Unsympathetic Stewards by Doyle Netzly

Experimental time machines may attract someone's attention.

Joe Garrett knew about the night. He did his share of hallucinogens in the 70's, and remembered the deep upwelling affinities of things prehuman; to run through the city night, silent and stealthful, lupine in sneakers, avoiding any headlights or streetlamps, or their shadows.

Now he was middle-aged. Fatter, devastated by arthritis and old injuries, alone in his room above his parent's, from whence he rarely wandered. As he lit another cigarette, gently scraping away the butts to one side of the small ashtray, he thought that he heard a sound, a curious scratching in character different from that of one of the two dozen cats inhabiting his structure. He listened so as to trace the origin of the disturbance. The shaded bulb of the light next to his desk, the only illumination in the room , shone suddenly with a definite bluish cast. And then the wind came, billowing papers from the piles scattered about and gently rattling the wooden door. With an electrical buzzing, a shimmering sphere hardened into form near the closet.

It was his machine, returned from its programmed flight path. But is was subtly different. It had been exactly one solar year since Garrett gazed upon his time machine. Its course led it exactly one year into the future, temporally corrected for the precession of the earth's axis, so as to appear within eight feet of its point of origin. He picked up the grapefruit-sized orb in his shaking scarred hands, slowly turning it over. Inscribed, on its underside, in careful block letter script were the letters "R.U. PICKMAN."

* * *

Tony Matthews was beyond shocked. What he saw he could not comprehend. Deep in the rude cellars of Kosovo, apparently tied together and doused with fuel, people were set alight and burned alive. Sometimes they were hacked by knives or axes, sometimes chainsawed in front of their neighbors. Not just once, in one isolated incident, but as far as he had personally witnessed, in each village it was almost routine. But most disturbing was what certain personnel made sure that the cameras of CNN never saw; in each instance, the helpless victims were in front of a roughly-chiseled black stone that was spattered with dried gore over which hummed myriads of flies. Around the perimeter of the victims/stone were odd, narrow scrape marks in the blood and entrails, as if made by children's shoes.

* * *

Professor Armitage had worked alone for the last thirteen years. His study had an ample TV set, always on, because sometimes it was too quiet, and then one could almost make out the soft rustlings of the ghosts in the century-plus old house. The house was greying, shedding long strips of paint, with darkening overhangs. The smells that welled up on rainy days was redolent of the old soaps and rotting fruit of past generations, ancestors all. Everyone was gone in his life except for a woman friend of 22 years who dropped by every other evening to check on him.

Garrett and he had gotten on famously, being of similar emotional constitution. Young Garrett had emailed the professor regarding some information on some of Richard Feynman's earlier work on advanced waves. Professor Armitage had in fact been a professor of physics of some note at Arkham University in the 1950's. The debate had been about which model best fitted the solution of the Lorentz-Dirac equation -- Bohm's "pilot-wave" or Feyman/Wheeler's "advanced wave;" and about the exact meaning of the EPR experiment.

Garrett seemed to be a bright student, despite has complete lack of formal education. The general conclusions mutually reached was that the local time-space matrix could be gauged for curvature using photons of light from a laser enclosed in an "inertially-neutral reference frame." One could judge the local curvature, compute a normal vector, and simply slip in between the cracks of time and space. It was all beautiful on paper. But its applicability to an asympotically-flat universe, such as the one in which we reside, was questionable. But if there were larger gradiations in the fabric of time-space, it would be exquisitely meaningful!

* * *

Matthews could not sleep anymore. Well, to be more exact, he didn't want to sleep any more. Dark, furtive shadows squatted and howled around fires sputtering and crackling yellow and blue flames. The Royal Marine doctors had given him sedatives, as the wear had begun to visibly show on his face, and the nervous tickings increased so as not to be concealed any longer. There were others, too, like him, haggard and wan, greying perceptibly against the reddish, rocky soil of Kosovo. Each village held a horror. Many of the returning villagers had crippling injuries inflicted on them by the occupying troops and police. Some had stories of rumored special groups of Serbian paramilitary, three in number, commanded by Russian officers, whose armbands possessed an enigmatic emblem, a strange, octopus-looking creature.

