Our eyes concealed behind sunglasses, Li and I watched Dr. Alvarez scurry through an obstacle course. She vaulted a series of fences and climbed a net with ease. On the balance beam that followed, she looked shaky for a moment, but recovered and finished it out quickly. The next few obstacles gave her no trouble at all. To complete the course, she had to ascend a rope and ring a bell. It took her a while, but not as long as I would have expected.
“All in all,” said Cooper, “an unquestionably impressive display.”
Li had her arms crossed and a foot tapping furiously. She checked the stopwatch.
“Sixty-five seconds,” she said, and tossed it to Cooper, who nearly dropped it. “My turn.”
Dr. Alvarez came over, slick with sweat and trying not to pant. As Li set up, the doctor cleared her throat. I became aware that she was staring at me.
“How did I do?”
In shorts and a tank top, with her hair cut short, she no longer looked like a scientist. Her chin curved up to pointy cheekbones and eyes as sharp as a diamond-tipped drill.
“Fine,” I said. “Stumbled on the beam. Took too long at the end. Otherwise, fine.”
“I see,” said Dr. Alvarez.
Cooper indicated to Li that he was ready, and she streaked into the course. Over the fences she flew, up and over the net, along the balance beam at a sprint. The rest of the course passed in a blur. Scaling the rope took mere moments.
“Thirty-eight seconds,” said Cooper when Li jogged over.
“So,” said Li, “turns out sixty-five is awful.”
“He said it was fine,” said Dr. Alvarez, pointing at me.
Li rolled her eyes. “He’s being nice because he thinks you’re cute.”
I made a strangled noise.
“I was being nice because I’m a nice guy,” I said.
“Run it again,” said Li.
Dr. Alvarez gave her a sour look. “I don’t have my breath back.”
“Exactly,” said Li.
This time Dr. Alvarez finished in seventy-nine seconds.
“That’s what I thought,” said Li. “No endurance.”
“This is unfair,” said Dr. Alvarez, face the color of a raspberry.
Li’s glare was equal parts rage and pity. She planted a finger in Cooper’s chest. “I want out. She’s out of shape and her attitude’s all wrong.”
Cooper tried and failed to brush the hand away. “You carried a cripple through the forest for a week and a half. How is this harder than that?”
“It’s not,” said Li, “but that doesn’t mean I want to do it.”
Cooper turned to me. “What about you?”
I fiddled with my car keys. “If Li’s out, I’m out.”
“I thought you might say that,” said Cooper. “Which is why we’re prepared to offer you each ten million dollars for this expedition.”
My jaw fell open.
“What?” I squawked.
“Forget it,” said Li. “You can’t bribe someone into suicide.”
“What she means is, can we get back to you tomorrow?” I said, grabbing Li’s arm.
“I thought we were going to swing by the grapple gun course,” said Cooper.
“I’m sure she’s a regular old expert,” I said, pulling Li away. “Gotta go! Talk to you soon.”
“Well, okay,” said Cooper. Dr. Alvarez smoldered beside him.
In the car, Li slammed her door shut. I dropped the keys in a cup holder.
“Are you out of your mind?” she said.
“Ten million dollars, Li. Christ! Do you understand how much money that is?”
“Won’t do us any good if we’re dead.”
“We won’t die,” I said. “In fact, it’s safer this way, because we can retire afterward. Survive one trip and we’re set for life. Otherwise we’re risking our lives on expedition after expedition.”
“What happened to being an explorer?” she asked. “I thought you weren’t in this for the money.”
I considered this and backtracked.
“It’s not just about the money,” I said.
“You heard Cooper. This is some top-secret world-altering shit. They’ve got a whole electromagnetic whatchamacallit out there, just begging to be probed.”
She shook her head, but I could tell that I was getting through.
“What was it you told me back in training? That the forest had to be more than what it seemed? Now we’ve finally got a chance to figure out the truth, and you want to chicken out?”
“I don’t want to think about this right now,” said Li.
“I could use a drink too.”
“Not what I meant. It’s four in the afternoon.”
Li sighed. “Fine.”
Hamilton’s Tavern had just opened an hour ago. It was deserted. At one end of the bar, a pair of businessmen dug into sloppy burgers, leaning over their plates to keep the juices from dribbling onto their clothes. At the other end of the bar sat Hollywood.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Li.
Hollywood turned at the sound of her voice.
“Ha,” he barked.
“Haven’t seen your ugly mug in a while,” said Li, taking a seat beside him. I sat on her opposite side.
“I’ve been staying off the radar,” said Hollywood, rubbing the bridge of his crooked nose. His drink was mostly gone.
“Any expeditions recently?”
“Nah,” said Hollywood.
The bartender came by. He was a round man with eyebrows like fuzzy caterpillars.
