Under A Seething Sky (15.4)

28-AG-30 Penance Road – Cathedral of Penance

Earth and sky alike quaked in Penance.

Walls swayed and the ceiling rumbled and budged. Dust and splinters of rock fell from the ceiling with each tremor, and the gaps between the bricks in the wall seemed to distort from the violence, becoming more prominent, more ominous. Penance’s young stones bore witness to the mud and water that had become of the once green field. Silently they watched the corpses, and the men and tanks assembling across the road, waiting out the effect of their barrage on the Cathedral and its troops. Would this be the last act?

Certainly the Cathedral was never going to outlive the city.

“Everyone inside! We’ll weather the final push and then evacuate!” Lt. Purana called, both to the few soldiers assembled inside the Cathedral, and over his radio to the troops in the remains of their last trench lines. Everyone numbered less than a Platoon in total.

Adesh, Nnenia, Kufu and Rahani helped open the Cathedral door, and the last remaining trench troops retreated into the Cathedral, many supporting one another by their shoulders, limping, barely holding on to their weapons, faces streaked with mud and blood, uniforms soaked through and dripping long rivulets of water onto the carpet.

There were black spots all over their faces and hands where fresh cuts had started to coagulate. They shambled toward the back of the Cathedral nave and sat while medics buzzed around them, pressing heated blankets, disinfecting and bandaging their wounds.

Adesh walked around the 122mm, still standing a few meters off the doorway, and took his place beside it, sitting beside the breech. Corporal Rahani shook his head.

“At this point opening those doors again is too dangerous.” Corporal Rahani said.

Lt. Purana had the door shut and an iron bar jammed in it, and then ordered everyone back from the doorway and the front of the Cathedral. They set mines near the door and explosive charges in the walls and around the 122mm gun. From the spire stairways, the snipers and the mortar crews descended, heaving their BKV rifles and 82mm launchers with them – all out of ammunition. Everyone had heavy eyes and walked inanimately.

They were all exhausted. Adesh and Nnenia sat beside Eshe below the altar at the back of the nave. He barely raised his head to acknowledge their appearance near him.

“How are you doing?” Nnenia asked. She bent her head low to look at him.

“Very tired. I’m trying not to nod off, but it’s hard.” Eshe said.

“We’ll be out soon.” Adesh said. He rocked his legs off the altar stage.

“I didn’t think that flamethrower would be so heavy.” He said.

“I’m surprised you got it going. You saved us, you know?”

Eshe did not respond immediately. He looked down the nave, at the door.

“Do you think we won this fight, or lost it?” He finally asked.

“It’s more complicated than that.” Nnenia said, patting him in the shoulder.

Eshe sighed heavily, and rubbed his face with his good hand.

“Sorry. We shouldn’t make Corporal Rahani worry more. He was crying.” He said.

“All of us were crying together that time.” Nnenia said.

Adesh wondered if it was really complicated.

He did not fancy himself much of a soldier.

He had joined the army purposelessly – he never joined it to fight.

It was the one place he knew he would never meet another of his kin

So he chose it as his escape. He knew that they had received orders and that they carried them out as best as they could. Could that always be counted as a victory? They were going to be pushed from the Cathedral – they might be pushed entirely out of Bada Aso soon. Could that count as a defeat? He looked around the room, at all these people, and the people who had been there before. What drove all of them, what did any of them use as a metric for their value, their purpose, their accomplishment?

No big picture appeared to him on the horizon. After some unspecified amount of these “victories” and “defeats” would there still be an Ayvarta to fight for in the end?

But there was something in there, in the background of his mind, percolating.

Maybe he could make no grand pronouncement, maybe he had no philosophy to back him. Maybe he really was just a kid. But he started imagining what everyone else might think, what they might answer. What would Corporal Rahani say? What would Lt. Purana say? What would Major Nakar say? Adesh did not really know them much.

Perhaps he did not even know his friends all that much.

Yet, he felt a strong connection to all of them, exacerbated in this eerily peaceful moment under the eye of this storm. Lightning and rain fell upon them all the same.

No matter what he could not believe that those people saw themselves as defeated.

“As long as we fight for each other it’s a victory.” He said aloud.

Nocht expected them to crumble, because Nocht saw individual riflemen and women with lacking training, old equipment, scattered leadership. They invaded their country, they advanced rapidly and hit them with defeat after defeat it seemed. They took each of them piecemeal, and compared them to their shiny new half-tracks, their intimidating metal-gray tinted uniforms, the howitzers with which they battered at the old Cathedral.

Taking that as the mental calculus, they decided the Ayvartans were weak.

You could fight an individual Ayvartan and beat them.

You could beat enough to take over the whole country from them, and do what you wanted with it. Adesh was almost sure that Nocht as a whole probably thought this way.

