We were almost up to the munitions store, when Murray Williams did it again, saying, "It seems strange with all the explosives he had, that he didn't blow up the ammo dump."
Stopping in my tracks, less than five metres from the Quonset hut, I was about to shout, "Hit the gravel!"
When the first of the new series of explosions lifted me like the hand of God and tossed me back the way I had just come.
Knocked out for a moment, I was unable to talk at first, but heard the lance corporal shout, "Get down! For God's sake get down!"
Yet, as a great series of explosions started to go off in sync. I knew that it was not in time to save all of the troopers.
Unable to raise myself off the gravel yet, I managed to look around to see what looked like every Fourth of July I'd ever seen going off all at once. Except that amid the explosions, troopers were screaming and bodies and body parts were flying about the compound as though someone had shot down Santa's sledge. Except that these presents were human limbs, or shattered corpses looking like life-sized rag dolls.
* * *
For seemingly hours the explosions continued, until finally (half) convinced that they were over, I managed to pull myself painfully to my knees. Resisting the urge to shriek in agony as blades of raw pain lanced through my back, I started at a crawl back to the burning wreckage of the ammo store. Each crawling step was shooting rockets of pain through my back and less rocket-like gravel-rash through my now almost fleshless knees.
Seeing me crawling toward her, Rae Lawson started to her feet, until I waved her back down again.
"Keep down," I whispered. "Let me get to you first." Although what I could do armed only with a handgun, if the monster soldier was still there, is anybody's guess.
Trying not to grimace as the gravel rash started to burn my knees with hot flushes, I continued slowly toward Rae and the others. Then, tentatively I climbed back to my feet, almost falling twice, just relieved to find that the shooting pains in my back were already abating.
Seeing Murray Williams looking like he was getting ready to cry, I patted him on the back in an avuncular way, saying, "Cheer up, man, the worst is over."
"Or yet to come," he said, looking loathe to leave the imagined safety of the gravel path, but allowing me to drag him back to his feet.
"Come on," I said. Then when he still hesitated, "We have to check out the latest casualties."
"You mean the latest fatalities," he said.
I sighed in frustration at his petulant tone, but did not correct him, since he was undoubtedly right.
Seeing his face whiten as though he had been dipped in a vat of correction fluid, I said, "Don't worry. It won't be as bad this time."
Of course, it was, though. It was worse, if that is possible.
Before half of the troops had been well away from the exploding buildings. This time we had all been almost close enough to touch the corrugated-iron of the ammo store when the first of the explosions had gone off. Last time many of the troops had survived, or had been killed relatively cleanly. This time we had human heads, torsos, arms and legs scattered across the compound, making it hard to even do an accurate body count.
After a ghoulish and frustrating hunt round the compound doing our best to make heads or tails of the human detritus, we compared notes and Murray Williams said, "Seventeen dead and eleven alive … twelve including you, Sergeant Waugh."
"That's twenty-nine," said Rae Lawson. "There were only twenty-six of us to start with."
"Oh, yeah," said the lance corporal. So we went through the grisly business again and this time established there were fourteen dead or too injured to take part in the manhunt, and twelve of us still able to take part. Although most of us were carrying some kind of injuries.
"Twelve remaining," I said.
"He's done it again," whined Murray Williams. Then before I could stop him, "This is the second time that he's more than halved our ranks."
"Calm down!" I ordered. "With only a dozen of us to hunt him, it will be easier for us to watch each other and take more care in future." To myself I thought, That is for me to take more bloody care in future, instead of leading them all into another trap!
"Don't forget that they'll be dropping us more troops and supplies," said Rae, smiling half-heartedly at Williams.
"It'll be too late by then!" the lance corporal shrieked hysterically. "With only twelve of us left, he'll have wiped us all out by then!"
"No, he won't have!" I shouted back.
"Why don't we just wait here till help arrives," whined Murray Williams.
"Because it is our job to see that he doesn't escape before help arrives."
"He doesn't escape!" shrieked Williams. "He doesn't want to escape; he's having too much fun slaughtering us all!"
"Calm down, dammit!"
