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


Sycamore Arcology; the subterranean service garage. Cold, blue and empty. Wraiths of mist and fog twist and undulate aimlessly in the subtle airflow from unseen circulation vents. It would not be quite appropriate to call it a dead place, as it has never yet lived; everything here is new and unused, often still bearing a factory finish. Not a single grease spot mars the hard, wide concrete. It is fresh, open, and wholly devoid of life. Call it stillborn if you must.

Let the camera flit briefly across tools scattered here and anon. A welder. A concrete saw. They are few and far between, where they are present at all, and that this huge space, with ceilings extending up beyond the limits of vision, is feebly populated with these few small attempts at matter only makes the sense of vacuity here all the more profound. If it is a tomb -- the ambiance is certainly right, after all -- then we must concede that it is a tomb suitable for an awful awful lot of normal people-sized people or perhaps some really tremendously huge thing that could really use the space. If a skyscraper died, for instance, you could probably bury it here, and you wouldn't even have to lay it down to do it.

Two things and two things only disturb the whole "tomb" theme. The first is the steady whine of hydraulic machinery from behind the great and dust-covered service-elevator doors, far away along the outer wall. It began quietly many minutes ago, and has been steadily increasing in volume as its car nears the garage level.

The second would be far easier to miss, were we not focusing our mind's eye specifically on it so as to make it easy on you. High above floor level, bolted in a nonsenseless fashion to one of the Yggdrasilesque support pillars, is a single black security camera, panning slowly and mutely from side to side. Near its lens, a tiny red active-light glows; it is the only evidence of that color to be seen anywhere in this chamber.

The whine from the elevator shaft reaches its loudest point and then abruptly dies off with an echoing thud as the elevator settles into its berth at the bottom of the shaft.

Quietly and without undue fuss, the camera lifts itself out of its scan routine and pivots to face the elevator doors. Once in place, its light flicks out; but if one were to be standing right nearby, one could still hear its optics whirring. So it's still transmitting.

It merely appears that it's attempting to be sneaky about it.

A moment of quiet, as the echoes created from that final thud fade off into the distance. Then, there is a hiss and a rumble, and the elevator doors part along the horizontal, rising and falling into the ceiling and floor. Respectively, of course. Duh.

The open doors reveal a curtain of shimmering electric blue, crisper and more vibrant than the dull hues found elsewhere in the garage. A trio of sharp lights stab out from it into the misty gloom ahead, playing crazily upon the vapors.

And then, a figure steps through the curtain. He is dressed in sparkling black cloth, reinforced at the torso and at all pivotal points with heavy ribbed padding. A black glassy faceplate completes the ensemble. There is the noise of breath, machine-flavored.

The camera watches impassively as a second figure, then a third, appear, dressed similarly. The second -- the tall one -- bears a heavy begimbaled man-portable assault cannon, anchored to a load-bearing harness at his hip. The third, shorter one, bears a weighty handgun, simple yet mean-looking, in a steady grip. The lights on their weapons follow their shifting aim as they smoothly secure their immediate area.

On the tacit okay of the other two, the first flips open a small box with a number of glowing dials and and digital readouts within. He makes a few gestures with a wireless probe, and consults the readouts.

PFC Brian Angst lifts his faceplate, then, fishes a pack of cigarettes from a supply bandolier, and lights up.

"Okay," he calls back. "We're clear. Oh two's at breathable levels, and there ain't shit for toxicity in the air." He takes a long drag off his cigarette, then exhales languidly. "Now there is, a'course," he says, eyeing his little cloud as it dissipates into the existing mist.

"You suck, Angst," says the shortest.

"Bite and chew, Zemler," says Angst, grinning. "Hate to say it, though, Card, but we just chalked up a Class Three dramatic entrance there."

"Damnit," curses Zemler, raising her own faceplate and holstering her gun.

"Yeah," says Angst. "What with the smoke and shit. And the lights. And the facemasks. Card, we gotta do something about this. We need to fucking find a way to have good environmental containment without it looking so badass."

The atmospheric security field flickers out of existence, revealing the red-robed figure of Cardinal Richelieu, or rather, Humility Company's personal android replica of same. He stands easily, his ecclesiastical garments shifting in the same barely-palpable air currents that stir the room's mists, hands folded before him.

He strides forward, mien placid.

"Paint something on the front, next time," he says, in clipped French tones. "Something to distract from the uniformity. Something..."