It seemed prudent to those doctors to send Matthews somewhere away from the disturbing rustic villages, to lighter duties doing humanitarian relief in Pristina. He rode those roads now, from once-quaint Gjakova, to the brick-and-steel of Pristina, past burned-out villages covered in wild vegetation slowly making its inroads back to cover over the traces of residence by humanity. In the approaching dusk, no lights shown in yawning vacant windows; gloom made each house a leering, broken skull.

He was glad to get away from Gjakova. He had been posted with a joint NATO group to investigate reports of war crimes. He had seen what the retreating Serb forces had done to the wells, their dank bottoms scattered with bloated, white torsos and limbs. He had seen the mass graves, limbs still protruding out of the greening earth. He had seen too much evil, and he wondered at the extreme inhumanity of those responsible parties. The small convoy of five vehicles bumped and lumbered over shell craters in the road, tossing Matthews to one side of the Humvee. In front of them, the moon rose pale in the twilight sky.

The Humvees squealed to a halt. Despite the fact that they were tardy in arriving at their destination, the lieutenant in charge found a consensus among the vehicles' riders to stop for a brief respite to relieve several distended bladders. Matthews stooped out of the thick doorway of the Humvee and stood on the asphalt roadway. The insects' chirpings and raspings seemed to be syncopated in rhythm, subtly increasing in volume, the effect of which was unnerving. A strong gust of wind shook the shrubs along the road briskly. And then there they were.

Gaunt black shapes approached silently, not more than twenty meters ahead of them on the road. The metallic clatter of AK-47's broke the insects' song. There was a white flash nearby from the Humvee he had just exited. Hot metal shards flew past his head as he flipped himself onto the tarmac. His ears rung horribly. Immediately, several more explosions followed in quick succession, throwing bits of Humvee and human at Matthew's feet. Slightly dazed and fumbling for his sidearm, he ground his face around in the gravel, twisting to see a boot heel gracefully curve its way into his temple.

* * *

Garrett was, as an understatement, truly perplexed by the discovery of the signature on the bottom of the device that he had sent one year into the future. Its only clue: its engravature, R.U. Pickman. His search at Yahoo! had uncovered that Pickman was, in fact, a character from some fantastical writer named H.P. Lovecraft. What significance could he possibly attach to the appearance of graffiti, by a fictional character out of some fantasy writer's imagination in 1927, to his experimental time probe. Could it have been short-stopped at some intermediary point in its path of transit? If he had not himself carefully examined the titanium sphere's surface immediately prior to the initial "launch," and if he had not seen its reappearance before his very critical eyes, he would suspect tampering by some waggish prankster. But then, motive and opportunity seemed elusive, owing to his solitary habits.

He bundled the time probe into some pink antistatic wrappers, then into a cardboard box, and sealed it with clear tape. He then sat down at his PC, opened Netscape, and selected Professor Armitage's email address.

Professor Armitage was equally perplexed by the mystery of Mr. Pickman's handiwork, and also suspected tampering, despite repeatedly sent reassurances. Thus, it was resolved that they repeat the experiment, more closely monitored, and with a payload of recording instruments. And, thus, Garrett left his room and drove to Arkham.

The sympathetic professor introduced Garrett to the current physics professor, a Mr. Wilson, who showed a marked interest in Garrett's project. The theories were reviewed jointly, the proofs given, the peculiar time-symmetric solution of the Lorent-Dirac Equation pioneered by Feynman/Wheeler in 1949 expounded upon by accounting for a sum-over-histories universal frame of reference, in a two-temporal dimensional model. Garrett rattled these things off, pacing frenetically, clouds of smoke zigzagging diagonally from his cigarette. Professor Wilson agreed to seek funding to reproduce the spherical probe and its oddly spinning internal plates, and proposed the addition of circuits to allow the device to travel in the honeycomb of spatial dimensions to work in conjunction with the existing temporal circuits.

