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The Dungeon

Year 14, day 8.

Location: The Lost Kingdom.

Distance left to go: Just a few miles.

Plan for today: Find Utopia Labs. Find the shut-off. Go home. Visit Kennedy Space Center on the way home?

“Wake up, princess!”

Pippen kicked my bed. I groaned and opened my eyes. Then I blinked a few times. The apartment looked even more magical in the daylight. I hadn’t noticed last night, but the windows were stained glass. They glowed with scenes from the story of Cinderella, crisscrossed occasionally with shadows from the vines outside. My bitten arm was aching, but curiosity was stronger than pain, and I got out of bed and wandered around, looking at the apartment in the daylight. Tucked here and there around the room were beautiful books with gold lettering on the covers. I picked one up and flipped the pages. Fairy tales. Of course. I swallowed just one of the pain pills, hoping it would take the edge off the aches in my arms and ribs, without making me groggy.

“Callie, come out here!” Conner called. 

“You’ve got to see this!” added Tan.

I followed the voices into the entryway, out through a small door, and found Conner and Tan standing on a small balcony high in the castle. Below, the Lost Kingdom was covered with a soft leafy blanket with just the tops of a few buildings sticking through to let you know there was a theme park sleeping underneath. It had gotten a lot cloudier since yesterday, and the wind had picked up. It blew the smell of green up to the balcony. Tan shoved a cartoony map of the park at me and pointed out into the jungle. “See the big bump over there? That’s Space Mountain! It’s a roller coaster inside a building!”

“Yup,” I said, looking at the map. “Odd, I don’t see this apartment on here. Maybe it was a secret.”

“So can you get it running?” asked Conner bouncing up and down on his toes.

“Can I get what running?” I asked, confused. Suddenly I realized why Conner and Tan were acting like a couple of thirteen-year-olds. “You want to ride the Space Mountain roller coaster?”

“Yes!” they chorused.

“Look, even if Space Mountain is indoors, with this humidity, the track’s going to be all rusty, the cars may have deteriorated, and there’d be no lights. Do you really want to ride a dangerous, rusty roller coaster in the dark?”

Tan looked confused. “Is that a trick question?”

“No!” I said firmly. We’re rescuers, not tourists.”

As I went back into the castle, I could hear Conner mutter, “Told you she wouldn’t go for it!”

We gathered our gear together. Pippen grabbed a handful of Doritos for breakfast, but made a face when she put the first chip in her mouth. “It’s all soggy! Doesn’t even crunch!”

“It’s the humidity here,” I said. “It got into the chips because the bag was open.”

“This place is freaky,” Pippen said. “At home we could leave chips open for weeks and they would never get soggy. Just eaten.”

“I’ve still got one unopened bag,” Conner said, “but I want to save it for lunch.”

“Maybe we can find something for breakfast on our way to the dungeon,” Tan suggested.

“Lab, not dungeon” I corrected. “There was a souvenir shop on the first floor here. Maybe they have, like, cans of Disney soup or something.”

The shop didn’t have any food at all, but it did have Disney characters on just about everything else. Pippen immediately pulled on a t-shirt with a picture of Tinker Bell. Tan tried on a green hat with long floppy ears attached.

“Hey, that makes you look like Goofy!” laughed Pippen.

Tan took the hat off. Pippen looked at him again. “No, I guess it wasn’t the hat.”

Conner found a knife. It was a pocket knife with a picture of Bambi on the handle. Kind of disturbing if you thought about it too much. I wasn’t going to bother with a souvenir until Conner brought me a little jeweled pin. 

“It’s perfect!” I said. “A magic screwdriver!”

Pippen inspected the pin closely. 

“I think it’s supposed to be a wand,” she said. “See, the little diamonds are magic sparkles coming off the end.”

“It’s a magic screwdriver,” I insisted, pinning it to my shirt.

A vine had curled up around Arnold’s suspension during the night. I yanked it off. “You leave him alone!”

As we drove back through the park, it was easier to see the buildings and rides under the leaves now that it was day. A bit sadly, Tan drove us out the small gate and away from the Lost Kingdom of Disney World. 

