This was the part he hated — the waiting. Later, after the attack had begun, there would be no time for fear. He would be too busy carrying out the plan. Trying to stay alive, and escape. All doubts would be shoved aside by the need for action and speed. But in these last few moments of inactivity, his mind had time to dwell on all the things that could go wrong — all the ways that he and his men could die — or worse, be captured.
He had chosen this position carefully. The tracks were twenty meters away. The train would pass at a safe distance. Even so, he couldn’t shake the notion that the great mechanical beast was racing straight toward them.
The vibration grew stronger, rising through the icy ground to rattle his teeth, and make his ears throb. Jampa imagined the train rearing up off the tracks like a giant steel dragon. He fought the urge to lift his head — to sneak a look at the on-rushing machine — to be certain that it had not somehow left the track, that the heavy steel wheels were not surging forward to grind him and his men into the permafrost.
He kept his cheek flat against a tuft of shriveled winter grass, and reached for the 80mm rocket launcher lying next to his hip. The fiberglass firing tube was smooth and cold under his gloved fingers.
The weapon was a PF89 anti-armor infantry rocket, built as a tank-killer for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. It had been purchased on the black market from a profiteering PLA supply officer. There was something karmic in the knowledge that it would now be used to destroy a train carrying Chinese soldiers.
A few meters to Jampa’s right lay Nima and Sonam, the other two men assigned to his three-man strike team. If they were following orders, both men would be lying flat, using their rough-woven cloaks to camouflage their profiles against the withered grass of the Tibetan plateau.
Nima wasn’t the problem. The old man was a
, one of the nomadic herders who roamed the high grasslands and the foothills of the Himalayas, tending yaks and sheep, and wresting a meager existence from this place that foreigners called the roof of the world.
The old shepherd’s iron character had been forged by a lifetime of hardship. He had patience, and he could follow instructions. Jampa had no doubt that Nima was lying perfectly still, maintaining concealment until he received the order to attack.
Sonam was not as disciplined, or as predictable. He was a good fighter, but he was young, and too headstrong to follow orders reliably. He might be lying flat right now, as Jampa had commanded. Or he might already be on his feet, eager to get in the first shot at the target.
Sonam had grown up in the refugee city of Dharamsala, on the Indian side of the mountains. He had spent his entire life in exile. For him, Tibet was not home. It was a cause.
He fought fearlessly against the Chinese intruders who occupied the land of his fathers. Perhaps a little
If Sonam followed his orders, the chances of escape were about fifty-fifty. If the young fighter did something stupid, the odds might drop to zero.
Jampa had gone to great pains to make Sonam understand how easily this raid could go astray, if everyone didn’t stick to the plan. He hoped that some of it had penetrated Sonam’s thick skull, but there was no way of knowing.
Jampa had to resist the temptation to lift his head and check. If Sonam broke cover early, they’d just have to deal with the consequences. Jampa could not improve the situation by violating his own order, and breaking cover himself.
The metal thunder of the train grew louder. Jampa waited with a patience he didn’t feel. There would only be one chance at this. If he misjudged the timing…
The noise seemed to hit a peak, the rushing sound somehow synchronized with the mad racing of his pulse. The first of the train’s three locomotives should be passing him now. Not yet. Not… yet…
He maintained cover for the space of a half dozen more heartbeats. And… Now! He threw the heavy cloak aside and leapt to his feet, swinging the Chinese rocket launcher up, even as he shouted, “
The lens magnified the target, making the train seem even closer than it really was. The sides of the cars were suddenly enormous, and they appeared to be passing directly in front of Jampa’s face. Although he had practiced looking through the eyepiece, the view was startling and unfamiliar. He swung the weapon a few degrees to the left, and found himself staring through a passenger window into the eyes of a young Chinese soldier.
It couldn’t have lasted more than an instant, but Jampa’s sense of time had become distorted by adrenaline, and the foreknowledge of imminent destruction. The seconds had become elastic, stretching into minutes, or perhaps even hours.
In that impossibly-frozen moment, he watched the soldier’s expression flicker from surprise, to recognition, to fear. Jampa had been a teacher of Science, before the Chinese had burned his school. He understood the workings of the human brain well enough to know that he could not possibly see and register so many details in a mere fraction of a second. It had to be his imagination, his own guilt over what he was about to do, but it seemed real. It
His men held their fire as well. They were waiting for him to pull the trigger first — no doubt assuming that their leader had some valid tactical reason for delaying the attack.
The train cars continued to hurtle by, but the face of that soldier was seared into Jampa’s memory. He was so young. Not much more than a boy.