The group reentered the small corridor. Zero had an arm wrapped around Talmadge as he hobbled into the room.
“What happened, Zero?” Alexa asked with concern.
“Alas, young Rose, I allowed myself to become over-confident in battle and may have sustained yet another injury.”
“He got stomped on and they crushed one of his legs,” Talmadge clarified.
“Yes, that is regretfully what happened,” Zero groaned. “Thank you, little Bee, for helping me out of the room. However,” he said as his right leg glowed purple, “I believe I can manage on my own from here.”
“You think you can sustain a telekinetic construct around your leg for the rest of the time we’re down here?” Oscar asked.
“I don’t believe I have much of an option, Big Red,” Zero answered. “I certainly can’t allow this injury to take me out of commission, and I can’t expect anyone to drag me along either.”
“Well, at least let me take a look at it,” Oscar begged.
“Not now,” Zero raised his hand in objection. “Anything going on down there can wait until the mission’s over.” He cringed in pain as he took his weight off Talmadge’s shoulder and onto his injured leg. “See, I can stand just fine. Little Bee, you should do the honors.”
Talmadge placed the jewel within its appropriate location inside the again-revealed panel in the floor and the panel closed swiftly once more.
“Please grab hold of the handrails,” D.A.W.N. said as the handrails again appeared from within the walls. The group obliged and the room fell another story before landing hard on the next platform. The handrails disappeared as they brushed themselves off.
“Well,” Oscar clapped his hands. “That was exciting, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Buddy groaned. “Never put me in charge of the computer stuff again, okay?”
“Is that what it was?” Ryan asked.
“I’m not really sure what it was. All I know is that I got inside that robot’s head and found myself in front of a computer screen.”
“Come on, Dad,” Ryan scowled. “You know that there’s very little reason to put the integral parts to an android within the head. It’s too prone to damage. You’ve obviously been watching too many movies if you think–”
“Hey,” Oscar rebutted. “I was doing something artsy here, okay. It was all about how Arthur would get into people’s—“
“Enough with the explanations of what it was supposed to be,” Zero cut in. “Although I can’t believe Buddy actually managed to utilize a computer to save the day.”
‘Well, if by utilize you mean smash to bits, then, yes, I utilized the hell out of that computer.”
“Really?” Oscar cut in. “There’s absolutely no reason that should have worked to clear the room. It was supposed to be a battle of wits against the computer, not another place for Buddy Hero-style destruction.”
“Hey pops,” Ryan smiled, “we take what we get.”
“And Mr. Jones,” Murphy murmured, “how did you manage to find the gemstone?”
“I don’t know,” Talmadge answered. “I just kinda walked right to it.”
“I think,” Buddy added, “what’s more interesting is how Talmadge was able to communicate with me. How long have you had telepathic powers?”
“Wait, that was really you?” Talmadge asked in surprise. “I just thought I was having another one of my psychotic breaks.”
“Psychotic breaks?” Oscar asked.
“Yeah, been having them for forever. I usually do pretty good when I’m on my meds, but, well, they kinda numb the brain, you know?”
“It sounds to me,” Oscar continued, “like these things you’ve been told are psychotic breaks are, in actuality, latent abilities trying to present themselves. It happens quite frequently.”
“Are you trying to say that crazy people shouldn’t be taking their medicine?” Kent asked. “Because I’ve got quite a few nutters I’ve locked up over the years who beg to differ.”
“Oh, nothing of the sort,” Oscar mused. “There are many people out there who could do quite well with a little bit of medicinal assistance. The issue is, many of my colleagues are so eager to prescribe the latest and greatest pharmaceutical breakthroughs that they tend to pay less attention to the diagnosis piece of the process than they should. There are, unfortunately, a fair number of folks, like Talmadge here, who would do much better with a little more focus on the cause of their troubles.”
“That doesn’t sound at all like the man who runs the world’s largest pharma company,” Buddy laughed.
