Chapter Two: Alessa

“Are you sure you want to do it yourself?”

“Are you kidding?” I laughed as I pulled the harness up my legs. Fastening it around my waist, I put the locking carabiners in place and ran my hands across the rope to ensure it was properly tied onto the rappelling structure. “Of course I want to do it.” My foreman, Tameron, looked at me with a disapproving glance, both hands on his hips as he shook his head.

“Most engineers I know are glad to remain behind their desk, you know?” Grabbing my hand, he helped me over the bridge steel railings. He didn’t look too happy about the fact that I was doing something he saw as being part of his job, but he knew better than to complain.

“I’m not like most engineers you know,” I threw right back at him. I lowered my center of gravity until my body was parallel with the Sauma river, a mass of turbulent waters 800 feet below, and pressed my feet against the pillar in front of me. Winking at Tameron, I eased the hold I had on the rope and allowed my body to go down, my knees locked as I made my descent.

Not really a fan of heights, I kept my gaze on the pillar and my feet. I could hear the water rippling from underneath me, a steady breeze whipping at the hair that escaped from my helmet, but I just ignored it all and kept on going down. Tameron was right—most engineers would leave a task such as this to their underlings—but I never really cared to be a pencil pusher. I liked being in the middle of the action, even if that meant facing my fear of heights. Besides, being that I was younger than most engineers in charge of such big projects, I had to prove my mettle to the crew.

“Alright,” I muttered once I had dropped almost 200 feet, gripping the rope tightly so that I’d stop in place. Narrowing my eyes, I looked at the bolts in the temporary steel frame supporting the pillar. Someone had messed up, it seemed—the steel bolts they had put in place weren’t the ones I had ordered to be used, and that meant we would have to replace this entire structure. That, of course, would translate as an inevitable delay.

“Pull me up,” I cried out, looking up the pillar. From where I was, I couldn’t see any of my workers, but I knew they could hear me. Except it seemed that they couldn’t. I remained hanging there for a couple of seconds before reaching for the radio in my belt. Careful not to let go of the rope, I turned the radio on. “What the hell are you doin’ up there, Tameron? Pull me up. I’ve figured out the problem already.”

I got nothing but the crackle of radio static.

The damn assholes were already probably lost in conversation, trying to arrange another nightly gathering of poker. As much as I liked this crew, I had to keep on top of them at all times, or else nothing would ever get done. Not that I had any reason to complain—aside from this minor screw-up, everything was going perfectly. Sure, we’d have to ask for a one week extension on our deadline, but that wasn’t anything to worry about. Months of delays were perfectly natural in jobs of this nature, especially with all the logistic mess this damn continent turned into after the war.

“Tameron?” I insisted. “Do you copy?”

Exhaling sharply, I realized I would have to hoist myself up. Not an easy task, but I would gladly do it just so I could skin Tameron alive. I couldn’t believe he got distracted and left me hanging while knowing that—

“Shit,” I cried out, the rope losing some of its tension and sending me down a dozen feet. My feet lost their grip on the pillar, and I balanced from the rope like a sack of potatoes someone had slung over the bridge. “What the hell are you assholes doin’ up there?” I cried out while trying to grab the radio. My fingers were clammy and, as I tightened them around the plastic, it slipped from my fingers and the radio dropped into the river below.

I felt a knot form in my throat as I followed the radio with my gaze, nothing but a black dot being swallowed up by the rabid foam of a merciless river. I always tried not to look down when rappelling, but this time it was unavoidable—I was staring straight down at the abyss.

My heart thrashed inside my chest, and adrenaline started coursing through my veins like battery acid. It was hard to breathe, let alone think straight. “You got this, Alessa, you got this,” I repeated over and over again, a stupid little mantra I hoped would calm me down. Foot by foot, I started making the climb up. My body was covered in sweat, my drenched clothes sticking to my body, but I kept going all the same.

“Hang on, Alessa,” I finally heard a familiar voice cry out, and I looked up to see Tameron peeking over the railings. From the distance I couldn’t really make out his face, but judging by his tone of voice I could tell he was panicking. What the hell was going on up there?

My body relaxed as I started feeling the pull of the rope once more, and I suddenly went up the pillar faster and faster. I didn’t even care that the rope was biting into my ungloved hands. All I cared about was making it over the edge, safe and sound.

“I got you,” Tameron muttered once I was within reach. Taking my hand, he hoisted me over the railings and I immediately collapsed on the floor, exhaustion finally taking over me. I sat on the ground, elbows resting on my knees, and I took deep breaths as I waited for the adrenaline to run its course.

“What the hell just happened?” I finally asked, somehow managing to push me up to my feet. Raking one hand over my face, I looked straight at Tameron, and my stomach lurched the moment I saw the deep creases on his forehead. He was my foreman because he never panicked, nor did he stress over things. He was the kind of man you could count on when things got tough, and he always kept his head over his shoulders. Now, though, there was fear etched deep on his face.

“I don’t know, Alessa, I really don’t,” he whispered, looking down at his feet as he spoke. Running one hand through his thinning hair, he finally looked into my eyes and pursed his lips. “They just up and left, the lot of ‘em.”

“What do you mean they up and left?”

“See for yourself,” he continued, waving with his hand at one end of the bridge. I spun around and, shading my eyes from the sun with one hand, watched as dozens of workers dragged their feet toward some point in the distance.

They were ambling in an uncoordinated way, the soles of their heavy boots dragging across the concrete, and they didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything on their way.

There were other workers there, handling the machinery on the clearing by the end of the bridge, and they just shuffled out of the way as the group of runaway workers made their way past them.

“It happened all of a sudden,” Tameron said, his voice low. “A few were handling the ropes, others were just milling around, and then…” He hesitated for a moment, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and breathed out. “I don’t know what came over them. They just dropped their tools, all at the same time, and started walking out.”

“All of them?”

“Almost all of them,” he replied. “Some, like me, kept our wits about us. But the rest of them just lost it. I tried talking to them, shouting their names, and I even stood in their way and tried to stop them. They wouldn’t budge. They just kept on walking and walking, almost as if there’s something in the jungle calling for them.”

I opened my mouth to say something but, in the end, just remained silent. Whatever was going on wasn’t normal, that was for sure.

“What should we do?” Tameron asked me.

“Let ‘em go,” I said, watching as the group of dazed workers kept on walking through the clearing and disappeared out into the jungle, their discoordinated bodies swallowed up by the thick green foliage. Wherever they were going, it wouldn’t be safe for any of the other workers to follow. “We have no idea what’s going on, and I’m not going to risk the rest of our crew.” Taking a deep breath, I straightened my back and started walking down the bridge.

“Where are you going?” Tameron asked, and I didn’t even bother looking back at him to reply.

“What do you think?” I threw back at him, doing my best not to let anxiety spread its wings inside me. “I’m going to call this in.”

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