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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
part 11
by J.(Channing)Wells


Tragedies can be difficult things to handle, sometimes.

Especially the unexpected ones.

Hioshi's Light comes on just in time to see three of us gathered around a makeshift and impromptu grave here in the granulized-tinsel soil of the NetherRealms. Feeb is back in her pristine and somber laboratory garb, Buddy is wearing his pastoral flower-ring again, and my one suit of clothes has been neatly washed and pressed for the occasion, although I've still got mud all over my boots from my romp through the Late Cretaceous Period. Feeb, Buddy, and I. We're all keenly aware that one of our number is, now, _missing._ And our mood is remarkably serious.

There is silence for a few moments while we all stand and stare alternately from each other to the pitiful little mass in the earthy hole before us and back to each other again. No-one speaks.

Then, an ancient wind, outflow from an old ventilation pipe, sweeps over us, ruffling our hair in the classic mournful standing-at-a-gravesite fashion. Something in the wind seems to spark Phoebe to words.

"Anybody want to say anything?" She asks.

More silence.

Idly studying my toes, I say, "I... er... I mean... I know a couple of prayers that people usually say at funerals. But I'm not quite sure that any of them apply." I chew abstractedly on the lining of my cheek.

Feeb looks up. "Why not, Charles?"

"Well..." I say, hedging slightly... "It's just that... well..."

Feeb purses her lips sternly at me. "You don't think that his kind have souls, do you."

I gesture helplessly. "No!" I say, after a while. "Frankly, Feeb, no I don't. And stop using the word 'him.' 'He' was an 'It', Feeb.

I am immediately sorry for having said it, but it's too late now. Feeb actually gasps slightly. "Charles!" She says. "How _dare_ you! After all he did for us!"

"Whatever." I say, unpleasantly.

Buddy blinks at the both of us and then, with hardly a word, lumbers over to me and puts one of his taloned arms around my shoulder. "Rawr." He says, compassionately.

Feeb looks abashed. "I know, I know, Buddy. We're all a little on edge today. I'm sorry, Charles."

I nod silently to Feeb.

"I'm gonna miss him." She says. There is a faint pathetic wetness in her voice that makes my heart go out to her, but still, I don't say anything. I don't know what _to_ say. None of us expected it. If we had had time to _plan_ or _prepare_ or something, this might have been different.

Ah, hell. Water over the dam. None of us can win 'em all.

Feeb composes herself, briefly. "Maybe we should all... like... say something good about him. To remember him by."

"'It.'" I mutter, under my breath. Feeb glares at me, but chooses to let it slide.

"I'll go first." She says. "He was always... such a cute little thing. You always knew where you stood with him. Sure, he didn't have much to say... but he was always right there for us." She smiles, bravely. "Buddy?"

Buddy thinks, for a long moment. He starts, as if he's about to say something... and then stops. He pauses, thinking. Idly, the construct-velociraptor begins pacing back and forth, stroking his saurian chin with one foreclaw. Then, he turns back to us, starts...

And then stops again. He goes back to thinking.

Feeb looks upon him, compassionately, feeling his difficulty to express his true thoughts. "You don't have to say anything, Buddy. I didn't mean to put you on the spot."

Buddy waves her off dismissively in the "No, no, I _do_ want to say something, just give me a minute here" sort of fashion. I look at my watch.

"Feeb." I say. "We have to go soon. We're running close to schedule. We have to get back topside if we want things to work out evenly--"

Feeb shushes me. "Buddy?" She says.

Buddy seems to come to a decision. He stops, turns back to the gravesite, takes a deep breath and says, "Rawr."

Feeb nods, a tear welling up in one eye. "Charles?" she asks.

And then, "Charles..." a bit more sternly as she sees me sitting there looking at my watch...

"Hm? Oh. Something nice. Let's see. _He_..." I nod to Phoebe, "...was... very... erm... portable."

"Portable?" Says Feeb, darkly.

"Yeah. Portable. You could carry _him_ around rather easily. It's a quality I value."

Feeb looks sternly at me, but then all the starch goes out of her. "I suppose it's all the same in the end, isn't it."

Buddy nods compassionately at her.

"Well then." She says. "If there's nothing more to say..." She picks up a collapsible camp spade and places the first shovelful of dirt onto the lifeless mass. The three of us follow suit.

Feeb pauses then, her lip trembling and the tears welling up again. "I just... keep... finding myself wishing... that Luke was standing right here beside me... instead of..." She trails off, overcome.

I pause, choosing my next words very carefully.

