Infrared Isolation: Chapter 14

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

The first day of The Blizzard passed quickly. After the building tension of the last few days started to calm down once the storm arrived, I found myself suddenly exhausted and struggling to stay awake. My final supply of secret sugar almost went to waste because I was dozing off instead of keeping the morning’s oatmeal moving. If Cam hadn’t been around to poke me in the ribs every time I started dozing off, it probably would have burned. After that, like an older relative at a party, I found myself dozing off any time I sat still long enough for my mind to wander.

I roused myself enough to eat a decent lunch and then tried to join a group of the younger Wayfinders who were swapping stories, but I didn’t even make it half an hour after lunch before I fell asleep. This time, though, I slept more soundly and didn’t wake up until Natalie shook me awake to get some dinner. Instead of slipping off into little groups like we usually did, we enjoyed the last of the soon-to-spoil supplies in a large group, laughing and chatting as we ate through the weird collection of dishes the dinner shift had put together with what they had.

After that, feeling a bit more refreshed by the varied meal and conversation, I walked through the Naturalist and Laborer rooms. Each group seemed to be doing fine, though it was clear the Laborers were having a rougher time of things. This was probably the first time most of them were experiencing The Blizzard without access to the comforts of an Enclave while the Naturalists had years of practice behind them at this point.

Without the larger power infrastructure of an Enclave to carry them through this sunless period, most of the Laborers seemed to have run through the batteries on all their devices already. Without their tablets or game consoles, they had nothing to read or play anymore. I wound up fetching them a few decks of cards and a booklet of card games I kept with me for such occasions, but most of them seemed more interested in restlessly pacing their room than trying to learn a new game. If they didn’t settle down, I figured I could find out which books the Wayfinders had all read and pass those along to the Laborers.

After that, I briefly checked in with Representative Lex and Elder Brianna in a more formal manner, to make sure they’d been abiding by the rationing schedule we’d set and that everyone was settling in as comfortably as they could in the circumstances. They told me everything was fine, brought up a couple small complaints that I couldn’t do anything about since we couldn’t leave our shelter, and then I headed back to the Wayfinders’ room.

Natalie met me at the entrance and together we did a quick inspection of the storerooms, to verify that the supplies were keeping and that everyone had made sure to fill out the logs when they took food for their meals or batteries for their lamps. It took a bit longer for the two of us than it would have if Natalie had gone herself, but we weren’t in a hurry. There was nothing else to do for the rest of the evening. Thankfully, Lucas didn’t try interrupting us again this time because he was smug enough seeing us reenter the Wayfinders’ living space together after our inspection that he would have been intolerable if he’d caught us while we were working.

The tension of the past few days returned overnight, interrupting everyone’s sleep as The Blizzard announced its arrival with shrieking winds that left the building groaning under their pressure. Interspersed throughout that was the steady bang and thump of debris bouncing off the building. While not quite a gale and nowhere near as powerful as the tornadoes from before The Collapse, the gusting winds of The Blizzard were enough to knock down dead trees and slowly peel the roof off any unattended building, over the years. This was the main way you knew The Blizzard had arrived, since no other natural snowstorm ever had winds heavy enough to occasionally rearrange the rusting hulks of metal that were all that remained of the cars that had once filled the streets of the US.

The morning started slow, as people did their best to reclaim the sleep stolen from them during the night before, but it was difficult to ignore the wind. After all, it was a constant reminder that the only thing separating us from the death that wind represented was the sturdiness of the building we’d selected and the seals we’ve used to prevent our heat from escaping. If any of that failed us, we’d just be dead. There was no way to fix any of that, now that The Blizzard had begun.

When the chatter in the room grew loud enough that I could hear the murmur of voices over the wind, I gave up trying to sleep and instead turned toward breakfast. I did my best to rally the morning cooks and cheer up the other Wayfinders, but nothing I did made much of an impact. Thankfully, there were no restrictions on the amount of noise we could make, so I encouraged people to be loud and, slowly, the howling wind began to fade into the chatter that filled the room.

When I went to check on the other grounds, I found the Naturalists all wearing ear plugs and communicating in sign language. Elder Brianna took her earplugs out long enough to assure me that they were fine and probably more used to getting through The Blizzard in rough conditions than we were, since we frequently spent them in Enclaves. When I checked in on the Laborers, though, I found most of them drunk out of their minds. Apparently one of them had found a cache of whiskey in one of the places they’d raided for supplies, so they’d brought back enough to get all of them stumbling drunk.

Thankfully, none of them seemed belligerent or like they wanted to do anything more than just lay there and watch the room spin, so I left them to their own devices with a mental note to make sure all the Wayfinders knew that the Laborers needed to be watched just as much as all the exits did. After that, I spent the rest of the day failing to keep spirits up in the Wayfinders as I did my best to ignore the wind.