“I make the stuff, so obviously I believe it serves some use. That doesn’t mean I believe it hasn’t been used inappropriately from time to time.”
“Enough with the health and safety chatter, Big Red,” Zero cut in. “Let’s get down to business. What door do we pick this time, Little Bee?”
“Jeez, Zero,” Buddy disagreed. “Can’t we just take a moment to catch our breath? That last room was intense. I mean, look at you. Maybe you should consider taking the exit and getting some medical attention.”
“Me?” Zero laughed. “Give up? Never!”
“I, personally, have absolutely no problem with giving up,” Kent interjected. “Didn’t you say there was some sort of exit to this place, Doctor Reed?”
“Well, yes and no,” Oscar answered. “You see, if someone were to use the back door without us actually wanting them to, I really couldn’t just allow them to go along on their merry way if they decided the place was too much for them, could I?”
“No?” Kent asked unhappily.
“The exit door really just sends the user down to a cell in The Bunker’s dungeon-esque lower level.”
“Well, great,” Kent smiled. “Isn’t that where we’re trying to get?”
“Yeah,” Buddy added. “Couldn’t we just bypass all this trial crap and take the easy way out?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” Oscar answered. “You see, although I wasn’t able to remove Arthur’s image from things like the statue, or the trial rooms, I did remove his access to most areas of The Bunker. I’d be surprised if he’s even able to make his way into the dungeon, much less open the cell for you.”
“I’m sick enough of this trial crap to try anything,” Kent scowled. “Kid,” he said, grabbing Talmadge by the arm. “Which one’s the exit?” Talmadge pointed to the door on the left.
“Mr. Kent,” Murphy warned. “You are already bordering on complete insubordination. This will most definitely place you over that line.”
“Why don’t we just consider it my attempt to explore all options for entering the base?” Kent growled.
“We will have a discussion about this when we return to HQ.”
“Whatever you want, boss,” Kent answered. “As long as I don’t have to spend another second in this death trap.”
Kent walked to the door, opened it, and stepped through without another word. A few seconds later, screams could be heard as the door slammed shut.
“Dad?” Alexa asked quietly.
“Oh, don’t worry dear. You know how this room freefalls down each floor? Same thing with the exit room. Only he’s falling all the way to the bottom.” Oscar had a sly smirk on his face. Alexa shot him a concerned look. “What? I’m pretty sure there are brakes to make sure he doesn’t get hurt.”
“Serves him right,” Ryan laughed. “That dude was useless.”
“We are, perhaps, better off without him,” Murphy agreed
“We’d be better off without you, too,” Zero muttered under his breath.
“What was that?” Murphy asked.
“I was merely stating,” Zero answered, “that I had somewhat hoped you would accompany him on his journey to capture.”
“I had assumed as much,” Murphy responded. Then, as if ignoring the comment completely, “Mr. Jones, which direction shall lead us onto the next part of our adventure?”
Talmadge closed his eyes and turned around slowly, reaching toward the door knob of the door they had just entered.
“Hey there, kid,” Alexa said as she placed her hand on his arm. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Last time we picked the door we had just left, I found the tenderizer.”
“Remember Alexa,” Oscar replied. “The doors change each time. Talmadge seems to have some sort of connection with this building. It may be the best chance we’ve got.”
“Okay,” Alexa said, releasing her hand. “But why don’t you let me do the honors? If something happens, at least I can get out of there quickly.”
Talmadge nodded quietly and stepped out of the way. Alexa took position in front of the door and placed her hand on the knob, cringing as she turned it. It opened to reveal another dark room. She disappeared and reappeared on the floor next to Buddy’s feet, covering her head as the lights in the room turned on.
“Am I dead?” she asked.
“Doesn’t appear to be so,” Zero answered, pushing through the group to enter the newly illuminated room. The room shone a bright orange color, causing Zero to squint as his eyes adjusted to the light. The rest of the group entered just as he was able to make out the area surrounding him.
