SOUTH OF RAHIM YAR KHAN
DAY 3 + 0515 HRS
Kulkarni regained consciousness to find himself staring at the pitch black interiors of his tank turret. As his mind cleared and the senses recovered, he heard the howl of the wind outside. But how can that be…
he wondered. The turret was sealed. Wasn’t it?
He looked to the front to see the gunner and driver positions covered in dust and soot. A lifeless body lay on the main-gun breech in an unnatural angle. He moved his eyes and saw that his own turret hatch was sealed solid. But the other hatch seems to be letting some moonlight in. He realized his eyes were now adjusting to the darkness. The rays of moonlight from the open turret was lighting up the airborne dust particles inside the turret. Other than that, he couldn’t see any motion.
He tried to move his arms and legs and found them responsive, despite the aches all over his body. He had been laying there in the corner of the turret ever since he had been flung there by the shockwaves of the nuclear explosion. He recalled that he had managed to get inside the tank just as it been hit. He had seen his crew doing the same, hadn’t he? Had they not made it all the way in?
That would explain the moonlight he saw from the other hatch, he realized. As his mind began playing the implications of what was around him, a sense of panic began to overcome him. His heartrate increased to a point that it was the dominant noise he heard. He had to get out. He had to get out of here before it was too late!
He grabbed on to the rails next to his seat to get himself up. It was a painful experience even to get himself into a seated position. After a minute of struggling, he finally made it into his seat. He finally looked around as he was used to, from his commander’s seat. And the view wasn’t pretty.
The turret was entirely destroyed from the inside. His ABAMS screen was cracked in multiple places and was shut off. There was no electrical power that he could see, but there were the occasional sparks. And the dust covered everything like a blanket.
He looked up and tried to open the hatch cover above him. But the thing would not move. Not even a little. It felt as though the hatch had been slammed shut with so much force that it was stuck. He would have to leave through the other hatch if he wanted to get out of here.
He managed to move himself by sliding down into the space where the gunner would be. He saw the tank still armed with ready-to-use sabot rounds in the storage. He sighed and then looked further. He saw the dead body laying by his side over the breech and moved it over so that he could see who it was. He dreaded what he might see, even though he knew exactly who it was.
” He shrieked as he rolled over the body of his gunner. The latter’s chest had caved in from the pressure wave. Kulkarni’s cries in agony filled the turret for several minutes. He pounded helplessly on the side of the turret. The metallic clangs echoed through the turret as well. But when they died away, it was the same howl of the winds…I have to get out of here…I have to get out!
Kulkarni pulled himself up and forced his tears to stop by sheer willpower. He was not going to die out here. Not like this. Not now. He put the body of his gunner down on the floor of the turret and clambered past the gun and into the open hatch. He put his arms around the rim of the hatch and pulled himself up until he was seated with his body outside the turret and his legs hanging in.
The sight that accompanied his seat felt as though it were after a volcanic eruption. Dust swirled over the entire town at very high velocities. There were fires in a few places, but everything had either been burnt to cinders or the flames had been extinguished by the dusty winds. There was an ungodly brown glow to the entire night. Looking up, there were no stars and the moon appeared slightly brown.
Kulkarni took a deep breath and looked closer at his tank. The road they had been on was still there, although it was now covered with concrete debris from all the destroyed houses. Behind his own vehicle, he saw one of the three damaged Arjun tanks that he had ferried here prior to the explosion. It’s turret was swiveled at fifty degrees from the chassis and the main gun was pointed to the ground. The turret and driver hatches were open and covered in dust. There was no sign of life there.
Kulkarni noticed that the other two tanks behind this one were missing. All four tanks had been parked in a column before the explosion. So where were they now? Had they survived and left? Or had they been stolen by the enemy? Certainly they couldn’t have been pulled away by the shockwave. If the shockwave hadn’t pulled away the first two tanks, it couldn’t have done the last two. Where did they go?
He got up on top of the turret and looked around. He saw the unmistakable churning of mud where the other two tanks had been: tank tracks. The other two tanks had survived…
That gave Kulkarni some hope. But it still left him with the question of what to do. Where should he go? He was out here, seventy kilometers inside enemy territory and now everything was gone. All comms. All friendlies. His crew was gone too. And his tank was destroyed…
Perhaps if he had a functional radio, he could try and get word out to nearby friendly units. His mind raced through the possibilities: had Sudarshan survived? What about the rest of his tanks? Had India been nuked?
He looked at the second tank and saw that its turret looked badly damaged but the tank chassis otherwise looked operational. Maybe if he could get it rolling, he could drive his way out of here and to the Indian border.
It was a plan as good as any other his mind could come up. And he had nothing more to lose. He forced himself up and then checked his uniform’s thigh pockets. His folded paper map was still there. That further increased his hopes. A functional tank chassis and a map and he had all the essentials to make his way towards friendly lines. He also needed some protection. He jumped back into his turret hatch and looked around for their emergency equipment. He found his duffel bag stowed near his seat. He pulled it out and opened the zipper. Inside was his carbine version of the INSAS rifle, some extra magazines for the rifle, packaged food, some flares and smoke grenades and some personal belongings. Each crew member in the tank had carried such a bag for just this kind of contingency. He also removed the demolition charges pack and checked it for usability. He had no intention of handing over this tank to the enemy.
He checked the contents of the bag, removed the rifle and slapped an ammo magazine into it but kept the safety on. He zipped up the rest of the bag and pushed it over the rim of the turret to the outside and stowed the rifle around his neck. He gave a final look to the inside of the tank and had to fight back his tears. But he shook it off and then pushed himself out of the turret. He then set the demolition charge and tossed it back inside the turret before jumping off and running to the other tank behind his. He clambered aboard the driver’s hatch and got in.
It had been a long time since he had had to drive a tank. But he was trained in it and remembered where everything was. It did take him a few seconds to orient himself, but it came back to him much faster than he expected. The main issue was whether the tank’s engines still worked. He held his breath in anticipation and engaged the diesel engines.
The tank rumbled to life.
And Kulkarni allowed himself to breathe again.
” He talked to himself. “Let’s see if we can move!”
He reminded himself that the turret behind him was pointed away from the chassis and that the gun was pointed down. He would have to be mindful of the navigation issues pertaining to that when he had to turn in tight corners. But the first thing to do was back away before the demolition charges in his own tank destroyed what was left of his own former Arjun. He moved his new vehicle backwards and the tracks engaged as they threw up dust in all directions. The tank began to back up along the road, increasing the separation between the two vehicles.
It was when he was about thirty meters away that he saw the flash of flames and sparks coming out of the turret of his earlier tank. Moments later the top of the turret blew up into shreds and debris flew off in all directions. The flames lit up the debris filled streets with flickering shades of yellow and orange.
Kulkarni heard the metallic debris hitting his vehicle on the outside. But he ignored them as he pulled out his paper map and determined which path to take. He had no intention of driving through the city or near the airport. He would skirt around the perimeter of the city and then make his way back towards the general direction of Islamgarh road. Once there, he would be on the main Indian logistics route. And he hoped he would meet some friendly faces there.
He tucked the map next to his seat and maneuvered the tank around. The barrel of the gun hit one of the destroyed engineering trucks laying nearby and pushed it out of the way as well.
Once aligned with the road, he drove on, causing the tank to climb over the debris on its way out of Rahim Yar Khan.