Drummond was conscious of nothing, no anger, no pain. There was no time to wonder about what had happened or why. Survival was the thing from now on. The only thing that mattered.
Brackenhurst braked on the edge of the plateau seeking the safest way down, and beneath them the town was spread out like a map. Already people were stirring, moving in the streets in spite of the heavy rain.
‘Bad news travels fast,’ Drummond said.
In the square outside headquarters there was considerable activity. Three trucks moved up and parked outside and the drivers got down and stood in a small knot, obviously discussing what was happening.
Somewhere, Drummond was conscious of the noise, dulled by the rain, and then Brackenhurst screamed and pointed up into the sky to where a couple of planes flew out of the grey morning side by side, turned and broke formation, spiralling down like leaves falling from the branches of a tree.
The leading jet roared down the valley beside the river, banking so close to the mountain that for one frozen moment Drummond was able to distinguish the red stars on the wings.
‘God in heaven, Chinese Migs!’ Brackenhurst cried. la the town below there were cries of alarm, people were standing in groups looking up at the sky, and as they scattered to run, the leading Mig swooped and fired its rockets, ploughing a double furrow across the square and scoring a direct hit on the first truck in line outside Sher Dil’s headquarters. The truck’s petrol tank exploded and debris and flames cascaded outwards to enfold the panic-stricken people who ran past.
The second Mig came in fast, rockets ploughing into the other two trucks and the flimsy mud and wattle houses beyond. As it swooped up into the grey morning, the leader was already banking, turning in to make Ms second run. He roared down, rockets hammering into the closely packed houses, and scored a direct hit on the ammunition store on the other side of Sher Oil’s headquarters. A tremendous explosion sent a column cf flame shooting up through the dark pall of smoke that was already enveloping the town as the second Mig followed the other in fast
‘Let’s get moving.’ Drummond slapped Bracken” hurst on the shoulder.
Brackenhurst turned, his face very white, eyes staring. ‘Down there? You must be mad.’
Drummond didn’t argue. He dragged Brackenhurst across the seat and scrambled into his place behind the wheel He took the Land Rover down the steep hillside and across the plain, and the smoke enveloped them so that he had to drive blind for several moments, swerving as a half-ruined house loomed out of the gloom. They bounced across a tangled mass of timber and masonry and turned into the main square.
A man ran out of the swirling darkness, his petrol-soaked body flaming like a torch. He vanished in the direction of the river. Someone screamed monotonously above the crackling of the flames and ammunition started to explode.
The Land Rover crunched across a burned and blackened body and Drummond braked hard. The screaming had stopped and the silence was somehow intensified by the crackling of the flames. On this side of the square there was hardly a house standing, and one end of Sher Oil’s headquarters was a heap of rubble.
As Drummond jumped to the ground, Hamid staggered out of the entrance and leaned against the wall at the top of the steps, gasping for air, his uniform smouldering in several places.
Drumtnond ran up the steps and caught him as he started to fall. ‘Easy does it I’ve got you. What about the Khan?’
There was blood on Hamid’s right cheek and he wiped it away mechanically. ‘I don’t know. Inside somewhere. The place is a bloody shambles.’
As Brackenhurst came up the steps to join them, the Migs came down the valley again. They grabbed Hamid between them and ran. As they staggered in through the door and hit the floor, cannon fire ripped up the surface of the square again, fragments of stone, rattling against the shattered windows.
Drummond lay against the wall and waited while the earth trembled. Two soldiers sprawled on their faces in the centre of the room and Brackenhurst crouched ia the far corner, eyes wide and staring.