Chapter Thirty-Five

The blinding, strobing green glow saturated the room now, literally, glomming on to surfaces, absorbing into them. I could see it soaking into the walls, insinuating itself into the cracks in the floor.

My body was still glued to the seat, but the grip Bhjennigh had me in was loosening.

Bhjennigh himself was slumped in front of his shitty computer, facing me, kind of sheepishly grinning at me, like oh well! His face was starting to cave in, like a rotting pumpkin. I don't think he'd noticed yet.

The kudzu that had been attacking my feet was wilting, shriveling slowly.

The fortress rumbled suddenly, and I heard the now-familiar loud booming, and I knew the last satellite dish was history. But this time the rumbling continued, and a rolling motion started, resonating, until the floor and walls rocked terrifyingly back and forth around us.

The flimsy corrugated wall separating us from the containment tank buckled and collapsed, and I could see the tank itself. Now most of the vines had fallen away, and it was seeping something dark, as if it were rusting away. I heard the hissing sound again. But it was louder now, and in it was a high keening squeal, a cry, as of something in great pain.

"Don't pay any attention to that," Bhjennigh demanded, his voice still holding on to that supernatural thunder behind the parched rasp. "Don't pay any attention to that."

"Why?" I asked him, "What's in there? And what happened to your 'friend' all of the sudden?"

"I'm here," the Hollow Man said, in a voice about three octaves lower, and three miles away, "I'm everywhere... "

Parts of his skin were glitching, like a faulty videotape, flashing static. He looked like he was getting skinnier, turning anorexic before my eyes, time-lapse starvation. I could see past his ribcage in places, see darkness where muscles and organs should be.

"He don't look so good," another raspy voice shouted from the direction of the tank. I looked down on the floor in there. Gutierrez' head was awake, and had shaken itself out of the leather vest. It was staring up at Bhjennigh in disgust.

I could move again, and it didn't look like Bhjennigh (or what was left of him) was going to stop me. I got up unsteadily, fighting against the shaking and rolling of the building. Pieces of the ceiling were raining down on top of the trailer, and a few had punctured it.

I'd been in a few big quakes, and they were nothing compared to what the fortress was doing. I didn't have much time. I staggered over the corrugated wall to where the head was. I had to grab it and get the hell out of there, even if it meant crawling out thought one of the holes where the vines came in.

The head didn't argue with me this time when I crouched down and stuffed it back into the vest. As I got up, I could see that the containment tank was completely porous now, like a coarse wire mesh, or a thick spider web, barely holding what was inside, and that what was leaking out looked alot like blood. The keening scream was louder now, and when I took a step closer, I could see what exactly it was coming from.

There was a person inside - the insides of a person, anyway, without the skin and bones. It was all layed out like a Visible Man model kit, all anatomically correctly placed: organs, brains, eyeballs, veins, arteries and nerves. Here were all the parts that the Hollow Man was missing. And they were screaming.

I almost bashed straight into Nick as I was coming out the front door of the trailer. It's a miracle that he didn't slice me in half with his ax. He was covered with gore. He glanced over dissappointedly at the bag of rotting skin piled in the chair where Bhjennigh used to be, and into the next room at the organs and viscera that had finally plopped free and were oozing out over the floor, and were still screaming.

"COME ON!" I shouted at him, and as I pulled him out the front door, the ceiling collapsed over our heads.

This is it, I thought, as the boulders fell around us, and I waited for one to hit me on the skull and get it over with. But that never happened.

I was covered in green, swimming in green, flying in it. The same stuff that had poured out of the computer screen had taken the walls apart, and now that same stuff was raising us up out of Bhjennigh's basement.

I could see into this plasma, this ethereal substance.

And inside was another world.

Directly in front of me floated a ball of energy, a brighter vibration of the surrounding stuff. It sported a gigantic happy face, and when it saw me, it grinned even wider than it already had been. I got the feeling I knew this big fella. All around it, suspended between the falling rubble, were other creatures of light, but these were different. Majestic. Ancient. They moved from side to side, and as they moved produced a singing vibration in the green.

Off to the side, I could see Nick Chopper floating, staring in wonder at the apparitions. A little further on was my ogre vest, and a little beyond that, Guttierez's head, smiling, tumbling in freefall. And beyond that, Ledelei, still twitching and vibrating a little bit.

I figured I must be dead. This was too much.

But we floated away from the debris as it crumbled down into the ground, robbed of whatever black vitality had been invested in its substance, and we came to rest on a hill not far from where Ledelei and I had first entered the fortress. The green faded down slowly, and I could see what was left of the black cloud following the fortress down into the hole in the ground, like a movie of a smoke bomb in reverse, crumbling up the ground beneath it as it dissipated, folding itself into the giant pucker in the earth. Green lightning flashed around it, shepherding the blackness to its doom. Soon nothing was left but the hole.

