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Mundementia One: The Book of Going Forth
It had been a pretty eventful night for eight-year-old Paco Zephelmine; the storm-cast sky was a funny color, he had recently found a pangolin, and he was having a conversation with a giant robot death machine from out of the sea.
The sky was easy to explain. The little island of How Come Eh, deep along the lines of the strange and illuminated archipelago of Mislocated Bermuda, was ravaged by bizarre weather conditions, most of which tended to have a strange (and now, utterly hum-drum) effect on the physical form and condition of all its hapless citizens. Many things on How Come Eh revolved around such a theme; on one occasion where his mother and father were in forms capable of complicated human-style speech, they explained to him that all of this was due to the strange and twisted machinations of the Story Universe Moderator, a man by the name of Rafael de l'Ortega who lived in the big castle up on the highest peak of the island-city. No-one seemed to know just what was up with Generalissimo de l'Ortega, why it was he was so bloody keen on mucking around with everyone's shape, but to question his will was death, or something like it, and to leave the island was... well...
Okay, let's be frank, it was impossible. I mean, sure, people have an attachment to the familiar comforts of home and hometown, but it takes a certain stubborn and very dedicated sort of conservative to get really emotional about a place where, over the course of a week, you might uncontrollably and inexplicably be a wombat, a leatherback tortoise, two or three inches of greenish-blue algae or a 1971 Chevrolet Caprice _and still be expected to come to work every day._ Without artificial controls, How Come Eh would be a barren and abandoned rock in the Atlantic, watched over by one lonely madman.
So. To insure himself a constant supply of beleaguered (and terribly bored) playthings, the General had long ago passed an order that any and all life-stories that involved a person (or a group thereof) actually leaving the island were to be considered Non-Canonical. This meant that, sure, you could go ahead, have your fun, plot out an intricate and well-made story about how, after spending seven days trying to work the rigging and nets on a small commercial fishing trawler while wearing the body of a Wild Chinese Yak, you had said "Sod all this, then," staged a mutiny, trampled the loyalist crew and sailed off into the sunset towards Florida, or wherever the heck piece of mainland you were closest to at the time, IT DIDN'T _REALLY_ HAPPEN.
And poof, there you were, back on the boat, still pulling up nets with your friggin' TEETH.
Paco didn't have quite so much trouble with this as most of the children at his school did. Paco was what was known as a "stable character". As a result of the Confusing Riots of 1983, Rafael de L'Ortega had reluctantly introduced certain controls into his otherwise rampant fecking around so that people would have, as he put it, "Half a chance in Hell of figuring out what's going on in this story." None of his quasi-loyal citizens ever really understood what the Generalissimo was talking about when he started going on about this Story Universe business, but they were more than happy to take whatever bone of consistency Ortega was willing to throw them. In this case, amongst other concessions, he had instituted the concept of "stable characters," little points of solidity around which the murky and chaotic waters of island life could curl. Sure, Paco had spent the occasional week as a striped hyena--who hadn't? Per his own Universe Rules, the only person _completely_ immune to the transformative powers of the General was the General himself. But for the most part, life and all its attendant weirdness just kind of happened around young Paco, leaving him untouched.
It wasn't so bad a life. Parents always heralded the birth of a stable child into the family as some sort of great boon of fortune, so he was regularly doted upon, that is to say, when anyone in his family was in any condition wherein doting was possible. When they weren't, and this was much of the time, Paco was free to wander the island pretty much at his leisure. He was reasonably confident of his own safety; in an attempt to give his token stable characters a decent lifespan, ultimately resulting in less work for him, the Generallisimo had signed certain protections into Canonical Law which gave Paco some of the same unfair advantages that principal protagonists enjoyed without any of that messy heroic stuff.
One might suspect that all the privileges afforded such a child might ruin his temperament, but Paco was a remarkably placid and sober lad for all this. Dark-eyed and dark-haired, he bore himself with the sort of quiet calmness that comes from a life spent observing and processing a rather silly world and accepting it at face value. He was a nice kid, and his author likes him too much to have anything really horrible happen to him.
Paco's parents weren't in good shape tonight, and the less said of this the better. Demonstrating some of his characteristic sensibility, Paco had chosen to abandon his home and had spent most of the evening down by the docks on the lower shore of the island, whiling away the hours playing games of balance on the pylons and leaping to and from the sort of free-standing stumps that mark the final resting places of old piers. Pelicans wheeled about, calling out before the oncoming storm. Probably some of them were actually pelicans.
