Strangecraft, Part VII—Ces Petits Corps Qui Tombent de Travers—Mikael Thompson SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents

Strangecraft

by Mikael Thompson

- VIII -
Douce Amitié Souvent Perdue et Recherchee

As we sailed to New York I thought how best to edit my account of recent events, for my group was sure to demand a full report; I was too wary to give them that, but much of what had passed I was willing to share. Foremost of my considerations was a complete ignorance of their motives in learning about shoggoths, though I had serious doubts that their interest was purely scholarly. It would be best to make no mention of the manuscripts I had retrieved from administration, but then I was unsure how to explain my encounter with a shoggoth, and above all how to explain my survival when Trevor and Finley had been killed. I finally pieced together a largely accurate account in which I had been taught the ways of shoggoth approach by Gilbreath outside conscious attention during a series of dream lessons. It was a mental attitude and unconscious process that being purely personal interior experience could not be properly indicated in words; best of all, in the absence of a verbal trigger like that set by Gilbreath this statement was perfectly correct.

Soon we arrived in New York. I went to my bank and checked my account; no one had caused me trouble by reporting me deceased, so I found a cheap room where for the next day and a half I sat and composed my report on dictapross. I retained the incursion into admin but stripped my participation entirely from the record; the shoggoth was in my fabrication provoked into action by Trevor’s theft, not mine. In general I provided a bare-bones account stripped of all emotion and color, but with the analysis, surmises, and suggestions that I included, it still came to a bit over 70 pages if printed. I then sent it electronically to Glenda with contact information and had a response the next day with travel information. As expected, since I was well there was no need for splurging, so I took a leisurely trip by bus and train back to the land of shining triphthongs and Italianate rubato.

When I stepped off the bus, Father was waiting for me. “Hugh, I was so relieved when they contacted me that you were okay. The news has had me frantic the past two weeks. The news reached me just as the last launch ended; I was about to take leave to go up there in person to find you.”

“It was horrible, but I was safe in New Haven most of the time. I was evacuated the first day.”

“That’s what they told me.”

As he drove me home, I told him about the last few days at the Institute. He asked at the end, “The job they sent you to do, I gather you did it?”

“Beyond their wildest dreams,” which even after my report remained true.

“Well, I wasn’t happy when you told me you were off to a cul de sac to help out some secret group, but when I said ‘It’s your life’ I didn’t think at the time that it might end up really being your life. I hope you won’t have any more dealings with people like that.”

“There or here?”

“Either.”

“Nothing like that anyway. Even if they ask nicely I’ll refuse.”

He nodded, “Good.”

The next day I went to Glenda’s office. We shook hands and then she took me by surprise by hugging me briefly. She indicated a seat and shut the door. I opened my bag and handed over the last set of manuscripts from the library and then gave her Trevor’s bag. She looked through them with great interest as I prowled through her bookcases, and finally she pushed them aside and indicated my chair. “Good job, Hugh. We’ll study these with great pleasure. I have a few preliminary questions, but first, please tell me more about your time at Miskatonic.”

“In what respect?”

“The situation in the linguistics department for starters. You mentioned that the administration was wary of any work on shoggoths. How much of that work was going on, do you think?”

“I only heard of that project myself. Green slips were not unknown, but they were infrequent enough, I think, that there was little rebellion against it. Everyone keeps her head down, except for the occasional moron. Most academics there are just nuts in the woods, you know, and Aylesworth at least seems to have only a scholarly interest. Gilbreath? I don’t know. He makes me wonder, actually, because I had no suspicions of his interests until after his death, and just by sheer accident.”

“What happened to his notes?”

“I don’t know. I assumed whoever killed him took them, but the shoggoth would only say they were untouched. He had a block on that side of things for sure, and with his death they’re probably hidden for the foreseeable future.”

“Hugh, his house probably burned to the ground a week ago. Most of the houses in the area went up in flames; a forest fire took them out. It was stopped before it reached campus, but that part of the Pursleyville outskirts was wiped out. I had someone familiar with the area check out the latest reports, and that was in some recent news. If no one found his records, they’re probably gone for good. Ah well, if we can’t have them, that’s for the best. Imagine what those swine would do if they could manhandle shoggoths.”

“Indeed.”

“What did the administration do with the items they green slipped?”

“Presumably they ended up in Records. I can give you an accurate map of the route in and the layout of the place, details about security and locks.”

“Yes, please do. In five or ten years’ time we might try something.”

As I had what they would be seeking, my only qualms arose from worry for the safety of the poor sap doing the job, so I said, “I’m not sure that’d be the right tack to take, Glenda. They’ll probably update security pretty strongly after this disaster, assuming they even reopen. I don’t know if we left any traces, but we should expect that they’ll discover someone made it in there and took something. They might even be able to figure out eventually what it was. I can see them scouring their holdings for the really dangerous stuff and transferring it to some place even more secure.”

“That’s what I think as well, but it’s worth a try. We won’t send in a new-born lamb like yourself, Hugh, so don’t worry about that. It’ll be a professional fully aware of the risks.” I nodded and she continued, “So you managed to smuggle out all those manuscripts right under the noses of one of the high-steppers in administration?”

I smiled with a bit of pride and said, “Indeed I did. To be fair, he had a lot to worry about.”

She then asked what I had been expecting. “Tell me, Hugh, what did you notice about those manuscripts?”

“That there are a lot of unhinged people in New England.”

She laughed sharply and said, “Yes, but about the dating?”

“I know, nothing before, let’s see, I think 1817, and that was a surprise. I think the mass were from 1823 and later.”

“Yes. Any idea what happened to the earlier ones?”

“Probably green slipped a long time ago. If so, I didn’t find it before the piles went up in flames that we hadn’t gone through. They amounted to over a third of their unbound holdings, so it’s likely enough.”

“Do you think other people got to them first?”

“It’s quite possible.”

“You had some sort of relationship with someone at the town library, correct?”

“You figured that out.”

She snorted, “Hugh, young men describing young women of their acquaintance are transparent, even to other young men. You clearly thought the world of her and hated her too, so I assume a failed love affair. Besides, why else would you be so stupid as to let someone else have any dealings with your manuscripts? You were very cagey on exactly what happened, so I know from those facts roughly what happened.”

I told her in more detail what had happened, and she said, “So, judging from her side of the conversation, I’d say they didn’t have much of what we were looking for. Good.”

She asked me a few questions about Trevor’s demise, information for his family, she said, and then announced, “We will meet with you in about a week to wring you dry. Thank you for your work, Hugh, and I’m so glad you made it out. We were horribly worried about you. Several others as well, mind you; you’re the only one we’ve heard from. We’ll be making some quiet enquiries soon.”

“Is there any way I can find out about my classmates?”

