Stories / Spirals /

Contact

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

The intendant’s deck offers a view of nearly the whole camp, from Penitence Square just below out to the distant workhouse where defectors are now being sheltered. It would be a good place to command a battle, Savren thought, if you didn’t have realtime comms and a sensor grid. —Which, of course, the Rosies wouldn’t.

She exhales quietly as she sits down on the abandoned couch, pulling Otter down next to her and into her lap. He nuzzles up to her as she gazes out at the bunk where she spent so many cold nights.

“Otter?”

“Yeah, Savi?”

“You need a name.”

Otter laughs. “I have a name, Savi, you just—”

“No, no, I mean— you can handle the Speech well enough to chit-chat with a native. But ‘Otter’ doesn’t fit with the flow at all. Most of us can’t even pronounce the sounds.” She scratches him behind the ear and he blushes. “So you need a name. Like the rest of the People.”

“Savi…” There are tears in Otter’s eyes. “You’re…” He shakes his head and hugs her. She squeezes him tightly.

“How about… Cirlen?”

“Chi—” He makes a face, tries again. “Keer…len… Cirlen? That’s…” Otter hesitates. “Cir, that’s ‘strength,’ right?”

“Sort of. The strength to lift up others when they’re scared and hurt and alone. The strength to never give up, to never waver in the face of adversity. The kind of strength you never seem to run out of.”

“I don’t think I know len.”

“It means love for your people. For our People.”

The tears are trickling down his cheek as he stares up at her. “Elen lina mire, Savi. I love you so much. You… you’re so kind to me.”

“A val lina mire, Cirlen-miran.” She tousles his hair. “Val lina mire cirit.”

“The last time someone gave me a name…” Otter smiles ruefully. “It was a drug dealer. She got sick of calling me One. ‘A boy on the street oughta have a proper name,’ she told me. So she started calling me Otter. And it stuck, I guess.”

“You… got your name from a drug dealer?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s not like you get to pick your own. Not when you’re a man. It’s hard enough even to make a weak street name stick. I was lucky, really. People respected me more after that.”

“I never would have guessed. It’s a beautiful name.”

Otter laughs. “She was a beautiful junkie. ‘Sky’ was her name. I used to daydream about running away with her, robbing nobles in rich cities and giving money to the poor. Heists and glamor and love and getting high in fancy hotels. All in my head; she was too old for me anyway.” He blushes. “I guess I have a habit of falling for older women.”

“What happened to her?”

“Same as always. Disappeared one day. Probably died in the camps. Though sometimes they just execute dealers. Not usually the women, though.”

“…that’s horrible.”

“I wasn’t the only junkie who wound up here. Some of them killed themselves on their first day so they wouldn’t have to live through the withdrawals.” He shivers. “It was bad enough in those thin clothes out in the snow when you’re not dopesick coming off a gram-a-day habit. I remember shivering so hard it felt like I was gonna have a seizure.”

“Did any of the others survive?”

“No.” Otter’s voice is quiet. “There was one boy who was so sick he couldn’t work. So I shared my rations with him, held him to keep him warm, got him through the withdrawals, and then he died in a mine collapse. I spent a week starving for nothing. I don’t even remember his name.”

Savren looks down. “I’m so sorry.” She puts a hand on his neck. “I guess even that didn’t teach you to stop sticking up for people, did it, Cirri?”

He smiles weakly. “I always was a slow learner.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so strong,” Savren says quietly. “At least I… at least I had a people. A whole civilization I knew was still out there, still fighting to survive. I had the hope they’d come for me. I had Vasuen and Tenuan. And I had you. But you… you were here all alone. And you made it through worse torture than anyone except maybe Tenuan—”

“—and now I have a people.”

“Damn right you do.” She kisses him on the head. “And we’re never letting you be alone again.”

“Savi?”

“Yeah, Cirri?”

“They’re not… really going to let me into the Society or anything, are they?”

“Normally they wouldn’t, but…” Savren smiles. “Exceptions are made in war. A lot of us come home with people we don’t want to let go of. There’d be another revolution if they tried to keep our partners out, and I think the Shevran would lead the charge.”

