Hell on Rails
Reassigned from the 45th Air Guard, spetsnaz operative Sergei Rostov escorted an armored train of regime soldiers towards the front lines. His hearing was sharp as his hawk-like nose, and the war around him brought a cacophonous medley he reveled in. The reverberations of distant artillery strikes echoed like distant drums. The staccato of machinegun bursts hit like rapid percussion. Helicopter gunships flew overhead with the droning of rotors. The diesel-electric locomotive blew its horns as if an ancient herald before an imperial palanquin.
To match the sounds came sights that expanded upon the surreality of war. Rostov imagined a horde of demons from regional myth advancing from the periphery of his vision. Black smoke roiled above the horizon, coalescing like an evil djinn. The empty desert unfurled before him like some boundless, burnt carpet. Off on the horizon, he saw a chain of rocky hills approach and thought he saw the fire of distant tracer rounds that burnt like volcanic embers above some distant caldera. Blinking, the lightshow above the mountains abruptly vanished, but the oily smoke lingered into the horizon. He wondered if some prior altercation with the Kurds or a lucky airstrike on an oil depot was the source.
Rostov looked through the scope of his suppressed VAL, wondering when a Brotherhood terrorist wander into the sights. As the train continued onwards into the desert, he thought he would welcome anything to terminate the monotonous, repetitive sights. For a moment, he thought of his niece and nephew back in Moscow, and he remembered why he was here. The Chechnyan bastards that had taken his brother from him had trained in his wretched hellscape of a country, honing their lethal skills on defenseless minority groups.
Rostov surveyed the battle train that the regime soldiers had put together. While Syria and Iraq had access to coastlines, this landlocked dump of a country possessed only roads and railways for bulk transport. Aside from a few rivers that fed into headwaters of the fabled Tigris and Euphrates, the land was drier than an ancient parchment from an Egyptian tomb. Taking a sip from his canteen, he reflected on the vast, foggy Black Sea that he had sailed out of on his way here. Wishing only for a cold shower, he once more took inventory of the hardware on the train.
Like a miserly usurer, Rostov's keen senses overlooked nothing during the assessment. A pair of bulbous-turreted flatcar-mounted BMPs were likewise positioned in front and behind the pair of armored engines that pulled the train. Behind them were two flatbed cars were loaded with retrofitted T-72 tanks. A quartet of former passenger cars, hastily-armored relics of the colonial period, carried a contingent of regime soldiers and ample supplies for humanitarian relief. The windows that remained had been covered with opaque, bulletproof glass, and others had wicked heavy machinegun muzzles protruding from them. What the soldier did not care to explain was the second passenger car from the front was also a communications car loaded with sensitive radio equipment, where he resided in a semi-concealed armored cupola. At the end of the train was a strangely quaint wooden boxcar, but the heavy anti-aircraft gun mounted on the top ruined any chance of it being mistaken as anything other than another piece of pressganged rolling stock.
As the Brotherhood advanced towards key oilfields, the regime sent the armored train to relieve and resupply the defenders. Sent to ensure the success of the expedition, Rostov organized escorts for the train. In anticipation of probable sabotage of the railroad tracks, he suggested deployment of helicopters and motorized patrols as scouts. In the empty, open desert around them, the soldier repeatedly found himself fixating upon the distant hills. He wondered if a scout was staring back at him from those distant peaks, ready to trigger an ambush that could spell his doom.
Rostov saw something skitter through the sand, and he squeezed the trigger. An eruption of sand sent an ochre cloud rising into the air like a miniature simoom. Something jerked into the air with a rigidity other than that of lust, before vanishing forever behind a growth of scrub brush. Falsely reassuring himself he had merely shot a snake, he nevertheless prided himself on his accuracy from a moving train. As he returned towards his thankless vigil, he found himself tracking what he thought was a feminine figure standing over him.
Rostov turned his head the exact moment a bullet ricocheted across the ceiling above him, sparking against the metal plating in the roof. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the streak of tracer rounds emerge from the blinding desert sun like rays of solar fire. Beneath him, a soldier opened up with a machinegun, causing the interior of the train-car to resound with stentorian blasts. He heard the horrible shriek of twisting metal and the banshee-wail of failing brakes. His senses of spatial navigation failed as gravity betrayed him. Like a cosmonaut on an impact trajectory, the walls, floor, and ceiling became indistinguishable. As blackness claimed him, he thought he registered a bell of sable hair atop a distinctly feminine figure.
Rostov was denied the somnolent tranquility of sleep. He awoke amongst a clangorous racket of singing steel and discordant rumblings. He felt the liquid warmth of his own blood pouring from a dozen superficial cuts and moisten his clothing, but he felt no fatigue. His eyes gazed upon the martial pandemonium that unfolded around him. The rank odor of perspiration and coppery smell of fresh blood filled his nostrils. A riot of color filled his vision as the Lethean stupor departed, forming scenery like the brushstrokes of a novice artist.
Rostov saw that the armies clashing were as alien to his own senses as to his methodologies of warfare. One range of combatants superficially resembled an army of Oriental antiquity, with domed helmets like Middle Eastern minarets and scimitars etched with elaborate calligraphy. With formations like the phalanxes, legions, and shield-walls of wars long past, the ancient army pushed back against their foes. Squadrons of archers with Mongolian composite bows of horn remained behind each unit, while arquebusiers discharged volleys into the enemy ranks. He recognized it as a sort of antique bounding overwatch, with two units alternating between advancing and saturating the air with projectiles.