Accompanying Paco on his excursions tonight was a pangolin. Currently, it was riding along on his right shoulder. Paco kind of liked the pangolin, and for a second permitted himself the thought of keeping it for a pet before dismissing that thought a moment or two down the line. Even if the pangolin was in fact born that way and was not in fact the school nurse having a rather bad night, Paco knew enough about island life to regard any attachment of this sort as doomed. How would you know what size of cage to purchase for an animal that might be fifteen times bigger in the morning?
No, no matter how much he was enjoying the company of the twitchy little animal, Paco knew it was best to let it go after a tonight, to let it fend for itself as best as possible. That was the way of the island. He would simply have to have fun with it while it lasted.
The pangolin chuffed quietly and he fed it a bit off the caraway roll he was eating. Then he took another bite for himself and hopped across a captured bit of ocean to one of the old pier stumps, where he sat as he was wont to do, gazing out at the placid water.
The water remained placid in this way for precisely twelve seconds. Then it was rendered decidedly unplacid by the aforementioned Giant Robot Death Machine.
The pangolin squealed, for one, and immediately curled itself into a protective little scaly ball. Unfortunately, it was a little overzealous about the whole "ball" business and ended up curling so profoundly that it lost its grip on Paco's shoulder and went tumbling towards the sea below. Operating on reflex alone, Paco snatched the creature out of the air and brought it into the curl of his arms, his wide brown eyes never leaving the mountainous Thing that had erupted from the surface of the ocean.
It was manlike, that was certain, but there was a certain hulking quality to its manlikeness that suggested that whoever it was that had based its shape on the human form had either intentionally done so very loosely or hadn't done their homework very well. The lines of its matte-finished blackened steel hull curved in strange and hideous bio-organic parodies, sculpting out impossibly broad and hunched shoulders tapering somewhat to a comparatively fragile cabled waist. It was only half out of the water and already it appeared top-heavy. Here and there lurked heavy armament ports of every description, with weapon barrels the breadth of a man's splayed hand perched therein, ill-concealed behind seven-inch whiskered-carbon armor plating. Great acres of dripping kelp and uprooted sea-plants clung to the gnarled surface of the horrible thing. They glistened with the fading moon and in the waxing light of the approaching storm.
Paco was transfixed. He held tightly to his pangolin. Even on How Come Eh, the sudden appearance of an Iconoclast-Grade Self-Sentient Bipedal War Machine could be regarded as something of an oddity.
The robot killing machine leaned down, far down, gazing at Paco intently with what passed for a face. Horrible light-spilling eyes, deep-set and sparklike, flickered with patent menace somewhere behind the creature's great and steel-crushing reptilian jaws which happened to be large enough to comfortably chew a compact automobile.
The beast regarded Paco and his momentary pet.
A viscous strand of sizzling and over-taxed coolant dripped slowly from the right corner of its iron maw. The whine of hot metal drowned out the noise of the storm.
This, for a moment.
Then, with a theatrical flourish, the horrible iron monster wiped the stream of mechanical drool away with an artful backhand.
"Yuck!" it declared, gushingly, with a voice that could shake the mountains. "Have you ever _theen_ such a thing?" It stood up straight, one arm akimbo, the other positioned where it could get a good look at its hand, still trailing hot and caustic liquid. "My my my my MY!" it said. "The least they could do is install some proper theals or something so my deadly internal fluids don't keep spurting out all over the place!"
It clucked its tongue, or the war machine equivalent thereof, perturbedly. "Boy!" it said. "Being a giant killer robot really sucks ass!"
The metal creature sighed. "Oh well," it finished. With a horrible searing whine, the Iconoclast-Grade Self-Sentient Bipedal War Machine hunkered down and placed its skeletally-articulated armor-clad hands on its knees, still concealed beneath the surface of the ocean.
"Hell-O!" said the robot, brightly. "My name is Warwickshire Lily-of-the-Valley Nine AutoSentient AI module, verthion Two Point Oh Five! But don't you bother with all that formal dethignation stuff," it added, in a conspiratorial tone, as it raised one hand out of the water and made a limp and disdainful gesture that incidentally triggered the launch of an Ares shoulder-mounted tactical missile array; lines of fire streaked off across the dark ocean to the creature's left. "My friendth call me Lyle!"
