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Mundementia One: The Book of Going Forth
part 11
by J.(Channing)Wells


Flash cut. The _Salle des Lumieres_, How Come Eh's great and palatial ballroom, whose French name proves once and for all that whoever it was that designed this island really had no friggin' concept of consistency, ethnically-wise-speaking. There is a masquerade party here, in full swing.

Well... not really. I should correct myself and say that every _attempt_ had been made to put this masquerade party into full swing. The one-and-a-half level ballroom I find myself in is, and I say this as a perfecly straight heterosexual male, absolutely gorgeous, all red velvet and golden-hued mirrors and bright crystal chandeliers, with a massive choir vault of windows spanning both floors that looks out over the glistening and storm-dark sea far below; it is divided by an elegant balcony beneath which a small orchestra saws away at painfully classy dance music. There are ice sculptures lining the far curve of the room, sparkling fountains of wine and other attractive beverages located more centrally, and a ridiculously sumptuous buffet of exotic and expensive foods, attended by white-clad servants, spread across the entire far wall, and in case even halfway across the room might be too far to walk for your nourishment, a battalion of red-suited waiters bearing trays of _hors d'oeuvre_ circulate constantly, assuring that none of the General's guests could ever want for anything. And there, at the center of the aforementioned balcony, overlooking the great throng of people (whose presence he had probably mandated by imperial decree), is the Generalissimo himself, a wide and swarthy man in a military green dress uniform that is utterly lousy with assorted medals of conquest. He has perfectly straight black hair and perfecly straight white teeth, he is built like a brick shithouse, and he appears every inch the affable host of what ought to be a really spectacular party.

Nobody touches the food. Nobody samples the wine. Nobody, and I want to make this perfectly clear, is even in costume. Nobody dances. Nobody even looks remotely happy. For it is, to hear tell, the thirteenth Grand Masquerade Ball thrown by the General this month, and it is clear that the people here have caught on a long, long time ago. The food is probably laced with biologically-improbable DNA-altering chemicals, the drinks are likely spiked with water drawn from cursed Oriental springs, and clearly, everybody already bloody knows what happens to people who actually come to one of these things in costume. They've seen it so very many times before.

Camera to me, on the balcony level near the impossibly tall velvet curtains, my back to the windows, looking--and again, I say this from a position of extreme heterosexuality--pretty damn sharp in the red-jacketed tuxedo I am wearing to blend in with the rest of the waitstaff. Hitty is tucked into one leg of my otherwise crisp black trousers and I am bearing a tray of dubious canapes in the other. For reasons already noted, nobody is requesting anything of me and I am left pretty much to myself, which is exactly what I had been counting on.

"Rawr," comes a voice from behind and wrapped up within the high curtains. "Rawr," it complains. "Rawr rawr raaawr."

"Look," I hiss back at the voice. "I know you're hungry. But you absolutely cannot have even one of these little..." I inspect my tray. "Peculiar green spinach puff-looking things!"

"Raaawr," moans the voice.

"Not one!" I say. "We gave up both the shielding artifacts, remember? You'll throw the entire system out of whack if you eat anything now."

It had been damn hard to give up the One Can. Damn hard. For a while I had been able to forget about it, to gloss over in my mind that I had in my keeping the most valuable single object in the known world, but all those thoughts came rushing back when the moment came to hand said awesomely powerful empty soda can over to Luke for his part of this plan. I knew it made no sense to keep the Can. In fact, my entire plan _revolved_ around not bringing a shielding item to this little soiree. That hadn't changed matters any at the moment of. I had recanted, announced that I was making a gross alteration to my idea, and had been about to sneak off somewhere dark and hide and wait with my precious until this whole sordid Lyle mess died down, letting my companions deal with it as they saw fit when Buddy hit me with the wedgie of a lifetime, the effects of which I am still feeling.

