The Power of Infrastructure!

One of the things I enjoy most about Valheim is the simple truth that infrastructure is the key to the development of society. It might be a wild thing to say about a video game marketed as a viking-esque survival game with combat and a space program, but it’s a simple truth about any world that has location-specific resources. Infrastructure exists on some level in most survival and collection games, but it is usually fairly basic or a natural part of exploration. For instance, most infrastructure in a game like Minecraft is limited to base building, marking places you’ve explored, and creating access points to resource nodes. While a lot of this changes around in larger scale multiplayer scenarios, valheim is so far the only survival game I’ve ever played where creating infrastructure is not required but is incredibly beneficial.

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Wisconsin Winter Preparations

I have lived many winters without ever needing to put plastic insulation over my windows. If this sentence makes no sense to you, well, congratulations on not living in shitty or old apartment or house in a frigid midwestern or generally northern US state. Or, you know, anywhere else in the world where the outside doesn’t get so cold in the winter that it can leech through every exterior surface of your dwelling to steal every drop of warmth you posses but also so warm in the summer that an unattended egg can cook in thirty minutes of sunlight or less.

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I Never Wrote About Valheim

I have been updating my blog for two months and eleven days. A more merciful schedule means that I have posted sixty-one times in those seventy-two days. Things have progressed to the point where I no longer feel like this is something I need to do every day. This isn’t a task to fulfill, though writing and editing are on my daily to-do lists, but so is making my bed, washing my masks, and driving to work. Updating constantly, unless I need a break (and I guess I’m just taking Sundays off, since that is the pattern that seems to be emerging), no longer takes up psychic space.

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A Very Satisfying Game

I love a good survival/building game. Played a lot of Ark when it first came out (even ran a server for half a year), I’m constantly going back to Minecraft, I’ve gotten a lot of fun out of Raft, and Valheim was a great diversion for a while and continues to be with each major update they put out. These days, I’ve started getting into SatisFactory which seems less focused on the survival thing and more focused on the endless production thing. I don’t need to gather food (though food-like things can be used to make stuff that isn’t food), monitor my energy, or even be too wary of natural predators. I can just endlessly pursue production and efficiency.

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Coldheart and Iron: Part 24

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Tiffany and I managed to catch up to the sleds after a couple of hours. Tiffany was all too happy to collapse on the sleds rather than try to walk through the pain of her missing hand, but I was anxious because we hadn’t seen anyone from Camille’s ambush group since I’d watched her vanish to the north. Depending on how far north she got before ditching the hand, it could be a while before we got word. The monsters would lock on to the hand they’d marked once the Wayfinders leading them away stopped shooting long enough for their heat signatures to vanish, but there was no telling what would happen after that.

Camille would probably do her best to thin their numbers some more, but there was no knowing if she’d lead them further north as she killed them, or if she’d just take down as many as she could before vanishing into the snow. She could be back in a day or a week. She could send the other Wayfinders back or keep them with her the entire time. There was no way to know until they started showing back up and I fretted over the problem until we found a cave we could shelter in for the night.

While Natalie led everyone else in setting up tents or barricades inside the cave in case we needed to defend ourselves, I set up the one table we’d brought it, sanitized it, and went to work on Tiffany’s arm. It took about an hour to get everything fixed properly and sewn up, but it was a simple procedure compared to the injuries I’d tried to fix several weeks ago. Thanks to the double dose I gave her, Tiffany drowsed through most of it. She was so out of it, I had to get someone else to help me move her into the tent she shared with two other trainees.

I left her in the care of her friends and, after cleaning up, went through the motions of settling in for the night. After the slow build of tension over the last few days and the attack today, I was exhausted. Instead of sleeping, though, I left Natalie and Lucas as they cleaned up from dinner and took the first shift at the cave entrance. I sat in my corner, bundled up in my thermal gear with an extra blanket just in case, watching the snowstorm build and then blow away piles of snow.

I wound up watching all night, waiting for the signs of an attack or for Camille’s group of Wayfinders to come through the door, laughing and congratulating each other on killing more monsters. By the time we were all packed up and ready to go, there was still no sign of them. I managed to keep focused all day, but Natalie and Lucas knew something was up. That night, they insisted on me resting after I’d checked in on Tiffany. I tried to argue, but I knew they were right.

After a proper night’s sleep, the next day was easier. I got us moving a bit faster and managed to find us a cave for the evening, instead of hiding out in the first dense patch of trees we found. As we left the following morning, the blizzard started to subside. By that evening, it had mostly cleared up. Thankfully, there was no sign of the monsters, but we were still waiting for Camille to make it back.

Six days after our hurried departure, the day Tiffany started cutting back on her painkillers, Camille and the four Wayfinders she’d brought with her showed up at our camp perimeter as we settled in for the evening. I barely paused to put on my thermal gear after I heard the sentry call out. By the time I was dressed and outside, Camille was practically to our tent. After moving aside to let her inside, I did a quick visual inspection of her companions. Thankfully, the only injury was Ben’s from a few days ago, and he’d already taken care of it, so I was able to get back into the tent just as Camille was sitting down to eat.

After I’d taken off my gear and cleaned up Camille’s, she’d turned around to face me. I could see the exhaustion clouding her eyes, but we both knew she needed to report first. Once I was ready, I nodded to her.

“After we left, things went about as expected. We drew them north for a full day, before the first few started to catch up. We mowed them down pretty quickly, so we kept going for another day before the rest of the group started to catch up. After that, we ditched the tag and made our way to the rendezvous point. Unfortunately, some of them managed to track us.”

“What?” Lucas leaned forward, almost throwing himself off the campstool he’d been sitting on as he ate. “There’s no way!”

Camille shrugged. “Half a day north of the bunker, the blizzard tapered out so they must have figured out how to follow footprints or we just left worse ones than usual. Whatever the cause, I can’t argue with the results. We hadn’t been heading toward the rendezvous for more than half a day before the first of them started catching up to us.”

“But they haven’t… It’s been over fifteen years since they appeared and they never-”

“Lucas.” Natalie grabbed his bowl before he could drop it. “Calm down and let Camille talk.” Lucas nodded and, after a few slow breaths, took his bowl back.

“Anyway. They tracked us so I used every trick I knew to lose them on the way to the rendezvous. Nothing worked. So we slowed down, went a little out of our way, and then picked up your trail once we knew you’d be passed. I had one of the others scout it for us, to make sure we were staying close but not so close that we might lead them to you guys. Today, after two days without contact, I decided we should be clear of whichever of them found our trail.”

“Did you notice anything else about them that might show a change in their behavior?” I took out a notebook and started writing down everything Camille had said. After I looked back up at her, she shook her head.

“No, nothing that stood out. They were vulnerable in all the usual places, none of them looked any different, and they all still fell for my traps so long as we hid our heat signatures, so I don’t know how to explain this unless someone got tagged.

“As far as I know, only Tiffany got tagged.” I made a couple more notes in my book. “You get some rest, Camille. I’ll go debrief your group quick and ask Tiffany if she has any ideas.”

“Yeah?” Camille leaned back. “How’s she doing? She seemed pretty alright with losing her right hand.”

“She’s been out of it until pretty much today, and she hasn’t really cleared up enough to be talking yet. I’ll need to see if she’s alright with cutting back a little further so we can have a conversation.”

