Dedicated to the memory of John Albano...don't worry, we'll keep an eye on Jonah fer yuh.
An Explanation: Back in 1982, there was a two-part Justice League story where some of the Leaguers went back in time and teamed up with some of DC's Western heroes. On a whole, the story was not remarkable, but it did feature the unusual pairing of Hal Jordan and Jonah Hex. They took down some bad guys together and traded a few quips before Hal returned to the present, and the story became just another odd pre-Crisis tale, nothing Earth-shattering.
Cut ahead to 1985: Sales on Jonah's book had been sinking for a few years. Whether due to pressure from the company to save the character or because writer Michael Fleisher honestly thought it was a good idea, Jonah was ripped out of the Old West and put in the middle of a post-nuclear nightmare, a la "Mad Max". Hex's book sales went up briefly, but after 18 issues, the series tanked, and the 15-year-long career of Jonah Hex came to a screeching halt. To add insult to injury, the last issue of Hex (titled "Thanksgiving") didn't even end with Jonah returning home, it just left him in a warehouse confronted with a very ugly fact that I'll elaborate on in the fic (don't want to ruin it for you!). DC has never retconned the whole "future Hex" incident, and virtually every appearance of the character since then has been in the Old West, where he belongs. But after nearly 20 years, they still refuse to explain how he got home (not to mention that, according to the storyline, we're all supposed to be nuked in 2045. That's not as far away as it used to be). Maybe I'm just nitpicky, but dammit, time travel isn't like catching a cross-town bus, it's usually pretty complicated, so how the Hell did it happen?
When I heard that Jonah Hex would be getting his own series again in 2005, I started thinking about that long-standing dilemma -- I really wanted to put a definite end on that chapter in Jonah's life, even if it's unofficial. Just how to do it was eluding me, though: it'd have to be in a way that wouldn't contradict what's been established in continuity. While in the midst of turning the problem over in my head, I started reading Green Lantern: Rebirth, and it reminded me of that old Justice League story. Suddenly, the answer smacked me in the face. So as Rebirth finished up, I dug through old comics and began writing a story that couldn't have been done 20 years ago. For those of you reading this that don't know Jonah all that well, don't fret none, everything you need to know is in the story. Plus Hal's got a good deal of "screen time" in this, so he'll get you through.
Disclaimer: All characters in this story are owned by DC Comics, except for the couple I made up, but they can have 'em for free if they publish this for me. Portions of this story contain dialogue originally appearing in Jonah Hex #92, Hex #18, Green Lantern: Rebirth #6, and Justice League of America #198 & 199.
Continuity: From Jonah's point of view, this takes place a month after Hex #18. For Hal and the rest of us, this happens between Green Lantern: Rebirth #6 and Green Lantern (vol. 4) #1.
THE LONG ROAD HOME: PROLOGUE
Lord, don't make me go through this again…
He was back in the Red Dog Saloon like a day hadn't gone by. He could smell sawdust and cheap whiskey, the sweat of tired cowhands and the fancy perfumes of soiled doves. The clink of glasses behind the bar reached his ears, as did the clatter of poker chips being tossed onto a table. The first time he was there, he'd barely noticed these things, but now they stood out like signposts in the middle of the desert, marking the way to places long gone. The comfort of familiar surroundings was overshadowed by the pain their loss gave him, but even that pain was nothing compared to how the sight before him made him feel.
Jonah Hex stood at the bar staring at himself…his old self, dressed in Confederate gray and none the wiser that his life was going to be thrown ass-over-teakettle in less than five minutes. It don't have tuh be, though. All's yuh got tuh do is move, he tried to tell his other self, but the words wouldn't come out. Just take maybe three steps tuh the right, an' it might miss yuh.
Old Jonah paid no heed to the silent advice, choosing instead to pick up the bottle on the bar and pour himself another shot. He looked lost in thought, probably wondering what he was going to spend his newly-acquired bounty money on. Five thousand dollars wasn't a bad haul for barely one day's work.
It ain't gonna be worth one red cent if'n yuh don't move, yuh empty-headed fool! He reached out to grab a handful of his old, Rebel-gray coat, but it did no good: He passed right through it like it was of those fancy "hollergraphs" that gave him a headache to look at. Again, the other Jonah didn't notice, just knocked back his whiskey and commenced to pouring another glass. Dammit, whut's wrong with yuh? he wanted to scream. Do yuh want all this tuh disappear? Don't yuh care anymore?
