“Congratulations on making it through the qualification trial for Oscar’s Funhouse!” the voice of D.A.W.N. said. “Welcome to the Hall of Doors. Here you see four different doors; each will lead to a different trial, outside, of course, of the one you just entered through. You must complete seven trials in order to gain entrance to The Bunker itself. But be forewarned, each trial is harder than the last, and most definitely harder than the first. Oh, and, good luck!”
“I thought you said you didn’t know anything more about the back door, D.A.W.N.,” Buddy asked.
“I didn’t,” D.A.W.N. answered, sounding surprised. “It looks like part of the routine for the funhouse includes adding new speech requirements to my own programming. It’s all pretty exciting, isn’t it?”
“Exciting’s not the word I would use,” Talmadge groaned.
“Oh, little Talmadge,” D.A.W.N. said sadly. “Did the last room scare you? I’m so sorry. I hope you don’t think I’m doing this intentionally. If you need someone to blame, please remember all of this was designed by Oscar. I’m a slave to my programming, you know.”
“Hey now,” Oscar reacted. “It’s his own damned fault. I told him he shouldn’t come down here.”
“He’s right, D.A.W.N.,” Talmadge said, dropping his head. “I made the decision against his advice.”
“Oh, come on sweetie, don’t lose heart. I’m sure you will all come out of this thing in the clear. Speaking of which, is everyone still doing alright? It seems like you dealt with the qualification trial easily enough, but you know how an artificial intelligence can tend to worry.”
“Everyone is still present and accounted for,” Zero answered. “In fact, we managed to gain a couple of new entrants to the game.”
“Oh, really? Who?” D.A.W.N. asked excitedly. “No, wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess!”
“This is magnificent,” Murphy exclaimed. “Is she real, or some sort of artificial intelligence?”
“Hold on, my speech pattern recognition software is picking up something,” D.A.W.N. let out a gasp. “It’s not possible, is it? Would you really bring–”
“D.A.W.N.,” Buddy cut her off from completing her sentence; “this is Agent Murphy, one of the folks from the Meta-Human Defense Team. He’s got Agent Kent with him as well.”
“Oh, thank God. For a minute there I was concerned that you had Da–”
“There’s no need to be concerned, D.A.W.N.,” Buddy looked to Murphy, “is there?”
“Oh, no, we intend to be of no nuisance. We’re just here looking for the same thing you are.”
“That brings up a great question,” D.A.W.N. said. “What are you all doing down here?”
“It’s, um, personal,” Oscar answered.
“Oh, is it now?” Murphy asked. “What could be so personal that would require you to risk your life in this death trap you’ve created? Perhaps it has something to do with your ever-advancing cancer?”
“Come on, seriously? How in the world could you know anything about that?”
“Like I said, Mr. Reed, I know many things about many things.”
“There seems to be an awful lot more talking than action on this mission,” Zero cried. “What do we do now, D.A.W.N.?”
“Oh, simple. Choose a door, any door, the one you choose may drop the floor,” D.A.W.N. paused for a moment, then, “Really Oscar? Am I going to be rhyming throughout this whole thing?”
“Not the whole thing,” Oscar answered. “At least I don’t think so.”
“Alright, Red, which door should we choose?” asked Zero eagerly.
“Good question,” Oscar responded. “Some of it’s coming back to me now. I had gone through so many different ideas on how to theme things down here, I honestly forgot which one I had finally landed on.
“If I’m remembering correctly, the idea here is that there are seven different trials we have to go through in order to make it to the final trial which allows entrance into the base. Each trial is based on the powers and identity of one of the original Defenders. Out of the four doors available, there are four different possible outcomes. One will be the exit, in this case, the door we just came through. One will bring us to the right trial, the ‘normal’ level, if you will. One will bring us to the next trial, nightmare level. And one is a trap, set to, well, let’s just stay away from those doors, okay?”
“Okay,” Buddy responded as he gave Oscar a questioning look. “So, which door do we pick?”
