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Mundementia One Interludes: Christmas at Capitol Centre
"Why don't you tell... Missus Claus... what you'd like... for... Christmas..."
The C.D.C. gets a certifiably disturbing-looking grin on her cute little mouth as she gazes up cutely into Phoebe's wasted, ashen face.
There is a twinkle in her eye.
The universe holds its breath...
"RUWERSHIP OVUW CAPITOW CENTEUW and UTTUW DOMINION OVUW DIS PITIFUW WEAWITY! YEEHAHAHAHAHA!"
Phoebe's eyes go wide. Oh, no...
"We are Committed to Giving Our Customers Everything that they Desire This Holiday Season." Intones the mind-wiped Manager standing nearby. "Isn't She Cute." He adds.
Phoebe's brain races.
Little Becky is obviously an absurdly powerful C.D.C. Perhaps the most powerful one that the world has ever known. Certainly the most powerful one that Feeb can ever remember hearing of. Vicious and spiteful little creatures, C.D.C.'s are _normally_ little more than malicious gremlins who use their horrid knowledge of the black arts of Cute for minor mischief; convincing brain-addled adults that no, they couldn't _possibly_ be the evil little hellions that they superficially appear to be. Bite your hand hard enough to draw blood? Aww. I probably startled her coming at her like that. Isn't She Cute. Break your Grandmother's antique Persian Lamp? Well, we probably shouldn't have had it sitting there. It wasn't her fault. Isn't She Cute. Flush your fifteen-thousand-dollar tropical saltwater fish collection down the toilet? She was just trying to do them a favor! Giving them a change of scenery. That's _just_ the sort of thing that she would think of doing. Pity they're all dead now... but really, the _thought_ was nice. She just didn't understand. _Isn't She Cute_.
But their most evil power, the very Black Mass of Cuteness itself, is the invocation of Pweeze. A focused, concentrated sending of Disturbingly Cute Power applied to the barriers of human will like a sandblaster to garlic toast. Few human minds are strong enough to resist even a conventional Pweeze... and from Little Becky...
Little Becky had managed to subjugate the mind of one of the Managers.
Secret Pan-Dimensional Illuminated beings whose control over the Universe of Capitol Centre is complete.
If little Becky managed to dominate one of them, then the rest would soon follow. Leaving Little Becky the supreme ruler of Capitol Centre.
And with the entire resources of Capitol Centre on her side, _NOTHING_ could stop her.
In fact, the _only_ thing impeding Little Becky in her Conquest of All is a simple technicality of her people: the fact that she had asked for dominion over the Mall _for Christmas_. As a C.D.C., it is imperative that she follow all the organized patterns of cute-childness in order for her powers to take hold. C.D.C.'s who violate any ritual of childhood suddenly become Non-Cute and are usually promptly lynched by all those over whom they have exercised unholy control. So Little Becky is playing her cards right, and waiting until the 25th in order to be granted her dominion.
Midnight is only two and one-half hours away.
And the last ritual in her black ceremony is very nearly complete; The Asking of the Santa. Once that is done, Little Becky will be Dark Empress of All.
Phoebe knows that she is the last line of defense. That she _must not_ complete the last line of the ritual... she _MUST NOT_ tell Little Becky that she would do her very best to get her what she had asked for...
"Um. Becky." Says Phoebe. "That's a pretty tall order, huh?"
Becky looks up in a hopeful, cute, I-WILL-DESTROY-YOU-PITIFUL-WORM sort of fashion. "But you _wiuw_ get it fouw me... won' you?"
"Becky!" Says Phoebe, sweating freely. "There are some things--"
"AAACK!" Screams Feeb! "AAAAAACcch...hhh. Um. Ho! Ho, Ho!"
"Somefing wong, Missus Cwaws?" Says Becky, viciously.
Only one sound away from having her brain fried again... Phoebe knows that she has to think _fast..._
And then, it comes to her.
"Little Becky." Says Phoebe. "Missus Claus _will_ let you know whether or not Santa can get that for you. I _promise..._"
A brief pause while Little Becky studies her with a cute little sneer on her face.
"...But first... I have a STORY to tell you." Phoebe reaches over to her holdall and begins rummaging.
A storm of cute black anger crosses Little Becky's face. C.D.C.'s _ALWAYS_ want to have stories read to them. It's part of the essence of their collective beings. Little Becky seethes and scowls, but is helpless to resist. Were she to refuse a Story from Santa, her power would be broken.
