The Benghu Tank War II (30.3)

This story segment contains brief suicidal ideation and extended emotional distress.


53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Camp Vijaya

Naya woke with the dawn on the 53rd largely because she could not sleep well.

She tossed and turned and she kept seeing intrusive images in her mind’s eye.

People and things and situations that came and went far too quickly.

She knew only that they hurt; because she felt too keenly the sting of them.

So she did not sleep very much that night.

But she endured it, stone-faced, without complaints.

Nobody could know.

Nobody should know.

When she finally crawled out of her tent, it was raining again, and she was stung by the cold. She had to dive back inside and fish her rubber cloak out of her belongings.

She was ready for another sleepy day at the camp with nothing eventful to do.

Around the camp the mood was somber and suppressed. Days and days of rainfall and dark skies had taken its toll even on the KVW folks. Though their expressions were blank as ever, she saw their waning constitution in their movements as they worked under open tents and in improvised shacks. On good days the engineers took to their tasks like machines, their focus and grace evident in each turning of steel against lathe, in each twist of a wrench, in each hot line of expert welding. They fell far short of this high watermark today.

She had always heard tell that KVW folks received special training, that they knew no fear and would not blink before pulling the trigger. Around the camp, some of this was confirmed to her. Still Naya wondered what it must have been like to receive the gifts that they had, to be given fearlessness and a clarity of mind, and then to hit a wall anyway.

She figured it must have been much the same as how she felt. Like a bird who cut across the skies keenly aware of its own weight and of the world’s gravity pulling it down.

Seven years ago or so, she nearly set a running record! She won a regional medal!

Now she couldn’t run through the camp for fear of upsetting something inside her.

Naya ambled through the rain, feeling uncomfortably cold where exposed to the deluge and yet too warm, slick and clammy under her clothes. There was a dull aching in her joints that was getting worse the more she stayed in the cold. Rather than stand in line for breakfast she cracked open a paper bag of hard, dry plantain chips and nibbled on them under her cloak while making her way to the radio tent. Yesterday night, she had caught Captain Rajagopal outside the workshop and the tents long enough to impress upon her how much she wanted to perform the lonely, dismal tasks associated with unit signals.

Elated and proud, the Captain assured her that she would have the job tomorrow.

Outside the tent, Naya forced herself to smile and act cheerful to maintain the facade.

Inside she found Captain Rajagopal, well groomed and reasonably dry, her dark hair arranged into a ponytail coming in from just under the bottom of her politruk cap.

“Hujambo!” She mouthed. Naya thought she heard her voice whispering it.

Naya waved at her. She donned her radio headset and clipped the microphone to her jacket and slipped the accompanying microphone equipment box into her hip pouch. These were some remarkable radios — very light weight, even more so than the portable short-range “talkie” hand radios that she had seen before. However, the range was very poor.

They were really only good enough to talk to Rajagopal if she was in one’s presence or very near. Naya kept the equipment in her jacket now, having learned the lessons of the days past, but she only donned the set when she needed to talk to the Captain.

“Can you hear me?” She said. Into the microphone it was a whisper. But Naya heard it.

“Yes ma’am.” Naya said. She saluted, but the Captain waved her hand down.

She walked her quickly through her tasks in the radio tent: monitoring the frequencies in use, taking calls if necessary, and deciphering teleprinter messages. It was a very quick briefing. Rajagopal was out of the tent within ten minutes, and left behind the code book and a best practices manual that she urged Naya to read from cover to cover today.

Naya therefore spent her time reading it, fiddling with the radios, and staring dumbfounded at the code book. Though she was alone and mostly unoccupied, she felt peace. The humming and crackling of the unused radio frequencies whispering in her ears was eerie and calming. She heard no voices and felt nothing dire toward herself. It was a welcome change.

But it would not last. Sometime after noon the teleprinter started to churn.

It was so violent Naya honestly thought the machine was eating itself.

