This chapter contains descriptions of wounds as well as scenes of violence and death.
Some descriptions may be considered briefly graphic.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
City of Bada Aso – East of Penance
7th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso
Storm rains flowed freely over the streets, washing through alleys and into drainage ditches and swelling into rivers in miniature. Rain fell thick over ruins and debris, forming muddy puddles wherever captured, and where the water found stable paths, it washed away mounds of sand and dust. It washed through the skeletal remains of buildings, removing the ash, and the grit, and leaving behind clean husks like the discarded shells of cicada.
Overhead the flashing of lightning bolts grew intense and concurrent enough to light the interiors of ruined buildings for several seconds at a time. Power seethed inside roiling dark-blue clouds, streaks of intense light tracing the sky like the veins of the storm.
Bada Aso’s promised storm had come, but it did not slow the fighting.
Whistling gusts, the cracking thunder and crashing sheets of water overwhelmed the sound of rifles and guns in the city’s southern districts. Despite the drowning out of the battle cries and the deathly noise, the war continued unabated beneath the downpour.
Combat forces found each other anew across the city.
Some were still searching.
Under the buffeting air and the deluge, an unarmored passenger car drove northbound at sixty kilometers per hour. It navigated the roads straddling the industrial park, searching the way to Penance and the Cathedral’s vulnerable northern flank. There were four men atop. A driver, wiping water off his face; a radio man, cloak wrapped around his pack radio; an officer, still wearing his peaked cap in the rain; and a man with a Norgler machine gun, scanning the dark buildings. Glances darted to their flanks whenever the sky flashed.
They parked near the corner connecting their road to the Cathedral park intersection, hiding the car on the street between two ghastly buildings hollowed out by bombs.
The Commander gave orders to the radio man, who quickly began to transmit to the rest of the company, and then he dismounted along with the gunner. They crept around the corner and peered down the road with a pair of binoculars, but this proved folly. Dripping wet, the commander wiped down his binoculars twice with his cloak and then with his shirt, and peered again to no avail. He waved the gunner back around the corner.
They returned and found the driver now slumped over the wheel, and gore splashed across the windshield, while the radio man hugged his sparking, burnt-out box to death.
A woman’s voice cried out under a clap of thunder, “Halt!”
Behind them, Sergeant Chadgura and Illynichna approached from the building door, their silenced carbines loaded and raised to the men. From around the back of the car, Gulab and Jandi rose from cover with pistols in hand and carbines at their back. The Commander raised his hands over his head, while the Gunner dropped his Norgler on the ground.
“Auf den Boden!” Illynichna cried.
She was speaking Nochtish to them so they understood.
Gulab did not know what she was saying specifically but she had an idea, particularly when the men began to kneel in place with their hands raised into the air. On their knees they were closer to eye level, and Illynichna approached the prisoners and circled them.
Illynichna drew her pistol and shot the gunner through one ear and out the other.
He fell to the ground in front of the Commander.
From his wound free-flowing blood mixed with rain traveling down into the drainage ditch. The Sergeant’s voice then turned vicious, and she bared her teeth at the Commander.
“Wo sind die Haubitzen?” She said, smacking the Commander across the back of the head with her pistol, and knocking off his cap. It rolled into the drain.
There was no answer from him.
She held the pistol behind the back of his head, pressing the barrel against his scalp.
“Check him for plans.” Chadgura said, nodding toward Gulab.
Gulab skirted the side of the car, pressed up against the alley, and knelt in front of the Nochtish Commander. It was the closest she had ever been to one of them.
He was pale, very pale, and his eyes were a sharp blue.
Even Zungu folk had more color to their skin than him. Beneath his cap he had dark yellow hair, like the color of mustard, and he had a hooked nose and a shaven, pockmarked face. His breath smelled like cigarettes. There was a strange look in his eyes and mouth, as though this was a tedious inconvenience. He was unafraid of them, unshaken.
“Half of you start laying down the explosive mines along the road.” Illynichna said. “He probably radioed for a convoy to advance earlier and he thinks he’ll be saved.”
The rest of the squadron walked out of the building carrying satchel bags with explosive mines. They started laying them along the road, in bumps and depressions and breaks, arranging them in lines of three to cover as much road as they could. Meanwhile Gulab spread open the man’s cloak, took his gun and tossed it aside, and searched his pockets and his side satchel bag for maps and documents she could use.
There were a few folders and clippings and she tried to get a quick look at them, using his cloak for cover, before stowing them in her own bag to protect them from the pouring rain. It was difficult and sloppy work and required her to breathe in far too much of his smoke breath, and to hear his grumbling and to be far too near him.
She found a photo of a woman in his cigar pocket; she discarded it in front of him.
She did not want to look at something like that for too long.
She didn’t want to think about it, about him.
Gulab found him staring at her after the fact, but he still said nothing and she never acknowledged him in return. He was an enemy. But it was a very hateful glare.
“I think he’s got operational maps.” Gulab finally shouted.
“You think?” Illynichna asked. She looked like a little reaper in her poncho.
“I know he does! I know I found some! Is that better?” Gulab replied.
“It is better.” Illynichna replied. “Let us make haste then and see what we got.”
Once Gulab was clear from the man, Illynichna shot him.
He fell forward over the picture of who Gulab assumed must have been his wife or girlfriend or lover; something like that. It was pitiable, perhaps, but it was what it was.
“Hide the bodies in the back of the alley, behind the building.” Chadgura ordered. She pointed out Private Dabo, and said, “Drive the enemy car around the corner and hide it between two buildings. Their convoy must drive past here fully unaware.”
Dabo climbed into the car, took the key from the dead driver and started it. Chadgura and Illynichna heaved the bodies of the radio man and the driver, while Gulab took the officer, and Private Jandi the gunner, and they pulled them away. Every corpse left a trail of blood behind it, but the downpour washed all the red away down the drainage ditches. Gulab watched the blood flow downhill while pulling the dead Officer.
Aided by the furious sky they left behind a street more pristine than they found.
For these men their final resting place would be in a neat row behind the building, sat up against the wall with their legs outstretched and their hands crossed over their laps. Illynichna carefully shut the eyes of each man in turn and closed their slacking mouths.
“A corpse with eyes and mouth open serves as a lens for demons.” Illynichna explained.
“I suppose it’s good to tread lightly. But we should hurry.” Chadgura said.
Gulab had picked the Officer of anything useful before, and she thought to search the other dead the same – but none of her comrades had the same idea. Chadgura and Illynichna turned and rushed out of the back alley, and Gulab hesitated at first. Those men might have had more items in their bags that could be worth taking with her for the fight ahead.
She gave one long look at the dead officer and his men, but then left them behind.
She thought it best to side with Illynichna on this one.
Corpses might invite unsavory things, and it was best not to linger near them.
Rain started falling at a sharp angle as the wind gained strength, whipping their cloaks about. Once Private Dabo returned from around the corner, the squadron rushed further up the road and reconvened. They gathered in one of the the second floor bedrooms of a little communal apartment building. Chadgura said that it had once housed three small families, probably, so there was a lot of room, and it was recently built and sturdy. It kept out the rain, certainly, and it had received little damage from the bombing and fighting. Windows on the second floor gave a good line of sight to the road stretching in front of them.
“Corporal Kajari, let us look at those maps now that we have shelter.” Chadgura said.
Gulab nodded. She reached under her cloak and started to dig through her bag.
“Do you hear that?” Illynichna said suddenly. “Keep quiet for a moment.”
In the calm between thunderclaps they heard the sound approaching vehicles, their clicking tracks and their engines, their rattling beds as they bobbed along the damaged road.
Gulab moved forward and stood near the window, and she peered out hastily, uneasily. She saw a tank approaching with two half-tracks behind. It was the convoy, as Illynichna had predicted. They approached along the northbound road, driving toward the corner into the westbound road to Penance – just like the car they stopped a while back.
“Light tank and two carriers, 30 men or so.” Gulab said. “Approaching at full speed.”
She did not know the exact models, save for the tank, of which she had seen drawings and a few old photos during training – it was an M5 Ranger. Though she had not seen the carriers before their function was obvious, given the load of soaking wet men riding them.
“200 meters out or so.” Gulab added. She was getting better with distances.
“Likely a flanking force.” Chadgura replied. “Looking to stretch out the line at the cathedral. They will approach via the road our Half-Track took getting here. It appears their mechanized forces are carrying out the inverse of our current plans.”
“Good. Let them keep driving.” Illynichna said. She pointed at Gulab and gestured for her to crouch near the window. “Keep an eye out but don’t let them see you.”
Gulab nodded her head and did as instructed.
Her head was barely above the windowsill.
She gestured with her fingers and hands to the rest of the squad. “100 meters out.”
She could see the vehicles. Her heart sped up as the tank came closer.
One blast of its gun through the window could be enough to put out the entire squad. Each half-track had a Norgler that would shred anyone trying to escape via the door or a window, and there was no back door. Should they be spotted they would be completely trapped inside. Though the enemy was not checking all the buildings, Gulab thought that was only because most of them were in ruins. Few buildings remained that stood proud, and theirs was one of them. Her mind raced. Perhaps the convenience was not worth it.
Was it too conspicuous? But then again they needed a place to read the maps!
Gulab’s head raced with morbid thoughts.
“Fity meters.” She gestured. Her hands started to shake. They were close.
Hurtling down from the sky a lightning bolt hit an outdoor television antennae across the street. There was a tremendous flash that startled the breath out of Gulab.
The M5 Ranger at the head of the convoy stopped thirty meters from their house.
It raised its gun to the second floor level, and began to swing its turret around.
Gulab choked and hid behind the wall. She forgot to make the gesture for the current distance, but it did not matter. Everyone knew what was happening now.
All around her Gulab saw the stony faces of her comrades, and the determined, defiant look in Illynichna’s face. Lightning briefly illuminated the room and their faces stood out, stark white like masks. She started to mutter a prayer to the disparate gods of her people, to the light and the spirits and the ancestors, to the goblins that became the rocks along the mountain, to the powerful rock bears, and to the sky and its various stars.
To all things of power she cried silently, desperately seeking their boons.
She waited, with a tension in her chest. Illynichna pointed out the window.
Gulab peered again. Ahead of the stalled convoy the M5 faced its turret across the street from her, toward the ruined building with the charred antenna. Men in the bed of the half-tracks talked among themselves, amused by the bolts from out the dark blue.
The M5 Ranger returned its gun to the neutral position. Smoke contrails blew from its sides, and its tracks clicked again as it trundled forward, picking up speed. The APC Half-Tracks followed, and the convoy bypassed Gulab’s position entirely. She sighed with relief.
They headed instead for the mines. Everyone waited quietly for the explosions.
Silence. Gulab peered carefully around the edge of the window.
Past their building the tank drove through the mined area without detonating a thing; behind it the half-tracks pushed obliviously on, wheels driving over the bumps and across the cracks. They had misjudged the width of the tank as well, and it drove between many of the mines that had been planted closer to the street than to the center of the road.
“They’re not triggering any of the mines!” Gulab said.
“Zaktnis! Keep watching!” Illynichna said, in a hushed but angry tone.
Gulab looked out the window again, as carefully as before.
She saw the tank almost to the corner where they stored the bodies. Behind it the half-tracks were coming up on a part of the road split in half by a perpendicular crack.
On the leading half-track the front wheels sank briefly into the gap and then rose again propelled by a massive flame. Under it a mine detonated, and the explosion launched the front wheels into the air and turned the engine block into scrap metal.
Whether the driver was charred or perforated by burning debris Gulab could not tell.
Several men fell from the vehicle and hit the road, right atop more of the mines.