“Not yet, Hugh. I’m sorry.”

After a few days of rest and relaxation, I was ushered in after breakfast to sit at a table before a panel of seven men and women. Glenda greeted me, “I’m glad to see you’re doing well, Hugh. We’ve all read your record of your adventures up north, and we’d like to clarify a few points.” I sat down at the table, and a gaunt man on my right with graying hair and owl-like glasses said, “I’ve read your account with great interest; it is truly an extraordinarily useful document. I’m Walter Farrell, by the way. I think the matter we all want to discuss first is this. You state that Trevor and Finley were devoured by a shoggoth right in front of you, and you say it’s forever seared in your memory. Now, did you notice any odd phenomena in the process of dissolutionin particular, when the dissolution reached the gall bladders, what color was the effluent? Green, purple?”

As I glared at him in repugnance, his countenance turned in succession from curiosity to frustration to disappointment to a repugnance matching my own. He took off and wiped his glasses, “I’m sorry, truly sorry, for your loss...,” and putting his glasses back on continued, “...of all observational skills and analytical acumen when you had such a priceless opportunity to add immeasurably to our knowledge of shoggoth biochemistry.”

The woman to his left said placidly, “Walt, I think you should make allowances for the fact that he’s a linguist, not a biochemist.”

He sighed and replied, “Yes, point taken. But what a wasted chance!”

A man across the room added, “We might keep in mind that he had just witnessed the digestion of two of his friends. How many of your closest friends have you seen digested by a shoggoth?”

“Several,” he replied.

Another fellow introduced himself. “Hugh, I’m Manuel Ibarra; I’m a biochemist and I worked closely with Trevor for a year. I’m overjoyed to have his final results. I thought you’d be interested in knowing that he also included a number of small samples of the meat that was served in the dining room of the dorm.”

My ears perked right up. “I assumed it was genetically engineered meat from sources I’d rather not think about.”

He laughed, “No, no, Hugh, you and Trevor were far too paranoid on that count. You’ve probably not heard of Oswald’s research; he was the biochemist supervising the project. You see, he’s got a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a senile old windbag. It’s part of a research project on the biochemical aspects of why everything tastes like chicken.”

Everybody laughed and I asked, “So there was nothing out of place in the meat?”

“Well, the meat itself was out of place. None of the species you sampled were from within three thousand miles of New England. But there was a strong concentration of saltpeter in it that puzzled me until I read your report. They are truly old school, aren’t they?”

There were a couple of low chuckles and I said, “That stuff never does work, does it?”

Questions for clarification of numerous points followed in rapid succession for three hours. At the end of it, Glenda said, “I think we are agreed that this marks the greatest advance in shoggoth technology of our generation. Not only have we obtained invaluable knowledge of shoggoth psychology, but by rescuing Trevor’s last reports you have given us irreplaceable knowledge of its biochemistry and extremely useful insights into the extent of their knowledge. It was also a blessing of sorts finally to learn what caused the Subsidence, though that knowledge can go no further for the foreseeable future. We are forever in your debt, and we are pleased to ensure that, among other benefits we might extend to you, you can finish your PhD at a university of your choice within the heartland with full credit for the work you’ve already done. Even...” and here she quickly referred to a printout before her and chuckled, “Galois Theory in Linguistics? What kind of scam is that?”

“Par for the course.”

Someone chuckled as Glenda replied, “Water and oil are valuable. A course that tries to mix them, not so much.”

I smiled, “Eh, it was an easy A.”

“You will of course be much too marked a target to be asked to serve as an agent ever again. If the prospect suits your future plans, we would be more than happy to employ your services as a consultant. In any case, we would like to have an informal talk with you at lunch to get a fuller view of what it was like for you, learn your opinions and see if you have any...hunches or...misgivings perhaps that you did not include in your report.” We then retired to a comfortable lounge in which a dining table was set. The food was delicious and the company ranged from boon to tolerable. Over dessert I asked Glenda, “I do have some questions that I really feel I need answered.”

“Certainly.”

“First, the shoggoth confirmed that there are Old Ones.”

“Yes, but we’ve suspected that was true for decades now.”

“So what is your ultimate purpose?”

“To do our best to ensure a future for humanity on our own terms if they ever do awake.”

I paused as I pondered that, and I replied, “I don’t think that would be possible. They are so far in advance of us that even as a distant, inaccessible ideal they would destroy the fabric of human society.”

“Yes, exactly, as it is now constituted. But if we learn enough from the shoggoths, we can finally seed the stars with humanity; then some of our descendants might survive as human of our own type even if they awake. Hand in hand with that, if we develop technology well enough and improve ourselves, perhaps we’d be able to take the first steps on their road and force their respect if they awake in a more distant future.”

“Genetic engineering?”

“Don’t be obscene. Through the cultivation of longevity, knowledge, and wisdom, the elimination of want and disease, and the attainment of human perfection on its own terms.”

Ibarra down the table added, “Even if they were benevolent and took a kind interest in us, that would kill us off. Such a highly advanced society could not help but do so. We’d wake on the cold hill’s side and wither away. But you tell me they’re intolerant of any counter power, which most of us feared and all of us had to consider. We need to reach the stars, Hugh. Even as a short-term goal it will be a tremendous undertaking, and the long-term goal of becoming as great as they so that we can withstand them is almost unthinkable. It would take, oh, probably far longer than we have. But thanks to your work, it’s the littlest bit closer. In any case, what grander goal could humanity have?”

After lunch Glenda invited me to join her in her office. She closed the door, sat in the armchair next to mine, and said, “Well, Hugh, you’ve turned out to be the best student I ever recruited. How does that feel?”

“In a couple of years it might be pretty damn terrific.”

“Yes, it was much harder than anything we ever expected you to have to go through. I’m truly sorry for that.”

“Thank you. I’d rather not talk about it any more.”

“Of course. In any case, I have some further matters to discuss with you, strictly shop talk, you understand. I was especially interested in what you learned about shoggoth communication. I had convinced everyone that the study of communal dreaming was something we should continue pursuing, even if we weren’t sure what it had to do with shoggoths proper. So in that regard too, Hugh, thank you, you’ve made a lot of rope I had to nearly hang myself with pay off handsomely.”

She then asked me closely about my experiences communicating with the shoggoth, with odd questions whose answers upon reflection revealed a good deal that I had yet to piece together. She saw the same significance in spell-making that I had and questioned me on that score; when I told her I had extensively sampled memories the shoggoth had recorded, her eyes lit up and she subjected me to giving her a semester-long seminar for two hours.

