Breathing slightly heavily, Santiago leaned against a tree and thought to himself "What have I got myself into?" Joni's parents had dropped the ClueFinders off early that morning at a trail head an hour's drive outside of their town. The sun was now directly overhead and there was not enough cloud cover to prevent the temperature from rising into the eighties. Seeing that the rest of the group seemed to be in no need of a rest, Santiago quickly grabbed a bottle of water from his backpack and shouldered his pack. "So how much further until me make it to the campsite?" Santiago asked before taking a long sip of his water.
"According to my map we are two point four miles from our destination," Laptrap replied.
"You know this hike wouldn't be so bad if you spent a little more time exercising and a little less time in the clubhouse working on your inventions," Joni added, as the group started moving again.
"I am sorry. I didn't realize I should be an outdoorsman like you. Last I checked my contribution to the team was ensuring that our gear worked," said Santiago.
"Yeah I know but I hike, Owen skate boards, and even Leslie has taken up biking." Santiago gave Leslies a surprised looked.
"Thirty to sixty minutes of physical activity, five to six days a week is recommended to ensure optimal cognitive abilities," Leslie explained. "I found that I was the most adept at cycling."
"Fine I will start jogging or something if it will make you guys happy. Shouldn't we be discussing the case?" Santiago said, trying to change the topic.
"Well there isn't much to discuss," Joni said. "Sixteen campers have disappeared in this area in the past two weeks. The campers, their gear, and their camp sites are all gone without a trace. "
"Hey guys," Owen said. "I saw this movie last night were this giant ape man was kidnapping teenagers and bring them to this cave in the woods and…"
"Owen," Leslie interrupted, "the likelihood of an unknown species of great ape existing undetected in this environment for an extended period of time is astronomically small."
"Well Leslie," Owen responded, "do you have any other ideas?"
"Actually I do. Recently I have been reading up on ochlocracy."
"Isn't that a kind of flower?"
"No Owen that is an orchid. Ochlocracy is what is commonly referred to as mob rule."
So the conversation continued for another hour and a half as the ClueFinders hiked towards a small clearing in the Sierra mountain range. Once they reached their destination, Joni gave everyone their jobs for setting up the camp. Santiago began setting up an alarm system that would alert the ClueFinders if anyone or anything approached the camp. Owen began building a fire and preparing dinner for the group. Joni and Laptrap searched the surrounding area for firewood. Finally Leslie was left with the task of pitching the tents.
About an hour later Laptrap and Joni were returning with the firewood. Seeing Leslie struggle with a tent post, Joni asked, "Hey Leslie, do you want some help with the tents?"
With I defeated look, Leslie responded, "While in theory a tent is simply a series of rods and tarps in tension with one another, setting up a tent seems to more a practical skill, one which escapes me."
"Hey don't worry dude," Owen said coming over from the camp fire. "These things always go up easier when you have a group."
As Owen, Leslie, and Joni began pitching the tents, Santiago was putting the finishing touches on the alarm system on the far side of the clearing. The alarm system shouldn't have taken this long but Santiago was finding it difficult to conceal the bells. The alarm system was a series of bells and wires surrounding the camp. In theory the bells were placed at the end of each line of wire and then hidden in a bush or other ground cover. The only problem was the all ground cover in the area was wilted. Most of the plants looked as though there had been a frost the night before. Even the trees seemed to lack the dark healthy green of early summer. Santiago did not watch the weather, but he knew that in this area a frost was unlikely in May and unheard of at this low altitude.
The sickly plants bothered Santiago, but what really unnerved him was the silence. There were no birds singing, no bugs chirping, and no squirrels running through the trees. The only noise was the sound of the bells in Santiago's pocket. Every step produced a jingle that raced out into the forest and was swallowed up by the silence. Finally the last bell was placed onto the wire and Santiago was alone in the silence.
As he was turning to leave, Santiago noticed something out of the corner of his eye. In the instant he saw it, Santiago made out a small smooth sphere. The next moment the sphere disappeared into the ground. He probably wouldn't have even noticed it except that the object seemed so alien amongst the rough surfaces and random designs of the forest.
Santiago cautiously walked to the spot where the sphere had been a moment before. He noticed a small hole in the ground. It was perfectly round and like the sphere, it stood in stark defiance of the randomness of nature. As he crouched out down to get a closer look, he noticed a grinding sound coming up out of the hole. The grinding sounded as though a machine was chewing its way through the rock below, and judging by bangs that punctuated the grinding, the meal did not agree with the diner.
As Santiago was taking this all in, he noticed that a sapling next to him seemed to be rising. With a shock of realization, Santiago realized that the ground he was standing on was collapsing. He lunged in an attempt to reach solid ground but all he managed to do was disrupt more of the ground around him. As he tumbled into the now gaping hole in the ground, dirt began to fill his eyes and mouth.
For an instant he was completely disoriented and then his senses came crashing back to him as he hit the stone floor of the hole. Pain shot throw the entire left side of his body but this was barely an afterthought as he struggled to regain some control over his body. Soil continued to pour in from the hole above, threatening to bury him alive. Finally he managed to get his arms underneath him and he tried to push himself upright. Shifting his shoulders to lessen the load of soil on his back, he managed to push himself into a kneeling position.
For the moment he was not in immediate danger of suffocation and he tried to lean back against the wall of the hole to regain a little of his depleted strength. Again there was a feeling of complete disorientation and then a crashing return to reality. With pain radiating through his body, Santiago realized that there had been no wall behind him. As he crawled backwards across the floor to escape the continuing stream of soil, he began to take in his surroundings. In the minimal light that entered through the hole, Santiago realized one important thing. He was not in a sink hole, he was in tunnel.
As he began to further regain his senses, Santiago noticed movement in the pile of dirt he had just climbed out of. Struggling to his feet, Santiago moved back towards the pile of dirt as quickly as he could. Fearing that someone may have been buried in the collapse, he began to push aside the loose dirt. Suddenly he uncovered the sphere that he had seen on the surface. He reached out to clean off the sphere more thoroughly. As his fingers touched the surface of the sphere he felt an electric shock pass through his body.
After the shock, Santiago was aware of very little. He had a fuzzy notion that he was being dragged. Next he heard a series of sharp mechanical beeps. Finally he felt a sharp pinch on his neck. The floor began be move up and down as if he were floating on the ocean. He felt warmth far off in the distance. He was unsure of where this warmth came from but he was drifting towards it. The further he travelled towards the warmth the harder it became to focus, not that it seemed to matter. At last the warmth surrounded him and he knew no more.
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