Unexpectedly, an anonymous contributor came forward to fund the project in toto. Within a week, all the components were there in brightly labeled boxes collected into a larger container on Professor Wilson's desk. Included with the packages, there was a solitary envelope, addressed to Professor Wilson in a stunted and crabbed handwriting, and bearing neither stamp nor return address. The text of this enigmatic missive, verbatim, was, as read aloud by Wilson:

"Please let me introduce myself as your benefactor, and for reasons of my own, at this time I wish to remain anonymous.

"I have read the abstract of what you are intending to do experimentally, but take heed, others have been there before. Dangers you should not imagine wait just outside this spatiotemporal frame. Please suspend execution of the experiment pending receipt of parcel and further instructions." It was unsigned, but penned in the identically compressed handwriting of its addressor.

This was, to tell the truth, just a bit of a strain of credulity; first, the inscription from out of time, and now a warning from an eccentric and equally wealthy contributor. In the intervening ten days, while assembly progressed, there were some that offered the opinion that this was an elaborate hoax perpetuated on the Physics Department by the wild and unschooled Garrett. Garrett knew that there was speculation expressed on behalf of certain of the faculty regarding the validity of his proofs. But the nexus of this speculation, Garrett himself, quietly was full of the gravest gnawing doubts as to what had transpired during the first trial of the orb.

* * *

Matthews awoke with a start, tasting the metallic tang of blood in his mouth. His head throbbed and his right eye burned wetly, transposing its blurred image onto that of his undamaged left. His arms were heavy, and some object seemed to be laying across his torso, as he realized that he was sitting upright, hands manacled together by a short length of heavy chain, connecting to similar manacles around his naked feet.

His vision cleared, and he saw that he sat on a concrete cellar floor across from a rusting metal bed frame. There glowed a 60-watt bulb bare in its socket in the middle of a ceiling joist spanning the ceiling. Across the room sat a heavy wooden desk, and on it, beside a sheaf of papers, were strewn various axes, knives, and saws, a set of jumper cables, and a stack of pornographic photo books. An open doorway framed in rough beams was just behind the desk. There was a peculiar odor in the air, of excrement and decay, mingled together with musky damp smells and sharp hospital smells. Through the doorway came soft whimperings and bleatings, as if from multiple sources, along with the reverberation of a single set of heavy, measured footsteps whose sound approached, then halted nearby.

A darkly uniformed man stood in the door, maybe five meters away, gazing coolly down at Matthews' nearly prone body. Matthews sat up quickly. The man reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a cigarette and lighter, put the cigarette into his mouth and flicked open the metal lid of his lighter, never removing his eyes from those of Matthews. The flame showed a face that shocked his senses. The visage he beheld was uncouth, eyes round and glassy over the top of a flattened nose and a queerly thick-lipped mouth, which opened, and spoke in a deep croaking laugh, "Yebatte Ya!" The overall aspect of this man was ghastly, and it unnerved Matthews to look upon him. So he was relieved when the man stepped back out of sight through the doorway and walked away.

His consciousness was clouding now, his head reeling dizzily; he leaned back into the cement wall, unable to maintain awareness. He resisted the onrush of sleep, only vainly, as his head bobbed forward and darkness fell.

Dazed and barely alert, greasy hands were fumbling with the chains around his legs, and a pencil beam of sunlight shone in his good eye through a knothole in the plank nailed over the casement windows. Without speaking, two uniformed guards were undoing his leg shackles, unlocking and unpinning, then pulling its chain to one side. Similarly, they undid his hand shackles, but as they did so, Matthews could see that both bore the odd facial aspects as the unpleasant guard; a flattened oval head, with unblinking round and watery eyes, broad, flat nose, and a thick-lipped slit that was too wide to be a mouth. The hands of the two were swollen, blunt-fingered. Their digits possessed only the most rudimentary fingernail, and in the shaft of light, he noticed that they were webbed.

Each one grabbed one of his arms as a third, previously unnoticed, moved from out from a corner of the room and followed behind as they firmly led him up the wide cement stairs.