At the end of it, I summed up. “Spells by themselves, purely as linguistic tokens, have no more power than any other utterances. Magical power, if we wish to call it that, never mind the millennia of cargo, does not inhere in sounds but in the mental effects that accompanied those words in certain circumstances, and that only because we are not the Old Ones. It’s a natural faculty for them, whereas for us it’s a matter of happenstance when an utterance is made in the right mental circumstances. But once an utterance has been made in a magically-efficient context, that starts a tradition. The utterance becomes set as having that effect for those who have been trained in the tradition.”

“So it starts like any linguistic change, as a change whose causes don’t matter all that much for language but whose spread is eminently sociolinguistic.”

“Yes, but it’s subtler than that. It’s only one of any number of linguistic traditions in a speech community, and here the causes do matter; they are linguistic at root. Such magical circumstances are squashed by the routine. Old ways of speech lay down ruts, and magical circumstances favor the fresh mind. Every utterance that I looked at began with a speaker of a nonstandard variety different enough from the common run of things to have broken free from the older ruts. And remember, I surveyed thousands recorded over the millennia, which is possible in a shoggoth-fueled environment if you know how to think, and this at least I did figure out on the fly thanks to what worked in the enhanced dreaming learning environment, for the dreaming is in fact the lowest level of their communicative faculty; it’s like a light-sensitive spot compared to our own faculty of vision. In any case, there were no exceptions to what I said.

“Now put yourself in the place of a poor fellow that happens to. You’re likely low in the social hierarchy, marked as unfortunate by the same speech that allows you access to magic. You don’t know how to use it, certainly; it happens by accident and it’s the utterance that impresses itself on your mind. And does the magic work reliably? No, it often fails, and when it works it often goes badly astray. You’ll probably be killed, either directly or at the hands of your aggrieved victims. That’s why magic never quite caught on anywhere or at any time but remained trickling along subterraneously. And you’re the one who made such a deal in psycholinguistics class of the importance of intermittent reinforcements.

“So there’s your social history of magic. Now think again about the sociolinguistics of it. Magic among humans, unless they’ve been trained in it systematically, like in communal dreaming, is tied to sociolinguistic variation. When it happens, it’s frequently disastrous. And even among unmagical humans, there’s a slight sensitivity to that fact. Do you seriously think the demand to codify a standard language and impose it throughout the borders of one state is only due to political considerations? Ease of administration? Social cohesion? Nor is it just due to fear of the different; it’s due to a vague but deep-seated fear of chaos released by magic, in turn favored by the existence of nonstandard varieties. It’s hard to show that with perfect clarity, but it’s there under the surface in the memories I checked of the neighbors and persecutors of magicians.”

“Hugh, while that’s very interesting, I have to say I find it very far-fetched. And what’s the ultimate point?”

“The Subsidence gave a massive centrifugal thrust to all the sociolinguistic tendencies in the old republic to increasing variation. With increasing variation all over the board, the incidence of accidental magic is increasing. And now there’s a massive movement, or tendency if you prefer, to cultivate that magic for purposes directly opposed to ours, especially in New England. The ground is being prepared for the day that I hope never comes when someone discovers the real workings of magic and achieves a critical mass that sets loose the forces that would awaken the Old Ones. That nearly happened in the lead-up to the Subsidence, and it is just our good fortune that a group having roughly our goals had been situated and cultivated in Providence for over a century and had kept pace with their skills. I don’t think there is such a group now, and for the first time I’m afraid of what I study.”

“So you’ve finally found a rationalization to dislike sociolinguistic variation?”

“No, but I fear it all the same. Rather, I fear those who are in a position now to profit by it.”

“But you did more than your fair share snatching away much of the sources they could have used to understand magic well enough to direct it against us.”

“True, and that gives me some hope.”

“And satisfaction?”

“Oh yes, most certainly that. I did far better than I knew.”

During the succeeding week, as I sat in to answer other questions while relaxing in preparation for the fall semester, Glenda would look at me quizzically and a frown would play on her features, but soon she would catch herself and smile as she shook her head; yet every evening as I said my goodbye for the day, she would leave with a look of worry hovering about her face. For my part I felt some measure of relief, for I had done what I could, and telling my fears to Glenda had allayed them somewhat, and I gained the impressions from occasional hints that the pressure I had feared would be exerted on me to try to access another shoggoth was to be left in abeyance, mostly through fears of a lowly grunt like myself gaining access to powers not open to my superiors in the officer corps.

A month later I was at school trying to escape the ghosts of the past by schoolwork. I had found a small apartment on the side of a house opening on an alleyway and surrounded by bushes, and furnished it with cheap odds and ends. My classes were routine seminars that I dutifully read for and discussed well enough to stay on schedule without drawing any attention to myself. One evening I was reading a paper for a phonetics seminar when there was a knock on my door. When I opened it I fell dumb and simply stared. After several seconds Anne said, “Well, hello, Hugh. Won’t you let me in?”

I stood aside. “Please come in.”

When I closed the door she threw her arms around my neck and started crying. After a few minutes I led her to my couch and asked, “Would you like some water? Something more medicinal?”

“What do you have?”

I went to my kitchen counter and said, “Scotch. Whiskey. More scotch.”

“Scotch, then more scotch. Straight and lots of it.”

I poured each of us a glass, a finger for me and three for her.

“I’m glad you made it out, Hugh. I haven’t been able to find out about anyone else.”

“I’ve only seen you, sorry.”

“No, really, I’m glad to see you.

“What happened to you?”

“My question first, Hugh. They told me Trevor was killed.”

“Finley too.”

She started crying again, so I put my arm around her shoulders. Soon she pushed it off angrily and said, “Why did you make it out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you save Trevor?”

“He was eaten by a shoggoth. I couldn’t stop it. It nearly got me too.”

“Yes, but then you figured out how to stop it. You stopped it too damn late.”

After a long pause I said quietly, “I know.”

She sobbed quietly for a few minutes as I sat silently beside her, and eventually she said, “I’m sorry.”

I nodded and asked, “What have you been doing the past two months?”

“Oh God, do you want the whole story?”

“Yes. Please, I need to know.”

“What did Trevor tell you about the Subsidence? I know you two discussed it.”

“What exactly do you mean?”

“The geology of it.”

I recounted Trevor’s comments about slurrying and gullying, and she said, “Yes. You know how the effects of the Subsidence were so variable. We knew that the Subsidence had something to do with shoggoths, though no idea exactly how. If the shoggoths were designed as machines under the control of the mere thoughts of the Old Ones, it seemed likely their most important feature would be the ability to tap massive amounts of energy. What or how, no idea, but it seemed unlikely that any transfer of thoughts would be energetic enough to do more than transmit information.”

“Of course.”

