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Mundementia One: The Book of Complication
Tuesday night in Hoderund, long into the dark. Rain. The windshield wipers beat a dull rhythm against the glass.
I have a headache.
It feels like years since this morning. The end of day two. Day three fast approaching. And god only knows what fresh horrors it will bring.
We cruise back into town on the tepid, pretentious strains of Enigma's _Love Sensuality Devotion_, making very good time. We got off to a slow start leaving Mislocated Bermuda using Supertramp's "Take the Long Way Home", because, apparently, it actually is a pretty good song in the Universe's opinion after all. My wounded pride is somewhat salved, but, to be fair, we did start picking up a good turn of speed on "Child of Vision". The engine of the armored car is a little noisy, and let's face it, it wasn't really built for passenger travel, so I am looking forward to a nice, solid, sound sleep in my very own bed in my very own dorm room -- or at least, my psychotic delusional head-case equivalent of same. I saw it, briefly, this afternoon and I've been thinking longingly about it all day. Of course, now is where Feeb informs me that, in this universe, I'm a veteran Polynesian Broken-Glass Sleeper or some shit like that. But, y'know, this is just the sort of thing you start to take into stride after a couple days of living in Mundementia One, and frankly, after the day I've had, I might even welcome the broken-glass bed. I need a break.
We park in front of Currier Hall. Buddy, still wearing the distressingly hot form of Dr. Ilsa Chagrin, is in back, silently grooving to Elton John on a portable tape player and occasionally singing along, though, as ever, the only word he/she knows is "Rawr". Luke is busily packing what few spoils remain from his mammoth island scavenging excursion, which is to say, those he hasn't eaten yet. I carefully remove my faithful blade Hitty from beneath the seat. Really, it's just a sort of long sharp thing that I made for myself out of used film-projector parts, but a man's relationship with his weapon, be it ever so humble, is chock-full of warm, poetic affection, and is not to be trifled with. Feeb is at the driver's seat, watching me. In the weak, peachy streetlight, she looks very small and pale and sober.
I set Hitty upon my lap and look back.
"Well," I say. "Good night, I suppose. Should I call you in the morning?"
"No phones," reminds Phoebe. "Anywhere. All stolen."
"Oh," I say. "Right."
"_Maybe_ some rich people who could afford full-time on-staff non-Union phone-watchers still have them, but I have no doubts that yours is quite gone."
"We ought to have thought of that. Brought a bunch of them back with us from Bermuda. We'd be getting a hero's welcome right now."
"Yeah," says Feeb. "Well, no use crying over improperly disposed-of radiotoxemic isotopes." She shrugs. "I expect you'll want to get busy on that History paper that you've been bitching about incessantly."
"Mm," I say.
"Maybe I'll swing by in the morning to help you navigate your way to the Main Library," she says. "Unless they've cleaned it up yet, the most logical route there is entirely covered by a twenty-nine foot pileup of spicy yellow mustard, and the next most logical route has been blocked by some violent cosmic robot entity named 'Gorbatroid'."
"'Gorbatroid'?" I ask.
"Yup," says Feeb. "Took up residence at the corner of Handle and Mnemonic streets last Saturday. Demands worship. Annihilates anyone who comes near with superheated antimatter photon cannons."
"Sounds like something to steer clear of," I agree.
"Yeah," sighs Feeb. "It's totally annoying. I wish the City would get off its ass and do something about it. This is, like, the third time this semester, and it's only October."
"Mm," I say, again.
Silence, save for the clunks of Luke finishing his sorting in back. In a moment or two his fuzzy little form shows up between the front seats.
"Frink," he says, hefting an armload of stuff. "Wheeooo."
"Looks like we're ready," I say, popping open the passenger door and preparing to disembark.
"Charles--" says Feeb, before I am able to step out.
"Yeah?" I say, turning back, my right leg halfway out the door.
"I wanted to let you know... back there on the island..."
"Yes?" I say. A smile crosses my lips, a flicker of emotion sparkles beneath my sternum.
"Well... I wanted to tell you... that..."
And then _he_ comes. A shortish, thinnish man with a sharp face, perfectly-waxed black hair, and a smile worth at least three or four hundred thousand dollars. He swings his way into the cab, dull-olive overcoat parting to reveal swaths of immaculate suit, and displaces me with incredible ease. I am forced to the side and land on top of Luke and his pile of stuff. Luke cheeps at me, momentarily startled and somewhat more enduringly pissed off.
