The One Who Will Die (35.3)

This scene contains graphic violence and death.

Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Upper Yard

Smoke billowed from the train engine’s chimney pipe as the civilians finished boarding.

Impatient whistling sounded from the front and was heard across the cars.

Leander walked back and forth along the side of the train with his BKV in hand. Beside him, Sharna made a better show of it, waving at the passengers, panning her head around as if she had a keen eye for trouble to employ. From the train windows people looked at them, pointed their children toward them, waved. Some blew kisses.

They were the only two soldiers, it seemed, who had kept around a BKV; and the gun looked so impressive that by dint of its size, it kept civilian morale from plummeting.

“Leander, I think there’s a cute girl goggling me.” Sharna said, winking at nothing Leander could see. He sighed, unable to muster the same enthusiasm for this post.

“Sharna, aren’t you even a little anxious?” Leander said. He had to walk with his BKV held well aloft. Sharna was tall enough that her stock didn’t scrape the floor as she went along, but Leander had no such luck. His arms started to feel sore quite quickly.

“Of course I am! But I have to put up a strong face for people without anti-tank rifles! And you know, if that strong face attracts some comely comrades, well, great!”

She flashed a smile at the train cars again, her round face lighting up, her long black ponytail bobbing up down against her back as she mugged as if for pictograph boxes.

Leander tried to join her, but his expression came up much weaker than hers.

He heard shells periodically striking and exploding in the lower yard and it shook him.

On their umpteenth patrol around the side of the engine, the conductor stepped off from the locomotive and waved them over. At first Leander didn’t even think it was anything to do with him, but then he saw Sharna skip toward the man, moving so lightly that he thought the BKV must have exerted no weight on her. Then he himself approached after.

“Comrades, everyone is getting restless. We must depart! Go talk to that obstinate Chief Ravan at the back of the train and tell her to hurry up!” pleaded the Conductor.

“Roger!” Sharna said, saluting.

Leander saluted just to mimic her, but he didn’t have to. Conductors had no real rank.

Once more they followed the length of the train down to the caboose, where loading was still being conducted from atop the raised concrete platform. Through the open doors of several cars they peered and found them half full of mechanical contraptions, track links, whole engines, crates full of parts. Several engineering cars, long and sturdy enough to contain whole vehicles on their flatbeds, and with wide fenced sides to allow people aboard, were being prepared. One flatbed was being loaded with a half-track car. At the very rear of the train the flatbeds were followed by two thick, black armored cars.

“Be gentle with that!” Shouted a woman engineer, standing atop a ramp extending from the door to one of these cars. Several dozen meters away a pair of soldiers with a portable gantry crane hooked up what looked like a naked tank cannon, trying to unload it from the back of a large tractor so they could haul it around the yard while she shouted at them.

Leander figured this was the “Chief Ravan” the train crew was so angry about. He and Sharna approached from the side, panning their heads around whenever they heard an explosion in the distance. They were becoming less frequent, but that could have just as easily been a sign of an enemy victory as an enemy defeat. He was on his guard.

“Excuse me ma’am!” He called out, approaching the ramp from the side.

She turned her head to face him, and arranged her wavy blond hair behind her ear.

“Hmm? What is it? I’m a little busy right now.” She snapped at him.

Leander felt a touch intimidated. She gave off a rather unapproachable aura.

“Ma’am, the conductor wants to know how much longer it will take before we’re ready. Everyone’s anxious to go, and all of the civilians are loaded up now.” Sharna said.

Chief Ravan looked almost offended to be asked that question. She crossed her arms, took a deep drag of her cigarette, and spread her lips, allowing the smoke to escape.

When she finally spoke it was with a voice of open contempt.

“We’re almost done! Besides, my units are out there fighting to buy us time, so–”

Before Chief Ravan could protest any further, another woman came running in from the side of the train, making gestures with her hands. Her neck-length hair whipped around as she rushed to their side. Judging by her pins and uniform she was a Captain, and probably a politruk. She had one hand over the other, sliding them across in an odd gesture.

“Oh, Dhorsha, you’re–” Chief Ravan paused to stare at the gesturing.

Leander could not tell what the Captain was saying. She made no sounds.

Chief Ravan’s jaw dropped as she read the Captain’s signs.

“TANK? Where?” She shouted suddenly.

A blast sounded behind them, much closer than any before.

Between the cars Leander saw portions of brick wall dividing the factories from the rail yard and its platforms topple over, and a familiar curved, narrow bodied M4 tank trundle through the debris. Its 50mm cannon turned from the back of the train to the open platform. It was such a ridiculous sight that Leander could scarcely believe it was happening in reality.

An enemy tank, materializing behind them this easily. The enemy that he had ambushed in Knyskna had now wound its way behind his back to plunge its own dagger.

Over the distant sounds of the shells, their engines and tracks grew louder.

Close behind it, a second tank emerged and moved to threaten the yard as well.

