Savren can’t help but let out a cry this time as the whip bites deep into her bare back. Her wrists twist frantically in the iron manacles holding them high over her head, muscles spasming in her shoulders. She can feel something wet dripping down her back. Blood.
“You freaks do feel pain after all.” A towering woman, half-silhouetted in the gloom, folds her arms, glowering down at the shirtless, helpless little soldier. “How many, Owl?”
Sputtering torches mounted on the harsh stone walls cast an eerie, fluttering light through the otherwise dark chamber. Shadows dance before Savren’s frightened eyes, shadows of pillars, of the pitiless chains, of human figures moving around her — her mind too foggy to count them. What light there is illuminates little more than stone and blood — fresh and old.
These chains have held many victims.
“Fifteen lashes just to get a noise out of you. If you didn’t bleed red, I’d think you weren’t human.”
Savren says nothing, squeezing her eyes shut, trying to hold back the tears.
“You know what the Empress wants to do with your kind?” The intendant clasps her hands behind her back, stalking out of Savren’s eyesight. Her voice reverberates from behind. “A whole nation of you, all hale and hearty, strong as a moon-mad pien şai? She has a mind to glut the slave markets with your race. Thinks she’ll rake in the billions selling you off to the factories, man, woman, and child.”
An exasperated sigh. “She has such a cozy view of it, all far away on the throne. You know what I think, rat?” Savren’s head jerks back, a hand gripping her tightly by the hair. “I think she should put every last one of you to the sword,” the intendant whispers in her ear. “Drown the galaxy in your blood. Your worlds are profit enough. You’ll never be tamed. Wild. Feral. Can’t stop your scheming even if your life depends on it. It’s in the blood. Your breed is more trouble than it’s worth.” She yanks harder, enough to make Savren yelp, then lets go.
Savren grits her teeth. “Go f-fuck yourself.”
The intendant snaps her fingers and Savren’s body shudders with the force of another stroke. Her nerves scream, like a white-hot lance is cutting a line across her back. Bullets don’t hurt this much.
“So here I am. I’ve got quotas, me. Per prisoner. And Greens count double.” The intendant backhands Savren across the face, her mailed hand impacting hard enough to bruise. “So what’s a woman to do? I’ve had five of you put down already this season. The General is getting impatient with me. ‘You’re supposed to be working them to death, Egret, not shooting them to death,’ she tells me. A camp full of scheming heretics I’m not allowed to kill. God give me strength!”
She crouches down, eyes level with Savren. “So here’s how it’s to be, lovely. The next time I catch a Green rabble-rousing or poking around where she’s not meant to be, I’m going to bring you in here, and you’re going to whip her yourself. Or watch while I put a bullet in her head.” She takes Savren by the chin. “You understand? Or do I got to say it slower for your little barbarian brain?”
Savren spits in her face.
Egret stands slowly, eyes fixed stoically on the younger woman. She picks up Savren’s own tunic from where it lays discarded, wipes her face, tosses it aside. Then with a sudden, savage blow, she slams her armored fist into the soldier’s stomach.
Savren stumbles, losing her footing, tendons in her wrists burning as the shackles grip them. She gags, vomit roiling up and out of her mouth, splattering against the stone floor. Her head swims. She can feel blood trickling down her waist.
Egret turns on her heel and walks away. She pauses at the entrance, glances at the guard captain. “Ten more,” she says dispassionately, and then the iron doors slam behind her.
Savren closes her eyes.
By the time it’s over, the pain is all Savren can feel. Her throat is hoarse from screaming and sobbing and begging; burned from vomiting until there’s nothing left in her stomach but acid. She stumbles as the guard unlocks the cuffs and drags her out of the room, falls to her knees as she’s pushed out into the bright, cold morning air, gravel scraping at her skin, more blood staining the ground. She curls up there, against the wall, body shaking so hard it feels like a seizure, head awash in noise. She gasps for breath, digging her nails into her leg to try and distract herself from her torn back. It’s even worse than the night they took us.
How can this much pain fit into a space as small as the galaxy?