* * *

It took ten days to assemble the time orb, complete with state-of-the art radiation-hardened circuits that would record its exact path through space-time, and for dramatic measure, a video camera card piggybacked by a RAM module. Its size was comparable to that of a basketball. Its whitish metal surface was broken only by the eye of the light-pipe that connected to the camera inside.

And it was on that tenth day that the odd package arrived. It was first noticed by Professor Wilson as he pulled out the chair from underneath his desk. There it sat on the seat, in thick brown wrapping paper bearing only Wilson's name handwritten in that odd script. Within, wrapped in the same thick paper, was a star-shaped green stone, about two inches in diameter, along with an envelope. The star-shaped stone was fashioned from a soapy green rock unidentifiable by the professor. Etched into the center of its jadelike surface was a minute drawing of something that brought to mind a stylized eye. Examination of the letter found it to read:

"My name is Richard Upton Pickman. I am the person who has provided you with the financial means to carry out your project. In return, I ask that you, Professor Armitage and Joe Garrett, indulge me with your company this night in my residence at 133 Bowen Street. I possess information crucial to the success of your endeavors, but the discretion of a private audience is the only appropriate forum in which to discuss these matters. Please call around 8:00, and bring with you the contents of the box." And it was signed R.H. Pickman.

Professor Armitage was called and there was some discussion with Professor Wilson as to whether Pickman was the progenitor of some hoax. The issue of the odd stone was exchanged briefly. Reservedly, it was decided to give the eccentric-seeming Pickman a listen.

They all met at Garrett's rented flat, one-half of a nondescript fifty-year-old brick duplex, and walked the two blocks to the Bowen Street address. 133 Bowen was a heavy, crumbling Georgian structure. They trod up the rotting stairs, and knocked on the faded door. Moments later, it swung inwards, and a very slight gentleman beckoned them to come in. He introduced himself as Richard Pickman, an explorer of the unusual and arcane, such as Charles Fort, and that he was glad to see that they had responded favorably to his summons. They were bade to enter his study, and then were seated in ragged Queen Anne chairs arranged in a half-circle in front of a broad desk littered with papers and stacked with fading volumes. Pickman seated himself behind the desk and started his exposition.

As they listened, Pickman at first apologized for the melodramatic way in which he compelled them to be his audience, then proceeded to bring out several very large leather-bound books from the stack on his desk.

"Have you ever considered the true nature of evil, how the timing of certain unrelated dire events interconnect, despite an utter lack of causality? Have you ever marveled at the propensity of man to act very inhumanely indeed towards his fellow man? And what are we to make of the motivations of those callous few, who periodically plunge the world into chaos, that can so eloquently awaken ancient hatreds within the hearts and minds of those naively receptive?

"Imagine, if you will, a brooding, ever-circling cloud of evil hovering over our Earth, pausing now and then over certain places: Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Kosovo; crystallizing to claim the souls of individuals whose identities have become submerged into the whole, to become as wraiths to serve their collective dark ends. Those evil seeds are sown sometimes in entire cultures, sometimes they find root in only one person. But the effects are identical: a psychological breaking with the memories of the past, a radical feeling of an impending revolution, accompanying an irrational identification of a 'scapegoat,' whose alleged lack of stewardship can be cited as evidence of their disloyalty to the group. These recriminations are eventually acted upon; the paranoid-schizophrenic, maniacal intensity of these impulses force themselves into fruition. Again and again in human history, have these things happened.

"I put to you," Pickman continued, "that indeed these events are not happenstance, but are, in fact, orchestrated by interdimensional entities lurking just beyond the familiar and comfortable Euclidean dimensions. There is a race of beings that dwelt on this Earth in prehuman times, unsympathetic to man, who jealously await their season to reclaim their residence. Their emanations coruscate through the fabric of the dreams of men."

Our host's purplish hand extended one of the books. "This book, written in 1228, and reprinted in 1532, is the Latin translation of a book written in the 8th century by an Arab named Abdul Alhazred, who led a peculiar life and met with a bizarre death. This book outlines the plot of these beings, whom Alhazred calls the 'Old Ones,' to again return from their banishment and dominate the cosmos; and tells of other beings who would rather that they remain interred. It is this other race whose interests I now represent to you."

