The Sun That Shone Through Smoke (28.3)

52-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Though the sky was characteristically bleak in color, the rain had momentarily abated.

Camp Vijaya was lively as could be and took full advantage of the respite. People left their tarps and tents and worked under the sky (technically under the camouflage net). Radio operators brought the receivers out on handcarts and laid back beside them on towels as if sunbathing. Engineers worked on small parts out in the fresh air, soldering and sanding and treating on tables in the grass. There was a soon a pungent scent of chemicals and paint swirling through the camp; but everyone was happy to be free of the rain.

Around noon there was a small disturbance. People cleared out of the area near the workshop at the sound of Karima’s bugle and at the insistence of Captain Rajagopal. Small crowds gathered in a circle around the edges of the camp. Once the way was clear, Chief Ravan had the workshop opened, and stood by with a megaphone in hand.

“Everyone ready? Time to begin the Raktapata tactical mobility test!”

Farwah popped up from the front hatch.

“We’re just driving in circles around the camp.”

Chief Ravan turned the megaphone to his head.

“We will commence the Raktapata tactical mobility test with an additional and valuable scientific stipulation — it is forbidden for Farwah to speak during the test!”

Naya laughed a little, standing at the edge of the wood while Chief Ravan shouted at Farwah. Roaring to life, the Raktapata started its first lap around the workshop, its engine powering an uncommon torsion bar suspension. Power was transferred to the drive wheel in the back of the track, and from there the other wheels. It navigated the terrain at a brisk pace and took corners very easily. She watched it speed up, more gracefully than she would have thought a vehicle of that size capable of. Somehow she had expected the vehicle to move much more stiffly, but it turned and zig-zagged quite smoothly for a tank.

Sadly the spectacle would be short for Naya. She had somewhere to go today.

Nevertheless she continued to steal glances as she made her way. Walking along the outskirts of the camp to stay out of the tank’s path, Naya followed Isa to the back, where he climbed into the Sharabha half-track and cheerfully waved her to the passenger seat. She climbed on beside him and settled on the stiff cushion atop the rigid metal seat.

“Where are we going exactly?” Naya asked. She had been given very little in the way of instructions for the day. Previously she thought she would have no chores on the 52nd.

“Chanda. We’re going to pick up sundries for the camp from the supply dump.” Isa said.

“Hmm? Sundries? What kind of goods are talking about here?”

Isa smiled. “Towels, soap, herb shampoo, kitchen and bath paper, razors, brushes, deodorants, anti-fungals and other hygiene products like that; we can’t run on food alone, you know! A whole camp full of gearheads goes through these things very quickly!”

Naya nodded. “I noticed. Hard to scrub your face three times a day just with water.”

“Too true. We’ll be bringing back a lot hopefully, so help me carry the crates, ok?”

Isa hit the starter, and the Sharabha whined awake. Avoiding the Raktapata as it lapped around the camp, the half-track slipped out of the camp and through the jungle, down a path that Naya had not trod on for over a week now. She suspected that the real reason for this trip was that Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal had noticed her flagging condition and decided to get her out of the camp for a breather. Other people came and went to Chanda on errands just to get a breather. Naya was not enthusiastic about returning to Chanda for any length of time. She liked the camp well enough. But orders were orders.

The Sharabha was much faster than the Tokolosh, quickly reaching a speedy 60 km/h even on the meadow. After leaving the forest Naya raised her eyes reflexively to the sky, and she looked out for airplanes. She had two too many encounters with Nocht’s damnable Luftlotte in her life and she did not need another. However the skies were clear of planes and though partly cloudy the weather was agreeable. Chanda was soon in sight and without incident. Isa drove the Sharabha up a steep grassy slope north of the school and followed it into the sports field, reducing his speed. They were among civilians and had to be careful.

Naya saw children out on the field near them, playing, gathering around teachers–

She sat up against the back of the seat, avoiding the window at her side.

“Something wrong?” Isa asked, turning the wheel to steer the Half-Track to the depot.

“Nothing. Just don’t want to seem like I’m goggling anyone.” Naya replied.

Isa looked skeptical, shook his head, and parked the half-track beside a big tin warehouse that had been set up near the track and field in order to house army supplies.

“You know, you’re a real weird gal sometimes, Naya.” He said. He was smiling.

Naya smiled back, in a cutesy, deflecting sort of way.

She had seen Aarya out on the field, and an awkward instinct overcame her.

