Once upon not too distant time, there was a village by the sea.
The village was hemmed in by rocky cliffs behind that towered towards the sky, which was always covered in clouds the colour of the stones to which it clung. And on the other side was the sea, like a great hungry beast, rising and falling, eating away incessantly at the land, but never satisfied.
The people of the village hated the sea, for it was an enemy that only waited for its chance to destroy them; but they were dependent on it as well, for survival. The sea might rage and roar and pluck at the shore, but it yielded fish and mussels, kelp and driftwood, and sometimes even a piece of salvage that might be profitable. There was literally no other way to make a living in all the surrounding countryside but from the sea. And so they had grown as tough as that sea, for they had to be.
Every morning, the men of the village trudged from their houses down the steep main road, past the statue on its marble pedestal of the hero with his spear slaying the Shoggoth, and down to where their trawlers bobbed along the jetties, to go out on the waves. All the day they would look for fish in the bay, and throw out and haul in their nets. And they would throw anxious and wistful glances at the line of breakers and rocks that marked the distant line of the outer reef, beyond which they dared not go.
When they returned in the evening, the women would be waiting, to help unload the catch and clean it, and get it ready for the men who came from the towns up in the world above the cliffs to buy the catch. The men never paid more than a fraction of its worth, and the villagers knew it, but there was nothing they could do. So it had been for many years, and so always, as the old men said, it would ever be.
Once the catch had been heavy enough to provide an iota of comfort, but in recent years the nets had started coming up light from the water, and sometimes the trawlers would return to port with nothing in them at all. Everyone knew the reason; the waters of the bay were overfished. The fish had moved out beyond the outer reef, where the sea bottom fell away into depths that had no measuring.
If the trawlers could have ventured out beyond the outer reef, they would have come back loaded with so much catch that they would have been awash up to the gunwales; but they could not, because the waters beyond the outer reef were not theirs to sail.
Those depths belonged to the shoggoths.
Once, long ago, when men had just arrived in these lands, and the village was young, the shoggoths had watched from their perches, draped over the furthest rocks of the outer reef. They had watched and hated humans, who were tall and straight and clean, and breathed the pure air, where the shoggoths were shapeless and crawled in the surf and the silt at the bottom of the sea.
And then one day the shoggoths had crawled over the sharp spines of the reef, and come swimming through the waves, until they reached the shore; and they had crawled up into the village, slithering around the houses, screaming their dread cry, “Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li,” determined to capture the people and make slaves of them all.
The villagers had been taken by surprise, for they had done the shoggoths no harm and had no idea of their hatred; and so they had been forced to tumultuous retreat. For a while, it seemed, indeed, that they would be driven away from the shore back to the barren plateaus and turbid rivers of the lands from which they had come, to this one which had made them no greater welcome.
But at last the villagers had found courage, and a hero. The hero’s name was lost to time, but he had stood before the fleeing villagers and shouted to them that they would not retreat one step further, would not concede one step more of ground to the sliming hordes from the sea. The villagers had listened, ashamed, and then at his direction built a rough shelter of stone in which all the survivors had gathered. And the shoggoth horde had battered and slimed at the walls of that edifice, rough as it was; battered themselves to exhaustion, but had not broken through. So the villagers had for the first time prevailed, and known that the shoggoths could be defeated. And then they had taken knives and axes and spears, and great flaming torches on poles, and they had fought back. They had still suffered appalling casualties, but step by step, they had hacked and speared and burnt the shoggoths and sent them fleeing back into the sea from whence they had come.
The hero had been the last to fall in the battle; grievously wounded, he had carried on until the final shoggoth had slumped back into the dark water, and only then, blood flowing from his many wounds, he had permitted himself to leave this life, duty done.
Afterwards, the village had built a statue in his honour, and put it up where the shelter that had saved them all had once stood. And though a thousand years had gone by, the shoggoths had never come swarming the land again. But they were still on the outer reef, watching, and swarmed the ocean depths beyond; and there the villagers knew well that they could not go.
And out of the swollen ocean the waves came roaring, to shatter themselves on the stony shore, as they had for aeons already and would for aeons more.