“The Shevran?”

“Oh. They’re… they’re sort of like the Inquisition, I guess? They go after corrupt officials. They’re responsible for making sure the rest of us follow the code the Society was founded on. Loyalty and love are a big part of that code.”

He looks down. “Wow. I… all this time I never asked because I was so sure you’d say no. I never really thought I was going to get to visit—”

“You’ll have a home there if you want it.”

He gazes up lovingly at her. “I do.”

“There are so many people I can’t wait to introduce you to. Assuming they’re safe at home and haven’t… well. My partner, Shalli… I think she’s going to like you. She always had a weakness for scrawny boys.”

“…I don’t think you ever mentioned her before?”

“Shaluen. Shaluen Shalsheni.” Savren gazes up at the sky. “Some memories are too precious for this place. I was… I don’t know. It sounds silly, but I was afraid to say her name. I’d close my eyes and lay in bed at night thinking about her, and…” She falls silent for a moment, and then grabs her radio.

“Savren to Nishvir.”

“Go ahead, Savi.”

“Sir, I have a hugely inappropriate request to make.”

“Go for it.”

“Can you download a record from the Territories Mirror?”

“Hugely inappropriate, eh? What’s the occasion, slipping nuclear secrets to the enemy? We’ve got a lot of those, though I don’t think the Mirror—”

“Shaluen Shalsheni Hasciti. I want to know if…” Savren can’t make the words come out. “I want to know if she’s been… drafted or anything.”

“You’re right, Savi, that’s a hugely inappropriate use of our resources and limited comms bandwidth and I’ll let you know the second I hear back from the Mirror, all right?”

Savren laughs shakily. “Thank you, Nisha. Thank you so much. She means a lot to me.”

“My pleasure, Savi. Nishvir out.”

“I’m so sorry,” Otter murmurs. “All this time you haven’t even known if she—”

“I was lucky.”

“Savi?”

“Most people… we pair up with people inside our unit. Our cohort. The people we grew up closest to. Vasuen and Tenuan… unless some other members of the Shalsheni Second miraculously survived and nobody’s told me that… they’ve lost people they loved.”

“…oh, God.”

“I watched two of my best soldiers die hand in hand. Fighting off the enemy back to back, trying to buy us enough time to withdraw. They held each other as they died.” She puts a hand to her heart. “Teliar and Lenshal Shalsheni, sular amari shalarit corash. We teased them for years about how much they liked each other. They always got so flustered, always tried to avoid each other, and it never worked. Then one morning we caught them coming out of Tela’s room, hair messy, the most sheepish looks on their faces…”

“Oh, Savi.”

“At this point, I’m just grateful they got to spend ten years of their lives together. Never had to be without the other. Watching two lovers die side by side isn’t even the worst thing I’ve seen in this war.”

“Oh, Savi.” Otter hugs her as tightly as he can. She buries her face in his hair, tears dripping from her cheeks.

“Otter?”

“Yeah, Savi?”

“Promise me something?”

“Anything.”

“Promise me you’ll get out of here on the next train.”

“W-what?”

“There’s a battle coming. It’s going to be some of the ugliest fighting this unit’s ever seen. We’re deep in enemy territory. We have no possibility of relief or reinforcements. That train is the only way to safety. I’m so glad I’ve gotten to spend these moments with you. But I don’t want to take any chances that anything will happen to you.”

“Don’t be silly, Savi, I’ve already survived one revolution—”

“Cirri, no. That uprising was nothing. I mean, it was a lot, but — a thousand desperate prisoners rising up against a handful of guards armed with truncheons and flintlock pistols? I’m surprised they managed to kill as many of ours as they did. This battle isn’t going to be anything like that. We’re going to be facing professional soldiers, armed with rifles and bombs and maybe even air support. God, for all we know, there could be Imperial Guard heading this way as we speak. I don’t want you anywhere near that kind of fighting.”

Otter is silent for a moment. Then: “I don’t want you to be near it either.”

