"You alright Braden?" Matt asked as they sat down for lunch at the most secluded and hidden table out in the yard. Braden had a hot lunch of chicken nuggets before him, but was too preoccupied with something to eat. Matt examined his friend, worried, as Conner Collins poked his tuna sandwich with his spork. Conner made a face of disgust when the sandwich gave a gelatinous jiggle.
It was no secret that lunches at their school were considered worse than prison food. Of the choices of chicken nuggets, tuna sandwiches, and the salad, it was common knowledge that the nuggets were the best choice. The tuna was rumored to be fifteen years old, and the salads had gone down considerably in favor when Piper Allen found a Jerusalem cricket sunbathing in the bed of lettuce. Rock-hard nuggets proved to be more popular than fifteen-year old tuna cakes or bug beds.
"Who blames him for not eating?" Conner asked in his bored drawl as he sipped his milk, which wasn't made by the school cafeteria and thereby safe. "Nothing here is good. The nuggets are harder to split than a rock, I heard. Just look at the sandwich. You can't even scrape the surface of the bread, and the tuna down there looks like an old white sponge."
"I'm sure the nuggets are fine." Matt said, eyeing his own plate of them and wincing as though not wanting to admit how terrible they really were. He put a reassuring hand on Braden's shoulder.
"They're perfectly fine if you want to crack a tooth." Conner mumbled. "That's what happened to Dugger Reece, you know. He said he broke one of his teeth eating a nugget, and it scratched his throat all the way down."
"I'd argue that most of what Dugger Reece says is utter rubbish if the quality of the food was a little...better." Matt stated hesitantly. "But after getting breakfasts here, I must say there aren't much in the way of good choices there, either. The muffin's harder to break than the nuggets, you could knock someone out with a bag full of them.”
"And with pancakes so dry and tasting like cardboard, the bacon is the only plus there." Conner said in an almost singsong voice. One of the boys' favorite topics of discussion happened to be the horrible quality of the food at their school.
"And the egg and sausage burrito tastes like nail polish and has an even worse aftertaste." Braden chimed in, smirking. He offered Conner one of his rock-hard nuggets and watched as the smaller boy borrowed Matt's canteen to bang down on it until the surface of it cracked. He watched as Conner delicately pulled the soft almost-white meat from the inside of his nugget and tasted it. Deciding it was good enough, he pulled out another piece of it and devoured it.
"The terrible quality of the lunch isn’t why you’re not eating." Matt noted as Braden smiled, watching Conner cracking open nuggets. "You're distracted by something. What is it?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." Braden sighed as he handed Conner yet another nugget to crack. The events of last night still whirled around his mind like a wafting perfume of fresh ice cream, of a dream that haunted him. Harris' chilling words about the villains and his hints still remained fresh in Braden's mind. Water, fire, air, and earth...
Braden rushed home after school was done that day. He wanted to take a nap, but immediately powered on his laptop. Sure enough, he found a Skype call from Malik and opened it up. The other DHIs were already there.
"Alright, are we gonna discuss those clues Harris left us?" Malik asked, a sense of urgency in his voice. "I take it that we don't have a lot of time before the villains do something."
"I think it would be best if we met somewhere in person to discuss this." Callan said, anxiously. "I can't help but feel like it wouldn't be hard for a villain to listen in on our Skype conversation for something so important."
"We can meet at my house." Braden offered. That sounded like a good idea to all of them, and he handed out his address to them, each promising to be there shortly. Braden powered down his laptop and waited. It was Callan who arrived first, bringing with him a sketchbook that had a few ideas hastily jotted down in it. Kelly - who lived closest to Braden - showed up only a few minutes later, a box of cupcakes in her arms. Malik was the third to arrive, and Jack came at nearly the same time he did. Both of them plopped down on a crimson sofa just as Andrea showed up at the door. They were ready.
"You hinted that the rides might be the key to finding the clues." Callan announced, opening his sketchbook. "And they are, I'm pretty sure of it. Where's a better place to hide clues than in a ride when there is an abundance of rides in the park? An abundance of areas to hide clues."
"So it just comes down to finding rides that fit the four elements." Malik explained. "That shouldn't be too hard. The rides would have to have their element incorporated into them in some kind of noticeable way. Let’s start with water, the easy one. Which ride in Disneyland has connections to water?”
"I say Splash Mountain." Braden suggested, and Malik smiled as though Braden was saying exactly what he himself believed to be the answer. Splash Mountain seemed to be an obvious choice where water was concerned; it was Disneyland's biggest water ride.
"Don't forget there are other water rides." Callan reminded. "It wouldn't hurt to explore other options, in case we're wrong about Splash Mountain. I think we should brainstorm all the rides with water references or actual water in them."
"The Storybook Land Canal is a boat ride." Andrea chimed. "That's got something to do with water. You go through Monstro at one point in the ride, even. And there's a part in it that’s themed towards Ariel.”
"Brilliant thinking, Andrea!" Kelly exclaimed. "I thought that would be worth examining. And what trip to Disneyland is complete without our other famous boat ride, 'It's a Small World'?" She and Andrea smiled at one another, clearly having put a lot of thought into the clues the night before.
“Not to mention the Rivers of America, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Jungle Cruise.” Malik sighed. “It could be any one of those rides, any of them. We’re doing far too much speculation.”
"They're all good points." Callan stated calmly. "So how are we going to divide up the work?"
"We're six." Malik pointed out. "Meaning that two of us can check two of those attractions. But what about the other elements now? What are we going to do about that?"
"Let's start with air." Callan suggested.
"Tarzan's Treehouse, maybe?" Braden proposed weakly. "I mean, the attraction is pretty high up in the air. That's a start." Callan smiled at him, perhaps for his decision to take part in the idea-sharing.