By the time the next day arrived, all attempts at conversation had pretty much ended. The screaming wind and banging debris outside our shelter were impossible to ignore and everyone was tired and worn out from failing to overpower the noise with our own talk. Most people didn’t move far from their beds as they attempted to nap and doze their way through the day. Some of these folks pushed their bedding together, trying to find comfort in each other’s presence like a pile of cats in a sunbeam. Everyone else either quietly played cards, spent some extra time repairing or cleaning their gear, or otherwise quietly chatted with each other between taking care of their daily tasks.

I only emerged from my pile to make my rounds once, around midday. Made up of Natalie, Jonathan, Lucas, Cam, and two of the younger Wayfinders whose normal group was busy on guard duty, the comfort of quiet chatting and napping with all of them was the only thing making the day tolerable, so I hurried through my daily tasks. It was easy enough to verify that the proper amount of supplies had been checked out and the Naturalists were keeping themselves busy with what looked like some lessons for the kids and some training programs for the adults.

The Laborers were just huddling around their cooking range, grilling little bits of food they’d saved up from their rations or had been carrying in their personal gear. I watched them for a moment, considering checking on them, when Representative Lex caught my eye and shook his head. Taking the excuse to be done with my duties, I nodded and returned to the comfort of my friends just in time to see Lucas and Jonathan challenging the two younger Wayfinders, Laura and Felix, to a game of poker. I joined Cam and Natalie in watching the game unfold as the group gambled guard shifts over the next few days and eventually the third day of The Blizzard came to an end.

The tension seemed to ease a bit over the fourth day, as the lethargy of the day before gave way to restlessness. Not long after breakfast, the Wayfidners were all busy with training exercises and setting up a schedule for various classes. Every Wayfinder had a wide variety of skills, especially in a group this large, so there was a lot of cross-training that happened when there was a lot of downtime. After all, if something happened to the only person who knew how to do something, then the whole group was put at risk. Better to make sure everyone knew as much of everything else as possible. Plus, it made it easier to break the large group into smaller groups if there wasn’t work for a group this big at whatever Enclave we stopped at.

I made sure to extend invitations to the Naturalists and Laborers too, if members of either group wanted to lead a session or just join in the existing ones. Given that I delivered the invitation to a bunch of clearly hungover Laborers blearily huddled around the lingering mess of their breakfast, I was surprised when almost all of them showed up in the afternoon for the classes. The Elders of the Naturalists had been happy to join their efforts to ours, so almost everyone spent the afternoon attending a class of some kind. I spent the afternoon brushing up on my martial arts and helping Jonathan with an emergency medical care class, but I made sure to take some time to check in on every class.

Everyone seemed to be getting along, actively participating in their chosen pass-time and enjoying each other’s company as we did our best to have fun in spite of The Blizzard raging outside. Even the Laborers all seemed on board and engaged, despite the bags under many of their eyes and the faint stink of alcohol that seemed to linger around them. Eventually, after dinner, a final class–dancing, led by a group of Naturalists–and the best approximation of a bath I could give myself with our dwindling hygiene supplies, I collapsed into my bedroll next to Natalie and wound up going to sleep earlier than I had since The Blizzard began.

When I awoke the next morning, I immediately noticed that the winds had started to die down. They were still howling, but the building shook less and the constant sounds of impact had begun to dwindle. It was clear that everyone noticed, too, since everyone’s moods picked up as the day went on. All of the classes were more energetic and people seemed happier than I’d ever seen any of them.

Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t still some negativity. There were a lot of people convinced of their strength and prowess who learned that they weren’t as strong as they thought when their bodies gave out on them before the martial arts or strength-building classes ended. Even that kept itself confined to complaining, though, so I had an easy day of brushing up on my martial arts as Cam’s training dummy and then leading a class on the history of the Midwestern Enclaves.

There were a few people, a mix of Wayfinders, Laborers, and Naturalists who spent most of the day playing cards or covering guard shifts, but they seemed happy to hang out on the periphery of the other groups when they could. There was a little bit of heckling, cheering, and booing as some people chose to watch the more active classes than play a game on their own, but it was good natured and evenly distributed amongst everyone participating so I let it slide. As long as everyone was having fun and enjoying their day, I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize that.

On the sixth day, the wind died down from its constant howling to scattered gusts. Things still bounced off the building with a frustrating irregularity, which brought most of the tension back since it was just infrequent enough to get used to the silence before a loud collision jolted you out of whatever you were doing. There were also a lot of sore people who had, in their exuberance the day before, pushed themselves too hard, and that didn’t help matters. While there were still plenty of classes for those who wanted to stay active, a lot more people stayed in their rooms and quietly groaned or talked amongst themselves. Thankfully, the wind had mostly died down by the time we all went to bed and stayed gone throughout the night.

