The haunting howl of the wind caught Hex's attention, as he readied to deliver his SitRep. He had taken his time with the radio; first disassembling and cleaning it before putting it back together to use. The dust and sand was relentless in this country and it was notorious for wrecking any electronic device. Accordingly, regular equipment maintenance was essential.
Seeing the green lights wink back at him positively, indicating a connection, Hex took a deep breath and depressed the button on the handset.
"Blue House, Blue House. This is Alpha One. SitRep, over."
He released the button and awaited a reply. The same voice with a standard reply issued from the small speaker, it sounded much cracklier then before though and some words were partly obscured by static.
"Alpha One - is Blue House, reading - loud - broken. -Send SitRep over."
Hex frowned, this reply meant that there was difficulty hearing him at their end too. Speaking slowly and clearly he delivered the report, repeating where necessary as the signal washed out.
Pausing for a reply, he felt like he had been talking to someone at the bottom of a well who can barely hear you.
The patchy reply caused him great concern.
"Alpha - be advised - Hornets - say again Hornets - recommend - Delta - Bravo for extra-n, I - again - Zulu Bravo - extraction. Over."
Hex felt a cold chill settle over him; Hornets was the code for hostile forces being mobilised in their area. He clasped the handset in shock finally managing to squeeze the button.
"Blue House, Solid copy on Hornets. That's a Solid copy on Hornets. Confirm order to abandon Eggs and extract? Over."
Eggs was the village and its villagers; Hex was reluctant to just leave them at the mercy of the army but what could they do? The reply was the only message that came through clearly and it chilled Hex by it's simple nature.
"Alpha One, Confirmed Abandon Eggs, Extract immediately, Over."
With his heart in his mouth Hex looked out on the peaceful village around them in frustration, they were leaving them to die.
The courage finally came to sign off and with a steely grip he choked the headset.
"Blue House, Wilco, Alpha One Out." He hissed through gritted teeth.
Damn I've got to warn the others he realised jumping from the back of the mog noticing a different air to the village. It was then that the Shamal winds died down and Hex heard the sinister sound of distant gunfire that made him slide to a horrified stop.
The sudden, characteristic clatter of an automatic weapon in the distance stopped Alex dead in his tracks, halfway back to the truck. His mind was split in two; should he push forward to where Hex and the girls were or pull back to the hospital to warn Paulo and Camilla?
Unfortunately a lesson Alex had felt was reinforced again and again, was that being the leader was a tough gig and entailed having to mark the hard decisions. What he wanted personally always had to take a back seat to what was best for the group, for the mission.
The two urges tore the young man in half and finally closing his eyes, he ran in the first direction his feet carried him.
The difficult decision made for him, his eyes sprang open instantly so he could pick his way back to the truck.
Minutes later he rounded the last building at a flat out sprint that almost ran him straight into a devastated looking Hex.
"The UN has ordered us to bail." Hex admitted in defeat.
"Get the girls, our guide and get back to the truck, ASAP!" Alex ordered in between gasps as he recovered from his sprint.
Hex nodded that he understood and was relieved to be able to speed off to find them. His chest felt tight with worry and every second hesitating had killed him, Hex was secretly relieved to have Alex turn up and make the decision for him.
For his own part, Alex turned on the spot and threw every last ounce of speed he had at getting back to the hospital. An explosion right beside Alex threw him from his feet, dashing him against a wall with his ears ringing. Another explosion splashed into the hard ground nearby, Alex looked around frantically for the source of the attack.
It was only just before the next wave of heat and shrapnel did he hear the trademarked whine of a mortar shell dropping through the air.
A mortar was basically a long steel tube that was aimed into the air and supported by a sturdy metal plate and two pronged legs. It was a simple weapon used to lob high explosive rounds down on targets at ranges of up to a few kilometres, the fire was relatively inaccurate however and great for indiscriminately bombarding an enemy strongpoint.
Feeling the heat and shrapnel on the side of his face and arm, Alex mustered his strength and rose to his feet again determined to reach his friends.
The splutter of the generator turned into a rumble as he started it up for a second time. Much better, Paulo decided, feeling pleased with the tune up job he had finished and the fresh splint he now wore. Walking back into the clinic with a satisfied grin, he watched as the doctor finished applying a fresh crepe bandage to Camilla's knee. She sat on one of the chairs and still wore the same expression she had on when Alex had left.
I can see what our boy likes there, Paulo thought with a devious grin admiring the long tanned legs on her. His eyes drifted further up her body as she leaned forward deeply to tidy up the ends of the bandage. A lot more curves then Li, he noted.