"I know. He's much better with a shovel than any of us. especially the collapsible ones." I nod solemnly to myself, and then add, "I mean, how long do you think it'd take to find a place that sells onion rings?"

Feeb's eyes instantly clear. "Who knows, Charles? Give that kid a craving for food, though, and _I'm_ not gonna be the one standing in his way. He's missing the entire ceremony, though."

I look down at the blackened shell of the Censorship Device lying pitifully there in its impromptu grave.

And then, with a halfhearted shrug, I toss in another spadeful of dirt, one more layer of earth to cover its eternal rest.

Tragedies can be difficult things to handle, sometimes.

Even the small ones.

* * *

Final preparations in leaving the city of the Rats take place with remarkable speed. Luke eventually ends up finding his onion rings and apologizes profusely to Feeb for missing the memorial service for her Censorship Device. I hadn't known how attached she was to that thing. In fact... I can usually never predict much of _anything_ about Feeb anymore. Hell, I don't really find myself being able to predict anything about _anything_ anymore. Damn this hallucination anyway. I _am_ making progress, I think, though. Dr. Harte is doing his best on my corporeal self, but I keep getting the nagging suspicion that this mental landscape is _very_ related to my cure. Who knows? Perhaps my audience with Queen Voria represents the breakthrough that Reggie and his cohorts at the hospital are working to achieve. Maybe _I_ possess the locus of control.

Not a comforting thought.

Anyway, with one last fond farewell to Maa'at-HICE and his Rat tribesmen, we set off, picking our way through the Netherrealms with only Feeb's mysterious blue artifact to guide us back to the surface and the Lower Deep Four Fornax Tertiary Food Court or whatever it was that we were originally trying to find here.

After several hours of travel, Feeb breaks the silence.

"You really could have said something nicer than 'portable' about the Censorship Device, Charles."

"Look, I'm sorry, okay? Sheesh. What were you expecting, huh? Milton?"

"Not Milton. Just a little respect for the dead."

"Like what." I say, cynically.

"Well..." She pauses. "You _could_ have said something about how it was a very clear example of the use of technology for Good."

I shrug. "Yes... but isn't that sort of thing usually pretty self-evident?"

Feeb purses her lips. "You'd be surprised, Charles. Sometimes the most innocent-seeming Technology can have many dire repercussions for both Good _and_ Evil. And sometimes, you can't even see one for the other."

I pause and wait for the upcoming monologue.

"For example." Says Feeb, who never lets me down in these matters, "Take Electron Microscopy. Good or Evil?"

"Good." I say, almost reflexively, because that's obviously what she wants to hear. I make an attempt to keep these diatribes as short as possible. "Be brief in thy discourse," as Cervantes wrote, "For what is prolix cannot be pleasing." That's what I always say.

"A-Ha!" Says Feeb. "You'd think so, wouldn't you! But tell me, Charles, have you ever thought about Vampires _and_ Electron Microscopy at the same time?"

"No." I say, with complete honesty.

"Well then." Says Feeb, as if this explains it all.

She always does this... SHE ALWAYS DOES THIS...

"What?" I ask.

"Vampires _and_ Electron Microscopy. You know!" She waggles her eyebrows importantly at me.

"No." I say. "I don't."

"Think about it!" She says. "You know how the ancients used to distract Vampires, yes? Something to do with... oh, say... rice grains, or something?"

"Ah yes." I say. "You fix up a big steaming bowl of Mandarin Chin's Combination Fried Rice, and give it to them. Vampires are _suckers_ for Chinese food. Odds are they'll be so grateful to you they'll forget all about sinking their teeth into your neck and sucking out vital fluids."

She stares at me.

"Now you're being silly." She says.

"Okay, okay." I say. "You toss a handful of rice grains down in front of them, and they can't pursue you until they've counted all of them."

"Cor-_rect_." She says. "And of course, this works for any mass of small objects. Now. _That_ was in the seventeenth or whatever century. _Far_ before modern Electron Microscopy. Charles, how do you think a Vampire would react to the knowledge that _EVERYTHING_ around him was made up of BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of little molecules made up of BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of atoms which in themselves have BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of subatomic particles which in turn are made up of BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of little Quarks which in turn are--"

"He'd probably go right balmy." I say.

