Only as she stood to clear her breakfast ware did Tom Williams approach her.
“Good morning.” He greeted, less than cordially. “Miss, or is it Mrs Fletcher. The office didn’t tell me.”
“Joanne.” Joanne returned, ignoring the question. “And good morning to you too.”
Tom shrugged. “Joanne it is then. In that case I suppose you’d better call me Tom.”
“Good morning Tom.” Joanne said again, this time a degree brighter.
“So,” He responded, his voice flat. “I suppose you’ve come to beat us up and show us numpties how it’s done eh?”
Joanne was taken aback. This wasn’t how Tom had been last night or what she had expected. “God no.” She answered. “Neither of those. I got sent to find out what’s wrong. I have no idea what is going on here and need every bit of help I can get.”
Tom lightened. “I suppose we’d better sit down then and talk over what you want to see and achieve while you’re here.”
“Shouldn’t we include Mr Greggson?”
“Not a chance.” Tom answered. “We need to be sure of where we are going before we bring in the client.”
“The client knows.”
“Of course he knows. It’ll be why they’ve sent in the new guy. It’s also why we’ve got you here. I want to be sure we’re on the same page.”
“Ok.” Joanne returned, the word drawn out, the agreement tacit and yet not fully so. “So what do you know that I don’t?”
“We have a problem.”
“Ok, we’ve known this is an issue for some time. We didn’t sit on our hands over it. That’s not our way. Our first thought was that we had duff geo pack connections. Not so, we’ve double-checked them all. Then we figured it must be the geo packs themselves. Again not so, we’ve checked every single one. Might it be the laying? No. That’s a standard pattern and I’ve watched the guys lay it down. Been the same from day one. It worked then, why not now? Could it be the charges are somehow initiating spurious signal? Don’t think so. I took a look at what the layers are doing and spoke with them. The explosives are good. The initiators are good. They are all laid extra carefully since this started. I put in a separate phone just to look for multiple triggers. None.
“The kit itself?” Joanne postulated.
“Been through every circuit board, every wire, every programme.” Tom told her. “Just as I have told London.”
“Could the jungle be moving the phones?” Joanne asked.
“Oh come on.” Tom returned. “Get serious.”
“It was just a thought.” Joanne confessed. “I’ve heard that it grows back as soon as you cut it. Could be pushing the phones over?”
“We don’t just lay them in this terrain.” Tom told her. “They get attached to a six inch metal spike.”
“Could those be causing a vibration curve that throws the signal out?”
“Never done it before.”
“Always a first time.”
“I suppose always a first time.” Tom admitted, but we’ve looked into that issue and found nothing.”
It wasn’t quite true. They had considered that these spikes in some cases created a stand-off between the phones and the ground. The spikes however were metal for a reason, to transmit pressure waves from the ground to the phone. Martin had experimented to prove or disprove the connection and had discovered that some phones were only getting partial signal via the spike. Further examination showed the reason to be excessive application of an anti seize compound applied in the threads connecting the two devices. Removal of the compound removed the dysfunction. It did not however explain that there was still a problem.
“Why the hell are we still using explosives?” Joanne asked. “What’s wrong with the vibrators?” She was referring to the monster wheeled machines used nearly everywhere seismic surveying was done, that induced vibrations into the ground.
“We’re on a tight schedule here. You’ve seen how long it takes to clear the line? We get around six hundred yards cleared a day. If we were using vibrators we’d have to double the width, so it would be down to three hundred yards. Hardly makes it worth it does it?”
“So why not clear the line and then let the vibrators run?”
“At ten miles a month, are you kidding? In a month you have to clear it all again. Picking up the phones is already a challenge with them caught up in regrowth.”
“Regrowth? You mean the jungle re-growing?”
“Exactly. It gets caught up in the geophone cables. Makes a hell of a mess.”
“But doesn’t affect the performance or influence signal?”
“No. Fauna is not a factor.” Tom reiterated.
“Even if it gets caught in the cables and pulls the joints?”
“It doesn’t. They have snap locks.”
“Of course with pins.”
“That could be bent or damaged. When you checked the geophones, did you check all the cable sets or use the same one?”
