I woke up sprawled across two seats on an eastbound Greyhound bus with a toothy hangover and the flat chirp of my Digital Pardner informing me that we had just begun bombing Lebanon. At hand was an enormous insulated cup filled with an ugly off-color alcoholic slurry which had once been a delightful combination of cola and a rarely exported high-proof dark rum. Judging by the scenery through the window, the concoction had caused me to travel through time. I had mixed up my drink - a reliable cure for motion and altitude sickness - at a rest stop at the foot of the Rockies. We were just climbing into the mountains when I tipped my cup back, and then everything went flat and grassy.
There is a reason I drink too much when I travel for work. I used to subscribe to the romantic notions of the open road until I realized just how tribal and insular travelers can be, afraid to even make eye contact. The sole exception on this trip was a portly guy whose name was not “Billy” but whose true handle didn’t fit him nearly as well. I’d met him a few hundred miles before and he’d clearly decided that I was a crazy person, but he was still genial.
I reached through the gap in the seats and tapped Billy on the shoulder. “S’cuse me. We’re in Kansas now, right?”
“And how far to Lawrence?”
“Twenty, thirty minutes.” Billy peered back through the gap. “It’s not too late to change your mind. You know how things are up there.”
“I don’t want to stop there. Hell, I’d just as soon avoid the whole state, all the shit that’s been going on. And you wanna go looking for it.”
I took a swig of my slurry. “It’s what I do. I’m a journalist.”
“That’s not a real job.” I could hear Billy sniffing the air. “Geez, you’re drinking more of that stuff? You think anyone’s taking you seriously in that condition? Goddamn, Atticus, you smell like a distillery.”
“They won’t be able to smell it over the blood and cordite.”
I settled back into my seat with my sugary booze slurry and watched the highway streak by. Goddamn, have the transit corridors of Kansas gotten weird and disturbing. Here we have a billboard featuring a nice crowd of plain folks with Kansas Secretary of State Karlyle Augustus, looking decidedly less crocodilian than I’d imagined, standing at the fore. He just wanted us to know that Allen Fieldhouse and Memorial Stadium had been thoroughly secured and there would be no risk in attending games. Next was a disused board, hastily converted by some spray can-toting fascist into a list of “pointy heads” in need of a good beating. And then there was Karlyle again, requesting that visitors report any Union For Justice agitators who may have slipped past the security forces.
Billy’s eye appeared in the gap again. “Hey, they were supposed to start bombing someone new today, right?”
“You know who they’re tossing against the wall this time? Everyone I read said it would be either Yemen or Egypt.”
“Neither. We just hit Lebanon.”
The PA system crackled to life. “Good afternoon, everyone. We’re now approaching the city limits of Lawrence, Kansas. For those of you who are exiting here - and I know there is one of you - now would be a good time to consult the pamphlet put out by the state of Kansas regarding safety during your stay. Um, I’m going to go off script a little here...I’m sure that you’ve heard all this alarmist bullshit about the ‘crisis’ going on in Lawrence. Personally, I’ve run this route dozens of times since it started, I’ve never run into any trouble, none of the people I’ve picked up have had any trouble.”
I dug out my pamphlet, a glossy little tri-fold put out by the state’s new Office of State and Interstate Safety. For those of you who haven’t seen the scans of this charming little bastard, it’s a collection of best practice tips, decorated with the winched-up grins of Augustus and Governor Merton Goldstreet at various local restaurants and attractions. Some of the standouts:
-State security forces have no interest in harming visitors, but to be on the safe side you should stay at least 100 yards clear of the campus perimeter (especially those of you whose disposition makes you likely to be mistaken for one of the UFJ goons).
-If you should run into the Brigg, and you happen to be carrying any books on science or philosophy or sociology, keep those articles well out of sight. They really don’t appreciate that sort of thing, and that state can’t be held responsible for how they might react.
-All UFJ members should be considered dangerous, and if you spot one you should not make any effort to apprehend him or her yourself. Other leftist types are generally harmless, but UFJ thugs may be using them as bait in some scheme, so keep your wits about you.
-Don’t smoke anything you buy in one of the cafes. There have been some unfortunate incidents.
The PA kept blaring the whole time I was reading, and by this point the driver was miles off script. “And you know what else gets to me? All these shitheads on the news throwing around terms like ‘fascism,’ as though you’ve got to be some Nazi to want to see order restored. Sure, sometimes the Brigg go too far, but damn it, that’s only because they have a great love of justice - and real justice, not this ‘social justice’ crap. They’re the ones keeping us all safe, not just me but all those families who just want to watch a basketball game in peace. And it’s not like they’ve shot anyone or anything...”
As the driver wrapped up his spiel, I took a minute to review the contents of my messenger bag, a well-traveled neutral-colored satchel which had been my constant companion since this mess had started. Inside was a paper map marked up by one of my contacts, two water bottles, two days’ worth of energy bars, a multitool, a butterfly knife (illegal in these parts, but what isn’t these days), a half-dozen memo books, a dozen pens, a homemade listening device, two hip flasks full of cheap bourbon, eight joints, a couple tabs of some dubious herbal energy drug, a couple tabs of the real stuff, a hermetically sealed four-leaf clover, a Saint Christopher’s medal with a dent in it, and a treacherously large sum of cash. I’d wanted to toss a small handgun in as well, but aside from the added bulk and limited utility there was the risk factor. Running around in a controlled area with a gun and a bag full of dope and cash is a good way to lose twenty years of your life.
The bus pulled to a stop at the side of some unnervingly normal-looking stretch of highway, and for a moment I thought that the driver was giving this suicidal soul one more chance at redemption. I gave Billy another tap. “Is this really it?”
“You were expecting to see smoldering craters everywhere? Goldie isn’t gonna let things look bad. Now hurry up, to the front. They’re not gonna stay here long.”
Billy wasn’t kidding. The crank at the wheel gave me ten to get my stuff out of the hold before he peeled out. The only thing missing was a kick in the ass on the way out. All that was there for me was a disused gas station covered in competing graffiti, long lists of UFJ grievances and Brigg betes noires.
So there I was, by the side of the road at the outer edge of a crisis zone with a bag of contraband, a throbbing headache and no one to watch my back. It ain’t Lebanon under attack, but it’s still early in the week. Still plenty of time for a spark to hit the tinder.