Chapter 34: Thy Dungeonman

"Now hold on here," Elliot told the old man to his face. "Don't sell me shit and call it gold, tell me why you need Kato."

"I need to teach him the true depths of his skills," the old man replied.

"Again, don't sell me shit!" Elliot said, raising his voice. "That's why he's here with us, isn't it?"

"It was," The old man said. "But a decision has been reached."

"Among who?"

Kato looked at the old man. "My ancestors. You have come here at the behest of my ancestors. What is so dire?"

"They and I see a grave warning in front of us. There is so much to do... So little time remaining."

Kato gave the old man a mild look. "Who are you, then, who is equal to my ancestors?"

The old man stood, suddenly, and the world seemed to dim for a moment in broad daylight as stars wheeled around him. "I have many names, many disciplines. Some call me the Master of Stars."

"You aren't seriously considering this, are you, Kato?" Elliot looked at him "I mean, come on, you don't know him from Adam-"

"I did not know you either." Kato's head bowed. "Fearless Leader, truly you live up to your name. I will not forget this."

"Oh, give me a break-"

Kato pushed past them. "I am ready."

"Do not worry," Star Master said. "He will return to you, when he has learned what I have to teach. No more, and no less. It will be soon. Watch to the skies!"

And with that, Star Master lifted Kato to the heavens, and they were gone.

Elliot threw his helmet down in disgust. "Great. Just fantastic. I should have known he'd be leaving as soon as he started to work with us." Elliot picked up his helmet, put it back on, and looked at their surroundings. He blinked. "Joseph, isn't the plateau of Africa a little more wet than this?"

"Yes, it is."

"And didn't we just climb up that plateau?"

"Supposedly..."

"Then riddle me this: Why the hell are we still in the desert!"

"In case you hadn't realized, Elliot," Joseph responded, "The Sahara is not necessarily something easily traversed. There are five more cataracts between us and the savanna."

Elliot considered this. "And how do you propose we climb five waterfalls and their attendant cliffs?"

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it," Joseph answered.

Skye shook her head. "Don't you mean 'after we cross it'?"

"Bah! Details. Don't bother-" Joseph suddenly looked to the west. "Huh?"

"What's up, tech man?" Elliot asked.

"I've got a contact on radar."

"You have radar now?" Skye asked. "Damn, do you ever sleep?"

"Occasionally, mostly I do it while we're walking around," Joseph said, waving off the question.

"Never mind how you got radar for now- what's the contact?" Elliot asked.

"Not sure. It's like a building, only... It's moving." Joseph paused, shook his head. "Yeah, it's definitely moving. Damndest thing I ever did see."

"Wait. How big is it?" Elliot looked to the west.

"Huge. Like, I don't know, ninety meters, possibly a hundred and five?" Joseph paused. "Getting some faint seismic readings, too."

"Where's it going?"

"Hm, it seems to be coming towards us, actually, it's going to be heading a little south of us."

"Can we meet it?"

"No problem," Joseph said. "It's doing around seventy."

The projected path was something of a casual stroll- as casual as any stroll could get in the desert, anyway.

And then it started to come into view.

All of them looked at the head coming up over the horizon.

"Oh, you-" Elliot started.

"have to be kidding me," Skye finished.

Joseph just stood there, blinking to make sure he wasn't imagining it. "Oh, no. It can't be. No way."

"It can't be what?" Elliot asked.

"He couldn't have..." Joseph just stared at it. "Not in just two weeks..."

"What are you talking about?" Elliot asked.

"I'm going to try and hail it." Joseph held up a hand. "Antenna." A small dish with a pistol handle fed to his hand from his backpack; Joseph pointed it at the head that was stomping ever closer. "Hope this works..."

Joseph pulled down a microphone. "Opening frequencies on all radio channels. Calling Brick Road, Brick Road do you copy?"

Joseph paused, tried again. "Calling Brick Road. Brick Road, do you copy? This is Joseph Andonuts."

No answer. Joseph nodded his head a little in frustration. Looked down. Looked up. "Dungeon Man, Joseph Andonuts, do you copy?"

A moment, and then a response, "Copy, Andonuts, what in the world are you doing in the desert?"