He ponders, tapping one synthetic finger against his synthetic lips.

"Something _funny_," he says.

"How about a chicken, sir?" says Private Fodder, locking his assault cannon into rest position. "Chickens are funny."

"Okay, good," says Zemler. "We all paint a picture of a funny chicken on our helmets, next time."

Richelieu turns on her, his reproduction eyes blazing. "Non!" he exclaims. "No. You must ALL THINK OF SOMETHING DIFFERENT AND FUNNY." He fixes his gaze on Angst for a moment. "And not a, how should we say, angry sort of funny. Like with a boy peeing or something. This makes you look plucky and reprehensible. It must be a cute sort of funny. Not very wacky at all."

"So, what level of funny _are_ we talking here?" says Angst, sucking down more smoke.

Cardinal Richelieu thinks for a moment.

"Dogs," he says, soberly, "it must involve small costumed dogs."

It is at this moment when our protagonist appears, stepping from the loading ramp of Humility Company's mobile command center. And so we yield the mind's eye to him.

* * *

"So, anyway," I say, stepping out of the M.C.C. and trying to shore up my end of a rather confusing conversation, "I was thinking that, y'know, maybe, when we're all done with this computer restoring-business, you and I could... I dunno."

I chuckle a little.

"I was _going_ to suggest dinner," I continue. "But god knows what the restaurants I had in mind have turned into while I had my back to 'em. Still, we could give it a shot, eh?"

"Rawr," says the lovely young mystery-woman known only as 'Buddy'. "Rawr, rawr rawr."

"Er, yeah," I reply. "I might have to cut it a little short because there's this paper I've gotta work on, but, hey, we all need to eat, right?"

"Rawr!" agrees Buddy.

"Great!" I say. "So, it's a date, then?"

"Rawr!" says Buddy, smiling bright enough to make her eyes squint.

"Yeah," I say. "I'm looking forward to it too."

"Rawr," says Buddy.

...I'm not sure what's up with the "rawr" business, by the way. I'm really trying to consider all the possibilities here.

For instance. Maybe Buddy is in a sorority or something. And as part of the sorority's initiation rite, maybe she's forbidden from speaking intelligibly for the next twenty-four hours. Or, how about this: Buddy might be part of an obscure religious order requiring all its adherents to say aught but the word "rawr". Maybe she's a transfer student here from a whole town full of people in Scandinavia who have packed all their useful language into that one word. See? I'm getting better at this! Memo to everyone who keeps accusing me of "thinking like a Mundane": Bite me! Buncha jerks.

Or maybe it _is_ more mundane. Maybe she's... playing with me. It's a gentle sort of play, if so. I can detect no malice in her crystalline blue eyes, certainly. And she seems to like being with me.

Yeah. Maybe this is all just a little game she's playing. A _romantic_ game, maybe, even. I don't know anything about true love, but I think that an incredibly hot young woman who seems interested in spending time with you is a damn fine place to start. Even if she goes around saying "rawr" all the time.

Buddy crosses to the rear of the cargo elevator, to where the Major is. I take a moment to watch her go. To... observe her walk.


I'm not going to make any rash judgments about what "it" is based on this single incident of observation. But I am going to entertain the working hypothesis that it may very well be jelly, as my casual inquiries into the nature of jam -- all other relevant variables remaining constant -- have suggested that jam don't shake like that.

My little reverie is disturbed, as usual, by Feeb, who bumps into me on her way out of the M.C.C. Behind her, the Fuckbot 3000 clambers its way down the steps, hauling itself along with its little arms.

"Oof," says Feeb. "Sorry, Charles."

She fails to draw my eye, or my attention. Sure, I could politely acknowledge Feeb's apparently-sincere apology. But that would mean I'd have to take my eyes off Buddy. It's a clear question of priority, really, and someone as smart as Feeb should recognize that my actions here are totally reasonable. There are few enough perfect angles in this world, and if Feeb were any kind of a real friend she'd understand this.

"Charles?" says Feeb.

I sigh theatrically and turn to her. "Yeah?" I say, quietly banking another bitterness point against her. Not like she doesn't already have an ample supply.

Feeb narrows her eyes at me.

"Cripes, Charles, what is _with_ you lately, huh?"

"I don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about," I say, turning away from her.

"See? That. You're acting really weird lately, Charles. And this is after I correct for your already pretty weird baseline behavior."

