27-AG-30, Bada Aso SW, Penance Road
There was no storm yet, merely a continuous drizzling that pattered against windows, over tents and across the tarps over vehicles. Clouds gathered thick over the broad green park, turning the grass wet and muddy underfoot. A light wind rustled the line of trees around the edge of the park, standing sentinel around the expansive monument within.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Penance, for which the main road had been named, looked all the more grim under a dark sky. Grim gray stone steps between two massive spires led up to an open maw of a doorway shut off by double steel doors. Inside, the nave was particularly spacious, almost forty meters wide inside, and easily two stories tall by itself. Its scale attested to the hopes and dreams of its engineers, and the crowds they expected to gather there during the abortive conversion of the Empire to Messianism.
Such a project, it was believed, would inspire a new golden age for the church.
A new world, full of minds to turn to the service of the Messiah.
Certainly the building, towering over the smashed ruins outside of the park’s limits, seemed an imperious presence. In the middle of the park the Cathedral seemed as old and storied as the earth. To the observer it almost appeared that the soil around the Cathedral’s flat, gray stone base actually rose to embrace the foundation, and fell ever so slightly away from it. As though the ground elevated the building a meter or two into its own little hill.
In truth the Cathedral was an irreverent child when compared to the ruins around it.
Bada Aso was a sea of stone resting half on a hill, but conspicuously flatter and taller than its surroundings, an attempt by civilization to conquer a chaotic earth millennia old. With the times it had warped and it had grown, it had fed and gorged and it jut out in every direction, toward the sea, toward the Kalu. It was one of Ayvarta’s largest, oldest cities.
It had been built first by the indigenous Umma of the region, as a place of monoliths, a shelter straddling the sea, for the gathering of fish, and of the game from the vast, hilly Kalu. Then it became a throne of stone and brick set into place by the Ayvartan Empire, a symbol of the strength of Solstice, the invincible city in the heart of the red sands.
Many of the people who would eventually bring down the throne in Solstice grew up in its surrogate of Bada Aso, thriving in the place meant to control them. Tradition, Empire and Revolution lived and died in it. To this drama, the Messianic church, its teachings and its monuments, were entirely fresh faces. Indeed, communism was now longer lived than the Golden Age of Messianism in Ayvarta. Penance could not challenge this earth.
Once the Revolution overturned the Ayvartan Empire, Bada Aso quite briefly became a place of anti-communist fervor and then, remarkably, a symbol of civilized socialism, of the working order and kindness offered by the concrete and steel bosom of SDS-controlled cities. There was guaranteed housing and food, clinics and state shops and canteens in seeemingly every block, large tenements to keep everyone from the autumn rains, wage stipends for those unwilling or unable to work, and work aplenty for those that wanted it.
Bada Aso had been built and built over according to different time periods, ideologies, and functions. There were streets leading nowhere, byways blocked off by stark brick cul de sacs to keep traffic from spilling out to more than one road, buildings of varying size and style all organized into long uneven blocks that made up the many districts. It was an organic city, a thing that had grown in the same inexplicable way the humans within it grew. It was too tight in places and too open in others. With time, it might have grown even ganglier, more haphazard, its streets the expanding veins of a massive history.
Now the city was on its final journey.
Again the forces of reaction teemed within it.
A fifth of the city had practically been given to the 1st Vorkampfer, an army from abroad coming to reintroduce empire to Bada Aso. Bombing had ruined much of the city. Controlled demolition had rendered many places inaccessible. Four-fifths of the population had been evacuated. Those who remained did so to continue their socialist labor far behind the battle lines – serving food, sewing uniforms, dressing wounds, offering condolences.
Penance Cathedral served as well.
It was an eerie fortress, its true purpose mostly forgotten.
Along its corners trenches had been dug into the park soil, lined with sandbags, filled with men and women and their guns. There were snipers on the spires, and mortars perched precariously atop the dome. Atop the steps, a pair of 76mm divisional field guns had been angled to fire easily against the road approaches.
Inside the nave there were crates of ammunition, food, medicine, all watching a sermon led by a reserve anti-tank gun pointed out the doors. Benches had been pushed aside and there were beds and crates and a radio station set in their place. A Company from the 6th Ox Rifles Division was all that kept these sacred stones from turning hands now.
