"Her name is Susan. She has pretty red hair."
Mel nodded encouragingly, smiling for effect. "Oh, I see."
The little girl grinned back, reaching out as if to hold her imaginary friend's hand. "Susan says she likes you."
"That's good. Would you like to sit next to Susan on the transport?"
The little girl nodded, finally getting up from her little alcove. She took Mel's hand with her other one, walking out across the room towards the stairs. Mel exhaled silently, grateful the encounter had panned out so well. None of the others running this little shelter could get the seven-year-old to budge. The mission was already behind schedule enough as it was.
Mel led the girl up the metal staircase out of the shelter, out into the desolate crater beyond the lip of the structure. Most of the other survivors were already rounded up in the transports. The only others milling about were part of her detachment, scouring the site for any salvage to bring back.
The little girl seemed uninterested in the desolation around her. Mel wondered if she remembered the scenery from when the attack had occurred. That was several months ago. Hard to believe such a young girl had survived for so long in one of these older shelters. But Mel was quickly learning not to doubt the miracles. The more of these shelters her detachment uncovered, the more survivors they always seemed to find.
Maybe it was a harbinger for something good.
"That the last of them, chief?"
Mel turned to her number two, Kyle, as the girl disappeared inside the transport. "Yeah. She just needed a friendly face to give her some encouragement."
"Not a familiar face?"
"Sometimes the familiar can hold us back."
Kyle shrugged, turning back to scavenging. He was good at his job—especially when it came to crossing borders—but there was a reason she had him handling logistics and not survivors. Kyle had spent too much of the war on front lines. He and the rest of the bureaucracy forgot what kind of world they had left behind. What kind of people still hunkered down out there.
Mel exhaled, moving to make one last patrol of the shelter's interior. The place had been gutted when they arrived; she didn't really expect to find anything else. But it was better to be thorough and wrong.
Passing Conner on her way in, she motioned for him to follow.
"Any signals in this sector?" she asked, feet pounding on the metallic steps down.
"All quiet," Conner replied. "I think all forces in the region are engaged on the front lines due west. Guess you're intuition was right on the money."
"It's not intuition, it's basic logic. Our side launches a major skirmish into enemy territory; their focus is going to be elsewhere."
"Not always, Mel…"
The two walked silently through the cramped interior of the shelter. It was one of the basic layouts civic government had put into play as the war kicked into high gear. They were cheap, easy to throw down and then cover over with dirt. They also felt like tombs.
"Kyle said they swept top side twice over," Conner began, breaking the silence. "No salvage worth hauling in the transports."
"Yeah, and there's really nothing down here. But thought we might at least—"
A wink of green light flashed somewhere in the dark recesses. Mel whipped her flashlight around, Conner's rifle suddenly up and at the ready nearby. Neither of them said a word.
Moving forward slowly, Mel reached with her free hand for a flathead screwdriver. As they approached a small open panel in the metal-sided wall, she kept her eyes focused on the darkness beyond. So far, nothing stirred within.
Connor moved off to her left, keeping a bead drawn on the gap in the metal plates. Mel moved off to the right on her approach, leaving a wide enough gap for Connor to light up if the need arose. When she was close enough, she probed inward with her screwdriver.
Mel glanced Connor's way, motioning for him to stay silent. He nodded once. Both of them had seen the light—the industrial green light that matched every description of their enemy.
Pushing the screwdriver under a loose plate, Mel torqued hard, prying the plate free. The shelter must have been in worse condition than they realized; nearly a whole panel came loose, displaying the internal utilities running the length of the shelter.
They also revealed a Drone.
The small mechanical device whirred to life, crawling on six segmented legs with lightning speed towards the ceiling. Mel dove back, Conner unleashing a barrage of rounds at the robot. It took several rounds in the center, collapsing in a heap of damaged electronics on the floor.
Connor shouldered his rifle, giving Mel an opening to pounce on the shattered machine. Moving quick with her toolkit, she pried apart the interior, finding the transmitter she hoped wasn't there.
"Damn it, how did we miss this bugger in our EM sweep?"
"Doesn't matter," Conner replied. "We need to go."
The two of them sprang for the exit, pounding hard up the stairs and out into the desolation beyond. Kyle had since rounded up their detachment, moving everyone inside the two bulky transports. He was waiting for her by the cockpit as she raced inside.
"Sensors just lit up," he reported as she took her seat. "Two squadrons moving eastbound fast."
"I know," Mel grunted, buckling in. "Get us out of here, now!"
The idling transport engines groaned into higher gears, rumbling up the side of the embankment surrounding the shelter. Then they were on the abandoned road, picking up speed as they headed south.
"Connor and I found a Drone in the shelter," said Mel. "It looks like it's been there awhile."
Kyle turned away from his screen, his eyes flashing with concern. "A trap?"
Mel shrugged. "Breadcrumbs, maybe." Then a thought crossed her mind. "I think it was waiting for someone from our side to find the survivors."
Kyle frowned, turning back to the screen. Mel could see from her seat as two bright trackers showed enemy movement crossing over into their sector. It was only a matter of time before they realized where the fleeing survivors were headed.
"Then why not lay a trap?" Kyle asked at length. "Why nearly let us get away?"
Mel wasn't so sure they would get away. The enemy didn't have to dig in for an ambush if they knew survivors were getting a clunky ride back across the border. A regular detachment might be able to outrun them—stay and engage if the need arose. But a search and rescue squad…well, they weren't even supposed to exist.
Escaping the enemy now just meant facing down the bureaucracy when they got back across their line.