"Right again, Charles. Vampires in the modern day have a pretty hard lot in life. Most of those that aren't already terminally ill from ingesting blood-borne pathogens are quite sick in the head and utterly immobilized in any normal situation. _That's_ why they always went around at night in the old legends; otherwise they'd be forced to sit around counting everything that the daylight revealed to them. _NOW_, even that's not enough. Most modern vampires nowadays opt for surgical blindness so they don't have to see _anything_ at all. Those who choose to remain sighted usually become microscopists themselves. The Microscopy department at L.U.D.D.D.Amber is almost solely made up of seeing Vampires. And they spend all their time working with their equipment trying to count elemental particles that they _know_ are there."

"Wow." I say.

"They have to wear single-molecule polycarbon clothing in order to even function. And _never_ suggest to them that _they themselves_ are made up of billions and billions of little particles. They _hate_ that."

"Thanks for the warning." I say. Then, "What were we talking about?"

"Technology. Good and Evil." She says.

"Ah. Silly me for forgetting." I say. I pause in thought. "So... is that _Good_ or _Evil_ then?"

"Depends on if you're a vampire or not." She says.

"Right." I say, realizing that once again I have finished a full circle of conversation with Feeb while still never achieving anything close to the point.

Oh, well. Such is life.

Feeb is about to regale me with more stories, but quite thankfully, she is interrupted mid-thought by the sudden lightening of the walls around us and the distinct suggestion of a feeling in the air that we are once again approaching the habitable and trafficked areas of the Mall. Hallelujah. My steps lighten and my pace quickens as we walk towards the light, following the beacon-glow of Feeb's artifact to our destination.

And then... after a little more traveling... we're there. The Food Court. The West Tertiary Fornax Deep Four Food Court. Whose very name, by definition, states that there _must_ be at least two others like it somewhere in the Mall, and simultaneously also contains the obvious implication that there are many more than that, as well. Right now, it's kind of difficult to believe that this isn't the only one of its kind, anywhere. But I've stopped being worried about that sort of thing of late. I'm just going with the flow, as Feeb says.

I'll spare you the details of how big it is. You've probably got a general sense of the architecture around here anyway. Start with the Houston Astrodome and keep on a'going. The _smells_ are... insane. Incredible. Cuisine from, literally, all the countries of the world and quite a few alien worlds as well. Humans and halfhumans and demihumans and clearly-not-humans mingle under the vast domed ceiling while avian beings swoop around overhead, tossing food to each other and catching it on the fly. Wheels of fire lance across the sky, and it is impossible to determine whether or not they are _creatures_ or just fancy special effects. All that I can handle. And the noises of the voices, too, are overwhelming and quite unreal. But above all, drowning out the screeching of the Avian Deltas above, the chatter and whuffle of terrestrial beings below, and the mid-dimensional sussurrant humming of quasi-real hypothetical crystaline lifeforms from somewhere eternally _Right behind you_...

Drowning out it all is the clatter and exchange of _currency_. The deafening rustle and roar of paper bills sliding across each other multiplied to the nth power, offset by the clinking of coins of clay and steel and gold. It's stunning.

"Feeb." I say, slowly. "If capitalism is indeed the Great Satan of the West, then surely we have just found Hell Itself."

She smiles at me. "Yep." She says.

We go off to find our cinnamon roll.

* * *

After spending so long looking for a thing, one would at least hope that it would be somehow impressive. It isn't. It's just a cinnamon roll. Sure, it's a big ol' cinnamon roll; the Cinnabon chain has this thing about making pastries that are about half the size of a largish woodchuck. But aside from that, it's a perfectly normal gooey fat-laden pastry. Just like Mom used to make. Mm mm. There's something a little weird about the lettering on the menu, as if it was written by a three-year old with a very poor grasp of spelling, but other than that, everything _seems_ normal. In a businesslike fashion, Feeb rummages around in her holdall until she comes up with a red-vinyl thermal bag with the name of some pizza shop somewhere emblazoned on the side, and she stuffs the cinnamon roll inside.

"Have to make sure it's warm. Mister DeJesus hates cold cinnamon rolls."

"Who?" I say.

"The Uberauter we're going to meet. Mister DeJesus."

"Oh." I say. "You realize, I have no _clue_ what's going on here."

"I'm _eminently_ aware of that, Charles."

I shrug. It's hard to tell whether or not Phoebe's insulting you or not at any given time, so I've found it best to just assume that she is and ignore her.

"Lead on, MacDuff." I say.

And she does. With some reluctance, Luke turns his ridiculously deadly flechette pistol back into the Mall Armory, and I end up losing my deposit on my more pedestrian rifle which I ditched somewhere back in the Late Cretaceous. Cinnamon roll in hand, the four of us begin making our way to the Exit, which is, helpfully, clearly marked. I question Feeb as to why, if we can get _out_ from here directly, couldn't we have just come _in_ these doors in the first place and ended up avoiding all that traipsing around with the time portals. She simply looks at me and informs me that these are the "Exit" doors and is about to start lecturing me as to the breakdown of social order that would ensue if people started going in through out doors and out through in doors when something unexpected happens.