Penance had not seen battle like Matumaini.
Just a series of actions that sputtered and choked off under the shadow of that Cathedral.
To Ox command, this meant that a larger attack would certainly be forthcoming.
Under the rain, a truck entered the Cathedral district from the northwest, careful to circle the edge of the park, driving with the trees between it and the main thoroughfare. Once the the truck turned and approached the Cathedral from behind, the structure itself provided all the cover it needed from the road in case of a sudden attack.
Facing its lightly armored front to the back of the building, it parked; a passenger dismounted, and knocked on the back door of the cathedral. A woman peered out from the roof, watching their approach; she called in for them, and the door opened.
It was safe – everyone had confirmed everyone else was a comrade.
The truck swung around to make its contents accessible.
In the bed there were crates of medicine, food, canvas; a large section of sandbags and poles and tarps and other construction materials in the back; and atop the sandbags a group of eight soldiers in black and red uniforms, their officer laying unsteadily on her side.
Recently promoted Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had a hand on her stomach and another over her mouth. Her garrison cap lay discarded. She curled her legs.
“I’m car sick.” She droned dispassionately.
Beside her a deputy, newly-minted Corporal Gulab Kajari, stared at her quizzically, fanning the Sergeant with her cap. “How did you ride the tank and then get car sick?”
“It keeps rocking.” Sgt. Chadgura said. Her toneless voice was muffled by her gloves.
“Sergeant, we have a mission! You need to be healthy when we receive our orders!”
“I will be fine in a few minutes. Or an hour.” The Sergeant started to turn a little pale.
Gulab tried rubbing Chadgura’s stomach and fanning her faster with her cap to keep her cool. She had no idea what to do about motion sickness – back in the Kucha they would have just told her to endure it or to get sick in some place nobody had to see.
Once the truck stopped, everyone decided to give Chadgura a moment of stillness.
While she laid down, Gulab and the others picked up crates from the end of the bed and carried them into the Cathedral. There they would be stockpiled for the battle ahead.
Each crate was over a meter wide and tall, and stuffed full of individual ration boxes, or ammunition in belts, clips and magazines. Unloading trucks was a chore nobody was happy to perform, but the KVW troops took to it silently and diligently. They settled quickly into a teamwork system– quickly passing crates to one another in a line to get them out the truck bed and into the nave easily. As the officer on-hand, Gulab stood at the end of the line, and boisterously laid the crates down in the back room of the nave.
She was unperturbed by the weight and stacked the boxes with theatrical flourish.
“Woo hoo! We can carry another crate, can’t we comrades? Certainly one more crate! Ha ha!” Gulab said as more and more crates visibly neared along the line of hands.
This enthusiasm did not go unnoticed.
Gulab did such a fantastic job, and she was so happy and very eager to do it, that once Chadgura recovered and went to contact the commanding officer at the Cathedral, Gulab and the KVW squadron were volunteered to unload several other trucks that day.
Towed 122mm howitzers were brought one by one, and she and her troops unhitched them and arranged them at the tree-line north of the Cathedral for the crews soon to be arriving; three Goblin tanks and a truck full of spare parts and portable machine tools arrived, and the Corporal saw to it that these supplies were set apart, and that the fuel was well stored to keep dry and safe; a half-track with large antennae across its roof arrived at the Cathedral, dropped off a long-range radio set, picked up fuel and food from the stacks, and drove off again, to hide on the edges of the district; but overall most of it was trucks with common supplies. Crate after dark brown crate was unloaded and stacked.
Most of it was ammo and sandbags, but several were rations too.
Slowly, over the course of the day, the Cathedral troops built up various disparate types of materiel and personnel. Within a dozen hours they had a small but serviceable local artillery arm, a tiny armored squadron, and, under the odd direction of Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura, a minuscule but experienced assault tactics formation for special maneuvers and consulting. Under the irreverent young stones of the Cathedral they would fight to give the old stones of Bada Aso a few more days before Hellfire.