Behind them the second half-track stopped suddenly, but its track crossed a pair of mines and detonated, casting pieces of the track and bed into the air and nearly flipping the vehicle back over front. All the men inside were caught in the blast, and the driver was speared by shrapnel from the leading vehicle and his own. There was a spectacular explosion as the mines started going off, each triggered by the heavy debris thrown from another’s reaction. Smoke and fire and steel spread across the road.
Ahead of the procession the tank stopped.
A hunk of flaming metal crashed next to its track.
Without warning an explosion blew away its left track.
The M5 tried to move, but without a working track it started to sway, and drove carelessly over a mine. This one detonated more or less under the track.
Smoke and fire erupted from the gun and blew open the top hatches.
Gulab pulled away from the window. She gestured with her hand along her neck.
After a moment of silence, Sgt. Chadgura started to clap. She clapped her hands hard and loud for almost a whole minute, her expressionless eyes fixated on her own crashing palms. She clapped so vigorously that she nearly overcame the sound of thunder and her hands shook from the effort when she stopped. She looked at them, her eyes glazed over.
“Enjoying the show, tovarisch?’ Sgt. Illynichna gently asked.
Sgt. Chadgura raised her head and stared at Illynichna, her eyes dull save for the little red rings, the evidence of her training. There was a glint of recognition.
“Apologies. It helps me cope with stress.” She tonelessly replied.
“I did not know, sorry. There are a lot of myths about your kind.” Sgt. Illynichna said.
“Like many myths, they are partly false and partly true. Truth shifts depending on the individual. Rest assured that the fashion in which I experience stress will not impede my mission, and I shall make unearthly effort not to stim in a compromising position.”
“Right, tovarisch komandir.” Sgt. Illynichna replied. “Good to know.”
Safe from enemy vehicles for the moment, the squadron stood in a circle around the center of the room. Gulab emptied out her satchel and they sorted the contents. There were aerial photographs of Bada Aso, taken during the air battle on the 22nd. A photograph of the southern district’s western sector, around Penance, was marked up with pen around the Buxa Industrial Park. There was also a map, with several places in Buxa marked up in pen.
“Good, he was a Leutnant,” Illynichna said. “We can split up and check these areas.”
“We have only two portable radios, so we must divide into two teams.” Chadgura said.
“I need someone whose Ayvartan is clearer than mine with me.” Illynichna said.
Chadgura turned to Gulab and patted her on the shoulder. “Go with the Sergeant.”
Gulab’s shoulders hunched and her back straightened like she’d felt a jolt of electricity.
“Are you sure?” She asked. She stared at Sgt. Illynichna with obvious apprehension.
“You hunted game, didn’t you? And you’re a good shot. Your voice is also much more emphatic than mine or the rest of the squadron. You’d be a better fit.” Chadgura replied.
Sgt. Illynichna stared at Gulab with a sudden interest. “Oh, so she was a hunter?”
Gulab rubbed the back of her head. “Well, yes, I am, but I was only a humble village hunter, seeking out the horrible Rock Bears of the Kucha.” She smiled, and laughed a little, and her tone took on a character both humble and conceited all at once.
She felt her head filling up with fantasies, and her mouth started to carry her away.
Various adjectives, most a touch unwarranted, came unbidden to the tip of her tongue.
Emboldened by the attention she continued to speak. “I’m a skilled shot, I dare say, and indeed a master of navigating a forested environment, but we are in a city, and I humbly suggest, my skills may diminish in such an environment, considerable though they are!”
“She talks too much but I will take her.” Sgt. Illynichna said.
Chadgura nodded in agreement.
Gulab grumbled, saying a few well I never‘s and some fine be that way‘s under her breath. She crossed her arms and her face flushed in partial recognition of her foolishness.
Each Sergeant formed a little group and called a combat area.
Buxa Industrial Park lay beyond the block of buildings across the street from them. From the second floor they could see the top of the factory chimneys in the various manufacturing buildings. Chadgura took the largest group, six people, around half a conventional squad, and she would hook around the back of the park where enemy presence was smaller and there was much more cover. Sgt. Illynichna, a self-proclaimed stealth expert, demanded a much smaller group – only Private Jandi and Corporal Kajari would accompany the Svechthan Sergeant. She seemed confident with these arrangements.
Both teams went over their assignments together then split up to arrange plans.
Everyone was armed with a laska silenced carbine, chambered in a smaller round than they were used to, 5.56. They had enough ammunition for several assassinations, but not enough for a sustained firefight. Several squad members carried satchel charges or grenades. There were still a few anti-tank explosive mines left over, in various’ members’ possession. There were silenced pistols in every holster. They had dark plastic waterproof ponchos for the rainfall, and these offered little tactical advantage but keeping them from sickness. Outside they would have to move intelligently to keep hidden.
“We will go along the roads and make our way up the front of the park. It is imperative that we not be seen or heard; however both these senses are critically impaired in a storm. Nonetheless we will move carefully and use the thunder to mask us. Got it okhotnik?”
Another word she didn’t understand. “Yes ma’am Sergeant uh. Eel, uh, nick–?”
Sgt. Illynichna sighed. “If you’ve that much trouble just call me Nikka.”
With that conundrum solved, everyone gathered again, and quickly shared their plans.
They then made ready to depart into the raging weather once more.
“Good luck, Charvi.” Gulab said. She patted the Sergeant in her shoulder.
Chadgura stared at her blankly for a moment before nodding her head.
“Thank you, Corporal.” She said. “Please return safely.”
Gulab supposed that was the most emphatic valediction she would receive.
Mission start; the handful of KVW troops deployed to the Buxa sub-region ignored the carnage that had raged and now simmered in the street and pressed on. There were no obvious survivors around the minefield. Any survivors would likely be crippled.
Across the street the squadron separated into their two groups and moved further east between the buildings. Sgt. Nikka’s group would be moving directly east to meet the western face of Buxa, its “front,” while Sgt. Chadgura’s group would walk a greater distance, rounding the north of the complex and making their way to its farthest corners. Everyone took the most direct route, cutting right through alleys and into building blocks.
Gulab’s footsteps splashed water over the streets.
Were it not for the drains the city would probably flood.
To get to Buxa Gulab, Jandi and Nikka crossed a series of buildings.
They crossed the building with the burnt-out antennae; Gulab wondered if lightning could strike them. Past the buildings along the street, through an alleyway, they found themselves faced with a collapse. There was a burnt-out hulk of a Nochtish fighter plane, two adjacent buildings collapsed around the wreck. There was only rubble, pieces of the plane sticking out, and the merest suggestion of the former buildings, half a wall here, an intact corner there. Debris formed an obstacle as large as the buildings that preceded it.
Shouldering their carbines by the leather straps, the trio climbed hand over hand over the steep, unstable mound. Rain washed over the debris and made it slippery, but it somehow held together. Gulab felt the rocks give a little when she put all her weight on them. She supported herself by her arms and legs in equal measure to avoid backsliding.
Sgt. Nikka on the other hand climbed with great skill, maneuvering her small body through the footholds and handholds without missing a grab or dislodging a stone. She made her way to the top before anyone, and took a knee, scanning the surroundings.
Overhead a bolt of lightning shot down from the sky and seemed to stop short of them. From Gulab’s vantage, Sgt. Nikka’s small body looked like another rock atop the mound. Gulab closed her eyes, and climbed with her breath – she inhaled deep, reached up, let go the air, and raised her leg, and repeated, mechanically, until she was at the top.
“Look ahead, Corporal, Private.” Sgt. Nikka said, pointing the way forward.
Gulab knelt atop the mound, and peered out into the sheets of rain.
Beyond their mound it was just a short walk to the next car road, and across from it, a strip of street straddling a long fence. This fence separated the warehouses, the stacks of crates, the heavy machinery, and the various factory yards of the Buxa complex.
This collection of disparate buildings and open spaces was home to workers who turned raw materials delivered to Buxa into finished product, and the staff who sorted them out and sent them on their way to various places in Adjar that lacked the infrastructure to produce them. From her vantage, Gulab saw the facade mostly a long blocky concrete factory building past the fence, with two wings off its sides, probably connected by enclosed exterior halls to a central manufacturing area, where the chimneys rose out of.
It was a very functional-looking building, and quite large.
“There’s our red circle. We’re going. Keep tight.” Sgt. Nikka said.
Together the squadron climbed down the other side of the mound.
Gulab found it easier than climbing. She could almost slide down.
They stood at the edge of the street, hiding in a building that was little more than an empty frame, its debris flushed out into the street by the rainfall. Between their side of the street and the fence the distance was eight or ten meters, and from there twenty meters to the factory, once the fence was crossed. There were a few empty crates, tossed about by the storm, but it was mostly open space from the fence to the factory. There were a few figures in black rain capes, staggering along their routes in the middle of the storm.
“Chyort voz’mi.” Nikka cursed in a low voice.
“Not much cover out there.” Gulab said. “Do we kill them before moving?”
“At this distance we may not be able to get to the bodies of the dead guards in time to collect them and hide them. We don’t know how tight their patrols are.” Sgt. Nikka said.
Lightning flashed, and the soldiers patrolling the factory appeared in stark relief to their surroundings. Many of them stopped to look at the sky above them. A few of them took cover near the building, perhaps afraid of a bolt crashing down on them.
Gulab identified around six of them within supporting distance of each other, largely concentrated around the southern edge of the factory and with a line of sight to the east.
“What about that?” Gulab asked, and pointed out the manhole cover on the road.
“Do you think there’s a tunnel out to the complex?” Sgt. Nikka asked. “It is my understanding most sewer systems are just small pipes connected to the larger runoff under the streets. Would there be anywhere the two of us can actually fit down there?”
“I don’t know, but Bada Aso’s sewer is very old.” Gulab said. “I don’t know how it relates to the tunnel system that our troops have been using, but it’s worth a shot, I think.”
Private Jandi spoke up. “Even if we don’t find a tunnel into the factory, we could find a street approach that is less crowded. Worth trying, over jumping the fence.”
“Then it is decided. Stack up by the side of the street.” Sgt. Nikka said.
One by one the squadron members jumped out of a window on the side of the ruined building and hid in the alleyway. They waited for the sky to thicken again with lightning bolts, the noise and raging color once again unsettling the guards.
Under this show the trio moved quickly into the road.
Gulab and Jandi lifted the manhole cover by a pair of catches, and set it aside. Sgt. Nikka shone a battery light into the hole briefly, then jumped down and splashed into the water – Gulab and Jandi looked at one another, one puzzled, the other inexpressive, and silently agreed to descend via the staircase. They quickly replaced the manhole cover once inside, leaving hopefully no trace of their passing. Electric torches went on immediately.
Down in the sewer, storm waters rushed downhill along the tunnel, and rose almost to Gulab’s knees. They could stand in it, but only just barely. And for Sgt. Nikka, the water was over her knees, and she had to exert more considerable effort to remain upright. There were iron handholds on the walls, and they grabbed on to them for support.
They could not see the footholds under the rushing water – from the staircase, there was a platform, which they stood on, and between it and the platform on the other side of the sewer tunnel there was a channel for the normal level of water that was now flooded.
One wrong step and they could be swept downstream.
“I’ve got a hook in my pack, pick it up, attach a rope, and give it.” Sgt. Nikka said.
Gulab nodded. She briefly let go of the handholds, and while struggling against the current, picked out the hook from Nikka’s pack, and attached it to rope from her own. She handed the implement back. The Sergeant inspected the knot, and found it satisfactory.
“Now shine your light on the other side of the room, over the handholds.” She said.
Responding, Gulab aimed the beam of her electric torch to the handholds across the channel. Sgt. Nikka allowed the hook to hang a little slack, holding it by the rope. She swung it, flicking her wrist, five times, letting loose more rope, before throwing. She cast the hook up against the wall, and it slid down the rock and caught on to the handhold. The Sergeant pulled the rope, testing that it had a good strong grip, and tied it to her handhold.
