Under A Seething Sky (15.2)

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 Penance Road – Cathedral of Penance

Equipment quality varied wildly in the Territorial Army.

Adesh had looked through the cloudy aiming scopes of enough direct-fire guns to know that this was a part with low priority, and yet the traverse equipment was always smooth and easy to use. He had been told once that many of their anti-tank explosive shells had a weak powder load, because the best powder charges were kept reserved for the anti-aircraft and long-range artillery branches, and he could believe that, having hefted around both the sleek, shiny, powerful AA ammo, and the simple and off-puttingly light shells for his current gun. He also knew that many of their bullets were made in small workshops rather than the big glamorous factories that were shown in the pamphlets.

None of it was perfect. Priorities shifted, and resources allocated shifted with them.

However, the rations were always good quality food in his opinion.

Red Paneer was Adesh’s favorite, and it never disappointed.

It was spiced well, and if one followed the instructions it would never end up too watery, and the cheese was never gummy, nor were the vegetables too mushy. Food was seen as crucial for everyone, and given the same care as those big artillery shells.

Circumstances, however, could render the dish difficult to savor.

Around Adesh the walls and ceiling of the Cathedral rumbled from the artillery pummeling the surrounding area. Enemy howitzers had been shelling the area extensively, smashing dozens of holes into the land between Penance Road and the Cathedral. Shells occasionally hit the steps, or the roof, or fell just short of a trench. Mostly they fell into open earth, hitting nobody while denying the territory to everybody. This shelling brought the battle to a standstill and prevented either side from engaging the other.

Thunder and shellfalls kept everyone quite awake and anxious.

The Cathedral nave was crowded. Wounded men and women (and a couple perhaps not grown enough to be referred to as such) were set down wherever there was space.

They cried through grit teeth as medics extracted bullets and shrapnel from their flesh, most in cold blood. Morphine was reserved for the amputees. For those with particularly bad flesh wounds, their only mercy was to be rendered very drunk with liquor while the medics sewed up gashes the length of forearms. They lay dazed, their faces expressing a kind of almost spiritual delusion as they bled on their green sheets.

It made Adesh shudder.

He saw a drunken woman laughing weakly as pieces of metal were picked out of her back; and a man with his cheek lacerated, delirious with pain and fever as the medics closed his exposed jaw. He saw big black bruises and horrible bubbling yellow burns.

Adesh sat in a corner, his hexamine burner extinguished but still smoking and stinking, spooning red broth and hunks of cheese into his mouth, and chewing, slowly and deliberately, his stomach roiling from nerves and the mixed smell of chemicals and blood.

Keeping his eyes down he avoided seeing too much of the wounded and the fighting.

Soon he started to feel dizzy from the stress, the dire atmosphere, from the nasty smells and the pitiable sounds. His eyes teared up and his lids turned heavy.

His vision swam and he started to nod involuntarily.

Before he let himself go into the black, a familiar voice jolted him awake.

“Adesh, it’s almost our turn again. Rahani wants us to eat and make ready.”

Nnenia appeared; her right sleeve was cut open, exposing a white, bloody bandage around her upper arm. She sat next to Adesh, undid the black plastic tie holding back her shoulder-length hair, nonchalantly unbuttoned her jacket, and quickly ripped open her own ration. She ignored the entree in the box – instead she spooned bullion paste over hardtack biscuits, and bit into that.  She washed each biscuit down with water from her canteen.

Adesh had never seen anyone do that. He thought the paste was there for soup.

Nnenia seemed indifferent to its taste. She chewed calmly and swallowed quickly.

“How is that?” Adesh asked. He felt a little guilty about his pot full of broth.

“It’s fine.” Nnenia said through a big mouthful of bouillon paste. This was followed by a long silence. Nnenia was always a little terse and quiet and had an apathetic demeanor.

“You look like you’re doing well despite the circumstances.” Adesh said. He tried to smile and make a little conversation. He was close to going mad from the tension. “What’s your secret? Even back then you were so calm.” He hesitated to expound upon what he meant by ‘back then’. He still felt a lingering discomfort about his behavior during the event.