"Hi," says the strange man, extending his hand to me. "Are you Charles Madison Glass, Guardya de la Duche Verdue, Count of Monte Penwell?"
"No!" exclaims Feeb, from the driver's seat. "No! Good lord, no, how could you ever make that mistake?!?"
"I think," I say, looking at the man's offered hand, "that he was talking to me."
"Oh," says Feeb.
"Frink!" protests Luke, upon whom I still am sitting.
"Wow," says the guy. "I hardly recognized you from your school photo. Your long imprisonment has really changed your appearance."
"You're a crazy man," I say to the intruder, in much the same tone of voice I would use to identify a chef or a fireman or something. "Who are you and why are you invading my space-distorting armored car?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," says the stranger, shielding his face with his hand for a moment in what is probably a precisely calculated amount of shame. "Where _have_ my manners gone?"
He extends his hand again. "Felix de Trephane," he says, once again offering to shake. "You and me, Charlie -- may I call you Charlie? -- we need to talk."
* * *
Somewhat later; the Daum Hall Universolounge. Rain against the windows, still. The four of us -- me, Feeb, Luke and IlsaBuddy -- are seated in comfy chairs looking distinctly uncomfy. Seated opposing us is Felix de Trephane, leaning forward in a congenial fashion. Behind him and slightly to the right stand two tall men in crisp uniform, one huge and dark, the other lean, smiling and curly-haired. The player grand piano in the atrium roundabout works at some soft, elegant music in its own artificial way. We have sodas.
"And so," says Felix, "as the principal stockholder of the Sycamore Mall Company, we're going to need your help."
"Explain this to me again," I say, "because I've spent the day overthrowing the government of a small island republic while laboring under the thrall of an artifact of evil, and I'm very tired right now."
"Sure!" says Felix. "From the beginning, then?"
"The rapid version, if you please," says Feeb. "Without all the tedious pleasantries."
"Aha. A woman who knows what she wants! Well, let it not be said that I don't aim to please." He flashes a grin at her, and I find myself both liking and hating him at the very same time. "Okay. From the top, the quick version. We've had a little bit of a computer problem at our mall. A lot of the primary systems have gone off-line, as best as we can tell, including the Synthetic Hyper-Efficient Baseline Operations Program, or the 'SHEBOP', as we like to call her. Ever since the disjunction occurred five days ago, I've been working my butt off trying to raise enough capital to get back a primary share of the mall stock."
"And... the reason you didn't have a primary share in your own mall?"
"Well, frankly, the Oneida Indians," says Felix. "Couple hundred years ago we take their land, and they've been spending every waking hour since trying to soak us for the balance, one slot machine at a time. Eh?"
"Right," I say, the needle edging slightly more towards the "hate" indicator. "And you need a majority share because..."
Felix laughs. "Damn thing won't respond to system reset commands without the full consent of the principal owner! God, I could shoot the guy who programmed it."
"Well, you don't need my help, then," I say. "All's I need to do is transfer ownership back to you, and you can go off and do your thing."
"Charles!" hisses Feeb. "That's my shopping mall! I need to bulldoze it to make way for my new laboratory!"
"_My_ shopping mall," I remind her. "And we've got too much to worry about right now without--"
"I'm sorry, it won't do any good." Felix leans back in his comfy chair. "Let me explain. A few months back, the Sycamore Mall Company was unwittingly involved in a rather serious 'pump and dump'-style stock scandal."
"Rawr?" questions IlsaBuddy, looking up from her nails.
Felix's eyes go a little funny, and he starts flicking them back and forth, as though following the figures on an imaginary exchange board inside his head. "Because I was a little strapped at the time," he says, "I put quite a bit of Sycamore stock on the market, and because we weren't doing so well as a company, either, it was all very cheap. Shortly after going public, we got some questionable investors buying up a significant share, then making false claims to innocent third parties to encourage them to take up the rest and artifically encourage demand. The investors then sold off their shares at the inflated price, the innocent third parties were stuck with a bunch of stock that nobody wanted because, frankly, it was about as valuable as bone meal, and the Sycamore Mall Company, though involved in no wrongdoing whatsoever, suffered tarnished credibility and earned a generous amount of public antipathy." He takes a deep breath and a swig of seltzer, then continues. "To stop this from happening again, I applied for a number of federal stay-of-sale orders, dictating a retention of recently-transferred stock for a period of two months."
