Up on the wall of the Hawaiian fortress, leaning on the parapet a few dozen meters from the gate, stood Lindsey Li. She wore sunglasses and stared across the stump-scarred no-man’s-land into the jungle. Every once in a while she worked up enough spittle to fire a glob over the edge.
The soldiers on watch had learned to leave her alone. Trying to engage her in conversation provoked an emotionless stare that screamed “not-to-be-fucked-with.” Privately she was the subject of much discussion, standing up there as she did in the same spot every day. Her companions—the weaselly agency guy and the academic chick who’d known her way around a machine gun—had returned to the mainland a few days back. But this one, the first female ranger any of them had ever seen, had stayed behind.
Li wasn’t sure why she’d stayed. She knew Tetris was dead. She and Dr. Alvarez had circled back after the chaos died down and taken a look in the chasm where he’d fallen. Hadn’t found anything except spiders, which had chased them right out of there. She felt no doubt whatsoever. So why did she keep coming out here?
Guilt, probably. She felt guilty. Because if she’d asserted herself, really refused to take “no” for an answer, they would have turned around, and Tetris wouldn’t have died. All that shit she gave him for being greedy, and in the end it turned out she was just as greedy as he was.
Not for the money. It was the mystery that called to her, the desire to understand. So she’d held her tongue and let Tetris goad them on, and what had they found?
A hole in the ground.
That was it. That was what Tetris had died for: an abnormally deep ravine.
She spat and watched the globe of spittle wobble and spread until it was too small to see.
I regained consciousness in total darkness. Waking took several minutes, and at first I didn’t realize what was happening, only that the darkness was changing somehow, gliding over itself on well-oiled rails. I had a sense that something lurked behind a thick black curtain in front of me.
It was quiet. Dead, dull, deep-buried silence. I thought I heard a trickling, some faraway subterranean stream.
Was I dead?
I lay on a bed of soft material. Moss, maybe. It was cool against my neck. I found that I could work my fingers into it, through tightly knit, fine-leafed vegetable matter that sprang back into place when my fingers retreated.
The moss held water like a sponge. As I felt around, dew transferred in fine drops to my skin. I lifted some of the moisture to my mouth, expecting the clear taste of a quick-running mountain stream, but tasted only my grimy fingers.
Slowly, as the murk of sleep faded away, I discovered that the lower half of my body had vanished. I felt at my legs. They were still attached. I couldn’t feel them, though, even when I prodded and pinched the skin through my pants. I slid my hands along my thighs, the flesh dead and silent beneath my fingertips. Then, right above my hips, I felt sensation return.
Touching my lower back provoked a spike of white pain so intense that I nearly bit through my tongue trying to keep from crying out. My hand came away drenched with blood. I wrenched myself up on my elbows and tugged my heavy legs into a sitting position. Groping in the dark, gasping from the pain, I found a mossy slope—a root, maybe. I dragged myself closer.
Leaning against the slope, I closed my eyes and tried to distract myself by taking an inventory of what I’d lost.
My pack: gone. Grapple gun and pistol: both gone. Gone, too, were my legs, and with them any hope of survival.
Li and Dr. Alvarez were gone. I’d never see them again. Neither would I see Zip, or my dad, with whom I would never have a chance to make amends. I’d never get a chance to track my mother down.
The whole hopeful narrative of the life I’d planned began to shudder and crumble before me. Why?
I began to cry.
I stifled the sound at first, but the sobs bubbled up out of my chest with too much force. Then I realized I didn’t care if some monster found me, I was dead no matter what, and I stopped holding back.
I hoped Li and Dr. Alvarez had continued running instead of trying to save me. They probably hadn’t. Which meant I had killed three people instead of one. And it had been me who killed us. How many warnings had I ignored? How many chances had I thrown away? I’d imagined myself to be invincible. That seemed obvious, now. The ultimate arrogance. Other rangers died; I could accept this fact. But not me. I was different. I was smarter, quicker, guarded by luck.
But the forest knew better. The forest had laughed at my arrogance and snapped my spine like a Popsicle stick.
I shouted something beyond comprehension. My voice plowed into the mossy walls and died. I sucked in air and screamed, no words, just a furious animal cry, trailing off only when my lungs deflated completely. Again I screamed, and again, and then out of the darkness came an enormous grasping claw, wrapping itself around my head, and a voice beside my ear breathed a single word:
I flailed, trying to wrench myself free, but the grip on my skull was far too firm, and at once I was bound on all sides, crushed inward, unable to shout, hardly able even to breathe, and it was only my eyes that could move, rolling in their sockets as I strained to see something, anything, of the creature that now possessed me.
TETRIS, said the voice, in my other ear this time.
“What are you?” I gasped, and suddenly it became excruciatingly bright. I had to screw my eyes shut to keep from being blinded, and when I peeled them open, I was in a room with shining white walls. I sat, immobilized by invisible restraints, atop a wicker chair, across the table from a flickering image of Junior.
“Junior?” I said, the horror of the earliest dreams returning in full force.
NOT JUNIOR, whisperscreamed the voice, as Junior inclined his head, eyes flickering from normal to shiny and back again. His mouth remained clamped shut.