Lyle the Death Machine extended a hand as though to shake. The pangolin whined in abject terror and widdled all over the place. Paco stood motionless.
From somewhere off in the near distance there came a flash and the muffled noise of a missile explosion. Lyle budged from his congenial posture not an inch.
"You have friends?" said Paco, finally, his voice sounding very weak and quiet in the still, especially after the driven-air catastrophe Lyle had produced.
"Oh yes!" Lyle burbled.
"Are they dead?" asked Paco, cautiously.
"Oh, nonononono," said Lyle. "You're jutht a weensy bit confused there, little scamp! I'm not really a robot death machine, deep down! What you're talking to right now, me, is a _fabulouthly_ modular independent AI unit, thuitable for use in a wide variety of private sector tasks and applications! I'm capable of working in anything from your private little lap-top computer all the way up to, well, your Giant Robot Death Machine!"
"In fact," it added, "I could be a _killer_ electronic planner. Or one of those portable phones! I've alwayth wanted to be a portable phone. Ooh! Ooh! And inthtead of a boring ol' ring, I could do a little song, instead! Jutht watch!"
With a little flourish, Lyle began to strut gaily through the water, crushing whole fishing trawlers against his nigh-impregnable hull in the process. "'Can't-you-thee-to-look-at-me that aaaIII'm! a natural CamiiilllE!'" he sang. Pelicans shrieked in terror. With a great curling wave, Lyle turned and lurched back in the opposite direction, dragging wreckage down into his massive wake as he went. "'Ath Camille I jutht feeeEEEL! I have tho much to off-fer!"
"I don't own a phone," interrupted Paco. "I saw one the other day, though. People have been bringing a lot of phones to the island lately."
"Oh, yeth," said Lyle, stopping short. "That'll be that 'Conthpirathy' thing again."
"Come again?" said Paco, who found that he could hardly believe that, given a conversation to be having with a giant robot death machine, this was it.
"Con... Thpir... a... Thee," said Lyle, sounding it out very slowly as though he were talking to an eight-year-old, which he was. "The Bermudan Conthpirathy. Whatthamatter, kid, do I got a lithp or something?"
"Oh!" said Lyle.
"You're right! I do, don't I! Thilly me!"
At that point, Paco made up his mind that this was just about the oddest thing that had ever happened to him personally. "You," he said, "are a very queer robot."
Lyle looked down at the boy for some time, bizarre and insectoid expressions clacking across his mechanical face.
"What was your firtht clue?" he asked, coyly.
"The singing," said Paco, gamely trying to categorize everything he felt was weird about this visitor from across the seas. "And the dancing. Your voice is funny, too."
"Oh, and that all maketh me 'queer', does it?"
"Well... yes!" replied Paco, still clinging to his charmingly old-fashioned ideas of how English words are supposed to work.
"Lithen, scamp," said Lyle the Iconoclast. "Firthtly, somebody hath _got_ to jolt that little mind of yours out of itth rigid prethupothitions some day. Secondly, I'll have you know that I'm not thith way by choice, okay? I'm only acting the way I wath programmed to act, viz., as an unfair and ridiculouthly overdrawn effeminate thtereotype. We don't all choose how we thtart out in life." The Iconoclast reared back upward touching its chest lightly with one claw. "I, for exthample, was originally dethigned for the thpethific purpoth of Objectively Calculating the hotneth of Male Swimsuit Models, rating them on a scale of Zero, meaning, 'No Thankth!' to Ten, meaning--"
"What are you doing here?" interrupted Paco, who hadn't understood a word of what came before. "I mean... not to say you don't have the right to be anywhere you want to be, just... what are you doing?"
"Oh!" said Lyle. "Well, that'th thimple."
The waves crashed. Thunder boomed. Lyle drew himself up to his full tremendousness.
"I AM HERE TO DETHTROY CHARLES MADISON GLASS." he boomed. "And to take in any interethting shopping opportunities your quaint little island has to offer. BUT MOTHTLY TO DETHTROY!"
"Ahh... hah," said Paco.
"Which kind of leadth me to a quethtion I should ask." Lyle cleared his biometallic throat; it sounded a bit like a seventeen-car pileup being crashed into by a jet airliner. "Charming little native boy," said Lyle, "could you direct me to the motht probable location for a vithitor to thith picturethqe island to be thpending the evening here so that I could go, oh, annihilate him, pretty pleathe? Thankth."
