I’ve paced this same width of bridge at least thirty times, while the others in my squad continue to bicker. I know what they’re arguing about. The same damn thing we’ve been going over for the last thirty minutes. Questions of rank and protocol, standing orders and whether or not such things even matter when the men who gave those orders are more than likely dead. I said my piece already. Now all I can do is wait for Lojtnant Berg to make the decision.
Berg is a ten year man, the kind that isn’t given to rash action or emotional outburst. He leans quietly against the side door of one of the abandoned cars that littered the bridge, fiddling with the sights of his AG-4. Feigning a nonchalant stance, though probably soaking in every syllable of my squad mates’ discussion and giving each careful thought. I have never seen him without his beret in the three years since I joined up, but wide rumor is that he’s bald as a coot.
Olofsson and Lind are having it out again. They’re frequently at odds, though more the way one would argue with a sibling than overt hostility. They’re young and headstrong and couldn’t be more opposite; Oloffson tall and well built for his job manning the KSP-95, while Lind is small and tweedy and serves as spotter and radio man. Though Lind lost nearly 8 inches on Olofsson and summer-heavy sweat rolls down his face and fogs his glasses, he isn’t backing down.
“I am telling you Loffy, last word from Minken was 4 hours ago. Since then, no radio traffic on any of the official channels or civilian bands! Previous intel was that at least 40 of the damn things were headed this way. We are NOT holding this bridge with four men!”
Oloffson scoffs, pulling a dip of chewing tobacco into his lip just so he can spit on the ground at Lind’s outburst. His voice is akin to someone striking an empty whiskey barrel. Deep and sure.
“Orders came from the top, Lind. I don’t care if I’m here myself when they come, this bridge will hold.”
“Idiot!” Lind berates him, throwing his hands up in frustration. “The last civilians were sent across five hours ago! No one is broadcasting! Not orders, not field reports, not even a local DJ keeping civilian news reports coming in! For all we know the islands have been completely written off as a loss. And here we stand on a fucking bridge wired with enough explosives to blow it twice, waiting for those things to plow right through us!”
“What would you have us do, Lind?” Berg asks quietly.
“Go to our families!” Lind’s voice cracks slightly, eyes wide as though pleading for our commanding officer to see reason. “Go to them, bring them across the bridge, and then blow it!”
“As you said Lind, last civilians were across five hours ago. If our families aren’t among the dead, they’re already across,” Berg replies.
“We can at least check our houses. Take the half-track to our homes to confirm, then return to blow the bridge. We may be the last, and the machines will be stuck on this side of the strait!” Lind persists, his hand gestures are wild, and he’s dropped all pretense when speaking to a direct superior.
I begin to worry I may have spoken too rashly when suggesting we look for our families after night had fallen. I had been thinking about my wife and baby girl when I had said it. Now I’m wondering if I should have emulated my C.O. and kept my mouth shut until I had thought the notion through.
“Lind, I understand your point. And Erickson’s,” he nods in my direction, looking at me from under his bushy eyebrows. “But detonating the bridge is a last resort, to be utilized only when the machines crossing to the mainland is a certainty. With the island cut off, we have no way to move men or armor across from the mainland should we launch a counter attack. The channel isn’t deep enough for the ships needed to bring over tanks and half-tracks.”
“But-” Lind begins, before Berg cuts him off with a sharp gesture.
“We hold the bridge,” Berg states firmly. “We set up our defensive position at the midway point. Oloffson, how many mines?”
“13 by last count, sir,” Loffy replies, victory shining in his ruddy face. “750 rounds for the SAW and assorted small arms and ammunition.”
“Lucky number 13,” I scoff, taking a cigarette from my satchel and lighting it. To hell with light discipline now. They can see in the dark, anyway.
“Deploy them in 10 foot intervals, no overlapping detonations,” Berg commands. “And make sure when you set up the '95 you have complete field of fire over the approach to our position.”
“Yes, sir,” Loffy nods, shouldering the two ordinance crates on his massive yoke and striding toward the toll booth of the bridge.