Eventually, after a brief struggle, Luke got the damn thing away from me. L'Abbe was right. No matter its monetary value, the One Can had to be destroyed. Even now, though, images dance across the back of my head, thoughts of vast palaces that could be mine to purchase and command, the armies of attractive servants I could surround myself with... all of these are foreign thoughts to me. I much prefer cozy houses to great mansions and have never in my life fantasized about having a huge number of attractive women around. I'm more of a one-on-one kind of guy. Okay, _maybe_ two. But that's it. Anyway, the scope of it all suggests that I'm being subjected to typical Temptation garbage; easy to resist, but boy, has that damn thing got long tendrils. Even as far as the Chateau's motor pool, or wherever the hell it was Luke was heading with it, it still speaks to me... my precious...

And then it hits me with something I'm not prepared for.

It offers me... a cure?

Surely, says the One Can--or the idea of it that I've got lodged in my brain--with all the funds one could generate with the proper redemption of the Can's overwhelming recycling deposit, one could hire enough scientists and thaumaturgical researchers to figure out a way to re-knit one's raveled Shroud of Mundanity... which is not something I believe in because all of this is just some kind of weird psychotic delusion, but still... still...

I grit my teeth. I am now firmly pissed off. It's shooting for my weak spot, here, at last, and it knows it. To be fair, it's not as though knowledge of my weak spot is terribly hard to come by. It's like in those video games where the people who designed the evil boss monster robots sat down and said to themselves, hm, there's only one spot on this robot's armor you can hit and thus damage it, so as a precautionary measure, let's put a bunch of red warning lights on it so nobody accidentally shoots it there! What?!? I mean, come on, how much sense does that make, really? I mean, if _I_ were to design an evil boss monster robot, I sure as hell wouldn't--

Wait, where was I?

"Raaawr," says the voice from within the curtains.

Oh yes. Canapes. Firmly and with great resolve I douse the blazing torch of temptation that the One Can has been waving in my face in the firebucket of self-denial and then bury the burnt end of it in the sandbox of determination. "No appetizers!" I say. "And that's final! Look, we're not here to enjoy ourselves, okay?"

I look down at the somber and milling crowd, all dressed in normal everyday clothes, all of them downcast and shuffling a bit. "Nobody's here to enjoy themselves," I say.

From the center of the balcony, halfway across the vast _Salle des Lumieres_, comes the General's booming voice. He is apparently addressing a peculiar little dragon who is alternately fluttering around and perching before him on the balcony rail. If he has noticed that one of his waiters is slightly more Caucasian than the others and is furthermore apparently carrying on some kind of conversation with the drapes, he has not revealed this fact. I leave the curtain where we have stashed Buddy and kind of creep nonchalantly across the balcony for a better listen, being careful not to spill any canapes lest they explode or something.

"What a marvelous party, eh, Vesper?" says Ortega, gesturing expansively.

"Oh... yeah," says the little dragon identified as Vesper, turning his attention away from his survey of the bland and lifeless dance floor below. "Yeah, really, er, spectacular, boss. One teeny tiny little titchy little insignificant little thing, though." He hops up and does a little one-eighty, reversing his position on the rail. "Being as this is a, y'know, _masquerade_ party and all, shouldn't people be dressed in, I dunno, costumes or something?"

The General narrows his eyes, looking down. "You think they suspect?"

Vesper meshes his claws before himself obsequiously. "Well... no offense, Herr Major Sahib Generalissimo, but... this _is_ the thirteenth one this month alone, after all."

"Ah," says the General, "but this one, this one is different!"

"Different how exactly, Signor El Gigante?" says Vesper. I cannot make out whether he's some kind of majordomo to the General, or, what's going on here. He certainly talks cheeky. "I mean, you've kind of spent this nickel already. People come to a masquerade party, everybody kind of hangs around for a little while, and then, at midnight, poof, you turn them into whatever thing they've elected to costume themselves as. Respectfully, big guy, _we've seen it before_. Like, a hundred million times by now. They devote entire episodes of those zany magical occulty horror TV programs to it."

"What?" says the General. "THEY STOLE MY IDEA?" He slams one hamlike fist into his palm, which also resembles a ham but one that has kind of been flattened out like something really heavy stepped on it or something. "Bastiches! I must invite them to my island and turn them into llamas! Vesper, a pen! I feel a declaration coming on!"

"Yessir," says Vesper, searching around in a little messenger pouch he's carrying around his neck. "For the sake of argument, though, you might want to consider whether or not they might have maybe possibly landed on the same idea you did just by chance, on account of it being..."