From down in the foundations of the house the guests could hear muffled bumping noises.

Pickman held his gaze to theirs. "I have walked there, in between the world-lines of space-time; I have evaded the emissaries of the Old Ones, and have scratched my name in your machine to add credence to my words. If any still doubt my seriousness, I would like for you to address your misgivings to my colleagues."

A door behind the seated guests rushed open, a pair of loping man-sized beasts, altogether horrible in aspect, entered the study and took their place beside Pickman. Wet matted fur covered parts of their extremities; alert, feral eyes shone from their thick brows; and their mouths masked cruel, sharp canine teeth.

"This was Asaph Curwin. Asaph was a private in the 20th Massachusetts at Gettysburg." Pickman pointed to the nearer of the two grim creatures. "Next to him, was named in life William Whately. Do not fear them. We serve similar interests, all of us. We dwell in the darker, unthought-about recesses of the world, and only reluctantly do we wish to interfere in the affairs of men.

"The resurgence of the activities of the Old Ones poses a threat to both races, mankind and my own, and we must muster our efforts jointly in order to defeat their efforts to destabilize man's place in the cosmos. By means of your invention, together, our alliance shall break their grip on humanity."

That's when the three guests noticed the painting behind Pickman's chair. Dabbed in thick oil was a beast perched atop a tombstone: hand under chin, contemplating a human skull.

* * *

Matthews was led from the stairs through a set of double steel doors into a large open area. The smell of blood, bile, and urine mingled in the air of the charnel house in which he was compelled to walk, past headless torsos hung from terrible hooks suspended on tracks in the high ceiling, past large cauldrons boiling with unspeakable contents over hissing blue gas flames. Hideously squat parodies of children attended the torsos with surgical precision, peeling long slices of whitish yellow fat from the corpses with chattering electric knives. Their bloated hairless faces peering out of white coats splashed in red.

Past these frightful sights he was escorted, through another set of steel doors, and into a well-appointed office foyer. A dark, very attractive twenty-something girl sat on the other side of a Plexiglas window. "Mr. Dragovich is ready for you now," she said in lightly-accented English, and his escort deposited Matthews inside an adjoining office, bare of furnishings or carpet, white surfaces lit by white fluorescent. In the center of the room, crouched in apparent anguish, was a grey-haired man, casually tailored, early fifties, slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.

"The Tcho-Tcho . . . can't stop them . . . the lurkers . . . God help us! IA! IA!" Then the man noticed the presence of Matthews and got up. Agitated and disheveled, the man proclaimed, "What I have done, there is no forgiveness! I have opened the way for the destruction of humanity! But my own followers have imprisoned me, and those called to serve are now the masters.

"I do not understand why they mock us, they are cruel beyond belief. They, and their own, have enslaved me and the others in the government. At first they came; they were summoned from the wastes of Leng, to instruct us on how to overcome the Western technologies of war, by occult means. Now they occupy us, and have even invited others, fish-men, to aid them in their slaughter.

"Everyone seemed affected by the spells of the Tcho-Tcho. People's emotions changed, they became as cornered beasts, dangerous and savage. Cruel gods are worshipped now who demand rivers of blood to slake their thirsts, who are bent on the extinction of the human race, of course. The Tcho-Tcho are deathless, and have allied themselves with the insects and with certain species of birds. They corrupt the very souls of small infants in their cribs!

"They keep me as a spokesperson, to handle their affairs with humans. Others they keep for they can twist one's mind into believing in a pound of raisins. Since you are still with us, they obviously have plans for you. What those plans are, I am troubled to say. You are to be conveyed to a place in-between dimensions, where terrible things will slowly feast upon your mind, turning you into a hollow wraith to serve them. It does me no pleasure to tell you this. They require it because they feed on the suffering of humanity, and now they nourish themselves on you!"

