The dilapidated train cuts its engines as it nears the platform, one last gasp of steam belching from the locomotive. Savren raises a hand in greeting as it starts to slow, brakes grinding and screeching.
Her heart is pounding as it comes to a halt. There’s a little voice at the back of her head, screaming that it can’t be real. That the doors are going to open and Imperial Guard are going to swarm out and throw her on the ground again and take off her clothes and—
She digs her dirty fingernails into her thigh again, trying to distract herself from the memory. Then the first passenger car’s door hisses open.
And Savren lets out a gasp of relief.
The soldiers who emerge are clad in the black hardsuits and carrying the unmistakable rifles of her people. As they clear the platform, an officer in dress blacks steps down after them, a commander's beads in his hair and a special forces band on his arm. Seeing Savren and her cadre, he raises a hand. “Sil a iur, comrades!” he calls out.
Savren runs forward and throws her arms tight around him.
He only seems surprised for a moment, quickly returning the embrace. Savren begins to shake, then to cry, great, heaving sobs of relief. She feels dizzy. His arms are right on top of the whip wounds and it hurts something horrible and she still doesn’t want him to let go.
After a long moment, she reluctantly pulls away, smiles up at him. “Sorry. S-sorry. I just—”
“You have nothing to apologize for, comrade,” the officer says warmly, clapping her on the shoulder. “Commander Nishvir Mirlisi Niluani of the Mirlisi Fifth and mission commander for Joint Task Force Black Horizon, at your service.”
“C-commander Savren Sh-shalsheni Hasciti,” Savren returns weakly, putting a hand on his shoulder in turn. “Of the… labor camp irregulars. And what’s left of the Shalsheni Second.”
Nishvir nods briskly. “I’m honored to meet you, comrade.”
“And I you. S’aiur, surin.”
The commander nods at his bodyguard, who issues an order into her radio. The rest of the coach doors begin to open, infantry and techs spilling out. Two engineers immediately set to work emplacing field guns on the platform. Crates of cargo are swiftly unloaded, all labeled in the familiar blocky script of home. Black-armored Society troops working hand in hand with a train full of Free Khmai and local resistants. Every race, every uniform on the planet represented. Their precision is unerring.
“Vittash dale, san.” One of the soldiers indicates Otter, glancing at Nishvir and readying his rifle.
Otter pales. Savren quickly steps between them. “He’s a comrade. I vouch for him.”
“At ease, soldier.” Nishvir waves him away. “He’s one of us.”
“Very good, sir.”
Savren looks back at Nishvir. “It’s… I’ve never been so glad to see a special forces deployment.”
“…you look like you still need a hug.”
Savren immediately flushes. “I… oh, you’re… not wrong.” She laughs grimly. “If only it wouldn’t hurt so much—”
Nishvir looks at her with alarm, quickly grabbing his handset. “Are you wounded, soldier?” She nods hesitantly, biting her lip. “Where? How bad is it?”
“My back. But it’s not—”
“She needs medical attention,” Vasuen interrupts, glaring at Savren. “Real medical attention, not alcohol and leeches.”
“Vassi, you already fixed me up, I’m—”
“You need stitches. And real disinfectants. I don’t think those bandages were very clean.”
“…leeches?” asks Nishvir, blinking.
“Are you going to stand down voluntarily or do I have to ask Nishvir-roshlas to relieve you?”
Savren hesitates, then inclines her head. “As you wish. I commit my unit to the JTF and relinquish command to Vasuen Shalsheni. I stand down.”
Vasuen gives a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“We have a coach set up for triage until we’ve secured the area,” says Nishvir. “After everything you’ve been through, I’d like to see you ride this out somewhere secure.”
Savren glances at Vasuen. “Otter, you stick with her? Keep an eye out for my second in command?”
“Of course, comrade!”
“You two are just about all I have left.”
Vasuen wraps her arms around Savren’s neck, and holds her tightly for a moment. “I’ll be fine, Savi. Worry about yourself for once,” she says, withdrawing.
“Is that an order?”
“I’m acting commander of the Second now, aren’t I?”
Savren salutes lazily. “Then yes, ma’am.”
A small smile flits across Vasuen’s face before she turns and follows the rest of the troops down from the platform.
Nishvir extends a hand. “Allow me?”
Savren inclines her head and takes his hand. “Please.”
Two armored soldiers take hold of her and help lift her into the train as she puts her feet on the steps. There’s no telling how old the train is; from the scuffs and rust and mismatched parts it might well predate the Empire. But it’s warmly lit and filled with luxuriously cushioned seats. It’s a friendly, welcoming sort of dilapidated.
Nishvir leads her past bustling activity and cars full of cargo. Citizens salute them both as they pass. Savren closes her eyes, drinking in the beautiful sound of her native tongue all around her.
