“He’s back!” Aaden was frantic and breathing hard. “I saw him in the building when I was leaving. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Aaden’s unexpected return stunned Maddy. She stared at him unbelievingly, though she instantly knew to whom Aaden was referring.
Between breaths, he said, “I swear. He was walking past the ocean. He knows we’re here.” Aaden looked around. “Where’s Corbyn?”
Maddy pointed up to the Shorea tree. Corbyn was hastily climbing down. He jumped to the ground, protecting the digital recorder that was tucked away in his back pocket. He immediately began interrogating his brother.
“What are you doing back here? And what gives you the right to—”
But Maddy knew now was not the time for the twins to get into an argument. She interrupted, confirming with Aaden that he was talking about the guy that chased the team at Chippewa Park. A tear ran down her cheek.
Aaden nodded, his hands resting on his knees. “But I don’t think he saw me.”
Corbyn decided for the time being to believe his brother. Doing so would at least give him another chance to take charge. “That gives us the advantage then. He doesn’t know we know he’s here.”
Corbyn grabbed Maddy’s shaky hand. He led the team into a thick patch of foliage just off the path, seeking cover while deciding what to do next. “He’s tracking us somehow. We need to get out of here without being seen. Any ideas?”
Aaden finally ended a short and uncomfortable silence. “I think we need to stay on the quest and do whatever we can to keep hidden from that guy.”
Corbyn laughed angrily. “This coming from the person that just ditched us.”
Aaden rounded on his twin. “I came back, didn’t I?”
“There’s no time for this!” Another tear ran down Maddy’s face, a combination of frustration, anger, and fear.
Corbyn relented. “Fine. What’s our next step then?”
“Can’t we just tell someone that works here about that guy and get him kicked out of here?” Maddy asked.
Corbyn shook his head. “We can’t trust anybody we don’t know during the quest, remember?” He looked past the foliage to check the team’s surroundings. “I think we need to just lay low, keep an eye out for the guy, and get the rest of the lines to the clue. We should be able to stay hidden while we’re searching and get out of here before he sees us.”
Maddy wasn’t so sure, but agreed to give it a shot. “But the moment he sees us—”
Corbyn’s ears suddenly perked up. “Did you guys hear that?”
K-1 made it to the entrance to the rainforest. It was finally time to complete his job. He entered the immense area, the door scraping loudly on the concrete path. He knew this would make it more of a challenge to sneak up on the team, but he also knew that in the end it would not matter. He removed his crow bar from his jacket, turned back to the entrance to make sure he wasn’t being followed, and smirked.
Time to end this.
Maddy and Aaden immediately became silent. They strained their ears to listen to whatever Corbyn had heard.
“Footsteps,” Maddy whispered. “Coming this way.”
Corbyn nodded. “Stay put and keep silent.”
“What’re you doing?” Maddy asked fearfully.
Corbyn waved Maddy off. He peered out of the foliage and looked around.
“See anything?” Aaden whispered.
“Someone standing near the entrance with his back to us. Fifty meters away or so.” Corbyn squinted. “I’m pretty sure it’s him. He’s dressed in—”
But he never got to finish his sentence.
K-1 heard someone approaching from nearby. Still facing the rain forest’s entrance, he watched as the door he had just walked through started to open. He had nowhere to hide, but luck was on his side.
The employee that was opening the door was staring at her clipboard and not paying attention to K-1. Berating herself for forgetting something in her office, she suddenly closed the door and walked away. Back in the clear, K-1 turned around just in time to see the head of a young teenage boy poking out of the foliage not far away. The boy briefly made eye contact with him before ducking back into the thickness of the trees. With a heinous smirk, K-1 made a beeline towards him.
Corbyn yanked his head back as fast as he could. Fear filled his eyes.
“What?” Aaden asked.
Corbyn’s face was white as a sheet. “It is him. And he just saw me.”
“No,” Maddy groaned.
“We need to get out of here,” Aaden declared.
Terrorized, the teens heard the man’s footsteps increase in pace and intensity.
