Duty's Mercy

Duty's Mercy

This thread picks up where we left off in Making the Grade

The mess hall was jammed, packed to the gills with people. Soldiers mingled with civilians, squeezing together on every flat surface available. The Colonel stood on top of the mess line, standing calmly watching people file in. Several soldiers throughout the room were guiding people to available spaces. A small child sat on a table, cuddling a teddy bear while a concerned father patted her hair and watched her. The Colonel knew the child's mother was gone, but he carefully set aside thoughts of his own kid and the group she'd walked in with. He had a job to do, and he'd damn well do it.

Thoughts of his girl eased his expression only slightly, until Coty and company walked through the door. Some tension went out of him as he saw them - tired, certainly, but none the worse for wear. The report from the medic said Coty's friend's arm would be just fine, and that his daughter's companions would be okay. His heart swelled with pride at the knowledge that his girl - his girl - had made it, had kept her head and stayed alive. His pulse picked up though, because he knew what was coming, and trained or not, this was going to be rough.

He'd never had a harder job, but he was a strong man and knew what he had to do. He signaled one of the soldiers, who met Coty's group at the door and escorted them down to the front, among soldiers who made a place for them and made sure they stayed together. He stepped across the table to the center, holding his hands up for silence as the door shut and the people assembled before him stilled, watching him carefully.

"Good afternoon." He scanned the crowd, pleased by how calm they were as they listened. "Well, no easy way to say this. There's good news, and bad news. The good news comes in two parts, so we'll start with that. First is, the compound is secure, and as of now and based on what we have in stock, we have supplies to last four weeks. Unless we get an influx of more people from the city. I doubt that, but it would be a welcome problem." He ran a hand over his short salt-and-pepper hair, a gesture he only made under heavy stress. The unspoken half of his purported good news was that these were all the survivors so far, and that was anything but good. Putting his mind away from the families torn apart and the massive carnage indicated by the entire population of Tampa, Florida being able to fit in one oversized mess hall, he continued.

"The second part of this is that the medics are close to figuring out what's causing the zombie issue." One of the first few groups of survivors had been a group of two doctors and two research scientists from the USF medical center. They'd been eating lunch in the Fishbowl when the first zombies appeared, which gave them the dual advantages of forewarning and a head start. Since arriving at the base, they'd been locked in the labs with a few zombies, doing whatever it was they did. He shifted from his left foot to his right, running his hand over his head again and pausing before opening his mouth again.

"Now the bad news. We still are unable to establish contact with any other bases, or indeed any other cities. For now, we're on our own." Some angry mutterings in the back were quickly stifled by a glare. "I'm sure this won't continue to be the case, but while we continue to try to reach to other areas, we're going to focus on clearing out the Tampa Bay area and making it safe and habitable again. We'll be organizing into parties and slowly extending a clean area out from the base until we get the entire area clear. If you want to volunteer to help, you can see Sgt. Ringo after this briefing." He had a feeling Coty would volunteer, but with a sinking heart knew he needed her for something else. He made a small gesture that Coty knew well, a small sign between them to come over once the briefing had concluded.

"Beyond that, if you have questions, concerns, or complaints, please see Lt. Butcher. Thank you." It was a short and uncomfortable briefing. He wished the news were better but it wasn't, he wished he were used to talking to civilians - but he wasn't that either. It is what it is, he reminded himself sourly, and stepped down from the table to a small corner to brace himself for the conversation he had to have with his girl.

Coty had been eager to get to the mess hall, eager to see her father whole and alive, even more eager for the reassurance of other bodies and the veil of optimism they provided. She wasn't the only one who wore her hope sharp enough to make splinters. It was the final barrier of defense and those hiding behind it protected it with thorn wires and stone. Coty listened to her father resolutely and refused to let her crumble, despite the words that she word.

She and the woman gripped hands. Who had initiated the contact, Coty didn't know, but she felt her bones grinding eachother and knew her own touch was similar. In a similar gesture, she found the arm of the person next to her, Tabor's, and she met his eyes as he glanced at her. She didn't smile but she acknowledged the fight she saw there. She realized momentarily that she'd dug her fingers in, broken and chipped nails sharp enough to leave gouges, and she forced herself calm as she watched her father's hands - tells only to her, she was sure - and suppressed a shudder.

They weren't gonna make-

She denied the thought further manifestation and stepped forward even before he finished speaking, refusing to get lost in the impending rush. Rising bodies pressed her even closer to his space and for a moment she felt perfectly safe. Then she looked at his eyes and knew otherwise. She didn't want to voice the question out loud, so she didn't.

