As we delved into the forest, it became increasingly obvious that Dr. Alvarez operated as a sort of parachute slowing the expedition’s forward momentum. She insisted on stopping every fifteen yards to pluck samples of vegetation or animal dung with a pair of steel pincers that hung at her hip.
“Honestly, Doc,” said Li on the second day, “I understand that you came out here to perpetrate some serious science, and as far as I’m concerned, more power to you. But if we keep on at our current ratio of science to walking, we’re never going to get anywhere.”
“Yes, of course,” said Dr. Alvarez, prodding with the tip of her pincers at a bulging yellow plant bulb. “It’s all so fascinating, you know?”
“I’d be careful with that,” I said, pointing at the bulb. “You’re not going to like the smell that comes out if you pop it.”
Dr. Alvarez gave me a wide-eyed look of impending guilt, steel pincers frozen mid-prod.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Don’t even think about it.”
“But you can’t just say something like that and expect me to leave it alone,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Now I have to pop it. You know that. It’s basic human nature.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Li, “at least let us get to the other side of the clearing first.”
Something big rustled through a thick stand of razorgrass.
“Up!” hissed Li, and the three of us readied our grapple guns.
I aimed and fired in one fluid motion. Hook secured, I zipped upward, a few milliseconds behind Li. Then Dr. Alvarez’s bolt, fired a bit late and well off the mark, careened against the trunk and rebounded into emptiness. As it flew, trailing its impossibly thin cord, the missed hook generated a horrible silence.
“She missed,” I said, hanging upside-down with my feet braced against the branch. Before Li could respond, I dove into space, cord whizzing out of my grapple gun as I fell toward the doctor, who stood, dumbstruck, facing the quick-rippling wall of razorgrass—
Out into the open stampeded a towering avian creature, dubbed the “Megadodo” by rangers, ablunt-beaked, dim-eyed, fat-bodied bird with splayed pebbly talons and tufts of down jutting every which way. Confronted by Dr. Alvarez, with another human plummeting from the sky and a third not far behind, the Megadodo squawked and fled, stubby wings flapping.
“Oh my God,” said Dr. Alvarez, a palm pressed against her cheek.
“I thought you knew your way around a grapple gun?” said Li, dropping to the ground with the thoughtless grace of a gymnast.
“I do, I just—”
“You should be dead. Actually I’m mad that you aren’t dead. Because that is the saddest, most mind-blowingly imbecilic first-week-rookie fuck-up I have ever seen.”
“I’m sorry, Li, I just—”
“I can’t believe it! I knew this was going to happen. Tetris, did I not say that this was going to happen?”
I retracted my grapple gun’s line. Thank God it had been a Megadodo and not a snake or a scorpion. Watching another decent person get impaled by a stinger seemed like exactly the kind of thing that would push me over the edge into prescription-strength insanity.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of things that produce that kind of noise in razorgrass are class-one badass motherfucking forest things you do not want to fuck with,” said Li, very conspicuously not shouting. “You are the luckiest person I have ever met, Doc, you know that? You miss your fucking grapple and don’t even run, just stand there like a cow in a slaughterhouse, slack-jawed, mooing, and the thing that comes out of the bushes is a motherfucking MEGADODO?”
Dr. Alvarez, to her credit, met Li’s gaze.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I do know how to use the grapple gun. It must have been nerves. I haven’t missed a shot like that in months.”
“We’re turning around,” said Li. “I thought I could watch you die, Doc. I really did. But when you missed that grapple, a thirty-wheeler hit me full in the chest.”
“We can still do it,” said Dr. Alvarez. “I’ll be careful, okay? I won’t rush it next time.”
I squatted in a footprint left by the Megadodo. When I lifted my head, a fourth person had appeared in the clearing. It was Junior, legs crossed as he leaned against a trunk. He grinned at me over Li and Dr. Alvarez. The scorpion was nowhere to be seen, although the hole in Junior’s chest remained, crawling with flies.
