Infrared Isolation: Chapter 15

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

After plenty of stretching and more grumbling than I felt was strictly necessary, I finally managed to push our group into movement. It took a great deal of cajoling and the promise of an extra large meal once the day was over to break through the inertia of the last ten days, but we were all steadily working before mid-morning. I tried to be patient, since I knew a lot of people were eager to soak up as much light and fresh air as they could, but there was no reason they couldn’t do that while also digging and we had places to be.

As our three groups diverged, the Laborers to the south, the Naturalists branching out in all directions, and the Wayfinders to the west, I moved out of my cheerleading role and into my position as a lead digger. We three lead diggers wore snowshoes and dug through the lighter, powdery snow at the top of of our path, doing our best to stay on top of the various drifts, banks, and powdery fluff to act as the guides for the group below, in addition to removing the stuff that would just collapse onto the heads of those digging below and behind us.

It was awkward at first, the three of us working in a small clump as we heaved loose snow around while also keeping an eye on which way we were headed, but we quickly found our rhythm. As we dug, I called out signposts and landmarks to Natalie who checked her map and offered course corrections as we shifted to avoid the worst snow drifts and streets that were blocked off due to wrecks or collapsed buildings. While our shelter had emerged from The Blizzard just fine, not every structure in town had been as lucky and we had to make some changes to Natalie’s planned route to account for that.

In front of Natalie, initially led by Cam, was a group of five diggers, each of them wielding a heavier shovel they used to break through the more packed snow. Each of them tossed it back or to the sides where the rest of the active crew was either using it to create barriers on top of the snow to prevent more from getting blown into our paths or to shore up some of the walls that refused to stay standing along our path. The inactive crew, approximately half the Wayfinder crew, was following Natalie’s directions to dig out specific buildings we passed and gather supplies to be brought back to our shelter during breaks or on our way back.

Every fifteen minutes, the diggers on the ground rotated out with the inactive crew. After an hour, the diggers on top of the snow rotated with people on the crew that was shoring up the path. There were enough people on heavy digging crew that none of them would get a second shift, but the front and shoring crew totaled only nine, so my original crew was most of the way finished with our second shift when we finally reached the edge of town and the edge of the packed snow. There were plenty of drifts beyond the town, of course, but most of it blew around frequently enough that it never had the chance to pack down until it hit a town or a forest.

As I surveyed the scene, calling out a few landmarks to Natalie so she could verify we’d emerged in the correct location, I eyed a few of the larger snow drifts on the edge of town. Some of them were the full height of the two-story buildings that remained on this street. None of the drifts outside the town could compare to them, but clearly the snow had been heavy enough as the wind died down to leave these massive drifts in place. Travel was probably going to be a bit more rough than usual, until we got our first wind storm to blow it all around again.

When we finished digging out the path and the parts of a staging ground for our future departure, Natalie called a break. I sat down with everyone, grateful for a chance to rest my back from all the work we’d been doing. It was a great core workout, this digging, but I was feeling my age more than usual. Staying in shape meant that I’d probably be able to keep this up for years to come, but I don’t think it was ever going to get any easier. I mulled over these thoughts, and if I’d be able to stop assigning myself to lead the snow-top digging team without feeling guilty, as Natale paced around the group of us, checking distant landmarks against her map.

As I leaned back into the hard-packed snow, watching Natalie mutter to herself, one of the younger Wayfinders, Tiffany, nudged my arm. “Water bottle, Captain.”

I nodded my thanks as I took the water bottle and took a few small sips. Just enough to wet my mouth for now. I didn’t want to over-hydrate and need to go to the bathroom before I got back to the shelter. That was going to be the most difficult part of leaving, having to dig latrines and go to the bathroom in the cold again.

As I passed the water bottle on and let my mind continue wandering down this path, I noticed Tiffany muttering to herself. “How the hell can that map show her anything out here, in all this white bullshit.”

I glanced over at Tiffany, one of the youngest and newest Wayfinders, and waited for a moment to see if she was talking to me or to herself. After a beat, I shrugged and said “It takes some practice, but it’s not really that difficult once you’ve figured it out. Requires a bit of imagination, but most of the big stuff is still visible if you know how to look for it.”

“Sure, but how does she know which are which?” Tiffany gestured at the snow-covered fields to the west. “All I see are a bunch of lumps that are probably drifts and some trees over there. How do you know where stuff is away from the cities and stuff?”

