We've figured out physics. We've put humans in orbit, on the moon, and in a few years we'll be sending them to Mars. We've mapped the globe, split the atom, cured cancer, and perfected plumbing. But there’s still one question we haven’t answered. One place right here on Earth that remains a total mystery, because we’ve only scratched its surface: the World Forest. That’s what rangers are for.
- RangerCorp promotional brochure
On the ninth day of our eleventh expedition, with a lemony aroma in the air, we came across a creeper vine.
“Check it out,” said Li, slinging the SCAR-17 across her back.
I crouched beside her. The vine was thick and sinewy, an inert green snake. It trailed into a crevice a few feet away.
Li gave it a poke with a stick. The vine tugged the stick from her hand and hissed out of sight.
A year or two earlier, this would have filled me with dread. Now I just grinned, imagining the plant’s frustration when it discovered that its tendril had been fooled. No tasty morsel this time.
This expedition, we’d set out much further down the coast, near San Diego. The previous team assigned to this region had gone missing, presumed dead. Apart from a slight temperature increase, it was more or less the same forest.
“I was thinking about what you said, Tetris,” said Zip.
“About me not spending my money.”
“There’s one thing I’d blow it on.”
“Well, I mean, other than that.”
“Got plenty of that already.”
“As far as I know, those are the only expensive things you like. So.”
“Tacos. Are not expensive.”
“I mean the best tacos. In the world.”
“Even good tacos are not expensive.”
“Somewhere out there, there is a man who has spent his entire life making tacos.”
“Or woman,” said Li.
“And this man—”
“—who I presume lives on a Mexican mountaintop somewhere, far from distractions, and makes tacos day in and day out, feeding them to the wildlife, because the customer is a hassle, see, the tacos themselves are the point—”
I had a bug bite the diameter of a quarter on my neck, but I refused to scratch it.
“Impoverished taco hermit is about the worst job I can think of,” I said.
“You clearly haven’t worked in a funeral home,” said Zip.
“Please, God, no, I take it back.”
“When I was fifteen, I started helping my dad with the embalming.”
“Here we go.”
“You don’t want to know what we had to do to those bodies,” said Zip.
“No more than the first time.”
“First you suck out all the blood and replace it with embalming fluid. Fasten the eyes and mouth shut. All the leak-prone orifices have to be plugged. If a person’s been decapitated or something, you have to piece them back together.”
“No doubt. No doubt.”
“A lot of the time when we pump the embalming fluid in, the deceased gets an erection. If it’s a dude. We have to, like, tape it to his leg.”
This was new information. The image rose at once: a mourning family crowded around an open casket, everyone studiously ignoring the tent in the pants of the silver-haired occupant.
“The worst I saw was a guy who got run over by a forklift.”
“Totally ‘forked’ up, huh?”
“Tore his legs off. Dragged his top half across ten yards of gravel.”
“Real talk: how does that even happen?”
“Dunno. Runaway forklift.”
“Those can’t possibly go more than ten, fifteen miles an hour.”
“My dad was an artist. Sewed the two halves together, repaired the skin, and rebuilt the skull with putty. You would have thought he died of a heart attack.”
I thought of my brother, small and bald and cold in the casket.
“People say the forest’s so dangerous,” said Zip, “but out on land you can get torn to shreds by a forklift. You can slip off a grapple gun course. You can trip getting off the bus and break your neck.”
“Wow, you might be on to something,” I said. “Wait—which is the place with snakes the size of subway trains, again?”
“Dead is dead,” said Zip. “It doesn’t matter whether it was a drunk driver or a subway snake that killed you.”
We edged around a ravine as a distant creature skreeled and sang.
“What you really have to watch out for,” said Li, “is an inebriated subway snake.”
Zip had just opened his mouth to respond when a clatter of chitinous legs rose from below. We drew our grapple guns and rocketed away.
A flood of giant spiders burst through the floor, scrabbling over each other and onto the trunk of our tree. Up they climbed, zeroing in like bloodhounds drawn to a scent.
“There,” said Li, pointing at a tree some distance away. We fired our grapple guns and swung across. The rush of air made my eyes water. Spiders flooded after us. Tens of thousands of them. I’d never seen anything like it. The producers would eat this footage up if we survived long enough to bring it home.
By the time we’d landed and rearmed our grapple guns, the spiders were halfway up this tree too.
“We’ve gotta go higher,” said Zip.
Only sunlight could drive these things away. It was worth the risk of brushing the canopy. Our grapple guns fired, one after the other, and we zipped to a thick branch far above. The spiders kept coming.
“If y’all have any bright ideas, I’m listening,” said Li.
At this altitude, the tree’s sway was noticeable. Another jump and we’d be in the canopy proper, where the grapple guns were useless.
“They’ll stop climbing,” said Zip.
The spiders continued climbing.
“You’d think the light would have turned them away by now,” said Li.
There was something large and scaly hidden in the leaves twenty or thirty feet above us. Four orange eyes blinked in counter-clockwise order, then vanished.
The spiders knocked each other off as they flowed up the trunk, hundreds flailing through empty air at any given time, crunching into the horde like leggy cannonballs.
“Another tree,” I said. “They’ll have to climb the whole thing again.”
