Infrared Isolation: Chapter 13

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

I woke up early the day before The Blizzard was supposed to hit. My restlessness from the night before was still plaguing me just over six hours later, and every attempt to go back to sleep for what my watch told me where the last two hours before sunrise failed. Most of the time, my daily activities meant I was ready to fall asleep the instant I stopped moving long enough to calm down, but I’d spent most of the last two days administering and supervising rather than being active. Even with only six hours of sleep, my body felt ready to get up and get to work in a way that my mind was clearly not.

Eventually, though, with an hour left, I gave up and started my morning routine. I skipped breakfast initially, going for a breath of fresh air as I checked in on the guardposts instead. The frigid night air felt pleasant compared to the stuffy, still air of the Wayfinders’ room as I moved past unsealed doorways and poked my head outside to check the roof guardpost without any of my thermal gear on. I could feel the sharp bite of the wind blowing in from the west and could almost taste the storm following behind it.

It would be a while yet before the almost black clouds that signaled The Blizzard, skating below the standard, almost constant cloud cover, appeared on the horizon, but their eventual appearance would tell us exactly how much more time we had left. I took a moment to judge the wind and figured The Blizzard would show up overnight if the wind didn’t die down at least a little bit. The Wayfinder on guard at the roof outpost, Laura, seconded my hunch as we chatted for the two minutes I could stand to be in the doorway before the cold wind drove me back inside.

When I returned to the Wayfinder room and started making breakfast, pitching in even though it wasn’t my turn since I had nothing else to do, I could feel the tension in the air as Wayfinders woke up and added their private silences to the general hush of the morning. Breakfast was eaten quickly and quietly as it seemed like everyone was intent on trying to get ahead of the new schedules and duty rosters we’d handed out last night, but I knew most people were just looking for a distraction. No one enjoyed being outside an Enclave during The Blizzard. Especially not a Wayfinder.

There wasn’t much formal training once you’d become a Wayfinder. Most of the stuff you needed to know was taught to you before you were accepted and, once you’d passed the tests, you were a Wayfinder as far as any other Wayfinders were concerned. The only bit of training you got before you were allowed to get your license and start taking jobs was a simple seminar featuring a video recorded from one of the first appearances of The Blizzard.

The seminar consists of a discussion of what people are about to see, the video itself, and then an opportunity for anyone who suddenly didn’t feel like being a Wayfinder to resign. We lost about a third of our new recruits at that point, though I suspect that some Wayfinders went a little bit harder on people watching the video than I would have preferred, but we’d never run into issues recruiting skilled people, so I never looked into it. It’s not difficult to imagine that most people wanting adventure and freedom from the Enclaves as they wander the tundra as a part of the most prestigious post-collapse occupation aren’t fully prepared for what that means, even after two or more years of intense training.

The video starts out simply enough, with a local arm of the national guard forming up in the streets. Soldiers in heavy winter gear take their places behind barricades and a couple tanks roll into view on the wide streets of Portland. There is heavy snow falling, making it difficult to see more than fifty feet from the person holding the camera who seems to be looking out a second floor balcony at the activity below.

After a few tense moments, the soldiers begin firing their weapons and the tanks alternate fire, each of their blasts shaking the camera as the person holding it pivots the camera toward whatever they’re shooting at. The heavy snow obscures whatever it is, though, and so the screen shows nothing but white haze for a moment. Then, a dark shadow looms silently in the middle of this blank white sheet before blasting through it, sending flakes swirling in all directions as it rips through the air. It moves too quickly to tell what it is, even as the camera pans to try to follow it, but the recording immediately snaps back to the tanks just in time to see some kind of large, clawed tendril snatch one of them off the ground.

Soldiers run back and forth, some firing into the blank void and others stripping away their gear in order to flee faster as the camera operator pivots between the ground near them and the impenetrable wall of gently falling snow that swallowed the tank. Seconds later, as all traces of movement and action beyond the soldiers are drowned in smothering white, the storm seems to steal all agency from the soldiers as well. The recording watches them freeze in place as they all stare at something the camera can’t see past the gently falling curtain of snow. A moment later, a balled up tank leaking unknown fluids is slammed down into the second tank and then the camera falls. It spins through the air catching flashes of an explosion and a dark object flashing past overhead before it strikes the ground and goes dead.  

The video lasts exactly two minutes and forty seconds. Those two minutes and forty seconds represent the only known footage of The Blizzard that survived long enough for someone to find and preserve them. I’ve spent time on and off over the past three decades trying to find more and no Enclave, no band of survivors, no hardened military base I’ve ever found had anything. Most active electronics from before or just after The Collapse don’t survive The Blizzard, after all, so it isn’t really that surprising when you think about it. The current prevailing theory is that the camera broke enough that it completely lost power when it fell, which prevented it from being destroyed as the rest of The Blizzard passed overhead.

Most people have heard stories about what happened during the first pass of The Blizzard. It’s not difficult to find yourself wondering, given how some buildings in the bigger Enclaves seem to just disappear after a certain height and that you’re taught from an early age to stay inside during The Blizzard, no matter what. Most people who lived through it are happy to share what they remember, but little of it is of any use when it comes to understanding what happened. Only that footage gives an idea of what can happen beyond the twisted wreckage and destruction that followed in the wake of its first passing.

