Infrared Isolation: Chapter 12

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

As I slowly swam towards consciousness, I felt something prickling at the edge of my senses. My slowly waking mind couldn’t make sense of it, and blinking my eyes open didn’t help either. It was still dark, so I strained my ears to hear whatever might have awoken me. As deafening silence greeted me, I lurched up in my sleeping bag, coming to full attention as alarm bells started going off in my head.

Only as I fumbled for where I normally kept my lantern and accidentally smacked Cam in the side of the head did I realize I had slept inside the shelter Natalie and the scouts had picked out for us. The silence I heard was the absence of fabric rustling and flapping in the wind as snow blew against it. I had but a moment to appreciate the sense of security and safety that flooded through me before my hand was yanked away and I found myself pinned beneath a still groggy Cam.

“Ow, fuck.” I hissed between my teeth, trying to not shout in pain. “Cam, sorry. It’s me.”

“Wha?” It was too dark to see anything, but the pressure on my back, wrenching my arm nearly to the breaking point, lessened. A moment later, the soft glow of the lamp I’d been reaching for rose up around us and Cam released my arm. “Jesus fuck, Mar.” Their voice lost its fogginess but stayed quiet as it turned accusatory. “You smacked me in the face.”

“I’m sorry. Your face was where my lamp usually is.”

“We’re indoors, you numbnuts. You only sleep on the outside when we’re in the tent.”

“I know. I forgot where we were and started panicking.”

“Oh.” Cam got off my back and pushed me towards my sleeping bag again, rolling me over in the process as I gingerly avoided putting pressure on my aching shoulder. “Well, as long as you also woke up panicking then I guess the shoulder makes us even.” They flopped back into their sleeping bag and turned their head to look at me. “Sorry about your shoulder. Did I dislocate it?”

“No, it’s just sore.” I rubbed it and smiled ruefully. “I don’t even know what time it is.”

“That’s the nice thing about being inside.” Cam stifled a yawn. “We can sleep as much as we want without the sun making us wake up.”

I watched as they started to adjust their blankets and pillow, clearly about to go back to sleep. “Are you really forgetting about our tradition?”

“You smacked me in the face, so I probably forgot a whole bunch of things. Concussions can do that to you.” Cam rolled away from me and started reaching toward the lamp. “Now go back to sleep.”

I glanced around for my watch quickly and managed to locate it right as Cam turned the light off. I pressed the light button and saw it was already past six in the morning. Rather than reach for the lamp again, I gingerly poked Cam in the back. “Cam, it’s morning. We gotta make the stuff.”

“It’s dark out, Marshall. It’s never the morning when it’s dark out.”

“It’s dark in, Cam. It’s probably just starting to get light outside. And we’ve got our special porridge to make.”

Cam rolled onto their back, trapping my hand beneath them, and then turned the light back on to its lowest setting. “This is your thing.”

“Our thing. We’ve both Captains. It’s gotta be us.”

Cam groaned quietly and pulled their blanket over their head. “Fine. But I get to eat first.”

“As is our privilege. We gotta make sure it tastes good before we serve it to the others.”

“Yeah.” Cam threw off the blanket and started pulling their clothes on. “Alright. Go get the stove started, mister captain.”

“Sure. Just don’t lay back down again. Otherwise I won’t give you any coffee when you eventually show up for breakfast.” I pushed myself to my feet and grabbed a fleece jacket to throw on as I slipped my socked feet into my boots. Unlike Cam, I preferred to sleep in as many layers as I could stand, so I was pretty much dressed for the relatively slight chill of our shelter. 

After I moved into the storeroom that also held our cooking gear and started up the campstove we used for bigger group meals, the chill began to dissipate entirely. Taking care to be quiet, I pulled out the pans I’d need and set about the simple but lengthy process of making a large pot of oatmeal. We had a bunch of snow already gathered off to the side, slowly melting through a sieve and filter to provide us with clean water and I wound up needing almost all of it to fill the pot. The heat from my cooking would produce more water while I was making breakfast with the water we’d melted via our collective body heat warming the room to just above freezing, but it was clear we’d need to expand the system in order to get enough water ready before The Blizzard arrived.

