Chapter 6: Dakhar
By Brubek Coltrane
René walked through the deserted streets of the formerly great city of Dakhar. Her rifle was slung across her back; her feet trod across debris from a building to her right, whose side had been completely blown away in an explosion. Gasha kicked a rock down the street. It barreled down a few meters, then halted. Small buildings a few stories tall lined either sides of the street, and overhead, the beating sun cast shadows down the sidestreets. It had been almost two years since the Bengals took René from her home and bred her to be a soldier in their army.
Wearing a green combat vest over a dark grey shirt with camouflage pants and combat boots, Gasha was looking around and holding a sub-machine gun. Behind them, an assortment of Bengals followed them, brandishing weapons of the same type.
“See anything?” René asked.
The Bengals had taken this city a few weeks ago, but the Owethu, a rival of the Bengals, had recently taken ahold of the eastern part of the city. The terrified inhabitants caught in the crossfire between these two armies had all fled, if they were lucky, but most likely had either been killed or taken prisoner.
The small contingent René and Gasha were leading was approaching a small bridge overlooking another part of the city. It was relatively low-lying, and you could see several higher windows from it.
“Akulutho, not a sign of life,” Gasha said, “looks like the Owethu all just scattered.”
“I heard the Owethu ambushed one of our convoys,” René started, “they got some of our LAVs.”
Gasha started laughing. “There’s no way that happened, they haven’t had the nerve to get out from their part of the city.”
René stepped forward onto the bridge, and Gasha quickened his pace to meet hers.
“All the same…” René cautioned.
“You’re such a downer, René!” Gasha said mockingly.
“Downer?” René shot back. “Just trying to keep us alive. You never know when-“
A rapid volley of shots suddenly echoed through the streets, killing the silence.
“Get down!” René cried out.
Someone cried out behind them, and René turned to see one of the Bengals collapse and fall of the bridge, blood gushing from a gunshot wound to the chest.
The rest of them ran over and dove behind the bridge’s barrier, which provided a bit of cover. After an intense few seconds, the firing ceased.
A brief silence followed, before one of the Bengals stole a glance up at the buildings overhead. A single shot rang out, and the man who had looked up flew back, a gaping hole in the side of his head.
“Sniper,” René said.
Gasha nodded. “And an accurate one too.”
He motioned towards the Bengal who had just fell, a pool of blood beginning to form around his head.
The rest of the Bengals turned and looked at René and Gasha expectantly.
“We’ve gotta get out of here, man!” One of them yelled. “I’m not dyin’ here!”
René responded in silence.
“Hey!” he said, “I’m talking to you, now you listen to me you-”
The man hadn’t realized he had exposed his head above the barrier. Another shot rang out.
The man stopped mid-sentence and slumped to one side. He cried out in pain. The shot had struck him right in the shoulder, and had come out the other side.
René looked away from the man as he writhed on the ground.
Gasha spoke up. “Listen up,” he said, “Cillio is right; we’ve got to move.”
Someone spoke out, “move; are you kidding me? We’ll die if we show ourselves, I-”
“Shut up!” Gasha harshly responded. “It’s better than sitting here and being picked off one by one without a fighting chance.”
René looked back at the Bengals. She scanned their faces. They were scared; René could tell. If two years of fighting for the people who murdered her family had taught her anything, it was how accepting your fate was just the first step. After joining the Bengals, constant fighting and violence was just a normal way of life. These ones were new. New and scared. She had been too, once. She knew who these people would become, who they would fight, and who the Bengals would tell them were ‘the bad guys’.
But in the end, no one on this planet was truly bad, just equally as horrible. Both committed unforgivable acts. In the end, though, she never really did have a choice. These wars between rival warlords who cared for no one but themselves could never have been avoided for long. In the end, it didn’t matter who you were fighting for, it only mattered that you fought for someone. These new recruits would likely become murders and thieves and worse…but, then again, it wasn’t their fault.
She had begun to learn that the ones who murdered her parents and Zama weren’t the ones to blame. Those greedy, horrible bastards, the warlords were the real problem. Through fear and sheer power, they caused people to do horrible, unspeakable things. The ones who had killed her family, though she thought this through clenched teeth, were just scared little children at heart; but, René was not a scared little child anymore. She would not be afraid — not anymore. One thing that René realized was that she had nothing to lose. The others had families, children, mothers, wives, husbands. René had nothing to lose. She felt Zama’s scarf around her neck. I’ll never forget what they did. She said to herself. They won’t get away with what they did.