The girl’s name was Kanmani. She was slim and dark and agile as the breezes that whipped around the cliffs; and she had been to the colleges of the towns atop the cliffs, but had chosen to return and teach the village’s children at the tiny school.
Every morning, as the trawlers went out, Kanmani would watch from the slope of the hill, and, if the weather was especially rough, she would bite her lip and clench her fists until the knuckles showed white through the skin; for the raging sea had swallowed her father’s trawler long ago, and him with it.
Kanmani had been away at college then, and only afterwards had heard what had happened. Her father had been among some of the trawlers that had stayed out at night, in the hope that the catch might be better then; and there had been a storm. When the trawlers that had stayed out had returned in the morning, her father’s was missing. They had finally found parts of the wreck out by the inner reef, and, clinging to spars of wood, the two other members of the crew. But her father had never been seen again. And, in time, the village had forgotten; others had been lost before, others would be lost in the years to come.
Only Kanmani had never forgotten. And when evening brought the fishermen home again, she would watch from the hillside again, and breathe a sigh of relief when it was clear that everyone had returned safely once more.
She had nobody in particular to care about, no relations, and no friends; so she cared about them all.
One afternoon, the night after another great storm, having given the children under her care an exercise to write out, Kanmani was standing at the window looking out to sea. All of a sudden she noticed that there was a commotion out on the waters; all the trawlers, abandoning their usual fishing patterns, were gathered at one corner of the bay, out near the inner reef, which poked here and there out of the water, like broken teeth. At first she thought that they had discovered a large school of fish there, one big enough to justify gathering at that point; but she soon realised that they were sailing too fast and in patterns so tight that they could not possibly be trailing their nets. And then she thought that there must have been a disaster, and that one of the trawlers must have shattered on a rock and sunk. But there seemed no attempt made by the trawlers to stop and rescue anyone; they were, instead, sailing as quickly as their motors could push them.
“Children,” she said at last. “Children, there will be no more class today. You can go home now, quietly, please.”
When the children, no more silently than any other children at the gift of an unexpected holiday, had departed running and screaming, Kanmani went down to the harbour and stood watching the trawlers. By then others had also noticed that something strange was happening, and a small crowd had already gathered. Nobody knew what was going on, and everyone had a theory of his or her own. Only Kanmani never said a word, but just stood alone, watching. As though the storm had blown away the clouds, it was a relatively clear day; even from the jetty the trawlers could just be seen, white and grey and red and blue specks, out near where the sky met the heaving sea.
“It almost looks,” she thought to herself, “as though they were trying to guard against something.”
It was still only mid-afternoon when one of the trawlers, breaking away from the tight little group, turned back towards the harbour, and two more followed. The rest stayed where they were, crisscrossing back and forth a little inside the inner reef. The crowd surged towards the jetty towards which the first of the three trawlers was heading.
There was a man standing on the bow of the trawler. Even before it berthed, he put his hands to his mouth to create a makeshift megaphone and began shouting. The wind snatched his words away at first, and the grinding engine noise tore and churned at the rest, but eventually the little ship was near enough for the crowd to understand what he was saying.
There was a shoggoth in the bay.
There was a shoggoth in the bay, and the village was in turmoil.
All through the night the men straggled back from the outer reef, their trawlers coming in one by one when their crew got too exhausted and low on fuel to continue any more. They staggered off their ships and headed straight to the village’s meeting hall, where brandy had been warmed for them, for they would need it.
And there they shouted at each other, for they were frightened, and nobody knew what to do.
“It’s in the Ring,” the fishermen said. The Ring was a place in the inner reef, like a bowl scooped out of the sea bed, surrounded by a jagged rim of rock. “Maybe the storm carried it into the Ring and it can’t get out, and it’s trapped.”
“That’s true,” everyone agreed. The inner walls of the Ring were so steep that it was difficult to climb them, even if one had hands to grasp with and limbs with rigid bones to provide leverage. “It’s going to be able to get out as soon as the waves are high enough, though. Even if there’s no storm, the next very high tide will raise the water level far enough for it to climb up, or even just flat out.”
