Tentacles by Peter F. Guenther

A virus can be dangerous to more than just your computer.

"Whoaaaaa ..." said the young man sitting in front of the computer.

His roommate, the only other person in the room, looked up. In the two years they had been living together, he had watched his roommate grow increasingly jaded; very little could elicit a response from him anymore, especially in the realm of computers. So if he had just encountered something online that made him say "Whoaaaaa," it must be very special indeed.

"Whassup?" he enquired of the one at the computer.

"It's just this computer I've hit. There's something really weird that it's running."

"Where is it? Whose computer is it?"

"Ummm ... I m not really sure. Remember what I told you about some of the early hackers, and how they'd do what was called scanning ... Using a modem to dial every number in an area to see which phone lines had computers that answered? Then later they'd go back and see what computers they were. That's what I've been doing, only on the Internet. I've just been hopping from IP address to IP address, and looking at what services were running on them."

"Uhhh ..."

"Yeah. So I thought that just before I called it a night, I'd try some pretty unlikely addresses. The high IP addresses, the Class E's, are reserved right now -- nobody's supposed to be using them. But I found a computer on! And it's running some pretty nonstandard stuff on its ports."


"Oh, come on, Frank, I keep explaining this stuff to you. Ports! Numbers get assigned to all the different services on an Internet computer. Most of the services get standard numbers -- like when you telnet in to check your e-mail, there's a standard port for telnet. And ftp, and web stuff, and all of that. Well, this computer has a port 666, and it's broadcasting timed signals across the Internet to anything that will connect to that port."

"It's probably just a bunch of kids. They hacked into some computer, reconfigured it to give it that unusual address, and then they're having some quasi-satanic fun. Fooling around with port 666 and all that."

The computer hacker eyed his roommate. "Not bad. You're getting a lot quicker at this stuff."

"I still only understood about a third of what you said, Paul."

"One third? You are getting better. Let's just telnet into this computer and see what kind of a greeting it gives us."

Paul switched programs on his computer, typed in a few things, and sat back as it connected. In a few seconds, he and his roommate were rewarded with a prompt:


Welcome to Necro-OS UNIX v 1.11 on server


"Boy, they are having fun with this," Paul said. "They've even invented their own operating system. Or at least a name for one."

Frank yawned. "This is one of those times you're going to be up all night, isn't it?

"Nah," Paul replied. "If this is a computer that somebody hacked, they probably left it pretty wide open for everyone else to gang-bang. I should be in, in no time."

"Well, you might be able to stay awake to play with it, but I'm turning in. Try to keep it down, OK?"

* * *

Around 4 am, Frank woke up to see Paul still staring bleary-eyed into the computer screen. There was a triumphant look to his features, though. Frank sat up, suspecting the root of his awakening was a suppressed whoop of triumph a minute ago.

Paul noticed Frank's movement without turning. "Man, this turned into some real work. This was NOT an easy system to get into. Root, webmaster, all the usual accounts had hard-to-guess passwords; the usual sendmail bugs were sealed, talk and the other Internet services were disabled or made secure ... They just did not want to let people in. I finally managed to get a number of usernames on the system, and just kept trying passwords until it broke. But I'm in!"

"So what's the deal with their computer?" Frank asked.

"Well, get this," Paul began. "It really does use a funky type of UNIX. Someone wrote up a special operating system for this computer. This is not a simple slash-and-hack job. And I've gone through a lot of the system files -- it looks like this computer was never set up to be anything but It doesn't even have a domain name. I wonder how long it's been out there without anyone noticing ..."

"If they've taken such pains to keep people out, do you really want to get caught going in from the computer in our room?"

"No," Paul answered. "I don't want to get caught period. That's why I went through four other computers from here. Even if they notice me in here, even if they trace where this intruder came from, they'll find a bogus account on someone else's system. And if they get that system administrator to track me down, he'll get another bogus account somewhere else ... And so on. But chances are no one will notice."

"So what's the plan?" Frank asked, hesitantly.

"Now I'm downloading some useful files. The password file, so I've got a list of all users and can crack the encryption at leisure ... Some chunks of the operating system, so I can see what's up with that. Any files I can find that might tell me who's in charge of this and what it's doing. Oh, and -- wait, there it is. Whatever software is running port 666 of this machine. All right, I need some sleep now."

"Why, Paul? You know you're not going to go to class tomorrow."

"Frank! I'm hurt. I am the most conscientious student you know ..."

"That's not saying much. And you know you can't sit through classes when you'll be itching to get at this stuff."

"Just to prove you wrong I will go to class tomorrow. Though it'll probably kill me."

Frank just grinned.