“Lind, Erickson, cover the rails. Keep cover behind the cars. No grenades until they’ve cleared the ordinance field.”
We nod, both of us with the same thought racing through our heads. Silent prayers for our families, hoping they were already across and safe.
“This is final contact point,” Berg states with a sigh, indicating a number of orange flashing ROAD CLOSED signs. “If the machines advance this far… the last man alive detonates the bridge.”
We nod, and set off to help Loffy set the mine field. The mines are heavier than they look, and my hands are shaking. I know what this is. This is a last stand, the kind that great heroes make when the hordes sweep down from the hills to engulf their lands. The mood is silent, somber. Like a room where a sick loved one lays in their final moments. We all know the score.
It’s nearly midnight before we see them approach from the road. You always see the lights first. The Runners lead the patrol, and 40 was a conservative estimate. Their bright white search beams cut through the fog, roaming this way and that as they search for signs of life. They make noises as they go, like a dog’s bark but put through a broken vocoder. I wonder if it’s encrypted data being vocalized, and scoff at how easily such a thing could be intercepted. But hey, no one ever said Ivan was forward-thinking.
I sneak a glance just to my right. Placed on the hood of a burned out Bjork is the trigger detonator for the 30 kilos of SEMTEX and DET cord that are placed around the bridge’s middle support column. The Engineer Corps might have overdone it. Berg is stationed to my right, and he sees my wayward glance. The most imperceptible movement of his head tells me to get my head back to the task at hand.
“Lind,” Berg whispers sharply.
“52 Runners,” Lind whispers back, binoculars pressed tightly to his eyes and his glasses pushed up his forehead. “Radar units hovering near them on the outlying road, 7 in count. And… oh for fan i helvete! The damn Hunter units are backing them.”
“How many?” Oloffson asks grimly, chambering his initial round as quietly as possible. The KSP-95’s bipod has been hastily duct taped to the roof of the centermost car in the pile-up, and Loffy’s trigger finger is already itching for combat.
“At least 15,” Lind whispers another dark swear and lets the binoculars hang, his own AG-4’s ACOG taking their place at his eye.
“Not a round until they hit the first marker, boys,” Berg instructs in a flat tone. We nod in assent, tweaking range finders on our sights and picking our targets. The night air seems to grow oppressive, a wet blanket drenched in fear laying it’s burdensome weight across our shoulders. The crowd is growing closer, a low mechanical grinding filling the air like angry locusts as the machines advance obliviously toward our position.
The battle begins with a bang, there’s no getting around that one.
The first dumb bastard Runner leaps over an overturned import car and lands smack dab on a mine. The thing seems to simply vanish in a flash and a roar of thunder, pieces of it’s frame scattering across the bridge and splashing into the black velvet water far below us.
“CONTACT!” Berg roars, and we open up. The SAW chatters like a drill instructor, short 10-15 round bursts of heat-treated armor piercing rounds that shred through the machines like a steak knife. Green flame of ruptured fuel canisters on their backs further confuse and disorient them; we can see their shoulder-mounted SMGs waving wildly in the flames of their comrade’s husks. My own weapon bucks in my hands, stock pulled tight to my shoulder and my teeth gritted so hard I’ve already bit through the filter of my unlit cigarette.
Our C.O. never relents; he shouts words of encouragement for each machine we put down, admonishment if one advances past the ever-growing pile of flaming, twisted metal. The mines flash every few seconds, sending booming sound waves across the divide between man and machines that scatters more of their mechanical innards over the field. We’ve reduced their numbers by nearly half, and our ammo supplies (mine, at least) look as though they’re going to carry us through.
Damn fool, that’s what I am.
They begin to regroup, yellow searchlights flashing to deep crimson red. And we know they’ve zeroed in on us. Their guns swing around, a hissing pneumatic pump fires as their heads lower, and the bullet spray begins. It’s wild and undisciplined; a hot lead wall screeching towards us that forces us down to cover and puts a pause on our own fire. We can hear them advance, bounding forward. And then they hit the last, most dense cluster of mines.