Phoebe removes a small, leather-bound book of Christmas Stories from the Holdall. Phoebe _knows_ that this is a temporary measure at best... she knows that she'll probably have time for, at most, one story before Becky uses her dominion over the Manager to _force_ Missus Claus to terminate this episode...
"Little Becky." Says Phoebe. "You obviously have in mind a lot of 'getting,' this Holiday Season. Now 'Getting' is perfectly okay, sometimes. It's a _wonderful_ thing to Get a special doll or a new bike, or..."
"..Ruwership of da Wouwd..."
"...Yes, or Rulership of the World... for Christmas. But... an even _more_ special part of the season... is the part having to do with Giving. And sometimes, we _forget_ about that. Would you like to hear a story about the Wonderfulness of Giving?"
Little Becky's face twists in an incredibly cute DAMN-YOU-TO-HELL-MEDDLING-PEON scowl. "Why, YES, Missus CWAWS!" She spits, in an irresistably endearing fashion.
"All Right." Says Phoebe, flipping open the leather-bound tome.
And she begins reading.
* * *
"_The Gift of the Magi._" Begins Phoebe. "By O. Henry. Adapted by Phoebe Dimmesdale."
Phoebe clears her throat.
"Once upon a time, there were two people who loved each other very much. Their names were Jim and Della, and they lived in a cheap little apartment somewhere on the lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack. Now. If you've _ever_ been to the lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack, You'd know that the lower Southwerstern Side of East Hackensack is a very, very poor little neighborhood. Early city planning had intended the lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack to be a wonderful, cosmopolitan Mecca of trade and commerce, but over time, the lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack had decayed into a pitiful relic of its former self, full of slum-rows and tenements and cheap hotels and twenty-four hour convenience stores and vicious Altherian Insanity Bars with their candy-boutique-esque displays of custom-engineered pharmaceuticals. Jim and Della lived on the lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack because Jim's father was a vicious man who had silently and meticulously calculated out every single penny that the family had ever spent on the care, feeding and upkeep of Jim and had quite without warning presented Jim with the bill on his twenty-first birthday, with the implication that if he did _not_ pay up within the stated time he would politely request it again, except this time he would have the voltage turned up. So Jim sold everything to pay his father's bill. His furniture, his stereo, his clothes, his HealthRider (tm), his job..."
"How do you seuw a job?"
Phoebe waves her hand dismissively. "Complicated." She says. "Anyway. Jim had even gone so far as to put out a mortgage on his life-force to an up-and-coming spectro-cybernetics company to pay back his father; but unfortunately, only minutes after his doing so, his father passed away on account of a rather nasty accident involving a halogen lamp, twelve gerbils, and a canister of Iodized table salt. But it was too late for Jim.
"However, there _were_ five things that Jim and Della did _not_ sell in the long, hard quest to pay back his father. Two of them were each other. The third was their cute little dog, Mister SkittywittyBooBooSchnook--"
"How cute was he?"
Phoebe blinks mildly at the child on her lap. And then, a slightly devious glint enters her left eye.
"So cute... that... I _can't_ even _describe_ how cute he was."
Becky's mouth assumes a cute little 'O' as she envisions precisely how cute Mister SkittywittyBooBooSchnook must actually have been.
"At any rate." Says Phoebe, continuing on, casually, "There _were_ two more things, two _VERY SPECIAL_ things that Jim and Della had not pawned away. They were the two real possessions of value that either of them really, really had. The first was Jim's collection of Frozen Juice Pops. Jim was justifiably proud of his Frozen Juice Pops. They had been given to him by his favorite uncle fourteen years past, and Jim had painstakingly, almost religiously, maintained them in their original condition of freshness, flavor, and bright, cheery color as well as he had been able to given their limited resources. Unfortunately, Jim's father (wicked man that he was) had repossessed Jim and Della's freezer several years back, so Jim was forced to keep his collection of Frozen Juice Pops out on the window-ledge during the cold, long, lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack winters. It would not technically have been necessary to keep them out on the window-ledge; inside the window would have been just as effective, considering that Jim's father had also repossessed the glass out of Jim and Della's windows, but Jim and Della liked to keep them there to remind them of the better times. And so there they remained, all through the winter. And in the _summer_... well... you can imagine."