“What can I bring you folks?”
After enduring a long-winded spiel on the merits of various local craft breweries, I ordered something called a Speedway Stout. Li asked for a cider.
As we waited for the drinks, Li filled Hollywood in on our latest expedition. She left out the tablet and the structure in the clearing. The rest of the story was delivered in meticulous, gory detail, down to the precise velocity with which orange goo exited the abdomen of a spider upon forced implosion via gigantic ape fists.
“Anyway,” said Li when she’d finished, after we sat in silence for a minute or two, “How have you been?”
“Truth is,” said Hollywood, scratching his chin, “I’ve been kind of fucked up.”
Hollywood’s eyes flicked over Li’s face, then mine, as he dug at the dirt under his fingernails.
“Forget it,” he said, and finished his drink.
The skin of my arms pebbled up.
“You can’t say something like that and then say it’s nothing,” said Li.
“I’m fine,” said Hollywood.
“Bad dreams?” I suggested.
Hollywood tilted his head. His fingers ceased their fidgeting.
“No dreams,” said Hollywood pleasantly. “Have you been having dreams, Tetris?”
It spilled out before I could stop it. “Dreams about Junior. Except his eyes are black and he’s got a hole in his chest.”
“Sucks,” said Hollywood, with a sarcastic whistle. “PTSD, maybe?”
I grimaced. If I was actually going crazy, the last thing I wanted was for Hollywood to know.
“Is that what happened the other night?” asked Li, scrunching her eyebrows. “When you jumped out of bed screaming?”
Hollywood chuckled. “Some things never change.”
“Fuck off,” said Li.
“When’s the wedding? Dibs on best man.”
“You can be a bridesmaid,” I offered.
“If I ever get married, I’m not inviting either of you,” said Li.
“Ouch,” said Hollywood.
When Li turned away, Hollywood’s eyes flitted across her body. Suddenly I was furious. What right did he have to ogle her in public?
He caught me staring and grinned. His canines were yellow.
“Hollywood,” said Li.
“How much would they have to pay you to take a random civilian on an expedition?”
“A little extra, I guess. Ten thousand bucks?”
“It wouldn’t worry you that you couldn’t trust her?”
“You think I trust rangers?”
I made a mental note that this was the most stereotypically “Hollywood” thing I had ever heard.
“Look,” said Hollywood, leaning on the bar, “every time we go out there, it’s with the understanding that nobody, however experienced, is immune to the occasional fuck-up. Zip fucked up, didn’t he? And he was an acceptably competent little munchkin.”
“The chances would be so much higher.”
“That doesn’t matter if you respond to fuck-ups intelligently.”
“You mean you’d let them die,” I said.
“Hell yeah,” said Hollywood. “I admire what you did for Zip, but you have to admit it was stupid.”
“We knew we could save him,” said Li.
“I counted six or seven places where you should have been dead,” said Hollywood.
“But we’re alive.”
“Point is, you got lucky,” said Hollywood.
I replayed the scene in the forest, replacing Zip with Dr. Alvarez. Would we have descended into the pit for her?
“I can’t believe you’d take someone along only to abandon them,” said Li. “That’s disgusting.”
“Come on,” said Hollywood. “Long before we left, I’d tell them: look. If you fuck up, I’m not risking my life to save you. You’ll just fucking die.”
Which must have resonated with Li, because in the morning she greeted Dr. Alvarez and Cooper with open arms.
“Doc,” said Li, “you can come along.”
Dr. Alvarez smiled. “Thanks for giving me a chance.”
“I’m not finished. You can come along, but you have to understand one thing: I’m not risking my life to save you.”
“If you fuck up, I’m leaving you to die. Understood?”
The smile wavered a bit. “Understood.”
“I mean, we’re not going to actively try to get you killed or anything,” I offered.
“Don’t let him take the edge off of it,” said Li. “I don’t give you good odds. This is fifty-fifty, at best.”
“Okay,” said Dr. Alvarez.
“Are you okay with that? Are you okay with a fifty percent chance that this mission kills you? Is it that important to you?”
Dr. Alvarez looked at Cooper. He shrugged.
“Yes,” said Dr. Alvarez.
Li squinted at the clouds sailing across the sky. Dopplered strains of a passing car’s music overlaid the sound of distant crows interfacing.
“Alright,” she said. “When do we start your training?”
“Whoa,” said Cooper. “What do you mean, ‘start?’”
“She needs two months, at least,” said Li. “Put her in with Rivers’ next batch.”
“She’s already had months of perfectly intensive training,” said Cooper.
I got up in his face. “Sell her short on this and it’ll be your fault when she dies.”
“I’ll do the training,” said Dr. Alvarez.
Then she smiled at me, and something inside me melted, and I realized maybe I did think she was cute after all.