They found themselves in the middle of a desert stretching out as far as the eye could see. It had an other-worldly feel to it.
“Congratulations and welcome,” said D.A.W.N.’s voice. “You have managed to choose correctly once again, heroes. You have now entered the domain of the X-tra Terrestrial.”
“The what now?” Ryan asked.
“The X-tra Terrestrial,” Zero answered. “The most perplexing of The Defenders of America. Petru Ivanovic.”
“You mean?” Talmadge asked.
“Yes,” Oscar answered, “this is the room designed after your father. The mysterious X-tra Terrestrial.”
“Jeez,” Buddy laughed, “and I thought my super-hero name was lame.”
“I had always questioned Petru’s chosen moniker as well, chum,” Zero responded. “However, there is no other team member, outside of yourself, I would have entrusted with my life than my old pal, X. Speaking of which, whatever happened to trustworthy Petru?”
“Ah,” Oscar answered. “That’s a very good question. Petru was something of an oddity in the world of meta-humans. Even he never fully understood his powers, deciding they must have meant he had come from another planet. Hence his self-appointed title. One such ability was how he was unable to be tracked by any known mechanism on Earth. As such, I lost track of him shortly after The Great Redaction, only finding glimpses of his existence since.”
“I can tell you what happened. He left. Well, he stayed around long enough to find me a foster family, but then he all but completely disappeared. He pops around randomly just to let me know he’s still alive, but those times are few and far between.”
“I’ve known Petru for quite some time,” Zero replied. “If he disappeared from your life, I can assure you there was good reason.”
“Yeah, the reason being that he didn’t want to deal with a young kid,” Talmadge frowned.
“Your father was one of the best me–” Zero was cut off.
“Look kids, I get that we’re having a moment here and everything,” Buddy interrupted. “But we’ve got more pressing matters than daddy issues to deal with at the moment. The big one being that we’re sitting here in a sauna. Anyone else notice how unbearably hot it is in here?”
“Thank you for the change in subject Buddy,” Oscar agreed. “And I’m happy to see that the heating mechanisms I created for this room were able to stand up to the test of time. Granted, they’re mostly bio-thermal based. However, I didn’t really think they would be able to withstand the pressures coming from the Earth’s core.”
“You’ve got this thing pulling heat from the core?” Ryan asked.
“In a sense, you see, I utilized the tele–”
“Gentlemen,” Murphy interrupted, “although I too am quite interested in the science involved in the development of many of these rooms, I believe we should stick to Mr. Jackson’s initial statement that there are more pressing matters to attend to. Namely, the third trial.”
“Ah, okay,” Oscar said, dejectedly. “D.A.W.N., you got our clue for us?”
“The man from Mars is how he was known, but the X-tra Terrestrial had more than that grown. A hard one to track, this being long suffered. The needle in the haystack, was what many proffered. So now you must show your similar skills, in finding the gemstone within these sand hills. Yet, this is not one where you simply must search; the heat in this desert will create great thirst. You must move quite quickly or soon you will find, your death, instead of the treasure once mined.”
“Really, Dad?” Alexa whined. “Another treasure hunt mission?”
“Hey now,” Oscar grimaced. “Just because they’re similar doesn’t mean there isn’t some major difference.”
“So, we just follow Talmadge to the gem and get out of here, right?” Buddy asked.
“Well,” Talmadge spoke, “umm. . . I don’t know how to say this, but I’m not getting anything.”
“I can’t imagine you would,” Oscar grinned. “This room was themed to Petru’s special abilities, so, seeing as his ability was to become all-but invisible, it’s going to be a tad more difficult to track the jewel down here than in the Fat Mogul room.”
“Anything else we should know about this room?” Alexa asked. “Since you seem to be smiling so strongly about the whole thing, I’m guessing you remember what you did in here.”