Joseph lifted his headset. "Good, there aren't two people that crazy in the universe." He lowered it again. "Well, we're heading deep into Africa, think you can grant supply?"

"Supply? Copy, wilco. Mark position."

"Wilco, sending up green flare now." Joseph flipped up the headset, and with his other hand raised, called out, "Green flare."

A green-colored flare gun popped into his hand. Into the air. PTHOCK BOOF.

"Spotted, Andonuts, converging on your position, will meet one mile south."

"Understood." Joseph let the antenna slide into the backpack. "Okay, we have to head a mile south."

"Even further? Ugh, I got more sand than foot in my consies right now." Elliot distastefully dumped out the contents of said shoes before putting them back on.

"Should have asked for a custom pair," Skye smirked at Elliot, bouncing lightly on her new boots.

Elliot looked at them, then looked at Joseph. "What are those things, anyway?"

"Custom exotic materials. I have enough raw to make a pair for you if you like. Last shoes you'll ever need- I guarantee it." Joseph gave a goofy grin and a thumbs up.

Elliot didn't look impressed. "Would they stand up to my dead run without shielding?"

Joseph paused. "It'd take a bit of doing because of the separate requirements, but I think so."

"Done deal."

"I'll get my fabber on it as soon as we meet up with Dungeonman."

"Can't come soon enough, I'm ready to get some more damn sleep," Skye put in.

"No foolin'," Elliot replied.

Some more time passed in silence. The beginnings of a sand storm started to blow up around them; Jospeh passed out masks.

And then Elliot started to hear it, like a distant, ridiculously slow pillow-fight. Whoomph. Whoomph, whoomph, coming closer, and closer, the dust and sand in the air slowly obscuring everything in a miniature, artificial sandstorm.

Slowly, the dust settled, and everyone could hear a loudspeaker: "Hello? Joseph, are you there?"

"Yeah! Yeah, what's the problem?" Joseph's muffled voice shouted out.

"Quick quick, then, inside, inside..."

Elliot could hear a door sliding open; he walked in that direction. It was only at this moment that he understood just how immense this thing was. At first look, it seemed to be formed of sandstone, but that was all an ingrained coating of sand; Elliot rubbed his hand against it. He could see-

"This might be irreversible." Dr. Andonuts? He did this?

"Worth it."

"Very well. For science."

"Maybe for you."

Skye grabbed his hand away from the surface. "Come on, Joseph's already inside."

"Right." Elliot climbed into the elevator, and it shut behind him. A small wait, and the doors opened.

Except for the pervading darkness, Elliot might as well have not left the outside, except perhaps that there were fewer things that could kill him here. It was still sandy, still filled with cliffs. And he could feel he was surrounded by history. He could smell it in the air, feel it in the earth, and after a quick check, he could even taste it in the water.

Elliot didn't notice when the lights came on, except that Skye was tapping him on the shoulder. "Wow. No wonder you never showed off. As a psychometer, you suck."

Elliot just stood, slack-jawed, staring at Skye. Finally, he managed to regain enough mental acuity to say "What."

"You heard me," Skye said. "At least I know how to break myself out of trances, Unconscious Boy."

"I'd rather not stab myself to wake up. Seems counterproductive." Elliot found a park bench and sat on it.

Skye sat next to him. "Pfft, I've come up with something better."

"Oh, well, then, I suppose-" Elliot looked down, then back at Skye. "Wait, when did you do that?"

"Back in Fourside."

"And you didn't inform me of this why?"

"I thought you knew!" Skye looked at him. "I mean you did show it to me."

Elliot leaned back, looking Skye over for overt signs of insanity. "When did I do that?"

"In Fourside, I told you already," Skye said, a little exasperated. "Really, you'd think that wouldn't escape you."

"Show me, Skye." Elliot looked at her. "Show me what you mean because I have no idea."

"Wait." Skye looked into Elliot's eyes, which he quickly covered over with his sunglasses.

"What? What's wrong?"

"Now I remember..." Skye reached out a hand.

"What are you doing, Skye?" Elliot scooted away from her. "This is starting to creep me out."

"It'll only take a second," Skye said, reaching over further to try and touch some portion of Elliot's skin.

