In a little while, I turned around to find Marcus standing, his costume fully repaired. Tikki stood beside him. They were holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes, all but glowing. I didn’t see any hint of regret or anxiety in her smile, meaning that Kee had submerged herself into Tikki again, or that she was too good an actor for me to read.
When you considered that Kee predated the human species and possibly our universe, she’d had billions of years to gain the skills necessary to fool me.
Marcus pulled himself away looking at her. “We should go find everybody that we sent ahead. From the map, it doesn’t look like we’re that far from the surface. I’m worried what happens if they get too far ahead.”
It didn’t take long to catch up even considering that Tikki had only a normal person’s speed when she didn’t have a bubble up. I had good reason to think she wasn’t as limited as she made herself out to be originally, but she was staying in character for now.
The colonists appeared to be happy to see us alive, asking what happened. They’d heard the fight. More than one of them seemed impressed by description of my killbots. An older man told me, “I’ve heard of similar weapons. Don’t know if they were Ascendancy, Abominator, or Alliance. Whatever it was, I never managed to find them anywhere or I’d have ordered as many as I could afford.”
When we got within roachbot range of the end of the tunnel, I sent a couple observation bots out of the tunnel to get a good view.
They weren’t destroyed the instant they passed of the cave’s mouth—a good sign. What they showed was a little less straightforward than that. The tunnel exited from the stone formation ten feet above the ground. It wasn’t a straight drop. The colonists would be able to walk down a ledge that became wider the longer it got, meeting the ground some forty feet to the left of the exit.
If they felt impatient, they could drop to the ground. Ten feet wasn’t that far.
Like most of the stone formation, it lay next to an empty field. We were further down the coast from Landing, the settlement’s largest town. Its force shields glittered in the sunlight.
Next to Landing’s force shields lay the bodies of the spacers who’d been trampled by the herd of elephant/rhino/boar things. They’d been busy. Over the time that we’d been underground, they’d been burying bodies and added a few more. The new bodies appeared to include a few more dogs like Jaclyn’s dog Tiger as well as a few more predators. I couldn’t see details from this distance—just mounds of fur, scales, or in one case, feathers.
A set of force shields with a greenish shimmer glowed next to the graveyard. The spacers had either taken over the colonists force fields and modified them or set up their own shields. Unwilling or unable to disarm the colonists’ traps, they’d set up domed shelters inside. I doubted there could be many more than two hundred people in that space, but I didn’t know for sure.
That didn’t cover everything though. As the first observation bot swung around, showing the next tunnel exit over. I gasped as it came into view because this tunnel had been attacked. Burn marks surrounded the stone around the tunnel’s exit, but not just the tunnel’s exit. They’d also left big scorch marks in front of the tunnel, and along with those scorch marks, burned bodies—at least 50 of them. Scorched and smoking armor, space suits, and weapons lay there with them.
That group had been ambushed.
At about the time that thought went through my head, my HUD registered Cassie’s and Jaclyn’s presence, routed over to me through the bots.
“Rocket!” Cassie’s voice felt a little too loud in my HUD. “I don’t know if you can see our exit from wherever you are, but no matter how bad it looks, we’re not dead.”
“Good,” I set one of the bots in a slow circle near to the exit and set the other to a wider circle in the opposite direction. I also checked to see if HAL was in range, getting no response to my ping. “What happened? It’s obvious that there was an ambush, but I can’t tell much more than that.”
Cassie didn’t even stop to breathe. “There’s not much to tell. Our groups joined up and became a massive group—maybe 500 people. There’s no way a group like that is going to be stealthy, so we should have expected that people would be waiting for us. A couple of their people went ahead of the larger group as scouts—which saved everybody. They found people waiting ahead of us in the tunnel and turned around to tell us.
“Problem was that as soon as they turned, the whole group started firing. Plus there were more running down the tunnel after them. Jaclyn and I rushed forward with the gun raving like a madman in my head. I’m pretty sure it was the best day that thing’s had in years because I shot a fuckload of people. Jaclyn took out everyone I missed, but she got shot a lot.”
“Whoa,” I tried to formulate a sentence. Just because her suit registered her, it didn’t mean she was alive.
Jaclyn’s voice came over the HUD’s speakers. “I did get shot a lot.”