Under A Seething Sky (15.3)

This story segment contains descriptions of wounds as well as scenes of violence and death.

Some descriptions may be considered briefly graphic.


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.

“Move up.”

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.

“What?”

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.

Everyone crouched.

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!”

“Oh.”

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.


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