53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu, Northern Rail Yard

Behind the old tin warehouse, Naya set down a metal bucket under the spout of a rusty old water well pump and pushed on the handle several times. Her first few pumps drew no water, the bucket catching only a few droplets from the thinly drizzling rain. Gritting her teeth, Naya pumped harder and faster. Finally water began to slosh out of the spout. She filled her bucket halfway and dunked a towel inside. It was ice cold; she could barely stand to bring the towel to her cheeks, around her mouth and over her nose.

Rubbing the towel over her hands made her shiver. A good wash would have to wait for another time. She was not about to run that freezing towel over her back or her belly. Naya had experienced more than enough cold for the day under the afternoon rains.

She dropped the towel into the bucket and set it aside. From atop an overturned rail car nearby she withdrew a bag, and she quickly undressed and donned a fresh uniform. She was surprised to find it differed significantly from her old personnel uniform. It was not fitted: there was a flexible jacket shirt with long sleeves, that reached almost to her knees, and big loose fitting pants. A thick belt wrapped around the jacket. High black boots were included, made so that the pants legs plunged into the boot shaft.

Donning to the uniform had an eerie sense of finality to it. This was what she was now: she was a tanker. She was not a test driver in a generic personnel uniform anymore. All of her new accouterments spoke to the change. As a tanker she would not have the ammo belts and pouches of her old uniform. She had two pockets and a holster for her side-arm; her tank would contain the storage space she would depend on from now on.

Her tank, the Raktapata, that she had driven to Chanda’s defense a few hours ago.

The last item in the bag Lila had brought her was a tanker’s leather cap, with its long floppy sides containing an integrated headphone and microphone system. Naya disliked it. She felt like it sat poorly over her hair. She’d have to rip out the headset guts with a knife and throw the cap away at some point. Hopefully Rajagopal wouldn’t insist on it.

She stuffed her old wet uniform into the bag after transferring her sidearm. Grenades, spare ammunition, and other things she had brought with her from the infantry, all of it went into the bag. Into the bag, too, went her secrecy, and in some respects, her fear. Along with those old flat infantry shoes she would put away the urge to retreat.

Naya smiled as she closed the bag.

With new determination she tied the string sealing it shut.

Leaving it behind with the bucket, she walked around the front of the warehouse.

Naya watched men and women loading things into a long train, recently arrived. Tools and machines from Vijaya; boxes of ammunition and supplies from Chanda; pieces of machinery from Benghu workshops. The main platform was just over a dozen meters from the old tin warehouse, which was once used for spare parts and to house the station’s fire engine, which now resided in the town of Benghu proper. Looming farther ahead was the old rail station building, squat, broad and pragmatic in design.

Once all the machinery and sensitive equipment was loaded, the passengers could board and then they would leave Dbagbo behind. It was bittersweet. Though they were all alive, and though they had beaten back the enemy once — they couldn’t win in the long term if they stayed in Dbagbo now. Not with Shebelle about to be surrounded.

As much of her little town as the government found necessary was packed up to be moved away. Naya felt an urge to return someday. To dare to retrace those steps.

“Well, well! Someone looks dashing! Wait a moment there, Naya.”

Behind her, Lila slipped out of the warehouse from between a loose sheet of tin, which she then set back into place. She had her medical bag in hand; from it she produced a small, wide, cylindrical tin and passed the object on. Naya took it, and popped open the cap. Inside there were several little syrettes of morphine. They were like syringes, but instead of a rigid glass cylinder the syrettes resembled a toothpaste tube with a needle.

“To use them, take the pin at the end and break the seal on the tube. Then you can attach the needle. At a shallow angle, break your skin with the needle, and squeeze.”

Lila showed her the process in an abstract fashion.

Naya nodded her head. She held on to the tin.

“Thank you, Lila — for everything.”

Lila bowed her head with a beaming smile on her face.

“So, where is everybody?” Naya said.

“Farther down,” Lila said, pointing past the remains of a wooden fence toward a cluster of brick buildings, “they have a little repair area on a platform there. Since I wanted to talk to you more privately I brought you out here, with everyone’s permission.”

“All of them suspect it, right? About me? I should just tell them.” Naya said.

Lila shook her head, still smiling. “All of them trust you, Naya. You can tell them what you told me if you want, but I don’t think any of them will demand to know it. I’m the only one who needs to know to keep renewing your morphine prescription.” She winked.

