BACK to the Main Index
BACK to The Mundementia One Index
BACK to the Previous Chapter
Mundementia One: The Book of Complication
Later. Southeastern Hoderund. Sycamore Mall, and environs.
We are sitting in a restaurant on the outskirts of the Arcology grounds, being intrusively doted upon by a collection of magnosubstantive holograms, all named "Staci". Like any good Midwestern shopping mall, the Sycamore Arcology has inevitably attracted around it an assortment of trendy chain restaurants and large warehouse stores. It doesn't seem to matter that no one can actually _shop_ at this shopping mall, on account of its wholly-enclosed economy.
"It's like a terrarium," Felix had explained to us. "Only, you know, with money. Instead of water. All we needed to find for ourselves was a commune's worth of high-powered shoppers, which was ridiculously easy. We offered them well-paying on-site jobs; reasonably-priced, clean, modern apartments; and convenient access to all their favorite shopping venues. After all, what could be easier than getting up in the morning, taking a short jaunt down a subcorridor and finding yourself right there at an entire shopping mall's worth of buying opportunity?"
"You could have motorized walkways," Feeb had volunteered. "That could make it easier. Or little scooters. Or rocket-powered service droids that would pick you up and carry you places. Or," and at this, she had started getting that funny look in her eyes again, "you could fold the very fabric of space and time so that ALL YOUR FAVORITE STORES WERE RIGHT THERE, IN YOUR VERY OWN LIVING ROOM!!!"
"We got the walkways," Felix had said, grinning. "We have scooters. We're even working on ideas very similar to the service droids you mentioned."
"What about the space-warping thing?"
Felix had smirked. "That's still a little ways off, Miss Dimmesdale. Besides, those would have to be some pretty small stores."
Feeb had sniffed. "Obviously," she had said, adjusting her omnipresent lab coat, "you do not well understand the nature of space and time, Mister de Trephane."
Felix had admitted his inexperience with the topic, then gone on to explain how this kind of shopping convenience, coupled with (a) the sort of intense topical focus you tend to get in directed communal life and (b) the mall's low, low prices was supposed to spark in his shoppers a hazy sort of buying mania which would eventually blossom into some kind of ceaseless capitalistic orgy. Once this manic state had been achieved, it had been his plan to begin to leak goods from the outside world into this insanely-consumptive society. It wouldn't even matter what they were. You could sweep together all the overstocked appliances, the remaindered books, even all the crap that they couldn't ditch at those dollar stores. Hell, it sounded like he was working up to a point where you could set out a crate of huge, unwieldy broken concrete slabs with a sign on them reading "Huge, Unwieldy Broken Concrete Slabs: $2" and have them be gone within twenty-four hours. And to hear him talk, it had been well on its way to working, until five days ago, when all contact with the Arcology had been inexplicably cut off.
And that brings us to the present. Me. Here. Now. At a chain-owned / franchise theme restaurant on Alias Drive whose gimmick seems to be that it is staffed entirely by perky, pin-wearing, computer-generated holograms. Its name, of course, is "CGI Friday's".
This also means that it is no longer techncally Tuesday. Thanks to a complicated spatiotemporal warp array -- located, per Feeb, somewhere in back roundabouts the walk-in freezer -- in here, it is always Friday. Apparently they just pick a Friday to seat you in at random from all the Fridays there have ever been, and that's why it's almost never crowded. It is both ingenious, and, mind-numbingly stupid. Pretty much par for the course.
So. Because of this, we are alone in the restaurant, our little group. Civilians (Feeb, Luke, Buddy, Felix, I) at one table, Mall Security at the other. Private Fodder is there, as is the Major, and they have been joined by three others: a laconic, unshaven man introduced to us as PFC Brian Angst; Company med-tech Haristeen Zemler, who is a smallish, lithe woman with large brown eyes and short brown hair; and a tall, mustachioed fellow in red ecclesiastical robes, known only as "The Cardinal". They converse amongst themselves while we attempt, with varying degrees of success, to order.
"All Righty-O!" burbles Staci128, faint lines of distortion running through her massless form. "So that'll be the fried coconut pineapple shrimp with mango chutney, minus the shrimp but _with_ the breading, side of pickle relish for the sir..."
"Frink!" says Luke.
"...a small side salad with onion-cilantro balsamic viniagrette, no croutons, for the miss..."
"Rawr," says IlsaBuddy, folding her porcelian-perfect hands before her. A twinge in my gut. Must not think about Buddy in that way. Shudder. Must not. Must not.
"...and the garlic-crusted Worcester-glazed New Jersey tripe with fire-roasted peppers and pimento hash, side of baked potato for the other miss!"