“What a trooper. I haven’t seen anyone else handle it that well.” Camille pulled out her sleeping bag and plopped down on top of it. “Most of them try to hide it or deny that it’s going to be that bad.”

“Well, she’s left-handed so she’ll still be able to be a Wayfinder just fine.” Natalie moved over to Camille and draped one of our blankets over her. “She’ll need to relearn a few things, but a break in Chicago will get her all the time she needs to make up her mind.”

“I think her mind’s pretty made up.” Lucas chuckled as he moved to his own sleeping bag. “She mutters about showing those sons of bitches what a badass she is every time she falls asleep on the sled.”

“Well, she’ll still have time to change her mind or retrain herself once we get to Chicago.” I started putting my thermal gear back on. “Maybe she’ll change her mind once she sees what the retirement package is for someone who loses a limb while Wayfinding.”

“They usually do.” Camille yawned and pulled the blanket over her head.

“I’m glad you made it back safely, Camille.”

“Thanks, Marshall. I’m glad you’re all safe.”

After everyone was covered up, I quickly clambered out of the tent and did my rounds quickly. All of the Wayfinders that had gone with Camille needed to be woken up, but they reported the same things she did. After a few minutes of talking to each of them, I made my way to Tiffany’s tent and, after knocking, let myself in.

“Tiffany?”

“Yes, boss?” Tiffany was sitting up against a pile of backpacks covered in a blanket, trying her boots with one hand.

“You up for a quick chat? Clear enough?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany set her boots aside and picked up the little bottle of pills I gave her every morning. “I’ve only been taking half of what you’ve been giving me at night. I sleep on the sled so much that I mostly use the nights for a bit of exercise and one-hand practice.”

I arched my eyebrows. “One-hand practice?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany poked her boots and waved her right arm at the pile of backpacks behind her. “I’m still struggling with my shoes, but packing is easy. I think the shoes will be easier once I’ve healed up and can use my arm for more than waving.” Tiffany giggled. “Which super weirds people out, when I wave without a hand. It’s hilarious.”

I chuckled along with Tiffany but cleared my throat after a moment. “You sure you’re alright?”

“No, but I’m okay for now and at least I’m alive.”

“Good point.” I sat down across from her and glanced over at her sleeping tent mates. “Are we going to disturb them?”

“Nah, they sleep with earplugs now. We’re good.”

“Okay.” I cracked my knuckles absently and read over the notes I’d been taking. “Can you walk me through what happened when you got tagged? Lieutenant Camille reported seeing some odd behavior while trying to get back to us and I’m trying to figure out what’s been going on.”

“Well, it was pretty straight-forward, really. Almost disappointingly since I lost a hand over it.” Tiffany grabbed her arm near the stump and settled it into her lap. “Ben and I were leading a group of them toward where Lieutenant Camille was waiting, doing a few vital strikes to thin them out a bit. Things were going fine until they started to cluster around Ben a bit. He started shooting at them and I ran to help him out. Only he kept firing instead of doing bursts, so his gun probably lit up like the sun to them, so they started returning fire.

“I couldn’t tell you how he got out of that unscathed, but I caught up to him as he finally stopped firing. One of them, though, a scout, was a few paces away and lined up a tracer shot. Ben couldn’t see it, focused as he was, so I pulled him out of the way. As he fell, the scout fired and hit me in the hand with the tracer round.” Tiffany held up the stump where here hand used to be and smiled ruefully.

“The lieutenant must have seen this happening, because she started firing on the scout and all of the others right about then. After that, you know everything. She yelled at me to remove my glove, tie it off, and take my painkillers. A couple minutes later, you showed up and that’s the last bit I remember.”

“When did Ben get hit, then?”

“What?”

“You said Ben never got shot when they fired at him. When I showed up, though, he had a small wound on his upper left arm.” I gestured to my own arm, showing her where he’d been grazed. “Barely worth addressing beyond the tape to close the hole in his suit.”

“I must have missed that.” Tiffany shrugged. “I was a little busy getting shot to be paying attention to what was going on with him at that point.”

“Fair enough.” I made a couple notes and tried to ignore the icy claw scraping the bottom of my stomach. I checked her dressing quick, asked a few questions about how she was feeling and, left her tent after making sure she was going to be alright until the morning. All the while, I tried to explain away what had been happening as a string of coincidences. I tried to find any excuse I could but, before I knew it, I was outside Ben’s tent.

I went inside and smiled at him. “Sorry to be back again so soon, Ben, but I just wanted to double-check your injury before I went to sleep.”

“Oh.” Ben stood and grabbed his arm self-consciously. “I mean, it’s fine. It was barely a scrape then and it scabbed over before I got a chance to do anything with it.”

“Just to be safe. I’m the group’s medic, now.” I pulled out my medical bag and gestured to the stool near their cook stove. “Just a quick look and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Really, Marshall, I’m fine.”

“Ben, do I need to make it an order?” I crossed my arms but kept my voice calm. “Sit. Down.”

Ben sighed and sat. He held out his arm and looked away as I rolled up his sleeve. When I got past the elbow, I saw a giant white pad of gauze, much larger than he’d need for the simple scrape he claimed he had. I pulled the grimy old tape off and, as I pulled the bandage away, caught sight of a greenish patch of skin with red lines emanating from what looked like a giant pimple.

“Ben.”

“It’s fine, Captain. I empty it every night. There’s no chance for the trace to take effect if I’m constantly draining it!” Ben looked at me, careful to shift so he couldn’t see his arm. “I figured it out. This way, I won’t need to lose my arm for such a little scrape.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Ben. Benjamin. This is the trace. The green, the red lines, the white head, all of it. Your blood is full of it and, if we check your other elbow, we’ll see your veins starting to show just as brightly red as these.”

“But I fixed it, Captain. It was just a tiny hit and I need my arm.”

“Pull down your sleeve, put on your thermal gear, and come with me.” I stood up and slung my bag over my shoulder.

“But I need to rest. I’ve been moving almost without stopping for six days.” Ben clasped his hands and fell to his knees. “Just let me sleep, I don’t need to lose my arm. I’ll be fine! I don’t feel sick at all.”

I nodded. “You’ve got one thing right, Ben. You won’t need to lose your arm.”

Ben smiled and sank down. “Oh, thank god. That’s so good to hear. I’ll just be a minute, Captain, and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t make me come back.”

After he nodded, I left the tent and walked up to where one of the guards was stationed. “As soon as Ben and I leave camp, get Lieutenants Camille and Natalie up. Tell them we need to break camp immediately.”

“Sir?”

“Just do it. I’ll explain once we’re moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

I went back to the tent and waited. When Ben emerged, I grabbed his uninjured arm and pulled him toward the edge of camp, leading him deeper into the forest we’d picked as that night’s camping spot. “C’mon, Ben. We’ve got a little errand to run.”

“Oh, should I grab my gear?”

“No, I’ve got my gun so we should be fine.”

“Okay.” Ben smiled and followed me past the perimeter and into the forest. Occasionally, I’d glance over at him and see the faint red like coming from his face as he leaked radio waves from the trace that had been planted and given time to multiply in his bloodstream. Once we’d walked about an hour into the words, using the excuse of needing some plants to supplement our food stores to keep him focused and quiet, I turned to him.

