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


And after, there is aught but a series of epilogues.

* * *

Doctor Benjamin "Reggie" Harte came back to life in a pool of his own blood, next to a tiny notecard and a piece of plastic tableware.

"Damn," he said, shaking his head to clear it. He lifted the sleeve of his expensive academic gown out of the mess of gore, watching it drip glutinously back into the puddle below. Then, he rolled his eyes, and sighed. Good lord, he remarked to himself, do I ever have a lot of blood.

Well. Scratch another robe. Accelerated master of the mystic arts that he was, Dr. Harte had spent most of his student years in a streamlined, bare-bones track of study leading to phenomenal cosmic power, and had missed many mundane and useful cantrips along the way, including those which could launder a robe thoroughly of any stain and those that could close up nasty sword-splits in the back, both of which would have been terribly useful right about now.

Reggie batted around with his hand for a moment before coming up with his onyx-headed cane. Putting both hands on its knob, and slipping slightly in the surrounding ruin, he gradually raised himself into a bent stand.

Then, he picked up the blood-soaked card and the little plastic spork. He began reading the card to himself, silently mouthing the words. In the sink nearby, Glass's annoying little crow-shaped robot whizzed faintly in its half-deactivated power-saving mode. Harte ignored it, and continued reading.

"Damnit!" he cursed, tossing the card onto a nearby bookcase. So it had been the Fire Spork Brotherhood what did him in the second time in as many hours. This was less of a problem than it might at first have appeared; the Fire Spork Brotherhood tended to take a fairly practical view towards their marks. Dead once, job's done. In a world with an alarming degree of revivification taking place, it's the only sensible policy a pragmatic guild of assassins can afford to take. Besides, this had been a revenge killing anyway. Not even a paid job. An act of P.R. Harte was not worried overmuch about the Fire Spork Brotherhood; they no longer posed a threat to him. The only thing he was worried about was--

The Goldfish -- the fourteen little psionically-potent Koi living in the little fountain in the corner -- saw in Reggie's distraction a long-preempted window of opportunity and struck. For a moment the vaulted ceiling of the room was filled with a storm of crackling red, a miniature tempest of vicious light. Reggie threw himself to the ground, slipping once more in the blood, and brought his cane up and over his body, casting up a hemicylindrical shield of scintillating ice whose many prismed facets deflected the first strokes of the Goldfish's assault and prevented, for the moment, yet another death today. He lashed out, then, with his aura of cold, and froze the Koi fountain with a thick sheet of numbing ice. The fish would be _quite_ angry when their tiny little ectothermic metabolisms warmed up enough to permit proper brain function again, and Dr. Benjamin Harte did not plan to be around when that happened.

Reggie pulled himself to his feet again, the ice crystals of his impromptu shield melting into sad puddles and mixing gloopily with his blood below. He panted, once or twice.

"Fucking hell!" he grunted out, then, through clenched teeth. All right, he decided, now he was SERIOUSLY cheesed off.

A voice, from the sink. The robot bird again.

::...sir...:: remarked CORVID, in a noise like metal sparks. ::...language...:: mustn't...::

A quick zap of electricity silenced the hateful thing once more.

All for naught! All! He had waited ages, DECADES for the appearance of a Mundane angel. And in the end, he hadn't even gotten that! He had had to make do with a thrice-damned demi-angel, the product of blessed Bevriel's mortal conjugation with His Grace the Lord Major Percival St. John Kensington Glass! But for all its questionable beginnings, the plan had been working! WORKING! And were it not for his meddling cohorts, the younger Glass would now be his, safely paralyzed and will-subjugated in his own private lab! But now this! Gone! Who knew when his next opportunity would arrive? More than just conquest of the world, he had been hoping to attain TENURE with the results of this experiment! Gone! Ruined! Gone!

"DAMNIT!!!" shouted Reggie again, for what would be the last time.

Though still daylight without, the margins of the room faded to shadowy umber, then to a deep and lifeless blackbrown.