"Sounds good!" says Feeb, brightly.
Then, she seizes her fork and her knife in her hands and bangs them exultantly against the slightly-pitted wood of the table. "YES!" she shrieks. "YES! MY MEAL HAS BEEN ORDERED!" Feeb chucks her silverware down; the fork caroms off the side of the table and goes skittering across the floor. "Once that waitress reaches the kitchen," she says, rubbing her hands together, "and delivers the slip containing my food selection to the restaurant's hologrammatic chefs, _NOTHING_ WILL STOP ME FROM RECEIVING MY SUPPER! NOTHING!!! NOT EVEN THOSE PESKY TIME PILOTS!!!"
She drops her hands to her lap, atop the napkin. "May I have another fork, please?" she asks, sweetly.
"Oh!" gushes Staci, as though she's just been offered an all-expenses-paid trip to the computer-generated image equivalent of the French flippin' Rivera. "Sure! Sure! I can sure get you one of those right away! Soon as I get these orders!"
"Delay me at your peril, holo-woman!" snarls Feeb.
Staci128's programming is apparently not robust enough to handle a response to Feeb's last statement, because she ignores her and turns to me. "And for you, sir?" she says, inexplicably bending down and putting her chin at table level.
I swallow. Trying to be subtle about it, I touch the sweat away from my brow with my unrolled napkin. Somewhere along the line here, I managed to pick up a stomachache to match my headache, and I am really pissed off right now. Just my luck: the first chance I have this week to take in a decent American-style seven-hundred-percent-more-food-than-you-probably-need dinner on somebody else's tab, ruined by pre-meal indigestion.
"Just some bread, please," I say, fighting back vague nausea.
Staci128 frowns like one of those little Pug dogs. "I'm sorry," she says, putting her head mournfully to one side, "but we don't have any plain bread."
"You have sandwiches," I say, stabbing my finger at the menu, rather curtly. "You have bread."
"Actually," says Staci, showing her synththesized teeth at me in what is probably supposed to be an ingratiatingly apologetic way, "all our sandwiches are either on parmesan-garlic-dusted San Francisco sourdough tomato-basil-oregano focaccia, or, parmesan-garlic-dusted San Francisco sourdough tomato-basil-oregano artisan ciabat--"
"All right, forget it," I say, waving her off. My stomach is currently refusing the idea of anything with more than two syllables, although it might make an exception for Rice Krispies. "All your food is just way too... inflected, or something. I'll just have water."
Staci makes that same face again. "I'm sorry," she says, "we don't have that."
"You don't have _water_?" I say. "What do you wash your dishes in?"
My words trigger a schpeil subroutine. "Here at C.G.I. Friday's," she says, standing up, "we fill all our dish tubs with a modern-age citric-acid solution dish and silverware cleaning reagent, to get your dishes over eighty percent cleaner than ordinary water and detergent can!" Diagrams and pie charts begin popping up in the foreground of her holosphere. "These charts clearly show that most normal people who wash their dishes in 'plain old' soap and water are actually consuming twice their weight in raw, unadulterated filth EVERY MONTH from all the stuff left on their dishes! We at C.G.I. Friday's think that people who do that are SICK! JUST _SICK!_ And we have vowed to--"
"Look, stop! I'm sorry I asked!" I swallow hard. "You really don't have any water to drink _at all_?"
"Well," says Staci128, "we do have a Jack Daniels-marinaded homestyle _grilled_ water." She smiles and tries to sound enticing. "It comes with a New Orleans barbecue ranch dipping sauce!"
"No!" I protest, putting my face in my hands. "No! Just... just go somewhere else!"
"Well okay then!" she chirps, and moves on.
I spend a few moments breathing into my hands and covering my eyes. Then I remove them--
--only to see a HUGE, SHAPELESS RED CREATURE RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME STARING AT ME AND OH MY CRAP--
"YAAAGH!" I scream, falling sideways off my chair.
Then, I look back up at Feeb. She's holding a tiny little red beanbag... something... in her hand. I recognize it from Luke's Bermudan stash.
"You don't look like you're feeling so well!" says Feeb with pursed lips and a comically deepened voice. "Spleeny wants to know what's the matter!" Feeb bobs the little bean-stuffed creature up and down; apparently, beanbag creatures communicate by moving their entire bodies along the vertial axis.
"Feeb," I say, picking myself up off the floor, "don't ever hold anything with eyes in my face ever again."
"Spleeny is worried about you!" she says. "Tell Spleeny what's wrong!" Across the table from us, Felix is grinning.
