Imogen picks her way up the hill, wondering how Lilly has maintained focus on this one activity for so long. Is she building a blind up there or something? Imogen looks around for signs of where her partner has gone. She finds evidence that such a project was attempted but no Lilly. A few ridgelines away, however, a plume of smoke rises into the air. Imogen frowns. There is a good chance that is somehow related to Lilly, but with the comm silence they are currently maintaining, she cannot just call and find out. Even if she thought it was worth the risk to open a channel, it would be pointless. Lilly’s phone is switched off at Imogen’s own insistence.
Hoping no Dominion ghosts have been dispatched on the terrorist hunt, Imogen centers herself and opens her mind, casting about for Lilly’s thoughts. That was dumb. That was so dumb. Well, I guess now there’s just the marine at the turret. I could circle back around and try to take him out. No, that would be too dumb. Oh my gosh, Durian. He’s going to break up with me! That is not enough for Imogen to pinpoint her partner, but at least it means Lilly is alive and as much in control of the situation as can be expected. And likely has something to do with that smoke plume.
Imogen stalks off in that direction. She knows better than to create a silhouette to target on top of a ridgeline though. Whenever she approaches a crest, she switches to crawling carefully forward on her stomach, hiding in whatever scrub is around, in order to cautious look over into the next valley before continuing.
* * *
As tempting as it is to go deal with the marine remaining at the turret, Lilly routes herself back to camp. If they call in reinforcements, she and Imogen will be in serious trouble—more serious than already. Oh, crap, I need to let Imogen know about these turrets! Calling Durian will have to wait until later. With renewed vigor, Lilly sets off at a run, though she still picks her footing carefully and ducks down into whatever cover is around when she can. The last thing she needs is to lead anyone back to Saffron.
She reaches the top of another ridgeline and swiftly vaults over the crest. Her feet land in some shrubby cover, and one boot whacks into what must have been a well-concealed rock. Lilly stumbles forward a bit but regains her balance and keeps going. Gotta be more careful.
Lilly charges into the encampment. There is an enormous rock here, concealing both the science vessel and the slapdash refinery. She confidently steps through the hologram.
On alert, Sally calls out to her right away. “Lilly! You’re okay!”
“Yup,” Lilly confirms, though she is a bit of a bloody mess. She and Sally are soldiers; they know that if you are still moving under your own power, you must be okay. OK, not KO’d, that’s what we used to say.
“Imogen went looking for you. She must have found you?” Sally says.
“She went looking for me?” Lilly repeats dumbly.
“Yeah, maybe fifteen minutes ago? Or was it an hour ago?” Sally shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know.”
“Which way did she go?”
Sally points in the direction Lilly first left camp. Wordlessly, Lilly spins on her heel. “Wait!” Sally calls after her. “You’re okay, but you’re not good. I mean, you’re bleeding in several places.”
“Imogen’s the medic,” Lilly says. That is two reasons to find her partner. Since Sally is also military, though, Lilly shares the threat before she leaves. “There was a K-95 missile turret with a spin doctor. I took it out. There’s two marines left, as far as I know. They don’t know where the camp is though.” Report delivered, she goes off in search of Imogen.
* * *
Out of nowhere, something solid whacks into Imogen’s head as she is belly crawling through scrub. The pain is intense, but Imogen bites down on her cry. That could have been a marine’s boot, and she is ill-suited to taking one out herself, particularly now that her vision is going in and out. By the time it clears enough for her to carefully look around, she sees nothing strange, other than some small trees rustling further down the hill. She tries to blink the blur away, to mild success. Given that the threat seems to have moved onwards, she resumes her previous course of action, peaking over the ridgeline to take a look down into the next valley for signs of Lilly.
What she finds is the source of the smoke, some sort of burnt-out structure. She cannot get a clear view of it, though. The smoke is blowing around a bit, yes, but focussing her eyes is also really hard right now. She does hear it collapse though, whatever it is. Imogen slinks back down below the ridgeline and looks around her for any sign of the dangerous thing that just moved through the area. Scantid? Marine? The tracks it left will help her decide how to proceed. The bootprint she finds is not large enough to have come from power armor, though it is much heavier than the ones she herself would leave. In fact, Imogen recognizes it, being quite used to trailing behind the person who made it. This is one of Lilly’s prints, and it leads away from the smoke plume and back in the direction of Saffron. This new discovery—and the pounding in her head—are enough to convince Imogen to head back to camp.