In unison, they both turned their heads toward the saloon door at the sound of their name, the same word coming to both their lips, though only one of them could be heard: "Emmy?"
"Jonah, thank Heaven I found you!" Emmylou Hartley ran into the old Jonah's arms, burying her face in his chest. Like everyone else in the saloon, she didn't see the man standing barely two feet from her, dressed in clothes that had no Earthly reason for existing in 1875. He wanted desperately to be seen, though, to be heard. He wanted to be holding Emmy in his arms, not watching his ghost do it for him. How long had it been since he'd seen her? Six months? A year? A thousand years? He didn't know anymore, the days of his life had become a blur. He wasn't even sure if the feelings he still held for her were from love or loneliness, he just knew that where she was held more appeal to him than where he'd been hanging his hat as of late.
"Ah'm glad yuh had better luck than me, sugar," the old Jonah told her, cupping her chin in his hand and tilting her face up towards his. Even clad in a heavy rancher's coat and spattered with mud like she was, Emmylou was still a pretty young thing. "Ah've been lookin' high an' low fer yuh, an' y'all bustin' in the door like thet is the best lead Ah've had in months."
"He's after me, Jonah!" Emmy went on, as if he'd said nothing at all. "He's…"
The batwing doors of the saloon banged open once again, cutting her off mid-sentence. "That's right, you pigtailed tramp, I am after you!" bellowed the grizzled man that stepped in, pulling leather as he did so. "And this time, there's no place for you to run to!"
Shoot him now, Jonah tried to tell his other self, just shoot him, grab Emmy, an' get the Hell outta this place! It didn't make a bit of difference: same as the first time, the old Jonah thought he had the situation under control. Sure, he was certain this was the same man he'd seen robbing the local assayer's office (and forcing Emmy to help him…she couldn't be helping of her own free will), but there hadn't been a man born that could outshoot Jonah. His father always said Jonah was the fastest Hex…but he also said that his son wasn't the smartest Hex.
"Look here, mister, Ah don't rightly know just whut yer beef is," he said, leaning back against the bar, "but if'n yo're bound an' determined tuh keep wavin' thet gun around, Ah recommend yuh come back here when Ah'm in a more forgivin' mood."
"To Hell with that!" The man cocked his pistol. I'm gonna kill that woman...and if I've gotta kill you first to do it, then that's exactly what I'm gonna do!"
Patrons began to dive under tables and head for the door. More than a few knew what Jonah Hex was capable of when riled, and didn't want to be in the way when the bullets started flying.
"Don't, Brett...please!" Emmy sobbed, and made to grab the old Jonah by the arm. He shook her off and began to take a step forward, the cold killer's look coming to light in his eyes. "All right, partner," he said, "if bein' dead's the only thing's gonna make yuh happy..."
Fer God's sake, don't let it happen again! Jonah leapt forward, trying in vain to push his other self out of the way, but it was too late. A strange red light materialized out of nowhere, striking the old Jonah square in the chest. He staggered backward a step as if he'd been shot, but the light didn't let him get far. It quickly engulfed him from the top of his Confederate officer's hat to the tips of his traildust-encrusted boots. Emmylou backed away, screaming, "Oh my God! What's happening to him?"
Suddenly, the red light pulsed outward. The old Jonah had disappeared, carried away to a time and place that, even now, he could barely fathom. The light remained, however, obliterating everyone and everything in its path: the bar warped and caved in on itself, all the bottles and glasses behind it exploded like clay targets in a shooting gallery, the remaining patrons blew away one tattered shred at a time, and Emmy...she melted like a beeswax statue tossed in a furnace, her cornsilk hair turning black as the poor girl twisted in the wake of the red light's destructive wave. Only Jonah Hex remained unscathed as the light exhausted itself, sweeping away any trace of his old life. It left him nothing, not even shrapnel or ash, just a stark black plain. He stood there with his eyes squeezed shut, hands balled into fists, his tall frame shaking from anger and frustration. He'd failed...no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stop it.
"Yuh cain't change the past, boy," a voice said. "Just let it go."
"No, there has tuh be a way. Ah'll find a way back someday. Ah'll stop it afore it even happens, Ah kin..."
"Do yuh really think yuh kin change this?" The speaker was close to Jonah's face, the smell of formaldehyde wafting out with every word. "The past, the future...it's all been set in stone. Yuh cain't erase it, no matter how much yuh may want tuh. Face it, boy: yuh may be alive right now, but yuh've been dead a long, long time."
