On the eleventh morning of our expedition, we came to the edge of a canyon.
It was a gash so broad and deep that the canopy could scarcely bandage it. Branches strained to nuzzle across the gap. Sunlight snuck through, harsher than a camera flash, and painted jittery shadows against the chasm’s walls.
The light pierced a mile into the depths, a descent criss-crossed by fat, grasping roots. Nothing moved.
We set out along the edge. Half an hour later, we found a fallen tree that bridged the gap. The ravine curved away forever. I probed a sore tooth with my tongue. The bridge-tree must have fallen recently, because blue sky poured through a canopy-wound overhead.
Blue was a rarity in the forest, existing only to denote poison. For instance: blue frogs the size of meat lockers. They would leave you alone, but if you ever had the misfortune to touch one, the toxins coating their skin would squirm through your pores and liquefy your organs.
We crossed, quickly but carefully, along the very center of the trunk. Safe among the trees on the other side, I exhaled.
“Felt like an ant on the sidewalk out there,” I said.
Zip adjusted the straps of his pack. “Twelve-year-old me must have murdered twelve billion of those.”
“How unique,” said Li.
“I don’t think you grasp how seriously I took my quest of entomologiful eradication.”
“’Fuck ants,’ essentially,” said Zip. He tried to turn a shudder into a shrug. “I hate ants.”
That night, a storm rolled over the forest. As we settled into our sleeping bags, a soothing drone of raindrops masked the normal nighttime sounds. Distant thunder grumbled. Rainwater slithered through the leaves and fell in intermittent three-hundred-foot pillars.
The way our tree swayed back and forth, you could tell that the storm was stirring up fierce winds above the canopy, but by the time it reached us, the gale was toothless. A gentle swirl of fresh, wet air was all that remained, and we drank it in with relish.
Kept awake by the sound of rain, I stared out the top of my sleeping bag and remembered Boy Scouts. On a camping trip at Badger Falls, when I was thirteen, it had rained every night for a week. On that trip, I’d been the only kid without a dad. At night I pressed the wall of the tent and watched the droplets accumulate. Hoping to taste pure rainwater, I licked up some moisture I collected this way, but it tasted like my palm—the acrylic sting of bug spray mixed with salty sweat.
In the forest, rangers collected water via condensation nets. Tonight, with the rainfall providing extra moisture, those nets would fill our canteens in minutes. That was pure rainwater, or close enough, but by the time you took a drink, it tasted like the canteen.
Asleep at last, I stood on the forest floor, in the dark, alone. The storm had passed, and all was still, until a thousand spiders crawled up from below. They encircled me, crowding against each other so that their hairy legs scrabbled and interlocked. Fangs gleamed between innumerablepedipalps, but the fear I felt seemed disconnected from the spiders somehow.
Out of the darkness swayed Junior, held aloft by the scorpion’s stinger.
“Tetris,” he said with a carnivorous smile. His teeth were much too long.
I peered into his black eyes.
“You haven’t been listening to me,” said Junior, his voice resonating in my bones.
The spiders chittered and rubbed their mandibles together. They coated the tree trunks, clinging to the bark with hooked feet, a swarm ten thousand strong, every eye fixed on me.
“It’s under your skin, Tetris.”
I could feel it, the skin of my neck crawling, something wriggling to escape. I fought the urge to tear myself open. My palms stung, and I discovered that my fists were clenched, the fingernails digging deep ruts. Any moment now, the nails would burst out the backs of my hands…
“Can’t you leave me alone?” I begged.
The forest was silent. Junior considered my words. The spiders shifted their focus to him, waiting for the response.
“No,” said Junior at last, and the horde of spiders writhed, screaming.
The scorpion clacked its claws, and silence fell again, although the spiders continued to spasm. Their mouthparts flagellated madly.
“Trust your eyes, Tetris,” said Junior, oblivious to the roiling chaos. “Trust nothing else.”
The floor gave way, and I fell into bottomless darkness, unspeakable shapes contorting and shrieking all around me.
In the morning I had purple crescents underneath my eyes.
“What kept you up?” asked Li.
Zip, packing his sleeping bag, thought the question was meant for him.
“I slept like a koala,” he said. “Love it when it rains.”
“Not you. Tetris looks like a gorilla punched him in each eye.”
“I punched him back,” I said.
“I’m sure you did.”
“You think there’s a way they could make these breakfast bars taste better, but they don’t bother, because it’s cheaper this way?” asked Zip, unwrapping one as he spoke.
“Is that mulch or plastic?” I asked, grabbing one out of my own pack.
“Mulch,” said Zip.
“Trade you,” I suggested. Plastic, which was supposed to taste like key lime pie, left a slick, acrid residue on the roof of your mouth. The blueberry bars might taste like mulch, but at least they went down properly.
Zip shrugged and tossed it over. When I tossed mine, I must have put some crazy spin on it, because it bounced off Zip’s hand and tumbled out of the tree.
“God damn it, Tetris,” said Zip, peering after it. “I’m never gonna find that thing.”
We finished packing and rappelled down. As Li checked the magazine in the SCAR, Zip rooted through the brush for his breakfast.