“You’ve got the trace, Ben. It’s too far progressed to stop at this point. Even cutting your arm off wouldn’t fix it now.” I took a few steps back and leaned against a tree, putting my body so that he wouldn’t be able to see it when I thumbed the safety off.

“We’re close to Chicago, though. They can do something about it there. I’ve heard about treatments that kill the trace and then I won’t need to lose my arm at al.”

“That’s not how it works. Your group kept getting attacked because they were tracking you.” I pointed to him for emphasis. “Now, you can either keep walking on your own, to lead them away, or I’ll kill you quickly now so you don’t need to suffer when they catch up to you.”

“What?”

“You agreed to these terms when we hired you.”

“But, I mean, I can’t-”

“You lied to us and put all our lives in danger. You either choose now or I’ll choose for you.”

“I can’t-” Ben stepped forward and I raised my gun. “I’m- I’m not going to die out here, not for some little scrap.” Ben clenched his fists and took a few steps forward this time. “I refuse! I won’t accept this. You can’t abandon me out here. You can’t leave me to die so you can live. I don’t deserve to die like thi-”

I raised the gun and fired, three times in quick succession. Ben dropped where he was. I grabbed the shell casings from the snow, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and started sprinting back toward the camp. Fifteen minutes later, I explained the whole thing between gasps and we moved out. Everyone looked over their shoulders as we went, fleeing through the forest with the prospect of a monster attack looming over our shoulders.

When we finally stopped to rest, the sun was setting again and even the people riding the sleds were exhausted. We made camp that night, inside another forest, and did our best to put our close call out of our minds. We were still a few weeks away from Chicago and every one of us was thinking only of being able to rest. Despite my exhaustion, all I could think of was Ben’s face as he tried to make excuses and the determination Tiffany had shown when she’d had to sacrifice her hand.

Every time I thought of her, seated in the snow as she waited to have her hand taken off while Ben stood over her and pretended he was fine, I wanted to go back and shoot him again. I wouldn’t get the chance, though. There’d be nothing left by the time I got back there, even if I went right away. The monsters wouldn’t leave much lying around once they finally tracked him down.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 23

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Three days passed without a break in the clouds or the snow. We took shifts holding the keypad outside, hoping enough light made its way down to the tiny solar panel to charge the keypad to the point we could enter the passcode. Unfortunately, not even the light capture array Louis whipped up using all of our mirrors was enough to get it to power on, much less last long enough for us to replace it and enter the code.

While everyone else ate a bland, barely filling meal cobbled together from our dwindling supplies, Natalie, Camille, Lucas, and I discussed our options.

“I think I could whip something up using batteries from one of our lanterns, but I don’t know if I’d be able to guarantee that the lantern or battery would work after that.” Louis picked up the lantern off the ground and switched it off. “I won’t know for sure until I’ve opened everything up and looked, but most rechargeable batteries things aren’t really set up to be used with something other than their specific device.” Lucas shrugged and turned over the lantern in his hands. “Plus, I know I’d at least need to break the casing to get it open.”

“And there’s the question of actually getting power to the keypad.” Natalie held it up for all of us to see. “There’s no screws or detachable parts that would let us access the interior. We’d need to crack the case and then it’s possible that the signal it sends out will be strong enough for something to pick up. I mean, that’s the whole point of having it shielded in the first place. Nothing, or almost nothing, can get out.”

“We don’t really have a lot of options, though.” Camille, with her rifle still over her shoulder, sat in a pile of melting snow she’d tracked in as she called the meeting. “There isn’t much we can hunt around here and even that is only in theory. Tracks don’t last long enough to find and the visibility is so low that it’s pointless to put out traps or set up an ambush.”

Natalie sighed and shook her head. “There aren’t many trees around here. This used to be mostly farmland, so there’s not much left for wildlife to survive on at this point.”

“I still think cracking that thing open is our best bet.” Lucas gestured at the keypad. “Even if there is a signal, the caves should kill it. We’re underground, deep inside a warren of caves, and we’re about as far away as we can get from the nests. Even if that thing was strong enough to be picked up by a satellite on the surface, there’s no way it makes it out of the caves.”

“I still don’t like the risk, not when the sun might come out, soon.” Natalie took a deep breath and then shook her head. “This thing was heavily shielded and buried for a reason.”

“If we don’t see a break in the storm by tomorrow night, we’re going to crack it open and power it ourselves.” I leaned back against the wall of the cave and settled my hands in my lap, trying to suppress the urge to crack my knuckles and pick at my fingernails. “It won’t matter if the snow stops in a few days. Since we’ve been on low rations, we really don’t have much leeway when it comes to missing meals.”

Camille and Lucas nodded in agreement but Natalie just looked at the keypad in her hands. “What if the signal makes it out of the caves.”

“Then we do our jobs.” Camille spoke softly, hands reaching up for her rifle. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we guide people. That’s why we search the ruins of every town we find. That’s what we’re paid to do. Killing bandits makes the world a better place, but that’s not our real job.”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that. Or, I hope it won’t come to that.” I held up my hands to forestall Camille before she got too heated. “I’d like to actively avoid any kind of battle or siege. I don’t want to lose anyone, but need those supplies to survive.” I folded my hands in my lap and smiled reassuringly at my friends. “We’ll have scouts near the entrance with our thermal goggles and a transceiver. If any signal makes it out of the caves, we’ll just grab all the supplies we can and leave while Camille sets up an ambush to kill anything that shows up quickly. Louis, you’ll establish a heavy rear-guard on the sleds, Natalie and I can lead until Camille catches up, and we can let the blizzard cover our tracks. Once we’re far enough away, we can take the time to find somewhere else to rest up like we planned to do here.”

“That’ll take hours, maybe even a day. They’re deep in the cavern and maybe half our people can carry stuff.” Natalie rubber her chin. “We’ve got enough leftover wood that we set aside for repairs to the sleds that we could make a simple cart or two. If we spend tomorrow making carts, then the kids can easily help. That would really save us time…”

I recognized the signs and let Natalie’s wheels turn for a little bit. She was going logistics in her head and she’d have a precise estimate for how much we could get and how long it’d take us to get it in our worst and median case scenarios. While she did that, I turned my attention to Lucas.

“We need a way to power this thing that doesn’t involve taking apart one of our lanterns. Those are too rare to throw one away without trying something else. What are our other options?”

“Well, we could try a chemical reaction.” Lucas rubbed his chin and blankly stared at the lantern. “I think we’ve got medical supplies I could use, if I combined it with some of the battery acid from a hand flashlight.”

“If you can do it using only stuff we can easily replace from the supplies here, go for it.”

“I’ll start getting our gear ready, just in case.” Camille stood up and shook the snow off her pants. “Let me know when I’m needed. After a weapons check, I’m going to make sure the trainees and Nomads know what to do if we’re attacked.”

I nodded and just gestured for her to go as Natalie’s attention snapped back. “We can do it in three to five hours, assuming nothing happened to the supplies. If the stores have been ruined or damaged, we might as well poke the nest to just get it over with. Better than starving to death.”

“Okay, that was a little dark.” Lucas nervously chuckled as he hauled himself to his feet.

“It’s a real possibility since I haven’t gotten a status update on this store room in a couple of years.”

“Still, there’s no need to point it out.” Lucas clutched the lantern in one hand and hobbled off after Camille. “I’m going to do some science. I’ll catch you in the morning.”

