“So, Dad,” Ryan asked as Oscar and Talmadge were lowered to the ground, “what were those things supposed to be anyways?”
“Just what I said.” Oscar replied. “They were mines. Look, this place was made for one sole purpose, to not let anyone through except the people I wanted to let through. If you think those were bad, just wait until you see what else is down here. Of course, I hadn’t considered how bad the flashover might be. But still, just made them even more effective, don’t you think?”
“Flashover?” Buddy asked.
“Unimportant. Basic thing is, I used the wrong materials for the walls. Makes a much bigger explosion than I had considered for such a small space. Of course, wrong materials is a relative concept here, considering how much it added to the firepower. Live and learn, I suppose.”
“Um, sure,” Alexa responded. “So, now that we’re all crammed down here in the bottom of this incredibly deep hole, where do we go?”
“Ah, well, this doorway here, of course.”
“Of course?” Zero asked. “When I asked if I could open it, you yelled at me for even considering such an idea, Red.”
“Well, of course I did. I didn’t want you to go on alone and have us all missing out on the fun. Besides, I have to admit I may have forgotten all of the, forgive the expression, booby traps I had set down here. I’m kind of hoping they come back to me as we make our way through.”
“I thought you were going to go over the blueprints before coming along,” Ryan exclaimed.
“Well, I was, I mean, I did. Actually, the truth is, the blueprints are incomplete. I didn’t want to have all of the details of the back door available in one location. So, most of it is stuck inside my head.”
“Are you trying to say you’ve brought me down here to a giant deathtrap a half mile underground without knowing what we’ll find?” Talmadge asked.
“Well, no, not exactly. A deathtrap which is a quarter mile underground, sure, but we’re not quite a half mile down yet.”
“Great,” Talmadge responded sarcastically. “I wish you had warned me you were sending me to my grave. I would have worn something more appropriate.”
“A good soldier is always buried in his uniform,” Zero rebuked.
“Are you crazy?” Talmadge responded, his voice squeaking. “This isn’t a uniform! This is just some stupid costume I bought off the internet. It doesn’t even work right. Do you have any clue how angry my mom would be if she knew that this was the outfit I was going to be buried in? Or,” he added, pausing shortly to reflect, “how angry she’d be knowing I’m down here on some stupid adventure that sounds like one of the stories my dad made up?”
“Your mother?” Oscar asked. “Do you mean to say that Piper is still alive?”
“No, Piper was my first mom, my, you know, biological mom. She died when I was born. My dad was never really around that much, so I was put into foster care. Luckily, the woman who fostered me took really good care of me. She’s really the only family I’ve got.”
“That’s a fantastic origin story, young Bee,” Zero cheered. “The kind of stuff true superheroes are made of. However, now is not the time to go over our histories. We have an adventure afoot!”
“Zero’s right, folks,” Buddy added. “We’ve done more than enough talking. Let’s get to exploring.”
“Thanks, chum. So, Red, although you told me not to enter the door, I have to admit, I did make several attempts to determine how to open the beastly thing. All were to no avail.”
Oscar smiled. “Oh Zero, I love your enthusiasm. Did you try knocking?”
“Yeah, you know,” his smile grew bigger as he knocked three times rapidly on the door in front of him, “knock.”
The door slid open to a small, well-lit room and was joined by an all-too-familiar voice.
“Greetings, visitors. Please, enter, and welcome to Oscar’s Funhouse. I hope you’ve brought your wits.”
“D.A.W.N.!” Buddy exclaimed as he and the others entered the newly available corridor. “I never thought I would be so excited to hear your voice!”
“Buddy?” the computerized voice asked. “Is that really you? I’ve missed you so much!”
“I actually missed you, too,” Buddy laughed. “Seems like your boss didn’t want to have ol’ Buddy Hero around to screw up his plans any further.”
“I believe the truth of the matter is much to the contrary, Buddy.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Alexa joined in a chuckle. “From the sounds of it, Arthur’s been up to all sorts of exciting activity since the last time we were down here.”
“Alexa, is that you?” D.A.W.N. asked.
“Yeah, of course it’s me. I don’t look that different, do I?”
“I honestly can’t tell, dear. You see, my creator never thought to install surveillance equipment up on these floors. And he always told me he was the genius.”
