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Mundementia One: The Book of Complication
The scene: Humility Company's multi-deck armored command center and personnel carrier, currently traversing the great open expanses of Sycamore Arcology's underground parking garage.
I am slouched against one wall in the central staging and briefing area of the M.C.C., feeling its heavy wheels trundling across smooth concrete in an area somewhere far beneath my ass. Corporal Zemler is near the back, nursing P.F.C. Angst through the psychological trauma of yet another brain wipe. I have no idea how I know what it is she's doing. It's kind of a sore dark spot in my brain that I can't explain, and it's leading to some unusual feats of mental acrobatics. For instance, I am -- after some recollection -- able to positively recognize the smallish silver device that Zemler's been fiddling with as her brainwashing tool. I am equally positive that I've never seen it before in my life. It's weird.
Ah well, shrug and move on. It's probably not important.
The reason that Angst is in need of another brain-wiping, of course, is the fact that he was recently traumatzed by the loss of one of our squad, Private Howie "Cannon" Fodder, heavy weapons expert and, as I later learned, professional monster-bait...
Android Cardinal Richelieu, Humility Company's metaphysical advisor, sweeps into the staging area, his 17th-century ecclesiastical robes twirling subtly about him. He seats himself neatly beside me. Normally I would be _thrilled_ to have so perfect a replica of Cardinal Richelieu sitting next to me, but I'm not really in the mood. Having somebody that I knew, albeit casually, die more-or-less in front of me, has kind of dampened my spirits a little.
"Allo, Monseiur Glass," says Android Cardinal Richelieu.
I do not respond. Android Cardinal Richelieu presses on. "As I am ze, how do we say such a thing, spiritual expert of ze Company, I thought that it would be good if I were to talk to you a little about what has chust happened, because I haf noticed that you seem a bit perplexed, still."
"Oh, yeah," I say. "'Perplexed'. Good word for it, Cardinal." I narrow my eyes. "I am also fucking pissed off that the lot of you would hire a guy to be your sacrificial lamb without telling him about it. Without, you know, specifically informing him that the first time your little party got a little overconfident, you'd be looking for a way to get him whacked to save your own skins..."
"It is chust how the, how do we say, rules work!" says the Cardinal. "Marines who are too confident of their own success are often destroyed, quickly and in large number. We haf found that if we take matters into our own 'ands, and give ze poetic irony a controlled outlet, somesing to satisfy it, we all live to fight anozhar day."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," I say, darkly, rising from my seat. "Save your speech."
I turn on him, then, my eyes cold.
"The _real_ Cardinal Richelieu would never have done such a thing," I say.
And I dramatically cross away, heading for the spiraling staircase to the upper deck, where Feeb and my lovely new acquaintance Buddy are waiting. The both of them have been up there ever since the M.C.C. got underway, which means that neither of them know anything about Howie's death yet. Best to go tell them, and soon, so that we can start making our _own_ plans about how to deal with the fact that we are in extremely close quarters with some very, very nutzoid people. I mean, Feeb's a Mad Scientist. She cackles, she makes strange psychotic leaps, she shows the same casual disregard for the laws of the Universe as a two-year old shows for general principles of personal hygeine. Sometimes she hits me for no real reason. She's quite undoubtedly mad.
She isn't _crazy_. Not like these people.
I am stopped on my way by the emergence of Felix and the Major from the forward cabin. Thus juxtaposed, scrawny little gregarious white guy next to huge sullen black one, it is hard to believe that the two men come from the same species and could, technically, interbreed were it not for um you know.
"...autopilot on this thing?" Felix is saying. "It can actually drive itself to the Arcology entrance? Is that going to work?"
"No," says Major Julius Oveur-Hall, with grim determination. "No, it isn't going to work. It's going to fail at the worst possible moment and we're all going to crash and die. And all our loved ones will be so distraught at the news of our horrible firey death that they will instantly fall into deep depression and either join cloistered monastic orders or destroy themselves by their own hands."
"Right, right," says Felix, winking and smiling at the Major. "I gotcha. Oh, look, here's Charles. Hey, Charles."
"Hey," I mumble, trying to pass by.
"Say 'Hi' to Charles, Julius," encourages Felix.