“Yes, easy basics. So basically shoggoths are built as a source of incredible amounts of energy under extremely sensitive, intelligent control. That is of course why we’re interested in them. But they didn’t all act the same during the Subsidence. Was that due to variations in instructions or counter-instructions? The latter, more likely. So you had Providence on the one hand and Lowell and Miskatonic on the other, and all the others in between. My job was to try to find any surviving groups continuing the traditions of anyone who stepped in so effectively in Lowell and Miskatonic and other colleges further north, make contact with them and learn from them, perhaps make alliances to share information.”

“And so you did lots of hiking and skiing up north.”

“Oh yes, great fun.”

“Did you find any?”

“Yes and no. They claimed to continue the traditions, but as I dug deeper I could tell all the ones who knew shoggoths had been killed off after the Subsidence. These guys were a bunch of intellectually inbred, superstitious, back-biting, back-stabbing woowoo-meisters all splintered into rival traditions who distrusted each other. Were, because they’re mostly all dead now despite my best efforts.”

“What best efforts?”

“Remember when your departmental head was green slipped?”

“Of course.”

“That quickly got out despite everyone trying to keep it secret. The partisans of the Old Ones saw it as an attack against themselves; apparently two of the folklore professors were on their side.”

“Yes, makes sense,” I sighed.

“Well, it was also taken as a threat against our side.”

“Why?”

“Some damn fool running one of the two splinters in Pursleyville and on campus had a bee in her bonnet that your head was their great savior, this...fanatic named Prickle whom I believe you were acquainted with.”

Prickle?!? You mean she was actually on anyone else’s side?”

“Her parents had been killed by a shoggoth out in west Massachusetts when she was 12. She was on the side of anyone who took the danger of shoggoths seriously, and she wanted to make shoggoth research public and well-funded. She had been committed for psychiatric treatment after her parents were killed because no one believed her. It was a formative experience.”

“So she liked Aylesworth because she thought Selena would strike a blow against shoggoths?”

“She worshipped Aylesworth because she was the only person who took her seriously as a scholar, Hugh. She was not a pleasant person, so it’s no wonder everyone reciprocated, but she was quite smart and on the subject of shoggoths charismatic as hell.”

“So...”

So, after the green slipping I spent a week trying to hold the group back from anything rash. I argued constantly with them that the administration was just trying to keep everyone safe. Prickle waited until I had almost carried the day to jump into the fray, and she kicked my ass, Hugh. I was exhausted and she was fresh, and she was driven, fanatical, and vicious. I was expelled from discussions after two hours, and I had thought she was going to make everything public, which would have brought down pretty much what happened anyway. I went around to the other groups I knew keeping them in check and making plans for when the public announcement would come. Securing sufficient ammunition, checking maps, coordinating plans, and arranging everything for once the news got out. We had targets lined up, places to go, defenses set, and everything would have worked perfectly and saved so many lives if only Prickle had had any sense or less ambition. No, they didn’t announce the news and demand restitution, they attacked the university and the leading group of our opponents, Hugh. By the next day all our plans were in shambles. We hadn’t been prepared for that but at least one of their groups was, and the rest had pegged their plans on them.

“I was out in the backwoods when I got the news. I did the best I could to hold everything together, but we lost a lot of men and a lot of our defenses the first two days and we were badly disorganized at first. I spent much of the last two months leading a guerrilla campaign against the supplies and home bases of the woodsmen. Oh, we hurt’em bad, Hugh. It took them torturing and gutting the first people who surrendered to make sure we never surrendered again. And while we lost our defenses, we were able to take some of theirs and most of their stores of ammunition. Food, too.”

“So you started the forest fires?”

“They started the fires after we took their remaining ammo dumps. They were trying to burn us out, but enough of us just faded away like they should have done. Not everyone; we probably lost two-thirds of our remaining forces, but the winds spread the fires their way too. After that, a few of us made our way to Lowell to catch up on the news. I led a group up into New Hampshire, but after that the fighting was largely over and it seemed wisest to disappear. I’ve spent the last two weeks making my way back to the heartland. You were able to escape without a trace, but I was a wanted woman. I had to knife several people on my way here to save myself. Finally I had to fake my own murder in Baltimore to get away, though that still beats having to live there. I’ll probably have to live abroad the rest of my life.”

“I take it you’ve reported in?”

“Yes, they were kind enough to give me your address. Farewell present, it felt like. I’ve been awarded, rewarded, rebranded, and stamped ‘discharged.’ ”

“Chewed up and spat out.”

She started crying again. “Yes,” she finally said. She took our glasses into the kitchen, refilled them with a heavy hand, and sat down next to me again.

I raised my glass and she clinked it, “To the memory of Trevor.” We drank in one gulp and I refilled them to toast the memory of Finley. We spent the rest of the night drinking ourselves into a stupor as we reminisced. An hour into the drunk I asked her, “So, you were in love with Trevor. Did he love you?”

“Yes, at least at the time. You have to remember, we were undercover. We were soldiers. That makes for stupid marriages, but we were going to wait until we finished and live together for a year to make sure we could, oh, make each other burn so nicely when it wasn’t us against the world.”

“He never said.”

“Nor did I. Most of the girls were in serious puppy love with him, you know.”

“And he had a job to do there.”

She winked at me, “And so did I, Hugh. He was perfectly faithful physically. Mentally? Who cares?”

“Did he...”

“He knew about us. That was before we started, so it didn’t matter.”

I paused and she laughed and said, “Oh, Hugh, no, it wasn’t just work. If Trevor hadn’t been there, I might have gone back again later and perhaps we’d have been an item for a while.”

“So did he know to look for you when he arrived? As a contact?”

“No, he knew there was a contact, and we suspected each other of being agents on the same side, and he had to sound me out and follow all my lightly dropped signals and hints and then finally make a delicate proposition and his declaration in a joint dream. It was like a glorious romance but for even higher stakes. He played it consummately well.”

“So neither of you was jealous of the other?”

She scoffed. “We were both well-trained in joint dreaming from a young age. Even if either of us had been so sensitive about sharing our minds and fantasies with another at the start, that would have been ground out of us by the time we finished training. And really, most of you at the dorm were such terrible prigs, as if sharing a dream was as earth-shattering as making love. Prigs or babes in the woods, like your little secret desires are some dark terra incognita when they’re drawn from such a small set of urges everyone shares. You weren’t so bad, actually; you weren’t ingrown and sheltered, just very private. You wouldn’t believe some of the guys.”

“I see,” though in truth I didn’t and didn’t care to.

An hour later, curled up together after we had shared our favorite stories about Trevor, she asked, “Can I stay with you a couple of days?”

“Sure, no problem. What will you do next?”

“I’ll go home for a while and decide what I want to do from now on.”

“Will it involve bugs?”

“Maybe, I don’t know.”

A little later she said, “You know, I am free now. Would you like...?”

After a moment of serious temptation I said, “But I’m not. Free.”