René released her rifle from her back and held it in her hands. The familiar contours and feel of the rifle in her hands reassured her. She had gotten good at shooting; Gasha even said she was a natural. She had killed many Bengal rivals with it, and it had saved her life more than once.
René listened to the others arguing. She saw Gasha look up at her.
“I’m going up,” she said, “I’ll need cover.”
Gasha nodded. “All right, you sorry bunch. Listen up.”
“René’s going to climb up into one of the buildings over there,” Gasha began, pointing to one of the taller buildings at the far end of the bridge.
“She won’t make it five feet,” someone said.
“Not without cover she won’t,” Gasha said. “You, and you, come with me.”
A boy not older than 17 and a girl who couldn’t be older than 16 scooted over beside him.
“The rest of you, on my signal, unleash hell on these bastards.” He said. “René is our best hope at getting out of this.”
“Alright.” The girl said. “Let’s go then.”
Gasha nodded at René seriously, then crawled under the cover of the barrier, the two others following close behind.
Once they were in position, Gasha looked back at René.
“Be careful,” he called out.
René saluted back sarcastically, slung her rifle back over her shoulder, and prepared herself. She crawled over to the far side of the bridge and looked up. There was a window not a few feet up from where she was squatting against the wall. It would be easy to get into the building. Under fire, however, would be a bit more challenging.
She waited and tensed up with anticipation, knowing very well these few moments might be her last. She looked over at the corpse, whose half-exposed head now was submerged in a puddle of red blood. She looked back up. No, she thought, I’m not going to die today. She squeezed her scarf once more, then heard Gasha’s voice.
“Manje!” He cried out.
Instantly, a rapid volley of shots came ringing out from behind the barrier. Gasha emptied his gun as it shook violently.
René shot up, and jumped up to grab the window sill’s edge. She barely caught hold of it, however, and now was hanging there like a sitting duck. She swung herself up and around, just as she heard a rifle round zip past her and crash into the building’s wall. She hardly recognized how close that was. She made it onto the edge, then heaved herself over.
A shot rang out.
René felt her leg explode with pain. She cried out, and started to feel blood begin to pool around her leg. She fell onto the floor below — hard. Winded, she lay there for a second, stunned. The sound of automatic rifles exchanging fire, Gasha yelling orders, and others crying out was briefly muffled by René’s brief excursion into the realm of unconsciousness.
She realized the others were still counting on her. Get up! Come on. She told herself. She pushed herself up from the floor and looked up. The drop from the window was at least seven feet. It was amazing she hadn’t broken anything.
She shook out of it. Danger, the others are in danger. She told herself again. She looked around and saw the stairs. Sprinting over, she pushed open the doors to the stairwell. A few flights later, she kicked open the doors and ran over to a window sill. She got out her rifle and looked out.
Below, the others were frantically firing as Gasha yelled out orders. The boy who had followed Gasha was dead. Two others on the other side looked like they were dead, too. René quickly stared down her sights. Bullets ripped into the barrier, sending shards everywhere.
She traced the bullet’s path to where they led to: a window, where a medium machine gun was set up. Behind the trigger was an older man, with a beard and shirt. There was someone else with him too, a smaller one, wearing an orange shirt, who couldn’t be any older than 14. Fourteen? René thought to herself. So young, why would they send someone out like that? The Owethu must be getting really desperate.
René watched them reload the machine gun mounted on a tripod behind the window, and prepared to fire another round. It was now or never. Just try not to think about it…Don’t think about it. She said to herself under her breath.
Cooly, she set her scope on the older one with the beard. The targeting cross fell right between his shoulders — a clear shot. René took a breath, then rested her finger on the trigger. Don’t think about it…
The shot rang out loud. The bullet sailed through the air, past the window, and gruesomely found its mark. René heard a shout of pain, then silence, then screaming. She stared back down her barrel, and saw the younger one crying over the bearded man’s body. René rested her scope on him. No, she said to herself. He’s no threat.
Then she saw him run over to the machine gun. She looked back at the others. Some had looked their heads over. If he fired, they would die.