Tom hesitated enough to give Joanne her answer, and then lied. “We checked them all.”
Joanne hesitated herself, before suggesting that even though it wasn’t really in her remit a continuity check of all the laid devices would be a good idea for a start.
“We do that as routine before any firing.” Tom told her. “But you know that.”
“I assume it, but as with a lot that happens in the field, we don’t actually know the difference between what we think happens, what procedure says should happen and what actually does happen.”
“Maybe you should go on a tour.” Tom returned. “See how it all works from the ground up.”
“Good idea.” Joanne returned. “Because I admit I know it all in theory and will ask testing questions that you will think are stupid. But that’s because I don’t actually know what you guys do in the real world.”
Tom looked her in the eyes trying to discern if she was being facetious or genuine. He had heard of her, even seen her before in the London office and knew she was the whizz kid of the moment but had no idea if she’d been onto a prospect of any nature. He was trying hard to understand why, if she was telling the truth Occidental Prospect had sent her, or anyone for that matter who had no experience of practical geophysical surveying. With no way to know differently Tom accepted her premise and organised that Pete Swanson would take her on a tour of the line.
Down the line.
“It all starts at the front.” Pete told Joanne. “And that’s where this truck is headed so that’s where we’ll go first.” He’d pulled over one of the big all wheel drive military looking company trucks as it ran past the camp and helped her climb up into the cab. Climbing in alongside her he did the introductions as the driver crunched the vehicle into motion.
“Joanne, this Peter Namali, Peter, this is Joanne.”
Peter smiled, a big African smile. “It is a lovely name.” He said, “For a lovely lady.”
Joanne didn’t feel lovely. She’d started the day washed and in clean clothes but already she was hot and sweaty. The air was cloying and the blast from the dashboard fan a relief even if it wasn’t doing any cooling. Air conditioning was an expenditure Occidental Prospect didn’t go to for its workforce.
“It’s a continuous process.” Pete informed Joanne as the truck rumbled up alongside the line. “The pick-up team literally pick up the cables and geophones from the last mile and Peter here is trucking them up to the front of the line for the lay-down team to install.”
The three mile bumping ride up to the front of the line was reminiscent of the ride from the airfield to the camp but with padding on her seat.
They passed the explosion pit with its debris strewn out and foliage for a hundred yards around stripped away by the blast.
“I thought it was all tamped in.” Joanne commented.
“It is.” Pete returned, “but it’s a hell of a lot of explosive. It has to be to force the shock wave the twenty miles down through to the mantle.”
“I heard it.” Joanne said.
Another half mile and they trundled past another explosion pit as it was being dug. Joanne was pleased to see the digging method was mechanical rather than manual, a small tracked excavator taking chunks out of the earth.
On another two miles and Peter stopped the truck alongside a gang of men who instantly climbed aboard and stated pulling out the cargo of cables. Pete and Joanne disembarked and walked forward to where a different gang armed with chain saws and Machetes was cutting a swathe into the forest. The smell of cut wood was strong on the air, together with the sound of chain saws cutting the trees into manageable chunks to be hauled to the side of the survey line. A hundred yards back from this team a bulldozer was chugging away, levelling out the irregularities in the ground and pulling out tree stumps. Six hundred metres a day Tom had told Joanne the night before and she could see why. The work was back breaking.
They hardly had ten minutes to watch the geophone laying team systematically and methodically connecting up a pattern of geophones before Peter was hurrying them back into his truck for the return journey down the line.
The rocking bouncing journey back down the dead straight line towards camp saw hardly a soul, save the single individual clad in green pseudo military fatigues walking the far side of the geophone mat. “That man.” Joanne said. “He’s got a gun. I saw him on the way up and wasn’t sure. Now I am. He’s got a gun.”
“That’s Richard.” Pete told her. “He’s our new security.”
“Why does he have a gun? Are there dangerous animals out there?”
“Maybe Leopards, there could be bears. I don’t know. Where there’s water, crocodiles but so far we’ve never seen anything big. There are snakes, spiders, flies and mosquitoes. They’re the biggest threat.”
Joanne had heard of the flies and mosquitoes. Even now in the cab the flies were a nuisance and she didn’t know which if any, were the ones that carried disease.