He supressed a yawn and listened intently to the man's words. It was a sobering portrait of just how far things had fallen and how fast when the US military couldn't get in contact with anyone. Not to mention how few people were really in this room considering the thousands upon thousands that lived in the Tampa area. Were they really all that made it?

Coty's vice-like grip on his arm made him wince but he brushed it off when she glanced at him. The briefing seemed to be over and he stood, following behind the girl. More information was always good and it seemed the Colonel's daughter was the most likely one to get that information.

He stood in a corner, back against the wall, not unaware of the irony of his positioning. The civilians were moving out, some few stopping to speak briefly with Lt. Butcher. To his surprise, more still were stopping to put themselves on Sgt. Ringo's volunteer list. Had the situation been less grim, it might have warmed his heart. The rest of the group that had come in with his daughter, he noticed, was quietly filing out of the room. Only Coty and the young man to her side were moving toward him, and he found himself looking the man over more carefully than he wanted to admit.

He had reddish hair and a goatee. The clean-shaven Colonel wanted to scowl but repressed the urge ruthlessly. Damn hippy. Still, he moved carefully, was built like a truck, and didn't mind that Coty was trying to punch her nails through his forearm. He'd survived this long, maybe he could survive a little longer.

As they neared him, three soldiers casually ambled over in a most practiced way, blocking them from the rest of the room. The last thing they needed was an eavesdropper. He resisted the urge to hug his little girl, despite the fact that the vision of her with pigtails and skinned knee, a broken tooth and a wide grin warred with the vision of now - straggly hair pulled back in a braid, and a thin, wiry competence that bespoke his careful training and her natural agility.

She met his eyes but said nothing, and he nodded once, pleased at her control and answering her unspoken question.

"Much worse." He shook his head. "Come with me." Turning, he led the way out, trusting the soldiers to follow without question, and his daughter to drag the young man along. Without speaking, he led them to a building nearby, a small room he used as an office. The desk was cluttered with maps, his extra .45 underneath one of them, a 10-bullet clip by its side. A small picture of Coty at age 7 grinned at him as he sat behind his desk in an uncomfortable chair, and he touched it once as he often did, before gesturing them all to the folding chairs scattered around the room.

"Most of that was complete bullshit." His voice was flat and cold. "Of course we are in contact with the military. For now though, it doesn't matter who we have contact with - we have more pressing concerns than getting the hell out of Dodge."

"Sir, if we can contact them, then why..." A young man that looked like a surfer, blond hair and blue eyes, tanned skin and startlingly white teeth stopped at the Colonel's raised hand.

"You don't really want to know, Private." He sighed. "So. First, I think, introductions all around. Dempsey, Grogan, and Mac, my daughter Coty, and..." He trailed off, realizing he didn't know the young man's name. For their part, Dempsey - the surfer, Grogan - who looked more like a good-ol' boy than anything else, and Mac - stocky and neat as a pin, each nodded at them as they were introduced.

"...And you," the Colonel finished. "Who are you, and how did you meet my daughter again?" It was useless for him to bother trying not to sound like an overly-inquisitive parent, but he gave it an admirable effort.

Okay. So they could communicate and that was worse. How heartening. He continued to listen without comment, mostly focused on the older man but occasionally taking a moment to examine his subordinates. He blinked when the Colonel addressed him, the faint tone of accusation blunted but still unmistakable. Couldn't blame him.

"Tabor McLean, sir," he introduced himself with an extended hand. If this guy was holding everything together in this much of a mess he at least deserved that honorific.

"And I met your daughter by accident, mostly, along with the other survivors I arrived with. I was attempting to get home but the chaos of the evening pushed me off course. I ended up near the local school and saw a... zombie push its way inside the school. Despite my better judgement I followed it on the off chance people were still hiding in the school and it was going after them," Tabor explained with a shrug.

"I found your daughter and the others locked into one of the music rooms where I'm guessing they'd spent the night. After that I decided to follow them all to the base here. I was one of the only ones with a gun and there's something to be said for safety in numbers."

He shook the man's hand immediately, hoping the handshake didn't match the goatee. Fortunately it didn't - it was a strong, solid handshake with no ego, and if there was fear it was well-hidden. He nodded at the good sense, and let out a sigh of relief as Tabor mentioned a gun. Good. Then the boy wasn't a complete idiot.

