Her Ladyship Egret Sunshield, daughter to Raven the Baroness Sunshield and heir presumptive to Westlake Manor, Intendant of Labor Camp “Thricely Esteemed Congregation Athwart the Aperture of All Penitence” by appointment of Her Splendid Efficiency Regional Vizier for the Manufactoriat Crane Bleakmorn, with the absolute power of life and death over more than a thousand souls, is shivering, nearly naked, shackled in restraints that once held her own terrified subjects.
Every last woman of the Empress left alive has been strip-searched. Forced out of their armor and clothes and made to bare themselves for the inspection of the heretic officers. Even after the ritual humiliation, they were given no allowance for their dignity but their underwear, if they were lucky enough to be wearing any.
Slowly, the room is emptying. One by one, the guards are being marched away to God alone knows where. Probably to die of exposure in the snow, Egret thinks dully.
They take Owl next. The two fix frightened eyes on each other as she is led away. Nothing left to say.
Then they come for the intendant. Gripping her roughly by the upper arms as they march her out into the snow. Barefoot. Chilly winds whipping and biting at her exposed legs and midriff. Her teeth are chattering so hard her mouth is filling with the taste of blood from a punctured tongue.
She doesn’t recognize her prisoners at first. The women and men crowding around the makeshift amphitheatre at the center of the camp are attired too warmly, some in sleek, alien fabrics, others in furs looted from the quartermaster. Then the crowd spots her.
Egret braces to be torn apart by the mob but they stand still, parting as the soldiers pass, nothing but a malicious murmur from those who recognize her to break the silence.
Then a voice rises above the rest.
“Will any among you speak for this woman?”
Someone Egret barely recognizes as one of her guards is kneeling, held in place at the front of the raised platform by some Khmai brute. Tears are streaming down her cheek. She’s shaking and shivering worse than Egret. Blood is trickling from her lips. Behind her, a Green woman in a dress uniform. Some kind of officer, flanked by armored soldiers.
The crowd is silent. The Green bitch clasps her hands behind her back. Her eyes are pitiless.
“Then I name Swallow Greenglade an enemy of the People, of the Revolution, and of all the civilized galaxy.” The words are spoken without a trace of emotion. The officer sounds almost bored. “She is condemned to death, sentence to be carried out immediately.”
Weeping outright, Swallow is dragged to her feet. She flails madly with frostbitten limbs, trying to struggle against her restraints and the grip of the soldiers, letting out a pitiful wail. Egret is frozen, unable to look anywhere else, unable to think, mind filling unbidden with images of prisoners she had watched whipped to within an inch of their lives. The people she’d ordered left out in the snow for hours or days. The enemies of the Empress who had died before her own eyes, in their last moments writhing in terror and agony. A hundred different people’s faces and forms transposed onto the screaming guard—
The gunshot doesn’t shatter the air like the report of her black-powder pistol but the quiet crack is unmistakable all the same. Swallow falls, suddenly limp, all life gone from her in the space of a moment. The officer glances dispassionately at her soldiers as they drag the body away, its blood staining the snow.
The mob roars its approval. Egret’s tears are uncontrollable.
The officer glances at her slate. “Lark Stonehearth,” she reads, as the next shivering guard is hauled up to the platform.
Lark is quiet, head lowered, making no effort to resist.
The officer continues. “By participating in the systemic mistreatment, exploitation, and torture of proletarians under bourgeois rule, you are guilty of a capital offense under the Uniform Collectivization Code.” She turns to the crowd as the soldiers force Lark to her knees. “Will any among you speak for this woman?”
There is a long silence.
The officer turns back to the guard. “Then I name Lark St—”
“Wait!” A frightened voice rises up from the crowd. A young man pushes his way to the front. “She— she saved me. Please don’t hurt her.”
The officer turns to him, expression shifting slightly. “What did she save you from, comrade?” she asks gently.
“She…” The boy’s voice falters. “She stopped… she stopped another guard from… forcing herself on me.”
“She brought me food!” A woman calls out suddenly. “When I was ill and couldn’t work. She smuggled me food from the barracks.”
The officer holds up a hand. She turns to the cuffed guard. “Is that so, Lark?”
Lark doesn’t look up. “I— I mean— they told us we was fighting for the Empress. That we was doing God’s work. I dunno. I dunno what’s right anymore. Everyone was hurting so much. I just w-w-wanted it to stop.”
The officer keys a line into her slate, then looks back up. She gestures to the soldiers, who lift Lark to her feet. “Lark Stonehearth,” she says, her voice kinder now, “You are remanded for transportation to the Territories for re-education. You will spend a term of labor in service of the Allied Powers, after which you will be reintegrated into society.”
