Chapter Thirty-One

"If you stare into the abyss long enough, it will punch you right in the nose." - Gene Speilman, 2007. That seemed to sum up the enigma wrapped in a riddle that was Ralph, apologies to Nietzsche and all that. He had stared into the abyss with the best of them, and now he was somehow going to unzip his pants and piss right into the abyss. What concerned me was whether or not we would live through that particular activity.

We barreled down the mountain in the feeble yellow predawn light, tires squealing as the humvees preternaturally hugged the edge of the cliffside at speeds no human driver could ever maintain.

Ralph had still given no information about our destination. I mean, I knew which direction we were headed, but I still couldn't figure out precisely what he had in mind, if anything. Or what he had in those bags. I guess it served me right.

In no time we were off the mountain, hauling ass across dark rolling hills.

Ledelei and I had come to the sleep-deprived conclusion that this might be our last cruise, and so after some awkward silence decided to pass the time in our cosy little humvee in the best way possible: rolling around in the back seat with our clothes off. It was really weird, that first time. Don't get me wrong - I liked it alot, but the sense of urgency about it made me feel like a spawning salmon. Impending doom, random destruction and fucking: I'd heard of this sort of thing happening during wartime, but it had never happened to me before.

Well, enough of that. I mean, it was great, but who the hell wants to hear about it? Writing about it seems to be the literary equivalent of those horny couples at parties who can't seem to figure out that they should leave, and spare everyone the embarrassment of seeing them stick their tongues down each other's throat. You know, great, hooray, I got laid, next.

Yeah, next.

The sun rose in the sky for about five minutes, then proceeded to set again in reverse as it grazed the hideous black cloud. But before it retreated, the dawn light revealed the shapes of the six radio dishes, the ones Ralph had told me I'd seen before. I could now clearly discern what I had first taken to be smoke rising from under them: the black cloud was actually emanating from the back side of the dishes. It was flowing through them, coming from some unknown source, and shooting out the other side, into the Ozian sky. The last time I hadn't been so close; we'd approached the castle from farther to the west, and the view of the dishes had been obscured by hills.

Now I could see just how large that battle had been. We shot by what must have been the remnants of the south-eastern end of the carnage. Corpses dotted the hills, and I could see, off to the right, the gutted frame of a farmhouse smoldering, complete with a stiff belly-up cow on what used to be the front lawn.

There was a thud, and a change in the frequency of the white noise under our feet. The ride smoothed perceptibly as the wide dirt path we'd been traveling on became paved asphalt.

The dishes and environs were now close enough to be seen in detail. Behind them was the fog-obscured outline of the Fortress, an ominous tall column stuck in the middle of a low, long rectangle, looking more like some Dickensian factory than the castle of an evil warlock. It looked to be maybe two miles away, which was close enough as far as I was concerned.

Following Ralph's cue, our vehicles all slowed as we approached. A chain link fence surrounded the land containing the radio telescope array, and a gatehouse, next to a bigger barracks building, stood in the middle of the paved road that led up to the complex. That road went through the gate and crossed another road before continuing on to the fortress. The other road ran out in both directions to the dishes, which were spaced out over a few miles in the surrounding hills.

A guard came out of the gatehouse and eyed us with suspicion. Ralph's humvee pulled to a stop next to the guard, and he and Ralph exchanged words.

It looked like they knew each other. The guard was not of the giant green variety; he was very much human, and although he appeared to see perfectly well, there was only empty blackness where his eyes were supposed to be: not empty sockets, but a substantive blackness.

Just when I thought Ralph had talked the guy into letting us through, the guard pointed back away from the gate and motioned for us all to turn around. I guess he knew Ralph alright, but wasn't comfortable with the idea of him coming in without orders from higher up, not to mention bringing in six humvees and two other unidentified people.

The herd turned precisely, and we headed back away from the gate for a little while. Then we turned back, driving off the paved road, forming a circle while increasing speed, while the guard looked on apprehensively.

Suddenly, we shot back towards the gate at what felt like a hundred and twenty or thirty miles per hour. Two of the empty humvees ploughed into the guard house, knocking it sideways. The two others hit the fence, smashing down a big section of it. Ralph's humvee slammed into the guard, who skittered bloodily across the ground like a hockey puck. Ours followed in their wake, almost apologetically.

Entrance denied? No problem.

Once inside, the herd slowed to a stop long enough for all of us to get out. Ledelei picked up her monster sword off the back seat, and swung it around enthusiastically. I felt for the Magnum that was still stuck down in the enormous pocket of the ogre suit. Ralph had never asked for it back. I was not really anxious to use it again, but I was ready.

