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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
I recall Downtown Hoderund. I recall _liking_ it. For a kid smack off the farms of Kansas, Downtown Hoderund seemed like a dream come true. True, it wasn't the biggest city. To some of the more worldly and cosmopolitan students in my academic class, Hoderund was actually a place to get _away._ To them, it seemed like a quiet, sleepy little city, with just enough art and culture and music thrown in to keep things alive and bearable. To them, it was a pleasant and easy bore.
Not to me.
I still recall the thrill I felt at being _alone_ for the first time in my life, with a big, beautiful _CITY_ all around me. I recall having no curfews and setting my own limits. I recall going to a nine-o'clock movie on a _WEEKNIGHT_ and feeling all the while the sick thrill of treading the narrow edge of disaster. No rules but my own. No limits but the ones _I_ would set. _That_ was part of the reason why I dropped out of Omega House Fraternity. I wasn't a child anymore. I could _handle_ myself. I, of course, didn't tell Mom and Dad about the time I got so sloshed that I, with alcohol-induced wisdom, attempted to scientifically quantify the exact volume of the human bladder by pissing into a graduated cylinder stolen from the Chemistry department. But never mind that. For the most part, my self-discipline was _impeccable._
Okay. And there _was_ that impromptu striptease in the fountain at the center of the Pedestrian Mall one particularly bad Two A.M. But other than that.
Sorry. I've gotten myself distracted again. Point is, that Downtown Hoderund seemed to me to be a Garden of Earthly Delights, a strange and unusual place of folk musicians, street preachers, and even the occasional (gasp) MINORITY-RACE PERSON.
How innocent I was then...
"Oops! Sorry!" Giggles a young centaur filly with her tail in scrunchies as she, skipping away from her girlfriends in an impromptu chase-game, practically runs me down. She's also wearing cute little bobby-sox leg warmers. Four of them. I _do_ manage to leap out of the way in time, directly into the active zone of a Campus Y'Gsdrael Fellowship stand ("Has _YOUR_ Soul been Devoured by the Spider of Time? ARE YOU SURE?") who have apparently set up shop on the Ped Mall to help drum up new cultists from the ranks of the hapless and wandering Freshmen. I manage to appease them by taking a cheaply printed copy of the Elder Scrolls of Y'Gsdrael which I promptly toss into a waste-bin a few feet away. It flares up with a violet-green glare as I do so, consuming a couple of nearby Kentucky Fried Lizard Parts soft-drink glasses. Staring in horror at the sight, I am barely alert enough to avoid being forcibly given a permanent tattoo by an extremely tall bald man with a monkey sitting upon one shoulder who refers to himself in the third person and sings in the Wagnerian Operatic style while he works--female roles only. Secret Service Men in black suits and sunglasses survey the tremendous, milling throng in that ominous governmental way while Hindu-Arabic Dancers fling themselves madly about upon laid-out sheets of satin in unquestionably, almost painfully, erotic choreography. Mysterious be-cloaked merchants advertise the buying and selling of every conceivable good and/or service known to man, up to and including Cray Supercomputers and vital organs (the back-alley autosurgery looks _particularly_ unsettling to me.) Psioinc Musicians play on eye-twisting Seven-Dimensional Syrinxes, beaming ethereal music directly into the temporal lobes of entranced onlookers. A throng of Life and Passion and, of course, Utter Weirdness, under the clear blue skies of heaven.
Ye gods. There _was_ an ordinary world around here somewhere... Now where did I put it...?
A voice from behind me. I whip around to see--
A HUGE MOUTH WITH RAZOR-SHARP TEETH AND
A few deep breaths. "Feeb, don't _do_ that to me! I am _nowhere near_ being in the mood!"
Meanwhile, Feeb has rolled up a newspaper and has swatted Buddy on his saurian muzzle. "Naughty Raptor-Construct! Sit!"
Buddy does so. Luke looks on with amusement, chewing on what appears to be a twenty-five cent gumball.
"Good boy." She removes a slab of meat from the paper-wrapped parcel she now carries under one arm and tosses it to Buddy. He devours it with little fanfare and considerable gore. I look on with inconstant stomach.
"You miss us?"