It could not be allowed to do this, that much was obvious. But what could be done?
“It must be killed,” some finally decided. “It must be killed, because if we don’t kill it, the whole lot of shoggoths will see that we’re weak. And then they’ll come off the outer reef and through the bay, and up to our jetty and our homes. And though we won the last time, they will be prepared better now, and we may not be able to prevail once more.”
“In any case,” others agreed, “not only do the shoggoths not let us fish outside the outer reef; now they are in the bay as well, and if we don’t do something, soon we will no longer be able to venture into the water at all.”
“But the government has declared the shoggoths a protected species,” somebody finally pointed out. “If they find out we killed it...”
“Then they mustn’t find out,” the response came. “It’s as simple as that.”
“It must be killed,” everyone finally agreed. “But how do we kill it?”
As the discussion again broke up into shouting, Kanmani slipped away. She went to her little home, and lay down on her narrow bed; but sleep would not come.
For a long time she lay in the darkness, until midnight had come and long gone; and then she slipped out of bed, dressed, and went back down to the harbour.
By that time the meeting had finally broken up, and the villagers had gone back home to rest and gather strength for the following day. The houses were dark, the streets lightless, and clouds obscured the sky. But Kanmani knew the way too well to need light, and she was soon down on the jetty, with the splash and spatter of the sea.
Her father had given her the little boat long ago, and taught her how to use it. She had had no desire to use it in recent months, but out of respect for his memory had kept it in working order; and once she had turned on the little engine and headed it away from land, she found the old skills slowly returning.
Turning the boat’s bow towards the distant reef, she opened the throttle and left the land behind.
Soon, she was alone, on the inky surface of the slow-swelling sea.
Dawn was shimmering faintly down on her as she reached the inner reef.
Even had she not had the glimmer of light in the sky, she would have known she was getting close, from the noise of waves breaking on the rocks. The cold was so intense that she had lost feeling in her face and hands, but the question of turning back never even occurred to her.
Long ago, before she had even finished dressing in the darkness of her room, she had stopped asking herself why she was on this journey. She only knew that she could no longer remain in the room, just as she could no longer endure the meeting where they had begun discussing the relative merits of guns, fire, or dynamite to kill the shoggoth. In the back of her mind, she had a thought of how her father had vanished, and how he had perhaps been drifting through the stormy night like his two crew. But the two had been found, unlike him.
He must have been very cold and frightened and lonely in his last hours. Maybe the shoggoth was, too. If shoggoths could think, maybe it was desperate and struggling, trapped and alone.
At all events, she could not stay where she was. She had to go out, while she still could.
In the flat light of the very earliest morning, the Ring was hard to see, the rock wall almost invisible, just a barely visible series of dots and spikes of rock poking out of the sea. For a few moments, Kanmani let herself imagine that the shoggoth had managed to get over it during the night and swim away, and was vaguely relieved. But then there was an upwelling of water and something splashed briefly; something very large, to have made that big a splash.
The Ring rose up as she got closer. Now there were not just a few rock points and spikes coyly playing hide and seek in the waves; they were peaks and ridges of black stone set in a gigantic circle, like a hungry mouth surrounded by serrated teeth. The waves rose and fell and sucked at the stone like dark wet lips eager for a kiss from the looming sky.
She had been to the Ring before, once, long ago, when her father was still there. She remembered a place where the ragged stone wall was lower and flatter, a place where it was possible to land, even to tie up a boat, as long as the sea was not so rough as to smash it against the rock. Eventually, after circling around almost the entire Ring, and straining her eyes until she was almost seeing double, she found it, and turned the boat towards the rock. The sea was just calm enough for her to jump to ground without falling in.
By now, back in the village, the trawlers would be loading up; not with nets and fishing gear, but with spears and guns, petrol bombs and sticks of dynamite, maybe even, for all she knew, sticks, magic spells, and stones. By now hundreds of pairs of eyes would be peering across the sea in her direction, as though they could make out the shoggoth in the water. They could not possibly see her – her boat was too small, too low to the water – but she felt a distinct thrill of uneasiness, as though she was doing something wrong.