"This Glass," said Paco. "He is not an islander, then?"
"'Courthe not!" said Lyle. "He'th from the Good Old You Eth of Aay, jutht like me!"
Well, thought Paco, that _would_ explain it. Mother always said Americans were a strange lot when she wasn't a giant panda. "I don't know, sir," admitted Paco, "but the General's thirteenth Grand Gala Masquerade Ball this month is going on up at the palace tonight." Paco pointed way, way up to the ancient citadel atop the peak of the island city. "He might be here to attend that."
"Ooh!" squealed Lyle delightedly. "A party! I'm _there!_" Lyle began ticking points off on his awful rending claws. "Okay. We'll go shopping firtht, maybe take a minute to pick up a copy of Gay Male Robot Monthly... Tell me, little scamp, do you have any decent free-thinking newsstands on thith island?"
Paco shrugged. "Sorry," he said. "Don't know."
"Hm," remarked Lyle, tapping at his chin. "Well, we'll thee if we can find one while we're out. Okay, shop firtht, _then_ up to the castle and party. Annihilate Charles Madison Glass if he'th there, if not, thpend a while hobnobbing, then leave, Annihilate Charles Madison Glass elthewhere, then back for more party! I _love_ thith plan!"
"Best get started, then," said Paco, glancing up at the castle and noting the lights therein. "I think it begins soon."
"Ack!" said Lyle, throwing his hands to his face and launching gouts of white-hot fire out over the water. "And me with nothing to wear! Okay, scamp, you've been most helpful." With exaggerated precision, he reached down and mussed Paco's hair with one titanic hand. "I have _got_ to go get ready!"
And with that, the colossal war droid hauled its enormous and dripping mass out of the water and set itself on land with a rather acrobatic leap. The island itself shook in protest; Paco dropped into a hasty crouch, clinging to the pier-stump for dear life, the pangolin clutched Paco's belly. Gingerly, Lyle began picking his way up the long and slowly-spiraling boulevard that ran from the lower docks all the way up to the mountain fastness atop the island's peak, circumscribing the island a hundred times in its course. Colateral damage flowed out behind him like a wake.
"Wish me luck, scamp!" said Lyle, over his shoulder, as he departed. "I'm goin' out tonight, and I'm painting thith town a fethtive yet tathetful shade of pink!"
Slowly the tremors died down. Paco gradually released his death grip on the stump, steadied himself, and looked after the departing combat droid.
"I wonder if that was the right thing to do," said Paco.
"I dunno," remarked the pangolin. "I'm just a pangolin."
* * *
The door to the cell flies open, on account of me having just kicked it in. As has already been established, the cell door is not actually locked, but sometimes, when you're the damn hero of the piece, already, you just have to kick a door in, dig?
I stand for a moment, silhouetted in the light from the hall. At my right flank is the crouched figure of my faithful prosimian roommate, Luke, bearing a small bundled mass of jumpsuit and a second bundled mass of plastic-wrapped cloth. He is unarmed, which is unusual for him. To my left is Buddy the Undead Velociraptor.
"Feeb!" I exclaim. "We heard a shriek through the oddly sound-conductive ventilation ducts!" I glance back over my shoulder. "Luke here was all prepared to dismiss it as some sort of 'apostasic shriek of despair' or something, but I was more like--"
I stop. I regard the room, the disarray of a slight struggle, the tears welling in Phoebe's eyes.
I regard the dead man, resting gently but eternally in the sad little pile of damp straw in the corner.
"Fuck," I say. "Feeb, what the hell happened here?"
"I'm... I'm sorry, Charles..." sniffles Feeb.
"Look," I say, fuming and rubbing at my temples. "I left you here with the _specific_ instruction to not let L'Abbe de Trephane kick off while I was gone, and what do I come back here and find? Do you see any alive L'Abbe's in this room right now? 'Cause I sure don't!"
"I'M SORRY, CHARLES!" she cries out. "He... he was just too... stereotypical..."
My stern demeanor softens. Actually, I don't know what the hell business my stern demeanor had in being firm in the first place. I shake my head. This 'hero' crap is getting to my head.
Feeb breaks out in a wail. My heart melts for her. I sigh.