Phoebe's eyes go mournful and distant. Little Becky nods quietly and solemnly.
"At any rate." Says Phoebe. "The _other_ possession of value that either of them really, really had was the one thing that _both_ of them valued most in the whole, wide world: Della's internal organs. Many was the long, lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack night that Jim and Della had whiled away the hours until dawn trying out more and more exotic and increasingly-inedible recipes on Della's wonderful Digestive Tract. In fact, sometimes the only thing that allowed them to keep their heads above water was the fact that Della's marvelous internal organs were able to digest nutrients out of virtually any substance, organic or no.
"And so, Jim and Della lived together in their little, no-glass-in-the-windows, no-freezer apartment, eating stews made of old alternator belts and powdered Tang (tm), and _boy_ did they love each other. Wow.
"Then, one winter's day, Jim and Della decided it was Christmas. They weren't sure, of course, because Jim's wicked father had taken from them their calendars, and then, later, as if that were that not enough, the specialized little nerve bundles in the temporal lobe of their Right Hemispheres that gave them the perception of linear time."
Little Becky stares at Phoebe.
"Jim's father had some pretty strange business contacts." Explains Phoebe.
Little Becky nods, brightly.
"So. Jim and Della decided that it was Christmas. But, oh, what to do? For Jim and Della _needed_ to get each other presents. Obviously. Duh. It was Christmas. It was inconceivable that they should let the day pass without _some_ expression of crass consumerism. So, these two poor lovestruck, temporally-confused people set each other loose on the streets to buy each other the best Christmas presents ever with absolutely no purchasing capital.
"Della wandered the streets for a long time that cold, potentially-Christmas day. She was not sure how long she wandered, of course, but she did not truly care. What to buy Jim? Oh, what to buy him! They _did_ love each other... wasn't that all that they needed?
"Jim's Frozen Juice Pops! Hadn't he ever wanted a proper freezer for them? Della remembered how sad Jim had been during that heat-wave last July, and how Jim had wistfully looked at his Frozen Juice Pop collection, sighing and saying to himself, 'You know, Della, we should _really_ get a freezer for these things one of these days again...' Yes! That was it! That was Perfect! A Freezer for Jim! So, Della went to the local branch of the appliance store and asked for the price of a new freezer. Unfortunately, the appliance man had known Jim's father and was therefore well-aware that in order to pay off his credit, Della had also sold the part of her brain that allowed her to make rational judgements on the prices of consumer goods, so the appliance man told her that a new freezer would cost her two point seven billion dollars.
"Two point seven billion dollars! Oh, my! How would she _ever_ raise Two point seven billion dollars?!? Why... the only thing she _had_ that would be worth Two point seven billion dollars... were...
"Her lovely internal organs!
"Della cried for some time, that day, but eventually, she gathered her courage and visited a generous black-market surgeon who was willing to pay her Two point seven billion dollars for her lovely internal organs, most especially her lovely colon. He was even so charitable that he gave her some nice plastic ones in their place. They didn't _Actually_ work like real internal organs, but they were _shaped_ right and so filled up that empty feeling she had inside. Plus, they were very fetching, what with being extrusion-molded in five lovely colors. So Della went to the appliance shop with a song in her green, thin-plasticene-and-vinyl heart, and paid the crooked appliance dealer his Two point seven billion dollars, in return for which he gave her the Wonderful Freezer!
"Della practically cried for joy that day, as she hauled the freezer home on her beat-up old Radio Flyer (tm) wagon, stopping occasionally to simply glory in the lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack cold, which somehow didn't even seem so cold anymore. When she finally got home, she hauled the freezer up the steep and narrow staircase by herself, with only the assistance of her cute little dog, Mister SkittywittyBooBooSchnook."
"Mistuw SkittywittyBooBooSchnook!" Shouts Becky, excitedly.
Phoebe smiles gently. "Yes, child. So. When Della got the freezer up the steps and plopped it down in the apartment, Jim was not there. Yes! She could surprise him! Quickly, she tossed the freezer in the place that their shower stall had once been, and threw herself down on the area of floor that served them in the office of a bed, and waited.
"Della waited there for fourteen years. But she didn't mind a bit. Eventually, Jim showed back up again.
"'Della!' He shouted excitedly. 'How long have you been waiting here for me?'
"'I have no idea!' She replied, happily.
"'Neither do I!' Replied Jim. And they both had a good laugh about that one for an indeterminate length of time.
