The Maw Of Hell (10.2)

This scene contains violence and death.

22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast

Once the Staff Secretary’s voice had gone silent, the air raid sirens blared one final time to insure everyone was fully aware, and then ceased to sound as well.

In Adesh’s corner of the world there was an eerie state.

There was little sound and it seemed like silence, but to someone inclined to notice there was enough noise to bother one’s sensibilities. Those noises that remained seemed to beat just off from the rhythm of his heart and made him anxious. Footsteps, tools, the locking of loaded gun breeches. Metal sounds that had no music to them. In poems and stories about war everything seemed to have a poetic rhythm. Here, nothing did.

Soon this anxiety seemed to pass from him to his colleagues.

“Nnenia, you’re doing that wrong.”

“What wrong?”

“You’re working the elevation handle wrong.”

“I’m elevating it just fine.”

“You’re holding it oddly, you’ll tire yourself out.”

“Stop micromanaging what I’m doing and focus on your loading.”

Four days ago Adesh had stood, confused and afraid, behind a 76mm anti-tank gun. He had been told that his crew (somehow Nnenia and Eshe had become his crew) had scored three vehicle kills. He remembered shooting, but he certainly didn’t feel victorious. Now he had a similar task. He was part of Lt. Bogana’s battery in the northeast district, stationed in the middle of a park. Outside the grounds the streets were empty and every building closed. Since the sirens first went off the few people remaining went into hiding. Only gun crews remained outside, awaiting the aircraft soon to approach.

“So, do you have any amazing observation instructions to share, professor?” Nnenia asked. She had on her face a common look for her: a strange mix of apathy and grimness where she was between cheer and genuine morbidity toward their situation.

Eshe seemed annoyed by her.

“When you somehow manage to spot a plane, Adesh shoots at it.” He replied tersely.

Adesh sighed a little, seated on a rough metal platform with a sight and a firing mechanism before him. His friends and crew were a little nervous. They had every right to be. They had survived the border but now found themselves in a similar situation. But their bickering was not just nervous. Those two were always grinding against each other.

“I just thought there was some other amazing gunnery trick you learned from one of your pamphlets that you could share with us.” Nnenia sarcastically said.

Eshe crossed his arms. “Here’s one you fool: don’t get distracted by the pretty planes and the wonderful colors of shells and do your job correctly for once.”

“I’ll keep my eyes skyward and not on the regulations booklets, you pinhead.”

It was if they wanted to cry for help, but this nonsense was all that came out.

“Could you two be quiet?” Adesh sighed. “You’re going at it even more than usual!”

Eshe and Nnenia looked at each other and at Adesh and seemed to feel shame.

As before their little trio was behind an artillery piece, and this time with a much greater responsibility than they once had. It was no longer an anti-tank gun but an air defense gun that defended their position. The 37mm was a small bore on a large weapon, with a long barrel and preponderance of mechanisms, mounted on a swiveling base that could be rotated all the way around and locked to specific positions as well.

It was also an automatic gun, a fact which took some getting used to. Fed with five-shell clips and boasting a simple firing mechanism it could sustain a high rate of fire, though the barrel risked overheating if the rate of fire was used to its fullest advantage.

Four other people stood with him. His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe remained in his crew, having miraculously lived through their earlier tribulations. He was now their gunner however, not their leader. In his place as gun commander was a pretty corporal from another unit, Cpl. Rahani. He was a young Arjun of pleasant features, brown-skinned, with a gentle face and flowing hair down to the shoulders, decorated by a lovely rose above his left temple. He had quite a lot in common with Adesh and his friends, and he was probably just little older than their own ages. Prior to the sirens sounding, he had tried to get everyone to wear their own flowers for good luck. Nnenia, Adesh and Eshe accepted, a little awkwardly, and received a bundle of purple lilies which they wore over their ears.