Private Adesh Gurunath rocked back and forth in a dreamless sleep atop one of the benches along the left wall of the nave in Penance Cathedral. He had arrived a few hours earlier on a truck similar to Corporal Kajari’s, carrying supplies and disparate reinforcement personnel. From the moment he appeared, the officers on site had been sympathetic and told him to rest. But he felt fine; as good as he could feel after the tragedy that befell him.
However, since there were only two 76mm guns, and he was part of a gunnery crew, he had nothing to do except relieve a current crew, taking turns. So he waited, and he slept. Atop the cold wood he twisted and turned for hours, until he heard a sharp whistling.
Adesh got up too fast; he felt a slight jolt of pain up his shoulder and along his breast.
Eshe loomed over him so close that they almost banged foreheads.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Eshe said, rubbing Adesh’s shoulder. “I didn’t think, I was a brute-”
“It is fine,” Adesh said, a little exasperated, “It is fine, Eshe. Are we moving?”
“Almost our turn at the gun. Corporal wanted us to get some fresh ammunition for it.”
Adesh nodded. He understood the Corporal wanted him and Nnenia to carry the shells.
Eshe’s arm had been hurt, and it was still in a sling; though no bones had been broken, shrapnel had injured his muscles, and movement would be limited for a time. Despite this, he did not slack in his commitment. His uniform was crisp and neat as always, his hair combed and waxed, his shoes shined. He wore his cap at all times. Professional, collected, a model soldier boy like in the posters. Still at the front even though injured; devoted.
Just not exactly able to lift heavy crates at the moment.
In that regard, Adesh was fairly lucky. A few days rest in a clinic had done him a lot of good. Surviving the dive bombing attack on the the 22nd of the Gloom left him with burns along his chest, over his shoulder and down his back, and a long, ugly burn across his neck that made it feel a bit stiff, but nothing too bad in the final reckoning.
His burns were healing well and did not impede him overmuch, so he had volunteered to return to the front when he could. He looked overall less in disarray than before, despite the bandages up to his neck under his jacket and shirt. His long, messy ponytail had been cut at the hospital. Once he had the presence of mind to do so, he asked that his hair be styled, and it was cut on the sides and back to a neck-length bob. His bangs had been trimmed neatly. After an eye examination a pair of glasses had been issued to him.
They had a noticeable weight on his nose.
After he was released, both Nnenia and Eshe, teaming up for practically the first time, made faces at him and told him he looked cute, like a little desk secretary. He didn’t know whether to take it as a joke, or if they were being serious about his appearance.
“Where is Nnenia? Asleep too?” Eshe asked. He cast quick glances about the nave.
“A few benches down; don’t whistle at her.” Adesh warned.
Nnenia was liable to punch him.
With a hand from Eshe, Adesh stood from the bench and jumped over the backrest. They approached a bench a little ways down the wall; this time Eshe shook the occupant. Nnenia growled and shook and moaned for a few minutes more. Minutes were given, and then Eshe shook her again. She nearly bit his good hand, then woke like a grumpy housecat, staring his way with eyes half-closed and her teeth grit. She sat up, legs up against her chest.
“Good morning.” She mumbled, tying her hair into a short tail.
“It’s nearly evening by now.” Eshe said gently. “And our turn at the gun.”
Nnenia sharply corrected herself. “Good morning, Adesh.”
Eshe exhaled sadly; Adesh raised his hand in awkward greeting.
Nnenia stood up and climbed over the bench by herself, and stood behind Eshe as though awaiting a chance to bite him in the shoulder. Together they crossed the nave into the backroom, where fresh supplies were coming in via truck. Adesh was surprised to find black-uniformed personnel carrying the crates and stacking them around. These were troops of the KVW – the uniform of the elite Uvuli was a black jacket and pants with red trim and gold buttons, and a patch with the nine-headed hydra, superimposed red on a black circle. It was eerie to see these agents carrying crates. They looked so common.
Prior to joining the military he barely heard of the KVW, and knew nothing concrete. Since arriving in Bada Aso Adesh had been quickly brought to speed by everyone around him on all the rumors surrounding the KVW. How they hunted traitors in the night during the scandals years ago, choking them in their own homes after finding secret radio sets transmitting to enemies; how they stared down the barrels of guns fearlessly, ignoring injury and rushing to bloody melee; how they were given special drugs and therapies so they could see in darkness, never miss a shot, and kill without compunction.
