A/N Hello all. I'm back finally with the next chapter. I know, I suck. I have been super busy with school, but I really am trying to be back into reading and writing. I find writing, about non-engineering subjects, helps me stay sane. So hopefully I will be back with Chapter 10 soon.
Joni had decided LapTrap was right about sand. While she did not have cooling vents, Joni's boots had probably a pound of sand in them, and after half an hour, the friction was starting to make her skin blister. To make matters worse, every gust of wind across the flat landscape sent a cloud of dust into her eyes and mouth. All of this meant that Joni was ecstatic to finally see the tree at the far side of the clearing.
Without warning, Owen sprinted towards the edge of the clearing. "Owen wait up!" Joni yelled. When her call went unheeded, Joni ignored the protests from her tired legs and ran after her friend. As she came to the edge of the clearing, she found Owen staring off into the distance. "Owen's what are you looking at?"
"That cabin," Owen replied, pointing into the woods. As Joni readjusted her glasses, a weathered cabin came into focus a few hundred feet away. The small structure had two dirty windows and a porch with a partially collapsed roof. From where they stood, the ClueFinders could not see any sign of human activity. "We should totally check it out."
"We need to get to the mines and find Santiago," Joni said skeptically.
"There is a high probability that someone involved in our current mystery stayed in that cabin whether they were the kidnappers, the hikers we were originally seeking, or the individuals responsible for the destruction of the forest," Leslie said as she and Laptrap rejoined the group. "Given we are the ClueFinders, I believe we should search the cabin for clues, all be it briefly."
Joni thought for a moment before nodding. Before she could say anything further. Owen charged towards the cabin. Joni followed. As the group came to the door, everyone paused, waiting for Joni to make the next move. Without hesitating, Joni pushed the door open. No more letting Owen take the lead. I need to keep everyone focused and stop wasting time, Joni thought to herself.
As she scanned the cabin, Joni was glad to find it unoccupied. Instinctively, Joni took an inventory of the structure's interior. The cabin consisted of one main room. The only inner wall or doors were for a small restroom in the far corner. There was kitchen area, with a sink and wood burning stove, a dining area, with a table and chair that looked like it had been crafted on site, and two beds, military style cots. The room was covered in a layer of dust, at least a year's worth by Joni's estimates. Oddly enough the room lacked any kind of hunting or fishing trophies. For that matter there was nothing personal, no photos or paintings, not even clothing. The only thing that might have told them something about the cabin's owner was a bookcase against the back wall.
"Ok we have five minutes. Search for anything that may explain what's happening on this mountain. Any questions?" When Leslie and Owen remained silent, Joni continued, "Ok if you find anything, let me know."
"Hey Joni," Leslie said, as the group was about to disperse.
"I believed I have discovered an anomaly that is worth exploring," Leslie answered.
"No way," Owen interjected. "I haven't even had time to decide where I'm going to look."
Rolling her eyes, Leslie strolled over to a bookcase and grabbed a thin paperback from the top shelf. "Well considering the copy of Ulysses I have at home is eight hundred pages in length, I find it highly improbable that this copy is authentic. Admittedly, the possibility exists that an eccentric publisher produced an approximately eight hundred thousand word novel printed in size zero point two five font, but Occam's razor would suggest otherwise."
As Leslie flipped through the pages, Joni walked up behind her friend and started to read over her shoulder. "What is this?"
"Binary code," Leslie answered. "As for the reason this book written in binary code, that is a mystery."
"Hey LapTrap," Owen called. "You can read binary code, right?"
"Oh sure, because I'm a computer, I must be able to read binary."
"LapTrap," Joni said, clearly annoyed. "Yes or no can you help."
"Fine, fine," LapTrap answered reluctantly. "Hold up the book so I can scan it." Leslie held the book open in front of LapTrap and his eyes began to glow and twitch back and forth. "Next page!"
As LapTrap scanned the pages presented to him, Leslie added, "Potentially, of even greater importance than the content of that book, is the reason for displaying the text disguised as contemporary novel. If the nature of that information required its concealment, there should be significantly simpler and more secure methods for doing so. Instead, if the information's concealment was of secondary concern, which appears to be the case, then one is forced to contemplate the actual reason for preparing the books."
"Which would be?" Owen asked, as he gazed suspiciously at the dusty bookcase.
"They wanted a fake bookcase," Joni answered, as she stepped forward and started pulling books off the shelves. By the time a third of the volumes lay scattered on the floor, Joni found a book that was attached to the back panel. As she gave the book one final tug, a clicking sound was heard from the center of the cabin. The Cluefinders turned to see the wooden floor boards slowly slide backwards to reveal a metal door.
Owen crutched and started to examine the door's smooth surface. "Guys this is weird."
"Yes," Leslie added, "the door was clearly constructed with a diametrically opposed design philosophy."
"What design philosophy would that be?" Laptrap asked as he continue to scan pages from the book Leslie was holding.
