The word seems to have gotten out, and prisoners are already filtering into processing. The Allies have set up folding desks, right out in the snow, and masses of deep lines have already formed. Infantry is patrolling the site heavily and Savren glimpses a friendly sniper on the balcony of a neighboring workhouse. The sight gives her a little rush.
They wave her through to the front of the line. Next to them, prisoners are being debriefed, the numbers tattooed on their neck copied down, biometrics taken. A field linguist with a laptop beckons them forward.
“How can we help you, comrade?”
Savren leads Swan forward. The girl clasps her hands nervously, looking around wildly. “Defector.”
The linguist smiles at the scribe. “What’s your name, hon?”
“Um. Swan. Swan Wildsun.”
“Get her biometrics, please.” The linguist beckons at a Khmai trooper, who unholsters a reader and begins scanning Swan’s irises and prints. “What was your role in the camp?”
“I… I was just a scribe…”
The linguist glances at Savren, who nods. “Girl was being abused,” she murmurs. “Proletarian. Here against her will. She’s not complicit and we have command clearance to evacuate her.”
“Okay. That makes it simple.” The linguist strikes a few keys and presses a blank card into a printer. There’s a whirr, a clunk, and then she pulls it back out and passes it to Swan. “This is your evacuation ticket. It has your train and car assignments. You’re Priority Two, so you’ll be going out right after the casualties.”
“W-where will they take me?”
“Right now we’re just getting people to emergency housing in the Territories. You’ll be debriefed in a few days and routed on from there. Next!”
Savren leads Swan away from the desk and the line moves forward. “Where do I go now, mistress?” Swan asks, glancing in fear at a patrol.
Savren keys her radio. “Ground ops, do we have a shelter for the defectors in place?”
“Confirm. Proceed to northernmost bunks. Ground ops out.”
Savren turns to Swan. “We’re going to take you to a bunk. Other defectors are—” She stops and her hand flies to her sidearm as the sound of conflict rises out of the crowd. She turns, steps in front of Swan as her bodyguards ready their rifles.
But it’s already over. The patrol has a Zyahua woman at the front of the queue restrained and is leading her away.
“What just happened?” Savren murmurs.
Lismir says something into her headset. “False colors,” she reports after a moment. “Camp guard tried to pass herself off as a prisoner.”
“That wasn’t very smart.” Savren holsters her pistol.
“What will happen to her?” Swan whispers, peering out from behind Savren.
Savren’s features harden. “Same as the rest of the guards.”
Swan looks down, saying nothing.
Defectors are already streaming into the shelter, some led by soldiers, some still restrained. Most of them seem to be in little better shape than the prisoners — gaunt, frightened eyes, more than a few of them wounded. Their dress is richer, but they don’t look much happier.
A soldier stops the little group at the perimeter. “Has she already been processed, comrade?” he asks Savren.
“Give him your card,” Savren instructs Swan in Zia Ţai. Swan shrinks back.
“Is there a problem, comrade?” The soldier glances at the shaking girl.
“He has a gun… men aren’t… men aren’t supposed to… to have guns…”
Savren looks uncertainly at her bodyguards. Otter clears his throat. “It’s an old law, ma’am. Because of the patriarchs…”
“I don’t want to be raped!” Swan blurts, trying to hide behind Lismir.
“Otter?” Savren looks at him plaintively.
“Um. Can we… can we to talk to the woman-comrade instead?” Otter asks the soldier in halting Ranuir. The soldier glances in surprise at Savren.
“The Rosie can talk?”
Savren nods. “Can we just do what he says? It’ll probably be simpler that way.”
The soldier gives her a bemused look but inclines his head. He murmurs a request into his headset, and backs away.
Swan looks visibly relieved when a female soldier approaches them. She hands over her card without complaint. The soldier takes it, slots it into a handset, and nods.
“We’ll take her from here, comrade.”
Savren inclines her head. “Lif a til.”
“Lif a til, surin!”
The frightened scribe is ushered away. Savren breathes a sigh of relief.