Coldness entered Reggie's gut. His eyes flicked from corner to corner. Oh, cripes, what now?

Reggie's mind whizzed and spun in the gathering dark. There was something strangely familiar about this. Had he heard something about it? Something in the scuttlebutt of the thaumaturgical community?

Something tickled at the back of his brain. Language, the bird had said, before he silenced it. Something about--

"Good afternoon, Doctor Harte."

To call the voice "deep" would suggest that the person doing the describing had no access to the word "sepulchral". The voice was also very, very British.

Reggie spun towards it, flinging his cane out in yet another mystically-defensive pass. This time, however, there was no effect. The harmonically-tuned wood felt dull in his hands; it might as well have been a cylinder of particle board.

A figure stepped into what little light remained. He was tall, grey and cadaverous, and virtually every inch of his flesh and clothing was covered with a scuttling carpet of beetles. To his right flank was a second figure, equally grey and cadaverous, equally beetle-festooned, but squat. His undead skin was marked by a great number of small puncture wounds.

"Doctor Harte," said Emil Daanziger, Professor of Logics, "you have just made a rather grievous error."

"Heh heh," sniggered the shorter creature. "Yeah. It, like, totally sucked, what you did."

"Now now, Stubbs," said Daanziger. "'_Quanta miasma bono, que pinnicus lave_.' The degree to which Dr. Harte's action, ah, 'sucked', as you put it, depends on where one is standing."

Daanziger turned his gaze back to Harte, and smiled. A centipede wormed its way through his broken maze of teeth. "For instance," he continued. "Our dark lord Ashraak finds this particular circumstance not at all 'sucky'."

"Heh heh," said Stubbs. "Cir-CUM-stance. Heh heh. Heh heh."

"You astound me, Stubbsy."

During this exchange, Reggie had been backing away slowly. Certainly, the two men... if you could call them that... were between him and the door. That left either (a) mystical teleportation and/or time-diffusal (probably not an option, as even a simple defensive screen had failed in the profane aura of these two godservants) or (b) the window. The window it was.

But... the window was not there. Nothing at the edges of the room was there, anymore. The walls had all faded into the deep, decaying brown, a vagueness that seemed to have no end.

"Doctor Harte," resumed Daanziger, as he ambled slowly forward. "Have you ever heard of the so-called 'Thersitical Pentad'?"

Reggie did not respond. His eyes were wide.

"No?" said Daanziger. "Pity. It is the holiest construction of our dark lord Ashraak, an incantation of tremendous power, yet, surprising versatility. A mere string of five curses, one after the other in an uninterrupted row. Any five will do."

"No," stammered Reggie. "No, I didn't!"

"But you did," said Daanziger.

"No!" said Reggie, furiously attempting to recall. "'Damn _it_!' 'Damn _it_!'" That's two words! 'It' is an interruptor!"

"Perhaps if you had intoned it as such," said Daanziger.

"Heh heh," said Stubbs. "Dude -- you, um, know when you said 'intoned it'? It sounded kinda like... uh... 'tit'. At the end. Heh heh."

"That's... that's wrong!" said Reg, even in his panic knowing well enough to ignore anything Stubbs had to say. "That kind of phrase interpretation is a wholly subjective--"

"Oh, COME, sir!" said Daanziger, spreading his arms wide and flinging beetles into the dark. "We're here! You cannot argue the point!"

Reg had by now backed almost fully into the deadish, boiling clouds of sepia that stood where the walls of the dormitory room had been. Noxious vapors invaded his mouth.

"What do you want?" he said, at last, choking upon the words.

"It's not what We want, Dr. Harte."

The beetles massed, and seemed to multiply in number, flooding their way to the floor and spreading out from Daanziger and Stubbs in a tremendous carpet of creeping, skittering doom.

"Our lord Ashraak is, on the other hand... shall we say... very interested in obtaining your assistance. In a few, small, trivial matters. Shan't be much of a bother, and it'll hardly cost you a thing."

