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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
With a fizz and a pop, the Principal Indicator comes back on...
...just in time to get a picture-perfect view of the swirling mass of opalescent green-and-pearl-gray vapors that, presumably, make up the Time Portal through which we must venture. Streaks of arcane and spectral lightning arc across the opening, and the whole affair is mounted into a twisted silver frame decorated with leering and demonic human faces cast into the shining metal. Some of the leering and demonic faces have had Festive Santa Hats put on them by clueless Mall employees. To my Left and to my Right, there are to be found more and more portals, stretching off into the distance in either direction.
We ready our weapons. Travis speaks.
"All right." Says Travis. "This here is a SubArcane Kelvik 29 Clarke's Law Temporal Warp Device, commonly referred to as a 'Time Portal.' Through here is the Late Cretaceous Wing of the Mall, which connects through to the West Tertiary Fornax Deep Four Food Court. It's a bit of a jaunt, but we _will_ all make it out alive if you follow my directions to the letter. Understood?
"Very well, then. When the portal is properly calibrated, you will find that, upon stepping through, you will be standing upon a walkway made of Anti-Gravity Metal, hovering about one foot off of the ground. IT IS _IMPERATIVE_ THAT YOU DO NOT LEAVE THIS WALKWAY! It was placed and activated by Mall Authority upon the opening of the Late Cretaceous Wing to insure that NO SIGNIFICANT CHANGES are made to Ancient Prehistory. Currently being passed around is a brochure that has been provided for you by Mall Authority giving you some brief guidelines on what _not_ to do while foraying into the Past. Please read it. Any Questions?"
"All right. Primary insertion at 0630. Take a breather until then. Dismissed." Travis waves his hand, and we disperse to a nearby set of benches. I plop down and begin paging through the brochure.
* * *
We at Capitol Centre Mall encourage YOU! to be a Temporally-Smart Shopper this Holiday Season! We want you to have a safe, happy, and paradox-free Christmas with your families, surrounded by Lots and Lots of lovely Consumer Goods from Capitol Centre. Unfortunately, some shoppers are _not_ Temporally Smart, and end up causing either themselves or their loved ones to cease to exist, by altering causality and the space-time continuum! So please, if you _do_ travel back in time this Holiday Season, do it Smart! By following these simple rules, you should be able to insure that you and yours will be in existence for many, many Christmases Yet To Come!
1. Do _not_ travel through time while under the influence of Alcohol, Drugs, or Prescription Medication!
2. Do _not_ kill your own Grandfather!
3. Do _not_...
* * *
I shut the brochure, massaging my temples slightly. "Feeb?" I say.
"Yes?" Says Feeb.
"Mundementia One is a state of confusion and disorientation about the world at large?"
"Yep." Says Feeb.
"How long is it, usually, before people reach Mundementia Two?"
"Sorry?" Says Feeb.
"You know. Mundementia Two. The achievement of an understanding, a 'working relationship' with the world wherein one is _not_ constantly subjected to these constant assaults on the cognition...?"
"I'm afraid I don't follow." Says Feeb.
"You know!" I say. "The next level!"
"Charles." She says. "There isn't one."
I slouch down in my seat. "Wonderful. So things will basically be like this for the rest of my natural life."
"Pretty much, yes." Says Feeb.
"How long until we go in?" I ask.
"Travis pegged insertion at 0630. So not long."
"We're in the morning already?" I ask.
Feeb hedges and looks a bit uncomfortable.
"Because... like... 0630 is 6:30 A.M., converted back from military time. I _was_ in the Scouts, you know. And I'm just wondering, because, you know..."
"No." Says Feeb. "He means 6:30 P.M."
"Ah." I say. "That should have been 1830 hours, technically. I don't suppose that..."
"NO!" Says Feeb, suddenly. "No! The... uh... the... Military Time here _STARTS_ at NOON! Not Midnight! Yeah. That's it."
I narrow my eyes at her. "You're lying, Feeb. You just made that up on the spot. Who are you trying to protect, here?"
Feeb does not answer.
"And another thing. Way back when, when you were telling me about the Uberauters for the first Time. You mentioned 'New Zeland White' Rabbits."
"Yeah?" Says Feeb, still looking a bit defensive. "So what?"
"There's no such thing as a 'New Zeland' Rabbit. They're 'New _Zealand_' Rabbits."
She glares at me. "How did you know that? They sound exactly the same!"
"I'm an English major." I say. "I'm very sensitive to Words."