“Savi!” She feels gentle hands on her body, instinctively tensing up at the unannounced touch, looks up wildly to see the form of a young Zyahua man—
“O-Otter,” she murmurs, burrying her head in her hands, the fear fading as quickly as it had come. “…I…’m…s-s-sorry.”
“God within, what did they— how many times—”
“Can you move your legs? I need to get you back to the bunks—”
Savren shakes her head. “W-why are you here? You sh-sh-should be on the lines…” She’s starting to feel delirious. “…they’re not going to feed you tonight—”
“Fuck that, comrade. Come on.” Otter slips an arm through her arms and pulls her gently to her feet. “You’re more important.”
“…nothing you can do for me…”
“I can probably fuck some opium out of a guard—”
Savren recoils, unwanted memories welling up. “Don’t… please…” She can feel their hands on her skin again, hear their laughter. She flinches, instinctively trying to cover her own breasts with her arms. “N-nothing is worth that.”
“How are you even breathing? God, forget it, just— let me get you to a bed?”
Passing laborers stop to stare as the two pass by. Bare-chested, drenched in her own blood, stumbling erratically, and still they salute her. Savren hates herself. I’m supposed to be strong for them.
The rough little cot is a welcome respite. Otter lets her down gently, but she still lets out a small mewl as each wound presses up against the fabric. He drapes her tunic across her chest, trying to give her as much dignity as he can.
“What happened, Savi?”
“One of the workers… d-decided a few warm dinners was w-worth more than the cause.”
“Someone turned you in?”
“Stars, this place… turns people into animals.”
Otter squeezes her hand. “Before you came… I was really considering just taking my chances and walking.”
Savren shakes her head. “The… nearest settlement is seventy leagues away.” She closes her eyes. “You’d die of exposure. You’d never get there.”
“I mean, I figured.” Otter stares at the ground. “Still better than this.”
Savren suddenly picks up a sound, a distant, growing roar. Overhead. Instinctively, her head jerks up, but there’s nothing to see but the roof. Hallucinating. I’m hallucinating. It can’t be real.
But Otter’s eyes go wide. “Is that—” he breathes.
“…you can hear it too?”
The roar grows and grows, reaches an abrupt crescendo. As it starts to fade, shouts begin to rise outside.
“Go!” Savren urges, her heart suddenly racing.
Otter rushes from the bunk. The shouting intensifies. Savren flinches at the sound of a gunshot. A sidearm.
“Six flares!” Otter dashes back inside, his eyes wild. “The drone sent up six flares, it’s— it’s just like you said—”
Adrenaline surges and Savren forces herself into a sitting position, heedless of the pain consuming her. “You’re— it’s really— novas above, I was starting to think—”
“They’re here. They’re really here!”
Even through the blinding agony Savren can’t help but grin. “I didn’t… oh, wow. I n-never thought it would be like this.” She grabs for her tunic, shakily pulls it down over her chest as she tries to stand. “The day finally comes and I’m too broken to fight.”
“Leave it to us. You’ve sacrificed enough already.” Otter gently pushes her back down and claps her on the shoulder. She smiles faintly at him and returns the gesture.
“Tam surinte, Otter.”
Otter beams. “Sav citte, Savren.”
“S-spoken like a native.” Savren leans back against the wall. “Stars and skies. Stay safe out there. I would never have gotten through this without you.”
“Right back at you, Commander.” Otter flashes her a salute and darts back out the door.
Savren leans back against the wall, and listens to the sounds of battle grow.
Egret is in her office when the noise begins, towelling Savren’s blood off her armor. She looks up in time to see the drone streak across the sky, leaving dots of light in its wake, so bright they bathe the camp in an eerie green glow.
She stumbles to her feet, backing away on instinct. The guard at her door shields her eyes against the brilliance overhead.
“What in all ash was that!?” Egret cries, pointing. “Are— are them Greens bombing us?”
“Those aren’t bombs, ma’am…”
“Then what are they, Owl?”
“Flares, I think, ma’am.”
“…what are they for?”
“Buggered if I know, ma’am.”
Egret growls. “Get all shifts out of the barracks and ready to fight. Go!”