The horde of beetles reached Reggie's feet and began to climb.

"All we'll need," said Daanziger, "is your soul."

Doctor Benjamin Harte fell back into the shadows, screaming.

* * *

Evening. Hoderund. There, at his magnificent desk, was William "Way-High Willie" Stein. He sat in a pensive fashion, his fist on his chin, his elbow propped up upon a miniature copy of Rodin's "The Thinker."

Perhaps, he mused, the sending of the Iconoclast had been a bit of overkill. Glass was almost certainly dead; no one, not even a demi-angel, could have stood up to that amount of missile fire. The entire wing of the castle had collapsed upon them; Stein had seen the video feed, or at least what he had been able to scrub out of the satellite link before the Iconoclast had been rather frustratingly destroyed by a giant purple radioactive iguana from out of the sea.

Of course, and this was in retrospect the really rather unwise part, the One Can had either been buried with him, or had been hidden somewhere in the depths of the Chateau, most of which was either rubble, or on fire, or both. A proper search of the wreckage could take months, and time was not something William Stein had in spades, right now. The tremendous value of the One Deposit Can had been used to secure the corporate functioning of Way-High Technologies for decades, and shortly before its untimely disappearance, Stein had taken on a number of rather high-flying business ventures, confident in the Can's financial backup.

Stein's ventures hadn't flown high for long. And Way-High was currently up to its corporate ass in alligators.

The vault had been secure! There were a hundred thousand safeguards on that thing, each one with the express purpose of making certain that no-one, but no-one, had personal access to the vault except William Stein himself. Voiceprint scanners. Fingerprint scanners. Retinal scanners. Skin-flake DNA collectors. Magnetic dental tomography machines. Even, and Stein had balked at these but eventually relented, mystical sealing wards. That Glass had somehow obtained the One Can from inside the vault was utterly inconceivable; yet, it had apparently happened. How else could he have come to possess it?

Conventional methodology had failed. Unconventional methodology had failed. It was time for Completely Ridiculous methodology. To obtain the Can in time would be impossible. No, thought Stein, the only thing to do would be to make it so it _never had been stolen in the first place._

Stein spun open his old-fashioned manual Rolodex and grimly turned it to the really crisp cards near the back, the ones he had prayed time and time again, to gods he didn't even believe in, that he would never be forced to use.

He then picked up his sleek black phone and dialed out a very long number indeed.

"Hey," he said, at last, into the receiver. "Ampersand! Buddy! It's me, W--"

Stein hesitated. A mass of shadowy stuff was roiling up from the little speaker holes and collecting in the bowl of the receiver's mouthpiece. It looked rather like the vapors you get when you melt a quantity of dry ice, only very, very black.

Stein swallowed. "It's me, Will!" he concluded, his voice not wavering. "Listen. I need a favor here. Remember the MatterCon Gambit we talked about?"

A pause. Stein listened.

"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I need that to happen. Now."

Another pause.

"Thursday's good," said Stein, consulting the little calendar on his very fancy watch. "I like Thursday. Yeah. Okay. You and me... we need to keep in close touch from here on in. My people will talk to your... things. Your things can talk to my people. It'll be a gas."

Yet another pause. "Uh huh. Uh huh. Sure. Sure, and when it's all over, how about lunch or something? It's been ages. You can bring your lovely wife. Yes, I know," he said, chuckling. "I know that's the human term, Ampy. Call me a traditionalist."

One last pause. Stein smiled into the receiver, to give his words that perfect warm tone.

"You too, Ampy. Looking forward to it. Talk to you soon. Mm hm! Bye!"

Stein hung up.

Then he sat back in his large, imposing chair and permitted himself a long, full-body shudder.

That done, he turned his chair to the skyline windows and actively pondered, for several minutes, all the complicated steps involved in destroying a solar system.

