Shouts from nearby grew more persistent and shadowy figures were becoming visible through the smoke. They looked very sinister, like an invading alien force in over-sized gas masks and carrying rifles.
The swirling gas seemed to change color, as two cones seemed to illuminate a path from right behind Paulo. He turned around to see two gigantic glowing eyes and to hear a roaring growl that drowned out the nearing gunfire.
Confused shouts came from the masked men now, unsure what to make of the new development.
Alex's mind vaguely recognized the shape as he coughed harder his vision beginning to darken and he sunk forward.
A slam issued from the beast as two wraiths descended into the choking mist, their heads huge and bulky, they gathered Paulo and dragged him to the rear of a familiar looking vehicle and pushed him up. They returned for Camilla who refused to go immediately, instead pointing to the still form of Alex lying in the dust. The larger of the two rescuers slung Alex over his shoulder before climbing onto the tailgate, only upon seeing this did the incapacitated girl allow herself to be helped up too.
The small wraith finally banged loudly on the side of the cab, signalling to the driver.
With a roar and a belch of smoke, the beast backed up into where it had came from and swung around to disappear into the countryside. The soldier's held their fire for several long seconds before someone realized that the truck didn't belong to them.
Amber and Hex unwrapped the collection of rags, towels and t-shirts they had bundled around their heads and slid off their sunglasses coughing. Hex spat thickly off the tailgate as they escaped into clear air.
"That shit is nasty!" The Londoner growled. Even with the protection and limited exposure, his eyes were bloodshot and an angry red, tears poured freely down his cheeks.
Amber nodded, coughing away her face burning and her injured throat on fire once more. She turned to assess her friends they had just rescued.
Camilla was bent double hacking and coughing, her face hanging right off the side of the truck getting as much fresh air as she could. Her blonde hair stuck out everywhere, spit and snot covered the front of her shirt and her face was swollen and red. Not an attractive look, Amber decided with a smirk before realizing how terrible she probably looked herself.
Paulo laid on the deck flat on his back taking tiny shallow breaths, his face a swollen mask of pain. He kept muttering something to himself in a timid voice and kept his eyes squeezed shut.
Beside him Alex was lying on his side in the recovery position and was just starting to stir. The pale lad looked like absolute hell, as he opened his eyes and sat up. His face was drawn and he blinked furiously between tears at the itching and burning that had engulfed his face.
The scowl on Hex's face died and he promptly stopped complaining when he saw how hard his friends had been hit by the gas.
Alex coughed loudly before saying something quietly in a hollow bitter tone.
"I'm sorry guys. I wasn't strong enough, that stuff was just terrible."
"The hell are you apologizing for?" Camilla snapped at him. "It wasted all of us, no one could stand that sort of torture."
She suddenly realized how glad she was that he was alright and crawled over to pull him into a sticky embrace. It had frightened her beyond belief when he had lost consciousness in front of her and his hand clasping hers had been the only source of strength she could draw on, to stay up until they had been rescued.
Alex allowed himself to be embraced, not minding the tears, the mucus or the overall grossness of the hug. He couldn't meet her gaze though, feeling weak. After a moment or two he had to break away to lie back down on the deck and close his eyes once more.
Amber turned to Hex, pointedly ignoring the scene in front of them.
"I'm going to get Li to stop and I will climb up the front to navigate for her." She informed him.
Hex shook his head.
"We're not stopping." He groaned pointing past Amber to the growing shape of military vehicles gaining ground on them.
"Get down!" Amber screamed agonizingly, as the gunfire started again.
AK fire clattered from the jeep, causing a storm of sparks to dance along the tailgate and the people in the back to dive for cover.
"You've got to get up front and find Li somewhere to lose these guys." Hex yelled in Amber's ear.
"What about you?" She murmured looking unsure.
"I'll take care of this" He gestured at their three disabled friends.
Amber nodded reluctantly and slipped through a gap at the front of the canopy. The wind buffeted her unexpectedly and she held onto the canopy pole for dear life. Slowly reaching up a hand she knocked hard against the glass of the cab until the driver heard her and wound down the passenger window.
"This is more your gig, Li" She grumbled to herself, as the ground rushed by in a blur.
Shakily she reached a hand through the window of the Unimog and managed to find a handhold. Climbing her leg onto the first step she pushed herself further into the vehicle, her leg slipped and for an instant both her legs flailed over the speeding earth before she found a second hand-grip and was able to lean into the vehicle for a foothold.
Steadying herself for the final move she part pulled part jumped through the tall window and sprawled into the cab, exhausted.
"Took your time." Li commented pleasantly, her eyes pinned to the ground in front of truck.
Panting, Amber climbed into a seat and removed a map from the glove box.
"Can we out run them?" She asked Li ignoring the earlier jibe.
"In this bucket?" Li snorted. "For all the bragging Paulo does about the Unimog it can barely make 90k on a flat piece of road. Off-road the max we are making is maybe 75 and it's bumpy as all hell."
"Okay so we're slower." Amber conceded. "But I bet we can go places those jeeps can't. What does that say on the bonnet? Maximum fording depth?"
"You thinking what I am thinking Li?" Amber asked giving her friend a crazy grin.
"Find me a river baby!" Li cockily crowed.