Though the question did not seem to rattle her, she put off answering it. She swallowed her food, put down the rest of the ration package beside her, and started pulling up her hair again. Her hair was wavy and stuck out in places, particularly her bangs.

She pulled it back into a bun.

“I,” Nnenia hesitated for a moment. “Well, I really don’t think that I,” she paused again. She glanced around the room at the wounded and the medics, and she looked at the closed iron doors, and took a sullen expression. She mumbled, “Maybe I’ve seen worse.”

Adesh had barely heard what she said, and did not trust his own reckoning of it.

“Oh, sorry, I think I was dozing off again Nnenia, I didn’t hear–”

Eshe dropped in beside them then, surprising them both. He sat down beside Nnenia and struggled to open a ration pack. He tried to smile, but he was breathing heavily and sweating. “Hujambo. Sorry if I’m late to the muster, I was trying to help out around the sickbeds. It was bad there though. Medics told me to leave, said I was looking disturbed.”

He fumbled with the package lid, trying to hold the box between his sling and chest.

“Let me get that for you,” Nnenia said. She ripped open the package for him. She split open the bag of biscuits for him, and pulled his canteen from its holster inside his jacket.

“I’m sorry.” Eshe said. He lifted a biscuit to his mouth with his good hand.

His other arm was still in a sling from all the abuse it took during their miraculous escape from the dive-bombers on the 22nd of the Gloom. He had carried Adesh around the park, saving him from a fire and Adesh had rewarded him by deliriously thrashing in his arms and freshly banging up his wounds even more than they were.

Everything that followed was equally ignominious.

If anything, Adesh felt it should have been him still apologizing to them.

“You don’t have to apologize, it is fine.” Nnenia replied. “No trouble at all.”

Eshe laughed. It was a choppy laugh, almost a cough; a very sour and sick kind of sound. He had tears in his eyes. “I’m always being kind of a nuisance to you, aren’t I?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about at all.” Nnenia replied sharply. “Did you have any of that dark liquor from the medics? You do look disturbed. Settle down.”

“No, it’s the smells. It smells like molten plastic and blood. It’s sickening.” Eshe said.

“Then keep your head down.” Nnenia gently said. “You don’t have to fight anymore.”

“I’d feel like a load if I didn’t do something.” Eshe said, shaking his wounded arm.

“Listen to her.” Adesh said. “You won’t return to form unless you rest a little. And besides, isn’t there some army regulation on injured people on the front lines?”

“Spirits defend, that’s the kind of person I’ve become, isn’t it? Everyone thinks they can only talk to me by the books.” Eshe said. He was both laughing and weeping a little.

“We love you that way.” Adesh added, in a voice like one would use on a baby.

“But it is true, that is what you’ve become.” Nnenia bluntly replied.

“I just think we ought to do things right, to help us do the best we can.” Eshe replied.

“Then lay down before you hurt yourself!” Nnenia shouted.

As soon as Nnenia spoke up the floor rumbled, and everyone gave a jump.

For a ridiculous second Adesh thought it had finally happened, and Eshe had brought the wrathful God from inside Nnenia out of hiding, but it could not have been her. There was a deep, reverberating noise muffled by the rock, but clearly coming from the basement.

It was like a bomb had gone off under them.

Adesh knew it was entirely unrelated to the shelling.

“Stay here!” Adesh said. Nnenia and Eshe nodded their heads in confusion.

He swallowed the rest of his broth in a long gulp and hurried downstairs to investigate.

He broke into a run to the other side of the nave and took the door on the right wall, and there was an outer hallway with stained glass windows, and stairs leading up and down in opposite sides of the room. He made for the basement, but found the way down was crowded by men and women pulling up strange pieces of green-painted metal – there was a group of two women with a very long tube, and a man with a wheel in one hand and a muzzle brake in the other, and two men with a heavy machine block.

Hujambo, you here to give us a hand?” Asked a man at the bottom of the steps.

Too surprised to reply coherently, Adesh nodded rapidly.

Adesh grabbed hold of the long tube and helped the women to maneuver it into the hall, and then out into the nave near the doors. They set the tube down, and Adesh stood and watched the rest of the pieces being brought out and piled up.

