Infrared Isolation: Chapter 9

New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.

I blinked, trying to clear my sleep-addled vision as I fought my way out of my blankets and heavy sleeping bag. As I threw off layers and came closer to full consciousness, I started to make out individual voices, a masculine and feminine voice at the center, along with the heavy drone of other voices that couldn’t match those two in volume.

When I finally broke free, I grabbed my thermal gear from the floor next to my sleeping back and started pulling it on. Around me, the entire barn seemed empty except for a few telltale lumps under scattered blankets. As I attempted to pull on my thermal pants without tearing my shoddy patchwork from the day before even further, my mind threw a few errant thoughts past my attention as it struggled to make sense of what was going on.

I could hear Cam’s voice outside, trying to rise about the masculine and feminine voices but failing. The people still sleeping were definitely Lucas’ squad and maybe some Wayfinders who’d been on guard duty overnight. I was incredibly hungry. The hole I was trying to carefully avoid in my pant leg was gone.

As that thought’s meaning finally trickled through my mind, I snapped back to focus on what I was going and noticed someone had patched my pants while I was asleep. I started to wonder how long I’d been out, but pushed the thought aside in favor of getting my coat on and properly attached to my pants. Leaving gaps in the thermal gear would defeat the point entirely and the light level coming in through the windows told me it was either just after sunrise or just before sunset. As I laced up my boots, gloves and scarf tucked under an arm, I heard a gunshot come from outside, followed by immediate silence.

Not bothering to do more than tuck the ends of my laces into my boottops, I ran out of the barn and into the snow, ignoring the confused noise of the Wayfinders just waking up behind me. When I got outside, two steps into the snow immediately filled my boots with freezing cold since I hadn’t pulled my pants properly over them. I ignored that, though, as I ran around the side of the barn towards the lingering echoes of the gunshot to find Cam standing in between the Naturalists and Laborers, gun pointed at the ground as they glared at everyone around them.

Around them was a small ring of Wayfinders, all holding their guns pointed at the ground as well, but every single one of them had their hands in firing position and I could see as I ran up that all the safeties were off. I dashed up as quickly as I could with my boots threatening to fall off as I heard Cam yell.

“I want the Laborer’s rep and whoever is in charge of the Naturalists to step forward. Everyone else can clear the fuck out. In opposite directions. I see anyone moving toward the other group, I’m going to have someone tackle them to the ground and hold their face in the snow until we’re done here. Now move it!”

There was a momentary pause as the sound of dozens of voices rose again, but the presence of the armed Wayfinders seemed to dissuade anyone from taking action. When I got over to Cam’s side, I found Elder Brianna and Lex standing at the forefront of their groups, each of them talking to at least a couple other people at the front of their groups. On the Naturalist side, I recognized a few of the other Elders. On the Laborer side, I recognized Mitch, the Laborer who’d harassed Laura, and instantly grew suspicious when I saw how much Lex seemed to be listening to him.

I gave Cam an inquisitive look when they looked my way and then bent down to try to fix my boots so my socks wouldn’t get any wetter and colder than they already were. As I fumbled my laces with clumsy gloved fingers, Cam kept their attention on the two groups as they slowly started to disperse. The Naturalists went toward the farmhouse and the Laborers moved toward the front of the bar, both of them leaving behind their leaders and what seemed like a small advisory council, judging by the way they all had their heads together, furiously talking in hissing voices.

When I finally got the laces straightened out and had wrapped my pant legs across the tops of my boots, I stood up, yawned, and stretched as much as I could in my thermal gear. “What’s going on?”

“Exactly what you saw. They’re fighting about some bullshit and it looked like it was going to come to blows so we interceded. Then they started yelling at each other and deescalation didn’t work, so I shot at the ground and yelled at them.”

I resisted the urge to curse or sigh, pushing my face as far toward neutral as I could while my brain was still getting itself in order after being abruptly woken up. “Can you define ‘some bullshit’ a bit more?”

“They’re arguing about who is to blame for all of yesterday’s deaths.”

“Great.” I closed my eyes and took a long, slow breath. “Just great.”

“Do you ever get tired of being right?”

“All the time.”