These people did not resemble those people.
“Welcome, comrades! Need anything?”
There was an energetic young woman at the fore, soft-faced and smiling at everybody. She appeared supervising the squadron as they went about their work. She had the crates stacked up in a haphazard step pyramid. Judging by her patches, she was a Corporal.
“Hujambo,” Eshe said, easily taking the lead for his squad. “Are you in charge?”
“Not really, I don’t think! I just unload! Help yourselves to whatever.” She replied.
Eshe tipped his head. “I’m Eshe Chittur. If I might have your own name?”
Nnenia and Adesh introduced themselves more quietly and awkwardly.
Across from them the lady beamed and crossed her arms happily.
“Of course, comrade! I am Corporal Kajari, an officer in Major Nakar’s own elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division!” Kajari stuck out her chest, and tapped her fist once against the flat of her breast, wearing a big proud grin. “Don’t be so stiff, if you kids need anything, just know that you can come to this mountain girl for support. I take care of my comrades like a Rock Bear mama! Take anything you need from the stack. I insist that you do!”
Her tone of voice became more grandiose the more she spoke, as though she were inspiring herself to speak mid-sentence. She looked fairly short, a little shorter than Eshe, and she was slender and unassuming in figure, but the long simple braid of chestnut-brown hair, the bright orange eyes that were slightly narrowed in appearance, and the honey-colored tone of her skin, did remind one of the hardy folk of the Kucha Mountains.
But Adesh knew little specific about them.
“Thanks, but we only need 76mm shells.” Eshe said curtly. He looked put off by her tone. “You seem boisterous for an Uvuli, if I do say, ma’am. Are you the squad leader?”
Corporal Kajari grinned at him, and turned around and pointed at a KVW soldier.
“Private! Am I or am I not your officer?” She asked.
“You are, ma’am,” replied the soldier, saluting stiffly, his face a perpetual near-frown.
“How come you act nothing like them?” Eshe pressed her. He sounded a bit offended.
For a moment the Corporal looked at him. She put her hands on her hips and smirked.
“It’s a specific sort of training that makes you like that. Not all of us are like this,” Corporal Kajari half-closed her eyes and frowned, putting on a sort of sleepy expression, making fun of the stoicism emblematic of the KVW, “High Command thought such training would only dull my powerful abilities! I have acquitted myself so well, that it has been found thoroughly unnecessary, in fact even detrimental, to train me further! It is feared it might dull my considerable skill in killing people and destroying positions and such.”
Nnenia whistled. Adesh smiled. Much to Eshe’s chagrin, they took well immediately to the officer. All of Adesh’s trepidation toward the KVW vanished, and he was taken in by the friendly officer. She held the young soldiers up for a moment and started telling them a few quick stories, while the rest of her troop unloaded without her.
Eshe stood off to one side, sighing at the scene.
Kajari gathered them and told them about how she had shot a man out of a window from two-hundred meters away during the fight for Matumaini – a battle Adesh and his friends had largely sat out in a ward behind the lines, recovering wounds. She told them about riding on a tank, and saving her CO from a Nochtish assault gun. This act had her promoted to Corporal from a lowly private. It gave Adesh hope for the future.
She told them how she survived a brutal artillery strike that caved-in the entire street around them, and how she ran and ran, with the ground collapsing at her wake!
Then she jumped at the last moment, and her Corporal, now a Sergeant, grabbed her hand, pulled her up, and told her she was a real socialist hero, and that now they were even!
“I see a lot of myself in you kids,” she said, hooking her arms around Adesh and Nnenia’s shoulders and pulling them close to her, rubbing cheeks, “y’got potential, I can tell! Give your all against the imperialist scum! I’m sure you’ll make them bleed white!”
“Thank you, Corporal Kajari!” Nnenia and Adesh said at once, cheeks and ears flushed beet read, laughing jovially with the officer. They hugged tightly against her chest.
The Corporal looked positively in love with them!
