Written for NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenge 2019.
My brief was as follows:
Genre: Action Adventure
Subject: A Standoff
Character: An Engineer
Time limit: 8 days
Word Count: 2,500 words
Title: The Bridge of Blood and Tears
Synopsis: A trinity of engineers finds themselves as an unlikely terrorist cell. But just like the first job they met on, everything is not what it seems.
Xun pressed on the brakes a little too late and a little too hard as the lorry pulled up to Zhuhai Port checkpoint for the G94 Pearl River Delta Ring Expressway from Macau to Hong Kong. It came to a juddering stop. The two men in the checkpoint looked up at Xun.
“Look at the camera,” said one of the men. Xun pretended not to understand, even though he had spent 15 years of his life looking at the civil engineering plans for the bridge.
“Why?” asked Xun.
“Security, just look at the camera.”
Xun hoped that exchange had bought Mai enough time to turn on the electrostatic discharge device in the trailer of the truck. He leaned out of the cabin, attempting to be nonchalant. The two checkpoint officers looked at their computers with what Xun hoped was frustration.
“Hold on a second, the system is messing about,” said one of the officers. “Call support.”
“My mobile has no bars,” said the other officer. “We should put him through another gate.”
The other officer leaned out of the checkpoint cabin to look at the line of trucks behind Xun’s. Some light, impatient beeping had already begun. “Queues are too big.” To Xun, “Do you have your paperwork?”
Xun handed over his paperwork as cooly as he could, fully aware of the bags of explosives in his trailer with his co-conspirator, Mai.
“You’re Mongolian?” asked one of the checkpoint officers.
“Yeah,” said Xun.
“With a Kzhakstani passport?”
“You’re a long way from home.”
Xun shrugged, “It’s a job.”
“Coming from Xinjiang?”
“The payload is. I’m not. I just picked it up from the distribution centre in Nanning.”
“What’s in the payload?”
“It says on the paperwork.”
“I know, but I’m asking you.”
“Surveillance equipment for some government buildings,” said Xun, trying to sound bored. “Simple cameras and stuff.”
“Let’s take a look, open up the back.”
“Sure,” said Xun. But his foot moved closer to the clutch and his hand closer to the handbrake.
“Can you step out of the cabin?”
“Huh?” Xun pretended not to hear. The beeping of horns behind him had intensified.
“Unlock the trailer,” the officer shouted.
Another officer approached the checkpoint. “What the fuck is going on? The traffic is backing up into the feeder road.”
“The system is down, I can’t…”
“Does he have the paperwork?”
“Yeah but, it’s Mongolian.”
“So fucking what,” the officer shouted. He took one glance at the paperwork, “He probably doesn’t even have a social credit profile.” He handed the paperwork back to Xun, “Let him through, immediately.” Xun nodded at the officer and drove through the open checkpoint.
Once he was through the checkpoint, Xun tooted the horn twice to let Mai know they were clear. He noticed that his mobile phone lit up as it reconnected to the mobile network. Mia had turned off the electrostatic discharge device.
Xun got the lorry cruising on the inside lane somewhere between 45 and 50 miles per hour. They should be at the target in about 20 to 25 minutes. It was 6.15pm, the sun had set and the Pearl River Delta sparkled a little under the moonlight, but it looked deep and infinite in a way it never did in the daylight. In the distance, Hong Kong shone unevenly like a dirty pearl. He was tempted for a moment to quit the plan and simply drive on into the city. But there were others relying on him now. Not least Mai and Ming, his co-engineers and now co-conspirators who had been betrayed by the contractors, but also the unknown and underreported dead and injured who worked on the bridge, and the whistleblowers who’d had their social credit scores destroyed if they hadn’t simply disappeared. There was no turning back. They’d committed to the outcome. There was even a chance they might even get away with it.
Xun saw the eastern artificial island getting larger. The end of the first part of the bridge and the beginning of the tunnel. It created a strange visage as the bridge disappeared from sight and but the eye was drawn to complete the line. A ghost projected over the water by the mind’s eye.
