River Of Night – Snippet 36
“Strictly speaking, the Australian SAS prefers the work ‘commando’,” Tom replied mildly. “But I agree. You were First Group at Fort Lewis, right?” He referred to the US Army First Special Forces Group which, pre-Fall, had been based outside Seattle.
“Yeah, and I was a combat engineer before that. E-9 when I got out,” Detkovic said, looking around the barn. “Who do you think built all this, and trained all the kids?” A chorus of groans and jeers sounded. “Well, me and some of these slack ass no loads.”
“Well, Sarn-Major, welcome to the zombie war,” Tom said, essaying a smile. “We can plan for a few more hours, then get some more sleep. I’ll pick the scouts while Robbie, Kap and you organize the movement for everyone else. A day of prep, maybe two, and we hit the road. Rendezvous at the river in a week or so. “
“Fucking SAS,” Robbins said, scowling at his guest and then turned to his wife. “What do you think, Deb? Shoot him or feed him?”
She pursed her lips and looked from her son who was balancing on the edge of his seat and then back to Tom’s face. Her gray eyes were level. “We try it his way. I can always shoot him later.”
“Okay, show me where on the Tennessee,” Rob growled at Tom.
“Here,” Tom said, stabbing the map on the table. “We’ve got some options, but I figure we try this place first. Little place called Spring City. Right next to Watts Bar hydroelectric power plant.”
“Okay, your turn, kid,” Robbins Junior said to Eric.
The Robbins’ maintained an armory for all of the families, but a few of the recent arrivals had expressed an interest in learning how to use a couple of the more unusual items, including the large antique machine gun which had caught their eye during the arrival of Smith’s wandering band.
In the background, Copley and Pascoe were overseeing a fundamentals of combat shooting class for the older kids.
Worf, Astroga and Ralph had rapidly grasped the fundamentals of reloading the M1919 as well as clearing basic feed jams but neither Katrin’s nor Eric’s obvious interest wasn’t buttressed by any previous experience. Still, they’d stepped up, and Eric went first.
The gangly middle schooler was about the size of his adopted mentor, Astroga, but lacked any of her confidence. He hesitantly grasped the weapon, pulling the stock to himself as the weight remained on the workshop table. As his hands sought the feed tray cover latch, Astroga slapped his hand.
“What’s the first thing that you always do with a weapon?” she demanded.
“Uh,” Eric stammered, obviously nervous about being the focus of the attention of three adults.
“You wanted to learn,” Astroga added. “Settle down and remember. We already covered this during range time with the M4s.”
“Check to see that it’s on safe,” he replied.
“Right, so do it,” she said encouragingly. “And?”
“Visually inspect to see if it’s unloaded,” he replied, darting a look at Junior, whose intimidating teenage scowl deepened.
The lesson proceeded and Eric’s hands became a little more confident.
“I want to stay with you, Miss Risky!” Elf was not happy about the plan.
Once the combined group had accepted Smith’s leadership, the preparations had moved forward quickly, and within two days the scout teams were set to depart. Elf, the ‘tweens and the other children were going to stay an additional day at the ranch while the balance of the households were packed and winterized. The ranchers and the noncombatants from the original bank party would be in the main group that proceeded towards the river, led by Kaplan and Robbins. Meanwhile, Smith had composed two smaller groups entirely composed of fighters. In addition to gathering intelligence his teams would find ways to discourage or at least delay possible pursuit.
“I’ll only be gone for a short while,” Risky said, reassuring the diminutive girl. “Mr. Smith and his friends are going to protect us and I’m going to help them. I’ll only be gone a few days, I promise.”
Risky looked up and saw Katrin watching with sad eyes.
“Will you take her? I have to go,” Risky said as she gently untangled Elf’s hands from her shirt. “Katrin will care for you until I’m back, little one.”
Unbidden, vivid memories and emotions swelled inside her. Risky’s eyes brimmed while she fought to keep a smile on her face, watching the teen lead their newest rescuee away.