"No, Ah ain't dead...Ah ain't dead..."
"If'n yuh ain't dead, then whut the Hell am Ah?"
"...don't want tuh die like thet..."
Bony fingers dug into Jonah's arms. "Look at me, boy!"
Jonah's eyes snapped open and faced the glassy stare of his own corpse, the leathery, preserved skin coated with layers of paint to give the illusion of life, but succeeding only in making the image more grotesque. The corpse's attire was just as bizarre as its visage: a white, spangled outfit more befitting a rodeo rider than one of the most feared and respected bounty hunters of the West. The fact that it was draped over such a gangly, desiccated body made the sight on a whole fall somewhere between laughable and horrific. "Don't fret too much 'bout it," the corpse told Jonah, smiling as well as its partly stitched-together lips would allow, "we all got tuh die sometime...even black-hearted sonovabitches like yerself." It let out a dry, barking laugh. "At least somebody found a good use fer yuh in the end!"
"Ah won't end up like yuh!" Jonah roared, then reached up and started to claw at the corpse's face. His fingers pierced the flesh like it was made of tissue paper, spilling out wads of cotton and clumps of sawdust. The glass eyes popped out and rolled away into the black, as did the corpse's white ten-gallon hat. It kept laughing at Jonah as he squirmed in its grip, his hands ripping out tufts of silvery hair. He screamed at the mocking skull, but his words had long since become inarticulate, the sounds coming from his throat more akin to sobbing.
The corpse tossed him to the ground, saying, "There ain't no use in denyin' it. It's already happened, an' it'll happen again." It spread its arms wide, gesturing to the wasteland around them. "Yo're always gonna end up right back here."
Jonah shook his head. "No, Ah know whut's gonna happen now, Ah kin stop it afore..."
"Yuh don't know a damn thing. Yuh don't even know how yuh got these back." The corpse's gloved hands dipped down and unholstered Jonah's old guns: ivory-handled Colt .44 Dragoons, lost long before he arrived in this godforsaken place. It pointed them at Jonah and thumbed back the hammers, telling him, "Yuh ain't never gonna know thet the end's come 'til it's too late tuh do anything 'bout it." Then the guns went off like a crack of thunder. Jonah raised his hands as if to ward off the bullets, but it was a futile gesture: one slug tore through his chest, bursting his heart, the other piercing him neatly between the eyes and blowing out the back of his head. Blood and gray matter sprayed everywhere as he fell back, the corpse still laughing while Jonah's body tumbled into the black with no end in sight...not until he'd fallen all the way to Hell...
In the darkness of his room, Jonah Hex sat up in bed, barely managing to bite back the scream before it had fully left his mouth. His sweat-slick body trembled as he tried to push away from his mind the last clinging remnants of the nightmare. "Ah ain't dead," he whispered, the phrase having become almost a mantra for him over the past month, "Ah ain't dead...Ah ain't dead..." As he sat there, elbows resting on his knees and hands buried deep in his red hair, he wondered (not for the first time) if a man could die from lack of sleep.
Once he felt more in control of himself, Jonah reached down and fumbled around for the wrist-chrono Stiletta had given him. He hated wearing the thing, and tended to leave it lying on the floor near the bed. When he located it, he pressed the tiny button to illuminate the watch face, read the time, then threw it across the room with a curse. Three hours. He had to get up in three damn hours to play watchdog. "No way in Hell Ah'm gonna be ready," he muttered, "haven't slept more'n twenty minutes at a shot." He knew of a solution, though he also knew that he'd been depending on it a bit too heavily as of late. He didn't have a problem yet, no sir, he was a long way from that. His father had a problem, but not Jonah, he was still in control, he'd stop as soon as the nightmares stopped.
He reached down again, this time groping under the bed until he found the bottle wrapped discreetly in one of his shirts. The guy that had sold it to him called it everclear, but to Jonah, it was just high-quality moonshine. Bet if'n yuh proofed this stuff, the flame would be a brighter blue than on the Stars an' Bars, he thought as he took a long pull off the bottle, draining a quarter of it without pause. He leaned back in bed, coughing a little from the alcohol fumes. Ain't drinkin' tuh get drunk, he told himself, it's just tuh help me relax, get some sleep, thet's all. He took another swig, then another, not even taking note of how much of the stuff he was pouring down his throat.