When Cam came in a couple minutes later, as I was busily engaged in watching water heat up, they started getting out the dried fruit we usually added to oatmeal. Instead of mixing it into the oats to be reconstituted in the pot like we usually did, they set it in another pot off to the side, on the second burner or our large camp stove, with some water. As that heated up more slowly, they looked around the store room blankly for a minute before I realized what they were doing.

“It’s still in your pack, Cam. Remember? It’s not a secret treat if we put it in with the rest of the supplies.”

“Oh.” Cam yawned and turned around. “Right. You get that coffee started by the time I’m back, though.”

“Sure.” I resisted the urge to yawn as I looked around for the battery-powered coffee maker, eventually finding it just as the urge became too powerful to resist. While I was setting it up and slowly filling the reservoir from the snowmelt, Cam returned with the bottle of honey they’d had tucked into their backpack and started adding it to the pot of fruit. After that, the two of us made quiet conversation for a while, talking about the day ahead of us and what jobs we were going to send people on.

This was Natalie’s show, since she was our logistics officer, but Cam and I were ostensibly in charge. Cam would mostly just be around to reinforce whatever orders Natalie gave to the Wayfinders while I had the much more difficult task of managing the Laborers and Naturalists. After all, this was an all-hands-on-deck scenario and we couldn’t afford any of the bickering and time-wasting that had been a part of our life every day for the past three weeks.

Eventually, as the oatmeal was simmering at the proper consistency, I stirred in the secret pack of brown sugar I carried with me and then Cam poured in their honeyed fruit concoction. Barely a minute later, the room was filled with the almost sickly-sweet smell of what the rest of the Wayfinders knew as our traditional “Stuck in a Shelter During a Blizzard” breakfast. It poured out of the small room into the sleeping chamber and, in no time at all, Wayfinders started rolling out of their sleeping bags so they could stagger into the room for their share of the special treat.

In a world where every ounce counted and where most meals consisted of carefully planned nutrition over flavor, something sweet for the purpose of flavor was a rarity. When Cam and I had become leaders and wanted to make sure we had little things to reward our people for persevering, we’d started tucking stuff like this into our personal packs. It meant a bit more weight for us, or a bit less space in our packs for personal items, but it was worth it to be able to maintain the air of mystique it lent us whenever we pulled out a treat like this.

It was a lot easier to have meals like this in an Enclave, especially on the salary of a Wayfinder, but indulging too much between trips made it more difficult to get used to the relatively bland fare of Wayfinding when you invariably hit the road again. In fact, one of the most-cited reasons for retirement from the Wayfinders was being unable to stand the diet any longer. It was hearty and filling, but left so much to be desired in taste. After all, it had to travel well and we couldn’t waste the heat on cooking things from frozen too often. We had enough variety in the Wayfinder supplies to allow people options if they wanted to change things up, but that was pretty much it for weeks at a time.

People murmured their thanks as they cycled through the kitchen, each accepting a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee or hot water to prepare their own beverage of choice. We had a few tea drinkers, but given that tea was not something any of the Enclaves had figured out how to produce yet, it was getting more and more difficult to come by. Coffee was one of the first things the agriculture guild had figured out, for reasons that felt obvious.

Eventually, aside from a couple people whose guard shift had ended in the middle of the night and those whose shifts would end shortly, everyone had gotten some food. Cam and I helped ourselves to some and went to eat while the Wayfinders who had originally been on breakfast duty took over keeping the remainder warm for the last eight Wayfinders and started washing the empty dishes. As we ate, I watched the finished Wayfinders trickle out of the room to start on their assigned duties.