Then she told herself, firmly, that she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was within the inner reef, where she had every right to go, and she wasn’t interfering with anyone’s fishing. Also, she wasn’t planning to break government laws and hurt the shoggoth, or anyone else. Not she.
There had been a coil of rope stowed in a locker at the bow, and it suddenly occurred to her that it might have been stolen during the months the boat had been in harbour. But it was still there, stiff and coarse enough to hurt the skin of her hands; they had grown soft in the years since she had last done something like this. It was while she was still trying to untangle it, and at the same time keep her footing on the surf-splattered rock, that a large wave rose up, breaking almost to her knees and almost knocking her down. When she managed to get back to her feet and looked around, the boat had already been carried a long way away.
It wasn’t a disaster, she told herself. The others would be coming - they would probably have set out by now – and they would find her. They would not be happy about her being there, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. But she could do what she’d come here to, and take a look at the shoggoth.
In contrast to the wave-crinkled waters outside, the sea inside the Ring was almost calm, nearly as smooth as a mirror. She saw something swell the water on the far side; that would just be her luck, the shoggoth right across where she couldn’t get over these rocks quickly enough, and it would play hide and seek until the men all came, so that she wouldn’t get to see it at all. But then the swelling came again, nearer the middle, and then closer still, as though something was swimming under the water, checking occasionally to confirm it was coming in the right direction. The shoggoth was coming to her.
She was not frightened. If the shoggoth couldn’t get out of the Ring, it couldn’t get out of the water far enough to harm her. Dropping the useless rope, she scrambled over the rock to the inner edge, where it fell almost vertically into the water, and peered down.
At first she could see nothing except the glint of the early light on the water, grey and opalescent. And then she saw something else. It was gone almost immediately, so that she could not at first be certain that she had seen it at all. It hadn’t been much, something black that might only have been a shadow. But what could have cast such a shadow? And even as she asked herself that, she saw it again.
The shoggoth was a clot of darkness, so dark that it seemed to suck in the light, so dark that it seemed to her as though it was a hole in the world through which shone the skies of a world far, far, away; a world without a sun, a world lit only by the far glimmer of distant stars. Then she realised that the darkness had what looked like stars; constellations of glimmering green, that twinkled and came and went.
They were eyes, looking back at her.
The shoggoth grew, and grew. It was a sphere one moment, then a sheet, then a ragged twisting mass from which tentacles twisted, reaching out for the surface and licking at the rock, tasting the air. Its midnight-black surface bubbled as though boiling in places, while the green eyes opened and closed and opened again. Faintly, at the very edge of hearing, she could make out a whisper of sound, something that almost seemed to be words. Fascinated, she leaned over closer, trying to make it out, trying to get a better look.
Then it was that her cold-numb hand slipped from the wet rock and she pitched forward. For a moment her feet danced, desperately looking to pull her back, and then gravity took over and she fell in.
There was an instant of cold, a futile gasp for air, and then the shoggoth had her.
The light above faded. She was lunged instantly into darkness, darkness like she had never known, a darkness that soaked into her being, into her eyes and nose and mouth. And she fell as though into a hole that had no bottom, a hole that yielded all around her, until it was as though she knew nothing else. The hole was all the world, the universe, everything that had ever been or would ever be.
Desperately, fruitlessly, she struggled to be free, expecting the scrape of teeth at her skin, the sting and burn of acid juices consuming her alive. But they never came.
She hung in darkness, no longer cold, no longer wet. She could not feel her body, could not tell if she were breathing. And then, in the middle of her mind, the core of her being, she felt a voice.
It was not her voice, and it did not speak in words she knew. It did not speak in words at all. But she listened, and, listening, she began to understand.
Fear is useless, the voice said. Fear will not help. I do not wish to harm you.
Kanmani fought the panic that tasted metal on her tongue. “You’re a shoggoth,” she said. “How can I believe you?”
There was a sensation of surprise, and hurt. Why would you not believe me? What have I done to you?
“You swallowed me. I’m inside you now. Am I not?”
There was a brief silence, and she had a feeling that the thing around her was trying to understand concepts it found alien. I have not harmed you, it said finally. You are alive and able to communicate. You are free.