"They were... uh... a NEW BREED of Rabbits that I had Developed! Using my SCIENCE skills! And... uh... and... AND YOU SAID IT COULDN'T BE DONE!"
"I said no such thing, Feeb. You're being _very_ defensive about a lot of things here, and I'm beginning to want some answers..."
"You want answers?" She says.
"I think I'm _entitled_ to some answ--"
"You Want Answers?"
"_I WANT... THE TRUTH!_"
Feeb sneers at me. "_You can't handle the truth!_"
A momentary, tense standoff.
"Charles, we're perched on a delicate sliver of reality here whose borders have to be constantly monitored by men and women with scientific devices. _Who's going to watch these borders_, son? _YOU?_"
"How's that Gratuitous Reference Index looking there, Feeb?"
"Seven Point Four Nine Oh." She says, consulting her clipboard.
"Thought so." I said.
Luke wanders back over, still holding Buddy's Leash. In the interim time between Travis's speech and now, Luke has been teaching Buddy how to do Origami Cranes, and save for the massive rends and tears in the paper caused by his front primary claws, he looks like he's getting pretty good at it.
"Frink." Says Luke, proudly, showing Buddy's new creations to Feeb.
"Oh!" Says Feeb. "How Adorable!" She kisses Buddy on the muzzle.
"All Right!" Bellows Travis. "We've wasted enough time here. The portal is now properly calibrated. Time to move out!"
The lot of us gather again into a haggard mass, weapons at the ready.
I gaze upon the Door to the Past with some trepidation.
"Feeb," I say, "I _really_ hope that all of this is worth it."
Slowly, one by one, we fall forwards into the mists.
* * *
The Forest Primeval.
Pristine, inviolate, sacrosanct.
Mighty and probably long-extinct trees tower above the landscape, forming a dense green canopy which lies over the ancient forest like a hot, wet blanket on massive seventeen-foot wide sticks. One gets the impression that they are gymnosperms. There are ferns, too, because there are always ferns in the Forest Primeval. There are also always these big dragonflies with two-foot wingspans; so they're here, too.
It's hot, damp, and sticky. Were this climate to be found in the modern world, OSHA regulations would probably require lifeguards for it, appropriately equipped with carefully-certified flotation devices. But there is no OSHA here. There are no lifeguards. And there are no flotation devices.
And there are no regulations save the Law of the Wild. All is governed by the ancient maxim of Kill or be Killed.
Actually, there _is_ a third choice.
* * *
I am not entirely certain how I have come to be here.
I get this brief memory of a huge mouth with teeth the size of Brazilian daggers. And a thunderous, screeching roar like... well, like a nine-ton abattoir on legs. There's really no other way to describe it.
I am, technically, "running." At least, that's the general idea of what I'm doing. It would probably be more accurately described as "slogging through prehistoric greenery, smacking my head on things and tripping." But the general direction is _AWAY_, and that's what really matters right now.
There's this vague memory of Travis bellowing the words "STAY ON THE PATH!" in that bloody annoying Australian accent. There is also this vague memory of gunfire. But the thing that _really_ stands out for me was that... um. Thing. Big dinosaur. Gah.
Trip. Squish. Splunch. Rise. Two more steps. Smack.
I'm about knee-deep in mud and mud residue right now. I'm red and scritched from a particularly nasty bunch of prickers. The rifle is gone; I can't even remember when exactly I lost it. I'm wet.
Somehow, that really seems to be the important thing.
Two more steps. Smack. Ouch. Trip. Squelch. Two more.
I've had enough of this. I really, really have. I'm not even certain whether my companions are alive, either the ones I knew by name or the faceless "Other Holiday Shoppers." I'm ashamed to say it, but at this point in time, I'm not really caring all that much. I'm going to be getting these massive guilt attacks for the rest of my life if something happened to them, but... um... at least I'll be there to be having them. If I live through this.
Starting to look like a pretty big "if."
On the one hand, I could just stay here in the Late Cretaceous period. I'd be out of Ashraak's hair. He probably wouldn't even send anyone in after me. I get this vision of me using the skills I learned in the Scouts to build a shoddy-half-assed lean-to out of leaves and a fallen tree, just like I did that night at Potter's Flowage. At least then I had my pocketknife. I'd cope, though. Construct a bow and arrows out of some nice straight wood. Become the world's _first_ recorded hunter-gathering Human.