I got out the invitation that Pippen had taken from the forbidden conference center back home and read the address on the back. “Utopia Labs, 255 Industry Way, Orlando, Florida.” I checked our map of Florida. “We went right past Orlando last night. We need to go back north about twenty miles.” I scanned through the list of street names in Orlando. “Hey, I found Industry Way!” I said, a bit surprised at how easy it was. 

Of course, finding the real Industry Way wasn’t that easy. Back in Clan Valley, the streets are laid out in a grid and the street names are the cartesian coordinates. Even Newt could find an address like “100 North 50 East.” But in Orlando, the streets wandered all over and they all had weird names like “Hiawasee Road,” and “Econlockhatchee Trail,” and “Oak Street.” Even the map didn’t help much. Some streets dead-ended in swamps that weren’t on the map. Others were blocked by fallen trees. Soon we were completely lost. Conner had to jump out every few blocks and rip the vines off of road signs, so we could figure out where we were. He uncovered several signs that weren’t street signs at all but blue circles announcing “Hurricane Route.”

“Why are there signs to tell the hurricanes which way to go?” Conner asked.

“I think the signs are to tell people which way to go to escape the hurricanes,” I said. “Florida is surrounded on three sides by ocean. Hurricanes probably happen here all the time.”

“That would explain all the fallen trees,” said Tan.

“What a stupid place to live!” complained Pippen. “Why would humans live in a place so dangerous the air can kill you?”

“Anywhere can be dangerous,” Conner said. “We live in a place that gets below freezing in the winter. If you’re not careful, the air can kill you there too.”

“That’s completely different,” said Pippen, “for reasons that I can’t think of right now.”

After an hour of zigzagging through Orlando, we’d found six boats on trailers, two swimming pools filled with mosquitoes, and one tribe of gorillas who faded into the trees when they saw us. At one point we found ourselves on a narrow road with rows of trees on both sides. It didn’t look like the road we wanted, and Tan was about to turn around when we noticed the trees had orange fruit hanging in them.

“Oranges!” Pippen shouted, unnecessarily.

We got out and climbed over a fence to get to the trees. I reached up and picked one of the oranges.

“Wow,” said Tan. “We’ve never tasted oranges before!”

“Sure we have,” I said. “We’ve had orange Tic Tacs and Orange Crush and Tang. That’s what oranges taste like.”

“Well, you’re the leader,” Tan said. “You eat one first, and then if you don’t die, we’ll all have breakfast.”

I turned the orange over a few times. It wasn’t nearly as pretty as what you see in books. The skin was a bit greenish on one side. I tried not to think about what the little brown specks on it might be.

“I think we still have some dehydrated carrots left in the truck,” I said hesitantly.

“Just think of this as mandarin orange slices someone has taken out of the can and put on a tree,” suggested Pippen.

Conner handed me his Bambi knife, and I scratched the orange peel lightly and sniffed it. Odd, it smelled like epoxy! Were oranges supposed to smell like glue? I wasn’t sure, but I was getting more worried about eating this thing. Before I lost my nerve completely, I cut the orange into quarters and passed them out, keeping one for myself. The others watched, waiting for me to go first. Closing my eyes, I bit down on my slice of orange.

The juice gushed into my mouth and dribbled down my chin, and somehow spread through my entire body like liquid sunshine. In that instant I realized I had never tasted orange before in my life. Everything I’d eaten that had the nerve to use the name “orange” had been just a weak echo of this sweet, juicy, powerful flavor. I opened my eyes, half expecting to see a choir of angels departing through the clouds. The others looked at me expectantly.

“Zow!” I said.

Between the four of us we devoured a dozen oranges. Pippen even saved some seeds, although Tan didn’t think they’d grow in Utah.

 Finally we found Industry Way. It wound around a bit, with big vine-covered buildings on either side. Tan drove as close as he could to the first building. Conner got out and tore away the vines until we could see the sign on the front. It said “New-You Plastic Surgery Clinic, 125 Industry Way.”

