutes of organizing his thoughts later, the wall in front of him beeped as it was fed into the conference call Christine was managing. The display showed everyone standing awkwardly as they self-consciously preened in front of the camera. As the youngest by two decades, Ben was the only one who’d never known a phone call that didn’t involve video, so he locked eyes with Lewis and smiled in greeting just as he began to talk.

“Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to see you all today and I wanted to share some good news. We’ve made a new sale to a big customer, TerraFirm, so we’re supporting their first launch to the Mars colony.”

There were a lot of shocked faces on the screen and Ben’s was among them. The first person to speak was Landon, who started very slowly. “Lewis, that’s incredible.” He paused for a moment, clearly searching for words, and then carried on. “But who authorized you to make a sale?”

“No one, Landon. I merely facilitated two people communicating.”

“Grace would have said something to me about a sale that high profile. Who gave you the authorization to make a sale?”

“I just said no one authorized me, but I didn’t make a sale.”

“If I call Grace right now, she’ll tell me you didn’t make the sale?”

“Correct, Landon.”

Landon made a few gestures, typed on the light keyboard that appeared in front of him, and then a new person was added to the call. Grace, the head of sales, was still climbing out of her chair when Landon started talking. “Grace. Sorry to interrupt your morning, but Lewis says you did a sale with TerraFirm for a Mars colony run.”

“What?” Grace’s face went slack in shock. “No! I think I’d know if there was something that high-profile in the works.”

“Could you make sure nothing slipped through the cracks.” While everyone waited for Grace to return to her computer and start cycling through the sales database, Ben kept his attention on Lewis, watching him keep the same placidly neutral face he wore whenever he was lying out his ass about something. Lewis noticed and gave Ben a small smile, throwing in a cocked eyebrow when Ben didn’t react. Just when Ben was about to say something, Grace turned back to the call.

“I don’t understand. We got a payment today from TerraFirm but I didn’t make any sales.”

“I managed that conversation.” Lewis nodded his head and Grace stared at him. After no one said anything, he continued. “Richard was on the email change when negotiations because, so sales was involved.”

“Lewis…” Ben shook his head and stared at the floor for a moment. “Richard died two years ago. You attended his memorial.”

“So I did, but the deal had his blessing.” Lewis gave the entire call his small, placid smile and Grace abruptly vanished. “I don’t see what the issue is. Dealing with customers is part of my job.”

“No, Lewis.” Landon emphatically shook his head and stepped closer to the camera. “You job is to figure out what they want and bring it to the project team for approval.”

“TerraFirm wanted us as their guidance system for their Mars colony trip and here’s the project team plus several extra people. I don’t see how this is a problem.”

“The problem is, Lewis, that you’re not allowed to make decisions or commitments on behalf of the guidance team!” Landon’s face was almost as red as Ben’s tie as he shook a finger at the camera, now less than an arm’s length from Landon’s red face. “This is the last straw, Lewis.”

Landon’s camera shut off and everyone but Ben and Lewis quickly followed suit. Ben stood where he was, eye’s still locked onto Lewis’ face as Lewis looked around at where each of the other callers would have been as they hung up. After the last of them had disappeared, Lewis pursed his lips in bewilderment. “I don’t see what has everyone so upset.”

“We had a meeting less than twenty-four hours ago about our development plans for the next year and you didn’t bring this sale or customer up. You even agreed to our plan. And now you’ve go-”

“We can still do all that stuff you wanted yesterday.” Lewis’ brow furrowed as he looked away from the wall, toward his computer. “There’s no reason we can’t do both.”

Ben’s face was still pleasantly neutral but he had his hands behind his back and they were clenched so tightly it looked like his tendons were about to break. “You’ve gone and not only made a commitment we aren’t prepared to meet, but you’ve given us less than six months to meet it. TerraFirm’s launch is in one hundred forty days and we have no idea what systems we’ll be integrated, let alone what hardware they’re working with.”

“We do launches all the time. This is just one more.” Lewis waved his hand dismissively and the camera switched to a head-only view for a moment before he remembered to set it back to the full-body picture. “What is so difficult about that?”