"When they had finished, Della happily led Jim by the hand to the bathroom, instructing him to close his eyes before remembering that Jim had also sold his eyelids to pay off his bad debts. They both laughed about that for a while, too. Then, with his eyes covered by one hand, Della took him through the little white door and allowed him to look.
"'A Freezer!' Shouted Jim, excitedly, but with a hint of melancholy that Della could not quite place. 'Oh, Della! It's Lovely!'
"'Do you like it?' Said Della. 'I got it for your Frozen Juice Pop Collection!'
"'I know... I know, Della.' Said Jim. Somehow... he looked... _sad_!
"'Don't you like it?' Asked Della, concernedly.
"'No! No! It's Wonderful! It's... it's the best Christmas present I've ever had! It's just...' He smiled, wanly. 'Why don't you open yours!' He presented Della with a smartly-wrapped package.
"With the glee of a four-year-old on speed, Della tore into her package, only to find...
"'Fiber laxative!' Said Jim, proudly. 'Orange-flavored. To help you pass all that inedible stuff that we are constantly forced to consume on account of our extreme poverty!'
"Della nearly Cried! Oh, no! How could Jim know that she had _sold_ her internal organs, digestive tract and all, to pay for this lovely freezer! She wept silently for some time, while Jim looked on with crestfallen concern.
"'Della!' Said Jim. 'What's the matter!'
"'Oh... JIM!' Shouted Della, her eyes welling up with tears, 'I... I... I... I SOLD MY DIGESTIVE TRACT TO PAY FOR YOUR FREEZER!'
"Jim got a strange expression on his face, then, and then he smiled and took his bride into his arms in a warm embrace that seemed to last forever... or something. And then, he said, 'Della... I have something to tell you, too. I... I... I... I sold my Frozen Juice Pop collection to pay for your fiber laxative...'
"And then, no further words were needed. And Della gazed into Jim's lidless eyes and saw there an expression of the warmest, golden love that she had ever seen there, filling the poor, shabby little lower Southwestern Side of East Hackensack apartment with the warm glow of Holiday Spirit, that almost managed to stave off the bitter winter without."
Phoebe smiles gently.
Little Becky looks at her. "An' so... da moeuw of da stoeuwy is... it's betteuw to _give_ den to _weceive._"
"Actually, no." Says Phoebe. "The _real_ moral of this story is, 'Never accidentally get married to a disguised mantis-like alien from another dimension.'
"Huh?" Says Becky.
"Sure!" Says Phoebe. "How else did you think her internal organs were worth so much! They were _alien_ organs, dear! I'm surprised that you didn't notice that discontinuity during the process of my telling!"
Becky's mouth simply hangs open.
"Soon after this episode, Della dropped her pitiful human disguise and revealed herself in her true form to Jim. Jim was so enamored of her that he declared that he didn't care _what_ she looked like, and they promptly knew each other in the Biblical sense, if you get my drift. _WHEREUPON_, Della, being a mantis-derived organism, promptly ate Jim up. Smack, smack, chomp. But with his dying breath, he vowed revenge on her. Della laughed! Ha, ha! for how could a dead man gain revenge! So she rested safe and sound in the _supposed_ knowledge that she was perfectly safe. UNFORTUNATELY for Della, the up-and-coming spectro-cybernetics company to which Jim had mortgaged his life force finally collected due, and using a tissue sample recovered out of a Dumpster (tm) that very evening, they re-cloned Jim. Only somehow the process went _wrong..._ and they had to fill in some of his missing DNA with the DNA of a certain South American Frog, which naturally made him an obsessive, vicious killer; completely non-viable behavior in an actual biological organism but behavior which was needed in order to bring a sense of drama to this thing. There was also this problem with him spontaneously shifting gender. In a blatant display of foolishness, they not only re-cloned Jim, but also enhanced him with cybernetic weaponry, apparently heedless of the potential destruction this might cause. Needless to say, he broke free from the compound and went out to seek his revenge. In a bitter struggle that lasted twenty-nine years, Jim waged war against Della and her people, decimating East Hackensack and all its inhabitants in the process. The end."
Little Becky stares slack-jawed at Phoebe. "But... But..."
Phoebe, now completely regained of her former self-possession, looks archly down at the C.D.C. and says, "Yes?"
"But... WHAT ABOU' MISTUW SKITTYWITTYBOOBOOSCHNOOK?!?"
