The pit was cool and dark and bottomless. There was no trace of the ant or the spider. Perhaps the ant still fled, somewhere far below, the spider trailing frothing ribbons of drool a few feet behind.
The firepower we’d unloaded on the surface had not gone unnoticed. Furious cries barraged us as we sank through the soupy gloom. Our headlamps painted rolling ovals across the forest’s tangled brown skeleton.
How long would we look before giving up? The thought provoked a whiplash of guilt. What kind of friend was I? But if he’d fallen far enough, there wouldn’t be any point in finding him. It didn’t make sense for us to die too, did it?
If only we’d listened to him and left. If only the branch had held. If only the spider’s leg hadn’t happened to find him. Was the barrier between life and death really that thin?
Li whistled. She’d found Zip’s body on a ledge protruding from one of the earthy walls. I willed him to turn and look up at us, give a toothy grin, but his body remained still.
Something hairy was clambering up from the depths. Through the decaying infrastructure, I glimpsed matted fur and long gray fingers with multiple joints. Fingers thicker than telephone poles snaked around branches and outcroppings as the beast hauled itself upward.
“Go,” said Li, planting both feet against me and exploding away. I swung toward Zip, flicking the grapple gun to allow more line to flow. I left enough slack to land on the ledge with room to spare, but the edge gave way beneath my feet, sending dirt and half-eaten wood spiraling down while I scrabbled for purchase.
Zip remained inert as I reached his side. Dozens of hand-sized insects leapt off his body, fleeing my headlamp. There was no time to check his pulse. I hooked his belt to my line and hefted him over my shoulder.
The ascending beast unleashed a guttural roar. It was an ape with dull black eyes and a mouth that sucked in a roomful of air with each breath. Tree trunks gave way before it like rotten toothpicks.
I tripped a button on the grapple gun and began to rise. A spider crawled out from under Zip’s shirt and onto my neck, leaping away before I could bring my hand around to swat it. The sensation of legs prickling my skin remained.
The SCAR crashed and spat. Li, twenty feet above and ascending rapidly, sprayed at flies burrowing out of the opposite wall. The flies were translucent, like rice paper, with bright red eyes and convoluted organs. One leapt into space and clasped itself around Li’s legs. The proboscis prepared to plunge into her stomach—
Calmly, almost casually, Li jammed the barrel of the SCAR against the insect’s head and fired. The fly exploded, drenching her in fluid, and the jittering limbs released her. I watched the segmented body tumble past. The ape snagged it out of the air and tossed it down its gullet.
Grunts and roars merged with buzzing flies and the throaty voice of the SCAR to form a clobbering wall of sound. I fired into the maelstrom as the surface neared. The insects seemed reluctant to pounce, but greedy enough that they didn’t want to leave us alone, even as more of them crumpled under the flood of hot lead. When Li vanished over the edge, the swarm followed. My line whizzed me up and over. Li helped me to my feet. We unhooked ourselves from the grapple guns—no time to unwind the hooks—and blitzed across the clearing toward the spider web. Zip bounced, heavy and limp, on my shoulder.
Knocked out of the air by one of its fellows, a fly thwacked against me. I struck out and felt delicate exoskeleton crunch. My fist came away soaking wet.
The ape fought through the aperture in the floor, bellowing.
We slid under the web and ran hard. With no grapple guns to carry us into the branches, we had to find another kind of cover. Flies whapped like baseballs against the web, tangling themselves in the thick silk. I glanced back and saw what looked like hundreds of the fat insects trapped, roiling, and then the ape bulled full-speed into them, tearing a path with its ferocious hands.
The ape’s incisors gleamed when it roared. It wrenched the web away from its face to fix hideous eyes upon us. The web, lumpy with flies, trailed after it like a demented wedding dress.
A third spider, larger than the previous two, fell out of the trees and blocked our way. We cut left, but the spider wasn’t interested in us. Furious at the destruction of its web, it leapt toward the ape, wrapping around the beast’s hulking arm and plunging fangs into the thick, muscular shoulder.
The ape spun. I tackled Li as the cape of fly-filled spider web whipped just overhead. As we rose, the ape yanked the spider off its arm and spiked it into the ground. Then, looming tall, it spread its hands apart—
The merciless palms closed with a thunderclap on the spider’s swollen abdomen, which popped like a kickball in a trash compactor. Orange-red juices spurted everywhere, spattering our necks with foul-smelling drops. The ape set to work tearing the legs off, stuffing them into its mouth as the spider screamed and writhed. A descending gray fist crushed the head and stilled the twitching pincers.
Li and I reached the place where our hooks were secured and hastened to free them. Moments later we were soaring up to safety and the sweet smell of clean canopy air.
We swung from tree to tree, dodging creatures that dive-bombed the opposite direction, until finally we reached a place where the forest was quiet, and the canopy still, and we laid Zip down to find that breath still came, measured and slow and strong, through his corrugated lips.