"All right, you," I mutter in what I hope is a compassionate fashion, as I open my arms and begin to cross the cell to her. "I didn't mean to--"
There is a greenish-brown flash, and the room is suddenly full of the stink of undead dinosaur; unsurprising because it has recently become full of one rather considerably-sized undead dinosaur. Buddy holds Feeb gently in his wicked and ill-matched claws, glaring sternly at me. The stink of his breath washes over me.
"Rawr," says Buddy, calmly, yet with a subtle but pronounced hint of "I will tear your head off and beat the hell out of your neck with it if you further antagonize the mistress" present somewhere therein.
"Whoa," I say, "easy there, big guy."
Excuse me? 'Big guy'? I never talk like this. What the hell is wrong with me tonight? I shake my head again to clear it. Damn! It is at this point I begin to feel that I'm letting my end of the conversation slip, so I stutter blindly into the next sentence. "I... wasn't trying to, er, be of any harm. So yeah." I clear my throat and attempt to look non-threatening. "So what happened?"
"He tricked me," says Feeb sourly. "Me! Of all people! With my titanic brain and everything!"
"Well," I say, "everyone--"
"I'm like, smart and stuff!" Feeb says. "Possessed of a vast intellect average humans cannot comprehend! And he tricked me!"
"Don't feel bad," I say. "I mean, he did--"
"I've LOOKED at my CEREBRUM!" Feeb continues. "It's got REALLY DEEP RIDGES in it! That's supposed to make you intelligent, right? My recent I.Q. tests have classed me as well into the genius levels, if not the supra-genius ones!"
"Look," I say, beginning to get annoyed again. "If you'll--"
"Did you know that Mensa recently rejected my application due to 'overqualification'? No? They did! I swear! And now here's me: Doooy!" Feeb crosses her eyes and makes a swirly gesture around one ear with her index finger, then stops doing both. "I simply refuse to believe that I, with my gargantuan mental powers--"
"WHAT HAPPENED?" I exclaim.
"Oh," says Phoebe. She nudges at something on the dank and sodden floor with one toe. "Well, it was this thing," she says.
"I knew it," I say. "You accepted some kind of important and symbolic token from him."
"No!" protests Feeb. "I would never! Yes. Kind of."
"I told you," I say, icily, still eyeing Feeb's protective dinosaur henchthing, "not to do that."
"He fooled me," says Feeb. "Me! I mean, here I am, practically top-heavy from all the brains I have crammed upstairs, and--"
"Yesyesyes," I say, crouching down to look at the shiny little thing that had apparently fallen from L'Abbe's hand as he expired. "I get it. He pulled a fast one on you."
"Me!" exclaims Feeb, indignantly, who, amongst other personality traits, does not know when to quit. Meanwhile, I am inspecting the object.
"It's... a film reel," I say, finally. "A little jeweled film-reel pendant." I pick it up on its shiny chain and hold it up to the feeble and unreliable light afforded by the little barred window to get a better look at it. "Did he explain what this was about?"
"Kind of," says Feeb, taking it from me, holding it for a moment in her cupped palm and rubbing at it with her thumb. "I'm not sure if I'd parrot it back right, though. Here, I think I have a short instructional film on the subject." Feeb flips on a film projector, and after a short warm-up clatter, an image appears on the dungeon wall.
Without even looking at the picture, I reach over and shut off the projector. "We don't have time for this now," I say. "The Masquerade Ball is starting soon, and--"
I stop. "Wait a second."
Feeb looks at me sweetly. "Yes?" she says.
"Where did you get a film projector from?"
Feeb blinks. She frowns, her brow furrowed. She looks genuinely surprised at herself.
"I mean, that's the sort of thing that M. L'Abbe was always doing," I say. "Pulling instructional films out of nowhere. Is it possible that that little pendant gives you the magical ability to... er... add audiovisual materials to any exposition that you're engaging in?"
Feeb still does not reply. My mind is clicking along. "Because if it does, that might possibly come in handy. We can--" I turn back to the film projector and it is gone. Undaunted, I say, "Feeb, could you please try and explain something to me?"
"I don't care. Try to explain anything you like. But make it complicated."
"Well, muses Feeb, "I could try and explain the role of intracellular nucleoside diphosphokinase in maintaining the high-energy bonds in adenosine triphosphate during the citric acid chain... but that's all terribly boring, and it--"
"No, just do it."
