“You’re hurt,” said Li.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Scrapes and bruises. A few minutes to catch my breath and I’m ready to go.”
Li bit through her protein bar and chewed viciously.
“We’re almost there,” said Dr. Alvarez, dangling her legs off the branch.
“Doc’s right,” I said, forcing a used car salesman’s grin across my face. Everything hurt. My right shoulder throbbed in a way that implied it had popped out of its socket at some point before being jammed back in.
I was swabbing antiseptic on the gash in my neck when a sliver of something twitched in the wound. I probed with my fingers and gingerly pulled the splinter out.
It was the vaccine implant they’d injected back in training, a one-inch shard of silver material. I frowned. They’d said this would dissolve in weeks. What was it doing in my neck years later?
Under your skin, Tetris.
I hurled the splinter away.
“How many days, Doc?” asked Li.
“Two,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Three at most.”
Li tore off another chunk of protein bar. “You know what I just realized?”
I opted not to venture a guess. My mind ran laps around the vaccine implant. More lies. What else were they lying about?
As Li stared me down, I pulled my eyebrows up in an attempt to intensify what I hoped was a good-natured smile.
“Do you know the fact that is suddenly crystallizing for me,” said Li, “as I sit here on a branch in the middle of the Pacific Forest, having this Eureka-style epiphanic moment of slow-dawning realization?”
“Would you care to inform me?”
“As I sit here, in the most dangerous place on Earth, between two woefully inadequate companions—stop, let me finish—between two woefully inadequate companions, one of whom has absolutely no business being here, and the other—upon whose body I struggle to find a single bruise-or-gash-free square inch of skin—who, as a result of recent events, is in possession of neither a grapple gun nor a firearm—what I begin to realize, Tetris, as you wave your hands and bulge your eyeballs in this most blatant fake outrage—what I realize is that all of this, the whole fucking Category 5 shitstorm we’ve landed ourselves in, is all one hundred percent your fault.”
“No,” I said, trying very hard to un-bulge my eyeballs.
“It’s greed,” said Li. “Ever since Cooper said the words ‘ten million dollars,’ your brain has been firmly switched off.”
“Listen to yourself,” she hissed, leaning close. “Just for one minute, snap out of this self-destructive spiral and consider what you’re suggesting.”
“I am listening to myself,” I said, bandaging my neck. “Hello, me, what’s that? You think we should keep going? Roger that, me, you’re coming in loud and clear.”
Despite the guilty pleasure I derived from the proximity of Li’s face, I found myself unable to meet her eyes. Instead I worked on swabbing a gash on my forearm. It stung. Everything stung.
“This isn’t you, man,” said Li, almost whispering. “I know you. You’re smart. You’re careful. You’re risk-averse. I know you, Tetris, better than anybody knows you, and I know that you are not yourself right now.”
“Then who am I?” I asked, watching red spiders wriggle out of holes in my arm and mill around on the surface. I scratched at them, but my fingers slid right through.
Li leaned back. She seemed deflated, no longer trying to meet my eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re not you.”
I closed my eyes and thought about telling her.
“Okay,” I said, “the truth is, I’ve been having nightmares.”
Li took another bite of her protein bar. Dr. Alvarez, who had spent the past few minutes scooting closer, peered around Li’s shoulder.
“I know that,” said Li. “You’ve mentioned that five or six times now.”
“They’re getting worse,” I said. “Like, every night. I’m stressing out. That’s why I’m not myself.”
Li chewed and scanned me. There. I’d told the truth. She wouldn’t be able to find any trace of a lie on my face.
“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on,” I said, trying to capitalize on the foothold of honesty I’d found. “They’re just dreams, Li. We’re so close. I can share Dr. Alvarez’s grapple. And you know the pistol wouldn’t have dented hardly anything anyway.”
“We’ll be careful,” added Dr. Alvarez. “We can move slow. Take four days instead of two.”
Li chewed and chewed.
