Jack sighed. He was struggling to keep his eyes open, fighting the fatigue that was creeping over his body. Ned and Sim were probably in a similar state, they had been patrolling the area for over a week, day and night waiting for a sign of the enemy. No rest at night. Although they weren’t expecting night attacks as intel deemed the enemy incapable of night attacks, it was not much of an obstacle. Every night, they needed to set up watch. And some were collaborating with the enemy.
The convoy had permission to continue, the majority heading for a small town several kilometers from their position. In the other direction, a small industrial town could be found past the village. The three crewmembers had not been present when the factories and workers evacuated.
Inside, Sim was trying to find a local radio station, in search of some news, but all was quiet. Probable that jamming was involved. Jack and Ned returned to the biped as the engine roared and the vehicle sped in the opposite direction of the convoy, puffing blue exhaust in the air. They passed the last refugees, spotting glowing embers on the horizon, dancing against smoke plumes rising up. The silhouettes of several houses, their tiled roofs, were lit by the fires, their edges melting against the hot air. Jack lifted through the metal ring, scanning with his binoculars. No metallic shapes reflected by the moon. But track marks soon appeared, along with footsteps, on the crushed grass and overturned soil, cutting trenches in the tall lush grasses.
The biped’s metal cleats crushed the ground as the colossus stopped at the entry of the village, near an abandoned farm. The windows were shattered and the wooden door was cracked open, shards and splinters lining the gravel path.
From the traces, the armour had bypassed the small roads of the village to head to the town. Through the branches of a row of trees, distant fires flickered softly, barely visible. By now they would already be in the town.
The biped left the farm and continued on the main road, passing by the wooden fences of the houses, moving with caution. To not be overheard, Jack chose to go silent and shut off the radio. For now, they would be by their own. Alone in the sector, they could not afford to compromise their position, which could prove fatal. The crackling of the fires quieted as they left the village, growing to a steady murmur drowned by the furious hum of the engines, which continued to spit blue.
Behind them, the glows of heat continued to simmer under the cloudy sky, while ahead, the shaded silhouettes of the buildings began appearing, mute concrete monoliths devoid of any lighting. The town had been abandoned in haste, clouds of dust hanging in the air, floating over the shapes of tracks and footsteps. Stopping at the outskirts, Jack was cautious. They had shut down all lights, but the tall shape and the engines did not make them very stealthy.
The walls along the roads remained silent, interrupted by a series of posts. According to their map, the industrial core was on the other side of the river, which cut the town in two. They were in one of the residential neighbourhoods, and would have to avoid the larger roads to slip in through alleyways. They needed confirmation of the attack, and needed to relay detailed information to HQ. The biped engaged on a small earth path, as a fine mist was setting on the grass.
The two halves were connected by four main bridges, one of them used by the largest road, while the others were slightly smaller. The northernmost bridge was used by trains, and Jack figured that it would be used to ship vehicles and materiel in once secured. But he needed to be sure, and the only option was to scout out the area. He asked Sim to enter the labyrinth of thin asphalt streets to reach the bridge. Sim looked at the map, approved the plan, and the biped began stomping the ground as they entered.
The town was eerily quiet, not a noise, not an animal, not a mechanism; a ghost town, and the breeze seemed to be the only thing alive. The streetlamps that would ordinarily light the streets were dark, their familiar buzz silent while the biped clunked with each step. To the left, in a small yard enclosed by fences, some clothes were hanging from a clothesline, dangling in the breeze and waiting to be picked up.
The biped was advancing carefully, the feet clinking on the cold asphalt. Jack and Ned were scanning in all directions, looking at each windowsill and tunnel crossing the buildings. Any bright neon from stores and restaurant was blind, the air twirling across the tables as it entered. Reaching the river seemed to take an eternity.
Still wary, Jack looked summarily at the river, its shores lined with brick walls crowned by metal railing. The dark water ebbed with a quiet bubbling, twirling when it met a group of ill-adjusted bricks. Tall smokestacks from the factories jutted out on the other side through the ribbing of metal and concrete. Various railroads snaked through the buildings, with numerous wagons scattered around.
A small shadow vanished from behind a corner a distance away, underneath the curtains of an open window. Jack ordered Sim to approach the building, while Ned loaded a shell before gripping the eyesight. On a small metal plate were several more shells, ready to be loaded. The pavement clacked under the biped’s weight, which continued to approach with closed searchlights. The streets were empty, deserted, devoid of any humans. And yet the crew knew they were not alone.
The moon remained hidden over the clouds, leaving the sleeping town in the dark of the night. The biped kept moving, grinding the ground, Sim suspended in his harness. He stopped right next to the building. The water weaved through the town, and from their position, they had a new vantage point to another part of the town. In front, the black mass kept slowly flowing. A few more steps forward. On the left, on a road following the river, Jack saw another silhouette. Facing them.
The diesel engines rumbled softly, and the legs’ mechanisms quieted down. The figure lifted a dark shape in front of it. In the distance, a spark lit up, showering the buildings beside it in light. It vanished in a puff of grey smoke. An instant later, a detonation rocked them, hitting a wall behind the biped, throwing scraps, shards and fragments in all directions. The smoke covered the metal colossus, which began stepping backwards, using the smoke to its advantage. Crackling was heard, the wall vibrating under the impacts.
Jack lit one of the cabin lights and hurried to turn on the radio station. Time was ticking. The sickly yellow light was struggling to light the dusty interior, casting shadows on the walls and the grills. The antenna mast was partially lifted up and the device turned on with its distinctive crackle. Jack donned the headset, before taking another look through the periscope. He sent an emergency signal.
“This is command, what is your status, biped?” The voice on the other side seemed only partially awake, barely articulating every word.