In the end however it spat out its message, and Naya picked up her code book and the best practices manual and sat down to decipher the grid marks punched into the paper. Because she was unused to decryption work, Naya did not have any concept of what the completed message might be like even as she wrote it down. She composed it letter by letter, word by word, scribbling on a piece of paper as she looked from code book to manual to message, each letter she wrote disconnected from the other as she focused on the next.

Once finished she raised the paper to her face and read the decrypted message.

“IMP MEK UNIT AGG ATK BGHU. HEAD TWRD CHND SUP SEC, HEAD TWRD RAIL YARD. NO MORE ALLY TANK UNIT 2 RES. ALL UNIT PLS BE ADV,” it roughly said.

Dumbfounded, breathing suddenly heavy, she reworded it as the manual instructed.

She read it again to herself, hands and lips quivering. “Imperialist mechanized unit aggressively attacking Benghu, headed toward Chanda supply sector, and headed toward the rail station. No more allied tank units to respond. All units please be advised.”

In her racing mind she thought that this message couldn’t be right because there was a mobile unit that could respond — her own. They had the Raktapata. It was in the shop.

Why was nobody moving if there was an attack? When Camp Vijaya could move?

And if they were attacking toward Chanda then that meant Aarya was in danger.

She swallowed and slowly, stiffly lowered her hands to the table, her breathing irregular.

Naya shoved the message into a pocket, donned her rain cloak and rushed outside.

“Chief! Captain!”

She was running almost without thinking. Her mind had become a white hot blank.

“CHIEF! CAPTAIN! FARWAH!”

Between labored breaths Naya shouted at the top of her lungs. As the thunder crashed and the camp went about its business she ran beneath the rain, shouting and shouting. She circled the workshop, looking everywhere, and at least finding the face she wanted in the crowds. Pulling an unresisting Farwah around by the arm, she forced open the doors to the workshop and almost fell forward as she rushed inside. Bent nearly double, holding herself up with her hands on her knees, and dripping water all over the floor, she called out again.

“Chief Ravan! Please ma’am it’s really important! Where are you ma’am?”

She struggled to raise her head and gasped aloud with every ragged breath.

Her mind was working again, barely working, sorting through the situation.

In the middle of the shop the Raktapata looked pristine. It was still equipped with the 76mm KnK-3 from before, but the top-mounted machine gun was gone. Still to her eyes the tank looked fully assembled and ready to fight. Good! She would need it. But she had not seen the Captain around the camp in her mad dash; nor Chief Ravan in here!

Farwah stood stock still, looking mainly at Naya. She was sorry to have pulled him into the rain but this was too urgent. She needed him in the tank to go save Aarya. Yes, good. This was imperative for her, rooted into her mind and blocking out all other thoughts.

“Chief Ravan! Please come out if you’re working here! I need to talk urgently!”

As Naya cast eyes quickly around the workshop and started to shout again she heard a rustling from the far side of the room and a weak grunting noise in response.

Chief Ravan poked her head out from under a small tarp in a corner of the shop. Taking notice of the sudden arrivals she stepped out from under the tarp and approached them. Dressed in a rubber jumpsuit zipped up to her neck, she was dripping oil and lubricants on the floor as she walked, and she had grease on her arms and face and hair. She pulled a pair of large goggles from over her eyes, unzipped her jumpsuit to let the sweat out and looked both annoyed and exhausted as she acknowledged Naya and Farwah.

“What’s the hurry? Are you collecting more people to play games?” Ravan asked.

Farwah made no move to reply. Naya struggled to catch her breath and stand straight.

“Ma’am– we received– from Benghu–” Naya struggled to breathe and speak.

She undid the top buttons on her uniform and withdrew a piece of paper that she had safely tucked away in the inside pocket. Her fingers shook as she stretched her hand.

Chief Ravan plucked the paper from her and read it attentively.