By the time the bottle slipped out of his fingers and clattered to the floor, Jonah had fallen into an alcohol-fueled stupor so deep the shrill beeping of the chrono's alarm three hours later almost didn't pierce it.
1: HOW SOON IS NOW?
He was a hero to some, a villain to others...and Hal Jordan wondered just how long it would take for him to sway the opinion of the latter.
Be patient, he told himself as he hung in orbit above the Earth, a hazy green nimbus the only thing protecting him from the cold, crushing void of space. It hasn't even been two days yet. It's going to take time...for you and them. But Hal didn't want to wait, he wanted his old life back, or at least as much as he could salvage.
He'd taken a few small steps in that direction, contacting old friends of the "civilian" variety. For those that didn't know of Hal's double life, some half-hearted explanations had to be made, of course, but most were just glad to find out he was alive, and were happy to have him back in their lives. Ollie had been lending a hand as well, letting Hal crash at his home in Star City and just being there for moral support ("Us dead heroes have to stick together," his long-time friend joked). And, of course, there was the Corps. After finally being freed of Parallax, they'd accepted him back into the fold, no questions asked. That had been the biggest morale-booster for Hal since he'd come back: being able to bear the symbol of Green Lantern once again. They didn't have to take him back, not after Parallax had used Hal to dismantle the Corps, but they did...and it felt like he'd never left.
When Kyle asked him to come to Oa and reacquaint himself with the new Guardians, however, Hal declined. "Let me think about it," he said, "I want to get things in order down here before I start thinking of up there." At the moment, zipping across the galaxy seemed to him like running away, a perfect excuse to ignore the fact that many of his colleagues, people he'd fought alongside for years, didn't trust him. Few of them had said anything outright, but he could feel the tension when he ran into them, like his life had become an old-time movie serial, and Hal was the shifty-eyed stranger that had just rode into town.
Batman had been the most blunt about it so far: "Do you expect me to believe this? That you were influenced? Possessed?" Bruce said it in such a tone that it sounded like he was calling Hal a bald-faced liar without actually doing such. To a small degree, he could forgive the man's lack of tact: it was Bruce's way to constantly play devil's advocate for the Justice League, cracking open silver linings to root out the clouds.
"I don't expect you to believe anything," Hal had answered, "and quite honestly, I don't care." But that wasn't completely true: deep down, it worried him that, for the rest of his life, the shadow of Parallax would eclipse the light he so desperately wanted to carry through the universe once again. He wished he could make everyone forget he'd fallen from grace, just snap his fingers and wipe out the whole incident. The irony was, if he'd still been possessed by Parallax, he could have done just that. But that creature was out of his soul now, imprisoned once again in the Central Battery on Oa, so instead he pushed himself harder than he'd ever done the first time he bore the ring, doing his best to show them all that, despite the past, he could be a hero once again.
That was what brought Hal Jordan to his current vantage point: with the ring, he could scan the Earth for any signs of trouble. The fact that his position also placed him square between the planet and the JLA's base on the moon wasn't lost on him. Hal supposed that, unconsciously, he'd chosen the spot as a way to send a message to anyone in the Watchtower who doubted the Green Lantern's intentions: I'm standing out on the front lines while you're hiding away in a fortress. Who's got the best interests of the world in mind here? Had it been Guy standing there instead of Hal, his fellow GL probably would have flipped the bird at the Watchtower's long-range sensors for good measure. But Hal wasn't interested in picking fights, he just wanted to do his job, and do it well.
"That's all I've ever wanted to do," he said aloud, gazing down upon the Earth far beneath his feet. Nighttime was beginning to cover the West Coast, the entire North American continent sparkling with clusters of light. Out of habit, his eyes traveled up the Pacific coastline, searching for a specific pattern of lights that wasn't there anymore. Stop torturing yourself, he thought, and placed a white-gloved hand over his eyes for a moment. How do you expect others to forgive you if you can't forgive yourself? It was the one old wound he feared would never heal properly: the loss of Coast City had been the beginning of the end for him, and it was the one piece of his old life that he could never retrieve. There had been some rumblings made by the government recently about rebuilding, but it wouldn't be the same. You could replace the buildings, but not the people.
With a sigh, Hal let his hand drop away from his eyes, glad that no one was there to see him at such a low moment. The way he felt, he was sure his mask wouldn't be able to hide his emotions. He then remembered that was why John stopped wearing his: to show people he had nothing to hide. "Sorry, friend, guess you're a little braver than me in that department," Hal muttered as he looked back down at California. This time, however, his eyes were drawn further south, towards San Diego. Something about the light radiating from there didn't look right. After a moment, he saw the discrepancy: they were dimming.
