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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
There is a fizz, and a pop.
Or a pop... and a fizz... or something...
Probably has to do with the champagne.
Ah, Yes. A Chateau Muche '45. Nicely chilled. Thank you, Garçon. I sip.
Fiji is wonderful, this time of year.
The chaise lounge is padded _just_ so, and the parasol on the nearby table shields off just enough of the bright solient rays to make things pleasantly warm but not blisteringly hot. I touch my sunglasses, edging them into the exact, precise, sit-comfortably-on-my nose spot. Lazily, I pick up my paperback copy of Dickens's _Hard Times_ and begin reading.
Another sip of champagne, as the sun sinks low towards the tropical sea, casting the sky in a rainbow of pinks, peaches and violets. What a _wonderful_ day. Tomorrow I've got a mid-afternoon meeting with my agent, who has a condo here. I visit him _a lot._ It's always a pleasure. But this trip is _Especially_ pleasurable. Tomorrow, he's giving me final go-ahead on that advance for my latest Red Chinese Intrigue-slash-thriller novel, and then it's _goodbye_ worries, _hello_ best-seller lists. He's even thinking of talking to his good friends at the National Academy for the Arts about it...
Gawd. Life is good. I'm going to _like_ seeing the newspaper people starting off articles with the words, "Best-Selling Author Charles Madison Glass..."
Ya know, there's just _one_ thing that could make my life even better right now, and--
Whoa, Nellie! Hold your horses!
That _one_ thing is walking down the beach RIGHT NOW.
I tip my sunglasses down and sit up, setting the champagne down with a "clink." I peer over the upper rims of my specs at a Vision in a white two-piece. Sure, she hasn't got the specs that _some_ of my more recent... ahem... Conquests... have had... and there've been quite a few of them, I might add... after all, who _wouldn't_ want to... ahem... _get to know_ a famous American political suspense novelist a bit more closely? But there's something about this one. Maybe it's the way her cute little mass of blonde hair bounces around her head. Maybe it's that wispy, faerie-like way she _floats_ across the alabaster sands. Maybe it's...
It's most _definitely_ those eyes. Blue like the bluest indigo of the darkening sunset sky above, green like... the... erm...
Green like the...
Well. Something really, realllly green that also happens to be incredibly romantic that I can't quite think of right at this exact moment but which I could come up with given enough uninterrupted time, thank you very much.
Yeah. It's those eyes.
Right alongside her is a big hamfisted lug. His name is Buddy.
Don't ask me how I know that his name is Buddy. I just do. And this rock-headed, musclebound lummox has the _GALL_ to be holding hands with my Pixie Queen.
There is an imbalance here. And if there's one thing that a writer hates more than anything, it's imbalance.
Something's gotta change.
Lazily, I rise from my chaise lounge and amble towards the unhappy couple, my Bermuda shorts going "swish, swish, swish" in what I must admit is an incredibly manly and endearing way. The Iceman Cometh.
"Excuse me!" I say, with my debonair-yet-masculine best. "Would you mind if _I_ took the next dance with your... _Ever-so-stunning_ companion?"
She giggles and blushes. I smirk and wink at her. Buddy simply screws up his Paleolithic face and says...
"This isn't a dance."
I chuckle at my own upcoming dry wit. "Well then. She and I will just have to go _find_ one, won't we? Come along, darling!"
She sighs, dreamily.
I offer her my arm and she swoons upon it. Big Ugly begins to experience nerve conduction in three out of his five gray cells and realizes that I'm in the process of stealing "His" Girl.
"HEY!" Says Buddy.
He rears back one monolithic fist.
Still holding on to the be-swooned woman at my side, I catch Buddy's fist very neatly in my right hand. Then, performing an intricate maneuver I mastered during research for my Kung-Fu novella "Black Dragon," I use his strength against him. In a matter of milliseconds, Buddy is flat out on the sand, having fallen there with a *thud* to rival Goliath's.
I turn my head to the giggling specimen of cute, boyish womanhood and kiss her theatrically on the lips as the music swells and the ocean roars.
We hold for a long, long moment.
"...my name..." She breathes... "Is Phoebe..."
I stare into those wondrous blue-green eyes.
Emeralds. That's the ticket.
"Mine's Charles." I say.
"...Charles..." She breathes. "What an... _exciting_ name..."
"Say it as many times as you wish, darling..."
She giggles. "Okay. Charles... Charles... Charles... Charles..."
* * *
"GODDAMNIT, CHARLES, DROP THE WIRES!"
