The ground floor has been filled with bedding liberated from the guards’ quarters, covered over with clean sheets brought in on the train. A few techs and analysts are already passed out, several in each other’s arms. Savren can’t help but smile at the tenderness so openly on display, so unlike the coldness she’s grown used to here.
In the corner buckets of snow sit next to a roaring space heater, a bench and a rack of towels nearby. “We don’t really have adequate sanitation facilities here,” the aide explains apologetically, “but we’ve made do as best we can. Should I fetch someone to see to you or—”
“I’ll be fine. Thank you.” Savren waves her away. The aide inclines her head and darts away. Savren turns to Otter.
“Help me get cleaned up?”
They sit on the bench together, Savren letting her hair down and unclipping her radio. She reaches down for the hem of her uniform, starts to tug—
—her uniform tears as they rip it off, leaving her chest and thighs bare — she wrests an arm free, swings a punch, but they catch her — reflexes just as fast, muscles just as strong as hers — jeering as they slam her into the wall — she can feel her skin scrape away on the rough stone, the nerves on her back screaming — piercing pain as mailed hands close tightly around her breasts—
Savren stumbles backwards, the world blurring in and out of focus. One moment the leering face of a Guardswoman is everywhere she looks, the next—
The boy’s frightened eyes are locked on hers. He’s clutching his shoulder, flinches as she reaches out but takes her hand anyway, squeezing it gently. “S-Savi?”
“Are you… okay?”
Savren breathes deeply, trying to take stock and calm her pounding heart. The memories are all a jumble, interwoven, each thread impossible to follow. “H-halit elen?” she whispers. Where am I?
“Y-you’re — you’re safe. You’re in the command bunk. Savi, w-what happened?”
Savren looks around wildly, the memories suddenly coming untangled. Took me to a camp — a labor camp. They liberated it — we liberated it—
“Oh my God,” Savren whispers, switching back to Zia Ţai. She collapses onto the bench. Otter quickly follows her. “I hit you.”
“Are you okay?”
“Never mind me! God, Otter. I’m so sorry. I’m — are you okay? Do you need a medic?”
“I’m — I’m fine, Savi! Just a little bruised; you’re nowhere near full strength. Don’t worry about me. What happened to you?”
“Shanvol,” Savren murmurs. “I am such a piece of shit. After everything you’ve done for me—”
“Savi.” Otter pulls her close, kissing her gently on the cheek. “Please. I’m fine. It doesn’t matter. What happened?”
Savren rests her head on the boy’s shoulder, tears welling up in her eyes. “I was back there again. Back when they— when the Guard—”
He holds her tightly as her body convulses with sudden, quiet sobs.
After a while, the heaving of her chest slows, and she finds her voice again. “I h-hate myself s-s-so much,” she chokes out, her throat hoarse and raw from crying.
“Well. I love you.”
She chokes up again. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. After everything we’ve—”
“Savi, shh, no. You weren’t yourself. I get it. Something happened to you. You looked like a wild animal.”
“Do you ever remember things that you wish you could forget?”
Otter nods. “All the time.”
“It’s like I’m right back there. It happens over and over again. The same night. The night they— the night they t-took us.”
“This… has happened to you before?”
She nods wretchedly.
“Do the others know?”
“I… needed to be strong for them.”
Otter kisses her on the forehead, strokes her cheek with a thumb as he wraps his arms tightly around her back. They sit there quietly for a while, Savren’s heartbeat slowing, her breathing slowly returning to normal. Finally, she sits up, pulling away slightly, the feral look in her eyes replaced by something closer to her usual warm confidence.
“Linit elen tare, Otter-mirin.”
He blushes. “Linit val tare, Savi-miran. I’ll always be here for you.”
She runs a hand through her hair absently, little movements of her eyes and body betraying the anxiety still gnawing at her resolve. “Can you— hold my hand? While I get undressed?”
He nods. “Of course!”
Slowly, delicately, she begins removing her uniform. Otter’s reassuring grip helps keep her grounded as she unwinds the loops of fabric, finally pulling it away and laying it on the bench beside her. Otter kneels down and gently slips her legwraps off as she tugs her armwraps over her wrists and sets them atop her uniform.
Otter looks up at her small, emaciated frame, covered in wounds and bruises. A tear drips from the corner of his eye.
“I’m so sorry.”
Savren exhales, gripping the bench and leaning on her arms. “It is what it is.”
“You’ve been through so much.”
“So have you.”
She reaches for a cloth but he jumps to his feet and stops her. “Let me.”
She smiles gratefully up at him. “Thank you.”