After Natalie finished outlining her plan, I told her to go ahead with it and started designing a couple of carts we could make with our leftover wood. They were going to only have three wheels, but that would be enough. As my mind sunk into the details, I was happy to let everything else fade from my attention. Even if we were preparing for the possibility of alerting the monsters by sending out a signal they could pick up, that was still easier for me to consider than the splitting up of my group. At least we could shoot this problem.

The fourth day passed in a blur of work, science reports, preparation, and runners reporting that the snow still hadn’t lessened. The following morning, our fifth in the cave, we ate the last of our supplies and I told Natalie and Lucas to go ahead with cracking the keypad open. Natalie had figured out how to do it without damaging the components inside, so Lucas was mostly there to start and monitor the chemical reaction at her command.

I stood by with the carts and every ambulatory person set up in groups with at least one Wayfinder to guide them through the caves. Camille stood outside with the receiver and a runner waited to bring word to us if anything showed up. After waiting the amount of time Camille requested to get in place, I nodded to Natalie and Lucas who powered up the keypad, hung it back on the wall, and typed in the passcode.

Once the doors were open, I sent the groups in. I watched as the Nomads stumbled as they took in the lush interior of the bunker, clearly caught off guard by how comfortable it looked despite being a glorified stock room. The Wayfinders pulled them along, though, so all of the groups were hard at work collecting supplies when the runner showed up.

“We’ve got a signal, Captain. A strong one.”

“Shit.” I turned to Natalie. “We’ve got a signal. We’re packing up and leaving ASAP.”

“Captain.” Natalie saluted and turned to help gather supplies. I grabbed Lucas and half-carried him as we jogged back to the cavern with all of our injured people. I set Lucas back on his feet and we hurried around, gathering up everyone’s supplies and packing everything that had been left out after breakfast. By the time we’d gotten it all cleaned up and tucked away, the first of the carts showed up.

Lucas organized a human chain to unload the cart and, before the first rumbles of the next cart could be heard, the first cart was on its way back for a second load. The carts moved back and forth steadily for the next four hours. Between cart trips, a few groups of Nomads and Wayfinders would show up, hauling something too big for the carts or too fragile to pile on. During that time, we only got one message from Camille, two hours in, saying there’d been no sightings yet.

When we’d gotten everyone wrapped up, packed, strapped down, and ready to go, it had been just under five hours from the opening of the doors. We’d had no further word from outside, but I led everyone out, heading east toward Chicago. Every Wayfinder had their gun in their hands and there was an injured Wayfinder on each sled, holding a machine gun as we all peered into the snowstorm. Every passing second was horrible as we waited for something to come charging out of the snow at us.

After a minute or two of walking, we found Camille. She was standing next to a tree and, as we walked into view, she waved me over. I signalled to Natalie to keep the group moving and followed Camille into the blizzard. Once the sleds had been swallowed up by the snow, I caught up to her.

“What?”

“We’ve got sixteen confirmed kills. The snow is throwing them off a bit, but we’ve already had two injuries.” Camille grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into a shuffling jog. “They’re not serious, but one of them got tagged during the hit.”

“Tagged?” If Camille hadn’t been pulling me, I’d have frozen in place. “Who?”

“That trainee Natalie’s been teaching.”

“Fuck. Where’d Tiffany get hit?”

“Hand, luckily. We need you there for it, though.”

“Shit. Who has my-”

“I do.” Camille pulled me into a small copse of trees that created a bit of a wind break and, behind the giant snowbank piling up along one side, I found the two injured Wayfinders. One of them was standing on guard, watching the area and doing his best to ignore the woman seated on the ground next to him and the hole punched through the arm of his coat. I tossed the roll of tape from my repair bag to Camille and grabbed the medical bag Camille handed me in exchange.

I bent down next to Tiffany and she smiled up at me, her eyes sharp and brittle. “I did everything Camille said. Took off my glove, tied off at my wrist, and popped my emergency pain killer. Just get it over with.”

I nodded and checked her tourniquet. It was tight enough that her hand was blotchy purple and blue despite the fact that she couldn’t have had her glove off for more than a couple of minutes. “Look away and hold still.”

Tiffany grimaced and shut her eyes. I pulled out a sanitary wipe, swabbed around her wrist at the tourniquet, and then pulled out the bone saw. Swallowing the bile rising in my throat, I quickly cut through her wrist, cleaned up the ragged edges, and made sure to leave enough of a skin flap to sew over the stump. I checked the hand and the stump quickly, looking for the telltale signs of bright red that show how far the tag had spread. Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten further than her palm yet, so she was going to be fine.

Risking the heat loss, I pulled my gloves off and sewed her up. It wasn’t neat, but it just needed to help keep her from bleeding out and hold things in place until we made camp. I’d have to clean it up then, but we’d had more warmth and I could treat the amputation properly. Once that was over, I handed her a bottle with a few more painkillers in it, help her to her feet, and helped her stagger off toward the trail of the sleds.

As I passed Camille, who’d stood over us the entire time and seethed like this was her fault, I shrugged. “I’m just glad it was only a hand. Mind disposing of it?”

“Sure.”

“How many?”

“At least two dozen, so far as I can tell. Standard issue, though. Basic heat-sensing that only picked us up when we started shooting. We tried stabs and cold kills, but there were too many of them for us to handle before they made it to your trail. The rest of the ambush is leading them west.”

“Thank you, Camille.” I hoisted Tiffany’s good arm over my shoulders and pulled her up a bit. “Did you see which one tagged her?”

Camille shook her head. “I didn’t see her. These two were alone and he said it happened too fast for them to be sure. They say they got every single one of the shits, but usually they don’t resort to tagging until they know they’re going to run. Worst case scenario, we’ll have them breathing down our neck all the way to Chicago. Best case, they take the bait and head north.”

“I hope they take the bait. It’d be odd for them to tag someone and then not follow up on it once they’ve regrouped.”

“You can hope for that, if you want.” Camille shouldered her gun and gestured for the other Wayfinder trainee, Ben, to follow her. “I’m going to expect them, though. Just get her back to the sleds and we’ll find out eventually.”

“Stay safe. Please.” I put my free hand on Camille’s shoulder as she turned to leave, but she just kept going, giving me a thumbs-up as she went north, scooping up Tiffany’s hand as she went. Once the snow had swallowed her, I turned my attention back to Tiffany. “Let’s get you someplace you can sleep off the worst of this.” After making sure our gloves were firmly sealed against the weather again, I started double-timing it back to the sled path, silently saying a prayer of thanks to every god I’d ever heard of that it’d only been a hand. If she’d gotten tagged somewhere else, we’d have had to leave her behind.

Give how many people we’d already lost on this trip, we couldn’t afford to lose anyone else if we wanted to stand a chance of making it to Chicago. Nearly half of the Wayfinders who’d started this trip had died and there were probably more people than Lucas thinking seriously about retirement. Unless we were incredibly lucky or no one else died, we wouldn’t make it to the Chicago Enclave alive.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 21

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Ultimately, we weren’t able to come up with a better solution than to tie our injured people to sleds. We had plenty of great ideas, even without Jonathan’s encyclopedic knowledge to guide us, but we had a severe lack of any kind of materials. Before the Collapse and the ensuing winter, this town had been mostly residential, catering to people passing through on their way to larger towns and the mega farms that used to coat this part of the midwest. There wasn’t a single electric engine to be found in the city and, even if we’d had gasoline, a combustion engine would make us the target of literally everything for miles around, so none of the tractor repair shops could help us.

