I slumped against the cold, metal railing, my body heavy with exhaustion and the weight of my recovery gear. During the still hours of the morning, working the bridge’s observation deck was brutal. If it wasn’t the biting wind whipping through the wide river, threatening to send you sailing over the deck’s edge into the river, it was the constant shadows that darted beneath the fast-moving current that set you on edge. Throw in a month’s worth of solo duty and it was ****-near hell.
The outpost was a hold-over from decades past when both the river and bridge were used more heavily by the country’s denizens to move goods back and forth from the nearby farms and dairies. With no other option to get to town, folks had to brave the bridge or the river’s uncertain waters. Of course, both these options had considerable risk back then – the river swelled from frequent flooding more often than not, and barges and trucks moved a little slower, their antique gas engines stalling and gears grinding. And of course, the nymphs were bolder.
Today, however, the new mag-lev train system moved people and goods quickly and safely across the river on the recently constructed high bridge. The observation towers were now just haunted reminder of the past. Really, the only reason for maintaining a one-man outpost was in the event someone too foolish, or too poor braved the river crossing.
My body tensed as I heard a distinctive splash and the unmistakable high-pitched whistle of a distress call echo up from the river below. Moving to straddle the outer railing, my scope was in my hands in an instant. There, half a klick upriver of the bridge, was a singular light. A small motorboat floated dead in the river. A child looked around wildly as a man tried to start the stalled engine.
****, I thought to myself.
Another splash snapped me into action. I keyed up the mic on the communication’s panel and prayed that the **** thing still worked, and that if it did, someone on the mainland was still at their post to hear it.
I scanned the river for the boat. It had continued to drift towards the bridge. Lucky. But it was most definitely being pulled towards the deepest part of the river. ****. Rifle in hand, I took a deep centering breath and waited until I saw the tell-tale foam form on the water’s surface. My first shot cracked loudly, the surface of the water around the boat turning dark, but I was too late. The small boat overturned, throwing the man clear of the craft and trapping the child underneath.
Instinctively, I dropped my bag to the deck while pulling out my torch, mask and fins. I punched the recovery basket release, sending it into the swollen river below. Clipping into the auto-belay, I peered one last time towards the boat. Now less than two hundred yards away, I saw the man’s body slip under the rippling water. The child clung to the smooth underside of the boat, surrounded by two nightmarish nymphs. Clutching the mask to my face and hoping my fins stayed tight, I jumped over the railing into the river below.
Freezing water numbed my limbs as I began swimming towards the child. The auto-belay lengthened as I swam, providing resistance against the already strong current, slowing me down. The shrieks of the child trilled in the air until they were replaced by silence. I swore, filled my lungs with air and dove below the surface.
My torch did little to light the murky water, but as I dove towards the boat, a sliver of light reflected on the scales of the nymph that held the child. It bared its jagged fangs at me and swiped at my face, its talons tearing off my mask. I dove forward blindly, hands gripping my dive knife as I plunged it into what I hoped was the nymph’s side. Grappling for the child, I rocketed to the surface. The girl’s pallor was that of frost, lips tinged blue, but there was no time for CPR, just a few hard blows on her small back would have to do; neither of us would survive if we didn’t make it back to the bridge.
I fit the rescue harness to the girl and swam towards the recovery basket – if the auto-belay worked properly the slack should begin the recoil process. I loosed a breath when we began being reeled in like a fishman’s morning catch. Flood lights blared a greeting from the bridge, and I knew backup had arrived. But twenty yards from the extraction point, sharp talons tore down my back and jagged fangs ripped into my thigh. Pain lit up my body. ****, the second nymph. The backup knife I kept strapped to my thigh wouldn’t be enough to kill it, maybe just **** it off. I cut the auto-belay line, freeing me from the child, hoping the medics on the bridge could save her.
Talons dug into my shoulder, dragging me under the surface. I struggled against the nymph until my lungs burned for oxygen and vision went black. I slackened and wondered what would kill me first, drowning or the nymph ripping out my heart. Drifting into unconsciousness, I involuntarily inhaled, water filling my nose and lungs, temporarily jolting me back to my surroundings. With the last of my strength I plunged my knife, blessedly still clutched in my hand, into the nymph’s neck.
With a curse on my lips, I kicked towards the light. I know I didn’t make it.