Everything was rendered in plain, Standard Ayvartan. Naya was certain that Chief Ravan would read this message and draw the exact same conclusions as she did.

Naya heard Chief Ravan read it in whispers to herself. Soon as she was done reciting Naya forced herself upright and started desperately shambling toward the Raktapata.

Chief Ravan put down the paper and put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“Good work, comrade.” She said. “I am sorry to ask you to strain yourself again, but you must alert the rest of the camp. We must move to evacuate from Benghu while we–”

“What?” Naya cut in suddenly, pulling the Chief’s hand roughly off her shoulder. “You want to evacuate?” She took a deep breath, staring in disbelief. “Ma’am, you read the message right? They have no support at Chanda and they’ll be under siege soon!”

She could hardly believe what she was hearing. None of it made sense, none of it was part of what was supposed to happen in her mind. She had decoded the message, run from the radio tent, grabbed Farwah and ran back here. She was supposed to leave with the tank, to go help! She did not know what she expected, but it was certainly not for Chief Ravan to advocate running away! Her heart pounding, her mind racing with a strong mixture of anxiety and anger, Naya closed her fists at her side and stepped in toward Chief Ravan, thoughtlessly challenging her personal space as well as her orders.

For her part, Chief Ravan took the slapping away of her hand quite congenially, and did not back away even as Naya closed in on her and looked up. She stood her ground calmly and looked toward Farwah for a reaction, but he had none. He stood with his head down. Naya had only shouted brief incoherent things to him — he was probably stunned.

“I understand your feelings, but we are not a combat-ready unit.” Chief Ravan said.

“You didn’t understand my feelings at all if you are saying that!” Naya shouted.

It was childish, but she had not rehearsed in her mind any response to this situation.

She felt a burgeoning anger, an ever-growing anger; she just wanted to shout at her.

Chief Ravan sighed and raised a hand to her forehead, inadvertently spreading a spot of grease on her face. She seemed to swallow her words while Naya watched with her fists clenched, coiled like a predator, waiting to spring out on the next words said to her.

“Naya, I don’t know how it is that you are used to working with others, but here we–”

Again Naya cut her off before she could speak and began shouting at her face.

“I’ll tell you what, I’m not used to a unit that stands by and lets their comrades die–”

Chief Ravan pressed a finger firmly on Naya’s lips and cut her off mid-shouting.

“Stop taking things out on me, Private Oueddai.” She said, speaking slow and firmly.

In the next irrational instant all of Naya’s built-up fury seemed to deflate as suddenly as it appeared. Her manic energy, her fighting spirit, her bravado, all of it was annihilated.

Naya’s eyes drew wide and she came crashing down from her soaring fierceness.

That finger on her lip and the stern words made her feel too much like a child.

Just a child shouting and shouting to run away from responsibility, to try to hide behind a tough facade. A child throwing herself up against adults to conceal her weakness.

To conceal that she was scared and confused and reacting on a panicked instinct.

To conceal that she was not thinking, that she was afraid to think, afraid of her mind.

Afraid of the weight of emotion that came with the idea of Aarya in danger right now.

All of her anxiety seemed to pile back on all at once and weigh her down. She felt suddenly ashamed; she started to sob and to weep, and her lip quivered under Chief Ravan’s finger, overwhelmed with shame. Ashamed of shouting at Chief Ravan, of clenching her fists at her and stepping in to threaten her; ashamed of her helplessness; ashamed suddenly of every decision she had made that had landed her before this woman, soaking wet and quivering, while Aarya was out there in the path of the monsters for no sin but a love of children.

Floodgates that had been holding back so much grief suddenly burst open.

All it took was that finger on her lips, those stern eyes. But they were not alone.

Little by little everything had been chipping away and now she was left bare.

Aarya.

She had abandoned her; she abandoned everything and escaped to the one place where she thought she would be kept away from the world so that she wouldn’t have to face it.

Darshan too; she abandoned him even more, because she hated him now!