“Is ‘plastic surgery’ what Callie used to do to Barbie Dolls?” Conner asked as he climbed back in.

This was Tan’s area of expertise. “Plastic surgery changes the way you look.”

“Why would someone want to do that?” Conner asked.

“Haven’t you been paying attention during movie night?” replied Pippen. “Plastic surgery makes you look like someone else so you can infiltrate the enemy organization.”

The next building we tried was numbered 185, so we were headed in the right direction. A big stone block with chiseled letters read, “Sunset Tombstones and Monuments.” We knew what tombstones were from watching horror movies.

“When I die,” said Tan, “I want a huge stone monument so future doctors can come and honor the Great First Doctor of the Post-Fixer Era by leaving a tongue depressor on the steps in front of my grave.”

Pippen laughed. “When I die, there probably won’t be any pieces big enough to bury! But I want Lightman to play ‘Amazing Grace’ at my funeral on his electric guitar. How about you, Callie?”

“I died yesterday,” I said, “and I didn’t enjoy it a bit. I’m not going to do that again for a long, long time. Conner?”

Conner said nothing.

“Come on, spill it!” coaxed Pippen. “What do you want for your funeral?”

“I want a Viking funeral,” said Conner, a bit embarrassed.

“A what?” Pippen asked.

Conner hesitated a moment, then leaned forward eagerly. “Okay, so when a great Viking warrior died, the tribe would put him in his boat and set it on fire, and it would sail into the sunset, carrying the warrior’s soul off to a huge battlefield where every day they fight just for fun, and every night all wounds are healed, and nobody ever dies again.”

“Okaaay,” I said. “I’ll find a book on shipbuilding.”

I was beginning to wonder if we had the wrong street when we rounded a corner and saw a huge black building at the end of the street. The vines seemed to have a hard time clinging to the polished stone surface and had left the building mostly bare. 

“That’s got to be the place where Fixer was spawned!” said Tan. “It even looks like a dungeon!”

We drove Arnold into the front parking lot to have a closer look. The only features on the building were a glass front door, and a big round metal logo on the side of the building. The number on the door was 255, but the logo was…a laughing demon? 


Panic clutched at my stomach. The logo for Utopia Labs was supposed to be a seedling under a rainbow! Had we just driven two thousand miles to the wrong place? 

“That can’t be right!” I said.

I grabbed the invitation and hopped out of the truck. I ran up to the building to look at the logo up close. There were screws in the top and the bottom, but the top screw had rusted out and the logo had fallen upside down. I turned the logo and held it so it was right side up again. Now it was a seedling growing under a rainbow, just like on the invitation.

“We found it!” I called back to the others. “We found Utopia Labs!”

I let go of the logo, and it twisted again, turning back to a laughing demon. I shivered a bit, because it was overcast, and the wind had picked up.

“Okay, get everything we need for dungeon exploration. Tan, get the flashlights. Conner, can you carry a car battery?”

“No problem.”

While the boys were getting stuff out of the truck, I pulled Pippen aside for a little leader-to-loyal-follower chat.

“Pippen, even though we’re inside a building, it could be dangerous. Don’t go wandering off again, okay?”

“I’ll tell you what,” she said cheerfully. “You don’t tell me what I can’t do, and I won’t say anything to the boys about how you still sleep with your stuffed robot under your pillow.”

I could tell Pippen still needed to work on her loyal follower role.

With backpacks full and flashlights on, we entered the building. The air was hot and smelled like rotting things. There was a lobby with black marble floors and a few artistically uncomfortable chairs. Pippen went to check behind the large desk at the back of the lobby.

“Anything behind the reception desk?” I called out.

“Just a reception desk person,” answered Pippen. She came out carrying a plastic card. “She had this around her neck. I’ve seen one of these before.”

The card had a magnetic stripe on one side. On the other side, it had a picture of a woman with a wide sparkly smile and the name “April May Swanson.” Past people all had long names like that.

“It’s an ID card,” I said. “Past people used to have to have an ID card to work, get food, drive a car.”

Conner looked puzzled. “They had to have a card to drive a car? Wouldn’t the cars start without one?”