I need to get back. Find the portal again. Then, I'm giving up. Screw finding one of the Uberauters. I'll drop out of the University and go back home, whatever home is like. Or maybe not. Maybe I'll just become a pilgrimlike wanderer of the world, like Kane in 'Kung Fu.' Or even better, I'll find a completely indestructible sensory-deprivation tank with an inexhaustable food supply and spend the rest of my days shutting out this delusional state and going quietly mad inside my own head.
This REALLY, REALLY sucks. Something fierce.
I want to go home.
And then, as I am resting briefly in the mud from my most recent fall, the odd fellow appears.
He strides easily and comfortably through the primeval vegetation, occasionally pushing a plant or two out of his way with a long walking stave crested with an onyx globe on one end and a utilitarian spike on the other. He is wearing a pith helmet and a khaki Skeleton Coast breeches-and-jacket-outfit such as you might find on a well-dressed voyageur from the Victorian era, and he has a canteen slung about his neck. He's _way_ better dressed than I am, right now.
At the same time that the odd fellow appears, the sounds of the Forest Primeval begin to... fade, slightly. To Become muted and gray. To be replaced by faint, aethereal music. The trees likewise seem to cloud and go fuzzy, as if someone has managed to attack the very fabric of reality with an airbrush. He alone remains steady, constant, and clear.
He notices me.
"Hullo." He says. And begins effortlessly approaching, through the increasingly surreal vegetation.
I just stand there, still panting slightly, sweating and mud-crusted, bleeding through numerous cuts and scrapes.
"Beginning to wonder if we'd ever find you." He says.
"Who..." My voice dissolves into a cough.
"...Am I?" Finishes the odd fellow.
I nod, still finishing my cough.
"No real sense in giving it to you easy, I suppose." He bites his lip for a moment and then speaks. "You don't know me."
"I was assuming that fact would have been--" Cough. "--Self-Evident."
He smiles. "Right." He says. "From the beginning, then. My name is Doctor Benjamin Harte, Saint Cristobel's University Hospitals and Clinics. Psychiatry Department. Pleased to meet you." He extends a hand to shake. Nervelessly, I shake it. "Call me 'Reggie.'" He continues. "Everybody else does."
"Reggie?" I say, still shaking his hand. He has a pleasantly firm handshake.
"Middle name." He says, smiling faintly.
"Right." I say. "Saint Cristobel's, huh? Don't you mean L.U.D.D.D.Amber?"
He gazes at me with clear amber eyes. "No." He says, quietly.
"I have a feeling," I say, "That you should talk to me."
Reggie strides over to a small natural dolmen and sits on it, then points out another seat across from him. I walk over and take it. The rock seems... oddly... unreal, in a way. It seems fuzzy and indistinct, like everything else at this point does excepting him and me.
We settle ourselves. "Talk." I say.
"All right." Says Reggie, taking a sip from his canteen. "Let's be brief. I'm not certain exactly how long I have, here. I," He gestures to himself, "am a Doctor of the Psychiatric Arts. I work for Saint Cristobel's University Hospital, holding a specialist position in the Department of Neuropsychiatry."
"What does that make me?" I say.
"A client." He says. "A particularly challenging one. This is the first time we've achieved anything remotely resembling clarity out of you. It's taken quite a lot of doing."
I stare at him.
"Where am I." I ask.
Reggie looks around. "You appear to be in some sort of Prehistoric Forest, it seems. Is this how things have--"
"No." I say. "Where _am_ I."
Reggie purses his lips. "All right. Straight up. Your physical form is currently in one of the trauma suites of SCUH&C. Don't worry, you're in no serious danger of dying or any such thing, at the present time. You were admitted to the hospital on 10/12/97 as a result of an open-head lesion that you sustained when you inadvertently interrupted an armed robbery of a convenience store while on your way to a recital at the Department of Music."
"Berlioz." I say, quietly. "'Symphonie Fantastique.' That's where the... poodle... bit me..."
"You never made it to the concert." Says Reggie. "I don't know the forensic details, of course, but they tell me that the perpetrator was a young, rather twitchy fellow. His first real criminal act, really. Something to do with unpaid gambling debts. Anyway," says Reggie, with a "back to the point now" sort of expression, "when you stopped into the shop on your way to the Recital Hall, he apparently became panicked and fired."
"At me." I say.
"Yes." Says Reggie. "It wasn't all _that_ serious of a neurological trauma, originally, as far as neurological traumas go. But part of the regular battery of emergency treatment included an anti-edemetic drug to help keep the swelling down. Your individual system... how shall we say... reacted badly to it. Catastrophically. You're out of critical danger, now; unfortunately, as an unplanned side-effect of the anti-edemetic medication, you've been rendered utterly delusional. Critical broad-spectrum decay across the board; cognition, sensation, memory, et cetera, et cetera. And some other areas that we're still working on."