“I programmed this room with a randomizer. Even if I had designed it yesterday, there’s no chance I would know precisely what we are up against.”
“Okay,” Buddy shrugged. “So, what were Petru’s other powers then? Maybe that will give us a clue.”
The ground shook beneath them.
“And, perhaps it would be best if you were to give that information quickly, Mr. Reed,” Murphy said, looking concerned. The ground trembled again as a growl filled the air around them. “Perhaps incredibly quickly.”
“Run!” Oscar yelled, bolting away from the door. The group followed immediately on his heels as the sand burst into the air revealing a creature erupting from below. The head of the beast that appeared raised high into the air before finally landing on the ground at their feet as they continued their escape. As the beast landed, the ground sizzled with the liquid escaping the large tooth-filled hole one would consider its mouth.
“What the heck is that?” Ryan asked, straining under the weight of his suit. “And did I just see that it has acid breath?”
Chasing behind them raced an ugly beast, stretching out almost half a football field. A worm-like creature with one great twist, the gaping mouth currently aimed in their direction. Three rows of teeth spun like a food processor, making a horrible whining noise as the grotesque monstrosity made its way toward the heroes. Oozing from the center of this razor-sharp maw was the green liquid Ryan had identified as acid.
“That,” Oscar screamed, “is my little re-creation of one of Petru’s pets. He had a whole host of cryptozoological creatures at his command, such as the more well-known creatures of the Yeti and the Jersey Devil. This little guy is known as The Mongolian Death Worm. And yes, its saliva is quite acidic.”
“Little!?” Buddy screamed in return. “That thing’s gotta be at least 30 feet long.”
“I’d say a good forty, old chum.” Zero had a great grin on his face. “Maybe longer.”
“They’re not supposed to get any longer than five feet. Something must have happened within the random settings of the program.” The sand burgeoned before them, giving the group just enough warning to change directions before a second such beast escaped the dune.
“Jeez, Oscar,” Buddy heaved. “I wish you had warned me there would be running involved down here.”
“Sorry, old pal. Guess it’s about time we all got back into prime condition. Hold on a click and I’ll deal with this.” Oscar pressed a button on his wrist and rose into the air above the beasts, as his allies ran ahead of him. He turned toward the approaching worms and raised his arms in their direction. A rocket rose out of a panel on each forearm, lit up, and sped away from him at their targets.
In a ball of flame, the rockets reached their quarry, and the ground was silenced. The rest of the heroes were still running, oblivious to the end of the chase.
“Okay, kids,” Oscar smiled. “It’s safe,” he said as he lowered to the ground. “For now at least.”
The group rejoined their friend, puffing and wheezing as they attempted to regain a regular rate of oxygen consumption.
“You defeated the monsters without me, Red?” Zero whined as he collapsed onto the sand. “I had been hoping for some form of action here.”
“Hey, Zero, old pal, I’m pretty sure you’ve already seen enough action for one day.”
“I’ve been in way worse shape than this in the past and battled much fiercer enemies..”
“Sorry, bud. I’ll remember that next time, alright?”
“Does that mean there will be a next time?”
“With you, Zero,” Oscar grinned, “there’s always a next time.”
“I hate to be the one who brings things down to accounting,” Murphy cut in, “but should we be concerned that there are more of these monsters about?”
“I can pretty much guarantee it,” Oscar answered. “One of the main settings on the randomizer was to ensure there were always more.”
“Perfect,” Buddy groaned. “So, there could be any number of those giant worms around ready to ground us into mincemeat, or melt us with their acid spit, or whatever, and we still have no clue on how to find the gem?”
“Sounds about right,” Oscar agreed.
“Well, I guess the thing we need to work on is finding this damned gem, and fast,” Murphy yelled, the strain of the current trial visibly getting to him.
“I believe you’ve gotten down to the crux of the matter, Agent Murphy.”
