Infrared Isolation: Chapter 20

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 thing I felt as I slowly swam to consciousness was the horrible cramp in my shoulders and back that woke me up. I tried to shift around to lessen the tension, but there was something preventing me from moving. I tried to open my eyes and realized I’d gone to sleep with a blanket pulled over my head which prevented me from seeing anything but a pale wash of light leaking through the heavy fabric. I tried to move my arms again, but couldn’t summon up the strength to do more than feebly shift them around. I knew something was holding them in place, but my arms and shoulder were so sore that I couldn’t put any strength into whatever was keeping me there.

I paused, gritting my teeth as I tried to outwait the cramping since I couldn’t stretch it out, and shifted my attention to taking stock of myself. As the cramping slowly faded, I noticed a bit of itching in my right leg, a bunch of gunk crusting around my eyes, a dry throat, and even more pain in the muscles of my fingers and hands. As I tried to flex my hands a bit, hoping to relieve at least some of the tension I felt, I was finally able to move my arms enough to cause a clank from somewhere at my side.

There was a rustle of fabric from beyond my blanket and Lucas’ voice called out. “Cap, stop.”

I tried to speak but only managed a croak. As I cleared my throat and finally managed to grind out “Lucas?” the blanket was pulled back from my head. My eyes met Lucas’ for a moment before he anxiously looked away and focused on disentangling the blanket that had covered me. I let him take a moment as I took stock of the dim room we were in but, when nothing more seemed forthcoming, I shifted my arms again to make the clank noise and said “what the fuck?”

“Oh. Right.” Lucas bent over and started undoing the belts that were holding me in place. “I had to tie you to the bunk last night. You wouldn’t rest.”

As he said that, a few hazy images sprang to mind. Leaning on the Naturalist who had been my assistant as I tried to carefully extract a bullet from someone’s abdomen. The constant cycle of sterilized tools as I went through everything in Jonathan’s pack since no one could find the surgery kit from our supplies. A breather between operations as I tried to force my mind to focus only on the techniques I’d learned what felt like ages ago instead of the results of what I was doing.

Even those few thoughts sent a lance of pain through my head that forced me to sit bolt upright. As I clutched my head, Lucas put a hand on my back to support me and said “easy there, Marshall. Drink a little water. You’re in rough shape.”

“I’m fine.” I coughed a little bit and took the water Lucas offered me. “Shit.” I coughed again and started taking small sips.

Lucas settled into a squat at my side, turning so he could prop me up with a shoulder. “You can be as angry as you want, Captain, but you’re going to need to direct it at me. Not even Cam was willing to drag you out of there. I had to pin you down by myself.”

As Lucas talked, I slowly pushed my mind through the fog, trying to collect the events of last night in any semblance of order. I remembered breaking out, fighting Cultists, losing Wayfinders to a collapsing tunnel, a final firefight, and then…

“Lucas!” I immediately started coughing again, spluttering as I tried to clear the crusted blood or phlegm from my throat.

Lucas gently pounded me on the back, trying to help dislodge whatever was obstructing my airways. I could hear the anxiety in his tone as he talked over my coughing. “I was the one who did it, Captain. You can punish me again if you like, but you were starting to edge toward dangerous territory, with how exhausted you were, so I made a call and I’ll take responsib-”

“No.” I held up a free hand, ignoring the way my muscles groaned in protest. “Jonathan.” I took another quick swallow of water. “Jonathan. Is he…”

“Oh.” Lucas stopped patting me on the back and went back to just supporting me, turning his head away for a moment before coming back to meet my gaze. “He didn’t make it.”

I nodded, trying to keep the memories out of the front of my mind as they came rushing back. “Did anyone…” I cleared my throat again, more to give myself a breath than because I felt like there was something stuck in it. “Did anyone else make it?”

“Yeah.” Lucas nodded. “You saved a few lives, Mar. There are a few people who’re going to keep on living thanks to you.”

“But not all of them.”

“No.” Lucas sighed and glanced over his shoulder at the door into this storeroom and a pile of blankets he’d apparently been sleeping on before I woke him up. “No one else could have done anything, though. August still hasn’t woken up and the Naturalist medic, Kelsey? She was part of the force that pushed forward with Cam. Not sure why, since we needed her back here, but she got hit bad along with a bunch of the other Naturalists when a group of Cultists managed to sneak around Cam’s group for a surprise attack. Really wish I knew why she hadn’t stayed with the noncoms…”

Lucas continued on for another couple minutes, wondering aloud as he turned back to just propping me up with a shoulder. I stopped listening as I fought through the surge of grief and inadequacy that raced through me as I remembered every person I couldn’t save the night before. Jonathan hadn’t lasted long. Before I’d had time to do more than disinfect, make an incision, and start looking for the bullet, his heart had stopped. He hadn’t even been conscious by the time I’d made it into the room and even an extra ten minutes wouldn’t have saved him, much less the handful of seconds I had delayed talking to Natalie.

