Chapter II

Raison d'être

Something was chasing him. He didn't know what it was, but he knew it was big, very big. The ground shook and he felt the vibrations in his teeth. Max tried to run faster, tried to scream but could do neither. The monster was catching up to him. All he could do was panic and be helpless. He could hear it opening its large mouth, feel its warm breath on his neck, feel its claws digging into his chest. . .

Max awoke. He took in a deep breath and clutched his chest. The pain was real; his heart was racing. He winced and removed his hand. A new white bandage wrapped his breast. He eased the muscles in his neck, letting his head sink into the pillow and listened to his heart slow. The room was dark, except for the L.E.D. lights on all the electrical equipment. There must have been over 50 of the small busy dots. His thoughts returned to Mia and his heart raced once again. He wondered what had happened and why they hadn't found her yet. She had been there, he knew, right next to him. Explanations filled his head. Max reasoned that anything could have happened in the chaotic aftermath of the crash but whatever the case, Mia was still alive. Max knew it to be true. He would look for her at friends' houses and the park they sometimes played at on Sundays, the one right on the bayfront. He hoped she was somewhere safe, wherever she was, and not wandering alone. She was only nine years old; he had to find her.

 Max threw off the blanket and began to remove the monitoring wires from his body.

“I wouldn't do that,” a man's voice said from somewhere to the right of the bed, “the nurse will be here in a heartbeat, no pun intended.”
Max scanned the area. It was too dark to see anything beyond the empty chair next to his bed. The voice didn't belong to anyone he knew. The confidence in the tone unsettled Max. Why, he thought, would someone be watching him in the dark?

“Who's there?”

A chuckle and a pause.

“Your uncle.”

The words sent shivers up his spinehe didn't have an uncle.

“What do you mean?”
“We've never met. Allow me to introduce myself.”

Just then, a portion of the small L.E.D. lights moved. Max could hear heavy boots coming towards him. The man claiming to be his uncle sat down in the chair barely three feet away. Max held his breath.

“I'm Santiago, your dad's half-brother.”

He lit a match exposing a gloved hand. The match moved upward revealing his face. He was old. Gray stubble covered his square jaw, lines curved up and down his liver-spotted face, and long unkempt salt and pepper hair dragged against his broad shoulders. There was a cigar in Santiago's mouth that met the match. He puffed twice, igniting the tip, and shook the match out leaving behind a sulfurous swirl.

“I'd turn the light on,” he began, exhaling a plume of smoke, “but that would attract unwanted attention.”

From the cigar and the other dim light sources available to him, Max was able to make out certain odd features of this stranger. He was wearing what appeared to be a trenchcoat. Underneath the brown coat was the source of the moving lights, some sort of complex metal suit that covered everything except his hands and face. He was brawny and tall for his age or the suit made it seem that way. And there was something else; Santiago stunk. It wasn't just the tobacco burning it was something mildewy clinging to his clothes.

“I'm sorry for your loss, Max.”

He could see Santiago's eyes, gray like the rest of him and serious. Max wanted to respond, he wanted to ask so many questions, but bewilderment stayed his tongue.

“I know about Mia too. She is still alive.”

Hearing her name on a stranger's lips hooked his attention. Alive? How did he know?

“We are doing everything we can to find her, but right now we need to ensure your safety. Under normal circumstances, this would be the safest place. . .”
“Who are you really? How do you know about Mia and my family?”
“Max, I'd love to chit-chat and bring out the old photo albums, but there is no time. They know you survived. They will be here soon.”
“Forget it. I don't believe you.”
“Okay. I understand. You just survived a traumatic event, you're very confused, you're angry: I get it. Now, here's what I'm going to do,” he pulled an object out from his pocket, “this is a flash beacon, something I made myself.” Santiago held up what looked like a jumbo gumball.
“I don't. . .”
“Listen, when they come for you, all you have to do is press this little button, here, and I'll do the rest. Got it?” He slapped the device into Max's palm.
“Who is they?”
“The Tekagi.”

Santiago lifted himself out of the chair and walked back into the darkness; the lights on his suit fitting back into the sequence of dots like a puzzle piece. Max could see the red glow of his cigar as Santiago took one final deep drag.

There was a brilliant flash of white light and a low mechanical hum, then Santiago's mysterious presence, and fowl smell, was gone.

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