Suddenly, without me being wholly clear on how such a thing transpired, the Major has me pinned against the wall, his massive beefy forearm pressing into my windpipe. He snorts breath into my face.
"O... kay," says Felix. "That's not saying 'Hi', Jules, unless we're talking Full-Contact American Sign Language, right?"
"You," says the Major, snarling at me. His teeth are very white.
"Um, yes," I squeak. "Good identification skills, sir."
"If you _ever again_," he says, "jeopardize our collective safety by sticking your well-intentioned but profoundly clueless face into the well-tuned machinery of this operation, so help me, I will pathetically fail to make you wish that you had never been born. AM I BEING CLEAR?"
"Um, no," I wheeze. "You see, there's sort of a double-negative subjective future-tense structure in there, and that's always hell for the casual listener to ARGARGARGLARG."
The Major spends a moment making my internal organs regret not having taken out timeshare property in Florida for pain season this year.
"I meant," says the Major, easing off again, "'Do You Understand Me.' Mister Glass."
"Yes," I manage.
"Good," says the Major, and lets me off the wall.
"Yes," I say, rubbing my neck. "_I_ understand." Then, showing a profound lack of both intellect and survival skill, I fix the Major with the same stare I tried on the Cardinal. "But I hope," I say, "that you'll go around to Howie's girlfriend-would-have-been-wife after this is all over. Ask her if _she_ understands."
"Mister Glass," says the Major, sticking a finger in my face, "Private Fodder knew the risks of Corps work when he signed on to the unit. And I am not going to--"
"Talk, talk, talk," I mutter.
The Major grabs me by the shoulders and slams me against the wall again. "What was that?" he says, eyeing me angrily. I try to meet his gaze but it's kind of hard because of the angle my neck is at. We hold this for a second.
"Oh hey!" says Feeb, briskly emerging from the upper deck, eyes bright, the Fuckbot 3000 perched placidly on her shoulder. "Neat! Full-Contact American Sign Language! I took a semester of that last year!" Feeb beams at me. "Charles, you never told me you were fluent in FCASL."
"'M a quick study," I grunt.
"Fuck!" remarks Fuckbot, appreciatively.
"That's cute of you," she says. "So, What's this I hear about my good friend 'Cannon' Fodder?"
I glare at the Major. He glares back.
"Feeb," I say, "He's--"
And just then the first clunks come against the exterior door.
We all fall silent.
The clunks come again. Steadier and insistent. Strong.
"Shit," curses the Major, dropping me to the floor. "Angst! Zemler!"
"Right here, sir," says Zemler, rising and crossing, unholstering her weapon as she does so.
"What the fuck's going on?" Angst slurs, pulling himself together and following. "What's happening out there?"
"They're hanging off the running board," says the Major, his eyes narrow.
"What?" says Felix. "What's hanging off the running board?"
"Glass," says the Major, "If you have no objection to some civilian involvement here, tell your lemur to get suited up, wherever he is."
"I mean it!" demands Felix, ineffectually. "I didn't build this mall just to have a bunch of weird stuff hanging around in the parking garage freeloading and loitering and killing people! What is out there?"
Meanwhile, Angst is belting on his assault cannon with military precision. "Whadda we got, sir?" says Angst.
"One big one, sounds like," says the Major. "Possibly the same one that took out Private Fodder."
"Wait, what?" says Feeb. "Charles, what's--"
"CARDINAL!" barks the Major. "I THOUGHT YOU SAID WE WERE CLEAR!"
"I am not able to explain her!" says Android Cardinal Richelieu, digits scrolling furiously across his eyes. "By my calculations we should ahf had a sort of establishing period without any attacks to allow sinisterness to build!"
"Things ain't waiting," says Angst, snapping the last buckle into place and powering up his rifle. He pivots and points toward the exterior door. "In position!"
"Glass," says the Major, unfolding the wire stock on an automatic shotgun, "I would like some additional fire support here, if you please."
"LUKE!" I yell out, toward the staircase.
"...frink?" comes a distant, sleepy, just-woken-up-from-a-nap-type voice. I have no reason to disbelieve that comes from Luke having just woken up from a nap of some kind.
"LUKE, GET DOWN HERE!"
"Frink!" says Luke.
"Charles, I don't understand what's going on and that's frightening me because I usually understand everything because I'm so damn smart!" says Feeb. "What are they talking about? Where's Howie?"
