Book 4 - 5: Backstage Pass

Second Quadrant

Cairo-3998 aka Planet Challenger

Daring City — The Dungeon

There was a sudden surge in heat as they exited the elevator. Not only had the temperature risen greatly, it was far more humid.

Figaro’s suit auto-adjusted and cooled his body. He checked the control panel on his arm and tried to get a reading on the surroundings. Other than telling him it was very hot in every direction, he was getting nothing.

The elevator had deposited them into a long corridor lit by a very soft pink that was coming from the walls.

Boss Glosso, as his men called him, had taken them straight to the third level, bypassing all the obstacles a team would normally have to face.

He was short in stature and didn’t appear to have an organic, but everywhere he went, he was treated with the kind of respect that bordered on fear. His men never looked at him, always staring straight ahead, afraid to screw up.

They had picked up an entourage of six more along the way, these in full battle gear, covered from head to toe with only the lower part of their faces showing. Beads of sweat could be seen around their lips.

Two at the front, two at the rear and two on each side. There was nothing else in the corridor but Figaro felt as if danger was close by.

Boss Glosso struck Figaro as one of those short men who made up for their lack of size with a lack of mercy. A man of intense focus. He more or less ignored Figaro and PT, his attention on Ubik.

One megalomaniac keeping an eye on another.

He was an astute man, though. Very measured. A shrewd operator, his father would have called him. Not someone to be underestimated.

Ubik, on the other hand, didn’t waste time with that kind of careful analysis. Rather than avoid detection, they were going in with the person they intended to rob. You had to hand it to Ubik, this was a much quicker way to their objective.

Figaro checked the control panel on his arm and tried to understand where the heat was coming from.

“Things are starting to get sweaty,” said PT.

“Hmm,” said Figaro. “Looks like the environmental controls are working flat out to keep it at this level.” He could see the energy output of the various climate adjusting vents in the walls.

“Sure,” said PT. “The heat, too.” He was looking at Ubik walking alongside Boss Glosso, chatting casually about something or other. “Does that mean the deeper we go the hotter it’s going to get?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Figaro.

The passage they were in was straight and narrow, with very flat walls. Completely smooth. Figaro put his hand on the wall and slid it along. There was no friction. Smooth as polished marble.

“This is what you call elfidium,” said a voice in his head. There was a ball of light in the corner of his vision, flitting about excitedly.

“This is the pink stuff?” It didn’t look like the elfidium up on the surface. It looked black.

“It is much denser here. The lower you go, the closer you get to the source, the more dense it will become. That is its nature.”

“What’s on the other side of this wall?” Ubik was pointing at the black wall to his right. “I think I can hear something.”

Figaro couldn’t hear anything. He looked at PT, who shook his head.

“The third level of the Dungeon,” said Boss Glosso. “This passage runs along one side, to allow staff and service personnel to enter without disturbing the combatants. You’re perfectly safe here. The elfidium walls are impenetrable.”

Since they were here to penetrate the impenetrable walls, his emphasis took on a challenging tone.

The procession halted as Ubik turned towards the wall and pressed his face against it, hands cupping his goggles. He seemed to be trying to look through the wall.

“What’s he doing?” said PT.

The mayor and his men looked just as confused as PT.

“Is it possible to see through the elfidium at this density?” Figaro posed the question as though musing to himself.

“Yes,” said the voice in his head. “If you have the visual faculty for it.”

Figaro had no idea what that faculty might be but he wasn’t surprised that Ubik had found a way to modify his standard-issue goggles so they had that faculty.

“There’s a fight going on,” said Ubik. “Team of five… no, six. They’re up against a large droid that’s spitting some sort of liquid at them.”

“An acid discharge droid,” said the Boss Glosso, one slightly raised eyebrow the only indication of his surprise. “That will be the team from the Horrowitz Guild. A very experienced team. If they’re here already, they should be on course for a top-five finish.”

Figaro had heard of the Horrowitz Guild. One of the top delving teams when it came to raiding Antecessor sites, and one of the richest.

“They’re not doing very well,” said Ubik. He suddenly snapped his head back from the wall, hissing. “Ooh, not a top-five performance, if you ask me. Two of them just got dissolved from the waist up.”

“The Dungeon is never an easy place to conquer,” said the mayor, “even for an experienced team.”

They set off again. Twenty minutes later, they reached the end of the corridor. A blank wall blocked their path.

Boss Glosso passed a hand over his wrist and the wall shifted to reveal an opening, similar to the hidden doorways in other Antecessor sites Figaro had seen, but without the physical locking and unlocking like a puzzle. Here, they just slid aside like a curtain being parted, as though the wall was made of liquid.

The opening revealed a shaft with a pink platform.

The guards quickly moved to take up position at the corners and along the sides. Ubik and Boss Glosso moved to the middle, leaving Figaro and PT to awkwardly stand in front of them. Everyone seemed to have an assigned position except for the two of them.

They began descending. Boss Glosso was controlling the platform but it wasn’t clear how the device on his wrist worked. Not that it mattered. Ubik was standing next to him, no doubt watching and learning.