“Yet another good question,” Oscar answered. “I remember creating a system for determining which door would take you on the best route through the complex, but I’m having a hard time remembering what it was.”
“That’s useful,” Alexa groaned. “What’s the point in having you along if you don’t remember anything about this place?”
“Just give me a moment. I’m sure I can come up with something. What year did we design The Bunker?”
The group looked at Oscar blankly. Zero quickly chimed in with, “1999! I remember because it was the same year–”
“Yeah, yeah, let me think for a minute, Zero,” Oscar said, looking at the walls. “Okay, so, 1999. There are four options. What was I doing in 1999?”
“Fighting baddies!” Zero answered, attempting to be helpful.
“Right, but what else was I doing? I was running the Meta Human School, right? I can’t think of what that would have to do with this. I had two kids, right? That was crazy considering all the stuff Rose and I were trying to do as Defenders, but I still don’t think that has anything to do with it. What else? It seems like it was something that had come from way too many sleepless nights and was just stuck in my head.”
“Is this truthfully how the infamous Defenders of America work?” Murphy asked in frustration. “The way I had envisioned your actions was that you would burst onto the scene with pure confidence. What I’m seeing here looks like you’re just bumbling your way forward hoping for success.”
“I told you, sir,” Kent added. “They are an undisciplined bunch. They only succeeded in their battle against, ahem, Damon Memphis because of sheer luck.”
“It’s beginning to look like your summation was accurate, Agent Kent.”
“Look, pal,” Buddy said, pointing his finger in Murphy’s face. “We don’t have to prove anything to you. If you don’t like the way we do business, you can feel free to pop yourselves right back out of here and leave us to our work, alright?”
“That’s the spirit Mr. Jackson ,” Murphy said, clapping his hands. “Perhaps you will be able to amaze me yet.”
As Murphy talked, Talmadge walked forward, without a word, to the door opposite the one they entered through and opened it.
“Talmadge,” Oscar yelled as he heard the knob turn, “no!”
Talmadge did not respond and entered the newly available room silently. The group looked at each other uncertainly, anxious to learn what had become of their new-found ally.
Talmadge peeked back through the door. “Hey, are you guys coming or what? This room’s pretty cool!”
Oscar stepped forward and turned to the group. “Well, you heard the boy. Let’s go.” He walked swiftly to the opened door as the rest of the entourage followed.
On the other side of the door was an expansive cave, filled with jutting rocks, covered in overgrown greenery. On the far side of the room was a glittering pile of shiny objects, with a large and intricately cut pink jewel sitting atop a pedestal in the middle.
“Hey, I remember this room,” Oscar offered with excitement. “This is the one I based on Rose. She was really into those old adventure serials, so I designed this to look like an old school treasure temple. What do you think?”
Zero’s eyes were wide as he absentmindedly rubbed his injured neck. “This is amazing, Red. The room stretches on for forever.” He stepped forward. A click sounded to the left of them. Whiz, snap! “What the–” Zero yelled as he reached over to grab an arrow that was now sticking out of his left arm. He fell to the ground.
“Damn it, Zero!” Oscar yelled.
Alexa ran to his side. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Zero sat up weakly. “What the hell was that?”
“Well, if you weren’t so damned reckless, I could have warned you. Haven’t any of you ever watched those movies? Places like these are loaded with traps. You have to watch your step. Every step.” Oscar looked at Talmadge, “The same goes for you kid. What right do you think you have to just go traipsing through one of these doors? What happened to Zero could have happened to you, or worse.”
“I’m sorry,” Talmadge responded, his head hung low. “I just knew it was the right way to go, you know?”
“No, I don’t know. Don’t let me catch you doing that again, okay?”
“Hey,” Zero yelled, “man down over here. Starting to feel mighty weak already.”
“Sorry about that Zero. Hold on a sec,” Oscar said as he walked to Zero’s side. He pressed several buttons on his wrist, which caused a compartment to open on his forearm revealing a syringe. “That’s some pretty strong poison you’ve got coursing through your veins right now. I’m surprised you’re even able to sit up.”