"Well the cabin's function would appear to be concealment of the information Laptrap is currently analyzing and the door Owen is surveying. In contrast the door was designed with a more direct function, to keep unwanted individual out."
"Then that means we have our first real lead to finding out where Santiago is," Joni said, as she grabbed a fire poker that was leaning against the wall and moved towards the door.
As his friend was about to start prying the door open, Owen raised his hand. "Wait, I think I found a better way. Here, this looks like a USB port. Laptrap…"
"Oh, no, no, no, no! I have followed you guys across forests and deserts, I have blatantly ignored the limits of my design protocols, but there is no way I am interfacing with some computer system you found buried under a mountain!"
"Laptrap," Leslie replied, "This could be critical to liberating Santiago and determining the cause of the disappearances."
"Ok look, I have been decoding the binary code in that book and I am seriously concerned about what we will find on the other side of that door. I can only scan so fast, but from what I have seen, it sounds like someone was planning an entire city underground."
"Who would have the time or resources for something like that?" Owen asked.
"I don't know but whoever they are, we are looking at someone seriously powerful, and it should go without saying dangerous, people. Once I decode the rest of the files I scanned, I should have a rough outline of the planned complex. After that we can head back off the mountain, get help, and lead a well-equipped, and hopefully heavily armed, rescue team, down that hole."
"How long will that take to finish decoding the map?" Joni asked.
"Almost done, and there we go. So shall we head back…"
"I just need you to do one more thing," Joni said.
"Forgive me for this," Joni continued. Before Laptrap could float away, Joni grabbed him and dragged him towards the mysterious door. Ignoring Laptrap's protests, Joni grabbed his retractable connecter cable and jammed it into the port Owen had discovered. Laptrap fell silent as he went into an automatic protocol. The ClueFinder's watched in silence as Laptrap's eyes started to glow again and his CPU hummed as his systems worked to gain access to the new system. Suddenly Laptrap's eyes shot open and he spoke in a voice more artificial then his usual sophisticated tone.
"Unknown entity detected. Initiate lockdown protocol. Unknown entity detected. Initiate lockdown protocol."
The ClueFinders exchanged worried looks. Owen moved to unplug the connector. "Don't!" Leslie yelled.
"Why? We have to do something!" Owen shot back.
Joni replied, nervously "It's not going to do any good. Unhooking Laptrap know will just crash his system, and we can't reboot him until we get home."
Without warning, Laptrap feel silent and stared into space. "Laptrap! You there?" Joni asked nervously.
After a moment, LapTrap's eye stopped glowing and he looked around the cabin. "Take that, you amateur security system! That is was cutting edge computing power looks like!" he yelled, his voice returning to normal. "Oh what that algorithms takes exoflop computing levels? I guess you better read up on data compression functions!" As Laptrap finished his rant, the door slammed open, reveal a ramp leading underground.
"Laptrap for the win!" Owen yelled.
"Before celebrating further, I suggest that we explore the newly revealed passage way," Leslie added.
"I second that," Joni added, as she pulled a flashlight from her bag and led the group into the mysterious passageway. Flashing her light across the walls, Joni noticed the walls were made of perfectly smooth stone and they met the ceiling and floor at perfect right angles.
As they descended further, Laptrap floated beside Joni. In a hushed voice, he whispered, "I understand as this group's leader, you sometime have to do things that everyone does not approve of…"
"Really I'm sorry about back there."
"It's fine. You did what you had to do to find Santiago, but just remember next time you need help with algebra late at night, someone might have powered down early."
Joni thought for a moment. She could live that. After everything that had happened today, Joni could feel herself getting more reckless. She knew she could be headstrong. That's why she liked working with Santiago. He balanced her out, held her back from anything too risky, but even with him gone, that did not excuse forcing Laptrap to hack their way through the door. It was too much of a risk, and worse yet, Laptrap had every right to be mad with her. Things like that lead to tension in a group. That led to fights, mistakes, and groups falling apart.
Not that she was worried about their group falling apart. The ClueFinders had been friends since the first grade, when Leslie had skipped kindergarten and her teach had assigned Joni, Owen, and Santiago to make sure Leslie was adjusting well to the new class. Much to their surprise, Leslie spent most of the day explaining the ecology of the countries on a map of Asia the teacher had given them. The assignment had been to color the land green and the ocean blue, but the future ClueFinders were far more interested in their new classmate's encyclopedic knowledge of weird places and animals. They had been best friends ever since.
Still Joni was not going to let herself take that bond for granted. She needed to focus. Get them in, get Santiago out, and get everyone home. Also when they got back, she needed to buy Laptrap a documentary about the history of computers, to smooth things over. Maybe something on the founding of Apple, or Microsoft, probably Microsoft, that seemed to be more of LapTrap style.
As the group made their way further into the mountain, a grinding sound could be heard from up ahead. The noise was something unnatural, like metal grinding against stone. Moving towards the strange noise, Joni repeated in her head, get in, get out, get home.