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Mundementia One: The Book of Going Forth
Light. The vague and hazy somesuch afternoon-type stuff that falls in raw, filthy rays from mid-clouded October skies.
A skyline view.
A remarkable desk.
William Stein, fidgeting antsily with a small Newton's Cradle, its clacking noises cutting an interesting and somewhat arrhythmic counterpoint to his impeccably-manicured fingers now in the process of drumming upon the high-polished surface of the desk, leaving tiny rings of sweat-condensation wherever they touch.
Click Click drddr Click drddr drddr Click drddrr
Quickly, almost cheerfully, the suspended metal bearings go about their business, swinging in smart little arcs, transferring their energy across the row of similar spheres, sparking another swing. Oblivious they are to the disturbing events of Stein's Life of Late, which continue to fold in on themselves, formulating as they do ever-thickening layers of problematic situation...
Click drddr drddr drddr Click Click drddr Click
Damn, Damn, Damn...
Click Click Click Click BZZZT!
William Stein jerks in his chair. His clouded gaze rapidly re-asserts itself upon the intercom.
"China Hut, Sir." Comes the faint Bronx whine of Liesl from the little box.
"Get it in here." He says, narrow-mouthed.
"Yes, sir. Right away."
"Don't agree. Just do it."
"Sorry, did it again, sir."
"Listen to me next time."
There is a peculiar silence from the other end of the intercom line, the sort that can only be produced by the active process of biting back half-formed words before they are fully formed and birthed. It is everything that a pregnant pause is not.
Liesl makes a decision, and the intercom falls silent with a faint, round click.
Stein leans back in his chair for a moment. Obedience is good. It doesn't matter what you ask of them, no matter how strange, or self-contradictory, or counter-intuitive. Obedience. A good secretary should be like a well-trained dog. Little brainless animals who exist only in dazed half-awareness, good only while in the process of carrying out one or more direct orders.
Heirarchy. Social strata. These things matter, to William Stein.
This fact alone makes the events of the past evening all the more disturbing to him.
Liesl appears, bearing a small white paper bag with the faintest traces of grease at the corners.
"Desk." Says Stein.
Liesl just stands there for a moment, blinking.
"...COMMA, put the food on the." Finishes Stein, with careful rancor, more intended to toy with her tiny mind than to express any real annoyance. Keep them on their toes...
"Liesl?" Says Stein, very, very quietly.
Another abortive lip-biting-almost-but-not-quite-saying-anything sort of pause.
Liesl turns around and walks out of the office.
As soon as the door clicks shut behind her, Stein pushes the call button again. Almost before his finger leaves the key, Liesl is back, saying absolutely nothing at all, and standing, very straight, before him.
"You forgot something." He says, gliding like oil over to the Newton's Cradle and idly setting it into motion again.
No response. Good...
"I don't recall having told you to leave."
"Liesl, you may leave." He says, his voice playing dangerously on the curb of pleasant wit overlooking the broad, exceptionally busy freeway of outright mockery that eventually empties out into the interchange of megalomaniacal overlordship, which is located only a short hop along the off-ramp of sin and wickedness away from the cheap motel of gross sexual conquest, which probably advertises rooms with bed vibration machines, just because.
Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack...
Without batting an eye, she turns, and goes.
Slow, but she can learn. Stein takes a bit of comfort from her display of servitude. At least some measure of control remains to him...
Stein waits for the door to click shut again before leaping casually upon the little China Hut bag.
Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack...
With a rattle of paper, the paper bag yields to his grasp. As per precise orders, there is a single fortune cookie within. Idly, he tosses the bag (specially pre-constructed with grease-stained corners) into his wastebasket and opens first the cellophane and then the cookie itself. Hands twitching in nearly-microscopic trembles, he regards the paper within...
* * *
You are _so_ screwed. I'm sorry to use such blunt terms, but, you are. Your assassin botched his hit, and as a direct result of subsequent events, Charles Madison Glass is _at this very moment_ on his way to Le Chateau de How Come Eh, Palatial home of (over)
* * *
His lips a thin line, William reverses the paper.
* * *
El Mundo Big Shot Himself, Generalissimo Rafael De L'Ortega, well within Sunny Bermuda. And he's got the damn Pepsi can on him, to answer your next question. Good fucking luck. Your lucky numbers today are... hell, who am I kidding. You ain't got any.
* * *
Stein slowly folds the tiny slip of paper, his knuckles white.
Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack Clack...
With a chok`ed bellow, he lashes out, knocking the Cradle into a heap of wire and metal on the floor.