“I don’t want to be here. But I need to be. Things are already unstable and it’s going to get so much worse when the enemy makes contact. Those prisoners have already thrown off one set of oppressors today. If someone they trust isn’t on hand to keep things calm…”

Otter looks away. “You know exactly what you’re asking me to do.”

“Yeah. I do. I—”

“Nishvir to Savren. Come in, Savren.”

Savren grabs her radio. “Go ahead, sir.”

“Your friend is alive and well touring with the Shalsheni Third on Topaz. All the real action is over; the Third is on peacekeeping duties. Don’t ask what kind of strings I had to pull to get that information.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“My pleasure, Savi. Nishvir o—”

He’s interrupted by three short, sharp tones. Savren sits bolt upright, the hair rising on her neck, instinctively scanning the horizon. Flash traffic.

“Unit 4 to all units, enemy contact, I say again, enemy contact in sector black-nine. Train One survivors have arrived, I say again, we are under attack by the survivors of the first train. Unit 4 out.”

She can hear the rattle of gunfire in the background and as the radio cuts out, she realizes she can hear it, distantly, rising from the outskirts of the camp. Acting on pure adrenaline-fueled instinct she hauls Otter off the couch, drags him inside, and slams the door.

Otter is pale. “It’s— it’s happening?”

Savren grabs him by the shoulder and breaks into a run for the stairwell. “It’s happening.”

“I thought we had longer!”

“They must have made up time somehow. Goddammit, why didn’t recon see them coming?”

Lenlis’s face is grim as he greets them in the ops center. “It’s some kind of winter commando unit,” he explains, pointing at a live feed from the sensor circuit. “Specialized camo. Sensor-baffling. Took no chances. Opened fire as soon as they’d taken up position. One of our sniper perches has already been taken out by RPG fire.”

Savren’s blood runs cold. “The snipers—”

“Severely injured but alive, for now.”

“Send in the drones, now! Fire every missile we can spare, get them out of cover!” Nishvir brushes past them, barking orders left and right, flashing Savren a quick salute as he passes. She returns it. “Seluin! I want a full telemetry review, on the double, we can’t be taken by surprise like this again.”

There’s a distant rumble. Nishvir swears. “Who the lepton-splitting fuck wastes grenades like that? Pull our people back and reinforce black-nine with units two and six! Where are those damn drones—”

Savren catches a blur on the sensorium and then the screen flickers briefly white. When it clears, trees are on fire, bodies are on the ground, and white-suited troops are scattering. Nishvir pumps his fist. “Strafing run! Make them dig in, don’t let them move inwards! Units nine and five, move forward and flank them!”

“The good news,” Lenlis continues imperturbably, “is that while the enemy has avoided mass casualties by attacking on the outskirts of the camp, they’re now pinned down much further from the train depot than they otherwise would have been. The fighting is contained to sector black for the moment. Not our first choice, but it has its advantages.”

“Sir! Drones have fired a third of their rounds and expended two missiles each,” a lieutenant pipes up. “Enemy is already firing on them; we need to pull them out now if we want to have any air superiority for the next waves.”

“Do it.” Nishvir turns to another screen. “What in the Seven Systems— that’s one of our goddamn cannons!”

There’s a brief burst of rotary cannon fire from the enemy lines but it quickly falls silent. “Kill codes accepted,” Seluin calls out. “That cannon won’t be a problem again.”

“I want to know how they got it working in the first place! Warn Intel on the double, enemy has shown new ability to salvage our tech. Unit two, fall back, fall back!”

Savren can’t quite believe her eyes. A ragged line of hostiles are rushing the perimeter of the camp, haphazardly dodging this way and that, as gunfire rains down around them. Within the first two seconds of the maneuver a third of the hostiles are already neutralized, and then the rest are behind cover in the camp.

Nishvir grits his teeth. “Just like the Rosies to throw lives away like that. Unbelievable.”

Concussion and gas grenades burst on the screen as Unit Two retreats under smoke cover. Another line of the commandos makes a rush, only a few falling before reaching cover.