When the world pushed too hard Naya fled, acting without thinking, acting out of panic.

Once upon a time she ran forward to show her strength, her fierceness, her gallant competitive spirit. She ran beside her friends, she ran for her family, she ran with a body that she knew and loved. But all of a sudden running became an evil. She ran back from everything. She ran without thought. She ran from friends, family, home and herself.

And when she ran too much, there came the pain to remind of her the changes.

She ran because she couldn’t stand how her old world had changed against her consent, how its rules had been bent against her, how everything had become so brutal and unfair to her. Aarya and Darshan had changed; Mother and Father had changed; even her own relationship to her body suddenly changed, this the most bitter, ruthless change of all.

Even her own mind seemed to alter as the rest of her landscape did. Over time it became fragile, caustic, a chorus of whispering voices that chipped at her and chipped at her.

Naya could not contain it anymore. She raised her hands to her head and cried. She wept and she sobbed violently and she pressed her fists against her head, applying pressure. She felt like she wanted to take her own head off, to crush it off her neck like a grape.

“Naya stop!” Farwah cried out. His voice sounded almost emotive.

Chief Ravan was stunned. She stood dumbfounded for a moment before reaching out her hand and trying to take hold of Naya, who was near to falling over on quivering knees. Farwah stepped up to hold her up by the waist, his own breathing disturbed.

“Naya, what happened? Are you hurt? Naya please calm down.” Ravan cooed softly. “Naya you are having some kind of attack, time your breathing in your head for me.”

Naya knew she was being held but otherwise felt like she had lost control of her body. Her mind was a chaos that she could only describe to herself as a black boiling cauldron, stirring and stirring and giving off foul fumes, wretched heat, its contents featureless in the roiling mess. Sounds were dull, sights were a blur and she felt pounding and aching in her chest with every labored, gasping, screaming breath. She felt trapped in a cage of her own flesh.

Footsteps echoed in the workshop and resounded within her reeling mind.

She looked over her shoulder at the figure of Captain Rajagopal, framed by the door.

“Is she hurt?” Captain Rajagopal mouthed and signed all at once.

A light seemed to shine over her in Naya’s mind and the roiling ceased.

Naya pulled suddenly away from Farwah and Ravan with a last burst of strength.

She threw herself in front of the Captain and bowed her head to the floor.

“Captain please let me sortie in the Raktapata! I can’t just sit here while my friends suffer! I’m a coward and I’m scared to death but I can’t just sit here, Captain! Please!”

But Captain Rajagopal was largely deaf. Naya had forgotten to put her radio set back on after she took it off in the radio tent. She constantly forgot to wear it outside tank tests.

The Captain could not see Naya’s lips and as such did not hear her impassioned words.

Or did she? Naya looked up at her when she realized her mistake, and found the Captain kneeling beside her with a soft smile on her face. She helped Naya to stand.

Behind her own back Naya saw Chief Ravan signing what she had been saying.

“After what I have seen I cannot recommend it, but it’s up to you Dhorsha.” Chief Ravan said. She was also presumably signing it — she was signing constantly throughout.

Captain Rajagopal helped Naya to don her radio equipment again.

“Can you hear me?” Captain Rajagopal said gently.

Naya nodded. Her eyes were red and puffy with tears. Her head hurt badly.

“As the Chief said, we are not a combat unit.” Captain Rajagopal said calmly. “The Raktapata is not a combat-ready vehicle. We don’t know how far it can realistically go without breaking down. We don’t really know how much punishment the armor plates can take in the field. We don’t know how reliable the engine will be under the sustained duress of a battle. We haven’t identified if the KnK-3 has serious problems with, for example, moving fires. In theory we know that it is strong, but this has never been proven in real combat, Naya.”

“Ma’am,” Naya’s lips quivered, and her heart shuddered, “it is just like me then!”

Naya looked back past Ravan and Farwah and pointed at the sitting Raktapata.

