Gabby Harlow found herself "voluntarily" unemployed. She had resigned from the Wilmarth Foundation. She'd spent ten or so years as a field operative for them, most recently stationed in Lac Marquette, a small town in northern Wisconsin. Whenever mining operations were being proposed in what Wilmarth labeled "red zones" -- those geographic and temporal areas where the Great Old Ones and their minions were believed to be active -- the Foundation always sent operatives to investigate the situation and "guide" the situation along Foundation interests. Of course, everyone, except possibly Gabby, thought the Foundation's interests were "everyone's interests."
Unfortunately, her most recent assignment, before quitting, had been with Zachary Bentoncourt, who best embodied all the Wilmarth qualities she detested. Zack, like most Foundation operatives past and present, had that arrogant disease Gabby labeled "the Messiah Complex." He believed himself among those "chosen few" who were mentally strong enough to do battle with Cthulhu or Ithaqua alone. It was the "mental weaklings," he said, who succumbed to the sinister telepathic machinations of the Great Old Ones. It was as if he and most of his colleagues at the Foundation saw themselves as if they were incarnations of some Elder Gods, all-wise and all-powerful. Zack continually talked about "weeding out" all those cthonic terrors, "zapping," and exterminating them, as if he and his colleagues knew all. To Gabby, they simply were charged with too much testosterone for their own good. Their actions often lead to more violence and destruction then the Great Old Ones could ever create.
Gabby and Zack planned to meet for an early morning breakfast to discuss Gabby's resignation. The normally prompt Zack, however, was fifteen minutes late. When he did arrive he looked unusually unkempt. His shirt was partially untucked over his middle-age beer belly, and what hair he had needed a good combing. He wasn't wearing his usual conservative bow-tie. His starfish medallion hung outside his crumpled collar.
"You don't look well, Zack," Gabby feigned interest.
"I didn't sleep well." he yawned. "I had some terrible dreams last night . . . all about subterranean creatures and stuff."
"O.K., Zack! Stop it right here! I don't want to hear anything about cthonian telepathy . . . Every time you get a hangover, you dream it's the end of the world. I don't want to talk about your premonitions this morning." Gabby waved her hands in frustration.
"Shhh!" Zack put a finger to his lips. He whispered, "People might hear you. You may not be an operative anymore but I still gotta work here. All I was saying . . ."
Gabby interrupted, "I know what you were saying . . . Please just be more critical. Of course you had nightmares last night. Who wouldn't? We were caught in the middle of a protest yesterday with a lot of environmental and Native American rights demonstrators doing all that guerrilla theater stuff. Fifty people dressed like the Grim Reaper, waving dead walleyes around. Just the smell could give you nightmares."
Zack frowned and looked down at the table while adjusting his tie. "Those damn tree-huggers . . . Holding up the excavation simply because some kook thinks they've seen some rare mushroom or giant tree crab that no one can find right now. A simple ploy to get MinneCo to stop this project."
"Calm down. Zack . . . You've got no proof of that . . . Those Greens seem like really nice people . . . not kooks at all. I think you're just anxious to start doing the "Orkin man" with any creatures you happen to find in the mine. In your state you'd imagine that a pile of earth worms was Shudde-M'ell and his minions. Take some time and do some more research before you nuke the whole place. Please."
"We may not have any time Gabby. All the signs are there. Those burrowers are gatherin' and we got to wipe them out before the nest becomes too large. I'm willing to sacrifice a few mushrooms for the whole state of Wisconsin."
Gabby sighed. It was no use talking to Zack when he got into this state -- the world was doomed and he had to save it.
"Listen, Zack, first of all we don't know if anything is down there. All we have are some vague psychic impressions, and you know -- THEY CAN BE WRONG! . . . Secondly, did you ever think what's down there, belongs down there for some reason? Why do all you guys think you know better than those Elder Gods who imprisoned all those "horrors." They're alive and imprisoned, yet you want to dig them up and exterminate them. Digging down there may only be opening up some Pandora's Box we're not capable of dealing with . . ."