Alongside Rahani served another private, the mysterious, grim Kufu. He had eyes like a fox, a thick beard, and strong features. When he spoke he had a smooth voice, but seemed to think ill of saying anything with it. He looked like he could have fathered the other members of the crew, even Corporal Rahani, and was not a lively fellow at all. He had refused to wear any flowers. He was a traditional man, he explained to them tersely.

“Well if you say so!” Cpl. Rahani said in an amused, good-natured voice. “But in that case, I have a good idea! We will put your flowers on the gun itself. There. Now we will catch the attention of the spirits and they will protect us. It was a tradition in my village.”

Kufu scoffed, and sat by the side of the gun, looking away. He was assigned to traverse the mount across the ground. Eshe loaded, Adesh was the gunner, and Nnenia and Rahani were in charge of elevation and sighting, as well as communication and other odd jobs.

“I apologize if I offended you; are you an ancestor worshiper?” Cpl. Rahani asked.

“No. I don’t worship nothin’. No spirits, no ancestors, no messiah, not the light; nothing. Thought this country’s supposed to be secular now.” Kufu replied calmly.

Cpl. Rahani looked slightly distressed. “Oh, well, double sorry.” He said softly.

“Well, it is secular in the state apparatus, but individuals can still worship, you know. Even the Messianic church is around.” Eshe interjected in a know-it-all tone.

“Too bad.” Kufu replied. He still was not facing them. Everyone sighed a little.

A foul mood fell upon the crew while they waited, looking tentatively at the sky and between each other. Cpl. Rahani’s cheerful smiling faded too. But not everything was so bleak. Some things had changed since the battle at the border, even as some things had remained quite the same. Adesh was part of an A.A. unit, and the guns, while larger and heavier, were state of the art and had more sophisticated mechanisms that allowed for a faster firing rate and easier handling than their cheaper, six-year-old 76mm anti-tank guns. Everyone was impressed with the quality of the equipment when they first saw it.

Lt. Bogana also made sure they were better organized.

Every position was five meters apart and none of them arranged in straight lines. This made strafing them difficult. The five 37mm guns in the battery were positioned in an outer ring that could cover the two 85mm guns and the three 57mm guns from close-air attack. It was the job of Adesh’s crew to cover against lower altitude attacks from faster planes.

Two teams of machine gunners with Khroda 7.62mm guns on hastily-assembled anti-aircraft mounts hid in bushes and under trees nearby, covering the 37mm gunners in case even they failed to stop a strafing aircraft or a dive bomber. Though the Khroda looked unwieldy in this role, it still gave the team a little fallback. It made all the difference.

Adesh had a measure of confidence in their phalanx. Everyone acted with discipline and carried out concrete orders under the auspice of a commander. It was like being part of a real army with a strong direction. They had even received a visit from Major Nakar, who had personally taught them to shoot. Things had changed substantively now.

Nocht was not ambushing them this time. The People awaited them.

Adesh found his hands still shaking and his heart quivering, however.

That certainly had not changed.

Every ten minutes Corporal Rahani would spend some time watching the skies with a pair of binoculars, seeking for contacts. Adesh thought that there would be some stark transition between readiness and annihilation; the sky would turn red, great meteoric tears of flame would fall from the heavens and engulf them all, in the blink of an eye.

Instead, their first glimpse of the enemy came from Lt. Bogana, who left the side of a signals officer calling for all crews to proceed to combat alert; the southern district batteries had already made eye contact with the enemy aircraft through their sighting equipment.

As he said this Corporal Rahani passed around the binoculars, pointing his crew toward the sky. Adesh saw tiny pinpricks of smoke and fire blooming in the dark, distant skies when Nnenia passed him the lenses. Thus with little fanfare the battle was joined as the southern district batteries opened fire on objects the northeast district could not yet even clearly see in the sky. Adesh felt an uncomfortable thrill across his entire body.

Helplessly he watched as hundreds of objects came closer and closer.

They flew like a flock of birds, and to Adesh’s eyes they were just as small at first, but the closer the came the deadlier they appeared. Flashes of gunfire became visible, closer than before. Ayvartan batteries awoke all around the city. Like red glowing darts thrown by errant hands hundreds of rounds of anti-air tracer ammunition began to light the sky from the southern defensive sectors, then the central sectors.