"Look," I say, glancing over at Felix. "I'm just a little sick to my stomach, and--" I squint at the strange red object. "What the Guinness is that thing, anyway?"
"Oh!" says Feeb. "He's Spleeny the Spleen!"
"Spleeny is a Beanie Organ," says Felix. "Just one of an entire line of very highly collectible little guys. There's beanie hearts, beanie livers, beanie lungs, beanie colons, beanie just-about-everythings. Even had an entire beanie limbic system out there for a while. Limited edition."
"They make them in a secret factory somewhere in the Midwest!" says Feeb. "Nobody knows where! And they have these cute little tags with little poems printed on them! See?"
Feeb thrusts Spleeny's tag into my face.
* * * Your blood is so nifty! It flows and it flows! But did you ever wonder where worn-out blood goes? _IT GOES INTO ME!_ I'm Spleeny the Spleen! I filter out dead cells and keep your blood clean! * * *
And then, below it, in mocked-up handwriting:
* * * I hope you love your new Beanie Organ! signed, --Peeter F. Handle * * *
"That is one of the most distressing ideas ever," I say. "Who's 'Peeter F. Handle'?"
"Dutch chap," says Felix. "Brilliant man. Absolute marketing genius."
"He's cracked," I say. "Beanbag _organs_?"
"Say what you like about him," says Felix, holding his fork in front of him with both hands, "but his stuff is popular. Very, very popular. Your lady friend there is a woman in good company."
She's not my lady friend, I think to myself. She's a crazy woman who behaves erratically, tells long and pointless stories and occasionally hits me.
"And it gets better," continues Felix, who is thankfully unable to hear my internal monologue. "In a couple of weeks he's going to be releasing a new series of Beanie Organs. The 'Mark Two' line."
"Mark... Two?" I say.
"MARK TWO?!?" cries Feeb. "But... but... I almost had the whole set! All I needed was Glially the Brain! And now they're putting out a WHOLE 'NOTHER LINE?!?"
"Larger, cuddlier and packed with all sorts of special new features your old Beanie Organs lacked," says Felix. "What can I say? Guess you'll have to buy the new ones, too!" He winks at me in a conspiratorial fashion. "Marketing _genius_!" he whispers.
"They can't do that!" says Feeb, her eyes darting around madly from focus to focus. "Not now! Not when I was SO CLOSE!!!"
"Hey, Feeb, relax," I say. "It's just a dumb old set of stuffed animals. Stuffed animal-parts, at least. Why is--"
My third sentence is cruelly cut off in the prime of its life, because it is at this point that Feeb grabs the front panel of my sweatshirt and drags me back off my chair in the other direction. It is all I can do to make a comical urking noise.
"HOW DARE YOU!!!" she screams at me. "YOUR STUPID MIND! STUPID! STUPID! STUP--"
"'Scuse me!" says a cheery voice from abovewards.
We turn to look, Feeb's fists still balled up in the fabric of my sweatshirt.
"Hi," says the crisply-uniformed Private Fodder, holding a sketchpad in one hand and a piece of silverware in the other. "Sorry to interrupt whatever it was you were doing over here, but did someone over here lose a fork?"
"Oh," says Feeb. "Yes, that'd be me." She relaxes her death grip on my shirt and I settle back into my chair, wincing and grabbing clumsily for my napkin again. My once-stomachache has graduated into all-over abdominal cramps, and Feeb's manhandling just now has really, really not helped anything. "It's all right, Staci128 is bringing me a fresh one. Aren't you a peach, though!"
Howie blushes. "Heh," he says, waving off the compliment. "It's nothing."
Feeb smiles brightly at him. Her eyes light upon the little pad he's carrying. "Is that a sketchbook?" she asks.
Howie blushes again, a shade deeper. "Yeah," he says, stammering a little. "But it's not very good. At least, not very good _yet_, I hope."
"Let me see!" says Feeb, grabbing the sketchbook out of Howie's hands and beginning to leaf through it. Howie protests a little but it is clear from his lack of organized resistance that he takes a shy, boyish sort of pride in his craft, and is happy to have the opportunity to show off forced upon him.
"I'm taking these art classes through this correspondence school, see," says Howie, smiling a bit nervously at Feeb's attention. "This whole Mall Security thing is just a temporary gig for me. Just to pay the bills for a while. I think I'm really an artist, at heart."
"These are really good, Private Fodder!" says Feeb.
"Please," says Howie. "Call me 'Cannon'."
Feeb beams at him and then returns her attention to the sketchbook. "Who's this?" she asks, gesturing at one of the pictures.
