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A Tank Only Fears Four Things

A Tank Only Fears Four Things (illustration by Elizabeth Leggett)

The surgery makes Tereshkova into a tank.

In the war, she never showed any fear, not at Fulda, not even in the snows of Vogelsberg when the Americans dropped the first bomb. When Clinton and Yeltsin shook hands at Yalta, when the word came down to the 8th Guards Army to yield Frankfurt and withdraw to Soviet soil, Tereshkova spat into the dirt and said: “Too bad. We were turning things around.” And Yorkina, who sat beside her in the cab, laughed and shook her head. Between them the Geiger counter made soft cricket noises.

When they were discharged, they each promised to write, having failed in their goodbyes to say what Tereshkova, at least, felt in her heart: I needed you. I wouldn’t be okay without you.

But she isn’t okay. On her first day home in Vereya, Tereshkova hears the diesel engine of a truck passing on the road, and she begins to sweat.

• • •

A tank fears only four things. One of them is a fuel shortage. Another is a man with an anti-tank missile. But the T-80 main battle tank can fire missiles from its own gun barrel, like a tiger who has eaten her hunter and digested him into a new and dangerous tooth. American tanks in the war couldn’t do this.

Except in four ways, the tank is invincible.

• • •

Tereshkova never writes to Yorkina. What would she say? I hear they have opened a Walmart in Moscow; I still don’t drink; when I hear a diesel engine I remember that I’m going to die?

I miss you?

She hates the other veterans because they ask her what she did in the war. Even Yorkina counts as another veteran. Yorkina was her friend, too, but certainly a wartime friendship must have its own armistice, its own terms of disengagement.

She wants to tell Yorkina how afraid she is, but if she did, Yorkina would know she was only pretending to be brave.

• • •

The surgical team comes from Republican China. They are hoping to find volunteers for an experimental treatment: They will solder a new connection between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a feedback loop that will help the brain learn to control its own fear. Although they never say fear: They prefer to call it a trauma, a disorder, like an army routing, like a broken tread.

They never mention making Tereshkova into a tank. Maybe it’s a side effect.

• • •

She only volunteers for the surgery because of Yorkina.

Ten years after the armistice, the sound of diesel engines still makes her go numb. She sweats uncontrollably and lies awake for hours, paralyzed, her heart a small unsteady pain. But no one has ever noticed, and she’s never told anyone. In the war, she never showed any fear.

One day, without warning or prelude, Yorkina calls, and she begins to weep, open and unashamed, when she hears Tereshkova’s voice. “I can’t stop being afraid,” she says. “I can’t even get into cars any more. The engines—I need your help.”

“Of course,” Tereshkova lies, even though she cannot help, even though her first thought when she heard Yorkina on the phone was: Thank God, you can help me. Yorkina had never been lost, even when they drove off the edge of the map.

Tereshkova takes the train from Dorokhovo into Moscow, but although the two women cry out and embrace and laugh when they see each other, Tereshkova cannot help Yorkina, and Yorkina cannot help her. She can see the plea in the way Yorkina avoids more than the lightest touch, unready to be disappointed: Weren’t you brave, then?

Or maybe the plea is: Weren’t we brave, together?

When Tereshkova crashes in Yorkina’s one-room Sokolniki rat nest, she hears Yorkina trembling in the night and sometimes she thinks that if she could only tremble, too, if she could only admit she is afraid, somehow this would help. But no, she must be stronger. She must find a way to help.

Tereshkova finds the operation advertised in the veterans’ newsletter: Are you still fighting? Experimental psychosurgery may help you win. She tears the page out and takes it with her when she leaves.

• • •

Tereshkova and Yorkina never drove a tank, although many women did. They never saw an American or shot a gun or came under attack. This is why Tereshkova hates it when people ask what she did in the war: She did nothing that feels important or brave. She would much rather have been in a tank. Sometimes she tries to remake the whole war that way, to remember a world where she led the spearhead down the E45 autobahn and spent ten years afterwards answering: I fought as tank crew.

Instead she drove an old Ural diesel truck, carrying supplies and ammunition from the depots to the front. This, the Chinese doctors say, is why Tereshkova is always afraid.

The Americans had stealth airplanes. They bombed the supply lines day and night, trying to starve the tanks and soldiers at the front. People were killed on the road, in the depot, asleep in their cabs or bunks—sudden, random, unavoidable.

