Three days later, we were almost to our destination. According to the escaped prisoner who had become our companion these past few days, we would reach the slave camp by the next day. It was taking us four days to get here rather than the two it took Jokai to reach the spot where we had found him because we took things a bit slower. The man himself was so thoroughly exhausted that running him ragged had felt like a bad idea. Plus, we wanted to be in decent shape when we finally did arrive. This was already going to be hard enough as it was without running most of our group into exhaustion before we even got there. We had to be ready.
We’d even managed to bring most of the meat that we’d taken off the pantlers with us. On top of every other thing that had ended up making Gidget an invaluable resource for us out here, she also apparently acted as a refrigerator. Whatever food was stored inside her stayed fresh for quite awhile. So we just kept the meat in her and took it out each night. And with two of the things and only seven of us counting our new guide, it was going to last for quite awhile, relatively speaking. Which meant that we didn’t have to waste any time hunting or fishing and could just keep hiking.
And now that we were within a day’s hike of the place, it was time to actually plan out what we were going to do when we got there. To that end, Jokai had used a stick to draw an outline of the camp in the dirt, with various sticks used to indicate buildings and a half dozen fist-sized rocks spread around the exterior of the thing. He was pointing at one of the rocks and explaining something in Latin.
Over the past few days, the chameleon-man had gradually become slightly more upbeat about this whole situation. He was still pretty nervous and jumpy whenever one of us moved too quickly or got too close to him, but the idea that we might actually be telling the truth about saving his people had made him noticeably more hopeful. It was clearly a somewhat pessimistic hope, but that was still progress.
The man was going on at length, gesturing here and there while he kept talking. Tabbris helpfully started translating right away. Oh, um, he says that the rocks are where the tall guard towers are. There’s six towers like that all around the camp, she informed me. The um, the mine where they make everyone work is right on the other side of the hill that he drew in there, then an open area for about… um, he says a hundred passus. I think that’s somewhere around five hundred feet. That’s where they gather everyone for announcements and training drills. Past that he says there’s a barracks for the guards and some offices and stuff like that. Then the building where they make food for the slaves and the troops, the mess hall. After that, it’s another set of guard barracks, and then an open area for the slaves to eat and interact with each other at night. And then that bit there is supposed to be the cabins that the slaves sleep in. Those ones are right up against the base of a really steep hill so they can’t sneak out without going past several of the towers.
Nodding slowly, I relayed all of that information to the others. Gordon had picked up on most of it as it was, and quietly asked our new Alter friend a question while the rest absorbed the news.
Isaac was shaking his head, muttering darkly under his breath before asking, “And how many guards did our lucky friend over here say we had to deal with if we’re gonna play heroes?”
Gordon was the one who answered. “One quin of Seosten and about twenty hands of grunts.”
Isaac just blinked at him then, head tilting with incomprehension. “Repeat that in English?”
Luckily, I remembered from Jokai explaining it over the past few days. “A quin is five, right?” When Gordon nodded (and Tabbris confirmed it as well), I went on. “Right, according to our new friend here, the basic grouping of actual Seosten troops is a dec.” I pronounced it like deck. “That’s ten. So the basic, general unit of Seosten soldiers is ten. Half of that is five, or a quin. Five decs, or fifty troops, form a quin-dec. Two quin-decs or a hundred troops is a century, like the old Roman grouping. Five of those centuries is called a cohort, for five hundred men. And ten cohorts is a legion. Five thousand. Five thousand full Seosten troops, still like the Romans.”
Jazz slowly spoke. “But what’s that ‘hands of grunts’? Does that mean there’s twenty grunts, whatever those are? Come to think of it, what are grunts as opposed to Seosten soldiers?”
“Grunts are non-Seosten soldiers,” Gordon explained. He’d done some talking with Jokai over the past few days too. “They’re basically slave troops, above the actual slaves, but still beholden to their Seosten masters. It’s any non-Seosten person they trust enough to use as a soldier.”
I nodded at that. “And unfortunately, it doesn’t mean there’s twenty of them. They count each of those as a finger. So five of them is one hand. Which means twenty hands would actually be-”
“A hundred,” Roxa finished, biting her lip. “So there’s a hundred regular grunt soldiers in there.”
“And five Seosten,” Sands pointed out with a little sigh. “Which, if they’re anything like that Charmiene bitch, means they could take us all out all by themselves without any help anyway.”