While Natalie and Cam would take care of directing those who had finished their job, every Wayfinder had a primary task to perform when we were preparing a shelter before The Blizzard. Some of them would be using thermal readers to check the building for leaking heat, others would be scouting around the building to determine optimal vantage points, and others would do longer-range scouting for signs of other humans that might be living in the area further away than the initial scouts had checked. Thermal safety was usually the highest priority, but no amount of insulating would save us if a bunch of Cultists or local raiders attacked right before The Blizzard arrived.

After quickly eating breakfast and changing into my full thermal gear, I spent the rest of the day coordinating Naturalist search parties and Laborer repair efforts. The Naturalists were already skilled at finding and collecting resources in situations like this, so the supply maps that Natalie had ready for them meant that we’d almost collected enough supplies for two weeks by the end of that first day. They also found a few other caches in areas that Wayfinders hadn’t searched yet, so we were able to prepare a second set of maps for the next day.

The abundance of supplies meant that the Laborers not only finished all of the major repairs and modifications on the first day, but were able to start doing interior work. All of the rooms had doors by the time I called off work for the evening, and the Laborers were already talking about how to subdivide the interior spaces more. They even offered to do the same thing for the Naturalists, after a brief, monitored discussion between Representative Alexander and Elder Brianna during a supply exchange went much better than I had expected. I turned down a similar offer since most of us Wayfinders liked being around each other and adding extra non-structural barriers would only make building defenses in case of an attack more difficult.

After dinner, once I’d let both groups know there’d be more work tomorrow, I met with the other Wayfinder officers to receive reports and update our plans. It turned out there was another group of people living nearby, in a fortified shelter to the south of town. None of our maps from recent years included this fort, but we also didn’t have much information about the area outside of the town itself since most people passed through it heading east or west and didn’t linger like we were. Regardless, there wasn’t any sign of them coming into town and all of the buildings on the south side of town, near them, showed no signs of being emptied of supplies or materials, so we decided to simply keep an eye on them while we were here but otherwise leave them alone.

We also made a formal decision to turn this office park into a supply depot and, if we had the time and materials, turn it from a temporary shelter into a more permanent one. Since our thermal readings had come mostly clean except for a little tidying-up work and the main entrance itself, which we wouldn’t be able to do until we locked ourselves in the building for The Blizzard, we all felt comfortable given that we had at least another two full days, maybe three if The Blizzard was behind schedule, before it arrived.

As we all packed it in for the night, I felt the familiar tension between my shoulders begin to ease. Staying in a temporary shelter while The Blizzard passed overhead was never a fun experience and all it took was one errant bit of heat escaping to ruin all of our preparations, but we had plenty of time to let things settle, to double-check our work, and to make sure we were ready by the time it arrived.

Especially since the Laborers had left all signs of their grumbling and rebelliousness behind by the time we’d gotten to Cedar Rapids. They’d even taken the initiative to construct an actual set of bathrooms with private toilets rather than our usual latrine system. I don’t know which one of them knew enough about plumbing to allow us to use actual toilets without running water, but everyone seemed excited by the prospect of this small piece of civilization being a part of our lives for the next two weeks or so.

As I was bedding down for the night, a few Wayfinders grumbled about not being able to have their own rooms and a little quiet for once, given the number of snorers present, but they quickly turned to jokes about missing the traditional Wayfinder slumber parties and pillow fights if people were siloed off into rooms. Natalie had a little more to say, quietly, about the potential of the rooms, and I’ll admit the ideas she presented had a certain amount of appeal, but I was already feeling nervous about the fact that we’d moved our sleeping bags adjacent to each other during that night’s pre-bed shuffling and jostling that happened as people started to spread out a bit more now that they didn’t have to pack up between sleeps.

As the buzz of chatter and various card games started to fill the air, Nattalie leaned a bit closer in her sleeping bag and said “A little privacy would have been nice, Mar. One night every few weeks isn’t much.”

“We had twelve whole days to ourselves just a few months ago.” I yawned and felt my jaw pop as I did. When I looked back at Natalie, I almost winced away from the severe glare she was shooting in my direction.