All of our great ideas were useless, so we stuck to building light-weight wooden sleds with wide runners. They were much bulkier than our typical supply sleds, but we needed to put children and injured adults on them so they had to be. The upside of this was that multiple people could now pull a sled, allowing us to put a little more weight on them than we’d been able to do with the supply sleds. There’d be no mistaking the trail for anything but a large group of people, but we had enough guns and ammo to spray bullets at every problem until they went away.

Material gathering and design took a day, and sled production began in earnest three days after we buried our friends. I’d done some carpentry when I was younger, so I was able to lend our engineer, Jackson, a hand with overseeing the rest of the Wayfinders. We also had a Nomad who used to be a construction carpenter, so we finished the sleds a week before we had to leave.

It felt nice to be able to limp into the small storage room Natalie, Lucas, Camille and I used as our command center with good news. As I hobbled in the door, I smiled at my three friends and waved my free arm triumphantly. “All of the sleds are finished and have passed their preliminary drag tests. We can get four people on a single sled and we should be able to pull all of the Nomad children on one and the injured Wayfinders and supplies on the other without straining ourselves.”

Natalie looked up from her maps and reports. “Eight people? We’re not going to get much in the way of rotation if we need eight people per pulling shift.”

“Sure, but that should mean the shifts can be longer.” I stroked my beard for effect before tossing out the plan I came up with during the drag tests. “Or we can create two groups of two pullers per sled, so we can have five groups per sled rather than just the two. Two hours of pulling followed by three hours of just walking means that they only have to pull four hours out of our ten-hour schedule.”

Natalie absently nodded. “Ten hour days are the minimum, but they should get us there with a week of three-quarters rations to spare, even with the children sticking to full rations.”

“Plus, we won’t need to keep injured adults on the sleds the entire time.” Lucas leaned forward and gingerly tapped the swath of bandages around his leg. “I’ll be good to go about a week out from here, at the latest. Tim and Miles probably won’t be good to walk until after we get to the depot, but everyone else should be by the time I am.”

Camille snorted. “If you’re healed enough to walk before the depot, I will literally kiss my own ass.”

“I’m telling you, this isn’t as bad as it looks!” Lucas slapped his leg waved his crutch at Camille. “I’m just babying it so I can heal faster. Better than Marshall who is up and walking on his leg constantly.” Lucas stabbed his crutch at me and I shrugged. “He won’t even sit down for the end-of-day briefing.”

I shot a guilty look at the chair Camille had set out for me, but shook my head. “I have been sitting all day in the woodshop or the yard. If I have to sit through this, I’m going to gnaw my feet off in frustration. Plus, I haven’t accidentally burst my own stitches twice since getting sewn up and I didn’t get all the muscles in my thigh shredded by a poorly made bullet.”

Lucas opened his mouth to retort, but Camille cut him off. “Tiffany and I have been keeping watch. We haven’t seen any signs of the bandits and Laborers we sent away and I wasn’t able to find a trace of them in the city less than four days old. I’m guessing they moved somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you where, but I know it isn’t the direction we’re going.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Good. Did you still want extra guards? Now that the sleds are built, we won’t need as many people to finish up our last few building projects.”

“Yeah. Even just two people would be great. I’d like to cut down on the length of the shifts Tiff and I are taking and I’ve got a personal project I’d like to work on before we leave.”

“Yeah?” I arched my eyebrows.

“Yeah.” Camille crossed her arms. “It shouldn’t take more than a handful of days, even if I don’t lose any sleep or shifts to it.”

“What is it?” I waggled my eyebrows, trying to get a reaction from Camille. Lucas chuckled as he always did, but Natalie didn’t even look up from her papers.

“You’ll see.”

“Am I going to regret giving you permission?”

“Probably not. I think you’ll enjoy the end result, even if it’s going to be a little dangerous.”

“How dangerous?”

“If I set things up right, and I always do,” Camille leaned forward and looked me right in the eyes, face serious as she ignored my bouncing eyebrows, “it will be perfectly safe to all of our people and one hundred percent lethal to the bandits who come racing back in here as soon as they know we’ve left.

“Ah.” I stopped wiggling my eyebrows and Lucas’ chuckles cut off. “Let me know if you need more than two guards so you can get that done. I’d prioritize it higher, if you can.”

Natalie looked up. “Really?”

“Yes.” I glanced at Natalie. “I don’t want to run the risk that this place goes back to being a base for people preying on people traveling through here.” I turned my attention back to Camille, my face a match for hers. “Whatever it takes.” Camille simply nodded.

“Great!” Lucas hauled himself to his feet and settled his weight on his crutch. “Now that we’ve gotten everything sorted out for today, I’m going to grab some dinner and hit the hay. I’m bushed.”

Natalie nodded and started picking up her papers. I gave her a hand while Camille pushed all of the chairs to the side of the room. While I helped Natalie sort through the messy pile we’d made, Camille helped Lucas out of the room and shut the door behind her. Abandoning the pretense of being busy, I reached out and embraced Natalie. She hugged me back before firmly pushing me in the chair I’d been ignoring.

“Let’s get your leg checked out.”

“I can do it just fine, thank you.” I set my crutch aside and started rolling up my pant leg.

“No, you idiot.” Natalie slapped my hand away. “You’re going to pull all your bandages off if you roll it up. You need to take your pants off.”

“Only if you take off yours.” I winked at Natalie.

Natalie chuckled but shook her head. “Not right now. I’ve got to oversee rationing for dinner and check out our medical stores. I need to know how much longer you’re going to need bandages.”

“Oh, I see how it is.” I pulled my belt off and slid down my pants. “You’re just interested in what’s in my pants, not me.”

“Yep.” Natalie poked at my leg and peeled back a couple of my bandages to inspect the healing wounds behind them. “That’s me. Only interested in one thing. Definitely not concerned with your well-being at all.”

“I bet you say that to all the injured people who let you into their pants.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice. Now put your pants back on. We can check your injuries again later, once I’m finished updating all our stock logs with the supplies we retrieved today.” Natalie winked at me.

I sighed as I carefully pulled my pants back up and cinched my belt tight. “If you want. I’m still pretty wiped so I don’t know if I’ve got enough in me for more than jokes tonight.”

“Marshall!” Natalie gasped in mock surprise as she helped me to my feet, temporarily taking the place of my crutch as we hobbled toward the door. “You really are getting old!”

I laughed and hugged her tightly before stepping out the door and putting my weight back on my crutch. “Maybe I am! Only time will tell, if it hasn’t already.”

Natalie patted my arm and kissed me on the cheek before rushing off to the supply rooms and kitchen with her neat stack of papers. I hobbled after her, a bit more slowly, and waited in the mess hall for whatever dinner tonight’s cooks managed to cobble together.

The next six days passed in a blur. I took up a couple of guard rotations between shifts helping build crates, repair packs, and create tents to replace the ones that had been lost during our capture. Camille disappeared entirely for two days, only to reappear and refuse to answer questions about where she went. Lucas’ wound continued to heal slowly and the two heavily injured Wayfinders finally stabilized to the point of not needing constant observation. By the time we packed up to leave, it was our last night and we were all looking forward to our last properly cooked meal before we ventured out into the cold.