Otter wets the cloth in a bucket of warm water, spraying soap onto it from the metal container. Savren turns her back to him as he sits, and he dabs the cloth gently between the whip wounds, dirt and grime coming away.
“These… really don’t hurt right now?” he asks, staring at the lacerations through the translucent bandages.
She shakes her head.
“I don’t think even opium would be enough for that.”
“And opium is really the best you have?”
He nods. “When you can get it. Back when I… lived on the streets, it seemed like dealers never lasted more than a fortnight.”
“I don’t understand how the Empire can care so little about sparing people from pain.”
“I’d never really thought about it before.” Otter lifts Savren’s hair out of the way, rubs the back of her neck with the cloth. “About pain as something you could stop.”
“What was it to you, then?”
Otter’s voice is quiet. “A weapon.” His hand absently traces the outline of a wound. “They used it to control us.”
“…is that why they made opium illegal?”
“I don’t know. But it really felt like it sometimes.”
“You know what I’m afraid of?” Savren asks after a while.
“I’m afraid someday the Empress will sue for peace.”
“You’re afraid of that?”
“Our leaders just want this war to end.” Savren’s grip tightens on the edge of the bench. “To put the Empire back in its place without slaughtering the innocent. They don’t know what it’s like here. They haven’t seen it for themselves.”
“Don’t you want the war to end?”
“I…” Savren stares at the ceiling for a moment. Then she looks down, and in a voice suddenly savage, answers, “Not until Carnelian burns. And the Empress and all her heirs are dead.”
Otter squeezes her shoulders. “I hope we both live long enough to see that day, Savi.”
He stands up, switches sides. She rests her head on his shoulder again as he runs a fresh cloth along her neck. She flinches slightly at the warm touch of the cloth to the curve of her breast, but stops Otter as he draws back. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
“You’re sure? I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I feel safe with you here.”
“If… if you’re sure.”
Otter takes her gently by the hair, lifts her head as he washes the grime away from her face. She closes her eyes, lets out a soft little sound as the warm water covers her cheeks. “I didn’t realize how much I needed this,” she murmurs. He smiles, kissing her tenderly on the forehead.
“I’m just… glad I can do something for you.”
He dries her off, and helps her swathe her frail body once more in her new clothes. Despite the relief of once again wearing the uniform of her people, part of her is still disappointed to be dressed after those peaceful, intimate moments with Otter.
They curl up together on a spare cot. She guides his hand under a fold of her robe, the warmth of his skin on hers comforting her. Their weariness finally overcomes the adrenaline, and they close their eyes, listening to each other’s breathing slow.
The world Savren wakes up into doesn’t even feel like a nightmare compared to the one she left behind. Gasping, soaked in sweat, she sits bolt upright, clawing at her waist in the dark for a sidearm that isn’t there. Something moves beside her and panicking, she lashes out.
Otter cries out as her grip jolts him from sleep, struggling to break free. But even her atrophied muscles would be more than enough to subdue the average Zyahua, and Otter is in little better condition than her.
“Savren!” he calls. “Savi — help — what’s happening—”
Savren releases him and backs away, trying to make sense of the shapes in the darkness. Otter sits up, looking around wildly, muscles tensing. “What— what’s—”
“I’m so sorry!” Savren blurts out. “Stars, I’m so sorry. I almost hurt you again—”
“Th-that was you?” Otter whispers. “Oh… thank God. Thank God, I thought— I thought the guards had come for me again.”
Savren hugs him, kissing him on the cheek. “I’m fucking awful. I’m so sorry. I scared you—”
“Savi, what’s wrong? What woke you up? It’s so dark out.”
She shakes her head. “I was… it was happening again.”
Otter takes her hand, stifling a yawn. “Earlier, you said… it was the Imperial Guard?”
She nods. “They—”
“I know.” Otter lays back down, pulls her gently back into bed. “Everyone knows what the Guard does to people.”
She nestles closer, laying her head on his chest and putting an arm around his waist. “I don’t want to fall asleep again. I don’t want to go back there.”
“Talk to me.” Otter runs his hand through her hair. “I’ll keep you awake.”
She sighs, closing her eyes. “I don’t even know what to talk about.”
“How about… you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean. We never really had a chance to just… talk, you know? Every moment was just… dealing with another crisis. When we weren’t organizing we were either… slaving away in the factories or too exhausted from working to do anything but sleep. This is the first real moment we’ve had to ourselves.”
“…yeah. Shit, that’s fucked up. Over a year and… we don’t get to be people until now.”
Otter’s quiet for a moment. “I never realized…” He runs a tender hand along her fragile frame. “All this time, you always seemed so strong. So… powerful. Like nothing could get in your way. But when I saw you naked…”
She laughs bitterly. “Wasn’t how you imagined, huh.”