"GET THAT LEMUR DOWN HERE _NOW_, MISTER GLASS!"
"Shit," says Angst, staring at the door as it begins to emit a series of tiny blipping noises. "Shit shit shit."
"What?" says Zemler, her own firearm leveled.
"They're trying the door codes," says Angst. "Smart sons of bitches."
"Fuck!" shouts Fuckbot, throwing his little metal claw-hands in the air.
"LUKE!" I yell.
"Would somebody tell me what is out there?" says Felix, rattledly.
"MISTER DE TREPHANE," says the Major, "PLEASE SHUT UP NOW."
"Shit shit shit," says Angst, his eyes wide. "They're getting it."
"What?!?" says Zemler.
"Report, Private Angst," says the Major. "What are you--"
"I'm saying THEY'RE GETTING THE CODE," says Angst. "THEY'VE ALMOST GOT THE DOOR OPEN."
"FUCK!" screams Fuckbot, throwing himself to the floor, wheeling around in wild circles, his metal arms flailing. "FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!"
"Two digits!" says Angst.
"Charles--" says Feeb.
"ON MY MARK!" says the Major, cocking his shotgun. "READY..."
The door blips, once more, and slides open.
"F--" begins the Major.
"Hey guys," says Private Howie Fodder, tripping easily through the door and sealing it behind him.
Then he turns and looks down about five different gun barrels.
"Whoa, hey," says Howie. "Where's the fire, guys?"
* * *
Scene, the same. Time, a couple minutes later.
"So anyway, kinda silly of me," says the mysteriously non-dead Private Fodder. "Tripping over a stupid sawhorse like that. Thankfully, my weapon wasn't damaged, but I think I busted the light cell on the front of it. Sorry about that, Major."
"Um," says Major Oveur-Hall, who is staring at Howie as though the young Private were suddenly and inexplicably made out of mayonnaise. "That's... perfectly all right, Private."
"No, I feel just awful," says Howie. "That was a Corps-issue light cell, and I broke it just being careless. You can take it out of my next paycheck."
"So, Charles," says Feeb, sitting near me on one of the peripheral seats. "What was it you were trying to say to me about Private Fodder?"
"Nothing," I say, simultaneously pondering what sort of sandwich spread or condiment Howie might be made of as well. "Never mind." Sure, it was great that he was still alive, and I was relieved that I could start ridding myself of this head of umbrage I had worked up. But on the other hand...
...well, he was _supposed_ to be dead, wasn't he? Laws of cinematic convention, right? I mean, if you start breaking _those_, there's no telling what might bite you in the butt on the rebound...
Bah, I think to myself. You're starting to sound as crazy as the folks with the guns, Charles. Getting worked up over nothing.
Yeah, I just bet this whole building is _perfectly safe_...
"Anyway," says Private Fodder, standing and snapping a sharp salute. "I am pleased to report that I finished my perimeter of the room and the area appears secure, sir!"
"Yes," says the Major. "Er, yes. Very good, Private. You... er... you be at ease for a while. I need to, er, go up to the strategic room and, er, consult with our spiritual advisor." He inclines his massive jaw. "Cardinal?" he says.
"Mais oui," says the Cardinal, and he follows the Major upstairs.
"C'mon, Angst," says Zemler, then, ushering the Private back towards the rear of the staging area. "Let's finish your brainwipe."
"Okay," says Angst, meekly. Then he pulls back. "But wait," he says. "If... the thing... with the... I mean... with Howie... I mean... he didn't..."
Angst gestures helplessly towards Private Fodder, who gives him a cheery wave in return. Angst clutches his head. "Ow," he says.
"Now, now," says Zemler, hennishly. "We both know when we don't finish our brainwashing we get all delusional and hallucinatory and start breaking things and talking to cheese, right?"
"Uh huh," says Angst, miserably.
"All right, then," she says, leading him aft. And then the rest is lost.
I turn back to Feeb. "Well, then," I say. "I think I saw that 'Buddy' girl heading up to the front cabin with Luke a minute ago, so maybe I'll follow her and, y'know, check out the scenery a little, if you know what I mean." I grin at her. I am not normally this much of a jerk but I have to confess that I am rather enjoying seeing Feeb a little discomfited by my attentions to the beautiful young... technician? Doctor? I'm a little worried that I can't remember exactly what Buddy actually _does_ for our group other than improve its net attractiveness quotient. But, again, shrug and move on. Probably not important.
