Supply and Demand
The morning brought with it dates for breakfast and a hurried pack up under the cover of darkness. At five AM the sun had not yet risen and there was no light to witness Hex turn over the heavy engine of the Mog or his friends piling into the vehicle. With Paulo's damaged hand he was excused from driving duty, as was Camilla, who with her swollen knee, would be in agony stomping the pedals. Instead the two of them sat in the back of the cab either side of Li. The three of them felt particularly useless there and ended up drifting into fits of broken sleep for the length of the journey.
Up the front Alex and Amber navigated with the help of their guide, who was found to be quite good with maps. Soon Amber had managed to get rough locations for all the local villages logged onto the virtual map. Using the GPS unit that was incorporated into the palmtop, Alex was able to accurately navigate at night-time even in the featureless terrain and the pitch black. Light was beginning to peek over the horizon as the team drove up to the designated drop-zone and parked up to wait.
"So how old are you Mitulu?" Amber asked the boy in a friendly voice, breaking the silence.
"I am twelve." He answered proudly. "So I am a man." He insisted.
Amber rolled her eyes. Typical boys.
"Wow! Hex is seventeen and he still isn't a man." She told the boy, with a straight face acting as though she was impressed.
She squealed with pain as Hex prodded her in the bruised rib.
"Too much man for you!" He sharply countered, his eyes still focusing out front.
The child looked on confused as Amber turned to eye the hacker in a condescending way.
"Sooo immature.." She sighed before rolling her eyes at him.
"Am not" Hex returned, his pseudo-severe face giving way to a small smile.
"Are too" Amber retorted childishly matching his expression.
"Quiet kids." Alex hushed, gazing to the sky out the window. "I think this plane is ours."
Sure enough the outline of a plane could just be discerned against the dark skyline above them. Its roar reached its loudest directly overtop the friends and a large brown box tumbled out the back. It plummeted through the air for what felt like an age before white sheets billowed out to catch the air overhead, slowing its descent. As the box dropped lower, Hex started the engine again and started to slowly follow the cargos path through the air towards its destination. The crate touched down with a loud whump that sent the birds flying from the trees and its parachute drifted down over top to cover it.
Hex parked the truck with its rear closest to the giant box and Alpha Force piled out.
They eagerly gazed upon the crate that was about the size of a large car and crowded around to inspect it. There did not appear to be any straightforward way to open the box and it was too heavy to lift onto the truck. Alex ended up prying off one side, a corner at a time with his knife. As the last nails pulled free of their housing the whole side of the box opened to reveal its contents.
Inside was a variety of shapes and containers; sacks of rice and grain, green and yellow Jerry cans, wrapped bundles of yellow humanitarian rations (HumRats), tied bundles of blankets , stacked panniers marked with a red cross and a large green box at the back with no markings at all. The group's eyes bugged out at the collection.
Alex finally finding his voice, cleared his throat. "Alright we found it. Now we just need to have a look at some of this stuff and load it up."
The team kicked into action dropping the back and sides of the Unimog and passing items up to Li and Mitulu who had climbed up into the rear tray. Medical stores and the HumRats were loaded first right up against the headboard followed by the sacks of bulk food. The green boxes turned out to contain several items that Alpha force had requested; a long range military radio with spare batteries, three pairs of night vision goggles (or NVGs), a handheld GPS unit, reinforced tactical sunglasses and extra gas cylinders for their cooker.
"Sweet sunnies!" Li commented as she hooked a pair.
The others gathered round to secure a pair too and Alex explained. "It becomes really hard driving on the savannah with the sun constantly in your eyes, these sunglasses should help reduce glare and stop us straining our eyes."
"The fact that they look really cool is just a bonus right?" Paulo joked sliding on a pair of the dark, angled lenses and turning his head to pose, giving his best Blue Steel.
Li laughed at the ridiculous model and was relieved to see her friend acting in a more natural manner. The hurt and confusion in Paulo's eyes had began to fade behind the tinted lenses and he was starting to feel better now they were gearing up to actually help people.
The heavy twenty litre Jerry cans turned out to contain water and diesel and were loaded last.
"They are different colors so we don't confuse them." Camilla explained with an amused look as if it was a common problem.
With the crate empty, the group had a blast knocking the sides and roof off it before stowing the wooden sides in the truck as well, the parachute was also carefully folded up and taken too. Figuring that some poor village could probably use the wood for houses or something, Alex was also pleased to see that it meant there was nothing left of the crate to indicate its existence, save the flattened grass.
Climbing back in the Unimog the team started off towards their first village. Amber was at the wheel again and her navigation team had no trouble pointing her in the right direction using the boy's local knowledge and the aid of the new handheld GPS unit. Hex had turned off his palmtop determined to save it's battery until it was needed, instead he busied himself assembling the grass green portable radio and reading the accompanying message it came with.