“So why does he have a gun?” She queried.
“Keep the bush tribes away.” Pete said. “He’s got a crew who do that all the time.”
“Half a dozen Line Rangers. They all have rifles.”
“How come I haven’t seen them?”
“Often they camp out.”
Joanne thought it strange and made a note to find out.
Back past the explosion pits at regular intervals, back past the control wagon and the encampment way down all six miles of line to the end where the pick up team were hard at work collecting the last hundred yards of geophones and associated cabling. Already bundles of cable and boxes of neatly stacked geophones laywaiting to be loaded.
“In any other operation there would be a fleet of trucks ferrying this stuff.” Pete told Joanne. “But we’re slowed up by the rate we can clear jungle, so Peter can do this on his own.”
Standing around as the labour loaded up the truck was embarrassing so Joanne took a walk up the line. It didn’t take long before she observed patches of displaced geophones and it was clear these had not been moved by any plants. It was possible that animals had been rooting, she’d hear that there were pigs in the jungle and if that were true they, or some other ruminant might have been responsible. If so, then it would in her mind most likely occur during darkness and away from human activity, like here at the far end of the line. She pointed it out to Pete and he in turn agreed with her assumptions.
“I’ll tell Tom.” He said. “We check the line before every shoot, but every third shoot is early in the morning so the check happens the night before.”
“And the continuity check will reveal nothing provided the cabling isn’t disconnected.” She mused. “But the phone will misread if it’s just lying there.”
That evening Joanne met the guy with the gun. True to Pete’s words he was followed into camp as darkness fell by half a dozen Africans who looked for all the world like they’d just come off the set from filming Rambo or some other equally violent war movie. None toted hunting rifles, all had semi automatic assault weapons. Western weapons, not the ubiquitous AK47’s that were so common in Africa and universally recognised. Even Joanne knew the guns were not AK47’s.
Unlike the other black people in camp, these six sat to eat with the white leader of the group.
Joanne could not contain herself. She moved to sit at the trestle table and opposite the leader.
“Joanne Fletcher.” She introduced. “From London.”
The guy looked tired but alert. He had noted her move and ignored it. Now he looked her in the face. “Vere.” He said, the accent held a trace of South African.
“Richard Vere.” She extrapolated. “Is that Captain, Major or what?”
“Just Vere.” He replied. “Only the English are pretentious enough to carry a rank over when it has expired.”
“Ex military then.”
“A long time ago.”
“So your band of cut throats isn’t government?”
“I don’t recall us hiring mercenaries.”
“You didn’t. It’s a direct contract with Forward.”
“So Forward are hiring mercenaries to keep local tribes clear of the prospect line. How long has this been going on?”
“It’s not working is it? Maybe you’d be better chasing pigs off.”
“It’s not pigs that uproot your lines. It’s the local bastards who move the phones.”
“They move them?” She queried incredulously. “Who moves them?”
“The Ontongo.” Joanne repeated flatly, like she understood his words.
“The forest tribes.” Vere told her. “They move the geophones.”
“For god’s sake why?”
“Apparently they think of them as some kind of bad ju-ju.”
“You’re not bloody serious?”
“Absolutely. You people are cutting their home into ten kilometre squares. It’s screwing their entire ecosystem, messing with the plants and animals. Everything they know and rely on is being trashed in the mad search for oil.”
“So you’re on their side?”
“Hell, no. I just understand how these people feel. How would you like it if some foreigner bulldozed the Edmonton High Street and then just left a mess?”
“Yes. I live in Crawley, not Edmonton, but I get your point.”
“Anyway.” Vere continued. “My job is to keep them clear and I do my best with the guys I have, but these tribes have been living here for thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands. They know the jungle and are better at hiding in it than we are at finding them.”
“And what do you do when you do catch them?”
“Frighten them off. Chase them and their families away. After all it’s only a month or so that we’re in any given patch.”
“You don’t shoot them?”
“Near them, sometimes yes. At them, no. Look frightening and make a lot of noise, yes. Kill people, no. They are not our enemies, just ordinary people, real people who live in a forest and are trying to survive.”