“It’s going to keep getting worse, isn’t it?”

Naya rubbed against the small of her back. It didn’t hurt anymore. Nothing hurt now. Her head was still a touch too cloudy, but the morphine made her feel like her old self again.

That did not mean that the cause of the pain was gone at all.

Only that Naya could not feel it.

It was like pouring excessive coolant into the Raktapata.

“I don’t know.” Lila said, her eyes wandering away from Naya’s gaze. “Tankers can come down with a lot of things as they get older. They develop arthritis and back pains, due to the conditions in the tank; partial deafness from all the noise; the shocks and stress can give them anxiety; and sometimes even smoker’s lung from inhaling fumes.”

“We can come down with an awful case of death, too.” Naya glibly replied.

“A common affliction in armed service.” Lila cheerfully replied. She seemed to buck up herself at the sight of Naya’s own dark humor. She spoke gently. “I’m sorry, Naya, I’m just a military medic, so I’m limited in what I can do. I only know how to treat the things that can happen to soldiers. I know that in the course of this war, you probably won’t become better. I don’t think your condition will ever go away at this point. But I think you can live your life well despite everything. Mitigating the pain is a good place to start.”

At seventeen years that might have been devastating to hear, but now, Naya already knew what it meant to have to live with the pain. At least she had morphine on hand. Now she could take the next crucial step — learning again to live without the pain.

“That’s all I need to hear.” Naya said.

Lila patted her on the back. “Maybe in Solstice City you can find a physician who could help you with it. I know there’s a lot of radical medicine happening there.”

Solstice — the capital. It was the place they were all likely retreating toward.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Naya said.

All she knew about Solstice was that her father had gone there.

Lila patted her back, noticing the somber instant in her expression.

“Let’s rejoin everyone, tank commander! Show off your new suit to them.”

Naya cracked a little smile and followed Lila down the side of the tracks. They passed the tall, open-topped train cars surrounded by rail workers and soldiers, and the platform cranes heaving machinery, and then crossed the tracks, moving toward the buildings in the distance. There was a lot of open space, occupied only by stray cars taking up disused lanes of track, between the forward platform and the new storage areas.

“You drove in that really big tank to Benghu, right?” Naya asked.

“Ah, no, Isa drove it. I helped Karima heave ammunition into the gun.”

“Karima too? Huh. You two always seem to be together.”

“We both joined Vijaya at around the same time, so we were the new kids together.”

“Back then, was she as salty, or did she calcify over time?”

“Hey!” Lila slapped her playfully in the arm. “She’s a great lass, I’ll have you know!”

“I’ll take your word on it.” Naya replied, a little skeptical. “So, the tank you all took to Chanda; it was the big thing in the workshop, under the tarp in the corner, right?”

“Yes, it’s called the 152mm Self-Propelled Gun ‘Mandeha.'” Lila replied.

Naya’s mouth hung a little open. “One hundred and fifty two?”

Lila nodded her head rapidly in response, a big smile on her face.

“It’s annoying though! The ammunition is so heavy! And it’s so noisy. You should hear the gun after it goes off.” She stretched out her arms. “It’s this earth-shattering, ka–”

In the distance something filled in Lila’s mimicry with the genuine article.

Naya snapped her head toward the warehouses and saw smoke rising.

Before she could process what was happening she heard another blast. A second plume of smoke rose from the far end of the warehouses. Naya broke into a run; Lila hung back for a moment in shock, but took off after her. They ran away from the track and into the cluster of brick warehouse buildings in their own section of the yard, projecting from the southeast.

Outlying buildings blocked their view of the meadow but Naya knew what must have been happening — Nocht had sent more tanks up through Chanda to catch up to them.

There was a third, louder blast. Smaller impacts followed much too quickly after. Between the warehouses, rising smoke and flashing fires could be seen, too fast, too close.

At once the rail yard became chaotic.

Naya saw groups of men and women come rushing toward the track and the train, followed by uniformed rail security officers. Whether trying to control them or run away with them, it was difficult to tell. A light car drove along the side of the flattened path paved between the warehouses; a territorial army officer urged calm using a megaphone, and shouted for soldiers to draw pistols and rifles and anything they had on themselves and hunker down in place. People ran forward blindly, hands on their heads, as if that would shield them.