“My God,” she said at last, crumpling the empty wrapper and flinging it into space. “I can’t believe I’m actually considering this.”
At which point I knew the battle had been won.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a torturous muddle. It took significant willpower not to stagger. The tendons in my neck stood out like ski lift cables. Despite Dr. Alvarez’s suggestion that we take it slow, Li strode ahead, muttering under her breath. When we turned in for the night, I hit my sleeping bag thinking I was far too exhausted even to dream. Instead I tossed and turned, head rattling with the same old blood-drenched nightmares.
In the morning I was too nauseous to eat, aching hunger or no. As we pushed forward, the floor sloped down, and the needles of Dr. Alvarez’s various instruments wobbled. I stumbled along in the back, beset by faces in tree trunks that sneered or laughed, revealing mouths packed with canine teeth. The ringing in my ears was joined by a constant percussive throbbing. Once, I thought I saw Todd, bald from the chemo, standing on the other side of a clearing. When he vanished, a wave of sadness crashed over me.
That afternoon, a fog descended, beginning as a few wisps of gray and swiftly coalescing to a thick sheath that obscured my view of the tree-faces. At first I thought the fog was my imagination, but then Li stopped us for a quiet discussion and I realized the others saw it too.
“What the fuck is this, Doc?” asked Li. “I’ve never seen fog this thick.”
“I don’t know,” whispered Dr. Alvarez. The fog reflected our voices back at us.
I tugged my pack straps tighter, probing absentmindedly at my thigh for the grip of a pistol that wasn’t there.
“Well, we can’t grapple out of it,” said Li, peering upward for branches and finding nothing but fog.
“We might be close,” said Dr. Alvarez. “The fog might be a product of the anomaly.”
I watched Li breathe. Her face was illegible.
“Okay,” she said. “What do we do?”
I cleared my throat. The sound echoed grotesquely.
“We go forward,” I said.
The drumming had worked itself beyond my inner ear. There was no way I could hear anything sneaking up on us. As thick as the fog was, we wouldn’t see a subway snake until we’d walked smack into its scaly flank.
Close together, practically touching, we edged forward. Dr. Alvarez juggled her instruments, whispering navigational suggestions in Li’s ear. I focused on filling my lungs with wet-smelling air. Moisture beaded on my skin.
Finally we came to the end of the fog. Beyond lay a circular clearing with a giant hole in the middle. Fog, extending upward to the canopy, swirled around the perimeter as if butting against tall glass walls.
The drumming in my skull had ceased. Aside from the walled-off fog, everything was back to normal.
“Is this it?” asked Li quietly.
Dr. Alvarez didn’t answer. Retrieving a high-powered flashlight from her pack, she padded toward the lip of the pit.
After a moment, Li and I followed. My legs were heavy. They took my full concentration to move, as in a dream. Our boots crunched explosively on the leaves.
Dr. Alvarez pointed her flashlight into the abyss. The cone of light caught dust particles floating in the air, but revealed no bottom. The darkness at the center of the pit remained unbroken.
She pointed the beam at the opposite wall and gradually tilted downward. The circle of light grew wider and wider as it descended, revealing a root-and-vine-riddled cross-section of the forest’s innards. As it fell, the illuminated area grew more dim, until finally it vanished. No bottom.
Li produced her flare gun and aimed into the center of the pit. Before she fired, she looked at each of us, asking permission with her eyes.
We nodded. The air in the clearing froze, anticipatory and thick.
The flare gun coughed. I thought I saw the cylindrical wall of fog ripple in response. The hot-sputtering flare arced down, painting unnerving patterns of crimson and shadow.
Down the flare flew, a dwindling red star. It never hit bottom, just shrank and shrank, until finally it vanished altogether.
“No way,” said Li, speaking for all of us. A slimy anxiety in my stomach forced me away from the edge.
“How deep?” I asked.
Dr. Alvarez scratched her head.
“Must be at least a couple of miles,” she said, staring down.