A New chapter
It was obvious in retrospect. Given the information Joanne had obtained from Vere, Tom had done as Joanne suggested. That Tom was not best pleased to only now be told of the local interference, and that through a third party was an understatement. Sure, he’d known that Vere and his team had been co-opted in by Forward Oil but understood it was mainly to keep animals away and people at bay in order to protect them from the explosions rather than protect the line.
Quiet words with Rob Greggson eased the tension. Rob had neither been advised as to Vere’s presence nor been reported to. Tom even approached Vere, only to find that his brief was as skimpy. Nowhere in his contract did it state he was to report his actions, just by whatever means, keep the line clear of people and animals. Vere postulated that the omission was deliberate, it left whatever he did open. What Forward or anyone else for that matter didn’t know, they couldn’t be held accountable for.
This time the the shoot was only going to take place in late evening after a concerted effort to check the entire line and having posted people right down the line to ensure no geophones got dislodged after the check. Previously it had been practice to bring everyone into camp before the shoot in order to make sure everyone was accounted for. This time Peter Namali had driven up the line in darkness picking up the workers after the shoot had taken place, Joanne among them. The truck was full, this time of people, white and black all together and hard to discern the difference in the darkness. Hands reached down to help her and Katunga Jones up onto the truck bed. She and Katunga, who was one of the laying crew had spent most of the day ensuring her part of the line stayed in tip top condition. With no room on the truck to sit, Joanne jostled against bodies in the dark, all jubilant at a long day, but a day of inclusion.
Back in base and climbing down from the truck bed in the dark Joanne caught the leg pocket of her trousers and to much amusement tore a great rent.
It is the way of Africa that although they laughed, to a man the black workers assumed guilt, with Katunga at the forefront.
“You can’t eat in those clothes.” He told Joanne as he offered up a set of coveralls and demanded her trousers so he could get them fixed. “These are small size. Please,” He begged, “let me correct the mistake.”
Joanne assured him that the tear was no fault of his but acceded to the coveralls as she was genuinely hungry and with her other trousers in the wash had no other lower clothing.
The coveralls were actually clean, but you would have been excused to think otherwise. Originally some shade of brown they had faded over time and were irregularly splodged with ingrained black and grey stains. Too big for Joanne’s slim form she rolled turn-ups on both legs and secured the waist with a thick canvas workman’s belt. Perhaps it was best that there were no mirrors for so attired and with the slouch hat crammed on her head, unless you knew who she was, as she made her way around the camp and lines over the following days she could easily have been mistaken for one of the maintenance crew.
Alan Roberts was dirty and tired. He had been up all night going over the returns data. Setting himself down at the table he took a long swig of black coffee. “You must be our lucky charm.” He told Joanne. “Every single phone returned a positive signal. First time in weeks.”
Joanne had been with him until the early hours but turned in believing that the data was good. She too was tired, but nothing like as tired as was Alan. Up early to check on his progress the smell of bacon cooking diverted her and Alan’s arrival at the breakfast table pre-empted her return to the Data Truck. “It’s workable?” She questioned.
“Uh huh.” He nodded. “All good. The traces actually make sense and I’ve tagged them to the evening shoot three days ago and the one from two weeks ago and so long as you ignore everything in the middle it ties in.”
Joanne could have kissed him. It was the answer and she could go home. Well maybe wait for one or two more shoots to be absolutely sure. She knew that the plane out wouldn’t be for another ten days anyway.
Even with the return of both pairs of trousers, one cleaned, the other mended, Joanne continued with the coverall. It had proven despite her earlier protestations, to be the most practical wear. Being too large for her form it was airy, letting her skin breathe and sweat dry. That alone, without the residual odours on the fabric that served to keep the flies away and if for no other reason she actually liked the outfit.
“Just thought I’d introduce myself.” The accent was Irish and that instantly grated with Joanne. A dislike of the Irish was something that Joanne could not really put a finger on other than an inherited streak from her father. He had been in the Army during the times of the troubles in Ulster and during it had acquired a loathing of all things Irish.
She turned to confront a grubby faced man with wide grin and a prominent five o’clock shadow.
