There were fires burning and plumes of smoke rose into the sky.
Joon glanced down from his vantage point on a hill overlooking the camp. There were bodies everywhere. He couldn't believe they would just take out the entire base. But no, it looked like they had left a few survivors. They'd penned some up off to a side, had guards stationed everywhere.
"Do you think there's anything in the ruins we can use?" whispered Hillier.
"I didn't see anything like weapons," he replied.
"Speaking of which..."
"No. Not yet."
Joon was actually torn- he couldn't trust Hillier but he knew he had a better chance of success if she was armed.
"I'll find my own then," she replied, and moved off down the hill, working her way at an angle where she wouldn't be seen. As she did he could see her form flickering, and she appeared as one of the troopers.
"Wait," he called after her, but not too loud.
Swearing, Joon turned to see what Maia was thinking. He was surprised that she was also on the move.
What was this?
He hastened to follow. Maia was heading towards the ruins entrance, motioning him to be silent.
"Where's she going?" she hissed when he got close to her.
"She's looking for a weapon," he replied.
"We shouldn't be separating..."
"Yes, I know," he replied a little testily.
She grinned, giving his hand a little squeeze.
"Howie?" he inquired.
"Can't leave him."
Joon felt an odd attachment for the creature- he wouldn't want to leave it behind either. It, him... he had no idea honestly.
There were no guards at the moment so they were able to enter the dark passageway leading into the hill. The hugged the shadows and stuck to lesser passages, trying to determine where their companion might have hidden. These passages went for miles, many underground, and were often dark. They came into an area that was lit, however, with a bluish glow. Machines- the self maintaining, always operating machines of the Ancients. No one really knew what these machines were doing.
There were no wires, no bulky cabling. Just smoothly running machinery, quietly humming. A soothing ambience. What manner of creatures had built these? The interfaces were odd, as if designed for creatures with different bodies. There were readouts that he was aware could probably upend his worldview, if only he could read them.
They heard voices and pressed deeper into the shadows as troops tromped by. There was a ramp and they went up, back into the darkness. They rose, until they were sure they were back on the balcony level, where they'd taken the view in on their earlier tour. Apparently they'd been here longer than they realized, judging from the position of the sun. They descended again, assuming that Howie would have hidden in the lower depths, rather than risk encountering anyone in the upper levels.
After a while Joon noticed that Maia was stumbling.
"No, it's not... I can feel. I don't know."
Joon took her elbow.
"Almost... as if he's trying to make contact."
She shook her head.
"I don't know."
They heard shouting then, and were close enough to see activity in the base. Soldiers were lugging crates and boxes towards the Gate. They got the distinct impression that people were leaving.
"Drop it," said a voice near them. They tensed, but a soldier had the drop on them. Joon looked at Maia carefully. They couldn't be taken. Maia had her pistol still concealed. Could she shoot someone? And it would be heard.
"Relax," said Hillier. She grinned, then assumed the soldier's appearance once more. She had, Joon saw, indeed armed herself.
Hillier pushed them back into shadow. Joon had been careful- how had she gotten the drop on them?
From the darkness they could hear voices.
"... not sure. No sign of them, but there are speeders missing. I managed to squeeze that out of one of the scientists. So they're out there. No food, alien place. They can fuckin rot. I know Rodriguez won't be pleased, but orders are to leave a few here, and head back with all this crap."
They couldn't hear whatever reply he received.
The Gate came to life.
They were looking into the Ops room.
"Time to go home?"
Joon looked at an older man, the commander of the group. He was far away, so Hillier didn't have it right, then the other soldier was back.
"I need to get closer."
Joon had often wondered if he had made a grave error bringing Hillier- now he wasn't so sure.
Maia grabbed his arm. Howie was approaching the Gate, heading straight for the trooper.
Joon had to restrain Maia. Hillier smiled.
"Excellent. That little fucker is exactly the distraction we need. Let's go!"
Joon had to agree, even though he was worried. How were they going to get past all these troops?
Hillier ushered them quickly down to ground level and out into the open. She's brazen, Joon thought, as she shoved them with her weapon and whispered "Play along."
Howie was hovering by the Gate and keening, and had numerous weapons trained on him. Several soldiers did a double take when they saw Hillier and her "prisoners" walk by, but Hillier seemed focused on the commander. She was trying to get his features right, Joon could tell, but she risked them getting shot. As they got closer she finally went for it, assuming his form.
He saw them coming and his eyes widened as he saw himself approaching. He started to say something but Hillier shouted "Impostor." Then she shot him.
"I have prisoners," Hillier shouted as soldiers pointed weapons at her. Not al of them though. Some just looked from her to their dead commander, wondering what on earth was happening. Howie made a beeline for them. Joon could see activity through the Gate. Faction. But they were so close.
"You. With me. You and also you," Hillier barked. She sounded like the guy. How do they do that? Hillier was banking on the surprise and her assertiveness to win the day, and it partially worked. Several of the troopers fell into line, but someone else said "A shapeshifter. We know they have them." They had weapons pointed at them now.
Hillier leaned down and took a lanyard off the commander.
"Where did he get this?" she hissed to one of the soldiers. She rather expertly inserted herself, and them, into a group of soldiers who seemed to be buying her act, at the moment.
"We need to get through. They have shapeshifters here," she said, waving a hand at the dead commander. "Let's go," she intructed her soldiers, heading for the Gate.
"What is your name?" one of the soldiers asked, trying to block the way.
"My name is Commander," she replied, stepping right up to him. "Move aside, or I'll have you shot as a suspected shapeshifter too."
"Bullshit," he replied, but he seemed unsure. Soldiers were taking sides.
"I'm Joon from the Command group," Joon said, stepping forward. "Your Rodriguez is going to want to hear what I know. I may be this man's prisoner but we're all on the same team- or were once- and you need to listen to your officer."
Joon was just glad he'd heard Rodriguez' name earlier.
Several of the soldiers seemed to vacillate, and Hillier kept moving. There were boxes and supplies all around the Gate- they had clearly been leaving in a hurry. Joon was concerned about the remaining prisoners among Dunn's group, but there was nothing he could do now. They'd be lucky if they survived here. He was also still carrying his weapon, and any moment someone was going to point that out.
Hillier instructed several people to grab boxes and follow her, and she got right up to the Gate, somehow, with no one shooting them. Many of the soldiers though were skeptical. This could all fall apart. She told two of the soldiers who were with her to accompany her, and then she turned to Joon.
She stepped through. Joon and Maia followed, and Howie then.
And they were back home.