The Benghu Tank War II (30.4)

53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Chanda General School

Elena whistled as she pulled something out of her bag. She balanced the object in her hands, waved it a little, judging its weight. Gray and smooth, it looked as if made of clay. Inside the bag there were five other bricks and a tangle of copper cables and contact points.

“It looks just like a brick doesn’t it?” She said.

Leander nodded. It did look uncannily like a brick, but that whimsical fact competed with more pressing matters in his head. Gripping his rifle against his chest, he looked over his shoulder periodically. They would come from around around the projected western edge of the long hill that ringed Chanda, and they would cut across the flowers.

Anyone out here would be the first to see the enemy and the first to the fight.

Elena laid down the bag, and withdrew the first brick and its cables.

“Will it really detonate under this much rain?” Leander asked.

“Dr. Agrawal says it will. She’d know more about it than me.” Elena said.

“I suppose so. She came up with this awful quick didn’t she?” Leander replied.

He put down his rifle and withdrew his entrenching shovel. Gathering his strength, he drove the sharpened edge of the shovel between the old bricks on the steps leading from the meadow and up the little slope to Chanda’s buildings. Though gentle, the slope toward the school had become a mudslide — climbing up would be quite tedious without the steps.

It took little force to budge one of the bricks and pull it out. Leander removed a few in quick succession. Elena attached the cables to the back of the first fake brick, wedged it in, and then they arranged the remaining bricks to cover the cables. Two steps above, they repeated the process, until several bricks had been replaced with fakes. They were slightly different from the ordinary bricks, but threaded in a pattern that made them seem like a deliberate addition to the stairway. To hide the cables they ran them behind bricks and around the stairway, out to big tree thirty meters away. They laid down rocks over sections of the cable to keep them low on the ground, blending in with the mud.

Behind the tree, they connected the cables to the lunch-box sized detonator and entrusted this instrument to an older man in a camouflage rain cloak from the recon troops.

“Thank you, comrades.” He said simply. He tipped his helmet over his eyes, and leaned back into the knothole of the tree. He had nothing on him but a pistol and the detonator.

Leander’s lips quivered. “After the explosion, I’ll cover you as best as I can from that window up there.” He turned and pointed toward the second floor of the administration building. There was one small window in a small unisex bathroom on the side of the building that had a view to the meadow and the approach to the school stairway.

In response the recon soldier stretched his arm and shook Leander’s hand.

“Whatever happens, you keep fighting, comrade.” He said. “I am thirty-five years old and I have led my life. I volunteered for this. We’re going to save these kids. You included.”

He tapped Leander in the center of the chest, smiling cheekily. Leander felt a quick rise of panic, but it subsided just as quickly. It was merely a playful or dismissive gesture.

“Doorway’ll be open.” Elena said. “It’s made of metal so it can take a shot. You run as fast as you can and get behind it and you’ll be safe. Then you can lock the room up.”

“I got it, I got it. You two worry too much.” He produced a little flask from his rain cloak, and drank from it. Reclining as he was, the soldier looked like he was napping under the rain.

Leander stared out into the field and then back at the soldier, sad and pensive.

Elena took him by the hand and urged him out of the soldier’s orbit. Together they walked back toward the administration building. Chanda was laid out fairly tightly.

Just a dozen meters separated the little administration building from the second classroom building situated to its left across the stairway landing. There was even less space between the administration building and the large building housing the cafeteria and auditorium directly to the north. From there the main classroom building ran parallel to the squat secondary classroom building, and there were maybe a dozen to fifteen meters of space between those two, taken up by the path that led out to the big field.

Leander spotted several people armed and waiting at the doors of the main building and auditorium, automatic weapons in hand. Mostly Rasha SMGs; one person had an LMG. Together they could cover the little courtyard and pathway between the buildings.

Inside the small reception area in the administration building Elena and Leander reunited with Dr. Agrawal, who had discarded her white coat and was wearing a green uniform jacket instead. She had a rifle slung around her back, and was seated in one of the couches, holding a portable radio almost the size of one of the bricks they replaced.

Elena and Leander waited in her presence while she finished handing out orders.

“–hold your fire until you see the detonations. I don’t care what the enemy does, do not expose yourself prematurely. After the blasts, whatever the result, take the best shots you can at the enemy with all of your weapons. Stay in that wooded hill, and if you run out of ammunition or suffer damage, abandon the tanks and make your escape.”