"Oh," says Howie. "That's my sweetheart."
"Aww," says Feeb.
"Yeah, I was thinking when I get through with my tour of duty here we're going to settle down together somewhere. Get a little house. Maybe a dog, or something. Like one of those Wolfhounds. You know. Raise rabbits."
"That's so sweet!" says Feeb. "Oh, and look, Charles, he drew one of you!" She rises from her chair and holds the book up for me to see. "You really nailed his constant expression of harrowed, persecuted nausea!"
"Yeah, I was noticing that," says Cannon, looking at me with concern. "I wanted to ask, are you all right, sir?"
"Private Fodder," warns the Major, cutting the end off his hitherto-unseen cigar in a vaguely threatening fashion, though this was not terribly significant because it was my private opinion that the Major could paint a watercolor picture of a tree full of happy bluebirds and a smiley-face sun in a vaguely threatening fashion. "Let the civs eat their dinners in peace, please."
"Sorry, sir," says Howie. "Just checking on the well-being of our charges."
"It's all right, 'Cannon'," says Feeb. "Like I said, he always looks like that."
Luke, meanwhile, has been staring at me. As Feeb chats with Howie under the Major's watchful eye, Luke unfolds himself off of his chair and ambles over to me.
"Frink?" he says, looking at me concernedly.
I am about to wave him off, but end up squeezing my eyes shut instead at a fresh, new wave of pain, startling in its acuteness. "No," I manage to grunt out, my right hand straying to my stomach. "No, it's--"
"And I have to say," says Howie, "it's already been a pleasure doing business with you people. Your employer, Mister de Trephane over there, has offered to totally re-equip the squad tomorrow at the Ohio Arms Authority, which is awfully generous of him."
"Tax kickback," says Felix, though I can barely hear him through the blackening haze of my own distress. "It'll take a little finesse to swing it past the IRS, but I think--"
"Frink?" says Luke, more insistently, tugging at my shirt.
"Well, it's appreciated anyway," says Howie, "because some of our munitions have been-- Miss Phoebe, are you certain he _always_ looks like that?"
"Hm?" says Feeb, her face wavering in and out of focus. "Well, now that you mention it, he does look a little--"
"Charlie?" says Felix, even as I slump weakly to the table. "Crap!" he says. "Look, could somebody see what's--"
"Zemler!" barks the Major, who has risen to a half-stand at the other table. "Get over there!"
"On it, sir!" says Zemler, who is probably already in motion, though it's hard to tell because everything is spinning and spinning and--
"Rawr?" comes a voice from across the table.
"_SO_ sorry to bother you!" says the approaching, burbly voice of Staci128, "The kitchen tells me that we're out of--" A synthetic gasp. "THIS MAN IS CHOKING TO DEATH!"
"We haven't even gotten our food yet!" says someone's voice. Howie's.
"STAND BACK!" cries Staci, "I AM PROGRAMMED TO KNOW THE HEIMLICH MANEUVER!"
"No..." I protest. "It's... not that. It's just... I'm not... feeling--"
I am wracked by great spasms. Pain. Unimaginable pain. I buck forward, knocking myself into the table and upsetting several bottles of unneccessarily-complicated condiments as I do so, then fall sideways, laying half-across Feeb's vacated chair. My back arches stiffly, and it's a good thing I'm only semiconscious right now because I think the pain would have me close to passing out, otherwise. My muscles are on fire, and I know everyone says that, but right now it actually feels like someone has come along, dunked all my major muscle groups in kerosene and then tossed a lit safety match on them. I twist and writhe, beating my head against the padded seat of Feeb's chair. The burning... good god, the burning...
And then, something else...
Something... clawing its way out... FROM INSIDE ME...
I do not even have the capacity for shock. My mind is positively numb from pain and horror. Some new thing, once sleeping, now tearing and biting its way through my layers of flesh, ripping at my innards, struggling for the surface...
...and then emerging...
Blood. Everywhere. Mine, probably, and from the looks of it, an awful lot of the sum total. Flooding out of the wound which has been clawed out of my abdomen from within, gurgling forth from my nose and mouth. My ruin-soaked sweatshirt bulges outward in a way that no shirt has any business in doing, ever...
...and then, the lump beneath begins to writhe; for a brief, mad moment, it looks something like that funny game you play with dogs where you throw blankets over them and watch them try and wriggle their way out. My companions' faces are masks of abject horror.
The lump's sharp little claws pierce the fabric of the shirt, and after tearing a great hole, it emerges at last, dripping with gore and gristle, its hindquarters resting comfortably in my ruined thoracic cavity. It locks its hellish orange eyes on mine, perks up its cute little blood-slicked ears and speaks.