Seconds later Adesh heard the first thousand-kilogram bomb drop on the city.

He felt a shudder, rumbling waves straining through the earth into his body, and he saw the smoke rising in the distance. He had just blinked and missed the flash and the short-lived geyser of fire in the bomb’s wake. Strategic bombers were now directly over the city.

Dozens of isolated explosions swept across the south and center.

Adesh looked up at the sky and it was as if he were watching the heavens shatter, lines of ordnance coming down like metal teardrops from the bays of barely visible bomber planes, pounding the earth like the footfalls of a giant. The quivering in his hands grew into a terrible shaking across most of his body that he struggled to control.

Aircraft squadrons began to take distinct shapes and their groupings became terrifyingly apparent as they neared the northeast district. Adesh saw a dozen squadrons splitting off from the massive fleet and sweeping through the sky in every possible direction. Five fighter planes in a tight group banked and lunged straight for the park, flying through the fire from the adjacent batteries across the nearby blocks as though not one gun were actually shooting them. Adesh and his battery comrades took their positions and opened fire on them, but the the planes maneuvered through the curtain with ease.

In a moment Adesh found his gun unloaded once again.

“Battery, the enemy has entered our zone!” Lt. Bogana shouted.

Adesh released his iron grip on the large trigger-handle for the 37mm gun, while Eshe pushed a five-round clip of its shells into place atop the gun and stamped it down to properly feed the weapon. Each shell had a tracer and explosive-fragmentation filler.

Nnenia and Kufu traversed the weapon on its swiveling mount and constantly adjusted and readjusted the elevation in order to follow their fast-moving enemies. Nneia elevated the barrel over 65 degrees, then 70 degrees, then descended it down to 50; while Cpl. Rahani instructed Adesh on the positions of the targets. Adesh watched the enemy through the large metric sights. His breath began to outrun him as the aircraft neared; a tight group of five sleek monoplanes, with long wedge-shaped wings bristling with armament.

From afar Adesh thought he could see off-color paint across the hulls of the planes. They were gaping maws; bright red mouths bristling with teeth, painted on each plane. These were Nochtish Archer fighter planes. In an instant the planes swooped on them.

Withering fire from nose-mounted Norgler machine guns swept the park as the planes overflew them in a shallow dive, coming down from the sky like bolts of lightning and storming away into the distance again. Dozens of rounds ricocheted off gun shields and clipped the grass and the trees; miraculously nobody was killed in the attack.

Kufu and Nnenia and Rahani worked frantically to turn around the 37mm, while around them the 85mm guns opened fire at an almost 90 degree angle into sky, and the 57mm guns joined them, both targeting the Wizard bombers dropping heavy payloads.

Adesh was temporarily deafened whenever their unseen assailants dropped their heaviest payloads, crushing buildings in an instant under thousand-kilogram explosions. Debris flew so far it almost hit the park from a whole block away; window frames, chunks of concrete, gnarled street lights, all soared on the blast waves and across the streets.

None of the heavy bombs actually hit the battery, or even near them.

Thank the spirits! One would be all it took to kill them all.

Armed with a 37mm they stood no chance against a high-altitude level-bomber.

Adesh swallowed hard and focused on the fighters.

The Archer squadron split from its wedge-like formation to pick off the battery crews. Constituent planes flew from one another’s sides, two of them sweeping around the edges of the park like vultures, drawing fire from the support machine guns; and three running lanes across the battery’s position. Adesh squeezed the handles on his gun and watched his five rounds fly away in a few seconds, hitting nothing. His shells joined the dozens other ineffectual missiles streaking across the air, scarcely hitting anywhere near the enemy.

They reloaded and spun the gun until they went nearly dizzy with motion, and again the shells flew into the air with seemingly no avail. Adesh and his comrades’ gunfire reminded him of a sky full of fireworks, and yet the enemy aircraft soared through the red and gray curtain as though the fragments and smoke and fire was utterly harmless to them.