“You’re it,” I said. “You’re what lives in the forest.”
The image flickered, bathing Junior head to toe in blood.
NOT LIVE. INCORRECT NOT LIVE. AM. AM AM AM AM AM.
Now the voice came from inside me, somehow, resonating in my bones.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
SHOW, THEN, said the voice, and an image slammed across my view.
I saw the Earth, the ocean-Earth with all its glittering blue. It floated like a jewel in boundless starry space. I sat atop a huge, round, cavernous rock, and watched the Earth grow before me. Deep in the asteroid, I saw/felt a seed, a kernel, a core, a not-quite embryo. And as the asteroid plunged into the atmosphere, I saw that the continents were foreign, somehow, clumped together, and I understood that this was not some alternate reality, this was Earth, the real Earth, my Earth, before the forest, sixty-five million years ago.
And then the asteroid flung hunks of plasma as the ravenous atmosphere tore at its skin, and inside I felt the seed/kernel/embryo stir, not grasp what was happening, precisely, but feel in some deep instinctual place that it was time, that life was near, and then the asteroid hit the planet and was obliterated, and I was obliterated, and the Earth was obliterated, great banks of dust rising above the shaking ground and filling the prehistorically starry sky.
Time jumped, and I shrank to the size of a virus, deep in the ocean beside the towering embryo from the asteroid’s core, and I watched as molecules began to pull apart around me, as atoms, even, bared their neutrons and protons, stimulated somehow by the embryo, electrons zipping around in panic. I felt a sensation of zooming, time quickening, and my field of view changed. The embryo grew, adding to itself exponentially, tearing apart matter in a bubbling frenzy and glomping freshly-minted molecules onto extensions of itself, on every edge, every fractally-divergent extremity sucking in water as the organism grew and grew and grew and grew, and then, as time quickened further, millenia flashing past, the oceans dwindled and the forest spread, and I finally began to understand.
“You are the forest,” I said, and the image vanished. I sat across the table from Junior, who smiled, revealing teeth that changed as frequently as his eyes, first clean and white, then bloodied, then sharp and multi-peaked like a piranha’s.
AM FOREST. AM AM AM.
“The nightmares,” I said, “the hallucinations—you sent those?”
I gritted my chipped and aching teeth. “Why? Why torture me?”
NOT INTENDED. NOT NIGHTMARES NO JUST MESSAGES. MESSAGES FILTERED POLLUTED TWISTED BY TINY PRIMITIVE HUMAN MIND, HUMAN BRAIN WITH PRIMITIVE PSYCHIC RECEPTORS VERY FAR, FAR FAR FAR VERY FAR AWAY.
I looked at Junior, focused on him. Found that, with a bit of concentration, I could stabilize his appearance.
“You were trying to communicate,” I said.
“But I never got anything out of those dreams. That’s all I thought they were. Dreams.”
HAD TO BRING—HAD TO BRING A HUMAN. HAD TO BRING YOU.
“That’s what the obelisk was? What the tablet was? What Roy LaMonte saw? All to bring someone here?”
YES. YES YES YES.
“Could have just sent a letter,” I said. “Seems like that ought to be within the capabilities of a giant sentient forest.”
Without warning, I found myself staring at another image of the globe, this time the familiar Earth with forests instead of oceans.
SIXTY-FIVE MILLION YEARS OF LIFE.
I watched sixty-five million years whip by in thirty seconds, the continents gliding and morphing into their familiar shapes.
And I watched as humans appeared, spread across the whole planet, built factories and extinguished ecosystems and, finally, began to probe in earnest at the borders of the forest. I felt the forest’s curiosity, its confusion… and, beneath it all, an unmistakable tinge of fear.
SIXTY-FIVE MILLION YEARS OF FOREST. TEN THOUSAND YEARS OF THIS.
Images whipped by: primitive humans perfecting fire. The first airships floating over the canopy. Wars on the continents, hundreds of thousands of deaths in the trenches, blood and gunpowder and screams both verbal and psychic, and then the biggest, brightest scream of them all, a flash of light over Hiroshima, and then, before the first shock had faded, again at Nagasaki—
Here the image froze. The view rotated, swiveling around the blooming mushroom cloud with its impossibly bright point of origin, and through the image it was somehow relayed to me how the forest had felt at that moment, watching the cloud rise, seeing, finally, after sixty-five million years, the birth of a terrestrial force that had the capacity to cause it harm.
DO YOU SEE? asked the forest.
“I see,” I said.
The forest brooded.
NEED TO KNOW, it said, IF HUMANS CAN BE TRUSTED.
I snorted. “And that’s why you brought me? To probe in my brain, figure out whether you could trust me? What happens if you decide you can’t?”
A flurry of images, a million swollen bulbs, lurking in the canopy all around the globe, filled to near-bursting with what I understood wordlessly to be an incredibly potent neurotoxin.
“You’re going to kill us,” I said. “You’re going to flood the air and kill us all.”
NO, said the forest. DO NOT WANT TO.
