Liz looked at the scuba equipment skeptically. She had her diving cert, as did Mark, and she felt like she knew her stuff pretty well. She knew how to calculate how long she could dive and at what depths before she would get nitrogen poisoning. Even more than that, she knew the cardinal rule of diving.
“Guys, I don’t know about this. There aren’t any air tanks.” She noted. The cardinal rule was ‘don’t dive underwater without air tanks’. Maybe she made that up, but she was pretty sure it should be the first rule.
“But there are totally these things that go over your mouth with some tubes. I’m sure it will be fine!” Mark countered.
“We don’t know what depth we’re at! Those jellyfish are all deep sea type things! What if we’re like a couple hundred feet down? We’ll get the bends like instantly!”
“Eh, Pete wouldn’t do that.” Mark noted sagely.
“How can you know that?” Liz said in an exasperated voice.
Mark shrugged as he suited up. Mike also shrugged, but indicated that someone who went through this much trouble to create puzzles probably wouldn’t automatically kill people who were trying to get solve them. They both hopped into a pool that seemed to lead to the watery area. Refusing to give in quite yet, she walked over one more time to the locked door that was clearly marked with a glowing golden EXIT sign and growled when it still refused to open.
Liz shook her fists in a bit of a rage. None of this made sense. Why did Pete even put puzzles here? If they needed to do maintenance on something, setting up a series of complicated pirate themed challenges was just stupid! It was stupid and illogical!
Elly put a hand on Liz’s shoulder. “Liz, I know this is probably driving you crazy, but sometimes you just have to roll with it. I mean, I know this is really important stuff we’re doing, but I think whoever this Pete guy was he probably wanted people to have fun. Or at least be silly for a bit. I think it’s cute!”
“Elly, this stuff will possibly impact everyone on the planet!”
“Yup. So might as well enjoy doing it. Beats fighting monsters that are trying to kill us.” Elly smiled and Liz took a deep breath. She looked at her brother who was eager suiting up and then outside at the magical glowing undersea wonderland that Pete had created. The gently swaying sea creatures were beautiful and the bioluminescence was captivating. Seeing no alternatives, she steadied herself and started suiting up. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
It turned out it was so much worse.
“I found it again!” Liz reached out to grab the glowing golden squid just as it squirted ink and dashed away for the hundredth time. She lifted a hand to wipe away the goopy substance that managed to shoot through the water into her face every time. It had gummed up her hair something fierce and it took every ounce of control she had not to scream into the mouthpiece of her scuba unit.
It turned out that the water was perfectly breathable through the mouth unit, and the scuba masks actually had communication devices. Screaming into one would go to everyone’s helmet, and after the first few times she did it the rest of the group started giving her dirty looks. She gave dirty looks right back. Her dirty look was accentuated with squid ink, even.
It hadn’t taken long for the group to realize that the golden squid was likely the requirement to pass this test. It was the only animal that happened to be that color, and a few almost captures revealed that one of its tentacles ended in a key. They had been chasing the thing non-stop since they realized this, but it was incredibly difficult to catch.
Liz’s keen eyes had little trouble finding the golden squid amongst the glowing fauna of the aquatic biome, but the darned thing had managed to escape her every time she tried to nab it. Every escape was accompanied by another squirt of ink. Liz had tried to shoot the thing a few times but somehow all the projectiles they tried would get slowed by disproportionate amounts in the water. It seemed that Pete didn’t want people to be able to simply shoot down the squid.
“That was so close Liz, next time you’ll get it for sure! Oh here it is!” Mark made a grab for the squid and got his own face full of ink. Rather than wipe it off, though, Mark simply let his armor fade and put up a new layer that was sparkling clean.
Liz’s rage reach a new level as his inkless face smiled at her. She knew he wasn’t doing it on purpose, but it didn’t stop it from being any less frustrating. They had been at it for close to half an hour. The mana storm had to be imminent. Knowing that there were people out there waiting for them spurred her next action.
“Guys, we have to do something else. This isn’t working. We need a plan.” She called out to the team.
“Yeah! Biscuit is bored! You should all find squid guy and come back so I can play too!” Biscuit looked comical with the helmet balanced precariously on his head. You always try to grab squiddy face but he always just displaces to left and then goes away and is silly.” The unicorn added.
“Wait, Biscuit, are you serious, it dodges away the same direction each time?” Elly asked, confused. Liz understood the confusion, it was really hard to tell which direction was up much less left in the gravityless environment of the tank.
“Of course Biscuit see! Silly human not detecting teleporty shift blot is silly! Biscuit would shift to left and bite squiddy if Biscuit could be there! Then we could play in more fun places!”
