The news of the cavern spread through Winterhome like venereal disease through the pleasure house; swiftly and eagerly.
For the first time since the Generator began to fail, the inhabitants of the city had something to feel happy about. They weren't doomed to die in the cold, there was somewhere for them to escape to! Crowds filled the streets, screaming, cheering, and embracing each other at random, celebrating their salvation. Hope filled the faces of the infirm, the young, and the desperate alike.
And yet, with new hope came even greater desperation. Where some groups cheered and celebrated the discovery of the cavern, others demanded that they and their families get sent there first. Wild rumors and speculation abounded about the riches of the cavern and the failing state of the Generator, fueling discontent and forcing the priests and foremen to keep the peace.
For Captain Edmond Cole, it wasn't quite what he had been hoping for when he made the announcement. All he had wanted to do was raise the city's spirits, to give them something back after all the hardships they had suffered through. Unfortunately, it seemed that, as with so many other decisions before, the consequences were mixed. Even now, he could hear the cheers and jeers from outside, muffled by the windows.
Edmond sighed, leaning back in his chair. The old leather creaked under his weight, a welcome cushion against the weight of the city's needs. It was a miracle he had been able to snatch it from his old workshop before someone else had claimed it.
If only the view of his desk could be so comforting. Scattered forms covered the piece of oak like fresh snow on a rooftop, with requests from all over the city to consider. The medical wards needed more beds, medicine, and personnel. The workshops needed more components, steel, steam cores, and personnel. The mines needed more picks, explosives, and personnel-
Edmond groaned, rubbing his temples. Where did they expect him to find all of these workers? Winterhome needed as many hands as it could get just to tear down and rebuild the ruins of the Southern and Eastern quarters. It was bad enough that they were using children to haul coal, timber, and food around the city, and like hell was he going to subject them to more dangerous work.
And now, with the preliminary stages of the evacuation to plan out, those shortages would only get more severe. The scout report had been promising, mentioning that tents and other dwellings were already set up, but that was just one factor to consider. The new site would need stockpiles of food, coal, steel, and lumber to properly winterproof it. Not to mention weapons and munitions for hunting parties, radio antennas so they could keep in contact with the outposts, mining equipment to expand and reinforce the tunnels-
Lord, give me strength. I beg of you. At this rate, the logistics will kill me before the cold, Edmond thought.
"Is everything alright, sir?"
The sudden question caught Edmond off-guard. Turning to face his guest, Edmond tried to put on a welcoming expression. "Y-yes, yes. Just trying to work through more of these requests. Is everything alright?"
His visitor, Denise Hayes, scoffed at that comment, fixing Edmond with a reproachful look. "You've been staring at those papers for the past ten minutes. The city won't collapse if you give yourself a moment to breathe."
"It may if I take more than one," Edmond said. He certainly didn't want to follow in the Major's footsteps and push everything off until the last moment.
But he knew better than to ignore Denise's advice. They'd worked together in the old workshop for long enough to know each other's tells, back before the night of flames and terror. The work may have changed, but the workload certainly hadn't.
"At any rate, you'll have to wait an hour or two longer before you can rest. The new weather reports have just arrived," Denise continued, moving towards the guest chair. "It seems that another cold front will be approaching us within a few days."
"Of course," Edmond groaned. That was poor timing. The temperature was already forty below freezing. If it dropped much further, they may not be able to risk sending people out on expeditions at all without them catching frostbite. Not to mention the extra strain the Generator would suffer from trying to compensate for the cold. Lord help them if another malfunction occurred.
At least we've finished rebuilding most of the shelters, Edmond mused. That should help lower the number of frostbite cases. Hopefully the wards have enough room for the rest.
"Scout team three also arrived back today. According to them, the visibility is too poor to find anything else out to the northeast," Denise continued. "They brought back some furs and timber, although not much."
"That could work out for us," Edmond considered. More hands were always useful, and they would need a scout team to lead people to the cavern. "How long will it take them to prepare for another expedition?"
"A few hours to gather more provisions and restock on ammunition."
"Excellent. As soon as they've recovered, have them get ready to move towards the evacuation site. We also need to organize a few volunteers to go with them," Edmond said. "The sooner we prepare that site for the evacuation, the better."
"Any specific requirements, sir?"
"No more than three dozen people. And try to get them from the mines, if possible. It'd be best if they're already used to working underground."
"Understood. I'll prepare a caravan as soon as possible," Denise said, sliding over more papers across the desk. "In the meantime, I also have more reports on the excavations and demolitions. At the current rate, we should be finished in around two weeks."
That was better than he had anticipated. With how much of the city had burned down, he'd half expected there to still be burning timbers left by the time they had evacuated. "Any word on survivors?"
Denise shook her head. "Unfortunately not. We're praying for the best, but if there is anyone else left in the rubble, we might not get to them in time. Almost certainly not before the temperature drop."
Edmond sighed. "…Regretful, but not unexpected. I'll talk with the priests later. Maybe we can set up a vigil for the missing." Lord willing, they could find any remaining survivors before it was too late. If not, at least their families could find some comfort in the service.