Vesper trails off, looking at the General's dark and stormy expression. He leans back on the rail as the General leans in, his eyes burning. "Being... _what_, Vesper Ji?"

"Er," says Vesper. He laughs in a burbly, conciliatory way. "What I meant to say was, er, doesn't that sound like a lot of work? Writing up a whole invitation and then creating a credible story in which they all get turned into llamas?"

"Hrm," says the general, putting his hand to his mouth as he straightens up, his demeanor relaxing. "Yes, you're right, Vesper, that would be an awful lot of work. Not that it wouldn't be a fine story to see played out here on the benevolent shores of my amazing island..."

"Certainly, no," coos Vesper in response.

"But I do have better things to concentrate on." He straightens up and puts one fist to his chest. "I hereby declare that for the remainder of the evening, I will not think of these petty matters of revenge and statecraft and all the tedious business of governing this island and instead devote my attentions to making this the best Grand Masquerade Ball I have--"

A small figure in a jumpsuit comes racing onto the balcony. It's Walter, the little geeky-looking technician guy whom I last saw down on the dungeon level when he interrupted my rather suave seduction of Dr. Ilsa "Boom-Boom" Chagrin. "SIR!" he cries. "SIR! MAJOR GENERALISSIMO!" He quickly reaches the center of the balcony whereupon he draws himself up into a salute, his narrow, geeky chest heaving. "Generalissimo Ortega," says Walter, quietly but loudly, "A GIANT ROBOT MONSTER IS ATTACKING THE ISLAND!!!"

"Oh, bother," says Ortega, looking around as though to see if anyone else has overheard. "Not again. Get Ilsa to handle it, why don't you? Why do you always bring me things that she is capable of authorizing?"

"Ilsa's gone. We haven't been able to raise her on the phones. Not even the really good ones."

"Walter," says the General, calmly, as I edge in a little closer. "The reason I hire people like you is that when robot monsters or huge rocket-powered turtles or..." Ortega gestures around, looking for a concept in his head. "...or giant moth gods or something attack our fair island, I want it dealt with. Ilsa or no Ilsa. Am I being clear?"

Walter's lip quivers. "But sir," he says, "surely you could simply declare giant robot monsters non-canonical or something, couldn't you?"

"A-ha!" says Ortega, fixing Walter with a meaty finger. "But what about all the other giant robot monsters that play so integral a role in our fragile island economy? Didn't think of _that_, did you, mister 'I'm so smart I don't even have to comb my hair properly'. Eh?"

"Yessir," says Walter. "I, er, forgot about... all... of those. Sorry sir."

"Now don't let it happen again or you'll be a fruit bat by morning. I have a party to oversee. Shoo."

"Yessir," says Walter, his voice showing patent despair.

Poor guy. I could save him. I could save them all; it's me he wants. Lyle doesn't have a vested interest in destroying this island. I could just walk right down the side of this mountain, stand before him, and say--

My brain clenches. No. I couldn't. My legs would fail, my heart would give out, the very nerves of my body would undergo immediate and utter mutiny at being asked to perform so horrible a task. Lyle's Gay Swanning is just too powerful for me. I watch, thus troubled, as Walter departs the balcony and vanishes into the crowd.

"Now then," says Ortega, relaxing and smoothing down the front of his uniform. "Where were we?"

"The party," says Vesper. "How it's different from the twelve others you've thrown this month. Or any other month for that matter."

"Ah yes," says Ortega. "Today, instead of midnight... the Great Event will happen... AT FIVE THIRTY P.M.! MUA-HA-HA-HA-HA! MUA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!" Thunder crashes. Lightning sizzles. The electric chandeliers flicker ever-so-slightly. "THEY WILL BE CAUGHT TOTALLY UNAWARES!!!"

Vesper Ji blinks back at him. "Really, and again, totally way totally huge-daddy no offense intended here, El Supremo... but do these folks down there look like they're totally unawares?"

"Nonsense," says the General. "I have a top-of-the-line Lack of Better Judgment Field in operation within these walls. Here, I will show you." He leans out over the balcony, cupping his hand to his mouth. "I SAY THERE!" he says. "Peasant!"

In defiance of all conversational probability, one and exactly one island peasant out of the entire throng turns to him. He is pretty near indistinguishable from every other island peasant I've seen today. "I say," shouts Ortega. "What is that clever costume you are wearing?"

"Oh, haha," says the peasant, nervously. "This is a cunning and clever costume of an island peasant which I lovingly crafted out of clothes that were already in my own possession. The person I am dressed as also carries a suitcase full of a large quantity of unsequenced Swiss currency notes as represented by this suitcase I'm carrying here which has a lot of blank paper inside with a sign on it reading 'a large quantity of unsequenced Swiss currency notes.' If only something would happen to make this blank paper into an actual large quantity of unsequenced Swiss currency notes, eh, General? Little chance of that, though, a ha, a haha."

"Hm," says Ortega, turning back to Vesper. "You may be on to something." He claps his hands twice; it sounds like a bunch of really forceful Germans performing a quick toast using beer-steins constructed entirely of rump roast. "GUARDS!" he bellows. "Dress that man as a wallaby or something! In fact, haul out the racks from storage! We need more proper costumes around here! What kind of Masquerade Ball is this, after all? Chop chop!"

Quickly, the General becomes the rapidly-gesturing focus of a sea of activity as people appear, presumably out of the woodwork, to attend his whims. "I want to see easily-recognizable iconic characters from the popular media!" he cries. "Beasts of the natural and mythical persuasions! Stereotypically-attired professionals from major occupational fields, both naughty and otherwise! Commonly-occurring YES, WHAT IS IT, WALTER?"

"I'm sorry, General!" says Walter, who has reappeared at the General's side. "The Department of State-Sanctioned Ass-Kicking says they may be able to hold off the giant robot monster if you give them a battalion of plasma tanks and a couple aerospace fighters or something."

"Blast!" shouts the General. "You know how much trouble I have spelling the word 'aerospace'! All right, all right, very well! Give me a pen!" Walter offers one out of his plastic-protected jumpsuit pocket, and the General whips out a sheet of paper and begins writing. "Once upon a time," he says, quickly, as he likewise (presumably) writes, "there was an island military that had no plasma tanks or aero..." he sucks on the end of the pen. "aero... aerospace--there that's it--fighters. Then, one day..."

"Wacky, huh?" says a voice in my ear. I spin around and nearly drop my tray of spinach puffs, only to find that the voice moves with me as I spin. It's the little dragonet from the General's entourage. "Whaddaya think is going on there?" he says.

"That's easy," I say, turning away from the dragon and squinting my eyes at the busy and enthronged figure of the General. "Obviously, General Ortega and his authorized assistants have some kind of artistic license over the nature of _reality itself_ as regards this island. All they need do is craft an appropriate 'story' and shwoop! Fact and causality bend freely to their whimsy. In fact--"

I blink. I look at the little dragon. "In fact," I conclude, shifting my tone, "one would think you would already know this, given that you are apparently some kind of personal assistant to the man. Yes?" I don't know why I'm not strangling the little thing while I have the chance, or at least whacking him a good one with my faithful blade Hitty.

"Correctamundo!" says Vesper. "Sorry, it's an occupational habit. I like how you make 'shwoop' be the noise of fact and causality bending."

"Uh huh," I say. "Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my job of serving spinach puffs to an uninterested publ--" I stop, in spite of myself, as Vesper clambers up on my tray and starts consuming my _hors d'oeuvre_. "I'll warn you," I say, "I think there might be something... er... unhealthy for you in those."

"Oh, yeah, sure," says Vesper, his cheeks full of greasy pastry. "These little boogers have got, like, seven different kinds of cholesterol in them, all of them bad. But I just can't stop eating once I start, y'know?"

"Er, no," I say. "I mean--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. You think I'm going to turn into a newt or something. Relax, guy," he says, snaking off my tray and giving me a quick shoulder rub. "I got it covered."

"Yes, well," I say. "I best go back to the kitchen and get a few more of those for my tray." I begin edging away across the balcony, depositing the little dragon on the rail as I do so. "Just in case I need to, you know, futher exercise my waiter duties or something."

