“Mostly good,” I said. “The Xiniti are here and the first of the Cosmic Ghosts are here. In fact, technically we’re done. The leader of the unit that came to Jadzen Akri’s shelter told me that we’d done what we were supposed to and that we could go. He didn’t want to risk us in this fight—the Ascendancy has fresh troops and ships.”
Katuk froze. “I’ve missed a great deal. The unit leader said we should withdraw? It makes sense. The Xiniti nation prefers not to waste lives. As inexperienced as we currently are, we might prove to be a drag on resources due to our lack of experience in war.”
He stopped talking and his suit absorbed his helmet. Then he looked at me. I’d reformed my own helmet before the run. I had my suit absorb it again once his came down.
“They told us to drop you off in K’Tepolu.”
He blinked. “That… seems unsatisfying.”
“I know. I told him that we had to go find you and Jaclyn’s dog and Crawls-Through-Desert before we could consider leaving. He seemed okay with that, but I don’t know if he thought through how long that could take. I didn’t say it might take hours before we find everyone, but it might.”
I watched Katuk for his reaction.
He watched me with his wider than human eyes. Then he nodded. “It’s a difficult task in this situation. Crawls-Through-Desert isn’t here. He’s at another shelter. We separated when our groups went to their respective spots.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes. He’ll want to know about the new arrivals. I saw some of the ships earlier when they fought, but I hadn’t known about the Ghosts’ arrival.”
He looked at Rachel who was still floating. “Are you one of them?”
She said, “Kinda? Think of me as an intern. I can do a lot of what they can do, but I’m not trained on most of it and their powers are subtle. So, training matters a lot.”
I broke in. “This is my sister, Rachel. Rachel, this is Katuk.”
He turned to examine me. “Your sister. You must both have Ghost DNA.”
I shrugged. “I suppose. It doesn’t help me in any way I’m aware of.”
Jaclyn’s dog broke away from her to stand up on its hind legs, put its paws on my chest, and give me a series of licks that dripped with dog spit.
That’s the kind of thing that made me wish I’d kept my helmet up—that and avoiding being shot in the head, but dog spit was the current risk.
As it dropped down to all fours and ran back to Jaclyn, Katuk said, “If you want to find Crawls-Through-Desert, we should go soon. Do you know what the Ascendancy’s current plans are?”
I thought about it. “I don’t, but I’ve been thinking about it. The battle left this part of the system, but they left soldiers. If they wanted the colonists dead, they’d have dropped a nuke or something like it on them. So the question is, ‘What do soldiers do better than bombs?’ I’m guessing that they’re here to capture anyone they can—the higher up in the resistance the better. Then they’ll brainwash them.”
Jaclyn looked up from petting the dog. “That’s what I was thinking. They’d have some people who know how to get around protections against motivators like Kals did against you that time. Or you know, they might have put as many motivators in as they could find and hope that numbers alone will get them what they want.”
Kals took in a long breath. “I think I may have told Nick this before, but that’s what we’re all afraid of. It’s one of the reasons that a resistance exists. We don’t want our heads remade to serve the Ascendancy and catch and betray other resistance members. That’s why some of the older people carry poison pills for themselves and their families.”
“Are you saying they’d give them to kids?” Cassie stared at her. “That’s so messed up. I’m not saying I don’t get it, but that shouldn’t be necessary.”
Katuk looked into the darkness. “If we want to find the plant, we should go.”
We agreed and followed him into the night, running through the forest and wondering how long that would last.
It didn’t. About ten minutes into it, blasts of light turned into explosions and burning trees. Shouting Ascendancy soldiers fought an enemy that was silent except for the sizzle as their beams found targets.
I never saw them, but I felt sure that they were Xiniti.
“We should go around this,” Katuk led us to the right of the firefight. In the distance, tree branches cracked and fell, many of them burning. Soldiers screamed in pain and I smelled burning flesh.
I wondered if we were going closer to or further away from the main battle.