Chapter Twenty

Henry Darger was one of the great "outsider' artists of the last century - although during his lifetime he was just a janitor who went home at night to an elaborate secret fantasy world that played itself out on thousands of collage-cartoon tableaus. Most of his work concerned the exploits of the Vivian Girls - child warriors whose placid expressions never changed even while being subject to frequent horrific turmoils and tribulations - boilings in oil, mass smotherings, you name it.

I couldn't help but thinking at that moment that he had gotten at least some of his ideas from down the Ozian grapevine - I felt like I was about to descend into a Vivian Girl Tableau myself - I even looked around, expecting to maybe see some of them. Why not?

Ozma had just dumped the biggest load of bullshit I had heard since I'd gotten here. I'm all for the power of positive thinking, but this was ridiculous. Everyone was just supposed to think happy thoughts, and that's it? That's the answer?

Alright, it's true that for a moment, when I saw Glinda surrounded by a shimmering halo of light, I was touched by something like a glimmer of hope, but jeez, the odds weren't looking too good by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, maybe that's my whole problem - the stretch of my imagination.

After the speech, Tik-Tok hustled us back down the same long hallway, the Scarecrow and the Lion tagging along behind, back down the opposite direction from where we'd started. Eventually, it widened out into an even bigger hallway with weird walls covered with something like solid emerald spidersilk - scintillating, translucent and hard-looking, something that might have taken thousands of years to drip there like limestone. The ceiling was several stories high, with balconies and walkways intersecting and crossing overhead. Functionaries, servants and dignitaries bustled about their business up there, appearing and disappearing into the vastness of the palace, their voices echoing out over our heads, individual words lost in reverb.

The richness of the furnishings that lined this corridor was truly astounding - little knickknacks to giant sculpture, glass megaliths and tiny end-tables, sometimes a bookshelf and a sofa in the middle of nowhere. I didn't understand it - did anyone come here and hang out, like the middle of this corridor was a gigantic living room? Or was it just all decoration?

After a while we came to a pair of huge doors, at what looked like the end of the line. They opened all of a sudden, and we entered into another fantastically huge room, roughly the size of a football stadium.

This was Ozma's throne room.

Ozma had gotten there before us. A select few were with her, lounging on a pile of huge pillows about thirty feet from the throne: a sultry, brunette woman who Aurora, in hushed tones, identified as Dorothy, and some others I hadn't met yet.

The tiger I'd seen the other night was already there. The Lion sauntered up to the tiger, exchanged nods, and laid down about ten feet away from it.

There was a dark woman, I hesitate to say black, because she didn't look Negroid, just dark. She looked me over with a predatory gaze, and when she spotted Aurora found it immediately necessary to turn around to speak to a big fat bug guy, who looked like "Apocalypse" - era Brando as The Fly.

I felt a pressure against my leather pant-leg, and looked down to see the most ancient, rheumy-eyed, graying terrier I'd ever seen sniffing me. I reached down to pet it, and it growled at me until I drew my hand away, then it placidly continued to sniff.

"Toto! Knock it off!" Dorothy shot the dog a harsh look, and I guess the dog took the hint, because it hobbled over to Dorothy and collapsed at her side, eying me with a look that said, "I'm not done yet, pal."

A pair of liveried servants were coming around with refreshments, some sort of iced beverage in tall glasses. I took one from the proffered tray and sipped. It was a lot like lemonade with ginger in it.

Ozma was playing with a little doll, one that reminded me uncomfortably of the China People, as if nothing very pressing was on her mind - just a little girl, doing little girl stuff, not the potentate of a fairy land on the verge of being burned and stomped. Just as if she'd read my mind (hell, she probably did), she handed the doll to a servant and assumed a respectable lotus position.

"My friends," she said, looking around at all of us, "our people are now preparing to defend the Emerald City from the worst enemy it has ever known. Now, most of our citizens are peace-loving, simple people, with no desire to fight. They must, then, use their creative powers, their ingenuity, to defeat the foe in unexpected ways.

"Those of you from Earth are well acquainted with war. Sadly, a contingent of our enemy has come from your 'world next door'. For many years I have suspected that it would come to this, that trying to harness our magic would not be enough for them."

It took a few seconds for this to sink in. What was she telling us? That the good old U.S. of A. was backing this creep?

I shot a quizzical look at Ralph, and his expression was enough to confirm what she was saying. What I saw was mostly embarrassment, self-loathing and confusion. Here was a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here was a man in crisis, a man who didn't know who to throw in with.

"I've called you together with me," Ozma continued, "because you are all in a state of profound - what shall I say? - activity. For better or worse, you are all to be greatly changed by the events of the next few days, and your actions will irrevocably change the lives of everyone, everywhere.

"You are all dancers, all of you, and you must be sure to dance brilliantly. When I say brilliantly, be sure that I do not mean self-consciously or cleverly, but rather, surely and passionately.

"You may not choose to dance to my tune, and that must be as it may be..."

Then she looked rather pointedly, I thought, at Ralph, and then quickly looked away.

"Others may serve our cause without meaning to, but ultimately, the cause you serve will not matter. It only matters that you DO."

I started to drift off a little. Ozma's speech was starting to sound a little like that cheesy seventies hit "Desiderata": "You are a child of the universe, and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" and all that. But I held my tongue. I was feeling pretty bleak, and I didn't have any better ideas.