Inside the tin warehouse, a tall, plump young woman was hard at work unpacking many syringes from small wooden boxes packed with foam rubber sheets and sand. She had her black hair bunched up behind her head, pinned with a wooden hair clamp. When she turned to meet them her round, dark brown face was dusty from the packing sand, and she wiped herself with a towel before reaching out a hand and vigorously shaking with Naya and Isa.

“Hujambo! I’m Sharna. You’re the folks from the forest, right?” She said happily.

“Sounds like us!” Isa replied. “Can you help us find the sundries we requested?”

“I’ll do ya one better!” Sharna pointed over her shoulder at a corner of the room. There was a stack of seven or eight crates of varying sizes there, labeled “FOR CAMP V.”

“Mighty kind of you!” Isa said. “Naya, please get started on those crates.”

Naya looked at him critically. Had he just brought her here so he could be lazy?

Isa seemed to catch on to her silent accusation. “I have to fill out some records!”

“Yeah you’d better have to, you sloth!” Naya grumbled. Sharna snickered.

“Here, I’ll help you. Better than unpacking individual spirits-damned syringes!”

Sharna stacked two large crates together and hefted them easily. Naya watched in awe as she casually left the warehouse with them. She struggled to pick a crate up and follow. When she lifted her own box she felt like a penguin waddling under the weight.

Out behind the Sharabha, Sharna pulled down the ramp and pushed her crates into the back, securing them with the ropes on the benches. She stretched out her hands to Naya and generously took her crate in too, setting it down on the benches with the rest. Naya bent down, holding on to her knees, breathing heavily, sweat dripping from her forehead. When did she get this weak? She used to be able to carry things like this so easily. Now her lower back and her hips protested from walking thirty meters with a box.

“Listen, I can carry the rest.” Sharna said. She had a big smile on her face. “Just leave it to me alright? I don’t want to see a comrade put herself out of sorts for a crate of soap.”

Naya felt a bit annoyed, like she didn’t want the sympathy. But she suppressed the bad thoughts and smiled back. “Is it because it’s better than unwrapping individual syringes?”

Sharna’s eyes glanced off to one side and she whistled a little. “Maybe it is.”

She walked down the ramp. Naya started back to the warehouse, but stopped when she saw Sharna staring out into the field suddenly, and heard a voice calling out to her.

“Hujambo, Sharna! I see you’re busy, but can you spare a few towels from–”

Naya froze up at the sound of the voice. It traveled down her spine like a surge of electricity. She tried to slouch, hands in her pockets, shoulders raised over her neck, head down; she tried to make herself smaller, less noticeable. She kept her back turned to the two of them, and moved millimeter by millimeter, trying to inch away from the field.

“Eh? What do you need them for? How have you run out this quickly?” Sharna said.

His voice sounded deeper, stronger, more confident than she remembered it. She hated everything about it and hated how it had changed more. “We’ve got some sick kids, just little colds, but they’re contagious. It’s not fair other kids get to play in the field and they don’t so I want to get them cleaned up, give them some towels and take them–”

Naya felt the pause, palpably. It was in the air. She felt it like a dart hitting her shoulder.

In that interminable second she prayed a thousand times not to hear the word–

“Naya? Naya Oueddai? Is that you over there?”

She grit her teeth.

From her slouching, sneaking stance, she turned her head a little over her shoulder, trying to appear disinterested. But then the sight of him drew too genuine a shock from her.

She remembered Darshan as a lanky teenage boy, too-tall in his ill fitting track shirt and shorts, long-legged, tough in a wiry way, sort of like she had been at his age. He had grown into himself. His chest was broader, his shoulders too. Even in a dress shirt and tie, in plain brown pants, she could see thickness to him she didn’t before. He had cut his hair closer and neater, his face smooth and clean cut without his thin mustache and beard. As a kid he had been cute perhaps, but he was infuriatingly handsome now.

“You know each other?” Sharna said, clearing the dead air. She remained unacknowledged.

Darshan approached a few steps, and his face brightened up. He raised his hands to his head and laughed a little, and he spread his arms as if he wanted to embrace her.

“Naya, spirits bless you, it’s been so long! It’s been years! Gods alive.”

Naya turned fully around. There was no helping it anymore.

“Six years or so?” Naya said, grinning a little, keeping her distance.

“I’ve lost count; I never counted! You just vanished one day. Does Aarya know you’re around? Gods she’ll be so happy to see you! Listen, she was right around here a minute ago–”

Naya raised her hands defensively. “No, no, no. I’m busy right now, sorry Darshan.”