Lark lifts her head slightly, hesitantly making eye contact with the officer. “You… you’re going to let me live?”
The officer nods. “You’ve earned a chance.” She turns to the soldiers. “Dress her and secure her at the depot.”
Tears well in Lark’s eyes as they lead her away. “Thank you,” she calls back to the officer. “Thank you!”
Despite it all, Egret finds the strength to hate her for her grovelling.
Egret tries to look away, but she can’t make herself. Owl’s frightened eyes are locked onto her as they force the captain to her knees.
“By willfully and cruelly participating in the systemic mistreatment, exploitation, and torture of proletarians under bourgeois rule, you are guilty of a capital offence under the Uniform Collectivization Code. Additionally, by murdering and abusing Society citizens, you are subject to the People’s military justice under the Society Theater Charter on Enemy Combatants and Prisoners of War.” A faint note of mockery enters the soldier’s voice. “Will any among you speak for this woman?”
The mob jeers.
“Then I name Owl Blackbranch an enemy of the People, of the Revolution, and of all the civilized galaxy. She is condemned—”
Egret squeezes her eyes shut.
“—to bodily discipline in Society custody per the STC, and to a lifetime of compensatory labor without prospect of rehabilitation in custody of the PG North per the Treaty of Mill Creek, pending debrief by the Allied Intelligence Service per the Joint Protocol on Strategic Prisoners. Take her away.”
Egret’s eyes open in surprise, in time to see Owl jerked to her feet and blindfolded. They didn’t kill her?
Then the Green leader’s words come back to her unbidden.
I’m going to make sure you live a nice, long life.
Savren watches from the window of the new command post as the first two hundred people stream aboard the trains. Despite herself, she can’t help but feel a twinge of panic. What if they leave and never come back?
“The list of antisocials you asked for, comrade?”
Savren turns, snatching the slate. Her eyes move quickly through it, looking for anything, any numbers she recognizes, any names she knows.
She exhales, handing it back to the intelligence officer. “Th-thank you. I’m— thank you.”
“No one you know?”
“No one I kn— Otter!”
The boy is being led by another officer. Gone are his tattered prisoner’s tunic and breeches, replaced by a crisp white rancal. His long, scraggly hair looks fluffy and fresh; his face free of dirt and grime; his scrapes and scratches bandaged.
“Savi!” He rushes forward and hugs her tightly. She wraps her arms around him and ruffles his hair, resting her chin on his shoulder. The officer smiles politely at the reunion.
“Your aide has been cleared for the Green Zone, ma’am,” she informs Savren. “We took the liberty of getting him cleaned up a bit, as well.”
Savren smiles at her gratefully. “Thank you, comrade.”
Savren takes Otter by the shoulders, examining his face carefully. “Are you alright? I know the interviews can be pretty rough.”
He nods, a little unsteadily. “I don’t, um. Remember, very much. A lot of questions. They all kind of blur together. I think they injected me with something?” He squeezes the bend of his elbow. There’s tiny bandage over it.
Savren nods. “You’ll be fine, don’t worry. It just blocks short term memory for a little bit. Makes it harder to keep up a coherent lie.”
“Ohh… that’s clever…”
Savren looks back out the window. “To be honest… fuck, I was scared they’d… I don’t know. Find something. That all this time you might have been lying to me about something important…” She clutches her head. “No. You’re real. This is real. You really are my Otter.”
Otter smiles up at her. “Of course I am, Savi! I get it, though. One day it feels like we’ll be prisoners here forever, the next…”
“The next, we’re in charge.” Savren laughs unsteadily. “I keep having to remind myself, just minute to minute. It still doesn’t feel real.” She squeezes the fabric of her uniform tightly.
He takes her hand gently. “Me too.”
She looks back at him, then puts a hand on his neck, pulls him close, and kisses him.
Otter turns red as a pien şai in heat, stammering incoherently.
“I just. I needed you to know.” She looks down, blushing too. “In case— in case we don’t make it out of this battle.” She looks back up. “You mean so much to me, Otter.”
“I— Savi, I— gosh, I never— oh my God, I never— I never thought—”
“Come here.” She holds him tightly, caressing the back of his neck. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she whispers, tears dripping onto Otter’s shoulder. “All I know is I don’t w-want to lose you.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
They stand there for a moment, tears trickling down Savren’s face as she clings to Otter, and he gently strokes her lower back. Command staff give them curious looks as they pass by, but are kind enough to hold their tongues.
Then her handset squawks. Instinctively she moves her hand to silence it, but stops when she hears her name.
