After nine months of training, Sergeant Rivers decided it was time for our first expedition. He split us into trios. I expected him to group me with Zip and Lindsey Li, since the three of us spent most of our time together, but instead I wound up with Sam Vazquez Jr. and Hollywood.
I didn't mind Junior. Hollywood was another matter.
“I don’t want anything to do with him,” I said, pointing. “Put me in Li’s group.”
Sergeant Rivers glowered. He was huge, over seven feet tall, and he moved with the slow precision of someone who’d spent a lifetime accidentally smashing objects in his vicinity.
“Excuse me, recruit?” he said.
“Look, Tetris,” said Hollywood, “we all know Li’s your fuck buddy, but if you really can’t go four days without a blow job, I’m sure Junior will fill in for her.”
I started toward him, but Zip grabbed my shoulder and held me back. On my other side, Li crossed her arms and seethed.
“Enough,” said Rivers. “If anybody ever argues with me again, they’re packing their bags. I’ve got nipple hairs that mean more to me than you do.”
He directed one of his cycloptic glares at each of us, the mess of interlocking scar tissue in his empty left eye socket crumpling horribly.
“As for you,” said Rivers, turning to Hollywood, “keep your fucking mouth shut.”
I was pissed all day. So was Li.
“I don’t know what you’ve been telling people, Tetris,” said Li, right before we turned in for the night, “but we’re just friends. Period. I’d never date you in a million years.”
Hollywood, three bunks over, let out a hoot.
So then I couldn't even fall asleep. Not that I was into Li. I was just trying to figure out what was so wrong with me, that she’d say something like that.
When I woke up, it felt like someone had crammed cotton balls into the space behind my eyes. The hour-long ride to the coast, in a Jeep driven by Sergeant Rivers himself, passed in a hazy blur. Every time I fell asleep in the back seat, my head clunked forward, waking me up again.
At the Coast Guard checkpoint, a bleary-eyed guardsman lifted himself out of his chair and came to check our credentials. A helicopter puttered overhead, following a row of concrete towers that receded down the coast. The towers looked like the pylons of some enormous, long-crumbled bridge.
Rivers expelled us at the forest’s edge and drove away without a word.
It was cool enough that I didn’t want to stand still, so I shuffled my feet on the wet grass. The sun sat fat and low along the horizon behind us, sending rays of light that pelted into the forest and scattered. A squirrel journeyed down one of the outermost trees. Against the broad trunk it was a fuzzy brown pixel, visible only when it moved.
Hollywood rocked back and forth on his heels, drawing air through flared nostrils. When he exhaled it made a hollow whistling sound.
“Finally,” he said, and headed down the slope toward the treeline.
Hollywood had demanded to carry our group’s SCAR-17 assault rifle. He led the way through the forest with springy, cheerful steps. Junior and I grimaced behind him. Two days in, two days back. That was the mission. No big deal. Real expeditions lasted two weeks each way.
My own personal mission was to grit my teeth and avoid getting in a fight. I could survive four days with Hollywood. I really could. Maybe, if it went well, Rivers would put me in a different group next time. This was probably all an attempt to teach me a lesson about working with people I didn’t like, which, frankly: thanks anyway.
Mercifully, Hollywood didn't say a single word all morning. Neither did Junior, and I certainly didn't have anything to talk about.
By noon we were further into the forest than I’d ever been before. As we stopped for lunch, I noticed that the birds had stopped singing. When I listened carefully I could hear the wind rustling the canopy far above.
Green-gold motes of pollen or dust drifted in the air, glittering when they crossed watery columns of sunlight. Subtle air currents tugged the specks back and forth in waves. I began to feel that the forest itself was breathing.
The trees here made the ones by the coast look like saplings. We’d passed the edge of the continental shelf, where the Earth sloped sharply downward and the bottomless forest rose to take its place. Everywhere around us, you could see cave-ins, green ravines leading into darkness. It occurred to me that falling into one of those ravines would be like falling back in time. Five hundred feet down, you’d find the loamy remains of trees that predated the pyramids.
My head began to throb with quiet dread.
Ninety-eight percent of the sun’s light is blocked by the forest canopy, but it never seems quite that dark when you’re in there. Still, because there’s hardly any light to work with, shadows can be hard to spot. If I hadn't happened to glance up at the right moment, I wouldn’t have noticed the carpet snake gliding down on its broad, wing-like rib cage until it was far too late.
“Incoming!” I shouted, drawing my pistol. The creature swooped closer, its fifteen-foot wingspan billowing at the edges. As I opened fire, my bullets singing over Hollywood’s head, I saw the beast’s wide crescent mouth gape stupidly. Fangs shone white and sharp inside.