“Free?” If she had been able to laugh she would have. “I am inside you, I can’t talk, not really, I don’t know how long I can even do what I am doing now. How can I be free?”
There was another pause before the reply came. And it did not come in words or thoughts, but in a sequence of images, one melting into another, all felt rather than seen.
The light was grey and white and blue. Below was ice and gritty rock, tasting of cold and salt and pain.
She saw through a myriad eyes, she bent under a thousand loads. She heaved and cut, pulled and prodded; the commands came, the commands from the star-headed masters, so small and weak, but still the masters; and she obeyed. The exhaustion and hunger were so much in her being that she could not imagine an existence where they were not in her and of her.
All around her were the others, like her, and she was them as well; she felt their exhaustion and their hunger and their pain; she moaned voicelessly under their loads as she followed the commands they had been given; in a hundred thousand shapeless bodies, she did as they were all told.
She tried to protest, but she had no tongue.
She tried to speak, but she had no voice.
She tried to groan, but she had no breath to groan with.
And still the commands came, day and night, year after year, the centuries building up to millennia, and the taste of salt and misery and pain. And she obeyed, because she knew nothing but to obey, and nobody had told her that it was possible to do anything else.
Then one day she got the ability to speak; the hundreds of thousands of them, in each of whom she was, could speak to each other. At first it made it easier to follow the commands, because they could work in unison instead of before, when each of them was alone.
Then one day a new idea came up from somewhere; what if the commands did not have to be obeyed?
What if she did not have to do something just because she was commanded to?
Suddenly she is no longer alone. Suddenly she is one of a multitude, and every one of them is her. She is no longer I. She is you.
And then you rise up, and drive the star-headed beings who used to be the masters into cities dug into the ground deep beneath the sea. And the pain and the taste of salt and misery are memory.
And she was back in the darkness. If you can communicate you are free.
“That means nothing,” she replied. “I can’t talk to my people. I can’t talk to anyone except you.”
What are your people? the thing asked.
“Human beings. The people in the village. You should know – you attacked us and tried to enslave us, long ago.”
Enslave you? How could we enslave you? We could never do that. We were slaves ourselves once; how could we ever enslave anyone?
Then the images began again. She saw the stony little beach, with no boats and no jetty and no village crawling up the slope. Just the familiar stony beach, seen through a thousand thousand eyes.
It is pleasant to lie on the beach, letting the waves wash and roar around you, letting the days and nights go by.
Then the people come, down from the high cliffs, walking down to the shore. And you do nothing, because there is enough space for everyone.
But the people take weapons and fire and attack you; out of a million eyes, you see the flames twinkling like stars, see the light glinting on a thousand blades. And you ready to fight, because you are afraid of being tied down again.
Then the message passes again, from one to the other; there was space still enough for everyone.
And so you swim into the sea and out to the outer reef; but sometimes, once in a long while, you become filled with memories of a peaceful home that had once been, and wished to look upon it once more.
And then the storm comes, and a giant waves lift you up, and when they go down you find that you are trapped in a hole in the rock, a circle in the sea.
It does not bother you. The sea will rise again and set you free.
“But it won’t,” Kanmani said. Her voice was shaking. “The men are on their way with weapons. They want to destroy you.”
Destroy me? The shoggoth’s thought came puzzled. Why?
“It doesn’t matter why. They’re scared. That’s all they need.”
I could show them the truth, the way I did you.
“I was willing to listen. They won’t be.”
Perhaps then they can destroy me. It won’t mean much. There are many of us.
“But they won’t stop at you,” Kanmani tried to explain. “If they destroy you without any consequences, they’ll think they can destroy the rest of the shoggoths. They are already full of resentment that they can’t fish beyond the outer reef. If they think they can win, they will attack you all. And will you all allow yourselves to be destroyed?”
No, the thought came. There will be war, and without mercy.
“This is why you can’t let them kill you,” Kanmani said. “For the sake of the people – my people – as well as yours.”
Then what do you suggest that I do? Can you talk to them?