Standing, she spotted Smith finishing a conversation. Risky sighed. The only times to approach Tom Smith were always going to be either inconvenient or awkward. Squaring her shoulders, she marched over.
“Hi Risky,” Tom said, looking up. “Are you still sure that you want to come with the second blocking group?”
“Why not?” she replied. “Makes most sense. Durante trained me himself. We have worked together, I’m, how you say, ‘read in’ for team procedures from BERT. But before we go, you and I need to talk.”
She watched Tom’s light brown eyes widen a trifle at the sound of her last words.
Infected attacking? Smith would keep calm. Evacuate the bank? Smith was relaxed in the clutch. But Pre-Fall or post-Fall; why is it that a woman’s informing a man that it was time to talk would consistently inspire that kind of reaction?
“I must say something, Tom. Even though it cost Dave his life, I don’t regret saving Elf. But I’m so very sorry that he died. I know that he was your friend.”
“Gravy was my friend, yes,” Smith said carefully. “But he was my responsibility. The girl, however tragic her situation, was not my responsibility. Not until you made her our problem. I know that you feel bad about Durante’s death, but he was. My. Responsibility. And you made a decision about that without asking me. Without asking him.”
“Tom, look!” Risky gestured towards the corner in the barn where the Katrin and Cheryl were hanging out, attempting to pull the newest refugee into their play. “What do you see?”
Smith looked at Risky, then back at the kids. They were sitting around the children’s table. Jonsdottir was weaving a circlet of flowers and trying the fit on Elf’s head.
“They’re kids, Risky,” Smith said, shaking his head. “They’re just goofing around. I don’t see what you mean.”
“All four are orphans, Tom,” she said gently. “They know it. I understand about your responsibility. To the people that you brought out of New York. To bank. But if you complete bank arrangements and those orphans all die, is it truly honorable? Why feel bound to some promise when what’s real, when what is right now has changed so much?”
“I haven’t changed. I will live up to my agreement,” Smith said. Only a slight strain betrayed Smith’s frustration with the implication that he might somehow not honor the bargain that he made with BotA. “What on earth makes you think that I won’t?”
“That’s just it,” Risky said. “I know that you will. My question is what do you owe a dead person?”
“Risky, I just don’t understand what you are asking. Who’s dead – besides Durante?”
“What I’m saying is that the bank, as you knew it, the way it was when you worked there, it’s gone…” Risky ignored his jibe about their dead with an effort. “There’s no bank. There’s just some scattered and scared people who used to work for your bank. There’s some digital records about who owed money to who. But the system that moved money around and made the economy work? The system that we fought to protect long enough for someone, anyone, to find a better alternative to the vaccine we made, or even a cure – that system? Is dead.”
As she spoke, Risky felt the rightness of her words. She pushed away her anger at an unfair world which seemed at every step to only grow worse. Risky knew better than to expect fairness. Fairness, justice, even basic survival – these were things that she, they, would have to build. They’re things that one fought for. Again, her tired eyes began to brighten with incipient tears and both her articles and pronouns suffered.
“What we have is this!” She tapped herself on the chest. “And this!” She lightly poked his sternum and then made a short gesture to the side where others were carefully not listening. “All them including those we rescue. Protecting is honorable course. Your plan to rebuild, to turn on power and kill infected, that plan is plan worth fighting and dying for, not helping some escaped banker count money while world burns. Why go to Site Blue at all?!”
“I can’t walk away from Site Blue, Risky,” Tom said gently. He stepped a little closer. “Paul is there, other people that I’m responsible for. I pledged to do everything that I could to save the bank. The people who followed my plan believed in me. I’ve got to redeem my word to my satisfaction – even if no one else sees me do it. Or agrees.”
Risky watched him search for words.
“I knew that I was writing a blank check when I took the bank’s salt.” He chuckled for a moment. “Blank check. Heh. So, I’m going to see this through.”
Risky felt, rather than watched, as Tom drew close enough to hold her hands. At this distance, she could see that his eyes were speckled with gold.
“After that, then maybe there is something else for me to focus on. Maybe someone else.”