I shook my head. “They’re nothing like that. Jokai says they’re younger Seosten. Charmiene was thousands of years old. It was like trying to fight Gaia or one of our professors. They don’t assign those kind of Seosten to help guard some out-of-the-way slave camp, they put them on the front lines. These Seosten are all within about fifty years or so. Young, by their standards.”
Isaac snorted while making a face. “They’ll still be a real pain in the ass to fight, rookies or not.”
Sands gave him a dark look briefly before muttering, “At least it’ll be possible to fight them.”
Holding up a hand to stop them from arguing, I whispered, “We’re not planning on fighting most of them outright anyway. Remember the plan. After we’ve scouted out the area and made sure most of them are asleep, Jazz helps Jokai sneak back in to tell his people what’s going on and get them ready to go. While they’re doing that, we quietly take out the guards that are still awake, just enough to clear a path. Then we get the slaves out and disappear before the rest wake up.”
Swallowing hard, Jazz made a nervous sound. “Uh, yeah… yeah, we just sneak right in there, past all those guards and everything. No big deal, huh?” She bit her lip, squinting slightly toward the nearby Alter. “Because there’s no way this is just a trap to lure us right into their camp.”
Before anyone else could say anything, I reached up to squeeze her arm. “It’s alright, Jazz. We’ll be right there in case anything happens to go wrong. You won’t be alone. And it’s not a trap.”
I could say the latter for certain, at least as far as Jokai was concerned. Not that I’d been able to explain it to the others, but I had taken the time to make sure he wasn’t tricking us somehow. The first night of our trip to this place, I’d waited until the others except for Jazz were asleep. Then, while the other girl wasn’t watching, Tabbris slipped out of me and briefly possessed the sleeping Jokai just long enough to check his memories and make sure he was telling the truth.
I trusted the man, of course. But it was still better to verify these things rather than just blindly blundering in. And with Tabbris checking through his memories, there was no way the guy could knowingly be leading us into any kind of trap. According to her, he was completely above board.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell the others (except for Roxa) about why I could be that certain. Sands… Sands I wanted to tell. I would tell her when the time was right. But the fact was, every person who found out about Tabbris was a potential way of that info getting to the Seosten. If they knew and ever got possessed, even for a brief time, then that information would be out there. Not just for the Seosten who possessed them, but for any that they were connected to.
It was just too dangerous to tell anyone else about my little partner at least until we managed to get someplace a little bit safer than where we were. Because it wasn’t about whether I trusted them or not. It was about protecting Tabbris. She’d spent her entire life (basically literally) protecting me. I wasn’t about to throw that away by letting her secret fall into the wrong hands.
But hey, at least I’d spent the past few days teaching the others the rune that would let them check for possession. Roxa and I had worked out a system of her pretending to use it on me while the others were practicing their own attempts. Jokai had, of course, been incredibly interested in the rune. I was pretty sure he was going to teach it to the rest of his people the very second that he had a chance.
Jazz still looked pretty doubtful as she stared at the man. But her eyes flicked toward Roxa for a moment, and she finally gave a long, low sigh. “Yeah. Alright, well, how’re we gonna do it, then?”
“Very carefully,” Roxa replied, “and very quietly. Like Flick said, we need to make sure most of them are asleep, then… it’s the ones in the towers that are gonna be the biggest problem. There’s six of them, right? Towers, I mean. While Jazz and Jokai are sneaking in, the rest of us should take them out one at a time, quietly. We deal with each tower while those two get the slaves ready to go. Once all six are down, we send some kind of signal.”
I nodded, especially at the emphasis on doing it quietly. “Yeah. That sounds like a plan. Jazz and Jokai go in, the rest of us deal with the towers together. Once the slaves are ready and the towers are all dealt with, we clear the path and make sure they get out of there safely. Preferably without starting a massive war with the whole damn army in the process, please.”
To say that Jazz looked uncertain and unhappy about the situation was a pretty massive understatement. She swallowed hard, fidgeting. “S-so, you really want me to go in there by myself? This is… this is really gonna happen.” Her face was noticeably pale as she glanced to me.
I don’t think she should go by herself, Tabbris whispered in my head. I mean, just with Jokai.