“We do low-Earth orbit launches and the occasional lunar mission. Mars is a different beast entirely and we haven’t even run simulations on how to manage something like that. We have no test data and we literally just powered down half of our supercomputers to do firmware and hardware upgrades. It’ll be another month before we have them back up and running again.”

“That’s all development time. Vince is already working on it.” Lewis took a seat in his chair, clearly signalling that he’d like to end the call.

Ben sighed and shook his head. “You’ve got no idea how this works, do you?”

“I used to be a developer, Ben. Of course I know how the process works.”

Ben laughed and smiled. “You’re so out of touch you don’t even know you’re out of touch. Good luck digging yourself out of this one, Lewis. It’s been awful working with you.”

Lewis was pulling himself out of his chair, a startled expression on his face, as Ben waved to terminate the call. Once he’s sat down, grabbed his coffee, and swapped his office back to its standard settings, he saw Christine appear on the other side of the glass as it went transparent again. She nodded to him and swiped the door open.

“I heard that.”

Ben shrugged and took another sip of his coffee. “That’s fine. I’ll say it to anyone.”

“Yeah, but he’s worked here for twenty-five years. You’re on year three. Do you think they’d listen to you or to him?”

“I don’t really care. I don’t want to work for a company that’d pick an employee with an HR record like Lewis’ over a new, promising employee who has had three glowing reviews and several commendations from his peers.”

“Okay.” Christine sighed and leaned on the door frame. “Whatever you say, Ben.”

“Can you really believe he sold a Mars mission?” Ben drained the last of his coffee and set his mug aside. “It’s impressive, considering we’ve only done local traffic.”

“Sure.” Christine folded her arms across her chest and looked down the row of offices to our asset management area with a giant “Mission Control” sign floating over it. “It’ll be a fun project to test, I suppose. I just can’t believe he expects us to have it ready to go in four months.”

“It’ll be awful.” Ben nodded and then turned to face his wall as the call-waiting chime rang in his office. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

As Christine closed the door, Ben rose to his feet and gestured to take the call. Landon appeared before him, still red. “I don’t know what you said to him, Ben, but he’s pissed.”

“Lewis always is, after one of our talks.”

“Well, good job. You got him to quit.”

“Oh.” Ben’s eyebrows rose and Landon laughed.

“Congratulations, there’s a new opening in project management and I know you’ve been looking for a chance to move up.”

“I mean, sure.” Ben shrugged, trying to regain control of his face and failing. “But I’d rather do any other job than this.”

“That’s good.” Landon nodded. “Lewis hasn’t formally tendered his resignation, so I imagine we’ll still see him tomorrow.”

“Ah.” Ben’s was no longer struggling to control his face.

“Yeah. I suggest preparing a timeline for the development he wants since it seems like we’re going to need to do it. Grace says we automatically processed their money as it came in since no one can send us money without a signed contract, so we’re stuck doing the dev and support.”

“Shit.”

“That’s it? I had a lot more colorful words than that.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Landon. That’s all I’ve got right now.” Ben lowered himself into his chair and put his head in his hands. “I can’t believe this.”

“Well, just make sure to get the software proposal done in the next couple days and maybe trick the weight sensors so it’ll not notice an extra two hundred pounds of tall asshole.”

Ben chuckled and smiled at Landon. “I’ll get right on it, bossman.” Landon smiled back, nodded, and hung up. Ben leaned his chair back and closed his eyes, already feeling like it was time to go to bed. After a few minutes of that, he got up from his chair, walked out of his office, and strolled down the row to Christine’s office.

“So, I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah?” Christine spun her chair around to face Ben.

“I’ll need you to help me get Vince to go along with it, but I think the three of us can pull it off.”

“Pull what off?”

Ben winked and smirked. “I’ve got a new mission for us. Operation ‘Lose Lewis.’”

Christine groaned and slapped a hand to her face. “That’s a terrible name. Why would you do that.”

“If we absolutely knock this project out of the park and point out every single instance of Lewis trying to mess up the project, I think we can finally make a strong enough case to have him removed.” Ben pulled out his phone and started tapping notes into the company’s app. “I just need Vince to set up a few things for our daily calls with Lewis and I think he’ll do it if you ask him.”