I tried to explain. “No, see, there were police who…never mind. This card looks like it’s designed to open a security door. What we’re looking for will be past the security door.”

There were bathrooms to one side of the lobby, but they were unlocked. Around the corner we found a metal door with a card reader mounted on the wall next to it. Pippen slid the ID card through the slot, but nothing happened, not even a click. She tried to turn the door handle, but it wouldn’t turn. “It’s locked,” she said. “Conner, can you crowbar this, or do I need to use my torch?”

“Callie’s the wizard,” Tan smirked. “Maybe she can talk to the door and make it open.”

Clearly Tan needed to be reminded of why I was the leader, so I waved my arms and spoke the ancient words of power: “Klaatu barada nikto!” I reached out and touched the door with one one finger. Then I pulled out on the handle and the door popped open. 

Tan looked stunned. “How…how did you do that?”

Magicians aren’t supposed to reveal how it’s done, but Tan looked so pathetic that I relented. “It’s an electric lock. So the door had to be designed to open when there was no electricity. Otherwise if there was a power outage and a fire at the same time, everybody would die.”

“Oh,” Tan sniffed, “so it was just a trick.”

See, this is why magicians don’t reveal their secrets. We passed through the security door, and it swung shut behind us. There were no windows, and the only light was from our flashlights. We were at the start of a hallway that disappeared into the darkness. 

“Ooh, a dungeon maze!” said Tan. “Now we just need some cryptic runes and death traps!”

“There won’t be any runes or death traps,” I said, “but we are trying to find a magical healing potion. We can split up and search faster, or we can stick together for protection against monsters. Anyone feel like exploring on their own?”

Nobody did, not even Pippen. Hah! I was finally getting the hang of this leader stuff! We moved down the hallway, warrior and wizard in front, healer protected in the middle, and thief bringing up the rear. The first door we came to had a black metal plaque next to it with etched silver letters that read “NTESIC.”

“No cryptic runes, huh?” asked Tan smugly.

“Shut up,” I suggested.

We entered the room and aimed our lights around. In the middle of the room was a big metal rack, filled with hundreds of identical electronic boxes. With no electricity, the thing looked cold and dead. “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” said Tan.

“I have,” I said, as surprised as anyone. I explained. “I’ve seen something like this at the university back home. It’s a supercomputer. It’s actually hundreds of individual computers hooked together so it can do massive amounts of calculation.” I pointed to a sign on the rack: NanoTEchnology SImulation Cluster. “‘Nano’ means really small. ‘Simulation’ means using a computer to predict how something will behave. So they were using this computer to test the design for Fixer.”

“Can we get this running?” asked Tan. “Maybe we can ask it, ‘How did Fixer get loose and why has it come back?’”

I shook my head. “Not a chance. This beast would have used hundreds of kilowatts of electricity, and we’ve got one car battery. If we want answers, we’re going to have to find them somewhere else.”

Tan started going around the room, systematically opening cabinets and drawers. I helped Tan search. After a few minutes I paused. “What are we looking for?”

“Jon said the shut-off factor was in a small bottle, and he said the lab had hundreds of bottles of it. Scientists were nuts about labeling everything, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.” 

But after a few minutes of searching, the only interesting thing we’d found was a handle with a pair of suction cups on it. “Hey, watch! I’m Batman!” said Pippen. She plopped the handle onto the wall where it stuck, and pulled herself up off the ground. After a few seconds, the suction cups popped off and Pippen fell to the ground laughing. 

“That’s not for the wall. It’s for the floor,” I said. “The supercomputer room at the university had a floor with tiles like this too. It was a raised floor. The real floor was about a foot below the tiles, and they ran the power cables and the air conditioning for the computers through the space in between.” I picked up the handle. “Here, I’ll show you.” I stuck the suction cups onto the floor and heaved. A large square of the tiled floor lifted up, and I slid it aside. Everyone peered into the hole. We saw the expected cables and ductwork, but half of the space below was filled with water. Black water that smelled of mold and decay. “Looks like we found the death trap,” I said. “There are probably giant snakes crawling around down there!” I shuddered and slid the floor tile back in place. 