I'm perfectly happy with who I got, Paulo decided quickly though, averting his eyes and rearranging his face into a more innocent expression as Camilla sat up to look at him.
"What?" She demanded looking at his odd expression.
Paulo cursed silently, innocent was not a look he was used to using.
Alex spared him an explanation; by bounding into the room on his bandy legs, he was fighting for breath and looked quite bothered. The whole right side of his face was deep red and the same side arm was peppered with blood through the sleeve.
Oh shit! He knew I was checking her out, Paulo initially thought, before correcting himself seriously, no something is very wrong..
Alex wavered where he stood and Camilla ran in to help him back into a chair.
"What the hell Alex?" She demanded seriously, "Are you okay? What is going on?"
Alex held up a hand to silence her as he caught his breath. "Soldiers." Was all he gasped before forcing himself back to his feet.
All the colour drained from the girl's face, near her the doctor sat down hard on the ground and Paulo felt like his stomach had opened into the abyss.
Alex wobbled a little as he made his way back over to the door; Camilla limped over to him and linked an arm with his shoulder. "Come on we will do this together." She encouraged giving the shoulder a squeeze.
Alex quietly appreciated the help, his head was swirling from his mad dash over and his headache was back with full force since start of the explosions. Blood trickled slowly out of his right ear and he noticed that his hearing was dampened on that side like he had earplugs in.
Paulo turned to the doctor with apologetic eyes. "I am sorry, but we have to leave." He quietly added hopefully. " Maybe we can draw the army from this place."
Doctor Nevee was white as milk but nodded his ascent. "All those who can do so, should try and make a run for it; they may survive. My duty lies here. I will stay." He decided firmly.
Paulo shook the brave man's hand firmly in respect and admiration.
"Go!" The doctor shouted, as they seemed to hesitate.
The three friends burst out into the streets as the explosives rained down and the crackle of small arms fire intensified.
The howling of the wind suppressed the majority of the initial hail of gunfire, because of this Li was unaware they were under attack until a bloody Amber tackled into her. Amber desperately dragged and hustled Li until the pair managed to scramble back to the cover of the buildings. Li turned to Amber who was covered in blood, patting her friend down quickly, amazed to find no injuries of any kind.
She leaned out from the wall to see the slumped corpse of their guide facedown in the middle of the graveyard, the sudden puffs of dust attacking the ground and wall around her finally alerted her to what had happened. In horror, Li called out to their guide's brother in vain as he was riddled with gunfire, his body held up on its knees by the sheer weight of fire. Gruesome splatters of blood tore out of the boy's back taking large chunks of flesh with them, as the high velocity rounds ripped a path through his body.
Amber snatched Li back from the wall just as the stitching bullets zipped past in a line where her head had once been. They hammered in impact against the wall sinking deep into the dense material. The girls looked at each; mirror images of terror in there their faces. The wind died down revealing the catastrophic racket of the gunfire, the background noise of screaming and shouting sounding distant. Li and Amber huddled behind the low wall for a half minute longer before coming to the decision that they had to move.
Li went first and sprinted from cover in a short bound to a hut a little further back. Amber steeled herself with a deep gasp before rocketing after her ten seconds later; the ground erupted in ripples as bullets traced the ground around her. Their eyes watering from the dust and cordite, the two girls lowered the sunglasses on their heads to cover their eyes before setting off again with another tactical bound.
In this way the girls slowly made their way further from the source of gunfire and the ever present spectre of death. With the latest bound Amber noticed with a leap of hope in her chest that the rounds seemed to be missing by a wider margin then before.
This hope was shattered as she looked back and saw the first of the soldiers advance over the berm. They climbed from the prone on top of the berm to a standing, then they began to advance slowly, firing wildly from the hip as they did so. Their rounds thundered into her cover, causing chips and dust to fly off, the structure slowly being eaten away at by the sheer weight of impacts. A shout drew her attention and she swung away from the soldiers to see Hex and Li waving to her from cover and beckoning her to them.
Amber's throat tightened at the sudden sight of Hex in the middle of the chaos, she would never admit how glad she was to see him.
From behind their cover Hex pushed Li up against the wall to reduce her profile, it was a loose wall of bricks that moved slightly with the contact, the mortar binding it having long faded away. Hex dared to peer out, as his friend made her move towards them; it was only a ten meter bound to the intersection where the wall was. Amber stretched low in a sprinters stance before erupting from cover, making a beeline straight for Hex who waved his arms impatiently. She was only three meters short when her head suddenly snapped back sharply and her whole body crumpled to the ground.
A physical blow seemed to shudder straight through Hex as he realized what must have happened. An emptier world dawned in Hex's mind, one without laughter, without smiles, without Amber. A hole scooped right out of his spirit.