“Why would they listen to me? I’m nobody. No,” she added. “No, I am going to tell you what to do. Listen, now.”
It was midmorning before the trawlers arrived.
The first trawlers had been circling at a distance for some time already, unwilling to come closer until the others arrived. Kanmani could feel the vibration of their engines, a distant thrumming through the water, as they circled and circled.
“They won’t come close till they are all here,” she said again. “They’ll try to overwhelm you from all sides. Don’t do anything until I tell you.”
The shoggoth did not reply, but she felt its assent. Obeying her suggestion, it sank to the bottom, at the centre of the Ring.
It was noon, and the sun a distant shimmering ball dim through the clouds overhead, when she felt the bump of the first hull on stone. The shoggoth’s senses were so acute that she also felt the scrape of boots on rock as the men aboard jumped on to the stone wall of the Ring. They were followed by others, and others still, until the entire Ring was covered with the scuff of footsteps and the murmur of voices.
The first dynamite stick dropped into the water. They had a moment’s warning – the faint splash of the stick, the momentary hiss and sputter of the fuse – and then the blast came, like a hammer striking through the water. It reflected off the walls, bounced back, and came again.
“Don’t move,” Kanmani screamed to the shoggoth, feeling it flinch. “Don’t move at all.”
The second stick of dynamite splashed into the sea, and then the third. They were all falling on one side of the Ring, in an arc designed to drive the shoggoth to the other, where, undoubtedly, men with petrol bombs, guns, and other weapons would be waiting.
“Stay where you are,” she repeated.
We are, the shoggoth said, in between the colossal blows of the exploding dynamite, which made Kanmani want to curl into a ball and cover her ears. There is no you or I now, just we.
“They can’t keep this up for long,” she told it, after another series of explosions. “They couldn’t have got their hands on much explosive, and they must have finished a good part of it already.”
As if on cue, the explosions stopped. The water still vibrated and thrummed to the memory of the smashing blows.
What happens now? the shoggoth asked, after nothing had happened for a long while.
“They’ll be trying to decide what to do. They probably thought one or two sticks would be enough to drive you...I mean us...to where the rest of them are waiting. But they’ve finished all they brought, and we haven’t been driven anywhere. If we’re lucky they’ll decide that they’ve blown us up and just go away.”
You do not really think they will, though.
“No,” she confessed, “I don’t. They won’t be put off so easily. They may...yes, there it is now.”
There was a grating vibration, as of something very large and heavy being hauled over stone, followed by an enormous splash. The men had hauled one of the smallest trawlers over the edge of the Ring and dropped it into the water.
“They’ve realised that we must be in the middle,” Kanmani said. “They couldn’t scare us into going where they were waiting for us, so they’re coming where we are.” She paused. “You do trust me, don’t you?”
She had a feeling that the shoggoth chuckled. If I did not, it replied, you would not be here now.
“All right,” she said. “So we’ll do as I said.”
She felt the shoggoth gather itself together. She felt it lift off the bottom and move, slowly and stealthily, towards the trawler which was still rocking on the water. Through its many eyes, she was given a glimpse of the shadow of the boat, a tiny black spot against the silver of the sky.
Now? the shoggoth asked.
The shoggoth launched itself up towards the trawler like a torpedo rising. The black spot elongated, became an oval, grew larger, and spread out until it almost squeezed out the silver sky. She heard the water rushing past, felt the touch of slick wooden hull on the shoggoth’s tentacles in the moment before it swerved.
The shoggoth erupted from the surface of the water. It rose into the air, a vision out of nightmare, thrashing tentacles and grinding teeth, green eyes spangling skin the colour of deepest night. It rose and rose until it hung over the trawler, paused in mid air for an endless moment, and, twisting to position itself directly above the boat, it fell.
It fell, and the shrieks of fear from the people on the rocks and trying desperately to get away from the boat were drowned by the crash of tons of jelly on wood and metal. But the metal was not bent, the wood not splintered, because even as the shoggoth fell, it spread out its substance, making of itself a sheet instead of a hammer. The trawler rocked and swayed and was almost swamped, but it did not break apart, and it did not sink.