Soon they were only a few hundred yards from the end of the bridge. He gave three quick blasts on the horn to indicate to Mai that she had to hold on to something. Xun braced himself against the wheel and in one movement pressed down on the clutch, pulled the gearstick into first, and gently brought up the clutch. The whole vehicle jolted violently as soon as he touched the biting point. He felt the weight of the trailer pushing on the axels. He thought the lorry was going to roll forward and tip over but he repressed the urge to break and continued to raise the clutch. The smell of burning rubber filled his nose as the plates overheated. Another lorry swerved around him and honked. He glanced at the wing mirrors and saw the plume of black smoke bellowing from the rear of the truck, blowing across the freeway.
“Perfect,” he shouted.
He switched on the hazard lights and used the brake to come to a complete stop while continuing to grind on the clutch’s biting point. Hopefully, Xun thought, he had made a convincing show of an engine failure and nothing more suspicious than that.
Xun pulled up the handbrake and for a second he thought about what was happening. He did not feel fear or nervousness as he expected. What did he feel? Busy. There was so much to do. They had to move quickly. Breakdowns were not tolerated on the bridge. They would be spotted in minutes by the cameras or by the lookout station at the tunnel which was now visible to the naked eye. One of the recovery vehicles that constantly patrolled the bridge might already be alerted and on the way. Mai and Xun needed to get the nitroglycerin out of the van and down to the island seawall in minutes.
Xun grabbed the hi-viz from under his seat and rushed to the rear of the trailer. He opened the doors and affixed them. Mai already had her hi-viz on and placed a small smoke bomb at the trailer doors to continue the effect of the breakdown and provide some cover for their activities. Their presence in the inside lane and the smoke bomb was causing the traffic to slow and merge as it approached them. Xun could see that a tailback was developing and he smiled as he picked up the first bag of nitroglycerine and threw it over his shoulder. Mai followed him with a steel fibre ‘robe’ ladder and a pair of chain cutters. They caught each other’s eye and shared a quiet grin of determination, but no words. There was nothing left to say, they just had to act.
Having spent so much time working on the drawings, they knew where all the access ladders were. Xun found the ladder that led down to the sea wall and started climbing down. With his bag, he only just squeezed between the safety railings that encircled the ladder. Mai followed, keeping a few rungs above him. After a few seconds, Xun reached the gate which marked the end of the ladder. Official maintenance personnel would have the key to the lock and the second half of the ladder on their vehicle. Xun reached up to take the chain-cutters from Mai. Just as his hand gripped them, his other hand slipped off the ladder. His feet pushed through the ladder rungs and he fell onto the security gate, landing on top of the bag of explosives. The cutters fell onto his face smashing his cheek. The cutters slid off his face and partway through the ladder’s safety guardrail. He moved his arm quickly and trapped the wire cutters against the railing before they fell through.
Xun froze and prayed that the nitroglycerin was still intact. His face stung and felt disconnected from his body. The cold wind whipped off the delta and heightened the sensitivity in his face. He couldn’t tell through the stinging if he was bleeding. His back was sore and arched awkwardly over the bag of explosives. His right side was inflamed and he thought he had a broken a rib. His legs still protruded uselessly through the rungs of the ladder.
“Mai, if I move, the cutters are going to fall through the rails.”
“I’m coming down.”
“Actually, I have a better idea.” Mai turned carefully on the salt-swept ladder and slid her legs through the rungs. She then gently lowered herself face first, wrapping her calves around the rungs of the ladder and using the guard rail to guide her upper body, awkwardly but successfully, until she was hanging by her legs upside down on the ladder. It was a tight squeeze but she was able to free one hand and grab the cutters.
With a lot of moaning from Xun and too much lost time, the two rearranged themselves, cut the lock and attached the flexible steel ladder to the bottom rung. It took them nearly 15 minutes.
“Are you sure you can get across the wave breakers after your fall? Do you need me to do it?” asked Mai.
“No, I can do it. Get the other bags. Follow the plan.”
When Mai returned to the bridge, the soup of traffic had thickened around the stranded lorry thanks to the smoke and the impatient merging vehicles. She could see the yellow lights of the emergency recovery vehicle approaching slowly in tail-back, she probably had time for one more descent. She would have to try to take all the bags.
