Down the road from the South Hertling Supercentre was a little packet of parkland called South Hertling Reserve. It contained a concrete picnic table, a tiny swing set, and old Scout hut. It also contained the water feature called Hertling Creek, though it was really more of an open stormwater drain than a creek. A footbridge stretched over it, leading to South Hertling railway station.
It was raining gently that night, so Karl prepared to sleep under the footbridge, on a dryish patch of ground. From where he lay, he couldn't see the massive shape of the Pyramid, but it was never far from his mind, its great eye burning into his mind. It just was like that movie where there was a terrible burning eye – what was it called?
Oh, yeah. The Fantastic Four. The Eye was like the sinister gaze of Johnny Storm himself.
"I fear, Karl, that you have gone quite mad," said a cat.
Karl looked up at the thing, which sat in a nearby tree. It was a cat, but it was not a cat. It had the a somewhat feline shape, but it moved oddly as if it had no bones. Its purple colouration didn't make it look more catlike. Neither did the thing's huge smile or the fact that it could, you know, speak English.
"Mad... That's what they want me to think," Karl said. "I'm too smart for them. They always said I was mad, but who was proven right?"
"I wouldn't thay that you were mad before, Karl," said another 'cat'. This one was more traditionally coloured, with thick black fur and a white muzzle and paws. The creature's bow to realism was diluted by the fact that it hunted rats by waiting by a sewer grate with a frying pan, ready to brain the creatures when then climbed out. "You were jutht an egotitht. You jutht needed to believe that you knew better than anyone."
"And now you do know better than everyone," the grinning cat said. "And that is why you are mad. Not mentally ill, you understand. That is a normal thing. Treatable, in many cases. You are more the fictional sort of mad. You know, 'mind on a whole different plane of being to your body' sort of mad."
Karl sighed. "Is that why I see talking cats?"
"You thee talking cats because we're right here in front of ya, buthter" the cat with the frying pan said. "And there's nothing wrong with your eyeth."
"What was it that he told you?" the cat with the grin continued. "Buck Dusty, I mean. He said something to you before he died, and now you are unable to think as once you did. Is that not correct?"
"No, you're right," Karl said. "I can't think like I used to. It was all so clear, how everything fit together. Now I… I can't see it any more. All I can see is Johnny Storm leering at me."
The cat with the grin shot a concerned look at the cat with the frying pan, who shrugged.
"Yes, Karl, but what did Buck say?" the grinning cat said.
"I can almost remember," Karl whispered. "Almost. Besides, if I did remember, you wouldn't want to hear it."
Karl looked at the 'cats'. He was pretty sure they weren't hallucinations. Pretty sure. They had been joined by a third cat, a long limbed creature with an elongated body. Karl wondered how it managed to keep its top hat balanced on its head while it licked its crotch.
Across the park, the door to the Scout hut opened as the Time Lost support group was breaking up, the attendees wandering out and away. Karl could see the… the what? The lines… vectors… something swirling around them, sucking reality into weird patterns like a magnet moving iron filings. Some were worse than others. The black guy from the watch shop looked like a whirling maelstrom, while the doughy white guy whose hand he was shaking looked as focused as the barrel of a gun.
"I know," Karl said. "Deep down somewhere. I know about the Pyramid and the Barns – the three Barns. I know why all this is happening. But damn me if I can bring any of the details to mind. It's horrible. It's like a Twilight Zone episode about conspiracy theorist hell."
Karl gently pounded on his head with his fist. "The truth is in here. And I can't get to it."
"Bummer," the cat with the frying pan said. "Ha! Gotcha!" he added, squashing a mouse.
"So what do you plant to do, Karl?" the grinning cat asked.
"Same as you," Karl said. "Eat unfinished takeaway out of bins. It means fighting with the ibises, but…"
"I rather meant the bigger picture, old fellow," the grinning cat said.
"I need to remember," Karl said. "I need to know. Before…"
"That," Karl said, "is what I need to know. Before what?"
It was late and Karl was tired. The night was warm, in spite of the rain so he curled up and slept with no more cover than the bridge and no more warmth than his filthy seersucker suit provided.
The third cat finished its ablutions. It looked around at the other two cats and spoke:
"The cowboy has rattled and rottled Karl's brain, Buck's weird exposition has sent him insane. For secrets that's hidden Karl's always alert, but alas he has learned that sometimes the Truth hurts. The clash of the Barns isn't over you know. When starts the next round, which way's Karl going to go?"
"Buthter," the cat with the frying pan said, "You ain't jutht withtlin' Dixthie."
He brought his weapon down with a clang.
"Oh, thit. That one wath a potthum."
"Now, you know those are endangered," the grinning cat said, shaking his head disaprovingly.