Both cannons turned to the nearest visible Ayvartan soldiers.

Exposed, the soldiers working on the portable gantry raised their hands.

They backed away from the gun they had been hauling.

Leander winced, thinking of what would follow.

Then a loud noise issued from the tanks, like a brass instrument.

Hatches went up, and tank commanders with bullhorns started talking.

In drawled Ayvartan, they shouted: “Communist soldiers, surrender immediately! You will not be harmed! Stop fighting and separate from the civilians! You have five minutes!”

Both M4 turrets scanned around the rail yard, looking for contacts.

But the armored cars at the back of the train blocked their view.

Chief Ravan, Leander and Sharna took cover with the cars between them and the tanks.

“Now would be a great time for Naya to reappear.” Chief Ravan whispered.

She took a drag of her cigarette and tapped her feet. Nothing happened.

Blowing out the smoke, she cursed under her breath.

Captain Rajagopal unceremoniously climbed into the car and rooted around the boxes.

Again the enemy tankers sounded a warning, this time counting down four minutes.

“Civilians and soldiers, leave the train and line up, right now!”

One of the tanks started moving closer, turning in toward them, down the train.

Bearing its right-hand side armor to them.

Leander started to nurse a reckless idea in his head.

It was a familiar feeling, an emptiness and clarity that drowned out the sense of his own blood rushing, his own lungs struggling. There was only one image in his mind.

He recalled the man that had died in their hands at the hospital.

M4 Sentinels had a major weakness on their flanks: they stored ammunition there.

All he needed was an opportunity. With those tank guns pointed away from them, he and Sharna could take out the closest tank and maybe rush the other one with grenades using the exploded husk as partial cover. He rolled around the plan in his mind while he stood, stock still, in cold, silent shock over the situation. But he couldn’t–

Captain Rajagopal jumped out of the car with several grenades in hand.

One by one she tossed them out over the top of the car.

Then from the floor of the car she seized what seemed like a tank round.

Soon a thick smoke screen built from the back of the train to the men at the gantry.

It blocked the tanks’ view of the remainder of the platform.

Pulling Chief Ravan by the hand, Captain Rajagopal rushed out into the smoke.

“Hey! What was that! Desist immediately or we will shoot!”

Into the smoke the officers disappeared.

Around the side of the car Leander watched the tank turrets turn in consternation.

Machine guns sounded, firing into the air in warning bursts.

“Sharna, we need to move!” Leander shouted.

He didn’t have to explain, it seemed.

With a grin on her face, Sharna pulled up her BKV and nodded her head.

Jumping in between the couplings, they snuck toward the closest tank. It had its turret turned all the way around and the commander was back inside. Peering around the train, Leander took a deep breath, held his gun out. Sharna patted him on the shoulder.

Together they leaped out from the couplings and landed on the hard dusty floor.

Belly-down, they held up their guns to fire stably.

Less than a hundred meters — far inside the BKV’s effective range.

He heard the last words of the dying man in his mind. Right-hand side.

Aligning their sights, the snipers held their breath and rapped their triggers.

From the anti-rifles came an initial volley.

Leander saw chips and sparks on the metal of the tank as their shots impacted.

Alerted, the enemy turreted started to turn from the smokescreen toward them.

Sharna’s gun clicked.

Leander tapped on the trigger; he felt a push and then an empty click.

One last round cut through the air.

An impact on the middle of the right-hand side armor from Leander’s perspective.

There was no spark; a hole, and a tiny flash as the incendiary effect went off.

Suddenly that hole expanded as the ammunition detonated.

Sharp, rapid bursts sounded from inside the machine as its racks were consumed.

Sharna pushed down his head and ducked her own.

A column of fire, smoke and metal fragments burst out of the open hatch. Smoke and fire outgassed from the gun. There was a wave of heat that Leander could feel washing over him. Metal fell around them. Atop the tank the commander screamed and fell down the hatch, back into the inferno as he was filleted by the fragmentation and burned alive. Leander’s tiny pinprick of a penetration hole grew to the size of a tank hatch. Blooming outward like a metal flower, the bullet hole coughed black smoke from the interior.

Leander raised his head. Over the skeletal remains on the tank the inferno settled into a calm burn. A cannon pointed toward them, the hull blocking the path parallel to the track.

“We got it!” Sharna celebrated.

“Watch out!” Leander shouted back.

A mournful whine issued from a second set of tracks.

From around the burning wreck the remaining tank pointed its gun on them.

Helpless on the ground, they couldn’t even duck. They stared, shocked dumb.

Rajagopal could have spoken through the radio, but she did not. To her the radio was a relatively new development in her life. When she was frightened, and thinking quickly, she thought, and she talked, with her hands. This was the character of her instincts.

In the face of danger, she thought too quickly for her voice, but never for her hands.

It helped that the world around her was eerily peaceful owing to the absence of sound; and that half of the world she could see was a blur of colors. Her unique configuration of senses kept her a little focused on her task; and on her hands and other’s lips.

