4 Chapter 4 Interpersonal Conflicts
With so few survivors from Sparta's first salvage mission, words like "catastrophe" and "disaster" were bandied about freely, until word got round of Cameron having punched out several people who blamed him – for surviving where their loved ones had not. Unsurprisingly, Cameron had refused the council's request for him to develop the detailed procedures for running a salvage operation smoothly, without losses.
It took two weeks of constant, near ceaseless pressure before he finally caved, as others cited his experience "out there," as the best and perhaps the only qualification to lead a salvage operation. Where Cameron had hesitated, Natalie had not and had her own team up and running its third operation.
Cameron's first operation lasted the better part of a day, but his slow methodical approach in contrast to Natalie's preferred fast in and out methods were just as effective at getting the job done.
Time marched onwards and both teams were ultimately, equally good at what they did – Natalie's team had to spend a lot more time in the field than Cameron's to make up the difference in the quantities they brought in. The losses of the first mission were never suffered again, but that was in part due to the Spartans gaining a better understanding of their enemy.
Any zombie would be attracted by sudden loud noise and any consistent light source at night, and would march directly towards it regardless of the consequences. What they lacked in mental acuity they made up for with tenacity: They had no limitations in endurance or stamina, willingly putting their forms through tremendous abuse to reach their next meal.
At first glance, a zombie horde bore a faint resemblance to pack animals, congregating in numbers from single to double digit groups – the largest the Spartans had yet to encounter – and would encircle before swarming their target. When in groups, their moaning and groaning was a blessing and a curse, as the noise alerted survivors to their presence, but it also alerted other zombies that food was close by. The individual zombie had proven themselves to be masters of sneak attacks, their solo ambushes having cost more lives than realistically possible.
Fortunately, beyond that, the dead were slowly and ungainly due to rigor mortis having stiffened muscles and joints. They were also incredibly stupid, many having difficulty climbing a flight of stairs – going down a flight meant throwing themselves head first.
When it became clear that the two teams, under differing leaders were bringing in different supplies and quantities, a friendly rivalry had developed, leading to a not so friendly betting pool based upon what was and how much was brought in versus what and how much was actually needed. The wagers had started small but had grown until entire cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whiskey and coke were traded back and forth in a round robin series of bets and side bets.
Somewhere along the way, the Spartan Council had made shooting instruction mandatory for every member of the community, one of the few hard and fast rules adhered to religiously. In essence: Every man woman and child over the age of fifteen was taught to shoot to ensure that if it came to it, virtually the entire community would be able to defend itself at the moan of a zombie. Most actually wore their weapons openly on their hip or in a shoulder harness.
The dead had yet to pose a real threat to Sparta's survival and those that attempted to were silenced quickly, often by a long range shot from the Spartan Sniper that Natalie had helped to train, but only twenty out of seventy potential sharpshooters had made the cut, living up to the Marine Sniper motto of "One shot one kill."
For the moment at least, Sparta still had the twin advantages of electrical power and running water, both of which were taken advantage of to the point of abuse. The general consensus was that sooner or later, some zombie would stumble up against the wrong button, level or switch and either shutdown the facility in question or provide a onetime pyrotechnic display not seen since Chernobyl.
But their successes were not without a price. It was accepted that every time a salvage mission went out, somebody would not come back. In most cases this was not true – as apart from the first disastrous mission, and the few slightly less disastrous ones after it, Spartan salvage runs stood at twelve without a casualty, but still, the previous losses were felt acutely amongst the ranks of the salvagers. The rivalry that had once been friendly had developed in to something that was borderline vicious. Whenever word went around that an operation was imminent, the two rival leaders would lock horns in a clash of titans that they resolved behind closed doors. What happened behind such doors was anyone's guess but both almost always emerged angrier than when they went in.
As it had happened before, Natalie made her way through the second floor of the mall, past several dozen people who fell silent as her standard issue military boots echoed off the marble floor, as she searched for Cameron in the middle of a poker foursome. The table he was playing at was laughing until Jaira caught sight of Cameron's Rival and fell silent. Cameron knew what was coming and braced himself for the words that would definitely cause a win or loss in his current hand of poker, especially with the flop and the river already played out, "Texas hold'em?" she asked.
He grunted in reply, not about to give the game away as he turned to the player seated at his left, "See your three and raise you two," he flicked a total of five cigarettes in to the hill on the table, "Your move."
Natalie gave a wildcat smile, "Full house of queens over jacks." It was all it took as the other three players, the dealer included to fold like a house made of cheap cards. He turned to her, the anger in his features clearly stating what he was about to say: "What the fuck!"
Her smile softened as he stormed up from the table, the quartet of Glocks rattled as his open palm slapped the table with enough force to make it jump. The other three players quietly and gently eased their chairs backwards away from the table. Growling he picked up his canteen and tightened the open cap, "Our conference room, now."
