“Understood,” Painter radioed back, though it killed him to head away from Lisa. “Going topside.”
He pulled his toggle with a sweaty hand and swept to the right—angling for the edge, knowing time was running short. As he turned, he caught a glimpse of the Lodge, cloaked in smoke, its heart glowing with hellfire.
The crack of a pistol drew his attention down.
Tucker dove toward the ledge, going in fast, firing his pistol at the beast—then Painter was over the cliff’s edge and he lost sight of the battle, pitting man against machine.
Tucker needed room.
The ledge was the size of a basketball court, with Lisa on one end and the bear-size beast on the other. Drawn by his approach, the creature dashed into his path, knuckling on its curved claws. It skidded sideways, its large, obsidian-glass eyes staring up at him.
He fired, but the round pinged harmlessly off of its hardened armor.
Still, the shots drove the beast back to its side, long enough for Tucker to haul on both of his toggles, flare his chute, and brake his plummet to a smooth but heavy landing. His heels hit first, then toes, and he rolled to his knees. He pulled two releases at the same time.
The first unhooked his chute, which went wafting against the cliff, then skimming away, dragging lines and harness.
The second freed Kane. His partner dropped to his paws, a ridge of hackles raised like a Mohawk down his back.
Tucker pulled out a second pistol. He held it flat toward Lisa, warning her to stay back. The beast crouched low, perfectly motionless, studying and assessing its new prey—but that wouldn’t last long.
Lisa whispered to him, her eyes wide with fear, but not for her safety. “Baby’s going into shock.”
He crept back to her, signaling Kane to stand guard.
Dog and machine faced each other, mirroring each other’s wary stance.
Lisa was soaked from the waterfall, the baby hung in wet swaddling, not making a sound, tinged bluish.
Tucker swore to himself.
I’m not losing this baby again.
A scrabble of steel on rock sounded as the monster charged. Sparks lit each step as steel clashed with rock. It barreled straight at them. Tucker raised his pistol, recognizing how useless it had been before, knowing that nothing could stop it, but he was ready to defend with his life.
He wasn’t the only one.
Kane watches it come, not moving. It smells of oil, grease, and lightning, but he recognizes a hunter. Because he is one, too. It sees the world as he does.
It shifts to the wind, scenting …
It turns to the rasp of voice and step …
Its black eyes twitch to the flutter of fabric and tangled line …
It also thinks, only moving when ready, judging the weakest.
It comes for him—because it is still young, new to the world, a pup.
Kane meets its charge with a bark and a feint, dodging to the side of its steel flank. He makes it spin and come after him. It is fast, powerful, but in the end, it is young.
He is not.
He races on pads that have run across hot sands, hard tarmac, powdery snow, gravel roads—and slippery ice.
He had studied the hunter, watched it skid on bright sparks.
“Kane!” his partner shouts.
He hears the timbre of fear, not command.
So Kane runs straight for the edge, for the long fall to sharp rock. The enemy thunders after him, hulking, legs crashing steel into stone. He reaches the edge and stops fast, pads grinding to pain on the coarse path—then twists. Because he knows he can.
He is not young.
This is stone.
He whips to the side with a surge of his legs.
The other is young. Stone is its ice.
Something it has not learned.
Kane spins on his hind legs and watches the creature skid past him, leaving a trail of sparks—and goes over the edge.
Because it had not learned.
And now never will.
Tucker dropped to a knee as Kane came running back. He hugged the dog proudly, knowing he had saved their lives. Bullets would not have stopped that charge of purposeful steel. Not in time to keep it from reaching them, slaughtering them. And neither Tucker nor Lisa was wily enough to use the creature’s rudimentary instincts against it, nor agile enough to lure it to its death.
Still, Kane shoved his head between Tucker’s legs, a familiar request for reassurance.
“It’s okay, boy. You did good.”
But his tail stayed down.
Tucker knew dogs lived emotional lives as rich as most people’s, different, alien in many ways, but still they experienced their world deeply.
Tucker sensed what Kane was feeling. They knew each other beyond hand signals and commands.
Remorse and regret.
Kane was not happy to send that creature to its death.
“You had to do it,” Tucker said.
Kane knew that, too.
But his tail stayed down.
Edward Blake hated the train service here.
