The street ended at a cement barrier and a warning sign. Beyond was nothing but darkness. An inky, sucking darkness that seemed to draw in the warmth of the world leaving air lifeless. Miles could feel the heat of the day radiating from the asphalt he was standing on, but from the ravine was only frigid air. Wind pulled at his back, clawing at his clothes, drawing him towards the darkness.
The sound of Kappy’s engine had stopped, but Miles saw that there was a dirt path leading down around the barrier into the canyon.
Shaking slightly, Miles walked twenty feet down the path. The tub was parked at the first switchback. It was apparently unable to make the sharp turn and had been left there, out of sight from anyone on the street above.
And it was empty.
Miles slowly approached it. The engine was making quiet tapping sounds as it cooled, but there was nothing inside, no food, no gun and no robot. She wouldn’t have left the robot at the hotel which meant she was trying to get it out of Moughte.
Stupid crazy girl.
Stupid crazy Miles.
He stood there, next to the tub, unable to go on. His feet were frozen in place, braced against the steady tug of the wind that tried to pull him deeper into the canyon. He shivered and his spine crawled.
He was a little boy again. He remembered the overcast sky and the yellow orange color of the construction equipment around the Rust Stack. His mother was coming down the mountain path to bring him home for lunch.
Then the men were yelling and he heard the horrible thrumming whir of vibrating metal.
He saw that… thing. It had no shape, just jagged edges and dirty metal. It moved so fast, faster than you could believe. It barreled out of the tree-line half a mile up the mountain.
And that thing was down there. It was watching from the darkness as he stood on the edge of its domain.
The wind was its breath. It breathed Miles in, pulling him downwards.
There was the scrabble of loose rocks far below and Miles twitched. Was it Kappy making the noise?
And Kappy was abandoning him! If that’s the way she wanted it, there was no reason to follow her.
Stupid crazy Miles.
He hopped back and forth in place. “Come on… you can do this.” He whispered to himself. “Come on!”
Finally, he took a deep breath then edged around the tub, loose, gravely dirt from the canyon wall scraping his shirt and falling down his back. He moved down the sloping path, feeling his way with his feet as the light faded to near total darkness. Kappy might be able to see fine with her stupid ears, but he certainly couldn’t.
As he walked he kept his body as close to the dirt of the canyon wall as possible, staying well back from the drop on the opposite edge of the path. His only warning that the path had turned in another switchback was when his searching foot found nothing but empty air before him. Heart racing, he backed away, crouching and feeling with his hands for where the path turned. He found it and was off again, more careful now than ever.
His every movement sounded painfully loud in the echoing silence and his head was pounding as he strained to hear any noise besides his crunching footsteps, while at the same cringing at every sound.
The blackness pressed in around him, making strange shapes in front of his eyes. Each instant he imagined he was about to feel the lash of cold metal. He also didn’t seem to be able to get his shaking under control.
There was no way to tell how long he descended, but he eventually became aware of another sound. He thought he was imagining it at first, but when he stopped and held his breath it came to him distinctly. It was the faint sound of an engine.
He sped up as much as he dared. Kappy must not be making much better time than he was if she was having to wrestle the robot down the switchbacks. It was a testament to her stubbornness that she still attempted it even without her tub.
Miles had just made it around another switchback when he heard his name hissed from somewhere below.
“Miles! Is that you?”
“Yes.” He hissed back.
“Stop following me!”
“What are you doing?!?”
There was no answer, but he heard the crunch of her footsteps and the angry growl of the robot as she pulled it deeper into the ravine.
Miles edged on.
At the next switchback he heard her again.
“Miles I said stop! Go back!” She sounded extremely annoyed.
“Why? What are you doing?”
“Yes, without you! You’ll just keep slowing me down.”
Miles froze, a painful knot in his stomach. It was what he’d thought, but she had said it so bluntly. He was also growing angry though. He wasn’t about to let her dismiss him that easily. Not after all this time.
“You’re not going to get rid of me Kappy.”
There was no answer.
“You’re just leaving your tub too?”
“Of course not!” Came the exasperated answer. “The robot first, then I’ll come back across the bridge and get my tub.”
“And if I take it?”
He heard the footsteps stop and there was silence except for the robot’s motor.
“You better not.” Her voice was dangerously low.
“And if I do?”
“I’d be able to find you. Then you’d be sorry.” Her footsteps started up again.
Miles knew she was right.
“Kappy, do you have any idea how dangerous this is?”
There was no answer so Miles began edging down the path once more. “There’s a whole city worth of metal down here!”
“There’s nothing moving.” Came the reply. She was closer now. No longer beneath Miles, but in front of him, further down the same section of path.
Miles was desperate. Of course nothing was moving. Metal just lay there, waiting. “It’ll move when you get close enough! Have you ever seen metal wake?” There was no way smoke from the Rust stacks could have worked its way down this far into the gorge.
Then he realized Kappy’s footsteps had stopped once more.
“You need to go back Miles!” She sounded genuinely angry now.
“Kappy, you don’t realize how dangerous this is?” Miles was sweating, despite the cold. He could feel dirt from the cliff wall sticking to his palm. “Not even you can handle…”
“I can take care of myself Miles!” Kappy shouted.
She’d been too loud. Miles knew it instantly. The panic that he’d been fighting back came surging up inside him and his heart began pounding furiously. For a moment, as the echoes of Kappy’s shout bounced away down the canyon he thought they might be ok.
Then he heard it.
The sound from that day on the hill.
It started with a single grating note.
But it was joined, first by one note, then many, many more. Metal notes rising to a cacophonic orchestra of terror. The entire world seemed to be made up of screeching, vibrating metal. A thousand forks in a thousand blenders.
There were sparks now too. They popped like stars thirty feet below him, constellations spreading away into the distance up and down the canyon.
Then the darkness was split by a beam of light.
It seared Miles’ eyes. Kappy had fired her heat gun out across the ravine. The pulse, too faint to be seen during the day, illuminated the gorge.
There was a nightmare ocean spread out below the path. It spanning the entire ravine from wall to wall. Shapes merged and changed below Miles. The ocean was now shards of broken glass, now a forest of leafless trees, now a necropolis of tombs. But the light of the gun revealed one all-encompassing theme that connected each horrible heaving vista, for there was only one material that could gleam and shine with such cold ferocity. The writhing landscape spread out below Miles was made from millions of tons of living metal.
And it was all coming for them.