Having spent nearly his entire life on the West Coast, Hal was familiar with rolling blackouts, but this wasn't the same. The darkness was spreading out in a circular pattern like a blast radius, instead of following the layout of the power blocks. It moved slowly as well, almost imperceptible at first, but it appeared to be building speed. Bringing his right hand up, Hal said, "Ring, analysis."
At a glance, the ring Hal wore on his middle finger looked like an unusual class ring, perhaps one given out by a quirky fraternity. In a way, it was: the members had once stood 3,600 strong, but now only five belonged. No other frat, however, could boast of being in possession of one of the most powerful weapons in the universe. With two simple words, the ring scanned the phenomenon, processed the collected data, and delivered a response in the space of a heartbeat: "Rapid drain of city's power supply in progress. Energy being redirected to location at epicenter of disturbance."
Not good, Hal thought, then said aloud, "Ring, power check."
The ring paused a moment to assess its current charge, then replied, "Power levels at 98.71 percent."
"Once more unto the breach," Hal said to himself, then plunged into Earth's atmosphere like a falling star.
For years, STAR Labs had been the worldwide leader in independent scientific research, with over a dozen facilities dotting the world. Unfortunately, their research sometimes made them a magnet for trouble. STAR's San Diego location was no different, having recently been rocked by an earthquake that submerged a portion of the city, but the building had withstood any heavy damage, and they continued to carry on with their business. As to what sort of calamity could have befallen them now, Hal didn't have a clue, but he intended to find out.
Once he was close enough to get a good view of the streets below, Hal leveled out of his descent and skimmed over the buildings, his emerald wake the only illumination. People were leaning out of windows or standing in the streets, looking to each other for an explanation as to what was going on. As he streaked by, he heard a few shout his name...or rather, he heard them shout for Green Lantern. Either way, he was glad to be recognized.
The closer he got to the lab, the more chaotic things became. Cars were locked in a near-standstill for blocks, and crowds had begun to grow behind barricades erected just outside of STAR by the police. Uniformed officers mingled with white lab coats in the eerie shadows cast by the red-and-blue flashers on the cop cars. The STAR Labs facility itself, a twenty-story structure of sleek glass and steel, was just as black as all the other buildings in the area. Hal touched down near the front entrance, where a wiry-looking tech was gesturing wildly at a sergeant. "Anything I can do to help?" he asked them.
"Oh, thank God, somebody that might listen to reason," the tech said, then grabbed Hal's hand and started shaking it so vigorously, one might have thought he was running for office. "Dr. William Steveling, head of the Propulsions Lab. You've got to convince these folks to shut down the power."
"Looks like you've beat me to it."
The man's wide eyes got a little wider. "Huh? Oh, no...no, trust me, the power's still flowing, it's just all going to the same place." He waved a hand at the building.
"That's what my ring said, but I..."
"There's no time to explain it," Steveling interrupted, "just switch off the grid!"
The sergeant piped in with, "And I keep telling you, we can't turn off the whole city! We have enough problems with the power in this state without trying to cut off all the juice at once. It could crash the whole system...assuming I could even authorize it."
The tech let go of Hal's hand and turned to the cop. "You'd better try, or else we could lose a lot more than a few paltry circuit-breakers!"
"All right, quit it!" Twin beams of green light shot out from Hal's ring and pushed the two men apart. He then looked at Steveling and said, "If you want my help, you'll have to tell me what exactly is going on. I can't operate in the dark...pardon the pun."
"There isn't time..." he started to say, then saw the look on the Green Lantern's face. "...but I guess I'll have to make time. Have you ever heard of a Casimir engine?" Before Hal could say one way or the other, Steveling told him, "It's a theoretical device that can extract energy from a cosmic source known as an electromagnetic quantum vacuum. This is an energy field that exists everywhere in the universe in equal, level amounts, virtually undetectable. If one could find a way to tap into it, you would have an unlimited, inexhaustible power source, capable of propelling spaceships from one end of the universe to the other, no solid fuel necessary. Just turn on the engines, let them draw in the energy, and let it go. Not to mention what we could do with something like that here on..."
The Green Lantern held up a hand. "Let me guess: you managed to build one of these engines."
"Just a small one. We even managed to get around the problem of cycling the energy-extraction process. Without that, the engine would only be good for one use. The only problem is...we can't get it to stop."
