At first, the jostling of the stretcher was enough to keep Zip awake. He was even alert enough to spot a flesh wasp and croak at us to get down. But the next day he hardly opened his eyes, and the day after that, we couldn’t wake him up. His forehead was aflame.
“Trees look like they’re thinning out to you?” I asked, lifting the stretcher over a fallen branch.
“Yeah,” said Li, “yeah, we’re almost there. Today, I think.”
“Today,” I repeated. I could feel the forest laughing at us.
By the evening we were close. The trees grew smaller, the canopy hanging lower and less dense overhead. There were even a few gaps in the leaves, puzzle pieces of darkening sky. Soon it would be night.
Without discussing it, Li and I came to the same conclusion. We weren’t stopping. We flicked our headlamps on and increased our pace as much as we dared.
“Time to radio for pickup?”
“We can’t,” said Li. “They can’t know we’re back.”
“Zip’s going to die,” I said.
“I’ll call 911 on my cell,” said Li. “As soon as I’ve got service.”
I grimaced but didn’t argue. If we were truly uncovering some insidious government conspiracy, falling into their hands would put all three of our lives in danger. But waiting for cell coverage instead of using the radio would push back our call until we were only a few minutes from shore.
So, the new plan: call 911. Sneak back to civilization in the ambulance, set Zip up in a hospital, then bolt for the nearest internet-equipped PC to post our footage. Hollywood lived in San Diego. Maybe he’d help. Although something told me he wouldn’t be interested in involving himself.
Our ranger careers were finished. We were breaking six contract clauses and a handful of federal laws. The lawyers would say we were putting Zip’s life in danger, stealing expedition footage and releasing it outside the company’s channels for personal gain. At best, Li and I were headed for jail. At worst, the government would find a way to make us disappear.
Walking through the forest at night made the hair on my arms stand up. Darkness pressed in on the cone of light from my headlamp. I tried not to think about the predators that could be stalking us, lurking just out of sight. The list was long. But we had to be close to the shore.
After a while, Li paused. We put down the stretcher and she rooted through her pack for her phone.
“One bar,” she whispered triumphantly, flashing the screen my way. She dialed 911.
“Hi, we need an ambulance along the shoreline south of San Diego,” said Li, keeping her voice low and flicking her beam around the clearing. “We’re coming out of the forest with a critically injured person.”
The darkness rustled and trilled as Li listened to the voice on the other end.
“No, I don’t have a more precise location,” she said. “Get rolling and I’ll call when we’re out.”
Something trumpeted. The ground shook. Li shut the phone, yanked up her end of the stretcher, and ran. I struggled to keep track of the ground beneath my feet, scarcely avoiding tripping over the branches and vines that zipped into view.
We ran for a long time, until red daggers filled my lungs. At last the trumpeting grew distant, as whatever had chased us gave up or found more promising prey. We kept running: the trees ended up ahead. The incandescent eyes of a Coast Guard tower glimmered through the leaves.
As we stood, blinking and gasping, under the floodlights, an ambulance came barreling down the slope, trailed by several unmarked black vans.
Li ripped off her headlamp and ran a hand through her close-cropped hair.
“They already know,” she said.
In a moment we were encircled. Out of the ambulance sprang paramedics, who rushed to Zip and transferred him onto a stretcher of their own. Out of the vans came a dozen men in bulky black body armor. They trained their rifles on us as the paramedics wheeled Zip away.
“Drop your weapons,” shouted one of the soldiers, and we obliged, tossing them into a pile: the SCAR, the pistols, and the grapple guns. Li slung her pack to the ground, and I followed suit, rolling my aching shoulders.
“Easy,” I said.
“Hands on your head,” screamed the soldier.
Too tired to protest, I lifted my grimy hands and rested them atop my head. Li crossed her arms across her chest and glared. Looking at her, I dropped my arms back to my sides.
“I said hands on your heads!”
“That’s enough,” said Agent Cooper, stepping out of the rightmost van. “They’re cooperating. Stand down.”
His smile was uncomfortably wide, and I expected a slim tongue to come flickering through the teeth.
“Welcome back,” said Cooper. “We’ll take care of Mr. Chase. But you two are coming with me.”