Chapter Twenty-Five

There was a deathly silence in the streets, a wrongness, a clear sense of something missing - the myriad constant small sounds that defined Emerald were gone. Everyone, it seemed, was either up on the high wall around the city, out the east and north gates in front, defending the city, or had high-tailed it out the south and west gates long ago. As far as I knew, the gate back to Kansas was still closed.

And what was I doing to make myself useful? Chasing a drunk guy around.

There were roughly a zillion places, in and out of the city, where Ralph might have headed. I knew of exactly one of those places.

So, of course I thought I'd go try there.

Topeka was closed when I got there. I cursed and did a little dance in the street. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I banged on the door as hard as I could. Nothing. I tried it again, and was about to give up and look somewhere else when the door creaked open and I saw Allallo's broad, chubby face, covered in wide colorful stripes of war paint. His long hair hung down on either side, festooned with feathers and charms. He grinned at me for a moment, but you could tell he wasn't his everyday jovial self.

"Gene of Los Angeles. Hi!" he said. "This is a bad time. I'm going out now to fight. Bad time to drink anyway. Come back tomorrow." Then he narrowed his eyes. "That's right! You won't be here tomorrow. Well, when you come back we'll get you some of that special stuff."

"Come back? What - ? Listen, Allallo, I'm looking for Ralph. I know it's stupid, but I figured he might come here. It looked like you guys were pretty tight, and - anyway, do you know where he is? I gotta find him. I - I think he might do something crazy. If that is actually possible here."

He didn't say anything for a moment, almost like he was going to try to tell me a lie, but then couldn't. He looked sadly over his shoulder and pointed behind him with his thumb.

"Inside," he whispered. The door squeaked open a bit more, and he let me in. "I was hoping that by lying to you I could prevent things from going the way I see them. But now something else shows me that's not the thing for me to do at all. I see the path your heart makes."

Ralph was sitting slumped in a dark corner, at a table with chairs piled on top of it. There was a big bottle of something in front of him, and a quarter-filled glass. The bottle was half gone.

"Jeez, Allallo," I demanded, "why do you let him get like that? Especially now?"

He shrugged. "A man must face his demons alone. Sometimes they must torment him deeply before he even sees them as demons. He comes here to let them do that. I pray every day that he will defeat them."

I didn't get it. It was like pouring gasoline on a fire. "You're a funny guy, Allallo."

He shrugged again, picked up a spear and bow that were lying against the wall, and opened the door again. "I hope someday soon you will see the wisdom in it. And I hope to see you again." And then he disappeared through the door, shutting it behind him.

Okay, I thought, George Jones School of Psychotherapy.

"Ralph," I said, "what are you doing?"

He looked up at me, bleary-eyed. "Well, this is the bes thing I cuh think of ta do." Then he tipped up his glass, drank it down, and poured some more from the bottle.

"Jesus, Ralph, you could be mediating this whole thing. You, more than anybody, have a grasp on what's actually going on here. You - " "You think you know what's going on, do you?" He shouted. "You don' know SHIT, buddy boy!" Then he put a hand up, realized he'd gotten a little out of control. He gathered himself, and proceeded to speak up, calmly, in a controlled, sober voice that had the effect of freaking me out completely, only because I knew how trashed he was. He reminded me, then, of this guy my dad used to talk about when he'd see somebody display an improbable, unexpected talent or proficiency: "Crazy" Guggenheimer. He was a character, I guess, on the Jackie Gleason show back in the Sixties. Crazy was this stumbling drunk guy who would, once a week on the show, weave and wobble up to Jackie Gleason's bartender character, get a drink, and then proceed to deliver a sweet, flawless Irish tenor ballad. Then he'd stumble out of the bar again until next week.

"Bhjennigh," he chuckled, "It's Benny. B-E-N-N-Y You think he's from across the Nonestic Sea? Bullshit. He's from New Jersey.

Think Glinda can see that with her little book? I don't think so, somehow. He's got some extra special wool he pulls over her eyes.

"See, they gave security clearance to all kinds of little weasles way back when, if they had a skill, and could make it back and forth through the gate. Now they know better.

"Benny knew three things: computers, cryptography, and satellite communications. Otherwise, he was a sorry-ass loser who'd basically sell his granny's ass for a quarter. But over here, he had it made. They put him in charge of those radio dishes. He ran the whole thing.

"It eventually came to be called Project Scarecrow."

He downed the contents of his glass again. It was kind of making me sick to watch. I thought he must have a cast-iron stomach or a rock-hard liver or both.

"No, that's not right. I put him in charge.

"Before I was CIA, I was Army Intelligence. And I was his commanding officer. I gave that little creep a shot. I knew what he could do with computers, electronics, codes... Hell, I liked him at one time, despite what a miserable shit he could be.

"I was his friend. I got him the gig.

"So, you might say I'm responsible for all this."

He paused and shakily measured out another three shots into his glass.