Out spilled the cauldron and out went an alphabet soup of words and emotions.

“It’s a huge mess, and things aren’t working out perfectly for it. It’s broken in a lot of small places under the armor where nobody can see. I’ve been under it’s skin, I know! I know that the seat is uncomfortable! I know that the optics are bad and make it hard to see what you’re shooting! Whenever the gun goes off smoke collects in the turret. Sometimes it hitches for less than a second at a time when it is running, I know, I felt it.”

Naya choked up a little. It started to blend in her mind whether she was talking about the machine anymore or about herself. She saw so much of herself in that unfinished machine.

“But it’s really strong! It wants to make things right!” She shouted. Then she whimpered. “But you need to give it a chance Captain! Please! I don’t want to run away anymore, ma’am. I want to run forward like I used to. It needs to fight ma’am, sometime in its life, it has got to fight, but if nobody gives it a chance then how will it ever prove anything?”

A sense of trepidation overcame her — she was confusing the tank with herself.

She thought that nothing she was saying made sense, that it was all irrational.

“Chanda needs us. We can’t abandon them! Not when there’s something we can do!”

This did not sound convincing. It still sounded to her like a child screaming nonsense. Naya had lost all trust in herself and her own abilities. But she couldn’t run away from this.

She owed Aarya this; and she owed herself. Naya wanted to run proudly forward.

Even if she was not anymore the person who effortlessly cut across the track.

Farwah and Ravan said nothing, at least not with voice. Ravan continued to sign.

The Captain never looked like she was judging Naya. She continued to speak softly.

“So you think the Raktapata could use a combat trial, and you volunteer for it?”

Naya blinked. She stood stock still, unable to reply but with a shameful nod of the head.

Chief Ravan shook her own head. “I strongly disapprove of that tank going anywhere.”

Captain Rajagopal smiled. “What if I go with her? I can command the tank then.”

Chief Ravan thrust her fists down. “Well now I approve even less, Dhorsha!”

Naya looked helplessly between the two women, her throat feeling ragged.

“Well then. Hmm. Farwah, what do you think?” Captain Rajagopal said.

“I support comrade Naya.” He said, swiftly and simply. It took him no time to reply.

“Did you two agree to anything? Did she strong-arm you?” The Captain asked.

Naya looked at him, her arms hanging limp at her side, her face expressionless.

Farwah nodded at her and almost smiled — his lips turned just a tiny bit.

“She did no such thing. On my own I arrive at the conclusion that Private Oueddai is a good person and I want to help her. And I want to help my comrades at Chanda too.”

“Facts are important.” Captain Rajagopal said. She gave Naya a sidelong glance.

“I have driven the Raktapata all of its assembled life. I believe it and Naya are ready.”

Naya stood speechless and dazed. Looking at Farwah she wanted to cry again.

Captain Rajagopal nodded her head. She stood up straighter and crossed her arms.

When her eyes turned suddenly Naya’s way the girl nearly fell over with surprise.

Her gentle voice transmitted through the radio with a new vigor and conviction.

“Naya, I empathize strongly with the desire to be given a chance. Once upon a time I was in a position very similar to your own. I laid my feelings bare hoping to be understood. My character inspired a comrade to stand up for me; and I was as surprised back then as you must be now. I thought to myself that I was very lacking and that surely a deaf and half-blind girl would be passed over. But my comrade saw in me what I did not see.”

She approached Naya and put both her hands on Naya’s shoulders. They locked eyes.

“As such, Private Oueddai, it would not be fair then for me to say anything right now but this: be ready to deploy the Raktapata within 15 minutes. I’ll take responsibility.”

It took a moment for Naya to come to terms with what she had heard. Her mouth hung.

Captain Rajagopal meanwhile turned her head nonchalantly to face Chief Ravan.

In turn Chief Ravan sighed audibly. “Well, when you say it like that I can’t disagree.”


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