“Maybe you shoulda done something about this last night instead of wasting time chewing out Lucas, then.” Cam had no emotion on their face as they delivered this rebuke and I tried to match their calm but couldn’t, letting a small grimace play across my face.

“Touché.” I sighed and wiped my face with my gloves. After a moment’s thought, looking at the two angrily whispering groups, I turned my body so my back was split between them. “How about you?”

“Never.” Cam smirked this time and gave my upper arm a nudge with an empty hand. “Someone’s gotta keep you honest.”

“Yeah. I think maybe I should start assigning that as an actual job for people to do, after last night and now this.” I gave Cam a small smile and then shook my head. “You need to stick around for this one. At least as muscle and hopefully as a voice of reason if I can’t get through to them right now. You were here for the whole argument after all.”

“Alright, well, just don’t call on me unless you want their asses kicked. I’ve had about all I can take of them.”

I nodded and then turned around. “Elder Brianna. Representative Alexander. Would you both please come over here so we can talk through this peacefully and without resorting to shouting or violence? Your people can stay where they are, thank you.” I watched as Elder Brianna immediately broke off her conversation and walked over, gesturing for her people to stay behind. Representative Lex started to walk away, but got pulled back by the three people around him for a last burst of hurried conversation before he shook them off and came over.

Once they were both standing about six feet apart, evenly split to either side of me, I nodded to both of them. “Seems like there’s some trouble brewing. Would one of you please tell me what’s going on?” As they both started speaking at once, I held up a hand and said “you’ll each get a turn. Let’s start with Representative Lex and then Elder Brianna. You can each answer and make your own case.”

Ignoring the frosty glare from Elder Brianna, Representative Lex turned his head toward me and nodded in appreciation. “I was trying to discuss with Elder Brianna here what she owed my people after six of us died in a fight brought down on us by the now clearly foolish decision to aid these people. Keeping in mind our insurance rates for dangerous jobs and the guarantees stipulated in the contract you provided, we felt we it was a reasonable demand in exchange for the lives of our friends and family who died yesterday, not to mention all of the work we did to fortify the farmhouse, protect these people, and then give them a safe place to sleep last night.”

Lex’s tone was calm and detached, like he was reading through an itemized receipt for a job he’d done setting up someone’s plumbing. His eyes, though, and the occasional clench of his jaw, made it clear how angry he was. I listened attentively as he went through a list of costs and expenses and rates, even pulling out my notebook to write some of the numbers down. Eventually, he seemed to peter out, like he’d expected to be stopped long before he’d reached that point and had run out of script as a result.

I snapped my notebook shut, cutting off a rambling statement about the quality of the nails and glue involved in last night’s repairs. “Thank you for your statement. Elder Brianna?” I turned to the leader of the Naturalists who was standing silently, body carefully posed in a neutral, non-aggressive stance, just outside of arm’s reach.

After I gestured for her to speak, she took a moment to collect herself, picking her words carefully, and then seemed to think better of what she was about to say. She briefly closed her eyes, took a deep breath, reopened her eyes, and said “I merely wished to discuss why he and his people abandoned the windows so quickly yesterday. If he’d held his position longer, we might have prevented the Cultists from entering the farmhouse entirely. We could have killed them all in their hairbrained charge toward our building if they’d stuck to the plan. We wouldn’t have… People who…”

Elder Brianna’s eyes misted over briefly before she blinked the tears away and the sadness that had appeared there for a moment was replaced with incandescent rage. Through gritted teeth, she said “If these people had stuck to the plan, my wife would still be alive, as would be most of the others as well.”

I gave Brianna a moment to see if she had anything else to say. She opened her mouth a couple times, but eventually shook her head and remained silent. After she did, I pursed my lips and nodded. “That’s a serious accusation from Elder Brianna. Did you abandon your posts?”

“We engaged in the strategic retreat stipulated in the battle plan when faced with overwhelming numbers.” Lex’ expression was still neutral, but I could see tension rising into his neck. As he paused to consider his words, he cracked his neck and then his back between his shoulder blades with a dramatic roll of his broad shoulders. I saw Cam, out of the corner of my eye, shift their weight ever so slightly so they’d be ready to leap if he did anything other than talk.