* * *

When Frank came back from class the next day, he found Paul in front of the computer again. "See!" he cried as he came through the door. "I told you you'd skip class!"

Paul didn't even turn. "Hey, I went to one of my classes today."

"The one you're failing because you don't go to it?"

Paul grinned. "One of them."

"So what's the deal with our mystery computer? What new secrets have you unlocked today, O Great One?"

"I'm done with most of what I picked up last night. I've got Crack running in the background and it's already given me three more passwords, hopefully more coming. Took a look at that port 666 business. It doesn't do much; just seems to be a fancy clock. It keeps up with the Navy's atomic clock to stay absolutely accurate, and it generates some kind of synchronization signal."

"What's it synchronizing?" Frank asked.

"Dunno. But take a look at this other thing. I only picked it up by chance; thought it was part of the operating system," Paul said, typing more into the computer. Lines of code began to scroll across the screen.

Frank shook his head violently. "What am I supposed to be looking at?"

Paul shrugged. "Sorry. It looks for all the world to be a self-replicating program. I've broken it apart and run chunks on the university's mainframe, and it's fascinating what each bit does. Duplicates itself. Moves from section of memory to another section. Tries to contact other computers in the same domain."

"A self-replicating program? You mean ..." Frank paused.

"A virus," Paul answered, "and a rather nasty one at that. A worm. If the complete program is run (and I didn't run enough of it to do this, you understand -- I'm much too careful for that) then it'll spread from computer to computer across the Internet. Just like the good old ARPANet worm way back."

"So is it out there?"

"Don't know yet. And if the people who run this phantom computer are out to spread a worm, maybe it relies on their synchronization to do its dirty work. So here's the plan: I'm going to modify their little clock program to log any requests it gets. I'm going to upload my version of it and run it in place of theirs. And then we'll see who's connecting to this clock. Now go get me some food. I'm starving."

* * *

"Urghhhhhhhhhh ..." Paul said as he stared at the screen.

"Urgh?" Frank asked.

"No, it's much worse than that. Urghhhhhhhhh."

"Spill it."

"I really hope that this program doesn't synchronize the virus. Because if all the computers connecting to this clock are infected, we're in for a world of hurt."

Frank looked over Paul's shoulder and read his notes. Citibank, the FBI, universities from across the world. If they were looking at infected computers then the virus had been worming its way through the Internet for a while. "Oh my God ..." Frank gasped.

"Yep." Paul thought for a minute. "I've got to find out more about this system. Time to hack root access and start reading some e-mail."

* * *

Hours later, Paul sat back, exhausted. "Unbelievable."

"What is?" Frank asked. He had been lightly sleeping but had been ready for new information from Paul at any time.

"These are some disturbed individuals."

"Well, since that's your judgment, I feel pretty secure in saying they're normal."

"No, no, Frank! They're weird in the other direction from me! They keep talking about this black magic stuff. It's Cthulhu this, Necronomicon that ... none of it makes sense. But the University's supposed to have a copy of the Necronomicon, this book they keep talking about. First thing tomorrow morning, I'm going to check it out and get some answers."

* * *

Frank and Paul met at the cafeteria the next afternoon. Paul was halfway through his meal as Frank set his tray down. As soon as he was seated, Frank leaned forward and asked, "So what'd you learn?"

Paul snorted and shook his head. "After I finally convinced the librarian to let me into the special collection where the Necronomicon is held, I hit another snag: the book is in Latin, for God's sake! And every other book in that collection was in a different foreign language I don't know: the Unausprechlichen Kulten is in German, De Vermis Mysteriis is also in Latin, they had books in Arabic, in Greek, in languages with strange writing I've never seen before. But nothing in English! Can you believe that?"

Paul paused. "So how's your Latin, Frank?"

"Nonexistent after high school."

"Darn computer languages met my foreign language requirement. I've never taken a foreign language. Uhhh, can I help you?"

This last comment was directed to an older man who had just pulled up a chair to their table. He looked to be in his early sixties, a thin but not gaunt man with curly silver hair down to his chin. He was dressed simply under a grey trenchcoat necessitated by the grey day. The man chuckled. "I've been following you since the library this morning, trying to decide if you were a Cthulhu cultist, a prankster, or someone just curious. But having heard what I just did, I doubt you're a threat in any case, if language makes those books impenetrable."

At the word Cthulhu, Frank glanced sharply at Paul. This was not lost on the old man. "So you know of mighty Cthulhu, do you? Was your shock because you have something to hide, or something to learn?"

Paul was clearly irritated by the man. "Well, you're the one who's been following me all day and who seems to know so much. You tell me."

"You don't seem to be a malicious boy. I'm not sure what you're mixed up in, but I don't think you're planning the end of the world."

