Past that barricade, however, we didn’t encounter much else, not for half a day. Although we all knew that we needed to stay on guard, the rolling hills, the quiet outside – it all combined to lull us into a false sense of comfort and security.
We should have been more alert.
We should have been ready for the ambush.
Maybe, if there’d been another barricade like before, we would have approached more cautiously, kept together as a unit and made sure to cover our flanks. But instead, we saw a barricade of a different sort, the kind put together from logs lashed with wire, looking almost like it belonged on the trenches of World War I, nearly a century earlier.
“New?” Jaspers asked, as we slowed to look over at the construction. It wasn’t fully across the highway, but angled to cut off one of the two lanes. It looked more like it had rolled there, down from one of the cliffs on either side of the highway pass where it cut through a tall hill.
Perhaps decades ago, engineers had used dynamite to blow their way through the hill, creating a level path for the coming highway. Over time, plant life re-took the newly exposed rock, trees and shrubs sprouting from both sides, casting shade down over the two-lane road below. On one side, the side where this wooden barricade lay, the shrubbery and grass had been disturbed, as if by a falling object.
“What was it doing up on top, then?” I countered his question with one of my own. “Clearly it blew down, but why did they have it on top of a hill?”
“We see things like that in some of the highlands,” Jaspers said after another minute of consideration. “Windbreaks. Keep the wind from being quite so bloody strong when it sweeps out from the sea.”
It made sense. Up on top of the hill, the wind would be strongest, and a wooden construction like this would break up those gusts and make them less powerful when they swept back down the other side. It was a reasonable explanation, and I left it at that. We’d driven past plenty of other obstacles, all of which cluttered our path due to unfortunate chance.
That was my error, I decided later. I accepted the reasonable answer, without considering whether there might be a second answer that was equally right.
I put our truck back in gear. I’d pulled over to the side of the road for a moment to look at the barricade, and Sergei took advantage of our pause to pull past us and head along the single lane of the highway still open, not blocked by the obstacle. For a moment, I saw his face grinning at me as he passed, Feng silent as usual in the passenger seat.
He passed us at twenty, maybe twenty-five miles per hour.
A second later, it skewed wildly to the side as Sergei slammed on the brakes, the tires screeching in protest as something metallic snapped in the undercarriage with a loud groan of tearing metal.
“Shit!” Jaspers had his weapon up and his door open, even as I slammed on the brakes of our own vehicle. Sergei’s truck skidded another half a dozen feet across the asphalt before coming to a stop, one of the front wheels twisted wildly. I put our truck in park but left the engine running and the keys inside, ready for whatever we’d need. Behind us, Corinne also brought her truck to a halt, spinning the wheel as she hauled on the handbrake to put it facing at an oblique angle, ready to make an escape.
For an instant, the only sound was the hiss of overheated metal cooling on Sergei’s wounded vehicle.
And then screams erupted from both hills on either side of us, as motion boiled up and rolled down towards us.
“Stop!” I shouted, opening my window. Even as I spoke, I drew my pistol from my hip, held it ready in my lap. “Stop! We’re friendly!”
“I don’t think they’re bloody listening!” Jaspers yelled, his own gun up and trained at the charging people on the other side. “They look pretty damn angry to me!”
He was right. It was tough to get a good glimpse of the attackers as they half-ran, half-fell down the hill, but they didn’t appear to be running to greet us. I could see that they were human, but couldn’t make out much else; the brush and the motion obscured their features.
“We need to try,” I said, and, heart pounding in my chest, opened the door and stepped outside, leaving the pistol behind on the seat of the truck. “We’re here to rescue you!” I shouted, raising my hands up over my head.
A second later, a rock, slightly smaller than a baseball, flew past my head and bounced off the metal fender of the truck beside me. I ducked, and another passed through the space occupied a moment earlier by my head.
“Right,” I heard Jaspers growl, just before he opened fire.
The first crack of his automatic weapon sent a signal to the others. Almost in unison, heartbeats later, weapons fire burst forth from Corinne and Henry both, slightly further back from us and from the attackers. More rocks flew, and I scrambled back into the truck, both for shelter and to reclaim my own pistol.
We’d given the attackers time to close the distance between us, during those few seconds of trying to convince them of our friendliness. They’d dropped with surprising alacrity down the cliff faces, and now rushed across the road towards us from both sides. If we’d been using rifles and pistols to defend ourselves, they would have overrun us.
They weren’t figuring, it seemed, on automatic weapons.
With a roar, spittle flying out from his beard, Jaspers swept his gun across, laying down a line of automatic gunfire that dropped half a dozen attackers. He switched to semi-automatic mode with barely a pause at all, the gun stock rising up to his shoulder so that he could pick off individual targets as they cleared the cover of the undergrowth to step out onto the exposed road.
On my side, I didn’t have an automatic weapon – but fortunately, more of the attackers seemed to be coming from the right than from the left. I fired ten shots, dropping a charging attacker with each round, then ducked lower behind the protection of the door as I reloaded.
“What are they thinking?” I shouted to Jaspers. “They’re attacking us with rocks and sticks!”
“And numbers!” he retorted, slamming another magazine home in his weapon and bringing it back up.
We held off the attackers from our side – but up in front of us, Sergei and Feng weren’t managing as well. Their injured truck had ended up closer to the right side of the road, and even as I sent a glance in their direction, I saw a wild, rags-clad human figure drop down to land on top of their truck’s hood. With a wild yell, he swung the stick in his hands down at the truck below, and I heard the crack of the windshield shattering.
In just seconds, the front truck in our convoy was overwhelmed.
To be continued…