Beside him Li blanched in disbelief watching her friend tumble through the air as if in slow motion, she felt something twist inside of her and she searched for a weapon, anything to punish those who had ended her friend. Anger towards the soldiers, towards the whole country, even towards her friends for choosing to come here, overwhelmed her system. Her fingernails scraped as she tore a loose brick from their shelter and hurled it will all her might, before reaching back for another.
Hex looked out in shock at the girl that meant so much to him and suddenly realized that her chest was still rising; she wasn't dead! With a thrill of elation he had never thought he would feel again, his mind went into overdrive. Spotting Li shot-putting like a champion, Hex tensed his muscles and dived from cover. His dive landed him right beside his friend, without thinking he clamped his hands around her arms and launched back into cover.
As the furious brick assault continued, Hex turned Amber over in his arms to find the wound, his eyes caught at a deep scratch on the lenses of her sunglasses. The scratch turned into a narrow gash as it disappeared into her hairline, a small trickle of blood flowed from it.
Amber opened her eyes to look up at him. "Have we been fighting snakes again?" She joked weakly.
Hex was still too choked up and couldn't answer her.
"I'm fine." She explained getting to her feet. "Just a bit rattled by a ricochet or some shrapnel, thought I better play dead til you came for me."
"How did you know I would?" He shouted amazed, his incredulous voice almost drowned at by the gunfire.
"Come on Hex, you are always there for me." She reminded him, squeezing his hand.
Hex quickly returned the squeeze before turning to the brick-throwing machine beside him and stopping her hand from fetching another piece of masonry.
"That's enough!" He shouted in her ear "Amber's okay, we have to get out of here!"
Life came back into Li's eyes when she saw her best friend crouching behind the cover beside her.
"Don't pull that shit on me again anytime soon, Middleton," She warned pulling the girl off her feet and into a tight embrace.
"What is it with all the damn hugging?" Hex yelled exasperated. "We've got to get to the truck!"
The other half of the group was having their own problems as mortar rounds rained from the sky sending dirt and shrapnel up in deadly sprays. The distinct crack of small arms fire grew closer and ricochets skipped around the corner after them. Tracer rounds divided the sky, leaving luminous trails and looking like short bars of slow moving red light. The three teens stumbled through the wrecked streets ignoring the dead, the wounded and the dying. A constant scream of terror, of agony, seemed to pierce the war zone as the people fought in a desperate struggle to escape.
Survival was the only thing that mattered and the friends were unable to stop and help the people they saw, it hurt them to do it but the survival instinct overwhelmed them.
It was truly chaos.
The whistle and boom seemed to change pitch suddenly as the shells made a different noise as the hailed in. A gentler thump issued rather then the usual boom and Paulo noticed the smoke that began rapidly spreading from these different rounds. Not smoke, he corrected himself, as the bitter smog stung his face and lungs.
"Teargas!" Alex gasped, but they had no choice but to push through it. Certain death lay behind them.
One breath in the gas was all it took to cripple the friends though, as they hacked and coughed at the rough toxin invading their body.
Forced to her knees by the gas, Camilla looked out through the pale fog with swollen eyes, she could just see Alex and Paulo feet away, struggling equally, their faces burning. Tears gushed from her stinging eyes, and mucus ran out of her irritated nose as she coughed violently her body trying to expel the poison. She lost all thought of trying to run as her muscles ached and her whole face and chest felt like it was on fire.
Paulo cried uncontrollably from the agent as he tried to suppress each hacking cough because of the unbearable pain it caused his ribs. He started feeling dizzy from the gas and wondered whether it was possible to die from it's exposure, he wondered briefly if it was even teargas as Alex suspected. His vision blurring, he curled into a fetal ball on the ground racking in pain with each cough.
Alex vomited from the toxic chemical, his face dripping with mucus and fluids like a rabid dog, he felt his vision swim again, he tried to lift his shirt over his mouth but it didn't seem to help. Through the thick gas he could hear the soldiers advance, the gunfire drawing closer. This is it, he thought, what a horrible place and a horrible way to die. His burning eyes managed to find Camilla on all fours in the blur and he crawled a half step closer, just enough to place one hand on hers. The hand turned over in panic and closed around his firmly, glad for the final contact.
Through the rushing in his ears, the occasional crack and accompanying zip of rounds landing nearby seemed to increase. As the corners of Alex's vision were encroached with a dark shroud, he heard the shouting of the approaching soldiers grow louder. His view was invaded by increasing patches of darkness as he sunk into unconsciousness; the last thing he felt was his hand slip from Camilla's grasp.