Hal didn’t know exactly when the fleets would enter the system, but he promised to keep me informed. I passed that on to Kals who sighed and said, “We’d better get moving.”
With that conversation over, Kals led me to where everyone else was waiting. It was only a few hundred feet further into the woods next to a thick clump of trees that stood so close to each other that only Marcus would have been able to make it between them.
Jaclyn looked over at Cassie, Marcus, and Tikki. “Are you ready?”
Cassie shrugged. Marcus nodded and glanced over at Tikki who chimed in with a chirpy, “Yes.”
Something about Marcus seemed a little off. I couldn’t put a name to it. I wondered if Tikki had told him, but then I’d have expected him to be more depressed. Though you never knew, maybe a cross-species relationship with a massive age difference could work.
It did for Bella and Edward, right? I never watched the movies or read the books, but that’s what I’m assuming. That said, the idea that a vampire represents a different species is arguable, and the age difference between Kee and Marcus would be billions of years instead of hundreds. Anyway, forget I mentioned it.
Kals pointed deeper into the forest. “This way. And Nick, could you walk ahead with me and scan? We don’t want to be surprised.”
Cassie raised an eyebrow as she looked at me. “I guess I’ll scan behind us then.”
“Good idea,” Kals said and took my arm, leading me forward with her. As we walked through the forest, Kals kept her voice low, asking, “Did something happen between them? When I first saw them, Tikki seemed a little quiet and Marcus didn’t seem to know what to do.”
I frowned. “It’s a little hard to explain. Actually, I’m not allowed to explain. Tikki told me not to. When she tells Marcus, we’ll all know.”
Kals glanced over at me. “That kind of secret? I’ll wait.”
Part of me wanted to explain that she couldn’t possibly have guessed correctly, but that part of me was quickly silenced by the larger part of me that knew that this secret wasn’t the kind you talked about.
We walked through the forest, not following a path, stepping on thick, brown leaves that tore under our feet. “What does your mom want us to do?” Waiting for her answer, I watched through my HUD, not seeing any sign of other life and understanding a good point of hiding in a forest. All the big animals were too big to be comfortable.
“I don’t know,” Kals said. “She wanted to make sure that everyone got out and was safe. You’re included in ‘everyone,’ but I don’t know if she’s got a special task for you. I think she just wants you all nearby in case something comes up. Even though they didn’t think much of you at first, everyone’s impressed with your group now, native Xiniti or not. I don’t think they quite dare to find out what would happen if we faced down the rest of the Ascendancy without you.”
“The good news is that we might not have to even if the fleets I mentioned do show up. If we’re lucky, that whole battle will take place in space and we’ll only have to deal with the Ascendancy forces that are left here and those guys might not want to fight at all. Jaclyn told you about that, right?”
She stared at me. “No.”
With that, I went through the whole story of what happened after we left the caves, starting with the giant images meant to get our attention (“Well of course we saw those, but we didn’t know you’d gone through with meeting them.”). We drifted back to the death of Agent 957 and Marcus’ near death (“Shit.”), but I skipped Tikki’s revelation Then I told her about meeting Four Hands and the deal where he promised to leave the colonists alone and I gave him a couple killbots (“Your last ones? You trusted him?”).
Though she couldn’t see it through my helmet, I pursed my lips. “I did—up to a point. I gave him the killbots which went halfway through Kamia’s shield, but I didn’t pass on my sonics. They actually took Agent 957’s shields down. Anyway, he did seem to trust me and I didn’t see a downside. Does the resistance recruit four-handers at all? The Xiniti don’t seem to think you do, but I’m figuring you might know more.”
Kals shook her head. “We don’t. It seems stupid now that I’ve heard your story, but I don’t think anyone ever thought it would be possible. With the exception of that guy—whose real name can’t be ‘Four Hands’—they run from combat and they switch sides to work for the winner. Plus, they don’t live on planets. You almost never see them off a ship. I’m sure no one in the resistance thought we could trust them.”
“Maybe it’s worth a shot in the future.” I checked behind us. The others were keeping up, but they weren’t directly behind us.
“Yeah… If we pulled them in, we’d have access to every big ship in space. By the way Nick, we’re almost there. It’s just past the hill we’re going up.”
It was hard not to notice the hill. Thick with trees, I wasn’t sure when it started or where the crest would be, but we were definitely going up.
I was about to reply to Kals when I received a communication from HAL. “They’re here.”
With it came an image of ships pouring out of holes in space, small Xiniti ships zigging and zagging as they fired on the Ascendancy’s giant cylindrical battleships.