"I _am_ nuts." I say, quietly.
"Indelicately, yes." Says Reggie. "As far as we can tell, your brain has been reduced to a highly symbological self-monitoring state, where familiar concepts and objects have come to represent abstract indications of your mental status. As best as we've been able to find out, you've been existing in a sort of allegorical landscape representing your relative health and well-being."
"Is that why everything is so hostile? Because I'm messed up in the head?"
"Probably, yes. We _have_ been watching you, after a fashion, but this is the first time that we've been successful in actually _communicating_ with you."
I frown. "Are _you_ the Uberauters?"
"Beings on 'another plane of existence' who are watching everything that's going on."
"Quite possibly. That sounds like the sort of thing that you might be generating to explain our efforts."
I ponder this for a moment. Then I fish out the Principal Indicator. It's glowing a steady, incandescent red. "An Indicator." I explain.
"Interesting." Says Reggie.
"So." I say. "You're here, now. Can you do anything to help?"
"Working on it." Says Reggie. "It _seems_ that actions that you're taking here in the allegorical landscape are affecting your recovery rate. Now that _we_ can communicate, I'll probably be able to _assist_ you on that same allegorical level."
"Show me." I say.
Reggie smiles, cryptically, and gestures with his walking stick. With a deep rumble, the thick, surreal vegetation parts, Moses-like, in a broad advancing swath, creating a clear path through the jungle, at whose terminus is a strip of anti-gravity metal levitating about a foot off the ground. The Path.
"That should take you to one of the exit portals." Says Reggie. "I'm afraid that that's the best I can do right now. Hopefully, your freedom from this allegorical jungle should translate to some improved cognitive efficiency topside."
"You _do_ realize, of course, that the only reason I'm _in_ this allegorical jungle at all is that I was running away from an allegorical Tyrannosaurus Rex."
He nods. "Another symbol. Some will be more dangerous than others. I'll try and help out when and if I can."
I nod to him, gratefully. "Reggie. Thanks." I swat at some surreal mosquitoes. "Is there _anything_ I can do to help this along?"
"Stay alive, for one thing." Says Reggie. "Oh... and... _don't_ tell anyone else about this. We've been watching your symbology, and, basically, we feel that actually 'telling' other symbolic beings about your meetings with me will do nothing but generate expressions of disbelief and doubt which will only serve to inhibit what progress you're already making."
I nod, carefully. "Got it."
He smiles gently at me, and then rises from the dolmen and begins walking off through the jungle. "I'll be seeing you!" He calls.
Instantly, the world around me snaps back into focus. If the part through the jungle were not still there, I would almost believe Reggie's appearance were just another hallucination.
But the part is there.
Finally. I'm _FINALLY_ getting some answers. My weirdness-dulled senses have snapped back into action, and my mind is working, turning, spinning, pondering these new facts, the _only_ facts that anyone has yet given me. Everything is pretty sketchy, yet. But now, I can finally start to begin the process of Understanding.
I hop down off the dolmen, traverse the part, and am presently back to the Path. I step back up onto the anti-grav metal, my boots tracking mud on its shiny surface. From my position on the Path, I can clearly see the swirling vapors of one of the Time Portals far off in the distance.
A few minutes of a limping half-run bring me there. It seems to be an older portal than the one that we all used to come here in the first place; the silver is a bit tarnished, and a few straggly vines and creepers have grown across its surface. I part them easily with my hands and am about to step through, when, from behind me...
"Charles! Hold up!"
I heave a mental sigh of relief. Good. Feeb, Luke & Co. are still okay. Hell, I don't know what I was worried about in the first place. Luke probably reduced the Tyrannosaur to 80% lean ground chuck with that gun of his shortly after I lost my nerve and ran. I should have stayed with them. That would have been the right thing to do. But... I wasn't _really_ conscious of my actions at the time. I was acting on instinct. You can't blame somebody for acting on instinct, can you? It wasn't my fault. I wasn't even in control. Besides. Had I not been out in the jungle, I never would have been able to meet Reggie...
"Charles!" Shouts Feeb.
I survey the Time Portal.
I smirk, jauntily. They want me to wait up for them.
Let _them_ follow _me_ for a change.
Parting the vines and creepers once more, I step forward through the mists.