A tank only fears four things. One of them is the airplane.

“There are different ways to be afraid,” the chief surgeon explains. He has warm brown eyes and speaks earnest, terrible Russian. “It’s easy to be very afraid for a little while, as long as you get a chance to rest and heal. But in that truck, with the bombers overhead, you were always a little afraid, every minute of every day. The poison never had a chance to drain.”

It was like feeling you’d forgotten something, a gnawing important something, and then remembering what it was: that you are about to die, just the very next instant, the next, the next. She wants to tell him about this feeling. She wants him to say: That’s right, you were never a coward. I’m certain of it.

“Maybe,” she says, shrugging. “Are there side effects?”

“Make no mistake,” he says, his warmth flickering. “The treatment is very experimental.”

“Will there be damage?”

“Your brain is resilient,” he says. “We’re only helping it recruit its own strengths.”

• • •

When Tereshkova wakes up from the surgery, she is a tank. She knows it in her hull.

Now she can be strong for Yorkina. She gets a job as a diesel mechanic and sends Yorkina all the money she can spare. She goes to veterans’ meetings and makes new contacts. She learns to drink with Yorkina, and to stop Yorkina from drinking when she goes too far. She helps Yorkina find a new apartment.

“What do you need?” Yorkina asks, as they carry her things up the steps. “You’ve been so kind . . . can I . . . ?”

“Nothing,” Tereshkova says, smiling a comrade’s smile. “I don’t need anything, now.”

For the first time in more than a decade, she might be happy. The tank, after all, should never operate alone. The tank must open the way.

• • •

“I want you to move in,” Yorkina says.

They’re drunk in a bar on Kudrinskaya. Yorkina looks up with reverent eyes. “I feel safe with you,” she says, her hand on Tereshkova’s elbow. “You’re invincible.” Her eyes flutter, with vodka or brief embarrassment. “And you must be tired of those long rides in from the country.”

“I can’t do everything for you,” Tereshkova says. She chuckles crudely to defuse the joke, but Yorkina doesn’t laugh. She blushes.

Tereshkova pretends to take a long drink.

The T-80 main battle tank is layered in Kontakt-5, a special kind of armor, like a chainmail of explosive bricks. When the tank senses something that’s come too close, moving too fast, it detonates one of the bricks. The blast knocks the missile or the bullet away, just an instant before it can strike. The tank doesn’t feel anything, but sometimes soldiers standing nearby are killed. This is acceptable. Russia invented Kontakt-5 and now the whole world has copied it.

In the army, tanks are called the armor. To be a tank is literally to be impenetrable.

“Come on,” Tereshkova says, clapping Yorkina on the back, pretending she’s forgotten about the question. “You’re drunk. Let’s get you home.”

Yorkina clings to her as they get into the cab, trying to hide from the sound of the engine. “You’re never afraid,” she says into Tereshkova’s shoulder. It’s started to sound like a plea. “You’re never afraid.”

“I’m here,” Tereshkova assures her. “I’m here.”

“I want to walk home,” Yorkina groans.

Tereshkova strokes her hair. “You’ll get lost,” she says.

• • •

The chief surgeon interviews her for her three-month follow-up. “Have your social relationships improved?” he asks. Certainly his Russian has improved.

“Oh, certainly.” Tereshkova nods. “I’ve been helping a friend.”

“A veteran?”

Tereshkova nods again.

“Does she help you work through your trauma?”

Tereshkova frowns, trying to make sense of the question. “No,” she says, her arms folded, like a glacis, across her chest. “I help her.”

“Do you think she’d be a good candidate for the surgery?”

Tereshkova pretends to think for a moment. “No,” she says. “She’s taken care of.”

The surgeon nods and makes a note. “Anything else you’d like to report?”

“No,” Tereshkova says. “Nothing else.”

• • •

Unexpectedly, Yorkina outflanks her.

Tereshkova climbs the stairs to Yorkina’s apartment with good news. She’s found a man hiring veterans for a data entry job right off the Metro. Yorkina can get there without hearing too many cars. The line of advance is safe.

But Yorkina doesn’t want to hear about a job. She sits in the kitchenette, smoking, grinding the ash on the tabletop, and loading another cigarette, sabot-like, between her thin lips. Finally, she says: “You were never going to tell me.”