I heard metal crunching, and looked down to see dents uncrinkling and paint scrapes fading before my eyes - just another neat trick the animate humvees had learned in the wild.

Ralph unloaded one of the mystery bags from his passenger side, hefted it shakily up over his shoulder, and started off in the direction of one of the dishes, without a word. He was weaving a little - it didn't appear that he'd eased off the booze any on the way over. The herd started to move in a circle again, staying close to Ralph.

Ledelei and I exchanged disbelieving glances, and followed. As we caught up to him, I could see several soldiers come running out of the barracks building.

The humvees were quick to deal with this new problem. The soldiers, however, were a little slow to catch on, and had only just broken into a run when the first of the hummers plowed into them. In a few seconds they were all road-kill, and the humvees resumed their circling formation.

Meanwhile, Ralph had started climbing up a ladder on the side of the first dish. It led up to a platform directly under the huge dish itself. By the time we reached him, he'd gotten on to the platform, and pulled the bag off of his shoulder.

Ralph pulled some stuff out of the bag, and fiddled with it for a few moments. Then he suffered a drunken spazz, during which he managed to tip himself over backwards over the guardrail. He fell flat on his ass, and onto his back - a twenty foot drop that should have broken bones, or killed. But, saved by his drunken rubbery-ness, or maybe a charming quirk of Ozian physics, or both, he got up, groaning, and started running in our direction, waving his hands frantically, motioning to us to run, too.

We did, until Ralph grabbed hold of both of us and shoved us down flat on the ground. "Cover your heads!" he shouted. An eye-blink passed, and there was a deafening explosion. Hot metal rained down around us.

When it seemed safe, I turned around and saw a smoking stump where the radio dish had been. No blackness flowed up from it.

I finally knew what was in the bags.

We stood speechless while Ralph got up, unsteadily dusting himself off.

"This all has gotta go down fast," he said, "I may not even make it all the way through before Bjhennigh sends the shitstorm down around my head." He paused to Tarzan-whistle at the herd. "And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure what's gonna happen when and if I do finish the job."

His humvee, bashed and caked with gore all along the front left bumper, pulled up along side of him. The bumper uncrinkled as I watched. Ralph reached in and grabbed another bag. He hefted it over his shoulder, then reached in and pulled out a pint bottle of Jim Beam. He must have been stashing booze all over the place for most of a decade.

He twisted the cap off and drank about half of it. "What you two are gonna hafta do," he said, "is go get Nick."

More news.

I looked at him wide-eyed, incredulous.

"Bjhennigh's had him sitting in a dungeon ever since our little mishap on his front lawn."

He saw my look, and stared back at me resolutely. "Look. You shouldna come anyway. An now you're here. So. You have two choices. One - stand here with your thumb up your ass, and die.

Two - get into the Fortress, maybe die, maybe get Nick, who is, I guarantee, the only possible help for several miles around." He looked at me sadly, like maybe he was going to cry again. "I'm sorry things happened for ya this way, Gene. You're a good man. Good luck."

I wanted to protest, but he'd already turned around and started for the second dish. So I just stood there.

Ledelei grabbed me by my ogre suit and whirled me around.

"Come on, Gene," she said, "Snap out of it. We don't have time for this bullshit."

And she also marched away, in the opposite direction, towards the Hollow Man's Fortress. I followed her. What else was I gonna do?

I caught up with her, and stopped her.

"Alright," I said, catching my breath, "we're going to get Nick. Great. That's just fucking fantastic. But if we just cruise up the road, we're not going to make it. They must have seen that explosion. Bhennigh's gonna be sending something down this road in the next few minutes."

She looked up the road, then looked at me. "Okay," she said, "What then?"

I didn't know, but I also didn't want to look like an idiot. "Well, first, let's get some cover behind that hill." Sounded good. I pointed back over a rise immediately behind me. We jogged over it and crouched down, checking out the terrain.

Pretty soon, Ledelei pointed back behind us in the direction of the nearest dish. "What's that?"

I looked. "I don't know," I said.

I hadn't seen it before from the front, but could now see that there was some kind of black stuff trailing away from each of the dishes, starting from just under where the cloud was pouring out. The stuff covered the back of the bottom half of the structure like ivy, and a thick umbilicus trailed off in the direction of the fortress. "Let's go check it out."