“We’ll never make it if we run,” Corbyn realized. “He’s too close.”
Maddy calmed herself to clear her head. A possible solution quickly presented itself. It was a long shot, but it was all they had to go on in that short amount of time. “Corbyn, you were listening to a recording in the tree, right?”
“Did you memorize what it said?”
“Give the recorder to me!”
Corbyn sensed Maddy’s urgency. He handed the recorder over. With K-1 bearing down, Maddy switched the recorder on, turned the volume up as far as it would go, and threw it through the forest as far as she could back in K-1’s direction.
“What’re you….” But Corbyn quickly figured out what she was up to.
As the digital voice recorder flew through the air, Isaac’s voice could clearly be heard reciting the message. It was the exact distraction Team SoNaR needed. K-1 was taken off guard just enough that, for a brief moment, he stopped walking. He turned towards the sound as the recorder traveled past him, hidden amongst the trees.
“Run!” Maddy hissed through gritted teeth.
Hoping K-1 would follow the recorder’s sound, the team silently sped away under the cover of the forest canopy. They didn’t stop running until they made it out of the rainforest, past the ocean, and into the temporary safety of the savannah.
K-1 heard a voice travel right past him through the forest. The dense vegetation muffled the voice enough that he couldn’t tell which teen it came from, but that mattered little. He smiled, wondering how the team could be so careless. K-1 left the path and entered the trees. He silently tracked the voice until it suddenly stopped talking.
Too late kids.
K-1 continued through the forest in the direction the voice had come from. Trusting his instincts, he jumped around a massive tree, crowbar at the ready.
Nobody was there.
K-1’s instincts had failed him, and he was fuming mad. Despite suffering another setback, fortune was still on his side. As he kicked at the ground in anger, he noticed something that briefly reflected a small amount of light back at him. He nearly ignored the small reflection at first, but thought better of it and decided to investigate the source.
It was a digital voice recorder.
K-1 was beside himself. He wanted to throw the recorder into the tree and smash it to bits. Instead, he calmly pressed the play button, hoping to hear valuable information that would get him back on track. He couldn’t believe what he heard.
It couldn’t be….
K-1 replayed the recording again. He smiled sinisterly.
I know where they’re going next.
Hidden in the savannah, Team SoNaR was on high alert. It was plainly obvious that their pursuer wasn’t going to give up until he caught them.
“I don’t care,” Corbyn said forcefully. “I am not going to let this guy stop us. Let’s get the rest of the clue and get out of here.”
Maddy looked ready to protest, but decided against it. She looked at Aaden instead. “Are you with us now or not?”
Aaden knew he had screwed up earlier and wanted to make things right with Maddy. “Yes. And I’m sorry.”
“Then let’s get this finished.” Corbyn turned to Maddy. “I need to look at the clue again.”
Maddy took out the clue. Corbyn reread it and gave it back. The determined look in his eyes proved he was not going to give in easily. “We need to look through the grasses. The clue says the lion camouflages itself. A lion will hide anywhere that allows it to blend in.”
Maddy looked around and nodded. “You lead.”
“Maddy, go left. Aaden, go right. I’ll go straight ahead. Keep an eye out for anything near the ground that we’re supposed to find. And be quick.”
All three members of Team SoNaR took off. They were searching through thick, waist-high grasses. Fortunately, Maddy’s experience looking for hidden clues while geocaching proved helpful; it didn’t take long for her to notice the EIS symbol had been etched into the soil with a stick. It was near the base of a cluster of grasses and would have only been visible to someone who was looking for it. Making sure the team was still safe, she called the twins to over.
Corbyn and Aaden ran over to the spot where she was standing and looked down.
“Good work,” Corbyn said. “If the rainforest was any indication, there should be another voice recorder somewhere around here.”
Sure enough, Maddy found the recorder hidden in the cluster of grass. She quickly stuffed it into Team SoNaR’s backpack. “We’ll listen to it once we get back to the helicopter.”
