Clasping Paulo's good hand, Li helped him to his feet and opened the driver's door for him, with a groan Paulo climbed into the cab and turned over the engine. A loud beep sounded from the Unimog over the engines growl, as it started to fill the air tanks that engaged its brakes.
Amber and Mitulu climbed into the cab beside Paulo as the beeping stopped indicating full tanks, Paulo depressed the clutch and slipped the Unimog into gear. He winced as his injured right hand clawed the steering wheel and he anxiously waited for the rest of Alpha Force.
From the door, Li waved to her remaining friends who were hauling ass in her direction. They ran past her and piled into the cab of the Mog, which was now becoming quite cramped. Li tugged hard on the chain that operated the garage door, the muscles in her arms pumping as she ignored the sharp pain in her shoulder and hauled down repetitively, slowly raising the door. With enough space for the truck to get out, she jumped onto the passenger door of the truck, as it accelerated past her and in one athletic motion, swung her body inside.
"Go North!" Amber pointed for Paulo as they tore a 180-degree turn from the shed and started chugging away from the village.
"Oh yeah, everyone this is Mitulu." Rasped Amber, gesturing to the small child perched on her lap in the crowded cab.
In the rear of the cab, Hex barely noticed his introduction to their young guide, he was turned backwards in his chair trying to peer around the canopy to see if they were being followed.
"I think we got away clean." Alex answered, reading Hex's mind and stretching his neck to look back using the over-sized wing mirrors.
"It was quite noisy with that other vehicle approaching from the south." Camilla noted, in way of explanation.
"I think we should get off the roads anyway." Hex insisted. "It will make us harder to track."
"I agree with Hex." Li softly answered. "But with one adjustment; we need to swap drivers." She pointed at their large driver, whose eyes were wide and unfocused, his face screwed up in pain.
"Paulo?" Amber shook the big lads shoulder questioning.
"Paulo?" She repeated, a little more worried and with a harder shake.
"PAULO!" She shouted at him, shaking him violently and causing it to feel like her throat had just exploded.
The big Argentinean turned to face Amber with a feeble attempt of his cowboy grin smeared on his face.
Seeming as though he had only just heard her, he asked in an unusual voice.
"What is it Amber?"
"Pull over here." She softly commanded.
The boy meekly nodded and slowed the heavy vehicle to a stop.
"You've done more then enough mate, time for a rest." Alex gently told him, resting a hand on his shoulder.
Looking defeated, Paulo turned to face his friends and silently opened the door to the truck. Almost vomiting from the pain, he slid from the cab and slowly walked around to the passenger side, with one final effort, he hauled himself up and into the back before collapsing in his seat next to Li.
She noticed the slight grey tinge to his usually tanned face and searched for his injured hand. Li carefully lifted the limp hand from the boy's lap to inspect it, as the truck took off again with Amber behind the wheel, after she finished switching Mitulu across to Hex's lap. The hand was completely swollen up at almost double the size of his other; it was purpling around the knuckles and the sedate owner grimaced in his sleep when it was handled.
For the second time in less then a week, Li was horrified to feel crepitus as the fractured bone ends of Paulo's second and third fingers rubbed together under her gentle palpation. Paulo groaned in his sleep and feebly tried to withdraw his hand from the short Asian girl. His eyes flickered open briefly, as Li gently splinted the two fingers with equipment from the first aid kit in the glove box. With his hand more comfortable, Paulo fell into a deep sleep, his long curled hair acting as a pillow against the window while the truck bounced along. Li sighed sadly, it troubled her to see the poor, sweet boy in such pain and realising what the gentle giant had been forced to do in the shed made tears well in her eyes.
Sitting behind Paulo in the cab was Camilla, who had also fallen asleep, her head rested on Alex's shoulder. It must have been a pretty traumatic event for her in the village, Alex reasoned while he tucked his jacket around her shoulders, before turning beside him to Hex. From his belt pouch he withdrew the small camcorder and passed it to the hacker.
Hex for his part, opened the viewfinder of the camera and was about to review the footage when he remembered the small boy sharing his seat. Maybe later, he decided, as the curious child watched him stow the camera and withdraw his palmtop from its protective case instead. The bright screen illuminated the little African with a gentle blue light when Hex brought up a map of Solambia and the location for the first supply drop.
Frustrated by the lack of connectivity in the country, Hex was unable to send the video footage to any of his sources on the net or to Amber's uncle. Instead he had decided to focus on plotting the best route from their current location to the first aid drop.
"Pass me the compass Amber, I need to change our current bearing since we are travelling off road." Hex explained, reaching past his friend's shoulder.
Amber snapped out of her thoughts long enough to pass the compass that was resting on the dashboard back to the boy from London. She was glad for the distraction of driving; it stopped her replaying her near death over and over in her head. Her throat felt like it was still being crushed and each breath she drew seemed to burn, as it passed through her bruised cartilage.
Amber shivered in her seat and felt filthy, remembering the proximity of the dead man when he was trying to crush the life out of her. The split second when his body stopped thrashing was frozen as a still frame in her memory. She took a trembling breath, let it wash through her aching throat and tried to focus once more on the empty savannah in front of her.