“Okay, sure.” Christine pulled up her phone and looked at the notes Ben was writing on her virtual wall. “This all seems pretty straight-forward, but how do we get it to stick?”

“We threaten to quit less than an hour before launch. Hold the whole thing hostage until he’s removed.” Ben glanced over his shoulder at Landon’s office on the mezzanine above. “I think Landon would love a reason to do it and no amount of screw-ups is enough to overcome everything Lewis did before he started on his current streak of assholery.”

“I suppose.” Christine starting adding notes to her wall and then waved Ben away. “You get the speeches and proposals ready. I’ll get Vince started.”

Ben gave her a thumbs up and walked back to his office. Once he was inside, he dimmed his lights to his preferred working level, shut the door, put on his favorite synth-rock album, and pulled out his personal phone. It took a moment for it to connect to the satellite network through the metal building, but he was able to open a few personal files when it did.

He set his phone down on the desk and set it to projector more. Once it popped the document up on front of him, he started adding a couple of notes, crossing out items in a list, and humming along to the music. Once all his updates were done, he saved the file and reviewed the events and notes listed in the document.

He scrolled through it a couple of times before checking the box next to a line item that read “Lewis makes a sale he wasn’t authorized to make,” Once the animation finished it’s run, he checked the next three. “Provoke Lewis into threatening to quit,” “Turn down joke job offer from Landon,” and “Convince Christine and Vince to help set up Lewis for launch-day ousting” all had a line drawn through them before fading until they were almost transparent. Lewis looked through the last few items, ending on “Lewis quits job and you are in a position to become a line manager” as he smiled and muttered “all according to plan.”

An Academic in Ruins

“I suppose I don’t really know what I am doing.”

“Sure, but you’ve never denied that. You just always followed it up by saying no one else did, either, and thus success goes to those who act first.”

“Sure, but I feel like that doesn’t really apply in this scenario. There is so very little I know that is directly applicable to the problems at hand, so action isn’t the problem solver I once thought it was.”

“It still solves more problems than it doesn’t.”

“That’s very true.”

“It would have solved our problems, if you had acted.”

The professor smiled as he surveyed the patch of dirt he’d cleared. The smile was a shallow uptick of his mouth that left his eyes as mirthless and barren as the ground around him. This was one of the first things he’d been taught when they started exploring. Find an opening in the brush, clear a circle of plants, use fire to char anything still sticking out of the ground, and then turn the dirt over until every trace of color but black was gone. A safe, semi-permanent campsite that would stay clear of plants until long after you’d left and clear of bugs or animals until the last of the scent of smoke had faded.

“Acting got us here, though, so I’m still not convinced my old philosophy was truly as sound as I made it seem back in Sargava.” The professor looked up from the campsite he’d cleared to the face of his towering companion, the empty smile still on his face. “Acting has led to far more ruin than success, once the gravity of each has been taken into account.”

The tall man standing off to the side folded his arms over his chest, a familiar action accompanied by the familiar creak of stiffened hide trying to stretch as the pensive warrior measured his words. “That’s the way it seems now, but our journey isn’t finished. If you are correct, and the ruins are out here, then it will all have been worth it.”

“Do you really think so, Amgoroth?”

Amgoroth nodded, his beard and long hair spilling over his face. “I do, Alleck.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“It’s your name. I’ve known you for too long to call you ‘Professor Quiston,’ fancy degree or not.”

The professor dropped to his knees besides his pack and started pulling out his camping gear, smile sliding off his face so smoothly it left no trace it’d ever been there. Amgoroth stayed where he was, watching as he chewed at a bit of his mustache that spilled into his mouth. In the silence, the sounds of distant primates chattering in the trees cut through the ceaseless din of insect and bird calls. The professor had once found them comforting, in a way, but now they reminded him of the frequent silences he endured on a daily basis.

In a desperate bid to chase them away for a while long, he turned back to his companion. “Amg, I really wish you’d call me by my title. I’ve studied long enough to deserve the recognition.”