"You know their motto!" shouted the lance corporal. "Kill or be killed. That's all the monster soldiers know. It's what they thrive on. And this one is thriving on killing us!"
Hating myself even as I did it, I punched Murray Williams full in the face, knocking him to the gravel.
Rae Lawson gasped, covering her mouth, and some of the surviving troopers back away from me, as I knelt on the gravel to check out the lance corporal. Just hoping that he hadn't hit his head on the hard compound.
Slapping his face gently, I said, "Wake up, Murray boy."
Fortunately he seemed to be unharmed and with a little more assistance was soon starting to revive.
"Sorry, Serg," said Williams trying to sit up.
"Easy, son, easy," I said, helping him to a seated position.
"What do we do now?" asked Rae Lawson. "Start after the monster soldier."
"Not yet," I said, as with our help Williams started back to his feet. "First we check out what's left of the ammo dump. Although unlikely, we might find a few weapons still in useable condition."
"And anything would be better than our side-arms," she said.
"That's right, Rae," I said, making her smile.
So we started slowly back toward the still burning hut. At first I thought we were completely out of luck, since nothing useable remained within the hut. We were lucky not to be all blown to pieces with the ammo that went up in this hut! I thought, and then wondered: Depending on how much of it the monster soldier scavenged before blowing up the hut? I wondered if the sole reason we had survived was because of a massive weapons advantage the soldier now had over us. Super strong monster soldiers are supposed to be able to carry six or seven times their own weight, I realised, just hoping that Murray Williams would not realise it and blurt it out to the already rattled troops. The last thing I needed was a mutiny on my hands!
Then I heard Rae shout, "Over here, Serg."
Looking round, I saw her blonde figure kneeling ten metres away, to the left of the ammo hut.
Hurrying over, we found her looking at three AK-179s, which must have been thrown clear of the huts by the explosions.
"Good girl," I said. Turning to the others who were visibly less downhearted at the sight of the semi-automatic rifles, I said, "Look around … carefully … in case there is anything else."
No longer as grim-faced the troopers spread out and began searching around the hut.
A few minutes later there came a cry of, "Over here, Serg."
Another soldier had found another AK-179 and a battered box of clips.
"Let me check them out first, before picking them up," I ordered, starting to search for trip wires or anything else the monster soldier might have done, if he had planted the rifles and ammo.
"What's he looking for?" asked the young soldier who had found them.
"Trip wire to a bomb," said Murray Williams and they all quickly backed away, leaving me to my own fate.
Finally though, I confirmed that they were safe and we picked them up.
In total we found six AK-179s, the box of ammo, and two machine-pistols. Nowhere near as good as the automatic rifles, but a hell of a lot better than our side-arms.
Of course, none of these weapons would stop one of the genetically mutated monster soldiers. But at least they gave the troopers confidence that they were not completely armless.
Before I could stop him, though, Murray Williams blurted out, "But if the monster soldiers are bullet-proof none of these weapons are of any use at all."
Hearing the frustrated sighs of the other troopers, I turned to glare toward the lance corporal. Somehow, though, I managed to resist the temptation to punch him in the face again. But it wasn't easy!
"Come on!" I barked, snapping the troops to attention.
Then without waiting for them, I started striding as fast as my gravel-burnt knees would allow me, toward the cut-away section in the barb-wire fence. After a moment, I could hear boots crunch on gravel, as the others started after me.
* * *
I had stormed through the gap in the fence, my anger at Williams's latest faux pas affecting my judgment, when from behind me Rae Lawson shouted:
"Trip wire! I've just broken a trip wire!"
"Run for it!" I shouted, cursing my own stupidity for allowing Murray Williams's tactlessness to get me to drop my guard. Thinking, So much for me staying alert and not letting them down again! As I lead the stampede.
I got perhaps twenty metres from the fence before diving face-first onto the long grass - which was cooler and much softer than the gravel-coated compound.
Still waiting for the first explosion, I heard the sound of grunting and gasping troopers as the others charged across like a football team determined to prove that no-one tackles better than them.
Then one by one they leapt on top of me as though I had shouted, "Stacks on the mill."