He leered insanely. The two guards, who had waited outside the office during the interview, entered the white cell, with the young receptionist entering behind them carrying a small tray. The two uniformed men grabbed him roughly and restrained him, as the girl coolly emptied the contents of a syringe into his arm. He noticed a sharp bitter taste at the back of his throat. Brilliant spiderwebs danced out of the lights, and unraveled themselves. Matthews became unconscious.

In his dream, Tony Matthews saw gaunt shadows wheeling in flight over vast nighted plains. He saw fat grublike things curling snugly in burrows, tentacles quivering obscenely as they swayed over the dreams of men, and spied things that cannot be easily described: oozing, convoluted shapes unfolding, shimmering with an unearthly iridescence not unlike bubbles of oil in mud. In his dream, Tony Matthews awoke and saw that it was no dream.

* * *

"The star-stone that was delivered to you is your only defense against the power of the Old Ones," Pickman continued. "It is effective against their minions, both human and nonhuman, but powerless against the Old Ones themselves. It was fashioned in ancient Mnar eons ago, by a race of large crustaceans who were well versed in the ways of war against the Old Ones."

The two creatures at his side left the room and the larger one, who had been Asaph, returned with a coat and blanketed Pickman's narrow shoulders with it.

"We are to leave immediately for the university. A car is outside."

Pickman stood and motioned that they should leave. The beast, Asaph, positioned himself behind the doorway and pulled the large door inwards. A figure of a man, covered in dark clothes, wearing a porkpie hat was just outside. The thing that was Asaph drew the figure into the room with one great swipe of his hand, and slammed the door quickly behind. Asaph held the man on the floor by his collar, and looked in his face, sniffing at it.

Pickman jeered, "Ha! A Deep One! And a rather slowwitted one at that!"

And he-who-had-been Asaph reached up with his free hand and jerked back the intruder's hat and the man's wraps, showing us a leprous head festooned with warty growths running up the top of his forehead, and with the return motion, simply pulled loose the man's head.

"Well, they know our plans. We must redouble our pace," Pickman announced, and led his guests around the reeking spot of fluids on the floor, outside and into a waiting car.

Pickman, sitting next to the driver, turned sideways in his seat, addressed his three passengers in back. "And we know something of their plans. Wherever the race of man, there, too, are members of my race. Certain humans have allowed the servants of the Old Ones to prepare the way for Their return. The geometries of the stars are right. Surely professors, you must recall Mach's principle relating the interconnectedness of all matter in the universe. Great forces are in motion. And if we do not act in a timely matter, things will be most dire. Although it is possible to travel short distances into the other folded dimensions, it is a hostile place, and the winds in between the spaces are sharp and full of hungry predators. Deeper into the fabric, it becomes intolerably disorienting and increasingly dangerous. We need to use Garrett's machine to impede the passage of Azathoth through a rent in time and space.

"Although young Garrett has fashioned for us a vehicle we may use to thwart the Old Ones, there are limitations. That moment where the present falls behind to become the past is unalterable. Once a thing is done, it cannot be undone. Conveyance to the past by time machine does not allow the alteration of causality. We must act now!"

Huddled figures stood at the edges of the streetlights, staring as they passed by. They pulled into the well-lit physics lab parking lot, exited the sedan, and walked across the lot towards the glass doors of Everett Hall. The evening air was full of rasping insect sounds. The moon fell behind an advancing cloud.

Three cars screeched into the lot in front of them and emptied out their passengers, who now strode towards them. The unnoticed driver of Pickman's car, now visible under the glare of the lights, shambled his matted bulk towards the figures, and fell onto them as one possessed by bloodlust. He had decapitated one of the approaching party and tore the arms off of another. One of them slashed forwards with a large curved knife, catching the driver across the torso. The furry man-thing howled in pain, reached out with his massive paws and disemboweled his assailant.

"The star-stone! Quickly! Show it to them!" Pickman shouted to Professor Armitage.

Armitage fumbled briefly in his coat pocket, then pulled forth the small green stone that shone eerily in the night air. The remaining figures retreated, cowed, and they stepped past the leaking corpses in their path. A frightful miasma surrounded the slain figures, a strong amphibian odor reeled the senses of the three humans. Ingress was gained into the university hall, the physics laboratory door opened, and the storage cabinet containing the time-sphere was unlocked. One of the boxes was opened, its antistatic inner wrappings draped over one edge of the container.

