Carcosa by Josh Gaines
Colette has made up her mind and I cannot persuade her otherwise.
When we arrived in Carcosa some months back—six months, or nine, was it? A year? Time
moves strangely here—she had been so invigorated, so enlivened by the opportunity we’d been given to begin again. The possibility of starting over, a new life. I had been excited as well, mostly by the fact that she was. I had witnessed a spark being reawakened in her that had gone dim throughout the course of our time together, the same spark I’d seen in the young woman I married, much the reason for which I’d fallen for her.
We, along with everyone else, had not traveled to Carcosa by conventional methods, but been put under cryogenic sleep and shipped like cargo in large transport vessels. When we awoke from our transfer pods to rejoin each other and take in the facets of our new home, a deep, sinking despair set in from which Colette has never recovered. I, too, had found myself gravely disappointed upon setting foot in Carcosa for the first time, though I tried to maintain composure so as to not allow Colette to see me crestfallen.
Carcosa was not the paradise we had been promised.
In the days leading up to The Reorganization, paradise was precisely what we had been promised. They had used that very word in the literature, over and over again: paradise. It was printed on the pamphlets and posters distributed to every workplace and shopping center, spoken on the frequent television commercials announcing and reminding us of the global effort, displayed on the numerous announcements that came in the mail on broad sheets of glossy cardstock with fanciful designs and artist’s renderings of the lush landscape that would supposedly comprise our future home. These images depicted rich, rolling hills of green grass, impossibly blue skies bursting with clean air, a gorgeous shore of pure white sand looking out onto a cool, glassy sea. They included every idyllic quality one could conjure to associate with paradise. Carcosa was our bright new world, humanity’s promise of a hopeful future, flawless in every detail, just waiting there to be enjoyed.
The elaborate marketing campaign for The Reorganization began seven years prior to when the event itself was to take place, so as to make sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that everyone was well-informed and prepared. It was a grandiose and mind-bogglingly complex effort to relocate the world’s population into one centralized place. Terms like unity, peace, diversity and a number of other such optimistic words were used in the advertisements in order to make The Reorganization sound appealing—it was mandatory, after all. The Order was making us do it, but they tried very hard to keep everyone feeling good about the situation.
However, the purpose of The Reorganization was as much a sham as the nature of Carcosa’s geographical properties. The Order did not move us all in order to promote global unity or international peace. They forced us to leave our homes under a false pretense because they knew our world was dying. They could see mass destruction on the horizon, enormous death tolls looming from afar. They knew our resources were rapidly diminishing while other direct threats to the continuation of human life were materializing. It may have been another fifty, one hundred, two hundred years before these things came to pass, but the realities were indisputably certain. In other words, they had no other choice.
They put us all to sleep during transfer not out of courtesy to make the long journey more comfortable, but in order to keep Carcosa’s actual location a mystery. We, its own residents, don’t even know if we are living in a desolate section of Earth’s map that has been cordoned off on all sides, in some deep cavern hewn underground or, as some have suggested, on another planet entirely.
Carcosa is no paradise. It is a wasteland.
Everyone is housed in gigantic concrete structures painted a deep industrial yellow. They are wide at the base and spiral upward into a sort of imperfect cone. Each ascending floor contains many small apartments, having the most rooms at the base with fewer and fewer on each storey as one ascends the building. The lay term for these housing structures is Hives. The apartments inside them are little more than bare concrete boxes with no windows. The married and those with children are all placed inside one apartment no matter their size, whether it be a family of two, five, seven, ten. Each is given an apartment with precisely the same square footage as everyone else. Those who are unmarried are sorted into apartments with five other roommates of the same sex.
The Hives are littered across Carcosa’s landscape and are the only structures visible on the horizon for as far as one can see, save the Dulgee plant on the outskirts of the city and The Order’s wholly inaccessible temple. Since the Hives were built to be identical, each has been given not a numerical code, but rather, an identifying moniker, stamped in enormous black print across the wall of each one’s lowest level. There are Hives that bear the names Minos, Riven, Geryon, Nessus, Rend, Ulysses and many more. The one in which Collette and I reside is Charon.
Despite numerous surveys in the seven years before Reorganization, The Order far underestimated what the final population count would be in preparing to bring everyone to Carcosa. Resources here are greatly lacking, particularly in housing. The wealthy were given housing priority while the poor had to huddle together in the streets, living in makeshift tents and cardboard boxes, awaiting construction of more Hives to accommodate them. So much for The Order’s lofty vision of equality. The impoverished are provided for in terms of sustenance, at least, if one can call Dulgees sustenance.