A look of frustration passed over Zack's face. He always hated when Gabby acted so irrational. Zack gave up arguing.
"Look, I gotta go . . . We need to talk about your resignation sometime tonight, O.K.? I'm going up to the site and see if I can 'feel' anything."
Gabby might've been resigning from the Wilmarth Foundation, but this didn't mean she was resigning from interest in the Great Old Ones. It was the Foundation's philosophy and methods she disagreed with, not their goal of protecting humanity from these ancient powers. Gabby hated to admit that Zack might also be right about the burrowers beneath the proposed mining site. She, too, was experiencing some horrible nightmares over the last few weeks as well -- dreams that were usually very vivid.
In these recurring dreams, she'd find herself walking through long, darkened subterranean passages -- circular, dry, and hot. The passages were often quiet except for a stifling breeze that whistled through the ancient corridors. Sometimes she'd catch syllables chanted in what seemed to be a guttural tongue, with sounds unpronounceable by human beings. She would inch toward these sounds through the darkened passages, feeling her way through guided by the marble smooth walls. Then, she would reach a large hall and stop, eyes focusing at the rustling at the other end of the hall . . . It was too dark to make out the forms completely, but whatever was there moving was large and . . .
And, then, she'd wake, usually in a cold sweat, with the sound of repetitious chanting continuing to play in her head . . .
Gabby awoke from her daydream and sipped a bit more of her now cold coffee. She was very proud that she wasn't like poor paranoid Zack. He took his dreams at face value: "I see Shudde-M'ell, therefore Shudde-M'ell exists." Gabby recognized that the psychic senses were like any other of our senses -- just as prone to illusions as one's eyes, ears, or touch. If the moon appears larger on the horizon than it does right above us, it doesn't mean that it is actually larger in size on the horizon . . . just because one dreams of eldritch horrors, does not mean that there are any around, no matter how good one's psychic vision. Gabby's motto was -- I Could Be Wrong.
So Gabby resolved that morning after breakfast to start the more mundane research that the Foundation often left to "lesser mortals" -- not the "psychic feeling" that Zack went off to do -- but the more empirical stuff that web databases might provide. Gabby was very good at teasing out clues from seemingly innocuous bits of information others would ignore.
Gabby got up, left a tip and ran off to Lac Marquette's public library. She'd been impressed that such a library could exist in such a small town, until she discovered that MinneCo had donated all the iMacs and the T-1 connection to the library in order to "woo" the town fathers and mothers to support their mining permit. The "dowry" worked, at least amongst the non-Indian townies, who began to think of this large multinational corporation as "one of us."
Gabby got to the library, sat down in front of a computer, took her Palm Pilot out and immediately linked into the archive of the Lac Marquette Post-Shopper, searching through old issues of the paper looking for some clues about what was going on. Her experiences as an operative over the years had taught her some "keywords" to enter into the search engine and so she began her search.
First, she found some curious articles from last fall's Post-Shopper about an unusual rash of absenteeism and tardiness at the local middle school, both amongst students and teachers. Local doctors also reported that patient visits were slightly on the rise, yet no real disease could be identified for this epidemic. Local physician Dr. Irving Marsh was quoted as saying, "We are not dealing with flu or colds as such here, but with just simple general fatigue and insomnia. People seem not to be getting enough rest. Some are complaining of recurring nightmares. It seems to me that we're dealing with a common mental ailment of our fast-pace postmodern technological society that's finally reached our small town of Lac Marquette."
Another interesting piece of information she found was about the expansion of a local Kwik Trip. The Kwik Trip's manager explained that because of increased business, especially during the "wee hours," the Lac Marquette's franchise would be expanding its size and its staff to accommodate. "We haven't seen such an increase in business since Lac Marquette entered the tourist trade in earnest."
She continued searching through the archives, using tried-and-true keywords to tease out clues. She noticed that last summer the Derleth Street Free Church held their most successful tent revival in years at Lake Park. Pastor Evans was excited about this "new hunger" for things spiritual that seemed to be gripping the citizens of the town. She also found stories of unexplained suicides, increasing juvenile arrests, and "crank" 911 calls. The "Police Blotter" indicated that citizens on the edge of town often complained about the barking of neighbor dogs.