"Herr La Guardya," says Vesper Ji, "you do realize you aren't fooling anyone." He pauses. "Except for the General. And, apparently the waitstaff. And every single party guest you've encountered thus far. Okayokayokay," he says. "You've actually fooled quite a lot of people, but--"

Vesper's diatribe is cut off by my grabbing him. "Where," I say, staring directly into his face, "did you learn that name?"

"Your story," he says, with an air of simple, calm, insufferable smugness. "I have to say, I've gotten reasonably interested in it." He somehow manages to wriggle around in my grip enough to reach into his little messenger pouch and pull out a tiny little sheaf of photocopied paper. The sludginess of the text suggests that it is a reduced copy of some rather larger work, but despite the mediocre reproduction, the following words are clearly legible on the first page I see:

* * * * * * *

Mundementia One

a study in expository dialogue

apologies to Roger Zelazny and, heck, everybody else, too.

* * * * * * *

My jaw drops open. "What on--" I say. "What is--"

I look farther on down the page.

* * *
Phoebe looks at me. "Sorry, Charles. Just trying to get the laugh down right. I won't be a moment." She clears her throat. "YEE-Ha-ha-ha-ha--"


"What!" Says Phoebe, still petulant. "Can it wait, please?"

"No!" I say, looking about my person in increasing distress. "No! Phoebe, I demand an explanation for this... this..."

"This what?"

"_ALL_ of this!" I say, gesturing around at the Lovecraftian equipment surrounding my white scientific bier. "You! Luke! Everybody! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE!?!"
* * *

I look back up at Vesper. My eyes must be near to bursting right out of their sockets. "This... this... is my..."

"...story, yes," finishes Vesper. "Sorry about finishing your sentence there, Protagonist Boy, but you seemed to be having a tough time of it and besides, hey, that's what we do."

"How on Earth did--" I begin to say, but then, via a means I cannot fully comprehend, Vesper is out of my grasp and stuffing his stupefying little packet of paper back into his bag.

"Sorry, P.B.," says Vesper, "but it looks like story-writing time is over and the General is turning this mother out with a total Garrison finish. Gotta fly. Ciao!"

"AND SO," says the General, from his position farther on down the balcony, "THE WHINY LITTLE MILITARY FORCE GOT ALL THE MYRIAD ASSORTMENT OF DEFENSIVE ROBOTS AND PLASMA TANKS AND AEROBLOODYWHATEVER FIGHTERS THEY WANTED THE! END!" Ortega huffs, his already-sanguine face virtually going mauve on him. "There! Now go away! I have a party to force people to enjoy!"

"Yes, Generalissimo," says Walter, groveling, as he backs his way off the balcony. Vesper realights on the General's shoulder and flashes me a quick little reptilian wink. So... he's not blowing my cover? I shake my head as I look at him, trying to resolve him in my mind as one might an Escher woodcut. That document! Even presuming I had been interviewed last night at the Speakeasy and then slipped a significant quantity of Rohypnol that _thing_ he showed me wasn't a biography! It's like... it was me! Talking! Inside my own head! It's as though--

My phone rings and my train of thought goes bye-bye. I look around nervously for a moment but in the tremendous throng on the balcony no-one is paying any attention. I scurfle back over to the curtains. They rawr at me. I hush them. I answer the phone.


A small measure of static tumbles from the phone, replaced quickly by Feeb's voice. "Turkey Vulture! Come in, Turkey Vulture! This is Ice Queen! Do you read? Over!"

"I'm here," I say patiently. "How's our big guy coming?"

"Well," says Feeb, "he seems to have fashioned several bolts of sailcloth into--"

"Not with his outfit;" I say, my back teeth clenched, "with the climbing the mountain."

"That's what I'm saying, Turkey Vulture!" replies Feeb's voice. "He's decked out, sassy and ready for a night on the town! You're almost out of time!"

I take a deep breath. "Feeb, do you have one of those little clocks on your phone?"

"Roger, Turkey Vulture," says Feeb. "It's twennyafter five."