"Oh, great. Accusations. I never get sick of these. Name one way I've been acting 'weird'."

"Okay..." says Feeb, looking a little flustered. "I hate to trod the obvious into the ground like this, but what's with you and Buddy all of a sudden?"

I sneer. "What's the matter, Feeb?" I say. "Envious?"

"No!" says Feeb, and the way she protests I just know I've touched a nerve. "No! Charles, what are you talking about? You're acting totally--"

"Go on," I say. "Call me crazy again. You've been doing it all week."

"Okay, I so have not," says Feeb. "And frankly, I don't know what part of your body you're pulling all this out of. Charles, Mundementia One isn't craziness! It's the condition of coping with real sanity for once in your stupid life!"

"Well," I say. "I dunno about you, but _I_ think I'm coping pretty darn well right now. After all, I just got me a dinner date for tonight."

"A dinner date?" says Feeb. "With who?"

"Buddy!" I say, smugly.

Feeb is totally aghast. My spirit hums. _That_ shut her up, huh?

"Charles, you can't be serious!" she manages at last, sputtering. "Buddy's a--"

"She's a sensitive and beautiful young woman," I say. "And I can think of very few people I'd rather share an friendly and/or slightly intimate meal with tonight. And afterwards?" I grin at her. "Well, who knows, eh?"

"CHARLES!" says Feeb, her eyes wide. "I absolutely _forbid_ you to--"

"Oh, give it up, Feeb," I say, nonchalantly. "Jealousy isn't pretty," I add.

"I think I need to have a word with my zombie servitor," says Feeb, frowning intensely, and leaves, following Buddy to the back of the elevator. I don't really understand what she's talking about, but knowing Feeb this is her own peculiar euphemism for needing to go powder her nose or something like that.

There is a tug at my pant leg. I look down. It's Fuckbot.

"Fuck," says Fuckbot, accusingly.

"Blow it out your serial port," I say, and walk off to the elevator mouth. The spiteful little robot follows me.

The elevator opens into an impossibly wide underground space. Ahead of me, Fodder, Zemler and Angst are chatting about something with the weird priest-y looking guy, who seems to be sketching something in Fodder's pad while the rest look on intently.

I step forward and look up. And left, and right. And up again.

At my left flank, Fuckbot does the same.

"Whoa, fuck," he says, in awed tones.

"Pretty snazzy, huh?" says Felix, joining me at my right. "That's a thousand feet there, straight up. If you lopped the spike off it, you could store the Chrysler building in here."

"_This_ is the parking garage?"

"Maintenance and shipping garage, actually. Our core concept for the building suggests that nobody will ever need to park here, but we're obviously going to need to move things in and out."

"...thousand-foot tall things?" I ask, casually.

"Well, better to have the space and not use it than need the space and not have it," says Felix, brightly. "That's my idea, anyway. And once you've already got a garage in the plans, it's not _all that_ much more expensive to make it a thousand-foot high garage."

"I see," I say, not seeing. "So, what's the first step here? Guess it's something to do with tweaking the atmosphere regulators in here so we can shut off your environmental containment field and still breathe, right?"

"Field's off," says Felix, distantly. "It's done. PFC Angst ran the tests just a couple of minutes ago."

"What?" I screw up my face. "Felix, you told me the life support systems in this place were--"


I spare a glance at the little robot. "Yeah. Off-line, or something, you said."

"Nuh-uh-uh," says Felix. "I said the life support systems were _unverifiable_. Meaning we couldn't tell whether they were--"


"--or not. Obviously, they're not! Good news for everyone, eh?" Felix smiles. "Piece of cake. I doubt we'll even have any use for our rent-a-marines."

"You're damn right you won't have use for us," growls the Major, joining us. "You could throw a whole regiment of my pansy-ass men into this place and you still wouldn't have enough."

"Isn't this guy great?" says Felix. "Julius, baby, you've got this whole thing down to a _T_, man! The way he tries to counteract our casual, naive optimism about the goodness of our chances because that's the guy you always want to listen to in situations like this. Brilliant!"

Fuckbot, the Major and I just look at him for a little while. Felix plows on ahead, undaunted.

"Thing is, you can drop the act now, Jules. The life support is on. Everything looks to be running normally. There's no problem here."

"CARDINAL!" barks the Major, staring intently at Felix. The robed figure looks up from his sketching and hands the pad back to Howie, then glides over to our position. Meanwhile, the Major's eyes have gotten all scary-hard. You could break rocks against those eyes.