Eventually, I realized Lucas had stopped talking and had half turned his head back to face me. Neither of us acknowledged the tears in our eyes until Lucas reached over and handed me the blanket. “You did your best, Marshall. No one else could have saved any of the people you did.”

I nodded and sighed, clearing my throat again as I wiped my face on the blanket. “Yeah. Still shitty, though.” Lucas nodded in agreement and we sat there for a few moments longer, taking comfort in each other’s presences. After a couple minutes passed, I could feel my muscles start to tighten. With a gentle nudge, I moved Lucas out of the way and turned so I could put my feet on the floor. My leg was still wrapped up and I hadn’t changed from the night before, so there was still a bloodstain on my shin.

“Lucas, I’m gonna get off the cot, now, but while I do that, can you go find someone to pull some metal out of my leg?”

“What?” Lucas’ calm vanished.

I gestured to my leg. “Shrapnel. Couldn’t exactly take it out myself, now, could I?”

“You did all that with a leg full of shrapnel?” Lucas gingerly pushed himself to his feet, briefly revealing a bunch of bandages wrapped around his waist. “What happened?”

“Just some bits from that trap. None of them serious. It hurts, but not much.” I pushed myself to my feet, ignoring the screaming pain of my abdominal muscles as I did. “It’s fine to walk on, bound up, but I really need to get it cleaned out.”

“Okay, yeah. Sure.” Lucas moved over to the door and opened it. “You’re two doors down from your operating room. I’ll go grab someone who is a bit steadier than I am right now.” When I started moving that way and didn’t stumble, he shook his head and started walking in front of me. “Glad you’re alright, Mar, but you really need to stop pushing yourself so hard.”

“Sure thing, mister wrestles-me-with-a-stomach-wound.”

Lucas didn’t respond to that, instead asking “want me to send Nat with? Make the cleaning and Cam’s report more pleasant?”

I hesitated for a moment, the urge to hide our relationship warring with my burning desire to make sure she was actually alright until one side won out. “Yeah.” I sighed. “Please.”

Lucas waved a hand over his shoulder and disappeared around a corner.

I stopped forcing myself to walk through the pain and limped the rest of the way down the hallway and into the operating room. Someone had cleaned it up since I was last in there, but there was still a pile of what was probably blood-soaked clothing I’d cut off people and various bandages sitting in the corner under one of our blue biohazard bags. We couldn’t burn the stuff to dispose of it outside of an Enclave, so we either carried it with us or buried it somewhere. Beside them was a box of individually wrapped sanitary paper sheets that we used to ensure whatever surface we used was as safe as possible. I grabbed one and set it on the bare operating table before plopping down on top of it.

I slowly cut through the tape and pant leg to free my wound and gave it a quick inspection. Aside from some redness and fresh blood that came with tearing the covering away, it seemed fine. There was no definite sign of infection, yet, but it was not good that I had gone to sleep with this stuff still inside me and the wound uncleaned. It was a foolish move on my part, not to mention it to anyone, but if I was still trying to save people when I was forced to sleep, then I had probably never made it down to myself in my internal triage list.

Natalie was the first one into the room and started to rush over before she saw me poking at the wound on my leg. “Marshall!” She pulled up short and then walked over more slowly. “Leave that alone.”

I glanced over at her and then back down at my leg, trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of any of the shrapnel through the mess. I knew it should hurt, still, but the tension in my shoulders and the stiffness of my fingers made it difficult to get a sense of the pain in my leg beyond the occasional twinge. As Natalie reached out like she was going to try to press me into the table, I held my hands up and lay down myself. “Hi, Natalie.”

“I’m glad you’re okay.” She stepped over to my side and brushed a hand over my forehead and through my hair.

“How’re you? You looked pretty rough the last time I saw you.”

Natalie smiled and grimaced a little bit as it pulled at the bruises and cuts on her face. “Nothing that needed more than bandaids and good night’s sleep. I’d be fully healed if I could get a shower, but that will have to wait.”