"I'm sure everyone will appreciate that," Denise said. "Besides that, I don't have much new to report. Production of the core four is continuing according to plan, although we may need to put the coal miners on overtime. The Generator's been using more fuel than it should."
That was concerning news. Shifting coal consumption rates could be an indication of another malfunction. He'd have to get in touch with the repair station. If the Generator was about to break down again, they'd need all available hands to patch it up.
We can't let it fail until the evacuation is complete. The steam must flow, no matter the cost.
Nodding, Edmond picked up the papers. "Thank you for the updates. I'll look over the new reports as soon as I can."
"Just make sure you don't kill yourself checking over everything. We can't just pull a new Captain out of our hats," Denise said, standing up.
"You're just saying that because you don't want this job," Edmond joked. Denise didn't respond, simply walking out towards the hallway. Her footsteps gradually grew softer, until the only sounds Edmond could make out were the howling winds from outside and the faint hum of his office's radiator.
The quiet was always so strange. His office in the workshop had always been filled with the sounds of hissing steam, clanging steel, and his coworkers arguing over new sets of blueprints. Compared to that, his new workstation always felt so…silent. Aloof. Separate from the rest of the city.
No wonder the Major had gone mad, if this was his only view of the world.
The irony of using the old tyrant's headquarters as his own was not lost on Edmond. However, even with the implications of using it, the old military outpost was still the best building to coordinate the affairs of Winterhome from. Its central location, proximity to the Generator, and inbuilt communications equipment made it an invaluable administrative center. They couldn't afford to tear it down, no matter how badly they wanted to.
All they could do was remove the traces of the old regime and try to start over. Banners had been torn down, posters had been ripped apart, and propaganda had been painted over, leaving the building a barren, if functional, shell. A place for work, and nothing more.
He wouldn't commit the same errors as that tyrant. He couldn't. There was no one left in the mainland to turn to, no other cities to seek refuge in. All that they had left was their faith, their city, and the cavern, and if he didn't do his job, the first two would fail long before they could count on the third.
Looking back towards the piles of reports, Edmond steeled himself, readjusting his glasses and grabbing a pen. Rest could wait until after his work had been completed. The evacuation would be successful. His people would be saved.
The city would survive.
The first column arrived at the cavern two days after the initial discovery.
It was a modest group, with around two dozen workers, a handful of engineers, and several sleds of equipment and materials. Thankfully, the group reported that there had been no casualties or accidents on the way over. Their timing was lucky: if they had waited another day, they would have been caught in the middle of a storm.
With fresh supplies and more workers, the Captain's plans were put into action. Several men went to work on the surface, preparing more robust communications equipment and building an antechamber around the cavern entrance. Wooden planks and steel plates were placed around the gap, further protecting the interior from the cold.
Further underground, the remainder of the workers began to properly assess the ruins. Tents and homes were checked for valuables, materials, and possessions of the previous inhabitants, all of which were moved back towards the tunnel for later inspection. Once that was done, the tents themselves were judged for habitability, with ragged and mold-covered dwellings torn down and replaced.
In some ways, it reminded Albert of the first few days of living at Winterhome, as refugees crowded around the Generator with whatever tarps and blankets they could get their hands on. Whenever someone fell to the cold, their old possessions were quickly claimed by their neighbors, taking any sheets, cloths, and coverings that were still in one piece.
But there were differences. For one thing, they didn't have to drag corpses out of these homes and dispose of them in the piles. Wherever the former occupants had gone, they'd had the decency to bring their dead with them. Not even bones remained.
Then there were the items removed from the tents. Despite finishing their search by the third day, they couldn't find any of the usual refuse or equipment most refugees brought with them. There were no IEC survival rations, no journals or bibles, no winter clothing or survival gear.
Instead, the only items they found were more old tools and furniture. Decorations were pulled out at random, such as metal hoops with cords of string wrapped across, slabs of stone covered in indecipherable markings and purple crystals, and intricately sewn quilts in a number of exotic patterns. Many of the workers were reluctant to handle the items, unsettled by how foreign and strange they appeared. Just touching an artifact was supposedly enough to make them feel like they were being watched.
Finally, there was the method of illumination. The search through the ruins hadn't uncovered any traces of fire or electric lighting. Instead, the sole source of light was those strange bulbs that were scattered around the cavern, formed out of frosted glass. A few workers had cracked one of them open, curious about whatever was inside, only to find a number of pale, luminous insects within, shocking the men and causing them to scream out. Since then, the workers had taken great care around the remaining bulbs, terrified that the bugs inside may be poisonous or aggressive.
By the end of the week, Charles had summed up the opinions of the workers quite well: "The place is a fucking madhouse."
Further exploration into the cavern was hampered by their lack of equipment. The airflow indicated that there was another section of the caves, but the route to get there was blocked by a steep, insurmountable cliff at the rear of the settlement. Scaling that would have to wait until they could bring in more rope and climbing gear.