Turning the two stomped, almost in unison towards the fire escape stairwell that had been their "default" conference room where they had their weekly arguments, him growling like an angered Doberman while she glowered with enough heat to melt dry ice. He kicked the door, reinforcing the already present boot-print on the door. Those present watched with a certain amount of amusement at the free entertainment that ended as they disappeared in to the stairwell.
Pivoting with grace that seemed to be born of ballet, she slammed the door shut, throwing the bolt that would ensure their privacy as he stomped down a flight of stairs before turning and leaning against the wall. Unscrewing the cap, he proffered the canteen to her, "Think we laid it on a little bit thick this time."
She leapt the last three steps and landed lightly on the balls of her feet, "Maybe, but when it comes to the gambling, we both benefit." She took the offered canteen and took a swig of the flat and cold coffee, smacking her lips as she handed the canteen back, "I can understand how people get used to drinking coffee like that but you actually enjoy it, don't you?"
"Let just say that my "years" in the hospitality industry and university makes you appreciate coffee whenever, and wherever you can get it," he passed the canteen back, "How's the new guy?"
"The new guy… Michael is well… new," she said. There was a moment of almost uncomfortable silence at the mention of Michael. The man's predecessor had been ambushed by a zombie on her last operation and he'd elected to take a gun, three clips and exterminate every zombie he could find, saving the last bullet for himself. He killed twenty five or thirty before the shooting stopped. She passed the canteen back, "Just like usual?"
He smiled, "Fifty-fifty like always," and since it was his turn to add the wild card, "and four hours on the North Wall."
"Four hours? Don't feel like risking a completely sleepless night?" she teased, especially since she'd won the last two bets. He shook his head and gestured to map of downtown Portland they had pinned to the wall of their meeting place, "Where you heading this time?"
"Figured we'd head south and see what we can rustle up," his hand patted a pocket of his tactical vest, "You?" she took the canteen from his outstretched hand, staring at the map before making her decision
"North," she took a swig of coffee and handed the flask back, "Going back to try and raid that pharmacy again. You're going after another gun store?"
"Not exactly – police station and SWAT base. There should be some good weapons, body armor and communications gear in there that we can put to good use. Hell, maybe even a vehicle or two" He replied, as he looked in to his canteen, shaking it to gauge the amount of coffee left, "You always leave the last drops for me don't you?"
"Your canteen so you're welcome to finish it," she replied as she studied the map, letting the silence between them stretch out, a comfortable routine that they were accustomed too, almost a comfortable tradition, "Think we've been here in long enough to satisfy the rubber-necking chickens behind the door?"
He nodded, and they turned, stomping up the stairs, back the way they came. Through the narrow half inch gap at the bottom of the door, they could see the moving shadows as people scattered in different directions. She fell silent as he growled, throwing back the bolt and pulling the door open. The interior of the mall was relatively silent as she lead the way out, almost marching left while he turned right going back towards his poker game, depleted canteen in hand. Sitting back down at the table he noted he was the "Small Blind" for the current hand and tossed in the cigarette that had been resting behind his ear, "Deal!" he popped open the canteen and drained it, "And where's the coffee pot?"
Natalie stormed off in the opposite direction, but slowed to a steady walk as she disappeared from the sight of the poker players. She knew that Cameron would proceed to either slaughter his poker-playing crew members or to lose spectacularly – more likely the later. Turning, she headed up the stairs to the Security Control Center, where there was a military radio setup to broadcast and receive on an open frequency with two people manning it constantly, whether to check the progress of salvage mission in progress or just in case there would be contact from another group of survivors. After weeks of silence they had made contact with another community somewhere in the Westmoreland Neighborhood. Their contact with them had been relatively friendly over the past few months but the concentrations of undead were still too high for them to risk actually physically meeting each other – at least that's what the other group said.
Natalie shook her head, unable to believe that there were people out there who failed to understand the necessity of the new world that they were in, where survival meant cooperation and working together. She had been manning the radio that night and as it was, she glanced at her watch, a couple of minute early for her shift at the radio. Her shift was shorter than its regular eight hours as she'd won a bet and lumped half of her shift on to Steven Rehnquist. Steven was one of the few who had yet to adjust to the new world order and remained convinced that those were sick and could be cured.
She was just grateful that she would be on duty until two in the morning when Steven would relieve her instead of six which would make it almost impossible to get any sleep. She'd managed to track down the third book in a series she had been following avidly and found herself wondering if she'd ever find the fourth book in the series…. All things considered, she had her doubts. She declined to comment on Robert Cross's choice in reading material, the half Swiss half Finnish blond that graced the cover was the only clue she needed: July edition from last year – his favorite edition.
The night ticked by and the sounds of life through the complex diminished, people turning down lights as they turned in for the night, sleeping in shops that had been refitted in to individual "houses" for families and couples, with larger, more dormitory like sleeping quarters for those still single.