For ten minutes or more we lay in the scrum, until finally I began to push the troopers off me.
"Sorry," I apologised to Rae as I pushed her left breast unintentionally.
"S'kay Serge, just don't make a habit of it," she teased.
For a moment I sat gathering my breath. Then, despite my better instincts, I started back toward the gap in the barb-wire fence."
"You all stay here," I said, and the troopers seemed only too happy to oblige.
Hunting through the cool grass, I soon found the trip wire and carefully hunted along it to the right-hand end. Where it was simply tied to the barb-wire fence. Retracing my steps I headed to the left where I found the other end tied to a small, black plastic mini-disc recorder.
Carefully, lifting the black disc-shaped object, I pressed the green play button and we heard a loud, almost snake-like hissing.
"What is it?" asked Rae, as she led the others across to where I stood.
Looking at her, I explained, "He's laughing at us. That's as close to laughter as a monster soldier can manage."
"Oh," said Rae.
Winding my arm up in imitation of my teen baseball pitching days, I hurled the palm-sized recorder as far as I could.
Just in time, since the recorder exploded as it hit the grass.
As everyone ducked to the cool grass, I said, "Damn the new mini-explosives." But in a tone that I hoped would make the others smile.
No such luck. I doubt if the Marx Brothers could have got a smile out of any of them at that moment.
"Okay, terror over," I said.
Reluctantly I climbed back to my feet and started off across the grassland.
It was already starting to get dark, and I wanted to get into the relative safety of the pine forest before darkfall.
Equally reluctantly, Rae, Murray Williams, and the others started after me.
Hearing muttering behind me, I said, "Just be grateful that none of us were hurt this time."
"If it had gone off in your hand, we would have all been killed," said Murray Williams.
Resisting the urge to turn around and slug him again, I marched on; pleased to hear the sound of the others marching after me.
Twelve minutes fast marching later we reached the pine forest and were immediately overwhelmed by a pine scent like a million freshly mopped kitchen floors.
"All right everybody; look around for some hint of his trek through the pine forest."
We spread out and began to search, with some troopers taking a small, tri-lithium flashlight from their packs to light the way.
A few minutes later, the freckle-faced redheaded youth, Deke, said, "Tracks!"
As we all raced over to him, he pointed to where a set of large footprints clearly led through the carpet of pine needles.
"Big tracks," said Murray Williams. And he was right.
"At least an eighteen broad fitting at a guess," said Rae, making the others laugh a little nervously.
"So either it's the monster soldier, or a West Indian pace bowler," I said - the sport of cricket having started to seriously compete with baseball in the U.S.A. over the last one-hundred and fifty years.
"Nah, we're too far from the Caribbean," said Rae, getting the laughter from the troops that I seemed incapable of getting. "Besides the West Indies aren't touring America this year."
Still smiling, I said, "Okay, let's follow them." And we set off. However, we had just started off into the aromatic pine forest when Murray Williams came up with another of his brainstorms.
"It's strange he isn't even trying to cover his tracks," said the lance corporal. "Almost as though he wants us to follow him into the forest."
"Hit the ground!" I shouted. And with a lot of grunting and cursing the twelve of us nose-dived into the pine-needles. Which lived up to their name, sticking us as though we had dived into a pile of used syringes.
Behind me I heard coughing and wheezing and covered my face with my hands in the hope of keeping the needles out of my throat.
"That'll teach you to keeps your mouths shut while nose diving into a pile of pine needles," said Rae. But this time only Deke laughed.
We lay sneezing and coughing upon the pine carpet for eight or nine minutes before I hesitantly started to my feet. Looking around in the rapidly fading light, I could see our prints in the pine forest behind us, and the monster soldier's eighteen-plus broad fittings in the pine needles ahead of us. But nothing else besides hundreds of trees - some seeming like the Tower of Babel to reach all the way to Heaven itself.
"Come on," I said, nap time's over. "We seem to be okay, there's no sign of him."
"How can you tell?" demanded Murray Williams. "He could be just ahead of us, hidden behind the pine trees."