“We need to go to the wetland marsh now,” Corbyn said. “The clue says the brown pelican nests. We might find the next line in some mangrove roots…if there are any of those trees in there.”
“Let’s hope there are,” Maddy stated.
K-1 couldn’t believe his luck. The recording had all the information he needed to figure out the team’s next stop; he didn’t even need the remaining lines to do so. He decided to attempt to catch the teens in the biosphere once more. If he was unsuccessful, it would not matter. He’d just get to the next location first and wait for them to find him instead.
And when they do, they’ll pay dearly.
Repeatedly slamming the end of his crowbar into the palm of his hand, K-1 continued confidently on his way.
Team SoNaR made the short walk to the marsh. Corbyn was elated to see that there were mangrove trees planted firmly at the edge of the water. “Pelicans nest in and around mangrove roots. That’s where we need to look.”
Maddy walked into the water. Corbyn and Aaden followed. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to find an etching of the symbol in one of the mangrove roots.
“Got it.” Aaden searched through the roots and proudly held the voice recorder up. “It was tied to the bottom of this root.”
“Good.” Maddy grabbed the recorder and threw it in the backpack. She looked up, but their pursuer still wasn’t anywhere to be found. “Where next?”
Corbyn recalled what the clue said. “The kit fox burrows. The only place that would make sense is in the desert.”
Team SoNaR made it quickly to the fog desert. They were nearly done gathering lines to the next clue and would be able to leave very soon. The lunatic had not been spotted since he’d been outsmarted in the rainforest, but the team did not let their guard down.
“All right,” Corbyn said. “Kit foxes burrow underneath rocks and bushes so they can keep cool during the day.”
“So we need to keep our eyes down again,” Aaden replied. “While making sure that guy doesn’t find us.”
The statement sent a cold chill through Maddy. “Let’s just get the clue and get out of here before he has a chance to.”
Corbyn took control again. “Aaden, go left. Maddy, go right. I’ll go straight again.”
The teens split up and searched for the final recorder. However, because of the abundant desert foliage around them, the search was slow-going and difficult.
“This is taking too long,” Aaden said to nobody in particular. “I can barely see through all the weeds.”
As time dragged on, Team SoNaR grew more anxious. After nearly five agonizing minutes of searching through prickly sagebrush, tripping over uneven terrain, and stumbling over hidden rocks, Maddy finally spotted what Team SoNaR had been looking for: the EIS symbol, approximately the size of a silver dollar, was etched into the top of a sandstone boulder. Before she could alert the twins, Aaden spoke.
“Uh, guys?” His voice was shaking. “Behind you….”
Maddy cringed. She knew immediately what Aaden was referring to. She looked up and stared straight at the man in black standing approximately one hundred meters away near the desert’s entrance.
Maddy was paralyzed with fear, but she quickly regained her composure. She knelt down and frantically dug around in the loose sand. She hoped to find the final voice recorder before the assailant reached her. Within seconds, she uncovered it only a few inches below the surface, threw it in the backpack, and prepared to make a run for it.
“I’ve got it!”
Corbyn and Aaden quickly ran over to where Maddy stood. Never taking their eyes off the man, they discussed what to do.
“Any more diversions like the one you used in the rainforest?” Corbyn asked.
Maddy opened the backpack and removed the camping axe. “How about this?”
Not going to work, Aaden thought. Unfortunately, he was right.
When Maddy held the axe up and showed it, all the man did was laugh. “You really think that tiny little thing is going to stop K-1…one of the world’s greatest trackers?” K-1 held his crowbar up. “Try me.”
So K-1 is his name, Corbyn thought.
Maddy shouted bravely, trying to stall K-1 until the team could figure something else out.
“How did you find us this time?”
K-1 snarled. “That is my business, little girl. It’s time to end this.”
K-1 sprinted straight towards the team. He leaped agilely over sagebrush, ran across boulders like they weren’t even there, and glided over the sandy soil with ease.