“I’ve seen you but we’ve not met.” Joanne said.
“That’s why Miss Fletcher, I’m introducing myself.”
“Clearly you know who I am. And you are?”
“Ryan Lithgow. I’m the man who fixes everything around here.”
His every word had Joanne’s hackles rising, but out of politeness she did not dismiss him. “And you’re looking to fix?”
“I already did. They’re my spare overalls you’re wearing.”
“I thought they were Katunga’s.”
“No, they’re mine, or at least they were.”
“And you want them back.”
“Lord no. They look a sight better on you than they ever did on me.”
It was blarney. The worst kind of chat up line she had ever heard, but in a strange way heartening that anyone would try and chat Joanne up.
“So really what do you do?” She asked.
“I’m the mechanic. It gets broken, I fix it.”
“Not so good with the geophones though.” She shot.
“I heard you didn’t need me. Came up with that fix by yourself.”
“I suppose I should thank you.” Joanne said.
“Not a problem.” He returned. “If I’d known they were for you I’d have given Katunga some new ones. Maybe you’d want those now.”
“These are just fine.” Joanne told him. “I figure the stains keep the flies away.”
“And maybe the attention.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a fine looking woman Joanne Fletcher. A feller might just want to tip his hat in your direction. I think you’d like that not to happen and are happy in the shapeless coveralls.”
“You presume too much Mr Lithgow.”
“Well maybe I do and maybe I don’t.” Ryan responded but sensing her mood decided not to push it further this time.
That evening Ryan tried conversation again, muscling in to the trestle table Joanne was sharing at the evening meal. Tom’s recording team were still cock a hoop and in full discussion as to the logistics and sequencing in order to make future shoots more efficient. It was even postulated that going back over the last ten miles might be worthwhile. It would be a sight quicker than it had taken to do until now as the line was in the most part not regrown over. Tom was considering the upheaval of relaying an entire six-mile stretch of geophones as Ryan sat down. It wasn’t as if there was no place for him, more that this was not the place for him. This was the management table. The place where if not actually management, the team who conditioned the project sat and spoke their minds even if not in isolation, at least uninterrupted and not overtly overheard.
Tom looked him right in the face. “Do you mind Ryan?” He questioned.
“I just thought I might say hello to my ex coveralls.” Ryan returned. “No offense meant.”
“And none taken.” Tom returned. “Just this is our table and we’re in the middle of a meeting.”
“Carry on.” Ryan told him. “Don’t mind me.”
Tom hesitated. “Look Ryan, don’t take this the wrong way
But there is an unwritten protocol that means only the recording team get to sit here.”
“And Miss Fletcher here, all the way from London is on your team now?”
“Mr Lithgow.” Joanne interjected before Tom could answer. “I find your impertinence offensive.”
“She’s on team.” Tom assured. “And I suspect the only reason you have chosen to sit here is her presence. It’s not on Ryan. I’m asking you now to go sit where you usually do.”
“And Miss Fletcher?” Ryan came back. “What would she ask of me?”
“I’d ask.” Joanne returned, “that you do as Tom says so that we can get on with the business of reorganising this survey into an efficient and meaningful enterprise.”
“So you’re not wanting my help in that?” Ryan returned, the grin large on his face.
“Ryan.” Tom answered testily. “We will want everyone’s help once we,” He stressed the word ‘we’, “have decided on the correct course of action. And we,” again the stress on the word, “need no interruptions in order to make those decisions.”
Ryan got the message and reluctantly took his food and went back to his usual seat.
In coveralls and ubiquitous hat Joanne joined the team in the receiver station. A third late in the day shoot was prepared and with this shoot under her belt and a third set of viable results Joanne could look forward to the flight home in a couple of days. It was curious how things played out. She’d never wanted this assignment but in truth the staid routines and quiet security of London no longer had quite the appeal. Joanne would be looking at in the very least a report on Jason’s desk within the week, Maybe, god forbid, a presentation to the board. Which ever, her assessment and subsequent report would have to be comprehensive and for a full picture, this time Joanne wanted not to be on the line, but at the centre of the action.