“I had no idea you were so fragile. And I guess it’s like that on the inside, too. You go all that time putting on this… show of bravado, and nobody really sees the real you. How much you’re hurting. How much weight you’re shouldering for them.”
“Well, now you’ve seen the real me. All fear and open wounds.”
“I guess I have.”
“I don’t think I’m the person you grew to love.”
He kisses her on the forehead. “You’re someone I love even more.”
She snuggles up to him, laying a leg across his. “Nishvir was right.”
“You do belong with us.”
This time, the pain wakes her up.
Grey dawn light floods through the window and agony floods her mind, the protective shelter of sleep melting away under its relentless assault. The scream comes before she even opens her eyes. It feels like a hundred knives are buried in her back. Reduced to a creature of instinct, she writhes uncontrollably, trying to get away from it, but it’s part of her, inside her, offering no escape, and the movement only makes it worse. Dimly, she hears someone cry for a medic, feels a hand on her arm. Her vision is swimming. She can’t focus.
The prick of the needle in her arm doesn’t even register in comparison, but the relief does. The pain recedes, from life-altering to merely agonizing to all but gone in the space of a minute. She lies there for a moment, taking shaky deep breaths, the tears slowly coming to a halt.
The medic slips the spent syringe into a biohazard case, reaching for her slate. “Your chip says you’re Savren Shalsheni?”
Savren nods mutely.
The medic stares at the screen. “You were treated for major lacerations… yesterday… I don’t understand, the pain should be getting better, not worse.”
“Walked around too much… yesterday…”
“That might explain some of it, but… I need to examine your wounds. Can you sit up? I can give you another shot if you need.”
Savren shakes her head, slowly pulling herself upright, Otter carefully assisting her. The medic pushes a fold of Savren’s uniform away, and gives a quiet gasp.
“…weren’t you given disinfectants, dear?”
“It was the f-first thing she did.”
“Well, it wasn’t good enough. This wound is infected. When did you receive it?”
“So it was treated the same day?”
“I—” The medic shakes her head. “I need to run tests we don’t have equipment for here. The only thing we can do in the field is give you a course of systemic antibiotics and that’s—” She rubs her forehead and sighs. “No. No, you need them, there’s no telling what this might be; it could be life-threatening. Could be bloody Arctic Wasting Syndrome, all I know. Excuse me, I need to find a surgeon to authorize this.” She stands quickly, and then pauses. “Are you still in pain, dear?”
“That remains to be seen. Keep to your rest, I’m going to see if by some miracle we brought any oral fent on this ride. I don’t want you needing an injection every couple of hours. It’s not good for the veins.”
She bustles away, and Savren lays back against her pillow, spent. Otter sits over her anxiously.
“Is there anything I can do, Savi?”
Savren reaches out, takes his hand, pulls it toward her chest. “Distract me?”
Otter blushes slightly. He turns opposite her, takes her breasts between thumb and forefinger, begins to massage her gently. Savren closes her eyes, exhaling deeply. “Thank you. That— that feels really, really good.”
He smiles down at her. “It’s… nice to be doing this for someone I actually care for, for a change.”
She strokes his wrist. “You never told me much about… your life on the street. I mean, I’ve… gathered bits and pieces, but…”
Otter’s gaze falls, and he looks away from her. “I was afraid you’d think less of me.”
“Think less of you? What in Haven for?”
He shrugs. “I was just a… homeless gutter-rat, Savi. I stole, I begged, I… sold myself and I spent it all on opium. I was a… worthless nobody.” He looks back at her, tears in his eyes. “Not like you. You’re… you matter.”
Savren pulls him down next to her and kisses him on the forehead. “You matter too, Otter! Listen to yourself, that’s the Empress talking. You’ve always had worth. It’s not your fault the Empire left you to suffer like that.”
“You… n-nobody’s ever told me anything like that before.”
“Otter… you’re kindhearted and smart. You’re faithful and brave. And you’re so strong. You made it through all this. You made it to me. And after all the torture life put you through you still carried me when I couldn’t stand on my own. You are an amazing young man.” She hugs him tightly. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember what we’re fighting for, lost in all this blood and pain. And you remind me. You always remind me. Your faith never wavers.”
Otter tries to speak but chokes up, tears trickling down his cheeks. “Y-you… you really think of me like that?”
“Of course I do. How else could I think of you?”
The medic returns, Mirian in tow. Savren sits up as they approach.
Mirian beckons her to stand. “I hear you have an infection. Let me take a look at you, love.”