It was a somber affair, as it wound up as a cross between a memorial dinner for the people we lost and a last chance to eat well before the cold and snow forced us to live off of pre-cooked or dried meat and whatever grains we could soak in snowmelt. It was a quiet, sleepy group that set out the following morning, but I could tell everyone was ready to move on. We’d lost a lot, getting here, and everyone just wanted to find someplace safe they could rest until the pain of our losses had started to fade.

Until then, we had four weeks of travel between us and the depot with only five weeks of supplies. Five weeks beyond that lay the safety and shelter of Chicago. If we weren’t delayed, we’d make it with a week and a half before the next storm was supposed to pass. If we were delayed, we were probably going to get caught in a blizzard and wind up dead. It was a sobering thought, but I had faith in Natalie’s plotting. Nothing short of a complete disaster could affect her overall plan and, knowing her, she’d build in enough extra time to account for two such disasters.

I tried to project that confidence as we set out, but it was difficult to do that while strapping a few injured Wayfinders to a sled reminding them that they were responsible for watching our backs. My limp didn’t help, either. I didn’t need a crutch anymore and we’d replaced the few stitches I had with superglue, but it still hurt to move around too much so I was constantly fighting the pain. I’m pretty sure all I projected was a slight amount of frustration mixed with determination to get moving.

Thankfully, everyone seemed to be on the same page so we managed to get under way quickly. We had a long way to go, but it immediately seemed shorter once we got moving. I felt everyone’s spirits lift as we left the town and people saw how easily the sleds moved. In fact, as we completed our first mile outside the city, people started to seem downright happy.

Just as I was about to call out a shift change, though, there was a tremendous explosion behind us, followed shortly by the “whump” of the blastwave flying past us. Thankfully, all it did was startle everyone and knock a couple people over. As the Nomads ran to their children to quiet them, I turned to Camille.

“They didn’t wait very long.” Camille gestured over her shoulder at the giant cloud of smoke rising towards the sky. “They had a lot of dynamite stored up for digging out the underground areas. Now, there’s none left.” Camille shrugged and smiled. “And now there’s no more bandit base.”

I watched the cloud of smoke for a moment longer before turning my attention back to my people. “Alright, first shift change. Let’s get back to moving again. I don’t want stick around to find out what shows up to investigate that explosion.” I saw a few heads nod and, a few moments later, everyone was moving forward again, even faster than before. No one else wanted to find out, either.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 20

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I woke up again, I was back in the bunk room again. Thankfully, I wasn’t strapped to the bed this time and Natalie was waiting beside my bed rather than Lucas. I turned my head over to her and smiled. “Hey, gorgeous.”

Natalie looked up from the papers she had in her lap and smiled back at me. “Ah, sleeping beauty awakes!”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I put my head back down, yawned, and mimed falling back asleep. “I haven’t been woken by true love’s kiss, so I think I might go back to sleep to wait for that.” I closed my eyes and gave a few loud, fake snores.

“Then allow me to be your gallant prince, my sweet.” I heard Natalie’s chair clatter as she stood up and then, as I puckered up for the kiss, I felt a slimy finger stick into my ear.

“Ugh!” I opened my eyes and tried to leap to my feet. As I sat up to do so, Natalie placed her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back down to the bunk, laughing all the while.

“Sorry, Marshall.” Natalie leaned over and kissed me on the lips. “I couldn’t resist!”

“I bet you couldn’t.” I glared at her as I wiped at dampness clinging to my ear. After Natalie returned to her seat, I pulled myself into a sitting position and checked out my leg. Camille must have done a good job because the swath of bandages wasn’t showing the slightest hints of red. A few lances of pain seared through my leg as I twisted it around, but that was it.

“You have been out for almost ten hours. You woke up a little when the painkillers Camille wore off, but only enough to drink a little water.” Natalie picked up her papers again. “Camille is currently out with the prisoners and I’m working on trying to figure out possible routes so we decide what to do once you’re awake.”

I poked at my leg a little, check that it still had feeling. As I turned to Natalie, I poked one of the spots that must have held a larger chunk of shrapnel at one point and the sudden wave of pain almost laid me out again. “How-” I gritted my teeth and forced myself to stay up while silently berating my own idiocy. “How much longer until Camille gets back?”

“She left two hours ago, so it’ll probably be another six to ten hours.”

“Alright.” I propped my leg up on the bunk and shifted around so I could lean back comfortably. “What are our options?”

Natalie unfolded what turned out to be a map and pointed to a single green dot in a sea of black lines and little notes. “This is where we are.” She pointed to a few red dots she had marked. “Here are all of the supply cache locations I know of. I suspect there’s one over here and another to the south.” She pointed to two yellow dots. “But I’m not certain. Without Jonathan around, I’m not willing to risk it on my memory alone.”

I nodded. “Why do we need to hit a supply cache? Even if the bandits ate all our food first, we should have had enough stockpiled in our base to entirely resupply.”

Natalie looked down and shook her head. “They’d brought in everything we’d stockpiled and trashed the base.”

I could feel my stomach descending through my body, weighed down by dread. “Then why are we sending people out for supplies? There should be plenty here?”

“The last of the bandit resistance burned the food stores. Almost everything we brought, everything we’d stockpiled, and most of the food the bandits had was destroyed.” Natalie stared down at the map in her hands. “Camille didn’t want to mention that last night, not while you were still so tired.”

“Right.” I sighed and rubbed my face in my hands, ignoring the flashes of pain I felt as I touched bruises from a few days ago. “Which is why we’ve only got three weeks.”

Natalie nodded. “Yes, and that’s only if we go for the closet supply cache, which would mean going due south on a long path toward St. Louis. Any of the others would change how long we can rest.”

“Damn.” I took a few deep breaths while I processed this. “Well, since we’re not taking the laborers to their destination anymore, I suppose our old plans don’t really matter.”

“Yes. The Nomads will follow us wherever we go, since they wouldn’t stand a chance out here on their own, now, even with all the guns we could give them from the arsenals here. Given the extent of our injuries, though, I think we should probably head back north or east, even though that’s one of the furthest caches. We’re too too injured and we’ve lost too many people to maintain our normal operations.”

“How many people do we have, total?” I scratched at my beard and tried to remember the last reports I’d read on the areas outside of our intended path.

“Twelve Wayfinders in good health, two who might still make it, and one who probably won’t. Eleven Nomad adults and all seven Nomad children, all of whom are in excellent condition.”

“Way too many untrained people for stealth, then.” I almost had to physically bite back the desire to which Wayfinder wasn’t likely to survive. There’d be time for that once a decision was made. I took a moment to clear my mind and then nodded to Natalie. “Tell me what we know about all the other routes.”

I listened as she spoke, talking about routes, the last reports she could find, the distance and terrain separating us from the caches along her proposed routes, and the kind of resources we would have available to us at each of our potential end destinations. Eventually, as the silence following the last route outline grew, I sighed. “I guess we’re going to Chicago. We’re going to need a lot of supplies and that is the hub of the midwestern Wayfinders.”

Natalie nodded. “I agree. This is our best long-term option. I’ll start figuring out how we’ll need to ration our supplies in order to get to the cache once Camille returns.”