“I’m sitting up?” Zero asked as his eyes rolled back into his skull. He somehow remained in the seated position.
Oscar knelt down beside the injured man and looked at the arrow still stuck in his arm. “Hey, Buddy, can you give me a hand here?”
Buddy ran over. “What can I do?”
“I need you to get this arrow out of here. Hopefully I can stop the–”
Buddy grabbed the arrow and was just about to pull on it as Oscar placed his hand on Buddy’s arm. “No, you can’t just pull it out, don’t you know anything? See how the arrow came out the other side?”
“Yeah?” Buddy asked.
“Okay, so, break the damned thing in half already and then pull out the two pieces in the direction that will cause the least amount of additional injury.”
“Yeah,” Ryan laughed. “You dummy.”
“Shut up,” Buddy yelled back as he broke the arrow in two. “This is my first time treating field injuries from twelfth century weaponry. Or any weaponry for that matter.”
“Okay, Zero,” Oscar said, plunging the syringe into Zero’s arm. “This may hurt a bit.” Zero screamed once, fell onto his back, and went silent.
No one dared even breathe, until, “Actually,” Zero said through clenched teeth, “the bow and arrow dates well before the twelfth century. Archaeologists believe they have found reason to date the first usage of the weapons to as far back as–”
“Jeez, enough with the history lesson already,” Kent interjected. “Is he okay to go?”
“Not so fast there, Mr. Kent,” Oscar rebuked. “This man’s still got two open wounds and a whole ton of poison coursing through his veins. The anti-venom I just shot him up with will take a bit to work its way through his system and I need to get him bandaged up before he loses too much blood. Maybe while I’m getting him set, you folks can figure out the key to getting out of this room alive?”
“What’s the plan?” Ryan asked. “Dad said this is the room based on Mom, right? So, Alexa, it probably means we’ll need you to take charge.”
“Okay,” Alexa responded, “so, you think it’s really as simple as me running over and nabbing the pink jewel thing? What do I do when I have it?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Kent muttered. “It’s not like this is that hard.” He disappeared with a pop and reappeared next to the gemstone with another. Instantly he fell to the ground, writhing in agony as he rolled down the side of the gold placed around the pedestal. He hit the solid ground hard, a loud clicking sound coming from just below where he landed.
“Alexa!” Buddy yelled. “Get him out of there!”
Alexa disappeared in a sheet of wind, hundreds of clicks being heard at once as Kent disappeared from his place below the gem. Alexa returned and placed Kent at Murphy’s feet as the room filled with flames, shooting arrows, and shrapnel-laced explosives. Zero had barely put up a purple field in time to restrain the blasts from affecting the crew.
“Come on, folks,” Oscar yelled. “I told you to be cautious. Did you really think it would be that simple?”
“Well, Mr. Kent, I believe you’ve just shown your brash actions are not always the best method for moving forward,” Murphy scowled.
Kent merely responded with a groan of agony.
“Wow. Alright, so, next question,” Ryan spoke. “Are all these traps one-shots?”
“Nope,” Oscar announced. “They were all set to have an indefinite amount of reloading capabilities. Had to be certain they wouldn’t become ineffective merely because enough people had attempted to make their way through.”
“Of course. Okay then, so, Alexa?” Ryan asked again. “What do you think?”
“That thing’s electrified,” Alexa responded. “If I touch it, it won’t matter how fast I am, I’m going to be just as bad off as Kent was.”
“Well crap,” Buddy added. “What the hell are we supposed to do now? I don’t remember those old movies having much for electricity in their temples, Oscar.”
“I added a few additional touches, so sue me.”
“I just may,” Buddy quipped back.
“Okay,” Ryan jumped in. “What if Zero were to create a zero gravity field around it and pull it over? That should work, right?”