Her eyes kept honing in on the ring around his finger. She found it hard to stand in place. Some part of her wanted to run away and hide somewhere; another just wanted to tackle him down and crush his goddamned face. He didn’t deserve that, she knew it, but it would have felt so good to have finally broken these awful ties once and for all–

“Yeah, she’s kind of got a job to do. You two can catch up some other time, this is urgent.” Sharna interrupted. Thank the Spirits for her. Naya nodded her head vigorously.

Darshan smiled kindly, a bit bashfully. It was a sudden, burning flash of the boy Naya had known once, scratching his hair as though something had hit him in the head, laughing self-effacingly and responding in a subdued tone of voice. It was the same voice that he had used when he confided in Naya that he was very fond of Aarya Balarayu.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Naya! You know I’m just so happy to see you. It’s great that you’re working hard for the army. We civilians owe you a lot these days.” Darshan said.

“Yeah.” Naya said, simply, awkwardly. She had to force it out of her tongue. Just one syllable, but it felt like such a burden to say. It had been years! What did two people in this situation tell each other? Particularly when one wanted again to be gone?

But Darshan simply didn’t know malice. He smiled again like a little kid.

“Me and Aarya are both working as teachers here. I’ll tell her you’re around, maybe we can meet up tomorrow, circumstances permitting. Spirits bless you.” He clapped his hands together in front of his face and bowed his head to her in reverence.

Naya waved her hand stiffly and nervously at him in response.

Still smiling, Darshan departed to the field. As he left, Isa exited the warehouse with a crate, upon which rested a carbon copy of the supply corps documentation he was filling out.

“Never in a million years would I have thought a crate of towels could be this heavy!” Isa protested, waddling up to the ramp with the crate in hand. Sharna plucked it from his grip and set it easily down on the benches with the rest while Naya stood around.

Sharna tactfully said nothing while they loaded the rest of the crates. When everything was loaded and it was time to leave, she gave Naya a wan little smile and wiggled her fingers while waving at her. Naya waved back and then rubbed her shoulders while she waited in her seat, trying to pat down the aching tendons. Isa took his seat on the other side of the half-track, Sharna secured the ramp, and the Sharabha started up anew.

Under the engine whine, Isa turned to Naya with a cheerful expression.

“Do you want to stick around longer, maybe get a breath of meadow air?” He asked.

Naya shook her head. Isa looked briefly downcast and turned back to the wheel.

He sighed. “I’m sorry Naya, I thought a little exercise outside the camp would make you feel better and I asked the Chief to send you along. It was presumptuous of me.”

“It’s fine. Thanks for caring.” Naya replied. She stared down at her own shoes.

“I really want to make things right. I know I messed up the other day–”

“It’s not your fault, I told you. My back’s been that bad for years.”

“Has it?” Isa looked at her with surprise. She shouldn’t have said that.

“It’s on and off. It’ll be ok. It happens to the best of us.” Naya said.

For once he seemed to divine her feelings from her tone and said nothing more.

On the drive back, she felt quite stupid about everything. She felt terrible, avoiding her old friends like that. Aarya and Darshan had been so good to her. They deserved better than this behavior. After her parents separated she left to join Battlegroup Rhino and disappeared for years without word to them. Now she was suddenly back, and she saw explicitly in Darshan’s face how awestruck, how happy, how relieved he was to see her. To break that up so she could load crates was nonsense. He must have known it was nonsense. He must know now that she was trying to avoid confronting them. He must have some inkling of her feelings.

Any confrontation with them meant a confrontation with herself that she didn’t want.

She felt sick of herself; framing it as “confrontation” made her feel even more foolish.

“Isa, what would civilians know of the current situation on the front, huh?” She asked.

Driving down the meadow toward the forest, Isa turned his head to her briefly.

“Well, they wouldn’t really know much. We tell them to evacuate, they evacuate, otherwise they don’t have to know what the army is doing explicitly.” He replied. “It would only cause undue panic for them to hear that the offensive is going badly and at the moment we’re still processing how to get as many people away safely as we can.”

Naya started to tear up. So they definitely thought that they might get to speak with her soon, that it was just any other day for them and they could spend it peacefully with a friend.

Isa was still staring. “Naya, what happened? I know something happened.”

“Nothing. It’s fine.” Naya replied. Her face was rigid, contorted into a fake smile while the tears streamed down her cheeks. She still thought she could run away from everything.

Isa shook his head. “There’s only so many times I can respond with ‘if you say so.'”

“Find synonyms then.” She said bitterly. Isa looked on at the meadow without reply.

The rest of the ride was quiet; the rest of her day in camp, equally, painfully so.

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