An engineer, trailing behind them, started to direct everyone else as they assembled the machine. She told them all that it was a gun, a 122mm howitzer. They had brought it in pieces through the tunnels. Then they collapsed the tunnel behind them.

That tube was the gun barrel, and the machine block the breech and firing controls. It had a wheel connected to parts that handled the elevation, but traverse was still entirely a matter of lifting weapon and pushing it left or right. First the engineering squad set the parts together on the floor, then they painstakingly raised the gun onto its wheeled carriage once that piece had been pulled free of the basements stairs and the outer hallway.

Finally the last of the new arrivals left the basement.

Lieutenant Purana walked in from the outer hall and offered a solemn “Hujambo,” to the troops around. He was a tall man with skin like polished bronze and very curly hair, and a boyish youthful face. His brow was furrowed with worry. As a Jr. Lieutenant he had commanded forces under Major Nakar at the border and did well for the circumstances.

Because Lt. Bogana was badly wounded and admitted to the hospital, the independent artillery batteries once under his command were shuffled into Purana’s 6th Ox Rifles instead. Adesh had had little contact with the man, but he was inclined to think of him as a good commander. After all, here he was, in the thick of it with his battered troops.

The Lieutenant waited until an assessment was done on the condition of the gun.

Engineers inspected their own handiwork, lightly greased the parts, inspected the breach and barrel, and gave their reports on every part of the process. Everyone and everything was very quiet during this time. Adesh heard no more shelling or shooting outside, and even their wounded comrades seemed to find a momentary piece.

It was an eerie, tense calm.

The Lieutenant turned to address the people at the back of the nave, around the sickbeds, and gathering around the howitzer. He raised his hand and waved everyone to attention. “We need to start evacuating everyone badly wounded but stable enough to travel. There are two half-tracks out back, and one more Goblin tank intact enough to escort them. Nocht still hasn’t encircled us, but we can’t take any chances. Let’s get our comrades out.”

He clapped his hands and the medics began to assess the wounded and set up stretchers.

“However,” he added, looking around the faces standing before him, “I’m going to have to ask the lightly wounded and anyone who can fight to remain behind. If you can stand and you’ve got a good arm then I need you here, even if just for support tasks. We have to stay here and hold the line for our comrades, and then secure our own way.”

There were no protests. Adesh thought he saw a few grumbling faces, but if there was discontent, it was not spoken. In his own mind there was not a thought given to retreat. He was scared, certainly, but he felt he had already proven too craven in other circumstances.

Unbidden, an image of the dive-bomber flashed across his mind.

He had seen it coming down from far above and he choked.

It cost lives and it still hurt; it still haunted him. Even if he died he had to stay here. The Lieutenant was staying – so was he. He could not abandon his comrades.

He figured there were similar thoughts occurring to all those minds around him.

“As you were,” the Lieutenant said, “I’ll give assignments shortly, comrades.”

Nodding heads; the crowd dispersed back to the corners of the nave. The Lieutenant returned to his engineers at the side of the 122mm howitzer, being pushed near to the doors. Eshe and Nnenia joined Adesh in standing at the periphery of these events.

“What’s going on Adesh?” Eshe asked. “What is that thing they brought?”

“It’s a big gun. They brought it in from the tunnels.” Adesh said.

“Alright, let’s get ready to fire on the road.” Lt. Purana declared suddenly. “Our line artillery in the west is under silence until the KVW complete their mission in the east, but this gun can be used as a direct-fire weapon from here, and it won’t compromise the battery’s position. It’s got enough firepower to kill any Nocht vehicle here.”

Engineers approached the heavy metal doors to the Cathedral to open them again. They had been shut after the first trench line fell, to protect the troops gathering inside. No sooner had they approached however that the doors shook from a deafening blast that erupted from right outside them. Its force and noise was barely contained by the thick concrete and stone walls. Adesh fell on his rump with surprise, and the engineers near the gun scrambled away in a panic. Everyone by the door fell back from it with surprise, but the front of the Cathedral resisted the blasts, and nobody inside was hurt save from clumsy accidents.

Lt. Purana was shaken but stood his ground unsteadily.

He took a portable radio and called out.