People like this scare me. Felix de Trephane is the kind of guy who would probably know the meaning and proper use of the word "contango". Actually, I know that too, but that's because I'm an English major, and that gives me great power. "So," I say, "I now own your Mall, and I can't give it back to you just yet."
"Sucks to be you," I say, getting up from the chair. "Call me in two months, assuming we all have our phones back."
"I'm sorry, that's not an option."
"Blatz that," I cuss at him. "Countermand the federal orders, then."
"Charlie," says Felix, "you know what government bureaucracy is like. It'd take more time than we have."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" I ask. "Creditors at your doorstep? I might remind you I'm not terribly concerned about your financial well-being, Mister de Trephane. I spent a good part of this evening battling the Strohish avatars of your bad debts, and I figure that when you rack up enough red ink that it starts summoning hideous eyeball-creatures, a few more weeks of deferment doesn't have the words 'immediate panic situation' written all over it."
"Yeah," says Felix, looking a bit chagrined. "Well, y'know, we all make mistakes, right?" He smiles again. "Anyway, you fixed all that. I'm back in the black for the first time in years, and for that, I'm in your debt."
"If you're so in my debt," I say, "then tell me why you're bothering me with stat requests. Especially when waiting on them would make things much easier for me."
Felix sighs, and for a moment he looks, oh, maybe, two or three years older.
"There are shoppers in there," he says.
"It's a shopping mall," I say, elocuting clearly. "This doesn't come as a great shock to me."
Felix pauses, seeming to consider his words. "One of the unverifiable systems," he says, "is the Mall's life support."
"Life... support?" I ask.
"Just what kind of mall is this?"
"It's a totally-enclosed and hermetically-isolated experimental shopping emporium," says Felix. "All the customers live, and work, on-site."
"An arcology!" breathes Feeb, breathlessly, inasmuch as it is possible to do that. "Charles, this is wonderful! Maybe I won't want to bulldoze it after all!"
I blink at her. "What do you care about having an arcology?"
"I'm thinking of starting a collection," she says.
"Oh," I say, knowing better than to question.
"Frink?" inquires Luke, showing concern.
"I'm afraid so," says Felix. "They've been in there for five days, now. It's probably getting a little wretched."
"Good cripes," I say. "You're going to have some unhappy customers on your hands."
"And that," says Felix, "is why we're going to be traveling in the company of some, let me slip into the colloquial here, seriously bad-ass mall security guards." He glances over his shoulder to the two uniformed men at his left. "Herr la Guardya, respected entourage: may I present Major Julius Oveur-Hall and Private Howie Fodder of the Mall Security Corps."
"Hi," says the curly-haired one with a big smile. "Howie Fodder, Heavy Weapons. My friends call me 'Cannon'."
"At attention, soldier," says his officer, in a voice that sounds like he's spent all morning gargling with liquid James Earl Jones.
"Sorry, sir," says Howie, snapping back to his disciplined stance.
The major lets out his breath through horse-like nostrils. "New recruit," he explains, tersely, his eyes forward. I cannot shake the feeling that he looks kind of like that one really tough black actor, no, not that one, the other one.
"The whole operation shouldn't take more than half an hour, tops," says Felix. "We're in, we're out. Major Oveur-Hall and the rest of Humility Company will secure the area, we take you in, you give the reset signal, bam. Mall's up and running again, generating profits for the both of us and giving our petulant shoppers a, ha-ha, breath of fresh air, so to speak."
"'Humility Company'?" I ask, wondering what kind of mentality it takes to toss out casual and witty remarks about carbon dioxide exhaustion.
Felix leans forward conspiratorially. "These guys are the best," he says. "Real professionals. Why, I--"
"Excuse me, sir," rumbles the Major, the stupid joke inherent in whose name has just now hit me, "But I disagree. In no way do I anticipate that we will succeed at this tremendously difficult mission. My men are _not_ ready, our equipment will _not_ prove up to the task and we are, completely and without a doubt, the wrong people to send into such an overwhelmingly dangerous situation. Within twenty seconds of insertion, I anticipate that we will turn tail and run, wetting ourselves and squealing like little girls as we do so."
And with that, he narrows his eyes and sets his jaw in a, frankly, terrifying way. All speeches aside, the Major looks like he could kick my ass six times over, or, assuming I had six asses, like he could kick each one of them once, simultaneously.