The letter detailed the unsecured nature of long range burst radio transmission and outlined the protocol for its use. Because transmissions were unscrambled and could be intercepted it was important that messages were short and code words were used to encode their messages. Hex was familiar with the Radio/Telephone operator procedure or RaTel as it was known, it was the standard format for communication in most militaries and was used to send clear concise messages quickly. This would be the format that Hex would have to use for messages and he had memorized call-signs and code words in anticipation of the mission. They all had, each member of the team had a small coded notebook on their person in case their resident hacker was unable to transmit for whatever reason, a fail-safe for the worst case scenario.
Camilla smiled across at the focused boy from London; Alex had made the right decision by entrusting him with the radio.
It was only a further hours drive from the drop-zone to the first village. Much like the first one they had encountered, this village consisted mainly of scattered mud brick huts that formed a poor agricultural community. Unlike the other village this one was a hive of activity, men, women and children worked the barren land under the morning sun.
With the Unimog still some way out Mitulu told them to stop. "We scare them in this truck, same as army." He explained in his broken English.
Camilla nodded. "The best way to do this is to probably bring over some supplies as a gesture of good will and explain ourselves. Maybe then they may trust us enough to bring the rest of the supplies over in our truck." It was a tactic she had read about during her training.
With about a kilometer to the village, Alpha force started to unload some basic rations and Jerry cans of water. Mitulu and Camilla led the procession towards the village, Camilla's white-bandaged knee was still quite swollen and painful, she limped noticeably on it.
Hex was sweating bullets already in the hot sun, the two Jerry cans he carried cut into his hands, with their narrow handles and the weight tugged on his shoulders with each step. The hacker remained his usual stoic self though and shouldered his burden with barely a grimace.
Paulo carried his med pack over one shoulder while he had a large sack of rice slung over the other. He was hurting more then he was sweating and had decided to take some pain relief from the medical supplies when they stopped. In spite of the pain he felt happier then he had in a long time, they were finally doing what they had came to do.
Li carried a large box of HumRats precariously balanced in her good arm and braced against her sling; behind her Amber carried a similar load. The two girls didn't talk much, the moment of tension that had passed between them yesterday when Amber explained what had happened in the shed still hung heavily over them. Does she blame me for what happened? Amber wondered.
Finally, at the rear Alex puffed along carrying two Jerry cans of water, he actually wore a smile having had similar fitness work described to him by his dad. He did feel a bit like a soldier; riding in an army truck and lugging heavy loads around. With a lot of the immediate pressure removed he actually found himself starting to enjoy the experience. The only thorn in his side was the occasional light-headed spells he seemed to feel and the way his vision seemed to swim at times. I must be pushing it too hard and probably a bit to do with the heat, he figured and slowed his pace.
Mitulu sprinted off ahead of the group when they were about one hundred meters out, from the front Camilla watched as the young boy ran to an elderly man who was leaning in the shade of a house. The child chattered away rapidly, pointing his finger back towards his friends and the direction they had come from. Recoiling with surprise, the man bounced off the wall and started yelling to the people out in the field. Soon a congregation of villagers walked out to meet the overburdened teens. Alpha Force lowered their loads and listened, as the village elder addressed them.
"We welcome you to our village. Mitulu tells us you bring much needed food and water, for this we can not thank you enough." Camilla and Amber translated for the group.
The group noticed how skinny the villagers all looked, their dark skin drawn taught across their bones. They were in the early stages of starvation.
Camilla introduced her friends and then pointed back to the truck to which the elder frantically nodded his head.
Turning back to her friends after her brief talk with the elder she explained.
"They will not be afraid if we bring the truck forward now and Paulo, the chief indicated that they have sick and injured if you want to attend to them while we unload."
With a plan for helping the people in place, Li ran back to bring the truck over while Paulo took Amber as an assistant and disappeared towards the nearest hut. The rest of the group, with the help of the villagers carried the supplies they had brought over into the town.
Paulo and Amber ducked through the low doorway and slowly walked into the darkened room, scanning the darkness they noticed a set of lazy eyes peering back at them from the corner. Paulo walked towards the person as his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he realized it was a woman lying on her side with sallow skin sunken back around her skeleton.
Amber was accosted by the elderly husband, who desperately explained that his wife had started getting sick and was unable to eat what little food he could provide her. Amber translated this to Paulo, as the boy stuck his hand out to feel her fevered brow, the woman was burning up with infection.
He lifted one of her limp wrists, feeling a very rapid weak pulse, the woman's eyes lay unfocused in her skull, as the boy continued to assess her. Paulo noticed her rapid breathing, her protruding ribs and that she only groaned when he pressed a finger and thumb hard into her shoulder muscle. Next he pinched the skin on the back of her hand and watched as the pinched fold stayed aloft.
Turning to Amber with a grave look on his face, he diagnosed her. "She's in a state of shock caused by an infection."
His friend's face fell with sadness and horror, as she recognized the condition that had almost killed Hex.
"What can we do for her?" she asked him quietly.
"If she is able to keep down sips of water we can have her husband give her oral antibiotics; there are plenty in the medical pannier." He replied with a sullen look.
Amber caught the mood of his look and grabbed his face forcing him to look at her. "This woman's probably going to die no matter what we do isn't she?" She confirmed sadly.
Paulo nodded his head miserably in defeat, a single tear rolled down the boy's cheek.
"We can't save them all." He whispered gravely.