"Cardinal," says the Major, "how much prideful self-confidence were we displaying on insertion?"

"It is the Class Three reading, sir," murmurs the Cardinal.

"FUCK!" shouts Fuckbot, storming off, his little wheels whirring across the floor. I doubt he understands the issue here any better than I do, but I figure he hates to waste a good opportunity to cuss.

"Our employer," says the Major, "is being Prematurely Optimistic."

"Oh, dear," says the Cardinal. "I must consult." The Cardinal's eyes cloud as pages and pages of tiny little backwards words begin scrolling across the surface of his eyeballs.

I stare at the Cardinal for a little while, then look over at Felix and the Major. "Can somebody please explain to me what's going on, here?"

"Android Cardinal Richelieu is our metaphysical advisor," begins the Major.

"You have an android Cardinal Richelieu?" I say, with new-found respect. "That's awesome!"

"What do you know about Cardinal Richelieu, Mister Glass?"

"What, you mean Armand Jean Du Plessis, Cardinal et Duc de Richelieu, born 9 September 1585, died 4 December 1642?" I chuckle. "What _don't_ I know about him? Born in Paris in 1585, young Armand had aspirations toward a military career, but went into the clergy after his debt-plagued family was granted the Bishopric of Lucon by Henry III in honor of his late father's service in the French Religious Wars. Because of standing controversies surrounding the secular use of church funds, you see, it was imperative that one of the Du Plessis sons adopt an ecclesiastical role in the Bishopric so as to secure the land's income for the family. And when Alphonse, Armand's elder brother, took up monastic life -- as he had no stomach for the general clergy -- Armand was left to fill this role. Armand was consecrated Bishop of Lucon in 1607, a move requiring special dispensation from the Pope because of his young age, thus beginning one of the more interesting and colorful periods of Church history in peri-feudal France. You may wonder about my use of the term 'peri-feudal'. Let me explain."

I cross over to where Howie is standing, take the drawing pad out of his hands, flip it past some weird sketches of cute little dogs in costumes, and return to where the Major is standing. "You see," I continue, drawing up a quick diagram to buttress my major points, "over the course of Armand's life, France was moving from a system of government where the majority of the power was held by the local nobility to a system where ruling power was concentrated toward the central monarchy. And this is no coincidence! In fact, most historians credit Armand Jean Du Plessis, later known as Cardinal Richelieu, with taking an instrumental role in his country's transformation into a coherent nation on the European Stage."

I make a few more notes on the diagram, puzzle for a while over the proper spelling of the word "Huguenots", and continue. "Okay, what we have here is sort of a rough diagram of the major political forces in France during Cardinal Richelieu's service to the church and the nation. In 1621... hm."

I call out to the back of the elevator. "HEY, FEEB!"

"YEAH?" comes the reply.







I turn back to the Major. "Okay, we have a film here, but it's a silent film. 'Salright, I can fill in any gaps. Given the date, I figure it's probably about the siege of La Rochelle. COULD WE ROLL THAT, FEEB?"

"ROGER!" says Feeb. From the far end of the elevator, there comes the clatter of one of Feeb's movie projectors going active. Also, she helpfully dims the lights for us, which is apparently within the capacity of her Projectionist powers even though the elevator has no exposed lighting controls whatsoever.

An image is cast upon the far wall, bent and distorted because of the angle it's at. Also, there seems to be a fly or something buzzing around in front of the lens. This is a little disturbing, as I don't know if anyone else knows this, but I'm secretly a bit of a Cardinal Richelieu purist, and I wish we could be looking at this full aface. But we're in sort of a time-intensive situation here and we really don't have the time to be messing around with adjusting the film projector to my exact specifications. "Okay, I apologize for the distortion," I say. "What you're seeing here is film footage from the siege of La Rochelle, as I expected." I watch for a little while.

"See, there's the Cardinal," I say, pointing at the image, and instantly I start to feel a little silly. I don't know how I ever missed the fact that Humility Company was accompanied by a Cardinal Richelieu android; now that I know, I must admit that the resemblance is, while not perfect, quite remarkable. "Oh," I say, "and there's one of his advisors. I think that might be Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, otherwise known as 'l'Eminence Grise', or 'The Grey Eminence'. Anyway. La Rochelle was a Huguenot stronghold, but was bolstered at the time by English troops led by the Duke of Buckingham. Now here we see--"

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" roars the Major.