I’d almost forgotten how tall he was. I stared him right in his featureless eyes, willing him to disappear.
He kept smiling.
“You’re not real,” I muttered. “You’re a hallucination. Go.”
Junior’s smile broadened. A red worm poked out of his ear.
I closed my eyes and counted to five. When I opened them, instead of vanishing, Junior strolled toward me, pulling the worm out of his ear hand over hand. It just kept coming. He passed between Dr. Alvarez and Li and dropped three feet of worm, coiled and wriggling, at my feet.
“Not real?” he said, smile morphing to a sneer. “Why don’t you listen? Why don’t you listen why don’t you listen WHY DON’T YOU LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN–”
“Go!” I shouted, as his words reverberated in my skull, leaving divots and keening pain. With a sarcastic leer, Junior vanished.
I felt the ground where he’d stood, temples pounding. Li and Dr. Alvarez stared at me.
“Excuse me?” said Li.
“Go on. With the mission, I mean,” I said, dusting my hands on my pants. “Doc fucked up. It was a wake-up call, sure. But she’ll be more careful from now on.”
Dr. Alvarez beamed at me in a way that would normally have left my entire body tingling. At the moment all I could muster was an upward contortion of my lips.
She didn’t ask to stop even once the rest of the afternoon, and most of the next morning, although I caught her staring wistfully at just about every discarded arthropod exoskeleton, cluster of flowers, and pyramid of excrement we passed.
The next few days passed quickly. Though the forest screeched and trilled, its inhabitants left us alone. Part of this was due to Li’s grim, silent concentration as she led the way, SCAR at the ready. At the slightest rustle of undergrowth, she would raise a hand to stop us, and we’d stand listening, holding our breath, until Li decided it was safe to proceed.
At night, I was tortured by nightmares. I lost track of the ways I saw Dr. Alvarez, Zip and Li murdered in these dreams: disemboweled, swallowed whole, set aflame by fire ants. Mercifully, I never cried out or attempted to wriggle out of my sleeping bag. I merely woke, again and again, repeating words of reassurance to myself as sweat pooled in the inlets of the bag’s acrylic interior.
On the fifth day we came across an antlion pit and paused to drink out of our canteens.
“Stay away from that,” said Li, pointing at the pit. It was longer than it was wide, a dirt-sloped trench, the bottom out of sight unless you approached the edge.
“What’s in there?” asked Dr. Alvarez.
“Mobile home-sized bug with totally wacko pincers,” I said, miming with the thumb and index finger of my left hand.
“Ah,” said Dr. Alvarez, “Myrmeleon Maximus. Colloquially, an antlion.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That.”
“I wish I could get a look,” she said.
“No you don’t,” I said.
The forest moves at several speeds. At the low end, there’s the imperceptible rate at which the trees grow, elbowing one another out of the way as they scramble for sunlight. Then the speed with which creeper vines extend, measurable on a daily if not hourly basis. The gradual creep that a tarantula employs as it pads on hairy legs toward unsuspecting prey.
But because the forest is an inherently violent place, these periods of slow, careful movement are always followed by explosive bursts of speed. The tree, after many years, creaks and tumbles to a crashing demise. The creeper vine, triggered by contact, snaps reflexively inward, undoing weeks of careful growth in a ravenous instant. The tarantula strikes so fast and suddenly that it appears to teleport.
Li saw the iguana first. It crept over a fallen branch, spines standing up along its back, red eyes narrowed. In its mouth, which hung open a few degrees, triangular teeth bristled.
Dr. Alvarez and I only noticed the iguana when Li opened fire. It bulled past us, tail slicing the air and knocking Dr. Alvarez off her feet. The iguana closed the distance before Li could react. A swing of its heavy head—it didn’t dare open its mouth under the hail of bullets—sent her flying with a rib-cracking thump. The SCAR skittered to a stop near the antlion pit.