Gabby jotted down a long series of notes into an iSilo file and pondered what she had found. She felt something was going on here in Lac Marquette, but it could all be simply due to mundane social explanations she could find in Robert K. Merton's "Anomie Theory." Surely, there was no real evidence that it had anything to do with Shudde-M'ell or any other Cthulhu Cycle Deity (CCD). But then she remembered her own dreams and those of Zack's and couldn't simply dismiss this possibility. Gabby needed more information.
So, she examined the newspaper archives for any reports of seismic activity over the last few months. She knew from her work at the Foundation that the activities of Shudde-M'ell and his minions were, at least in the past, always associated with an increased number of earthquakes and tremors, yet there were no such events reported in the archives. She turned to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources web site and also found no evidence of any unusual seismic activity. This puzzled Gabby.
Gabby leaned back in her chair, rubbed her tired red eyes and contemplated for a moment. "It just doesn't fit . . . I've dreamed of Shudde-M'ell, Zack's dreamed of Shudde-M'ell -- the whole region has probably dreamed of Shudde-M'ell, yet not one report of an earthquake or tremor. What am I missing here? Perhaps the burrowers have discovered some way of disguising their nest making. Or, maybe nothing is happening and we're all experiencing a mass illusion that keeps us all up all night . . ."
Gabby was exhausted; she'd been surfing the web for close to fourteen hours straight and the library would be closing soon. She was tired, she was hungry, and she wasn't even reasoning all that well. Nothing would be accomplished now without some much deserved rest.
She returned to the Holiday Inn where she and Zack had rooms. She thought of talking to Zack, but decided against it. He was probably asleep and she didn't want to upset him anymore than she already had that morning at breakfast. As she slipped her key card through the lock, she glanced across the hall at Zack's room, sighed and entered her own. She needed Zack's experience with CCD's, but couldn't swallow her pride enough to ask him for help. She thought how unfair she'd been to him that morning. She was just as arrogant as he was.
She laid down on her bed and started reflecting on her day's research. She fell asleep and dreamed . . .
Gabby awoke late the next morning after a rather fitful sleep. She spent the night dreaming again of the burrowers and hearing that atonal guttural chanting. She got up, took a hasty shower, and got dressed. She had wanted to talk to Zack before continuing her research, but at this time in the morning he would be long gone. Zack was an early morning person who always achieved his best work before 9:00 am. It was now 11:00.
She grabbed a fast "McBreakfast" and returned to her seat in the library. It was noisy this morning as groups of children entered the library to hear "The Pocket Mystics" sing their bizarre folk music during story time. Their noise, however, didn't bother her -- she was focused on her task. She booted up her Palm Pilot and considered her next approach to research.
Gabby returned to the DNR web site and continued to browse through its contents. She noticed that cataloged away in an obscure section of the site was the Environmental Impact Study filed in response to MinneCo's mining permit request. It contained all the bureaucratese one would expect in such a study, along with interesting ecological findings buried underneath. Around the third page of the document, under the section labeled "Endangered Species," she found a fearful passage:
Reports of rare and endangered species have been made at the site with little evidence being given. Creatures have been sighted that have been alternatively described as dog-size pink fungoid crustaceans or "giant tree crabs." Such sightings would be normally dismissed if they hadn't been made by separate normally reliable individuals. The creatures themselves seem to resemble those supposedly found once before during the 1920s near Townshend, Vermont by Wilmarth (1930:88). Other evidence of similar prehistoric creatures was found later in the 1930s by the Miskatonic University Expedition to the Antarctic (Lake et al. 1939). Mining officials have argued, in turn, that these supposed sightings are simply further strategies concocted by "eco-warriors" to further delay the awarding of a permit. We believe that such evidence as this does not justify the rejection of MinneCo's proposed project.
"Oh my God," Gabby thought, "we might've been looking in the wrong direction. I've got to look into this."