Then, he is upon the call button. "Liesl," He throttles out, "Patch me through to the equipment pool."
"Ringing them now, boss."
"He did it, Liesl." Rasps Stein, unthinkingly, unacknowledgingly, his voice patterpatting on like an epileptic Cuban bongo drummer. "The bastard's on his way to Bermuda right now with the Deposit Can."
There is nothing more than silence for a moment on the other end, undercut by the faint ringing of the equipment pool line.
"_The_ Deposit Can?" Squeaks out Liesl, finally.
"Yes!" Exclaims Stein, too busy to even insult her.
"But... but... you had it under guards!" She blurts out. "Securi'y systems and everything! Triple Redundant Laser Webs! I set them up mys--"
"This all _stinks_ of that Destiny Raccoon. I want him DEAD!"
"Jessasec, sir. Gotta get a pen and--"
"NO! Not now. We've got more pressing concerns. WHERE THE HELL IS EQUIPMENT?!?"
"They're not responding, si--"
"Kill the connection. Do you have one of their stock manifests?"
A few shuffles. "Yessir."
"I need an Iconoclast-Grade Combat Droid."
"An Iconoclast?" A faint grey tinge of doubt.
"YES. Do we have one?"
"We're listed as having one, sir, but--"
"REQ IT. NOW!"
"Sir, do you really think that--"
"I want the BIGGEST GUNS I'VE GOT! Stealth and subtlety are obviously not our babies here. Get me an Iconoclast. I don't care if they have to fish the Can out of mile-deep piles of molten SLAG, *I WANT HIM OUT OF MY SANDBOX!* After he's reduced Guardya to Stove Top, we'll get rid of that damn assassin too. But I want Glass _DEAD_, and I want it by SUNSET!"
"But sir, Iconoclasts are Independent Functioners! Where we gonna find an AI on that short notice, huh?"
"DON'T GIVE ME PROBLEMS! GIVE ME SOLUTIONS!"
"Searching for freeware AI's on-line, sir." A couple blips in the background. "Found one."
"Patch it through. I want to start briefing it. Meanwhile, you get that req processed. STAT!"
There is yet another unquestioning click, and then, a faint mechanical hummm begins to rise like steam from the intercom.
And with that little fanfare, It is seen to be present. The AI. The brain which would direct his Combat Droid, the soon-to-be soul of his sleek steel biomechanical beast which would rid both him and the world of Charles Madison Glass and recover for him The Deposit Can.
The Deposit Can. The Financial Soul of the entire Way-High Military-Industrial Complex. In the hands of one clueless angel, about to schlep it directly into the eager hands of one of the greatest Powers in the whole of Bermuda. He had clearly underestimated Glass before, and he would not do so again.
Ergo, the Iconoclast. A literal killing machine. One of the last designs of Mad Sean, The Iconoclast exists as the final twisted legacy of the Damn`ed Order of Hermetic Monks to which Mad Sean sold his entire family for one fortnight of study of the Codex of Al-Hazmat. Even the very _blueprints_ for an Iconoclast must needs be inscribed with protective glyphs, lest the white powder-ink _itself_ rise off the page and do the peruser great bodily harm. Parts of it exist outside of the normal, comfortable expanses of the three dimensions we call home, and parts of it simply do not exist at all. Factory floors busy with the assembly of Iconoclast droids must be veiled in absolute pitch darkness, in fear that one of the workers might actually _see_ the internal workings of the horror it is that they assemble, and engage in hasty and ill-conceived plots to destroy themselves, taking as much of the factory in question with them as possible...
And here is its mind...
Hopefully an unpolluted one. Free. Clear. Sharp. A white, blank set of icy logics and ruthless efficiencies. An innocent Mind, yes, unawares of what it will shortly become incarnate in. One that can be shaped, taught... a mind without scruples, gifted with Adult Human Reasoning and unfettered by those annoying moral and ethical constraints so detrimental to efficient functioning.
"Mind." Says Stein, addressing the quiet hum of his intercom, his voice ringing quietly. "You are about to embark upon a quest of utmost importance to me. You are to kill the Angel Who Bears The Hallowed Name of La Guardya, Charles Madison Glass. And you will let _nothing_ stand in your way. Do you understand?"
Stein can almost imagine the silver-slick nod of assent.
"Good." He croons. "Mind. I must know your name."
A brief moment of silence.
"Oh, no, no, no!" Gushes the Killing Voice.
Stein blinks at the intercom.