“What happened out there?” He asked. “Did the artillery hit the gun line?”

They had spotters on the spires along with the snipers, and one of these men radioed back to the Lieutenant. Adesh heard his voice screaming through the radio.

“An assault gun, driving up! It got all our guns and lit up the ammo in a single shot!”

“Fire on its tracks and try to slow it down.” Lt. Purana said. He put down the radio and bit his thumb, staring around the room and pacing a few steps to the left and right.

Nnenia and Eshe helped Adesh to stand.

They watched in a daze, as the smoke seeped in under the crack of the Cathedral doors. Adesh felt his head fill with a mix of guilt and worry and sickness. He thought he would throw up. That could have been them! Had they switched any earlier, they could have all been pulverized, and nobody inside the Cathedral would even bear witness to their last moments! But no, it was not simply those crews at that moment who could have died.

All along, anyone who stood outside those walls could be killed by anything. A stray bullet, a creeping artillery barrage, or the cruel gun of a tank – it was a miracle Adesh was even alive right now. He felt an irrational vulnerability that brought tears to his eyes.

Once again he lived where others had died, and again by no will of his own.

He was not the only one shaken up.

Everyone save the drunk and the delirious was quiet.

“Orders sir?” an engineer asked. The 122mm was fully assembled behind them.

Lt. Purana acknowledged him. He turned to the doors and pointed the engineers toward them. “Open the way for a moment but be ready to shut the doors again quick.”

Purana’s engineering team nodded their heads and stacked up by the doors, three at each side. They left their tools and heavy equipment, including a flamethrower, welding tools, a grease gun, and other volatiles, hidden around the corners of the nave, away from the fuss. At his command they opened the doors, pushing with their shoulders and sides all at once to throw them open, then grabbing hold of the rings to pull it back.

For a brief moment Adesh, his mind clouded with sick thoughts of his own frailty, stared out into a field illuminated by raging thunderbolts and coated in blood and mud. Soon as this vision struck him the doors shut again, and shut hard, and everyone inside put their hands to their mouths or averted their eyes, or muttered desperate prayers.

Atop the stairs leading to the Cathedral their old gun lay in pieces, and the 45mm and the partner 76mm were heavily damaged by shrapnel and flame and utterly unusable.

Scattered human debris lay in stark contrast to the charred black metal.

Nnenia closed her eyes, while Eshe started turning yellow.

Adesh kept staring at the doors.

Images lingered in Adesh’s mind even after the doors shut.

Outside the field that was once green was battered into a muddy honeycomb of shell craters. Rain filled the trenches. Men and women in the second line fought valiantly, nearly chest-deep in water, their surroundings torn apart by shell-falls. They fired their submachine guns and light machine guns and their long rifles continuously downrage at the panzergrenadier troops, positioned in the remains of the first trenches and around the remains of their first wave of vehicles. There were bodies and their parts, from both sides, indistinct, floating atop the crater ponds or in the mud. The M3 Assault Gun, newly arrived, started to make its way past the first trench and directly toward the Cathedral.

The enemy solidified its grip on the roads, and assembled for a new push.

Lt. Purana turned his back on the doors and addressed the room.

“We need a new gun crew!”

Behind the crowd forming near the sickbeds, Corporal Rahani raised his hand overhead and jumped up and down. He walked out to the front of the nave, pulling Kufu along. The Corporal’s signature flower had been shaken right off his hair.

He had replaced it with a paper flower instead.

His face was a bit dirty with soot from their turn at the gun. He stood in front of Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe, nodding his head lightly to them. He visibly strained to smile.

“Corporal Rahani, reporting for duty sir. My crew is ready.” He said.

Rahani saluted the Lieutenant.

Lt. Purana nodded to him. “Take your positions on the gun.”

From the door one of the engineers protested. “Lieutenant, whether we have a crew or not, we can’t fire effectively from in here. And if we open the doors too long we then we open everyone in here to one of those blasts, in a confined space. We should rethink this.”

“You assembled the gun, Engineer Sergeant. Now leave the rest to me.” Lt. Purana said. “We will open the doors long enough to fire, and shut them again behind each shell.”