I imagined falling in, plummeting for miles in unadulterated darkness. Would you pray for the pit to be bottomless, as you tumbled through the empty air? Or would a bottomless pit be even worse?
Near the top of the fog walls, tree trunks began to emerge.
“The fog’s fading,” I said.
Spurred on by my words, it flowed away in all directions, subsuming into the forest floor. The three of us stood, unable to breathe, staring at what its departure had revealed.
Clinging to the trees that encircled the clearing, with clusters of round black eyes bulging above grinning, toothy jaws, were at least a dozen specimens of a creature I hadn’t seen since the day Junior died.
The long bodies of the dragons glistened with blue-black scales. Half-extended wings jutted as their spear-shaped skulls sniffed down at us.
They covered every angle of retreat except one. A single, obvious escape route, between two wide-spaced trees.
All sound had ceased. The dragons smiled, waiting.
Dr. Alvarez ran for the gap. Li and I followed. Behind us, a human laugh built in pitch and intensity over the heavy whump-whump of wings.
We crashed out of the clearing, Li quickly taking the lead. I hung close behind Dr. Alvarez as we vaulted a log and hit the ground at a sprint, our backpacks jumping and jostling. Here the floor was a ragged mess of branches and pitfalls. Li never glanced back. My heart pounded in my ears as I followed, bruises and tender joints forgotten.
With our pursuers close enough that we could feel the rush of air from their wings, Li took a hard left, Dr. Alvarez and I scrambling after her. We slid through a patch of razorgrass, then under a mossy overhang and into the open, where a dragon wheeled to cut us off. It shook the ground when it landed, flaunting its full wingspan. Li fired the SCAR as she ran, zig-zagging into a corridor between two fallen trees.
Down the narrow passageway we flew, dragons lighting on the trunks as we passed, jamming their snapping jaws into the gap. It was hard to tell their roars from the roars of the forest as it awakened. I could hardly hear my own frantic breathing.
Near the end of the passageway, the ground began to swell. As we leapt clear and stumbled to our feet beyond the fallen trees, a subway snake burst out of the bulge, shaking off huge clods of dirt, which thuddedlike mortar shells around us. Li headed toward a thick patch of undergrowth, Dr. Alvarez close behind. A dragon plummeted from the sky to our left and scrambled along the ground on all fours, mouth widening in preparation for a strike.
The subway snake hurled its Brontosaurian bulk across the clearing and clamped huge jaws around the dragon’s unguarded torso. The crunch of so much raw meat colliding at such incredible speed released a shock wave that nearly knocked us off our feet. One wing trapped, the dragon flailed and shrieked, scrabbling at the snake’s gigantic head.
We thrashed through the undergrowth. Probably the majority of the dragons were now occupied, but Li seemed to think it was a good idea to put more distance between us and them before risking a grapple. My ankles emitted white shrapnel-bursts of pain as I fought across the weed-strewn ground.
Beyond the thick vegetation, we found ourselves before a chasm bridged by a fallen tree. Li wasted no time scurrying across, arms extended for balance. Dr. Alvarez and I followed.
Midway across, my foot plunged into a soft pit of decayed wood, and I tripped. Picking myself up, I felt a whoosh of air and snapped around to glimpse the descending shape of a dragon. With a sickening crack, the dragon landed on the bridge behind me. Li’s SCAR roared, but the sound was lost in the splintering of the dead tree’s core. At first the bridge sagged mildly, and I thought for a moment it would hold, but then the dragon stepped clumsily about, shrieking as it tried to maintain its balance, and the whole bug-eaten tree crunched downward beneath its feet—
Wishing like hell for the grapple gun I didn’t have, I caught a glimpse of Li and Dr. Alvarez staring down from the edge of the chasm, above me now as I scrambled up the crazily-leaning trunk, and then the dragon took off, kicking the two tree-halves downward, my stomach leaping against my throat, and I fell, unbelieving, into bottomless darkness.