Below, you’ll find Chapter Six of the Uncommon Bravery short story. If you’re interested in reading the chapters as they’re released, please subscribe to my newsletter.
Chapter 6 – Chip off the Old Block
Clara held tight to the sides of the console as a stiff gust of westerly wind buffeted the overseer. She knew the direction of the wind was as good an indication of the coming storm as any forecast. After the gust abated, she wiped the grime and sweat from her forehead that had been accumulating throughout the long day. Between the unusually warm fall weather and the gusty wind, not even the overseer’s climate conditioning had been able to keep out the clouds of dust kicked up by Daw’s machinery.
A section of her project map blinked a warning on the north side and she was about as far away as she could get. Twisting on the control stick, she turned away from where she’d been negotiating a plan update with her dad on how best to work around a heavy granite deposit.
“Clara?” Captain Noister’s voice interrupted her flight from Quail Bluff. Between her dad’s excavator and the dozers, much of the hillside had been collapsed into the ravine below. It wasn’t lost on her just how many of her own memories were being removed.
“Yes, Captain?” Clara answered. With a few notable exceptions, the National Guard captain had done a great job of keeping his troops and civilians out of her way as she directed the machines to the army’s bidding.
“We’ve a real mess going,” he answered. “We have to start letting westbound traffic through. I need you to get your machines clear of the highway in about ten minutes. After that, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to cross with any regularity. We’ve quite a line of folks fleeing west.”
“Fleeing?” Clara asked. “Did something happen?”
“You haven’t been listening to the news feeds? President Cambridge just announced the mandatory withdrawal of citizens into designated safe zones,” Noister replied.
Clara fidgeted her fingers as she listened to him. She’d seen the urgent warning on her comm queue, but ignored it given the enormity of the task at hand. “Safe zones?”
“Elm Bluff is the eastern front, Clara,” Noister said. “What was it you thought we were doing here?”
“Front against what?” she asked.
“Listen to the announcement,” he replied, “and get your equipment clear. I have a hundred thousand vehicles that need to pass through here in the next six hours.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she replied. “Even if we shut down east-bound traffic, it’s only two lanes and it goes through town. You can’t do a third of that.”
“We have to,” Noister said grimly and closed the comm.
“Open company-wide channel,” Clara instructed her AI. “Everyone, stop what you’re doing and listen up a minute. I just heard from the Army that they’re about to open Highway 32 to two lanes of westbound traffic. They say there’s a line of a hundred thousand that are looking to pass, so whatever side of the highway you’re on ten minutes from now is the side you’re going to be stuck on.”
“President says there’s an invasion.” She recognized the voice as belonging to Jake, one of their younger drivers and a general pain in the butt. “We’re supposed to be getting our families safe. You can’t keep us working with all that going on.”
“Jake – keep the channel clear,” Clara said, and muted his access to the channel.
“He’s right,” Jake’s buddy, Tom piped in just as a number of other people started voicing their discontent.
Clara ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, not sure how to gain control over the group.
“Listen up, people.” Frank Daws resonant voice cut through the grumbling. “Anyone who feels like things are too dangerous can shut down their Cat and meet on the west side of the project. We have two trucks up there and we’ll run you back to town. But, know this. Today … this hour … hell, this very minute is the moment our country asked for our help. They’re saying we have the tools and the knowhow to stop those alien bastards from killing our families. I sure as hell ain’t about to turn my back on that.”
“That ain’t fair, Frank. We don’t even have weapons,” a man Clara didn’t recognize answered.
“Do what you gotta, Jess. Now get off the channel. I’ve got dirt to move,” Frank replied and closed the channel for everyone.
Clara smiled. As tired as she was, she took heart from her dad’s short but impassioned speech.
“Did I hit that too hard?” Frank asked over their private channel.
“People are scared,” Clara answered. “I don’t even know what’s going on. I didn’t listen to the President.”
“Not much to know,” he said. “There are widespread reports of these bug aliens all over the globe. Noister and his boys are to hold Highway 32 open ’til the last minute, then they’re supposed to blow it.”
“Blow what?” Clara asked. “This is all fresh dirt. There’s nothing to blow. What good are twenty-meter tall walls if there’s a seven-meter opening in the middle for traffic?”
“I know,” Frank replied. “We need to set a pile on either side of that blockade so dirt can be pushed into place when he finally gives that order. I want you out of here before then. You got me?”
“I’ll update the plan, Dad. There’s something going on over on Olive Hill,” Clara said. “We’re showing some sort of failure.”
