Poul sat within the bombed out basement for a further hour in order to be sure that the transports he had heard had passed well clear of him, eventually falling into a half slumber. Upon rousing he reached for his pack and ate and drank sparingly from his carefully measured provisions. Then he raised himself from the damp stone floor and climbed back up into the greyness of the deserted and mostly destroyed town. He was worryingly unsure of whether he had passed this way before and regularly comforted himself with a compass check to ensure that, at least, he was headed in the right general direction. A further day, he estimated, and then three days back to the Line.
He had entered Coalition territory to the south, in order to avoid the Watcheyes which he knew from the latest intelligence were patrolling the front in the vicinity of Warsaw, where the Coalition was making a concerted effort to push the Separatists further back and take one more stronghold from them. From Krakow he had passed carefully across the Line under the cover of darkness and had since been travelling eastwards through this grim and desolate wasteland, cautious of the aerial and ground patrols that he knew swept regularly back and forth.
He ran out from the burning building, his ears ringing from the mortar fire, dragging Karina behind him. She in turn held tightly onto the hand of the small girl child whom they had found cowering within, mute with terror, eyes glazed, perhaps no more than four years of age.
"We need cover!" Karina gasped.
"This way, quickly," Poul led them across the debris strewn street and threw himself against the boarded up doorway of what was once, perhaps, a grocery store. It gave way upon a second attempt and he ushered Karina and the child in before him.
"Your radio?" she asked.
He held it before him and turned the dials slowly around. "Still nothing. I think it was knocked out by that pulse earlier."
"Do you think they've pulled out?"
"Our troop? Almost certainly. We were pinned down across the street for too long. They couldn't have held out any longer."
"Then what do we do?" her voice was tinged with desperation.
He stared out through the broken boards at the disconcertingly quiet street, "we'll wait until dark, then head out across the fields, stay clear of the roads."
He came upon the crossroads almost without realising it. The half broken signpost that he recalled still maintained its vigil, its one remaining arm indicating his onward route. He knew that he was close and he felt relief at knowing that he would not be searching around in the darkness hour after hour. Carefully he climbed up onto the road and stared eastwards to where the rising sun had begun to cast a glowing red aurora amongst the low grey morning clouds.
"I'll be with you soon," he whispered, "don't worry."
He would brave the road for a little while, he decided, at least until daylight.
"Hold on whilst I bind it," he implored, "you'll be okay, I promise."
"Just....just something for the pain, please Poul," her fingers dug into the earth on either side of her, perspiration breaking out on her forehead and mingling quickly with the tears that stained her cheeks.
He rummaged through the medkit and hurriedly charged a hypodermic before injecting it into her upper thigh.