Buried in a dark tunnel, lit only by the stray battery-powered emergency lamp, he sat on a bench seat in the enclosed, single-car tram with a dozen other members of the lab complex staff and guards. The distant boom of the explosion had long faded away.
But not the damage.
The electricity had gone out at the same time, and the train had slowed to a stop. One of the passengers wearing a guard uniform checked the odometer. They had traveled nine miles, a mile short of the depot at the Lodge.
Edward closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.
“We should just walk,” someone suggested.
“What if the electricity comes back on?”
“Then don’t step on the rails.”
“We’re safer here.”
Oh, shut the bloody hell up!
“Quiet!” another shouted from the back of the car, echoing his sentiment.
Finally, someone with sense.
“Listen!” the same man said.
Then Edward heard it, too. A low rumble, getting steadily louder, like another train was hurtling down the tunnel intended to rear-end them. But as it got louder, he heard a telltale gurgle.
He stood, along with everyone in the tram, and moved to the back of the car. The tunnel stretched out into darkness, measured by the small red emergency lamps every fifty yards.
Then they all saw the monster eating one light after the other, far down the passage. A flood surged toward them. Most started screaming. One man dashed out of the door, intending to outrun the flood.
Edward held a hand to his throat and sank back to his seat. He didn’t want to watch. After years of working at an underwater lab in Dubai, he would drown here in the middle of the bloody mountains, thousands of feet above sea level.
Though he didn’t watch the surge swallowing light after light, counting down the last seconds of his life, he still heard Death coming for him. A couple of people were on the floor, praying.
Even bloodier fools.
After all that went on at that lab, God was surely deaf to their pleas for salvation.
The rumble grew to a thunderous crescendo—then the wall of water struck the back of the tram. The impact threw them all to the rear of the car—and sent the tram rolling down the track, bobbling hard but moving!
People gained their feet, clutching for handholds.
Water sprayed through cracks and seams at the back, but the sealed car was like a bullet in a gun barrel, being shot down the tunnel.
No one spoke, all fearing to express hope.
Even the prayers had stopped, the supplicants already forsaking their God.
Someone at the front called back, yelling to be heard above the roaring beast that propelled them forward. “Cellar’s ahead! I see lights!”
The secret depot.
They were going too fast.
“Is there a manual brake?” Edward called out.
The guard rushed forward. “Yes!”
Edward joined him as the end of the tunnel hurtled toward them. He saw there were indeed lights ahead: a fiery, blazing conflagration.
The guard abandoned the brake and sat down.
Edward did, too.
Moments later, the car shot into the heart of the inferno. Water spread outward through the labyrinthine cellar complex, blasting into steam. Fires blazed all around. Their little pocket of air was only useful to fill their lungs for screaming—which they did as they slowly burned.
Kat clutched her husband’s neck, carried in his arms.
Blood flowed from scores of tiny lacerations, shallow and deep, wounds from her battle with the helmeted pod’s flying horde.
She had beaten them back as Monk and Kowalski swept in, shedding their chutes and rolling to her aid. She half-fell out of the tree into Monk’s arms. He had grabbed the last few flyers out of the air with his prosthetic hand. The tough synthetic skin and crushing grip made short work of them.
She could have used one of those, and told him so.
His answer: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Now they fled together through the woods, chased by scores of the pods, creatures of every ilk. The loss of blood, along with the exhaustion of her battle, turned the world into a hazy, fluttering view, shadowed at the corners.
Kowalski fired behind them, keeping the worst at bay, but there were too many. Like ants boiling out of a flooded nest, the legion came crawling, leaping, spinning, burrowing, flying away from the destruction behind them.
“There!” Monk called to Kowalski as they broke into a wide meadow.
A steep-sided outcropping of granite offered a vantage from which to make a stand. They fled toward it.
From her perch in her husband’s arms, she watched the hunters break out of the woods on all sides, converging and sweeping toward them across the grasses, hundreds of them.
Monk sped faster, Kowalski at his side.
They reached the outcropping and manhandled her to the top, then joined her.
As they huddled, the hunters came surging up to the rocky island, scrambling over one another to reach them, climbing higher, using their living brethren to form a growing bridge.
The attack also came from the air. Clouds of flyers burst high out of the grasses, like a startled flock of crows. They swept in an organized, beautiful spiral, gathering others to them, swelling their ranks before the final assault.