In unison, the entire aerial fleet rose from their ground-based carriers, lifting in eerie formation, perfectly tuned to one another. Then, upon some silent cue, the pack rose, whipping and winding up the tree in a blurring pattern, stripping leaves and small twigs with their scalpel-sharp whirring blades. They climbed the tree like a deadly tornado of daggers.
She lifted shield and pipe.
A loud clank drew her attention momentarily back across the waterfall to Lisa’s perch. The monster must have lost its footing and fell. It righted itself, flipping back to its sharp claws on the plateau.
Kat searched, but Lisa was gone.
The sudden shock of the icy water stole Lisa’s breath.
She shielded the squalling child as best she could, hunching over him, drawing him close to her bosom for the warmth of her body heat.
She edged as far back along that ledge of rock behind the waterfall as she could manage without being pummeled off her perch.
After the first initial shock, she figured out Kat’s message. In fact, it was those black eyes of the steel bear—cold, alien sensors taking in the world—that allowed her to interpret her friend’s pantomime. The beast had to use some method to hunt, to understand its surroundings.
The shelter of the waterfall offered a way to blind those sensors.
The rippling cascade would challenge any motion detectors.
The cold would mask her body heat.
The roar would deafen and confound its sense of hearing.
So, she risked hypothermia—unfortunately, more of a threat to the child than to her—to keep them hidden.
But would it work?
Three-quarters of the way down the wall, the creature fell or leaped. It landed hard, its large bulk at the mercy of gravity, but afterward, there remained an undeniable grace to its movement as it stalked toward her hiding place. It must have watched her come this way, but could it tell she was still here?
It knuckled forward on daggers curled back like the claws of a three-toed sloth. It stalked with a thoughtful and determined placement of each leg, like a housecat hunting a mouse.
Lisa shifted even deeper under the falls, letting the water fully envelop her. The baby cried against her soaked chest, but the roar of the falls drowned any wails away.
The sloth-like automaton pushed under the falls, pivoting its massive head, opening its huge steel jaws, revealing a maw of titanium death, a bear trap with legs.
Through the heavy chute of water, black eyes stared back at her, seeming to see her, but who knew what it truly saw?
And still it came, pushing forward.
Airborne over Blue Ridge Mountains
In the cargo hold of the C-41A transport plane, Painter kept glued to the satellite feed on his laptop. He pressed shoulder to shoulder with Monk, who watched as fervently. Both their women were in danger—and, for the moment, there was nothing either man could do but watch.
The rear ramp was already open, awaiting their bail-out.
But they were not in position yet.
“How much longer?” Painter hollered.
“Two minutes out,” the pilot answered, screaming to be heard above the roar of the wind through the open bay doors.
Painter stared at the screen, knowing it would be the longest two minutes of his life.
July 4, 2:58 P.M. EST
Blue Ridge Mountains
Seichan stood in the middle of her richly appointed prison cell. A soft scuffling alerted her a minute ago that someone was outside in the hall, struggling with the door. Apparently, they didn’t have the code for the electronic deadbolt.
The oddness drew her out of the chair by the window.
The difficulty with the lock—was that good, bad, or inconsequential?
She stepped closer, passing the room’s small fireplace, when half the door and a chunk of the wall exploded before her, throwing her back.
She rolled across the ancient Turkish rug and struck the foot of her bed. Through the smoke and the ruin, the upper torso of the guard could be seen out in the hallway, on the floor, neck twisted impossibly—not from the bomb. Someone had quietly dispatched him.
With her ears ringing, Seichan watched the silent entry of the source of all that death and destruction. The long-legged woman stepped through the wreckage of the door. She carried a pistol in her hand and a look of stern purposefulness on her face.
Seichan was more worried about the gun.
She needed that gun.
She shifted smoothly into a crouch.
Seichan knew this woman. It was the doctor’s research partner back in Dubai—Petra—the one who had drugged Gray back on the boat.
Still shell-shocked, Seichan missed the woman’s first few words before her hearing returned.
“… Such promise,” Petra said. “You were of the Lineage, of our blood. You were being groomed for so much more.”
Seichan had difficulty making sense of her statements. Back on the boat in Dubai, she had suspected this woman had been raised as she had: the muscular surety of her movements, the hard glint of perpetual vigilance, the cold calculation to her countenance.
It took a monster to recognize a monster.
The woman’s words echoed in her head.
… groomed for so much more …
Was this what she would have become?
A worse fear rose from the marrow of her bones.
Am I that already?
Seichan remained crouched, but she moved her left leg an inch forward, for better balance, for better power.
The woman noted this. She repositioned her weapon and shifted to the side, ruining Seichan’s preparation, reaching the perfect spot where it would be awkward for Seichan to attack.
They stared each other down.
“When you turned traitor against us,” Petra said, “you became a corrupted thing, a broken vessel, leaving the purity of the Lineage. For what? For the love of a man?”
Seichan stiffened, the words poking a raw nerve.
Petra must have sensed her reaction, her words hard with disdain. “Such a piteous waste. Better you die like a dog than live like one.”
Petra fired—but Seichan was already moving as the muscles in her opponent’s forearm tightened in anticipation of the recoil.
The bullet still burned a hot line across her flank as she twisted to the side, offering less of a target. She hit Petra in the shins with her shoulder, flipping the woman high.
Seichan rolled, ready to go for the woman’s weapon.
But Petra never lost it. She landed on a knee, one leg back, still facing Seichan, her gun still pointed at her face.
At that moment, Seichan knew two things.
She’s better than me.
And the worse for it.
She closed her eyes—and pictured one face, one regret—as the pistol fired again and again at her.