“Hey now,” Oscar smirked. “Don’t be talking about me behind my back now, missy!”
“Oscar?” D.A.W.N. shrieked. “Is that really you?”
“Yes it is, girlie. Miss me?”
“Hmm,” D.A.W.N. scoffed. “Do you think I could possibly miss the man who spent countless hours telling me that I wasn’t operating at his qualifications of peak efficiency?”
“Speaking as your designer, I’d say the answer to that question is yes.”
“You always did know all the right places to tweak a girl, didn’t you?”
“Watch it, D.A.W.N., my children are here.”
“Children? You mean Ryan’s down here as well?” D.A.W.N. cheered. “The only other man who knew how to work a girl’s diagnostic software.”’
Ryan cleared his throat, looking down at the floor.
“Seems like you’ve got quite the party here. Who else am I missing?”
“Hello, you computerized vixen! It is I–”
“Zero! This really is becoming quite the reunion tour, isn’t it?”
“Don’t forget about me!” Talmadge exclaimed.
“Hmm. . . I can’t say that I have any memory of your voice pattern in my speech recognition databanks.”
“Oh, I thought this was some sort–”
“This, darling,” Oscar interjected, “is Talmadge Jones, whom you might know better as Talmadge Bouchard.”
“Little Talmadge?! Piper’s boy?”
“The very same,” Oscar beamed.
“Oh, well, you, sweetheart,” D.A.W.N. took on her most motherly of affectations, “are the most wonderful surprise of all.”
“Thanks,” Talmadge smiled.
“So, what are you lot doing coming through the back door? No one ever seems to want to enter me that way.”
“I don’t remember designing you to be so cheeky,” Oscar frowned.
“Carl’s been modifying my personality matrix in an attempt to make me appear more human-like and less computerized monstrosity. What do you think?”
“It’s better than the mom-version of you he had going on the last time I saw you,” Alexa laughed.
“Speaking of which,” D.A.W.N. said, “you had better stop leaning on everything, Alexa. It’s very unbecoming.”
Alexa stood up straight, taking her weight off of the wall she had been holding up. “You think you know everything, don’t you?”
“I believe I know pretty close to everything, yes,” D.A.W.N. answered matter-of-factly.
“This is a heart-warming reunion and all,” Zero interjected, “but don’t we have an important mission to carry out?”
“What’s that on your neck?” Alexa asked.
“Many things,” Zero answered. “My head, for instance.” Alexa walked to his side and inspected a large red welt growing on the side of his head.
“You got hit by one of those mines, didn’t you?’ she asked.
“They did manage to cause a minor discomfort in this general region, yes,” he answered as he gestured toward his injury.
“Minor discomfort?” Oscar laughed uncomfortably. “With a burn like that, you should probably be on the ground screaming in agony. Some people would pay a lot of money for a tolerance for pain like you’ve got, Zero old pal.”
“Well, if you’re sure you’re alright, we should probably move forward,” Buddy joined in. “D.A.W.N., anything you can do to help us get down to The Bunker?”
“As much as I would love to help, Buddy, Oscar placed protocols in my sub-system which keep me from being able to interact with any of the defensive measures he put in place up here. I’m merely here to act as an additional warning measure. Oh, yeah, almost forgot.” D.A.W.N. paused and made a noise that sounded like she was clearing a throat she didn’t have. She continued by using an official-sounding voice pattern. “You are all trespassing on private property maintained by The Defenders of America. If you continue forward, you are doing so under the understanding that great danger lies ahead for all who–”
“Jeez,” Zero interjected. “What’s with all this legal-sounding mumbo jumbo? Look, we are The Defenders of America. Shouldn’t that mean anything?”
“I’m sorry, Zero, I am compelled by my programming to issue this standard warning/release of liability message to all who enter this way, no matter their political affiliation. So, if I may continue, You are doing so under the–”
“D.A.W.N.,” Oscar interjected, “initiate terms and conditions acceptance override authorization 42AO.”
“Thank you, Oscar, sweetie. I was getting quite bored with that message myself.”
“Okay, so, I have to admit, I’ve forgotten most of the tricks we put into place down here. Any chance you could give us a heads up on what’s to come?”