The carpet snake’s underbelly erupted with thick geysers of blood. As it crumpled and fell, I slammed a new magazine into the pistol. Hollywood and Junior were already arming their grapple guns. I followed suit. Gunshots drew attention. We’d have to lie low for a few minutes.
“Nice eye,” said Junior when we were safe on a branch far above.
I didn’t trust my shivering lips to respond.
When the forest seemed to have forgotten we were there, we rappelled down from the tree and went over to look at the creature’s body. It was gone. Something had dragged it into a nearby ravine, leaving smeared black blood and a trail of squashed vegetation the width of a snow plow.
“How much do you think that thing weighed?” asked Junior, staring at the depression where the snake had landed.
“Oh, four, five hundred pounds, easy,” said Hollywood. He blew a bright pink bubble.
I squinted at him. “You brought gum out here?”
Hollywood rolled his eyes. The bubble, baseball-sized, popped.
“Got a problem, pal?”
I shrugged, remembering my mission.
“Then let’s get a move on,” said Hollywood.
We took it slow, drinking in the scenery. Thickets of pink flowers with curled, delicate petals lined our path. The flowers gave off an odor of rotting flesh, drawing clouds of curious flies. Everything in the forest was like that: beautiful and repulsive at the same time.
The trees were more like jagged brown skyscrapers than plants. In some places they grew so thick together that the forest became a maze with towering bark-lined walls. Most of the time, the forest had a moist, earthy aroma, like the smell in the woods back home after it rained. But then there were spots that smelled even worse than the pink flowers. When you came across one of those patches, you hustled on through. You hoped the odor was wafting up from some rotting carcass down below, because the living things that smelled like that were uniformly horrifying.
We’d just exited one of those awful-smelling areas when we decided to call it a day. Darkness would be falling soon, and we wanted to be up in the branches before then.
Plenty of the nastiest forest dwellers are nocturnal. What keeps a ranger safe overnight is his camouflaged sleeping bag. Strap your bag to a branch and nothing can see you unless it gets real close. Plus the material masks your thermal signature, which is key, because blood bats and the like can see the glow of heat radiating off a human body from two hundred feet away.
I only managed two hours of sleep that first night. Nothing had prepared me for the barrage of sounds. I held my breath after every rustle and screech. My eyes strained to pierce the sludge-like darkness at the aperture of the sleeping bag, but as hard as I pushed against it, the darkness pushed back harder.
My breathing sounded like it was blasting through a raspy old set of loudspeakers. Surely the monsters could hear me from the forest floor below. When the cruel jaws closed around my skull, would I have time to feel the blistering pain, or would my death come quicker than my nerves could sense it? I braced myself and hoped for the latter.
In the morning, droopy blue bags lurked below Junior’s bloodshot eyes. I must have had those too. I wanted to go back to sleep so bad that it made me nauseous just thinking about the length of the day ahead.
Hollywood looked like he’d scored ten hours of sleep on a fluffy king bed. As we lowered ourselves to the forest floor, I actually heard him whistling.
We’d only been walking for a few minutes when something out of sight unleashed an ear-splitting roar. That shut Hollywood up. We grapple-gunned into a tree just to be safe, but nothing showed itself. After a while we continued on our way.
Later, I went behind a tree to relieve myself and came face-to-face with an enormous brown insect, its mouth yawning in a toothless grin. I staggered back, but the bug didn’t move. After a second I realized its eye sockets were empty. It was an abandoned exoskeleton, a gigantic version of the cicada husks that dotted the trees in my back yard every fall.
I must have made a noise of surprise, because Junior poked his head around the corner to check on me.
“Well, that’s horrifying,” said Junior.
“Yeah,” I said, prodding the exoskeleton with a finger. It was thicker than I’d thought, and tough, like stiff leather.
“In Baltimore we get a big cicada swarm every seventeen years,” said Junior. “Last one was in 2013. Sky was black with them. We’re talking about billions of bugs.”
Hollywood came to have a look.
“Neat,” he said. He leveled the SCAR at the exoskeleton and fired off a burst. The noise was deafening.
“What are you thinking?” shouted Junior, grabbing Hollywood’s arm and spinning him around. Junior was almost as big as Rivers. He was definitely not a guy you wanted to mess with. A few months earlier, when Scott Brown tried to stab Hollywood, it had been Junior who stepped in and hurled Scott through a wall.
Hollywood grinned. “I was curious if these things were bulletproof,” he said, sticking a finger through one of the neat round holes in the exoskeleton. “Looks like they’re not.”