"Have you read all those books they keep locked up?" Frank asked. He was clearly more credulous than Paul.

"Yes. Most of them, anyhow. Pardon me for not introducing myself earlier ... Connor MacKenzie, emeritus of the department of philosophy. I've had several dealings with men who have sought to use the information in the Necronomicon and similar books to their own gain ... or for other goals lost in their insanity. I've had enough dealings to dedicate my retirement to watching whoever wants to use our copy, anyhow. I get the impression you two don't know much about this. Tell me what's going on; you could be in serious danger."

"Ha! This guys as cracked as the e-mails! I'm gone," Paul declared, and stood up. He picked up his tray, wheeled around, and walked away. As Frank started to follow him, the older man grabbed his arm. "Hold on. It looks like you're more prone to listen to reason. Here's my phone number," MacKenzie said, writing on a napkin. "Call me if things get too deep for you -- whatever's going on. Maybe I can help, or maybe I can find someone who can." With that, he handed the napkin to Frank and released his grasp.

"Ummm, I'll think about it," Frank said, and as he left the cafeteria MacKenzie's worried gaze never left him.

* * *

Back at the room, Paul was already on his computer. As Frank walked in, Paul said, "We don't need that insane geezer. He might even belong to this online cult we've found. The answers I need I'll find online. Check this out -- I've found five online versions of the Necronomicon -- in English!"

Soon, however, Paul learned that most of these were the work of crackpots and wannabes. With the last one, though, he felt he had found what he was looking for. "See," he said to Frank, "It's got both the Latin and the English, side by side. And I recognize a bunch of these diagrams from what I saw this morning. This is the real thing."

With that, Frank and Paul began to read, learning of Cthulhu and the other age-old horrors that controlled the earth before humanity and waited until "the stars were right," as the Necronomicon put it, and they could be free to destroy and rule again.

After a long and disturbing reading, Paul sat back and sighed. "None of this is believable, but if the people running that computer worship this way, we could be in some real trouble with this virus. Maybe that old man could have told us something about the cultists."

"I'll give him a call," Frank said. Paul turned and stared at him as he began to dial, then shrugged and turned back to his computer. Suddenly a warning flashed across his screen.

"Uh-oh," Paul said. "My virus protection software just picked up an unknown virus on my computer. Let's take a look at it. I'll neutralize it myself and then do a little bit of post-mortem, heh heh."

A minute later, Frank said, "MacKenzie is on his way. I figured we'd better have him come to the room to see what you've found."

Paul just grunted. Frank went over to see what he was working on. Already Paul had blocks of code on the screen as he tried to make sense of the virus. "Well, I know this much already; it came over the network. Aggressive little bugger. And it looks like it's related to the virus I found online the other night."

Paul flipped back to his notes on the worm. "Oh my God! So that's what those sections of code do. It infects one computer and looks around on its netowrk. After it's identified the computers on a network, it goes back to our friend and downloads viruses specific to those machines. Then it drops them onto those machines and lets them do their work. That means the university's machine is infected! And it almost got mine as well. Good thing I wrote my virus protection myself -- commercial software might not have caught it!"

Paul continued to work. Frank just paced back and forth; he knew there were important things going on but could do little to help. Soon a knock came at the door, and he let MacKenzie in.

"Let me fill you in while Paul keeps working," Frank said, and with that launched into the story of the past few days. Paul punctuated the narrative with frequent corrections and emendations.

At the end MacKenzie asked, "But what does the virus do? What's its purpose?"

Paul paused, then answered. "Well, the first virus we discovered was just supposed to worm its way around and infect smaller computers, it seems. It's beyond just a worm, though. It spreads so quickly and in every direction ... it's like tentacles -- that's what they called it in a few pieces of email, you know, the Tentacles virus -- reaching out all over, grabbing whatever they can. Look at this list -- in the time since I'modified their clock mechanism, the number of infected domains has doubled! And I haven't seen any sign that other people know about this, besides us. These tentacles are wrapped around a lot, now.

"But these smaller virii, I don't know. I'm doing the same thing with the one on my computer that I did with the big one. I can't decompile it, so I'm trying one piece at a time to see how it works."

Frank and MacKenzie then had a boring time of staring at each other as Paul worked, mumbling, "Hmmmm," "Uh-huh," and "Oh, wow!" at certain junctures. Finally he said, "Well, this virus customized itself to the university's system. This is some high-powered work they've got going. Apparently this virus depends on the university's system, which in turn depends on the original computer for synchronization. And when the moment of armageddon comes, it fires off this chunk of code."

Paul pointed at a section of jumbled characters on the screen. "Ummmm ... so what does it do?" Frank asked.