Maddy, Corbyn, and Aaden knew there was nothing they could do. They were trapped at the back of the desert with no hope of escape. Within a matter of seconds, the faceoff between Team SoNaR and K-1 would come to a sudden, unexpected, and terrifying end.
Mr. Zhang made another routine check-up call.
“Good afternoon. Zhang here.”
“Afternoon. Anything to report?”
“Team SoNaR may be running into trouble.”
“Why? Where are they now?”
“Still in the biosphere. They seem to be taking longer than I would have expected.”
“Any idea what’s going on?”
“Not at the moment. I’ve been in hiding outside the building all day waiting for them to leave. I’m starting to think they’re getting hung up for some reason.”
“Remember, they must finish the quest. Do whatever you can to see that that happens. But do not reveal yourself.”
Back in the fog desert, K-1 ran savagely towards the trapped teens. Fueled by adrenaline, he covered nearly thirty meters in only a matter of seconds. With only about forty more meters standing between him and his goal, K-1 sped up. Now was his time.
But his luck suddenly ran out.
During his final sprint, Biosphere 2’s fire alarm inexplicably went off. Ringing like the screech of a banshee, the alarm echoed loudly off the giant glass and metal dome that housed the desert. Simultaneously, the automatic sprinkler system began to spray water all over.
The timing of this could not have been worse for K-1. Just before the alarm went off, he was about to hurdle two handrails that bordered a wooden path winding through the desert. Just as he was getting ready to jump over the first handrail, the sprinklers began to spray. Before he could register what was happening, K-1 reflexively took his eyes off the rail to determine the source of the water pelting his face.
The split second that he looked skyward caused K-1 to lose his concentration and mistime his jump. He flew straight into the handrail stomach-first then flipped headfirst over the railing. The impact of the jump on his midsection knocked the wind out of him. Sprawled out on the ground, he was stunned. His crowbar flew down the path out of reach.
Team SoNaR now had the diversion they desperately needed.
While K-1 was doubled up in pain, Corbyn shouted above the enormous sound produced by the alarm. “Let’s go! And watch out! It’s slippery!”
Maddy threw the axe into the backpack and shouldered it. Team SoNaR ran for their lives. They headed straight towards an emergency exit on the other side of the desert. Once safely through the door, they didn’t stop running until they were well hidden behind a large group of tourists and employees that had evacuated at the same time.
While the team was evacuating, Isaac was busy in his office when his phone suddenly rang.
“Good afternoon. Isaac Rutherford here.”
“Hi, Isaac. How’s it going?”
“Sarah!” Isaac was pleased to hear from his secretary again. “We’re getting along so far, but that’s not as important as how your mom’s doing.”
“Stable today. Slept well last night, but not out of the woods yet.”
“Did they confirm pneumonia?”
“Um…yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
Sarah didn’t sound fully convinced of the diagnosis. Isaac assumed she wasn’t in the best state of mind at the moment.
“Well, keep me updated if something changes. Give your mom my best, and I hope to see you back soon.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you in a day or two to let you know how things are going. Talk to you later.”
Outside Biosphere 2, Team SoNaR stood amongst a large group of evacuees.
“Wonder what caused the alarm to go off?” Maddy asked.
“Who cares?” Aaden replied. “The alarm saved us. That’s all that matters.”
“Let’s just chalk it up to lucky timing and worry about getting a cab and getting out of here instead,” Corbyn said.
Maddy nodded and looked around for a cab. She couldn’t see one. “Let’s go over to the spot where we got dropped off this morning and see if there are any over there.”
Remaining hidden amongst the crowd, Team SoNaR cautiously made it over to where they had been dropped off earlier that day. Fortunately, there was a line of cabs waiting to take customers away. The teens grabbed the first one in line and got in.
“San Manuel Airport, please,” Corbyn said. “And hurry.”
“You got it,” the cabbie replied.
Team SoNaR had narrowly escaped K-1’s clutches yet again, but they knew that was only going to make their next encounter, should there be one, that much worse. One way or another, the teens knew K-1 was going to come at them fiercer than ever before.
And the thought terrified them.