“Good.” I lay back down on the bunk as Natalie stood and wearily closed my eyes. “Wake me up when she gets back. I need to handle the bandits and Laborers.”

“Of course, Love.” Natalie bent over to give me another kiss and I smiled up at her. “I’ll do my best Prince Charming impression, my sleeping beauty.”

A few hours later, when Natalie woke me with a kiss, I actually managed to get to my feet. The twinges in my leg were still bad, but not so bad that I couldn’t ignore them when I walked. I did a few turns around the room while Natalie watched to make sure I could maintain it before following her out of the room and down the hall to the large storage room we were keeping the prisoners.

When I got there, I found Camille and the two uninjured Wayfinders standing guard at the door. Just inside, there was a large crate with a smaller crate next to it and, beyond that, were all of the prisoners sitting with their arms behind their backs and the legs folded beneath them. I stepped up onto the taller box, flanked by the two Wayfinders who just so happened to be carrying the automatic rifles that Laborers on the balcony had been wielding, and Camille stepped up onto the smaller box beside me.

“You’re all probably going to die.” I glared out at them, resisting the urge to just have them all gunned down where they sat. “Some of you are traitors and the scum of the earth. The rest are lawless bandits preying on innocent travellers.” One of the laborers leaned for, opening his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “I don’t care how you feel or what you think. The only reason you’re not all dead right now is because we had something for you to do. That’s done. The only reason you’re not getting gunned down for your crimes right now is because it would be a waste of bullets.”

A different laborer rushed to his feet and was shot in the chest, three times in rapid succession, by Camille. A couple bandits and a few of the laborers, in the process of following their companion, froze. I chuckled. “There’s always one. For those of you listening, I said you’re only probably going to die. Those of you who aren’t morons know this means you have a chance. That chance disappears if you do anything but silently sit here and listen.”

All of the people frozen in place settled back to the ground and one of the laborers off to the side started weeping. I carried on. “You’re going to be stripped of everything but your clothing and sent out into the city. If you come back here, you’ll be shot dead. If you try to follow us when we leave, you’ll be shot dead. If you can survive until we’ve left here, you can have what’s left of this place once we blow up anything resembling a fortress or a cell.

“There are plenty of supplies and warm nooks in this city, but you’ll have to find them on your own and then stay there. If we see so much as a glimpse of any of you, we’ll assume you’re trying to follow us and kill you. Stay away until we’re gone and you should be able to survive. That is, assuming you’ve got any survival skills and weren’t planning to rely on stealing from people passing by in order to survive. If we get any reports of bandits out this way, I will personally come back here and hunt down every last one of you.”

I looked each one of them in the eye, though most of them wouldn’t meet my gaze. The only laborer who would was the crying laborer who started talking as soon as my eyes landed on him. “Please, Captain Marshall. I had no choice! All of them decided to betray you to the bandits and there was nothing I could do!”

I stepped off the box. “You could have done literally anything to warn us. Leave a message, take one of us aside, help us escape, or just argue against their plans. But you didn’t. You threw your lot in with them and now you will face the same consequences.” I walked over to him and looked down at his red, tear-stained face. “I lost more of my friends and family guaranteeing your safety and the safety of people like you than I want to remember. Thinking about it makes me angry and, the longer I think about how many burials I’ll be attending tonight, the more I want to just shoot you all now.”

I turned around and walked back toward the door. “You will be released one at a time, starting with you.” I pointed to the bandit nearest the door. “Stand up and come with me.”

I guided the shackled man through the hallways of what used to be his base and dropped him off at the processing room where Lucas and one more of his scouts were waiting with thirty sets of winter gear, taken from the storage rooms near were I’d been imprisoned. Once he was uncuffed and suited up, I guided him to the door. “Leave.”

The bandit looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and then took off running. I watched him go for a minute before returning to the detention room for the next bandit. I repeated that for all twenty-eight of our other prisoners and only one person, our third prisoner, tried to escape in the equipment room. Lucas stabbed him through the winter coat he was wearing and then dragged the body out into the snow beside the door. The red stain on the concrete floor seemed to convince everyone else that doing as they were told was their best bet.

By the time the last Laborer was pushed out the door, night was falling. I watched them go and turned around to find Camille behind me. “Thanks, Camille.”

“I’ve always got your back, Marshall.” She punched me in the shoulder and then pulled my arm over her shoulders. “Now let’s get you to the mess hall for dinner and get you a crunch so don’t make your leg any worse.”

“That sounds fine to me.” I sighed and let Camille half-carry me through the hallways. “We’ve got to leave in a week if we’re going to make it to the cache. We’re heading towards Chicago.”

Camille grunted. “Natalie had said as much. I’m going to have to find some snowshoes and build you a snow crutch or something.”

I laughed, imagining how awkward it’d be to hobble around with three snowshoes. Two was hard enough as it was. “I should be better by then.”

Camille was silent for a moment and, when she finally spoke, it was so soft I could barely hear her. “Lucas won’t.”

I nodded. “We’ll figure something out for him and any of the others who are too hurt to walk. We aren’t leaving anyone else behind.”

“Even if they volunteer so they aren’t holding us up?”

“I will personally tie anyone who even suggests that to a sled.”

Camille chuckled a little. “I’d like to see you try that. Almost all of the surviving Wayfinders could kick your ass without breaking a sweat, even as injured as they are.”

I shrugged. “Sure, but they can’t kick yours and you already said you’ve got my back, so you’re stuck fighting all my battles for me while I’m injured.”

I could feel Camille roll her eyes and I smiled as she shifted my arm into a more comfortable position. “Sure thing, Captain.”

“Now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, let’s go get some dinner so we can bury our friends on a full stomach.” My stomach twisted in a knot as I said that, but I had already ordered every Wayfinder to show up at dinner so I couldn’t exactly skip out either. Even if we were eating reduced rations, the icy tundra that was our home wouldn’t forgive us for skipping a meal. It was going to be a rough month without facing starvation in the frozen wilderness and there was no guarantee we’d even be able to avoid that.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 19

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I woke up groaning. My shoulders and back were killing me. I also had a throbbing itch in one of my legs, but I was so caught up in trying to move my upper body without moving my head that I couldn’t tell which one it was. I also couldn’t seem to get my eyes to open. They felt like they were crusted together. I tried to lift my hands to my face to wipe them away, but someone grabbed my hand before I could more than half lift them.

“Cap, stop.”

“Lucas?”

“Yeah, hold on. We had to tie you to the bunk last night so you’d finally get some rest.”

A few hazy images of stumbling around a makeshift operating room until I had to be propped up by one of my assistants wandered to the front of my mind, but they were immediately banished by the memory of why. “Shit.”

“You can be angry as you want, Cap, but you gotta direct it at me because not even Camille was willing to try to stop you. I had to carry you out of there.” Lucas rustled over me for a minute and then I felt the tension on my chest and shoulders lessen. Before I could move, he also pressed a warm, damp cloth into my hands.

“No, not that.” I gingerly lifted my hands to my face and wiped away the built up gunk around my eyes. “Jonathan.”

“Oh.” My first sight, after opening my grimy-feeling eyes, was Lucas looking off toward the door of the bunkroom. “Yeah.”

“Did…” I looked down at my hands and twisted the damp rag until moisture beaded on its surface. “Did anyone make it?”