“We can use it to cross now.” She said. “Keep hold of the rope and watch your step.”
Sgt. Nikka went first. She held the rope, a thick sturdy hemp rope, and walked slowly, step by step, testing the ground with the tip of her foot before setting it down.
When she came to the channel, she dipped her foot, and then the other, hanging off the rope, and she pulled herself little by little to the other side. She lifted her foot, set it on the other side, and walked up to the handholds. Gulab followed her movements.
She now had a better idea of where the channel was, and knew the exact distance it covered, so her own steps were more confident. She hung by the rope, and made her way gingerly, finding a solid foothold on the other side and establishing herself well.
Once situated, she waved her arm and signaled for Private Jandi to cross.
“Don’t worry comrade, I will catch you if anything goes wrong.” Gulab said amicably.
Private Jandi nodded.
She backed up, and took a sudden running leap across the channel.
She landed without incident right beside Sgt. Nikka.
There was barely a splash of water in her wake, and she hardly needed the rope to remain on her feet. Gulab blinked with astonishment at the reckless leap.
“Don’t do things your own way next time, Private!” Sgt. Nikka said, sounding annoyed.
“I thought she wanted me to jump. She said she would catch me.” Private Jandi said.
“She didn’t say that at all!” Sgt. Nikka replied. “I don’t understand you people!”
They followed the handholds through the water rushing against their feet, and waded toward a branch in the old sewer. This was the way closer toward the factory. Barren black stone rose all around them, and it would have been nearly pitch black without their electric torches. Built hundreds of years ago and renovated piecemeal, the Bada Aso combined sewer contained many passages. The tunnel was large enough that they could stand fully erect in any spot. Gulab suspected there were probably many large passages meant for maintenance. There were pipes running all across the walls and ceiling.
Ahead the tunnel forked left, and taking this tunnel west, they saw slivers of light in the distance. They found a steep stone slide across the sewer channel. It was tinged a strange color, and smelled. Water descended into the sewer channel from a grating at the top of the slide, five meters high. Gulab strained her eyes, but could not really make out anything outside the grating. Certainly it led somewhere in Buxa that needed to drain water.
“Don’t smell too much. I think this was an old chemical disposal.” Nikka said. “It probably spent decades becoming encrusted with filth. It still smells toxic to me.”
“What? Chemicals? Right into the runoff?” Gulab asked in shock.
Sgt. Nikka did not answer. She stepped forward, and found a foothold where the channel should be – there was a plate there to bridge platforms. She led the squadron to the slide, and procured a new hook. Jandi offered her rope. The Sergeant swung skillfully at the grate, and caught the hook between the gaps. She offered the rope to Gulab, who climbed behind her, with Nikka in the rear. They sidled up to the grating. Nikka turned around, putting her back to the slide, and looked up and out through the grate.
“I don’t see a guard. We’re in some kind of empty vat that water’s coming down on. We can probably climb out of it. Come on, and be quick about it.” Nikka said.
Gulab acknowledged and climbed up to her, and together they managed to push the heavy grate up and out, while pinning the hook between the grate and the floor above for support. They climbed out of the sewer, collected the hook, and assembled anew.
They were indeed inside some kind of massive vat, under a porous tin roof, through which much of the rain came down unhindered. Nikka threw the hook again, and they climbed up and out of the vat, and jumped down. Gulab landed hard on her side and squirmed, while Nikka and Jandi rolled harmlessly against the floor and stood again.
Gulab winced. The fall had knocked the breath from her, and she was slow to stand.
She looked around in a haze for a few moments, taking stock.
They were in the factory warehouse, where products and tools from the factory were stored. There were stacks of steel containers, and dormant tractors and forklifts, and several vats like the one they climbed, affixed to the ground and connected to rusting pipe.
Perhaps this warehouse had once been a chemical facility indeed.
While most of the heavy machinery of the nearby factory had been evacuated, there was still product in this warehouse that had been left behind. There were small parts scattered about, metal plates in stacks, and industrial vehicles that had nowhere to go.
Sergeant Nikka gave Gulab her breather, then ordered everyone to move out.
“Carbines up. We’ll get to the second story of the factory and look around from that vantage. We should be able to see those howitzers from there. Hold your fire unless I say otherwise. Should I issue a kill order, shoot as precisely and silently as possible.”
Nikka drew her Laska carbine and looked over its iron sights as she crept slowly forwards, moving in decisive, careful steps. Gulab and Jandi followed as stealthily as they could. Rain was still coming down on them almost as strongly as it had outside the warehouse. This was, for once, something to be thankful for. Much like it washed away the blood from the streets, the rain was chipping away the grime and the smell from them.
Gulab hoped nothing in that last grating was truly toxic, and if it was, that its effects had dulled away with time. She would rather be shot by the enemy than to die in a sick bed from rummaging in a sewer. Hopefully it was not the local unions that had allowed this.
28-AG-30 Penance Road – Cathedral of Penance
Equipment quality varied wildly in the Territorial Army.
Adesh had looked through the cloudy aiming scopes of enough direct-fire guns to know that this was a part with low priority, and yet the traverse equipment was always smooth and easy to use. He had been told once that many of their anti-tank explosive shells had a weak powder load, because the best powder charges were kept reserved for the anti-aircraft and long-range artillery branches, and he could believe that, having hefted around both the sleek, shiny, powerful AA ammo, and the simple and off-puttingly light shells for his current gun. He also knew that many of their bullets were made in small workshops rather than the big glamorous factories that were shown in the pamphlets.
None of it was perfect. Priorities shifted, and resources allocated shifted with them.
However, the rations were always good quality food in his opinion.
Red Paneer was Adesh’s favorite, and it never disappointed.
It was spiced well, and if one followed the instructions it would never end up too watery, and the cheese was never gummy, nor were the vegetables too mushy. Food was seen as crucial for everyone, and given the same care as those big artillery shells.
Circumstances, however, could render the dish difficult to savor.
Around Adesh the walls and ceiling of the Cathedral rumbled from the artillery pummeling the surrounding area. Enemy howitzers had been shelling the area extensively, smashing dozens of holes into the land between Penance Road and the Cathedral. Shells occasionally hit the steps, or the roof, or fell just short of a trench. Mostly they fell into open earth, hitting nobody while denying the territory to everybody. This shelling brought the battle to a standstill and prevented either side from engaging the other.
Thunder and shellfalls kept everyone quite awake and anxious.
The Cathedral nave was crowded. Wounded men and women (and a couple perhaps not grown enough to be referred to as such) were set down wherever there was space.
They cried through grit teeth as medics extracted bullets and shrapnel from their flesh, most in cold blood. Morphine was reserved for the amputees. For those with particularly bad flesh wounds, their only mercy was to be rendered very drunk with liquor while the medics sewed up gashes the length of forearms. They lay dazed, their faces expressing a kind of almost spiritual delusion as they bled on their green sheets.
It made Adesh shudder.
He saw a drunken woman laughing weakly as pieces of metal were picked out of her back; and a man with his cheek lacerated, delirious with pain and fever as the medics closed his exposed jaw. He saw big black bruises and horrible bubbling yellow burns.
Adesh sat in a corner, his hexamine burner extinguished but still smoking and stinking, spooning red broth and hunks of cheese into his mouth, and chewing, slowly and deliberately, his stomach roiling from nerves and the mixed smell of chemicals and blood.
Keeping his eyes down he avoided seeing too much of the wounded and the fighting.
Soon he started to feel dizzy from the stress, the dire atmosphere, from the nasty smells and the pitiable sounds. His eyes teared up and his lids turned heavy.
His vision swam and he started to nod involuntarily.
Before he let himself go into the black, a familiar voice jolted him awake.
“Adesh, it’s almost our turn again. Rahani wants us to eat and make ready.”
Nnenia appeared; her right sleeve was cut open, exposing a white, bloody bandage around her upper arm. She sat next to Adesh, undid the black plastic tie holding back her shoulder-length hair, nonchalantly unbuttoned her jacket, and quickly ripped open her own ration. She ignored the entree in the box – instead she spooned bullion paste over hardtack biscuits, and bit into that. She washed each biscuit down with water from her canteen.
Adesh had never seen anyone do that. He thought the paste was there for soup.
Nnenia seemed indifferent to its taste. She chewed calmly and swallowed quickly.
“How is that?” Adesh asked. He felt a little guilty about his pot full of broth.
“It’s fine.” Nnenia said through a big mouthful of bouillon paste. This was followed by a long silence. Nnenia was always a little terse and quiet and had an apathetic demeanor.
“You look like you’re doing well despite the circumstances.” Adesh said. He tried to smile and make a little conversation. He was close to going mad from the tension. “What’s your secret? Even back then you were so calm.” He hesitated to expound upon what he meant by ‘back then’. He still felt a lingering discomfort about his behavior during the event.
Though the question did not seem to rattle her, she put off answering it. She swallowed her food, put down the rest of the ration package beside her, and started pulling up her hair again. Her hair was wavy and stuck out in places, particularly her bangs.
She pulled it back into a bun.
“I,” Nnenia hesitated for a moment. “Well, I really don’t think that I,” she paused again. She glanced around the room at the wounded and the medics, and she looked at the closed iron doors, and took a sullen expression. She mumbled, “Maybe I’ve seen worse.”
Adesh had barely heard what she said, and did not trust his own reckoning of it.
“Oh, sorry, I think I was dozing off again Nnenia, I didn’t hear–”
Eshe dropped in beside them then, surprising them both. He sat down beside Nnenia and struggled to open a ration pack. He tried to smile, but he was breathing heavily and sweating. “Hujambo. Sorry if I’m late to the muster, I was trying to help out around the sickbeds. It was bad there though. Medics told me to leave, said I was looking disturbed.”
He fumbled with the package lid, trying to hold the box between his sling and chest.
“Let me get that for you,” Nnenia said. She ripped open the package for him. She split open the bag of biscuits for him, and pulled his canteen from its holster inside his jacket.
“I’m sorry.” Eshe said. He lifted a biscuit to his mouth with his good hand.
His other arm was still in a sling from all the abuse it took during their miraculous escape from the dive-bombers on the 22nd of the Gloom. He had carried Adesh around the park, saving him from a fire and Adesh had rewarded him by deliriously thrashing in his arms and freshly banging up his wounds even more than they were.
Everything that followed was equally ignominious.
If anything, Adesh felt it should have been him still apologizing to them.
“You don’t have to apologize, it is fine.” Nnenia replied. “No trouble at all.”
Eshe laughed. It was a choppy laugh, almost a cough; a very sour and sick kind of sound. He had tears in his eyes. “I’m always being kind of a nuisance to you, aren’t I?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about at all.” Nnenia replied sharply. “Did you have any of that dark liquor from the medics? You do look disturbed. Settle down.”
“No, it’s the smells. It smells like molten plastic and blood. It’s sickening.” Eshe said.
“Then keep your head down.” Nnenia gently said. “You don’t have to fight anymore.”
“I’d feel like a load if I didn’t do something.” Eshe said, shaking his wounded arm.
“Listen to her.” Adesh said. “You won’t return to form unless you rest a little. And besides, isn’t there some army regulation on injured people on the front lines?”
“Spirits defend, that’s the kind of person I’ve become, isn’t it? Everyone thinks they can only talk to me by the books.” Eshe said. He was both laughing and weeping a little.
“We love you that way.” Adesh added, in a voice like one would use on a baby.
“But it is true, that is what you’ve become.” Nnenia bluntly replied.
“I just think we ought to do things right, to help us do the best we can.” Eshe replied.
“Then lay down before you hurt yourself!” Nnenia shouted.