She nodded. “I understand. I hope you’re not, really. You know nothing about where she is, or what happened to her, or when she left?”

“No, nothing.”

“I’m sorry, but at least you still can hope,” and she cried for a minute. I went to get a blanket and curled up behind her again, and soon we slept.

I do not know what Anne dreamed of, but my dreams were troubled and tiresome and liquor-soaked, and the restless, alcohol-disturbed half of the night’s sleep left me exhausted, horribly thirsty, and badly hung over when I woke a bit after ten. I managed to get up without waking Anne, who I knew would be in far worse shape, and walked out quietly for breakfast to take away for two. About noon she woke with a moan and asked for water and headache pills, but when I suggested a bite to eat she turned green and rushed off to the bathroom. I dragged myself off to the class I couldn’t afford to skip and came home to find her asleep again in my bed. So’s not to wake her up from any noise, I ate her cold breakfast and sat and read and thought on the couch.

About seven she finally dragged herself out of bed.

“How do you feel?”

She replied, “Like something the cat buried.”

“Take a shower, clean yourself up, and have some more water first. What would you like for dinner?”

“Nothing. Ask me after I shower.”

We went to a small hamburger joint and ate ravenously. Back at my apartment we talked some more; she began by plying me with questions about Ingrid and Helen that she hadn’t been able to ask in the past. After I had had enough of that she asked me, “How were you recruited?”

“One of my professors sounded me out about the Subsidence when I went to see her for office hours, after she had answered my questions. It was pretty subtle, just drawing me out about how hard it was to get back to pre-Subsidence levels. Over the rest of the semester she directed me to reading some papers on it. By the beginning of the following semester she had me interested in how it happened, and by the end of that semester I had learned enough to know there were some dark forces arrayed against us hoping for a new Subsidence. After that I was interested in trying to stop them, and that’s when I was introduced to the more public parts of the group. By graduation she asked me if I were truly willing to help out. Of course I said yes. It was a bad time personally anyway, so it was very easy to get me to agree. I figured it was a small but useful blow against the insanity of the place. I never thought any of it would be real, even shoggoths; never even knew much about them until Trevor told me. Just figured the usual mass insanity always lurking at the fringes.”

As she sat thinking, I asked her, “What about you?”

“I saw a shoggoth once as a little girl. I was eight. It was entering a lake in the woods; my parents were with me and told me about them. Mom was a consultant at a big firm with occasional rumors of shoggoth research, so she told me what she had heard about them, told me too I had to be silent about them. It didn’t stop me from learning about them though, and since Dad had been a soldier he was happy for me to follow in his footsteps, and I had loved hearing about his time in the service as long as I could remember. What he never told me before was that he had been involved in shoggoth work in the service as well. Nothing much, just going around the surroundings of various bases trying to track them down, follow their movements, study them at a distance. He finally arranged for me to join a project once I turned twelve. That’s the usual age for starting to experience communal dreaming. You have to start before puberty, but as late as possible so it doesn’t harm your regular development when you’re especially plastic and impressionable.”

“Do you regret it?”

“Never. It was weird and very unpleasant at first, but it soon gave me self control and confidence I hadn’t dreamed of. And boys were never a mystery or a temptation in high school, you can be sure of that!” She chuckled, “Well, not much of a temptation. A couple of them weren’t smelly hairy overgrown little boys. It wasn’t till college I really had fun in that department. But anyway, it’s not like your life is irrevocably set by the training. They encourage you to go into some associated service after high school and they have some modest financial incentives, but the main requirement if you don’t choose to is a detailed check up and interview once a year on their dime, and of course utmost secrecy.”

“And you chose to go on?”

“Oh yes, I was definitely my father’s daughter. A year of regular service after high school that was just great fun, constant training in the reserves, lots of fun classes on the side, blowing things up every vacation in new and intricate ways, and they paid for me to study bugs. How cool is that?!”

We laughed and she curled up in the corner of the couch. “Not so much fun now. But I’m free.”

“Still deciding what to do with it?”

She nodded. We sat companionably in our on thoughts, and after several minutes she got up and went into the kitchen. “Do you want scotch or whiskey?”

“Just a little whiskey.”

She returned with the bottle and two glasses and poured a finger for each of us. We each took a sip and she said, “Now tell me everything about Trevor’s last day.” She spent the next two hours interrogating me. At the end she said, “Thank you. I wish things had ended differently.”

“Are you still mad at me?”

“For surviving? No. Just devastated.” She looked away and said, “I’m going to bed now.”

“Take my bed. I’ll take the couch.”

She nodded thanks and went off to sleep; occasionally I heard her crying before I fell asleep myself.

The next morning she had made coffee and breakfast before I woke up, and we ate quietly and companionably. “When do you plan to leave?”

“After breakfast. Walk me to the station?”

“Glad to.”

We cleaned up quickly after breakfast and walked to the depot. “How can you guys stand this heat?”

“By thinking constantly of the cold winters we miss.”

After she checked that there were still seats available, she bought a ticket and we sat quietly for the few minutes before they called the passengers. I walked to the door with her and said, “It was good to see you again. Thank you for coming to see me.”

“Thank you for letting me stay, and thanks for the booze and the talk.” She hugged me and said, “This is farewell.”

“For good?”

“For many years at least. Someday things might be better. I know where to reach you, don’t worry.”

“Where can I reach you?”

She shook her head, “You can’t. Stay well. I hope you’re still not free for many years. Bye.”

She kissed me quickly and boarded without looking back. I stood for a minute until departure and went back home.

A week later I returned home from the library after dark. I walked down the alleyway and stood for a second on the porch. I looked closely around the bushes and porch and all around the door of my little apartment; although something felt off, I couldn’t place it. Nerves, I decided, and unlocked my door and walked inside. As I reached over to turn on the light, something jabbed me in the back and burning pain shot through me; I quickly passed out, but not before ruing my willingness to ignore my suspicions a little too readily.

Some time later I came to. I was on my back on the floor and Helen stood above me holding a taser. “You left me, Hugh. You left me without a word and never sent a letter or a message of any kind. What kind of a man are you?”

“I’m a hunted man, Helen. Or I might be. I think I escaped without anyone the wiser, but if they discovered a message from me, you’d be dead very soon afterwards. I couldn’t risk that. I was going to go to Ohio next summer to find you, but I wouldn’t be safe any closer to New England.”

She put her taser away in her purse and sat down next to me. “I thought it was something like that, but I wanted to hear it from your own lips. We’re even now. I forgive you.”

I tried to sit up and merely groaned. She helped me up to the couch and sat next to me. I asked, “So why aren’t you in New England...hmm, well, or Ohio?”

“Well, Hugh, we need to talk. I’m a hunted woman. Or, like you, I might be, but I can’t go back, just to be safe.”