The green faded, but the other world that had been inside it did not: from horizon to horizon, light creatures floated above Oz, outshining the disc of the sun, which had returned to the afternoon sky.

Three light creatures approached us from the south, rose up over the hillside and floated down to rest in front of us. One was the familiar ball of light with the happy face that had greeted me, the other two were changing as I watched, the light component muting out, the vaguely humanoid shapes coalescing into something more familiar.

One of them was Aurora.

She ran over and threw her arms around me, Nick, and even Ledelei in quick succession, hugging and kissing us.

Then the happy light blob approached me, and extended two pseudopods. When they touched me, I was suffused with a euphoria I had only experienced a few times in my life. I don't mean to sound sappy, but it was a feeling of deep love, a feeling that no matter what petty concerns turned me into a supreme sourpuss, they were flyspecks in the wake of eternity, and that I belonged, and I was infinitely important, and infinitely insignificant, a neuron firing in the depths of God's mind.

You get the idea.

Of course, you've figured out by now that this was the Mickey, recently of my laptop, now a citizen of - whatever this green place was.

More light-creatures joined the third figure on the hillside.

As they dimmed down, I could see wings on their tiny shoulders, big baroque irridescent things, reminiscent of dragonflies, butterflies, angels.

I'd seen these guys before!

They looked almost exactly the same as the winged deity above the bar in Topeka.

As the first one approached, Nick and Ledelei fell to their knees, and bowed their heads.

I was impressed. I was wondering whether or not to follow their cue, when the little guy spoke.

"Gene," it said, in a voice something like gravel. He had a face that looked kind of like gravel too. This guy had obviously done a lot of living. He pulled out something that looked remarkably like a cigar, lit it magically, and puffed on it.

"Yeah?" I said, dazed.

"We are the Burzee. We made this place."

"No kidding."

At which point, Aurora elbowed me in the ribs, and whispered to me to quit being a jerk.

He hawked, and spit a respectable fairy-lugee on the ground.

"Anyway, we got distracted, forgot to look in on things for a few thousand years. Your friend, who until recently lived in your machine, came to find us. With the help of Glinda, and a young gifted alchemist in the Emerald City, we were able to subdue the invader. Happily, Ralph Dudley was inspired to cut off its power source and in the end, we were able to send it back to where it came from. Oz won't be bothered by it again. For this, we will always be grateful to you."

"Me? But, really, I didn't do anything." I wasn't being self-deprecating; I really didn't feel like I'd done anything. I'd been stumbling from one situation to the next since I'd gotten here, trying desperately to just stay alive, or at least out of the way.

The Burzee waved his finger back and forth. "Shut up and don't argue with me. If you hadn't shown up, it might have been a very different situation. The Burzee are at your service." And then this little Charles Bukowski of Fairies bowed, and so did the other two, and all the little lights in the sky winked for a second.

Then he straightened up, puffed a little more, and called out, "Al-phonse Guttierrez! Arise!"

And then he did a bunch of hocus-pocus moves in the air with his hand.

I thought it pretty unlikely that Guttierrez would do any arising of any kind, but sure enough, the head floated a few inches above the ground, started to lose its gray-green pallor and began looking rosy again. The ragged bottom of the neck began to flap, and little tendrils of pink skin began to grow from the edges. In no time, there was a little naked baby-body underneath the head. He ended up on his new back, and his new little legs and arms kicked around like an infant's would.

The voice that came out of Guittierez' freshly-attached head was weak, but decidedly more robust. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful," he said, "but what the hell is this?"

The fairy coughed, and shrugged. "Best we could do. Listen, you'll grow into it, I promise. It's just gonna take thirty years or so. That's nothing. So you're a Babyman for a little while. Better than being a old rotten head, isn't it?"

Alphonse had to agree with that, and that ended the discussion.

Not too long after this, the six Humvees came screaming over the hills, horns blaring. They pulled to a stop, and ceased their beeping. Ralph was in the back seat of the lead Hummer, sound asleep. He looked bruised and bloodied, like he'd been banged around quite a bit, but was pretty much intact.

The Bukowski fairy flapped over to the window of the Hummer and waved his hands around at Ralph.

"What was that?" I asked him.

"A healing," he said. "Scrapes, bruises, hangover remedy. Least I could do."

Ledelei had fallen asleep, also. She was lying next to Babyman Guttierrez, curled up in a fetal position. Later I found out she'd been dividing her time between me, Nick and Ralph, looking out for one, then running out to help another, then to the third, then back again. To her, it had looked almost like we were standing still. That explained the lack of time between the last couple of dishes blowing up. She'd been helping. She'd tried to help me in the trailer, get at the Hollow Man, but whatever power had me glued to the chair had prevented her from getting close to him.

Unfortunately, her subjective time had been about four days -  four days in which her augmented state had made it impossible for her to sleep. Luckily, for her and for Guttierrez, the Powder of Life was small potatoes to the Burzee.

But I doubted Ledelei would be shoving anything up her nose anytime soon.

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