You’re right, I replied with an inward wince, she’s too nervous about the whole thing. Someone twitches wrong and she’ll think it’s a trap and start going off on poor Jokai. She needs help.
Aloud, I announced, “You know, maybe we need to split up a little more. If anything happens to go wrong in there, Jazz and Jokai need some backup. Hell, Jokai doesn’t even have a weapon.”
Sands immediately nodded as if she had already been thinking the same thing. “I’ll go with them.” Belatedly, she glanced to the girl in question. “If that’s okay with you, that is.”
Jazz couldn’t physically nod fast enough. “Y-yeah, that sounds great,” the girl blurted while her head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might actually fall off. “I mean, two of us can–” She stopped then, biting her lip while wincing before finishing with a weak, “Yes, please.”
Jokai said something then, whispering urgently as he looked back and forth between all of us.
“I think he wants to know what we’re talking about now,” Gordon translated. “He’s afraid we’re getting cold feet, or that we might change our minds about the whole thing or something.”
Sands shook her head fervently, her eyes on the tower. “Tell him we’re not changing our minds.”
Quietly, Tabbris spoke through me to pass that on, letting me know along the way what she was saying. ‘I’ explained what we were going to do as reassuringly as possible, informing him that when the time came, we would take care of the guards in the watch towers while he went in with Jazz and Sands, and that he needed to make sure his people were ready to escape by the time we were done.
Once ‘I’ finished going over all of that, he asked one question, his voice tentative and confused.
Oh, Tabbris relayed, he wants to know how they’re supposed to know the towers are down, and how they’re supposed to tell you that they’re ready in there, because you don’t seem to have… I think he means communicators or anything. He noticed that you don’t have anything like that.
It was a good question, but I’d already thought of a solution, the same way we’d solved the issue before. Out loud, I explained what the man had asked, then added, “I think we should just split up Jaq and Gus again. Give them some signals to pass on for ‘clear’, ‘ready’, ‘wait’, that kind of thing. They’re always in contact with each other, so they can just pass the messages.”
Roxa rubbed the top of Gidget’s head while nodding. “Yeah, we really need to get some radios or something. But that sounds like the best way to handle it until we can get that sorted out.”
“Okay.” Looking to Jazz then, I hesitated before asking, “Are you going to be okay in there? It’s a lot of not-human people, and they’ll probably be scared. Can you deal with that and not…”
As I trailed off, the other girl finished for me. “Not freak out and start attacking them because they’re Strangers?” She bit her lip, staring at me. “I told you, I’m in for this. I might not know if I believe all this ‘not evil, lovely, lovely people’ stuff you keep talking about, but I’m also not a liar. I said I’d do it, so I’ll do it. I won’t–” She hesitated then before finishing quietly, “I won’t ruin it. You have my word, okay? I will do absolutely everything in my power to rescue those m–” Catching herself briefly, Jazz coughed once before finishing with a soft, “–people. I swear.”
From behind the other girl, Sands gave me a private little nod. If nothing else, she would make sure Jazz stayed focused and didn’t freak out too much when they got around all those Alters. Which was why it was a good idea to send her in there too. Hopefully, that would be enough.
Abruptly, I slapped my forehead quietly. “Damn it,” I whispered. “Gordon, one of us has to go with those guys. You understand enough Latin to get by. If something happens and Jokai has to tell them something, they won’t understand.”
The boy paused before giving a slight nod. “I’ll go with them, then.”
“Be careful, all three of you,” Roxa cautioned. “They probably told them to be on guard for us. But, you know, hopefully they think we’re smart enough not to walk right into the Alter prison camp.”
“Yeah,” Isaac muttered darkly, “Too bad for them, we’re way dumber than they think we are.”
It was dark, and late the next evening as we reached the prison camp. Ahead and above us stood a tall wooden guard tower, with a single spotlight that was slowly roving over the grounds of the camp itself that lay just on the other side of the small hill that we had clustered near.
“Time to split up,” Roxa whispered. “Just like we said.”
I nodded, reaching into my pocket to take out my two mouse buddies. “Jaq, you stayed with me last time, so you go with these guys now.” I gave him a stroke behind the ears and let the little guy nuzzle my palm briefly before handing him over to Sands. “Let’s go with some easy signals. Tap your nose against whoever you’re talking to once for yes, twice for no. For questions… raise both front paws up and hold them like that for ‘Ready’, and spin in a circle for danger, problem, help, that kind of thing. Oh, and roll over on your back for ‘wait’. You got all that? Yes, no, ready, help, and wait. That should cover most responses we need for this.”