It was a tight squeeze in the data truck and hugely hot and noisy. Mark Nuttal had over the course of the day checked and counter checked continuity to each and every geophone while Mike Davies, headphones on, maintained the radio communications down the line. Joanne watched as each of the two hundred and fifty active geophone sets winked in turn from green to amber and back to green. She listened as Mike repeatedly did the personnel and conformity check calls. Finally everything was ready, the data logger running, the charge set and everyone where they were supposed to be, warned and ready.
“Confirm all line personnel in position.” Tom asked of Mike.
“Confirmed.” Mike responded.
“Confirm charge set.”
“Charge team confirm charge is set.”
“Confirm charge team clear.”
“Charge team confirmed clear.”
“Begin countdown.” Tom ordered.
“Start countdown.” Mark confirmed. “On my mark, now.”
“Call time to shoot.” Tom requested.
“One hundred.” Mark responded. “Ninety five, ninety.” He intoned at five-second intervals. “Sixty five, sixty, fifty five.”
“Hold the countdown.” The Mike called of a sudden. “There are people in the blast zone.”
“Bloody hell!” Tom Williams swore. “Are you sure?”
Mike Davies looked Tom in the face. “It’s what they’re saying.”
“Hold the count.” Tom commanded.
“Count held.” Mark returned as he closed the safety on the initiator switch and reset the clock.
Tom switched his attention back to the radio. “Get them out of there.” He shouted to Mike, even though Mike was just ten feet away.
“They’re not our people.” Mike responded. “Isaacs says they’re not our people.”
“Who?” Tom questioned, the realization coming fast. “Bloody hell, what are the locals doing here?”
“Protesting?” Mike postulated.
“Very funny.” Tom returned. “How’d they get past Vere’s patrols?”
“How should I know?” Mike said.
“Make safe here,” Tom ordered. “Then take whoever you can and shoo them out.”
“Don’t let him mistake you for protesters,” Tom deliberately taunted Mike Davies with the word, “and shoot you.”
“So I’m to shoo and he’s to shoot. Who d’you think they’ll take notice of?”
“I don’t care, just get the bloody people out of our zone.”
“This is not going to be easy.” Mike came back. “It’s sounding like mayhem out there. Our guys are reporting that there are more of them coming out of the bush.”
“Well don’t just…” Williams blustered as he stepped over to Mike, then halted as a series of sharp cracks echoed in the air outside the cabin. He grabbed a microphone. “What the hell was that?” He enquired on air.
“Some idiot’s shooting.” Davies responded. “I can’t tell if it’s Vere or the locals.”
“Well it won’t be the bloody fuzzies will it?” Williams returned. “Have you got Vere on channel?”
“There’s no answer and.” Looking out of the one window, “The fuzzies as you put it dohave guns. I can see some of them with what look like Kalashnikovs- Jesus! They just shot Phil Jones!”
“What the hell?!” Williams shouted down the microphone. “What is going on out there?”
“He was waving them away and they just shot him.” Davies came back. “They’re all over the place.”
“Who are they?” Williams demanded. “Are they the Ontongo?”
“Look more like soldiers. There’s a party just found the wire. Oh my god! They’re trying to brzzzzzz.” The static ceased as a second apart the shock wave and percussion hit them.
“Bloody hell! Williams shouted, half deafened, “It blew early, was everything running for that?” He queried.
“You idiot!” Nuttal spoke up angrily. “There are people in the zone. There could be someone killed out there.”
Up and down the line Tom had stationed a pair of people every 550 yards, a total of fifteen pairs over the five miles of active line. Just as it had been the last time a shoot was conducted, in each pair were one white and one black person. Derek Brown took the place Joanne had been in with Katunga Jones at station six and learned the layout of the geophones and dedication of the workforce. Katunga was fastidious as to the positioning and connection of the sector under his watch and way up and down the line Derek could see the other black labourers were exhibiting a similar degree of care. Derek didn’t routinely spend a lot of time out of camp and was impressed with and proud of the guys. He made a mental note to ensure that whatever it took, they would get a better deal in future.
The drivers had been fantastic, up and down the line all day with food and water and now as the count had begun Peter Namali was halted by Derek and Katunga waiting for the blast before returning to camp.