The two transports lumbered down the abandoned road southbound for some time, Mel counting the distance as the enemy moved in closer.
"We're about five miles out from the border," Kyle finally announced after several tense minutes. "Just a little closer and defensive can handle the baddies behind us."
Mel didn't need to remind Kyle that the point was slipping back across the border without causing a stir. Coming in hot with two squadrons of enemy units on their tails would tell the whole world they had been out and about.
But subtly was a luxury they couldn't afford right now. Mel was willing to spend a little time in the brig if it meant she was still alive.
Kyle swore loudly. Mel leaned forward, not waiting for an explanation. The sensor screen showed the enemy was almost right on top of them. They weren't going to make it within the operational zone of border defense.
Time to get creative.
Grabbing a rifle, Mel headed for the access ladder.
"Radio the other transport!" she growled, starting the climb up. "Get Connor topside."
She didn't linger to hear Kyle's reply. Instead, she pushed open the heavy top hatch, crawling out onto the gunner's nest aboard the transport. At fifty-five down the road, the wind whipped at her short amber hair as Mel crouch walked to one of the turret seats.
The transports had been gutted of all munitions long ago. But they had left the rooftop platform intact, which was why Mel had requisitioned the vehicles specifically. It did no good to bring in survivors if they couldn't slow any enemies chasing them home.
Connor and two others were already on the roof of the other transport, strapping themselves in and taking aim. Mel was surprised when Kyle joined her across the way, strapping in at his own seat.
"I need you downstairs," she yelled over the rushing wind.
"Claire can handle ops," he retorted. "And Maxden has the wheel. They'll be fine."
Mel didn't reply, checking to make sure she had a few extra mags when the shooting started. Then she leaned forward, resting her rifle on the gunner's lip. Shooting from a moving vehicle was hell; every little added support was necessary for accuracy.
The enemy didn't take long. Both squadrons approached in large, squat ATVs rolling across the wasteland at nearly a full double extra speed than Mel's transports. The vehicles were ugly beasts; scrap metal and engine parts bolted down to a frame. They weren't armored, a non-issue when the driver's could take fire rounds better than the vehicles themselves.
Each one was filled with a dozen Cybers. They were still too far away for Mel to make out specific details. But she could see their lumbering, mechanized frames standing in clumps in each ATV. She could almost imagine the human form and shape to their bodies, outfitted with bulky armor and machinery. Just a hint of sickly green flesh beneath.
Neither side opened fire, waiting as the ATVs rolled up on either side of the road, nearly alongside the transports. Now Mel could see them properly. Not all of them wore headgear, some with exposed, shaved heads, the last traces of humanity lingering in the simple form and shape of a face. Others looked more menacing and alien, their skin perforated with machinery and components, giving them the Cyber look. Without armor on, Mel could only imagine what the horrors beneath looked like.
Connor's team started shooting first, being the closer of the two transports. She was pleased to see several of the Cybers go down from the barrage.
Then several moved into position, leaping with incredible speed and dexterity to grab hold of the transport. That was when Mel started firing, trying to knock off the man-machines as they clawed their way up to Conner. The bumpy road made her aim falter, but she succeeded in shredding at least one of them. Its corpse sparked with damaged circuitry, losing its grip and tumbling to the barren ground below as the four vehicles left it behind.
Conner's team was having more luck, but another wave leapt out, shaking the transport badly as they grabbed hold. For a moment, it looked like the whole thing would veer off the road, but their driver straightened out, recovering from the impact.
The momentary distraction was enough, though; Conner's team stumbled, losing aim. Several of the Cyber's reached the gunner's nest, setting into gutting the crew. Mel almost looked away, grimacing as gore splattered the transport, some of it catching the rushing air and flying out into the scenery rushing by them.
Mel shared a look with Kyle and the two nodded.
There was no saving Connor or his team at this point. Cybers had the advantage there. They could tear apart a human soldier, dispatching them with ease, only to put them back together again into a cybernetic monstrosity when it came time for them to clean up the battlefield. Connor and the others were dead either way. No point in letting the enemy harvest their meaty remains.
Mel and Kyle let loose with full auto. With the other transport right behind them, the gunner's nest in perfect line of sight, there was little difficulty hitting anything. And with their other team all dead, the risk of friendly fire had immediately dropped to zero.
Mel felt slightly numbed from the constant recoil of her rifle. Soon nothing living remained on the roof of the transport.
Two rockets detonated on the pursuing ATVs, blossoming into brilliant balls of orange and black fire. Mel realized they were slowing. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed that they were less than a mile from the border. Defense had kicked on, giving fire support.
Not that it mattered at this point.
Mel grunted, not bothering to unstrap herself. Lowering her rifle wearily, she reclined as the transports ground to a halt at the borderline. A small detachment was waiting for them there, probably ready to arrest them.
She glanced over at Kyle again, who had gone stone faced. It didn't bode well to lose friends and be court-martialed all in the same afternoon.
"Kyle…" she began, uncertain what to say.
"It's over, Mel," he mumbled, dropping his rifle with a clatter at his feet. "Even if they commute our sentence, I'm done hopping borders with you."
Mel nodded wordlessly. She expected this to happen; wouldn't be surprised if a few others left their ranks after today. And that wasn't including the fresh hell of explaining to Connor's wife or any of the other family or friends of the others what had happened.
But it was all just a temporary setback. Because as long as there were shelters out there with survivors, Mel was going to find a way to keep running borders.
Not while they were was a chance to keep them from becoming mindless Cybers.