“All units, all units. Be advised.” She’s interrupted by a wide-band squawk from the radio. “Per new intel enemy reinforcements may be en route. Awaiting satellite confirm. Move to Contingency Two. I say again, Contingency Two, all units. Ground ops out.”
Savren grabs her radio. “Savren to ground ops. Put through to ops actual.”
“Wilco, Savren. Hold for ops actual.”
Savren stares at Otter. “What did we miss?”
“Did… did I understand that right? They’re… reinforcements are coming?”
“We don’t know for sure yet—”
“Nishvir to Savren, come in, Savren, over.”
“Roshlas! What in Haven is going on?”
“Linguists found telegraph facilities. We have confirmation Rosies got word to Silent Falls, over.”
“Fuck!” Savren blurts before clutching the key again. “What kind of reinforcements are we expecting?”
“Unknown at this time. ORBCOM is still retasking. Your guess is as good as mine, over.”
“How much track have you secured? Rail is the normal means of access, over.”
“Very little. Secured a single depot behind lines. Trains are running black. Word gets out, we’re in trouble. Over.”
“…how far behind lines are we?”
“You don’t want to know, comrade.”
Savren’s heart is racing. “May I advise, sir?”
“It’s what you’re here for, Savren.”
“Decouple the locomotive. Send it out a few klicks in the opposite direction you came from. Dynamite the tracks on the way back. Over.”
“Good thinking. We’ll get it done. Over.”
“Plans for speeding up the evacuation timeline?”
“It was tight already, but we’re working on it.”
“I assume forging an all-clear is no-go?”
“Confirm. Even if we could decipher their codebooks, the Rosies took precautions, over.”
Savren closes her eyes. “Acknowledged. Where do you want me, sir?”
“If you’re done with the prisoners, get back to ops.”
“Wilco. Savren out.”
Otter stares at her with frightened eyes. “I could barely understand any of that.”
Savren grits her teeth. She can tell the fent is wearing off; the pain is starting to flare up in full. She’s beginning to shake again, to feel nauseous. “Brief you en route,” she manages. “Back to ops. Let’s move!”
Before they’re even halfway back, she starts stumbling, her vision doubling up. Rashten notices immediately and grabs her by the shoulder, trying to steady her. “Ma’am?”
“…hurts…” is all Savren can slur out. The pain is already as bad as when they were whipping her. It’s still getting worse.
“Savi?” Otter touches her arm gently. “Savi, are you okay?”
Rashten touches her headset. “Ground ops, fireteam two-six incoming; have a medic on standby with analgesics. Over.”
“Wilco, fireteam two-six. Ground ops out.”
They’re carrying her by the time they reach the train. Mirian is waiting for them. She lets out a string of oaths in Ranuir and Khmaira as she fumbles with her kit. “I never cleared her for field duty — hold her arm down, I need a vein!”
Savren’s convulsions slow to a stop as the drug hits her central nervous system. “She does not get off this train again until we reach Point Gale,” Mirian snaps, glaring between Lismir and Rashten. “Haven’s sake, what was she doing?”
“Just escorting prisoners,” Otter interjects defensively. “She wasn’t fighting or anything—”
Mirian narrows her eyes. “Where did you learn to talk, Rosie?”
“Taught him,” Savren murmurs.
Mirian stands, motioning to the soldiers. “Get her into the train.” She grips her radio. “Record medical order, Savren Shalsheni is restricted to Green Zone indefinitely. Copy to ops actual.” She glowers at Savren as the Lismir and Rashten lift her to her feet. “Mirian out.”
Nishvir stands up as Savren enters the situation car. He claps her on the shoulder. “Welcome back, comrade. Glad to see you made it safely.”
Vasuen leaps to her feet and hugs Savren impulsively. “Skies above, Savi, don’t — don’t do that to me again. That’s a fucking order.”
“She’ll be riding this one out safe and sound, don’t worry.” Nishvir guides Savren into a seat, then sits back down himself.
“What’s — what’s the situation, sir?” Savren murmurs.
Nishvir gazes at her for a moment. “More importantly, when did you last eat?”
“Don’t worry about me, I’ll—”
“Yesterday at noon,” Vasuen interrupts. “A tiny bowl of some canned slop.”