I sat looking at her, and she smiled, “I know you were a spy, Hugh. I was a spy too.”

“Our spy?”

“Not really. It’s hard to say whose spy I was, but I think we’re comrades now. We’re on the same side, sort of anyway.”

“Why were you in New England?”

“Gilbreath had learned a lot about shoggoths and he had looked around for the best group to share his knowledge with. Best by his standards, which made him quite wary of the Texans he sounded out a few years ago. He finally settled on our group.”

“Your group?”

“The group I was a lowly agent for. I was the only linguist in the group, and he insisted it had to be a linguist. Partly because it was mostly linguistic knowledge, but also because he had the idea that scholars wouldn’t misuse what he learned. A bit naive there, really, but he decided I’d do. I met him briefly in Ohio when he came for a conference, and he ensured I was accepted to the department. My group didn’t know much about it, only that he wanted an assistant for low-level shoggoth work in some old documents. Of course, that’s pretty much what he told me too at first; only real scholars would be up for that, you see. What a revelation it turned out to be! He tutored me in Manæhill one night a week and dreaming three nights a week, regardless of my other dream classes, and the other free night each week was spent down in the shoggoth’s halls learning how to communicate with it and training me in what he had learned about its ways of thought. Later I spent more time with the shoggoth, of which a good deal of the time was devoted to consolidating my class work, actually. A tiny side benefit of working in the shoggoth’s environment, remarkably clear and rapid thought. Only way I could have survived that second semester.”

“You saw the shoggoth’s hall?”

“Oh yes. Shortly after he learned how to work with the shoggoth, he had it make a tunnel from his house to its hall so no one would ever see him working with it. He had ten years’ research on shoggoth psychology and he didn’t waste any of that time. His records are extensive and...awe-inspiring. He was a true linguist, Hugh, and a true scholar.”

Are extensive?”

“Oh yes, they’re still in existence. I have them.”

“So his work wasn’t wasted.”

“No.”

“Were you there when he was killed?

“No, he was killed as we were wrapping up a dream lesson. You don’t ever want to experience someone’s death in a communal dream. Their death, well, it spills over. Knocks you out for hours, but not nearly soon enough, and leaves you disoriented for a day or more.”

“Who killed him?”

“Sarah Prickle. I found out later she helped kill a couple dozen professors and administrators that night.”

“I knew...well, not that. I knew she set the whole thing in motion.”

Helen smiled sadly and nodded. We sat there in silence for a minute, and she continued, “He kept his records in a small room next to the entrance of his tunnel into the shoggoth’s hall. I had to wait a week before I could risk breaking in to go down to get them.”

“Where were you? I wanted to look for you but no one knew where you were.”

“I had a small room in Pursleyville at a boarding house run by someone retired on our side. Gilbreath arranged it so I wouldn’t be disturbed as he taught me. I wasn’t in any shape to leave the next day thanks to Prickle’s knife. That evening the landlord told me I couldn’t go out. He hid me in the basementat least that was more comfortable than the closet Gilbreath got for me.

“After about six days I risked leaving. This was long after you had left. I went back to the dorm. Fuller was there, and Purnell. They didn’t know what had happened to anyone after the evacuation, and you guys weren’t even evacuated. All I knew was that your whole suite had vanished. I went to the clinic; they had a provisional list of the dead and injured there, and you weren’t on it. There were ugly rumors, and with all the other people disappearing or turning up stabbed or strangled I had no idea what had happened, but I was sure you were dead. It was terrible, Hugh, not knowing what had happened to any of you. —In any case, when I got down to the shoggoth’s hall, I thought I heard someone following me. It was just one person, and I made sure the shoggoth eliminated his remains down to the atomic level after I...did him in, but I had no idea whether anyone had been alerted by him. I scanned around with the shoggoth’s help and saw that no, he had been a solitary guard, so I had the shoggoth send a message in his voice over his phone to his supervisor saying he heard someone outside, and all they found were traces that pointed away from the house to an ugly disappearance down the street. That was just a stop gap. I had to leave, so I got the shoggoth to fill in Gilbreath’s tunnel and take me to a bit past New York City. I also got it to plant false memories of me leaving a week earlier where necessary; I think I got everyone who might have noticed me. At the end I disabled Gilbreath’s trigger. The point of it’s gone.

“While we travelled, I scanned its recent memories and found that it had been outside recently after a break-in at Records. There was some confidential material there that the shoggoth knew about, even if none of the people in Records did. Except Gilbreath. That was how he found out how to control the shoggoth in the first place, actually, when he was following up on some dialectological research back in the files from the late 18th century of all things. He planted an order in the shoggoth to stop anyone from digging in that file drawer. So I looked into who had been digging in there and found you three. The digestion of Trevor and Finley is fully detailed, but yours was a pitiful fill-in. I looked around a bit more and found traces of inquiries; a few months with a shoggoth would teach you how to leave no traces even without a teacher, but you were an amateur. Don’t worry, I made much better memories of your demise stored now, though it was very painful for me to check them to make sure they’d pass muster.

“I had not known you were studying Manæhill; it surprised me, but you must have to have controlled it. You kept that quite secret, Hugh, and at first I had no idea how or why. But it made some sense. He could only teach me Tuesdays and Thursdays and I knew you had some class the other nights of the week, but I never put the two together. Not that I would have wanted to. It was exciting, truly exciting, and I loved the thought of being the only one he was teaching any of that to, and it would have spoiled it then to even suspect someone else might be learning even a little of that. I didn’t really care what you were studying anyway, because mine was so much better. It turns out, I later figured out, he had planted a bit of secretiveness in both of us early in our dream lessons. It’s easy enough to do. It just kicks in if you think about telling something, a bit of apprehension that escalates to moderate levels the more you think about it. You can disregard it if you try, but you have to really want to or need to. —Anyway, it rather irritated me at the time.” We chuckled and she continued, “Of course, it’s fine now. It saved your life.”

“Not Trevor’s. Not Finley’s.”

“That was sheer accident, Hugh. Gilbreath’s trigger would only go off if you were actually the immediate target of the shoggoth; it was his way of making sure only people he chose could control the shoggoth, and then only in cases of extreme necessity. If it had come out of the woods further down the road, it would have targeted you first and then you could have saved the others, but it came across Trevor first. If Finley hadn’t attacked, you might have been next as the greater threat, well, annoyance, but he was brave and stupid, not that in the regular course of things it would have made a difference of more than about ten seconds.”

“Did you find out what happened to Prickle?”

“Yes, she was killed the next day. She was leading a band to try to seize the campus police office to get more ammo when they were ambushed by a group of black hatchets.”

“Chantal?”

“Chantal has been in Québec for a couple of days. She was evacuated to Bolton and then Lowell, and then she sailed north.”