Resisting the urge to belt him again, I said, "He's too big. The pine trees give us excellent cover, but he's built like a gorilla. Part of him would show out either side of any tree he tried to hide behind."
"He could hide behind a cluster of trees," insisted Williams. He pointed to where four ancient trees grew so close together that you could hide a Jeep behind them.
"Perhaps," I said, no longer angry, now fearing that he was right. Signalling to Rae - who I now trusted more than the lance corporal - I whispered, "Circle round to the left. I'll go right."
She nodded, and we started crawling our respective directions toward the pine clump. On our bellies it took nearly ten minutes, but finally we reached the reverse side of the clump and were able to point our rifles.
At where nothing but the clump of trees stood.
Sighing from relief, I slowly stood up.
"Good work," I said to Rae, determined to put her in for a promotion. Assuming we both got out of this alive.
Turning back to the others, I called, "All right, you can get back to your feet now."
Looking more than a little embarrassed, they started back to their feet.
As the first of a small series of explosions started at the beginning of the pine forest.
"Run for it!" I shouted and Murray Williams and four other troopers, including Deke and a brunette with pixie-cut hair raced forward toward Rae and I … and survived.
Instinctively, the other five nose-dived to the pine needles. And landed upon the explosives, even as they began to detonate.
It was the Fourth of July again, with body parts raining down upon us as though an airliner had exploded overhead.
"Run, dammit, run!" I shouted to the five. But they had already sealed their fates, making a fatal mistake when they nose dived to the forest floor, instead of running forward.
For six or seven minutes a great series of explosions went off. The burnt plastic odour told us that the monster soldier had used small recorder bombs like the one he had planted at the cut-out section of the barb-wire fence. Instead of full-sized grenades as he had used to devastate the death camp.
Rae finally started back toward the latest slaughter, but I stopped her, saying, "No point. No-one could have lived through that. And we don't know if all the bombs have gone off." Besides, there was no screaming or moaning this time, telling us there were no survivors.
"Jesus, and Jehovah," said Murray Williams, looking about the body parts scattered around the pine forest. Including a silent-screaming head three metres up a pine tree, balancing precariously in a fork in the tree. "It's like there was an explosion in an abattoirs!"
This time I span round with the intention of hitting him. But sensing my intent, he jumped back a pace and almost fell over, causing the survivors to snicker.
Looking around to count the survivors, I said, "And now we are seven!" quoting Yul Brynner from an ancient cowboy movie I had seen as a kid.
"What?" asked the freckle-faced youth, Deke, not understanding. But I saw Rae smiling.
"Nothing," I said, turning to look round at the carnage behind us.
"He's done it again, hasn't he?" said Murray Williams, with more than a hint of hysteria in his voice. "He's halved our numbers again. The monster soldier."
"Not quite, this time," corrected Rae. "Before we were twelve, now we are seven. So he failed this time."
Still looking at the scattered body parts, I thought, If that's failure, I'd hate to see him have a colossal success against us! But unlike Williams I was careful to keep my fears to myself.
For a moment the lance corporal looked as though he was going to argue with Rae. Then he looked noncommittal down at the pine forest floor.
"Come on; let's get away from here," I said, "no point waiting here."
"Be thankful he can't see us through the pine trees," said Rae.
"He doesn't need to," said Williams, stating the obvious. "The way the pine needles crunch under foot he can follow us by sound alone."
I stopped for a second to glare at Williams, wondering if I should just put a bullet between his eyes. Then I forced myself to look forward and start onward again. I no longer gave a damn if any of the others followed after me.
"From now on I'm only using lemon-scented cleaner," said Rae as we all continued to wheeze a little from the overwhelming aroma of pine.
* * *
For a couple of hours we continued through the pine forest, until I ordered a stop.
It was all but pitch black now and we had all been using our mini flashlights for over an hour now, so I did not want us to use them up on the first night. In case we had to hunt the monster soldier for days.
"All right," I said, "we'll camp here for the night."
"But won't he get away while we're sleeping?" asked the redheaded youth, Deke.