In lieu of food, water, alcohol, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, herbs, medicines and many other things that were previously delivered to one’s body in various forms, The Order concocted simple pills known as Dulgees to take the place of these things. No substance is prohibited in Carcosa, either. There are Dulgees which mimic the effects of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, numerous
psychedelics, barbiturates, opioids and everything else imaginable that can alter one’s senses, perception or brain chemistry. They are easier to consume, inexpensive to manufacture and produce less waste, using concentrates formulated in a laboratory to suit bodily needs and desires. Three meals a day in three small capsules are supplied universally and without cost to everyone in Carcosa. They are filled with white powder and flavorless if chewed, but when swallowed with water, give one the illusion of having eaten a cheap, processed and less than nutritious meal. While this sensation could never be called satisfying, it does, on some level, fill one’s stomach and provide sufficient energy for the next few hours. Medical Dulgees to soothe or cure various ailments, sickness and disease are also distributed pro bono, as needed. Every sort of Dulgee other than food or medicine is considered a luxury and must be purchased with credits.
There are some—entitled inheritors of wealth in life before Carcosa, mostly—who waste away in their concrete shells, getting high or drunk on the various recreational Dulgees all day long, tossing in mouthfuls of them at a time, creating blind substance cocktails and waiting to see what happens. I imagine that the credits in their accounts must dwindle (for the finer Dulgees do not come cheap) as they purchase these pleasures to soothe their addictive appetites, their funds ticking continuously down and down, until they will have liquidated their inheritance or savings entirely. When this occurs, such people will be forced either to seek employment at the Dulgee plant or on the Hive builds (the only two places of work in all of Carcosa), or to simply throw themselves into the Pit of Charity. The trend I have observed thus far is that the majority of them choose the latter.
The Pit of Charity was an idea conceived by The Order soon after we all settled into Carcosa. They quickly realized just how overcrowded things were going to be. The Pit itself is a gaping hole in the ground, perhaps five meters in diameter, in the center of the city, with no guardrails or wall around it to hinder anyone from walking right up and casting themselves in. Looking in past its edge, one sees only a deep, infinite black, the kind of darkness that is more than lack of light, but one that carries an almost tangible weight and depth. It has been made legal in Carcosa to choose to end one’s own life—as well as the lives of any of that person’s dependents—by way of crossing the threshold of the Pit and falling in headlong. Not only is this legal, but encouraged. There is even an incentive. The chip implant in one’s neck is triggered at the moment of death and a generous sum of credits are automatically deposited into the account of the suicide’s living family or beneficiaries, if any. If the newly deceased has none, the funds are recycled into a larger account which is used toward the manufacturing of more Dulgees.
Beside the Pit, there is a wooden pole about nine meters tall, as would have been used in the time before to hold a street lamp, with several large bell-shaped sirens attached at its top, pointed outward in all directions. Each time a person crosses the threshold of the Pit, a buzzy digital chime rings out across the city, indicating that another individual has passed out of the city and out of this existence. If, for example, a whole family or group of people steps through together, the bell will chime in sequence, once for each person. The most I have ever heard in a row is seven chimes.
At first, it was chilling, this sound, to be notified throughout the day when someone’s soul had just departed from their body. Now, it rings so often, it has become commonplace. Like living near
train tracks or on a street with heavy traffic in the time before, one gets used to the noise and eventually stops noticing it. There is some small comfort in knowing that killing oneself in the Pit is instantaneous and painless. At least, that is what we have been told by The Order. But who is there to ask who could confirm such a thing?
I mentioned earlier that Collette had made up her mind. This was in reference to her decision to cast herself into the Pit in approximately one month’s time. She wants me to have the large sum of credits that will be paid when she does so. She wants me to be comfortable, to enjoy myself, to be cared for in Carcosa until the end of my natural life.
I don’t care about the credits, I’ve told her. All they can buy is Dulgees and I don’t even like Dulgees. I even skip my meal Dulgees and often choose to go hungry instead, preferring to have an empty stomach than to be nourished by something artificial. The more luxurious Dulgees interest me not in the least, for all they do is keep one distracted and numb from the realities of life in Carcosa. To indulge in such things would feel too much like fulfilling exactly what The Order intends for their people, to be physically awake, but mentally asleep. Wasting away, alone, in a state of distraction and numbness.