The image vanished, the white room vanished, and I found myself back in darkness, still encapsulated by what I now recognized as a form-fitting cage of throbbing plant matter.
BUT, said the forest, MIGHT HAVE TO.
BECAUSE OF THIRTY THOUSAND NUCLEAR WARHEADS POINTED AT MY NEUROLOGICAL CENTERS.
For some reason this struck me as hilarious. Perhaps I’d lost enough blood to drive me to delirium, but either way I couldn’t stop my chest from shaking. I tried to put my finger on what I found so funny, and eventually it occurred to me:
“Cooper said we couldn’t let you know that we knew you existed,” I said. “And now you’re saying that you yourself are afraid to let them know that you already know that they know that you exist?”
“Why can’t we just tell each other outright? Why this skulking in shadows?”
IF EACH ACTOR HAS THE POWER TO DESTROY THE OTHER, WITH NO CHANCE OF REPRISAL, AND BOTH ACTORS UNDERSTAND THIS FACT, A PREEMPTIVE STRIKE IS THE MOST STRATEGICALLY SOUND DECISION.
I scrunched my eyebrows together. The volume of the voice had decreased significantly, while the messages themselves had grown more complex. As if the forest was calibrating to my mind.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “In that case, why haven’t you already killed us off?”
The silence stretched on so long that I began to think it had forgotten about me.
BECAUSE, said the forest, its tone somehow reluctant, I MAY NEED YOUR HELP.
It showed me another image of the modern-day Earth. Then the view swiveled, away from the planet and out into empty, star-speckled space.
SOMETHING IS COMING, said the forest. SOMETHING FROM FAR AWAY. COMING FAST. SEVEN REVOLUTIONS, PERHAPS, BEFORE IT ARRIVES.
The stars vanished.
“What is it?” I asked.
DO NOT KNOW. BUT FEEL IT COMING, AND FEEL… MALICE. HUNGER TEETH MERCILESS APPETITE DARK RAVENING HUNGER.
I shivered, although the air down here was warm, almost too warm. My skin pearled with sweat.
“And you want our help with it, whatever it is.”
IN SEVEN REVOLUTIONS, CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH. NEED DECADES CENTURIES MILLENIA TO PREPARE. BUT WITH HUMANS, IN SEVEN REVOLUTIONS—WITH MY HELP—
Silence, again, as the forest either absorbed itself in thought or waited for my response.
“I have so many questions,” I said.
“If you wanted us to get here so bad, why not clear the monsters out of our way?”
The forest, amused: LIKE ASKING A HUMAN TO KEEP WHITE BLOOD CELLS FROM ATTACKING BACTERIA.
“Why did you stop at the coasts? Why not grow over the entire planet?”
LIKE ASKING A FIT HUMAN WHY DID HE NOT GROW TO BE FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS WHEN HE HAD ACCESS TO THE REQUISITE NUTRIENTS.
I chewed at loose skin on my lips. The pain in my back had only grown worse.
“Well,” I said, feeling gloomy again, “I don’t think I can help you explain things to the rest of the humans. My back’s broken. I’m bleeding to death.”
For a long time, I sat in my cage, listening to the burble of the faraway stream, waiting for a reply.
The forest had abandoned me. Either it had already learned everything it wanted to know, or it had no use for a human without functioning legs. Both options were equally depressing.
God, I didn’t want to die. I pressed a hand against the wound on my lower back and felt the lifeblood seeping out. This was how I was going to go, huh? Meek and silent, buried deep underground, accepting my fate without a fight?
“Hey,” I shouted, my voice hoarse. “Hey, is that it? You leaving me to die?”
Still the silence dragged on. I strained against the bonds, then gave up, counting heartbeats in my aching temples.
Something stirred in the darkness.
IT MAY BE POSSIBLE TO FIX YOU, said the forest at last. BUT THERE WILL BE A COST.
A thrill of hope shivered up my spine. I licked my ruptured lips.
“If it saves my life, I’ll pay any price,” I said.
There was definitely a stream in the distance, trickling endlessly onward.
LIKEWISE, said the forest, as tendrils plunged into my lower back, my spine, and the back of my skull, unthinkable white-hot pain slamming me unconscious.
Once, in first or second grade, Li had just about burned her house down trying to bake a cake. She still had nightmares about the egg-draped, icing-smeared kitchen, flames billowing out of the oven. Had stuck around to try and put it out and barely made it out in time. When the firefighters arrived, she was trying to get the neighbor’s garden hose to reach the crackling inferno. Years later, she retained a deep aversion to cooking.
“I can’t believe my eyes,” her mom had said when she made it back from work and saw the wreckage.
That stupid cliché had been bouncing around Li’s head ever since. But she never really understood what it meant, until one morning on the ramparts of the Hawaiian base, when someone who looked an awful lot like Tetris came strolling out of the jungle, arms swinging empty-handed at his sides.
And if she closed her eyes at first, and rubbed her sunglasses on her shirt, and had to take a second look to be sure, she could have been forgiven, because, sunglasses or no, her eyes reported that Tetris’s swinging arms, and the skin of his faintly smiling face, were tinged the unmistakable light-green tone of upper-canopy leaves.