"I live upstairs," he said, "and I thought Mikio and his friends would like a bite to eat."
Dorothy looked at the old guy strangely. "Doctor Pipt?" she asked, "Is that you?"
He nodded and grinned, not giving any indication that he knew who the hell she was. She took the tray out of his hands, and unceremoniously handed it to me. "I'm Dorothy," she said, "Dorothy Gale? We knew each other many years ago. Maybe..."
Some light of recognition came into the old man's eyes. "Dorothy?" He squinted at her. "But surely you're not that little girl...yes! You are!" He held out his arms, and they embraced each other warmly. Then there were introductions all around, and the topic turned to why we were there.
"Ah, yes," Pipt said. "This current unpleasantness. It almost inspires me to—" He looked around as if someone unwanted might be listening, and continued quietly, "come out of retirement."
Dorothy looked at him wide-eyed. "Oh, Doctor, you must! We need all the help we can get right now, and I'm sure Ozma wouldn't mind under the circumstances. A man of your talents..."
Dr. Pipt waved dismissively. "My dear, it's been many years since I've dabbled in alchemy. I don't know that—"
Mikio suddenly let out a yelp; he'd found something of interest in the closet. Half a dozen of his posse gathered around him.
Pipt nodded to indicate Mikio, raised a bony fnger in his direction. "Now, that boy," he said, "is quite promising." Then he looked Dorothy in the eye, rather severely, I thought. "I would appreciate it if you would not mention my past exploits to young Mikio. I have grown rather fond of him, and would rather that his opinions of me not be changed at this late date. He knows me as the old man who lives upstairs, nothing more." With that, he took the tray back from me, and teetered into the room, delivering snacks to anyone interested.
Ralph and I looked quizzically at Dorothy.
"That man," she whispered, "is the greatest living alchemist in all of Oz. Kind of like—who's that one everyone tells me about?— Einstein. Of course, he was forbidden by Ozma to practice magic after he—" She looked thoughful for a second, then said, "Well, she never did say anything about science, though. People, that old man you're lookin' at is the actual inventor of the Powder of Life."
Life. Powder. You could have knocked me over with a feather. My fngers refexively found the jar in my ogre-vest. I was about to take it out and ask somebody if what I was carrying around was actually IT, when Mikio came running back with a box full of writhing creatures—well, I thought they were creatures. They were little tight corkscrew-shaped, and coppery. He took one out and it fattened against the palm of his hand, orienting itself directly facing Aurora and the Skyrlla.
All at once, the gravity of the room pulled inward, tugging everyone but Aurora toward Mikio and the center. "These are ktulligs." Mikio explained. "They are one of the major components in most of Ozma's automatons. They represent a state somewhere between machinery and life.
"In Oz, if you pound out one of these things yourself, out of copper wire or whatever, it will behave in the same manner as this one here—why? Why does a rotating magnet on Earth produce an electrical current in a nearby wire? Who the hell knows? But it always happens. Same with this. This phenomenon appears to be a manifestation of some basic physical law in this universe. I haven't quite worked it out yet, but it appears to be linked to the entire "Mickie" phenomenon. There may be predictable criterion for what causes an object to become animated."
Everybody was staring at him rather blankly, I thought. It didn't look like anybody was quite following him, except for maybe me, maybe Ralph, and Dr. Pipt.
"Well, anyway, check this out," he said, and scattered the frst of several ktulligs on the foor, where they twisted and hopped like puppies. "Aurora?"
She looked up as if startled.
He reached out his hands for Aurora to give him the Burrito. "May I?"
She hesitated for a moment, then slowly walked over. I was surprised by how possessive she suddenly seemed. Aurora hesitated again before handing the platter to him; and as she did, I watched a shudder run through her. It was kind of unnerving.
Mikio delicately unwrapped it from the velvet and placed it in the center of the ring of ktulligs. Like magnets, the little curlyques lined up radially around the Emerald Burrito. As in a time-lapse flm of fowers growing, they sprouted appendages that reached out toward it. The scintillations within seemed to multiply, the closer the flaments got. By the time they reached it, the Skyrrla was pulsing light regularly, an oscillating sub-strobing, that seemed to shift in a rhythmically complex pattern. The ktulligs had meanwhile joined ends together, forming a wheel/spokes arrangement around the Burrito.