Eventually, he seemed to find the words he was looking for. “A bunch of my people were already down, as were many Naturalists. We didn’t have enough people to stay at our posts when they began to fire at the walls, and we knew we didn’t have much time left before their shots started hitting us like the walls weren’t even there. So we retreated. You weren’t present to give any other commands, so I made a judgment call.”

“Given that I was providing commands via pounding on the floor, which was apparently enough for directing attacks and when to fire or not, I find that difficult to believe.”

“It was noisy, Captain Marshall. We saw them massing for an attack and decided to retreat. If the Naturalists had done so as well, we would have been able to get everyone out. Instead, we were forced to leave injured people behind as we moved into the reinforced room we’d designated as our regrouping space.”

I nodded. “I see. Does this match up with what you saw, Elder Brianna?” When I locked eyes with Brianna again, I could see she’d managed to suppress her emotions again and I felt my heart break. For her part, she merely nodded. “So I guess the problem is that you made a decision in the moment that got a lot of people killed but also maybe saved some of your people by getting them somewhere protected. I can understand that instinct.”

“So you think they should-”

“No.” I watched the anger in Representative Lex’s eyes flare and spread to the rest of his face. “I think that what happened is that we’re all-”

“If she’d ordered a retreat like me, everyone would still be alive! I wouldn’t have hesitated if she’d agreed with me instead of trying to follow your damned orders!” Lex was red-faced and had stepped forward until his face was almost touching mine. I saw Cam start to move as he approached, but waved them off. I gently placed a hand on Lex’s shoulder and held on as he suddenly flinched away. I took a single step backward and said “calm down. I know you’re upset. We’re all upset. I lost people I’ve known for almost a decade. You’ve lost some of your closest friends. She lost her wife. I think maybe we need to all take some time to calm down before we try to talk through this.”

I felt a surge of guilt as my mind flickered toward Lucas and our argument last night. Lex seemed to notice it and narrowed his eyes at me. I nodded and said “I’ve already made this mistake once in the last twenty-four hours. We’re all exhausted and grieving. I don’t think shortly after dawn is a great time to have this conversation. How about we all go our separate ways and come back to this at noon?” I let go of Lex’s shoulder and looked between the two leaders, both of whom had started staring at each other again.

When neither responded, I sighed. “We’re taking some time to rest. We’ve got enough injuries that we can’t afford to move much for a week. We might be able to build a few stretchers to put people on, but I suspect our surgeon is going to say no to even that for a few days while wounds heal and he has time to treat people. Lieutenant Jonathan should be able to give me an idea of how much of a delay we’re looking at once I’ve had a chance to eat breakfast and get started going through my reports.”

“A full week?” Representative Lex was looking at me again, though Elder Brianna was still glaring at the back of his head. “Doesn’t that mean…”

“Yes, we won’t make it to Des Moines before the next blizzard.”

“If these fucking techless idiots hadn’t drawn these insane-” Lex rounded on Elder Brianna and took a step toward her. This time, I didn’t stop Cam from intervening.

Cam, still holding their gun in one hand, used the other to spin Lex around. Without losing a step, Lex’s angry speech turned into a wordless shout as he swung at Cam. Bending around the slow and heavy punch, Cam grabbed Lex’s wrist and pulled, dumping him over their braced leg and hip to sprawl face-down in the snow. As Lex’s friends started to surge forward, the other Wayfinders all stepped in between them and Cam, halting their charge instantly as the Laborers skidded to a halt.

Lex struggled for a moment, trying to push himself back to his feet, but Cam held a hand on the back of his neck and kept him in place. It took only a few more seconds of that for Lex to stop struggling and then Cam took their hand off his neck.

Cam moved around Lex and squatted near his head so their face was the first one he saw as he pushed himself up. As he brushed snow off his face, Cam locked eyes with him and said “that was a warning shot. Don’t try that again.” Cam held his eyes until he nodded and then stood up, moving a few steps back to my side and returning to a wary stance with both hands on their gun once again.

“I know it’s scary to think about weathering a blizzard outside an Enclave, Representative Lex, but we’ve done it many times and I promise you none of your people will come to harm so long as you follow our instructions.” I stepped forward and extended a hand to the Laborer who stared at it for a moment and then grabbed it, dropping his head as I helped him to his feet so his eyes never met mine.