The big man broke into grin that showed his several missing teeth and pulled at the thin, silver scars covering on side of his face. “But you will always be my friend, Alleck, playing music for us as we romped through the jungles outside our village, looking for monsters to slay.”

“We both moved on from those days.” The professor’s smile came back, but this one was smaller and clearly showed the sadness hiding beneath it. “You became a champion of the wrestling rings and coliseum. I found a benefactor to put me through university. I can literally change the way the world works using my magic and you are an unstoppable juggernaut whose terrifying rages can send even a pack of jaguars running in fear.” He turned back to his bag and finished laying out all the parts of his tent.

“True, but we are still the same where it counts.” Amgoroth walked to the center of the clearing and spread his arms out to soak in the last rays of sunlight coming down through the dense canopy. “I am still looking for dragons to kill and you are still playing music as we go looking for them.”

The professor looked up at his friend and then back down at the disassembled tent, trying to let his hands take over the process of setting it up despite knowing they couldn’t. This was only his second time setting it up, after all. He’d need his full attention for that. Instead, he sat back on his heels and put his hands in his lap. “We’ve a long ways from those children, Amg.”

“We are a long way from where they lived, but we carry them inside us always, so long as we don’t let their dreams go out.” Amgoroth turned his face up to the light and the professor looked over the constellation of scars covering his arms and shoulders, remnants of the one time they’d found a monster as children and the price Amgoroth had paid to save them both from it. After a moment, Amgoroth turned to face his childhood friend and smiled again. “I still want to find dragons and you still want to see what no one else has. That’s why you spent so much time studying ruined cities and digging up old stuff.”

“It’s called Archaeology, Amg.”

“That’s more syllables than I’m willing to say in one word, Alleck.”

“Professor Quiston, please.”

“I may be your guard on this trip for some lost city, Alleck, but I won’t call you “professor” anything.”

“I’ll dock you a month’s pay.”

“You’re not paying me anything. We left as soon as you heard the rumors. Neither of us is getting paid unless we find the city.” Amgoroth turned away from the light and came over to the professor, sitting down beside him. “We’ve been wandering through this jungle for months, now, and we haven’t found anything.”

“Sure, but you know how to live off the land. We can do this indefinitely.”

“No.” Amgoroth shook his head, temporarily clearing the hair from his face. “You packed food, but it will run out soon. I will not always be able to find food. You’ve been eating your supplies a lot lately and there might not be enough to get home again, even if we knew how to find it.”

“I said I was sorry.” The professor looked down at his hands again, trying to focus on them as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “And I meant it. I still mean it.”

“That does not change the facts, Alleck.”

“What do you want from me, Amg?”

“I just want to keep you safe and alive.” Amgoroth leaned forward and started pointing to the parts of the tent in the order the professor would need them to set it up. After he was done, he gently touched the professor shoulder, so lightly it didn’t even stir his clothing. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To go on adventures and keep you safe. More than dragons.”

The professor nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the first of the tent supports. Without looking back at his friend, he quickly set the tent up, playing the memory of Amgoroth setting his tent up every night for four months in his head as he followed along. By the time he had finished, Amgoroth was gone. The professor stared at the place Amgoroth had occupied and then turned his attention to gathering wood for a fire.

By the time night fell, he’d managed to get a good fire going, set up his tent, and even find a few edible roots Amgoroth had fed them almost every day they’d been trying to find the lost city of Saventh-Yhi. He roasted them over the fire and set a two aside. After he’d eaten his and washed them down with the last of his water, he glanced at the roots as if only then noticing they were there. He turned his head away, back to the place Amgoroth had been, and reached for the harp case leaning against his pack.

He pulled his harp out, tuned it without really noticing what he was doing and, once that routine task was finished, strummed a few chords. He added a couple of words in some ancient tongue and watched Amgoroth shimmer back to life.

“Sorry, Amg. I can’t keep it going if I don’t focus on it.” The professor tucked his hard away and watched his friend, stand up, walk over to the fire, and sit down by the two roots he’d set aside. Amgoroth didn’t say anything as he moved. His leather didn’t creak. He sat without the usual thump of a three hundred pound man hitting the ground, even if the little cloud of charred plants still gusted out. Even as he picked up a root and ate it, he was silent.

