Infrared Isolation: Introduction

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Humans have always been storytellers. From our earliest days until whenever we finally disappear from the universe, we will be telling each other stories. For a while there, we’d figured out a way to make it indirect and widespread, sharing stories across the world via text and then voice and then video. There are still books, and the audio and videos can still be found in a few places, but Humans have shifted back around to direct storytelling. The Collapse has taken access to everything else away from most people, and those who survived adapted.

Now, on the quiet nights when the wind is low and the tundra has been still for long enough that everyone has stopped looking over their shoulders for signs of danger, people gather around the fire to share stories. They are bundled against the cold still, faces peeking out from heavy coats, huddled blankets, and worn out thermal sleeping bags because the warmth of the fire doesn’t spread very far. The banked and shielded coals are kept alive until the morning, when they’ll be needed again, but sitting around even a small, almost dead fire seems to be an important part of the ritual for most.

I like to participate when I can, on the nights when my duties as a Wayfinder don’t keep me busy. These people pay us to guide them from Enclave to Enclave, keeping them warm, fed, and safe as we traverse the arctic remnants of what used to be the midwest of the United States, so I am obligated to attend to my work even if I’d rather listen. I have to set a good example, after all.

The nights I join in, though, I almost always get drawn into the telling. I’m a rarity in the tundra, after all. I’m in my fifties, still traveling between Enclaves despite the harsh cold and nigh-constant snow that makes up our years. Most people don’t even move from one Enclave to another, let alone make a career of guiding people, carrying messages, and mapping the safest routes as the crumbling infrastructure of a lost world slowly decays.

Some do, of course. Not every move from one Enclave to another is by choice. Not every person can live in an Enclave. But most of those who move or make their lives outside the restrictions of an Enclave are on the younger side. Something about old bones needing warmth and the cold leeching away your life, according to the way people outside the Wayfinders tell it. Inside the Wayfinders, we know better. All it takes is one mistake, one error of judgment, and you can lose your life. The longer you do this job, the more likely you are to make a mistake.

The other older members of my Wayfinder crew aren’t really the storytelling type, so their marvelous sheen wears off quickly. Only I am willing to be pulled into telling stories most nights, and since I’ve been around for so long, I have more stories than most. Some real and some imagined or remembered. Tales of my crew’s past exploits as we’ve survived longer than most in the unforgiving frozen world outside the safety of an Enclave and stories I read or heard when I was younger, intermingling and sometimes being combined to create something new for my charges.

Inevitably, someone asks me what the world was like before The Collapse. There are a lot of children and teenagers who have only known the world we see before us, who are tired of hearing the same stories their parents tell them, that the Enclaves tell them. They want to know what my life was like before I became the first Wayfinder, before I started guiding people from bastion of safety to bastion of safety. They want to know what I might tell them that the Enclaves or their parents won’t, about how much better things were.

Unfortunately, few of them are satisfied with the truth. Since all Enclaves still have some kind of power in varying quantities, because they’ve adapted to the restrictions of the world that remains, things aren’t that different, other than the unending winter. Get deep enough in an Enclave–a fortress of contained warmth, safety, and order–and you can almost forget that the snow hasn’t vanished from the ground in over two decades. You can still see the old world in the shadow of the current one, if you know where to look. Human adaptability is so far insurmountable. Our world might be a ruined husk of what it once was, but we get along just fine now that we’ve figured out what we need to do to survive.

If there are no children to seek out stories of the wondrous world they never knew, the swapping of stories will eventually peter out until someone starts talking about where they were when The Collapse happened. If I can, I try to extricate myself at this point because someone will always turn to me, remark that I must have been an adult when it happened, and ask me to tell them my story.