Worse yet, the temperature had remained too low for Winterhome to send more columns over for most of the week, hovering below negative sixty. The heavy snowstorms made communication with the city unreliable, and so messages that were sent back were limited to official reports. For all intents and purposes, they were cut off.
As such, with no means to talk to their families and nobody able to venture deeper into the cavern, the workers settled for a more civilized pastime: getting completely hammered.
One of the workers had brought along a few bottles for just such an occasion. Albert had no idea how it could be brewed without hops or grains. He'd heard rumors that some engineer had learned how to make alcohol out of coal, but that couldn't be the case. There was no way the city would spare fuel from the Generator just for some liquor.
Then again, it certainly turns my throat into a damned furnace. Maybe there's some truth to it after all, Albert grimaced, downing another round. It was a wonder that nobody had gone blind from the stuff yet.
With their work for the day finished, most of the workers and engineers had gathered next to the tunnel, setting up a few fires and preparing their suppers. Fresh beets, carrots, and onions from the hothouses had also been brought along with the column, which, when added to the venison, allowed them to cook a delicious stew. Combined, the food, alcohol, and warmth had done wonders to create a comforting atmosphere.
Albert had already finished his meal, famished from the day's labors. With nothing else to do and half a bottle of rotgut at his side, he sat by the fire, listening to the nearest group spin theories about the cavern's previous inhabitants.
"I'm telling you, I don't think any of our people built this place. It just…feels off, you know?"
"Maybe it was the French, or the Germans, or some other bunch from the mainland. Weren't they roaming around these parts before the Frost hit?"
"Couldn't be. Even the frogs would've brought clothes and guns and such with them. They weren't complete savages. Besides, no reason for them to sit down here when they could've just grabbed one of the Generators."
"Even then, if those chaps had been around here, don't you think the Company would've told us about them before it all went to hell? You know, just in case?"
"Nah, they wouldn't have bothered. The only things those bastards were looking for up here were coal, wood, and gold."
"Gold? Come off it."
"It's true. At least, that's what my cousin told me. He was part of the construction crew over at Site 108. They ended up finding ore in the generator shaft as they were setting up, and within the day, the foremen had them trading their blowtorches for picks."
"Greedy pigs, the lot of them. I hope they froze in London."
Soon enough, the group had gone off on another tangent, badmouthing the accursed company that had gotten them into this mess to begin with. The fate of whomever lived here before, while an important question, was ignored in favor of more familiar topics. Nobody wanted to think about what would happen if they didn't like the answer.
…Damn it, this was supposed to be a nice evening. Now I've gone and gotten myself depressed again.
Albert took another swig from the bottle, relishing the feeling of warmth it provided. Overindulgence in alcohol may have been a sin, but it was hardly the worst one could get up to.
From what Albert could tell, most of the other workers were discussing more cheerful subjects. Some of them were already talking about how they planned on preparing their tents for when their families arrived, or where they thought the Captain would put his office. Others were discussing plans to venture further into the cavern, hoping to find veins of coal or ore. A few were even debating what to name the place, with everything from 'New Winterhome' to 'The Big Hole' tossed about. Compared to the gossip he'd heard the last time he'd been in Winterhome, the discussions were almost sickeningly optimistic.
Not that he wanted to talk to anybody right now. The only people present Albert was familiar with were Charles and Davis, both of whom had gotten involved in a game of cards.
Unsteadily getting to his feet, Albert began stumbling back towards his tent. He'd feel better away from the others. It would probably be best to sleep off the alcohol, at any rate. His eyes were already drooping, and his head was pounding like the bell of a prayer house.
Exhaustion seemed to be a more frequent problem these days. Albert found himself waking up feeling as refreshed and energetic as a young man, then going to bed feeling like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. A few of the others had reported the same problem, although not to the same severity.
Perhaps it was just the fact that they'd been underground for so long. Without the sun to keep track of time, it was much more difficult to keep to his normal schedule. It was a shame that Winterhome ran out of tea months ago. A few good cups probably would have been enough to solve the problem.
After a short trip, Albert arrived at his tent. Davis, Charles and he had repurposed one of the old dwellings into a new home, filling it with their old equipment and keeping whatever furniture was left intact. Whomever had lived here before had left behind far better cushions and pillows than Winterhome could provide. An oil lantern in the center of the floor lit up the shelter, offering just enough light to keep Albert from tripping over any items.
Taking off his jacket and gloves, Albert sprawled onto his makeshift bedding, not bothering to crawl underneath his quilt. Within moments, he was soundly asleep, snoring as loudly as a Dreadnought's engine.
And soon enough, he began to dream.
"…You still persist, I see. Another outsider claiming the lands of my children…"
"…But you are no followers of the cursed Wyrm, are you?"
"…Neither beast nor bug, yet still drawn to the usurper's kingdom. No touch of foreign gods, yet gifted with thought all the same…"
"…You heed my call, but you do not accept my light…"
"…Tell me, young one…"
"…What are you?"