We couldn’t pull ourselves away.
“What if there’s a whole city up ahead?” said Li.
I wiped my palms on my pants to sop up the sweat, but the fabric only drew further moisture from my pores.
“This is making my nuts shrivel up,” said Zip. “I’ve got a couple of raisins down there.”
I kept expecting the tablet to vanish the second I dragged my eyes away.
“We should turn around,” said Li, but she didn't move. The toe of her boot drew circles in the dirt.
“Yes, heading for shore is definitively correct,” said Zip, who also didn’t move.
Strains of a violent argument reached our ears. Deep bellows, like an elephant defending its water hole, followed by a rapid-fire series of avian shrieks.
“Fuck it,” I said, checking the mag in my pistol. “Let’s go.”
Onward we went, miners drawn into unplumbed depths by visions of sparkling jewels. We didn't find a city. For five hours, we didn't find anything at all, except endless, identical trees. Tangled vines and towers of steaming excrement began to seem familiar, as if we were walking in circles, although I’d been checking my compass every five minutes. Our voices grew taut and thin. Zip spat strands of phlegm into the undergrowth, and I wondered if his mouth had the same sulfurous taste that mine did.
Eventually we stopped for lunch.
“I wonder if Sergeant Rivers knew about this,” said Li around a mouthful of protein bar.
I thought back to the interrogation, the look on Rivers’ face.
“No clue,” I said.
Zip balled up a wrapper and hurled it into a ravine.
Li scratched her nose with the back of her arm. “You guys hear how he lost his eye?”
“I suppose you’re going to tell us,” said Zip.
“One of his teammates got nabbed by a creeper vine.”
I leaned against a tree trunk and counted blades of razorgrass. Heavy perfume wafted from some flowerbank out of sight. I’d already heard the story, but I didn’t mind listening to Li’s voice.
“Per company policy, Rivers and his remaining partner were supposed to turn around. Instead they rappelled down the hole.”
“Dun dun dunnn,” said Zip.
“There was a cavern underneath. No bottom in sight. The plant was perched on a fallen tree with vines coming off it like puppet strings. Rivers got down there and pulled the missing guy out, but it had already started to digest him.”
Zip probed his ear with a pinky finger. “And then he got acid in his eye. The end.”
“Even less cool than that. On the way up, something huge grabbed his partner, who was carrying the unconscious guy. Rivers kept going, but the grapple line came whipping down and pow—no more eye.”
“There’s a moral in there somewhere,” said Zip, scrunching his face in mock concentration.
After lunch we went back to walking. Just when I’d begun to think that there was nothing out here, we found a tall gray pillar in a clearing no different from the thousands of others we’d crossed.
It was the biggest structure so far. Featureless and smooth, it was bare of hieroglyphs except for a convoluted labyrinth etched at its peak. On the far side of the clearing, a trio of enormous ants wriggled in the tangled threads of a seventeen-story spider web.
Li crept closer to the gray structure, and I followed, keeping an eye on the wobbling web.
“I don’t like this,” said Zip.
I laid both palms against the obelisk. It was cool and damp as a stone plucked from a riverbed, with the same smell of earthy nothingness.
“Guys, come on,” said Zip, as a pair of bloated red spiders crept out of the canopy. Their titanic abdomens throbbed like human hearts.
“Gimme a lift, Tetris,” said Li, peering at the markings. I bent, allowing her to clamber onto my shoulders.
The spiders ambled down the web. Their lazy movements suggested that they’d already feasted today, and the ants were a happy surprise, like a slice of cake discovered in the fridge. The larger spider grasped an ant and administered a bite. At first the gyrations only intensified, but after a moment they faded to twitching, and then the ant was still.
The spider spooled greasy thread from its rear and transformed the ant into a tightly-wrapped cocoon. Its companion wove a similar casket for the second.
As I let Li down off my shoulders, the third ant bucked and clacked its pincers. Sheer will or an act of God allowed it to tear itself free, and it tumbled fifteen feet to the ground.
The ant lumbered in our direction, two legs still bound with silk. The spiders plopped down after it.
Zip dove left. Li and I flung ourselves right. The ant brushed between us and plummeted through the floor, dragging a good portion of the clearing with it. The first spider flew after it. Like bystanders during a bank robbery, we tried to make ourselves as small as possible.
The second spider paused at the edge of the new-formed pit. Its abdomen swelled and contracted. While it considered a descent, it noticed Li and me crouched beside the obelisk.
Li let loose with the SCAR, stitching a path of bullets from its eye-cluttered face down the length of its abdomen. On the other side of the pit, Zip unloaded his handgun.
For a moment the spider wavered, four of its legs pulling it towards Li, the others reaching for Zip. It settled on us, but we were already seeking cover in a thicket. Meanwhile, Zip emptied another magazine, and the spider wheeled to face the hail of bullets.
Zip scrambled up a tree trunk. At full speed, the spider could have plucked him off the bark like a grape, but another barrage from the SCAR and my own pistol kept it off balance.
The climb was nothing for Zip. I’d seen him scale a glass office building just to impress a girl. By the time the spider reached the base of the tree, he was well out of reach.
Then he fucked up. He could have kept climbing and grapple-gunned to safety, but instead he stepped onto a branch directly above the spider and fired six shots into its chitinous head.
The spider rammed into the tree, sending shivers up the trunk, and Zip’s branch gave way with a groan, dropping onto the spider’s upward-gaping maw—
A pincer boomeranged across the clearing, trailing goopy black bile. Zip threw himself free and rolled to a stop at the edge of the pit. Again Li’s SCAR roared.
The spider staggered, orange goo gushing from a dozen spouts. As it floundered away, a leg lashed out, catching Zip full in the chest—
For a moment he floated in midair, eyes as wide and disbelieving as Junior’s had been. Then he was gone, hurled unceremoniously into the abyss, and blood pumped thick and heavy through the red corridors of my skull.