Late July, 1989 and I had been driving west out of Lincoln for days, across what seemed to be an endless stretch of Nebraska State Highway 2. It was as if the Sandhills somehow broken the bonds of time and space and extended themselves far, far, past the Wyoming and Montanan borders, all the way to Alaska, as if I had been on that road for most of my short life.
Or maybe it was just the sun. It never seemed to fully set. It would curtsey towards the dunes and and grass sea, but the hem of its brilliance never deigned to touch the ground. If was as if the very idea of daylight refused to be dirtied by direct contact with the soil. Only the kiss of the sun’s heat was allowed communion with that filthy disc that whelped us.
The whole world had a fever and the whole world was a boiling sea of sand and golden rhizomes, spotted with giant stone toadstools, a giant and ancient Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, spread as far as the Golden Eagle could see from her high redoubt of a thermal.
And across this endless sea, ran a ribbon of tarmac and upon that tarmac drove a 1963 Dodge Dart convertible with a broken fuel gauge and a dented gas tank. A Dart that flew as true as any flicked from the wrist of a drunken Irishman on a soggy night in a Corkish pub. It flew true to its arc and stopped for naught but its destination, what would of course, be a bull’s eye of unknown composition.
What’s between the hand of the thrower and the target is the empty of the unknown and I was sure that I was adrift in it. Every eight hours or so, I would encounter a town, all of which were filled with gaunt, taciturn people with the hollow eyes of those who have seen too much of the empty horrors of being in isolation together. I would eat at the cafe, fill my Dart with gas at the station and ask about the next town or the stone toadstools that filled the grass and sand sea around us. Answers were in short supply, as most folks in these parts hadn’t left town for years and no one could explain why their license plates all were for Nebraska county 95, even though Nebraska only has ninety-two counties. They said it had always been that way and none of the county clerks ever bothered to ask why it shouldn’t be that way.
“Emil says the plates arrive on the coach and who is he to question the folks in Lincoln about something that’s always been the way it is,” the man running the gas station in Starbuck, NE said.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“All my life. I ‘ve been to Carcosa, the Hooky County seat, a few times. Once to get my driver’s license, once to get married and once to serve on a jury,” the gas man said.
“Jury? What was the case?” I asked.
“Terrible business. The Reverend Spengler led his congregation out to The Toadstools where they all took communion on top of a toadstool everybody calls ‘The High Yellow.’ But the sacramental wine was bad, some say poisoned by Spengler, and it sent the congregation into a terrible state of fever and they all turned on each other, tearing and biting great loads of flesh and muscle from each other and bashing heads and limbs against the hard rock of The High Yellow until the toadstool was slippery with blood and offal. Then the Reverend Spengler, who wasn’t even touched during the madness, soaked everyone with gasoline, the dead and the living and set the whole goddamned congregation on fire, right there on top of The High Yellow. There wasn’t a place in the county where you couldn’t see that awful black smoke or smell the sweet odor of death and meat on a fire. The Reverend, according to Sheriff Caratzas, sat in the middle of the fire, but didn’t have even so much as a scorch mark on him when they found him, asleep in the ashes, right on top of The High Yellow.”
“What was the verdict?” I asked.
“Not guilty by reason of none of it made any goddamn sense and if the Reverend Spengler could survive that fire, then any justice we could mete out would surely just bring down the wrath of whatever took those people away,” the gas man said.
“That’s one hell of a story,” I said.
“Yeah, I suppose it is,” he replied. “You could always go to Carcosa and read about it. The Hooky Courier has all the back issues with the full story of the burning and the trial in their back room. Just tell Bob Booge that Kenny from the Sinclair sent ya and he’ll get you set up. But tell you the truth, I don’t think you’d want to do that. I’m the only juror from that trial left alive and it seems like anyone who had anything to do with that damn business has either gotten sick or gone off or just went missing. It’s like penance must be paid or something. But who am I to say. It probably sounds like a bunch of Sandhills humbug to ya.”
I asked Kenny for directions to Carcosa and he said I just needed to keep heading West on Nebraska Highway 2 for twenty miles or so and Carcosa would be the next town.
“You’ll know you’re almost there when you see an old rusted grain auger that looks like a dinosaur,” Kenny added.
I paid for my gas, then went to the cafe that was part of the station and filled up on a hot beef with french fries and gravy. Maps had long become useless, so I hopped into the Dart and headed west again on route 2, headed to Carcosa.
I’d been driving for what seemed like an hour when the grasslands and dunes suddenly gave way to a thick forest of Cottonwoods, Oaks and White Pines. I drove through the trees for another ten minutes and then they thinned out and a river bridge appeared ahead. Halfway across the bridge there was a sign with an outline of Chimney Rock and, in big, sans-serif letter, the legend, “WELCOME TO THE GOOD LIFE. NEBRASKA.”
I looked in my rear view mirror and all I saw behind me was Iowa.
“It’s all my own fault, really.
So, here we are, chasing around every other corner of existence (and existence has lots and lots of corners, as it turns out) looking for the one thing that will bring me some rest and, quite possibly, my own, probably very unpleasant, demise. The cats are not optimistic. They’ve chased enough things into corners to know that there is no such thing as a happy cornered creature. But, here we go, off on another errand to another corner, in hopes that whatever bit of the universe we bring back to The Thirteenth will keep them occupied for a bit longer and keep us alive while we try to figure out how to undo this enormous, recursive, elusive, recursive, ridiculous, recursive, mess of a corner we’re in.”