Peter’s head turned and Katunga followed his widening eyes. Derek too had seen the figures exiting the flora, dark green and brown clad gun-toting figures running from the jungle undergrowth. He also noted the muzzle flashes and percussive blasts from the guns. Gathering Peter and Katunga in his arms he dived forward as the bullets struck the truck and ground all around them.
Derek felt the object enter his body high above his left clavicle, smash down through his left lung clipping his cardiac artery and exit through his right kidney. It seemed painless but debilitating as the force of impact knocked him back, clear of his charges. On the ground, and aware he was injured Derek felt a body collapse on him, pinning him down. Peter’s destroyed face flopped into view, the smile eradicated forever. As sight greyed he saw Katunga running to the truck and the bullets following him to strike and throw him down too. Derek was having difficulty breathing and tasted blood in his mouth before the grey turned dark.
David Isaacs was in camp as the assault began. He was supposed to be out on the line but as camp was so near and the countdown still with minutes to run decided that taking a leak in the appropriate toilet rather than in the bush was the right thing to do. The shooting began as he exited the latrine and seeing immediately that his co-worker on the line was down, took umbrage and went for his rifle. David was an ex guardsman a long time ago and knew how to shoot. His bolt-action hunting rifle was accurate and he’d hit two of the assailants before their greater semi automatic assault rifle firepower turned on him. David fell in a fusillade of bullets. Fell is an inaccurate description for the multiple rounds striking his body punched him backward off his feet a good eight feet before his body hit the ground.
Phil Jones, George Adams and Trevor Gibbon were leaving the blast danger area having completed re- checking the initiator wiring and re-tamping the charge. It wasn’t technically Trevor’s job but if he and Sean Montgomery weren’t out somewhere drilling he always gave the charge team a hand. Today was no different up until the point his head took a stray bullet and his skull and brains were destroyed in a spray of blood that caught George, the mist momentarily blinding him. Phil, his companions floored and not realising the cause stood tall, his arms up and shouting both for help and that the bullets he mistakenly concluded were those of Vere’s security team fired in error, should stop. In the circumstances it was the wrong action, merely attracting not help but more bullets.
The screen on Pete Edgecombe’s laptop imploded and Joanne stared wide-eyed at the two holes magically punched in the side of the van, one of which was the passage of a bullet en route to the computer screen. The second had found its way into Pete Edgecombe’s side. His jerk, in concert with everyone else in the van at the flash and noise of the disintegrating display unit temporarily hid the impact of his wound. It was further disguised mere moments later by the data truck door being wrenched open and a further fusillade of bullets into the ceiling. All five occupants adopted an instantly crouched position, as far from the flying lead as was possible in the confined space. For four of them it was an automatic contortion, Pete just collapsed. Like in a scene from a movie a dark clad figure burst into the truck, gun before him. Clear of the doorway, a second figure entered at a rush, equally armed and equally clad in military type fatigue trousers and loose dark brown over shirt.
The first guy shouted something unintelligible and backed it up with a spray of bullets into the seismic data readout equipment. Glass fragments filled the air as cathode ray screens exploded, showering even the shooter. The gun stopped firing.
In the false silence, Pete moaned and Joanne’s eyes were drawn to the blood spreading beneath him.
“Oh my god!” She uttered, sparking the second soldier to wave his gun and shout at her.
“Mettez vous dans le coin!” He yelled, and pointing the gun at Nuttal and Williams “Vous tous!”
No-one moved and the guy used his gun to indicate his meaning. They moved, awkwardly still bent down and hands on head huddling into the corner, and there they stayed.
Shortly afterward and under gunpoint another seven joined them and the single guy left as guard was compelled to move to the doorway of the overcrowded cabin. Over the next hour one by one another three people were unceremoniously pushed into the van. All were white.
The shooting continued, to the incarcerated, seemingly randomly as darkness fell, to peter out an hour after full dark. The lights of the camp a mere half-mile away stayed extinguished even though the generator could be heard chugging away with the ever-present sounds of the jungle. Their guard withdrew to outside the van where a small fire had been started and their removal eased the tension in the van, allowing the huddled captives to reposition their bones to less uncomfortable attitudes. No-one slept, no one talked in other than whispers.