She took her Palm Pilot and searched through the Foundation's database for references to these fungoid creatures known as the Mi-Go or the Outer Ones. She found references to their outer space origins, their clumsy attempts at terrestrial flight, their great skills at surgery -- successfully extracting a human brain from its body for "database use." She also read about their need for certain minerals their own planet did not provide. She read about their crude, yet incredible, ability to mimic human speech.
At first she was convinced that this was the menace facing the inhabitants of Lac Marquette . . . but she stopped carefully and reflected a bit more. Some pieces in this puzzle still didn't fit the typical Mi-Go modus operandi. First, the Outer Ones typically shy away from human contact. Why should they be so active near a fairly large human settlement? Secondly, she knew of no occurrences where the Mi-Go were ever followed by mass nightmares and such. These creatures usually tried to avoid human discovery.
Gabby took a deep breath and tried to gain her composure, unconsciously rubbing the starfish-shaped medallion around her neck given to all operatives by the Foundation for needed protection. She didn't want to jump to any rash conclusions about what Lac Marquette faced.
She listened to the music coming from the children's section of the library. The Pocket Mystics were performing one of their silly songs that Disney-fied the danger of the Outer Ones:
The children let out a loud giggle in the room as she heard a dulcimer drone through an instrumental break.
"How did that trio know so much about the Mi-Go," she thought. "If there is anything worse than people like Zack who make too much of the CCD, there are people like the Pocket Mystics who make a joke of the whole thing." Gabby returned her attention to the EIS page.
She continued reading through the report and came across another quote that possibly answered at least some of questions about what was going on.
It is truly regrettable that such a project must be done so near Lac Marquette and the treaty hunting and fishing grounds of the Lake Superior Chippewa. Also, the tourist industry in the area may also be effected at least temporarily. However, we feel this to be a reasonable cost for meeting America's future resource needs. More and more, rich deposits will have to be mined, not in isolated wilderness away from human civilization, but increasingly near urban and suburban areas.
This passage did it. Gabby decided she just had to phone Zack with all this new information she'd collected. Yes, it didn't all make sense, but there was enough to draw some conclusions.
She packed her things up and ran out of the library. She didn't want to disturb the other patrons as she called Zack and she knew that her new sense of urgency would make their discussion on the phone quite loud and excited.
Gabby dialed, but there was no answer, not even an answering machine. Gabby became worried -- obsessive Zack was never without his own cell phone close at hand. She connected to her voice mail and found fifteen messages waiting for her. She fumbled nervously with the phone's buttons and began listening to each one. The first two were from her mother in Brockton, Massachusetts, wondering why she hadn't heard from Gabby recently. The third, however, was from Zack, made the night before:
Hello, Gabby? This is Zack. It's about 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. I'm still up here at the mining site . . . been looking around. I think you may be right. I'm not picking up any "vibes" from below the ground . . . However, I do have this hunch that something must be going on here. I'm going to stay and look around a bit longer. I guess we'll have to cancel our meeting for tonight. I'll take you to breakfast tomorrow morning and we'll talk. Sorry about losing it this morning.
Zack had sounded rather calm and sincere, Gabby thought, making her regret the impatient way she had treated him that morning. Gabby listened to the next message.
Gabby? . . . Zack again. I've got to make this quick . . . OK . . . listen . . . I can't explain much now but something is going on here. It's around eight p.m. . . . You got to get up here. I'm sorry if I sound frantic, but this is no false alarm, believe me! . . . (clattering noise) . . . Mi-Go . . .
There was a pause in the recording and then she heard another, unearthly buzzing, voice, much like the voices she could "program" her Mac to make.
. . . Brain . . . Nyarlathotep . . . cylinder . . .
She heard a crunching sound and then the second "beep." Gabby dropped her phone on the sidewalk and her heart began to race.
"What has Zack gotten himself into?" she mumbled to herself. "I could kick myself. I was so busy playing psychic detective last night that I didn't even check my voice mail. Now that fool Zack has gotten himself into some kind of trouble."
She paused, as some children ran from the library pointing at the "crazy" lady waving her hands as she talked to herself. The children's laughter brought her back to reality. She smiled sheepishly at them, turned and ran off to her Jeep. She had to get to the mining site.