I looked out to the west, where Tiffany was gesticulating, picking out the subtle signs of abandoned cars, highway signs, and the occasional crumbled building in the distance as I scanned the horizon. I tried to figure out how to describe the subtle differences between the lumps of snow in a way that would make sense, but couldn’t really explain it other than the subtleties of shape and size. I glanced over at Natalie who was also scanning the horizon, finger tracing along the heavily marked up map she was carrying. “Practice, mostly. Natalie has a bit of a knack for this stuff, the kind of visualization to see things beneath the snow, so most of what I know is stuff I picked up watching her work.”

“Sure, sure.” Tiffany nodded, clearly exasperated. “I just want to know how to do it. How she does it! Any kind of actual explanation at all would be good.”

I nodded, “okay. Ask her then. She’s the expert.” I settled back against the snowbank as silence fell over our conversation and closed my eyes, expecting to hear the sound of Tiffany getting to her feet to go talk to Natalie. Instead of that, I was startled out of my comfortable position when Tiffany started yelling beside me.

“Lieutenant Natalie!”

I reached up a hand to cover my ear and was about to admonish Tiffany for making so much noise, but Natalie had already looked away from her map. Her gaze was locked on Tiffany, who had one arm up and waving above her head, as she strode over and the younger Wayfinder seemed immune to the stern frown that shut most other Wayfinders up immediately. “Can you teach me to use maps and stuff like you do? I want to learn to navigate.”

The frown disappeared from Natalie’s face as she came to a halt a couple steps away. “Probably not. I’m better at abstract mental imaging than most people, so it’s easy for me to see the shapes beneath snow. Most of the other Wayfinders need years to develop those kinds of skills for themselves.”

Tiffany looked crestfallen and started to drop her arm, but Natalie reached over and took her hand. “It would be my pleasure, though, to help you figure out a method that works for you.”

Tiffany immediately perked up again and, using the hand that Natalie had grasped, pulled herself to her feet. “Great! Let’s start now.”

Natalie laughed and smiled. “Yes. Let’s start your first lesson. Can you find the roads out of here?”

Tiffany looked over at the horizon to the west and then down at her feet. “I mean, I see that we’re standing on asphalt right now, so there’s one. Probably goes west toward the group of lumps over there. No idea after that.”

“All excellent observations.” Natalie nodded and then started pointing to a few smaller lumps of snow. “I can see where the roads are using the signposts and mile markers along the side of the road. That one there is probably a route sign, saying which road this is, and the little one past it is a mile-marker. Once you see those two, you can line up all the other markers as the small piles of snow go on, letting us follow a road rather than needing to deal with whatever rough terrain is out there.”

“Are roads a big deal?”

“Outside the midwest and the plains areas, yes. Here, it doesn’t matter as much since the snow is constant and the ground is flat enough that there’s usually a heavily-packed layer of snow covering everything. They’re still very useful for navigating, though. Especially because I can always dig out a signpost or mile marker to confirm where we are.”

Natalie turned the map she was holding around and started pointing out various bits of notation she’d added to the satellite imagery over the years. “Since we mostly work in the Midwest, I’ve got fairly recent, pre-Collapse maps of the entire area that I update as we travel. There’s a couple mapmaker squads of Wayfinders who help keep these up to date, dropping off new data at every Enclave they stop at, but I think I’m the only one not in one of those squads contributing to the work.”

“So you already know where everything is, then. You’re not really reading the map and navigating, you’re following a path.”

“Sort of. The snows are frequent and heavy enough that there’s always stuff that needs updating, and that’s what most of my notes are. Updates and stuff I’ve learned over the years that helps me figure out how things might have changed since I last updated my maps.”

Tiffany looked at the proffered map and folded her arms over her chest. I could just imagine her expression, eyes squinted in consternation as she started at the barrage of information on the page before her. After a few seconds, Tiffany let out a sigh and leaned back. “I can’t make anything out of that mess. You’re telling me that I’ll eventually know what all that means?”

“If you stick with it long enough, yes.” Natalie nodded and smiled. “I suspect it would be easier to read now if my writing was any neater, but it’s a bit difficult to take such small notes while wearing my gloves.”

“I see.” Tiffany nodded slowly, one hand raising to rub her chin.

“You’re also going to need to practice a lot. Being a navigator takes a lot of work and training. There’s no room for you to be wrong out here.”

“There’s no room for anyone to be wrong out here.” Tiffany sighed and dropped her arms to her sides. “When do I start?”

“Right now, since it seems like you don’t need a break.” Natalie started folding up the map she held in her hands and then pulled a fresh, unmarked copy out of her pack. “Here. You start taking notes on stuff you see over the next few days and we’ll talk through it every evening.”

With that, the two of them moved further away and I settled down for a quick doze during the last few minutes of my break. I hadn’t done more than squirm around a bit to get comfortable before Cam’s voice rose above the quiet murmur of other voices, calling us all back to our feet. I rose begrudgingly, but was spared any immediate work when Cam called for the shifts to switch before finishing the work of digging out the standing ground and the start of our path. That took only a few more minutes, though,  and then we were on our way back to our shelter.