Thankfully there was enough space, and thin enough crowds, that the warehouse area did not become an utter stampede. Families, friends, lone refugees, streamed out from the buildings, and Naya and Lila rushed through the gaps in them, straining their eyes and craning their necks to catch any glimpse of fighting deeper in the area. Flashes and columns of black smoke and skyward debris were clearly visible, but no sign of crossfire.

Together Naya and Lila cleared the first block of warehouses and most of the crowds.

“There it is!” Lila shouted. “Damn, they still haven’t gotten the turret on right!”

Following Lila’s directions, Naya finally spotted the yard’s lower loading platform with the Raktapata on it ahead of them. It was just a short dash from the road back to the track.

Coming down the road however, she spotted something else entirely as well.

Looking around in confusion amid the movement of people, a young woman with wavy brown hair, wearing a thick coat over clothes that had probably been soaked in the rain. She walked with a crutch, limping gently forward. Slim, pretty, vibrant, all too familiar.

Her eyes peered over the crowd and stopped.

Just as Naya spotted her, Aarya found her too.

They paused as the crowd fled past them, and seemed to stand alone as it thinned.

“Naya?” Aarya said, in the tone of a question. She reached out tentatively her hand.

“Yeah.” Naya said simply. She crossed her arms, almost hugging herself.

It was the first time she had seen her in years now, but her face, that soft, gentle face, that warm glow she had even when she worried or frowned, brought back a rush of dusty old sentiment. Lying together under Benghu’s trees, walking down Chanda’s halls, singing in the temple (one of the few things Naya did for her in which she never excelled). Naya felt an uncomfortable warmth in her heart, an anxious buzzing in her stomach. She felt drawn back again, too far back, to that confident, athletic girl still too shy to say I love you.

But that was not Aarya’s fault and she did not want to keep dwelling as if it was.

Naya promptly cut the meters between them, standing plaintively before her friend.

Aarya spread her arms and gave her a chaste little hug, bending forward slightly.

That they could not pull themselves chest to chest like they did as girls was emblematic of the distance that had built over the years. But they were closer than they had been for years.

Without hesitation Naya embraced her back, her head hovering over Aarya’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry we had to meet like this. I have to go again, Aarya.” Naya said.

Her friend looked her in the eyes with a soft, contented expression.

“I understand, Naya.” Aarya said simply.

They separated, each taking a single, belabored step back.

They locked eyes for a moment.

“Naya! It is you! Thank the spirits!”

Over Aarya’s shoulder, Naya spotted Darshan, hobbling slowly forward. He too had a big coat on, and he was surrounded by small children who were looking every which way.

At first he had a sort of dazed look, but when his eyes settled on Naya he lit up.

It was as if she drained all of the terror of the situation. He started toward her.

A few days ago Naya might have grumbled at his appearance, but all the children were staring at her and Lila in awe as they approached them, and Darshan himself had such a jovial look, already holding his own arms out and with his mouth wide agape.

He, too, had been a staple of her old life. Sometimes she forgot that.

When he got close enough, he threw his arms out almost as if to pick her up.

He had gotten large enough to do it too.

Naya held her fingers out like a gun and poked him in the chest, giving him pause.

“Nope, nope, nope. We don’t do that on the track, chum. Remember?”

She held out a fist. He looked at it briefly.

Then, perhaps like muscle memory, his own closed fist met hers.

That was the kind of friends they were.

“You’re still so cocky, Naya!” Darshan laughed.

Naya held her fists to her hips and stood with her chest out and a conceited grin.

He turned to the children. “Kids, this is comrade Naya Oueddai! She will keep us all safe and take care of the bad guys, just like at the school before. Right comrade Naya?”

Aarya giggled a little and stood with the children, awaiting an answer.

Inexplicably happy to oblige, Naya maintained her pose and spoke strongly.

“Kids, I don’t have a frightful bone in my body. I’ll send those imperialists packing.”

Several children clapped at her, and a few others outright cheered.

There was a metallic noise nearby as the Raktapata’s turret dropped onto its ring.

Naya pointed over her shoulder at the platform.

“That’s my ride! I’ve gotta go load up! See you all later!”

She took off running, feeling like her face would break from putting on a grin so long.

Lila waved gently at the children and ran behind her.

Perhaps it was the morphine; but though she reunited and broke again so quickly, Naya felt a warmth and gentleness, the soft light of shared old bonds, slowly mending in her.

She charged to the platform with new zeal. She had to protect everyone.

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