“Smith and Jones?”

“They stayed on after a conference and remained there when the news came.”

“Felicia?”

“Dead. She was in an evacuation bus that the black hatchets blew up. She was killed immediately. Benjamin survived the explosion long enough for the black hatchets to play with him,” she said angrily.

“What about Aylesworth?”

“She was killed helping defend the administration building on the third day.”

“The other professors?”

“Most are dead, Hugh.”

I sighed, “So what did you do then?”

“I went to Ohio and made a small report to my group saying that we had worked on information in recent shoggoth sightings, but the project was dead after the disturbances on campus, as they called it. Then I resigned from the group and practiced what he taught me. I tapped into the mind of the local shoggoth, taking every precaution Gilbreath taught me for secrecy and unobtrusiveness, and learned all I could about its partisans. They were the sickliest bag of grubs imaginable, all five of them, as likely to stab each other by accident as anyone they meant to. And so their demises were quite easy to come by.” She paused at my unspoken question and said, “Hugh, if you knew what they had done in the past, you’d know it was simple justice. They had accidentally stabbed three of their own members to death over the past four years, but they each had the blood of at least three innocents on their hands. I set a trigger with the shoggoth to ruin their coordination if they attacked an innocent person, and they killed each other three days later when they ambushed two aldermen who were a slight threat to their residential district’s zoning status.”

“Did you get the letter from Pamela I asked her to send?”

“Yes, and I didn’t reply.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t know how safe I was, or how safe they were. I didn’t want to risk their lives by mailing them a letter.” I nodded and she continued, “So I spent a couple of weeks at home resting as I got ready to come looking for you. I just told my parents you seemed to have been evacuated south and I wanted to find you. And while I rested I practiced my ability to communicate like the Old Ones. It’s unnatural and damnably difficult and unreliable at first, but it becomes fairly automatic with sustained practice, but nothing like the natural facility they have for it. And once I had that down I could come looking for you. I suspected you were on our side, but I didn’t know for sure. I needed to find out what kind of person you are and what kind of people you were working with. I knew enough about Trevor from the attention the shoggoth paid him at the end to be sure he was an agent on our side with a good deal of training in the lower levels of dreaminghe could control his dreams quite well but hadn’t had the training to advance further. He also had solid insulation over his thoughts so they left little impression on the shoggoth, but they were enough to point to someone working with the industries here. But above all I knew that at the end he trusted you implicitly with his backpack, which meant you’d convinced him of your reliability anyway. And that made me very very happy, Hugh, but it could just mean you were a damned good double agent.

“So I came here and waited around for a week getting intelligence from the shoggoth downstairs about you. Not one of its partisans and suspiciously close to its antagonists, I learned, but I made a few discreet suggestions and now it ignores you and has no records of any of your actions of the sort to interest it. I also figured out who in your group were double agents and had the shoggoth point a little finger at them to the other partisans; they’re gone now and any suggestions about you are irremediably tainted in their eyes, so you’re that much safer so long as you keep your head down from now on.

“And that left you all alone for me, because I had a few questions myself. You’ve settled those in your favor.”

“How?”

“Surprise tasering’s very effective for getting a good look at things you have questions about if you have sufficient experience with shoggoths, Hugh.”

“I see.”

“So don’t cheat on me. And don’t make me suspect you’re cheating on me either, because I might just do it again.” She laughed loudly and I managed a pained smile.

“No, don’t do that again. I’ll leave you if you do, understand?”

“Fair enough. I only tasered you to allow me to finally make certain you weren’t a double agent. I had to make dead certain, Hugh, that you were who I hoped. I’d have expected the same from you in my shoes.”

“So you’re able to tramp around in my head now.”

“A little, and I’ll teach you how to stop me doing that.”

I stared at her, for while the last sentence was perfectly clear, her lips had not moved. Instead, they smiled and I heard her say, “Ever wonder how the profs at MIT managed this in our dream lessons? Now I know too, only I can do it while I’m awake.”

I subvocalized, “Can you hear me back?”

“Yes.”

I then merely thought, “And now?”

There was no response, so I thought, “Interesting. Privacy at last.”

“Yes it is, and no it’s not.” She laughed at my surprise and thought, “I just wanted to see how you’d react. You have to make some effort to think a sentence at me, but you don’t have to subvocalize. That’s for shoggoths as we’re learning each other’s ways. Their mental organization is entirely different and they need to back-engineer the message from your neural triggerings, but because we share a language and ways of thought it’s fairly reliable just to think at each other. The communication errors are fascinating from a psycholinguistic viewpoint, actually. If I wanted to, I could revolutionize the field and then get burnt as a witch.”

“So what will you do now?” I thought to her.

“I’ll seduce you into seducing me again, if you’re willing.”

I thought back to my first vivid dream of her and showed a few unguarded scenes to her. Her face flushed and she laughed. “So that’s what I’m like for a man? You’re so obsessive.” I then kissed her and our thoughts to each other went silent.

That night after we slept, I sat up in bed and faced her. “Damn it. Joint dreaming too?”

“Of course, darling, only here we won’t have a shoggoth mucking it up.”

After a pause I asked, “Were you able to control our dreaming in Boston?”

“Of course.”

“So is this what social life is like for the Old Ones?”

“It’s probably the palest reflection imaginable of their social life.”

“So is the shoggoth listening in?”

“No, I completely block it most of the time. While you’re with me, you’re only with me.”

“In every sense.”

“Yes, it had better be.”

“It wasn’t a question.”

She grinned. “So I had hoped.”

“So, shall I show you around my castle? Don’t ask me to open the seventh door.”

“God, Hugh, shut up with your 20th century art. Barbaric artists worshipping the primitive do not appeal to me.”

“It is a dreadful libretto, isn’t it?”

“It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone didn’t ballyhoo it as capturing the essence of male psychology.”

“Not much better than what others said captured the essence of women.”

“Don’t share your favorite art with me any more, okay, Hugh?”

We laughed and she said, “I’ll show you around, if you’re willing.”

She showed me her first views and impressions of me, intrigued, charmed and a little wary of me, and was amused when seeing how quickly I had fallen for her, though she hadn’t taken much longer. Then she shared her first vivid dream of me. We then sat quietly and she looked closely at me and finally said, “Let me show you something else.”

I was in a flat in Paris. A young man sat at a table across from me, and as we drank our coffee I heard Helen say, “Oliver. I was seventeen, he was twenty.” He was a very handsome fellow, and not only through Helen’s eyes, an animated and cultured man from the upper classes of Zanzibar with everything a straight romantic teenage francophone girl would find intoxicating. For a second she interrupted the memory to show a montage of other scenes, and as she laughed I realized that everyone, or everyone that counted, had remarked on the contrast in their skins, even if the contrasts did not all run the same direction. A song was nearing its end and in memory I was humming along, a song he played for her their first night and translated for her from Swahili, ending, “My love is the sweetest of all women, for despite the milk it is the sugar that gives sweetness to my coffee.” When the song ended he drained his coffee cup in one swallow, an action she later hated him for, and told her that he was returning home to marry his betrothed. The subsequent shouting and crying were muddled and vague in her memory, but their last exchange was fixed firmly and unfaded.