I look around at the rampant throng about me, anxious for any excuse not to watch the horrid spectacle of Buddy eating. No one else around us seems to mind. Small wonder, I guess. "Sort of." I say. "I never knew that Downtown Hoderund _had_ a walk-in meats-in-bulk market."
"Really? Where did you get your Whole Frozen Pig Carcasses?"
"We... um. Didn't."
"Weeeeeird." Says Feeb.
"Look." I say to Feeb, still averting my eyes from the feeding dinosaur. "I _am_ grateful to Buddy for saving my life and all. But why? Why a Reconstructed Utah Raptor?"
She looks at me as if I were nuts, a possibility which I'm _still_ not discounting. "Are you kidding? Buddy is _great_ for tweaking the Uberauter Indicators!"
"Explain." I say.
"It'd be easier if I showed you. Watch." She removes from the meat-market parcel a two-pound venison sausage. Buddy, recently finished with his first slab of meat, looks up with an almost comically dog-like expression at the new treat. "Get one of those indicators ready." She says.
Mystified, I do so.
She gets Buddy to sit real nicely and promptly balances the venison sausage on his nose. Buddy knows this trick, apparently. as he stays there very patiently, not moving an inch.
I glance at the indicator in my hands. Glowing.
Feeb waves her hand at Buddy who promptly consumes the bit of deer meat with a smack and a chomp. "That's not all." Says Feeb. "Buddy comes from Utah, originally, and _anytime_ we renew the mind-control spells to keep him bound to my will, one of the indicators pings. In fact, _whenever_ we practice mind control on anything or anyone from Utah, one of the indicators gives a ping. We're still trying to figure that one out."
I screw up my eyes at her. "How many of these things have you figured out?"
"Oh. Lots." Says Feeb. "Got another one to show you. All we'll need is a comic book and a pornographic magazine. We can get the first from... here!"
Feeb ducks into a storefront, Luke and Buddy trailing along behind.
I look up at the blistering purple and pink neon sign above the door. Unfortunately, the darn thing has got the voltage turned up so high that I can't make out the name of the shop. Mentally, I try to reconstruct what I am now referring to as the "old" Downtown Hoderund and recall what store _should_ be here...
A tanning salon? Now a comic-book shop? That doesn't make sense... not that anything has yet, really... but there's always been some kind of twisted logic to it, at least...
I am on the verge of peeking into the store windows when Feeb and crew march back out. She's clutching a thin, brightly-colored woodpulp magazine. "Got it." She says, tossing it to me.
Shielding my eyes from the nearly-paranormal glare from the sign above, I catch the book and regard it. Classic superhero mag. I shrug and hand it back to Feeb. "Pretty typical comic-book shop fare." I say.
She stares at me. "What?"
"Comic-Book Shop. You get Comics..." I say, indicating the mag, "...from a Comic-Book Shop."
"Well yes. But also from Irradiation Suites." She points at the hellish sign above. "They give them out free as a sort of product demonstration catalogue."
I'm not even going to ask... I'm not even going to ask...
"Pardon?" I say, inevitably.
Feeb continues on, blithely answering my query. "Okay. Everybody knows that you can gain Super Powers through Radiation Exposure. Right?"
"Right..." I say, weakly.
"So. Stands to reason this would be a pretty high-demand sort of thing, right? After all, who _wouldn't_ enjoy having the ability to generate sheathes of living flame all around his or her body or being able to mutate into a hugely powerful giant-sized version of him or herself?"
"Wheeooo..." Says Luke, dreamily.
"The question," I say, "is virtually rhetorical."
"Exactly." Says Feeb. "That's where Capitalism kicks in. 'Make it easy enough for the common man to bombard himself with unnatural energies and the world will beat a path to your door.' Haven't you ever heard that one before?"
"No." I admit.
"No matter." Says Feeb, waving her hand dismissively. "Point is, given the proper equipment, you can turn Radiation Exposure into a lucrative and interesting Small Business to help earn extra money for the home."
I look with trepidation upon the increasingly-sinister-seeming little shop.
"I guess..." I begin...
"I guess I always thought that one went into one of these places for a tanning job."
Feeb stares at me again.
And then breaks out in laughter. Also again. Luke joins in, very nearly choking on his gumball.
It is a moment or two before Feeb can speak. When she does so, her voice is still thick with her prior mirth.