Savren gets shakily to her feet, and Mirian peers under her uniform. “Barakhsa khmeita,” she growls under her breath. “I was really hoping Pashren-surin was wrong—”
“Do we really need to treat it now?” murmurs Savren. “I’m more than willing to wait until I can get tests run, I don’t want to waste antibiotics—”
“You know what the number-one killer of Imperial soldiers is here, love?” Mirian unhooks her slate from her waist and starts tapping away urgently at the screen. “It’s not Allied bullets. It’s battlefield infections. There are bacteria on this planet that even our immune systems don’t know what to do with. You could very well die if we don’t treat this here and now, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”
Savren inclines her head. “As you wish.”
Pashren proffers a small dispenser. “When the pain starts to return, dissolve two of these tabs under your tongue.”
The medic nods. “It took an alarmingly high dose to bring you back down earlier.”
Savren looks skeptically at the dispenser. “At doses like that, won’t I start building up tolerance?”
“You’re worried about that at a time like this?” exclaims Mirian disbelievingly. “You’re going to be dependant on painkillers one way or another until your wounds have healed, comrade. We’ll worry about weaning you back off once Rosie bullets are no longer the primary threat to your health, hm?”
“I…” Savren takes a deep breath. “Alright. I suppose withdrawal can't be worse than this.”
“That’s the spirit!” Mirian pats her encouragingly on the shoulder. “Now let’s get you some antibiotics.”
“I guess you can’t really quarantine me out here.”
“No, but honestly? A few isolated cases, the risk’s really not that severe. The odds of saving your life versus creating some mutant superbug that would slaughter the planet are vastly in your favor, dear. No need to fret.” Mirian smiles reassuringly. “Come along, yes?”
Otter takes Savren’s hand as he follows her through the hallway towards the makeshift infirmary. The surgeon gives him an amused glance.
“The boy seems quite fond of you, comrade.”
Savren blushes, looking down. “And I of him,” she murmurs, pulling Otter closer. He wraps an arm around her waist and she tousles his hair.
“Good thing we’ve got no shortage of wars,” replies Mirian drily. “I can’t imagine how people would ever get close otherwise.”
Savren lets out a small giggle. “Me neither. Nothing like traumatic bonding to get a good strong relationship going.”
Mirian stares at her. “That was a joke. You just made a joke. And you laughed. Either all that fent is going to straight your head or you might actually be doing a little bit better?”
“I’m high as a pien şai in microgravity and surrounded by my own.” Savren closes her eyes and smiles faintly. “This is the best I’ve felt in… a year.”
Mirian squeezes her arm. “Enjoy it while it lasts, dear, because everything is going to go straight to khnabushja in a bit.”
The halls on the second floor are lined with makeshift beds, filled with dozens of battle-damaged bodies. The critically wounded were all evacuated in the first train, but Savren still feels sick as she surveys those who remain. Grazed limbs. Chests slashed by swords. Infections. Broken bones. Gangrene. And victims of the Intendant’s sadism. Medics crouch over some, administering drugs or stitching wounds. Bloodied clothes are piled in a hamper. Savren grits her teeth.
“I can see why the JTF burns through surgeons so quickly,” Mirian says quietly.
“Is this your first tour with Black Horizon?”
Savren stares at a sobbing young woman, barely more than an adolescent. She’s curled up against the wall, her malnourished body covered in contusions and short, sharp scars too numerous, too similar to be accidental. A medic is sitting on the floor next to her and holding her hand.
“Is it going to be your last?”
“Not on your life.”
She leads them into a small office filled with supply crates, picks up a slate. Her fingers dance across the keypad in practiced, elegant motions, and she passes it to Savren. “Just affirm here that you’re consenting to antibiotic therapy.”
Savren presses her thumb against the reader and keys in her personal keyphrase. “Affirmed.”
Mirian unlocks a small crate and fishes out a preloaded dispenser. “Turn around, dear,” she intructs. As Savren complies, she holds it up to the almost invisible little scar on commander’s neck where her chip was implanted, and a green light blinks twice.
“And we’re good to go.” Mirian pats her on the shoulder and passes her the little disc. “Take one tab now. And for the love of all Haven, do not let that thing out of your sight, yes?”
Savren salutes lazily. “Aye-aye, ma’am.”
“Don’t give me that, comrade.” Mirian narrows her eyes. “If I tell you to go back downstairs and keep to your rest, you’re going to go straight to the command deck and jump right back into the action, aren’t you?”
Savren nods. “You know me so well already.”
Mirian gives an exasperated sigh. “Then at least promise me you won’t go charging out into the field again, will you?”
Savren closes her eyes and laughs quietly. “I promise.”