And Adesh felt amazingly comfortable with her. Eshe started tapping his feet, and regrettably they had to step away from their spontaneous Rock Bear Mama and her radiating charisma. To each of the doting young ones she gave a parting gift, a ration from a crate lying at her feet – when Eshe protested that this was against regulation she ordered him, as a superior officer, to shut his mouth up and to lighten up at once.
“At least two of you are going places!” She said again, nodding her head sagely.
Eshe stared at his shoes, making little noises inside his mouth.
Outside the building another truck arrived, this one towing what looked like an anti-aircraft gun. The KVW troops started to gather around it. Blowing kisses and walking out as though on a cloud, Corporal Kajari finally left the room, like a beloved theater star.
Eshe grumbled the instant she was out of earshot. “What a relentless fibber!”
“Oh, of course you’d know more about the KVW than her.” Nnenia rolled her eyes.
“As a matter of fact, I think I do.” Eshe said. “More than you, and more than her!”
“Oh, I got the red paneer!” Adesh shouted, holding up the ration box triumphantly. In his heart he thanked Comrade Kajari for keeping him well fed. This ration was his favorite!
Nnenia and Eshe watched him as he stared reverently at the package, and laughed. This seemed to diffuse all of the tension. Together they stored the rations in their packs. Eshe took great pains to stuff his under his various other possessions, all in case of an inspection that he was sure would come. He was quite alone in that sentiment.
They found the shells in a corner of the back room.
Each box had 6 shells, each shell weighing about seven kilograms. They had handles on either side that made them easier to carry, but the weight still proved challenging to the young privates less than a half hour after waking. Carrying the crates pulled their shoulders down, and they were reduced to almost to waddling in order to bear with it.
Eshe in the lead, opening the doors for them, the group carried the ordnance across the nave, out the big doors, and to the landing atop of the steps leading to the cathedral, where the two guns had been set up between the spires. They carried the crates toward the right-most of the guns under a tarp pitched up on four poles with plastic bases.
Under the tarp Corporal Rahani and Kufu greeted them.
Corporal Rahani had been largely uninjured in the blast during the air battles of the 22nd, same for Kufu. They had minor scratches, and luckily, Rahani’s pretty face had seen none of those. Rahani looked vibrant and soft as always. Having time to prepare, this time the lucky flower in his hair was not one picked off the ground, but a big bright hibiscus. He had gotten it from the stocks of a state-run goods shop farther north. Kufu meanwhile looked, if anything, more disheveled and bored than usual, reclining against the front of the gun shield with his hands behind his head. Half his buttons were undone.
Kufu waved half-heartedly at them, and nobody waved back – Nnenia and Adesh had their hands full and Eshe was not in a friendly mood. Adesh nodded his head instead.
“We brought two crates, one HE, one AP,” Eshe said, and saluted Rahani.
“Thanks for the gifts,” Cpl. Rahani said, giggling, “you can put them down right here.”
He pointed out a small stack of crates near the tarp. A few had gotten wet in the constant drizzling, but they were all closed shut. Nnenia and Adesh deposited their boxes atop the others. There was a crowbar nearby in case they needed to crack them open.
They sat atop the crates, gently laboring to calm their breathing and loosen up their shoulders. Rahani was all smiles as everyone gathered around the field gun – the same kind of 76mm long-barreled piece had Adesh had haphazardly commanded back at the border battle on the 18th, though his memory of what he did during that time was very fuzzy.
“Now it’s our turn at the gun.” Cpl. Rahani said. “Hopefully it will be a quiet one!”
From the steps, Adesh could see out to the main Penance road about 300 meters away. A line of trees across the edge of the park interrupted the view in places, but certainly if an enemy tried driving up Penance they would be spotted. A few intact buildings stood on the street opposing the park, across Penance road from the Cathedral, but it was mostly ruins all around elsewhere and of little tactical use. To cover the most direct approaches to the cathedral, six trenches and sandbag walls had been set in line with three corners of the cathedral, organized in two ranks, one closer to the edge of the park than the other.
In each trench there were light machine gunners and riflemen waiting to fight.
Atop each of the Cathedral’s spires they had snipers with BKV-28 heavy rifles, and atop the dome on the roof there was a mortar team in a somewhat precarious position but with a commanding view, along a pair of anti-aircraft machine guns, bolted to the stone.
