Thirty minutes later found us outside in the warm sun, standing upwind of a field that was inland and slightly to the north of the settlement.
The creatures in the field reminded me of both elephants and rhinoceroses. They had grey, wrinkled skins, tusks like elephants, but with the long, wide snout of the rhinoceros and a small horn on the top of the snout. Their upright, triangular ears made me think of wild boar. Their wide legs made me think of tree trunks.
They had all of an elephant’s size, and maybe more. I wasn’t sure how tall elephants were, but the smallest of these creatures had to be taller than 30 feet at the shoulder.
As they grazed, scooping up huge mouthfuls of the green, waist-high grass, I could only wonder how much they ate in a day.
Jaclyn stood next to me, looking out at the herd. “I hate this,” she said.
I glanced over at her. “Yeah?”
She sighed. “You remember back when Rook kidnapped Cassie and we broke into his base? You got stuck running all of that. You offered it to me and I didn’t take it.”
“Right,” I remembered it well. She’d been right not to let me hand it off to her. I’d started it moving and it wouldn’t have been fair to dump it on her.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I hope we all live through this. If we don’t, it will be my fault.”
“Not entirely. We’re all going to make our own decisions. Some of them won’t be the best, but they’ll mostly be our own fault.” I watched her face. This was a bad time to have a crisis of confidence.
I couldn’t read much. Her face barely moved until she gave a half-smile. “It’s nice of you to say so, but remember what you did. When you heard they were pumping the base full of nerve gas, you sent Izzy and me back and you went on alone. We only came in at the end. I wish I could do that. Then I know you’d all be safe.”
She let out a breath. “If Marcus dies, I won’t even be able to explain how he died to his mom and dad. The block’s still working full force for them.”
It was my turn to sigh. “Yeah. I don’t know what to say. I’m sure Agent Lim will help you come up with something, but I’m sure that’s not what you want. Do you want me to take over?”
She grinned. “No. I know this one’s mine, but you can have it if I go down.”
“That’s kind of dark.” Maybe this was a crisis of confidence.
She laughed. “It’s realistic. We have to plan for it even if it’s only temporary. You know the plan and they’ll listen to you. That’s what we need. And don’t worry about me. I’m sure that half of the reason I’m worried is that they wouldn’t let me leave the dog back in the cave.”
Tiger paced up and down in front of the group of us and looked over at Jaclyn before sitting down. He seemed bigger than I remembered. He’d been listening better than I expected as well. As willing to eat humans as the adults appeared to be, Tiger seemed to have been born to be domesticated. He’d learned to follow Jaclyn’s orders better than dogs from home.
As I thought about that, the implant gave me a vision of dogs like Tiger fighting Xiniti at the side of Abominators and their human slaves. Though I could feel that there was more to learn, I didn’t go into it. For the moment, I knew enough. They’d probably been created by the Abominators to serve humans, much as normal dogs did on Earth.
Near us, Marcus eyed the herd, possibly painting it in his head. Cassie had pulled her gun from its holster on her thigh and was pointing it past the herd toward the settlement—probably using its sensors. Katuk stood completely still and watched the beasts.
That wasn’t everyone. Maru had volunteered to go with us. He knew the creatures, the terrain, and my tech blocked his powers. If Alanna’s implant modifications tried to force him to betray us, he wouldn’t be able to. That wouldn’t be true back in the cave.
He walked up to us. Short with dark hair, he wore a jacket and pants that changed color to match the grass as he walked. He wasn’t invisible, but he might be from a distance.
Stopping in front of us, he bowed. “How are you handling it? I hate moments like this. You’re ready, but you can’t do a thing until someone else gets into position.”
Jaclyn let her hands drop to her sides. “I’m doing fine. We’re all going to do fine. In case you didn’t know, Nick’s my second in command. He’ll do fine too.”
Maru smiled. “That all we can hope for. I plan to do fine too. And in case you didn’t know, my voice won’t compel the creatures down there like it does humans, but it will help.”
Nodding, Jaclyn said, “Thanks for telling me. I guessed when you volunteered, but I didn’t know.”
Crawls-Through-Desert’s voice sounded in our heads. “We’re on track to be in position in two minutes. You can start.”
“Got it,” Jaclyn sent back and the plant ended the call. By then we were all looking at her. She said. “You heard what I heard. It’s time to get moving. Remember that you have to be scary enough to start them running but not scary enough to start them fighting. Let’s go!”
We started running on to the plain, aiming for a herd of creatures that seemed go on for as far as we could see. People shouted. The dog began to bark. I turned on the sonics, wondering what frequency would work best.