Their fragmentation rounds had timed fuses and scattered splinters into the air to threaten enemy aircraft, but the timing had an element of precision nonetheless.

Effectively unopposed despite the intense fire coming from the ground, the Archers sped through several runs on the battery, firing volleys of 80mm rockets from under each of their wings that exploded across the park. Adesh and crew hunkered down, crawling meekly behind or against the gun shield as best as they could while loading and traversing the weapon to match the movements of the enemy as best as they could.

A rocket hissed overhead and blasted apart a tree a dozen meters behind them.

Smoking craters littered the periphery.

Somehow the battery survived.

No rockets had managed to strike a comrade dead.

The Archers soared out of the park and turned easily back around over the streets, taking a new formation for their next run. Two outlying craft moved in to substitute two of the planes that had unloaded all of their ordnance. Those two planes then circled the park.

Eshe heaved one of the shell clips and punched it into the vertical loading wedge.

“Overhead!” Nnenia said suddenly.

Adesh looked up, and found the sky alight.

Fire and smoke spread within the dark clouds and burning pieces of metal rained down on the city. A pair of Wizard bombers fell down from the sky like meteors, wreathed in flames and splitting into a scattering of debris as they descended. Remains of the planes, more fire than steel, smashed into the roof of a civil canteen building on one of the park’s adjoining streets and spilled out onto the pavement and road along with the debris.

“Don’t get distracted!” Eshe shouted, pushing on Adesh’s shoulder.

“Finally the kid says something I can agree with!” Kufu shouted, frantically turning the wheel to loosen the mount, and pushing his shoulder into the gun and turning it. Grumbling, Nnenia joined him in working on the gun and descended the barrel.

Adesh desperately tracked the incoming fighters through the sights.

“Adesh, fire!” Cpl. Rahani ordered.

But the corporal was not looking through the sights.

Adesh was; nothing aligned, and no matter how fast the team moved he felt helpless against the planes. He pressed the handle-triggers and watched his gun shoot, rock back a little with recoil, and shoot again. Popping noises, the creaking of sliding metal from the recoil buffers, the gentle thud of the shell dropping on the ground, all was drowned by a single bomb falling on the street behind them and raising a pillar of fire and smoke.

Fences around the park fell over from the force of the blast. Adesh felt the heat behind his back, and felt his body pump with the consecutive force of his own gun as he kept shooting. Five rounds of his flak cut across the sky and exploded in gray bursts of smoke and fragments between three of the fighter planes as they approached.

The Nochtish fighters veered violently away from the shots, and found themselves trapped in a massive net as the remaining 37mm guns and 7.62 machine guns saturated the skies. Instantly the guns on the Nochtish aircraft were silenced, their propellers slowed and stopped, their engines caught fire, their cockpit windshields burst to pieces.

One by one the aircraft passed them overhead, spun out of control, and vanished into the inferno raging behind the battery, landing in bomb craters and smashed buildings.

Two remaining planes circling the park turned sharply away from their careful course and fled the district. Ayvartan fire trailed them every meter they flew, and triumphantly the entire 37mm compliment of the battery lowered their barrels and shot after the planes until they disappeared from sight. Lt. Bogana leaped out from behind the gun shield of his 85mm, raised his fist into the air and roared with triumph. They had driven them away.

Cpl. Rahani raised his own fist and joined with his own sweeter-sounding cheer.

Spirits rose momentarily across the park.

The sound of bombs and the chopping of norgler machine guns grew distant again and it seemed that their sector was clear for the moment, however long that would be.

Over Bada Aso the skies still raged with battle.

Bright flak cut across the dark clouds, long lines of fire streaking overhead from the multitude of guns stationed across the city. Trickles of Nochtish planes began to fall.