“Savren-roshlas to the situation room. Savren-roshlas to the situation room.”
Reluctantly she disentangles herself. “I need to go.”
Otter nods quickly. “Go. Go! They need you.” He steps back but she catches his hand.
“Come with me.”
“…will they let me?”
“I can be pretty convincing.”
They make their way through bustling corridors down to the basement, which Nishvir has transformed into a serviceable C&C deck. They pass through a makeshift comms center in the hall filled with chattering radio operators, into a wide stone room filled with the commander’s staff. Projectors and thin-panel monitors litter the walls, filled with tactical displays and radar and raw satellite footage. Savren steps over a mess of hastily lain cable as she approaches the huddle at the center of the room.
The other officers present fall silent as they see Savren and Otter. Nishvir raises an eyebrow, studying Savren’s face for a moment, then lets it pass. “Comrade. Glad you could join us,” he tells her, passing her a slate. Vasuen breathes a sigh of relief.
Savren takes the slate. “Situation?”
“Three minutes ago we detonated a mine cluster on the tracks. The first trainload of Rosies appear to have taken heavy casualties; they’re attempting to regroup as we speak. Shalvin, do we have an update on the rest?”
A woman steps forward and salutes briskly. “The remaining two trains appear to be proceeding unaware of the engagement; we can probably assume the first train’s radio, if any, has been destroyed. Unfortunately, train three took a route we didn’t anticipate and bypassed the third cluster of charges. The good news it’s delayed them by about an hour. The bad news is we only have one more shot; they’re entering the rail line at the same junction as train two.” She taps a position on the tac map, which has been overlayed with rail routes and icons for each trainset. “Whatever action we take, one battallion is going to get through uninjured.”
“How the fuck did they anticipate the charges?” Savren blurts. “Are they getting intel on us somehow?”
“We made the mistake of overestimating them, is all,” Shalvin replies quickly. “The choice of route appears to be simple incompetence; there’s no evidence they rerouted after we laid the charges.”
Savren nods. “Sorry. Overreacted.”
“Legitimate concern, comrade.” Shalvin smiles at her. “We have just under twenty minutes to make a decision. After that, the second train will be across the threshold and they’ll make it as far as the wreck here—” She points to the map. “—before they have to move out on foot.”
“We have about sixteen hours until the remnants of the first battallion reach the camp,” Nishvir continues. “Assuming they even try. They were hit very hard. Almost the entire train derailed and from the look of it some of their ammunition and charges cooked off.”
“If we blow the second train,” interjects another officer, tapping the map urgently, “it’s likely the third will reroute through the pass and approach from the west, either when they’re notified or they discover the wreck. It’ll buy us some time—”
“—but then we’ll be trapped between two fronts,” Nishvir finishes. “Where as if we blow the third, the second will reinforce the first, but will be cut off from the wider rail network and will have no access to the pass.”
“That may be the preferable option,” Savren murmurs, staring at the map. “A direct loaded march is still slower than an indirect train. And they’ll be busy dealing with the wounded—”
“They’ll shoot the wounded,” Otter mutters.
Nishvir glances at him. “Speak up, son.”
Otter pales slightly as all the assembled brass turn their eyes to him. “I— I mean— well— mercy-killing is the best the armies can offer, isn’t it? You’d see them after riots, shooting their own in the streets, even shooting civilians who were too badly wounded. It’s not like leeches and bandages will keep a bullet wound from festering. I’ve never seen anyone who knows how to take care of wounds like you do, not even a doctor.”
There’s a brief, horrified silence.
“Barbarians,” Shalvin says quietly.
“So they’ll just blow right past.” Savren massages her forehead. “Fine. It’s still more time than we’d have if there’s even a single train with access to the rail network. I’d rather face six battallions on a single front than four on two.”
An analyst nods. “Concur, ma’am; even these primitive steam trains give them too much mobility.”
Nishvir stares at the map for a moment. “Let the second train pass,” he says finally. “Detonate the charges when the third comes upon them.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Imagine overestimating a band of feudal barbarians who haven’t figured out how to build hand radios.” Nishvir sighs. “That just leaves the matter of the camp.” He glances at Vasuen.
“We’ve emptied the eastern half of the facility and have begun laying our remaining mines and claymores, sir,” Vasuen replies. “We’re currently identifying sniper positions and ideal ambush points.”
“I assume the objective is to buy as much time as possible to evacuate?” asks Savren.
“The ultimate objective, yes.” Nishvir nods. “We’re still not settled on the best way to accomplish that. Brief her, Lenlis.”