The ground crackled nearby, causing the group to turn quickly to see the area where the death worms had just recently been destroyed. A hole was being burned into the sand from the green liquid oozing out of their remains.
“I would suggest, however, folks,” Oscar continued. “That we continue our discussion about next steps elsewhere. Things could get a little shaky so close to those MDWs.”
“I don’t know, Red, they appear pretty darn dead to me,” Zero disagreed.
“They may be dead,” Oscar agreed as the ground continued shaking beneath them, “but they’re tearing out the ground below us. Run!” Oscar lifted into the air and sped away, the rest of the group following right behind him. Oscar landed a hundred yards away, quickly joined by Alexa, and followed shortly thereafter by the rest.
Buddy, out of breath, said, “Oscar, seriously, can we take a break already? I’m covered in sweat and would kill for something to drink.”
“Yeah, pops. I could really go for some refreshment as well. Got any hidden water fountains around here?”
“Sorry, kiddo. It’s all part of the trial. Withstanding the terrain goes hand in hand with fighting the cryptids and everything else I’ve got hidden in here.”
“Okay then,” Alexa urged. “So, what’s the plan? This place seems to go on for forever, I’ve already lost view of the doorway, and we’re quickly running out of time before we all dehydrate. Where the heck are we supposed to find this jewel?”
A faint hooting noise could be heard in the distance.
“Yeah, let’s find this thing already and get out of here,” Ryan added. “Anyone got any ideas? D.A.W.N. said something about a needle in a haystack, right? Could that mean that the rock’s hiding in the sand? Don’t tell me it’s orange too.”
“Unfortunately, yes, the gem would be orange, due to that being the chosen color of Petru’s,” Oscar responded. “And I believe it’s very possible the gem is hiding within the dunes. I hadn’t given it a particular resting spot within this trial; that was all to be defined by protocols set within the program itself. It could honestly be anywhere.”
“Okay,” Buddy said, taking charge, “let’s just assume for a moment that the needle in the haystack thing means something and that it truly is hiding under the sand. First, that means we’re digging in the exact spot those worm things are coming from. Second, it’s not like we’re going to be just using a shovel and sifter to find it, right? So, do we have any abilities we can use to try to make this all work a little easier?”
“Well,” Alexa offered, “I could utilize my tornado technique to pull the sand up and attempt to filter through. It won’t be quick, but it’s something, right?”
“It is something,” Murphy agreed, “but also seems like it would be incredibly similar to the creation of a sandstorm. I can’t imagine you would fare so well as the center of that storm, Ms. Reed. Not to mention the rest of us.”
“I hate to admit it,” Oscar agreed, “but Murphy’s right. Sandstorm is not a good idea. My suit’s already struggling with all the sand getting in everywhere. I’d hate to see how it would work with a full-fledged storm attacking it.”
“Well,” Ryan replied, “we could do some minor modifications to–”
“We don’t have time for modding our suits, Ryan,” Oscar cut him off. “We need something better, and something we can use right now.”
“Anyone else notice how quiet it’s gotten around here?” Buddy asked.
“I was just about to state the same revelation, old chum. Weren’t there a whole lot of hoots going on just over the hills there?”
As soon as it was said, the air filled with the noise of loud hoots all around the group and their entire perimeter filled with dark shapes jumping up and down in excitement.
“What the hell?” Murphy screamed.
“I had hoped the system wouldn’t pick these guys,” Oscar grimaced.
“Are those–” Alexa cut herself off.
“Those are velociraptors!” Ryan exclaimed.
“Well, not exactly,” Oscar disagreed. “I mean, by all means they really kind of are, but to be more specific, these are the Arica monsters. The name difference shouldn’t serve as any comfort, however, since they are every bit as vicious as their prehistoric cousins.”
“They’re beautiful,” Ryan said in awe. “I mean, it’s like every one of my boyhood dreams are coming true. I’m a superhero and I found dinosaurs.”