I smiled at her, trying to ignore the way the overhead light seemed to be piercing directly into my brain. A moment later, Natalie had stepped forward, blocking the light from my eyes. “Jonathan and I were buying time while we waited for Cam to make a move.” She sighed and gently stroked my head again. “It worked for a bit.’

“I wish I could have saved him.” I fought back against the tears as they threatened to spring out again and coughed at the knot in my throat.

Natalie hushed me and leaned down to kiss my forehead. “I know. You did your best. More than, from the sound of it. More than anyone else could have hoped to do.”

“Jonathan could have saved them all. Even August probably could have done a better job than me.” I wheezed out a cough and picked myself up off the table long enough to have another sip of water.

“Marshall…” Natalie gently pushed me back down when it looked like I was going to sit all the way up rather than lay back down after my drink.

I opened my mouth to speak again, but I realized I was just going to repeat myself, so I let the words die on my lips. Instead, I shifted my position on the table a little bit so I could learn my head into Natalie’s stomach and just lay there as she stroked my hair.

After a few minutes, I pushed away from her and looked toward the door. “If no one else shows up to fix me, I’m going to just start digging around in there myself.

As if waiting for their cue, Cam strolled through the door. They looked me up and down and then closed the door behind them. “You look like shit, Marshall.”

“Yeah, well you look perfect as always.” I sighed and leaned back. “Did you volunteer for this so I’d be stuck here while you gave your report?”

“Nah, I’ve just got the good stuff.” Cam walked over and popped two tablets out of a container she was holding. “Take two and this won’t hurt a bit.”

“You’re the worst drug dealer I’ve ever met.”

“Or the best.” Cam chuckled as they tucked the container into a pocket. “No one ever turns me down.”

I rolled my eyes as I swallowed the tablets and did my bet to get comfortable on the table. “I see you made it through another encounter with nothing but some dirt and grime.”

“That’s me, the luckiest person alive.”

Natalie leaned over and gave me another kiss on my forehead. “I don’t know. I think you’ve got some competition for the title.”

Cam shrugged and bent over my leg. After staring intently at it for a moment, they stood up and heaved a sigh. “Well, it looks fine. I can do this.”

“Why are you doing this instead of literally anyone else? You hate this stuff almost as much as you hate talking to people.”

Cam didn’t respond right away, instead moving to a small tool chest on a shelf as they started grabbing instruments. As they flipped through the chest, they answered so softly I almost couldn’t hear them. “I’m the only one in good enough shape to do delicate work this morning.”

I didn’t say anything in response to that, instead, I just closed my eyes and focused on the sensation of Natalie brushing her fingers through my hair.

After a few minutes of gathering supplies and waiting for the meds to kick in, Cam shuffled back over to the table, put everything down in front of them, and leaned over to inspect the injury again. I lifted my head to watch them as they adjusted things and adjusted the overhead light to remove as much shadow as possible. When they were satisfied, they pulled on a pair of gloves from a box and gently poked the injury. “You want the report now or after I’m done wriggling around in there?”

“Ugh, now, please. And never say that again.” I picked up my head to glare at them.

“I thought you liked it when I was thorough with my reports?” Cam shot a nasty grin in my direction before turning back to my wound.

“Not when it comes to talking about your incredibly amateurish surgery skills and my leg.”

“Everyone’s a critic.” Cam picked up a scalpel and I lay my head back down on the table, trying to focus all of my attention on Natalie’s face, the feeling of her hand in my hair, and Cam’s voice as they talked me through our status.

“There’s a dozen Wayfinders in good health, myself included. We’ve got four on the short-term recovery list, you and Natalie amongst them. Between your minor concussion and Natalie’s bruised everything, you’re on light duty for a few days and yes, I will absolutely fight you on it Marshall. We’ve got three Wayfinders who will probably pull through, thanks to your efforts, but two of them are going to be retired from fieldwork when we get them to Chicago and the third isn’t walking for at least a month. There are two Wayfinders who are still alive, but probably won’t make it.”

I stopped myself from going through my memories from the night before to figure out which two that might be, but it was only the horrible, numb sensation of Cam poking at my leg that pulled me out of the spiral of failure and grief I almost fell into. Oblivious to my struggles and discomfort, Cam carried on.

“We’ve managed to reclaim the remains of everyone we lost. Burials will start tomorrow. The Naturalists did not do well in the clean-up. They got ambushed by a group of armored Cultists as they started splitting up instead of following the orders given. Most of those who survived that firefight have only minor injuries, but it was devastating. They lost about three quarters of their combat population in that fight and afterwards. Most of the adults who are left are noncombatants or the shell-shocked people you pulled aside, plus a few of the Elders who had the foresight to come for us when the Naturalists started splintering and going off on their own. One of the Elders, a badass granny, tried to hold them together, but only just managed to rally them in time to not be completely wiped out.

