Under A Seething Sky (15.1)

This story segment contains descriptions of wounds as well as 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.

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