Most people joining up these days are only familiar with the remnants of the world from before The Collapse, so it’s an abstraction to them until they see it happening. While watching the video tends to winnow out those only looking for a taste of freedom, we still lose people whenever an Enclave is destroyed as the reality seems to finally sink in for some people that there’s more to be afraid of out in the tundra than the cold and the Cultists and the Heat Seekers.

Everyone in the room had seen the recording and everyone had seen the destruction of the Memphis Enclave, three years ago, so there wasn’t a person here who didn’t take the danger seriously. Still, you had to get on with life and work and the day-to-day labor of making sure you’d survive the next time The Blizzard passed overhead. Even I was on edge, despite how many times I’d weathered a blizzard outside an Enclave, so it wasn’t any surprise that the tension in the room remained high as everyone finished their morning routines and set out for the day’s labors. The Blizzard would be here tonight, after all, based on the weather data the overnight guard shifts had collected.

As the room emptied out, I shifted from helping with breakfast to making sure everyone had their duties lined up for the day, trying to give people what comfort I could. There’s not much I could do in the face of The Blizzard, though, but at least everyone would be confident that we’d have the building sealed. It was easier to ignore the death that waited in The Blizzard if everyone was confident that our shelter wouldn’t give off a heat signature above freezing. After all, if we weren’t detected, we’d be fine. 

After a morning spent helping some Naturalists search the last few buildings Natalie had marked as potential supply sources, all of which added substantially to our horde, I spent the rest of the day helping Natalie and Jonathan catalog the incoming supplies. The Naturalists had broken up into groups led by Wayfinders to bring in stuff the Wayfinders had found during their scouting and searching, and The Laborers were putting the finishing touches on some interior defenses and all but the final steps of sealing the front entrance. Since we had no more major supply caches to collect, everyone was going out with packs rather than the sleds, so we could narrow the entrance down to just a door.

As the three of us counted through the contents of various boxes and jotted down notes about quantities and expiration dates on labels we could stick to the outside, I broke the silence. “You think we’ve got enough?”

There was silence in the room for a moment before Jonathan carefully said “I know we have the supplies to-”

“He’s being facetious, Jon.” Natalie interrupted and then heaved a sigh in my direction. “He’s being a smartass because he’s bored.”

“Oh. Well, then, yes.” Jonathan nodded. “I think we’ve got enough.”

I rolled my eyes as I added a box I’d just resealed to a stack of other boxes containing water purification supplies and was about to heave a sigh right back at Natalie when Jonathan spoke again.

“I think we have an overabundance of your snark, Marshall, but I don’t think we can afford to store it anywhere so we’ll have to throw it out when we leave.”

I laughed, turning around to find a small smirk on Jonathan’s face as he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. “Nice! I think I’m going to need to requisition some burn ointment for that one.”

“Children. You’re both bored children.” Natalie was smiling as she shook her head.

“Nothing to add from the Quip Queen? No elegant but cutting remarks?”

“Unlike you two, I’m trying to focus on making sure I count things properly rather than idly working until I come up with a decent joke.” Natalie turned her nose up in mock severity and spun around to add something to the growing pile of bags she was collecting sanitary supplies in. “If you were paying attention, you’d know that we have enough to stay here for the duration of two passes of The Blizzard and still have this place marked as a supply depot for smaller groups. Then you’d know to pick a better topic for your pointless facetiousness.”

Just as I was about to fire back, there was a knock on the door to the supply room. Without waiting for a response, the door opened a crack and Lucas’ voice called through it. “I hope the Captain and Lieutenant Natalie aren’t too busy with work for me to chat with them for a moment.” After that, Lucas made a lot of noise with some exaggeratedly heavy steps as he slowly creaked the door open while the three of us in the room exchanged a look, me with my face heating a little, before Lucas finally poked his head around the door.

“Oh.” Lucas’s face fell with disappointment when he saw the three of us blankly staring at him. “There’s three of you in here.”

“Yeah.” Natalie raised her eyebrows in exaggerated earnestness. “It would be a bit difficult to do a proper supply count without our logistics office and the man whose eidetic memory is responsible for keeping the backups.”

“I mean…” Lucas stepped into the room and closed the door behind himself. “I thought it was a pretext.”

“Lucas.” I rubbed my face with my hands, hoping I wasn’t as red as I felt.

“What?” Lucas shrugged and smirked at me. “I thought you two were going to be, you know… Busy.”

Jonathan chuckled and said “No one could ever be as busy as you, Lucas. Not everyone sneaks off to sleep with people when they’re assigned to two person tasks.”

I pulled my head out of my hands and looked between Jonathan and Lucas. “Is there anyone who doesn’t know?”

Jonathan raised and lowered one shoulder. “Not in the Wayfinders, Captain. If anyone only suspected, I’m pretty sure they figured it out after the bathroom was locked for a bit last night when only the two of you were missing.”

I sighed and hung my head, wishing I could go burrow into a snowbank for a couple hours to hide my embarrassment. “Great.”

