SOUTHEAST OF RAHIM YAR KHAN
DAY 3 + 0705 HRS
he Arjun tank rumbled to a stop at the junction of the dirt road. Kulkarni looked around and then consulted his map. He had been navigating purely by compass and his mental knowledge of the terrain for the last hour. He had kept a general direction to the east and kept away from urban areas. The last thing he wanted was to be ambushed by a swarm of jihadists out here. Inside the driver compartment of a single tank with no crew, he wouldn’t stand a chance. It was all the more important for him to make as much headway towards the east as possible before the sun came up and the visibility made his tank stick out like a sore thumb, attracting the wrong kind of attention. The ongoing chaos and darkness of the night were his friends.
He saw the pink skies to the east and then checked his wristwatch. Sunrise was imminent. By that time he had to either be within friendly lines or as far out into the eastern desert as possible. Either way, he had to get out of these urban areas. They were death traps.
The road in front of him headed east-west and looked suspiciously like the Rahim Yar Khan road. His tanks had rolled on it on their way towards the town two days ago. If he continued east on it, it should merge with the Islamgarh road and that would take him all the way east to the Indian border. But without any road signs, he couldn’t be sure this was the right road. Besides, out here all roads looked the same. Same trees and bushes scattered around them. Same dirt covering everything. But he reasoned that if he got on the eastward heading road, he couldn’t go wrong.
He accelerated his vehicle forward to the road junction and had to jerk on the breaks almost as fast. An army truck came out of the swirling dust clouds with their headlights on full beam. It nearly smashed into his tank from his blind corner. The truck was only about five meters away from the Arjun when it shuddered to a halt. The headlights of the truck were illuminating the Arjun and blinding Kulkarni.
Kulkarni was overjoyed to have finally run into some friendlies. But that joy was short-lived as he overheard chaotic chatter in what he made out to be Urdu. His heart skipped a beat as he realized that he had run into Pakistani soldiers!
For their part, the Pakistanis were survivors who were also lost and were trying to make their way out of the town. They obviously had not wanted to run into an Indian tank, of all things. Their fear and confusion was mirrored to that of Kulkarni, who thought that he had run into a large force of enemy infantry who would soon realize their numerical superiority over the disabled and undermanned Arjun.
To his surprise, Kulkarni saw the soldiers jumping out of the truck, taking their rifles with them. He thought quick and swiveled the Arjun around to face the Pak army truck head on and then accelerated. The Arjun crashed into the truck and its left track climbed over the flattened truck cabin, pitching the entire tank up. But Kulkarni kept accelerating until the tank had completely crushed the vehicle and moved off it. That truck would never be anything more than scrap metal. He heard the metallic clangs of small-arms fire ricocheting off the tank as the soldiers returned fire.
Kulkarni realized there was no time to mess around here. He swiveled the tank back to the east and drove on. A grenade exploded a few meters behind his vehicle and the small explosion threw gravel and dirt. He ignored the attack and kept driving off. Kulkarni was sweating and hoping that the soldiers wouldn’t think about giving chase to his tank on foot. After two minutes, he was sure that they hadn’t. The chaotic shouts in Urdu and the clatter of rifles died down as his tank continued towards the brightening eastern skies.
It took him another ten minutes of driving before he saw what looked like a blockade on the road, two kilometers away. He brought the tank to a stop to observe better what was down the road. He pulled out his binoculars from his duffel bag and focused on the road…
He let out a uncharacteristically loud shout of excitement.
The blockade he saw was by an Arjun tank parked on the road with its turret swiveled towards him. There were other military vehicles parked on the side of the road and a lot of Indian soldiers waving at him to come towards them. He put the binoculars away and jerked the vehicle into motion. Five minutes later he was sure. The tanks were rhino. The white infrared-visibility diamond painted on their side was unmistakable. He was excited to know who it was. But it also occurred to him then that he only saw a handful of Arjun tanks by the road. He passed by some more tanks and BMP vehicles that had been abandoned by the roadside, but that was it. The rest of the dozens of vehicles he saw were from trishul and other infantry units. This seemed to be a regrouping point for all Indian forces that had made it out of Rahim Yar Khan…
Of all the hundreds of vehicles he had taken in, was this all that had survived?