"Chip n' Dale's treehouse is too, so we could check over there as well, I suppose." Kelly added. "I think something in Tomorrowland might be more our speed in terms of air. The Astro Orbiter flies through the air."
"Peter Pan!" cried Jack, his eyes widening. "That ride makes you feel like you're flying in the sky over London at its start. Shouldn't we consider that ride too?"
"Alright, what about earth?" Kelly asked tentatively.
"Big Thunder Mountain Railroad seems like the obvious choice there." Malik contended, reclining in the sofa. "I mean, what other rides at Disneyland are more earthen than that one?"
"The Matterhorn wouldn't be too far off-point. It is a mountain, after all." Kelly pointed out as she took a vanilla cupcake from the box. The others, recalling there were cupcakes, each took one and began to eat.
"Fire, then?" Malik questioned. "Like, what Disney ride is supposed to have fire in it, honestly? We’re looking at storytelling for families, not a Rammstein concert."
"Could the Haunted Mansion qualify?" Callan wondered, thoughtful. "I'm sure there are candles in there, and candles mean fire."
"I don't know if that's enough fire to count." Andrea countered. "I think the fire would have to be a pretty showy feature on the ride for it to count at all."
It was then like a lightbulb went on in Malik's head. His face lit up for a moment as though he just remembered the answer to an important question and he nearly jumped to his feet. He looked around at all of them with an expression that was stunned, but pleased.
"Indiana Jones!" Malik cried. "There's fire on that ride! I know because people like complaining about how much more intense it used to feel as opposed to today."
"So how are we going to search all these rides in one night?" Kelly asked. "I mean, it's going to take a while just to go through one elemental set, and what if we miss the clue and have to double-check the rides? Not to mention some of those are probably very dangerous for us to go in." Everyone knew without asking that she meant Pirates of the Caribbean. They all paused then, wondering if the Audio-Animatronics on the other rides would act like the pirates.
"We'll have to split up the work into a few nights." Braden asserted, looking around at all of them. "We'll get as much done as we can without being killed. From the way Harris was acting, those guys can injure us, and probably will. Don’t let your guard down tonight."
The First RidesEdit
Braden stood up, finding himself standing by the hub. He was the third one there, behind only Kelly and Malik. Jack appeared just as he did. They waited for a few minutes. Just as Harris was walking over, Callan and Andrea arrived. They all wore clothes this time, every single one of them having learned the night before to wear jeans to bed. Over his black Chicago Bears t-shirt, Braden wore a black and blue flannel. They had all adopted jackets; Callan in a black hoodie, Malik in a dark green windbreaker, Jack in a black bomber, Kelly in a grey Disneyland pullover. Andrea was the only one in a brightly colored jacket, for she favored her pink track jacket.
"If you want to be returned, you'll have to find me in the firehouse on Main Street." Harris whispered. "It's the only safe place I could come up with. The Wickedness Whopper forcefield makes it so villains can't see you when you enter the area. It's like being under a DHI shadow. You won't be projected, but you'll still be there."
"So we'll have to be careful they don't follow us." Callan replied. "Got it. Is that the only return we get? We can't make copies?"
"No." explained Harris. "It's far too dangerous and we haven't gotten it to work yet. You have one return, so you need to stay together. If any of you gets left in the park, you will stay in the park until you get to the return."
"But can't we just wake up?" Andrea asked. "Surely if we wake up, only our DHI will be stuck in the park, right? I mean, it's not like we're physically here. How can we be if we're asleep at home?"
"I don't know how to explain it. I don't really understand it myself." Harris said. "But to some extent, you are physically here in the park. That's why you can be harmed. If you get a cut out here tonight, you'll find that same cut on you when you wake up at home. So if you get left behind when the others return, you will be stuck sleeping."
The group took this news with silence. That made the job much harder than it needed to be, having to stay together and all make it back to the return. If someone was captured, they would have to recover their teammate physically; they couldn't just push a button and all end up back at home as planned. Braden frowned for a moment, regarding his teammates.
"Do you all still want to be a part of this?” Braden asked. "I don't know about any of you, but I do. I want to help Disneyland." The others around him were quiet, and that scared him. What if none of them wanted any part of this? What if he ended up alone?
"I want to." said Jack, coming forward, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "I personally couldn't be more honored to be established as a superhero to Disneyland. We'll be like Batman here."
"Count me in, too." Andrea said, grinning. "I'm up for an adventure like this. I think it's going to be dangerous. Dangerous, yeah, but fun. We get to fight the forces of evil in the dark of the night. How cool is that?"
"I'm in, too." Callan sighed. "I can't say I've never wanted an opportunity like this to get to prove myself, to get to work with a team. We're like elites, to be the ones chosen for this job. I think it'll be the greatest thing we could ever do, to preserve the dignity of the parks."
"I hope you all know we could be killed." Kelly murmured, exasperated. "This is not going to be fun and games. We'll be fighting against beings with dark magic at their disposal. But I'm not going to be the only one to drop out. I'm going to go for it."
"Strength in numbers." Malik drawled. "It's probably the stupidest thing we'll ever agree to. My head's saying no, but my heart's saying yes. I want this. Honestly, I don't know what this is or who you people are, but it's destiny. Count me in."
"There's no turning back." Harris said. "Good luck on your journey. You know where to find me if you need any help. I'll always be in the safe place." With that, the old man turned and began walking down Main Street, U.S.A., leaving the bewildered kids behind him.
"So...where should we start?" Andrea asked eagerly, wanting to glide through the exposition and cut straight to the journey.
"I think we should begin with water." Malik proposed. "There's so many areas with water that we should try getting that one out of the way first. I think we should at least temporarily eliminate some of the more impossible options, where water rides are concerned."