Collette and I have had this conversation so many times that I have stopped trying to persuade her. She has always been stubborn in general and on this topic, she is no exception. I’ve told her I don’t want the credits nor the Dulgees and that to end her life in order to give them to me—to steal herself away in exchange for those useless things—would be an utter, tragic waste. But she refuses to hear me, to believe that all I truly want is life with her, for her to be happy. And if not happy, then at least content. All I desire is for her to be with me. Present. H ere .
In truth, she has been ready to die since long before Carcosa. Throughout the course of our marriage, I have exhausted a great deal of energy simply trying to keep her in the world. Some people seem to have a fascination with death—they can’t wait to experience it, to walk through that mysterious door on the other side of which none of us rightly knows what awaits. Collette is one of those people. It is only now that she has a suitable excuse to go through with what she has wanted for so long.
The only reason that she does not do so immediately is out of some ambiguous, morbid self-discipline, a twisted delaying of gratification. Collette is actually looking forward to death, but she wants to make herself remain in Carcosa for a certain amount of time to absorb it, to experience it. To taste it for a time, and then to depart.
When she leaves—and she will, I have no doubt—all the light will go out of my life. Though, even in my sorrow I will not be selfish like her, stealing my own life away. There will be times when it will sound tempting, yes. I have even considered going into the Pit with her, but ultimately decided against it. Similarly to Collette, I have made up my mind, though in the opposite sense. I have promised myself that I will not kill myself, no matter what difficulties come. Suicide is no sort of solution to anything.
Most days, Collette sits curled up in a cold cement corner of our apartment, wrapped in a coarse Order-issue industrial-sized wool blanket, her feet bare, staring at the floor and thinking. She holds one pinch of her chestnut hair, twisting and untwisting it, gazing at one place for hours at a time, her eyes vacant. She swallows only one of her meal Dulgees a day. She would fail to take even that much if not for my insistence. It is the saddest sort of existence I have ever observed, and it is my wife. It kills me to see her waste away, to do nothing, not to engage her gifted and highly intelligent mind. Strangely, it seems cruel of her to delay. I want her alive, yes, but not like this. This isn’t living.
Collette was a wonder in the time before. A great talent, and a bright soul with a hearty laugh. When asked, she would have referred to herself as a painter, though she was skilled in many other things, from fine cooking to basic carpentry to detailed embroidery. She possessed a rich curiosity, always learning some new discipline or craft. She had her curious artist quirks, yes, her little idiosyncrasies, some habits which grated on me, as anyone would. But few whom she met did not take to her. She was passionate, which people recognized in her quickly, discerning her sincerity and trustworthiness.
Then came the dark days, after we lost the first child during her second trimester. In the four years that followed, we lost yet three more infants—two in utero, and the final, the only one to be given a proper name, which was Tom, passed several hours after delivery. After young Tom’s death, Collette insisted that we stop trying altogether. Leading up to then, there were countless doctor visits and many, many tests. They could never provide Collette with a solid answer, could never give her any explanation with confidence. It was always some mysterious complication, some biological anomaly that occured as the fetus attempted to grow inside her. She was not too old to bear children, nor physically unhealthy in any apparent manner. Her body was, in every discernable way, prime. But her womb proved again and again to be infertile ground in which to grow a person.
With each miscarriage, each failed attempt, I watched her fervor erode like a hillside giving way to a sinkhole, pieces breaking away and crumbling into the earth, never to be restored. I watched her slowly recede into herself, walking further into a deep mental corridor, closing and locking doors behind her with no intention of ever opening them again.
It was not that she felt that having a child was her only purpose in life, that she couldn’t be complete without a baby to care for and raise up. It was that she felt tainted, like damaged goods. Responsible for having begun and unintentionally smothered out the tiny, delicate lives attempting to knit together inside her. While, of course, she could have had no control over this, she felt, at worst, like a murderer. At best, like a failure. Better for there to have never been any life inside her than to spark one and watch it fade, to not be able to save it. This was how she saw it.
Occasionally, I can convince her to come outside with me for a walk. These are the best days I get with her anymore. Walking side by side with her is the extent of our intimacy. If only Carcosa was more to behold.