She backed her car out of the parking lot and drove north to the site, which was around five miles away. She tried to push aside her guilt over Zack's problems . . . Yes, perhaps she had been a bit too arrogant herself. She'd been so concerned about Zack seeing her side of "CCD" warfare and winning her verbal battle that she forgot that the world wasn't as black-and-white as "pulp fiction" or a Pocket Mystics' song. She did have a point -- things aren't always as they seem to be, but now she had to recognize that if you wait to act until you have all the answers you may find yourself in danger as well.
She pushed her guilt aside now and reflected on the problem at hand. It did sound like Zack had met something and most probably the Outer Ones, that sentient fungi from Yuggoth. It also seemed as if these creatures, like the lobbyists for MinneCo, felt that it was necessary to mine near human settlements -- even if it meant competing for space with human mining operations. Human population had become so sprawled that there was no possible way the Mi-Go could mine secretly almost anywhere on earth. Of course, perhaps there was a different explanation. Perhaps these loathsome creatures were planning a parasitic relationship with MinneCo. Let MinneCo mine the site all they wanted and the Mi-Go could simply stealthfully steal any minerals they needed. If anyone suspected any wrong doing, they would probably blame some eco-terrorists or Native-American group . . . Far-fetched? Yes! But at this point, Gabby was about to believe almost anything with very little evidence.
Gabby reached a rural intersection and turned onto County Road A, a winding dirt road that lead into a forest area and toward the mining site. She still knew some pieces didn't fit this new theory. For example, why was Nyarlathotep's name mentioned by the buzzing voices? Sure, records indicated that Nyarlathotep, the Mighty Messenger of the Great Old Ones, had dealings with the Fungi from Yuggoth, but why would he be interested in these particular mining operations? She chuckled to herself mostly in frustration, "I just can't see Nyarlathotep coming to Lac Marquette simply to fish for northerns and walleyes."
But then the thought of Nyarlathotep dressed as a typical sport fisherman brought back memories of Randolph Carter's journal and his run-in with Nyarlathotep. "SPORT? . . .," she slapped her head, "Yes! . . . Since when does Nyarlathotep need a good reason to be involved in this? Isn't one of his pastimes tormenting human beings? He's like a little boy who gets his jollies dumping a bunch of black ants into a red ant nest, only we and the Outer Ones may just be the ants."
Again, this theory was far-fetched, but it made sense of all the nightmares she had the last few weeks. All of Lac Marquette may have been simple play things to the dark Egyptian messenger. "And the Outer Ones have benefited from all these dreams of Shudde-M'ell and his minions. Not only does MinneCo want to dig up the ground for what's underneath, but the Foundation does as well!"
She reached the heavily wooded site and saw Zack's car parked in the weeds on the side of the road. It was unusually quiet, even for this forest area. She didn't hear even the normal sounds of crickets or birds. The area seemed quite literally deserted except for the abundance of plant life both great and small.
She left her Jeep against her better judgment and proceeded carefully over to Zack's old suburban wagon. There were no signs of Zack. She touched the hood and it was cool. She peeked through the window and found Zack's sport coat neatly hanging in the back and his attaché case on the seat. His cell phone wasn't there, nor were his binoculars.
Gabby checked around the car for any signs of struggle . . . but there was no evidence of any unusual occurrences. No physical evidence. No psychic evidence.
She leaned against his car, closed her eyes, and tried to put herself in Zack's place for a second. She knew Zack's actions well; they had both received the same training at the Foundation, so one didn't need to necessarily be a psychic to understand how an operative would act. They all followed flexible procedures that had almost been "imprinted" in their brains!
"What would I do if I was Zack?" she murmured.
She remembered that, while Zack often talked like a middle-aged "Rambo," he rarely took undue risks when in the field. He'd always look for a place of reconnaissance before leaping into any action.
Gabby searched around her, looking for possible areas where Zack might've begun his own reconnaissance. She saw an outcropping of rocks within the forest not very far from his car. An excellent place for providing cover.