After watching for a few moments, the professor sighed and let the magic go. Amgoroth froze in place and, a few seconds later, vanished. The professor stared into the flames and at the campsite Amgoroth had taught him to make. Unable to stand it any longer, he climbed to his feet, harp still in his hands, and started playing a song as he walked out of the clearing. He wandered through the jungle, playing his harp to cut through the noise of the jungle and give him something to think about other than his friend’s death.

The music never really stopped it, but it softened the memories as they washed over him. The morning they’d woken up to find tracks of some large cat around their campsite. Hungry and eager for fresh meat, they’d packed up and chased after it. Right into the den of some kind of plant monster that had snatched Amgoroth off the ground. Amgoroth had been confident he could break free, but there had been so many vines… It pulled him up into the treetops and there was nothing Alleck could do but watch in horror his friend had disappeared.

Half a minute later, as he was looking for a tree to climb, Amgoroth’s shouts fell silent. Alleck had stood there, eyes and ears straining, for any sign of his friend of their attacker. When he’d found nothing, when the noise of the jungle and the silence became too much to bear, he’d pulled out his hard and walked away, playing as loudly as he could.

Once the tide of memory had receded, the professor put away memories of Amgoroth and Alleck. He turned around, retraced his steps, and went back to his camp. He packed up his tent, put out his fire, and wandered off into the jungle again, softly playing his harp as he went in search of the lost civilization he’d lost everything trying to find.

Tell Me A Story

Tell me a story that I want to hear,
Of bravery and valor, lands far and near.
Tell me a story, one I do not know,
Of grand sweeping valleys, mountains with snow.
Tell me of strong Lords, great Kings and kind Queens,
Of their glorious deeds, those seen and unseen.
Tell me of magic, of powers renowned,
Of trickster faeries and great demons bound.
Tell me of Dragons, great magical beasts,
Of great treasure troves and bounteous feasts.
Tell me a story, tales fun and tragic,
Because hearing these tales, that’s true magic!

Tabletop Highlight: The Narrative Imperative

I like to tell stories with my D&D games. Doing so can be tricky at the best of times because you’re merely the person setting the stage when you run a game, unless you’re willing to deny your players a significant amount of autonomy. If you let them have their freedom, the players are the ones who plot the story and direct it. You are all the actors, the camera man, the producer, the SFX artist, the prop master, and the scenic designer. And more! The hats you might be required to wear when dealing with a particularly willful group of playing is beyond my ability to describe, remember, or predict. There are simply too many things a good GM does when running a game to keep track of it all.

The thing is, though, you can have a lot more control over the story than most people think if you’re good at setting plot hooks. Plot hooks are for snagging players, not landing a story in their lap. You are hooking their attention and directing their actions toward a particular end that you’ve likely spent a fair amount of time devising. Most people stop that as soon as the quest has been given and the players have declared their choice. If they bought in, why spend more time on it? If they didn’t buy in, maybe you can recycle it later or find another way to pitch it once they’ve done something else. But hooks can be used quite frequently to help lead your players where you want them to go or to keep them focused on what you want them to be doing.

In my story-centric campaigns, frequent use of hooks can make the players feel like they’re at the center of the universe. Too much of that feeling can be bad because they don’t feel like there’s any risk, but enough can make them feel like the heroes their characters are. Carefully managing the frequency and type of the hooks allows me to keep my manipulation under the radar when I want it to be. It also lets me do things a bit more obviously if I know there’s something my players want that is in line with my goals. I can make them buy in a little more heavily for a portion of the overall story and they get to influence the events of the story in a way that makes their characters feel important.