She emerges from the Hive with me, stepping onto the deep red clay of the landscape in bare feet. We set out into the non-light of its perpetually grey-black sky, covered entirely by a thick coating
of undulating steel wool-like texture that is not quite clouds and not quite smoke. Carcosa’s atmosphere gives one the sensation of being closed in from all sides, smothered by sooty tufts of filthy cotton.
We walk through the wide red unpaved streets of the city, in and out of the shadows of the Hives, handing out our extra meal Dulgees to homeless children we pass by. Sometimes, we even transfer credits to the accounts of impoverished adults via a voice command that can be conducted through our neckchips.
“There, you see? Another benefit,” Collette offers, softly. “You will have more money to give away when I’m gone. These poor people need Dulgees much more than I.”
“I’d rather have you here,” I reply.
She gives half a smile in a way that communicates that I don’t understand, that I don’t see the bigger picture here the way that she does.
I need you more than they need Dulgees , I think, but don’t say.
We reach the outskirts of the city, where there are construction projects scattered around for more Hives in various stages of production. Wooden signs put up around the construction sites say things like, “Future Home of the MELVILLE Hive,” or “SOUTHWARK Hive: 530 New Living Spaces, Opening Soon!” The enormous Dulgee manufacturing plant can be seen in the distance, chuffing huge plumes of smoke out of its exhaust towers, adding new layers of grime to our sky. Beyond the plant are stone walls thirty feet high marking the edges of the city, barbed at the top with spools of razor wire and glass bottle shards set into the mortar. While I have not confirmed so myself, the word is that there is no gate or door set in the walls at any point all the way around Carcosa, that the intention is for us to be always in, never out. What lands lie beyond the boundaries of Carcosa are a mystery indeed.
I decided after some time to start working at the Hive builds. Since I don’t partake in the Dulgees, I have no interest in manufacturing them at the plant, so the Hive builds seemed the only natural choice.
Collette is not interested in taking walks any longer or even in interacting with me whatsoever (though she still, for some reason, has not followed through on taking her own life yet). I was, frankly, going out of my mind with boredom. That is primarily what defines life in Carcosa: boredom. Crippling, mind-numbing boredom.
We were not allowed to bring anything here from our former lives, having been sold the lie (on top of all the other lies) that such amenities would be provided for us here. Thus, no books, no television, no music players, no recreational hobby materials of any kind. Life here isn’t much of a life at all. It’s a clock ticking past agonizingly slow minutes with almost nothing with which to fill them. Therefore, I took the Hive job.
Working on the Hives is, by far, the most mentally engaging activity I have yet participated in since arriving in Carcosa. An industrial work table is situated inside the fenced entrance of each Hive build with identical blueprint plans, laminated and tacked down for easy reference. There is no manager or site boss nor any required working hours. There is no official hiring process, one only needs to show up and begin. Workers come and go as they please, working for as long or as little as they feel like before clocking out and going back home to their own Hive. The job sites are frequently empty. The hours one works directly influences how many Dulgee credits are alloted to their accounts, tracked by a sensor in the neckchip implants. For many, Dulgee credits are the primary reason for coming into work. For others, like myself, it is simply a way to fill the hours. I end up transferring most of my credits to coworkers or to those still living in the streets.
One day, about a week into my time on what would become the Odysseus Hive, the voice of a small boy spoke to me. It happened while I was working by myself on the twenty-third floor, putting up framing that would serve as structural support for apartments. I looked all around, but no one was there.
“Hello?” I called, my voice reverberating off the cement floors, carrying away from me until dissolving entirely.
“Stop your work,” the boy’s voice answered. “Leave Carcosa, now. Take your wife who is sad and escape while you can.”
“Who are you? W here are you? How did you know about Collette?”
“My name is not important. Names are only meaningless titles, identifiers to the physical bodies we carry around, which I no longer possess. That body is, even now, sealed in a concrete tomb below your feet at the base of this Hive, decaying more slowly than it ought, for the cement has preserved it.”
The voice paused a moment, then began again.
“If you must call me something, call me Gabriel, for I, like the angel messenger that appeared to Joseph, come with this decree, that you must flee this place immediately.”
Despite the gravity of his words, Gabriel spoke without passion in a soft, monotonous tone. He sounded aloof, disconnected, almost disinterested in his own message. That, or distracted, like he was speaking to me with his mind on something else that was taking priority.
