The rest of the morning was just more sweat and slog. Twice I thought I heard something pacing along behind us in the shadows of the woods, but when I stopped for a look, there was nothing there. Just my imagination, I thought. As we swam along through the mugginess, the sky grew steadily darker and the wind rose considerably. It looked like something big was blowing in from the west. On the farm, we’d have already sent the kiddies into the storm shelters, called in the field hands, and cinched down anything that could blow away.
Dyani stopped and waited for Dunc and me to catch up. “Dig out your map, Travis,” she said. “Where’s a place to hunker before the storm hits?”
I made out our position and checked the green dots that indicated hole-ups. “Looks like there’s a hut we can shelter in ’bout a klick down–maybe a little farther. The next side trail into the woods’ll get us there.”
Dunc looked uneasily at the sky. “How long you think it’ll take us?”
“Maybe fifteen minutes if we fast-foot it. If there’s anyone else around lookin’ for shelter, we want to get there first.”
“What if we don’t?” Dunc asked.
Dyani laughed. “Well, then we’ll send you in to root ’em out, okay?”
I caught Dyani’s eye and nodded. “He’s been slacking in the middle all day. ‘Bout time he did something useful.” Dunc started to protest, but I put him at ease. “Just windin’ you up, Dunc. Relax.”
Dyani got serious. “If there’s a bunch of unfriendlies, it’s not a good idea to mix it up with ’em and risk getting hurt. It’s not worth it considering we’ve all gotta be in good shape when we get down ‘round the station.”
“And so?” Dunc asked.
“And so we’ll have to back off and make the best of it somewhere else,” Dyani replied.
I pointed up at the treetops thrashing against the iron-gray sky. “Well and good, but we’ve got to move out pronto. I’ll take point now.”
We reached the side trail pretty quick and veered off toward the hut and safety. At least that’s what we’d hoped for. It’s not what we found, though.
As we neared the hut, we stopped short, unsnapped our knife sheaths, and checked our guns. An arrow on the map showed that the way to it lay off to the left of the trail. The darkness brought by the coming storm didn’t make the approach easy to find, but after a couple of false starts, we located it and quietly made our way down along a narrow, rock-strewn path. I was still leading and so was the first to notice smoke. I halted and raised my arm. Dunc and Dyani and the dog moved quietly up to me, and I pointed to wisps of smoke being dragged around by the wind. They nodded and we made our way back up to the beginning of the path, pretty sure that no one would’ve heard us through all the commotion.
“So, we’re taking our chances in the woods like Dyani said, right?” Dunc asked.
Dyani replied, “We’re in for a lotta lightning and heavy rain. It’s not safe sitting under a tree, but maybe we’ll have to.”
“Maybe we do send Dunc down there to see who’s home,” I said.
“Maybe Stashi’s better for the job,” Dunc shot back.
I joked, “Well, she’s likely smarter than you, but she’d start right in tearing things up, and whoever’s there might not deserve it.”
“Not our problem if they deserve it or not,” Dyani said, “but I’m goin’ down there for a look-see. We might be able to share the hut with whoever’s there, but if I think it looks like too much trouble, we’ll have to move off and wait out the storm best we can somewhere else.”
Dunc and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay by us,” he said, and I nodded.
“Right, then. Travis, you’re gonna follow me down. Stay back six or seven meters. I’m gonna back up fast and low if anything bad twitches down there, so you fire over the top of me at anybody who swarms out. Dunc, before Travis and I start down, you get yourself behind some trees over there ’bout 10 meters in front of the hut so you and Travis have me double covered. You two got all that?”
“Yep,” Dunc said. “I’m better’n fair with my gun here.”
I added, “We’ll keep you alive, don’t worry.”
“I sure’s hell hope so,” Dyani replied. “Now let’s do this.”
Dunc moved off to his position. Dyani gave Stashi a scratch behind the ears and held a finger to her lips while staring into the dog’s eyes. The dog understood, sat down on its rump, and didn’t budge as Dyani and I made our way down the path. When she reached the edge of the hut’s opening, she looked up and back to check on Dunc and me, stretched out on her belly, and peeped around into the opening. I sighted down the path, resting my finger on the trigger and taking shallow breaths. A moment later she inched back from the hut, stood and turned, and pointed back up the path.
We regrouped on the trail and Dyani filled us in. “Looks like a coupla goons in there with someone they’ve got hogtied.”
I asked, “What do you make of ’em? They Meeks?”
“Well, can’t say if they are or aren’t for sure, but they do have that look.”
Dunc whispered fiercely, “Then we back off. We don’t need to mix it up with Meeks.”
Dyani replied, “I didn’t say they’re Meeks, Dunc, so just hold on and let me finish. Meeks or not, we’ve got the advantage here. If we have to, we can rout ’em after we find out what they’ve been up to. This isn’t just about finding shelter. We might hear something that’ll help us plan our way to the power station better.”
“I dunno, Dyani,” I put in. “They could just lie, and if they’re Meeks and they get the best of us, we’re done. We’ll just become one with the Meeks. Not good. Not good at all. I’m with Dunc. Let’s clear outta here.”
“No,” she said. “No, we’re three against two, and Stashi here’s real good at ripping things up. I don’t think any of us are going to get hurt. We’re going in, so pull yourselves together.”
Dunc and I exchanged quick glances. I had a momentary vision of charging and tripping Dyani up and running like hell, but I figured she’d already thought of that possibility and was ready for me. Besides, that kind of ruckus would get Stashi on me and attract the attention of whoever was in the hut. I gave a nod to Dunc and whispered, “All right, then, Dyani. Have it your way. But you first.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” she shot back. “Now try and don’t let me down. Those two down there were standing together off to the right in the back. I’m gonna give a three count and dodge in to the right with Stashi. Travis, you head to the center, and Dunc, you go the left. Fast. Unload on the bastards if they twitch at all. Got that? Good then? OK, let’s all take a deep breath.”
We lined up and picked our way quietly down to the hut. Dyani held up her fist and then raised her fingers one-two-three.