Elliot fell off the bench, touched floor and bench, and saw-

A hundred secret senses, all swirling, unfocused, sounds of construction, the feel of heat and metal singing in his veins, thousands, he couldn't see-

A cooling touch, a pink light. Skye. "Calm... Remember who you are. Your center is here." The light showed him something, and Elliot's eyes opened to something essential he'd never knew he'd lost.

He could feel himself again, and felt the work of hundreds of workers, all separate and individual and removed from him, as if a vast distance away.

The vision faded and Elliot stood up with Skye's help. "When did you learn that trick?"

"Like I said, Fourside. Your touch opened... I don't know, a path, and I saw this happening. Because I knew how to teach you now, I knew how to do it then."

Joseph paused. "Wait, so who learned it first? You or Elliot?"

"He did. But we learned at the same time, and I taught him. It's complicated."

"No, it's not." Joseph harrumphed. "A plasma cannon is complicated. That just breaks the laws of causality."

"Who cares?" Elliot said, raising his hands towards the ceiling of what he could only assume was the body of this robot. "I don't have to worry about touching things again! Do you know how annoying it is to have someone else's first kiss go through your head?"

Skye went red. "Oh, please tell me that wasn't me."

"It wasn't. That was Joseph." Elliot grinned. "By the way, cute boyfriend."

Joseph deadpanned, "Remind me to burn these clothes later."

"So why are you so embarrassed about your first kiss, Skye?" Elliot's grin went savage. "Let me guess, it was awkward and slobbery, with undertones of being forced upon you-"

"I'm damn well going to castrate something today, Elliot, do you really want to be first in line that bad?"

"Eh, we both know it'll grow back."

"Can we just get some sleep?" Joseph asked, pulling up a bivouac bag from his backpack. "You know, like we originally intended?"

"Oh... Yeah... Sleep..." Elliot's headache started to subside as he leaned against something and... Drifted... Off...

Somebody shook him awake- From the voice he guessed it was Skye- "Get up you idiot, you were damn near drooling on me."

Elliot blinked. "I was?" He looked at where Skye was sitting compared to him. His mind reconstructed, and touching her skin for a moment made it absolutely clear. "Wait, were you leaning on me this whole time?"

"No idea, don't care, what's to eat?" Skye got up and stretched.

"Espresso, croissants, eggs, fish, looks like..." Joseph said, looking at the vending machine in the wall.

"He's... Not exactly clear on the concept of a dungeon, is he?" Elliot said.

And then the sitar music started up.

Ten minutes later, the music started to cross-fade to a tense string piece. "Hold on," Joseph said, holding up a hand.

"What's up?" Elliot stopped and turned around.

"The background music changed." Joseph looked around. "Something's waiting for us."

It turned out to be... A duck. A really quite peculiar duck to be precise. Elliot booted it aside and moved on.

The climb provided convenient stairs to head up with, with a consistent clip-clop like two coconuts banging together. Elliot looked like he was about to say something, but Joseph put a hand on his shoulder. "Trust me, that's what he wants."

And so it went, until they realized that the floor was shifting around. "Are we moving?"

A voice came out over the PA. "I am a dungeon man after all! Walking is just one of my many talents!"

Skye sighed. "Like modesty?"

"Yes, precisely!" Dungeon Man kept walking, which caused them to stumble on the steps that were his spinal cord- Joseph felt himself slipping-

And caught by two hands, one from each of Skye and Elliot. A light push at the small of his back got him back up on the stairs. "I'm starting to think we should have taken the longer way up. We haven't had good luck with stairs lately."

"Long ways are for pansies."

They didn't know how long it was until they all got up to the head- arguably not as long as it would have took otherwise, though Joseph seemed to not be in agreement on that regard.

If the bowels looked like they were carved from the sandstone outside, the control room was the complete opposite, a cyberpunk author's wet dream wrapped in caves of steel wrapped in golden hopes and silver thoughts.

And in this room, there was a capsule, made out of the alien alloys Joseph has supplanted for his own, filled to the brim with all kinds of wires and control systems. And in the middle, there was a pod, made of what looked like glass, but was obviously far too resilient, for no mere glass could take the rumbling of this titan shaking the earth.

And in that pod was Brick Road.