"What _ith_ this place? Oh! Oh, my, _gawd!_ I can't hardly even thtand to be in here. Look at this _room_! Black, black, BLACK! I mean, come _on_, lighten up! Theven-figure thalaries, and _thith_ ith the betht interior dethign you can come _up_ with? _Puh-LEEZE!_ No Thankth!"
"Er." Says William Stein, backing away slightly.
"I'm gonna let you in on a little thecret, big boy. Bathed tholely on your thenthe of tathte, you have got _lotth_ more to worry about than my name." A melodramatic sigh. "_BUT_, thinth we're _probably_ going to be working together for a good long time, I might ath well break the old ithe."
With a determined muster, the Voice seems almost to leap across the meter or two of open air between itself and Stein, giving the distinct impression of violation of personal space, even while standing _completely still_.
"Hel-lo!" It thez. "I'm Lyle!"
* * *
The humming in my brain does eventually subside, and after an endless time spent somewhere some fifteen thousand miles away, skimming the surfaces of the endless warm tropical seas of mind under wide-horizoned skies of cerulean blue, the blackness of beinglessness comes again, and afterwards, the more honest darkness of being in a place with very little light. Faint memories, dreams of a woman, a girl, with dark almond hair and dark almond eyes, draped in a cloak of midnight velvet fastened with a silver brooch in the shape of comic and tragic Thespian masks, rapidly shred and flit away like mists of crows.
I can't see.
"Just relax for a moment." Says a strange, burbled, neo-mechanical voice. "We've almost flushed the drugs out of your system."
"I... I can't see." I say, my voice thick.
"Your eyesight will return in time."
"Wh-- Where am I?"
"A Security Vehicle, on U.S. Endless Tropical Highway Seventeen, Sinister Street Classic Edition. En Route to Bermuda." The voice gargles erratically, like a subwoofer on Listerine.
"I can't see." I repeat.
"You are suffering from the aftereffects of Drug-Induced Stupor."
"Who... who are you?"
There is a rustling sound. And then, a hauntingly familiar voice.
"Luke!" I say, managing to range from an overjoyed start to a decidedly uncertain finish over the course of just one syllable.
"Frink frink frink wheeooo."
I reach out, blindly, and contact the fuzzy face of my companion. "Where's Feeb? And Buddy?"
"Right here, Charles." Comes a voice.
"Good." I say, without really thinking. "We're all together."
"Not so good." Says Feeb. "We're currently in the protected transport area of an LUD3A Campus Security Armored Car, being taken to Le Chateau de How Come Eh. A fortress-city comprising one of the Bermudan islands."
"Bermudans!" I say, trying desperately to lash the ragged ends of the plot together. "Those are the people who stole all the telephones!"
"Yup." Says Feeb.
"This is... A Campus Security Car?" I say, rubbing my eyes, watching with idle interest as dark blurs become light blurs and, thereafter, images and habitual forms of my associates, illuminated only slightly by shafts of brightness falling through pale, high, small windows.
"Yup." Says Feeb.
"But... But... when we talked to Officer Steve this morning... he was... paranoid about the Bermudan influence on his life!"
"Sad, really." Says Feeb, clucking her tongue. "The man doesn't even know he's working for the enemy."
"Yeesh. Conspiracies are scary."
"Rawr." Says Buddy, nodding emphatically.
"Frink." Says Luke, looking shifty-eyed.
"Affirmative." Says Feeb.
"It's hot." I say, taking off my windbreaker. "What, 've they got the heater turned up?"
She shakes her head. "It's just hot outside."
"October? In Kansas?"
"Charles, we're not in Kansas anymore."
"Then... er... where the hell are we?"
"Slightly south of the Florida Keys. But trust me, we're not here to get away from it all. The fun is just beginning."
"Florida?" I exclaim, groggily. "How long have I been out?"
"Half an hour." Says Feeb. "We haven't accomplished much. Buddy's flushed the drugs out of you, Luke has been working on his speech synthesizer, and I've just been sitting here reflecting on the vast sheep-like multitudes of piteous fools inhabiting all the nations of man, and pondering how the world would be so much better were I Supreme Empress of it all."
I stare at her for a moment.
"I'm practicing for an exam." She says.
"Gotcha." I say, only slightly unnerved at the fact that this makes perfect sense to me.
But something's still not meshing up. "Wait a second." I comment, finally figuring out what it is. "We're out past Florida on an endless highway suspended over the Gulf of Mexico and I've only been out for a half hour?"
"Basically." Says Feeb.
I look around at the large, dark, cube-like cargo hold. "How fast have we been driving, here?"