"Let me guess, Pirates of the Caribbean?" Callan asked. "I actually agree with Malik. That ride is too dangerous for us to consider right now. I also feel like roaming around the Rivers of America would be tedious and a waste of time. The clues are bound to be inside a ride."
"So that leaves us with the Jungle Cruise, It's a Small World, Storybook Land Canals, and Splash Mountain." Braden confirmed. "That's not too much work. Which of those rides should we start with? Which would be the hardest to find a clue in?"
"Definitely Small World." Callan pointed out. "There's all kinds of places in there to hide a clue. I honestly think finding a clue in there would take more than two people. For Small World and the Storybook Land Canals, we should all go together. Storybook is more open than the Jungle Cruise, too questionable in nature.”
"I agree." Kelly stated firmly. "The Jungle Cruise is more enclosed; it'll be easier for a group of three to search through while the other three of us take on Splash Mountain. The question is who will go where when we split up, and in what order we do this."
"We'll worry about how to split up later." Braden exclaimed boldly. "For now, we should go on the two boat rides together, so we have time to get comfortable with the mission. Who knows, we might find a clue in one of those two and not have to go on the others."
"Which one first?" Andrea asked. "I'm gonna vote for Storybook Land Canals. Small World gives me the creeps. It has a ton of the Audio-Animatronics in there. It's not like water is a huge theme there."
"False." Malik shot back. "The ride even explicitly states it's the 'Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed'. While I'm convinced Splash Mountain is the answer, I'm going to say this ride will at least let us adjust to Disneyland after dark. I'm voting for Small World first."
"I'm for Small World too." Jack added.
“And me.” Braden announced. Andrea didn’t look pleased with half of them voting against her suggestion.
"It's suicide going in there with all those Audio-Animatronics." Callan countered. "I'm voting for Storybook Land Canals first. There aren't many, if any in that vicinity. It's a safer bet." Andrea brightened at this suggestion and she beamed at Callan, who flushed.
“Up to you, Kel.” Braden responded playfully. The girl looked deep in thought as she considered the situation at hand. The choice was up to her. She would either side with Callan and Andrea to make it a tie between them, or she would side with Braden, Malik, and Jack to make a clear majority ruling.
"I'm going to go with 'It's a Small World'." Kelly said. "Sorry Callan and Andrea. I just feel like we're supposed to go there first." Callan merely shrugged and Andrea looked a bit disappointed, but they all trekked up to the Happiest Cruise. They could hear the sounds of running water coming from the structure as they stepped forward. A single boat awaited them in the loading dock. They would all fit.
“Girls in front, boys in back.” Braden announced. No one had a problem with this as Andrea and Kelly sat in front, where it would be harder for them to be attacked by surprise. Andrea looked like she wanted to challenge his assertion, but Kelly pulled her along and she gave it up, sitting in the front row and to the right. Behind Kelly, Callan clambered in almost breathlessly, as though expecting some kind of attack. Jack slid in beside him, leaving Braden and Malik the second-to-last row. Braden slid in to the left, leaving the right side of the row open for Malik.
Mysteriously, the boat started moving. Malik turned to Braden with a surprised expression, while the riders all stirred, murmuring amongst each other. This seemed like a trap now. Braden inwardly cursed as the boat began its journey.
“If anyone’s chickening out, they better do it now.” Malik challenged loyally. “We’re going to be in the ride in seconds.” The DHI kids all looked amongst each other, wondering if someone was going to hop out as Malik sat proudly, his arms crossed. The boat entered the first scene, a cheerful and cartoony view of the ocean. The smell of chlorine came up into Braden’s nose and he let it. He had always liked the smell, even if he wasn’t a strong swimmer. The cool night air delivered an extra dosage of sensory bliss. He had been on Small World with his brothers when they stayed late in the park. Small World was a rest stop, a pleasant one when they needed to rest legs that had grown tired from trekking all over Disneyland. The cheery song kept playing and Braden saw Malik rest his head against his arm as though already annoyed by the tune.
They entered a scene with an icy terrain that Braden guessed was the Scandinavian area. The children were now singing in a language he didn’t quite understand. This was one of the shorter scenes, and they headed into a clearly European-influenced area. By the look of the small Peter Pan doll soaring in the air a distance away, Braden assumed they were heading in towards Britain.
“Did you see that?” Callan cried, pointing out towards one of the dolls. Braden and the others turned around sharply, wondering if he found a clue. Callan had paled considerably, so Braden next suspected an attack. He examined the area, wondering what villain lay in wait. Just then, Malik yelled.
“They’re moving!” Malik shouted, pointing ahead as two Dutch dolls forced themselves out of position. Braden turned to look behind him and wished he hadn’t. The Scandinavian dolls were in hot pursuit as several of the other European dolls joined in the chase. The dolls seemed intent on capturing them. One of the British dolls launched itself atop the ship and bit Malik.
“What the hell?” Malik cried. He punched the doll full in the face and threw it as far as he could. The dolls were growing in number, and the Italian dolls were already waiting for them. What could they do to stave off an attack of this number?
“What do we do?” Andrea shouted as she fended off one of the Italian dolls as a Spanish doll jumped aboard. The Italian doll was pushed overboard, but not before the Spanish doll delivered a bite to Andrea, who sent the doll flying into the Italian space. Jack, not knowing what to do, did the one thing he could think of.
“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears!” Jack sang over the chaos. “It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears!”
“What in the world are you doing, Jack?” Callan hissed. “Are you mad? This is no time to be singing.” But Jack kept singing ‘It’s a Small World’ as loudly as he could until the others were quiet. The dolls stopped and began tilting their heads from side to side.