"They started out as a receiving array, in a meadow outside of Togollu - you saw 'em - six pieces of a radio telescope. We were trying to see what was out there - if the celestial map matched ours at all, or if it was completely different. We'd gotten some surprises there already with a big optical telescope: fifteen planets in the solar system, seven gas giants - two of them binary, and eight earth-sized or smaller.

"From the beginning, we were getting anomalous readings along with the radio data. Soon enough somebody figured out what was going on: the parabolic surfaces were somehow attracting a steady stream of Mickies. But they weren't inhabiting anything; it was like they were playing or something. They'd fly through, and out the other end.

"As soon as Bennie let the Powers That Be know about this, all attention shifted from mapping the sky to pulling in and capturing these wandering souls. The idea was to capture as many of these Mickies as possible and keep them contained, until we could build a giant, fast computer around the housing they were contained in. We were going to build a kind of VR environment for them to interact with the hardware. Ghosts in the machine. People had dreamed for decades of a thinking computing machine. We were going to build it, here. We were going to revive slavery, in other words.

"Bennie didn't give a shit what they did with the dishes, as long as the Brass back home was happy. But it didn't work out. As soon as the containment tank was built, the Mickies stopped coming. It was like they knew. So Bennie decides to construct - a beacon. Something he thought would be bait. He set it up, and nothing happened. He became obsessed, sitting out there for days at a time, changing frequencies, pulse shapes. He wouldn't give it up."

Ralph fumbled a cigarette out of his pocket, produced a zippo, lit up the smoke.

"And then finally, one day, he says he hears something. I was out of the loop by then, I'd come through every once in a while to monitor progress. And I'd say, 'What, Bennie, what do you hear? I can't hear anything.' And he'd just shush me and get this far away look on his face, very freaky.

"But he heard something all right. And every time I'd come to check on him, a little more of what he was hearing, and feeling, would be visible to me. A little more of It. A little less of him. Subtle at first. His eyes were darker. His nervous twitch disappeared. He stopped biting his fingernails. Stopped telling stupid gross-out jokes. His hair grew out really fast, long and jet-black.

"The containment tank his team had built, meanwhile was filling up - is that the right word? - no, it was coming apart. It was changing. I still don't know what finally happened to it. But I'd come in and find Bennie standing in front of it, with his arms outstretched, eyes closed. I could see him changing. It freaked me out, but I didn't know what to do about it. What to do about him.

"Whatever he'd called was starting to make its own calls. Pretty soon Benny had his own little army of freaks. They'd show up out of nowhere, sometimes on sandboats, from out across the desert, or a ship would roll over the horizon, and forty or so goons would stroll out and pledge their loyalty to him."

"Soon nobody knew what to do. Somewhere in there, he'd started spelling his name funny, encouraged the populace to eat their four-legged friends, and built a castle for himself. Somewhere in there, he became the dictator of huge parts of Gillikin and Munchkinland. One day I found myself addressing not my subordinate, Corporal Bennie Burnbaum, but Bhjennigh, leader of a sovereign nation. And our government had no choice but to recognize him, because what were we going to do? Nuke him? Desert Storm? Not likely, when you can send maybe ten troops a day through the gate. We could have tried to take him out, but guess what? It wasn't - isn't - in the interest of our National Security."

Then he crumpled a little bit, and looked at me like he was going to start crying again. But he didn't.

"Aw, Gene," he said, "you don't know. You jus don't know. Meaty Meatcorps. Pace-Horner. The goddam U. S. government want to - are going to - Christ, I can't even say it.

"They've encouraged him, aided him, every step of the way, every way they could."

"Remember what happened to Times Square? They want to turn this entire place into a fucking Theme Park."

It sounded ludicrous and chilling in the same breath, like the guy at the end of the Twilight Zone episode trying to scramble over the edge of the gangplank of the alien spacecraft as it closed, with that lady screaming, "IT'S A COOKBOOK!"

But this was no joke. My people, people from Earth, white European Americans and their honorary proxies, were going to continue their four-hundred-something-year tradition of Fucking Up A Good Thing.

"But you know what?" Ralph asked, as he poured another one, "you know what? Surprise! Bhennigh has basically told everyone to go screw. All bets are off. He has shut the Pawt'kween Gate, and is now, as you can see, in the process of grabbing everything for himself.

"And he's not even in charge anymore. And Whatever is isn't planning a theme park, believe me."

He downed another shot, stuck the bottle into his coat pocket, and stood up, wobbling. He pulled one of those ridiculous round pointed hats over his ears, and stumbled over behind the bar.

"So what now, Ralph?," I asked, following him over, "what? Are you going to stay here and drink yourself into unconsciousness? This is your answer?"

"No. No. Tha is not myanser. NO." He picked out two bottles, shoved them into his coat as well. "My answer is 'end of game. Game over.'"

Whatever that meant, I thought.

He wobbled over to the door, opened it, and stumbled out.

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