"I dunno. Let's find out. I've backed up all my data and I'm going to have to reformat everything on my computer after being exposed to this virus anyhow. What harm can it do?"

"I'm not sure we should all be in the room when it happens," MacKenzie said. "Just in case; someone with an idea of what's going on should be outside in case anything happens to us. Frank, why don't you walk over to University Center, just to be safe?"

"No way, old man!" Paul exclaimed. "We still don't know much about you, and I am NOT going to be alone in the room with you so you can do me in and protect your little cult."

The older man sighed. "Well, you're wise to be cautious, I suppose. Why don't I go home, then, and when you figure out what this program does, you can call me."

"Now that's a plan."

* * *

In about an hour MacKenzie received a call. This time it was Paul on the phone. "I ran it and re-ran it, but there doesn't seem to be anything else it does. It accessed the video card and played with the scan rate of the monitor. The monitor flickered and hummed, but that was it. Maybe your cultist buddies are trying to give everyone eyestrain, or burn out all the monitors in the world."

"Could it be a subliminal message?" Mackenzie asked.

"Naah. Nothing that sophisticated. Just a flicker and a hum. Hmmm, I suppose that hum could do something though. Just the right frequency to set people on edge? Ultrasonic fear waves?"

"Let me make some discreet inquiries and get back to you. I'll stop by your dorm room when I have anything," MacKenzie ended.

* * *

A little after midnight, there was a knock at the door. Paul opened it cautiously; it was MacKenzie, and he looked harried. Paul opened the door wide and MacKenzie pushed through. "What? What is it?" Paul asked.

"Do you believe any of what you've read?" MacKenzie asked.

"I'm not at all convinced the earth has all sorts of primordial bogeymen waiting to be freed," answered Paul, "but clearly these cultists have a plan and think they can do some damage."

"When the stars are right," Mackenzie said. "Some kind of cosmic cycle that's supposed to free these beings you don't believe in. What could the stars do on Earth though? A lot of people think that the reference is just to outdated systems of astrology, or it's just a metaphor for a long time. But what if ... What if these beings depended on some kind of electromagnetic emission? That only when a certain star shone on earth, or a certain combination of stars probably, would one of these creatures be active?"

"Oh no," Frank caught his breath, "and the virus could make the monitors emit on a certain wavelength. But would it be enough?"

Paul thought. "It would be imprecise, but if enough monitors began emitting, then a weak electromagnetic field, but one that covered a lot of territory, would occur. You know, constructive interference and wave propagation and all that. Or enough computers could start a very weak vibration on the earth's crust -- once enough office buildings started generating the signal."

Frank snorted and looked as if he suspected Paul had little idea of what he was saying.

"And possibly enough to awake a horror from inside the earth! I'm convinced that's what the cultists are trying to do. Now we just need to discover their target." MacKenzie completely missed Frank's response.

"You mean there's more than just Cthulhu?"

MacKenzie snorted. "My boy, the Earth has witnessed far greater horror than that cephalopod. Now what can you tell me about this group and their goal?"

"Let's go through some of the email I pilfered. Well, there is this," Paul said, handing him a piece of paper. "What can you make of this?"

Frank began, "It's a hat, it's a brooch ..." and then Paul smacked him.

"Jesus, Frank, it's the end of the world! Can't you be serious?" Paul chided.

"My. Look who's become the true believer now," Frank said.

"Both of you shut up. This is the answer!" MacKenzie exclaimed.

From: system-admin
To: all-users-list
Re: Tentacles virus

Rejoice, brothers!  The virus has been unleashed and will
soon free the Master from his chains. We need only wait
now, until the planned time. At that point, enough computers
will be infected and the virus will become active. Thank
you for all your work. The moment of our reward is coming! Soon the earth will be cleansed by great Hnarqu and the few
righteous will remain! Hnarqu fhtagn! Hnarqu e yai nlaren

"Hnarqu fhtagn? Hnarqu ey -- umm, what that says?" Frank enquired.

"Hnarqu dreams. Hnarqu will rise again," Mackenzie translated. "Why did it have to be Hnarqu?"

"Hnarqu?" Paul asked.

"Hnarqu is a being roughly of the same power as Cthulhu and some of the other Great Old Ones. In some of the mythology he shares the same parents as Cthulhu, though he's a radically different being."

"So is this Hnarqu a particularly nasty bad-ass or what?" Paul asked.

"Well, yes, but that's not the main problem. Of course, it makes sense; they couldn't revive an Old One sealed away under the ocean or in the wastes; there wouldn't be enough computers there to extend the field. It would have to be something lurking near enough of an urban area."

Frank swallowed. "Urban area? What urban area?"