“It’s working.” Kelly hissed. “They like the song!” She excitedly joined in, so Braden followed their lead and sang. The three of them sang the song together, nudging their companions until they all sang. Malik shot Braden a look like he thought it was totally stupid, but continued singing with them. The dolls in the following scenes did not try to attack them, so long as they sang. They were winded by the time they exited the ride.
“That was a complete waste of time.” Malik sighed. “There was nothing in there that I could see, nothing at all. Just a bunch of creepy dolls.” He nursed his arm where he’d been bitten, glaring at the rest of the park that lay ahead. Just going on the Small World ride had been a dangerous experience...who knew what else lay in store for them?
“Told you we should have gone on Storybook Land Canals.” Andrea huffed, storming ahead of them out of the exit queue. Braden and Malik shot each other looks as they tagged along, following the girls to the Storybook Land Canal ride. They came up to its iconic entrance with the large open-mouthed Monstro ahead. Malik eyed the Monstro uncertainly and shot Andrea a look like she was leading them into a death trap.
“Well, who should be the Captain?” Andrea asked as Braden climbed into the outward facing side of the ride, followed by Kelly and Malik as Jack sat on the row opposite Braden, followed by Callan and Andrea.
“Doesn’t matter.” Malik said, just as the boat lurched forward, nearly throwing them out of their seats. Braden couldn’t remember the boat going this fast. As they headed through Monstro, a globe of something wet and warm fell onto Braden's shoulder and he looked up. Monstro was salivating. He was about to bring it up to the others when they crossed through the other side of the beast. They admired the miniature of the Big Bad Wolf's cave to their left, seeing nothing to suggest that a clue lay waiting for them in the night. Braden looked ahead on the clear waters, anticipating some kind of nasty surprise. He had a feeling they would get one.
They went under a stony bridge and came to a view to their left; a miniature of the village Alice lived in from Alice and Wonderland, complete with a tiny, yet functional waterwheel. Kelly and Andrea remarked on how cute it was, but Braden's eyes scoured the area for a clue. Straight ahead they saw a magnificent miniature of Agrabah. Braden and Jack grinned and shared memories over exploring the location in the Kingdom Hearts games, while Malik inspected it with a close eye. It was beautiful, even if it was very small. The sounds of "A Whole New World" played as their boat glided across the water and forked left at Agrabah. They could see the Casey Jr. Circus train parked ahead and they admired it for a moment as they traveled down the waterway.
They passed through a small tunnel that contained a replica of the magic lamp from Aladdin. Once through the tunnel, Snow White's cottage was on their right and it was examined as well. Braden did his best to peer into the tiny square hole that represented the mine the dwarves worked in, but he couldn't get a great view of it. They admired the Cinderella landscape to their left, still searching for a clue. They passed by Mr. Toad's and saw nothing either, and were scanning the Pinocchio scene carefully. Mount Matterhorn loomed in the background, and Braden wondered if it held one of their clues right now. They sailed through a stony tunnel and found themselves at Ariel’s castle.
“This is ridiculous.” Malik said. “There’s nothing on this ride. We’ve wasted our time completely.” Braden privately agreed. Nothing interesting had come out of the ride, aside from an amazing view.
“So was Small World.” Andrea shot back. “At least this ride didn’t have killer dolls on it.” She had her arms crossed and a fierce look in her eyes.
"Like those dolls were killer." Malik retorted. "They were stopped by singing, but I'll bet you were just quaking in your loafers at the sight of those smiley, happy, cartoony little-"
"Enough!" Kelly cried, eyes flashing, and they both fell into surprised silence. "We're supposed to be working as a team here, not fighting each other. Things are bad enough as is with the Audio-Animatronics all possibly after us. Are we going to do this or what?"
"That's what I'm talking about!" Braden exclaimed, pleased, earning glares from both Malik and Andrea. "You two are arguing like an old married couple, seriously."
"As if!" Andrea cried. "I wouldn't marry him if he was the last person on Earth."
"Yeah, right." Malik sneered. "Like I would choose you anyhow.”
“Point proven.” Callan snickered, causing the others to burst out laughing as Malik and Andrea scowled. “So where should we head next?”
“We need to split into teams. One team of three heads into Splash Mountain, and the other will take the Jungle Cruise.” Braden explained as they walked from Fantasyland into Frontierland. “It’s not like we’ll be particularly close to each other. The two rides are in different sections of the park.”
“I say we volunteer.” Kelly said. “I for one, would love to check out the Jungle Cruise. I think it’d be an easier place to hide clues at than Splash Mountain.”
“I’m for Splash Mountain.” Braden said. “I have a gut feeling that it’s where the clue really is. It just seems like the right place to hide something, though it might be more dangerous because of all the Audio-Animatronics in there.”
“I’m going with Kelly.” Andrea huffed, still upset over her argument with Malik.
“Good.” Malik snapped. “I wanted to go to Splash Mountain anyways.” He turned to Braden when the boy gave him a dig in the ribs, not wanting another argument to break out.
"So that leaves two. Jack, where are you going?" Braden asked. Jack turned between the two groups while Callan shrugged and walked over nonchalantly to the girls.
"I like my odds as far as the Jungle Cruise is concerned." Callan explained. "Besides, I've never been a big fan of Splash Mountain, even at daytime. You can all get soaked if you wish, but I'm going to stay nice and dry in the Jungle Cruise boat." He earned a smile from both of the girls, while Jack shrugged and walked over to Braden’s faction.
"Meet in Club 33 in an hour." Braden announced. "Make sure no one follows you. We can't have anyone finding out we're using Club 33 as a rallying point. Our future operations might be jeopardized if we do." The others nodded, understanding the situation. He watched as Callan headed with the girls into Adventureland, while he walked with Jack and Malik towards Critter Country.