My favorite way to do this is to give them an entertaining cast of characters that is invested in a particular outcome. If they care about these characters, then they’ll listen when they talk and be more willing to pick a path that helps them out. For instance, if you wind up protecting the bad-ass woman punching a hole in a stone wall because the god who saved your life told you to go do something that led you here and then it turns out that you discover the ancient, hidden tomb of a forgotten mummy lord while guarding her during a trip across a desert wasteland, the players might be pretty inclined to involve her in the tomb exploration (at least verbally, since she’s a busy woman) which means it becomes super easy to lead them in the direction of the other tombs the badass woman’s associates find since it turns out that their discovery actually explains why the blight the badass woman is investigating is happening in the first place. Now they’re all invested in doing what was essentially the NPCs job and they feel like they cracked the case wide open because they made one lucky skill check. Throw in a few hints as they go along at how this ties into the larger story and now all they want to do is figure out what is going on and fix what their main villain broke.

This isn’t to say, of course, that I don’t give my players the opportunity to go off and do whatever they like. If they want to ignore what is going on in front of them and do something else, they’re perfectly capable of doing so. I might not always drop some neat adventure into their lap (and definitely won’t if I sense that they’re being petulant or trying to derail the game on purpose), but I let them do as they wish. I just always make sure they know that time is passing and what they’re leaving behind might not be here when they get back. The passage of time and windows of opportunity aren’t exactly manipulation, but they do help keep players focused on their core quests.

The other main way I continuously hook my players is by giving them hints of what is to come and how powerful they could be if they follow down their current path (the one I want them to). Hints at alliances, potential gear, the experiences, and the in-world fame or glory for accomplishing mighty feats. The path laid out is not the only for growth and ever greater power, it’s just the easy way. Haring off in your own direction and doing whatever the heck you want can lead to growth and power, but it can also lead to dead-ends and unfortunate circumstances. I’ll never direct my players down a plot line they can’t handle, but the world is full of many dangerous things and they might run afoul something horrible if they stray too far from the places they know. If the party does something dumb, I will totally let them die. If they almost die or barely make it out of something awful because they did something incredibly dumb, they generally learn that there’s danger out there and wandering around willy-nilly means they might encounter it.

Thankfully, all of my players are very invested in the current story and they all want to find out what happens next, so it doesn’t take a lot of work to keep them invested or focused. For the most part. The “focused” bit can be tricky at times.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 5

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The attack came a little after three in the morning. They were silent, with top-tier pre-collapse gear: Night-vision goggles, motion trackers, and audio sensors. We had flares and synchronized watches.

That’s the thing about Wayfinders we never leave anyone alive to talk about. We don’t fight fair. Our groups are almost always smaller than the bandits roaming the tundra and we don’t have any hulking bruisers among us, so we’re usually individually smaller as well. As a result, Wayfinders avoid fighting at all cost and, instead, simply kill any threats we face. Our preferred tactics are ambush and surprise, but only when stealth killing isn’t an option. Someone who dies before they wake up can’t raise an alarm or escape their bonds in order to help their allies fight.

Camille was one of the first to take the practice of ending fights before they began and turn it into a codified practice taught to others. Before the Wayfinders were an official group, when we were just four people trying to find the rest of our friends and families, Camille protected us from bandits by killing every single one we found while sneaking from city to city. When I decided to turn our side job of guiding people from settlement to settlement into a business, she was ready with training and guidelines. She made us into the militaristically strong organization that we are today, the only strength and justice in the tundra for people who just want to travel safely. There were no better hands to be in than hers and the bandits only realized their mistake when it was already too late to save themselves.

The night was overcast with an ever-falling blanket of light snow to cover any noise as they approached. Our scouts had already spotted them and warned us of their arrival, well before they had even set up their small staging camp outside of the hills that separated this farm from the plains. They wore their night-vision goggles and all we had were eyes trained to make out detail even in the harshest blizzard. We watched the thin light reflecting off their goggles as they approached and, once they snuck up on the dummies we’d placed at all the barricades, we ignited our flares.

In the confusion that followed, the muffled crack of each silenced Wayfinder rifle firing was drowned out by the pained screams of our targets and the sharp roars of their guns as they blindly fired. Their confusion and blindness did more damage to their allies than we had done.  After firing two rounds each, our snipers stood down, waiting for the bandits’ panicked firing to stop and for more targets to appear. Five minutes and a few careful shots later, the remaining bandits started their retreat. As they retreated, Camille signalled to my group.

