Chapter Sixteen


That second morning, waking, I held my eyes shut; I was a blank.

Has this ever happened to you? You wake, in a strange place or not, and can't remember anything for a second or two. Where you are, or who you are. It is terrifying and freeing all at once.

It all came back to me, of course, and then I felt truly strange. I heard the sounds of that strange city coming awake: horses' hooves, and the clacking hooves of other animals with more legs and stranger gaits, steam hissing and sellers announcing their wares.

The memory blip put me in mind of a computer looking for its operating system when it boots up. And that in turn made me wonder if I was much different from the little guy inhabiting my Superbook. I mean, it's some kind of soul, or spirit living inside of a machine, taking on its attributes, its identity. Was my little lapse waking some kind of glimpse of raw "me-ness"? Are we all just anonymous souls with identities defined by our locations in meat?

These are the kinds of things I think about when I first wake up. Which probably explains why I'm so high strung, and also why I can't get out of bed in the morning.

But Aurora wasn't having any of that.

"Okay, boys! Up 'n' at 'em!" she crowed. I stirred a little. I guess it wasn't enough.

Next thing I knew, a metal pot and metal spoon were clanging together, a foot from my head. "AAAUGH.///" I said, and looked up blearily. There she was, looking beautiful and crazy; her smile was wild, but her eyes meant business.

"Gene, Ralph: get your asses out of bed, okay?" she said. "I'm not just whistlin' Dixie here. Ozma wants to see us, and time's a wastin'."

"Fuck," mumbled Ralph, from his place on the couch. I glanced over at him. Ralph had seen better days. He looked like the official poster bum for the Pink Eye Foundation, only not quite as glamorous.

"Fuck is right," said Aurora, walking over to him. "Mr. Ralph Fucking SuperSpy Dudley." She was wearing nothing but an extra large Bullwinkle t-shirt. Possibly panties. It was all the armor she needed. "Right now, I don't know whether to shake your hand or kick your stupid ass. But I'll tell you what: this would be a really good morning for you to be especially nice."

Ralph nodded slightly. It looked like the gesture was painful. She put down the pot and spoon and picked up some weird aspirin. She had two water glasses on a table, and she offered one to him, along with some aspirin, which he silently accepted.

Then she came back to me with her insta-headache cure, knelt before me, and handed them over. "How you doin', sweetie?" she asked. Her eyes were full of soul.

"I don't know yet."

"Fair enough." She took me gently by the temples, bent me forward, kissed the top of my head, and stood. I saw pubic hair, and averted my eyes. "I'll get breakfast together. You boys get your ducks in a row."

A minute later, my hangover was gone. So, it seemed, was most of Ralph's. The morning was cool, and I was almost nekkid beneath, so I wore the blanket like a toga as I walked over and sat down beside him.

"Good morning," I said.

"Coulda fooled me." His eyes looked haunted, and they wouldn't come up to meet mine. "Where are we, anyway?"

"Aurora's," I said.

"Ah-hah. Okay." He chuckled grimly.

I asked him if he remembered coming to the apartment the night before; he said no. I asked him if he remembered being at the Emerald Burrito, or the black lightning. He said no. Et cetera.

"Do you remember telling me anything last night?"

At this, he groaned, and rolled over on his side again. Evidently the previous night wasn't a complete blank.

"Fuck," he said again.

In the kitchen, Aurora had something going on, and I could tell that it was going to be good. The smells hit my nostrils like seductive smoky tendrils in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. I left Ralph to his guilt and wandered kitchenward, hearing snake charmer music in my head.

"Wow," I said. "What'cha got going there?"

"Oh, nothing," she countered, blithely sweet. "Just more of that bland vegan crap."

I started to laugh, and then I realized: I never told her that! "Hey!" I began, but she cut me off.

"I'm sorry. I read your shit." She turned from her cooking, gave me a very direct look. "Not everything. Just since you got to Oz."

"You suck!"