"Charlie!" Another fit of giggles. "You mean to tell me that you were under the impression that people _voluntarily_ underwent irradiation for shallow cosmetic purposes alone? What kind of world _did_ you come from, anyway?"
I mutter slightly, tracing patterns in the ornamental brick pavers below with one toe.
"And you thought that _that_ sort of thing was 'normal!' I mean, really, Charlie, where would we be, as a culture, if we _actually_ thought that it was worth the risk to go through hypernormal energy exposure just to get a--"
"ALL RIGHT! ALL RIGHT! You've made your point, okay! Sheesh! It's getting a little old!"
"Calm down, Charles. You'll break something. Now." She says, flipping through the comic book, Buddy idly looking on over her shoulder. "All we need to do now to demonstrate a signature blip from UA Eleven is get our hands on some kind of 'adult' 'magazine.'"
"Dare I suggest," I say, limply, "that you look into one of the Adult Pleasure shops?"
"Frink?" Says Luke, curiously, looking at Feeb.
"Oh, nonononono." Says Feeb, dismissing the both of us. "We shan't dicker with those. Run by the Dryads. Nasty beings. Hyper-sexual vegetable organisms who've surrounded themselves with so many of the trappings of kinky intercourse that they've lost sight of what technically should be going on. Forgotten it _utterly._"
"You mean... they get so wrapped up in paraphernalia... that they never get around to... actually... being able... to..."
"'Frink'?" Suggests Luke, helpfully.
"Right." I say. "Thanks, Luke."
"Wheeooo." He says, matter-of-fact-ly.
"Exactly." Says Feeb. "Generally speaking, males that they come in contact with are either trapped forever in endless foreplay or perish in critical hormonal disappointment after about... oh... two days."
At least I'm not alone this time. My prosimian roommate is staring as well, his coppery eyes quite wide.
"_Frink_?" Says Luke, disbelievingly, with a "You Wanna Run That By Me Again?" sort of intonation.
"Yep." Says Feeb.
I narrow my eyes. "What... do they... um... _Do_...? For that long?"
Feeb takes a deep breath.
And she begins Explaining.
After five minutes of constant Feebspeak, both Luke and I have obtained goggling eyes and slacked jaws.
After ten, Luke is forced to sit down, still staring.
And at fifteen, I can take no more. In a near-reflexive attempt to salvage what few brain cells I have left, I plug up my ears and begin doing what any responsible adult would do in this situation: Start to Sing The Star-Spangled Banner. Luke cannot even manage that, unfortunately. From within my shell of sudden, deaf patriotic fervor, I see the continuing effect of Feeb's words on the poor sap. It isn't pretty.
"*WHOOOOSE BROAD STRIIIIIPES AND BRIIIIIGHT STAAAAAAARS... THROUGH THE PAY-RIL-US NIIIIIGHT... WHAT SO PRRRRROOOOOOOOWDLEEEEE WEEEEE HAAAAAAAAAY-LD....*"
I uncover my ears for just a second.
"...Lard and Silly Putty and Pygmy Marmosets and..."
"*BY THE TWIIIIIIIIIIIILIIIIIIIGHT'S LAAAAAAST GLEEEEEEEE-MIIIING...*"
And so forth. I am forced to reprise Our National Anthem at least three times, thence onwards to "America the Beautiful" and, then God save us all, the complete score to Gershwin's _Porgy and Bess._
And she _still_ hasn't finished.
In fact, her explanation lasts all the way through to the first appearance of "Edelweiss" in Rodgers and Hammerstein's charming _The Sound of Music,_ right at the point where Captain Von Trapp comes back from his trip only to find that Maria has taught all his children to Sing in an attempt to make them all a big happy family again. By this time, I've already exhausted _Oklahoma!_ as well and am beginning to panic, foundering around for something, _anything_ to keep Feeb's Explanation from getting to my brains, when she suddenly stops.
I tentatively remove my fingers.
A thin trickle of drool drips down Luke's chin. His eyes are blank and staring.
I gaze upon Feeb in timid horror.
She breathes in.
"And then, on the morning of day _TWO..._"
I sprint to her position at a velocity technically not possible under General Relativity.