“Your... your body is buried in the cement? How did this happen?”
“I was a mere boy of eight, homeless, parentless, wandering the dead, scorched landscape of Carcosa. I was tired, hungry and bored. I would climb the Hive builds while the workers weren’t around, playing, making up games and stories in my head to keep myself occupied. Sometimes the workers would drop their meal Dulgees on the ground at the job sites which I would gobble down, greedily.
“One evening, I was playing near the edge of the upper floors and fell a great distance, eighteen storeys or more, down through the unfinished core of the Hive. I broke my spine and both legs upon impact with the cement foundation. Even so, I did not die. I was in agony, twisted and broken. I screamed for help all through the night until my voice gave out. By morning, all I could do was rasp
and whisper. My body quaked with cold and feverish sweat. That day, the workers poured fresh concrete down the channel in which I lay paralyzed, voiceless, in the shadows. The cement overwhelmed and covered over my body, pinning me in place, filling my mouth and finally suffocating the life from me. There it lies still, encased in man-made rock, while my spirit is here, free to roam.”
“My god... Gabriel, I—I’m so sorry. That’s horrible, what’s happened to you.”
“It is unimportant. The pain is but a memory, something I can recall but no longer remember how to feel. And the body was a cage, really. A tether, tying down my soul to one place. One soon forgets what it is like to have a body to begin with.”
I was silent a moment before repeating my earlier question.
“How did you know about my wife?”
“As I said, I am free to roam. I have flown about, passed through walls, spent time observing all
of the inhabitants of Carcosa, including the one you call Collette. Time is of no essence for me any longer, I can linger or move on as I please. If only the inhabitants were more interesting to watch. Their lives are remarkably similar, from one to another. This place is one of slow death, made slower still by the empty pleasure of the Dulgees. There is no variety for people here. No intrigue, no vigor for life. Your Collette is sad, in part, because she still remembers the life before, and mourns it. That, and the babies she lost. She has not muddied her mind or soothed her inner turmoil with pills. She chooses instead to meet them head on, to feel them authentically. It is admirable of her, for these are sensations which we were meant to experience and endure. But she will end herself soon in the Pit, as I trust you know, if you do not act quickly.”
“Why come to me with this? What makes me special? Why not visit everyone with this directive to escape?”
“Oh, I have visited many , but few listen. They write off my presence as a hallucinatory effect of the Dulgees. Or they simply ignore me. These people are ignorant and foolish, more content with their petty distractions than with truth or life. But you, you have a jewel inside of you, in your inner core. I can see it, hovering below the surface of your ribcage, suspended just above your belly. It is gold, it shines with promise. There are a few others like you here, but very few. I can look across the landscape and see the gold jewels moving about. I can pinpoint them even from miles away, through walls and buildings. Your wife has one, though it has gone dim. Her golden shine has diminished to a cold, grey pulse, yet the jewel remains intact. It can be enlivened again, but not in this place. Your jewel, too, will abate after enough time spent in Carcosa. That is Carcosa’s purpose, essentially. To dim the light of humanity, to slowly tear it down to nothingness.”
“I thought we were walled in on all sides? Would not The Order come after us, prevent us from leaving? How would we get out even if we wanted to?”
“The Order will do nothing to stop you, they are powerless. But there is a tunnel that goes deep into the earth and leads under Carcosa’s walls. Its entrance is secret, but I know the way.”
“But what... what lies beyond C arcosa?”
“That, I cannot answer. My spirit can roam only within Carcosa’s borders, though some invisible barrier prevents me from going beyond it. Even in death, I am a prisoner here. Otherwise, I would have left already, long ago. However, I believe that one with a physical body may still be able to pass through the tunnel, out of Carcosa and into the unknown. This, I do not know for certain, but I trust with confidence that it is true. And, it is your best hope of a different life than wasting away here. Now, g o. Retrieve your Collette, return to this place and I will take you to the tunnel.”
I heard a faint sound like wind rushing through a corridor and took that to mean Gabriel’s presence had departed. I thanked him aloud, but received no answer. Confused and somewhat alarmed, I immediately left the Hive build and walked briskly towards home.
I entered our apartment to find that Collette was not in it.
The cement corner in which she normally sat was vacant, her wool blanket cast aside in a heap.
A pile of meal Dulgees lay on the cold floor. Several weeks worth of food. She hadn’t been eating again.
