Date: Wed, 5 April 2017 18:12:04 -0800 (PST)
From: D. Weaver
To: D. Cooper
You’ve got to talk to Rivers. He gets like this every year. You and I both know there’s no room for transparency when it comes to the subdermals. ‘Vaccine implants’ line has flown for years. It’s simple and the recruits accept it without question. Can’t change unless we want another PR catastrophe.
Running through the forest is like driving an SUV the wrong way down an interstate: it’s possible, technically, but you’d really prefer to avoid getting yourself into that situation to begin with. Every step you take, you have a sneaking suspicion that you missed some deadly clue, that your weight will fall on a mess of leaves concealing a trapdoor spider’s lair or a sinkhole hundreds of feet deep. There’s no time to check your path, so you pray to God and plant your feet on whatever looks most solid.
I was acutely aware of the danger, and I knew Junior was too, but that didn't stop us from following Hollywood. The screams were getting fewer and further between, but they were still coming.
I burst through a thick patch of razorgrass, covering my face to protect it from lacerations, and stumbled into Junior’s back. My momentum carried me past him, and I just had time to realize we were beside an enormous chasm when I tumbled over the edge—
Junior yanked me back with a single huge hand. I’d drawn my pistol as I ran; it slipped out of my grasp and vanished into darkness.
I stood panting beside Junior and Hollywood as we listened for another scream.
“Look,” said Junior. On the other side of the chasm stood a tall gray obelisk. It was detailed with a network of fine lines. Against the biological backdrop, its sharp edges were almost profane.
“That’s not supposed to be there,” said Junior.
Was it throbbing, or was that my imagination? I closed my eyes, rubbed them, and looked again.
“Gimme the floodlight,” said Hollywood, peering into the chasm.
Junior rooted mechanically in his pack. Hollywood snatched the floodlight from his hands.
“We should get over there,” said Junior. “I've never seen anything like that in the videos, the books, nowhere.” He raised a hand above his eyes, squinting. “Are those words?”
Hollywood panned the floodlight over the abyss. The circle of light traveled down the far slope, traversing a network of vines, musty wood, and fungi. It struck me as surreal, almost dreamlike, that he didn’t seem to care about the obelisk. I was still shivering from my near-fall. What was he looking for?
Junior yelped. I glanced up just in time to see a shape vanish into the trees.
“There was a person,” said Junior, scrambling along the edge. “Tetris, did you see him?”
“I’m going to look,” said Junior. “Somebody was over there. I swear to God.”
I couldn't detect any movement. For a long, heavy moment, everything was dreadfully still. The only sound was the blood thunking in my temples. Then Hollywood sucked in his breath, the bushes near Junior rustled, and things began to happen very quickly.
Thirty feet below, the floodlight revealed a grinning reptilian face. Clusters of black eyeballs gleamed like river stones. The creature opened its massive jaw, revealing row after row of recurved teeth, and an odor of death wafted up. Out of the gaping mouth came a piercing shriek, the woman’s scream we’d heard before, except that this time the noise continued endlessly, increasing in intensity as the creature scrabbled with wicked claws up the wall.
Hollywood dropped the floodlight. It fell toward the monster, the beam of light ricocheting wildly. I turned to shout at Junior, who stared wide-eyed back at us. He could hear the shriek, but hadn't yet glimpsed its source.
An enormous scorpion, heavy with dull black armor, exploded out of the trees behind him. The stinger snapped, whiplike, and skewered Junior through the torso. The point popped out the front of his chest. As it lifted him off the ground, his feet kicking and his big hands slapping at the segmented tail, Hollywood yanked my arm.
“Run,” he said, and led the way.
We barreled back through the razorgrass, stumbled across a tree branch bridging a ravine, and broke into a sprint on the shaking ground beyond.
Behind us, the shriek became a throaty roar, as the reptilian creature sensed the possibility of our escape. I heard a new sound, a heavy whump-whump like mattresses falling to the floor, and snuck a glance back. The creature had taken flight on a set of rippling, scaly wings. It loomed behind and above us, close enough that I could feel its hot breath against my neck.
We weaved between obstacles, Hollywood a few feet ahead of me. No chance of grapple-gunning to safety if the thing could fly. We’d have to lose it in the maze of undergrowth.
We’d just rounded an enormous tree trunk when Hollywood stepped on a moss-and-silk trapdoor and plummeted out of sight. I grabbed the straps of my pack and leapt in after him.
The tunnel was steep and slick, lubricated by webs. There would be a spider in here with us, even now rushing toward this section of its burrow.
I’d dropped my pistol into the chasm. Hollywood might have a chance to produce one of his weapons, but the fall through the trap door would have taken him by surprise, and anyway the spider would get to him in moments.
As my slide accelerated, I saw Hollywood up ahead on a flat spot in the tunnel, headlamp flicked on, hand reaching for the pistol at his side. Beneath him: the spider, hairy legs blurred as it charged from the web-wrapped depths.
One of the spider’s front legs pinned Hollywood’s gun arm to the floor. The beast leaned in, pedipalps parting to reveal a pair of bulbous fangs—
I fired my grapple gun. The silver spearhead flashed across the cavern, trailing an impossibly thin strand of carbon nanofilament, and shattered the section of carapace beneath the spider’s left eye cluster, hardly losing any momentum as it burst out the other side and embedded itself in the wall. Thick green-black goo exploded from the point of impact, showering Hollywood. Countless limbs spasmed in death. With a grunt of exertion, Hollywood planted a foot against the abdomen and shoved, sending the body shuddering back down the tunnel.
“Thanks,” he said, wiping the stinking blood out of his eyes.
As I craned my neck to listen out the opening of the burrow, the cries of the winged creature grew fainter. I recalled its scales, a queasy mixture of blue, black and green.
“What was that thing?” I asked.
“That,” said Hollywood, “was a fucking dragon.”