We slipped out of our hiding spot near the entrance to the barn and started collecting weapons from the dead bandits. By the time we’d grabbed the dozen guns and all their ammunition, the second group was on its way back. Leaving the flares burning and hiding the looted guns in the bushes, we crept around behind them, sneaking through the gap one of our snipers made when she silently killed the pair approaching us from the south. Ten minutes later, as the Wayfinders traded shots with the bandits, we struck their base camp.

There were eight of us. I and one of the trainees went around the far side and started working our way into the tents. We killed the two bandits we found sleeping, finished off the injured ones that had been dragged back to the camp, and drew a line of kerosene through their camp. We poured from tent to tent and then dumped the rest over their ammunition after giving them a quick scan. While we did that, the other three trainees and three Wayfinders, led by Natalie, slipped through the sentries and awake bandits, swiftly killing them all. Once we were all finished, we dumped out their camp stoves and used them to light the trail of kerosene. While they burned, we dashed back to the cover of the hills.

A couple of minutes after we’d lit them, the fires reached the ammunition and the whole camp exploded. Natalie led us through the hills, taking us wide around the farm so we wouldn’t run the risk of encountering anyone racing back from the farm to find out what had happened to their camp. Half an hour after we had left, at about three forty-five, we made it back to the barn. Natalie signaled to Camille that were had finished and we made a dash for the barn.

Once we were all safely inside, I climbed up the spikes we’d stuck into one of the beams and crawled through the hayloft until I found Camille prone, peering through the scope of her rifle. I crawled next to her, raised my scope, and looked in the same direction she was. Just through the trees around the farm, I could see the red glow of the bandit camp burning shining off the tops of the hills. I watched it for a moment before lowering my gun and reporting.

“The camp was dead before we left. No major resistance and only one minor injury on our part. A bit of debris from the explosion nicked Matthews. Clean cut, just needed a quick wrap to stop the bleeding and a patch to his gear.” Camille grunted, pleased that her plan worked. “How about up here?”

“No injuries at all. They couldn’t handle the flares and were counting on their goggles giving them an advantage in marksmanship. Between our two groups, that should account for all of them. There were a few left alive when they left, so I had our ground troops follow the bandits back to their camp to make sure none of them returned again. Find anything useful?”

I shook my head. The bandit stores had been empty aside from their ammunition, which was useless to us, since we used rifles and all of their guns were semi-automatic. “No food or extra gear we could have used aside from the tents and blankets. They must have a much larger force following them if their scouting party was almost three dozen people. There’s no way they could live out of their packs alone for the entire time they’ve been following the nomads.”

Camille nodded. “That confirms the reports we got from one of the bandits we questioned. A survivor whose passing we eased after he answered our questions.”

“How did the laborers and nomads take that?”

“They didn’t see it. Luke took care of it while doing a second sweep right after they fled.” Camille lowered her rifle and looked over at me. “We need to reset quickly if we’re going to be ready for their main group. Have the nomads and laborers been handled?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “The non-combatants are hidden in the farmhouse cellar with our extra supplies and the cellar is barred from both sides. Two nomads were stationed there with their weapons and Natalie is passing them the extra guns and ammo. Just in case. The rest are hidden in the farmhouse with orders to use it as their fort if we give them the signal. They did a good job of staying silent through the fight.”

“Make sure everyone is still in their places. I’d worry they fled if we hadn’t had eyes on the entire clearing.” Camille winked and made a shooing gesture with her hand. “I’ll keep an eye on things from up here.” Her small smile faded and her usual grimace returned. “Hopefully sniping can convince the main force not to push for the barn.”

I crawled backwards and turned around, ready to crawl out of the hayloft. “Hopefully killing their scouts without any major injuries or losses on our sides will accomplish that. I’d prefer to avoid another fight.”

“Sure. That’s exactly how things work out here.” Camille chuckled darkly and raised her scope back to her eye. “They’re just going to leave us alone because we’ve already killed enough of them to make them afraid. They’re definitely not going to decide that we deserve killing for daring to stand against them.”