* * *

All in all, it had been a pretty good giant monster fight. Better than both of last week's, certainly.

The waves closed in over the mangled remains of Lyle the Iconoclast. Godzilvy roared, screeched and giggled in triumph, then waded back into the sea that she had been called from.

Paco Zephelmine, recently transmogrified into an eight-year-old clone of Rafael De L'Ortega, stood upon the shores of How Come Eh and watched as the last remnants of the strange-talking giant combat droid were swallowed by the ocean. A dying spurt of fire erupted from the metal beast's monstrous head, and from this spurt, a luminescent pink streak coursed far into the sky before vanishing into the endless heaven. One last ineffectual missile shot, theorized Paco, who was used to thinking hard about just about everything.

Paco nodded to himself, took out a scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil, and used his new-found omnipotence to conjure himself an excellent pepper sandwich. He took a large bite and then looked up at the person who had earlier this evening been his pangolin. He was taller than Paco, more stocky. Ortega at twelve or thirteen, perhaps; none the less Ortega, of course.

"Well," said Paco, "that's that."

"Sure looks like it," said his older and taller companion.

Together they stood as the crowd of monster-watching spectator Ortegas began to thin out, to return to their humdrum, newly-omnipotent lives, each one, to a man, with a song in his heart, knowing for once and for always what he would look like come morning. Soon, there would be problems with omnipotence abuse; that was more-or-less inevitable. But for that night, at least, buoyed by the joyous and heartening prospect of consistent form, everyone stuck to conjuring up the simple comforts of life. Warm baths for themselves, comfortable beds for the children and nice meals for everyone in the family: mommy Ortega, daddy Ortega and all the little Ortegas running around.

"At least," said Paco, "the rebuilding will be swift this time. With our new powers."

"Yup," said the elder Ortega.

Paco and his companion stood there on the shore for a while. The sun, finally and at last, began to set.

"What's your name?" said Paco.

"Kevin," said Kevin.

"Kevin," attempted Paco. "That's a funny name."

"You said it," said Kevin. "My mom is weird."

"Huh," said Paco.

"More than usually weird, I mean," said Kevin.

Another moment passed.

"It's just that I never could keep track of anyone before," said Paco, out of the blue. "It's kind of bad that everyone is the same, but at least now, I'll be sure that the people I know today will be the same people that I'm going to know tomorrow."

"Yeah," said Kevin, smiling. "S'nice."

Paco took a moment to work himself up. When he spoke, his young, small voice was thick with emotion.

"Kevin," said Paco, "will you be my friend?"

* * *

"Frink," says Luke, his voice muffled by the welding mask. "Frink, wheeooo."

Feeb eyes him dubiously. She's alive, of course. In my artifact-induced dementia I had forgotten the fact that my current reality, such as it is, seems to pivot upon principles of cinematic storytelling; and that one of the most ancient and long-standing rules of cinematic storytelling is that unless you actually see the villain's body, he -- or she, in this case -- is not actually dead. Usually he's not even dead then, but at least in the latter case there is a sliver of a chance at finality.

It's kind of a stretch classing Feeb as a villain, but I think the principle still holds true. Mad, yes. Evil? Hell, who knows?

"You're sure?" she says. "You really want to hear my explanation? You're not just using me to further your twisted biomechanistic ambitions?"

"Wheeooo," says Luke, in a tone of angelic sincerity.

"Well, all right," says Feeb, still sounding uncertain. She clears her throat. "And now," she says, brightly, "it's time to learn a little more about the cynocephalic -- or 'dog-headed' -- men and women that make up the great nation just across our northern border: the Canidians. If you'll pay attention, I have a short film prepared..."

Feeb turns to the projector and switches it on. A half-second later it is obliterated by a flying grey lemur sporting a healty set of protective facegear.

"LUKE!" shouts Feeb, showing the puzzling sort of dismay I have previously seen only in those cartoons where Charlie Brown goes to kick the football only to have it pulled away at the last second, again, by that emasculating bitch Lucy. "That's, like, the fifteenth film projector of mine you've wrecked today!"