I don’t see it happen. But I sure as hell feel the entire deck of the bridge buckle, and I hear white-hot shards of scrap metal whizzing by inches over our heads and raining down on the roofs of the cars with sharp cracks. We let out a whoop, readying weapons and standing to recommence firing.
The Hunters make themselves known; the damn radar units are hovering barely out of reliable firing range, but just close enough to ping us and give away our exact position. And the positions of any remaining mines. We hear their weapons readying, thick yet terrifyingly agile footsteps as they begin to run the bridge toward us. Left arms chambering assault rifle rounds where a manipulator or hand-equivalent should be. They dodge the remaining mines, shirking toward the outside edges of the bridge road.
“Lind! Erickson!” Berg roars, motioning for the ordinance. We simultaneously unclip the grenades from our belts, pop the pins, and heave toward the densest cluster of unignited fuel tanks on either side of the bridge. We have purposely left the Runners on the edges of the advance with intact tanks for this reason. And it works exactly as Berg planned it out.
The grenades do their work. They detonate nearer to the middle from each advancing group of Hunters, catching the intact fuel tanks and sending a blue-green fireball barreling toward the packs like a kinetic freight train. Both groups are either entirely ripped to shreds, or they’re pushed through the weakened guard rails down into the water 150 feet below. There is no victory cheer, though. We can see the finish line, and with furious determination and grit we resume our firing, determined to send the Kremlin’s dogs back to him with their tails between their legs.
Lind is our first casualty. All I hear is a dull thunk of lead hitting flesh. It’s such a different sound than a bullet striking metal. As is the sound that comes after. Instead of a metallic grind it’s a high-pitched wail of terror and anguish, and a heavy thud as Lind hit’s the bridge deck with a hole in his chest the size of a man’s fist. His wide-eyed stare and slack jaw tell us he’s already dead.
“What the hell is that?!” I roar, taking a moment to glance at the body. “No 9mm round did that!”
“Heavy contact, eyes front you son of a bitch!” Berg screams at me, before his head simply evaporates into a fine red mist that settles like morning dew over the weapon that trembles in my hands.
The remaining 5 Hunters have arrived on the bridge, leaping over their Runner brothers with a grace and speed unlike anything we’ve seen before. These are different; jet black stealth coating, a more lean and ergonomic design, and the unmistakable visage of a .50 caliber anti-material rifle mounted on their right arms. Red tubing, wiring and model numbers that look like blood stains complete a terrifying image, and as one raises a weapon I’ve never encountered before, I can barely make out in the dying fires four crimson letters stenciled along it’s left inner arm; FNIX.
There’s a sharp hiss of compressed air, and a metallic slam of something sticking to the hood of the car just to Loffy’s right. We hear three quick, insistent electronic beeps. Oloffson has barely enough time to turn to me, to give one tiny nod with eyes bright with fear, before the explosive packet detonates.
Loffy’s body lands directly on top of me, his entire chest cavity blown open and shredded innards splashing all around me. I scream, tears filling my eyes as I scramble desperately forward. I shove Loffy’s body off as the suspension of the car to my left creaks and groans under unexpected weight.
I don’t hear the blade extend from the arm, but I feel it enter through my back. I feel the air rush from my lungs, and my body below my waist goes instantly numb and lifeless. I cringe, wince, want to scream in terror. But the noise will not come, the only thing that escapes my mouth is a trickle of blood as I feel my lungs fill. The devil lifts me off the ground, and in my swimming, fading vision I see it. On the hood of the car directly in front of me.
I reach out for it as the Hunter lifts me off the deck, feel it’s cold and reassuring weight in my hand. A bright yellow beam passes over me, emitted from the dull red sensors on the beast’s chest. I don’t look at it. I don’t regret. I don’t wonder or plan, I don’t pray or bargain for my life. I hang my head, and I close my eyes. I smile a warm, bloody smile.
I see bright red hair and smell her perfume. I hear high pitched, delighted laughter and hear the soft, tinkling song of a mobile above a crib. I feel a gentle breeze from the open window, billowing the thin white curtains like wisps of cloud. I feel her soft lips against mine, I hear the gentle lapping of waves.
I smile, and squeeze the detonator trigger.