“Don’t ignore me, Clara. I want you out of here if there’s an invasion coming.”
“Do your job, Dad. I have as many friends in Elm Bluff as you do,” she replied hotly. “This work isn’t getting done without me.”
“Clara …” Frank’s voice caught and she could almost see his face as he choked back the emotion of the moment. “I gotta know I’m doing this for someone. You’re all I have left. Promise me.”
“Back at’cha, big man,” Clara replied. “We get out of here together. No heroes today. Got it?”
“Damn it. Why do you have to be so hardheaded?
“I think you know the answer to that. Daws out.” She closed the comms and elevated the overseer to three hundred meters so she could get a big view of the project.
They’d scraped the small valley and deposited broken homes, trees, and anything else that wasn’t the actual ribbon of asphalt just short of the deep, north running, manmade Jelly River’s banks, where the cut in the bluffs widened out. The debris pile was nearly as high as the wall of dirt they’d filled in right up to the sides of the old steel bridge.
By nightfall, the first cars streamed across the bridge. In the daylight, Clara hadn’t paid attention to the cars were lined up as far as she could see on the highway. In the dark, their headlights lit up the night along the seeming infinite strip.
She pushed the overseer north and the source of the issue on the project became imminently clear. The two large bulldozers that should have been working the northern bluff were simply missing. Not a piece of Daws equipment was to be seen.
“Locate dozers 302 and 248,” Clara instructed.
“Mechanical defect override instructions were received. 248 has returned to base. 302 is parked one kilometer north,” her AI softly replied. A blinking outline of Toad’s bulldozer showed on her HUD.
“Get Toad on comm,” Clara demanded. She was surprised to learn that the man who’d been with the company since she’d been a teen had gone missing.
“Jeff Thedford is not accepting communication requests,” the AI responded.
“Holy hell. How many earth moving machines are operating?” she spat, pushing the overseer in the direction of the monstrous machine. They’d need at least three thousand cubic meters of dirt on either side of the road if they ever hoped to ‘blow the hill’ as Noister had put it.
“There are four machines still in operation.”
Clara sighed as she discovered three of the machines sat on the south side of the now bumper to bumper traffic that had slowed to a crawl. She didn’t find it hard to imagine her father had inspired the folks around him to stick it out. Without strong leadership on the north side, however, their numbers had dwindled.
Brilliant flashes were closely followed by staccato gunfire and then by the sound of what she could only place as thunder. She turned to the lights and sounds and discovered that the soldiers were advancing out from the bridge and pouring fire out in nearly 180 degrees.
“Daws!” Noister shouted into the comms, attempting to overcome the sounds of battle.
“Captain, what’s going on?” she replied.
“You have to close us off. They’re coming and there are too many of them. We’re blowing the bridge. Close the wall, now!”
“I can’t. All those people will be stuck on the other side,” she argued. Only a precious few hundred vehicles had had time to pass.
“That’s an order, Daws,” Noister answered. “We’re blowing that bridge. Do the right thing.”
Clara stared out, not yet able to see what the troops were firing so furiously at until a swarm of what looked like two-meter-tall, long limbed, upright cockroaches ran over the top of the southern flank of Noister’s position. The bugs ripped into the soldiers and even though she was several kilometers away, she was sure she could hear their screams over the gunfire.
“Dad!” she screamed into her comms. “Get down to the road. We have to block it up. They’re coming!”
Turning away from the carnage, she leaned onto the console and pushed her machine toward Toad’s bulldozer.
“I see it, Clara and I’ve got it,” he said. “Take the overseer and get out of here.”
For a moment, Clara actually considered his words. The three machines they had available could move a huge amount of material in a short time, with Frank on top of T-Rex in the lead. It wouldn’t be the six thousand meters needed to fully plug the gap initially, but her dad would prioritize the front wall and backfill the remainder.
“Uh, is this the construction channel?” A young man’s voice that she recognized came across the comms.
“Jimmy Wynn?” she asked.
“You need to get off this channel,” Clara said. “This is official business only.”
“Tell your dad. We have a problem,” he said. “Captain Noister is gone and so are the command codes for the explosives. We can’t blow the bridge.”
Clara closed her eyes. Her dad wouldn’t have anywhere near enough time to fill the gap if the aliens were allowed to run across the bridge, unhindered. She jumped from the overseer onto the broad nose of Toad’s bulldozer and ran back to the cab. If she’d stopped to think about it, she’d have been bothered by the potential fall of almost eight meters, but she was on a mission.