Callan prowled into the darkened Adventureland with the two girls. They kept close to Tarzan's Treehouse, trying to stay out of view of the immediate roads. Kelly and Andrea ended up following Callan, who kept to the shadows with sharp experience. He was fascinated by the holograms. They were not fully light for now, but somehow were halfway solid human beings as well. The procedure of transferring them from one body to another interested Callan deeply. Were their souls moving back and forth? It was like Fullmetal Alchemist, but he was trying to decode just what benefits being half-hologram presented. They could be injured still. Perhaps they would have stores of energy much vaster than what a full mortal body could contain. Perhaps the crossing-over made them powerhouses of a kind, able to carry out greater feats of strength and endurance.
"There." Kelly breathed, pointing to the entrance to the Jungle Cruise. It looked friendly enough as it had by the light of day, the floor of the queue looking notably cleaner in the after-hours of the park. Callan led the way through, eyeing the controls. He had studied rides like this before and knew what buttons did what, and what function each lever was for. He gestured for the girls to enter a boat, then leaped in after them as the cruise started up.
The boat moved faster than he'd expected. He landed with a hard whump on the floor of the boat, but it wasn't enough to really hurt him. The girls looked up as their last chance of clambering out of the boat was left far behind them. The dense growth around them cast mysterious shadows in the dark. They were not confined like the others would be in Splash Mountain, and maybe not as vulnerable with the one-hundred Audio-Animatronics that the ride carried. But Callan knew there were Animatronics here too, in the form of big, dangerous animals.
"The Indiana Jones ride." Andrea pointed out as the beginnings of the "temple" beamed through the growth at them. Callan felt a small sigh of relief as he found a wicked-looking machete on the ride. He didn't know if he could use it, but any defense was better than no defense.
A growl suddenly rang through the area, sending a wave of cold up Callan's spine. He recognized the area too well as the appearance of the bengal tiger. This could get ugly very quickly.
"Get down." Callan hissed, keeping the machete handy. The girls wasted no time in silently dropping to the floor of the boat with him. The roars were louder and closer now, and they held their breaths as they passed by the bengal tiger's territory. Something then caused the boat to lurch.
"What is that?" Kelly mouthed. Callan racked his memory for a solution, then recalled there were numerous alligators in the area on-ride. This could be more troublesome than he perceived. He wondered if any of the Audio-Animatronics knew they were there.
"Alligators." Callan mouthed back. Kelly and Andrea shot each other alarmed glances through the dark as Callan held himself down in place despite the lurching boat. The boat seemed to be strong enough to withstand the gator attack it was taking right now. Callan waited until the bengal sounded a bit further off. He peeked up out of the boat and saw the bengal prowling away...as a whole new problem presented itself. The snakes. He withdrew the machete as one came over to investigate. How could he forget about the snakes?
He gave the machete a good first swing at one of the advancing serpents. Its animatronic head was nearly severed, and it swayed for a moment before splashing down into the water. Another snake got a worse slash that dealt shocking damage to its internal system, shutting it down indefinitely. He crouched back down in the boat. Animatronic snakes were one thing, but he couldn't risk having to fight a full-size Audio-Animatronic lion with only a little machete. He racked his brains as they entered a watery clearing then remembered what came next with a gulp.
Several great elephants milled about in the water. Whether they were working for the villains or not, Callan didn't want to chance it. He signaled for the girls to remain hidden in the boat. One of them blew water out of its trunk, showering them with droplets of water. Callan didn't even want to risk a peek at the elephants, for fear of one of them upending the boat. Callan learned that they could still be drenched, for water showered down on them as they passed the last of the elephants.
They heard the cry of monkeys next. Callan didn't know how they would hide from the monkeys, who were much closer than the bengal tiger or the elephants. He supposed if they lay perfectly flat against the side of the boat closest to the monkeys, they might remain unseen.
They had no such luck. Something crashed onto the boat. Callan stood with his machete raised, holding it steady towards the animatronic beast. He was soaking-wet and cold, but he now had a flame of courage in his heart. He brandished the weapon at the chimp, who backed up, alarmed. Callan didn't know if he could bring himself to harm it, even if it wasn't real. Just then, Andrea launched into a kick and knocked it off of the boat. Callan looked at her, awed.
"It helps to be an athlete." Andrea noted as the boat advanced past the apes, who screamed louder. "We need to get out of here, fast. We can't even look for clues with all these screaming animals around. We're going to be killed."
"Agreed." Callan confirmed. "There'll be no point to finding the clue if we can't get out of here alive with it." He moved towards the front of the boat, looking for some way to speed up the vessel. They had to get out of here, and fast. He found the throttle and tugged at it. The boat suddenly lurched forward, almost throwing him to the floor of the boat.
"Callan, what's going on?!" Kelly cried as she struggled to get up. The boat zoomed down, faster than Callan had expected it to. The young Australian immediately saw the giraffes quaking at the sight of the speeding boat and his muscles tensed.
"Lions incoming!" Andrea yelled as one of the animatronic lions lunged for the boat. Its claws caught on the side, and Andrea kicked it off as the second lion leaped onto the boat. Callan pushed himself between the animatronic lion and Kelly, brandishing his machete. He wasn't sure how real the claws and teeth had been made to be, but he knew the lion could probably exert some pretty nasty pressure on his arm if it bit him. He didn't want to test this theory. He swung the machete, startling the lion.
"We've got a bit of a problem, Callan!" Andrea cried as Callan swung at the lion again with his machete. He turned for a split second and saw a small fire on the back half of the boat. This couldn't be good. Andrea came over to assist Callan. With one athletic girl ready to deliver a kick and a boy wielding a machete, the lion leaped off the boat and onto the nearest dry patch of land, prowling away reluctantly.