“What’s with you and the snakeophobia?” Tan asked. 

I gave him a hard look. 

Tan blinked. “Oh, right. Sorry.”

It didn’t look like there would be any shut-off factor in the computer room, so we went back into the hall. So far we hadn’t seen any past people, other than the receptionist. The plaque by the next door said “NANOFAB.” 

Stretching from one end of the room to the other was the strangest machine I’d ever seen. It looked like something built by an insane plumber. There were six big steel boxes, all connected together by a fat pipe. Some of the boxes were hooked up to computers, some had insulated pipes running up to overhead lines, but they all had a little window on the front. 

“Wow, what do those machines do, Callie?” Conner asked.

I said something that was really hard for me to say. “Uh, I don’t know.”

“They have labels on them,” said Tan, shining his flashlight.

I read the label on the first box. “Loading Station.”

I peeked through the window. Inside was a little tray with a foam pad with an eight by eight grid of tiny glass tubes in it. They were empty. The tray sat on a little track inside the box.

“Hey,” I said, “I think this tray moves from one box to the next through this pipe!”

I ran down the line of boxes, reading labels on the front.

“Protein Printer, Programming Station, Replication Bottle, Encapsulation.”

The final box was labeled “Delivery,” and had a small airlock on the front.

“I think it’s an assembly line for making tiny machines!” I said in amazement. 

“What’s the deal with all the signs?” asked Pippen.

“I told you, scientists loved labeling things,” said Tan. “It made them feel like they were in control of the universe.”

We searched this room for bottles of shut-off too. I kept glancing over at the assembly line. So many buttons! My fingers itched to poke them, but that was probably a bad idea, even with the power off. This was the place the black monster had been born, after all. We didn’t find any shut-off in the nanofab room.

The next door plaque said “In Vivo Lab.”

“It’s Latin,” explained Tan. “‘In vitro’ means testing in a tube, and ‘in vivo’ means live testing on humans or animals.”

Inside was a small hospital, complete with a hospital bed and a ventilator a lot like the one that was keeping Jon alive back home. I touched the bed. “Jon was probably right here, fourteen years ago.”

“Why was he testing Fixer for these people?” asked Pippen.

“They probably told him he was helping find a cure for all disease,” said Tan. “Even though it was obviously a secret military project run by an evil doctor.”

Pippen rolled her eyes.

This room had a lot of little bottles, and Tan checked the labels on all of them. Pippen got bored and started playing darts with some syringes she found. I wondered how long we’d been in the dungeon. With no windows, it was hard to tell what time it was.

Finally Tan gave up on the hospital room, and we went back to the corridor.

The next door read “Jonathan McKinley, President”

This was an office with a big desk, filing cabinets, a computer, and a printer. I set my lantern on the desk and examined the computer while Tan looked through the filing cabinets and Conner attacked the drawers. 

Pippen picked up the stapler and started stapling Post-it notes together. Suddenly she dropped the stapler and started rummaging through her pockets. “I knew I’d seen one of these before!” She slapped a plastic card down on the desk in the circle of light from the lantern. It was identical to the ID card from the receptionist out front, except it had a picture of a man with a suit and tie, and the name “Jonathan McKinley” on it.

“Hey, it’s the guy who owned this office!” I said. “Did you get this at the front desk?”

“No, no!” said Pippen, excitedly. “I’ve been carrying this card in my burglary kit for a year! Look close at the picture!”

By the lantern light, I could see a dark-haired past person with glasses. There was something familiar about the face, like I’d seen a different picture of this same past person.

“So?” I asked. “It’s a picture of the president of Utopia Labs, Jonathan McKinley.” Saying that long name sparked something in the back of my head. I said it again, more slowly. “Jonathan McKinley. Jonathan. Jon…”

I collapsed in the chair behind me as if someone had yanked the ground out from under my feet. I had seen that face, but it wasn’t in a picture! “Great spacking grulk!” I yelled. “Jon wasn’t just the first test patient, he was the guy who made Fixer!