Oh, Collette... I thought. W hy must you torture yourself?
I turned to leave when something caught my eye, a slip of paper peeking out from beneath the blanket. Only a small white corner of it was visible, I had nearly missed it. I pulled it out and read the brief message there.
The time has come to depart, my love.
May the remainder of your days be full of more joy than I could ever bring you. -C
I was out the door and running for the Pit as the paper note drifted and spun towards the floor behind me.
I took the stairs three at a time, descending the levels of the Hive, hurling myself down, slamming into the concrete walls as I rushed. I passed several other residents on the stairs. They didn’t even bother to acknowledge me, to call after me, to ask what was wrong or offer to help like any ordinary, caring citizen might have done in the time before. They’re all too brain-frazzled on Dulgees to care about others.
I reached the ground floor and burst out the main entrance, my feet pounding on the hard red dirt in the direction of the Pit. I realized at some point that I had been screaming Collette’s name over and over the entire time, hoping against hope that she might be within earshot and, even less likely, that she would stop her intentions at the sound of my voice.
I could see the tall siren pole of the Pit on the horizon ahead of me. Not far now. Still, I called my wife’s name, but was so out of breath and so hoarse from shouting that what came out was little more than a harsh whisper. The Pit of Charity itself came into view as I drew closer. There was a woman standing on its edge.
I stopped in my tracks and with every ounce of energy remaining in me, I cupped my hands over my mouth and roared.
“ COLLETTE, STOP! ”
It was her, of course.
She turned her head and regarded me. I had dropped to my knees in exhaustion about thirty
yards from the Pit, my chest heaving as I gasped for breath, sweat standing in beads all over me, soaking my shirt. I had my arms outstretched in a pleading gesture, willing her to come to me. Collette raised her hand in a wave, then blew a kiss and stepped over the precipice.
I tried to scream but could not. Only dry, tortured wheezes emitted from my throat. My voice was gone, but my body shook with great quaking heaves as I wept silently and without tears. I collapsed sideways into the dust and pulled my knees to my chest, ruined.
The awful buzz of the Pit’s sirens rang once, then twice.
That gave me pause, my breath catching in my chest. No one else had been near the Pit when Collette went through. Slowly, I sat up, pressing one finger to the right side of my neck, activating the chip implant there. I spoke the verbal command for a status check on my credits account. When the answer came—a digitized voice communicating through a small speaker tied into my ear canal—the amount of credits which had just been allotted to my account was double what it should have been.
I had just been given a monetary incentive for two humans, not one. *
The sequence of events that followed got blurry then, but somehow I found myself back at the Odysseus Hive. My eyes were wet and bloodshot from weeping, my throat raw and hoarse. Perhaps I had been moaning, or shouting. I don’t remember. I do remember falling several times during the walk, crumpling face down into the red dust and lying there, crying, my body quaking, until somehow finding the motivation to stand up again and continue my stumbling journey.
It was the only time I could remember wishing I had any sort of Dulgee with me to numb the great waves of pain that were wracking my system; a handful of bourbon Dulgees, a muscle relaxer, a powerful painkiller, anything. But I wasn’t about to take the time to stop at a Dulgee station, not then.
Collette was gone, I did not reach her in time, I could not save her, or my child. So I was through, finished. Done with Carcosa.
I climbed the steps of Odysseus, returning to the place in which I had met the young ghost who called himself Gabriel. I called out for him. Several moments passed and I feared he would not return, or was perhaps a figment of my imagination altogether. But after a time, his voice came to me once more.
“Your wife has passed on,” he said. “And the child growing in her belly. I am no longer capable of empathy, but can recall that it was something people with bodies felt for one another. Based upon this memory, I offer my condolences.”
I ignored this and croaked out a reply with my weak voice.
“I want to go through the tunnel, the one that leads out of Carcosa. Will you take me there?”
The ghost was silent for a moment, but I could sense his presence still with me. Finally, he answered.
“I will. Follow the sound of my voice.”
Gabriel led me beyond the Hives, beyond the city limits, into the wide open landscape of Carcosa. It looked remarkably similar to the city, nothing to see on the horizon but red clay and mildly-sloped hills of coarse, rough rock. There was no wind on the putrid air, no vegetation of any kind coming forth from the cracked ground, no wildlife to scurry across the dust from one place to another. It was utter desolation. I was the only living thing moving upon it.