"...fRiNk..." says the creature.
I scream. I scream and scream and scream and scream and scream and scream and scream and --
* * *
-- scream and WAKE UP and sit bolt upright and whack my head against a very solid object and my head falls backwards with a heavy thump against my pillow.
And then I am silent. My eyes are wide and darting.
Then I scream again, for a good long time.
And that's when the deep, calm voice comes into my ears.
"Do you have dreams of wild animals ripping their way out of your body?" says the voice.
"YES!" I shout, trying to figure out in my sleep-daze why the ceiling, upon which I have just whacked my head, is so close to my face.
"Do you find yourself dreading the next full moon?" continues the voice.
I nod, silently, my eyes still wide.
"Do you experience a burning sensation when exposed to silver, or have hair on your palms, or are some of your fingers the same length as the adjacent ones?"
"Ye-- wait," I say to the unseen voice. Let me--"
"It may be more than simple depression," says the calm voice. "You may have _lycanthropy_. Anthropex can help."
And at last, my head clears. I am lying in my room, if you can call it that, of the Alias Drive Picotel Inn and Suites, atop a rubberized, waterproof bed-pad. The room is approximately the size of a remarkably spacious coffin; there is room to lay down here and, well, not much else. The calm voice which has been questioning me about my personal life is coming from the room's de facto television set, really a sealed liquid crystal panel at the far end of the room, at the coffin's footboard. I must have fallen asleep with it on.
Quickly, I take inventory of myself. Ten toes, check. Nine fingers, check. One ghastly mechanized cybernetic pinky finger, check. Chest and stomach, fully intact. Miniature baby blood-soaked lemurs, notably absent. Good. Just a dream. The real dinner, while very similar to my nightmare in many of its unpleasant aspects, had at least lacked a part at the end where a wild lemur clawed its way out of my chest. That would have been a real downer.
I roll over on my side, breathing heavily, trying to shut out the memory of that dream, and then I remember that what was playing on the television sounded actually kind of interesting. I prop myself up on my elbows and try to catch the last scraps of the ad, which now shows the image of a happy couple on a balcony or something at night. Currently, they are looking up at a dramatically-displayed full moon, laughing in a carefree manner.
"...and are rare," says the calm voice. "Anthropex. Do it today. And never waste another moonlit night satiating the bloodlust of the ravening beast within you."
The ad fades, and there is a moment of blackness. "And now," says the station announcer, as the channel ID flashes back onto the screen, "back to 'Doctor Zin, Medicine Villai'--"
I flick the television's power to 'off' with my toe and lie there in the darkness for some time.
'Anthropex'? Drugs to treat lycanthropy? I roll the idea over and over in my mind as the lingering horrors of my dream begin, slowly, to dissipate. Of _course_ there'd be such a thing in this universe. Every other stupid-ass mystical fantasy frou-frou bullshit thing anyone's ever thought of has been realized and totally institutionalized by this world. Of _course_ they'd treat lycanthropy like any normal disease. Why didn't Feeb tell me about this?
Answer? Who knows, but probably a variant on the theme of, "well, she's a scatterbrained psychotic genius scientist." Pick a reason.
I sigh, in the darkness. It wouldn't _really_ make things better. Not in a universe where even the ducks try and eat you alive. But it would be one less thing to worry about.
Good. Decided, then. I make a mental note to ask my doctor about Anthropex. Well, to ask Corporal Zemler, at least. She's a security company medic -- that's kind of like a doctor, right? She could probably at least point me in the right direction.
I sigh again, then touch the light panel above my head and start preparing for a bath. According to the instruction card I fervently studied before going to sleep, this is apparently accomplished by stowing all your stuff in a large watertight compartment at the end of the room and then flooding the entire rest of the room half-full with warm water. I distrust this system passionately, but I am tense, exhausted, covered in cold sweat from my horrible nightmare and I smell bad from an entire day spent mucking about the tropics undermining dictatorships. I don't have much more than my clothes and my faithful blade Hitty to stow anyway.
So. Clothes off, stowed. Pillow, stowed. Faithful weapon, stowed.
And there I am, naked, in the bare oblong of a tiny, tiny hotel room, surrounded by lights and numbers and helpful bits of information, all safely sealed behind glass.
The friendly teal digital numbers on the clock set into the opposite wall flick over from 11:59 to 12:00. Wednesday. At last.
I begin filling my hotel room with hot water.
All right, I say to myself as the steam rises about me and I settle back onto the soft rubber pad of my bed. All right, Wednesday. Bring it on.