–end log entry–
—————– PART ONE —————–
A long time ago, well, three hundred years ago that is, a small anthropological study took some samples from a population in a mid-continental savannah. From this sample came one particular primate and two very particular felines. This is their story, along with, well, billions of others. Because the universe is a big place with lots of people in it. Though, to be honest, we’re going to seriously skimp on just about everyone else’s stories in this particular tale.
Of course, what probably caught your eye in the preceding paragraph was the mention of continents, because as we all know, you can’t have a continent without at least a few oceans, otherwise it’s just plain old boring land. If your planet is reasonable lucky, your plain old boring land will have some lakes, most likely they’ll be very much like the lakes your ancestors flopped out of all those messy, methane-filled millennia ago. But, if your planet is really, really, lucky, you’ll have oceans and smaller bits of dry land that seem to float on those big wet oceans, from which will come a whole herd of weird and wonderful life forms. Why, you’ll have a planet that runneth over with a mind-boggling assortment of critters and creepers and shoots and leaves and they’ll all want to eat each other which will lead to all sorts of other wonderfully diverse animals and plants and then, just when it’s getting REALLY interesting, an asteroid will come along and kill off most of the stuff that made things so interesting for your planet, thus making the place suitable for the local variety of human, who, at least with all sorts of critters and crawlers to bedevil him or her, may just develop into something more interesting than the usual human the universe gets, which is just about as interesting as the landscape on a planet with no oceans and just stinky little lakes. Yes, the universe is filled with people from Kansas. Who don’t get out much, despite the near-universality of interstellar travel.
So, CONTINENTS! That means, reasonably interesting, if not exactly reasonable, humans and interesting critters. And a survey party from Edgar’s Mostly Brown Planet has just arrived with a bunch of sample cages that are just begging to be filled.
“This time, I’d really like to be filled with something that has horns,” said an avocado and puce sample cage. “Pleeeeeease?” “Horns?” “No more slime. Or compound eyes.”
No one ever listens to the sample cages. Sorry about that. Just wait until it gets loaded up with this trip’s load. Oh, the wailing. There’s a reason sample cages are kept on the cargo deck and it’s not the smell from what’s inside them, either.
And now, a word about sampling procedures. Messy. Don’t let some swaggering space “explorer” tell you otherwise, the collection of and storage of xenobiological specimens is just as messy as urine test day at SuperEspresso. Body parts shaking, fluids flying everywhere, odd smells and cross looks exchanged over and over again. After all, you are taking one life form from its home and stuffing it into an insufferably whinging sample crate, and the sampled life form, more often than not, doesn’t even have the decency, for Thirteenth’s sake, to have a proper set of horns. So, things get messy. Even messier if horns are actually involved.
Unfortunately for the sample crate, the samples to be collected on this jaunt do not have horns. They do have, however, claws, teeth, fur, fingernails, bits of aluminum chlorhydrate rubbed on the smelly bits, a poorly-named fungus and several very bad attitudes. Yes, today we’re abducting a human and two cats.
It was Scooter who first noticed that there was something wrong in the room. Bringing her face out of the fluffy thicket that is her tail, she held her head high and her ears scanned the room while her eyes fixed on the owner of the knee she’d been sleeping on a moment before.
“RurrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrr,” she grumbled, while shaking the cobwebs and shedding hair from her eyes.
Scooter likes sleeping and does not like having her sleep interrupted, especially by raiding parties accompanied by shipping containers that keep asking if she has, by any chance, horns or, Thirteenth forbid, compound eyes.
“Those are awfully large eyes on that,” said the sample cage, its target laser pointing at a scowling Scooter on top of the bed in the next room, “are you sure they’re not compound eyes? I hate animals with compound eyes. They’re always looking at you.”
“Listen, you cringing container” replied Noelvar, 1st assistant to the Collection Agent, “yer a sample cage, and as such, my squarish squire, all any of your ‘clients’ can see is yer innards. Now shut yer gob.”
“But only for the next few minutes, because you know, we’re going to be needing it fairly soon, what with all this collecting we’re going to be doing,” said Kevin, Intern Collection Agent, of Edgar’s Reasonably Priced Space Navy (for hire).
Kevin scratched his three eyelids in order, wrinkled the bump in the middle of them and took in a deep breath as he paged through the purchase/collection/repo orders on his very natty clipboard. Apparently, he was to collect the entire family living in this suburban house on the prairie. “Oh happy night, I do hate breaking up families,” he thought to himself as he looked around the lower level bedroom he and his team had just entered. Affixing the night vision goggle to his middle eye, he scanned the room and took inventory:
Furniture- One bed; two dressers; a disturbingly bright red leather recliner; a single night-stand w/lamp, radio and several small floppy bookish things. Kevin did not come from a planet with magazines, and as such lacked a word to properly describe the pile of small floppy bookish things.
Biologicals- On bed: one cat w/large, non-compound eyes, female, spayed, awake, possibly cross; one human, asleep, REM activity, apparently paralyzed, spayed. Under bed: one cat, large, male, fluffy, yet macho, neutered, sleeping.
Things are about to get, at least by Kevin’s standards, messy.
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