The dark figure stood on the ancient stone wall. Black linen wrapped much of his body like a rotting mummy, his eyes blazed red through his wrappings, the brightest beacons over this gray, ruined landscape. As he raised his arms, Ruby heard the chorus of squeaks and the trundling shush of millions of tiny feet, all converging, a legion of earthbound bodies, moving over the land like a black and white spotted tide. They closed around the figure, drawing together in a closing vortex.
The figure threw his arms up. The rats converged, climbing his legs, climbing each other, forming a column of bodies—rats moving with chaotic grace over one another. The plague of rodents rose like a tornado, defying gravity. The figure disappeared in the sea of them, drowning in rats. He collapsed under the weight.
The figure stood again, but now as a symbiotic amalgamation of man and rats, the squirming creatures becoming his arms, his legs, his head. The abomination rose, three times the height of a man, its head a twisting, squirming, ever shifting form of rat bodies. Red eyes appeared in the chaos. The giant threw out its ersatz chest and roared. The earth shook. Then it raised its churning arm, and with the gesture, a crack formed in the ground, a terrible noise, as the rent in the surface tore across the land. The earth's crust melted into the fires below...
The vision persisted even after Ruby knew she was dreaming. She watched the destruction, the scorching skies behind her eyelids. She forced herself upright, opened her eyes and willed the dream away. It withdrew slowly, fading into the corners of her dim bedroom.
Her bedroom. This used to be her sanctuary, the only safe place in the world. But where could she hide when even her dreams were unsafe?
Urgent voices came from outside her window. Ruby jumped from her bed, pulled on clothes and ran out. Dennis was on the couch. He stared at the wall with mad intensity, his knees pulled to his chest, his arms cradled around them.
"You okay?" Ruby asked.
Dennis rocked. He said nothing.
"You need to get out of this apartment," she said. "There's plenty of work, and..."
His eyes remained fixed. He wasn't listening.
She passed him towards the door.
Outside in the parking lot, an argument was under way. The colonel appeared to be at the center of it. He stood relaxed while two men, the red-bearded stew cooker from yesterday and a man in a Subway uniform, were the most vocal against him. Others stood watching.
"We can't just leave," red beard demanded. "What if something happens and there's a way back home?"
"I don't think that's going to happen, Ray," the colonel replied, pointing at the cocoon. "Not with that thing here."
"Maybe if we destroy it, then we can go back. It brought us here."
"I don't think that's true either."
"Why not?" asked Subway.
"Look at the trees, the grass. They were all healthy when we first came here. It's killing them. The cocoon is as new to this environment as we are. It's poison, and I think it's poisoning all of us."
"Well, let's blow it up," said red beard.
"Do you want to be the one to do it?" The colonel asked him.
Red beard looked shocked. Everyone fell silent. Ruby understood their reluctance. The cocoon had a kind of power. Who wanted to challenge it?
"That's what I thought," the colonel said. "No, I don't think we should destroy it. But we do all need to put distance between ourselves and that thing."
"He's right," said a woman from the small crowd. "It gives me nightmares. It's horrible."
"We're all having nightmares," the colonel said. "And our structures are crumbling. I don't think what's left of our apartment building will last more than a couple of days. Within a week, all the buildings here will be rubble."
"What are you suggesting?" asked Subway. "How far do we have to go?"
"Zeke?" The colonel turned to an older gentleman, shorter, with a beard, long hair, and a wild look in his eye. "How far out would you say is safe?"
Zeke scratched his beard. "A mile out, the trees ain't affected by that thing," he said. "Two miles out, there's birds and insects, like a normal forest."
"So, it's safer if we're further out," the colonel confirmed.
Subway shirt said, "Are you suggesting we go camping out in the woods a couple miles from here?"
"We could, but I don't think that's enough. I'm suggesting we strike out and search for what passes for civilization out there."
The crowd murmured. Someone in back said, "We'll all starve."
"We'll starve if we stay," the colonel replied. "I've got a couple rifles. Old Zeke here has a small arsenal. We can hunt for food along our way. If we stay here, the game will run out, but if we're on the move, we'll be better off."
"What do you expect to find out there, Colonel?" asked Mei's mother, her once perfect hair now snarled and lopsided.
The colonel frowned, looking over the crowd. After a moment, he said, "I don't know what's out there. Zeke's been on the radio, and what he hears isn't encouraging. But..." he paused and pointed at the cocoon. "Whatever is out there, it's better than that."
* * *
Ruby packed. There was little she could take that would be of use out in the wild. Most of the food in the fridge had gone bad since the power went out. She took a bag of carrots, then searched the shelves and took a half box of graham crackers, two cans of soup, and a can opener. She wrapped two steak knives in a towel. She jammed her winter coat and gloves, her most rugged clothes, and a sleeping bag into a duffel bag.
Dennis had left his couch. She found him out on the crumbling walkway, staring down at the cocoon again.
"Why aren't you packing?" Ruby asked.
He didn't turn from the cocoon. "I'm not leaving."
"Dennis, you have to. This building won't stand much longer. By tomorrow, our apartment will fall apart."
"We can't leave. What if mom comes back?"
Ruby clenched her teeth. Her brother was old enough to buy beer, but he was more dependent on their mother than she was.
"Mom isn't coming back."
He scowled but didn't turn. "What kind of daughter would abandon her mother?"
Ruby stomped her foot. "Mom's not out there, Dennis. And if she is, we need to go find her."
"You'll die here."
He shook his head. "I'm not the only one staying. I'll be fine."
"That cocoon is poisoning the world. It's like... like radioactive fallout."
"It's not poison," Dennis said with more conviction than she'd ever heard in him. He turned to her, and she found unexpected resolve in his eyes.
"It's beautiful," he said. "It will save the world."