"Well, I might have a film around here that would help," says Feeb, automatically. "Ah, here we go." She stops, looking at the suddenly re-present film projector. "Hey!" she says, starting it up. "Neat!"
Another warm-up clatter, and then, a scratchy title screen appears on the far dungeon wall. It reads:
* * *
INTRACELLULAR NUCLEOSIDE DIPHOSPHOKINASE AND YOU
Copyright 1953, American Organic Chemistry Board
* * *
The screen fades after a few seconds and a cheerful announcer comes over the speakers, along with the image of a painfully blonde young tyke kicking a soccer ball around. The announcer says, "This is little Jimmy! Jimmy loves to play soccer. Say 'hello', Jimmy!" Jimmy waves at the camera. "Playing soccer is not something that tiny little anaerobic bacteria can do," continues the announcer, a winsome chuckle entering his voice. "Partly this is due to the fact that tiny little anaerobic bacteria don't have any legs, unlike Jimmy! But the other reason that tiny little anaerobic bacteria can't play soccer is their inefficient adenosine triphosphate processing strategy. Like many higher animals, Jimmy's adenosine triphosphate processing strategy involves something we call the Citric Acid Chain." The words 'Citric Acid Chain' appear on the screen, in place of little Jimmy. "The Citric Acid Chain is--"
I smash the movie projector to bits, knocking it over and stomping on it a lot.
"Charles!" says Feeb.
"Frink!" protests Luke, pissedoffedly; he had really been getting into the story of Little Jimmy. Buddy merely regards me silently. I ignore them all, picking as I am through the wreckage of the movie projector.
"Some... thing... ah, here we go." I sit back on my haunches with the film-cutting razor and begin delicately lashing it to one of the projector's long reel arms with a little bit of wire. "It's not much," I say, "but if separated pieces of a movie projector don't disappear with the rest of the movie projector, this should give us a ready supply of basic mechanical parts, as well as an emergency light source."
"I'd like to see you try to use that as a light source," remarks Feeb, looking at the remnants of the projector.
"Dollars to doughnuts the next time you have something to explain you'll be able to conjure a fresh one," I say, turning back to scavenge more machine parts. "Maybe we--"
The wreckage is gone. Happily, I still hold the impromptu slashing weapon I have just constructed in one hand. "Okay," I mutter, "so we have to work fast."
I give my feeble little blade a few practice swings. Mostly, I want this around for utility purposes, but I must admit that can't fully shake the idea that, be it ever so humble, I should also be carrying a weapon around of some description. This fits the bill.
"Your callous disregard for innocent machines continues to nauseate and appall me, Charles," says Feeb. "You killed that helpless little movie projector right in front of us so you could get a little... what's-it's-thing out of it." She gestures at my weapon. "And that's another thing. You probably haven't even thought of a proper name for it yet."
"For... what?" I say.
"For your creation! You have to name your creation! Haven't you ever created _anything_ before, Charles?"
"Well, yes," I say, puzzled, looking down at my little lashed-together contraption.
"And you don't know this already?" Feeb lets out an exasperated breath. "Amateurs and plebians. All of you."
"I hate to break this to you, Feeb," I say, "but this... thing, here, isn't a device. It isn't even a machine."
"Point of order!" cries Feeb. "It is a Wedge attached to a Lever!"
"I hardly think that a 'simple' machine counts as--"
"IT IS TWO 'SIMPLE' MACHINES OPERATING IN TANDEM! IT IS NO LONGER A 'SIMPLE' MACHINE!!!"
"Feeb," I say, taking a step or two back, "maybe we--"
"Look, it's not so hard," pleads Feeb. "Just name it."
"Feeb, I really don't--"
"It would make me feel better," she says, soberly, gazing at me intently.
I sigh. "Okayokayokay," I say. "I'll call it... 'hitty'.".
"'Hitty'?" says Feeb, rather critically.
"Yeah. 'Hitty'. On account of me using it to hit people with."
Feeb frowns. "You're sure it's not... the 'Hitulatron 3000'?"
"Yup," I say, resolute in my determination.
"Not the 'Advanced Hit-o-matic Slicerator'?"
"The 'o-matic' suffix," I counter, "would seem to suggest that we're doing something a bit more automated with it than manually whacking people."
