I thanked HAL for the message, adding, “Tell me if any of them land near us.”
The group of us all had mats next to each other on the floor. The mats were both thin and surprisingly comfortable despite the fact that we were in a small shack with hard floors. I want to describe them as hardwood, but who knew what the materials were?
I glanced over at the holographic screens showing 3D representations of the world around the hideout. I saw animals, but no people. I wasn’t the only one looking at the screens either. Cassie, Jaclyn, and Marcus had all been woken up by HAL. Tikki slept on the mat next to Marcus’ mat. Whether she was truly sleeping was an open question, given her true nature.
Kals, though, had taken a mat between Jaclyn and me and she was awake by the time I opened my eyes to stare in the direction of the screens. “What’s wrong?”
Jaclyn and I looked at each other. I said, “Well, the good news is that the ship to ship fighting has moved away from the planet. The bad news is that Xiniti and the Human Ascendancy both dropped ground troops to the surface. I’m assuming the Xiniti are here to protect you and Ascendancy is here to kill all of you. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what they’re here for at all. What’s most likely to happen is that they’re going to end up fighting each other while all of the colonists try to stay out of the way.”
Kals nodded. “That sounds about right. Do you know where they’re landing?”
“I can ask, but the information’s coming from our ship and it’s hiding, so it may not have all the information we want. I’ve asked it to tell us if they’re landing nearby, though.”
I sent the ship a request for pictures of where the landings were and got back a picture that showed dots that centered around the landing field and the open area next to the colony. They weren’t too near us, but since we weren’t far from the colony, they were too close.
In a different picture, I noticed one more detail. Some of the dropships were leaving the planet. While Ascendancy dropships’ main purpose is to land on a planet and take control, they can leave a planet. They aren’t as good at it, but they can do it.
On the way up they’re slow and don’t have much of a range, but they can get soldiers back up into space for pickup. From what I could tell by examining the series of shots, they were sending the wounded soldiers up into orbit.
It was better than I expected of the Ascendancy, but I supposed they were human and humans care for their people. At any rate, a totalitarian society needed to care for their troops. Without their loyalty, they can’t keep their citizens in line. Motivators couldn’t be everywhere at once. They had to create some level of real loyalty.
That was the rational way to look at it. I couldn’t believe that was all of it. Someone in power there responded with a basic sense of decency. It didn’t make me like them better, but it made it hard to view them as simple, unrelenting evil.
I told Kals. “They’re landing in the big open areas—the landing field and the areas between the settlements. Oh, and they’re also landing around the spacer settlement, filling their dropships with the wounded and sending them back into space—which means that if we head over there the camps won’t be full of the wounded anymore. They’ll be full of able-bodied soldiers.”
“Are the Xiniti firing on the dropships?” Kals watched me as I clicked my palm, flipping through the shots.
“There’s no sign of it. Actually, my implant says the Xiniti and the Ascendancy have some kind of arrangement where they don’t fire on each other’s noncombatant wounded. I guess that extends to ships.”
She shook her head. “I should have known. The Ascendancy’s leadership said that they killed everyone. Painting the Xiniti that way made it easier to hate them. Even the resistance fears the Xiniti. We’ll take their help, but we don’t trust them.”
“Huh. Well, it looks like we’ve got plenty to worry about just from the healthy soldiers. From the pictures, the camp’s now turning back into a staging point for whatever they’re planning to do to the Xiniti and ultimately, us.”
Four Hands wouldn’t be much help now that he wasn’t running the show.
Even in the dark, I could see Kals frown. “Then we’ve got to tell my mom.”
She got up, walking down the side of the room, tapping the man assigned to watch the screens on the shoulder and having a whispered conversation that I didn’t overhear, but I didn’t need to. He pulled his hands away from the computer interface and clenched his fists.
Then they both walked further down the length of the building, stepping around people sleeping on their mats.
From the mat on the other side of Jaclyn, Cassie said, “We’re fucked. Look at that.” Then she pointed at one of the images on the screen. A camera on the edge of the forest had picked up a group of Ascendancy soldiers, all of them in clean, undamaged armor, passing into the trees.
Comparing the camera’s position to the implant’s maps of the forest, it was clear they were coming straight for us.
It didn’t take much to guess what had happened. Four Hands probably knew where at least some of the forest hideouts were. He could avoid going after us when he was the ranking officer of a force that was mostly wounded, but that wasn’t true anymore.
Even worse, I recognized the people leading the group. Neves, massive and hugely muscled walked next to Kamia. The soft glow of her force field hinted that they didn’t see stealth as a major concern now.