“How long were you held here, comrade?” Nishvir asks gently. Savren hesitates.
“What’s the date?”
“Nine-two-two by three-three-eight.”
“Nine-t… stars and skies.”
Savren feels suddenly weak. “It’s… it’s been a year. A year and a season. We got taken in the middle of nine-twenty-one.” She leans against the wall, closing her eyes.
Nishvir squeezes her hand. “Novas above… I am so sorry.”
Savren silently clutches his wrist with her free hand.
The last train car’s had its seats stripped out to make room for stretchers and surgical supplies. A surgeon leaps to her feet as Nishvir enters the room.
“Commander! What’s the problem?”
“We have a wounded comrade who needs her back stitched up.” Nishvir steps aside and motions to Savren. “This is Savren Shalsheni of the Second. You have her file?”
The surgeon taps a few keys on a terminal, then nods. “Right here. Marked MIA. Comrade, if you would take a seat here?”
Savren sits gingerly on the surgical table. “Take good care of her,” Nishvir instructs. “She’s the woman who liberated the camp.” He bows. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a battle to lead.”
“Thank you again, Nishvir.”
“Please. Call me Nisha.”
As Nishvir leaves the room, the surgeon busies herself undressing Savren. “Can you tell me a little bit about your complaints? Are you in any pain?”
“I’m… in a lot. They… whipped me.”
“They whipped you?” The surgeon’s voice is a mix of horror and fury. “That’s… what kind of fucking barbarian… Wait there, I’m going to get you a shot of fentadone.”
“Okay. Oh, um, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Mirian, dear. Hold your arm out for me?”
The familiar feel of the cold metal biting into her vein is like hearing an old friend’s voice for the first time in years. Moments later, a surge of warmth and relief washes through her, the pain from her back melting away. Savren gives a little gasp, takes a few deep breaths, her eyelids fluttering from the rush.
“…s-sun and moon but that feels better.” She leans forward, resting her head in her hands. “Stars above. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“After what you’ve been through, dear, you can have all the fent you want.”
Savren sits there silently for a few moments as Mirian slices through her bandages, awash in the overwhelming euphoria of the drug. She catches a glimpse of the surgeon distastefully holding the scraps of bloodsoaked fabric between thumb and forefinger before discarding them in a biohazard bin.
“I’ve seen a lot of bad things in my job but…” Mirian’s voice is shaking. “This is far from the worst injury I’ve treated, but it’s the single most evil thing I’ve ever seen. Stars, just… looking at this makes me want to give you another shot. Imagine doing this to another human being.”
“They did worse things to us.”
“…you poor girl.”
Savren can dimly feel the antibiotic gel seeping into her wounds, but there’s no pain, just a strange, unsettling tactile sensation. “The good news,” Mirian comments, “is that the wound profile isn’t wide enough to need stitches. Medibond and some nice tight bandages should do the job.”
“Oh, thank fuck for that. I’ve had enough stitches for one lifetime already.”
“I’d imagine so.” Mirian pats the stretcher. “Lay down on your stomach for me, will you? Have you ever cared for a gelled wound before?”
“Yeah. Too many times.”
“Good. Well, not good — you know what I mean.” Mirian touches her arm gently. “Hold still. This won’t hurt but it’s still going to suck.”
Savren closes her eyes, tries to ignore the strange tingling, violating sensations from her back as the surgeon dresses the wounds. She can still feel air passing through the lacerations, feel it with nerves that were never supposed to taste fresh air. But with every wound gelled and bandaged the feeling subsides a bit more.
“There. All done. You can rest there as long as you like, dear. Well. Until we have another casualty to treat, at least.”
“It’s okay, I… I’d rather be on my feet.”
“Why are you T-zeroes always like this? It’s called medical advice, not medical disinfo.”
“I should have been fighting in that battle. It all happened without me. I owe them.”
“Can you please repress the survivor’s guilt a bit until it’s not going to make my job harder? Turn your head, I need to scan your chip.” Mirian presses a reader plate to Savren’s neck and glances at the computer screen. “Good, good, you are who you say you are. Telling Tel Casran an MIA is alive and kicking is my favorite part of this posting, you know.”
With weak arms, Savren pulls herself into a sitting position. “Vasuen Shalsheni, Tenuan Shalsheni, Listar Hecueni, Sarshal Uansari. They’re all alive too. So’s—”
“I’m glad to hear it but there are procedures, dear.” Mirian pats her on the shoulder. “You wouldn’t credit some of the underhanded tricks the Rosies have played trying to smuggle spies into our midst.” She smirks. “Not that it ever works.”
Savren looks down at her naked chest, her emaciated stomach. Dirt. Bruises and cuts. The edges of bandages peeking around from her back. She grits her teeth.