"All right, Charles," she says, sounding rather more than usually lucid. "I don't know exactly what you're playing at here, but it has got to stop."
"Aw, c'mon, Feeb," I say. "Girl like that? You seriously expect a red-blooded American male _not_ to at least look a little?"
Feeb screws up her face. "I... suppose," she says, sounding dubious, after a moment. "You're serious about this?"
"Why," I say, "is this so hard to believe for you?"
Feeb shakes her head. "I guess I never realized how complete a detour hormones make around the logic centers of the male brain," she says. "I ought to figure out a way to be a guy for a while. Your functioning libido must be like some kind of constant low-grade acid trip."
"Hey," I say, trying to figure out whether that was strictly a dis or not. "What can I say?"
"Plus," she adds, her voice getting strange again, "the peeing must be remarkable!" Feeb spends a moment in happy reverie before shaking herself out of it. "Hmph. Very well," she says. "But looking is one thing. This... date, or whatever it is you're setting up, is quite another and is, in my mind, totally out of the question."
I scoff. "You don't control her, Feeb."
"In point of fact, I do," Feeb says, frowning deeply at me. "Using a constant barrage of post-hypnotic suggestions specifically designed to keep zombie killer dinosaurs placid and tractable, without which -- by my calculations -- I would have been entirely slain and eaten five point eight seven times by now."
"Zombie killer dinosaurs?" I say. "And just what does _that_ have to do with Buddy?"
Feeb stares at me.
"You're not well, Charles," she says, after a moment. "Don't tell me you're knitting yourself back into Mundanity on us."
"Don't I wish," I say. "Look, I'm fine. Everything's normal here, which is to say, everything's totally NOT normal and I'm surrounded by talking lemurs and robots that say 'Fuck' a lot."
"Fuck!" remarks Fuckbot.
"Right," I say. "Feeb, I am just trying to make some plans for a nice dinner out. What on Earth is so wrong with that?"
"Charles!" says Feeb. "Listen to yourself! Do I need to remind you that Buddy is my _servitor?_"
"She is," I say, "her own woman. Regardless of what she does 'on the clock' for you."
Feeb continues to stare at me. I am, once again and quite despite myself, struck by the hue of her eyes.
"Fine," she says, eventually. "As far as I can tell you've gone totally psychotic, but hey, knock yourself out." She stands, brusquely, smoothing the wrinkles out of her lab coat. "I'm going up to the strategic area to pick the brains of our pugnaciously fatalistic commander for a bit. We should be at the Arcology soon, so don't get too involved with, oh, I don't know, SEX, OR ANYTHING!!!"
And she storms off.
Geez. Touchy, much?
I sit back in my seat for a moment and sprawl. Okay. Things are under control. The parking garage is filled with nothing more dangerous than some old construction tools, per Howie. The life support is running fine, contrary to predictions, which means that we won't be facing crazed, unhappy shoppers after all. All we have to do is get me to the control room, or whatever, issue a system reset, find this Blue Sword that Feeb keeps yammering about, and we're golden. We'll have a god-shielded shopping mall to hang out in while we wait for my appointment with the University President, I can spend the rest of the day doing research for my midterm paper, and when night comes, I've got a date with the hottest young woman in the entire tri-state area.
Yeah, I think to myself as I rise and start making my way to the forward cabin. Things are actually working out surprisingly well.
We roll onward, toward the Arcology.
* * *
"W-- Welcome to... to S-S-Sycamore Arcology!" says the pleasant female computer voice as the elevator doors slide open, revealing to us an immaculate paradise of glass and neon and marble-tone laminate, fully ten stories of it. A great and spacious atrium opens up before us, filled with comfortable lounges, bright novelty kiosks and, at the center, a tall, white, pluming fountain, straining elegantly toward the transparent skylight high above. It is _exceptionally_ clean.