We swung to another tree. Sure enough, the flood of spiders began scaling this one too. From this height, their shapes were indistinguishable. They were an amorphous black mass, geologic in scale.
The ones on our previous tree continued to climb. It was clear that they intended to skitter across and sandwich us from above.
“We can hardly be worth the effort they’re exerting,” I said.
“Speak for yourself,” said Zip.
“They’ll give up,” said Li, pointing out another tree.
But spiders were already scaling that one, along with every other tree in the vicinity. The net had begun to close.
An ominous rumble joined the maelstrom. As our tree shuddered, the spider-covered ground puckered and swelled. Out burst the twirling maw of a creature so immense it could have swallowed the Washington Monument. All mouth and neck, with no eyes I could see, the worm didn’t eat the spiders so much as drink them, sucking them down its bright pink throat.
Our tree teetered, its root network upended.
“Go,” shouted Li, and we fired our grapple guns, swinging free just as the tree went thundering down. The impact sent others tumbling like gigantic, groaning dominoes. Denizens of the canopy shrieked and roared, searching for a stable place to take hold. A dragonfly zipped by in a panic, and enormous mosquitoes cruised aimlessly overhead.
We prepared our grapple guns again. The spiders had become the prey. Away they scuttled, retreating into to the tangled depths as the pink creature slurped them down like water droplets off a leaf.
A few jumps later, when we paused to catch our breath, I began to shudder. I clamped my mouth shut, but my chest shook harder and harder, until finally it all came spilling out, a deluge of painful, hiccuping laughter. Zip and Li must have felt it too, because they grinned like toddlers meeting a cat for the first time.
“Those stupid fucking spiders,” I choked, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. “Did you see—did you see?”
Li spat. The three of us watched the glob of spittle tumble, shrink, and vanish.
“Fuck,” she said, savoring the word, drawing it out like a death row inmate taking her last drag of a cigarette. “I love you guys.”
“Yeah, okay, I take that back,” she said.
Warmth pulsated in my veins. This was why I was here. Zip unwrapped a protein bar and took a bite.
“I’ve got a story,” he said with his mouth full.
“Always bragging about your conquests,” said Li.
“Not that kind of story,” said Zip.
I grabbed a protein bar of my own.
“Sunday afternoon,” said Zip, “I roll out of bed, put on my flip-flops, and head to the gas station for a bite to eat.”
“You’re the only person making three hundred grand a year who’s ever used ‘gas station’ and ‘bite to eat’ in the same sentence,” said Li.
“I grab the usual—hot dog, sour gummy worms, onion rings, 76-oz blue slushie—and I’ve got all this shit cradled in my arms as I go flip-flopping up to the register.”
Zip took a big gulp from his canteen.
“So I’m standing there with my arms full, trying to figure out how to retrieve my wallet from my pajama pants, and the cashier is glaring at me, because no matter how many days in a row he sees me, I am still a buff black man, and therefore probably a criminal. Same old everyday shit.”
“Downright quotidian,” said Li.
“Until a skinhead walks in and pulls a gun. Shirtless, full-body tattoo, swastikas aplenty, red eyes, the classic package. Standard citizen, at this point, would be unnerved. But I’m three feet from this thug as he waves the pistol, bellowing about the Reichstag or whatever, and all I can do is stare at his twiggy little legs. Up top he’s got biceps, shoulders, et cetera. Except he’s never heard of squats, never caught wind of dead lifts, and he looks like you could knock him over with a squirt gun.
“Well, I must have chuckled, because this fine Southern gentleman invades my personal space, leans over me, and positively shrieks the N-word.
“‘Gib mir dein wallet,’ he screams, and jams the pistol in my sternum, which knocks the slushie out of my arms. This makes me very upset. It is his first major error.
“I tell him no problem, one wallet coming right up. I lean down and place the hot dog, onion rings, and gummy worms beside the spreading slushie mountain. Then I straighten, produce my wallet, and hand it to him. The whole time, we’re staring right in each other’s eyes, it’s like the climax of a fucking rom-com.
“He’s got my wallet now, and this is where he makes his second mistake, because he pulls that Glock back and flips the wallet with his other hand to see what’s in there. Soon as he breaks eye contact I leap to the side and grab his arm—the gun goes off, BLAM! Shatters the glass in the beer section—and I snap his wrist. Gun falls into the slushie puddle, I kick it away, and as this dude’s starting to scream I shove his legs out from under him and slam his face on the linoleum. And I swear to you, friends—I swear that this man’s bald head bounced.”
“Every word of that story is imaginary,” said Li.
“I have the police report to prove it,” said Zip. “Remind me to show you when we get back.”
“What happened next?” I asked.
“Thug was out cold in a puddle of blue-raspberry blood. Cashier issued another slushie free of charge, so I sipped on that until the police arrived.”
“You crack his skull open?” I asked, hungry for details. What had the impact sounded like? Had his body spasmed around, or gone straight limp?
Zip shrugged. “I didn’t hang around long. Had a date that afternoon.”
“Oh, of course,” said Li.
“Point is,” said Zip, “I think this job changes us. Even with that gun against my chest, I wasn’t scared.”
“I bet that asshole’s skull cracked wide open,” I said, satisfied by the thought. “I bet he’s fucking dead.”
“Huh,” said Zip, and took another drink from his canteen.