"STOP!" I shout, shaking Feeb back and forth. "FOR THE LOVE OF _GOD_, FEEB, DON'T!!!"
Buddy gives me a warning look and a growl. I let her go.
She straightens her lab coat. "Well. You _asked._"
"A mistake," I assure her, wiping my ashen brow, "that I shall not soon again make."
She shrugs. "Your choice. Back to the original point. We need a 'girly mag' for this next effect."
"Aren't you going to ask me where we can get one of those?" Asks Feeb.
"No." I intone, glaring at her, sullenly.
"Oh, this one isn't bad." She says, wandering a few steps into the throng. "We can get one from one of the street hawkers."
"HEYA, HEYA, HEYA! Tri-ple Ehks Nudie Pikt-shurs! Nek-kid Bunnies! Ten Spots a Pop! Git-cher... oh! Hullo, Miss Phoebe!"
"One, please, Sam."
The hawker complies. Feeb returns to my side.
"'Sam'?" I say, calmly.
She waves her hand dismissively. "Long story. Anyway. You got one of those Indicators?"
I toss her one, my expression carefully grim.
She takes the comic book and the adult magazine, holds them leaf to leaf, and fans them together into a paper sandwich.
There is a faint, hesitant flicker.
"Ha." Says Feeb. "You see that--"
I cut her off with a gutteral "Mrwagh" sound.
A moment of silence.
"Feeb." I say. "What _are_ we supposed to be _DOING_ here?"
She looks at me. I continue.
"I mean, we leave the lab with the implication that we're going to be _finding_ one of the Uberauters, a proposition that I _still_ don't quite understand, and now you seem to have forgotten about it _yourself!_ _WHY_," I say, gritting my teeth against asking another question but failing to resist again, "are we here at all?"
"Simple." Says Feeb. "We're shopping around for an Offering to him, lest he become angry. We can probably find it in Capitol Centre."
"The Mall?" I say quietly.
"Then _WHY_," I say, "_ARE WE SCREWING AROUND HERE?!?_ I mean, we've _already_ exhausted our time window. Goodness knows why we aren't dead two or three times over by now, all while you were prattling on about the GODDAMN Dyrads, and all for ####? Just so you could show off another one of your pretty little _FLICKERS_ again! WE'RE LOSING FOCUS, HERE! WE'RE NOT ON TASK! WHY ARE YOU _DOING_ THIS TO US?!? _WHY!?!_"
She looks at me. Then, she pulls a stop watch on a neck-thong out from under her lab coat. She clicks it to 'stop', regards the result with a critical eye, and then notes a figure down on her clipboard.
"Thank you!" She says, brightly.
Then she starts walking off, Buddy in tow.
I watch her depart for a moment. Then, I pick up the still-catatonic Luke and follow her.
"You mind telling me what all that was?" I say.
"Little experiment. Testing out a new scale of measurement called the Gratuitous Reference Index, or the G.R.I., as I prefer to call it. It's a method of quantifying exactly how much tangential non-plot-related material can be tolerated by the average listener. We're still in Beta Test on this one, but once we get the bugs ironed out, it should be a fairly useful descriptive measure. Thanks for the data."
"Anytime." I say, heavily. "So. Now that we're _DONE_ with all that, can we finally get around to going to the mall sometime soon?"
"Certainly." Says Feeb. "In fact..." She gestures grandiosely ahead of her, "We're there."
I follow her gesture ahead and up. And up. And up.
At first, my brain refuses to reconcile matters. I temporarily spin through various options including distant mountain ranges and cloud banks, both decked out in tasteful earth-toned bricks, before finally deciding that, no, the building before me _was_ indeed as broad as the horizon and as tall as the sky.
Impossibly tiny-looking shoppers bustle in and out in a constant stream through the comically small doors way down there at the bottom of everything.
An illuminated, strangely imposing logo decked out in thirty-foot-high Helvetica Bold reads, simply, "CAPITOL CENTRE."
We four beings--two humans, one construct-velociraptor and one Catatonic Lemur--regard the edificial construction with varying degrees of fear and awe.
"Looks... um... big." I say.
Phoebe gazes towards the Mall as she might the oncoming dawn.
"Charles," She says, "It's more than 'big.'"
She pauses, theatrically, and then says...
"It's a universe unto itself."