"Oh, well, it's close enough to the Boston suburbs now. About fifty miles west-southwest of here. Thing about Hnarqu is that he's held by six seals, though; the largest is on his tomb here, and there are five others across North America and in Western Europe. They probably work on the electromagnetic principle too; they generate a field inimical to Hnarqu. But if he gains strength from the computer's field, he can break the seals one by one."

"Well, then, let's get to it. I can disable their main computer in no time," Paul said.

"It's not that simple. For one thing, the viruses are already out there. If that synchronizing disappears, they probably begin working right away, right?"

Paul nodded assent. "Probably."

"And the cult can always get their computer working again. We need to neutralize as much of the cult as possible, and Hnarqu if we can, so that this cannot happen again."

"And that means?" Paul asked.

"And that means letting them play out their hand. I bet that the cult will show up at Hnarqu's tomb to await his rising. So when the virus becomes active, we'll go out to meet them. I know where the tomb is. Now I must go to the library and find out how to deal with Hnarqu."

Paul and Frank said their goodbyes and MacKenzie took off.

"He's cracked," Paul said.

"I thought you believed this stuff now," Frank replied.

"Oh, I do. Well, maybe. But if there is a Hnarqu and he's as bad as MacKenzie thinks, we don't want him getting loose, regardless of what the old man's planning. What if we can't contain him?"

"So what's the plan, Paul?"

"Oh, you'll see. You'll see."

* * *

Five days later, articles began to run in the newspaper about people suddenly complaining about monitor flicker. It wasn't that their monitors were broken, or even unusable, just annoying. Technicians could find nothing wrong with the monitors they examined, nor the video cards. It was noted in some articles that home users were little affected -- it was the large offices, the universities, and so on. Most people believed it was mass hysteria or the power of suggestion -- once a few people complained about their monitors, everyone started imagining problems.

But Frank and Paul knew better, and were very much on edge. They made repeated calls to MacKenzie, who kept urging them to wait. "Hnarqu is bound by six seals. We'll know when they start to give way. The five form a ring that bound him to this area; the sixth, the strongest, holds him in his tomb," he reassured them.

The next day they got word of a minor earthquake in northwestern Spain. Frank and Paul would have taken no notice of it, but MacKenzie drew it to their attention. "That was the first of the seals breaking," he informed them.

The day after that, similar reports of earthquakes came from North Africa and Louisiana. These Frank and Paul took note of, and MacKenzie confirmed for them that those were locations of two more seals. "We'd better begin our watch. Once the other two seals are broken, Hnarqu could begin to break free."

As they drove out into the country, Paul commented on the weather. "It's a perfectly clear day in late fall. If I had to pick a moment for armageddon, it would be stormy. Or maybe a blisteringly hot day. But not this!"

MacKenzie replied, "Well, our cultist friends have sped up the timetable for this a wee bit. Maybe it was originally scheduled for a monsoon."

After about 45 miles, Mackenzie pulled off to the side of the road. "We'll get out here. The highway does go closer to the site, but we don't want to let the cultists know someone besides them is skulking in the woods."

As they carried camping supplies and some less identifiable gear through the woods, occasionally skirting the edge of a farm or small community, they were a little more talkative.

"When this tomb was sealed, a few thousand Europeans lived on this continent along with countless Native Americans. This was a very remote site then -- no one would come out here but an occasional Indian on foot," MacKenzie reflected.

"So it was what, the early 1600s when Hnarqu was put into captivity? He had been rampaging about all that time before that?"

"It was in the first half of the 17th century, indeed, but Hnarqu was free only briefly at that time. It had been slumbering underground for millenia before that, imprisoned when the stars turned against it. A meddling English warlock freed it -- unwittingly, the story goes, though not all scholars agree on that point. He was promptly burned at the stake, and a group of men called the Grey Brotherhood came from Europe to imprison it. Their strongest magics had no effect on it, though; eventually they realized they would have to work at a great distance from it. So they created powerful seals that could keep it at bay; those were the first five. Positioned across North America and Europe and North Africa, they created a ring which it was very painful to Hnarqu to be in. Hnarqu retreated to the center of the ring, where the effect was least; then the men brought in their largest, strongest seal, eventually trapping Hnarqu behind it in a cavern. But that first warlock had done enough damage; Hnarqu was awake again and would rage against its imprisonment. In its rage its powerful mind lashed out, giving some men horrifying nightmares and driving others insane outright. It obviously learned to use its telepathy to its advantage, building up a cult following. This had to happen, sooner or later."

Frank was following all this, mouth agape. "Now wait a minute! These Brotherhood guys had strong magic and they still couldn't do anything but make the seals. We're a retired philosophy professor, a computer hacker who's failing out of school, and an art major. What can we possibly do?"