She slowly, carefully marched toward the outcropping, closely examining the ground beneath her feet for any evidence of Zack's whereabouts. She felt silly -- she wasn't a "tracker" in any non-psychic sense, yet she was trying to use these skills that she lacked. There were no sounds in the forest except her own footsteps breaking the twigs and brush she stepped on. She felt so vulnerable, so noisy. The eerie quiet would make it impossible for her to take anyone, human or fungi, by surprise. Her psychic sense was numb, which indicated nothing in such a situation as this. It could mean nothing was present or that her fear simply destroyed her ability to focus. But she saw no Zack, no Outer Ones, nor any Nyarlathotep, whatever he looked like!
She reached the outcropping and immediately found the shattered remains of Zack's cell phone. The plastic debris on the rocks indicated that it had been smashed against the stone. The bushes and weeds around the outcropping had been crushed in what seemed like a struggle with no indication of who the victor might have been. Gabby remembered that the Mi-Go, individually, are not physically powerful in the same sense as the Great Old Ones. Even an overweight, out-of-shape, fifty-year-old like Zack might escape an ambush set by two or three Outer Ones.
Gabby turned north again and peered over the outcropping. She caught a glimpse of something metallic laying partially behind an old elm tree just a few yards away. She didn't see or "sense" anything in that direction and wondered whether that should in itself worry her. She crept toward the tree as silently as possible, still cringing at her own "loud" footsteps in the forest.
She got to the tree and gently kicked the metal object with her boot. It let off a dull clang, like an empty oil drum and wobbled about three feet farther north. She walked over, and bent down to examine it. It appeared to be a metallic cylinder somewhat the size and shape of the old hat boxes her Grandma used to have. Around it's edge were three sockets. She put out her finger and touched it quickly . . . nothing happened. No residue on her finger either. She finally took the "grand" risk, in her mind, and picked it up to examine it. The metal was unknown to her (perhaps another gap in her education?), light and unopenable. It seemed quite empty.
She was relieved. She heard that Albert Wilmarth had speculated that such cylinders often contained quite functional brains, extracted by the master surgeons amongst the Outer Ones. They collected the brains of many intelligent species from around the universe and used them for who knows what purpose. The cylinders were easily carried by the Mi-Go on their interstellar flights.
She examined the brush and weeds around the tree and found footprints (?) of creatures she could not quite identify. They looked like the imprints described by Wilmarth in his journals -- crab-like pads having two giant nippers. Those prints he attributed to the Outer Ones. But she wasn't quite sure. Wilmarth's descriptions were often vague. At least she knew, from her two years of Girl Scouts, that the prints were not made by any creature native to northern Wisconsin. She also saw footprints that seemed to have been made by the heavy boots of an average human being.
She refused to speculate about who made those human prints and simply followed them out to a clearing to the west of the old elm. She found no evidence of struggle, but simply curious impressions left on the grassy areas. In the middle of the clearing, a seven foot by seven foot square impression had been left on the grass, as if a large board or box had been laid down there for a considerable period of time. On two opposing sides of the impression were those same crab-like footprints. On the northernmost side of the square impression, between the footprints, was a circular impression in which the metallic cylinder could easily have been left.
Gabby tried to imagine what situation could've left such a pattern of lawn-chair impressions at the clearing. The square could've been left by a number of things, she supposed. A board, a dog house, a box, or even some type of solid table . . . A table might explain why all the strange footprints were around it . . . Possibly the Outer Ones had sat down for a meal, or a meeting, . . . or a planning session on their mining operations.
"OPERATIONS?" she thought.
Her mind became stuck on that word "operation." She remembered the purpose of those metallic cylinders and her skin crept . . . She felt dizzy. She frantically looked around for anymore evidence that might keep her from believing her new theory.
She caught a glimpse of something swinging like a pendulum in the branches of a nearby raspberry bush . . . She stumbled toward the bush and caught hold of the object in her sweaty shaking hand. She suddenly discovered that she could no longer explain things away.
She cried . . . "It's a starfish medallion."
Author's Note: I would like to kindly thank Brian Lumley for his permission to use some of his creations in this story.
Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004