Lucas nodded. “You managed to save a few lives, Mar. You couldn’t save everyone, but none of them would have had a chance if you hadn’t tried. No one else was able to save anyone, though.”

I nodded, swallowing past the lump in my throat as I remembered trying to find the bullet in Jonathan, only a couple of minutes after he’d been carted away, and feeling his heart spot as I frantically tried to remember what to do about his damaged lung. “Shit, Lucas.”

Lucas turned back to me, wiping at his misty eyes. “We haven’t buried anyone yet. We were waiting for you to wake up while we tended to the minor injurious and prepared everyone for burial. Once you’re ready, we can start.”

I nodded and tried to haul myself to my feet. Only after I’d put weight on my throbbing leg did I remember my shrapnel wounds from the night before. “Double-shit. I need someone to pull some metal out of my leg.”

“What?” Lucas had hauled himself to his feet and pulled a makeshift crutch out from beneath his chair, so his spin to look at me knocked over his chair and the bunk I’d been sitting on. “What’re you talking about?”

“I got hit in the leg and just taped over it.” I gestured to the swath of silver coating my leg. “I need someone to pull the bits out and clean the wounds before they get infected.”

“Right. You’re two doors down from your operating room, so just head there and I’ll send someone over to do that.” Lucas gently pushed the chair out of his way and then hobbled off toward the door. “Glad you’re alright, Mar.”

“You too, Lucas.”

“Want me to send Nat in with Cam, to make the picking and report more palatable?”

“If she can be spared.”

“Of course.” Lucas nodded and, as he turned to leave, muttered “given the shape we’re in, we’re not going anywhere soon.”

I sighed and, after a deep breath that made my head throb, limped down the hall to my trashed operating room. All of the blood had been cleaned up and someone had taken away all the used tools to be sanitized, but there were still piles of bandages in the corner, covered by a giant wad of the sanitary paper mats we used to ensure our people were at least resting on something clean. I spread a new one on the table and settled myself on it to wait for someone with steadier hands. While I waiting, I carefully cut the tape and my pants away from my leg and checked the wound for signs of infection.

Natalie was the first in the door and would have rushed over to me immediately if I wasn’t in the process of poking at one of the sharp metal bits that was actually sticking out of my leg. I was still too tired to feel anything but the pain in my head and the knot in my back, so I was doing my best to check the depth of some of them before it started hurting enough to break through my mental fog. Instead, she walked around behind me, kissed me on the back of the head, and started gently pulling on my shoulders.

“Marshall, leave that alone.”

I did as she said and leaned back against her. “Hi, Natalie.”

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

“How are you? You looked pretty beaten up the last time I saw you.”

Natalie gently patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t anything a good night’s sleep and a shower couldn’t fix. Jonathan and I were trying to play them while we waited for Cam to bust us out.” I felt Natalie stiffen a bit. “It worked pretty well, for the most part.”

I bobbed my head up and down. “I wish I could have saved him.”

“I know. You did your best and you did more than anyone could have hoped. Three people will get to live who probably wouldn’t have without your help.”

“Jonathan could have saved them all. Hell, even Tristan could have. None of them were particularly complicated or difficult for someone who knows-”

“Marshall, stop.”

I considered letting my mouth ramble on for a while, but I trusted Natalie’s opinions. After a moment, she went back to absently patting my shoulder. I leaned back into her for a moment longer before sitting up again. “If no one else gets here soon, I’m going to start pulling shrapnel out on my own”

“Cam will be along in a minute and she’s probably in the best shape to clean you up anyway. She made it through unharmed again, aside from some bruised knuckles.”

“Luckiest woman alive, she is.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Natalie leaned around and kissed me on the side of my jaw that wasn’t bruised. “I think she’s got some competition for that title.”

I was about to turn my head for a proper kiss, tension-be-damned, when the door bounced open and Camille walked in. I sighed and settled for leaning back against Natalie again. “Patch me up, doc.”

“Sure thing. Take two of these and you won’t feel a thing.” Camille handed me a couple of tablets that I popped. “You look like shit, Cap.”

“And you look like you got everything you wanted for Christmas.”

Camille smirked as she grabbed the clean forceps off the table. “I killed a bunch of assholes and, despite being entirely captured, most of us are still alive. We lost a lot of good people, but everyone still alive at this point should stay that way unless I totally botch this.”

“That’s not a status report.” I frowned at Camille who was smiling evilly at me.

Camille’s smile flickered for a moment. “No, I’m waiting until the pain meds start to kick in before I give you that. It’ll make it easier to do if you’re mostly out.”

“Camille…”

“There are a dozen Wayfinders in good health and three more who are still at risk. You did a good job of keeping them alive, but there’s still a chance they might not make it. We have seven Nomad children, only five of which still have both parents. Three of the male Nomads are still alive, as are eight of the Nomad women which includes that badass grandma who killed almost as many bandit shitheads as most of us Wayfinders did. We’ve captured nine Laborers, but it looks like only six will survive their wounds without medical care which I’ve refused to waste on those traitors.

“Let me know if this hurts at all.” Camille bent over my leg and started pulling shards of metal out, slowly and carefully. It twinged a little, but I barely felt it. “We’ve got thirteen bandits who surrendered immediately and about that many who will survive their injuries. Give or take a few. Some of the injured ones tried to escape, and I would be surprised if they survived their additional wounds.”

Natalie pulled out the wing of the table and pressed me down against it. “That would be a small blessing. We’ve only got our original supplies plus maybe another couple of days’ worth. One of the last things the resisting bandits did was burn their larders. Our stuff only survived because it’s still sitting outside to stay cold or in a storeroom in the eastern wing.”

“How’s that going…” I shook my head a little to clear the thickening fog. “Are we going to be alright if we wait here to heal?”

“Only if we are ready to leave in three weeks.” Natalie sighed. “Which isn’t enough time but that’s the maximum time we can stay if we’re going to make it to any of the supply depots I remember. Jonathan had the full list, and I know there are some closer, but I can’t remember exactly where.”

I closed my eyes and nodded, fighting back another pointless wave of guilt. “Got it.”

“And even that is only if we used the healthy bandits and laborers to gather the local supplies I found and then almost immediately send them away.”

Camille looked up at Natalie, her face shifting from concentration to frustration. “We don’t have enough healthy people to monitor a group like that. I’d need at least five people for the twenty-ish people who would include and we’ve only got two other uninjured people.”

“There are a few others who are lightly injured. By the morning, they should be well enough to help out.”

Camille frowned and went back to working on the last couple holes. “I guess. I don’t like it.”

“It’ll only be one trip.” Natalie patted my hand when I grimaced at the sensation of Camille digging around in my leg.

“I guess that’s alright.” I yawned. “I think all the pain was the only thing keeping me–” I yawned again, “–awake.”

“Then sleep. Your face looks like a nightmare.” Camille waved a hand at my face. “Sleep. I’ll take care of turning the prisoners into pack mules before sending them on their way. We’ll take care of the burials tomorrow evening, after I’ve finished with them.”

“Alright.” I gingerly wiped at my eyes. “I love you, Natalie.”

“I love you too, Marshall.” Natalie leaned down and gingerly kissed me on the lips. I felt my face pull into a slightly painful smile as I let myself drift off.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 8

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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