The fuel depot explosion mentioned in Chapter 26? The one that had Sug so shaken up? Here's the full story...
The base was buzzing. On high alert. Everybody not out on patrol was armed and on the perimeter, the guard tower and gates double-manned.
Leach and I were checking our vehicle back into the motor pool, grabbing our pots and flak jackets from the back seat. Our hearts were still galloping.
Another jeep tore into the yard and skidded to a halt right next us. Sugden and Voina. Even in the moonlight, I could tell they were filthy, covered in black soot, steel pot to boot.
Sugden jumped out of the jeep, eyes glowing in his blackened face. “Did you guys freaking see that?” His voice was ragged and hoarse.
“See it?” Leach said. “We were all the way across town and we felt the ground shaking!”
“Like a damn earthquake,” I said. “Then we saw the fire. We booked over there, but emergency wouldn’t let us near. You guys okay?”
Ioli ran up before they could answer.
“Did youse guys hear about the fuel depot?” He took a look at Sugden and Voina. “Holy shit, you were there?”
“What the hell happened? Ioli asked. “I was on the front gate, I hear the blast, I thought the whole friggin’ NVA’d come to pay a visit! I was so freaked, I tackled a kid on a bike and put a rifle to his head.”
Sugden took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “We were doing an escort, routine," he began. He doubled over, hands on his thighs, and coughed hard a few times. He spat on the ground. "We were bringing a convoy in from The Valley, bringing ‘em through town.”
“Big one, nineteen trucks,” Voina added, his voice so rough he could barely speak. “Radio call… automatic weapons fire… on our route.”
Sugden shook his head and leaned against the back of the jeep. “Freaking Congs. Set up a roadblock to force us closer to the depot.” He folded his arms, then cleared his throat. “So we’re thinking we just avoided an ambush, you know? We’re headed in the other direction.”
“Didn’t even…” Voina sputtered between coughs, “cross our mind… anything would happen.”
“And then we passed the fuel tanks,” Sugden continued. “We’d just passed ‘em. I waved to the guard.” He stopped to cough. He closed his eyes. “He waved back.”
His voice got soft. “Christ, he waved back…”
Sugden slid down until he was sitting on the bumper. He leaned over and studied the dirt.
We were all quiet.
Ioli broke the silence. “And so?” he gently prodded. “What happened?”
Sugden sat back up. He took a deep breath and looked over at Voina. Voina had turned away.
Sugden put his glasses back on. He cleared his throat.
“And so the whole place just lit up,” he said, his voice hard, even. Too even. “Like a freaking volcano. Fire everywhere. The jeep jumped right up off the ground, like a bullfrog or something. Hopped up off of the ground. The blast sucked the air right out of the place. Then it was just blackness, man, all black. Voina and me, we can’t see jack, we have to feel for each other, make sure we’re still there. Smoke everywhere, just a freaking world of smoke. And fire. Black and orange, that’s it. That’s all there was. Like being inside a freaking flamethrower.”
“Jesus, man,” I said. “So what did you guys do?”
“What do you think?” Sugden said, lighting a cigarette. His fingers were trembling so much he could barely get the flame to the tip. I reached out and steadied his hand. “We crawled out,” Sugden went on. “And then mop-up ops. We helped the emergency guys.”
He took a deep drag. Coughed. Spat. “Looked for survivors.” Sweat dug trails through the black on his face. All of a sudden, Sugden looked a hundred years old.
We were all silent.
“Did you find any?” Leach drawled, real soft, after a while.
Voina hacked and spat.
“Seventeen trucks, man,” Sugden finally said. Smoke rolled out of his mouth. “Couldn’t find ‘em. Just vaporized… Seven–freaking-teen... ”