This story segment contains scenes of graphic violence, burning, choking, mental distress, and death.
Bada Aso Tunnels, Various
Everything was being decided underground, and by then everyone understood what was transpiring. All that was left was to execute, and then to stand witness the aftermath.
Bada Aso’s tunnels had always had a reputation but few understood their true significance.
Word had always traveled about what those tunnels could have contained. For outsiders it was grizzly ritual and savage anarchy; those who knew the history knew the labyrinth was linked to community and to culture. As always, the outside looking in failed to see right in Ayvarta.
Bada Aso had always possessed a complicated underbelly beneath its rocky skin. Many of its earliest tunnels were natural, thought to have been made by water struggling to make its way to sea. These paths had been charted and traveled across Ayvarta’s antiquity, trod on first by the religious and later by the curious, by the adventurous, and by those without option.
When the water was redirected and the earth sculpted to suit the needs of the Emperor, the same hands that dried the tunnels out began to reinforce and expand them. Some were dug to hunt for precious stone and ore; a few became the sewers; others were defensive in nature.
Through the ages the scent had been characterized differently. Ancient sages thought it invoked religious visions. Early imperials thought it was the breath of the old earth and ignored it entirely. Late imperials, influenced by the ideas and religion of the northern empires, feared the illnesses and curses that the old fumes could carry and took precautionary measures.
Every administration had some plan or other to make use of the tunnels but only Madiha Nakar would come to unleash the strength building beneath that cage of clay and stone.
With every meter, the machines drove farther away from modernity and closer to antiquity. Trundling through the widest, deepest tunnels, the radio-controlled Goblins had no noses with which to smell the fumes, but faced unique challenges in navigating the old underground.
Below the city the radio signal that controlled the teletanks proved unreliable even despite the upgrades, and so the tanks started and stopped in the dark, hitching forward little by little. When the rock was porous or the earth separating it from the surface thin, they hit a stride.
But it was difficult for the controllers to calculate how far they had been able to go.
There were three key points in the city that had to be hit all at once for the plan to work. And it was not a matter of being positioned in the right places. The Goblins had to plumb the tunnels deep enough under the earth, where the most thick and volatile pockets were concentrated.
It simply had to work. They hunkered down, kept pushing forward, and some of them prayed.
Communication to the goblins was spotty, but communication out to sea was perfect. Each control Hobgoblin would receive the signal from the command staff aboard the Revenant. They would set off the Goblin’s weapons and then they would flee inside their vehicles as best as they could. For the two in the eastern sector, fleeing into the Kalu to join Kimani’s retreating troops was an option. For the control Hobgoblin in the north, escape into Tambwe was a possibility.
Though their mission no longer required suicide, safety was not at all guaranteed to them.
However, the KVW officers in each control tank knew that, in putting themselves in danger, and even in dying, they gave tens of millions of their comrades a chance against Nocht. They had proven that they could defend from Nocht, that they could blunt their assaults, that they could fight their technology in the right circumstances and avoid defeat, if not win.
It was not about sacrifice; sacrifice implied a surrender, kneeling before a cruel fate.
They could not win the Battle of Bada Aso. In their hearts everyone knew this whether or not they knew the exact details of the Hellfire Plan. They could not drive Nocht from the city.
But it had long since become about something more than the city. This city or any city.
Over the radio the unencrypted message transmitted suddenly and proudly on all channels.
“Draw blood from the stone,” the message said, first in Ayvartan, then in Nochtish.
One by one, the control tank crews deployed the flamethrowers on their remote Goblins.
Madiha Nakar understood, under the driving rains of the autumn storms, that people did not come to Bada Aso to die, and that it was not sacrifice that her troops imagined when they fought for her. Even though Bada Aso would have to die for the resistance to continue, she was not sacrificing the city. It was time for the city itself to fight, using the means that it had.
City of Bada Aso, Various
Awakened by the flames, the ancient fury of Bada Aso rushed through every crack in the earth.
It was not immediate; it began with a sucking, a booming, and then the scent of death. Roads began to tear imperceptibly, like hairline fractures on black glass; buildings trembled slightly, enough to shake dust from them, and there was a general quaking, the stirring of a great beast.
Every Landser or Panzergrenadier who heard the gentle murmur of oncoming doom thought that it must have been a distant shell, perhaps from the enemy cruiser. They raised their heads at the sound, and looked in the distant as if they would see the blast. Very few sought cover.
Over the radio, confused murmuring was exchanged by the few attentive radio personnel.