The seventh day of The Blizzard had a different tension, though, as everyone stayed quiet and strained their ears for any noise from outside. After having to talk at a moderately high volume just to be heard over the wind for almost a week, it felt unnatural to speak in anything but hushed tones now that silence had fallen. As I moved through my morning tasks, it was quiet enough for me to hear my joints creak and groan in protest as I shifted boxes in the stockroom and did a few laps between the rooms to try to lift everyone’s spirits a bit.

Thankfully, by the time dinner rolled around, everyone had started to relax again. The gusts of wind hadn’t returned in anything resembling their strength from the past few days which meant the worst of The Blizzard had passed by. So long as the gusts didn’t come back and nothing else disrupted it, The Blizzard would end on schedule in just three more days. Since we all knew when we’d be able to get outside and safely enjoy some fresh air again, it seemed a lot easier to put up with waiting.

As the eighth day dawned, I started the process of creating teams for digging us out of our shelter. The Blizzard could bring anything from one to four feet of snow in the spring, and that meant it would pile high anywhere the wind blew against. While our exit wasn’t on a side of the building that should have gotten a lot of wind, there would still be plenty of snow that had flurried in front of it and even more that we’d probably need to dig through to get out of the office park our shelter was located in.

Having these concrete schedules and chores to do in another couple days seemed to help drain the tension out of people even further, as I assigned groups and answered questions between classes and training sessions. At dinner that night, I requisitioned some extra supplies for dinner, breaking into the stuff we’d set aside to help establish this place as a Wayfinder base. That seemed to lift everyone’s spirits even further, even if the extra food meant we needed to expand cooking and cleaning duties for the evening, but it helped that I had everyone come to the Wayfinder room for dinner rather than eat separately like they had been. It did us all good to sit down to eat together and see how much we enjoyed each other’s company, despite the tensions before The Blizzard.

The final day of seclusion passed in a blur. I spent the entire day getting the Laborers and Naturalists organized, making sure gear repairs were finished, and overseeing the collection of trash for disposal. Natalie made sure that everyone had replacements for gear that they’d been unable to fix and all the tools they’d need over the next few days, and started separating out the supplies we’d be taking with us from what we’d leave behind. Cam and Jonathan didn’t have much to do yet, beyond checking that each of the Wayfinders was doing their job, but they’d be leading the efforts of digging us out and scouting the area for danger once we opened the doors so their peace was a temporary one.

That night, despite being in bed early after the day’s business, I struggled to rest as my dozing mind kept throwing dreams at me before I could properly fall asleep. Half-formed dreams about snow piles collapsing, The Blizzard changing course, something being left behind for us in town, and disjointed feelings of fear plagued my mind as I tossed and turned in the stuffy air of the Wayfinder room. I eventually fell asleep, but I wasn’t sure what time it was when I did, so I was not surprised to feel exhausted and drained still when I woke up to the smell of coffee replacing the musky scent of sweat and too many people that had conquered everything but breakfast time over the last couple days.

After a quick breakfast, I got into my gear and took charge of the people milling about. Even the Wayfinders, who had jobs to do, were finding excuses to hang out around the guideposts that marked our exit from the building. Under my supervision, while Cam and Jonathan started restoring order to the milling throngs, the last guards on duty began to carefully remove the seal keeping all our warmth in. As they peeled away the grey, rubbery material, there was a sensation of moving air followed by a rough hiss as cold air pushed its way into the building.

When we finally got through the foyer to our final sealed door and got that open, our first glimpse of the outside showed us a familiar but blinding light-grey sky. Snow was still gently falling, but it was the large, fat flakes of a natural snow rather than the mix of ice and small crystals that marked the edges of The Blizzard. Outside the door, in drifts ranging from a couple feet to well over a dozen, was a fresh layer of snow. Since we were in the lee of the building, the forward team, myself included, were able to get a reasonable clearing made in the time it took for everyone else to finish eating and getting their gear on.

As I looked back at the team finishing up the work of unblocking and restoring the full set of doors, I spotted Elder Brianna and Representative Lex watching me from just inside the door. Smiling, I waved them over. “I hope you and your people are ready!” I pulled down my scarf to make it a bit easier to talk and so they’d be able to see my smile this time. “Today’s just about digging. Supply gathering will start tomorrow, but only if we can get the paths dug before the cloud cover clears and starts turning the top of this stuff to ice.”

“Sunlight? A day after The Blizzard finished?” Representative Lex scanned the horizon as he shook his head in disbelief. “Already?”

