I couldn’t tell whether the Xiniti or the Human Ascendancy was winning. The Human Ascendancy had more ships when you considered their fighters in addition to their battleships, but the Xiniti’s ships (even their battleships) were smaller and changed direction with no warning at all.
They’d turn on an angle, target an Ascendancy battleship with a large part of their firepower, inflict damage and change direction again, putting another battleship in the way of the first’s return fire. It didn’t always work out. Xiniti ships exploded too, but not as many as Ascendancy fighters. On the other hand, there weren’t as many Xiniti ships.
If the fleets had been roughly equal in size, I’d have bet that the Xiniti would win, but they weren’t. While the Xiniti ships were harder to hit and harder to damage when they got hit, the Ascendancy did pick them off one at a time.
The Xiniti did the same, but from the short clip of the battle that played in my helmet, I didn’t dare try to predict the end.
“Where are you?” I asked HAL.
“I’m on the planet and hidden from view. I’ve set up a stream of information from the ansible that allows me to monitor what it can sense and am using my own sensors and ability to simulate battle to fill in the gaps.”
I stopped walking, glancing over at Kals to see if she’d noticed. She had, and stopped, turning to look at me. “Is something wrong?”
To her, I said, “Yes, but it’s complicated.”
She took in a breath. “Great. I love not knowing if I’m about to die.”
To HAL, I said, “Are you close enough that we could use the ship if necessary?”
“Yes, but while the chance that the Ascendancy will detect me is currently low, it goes up as the battle moves closer to the planet. If you’re considering joining the battle, joining the Xiniti fleet gives a small improvement to their odds of winning in the most probable versions of this fight. If the Ascendancy sends a landing force down to the surface, your presence increases the chances of the colony’s survival.”
“Good to know,” I said. “Keep me informed if the battle changes enough that our presence is likely to help.”
The connection ended and images of the battle disappeared. I looked around to find that Jaclyn, Cassie, Marcus, and Tikki had caught up.
Even as I began to turn toward them, Jaclyn asked, “Did HAL show you the fleets too?”
“Fleets?” Kal looked over at her and then back at me. “They’re here already. It’s not just the Ascendancy, right? Someone else came through too?”
“The Xiniti,” Cassie said. “I didn’t see anybody else.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Alliance ships are pretty likely, but I didn’t see them or the Ghosts. Maybe they’re on their way? I have no idea.”
Kals took a breath and pointed ahead. “My mom needs to know about this.” Turning back to look at the rest of us and back at me, she said, “You made a deal with Four Hands. If the Ascendancy wins, he can’t do much of anything for us, assuming he was in the first place.”
“I know,” Jaclyn said. She stepped over a small stump, pushing between the trees which were growing ever closer to each other as we went higher. “Where’s your mom?”
“Over here,” Kals pointed up the hill.
We followed her up and over the crest. Between the number of the trees and the small distance between them, it felt like we spent the entire climb squeezing between them and finding good spots to put our feet as we walked.
On the other side, we found them. The woods were just as thick and overgrown, but at some point in the past, someone had cut down enough trees that they could put up a long, thin shed. It wasn’t a beautiful work of carpentry, but it stood amid the trees without falling down.
Following Kals through the door, we found Jadzen, the surviving members of the council including Iolan, spouses, children, and their unofficial bodyguards. At least that’s what I interpreted the men with guns to be. None of them were unmarked by their escape from the caverns. Most had scrapes on their skin, a few had bandages wrapped around their arms, and one man’s arm hung in a sling.
Iolan stood next to him with some device, asking questions and feeling the arm.
As we walked through Jadzen stepped away from the table next to the far wall where she’d been sitting to say, “Thank you,” to each of us as we stepped inside.
When the door shut, she said, “We have monitoring equipment hidden in the forest, but we can’t see very far beyond it. What’s been going on outside?”
We began to explain what had happened to us and what we’d done, but as we did something distant exploded and screamed in the air above us.
Everyone’s eyes went to a series of holographic screens set up along the walls, most of which showed the forest, but a few showed the sky. Far up in the sky, one of the Ascendancy’s cylindrical battleships fell, burning, but still firing beams back at the Xiniti ships attacking it.