"That's the odd thing, Charles. This doesn't appear to be your average ordinary run-of-the-line Armored Car. Best estimate, this thing has a number of experimental drive systems which have allowed us to get this far this fast. God only knows why they thought us important enough to put us here. Or why they apprehended us at all. I mean, when Buddy here called 'em down on us, I figured they'd come in and barge around and be all conspiratory and such, like they usually do. I never dreamed that they would have the GALL to IMPRISON _ME_! Well, the pitiful little worms will PAY, once my Weather Domination Device is complete! YEEHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAaaaaaa..."
"You're working on a weather domination device?"
"Well, no." Says Feeb. "I'm trying to clock some practicum time, and I'm a bit short on my 'shrieking revengeful epithets at your captors' hours. Hang on a second." She clears her throat. "YOU WILL _REGRET_ having CROSSED ME, you MEDDLING INSECTS! SO IT IS WRITTEN in the BOOK of UNPLEASANTNESS!"
"Experimental Drives?" I say, ignoring her.
"Yes." She says, consulting her watch and noting down some figures on a log sheet. "Experimental drives. Prototype spatial tweak thingamabobbers. Based on the bleed that Luke has picked up on his tricorder, I'd say that the speed we've been generating on this momma has been a result of On'wiux Precursor Technology."
"Really?" I ask, piqued. "Alien precursor races carefully spilling new technology into mainstream Earth culture?"
"Don't get too excited, Charles. The On'wiux are a very old and proud race with a rich, noble history, but they've got a really _bad_ sense of timing. They came to the Governments of Earth just this past year promising to teach us many new and wonderful things, and to show us technology beyond our wildest imaginings."
"Well, to wit, we had already discovered most everything they offered on our lonesomes several-odd years back."
"Bit of a downer, then." I note.
"Frink." Says Luke, sullenly.
"Major, major faux pas for a precursor race. We've learned to laugh about it since then, of course. And they did bring us two things that we hadn't thought of. The first is, of course, Salsa Ranchero Cheez Whiz."
"Salsa Ranchero Cheez Whiz is made with Alien Technology? I _love_ that stuff!"
"Well, thank the On'wiux. It was probably the most exciting thing about them. Really, we had kind of expected more out of First Contact."
"So the other thing is... an experimental drive system?"
Feeb nods. "Newton told us that space and time were constants. Einstein expanded upon this with the claim that they were only constants inasmuch as they appeared as such to the limited human perceptual system and were not only non-absolute, but were also non-linear in nature. The On'wiux did Einstein one step better by discovering that, just as Space-Time's physical nature is not constant, neither is its attention span. It's very, _very_ patient, almost infinitely so, but given extreme conditions, you can lull it into distraction. The space between you and your destination will subsequently enter a sub-ethereal state, and you will be able to essentially 'skip' from point to point."
"So the secret to Faster-Than-Light travel is... to get the fabric of Space-Time... really, really bored."
"Exactly. It will then fall asleep."
"Huh." I say, accepting this with abnormally easy grace.
"Certain On'wiux principles have been expanded upon by Northern California paraphysicist Bernard Ghoti. He first postulated the theory of using On'wiux drives to power land vehicles in his autobiographical work, 'Fourteen Years In a Log Fort: The True Story of How I Wrested Mother Nature To My Bidding, All The While Thumbing My Nose at Big Corporations Who Were Trying To Do the Exact Same Thing Except For With Better Technology Than I Had.' It kept falling off the shelves, of course."
"Hm." I say.
"Dr. Ghoti is of course best known for the so-called 'Ghoti Principle' of neutralizing potential enemies by turning them into sex-crazed bosom gardens who can never complete a rational thought without obsessively self-referencing some detail of their own anatomies. You can imagine, of course, how effective this sort of hindrance would be." Feeb abnormally gruffens her voice, and adopts a bad British accent. "'Now, if I could only find a way to make a piece of this calcium carbonate react with the Indonesian Mortar holding these hinges in place, then I could OH MY GOD, LOOK AT HOW TIGHT MY SHIRT IS!"
I stare at her, wide-eyed.
"WOW, they BOUNCE AROUND! I JUST CAN'T GET OVER HOW THEY BOUNCE AROUND! AND THEY'RE SO HEAVY! WOW!"
"Frink...?" Says Luke, walking quadrupedally over to Feeb and inspecting her for a moment.
"Rawr." Murmurs Buddy, lost in his own thoughts.
"JEEPERS, I DON'T THINK I'LL _EVER_ GET OVER no, it's all right, Luke, I'm just demonstrating, get off me, that's a good dear."