“Helen, I could never marry you. You’re too...American, you understand? It simply would not do for someone in my position.”

“American?”

“Americans are far too accepting of the sloppiness of their ancestors.”

After a second of confusion she understood and turned and left without a word. A few weeks later her father asked her if she wanted to spend her senior year in Paris, and she simply said, “Let me come home, Dad.” Later she occasionally regretted her choice.

Then we were sitting together in bed again, and she watched my face closely. “I know that song.”

“Oh, Hugh, please just give it a rest.”

“It’s an old taarab, well over a century old.” And I let her see Mother dancing around the living room in our old house in Nairobi to an old recoding of it she had found, for she had fallen in love with taarab when we relocated there and scoured the stores for any she could find. I had finished washing the dinner dishes and sat watching her, and she reached out her hand and showed me how to dance the latest dance to be fitted to the song. A few weeks later she fell ill and passed away, and for a month the song haunted the house until Father could find a job elsewhere.

Again we were sitting in bed, and she finally said, “I see. We hate the same song, for good reason.”

“It’s a beautiful song. I never want to hear it again.”

After a while she asked, “Would you like to see anything else?”

“No. I’d never be able to face Veronica if I did.”

She laughed and we lay down and faded back into sleep.

In the morning I awoke before her and prepared breakfast as she slept. I suppose I was not as quiet as I had intended, for she awoke just before I finished and joined me at the table. I poured us coffee and served the eggs and toast, and as she spooned sugar and poured cream in her coffee, I chuckled. She glared at me, “I’ll kill you.”

I said, “No, I was thinking about my first thoughts of you.”

She said, “Oh, did I match your coffee that morning?”

“No, I thought how happy I’d be making breakfast for you.”

Her scowl ended and she smiled, “Oh. That’s fine then.”

After breakfast she asked, “So what shall we do now?”

I swallowed and said, “Marriage is a usual option.”

She blushed and said, “You’re willing to marry a witch? That’s pretty much what I am now, you know.”

“I’d answer that, but you’re supposed to say it first.”

She laughed without looking at me and then watched me for a few seconds. “Okay, you’re serious. Yes.”

After looking at each other and smiling a lot, we cleared the table and she asked, “But the question still stands. What else shall we do now?”

“Whatever we want.”

“But what do we want?”

“I don’t know any more, besides you.”

Here she spoke to me only mentally and I followed suit. “With what we know. I know you gave lots of information to your group. Are you sure you did the right thing?”

“The information I gave them is better in their hands than left in New England. Of course, I didn’t give them everythingthe manuscripts in Records that Gilbreath kept secret I’ve kept secret too while I waited to see what my group might do with them. But would you want any of the New Englanders doing what Gilbreath did?”

“But what does your group want it for?”

I showed her scenes from my meeting, and she said, “Okay, I understand that. It’s admirable; it’s a noble goal. But do you seriously think those types would be able to handle a real shoggoth, for real?”

“Maybe.”

“And maybe they’d decide to eliminate the immediate risk, then all the longer-term risks, and finally end up ruling humanity for goals that get less and less pressing year after year, until they destroy humanity as thoroughly as the Old Ones would but with even less wisdom.”

I nodded, “Yes, that’s as likely of them as any miscellaneous group of humans. But who else could we work with? Would your group be any better?”

“Oh, hell no.”

“So we’re at an impasse then.”

“And Hugh, think about it, could humanity maintain itself in anything like our current state if we did go to the stars? They’re talking about massive life extension, radical changes in our view of things, and radical changes in behavior to be able to reach the stars alive and intact. What worlds are out there? What would humans have to do to themselves to survive there? Become slightly, I don’t know, insectoidal? Reptilian? Amphibian? Would we even be the same species any more after a few generations? Would those people be us? Would their ideals and views of life be compatible in any way with ours? Would they be in any way preferable to the Old Ones by the time they became like them?”

“Are we that different from the people who lived a few thousand years ago?”

“This would be a much greater change in our lives, you know that. Don’t muddle the issues. And even if we remained the same species biologically, what mentalities would they have in their new environments? Could we communicate or deal with them, and would we want to?”

“What else could we do?”

“Hugh, the Old Ones became what they were by their own efforts over millions of years. If we were to have any chance of becoming like them, we’d have to do the same. Learn for ourselves what they learned, cultivate ourselves as they did, and earn it honestly. If we just jump-started your group or my group or any other group, imagine what the power would do to them. Hell, I’d probably work to awaken the Old Ones just to make sure humanity survived, even as their raw materials. Or not. I don’t know, but I do know I don’t have to allow them to drive me to choose.”

“So, what do you suggest?”

“Come with me, Hugh, let’s just leave. Go somewhere quiet and out of the way and pick and choose the people we know would be able to handle what we know. If any one group got what we know, they’d most likely use it to rule. If we spread it quietly, under the surface, throughout humanity, people would have a fighting chance. And more than that, what we need most is to be sure the Old Ones won’t return. We can make that much less likely from now on. With what I know, Hugh, we can live as long as we want, so let’s make sure we live our new lives the right way from the beginning.”

“Are we any better placed to choose the future of humanity than they are?”

“We don’t have to act right away, Hugh. We can learn more about this and see if we want to inflict it on humanity. Perhaps...I don’t know, perhaps the Old Ones are simply meant to rule. Perhaps becoming like them would be utterly repulsive. Perhaps, oh, perhaps we’d prefer what the Old Ones would make of humanity. Or perhaps it really is our great hope in this world, with the Old Ones ready to return whenever some power-hungry fool turns the key. It’s a fearsome future facing us in any respect, Hugh, but then it always is, isn’t it? Nous ne tenons en notre main le temps futur de lendemain.

After a long pause I nodded assent, and after we embraced she said by voice, “So, when do you want to leave?”

“Can I finish my degree?”

“Oh hell, that’s right, I should probably do that too.”

We laughed and looked out the window at the bush outside flowering in the morning light. I said, “But we can get married today.”

“Or tomorrow.”

“But as you say, we should make sure we live our new lives the right way from the beginning.”

She laughed, “Even I can’t resist my own arguments. But you’re missing the first step,” and pulled me back into the bedroom.

Strangecraft, Part VII—Ces Petits Corps Qui Tombent de Travers—Mikael Thompson
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents