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Mundementia One: The Book of Complication
part three
by J.(Channing)Wells


"So I kicked open the storage compartment," I say. "Didn't stop the water from rising, of course, but in doing so I got a few extra cubic feet of breathable air."

"Hm," says Corporal Zemler, tapping her pen on her clipboard.

"Course, my pillow got soaked," I continue. "And you'll notice my sweatshirt is still damp." I sigh, yawn, and lean my head against the steel cabinet that forms one wall of our extremely impromptu examination area.

We are currently located in an out-of-the-way corner of the Hoderund Ohio Arms Authority Outlet Store. Everything is clean and white, everything from the polished tile floors to the big halogen lamps suspended from the high gymnasium ceiling. The Ohio Arms Authority is -- apparently -- the militant wing of the Ohio Arts company, the people who, same as in my old ordinary world, make those little drawy toys with the two knobs on them that you can never actually draw anything with. Presumably there is some logical connection here that I'm just not seeing. Anyway, per Feeb, there are a lot of high-energy weapon labs and ordnance plants located all across Ohio that are wholly owned by Ohio Arms. All in all, it sounds like a pretty badass state.

Feeb, Buddy, Luke, Felix and the rest of Humility Company are out on the main floor gathering equipment, sighting in weapons, testing armor and playing Bingo. Faint noises appropriate to each pastime (including "*FZAAAP!*", "Wheeooo!" and "Gee Forty-Seven!") occasionally float from the area of the range over to this spot here, where I am talking to Zemler and attempting to whack my conscious mind back into operating condition by using large quantities of complimentary coffee; they give it to you free at the door. Also, popcorn.

"So anyway," I say, timing my words between slurps of hard black liquid. It is the first welcome stimulus I have enjoyed in many hours. "Even though I had bought myself a little time, I still couldn't figure out a way to shut the water off, and the lock on my room door was still insisting that, since I had asked for a 'Do Not Disturb' order, it would under no circumstances permit my solitude to be interfered with in any way whatsoever."

"Yeah," says Zemler. "You have to watch out for that sort of thing."

"I tried reasoning with it," I say. "You know, claiming that I wasn't getting much in the way of restful sleep anyway, what with my life being in danger from the ever-rising water and all."


"It invited me to fill out a comment card," I say, rubbing my temples. "So while this was all going on, the water found a small packet of super-fast-growing fungal spores that the previous occupant had mistakenly left behind in the compartment. As soon as my bathwater permeated the packet, the spores grew and multiplied to five hundred million times their original size, further forcing out the breathable air and making it very difficult for me to move."

I gesture in an offhand fashion. "Additionally," I continue, "these spores were of a mutant strain whose primary function happened to be the production of glass- and petroleum polymer-eating resins, so almost immediately they started dissolving the access panels, exposing a number of high-voltage wires to the water-rich environment."

"Huh," says Zemler. "I'm sorry to interrupt; you can keep talking, but do you mind if I take another Paxil?"

"Go right ahead," I say. It is Zemler's third so far today.

"Thanks," she says, delving into the pocket of her uniform trousers. "Sorry, just a smidgen of social anxiety this morning."

"No problem," I say, taking a moment to reassure myself that Zemler probably knows what she's doing, being as she is a doctor and all. "Anyway. Sensing damage to the infrastructure of my room, the hotel computers dispatched a host of nanotechnological service droids to my location. But what they didn't know was that this particular nanobot swarm had gone 'rogue', apparently having gotten the idea from reading Michael Crichton novels. Also, on the sly, the nanoswarm had been working out ways to assimilate biomatter into itself. So once it encountered the polymer-eating fungus it joined forces with it, fusing its whole mass into a twisted amorphous bionanite entity with all the thinking power of its nanobot control swarm and all the brute vegetable strength of its fungal component. And then, it ate through the door, and spilled out into the lobby in an attempt to unleash itself upon the world at large, and that's when, as you well know, Private Fodder gave it hell with the incendiary gun, accidentally burning my shoes in the process."

"Wow," says Zemler. "You did have a rough night."

"Plus," I continue, "I didn't realize that the bottles of soda in the mini-fridge weren't complimentary and included along with the room. _Three bucks_ they charged me!" I slump back in my chair. "It's totally not fair," I conclude.

"So," says Zemler, clicking open her pen again. "You said something about... nightmares?"

"Yeah," I say, rubbing my temples again. "Lemurs... um... ripping out of my body. I think it's a lycanthropy thing."

"Well," says Zemler, "you could be right. Beast Emergent dreams are indeed something we commonly see with therianthropes like yourself, Mister Glass."

"So my point," I say. "Before everything went to hell last night, I saw an ad for something called 'Anthropex'. I need some."

Zemler looks at me queerly. "You're a werecreature and you're not already on Anthropex?"

"Recent infection," I explain. "Sunday night." Ye gods. A lifetime ago.

"Well!" says Zemler. "No time to lose, then!" She fishes around in her bag for a while. "Just so happens I have some sample packets of Anthropex here in my bag."

"...convenient," I say, frowning. "Suspiciously so."

"Eh, not really," says Zemler. "A few months back we had a lance-corporal with an absolutely screaming case of therianthropy. He picked it up while we were cleaning werewolves out of the Pioneer Shopping Plaza out on Designator Boulevard. Before we got him on Anthropex he was totally useless three or four nights out of the month." She smiles. "Cute little guy, though. Teeny little ears. Used to love his exercise wheel. So if you don't mind me asking, what... er... are you? A lemur, then?"

"I don't know," I say. "I haven't had it happen yet."

"Huh," says Zemler. "And you're not curious?"

"No," I say, darkly. "All's I know is whatever it is is just ravenous for macaroni and cheese, and that suggests something so heartbreakingly stupid that I don't even want to know about it. And with luck, this Anthropex stuff will make that a possibility. So how much do you got there?"

Zemler peers into her bag. "Given normal usage," she says, "which is to say, one capsule under the tongue immediately upon symptom onset, looks like... um... seventy-two years' worth?" She looks up at me, sternly. "After that, though, Mister Glass, you're really going to need to get a prescription for it."

"Sounds like we can cross that bridge when we come to it," I say, accepting several handfuls of little card-mounted capsules and stuffing them into my own bag, which Feeb had managed to scare up from someplace. "They really just hand this stuff out for free?"

"Sure!" says Zemler. "Attend enough pharmacology conferences, there's no limit to the amount of freebies you can haul home. Thanks to all my complimentary pharm-company sample packs, I'm currently on seventy-six different prescription-strength medications _right now_, and I feel GREAT!!!"

"Uh huh," I say, edging my chair an inch or two away. I don't normally make a habit of estimating how likely it is that the people I'm interacting with on a day-to-day basis are going to suddenly and without warning explode, but if I did, I think Zemler would have just earned a couple points.

"I just love sample packs," continues Zemler. "I know some doctors out there are sold on the whole idea of 'disease negotiation', but my first response, as a doctor, to any problem I encounter is to chuck lots and lots of medication at it. And these medication samples make it ludicrously easy to do just that!"

"Right," I say, sliding my chair back a few more inches. "I think maybe I'd better--"

"You sure there's nothing else I can help you with?" she asks, with a faint manic gleam in her eye.

And I am faced with a dilemma. I'm not really interested in feeding any further into Corporal Zemler's apparent pharmacology fetish, but... much as I might try and deny it... there is something seriously weighing on my mind, here.

Maybe I could at least talk about it with her?

I pause. Consider.

Then I settle back into my chair. "Yeah," I say, and even as I start to talk about it I begin to get that feeling of microscopic panic-sweat beads forming on the back of my neck. "It has to do with... Buddy."

"That young woman you're traveling with?" says Zemler. "Tall? Blonde? Wears a jumpsuit? Doesn't say much?"

"That's the one," I say. I swallow hard, then take another swig of coffee. "Well. Against all conceivable, conscious will I can possibly bring to the table on this one, I find myself... um... attracted to her."

"Say no more," says Zemler, diving back into her bag. "Got just the--"

"*NO!*" I exclaim, a touch too loudly.

Zemler stops and looks up at me. I swallow again. "For reasons I don't really want to go into right now," I say, "I really would like _not_ to be attracted to her."

Zemler looks at me, tapping her pen against her lips for a moment. "Let me see if I'm hearing you right," she says. "You two share... a history, yes? Emotional baggage?"

"You might call it that," I say, trying to down another swig of coffee. For some reason, this whole situation with Buddy is more disturbing than anything that has yet transpired this week. Save, perhaps, the thing with the T-Rex. And the thing with the rats. And maybe the part where they lavaged my colon.

"And you'd like not to have to deal with your feelings about her any more?"

"Yes," I say.

"All right," she says. "Despite the fact that I've taken only a cursory medical history from you that undoubtedly contains many critical gaps, I think I can help." Out of her bag she hauls a tiny little palmtop computer and an ominous silver ampoule. From the ampoule she removes a large, transparent-looking red pill, of the gel-cap variety, which she actually proceeds to plug directly into the USB port of her computer.

"Latest thing," says Zemler, to my incredulous gaze. "Programmable medications. Here in the corps, we use them for selective psychiatric surgery. Precision brain-wipes."

"Uh huh," I say, blinking. I try to back my chair up again but I run into a cabinet.

"It's just that, as professional mall security guards, we're exposed to so _many_ mind-numbingly horrible sights as part of our normal job duties. The constant intense psychological deprogramming was really wearing on us. So we got ourselves this here baby."

"What... does it do?"

"Well, in layman's terms," says Zemler, "it finds problematic thoughts and memories you have running through your head and kicks the ever-loving shit out of them until they either die or pass out."

"Okay," I say, "I am _so_ not interested in that."

"If you wish," says Zemler, clearly disappointed. "But I assure you, it's completely safe. PFC Angst has had his brain wiped thirty-seven times this month alone."

"No," I say, getting up from my chair. "No way. No way in hell am I going to--"

"Rawr," comes a dulcet voice from behind me. I turn.

...and the world goes into slow-motion.

She is there. Close enough to touch. A vision in skin-hugging sparkling black cloth. Perfect white skin. Deep-set eyes of warm oceanic blue. Blonde hair, hovering on the near edge of platinum and floating on the zephyrs stirred up by the Arms Authority's air handlers. She is, even in this harsh and unflattering light, the single most beautiful specimen of female humanity I have ever seen. E'en legendary Helen had nothing on this lithe, statuesque peri I now see before me.

She is Buddy, the undead construct velociraptor.

My poor benighted brain throws a rod and ceases, momentarily, to function.

"Gaaaaa..." I say.

"Oh, that's very nice," says Zemler, gently pushing me to one side with her pen, a move to which I offer little resistance. "That's ballistic carbonweave, isn't it?"

"Rawr," agrees Buddy, admiring the cloth that clings to her long, supple arm. "Rawr," she adds.

"Armorgel cuirassware to boot?" says Zemler. "My, your Mister de Trephane _is_ being good to us today."

"Rawr!" nods Buddy. "Rawr, rawr, rawr. Rawr?"

"Yes, I think we're nearly done here. I'll be down for my fitting shortly. Charles, are we almost ready to go?"


"Charles?" prompts Zemler.

"GAAAAA!" I exclaim.

Zemler nods to Buddy. "Just give us a few more minutes," she says.

"Rawr!" says Buddy, cheerfully, and vanishes again between the shelves.

"Quite a girl," says Zemler, looking after her. "I'm sorry things didn't work out for you."

"Gaaaaa," I say.

Zemler smiles gently at me. "So, are you ready for that pill?"

I squeeze my eyes shut, hard, and spend a moment rebooting the language sectors of my brain.

"Okay," I say, at last. "Okay. But we're not talking a total mind-wipe here, right? Just that one piece. Right?"

"Absolutely," says Zemler in an assuring tone, her fingers dancing across the keys of her tiny little computer. "This stuff is amazingly precise. One little pill, troubles begone. Total fresh start." A few more keyclicks. "There," she says unplugging the pill from the computer.

"Great," I say. I snatch it out of her hands almost as soon as she offers it to me, toss it back, and chase it with the dregs of my coffee. "Because the whole 'being turned on by Buddy' thing was getting really old really quick."

"Well," she says, "that's not _exactly_ what I programmed it to do."

I blink at her. "Wait. What did you--"

"Well... you said... you two had a history. Baggage."

"No," I say, my voice deadly calm, "I told you I didn't want to be attracted to her any more."

"Well, yes," says Zemler, "but then you went on to agree with me that--"

"Good _cripes_, Zemler, what did you do to me?!?" I shout, even as wraiths of dizziness begin insinuating themselves into my brain. There comes a noise in my head, and it swiftly builds to a roar.

"Just... giving you a fresh start," she says, over the pounding in my head. "Which is to say, er, getting... rid of all your memories of her?"

"YOU'RE INSANE!!!" I cry.

"Huh," says Zemler, biting her lip. "It's possible. People have accused me of that before, at least, but personally, I think it's just all the funny drug interactions I've got going on."

With one last bang, the noise in my head clears. All I am capable of doing right now is staring, so I do.

"But look on the bright side," she continues. "At least you won't have any anxiety about _her_ anymore!"

I shake my head. "Sorry?" I say. "'Her'?"

Zemler smiles at me. "About _Buddy_," she says.

"Okay, I have no idea what you're talking about. Who's... 'Buddy'?"

"Oh," she says, "someone you'll be meeting shortly."

"Huh," I say. "Weird name for a girl. 'Buddy'?"

"Mm hm," says Zemler, still smiling. Corporal Zemler really sort of creeps me out for... some... reason I, erm, can't... quite... remember right now.

I shake my head again. "Well, whatever," I say. At this point, girls named "Buddy" are registering pretty low on my personal weirdometer, comparatively speaking.

"So are we done?" says Zemler.

"Sure," I say, a note of unplaceable uncertainty in my voice. "Thanks, Corporal. I think that covers it." I shoulder my bag full of Anthropex -- the main reason... the _only_ reason I came to see Zemler in the first place -- and rise from my chair. "All right," I say. "Let's go find the others and get this show on the road."

I square my jaw in what I hope is a dramatic fashion. "I've got a paper to do yet today," I say.

* * *

Let us linger for a moment in an establishing shot of the Sycamore Arcology as it appears from without. Note its greyness, the way it nearly blends into the troubled and steel-colored sky of this Hoderund morning. Note its sprawling construction pattern: eight curving, multi-level rays emanating from a squat, glass-domed hub tower, four of which terminate at large and blocklike anchor stores, the whole affair vaguely resembling an octopus with suitcases. Note the sophisticated communications equipment clustered in rough blobs on its roof. Note its cheerily elegant illuminated signs. Note its ample aboveground parking, a detail which doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense on account of its potential patrons having jobs and homes on-site.

Note the crows. Note the distant thunder of October storms.

Note the air of patent dread.

And then, last but certainly not least, note what Charles, Phoebe, and the rest of their entourage of assorted business executives, security guards, transmogrified dinosaurs and lemurs do not, even as they board the maintenance elevator that will bring them deep into the bowels of the arcology: note the flash of a makeshift aldis lamp from the third-storey gas exhausts of the northwest reach.

Note its pattern. Note the words it spells.

For those of you now observing without the benefit of Morse training, we shall translate:

S T A Y   A W A Y

* * *

We are on a black elevator, descending.

It is a large elevator, big enough to accommodate the whole of our party plus two whole vehicles: our armored car and a large, sleek, vanlike thing used by Humility Company as a sort of mobile command center. All that and walking-around room to spare. It almost ferrylike. The air about us is filled with the noise of powerful hydraulics as we fall, gently, further and further into the complex depths.

Its slowness is maddening. I have no desire to spend all day here.

I glance at my watch, glance at it again, then make my way over to Felix, who is sitting on a folding chair in the shadow of the mobile command center, busily tapping out something on a laptop computer. He shuts it, a little too quickly, as I approach.

"Heyzya, Charlie," says Felix. "What's goin' down?"

"Us," I say, "but, see, you can hardly tell, is the problem. Listen, Felix, I like elevators as much as the next guy. Probably more. And, if I didn't have _rather important things going on today_, I would blissfully ride up and down in your elevator all day."

Felix smiles, in a crookedly apologetic way. "Charlie, I'm sorry. All the main doors were offline and, well, the service elevator, she doesn't go any faster than this."

"I figured," I say. "But just so's you know, I have a space-distorting prototype drive system mounted on that armored car right over there." I gesture, languidly. "We could speed things along a little here if you let me fire that baby up. Heck," I continue, "we could probably be in and out in the time it'd take for this elevator to reach the garage level in the first place."

"Hm," says Felix. "Let me guess. One of those new Banality drives? Puts the Universe to sleep using bad pop music or something?"

"Yes..." I say, guardedly.

"Thought so," says Felix. "Not gonna work. Sorry, Charlie."

"You don't know that," I say.

"Oh, but I do," counters Felix. "in order to preserve the purity of this installation's financial seclusion, we've sealed it against virtually all forms of physical and metaphysical penetration. Take your fancy new drive system. We knew things like this were going to be coming down the pipe. That's why we made certain that all the interior and exterior walls of this place were constructed with a double-walled titanium core filled with thousands and thousands of Alan Moore graphic novels, which the Universe seems to find pretty interesting."

Felix tents his fingers in front of him and leans back in his chair. "Yep," he continues. "No matter how much Captain and Tennille you throw at the Universe in an attempt to bore it into substate, the moment you hit those comic books, bam." He closes his palms together. "Universe perks right up."

"So the Universe is, what, a big comic book geek?" I say, unable to hide my look of vague distaste.

"Apparently," says Felix. "Anyway, that's just one of our layers of protection. We've got dozens. Blast shielding. Radiation shielding. Electronic locks. Physical locks. Biological microfilters. Computer firewalls. Actual firewalls. Farraday cages. Quantum-state atomic grounding plates. Heck, we even went so far as to scribe the structural panels with millions and millions of microscopic laser-cut holy and unholy symbols to foil casual intervention by passing lesser deities."

"Wait," I say. "The walls of this place are... deity-shielded?"

"Yup," says Felix. "Fully tested against spooks, spectres, horlas, avatars and a hundred and forty-four thousand different types of orison, curse, hex and miracle. Naturally, we can't do anything about the hypothetical intervention of the MHG, but for anyone below Him, y'know, the little guys, we're totally hermetic."

"Just a second," I say. "I have to talk to Feeb about something."

I wend my way across the elevator to where Feeb stands, conversing with Private Fodder over a small, neat pile of ordnance. I wipe a tiny, inexplicable smudge of jealousy off the Formica countertop of my soul and approach.

"Oh, and look here!" Feeb is saying. "They put warning labels on _everything_ nowadays! Listen to this. 'Napalm. Do not drink'." Feeb shakes her head. "Why do the people in charge constantly insist on denying us the simple pleasures of life?"

"Well, it's like they say, Miss Phoebe," says Howie. "'All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or explosively flammable.'"

"Ha ha!" says Feeb. "So true!"

"I believe that was Alexander Woolcott," I say, striding up, my words carrying an edge to them that I didn't quite expect. "If you ignore the, I assume deliberate, misquoting."

Howie looks at me, puzzled.

"American author and literary critic," I say. "1887-1943. Not 'they'."

"Oh, it's you," says Feeb. "Private Fodder and I are busy bonding on a deep, personal and intimate level. So what the Newcastle Brown Ale do you want?"

"I promise I'll let you two get back to your little chit-chat soon," I say, the pH value of my voice dropping slightly. "I just came over here to let you know that our affable host Mister de Trephane has informed me that this building is totally godshielded."

Feeb perks. "Really?"

I nod. "So if you've still got your own shielding device going, you can probably kill it now."

"Crap, this is great news!" says Feeb, rummaging through her bag. "Do you realize what this means, Charles? If we can secure this facility and get the primary data loop rebooted, we could actually hold out here against the forces of Ashraak!"

"The thought had crossed my mind," I say.

"And since we, like, own the place, I bet they'd even give you an employee discount at the food court!" She emerges from her bag with the Plot Device. "Here we go," she says. "Yeah, this baby is running a little hot. It's a shame I have to shut it off before getting to meet any Mandarin Chinese people. I had so wanted to study its output when exposed to a Oriental-type foreign language stimulus."

"I know Mandarin Chinese!" volunteers Howie. "Picked it up in vo-tech school! I just knew it'd come in handy some day."

"Aren't you great?" squeals Feeb. "Charles, isn't 'Cannon' here just the best person you ever met?"

"Yeah," I say, darkly, suddenly finding myself wishing that something awful would happen to Corporal Fodder someday.

"Shucks," says Howie.

"Okay," says Feeb, finishing a few brief tweaks to the Plot Device and staring intently at its tiny readout screen. "Cuss in Chinese for me, would you, 'Cannon'?"

"Tsingtao," says Howie.

Feeb studies the screen for a moment. "Hm," she says. "Interesting. Okay, we can shut 'er down now." She blips a few dip switches with a tiny screwdriver, and suddenly, even above the whirring hydraulics of the elevator, I can distinctly hear the absence of a noise that I hadn't realized was there in the first place. It's a little confusing.

"So that's it?" I say, rubbing the inside of my ear with a pinkie, not the grotesque cybernetic one, the other one.

"Yup," says Feeb. "I would like to test out Mister de Trephane's rather bold claim, however."

"I'm not going to be your guinea pig again," I say.

"Oh, that's all right, we don't need you."

"You don't?" I say, feeling all crestfallen.

"Nope!" says Feeb. "We're going to try invoking Ashraak's Thersitical Pentad using an expendable third party." She fishes around in her bag again for a moment and comes up with a tiny palm-sized gold robot that looks a bit like a disc with a couple of grabby pincers attached. "Namely, this little fellow here," she says, punching a little button on top of the robot and causing choice bits of it to light up green. "Charles, I'd like you to meet Fuckbot!"

"Fuck!" says Fuckbot, gleefully.

"Fuckbot is actually the Fuckbot _Three Thousand_," says Feeb, in her best schoolmarm tone. "But for simplicity's sake, we will simply call him 'Fuckbot'."

"Fuck!" says Fuckbot.

"Now Fuckbot's main function, as you can probably tell, is cussin'," says Feeb. "But we've also given him little wheels so that he can achieve safe distance before he reaches five imprecations in a row."

"He's at two already," I say, a little anxiously.

"Well, then, no time to lose!" Feeb sets the little green-and-gold robot on the ground, and it immediately takes off in a straight line for a far corner of the elevator.

"Fuck!" it says, whirring away across the elevator floor. "Fuck! Fuck!"

I catch my breath.

"Fuck!" it continues, its progress unmolested. "Fuck!"

"Well, there we have it," says Feeb. "It looks as though we're safe."

"Fuck!" says the distant Fuckbot, which then proceeds to run smack into the wall. "Ow, FUCK!" it says.

"A miracle," crows Feeb, "of modern technology!"

"It's just great, Feeb," I say.

"Fuck!" remarks Fuckbot, painedly rubbing at its face with one of its pincers and rolling back over in our direction.

"I mean, really good use of your time, there," I continue.

"Oh, shut up, Charles," says Feeb. "I'd like to see _you_ make a Fuckbot 3000."

"I'll be sure to get right on that," I say. "After all, I was just this morning thinking about how we really need more little entities running around here with limited communication skills."

Feeb's face darkens. "I would remind you," she says, "that I was having a very nice conversation over here before you showed up."

"Oh, yeah! Your _conversation_! By all means, don't let me stop the two of you from doing whatever goddamn chitty-chatty thing you were doing before I showed up with my _extremely useful and pertinent information_."

"Whoa, hey," says Corporal Fodder, laughing nervously. "Charles, is there something you're wanting to share with us?"

"Oh! No!" I say, turning over my entire mien to sarcasm except for that one little disquieted part which is watching Fuckbot clamber up Feeb's lab coat back up to her lap. "No, I can't imagine why I could _possibly_ want to be included in your little conversation. In fact, I think I'm going to go have a deep and meaningful conversation _all by myself!_"

"I'm, er, not sure that's technically possible," volunteers Howie.

"WELL, FINE!" I say, bailing hard. "I'll just go strike up a conversation with that hot blonde girl I've seen walking around!"

Feeb and Howie look at each other, puzzledly.

"Charles," attempts Feeb at last, "you're not talking about Buddy, are you?"

"Yeah! That's what Zemler said her name was. Buddy! I'm going to go talk to _her_ for a while!"

Feeb blinks, pulling out her old 'I'm so freaking smart I'm just not comprehending your particular level of idiocy' look. "Er..." she says. "Charles, are--"

"Yeah!" I say, sneeringly. "I'm just fine! I'm going to walk over here behind the armored car now! You two just carry on AS THOUGH I DON'T EXIST!"

And I leave to do just that.

"Fuck," mutters Fuckbot nastily at me as I go.

The moment I'm out of their sight, I slump against the front grille panel of the car, place my hands over my eyes and spend a couple minutes just breathing. Smooth, Charlie. Well done. Really slick.

My breathing accomplished, then, I strike off across the elevator. The small, dark part of me that refuses to be beaten notes that two can play at Feeb's little game. It also notes that there's more than one way to skin a cat and that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. The small, dark part of me that refuses to be beaten also is the part of me that enjoys trite, well-worn aphorisms.

In no time at all I come across Corporal Zemler and PFC Angst, who are psyching up, or rather, down.

"We're all going to die," says Zemler, grinning. "We're totally going to fail, lose our shirts, fuck ourselves up beyond all recognition." She stabs a finger at Angst. "I'm gonna die first," she says.

"Fuck that, Zemler!" says Angst, taking a drag on his cigarette. "You _know_ if there's any dying gonna go on it's me who's gonna have a piece of that action. I'm croaking first, man, and -- guess what."


Angst takes another slow drag. "I'm gonna die _and_ jeopardize the success of the mission."

"No the fuck way!"

"I swear it, man," says Angst. "It'll be me there and while I'm dying I'm gonna, like, fuck some important shit up while I'm flailing around in my death throes."

"Yeah, whatever, guy," says Zemler, grinning.

"Mark my words, Zemler. Mark my fuckin' words." Angst glances over at me. "Oh, hey, it's the civ," he says.

"Hello, Mister Glass," says Zemler, nudging her grin effortlessly back into a professional smile.

"Hey, check this shit out, Glass," says Angst, gesturing at a free-standing rack. "Armorgel pads. We already got your lady friend fitted, and we got a suit for you, too, if you want it. Ain't nothing getting through this shit."

Zemler spares Angst a warning glance, her demeanor suddenly dead-serious.

"Er, right," says Angst, glancing back at her. "'Course, it _is_ gonna fail us at the worst possible instant and totally lead to our demise."

Zemler relaxes.

"But in the meantime, this stuff _rules_," he finishes.

"It doesn't look very substantial," I say, wandering over and fingering the material, which looks something like a snazzy, souped-up high-tech baseball catcher's outfit. It flexes in a supple, distressing fashion that I am almost certain that 'armor' should not.

"Doesn't look it," says Angst. "But the second this shit gets hit with any kind of fast-moving ballistic force whatsoever it stiffens up like my Uncle Ern on Saturday night. Sheds bullets better than a manhole-cover sandwich."

"Right," I say, quietly but desperately hoping that PFC Angst's uncle Ern suffers from recurrent fibromyalgia or something.

"Looky," says Angst. He flicks the vambrace of the armorgel pad with his index finger. "OW!"

"Fuck!" comes the delighted voice of Fuckbot from the other side of the elevator.

"Yeah, what he said," says Angst, sucking on his finger.

"I'm sure it's great, guys," I say. "I think I'll pass. Felix assures me that my presence here is purely procedural, and if you folks are going to be trading shots, or rocks, or whatever, with the disgruntled shoppers here you're going to find me over there sitting in the command center until it's all over. I am merely here," I state, firmly, "to restart the computers. And then, I _need_ to get going on my homework."

"If you say so, Charles," says Zemler. "But don't you at least want a gun or something? Just in case? We've got plenty."

"Yeah, guy," Angst chimes in. "It's not a squeeze. Your little fuzzy friend totally loaded himself down back at the Outlet. Even picked up some kind of... shit, I dunno. Plasma sword?"

"Plasma sword," nods Zemler. "Only one they had in stock. I didn't even know they made things like that. I've never seen anything like it, at least."

"Fuck if I didn't shock the hell out of myself just trying to pick the goddamn thing up," says Angst. "But the little fuzzy guy seems to handle it all right."

Angst gestures off to the right with his chin, and I turn and look.

Luke stands in the last unaccounted corner of the freight elevator, breathing calmly and evenly. An armorgel cuirass is draped loosely across his narrow shoulders and his eyes are masked by a heavy set of target-acquisition goggles. He holds, in one black paw, a brushed metal cylinder tipped on each end with a triad of wire claws.

"Check this shit out," whispers PFC Angst, leaning in over my shoulder.

There is a noise like a snapshot of an iron waterfall, and in an instant, Luke's little device erupts into a sizzling, white-hot bar of energy that sheds a corona of blue in its wake. Calmly, he passes it from paw to paw, scribing an intricate, slow and looping pattern into the air, until it rests, stock-still and dead-level, in a horizontal line in front of him.

He breathes, once.

Then, he erupts into a fountain of light.

My eye cannot follow it, nor can my brain fully process it. It is, indeed, hard to put into words, but as I am a budding professional in this field, I will give it a shot. In one brief moment, my weird little prosimian roommate is transformed into a one-man dervish ballet wearing a shell of levin-light. His movements are disciplined, mathematical and precise, yet filled with crisp, wild abandon; an enduring shower of sparks caught, like so many fireflies, in an ice-wrought jar. He spins, turns, and occasionally pulls a full standing flip, tail curling elegantly behind him as he flies, his brilliant blade darting evenly and symmetrically in swoops and thrusts and bright slashes into the open space surrounding him.