"Frink." Says Luke, mollified.
"Anyway." Says Feeb. "As you can see. Point being, Dr. Ghoti told us it was _possible_, but I've never seen it in action before. It's really quite a nice drive system. Very smooth."
The conversation falls briefly into a lull.
"What were we talking about, again?" I ask.
"Bermuda." Says Feeb.
"Ah, Yes." I say. "_Bermuda_?"
"Yes. The Chateau de How Come Eh is just one of the many city-states comprising a ring of ancient stone islands of Atlantean design, specked out across a tiny area of the Gulf of Mexico. It's actually a little bit north of the island of Bermuda itself, but the Bermudan Ring still bears the name of its nearby sibling island. Puerto Rico ain't far off neither. It'd really be a nice place to live, were it not for the constant maneuvering of Illuminated Factions suffusing all aspects of daily life."
"Huh." I say, my control over the conversation completely gone.
"The Chateau de How Come Eh is one of the most visible and least underhanded of the City-States of Bermuda. It's a totalitarian dictatorship firmly in the clutches of Generalissimo Rafael De L'Ortega, but it's not a _bad_ place to live, unless you count the fact that Le Generalissimo has a sort of... queer... shall we say... obsession. Yes. Obsession... with, er, randomly changing members of his citizenry into other life forms."
"Ya know," I say, attempting to make an intelligent point, "I've been noticing that this theme seems to keep coming back over and over and over again in my life this week. What is, indeed, 'with this'?"
Feeb stares at me for a moment.
"Nothing." She says, overly quickly.
"What." I say, narrowing my eyes.
"Frink." Says Luke, looking worried.
"Rawr?" Questions Buddy.
"Nothing! Purely random events. There is no, repeat, _no_ special significance to people being changed into other things, you hear me? None!" Feeb fumbles for a cigarette for a moment before apparently realizing that she doesn't smoke, and thus stymied, she begins worrying the hem of her lab coat.
"Feeb..." I say, warningly. "You know something that we don't. Something you're not telling us. Come straight."
She peers into my own nondescript eyes with her beautiful-bright traffic-signal green ones. "It would destroy you." She whispers.
"Frink?" Says Luke, blinking at Feeb.
"Rawr!" Says Buddy, taking gently ahold of Feeb's coat and turning her around to face him.
"Please!" She says, sounding unusually flustered. "Please, can we not get into this right now? Bermuda comes! Look!" She gestures wildly towards the high windows. "There's been too much metaliterary exposition already! THE NEXT PLOT POINT APPROACHES!"
Feeb's excitement is contagious, and almost despite ourselves, we spend the next few moments climbing on each others' backs, trying to sneak a glimpse of a reflection of an image of our eventual destination, as we scud quietly across the endless bridge in a vehicle powered by focused tedium.
Eventually, it shows itself. The asphalt causeway of the Endless Highway wends its way across one broad bend, giving me, for a splinter of a second, a bright, perfectly-framed view of a great, broad, shallowly-arcing cone of an island, seemingly worked and crafted of a single piece of some palpably ancient rock. It aspires languidly out of the deep blue tropical waters like the extended fingertip of some great stone giant, near-totally submerged in the achingly warm seas. An entire city is hewn in loose spirals into its sides, winding streets and avenues positioned nearly vertically to one another in a busy, terraced slope of pure civilization. And at its apex, a magnificent palace-fortress, resting proudly like a contented housecat atop its little carpeted hidey-hole thing that you bought it from Wal-Mart.
"You know," I say, admiring the really rather striking view, "For all the being captured and dragged away from my home and carted to an obscure and mysterious island south of Florida in the locked cargo hold of a small vehicle powered by obscure and tenuously-scientific drive systems and being regaled with more endless tales of stupid conspiracy theories and secrets I'm Not Supposed To Know About, destination and fate uncertain, I'm really kind of enjoying this."
"That's just the drugs talking." Says Feeb, gazing out at the distant island. "You've been acting weird ever since you woke up. I wouldn't worry about it, though. Reggie hit you up pretty heavily with the happy juice, but the effects aren't permanent. Once things begin wearing off and you appreciate the fact that an influential figure whom you trusted, albeit for no good reason, actually betrayed you for his own personal gain, and that you have subsequently been placed into the clutches of a power-mad dictator who enjoys playing God with the lives and forms of persons under his control, I figure you'll be back to your normal, pissy self in a New York minute."
"Oh." I say, wind-knocked-out-of-me-ish-ly.
"In the meantime, though, enjoy the view." She says.
Which seems like a good enough idea, so, I do.