“I hope your boyhood dreams didn’t involve being eviscerated,” Murphy cried out. “Because they are most definitely advancing on us.”
“They’ve got us surrounded, chums,” Zero cheered. “Does that mean–”
“Yes, Zero,” Buddy yelled. “It’s hero time!”
The group assumed a circle with their backs to each other, placing Murphy and Talmadge in the center. Visors came down on the helmets of both Oscar and Ryan to cover their faces, just as the dinosaurs leapt into the air at the group. The first to arrive landed directly on top of Oscar. He pressed a button on his wrist device and the five foot tall monster fell to the ground in convulsions from being electrocuted.
At that moment, the rest of the herd pounced on them, over thirty lizards ripping into the heroes with enormous claws. Buddy had four on top of him, one standing on his head, each nipping at him as he ineffectually swatted at them. He made contact with one of the beasts and sent it soaring away. In response, another three of them jumped on Buddy, bringing him to the ground. They were too fast for Buddy to respond with strength.
The defense formation broke quickly as Alexa found herself needing to continue moving as fast as possible to avoid injury, bringing up great clouds of sand in her wake. Oscar’s suit managed to bring several down with its electrical charge, but he was quickly overwhelmed by nine of the dinos as his suit powered down inexplicably.
Ryan was making short work of them at first as well, as he utilized his net-shooters to capture several of the cryptids before he ran out of netting and was pounced on by one which had somehow managed to free itself.
Zero, however, was managing to keep them at bay best, utilizing his telekinetically produced bubbles to contain them and remove them from the area. Yet, even Zero’s quick dispatching of the beasts was proving to be less than adequate as more and more of the monsters filled the valley.
Murphy fled the group, being chased by five Arica monsters as he stumbled up the side of the dunes.
Talmadge, however, sat in the middle of all of this action, eyes closed, with a very serene look on his face.
“Zero,” Buddy yelled, swatting the lizard off his head as he held another one by its neck while it strained to nip at his face. “Can you put up a field around us or something? We’re being overrun.”
“Trying to, chum,” Zero shouted back as he fired a purple blast at three which were approaching him. “But we aren’t able to clear enough of a perimeter to keep them out.”
“Guys,” Oscar said fearfully, “my suit’s dead, and these things are burying me. Whatever you do, do it fast!”
“Same here, pops,” Ryan screamed back. “Seems like they’re planning on using us as the main course for a little dinosaur luau.”
Buddy ran to Oscar, leapt into the air and plowed into the reptiles who were digging The Red Rocketeer’s grave, landing on them hard. They twisted their bodies beneath him and raised their talons into the air and began scraping at Buddy’s chest.
“Damn,” Buddy yelled. “I know they can’t cut me, but this freaking hurts.”
One of the lizards on top of Ryan turned and looked at Zero, who was focused in the other direction. It pounced on the man who was glowing a bright shade of purple and bashed his head with its wide snout, causing Zero to land roughly on the ground, the purple dissipating immediately.
It raised its talon into the air and quickly buried it into Zero’s back, blood shooting out into the air from the newly created hole. The beast was suddenly thrown from Zero’s back, Alexa appearing directly behind it and falling to the ground beside Zero as the beast flew through the air and landed face first into the sand.
Before Alexa could move, four beasts landed on her back, holding her in place, but suddenly stopping mid-movement. Their heads all turned to Talmadge who sat motionless with his eyes still closed as the rest of the horde of monsters slowly approached his position.
“Talmadge,” Buddy yelled, struggling to move toward the stationary man as he was pulled back by the dinosaurs. “Move!”
Talmadge stayed immobile, the beasts sniffing the air in confusion at this being who appeared disinterested in their presence.
Then they stopped. The rest of the beasts popped their heads up in unison and turned to look at Talmadge. The air grew silent as the entire herd stopped what they had been doing and approached Talmadge’s position.
Go to Chapter Twenty