The problem with talking about The Collapse is that it’s a name we came up with years after it happened. There’s still debate in what remains of the scholarly circles of the Net, some of it carried on by members of my own team as we deliver the various data dumps that allow the Enclaves to share information, about what specific event counts as The Collapse. While the debate is over a series of events that played out over the course of about six months, starting with the June snows and ending with the destruction of every population center throughout December that same year, they still argue about what moment in time marks the first event that Humanity couldn’t have recovered from, even if we’d all been unified at the time.

I’m of the opinion that it was years earlier than the general consensus. There was a moment in my early life, only a month out of college, when I saw some ultimately inconsequential piece of news and knew it was already over. That we were just dragging it out and trying to deny the reality we’d made for ourselves. I remember the bitter taste of being called an alarmist as my warnings fell on deaf ears. I remember phone calls going unanswered because people were tired of me begging them to prepare for what felt inevitable.

I try to brush them off, but some insist, implicitly asking me to reinforce the idea that the world we’re in now was unavoidable, that losing so many people was inevitable. If they do, I tell them. I tell them about the phone calls that eventually went unanswered because the people had vanished. About having only three people from my life before The Collapse still alive despite spending my entire life since then searching for my family and friends. About the origin of the Wayfinders being a man desperately trying to find any friends and family who survived the initial waves of destruction and only finding strangers he couldn’t bear to turn his back on.

I tell them that even though we still occasionally find isolated Enclaves and reconnected them with other survivors, I still haven’t found a single person I knew from before The Collapse except the three who are a part of my Wayfinder crew. The only three who listened to my warnings and were ready when the blizzard appeared and left behind destroyed cities in its wake. About frantically searching every updated obituary page for the names of people I knew more than half a lifetime ago because even that would be better than having them all be a part of the massive list of the missing.

The stories usually end after that. There’s not much to be said after an old man tells you why he’s still wandering the frozen wastelands over a decade after a sensible person would have retired to an Enclave. I try to end it on a positive note, by saying that founding the Wayfinders means I’ve got family in every Enclave in the world now, even if I’ve never met most of them, and that my knack for preparation means that they’re all going to get where they’re going safely. Usually they all return to telling stories after that, sometimes with a little help from me and a few choice anecdotes about some of the people I’ve reunited, but they usually stop asking me for stories after that.

Which is fine. Gives me more time to plan, to listen, and to keep watch. After all, as the head of the Wayfinders and the Captain of the only team big and skilled enough to escort large groups through the frozen wastelands, I’ve got a job to do.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1

The Power of Plastic

Jordan swiped their card and stared at the terminal until they remembered swiping didn’t work anymore. “Sorry.”

“I forget all the time.” The teller shrugged. “Just tap it on the screen.”

Jordan did and the payment terminal beeped, finally taking their payment.

As their receipt printed, Jordan jerked their head toward the rest of the store. “Amazing this place still runs.”

“Sure.” The teller shrugged again. “Stock’s different, but we still sell stuff. Helps people focus, you know?”

Jordan nodded, taking their receipt.

“Still.” The teller sighed, staring at the doors out of the store, “beats slaving away out there.”

“Yeah.”

“You good with all that?”

“I think so.”

“I could call someone…”

“No, I’ve got it.” Jordan gave a half-hearted smile, shifted the bags around, and started walking toward the exit. “Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

Jordan slowed, carefully peering out the door. The blasted ruins of cars, melted asphalt, and red haze in the air were still present. Nothing moved but plants swaying in the breeze.

Confident they were safe, Jordan hitched their mask over their face and exited the airlock. They glanced around as they walked, watching for danger and a ride away from the burned-out husk of the city. When they spotted a buggy pulled by a balding donkey, they waved it down. The elderly driver stowed Jordna’s bags and patiently waited while they fumbled with the payment terminal.

As the machine beeped to denote a payment received, the old driver chuckled. “I always figured capitalism would fail when civilization did. Thought we’d be bartering by now.”

Jordan chuckled as they climbed into their seat, brushing their iron grey hair away from their mask. “Guess it just goes to show. Peace, health, and safety are things money can’t buy. For the everything left, there’s MasterCard.”