But I don't _want_ to drop the wires... I _really, REALLY_ don't want to drop the wires...
"LUKE!" Yells Phoebe.
And then, my tranquil world erupts into a mass of Gray Prosimian Hell. Something is chittering and screeching at me, clawing at my hands and saying words that sound suspiciously like "Frink."
The illusion is shattered.
"Damnit! Charles, I _told_ you not to go near that thing!"
I look around, still a bit disoriented. "...wha...?"
"The A.S.F.D.! I _specifically_ told you not to touch the wires!"
"A... F... S..."
"A.S.F.D.! The Adolescent Sexual Fantasy Device. Leave it to you, Charlie Glass. I didn't raise you from the dead just to have your brain destroyed from Current Droud Overload."
"Frink." Remarks Luke, scoldingly, from the midst of some horridly "busy" task he seems to be doing somewhere in the far corners of the Lab.
I shake my head. "Look, I'm sorry, okay! Why do you keep stuff like that around, anyway?"
Phoebe goes back to packing. She seems to be in a hurry, going through her shelves and racks and stuffing various and arcane things into a black holdall. Luke, I now see, is doing the same.
"A Research device." She says. "We've found that, occasionally, one of the Uberauters becomes interested if we poke certain experimental animals with outrageous enough sexual simulations. God knows why. That's what we're trying to find out. Or _were._ Up until we got Ashraak on our collective case."
"Well. No harm done." I say, quietly.
"Perhaps." Says Feeb, turning to a different rack and stuffing more and more things into the holdall. "You _might_ be interested to know that we had a confirmed Uberauter presence _At the very moment_ you started playing with that thing."
"Frink!" Says Luke, holding up the glowing Indicator.
"And it's _still_ running. He or She is watching us again. That probably means we don't have much time to spare. It _also_ means that while you were in that _thing_, getting nookie or whatever the hell you were doing, you had one of Them looking at you."
"I _wasn't_ getting 'nookie'." I say, miffededly. And then, with a bit more worry, "He or She was Watching me in there?"
"'Fraid so, Charles. Here. Take this." She hands me a black holdall. "Start filling it with stuff."
"Like what?" I say, surveying the vast expanse of the Lab.
"Anything! We have to hurry!"
I wander over to a small side-alcove that is chock-full of small devices, each one with a tiny red light perched somewhere thereon. "Are these all Uberauter sensors?" I yell back to Feeb.
"Probably!" She says, with her head buried inside a steamer-trunk, pawing through the collected mass of Stuff in a vaguely canine fashion.
All right... the Indicators are just about the only thing in the place that I currently understand the function of. I begin grabbing them off the rack. As I do so, I speak.
"I don't get it, Feeb. If it's a matter-of-life-or-death sort of emergency that I talk to the President, why can't we just go to her office and explain that we're _really, really_ desperate to see her? I'm sure her secretary would understand..."
A hush falls over the Lab.
"...Wouldn't she?" I finish, somewhat lamely.
"He?" I add, wondering if this might perhaps be the problem.
"I don't think you understand the magnitude of what we have here, Charles." Feeb gets up from the steamer-trunk and wanders distractedly over towards the jewel case. She cracks it open again, and the pale, radiant light leaks out again, illuminating her elfin face from beneath. "_Most_ students at L.U.D.D.D.Amber never even get a chance to _see_ Queen Voria Starbender. Neither do most faculty. Last Tuesday, the Chairbeing of the Alpha Proxima Campus requested a personal audience with Her Magisterialness in regards to some sort of invasion by 'Flesh-Eating Protoplasmic Blobs.' Queen Voria only managed to 'fit him in' to her schedule at a point just shy of Thanksgiving Break. Obtaining a personal audience in the mere scantness of _one single week_ is nothing short of miraculous."
She pauses, her eyes going distant. "Many Bothans died to get you this appointment, Charles."
I frown. "Wha?"
"Never mind." She says, shaking her head. She closes the jewel case and stuffs it in her holdall.
"I don't get it." I say. "If Ashraak is so all-fired dangerous that the President is willing to free up an early meeting time to deal with him specifically, why the hell did the University admit him in the first place?"
"Affirmative action." Says Feeb, casually.
"Frink." Says Luke.
"Admission quotas state that we have to admit at least one potentially megalomaniac and/or genocidal deified being or deified being-in-training per semester, assuming reasonably comparable academic standards. L.U.D.D.D.Amber is very diversity-sensitive."
"I see." I say, lying.