"He sounds a little unsure of himself," says Feeb.
"No, see, that's the beauty of it," says Felix. "The biggest killer of well-trained paramilitary squads of all time is overwhelming hubris. That's where Humility Company comes in. They are _extensively_ trained in the art of self-debasement. Their profoundly and unilaterally negative attitude has made them the single most successful company of mall security guards in recent memory. I think you'll be impressed with their performance; I am confident that it will far outstrip the Major's humble estimation."
"Respectfully, no," growls the Major. "I anticipate horrible losses."
"C'mon, sir," says Howie, who either (a) hasn't been listening, (b) disagrees wholly with the concept, or (c) has such a sunny disposition that nothing but nothing can bring him down. "This doesn't sound that hard. Pacifying some unhappy shoppers and pulling light escort duty? I think we'll make it through all right."
"Quiet, soldier!" roars Major Oveur-Hall. "We are all going to fail horribly and that's inevitable! Do you hear me?"
"Yessir," says Private Fodder, cowed.
Felix gestures over his shoulder, smiling at me with an "isn't this great?" sort of expression, then says, "So. Are you with us?"
"I have a History paper due Thursday that I haven't even started on," I say.
"We'll have you out of there in no time," he says. "Think of the poor shoppers."
"I'm sorry," I say. "Can we put it off until--"
"We'll do it!" says Feeb.
"Okay," I say, darkly, "I need to call a huddle, here. Just a minute."
Practically dragging Feeb by the collar of her lab coat, I haul my three companions out of their seats and over to a little conversation pit in the corner.
"What the Rolling Rock are you trying to pull, here, Feeb?" I hiss. "Whatever plans you have in mind for this shopping mall I apparently own can wait a couple of days, can't they?"
"It's a little more complex than that, Charles," says Feeb. "I'm afraid that, like any good evil person, I haven't been telling you the whole truth."
She fixes me with an earnest stare. "Before L'Abbe de Trephane died this afternoon," she says, "he told me that the MacGuffin Blade we learned about from DeJesus's catalog is only one of three Highly-Important Swords that are supposedly floating around here somewhere. The blades Argent, Azur and Gules."
"Why," I ask, "do I really care?"
"You really care," says Feeb, in tones of patient explanation, "because they might have the power to drive Ashraak back into imprisonment. Heck, having even one of them might keep us safe until your appointment with the High Queen of the University. And one of the last things L'Abbe said to me was that we should seek the blade Azur in the place where sycamores stood. Can this _possibly_ be a coincidence, Charles? Does this not just _reek_ of prophetic machination?"
"It does, kind of," I say. "'Gules', 'Argent', and 'Azur'? Red, white and blue?"
Feeb bites her lip. "We were kind of hoping you wouldn't notice that."
"Cripes," I say, "what kind of cheese-hole of a universe is this, anyway?" I fume for a moment. "Okay. But we go there, rescue the shoppers, find the sword, and then we _leave_, okay? I cannot stress enough my need to not be distracted tomorrow."
"Right," says Feeb.
"I have one more question for the younger de Trephane over there." I lean over the back of my conversation pit chair and whistle to Felix.
"Hey! Felix!" I call out.
"Yeah, Charlie?" he says.
"There aren't any dinosaurs in your mall, are there?"
"Nope!" says Felix, proudly.
"Okay," I say, and turn back to my party. "Luke, Buddy, any input?"
"Frink," says Luke, after a moment's thought.
"Rawr!" says IlsaBuddy.
"I thought as much," I say. "Hokay, back over to the suit and the uniforms."
The four of us cross back to the other side of the lounge. "All right, we're frickin' doing this," I say. "But we aren't happy."
"Wheeooo," says Luke.
"Rawr," says Buddy.
"Actually--" begins Feeb.
"Okay, _I'm_ not happy," I say. "But we're in."
"Great," says Felix. "We'll be staying at the Picotel over on Alias Drive tonight, and tomor--"
"Wait a second," I say. "This wasn't part of the plan. I'm sleeping in my own bed tonight."
Felix's smile doesn't waver. "I was hoping to have all of us together in one place. Y'know, so that we can get started bright and early. Save travel time, and all."
"No Juengling way," I say, attempting to sound adamant. "Forget it."
Felix considers. "Look," he says, at last, "I was a college student once. I know how it goes."
His smile widens to positively Cheshirian proportions. "If you come with us," he says, "I'll buy you all dinner."