Down at the sea wall, Xun was packing the first set of explosives between the correct dolosse components. One of the main scandals of the bridge’s construction was the seawall integrity. He knew the newspaper articles claiming some of the components had been installed backwards were true. The components were easy to spot even in the moonlight. They had planned the explosion to damage the seawall irreparably. The flooding would be slow into the tunnel. It would be easy to evacuate. But the damage would be devastating and long-lasting.
Once he had placed the first bag of explosives, he looked out at the Delta. He couldn’t see Ming or his dinghy anywhere. He should have been here already. Then, in the darkness, he heard the sound of an outboard motor starting and a bright torch shone in his face.
Mai had collected another two bags of explosives and got to the ladder, then she saw the light on Ming’s dinghy. Her legs wobbled as relief swept over her. They might actually do this. But as she stepped onto the first rung of the ladder she noticed something was wrong. The dinghy was not moving. It was just shining its light onto Xun. It looked like a standoff to her. She trusted her gut and went back to the truck for one more thing.
“Ming, is that you?” Xun tried to shout over the noise of the motor and the waves. The light dropped down and he could see the outline of Ming in the boat. “Come closer. Mai is bringing the other bags down now, we’ll be done in a few minutes.” There was a long silence as the dinghy drifted closer to the wave breakers but left a few feet of water between the boat and nearest dolo.
“I’m calling it in, Xun,” shouted Ming.
“I’m calling the authorities.” Ming raised his hand, the unmistakable glow of a smartphone emitted from his palm.
“What are you talking about, Ming. We’re already too far behind schedule and I think my face is dripping in blood.”
“There’s an offer on the table for people who can give any information about the terrorist group who were planning to blow up the bridge. They knew.”
“They move your social credit score to nine. And full amnesty.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot, Ming. You saw what they did to Mai and me.”
“That was a promise from the subcontractor. It didn’t mean shit. I’m talking about a promise straight from the Party. Besides, we didn’t deliver, so we didn’t get the full payment.” Ming gave an exaggerated shrug.
Xun finally lost his composure. “Like fuck we didn’t deliver,” he screamed. “It was an impossible job with a spec written by politicians. How could we deliver?” Ming stayed silent. “How many had to die, Ming? How many accidents, broken bones, amputations? We didn’t deliver? They were asking for blood, Ming. And people paid it. And now we aren’t even free to get a public bus over the fucking thing we built because our social credit is too low!”
“I never believed the stats. It was Hong Kong Labour Party propaganda.”
Ming chuckled, “I’m offering you something, Xun. Hand yourself in and the punishment is less. I’ll report the others in the group and still get my reward.”
“Or I could set off the nitroglycerin now, avoid jail, kill you, and probably still do enough damage to the bridge.”
“You won’t,” said Ming flatly. “Do you need a minute to think about it? I’ll give you 60 seconds then I’m making the call.”
Xun spent the entire time trying to figure out if there was some way he could rush over the dolosse and get to Ming. He still had the chain cutters within reach, they could be some sort of weapon, but he wouldn’t be able to move over the wave-breakers quick enough.
“No deal, Xun? Okay, I’ll make the call,” said Ming.
He fumbled with his phone a few times, lifting it to his ear, redialing and lifting again.
“What’s wrong, Ming, no signal?” It was Mai. Ming turned his dinghy flashlight to her, she had the electromagnetic pulse device at her feet and two bags of explosives over her shoulders.
“Nice try, Mai, but you’ve only stalled me for a few minutes. Where are you going to…” Ming was silenced by the chain-cutters crashing into his face. Xun had quietly climbed close enough to the dinghy to hurl them at Ming and hit him flat in the head.
When Ming awoke his head was sore and his body was shivering. He sat up and realised he was flat out on one of the wave-breakers. The dinghy seemed to be gone. He presumed Mia and Xun had taken it. Around him, he could see the packages of explosives and somewhere he could hear the ticking of a mechanical device that he couldn’t see. And couldn’t find it in time before it exploded.