“You’re insane, firing your weapon like that,” said Junior. I searched the canopy for signs of movement. The forest crashed and rumbled, awakened from its slumber.
“Relax. We’ll just grapple up into the branches and wait for everything to die down,” said Hollywood.
“Not an option,” I said, as a tarantula the size of a bus broke through the canopy and skittered down a trunk toward us.
We ran. Hollywood, out front, hefted the SCAR in both hands and leapt a fallen branch. He was fast, probably the fastest recruit in a sprint, and Junior and I could barely keep up. We tore through a dense patch of vegetation and sprinted across a porous section of forest floor, weaving between pits with deep black gullets.
Up ahead, a flesh wasp hovered, its swollen stinger twitching in the air. Hollywood led us left. The flesh wasp buzzed after us. The giant insect’s sting carried an overpowering paralytic venom, but the awful part was that it also injected a larva. After stinging you, the wasp would continue on its way, but your misery would only have begun: in the days that followed, the larva would devour you from the inside out, assuming something else didn’t find you lying there first.
Soon our path was blocked again, this time by a swarm of blimp-sized jellyfish. Filled with hydrogen gas that they produced themselves, the jellyfish wobbled gently off of tree trunks and each other as they floated through the forest. Curtains of silvery tentacles draped beneath them, dredging across the ground in search of prey.
The jellyfish blocked every direction except the one we’d come from, and they were drifting steadily toward us.
I spun and found the tarantula clambering into view. Its legs were the diameter of telephone poles. The flesh wasp was nowhere to be seen.
“Junior,” I said, “you’ve got incendiary rounds, right?”
The three of us huddled together in the clearing.
“Yeah,” said Junior.
“In your pistol? Right now?”
“Give it to me.”
He handed me the pistol. The tarantula examined us, frozen except for its fidgeting mouthparts. The wall of jellyfish tentacles rustled closer.
“When I fire,” I said, “we’re going to run straight at the spider. Got it?”
Junior looked at me like I was insane.
“Hollywood,” I said, “Hit it in the eyes.”
He raised the SCAR and grinned. “On it.”
I swiveled. The jellyfish were only a few yards away, looming over us like purple storm clouds. I took aim with Junior’s pistol.
“Three two ONE,” I said, and fired.
The foremost jellyfish erupted in flames. It sagged and drifted out of the sky, a sudden sun in the perpetual forest dusk.
Hollywood ran toward the tarantula. The SCAR roared, cutting through the din.
For a moment I saw the flames reflected in the tarantula’s huge black eyes. Then it wheeled and fled.
Behind us, a second jellyfish went up, a dull pop followed by a crackling boom. Then a third, and a fourth. We bolted back the way we’d come. The blaze wouldn’t spread far — forest trees were remarkably fire-retardant — but the amount of hydrogen we’d set alight would still turn the undergrowth into a whirling inferno.
We found an empty clearing and grapple-gunned onto a branch high above.
Safe at last, jittery with adrenaline, I turned on Hollywood.
“This is exactly why I didn’t want you in my group,” I said.
“Chill out,” said Hollywood. “We’re fine.”
“What do you think Rivers is going to say when he sees the footage?” demanded Junior, rapping the body camera on Hollywood’s chest with an enormous knuckle.
“We were never in any real danger,” said Hollywood.
“You’re such a fucking idiot,” I said.
“Suck a dick.”
I wanted to rip his throat out. I wanted it so bad for a second that my vision went red and I actually reached a hand toward him, forgetting that we were on a branch sixty feet above the forest floor--
Junior smacked my hand down.
“Alright,” he said, “that’s enough.”
I broke eye contact with Hollywood and focused on retying my boots.
“We’ve still got a few hours until dark,” said Junior. “Then two days to get home. Forget about this until we’re out.”
Hollywood chewed his gum.
Junior shook his head. “If you pull that shit again, Hollywood, I will make sure you regret it.”
“Real scary,” said Hollywood, but we didn’t hear a peep out of him the rest of the afternoon.
I slept much better that second night. When I awoke, I felt refreshed, emboldened by the adventures of the previous day. That feeling didn't last long, though, because my feet had barely touched the ground when I heard the screams.
Distant but unmistakable: a human female screaming, in agony or fear.
Junior and I froze, but Hollywood didn't waste a second. He clipped the grapple gun to his belt, cradled the SCAR under his arm like a football, and crashed off through the undergrowth.
Half a second later, Junior followed. My heart jumped up and down, lumps of terror solidifying in my throat, but I didn't have a choice. I scrambled after them.