We picked up boxes of supplies as we went, arriving back at our shelter’s doors fully laden with more food, tools, and medicine. We’d managed to get everything we’d found along the way, since we didn’t need anyone to dig on the way back, so we wound up splitting up to help the various Naturalist crews finish up their work not long after noon. They’d made it further than I expected in the time we’d given them, but they seemed like they’d worn themselves ragged while doing so. They wound up needing a longer break while we took over their work, in order to finish out the day. They eventually rallied and we managed to finish all our path digging in a single day, with a little bit of daylight left.

As we all piled into the shelter for our evening meal and rest, I found the Laborers already in their room, sitting around their stove as they quietly watched the cooks make their dinner. As I stepped into the room, Representative Lex cleared his throat and said “Can I help you, Captain?” and what little conversation there was died out.

“I’m just here to check on you. Everything go alright today? Did you make it to the hardware store?” I smiled warmly at them.

Representative Lex stood up, stretching as he did. “Yes. We got back about fifteen minutes ago, maybe a bit longer. We even managed to bring some stuff back with us. I had my people leave it outside the storeroom so it wouldn’t get lost.”

I nodded my thanks. “Alright, then. If you’ve got nothing else to report..?”

Representative Lex shrugged. “We finished the path with enough time left to do some widening and shoring up, did that, and then brought supplies back. Not much to report, really.”

“Excellent.” I smiled again. “That’s what I love to hear. Great job with the path widening. I’m sure that’ll make it easier to get the rest of the supplies Lieutenant Natalie wanted.” I paused for a moment and then added “thank you for all your hard work. We really appreciate it.” A few of the laborers sitting around the stove nodded their heads while the rest muttered some small words of appreciation. Representative Lex didn’t say anything after that, so I waved farewell and went back to the Wayfinder room in search of my dinner.

Halfway to the room, I paused. Thinking back, the awkward silence of the Laborers struck me as odd. Careful not to let my feet make any noise in the otherwise silent hallway, I crept back to the Laborer’s doors to listen.

More than a minute had passed, but the Laborers still sat in silence. I gave it another couple minutes, long enough for some conversation to return, but it was quiet and stilted so I couldn’t understand anything they were saying to each other. I carefully peaked through the crack between the door and the frame, but only saw people sitting around with exhaustion clearly written on their faces.

I observed for a few more minutes, until the Laborers began to eat their dinner, but didn’t learn anything new. When I was certain I wasn’t going to learn anything else, I silently crept away and joined the Wayfinders just in time to get the dregs of dinner. I waved off questions about my lateness but told Natalie, Cam, and Lucas to keep an eye on the Laborers over the next few days. We eventually decided to make sure each Laborer group we sent out for supplies had at least one Wayfinder with them, just to keep an eye on things, but none of the others seemed as wary as I was.

A long night’s sleep did nothing to allay my suspicion, but they began to fade over the next three days of collecting supplies. None of the Wayfinders reported anything out of the ordinary other than the Laborers seem to have gotten more quiet since The Blizzard had ended. Given that every day had been incredibly busy since we’d been able to leave our Shelter, Cam and Natalie seemed to think it was just exhaustion. Lucas seemed to be as suspicious of what was happening as I was, but even he set his suspicions aside after two days of nothing.

Our final day of gathering supplies had us raiding the most distant depots for supplies, including the hardware store that the Laborer’s had dug a path to. It was a busy day of collecting building materials, charging batteries, and doing one last check of what was going to stay at the shelter and what was going to come with us, so I set aside my suspicions for the time being. We were still keeping an eye on them and they did genuinely seem exhausted by all this effort after ten days of relative inactivity. Plus, as Jonathan pointed out, they’d just spent their first pass of The Blizzard huddled up in a shelter rather than in the comforts of an Enclave. It was difficult to recover from that stress and being so cooped up that long if you weren’t used to it.

As we all retired early that night, preparing ourselves for an early morning and finally departing this place for the Des Moines Enclave, I tried to work through my suspicions. I only got a couple minutes in, replaying the weird silence that had pervaded the group of Laborers, thinking about how strange it had been for the Naturalists to be more cheerful and loud than the Laborers for perhaps the first time, but quickly fell asleep.

When I woke up, it wasn’t to the usual chirp of my watch. Instead, I felt a ring of cold metal poking me in the forehead and heard a voice speaking as I grew tense. “Stay still, now. Wayfie. Make any sudden moves and you and your people will die.”

Previous: Chapter 14

Next: Chapter 16

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