"Lets give the husband the antibiotics anyway, she deserves a fighting chance." Amber suggested, looking down at the frail woman lying in the dark and the weathered man who cradled her hand like treasure.
Paulo grunted his agreement and walked out of the hut, careful to hide his morose eyes from his friends.
Li pulled the Unimog to a skidding halt in front of village with the rear facing towards the huts. Hex laughed at that, very typical Li; if she had to do it, she would do it in style and preferably at high speed.
Simultaneously, he and Alex pulled the levers on the tailgate and eased the heavy ladder, which was part of the rear of the Mog, til it was fully open. As Li slipped nimbly from the cab, Camilla climbed up onto the back to stand among the supplies.
She bit her lip in contemplation as she looked around trying to decide how much to leave at each village; they had another two villages to visit in the next couple of days so they had to save some for them. Coming to a decision, she decided the fairest way was simply to divide the supply into thirds after putting aside a little of each to keep her team running. With her mind made up, she started sliding boxes, bags and Jerry cans across the wooden deck to the rear where her friends could start unloading it.
Alex was surprised to see the impoverished villager's rushing to the back of the truck to eagerly help unload it. He was impressed by their spirit, they looked so frail, but seemed to manage the heavy loads as easy as he or Hex did. I guess when you're starving you have to find the strength to survive, he figured.
Li watched as Paulo emerged from a hut with his med pack, his head hung low as he moved to the next hut with sick inhabitants. He had looked so determined going in and now he looked so desolate. I wonder what he found in there? She puzzled.
Amber quickly emerged from the same house and came over to silently rummage through the medical pannier that the boys had just lifted off the truck. Standing triumphantly with her desired supplies in hand, Amber returned to the hut briefly before following after the Argentinean. That was a very reserved Amber also, Li thought they definitely didn't find anything good in there.
Ducking into the next hut, Amber almost ran straight into the broad back of Paulo. He stood stock still in the low doorway staring straight ahead. On the ground in front of him sat a boy a little younger then Mitulu, his attentive brown eyes taking in the two new-comers. Amber figured the boy was healthy enough until she saw the two partially healed stumps that were all that remained of the child's legs.
Her hand flew to her mouth and she felt like her heart shattered at the tragic sight. With a forlorn look the mother explained to Amber that the boy had disturbed an unexploded artillery shell, while playing by a tree with his friends outside the village. The other two boys had died in the explosion, but her son was treated by a doctor that was passing through, who had managed to save his life. Paulo's face was torn between anger and pity, as he crouched to the boy's height, talking to him softly.
The little boy's face split in a wide grin at the charismatic medic despite not understanding his words. Paulo gave the child his infamous cowboy grin before opening his med kit to retrieve bandages and gauze. Amber translated his intent to the mother and child who eagerly nodded their ascent, before she knelt to clean and bandage one of the stumps. She earned an approving glance from Paulo, who was impressed by her bandaging skills.
"What?" She teased him. "You think you are the only one who paid attention during a first aid course?"
"I'll be out of a job if the others knew." Paulo joked, but seriously was having some difficulty bandaging only being able to use one hand.
The young amputee joined them in their laughter and helped make the terrible circumstance of their meeting that much better.
"Painkillers and antibiotics for this brave young man." Paulo suggested to Amber who slunk out of the hut. He ruffled the boy's short hair with his good hand, giving him one final smile before hoisting his pack over one shoulder and walking out into the sunlight again. His spirits lifted through the simple act of helping a sick child and sharing a smile.
Outside Li, Alex and Hex were using the remains of the crate to fashion a lid for the small village well. Hex had deduced that a shelter would help prevent evaporation of the water inside it and also reduce the risk of contamination by outside agents. The villagers were watching in wonder, learning from their visitors.
Camilla had her own task and was taking a water sample of the liquid from the well; she collected water in several test tubes before dipping thin dipsticks in each one. The skinny devices changed color in the liquid and her intelligent face sharpened in concentration, as she compared the colors from the sample to those in her notebook. She sighed in relief when the tests came back negative for any harmful bacteria or unsafe levels of chemicals.
Her concentration was broken by the shouts of joy as Alex stopped work to kick a flat soccer ball back to some young kids. His blonde fringe bobbed as he was drawn into a ramshackle game of soccer with the youngest villagers, the look of boyish amusement on his face made her smile to herself. What is it about him? She wondered to herself quietly as she sat in the shade of a hut content to watch him from a distance. By this stage Li and Hex had joined in the game and the whole crowd cheered when the small oriental girl slide tackled the tall British boy, to reclaim the battered ball.
Camilla saw Amber looking on wistfully, distracted from the medical pannier and walked over to her.
"Go on then, get in there Amber!" The blue-eyed girl encouraged with amusement dancing on her face. "I'll finish the rounds with Doctor Paulo."
Amber looked up from the game excited.
"Really? Thanks Camilla you're a babe! He just needs some antibiotics and painkillers." She gushed before leaping to her feet, running into the game and tripping a startled Hex who was making for the goal.
Caught in her long legs the hacker was brought to the ground with a scowl, his shot at goal completely ruined.