From a subtle and hardly-noticeable twisted-silver Time Portal Frame deep-seated in the shadows of a support pillar comes Mister Travis, our Safari guide, at the head of the confused and befuddled remainder of our original Safari.

He looks much as he did when I last saw him, several weeks ago. Of course, for _him_ it hasn't been several weeks; from his perspective, I only probably ran away from the group on the path several minutes ago. Travis looks grimy, sweaty, and in serious need of a bath. The long Australian face clenches in a scowl when he sees me.

"You..." He growls, dangerously. The shoppers who accompany him back away from us, as if uncertain what to do.

Travis approaches, slowly and somewhat menacingly.

I mutter a few quick apologies. "Ah. Hi there. Mister Travis, wasn't it? Yes. Well. Sorry about that whole bit with the not staying on the path and all..."

"I _told_ you to stay on the path." He says. In a slow, snakelike movement, a revolver appears in his hand. He levels it menacingly at me. The four of us continue to back away.

"_Look Here_, sir... I'm... ah... sure that we can--"


"Well. Yes. I mean, yes, I mean, I didn't do, you know, _exactly_ what you said and such, but I mean, what _exactly_ is the real precise _problem_ that I've created here, and, you know, I mean, WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU POINTING A GUN AT ME FOR IT?"

Travis wordlessly points upwards to a sign hanging from the vaulted corridor... a copy of the same sign I noticed in coming in here... but somehow... different...

* * *

Capytul Sentur Mawl.

Wee tayke yew thayr. Yew bi yt. Wee bryng yew bak.

Yew prahbubbly woun't dy!*

--Thuh manudgmint

* (Akorrding tu moast resint stutiztics)

* * *

I look back down at Mister Travis.

"Oh, come _on_ now. _I_ didn't do that. I mean... how _could_ I have? I didn't even _do_ anything!"

Feeb is muttering slightly to herself in the background.

Travis is looking at me a bit hypoglycemically.

"I mean... ah... aren't you supposed to have to... ah... _kill_ something or something...?"

Feeb still mutters to herself. Something is tweaking my memory receptors, here, but I'll be darned if I can place it...

Travis points wordlessly down at my boots. "Mud." He says.

I look down at them. "Yep." I say. "They're dirty."

A little vein begins bulging in Travis's forehead.

He seethes for a moment.

"Look at them." He commands after a moment. His gun lends weight to his request. I do so.

Something's there.

Crushed there within the dried and crusted mud, perfect, fragile and vaguely iridescent, is a single butterfly.

There is a moment of silence.

"Oh, come ON!" I say. "You're trying to tell me that because _I_ step on a butterfly, I cause English Education programs to fail all over the country and prevent the learning of proper spelling or something? Is that _IT_?"

Feeb raises the volume of her muttering slightly. "Charles..." She says. "You don't _Know_ all the things that you may have affected..."

And bang. It hits me. The sick realization that something may be terribly wrong here.

I think back to the most recent presidential elections. An open-and-shut case... one candidate decent, moral and upstanding; the other, a sick and twisted brute of a man. America spoke soundly out for the former... and President Keeth won the election by a landslide...

But if the history was tweaked just so...

And _Doycher_ was elected...

...oh, my god...

I reach out idly to a random passer-by.

"Excuse me... sir... but could you tell me... _who_ won the last presidential election...?"

He blinks at me. "Wha?" He says, in a half-stoned drawl.

"The last presidential election." I say, carefully.

"Uh. I... uh... dunno." He says.

I reach out idly to a different passer-by who looks to be better informed.

"Excuse me... sir... but could you tell me... _who_ won the last presidential election...?"

The random passer-by blinks at me.

"Keeth." He says.

"Oh." I say. "Well. Sorry. Forget about it."

"I mean... we'd have to be _stupid_ to elect Doycher." Continues the man, heedless of my request. "The man made the shutting down of orphanages and the execution of poor old widows part of his _campaign_ platform, for Crissakes."

"Forget about it." I remind him.

"I thought the biting the heads off the chickens during the presidential debates was a bit much."

"Forget about it." I maintain.