The image vanishes and the lights flicker back to full.

There is an awkward moment.

"You asked me what I knew about Cardinal Richelieu," I say.

"And your knowledge of my... prototype model, shall we say, is quite the commendable," says Android Cardinal Richelieu, graciously.

"What I was trying to get at," says the Major, "was whether or not you knew about his artistic leanings. But obviously--"

"Oh yes!" I say. "Why, Cardinal Richelieu was a _tremendous_ patron of the arts! Be it--"

"But obviously you would," interrupts the Major.

There is a brief pause, filled only with a tiny buzzing noise; the fly that had been futzing around by the film lens seems to have joined us over here on this side of the elevator.

"Don't speak any more," says the Major, to me.

"Okay," I say.

"Right," the Major continues. "All I was trying to say is that Cardinal Richelieu had one of history's finest minds when it came to deconstructing and re-synthesizing the conventions of human theater and drama. These same conventions happen to be integral to our work here in the Corps. Not many people know this about him BUT I CAN SEE THAT YOU ALREADY DID SO DON'T START TALKING OVER ME!"

I shut my mouth.

"Right!" says the Major. "Now then! Using sophisticated data-gathering algorithms, Corps scientists have manged to construct a computer AI module that is indistinguishable from the real Cardinal Richelieu to an accuracy level of up to ninety-seven percent."

"Mais oui," says Android Cardinal Richelieu, humbly. As he speaks, the little housefly decides to take up a position wheeling and spinning in his personal space. Android Cardinal Richelieu's machine eyes follow the tiny insect as it darts about.

"We find him... useful. In tracking the dramatic hubris we display in our actions. So that we can keep it as low as humanly possible."

"I dunno," says Felix, looking critically at the Cardinal. "I've heard bad things about these reconstruction AIs, Julius. Hasn't there been some instances of them going a little... mental? Freaking out? You know, just one day up and snapping and going Renaissance on their keepers' asses?"

"Sir has heard incorrectly," says Cardinal Richelieu, his eyes still tracking the housefly. "My programming makes it impossible for me to harm, or by inaction allow harm to come... to..."

There is a pause.

" come to..." he repeats.

Then, with inhuman swiftness, Android Cardinal Richelieu's arm flashes out. The buzzing stops.

" any living thing," finishes the Cardinal, smoothly.

"Good enough for me!" says Felix, cheerfully. "Okay, now that we have all that tedious exposition behind us, you want to continue telling us what's going on, here?"

The Major grunts at Felix. Then, over his shoulder to the Cardinal: "Cardinal, what sort of level are we looking at for the Premature Optimism being displayed by our employer, here?"

"I am sorry, sir," says Android Cardinal Richelieu. "But I am afraid this is yet an additional Class Three infraction."

"Fuck," mutters Fuckbot.

"God _damn_," says the Major, under his breath.

"Infraction of what?" I ask. "Your hubris? Is that what all this is about?"

The Major ignores me. "Any chance it'll dissipate, you think?"

"Not soon," replies the Cardinal. "I am afraid we must employ a poetic fulfillment technique before we proceed any futher."


"I humbly suggest the Red Shirt Maneuver, sir."

"'Red Shirt Maneuver'?" I ask. For a guy trying to explain things, the Major sure as heck isn't doing an awful lot of explaining here.

"We only get one of these, you know," says the Major. "I'm extremely pissed at having to blow through this so early in the mission."

"The reading, she is quite high, sir."

"All right, all right, all right," says the Major, shutting his eyes.

"Could someone please continue explaining to me what all this is about?" I demand.


"'Scuse me!" says the bright voice of Private Howie Fodder, as he comes up toward us. "I was just wondering if y'all were done with my sketchpad." He smiles, pleasantly. "It's just that, well, we had some really good ideas going on cute little dogs in costume over here, and while we're all paused for the moment, I thought I might continue hashing some of them out on paper. Just so we can all be ready for our next mission together."

"Private Fodder," says the Major, his eyes still shut, "I have a job for you."

Howie straightens up. "Sir!" he says.

"I need you to secure the perimeter of this room, Private."

"Yessir!" says Howie, smartly.

"And send Zemler and Angst back over to me," he says. "I'm confident in your ability to handle this job alone, Private."

"As am I, sir!" says Howie. "I'll do that perimeter and I'll be right back." He grins. "Don't you worry about me!" he says.