As soon as Nnenia spoke up the floor rumbled, and everyone gave a jump.
For a ridiculous second Adesh thought it had finally happened, and Eshe had brought the wrathful God from inside Nnenia out of hiding, but it could not have been her. There was a deep, reverberating noise muffled by the rock, but clearly coming from the basement.
It was like a bomb had gone off under them.
Adesh knew it was entirely unrelated to the shelling.
“Stay here!” Adesh said. Nnenia and Eshe nodded their heads in confusion.
He swallowed the rest of his broth in a long gulp and hurried downstairs to investigate.
He broke into a run to the other side of the nave and took the door on the right wall, and there was an outer hallway with stained glass windows, and stairs leading up and down in opposite sides of the room. He made for the basement, but found the way down was crowded by men and women pulling up strange pieces of green-painted metal – there was a group of two women with a very long tube, and a man with a wheel in one hand and a muzzle brake in the other, and two men with a heavy machine block.
“Hujambo, you here to give us a hand?” Asked a man at the bottom of the steps.
Too surprised to reply coherently, Adesh nodded rapidly.
Adesh grabbed hold of the long tube and helped the women to maneuver it into the hall, and then out into the nave near the doors. They set the tube down, and Adesh stood and watched the rest of the pieces being brought out and piled up.
An engineer, trailing behind them, started to direct everyone else as they assembled the machine. She told them all that it was a gun, a 122mm howitzer. They had brought it in pieces through the tunnels. Then they collapsed the tunnel behind them.
That tube was the gun barrel, and the machine block the breech and firing controls. It had a wheel connected to parts that handled the elevation, but traverse was still entirely a matter of lifting weapon and pushing it left or right. First the engineering squad set the parts together on the floor, then they painstakingly raised the gun onto its wheeled carriage once that piece had been pulled free of the basements stairs and the outer hallway.
Finally the last of the new arrivals left the basement.
Lieutenant Purana walked in from the outer hall and offered a solemn “Hujambo,” to the troops around. He was a tall man with skin like polished bronze and very curly hair, and a boyish youthful face. His brow was furrowed with worry. As a Jr. Lieutenant he had commanded forces under Major Nakar at the border and did well for the circumstances.
Because Lt. Bogana was badly wounded and admitted to the hospital, the independent artillery batteries once under his command were shuffled into Purana’s 6th Ox Rifles instead. Adesh had had little contact with the man, but he was inclined to think of him as a good commander. After all, here he was, in the thick of it with his battered troops.
The Lieutenant waited until an assessment was done on the condition of the gun.
Engineers inspected their own handiwork, lightly greased the parts, inspected the breach and barrel, and gave their reports on every part of the process. Everyone and everything was very quiet during this time. Adesh heard no more shelling or shooting outside, and even their wounded comrades seemed to find a momentary piece.
It was an eerie, tense calm.
The Lieutenant turned to address the people at the back of the nave, around the sickbeds, and gathering around the howitzer. He raised his hand and waved everyone to attention. “We need to start evacuating everyone badly wounded but stable enough to travel. There are two half-tracks out back, and one more Goblin tank intact enough to escort them. Nocht still hasn’t encircled us, but we can’t take any chances. Let’s get our comrades out.”
He clapped his hands and the medics began to assess the wounded and set up stretchers.
“However,” he added, looking around the faces standing before him, “I’m going to have to ask the lightly wounded and anyone who can fight to remain behind. If you can stand and you’ve got a good arm then I need you here, even if just for support tasks. We have to stay here and hold the line for our comrades, and then secure our own way.”
There were no protests. Adesh thought he saw a few grumbling faces, but if there was discontent, it was not spoken. In his own mind there was not a thought given to retreat. He was scared, certainly, but he felt he had already proven too craven in other circumstances.
Unbidden, an image of the dive-bomber flashed across his mind.
He had seen it coming down from far above and he choked.
It cost lives and it still hurt; it still haunted him. Even if he died he had to stay here. The Lieutenant was staying – so was he. He could not abandon his comrades.
He figured there were similar thoughts occurring to all those minds around him.
“As you were,” the Lieutenant said, “I’ll give assignments shortly, comrades.”
Nodding heads; the crowd dispersed back to the corners of the nave. The Lieutenant returned to his engineers at the side of the 122mm howitzer, being pushed near to the doors. Eshe and Nnenia joined Adesh in standing at the periphery of these events.
“What’s going on Adesh?” Eshe asked. “What is that thing they brought?”
“It’s a big gun. They brought it in from the tunnels.” Adesh said.
“Alright, let’s get ready to fire on the road.” Lt. Purana declared suddenly. “Our line artillery in the west is under silence until the KVW complete their mission in the east, but this gun can be used as a direct-fire weapon from here, and it won’t compromise the battery’s position. It’s got enough firepower to kill any Nocht vehicle here.”
Engineers approached the heavy metal doors to the Cathedral to open them again. They had been shut after the first trench line fell, to protect the troops gathering inside. No sooner had they approached however that the doors shook from a deafening blast that erupted from right outside them. Its force and noise was barely contained by the thick concrete and stone walls. Adesh fell on his rump with surprise, and the engineers near the gun scrambled away in a panic. Everyone by the door fell back from it with surprise, but the front of the Cathedral resisted the blasts, and nobody inside was hurt save from clumsy accidents.
Lt. Purana was shaken but stood his ground unsteadily.
He took a portable radio and called out.
“What happened out there?” He asked. “Did the artillery hit the gun line?”
They had spotters on the spires along with the snipers, and one of these men radioed back to the Lieutenant. Adesh heard his voice screaming through the radio.
“An assault gun, driving up! It got all our guns and lit up the ammo in a single shot!”
“Fire on its tracks and try to slow it down.” Lt. Purana said. He put down the radio and bit his thumb, staring around the room and pacing a few steps to the left and right.
Nnenia and Eshe helped Adesh to stand.
They watched in a daze, as the smoke seeped in under the crack of the Cathedral doors. Adesh felt his head fill with a mix of guilt and worry and sickness. He thought he would throw up. That could have been them! Had they switched any earlier, they could have all been pulverized, and nobody inside the Cathedral would even bear witness to their last moments! But no, it was not simply those crews at that moment who could have died.
All along, anyone who stood outside those walls could be killed by anything. A stray bullet, a creeping artillery barrage, or the cruel gun of a tank – it was a miracle Adesh was even alive right now. He felt an irrational vulnerability that brought tears to his eyes.
Once again he lived where others had died, and again by no will of his own.
He was not the only one shaken up.
Everyone save the drunk and the delirious was quiet.
“Orders sir?” an engineer asked. The 122mm was fully assembled behind them.
Lt. Purana acknowledged him. He turned to the doors and pointed the engineers toward them. “Open the way for a moment but be ready to shut the doors again quick.”
Purana’s engineering team nodded their heads and stacked up by the doors, three at each side. They left their tools and heavy equipment, including a flamethrower, welding tools, a grease gun, and other volatiles, hidden around the corners of the nave, away from the fuss. At his command they opened the doors, pushing with their shoulders and sides all at once to throw them open, then grabbing hold of the rings to pull it back.
For a brief moment Adesh, his mind clouded with sick thoughts of his own frailty, stared out into a field illuminated by raging thunderbolts and coated in blood and mud. Soon as this vision struck him the doors shut again, and shut hard, and everyone inside put their hands to their mouths or averted their eyes, or muttered desperate prayers.
Atop the stairs leading to the Cathedral their old gun lay in pieces, and the 45mm and the partner 76mm were heavily damaged by shrapnel and flame and utterly unusable.
Scattered human debris lay in stark contrast to the charred black metal.
Nnenia closed her eyes, while Eshe started turning yellow.
Adesh kept staring at the doors.
Images lingered in Adesh’s mind even after the doors shut.
Outside the field that was once green was battered into a muddy honeycomb of shell craters. Rain filled the trenches. Men and women in the second line fought valiantly, nearly chest-deep in water, their surroundings torn apart by shell-falls. They fired their submachine guns and light machine guns and their long rifles continuously downrage at the panzergrenadier troops, positioned in the remains of the first trenches and around the remains of their first wave of vehicles. There were bodies and their parts, from both sides, indistinct, floating atop the crater ponds or in the mud. The M3 Assault Gun, newly arrived, started to make its way past the first trench and directly toward the Cathedral.
The enemy solidified its grip on the roads, and assembled for a new push.
Lt. Purana turned his back on the doors and addressed the room.
“We need a new gun crew!”
Behind the crowd forming near the sickbeds, Corporal Rahani raised his hand overhead and jumped up and down. He walked out to the front of the nave, pulling Kufu along. The Corporal’s signature flower had been shaken right off his hair.
He had replaced it with a paper flower instead.
His face was a bit dirty with soot from their turn at the gun. He stood in front of Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe, nodding his head lightly to them. He visibly strained to smile.
“Corporal Rahani, reporting for duty sir. My crew is ready.” He said.
Rahani saluted the Lieutenant.
Lt. Purana nodded to him. “Take your positions on the gun.”
From the door one of the engineers protested. “Lieutenant, whether we have a crew or not, we can’t fire effectively from in here. And if we open the doors too long we then we open everyone in here to one of those blasts, in a confined space. We should rethink this.”
“You assembled the gun, Engineer Sergeant. Now leave the rest to me.” Lt. Purana said. “We will open the doors long enough to fire, and shut them again behind each shell.”
There were whispered protests from the door, but the engineers resigned themselves to this plan. They had gotten the dirtiest and most dangerous job of all. At close range that assault gun would bang open those doors with one shot, and crush everyone behind them.
Corporal Rahani hesitated a moment, then spoke. “Sir, I’m afraid it is correct that we will have difficulty ranging the gun effectively if we must fire during this limited window.”
“I can fire it effectively.”
Adesh found himself speaking up. He barely acknowledged having done it. He thought all the words were in his mind, that they had never left his tongue. Then everyone’s eyes in the room seemed fixed on him, and this time it was not because they thought he looked ‘cute, like a secretary.’ Everyone seemed to await an explanation and Adesh was still sick and scared, shaking, tearing up in the eyes. Still despite himself he kept managing to speak.
“I can remember the field, I can tell the distances. I can range the gun after every shot. I just need to be able to see out the door briefly as I fire, and to see some of the effect.” Adesh said. Everything was still imprinted on his mind, the mud, the road, the treeline, the corpses, chunks of flesh– he choked up a little. Corporal Rahani stared at him quizzically.
Lt. Purana glanced over Adesh, and turned sharply toward Rahani. “Well, I don’t have a lot of options, but this sounds like a reach. Do you stand by this gunner, Corporal?”
Corporal Rahani gave him a worried look.
Adesh stood unsteadily, he was crying, his nose felt cold and probably dripped, and he felt utterly irrational, without a sense of what any of his parts were doing in relation to any other. He felt a brimming sensation under the skin of his shoulders and along his spine, behind his neck. He was nervous, his knees were weak. Corporal Rahani was the nicest officer he had ever served under – perhaps he would find it nicer to leave Adesh out of this, in the sorry state that he was, than to subject him to the cruelty another battle.
This kindness would be gravely misplaced. Adesh tried to look him in the eyes with determination, tried to say something that could convey his need to fight.
But he did not have to do it himself. Suddenly he felt a soft pressure over his shoulder and back. Nnenia and Eshe were at his sides, helping him stand taller.
“He can do it, commander.” Nnenia said. “Adesh is a skilled gunner.”
“He shot a plane out of the sky on the 22nd.” Eshe added. “Shot two, even.”
Had Adesh really done anything of the sort? He did not attribute those kills to himself. All he did was hit switches at the correct moment. His ranging was very minimal. But he lived inside himself – maybe he just never saw his own strength.