"You made it then. Where to?"

"As far as I can tell, Brick Road, Pokey's heading south. Can you take us south?" Elliot asked.

"Yes, of course, anything for a friend of Dr. Andonuts's boy." The entire structure started to shift even faster. "You might want to hold on."

Several of the UFOs they had had such trouble with swirled outside Dungeon Man; and he swatted them aside like so much flies; Joseph could see he was sending out drones to collect them.

"Can I have some of that material?"

"I might have some left over after maintenance, yes. We'll be climbing a cataract shortly..."

"How did you know we needed to get up there?" Elliot asked, suspicious.

"Hm? A simple matter of deduction. I have access to a much higher level of intelligence..."

Elliot shrugged, but Joseph was gave pause to this thought. "You can think with the machine's brain? I thought this thing didn't have one..." Joseph said, eyes narrowing.

"Well, it does have certain functions that would be impossible without a semi-intelligent distributed network throughout my new body," Brick Road said, almost off-hand. "In fact, if I couldn't synchronize my neurology with the Suit's, I couldn't even move it."

Skye looked at Joseph. Joseph looked at Skye.

Skye spoke first. "We're checking every inch of these systems. Now."

"I'm already getting in," Joseph said.

"What's with the paranoia?" Elliot asked.

"Can... Can you just trust us on this one?" Skye asked.

"Okay, okay, fine, this is clearly something I just won't get, just do it."

Elliot was shaken awake, once again, as Joseph came back, clearly excited about something. "Oh, what is it now...?"

"He's stopped. Something's wrong."

"You're the gearhead, you do something about it..."

"I can't! I don't have enough bodies, come on, get up-"

Elliot got up. "Okay. Okay. What's the problem, Joseph. Slowly."

"Dungeon Man has become stuck near Lake Victoria."

Elliot blinked. "And your point would be...?"

Joseph just dragged him along to somewhere in the spinal column, where Skye was waiting. She pointed to a small panel. "Psychometry. Use it."

Elliot touched the panel, which he discovered was part of a conduit, what in turn supplied life support systems... That ran on... "Wait. So if people don't get caught by the dungeon's systems... The place- and his body- will shut down?"

Joseph nodded. "Looks that way."

"Isn't there some safety or something?"

"Well, there is a manual ejection, but it looks like it's stuck somewhere in the spinal cord..." Joseph sighed. "It's simply not possible for Brick Road to reach. There's a software override as well, but that's caused by a desire to leave. There's also the added potential of physical and mental trauma caused by a sudden desync, to say nothing of the balance issues."

"So... There's nothing we can do? He's just gonna die here? Why did you bother to tell me!"

"Now, now, Elliot," Joseph said, pushing up his glasses with a smug expression, "I didn't say that."

"Okay, have I mentioned that I really don't like this plan? Because I don't." Elliot hung by a rope, which itself was attached somehow to what remained of Mr. Links.

"On your end, it's actually quite simple," Joseph replied. "I'm doing the grunt work, you're just the backup plan."

"Forgive me if I'm not precisely comforted when I'm dangling over a bottomless pit!"

"It's not bottomless. From where you are, it's about three hundred feet to the bottom. You've survived a fall like that before," Joseph noted.

"That was in a safety web!" Elliot shouted. "And we were in a flying saucer!"

"Don't be such a wuss, Elliot," Skye said. "You can grow it back."

"Okay, one? You may not realize it but that stings like a bitch, and two? I don't know if I'm able to come back from liquefied!"

"And yet, it's certain neither of us can," Joseph put in.

Elliot sighed in frustration. "Just get to work!"

Joseph hurried up two flights of steps to a small port on the side. Damn this distributed network!

Skye was waiting, and got him hooked up even as Joseph started to compile and send. This was going to be delicate all around- something he had deliberately not told Elliot. There was no telling how the technology would react to something like Joseph poking around inside it.

The simplistic cryptography fell before his knowledge like wheat before a combine. How quaint, really; his father was using earth-based software when the alien might was so simple to analyze! Joseph began his bloody work- and in a moment, it was done, the soft firewall in place. "Well, that was easy."

Skye rubbed her eyes. "You did not just say that."