The boat suddenly gave a terrible lurch, almost tipping them out into the water. Callan felt cold as he remembered that there was hippos in the water beyond the lions. This couldn't end well.
"Callan, Andrea, look!" Kelly cried. A much bigger boat was approaching them on the water as the boat rocked with the blows of a dozen hippos. A pit of desperation filled in Callan's gut. Someone was after them. With a slightly flaming and definitely damaged vessel, this was not looking up for the three of them. For a moment, Callan wondered if Braden, Jack, and Malik were any safer than they were.
"We need to speed the boat up somehow!" Callan cried. "Search for oars or a backup engine...anything!" Andrea and Kelly nodded breathlessly, ducking low to avoid being pitched over the side as another wave of hippopotamus attacks pummeled the side of the boat. The boat gave a shudder and died, now drained from having been at full throttle. Callan cursed under his breath. The mystery boat had them now. There was no choice. They could leap off the side of the boat, risking being turned into ground beef by the powerful jaws of the hippos. Even if they could somehow get past the hippos, there were still a great deal more challenges ahead. There was no telling if the lions lay in wait on the shore to their right, or if the bengal tiger had stalked them on the left. Water splashed into the vessel as one of the hippo attacks weakened the side of the boat enough to make a small indentation, allowing water to slosh slowly into the bottom of the boat as the mystery boat closed the distance between them. They had walked right into a trap.
"Wait!" Andrea cried. "Look at the other boat!" Callan followed the blond girl's finger to the front of the boat, where none other than Donald Duck sat, captaining his own larger vessel. He fired a small pistol twice and the hippos disappeared. Donald pulled his boat up close to theirs and suddenly stopped. He had come to their rescue.
Callan helped Kelly cross over onto Donald’s boat first, eyeing the area behind them. It was clear for now, but he knew they had to get out of here. Kelly clambered onto the bigger vessel and immediately lay on the floor of the boat, relief overcoming her. Andrea nimbly hopped over onto the boat next as Callan fixed the machete to his belt and accepted Andrea’s hand, clambering onto the boat behind her. Donald waved to them before starting his boat back up.
Callan lay on the floor of the boat, panting and damp. This was not how their search was supposed to go. The Jungle Cruise’s animal animatronics had overwhelmed the three of them and trapped them in a certain “doom zone” that would have been impossible to escape without Donald’s help. Would a clue really be here? He supposed they could search for it during the day, but they would have to return at night in order to actually obtain the clue, so it would be even more dangerous than the journey so far had been. Donald’s boat pulled into the dock.
“Thank you.” Callan gasped. “You saved our lives.” Donald’s feathers fluffed with pride and he stood a little taller as he waddled off the boat with them. He made a gesture, pointing at New Orleans Square.
“What’s he trying to tell us to do?” Andrea asked. “Can’t you speak, Donald?” The duck put a feather to his beak, as though telling her to be quiet.
“He wants us to get out of here and go somewhere safe.” Callan whispered, having a faint idea of what the duck was saying.
“And he wants us to do it quietly.” Kelly whispered, even more quiet. “We’re in danger.”
“Well, here we are. Splash Mountain." Braden sighed as he and the others faced the queue. They had kept close to buildings and hiding places as they trekked from New Orleans Square to Critter Country. Braden had held his breath as he watched Callan stealing away with the two girls in much the same manner. He hoped they would have a less daunting task than what he and the other two were throwing themselves into. Malik strode into the queue with a proud and self-assured stride, no doubt believing he had chosen the eventful ride. The three boys kept close to one another as they headed into the queue.
"We're going in pretty deep." Jack said. "I think this is the right place. I think the clue is in here. There's so many places to hide a clue on this ride." The brown-haired boy was looking around the queue with interest.
"You think?" Malik asked brusquely. "I know we picked the right ride. It's logically the best choice of all water rides." He continued onward. They were nearly to the logs by now, when Jack asked if they were going to enter one.
“I don’t know about that.” Malik sighed. “It would be easier without a log to inspect all the scenes and take as much time as we need. We should just walk through the ride.”
“At least it’s not Summit Plummet we’re examining.” Braden pointed out. “I doubt we could take a close look at anything going sixty miles per hour down a one-hundred and twenty foot water slide.” The other two chuckled at the idea of attempting something so ridiculous as they walked beside the fleet of logs waiting in the loading flume. The water was cold when they finally stepped into the flume and Braden felt the legs of his jeans burden him as water soaked them. They walked until another ride-side service road opened up and they clambered out nervously before suddenly yelping as their legs felt turned to ice by the wind. They sloshed back down into the flume to temporarily warm their legs as the stairs appeared. Reluctantly they clambered out and began to ascend.
“This is terrible.” Malik groaned as he dragged himself up the stairs behind Braden and Jack. “My legs are beginning to numb. We better find a clue for the trouble this ride is worth so far.”
“This isn't even the beginning.” Jack sighed. “We still have the drop at the end to consider.”
“No way we’re going down that, by the way.” Malik objected loudly. “There’s no way I’m going down a fifty-something foot water slide in the middle of the night.”
“So we’re going to backtrack?” Braden questioned as they reached the top of the service stairs and clambered back into the flume.
“Who knows, we might find the clue before we even head into the first scene.” Malik shot back. “Nothing is set in stone.”
“But the clue might be in the scene beyond the drop.” Braden pointed out. Malik shot him a troubled look as they continued to slosh through the flume, peering around for hiding places. They saw another in-flume conveyor belt and climbed out onto the stairs beside it once more, shivering as they made their way higher up the ride. It was instant relief when they splashed back down into the flume. There was nothing to see thus far. They climbed out and examined the area surrounding the Brer Rabbit sign.