Almost there. I nod, approvingly, as though the gesture means anything to Feeb over the voice link. "Good," I say. "Give me another call in ten minutes." Small blessings the General went for 5:30 this time. Were this a midnight affair my five hundred anytime minutes here might have been better spent phoning my next of kin. Assuming they were in my calling range. Which leads to an interesting question, since these telephones came from Kansas originally, how come--

Clarity, Charles. Clarity. Just be happy it's working. Cripes, my distractibility has gone through the roof! Maybe it's... lack of better judgment? Didn't I just hear something about that?

"Feeb," I say, my eyes straying towards the extreeeeemely fragile-looking windows as muscular guardsmen hustle around me costuming assorted hapless people as nurses and bush babies. "I have another question. Ortega's got something called a Lack of Better Judgment Field going here. I need details."

"Ooh, wow," says Feeb. "A LBJF. That's some pretty serious behavioral hardware."

"I reiterate," I say, "I need--"

"Yeah yeah, keep your pants on, Turkey Vulture. A LBJF... well, it messes with people's concept of what an appropriate plan of action might be to achieve certain ends. Also inhibits basic logical processes, learning from past errors, things like that."

A cold weasel of doubt burrows its way into my stomach. "Feeb," I say, "what d'ye suppose the chance is that me having a sudden flash of what seemed to be brilliant insight and my spontaneous generation of a complicated escape plan might actually have been an attack of Lack of Better Judgment?"

"Wow," she says, making a noise as though she is sucking on her tongue which is what I presume she is, in fact, doing. "What a thought. I wouldn't worry about it, though. We haven't been here long enough for an LBJF to really seep in. For example, if any of us were _actually_ displaying Lack of Better Judgment, would I have chosen to station myself here in a slender little bell cupola on the highest point of the island during an electrical storm?"

There is a pause.

"I see your point," she says.

"Feeb," I say...

"Well!" she protests. "You said, get to a good vantage point, and I--"

Her voice breaks off into static. I tap at the phone, my dread rising. "Feeb?"

For a moment there is nothing but noise. The hiss of the static, the uneasy protest of the milling crowd, and the menacing rumble of the approaching storm.

And then, there is a tremble. Barely noticeable in the commotion of the party, but if you know what you are listening for...

Cripes. He's close. From nearby there comes a series of sharp whines. Lines of violet and crimson fire streak across one corner of the field of view offered by the windows. Then all is as it was.

Another tremble.

"Feeb!" I say, shaking the phone as though there were anything in the world that might be wrong with the phone that could be helped by shaking it.

There is a sharp crackle, and Feeb's voice re-emerges from the sea of static. "--eisterbrau!" she cries. "Charles, you have to get out of there! He's almost--"

"You there!" comes the deep, ringing voice of the Generalissimo Ortega. He's noticed me at last. I kill the phone and cringe away, turning myself toward the curtains, hoping he won't see me...

"Waiter!" he continues, "Why are you wasting your time hobnobbing with your no-good college friends when you ought to be serving perfectly innocent spinach puffs to--"

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ortega's jaw drop. "An American!" he says, then claps his hands together again. "It's Glass!" he cries. "Guards! Seize that man!"

"Not so fast, Ortega!" I sneer, drawing Hitty from my trousers and brandishing it at the crowd of jumpsuited olive-skinned thugs who are suddenly, there, surrounding me. The tray of hors d'oeuvre clatters to the floor. Some of the spinach puffs really do explode. "Don't make me do something I'll regret!" I call out.

Ortega sneers back. "Fools!" he cries. "He is keeping you at bay with a razor blade attached to a film-projector arm!" Silently, I applaud his object-identification skills. "Take him now!"

But for whatever reason, Ortega's guards hesitate in carrying out his command. I like to think that it's because they see something dangerous in my eyes. Dangerous and handsome. Because that's certainly the effect I'm shooting for here. I raise Hitty, adopting an even, menacing pose. "Go ahead, Ortega," I say. "Arrest me again. Throw me back in your weird little dungeon. It doesn't even matter at this point because you've already lost."

It's a lie, of course; he hasn't lost yet. But he's about to. Just so long as I can keep him talking...

Ortega gestures, his eyes narrowing, and his men stand back. Elsewhere in the ballroom, other gangs of jumpsuited guards are still hustling people around and cramming them into koala suits. Another tremble from the floor, more pronounced this time. More streaks of fire outside the windows. "Now _this_ is an interesting turn of events, Mr. Glass," says Ortega. "What on this Earth do you know or possess that could put such a ridiculous little idea into your head?"