After a moment of silence, I patted Camille on the calf, pushed her feet aside to make more room for my departure, and made my way back to the ladder. It was just about four o’clock in the morning and I was starting to feel it. I did a quick round of all posts, made sure everyone was good to go, and then settled in the farmhouse with the laborers and nomads to wait for dawn and whatever attack would come. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to wait long.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 4

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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.”

“Risks?”

“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.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 3

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 2

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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.”

“Any clashes?”

“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?”

“No, sir.”

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.

The Countess

Jacob locked the door of his brownstone and stepped to the edge of his front porch, looking up at his most-recent acquisition as a wave of giddy pride washed over him. His brownstone was a perfect match for its four neighbors, only varying as a result of flower boxes and window dressing, but he felt like it glowed compared to the others. He took one last look over it before turning to walk down the five steps to the street.

It was a Saturday morning, just after nine, so traffic was still quiet and the cobblestone street directly in front of his home was empty aside from the few parked cars belonging to the residents. He straightened his sweater, stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and hummed to himself as he walked down the street. Everything was perfect.

“FORTY-SEVEN.”

Except that. Jacob started walking faster, hoping the woman who sat at the end of the brownstone row wouldn’t stop him.

“FORTY-SEVEN!” The woman waved a tattered bit of cardboard at him, the writing all but impossible to read as she swung it through the air. As Jacob approached, she staggered up from her seat and waved the cardboard even faster. “FORTY-SEVEN!”

Jacob rifled through his wallet as he walked, pulling out a fifty. Once he reached the woman, he tossed it into the violin case at the woman’s feet next to some lint, many coins, and a scattering of other bills. “Here’s fifty, now let me be!” The woman stopped waving her cardboard to look at her case and Jacob ran off down the street.

As he reached the end, he stepped into a puddle and his leg sank up to mid-calf. His shout of “Damn it!” was met with a laugh and a shout of “FORTY-EIGHT.”

The Affair

I ran down the hallway, doing my best to get out of the building as quickly as possible. Charlie had told me that if I ever showed my face here again, he’d kick my ass. As self-critical as I often was, I did not think that my ass needed kicking, and so had resolved to stay away. Despite what I had thought were my best efforts, one look at her face and I went running back into her arms. Only this time I came running back and slammed into Charlie, which constituted much more than showing my face.

I could hear Charlie’s cursing echoing down the hallway behind me. I could also hear what sounded disturbingly like the clatter of a metal baseball bat bouncing off the walls. When I reached the end of the hallway, I paused and risked a glance back. Charlie burst around the corner, waving a metal baseball bat around like he trying to make a tornado with it.

I took off running again, taking the stairs right in front of me and vaulting over the railing onto the next set of stairs as I reached the bottom. I kept this up for 10 more flights of stairs, getting a little further ahead each time. On the ground floor, I had almost two whole flights of stairs on him. As quickly as I could in order to preserve my advantage, I darted down one of the three hallways that branched out from the foyer I was in and ran until I turned the corner. Pressing my back against the wall, I looked around for someplace to hide. Twenty feet down, there was a janitorial closest.

Moving as quickly and as quietly as I could, I slipped down the hallway and tested the knob. Locked, Damn! I gave the door a sharp tug in frustration and, to my surprise, it swung open a few feet. I ducked inside the door and pulled it closed behind me, making sure to listen for the click! that told me it was completely closed.

Crouching behind a pile of rags, I took my cell phone out of my pocket and silenced it. The last thing I needed was for my it to go off and give away my position. I can’t believe I’m hiding in the janitor’s closet from Charlie. God, it’s not like I slept with his wife or anything…

Just then, I could hear the heavy tread of Charlie’s booted feet. I held my breath, not trusting the door to hide the noise of my ragged breathing. “Where’d you go, you bastard professor?” I heard. “When I find you I’m going to rip you open and smear you all over the sidewalks!” The footsteps got ever closer. He was moving slowly now, as if he could sense that I was nearby and he didn’t want to spook me into running again.

I started and nearly fell over when the doorknob jiggled. I waited, breath held, hoping that the door stayed closed and my hiding place remained undetected. I’m getting too old for this… was all that ran through my head. The jiggling stopped. The heavy steps moved away and I sighed with relief. This is the last time I sleep with one of my students…