Steven had wandered in to the radio room, meaning it was just past two in the morning and in that moment of distraction, Robert rapped her on the elbow as a voice suddenly erupted from the radio's speakers, hysterical with terror, "… neighborhood. The undead have broken our barricades and have taken the ground floor! We are seventeen survivors trapped with no escape! We need help! Please! We can't hold them off for long! Sparta! Sparta, can you hear me?" her voice was choked with terror at what she knew was coming.
"There are other people alive? That's great!" Steven practically gushed with happiness as he leaned in towards Natalie, who placed one hand upon the microphone attached headset and shot Steven a warning glance.
"Cross! Get Brenan in here," she snapped as she shoved a pad and pen in to Steven's hands, "Pay attention," Steven nodded and flopped in to Cross's chair knocking the magazine out of sight. He adjusted the headset as Natalie tried to contact whoever was talking to them via the radio, "This is Sparta receiving broadcast on open frequency 29.32. Survivor, state your location!"
"Thank god! We're trapped in the Community Center! Oh god, I can hear them moaning! They're beating on the door! It's not going to hold! Help us!
Natalie tried to keep her voice under control, calm and soothing, to get the information necessary, "We need to know your location so that we can send a rescue party to you. Now where are you and how many of you are there?"
"We're in the Westmoreland Neighborhood. Our… our...there are seventeen of us, six men, seven women and three children, five of us are injured, two of them badly. We need help now!"
Brennan joined them with his shirt still unbuttoned rubbing his eyes, "What've we got?"
Steven who had been taking copious notes provided the quick summary, "Brennan, we've got a group of seventeen survivors trapped in the Westmoreland Community Center. Under siege, their barricades are down and they're holed up on the second floor with no where left to run. They… they have more women and children with them than anything else."
Brenan nodded, "We've mustered the sentries. Cameron will be leading the rescue via humvees. Natalie, go with him," ordered Brenan, "And take Denniken with you – its time he got back in to the field."Brenan turned to face Steven, clearly debating with himself as to the whether it was a wise choice. But he made the choice hoping it would finally force Steven to face the harshness of reality, "It's a rescue operation. What are you waiting for? Get going! Cross will man the radio when he gets back."
Steven turned with a look of incredulity on his face, "You want me to go out there?" there was uncertainty, even nervousness in his voice, "You sure about that?" Ever since he had arrived, he had never ventured outside Sparta and when possible, avoided venturing out of the building if he could.
"I'm giving you the opportunity to save people," he paused, "Uninfected people who can be saved who don't need a cure. If you don't want to go, that's your choice, nobody won't think less of you for it," said Brennan, "Even though I will," he thought to himself. Steven was eager to prove his worth and to him, this was something worth being credited with doing. He was exited, leaving the room at a run almost bowling over a returning Sergeant Cross, "I just hope this is not a mistake," mumbled Brennan.
Cross wisely said nothing and tuned the radio, setting it up so that he could tune in to both the survivors and also the rescue convoy, staying quiet about what he thought of Steven and also Brennan's choice and also wondering exactly where his magazine was.
In the parking garage that made up the southwest corner building of Sparta, Cameron was already in the driver's seat turning the key in the ignition. As the powerful engine roared to life, around him another three engines roared in tune with his, the last a massive roar as the truck came to life. He nodded to Jaira riding shotgun, and she pulled the radio's mike from the dashboard, "Rescue Lead to Rescue Elements: Status report,"
"Rescue Two- Locked, cocked, and ready op!"
"Rescue Three – Ready op!"
"Rescue Four - Ready op!"
The train of four vehicles rolled towards the eastern gate, "Rescue Lead to East Gate and Sparta Command: Unlock."
"East Gate-Rescue Lead: Gate is open," the voice hesitated at the other end, "Where we are needed…" the convoy continued towards the now opened gates, as flood lights snapped on, lighting up the road immediately outside the gate, chasing away shadow and darkness. The convoy roared through as Jaira looked confusedly at the radio, unsure if she'd missed part of the transmission.
A hand reached over her shoulder and grasped the radio, as Denniken cleared his throat, and for the first time, they heard him speak, a heavy accent, reminiscent of Ireland, "Where we are needed, we are there, Rescue Lead clear."
"Spartans or not, you Guards are all still Guards aren't you?" asked Cameron his eyes never leaving the road.
"It's the motto and the basic principal that the Oregon National Guard was founded on two hundred years ago," Natalie explained.
"Where we are needed, we are there," repeated Cameron, "Anything else I should know about Oregon's finest?" The question would have sounded sarcastic to the casual observer, but those who knew Cameron knew what he meant.
"If we fall in the line of duty, in service to our country, and our remains can be recovered, we are entitled to a military funeral."
He risked a glance at her, "I'm not sure how to respond to that."