"Frink!" says Luke, self-satisfiedly searching through the wreckage and removing choice bits with his cutting torch.

"Hey, guys," I say, blandly, "I was wondering if anyone here would be interested in a new game I just made up. It's called 'Stay The Crap On Task'. The only reason I ask is 'cause I'm kind of sitting here with my ARM pried open, see."

"I'm sorry?" says Feeb, fluttering her eyelids at me even as Luke is bounding back over to my side. "Is there some sort of hideous cybernetic monstrosity trying to say something to me nearby?"

"One little finger," I say, darkly. "And if I recall correctly, getting it replaced was a matter of some insistence a little while ag-- OW! SCHLITZ!"

"Frink," says Luke, apologetically, turning off the welder and lifting the mask. He's still favoring his right arm a little; a plain white bandage marks the one spot where Hitty managed to live up to its name. For a brief moment, I really do feel like a jerk for that.

"Save your pity, little one," says Feeb, magisterially. "He's more machine now, than man. Twisted and evil."

I was overwhelmed with joy when first I saw Feeb alive again. Now she's back to being really annoying. "Look," I say, wiggling the skeletal clockwork digit and trying in vain to accustom myself to its rather alien appearance, "I didn't strictly _need_ this finger."

"Sure you did," says Feeb. "The mere act of drinking tea in a dainty fashion would have forever been denied you." Feeb closes her eyes, sorrowfully. "I can actually feel your pain, as we speak."

"Great," I say. "Does it include an 'ass' component?"

"Rawr," says IlsaBuddy, peeking her head into the impromptu surgical suite that Luke has set up here in the former cone of Monte Penwell, now nothing more than a large and placid domed chamber of rock, complete with solid and decidedly non-chasmic floor. "Rawr, rawr, rawr."

"Really?" says Feeb.

"Rawr!" agrees Buddy, gesturing at Feeb with a piece of paper I have not seen before. "Rawr..." she says, reading off the list. "Rawr... Rawr... Rawr... Rawr... Rawr!"

"What's she going on about?" I ask, wincing, as Luke makes the last few adjustments to what must most certainly be the most pathetic cybernetic appendage in all history.

"Oh," says Feeb. "I forgot. You're kind of inexplicably erratic in your ability to understand specialty dialogue."

"Rawr," says IlsaBuddy.

"Right," says Feeb, nodding to IlsaBuddy. "Basically," she continues, "it appears that Buddy has managed to locate a manifest of some of the tangible assets we have come into possession of as a result of our fulfilling some of Felix de Trephane's outstanding debts and mortgages."

"Rawr," agrees IlsaBuddy.

"As I suggested before," continues Feeb, "there's not a whole lot here, at least, not compared to the amount of cash you just chucked away. But I'm awfully, terribly excited about some of these line items."

"Such as?" I say.

"Well..." says Feeb, "for one thing, a road! An entire private highway to the mainland, bridge and everything. Fully contracted through Bob's Automatic Nanite Construction Company, it looks like the work was halted when our man Felix went into default. Says here, 'construction to recommence immediately upon solution of unpaid invoices.'"

"So they're building a road... right now?"

"Rawr," says Buddy, happily.

"See for yourself!" says Feeb. Luke, is the patient ready to transport?"

"Frink!" says Luke, giving Feeb the A-Okay.

Flexing my new left pinkie finger, I emerge from the cone room into the fading sunlight via a freshly-rent cleft in the rock of the cone chamber's wall. Sparkling there in the distance like some machination of a rather flamboyant fairy godmother is a shining highway, a tongue of black and white slowly materializing its way towards the shore below.

"Wonderful," I say, sardonically. "A road." But it is kind of pretty.

"And that's not all!" says Feeb. "Says here we now have a considerable share of ownership in a real live shopping mall, back in Hoderund!"