“Nothing.” Malik said when they finished their examination of the area, climbing back down into the watery flume. “I suppose it was too much to hope for, the clue being in the beginning of the ride.”
“Yep, your expectations were WAY too low.” Jack giggled as they trudged through the water. No stone was left unturned and no barrel was left unexamined as they trekked through the flume slowly. It was in the Brer Bear area that Braden finally saw something small and white sticking out from Brer Bear’s mailbox.
“I've found it.” Braden said as he pulled it out, a small slip of paper folded in half and sealed with a hidden Mickey sticker. He clutched it in his hand, not wanting to put it in his pocket or let go of it, for fear of losing this precious artifact.
“Great.” Malik groaned. “Let’s leave now, before I have to amputate my legs.” The three boys turned around, but Jack stopped them.
“Do you hear that?” he queried in a worried whisper. They could hear the sounds of the conveyor belt moving. The ride had been started up by someone. The three boys froze with horror.
“We’ll need to get out of here, and fast.” Malik said, heading back the way they came. Braden grabbed him and pulled him back and Malik turned to him angrily.
“No!” Braden hissed. “Whoever turned the ride on is over there, at the controls. They want us to go that way. We have to go through the whole ride.”
“I thought we agreed to not go down the giant water slide.” Malik huffed as they turned and began to move at a quicker and far more desperate pace. Braden cursed inwardly when they came to the first drop, a small one. There was no way to go down, save for going down the flume.
“Well, it’s better than being caught.” Braden said as he held one arm high and sat down in the flume. He wanted to close his eyes but didn’t as he was caught in the current and pulled down the slide. It was a lot like going down a water slide, only wetter and far less pleasant as he was pushed down into the foamy waters at the bottom. The slip of paper was dry in his hand, only speckled by a droplet or two of the fall. Jack came sliding down behind him, then a very displeased Malik.
“Well, at least we know what to expect.” Jack chirped optimistically as they dropped down into a much deeper part of the flume. Braden would have to stick the note in his mouth if they needed to swim or dive underwater in order to protect it from extensive water damage.
“Trouble ahead.” Malik said as they entered the first indoor scene of the ride. The song “How Do You Do?” was playing as several of the animatronic birds were out of place and moving far beyond where they should have been.
“They’re expecting us. Someone’s told them we’re here.” Jack whispered. He turned to Braden and Malik, looking terrified.
“We've got no choice but to stay underwater as long as we can.” Braden suggested. “The water’s dark here and they can’t exactly reach in the water and get us. He tucked the note in his mouth and dove under the water. He was not the best swimmer, but he was sufficient enough to make his way through the flume. He could see shadows cast by the animatronic animals as he crossed through the waters. He was not sure how much longer he could stay under. His lungs ached for air and not much progress had been made. He couldn't help it, he surfaced.
“Quick! Over here!” came a familiar voice. The real Brer Rabbit waved to him and the others as he ducked his head to avoid the clutches of a wicked-looking Brer Fox. He kicked his way through the waters to scramble onto the surface beside Brer Rabbit. The rabbit looked kinder than he was depicted, watching as Braden helped Malik and Jack out of the flume.
“How do we get out of here?” Braden asked the small rabbit. Brer Rabbit gave an excitable hop and pointed to an approaching log. Climbing into a log seemed to be a much better solution than trying to swim their way out of Splash Mountain. Brer Rabbit handed them each sticks and Braden waved it at an animatronic bird that advanced far too close for his liking. The bird recoiled, not wanting to be struck by the stick. The animatronics looked dead-set on capturing them, especially the ravenous looking Brer Fox, who looked eerily scary in the dark.
Brer Rabbit climbed into the front of the first flume as Braden swung his stick and caught Brer Fox on the nose, sending the fox backwards into Brer Bear, chittering angrily. Jack and Malik didn’t need to be told to get in; the two boys clambered into the log at once. Braden brandished his stick, a whippy little thing that seemed to keep the animatronic animals at bay.
The darkness increased as the log headed into the Rainbow Caverns as the song “Everybody’s Got a Laughin’ Place” began. Brer Fox reappeared this time, trying to jump into the log with them. Braden whipped at the animatronic fox with his stick, but it snarled and lunged, biting Jack on the shoulder. Jack roared with pain and Malik kicked the fox off of him. Malik swore unabashedly as Jack pulled down his shirt to reveal his crimson blood, which looked especially bright on his pale skin.
“So, you’re lookin’ for a laughin’ place...eh?” a voice cried from above and Braden saw the two vultures. They had passed into a tunnel with only a faint light ahead of them. Braden turned in his seat and tapped Malik, who was gaping at Jack’s wound.
“What is it?” Malik asked, turning in his seat.
“I think we’re almost done.” Braden gulped. “If I remember correctly...” Brer Rabbit turned to face them, then rubbed his nose against the note in Braden’s hand.
“Can you make sure it doesn't get wet?” Braden asked. The small rabbit nodded and tucked the note into his shirt pocket, ducking low so the water couldn't get him. Braden knew exactly what was coming now. The tunnel opened up, revealing the nighttime sky and part of the ride below them as they mounted the top of the drop. Braden heard Malik complain one last time as the log took its mighty descent. The nighttime wind rushed past his ears as the log shot down into the briar patch. Water sprayed Braden, Malik, and Jack.
“Meet us in the queue!” Braden says to Brer Rabbit, eyeing a small hole just big enough for the rabbit to fit into. “We can’t let them get that note. We’ll meet you in a few minutes.” Brer Rabbit gives an inclination of his furry head and scampered off to the hole while the log stops in the flume. Whoever was operating the ride had shut it down, but Braden suspected a trap.