The captain salutes and rushes from the the room. Egret steps closer to the window, putting a hand on the hilt of her sword.
What in ash—
Laborers are filling the yard, boiling up out of the mine and the workhouses. Men and women, side by side. Swarming. She hears a gunshot, turns in time to see the throng closing on a hapless private, pummelling her in a moment. Egret takes a few steps back, then turns and begins to run.
“Lock down the bunker!” she shouts at her staff as she passes. “Guards on every entry! Seal those blast-doors!” What in ash are the idiots thinking? There’s no way out—
Egret freezes in her tracks, the pieces suddenly clicking together. The drone. She turns, and sprints for the telegram office.
The clerk looks up in alarm as the intendant slams through the door. “Get me a message through to the depot now!” she barks. “The prisoners are rebelling; we’re under attack!”
The clerk’s eyes widen. “Y-yes, ma’am! At once, ma’am.” She snatches a fresh message sheet and begins scribbling. “Shall we copy to the General?”
Egret hesitates. “I… n-no… no need to involve the General yet, I’m… sure we’ll, uh. Contain the situation.”
“Of course, ma’am. As you will.”
Egret has scarcely left the room when the secretary comes dashing after her. “Ma’am!” she cries breathlessly. “No answer from the depot—”
Egret rounds on her. “What do you mean, no answer from the depot?”
The secretary shrinks back. “Just that! Operator says there’s still current, the line hasn’t been cut… they’re just not saying anything.”
“Then keep to trying! Find me as soon as you get a reply or the wires cut out. And, God, try and get word to Silent Falls, will you. This is getting out of control.”
“V-very good, ma’am!”
The first thing Egret sees through the window when she makes it back to her office is a soldier crumpling on the ground below, blood spurting from her head. The rebels are arming themselves from the fallen, she realizes. She slams the doors to the balcony, bolting them tightly.
Egret turns quickly. The Captain of the Guard is clutching another guard for support, one leg hanging unused. Her face is bruised and cut.
“What in ash happened!?”
“It’s happening all over, m-ma’am. All over the camp,” Owl rasps. “We lost three trying to break through to the barracks—”
The other soldier waves a sheaf of papers at Egret. “Up from the telegraph office, ma’am. Only a couple buildings are reporting in—”
Egret snatches the papers. “Scribe!” she bellows, flicking through the pages, hoping in vain for a recognizable symbol.
A small, mousey woman in blue-white robes peeks her head around the door. “Y-yes, ma’am?” she stammers.
Egret thrusts the papers at her. “Read! Now!”
The scribe takes the papers gingerly. “Ah… ‘armory to base…on lockdown…prisoners attempting to break through…t-twelve guards…down…’” She pales as the meaning of the words hits her. “Um. ‘Workhouse three to base. Fighting room to r-room…hostages t-taken…three overseers dead at least. Req-questing backup—’”
“‘It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad,’” Egret interrupts mockingly. “That’s all you have to tell me?” She smacks the scribe alongside the cheek with a mailed hand; the girl stumbles and cries out in pain. “Some help you are. Shoo! Out!” She turns to Owl. “Give me a strategy, Captain!”
“We…” Owl hesitates. “We’re… overwhelmed and outnumbered, ma’am. We need to fall back.” She grimaces in pain, wiping dirt from her face. “They can’t sustain this, no way in Haven. The food’s secured. We wait them out, until they either starve or surrender.”
The intendant pales. “That… we can’t beat ’em?”
“Not by force of arms. There’s less’n a hundred of us now. Be a battallion’s work subduing them all.”
“So it’s a siege, then.” Egret sinks back into her chair, and clasps her head in her hands. “For… a week, maybe two if they’re real desperate. I’m already behind quota, I am. The General will have my hide!”
“So will the prisoners, ma’am,” mutters the Captain.
Egret slams her fist down, denting the wooden desk. The room is silent for a moment, the only sounds the distant desperate scrabble of battle, as the intendant fixes her eyes on a candle and takes several slow, deep breaths.
Then she crumples, muscles slackening, the fight going out of her.
“What’s a woman to do,” she mumbles.