As the door swung open, Carter instantly knew what was in store for him.
The room was what it seemed like a little dome colored in deep greys and dark blues. This color palate was used on the walls, floor and ceiling in an almost indiscriminate manner throughout. Right in the center of it all was a standing panel of sorts which was still too far away for Carter to actually get a good glimpse on.
Walking out of the door and into the greyish blue corridor, he noticed something rather strange about the walls. Running his fingers over them, it was clear that the corridor wasn’t just made out of one wall but in fact a series of concaved walls which sectioned off one another as it progressed inwards to the center of the room, almost like a layered croissant. In between them were just tiny empty spaces just small enough to give each wall some room to move so as not to bump into one another. The corridor he was walking through was merely an opening created by lining the walls together in a particular order. There were a total of 7 layers of wall that were painted in different shades of grey and blue which got progressively darker as he reached the circular opening in the middle.
Looking closer, Carter noticed metal railings spanning the entirety of the room in a neat curved circular pattern. They existed in two sets, one at the very bottom on the floor and another at the very top of the ceiling. It was clear that the walls were sitting on top of these very railings. Pushing one wall, he saw that it did indeed move ever so slightly in accordance to the direction of the tracks. This was likely to be the key concept of the puzzle he was about the face next.
As he reached the opening, he saw that the most inner wall was covered in what seemed like twinkling lights. Looking around him, it almost felt as if he was in the midst of a star field on a cold winter’s night. It was a breath taking sight to behold. After a few minutes of admiration, Carter knew that it was time to get to work.
The very middle of the little dome was surprisingly dark with only the illumination of several twinkling LED lights that was set on the floor, walls and ceiling. He however did notice something else about the lighting around seeing as his shirt started to emit a strange glow. It was clear that the room was being lit up using ultraviolet light or more commonly known as black light as the lighter parts of his checkered shirt started glowing in a glittering dark blue hue along with the rest of the objects about.
Closing in to the panel, he could see the various switches and knobs that were present on it. They were being illuminated from the sides of the standing square panel by a row of tiny side lights. It reminded Carter of those little arcade machines that would spew out candy whenever a quarter was placed into it. This panel however was clearly not a candy dispensing machine of any kind though.
With a slightly closer examination, Carter could already tell what it was going to be for. Just to confirm his suspicions, he pressed a button and almost instantaneously, the sounds of levers, gears and pistons screeching onto one another could be heard screaming in the background. The wall closest to him started rotating in a clockwise direction and eventually came to stop after a while, shifting the opening of the wall to his 9 o’clock instead.
“Lining up the walls to create an exit huh?” He muttered to himself as he looked around to see where the exit was. He couldn’t really tell but he had a good inkling that it was situated on the 12 o’clock of the room seeing as that it was the most logical possibility. Now he just had to figure out the rules of the game before proceeding to think of the solution through.
Going back to the panel, he saw that the various rows of buttons were arranged in a rather neat order on the cold metallic board they sat upon. There were a total of 15 buttons, one row of 7 in the middle and another row of 7 below it with one big red button on the immediate right of these both rows. There was also a knob on the upper right hand side of the panel and a green computer screen that lined the entire bottom portion of the board.
He pressed the buttons from each row several times to determine the movement patterns of the walls. Looking at the outcome, it was clear what each row of buttons were doing. Each button controlled one wall out of the seven available. The top row of buttons moved the walls in a 180 degree angle while the bottom row moved the walls in a 60 degree angle. The problem however was that the buttons on the same row couldn’t be pressed repeatedly. Once the top row was pressed, a button from the bottom row had to be pressed next. If two buttons from the same row were pressed consecutively, the walls would refuse to move. It seemed as if the circuit was wired in such a way that the person solving the puzzle would be required to alternate between rows each and every time a button was pressed.
The big button on the side was a reset switch which shifted all the walls back to its original positions, revealing the entrance he came from once again. The knob on the other hand seemed non-responsive for the most part, only generating random numbers onto the green screen at the bottom of the panel. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to the numbers generated by the knob either as the numbers just would randomly come up the more he turned it. After about eight numbers or so they would be wiped off clean and the screen would be empty again.
“Let’s get it over with then. “ Carter tried to encourage himself as he sat down and took out the piece of paper received from George. With blue pen in hand, he flipped the paper to reveal its still pristine underside and started scribbling down simple logical equations to try to solve the puzzle or at least simplify the entire puzzle into a few well-structured concepts.
Huddling close to the fire, Carter rubbed both his hands together, making sure he was warm enough to brave the cold winter’s night. He couldn’t find the way back to camp in time and so decided to stop and wait for morning to come along. Travelling in the dark would have probably taken him around in circles or would have even brought him deeper into the forest. Getting lost was something the little boy did not wish at all for.
“So cold.” He said to himself as the fire burned on. His stomach rumbled from the lack of food as he lay his head down onto his knees which were being scrunched up by both his legs. He was tired, cold and hungry, a combination of ailments that could be prove fatal if it stretched on for far too long. He was really hoping to find the way back to camp first thing in the morning before he succumbed to nature’s harsh conditions. He started to wonder how humans long ago managed to survive out in the wilderness like this. He merely sighed as he stared at the fire once more.