In the rear there was a lot less to be happy about, the multiple holes in the canopy were testament to how many rounds were being fired their way. There was a pause in the fire, as the gunman reloaded fumbling another magazine into his weapon. Behind the jeep, a Technical speed along slowly catching up to the Unimog, the man on the machine gun unable to fire with the friendly jeep between himself and the target.
On the floor Alex noticed a Jerry can of water right beside him with a bullet hole in it. Without thinking he put his face to the hole, letting the cooling water wash over his stinging face, he put his mouth to the hole greedily drinking the water as it drained. Out of the water his face immediately started stinging again, but Alex felt a bit better then he had before. Refreshed, more focused.
Seeing his friends' frightened faces pressed to the floor, he yelled across to them coolly.
"Hey, anyone want a drink while we are down here?"
He slid the leaking Jerry across the floor to his friends who drank their fill and washed their stinging faces. A slightly refreshed group stared back at him with determined bloodshot eyes, Alex rolled to face Hex at the rear.
"Thanks for getting us out back there mate, we were toast."
Hex's grin turned to a grimace as the shooter started up again, spraying the back with rounds.
"Get rid of this guy and I'll call us even." He shouted angrily. The high speeds they traveled at and the bumpy terrain meant that they were difficult to hit at this range, but they were still clearly in serious danger.
Paulo turned to peek over the rear tray just as a round zipped off a pole and ricocheted past his head.
"Dios.." He muttered, noting the jeep closing the distance before the loose canopy flapped up in his face obscuring his vision. An idea suddenly struck the teen.
"Do we still have the parachute?" He urgently asked.
A little confused, Hex nodded and leopard crawled to the spot at the front corner where the silken sheet was stowed in a small bundle. He crawled back over and laid the bundle in front of Paulo, looking up at him expectantly.
"They can't hit us if they can't see us right?" He revealed with a cocky grin.
Hex caught the plan quickest. "So we deploy a parachute on them? It's a good idea I guess but I don't know how long it would slow them down for though."
"But what if it was on fire?" Camilla suggested with a mischievous smile sliding over a yellow Jerry can.
Alex returned her smile.
"I like it. Will it work?" He asked looking at Paulo and Hex.
Hex pondered for a moment before answering.
"Technically? Yeah it should, the wind will catch it quickly and should blow it straight onto their vehicle."
Paulo nodded his agreement. "If we wait until they are close and release it by the strings it should get the most air."
Alex looked pleased.
"Good, douse a couple of the parachords with diesel, keep a couple dry for us to hold. I'll pop up front and let them know what's happening."
Using his forearms and knees Alex crawled to the front of the truck and waited. As soon as there was a lull in fire as the jeep reloaded, Alex braced to his feet on failing muscles and climbed through the gap in the canopy.
His vision faded in and out of focus, as he stood at the front of the canopy and a wave of dizziness suddenly hit him, almost causing him to fall.
Alex stood in front of the canopy hanging onto a pole, as he tried to control the distortion in his head. Come on focus, he commanded internally. By force of will, his vision seemed to sharpen again and the world stopped careening in his head.
He was pleased to see the window was already open, as the wind resistance punished his lean frame. Alex was about to shimmy across to the window when the door was pushed open instead and he felt the push of the wind drop away, causing a wave of relief to wash through him. A small black hand was hanging out the opened door in his direction, while a brown desert boot braced the door open. Gratefully he clasped the hand and was assisted up into the cab. With his legs clear of the ajar door it was allowed to slam shut.
The boy turned to look at the two females in the cab.
"Thanks." He muttered sheepishly, his eyes flowing afresh from the harsh wind.
Li smiled mockingly at his tear filled face. "I know it's emotional seeing us again Alex, but really?"
Amber giggled and Alex had to fight down a laugh, as he wiped his pouring eyes.
Putting on a serious voice he steered the conversation back towards business.
"We're putting together a distraction to slow these guys down, do you guys think you can lose them?"
"Yeah, we got this one cry-baby." Amber teased. "We will lose them in this river about four kms from here. You guys have got about five minutes to pull it off."
"Right." Alex said, ignoring the insult and climbing back out the window without another word.
The three remaining friends had finished setting up their trap by the time Alex slipped back into the rear of the truck. Diesel fumes filled the canopy and restarted the coughing fits until it dissipated. Still feeling a little light-headed from the fumes, Hex pulled one side of the rope taught against the left side of the Unimog and around a canvas pole, as Paulo did the same on the right.
Camilla popped up just longer enough to judge the distance of the vehicle behind them and haul the parachute onto the top of the rear-tray. The jeep trailed behind them at about fifty metres, the dark soldier standing in the back was frantically trying to find a fresh magazine. Only five meters behind the jeep, the Technical was gaining speed and looking to manoeuvre in front of the friendly vehicle so it could engage with it's heavier hitting machine gun.
Alex hustled up next to Camilla and took out his small container of waterproof matches and seized the two chords they had designated as fuses. He was about to strike his first match when Camilla covered his hand with hers.
"My plan, I should light the fuse." She insisted firmly.
Feeling time was too precious to argue he wordlessly handed her the matches and instead dropped the bottom of the parachute off the back of the Mog. It only took a couple of seconds for the draft to catch the billowing white sail of silk and inflate it. This was all the time Camilla needed to light the two fuel soaked ropes and seeing the flames start to run up the ropes, Alex dropped his hand signalling for the two boys to release the trap.
The white sheet shot away from the Unimog at tremendous speed trailing two thin flaming chords.