Joseph paused as alarms started going off in his headphones. He switched over to the energy signals. "What! His signal's going blue!"

"Damn it!" Skye already knew what was going on and rushed downstairs- If Elliot died in there-

Elliot desperately evaded the conduits that had seemed to come alive with inexorable force, tearing themselves to pieces to wrap around him, pull him apart, slash at him. He bounded from one end to the other, unable to find any sort of real purchase in the slick column. "Bad idea!"

He slammed one back into its housing with telekinesis, forcing the latch housings closed and curling the entire thing over to prevent further leaks. A second one clocked him, just as Skye got there.

Two more slammed back into their housings.

"What's going on!" Elliot cried, putting the last conduit in place with raw strength.

"He's gone blue! This entire machine is about to be subverted!"

"DAMMIT! Why is it that nothing ever seems to work right!" Elliot started hauling himself up the rope.

"No, stay down there, we need you to hit the manual eject!"

"... You're joking." Elliot's eyebrow twitched. "Fine, I'll do it. Where is it?"

"It should be about fifteen feet below you, a major red handle dealie."

"I see it, what's the signal?"

Joseph's voice came up over the intercom. "Just pull the goddamn switch, Elliot!"

"Pulling!" Elliot reached out to it with one hand, and it was pulled towards him, with a mental shove, he moved it down.

And broke it. "... Of course. Joseph! How's Brick Road? He all right?"

"He's coming out of berserk... Life signs have returned to normal. Sync is dropping."

"Dropping? Not cut off?" Skye shouted.

"Apparently there are backups, I don't know what's going on."

"Can I come up or not!" Elliot shouted.

"Yeah, go ahead."

"Of all the crazy, hare-brained, idiotic design schemes... Who puts a damn emergency cut-off someplace like that? Seriously?" Elliot finally fell back onto the top access deck.

"Wow, Elliot, you smell terrible."

Elliot just glared at Skye. "Really? That's what you're going with. Not you know, 'are you all right' or 'would you like directions to a shower'? Seriously, do I not even rate that?"

"Like those are any less snarky," Skye smirked. "Face it, LCL just plain does not look good on you."

"... What are you TALKING about? What the hell is LCL?"

"That's not important. Both of you need to get up here, Brick Road wants to talk to you."

The first thing Brick Road asked Elliot as he made his way up the stairs at last was "Why are you covered in orange Tang?"

Elliot shuddered a grimace of disgust. "Never mind that. You needed to talk to me?"

"Yes, well. The Dungeon Man is stuck. Very stuck. I can't cross Lake Victoria. As it stands, it looks like it'll be years before I can get Dungeon Man repaired."

"Repaired?" Elliot's eye twitched. "You. You are not going to repair this thing. No. And how the hell are we supposed to follow Pokey's trail now?"

"Well, I do have an old ALVIN submersible in my hold. I think it might work," Brick Road replied.

"First, shower. Where is it," Elliot asked.

"Down that way-"

Twenty minutes later, Elliot looked cleaner, and definitely felt a lot less like a giant glob of orange Tang.

"It'll get us across?" Elliot asked, looking at the Cold War legacy exploration sub.

"Everything looks like it's in the right places..." Joseph replied. "The pain in the butt's gonna be getting her to the lake."

"Can you open a hatch?" Elliot asked. "One that'll admit the sub?"

"Well, yeah, but it's not on tracks, how are we going to move it?"

"Just. Open the hatch." Elliot looked at the sub, judging its weight and heft. "It is a straight shot from here, right?"

"Hm? Yeah. This hangar as added after, mostly this was used as a staging area for the other bits of construction."

Said hatch opened into the bright, intensely cold day, and the cold came flooding in. Elliot zipped up his leather jacket. He held one hand, palm up, empty. And then he lifted.

It was almost as effortless as stopping Pokey's helicopter, and he flicked his wrist forward-

Elliot heard a faint creak, then felt a rush of oncoming air. He laid himself flat just in time to see the ALVIN go inches past his head- Reached out desperately with his mind to catch it before it fell.

Joseph gave Elliot the hairy eyeball.

"Okay, okay, I'll be more careful with it..." Elliot said with a sheepish smile.

Joseph just shook his head and walked out to direct the sub's drop.

~END~