"Nothing more than you yourself gave me, General." I hold aloft a battered piece of paper.

"What is that?" says Ortega, a tiny little raincloud of a doubt moving into the sunny bluffness of his demeanor. "Vesper?" he says, looking to the dragonet. "What is that?"

Vesper flits a bit closer to my position, narrowing his eyes at the document I hold aloft. "Well... I could be wrong here, sir, but it looks like our intrepid friend is waving a copy of your Universe Rules at us." Vesper blinks at me. "It's a good start, P.B." he says, peering at me curiously. "I mean, bonus points for the dramatic presentation and all, but I think the home viewers are kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Okay, it's official now; that little dragon-thing confuses the heck out of me. To my credit, I think, I don't let it rattle me out of my groove. "Your assistant is correct, General," I say. "These are the rules to your little story world. It's kind of freaky," I add, "what with all the turning things into other things and all, but in the end I found your vision to be quite inspiring. So much so that I've taken the liberty of writing my own little offering to your universe. Tell me what you think. Vesper?"

I flip the paper over. Vesper blinks at me again, then looks at my rapid scrawl of handwriting.

"Once upon a time," reads Vesper, "there was a fairly normal guy named Charles Madison Glass who was being hunted by a giant killer robot while he was trapped on a freaky-ass island by some whack-job of a general named Rafael de L'Ortega who thought that it was fun to confine people against their will and mess around with them by turning them into other things. But then, all of a sudden and for no good reason, all of the island's natives became exact duplicates of General Ortega..."

Vesper pauses, looking up at me. I think I see a spark of admiration in his eyes.

"...and because General Ortega himself was the only person on the island immune to being turned into other things," continues Vesper, "and since now, all of his subjects were, in fact, General Ortega, none of his people ever needed to worry about being turned into anything ever again."

Ortega is positively livid.

"And then Charles and his friends were magically transported down to the docks, and a huge radioactive iguana came out of the sea and destroyed the giant killer robot. The end." Vesper quirks his lip. "Bit weak at the end there," he comments.

Ortega snarls at me, ignoring Vesper completely. "Never in my LIFE would I make such a story canonical," he says. "I don't know whose authority you were planning on seeking out to approve your little piece of drivel, but I'm... sure..."

My phone is ringing.

"I'm... sure..." repeats Ortega, frowning.

Taking a deep breath, I click the answer button. I say nothing in greeting, letting the voice on the other end do the talking.

"Charles! It's Phoebe!" says Ice Queen, her voice quick and sharp. "You asked me to call you at half past, and--"

There is a peachy-violet flash from somewhere in the room. Then there is another. And another. And another. And then there are so many peachy-violet flashes coming from all over the room that the place resembles nothing less than a sea made of fountains of peachy-violet.

And then a commotion rises, the sort of commotion that can only, and I do mean only, be created by a room suddenly full of dentists, koalas, nurses, zebras, hippies, hunchbacks, giraffes, bush babies, executioners, super heroes, donkeys, marmosets, and a single lonely wallaby carrying a heavy suitcase full of unsequenced Swiss currency.

"--it's half-past now!" she finishes.

"Thank you," I say, hanging up. The noise from the dance floor rises like a wave, a wave of whuffles, roars, screeches, cries, chirps, and whatever noise it makes when you give someone a good root-plane scaling for their improved dental hygiene. A muscle on Ortega's face twitches. Even in this, his thirteenth moment of glory this month, it is plain to see that Ortega finally has an inkling of what has just transpired.

"Quite simple, General," I say. "I have nothing less than the authority of the second-in-command of your entire island, Doctor Ilsa 'Boom-Boom' Chagrin, or as we prefer to call her..."

I wince. I know this is my big triumphal moment, but it still feels so, so wrong. I swallow my bile, and theatrically, I whip open the concealing curtain behind me.

"...Buddy," I finish.