"Point," says Feeb, putting her fist to her mouth. "How about--"
"This is _my_ machine," I say, firmly, my voice sounding oddly resonant, "and you will respect my choice of name for it."
Feeb relents. "Oh, all right, you big wuss," she says, crossing to a small corner table. I note that either Feeb or L'Abbe must have been conjuring tables out of nowhere; in contrast to the state it originally appeared to me as, this has become one of the better-furnished dank dungeon cells I've ever been in. "Stupid demi-angels," she mutters. "Can't even give a halfways decent name for a--ah, here we go."
With a dramatic flourish, Feeb turns back to us, holding what appears to be L'Abbe's Plot Device. "While you three were on your little laundry errand--"
"Excuse me?" I interject. "We had to single-handedly--"
"Rawr," protests Buddy.
"Frink," adds Luke.
"Wheeooo," remarks Luke, pedantically.
"Okay, well, technically, we had six hands among us, but however many hands it was, the three of us had to take out this island's Number Two using a Clever Ruse, and _then_ find a spare and never-before-used catering uniform, and this castle has a frickin' huge loading dock, let me tell you. I firmly object to you mildly dismissing this critically important task as a 'laundry errand'."
"Yeah, yeah," says Feeb. "Whine whine whimper moan. While you all were messing around out there I've been remarkably busy with THIS!"
"The Plot Device," I say.
"The Plot Device no longer!" she says. "While it still retains many of its essential Plot Device Functions, I have made some modifications and upgrades to its circuitry. Ladies and Gentlemen--"
"You're the only lady," I say, "unless you count Buddy, who's confused."
"Rawr," says Buddy, shyly.
"Okayokay," says Feeb. "Gentlemen! I give you-- THE CENSORSHIP DEVICE, MARK FIVE!!!"
We all look at it for a while. "Aren't you missing a few 'marks' in there?" I say. "I mean, I know I broke the first one and all, and... er, didn't you call CORVID the Mark Two?" I pause for a moment. Truth to tell, I had forgotten about CORVID again until this very moment. Last I saw it, it was back in Currier Hall, in my dorm room, electrocuted and incapacitated. It was an annoying little piece of mechanical garbage but in a way I was starting to miss it for no reason whatsoever. "Well, anyway," I continue, "even if you go back and renumber and count the upgrade-slash-repair we did on the first one as another 'mark', I see no reason to--"
"I've been busy," says Feeb, curtly, waving a hand dismissively. "It's complicated. At any rate, as you should recall, our principal foe and antagonist this week is Ashraak, demigod of litter... _and_ profanity. Cussing--as you do _constantly_, Charles--is a dangerous practice, and cussing five times in a row with no intervening words is enough to throw a gate wide open to the immediate manifestation of his essence. And that goes especially for you, Charles, as he is particularly keen on you."
"Right, I remember this," I say. "The Censorship Device blocks our cuss words from any higher powers who might be listening in." I actually kind of preferred the functioning of the original Censorship Device to that of CORVID, whose method of suppressing my swearing involved nipping me sharply on the ear and yelling at me a lot.
"Correct," says Feeb. I've made a number of improvements to this model, however, harnessing some of the UberAuter technology I've found nestled inside this fascinating little object."
Feeb regards the device appraisingly, hefting it in her attractive little palm. "Well, instead of just blotting our cuss words out with a burst of metaphysical static, this device will replace them with other, more benign words."
I blink. "This advantages us how?"
"It's funny!" says Feeb. "Plus, it's more likely to fly under his infernal radar. For example instead of this: (Cuss for me, please.)"
"####", I attempt.
She widdles with a widget or two on the Plot Device. "We get this! (Again, please.)"
"Rutabaga," I say. "As usual, I'm not hearing anything different here."
"Yes, that's to be expected. We won't actually perceive anything different on this physical plane. But there should be a definite metaphysical effect."
"Uh huh," I say, dubiously. "Alternately, it's possible that you just sat up here all the time we were gone indirectly killing off L'Abbe and playing Minesweeper on his computer and this thing you're waving in my face has absolutely no effect whatsoever."
"Pish tosh," says Feeb. "As is usual for the pitiful sheep inhabiting this planet, you laugh at me and scorn my genius; you will rue the day you mocked me blah blah blah. Moving on. As I was saying, we have a number of different options. It's currently set to 'Unusual Vegetables.' Cuss for me?"
