In the big picture, it didn’t matter if we were going to closer to the main action. The important thing was that we met up with Crawls-Through-Desert to find out what he wanted to do—stay or leave?
So we followed Katuk through the forest, all of us running quickly and as silently as we could.
Before we left the scene of the battle, a white beam speared two Ascendancy soldiers that emerged from a group of trees. I’d been about to turn toward them myself, but then the beam hit and a Xiniti appeared to fire a second shot at the two soldiers as they lay on the ground.
Then, sure that they were dead, he disappeared into the trees.
If Katuk was happy to see another Xiniti for the first time since leaving K’Tepolu, he didn’t show it. He glanced in that direction, said nothing and continued to run. I hoped he wouldn’t get in trouble for coming with us instead of leaving like we were ordered to.
I had gotten permission after a fashion, but all that I’d heard about our own military back home indicated that no branch had a sense of humor about completely ignoring orders.
We made it to the next shelter ten minutes later. It wasn’t a good scene. The first hint of that came as Katuk said, “It’s over this hill.”
We crested the hill, slowing to make it easier for them to recognize thet we weren’t Ascendancy soldiers, but the first glimpse of the shelter gave us a glimpse of a smoldering fire in the woods.
The shelter had been hit many times by energy beams, burning holes in the walls and the bodies of the people in front of the building. None of them were alive.
As we got closer, I failed to recognize any of them, but noticed that they were all adults, male and female. They all held guns in their hands and there were only ten of them.
I couldn’t know for sure, but it felt like they’d known the Ascendancy would be coming, and sent out people to distract them from capturing anyone. They’d died, but wherever the survivors had gone was Ascendancy free.
Alternately, they might have died further away from the shelter, killed as they retreated to a safer place.
As we came to a stop near the shelter, Cassie pulled out her gun, using its senses to scan the area. I did the same with the Rocket suit’s HUD.
Hints of footprints let away from the shelter, disappearing into the forest. I knew I couldn’t follow the little that the HUD reconstructed and I would have left that to anyone with skill in tracking except that I didn’t think that we had anyone.
Walking toward the footprints, I decided to take a shot at it anyway. The obvious footprints led out from the shelter and into the forest, disappearing some fifty feet away from the shelter where the ground turned hard.
Well, I hadn’t thought I’d be able to follow the footprints.
As I stared out into the darkness, wondering where they’d gone and hoping that the plant was with them, Rachel appeared next to me.
“I hope you don’t walk away from the group in situations like this often.”
I probably should have jumped, but more than two years into knowing that Rachel might do that at any moment, I checked behind myself toward the shelter. Everyone else was still there, checking inside or around it.
“You know I don’t. Besides, you’re the one who was taking chances back home.”
Rachel crossed her arms. “My ‘taking chances’ was sneaking out the window to go drinking after Mom and Dad went to bed. It wasn’t walking away from your group at the site of an ambush in the middle of a war.”
I thought about that. It wasn’t likely that someone was laying in wait out here, but it wasn’t impossible.
“I’ll walk back, but you know there’s no one out here. Besides, it’s not like I can tell where they went anyway.”
“No one that you can see, and lately I’ve become more aware of how much I can’t see and haven’t seen.” Rachel pursed her lips. “I’m sorry if I’m being a pest, but the Ghosts dragged me across hundreds of light years because you were in danger.”
“The Cosmic Ghosts,” I said. “So, what’s that like?”
“Weird. They’re not human. They don’t explain anything directly, but at the same time there are moments where they remind me of Grandma Vander Sloot. I don’t know why, but it’s more than powers.”
We reached the damaged shelter as Kals stepped out. “No one’s inside. They got away.”
I said, “That’s what it looks like. I followed tracks that way and didn’t see any signs of fighting. I also didn’t see any signs of them. I couldn’t follow the tracks any further.”
Everyone else gathered around. Jaclyn looked over the group. “It looks like we’ve got a decision to make. Do we keep on trying to find the plant or do something else?”