But Adesh was not alone, he was not a single Ayvartan fighting.

He had Corporal Rahani and his experience and his little flower rituals; he had Nnenia, and her terseness and sudden kindness and her blunt strength; he had Eshe, and his stiff humor and surprising reliability; he had Kufu too, he supposed, whatever that meant. Lt. Purana; Lt. Bogana, recovering in the hospital, probably yearning to get back into the fight. Somewhere out there he had the Major, Madiha Nakar, herself a decorated Hero. Corporal Kajari, a fighter with the intimidating KVW, and who did not know them at all, but smiled at them, and gave them food and told them they had potential and believed in them.

She was out there somewhere, fighting too. To protect them, probably.

Like a rock bear mama, she had said.

Adesh didn’t know whether he was being naive or foolish.

But he felt a fire lighting in him.

He smiled a bit, and he threw his arms around both Eshe and Nnenia, pulling their faces close to his own. He kissed both of them in the cheek, and they flushed very red.

“They’re not fighting any of us alone, right? There’s always someone beside you, and when there isn’t, there’s still someone out there, like Ms. Corporal Kajari. We’re all fighting and working for each other. We are part of something bigger. Until all that falls through we can’t say that we have lost. We’ll weather everything together.”

It wasn’t the positions on the map.

It wasn’t the lines. It was Ayvarta, and everyone in it.

In the end, that is what Nocht declared war on and what they would have to fight.

Nocht did not win until it had crushed all of that, and Adesh was sure that they couldn’t.

Corporal Rahani left Lt. Purana’s side and went to join the trio. He had replaced his paper flower with a bundle of grass. When he saw them hugged close together he beamed at them. “Gather up your things comrades, we’ll be evacuating next.” He said.

There was not much to gather.

They had eaten their rations, drank their water, and they carried no rifles ever since the battles for the border. Their only heavy piece of equipment was their gun.

Within moments they joined Kufu and Rahani behind the Cathedral, running out into the rain, and they hopped into the back of the half-tracked truck waiting for them. Adesh thought he would seen the falling shells when he stepped outside, but the barrage had abated. The Cathedral’s spires had almost collapsed from the abuse and the ornate dome crowning the main building, holding the bell, had sunk half into the roof.

“I encourage you all to relax for now,” Corporal Rahani said, “our part is over.”

The Half-Track started moving.

They drove west off the green and onto the road, and followed it along the back of the Park, and from there surreptitiously made their way to the north road. Coming in opposite them, one of their tanks appeared from the north road to cover them. It drove to the tree line and hid at the periphery of the Park, firing its gun across the front of the Cathedral into the Panzergrenadier’s positions. It was one of the new tanks, a Hobgoblin, with a 76mm gun that reminded Adesh of their old piece, and a larger, sturdier, sloped frame compared to the Goblins they had seen until now. As they passed it, Adesh waved at the tank.

Again the earth shook from the pounding of shells, and the air was cut through by noise. Adesh turned to the Cathedral. He saw nothing strike it; he saw smoke.

It rose from further away.

“Hah! Our artillery is active!” Corporal Rahani said. “That’ll show them!”

Seething red trails descended from their side of the sky and struck the earth around the Panzergrenadier positions. Plumes of fire and smoke rose at the edge of Adesh’s field of vision. The Half-Track turned into the northern road, and the carnage was well out of Adesh’s sight. But there were still those faint trails across the dark skies, skirmish lines left by falling shells, and the rising smoke, dispersed suddenly by the storm.

Retribution was at hand.

He was sure then that help had arrived in earnest, and the Cathedral had held out.

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight

Bada Aso Central District, 3rd KVW Rear Echelon

Midnight passed.

Once again the Motor Rifles regrouped well behind the front lines. This time they took shelter from the rain in an empty msani, an indoor market where individual craftsmen were allowed to trade goods under certain circumstances. Ayvarta had a very strong tradition of various crafts, and the Socialist Dominances of Solstice did not want to impede that trade, despite the necessity of regulating goods such that everyone had an equitable share.

Gulab did not quite know the specifics of that, but she knew the Msani had a roof and walls, a lot of space to sit around, and that it was warm and toasty when Sgt. Chadgura lit a big fire inside of a metal drum. Gulab sat wrapped around in a blanket, having discarded her wet jacket, and dressed in a pair of borrowed pants and a spare undershirt and jacket.

Thankfully she had gotten the privacy of an Msani changing room when shedding her old wet clothes. While she did not think anyone would gawk at her or question her gender, she was always glad not to have to bring that topic out in the flesh. She thought she looked woman enough and everyone so far seemed to think so, and that was enough for her.