Those distant-sounding blasts did not unfold where any eye could see them. Underground the stampeding death hit pockets of volatile gas like a herd through rock walls, hungrily tracing air and fuel alike as if following a light out of the tunnels, punching its way through the earth, past the brick and rock and clay. Penetrating ever skyward, desperate, manic, unstoppable, gasping and gasping. It burst through to the sewer, and took a massive breath of surface air.
Across the ancient city the grand conflagration forced its way as if back toward the sun.
Manhole covers expulsed from their holes flew like the thrown chakrams of long-gone gods; great belching torrents of flame ripped from the floors of buildings and expanded out the doors and windows. Pillars of fire rose from every exposed tunnel entrance. Cellar doors exploded and great waves of hot pressure blew through alleys and into the road. Streaks and ribbons of flame swept across the streets. Weaker buildings flew everywhere in pieces, leaving behind fleeting geysers; larger buildings spewed fire for a second like the burners atop a stove.
The Panzergrenadiers across the Central Sector found themselves caught in an infernal monsoon. Dozens of men standing in the wrong place on “Home” were thrown bodily as if slapped off the earth by a giant hand. Their vehicles flew from the earth with them or burst into pieces around them. Those standing nearest to the conflagration burst into flames almost immediately, while those meters away found wisps of fire crawling up their pants and sleeves like whining imps. Men lost their composure and screamed that Ayvarta’s demons had finally seized on them, and they rolled and thrashed and ran as the world collapsed around them.
After the initial explosions fickle flames leaped intermittently out from under buildings. Fire spread from the tunnels and the doors into the street, casting terrifying waves of flame that made shapes in the air like the cackling grins of wraiths. In the smoke and the fire they saw gaping maws that opened to swallow bodies whole, slashing claws that picked men and launched them against the concrete, mad eyes that scanned the surroundings for victims.
Under strain the battered streets of “Home” split, the cracks expanding a few centimeters, enough to be noticed, and enough to vent the earth’s fury. Foul smelling gases leaked into the street and where they met stray tongues of flame they exploded over the road like hellish bubbles, blasting apart armor and gun shields and turrets and tearing to pieces any men unprotected from their wrath. Those men not burnt started to cough and choke and they ran as far as they could from the deadly fireworks spontaneously setting off a show at their backs.
In the first minute thousands of fires erupted from the Central District to kill thousands of men, and quickly spread. In the North District buildings began to explode unseen by the Nochtish troops lagging behind nor by the Ayvartan troops already long-gone. Near the Umaiha district fuel leaking from wrecks and ruins lit the river and its surroundings ablaze. Ancillary buildings in the Southern Districts spontaneously caught fire, the inferno’s potential hampered there by the number of tunnel closings the Ayvartans had to perform in self-defense.
Across Bada Aso old factories exploded the most violently, going off like gigantic fragmentation rounds and scattering volleys of metal tools and equipment left behind into the surroundings, large and fast enough to reduce every building around them to rubble and any men to meat.
Two minutes in and clouds of smoke blinded any survivors. Standing in the street was like walking in front of an oven. Those who were issued such tools and remembered to use them strapped masks over their faces and shambled in the inferno, disoriented, deafened, some temporarily, some not. For many the surroundings were consumed in smoke with flashes of red and orange within them. Those unlucky enough found themselves instead in the middle of great vermilion labyrinths, wildfires spreading across buildings as easily as they did on trees.
Those alive and able to breathe saw, within that incoherent instant, a world consumed in fire, pockmarked by the dead, where wrecked vehicles stood as if they had self-destructed in place, where the sky was red and black, where every building was a burning pillar. As they inched forward, trembling, buildings began to collapse, their foundations too battered to stand. Those aware enough and gripped enough by desperate panic started to run. Many stood before the flames and rubble and died in spirit before the avalanche of a falling building claimed them.
Within the rage there were pockets of peace, as if gates to another world. A lack of tunnel connections, blocked tunnels, or the utter absence of gas, or the absence of anything to burn, rendered these areas safe. After three minutes, the worst of the explosions had passed, and there remained only the slow and spreading burn. Those survivors who found safety could turn around and stare helplessly at the slowly enveloping fires. Many fell on their knees and prayed.
Through its tens of thousands of years Bada Aso had stored enough rage for three minutes, and in that time frame it inflicted more casualties than the Line Corps who had evacuated the city.
Bada Aso was left an inferno that would burn and burn unchecked across the days to come.
Southwest District, Penance Road
Massive pillars of smoke streaked from the city like the effluvia of a volcanic eruption.