"Ohno," I say. "Not that craphole of a place where they lavaged my colon and then sicced a giant killer dinosaur on me and then those rats whacked me on the head and tried to eat me?"

"Capitol Centre?" says Feeb, in a distressingly casual tone. "No, this is a different one. Says here it's sort of an... experimental shopping emporium on the Lower Southeast Side."

"This just keeps getting better," I say. "An _experimental_ shopping mall?"

"No, really, it's great!" says Feeb. "It's real estate! I can bulldoze it and build a new laboratory! Mua-ha-ha!"

"Hoopy," I say. "Well, that's one major angst issue solved."

"You bet your ass!" she says.

"Anything else?"

"Well," says Feeb, "there's also this island we're standing on."

"Really?" I say, perking up. "I get my own tropical island after all?"

"Sure!" says Feeb. "Never mind the fact that it's a black, barren and nigh-lifeless hunk of rock just sitting out here in the middle of the ocean."

"It's got vines!" I say, pointing at the vines.

"True," says Feeb.

"Wow," I say. "An island! I could get some beer, and my boom box, and we could bring, like, a tent out here, and set up a picnic table or something, and--"

"It's a shame we can't stay," says Feeb.

"Like Budweiser we can't!" I say, rounding on her. "You're just--"

"Ashraak," says Feeb. "The longer we stay in one place, the better fix he can get on us. And that goes double when we're sitting out here, the only living souls for miles around. No," she says, "we're far better off back in the city. Besides, weren't you the one who was just earlier today bitching about about having a paper due or something?"

"Crap," I say. She's right. I had cajoled Doc Somnolent into a two-day extension, but I had made absolutely zero progress today, for perhaps obvious reasons. I had no idea if flunking out here in cuckoo mystical happy fun dreamland correlated at all to flunking out back in what I still adamantly considered to be the real world, but I was not anxious to find out. I needed some serious library time back at the University, but good.

Still it's hard to leave. As far as I understand, this island is independent of any governmental control, which means that for all practical purposes I now own my own tiny little country, out here in the middle of the ocean. This is -- and I am going to make no bones about this -- totally, utterly, inassailably cool. When I get my Appointment with Voria Starbender and she finally sets things aright for me with Ashraak and with this whole Mundementia One business I'm going to hold a party out here on my island. We're gonna set up a bunch of lights and build a bonfire on the floor beneath the rock spur where I won my final battle of will over the evil of the One Deposit Can and we'll all get SO FRIGGIN' DRUNK it won't even be funny. And it won't matter if we're all underage because there will be no cops to bust us out on my own little island, and I'll officially decree the legal drinking age to be, like, eight, or something, and it will stick since I am not only the supreme ruler of this island but also a heavenly being with almighty force behind my pronouncements or some shit like that. It will rock, I hereby declare, so very hard.

Except... wait. Once Voria Starbender sets things aright... I won't own an island. I won't be an angel. And it'll be back to it being me and Luke Delacroix, my geeky and decidedly furless little Engineering-major roommate, hanging out in good old 4410 Currier, watching bootleg porn and drinking cheap Dago Red on the sly, all twitchy and in constant fear of the R.A. coming around a-knocking.

That's home. That's what I've been pining for.

It was _pathetic_.

I'm so confused.

"And," says Feeb, "I am _aching_ to get a look at our new shopping mall!"

"Allrightallrightallright," I say, shaking away the the distressing haze of my last few thoughts and taking one last look up at my mountainous island, the appearance of which is vastly improved by the mere fact of it being mine.

Then, I turn, and the four of us descend to the beach, using a sandy, dry, and for the most part, acceptably level trail that -- like the cleft in the cone chamber wall -- was presumably formed in the recent cataclysm of Monte Penwell. Some little piece of my mind is whispering to me that this is a suspiciously convenient development to ascribe wholly to "cataclysmic" forces, but I hush it, because, y'know, why look a gift path in the mouth?