“That doesn’t count!” Natalie hissed through her teeth, leaning ever closer as she did. “We were stranded in a supply cache during The Blizzard! We couldn’t have left if we wanted to and barely had enough food for the entire thing!”

I winked at her. “And it was just the two of us.”

Natalie rolled her eyes as I chuckled quietly. “It would have been nice, is all I’m saying. None of this sneaking around. Actual privacy and a space of our own.”

“Sneaking around is fun, though.”

“I won’t deny it,” a little color crept into Natalie’s face as she glanced around to make sure no one could hear her. “I’d still prefer the privacy, though.”

I nodded, letting go of the joke I’d been using to cover the disappointment I felt.

Some of it must have shone through because she leaned a little closer and whispered “don’t forget to get head to the bathroom in about ten minutes. Everyone should be mostly settled down by then.” 

I gave her a surreptitious wink as I felt a little heat creep into my face this time. “Of course. I would never forget to go to the bathroom before bed.” I felt my face heat until I was certain it was about to catch fire in response to the look Natalie gave me after that, as she stood up and walked away, so I spent most of the next ten minutes failing to read the page I was on in the book I’d borrowed from Wayfinder Laura.

After my trip to the bathrooms, the rest of the night passed uneventfully. The following day dawned bright and clear, a rarity this close to The Blizzard’s arrival, so I had everyone pause their day’s assignments long enough to make sure we got every solar-powered device and battery setup to charge. It would make the event more pleasant if we didn’t need to ration our power consumption when we were stuck indoors. Plus, we’d made such good progress the day before that we were still ahead of schedule by the time the sun had fully risen and everyone was back to their assigned tasks.

The only group that hadn’t gotten pulled away for some sun and to monitor charging devices were the Wayfinders tasked with watching the human settlement to the south. We had a full guard rotation keeping an eye on them, just in case they turned out to be raiders or Cultists, but it seemed unlikely that they came into town much, if at all. Even as groups went out throughout the second day, gathering more supplies or buzzing around the office park to finish other helpful but not required preparations, there was still no sign that anyone had passed through the area in years.

As I monitored the Laborers turning a fire escape into an emergency bolthole that we could blast open if we needed a quick escape for whatever reason, I also watched the barricades around the front door get built up. We wouldn’t be able to seal it until the last day, of course, but we didn’t need to seal it in order to harden it so that anyone or anything attacking us wouldn’t be able to just break in. There were more defenses inside the entrance, of course, with personal barricades set up and all of the other hallways sealed off so anyone attempting to force their way in would only be able to move in one direction. But knowing they’d need to put in a lot of effort just to get through the door meant we’d be able to rest more easily when it was shut.

That took most of the day, but I gave the Naturalists and the Laborers the rest of the afternoon to work on their personal quarters. Other than the final sealing of the main entrance and the endless work to gather supplies, I was out of jobs to assign them. I figured Natalie would have more to share during that evening’s officers meeting, but she had nothing to give me that afternoon when I asked.

As a result, I wound up spending the rest of my day walking between rooms, keeping an eye on the Naturalists and Laborers to ensure both groups were getting along as they mingled to work on setting up individual rooms in their assigned spaces. Despite their commitment to keeping separate, to the degree that we’d placed the groups on opposite ends of the building we’d picked with the Wayfinders inbetween, they seemed to be getting along surprisingly well aside from a few moments of tension that evaporated before I could even consider intervening.

As things were wrapping up for the evening, I found Representative Alexander and Elder Brianna talking to each other, standing a ways away from the rest of their people who were cleaning up from what looked like the final steps of the Naturalists’ rooms. As I carefully wandered closer, doing my best to avoid drawing attention, I heard Brianna say “Thank you for the rooms. Having some privacy and space like this will help a lot. Give the kids and teens some space to themselves. It means a lot that you’d do this.”

Lex nodded, a small amount of discomfort on his face as he awkwardly shifted from one foot to the other. “I hope it lets you all get some rest, not just the kids. I mean, if we’re going to be here for a couple weeks, then I think having private rooms like this will be helpful. To get away from each other and have some peace and quiet, you know?”