It worries me, quite frankly. I feel a little of my earlier doubt and unease creeping back in. It's not good to keep places this clean. I have to go with the good folks of Humility Company on this one -- irony enjoys sinking its teeth into well-maintained, expensive things. It was true back in the real world, and that means that it's probably true here in Mundementia One, only at hundredfold strength. This is why I always keep my personal living spaces at a safe, totally non-ironic level of clutter. You'd think it's just because I'm a lazy bastard. But you'd be _so_ wrong.
We are on foot now, having taken the M.C.C. as far as we possibly could before boarding a passenger-grade elevator for the journey up to the Arcology proper. Our appearance is carefully non-badass this time, on the advice of the Cardinal, but our troops are still at the ready. Weapons are loaded and primed. Wariness is the bill of fare.
"We here at S-S-Sycamore... Ar-- Arcology would like to... a-- pologize for any delays you may exppperience as a result of our ongoing staff restructuring and retraining. Not all shops may be available at cer-cer-certain times. We ask for your pppatience and thank you for y... your understanding during this t-t-transitional period. Thank you, and have a p-p-pleasant day here at Sycamore Arcology. All hail to the Consumer."
There is something disquieting about the computer voice. Sure, it sounds happy enough, but it is also chock-full of little hitches and stutters. If it were an engine, I would say it was running a little rich.
Felix, as bluff as ever, shares my disquiet not at all. "And there's SHEBOP, the installation A.I.," he says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the nearest speaker. "So it looks like she's on-line, too. This place really is in much better shape than I thought it'd be."
The Major sniffs at the air. "With... all due respect, sir," he says. "I don't like the feel of this."
"Jules," says Felix, his voice darkening just a teeny tiny itsy bitsy smidgen. "We can dispense with that now, I think."
"No, he's right," says Zemler, peering around as our squad begins to inch its way into the atrium. "Something _is_ wrong. Where is everyone, for starters?"
Zemler's right, of course. Before us, the fountain streams, the neon flickers, the little displays of tacky shimmery artwork go on tacking and shimmering, but aside from the moving _things_ in this picture, there is nary a soul to be seen. Stores are open, unlocked and ungrated. Electronic cash registers are switched and keyed on. Heat rises from an activated grill at a small auxilliary snack bar. But no one is on duty, and no one is to be seen.
"Well," says Felix, "SHEBOP mentioned something about some sort of staff inservice or something. Sort of a workshop thing, probably. I wasn't aware that any such thing was going on, but I've given the management here pretty free rein, so it's not out of the question. Maybe they're all attending that?"
Nobody answers him. I'd like it to be true, of course. I'd like to believe that somewhere in a conference room elsewhere in this complex, the people who were _supposed_ to be manning these stores are sitting around with magic marker nametags stuck to their polo shirts eating free bagels and listening to pointless motivational speakers talk about quality initiatives and utilizing core competencies to enhance the culture of salesitude, but my gut, somehow, just isn't buying it.
We move onward into the mausoleumesque atrium. It's like a graveyard equipped with fountains and backlights.
"All right," says the Major. "I'm officially declaring this a hostile environment."
"What?" says Felix, in disbelief. "Major, I don't--"
"ZIP IT," says the Major. "We need to secure a foothold here, Mister De Trephane, a place to run sorties from. A limited number of ingress and egress points. Basically the exact opposite of this atrium. Somewhere with an information node would be ideal. Any suggestions?"
"The E.D.I.S," says Felix, a little subdued. "The Executive Dormitory and Impulse Shopping wing. It's got locked one-way fire exits and one major in-door with a security checkpoint." He grins. "Don't want the mucky-mucks having to mingle with the peons if they don't feel like it."
"Stellar. Mister Angst, tell me you remembered the cutting and welding rig."
"I can tell you just that, sir," says Angst, giving a brief affirming tug at a multifunction torch clipped to one of his bandoliers.
"Wait, wait," says Felix, taking the Major aside. "Jules, baby, what are you doing here?"
"We are doing nothing but burn daylight until you show us the way to our foothold, Mister De Trephane."
"You're going to _weld_ things? Like what?"
"Your fire exits, for starters. We'll leave enough for the crew to escape in the inevitable event of a disaser, not that it'll help. But if your facility falls along typical construction lines, we've got more than _we_ need, and slack makes me nervous."
"Jules, Jules, Jules," says Felix. "Do you know how hard it was for us to get this place up to code in the first place? I'm not going to let you go around _melting_ things until we can verify that there's even a problem. Heck, for all we know, we'll be able to talk to some of the higher-ups themselves when we get there."
He glances around, his foot tapping against the smooth, cold tile. "Ask what's up with the big shopping holiday around here," he says.
"Sure," says the Major, evenly. "We can do that, Mister De Trephane. Just as soon as you take us there."
"...but no welding. Right?"
"Felix," says the Major, in a pleasant tone of voice. "May I call you Felix?"
"Of course!" says Felix, graciously.
"Felix," continues the Major, "IF YOU DO NOT CEASE QUESTIONING MY AUTHORITY AND COMMAND OVER THIS MISSION AND DO NOT DO SO AS OF _YESTERDAY_, I WILL PERSONALLY GIVE YOU SUCH AN INTIMATE FAMILIARITY WITH PAIN THAT YOU'D BE WILLING TO LET IT USE YOUR CREDIT CARD AND SLEEP WITH YOUR WIFE. _DO YOU UNDERSTAND?_"
Felix nods, his face pale, his blood having wisely run to safer and less exposed places than his head.
"And that goes for the rest of you as well," says the Major, glaring at me. "E.D.I.S. wing, Mister De Trephane. _NOW_."
Felix nods and we move, leaving the constant white noise of falling water behind us.
* * *
"And... here we are," says Felix. "The E.D.I.S. Our own private special reserve."
Then he glances idly at the abandoned security station near the door. "You see, normally," he says, "there's someone here at this station to buzz you through, assuming you belong here. Let me just make a quick call." Felix flicks at a little intercom-esque button set into the wall. Then he sits back and waits.
No one comes to Felix's summons. It would have been nice.
"Do you have a card for this door, Mister De Trephane?" says the Major.
"See, says Felix, "The thing is--"
"Card? Or no?"
Felix sighs. "No. This door isn't on central security. Maintenance would have a manual key."
"Next time I see a janitor," says Angst, lighting another cigarette, "I'll be sure and let him know you're looking for 'im."
I glance back at the moving walkway that has carried us thus far. It trundles silently on. From a point somewhere behind us, the SHEBOP system is burbling out a warning to please watch our step, if we would be so kind. It is the latest in a series of happy little facts and admonitions the computer voice has been casually reciting to us throughout our journey here, always in that strange, halting voice. It is highly unnerving. Another unnerving thing, even higher on my personal unnerveration scale, is the increasingly flagrant lack of anyone besides us. It is too early in the game to judge, but from initial impressions, it doesn't appear that the E.D.I.S. is going to do anything to ameliorate this state of affairs.
"All right," says the Major, peering carefully at the lip of the window. "The plexiglass is backed by an overhead door. We can take out the pane and still have a secure entry here. Private Angst?"
"Way on top of it, sir," said Angst, as he fires up the cutting torch, touching it off with the glowing end of his cigarette. Sparks fly. Angst makes short work of the window, allowing Luke just enough space to squeeze into the security room, which he promptly does, frinking quietly to himself. A moment later, the electronic lock buzzes and the door slides open, revealing to us a broad, gracefully-carpeted promenade done up in relaxing earth tones. Tasteful, well-maintained shops surround a pleasant little lobby featuring a number of comfortable-looking lounge chairs. Other shops stretch out before us to either side. It is clean and warm here, sweet-smelling, luxurious without the discomfiture that typically surrounds other instances of luxury I have experienced.
There are no dinosaurs here. No tacky decades-old Christmas decorations. No tribes of killer rat-people, no vicious quasi-Australian Outback guides pointing guns at me, no time portals, no amputation parlors and no cheery boutiques offering colon irrigation and lollipops. Nothing like you'd find in a _normal_ mall. In short, it looks like a very nice place to shop and to spend some time, the sort of place that I would have enjoyed visiting back in the normal world, if I felt like scaling up my social class a little.
I am the proud owner of a tiny little bastion of sanity in this otherwise fucked-up world.
It's an exquisitely bad feeling. Because, save for the lack of anyone here to wait on me, it is just about perfect, and I am starting to get the hang of how these things go.
"Feeb," I say, my voice quavering, "this place feels perfectly safe to me."
She nods, with a worried frown. She understands.
Quietly we enter, the door gliding shut behind us.