“We usually get more sun in the week after The Blizzard passes than we get in the rest of the three months before it returns again.” Elder Brianna smiled as she turned her face, eyes closed, toward the sky.

I nodded and leaned on my shovel. “We tend to start seeing breaks in the clouds during the first twenty-four hours and then a day or two of clear skies afterwards. After all, most of the moisture making up the clouds is down here, now, and the rest usually gets pulled away with The Blizzard. It’ll be a few days before they start to return to their darker grey color that you’re probably used to. Most people don’t emerge from their shelters until after that’s already begun, but we can’t wait that long. We’ve got work to do. Places to be.”

“We always tried to get as much of our outside work done right after The Blizzard, back at our home.” Elder Brianna sighed and looked down at us again. “I can’t wait to feel sunlight on my face again, after being stuck inside for so long.”

Representative Lex shrugged. “I trust you. I guess I just never really thought about it.” After a moment, he turned his face up like Elder Brianna’s had been and seemed to try to feel whatever it was she’d felt. When nothing seemed to happen to him, he sighed and turned his face back to mine. “Paths it is. I’ll get my people on it.”

“Thanks. Don’t forget to get your copy of the map. Your group is heading south, toward the supply cache Lieutenant Natalie marked. It’s an old hardware store that we didn’t have time to clear out of anything but the tools we picked up. That should probably take your group the whole day.”

“South?” Elder Brianna frowned. “Isn’t that toward that group of people you’ve been watching?”

“Yeah, but we’ve already got scouts assigned to keep an eye on the fort. They’ll get there before Lex and his people do, and will warn them away if it looks like that fort is sending people our way.” I looked at Representative Lex and shrugged. “As long as you all stay fairly quiet, it shouldn’t be a problem. No shouting, I mean. Loud sounds tend to carry a lot further than you think then will in the snow.”

Representative Lex nodded and smiled as he tapped the breast pocket of his coat. “Already got my map right here. Your new scouting Lieutenant even marked out how far north they’d found traces of people from the fort so we’d know to be careful when we get close to the hardware store.” Representative Lex paused for a moment, like he was waiting for me to say something, but before I could think of what he might be looking for, he carried on. “I’ll have my people ready to go within an hour.”

“Very good. Straight south, going around drifts if you need to, but there’s a main road you can use about a block away that should make it easy to travel. Just don’t go off the marked route.”

Representative Lex nodded, a thoughtful expression on his face as he turned away. Before he could take more than a single step, he paused and turned around again. “How big should the path be? I don’t think that was covered, yet…”

I held my arms out to my sides as far as I could. “About that big. Two and a half times the width of your biggest person is usually a good metric, too. Enough space so that people can pass each other going opposite directions without worrying about falling in the snow or bumping into each other. Don’t want to drop the supplies or hold up movement.”

Representative Lex nodded and gave me a thumbs up as he turned away. After a few moments, long enough to be sure he didn’t think of anything else he needed to ask, I turned to Elder Brianna. “And your people will-”

“Local paths. I know. I took notes.” Elder Brianna waved a copy of the map in the air, showing off the marked paths and the tidy handwriting covering it. “We know what to do. Used to do this exact thing around our home, though I will say we relied a bit more on snowshoes for the longer stuff than just digging our way through.”

“The snow will collapse under the weight of a person and any supplies they might be carrying, plus our sledges are too heavy to ride on top of the snow like that.”

Elder Brianna nodded. “I suppose. It’s too bad they slow us down so much. Otherwise we might not be in this mess.” She sighed and started folding up her map. “I’ll make sure all my people know what to do. We’ll see our work done.”

“As soon as us Wayfinders have dug our path out of town, we’ll circle back to help your group finish up.”

Elder Brianna arched an eyebrow at me. “You think your Wayfinders, maybe half the size of my group, can make it a mile and a hour out of town and back again before we’re finished?”

I smiled widely, initiating Lucas’ signature grin, and chuckled. “Well, we’ve had a lot of practice.”

“I suppose.” Elder Brianna shook her head as a short chuckle escaped her. “Fair enough.”

I watched the Naturalist Elder walk away and then turned to see the Wayfinders finish repairing the double doors so we’d be able to get the sledges out again. As the doorway finally cleared, I went back inside, adjusted my insulated gear, and went to find where my shovel had gotten to. One day of digging, four days of gathering supplies, one final day of organizing, and then we’d finally be on our way again. As much as I had enjoyed the warmth, security, and closeness of the past ten days, my feet had started to itch the instant I’d caught sight of the sky again. Safety is always nice and being close to Natalie is my favorite way to pass the time, but I was ready to be moving again.

Previous: Chapter 13

Next: Chapter 15

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