Road Less Travelled

Periculum in mora - There is danger in delay.

Where every branch and tree root were once obstacles to hinder Max's advance, now he sways easily around them. Where he might've hacked and forced his way through a copse of trees, now he takes a detour. His time with the natives appears to have taught him a great deal and left him with a sense of respect for all things living.

He doesn't always have time to take his time, though. Every step he takes brings him closer to his objective, and if a bit of quick machete work might facilitate that, he's more than happy to oblige.

His pack is far lighter than before, and not just because much of the food has been consumed. He's traveling lighter. Leaner. For him, it's the road less traveled. It's treating him well, though. Weeks of constant exercise and a high protein diet have left him hawkishly lean. He's given up altogether on wearing a shirt, which has led to a deep, healthy tan. Constantly brushing through bushes and branches has toughed his skin and diminished his prim sensitivity.

As he circles around a tree with a squat, barrel-like trunk, he spots a lizard clinging to the bark. A swift step and a flash of his metal hand have the animal contained. Neatly, he breaks its neck and tosses the body into a pouch at his waist for later consumption.

Not paying attention to your surroundings in an unfamiliar environment is hazardous to one's health. Two steps away from the tree and Max's foot (feet) are stuck in the ground. It looked like an ordinary patch of dirt, perhaps a dry crack here and there but looks can be quite deceiving.

Quicksand.

And it's deep.

The instinctive urge to struggle is impossible to overcome at first. Max attempts to thrash his way free, which only hastens his plunge. When he's sunk in past his knees, he abruptly halts to reassess his situation. Then he flexes the fingers of his steel prosthetic and reforms them into a single hooked appendage that's similar to a crowbar or a climbing pick.

He leans over the edge of the sandpit with exaggerated slowness and sinks his hook into firmer ground. Then, with muscles hardened by weeks of life alone in the jungle, he starts to heave.

The crowbar catches on some loose dirt and only degrades the side of the pit, pulling some of the soft earth into the sinkhole. On the second swing, the appendage catches on something hanging overhead. A strong yellowed vine or possibly rope that has been secured to one of the limbs of an overhanging tree.

Closer inspection would reveal that its fibers are actually hair.

Thought it's not the hold he was planning on, Max will take what he can get at this point. The extraction is messy and not always pleasant. At one point, the concern that he'd pull his knee loose from the socket was a completely legitimate one. Eventually, though, he escapes.

When he's free, he grabs a handful of the vine and presses it to his lips. "Thank you," he murmurs.

At close range, the composition is impossible to mistake. It's a very familiar composition, after all. Max's eyes widen visibly and a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth.

Proof positive that he's on the right trail. At some point, Cody's come down this path, got caught in the same trap. From the wear and build up on the rope it's clear that it was weeks ago, there's not even a footprint left in the ground to lead him in the right direction. Just that length of hair.

The road less traveled has a fork, both of them with the same amount of traffic which is to say hardly any at all. At least not of the human variety. In both directions it's been worn down by animals, the breaks in the thick foliage would lead one to believe that larger beasts use them.

Max wipes muck from his chest and slings it from his hands as he considers his options. After a few seconds he purses his lips, shrugs, and heads to the right. "Right's as good as left… right?" he jokes to himself.

No longer gloved, his prosthetic hand slowly reforms to a more human appendage. The process of melting and reforming burns away the last of the mud, leaving it gleaming in every ray of light that pierces the jungle canopy.

The metal gleams, casting brilliant white spots along the trees and leaves, marking his trail only as long as he's there. When he disappears through the leaves, so does that light. Though only a passing visit from the sun, it's a little more welcome than the frequent showers of rain and it seems like the march takes forever. It could be just the sweltering heat combined with a humidity that makes one think they're breathing viscous fluid instead of air.

Without a watch it's practically impossible to determine the amount of time that Max has been walking. Whether it's been hours or minutes it's hard to say but there's one thing that's completely evident, the jungle is completely silent, not even a bird announces Max's presence.

Then there's that feeling. The little hairs that rise on the back of the neck to let you know that there just might be someone watching.

The scientist slows, then comes to a stop in the middle of the path. His eyes narrow as he spins in a slow circle, surveying his surrounding. He shrugs uneasily and continues on after a few seconds, but he's moving much slower now. Far more carefully.

It's a natural camouflage that keeps the predator hidden and only because Max is being so careful does he even catch the glimpse of a tail disappearing into the undergrowth to his left. The silent escort in his travels has yet to make its intentions known. Perhaps it's only watching, perhaps it's waiting for him to slip up again, perhaps it's hunting.

As he was taught, Max flares up his body, making it larger and more aggressive as he angles for a better look at the local fauna. It's a cue from the animal kingdom. Take in air. Present a bigger, more dangerous version of yourself.

He doesn't attempt to relocate. In this instance, a defensive posture is wisest. At least by his reckoning.

Max's posturing is answered by the soft, throaty rumble of a giant cat. It's impossible to determine exactly where it's coming from, it almost seems as though it's all around him but that would be impossible for a single animal.

A technique that Cody taught him, a slow sweeping survey from right to left reveals another glimpse of the cat. It knows when it's been spotted and moves quickly, quietly, only evidenced by the slight rustle of a giant leaf here and there. Another circle, from right to left, always right to left, has Max tracking the beast that's very clearly hunting him.

A hunting cat. Max smiles almost imperceptibly. Then he throws his head back and lets out a fierce, bellowing roar that echoes through the jungle. It's savage. It's loud. Half-challenge and half-declaration.

I am the meanest. The most dangerous. I will kill you if you approach.

He closes his mouth, drops his pack, and waits. Every hint of movement or whisper of sound snags his attention and holds it.

It's a challenge, one that's met with a loud rustle of leaves and defended by the attacking growl of the cat that's leaping toward him. From a high branch overhead, the giant mass of muscle and sinew converges on Max, throwing him to the ground.

Max's steel arm is the only thing that saves him. He wedges it between the cat's jaws and protects his throat. He grins.

"Big mistake," he growls breathlessly.

Cold, shining fingers clench to a hard fist. Thin, deadly spikes burst from his knuckles, his wrist, and the heel of his hand, extending six inches in every direction.

Golden eyes dull as the life slips away from the beast. As the muscles go slack over top him, Max is gifted with a very tangible sensation of how death actually happens. It's very close, very real, and at the same time, somewhat tragic. Where there was once the vibrant prince of the jungle there is now only a heavy corpse.

Max shoves the heavy body off of his chest and looks down at himself. "Nnnng," he groans.

There is blood. Animal blood. On him.

Resignedly, he goes in search of somewhere to bathe.

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