“We’re going to swim in there. We've got to.” Braden whispered to his two companions. “But we’re going to jump up as soon as we get towards the queue and make a run for it.” He slipped back down into the flume, hearing the others splash in behind him as he drew in a breath and submerged. Here, he was unseen and untouchable as he followed the path of the log they had gone down into the briar patch in, pausing every so often to poke his nostrils out over the water and drew in another breath before submerging once again. The animatronics in the final scene didn't seem to notice them, for they kept themselves cloaked in the darkness of the water through the scene, gasping for air when they were outside it. They could see the loading area, and at the queue resided a set of pirates.
“On my count.” Braden whispered as the boys hid in the water, but angled themselves for escape. He counted down silently on his fingers. When the last finger went down, all three boys leaped out of the flume, catching the pirates by surprise as Braden splashed water on the two pirates before joining Jack and Malik, who ran down the exit queue. A pirate appeared in their path, but Malik kicked its legs out from under it and they continued their run, soaking-wet and desperate. Brer Rabbit found them outside of the ride and let Braden take the note back.
“Run!” Braden yelled to Brer Rabbit, who didn't have to be told twice. The rabbit saw the two pirates and made for a rabbit hole and was easily lost in some unknown complex to the enemies. The animatronic pirates didn't seem to mind; it was the trio of human boys they wanted. Three pirates now flooded out of Splash Mountain as Braden’s group ran with desperate speed past the Haunted Mansion, not even minding their waterlogged clothes. They were true holograms to ignore the additional weight of wet clothes. Their holograms shimmered as they ran, surprisingly never tiring as they pounded for the stores of New Orleans Square. Only when they had ducked into a restaurant and let the pirates run by into Adventureland that they tiptoed out and carefully slid into Club 33.
After latching the Club’s door, they slipped down the stairs in a wet heap, not even caring. Braden looked up and noticed a rather wet-looking Callan, Kelly, and Andrea waiting for them. They had been here a good many minutes ago, for they were much dryer than Braden and company.
“Thank the heavens you made it back alright!” Kelly exclaimed in a hushed way, throwing her arms around Braden. Braden resignedly hugged her back and looked from her to Callan and Andrea. Kelly then gasped as she saw Jack’s shoulder and moved over to have a look at it.
“He’s hurt?!” Andrea hissed. “How? What happened?” The athletic blonde looked very concerned now that she had seen Jack’s bloody shoulder. It was Callan who scrambled away and returned with a first-aid kit, finding some antiseptic and bandages. Kelly gently applied the antiseptic onto the wound and Jack winced as he rubbed it in before Kelly helped bandage him. Kelly had an innate nursing ability that came out in times like these.
“How do we get from here to the firehouse without being noticed?” Malik demanded. “I don’t feel like waiting in here all night and sneaking out during the day. My mom will kill me if I don’t wake up, granted she doesn't assume I’m already dead.”
“We should sneak out in pairs.” Jack pointed out, still wincing. “It’s the best bet of us escaping. We’ll be easily noticed if we all escape at once.” The others nodded, some a bit more reluctant than others. It was a pretty good idea, Braden had to admit.
“Alright.” Braden said. “Andrea, you and Jack will go first, and out the Frontierland exit. Kelly and Malik, you guys will go next, and to the Adventureland exit, so we’re not so predictable to anyone watching us. Callan and I will leave last, and through the Frontierland exit. Make sure no one follows you into Main Street. If someone catches you there, make it look like you’re heading to Tomorrowland and hide in Innoventions. If a pair doesn't arrive ten minutes after the first group shows up, we’ll assume they’re missing and go search for you, so stay at Innoventions or somewhere nearby. If you aren't, we’ll have to search the whole park. Sound good?”
Most of them nodded, but it was Andrea who raised a fuss this time.
“Why do I have to leave first?” Andrea asked. “I can totally do the last shift with you, Braden.”
“Because Jack is hurt and can’t defend himself as well with his bad shoulder right now.” Braden replied. “Besides, you’re in the experimental group. If someone tries to jump you the minute you guys exit, you’ll be able to take them down long enough to yell at us that they know we've been here.”
Andrea nodded weakly as she and Jack lined up by the door. They waited a few moments before Andrea stuck her head out a crack in the door and she and Jack took off down the road to Frontierland. They waited for a few minutes before Kelly and Malik departed, heading towards Adventureland. It was with a pang of fear that Braden and Callan carefully slid out of Club 33 and silently shut the door behind them before running in the shadows, trying to make a break for Frontierland. They monitored half of the peripheral, each keeping a close eye on his area. No one followed them. Callan led them down Main Street like an expert, keeping them out of sight. They waited three minutes for a surprise attack and saw none.
With no movement and no unnerving feeling of being watched, they slipped over to the firehouse and disappeared once they were within its proximity. Invisible, they crept into the building and knocked slightly and quietly on the door. Harris opened it and let them in. They were the second pair, behind only Malik and Kelly, who were running late. Braden resolved to go look for them at Innoventions when he bumped into them on the way out and escorted them in. Both were panting, but had managed to lose their pursuers in Tomorrowland without having to hide and wait for them to pass. Braden opened the note and passed it around.
“It’s just an I and an N.” Andrea said. “I-N? IN?”
“In.” Malik mused. “Maybe it’s saying it’s inside something.”
“This is only the first clue.” Kelly said, handing the slip to Harris. “We’ll find out what it is later. Right now though, I’m tired.” When the others agreed fervently with her, she smiled and they all held hands as Harris pressed the button and Braden felt like he was being jerked out of a dream.