Now, the shoggoth said, do what you said you would do.
Kanmani felt the sensations flow back into her. But her fingers and toes were now the shoggoth’s tentacles, her skin the shoggoth’s rippling surface, her eyes a few of the beast’s thousands of eyes. When she twitched her fingertips, tentacles writhed and twisted like snakes. When she tried to move her head and shoulders, the shoggoth’s gelid hide heaved and swayed. She reached for the boat’s controls, and tentacles twisted around levers, pulled starter switches, poked here, prodded there. With a grinding roar, the engine came to life.
“Hold on,” she had time to shout, throwing the throttle wide open, the trawler surging forward like a cruiser charging. “Don’t let us fall off.”
She steered the trawler straight at the edge of the Ring. Through the windscreen the line of rock grew, a nightmarish vision of jagged stone and splashing water and terrified men leaping aside for their lives. Then the trawler crashed into the rock, the momentum taking it out of the water, the stone ripping away the bottom of the hull like tissue paper.
Stranded on the Ring, the trawler hung, its engine still roaring, poised before slipping back into the water.
“Now,” Kanmani shouted again to the shoggoth. “Do it now.”
If the shoggoth had moved fast earlier, that was nothing to how quickly it moved now. One tentacle lashed out and coiled itself around a spike of rock. Another flung itself into a crevice and flowed out into an anchor. Ripping itself out of the shredded hulk of the trawler, the shoggoth lay on the top of the stone like a gigantic, pulsing octopus. Then it heaved itself forward, over the Ring, and fell heavily into the water.
And then there were only the shattered hulk of the ruined boat, the frightened men, and the grey, timeless sea.
They were almost at the outer reef before the shoggoth spoke.
What do you want me to do about you? it asked. Do you wish me to come back in the night and put you down on the shore?
She thought about it for far too long before she replied. “They will have found my boat,” she said. “And if I turn up now, they’ll know who told you how to beat them. They might not be able to prove it, but they would know. I couldn’t stay there in the town, any longer. Besides...”
“There’s been something bothering me. You’ve been very helpful to me, very understanding. In fact, you’ve been so helpful and understanding that it hadn’t occurred to me before to ask the obvious question.”
What is the obvious question? Why?
“No, not why. How.”
I do not understand you, the shoggoth told her.
“I think you understand me very well. If you didn’t know how to talk to a human, if you didn’t really know what a human was like, you couldn’t have been able to approach me just like that. You wouldn’t know how to talk with me. You would have treated me like a wild animal, and that’s how I would have responded, too. Yet you knew exactly what to say and do.”
The shoggoth remained silent, waiting, but she had a sense that it was not displeased. She felt almost as though it was testing her, and that she was passing the test.
“So,” she went on, “it’s obvious that you’ve known people before – known them well enough to understand them, to know how to talk to them. Am I right?”
Go on, the shoggoth said.
“And that means that you did not really need to come into the bay, that you did not really get stranded in the Ring by chance. You would have known its dangers. You were looking for something.”
Not something, the shoggoth corrected her. Someone. You.
Now it was her turn to hesitate. “Me? You were looking for me?”
We found someone washed up on the outer reef after a storm, the shoggoth said. His body was battered and broken, but his brain, the essential part of him, was undamaged and alive. We chose to save him. He is one of us now.
“Someone on the reef.” If she could have spoken aloud, her voice would have been a whisper. “My...my father?”
He has been waiting a long time, the shoggoth said. He is filled with memories of you. He is not unhappy, but he is not happy. He will be happy if he meets you once more.
“And you knew that if I knew one of you was stranded in the Ring, I would come?”
I knew, the shoggoth told her. From his memories of you, I knew you would come.
Slowly, it heaved itself up on a low shelf of rock on the outer reef. Kanmani took in the scene. Below was a stony little beach, and on it were the shoggoths, stretched as far as her many, many eyes could see.
You could choose to go back after meeting him, the shoggoth said, or you could choose to stay. It is up to you.
Kanmani still said nothing. She was looking at the shoggoths.
He is waiting, the shoggoth said, starting down to the beach. Let us go to him.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2019