The flame was his only guiding star thus far, bringing him warmth and light through and through. He was lucky his dad had taught him how to light a fire with just two sticks and some dried fluffy weeds that could be found all around the forest. The result of that however was a pair of sore arms and some nasty looking cuts all over his palms, but with it came a roaring fire as well, a consolation much higher in value than some bruised up hands.
As he looked into the speckles of heat and light, he saw the flames dancing around in a joyous and cheerful fashion. They whipped their tails about like wisps to the left and to the right in consistent tango. It was quite a sight for the little boy, lost in the woods without a shred of guidance to go about surviving in the wild. It was beautiful and almost looked as if the flames were beckoning him to dance along to its rhythm as well.
After a while, Carter grew tired and decided it was time to rest up until morning arrived. Closing his eyes, he sighed in a deep and menacing tone of depression. He wouldn’t be in this mess right now if only he had waited for his father to come along with him. He started questioning his life choices as he tried to fall asleep.
The rustling of bushes woke him up out of a sudden. There was something scurrying around in the dark just a stone’s throw away from his little fire. He couldn’t see much of anything in the darkness, but he was sure some kind of small critter had probably scurried into a thicket of leaves close to him in an attempt to avoid the shine of the flame. Or maybe it had found some prey lurking within the bushes and jumped in to feast on it. Too bad for the little insect or bug that became its dinner, it must have been a sitting duck.
It suddenly dawned on him. He was indeed a sitting duck himself.
Carter thought of the possible animals lurking around at that time of night in the forest. There were probably bears and maybe big cats walking about, looking for a tasty midnight snack. Or maybe there would be the ‘Croaked Men’.
He shuddered at the thought for a moment as he envisioned it in his mind. Bald humanoid figures, walking about in the forest with slit eyes like those of a snake but with a completely black sclera instead of white. Their eyeballs would bulge out from their sockets like lotus seeds out of their flower. Their neck would inflate like a frog whenever they took breathes, expanding to reveal its elastic properties and to bestow onto its prey the many veins it held within its bulging vocal sac. Their limbs were said to be always wet and sticky, soft and malleable, without claws, but built with strong foundational muscles that could crush windpipes within seconds. And when they spoke to one another, they would croak like toads in the rain.
Carter had grown up old enough to know that all these stories he had heard were most if not all just myths. Untrue and quite possibly just conjured up to scare the living daylights out of children. It was in the same position as the Boogeyman, Davy Jones and the cookie monster. All stories developed to make little kids afraid of the unknown, afraid of what might get to them if they misbehave, afraid of the darkness. But something made the story of the ‘Croaked Men’ a bit more different than just a regular kid’s horror story. There were eye witness accounts of the monster and even videos showing what seemed like a ‘Croaked Man’ walking in the jungle.
It was usually described by many people as a hunching man in tattered bloodied clothes walking through the forest in the late evenings. This as theorists would claim, was the hunting tactic used by the Croaked Men to lure unsuspecting victims deep into the forest to help this ‘battered’ and ‘wounded’ individual. Once they were up close however, the creature would apparently then spin its neck backwards, making its entire head swivel like a top to look behind. The bones in its neck would crackle and pop as its head turned.
Once in full sight of its victim, it would then proceed to give chase. Using its long disproportioned hands, it would grab the victim by the leg and then proceed to crush the muscles and bones within the limb causing them to lose balance, fall and ultimately become dinner for the creature. Before digesting them whole, it’s said that the Croaked Man would taunt the suffering victim by breaking several of its other limbs and ribs before actually crushing their neck and twisting it all the way behind to pop it out from their body. This apparently made the kills of the Croaked Men quite clean and fast.
He shuddered at the thought of it once more as the fire burned dimmer in the frigid wind. Taking a few more twigs and leaves he had gathered, he tossed them into the weakening flame making it flare into a frenzy of joyous sparks and crackling red once more. Keeping a strong fire burning bright was probably a good idea in Carter’s case to fend off any wild animals while keeping he himself warm and cozy.
As he watched the flames dance before him, his eyes started to droop into a sleepy tingle. He was tired and probably needed rest to at least regain some energy for the long walk ahead the next morning. Laying his forehead upon his knees once more, he yawned and snuggled his head tightly into the crack between his thighs. It was then that he heard it.
His face shot up immediately. The image of the ‘Croaked Men’ flashed before him. He was suddenly afraid of the fire as he recalled some further details of the creature. The Croaked Men could only actually see in dim light but was blind in the midst of darkness and extreme brightness. The fire was now his enemy if one was indeed close by. It was then when he noticed something on the ground near to him. He hadn’t noticed it before, so it must have slipped by just moments ago when he was resting his eyes.
The thought of it being just a myth suddenly disappeared in the blink of an eye as he saw what was in front of him. His eyes grew wide and his mouth aghast as he jumped up and made for a mad dash through the dark woods. He didn’t care anymore that he would end up deeper in the forest, all he cared about now was getting away from whatever creature that was out there taunting him. It was after all another known taunt of the Croaked Men: to leave a small piece of bait in front of their prey to lure them in.
In this case, it was a dead squirrel.
Pressing the buttons, Carter had managed to roughly understand the mechanisms at work and the fact that there was going to be a pretty good chance that he could work out a simple formula to align the openings into a straight path. He had to go back to the drawing board and chalk up what ideas he had to bring the formula to fruition though, and that would still take time. He sighed and nodded to himself.
“This is going to be a long haul.”
Written By HoiHoiSoi
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