The officer turns to Savren. “The question right now is whether we engage at range or wait to fight until we have them surrounded. Engaging at range would tip our hand, but it would force them to dig in. If we engage in the camp, we can guarantee heavy enemy casualties in the opening strike, but they’ll have gained ground on the depot. Not to mention it would put our people at greater ri—”
“Sir!” A tech at a terminal turns to face them. “We have confirmation surviving train one hostiles are pressing forward. Estimated at one-third battallion strength. ETA seventeen hours.”
“Shit,” Nishvir hisses. “It’s like fighting a herd of wild pien şai. No coherent strategy. Barely any sense of self-preservation. They’re so damn hard to predict.” He keys his radio. “Get me Trainset One.”
A pause. Then, “Receiving, ground ops.”
“How long until you’re away?”
“Just raising the ramps now. Train is at capacity. Over.”
“Good. Be advised, hostiles inbound. You will likely be returning to an active combat zone. Stay safe out there. Nishvir out.”
Savren exhales. “Is there any chance it’ll be back before we’ve engaged the enemy?”
“Practically none,” replies an analyst. “Eighteen hours is an optimistic prediction, frankly. Imperial railways are a mess.”
The radio crackles. “All units, be advised. Trainset One is away. I say again, Trainset One is away.”
“How likely are they to face trouble en route?” asks Savren. “We have to assume the Rosies have alerted every depot in the area.”
“The trains are running the colors of an Imperial luxury passenger corporation. We had no issues on the ride out, and we’ve taken the main regional signalling depot.” Nishvir points to an icon on the map. “Once we’re through it, we’re back into the public side of the network, and as soon as we cross back into the Territories, we unload.
“My main concern,” he continues, “is the Rosies might decide to dynamite the tracks themselves. But these tracks are used for all the cargo from the labor camps. Taking them out of commission would impact their economy and the war effort.”
“What are our contingencies?”
“Sir. The train is already equipped with ground-penetrating radar; it’ll have plenty of space to stop in the event explosives are detected down the track. The depot has sufficient troops to commandeer a further trainset from the public network to facilitate transfer across any damaged section of tracks. If the trains are stopped for inspection and we can’t talk our way through, we take the depot by force. The Rosies don’t have the resources to garrison every single one. On the off chance they try for an aerial strike, the train’s drones should be sufficient against anything they can throw at us.”
“We’re going to have to make this run an awful number of times.” Savren drums her fingers. “How exactly did you get a train behind enemy lines from the Territories, anyway?”
“This world is old, comrade.” Seluin keys a contact and the map shifts to overlay a mass of tangled lines. “Not even the Rosies have mapped every rail line, especially the underground ones.”
“You found a route that bypassed the front?”
“We found several. The only chokepoint outside the Territories is the depot we’ve already taken.”
Savren nods. “Okay. That makes me feel a little bit more confident.”
“All units. Trainset Two is away. I say again, Trainset Two is away.”
Savren takes a deep breath. “Well,” she says. “That’s it, then. We’re committed now.”
Nishvir glances at her. “Any regrets?”
“…no. I’m scared, sir. But no. I need to be here.”
The commander pats her gently on the back, eliciting a fragile smile. He turns to Otter, switching to Zia Ţai. “What about you, young man? You sure you’re where you ought to be?”
Otter takes Savren’s hand protectively. “Where she goes, I go,” he replies in Ranuir.
Nishvir smiles. “I can see why she likes you.”
Otter stammers. “I—”
“He’s the only reason I survived,” Savren murmurs, glancing fondly at the boy.
Nishvir bows. “Thank you for that, Otter-surin.”
Otter blushes. “Oh. Gosh. I’m just so glad she made it back to you. Sir.”
“And I’m glad you made it to us. You belong with the Allies, comrade.” Nishvir turns to Savren. “You should get some rest. It may be days before we have a chance for any shuteye.”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead, sir.”
“Savi.” Nishvir puts a hand on her arm, squeezing gently. “We’re going to need you, alright? You have intel, experience we don’t, and you’re one hell of a commander on top of that. But I don’t want you hallucinating in the situation room. Alright?”
Savren hesitates, then inclines her head. “As you wish, Nisha.”
“Thank you.” Nishvir gives her a relieved smile, pats her shoulder gently. “I’ll have you roused as soon as there are any developments, you have my word.” He glances at Otter. “You too, boy. I can’t imagine you’ve been getting adequate sleep in this place.”
“…not really, sir.”
Nishvir gestures to an aide. “Take them to the command bunk. See that they’re accomodated.” He glances back at Savren. “And for all Haven’s sake, get that poor girl a bath.”