Bombers careened toward the ground like the fallen angels of the Messianic religion, set ablaze and cast from the paradise above the clouds; thousands of rounds of ammunition from 37mm guns and heavy machine guns around the sector began to add up, and Adesh saw a fighter group fall suddenly from over a nearby sector, blown to pieces in mid-air.

Like the ashfall from a volcano fire and smoke and metal seemed to rain down over the city. It was like the end of the world; Adesh could think of no other way to describe it. Hundreds of planes were attacking them but it also felt like hundreds were falling too.

While Adesh’s battery had a moment of calm they rushed to a nearby groundskeeper’s cellar and hastily pushed out crates of hidden ammunition. Fighting those five planes had consumed hundreds of rounds of the battery’s 37mm ammo. They reloaded their guns, sliding fresh shells and clips into the breeches, and accommodated reserve ammo nearby.

Lt. Bogana knelt beside a radio unit and called the adjacent sectors.

“Our southern batteries have taken the brunt of the attack,” Lt. Bogana shouted for the benefit of the crews, “but we have not yet dealt any kind of decisive damage to the enemy, comrades! Those planes are moving closer, so stay alert and be ready to fire!”

It was disheartening to hear; but it sounded far too true.

Even if Adesh counted all the planes he had seen fall so far, it was really only around fifteen or twenty out of spirits know how many in the air fleet. Their battery after all this fighting had only personally accounted for three fighters and a pair of bombers!

Eshe sighed. “Once, I read that the average stock needed for an air kill is 598 shells.”

“Thanks for the heartening tip.” Nnenia said, slumping against the side of the gun.

Adesh sat silently behind the 37mm gun and Corporal Rahani scanned the skies for targets using his binoculars. Kufu grumbled something inaudible while he and Nnenia readjusted the gun to face south and the barrel elevation to an angle between 60 and 70 degrees. Around them every other 37mm gun crew searched for targets as well.

The crews of 85mm and 57mm guns adjusted the elevation of their guns to hit bombers overflying other sectors now that bombs had ceased to fall directly around their own sector. Soon they began to fire again, casting their shells forward toward the skyline and out of the northeast district. Above them the skies were eerily silent, and their battery shifted its attitude toward supporting fire more than direct engagement.

“No distractions next time, alright? I want to live through this.” Eshe said bitterly.

Nnenia raised her head from over the gun to launch a smoldering stare at Eshe.

“Now now, no harm was done.” Cpl. Rahani said, trying to smooth things out.

“Don’t be using this to start a stupid argument now, kid.” Kufu grumbled.

“I thought you agreed with me!” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.

Kufu grunted. “I did in the fight, but not now when it doesn’t matter.”

Adesh sighed. Nnenia and Eshe’s bickering worsened when introduced to more people.

“Everyone focus, please,” Cpl. Rahani softly said, waving his hands gently.

Minutes passed; from the sky fell a light drizzle.

Smoke billowed away from the burning craters and ruins, blown around the park as the wind picked up. Adesh was shaking and his legs were weak. There was something about this scene that he could not square away in his mind as he watched the sky, a thick, choking knot building inside his throat and tears spilling from his eyes. His teeth chattered. He was as unprotected from the cold droplets as he was from the enemy planes.

He saw figures fighting in the distance, and he heard the guns of his comrades, the rockets and bombs and cannons of the enemy, and yet, they were intermittent sounds.

Sound and violence and horror flitted in and out of his reality, an intermittent chaos. He cast eyes around the park and across the air, his fingers stretching and closing on the trigger-handle, his jaw twitching, mute, violent panic building and building in his belly.

“Adesh?” Cpl. Rahani whispered, shaking him gently. “It is fine to be scared, but–”

His eyes had gone hollow, staring over his gun sight and directly skyward, directly overhead. Much closer than the distant fleets of the enemy he saw an object.

“Dive bomber.” He shouted at the top of his lungs.

For a few seconds he felt that he had gone mad, that the unreal reality of everything had consumed him. Then the bombs fell among them and the planes swept past from out of nowhere and there was fire, and there was rage again in the middle of Bada Aso.

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