“You know I’d love to Oscar, dear, but unfortunately you had the foresight to remove everything but the most cryptic routines from my memory. All I am capable of doing on this end is starting the funhouse program and allowing it to run its course.”
“Am I the only one who’s excited?” Zero asked.
“Yes,” Talmadge responded weakly.
“Okay then,” Buddy took charge. “Let’s start this puppy up. I’m as ready to run the gauntlet as I’ll ever be.”
“I would be delighted to, Buddy darling. Please play safe.”
The lights dimmed and a loud cranking sound filled the room as the doorway behind them slammed shut.
“You guys remember what I said about not liking cramped quarters, right?” Talmadge asked.
“Now is not the time to get anxious,” Zero responded.
“Would it be the time if I said this room is getting smaller?”
“That’s just the claustrophobia talking, Talmadge,” Oscar diagnosed. “Patients frequently experience the illusion that small enclosed spaces are becoming smaller.”
“I hate to disagree with you pops,” Ryan disagreed as he pushed closer to his father, “but I think he’s right.”
“He is most definitely correct, Red,” Zero agreed. “This room is indeed closing in on us.”
“Dammit,” Oscar scowled. “Really? I was almost positive I had removed this trial from the program. It’s just so cliché.”
“Okay,” Buddy looked anxiously at the red-haired man behind him. “So, what do we do to make it stop?”
“Well, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty certain if we can get the walls to stop moving, the latch for the door into the rest of the labyrinth should release, allowing us out.”
“That’s all fine and dandy, Dad,” Alexa squeaked, “but it still doesn’t answer the question of how do we get it to stop.”
“Seriously?” Oscar frowned disappointingly. “This is quite possibly the simplest trial in the whole program. You’re ready to give up already? Maybe we shouldn’t have come down here.”
“Look, pal,” Buddy said, grabbing Oscar by the shirt collar, “enough games. I know I’m strong and all, but I can’t possibly hold all of these walls in place without getting all of you squashed as well, so unless you have some trick on how to get out of here–”
“Zero?” Oscar asked.
“Easy as Maggie’s Raspberry Pie,” Zero said as he cracked his knuckles. He closed his eyes as his purple aura expanded out from him, creating a purple film against all of the walls. The cranking sound shifted into a grinding noise before finally halting. The room was silent, briefly, followed by a faint click.
Oscar pushed his way through the rest of the group to the door on the opposite side from which they entered and touched it with one finger. It swung open easily. “See, like I said, nothing to get worked up about.”
The group entered the next room as the lights flickered to life around them, showcasing a square corridor with a door on each of the four walls. Just as they entered, they heard a pop behind them.
“Dammit, Kent,” Buddy said as he turned to greet their visitors. Kent and Murphy stood in the doorway they had just exited. Kent scowled as Murphy clapped with excitement.
Alexa silently removed the fifty dollar bill from her back pocket and handed it to her brother.
“The infamous back door to The Bunker!” he said with glee. “I had come to believe it was nothing more than a myth.”
“Frankly, I’m surprised it’s even a myth,” Oscar responded. “No one’s supposed to know about this.”
“Oh, I have many files on information people aren’t supposed to know about. The speculation regarding the so-called Founder’s Statue has been rampant, but I had always leaned towards believing those who hypothesized it would be some sort of secretive entrance to your old base. It only made sense, after all, considering how much trouble the reconstruction crew went through in their efforts to move the cursed thing, only to be foiled time and time again.”
“What are you doing down here?” Alexa asked. “How did you even know we’d be here?”
“Oh, we never went too far away. I had placed Agent Kent here to watch over you all after we had talked. I knew you had to have been up to something. Now, the real question is, why would Jeffrey Flores have been trying to enter his own base through the back door? I find it hard to believe it would be as simple as him having misplaced his keys.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Ryan replied. “Could Jeff have been trying to get in through the back door like us?”
“I had actually considered that idea,” Oscar answered. “Although, as Mr. Murphy here stated, it would be pretty weird that he’d be trying to break into his own hideout.”
Murphy clapped his hands in excitement once more. “Oh, I love watching the plot unfurl. I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
Go to Chapter Seventeen