There were whispered protests from the door, but the engineers resigned themselves to this plan. They had gotten the dirtiest and most dangerous job of all. At close range that assault gun would bang open those doors with one shot, and crush everyone behind them.

Corporal Rahani hesitated a moment, then spoke. “Sir, I’m afraid it is correct that we will have difficulty ranging the gun effectively if we must fire during this limited window.”

“I can fire it effectively.”

Adesh found himself speaking up. He barely acknowledged having done it. He thought all the words were in his mind, that they had never left his tongue. Then everyone’s eyes in the room seemed fixed on him, and this time it was not because they thought he looked ‘cute, like a secretary.’ Everyone seemed to await an explanation and Adesh was still sick and scared, shaking, tearing up in the eyes. Still despite himself he kept managing to speak.

“I can remember the field, I can tell the distances. I can range the gun after every shot. I just need to be able to see out the door briefly as I fire, and to see some of the effect.” Adesh said. Everything was still imprinted on his mind, the mud, the road, the treeline, the corpses, chunks of flesh– he choked up a little. Corporal Rahani stared at him quizzically.

Lt. Purana glanced over Adesh, and turned sharply toward Rahani. “Well, I don’t have a lot of options, but this sounds like a reach. Do you stand by this gunner, Corporal?”

Corporal Rahani gave him a worried look.

Adesh stood unsteadily, he was crying, his nose felt cold and probably dripped, and he felt utterly irrational, without a sense of what any of his parts were doing in relation to any other. He felt a brimming sensation under the skin of his shoulders and along his spine, behind his neck. He was nervous, his knees were weak. Corporal Rahani was the nicest officer he had ever served under – perhaps he would find it nicer to leave Adesh out of this, in the sorry state that he was, than to subject him to the cruelty another battle.

This kindness would be gravely misplaced. Adesh tried to look him in the eyes with determination, tried to say something that could convey his need to fight.

But he did not have to do it himself. Suddenly he felt a soft pressure over his shoulder and back. Nnenia and Eshe were at his sides, helping him stand taller.

“He can do it, commander.” Nnenia said. “Adesh is a skilled gunner.”

“He shot a plane out of the sky on the 22nd.” Eshe added. “Shot two, even.”

Had Adesh really done anything of the sort? He did not attribute those kills to himself. All he did was hit switches at the correct moment. His ranging was very minimal. But he lived inside himself – maybe he just never saw his own strength.

Friends at his side, Adesh found a few shaky words. “I am ready to for mission orders.”

Corporal Rahani smiled; and this time it was an uncomplicated smile.

He addressed the superior officer with newfound confidence.

“I vouch for him in the strongest terms, Lieutenant. He is a magnificent gunner. Allow him to range the gun and fire. I will limit my involvement to loading and calling.”

Lt. Purana nodded and stepped aside without further protest.

Though the gun was bigger, the crew took much the same positions as they had on their old 76mm. Kufu stood on the right, an apathetic expression his face, but nonetheless ready to lift the right leg of the gun. Nnenia took the left leg, in case they needed to turn it together. Adesh stood behind the firing mechanism and the elevation wheel, while Corporal Rahani knelt near the breech with a crate of shells. Eshe stood off to the side.

Eshe’s injured arm prevented him from helping. But he tried to smile, and he raised his good arm to Adesh in a little cheering gesture. Adesh nodded back.

He still felt like he would lose his dinner, but he had gotten his chance.

Beside him, Corporal Rahani looked up from the corner of his eyes.

His expression was soft and gentle, maternal even.

When Adesh made eye contact, he winked surreptitiously at him.

“We’re all scared, Adesh. Don’t let it stop you. We can work it out as a unit.”

Corporal Rahani said this under his breath, but in a gentle and affirming tone, almost soothing enough by itself. Then he made the first call, “Loading high explosive!” He raised the shell to the breech and punched it into position. Then he locked the breech manually with a lever and wheel, readying the gun to fire. A pull of a chain would set it off.

This was an old weapon, devoid of amenities, but powerful.

“Open the doors!” Adesh called out. He stammered through the words.