“Can I have my tunic back?”
“It’s not regulation. It’s also covered in blood and who knows what other biohazards, so I had to dispose of it.”
“I don’t want people to see me like this.”
“About that!” Nishvir leans into the room, holding a bundle of black fabric. “I know it’s not tailored, but—”
Tears well up in Savren’s eyes. She walks unsteadily to the door and takes the fabric, letting it unfold in front of her.
Five loops of black flex-fiber with a white hem.
“I brought a sash and some wraps, too. They should be about the right size.”
Savren clutches the uniform to her chest. Her frail body is suddenly wracked with sobs.
“Here.” Nishvir pats a stretcher. “Sit down. I’ll help you.”
“Don’t you have a battle to lead, sir?” Mirian interjects, glaring.
“It turns out Comrade Savren here did all the work for me,” Nishvir replies breezily. “The whole area’s secure. We have a few pien şai in bolt-holes to smoke out, but they’re contained, so until the engineers have a breach plan together, we’re all just sitting on our hands. Have I mentioned I hate going in without advance intel?” He sighs. “If these idiots kept blueprints anywhere, like civilized people, we’d have the whole facility under control and we’d be marching the Rosies out in shackles already.”
“Now that would be a sight for sore eyes,” comments Mirian. “You should see her wounds, sir. They whipped her.”
Nishvir actually flinches. “I’ve seen that kind of wound before. How long did it have to fester?”
“Just happened a few hours ago, fortunately. I don’t want to think what her back would have looked like after a few days without treatment.”
“Stars, you poor girl—”
“Tilit elen tare,” Savren blurts out, staring up at Nishvir.
Nishvir smiles down at her. “Now what’s that about?”
“I— sorry, I just…” Savren shakes her head. “All of a sudden everyone’s taking care of me and being kind to me and—”
“Tamit val tare. You’ve been strong long enough.” Nishvir ruffles her hair and Savren immediately blushes. “What kind of comrades would we be if we didn’t look after you?”
Mirian stares at Savren. “How long was she in that camp, do you know, sir?”
“Over a year.”
“Over a—” Mirian grits her teeth. “Over a year away from the People, away from any support, fending for herself and being tortured?”
Nishvir nods silently.
“Where’s the nearest counselor?”
“The Territorial Capital. We’ll get her there soon enough, don’t worry.”
“Can’t happen too soon. I honestly think she’s going to need a vartash to take care of her for a while.”
“Well, we’ll have to be her varinar until a counselor can make that call, won’t we?”
Mirian purses her lips, and turns back to Savren. “You said there were other citizens here, Savren-roshlas?”
“One of the others met us at the depot,” Nishvir interjects.
Savren nods. “That was Vasuen. My second-in-command. But there’s more besides me and her.”
“How long have they all been here?”
“Some got here after me. Some got here before. Vasuen and Tenuan got here with me. I don’t really know how long. They didn’t exactly give us calendars.”
Mirian pales. “Do you think one counselor is going to be enough, sir?”
“There’s more than one in the Territories, Miri.”
Mirian nods distractedly. “Okay. Good. Stars but this is going to be a long, hard clean-up.”
“Did you bring many medics?” Savren asks quietly.
“A coach full of them. And another surgeon. They’re out treating the wounded. Don’t worry, we’re not neglecting people in favor of you.”
Savren breathes out. “Okay. Thank you. That’s a relief.”
Egret watches, paralyzed, as black-armored troops march through the compound. Armor. Rifles. Professional fucking soldiers.
This can’t be happening. We’re nowhere near the front. How did they get this far behind our lines? Why did they come all this way?
“Ma’am? Ma’am, what do we do?”
Owl’s voice jerks Egret out of her fugue. “Can… can we get through to the General?” she murmurs hoarsely.
“They’ve cut the cables, ma’am.”
Egret sinks into her couch, seizing a decanter of wine with one hand. “Do we got any options ’sides fighting to the death?”
Owl hesitates. “We… could surrender?”
The lid of the decanter clunks against her helmet.
“I’ll die before I surrender to a band of inbred hoodlums and their heretic sidekicks!” Egret screeches. She takes a swig of wine straight from the decanter. “I can’t think of one worse way to dishonor our Empress. Not a one!”
Owl looks down. She unholsters her sidearm.
“Then… I guess…”
An explosion shatters every window in the bunker. The rattle of automatic gunfire fills the air. Owl hobbles to the door.
“What in ash—” cries Egret, leaping to her feet.
“They blew the doors!” Owl shouts back. “With me, behind cover!”
Then there’s a rattle. A clink. Egret looks down. She frowns at the little cylinder rolling across the floor.
Then everything goes white.