They remained by the fire the rest of the night, stretched out on the floor and facing each other. They tried to get a few hours of sleep, but neither of them were able to get any decent amount of rest.
Haulk awoke every hour and tuned his ears for any strange or unusual noise. Although he knew the equinoid would alert him at the slightest provocation, he feared Yarnell may have concocted a device to nullify the animal’s sensors. Haulk wouldn’t put it past the man.
Several of those times, he observed Remi’s restlessness. Twice she opened her eyes to silently stare at him, and he knew she was just as nervous as he was. He tried to smile.
“I guess my time’s up.”
She gave him a confused look.
“Midnight,” he elaborated. “You were only mine until midnight.”
She rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “It would have cost you more to stay until dawn.”
“How much more?”
She gave a little shrug. “I don’t know. I’ve never had a man stay longer than it took for him to get his load off.”
“Don’t be. You’re the one helping me to bring Yarnell to justice.”
Remi rolled onto her other side, presenting her back to him and the fire. After a few moments, he realized she’d fallen back to sleep. Haulk closed his eyes and followed her.
He had no idea what time it was when he awoke, feeling chilled. The incendiary bar was nearly used up. All that was left were a few embers. He noticed Remi was curled into a ball for warmth.
Getting stiffly to his feet, he walked over to the equinoid to retrieve another bar from the saddlebags. As he rummaged inside, he glanced out the grimy window to observe a slight brightening on the horizon.
In the distance, a bird hovered in the cloudless sky, kept aloft by the thermals. Haulk paused to observe it, finding an odd sense of serenity at the way it seemed to float nearly unmoving, never flapping its wings. The bird turned slightly…
Haulk slammed his back against the wall. His sudden movement and sound aroused Remi. She started to rise, when he motioned for her to stay down.
“What?” she whispered. Picking up her blaster, she slid across the floor to join him.
“There’s a dirigible outside. A small one, I’m guessing. It must be one of Yarnell’s security airships. It looks like a bird with wings on the side. I’ve never seen another like it.”
“Yep, that’s one of Yarnell’s eyes. He has a rear room full of screens where a guy keeps constant watch over what’s being transmitted back.”
“Is it equipped with infrared?”
“I don’t know, but I would assume. I wonder how long it’s been out there.”
“I don’t have any idea. I thought at first it was a bird. It seemed to be drifting away from us, but then it turned in our direction.”
Remi’s expression hardened. “It must have spotted the cabin and is coming over to investigate. We have to run, Haulk.”
“We can’t. If we do, it’ll relay our position to Yarnell,” he argued.
“And if that thing has infrared, it’ll see our heat signatures inside here,” she countered.
He paused, weighing the risks. “Remi, how fast can those things move?”
“Do we want to hang around to find out?” She nodded at the equinoid. “Can that thing run while it’s juicing up?”
“A better question would be, can it outrun that air drone? Guess there’s only one way to know for sure.” He reached out to her to help her up into the saddle but she waved him away, grabbed a handful of her skirt, and hoisted herself up. He checked outside to find the aircraft had moved closer to the cabin. Pressing the button on his collar, he tried to hail his ship. “Juliet?”
“Damn!” He cast his eyes over to Remi. “I don’t suppose you have any suggestions where we could go?”
She pressed her lips together. “Are you sure you want to hear it?”
Haulk glanced outside, judging the distance between the blimp and the cabin. “Are those things armed?”
“I don’t know.”
Frowning, he turned back to her. “You know this planet better than I do. What do you suggest?”
“Go back to town.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re serious.”
“What can we do out here? Hope that we’ll eventually get far enough away for your ship to come pick us up?”
He grudgingly admitted that was what he’d been thinking.
“Have you regained contact with the ship?”
She gave him one of those “well?” looks. He gave a quick nod and chanced another look-see out the window. The dirigible was close enough for him to see the antennae protruding from the airship’s belly. He roughly guesstimated the thing to be three meters in length. Too small to be physically manned. Definitely remotely controlled.
“And go where in town?” he almost growled irritably.
Remi grinned. “To hide in plain sight.”
“You mean, blend in with the natives?”
“They hate Yarnell to a man. They’ll be more than happy to help us blend in. Of course, you’ll have to leave this baby behind.”
“If we leave her at the stables, then Yarnell’s men will know we’re back.” He eyed the equinoid. “I have another idea. Get off.”
She obeyed and waited for what he’d do next.
He removed the saddlebags from the creature, then took out another incendiary rod before handing the bags to her. “Here. Hold these.” Breaking the rod, he struck the ends together until flames burst from the tips. Haulk jammed the blunt ends under the edge of the saddle.
“I get it,” Remi murmured. “You’re betting the tracker can detect a heat signature. So you’re going to send your horse out to lure it away so we can backtrack to town.”
He flashed her a smile. “This rod puts out an incredible amount of heat. Hopefully more than the two of us combined. Between the heat and the movement, it should be enough to lead the airship away from the cabin. Come on, old girl.” He patted the equinoid’s neck and opened the small panel at its shoulder.
She watched him adjust a few controls. “Will it go without a driver?”
“All I have to do is set a direction and speed.”
“Will you be able to retrieve it later on?”
He closed the panel. “After we get back to my ship, Juliet will be able to track it. She can also override the programming to bring it back to us. All right.” Haulk looked at her, glancing down at her long skirt. “You ready to run?”
Remi handed the saddlebags back to him, grabbed the fabric, and tucked the hem into her waistband. “I’m ready.”
“Let’s see if this works.” He slapped the animal’s rump, triggering it to move forward. The creature leaped off the porch, stopped, then turned around to face away from the cabin. The equinoid gave a shake of its head before taking off at a fast gallop. In the early morning light, the bright, hot flames coming off the two pieces of incendiary rod enveloped the animal in a white halo.
Haulk and Remi watched from inside the cabin to see what the dirigible would do. As they’d hoped, the airship spotted the movement. It gradually turned around and began to follow it. From the window, Haulk could barely make out the whir of the ship’s engines as it sped up to keep the equinoid in range.
He reached over to tap Remi on the arm. She jerked away from him and immediately apologized.
He tried to hide his disappointment. Why would he think she would be any different?
“At my signal, stay behind me.”
He saw her nod when a barrage of shots rang out. They stared in shock out the window to discover the pursuing blimp firing at the equinoid. Projectiles peppered the ground as the mechanical animal continued onward, neither slowing nor swerving to avoid being hit as it followed its original programming.“Now! While it’s attention is diverted! Run!” Haulk called out to her and took off.