We approached the towering border walls with their rough hewn red brick, glass shards in the mortar and razor wire spools lining the top. Gabriel led me along for some time as I walked parallel to the wall, going farther away from the city proper than I had ever been before. During the trek, my mind flitted between blank, stoic numbness and a deep, crippling sadness over the loss of Collette. Mixed in between these emotions was a cautious, yet intrigued curiosity at the prospect of going beyond Carcosa’s walls.
After several hours of walking and covering perhaps a half dozen miles, we came to a concrete ditch, butted up against the walls and positioned perpendicular to them. It slanted three or five meters into the earth. It was like a small section of irrigation ditch from the time before, though the concrete was sloppily poured and had not been smoothed over into precise angles. It looked as if it had been done in haste, by people who didn’t rightly know what they were doing. The lumpy ground floor of the ditch, formed at the base of the ditch’s V shape, led to the imperfect, roughly circular opening to the tunnel. It looked just tall enough for me to stand up in and was approximately the same width. Beyond its entrance, I could perceive nothing but darkness.
“This is where I leave you,” Gabriel’s voice said as I stood before the entrance. “As I told you before, what lies on the other end of the tunnel—assuming there is even an opposite side from which to exit—I do not know. The risk you take in choosing to enter is your own.”
I nodded, gazing into the tunnel’s wide, empty mouth.
Gabriel added, “In the memory of human emotion, I wish, for your sake, that what lies beyond is an improvement to this place.”
“Thank you, Gabriel. I am in your debt. While our interaction has been a strange one, I am grateful to have had your brief companionship.”
To this, Gabriel did not respond. Whether he had already departed or not, I am not sure. Turning to face the tunnel, I stepped into the blackness.
I lost track of how long I was walking in the dark. In the tunnel, even more so than outside in Carcosa, all sense of time was obliterated. It meant nothing here. My senses were dulled and made numb, for there was nothing to see in front of me, nothing to be smelt on the close air, nothing to hear but my
own soft steps on the uneven ground. It had to have been hours I was walking, though if someone told me it had actually been days, I would not have been surprised.
Finally, I sensed something just ahead of me in the dark corridor, though it was not visible and emitted no sound. It was pure sensation, a shimmer felt in my core, creating goose bumps on the surface of my skin, my neck hairs raising to attention. I continued to step forward, but slowly, with caution. Perhaps this was the “barrier” of which Gabriel had spoken. I hoped it did not prevent me from continuing on as it had with him. Another step took me through the threshold of something new, my body passing through a delicate wall of undulating substance, like submerging oneself into a pool that is precisely the temperature of one’s body. It felt both there and not, teasing the surface of my skin with the whisper of being touched, enclosed, suffocated on all sides, yet free to move at the same time.
Having passed through the strange entity, the darkness before me transformed into an alternate scene, blooming into view as if emerging from a curtain of black fog, grey smoke receding to reveal the setting before me. I had the sensation that I had not only passed through the shimmering barrier, but been transported to another locale entirely. This place looked nothing like Carcosa. Faint blue and purple light, barely enough to be registered by the eyes, illuminated a clearing in what appeared to be a vast forest. I stood on a soft surface of pine needles, scattered dead brown leaves and dirt. Only the bases of the trees around me were visible, their tops disappearing into a deep black canopy like a smudged charcoal drawing. Each trunk was massive and broad, holding up a tree that had to be centuries old, with coarse and scarred bark turned hard with age, ravaged by the passage of time. Beyond the first circle of trees surrounding me, I could perceive only more darkness in the brooding heart of the forest. The whole place held an ominous, unsettled air, every surface communicating unease, the intention of harm.
An apparition materialized before me in the clearing.
Its back was to me, though I could make out a vaguely humanoid shape beneath an undulating robe the color of sick yellow death. The robe billowed and twisted on the air of its own accord like fabric rippling underwater. The yellow cloth was frayed and tattered at its edges, threadbare with gaping tears in some places, a garment that appeared to be impossibly old, having been woven before the world was made. The creature was grotesquely tall, yet stood hunched with its arms pulled inward towards its chest like the fold of a bat’s wings. Its limbs were too long to be truly human and were nauseatingly thin, a deformed skeleton with a stretched covering of leprous white skin. Upon its head was a crown made of what appeared to be human bone, turned grimy and brown with age.