All of this took about maybe two minutes.
Mikio stood on one leg, and poked the Doc Martin on his other foot at the ring. He got it really close, then pulled it away. He gave the shoe a really funny look, then I looked and realized that the end of the shoe had disappeared. Not melted or burnt, just gone. Mikio wiggled his athletic sock up through the hole just to make sure his toe was still there and put his hands out in front of him. "Okay—guys?" he said, "maybe we should avoid touching this." Then he held up his fnger and strode off to fetch something else.
Aurora and I looked at each other, then at Ralph, then Dorothy looked at Aurora. Everyone else was gawking as well, except for the Lion and the Tiger and the dog. They were hovering by Dr. Pipt, waiting for the tray to fall.
"Omigod," Aurora said, hugging herself as if she'd suddenly awakened, naked, in front of home room.
"What?" I said.
"I'm just—realizing something," she said, then shuddered and sighed so deeply I thought she might herneate or something.
At this point, Dorothy spoke up.
"This is all fne and dandy, not that I understand any of it, but that cloud and that army out there ain't whistlin' Dixie. I gotta go." She realized that hardly anyone was listening to her, put her two index fngers up to her mouth, and gave a loud whistle. The room focused in for a moment. "Any of you people want to go with me, I'm headed out the East Gate, and I'm gonna try to talk some sense into those folks." She cast a meaningful gaze around the room. "Anyone not comin', wish me luck. And I wish it right back at you."
Then she turned and headed out the door, Toto following up behind. The Lion and Tiger growled disappointment at the missed snacks, but followed as well.
Aurora looked concernedly in my direction. "Gene?" she said.
I was torn. I mean, I wasn't anxious any time soon to face those green guys and whatever else was out there, but I felt like I had to do
something, and it didn't seem as though I was getting a whole hel
l of a lot accomplished here. Of course, I still hadn't fnished up my business with Mikio, and—
Before I could decide, Aurora kissed me. "I'll see you soon, Gene." She hugged me, and fxed me with those giant eyes of hers. "God, I'm sorry I got you into all this."
I started at some lame dismissal of her apology. Before the words could fall out, she interrupted.
"But you know what?" she told me. "You'll be fne. We're all gonna be fne."
The she, too, went out the door.
Ralph looked at me and shrugged. Evidently, he was staying put. He was starting to worry me again. During the last ten minutes or so, he had been pulling an oversized fask out of his pocket and hitting on it. He seemed fne, but how could I be sure?
Then I saw Ledelei snaking her way through the room, a vision in skin-tight black leather, hefting a massive sword. She was swinging it around her head expertly, never coming close to anyone in the room with it.
How did these "peace-loving people" keep coming up with all this weaponry? And how did they know how to use it all so well? I guess it was the craze for Martial Arts that had been sweeping the nation for the past hundred years or so, ever since Dorothy and friends took out the Wicked Witch and Nick became King of the Winkies. He's like Oz's frst super-hero, and all the kids wanted to be just like him. Hence, a great deal of interest in learning to fght like a Winkie, even though there hasn't actually been anyone to fght in all that time. The prospect of a real opponent just seemed to add to the general glee.
Lidelei noticed me, grinned slyly, and ducked out the doorway and down the stairs after Dorothy and Company.
I stared at the door with my mouth open for a few moments, then realized how useless I was being. I went into the room after Mikio, and found him crouched under a table, sorting through vines of various thicknesses. He didn't pay any attention to me.
"Hi! Mikio, look, I kinda came here to let you know that..."
He looked up. "Can you hold this? Thanks." He handed me about a dozen of the vines he'd picked out.
"Anyway, my Superbook—"
"The laptop!" he shouted, and tried to stand up, bashing his head against the underside of the table. I looked to make sure that he wasn't bleeding, and helped him out of there. "Where is it?" he asked, rubbing his head. "I forgot all about that. Is it safe?"
