They were all poised for the kill. The heat of the action gave them the thrill, equivalent to an explosive orgasm. With cocked pistols and bated breathes, each one of them waited for the exact moment, when the commander would give them the hands-crossed sign, the agreed signal for the ambush. It would be their last bit effort to survive the crash, that left seven of them dead, and four wounded to their guts. Only five of them escaped with injuries, not to the extent of immobilizing their limbs. Blood and puss oozed out of the wounds, created by the splinters of the wrecked aero plane, they had mustered to get away with, from the alien country. The crash had occurred two days ago, a day after their own rescue team deserted them, leaving them to rot in an alien country, with no food, limited arms and an ever- dwindling supply of ammunition. It was, probably, the worst betrayal of its kind, in the history of betrayals. They had been sent on a covert mission to dig out the true master minds behind the South city explosions, in the guise of a sixteen member team of paramedics. But, much to their surprise, their cover had been blown by their own friends, even before they had landed. Only the call for duty towards the motherland had perked them to carry on with the mission, not withstanding, who stayed with them or who turned disloyal. Now, they were left to fend for themselves in this treacherous terrain, filled with booby traps and a never ending line of mercenaries.
Even after the early hiccups, caused by the treachery of their own friends, they had managed to get hold of the criminals, by dint of seer determination and commiserating military skills. Their commander, Kirby, was the primary source of inspiration for this mission to come out of all the dreaded miscalculations. Kirby pointed one finger at the sky. They scrambled away, as this meant that an air surveillance was underway, seeking to hunt them from above. Their position was known to the enemy. They couldn’t escape the vast ravine on foot. Their only ray of hope lay in seizing an enemy vehicle, by killing its occupants. But, they lay completely bare to the eyes of the hawk above. So, they spread out in all directions, so that, one lucky shot wouldn’t kill two. The aero plane hovered over them for some time and drifted away. Possibly, it wasn’t a surveillance aircraft after all. Then came the hands-crossed sign of their commander. A small vehicle could be spotted at the far end of the road, that passed within yards of their makeshift hideout. A well thought out plan for an ambush, thought Welsh, as he sprinted closer to the road, to get a no-error shot. The four-wheeler was coming up slowly. Welsh looked into his binoculars, to see the number of men inside. He could spot three, all heavily armed. Then his blood froze at what he saw. Their own lieutenant, General Ferguson, was at the wheels. He signaled Kirby to take a second look. Kirby had already seen through the camouflage. He gave the thumbs-up sign, meaning, “No change in plans”. Welsh prepared for the assault. The vehicle was only a few yards away. Welsh took aim at the driver. Killing him would immediately destabilize the vehicle, so that the other two would never be able to pull a trigger before getting jettisoned into the road ahead. Welsh was to be covered by Stryver, a sharp shooter of international standards, just in case anything went wrong, or, Welsh got picked up by a stray bullet.
Welsh squeezed the trigger. The bullet made a hole in the forehead of General Ferguson, or whoever Welsh took him for. The driver fell against the wheel, jamming it immediately, and sending the four wheeler into a spin. All the occupants were thrown out like nine pins. Welsh and Stryver finished them off . The four wheeler lay still, tilted against a large bush. All five men were about to run for it, when, Kirby stopped them. He had heard a chopper coming straight towards them. The chopper could take potshots at them, if they boarded the vehicle. So, they stayed put. All of a sudden, a very bright orange colour light lit up the afternoon sky. It was so bright, that it almost blinded their sight for a few seconds. The chopper pulverized mid-air, and its occupants vanished into thin air. The debris of the wrecked chopper rained over them for some time, and they had to scramble for cover. A few seconds later, a rapidly advancing storm of dust and debris covered them. They couldn’t guess what it was. After the storm subsided, Kirby gave a hands-down signal, meaning, all clear. Welsh and Stryver stepped onto the road, while the rest scanned the surroundings for any kind of unmarked intrusions. When they reached the vehicle, the engine was still running. Two of the front tyres were still spinning, while the rest two were still. Stryver yanked the vehicle away from the bush and straightened it after shutting off the fuel. The rest of the team followed suit. As Kirby sparked the engine to life, Welsh saw one of the injured getting up. Stryver wasted him with one bullet at the head. Scott, their navigator cum radio operator, spread the map out with the compass, and instructed a go-forward.
Two hours later, the stolen vehicle was approaching a check post. Welsh wanted to force their entry through the post, but, Kirby bade him to cool down. As they were, just, around ten yards from the post, Stryver and Welsh trained their guns at the cabin room. But, when nobody came out to outmaneuver them, they felt it strange. Kirby stopped the vehicle there, and stepped down to take stock of the situation inside the post. Welsh and Stryver would give him covering fire, in case it was needed. But, nothing such happened. Kirby cautiously entered the cabin, his pistol cocked to fire instantaneously. Welsh and Stryver kept vigil. Kirby came out of the cabin and gave an all-clear signal. Both, Welsh and Stryver put down their pistols and strode into the cabin. Their blood froze at what they saw. Two dead bodies, lay on the floor, their faces mutilated beyond recognition, and their unclothed bodies bore innumerable marks of burns all over. It seemed as if someone had burnt them using a massive flame-thrower. All of them returned to their vehicle and raced ahead.