It lasts for thirty seconds but contains enough motion to satisfy a man for his entire life.

And then, it is over. For a moment he stands, poised, his blade before him, as perfectly vertical now as it was once horizontal.

Then, with a quick 'bink!' noise, it vanishes. Luke bows, carefully clips the cylinder to one of the several bandoliers he wears beneath the cuirass, then ambles off, presumably to find a cupcake or something.

"Beautiful," mutters Zemler, still staring into the space that Luke has now vacated.

"Yeah," says Angst. "But, like, inevitably fruitless and unhelpful, right?"

"Sure, sure," replies Zemler, absently.

"What was that?" I say, my brain still dancing. "Some kind of 'Lemur Kata'?"


"See, it's funny," I prompt. "Because, see, a 'Kata' is a defined sequence of martial art maneuvers that--"

"Mm hm," says Zemler.

"And, you know, the ring-tailed lemur's taxonomic classification is 'Lemur _Catta_', see, and--"

"Yes, yes," says Zemler.

"Right," I say. "Just making sure you--"

"I got it, I got it," she says. Then, suddenly, she squeezes her eyes shut. "Whoa," she says. "Motion sickness. Dramamine time." Zemler begins rooting through her bag again, leaving me standing there in a distinctly awkward fashion with only PFC Angst's immediate company.

"Way over my head, guy," says Angst, sticking his cigarette back on his lip and turning to fuss with the body armor.

Damnit, I'm sick of this. I'm tired of not contributing anything of value. If Felix didn't specifically need me to restart his little -- my little? -- experimental shopping mall, I wouldn't have any use here at all. Luke is apparently a hand-to-hand combat genius in addition to his facility with ranged weapons. Feeb can assemble little independently-functioning robots in the better part of a couple _hours_. Howie has... well, he has Feeb's attention, that's one thing he's got. Also looks, affability, charisma and, I have noticed, really nice socks. Even Zemler, who really probably ought to cut down on the medications a little, has connections and skills that would make her a welcome addition to any special operation I could name.

And me? I'm a fucking cyborg werething angelic hero of prophecy, and the best I have to offer this mission is the mysterious ability to hear when people are spelling something wrong and a certain penchant for stupid esoteric puns. These are the sorts of talents that an English major brings to the table. And they're useless. _I'm_ useless. Hell, I couldn't even properly destroy an artifact of evil yesterday. I friggin' needed Luke to practically do it for me. My fearsome cybernetic implant is a single digit on my left hand, and I wield a sword made out of used film-projector parts. And aren't I supposed to have divine powers or something? What's up with that?

No, let's face it. I'm pretty much useless. A hero in name only.

I sigh, inwardly. Maybe that Buddy girl will, y'know, actually want to have some kind of actual conversation with me. That'd at least be something positive gone on today.

"So anyway," I say, "I didn't really come over here to chit-chat with you about armor and stuff. What I wanted to ask you two was whether or not you've seen Private Buddy around here anywhere."

Angst looks up at me; Zemler, who is still hunting for her meds, does not. "'Private' Buddy?" says Angst.

"Yeah. Have you seen her?"

"Dude," says Angst, "um, she's in the M.C.C. with Major Oveur-Hall and the Cardinal, but unless there's been some kinda super-fast recruiting drive around here, she's not a private."

"...Corporal?" I attempt, not fully understanding what Angst is getting at.

"Guy," says Angst, "she's a civ. She came with you guys."

I blink at him.

"Really?" I say, trying to figure this out.

Angst chuckles at me. "Yeah," he said. "Listen, dude, maybe you should take some time and catch a catnap or something. You're looking kinda--"

"I'm fine," I say, darkly. "Anyway, thanks for the 411. I'm outta here. Good luck with your... armor... stuff."

"Thanks," says Angst. "Won't help, though!" he adds, calling out to me as I go. "We're totally doomed!"

Whatever, I think to myself. Crazy, crazy people. Sweeping together the few remaining crumbs of my self-esteem, I approach the door of the command center, looking forward to a chance to talk to this mysterious -- and undeniably hot -- 'Buddy' woman. Maybe something here will go right.


We continue to fall.

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