“Sir, we don’t have the proper clearance.”
“Take it up with the president when we get back,” Painter said. “You take us in low and straight. Follow the Continental Divide. Once we cross into the no-fly zone, you open the rear ramp for us to bail out.”
Painter swung back around.
Monk raised an eyebrow. “How come my wife doesn’t have any hair?”
Jason spoke in Painter’s ear, a scary urgency to his tone. “How long until you’re on the ground?”
“We bail out in six. On the ground seven or eight.”
“That’ll be too late.”
Blue Ridge Mountains
Kat sprinted for the goal line.
She had lost her slippers. Her toes dug for purchase in the soft loam and loose spruce needles. Rocks, pinecones, and acorns tore at her soles, but she ignored the pain. She flew over obstacles with long-legged leaps, happy for the obstruction of a log or jagged outcropping, as it slowed her pursuers.
The front edge of the hunters was only yards behind. She had dispatched three, but over a dozen still remained, working in tandem. The shield and pipe were futile against their numbers, especially as this group was not uniform. She identified at least four variants among them, each with specialized functions: crawlers she’d dealt with during the first wave; leapers could spring like frogs when close enough and slash out, or worse yet, latch on; spinners could accelerate at blistering paces for short bursts, becoming flying saw-blades; the last group was still unknown, trundling more at the rear, slower than the others, looking like steel helmets with legs.
She had not come through unscathed. The first spinner caught her by surprise, whizzing past, slicing a gash in her calf. Blood poured down her ankle. She was ready for the second, striking out with her pipe, swinging for the bleachers. The spinner ended up embedding its whirring self into the trunk of an oak, becoming stuck.
Ahead, the tree line broke apart, and sunlight beckoned.
The forest ended at a cliff.
She searched and spotted what she needed, angling to the left.
A telltale explosive squeak warned her. She lashed out with her shield, swiping low, as a leaper sprang at her. With a satisfying clang, she struck it and sent it cartwheeling away.
She sped faster, making her pursuers do the same, but also gaining a little space. As she ran, she plucked at the drawstring of her gown, loosening it. Once done, she flung her pipe and shield at the base of a maple tree ahead. They clattered close enough.
As she ran the final steps toward the cliff’s edge, she ripped the gown over her head, which blinded her for a frightening moment. She balled up the sweaty, hot garment. Reaching the cliff, still sprinting, she leaped up and threw the ball of clothes over the edge. She caught a low branch. Below her legs, the front guards of the horde went racing over the edge to their doom three stories below: leapers, crawlers, and one lonely spinner, who, in a last-ditch effort, whizzed in a spectacular arc off the cliff and chased after the hot bundle of clothes.
Not everyone went over, but confusion reigned in the remaining half.
She dropped back to the ground long enough to shove her shield on her forearm and tuck the pipe through her panties, like a sword in a scabbard. She leaped again to the same branch and hauled herself atop it with a heave of her legs.
The hunters stirred below, contemplating their next move.
A shout drew her attention, barely discernible above the roar of a waterfall a couple of hundred yards to her right. She searched—following the curve of the cliff, to where a small river tumbled over its edge to crash below. It was in those misty lower levels that she spotted a thin shape, waving her whole arm.
Lisa stood on a plateau on the far side of the waterfall. Her friend was trapped by the sheer cliffs behind her and the surging river below.
And she wasn’t trapped alone.
Lisa held a baby in her arms.
Kat waved back—then froze.
Lisa’s shout had drawn more than her attention. Behind her friend, at the top of the cliff, sunlight glinted off a creature the size of a small lion. It leaned over the edge, like a steel gargoyle.
“Kat!” Lisa shouted, still waving, further drawing its attention with all of her noise and motion.
“Lisa! Stop moving!” Kat yelled back.
Lisa shook her head and cupped her ear. The roar of the neighboring falls must have deafened her.
Kat struggled with how to communicate to Lisa, how to pantomime what needed to be done.
I was never good at charades.
Before Kat could even begin, the creature started climbing down the cliff face.
Lisa floated on her toes, so happy to see Kat safe. Her friend’s dramatic appearance, leaping half-naked into a tree, accompanied by a shower of silvery hunters, brought such joy and hope.
The thunder of the falls stripped whatever words Kat had tried to share, but her friend must have understood and began motioning dramatically. An arm pointed to the waterfall, then mimicked taking a shower.
Lisa didn’t understand and shook her head. Cradled in her arms, the baby was growing restless, likely from the constant roaring of the falls.
A rock pinged off the ledge that was her prison.
Kat repeated the gesture, adjusting it slightly. After pointing to the waterfall, she waved her fingers in front of her face.
Lisa stared and saw that a part of the plateau tucked behind the waterfall, but that shelf still roiled with mist, spray, and sudden dousings as the currents above shifted.
Finally, Kat pointed straight up, using her whole arm.
Another chunk of rock fell off of the cliff face and struck her landing.
A trickle of terror ran up her back, as she suddenly sensed something staring at her.
She turned and looked at the cliff.
Halfway up hung a monstrosity of steel plate, razor claws, and titanium fangs.
She screamed, backing several steps, coming close to throwing herself off the cliff and into the river below.
The noise and motion drew a swivel of its sleek head, revealing faceted black eyes—sensors—staring back at her.
She froze and cut off her scream, knowing noise must attract it.
Then the baby began to wail.
Kat watched helplessly as the steel gargoyle climbed down from its perch, digging hooked claws into crevices, lowering itself limb by limb, crack by crack, with the inevitability of a well-wound watch.
C’mon, Lisa. Remember what I showed you.
A clack and whirring at the foot of the maple reminded her of her own predicament. The five helmeted pods now circled the tree, sitting stationary. Simultaneously, their domed backs split into halves and folded back, revealing four smaller robots inside. They were flat and square in shape, with tiny propellers at each corner.