Friends at his side, Adesh found a few shaky words. “I am ready to for mission orders.”
Corporal Rahani smiled; and this time it was an uncomplicated smile.
He addressed the superior officer with newfound confidence.
“I vouch for him in the strongest terms, Lieutenant. He is a magnificent gunner. Allow him to range the gun and fire. I will limit my involvement to loading and calling.”
Lt. Purana nodded and stepped aside without further protest.
Though the gun was bigger, the crew took much the same positions as they had on their old 76mm. Kufu stood on the right, an apathetic expression his face, but nonetheless ready to lift the right leg of the gun. Nnenia took the left leg, in case they needed to turn it together. Adesh stood behind the firing mechanism and the elevation wheel, while Corporal Rahani knelt near the breech with a crate of shells. Eshe stood off to the side.
Eshe’s injured arm prevented him from helping. But he tried to smile, and he raised his good arm to Adesh in a little cheering gesture. Adesh nodded back.
He still felt like he would lose his dinner, but he had gotten his chance.
Beside him, Corporal Rahani looked up from the corner of his eyes.
His expression was soft and gentle, maternal even.
When Adesh made eye contact, he winked surreptitiously at him.
“We’re all scared, Adesh. Don’t let it stop you. We can work it out as a unit.”
Corporal Rahani said this under his breath, but in a gentle and affirming tone, almost soothing enough by itself. Then he made the first call, “Loading high explosive!” He raised the shell to the breech and punched it into position. Then he locked the breech manually with a lever and wheel, readying the gun to fire. A pull of a chain would set it off.
This was an old weapon, devoid of amenities, but powerful.
“Open the doors!” Adesh called out. He stammered through the words.
The engineers put their shoulders into the door and as one they forced open the doors. Adesh pulled the trigger chain the instant there was enough clearance. He felt the air stir and the earth shake, the powerful recoil travelling through the gun and passing a deep rumbling right down his arms and into his ribcage. A deafening noise escaped the weapon, and a gas shout out like the shape of a cross from the muzzle brake. Downrange the shell hurtled over the ground and crashed into the upper side of the advancing assault gun.
Ahead the doors shut, but Adesh had not lost his view of the field.
It was all in his memory, stored in a snap second.
He saw the fuzzy outline of the assault gun in his mind, reduced to a heap of scrap metal, its tracks fallen aside, its roof collapsed, its gun sent flying in pieces across different directions, its engine covered in a dancing wisp of flame. He saw the muddy, uprooted terrain that was once the green field, and the gray uniforms beginning to charge from across it, leaving the hulks of cover of various dead vehicles all at once.
“Vehicle down!” Adesh said. “You can confirm it during the next shot!”
Lt. Purana looked at him with confusion, but said nothing.
Corporal Rahani reset the breach, discarding the spent shell and loading the next explosive shell into the cannon. Adesh ordered the cannon moved a specific amount of degrees left once it was properly loaded, and Nnenia and Kufu repositioned the gun as quickly as they could under the circumstances. He then called for the doors, and the doors were opened anew; at his command a second shell soared from inside the cathedral, crossing the mud, overflying Penance road and crashing into the opposing street.
Again the doors slammed shut.
“Kill confirmed on the assault gun.” One engineer said.
While Lt. Purana and the engineers stood in awe, the 122mm shell exploded between several vehicles parked across the street giving succor to the mechanized troops.
It blasted the side of a tank that had been lazily firing its 37mm gun across the field at the Cathedral. Piercing shrapnel flew from the wreck and split the engine block on a nearby car. Fragments shredded to bits a half-track’s troop bed and the men inside.
While the fire and force was contained to the street, a burst of hot metal from the shell and chunks of the destroyed vehicles flew dozens of meters at incredible speeds.
Metal shrapnel flew far enough to hit men along the rear of the enemy charge, and many fell forward and back in great pain, their legs clipped by fragments; men just arriving at Penance Road suddenly met a shower of metal and fell aback, injured and confused.
Adesh might not have seen all of this, but there was enough of a picture in his memory to infer it. He saw glimpses of everything, and they melded to form the events.
“You can add some dozen odd men across the street to that.” Adesh replied.
“You’ve a more gifted eye than I ever imagined.” Corporal Rahani whispered to him.
Adesh scratched his hair nervously.
It was difficult to imagine that this could be a gift – he thought the slow sharpening of his senses toward danger was a curse, that it was a burden for him to notice all these things and then freeze in fear and weep with anxiety. Now it had suddenly become his advantage.
Radios started to buzz, from across the room and in Lt. Purana’s satchel.
The Lieutenant withdrew his radio and answered the call.
“Has the artillery had noticeable effect?” He asked. He awaited the response, and nodded to himself, looking at Adesh while speaking. “Keep firing, we’ll break that charge.”
“Orders sir?” Adesh asked. His voice was trembling a little again.
“Our comrades in the trench believe this is our best opportunity to evacuate their wounded and rotate in fresh troops.” Lt. Purana said. He turned around briefly, and called for two squadrons of troops to ready themselves to rush to the trenches. He then addressed Adesh again. “We’re leaving the doors open this time, so stay behind that gun shield.”
“Yes sir!” Adesh saluted. Corporal Rahani saluted as well.
Around the nave men and women in varying states of injury and health gathered their rifles and packs, and assembled themselves hastily. A squadron of ten assembled on both sides of the door along with the engineers. Outside the trench troops got ready to leave with their wounded. Corporal Rahani had the gun pushed farther backward, and Adesh altered the elevation with Nnenia’s help, descending the gun as low as it would go. It was not a weapon explicitly meant for direct fire, but it would have to overcome that shortcoming.
When the trench troops gave their signal, the doors slammed open, not soon to close; the two squadrons charged out in opposing directions and the engineers let go of the iron rings on the doors and joined them, brandishing their submachine guns, taking to the gun wrecks for cover and spraying down the field to help defend the charge. From the trenches men and women rose with wounded and unconscious comrades in hand, and under fire they then stepped from cover and ferried the bodies toward the cathedral.
Opposing them was a field of gray uniforms.
Panzergrenadiers ran out of their own hiding places in droves, their thick light blue and dark gray attire sopping wet. They had made it halfway through the field, brandishing rifles and light machine guns. Vicious men took to their knees and aimed for the trenches when the doors swung open, challenging the evacuating troops with merciless gunfire.
Able comrades began to join the wounded themselves, as they were caught escaping the trench with friends in their arms and fell tragically into the mud along with their wards. Under mounting fire many comrades stopped mid-dash and pulled along the freshly wounded, risking their lives to protect twice as many as they had first meant to.
Snipers split open the necks and faces of many aggressors, and the engineers fired relentlessly on the tide, but they could not keep up with the volume threatening the trenches.
“Shell loaded!” Corporal Rahani shouted.
“Firing!” Adesh called out. He activated the firing pin.
The shell cruised just over the wrecks atop the Cathedral staircase, and the engineers hidden behind them; it overflew the dashing men and crashed in the middle of the field, spraying fragments in every direction and leaving behind a muddy meter-deep crater.
Dozens of men close to the explosion were hurled to the mud, while men as far as fifteen meters in every direction were shredded by the fragments, and fell back with their chests and faces and backs coated in red, twitching in the brackish pools. After that distance the fragments lost power, but the explosion threw the entire charge into disarray.
Many Panzergrenadiers dropped to their bellies reflexively, and dove into the flooded shell craters recently left by their own howitzers. Only the men farthest ahead kept running.
Those still running had bayonets ready for a brawl.
At the Cathedral doors the first of the evacuating trench troops arrived. Some of them had a comrade over both shoulders and over their backs, carrying as many people as physically possible, and these monumental figures collapsed from the stress and effort the moment they made it past Adesh’s howitzer. Both the wounded and the shocked were pulled away to the nave for treatment and potential evacuation from the battle altogether.
With them the enemy was almost at the steps of the Cathedral, rushing through the fire with grim determination. Fifty or sixty men lined up to rush the doors.
They bolted in between the trenches, losing many of their own with every passing moment. Men set foot on the steps and died, perforated by the engineers’ submachine guns or by the trench troops’ rifles, but other men trampled them and furiously ascended.
Grenades flew from below and landed among the engineers. In a panic the engineers broke from the stairway landing, jumping back into the cathedral or over the sides of the raised steps, falling a few meters below. Fire and smoke and fragments obscured the way.
Bayonets flashed within the clouds and people fell back from the doors.
“Adesh, take cover now!”
Nnenia pushed Adesh down, forcing his shoulders with her elbow. She fired at the doorway with her pistol, and Adesh saw a figure in shadow stumbling and falling. Kufu rose to shoot as well, but he quickly thought better of it and remained in cover.
Nochtish men entered the Cathedral now in force,
Many threw themselves at the first human figure they saw, thrusting with their bayonets and shoving their carbines into the arms of fallen folk to choke them against the ground. At the door the engineers and returning troops engaged in a savage melee with the grenadiers. Soldiers fell over each other with unrestrained fury, choking and clawing and stabbing. There was utter chaos, over a dozen soldiers on each side tearing each other apart.
Nnenia held her fire – she couldn’t tell anymore who she’d hit!
Gunshots from outside struck the 122mm gun shield; more men materialized across the threshold, seeking entry. Adesh and Nnenia ducked behind the breech for cover, but Corporal Rahani and Lt. Purana were not so quick to relent.
Both officers drew their pistols and fired at the doorway from behind the Howitzer’s gun shield, baptizing the enemy red under the Messiah’s cross hanging over the door. Men fell back over the stairs, and stumbled forward on the corpses piling on the carpet, but more of them rushed in no matter how much the officers shot, gathering at the doorway and trying to form a base of fire for the others. Had they gotten a foothold so easily?
Adesh cursed under his breath – he could not fire the howitzer at this range or he would potentially kill scores of his own allies. He was useless now in this fight.
“Where’s Eshe?” Adesh shouted, covering his ears from the shots.
“I don’t know!” Nnenia said. “He was just on the sidelines!”
“Saw him running out across nave.” Kufu said. He was hiding by the side of the gun shield, taking hasty shots with his revolver. “Dunno where he could’ve gone.”
Adesh felt clammy and sick with terror. He started to babble, crushed by the thought that Eshe could be in danger now or worse, while they hid like cowards behind the gun. “Spirits defend him. Oh gods, he’s out there– We have to do something, he’s–”
A gushing noise; screams from the door shouted Adesh down.
He and Nnenia peered around the gun at the unearthly wailing, and saw streams of fire going out the doorway, catching on enemy troops like a liquified inferno. Gouts of flame coated them head to toe, consuming them in giant fireballs. Unable to put themselves out several men fell where they stood in immeasurable agony or rolled out of the door.
At the sight of flames many men inside the Cathedral panicked, disengaging from the melee as fast as their feet could carry them. Of these men the most unlucky retreated right into a cruel burst of flame and danced madly under the rain and over the mud.
Approaching from the aisles flanking the door, it was Eshe who cast this relentless stream of fire from a BM-28 engineering flamethrower. He dragged the fuel tank across the floor, and held the projector in one hand, barely able to control the infernal tongue.
Corporal Rahani rushed out from behind the gun, using the columns along the center of the nave for cover, and hurried to Eshe’s side. As the last the Nochtish troops dispersed, dying in flame or fearing such a fate, Rahani took the flame projector from Eshe’s arm and shut it off. He embraced the shaken young man, whose fingers kept flicking in the air as though he still had the BM-28 between them, still dispersing its hungry flames.
“Eshe, spirits defend you,” Rahani said, smothering him. “You’re safe now.”