"We can defeat Hnarqu's cult and, if we must, die trying to stop Hnarqu. For we are the only ones to do this; no others know of the threat or how to deal with it."

"That's your best plan? To die trying? I knew I shouldn't have come!" Paul interjected.

"No, I don't intend to die here. I have a ritual that opens a hole in space. I'm hoping we can lure Hnarqu to somewhere else, anywhere, and close the portal. But I don't know that we can get him through the portal, or if he'll really stay away then. And before we can open the portal, we have to get rid of the cult."

MacKenzie lapsed into silence as Paul and Frank contemplated their possible deaths. Each agreed, though, that they were the only ones to deal with the problem, so they had better do their best.

A little later, Frank asked, "So what's this Hnarqu like?"

"Absolutely destructive," Mackenzie answered. "He feeds off animal fear and suffering. Nothing delights him like killing."

"But what does he look like?" Frank continued.

"Oh. Well, no good reports of that. Most who see him go mad, you know. It sounds like he's mostly a mass of tentacles though. Like a sea anemone almost. With a very, very large mouth."

As night neared, MacKenzie picked out a spot. "The cavern is about a mile from here. We don't want to camp any closer because cultists might notice us. We'll check out the cavern after we make camp."

They did make camp, and afterwards traveled lighter to the cavern. Everything that MacKenzie needed for his ritual they carried with them, intending to make a cache nearer the cavern. After about a half-hour's walk they spotted a small cave.

"That's the cavern? Hnarqu can fit in that? And we're worried about him?" Paul asked, incredulous.

"No!" MacKenzie replied, a bit miffed. "The cavern is much larger, but has been filled in. That's just a small passage into it. When Hnarqu breaks out, this hill will be gone."

The three had no idea if they were being watched or not. MacKenzie had them scout around and when they could find no one, he judged they'd just have to chance it. High in a tree, they tied the sack of supplies to a branch. That done, they approached the cave.

"It doesn't look like anyone's been here in a while," MacKenzie said. "If the cult's going to show up, I don't think it's going to be just yet. We should have a day or two of waiting."

They had to crouch to enter the cave. The cave's walls were tightly-packed dirt, lined in some places with flat rocks. They followed the powerful light of MacKenzie's flashlight through a number of twists, though there were no other branches.

"The smell of dirt is so strong here I feel like I'm breathing dirt," Frank moaned after about ten minutes into the cave. "I'm getting claustrophobic."

"Take your flashlight and go back to the mouth of the cave. Wait just inside the first turn, so that you're out of sight. We should have someone stand watch anyhow. If you need fresh air, step out briefly, but try to stay out of sight," MacKenzie instructed.

As Frank made his way back, Paul and the older man wound their way deeper. The passageway changed little, neither widening nor narrowing. All the while, they could feel they were descending. Eventually the passageway ended abruptly, terminated by a square room. This room, too, had dirt walls; the ceiling was shored up by stone posts. The whole room was without adornment or writing of any kind. At the far end something shaped oddly blended into the wall. Paul went over to examine it.

It was a polished, faceted stone, greyish-green in color and glossy in texture. It gave the impression of having been carved to exacting specifications, so crisp and precise were its facets; however, Paul could detect no pattern or symmetry. It bulged out of the wall, ten feet from side to side and spanning the floor to its eight-foot ceiling. Moreover, it clearly had much more bulk behind the earthen wall.

As Paul gazed at it and ran his hands along its facets, MacKenzie pointed out, "This is it. This is the seal. Cut to the requirements of some geometry we can never understand. Notice how much it's cracked already."

Paul looked again, more closely, and sure enough, thousands of near-microscopic cracks covered its surface. It held together, but in a very fragile way. "It could break apart at any moment," Paul said.

"Not just any moment," MacKenzie reassured him. "We'll feel Hnarqu stir before he breaks his bonds. OK, take another look around; now we know what's what. Let's get back to the surface now."

As they walked back, Paul asked MacKenzie, "So how are we to lure Hnarqu into this rift you're to open up?"

"I have no idea," MacKenzie said, "but what I've read suggests that the energy released by such a ritual attracts the Old Ones by itself. If it doesn't attract Hnarqu by itself, I don't know."

They slowed as they neared the surface and turned their lights off. Voices were audible up ahead. They crept cautiously now, peeking around every corner before turning it. They looked around the last corner; figures were silhouetted against the opening and the moonlit forest.

Paul listened for a moment and concluded that the people were not speaking in English. "What are they saying? What language is that?" he whispered harshly into MacKenzie's ear.