"Feeb," I say as we go, still experimentally curling my machinework finger, "unless I miss my count, that's the second time you've incurred a great deal of risk for the purpose of either saving or restoring my life. Yesterday, you lost your lab to Daanziger and Stubbs because you decided to raise me from the dead. And just now you stayed behind to finish off that demon thing that probably could have killed us all."

"Point of order," says Feeb, her voice wavering on the edge of some kind of odd tension I cannot immediately place. "I didn't do the 'finishing off' part."

"Frink," says Luke, calmly, ambling ahead.

"Yup," says Feeb. "Heck-spawned symbolic construct of evil or no, seven hundred and fifty gyroscopically-stabilized rocket-propelled explosive shells're gonna give you pause."

"Frink," says Luke, with a certain degree of smug self-satisfaction.

"Once those carbohydrates kick in, it's like, watch out," Feeb says. "Voom."

"Regardless," I say. "You very nearly sacrificed yourself to--"

Feeb whips around. Her eyes are smoldering. This is not something I expected.

"Listen, Charles," says Feeb, snarling up at me. "I did it to destroy the One Can. It's the same reason I'm putting myself on the line to find these three Highly Important Sword-things."

"Wait. These... what-things?"

"We'll talk about it later, Charles."

"This isn't about that MacGuffin Blade again, is it?"

"I SAID," says Feeb, "We'll talk about it later!" Feeb huffs in exasperation. "The point is," she says, "it's a Heilemann's Old Style of a lot harder to conquer the world for yourself once it's already conquered by something or someone else. The scattered and chaotic nations of this world are like grapes! Grapes, ripe for the plucking! Bring them all under the iron fist of some megalomaniacal overlord, they turn into... things... that are a lot, um, harder to pluck than grapes! Like some kind of, I dunno, cast-iron plantain that's attached to its tree with, like, monofilament wire or something, and there's this monkey on top and he's chucking COCONUTS at you!"

"A... monkey?"

"Yeah," says Feeb, sullenly.

"Okay, okay, though," I say, hacking through the dense undergrowth of Feeb's casual insanity with the machete of truth. "That doesn't make sense. What good would it do you to sacrifice yourself for a cause, if all you're trying to do is--"

"WHAT!" she bellows. "YOU'RE SAYING I'M NOT _EVIL_, IS THAT IT?"

Disoriented, I take in half a breath as though to begin to speak.

"_IS THAT IT?!?_"

I am vaguely aware that my mouth is hanging ever-so-slightly open.

"Because I'll tell you, Charles," she continues. "You have no _IDEA_ how evil I really am! And I'm going to continue to _be_ evil and I'm going to graduate at the TOP of my Evil class and then, THEN you'll be sorry that you EVER questioned my EVILNESS!!!"

I have no idea what to say in a situation like this, so I continue to say nothing. Feeb stands there for a moment, one trembling finger beneath my chin. Then she scoffs, pivots, and marches on ahead, her lab coat twirling for a moment like a ballroom gown.

"I was just... trying to say... 'thanks'," I manage, at last.

Feeb does not respond.

We walk the rest of the way to the beach in silence. When we get there, Luke opens the boat's cargo ramp and then leaps in through the window of the armored car and hits the ignition. The engine thunders to life and the rest of us pile in while Luke lowers the reinforced barrier between the cab and the rear compartment, which is a really nice feature. The highway is but a few hundred feet from shore and closing.

"So anyway," I say, casually trying to spark some sort of conversation without touching on whatever it was that punched Feeb's hot button. "Unless I miss my guess, Luke has stolen for us the same vehicle that those Security guys used to bring us here earlier this afternoon? The one with the experimental drive system on it?"

"Looks like it," says Feeb, blandly.

"So it's safe to say that we'll make it back to Kansas tonight, then?"

"Oh, sure," says Feeb, distantly, her eyes cold. "No problems."

"Boy," I say, pressing a little harder, "these Alien Precursor-Race drives sure are somethin' else, huh?"