The engineers put their shoulders into the door and as one they forced open the doors. Adesh pulled the trigger chain the instant there was enough clearance. He felt the air stir and the earth shake, the powerful recoil travelling through the gun and passing a deep rumbling right down his arms and into his ribcage. A deafening noise escaped the weapon, and a gas shout out like the shape of a cross from the muzzle brake. Downrange the shell hurtled over the ground and crashed into the upper side of the advancing assault gun.

Ahead the doors shut, but Adesh had not lost his view of the field.

It was all in his memory, stored in a snap second.

He saw the fuzzy outline of the assault gun in his mind, reduced to a heap of scrap metal, its tracks fallen aside, its roof collapsed, its gun sent flying in pieces across different directions, its engine covered in a dancing wisp of flame. He saw the muddy, uprooted terrain that was once the green field, and the gray uniforms beginning to charge from across it, leaving the hulks of cover of various dead vehicles all at once.

“Vehicle down!” Adesh said. “You can confirm it during the next shot!”

Lt. Purana looked at him with confusion, but said nothing.

Corporal Rahani reset the breach, discarding the spent shell and loading the next explosive shell into the cannon. Adesh ordered the cannon moved a specific amount of degrees left once it was properly loaded, and Nnenia and Kufu repositioned the gun as quickly as they could under the circumstances. He then called for the doors, and the doors were opened anew; at his command a second shell soared from inside the cathedral, crossing the mud, overflying Penance road and crashing into the opposing street.

Again the doors slammed shut.

“Kill confirmed on the assault gun.” One engineer said.

While Lt. Purana and the engineers stood in awe, the 122mm shell exploded between several vehicles parked across the street giving succor to the mechanized troops.

It blasted the side of a tank that had been lazily firing its 37mm gun across the field at the Cathedral. Piercing shrapnel flew from the wreck and split the engine block on a nearby car. Fragments shredded to bits a half-track’s troop bed and the men inside.

While the fire and force was contained to the street, a burst of hot metal from the shell and chunks of the destroyed vehicles flew dozens of meters at incredible speeds.

Metal shrapnel flew far enough to hit men along the rear of the enemy charge, and many fell forward and back in great pain, their legs clipped by fragments; men just arriving at Penance Road suddenly met a shower of metal and fell aback, injured and confused.

Adesh might not have seen all of this, but there was enough of a picture in his memory to infer it. He saw glimpses of everything, and they melded to form the events.

“You can add some dozen odd men across the street to that.” Adesh replied.

“You’ve a more gifted eye than I ever imagined.” Corporal Rahani whispered to him.

Adesh scratched his hair nervously.

It was difficult to imagine that this could be a gift – he thought the slow sharpening of his senses toward danger was a curse, that it was a burden for him to notice all these things and then freeze in fear and weep with anxiety. Now it had suddenly become his advantage.

Radios started to buzz, from across the room and in Lt. Purana’s satchel.

The Lieutenant withdrew his radio and answered the call.

“Has the artillery had noticeable effect?” He asked. He awaited the response, and nodded to himself, looking at Adesh while speaking. “Keep firing, we’ll break that charge.”

“Orders sir?” Adesh asked. His voice was trembling a little again.

“Our comrades in the trench believe this is our best opportunity to evacuate their wounded and rotate in fresh troops.” Lt. Purana said. He turned around briefly, and called for two squadrons of troops to ready themselves to rush to the trenches. He then addressed Adesh again. “We’re leaving the doors open this time, so stay behind that gun shield.”

“Yes sir!” Adesh saluted. Corporal Rahani saluted as well.

Around the nave men and women in varying states of injury and health gathered their rifles and packs, and assembled themselves hastily. A squadron of ten assembled on both sides of the door along with the engineers. Outside the trench troops got ready to leave with their wounded. Corporal Rahani had the gun pushed farther backward, and Adesh altered the elevation with Nnenia’s help, descending the gun as low as it would go. It was not a weapon explicitly meant for direct fire, but it would have to overcome that shortcoming.

When the trench troops gave their signal, the doors slammed open, not soon to close; the two squadrons charged out in opposing directions and the engineers let go of the iron rings on the doors and joined them, brandishing their submachine guns, taking to the gun wrecks for cover and spraying down the field to help defend the charge. From the trenches men and women rose with wounded and unconscious comrades in hand, and under fire they then stepped from cover and ferried the bodies toward the cathedral.