"It's really for the best, overall, I suppose. And they do so with the best of intentions. But there _are_ the occasional inconveniences. Like this."
"Right." I say, returning to my packing and vowing to ask no further questions from here on in. I am _attempting_ to stuff Indicators into the bag in a quick and timely fashion, but I keep getting distracted by thoughts of that simulation I had in the A.S.F.D. Feeb _would_ have to interrupt things just when they were about to get good...
Unfortunately, outside of the A.S.F.D., that's probably about as close as I'm ever going to get. Buddy was not something that was manufactured by the A.S.F.D. just to provide me with a fictionally non-challenging testosterone-laden adversary, by the way. How Feeb _Ever_ got seriously involved with Buddy I'll never quite figure out.
Ah, well. Just one of those things, I guess...
I finish stuffing the bag. "Done." I say. I note that Feeb and Luke seem to be similarly finished. "How much time do we have before we start getting in trouble, here?"
"Dunno." Says Feeb, looking at her watch.
"We _do_ have to leave, right...?" I say, looking uneasily around.
"Affirmative." Says Feeb. "Fortunately for us, Ashraak isn't _completely_ omniscient. We'll have to stay in the same general area for approximately an hour before we start leaving a signature burn on the Reality Screen that He can pick up. So that gives us a little bit of a breather-time in each new place before we have to start moving on again. More than an hour, we leave ourselves open to becoming beetle food again."
"Lovely thought. How are we supposed to sleep?"
She looks at me with that patented "I'm Dealing With a Preschooler Here" type-thing. "He _does_ have a curfew, Charles. All the frat houses do."
"D'you happen to have any Tylenol, Feeb?"
"Medicine chest in the bathroom. Second shelf up."
"Thanks." I say. I go where I am directed, and find the pills where Feeb said they would be. I down a couple, take a drink from the faucet, take a moment to steady my nerves, and walk back out into the Lab. By the time I get back, Luke and Feeb have the Principal Indicator back out and are staring at its steadily-glowing light with an expression of vague unease.
Feeb looks up as I arrive. "Okay." She says. "You're back. And the light's back on. The Uberauter seems to be tied to _you_ specifically. Did you do _anything_ of interest while you were in the bathroom?"
"I took some of your headache medicine. That was about it."
"Hm." Says Feeb. "Either 'our' Uberauter has no concept whatsoever about what is interesting and relevant to look at, or else He or She is married to your P.O.V. Either way, He or She completely missed the Carefully-Engineered Interesting Discussion that Luke and I were having while you were off taking your pills."
I frown. "What were you talking about that was so interesting?"
Feeb waves her hand dismissively. "Not important."
Luke points to his watch. "Wheeooo..." He says, warningly.
"Right!" Says Feeb, slamming her palms down on the table. "We're running out of time here. Charles, we've got one thing left that we have to do here, and that's figure out exactly _why_ it is you're suddenly choosing this particular moment to break out of your Cocoon. This whole business would be a hell of a lot easier if you _weren't_, and we don't have the resources or the technology here to fix it anyway, but I need you to think about what exactly it was that happened _right before_ you started noticing things weren't jiving with your world-view. This whole business _might_ be interconnected after all."
I furrow my brow in thought. "I got bit." I say, at last. "By a little eight-year old girl. On the hand."
"Wheeooo..." Says Luke, leaning back in his chair. Feeb shushes him.
"Did it break the skin?" She asks, studying me intently.
"I think so. A little teeny bit."
"And then what happened?"
"She... um... turned into a poodle."
"And then?" She leans even further forward.
"Her mother came up. She was a poodle too. She gave me... a Ziplock Baggie... had some sort of plant inside..."
Feeb slams on the table again. "Perfect." She says. "That's one more thing we know. She told you to eat it, right?"
"Right..." I say.
"And you didn't. Right?"
"What was I _supposed_ to do, for god's sake? Feeb, what is going on here?"
"In all likelihood, Charles, that was Belladonna."
"Frink." Says Luke, grimly.
"Wolvesbane." Says Feeb, seeing my the-rule-rather-than-the-exception blank stare.
I touch my forehead again. Maybe some more Tylenol would come in handy here. "Waittaminute. You're saying that that eight-year-old kid was... a..." I swallow. "A Were--"
"Poodle. Probably." Says Feeb. "The moment she bit you, you became infected. I'm theorizing that having a magical disease bombing around in your bloodstream caused your Mundanity Cocoon to be decomposed almost _instantly_. From the inside. As a result, You immediately saw her in her true shape."