“Gulab, I am content to see you healthy.” Chadgura said. She was seated next to her, by the fire. She had a cut along her cheek where a fragment from a shell had grazed her.

“I’m uh, I’m glad to see you healthy too, I suppose, Charvi.” Gulab replied.

Charvi raised her hands in front of her face and clapped a few times.

“Sorry I made you clap.” Gulab said. She only did that out of stress.

“It’s fine. Many things make me clap.” Charvi replied. She stared blankly at the fire.

“Did, um, did Sergeant Eeluhmakhno–”

“Eel-uh-nick-nah.” Charvi interrupted, pronouncing the name correctly.

“Did Sgt. Nikka have anything to say about me? Did she tell you what I did?”

“Yes. She said you talked too much, but had potential.” Charvi replied.

“Oh.” Gulab felt a little embarrassed. She thought the Sergeant might have a stronger and perhaps more negative opinion of her, after all that happened today. In a way, this sort of low-key reference made more sense. Sergeant Nikka had probably worked with dozens of people. She probably wasn’t judging all of them by the end. As long as the mission got done, anything else was just Gulab’s being self-centered. She sighed deeply into her hands.

Charvi shook her head. “I do not agree with her on that evaluation.”

“You don’t?” Gulab nearly jumped. She thought she was on good terms with Charvi! It was a sudden blow to her heart to think the Sergeant might dislike her after all this!

“I don’t.” Charvi replied simply, her voice a perfectly boring pitch.

A long silence followed with both women staring. Charvi clapped her hands twice.

“In what way, exactly, don’t you agree?” Gulab asked, her voice trembling.

“I have no opinion on the amount that you talk. It seems immaterial to me.”

Gulab sank her face into her hands. Of course it would be something like that.

“Well, thanks. So do you think I have potential then?” Gulab asked.

Charvi stared at the fire for a moment and crossed her arms.

“I guess so. I would be more inclined to say you are realizing your potential, but that is also immaterial. Who can say what one’s potential is and when it is realized?”

“That’s true.” Gulab said. She started to feel comforted by Charvi.

Charvi continued, looking almost contemplative. “There’s no single event, in my view, where a person becomes immutably better than before. If inclined to evaluate you, I would say instead that you are reliable, and uncomplicated to work with, and energetic. I would add that I have been content to work with you and that I hope to stick close to you.”

Gulab smiled. “Those sound like things I’d care about more too.”

Charvi nodded. “But don’t try to drive a tank again. It looks fun, but it is not our job.”

Gulab nodded her head. She looked out of the Msani’s windows, into the unabating rain. Perhaps together there was hope for all of them yet. It would have certainly been easier to kill that Rock Bear with the kind of people she had supporting her now.

She leaned back, laying down on the hard floor and staring at the roof.

“Maybe Chess won’t build a monument of me, grandpa, but something else will. I’ve got good in me, you saw it, and I think I see it too.” She whispered to herself. The Spirits, the Ancestors, the Light, whatever, whoever; she hoped they would carry those wishes out to that lonely, snowy mountain, where she dared not set foot again.

Gulab Kajari was not the black sheep of the Kucha.

30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Solstice Dominance – Postill Square

Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote practically lived out of the signals room they had improvised in the observation tower at Armaments Hill. A wall of radios, a stack of ration packs in a table, and a pair of bedrolls in a corner, was all the amenities they needed.

At nights, it felt like a strange sleepover, with the admiral and warden sleeping side by side, while KVW soldiers left the room to give them privacy in their endeavors.

But stress prevented them from exerting their libido in any way.

Days had passed since the Military Council strike had begun, and the police and Revolutionary Guard left their posts. They had not sought out the solidarity of any other Unions – those men and women were necessary for civilians to be fed and for the Socialist Dominances to function, and Kansal did not want to outright sabotage the war effort.

Judging by the little news that she received out of Bada Aso and Knyskna, and the signals that they captured from the Council, they needed all the help they could get.

From stop Armaments Hill, they looked out onto the square. A crowd formed around an advancing staff car. It was not one of their own. Warden Kansal gave the order for the car to be allowed in, but everyone was on edge as to what it could represent.

Shortly thereafter, flanked by KVW troops on all sides, Councilman Yuba entered the signals room. He was all dressed up in his suit, and he stood meekly before them.

Hujambo, Warden, Admiral.” He said, bowing his head to the two of them.

“To what do we owe the visit?” Warden Kansal asked.

Councilman Yuba looked at his hands nervously. “Ah, well. I’ve come to discuss the events ongoing in the Kalu region in the Adjar Dominance. I believe that would be a good start. After that, we can discuss what you’ll desire in order to collaborate with me.”

“To collaborate?” Daksha said, starting to sound outraged.

Yuba flinched. “Trust me, you’ve got the advantage for favorable terms here.”

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