The map showed a bridge over a wide- banked river, but, when they reached there, the bridge was nowhere to be seen, and the river, completely dry. The trees and bushes that lined the banks had been burnt off too. They searched for a spot where they could enter their vehicle into the river. Stryver showed them a spot, where the river had narrowed down, and they might chance upon a traversable road across the river there. When they reached there, they found burnt pieces of a wooden bridge lying on its sides. They crossed the dried up river on foot, living the vehicle on the other side, as it was quite impossible to plough with it across.
As they crossed the river, the true image of the devastation gradually unfurled before them. The trees were all incinerated, the houses lay like a pack of cards thrown off at random, the streets were strewn with blood and mutilated bodies perched on top of the debris of the buildings that once lined it. Nothing could be seen standing.
So, that was it. The holocaust has occurred. The bomb had been dropped. They had been spared the nightmare by dint of some kind of fate. Otherwise, they would have been lying here among the corpses. The very thought drove shivers down their spine. They wanted to return. They couldn’t stand the grotesque picture of the catastrophe any more. It was simply unbearable. But, there was no way out. They were stranded in the middle of a twenty first century modern town devastated by a creation of mankind, who never knew how catastrophic it could be. With sparse supply of food and drinkable water in possession, they were as good as dead in the middle of nowhere.
Two days into the land of no live men, their will to survive started floundering. Their stock of food would exhaust by noon. They had no water to drink. The water bodies all around had been rendered contaminated by the radio active elements released during the fission reaction that pulverized the entire town. Desolate market places lay in front of them, with everything burnt to ashes. The concrete structures remained standing alone like defeated warriors stretching their arms upwards in a gesture of surrender. Stench of rotten flesh hung in the air everywhere.
Stryver was the first casualty of mental trauma on the third day. He started behaving like a lunatic. Welsh saw him at first, slapping furiously at his face and then rocking his head violently back and forth. Welsh knew at once, what had struck Stryver. He was overcome with grief seeing all the death around him. He was the youngest in the group. No doubt, he was the first to succumb. The rest of the group was seated on a hillock, some hundred yards away. Welsh bolted towards them. He couldn’t bear to see his colleague losing sense in such a way. Kirby saw him running towards them. He knew something was wrong. He stood up. All of them stood up with their guns ready. When Welsh came up to them, he was panting for breath. His mouth was wide open and his tongue lolling out. He puked in front of Kirby and fell flat on the ground. Kirby and the others rolled Welsh body to face the sky. His eyes were open and the pupils dilated. Kirby wiped his mouth with his hanky and tried to fan him with it. When Welsh finally regained consciousness, he was too feeble to speak. However, he murmured something and Kirby stooped low enough to listen to what he was saying. From the babble, he could only decipher the term “Str.r”. He immediately knew what he meant. Asking the boys to look after Welsh, he sprinted towards where Welsh had come running from. His heart sank at what he saw. Stryver lay huddled in a heap, blood oozing from his temples. It was clear that the young boy had banged his head against the rock in front of him and had died a painful death a few seconds ago.
He returned to the group to find Welsh lying spread eagled on the ground. He knew at once, that fate had been quite lenient with him. He, at least, didn’t have to face the mental agony that the remaining four would be facing now onwards.
Kirby was the eldest in the group. His responsibility rose far more than that of a captain, sent out with a team of mercenaries on a mission to kill the enemy and liberate the friends. Whom to kill, and whom to liberate now? All of them were dead, as dead as a rock. And it was only a matter of time before they could find a way out of this land of death, or perish to their ends, just like the others who surrounded them all around. Kirby wasn’t in the least perturbed at this situation, for he had been in such situations several times in the past. However, this was, by far, the most horrendous of them all. It had already started taking a toll on his physical and mental capabilities. He had to find an escape route. He had to. Otherwise, the rest of the group would soon succumb to the scent of death that was slowly, but steadily, encroaching upon them. He raised his eyes to find all three of the boys standing near him, looking at his face. He knew, they were studying his face in search of a hope. He had to make a decision soon, before all of them started banging their heads to death.
“On your toes, boys!” he ordered, “About turn, and march towards the river we crossed last time. Our vehicle is still there. We can find a way out soon. So, march ahead!” One of the boys said in a feeble voice, “What about our dead companions? Shouldn’t we, at least, give them a mark of respect by burying their bodies?” “No way!” said Kirby, “We have long days ahead. The dead are dead. If we waste our time, time will see us dead too. We cannot afford to do that. We got ourselves to bother for. Any more questions?” “No Sir!” came their prompt reply. They turned their backs and marched ahead towards the river.