A low, complicated-sounding voice spoke. The noise was like that of a whisper, a growl and a scraping wet static all married into one haunting and inhuman voice. The sound did not so much leave the being’s mouth as pour out in bold echoes to reverberate all around me, slapping off the surfaces of the trees and pummeling me with auditory rumbles that thrummed through my chest.
You are brave, but foolish, to have ventured outside of Carcosa’s landscape , the being said. This place cannot house such a one as you. It is inconsistent in nature—fluid. Always shifting, not grounded in “reality” like Carcosa, which I established with rules and boundaries. Physics and properties to keep it
regular, to accommodate your kind. In choosing to leave that place which I have made, you have forfeited your life.
“Where—where am I now?”
In my realm, in the court of the yellow king. Soon, you will be nowhere, and everywhere, at once.
I was silent, considering this. The being had still not turned to face me. I was terrified, but did not know what else to do but ask more questions.
“What... i s Carcosa? Is it hell? Purgatory?”
The answer to that is too complex for your feeble mind to fathom. It cannot be defined by human terms. The version of it which you have just vacated is, in part, my plaything. A world which I have conjured for my observation and amusement. It had a beginning and will have an end, like all its counterparts before it. Carcosa is not singular, but many.
“But what of all the people from my world, our entire population? What of The Order? I thought they were the ones that brought us to Carcosa during the Reorganization?”
The Order and the Reorganization are but two fictitious ideas in a long line of fictitious ideas. They have been represented by many other names, they have taken on many other forms. They are figments of my own invention. Puppets created to carry out a purpose, possessing no life or consciousness of their own. Utter fabrications.
My mind was slow to absorb each of these responses, they were too gargantuan to fully comprehend. Each answer bloomed into a thousand more questions.
“What becomes of those who step through the Pit of Charity?”
They are made like ghosts, as the one whom you met that called himself Gabriel, though that is not his real name. They are trapped in Carcosa still, but without bodies or visible form, without human sensation or warmth, without the bodily comfort and pleasure of the Dulgees. Layers of life and experience are stripped from them. They become the memory of a person, empty shells, their consciousness imprisoned for so long that they forget what it was like to be human entirely. They forget their own names, forget everything about which they once felt the pride of accomplishment, the things that filled them with the illusion of purpose.
I sank to my knees, thinking of Collette and the child I had never met in the predicament the being had just described, floating around lifeless in Carcosa with no rest or relief. If only Collette had known what her fate would be. If I could have only stopped her.
“You said... you mentioned an end to Carcosa.”
Yes. The indeterminate day in the future in which, either, every person in Carcosa has stepped through the Pit and made the whole place a stoic city of ghosts. Or, the more likely scenario, the day in which I grow tired of this iteration of Carcosa, clap it shut like the door of a casket and everyone inside, ghost or person, will cease to be entirely, their collective consciousness gone in the blink of an eye, entering permanent, eternal nothingness.
I was huddled on the ground, my face in the dirt, my hands covering the back of my head. I rocked and moaned, sobbing. It was too much to bear.
I managed, “W hy are you telling me all this?”
It makes no difference for you to know it or not, there is not a thing you can do to alter the nature of what I have just described. And your mind will be gone presently. Besides, I find conversing with humans fascinating. But even my intrigue has a limit.
I sensed the being beginning to turn around, to face me.
I looked up, tears running wet down my face, to behold the being. My countenance yawned into a paralyzed, silent scream of horror. My breath had fully stopped.
Its face was horrendous to behold, like an elongated and deformed skull, but much more, much worse than only that. Seeing it was the summation of dread, the amalgamation of every evil feeling, emotion and idea. The creature seemed to have reached into my soul, into my very being, and torn out every inkling of light or joy. The very thought that I had ever been happy, at peace or satisfied in all of my life had been obliterated, erased, made untrue. Though terrified, I was unable to look away. On all fours, my body shook, sweating profusely but chilled to my core. I tried to make a sound, any sound, but could not.
The creature lifted one arm and protruded a single bony finger. It began to draw upon the air, creating a shape there that hung in place, made of burning yellow light.
I observed this, motionless. Helpless.
It continued with the gestures and strokes, painting with glowing light on an invisible canvas, until it had completed a rudimentary, swirling symbol.
Behold, the sign of the king in yellow. None can observe it and escape with their mind intact.
Looking upon the yellow symbol in the air before me, I felt my mind break in two.