"That's Naacal. They're engaged in a ritual of praise toward Hnarqu. Letting him know who they are, as it were. Letting Hnarqu know that they're the ones trying to free him, not his first snack. We might be able to sneak out unnoticed while they concentrate on the ritual. They're a little bit away from the mouth of the cave. Where has your friend got to, I wonder."

They crept forward, almost crawling the last twenty feet of the cave. The cultists had a fire going by this point; MacKenzie swore under his breath as their chances of being unnoticed dwindled. "Nothing to do but try. Look at the gleam in their eyes; they're not all here mentally. That could be our saving grace."

Crawling slowly and quietly out of the cave and along the hillside, they did avoid detection. The ritual droned on behind them. They neared the cache and heard a "psst" from above. They looked up; there was Frank, climbing down to them.

"I was stretching my legs outside the cave when they arrived. There was nothing to do but stay away after that," he explained.

MacKenzie nodded. "Let's go back to the camp and get my rifle," he said.

"Rifle?" Frank and Paul asked in unison.

"Sure. How else are we going to get rid of the cultists? Oh, come on, don't get cold feet on me now! These are evil people. They're trying to unleash a destructive, age-old horror on an unsuspecting earth." He glared at them. "Well, it's not like you have to do any killing anyhow. I'll take care of it myself."

They got the rifle and then returned to an advantageous spot near the cave. "We'll wait here until Hnarqu begins to stir. That'll be the best time to shoot; if we drop their cantor then they will be thrown into confusion. Without a cantor it's not safe for them to remain, anyhow; Hnarqu would treat them as sacrifices. Not like the cantor would stop that," MacKenzie finished. "Just lulls them into a false sense of security. The Great Old Ones are not concerned with allies, only their own blind urges."

Before he could even finish talking, the ground began to rumble. "That's it!" MacKenzie whispered. The chanting of the group outside the cave increased in pitch, becoming quite frenzied. "I didn't expect it so soon. Now's the time," MacKenzie breathed as he lined up a shot with his sniper's rifle. There was a bang and the three saw the cantor fall bleeding. The chanting stopped utterly. True to MacKenzie's prediction, the cultists began to panic and disperse. One dragged off the cantor. As the rumblings continued, the space outside the cave cleared.

"Hnarqu means business!" Mackenzie exclaimed. "He's not just flexing, he's going for it! I guess that over three hundred years of imprisonment made him impatient. We'd better set up the ritual."

They crossed back to the cache and pulled down their supplies. Frank and Paul helped MacKenzie carry them to the clearing and then watched him set up. The ground around them was becoming quite unstable; Paul observed, "I'm not sure we're far enough away ..."

MacKenzie hushed his worries. They stood there for a moment, drinking in the clear moonlight, an occasional cry of terror from the woods, and the earth seeming to fall apart below their feet. In an odd way, they were invigorated; they felt life swelling within them, their adrenaline flowing to meet the challenge before them. However, all of that life was telling them to get as far away as possible.

Then came a shattering noise and a tremendously powerful groundswell. The three were knocked to their feet. As he struggled to get up, Mackenzie groaned, "That was it. The seal. He's loose."

As if to emphasize his point, a long orange tentacle burst out of the ground about seventy-five feet ahead of them, spraying them with dirt and rock. Then came another, further away. And another. And another. As the tentacles groped, they brushed terrifyingly close to the three.

Frank fell to the ground, sobbing, "I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here, what am I doing here?"

"Drag him out of the way," MacKenzie snapped. "I have to begin the ritual!"

Paul complied and then watched MacKenzie from a distance. He set up several statues in a geometrical pattern, then commenced to connect them with lines of dust. More and more tentacles continued to burst from the hill; the hill distended as the tentacles dragged some mass from inside it. Frank continued to gibber; Paul continued to state, being unable to turn away.

What Paul missed as he kept his attention glued to Hnarqu's rebirth was a wild-eyed man burst out of the forest with a knife, running up to stab MacKenzie in the back. MacKenzie's cry, however, got his attention. He saw the maniac running toward him; he moved forward, away from Frank, and grappled with the maniac. A few punches disoriented the man; he wasn't used to pain. Paul was able to disarm him and send him running. Paul then ran to MacKenzie's side.

MacKenzie was bleeding heavily and in a state of shock. He did not respond to Paul's questions. Paul looked around but had no idea of how to continue the ritual. He swore under his breath, "Great. MacKenzie can't do his tricks and mine's not working. We've lost."

He went back to Frank and began to impassionedly slap him around. Frank quieted down and then apologized. Paul told him, "We've got to get out of here. MacKenzie can't finish his ritual and I'm out of ideas."