“What about something for retreat or hide?” Isaac pointed out then, gesturing. “Something like that. Wait doesn’t really work if it’s something we need to, you know, actively keep away from.”
He had a point. Biting my lip, I nodded. “If we need to retreat, jump up and down. You got that?” When both mice nodded, I ran them through the signals once, checking each one. Then I made sure the others had it before I was finally satisfied. “Okay, guess we’re almost ready to go.”
“Ready and eager,” Jazz agreed, then amended, “Some of us are more eager than others.”
Roxa had been nodding, but paused before looking to her old roommate. I saw brief indecision cross her face, and then she reached out to put a hand on the girl’s arm. “Jazzy,” she started. “Be careful, okay? I know what you promised, but just… just be careful. Take care of yourself.”
Leaving them to have their moment, I looked to Jokai, who seemed pretty terrified to be back here. He kept looking around, head snapping in every direction at the slightest sound. If someone came up behind him and said boo, the poor guy probably would’ve had a heart attack.
Seeing that, I hesitated. There had to be something I could say that would make him feel better or calm him down. We really needed him to be calm if we were going to pull this off. Jazz was nervous enough about the whole thing. If Jokai freaked out, she was probably going to lose it.
Start to say what you want to say, Tabbris put in. I’ll just translate it before it leaves your mouth.
Wow, she could do that? Pausing to consider, I started to whisper to the man. Sure enough, the words that I sent to my mouth somehow came out differently. I was thinking the words in English, but they were coming out of my mouth in Latin. That was… pretty damn useful, actually.
“Jokai,” I started slowly, taking care not to talk too fast. Just because my words were being translated instantly didn’t mean that everyone had to know that. So I spoke gradually, pausing between every two or three words. “I know that you didn’t expect to come back here like this. And you definitely didn’t expect to be with people like us when you did. But I promise, we are going to do everything we can to get your people out of that evil place. I don’t know what we’ll do after that, because we’ll probably have a whole bunch of pissed off Seosten chasing us across the planet without anywhere to go, but–”
Abruptly, the man interrupted, launching into a long spiel that Tabbris started translating partway through. He says that if you can free his people, we can all escape on the long-haulers. They’re ships–spaceships, I mean. They use them to haul supplies and to mine the asteroids. No weapons except for some drilling lasers, but they’re super heavily shielded.
I blinked a couple times at that. Is he saying that there’s a way off this planet? He–oh. Turning, I relayed that message to the others.
“Why didn’t he tell us about these ships before?” Isaac asked. “And if they’re so useful, why didn’t he head for them himself?”
Surprisingly, of all people it was Jazz who responded. “Maybe he didn’t know if he could trust us before we actually came here. And maybe he didn’t go for the ships himself because it takes more than one person to get them running. Or, you know, to get past the guards they probably have on them. And who says he even knows how to pilot them? Maybe–maybe a lot of things, right?”
“Right.” Blinking at the girl, I gave a short, distracted nod. “The point is, we have a goal after this. Save the people, and we can get the hell off this planet. After that–uhh, after that we’ll see what happens. But in the meantime, if no one else has any objections or interruptions, I think it’s time to do this.”
No one else had anything, so I nodded to Sands, Jokai, Gordon, and Jazz. “Good luck, you guys. And like Roxa said, be careful.”
The four of them slowly made their way off. We’d already explained to Jokai that he had to keep touching Jazz in order for her invisibility to work on him. It was a toss-up as to which of the two were more nervous about that entire prospect. But, to her credit, Jazz restrained herself from visibly cringing when the Alter put his hand on her arm. The group faded from sight, and I caught a glimpse of some leaves and dirt moving to mark their progress as they moved.
Roxa turned to her own partner then. “Gidget,” she whispered, “you stay here, okay? Stay on the outside of the camp in case something goes wrong. You’re pretty much the best reinforcement ever. Follow us along the perimeter here.” She held up her fist, waiting until the cyberform cougar had bumped her paw against it. “Damn straight.”
“Well,” Isaac announced then as he looked back and forth between Roxa and me. “Guess that leaves just the three of us, huh?
“Let’s go be heroes.”