Nishvir motions to a subordinate. “Get her a couple of MREs.”
“The situation,” Nishvir continues, “is we’ve been squeezing the intendant for operational details but she appears to legitimately not know. It seems the Rosies have finally figured out compartmentalization. We’ve sent ahead the locomotive; it’s started laying charges and will reverse course at three hours out.”
“How many switches are there between here and there?”
Nishvir grimaces. “Too many. This isn’t the only camp in the region.”
Savren’s blood runs cold. “How many others?”
“An entire network. This was the only one we could feasibly liberate.”
Savren feels suddenly dizzy. “How many more… more of us…”
“That’s the good news. Drone flyovers picked up no IFFs in the other camps. Not even post-mortem ones. We suspect it’s because this is the biggest. They might not have felt security at the others was tight enough for POWs.”
“That’s something, I suppose. Still—”
“It’s a helpless feeling, isn’t it? Knowing there’s all this cruelty going on around us and that we can’t do anything to stop it?”
“Yeah.” Savren tilts her head slightly. “You’ve done this before.”
“It’s why our JTF was founded.”
Savren looks down. “Sun and moon. I’m sorry.”
Nishvir takes her by the chin, lifts her head back up. “Don’t be,” he replies, smiling warmly. “It’s brutal, I won’t deny that for a moment. But we haven’t lost a battle yet. And every name we cross off the MIA list… I’d go through a lot worse to bring our people home.”
Savren smiles faintly. “I envy your strength, Nisha.”
Nishvir actually laughs. “And here I was, thinking just the same thing—”
His radio cuts in abruptly. “Commander, incoming call from ORBCOM.”
Instantly the coach falls silent. Savren’s heart starts to race.
“Put them through.”
“Orbit ops to Nishvir Mirlisi.” The microwave feed is rougher, staticky. The words are harder to make out. “Please come in.”
“Orbit ops, Nishvir. Receiving.”
“Nishvir, telemetry confirms enemy mobilization. By rail from three separate garrisons. Disorganized but progressing southeast. Over.”
It feels like the temperature in the coach just dropped ten degrees. Savren fights to restrain the building panic in her chest.
“Estimated at regiment-strength. At least three battallions. Over.”
“Fuck,” Savren breathes.
Nishvir’s voice is shaking. “P-please confirm, orbit ops. Three battallions?”
“Confirm, sir. Three battallions, over.”
For a moment, the only sound in the coach is the distant hum of the generator.
“The transcript reported a prisoner revolt,” Nishvir says quietly. “Why did they send three battallions?”
A linguist pipes up. “They also reported a depot down, sir,” she says. “Rosies may have assumed the worst.”
Nishvir grips his radio, keying back to ops. “Put through to the locomotive!”
“Connecting you now, sir.
“Taruin, reverse course immediately. Arm the mines as soon as you’re clear of each set. And cut the telegraph wires, while you’re at it.”
He clicks the transmit key twice. “Ops. Reconnect ORBCOM.”
“Can you get me a link for a real-time tac map?”
A pause. Then: “Confirm, sir. Will be live in a few minutes. Over.”
“Good man. How far out is the enemy?”
“Based on velocity and predicted course… staggered arrivals between five and seven hours, sir. Over.”
Nishvir breathes out raggedly. “Acknowledged. Is an orbital strike feasible?”
“Negative. Area is interdicted by Imperial destroyers; the vittashar retain orbital superiority in your region. Over.”
“Understood. Nishvir out.”
He releases the radio, looks down, closes his eyes for a long moment. Then he turns in his seat, looks back up at the frozen coach.
“I’m no good at speeches,” he says, quietly but with steel in his voice all the same. “But we can still do this. It’s going to be the hardest damn thing some of us have ever done. But the odds are still in our favor, narrowly. They may have the numbers, but we have the intel, the fortifications… and most importantly, bombs strapped to every rail junction for two hours west. This facility’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It’s too far from civilization to reinforce quickly. It was designed to keep people in — they never thought they’d have to keep anyone out. And we’re going to use that against them. Now, I want everyone working on proposals to speed up the operation. We can’t get everyone out before the battle, but I want to make sure we get as many out as possible.”