“I don’t see why not,” Zero responded. His eyes closed as a purple fist escaped from his chest, reaching out to the gem the room required them to take. As soon as the fist made contact with its target, a steel box came down from the ceiling, surrounding the gem as it sparked to life with electricity.
“Okay,” Ryan responded. “I guess not.” He hung his head in thought. “Jeez, Dad, why did you have to make this so difficult?”
“Hey, kid, this is one of the easy rooms, remember?”
“Right, so, what’s the trick? There’s gotta be a trick. Seems like there should be a treasure map around here somewhere with a cryptic clue or something.” The box went back into the ceiling as Zero released his grip.
“Hey,” Oscar exclaimed, “that’s right. The cryptic clues! D.A.W.N.!”
“Hello, Oscar. Are you all having a good time?”
“I am additionally wounded,” Zero answered. “So, I’d say it’s as good of a day as I’ve had lately.”
“Oh, Zero,” D.A.W.N.’s voice filled with concern. “Are you going to be alright?”
“Nothing a little time can’t heal,” Zero beamed, obviously happy to be sporting war wounds once again.
“D.A.W.N., wasn’t there supposed to be some sort of message that played as we entered the room, some sort of cryptic clue which would assist us in determining what we are supposed to do here?”
“I don’t know, honey. You tell me.”
“Well, I’m pretty damned sure there was. Shouldn’t you be reciting it about now?”
“I don’t believe I’ve had any new sub-routines activate for this program.”
“Well can you check, please? We could use some help around here.”
“Don’t get so worked up, I’m looking for any additional edits to my dialogue databases. Oh, yep, looks like there’s one right here. Seems like there was an error in the batch file, calling some unknown program. I should be able to correct the code quite simply like this and then I’ll– Congratulations travelers, you have managed to select the door to the Pink Bandita trial.”
“The who?” Talmadge asked.
“The Pink Bandita,” Murphy answered happily. “Rose Reed née Ainsley. Wife of Oscar Reed. Mother to Ryan and Alexa Reed.”
“Oh,” Talmadge said simply.
“Ahem,” D.A.W.N. pretended to clear her non-existent throat. “The first of your trials may seem quite simple. Retrieve the gem in the midst of the temple. Yet, you’ll quickly notice something’s amiss, as you step forward and are threatened with a twist. To keep this temple from making things tragic, like a bandit your actions will have to be magic.” D.A.W.N. paused. “How’d I do?”
“Perfect, thanks,” Oscar answered, wrapping a bandage around Zero’s arm. “Alright, pal, you’re good to go, for now.”
“Okay, so, what the heck is that message supposed to mean?” Ryan asked. “Mom didn’t have any magic abilities.”
“Well, that depends on who you talk to, son.”
“Eww,” Alexa responded quickly. “Shut up already.”
“I think I know what she means,” Talmadge cut in. “I used to do a bit of magic in high school.”
“I thought you said you didn’t have any powers,” Buddy asked.
“Well, no, I mean like real magic, not, well, you know, real magic.”
“I don’t think that helped clear up the confusion,” Zero responded weakly.
“I used to do magic tricks, you know, things like guessing what card you picked, or pulling flowers out of mid-air.”
“Okay,” Ryan said slowly, “I’m not sure how pulling a rabbit out of your hat is going to be all that helpful here.”
“Magic’s history dates back to groups like the gypsies, who were well-known thieves. The reason these two things went so well together is that they were both based on the same concept. Misdirection.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Oscar said, a look of realization coming over his face. “Talmadge hit it right on the head. Misdirection is the key. We need to make the room think we’re after something else, in order to get what we really want.”
“Okay, so, like what?” Buddy asked.
“I get it,” Alexa said with a smile. “That box that came slamming down, it’s not just protecting the gem, it’s protecting all of the treasure, right?”
“Right,” Oscar said.
“Oh,” Ryan joined in, “so, if we trick the box into thinking we’re interested in another piece of the treasure, perhaps we can keep it preoccupied long enough to snatch what we’re really after.”
“Precisely!” Oscar cheered. “I knew I had smart kids.”