Sliding into the cab, she picked up and tossed out the empty bottles of booze. The cab reeked of boozy sweat and she pushed back the need to gag as she fired up the beast’s great engines. A quick check of the batteries showed she had twenty minutes before needing a charge.
“Show quickest path to ground,” Clara directed her AI.
Sitting atop the bluff, she was twenty meters above the wall. The AI displayed a route that looked suicidal. Within the instructions were warnings indicating she’d need to push the speed of the vehicle at different points to avoid rolling over.
Looking east she saw that the soldiers had collapsed into a knot just north of the bridge. The once perfect line of headlights had turned into chaos and her heart went out to a few hardy souls whose headlights bumped through the cornfields, chasing or running from things she could barely imagine.
She pushed forward on the sticks and 302 lurched. A loud screeching and warnings that popped up onto the console alerted her to a problem. She cursed as she recognized she’d forgotten to disengage the manual brakes. Pulling the sticks back hard, she stopped and released the brakes.
Soon she was racing toward the cliff’s edge, her lower lip firmly clamped between her teeth. Checking speed against plan she screamed as the blade ahead of her dropped over the side of the hill. And for countless seconds she did nothing more than respond as quickly as possible to the AI’s directions.
“Clara, what are you doing?” Frank Daws demanded, having discovered that she hadn’t left.
“The bridge,” she panted from adrenaline. “Guard can’t blow it.”
“I’m coming,” he said. “Get out of here.”
“Damn it, Frank, don’t,” she yelled into her comms. “I’ve got this. T-Rex is our only hope at closing that wall in time.”
Her plan was simple. The bridge across Jelly River wasn’t all that sophisticated. Moreover, she very much doubted it could resist a full speed collision from the second largest machine in Daws inventory.
Nervously, she stole glances to the side as she raced along the line of brambles next to her carefully constructed wall. People had exited their vehicles and were running along the bridge. In horror, she realized they were being chased by much faster bugs who were grabbing those that they came upon and dragging them back across the bridge, only to be replaced by more bugs.
“Dad. They’re abducting people,” she said in horror.
“The people on the bridge. They’re running, but the bugs are grabbing them, not killing them.”
“Turn around, Clara.”
“I’m taking out this bridge,” she said fiercely. “Don’t try to stop me.”
She heard her father sigh into the comms and then finally say. “I love you, kid. Don’t ever forget it.”
She looked on as a line of bugs clambered over the abandoned cars. A few were rifling through the vehicles, looking for occupants. Even more were headed directly at her.
She raised her hand in a single fingered salute as she was thrown forward when the blade of 302 struck the piling where the bridge tied into the abutment. A quickly deflating foam caught her and she looked, realizing that she’d been stopped cold. The noise had been horrendous and her AI showed that she’d moved the bridge by twenty centimeters, but the supports had held.
She chuckled as she looked across at the bugs that were scrabbling to stand back up on the slippery steel bridge. Realizing it might be her last laugh, she pushed the big machine into reverse, trying for a second run. The machine refused to change gears and ground forward, its huge tracks digging into the dirt around her.
One by one, the bugs recovered and skittered toward her. She felt a profound sense of loss as she realized her sacrifice would be for nothing. 302 had enough force to shake the bridge and even break it from most of its foundations, but in the end it just hadn’t been enough.
She thrust the sticks forward and glared out at the bugs as smoke billowed out from the distressed machinery. Counting down, she looked on as three bugs in the lead leapt across the gap at her.
At the last moment, a huge fist of steel swung across her view as the arm of T-Rex sliced through the top of the bridge structure and smashed the bugs. 302 lurched forward at the sounds of snapping steel and cracking concrete. The addition of T-Rex’s punch tipped the scales in 302’s favor as the western half of the bridge pivoted away from its foundation.
Clara cackled as the machine bumped across uneven terrain as she followed the end of the bridge, pushing it down into the fast-moving river. It wasn’t until she tried to arrest her forward momentum, satisfied the bridge was gone, that she recalled she was unable to reverse, or even fully stop.
For a moment, the machine simply sat in the water, too heavy to be bothered by the river’s current, slowly sinking into the mud. The tracks continued to pull her forward, however and she finally recognized her peril.
Jumping from her seat, she climbed onto the 302’s back as it sank forward into the river, suction and current threatening to pull her under. With strong strokes, she swam with the current and angled back to shore.
A few minutes later and half a kilometer downstream she pulled herself up onto the muddy bank.
“Dad?” she called over her comms, only to discover her earwig had been lost to the river.