Phoebe looks craftily at Little Becky. "Ah... Well. That's a another story entirely, darling."
The red-black Cute Rage builds on Becky's face again. "YOU _WIUW_ TEUW ME WHAT HAPPENED TO MISTUW SKITTY... WITTY... BOOBOOSCHNOOK!"
Phoebe is walking dangerous ground here... everything rests on this very moment...
"Sorry, Little Becky. There _are_ other children waiting... and Missus Claus _so_ wants to get a good night's sleep tonight! I'm _very_ afraid that I shan't be able to finish this story. Not ever."
Phoebe smiles apologetically, yet knowingly. "Sorry."
A hush falls over the immediate area. Little Becky puts a hand to her mouth. But it is too late. Far, far too late.
With that one single word, Little Becky ceases to be Cute.
Phoebe smiles in a self-satisfied and smug fashion, adjusts her little round Missus Claus spectacles on her nose and schwunks the book back into her holdall. "Next." She says.
"Wait! Wait! I never... uh... NEVUW got to know whetheuw Santa would bring me Domination of the World! You _Promised_ me you would tell... uh... teuw me!"
"I lied." Says Phoebe, matter-of-factly. "Now go with the nice man."
Becky turns slowly around on Phoebe's lap, until she is gazing upon the gaunt, lined face of the blue-suited Manager behind her. His eyes are very, very far from being blank...
"Little Becky." Says the Manager, quietly, in a voice as deep as Hell itself, "I think you should come with me."
Little Becky looks _afraid._ "...why...?" She says, quietly.
The Manager doesn't even blink. "We... my Associates and I... are going to teach you the true meaning of Christmas."
He "smiles" in a utilitarian, economical fashion, useful basically for exposing the teeth and nothing else. In the secret and mystical dimensions where the Managers walk, Mirth _costs extra._
Aethereal fire gleams along the surface of one gold tooth.
And in a swirl of blue rayon, Becky and the Manager are Gone.
After a moment, He alone is back. "Missus Claus. You've... done us here at Capitol Centre some... small service. I have... authorization from my Associates to offer you... some token... of our appreciation."
Phoebe doesn't miss a beat. "Gift Certificates for one of the Food Courts?" She asks, smiling brightly.
The Manager smirks in that joyless fashion again. "Done." He says. With a flicker and a twist in the fabric of Space, the certificates appear in Phoebe's hands.
"Hey, thanks!" Says Phoebe. She nods to him.
In a blink, the Manager is again Gone.
With a fizz and a pop, the Principal Indicator sitting on the nearby table flicks from 'Plot' to 'Exposition.'
And then, approaching from somewhere far in the distance...
I show up on the scene again. "Gawm." I say. "You ever try to get Fetid Ichor out of a Santa Suit with paper towels? Urgh. Not fun. Anything happen while I was away?"
Feeb shrugs. "Nothing I couldn't handle."
"Good." I say. "Hey!" I continue, gesturing at the still-lighted Indicator on the table. "That stupid thing is still on! You'd think that twenty-minutes of pants-cleaning would have made him decide to bug out."
Feeb simply shrugs and smiles again.
"Ah, well." I say, as I ascend the steps to the Visit Santa booth, getting ready to receive more hopeful kiddies. "I've given up trying to predict Hioshi by now. Oh... that reminds me," I say, suddenly looking around in my bag. "While I was outside, one of these other Indicators lit up for a while... I don't know these things all _that_ well, but I think it was a different UA than we've ever seen before. Whaddaya think?"
She shrugs. "Possible it's a new UA. We'll keep a look out for him or her."
"Just thought you'd like to know. Anyway, Feeb, while I was out there, I was giving it some thought, and I realized that... well... this night hasn't been _all_ bad. I mean, we've given a lot of hope and joy to a lot of kids... and just seeing their faces light up when they whisper their little Christmas wishes in my ear... well. I guess it's been... okay. I guess."
"Great!" Says Feeb, brightly.
I sit down in the big comfy chair, supplanting Feeb, and pick up the jingle bells again. "Ready for more hopes and dreams?"
"Ready." Says Feeb.
And she opens the booth to allow one more Joyous Holiday Child the chance of a lifetime. Or at least, of a year.
"Oh, and by the way... Santa?"
"Ho, ho, ho! Yes, Missus Claus?"
"Supper is on me tonight."