“And I think I know exactly what needs to be done,” Talmadge added. “See the pile of gold over to the side of the main pile?”
“Okay, so, what you need to do is run over there and make it think you’re going to grab something from that pile.”
“And how do I do that without getting electrified?”
“I don’t know, throw something at it or something. I’m guessing it won’t take much.”
“Great, and then, Zero, when the box drops, Alexa will run back here before it catches her as you nab the rock with your purple fist of fate.”
“Purple Fist of Fate? I like it, chum,” Zero beamed.
“That sounds like a pretty solid idea,” Buddy said.
“I have to admit,” Murphy agreed, “I had not expected you to be of much use when I saw you joining the group down here. However, this appears to be quite the solid strategy.”
“Thanks,” Talmadge smiled. “So, that’s the plan then?”
“I think so,” Oscar said, staring off at the field in front of them. “There’s only one problem left.”
“Don’t you remember the last time Alexa ran across the field here? She set off almost every trap in the place. That will put all of us in some pretty serious danger.”
“Oh, yeah,” Talmadge replied with a smile. “I had thought of that too. Zero, can you grab the rock and put up a field around us at the same time?”
“Who do you think I am, Do-Only-One-Thing-At-A-Time Man? Of course I can do that!”
“Okay, Zero,” Alexa said, getting into a running position. “Whenever you’re ready.”
A wall of purple surrounded the group.
“Force field’s up,” Zero said, his eyes closed.
“Great, but, um, can you, uh, you know, not have me on the wrong side of it,” Alexa laughed. “I kinda need to get to that pile of gold over there.”
“Oh, yes, of course young Alexa,” he said as the field moved behind her.
“Ready,” Zero said.
“Go,” Alexa yelled as she disappeared from view. The room filled with the sounds of clicks once again and within a second of her disappearing, the metal box fell from the ceiling, crackling with electricity. Alexa reappeared in her initial location as the recently-named Purple Fist of Fate burst from Zero’s chest and grabbed the jewel.
“Zero,” Alexa said anxiously as the first arrows shot out around her knees. The field moved forward, enveloping Alexa just as the pink jewel arrived at the wall. Zero reached out and pulled it into safety as the room filled with a cacophony of noise and destruction. The door behind them opened, playing a chimed melody.
The group quickly escaped the room and reentered the corridor they had previously entered from. Buddy looked back into the room as the door shut behind them and saw the temple dissolve into a fine dust.
Ryan, Zero, and Alexa cheered. Oscar joined them, giving his daughter an enormous hug. Murphy smiled with delight as Kent continued to look annoyed by the whole process. Talmadge stood silently, while Buddy looked at the now-closed door and contemplated the room’s disappearance.
The lights blinked rapidly, causing the celebration to stop.
“Good, now that I have your attention once again,” D.A.W.N. said, “congratulations on passing the first trial. I knew you could do it. Please place the jewel within the supplied enclosure.”
A panel slid open in the floor, showing seven indentations in the same shape as the jewel now in Alexa’s hands. Alexa walked to the panel and placed the gem within the enclosure outlined in pink. The panel snapped shut.
“Now, please hold onto one of the hand rails while the vehicle is in motion.” A series of railings appeared from within the walls.
“You may want to hold on to something,” Oscar said as he steadied himself against the nearby wall. The rest of the entourage followed his lead.
The room shuddered shortly and then dropped hard for five seconds before landing roughly. Talmadge screamed as he fell to the floor.
“What the hell was that?” Talmadge yelped.
“Sorry,” Oscar replied. “There were some early troubles with the mechanism I developed to move the entire room smoothly, so, I ended up just redesigning the whole thing to drop from level to level. I thought it added a bit more drama to the whole situation. Pretty fun, right?”
“I’m not sure if fun is the right word,” Talmadge said, his face turning green.
“Okay,” Zero said, wincing as he rubbed his injured arm. “What’s next?”
Go to Chapter Eighteen