Opposing them was a field of gray uniforms.

Panzergrenadiers ran out of their own hiding places in droves, their thick light blue and dark gray attire sopping wet. They had made it halfway through the field, brandishing rifles and light machine guns. Vicious men took to their knees and aimed for the trenches when the doors swung open, challenging the evacuating troops with merciless gunfire.

Able comrades began to join the wounded themselves, as they were caught escaping the trench with friends in their arms and fell tragically into the mud along with their wards. Under mounting fire many comrades stopped mid-dash and pulled along the freshly wounded, risking their lives to protect twice as many as they had first meant to.

Snipers split open the necks and faces of many aggressors, and the engineers fired relentlessly on the tide, but they could not keep up with the volume threatening the trenches.

“Shell loaded!” Corporal Rahani shouted.

“Firing!” Adesh called out. He activated the firing pin.

The shell cruised just over the wrecks atop the Cathedral staircase, and the engineers hidden behind them; it overflew the dashing men and crashed in the middle of the field, spraying fragments in every direction and leaving behind a muddy meter-deep crater.

Dozens of men close to the explosion were hurled to the mud, while men as far as fifteen meters in every direction were shredded by the fragments, and fell back with their chests and faces and backs coated in red, twitching in the brackish pools. After that distance the fragments lost power, but the explosion threw the entire charge into disarray.

Many Panzergrenadiers dropped to their bellies reflexively, and dove into the flooded shell craters recently left by their own howitzers. Only the men farthest ahead kept running.

Those still running had bayonets ready for a brawl.

At the Cathedral doors the first of the evacuating trench troops arrived. Some of them had a comrade over both shoulders and over their backs, carrying as many people as physically possible, and these monumental figures collapsed from the stress and effort the moment they made it past Adesh’s howitzer. Both the wounded and the shocked were pulled away to the nave for treatment and potential evacuation from the battle altogether.

With them the enemy was almost at the steps of the Cathedral, rushing through the fire with grim determination.  Fifty or sixty men lined up to rush the doors.

They bolted in between the trenches, losing many of their own with every passing moment. Men set foot on the steps and died, perforated by the engineers’ submachine guns or by the trench troops’ rifles, but other men trampled them and furiously ascended.

Grenades flew from below and landed among the engineers. In a panic the engineers broke from the stairway landing, jumping back into the cathedral or over the sides of the raised steps, falling a few meters below. Fire and smoke and fragments obscured the way.

Bayonets flashed within the clouds and people fell back from the doors.

“Adesh, take cover now!”

Nnenia pushed Adesh down, forcing his shoulders with her elbow. She fired at the doorway with her pistol, and Adesh saw a figure in shadow stumbling and falling. Kufu rose to shoot as well, but he quickly thought better of it and remained in cover.

Nochtish men entered the Cathedral now in force,

Many threw themselves at the first human figure they saw, thrusting with their bayonets and shoving their carbines into the arms of fallen folk to choke them against the ground. At the door the engineers and returning troops engaged in a savage melee with the grenadiers. Soldiers fell over each other with unrestrained fury, choking and clawing and stabbing. There was utter chaos, over a dozen soldiers on each side tearing each other apart.

Nnenia held her fire – she couldn’t tell anymore who she’d hit!

Gunshots from outside struck the 122mm gun shield; more men materialized across the threshold, seeking entry. Adesh and Nnenia ducked behind the breech for cover, but Corporal Rahani and Lt. Purana were not so quick to relent.

Both officers drew their pistols and fired at the doorway from behind the Howitzer’s gun shield, baptizing the enemy red under the Messiah’s cross hanging over the door. Men fell back over the stairs, and stumbled forward on the corpses piling on the carpet, but more of them rushed in no matter how much the officers shot, gathering at the doorway and trying to form a base of fire for the others. Had they gotten a foothold so easily?

Adesh cursed under his breath – he could not fire the howitzer at this range or he would potentially kill scores of his own allies. He was useless now in this fight.