Rostov saw what they battled with an almost primordial disquiet and disgust. Inhuman shapes and bizarre appendages flailed against the glistening steel. The number and manner of appendages varied widely across the horde, but common morphologies prevailed across that anatomical anarchy. One of them was a cone-shaped being that possessed crab-like manipulators on the end of its tendrils, with sensory organs of unknown sort terminating at the tallest of tentacles. Another scuttled upon a mass of insectile appendages. A rugose mass of fibers resembling rulitant hair scuttled towards the front ranks of the army, lashing its members like whips. Several of the creatures had no discernable boundaries, as their bodies seamlessly flowed within and separated from others in the mess without notice or hesitation.
Rostov saw the eerie terrain upon which they fought bore the disconcerting starkness of a Roerich painting. The lifeless waste yawned towards a horizon of jagged mountains, beyond which twisted like the contour of a breathing body. He could not tell which side bore the distinct advantage, as his perspective upon the field shifted gradually as he found himself imperceptibly drawn to specific features of the battle. The battleground seemed to rotate motionlessly beneath him, the terrain and scenery changing as he shifted his gaze. Somewhere upon that surreal Gotterdammerung, he thought he saw a familiar woman near the front ranks, but the heavy armor obscured her figure.
Rostov thought he shouted something to her, but if she noticed, she deigned not to reply. Instead, he was greeted by an imposing darkness that enclosed upon him with the utter finality of a funereal shroud. He resisted the void that pulled at him, yanking away as if tugging against a spider's strands. A pull like the gravity of dead worlds yanked at him, but he nevertheless resisted with limbs he could neither feel nor see. Like a sambo expert, he steeled himself against the doom that called to him. Even as he resisted, he felt an alluring presence beside him, which piqued a minor curiosity in his survival instinct. He desired to know what fever dream had overcome him, what narcotic visions had overtaken him, and whence those scenes emerged. Eager to greet the hand fate had dwelt him, he opened his eyes.
Rostov visualized the battle had gone poorly for his compatriots, based upon the broken train-cars that littered the ground. Pulling himself from underneath the wreckage, he scanned for any nearby weapon. Grabbing an AKM from the body of a regime soldier, he crawled on his hands beneath a broken boxcar while occasionally glancing behind him to ensure he was not bleeding. Seeing only superficial cuts, he decided not to further tempt fate. Hearing where the gunfire and explosions echoed from, he wriggled low to the ground.
Like an ape mimicking the ophidian form, Rostov flattened himself against the ground beneath him. With the rifle gripped tightly, he saw his adversaries. A scattered group of regime soldiers took cover amongst the trainwreck, while a seemingly limitless number of Brotherhood terrorists charged with reckless abandon. Seizing the initiative, he put the terrorists in his gunsights. With a smile on his face, he squeezed the trigger.
Rostov was temporarily deafened as the weapon roared. A terrorist's leg was lopped off, as if by an invisible axe. A stray round split another's head, spilling what passed for brains upon the ground. The parched earth drank a cocktail of blood and bile, as a torrent of bodily fluids were spilled upon it. As he focused his gunfire upon the swathe of mass murderers, he shouted a torrent of ribald blasphemies at them. The chiming of brass was the sweetest sonata to his ears, as his keen eyes and reflexes harvested their wretched lives.
Just as he thought the terrorists would retreat, Rostov saw the last regime soldiers consumed in a blast of fire and slag. Turning to the source, he saw a Brotherhood thug newly emerged from cover with an RPG in his hand. The extremist received a bullet through the eye socket for his trouble, but his comrades rallied to avenge him. A line of black-clad Brotherhood fighters trained a fusillade of assault rifles and squad assault weapons on his position. Facing a dozen muzzles trained upon his position, he locked and loaded for the final stand.
Rostov did not blink, but the Brotherhood terrorists did. The fatal barrage of rounds he suspected instead came from a different direction, immediately preceding the entry of a new combatant. Red holes ripped through the torsos of the enemy gunners as they frantically shouted. They whipped their weapons around and fired erratically, only to succumb to the stream of lead that issued from the newest arrival.
Rostov could scarcely believe such a vehicle could drive, given its condition. It resembled some improvised racketeer's smuggling transport, with the ad hoc armor and mounted gunner's seat. The shocks and suspension looked like it had been pulled from some rusting wreckage, giving the buggy the character of a mobile scrapheap. The driver was a vaguely familiar woman in a worn peshmerga uniform, and the gunner was a bearded man in sunglasses wearing rags of what had once been a ghillie suit, carrying a pistol and ornate scimitar on his belt. With a disarming friendliness, he turned to greet Sergei while continuing to operate the gun. The vehicle wheeled up in front of him.
"Sergei! Never thought I'd see you here," he said in English-accented Russian. "Just thought I'd congratulate you on that great work in Serbia."
"Thank you, Phil. I was surprised you were so thorough with those Chechnyans last time we met."
"That one's on the house," Major Philip Howard said. "Need a lift?"
"Yes," Sergei said as he sprinted towards the back of the vehicle. He leapt on as the driver reversed and sped away.
"Floor it, Delal," Phil said as he spun the weapon around, pinning down the Brotherhood fighters that emerged from the wreckage.
Sergei reloaded and joined him. Together, a Russian, an American, and a Kurd fled from smoldering wreckage on the armed buggy. Behind them, black and oily smoke roiled high into the sky, leaving naught but a buffet of barbequed flesh for the maggots and vultures.