On first meeting, Colonel Sutton-Fiennes didn't impress medic Ian McGowan, a ten year SAS veteran. Another officer with another title—he'd seen his sort before. But given the situation—Corporal Carruth had to be exaggerating, half a million dead, couldn't be right—McGowan pushed his initial impression away. The man was willing to don a CBRN rig and walk right into poor, bombed out, radioactive London, and that meant the git had some courage, regardless of his fancy name. It was only after their Super Lynx took off heading south with its two patrols aboard that McGowan got a good look at the thirtyish-year old colonel (and how had he gotten that rank, exactly, was queer), and it was the man's eyes that made him wince. He didn't know how to say it; hell, his dad was the schoolteacher and his elder brother the university scholar with the big words, but those eyes…they appeared ancient in the face of a man so lithe and young, as if he'd not merely seen dead people…more like unnumbered deaths and suffering so dreadful, one knew he'd never speak of it, not to a wife, a lover, or even a comrade in arms. McGowan had seen images of men in the Great War, and that was the closest thing that came to describing how Sutton-Fiennes' eyes seemed to him. That face had witnessed things beyond dying, pushing toward a brink of utter loss, the absence of youth, innocence, and sanity, a soundless void of misery. McGowan wondered where in the hell he'd been stationed before Benson, or even if that really was his base of operations.
By the time they'd disembarked the 'copter and crossed the shaky Vauxhall Bridge, with engineer Ryan cursing softly at every step, and seen hundreds of charred bodies steaming in the August heat, McGowan had a newfound respect for Sutton-Fiennes. Nothing escaped his notice, and when he'd taken off his suit, for God's sake, and stood down a large crowd of hungry civilians, egged on by some idiot American tourist who probably would be dead in a few days anyway, McGowan had to admit the colonel's courage was both huge and genuine. He himself, only a few months back from Afghanistan, with the most grueling training the British Army offered, had been ready to say sod this mess and get the hell out of there. Westminster Abbey's great rose window lay in pieces. They'd seen the southern side of Westminster Palace, home to the heart of the nation's government, blasted into a rubble heap, but McGowan couldn't bring himself to look towards the south bank, where Lambeth wasn't so much a shell as a crater.
Even as they cautiously made their way inside Parliament's halls, he had little hope of finding anyone alive, much less someone who had soaked up less than 200 rads and had a chance of living…assuming they weren't buried under tons of granite. McGowan stayed near the rear, checking bodies, finding nothing to save, or only someone so close to death, they weren't even conscious. But then Sutton-Fiennes heard a moaning sound, and lo and behold, the money grubbing secretary of state for Wales, Gillan, had been saved from imminent death by a trip to the well-protected loo. He and Hudson, the other medic, got her stabilised and ready to move out. Further down the hall, the chancellor of the exchequer, Osborne, and the deputy PM, Clegg, had been in one of the interior halls having a discussion–probably heated–and again, though the thick walls had damaged them both quite a bit, they'd prevented the worst of the radiation from seeping in as well.
And that was the first moment McGowan saw a glimpse of hope in the colonel's ageless face. It hit him in the gut, even though the look was subdued and fleeting. He, a medic who'd steeled himself for a decade to feel nothing as he stuffed shreds of mortal flesh back into their proper cavities while shrieks and screams, human and otherwise, rose and fell around him, noticed an unfamiliar twinge of emotion. Was it empathy or pity, pride or patriotism? McGowan could never explain it, not then, not after. He didn't even know what made him speak up, let alone what happened next. All he knew was that he couldn't let the colonel's face turn back into that façade of bitterness, well hidden.
"I'll check the people on down these next few corridors, sir. Why don't you stay here with Hudson and the deputy PM? I'll have Lambert watch my back…not that I think anywhere in here is going to put up a fight." Sutton-Fiennes nodded, seeming to know intuitively that McGowan recognised something perhaps better than he himself did, that maybe the deputy PM needed someone with a fancy rank to tell him the horrible reality of the city outside.
McGowan and Corporal Lambert checked corridor after corridor, finding a total of eight more civil servants who appeared to have a good chance of survival. After he'd given a dozen more something to ease their pain and inevitable passing, with Lambert studiously looking the other way, offering both protection and privacy, McGowan himself was numb. Maybe it was Unidentified Female #6 he logged into his mobile, who was probably about his age and pretty, or at least she had been, that crawled into his psyche and squatted there, stopping any remaining feelings. The dark stains on her lips accented her pale, smooth skin and reddish brown hair. She smiled briefly at him, knowing he was an angel of death, managing a slight squeeze of his hand before her tawny eyes closed. He wanted to ask her out, go to a pub, maybe play darts, possibly kissing that mouth which would look so lovely in a slick, wet shade of plum gloss. He did not want to watch as she took a last ragged breath, but he did. Better me than the colonel, McGowan thought, over and over and over that next hour as he moved from victim to victim. Those eyes of his can't take any more death.
By the time they'd transported the survivors out to the abbey garden where the Westland Merlin waited (with Clegg stubbornly insisting on walking and talking the whole way), the entire team was emotionally withdrawn, but still supremely cautious, just ready to be done. The survivors were on their way to hospital in Birmingham, and the team was making its way back towards Vauxhall when McGowan heard the distant strains of a choir boy, his voice mature but not quite broken into the timbre of a man, echoing from within the abbey walls:
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.
Sutton-Fiennes' stride did not break, not even for an instant, though the tones were clear and strong, worthy of warrior's tears. And McGowan wondered if it was because he merely had not heard, or simply that he had heard it far too many times before.