Liz was at a loss for a moment, but didn’t think the unicorn had the capacity to lie. With that in mind a simple plan was formed. As the squid was located one more time, everyone moved to the space that would equate to left if they were standing in the central room. With everyone in position, Liz called everyone to action.
“Ok Mark, you’re up. Make that thing pay.” Liz growed.
“Uh, Liz, we’re just catching it, I don’t think we need to...”
“GET IT NOW!”
Mark knew that further conversation wouldn’t be terribly productive at this point swam towards the squid. Like always, it darted away at the last minute and sped away. Right into the waiting arms of the group.
“I got it!” Elly cried holding a length of tentacle. After she touched it’s keylike appendage it ceased all struggles and converted to a large golden key.
“Thank god. You’re the best Elly, let’s get out of here.” Liz said in clear relief.
The group swam up towards the airlock pool and without hesitating they moved towards the ornate door towards the back of the room.
“Here’s hoping it works!” Elly said with trepidation.
She inserted the key into the door and with a quick twist the door started to glow. The seaweed reliefs that decorated it started to sway and a faint glow appeared around it. The door then proceeded to open by itself. It revealed a long tunnel gently sloping upwards. The group looked around to see if anyone had anything to say, and with no further comments Mark stepped into the lead and they were on their way again.
Mark was pretty stoked for the next puzzle. It was his totally biased opinion that this was the best admin area ever. Even in his excitement he didn’t forget to keep his eyes open for traps. Just because things were awesome didn’t mean that Pirate Pete wouldn’t turn on them in an instant.
Mark liked to think that Pete wouldn’t, though. He wanted to believe that the person who went through this much trouble to entertain people wouldn’t suddenly try to kill them off. Mark hoped that wherever Pete was he was doing well, because this was the best vacation from the apocalypse ever.
That thought brought Mark back to the sobering reality of the present. Mark shed his happy thoughts around Pete. They were making good time, but who knew what was going on out on the surface as they pranced around the magical pirate world of Pete.
Fortunately the tunnel leading out of the undersea aquarium wasn’t too long and before he knew it they exited to a relatively small desert island. They had ‘sky’ above them again, although Mark was pretty sure it wasn’t a real sky, it did give them a sense that it was a nice wide open space. It was very much like those comics of people being stranded on an island. A single lonely palm tree was off to the left, and Mark could see the ocean on either side of the tiny island. He imagined that if he climbed to the top of the gently sloping hill infant of him he’d see a nearly perfect circular island.
As everyone else exited the tunnel behind him they paused to take in the sight. Knowing time was tight Mark volunteered the next action. “Ok folks, one more crazy pirate puzzle and we should be at the terminal. I think we should head to the top of the island we’re on and see what’s up.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Liz said in agreement.
As the troupe trudged up the hill Mark’s suspicions were confirmed. The island truly was one little circle of land. The entire thing probably didn’t have a diameter of much more than a hundred feet. Maybe half a football field. That’ be something like 150 feet. He thought. A yard was three feet as far as he could recall, or was that a meter? His thoughts were interrupted as Liz approached the lone item at the topmost point of the island, another animatronic Pirate.
“Yahar Matey’s! Ye been doing well to get this far, but me final treasure be the most important to get to the capn’s chair. I also be noting that the beasties be actin up, so I be enabling the beastie blow-uppin button on thar capn’ chair for ye. But if ye not be proven yerselves to be the best pirates that be sailin these seas, I’ll let them feast on yer bones!”
“What do we have to do then? There’s nothing here!” Liz complained. She seemed to be about done with Pete’s puzzles and most of the rest of the party seemed to share the sentiment.
“Don’t ye be worryin lass, just poke ol’ Buttercup’s Nose and he be starting the puzzle for ye!”
“Poke my nose! Poke my nose!”
Mark suddenly had an idea. If Pete was answering questions for Liz, maybe he’d answer more questions. “Pete, what’s going on? Why are there monsters and stuff outside?”
“Ah, ye be a clever lad for askin, but I only will speak to tha cap’n about such things. Good luck lad!”
“Poke my nose! Poke my nose!” the parrot on Pete’s shoulder squawked again.
“It wasn’t a bad idea Mark, but I guess we’ll only get answers when we finish this thing.” Liz said consolingly.
“Ok, well, at least we can pump him for info after then. Lets get started I guess, we need to get out there and help everyone soon.” Mark quickly looked around and saw nods of agreement on everyone’s face. Everyone was ready to be done with this.
Mark poked Buttercup on the nose, at least he assumed that was the parrot's name, and hoped for the best. The ground behind Pete opened up and a large timer came out. It had three minutes and was already counting down. Across the entire islands, small ‘X’s started appearing and a surreal pattern around Pete. Less than ten seconds had counted down, and the entire island was now covered in ‘X’s.