The spark that finally enters her eyes is a distinctly satisfying one. "Yeah," she says, beginning to warm again. "You know, during our long sea-voyage, I had time to play around in the workings of this thing, and it's really pretty cool! Remember how I said the On'Wiux drive system creates localized warp fields by attempting to bore Space and Time into submission?"

"Mm hm!" I say, brightly. I can recall it having been a pretty stupid explanation, actually, but I'm not going to say anything about that right now.

"Well," continues Feeb, "I figured out how it does it. Turns out all of its space-warping capabilities are tied up in the car's audio system! That's why it has such a killer stereo!"

"Huh," I say.

Feeb noses up to the passenger seat and pops the armrest compartment. "The designers have optimized the functioning of the experimental drive by making certain that the vehicle is fully-stocked with banal, trite, derivitave and/or pretentious pop music!" she burbles. "Stuff that the Universe can't _help_ but be bored by!"

Then she blinks and peers into the armrest. "Although," she says, "the inclusion of Ace of Base's 'Cruel Summer' in this collection was almost certainly an oversight."

"C'mon," I say, leaning forward, hoping desperately that I can drift back over to 'gentle mockery' now without touching her off again. "I can _totally_ see Ace of Base being used to create localized boredom fields in Space and Time. After all, I--"

I look into the compartment. "Supertramp?" I say. "'Breakfast in America'?!? Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me!" I pull out the CD and flip it over in my hands to read the back. "Just look at some of these tracks!"

Meanwhile Luke, in the driver's seat, is poking sadly at a brownish-looking double-wide CD case near the front of the compartment, a copy of "Return of the Manticore," by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. "Frink?" he says, his voice pathetic.

"Yes, Luke," says Feeb, "I'm afraid that the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer is both trite _and_ pretentious."

"Wheeooo," he says, sadly.

Near the back of the armored car, Ilsabuddy sits, chuckling to herself. "Rawr," she says, her voice distorted with mirth. "Rawr, rawr, rawr."

I stare at her, wryly.

"Rawr," she says, still laughing.

Wordlessly, I pluck an audio tape encased in a thin cardboard sleeve from the collected music, and march two steps over to her position.

"The cassette single," I say, in a low and distinct tone, "of Elton John's 'Island Girl'."

IlsaBuddy snatches it from my hands. "Rawr!" she says, in dismay.

"Frink," suggests Luke.

"Luke's right," says Feeb. "Our sitting around here being upset over the suggestion that quite a lot of the music we enjoy listening to does, in fact, suck, on a universal, intrinsic and empirical level is inherently unproductive and wasteful of time that could be better spent on other, more gainful, pursuits."

"Frink," says Luke, nodding firmly.

I look at her.

"Lots of eye movements," she explains. "Intonational cues."

"Uh huh," I say, then let out a steep breath. "Well, I guess he's right. C'mon, crew. Let's get home."

And Luke throws the vehicle into gear, takes us off the boat and into the sand for a moment, pulls a perfect two-seventy and hauls us up onto the brand-new highway just as the twinkling lines of miraculous nanite construction crest against the shore.

The engine rattles and hums as we pull away from Monte Penwell. The suspension is gentle and the road surface is slick and new-minted. And soon, we are running on cruise control with a course seemingly set for the last of the dying sun.

"Music!" calls Feeb, and then to my dubious expression, she continues, "It makes the car go!"

I think about it for a moment, then relent. "All right," I say, flipping open the jewel case in my hands. "I call first dibs."

And as the first notes of Supertramp's "Take the Long Way Home" dance forth from the speakers out across the sea, I can almost see the scene from without, watching in my mind's eye as the camera pulls up, and back, filling more of the frame with the broad, red, sunset sky above and the broad, red, sunset ocean below, traversed by a single delicate ribbon of dark asphalt upon which we coast, swiftly, towards the horizon line...

And then, everything fades to black.


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