There were tendrils of it running wild into the soil in all directions, but it appeared that someone had trained some of them to grow together towards the fortress, in a monster jumble like black kudzu, about eight feet in diameter.

The vine-tangle writhed obscenely over the ground, a slow orgy of obsidian worms, somehow transmitting something awful, powerful. A sheen of anti-energy radiated out from it, catching the sound out of the air around it.

I clapped my hand near it and the sound was muted and dead.

Little teardrop shapes skittered over the outer surface, running for a little while, then absorbing back into the vines.

"I don't know what this does," I said, "but it must be something important."

"A power source or something? Like for the band amplifiers?"

"Yeah. Maybe something like that. It looks like it runs right up to the Fortress. Maybe we can follow it down, see if it plugs in. Maybe there's a way in. I don't know. What do you think?" After a second she nodded her agreement. "Yes. We could stay close against it and perhaps they will not see us. Perhaps. Let's go."

There was a commotion from the direction of the road. We heard an engine, that of a car or small truck, and the sound of running feet. We flattened out on the ground and were silent until well after the noise stopped.

Ledelei grinned and said, "You told me so."

"I'm supposed to say that," I observed.

She looked puzzled. "No. Why would you?"

The terrain stayed much the same as it had been: low rolling hills with a few sickly trees, and pale unwholesome grass, somewhere between dead and alive. It was especially so in the immediate vicinity of the vine tangle, which made me think that being in such close proximity to it probably wasn't doing us much good either.

After a little while, we found some rusty shovels and little gardening tools. Soon after that, we found a neat stack of bones and skulls. Little ones. Munchkin size.

After we'd hiked for about fifteen minutes, we heard the sound of Dish Number Two going up, then soon after, more troops on the road, heading in Ralph's direction. I prayed he was as good a soldier as I thought he was, and that the hummers could continue to cover him.

We were now dangerously close to the Fortress.

I took a moment to look at this fancy gun Ralph had entrusted me with. I hadn't thought up until then to look to see if there were any bullets in it. I had only fired it once, but I wasn't sure if there was anything else in there, having never looked.

I gingerly figured out how to flip open the part with the chambers in it. I looked inside and saw six bullet sitting in there. Six. It was full. But I had fired it once, and as far as I knew, no one had touched it except me. Maybe it didn't actually fire the bullets, I thought. Maybe it grew new ones.

Finally chalking it up "to more weird stuff I didn't understand," I flipped the safety back on, and shoved the gun back down into the ogre pocket.

The vine-tangle we'd been following skirted the side of a hill for most of the way, then took off across a low, flat field, meeting up with two other tangles, and disappearing into an opening in the side of the fortress. I guessed that three others met on the other side, running from the other three dishes.

I was expecting a mote, but there was no such thing, just two guard towers at the front and rear of the building, on a wall surrounding the place. I supposed there were two more on the other side. A sentry paced back and forth on each of the towers. We were, so far, able to avoid being seen, but would have to somehow come to terms with covering the last five hundred yards to the wall out in the open. I quietly said as much to Ledelei.

"Not only that," she whispered, "but where will we go in? We certainly can't just stroll in through the front door. Maybe we can squeeze though with the black stuff?"

"I don't think so..." I said. The hole looked impossibly small. "Even if there's a little room to squeeze through, what happens if you touch that stuff? I don't want to experiment, thank you."

She gave me a sharp look. "We may have to try if you want to get the Winkie King free."

"The Winkie King?" Sounded to me like somebody with a discount winkie wearhouse. I hadn't realized Nick was the king of anything.

"I'm going to try it," she said. "You can follow if you want to."

"Wait," I said, "don't be stupid." Then, from out of nowhere, surprising myself, I said, "Wait till they both turn around at the same time."

Where did I get that from? I was certain I'd seen all this before.

But that was crazy.

But, eventually, they both turned around at the same time, and we ran for it, hit the wall and stuck there. Ledelei started inching her way towards the opening where the vines snaked in. I pulled on her arm and held up a finger.

The place was looking more and more familiar all the time, but I still couldn't figure out why. Maybe something in this place was doing something to my brain. Hell, maybe there was a Mickie sitting in there, a little humunculous slowly possessing me. That was a cheery though. But the fact remained - I knew stuff. And I didn't know why.

I pulled her in the opposite direction, towards the front of the building. About a third of the way down, there was a section of wall that was a slightly different color than the slate gray surrounding it. I slapped it with my open palm, and the wall section slid inward.

Just like I knew it would.

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