It took around thirty seconds for them to reach their destination, the temperature going up as they went down. The platform stopped moving and an opening appeared in the wall of the shaft. D

A high-pitched whine, so loud it made Figaro’s teeth vibrate, filled the air.

The guards filed out and stood on each side as Boss Glosso led them off the platform into a huge open area. There were very powerful lights on towers pointing away from them at an immense black wall that rose beyond the limits of the lighting rig.

The wall was smooth and polished, with a subtle pinkish tint. It was a solid mass taking up the entirety of one side of the chamber.

There were no droids here, not Antecessor constructs. Just the wall and a huge machine with a nose like a giant drill that was attempting to cut into it. From the looks of things, it wasn’t making much of an impact.

The drill stopped and the people surrounding it turned to look at them.

There were ten people standing here, all dressed in battlesuits, but judging from the different styles and insignias, they were all from different guilds and mercenary groups. There were even some from major corporations.

Figaro doubted very much that these groups were all cooperating with Boss Glosso. It was far more likely that they were outstanding individuals who had performed well in the Dungeon, and had made some kind of deal with Boss Glosso to investigate the fifth level.

However, first they needed access to the fifth level.

“Who are they?” asked a tall man wearing the gold and blue of Merchant Corporation, a very big player in finance and real estate. They bought and sold planets. Antecessor sites weren’t really their area of expertise, but they still employed expert security personnel.

This man looked like a bodyguard for one of their executives. His outfit was of high quality, but intentionally branded to indicate who he worked for. His tone was dismissive and arrogant.

“They’re new,” said Boss Glosso, his tone completely neutral. “They say they can break through the elfidium.”

There were doubting looks all around.

Figaro took the opportunity to size them up. All ten looked very strong and powerful. Their postures suggested they were bored and irritated. He couldn’t help but look over at Ubik, wondering how much more irritated he was going to make them.

“They’re the top ten rankers from the leaderboard, aren’t they?” said PT.

“I think so.” Figaro had come to the same conclusion.

This was the real prize for doing well in the Dungeon. You got to enter the virgin level and a chance to claim whatever treasures lay inside. Once they managed to open it.

“If they can get us in, I say let them through,” said a man in Valhalla Guild black. Valhalla Guild were famous for never returning empty-handed. They either completed their objective or died trying.

“We won’t just be opening the way,” said Ubik. “We’ll be leading the team that enters. A team of five, so only two of you can come with us.”

The reaction wasn’t good. Figaro estimated the irritation levels had doubled.

“Who the hell are these kids?”

“Nobody’s taking my spot.”

“We had a deal.”

The guards stood on either side of Boss Glosso looking nervous. Their boss didn’t seem at all concerned.

“You all know how this works,” he snapped. “We do this my way. If you don’t like it, you know the terms of the contract.”

There was a pensive quiet.

“First, we’ll see if they can do what they say. If they can, then they’ll have already proven themselves more useful than anyone here.”

Nothing was said in response. All eyes turned to the three of them.

“Okay, everyone back off,” said Ubik, clapping his hands. “We need some space to work our magic. No questions, please. We can’t reveal any trade secrets and all that.”

They slowly moved out of the way, all watching closely.

Ubik looked at PT. “Go ahead.”

PT didn’t look very happy but he moved through the crowd to the wall. Figaro followed him. If he was going to use his organic to break through this wall, he would probably need Figaro’s help to not end up frying his brain in the process.

The wall loomed over them. The last time PT had come in contact with elfidium, it had shattered into dust with just a touch. If that happened here, the entire wall would disappear. And the whole chamber could collapse.

“How do you want to do this?” asked Figaro.

PT looked at him and then past him at Ubik.

Ubik gave them a thumbs up. No intention of offering guidance.

“What about your friend?” said PT. “He got any ideas.”

“How do we get through here?” said Figaro. “How do we stop the elfidium from exploding?”

“This isn’t like the thin, weak elfidium you encountered above,” said the organic.

“So he can use his organic to transform it?”

“No. That won’t work. Elfidium either exists or it doesn’t. And he doesn’t possess the power to destroy it at this density.”

“Then how do we get past it?” said Figaro.

“I will open the way,” said the organic.

“You will? You can do that?”

“We can do that. Step forward.”

Figaro looked at PT, who had only heard one side of the conversation but seemed to understand. He moved aside.

Figaro walked forward. The wall rippled and then a tunnel appeared. Circular, no end in sight. The sides continuing to ripple.

There were gasps from behind him.

“He’s a metamorph,” someone exclaimed.

Figaro was not a metamorph, someone who could change the shape and consistency of things. PT wasn’t one either, although his ability more closely resembled it.

“We did our part,” said Ubik, like things had turned out just as he had expected. “Which two do you want to send with us? I don’t mind refereeing any fights.”

Four of them immediately stepped forward, but they didn’t look like they were going to fight each other.

“You opened the way,” said the tall man from Merchant Corp. “Now get out of the way.”

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