“What?” Tereshkova hesitates, reverses, trying to buy time to orient herself towards this unexpected threat. She tries a smokescreen. “Do you mean—your question? I thought you were drunk.”

“And I thought I was a coward.” Yorkina’s eyes glisten. “The way you just got over—it. You convinced me. I just wasn’t strong enough.”

Yorkina opens a drawer, takes out the veterans’ newsletter from four months ago, and shows Tereshkova the torn page. “I found another copy,” she says. “Psychosurgery. What does that mean? Like a lobotomy?”

Tereshkova opens her mouth, still searching for a target. “I wanted to help you,” she says, her desperation cold, ballistic. “You said you needed my help.”

“Well.” Yorkina laughs harshly. Her eyes have fixed on a distant, receding point, past the back of Tereshkova’s skull, as if she’s tracking the flight of an overpenetrating shell. “You fucked up, didn’t you?”

Tereshkova doesn’t understand. How can her rapid advance, her decisive schwerpunkt, her unmatched resilience, not be the answer? Maybe she broadcasts that question somehow, a frantic, unwitting transmission in the clear. Yorkina averts her eyes from the wreckage. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I just—I thought, when I called you—I thought maybe you were afraid, too.” She shrugs and studies the lap of her jeans. “And I guess you were. But it’s gone now.”

She looks up, her jaw clenched, her teeth fixed in her lower lip, perhaps to hurt it enough that it will stop trembling. “I wish you could get it back. I—”

She swallows the thing she was trying to say.

Tereshkova’s heart hammers, a gas turbine overpressure. Yorkina wants her to go back, to unbuckle the treads, empty the magazines, shed the composite plate, the Kontakt-5 that turns all harm aside. To leave the tank.

She backs toward the door, desperate to withdraw, to escape the killzone.

• • •

The tank only fears four things.

In Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Soviet armed forces used their invincible tanks to lead the attack. Lords of the highway and open plain, the tanks found themselves at a loss to conquer cities. Attacked by untrained men with cheap RPGs, firing from rooftops and alleys in every direction, the T-80s and BMPs were decimated.

Without infantry to protect it, the tank was helpless in a city. Without the SAM battery and anti-aircraft gun to shield it, the tank could not even seize a highway, an open field.

Even the mightiest tank fears operating alone.

• • •

“We can reverse the procedure,” the surgeon says, brow furrowed. “But why? Has there been a complication?”

“Left in isolation, without supporting elements,” Tereshkova says, “the tank cannot survive.”

The surgeon blinks, as if he has forgotten all his hard-won Russian. “Do you understand the risk of relapse? Without surgical reinforcement to the vmPFC regulatory loop, your trauma may return. Are you sure this is what you want?”

“Yes,” Tereshkova says, decisive, committed. Hesitation is anathema to the tank. Hesitation kills. If she slows down for one instant, she will realize that she’s destroying herself. She will waver and withdraw.

But the tank exists to cross the killzone, the no-man’s-land. To open the way.

“This,” she says, holding the surgeon’s gaze, “is what I need now.”

And when they have finished, the amygdala-PFC loop undone, Tereshkova stands at the door to the apartment building, her hand on the buzzer, her scalp itching around the fresh sutures.

A diesel engine roars in the near distance.

Tereshkova remembers, with a physical start, what she has forgotten. She makes a small, desperate sound, terrified, joyful, and lifts her chin. Her hands prickle with sweat.

She thinks of the tank, grinding forward through the crash of artillery, deaf to the protest of passing jets, relentless, unmoved. Draws a slow, steady breath, and exhales her fear.

Presses the buzzer.

Hello?” Yorkina says.

“Hi,” Tereshkova manages, and then, a little tremulously, but smiling as she says it: “I’m scared.”

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Seth Dickinson

Seth DickinsonSeth Dickinson’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, Strange Horizons, and more. He is a writer at Bungie Studios, an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. His first novel will be published by Tor Books in fall 2015.

3 Responses »

  1. Another winner by Seth. I loved The Traitor Baru Cormorant on Beneath Ceaseless Skies. So good at getting to the heartache in the characters, but not so heavy that you can’t read his work over and over again.

  2. Enjoyed your short story. The narrator was right on too.

  3. As an ex tank crew member in the IDF I found the story amazing. Very moving too.

    Thank you.

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