Lt. Purana rose from behind the gun and took a few parting shots on the retreating Panzergrenadiers. Survivors of the melee around the door rose unsteadily, bloodied, stabbed, noses broken, ears and cheeks sliced; but alive. They hobbled toward the door, and struggled to close it again. Adesh and Nnenia ran out from cover, and Kufu reluctantly followed them. They took the rings on the door and kicked the enemy corpses in the way.
They pulled, and it was like trying to drag solid slabs of steel.
Straining their arms until it seemed they would lose them in the struggle, the artillery crew along with the wounded engineers finally shut the cathedral doors. As soon as they slammed close it seemed like the cacophony of war was shut out along with the enemy.
There was such a void-like silence that Adesh’s mind tricked him, and he still heard whistling in his ears. He fell back against the door, exhausted, and Kufu and Nnenia fell back with him, having little breath and no more energy to spare after the rush of the moment.
“You fought courageously, comrades.” Lt. Purana said aloud. “You’ve earned a rest.”
The Lieutenant addressed the room as a whole. A few fists went weakly into the air in response, and then the Lieutenant hurried to the radio in the back.
Though the Panzergrenadiers had taken bloodying hits and retreated, they still had the street and would soon return. He would have to coordinate the next defense and see what reinforcements could be given to the Cathedral on short notice.
They were gravely depleted.
Around the room the newly injured staggered toward the medical tents in the back of the nave, where the remaining medics rushed out to attend to them.
Corporal Rahani, himself weeping with emotion, brought Eshe over to Nnenia and Adesh by the door, and helped him to sit down with them. Adesh hooked his arm around Eshe, who was sobbing quietly, staring down at his knees. Nnenia extended her arm over Adesh and both him and Eshe and pulled them close, so they were all cheek to cheek.
Corporal Rahani stood over them.
He bowed deep to them, almost to his knees.
The paper flower on his hair fell to the floor.
“I’m so sorry you three. I’ve done nothing so far but to fail you as an officer and as an adult. Had I been stronger you would not have been exposed to this carnage. You who are so young and in need of protection and guidance, and have been brought into this–”
As one, the three youths reached out to their officer and pulled him into their embrace. Adesh felt the Corporal’s tears fall on his uniform along with Eshe and Nnenia’s. He returned the embrace, and wept more than they did. Adesh did not need to forgive him.
Corporal Rahani had never done him wrong.
28-AG-30 Buxa Industrial Park – West Approach
To call Gulab a hunter might have been charitable.
Though her one expedition had ended in a kill for her, it had been hard-earned – too hard-earned for anyone’s taste, including her own. She wanted to believe her own bragging.
And often came close to doing so.
But she had to be realistic. She was not a hunter, not in the wilds and not in the city. Not in the mountains nor in the debris of Bada Aso. From the moment the squadron stacked up at the edge of the warehouse, watching the patrols of men in dark capes, rifles gripped hard in their hands, she felt trepidation at the prospect of sneaking past them.
Sergeant Nikka stared in consternation at the space between them at the factory.
“Throw a grenade at that light post there. Hit the transformer. Then we run.” She said.
Gulab acknowledged and left the squadron, hiding behind a shipping crate at the edge of the warehouse, and made her way to the other side of the structure. Warehouse was perhaps giving it too much credit – it was a wooden frame bolted to the earth and shouldering a tin roof. Beyond the crates and parked vehicles and the shelves of small parts, Gulab saw the concrete post stretching overhead along the side of the warehouse, cables stretching from it. She waited for a flash, and threw a grenade up at the transformer.
She heaved it just over the drum.
Beneath the seething sky the light and flame had little effect, but the sound and effect of the explosion were very distinct. Atop the metal drum of the transformer the explosion split the unit from the post, and it slammed to the ground in a shower of sparks.
Smoke rose from the post.
Several men left their positions, rushing to inspect the area around the side of the warehouse. Gulab broke into a run, and Sgt. Nikka and Private Jandi followed her. While the guards were distracted they dashed from the warehouse to the factory, smashed open a window, and climbed into a hallway, quickly hiding behind the concrete wall.
It was strange being out of the rain after this entire ordeal. Gulab felt rather cold.
She tried not to shake.
Inside the building was bleak and dark, a lot of old unpainted concrete on the walls and blank tiles on the floor. They were in a long hall connecting two rooms. Rain battered against the windows, and the sound of thunder and flashing was no more muted than what they experienced outside. Gulab took a few steps, and found the weather still masked the sound of her pretty well. She doubted any men a room over would hear her.
Nikka did not miss a beat. She was up and aiming her carbine around. She looked more focused than anyone and moved more confidently in the building – perhaps the confined space held more of an advantage for her. Were concrete shadows her real element?
They followed the hallway to an unlocked metal door, and Sgt. Nikka pointed Gulab at the glass window into the room. She couldn’t reach it herself.
Gulab looked through the glass, and saw behind the door a room full of shelves, perhaps once filled with raw material ready to be made into tools or small parts. Now the shelves were empty, and she could see right through them to three of the room’s corners.
Directly opposite them stood exposed a man, nodding off against a wall with his submachine gun hugged against his chest, and a cigarette clenched between his teeth.
Gulab took this all in and relayed the information to Nikka.
The Sergeant nodded. “Open the door a crack, quietly, and back away from it.”
Gulab turned the knob slowly and held it in place, and she pushed the door until the latch was entirely clear of the door frame, before letting the knob go, and the door with it.
She did not expect the door to keep slowly sliding away from her.
Of its own will the door crept toward the wall.
Nikka slipped her carbine into the widening crack formed by the door and took a shot, the discharge from the barrel muffled to a slight tapping noise. Her bullet blasted the man’s Adam’s apple; the officer then urged Gulab and Jandi into the room, and they charged in, swinging their guns around to cover the approaches. There was nobody else in the room, only the slumped, choking man, his mouth and nose overflowing with blood.
Private Jandi took a quick shot at the man’s head, eliminating him for good.
“Room is clear.” She said. They spoke to each other now in a hushed tone of voice – there was still the rain and thunder outside, but it paid to be cautious.
Sgt. Nikka nodded. “Corporal, pick him up and stow him away. Then we move on.”
As she was ordered, Gulab dragged the body, and dragged it to the alcove near the door. She opened a door just across the one they entered from. There were no tools left in the closet. Gulab threw the body inside and closed the door. There was a trail of blood left behind. Nikka and Jandi wiped it as much as they could with their dripping wet cloaks.
There were two ways forward. One door led to another hall like the one they just left, and the other into a large work room. Black outlines around pale spots in the floor acted as ghosts for the heavy machines that once occupied the floor space. Once, this factory might have turned out tractors or tanks, but all the important machinery had been evacuated. Long rows of workstations for the manufacture of small parts remained around the periphery of the room, but they were little more now than over-large tables with shelves across their faces, the cutting and welding and pressing equipment stripped from them.
Around the right side of the room a trio of men stood around smoking.
“Three men,” Gulab said, “They would probably notice the door opening.”
“Damn. Then we will have to take them out quickly.” Sgt. Nikka said.
Gulab looked out the glass again. All three men were crowded around the side of the room, and perhaps one could have opened the door and quickly hid near one of the workstations, but they would certainly be tipped off to something at any rate. Gulab looked around the roof and walls, wondering if there was something they could use.
She saw a vent shaft, going a few meters over their heads.
Her eyes followed it until it disappeared from her vantage.
She checked the nearby wall in their current room, and found a small white sliding door on the side that had an air filter, which she ripped out and threw away. Past it was an open vent, running out and up into the next room, as well as around the adjoining hall.
“Sergeant, do you think you could fit in here?” Gulab asked.
Sgt. Nikka approached the shaft, and stuck her head in. She fit perfectly.
“I see. Not the most dignified pursuit, but it should give us an advantage.”
She withdrew her pistol and climbed in. Jandi and Gulab stacked up by the door.
They watched the men, laughing among themselves. Gulab could not understand what they were saying, but the conversation sounded slow, like the slurring of a drunk. One of the men stopped laughing, and looked around the room with a drowsy expression. He shoved one of the men in the shoulder, and pointed his finger overhead.
His companions were not quick to pay him much attention.
Then a vent cover fell from overhead and hit one of them.
Another fell, bleeding from his cheek and jaw, split by a gunshot. Two men picked up their guns from a nearby bench, but they had very clumsy grips on them, and did not seem able to aim straight. They had trouble staring up at the ceiling and looked about to fall.
Jandi and Gulab opened the door, and while the men turned their submachine guns overhead, they took their shots. Gulab hardly aligned the sights before firing, but her bullet managed to land in a man’s stomach and knock him off his feet. She could not see where he fell, there was a workstation in the way that hid the floor from her.
Private Jandi took a snap shot the same as Gulab, but she hit the other man right in the neck, just above the collarbone. He clutched his neck in pain, but remained on his feet, and with his free hand he struggled to point his weapon their way and have his vengeance.
There was a metal rustling sound, and another vent cover dislodged from above.
Sgt. Nikka fell from the vent, and crashed over the man, falling out of sight with him.
Alarmed, Gulab and Jandi rushed further into the room and around the workstation tables, ready to shoot. But all of the men had a fatal stab wound somewhere, and Sgt. Nikka lay over them, catching her breath, covered in blood. She had her knife in hand.
Along the ground beside the men lay unmarked glass bottles, probably alcohol.
“This was not a good plan, Corporal.” Sgt. Nikka said, thrashing on the floor.
Gulab shrugged. “I’m trying my best here, you know.”
“Go out and check into the next room. Don’t be seen!” Sgt. Nikka ordered.
Sighing, Gulab crept along the wall, out of sight of the door, and peered into the glass.
The room beyond was a much larger work area, probably where the heavy parts were worked on. There was scaffolding installed along the walls and over the work area, with hooks and chains that could lift up the body of a vehicle or tank so its underside could be welded, and so it could have its tracks set in. With the conveyor belts stripped out the room was just a broad empty space overlooked by empty hooks and chains.
Save for a sudden gathering of men and a single half-track coming in from the rain.
Shutters closed behind them.
Gulab locked the door and hurried back to the Sergeant.
“Nope, can’t go that way!” She said, smiling nervously and waving her hands.
Sgt. Nikka grumbled. “Then we will have to backtrack and hope–”
“Second story.” Private Jandi said suddenly. She pointed out a ladder along the wall of the room, leading up to a high, slanted window overlooking the work area. It would lead them outside, into the storm again, but they would have a higher vantage.
“Good! We can use that. Store the dead in the workbenches.” Sgt. Nikka said.
They opened the larger cabinets they could find, and squeezed the corpses in before they became too rigid. They shut and bolted them, and hoped for the best. Then everyone climbed the ladder. Sgt. Nikka slid open the glass pane, and they stepped out of the building and again into the storm. It was a rough transition from dry to wet. They climbed carefully over the frame of the window, and made their way onto the roof of the second story.
There was a higher vantage yet – the central factory area of the building bulged an additional five to six meters higher, like a boxy spine in between the wings of the factory, and the attached chimneys, which climbed ten meters higher even than that. But they would not have to climb that high. They already had a view of their share of Buxa, the smaller warehouses and factory buildings, and the larger buildings looming farther away.
“Duck!” Sgt. Nikka suddenly shouted.
Across the street, they heard and then saw a tank moving into the Buxa grounds from the street. They could see it crossing the warehouse, cutting quickly past the path they had dashed on their feet to make it to the side of the factory building and sneak in.
It was an M5 tank like the one they had destroyed with their mines.
After arriving the tank started making rounds around the warehouses and factory buildings for reasons unknown to them. Had they been discovered, there would be a larger alarm, and not merely a single tank out on patrol. Though it would complicate their escape, it was at the moment not a threat. They resumed walking after a breather.
Sgt. Nikka led them across the ceiling, keeping close to the spine and the chimneys so they would not be easily spotted from the ground. Around the back of the factory Sgt. Nikka took a knee and pointed straight ahead. There was a row of tin-roofed warehouses.