"Some of you believe only in that which you can see. Sometimes that is a good thing. A dreamer, a shaman, sometimes needs a guardian, someone to watch the gates while he dreams.

She fixed me with her supernatural gaze. "Gene, I think you are one of these." She smiled sweetly. "I know what you think of what I've said today. All I can ask of you is that you be the best skeptic you can be."

Then she addressed everyone again .

"As the darkness falls, your light grows brighter. Every one of you will be like a beacon in the darkness to me. By your actions, I will see more completely what must be done."

Then she closed her eyes, and smiled again, and the smile was of a variety that didn't belong on the face of a prepubescent girl. It was frightening, and I suddenly realized the depth, power and age of this creature that had been speaking to us. Not a little girl anymore, but a maybe four-hundred year old witch-woman.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of my own voice. "Why isn't Mikio Furi here?" it asked.

Ozma laughed, a twittering sound almost like a bird laughing. "Mikio's place is with his machines," she replied. "and I'm afraid to disturb his mentation right now. He is a rather delicate flower. That does remind me of your companion, though. What do you think It will want to do?"

"It?"

"Yes, It." She pointed to my backpack.

"You mean the - "

"Yes, your computing machine. Now that it has come to life, a great many people mean to have it. That can only mean that it possesses great power. Think about what you and It would like to do."

I thought about it. What I would have liked to have done then was get the hell outa Dodge, take a running jump at the gate back to Kansas, but that didn't look like an option.

I took the Enchanted Laptop out of the packback and booted it up, hoping that it would have something to tell me, but it was behaving normally. I figured the little guy was scared stiff. But then it blinked - that is, the screen went black - twice, and then it started to strobe, in lurid fluorescent colors:

***mikio***go***go***go******mikio***go*

**go***go******mikio***go***go***go******mi

kio***go***go***go******mikio***go***go***g

o******mikio***go***go***go******mikio***go

***go***go******mikio***go***go***go******m

ikio***go***go***go******mikio***go***go***

go******mikio***go***go***go******mikio***g

o***go***go******mikio***go***go

I flipped the screen around so that Ozma could see it. "I think it's made up its own mind."

I saw something then I thought I would never see - Ozma's eyes widening in astonishment for the most fleeting of moments. I don't think anyone else saw it but me, but I was sure I had. I'm not sure what it was that jolted her - the raw wonder of this vulgar piece of Earth technology, the mystery of something from somewhere invading it, or both.

"Your Majesty? Excuse me, but - why am I here?" Everyone turned towards the dark woman, Enchantra, who was alternately attempting to not scowl and smiling towards the monarch in a truly psycho display. (That's really her name, by the way, - it sounds different in Standard Pawt'kween, but translates roughly to that, can you believe it?) She was nervous as hell, though I couldn't tell which of the maybe three hundred things that might make you nervous when the walled city you're in is about to be ripped to shreds. Maybe she was just afraid of Ozma. Maybe she had some place else to be.

Ozma gave her the look an old pro gives to a promising young tyro who's trying to "act all bad."

"My dear, dear girl," she said, and paused. "It's true that we haven't been the best of friends, have we?"

Enchantra sheepishly nodded her agreement.

"But, I've always admired your skills - especially your, shall we say, diplomatic - skills. Enchantra, I'll be blunt. You possess the Golden Cap - you have control of the Winged Monkeys. They will remain a key to our defense. They are the most gifted warriors at our disposal. Now, I could simply demand that you give me the Cap. But

I won't. You possess it, and the fate of the Monkeys is in your hands as well. You have chosen to use them wisely in the past, and I have every reason to believe you will continue to wield your power in a conscientious manner. Enchantra, you are here so that I can tell you that I trust you," and she looked around and said, "and that is why you are all here, and I've kept you far too long already."

And I thought, great, this mad tea-party is finally over with -  now what?

"And now what?" Ozma asked, looking at me.

"Well," I said, a little taken aback by the Kreskin routine, "I guess I'm off to Mikio's with the Laptop." I looked around. "Anybody else going my way?"

"Yeah, me," Ralph spoke out. "You won't get forty yards outside of the palace with that thing without a bodyguard."

"How do we know you're not just going to grab it?" Aurora blurted out.

"Yeah," Ralph shot back sarcastically, "how do you know?"

Dorothy stood up, and unruffled her long skirt. "Well," she said quietly, "I'm going out the front gate, and talk to folks."

That sounded like a really bad idea to me.

"The way I see it," she continued, "there's a lot of soldiers out there who'd rather get back to bein' farmers or or merchants if somebody only showed 'em the error of their ways. Always been better at peacemaking than fighting. Even when I was a little girl. So, Ozma, darling, if you don't need me no more, I'm off"

"Wait." Aurora got up. "Let me go with you. I agree with your idea on principle, but I'd feel alot better about it if you had some muscle to back you up." A sympathetic roar came from the Lion, who stretched and came over to Dorothy's side as well, followed by the Tiger. "But I'd like to make a pit-stop at Mikio's first, if that's okay." She gave Ralph a weird look.

Dorothy nodded agreement, and everyone looked to Ozma, I suppose to be dismissed or whatever princesses do when you want to take off.

"Before you all go," she said, "I must see Aurora alone for a moment."

She took Aurora off to some ante-chamber, and we all stood around for a few minutes, looking at each other uncomfortably. It was worth the wait, though, when Aurora came back with Ozma's gift.

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