“Who are they?” Someone queried, his voice no louder than a breath.
“Organized.” A second voice answered seemingly an age later and so quietly it was difficult to discern. “Although they don’t look like regular military they behave like it. May be good, may be bad.”
“Meaning?” The first voice queried.
“Organized means there’s a chance they won’t just shoot us out of hand.”
“This is deliberate, someone’s got a grudge.”
In the ensuing silence Joanne crept over to Pete Edgecome’s side and with Mark Nutall tried to ease his pain. Already slipping in and out of consciousness, he moaned quietly at every movement. There was little either could do, even in the flickering reflections of the outside fire they could not see the wound nor even seal it for they had no bandages and it seemed his entire body was sticky with blood.
Outside, they could hear that the nearby soldiers were getting rumbustious, some of them drinking from the half dozen cases of beer that resided in the control truck chassis lockers and Tom Williams considered an attempt to escape. He got no further than the door for the guard immediately outside was stone cold sober and completely alert. Williams’ extended head was met with a gun barrel and he quickly withdrew it.
Sometime in the night Pete went still and cold. Joanne could not say when it was for despite the fear and discomfort the trauma had left her exhausted. Jolted suddenly alert by a movement Joanne realised that she must have fallen asleep, Pete’s hand had slipping from hers as she dozed. Reaching for him in the darkness she touched cold dead flesh and was instantly repelled and then as quickly guilt washed over her. Pete was dead and she had done nothing to help him. For what remained of the night Joanne was kept from sleep by her turbulent thoughts. Even in the darkness she could see she was not alone in that inability.
True dawn was precursored by movement as the sky began to lighten. Weary bodies flexing aching muscles and attempting in the first glimmers of daylight to ease both their discomfort and that of those they were crammed against. Daylight revealed a sorry bunch. Of the fifteen people crammed into the truck body, one was dead two had gunshot wounds and six were bloodied and beaten. An observer would have been forgiven for thinking that the bloodied were eight in number for both Joanne and Mark Nuttal were covered in Pete Edgecome’s dried blood, Joanne even had a great streak of it on her face where she’d wiped her brow with a blood stained forearm. It did no harm in concealing her features.
Morale, if that was an appropriate word for the psychological status of these incarcerated people, was low. Some had catnapped but not one had an adequate night of sleep and all were physically and emotionally drained. The voices that did speak were hushed and restrained, Tom attempting to ascertain who was there in a name-by-name roll call.
He did not get very far, the guards from outside did their entry tableau again and with much shouting and gesticulation got everyone outside and into a line, beating and kicking where their intent was not immediately obvious and individuals were slow to obey. With all but poor dead Pete Edgecombe outside and on the ground they were roughly shoved into a line and marched at gunpoint back past littered and distorted bodies toward the camp. One of the guys didn’t make the half-mile walk. Martin was one of the two guys with bullet wounds; in his case a bullet had gone right through his right calf, shredding the muscle and slowing him down such that he could not keep up the pace demanded. One of the guards decided to teach him a lesson and struck out with a club. The blow landed squarely on the damaged leg and Martin collapsed in agony. His cries were silenced by further blows to his head and torso that ensured he stayed down. Any one slowing to help or even look got at least a blow either from a heavy stick or rifle butt. His battered and bloody, but still breathing body was left behind after the guards had administered a final kicking. No-one else lagged.
In the camp, cooking fires had been lit and the raiders were ransacking the stores for food. A pile of bags, boxes and sacks lay on the ground outside the truck that had served that purpose. All were dried or non-perishables and a pair of raiders were busy packing them into whatever backpacks, shoulder bags and totable containers they could find. Huddled in a small group were another four whites. The contrast was blinding to anyone who could have had the courage to point it out. The only dark skinned faces were in paramilitary fatigues and carried guns, the only pale ones as prisoners.
Of the four still in camp Pete Swanson had taken a serious beating for his resistance but Brian Osborne the chief cook and Pierre Thibodeau the supposed local expert were unharmed. Rebecca Jones, the only other woman was clearly not. The way she held herself tightly and avoided contact told unspoken stories of her night.