"Very well. Good to know you, Tabor. In the here and now, I'm just the Colonel." Tired, he pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head ruefully. "There's more to that story but little time to tell. I need a team. It's going to suck, but it has to be done. These three chuckleheads I know I can trust. Coty I trained myself, so I know she'll stick. What about you?" He deliberately didn't tell them what he had to have done - he'd hate to have to explain it all, have this young man refuse, and then be forced to kill him to keep him quiet. He seemed, after all, like a decent fellow.

Tabor ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh, leaning back in the chair. Rationally it would make sense to say no, stay in the base with the soldiers with the guns and the nice chain link fence. But rational thought didn't exactly hold as much sway when the dead started walking around, and he knew he wouldn't be satisfied just waiting around for things to get worse. Meeting the Colonel's gaze he nodded once.

"If you're looking to get something done about this mess then I'm game. I intended to go back out there anyways if I could get some supplies," he said. "I can't believe we're it. There have to be others holed up out there."

"Interesting you should say that." He shifted in his chair, watching them as he spoke. "I'm fairly certain there are others holed up in pockets around the city. Finding them is priority number three. What I need you five for is one step in the direction of priority number one." From the stack of papers he drew out a blue and white map.

"I'm sure you know how to get from here to the University. We need several things. We need medical supplies from the clininc. We've patched a lot of people up, we're running low ourselves. The hospital there is a teaching hospital, and relatively new. They should have what we need. Here's a basic list." From another pile he pulled a hand-written list and handed it to Coty, who could see immediately that whoever wrote this, it wasn't her father. It was far too neatly written.

"Beyond that, there's some specialized equipment the nurses and medics here need. The Student Laboratories, or so I'm told, house some of the latest research that a few of the doctors here could use. You'll have to hack into the system to download all the data, but that's why I'm sending Mac with you." The neatly-dressed man nodded, messy brown hair falling into his eyes. It earned him a glare from the Colonel, which had him brushing it back quickly with his left hand, even as he took the proffered memory cards with his right.

"Finally, there was - last we were able to get word - a doctor working in the cancer ward. I need you to convince him to come back with you. We need his formidable expertise." He looked directly at Coty as he said this, knowing his sometimes silver-tongued daughter might be the only solution. "His name is Dr. Margolia, and you should expect him to be resistant to the idea of leaving his charges." Provided, of course, that they haven't eaten him, he thought but did not say.

"Cancer?" Coty blinked at her father, owl eyed, her voice softer than she expected it to be. Her gaze sharpened at once in apology for her weakness. She'd been gazing at the picture for too long, indulging in the memories it provoked: playing 'hoops' with her father and a net that came up to his knee, gorging in ice cream after her 'win', the bandaid he drew on her very first cast, the best birthday gift ever when he had taken her to the World Cup. All these misted her head as he badgered the man next to her, that very act alone enforcing the reason she rarely brought boys home - they never returned. Complaining had never done any good.

She expected Tabor to cower, at least stammer in his response. When he didn't, she flicked her lashes sideways at him, feeling him gain another notch of respect, both from herself and her father. She withheld from affirming her own pledge; her father would know it and if the soldiers were good men at all, they would recognize it. Like the gaze she had flipped on Tabor, she watched Mac sidelong, waiting for her brain to kick in and reveal the source of recognition she felt.

She glanced again at the list in her hand. Neat and staccato, like a shopping list, only for disaster relief instead of dinner. She folded it up and placed it in her pocket. She would memorize it on the drive. So many questions, and so few she could voice. Whatever her father knew, he wasn't going to tell them. But maybe he would hint. "Is the disease? Is there anything else we should know? How did it get here?" She bit her lip, hard, to dam up the words.

He watched the Colonel carefully. The matter of fact delivery reminded him of his own father at times, though the clipped military diction had long sense faded from his old man's tone. With a shake his head he dismissed those memories, focusing on the here and now. Everything he could tell was that the man had a handle on things, a practical head, and wasn't on some power trip. Authority hadn't always been his favorite companion but he'd always respect someone who got the job done.

It had taken a moment to process the information but it all made sense. The speech early had been for the benefit of the ones that just wanted to be told it would 'be alright'. This wasn't a grand plan to save the world, this was far more practical: survival.

"I can do that," Tabor said. "The only question is what can you spare to get me there? And I'll go ahead and make this particular statement now: I'm not a soldier. The family always had plenty of military, but I never joined up. But I've got survival experience and last night gave me a pretty damn good crash course on zombie survival that the late night horror flicks didn't."

"Point being am I going to have to worry about some LT trying to pull rank on me in the middle of a crisis?" he asked, glancing at the other soldiers in the room. "No offense. But things going to hell usually seem to bring out the worst or the best in people, not a lot of middle ground."


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