Everything was a gargantuan effort, but she was so used to hardship already.

She barely signed it, and perhaps Vimala had seen, but the instant she threw the grenades she was already rushing past communication. It all leaned on trust, on skill, on instinct, on the practice she had put in all of her life in order to exceed expectations.

Most of her was moving too fast to dwell, but she felt a touch of anger with herself that she had to put Vimala in danger like this. She had taken her hand, and whenever their hands touched she knew Vimala would follow. But they had no choice; and she would have done nothing had she not managed to come up with a workable plan anyway.

It all hinged on the fact that the Chief had hoarded so much of camp Vijaya during the evacuation, down to the tiniest things from the workshop — such as leftover training ammo. Leftover guns. They were surrounded with weapons. Should they survive for a fraction of a second in the face of the enemy’s weapons they could make them pay.

Pulling Vimala by the hand, and holding on to a 85mm shell under her other arm, Dhorsha Rajagopal charged into the smokescreen, ducking her head and running as fast the situation allowed. As she expected she felt no tug from the woman at her back.

She looked over her shoulder exactly once, enough to see a word from Vimala’s lips.

“Dhorsha!” She angrily called out. She ran nonetheless; there was no real pulling.

Outside the smokescreen the silhouettes of the tanks shifted in response to the expanding smoke, turning their coaxial machine guns to face the expected approach.

A warning burst of gunfire flew overhead, but the women did not stop.

Not until they reached the mobile gantry crane with the AAW gun.

Pushing aside the frightened soldiers standing around the weapon, Rajagopal and Vimala grabbed hold of the mobile gantry crane and swung around the gun to face the tanks. Rajagopal loaded the training shell into the breech, and Vimala, immediately understanding the plan, stuck her wrench onto the manual trigger bolt. They braced the gantry against the side of the Tokolosh to prevent it from flying too wildly, and struggled to turn the swinging, chained-up cannon to face where the enemy tanks should have been.

Outside the smokescreen there was a bright flash and a rumbling through the floor.

Vimala and Rajagopal ducked reflexively.

They turned to each other, blinked, and hastily turned back to the gun.

Whatever that had been, there was still a tank out there.

“No matter how we do this, the AAW’s going to fly back in pieces!” Vimala signed.

Rajagopal moved her hands swiftly. To her, there was no disconnection between the words in her brain and the movements of her hands. Her limbs had become her voice so thoroughly that her mind and hands worked fully in tandem whenever she signed.

“Better that than potentially losing everyone.” Rajagopal signed back.

Vimala looked around for her cigarette, but she had long since dropped it.

“Oh, you’re causing me so much stress. Fine. Fine!” She said, shrugging.

Rajagopal smiled at her, blew a little kiss at her, and ducked away.

Scratching her hair and with a petulant look on her face, Vimala casually slapped the wrench and threw herself on the ground as far as she could get from the gun in one jump.

Without a slide to fall back over and nothing heavy to ground it, the recoil force of the 85mm AAW snapped the gantry chains, and punched the entire contraption back into the tokolosh, smashing off one of the drive wheels in the process. Metal pieces flew everywhere as the breech practically disassembled itself in mid-air after its backward thrust.

Despite this the desired effect was achieved. From cannon launched a trail of smoke and a red tracer that sailed in a perfect trajectory toward the enemy’s remaining tank.

Outside the smokescreen there was a second bright, destructive flash.

In one instant the tank was dead set on them; the next, it was merely dead.

From inside the smokescreen a muzzle lit up, and a projectile thrust through one end of the tank and out the other end. Leander watched the shell overpenetrating, flying out of the tank’s side, igniting its ammunition, and crashing into the ground near the separation fence. Any slower and the tank would have minced them — they were finally safe now.

Leander nearly dropped his gun as the moment’s adrenaline wasted away.

He felt everything coming down on him like heavy hail stones smashing his back.

Had the merest little thing gone wrong they could have all been dead.

What’s more they might have coaxed the tanks into firing near the train.

A train loaded with flammables and full of civilians. Leander felt nauseous.

“Good job!” Sharna amicably shouted, patting him on the back. She was oblivious.

“I need to stop coming up with plans.” He moaned. He remembered the forest again.

They doubled back around the side of the train, and found figures emerging from the slowly dissipating smokescreen, unharmed. Chief Ravan stomped her way back to the train.

“Ugh! I blame A.A.W for this! For all of this!” She shouted.

Behind her, the Captain smiled and patted her back and comforted her.

They walked past Sharna and Leander, waved them over to the flatbed cars, and sat around on a train ramp. Expectant stares clued in the soldiers hiding around the train that there was still unloading to be done. Sharna and Leander watched as they scrambled to complete it, while the two officers watched, and the wrecked tanks burned behind them.

Leander felt such an eerie mix of triumph and exhaustion, he nearly collapsed.

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