She grinned, full of mischief, but I was too pissed-off to play coyball with her. "Aurora, that is so fucking uncool! You should have asked me first!"

"Hey," she said matter-of-factly. "Right now, I'm on a need-to-know basis, okay? Which means I coulda woke you up an hour and a half ago, when I woke up, and drilled you over every speck of every goddam thing you know.

"But you looked like you needed the sleep, and you left your computer running - your little friend left you a message, by the way; I think Mikio should see it - and to be real honest, you don't converse nearly as well as you write. So, fuck. I peeked."

"Ahhhh," I groaned. She was right, of course, but I was still pissed-off.

"I am really sorry," she said, and meant it. "I know how you are."

"Yeah, yeah, okay," I said, attempting to drop it. "So now what?"

"So now I keep the food from burning. Hey, Ralph? You hungry?"

Ralph said nothing, so I turned to look. He was up now, in his military boxer shorts, sort of blearily getting his bearings. Aurora slapped my ass and turned back to her cooking. I took my cue and headed back toward Ralph.

Right about that time, I heard the gonging of the world's biggest gong. Imagine if ships had giant gongs instead of foghorns. That's what I'm talking about. I glanced toward the windows, caught myself in the mirror, quick decided to spot-check the bandage on my head. I wanted to see if I even needed it anymore. And sure enough, the wound on my head had healed miraculously quickly. Not that I was too surprised at that.

What really surprised me was the gorgeous young girl in the beautiful-fairy-princess dress. She was standing in front of me in the mirror. Like, in the mirror. Itself.

"Good morning, Gene," the little princess said. "And good morning, Mr. Dudley. I'll need you to come to the palace as soon as you can. But please, have your breakfast first; no doubt you'll need the energy."

"Ummm," I said, and then stopped. I was wrapped up in a blanket. Ralph was in his underwear.

"I'm so looking forward to meeting you both in person," she said, and then faded, as if we were waking from a dream. I heard from about a half a dozen people later that they'd had the same visit from her, at about the same time. This would account for why Ozma sounded so "canned" - She had some sort of magic voice mail or something.

Right about then, the second gong gonged. I turned toward Aurora, who said, "I know. I talked to her earlier. Everybody's gonna be heading for the palace soon, if they aren't already. You might want to freshen up."

Yeah, the palace was evidently the place to be, and everybody seemed to know that. I could hear increased activity in the street. People were filing out of their buildings like they were in the world's biggest fire drill, all headed for the center of town.

We ate our food - quickly - and it was good. Between bites of egg and toast, I apologised to Aurora for criticizing her choice of cuisine. She waved it off and shoveled some more home fries onto my plate.

Ralph didn't say anything much, he just ate. I think he was more than a little bit embarrassed about being there, or at least about what had lead up to being there.

After everybody was done, I took the dishes over to the kitchen sink. As I dropped them in and looked for some sort of faucet to rinse them off with, wet sudsy tentacles, like big, yellow soapy tongues, came out of the sides of the sink and began licking the plates. I backed away slowly, and returned to the living room, where Ralph had begun some strenuous-looking yoga poses. He claimed it was the only way he could cure a hangover. I like B-vitamins and Mexican food myself.

Aurora had disappeared for a few minutes, and when she came back, she had her skeleton suit on. I almost laughed, but then I remembered that that's what she puts on to fight.

She started talking to me almost like you would talk to a little kid. "Gene, look, you don't know how sorry I am I got you into this, and I don't know what's gonna happen today, but I do know it's not gonna be good. I think you'd better put on that ogre suit I found you in."

"What?"

"We're probably going to have to fight to secure the city. I don't know what's coming at us yet besides that cloud, but those are combat clothes. They'll most likely stop a spear, maybe even slow down an arrow. This is definitely not a T-shirt and jeans day today."

Ralph was out of the yoga, and into the Tai-Chi by then.

This whole situation had gotten way too freaky way too fast, and I just wanted to stop the ride. But there was no way off. None.

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