Li hit a tree trunk and tumbled down. Across the clearing, I pulled my pistol’s trigger as fast as I could, flinging rounds into the creature’s scaly head. It turned to face me and I pivoted right, sliding into a patch of tangled weeds. Then the iguana was on me, tearing at the vegetation as I tried to wriggle deeper, the hot greedy breath washing over me—
There came a familiar gunpowder roar and a whistle of bullets through the reeds. I cowered, making myself as small as possible, and the iguana’s breath vanished. It lumbered across the clearing toward Dr. Alvarez, who lowered the SCAR she’d picked up and ran. My heart dropped as she approached the antlion pit, the existence of which she must have forgotten in the heat of the moment. She was about to die in spectacularly gruesome fashion, and I couldn’t pull my eyes away—
My breath sucked through my teeth as Dr. Alvarez took a running leap and vaulted the antlion pit, simply soared across the gap, scrabbling a bit on the far edge but making it up and out nonetheless, a nearly unbelievable act of athleticism and nerve, and then, as the iguana pursued, the antlion’s titanic pincers erupted like a sick insectoid jack-in-the-box, closing around the iguana’s midsection and dragging it into the pit.
As I struggled out of the weeds and Li rushed to Dr. Alvarez’s side, a swarm of pillbugs came bouncing and rolling like gray-plated cannonballs out of the undergrowth. They bolted across the clearing, around and over the iguana as it spasmed and snapped its jaws and bled in tall wet spurts, and I had to dive out of the way to avoid being flattened. But before I even picked myself up, I realized things were about to get even worse, because pillbugs never moved like that unless something was chasing them, and sure enough after the pillbugs came a bowel-looseningly gigantic praying mantis, four stories tall, serrated forearms folded up near its thorax, the thorax itself like an electric-green rocket booster.
The mantis was less interested in us than the battered iguana, which had begun to emit guttural shrieks, one of its front legs dangling by a translucent strand of connective tissue as the remorseless antlion’s pincers closed and opened and closed again. The mantis latched onto the iguana with razor-blade arms, and a tugging match ensued. Li and Dr. Alvarez took advantage of the distraction to grapple-gun away.
I watched the mantis and antlion fight over the iguana. With a terrific slippery tearing sound, the mantis ripped the top half of the iguana clean off, guts and blood fountaining while the head’s eyes bulged, the shrieks cut short. The iguana’s intact forearm continued to windmill, slapping hopelessly against the mantis, which dragged the head-and-upper-torso a few feet away and began to tear off thick strips of flesh.
Frozen by the gore, I took longer than I should have to notice a second praying mantis, this one stalking carefully toward me, feelers quivering above its head. I grapple-gunned at once, but the mantis followed, wings flaring as it scampered up the trunk. I undid the grapple as fast as I could to prepare for another jump. When I fired I knew it was too late, the mantis was too close, and I took a chance and leapt into the air, praying that my hook would latch in time. Dropping like a stone, I watched the hook close around a branch across the clearing, and slammed the button to cut the slack, transforming my downward momentum into a wild swing forward. At the lowest point in my swing, I hurtled past the iguana-devouring mantis, which lifted its head, quivering meat dangling out of its dainty mouth.
I retracted the line and rose, swinging back toward the mantises but ascending rapidly. As I passed overhead the ground erupted and a creature of truly titanic size, summoned by the chaos, emerged. It was shaped like a Komodo dragon but covered in matted black hair, and it had two ravenous, toothy mouths, stacked on top of each other, as if God had designed the thing with one mouth and slapped a second one underneath just for the hell of it. The antlion sucked its half of the iguana into the depths. The mantis with the other half ripped off one last scaly bite and fled, leaving a heap of bloody leftovers, which the hairy monster snarfed down at once. As its lower mouth chewed, the head whipped around, tracking the mantis as it retreated up a tree—my tree, as it happened. With a multivocal cry, the double-mouthed beast set off in pursuit.