“We are under attack! I repeat, we are under attack!” The device crackled. Enemy jamming. Their transmission had been intercepted. “The town of Telbet is under attack. There are no civilians and we are under fire…” More crackling. The radar station was struggling to maintain the frequency. Jack balled his fist and smacked the set, unresponsive. “Warn high command, we need backup imme…”
A metal clang resonated above the cabin. Soon after, the antenna came crashing down, smoking. Dust ahead of the biped was clearing, flashes of light scouring the shapeless clouds. The armoured plate in front clinked. An explosive roar hammered the pavement below, throwing up shrapnel and asphalt. Small flashes emerged and vanished as they heard sharp whistles above and around the vehicle.
Ned was looking through the eyesight, and fired. The shot shook the cabin while the projectile rushed through the dust. A rumble was heard somewhere in front, deafening the shots for a few instants before they resumed in reply. The empty shell clanged on the floor, filling the cabin with heat and the smell of burnt metal. The biped continued to fall back, engaging on a small alleyway.
Behind them, they could hear the rumble of engines and shouting.
“There should be a radio station several hundred meters towards the south-west. It may be our only chance to call for help, our radio’s done for,” declared Jack with a sober tone. “We can’t go there with the biped, it would attract too much attention. I’ll do it.”
Ned was staring at him, incredulous. He returned to his station, quiet, adjusting the helmet on his head and gripping a bar to brace himself upwards. Aft, Sim was focused on navigating the narrow openings, filled with debris. A wall to their right shattered with force as a shell punched through, bricks flying and hitting the armour. Metal rang.
Jack felt a small tap on his helmet. A droplet of water, followed by another, then another. The cloud cover had gotten heavier, and now a fine rain was falling, the transparent liquid flowing alongside the metal and the cabin. Air began to cool, but the crew did not feel it through the heat of the engine that was working on animating the mechanisms. Behind, the crackling of weapons was followed by whistles and orange sparks.
Following Jack’s directions, Sim was navigating towards the radio station, at the corner of a small intersection. Only a few hundred meters through the maze. Somewhere behind, the enemy was advancing, unseen. They were getting closer, the intersection was at the end of the path.
“Sim, stop the biped. You’re not going any farther, the enemy will easily spot us. We need to split up right now, and we’ll find a rendezvous point somewhere outside the town. The important thing is that you get out of here safely, right now we need reinforcements. Good luck…”
Jack opened the hatch and slid down, lugging the radio with him. The biped changed directions and took another path, vanishing past a corner, as the roar of the motors began quieting in the tumult of the town.
A carbine in his hand, he slid beside the brick façades of the buildings. His boot splashed a small puddle, startling him. He stopped, listening around. It was quieter, the engine lost somewhere past several blocks. Eyes wide open, he pointed the weapon around, checking the shadows behind windows and balconies. Nothing.
He quickly reached the intersection, finding the two-storey building where the radio station should be. Rain was striking the dusty sidewalk and was cleaning it as it trickled along its coarse surface. With each breath, Jack could see a cloud of mist form, running along his neck before vanishing in the cold, humid air. He checked one last time behind him, searching for any suspect shape. Still nothing.
The wooden door had been sloppily barricaded with some planks, deformed needles jutted out and formed an irregular spiky carapace. Jack gripped one of the planks by its edge, carefully removing it to not make too much noise. The plank creaked off and was gently placed on the ground. Jack snuck in and closed the door behind him. A small sign indicated that the radio station was on the second floor, and he tip toed across the staircase as it squeaked under his wet boots.
The door was open, with no sign of activity inside. A fine layer of dust caked the drapes and tarps covering the equipment. On the table he found the daily program. From the date, it was over a month old. Jack was wondering if they were forced off the air, hoping that the equipment was still intact and functional.
To his surprise, he managed to hook his portable station to the antennas and power the device. He tuned his radio to the emergency frequency, toggling the scrambler and not waiting for an answer back.
“Command, this is Jack, commander of the scouting biped. We need reinforcements now! We have made contact with the enemy, Telbet is occupied by enemy forces.”
“Biped, reinforcements have been sent. Patrol aircraft are in the sky and heading for you. Hold on, we have…” The voice was alert, but before it could end its phrase, he could only hear static in his headphones. He was found.
Jack grabbed his weapon, disconnecting and taking the radio set with him as he jumped down the stairs, smashing the door, bolting outside. He didn’t know how much he ran, much less the confusing alleyways he was going through, but he could hear a distant rumble behind him.
He stopped in a small courtyard, lined by a small wooden fence, catching his breath as he leaned on a streetlight. The droplets of water crashed on the wrinkled surface of a nearby puddle. Suddenly, the rumble grew even louder, as the droplets hitting the puddle lost all form. Rumbling like menacing thunder. Aircraft. Jack wondered where Sim and Ned were, and if they managed to evacuate. A bitter smile drew itself on the commander’s face. He trusted them enough to be confident in them getting out of the mess. Now it was his turn to get out.
Overhead, he could not spot the recon planes, but the buzz of the engines was familiar. Through two clouds, he spotted a dark shape dart in a blur, running under the rain, the fences and the post rattling under the fury of the engines. A few seconds later, a detonation shook him, a patch of light illuminating the grey background, before returning to the thunderous aircraft as they distanced themselves, crossing the town.
Jack crouched down, his back to the post, weapon on the ground. His breath had calmed. He could feel his hands colder, rain dripping off his uniform. Rain was hitting the metal of his helmet, and his fatigue caught up to him, fighting the rush of adrenaline. In the lull following the explosion, he let sleep overcome him, soothing him and making him forget, at least for a few moments, all the fatigue that had accumulated over the prior days. He knew that he couldn’t stay like that much longer. And clutching his pair of binoculars dangling off his neck, water accumulating over the lenses, he knew. This was just the beginning.