As the two made their way over to MacKenzie, Hnarqu completed pulling himself out of the ground. The hill had become a gaping crater just a little in front of them. Tentacles began uprooting trees and dropping them into an unseen maw. Paul and Frank did their best to avert their eyes.

They started to drag MacKenzie, leaving the ritual implements behind. As they left, though, Hnarqu went through a change. No longer was he rampaging; instead, he seemed almost in pain. He began to thrash about wildly, beating tentacles against the ground. The shockwaves knocked Frank and Paul to the ground time and again. Frank stared in wonder; Paul smacked his head and shouted, "It worked! It took time, but it worked!"

"What worked?" Frank shouted over the beast's tantrum.

"My plan! I revised their virus! Let's just say the wavelength those computers are emitting isn't quite so pleasant for Hnarqu anymore!"

"OK, and that gets us exactly where? Instead of a destructive rampage, he's now thrashing around in pain! And this helps us how?"



"Well, if we can rouse MacKenzie and get the portal open, Hnarqu now has a lot of encouragement to go through it!"

"And if not?!?"

By this point, though, MacKenzie was overcoming the shock from his stabbing. As he came to, though, he was in for a worse shock, but Paul got him talking.

"MacKenzie! Now's the time! You've got to finish your spell!"

"Yes. Yes!" Mackenzie lurched up and over the quaking ground to the spot he was before. Once there, he straightened out his statues and adopted a position with arms akimbo, beginning to chant. As Paul and Frank watched, a split appeared in the very air between them and the horror; the split widened until it obscured their view. MacKenzie collapsed; they ran to his side.

"The portal is open!" he shouted. "Now we just have to hope Hnarqu goes through it!" He fell backwards. In a voice barely audible above the din, he said, "I have no strength left. Once Hnarqu is through, smash one of the statues."

"Which one?" Paul asked.

"Any one! And scatter the lines!"

Through all this, the rampage continued. Paul walked around the rift, giving it a wide berth; once he could see past it, he could see that Hnarqu had not really moved from the spot of its emergence. As he watched, however, he could see the thing begin to turn. Its tentacles strained toward the portal, as if sensing a shelter from its agony. Slowly it pulled itself toward the portal, tearing a gigantic rut in the ground as it went. It began to disappear through the hole in the air. "Get ready!" Paul called to Frank.

"Ready for what?!"

"To smash a statue, you idiot!"

In a minute the last tentacles had disappeared through the hole. Paul waved to Frank: "Smash it! Smash it!"

Frank picked up one of the small statues and began to bash it against a larger one. After the third hit, it broke into several pieces. As it broke, a searing blue light burst forth; Frank dropped the pieces. With a great wind, the hole in the air closed itself. As Paul watched, though, one orange tentacle burst through and was severed by the closing portal. It fell to the earth, shuddered brainlessly for a moment, then stopped. A neon orange ichor seeped out of its cut end and began to flow towards the two on the ground.

Paul ran over. "Let's pick him up and whatever else we can and get out of here!" Saying that, he threw the older man over his shoulder and began to walk away. "You grab whatever you can!"

Frank scattered the dust and picked up a few statues. He reached for the pieces of the shattered one and recoiled with a burned hand. He shrugged and ran after Paul, who was well into the woods already.

They didn't know exactly where they were going, so they wandered through the woods for several hours and took several rests. They missed the campsite entirely and ended up on the highway, which they followed back to the car. As they walked through the woods, a helicopter with a searchlight thundered overhead, pointed toward the site of Hnarqu's tomb. At one point, they heard a whimpering off to one side. "Cowardly cultist," Paul proclaimed. Once in the car, Paul drove back to the university at about twice the speed limit. On the way, Frank asked him what happened.

"Well, you knew I wasn't going to rely on MacKenzie's plan. So I figured, Hnarqu needed a specific wavelength to give him strength or whatever, right? Well, a certain other wavelength should have the opposite effect and weaken him. So I added some lines of code to the viruses to switch wavelengths when a certain signal was received from the Cthulhu server. And I sent those viruses out, replacing the ones that were out there. Right before we left to come here, I set the synchronizer on the server to send out that signal tonight. Guess I set it for a little too late."

"How did you choose a wavelength?"

"I didn't really know what wavlength would weaken him. So I looked at the wavelength that would free Hnarqu and then I chose one much shorter -- I figured at worst it wouldn't have the same effect as the right frequency, and at worst it could overload him, pummeling him, kinda. Too quick for him to adjust too."

"So the future of the earth depended on your ability to figure out physics?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Paul agreed sheepishly.

"You've failed physics three times in a row!"

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© 1997, 2008 Edward P. Berglund
"Tentacles": © 1997 Peter F. Guenther. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: September 18, 1997; Updated: February 19, 2008