She received a response, but Leander could not make out the crackling little voice. Dr. Agrawal had the radio to her ear like a handset telephone. She nodded her head to herself, pulled down the little antennae, and flicked a switch on the side.

Turning to her pupils, she smiled a little at them and tried to look confident.

“We’ve only got three tanks, so we won’t be maneuvering much.” She said.

Elena and Leander nodded their heads solemnly. Dr. Agrawal crossed her arms.

“Is Corporal Jasim now equipped and ready for his mission?” She asked.

“Looks like it. He’s behind the tree. We put in the false bricks.” Elena said.

“Good.” Dr. Agrawal replied. “Elena, go to the supply depot. We’re keeping the kids and some of the teachers there. You and Bonde will guard them come hell or high water.”

“I’m not sure how much good I can do back there ma’am.” Elena replied.

Dr. Agrawal patted her on the arm. “You’ll have a Gnoll tank from the recon troops with you. Just keep it alive. I know the enemy will try to climb the slope and get on the field. It’s open terrain, and if we have it covered then we can use its openness to our advantage.”

The Doctor picked up a backpack from the table and handed it to Elena. The girl pulled open the flap. Inside the pack she produced a submachine gun and there were a few thirty-round stick magazines with it. Elena loaded the weapon, shouldered the pack, and saluted to the Doctor. She then turned to Leander, took his hands and smiled at him.

“We’ll be fine, Leander. We survived worse; Knyskna was only a few days ago! We got away from a pair of tanks there! These men are nowhere near as scary as that, right?”

Leander smiled back and squeezed her hands. “Nowhere near as scary.” He said.

Elena nodded her head. She slowly let go of him and ran out the door, gun in hand.

“Hopefully she won’t have to shoot. She’s meant for better than this.” Dr. Agrawal said.

Leander watched her go; he then took his BKV from a corner of the room and sat down on the couch laid opposite Dr. Agrawal, across a glass table. Leander pulled back the bolt, checked the chamber. He rapped the trigger on the empty weapon. It had not been only a few days ago. It had been nearly thirty days since he last fired this weapon or one like it.

Nothing had substantially changed since then. His BKV anti-tank rifle still weighed almost twenty kg, and when laid on the floor the whole gun was taller than he was. Its 14.5mm rounds could do nothing to a tank except between ranges of 100 to 300 meters. Humans had no such luck; a shot anywhere from within 2000 meters could tear limbs, splatter heads, or cause enough trauma entering and exiting the center of mass to insure a kill.

The BKV still felt natural in his hands. He remembered looking down from that ruined second floor and over the advancing tanks, putting holes through their engines, lighting gasoline ablaze, tearing pistons apart, slowing the advance. That had been scary.

For one reason or another he hadn’t occasion to think about it in the intervening days.

It was just coming back now when he had the weapon in his hands and a target in mind.

Leander’s eyes moistened; he wanted to cry. He felt a light shuddering just under his skin, an urge to release all of his emotions. He remember how the doctor’s tools felt in his hands. They were so thin and insubstantial, so lightweight. Clumsily he handled them as best as he could for the doctor. But he was coming to realize healing wasn’t for him.

As the tears started flowing he felt hands curl over his own. Dr. Agrawal sat beside him.

“Leander, you do not have to do this. You do not have to prove anything to me or to anyone. Sharna can cover the approach. She’s even upstairs already.” She said.

He had almost forgotten she was in the room. Leander wiped his tears quickly.

“Sharna’s really big. She might get hit through the window. I’m more weedy.”

Dr. Agrawal looked at him with eyes full of concern and sympathy. She almost seemed like she would weep. There was no glistening in her eyes but the way her brows turned down and her eyes narrow, the way her lip curled, she appeared to witness a tragedy.

Leander refused to see it that way. He was a soldier now. He wanted to protect people.

Corporal Jasim was out there talking about having led his life well. He was ready to die.

How could Leander look at that and then go hide in the infirmary? He couldn’t stand it.

“Ma’am, I’m a soldier and I don’t want to be coddled.” He said weakly. His tone of voice was affected and nasal and tiny rivulets of tears wound their way down his cheeks.

“It’s not about coddling you.” Dr. Agrawal said. But she couldn’t seem to follow it up with an explanation about what it actually was about other than coddling him.

“Doctor, I fought in Knyskna already. I’m not scared.” Leander said, as forcefully as he could muster under the circumstances. He was lying. He was scared. But he had to hear it, as much for himself as for her. Nobody would benefit from seeing him scared.

Dr. Agrawal sidled closer and took one of his shaking hands off the BKV rifle.

“It’s not about being scared either, Leander. It’s about what fighting does to you. Before you had no choice but to fight. This country has been historically good at putting people into positions where they have no choice but to fight. You don’t — you, and Elena can take off your uniforms and join the civilians without worry. No matter what happens you can pretend to be people who got stuck in the middle of things. You can survive this.”

“I can’t believe you’re suggesting that!” Leander said. “It’s the absolute worst plan!”

Dr. Agrawal shook her head. “I don’t say this lightly! I say it because I care about you, Leander. You deserve better than to wallow in this blood! You have a choice!”

“Yes, but I choose to fight anyway! I’ll stand and fight like a man!” He snapped.

“Do you think acting mindlessly tough is all there is to men?” Dr. Agrawal said.

Leander paused, frowned, bit his lip. In his head he was still sorting things out.

“I didn’t say that at all.” He said. “I know it’s no good to just act like a tough guy — but I don’t want to be a coward! I don’t want to run. I left home because I didn’t want other people to always choose what happened to me or what I did! It doesn’t matter now that I don’t know what to do or that I’m scared! No matter what at least I’m doing it for myself!”

Doctor Agrawal put her hands gently on his shoulders and looked him deep in the eyes. He saw the lines around hers. They looked more pronounced than before. She looked weary.

“Leander, I want you to think very hard about whether you really want to commit to this violence or not. Once you are in it you cannot easily escape it.” Dr. Agrawal said.

“That didn’t matter to you.” Leander said. “You used to be a soldier; you are a soldier.”

Dr. Agrawal winced. She closed her eyes. “To my great shame, yes. But that is because I have to be. You can still leave this behind and lead a normal, safe life as anyone you want to be!”

His eyes did not waver from hers as she spoke. He looked at her with his own intensity.

“Doctor Agrawal, I’m staying here then, because I want to be like you. You’re still the kindest and most responsible, gentle person that I know right now.” Leander said.

Dr. Agrawal blinked and stared at him in disbelief. She turned over his words in surprise.

“It’s because you’re still this good and strong, that I can keep going.” He continued. He wiped a fresh round of tears with his forearm. “That’s how I know this is all okay.”

Now there were tears starting to form in her eyes. He didn’t want that; he hated that he had made her cry. However he had to speak from his heart. For himself and for her.

That contradictory space between healer and soldier still tore her up inside. He knew it. He intimated as such every day, with every wound she stitched, every operation. When she read the first aid reports before each operation; even as she watched patients unloading from the trucks. He could feel it in all those interactions. Dr. Agrawal was always trying to make up for something. Leander didn’t know what it was exactly — not until just then. Now all of the things he had observed seemed to intersect plainly with ‘Agrawal-The-Soldier.’

But he didn’t care what she had done in the past as a soldier, and he thought that what she did today as a soldier would not taint her forever as a doctor or a woman or a person.

He knew she needed to hear that, and he knew he, too, needed to hear it right now.

“My uncle was the only one who would teach me things in the caravan because my father was an asshole who thought I was rubbish and my mother was always drunk.” Leander said plainly. Dr. Agrawal drew herself up in surprise, sobbing. He continued to speak.

“One time he told me a really important thing. You can’t just add up or subtract from everything a person does like if you were bartering with the price of their life. Because people do things that are too important to count as one coin or two coins. He was trying to get me to forgive my dad; but I’m not going to forgive him. Instead, I want to think that he was telling me about you. No matter how many people you killed before, you’re saving people now and that is important to me. Maybe I’m stupid. But that’s how I think.”

Dr. Agrawal smiled a little. She wiped her sleeve over her eyes. “I see.” She said.

“I really appreciate you Doctor. Please don’t hate yourself for any of this.” He said. “And please don’t hate me, because I keep picking up this gun. I want us to live past this.”

Without another word, Leander picked up his BKV and started upstairs, making his decision quite obvious. Dr. Agrawal did not stop him. He delayed after vanishing from her sight up the first few steps. He waited, standing still with his back against the wall of the boxed-in stairwell. He heard a little pronounced sobbing, a few moist intakes of breath.

Once he heard the doctor get back on the radio and give orders, he resumed walking.

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