Chapter Two: Maki

I gave my ropes three sharp tugs and pulled at the clasps of my harness. One of the clasps was a little rusty so I switched it out for a new one.

I went through harness clasps like those alien soldiers went through blaster ammo.

I checked the strength of the branch my ropes were tied to. Sturdy, healthy and perfect for ziplining.

Last month, I spent my whole day off trekking through the forest putting up the perfect ziplining course. It wasn’t every day that I could do something like that.

I had to wait until all of the forest creatures were either in hibernation or at least out of nesting season.

Nothing like overprotective mamas with four hundred teeth to ruin one’s hike.

The living vines were a whole other story.

Some of them belong to the Puppet Master who, by all means, is a real pal. The others belonged to an array of species that liked to wrap around my ankles and attempt to drag me underground.

Figuring out which was which was always good fun.

I tentatively touched the weapon at my side.

It was of my own invention, specially designed to handle those pesky living vines that were friends rather than foes.

Unfortunately, those nasty vines looked just like the Puppet Master’s friendly tendrils. At least once, I’ve stabbed the needle-thin barred blade of my weapon into the flesh of the Puppet Master.

I’d never spoken to the Puppet Master but I’d heard from some of my coworkers that if someone touches the Puppet Master, it can hear their thoughts.

Since my mother raised me right, the moment I realized I stabbed the wrong vine, I pressed my hand into the Puppet Master and apologized profusely.

I swore I heard it laugh.

Ever since that day, I felt safer going on my solo excursions in the forest.

It was like I had a spotter without having to deal with the company of people who didn’t know what they were doing.

Maybe it wasn’t the brightest plan, depending on a giant plant-creature I’d never seen, but it made sense in my head.

My coworkers thought I was insane for doing this sort of stuff on my day off. Most of them liked to sit in dark pubs or take shuttles to the bigger cities on their days off.

That sounded boring to me but I didn’t judge them for it.

Except… shopping. Really?

It wasn’t my fault that I was born with a high adventure drive.

I entirely blamed my father, and thanked him as well.

He had a lust for adventure too. I learned everything I knew about handling myself in the wilderness from him.

Nearly every weekend of my childhood was spent camping, climbing, and jumping off things no rational person would ever jump off.

My happiest memories were spent in the basement where my mother worked in her at-home lab.

 Best childhood ever.

I tipped my face to the sunlight and let it warm my skin. A gentle breeze picked up. Without opening my eyes, I stepped off the branch.

My weight settled quickly and comfortably into my harness as I zipped through the trees. Birds and other small forest creatures darted out of my way as I came as close to flying as I’d ever get.

I landed on the platform at the end of the zip line.

One click to unclasp myself and another to attach me to the next line and I was on my way. I’d gotten the zip line transfer movements down to a science.

One of the questions I was often asked was why do I put hours of effort into a zip line excursion that ultimately lasts less than ten minutes.

What people didn’t understand is that the trek all the way out here, the preparation, and the double-checking were all part of the fun.

The final ride was almost a bonus, seeing how all your planning worked out.

The forest started to thin out as I zipped down the last leg of my self-made course. My bike waited where I parked it at the base of the final tree. As I flew through the canopy, I loosed a sigh of relief.

On more than one occasion, I’d finished a hike or a zip line course to find that my bike had been moved somewhere.

Probably the work of any number of forest dwellers. Either that or a disturbingly dedicated prankster.

With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I unhooked my harness and practically slid down the tree trunk.

And that’s where my perfect day hit its first bump.

A blinking red light on my comm unit.

My stomach tightened for a moment. A message from home?

I hit play, and gnawed at my lip, only relaxing when my boss’s voice filled the forest air. “Maki, I know it’s your day off, but I need you to stop by.” Dr. Illiux Band laughed. “You’ll find it interesting.”

Ooh.

I’d finished my last assignment a few days ago, and had been anxious to see what was next.

It might be fair to say I had a low boredom threshold.

Maybe.

A friend of mine helped me rig up my bike a few years back. Instead of an ignition, all my sweet baby needed was a handprint scan. It would only start for me.

If I wanted to, I could calibrate someone else’s handprint into the bikes memory stores so that they could start my bike.

It went without saying that I never wanted to do that.

There was a greater chance of me zip lining between the stars without a helmet than letting someone else ride my bike.

I placed my handprint on the scanner between the handlebars.

My buddy also installed a small console so I could get in touch with people should I get in an accident, use my navigational tracker in unfamiliar territory, and participate in conference calls while I’m en route to a job site.

The handprint scanner flared green as my bike started up. The tire rims lit up bright blue. Blue streaks of light ignited over the black frame. The engine was blessedly quiet. The best thing my father ever taught me was how to listen to nature. As much as I loved my bike, I didn’t like that it disrupted the natural sounds around me so I had that remedied.

Now, my bike was the perfect vehicle. It was jungle friendly, desert friendly and city friendly which was perfect since I spent an equal amount of time in all three settings. Mountains? No problem.

Rocky terrain? Easy as Qigla pie.

My stomach rumbled.

Wow, I could go for a Qigla pie right about now. I already ate through the nutrient bars I packed this morning.

No matter how many times I’d done this, I’ve never correctly anticipated how many nutrient bars it takes to fill me up.

As I rumbled through the jungle on my bike, I spied an unusually dense looking patch of earth. I gently slowed by bike and hopped off. I picked up a pinch of dirt and rolled it between my fingers. It had an odd texture. I couldn’t say I’d ever left something similar. It hadn’t eaten away at my skin so that was a good sign.

The earth around Sauma was amazing. There were soil concentrations only found in this area. That’s why I moved here to work.

I pulled a sample vial out of my pack and scooped up some of the dirt. This would be fun to analyze later.

I didn’t like sitting still for extended periods of time.

When I first moved to Sauma, I loved being in the lab day in and day out. I got that from my mother.

After a month or so, I started getting restless. Luckily, there were a number of clubs in Sauma.

I was in a club for other bikers. We rode together once a week though sometimes I met up with a handful of people just for quick rides.

I was also part of a free-running group. We specialized in leaping through abandoned buildings.

Actually, it was through a member of the free-running group that I discovered an archaeology team that occasionally sourced locals from Sauma to work on their digs.

As someone who was interested in archaeology but not fully trained, I signed up the first chance I got.

Digs didn’t happen very often, but I relished them all the same, even if it was just for grunt work.

Forest gave way to outpost shacks and farms then eventually to city streets. I wove through pedestrians with ease until I reached my building.

My boss, Dr. Illiux Band, was waiting for me when I walked in the door.

“Sorry for calling you in on your day off but it couldn’t wait,” he grinned. “Here’s your next assignment.” He passed me a datapad. “We have a team on a new project and you know the rules – they’re going to need an independent observer to help and make sure everything is right and proper. ”

I opened up the tab with the location information first and imported it into my bike’s console.

“You’re going to the Sika Jungle. It’s not far. You should be able to get there in less than an hour on that bike of yours.”

I analyzed the map that popped up on my console. Five trails to the site appeared on the console, four of which I was already familiar with.

“I’ll head out now,” I told my boss. “There’s an unexplored trail that’s calling my name.”

“Don’t get yourself killed before you get there,” he warned me.

“I would never dream of being that rude.” 

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