"We'll take just take five hours to refresh ourselves a little," I said, noticing that most of the survivors were already yawning. "The monster soldiers have been modified so that they can go three or four days without sleep, without it effecting their performance or co-ordination. But we haven't, so even at the risk of giving him a bigger lead, we have to have a few hours sleep."
"Don't worry," said Murray Williams, "he probably won't move a centimetre while we're sleeping. He's trying to lead us into a trap so; he's not likely to run away."
"Feel free to spend the five hours wide-awake on guard duty if you like," I said.
"Good idea," said Williams, "in case he doubles back on us."
"I was joking," I said angrily, "but we can have one hour shifts if you like. You first, then Rae, then she can waken me." I went on to name two other troopers for guard duty.
"That's more like it," said Williams, making me shake my head, in amusement.
"Just don't keep talking while the rest of us are trying to get a few hours of much-needed sleep."
* * *
As it was though, my anxiety at the creature we were chasing meant that when it was Rae's turn, I still hadn't had a wink of sleep. As she started to get up off the pine needles, I said, "That's okay, Rae, I'll take your shift, I haven't been able to get to sleep."
"Neither have I," she said, getting up to join me as I went over to sit with my back against an ancient, gnarled pine tree.
Sitting down together, I put my arm around her in a fatherly fashion, and we both promptly fell sound asleep.
* * *
I awakened nine hours later, yawning, and rubbing at my eyes, surprised to see the sun shining through the pine trees.
"Holy …!" I said, realising that we had fallen asleep on guard duty and had well and truly overslept.
"Wakey, wakey," I teased, hoping to start the troopers in a better frame of mind today than they had been yesterday after all of the massacres.
"What time is it, Serg?" asked young Deke, yawning widely, and then staring at the sight of the sun shining brightly through the trees. He checked his watch and said, in amazement, "It's after seven o'clock?"
I looked round to Rae, who had also awakened and was looking as guilty as I was.
"Yes, I decided to let you all have a full night's sleep," I lied. "We might be after the soldier for days. So five hours a night isn't enough."
"Thanks, Serg," said the young soldier, although I could see Murray Williams looking sceptically at me. Clearly not as gullible as the young private.
Seeing from his name tag that Deke's last name was Becket, I asked, "Any relation to Thomas A'Becket?"
"Very distantly, Serg," said the redheaded youth, looking embarrassed by the attention.
"Hey, everyone," said Rae, "we've got a celebrity in our midst."
"Well, hardly," said Deke Becket, blushing profusely.
"Okay," I said to change the subject. "Let's get about our business. First thing's first, breakfast."
We reached into our kit's to take out what looked liked tubes of toothpaste. "Remember it's concentrated, so don't go wolfing it down."
"I don't think there's much danger of that, Serg," said Rae, grimacing after a single lick of the food paste.
"Hey, astronauts can live on the moon with that stuff," I teased her.
"They're welcome to it," she said.
Pleased to hear the others laughing, I forced myself to eat some of the hideous-tasting food concentrate.
Then the next order of business was toileting.
"You women go to the left," I said pointing into the pine trees. "We men'll go to the right."
"Has anyone got any toilet paper in their packs," asked a young pixie-cut brunette, whose name tag identified her as Suzette Waterman.
"Just use pine needles," suggested Rae.
"Ouch, no thanks," said Private Waterman making us laugh.
"Don't worry if you can't wipe yourself," I said. "We're troopers in the field, not beauty pageant contestants. Although if you're too smelly, try not to stand close to me."
"Thanks, Serg, you're a big help," said Suzette.
After toileting we set off again through the trees, still following the monster soldier's eighteen broad fitting tracks, which he had still made no attempt to conceal. As though we were still his lambs being led to whatever slaughter he had planned for us next.
After a couple of hours the pine trees gradually began to thin out. Meaning that we had less cover, but also less worry about pine needles crunching under foot and giving away our location. And less trouble with the overpowering aroma of pine.
Finally we came out into the outskirts of a ranch. Way off in the distance we could just make out a few decrepit wooden buildings.
"This is more like it," I said, hoping to cheer up the last six troops.
