By Travis Perry -
Zana mounted the height around the hill in a steady stride, spiraling counterclockwise upward, moving briskly but not so fast she couldn’t hear. Cotton, who’d been well trained, didn’t bark much as a rule and wasn’t barking now. But he whined with an eagerness that told her he smelled or heard someone and it wasn’t easy for him to hold back rushing forward faster than she ever could.
“Good boy,” she said in a sub-vocal tone a dog would hear but a human never would. “Stay with me.”
With a suddenness that Zana had experienced all of her life, the calm night was suddenly and sharply broken by a harsh wind rushing in from the hinterlands. She faced into the wind and saw in the distance a darkness moving forward at a rapid pace, blocking out the stars more each passing second. A dust storm coming in. Soon.
She reached a wall of rock that formed a knob around the very top of this little mountain, a base to a climb that led steeply upward. From above, her ears received a wind-dimmed noise that by its tone had originally been shouts, “Ernsto! Ernsto! Where are you?” The voice she realized was Jax’s.
She glanced down at Cotton, who had his paws on the rock wall, scratching at it with his claws, looking as if he wanted to scramble up the little cliff, growling in a low tone. “He’s up there, is he?” Zana vocalized. Cotton replied with a single sharp bark.
She was taking a risk, but chances were fairly good that Mons would move toward Jax’s voice, giving her the opportunity to come up behind him, if she moved quietly enough. And now was the time to move, while she could still see the handholds in the rock.
Her mechanical left arm pulled her up from handhold to handhold, while she managed to keep the rifle from banging into her too badly as she tried to both help move upward and control it with her right hand. Soon, she’d mounted the little rock wall and found a ledge about a meter wide there. Above her the hill continued up steeply to the top, maybe seventy meters higher. She saw the dark shape of a torso some fifty meters above her, the lower body covered by the curvature of the hill.
She pointed the rifle that way, looking and listening as the wind rushed around her in a whistle. “Ernsto!” shouted the shape above her. “Ernsto! Hey, I brought medicine! Hey, where are you?”
At that moment, Cotton started barking furiously from down below. And the wind changed, now hurling dirt around her, the hillside offering some protection, but not enough to keep her eyes from watering and blinking. But nonetheless she was able to see well enough to notice a flash of movement registering a dark shape—a human shape—hurling itself from behind a boulder less than five meters away on the hill above her, straight down towards her. She raised the rifle to fire, but too late.
A man’s body collided into hers and she fell, losing control of the rife. The man, who had strong arms and who smelled of sweat and bug gall and blood, grappled with her as the winds whipped dust around them and Cotton’s barking transformed into a frenzy…