She drove steadily for the next hour, her mind only focusing on the darkening ground she drove over.
Alex looked around at his team warily; they were injured, exhausted and emotionally drained.
Yet they pushed on.
Alex felt a warm wave of pride surge up in his chest as he reflected on his amazing friends and their resilience. He knew a good leader had to keep in mind his group's wellbeing and consider that into how hard he pushed them towards their goal. At the moment, both him and his friends were in pretty bad shape, trying to push on for much longer was to invite disaster. Besides, they had already covered a fair bit of ground and the first drop wouldn't happen until tomorrow anyway. They could afford to find a place to park up and rest for the night.
"Amber pull into that tree-line." Alex instructed, pointing past her shoulder.
Reluctant to anger her throat, Amber simply nodded and did as she was instructed and bumpily drew the truck to a halt close to the trees.
Leaving the two sleeping teens in the truck, Alpha force piled out and started to survey the area.
"This will make a good camp." Alex decided, motioning for the others to gather in.
"There is scrimmage, camouflage net and poles on the roof of the Mog, we throw that up first then set up camp under that agreed?" He briefed the crew.
His three friends nodded and headed back towards the truck.
Li nimbly climbed on the roof of the dusty truck and started unstrapping the scrimmage that was rolled up in two long sausages. The scrimmage was a dull Hessian sheet that was unfurled to help break up the distinctive shape of the truck, therefore making it harder to identify. The camouflage netting that was rolled down over the scrim further broke up the shape and pattern of the vehicle by the use of non-obtrusive, irregular shapes that were designed to not draw the eyes attention. It was coloured very similar to the surrounding savannah and from a distance would simply look like a hill or clump of bush.
Hex and Amber caught the netting as it rolled off the side and ducked underneath it to start erecting poles that would pull the camo taught, creating a more natural looking shape. Outside the net Alex and Mitulu worked quickly, ducking around the perimeter with a bag of pegs, securing the net in place and leaving a narrow overlapped space at one end for use as a door.
Hex turned to watch Amber as she slowly lifted a pole and advanced its mushroom shaped head that was designed to hold the net without tangling or damaging it. For the first time he noticed the ugly dark purple bruise that had began to form across her neck and his eyes flashed in fury. How could I have been so stupid, he berated himself storming over to her; it explained why she had been so quiet since they left and why her voice was so hoarse.
"What the hell happened back in that shed?" He demanded firmly, his hand reaching up to gently touch her damaged neck.
Amber closed her eyes and felt her heart rate jump, as his cool hand lightly caressed her bruised throat, it felt soothing and she longed to let him keep it there forever. With tears pooling in her eyes, she reached a hand up to his gently touching one, placing her palm over the back of his and linking their fingers.
"A soldier came." She whispered hoarsely, as she guided his hand slowly over the sorest point of her larynx, feeling her chest hammer away at his sensitive touch.
As soon as the words left her lips, Amber felt Hex's hand freeze in place and saw his whole body seize up.
Regaining his composure and once more allowing his hand to be led, Hex gently spoke again.
A single tear leaked down Amber's dark skin until it reached Hex's hand.
"The guy wasn't expecting trouble so Paulo jumped him with a wrench, but somehow the soldier got the upper hand and smashed Paulo hard in the guts. I had to stop the man from killing him so I hit him with a mop, which he took off me and almost choked me to death with it against the wall." Amber mumbled quickly, her voice raspy, the tears now flowing freely.
Hex's hand slunk from her bruised throat around to her slender neck and he pulled her into his body. She collapsed into his embrace, silently weeping into his shoulder as he smoothed her hair with one hand, his face a mask of concern.
The hurt and fear shined in Amber's eyes, as she leaned back in his arms to look up at him.
"I thought I was going to die Hex and there was so many things I hadn't said, hadn't done." She whispered, finally losing her voice.
Hex's blood pumped a mile a minute, as he leaned in towards the distressed girl, his hand sliding up to cradle the back of her head. Amber's lips parted slightly and her pupils fully dilated, as the handsome, fair-skinned face grew closer. She closed her eyes and held her breath, hoping to capture the moment forever.
The moment was shattered as Li, who had been listening, dropped from the roof right beside them with a dull thud and snatched Amber's arm.
"What happened to Paulo?" She demanded, pulling her friend to face her.
Amber's eyes sprung open in a second of disappointment, before becoming brown pools of sadness again.
"He saved me Li, for the second time." Amber croaked, "Paulo tackled the soldier before he could shoot me. He drove him right into the wall where they struggled and I could only sit there holding my throat and try to breathe."
Li couldn't help but hug her friend when she heard the helpless tone in her voice.
Amber sobbed in her friends supporting arms and continued. "Then he punched the man. God, he punched him so hard I heard something in one of them break, Li! It was hard enough to knock the guys head into the basin and when it was there ,Paulo just kept it there..."
Li's face went pale and her whole body rigid, tears began rolling down her cheeks.
Amber, noticing her friend seize up in their embrace, looked up meet her eyes.
"He didn't mean to do it Li, he was just desperate to stop the man." She justified.
Li believed her friend despite the cold feeling that had settled in her stomach and she pulled Amber and Hex, who was awkwardly standing off to aside, into a group hug.