“Arm mortars one and two. Unit two, are you clear of the blast zone?”

“Clear, sir.”

“Unit four, slow fire, let them move up!”

But the Rosies can apparently tell something is wrong. Those already inside the perimeter are creeping forward but the rest are hanging back, continuing to pepper the upper floors of the workhouses with suppressive fire from behind trees and embankments.

Nishvir lets out a colorful oath in Zia Ţai. “Mortars one and two, on my mark! What a waste of a dua wè claymo— mark!”

Savren allows herself a small smile as fire engulfs the Rosie advance. They’re all dead in moments, bodies crumpled and ripped apart by the force of the blast. Thirty-odd lives, at the price of any possible chance to surprise the next wave. Seventy or so to go.

“Four, evacuate in teams! Fall back and reinforce Two at mortars three and four. Artillery, do you have your target?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Fire two rounds on my mark, spaced at five seconds. Four, how many fireteams left to evacuate?”

“Five teams, sir.”

“Let me know when you’re down to the last two, we’re going to cover your retreat with artillery.”

“Yessir!”

Nishvir glances at Savren. His face is grim, all trace of humor and gentleness gone. “How the dua be sha do you fight an enemy like this?” he growls. “They treat the lives of their troops like they’re cheaper than bullets, half the time their tactics make sense and the other half make a pien şai in blood-heat look almost rational—”

“Sir, unit four, down to two teams!”

“Go, go, go! Artillery, mark!”

The boom is loud even down here. On screen, Savren sees the Rosies flinch. Two of them suddenly break cover, running like mad away from the camp, then—

The explosion shatters a grove of trees, splinters and fire flying in every direction. Another ten down. Some survivors, many badly wounded. Another boom. The Rosies’ fire falters, more fleeing, all in different directions, but some holding their position. They pay dearly for it as the second shell strikes its target. Another flash of flame. Someone’s arm, ripped clean off, flies past the sensor.

The surviving Rosies are in full, panicked retreat now. Whatever they thought they were prepared for, a full-scale battle with an entrenched force was apparently not one of them.

“It’s a marvel they’re not all making a suicidal charge,” mutters Nishvir. “Thank the stars we’re the only ones with artillery so far.”

“Or radios,” Savren murmurs.

“Or radios,” Nishvir agrees.

“Sir, they’re moving toward the telegraph line,” an analyst calls. They watch as three of the Rosies split off and take up position around a telegraph pole; the rest begin dispersing, finding cover closer to the treeline.

“That won’t do them much good.” Nishvir’s lip curls upward. “I wonder if they’ll make that suicidal charge once they realize backup isn’t coming.”

“At this point, anything is possible.” Savren clasps her hands behind her back, gazing up at the screen. “It’s unnerving watching them fight. Even the slaver raids back home didn’t make me this nervous.”

“Concur.” Nishvir folds his arms, gazing up at the screen, where a gaggle of hostiles are unpacking telegraph equipment. “If our supplies weren’t so dear I’d be tempted to send out the drones for another strafing run. Or just shell that group. Keep them scared and on the move.”

“It’s like poking a wild pien şai, though,” Savren murmurs. “You never know when you’re going to provoke suicidally violent behavior.”

“True enough. We’ll watch, wait, and regroup. Units five, nine, ten, move to original position and reinforce.” To Savren, he adds, “I don’t know if they’re stupid enough to try and advance on another sector, but we need to be prepared for anything.”

Savren nods quietly, and turns to Otter.

“Do you see now why I want you on that train?”

Otter looks at her silently for a moment, then lowers his head and nods.

“I’ll survive, Cirri. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m safe here in the command bunk. If things go bad, if we can’t evac everyone, then I’ll be on the last train out. I’m not going to stay behind and sacrifice myself. I just…” Tears are filling her eyes. “Goddammit, I need this to work.”

Otter takes her hand gently and kisses her palm. “Okay.”

“Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Savren hugs Otter tightly. “Val lina mire cirit, Cirri; linit val tare.”

“I love you too, Savi.” Otter buries his head in her shoulder. “I love you so much.”