And with that, Private Howie "Cannon" Fodder snaps a sharp salute, unlocks his assault gun, and walks back into the parking garage. He stops for a moment to say a few words to Zemler and Angst, gives them the thumbs-up, and proceeds to vanish into the mists, until all one can see of him is the stream of light spat out from the end of his weapon.

I stand there for a moment, my eyes followig that one feeble ray of light, trying to figure out what to say.

"Damn shame," says the Major. "He really had his shit down, that boy."

"Red Shirt Maneuver?" says Zemler, returning to us, Angst at her heel.

"Affirmative," says the Major.

"Man," says Angst, "this sucks. It's like Private Feast all over again."

I find words. "You're killing him off," I say, quietly. "You're intentionally killing him off."

"Good ol' 'Wormy'," says Angst in a thick voice, holding up kinks and shaking his head. "We were like _this_. Kid was so happy to be getting his first real action. That was before..."

"Ssh," says Zemler, tenderly.


"I know," says Zemler, fishing around in her bag. "I know."


"Let's get you another brainwashing, huh?" says Zemler, producing a strange little ampoule that I could swear that I've seen before but that I can't for the life of me place. "Would that make you feel better? Brian?"

"Uh huh," says Angst, miserably.


"YOU'RE KILLING HIM OFF?!?" I say, somewhat louder. Yes, I had been having uncharitable thoughts about Private Fodder just a few hours earlier, but when faced with the reality of the situation, I find that even I am not enough of a dickweed to think of this as a good thing.

"Mister Glass," says the Major, even as Howie's distant light pauses, as though to look at something. "You don't understand this business. What we do here may appear cruel to you, but please be assured that our actions are wholly necessary to insure the safety of the rest of the team, including our civilian charges."

"You sent him out alone! No backup!" My mind whizzes. "He'd been thinking about leaving the Corps. He was an _artist_, for cripe's sake! YOU SPECIFICALLY PICKED A REALLY HAPPY GUY WITH A LOT GOING FOR HIM IN LIFE!!!"

"And I'll be sorry to lose him," replies the Major, sternly. "He could have been one of the greats."

"YEAH," I say. "UNTIL HE _DIED_!!!"

"Like I said, Mister Glass. You do not understand this business."

Fodder's light, off in the distance, begins moving again... cautiously... like he found something a little disturbing out there, but decided to press on with his perimeter anyway...

He had a _fiancee_.

"*PRIVATE FODDER!!!*" I shout out into the gloom. "*IT'S A--*"

And then, somehow, I am on my back. Felix is above me, rubbing his knuckles. My jaw hurts.

I stare accusingly at him from my recumbent position. "Fuck!" says Fuckbot, watching all this with incredulous disbelief.

"Charlie," says Felix, evenly, "I think we should listen to the Major on this one, huh?" Then he sighs and leans back against the front of the M.C.C. "Don't make me hit you like that again, Charlie," says Felix. "My pacemaker's not rated for combat situations."

I glare at him again, then take a deep breath.


"Enough!" barks the Major, cutting me off. "God damn it, Mister Glass, show some sens--"

And then there comes a cry from the depths of the parking garage. Howie's distant light spins madly for a moment, then clatters and falls, shining straight up. For a moment, this last single ray of light casts itself desperately into the cavernous gloom above us. And then, with another clunk, it flicks out, leaving aught but darkness.


"You bastards," I say.

"The reading, I feel she is clear now," says Android Cardinal Richelieu.

"Even so, Cardinal," says the Major, fixing himself a cigar, "we'll take the M.C.C. as far as possible. I've got a bad feeling about this one." Casually, he fishes out a match, proceeds to strike it on his exposed forearm, lights up his cigar and puffs. "All right, ladies," he says, after a couple gulps of smoke, "let's get assembled and move. Glass, get your civs back on the van, please. You can leave your armored car here in the garage. We've got some failing to do."

I rise, fix Felix, the Major and Android Cardinal Richelieu with accusing glares, and retreat to the back of the elevator to gather up Feeb and Buddy. Far as I know, Luke's still in the mobile command center finishing up his nap.

As I turn to go, I hear Felix's voice behind me. "What the heck was that, Major?"

"Don't know," says the Major. "Don't want to know. And if you're smart, you won't want to know either."

"It's just a shopping mall!" protests Felix.

"Shopping malls," says the Major, "are dangerous places, Mister De Trephane."

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