René weighed the situation in her mind. It made her nearly go insane. Kill this boy, this boy whose life had barely started, or let many others die. Her ethical side instantly weighed in. There is no question. It said. Kill him; the lives of many are always valued over the life of just one. But another side of her mind weighed in. Even if he does fire, he may not even hit anyone. After all, he’s still just a scared boy. Afraid, and now alone. René’s two sides clashed within her head. She was running out of time.
The boy was almost done loading the machine gun, and was going to open fire on Gasha and everyone down there. She reloaded her rifle quickly and set up her scope. She set it just above the boy. Her moral side was winning over. I’ll just scare him away, she thought. Shoot just above him.
She lined up the shot and breathed in deeply. Here it goes. The shot echoed out through the concrete valley of buildings. It embedded itself in the wall right behind the boy, spitting up concrete and clay that held it together. René was surprised to see the boy in the orange shirt, shaking a little from the impact, run over to the gun and get ready to fire. She was surprised by this act of courage, but saw the danger it represented for Gasha and the rest.
She lined up another shot, and fired. It bounced off of the wall to his left, shattering a window there; yet, the boy didn’t move.
“Get down!!” she head Gasha yell, “damnit, where’s René?”
A rapid succession of shots answered him as the boy in the orange shirt bravely fired onwards. René heard another one of the Bengals down below cry out.
“My arm!!” Someone screamed. “Ahh! My arm!! I think, ahgghh!”
The screams of agony heightened René’s senses. She lined up another shot, then another. Each one getting closer to the boy in the orange shirt, yet still, he didn’t move.
René knew time was running short, and that she couldn’t keep this up forever.
“Run away!” René screamed. “Get out of here! Now is not the time to be brave!”
Evidently, the boy in the orange shirt didn’t hear her, and began reloading for another volley. René looked down over the building, at the bridge. Bodies lined the bridge, and pools of blood stained the once bright-yellow sand. The one who was just screaming about their arm lay alongside them, unmoving. Almost half of the original contingent they had led was dead.
The ethical side of René now took over, drowning out any moral she had left. The situation was no longer warranting for a moral approach. The rational side was now on top. She lined up for another shot, this time to kill. The boy in the orange shirt was lined up in her sights. She tried one last time.
“LEAVE!!” She screamed. “STOP!”
The boy started to fire. René stared down the scope once more. A shot rang out; the boy cried out. But it wasn’t René’s. René’s eyes darted to where it had come from: a window a little ways up from the boy.
The sniper! René said to herself. René looked back through her scope. The boy was now grabbing his leg, screaming, and crawling away, but was very much alive. René let out a sigh of relief. She looked back on the position where the sniper was, and stared down the scope. She froze.
Staring down her scope, she saw herself. Well, not really, but a girl, who couldn’t be older than she was, staring back down her scope. She had a tired look on her face, and smiled when she stared back through her scope. She didn’t fire, and neither did René. In another world, another place, they could have been friends. But not here, the others would kill both of us for this. René thought to herself.
“Everything alright up there?” Gasha yelled up.
René was silent, locked in a stare with her counterpart. René smiled back. And no warlord could tell her otherwise.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of engines and wheels, and looked to see what it was. A rapid succession of heavy sounding shots echoed across the bridge once more, but these ones sounded much different. René looked back at the wall. There was none left. The walls had been completely destroyed by a single round of fire. René looked back down. A column of LAVs was rolling in across the bridge. They fired at the spot the boy in the Orange shirt was at. The machine gun post was erased from existence, and half the building toppled over after the shots cut through it’s supports.
René watched in horror.
The same rage she had felt when they took Zama away from her began to build up in her.
“No! No! NO!” She said louder. “NO MORE!” She screamed.
Her screams turned into cries, as she descended into sadness — sadness for Zama, for the unjust world she lived in, for the boy in the orange shirt, for the sniper who had saved his life and had chosen not to end hers, for the senselessness of both their deaths, and the senselessness of just about everything on this backwater world no one cared about.
No. More. The words in her mind echoed over and over as her crying turned into stifled sobs…then silence. In her silence relished a thought — a thought so crazy a smile spread across her face just thinking about it.
“No,” she said to herself, “they’ll never expect that.”
Her thoughts and cries were silenced by the sound of people shouting, injured soldiers, and the constant, incessant sound of gunfire.