"Someone has removed the experiment!" Armitage burst forth. "But they took the original model, the earlier prototype that Mr. Garrett made!"

"The Deep Ones are cunning, patient adversaries, but the intricacies of deductive reasoning have somehow eluded them. They much prefer to revel in mindless orgies on deserted beaches. Luck is with us," Pickman offered. "We must set the course of your machine to these coordinates." Pickman held a notepad in his bony hand. "Mr. Garrett and Professors, please help me renormalize these numbers quickly."

The two professors and Garrett looked at the page, but did not see numbers, but instead, a curious sequence of runes. Pickman gestured with odd movements of his hands and muttered odd syllables. The runes reformed themselves into Arabic numbers, ones recognizable as an SO(11,2) matrix.

"Thirteen dimensions!" Professor Wilson exclaimed. "The machine can handle only five."

"We'll simply map these into the correct space, and then rotate the coordinates dynamically for the extra eight spatial dimensions. But the order of rotations is critical. This math is noncommutative!" Garrett explained. "Just a simple Z-transform in the phase space of the appropriate dimension. Remember Hamilton's quaternions?"

Professor Wilson fumbled with the small keys of the notebook computer. Professor Armitage pulled the silvery metal sphere loose from its enfolding pink plastic sheets, and undid the access plate with a small screwdriver.

From the direction of the two windows to their left, there commenced a repeated light tapping. The noises continued for a short time before Garrett peered up at their source: outside, hundreds of moths and other insects had gathered, throwing themselves at the glass window panes. Their tapping became insistent, like castanets.

"Don't fret a couple bugs; get this thing plugged in," Professor Wilson snapped.

Armitage pulled forth a cable end from a square hole in the side of the sphere. Garrett plugged in a cable leading from the notebook, hands trembling. Wilson tapped once on the small keyboard.

"Instructions are being downloaded. The sphere will activate in three minutes. Get that access plate back on!" announced Wilson.

They struggled to get the four tiny screws back into the assembly. Pickman reached forth and slid a folded-up scrap of parchment in between the plate and the housing. The screws were tightened, and there was just enough time to withdraw back away from the desk before there was a sharp electrical crack.

* * *

Matthews found himself suspended in a void. Unseen rubbery things brushed past him. It was cold, a cruel, absolute cold that touched deeper than any earthly temperature. The sickly-colored oozing mass seemed to move closer. From his improved vantage, he noticed that the shape of the thing revealed oddly nested internal symmetries, alternating and unfolding alien geometries. The shape slithered closer. It seemed to speak to him in his mind; it spoke horrible ramblings and wheezed thin flutings that echoed maddeningly in his brain.

The image of the shape blurred momentarily in a area immediately in front of Matthews, a flash of ball lightning solidified into a silver sphere just within grasp. Matthews caught at the thing, spinning it over to reveal a scrap of paper that stuck out of its side. Unfolding it, he read, "Ritual for the Purification of the Gates."

He read the phoneticized syllables with a thick tongue. Rumblings like distant thunder rang through the void. He was being propelled backwards now, by unknown forces, away from the gibbering shapeless horrors. His consciousness flashed hot white sparks, and he gazed out onto the green fields of earth.

* * *

In the next six weeks, the Tcho-Tcho were driven back to their evil tenements in Leng, by force of the NATO bombings. But it is rumored that the contents of certain ordinances used in the campaign included soapy, greenish star-shaped stones.

Pickman vanished into anonymity. And none involved ever mentioned his role or his motivations again. Professor Armitage retired placidly to his country home. Matthews assumed his post in Pristina with a fresh commitment to alleviate the suffering of the refugees. Garrett accepted a scholarship to Arkham University, and never again longed for the nocturnal lupine excursions of his youth.

Send your comments to Doyle Metzly


© 1999 Edward P. Berglund
"Unsympathetic Stewards": © 1999 Doyle Metzly. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1999 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: December 5, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004