I stood on a branch I’d thought was safe, once again aiming the grapple gun and preparing for an emergency leap, when the mantis skittered past me, trailing a shower of iguana bits. Before I could fire, the hairy creature was on me. The grapple gun flew from my hand and I tumbled down the length of the creature, managing to grab hold of the thick tangled hair just short of its rear haunch. Stunned, I clung to the creature’s side, wrapping my arms in hair to keep from falling off because I could think of no alternative.
The creature smelled like wet dog times a million. My pack bounced crazily, threatening to tear me off and send me tumbling through open space. I squinted past tons of raging animal muscle and saw the canopy approaching fast, the mantis a few meters ahead. Then leaves and branches whipped by and I had to hide my face. Either the creature hadn’t noticed me holding on or it didn’t care, and either way I didn’t see a whole lot of options besides sticking it out and hoping we wound up on the ground long enough for me to dismount.
With a crash and a sudden shift of momentum that nearly flung me skyward, we crested the top of the tree. I was blinded by the sun, hot and huge against a motionless sky. In the distance, the mantis buzzed away, wings a blur as it soared above the wind-rustled canopy. The creature I rode unleashed a roar from both mouths. It clung, teetering, to the top of the tree. I heard an odd clicking sound and turned to see a flat tick bigger than me making its way through the matted landscape of fur. The tick’s eyes were dull and expressionless, but its slavering mouthparts betrayed its carnivorous intentions.
I pulled out my pistol and shot the approaching tick four times in the head.
With a roar, the hairy beast reared on its perch and contorted itself to try and get a look at me. I lost my grip on the pistol. Somehow, impossibly, the tick crept closer, ruined face hanging loose. I climbed laterally away, toward the underside of the creature, but then an enormous hawk came screaming out of the sky and sank its talons into the hairy flesh mere inches from my face—
Each of its talons buried deep as a railroad spike, the hawk flapped its wings, gouging at the beast’s eyes with a wicked beak. As the beast writhed and tumbled, both mouths snapping, I lost my hold. Jettisoned away from the melee, I fell through thick leaves and bounced to a bone-jarring halt against a wall of sharp twigs. Covered in gashes, including one on my neck that I prayed had missed my carotid, I woozily surveyed the place I’d landed.
It was a bird’s nest, complete with eggshell fragments and a disarray of discarded feathers.
Suddenly I understood why the hawk had picked a fight with such a gigantic foe. From the other side of the nest came three fledgling hawks, whose roundness and curious mannerisms would normally have provoked a smile and an “awww” from me, except that in this case they were large enough to regard me as an afternoon snack.
“No,” I said, as the three fledglings hopped closer. “No, guys, trust me, don’t even think about it.”
With my grapple gun and pistol both gone, I settled for drawing one of my climbing picks, leaving my left arm free as I circled the nest.
“Don’t do it,” I warned the foremost fledgling.
As I climbed the lip of the nest, brandishing my climbing pick, a fledgling worked up the nerve to charge. Sensing a way out, I sidestepped and lunged onto its back as it passed. We tumbled out of the nest, ripping through leaves and branches, and then into open air, my arms wrapped around the fledgling’s neck. Down we plummeted, the rushing air intensifying into a roar. The forest floor loomed.
“Come on,” I screamed. “Fly!”
Screeching, the fledgling flapped its wings, and our descent slowed. No matter how it tried, the bird couldn’t gain altitude with me on board, but it managed at least to flatten our trajectory, so that when we hit the ground we rolled instead of splattering.
Still, the speed at which we made impact was bone-splintering. Through the undergrowth I flew, glancing off rocks and roots, until I came to rest against a massive tree trunk.
The last thing I saw before blacking out was Li descending like an angel on her grapple gun’s line, looking like she’d just witnessed a miracle and couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t all one big and elaborate trick.