"Great." I say. "Just great. So in the past twenty-four hours, I've seen my roommate suddenly mutate into the biggest damn lemur this side of Kansas, gained the enmity of an abyssal demigod, _nearly_ gotten myself killed about twelve times, and _actually_ gotten myself killed once as a result of being torn to shreds by a marauding swarm of beetles... _WHEREUPON,_ I've been reconstructed and raised from the dead and told that my entire scheme of reality up to the present day has been some sort of psychotic delusion. And to top things off, I suddenly have mysterious beings on another plane of existance watching my every move, _being in the bathroom_ notwithstanding. And _NOW_ you're telling me that, on top of all this, that the next time there's a full moon, I'm going to become a big fluffly dog who's perfectly suitable for creative grooming. I _love_ this, Feeb! This is a _GREAT_ life I've got going, here!"
"Frink." Says Luke, who has hopped up from the table and is toying with a rather large piece of equipment nearby.
"Not necessarily." Says Feeb.
"What?" I say, still breathing hard from my rant.
"Not necessarily a poodle. Lycanthropy isn't species-constant. Most likely your particular manifestation of the disease will pick its own particular form."
"GREAT!" I say, throwing my hands up in the air again. "I don't even know _WHAT_ I'm going to be turning into! Wonderful! Hey, _I've_ got an idea! How about a Naked Mole Rat, huh? Or a Wallaby? Or a goddamn Oriental Mudskipper? Huh?"
"Very possible." Says Feeb, perfectly deadpan. "Only one way to find out. You ready with that Lunar Simulatrix Lamp, Luke?"
"Frink!" He says, happily, swinging the large and now obviously spotlight-y device into position.
"...hey..." I say...
"Set for MAXIMUM POWER!" Exalts Feeb, the mad gleam entering her eyes again.
"FRINK!" Says Luke.
"Now Wait Just--"
"TURN THE PHASE SELECTOR DIAL TO _FULL_!"
"FRINK!" Says Luke.
"--ONE MINUTE HERE--"
"POWER ON!" Screams Feeb.
"FRINK!" Screams Luke, slamming shut three ponderous hatchet-switches that spark bluely in the nearby dark.
"--YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO--"
Phoebe is cackling wildly. "NOW! _*OPEN THE SHUTTER!!!*_"
I am bathed in a blindingly cold, white, lunar-grade radiance.
Prickles rush across my skin.
Lances of agony pierce my muscles and course across my bones like lightning.
A low wail gurgles up from my throat and rapidly incubates into a howl of pain and anguish and terror as I thrash in the unholy glow... and then... I am drawn upwards by powers beyond my control, silvery wires and tendrils jerking me to a feeble standing position like some broken marionette...
My flesh begins to flow like modeling clay...
The light flickers out in a burst of fire and sparks.
There is a moment's disorientation, and I realize that absolutely nothing about me is qualitatively different. Feeb's infernal lamp probably didn't have enough time to do its stuff before it, apparently, shorted out.
Still extremely pissed off at this less-than-hospitable treatment at the hands of my "friends", I am about to ask another, slightly more angry, question, but upon seeing the faces of Feeb and Luke the question dies in my throat.
Their eyes are fixed on the doorway to the Lab.
Standing there are two dark figures, silhouetted in the glare pouring in from the now-broken door.
They're holding guns.
The taller of the two holds its smoking weapon up to its beshadowed lips and blows, once, in the classic Gunslinger style.
"Dear chaps." It says. "I'm afraid that I'm going to have to inconvenience you by demanding in the harshest of all possible terms that you come with us."
"Heh. Heh, heh." Sniggers the shorter of the two. "You just said, 'cum.' Heh heh. Heh."
They step forwards into the light.
The blackness of their forms is not ameliorated by the illumination. It is simply... defined.
They're _shaped_ like human beings. Actually, they probably _are_ human beings.
Or, perhaps, _were._
It's not so certain anymore.
Note the vapid, gray, pupilless eyes. Note the curious shamble in their gait. Note the decidedly unnatural way they approach, walking over and, more importantly, _through_ the wreckage of the crushed machineries in their paths as if all the mechanical debris were nothing more substantial than fallen Autumn leaves.
And note, especially, the fact that every single exposed square inch of their flesh is covered with a constant but ever-shifting layer of one to two inches of scuttling, be-carapaced insects.
"Greetings." Says the tall one, beetles scurrying in and out of his mouth. "We've been _looking_ for you..."