“At least we don’t have to hide it, anymore.” Natalie stepped over and laid a comforting hand on my arm.

“Sure. I just don’t like everyone knowing, is all. This is our private business.” I sighed again and looked around at my friends. “How long has-” I paused mid-sentence as I saw a look of relief flash across Lucas’ face. “Wait a second. How many times have you skipped out on your duties to sleep with other Wayfinders, Lucas?”

“What are you talking about, Marshall?” Lucas laughed but nervously shifted his weight from foot to foot.

“Drop the act. How many?”

“I doubt he knows. Lucas is very popular amongst many of the others and I suspect he’s at the center of more than a few polyamorous…” Jonathan trailed off as Lucas glared him into silence. After a moment, he said “Perhaps I’ll let Lucas speak for himself.”

“I haven’t done it on any guard duties and the work always got done. It just took a bit longer than it might otherwise have, is all.” Lucas turned to look me in the eye and sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I know. My position and duty first and all that.”

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood and also slightly guilty of the same crime, so you can get away without a lecture this time. If Cam were here, though, they’d never let you hear the end of it.”

“I’d never let him hear the end of what?” Cam shouldered open the door as they spoke, carefully balancing four heavy-looking boxes in their arms as they tried to spin through the door without bumping the frame or overbalancing their load.

“Nothing, Cam.” Lucas stepped over and held the door open. “Nothing at all.”

“Sure, but I’m not brand new. Spill or I’ll dump these boxes on you.”

“Lucas came in here expecting to find Natalie and I in an embarrassing position, not thinking we’d actually be doing the work we said we were going to do. I was merely commenting that you’d lecture him for being nosy.” I stepped forward and took one of the boxes from Cam. “No big deal.”

“If you say so, Marshall.” Cam looked at me with a dubious frown on their face but didn’t press the issue. “I’ve got one more load for this last drop of meal bars, but it’ll go a lot faster with some help. Anyone wanna come along?”

“Yeah, sure.” Lucas stepped forward and through the door, calling back over his shoulder as he went. “Just don’t expect me to carry as much as you do, you behemoth.”

Cam set the rest of the boxes down on the floor next to where I was standing and jogged back through the door after their brother. “For that, I’m making you carry half of them.”

As their bickering disappeared, I shut the door and went back to counting things, this time sorting through boxes of protein bars as I studiously avoided meeting anyone’s gaze. When Cam and Lucas returned an hour later, they had fresh snow on their thermal gear and the pensive look on Lucas’ normally jovial face made it clear that the very edge of The Blizzard had appeared on the horizon.

Since the last of the supplies were trickling in and most of the counting and recording was done, I left Natalie and Jonathan to keep working while I did a quick headcount. All of the Laborers and Naturalists were in by the time the light began to dim and the last two Wayfinders, part of the scouting party watching the fort to the south, came through the door just as the snow began to pick up.

I oversaw the process of sealing the front entrance and, after doing a few thermal checks to make sure we didn’t have any leaks here, the emergency exit, or at any of the already sealed exits, I felt some of the tension between my shoulders ease up. I went through the formal checklist with the Wayfinders once everyone was out of their gear and the whole group seemed to relax when we finished.

After a brief conversation with Elder Brianna and then Representative Alexander, making sure their people knew to stay at least two doors removed from the outside at any time, I returned to help Natalie and Jonathan finish up with the last of the supplies. By the time that was done, the Wayfinders had settled into our room for the evening, playing games and reading by lantern light as we all quietly listened to the building begin to creak in the heavy winds that marked the imminent arrival of The Blizzard.

I helped the dinner crew prepare the meal, a rare dinner of proper meats and vegetables rather than dehydrated foods as we focused on eating through anything that would go bad while we waited out The Blizzard, and watched The Wayfinders as I stirred pots, flipped meats, and generally kept plates spinning for the actual cooks. Normally, a meal like this would have an audience as people eagerly awaited their turn to eat, but the tension of the room and the howling wind kept everyone focused on their reading and games.

While dinner was served, before getting my share, I poked my head in on the other groups and found them sharing a meal together, in the Naturalists’ kitchen. I smiled as I watched them quietly chatting together as the barriers between the groups seemed to slowly break down and disappear. Instead of checking in on them then, I decided to come back later, after dinner. I didn’t want to interrupt whatever had brought them together.

As I settled in to eat, sitting next to Natalie who promptly leaned against me in the first open display of affection of our relationship, I felt the last of the tension drain out of me. We were as safe as we could ever be during The Blizzard. I was going to get to spend the night sleeping closer to Natalie than we usually got to, now that apparently everyone knew. The Naturalists and Laborers were getting along right now and that would last for at least a few days. For the first time since we’d hunkered down for The Winter Blizzard in the Chicago Enclave a few months back, I was going to be able to enjoy a few days of peace.

It was strange to associate The Blizzard and the danger it represented with some of the most quiet and peaceful days of my life. As I felt the warmth of Natalie seep into me along with the warmth of the meal I was eating, though, I felt grateful for any reason to take a few days of rest right then.

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