Kern woke on his back in the middle of the street. He coughed, but he could still breathe. He saw the smoke rising in the distance, but near him he only smelled something foul. There was a fire burning somewhere — he felt the far-away heat. His vision swam. He had hit his head, he thought. What had happened? Blood started to trickle down the bridge of his nose.
He tried to take in his surroundings and he realized there was not just one fire. Across both streets all the houses seemed to be smoking, and several had caught fire. A few had already collapsed under their own weight, but this did not smother the flames. Kern tried to walk before his mind had fully caught up to him, and he tripped on a gash in the middle of the road. It was as if the skin of the earth was tearing and bleeding something foul.
As he stood from the floor he saw the tenement in the distance surrounded by smoke. Several windows belched more smoke into the sky and he saw orange flashing inside.
Kern took off running for the tenement, shouting, “Voss! Voss!” as if the man could hear.
Several figures with gas masks hauled bodies out the front door; whether alive or dead Kern did not know. Outside the nurses checked on each person quickly, affixing oxygen masks and lung pumps. A woman screamed for Kern to return but he was not listening to her or anyone. He was not even listening to his own mind that screamed and screamed for him to turn away.
He charged up the stairs, and found the second floor hall ablaze. Dancing fires shrieked and howled from various rooms, gradually spreading to the floor and the walls, eating away at the building. Smoke blew every which way. His whole body stung, his skin felt dry and hot, his clothes felt like hot blankets smothering him. As he stepped into the hall a pair of men shouted at him and ran past with a body in tow. Was everyone dead? They couldn’t be, they just–
Disoriented and too impulsive to keep thinking, Kern hurtled forward, covering his face with his hands. He slammed through the door of a room and founds a small fire and no occupants. He kicked down the door opposite and found a massive hole that he nearly fell into. Below him there was a red-hot pyre from several rooms worth of piled burning rubble that had fallen in.
He grabbed his head, bit his lips, his head pounding and his eyes hot and unbearable.
Then he remembered where Voss’ door had been. He doubled back down the hall and smashed through a weak door into a half-collapsed room. He felt like he had opened a door to an oven, hot smoke blew against his face, and he felt pinpricks of agonizing heat like knife-tips scratching his skin. Inside the room he found one bed overturned and another burning under rubble fallen from the roof. There was a body turned to charcoal beneath the mess.
He let out a scream and stamped his feet, gritting his teeth, struggling even to weep. As if all at once he saw that massive beastly tank, he saw those planes, he saw the entrenched machine guns, all flying in the smoke and the fire, fighting and fighting, there again to kill him–
Not again, he couldn’t take another death of a man he knew, not today, not now–
Side-rooms! Kern charged past the overturned bed and pounded his shoulder against the locked door. Under this stress the door hinges snapped entirely, and he fell with the door into the bathroom. Huddling beside the toilet, he found Voss in his robes. Voss coughed and looked at him as if seeing a ghost. “Kern?” He said, his voice sounding hollow and forlorn.
Kern did not respond, and instead picked up the man as best as he could and struggled out of the room. He gathered enough momentum to run, and got out into the hall. Ahead of him the fires had spread from every conceivable angle. Taking a deep, hot breath of what little air was left, Kern reared back and then ran past the wall of flames. His pants and shoes caught fire, and he kicked out his legs violently as he ran to try to put them down. He charged down the steps.
Under his feet several of the steps collapsed, and he went tumbling down with Voss in tow.
Everything was spinning, and the pain in his legs started tracing up to his back. He did not know whether he was on the floor or still falling. He could not feel anything at all. He could not see Voss. Had another man died on his watch? Had he failed again to make any difference?
Then something icy cold shook him. He felt the ground sliding from under him. He was wet.
Out of the burning building the masked men pulled him and Voss and set them against a solid wall across the street. Behind them, a Squire B half-track towing a fire hose and water tank arrived, and men from the rescue unit in special suits rushed in to fight the flames.
Kern’s vision stabilized. His thoughts started to catch up to him again. He moved his feet and legs. It hurt, but they worked. He moved his hands. He craned his neck to see beside him.
Voss was there, and he was staring at him, gasping for breath. Kern breathed a sigh of relief.
“Are you alright?” Kern said. Now out of the fire, a torrent of tears escaped his eyes.
Voss wept much the same. “I’m alive. Everything’s here, I think. Messiah defend us.”
They stared at the tenement burning, and it seemed to obscure every other thing in the surroundings that was also burning. It hadn’t hit them yet what they had survived.
“I think I’m going to have to join you in the hospital now.” Kern said through loud sobs.
“I’m quickly getting the feeling we’ll have no end of company.” Voss replied.