“You promised us safety in Madison and now six of my people are dead. Can you honestly expect me to take you at your word?” Lex’s voice was quiet now, calmer, but I could still see the rage coursing through him in his balled up fists, hunched shoulders, and furrowed brow. 

“Yes. I promised that I’d get you there as safely as possible. The contract you said you just reviewed includes stipulations about changing conditions in the field and you already signed an amended agreement after you knew about the Naturalists and the Cultists following them. I understand you’re upset, but you knew what you were getting yourself into.”

Lex growled but didn’t say anything further. I took a step back from him and turned toward Elder Brianna. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize…”

“There were lives that still needed saving and then…” Elder Brianna shook her head. “We’re keeping our share of their gear. And maybe you should reconsider arming these fools since all they seem to want to do is fight, blame others, and miss everything they shoot at.” Brinna’s face was crimson by the time she finished speaking, but her voice had remained a quiet hiss the entire time. “We owe them nothing. Not after that pitiful, cowardly display.”

Lex looked over at her and looked like he was about to launch himself at her again, but Cam shifting their weight caught his attention and he froze. He looked at each of us in turn and when he locked eyes with me, I saw something hidden beneath the rage. I couldn’t tell what it was, because the twist of his face hid anything other than his clear desire to hurt someone right then, but I made a mental note to keep an eye on him.

“Later” I said. “Let’s talk about this later. Representative Lex, get your group together and pack up your things. The Wayfinders will move out of the barn so you all can have it instead. We’ll set up tents in between you two groups and I don’t want to see anyone contacting someone in the other group until we’ve worked through all of this. Agreed?”

“Agreed, Captain Marshall.” Some of the red had faded from Brianna’s face, but she was still glaring at Representative Lex as she spoke. “We will pick this up later.”

Lex just nodded and walked away without looking at any of us. After a moment, Brianna turned and walked away without another word as well. I watched both of them go, returning first to their individual advisor groups and then moving en masse toward where the rest of their people were waiting.

Once they were out of earshot, I turned to Cam. “Better send some people to make sure the separation happens peacefully.”

“Already on it.” Cam jerked their head toward the rear of the barn and I saw one of the waiting Wayfinders returning with half a dozen more. “Had reinforcements waiting in case it turned into a full brawl. I didn’t want to have to shoot anyone.” 

I smiled at Cam. “See, you can handle these things without me. You already thought of everything.”

Cam shrugged. “I didn’t think of how to make them walk away. That was you. And a bit of me, I guess.” Cam smiled slyly and flexed their arms. “It was good practice, doing a takedown one-handed. Figured he hadn’t actually fought much, you know?”

“Yeah.” I nodded and looked over toward where the Laborers were standing in a huddle. “Like he’d never fought at all, actually.”

As I pondered that, and whatever it was that I’d seen behind Lex’ anger, Cam called out brief orders to the rest of the Wayfinders as they grouped up and, a few minutes later, everyone had vanished into the farmhouse. By the time I reentered the barn, the Wayfinders still inside were all packing up quickly, showing things into bags for the short trip from the barn to the tents they were going to set up outside.

I watched Lucas get himself dressed, his face pale and drawn in the morning light leaking into the barn as he sleepily tried to figure out which side was the front of his thermal pants. He figured it out eventually, but I was still thinking about our argument and the lingering guilt I felt about advising people to do something I hadn’t been capable of doing the night before. The guilt stayed with me as I helped pack things up and then helped set up tents in silence.

Only as I watched the Laborers move into the barn just before noon, standing outside the tent that Lucas was already asleep inside did I recognize the hidden emotion behind Lex’s anger. It was the same thing I felt as I thought about pushing Lucas to talk to me and about failing to protect the people who’d died in the Cultist attack. Shame. Shame and guilt mixed with grief into a messy knot of emotion that was going to explode out of him if he didn’t deal with it. 

He wouldn’t be the only one exploding, either, if I didn’t deal with my own shame and its roots.

Previous: Chapter 8

Next: Chapter 10

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