Painter twisted in his harness, spotted Tucker and Kane soaring toward Lisa.
Her ledge remained intact—little else.
The waterfall still fell alongside it, but there was no river below to catch it. The thirty-foot falls had become a three-hundred-foot plunge into smoky darkness. Farther away, a massive section of the cliff face broke away and slid, like a calving glacier, into the depths of the sinkhole.
Lisa’s ridge looked like it might fall at any time. Pieces were already chipping and cracking under it.
But at the moment, that wasn’t her biggest danger.
The shifting waterfall had driven her out of hiding—and into the view of the monster sharing her perch. The two crouched on opposite ends of the plateau.
“Heading down to her!” Tucker radioed.
“Captain Wayne, go topside. Set a rope.”
“Negative. I’m past the point of no return. Too low, not enough lift to carry me to that edge. The only drop zone for me is that ledge of rock.”
He might be lying, playing hero, but Painter was indeed higher. He had a better chance of reaching the top of the cliff, and someone had to secure the lines to reach the ledge below.
“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.