Crates and shelves stacked high formed their walls. A small factory building stood beyond them, with shutters for doors and a big, vaulted glass roof. At first blush these failed to impress much urgency in Gulab, but she noticed that one warehouse, three buildings away from them, had an enormous hole in its roof. Unlike the porous roofs on the other warehouses, this roof evinced a wholesale removal of plates, and not just wear and tear.
She thought she saw the rain going right through the glass roof of the nearby factory.
Then she saw an enemy half-track drive into the warehouse; men came and went from the factory. There was a lot of activity, and it increased with each passing moment. Crates were heaved, and patrols cycled. The squadron stepped back from the edge of their roof.
“I suspect we have found our batteries.” Sgt. Nikka said.
They waited for several more minutes, watching the men buzzing around these focal points. Then they heard a sharp rumbling noise, and shells started coming out of the warehouses and the little factory building with the glass roof. Red streaks flew from buildings farther away that were harder to see. From afar they saw the trails of smoke playing about the air in the wake of more shells, dispersing with the wind and rain.
Numerous shells overflew them, likely headed for Penance Road’s Cathedral.
These warehouses and the nearby factory probably housed all of the howitzers for this sector. They had to be fairly close to coordinate fire easily within the storm, Gulab supposed, and they needed shelter for their ammo and an open line to the sky.
Gulab wondered if Chadgura had found her share as well, and how she managed it.
Sgt. Nikka withdrew her radio and made the call. “We are in position.”
“Likewise.” Chadgura’s voice quickly answered.
“Khorosho. We will be calling in a barrage from sixty-three guns, tovarich.” Sgt. Nikka said. “Get out of there in whatever direction you can after calling in. There will be a hundred heavy rounds a minute falling on each position for over fifteen minutes. There are bound to be shells that stray, and one of those could be the last thing you see.”
“We are on the periphery. It should be simple.” Chadgura replied.
“Not so for us. But we’ll manage.” Sgt. Nikka grimly said.
“Wait, what do you mean by that?” Gulab asked, but she was ignored.
Sgt. Nikka switched frequencies, and put Gulab on. “Tell them what I tell you.”
Gulab held the handset to her ears, and Sgt. Nikka gave her numbers and letters – probably all coordinates from the tactical map – and a series of what seemed like code word commands, like victor target barrage. She parroted them without fail.
Once Gulab had issued all the commands, she was given to understand by the young man on the other end of the line that she would be seeing a dramatic effect soon.
This she felt was a lie; almost immediately a shell crashed through the warehouse roof and detonated inside. Within the next few moments the chaos exacerbated. A shell smashed the open ground between the warehouses and kicked up a column of dust and debris; explosions crept across several warehouses, throwing up tin and fire. Additional blasts wracked several buildings as their ammunition for the hidden guns went up in flames.
The earth shook with the crashing of shells. Dozens of plumes of smoke and dust flowered out of Buxa all around them, each only seconds apart. Fire and smoke spread across the warehouses, and their frames shattered, collapsing the roofs over the screaming Nochtish men that had been surreptitiously supplying and guarding the artillery.
In the distance, through the rain, Gulab thought she could see more fire and more smoke, all across Buxa, as far as she could see. This was probably Chadgura’s doing. She prayed for her safety. The devastation spreading before her seemed indiscriminate.
“No need to watch the fireworks any longer. Mission accomplished–”
Sgt. Nikka opened her mouth, but something drowned out her words.
Gulab felt the wind kick up behind then too – but what she felt was a pressure wave.
A shell crashed into the spine of the factory, off-target by dozens of meters, and smashed a hole into the roof behind them. They turned around and looked at the shell hole, and then saw another, falling into a chimney and exploding halfway inside, casting bricks into the air. Everyone ducked for cover as the debris fell around them, and a third shell flew past behind them, and exploded near the side wall, shaking the roof. In an instant it seemed that for every ten shells on target one was falling over them instead of an enemy!
“We have to go! Back into the building!” Sgt. Nikka shouted.
Gulab stood, and a shell fell a dozen meters away and took a chunk out of the corner of the building. She crawled to the edge of the roof and looked over the panicking soldiers.
She saw the tank around the corner, scurrying to avoid the falling fire.
“Let’s ride that out!” Gulab cried.
Sgt. Nikka scoffed. “Have you lost your senses Corporal? We could never–”
But Gulab was already running.
She was moving in a sudden rush, without quite processing all of what she was doing. She got ideas and within seconds she just did whatever had burst into mind. She ran to the blasted corner of the roof, hung off the edge, and swung herself off. Under her, the tank drove in a panic, and she landed atop the turret. It was the same side upon which she had landed on previously, in the warehouse when she climbed the vat – and it hurt so bad that she cried, and grit her teeth. She kicked her legs atop the tank in a tantrum.
Beside her, the tank hatch opened, and a man peered out.
Gulab swung around and blasted his face with her pistol.
She held the hatch open, and without looking she swung her pistol arm into it, and opened fire without looking until the chamber clicked empty. She rolled around and peered inside, and there was no movement. She pulled out the corpse of the tank commander.
On time, Sgt. Nikka and Private Jandi dropped onto the tank. Both had rough landings.
“Corporal, I can’t believe you! This is absolute madness!” Sgt. Nikka shouted.
“I know! But bear with me!” Gulab said. “I can drive a truck!”
“Tanks aren’t trucks!” Sgt. Nikka said. “They don’t have a steering wheel!”
Gulab crept inside the tank, crawling through the opening below the turret and making her way to the driver’s compartment. Inside she found, instead of a wheel, two stiff sticks, around the corpse of the driver. She could not tell what they were supposed to be at all.
“Well, then tell me what they do! It’s our best chance of getting out of here!”
“Each stick controls a track!” Sgt. Nikka shouted. “Can you do something with that?”
Gulab shoved the dead driver out through the front hatch, and took the sticks.
Sgt. Nikka took the tank commander’s seat, and Private Jandi sat atop the dead radio operator. Thankfully the tank was already on and it seemed primed to move forward.
Gulab pushed both sticks forward at once.
At once the tank hurtled out from under the long overhanging eaves of the factory roof.
She could not see where she was going, and had little steering control.
Her tank crashed through a stack of crates on the edge of the warehouse they had crept into from the sewer. Men were running all around them, and the shellfalls had yet to abate.
“Oh, here we go.” Gulab found a flap in front of her and opened it. It was a vision slit.
“Ugh I can’t believe I’m going along with this!” Sgt. Nikka cried.
Suddenly a bullet rebounded off the side of the vision slit. Gulab saw men approaching.
“Sergeant, shoot the gun! Quickly!”
Nikka growled, dropped from the commander’s seat to the gunner’s post, and she shoved a shell into the tank’s gun and locked the breech. She struck the trigger, and the 37mm gun vaporized a pair of aggravated men who had perhaps noticed their tank not quite behaving as it should. Fragments from the shell bounced off the glacis plate.
It was all noise and chaos and Gulab could hardly think.
Private Jandi sat around, swaying her legs, as though this was a time to relax.
“I think I understand now!” Gulab said.
She put the tank into a different gear, and pulled the sticks all the way back.
Unbeknownst to her, this different gear was actually reversing the tracks.
Again the tank hurtled out of the warehouse, but this time it dashed backwards into the wall of the factory and drove right into the hallway they had snuck into before. They were now doing little more than retracing their previous steps inside several tons of metal.
“Almost there!” Gulab shouted, looking at the switches in her instrument panel.
Ten meters away a shell fell from the sky and crashed in front of them.
Fragments flew irrepressibly fast through the thin glacis plate of the M5 tank, and Gulab felt cuts along her cheek and shoulder, and saw dozens of tiny holes opened up in front of her. Men ran into her field of view, fleeing the blasts.
Gulab clutched her new wounds and wept. Why did nothing ever go right?
“Corporal! You’re going to get us killed! Drive out into the street! Any direction!”
Sgt Nikka was shouting at the top of the lungs. She loaded in a new shell, and she hit the trigger again – this time the blast took out a scurrying group of men gathering near the warehouse. Between the tank and the artillery barrage the Nochtish men didn’t know at all what to do. They were throwing down their rifles and running for their lives.
Biting her lip and enduring the sharp, burning cuts caused by the metal fragments, Gulab switched the gear again, swallowed a lump, and smashed the sticks forward again.
Everything inside the tank was rattling and shaking and the engine was puttering and making noise. Beside them the tracks ground noisily, and the tank plunged forward, and ran over the fence, and into the flooding street. It dashed over the manhole cover and embedded itself into the side of a ruin. Gulab tugged on the sticks, but the tank was stuck.
“Out! Out!” Sgt. Nikka shouted. She threw open the hatch and scrambled up. Gulab and Jandi followed, throwing grenades into the aperture and fleeing the scene down the mounds of debris and back into the alleys, away from the burning and blasting in Buxa.
“I’m very sorry Sergeant!” Gulab shouted as they ran, cupping her hands in a pleading gesture and crying. She felt absolutely horrible. “I put us in danger back there and–”
“Sorry to be alive, Corporal? I’m not!” Sgt. Nikka shouted back. She was grinning.
Gulab had almost wanted to be admonished more strongly, but as she ran down the ruined alleys and clambered up the mounds of concrete, seeing the fire and fury behind growing even under the incessant rain, she merely wept, and felt the heat of the moment turn again into the clammy cold of her soaked uniform.
Again, somehow, she had earned her kill the hard way.
28-AG-30 Penance Road – Cathedral of Penance
Earth and sky alike quaked in Penance.
Walls swayed and the ceiling rumbled and budged. Dust and splinters of rock fell from the ceiling with each tremor, and the gaps between the bricks in the wall seemed to distort from the violence, becoming more prominent, more ominous. Penance’s young stones bore witness to the mud and water that had become of the once green field. Silently they watched the corpses, and the men and tanks assembling across the road, waiting out the effect of their barrage on the Cathedral and its troops. Would this be the last act?
Certainly the Cathedral was never going to outlive the city.
“Everyone inside! We’ll weather the final push and then evacuate!” Lt. Purana called, both to the few soldiers assembled inside the Cathedral, and over his radio to the troops in the remains of their last trench lines. Everyone numbered less than a Platoon in total.
Adesh, Nnenia, Kufu and Rahani helped open the Cathedral door, and the last remaining trench troops retreated into the Cathedral, many supporting one another by their shoulders, limping, barely holding on to their weapons, faces streaked with mud and blood, uniforms soaked through and dripping long rivulets of water onto the carpet.
There were black spots all over their faces and hands where fresh cuts had started to coagulate. They shambled toward the back of the Cathedral nave and sat while medics buzzed around them, pressing heated blankets, disinfecting and bandaging their wounds.
Adesh walked around the 122mm, still standing a few meters off the doorway, and took his place beside it, sitting beside the breech. Corporal Rahani shook his head.
“At this point opening those doors again is too dangerous.” Corporal Rahani said.
Lt. Purana had the door shut and an iron bar jammed in it, and then ordered everyone back from the doorway and the front of the Cathedral. They set mines near the door and explosive charges in the walls and around the 122mm gun. From the spire stairways, the snipers and the mortar crews descended, heaving their BKV rifles and 82mm launchers with them – all out of ammunition. Everyone had heavy eyes and walked inanimately.
They were all exhausted. Adesh and Nnenia sat beside Eshe below the altar at the back of the nave. He barely raised his head to acknowledge their appearance near him.
“How are you doing?” Nnenia asked. She bent her head low to look at him.
“Very tired. I’m trying not to nod off, but it’s hard.” Eshe said.
“We’ll be out soon.” Adesh said. He rocked his legs off the altar stage.