I scanned the undergrowth, half-expecting to see dream-Junior’s smirking face. My jaw throbbed. I placed fingers against the base of my ear and felt the joint pop. Must have been gritting my teeth again. Wearing my molars down to nubs.
Zip’s yelp shattered the silence. Something that sounded like a bird, but was almost certainly not a bird, squawked three times in response.
“Are you nuts?” hissed Li.
“Look at this,” said Zip.
“Keep it down,” said Li, but she went to look. I stayed where I was.
Newly-fallen leaves covered the ground. They’d shrivel and lose their color within a few hours, but for now they draped like veiny doormats all around. Not for the first time, I marveled at their size. Skeletons of tough cellulose kept the green skin rigid, like bones in a bat wing.
Actually, it was kites they reminded me of. I wondered if you could get a forest leaf to fly, at least in the brief period before it began to decay. Not that I’d ever—
“Tetris, you’ve gotta see this,” said Li.
“What’s that look like to you?” asked Zip.
A prickling chill started at my scalp and broadened as it went. Past the tangled matrix of branches and leaves was a gray tablet etched with complicated symbols.
“Is that what you told me about?” asked Li, hunched over my shoulder.
“You guys keeping secrets from me?” said Zip, letting the bush wobble back into place.
“I think it is,” I said, scratching my neck.
Li stowed the rifle and wrenched away chunks of vegetation. Zip and I bent to help. Much of the tablet lay underground, so we dug with our fingers. Soon the soil was everywhere: caked under our nails, smeared on our cheeks, gritting between our teeth.
I couldn’t believe it. Right there, a few inches away, was a tangible contradiction of everything we’d been taught about the world. Perhaps it was a sci-fi movie prop that had dropped out of a plane? The symbols resembled no language I’d ever seen. They were all sharp corners and fine details. Hieroglyphs? No two were alike. The symbols were large, several inches across, and their contours were complicated by fractal appendages.
When I’d seen the obelisk, it had been too far away to judge its composition. With my hands against the gray tablet, I was even more confused. The material was too uniform, too featureless, to be stone. Yet it was cool and smooth as a granite countertop.
Not metal. Not plastic. But not stone, either, at least no stone I’d ever seen.
“You guys have got to tell me what this is,” said Zip.
“I’ve got no fucking clue,” said Li. “Tetris told me he saw something covered in symbols. That’s the extent of my expertise, here.”
I sat back on my heels. “This is a lot smaller, but yeah, it looks similar.”
“There’s no way,” said Zip, scanning the treeline.
The cuts in my palms sang.
“I’m freaking out, guys,” said Zip.
“Cool it,” said Li. “We’ll take pictures and bail. Once we’re out, somebody will tell us what we’re looking at.”
I remembered Agent Cooper leaning over the table, breathing his acrid mouthwash breath.
“They know,” I said.
“I think they know,” I said. “Those fuckers. I think they know.”
“Stay with me, Tetris,” said Zip.
“When Junior died, the FBI questioned me and Hollywood,” I said. “I thought they wanted to know what happened with Junior, but the government guy, the agent, he didn’t care about that. What he cared about was the obelisk.”
“Obelisk, right.” Zip glanced at Li. “Obelisk?”
“It’s why Junior died,” I said, suddenly exhausted. “He was going to look. They must have seen it in our footage, flagged it down.”
Zip nodded several times. “Yes yes yes. Okay. Yes. Alright. Just so you know, though, you sound like an absolute wacko.”
“That’s what the agent said!”
“Remember the story Li’s dad told? Roy LaMonte saw obelisks, structures, people—”
“LaMonte was a nutjob,” said Zip. “That guy could find evidence of ancient civilizations in a Burger Hut parking lot.”
Li’s fingertips tapped the SCAR’s stock.
“Oh, come on,” said Zip, “you can’t possibly believe this.”
“The Briggs brothers died on that trip,” she said.
“Wouldn’t he have shown the pictures? Taken a video?”
“It all goes through the government first,” I said. “It’s a condition of the subsidies. They could have censored it.”
We stared at the tablet. Was that a slight glow, hovering around the edges, or was it my imagination?
“You realize that the FBI will see our footage, too,” said Zip. “The body cameras. Everything we’re saying right now is recorded. If you’re right, and they’re trying to cover something up, we are totally fucked. As soon as we turn this in, they’ll lock us away, or worse.”
“So we don’t turn it in,” said Li. “We take the footage straight to the news networks.”
I considered that. It wasn’t like they were waiting for us when we came out of the forest. Our return wasn't a scheduled event. Typically, we headed as close to east as we could manage, and wherever we wound up on the coastline, we radioed for pick-up. We could slide under the radar and hitchhike to the nearest town. At any public library, we could hop on computers, make copies of the evidence, and send it everywhere, like an email chain letter. Backups upon backups.
“I’m with you,” I said.
Zip ran a finger along an indented symbol. His shoulders shrank. For a moment he resembled a middle-schooler, disappointed in his report card, imagining the look on his father’s face when he brought it home.
“I wish we’d never found this,” he said.
“Me too,” I said, startled to discover that it was a lie.