“Find the Spot! Find the Spot! Squak!” said Buttercup.
“This is easy! I see the X already! X is spot!” replied Biscuit.
“Easy! Easy! Squak!” said Buttercup.
Mark groaned. The island seemed small at first, but when every square foot of it was covered in X’s it suddenly felt a lot bigger.
“Mark. All in, burn whatever mana you have and start digging these X’s up.” Liz shouted, panic clear in her voice. She moved to start on an X but as she touched it an explosion of confetti erupted into her face.
“Thar’s not the right spot lass, ye need be tryin again!” Pete added helpfully.
“Dude, whack-a-mole time.” George replied sagely. Mark nodded. It seemed like the only strategy possible in the time they had.
“Elly, Biscuit, you’re going to be main line for this one. Start stomping on X’s!” Mark shouted as he stepped away onto an X. This one exploded in a goopy slime. Since he was planning on using all his mana for Falling Steps, he had shut down his Chi armor and was now fully covered in gunk.
Liz turned and Mark could see the effort it took for her to refrain from making a comment. She simply pulled her ink laden hair back into a tighter pony tail in an attempt to get some of the conffetti out of it and got back to work. Mark appreciated the effort on her part, as he could see her eye twitching with the need to say something, but he had bigger problems. The countdown continued and there were X’s that needed stomping.
Elly and Biscuit were making the most progress, but everyone was contributing. George and Liz had taken to throwing or shooting arrows at X’s and generating puffs and explosions everywhere. Even Jocelyn was getting in on the action stomping any X she could find. Mike was furiously scribbling on pieces of paper, but every time he finished whatever he was doing, he would toss the sheet and all the X’s in a wide area would detonate.
They were about half way through the island when Mark glanced back at the clock. His eyes bulged in horror when he saw the time left.
“Thirty seconds left me hearties! Best be gettin to work!” Pete informed the group before Mark could say anything.
“That’s so unfair! We need more time!” Mark complained to the animatronic pirate.
“Ye shouda thought o’ that before ye brought all ye friends! Thar aint no easy mode for a full party lad. Anywho, if ye used yer noggins instead of yer feet, you’d be done already.”
“Liz, we need you to use your noggin! We’ll never make it in time like this!”
Liz looked around wild eyed trying to find a clue. She had made it out to one of the edges of the island during her popping spree and immediately ran into the water.
“Liz! Bath later! Help now!” Mark cried in a panic.
“Mark, get high, this thing is a square, the exposed part is round, but find the center of the square. That is the X. That point is where we need to go! FAST!” Ten seconds were left on the clock.
No wasting a single moment, Mark leapt as high as he could into the air. He willed his ability to keep him there, and not pull him down, and for a moment it seemed to work. He hovered above the Island and saw what Liz was talking about. The hump extended from a rectangular piece of land that was clearly visible from the air. The crystal blue waters made finding the edges easy and as gravity resumed it’s hold on him, he directed himself to the place where the X would form if you drew lines from edge to edge.
He stomped to his left and was covered in red paint.
He stomped to his right and string spray burst out from the ground.
Directly in front of him the X simply exploded shoving sand into his eyes and mouth.
Mark knew there was one more X behind him, but he couldn’t see anything. He crawled along smacking his hands against the sand in haphazard fashion hoping that he would luck into it.
He felt a click where his hand had slapped into the sand, and a bell chimed.
“Yahar Matey! That be a close one, but you finished me puzzles three! To the captain’s cabin with ye! Twas a pleasure, and we hope to be seein ye again soon!”
Mark just lay there in the sand for a moment. He slowly got his breathing back under control and wiped the sand out of his eyes. The team slowly gathered around him looking exhausted. Everyone was covered head to two in all sorts of strange substances but no one felt like joking about it. Liz extended a hand to Mark who gladly took it.
“Good work bro. That was close.”
“Thanks sis. It was. What did we win?”
They glanced over to where the final X was hit and saw a small vine like plant had budded. A few seconds later, it started growing like something out of Jack and the Beanstalk and soon slammed into the sky. The spot that it hit opened up to reveal a hole to an unknown area. Mark looked over to Liz, too mentally exhausted to figure out what to do next.
“After you!” She graciously held a hand out, allowing Mark to go first.
Mark nodded and started up the plant. It had formed into a spiral staircase, complete with railing, and the team lined up behind him. Each step felt labored, and his mind started wandering. All his focused was used up during that last few minutes and he couldn’t stop himself. What if zombies ate his dad and mom? What if the school was destroyed? What if the team outside was killed? What if this was all a waste of time? His pace picked up with each stray thought and soon they were all jogging up the stairs. While he may have started out thinking this was a fun vacation, he was officially over it. He hoped would all be worth it.