“Definite sounds of movement down there, sir” the sergeant reported. “At least two people, I’d say.” Andrew looked around and saw some of his team waiting for instructions. He looked at the pile, deciding the best place to start digging. They needed to reach the people who were trapped without dislodging anything in the process that might make the survivors’ condition far worse. There wasn’t much room at the location he finally chose, and only three people could dig there safely.
“One of you others try to get a breathing pole down there. It’ll let them know we’ve found them and that we’re coming. Besides, what air they have must be getting pretty thin by now. The extra that the pole will let in will be appreciated, if not critical.”
He looked towards the other team that was carefully working through the mound of mud that covered most of the supermarket. No signs that they had found anything, so far at least. He took advantage of the high vantage point to survey the scene around him. Lucky really, it could have been so much worse if it had happened at night, or in the early morning while the townsfolk were still in their houses.
The survivors were now lining the street back near the trucks, some huddled in blankets, others dejectedly picking at the cans of food they’d been given. The team cleaning the road had nearly finished the first hurdle, and mounds of earth lined the road where they had moved it aside to let the trucks pass. The team up at the stream were doing quite well too. It was hard work, but redirecting it back onto its original course was at least possible.
Digging out the school was, as he’d guessed, slow going. Even at night it was hot and tiring work. Well, not for him. Supervising the various teams was draining him mentally, but physically he was still quite capable, even though he’d had little actual rest since their march back from their last encampment in the jungle when they’d returned to base. Sitting in the jeep, for their journey over to the affected town, had helped recharge his batteries but even this travelling time had been spent going through what would probably need to be done in his head, so he’d been thinking constantly the whole way, trying to recall everything he’d been taught at the Academy. Shame that he’d ‘blown it’ a bit at the last minute, by rushing across instead of taking time to ensure they took the right equipment with them.
He checked that Sergeant Johanssen was giving the crews doing the digging sufficient breaks, changing them every quarter of an hour. Fresh muscles would ensure the job was done much more swiftly, as well as providing the diggers with time to flex their aching muscles and get ready for their next turn in the hole that they’d formed to bring the survivors through.
Progress at the supermarket had been quicker. There’d been no sounds of life in the first half hour they’d been listening for it, so he’d instructed the corporal overseeing this work to start digging at the best point for clearing the rubble. They were still being careful not to disturb anything of course – there might still be people alive down there who hadn’t been heard. If they were dead, he’d want to get their bodies out as quickly as possible anyway. The heat of the day would very soon start the bodies decomposing, and it would be better to do it without any of the town’s people seeing, if possible. They’d had enough of a shock from the original disaster, without having to endure the added burden of seeing the dead bodies of people they knew being brought out.
The sun would soon be creeping over the horizon when a sudden cry from the direction of the school grabbed his attention, and he rushed over to see what had happened.
One of the diggers had fallen through the hole into an empty space below, and the lights being shone down there showed him a very nasty looking piece of metal protruding through the man’s thigh. From the angle the leg now took, it looked broken too. He called for one of the medics, and waited while he came running over. Sergeant Johanssen had already climbed into the opening to it beside the private and comfort him, while more help arrived.
The medic climbed down into the hole, next to the private and the sergeant. After a quick examination of the leg, and a and a check to see there was no other damage, he gave the private a turret of morphine from his pouch to help with the pain, then started to supervise lifting the injured man out so they could more easily attend to his wounds.
Andrew called for a chopper on the radio and was told that this wouldn’t be long. They’d already headed out in fact, aiming to be at the town as soon as the sun was up, making it easier to find a safe landing zone. He thought he could hear the distant drone of their approach, while he was still talking on the radio.
Another yell, this time from the direction of the supermarket. They’d found two survivors. They were trapped beneath toppled shelving and unconscious which would account for not having heard anything originally, but they were alive at least. More medics rushed across to help with their extraction and to make sure any injuries they might have suffered weren’t made worse by the move.
Once these victims were safely out, it wasn’t long before they found the shop-keeper herself. She was dead, crushed between the counter she’d been sitting at and the shelves behind her. The shard of word protruding from her chest said that her death had, at least, probably been very quick, almost instant probably.
He left the corporal to arrange for the body to be removed. The wooden shard would have to be removed before putting her in a body bag. Andrew wasn’t really squeamish at the sight of blood, but he’d heard stories about the sounds removing such pieces of shrapnel could cause, and it wasn’t something he wanted to hear himself until he absolutely had to.
Climbing back out of the supermarket, he found that the sun had now crept above the horizon, and was providing enough light for their torches and lamps not to be needed any more. In the distance, he saw that he’d been right. A chopper was approaching with another not far behind.
