I called the bot back and started running faster. It didn’t take long to catch up. Their group was only walking at a normal human rate.
I slowed as I caught sight of them. Marcus’ suit had to be registering my presence, but caution meant lowering the chance of accidentally fighting each other.
Marcus’ voice filled my helmet. “Nick! I was wondering if you died. That earthquake was massive.”
As I came to a stop next to them, he said, “Where’s Jaclyn?”
“Alive, so far as I know. She said she made it into the tunnels, but then we lost radio contact. I’m assuming we left by different tunnels—which was the plan. The colonists were going to divide into different groups. We were supposed to each be with a different one, I thought.”
Marcus nodded. “That was the plan. Cassie’s with her group. I’m with this one. Katuk’s out there too. I saw him following a group into one of the exits as we left. With all the ways these tunnels cross each other, I wouldn’t be surprised to run into them again.”
I shrugged. “We aren’t supposed to, but yeah, from what I’m seeing in the implant map, we could, or depending on how people do it, we might not see anyone.”
Marcus turned to look behind me. “All that matters is that we get out of here. However it is that we make it, I’m fine with it, but I’m getting worried. Have you been seeing anyone behind you?”
I checked my helmet. I didn’t see anyone and hadn’t since I left the caves. “No.”
Tikki glanced past me before saying, “Marcus thinks he’s been seeing people behind us.”
Noting the intensity of her stare into the darkness, I said, “I’m guessing you think he’s right.”
“I don’t know.” She swallowed and took a breath. “I thought I heard something before you appeared, but it might have been you. It might have been them. I don’t know. I’m not trained for this—not the way you two are.”
I wanted to say that I hadn’t been trained for this either, but you could argue that I had. I hadn’t trained specifically to be hunted in tunnels by humans that were genetically modified by aliens, but I had been trained to protect people. In the end, that’s what we were doing.
We started walking together behind the main group, a group that could have been any refugees anywhere, I supposed. Men, women and children walked through the tunnels with backpacks or bags that held what they needed (food, water, clothes), and what they couldn’t bear to leave.
You might have expected them to be grim, or so terrified they couldn’t go on, and maybe there was some of that before I arrived, but most of them walked and talked. The parents talked their children into continuing to walk. The children sometimes cried, but sometimes ran after each other shouting—before being shushed by their parents.
It wasn’t bad. In one sense it was terrible, but it wasn’t constant death and misery. We had to make it to the surface, handle whatever we found there, and if we were lucky, we might be able to move them back into their homes only slightly worse for wear.
That’s what we could hope for anyhow.
I watched my HUD. I’d sent a couple observation bots down the tunnel ahead of us and didn’t see anyone waiting for us. I sent them behind without seeing anything either. It would have been nice to then conclude that we were safe except that it wasn’t that simple. Every now and then our tunnel would intersect with another which meant that we then had another possible attack origin and also my bots didn’t have infinite fuel. I could bring spybots (small, easy to hide) and observation bots (bigger with a wider range) back to refuel, but every refuel meant I had less fuel to work with.
As I checked through footage from my cameras, Marcus said, “The colonists have been releasing something that kills everybody’s smell. Apparently, the Ascendancy’s soldiers are as good as my cousins at that kind of thing.”
“That’s good,” I said, flipping to the next picture. We were about three-quarters of the way up by then. If they were going to catch us, it would be from behind. The bots didn’t show anyone waiting outside our exit.
Ten pictures in, I found a dark shape that had the silhouette of a soldier in the Ascendancy’s armor. None of the other pictures showed it. It hadn’t been close to the camera. At the same time, given the speed they could run at, they were only ten or fifteen minutes behind us.
I sent it to Marcus with the comment that, “We’ve got fifteen minutes at max.”
He touched Tikki’s shoulder. “Nick got a picture of one about ten or fifteen minutes behind us. I’m going to tell the main group to get ahead of us so they don’t get caught in the fight. You can go with them.”
She shook her head. “I’m staying with you. The Ascendancy killed my parents and too many friends. I’m not going to let them kill more.”
She turned to stare down the tunnel, face tightening.