And there she is. Buddy. The perfect likeness of Dr. Ilsa Chagrin, dressed in a Dr. Ilsa Chagrin costume that could not possibly be more exact, coming as it had from Dr. Ilsa Chagrin herself. Mind you, certain concessions had to be made to fit it properly on the massive undead saurian bulk of Feeb's pet velociraptor, the practical result of which is that currently, Dr. Chagrin's sliced and somewhat tattered jumpsuit falls in fetching and revealing arcs and curves across her... I mean, _Buddy's_... body. I am _so totally revulsed_ right now, but I don't think that the expression makes it to my mouth, and well, I'm not really the center of attention anyway.

"Rawr," says Dr. Ilsa 'Boom-Boom' Chagrin, in perfect, sweet, dulcet tones.

Ortega can do nothing but sputter. He turns to me. "You're INSANE!" he says.

"Yeah," I say, handing my story over to Ilsa for final approval. "I am. They call it 'Mundementia One'." I grin, unbalancedly. What a weird mood I'm in right now.

Ortega gestures at me with one bulky finger. "I never thought I would say this about another man, but sir, you must be stopped. Vesper, a pen!"

"Right there for ya, boss," says Vesper, rummaging through his bag. "Just take a minute." He winks at me as he makes an extensive, theatrical, and ultimately fruitless search of his pouch. Then he winks at me again. Man, that dragon creeps me out.

"BOLLOCKS!" cries the General, his voice rising over the cacophony from below. To either side of us, his guards (unaffected as they were, wearing as they were their own guard costumes) work swiftly to beat back a swarm of assorted wildlife from the curving staircases leading up to the window balcony. "DOES NO-ONE HAVE A PEN?!?"

"Forget it, General!" I call out. "Ilsa here is about two seconds away from signing my little Deus ex Machina into Fact and then it's 'Good Night, Irene' to your sick and twisted little island game. Wait on my word, 'Ilsa'."

"Rawr," says Buddy, smiling, showing perfect white teeth.

And then, even though I know I'm out of time, there are just some things that I cannot leave unanswered. "So;" I say, "since it seems fairly clear that I've beaten your ass, perhaps you would indulge me in the answering of two little questions?"

"Name them!" spits Ortega, glaring.

"First," I say, "Why didn't you just have your thugs physically remove the One Can from my inventory right off the fucking bat?"

"Ah," says Ortega, his expression suddenly softening. "Now, now, Mister Glass," he says. "What kind of story would _that_ have been, hm?"

Now it's my turn to look dumbstruck. "You," I say, "are a weirdo. My second question is this."

I gesture to the overboiling chaos of the soiree-turned-menagerie on the ballroom floor below.


The General flushes crimson, and for a moment, he actually looks embarrassed. It is an absurd expression for so powerful a face.

"Well, see," he says, clearing his throat. "The reason behind all of this..." he gestures idly with one hand, "...ridiculous business is--"

And then there is a crash, and my time is gone. Because the crash that comes is the noise of the entire bank of windows at the rear of the balcony shattering into a hundred million billion glittering fragments.

And in the space where the windows once were there is now a face. A terrible, insectoid, mechanical face, towering over the ballroom and everything within it. And just below this horrible visage--then angling off across one titanic mechanical shoulder--there is an undoubtedly stylish lavender-dyed sailcloth sash.

Affixed to it is an enormous corsage, apparently made of kelp.

"HEEELLLLLOOO!" bellows Lyle, the Self-Sentient Iconoclast Combat Droid, his voice thundering like a cathedral organ. "I'M HERE AT LATHT... AND NOW..."

Outside the castle, Lyle throws his arms wide, and at that moment, the long-building storm finally, at last, breaks in full. Torrential rain billows into the ballroom in great white clouds. Gouts of napalm spew forth from the Iconoclast's rear projectors, framing it in a halo of ruin and fire. And clearly audible, even in all the din, is the noise of a computerized weapons guidance system busily homing in.


And with that, Lyle looks at me, and the beeping tones from his targeting computer leap up half an octave. Whole racks of short-range missiles groan into position as he leans inside.

"Hia, Charlie!" says Lyle.

"BUDDY!" I scream, utterly rigid with terror and homophobia. "GET US OUT OF HERE!"

Lyle fires.

"Rawr!" shouts Buddy, scribbling her signature on the bottom of the page.

We are not there for the explosion.

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