He glances at Savren, reaches out, takes her hand. She’s trembling, lips moving silently. “No matter what happens,” he says, squeezing her wrist gently, “you’re going home. Okay, Savi? I will move sun and moon to make sure you and yours make it back to the People. I give you my solemn word.”
“I’m…” Savren flushes. She feels faint. “…I’m sorry. You’ve been so good to me, Nisha; I’m sorry I’m so useless—”
Nishvir stands, touches her cheek gently. “You have done so much already. I want to show you that you can let yourself be vulnerable again, Savi. You’re not a prisoner anymore. You don’t have to keep carrying everyone around you alone.”
Savren tries to look down but Nishvir catches her chin, holds her head back up. Tears are starting to trickle down her cheeks. “Hey,” he says, for a moment all the military professionalism gone from his voice. “You don’t have to be in control anymore. You don’t have to hide it anymore. You’re among your own now.”
She tries to speak but she’s too choked up. Nishvir brushes away the tears, sitting back down across from her, taking her hands in his. “You are safe again, Savi,” he says.
Savren glances around the train, instinctively braced for mockery.
Everyone is standing at attention. At her glance, they salute her. Nothing in their faces but admiration. And care.
She buries her head in Nishvir’s shoulder. Behind her, Vasuen puts a gentle hand on her back. “You didn’t get here a moment too soon,” she murmurs to him.
Still holding Savren in his arms, Nishvir glances up at his officers. “Alright, people. What have we got?”
“I… the disposition of the antisocials, sir,” says a woman, a distasteful look on her face.
Nishvir grimaces. “Let’s hear it.”
“Whatever stability we’d gain by shipping them out with the casualties isn’t worth it anymore. We’ll free up a significant amount of space on the first train if we just liquidate them on site.”
Nishvir rubs his temples with his free hand. “…agreed. See that it happens. Discreetly. Next?”
“Sir.” Another officer steps forward. “It won’t be comfortable, but we could overload the trains. We should be able to go a third past capacity without straining the engines.”
Nishvir purses his lips. “I don’t want to risk instability aboard. Giving some people seats and leaving others to stand…”
“Voluntarily, then. Offer standing room spots to whoever is scheduled for the next ride out.”
“Okay. I don’t like it but it could work. Work out the details.”
“Sir, we still have a complement of drones. They could harry whoever survives the detonations—”
“And then the Rosies would know right away who they were going up against, and send for even more backup. When we do engage it needs to be fast, brutal, come from every direction at once. If we give them time to get their bearings, we throw away the biggest advantage we have. Anyone else?”
“We could cut down the onboard garrison, sir. Risky, obviously—”
“Too risky. I don’t want to get all these people halfway to the Territories only for the Guard to board and take them all back.
A tech looks up from a terminal abruptly. “Sir, Trainset Two just reestablished contact. They’re one hour out.”
“Finally some good news. How close is the field headquarters to being ready?”
“We can transfer ops at your command, sir.”
“Then get it done.” Nishvir stands. “Savi, I’m going to be staying behind to command the camp garrison. I’d like you to be on the first train out of here. You are wounded, after all.”
Savren looks at him for a moment. Nine hours in a comfortable seat on a warm train and she’ll be back in Allied territory. Then soft beds. Medics. A counselor. Debriefing. Friendly faces as far as the eye can see. Trees. Streets. Music.
She shakes her head.
“I’m not leaving a job half-done. Besides, sir, this environment is volatile and the people here trust me. You need me here.”
A frightened look flits across Nishvir’s face. “After how far we’ve come to get the Second out—”
“You’ll get us out. But I’m not leaving until you do.”
“Then neither am I,” says Vasuen. “Put Tenuan on the first train. I don’t want him to see any more fighting.”
Savren nods. “He’s been treated worst of all. He shouldn’t spend a second longer in this camp than necessary.”
Nishvir inclines his head. “I’ll have him brought aboard immediately.” He glances between the two of them. “If you’re really set on staying behind, Savren-roshlas… then let’s move.”