He looked over his shoulder for P. Mendez, and found him right beside him. As instructed, he’d stayed close to his lieutenant the whole night, ready to translate or hand Andrew the transmitter whenever needed. The team cleaning the road to let the vehicles through had finished on the side of town they’d come from, and were now doing the same on the other side. The assistance of the town’s men, and older teenagers, was helping the effort enormously. Although many of them were quite old, their work in the fields kept them quite fit, and they were well used to digging. Besides anything else, it was giving them something to do to help take their minds off of the calamitous event itself that had fallen on them, and also keeping them occupied and out of the lieutenant’s way. He looked at the group of mainly women and younger children with the odd man just too old or infirm to join in the digging. Most of them were now sitting or lying at the roadside. Those few that were still moving around did so very slowly and wearily. He felt sorry for them. There was little to occupy their thoughts except the mudslide, the loss of their houses, and how much harder their lives would now become.
The radio that P. Mendez was carrying started to crackle. He was pleased to recognise Lieutenant Forbes’ voice. She’d seen a suitable spot to land, very near to the centre of town, and was checking this would be OK before making her final approach. He told her it was and started making arrangements for his injured private, and for those others with broken limbs, to be taken down to the LZ, ready for loading and dispatch to the nearest hospital. He started to make his own way to the LZ. It would be good to put a face to the voice, and there was no pressing requirement for him to stay at the centre of the trouble spot. Everything was proceeding quite smoothly now, almost mechanically, and unless they found any more survivors, or bodies, there was little he needed to do now except wait for the help which would be on its way.
As the chopper approached it blew up a shower of dust, and Andrew ducked as he moved towards the pilot’s door. There was no real need of course. Even if he’d been a great deal taller the blades would be quite far above him. The movement was instinctive though, and one that even the pilots themselves usually adopted, even though they should know better than most that it wasn’t really necessary.
He waited for her to step out. She was about the same height as he was, perhaps an inch or so shorter. She was very pretty, her blonde hair showing under her flying helmet, probably as long as regulations allowed. Her demeanour was quite ‘masculine’ though, and he was reminded of a character in the old series ‘Scrubs’ that he’d watched, a very independent and confident young woman, very pretty but with a ‘no nonsense’ air that exuded a great deal of inner strength.
“You must be Lieutenant Hoch,” she greeted him. He nodded.
“Lieutenant Forbes, I presume” he said with a smile.
“No, not really,” he agreed.
“Still, we’ll have plenty of other chances no doubt. Our C.O. thinks it’s a good idea for us pilots to be as ‘regular’ as possible, and I’ve been assigned to your base so I’ll be coming over once a week to bring supplies to you guys. I’ll also be one of your pilots once we need to start moving you from up country, when you complete your missions against the ‘bad guys’.”
“It’s a date … er … I meant yes, no doubt we’ll do that.” He realised he was blushing a bit as he spoke, thinking of P. Mendez’s comment when they’d first spoken.
“It’s OK,” she replied, smiling at him, “I knew what you meant.”
He glanced back at P. Mendez, who’d followed him to the LZ. He was silent, but with a wide grin on his face. Andrew knew, or guessed, what the private was probably thinking.
While they had been talking, the second helicopter had landed and they were joined by another lieutenant. Lieutenant Forbes introduced him as Lieutenant Pedersen. Andrew was mildly surprised at the name. This lieutenant wasn’t fully black, half caste probably, but he’d been expecting a more ‘black’ sounding name. He wondered briefly if this was a racist thing to expect. He certainly didn’t consider himself such, at least not consciously so. He’d probably find out the lieutenant’s history over the next few weeks. Like Lieutenant Forbes he’d been assigned to Charlie and Delta Companies base.
“It’s not exclusive,” Lieutenant Pedersen explained, “we do a bit more than fly out to you once a week!”
‘Yeah, probably not a lot more though,’ Andrew thought to himself. The rivalry between the lieutenants in the infantry divisions and the chopper pilots was age old, going back really to when the choppers had first been introduced, and it was difficult not to feel at least some of this prejudice himself.
Fitting those needing to be evacuated into the two choppers was quite easy. They’d been designed to carry eighteen fighting men after all, and there weren’t many injured that needed to be transported. Of those that did, most had broken arms and upper body injuries, so were ‘walking wounded’. There were only four on stretchers, his private among them.
“We’d better take one of your medics on each flight, if you can spare them,” said Lieutenant Forbes. “We weren’t sure what to expect, so didn’t bring anyone else with us. The flight to the hospital won’t take long but you never know what complications might arise.”
Andrew said that they could indeed spare a couple of medics. All of the lesser injuries had now been treated, and he’d still have several trained men left to him if needed. In the distance, he had spied tell-tale signs of dust, letting him know that the relief column proper would soon be arriving. He excused himself and made his way back towards the road to greet them.