"The summoning of Nar-Shoghodth of the Deep during the Democratic National Convention was another big turn-off for most Americans. I mean, when he makes no real secret of the fact that he plans on feeding all American citizens of voting age to the Beast from the Crystal City Beneath the Tides, most people think twice about--"


The random passer-by shrugs and walks off.

I turn back to Travis.

"Sorry. False alarm there."

Travis does not look amused.

"Look." I say, after a while. "Is there _any_ way to, like, _check_ what exactly I changed so we don't keep on running into this same problem?"

From behind me, Feeb says, "Squish Butterfly in Late Cretaceous: Destroy the spelling of normal words."

I turn around. "What?" I say.

Feeb holds up a small traveler's manual-sized book.

"_Chronoskimmer's Guide to Historical Paradox._ Convenient index to specific Temporal Insertion Events and their relevance to the modern day. Handsome leather binding."

I blink at Feeb a couple times and then turn back to Travis. "Okay. So. You're going to kill me... because... I screwed up the spelling of modern words."

Travis's face clenches, fistlike. "That's not the _only_ reason, you blighter." He raises his voice and addresses the entirety of the Safari party behind him. "Shortly after leaving our group, these four buggers _BROKE_ into the Mall Security Office and completely _trashed_ the place!"

Faint pause.

"Uhm. No. We... ah... didn't." I say.

Another faint pause.

"You didn't." Says Travis.

"Nope." I say.

"Well... who did?" Says Travis, foundering slightly.

I shrug.

Yet another faint pause as we all ponder this.

Then, Travis shakes it off and levels the gun at me again. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. Point is, it's in my _contract_ not to allow any temporal paradoxes to occur, and I'm going to get a _nasty_ fine for this one, you little bastard. And I'm going to start collecting my payback. Now." He cocks the pistol.

I close my eyes. Oh, shit.

Once again, I wait for the end.

There fails to be a sound of thunder.

I look up, an expression of insane hope on my face.

Somehow... Feeb has managed to, without my even hearing her, move between Travis and I. She holds Buddy's leash lightly in one hand, and the tremendous bulk of the Utahraptor looms appropriately nearby.

"Hi." Says Feeb. "This is Buddy. He's a Velociraptor."

Travis narrows his eyes.

"He _happens_ to be one of the most efficient, intelligent, and vicious predators the world has ever known." Buddy positively beams under the praise. "In fact, he could probably bite your head clean off. Failing that, he could use _these_..." She points at the appropriate parts on Buddy. "..._certifiably tremendous_ ripping claws to disembowel you so quickly that you'd be able to finally answer those nagging lying-in-bed-at-night questions about what color your pancreas actually _is._ And when not in a disemboweling mood, he's perfectly capable of giving you such a smack upside the head that it'll change your name. But, and this is a very _big_ but... as you probably know... the _real_ danger isn't from this velociraptor that you see right in front of you. The _real_ danger comes from the two or three _other_ velociraptors who approach from either side... velociraptors that you _never see_ until it's too la--"

Travis loses his concentration for just one moment, glancing almost inadvertently to one side. In that moment, Buddy leaps upon him, knocks him to the ground, sits on him, grabs his pistol in his mighty saurian jaws, and eats it.

"Sorry 'bout that." Says Feeb. "I lied. It actually _is_the one in front of you that you have to worry about."

Travis is livid with rage and fear. Buddy continues to sit on him and snorts once or twice in his face, just to make a point.

Finally, Travis finds his voice. He calls out to the other members of the Safari. "WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?" He bellows. "SHOOT HER!"

No response. Everyone else is just as scared as Travis is.

"SHOOOOOOOOOOOOOT HER!" He bellows again.

No one makes a move.

Idly, almost second-thought-ish-ly, Buddy grabs Travis's shoulders, raises the benighted guide's head up, and smacks his own forehead down in a move which I really didn't know could be found in the repertoire of natural velociraptor offensive tactics. Unorthodox as it is, it works, and Travis's eyes roll back in his forehead as he slumps insentiate to the floor. Buddy gets up and wanders back to Feeb.

"Thanks." Says Feeb to Buddy. "Get up." Says Feeb to me.

I do.

Luke roams back onto the scene, clutching a hot pretzel on a stick which he is munching on. I... ah... don't even remember seeing him leave...

Oh hell. Go with the flow.

"Now." Says Feeb, fingering the thermal bag which contains our gift to the mysterious Mister DeJesus. "Let's go meet our Uberauter."

And, walking right past the unconscious body of Travis and the rapidly-parting crowds of our fellow shoppers, we make our way towards the Exit doors and freedom, at last.

Just another day in the life.

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