"What do you mean?" demanded Murray Williams, "at least we had cover in the pine forest."
"And crunching pine needles underfoot," reminded Suzette Waterman.
"Besides, we don't need cover," Rae said, waving a hand around. "We can see for Kays in any direction. He can't possibly attack us without us seeing him."
"Unless he's got an AK-179 with a telescopic sight," suggested Williams.
This time I did turn round and start after Williams to slug him. But wisely he ran away a few metres back toward the pine forest.
Laughing, Rae said, "Are we going on? Or heading back into the forest?"
Glaring at Williams a moment longer, I finally turned back to Rae and Suzette and said, "Onwards."
Behind me, as I started out, I heard five sets of footsteps, making me wonder if the lance corporal was planning on going A.W.O.L. But Finally, I heard him tramping along at the rear of our small band.
* * *
It was perhaps an hour later that we stopped again.
"Why have we stopped?" asked young Deke Becket.
I pointed toward the ploughed field in front of us. A field which ran as far as I could see in either direction, making it difficult, if not impossible, to skirt around it. Certainly not without wasting many hours. Besides the oversized boot prints continued through the ploughed field.
"A farmer's field? So what?" asked Murray Williams, who had gradually returned to near the front of the small procession.
"So there could be mines buried in the field," I pointed out.
"The soldier hasn't had enough time to plough up an entire field," insisted Murray Williams.
"Yeah, even if he ploughed all night," agreed Suzette.
"While we were sleeping," said Williams, pointedly.
Ignoring his barb, I said: "No, but he has had time to bury a few mines in a field a farmer has already conveniently ploughed for him."
"Then we just have to follow his footsteps through the field," suggested redheaded Deke.
"No can do," I said, pointing to the random pattern of size eighteen prints. They started cleanly enough at our side of the field, and seemed to come out cleanly at the other end. But in the middle they were all over the place as though the monster soldier had decided to confuse us after all.
"With all that mess he could have planted mines almost anywhere in the field," said Rae.
"So what do we do?" asked pixie-cut Suzette Waterman.
"Everyone down … " I started to say. And before I could finish they had all dived to the ground.
Sighing in frustration, I said, "I was going to say everybody down onto your hands and knees. We'll crawl through the field, carefully checking the ground every few centimetres using our bayonets.
"Oh," said Rae, blushing from embarrassment as the six troopers returned to their knees and removed their bayonets from their scabbards.
I couldn't help laughing at their embarrassment, although after the hell we had gone through already at the hands of the monster soldier over the last twenty-six hours or so, it was understandable that they would all be a bit jumpy by now.
Going rather gingerly down onto my own knees, I took out my bayonet and started to lead the way.
"It'll take us hours to get across the field this way," protested Murray Williams.
Sighing aloud, I said, "Hit him for me, Rae."
She span round as though meaning to do so, and the lance corporal dived to the ground again, drawing laughter from Suzette, Deke, and the other two, privates: George Annapolis, a thirty plus soldier with pinz nez glasses, and Lizabetta Hume, a teenager, like Deke Becket looking as though she had signed up underage (as she quite possibly had, since with fifteen Percent unemployment in the U.S.A., 'a job is a job is a job," as Madame President likes to say, and the American Armed Services had never been too particular about such technicalities as minimum age requirements). Her acne-coated face maked her look fourteen or fifteen at best.
"Come on, everybody," I said. So we started on hands and knees through the ploughed field, hoping against hope that that's all it was - a farmer's ploughed field.
* * *
After a very frustrating hour, I was starting to wonder if it might have been faster to have marched around the ploughed field. Even if it did look as though it went on to the horizon in each direction.
I was almost at the other end of the field, having to force myself not to hurry the last few metres and get myself blown up, when suddenly young Deke Becket shouted, "Hey! Hey! Hey! I think I'm kneeling on a mine!"
"Calm down, I'm on my way to you," I said, reversing directions even as I stood up. By back tracking in my own knee tracks, I was able to get back to Deke much faster than I had originally crossed the field.