Surveying the scene by the light of day he found it was nowhere near as bad as he’d first thought. It would take time to rebuild the homes and shops of course, but the fields were relatively untouched, only those closest to the road now littered with mud and bits of the houses that had been pushed down into them. There was the odd vehicle too, including the police car he’d seen earlier. Not very many though. The town had had few enough to start with, most of their transport consisting of the mules and oxen that dotted the outlying fields. Their food supply would be very little affected, though the time they’d need to spend rebuilding their homes would detract a great deal from their tasks out there.
The first jeep that pulled up contained a major, in charge of the relief team no doubt. The one behind a captain. He also recognised the cheerful face of Clive Bayley next to the captain.
He reported to the major, and recounted what they’d found and what they’d done so far.
“Do you want us to stay and help, sir?” he asked.
“No,” said the major after a few moments thought. “We’ve brought two full companies, and things don’t seem as bad as we first thought they might be. Your own team would probably just be in the way.” It wasn’t meant dismissively, or negatively, and Andrew knew what the major meant. The town was small and there wasn’t really much space for too many teams to be working at one time.
The column that had now pulled up behind the halted jeeps was quite long, consisting mainly of the ‘temporary’ trailers that would provide homes for the town’s people while they rebuilt their own. Andrew had been able to see round one of these units back at the Academy. Although quite cramped, if filled up with the six people each could house, they’d been well designed and equipped. They were probably far better in fact than many of the homes they’d be replacing. The Werlder Force probably wouldn’t get them back for ages. Their new inhabitants would have little incentive to rebuild the houses that had been demolished by the mudslide.
He looked at his own troops, exhausted now after their night’s exertions, and probably very glad that help had now arrived. They’d travel back to base and bed down there. It wouldn’t take very long in the daylight, and those who weren’t actually driving could rest for the journey, if not actually sleep.
He radioed back to base that the rest of his company wouldn’t be needed after all, and that he’d be coming straight back. His captain confirmed this decision. Their conversation over the radio was quite brief. He could recount their adventure in more detail face-to-face.
Before setting out he took the opportunity to chat a little with Lieutenant Bayley.
“Have you heard the news?” Clive asked, after Andrew had filled him in on what he’d already told the major.
“Well, we do have normal radio out here,” he replied, “but there hasn’t been a great deal of time to listen to the World Service, so probably not.”
“China’s agreed to join the Alliance,” Clive said excitedly, “going to let Taiwan and Tibet have their own representation on the World Council too. It’s quite a coup for the politicos who negotiated it.”
It was good news indeed. The few Asian countries that had been holding back, for fear of alienating such a large and powerful neighbour, would probably be falling over each other now to join up too. That would mean that pretty much the whole world was in the Alliance, which had been the original goal. Most of the democracies had been quick to see the advantages and hadn’t taken much convincing. The dictatorships hadn’t wanted to, of course, but had fairly quickly fallen and their peoples had wanted to sign up too, very quickly in some cases before new dictatorships could take them over.
It was rumoured that the Alliance had helped ‘push’ some of these changes, even though it was stated policy not to interfere in the internal affairs of those countries that weren’t already members. He didn’t know for sure, of course, but thought this was probably more or less true. The full benefits of the Alliance would only really be seen once everyone was a member.
This would leave North Korea pretty much on their own, and Andrew wondered again how long that situation would last. ‘Still,’ he thought, ‘that’s something for the politicians to worry about. No doubt we’ll be called on soon enough if needed.’ He bid farewell to Clive, leaving him to oversee his now busy team that had taken over from Andrew’s Company. He found his jeep’s driver asleep!
“That’s OK,” he said, “I think I’ll drive back myself. I’m tired too but I’ve got a lot on my mind. More than enough to keep me awake for the journey. You get in the back and try to get some more rest if you can.”
He had hoped that stimulating conversation with P. Mendez, who’d clambered wearily into the front passenger seat, would help keep him alert, but a glance in his direction showed him that the private had already closed his eyes, and the slow movement of his chest that he’d already fallen asleep. As he drove past his now loaded and readied trucks he saw that the cab passengers in these too were taking the opportunity to nap, leaving their drivers to complete the task of getting them back to base on their own.
As he drove back the constant need, or desire at least, to avoid the worst of the potholes kept him alert. As he’d expected it wasn’t long before he was approaching the base camp. He’d have to report to the captain of course, before turning in himself, and hoped that he wouldn’t be kept there too long, or worse still that something else had happened and that he’d have to lead his tired Company straight back out without any chance for the rest that he now found he desperately craved.