Cooper sat across from us in the back of the van with the smile still plastered across his face. After a while he donned a pair of sunglasses. Li curled and uncurled her fingers, sometimes cracking the knuckles. I reclined with hands on my knees. Why hadn’t they handcuffed us? Didn’t they know what we were?
I eyed the soldier next to me. His head was a boulder perched atop mountainous shoulders. There was a comparatively tiny pistol in a holster at his side. I could grab the gun before he could react, put an incapacitating round in his knee cap, turn, and drop the other guard. Li would pick up on the plan as soon as I moved. She’d lunge across the aisle, knock Cooper out, and move on to the soldiers who flanked him—but then what? And what if something went wrong? What if we had to kill someone?
That’s what Cooper was counting on. We weren’t murderers.
Still, the lack of respect irked me. I’d like to see these thugs survive three days in the forest, weighed down by bulky body armor and assault rifles. The vests might stop bullets, but foot-long teeth would slice through them like lasers through tissue paper.
In the 80s the US Army tried sending a full battalion of soldiers into the forest. These were the best of the best: steely killing machines, bristling with the most fearsome weaponry available. For the first time, it was thought, military technology would give mankind a fighting chance against the denizens of the forest. This was the experiment. High-caliber automatic weapons, armor-piercing rounds, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, flamethrowers that spewed their searing payload a hundred yards—how could anything composed of mere flesh and bone withstand such an assault?
Dutifully, in a nod to the experts who counseled vigorously against any excursion of this size, the battalion was accompanied by five ranger guides.
At first, the expedition met little resistance. Flesh wasps and other airborne creatures were terminated on sight, reduced to bloody globs by shoulder-mounted missiles. Spider burrows were identified and cleared with grenades. Raising everyone’s spirits, a marauding subway snake was brought low by blistering fire from machine guns and rocket launchers. Minimal casualties were sustained.
By the fourth night, the battalion had fallen into a routine. After making camp, the soldiers would set up a perimeter of floodlights, leaving a full quarter of their number on watch at any given time. Around this bubble of light, the forest roiled and screamed, but anything that ventured inside was driven back by a flood of lead.
The soldiers began to feel safe. They grew confident, no longer fearing the titanic creatures that gnashed their teeth in the darkness.
But the forest had not given up. Insistently, it probed the contours of the bubble the men had constructed. It knew that they were most vulnerable at night. Men had to sleep. The forest did not.
Deep in the fourth night, as the lookouts’ eyelids grew heavy, the forest struck.
An oval of floor beneath the sleeping soldiers crumbled away, revealing a leviathan all serrated teeth and yawning gullet. Half a company was lost at once, sucked into the whizzing rows of teeth. As the creature flopped its hideous mass higher, foul cyclone breath washing over the bubble, a second assault was launched. A thousand spiders, screeching in unison, rushed down the trees and fell upon the scattered soldiers.
The noise must have been terrific. Suddenly it was every man for himself, and all military discipline was forgotten. Muzzle flash lit the clearing in lieu of the overturned floodlights, and flamethrowers wielded in panicked disarray set vegetation and piled carcasses alight.
As the defensive perimeter crumbled, new predators came stampeding in from all sides, elbowing their way into the bloodshed.
To their credit, some of the soldiers weathered the storm, collapsing inward into a core so dense and tight and well-armed that it could not be breached. If the fearsome creatures had worked together, these remaining humans would have been swiftly devoured, but once the battle was underway the forest turned on itself. The humans crept away, and when morning came the light revealed that thirty had survived. Among them: three of the five rangers.
Licking their wounds, the survivors headed for shore. Without a battalion’s full firepower to deter them, guerilla predators nipped at the party from all sides—a trapdoor spider snatching one man and vanishing into its tunnels, a blood bat descending silently and soaring back to the canopy with human prey in its talons—and the nights were fraught with terror.
Of the nine hundred men who entered the forest, only two survived.
The van rolled to a bumpy stop.
“Get out,” said Cooper.
We stepped into an empty parking lot beside a long, squat building. Towering floodlights bombarded us with artificial light. The brightness hurt my eyes. The building only seemed to have one floor, but its footprint was enormous, the corners far away in the distance. There were no windows.
Taking his time, Cooper stepped out the back of the van and sank his hands into his pockets.
“Come on,” he said, and motioned with his chin.
“No,” said Li. She planted her muddy boots on the asphalt. “We’re not going anywhere until we get some answers.”
Cooper was inscrutable behind his sunglasses. “You’ll get your answers. Inside.”
He sighed and brushed dust from his suit jacket.
“I’m not the bad guy,” he said. “Which, I realize, is what the bad guy would say. But I’m saying it nonetheless.”
They ended up having to handcuff us after all.