Wind whipped around Dak, threatening to tear the pages of his book. He turned them only when there was a slight respite, then quickly, plastering them down as best he could between his splayed fingers. He crouched in the lee of a large boulder, but the wind swirled round and over it, constantly finding new pathways to annoy him. He was not exactly enjoying this morning’s reading.
He paused periodically to scan the underlying lowlands for any sign of pursuit. He was sure Michael would not rest until he and Lin were brought back and executed. Michael was obsessive about many things, loyalty to himself foremost. Dak harbored no doubt that more than one tracker was on their trail. He smiled despite himself. Let them try and follow that trail, he thought, looking down the way they had come.
The cliff had been a desperate chance, but when a pack of hungry kalecks is closing in options become quite limited. The dingo’s had saved them, raising the alarm before it was too late. Then Shisha, the smaller of the pups, found the barest hint of a path up the rocky escarpment. The kalecks being, larger and less sure of foot, struggled to follow, but follow they did. He and Lin paused to rain rocks down upon their heads, which turned the beasts back, buying them the precious time needed to escape.
The climb left them exhausted yet elated to be alive. It had been madness to make the ascent in darkness, but necessary. Now he let Lin and the pups rest, delaying for a time the decision that faced them—a harrowing climb back down, or to strike out across this plateau and let it take them where it would. He could not help but think water, scarce at best on Kepler 11-d, was more likely found down there. Along with Michael’s hunters.
Shisha squirmed near Lin’s feet, her nose working, ears twitching. At the same time Komaninu sat up straighter, lifting his head to smell the breeze.
“What is it, Koma?” Dak asked.
Komaninu stood and began to turn in a tight circle, hackles raised. Shisha, sensing distress, was suddenly up, and let out a yip.
Lin sat up, working kinks from her back and shoulders as she did so.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Your silly dingos seem upset.” Dak sat where he was, trying to remain still. Movement attracts the human eye—well any predator’s eye for that matter. “You need to teach them to sit.” He scanned the floor of the lowlands but saw nothing of concern.
Lin sniffed. “What’s that smell?” Then, “Is that smoke?”
She stood up and scrabbled up to the top of the rock. “Dak!”
He scrambled up to join her. Below, the dingos yammered in distress. He poked his head above rock level, shielding his eyes as best he could from wind-borne debris. His eyes widened in shock, which he immediately regretted. The plateau directly to their west was ablaze in wildfire.
They both scrabbled back down. Lin did not hesitate, gathering up what few possessions they had, and headed for the cliff.
“Where are you going?” Dak asked, rubbing grit from his eyes.
“We can only hope the cliff will stop it,” Lin shouted. “What other choice do we have?”
She started down the same path they had come up the night before. The dingos apparently agreed and skittered by her, then lead the way. Dak fell in, bringing up the rear.
They had not gone far when smoke began sheeting off the cliff face behind them. Some swirled down on eddies and currents, threatening to choke and blind them. Embers began to shower down. To their dismay what little scrub managing to maintain a tenuous foothold on this cliff burst into flame.
Shisha let out a yip and scurried to the right along a hint of a track. Koma did not hesitate to follow. Lin trailed after the pups.
“We have to trust to the dingos,” she shouted back over her shoulder. With flames licking up the side of the cliff Dak plunged after the rest.
Shisha suddenly disappeared into the cliff face, followed by Koma. Lin stopped and turned back toward Dak. “It’s a cave!” He followed her in, hot on her heels.
The cave was tight, angling slightly upward, and quickly narrowed to the point where Lin could go no further. Dak crawled in as far as he could, climbing right on top of Lin, drawing his feet in as far from the mouth of the cave as he could. He craned his neck to look behind and saw billows of smoke roiling down slope, hot embers flying like glowing rain. One large ember drifted into the cave and he crushed it with a flurry of mad kicks.
“Take it easy on my ribs,” Lin said.
One of the dingos came back, Shisha he thought, and licked Lin on the face. Lin scooted forward as far as possible toward the pup. “I think the air is better back here,” she said. Dak wormed his way as deep as he could.
The whole thing was over in less than an hour. When the roar of the fire was gone and Dak could see blue skies through naught but wisps of smoke he lifted himself off Lin and crawled to the entrance. The fire raged on, now in the lowlands below, moving away from them. They had survived, once again by the good graces of the dingos.
“Oh, wow,” Lin said, settling beside him. Shisha came out and settled by Lin’s feet. She wrapped one arm around Dak and stroked the dingo between the ears with her free hand. “I had no idea wild fire moved so fast. Were we ever lucky.”
“You know,” Dak said in a guarded tone, “There was no lightning last night.”
Lin twisted round to gaze up at him, concern etching her face.
They both knew what his words implied. The hunt was still on, and now the hunters were before them.