Everything but the northwest approach, the Cathedral’s supply line, could be directly enfiladed by the defender’s weapons. Nocht had no access to a road that directly threatened the northwest supply line, unless they broke through to Penance and passed around the Cathedral itself to get to it. And by that point, there would not be much hope left.
In a few days this holy place had become a fortress. Adesh marveled at it all.
“What’s the situation so far? I’ve only heard bits and pieces.” Eshe asked.
Corporal Rahani smiled. “Nice to know your wounds haven’t slowed you down!”
“Ah, well, I’m just always looking to know something about my surroundings.”
“Is anyone else curious?” Corporal Rahani asked. Adesh didn’t quite know what for. He always thought of Eshe was something of a busybody, but in this case his curiosity made sense, and was perhaps a healthy interest to have. For Eshe’s sake, he awkwardly raised his hand, and Nnenia followed, though both were a little less eager to talk strategy.
“I’m glad I have a crew who is eager for more than just orders.” Rahani said cheerfully.
Kufu made no gesture of any kind. He might have fallen asleep against the gun shield.
Corporal Rahani gathered the privates around a sketchy pencil map of the surroundings – the Cathedral, the park, the roads framing the park. Penance, the largest road running south to north along the eastern edge of the park, was marked as the most obvious incursion point. “On the 25th there was a ground battle in the South District with its main axes around Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha Riverside. Matumaini saw the fiercest fighting, but there was a lot of death here on Penance too. Cissean troops overwhelmed the first line, and the second was ordered to retreat up here to reinforce the Cathedral. It proved too strong a point for the Cisseans – they don’t have the kind of equipment the Nochtish troops do.”
“I take it it’s been quiet since.” Eshe said. “Otherwise we would feel more alarmed.”
“Right. It seems they enemy is not eager to press the attack after what happened on the 25th.” Corporal Rahani said. “They thought sheer momentum would carry them, and were proved wrong. Our defenses and counterattacks cost them a lot of their materiel.”
“But an attack’s got to come sooner or later, and it will hit us harder now.” Eshe added. “Because Matumaini’s in bad condition for road travel. Penance is the best way north.”
“Quite correct. And furthermore that attack will probably hit sooner rather than later,” Corporal Rahani said. “As you’ve seen, Division Command has been building us up here.”
“Too slowly if you ask me.” Eshe said. He crossed his arms over his chest and spoke with a very assertive tone, as though scolding someone. “Just smatterings of infantry and bits and pieces of equipment. What if Nocht throws everything they’ve got at this place?”
Nnenia rolled her eyes. Adesh groaned a little internally. Eshe was overstepping.
“I wouldn’t blame them too much.” Corporal Rahani replied. He pressed a finger on Eshe’s shirt with a little grin on his face. “We’re still waiting to see what the enemy’s tanks do in the Kalu. They could open a second front into the city out of the east. Committing everything to the front line in the south, especially heavy weapons, would render our strategic depth vulnerable to an eastern blow. Did you consider that eventuality, Private?”
“Um, no, I did not think about the Kalu.” Eshe admitted. He sounded embarrassed.
Corporal Rahani smiled cryptically, and put away the map.
He patted Eshe on the shoulder.
“I like your enthusiasm! I hope we can all continue to grow together.”
Due to the injuries among the crew, some roles had changed.
Adesh was the gunner still, and Kufu and Nnenia adjusted the gun’s elevation and traversed it along their vantage. Corporal Rahani was now the loader, and the commander as well. He took his place at the side of the gun, and handed Eshe his hand-held radio so that he could act as their communications crew. Eshe looked a little bashful, one of the few times Adesh had seen him avert his gaze from people. He stood behind the gun, sitting quietly on the closed crates while they waited for an enemy to engage.
Adesh felt a little bad for him.
He was hard-headed, and perhaps needed to be put in his place every once in a while, but nonetheless Adesh found Eshe’s confidence mostly endearing. It was sad to see him squirming and circumspect. He was perhaps the only person Adesh was close to who seemed to have figured himself out. Though, it could be he merely acted the part well.