As he passed by the parked tanks on guard near the road, overjoyed members of his unit were already clambering aboard in joy at seeing their CO alive. Kulkarni pulled to a halt fifty meters past the perimeter defenses and switched off the engines as troops from his unit swarmed next to his driver compartment. He stepped out of the hatch and was greeted by a major from trishul.
“Do we have comms with steel-central?” Kulkarni said as he got down to business.
The major frowned: “negative, sir. Steel-central was wiped out by a nuclear detonation. The original breach point is heavily radiated as per the reports of our N-B-C recon vehicle crews. The engineers are making another breach point further south and we will route through there with all our heavy vehicles and gear as soon as it is open.”
“What do you mean route through there?” Kulkarni asked just as the sounds of an army Dhruv helicopter drowned him out. The helicopter flew overhead as it headed west towards Rahim Yar Khan.
The major pointed at the departing helicopter: “we are under orders to leave the area and pull back into Indian territory, sir. Corps command sent us helicopters to find as many survivors as we can, but with all potential military targets in the region already nuked, corps H-Q feels we are at risk of radiation exposure out here for little gain. We are to complete our evacuations by the end of the day, today.”
Kulkarni muttered an expletive, but nodded at the officer standing next to him. Orders were orders. He looked around to see the general hectic activity: “what else do I need to know?”
The major pointed behind him. Kulkarni turned to see an air force C-130J transport coming to land on some airstrip further south of where they were. The two officers watched as it touched down further away and sent a cloud of dust rising around it. The sounds of its turboprop engines momentarily drowned everything else.
“The air-force is doing medical evacuations of critically wounded personnel from the Sheikh Zayed airstrip nearby. We had been using it as a secondary logistics node before the nukes started flying. Now it is our primary operations center until we pull out.” He waved an arm at the tank Kulkarni had driven in on: “do you have any wounded personnel that need to be evacuated? Additional survivors?”
Kulkarni stared at the soot covered tank he had driven in on and said nothing.
The major understood. “All right, sir. I will leave you to it.” He waved down the road: “our field ops center is down the road, five-hundred meters. All surviving staff from trishul and whoever was lucky enough from steel-central staff to not have been there when the nuke hit, are now operating from there. We could certainly use you there, sir.”
As the officer walked off to do his job of coordinating this chaos, Kulkarni walked over to a nearby truck and sat against its wheel. His mind had been in overdrive processing so much information that his body could not keep up with the stress. He had lost crews before. This wasn’t his first war, as he kept reminding himself. But what horrified him was that the number of crews that had survived under his command were less than those that had been lost in all of the battles against the Chinese. The list of killed and missing personnel was so long that his mind could not process it. All his body could do was stare blankly at the sand in front of him. His job required him to be impassive and stoic. Especially now as the survivors looked to him for decisions to help them get back home.
He saw some of the surviving rhino tank commanders walking up to him. He forced himself to get up and shake off the tears. The young lieutenants and captains assembled around him. He saw their soot covered overalls and faces. As he stood there in silence, they all shared looks with each other before one of them spoke up: “sir, what are our orders? What is rhino tasked to do now?”
Kulkarni looked at the captain as though the man were insane. Even after all that had happened, they looked to him for orders…
“The war is over, captain.” He said finally, his voice cracking under the strain of saying the words.
“I said, the war is over,” Kulkarni said more forcefully. “All military targets worthy of attention have been or will be nuked by our side. The Pakistanis have been scattered like cockroaches. We need to get more specifics from corps, but rhino is no longer tasked with any strategic objectives.” Kulkarni looked around the faces of the officers to see that most of them had come to the same conclusion at some subconscious level. “So, gents, in light of this, army command has determined that there is nothing but radiation hazard left for rhino and trishul inside Pakistan. And we want none of it. So they are pulling us out.”
The officers looked at each other and Kulkarni saw many of them nodding agreement. One of them finally blurted it out: “so we are going home, sir?”
Kulkarni nodded. He noticed that, to his soldiers, crossing the international border in the desert and entering India felt like entering through the front door of a home, leaving the harsh storm outside. It was a feeling that had been earned in blood out here.
“Yes,” Kulkarni finally replied. “We are going home.”