"There's definitely something here," said Rae, who had got to the panicked soldier before me. On her hands and knees she was slowly feeling around in the dirt under his left knee with both hands.
"Back up carefully, and let me have a feel around," I said.
As Rae and Murray Williams backed off a little, I felt around in the dirt where the redheaded youth had placed his knee and could clearly feel a cold metallic disc underneath him.
"My … my knee's on it," said Deke, sounding as though he was about to cry.
"Relax, honey," said Rae in a motherly tone as I began to ever so carefully wipe the dirt from above the disc.
"Yes'm," said Deke, sounding very embarrassed. I suspect because it was the first time a beautiful blonde had ever called him honey.
"Watch out, Rae," don't get him too excited, I teased, without looking up from my task.
Finally I revealed a large tin disc, about the size of an old Frisbee Flyer, but sporting the words, "DARPA SUPPLIES."
"DARPA?" asked Rae.
"That's who we all work for," I explained. "They created the monster soldiers and they pay us to kill them."
"Then how come our stuff all says U.S. ARMED SERVICES?"
"That's for show purposes for the public. In reality the U.S. Army was swallowed into DARPA over a century ago."
"Well … what is it?" asked Suzette Waterman.
"It's a damn dinner plate," I said.
"Why would he bury a dinner plate?" asked Rae.
"Presumably that's his idea of a joke," I said. Grabbing the tin plate I ripped it from the ground and Frisbeed it deep into the ploughed field.
Too late I saw the string running from the bottom of the dinner plate to the mini-grenade beneath it.
A string connected to the pin of the grenade. A pin which I had ripped out of the grenade and sent hurtling into the field along with the dinner plate!
"Live grenade! Run for it!" I shouted, even as I leapt to my feet.
As the others hesitated, I grabbed Deke Becket and Rae Lawson and all but carried them both as I raced back down the ploughed field, trying my best to keep to my knee prints from my first crossing.
"Oh Jesus," I heard Murray Williams cry as he raced after us.
A few seconds later there was an explosion and a woman's shrill shriek rang out from behind us as she was splattered across the ploughed field. Only hoping that it was not Suzette Waterman, who I had started to grow close to, as I had with Rae and Deke, I looked back and saw instead the scattered remains of young Lizabetta Hume. Her acne-coated face making her easy to identify.
"Shit!" I cursed myself, wondering if she had really been only fourteen or fifteen as she had looked.
Then before I had time to chastise myself any further Suzette Waterman and George Annapolis came racing up to us.
"Wait! Stop!" I called as they raced on. Leaping desperately forward, I managed to grab the left ankle of Suzette and pull her, squealing in terror, down to the ground with Rae, Murray Williams, Deke, and myself.
But poor George Annapolis raced to almost the end of the ploughed field, making me hope he might make it to safety. When there was a loud explosion, and with his dying shriek, George was hurtled into the air. Only to land upon a second mine a few metres from the first to be splattered further apart as he was hurled into the air again.
"Oh Jesus," said pixie-cut Suzette, looking as though she was about to throw up.
So once more we were coated in the blood and entrails of our own troop. Two good troopers had died in the ploughed field and we weren't out of it yet.
"Christ!" I said cursing myself, thinking, I must keep on my toes, dammit. Anyone else would have expected there to be a grenade under the dinner plate!
As Suzette started to cry, I put a fatherly arm around her, and she wept against my chest for more than five minutes.
"Oh, God," said Rae, looking down at her blood-coated hands.
"Don't worry," said Murray Williams, "it's not yours."
"I know," said Rae looking as though she also were about to cry, with Deke only just avoiding crying also.
Rubbing her hands off on the dirt, Rae looked at me and asked, "Now what?"
"Now we get out of this damn death field, as fast as we safely can," I said. I stood, picking Suzette up in my arms and said:
"Okay, let's get out here." Pointing to my knee tracks ahead of us, I said, "Stick to my old tracks and you can get safely to the end of the field."
"Come on, then," urged Murray Williams, and for once I agreed with him.
"Yessir," said Deke, leading the way, followed by Rae, then Williams, then myself carrying Suzette Waterman.
END OF PART TWO: