Pebbles In The Path (33.5)

Benghu — Northern Rail Yard

A thin film of liquid spread between her eyelids as Naya came to, partially distorting the gray, gloomy world around her as it came into focus. She felt the sting of foreign fluid in her eyes, and jolted upright, rubbing her fists against them. Tears joined the sweat that trickled down her face. Her skin was cold and damp; she felt cold air as well.

When she could see again she found herself atop a mattress laid on the floor of a warehouse constructed out of tin plates on a wooden frame. There were a lot of junk parts around her in mounds. Rusted old train wheels in stacks, chunks of split track, buckets full of red-brown bolts, wasted old steam engine trunnions, even an old boiler.

Yellow light traveled into the room through a slit window behind her. She heard a whistle blowing outside, accompanied by loud rattling cylinders and thundering wheels.

After a second whistle there was a period of relative silence.

“Oh, you’re awake! I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I gave you too big a dosage.”

Naya was in the train yard; she had survived. Her final moments in combat with the purple-striped tank were a blur. She was in so much pain and everything happened so quickly. With time, she began to recall those final moments before sleep — the slide, the shot, all the soldiers moving in to defend the Konigin and allowing it to escape.

Then she had an attack; another tank rolled into the field. A sizable one, larger even than the Raktapata. Everyone was already running, but they ran faster upon its arrival. She was pulled out, first by Farwah, then others. She felt a pinprick — a syrette.

“Morphine.” Naya said to herself aloud. She shook her head, trying to dispel the mist.

“Right.” Lila Bennewitz replied. She was seated across the room, atop an old fuel drum. Her medical bag, decorated with a red cross, lay closed atop another drum nearby.

“How’d we get a train to come?” Naya asked. Out the slit window she saw figures moving and heard car doors sliding open. A train had just arrived. She knew the sounds well.

“A train was always coming, at least for Vijaya.” Lila said. “We’re too important. Where it pertains to our safety, radio calls for evacuation happen quickly. But by stopping the Nochtish attack, you bought invaluable time to include the school in the evacuation plans.”

She smiled. Naya smiled weakly back. Her head was clouded, no amount of shaking her head seemed to clear all the fog billowing in her brains. However she felt no pain from anywhere. She felt normal. That was the magic of morphine. One little syrette right in the belly–

Naya looked at Lila’s bag; she had suffered an attack. She had been treated with morphine. Now everyone knew, or suspected, that something was definitely wrong with her. Something pervasive, something they could not fix through time or tribulation.

Something bad enough that Ravan and Rajagopal might be forced to discharge her.

“Lila, I,” she paused. Naya had begun to speak but then she realized in a panic that if she said something like ‘don’t tell anyone’ she was already admitting to something terrible. There was still a chance Lila might not know or notice anything more than what she noticed the last time she had Naya under her care. Should Naya lie again now?

But then, Rajagopal and Ravan had already seen an outburst from her earlier in the day. They were probably on alert for any more strange behavior. Maybe Lila already told them? Then there would be no need for subterfuge. Perhaps she was just waiting now for the papers.

There was no going around it anymore. Naya paused, breathed in solemnly, and with a cold, sickening tension in her chest and stomach, she came right out and asked.

“Are you going to refer me for a medical discharge, Lila? Is that why you’re here?”

Lila averted her eyes. “I wish you’d stop seeing me as an enemy, or opponent.”

Naya rubbed her own shoulder, sighing. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to think.”

Their eyes did not meet anew for a time. A gloom settled over the medic’s face.

“I’m not Nochtish, by the way.” Lila said. “I’m a Lachy by nationality, and my family are Hudim by blood and tradition. What you know as Messianism incorporated much of our writing and some of our culture, but we are not the same. Even Messianites see us as opposition. Since the old lands split, sunk and sundered, they’ve never accepted us.”

She rocked her legs in front of the drum. “A thousand years ago they would force us to convert or to die. These days they supplant that by casting us as cheats and liars. So, why am I here? Because we all thought you got hurt and I wanted to take care of you.”

Naya turned her eyes to the floor. Her words came as a blow. Despite everything, Naya was still desperately clawing to protect her own self first and didn’t think of who she was hurting or how she was doing it. She had thought of Lila as an enemy, when all she was doing was trying to help, to understand, to keep her healthy and alive. To do her job.

“I’m sorry.” Naya said. She started to tear up. “I’m a fool; I didn’t know. I was scared. It felt like I was so close to losing everything I’ve grown proud of again, and I didn’t–”

Lila raised her hand. She smiled again. “I understand. At least, I understand some of what is happening, anyway. Naya, if you want to make it up to me — I’d like to know more, Naya. As a medic but also a comrade who cares. Tell me about these pains. I want to help.”

Naya sat up straighter on the bed. A bitter smile played across her face. She hugged herself. Tell her about the pains? Where to even begin? She sat for minutes in silence, wondering what to say. Lila waited, rocking her feet, careful not to hit the drum.

It would hurt, but there was only one thing Naya could say anymore: the truth.

Though her lips felt heavy and her tongue clumsy at first, words quickly built up.

“I remember having these pains since I was 17 or 18 years old. Back then I was obsessed with running. My family life was growing very strained at the time — everyone had found their own ambitions and sort of, drifted apart pursuing them. Mine was running. I would run every day, run faster and farther, push myself harder. Whether it was raining, or muddy, or burning under the summer sun, I would run. I ran to get out of the house.”

She remembered the house of her teenage years. It was a squat, square unit in the urban center in Benghu, four walls, two roomy bedrooms, and little else inside. It was its own house — it was not part of a hostel or barrack. Her parents got that house, and a few gold honors tickets, because they had helped pioneer Benghu’s new electrical system. They were engineers. Tackling problems like that was what they did. Day in and day out; Benghu was like their pet project for a few years, until the union started to urge them to think bigger. To think about Solstice or Chayat. They resisted at first; but only at first.

“I won every race I was ever in as a teen. I consistently beat people in the school leagues and I was nearly at the age where I could compete nation-wide in clubs matches and Commissariat of Health sponsored events. I didn’t really have anything going for me but running. So I just ran. I was obsessed with it; I loved every second I ran.”

She ran and ran and ran away from the prospect that her life would change. That her parents would separate, out of love with each other and the family life she once treasured; that they would be moving to Solstice or Chayat or somewhere, somewhere far from her friends, from her loves, where there were engineering feats in need of doing.

When she ran, there was nothing but the sensation of running. It was so reassuring.

Lila listened intently, her face void of emotion. She stopped rocking her feet.

“Maybe it was because when I was running, it took everything out of me. I didn’t have to acknowledge other things. But then, just, out of the blue; these pains took everything out of me. I don’t even remember how they started. I thought I ran myself ragged. I gave it a rest. But they recurred every so often. I figured out soon, that I couldn’t escape them.”

Her parents didn’t help because she didn’t tell them. Because she was afraid of what they would do. She was afraid of every outcome. Afraid that they might discard their ambitions for her; afraid that she would be worth less than their future, and that they would forget her. Afraid that they might force her to give up. So she endured. She played it down. She made excuses. They were distracted enough to accept everything.

“So you don’t know the origin of them. It might be a congenital condition that took some time to manifest. Maybe an old injury? I don’t know that I can identify this.” Lila said.

Naya shook her head. “I have no idea. It feels more like a curse than a condition.”

Lila nodded her head. “Go on, please. I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to share.”

Naya nodded her head. She sat up straighter, crossed her legs, and continued.

“I remember there was a big competition on national health day at the school; a friend of mine, Darshan, he was going to run with me. There were a lot of contenders, but he was the only one who rivaled me. It was his first real, important run; he’d been trialing now for a year or two and getting better and better and better. I wanted to beat him. But I had a pain event the day before the race. I was scared; scared that he’d take first place from me.”

“So you didn’t go.” Lila said gently. She sounded almost worried.

An evil little chuckle escaped Naya’s lips. It wasn’t funny; it hurt. She still laughed.

“It occurred to me that if I didn’t show up, everyone would just attribute his victory to my absence. They would all know that had I been there he would be second place. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was happy for him, for his first big victory. I tried to go along with it. Later, he would confide in me that everyone’s support gave him the courage to confess to his sweetheart and that she had said yes and held his hand and kissed him happily.”

“I see. I assume he wasn’t the only person that was sweet on her.” Lila said.

Naya did not answer. Instead she looked down at her feet. “I’ve always nursed a really nasty thought since then — I should’ve just gone to the race, and had a big pain event there and spoiled his victory for him.” She laughed bitterly at herself. “Focus it all back on me. Maybe then, I could have confessed instead of him. But I was a coward. I ran away from it. Just like I ran away from confessing before him. I ended up unable to beat him at anything. Don’t you think it’s pathetic? Nasty? I’ve regretted everything about that, ever since.”

“I’m sorry, Naya. For what it’s worth, no, I do not think you are pathetic or nasty. You were a teenager and you were hurt and scared. I’d have done the same.” Lila replied.

It became easier to speak frankly as she went along. It was easier now that all of it was out in the air. Somebody knew as much of the story as Naya’s brain could pull from the stream of history. She no longer had reason to hide it. Unburdened of her fears and unprotected by her lies, however, all that seemed to remain was bitterness, loneliness. There was no sensation to it; no pain. She was just void of anything palpable now.

“On some level, I think I deserve it all. It’s just my karma. It is the way I have done things, the way I do things, the way I will do things. Even today, I can’t break that.”

“You do not deserve that at all, Naya! You are a hero!” Lila said, raising her voice.

Naya almost laughed again, but before she could she heard feet striking cement.

Lila jumped off the drum and started toward her. Crossing the warehouse, she stopped before Naya, knelt down and gently stretched out her hand to help her stand up.

“All of us in the camp, we know that it was you who got Chief Ravan and the Captain to stay and fight for Chanda. We saw you run in there. We saw what happened after. And we all admire that and we all think that it was the right thing to do.” Lila said.

“They would have done it anyway.” Naya replied, almost murmuring. “Anyone could sit on the Rakpata’s turret and man that gun. I’m just an unstable rookie AT gunner.”

“No! You were the only one who could sit in that chair because you were the only one who would’ve given the Raktapata a chance. Its previous gunner was nearly killed by it; it had all kinds of problems. Everyone was ready to evacuate, not because we were bad or cowardly, but because we never would’ve given ourselves a chance.” Lila said.

She wiggled the fingers on her hand, and set it right above Naya’s own.

“I’m not here to push you down. I want to help you get back up. All of us do: Farwah does, the officers do, and everyone who saw you today does. Do you believe me?”

Naya hesitated at first, but she took her hand. She felt a sense of relief wash over her as she tightened her fingers around the medic’s warm skin. Lila pulled her back to her feet.

The medic smiled and patted her in the back. “We’ll start with a morphine prescription, and you should talk to the Chief about making your chair in the tank a bit more comfy.”

“I’d like that.” Naya said. She was out of breath. Her heart was beating so fast.

She squeezed Lila’s hand gently. It was the hand of a friend. Such a nostalgic feeling.

Benghu’s main train station straddled the northern end of the meadows. A single track coming in from the east cut across the grass and joined tracks coming in from the north and curling through Benghu and around its hills from the west. Servicing the adjacent textile and wood processing facilities, it was the industrial heart of Benghu, stationed only a few kilometers from the town, from Camp V, and from Chanda General School.

In total, the train station, the warehouses, some made of tin and some made of brick, and the nearby factory, all formed a property about as large as Chanda’s campus.

Much of the rail yard was devoted to housing raw material and finished product that would be packed for transport further north or south as orders came in. In the ensuing days of the battle for Shebelle much of the raw wood that had been collected was shipped away, and along with it much of the paneling, canvases, nets, parachutes, tents and other similar products made at the nearby factory. Once the products and materials were gone, machinery was stripped and taken. Empty buildings left behind now temporarily housed the refugees from Benghu and Chanda, including civilians and soldiers.

Most of the warehouses became impromptu playgrounds for children, or barracks for weary soldiers that had been wounded in Shebelle. Older tin warehouses closer to the center let the rain in and were cold and uncomfortable, but the brick buildings straddling the meadow were good enough for temporary shelter. Outside the buildings, hasty sandbag emplacements had been constructed alongside a guard pillbox, forming a defensive line. Anti-tank guns and machine guns watched the meadow and the eastern track for signs of the enemy. Everyone behind a gun prayed to be able to abandon it soon.

Once the train came in, loading it with equipment, weapons and other war materiel being rescued from Shebelle and from Camp Vijaya became a priority. People and personnel waited patiently to board. There had been promises made that everyone would be riding out of here tonight — this was the last train that would come to Benghu.

As the sun began its descent, and the day’s rainfall slowed to a meager drizzle tapping irregularly against their hoods, Chief Ravan spent her idle time on one of the train loading platforms working on the Rakpata. Farwah Kuchenkov stared in mute horror.

Their heroic tank was separated into two pieces, its turret hanging on a crane. A canvas roof had been erected over the hull to keep the vehicle dry during the work period. Chief Ravan knelt into the tank from the top of the hull, viciously attacking the turret ring with an eclectic variety of absolutely filthy, terribly worn-out looking metal tools. She had been cranking, smashing, tossing things over her shoulder, dumping all kinds of substances into the turret. It was filthy and strange. Farwah blinked and stared at it, dead in the face, but deep inside, feeling the tiniest bit of despair at the tank’s condition.

“Ah ha!” She shouted triumphantly. “Improper tension in the slip ring! I fixed it!”

Chief Ravan sat up and raised her arms triumphantly, her hair slick with lubricants.

Farwah blinked. He held up his hand. She looked his way and tossed her hair.

“Woo! That was stimulating.” She said, a touch embarrassed. “So, what is it?”

“Ma’am, there was an overheating problem I was having. I’d like you to look at it.”

He came to regret this question almost as soon as he asked it. Chief Ravan crawled up to the engine hatch, unscrewed it, and kicked the plate off. She nearly hit an engineer working nearby. Then she started yanking things out of the engine. Hoses and screws and plugs went flying and Farwah ran hither and yon, catching and collecting them and picking them up from the ground. It was chaos. Finally Chief Ravan got through to the thermostat, and she yanked it out, dropped down from the tank, and ambled toward a small half-tracked miniature tractor, towing a power generator and a metal basket with a canvas cover.

From this basket, Chief Ravan pulled a pistol-grip drill attached to the generator by a thick cable. She braced the thermostat against the basket using metal clamps, and drilled two holes into the object. Farwah blinked in confusion as she returned to the tank.

“Fuel efficiency will drop, but this should keep the Raktapata running a little colder until I can contrive a better solution.” Chief Ravan said. She smacked the piece back into place.

Farwah shivered as Chief Ravan snatched various pieces from his hands and returned them to place, and nearly jumped when she slammed the engine cover plate back on.

She wiped her face with a rag, cleaning off the grease and lubricants. She dropped the rag on Farwah’s shoulders and walked past with a long, easy stride and a smile.

Picking it up with the tips of his fingers, Farwah cast the rag off, turned around and followed behind her. The two of them did not go far. A dozen meters away behind them, the Mandeha self-propelled gun awaited dismantling and accommodation in a crate for the train ride. Its astoundingly tall turret was its most distinctive feature. It was disproportionate, almost charming in a strange way. Behind the engine, Isa toiled, tuning the tank up and staring in confusing at a damaged spark plug. Atop the hull, Karima sat, kicking her legs idly.

“Karima! Tell me, what was it like riding this abomination?” Chief Ravan said. Her tone was light-hearted. She seemed to be in high spirits, though Farwah had no idea why.

“I hate the shells, they’re too big.” Karima said, holding her head up with her hands. Rain trickled off her high, perfectly arching ponytail. It did not seem to bother her.

“Not my problem!” Chief Ravan said coyly. “How was the gun traverse?”

“Nonexistent. Do you mean the turret traverse?” Karima replied.

Chief Ravan crossed her arms. “Yes, yes, you know what I mean when I say that!”

Karima nodded her head. “Nonexistent.” She said again in a surly tone.

Giving up on Karima, who was known to be unfriendly, Chief Ravan skipped around the side of the tank and knelt beside Isa, staring into the Mandeha’s engine block with him. Farwah felt his heart bump and bump a little faster near Isa. He liked the way his comrade handled the wrench as he screwed the pieces he had removed back on. When he turned his head and smiled Farwah could feel his own face grow a little warmer from his attention.

“So what are you two busybodies up to?” Isa said jovially.

Chief Ravan rubbed her chin and put on a mock quizzical expression.

“I’m wondering what you’re doing other than preparing this tank for transport.”

Isa shrugged. “It had a bad spark plug! I had to replace that. Imagine some hapless engineer turns the thing back on for a test with a bad plug. I had to replace it.”

“Yes, but the Mandeha is, as you can see, extraordinarily large. It will take time to get it apart and well fitted into crates, and even more since you haven’t started.”

“We have all of the time in the world.” Isa protested, raising his hands.

At that moment a guard post exploded on the outer edge of the rail yard.

Everyone saw the rising pillar of fire over the low roofs of the surrounding buildings.

For a moment the Mandeha’s crew stood dumbfounded. Chief Ravan looked at the smoke as if there was something to analyze. Isa and Farwah looked at one another in confusion. Karima jumped down from atop the tank’s hull but made no other movements. It wasn’t until a second explosion followed the first, that everyone around began to scramble for weapons and cover and to look around at each other for orders.

“Change of plans!” Chief Ravan shouted, ducking behind her tool tractor. “Isa, get the Mandeha ready to deploy immediately! Farwah, we need to restore the Rakpata back to fighting condition post-haste! And where on Aer has Naya gone! Someone fetch her!”

Nodding heads; behind them, a small open-topped car arrived, and from the back, Captain Rajagopal leaped out and hurried to their side. She ducked beside Chief Ravan behind the tractor, and pointed a finger down south, to the direction of the warehouses.

“Large enemy tank. New type. Coming here.” She gestured with her hands.

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