“We have no prisoners, but enough supplies to get us to any number of Wayfinder Caches or the Des Moines Enclave, though the general consensus is that we should probably head straight back to Chicago since we’re not guiding anyone anymore and the Des Moines Enclave is too small for us to do much other than briefly rest and then head back. The route back to Chicago follows a highway and is one of the safest routes in the area, whereas going to Des Moines will mean a lot of rougher travel and who knows what else, since these Cultist fucks managed to get this built up without anyone reporting their presence.”

“I’m the one who said we should go to Chicago.” Natalie looked down at me and sighed. “I’ve been trying to get a sense of our supplies and gear and everything, since Jonathan’s not here with his lists anymore.” I briefly looked away from Natalie, squeezing my eyes shut for a moment and focusing on the awful sensation in my leg to prevent me from thinking about how impossible this group will be to maintain without Jonathan’s perfect memory.

“I thought we’d get more supplies from the Cultists, but someone tried to burn everything at some point, so a lot of their food and gear is damaged to the point of uselessness. We’ll need to hit a Wayfinder cache on the way back to Chicago, but there’s plenty for us to pick from.”

“How long can we stay here?” I looked up at Natalie to find that she was gazing off into the distance, probably thinking the same thoughts I was fending off by focusing on Cam’s work. When she didn’t look back, I picked up my head to look at Cam and asked the question again.

“We can rest two weeks, but that will only work if we ration supplies now and don’t lose any time on our way to the first cache. We’d only have one, maybe one and a half weeks to rest if we wanted to go to Des Moines.”

I lay my head back down and sighed. “So we’re going to have a bunch of people walking injured and on rationed food.”

“Yeah, unless you wanna send some of the group ahead or to Des Moines for supplies, but that would leave those who stayed behind exposed to any raiders or roaming Cultists.”

“Got it.” I heaved a sigh and turned my face toward Natalie again, who resumed brushing my hair as she shook off whatever was on her mind.

“We can search around here for supplies to buy us a little more time, probably.” Natalie looked down at me and then over at Cam. “I think we could get us up to three weeks of light rationing to recover and then a one week slow-travel period on full rationing to get to the first cache.”

“If the supplies are still there.” Cam set her instruments down with a clank and moved over to a tub near the wall to wash her hands. I picked up my head to glance at my leg and realized she’d stitched up every wound already.

“I’ll get the crews organized in the morning,” Natalie heaved a sigh and turned her attention to the far-off distance. “I’ll need to set some people on the burial crew, though.”

Cam nodded and then, after a moment, said “yeah. I don’t think we can let that go very long. Everyone needs to rest before we get back to business, though. Even me.”

I was about to agree and say I’d try to talk to everyone that night, but a massive yawn interrupted my thoughts and I felt my jaw creak from the immensity of it.

Natalie turned back to look at me and then gave a much smaller yawn in response. “You need more sleep. It’s only been six hours since Lucas dragged you out of here, if that.”

“Oh, that long?” I tried to push myself up, but all of my muscles felt weak again.

“Yeah.” Cam walked over, hands clean, and helped me to my feet. “You’re going back to bed, mister ‘walking off a nasty shrapnel wound a less than twelve hours after being beat to shit.’”

Natalie gently put a hand on my cheek to forestall the argument I was putting together as she slipped under one of my arms and took me from Cam. “C’mon, Marshall. I’ve got our bedrolls set up with the others. You and me are both on light duty right now, so we can work once we’ve gotten more sleep.”

“Fine.” I yawned again and leaned into Natalie. “I think the pain was most of what was keeping me awake, anyway.”

“Good. Now go sleep.” Cam opened the door for Natalie and I, shooing us out. “Your face is giving me nightmares and I’m not even going to bed soon.”

“Whatever.” I yawned again. “Glad you’re both alive, still.”

Natalie gave me a light squeeze as Cam said from behind me “you too, Mar. Now go.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to open my mouth without yawning again, and did my best to stumble along with Natalie as she took us to our beds, laid me down beside her, and tucked us both in. The last thing I remember before sleep overtook me was Natalie’s fingers in my hair and the two of us murmuring “I love you” as we drifted off.

Previous: Chapter 19

Next: Chapter 21

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