"You mean you can't turn it off?"
"Well, technically, it hasn't even turned on yet, not fully. It's still in the energy-collecting stage."
It was becoming clear now. "So this thing..."
Steveling nodded. "When we tried to switch over the engine to test-fire it, something shorted out. It began to draw on the building's power through the hookups for the monitoring equipment. We tried to shut down the circuit breakers here, but those failed as well. It's drinking the city dry, and I'm not sure how much more power that engine can hold before..." He splayed out his fingers, mimicking an explosion.
Hal glanced over at the barricades a scant half-block away. "How big a potential explosion are we talking?" He asked the tech. "Just the building, a few blocks...?"
"I don't know. At least a few blocks, probably. Possibly a few miles...especially if the engine is still getting any feed from the quantum vacuum. There could be a backlash through the entire field, flattening everything in its path. It'd be like lighting a match in a gas-filled room."
For a moment, Hal felt numb. Another city, another disaster, countless more lives wiped out in a blink...but this time he was here, not on the other side of the universe. His gloved hands tightened into fists. "Sergeant, I need you to start evacuating every building in the vicinity," he said, "and keep going until there's no one within a five-mile radius of this place. I don't care if you have to drive them through the streets like cattle, just get them the Hell away from here." The policeman began to say something, possibly an objection to being ordered around, but Hal cut him off with, "Do it, or I'll hold you personally accountable for any lives lost tonight."
He nodded, then rushed over to a squad car and got on the radio. Hal turned his attention back to Dr. Steveling, saying, "Is everyone out of the building already?"
"Cleared them out first thing. Luckily, most everyone had gone home for the night."
"Good. Now what floor is this thing on?"
"Fifteenth, Main Propulsion Lab."
Hal's eyes scanned the front of STAR Labs, counting floors, then he raised the hand bearing the ring. Emerald fire danced across the symbol carved upon it. "Not again," he said under his breath, "never again." With just a thought, he launched himself upwards until he reached the right level, then used his ring to make a portal into the building. At the same time, he ordered his ring to send out an emergency signal to the other Lanterns, relaying the pertinent information along with it. He wasn't sure if any of them would get the message in time, but he had to try.
Once inside, Hal was confronted with a steady, high-pitched whine that reverberated through the dark hallway he was standing in. He could feel a thrum running through the floor and up his legs as well. Jordan flew down the hall, following the directory plates on the walls to the main lab. The signs became unnecessary the closer he got to the lab. The doors stood open, and a bright white light poured out into the hall. The protective aura around Hal darkened slightly so it wouldn't blind him as he entered the room.
In the center of the high-ceilinged room sat Dr. Steveling's "small" engine. Eight feet tall, twelve feet wide, and nearly was deep, it was flanked on either side by monitors and diagnostic equipment. Hal could see where someone had attempted to disconnect the machines from the engine in an effort to stop the energy drain, but obviously they had fled the lab before they could finish the task, and with good reason: along with the intense light being thrown off through the exhaust ports, the engine was producing erratic sparks of energy, arcing off the surface and burning whatever it touched.
We'll need to stop that first, Hal thought, and projected an energy shield around the device. That seemed to exacerbate the sparking, but at least it was now contained. He then began to slice through the remaining connections, lifting the engine out of the cradle it rested in as he did so. I'm going to have to cut open the walls to get this thing out of here, let it explode in orbit and hope that's...
Suddenly, Hal felt something tug on his arm. The engine dipped, but he managed to keep it in the air. "What the Hell..." he began to say, then felt another tug. He then realized the tugging was centered on his ring...and that the light pouring from the engine was taking on a greenish cast.
The Casimir engine had found a new power source.
Oh damn. "Got to get rid of this," Hal said as he fought to keep control over the ring. Cracks were beginning to form on the engine casing, and the whine was getting higher in pitch. He tried to summon the energy to punch through the lab wall, but the ring wouldn't obey. He'd have to fall back, switch off the beam and evacuate, lest the device bleed him dry. "No...no, I can't do that," he gasped. Hal forced every ounce of his will into the ring, strengthening the shield so as to contain the imminent blast. His arm ached from the effort it took to keep the ring's energy concentrated on the task, and he clamped his left hand over his right wrist to steady it. "If I've got to die again...to save others...then dammit, I'll die again!"
Seconds later, the engine discharged, the unleashed power shattering the shield and engulfing Hal in an emerald firestorm.