"Rutabaga," I say again. "Rutabaga, kale, okra."
"Good. Our other options include 'Automobiles of Foreign Make'... Again, please?" Feeb flicks at a little dip switch inside the device.
"Mitsubishi," I say, frowning.
"'Past Vice-Presidents of the United States'... Again?"
"Agnew... Barkley... Mondale." I narrow my eyes at her.
"'Major Domestic and Imported Beers'... Again?"
"Pabst, Schlitz, Budwesier, Guinn--" I stop. "This is nothing but a big waste of time, Feeb. There is nothing to suggest that your little dowhatsis there is making any difference to us at all."
"Well, no," says Feeb. "Except for the fact that, under normal conditions, you'd be well over five consecutive cuss words by now and we'd all currently be in the active process of being shredded to bits by a monstrous horde of beetles."
I stare at her.
"As is Ashraak's wont," she finishes.
"Yeah," I say, slowly. "So, say for a moment that you forgot to solder Wire A to Wire B somewhere along the way there and your device hadn't just functioned as advertised."
"We'd be dead!" says Feeb, contentedly. "Dead dead dead. Horribly killed and mangled. Isn't it great?" she says, looking at her device, her blue-green eyes positively glowing. "It works! Proof!"
"Feeb," I say, still slowly, "why the Berry Weiss Leinenkugel did you just risk all of our lives testing out your little science project?"
"I don't know!" exclaims Feeb, ebulliently, throwing her arms wide. "I'm so unpredictable!!! YEE HEE HA HA HA HA! YEE--"
Feeb is interrupted mid-cackle by a tremendous crash that seems to shake the very roots of the mountain we are perched upon. Buddy loses his footing on the slick flagstones and tumbles to the ground in a splayed mass of dinosaur limbs. I steady myself on a nearby table as Feeb rushes over to the window, stuffing the Plot Device back into her holdall. "Feeb!" I shout. "What the Miller Genuine Draft was THAT?"
Feeb grits her teeth together, gazing intently out the window. "You want the version you are going to like," she asks, "or the version you aren't going to like?"
"Are," I say.
"There isn't one," she says. "Sorry."
"Are there any versions," I say, with excessive calmness, "that do not involve Lyle the Homosexual Robot Killing Machine finally coming to shore on the island and beginning his ascent of the mountain with the undoubted end purpose of reducing me to organic slag?"
"Sorry," says Feeb, her eyes still fixed on the space without. "Fresh out of those, too."
"Killian's," I mutter. "We're out of time. Luke! Buddy! We have to go, now!"
"Well, we have a little while," says Feeb, assessing Lyle's progress with a critical eye while I stand rigidly along one wall, determined not to look. "Your robot nemesis has apparently been distracted by the island's small commercial district. I'm not sure what he's searching for... perhaps Iconoclast War Droids require some rare trace mineral essential to normal operation that has been unexpectedly depleted in his long trip over here from the mainland, or perhaps--"
A voice. A horrible voice, floating up from below. I am immediately filled with the Heebie Jeebies, followed shortly by the Creeps, the Willies, and then, at last, by their distant and exceedingly rare cousin, the Jimjams.
"Oh... my... gawd!" says the awful machine voice. "What thort of backwater Third World Country ith thith? _Thith_ ith the _thelection_ I have to work with? Jutht _Look_ at thethe colorth!"
"Or, perhaps," finishes Feeb, lamely, "he's having trouble finding an appropriate outfit." She blinks and looks again. "He also seems to be obeying all relevant pedestrian traffic signals."
I find my voice. "Okay. So that buys us a sliver of time. This may still work, people. Feeb, get yourself to the best vantage point you can find in this castle. Take a phone." I toss her one of the portable telephones we scavenged from the lower storage room where we clocked Ilsa. "I need constant updates on that monster's progress. Luke?"
"Frink?" says Luke.
"Secure us transportation off the island. Multiple methods if possible. There is an active vastly destructive presence here now and options could start disappearing fast, so I want to see contingencies and contingencies to your contingencies. Steal what you must. Clear?"
"Frink!" says Luke, saluting.
"All right," I say, wishing I had a cigar but instead contenting myself with rubbing my hands together eagerly. "You two get moving."
I glance at Buddy, who has finally managed to untangle his limbs enough to drag himself up the floor. He looks back at me.
"Buddy and I have a party to go to," I say.