Elder Brianna smiled and held out her hand. Representative Lex stared at it for a moment as if he was uncertain what to do with it, and then seemed to snap out of whatever was going through his mind. He quickly juggled his tools around so he had a hand free and clasped the Naturalist Elder’s hand warmly.

As they shook, I moved more openly to join them. “Shouldn’t be more than seven days. Ten at the absolute maximum, but that’s rare. Only the Winter Blizzard lasts more than a couple weeks.”

Elder Brianna smiled at me and let go of Representative Lex’s hand. “Fifteen to twenty days is a long time to be trapped inside, so I’m glad this is the Spring Blizzard. I know we’ve done a lot of collection work, but even the stockpile we’ve built so far would be hard-pressed to keep us all fed for that long.”

“I prefer to be in an Enclave for that one, if I can swing it.” I turned my smile toward Representative Lex. “The preparations we’re doing here are nothing compared to what we’d need to do for the Winter Blizzard. Easier to find a place that’s already prepared for it.”

“Like an Enclave?”

“Yeah, though the Wayfinders have a few shelters scattered along the longer routes between Enclaves, just in case. And while this one isn’t ready for a Winter Blizzard, it’ll be a lot easier for any future Wayfinders in the area to get it ready for that, thanks to the work of you and your people.” I held out my hand to Representative Lex.

He showed the same discomfort, shifting from foot to foot, as he had before shaking Elder Brianna’s hand, so I added “I really mean it, Representative Lex. You should let all your people know we appreciate their work. I know things have been rough lately, but I really appreciate the way you’ve rallied your people to help the group out. Thank you.”

Representative Lex shook my hand then, and I gave him my warmest smile as he seemed to blush in embarrassment. Rather than draw any more attention to the younger man’s discomfort, I let go of his hand and turned to address the growing group of Naturalists and Laborers. “The last time I got stuck outside an Enclave during The Winter Blizzard, we wound up eating through all our supplies in the first ten days, even with rationing, and had to get inventive after that. It was a whole different world, back in the early days.”

I launched into the full story as I moved around the room, helping people with the tidying up they were doing and soon had everyone relaxed and laughing as I told them about what a leather jacket tasted like once you’d removed the worst of the chemicals and boiled it to the point of edibility. After the lengthy story was finished and I’d answered a few questions, I sent the groups off to get their dinners and then headed toward the storeroom for the officers meeting.

As we went through the tasks for the last guaranteed full day of preparations, something kept tugging at my mind, though I couldn’t figure out what it was. Something I’d seen while telling stories to the Naturalists and Laborers? Something someone had said that I’d only just barely heard? I wracked my brain, trying to remember it, to the point of getting politely chewed out by Natalie for not paying attention, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d seen or heard that was bothering me.

As the meeting ended and I went off to get dinner with my copy of the task list that Natalie was going to quiz me on later to make sure I’d been paying attention, a test I already knew I was going to fail, I comforted my anxious mind by telling it that at least the next ten or fifteen days, during The Blizzard and the time we’d need to dig ourselves out afterwards, would be more peaceful than the past few weeks had been. The two external groups were getting along now, at least enough that I didn’t feel like I’d be breaking up any fights to the death during our stay here. Which should have been comforting. Instead, my mind wasn’t willing to entirely let go of the idea that there was something wrong.

After tossing and turning in my bed for over an hour, thoughts of my failed test and the lecture Natalie had given me dancing at the edges of this other unknown, shapeless worry, I forced myself to set it aside. Whatever it was, I couldn’t figure it out and I’d just have to wait until it came up again. I’d have plenty of time over the next several days to walk around and look for whatever had caught my attention. As I went through the meditative steps I’d learned years ago to quiet my mind, I thought that, whatever it was, it couldn’t be any worse than The Blizzard and we were more than prepared to handle that with ease. This other problem would be no different.

Previous: Chapter 11

Next: Chapter 13

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