Even though he wasn’t using the Ferryman’s Knowledge — at least, as much as he could avoid it — the next few hours were a blur for Wilom. They got the news first from the soldiers and conscripts who met them at the gates, excited to spread the news to new ears. Colonel Briar was immediately whisked away, in the centre of a crowd of other commanding officers. They said nothing as they left, and Wilom would have suspected, even without the Ferryman’s Knowledge to confirm it, that the Colonel was being taken to debriefings and probably strategy meetings, to keep the officers informed of what was going on. Wilom idly wondered how much of the real situation someone like the Colonel would be told. Was he high enough in rank or position to get most of the story? Or only the parts that related to his missions? Of those parts, how many were lies, like what was published in the newspapers?
The soldiers certainly didn’t get many truths. Half of what they told the returning squad was admitted as pure theory or speculation, and most of the other half was hotly debated. The only facts they seemed able to agree on, and thus the only ones Wilom suspected they had been directly told, were that the War had ended, an agreement was being negotiated, and that soldiers were now being deployed as aid to small towns, not as a fighting force. Everything else was being discussed right there in the halls: from what the contents of the agreement would be, to what aid they would need to provide, to when the conscripted would be allowed to go home.
“I doubt it will be soon,” Firin laughed at that last. “They need soldiers to do their fixing. They won’t give up that many pairs of hands while they can avoid it.”
“They may have to,” Yolin countered. “It depends on when the state of war is officially rescinded. Legally, if we’re no longer at war, they can’t keep the conscripts if they choose to leave. I suppose it depends on whether the war has officially been declared over, or whether that has to wait until the agreement is signed…”
“But they can make it very hard to choose,” Firin said darkly.
Harie had removed himself from the conversation with a mug of something, along with a flock of others who were lining the walls, having their own small conversations or just watching the larger one unfold. The Ferryman’s Knowledge was only telling Wilom ways to smooth the argument over in the middle of the room, but he was choosing not to listen to that. The arguments were heated but not likely to get angry or violent, so he decided it was best to let them go and release their anxiety about not knowing anything that way. Instead, he moved over to Harie.
“Refill?” he asked. Harie nodded and handed over his mug, and Wilom fetched them both tea from the station by the wall and returned quickly. It was a cheap, blend tea, clearly sitting and oversteeping for a long time, but nothing that a hefty dose of sugar couldn’t fix.
“Don’t try to goad me into joining that conversation,” Harie warned Wilom. His voice was joking, but there was a little too much of an edge under it.
“Wouldn’t dream of it. I came to get away from it myself.”
“Good.” Harie nodded at some of the others who were avoiding the big knot of people in the centre of the mess hall. “They’ve got the right idea.”
“Not likely to get a word in?” Wilom asked.
Harie shook his head and sipped his tea. “No. Just no point.”
Wilom waited for a moment, then prompted Harie with “Oh?”
“COs’ll tell us what they want us to believe,” Harie explained. “No point theorising — we can believe what we like as long as we act like we believe our orders.” He looked at Wilom sidelong and shrewd. “Don’t tell me you think I’m wrong. You’ve kept your own counsel since you got here, but you don’t trust anything you’ve heard.”
For a moment, Wilom wondered if he should be concerned about being too obvious. After all, what if Colonel Briar decided he was some sort of dissenter? He’d already been conscripted because he was suspected of associating with traitors. But the panic quickly subsided. Colonel Briar wouldn’t care as long as he acted like he was toeing the line. And Harie seemed to think this was a sign of kinship, rather than a failing. Wilom nodded. “You’re right.”
“It’s a lesson hard learned.”
Wilom thought he was starting to see the shape of why Harie had requested to leave the front lines.
He waited a little longer for Harie to say anything, but he didn’t offer any information. Wilom tried to prompt him. “Newspapers,” he said, hoping that was all the explanation he’d be expected to give.
It didn’t work. Harie just nodded sympathetically and patted Wilom on the shoulder. But Wilom got the distinct feeling he’d started to make his way into Harie’s friendship.
The mess hall served food, and people got plates quickly, in order to return to their discussions. Some people started to filter out of the mess hall, to do other things, or to be alone for a while. Wilom expected Harie to leave, but despite his claims about not wanting to speculate, he got the sense that Harie wanted to stay and find out what the result of the argument was going to be.
Javrinnen joined Harie and Wilom with her plate. “I’m leaving the arguing to the other two.”
“Yolin, at least, seems to be having fun,” Wilom said. Firin had his arms crossed and was frowning. He seemed to be less enjoying the argument, more embroiled. “Good luck to him.”
“Good luck to him,” Javrinnen echoed.
Before they’d finished half of their meal, a CO marched through the door and started to bark orders. “Alright! My squad, Marcel’s squad, Taine’s squad, room twelve! Torcel’s squad, Briar’s squad, room sixteen!”
She continued listing squad commanders and rooms, but Wilom and the others were already making their way out the doors and to their assigned rooms.
Colonel Briar was giving the briefing. Wilom had hoped he might get a sense for what kind of news they were about to be given but all he could tell was that the Colonel was tired.
“Right,” Colonel Briar said, it seemed as much to himself as to to them, “We have a lot to do and not much time to do it on, so I’m going to make this short and let you rest up. We start out again tomorrow morning. Evacuation duty.” He pointed to the map up on the wall. “Everything from here to here needs to be cleared. That’s Marclorn territory now.” His lips tightened.
Wilom could physically feel the silence in the room like a pressure on his back. That was … a lot of land. And a lot of towns. A lot of farms, and factories. A lot of everything.
The Colonel pushed through, as though to reach the end before he needed to address the stares he was getting from the room.
“Our duty is this cluster of towns here,” he said. “Runners will go ahead of us with news bulletins, so they’ll be prepared when we get there. Our job is to get people onto trucks as quickly as possible and get them back to the inner towns. We’ll get more orders when we get back.”
He put his hands behind his back and adjusted himself. “We only have days. Every operation will need to be streamlined. We’ll spend the rest of the afternoon drilling positions and a series of set plans for arrival and contact. You will be expected to memorise all of them, as they will be absolutely necessary when we arrive. Questions?”
Yolin’s hand shot up. Colonel Briar nodded.
“Are there still concerns about spies?” Yolin asked. “And if so, what should we do about them?”
Colonel Briar nodded. “Yes, the higher-ups still want us to be on the lookout. Report suspicious behaviour, but all the trucks are returning to processing stations where others will sort them out.”
There were rounds of nods. Wilom tried not to look too apprehensive. Hopefully, Vanda would be able to do something about that.
“Then, before you’re dismissed, one last thing. Everyone report first to resourcing — you’ll need to get body armour for this assignment.”
There were no further questions. The map on the wall was replaced with a map of a town, and the two Colonels started to describe deployment strategies and how they would cover the ground. Wilom was sure that it was flying out of his head as fast as they were putting new information in, and he was sincerely worried about how legible his notes were going to be afterwards. A quick scan around the room told him that most of the others were having similar problems.
He wasn’t sure whether his first reaction to learning that they were getting body armour was to be scared or glad. By the time he was approaching the resourcing building, he still wasn’t sure which option was the right one.