As he exited out the back of the house Cadmus heard answering gunfire from the other side of the village. He recognized the high flat pop of the Makarov pistol he had given the boy Wahid and knew that the boy would not survive this fight. Cadmus had given him two magazines and he had burned his way through most of the first already. The snap of a long gun echoed hissing over the village and Cadmus thought that it was Tabaan shooting his knock-off Enfield. He was certain that the tank had destroyed the rock outcropping and killed Khabir and the injured man by now. That was ok. It was easy to find people in this country would would die willingly. It was harder to find a way they could die usefully. This was close enough to that for Cadmus.
He made his way around behind the buildings and started down the alleyway, hugging the shadows of the left wall. He heard screams and a clatter of gunfire as a mob of people struggled past in the street before him. Women in burqas running crouched, sheltering the children who went with them. A too-close crackle of shots and one of the women fell on her face, knocking over a little boy. Three Soviet soldiers stepped into view, guns spitting smoke. Lifting the guns to their shoulders to aim.
Cadmus put his rifle to his shoulder and shot carefully three times, taking each soldier in the head. He stepped to the other side of the alleyway and waited, switching his gun to automatic fire. Two more Russians ran into view and he shot from the hip and they stumbled and fell. The women had run into the house at the end of the lane and now were re-emerging with weapons. The eldest children, too. A woman with a yellow burqa, face completely covered save for mesh, appeared carrying an RPG-7 and charged headlong down the street.
That’s more like it, Cadmus thought, following her with his eyes, tracking ahead of her with his gun. A Russian soldier stepped out from behind a building and Cadmus let off a short burst of gunfire — chest, neck, forehead — and the man fell. There was the rattling and snapping of gunfire all around now, and a chaos of shouting. The tank shot again and a house crumbled and fell apart into the street.
The woman in the yellow burqa ran out in the middle of the street, a pair of young boys following her carrying AK-47s, and Cadmus shouted to her, waving, “Get off the street!” She looked back at him, her face invisible behind the mesh. Then she aimed the rocket launcher at the tank and peered down the sight, straining to aim through the mesh facemask.
“Take off your fucking mask!” he hollered, just as she fired. With a screech of air the shaped charge leapt away like an arrow. The secondary rocket went off with a rush of smoke and then the round glanced off the curved side of the turret and exploded black and red. The treads ground into motion, squealing as they moved, and the engine spat smoke. The turret swivelled and Cadmus ducked back behind the wall. The coaxial gun ripped off a long burst of fire that knocked the woman down on her back, the burqa soaked red. One boy dropped his gun and ran and the other opened fire on the tank and was cut down as well.
“Fuck!” Cadmus bolted down a side street and came up behind a boy , a girl and a woman taking cover in the remains of a shop. The woman was struggling to load another RPG, sliding the shaped charge into the barrel with shaking hands. ‘“Allahu akbar, allahu akbar.”
“Shh,” he said as he joined them. Outside the broken clay windowsill, the tank treads squealed and the ground trembled. The woman startled as she saw Cadmus, looking at him through her light blue mesh facemask. She dropped the RPG-7 and the little boy next to her caught it. The boy hefted the RPG clumsily and crawled up a piece of rubble towards the window.
“No,” Cadmus said, getting to his knees. He laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder and he turned. A dark grimy face, blue eyes, pouting lips. It was the orphan, Saif. Cadmus hesitated. He laid a hand on the boy’s greasy hair and lifted away the tube of the rocket launcher with his other hand.
The woman moaned and rocked as the shrieking of the tank treads neared them. “Allahu akbar allahu akbar.”
“Shut up,” Cadmus said without taking his eyes from the boy.
He unscrewed the teal safety cap from the end of the projectile and tossed it on the ground. He cocked the hammer on the back of the grip and flipped the iron sights up and adjusted the rear sight to two hundred meters. “Saif,” he said as he worked. “Do you know what your name means?”
The boy shook his head.
“It means Sword.”
He lowered the rocket launcher to hand it back to Saif. As the boy took it Cadmus laid the stock over the bony right shoulder. He put his hand on Saif’s head and together they crawled up to look through the window. The tank was sideways to them, the turret rotating to find targets.
“Put the rocket right in the side, just above the treads and below the tread covers,” Cadmus said.
The boy gazed down the sights, saying, “Allahu ak–”
“No.” Cadmus stopped him. The boy looked up, confused.
“You don’t need God anymore.”
When the rocket struck, the tank lurched to the side amid a cloud of smoke. Pebbles rained against the face of the building and came in through the window. Saif shied away from the blast with his hands over his ears as a rock struck his head. The woman was on her hands and knees, presumably praying.
The tank settled and, after a second or two, the barrel burped out a tongue of orange flame. The ammunition was cooking off. With a roar, the hatch burst open and a column of fire erupted thirty feet into the air. For a half-minute the tank spewed fire and smoke from every opening, roasting the crew alive.
The boy looked at the spectacle with glassy eyes, slowly lowering the rocket launcher. Cadmus could see him contemplating what he had done. Cadmus stroked his hair and smiled at him.
When the fight was over, they gathered before the smoking husk of the tank. The Soviets were all dead. In the fields before the village, the Soviets had rounded up all the remaining men and shot them, leaving only the women and children alive.
Wahid, Khabir and the injured man had all been killed, leaving Tabaan the only man of the village still alive. There was much weeping and embracing. Tabaan tearfully said his thanks to Cadmus. “My wife. I found her. She is alive thanks to us.” He put a hand on her shoulder and hugged her to his hip, a shell-shocked and wide eyed girl not more than thirteen years of age.
Saif and Cadmus stood together. The boy sneaking awed glances at the tank he had destroyed. Cadmus had paraded him before them. Told them of what he’d done, and now the boy was the hero of his village. His instinctive horror at murder forgotten. We will reinforce that, Cadmus thought. We will stamp down the fear and pain and turn them into weapons. I was never given the chance to be afraid, to be guilty or weak. I will be patient with him.
Cadmus’ first memory was of killing. His father had taken he and his brother at the age of three and made them take a life each. He held the gun for them as they pulled the trigger with all the strength in their pudgy little hands. So murder had come to him as the operation of a machine. His understanding would maybe always be different than that of Saif.
But they boy would learn.