“I didn’t think that flamethrower would be so heavy.” He said.
“I’m surprised you got it going. You saved us, you know?”
Eshe did not respond immediately. He looked down the nave, at the door.
“Do you think we won this fight, or lost it?” He finally asked.
“It’s more complicated than that.” Nnenia said, patting him in the shoulder.
Eshe sighed heavily, and rubbed his face with his good hand.
“Sorry. We shouldn’t make Corporal Rahani worry more. He was crying.” He said.
“All of us were crying together that time.” Nnenia said.
Adesh wondered if it was really complicated.
He did not fancy himself much of a soldier.
He had joined the army purposelessly – he never joined it to fight.
It was the one place he knew he would never meet another of his kin
So he chose it as his escape. He knew that they had received orders and that they carried them out as best as they could. Could that always be counted as a victory? They were going to be pushed from the Cathedral – they might be pushed entirely out of Bada Aso soon. Could that count as a defeat? He looked around the room, at all these people, and the people who had been there before. What drove all of them, what did any of them use as a metric for their value, their purpose, their accomplishment?
No big picture appeared to him on the horizon. After some unspecified amount of these “victories” and “defeats” would there still be an Ayvarta to fight for in the end?
But there was something in there, in the background of his mind, percolating.
Maybe he could make no grand pronouncement, maybe he had no philosophy to back him. Maybe he really was just a kid. But he started imagining what everyone else might think, what they might answer. What would Corporal Rahani say? What would Lt. Purana say? What would Major Nakar say? Adesh did not really know them much.
Perhaps he did not even know his friends all that much.
Yet, he felt a strong connection to all of them, exacerbated in this eerily peaceful moment under the eye of this storm. Lightning and rain fell upon them all the same.
No matter what he could not believe that those people saw themselves as defeated.
“As long as we fight for each other it’s a victory.” He said aloud.
Nocht expected them to crumble, because Nocht saw individual riflemen and women with lacking training, old equipment, scattered leadership. They invaded their country, they advanced rapidly and hit them with defeat after defeat it seemed. They took each of them piecemeal, and compared them to their shiny new half-tracks, their intimidating metal-gray tinted uniforms, the howitzers with which they battered at the old Cathedral.
Taking that as the mental calculus, they decided the Ayvartans were weak.
You could fight an individual Ayvartan and beat them.
You could beat enough to take over the whole country from them, and do what you wanted with it. Adesh was almost sure that Nocht as a whole probably thought this way.
But Adesh was not alone, he was not a single Ayvartan fighting.
He had Corporal Rahani and his experience and his little flower rituals; he had Nnenia, and her terseness and sudden kindness and her blunt strength; he had Eshe, and his stiff humor and surprising reliability; he had Kufu too, he supposed, whatever that meant. Lt. Purana; Lt. Bogana, recovering in the hospital, probably yearning to get back into the fight. Somewhere out there he had the Major, Madiha Nakar, herself a decorated Hero. Corporal Kajari, a fighter with the intimidating KVW, and who did not know them at all, but smiled at them, and gave them food and told them they had potential and believed in them.
She was out there somewhere, fighting too. To protect them, probably.
Like a rock bear mama, she had said.
Adesh didn’t know whether he was being naive or foolish.
But he felt a fire lighting in him.
He smiled a bit, and he threw his arms around both Eshe and Nnenia, pulling their faces close to his own. He kissed both of them in the cheek, and they flushed very red.
“They’re not fighting any of us alone, right? There’s always someone beside you, and when there isn’t, there’s still someone out there, like Ms. Corporal Kajari. We’re all fighting and working for each other. We are part of something bigger. Until all that falls through we can’t say that we have lost. We’ll weather everything together.”
It wasn’t the positions on the map.
It wasn’t the lines. It was Ayvarta, and everyone in it.
In the end, that is what Nocht declared war on and what they would have to fight.
Nocht did not win until it had crushed all of that, and Adesh was sure that they couldn’t.
Corporal Rahani left Lt. Purana’s side and went to join the trio. He had replaced his paper flower with a bundle of grass. When he saw them hugged close together he beamed at them. “Gather up your things comrades, we’ll be evacuating next.” He said.
There was not much to gather.
They had eaten their rations, drank their water, and they carried no rifles ever since the battles for the border. Their only heavy piece of equipment was their gun.
Within moments they joined Kufu and Rahani behind the Cathedral, running out into the rain, and they hopped into the back of the half-tracked truck waiting for them. Adesh thought he would seen the falling shells when he stepped outside, but the barrage had abated. The Cathedral’s spires had almost collapsed from the abuse and the ornate dome crowning the main building, holding the bell, had sunk half into the roof.
“I encourage you all to relax for now,” Corporal Rahani said, “our part is over.”
The Half-Track started moving.
They drove west off the green and onto the road, and followed it along the back of the Park, and from there surreptitiously made their way to the north road. Coming in opposite them, one of their tanks appeared from the north road to cover them. It drove to the tree line and hid at the periphery of the Park, firing its gun across the front of the Cathedral into the Panzergrenadier’s positions. It was one of the new tanks, a Hobgoblin, with a 76mm gun that reminded Adesh of their old piece, and a larger, sturdier, sloped frame compared to the Goblins they had seen until now. As they passed it, Adesh waved at the tank.
Again the earth shook from the pounding of shells, and the air was cut through by noise. Adesh turned to the Cathedral. He saw nothing strike it; he saw smoke.
It rose from further away.
“Hah! Our artillery is active!” Corporal Rahani said. “That’ll show them!”
Seething red trails descended from their side of the sky and struck the earth around the Panzergrenadier positions. Plumes of fire and smoke rose at the edge of Adesh’s field of vision. The Half-Track turned into the northern road, and the carnage was well out of Adesh’s sight. But there were still those faint trails across the dark skies, skirmish lines left by falling shells, and the rising smoke, dispersed suddenly by the storm.
Retribution was at hand.
He was sure then that help had arrived in earnest, and the Cathedral had held out.
29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight
Bada Aso Central District, 3rd KVW Rear Echelon
Once again the Motor Rifles regrouped well behind the front lines. This time they took shelter from the rain in an empty msani, an indoor market where individual craftsmen were allowed to trade goods under certain circumstances. Ayvarta had a very strong tradition of various crafts, and the Socialist Dominances of Solstice did not want to impede that trade, despite the necessity of regulating goods such that everyone had an equitable share.
Gulab did not quite know the specifics of that, but she knew the Msani had a roof and walls, a lot of space to sit around, and that it was warm and toasty when Sgt. Chadgura lit a big fire inside of a metal drum. Gulab sat wrapped around in a blanket, having discarded her wet jacket, and dressed in a pair of borrowed pants and a spare undershirt and jacket.
Thankfully she had gotten the privacy of an Msani changing room when shedding her old wet clothes. While she did not think anyone would gawk at her or question her gender, she was always glad not to have to bring that topic out in the flesh. She thought she looked woman enough and everyone so far seemed to think so, and that was enough for her.
“Gulab, I am content to see you healthy.” Chadgura said. She was seated next to her, by the fire. She had a cut along her cheek where a fragment from a shell had grazed her.
“I’m uh, I’m glad to see you healthy too, I suppose, Charvi.” Gulab replied.
Charvi raised her hands in front of her face and clapped a few times.
“Sorry I made you clap.” Gulab said. She only did that out of stress.
“It’s fine. Many things make me clap.” Charvi replied. She stared blankly at the fire.
“Did, um, did Sergeant Eeluhmakhno–”
“Eel-uh-nick-nah.” Charvi interrupted, pronouncing the name correctly.
“Did Sgt. Nikka have anything to say about me? Did she tell you what I did?”
“Yes. She said you talked too much, but had potential.” Charvi replied.
“Oh.” Gulab felt a little embarrassed. She thought the Sergeant might have a stronger and perhaps more negative opinion of her, after all that happened today. In a way, this sort of low-key reference made more sense. Sergeant Nikka had probably worked with dozens of people. She probably wasn’t judging all of them by the end. As long as the mission got done, anything else was just Gulab’s being self-centered. She sighed deeply into her hands.
Charvi shook her head. “I do not agree with her on that evaluation.”
“You don’t?” Gulab nearly jumped. She thought she was on good terms with Charvi! It was a sudden blow to her heart to think the Sergeant might dislike her after all this!
“I don’t.” Charvi replied simply, her voice a perfectly boring pitch.
A long silence followed with both women staring. Charvi clapped her hands twice.
“In what way, exactly, don’t you agree?” Gulab asked, her voice trembling.
“I have no opinion on the amount that you talk. It seems immaterial to me.”
Gulab sank her face into her hands. Of course it would be something like that.
“Well, thanks. So do you think I have potential then?” Gulab asked.
Charvi stared at the fire for a moment and crossed her arms.
“I guess so. I would be more inclined to say you are realizing your potential, but that is also immaterial. Who can say what one’s potential is and when it is realized?”
“That’s true.” Gulab said. She started to feel comforted by Charvi.
Charvi continued, looking almost contemplative. “There’s no single event, in my view, where a person becomes immutably better than before. If inclined to evaluate you, I would say instead that you are reliable, and uncomplicated to work with, and energetic. I would add that I have been content to work with you and that I hope to stick close to you.”
Gulab smiled. “Those sound like things I’d care about more too.”
Charvi nodded. “But don’t try to drive a tank again. It looks fun, but it is not our job.”
Gulab nodded her head. She looked out of the Msani’s windows, into the unabating rain. Perhaps together there was hope for all of them yet. It would have certainly been easier to kill that Rock Bear with the kind of people she had supporting her now.
She leaned back, laying down on the hard floor and staring at the roof.
“Maybe Chess won’t build a monument of me, grandpa, but something else will. I’ve got good in me, you saw it, and I think I see it too.” She whispered to herself. The Spirits, the Ancestors, the Light, whatever, whoever; she hoped they would carry those wishes out to that lonely, snowy mountain, where she dared not set foot again.
Gulab Kajari was not the black sheep of the Kucha.
30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Solstice Dominance – Postill Square
Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote practically lived out of the signals room they had improvised in the observation tower at Armaments Hill. A wall of radios, a stack of ration packs in a table, and a pair of bedrolls in a corner, was all the amenities they needed.
At nights, it felt like a strange sleepover, with the admiral and warden sleeping side by side, while KVW soldiers left the room to give them privacy in their endeavors.
But stress prevented them from exerting their libido in any way.
Days had passed since the Military Council strike had begun, and the police and Revolutionary Guard left their posts. They had not sought out the solidarity of any other Unions – those men and women were necessary for civilians to be fed and for the Socialist Dominances to function, and Kansal did not want to outright sabotage the war effort.
Judging by the little news that she received out of Bada Aso and Knyskna, and the signals that they captured from the Council, they needed all the help they could get.
From stop Armaments Hill, they looked out onto the square. A crowd formed around an advancing staff car. It was not one of their own. Warden Kansal gave the order for the car to be allowed in, but everyone was on edge as to what it could represent.
Shortly thereafter, flanked by KVW troops on all sides, Councilman Yuba entered the signals room. He was all dressed up in his suit, and he stood meekly before them.
“Hujambo, Warden, Admiral.” He said, bowing his head to the two of them.
“To what do we owe the visit?” Warden Kansal asked.
Councilman Yuba looked at his hands nervously. “Ah, well. I’ve come to discuss the events ongoing in the Kalu region in the Adjar Dominance. I believe that would be a good start. After that, we can discuss what you’ll desire in order to collaborate with me.”
“To collaborate?” Daksha said, starting to sound outraged.
Yuba flinched. “Trust me, you’ve got the advantage for favorable terms here.”
NEXT CHAPTER IN Generalplan Suden — The Kalu Tank War