“Where’s Eshe?” Adesh shouted, covering his ears from the shots.

“I don’t know!” Nnenia said. “He was just on the sidelines!”

“Saw him running out across nave.” Kufu said. He was hiding by the side of the gun shield, taking hasty shots with his revolver. “Dunno where he could’ve gone.”

Adesh felt clammy and sick with terror. He started to babble, crushed by the thought that Eshe could be in danger now or worse, while they hid like cowards behind the gun. “Spirits defend him. Oh gods, he’s out there– We have to do something, he’s–”

A gushing noise; screams from the door shouted Adesh down.

He and Nnenia peered around the gun at the unearthly wailing, and saw streams of fire going out the doorway, catching on enemy troops like a liquified inferno. Gouts of flame coated them head to toe, consuming them in giant fireballs. Unable to put themselves out several men fell where they stood in immeasurable agony or rolled out of the door.

At the sight of flames many men inside the Cathedral panicked, disengaging from the melee as fast as their feet could carry them. Of these men the most unlucky retreated right into a cruel burst of flame and danced madly under the rain and over the mud.

Approaching from the aisles flanking the door, it was Eshe who cast this relentless stream of fire from a BM-28 engineering flamethrower. He dragged the fuel tank across the floor, and held the projector in one hand, barely able to control the infernal tongue.

Corporal Rahani rushed out from behind the gun, using the columns along the center of the nave for cover, and hurried to Eshe’s side. As the last the Nochtish troops dispersed, dying in flame or fearing such a fate, Rahani took the flame projector from Eshe’s arm and shut it off. He embraced the shaken young man, whose fingers kept flicking in the air as though he still had the BM-28 between them, still dispersing its hungry flames.

“Eshe, spirits defend you,” Rahani said, smothering him. “You’re safe now.”

Lt. Purana rose from behind the gun and took a few parting shots on the retreating Panzergrenadiers. Survivors of the melee around the door rose unsteadily, bloodied, stabbed, noses broken, ears and cheeks sliced; but alive. They hobbled toward the door, and struggled to close it again. Adesh and Nnenia ran out from cover, and Kufu reluctantly followed them. They took the rings on the door and kicked the enemy corpses in the way.

They pulled, and it was like trying to drag solid slabs of steel.

Straining their arms until it seemed they would lose them in the struggle, the artillery crew along with the wounded engineers finally shut the cathedral doors. As soon as they slammed close it seemed like the cacophony of war was shut out along with the enemy.

There was such a void-like silence that Adesh’s mind tricked him, and he still heard whistling in his ears. He fell back against the door, exhausted, and Kufu and Nnenia fell back with him, having little breath and no more energy to spare after the rush of the moment.

“You fought courageously, comrades.” Lt. Purana said aloud. “You’ve earned a rest.”

The Lieutenant addressed the room as a whole. A few fists went weakly into the air in response, and then the Lieutenant hurried to the radio in the back.

Though the Panzergrenadiers had taken bloodying hits and retreated, they still had the street and would soon return. He would have to coordinate the next defense and see what reinforcements could be given to the Cathedral on short notice.

They were gravely depleted.

Around the room the newly injured staggered toward the medical tents in the back of the nave, where the remaining medics rushed out to attend to them.

Corporal Rahani, himself weeping with emotion, brought Eshe over to Nnenia and Adesh by the door, and helped him to sit down with them. Adesh hooked his arm around Eshe, who was sobbing quietly, staring down at his knees. Nnenia extended her arm over Adesh and both him and Eshe and pulled them close, so they were all cheek to cheek.

Corporal Rahani stood over them.

He bowed deep to them, almost to his knees.

The paper flower on his hair fell to the floor.

“I’m so sorry you three. I’ve done nothing so far but to fail you as an officer and as an adult. Had I been stronger you would not have been exposed to this carnage. You who are so young and in need of protection and guidance, and have been brought into this–”

As one, the three youths reached out to their officer and pulled him into their embrace. Adesh felt the Corporal’s tears fall on his uniform along with Eshe and Nnenia’s. He returned the embrace, and wept more than they did. Adesh did not need to forgive him.

Corporal Rahani had never done him wrong.

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