"Look, Mikio, why don't you take a deep breath," I suggested, "calm down a little, because you're not gonna do anybody any good if you start freaking out. Chill."
He took my advice, even accepted a sandwich from Dr. Pipt, and while he chewed, I started again, reiterating the conversation at the palace, and the reaction of the laptop. I removed my backpack,
and handed it over to Mikio.
"So, you see, it wasn't my decision. It wants to be here. That's the reason for the parade. Nobody thought I'd make it over here by myself."
He took it out of the pack, and booted it. Dr. Pipt looked on in amazement. This, I thought, was astounding in itself: that someone who could turn a chicken into a walking lampshade (or whatever) was slack-jawed at the sight of a hunk of plastic and silicon. "It's a magic book!" he exclaimed. "I thought that Glinda's was the only one!"
I explained to him that there were many more where that one came from, that a company made them in order to get money, and that it wasn't exactly like Glinda's book—at which point I questioned whether or not that was true, never having actually seen Glinda's book. From all accounts, it sounded like some sort of telemetry database, taking readings of everything that happened everywhere, and somehow displaying them instantaneously for Glinda's perusal.
"I wish I wasn't such an old man," Pipt said, "I'd visit this "Earth," where such marvels pour forth so prosaically!"
Mikio was excited, too, but for other reasons. "If I can interface this correctly," he said, "I'll not only be able to custom-modify the reaction taking place in the Skyrrla, but I may be able to actually predict—yeah..." And, in mid-sentence, he stalked off with the laptop, the vines and a few more ktulligs.
"You're welcome," I mumbled under my breath.
Somewhere around this time, I noticed that Ralph was gone. Maybe he's gone to the bathroom, I thought, and followed Mikio back over to where the Emerald Burrito was.
While Mikio was hooking up various components, and sticking little fbers into the SCSI port, trying to fgure out which PCI slot a stullig might like to cosey up to, Pipt was standing behind him with a bemused look on his face.
"Mikio, why don't you take the whole arrangement up to the roof? I think you'll soon fnd the entire business too unmanageable for this apartment."
Mikio looked up, and it seemed like he wanted to humor the old guy. "Well, Dr. Pipt, I'd like to, but you saw how it was before. I don't think I can move it now."
"Is there a Stortiwolly handy?"
Mikio yelled to one of his cohorts to bring a Stortiwolly. Soon enough, someone came over with his hand guiding a white diaphanous sheet that foated like a jellyfsh next to him in the air.
Pipt saw it, and grabbed two corners of it. It seemed to shudder under his touch. "Ah, splendid," Pipt said. "It should be neutral." Then in one quick movement, he tossed it over the entire Burrito/ ktullig-ring arrangement, picked it up, and handed it to Mikio, meanwhile winking slyly at me.
Mikio looked like he'd just realized he was on Candid Camerathe wheels were spinning inside his head as he reassessed his opinion of his upstairs neighbor. "Sure," he said, "It's neutral." Pipt picked up the backpack, and they both took off up the stairs to the roof.
I started to follow, but thought I'd have another look around for Ralph before I did. I needed to pee anyway, so I went to the bathroom door to see if he was already done. The bathroom door was open, no sign of Ralph.
He'd slipped out, to where I wasn't sure, but judging from the condition he'd been aiming for, I had a few ideas. I unlaced the stupid leather pants, and stood there urinating into something vaguely resembling a toilet: a large violet, rubbery lip extending up from the foor. (Depending upon what you wanted to do, these things would elongate in different directions to accommodate you. If you sat on it, it did one thing. If you just stood up and peed into it, it did another. The violet lip was a fower of some ridiculously huge plant that snaked through the entire city. Evidently the vast plumbing system of Emerald was bioengineered, although the Ozians wouldn't have called it that.)
While I watched my pee fertilize this enormous plant, I tried to decide what to do. I could stay here, help Mikio in whatever feeble manner was possible, go out to the battlefeld in my ogre suit and die, or I could fnd Ralph and ask a whole shitload more questions.
I felt like he owed me some answers.