She meets up with Lilly a ridge over from where the science vessel is hidden, and they each share the intel they have gathered. Fixing the turret that Lilly attacked will require new supplies and another SCV. It is doable, of course, but requires time. This gives Saffron a window to make the dash to Hyperion. “We should go,” Imogen decides. “If the closest turret is down, at least that one won’t be shooting at us. It might still be tight, but you can do it with some evasive flying. I talked to Jimmy, and he gave me a rendezvous point. It’s a rock on the edge of the system where Hyperion can meet us.”
“All right.” Lilly does another about-face, but Imogen catches her arm before she starts marching back to Saffron.
“Not everyone chose to come with us. They’re staying here and doing their own thing,” Imogen begins.
“Got it,” Lilly acknowledges.
“But, Lilly, there were some actual criminals—real, violent criminals—in the group that we rescued. That Rodgers fellow, he is definitely dangerous. He’s not right in the head.”
“So you want to leave him?”
“I don’t think that would be safe for Madame Rosé, who is staying behind. I don’t know what to do,” Imogen admits. “We’re the ones who took him out of prison.”
“What kind of criminal is he?”
“He needs to kill people like others need to eat food,” Imogen tells Lilly.
“He eats people?”
“That’s not quite what I meant. He views killing people as a recurring need that he has. And he hasn’t killed anyone lately.”
“He needs to kill people?” Lilly has needed to kill several people herself today.
“He feels he needs to kill people.” Imogen does not understand what about this is tripping her partner up. Surely she’s fought alongside some soldiers who took more relish in killing than is healthy.
“Has he killed anybody in the group?” Lilly asks.
“Not so far.” Imogen would have led with that, if he had.
Lilly is pragmatic. She considers enlisting this Rodgers guy to go take out the marine she left at the turret. However, she also does not like to leave people behind. Saffron needs to get in the air quickly, and if she sends him off on that mission, there will not be time to wait for him. And it would not be safe for Madame Rosé to have Rodgers left here with her and whatever gun Lilly provided for the mission. “We’ll just have to keep an eye on him,” she finally says. “He might fit in well with Mira’s Marauders. Or any other mercenary group, really.” In her mind, he seems to be a soldier, just like herself.
Lilly bloody and Imogen dazed, they return to Saffron. Lilly starts bringing systems online while Imogen rallies everyone. While they had not expected the sudden departure, the former prisoners are all quite agreeable. Madame Rosé waves them farewell, and they close up the ship. Some people crowd into Lilly’s quarters, others into Imogen’s, and the rest flatten themselves against walls to stay out of Lilly’s way during the tense ride out.
First things first, Lilly enables the comms for a quick check-in with Hyperion before liftoff. Imogen hopes Egon has had time to think of a better plan than simply turning their rock hologram into a patch of blue sky. “Uh, hello?” the scientist answers. “They said you’d be calling. Are you ready to go?”
“Aye!” Imogen replies, taking over the comms and gesturing for Lilly to get to work on the pre-launch sequence. Egon transmits what he refers to as a little display show. It will not be perfect, he warns, but it will interfere with sensors. To the eye, Saffron will appear to be a flock of birds. Sensors will detect something there—so yes, this is a better plan than empty sky. Egon manages to cut off his rambling there, given the urgency of the situation, and simply wishes them well before he ends the call. Imogen is grateful, both for his help and the quiet. Her head is pounding, and having Egon unnecessarily prattle at her would be even more taxing than usual.
She sets to work on the projector, incorporating the changes from Egon so that a bunch of pigeons lift off from the edge of the vespene geyser. The Dominion will detect their movement, but hopefully view them as non-threatening. This is effective in lower atmosphere, but once Saffron gets higher, their foes begin to realize something is not quite adding up here. An actual flock of birds gets mixed up in the conflict, and one wraith is downed when it sucks a goose into its engine. The higher Saffron flies, the more Lilly’s evasive maneuvers come into play. Even though birds do not belong in the upper atmosphere, the holographic disguise still hampers the efforts of Dominion flyers to get a visual lock on the science vessel. Rockets explode around the Saffron but not into the hull. Lilly leaves Korhal IV behind and blasts across the system.