Li and I didn’t talk much that night, even when Cooper took us to the room where we’d be staying and finally left us alone. She could tell that I was keeping something from her, and she didn’t like it. I couldn’t blame her. I’d own up to everything the instant the expedition was over.
In the room we’d been assigned, the bedspreads were generous, patterned inexplicably with palm trees and setting orange suns. The floor was scuffed. The light switches were canted. Three vaguely impressionist landscape paintings were bolted onto the walls. The overall effect was of a bad hotel pretending to be a mediocre hotel. I fell asleep immediately.
Soon I dreamed I woke up in the room with Li. Everything seemed normal—she was in her bed, fast asleep, and so far blood wasn’t seeping out of cracks in the walls or anything—but I could tell it was a dream. I felt no fear, just dull expectation. Maybe I was getting used to the nightmares. The terror was gone, replaced by cool acceptance of whatever fucked-up vision I was about to face.
Something pulled me to the window. I surveyed the dark arteries of the base. In the distance, searchlights from guard towers played back and forth, scanning the stump-ridden no-man’s-land. The beams of light spat fleeting yellow polygons across the ramparts.
The realness of these dreams continued to amaze me. When I pinched my arm and twisted, I felt the sting. I closed my eyes and listened. The only sound was Li’s breathing, taking in air and then, after a long silence, letting it out softly. She breathed like she was rationing oxygen, holding onto each lungful until it became pure carbon dioxide.
Gradually, I became aware of another sound, a soft plopping like clumps of peat falling out of a wheelbarrow.
It came from outside the window. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes and looked.
In the center of the street, clumps popped up and away from a growing mound. I fixed my eyes on the bulge, ready to witness the birth of whatever lay beneath.
Slowly, patiently, a black dome emerged. Long antennae frisked the air. Satisfied with the taste, the dome revealed itself to be the head of an enormous centipede. Out into the open it wriggled, hairy with a million terrible legs, freeing itself from the ragged wound in the earth.
More centipedes followed the first, side-winding out of the hole and dispersing in all directions. So far, this was one of the tamer dreams. There was something cathartic about watching them emerge. Something about the way they shed their cloaks of dirt.
“Tetris?” said Li.
I smiled. “This is the part where I look and you’ve got eight eyes, or your arms have been torn off, right?”
I turned to look. Dream-Li was sitting up in bed, rubbing the corners of her eyes. Her body parts appeared to be intact.
“What’s going on, Tetris?”
“This is a dream,” I said, and snickered.
“This is not a dream, Tetris,” said Li.
“Ha! Arguing with a dream,” I said. “Guess I really am losing my mind.”
“You dumb—what the fuck is Tetris get out of the way!”
Something thunked against the window. I spun to see a centipede pressed against the glass. It reared back, a hundred legs writhing in the air, then slammed against the window again.
The glass spiderwebbed. I fell out of the chair, kicking my legs like propellers, suddenly very, very afraid.
“Okay,” I said, “not a dream.”
“Not a dream not a dream not a dream,” agreed Li. “Where’s my gun?”
They hadn’t given us weapons yet. I scrambled to the corner and tugged on my jeans. Li dressed in equally frenzied fashion while the centipede explored the cracks in the glass with its complicated mouthparts.
“Guns,” said Li. “We need guns. Big ones.”
The centipede rammed its head through the glass and came slithering in.
We flung the door shut behind us and ran down the hall, pounding on the walls.
“Wake up,” I shouted. “Wake up! Wake up!”
A distant alarm began to wail. The centipede exploded through the closed door and slammed against the opposite wall before steadying itself and hurtling after us.
“Down the stairs,” said Li.
“You want to go down there?”
“You want to get trapped on the roof?”
We took the stairs three at a time. Outside, chaos reigned. Floodlights reflected off the carapaces that glided everywhere. A Jeep careened past, dragging a centipede that fought to wriggle aboard. The centipede scream-hissed as a barrage of point-blank shots tore its face to bits. When the bullets reached its brain, the unwanted passenger let go all at once, spasming in the street. Freed of the weight, the Jeep veered left. The driver had scarcely regained control when he ran right over another centipede and the whole vehicle vaulted into the air. Dimly, I noted the arc of the fluids that splooshed out of the creature where the tires had made contact, the orange and green mural those fluids left on the wall of the building adjacent.
Then the Jeep face-planted into a wall, and whatever munitions it had been carrying went up with a roar. For a moment a sun bloomed, the floodlights dim in comparison, and then Li was tugging me in the opposite direction as bits of Jeep and God-knows-what-else rained down around us.
We came across the desecrated body of a soldier—it was his top half; a smeared trail of blood led into an alley, where his lower half was presumably being devoured—and Li snagged the rifle out of his stiff fingers. She checked the magazine as we ran.
“Mag’s full,” she called.
Gunfire. I looked up just in time to see a centipede lunge at a soldier standing on the roof. It tackled him into space, his weapon spraying into the sky, and somersaulted over us. The centipede hit the pavement upside down with a crunch. As the creature writhed, Li stepped up, jammed the barrel against its chin, and pulled the trigger.
Miraculously, the soldier seemed to have survived. I vaulted the centipede’s death throes and skidded to his side.
“Where’s Cooper?” I asked, helping him to his feet.
“Who?” he choked, blood dribbling out of his mouth. His legs hung limp.
“Can you stand? Hello?”
The soldier’s eyes rolled back.
“His back’s broken, Tetris,” said Li. “Leave him.”
I wiped blood off his face. The soldier was my age or younger, his cheeks smooth, with a shadow of stubble along his chin. I swung him across my shoulders.
“Oh, God, Tetris,” said Li. “You can’t move someone whose back is broken.”
“We can’t leave him here,” I said. “Go.”
She went, and I followed. We ran, and in the distance somebody’s flamethrower lit up the night, a blossoming orange flower, and we kept on running.