Saturday, June 18, 2005

Tentacles, in Oil

"Now Ah hope Ah don't have to remahnd you that this Institute is a public sahvice."

"No sir, but--"

"We have a respahnsahbility to advahs, to educate and to reassure the public. In short, Dahctath Willis, to put to rest these rumahs. Is that clear?"

"But sir, there's only been one report. That hardly even counts as a rumour. It's, um, it's not the best use of time--"

"Your tahm, Dahctah, is best spent proceeding to the saht." Dr. Grenville smiles.

Smug bastard. It's not as if he ever spends time doing anything except glad-handing visiting dignitaries and pitching the great work we do. Exploring the Gulf Coast for offshore oil and gas deposits, whoopee. "The impahtahnce of ahr wahrk cannaht be ovahstated," I sneer as the Jeep bounces its way down the sandy, potholed coast road. "I can't believe I got a PhD. in oceanography for this."

"Like, it's a job, so chill," Rob advises me.

It's fine from his point of view; he gets to go to the beach, on work time no less, and maybe take some cool pictures. I doubt if there's anything in the world he'd rather do. Meanwhile, I'm going to have to try to explain to my next employer (assuming I ever manage to find another job) that I spent half my time jouncing around the countryside chasing rumours of sea monsters. Sea monsters, I ask you.

I pull up over the dune crest and into the parking lot. It's packed. The road pinches out a little further on; I can't tell if it actually ends here, or continues under the drifts of wind-blown sand. I wish they'd plant some kind of grass to hold it down. I hate it here; flat sand, flat land behind it, flat dull ocean except when hurricanes blow in. The West Coast has rocks, cliffs, pounding Pacfic surf. Drama. The Gulf Coast bores me.

The beach is full of people, of course. Strolling, swimming, sitting on towels or deck chairs. Retirees, young beach guys like Rob, families with little kids. I feel out of place in my button-down shirt and dockers. At least I had the foresight to stash a pair of tennis shoes under my desk, so I'm not wearing my loafers in all this sand.

The horizon's hidden in haze, but in the middle distance oil rigs cluster like a flock of giant wading birds. Really, really ugly wading birds. I avert my eyes. The "wahrk" of the Institute pretty much amounts to putting up more of the nasty things, but I don't have to rub my own nose in it.

"What do we do now?" I mutter. "Start asking people if they've seen any tentacled monstrosities in the last hour?" I can't bear the idea. Luckily, Rob seems as impervious to embarrassment as he is to virtually every other emotion. He hails a passing flock of young folks and strikes up a conversation; I tail them, aware of the contrast between their faded cut-offs and ragged T-shirts, and my officewear. Rob, of course, fits right in. He's even not the only one with a laptop slung from one shoulder.

Eavesdropping (I clearly have no right to be a part of this conversation, even if I spoke the language it's apparently being conducted in), I have to admit he's handling the subject with remarkable subtlety. Apparently there's a brain under that sun-bleached mop.

"Yeah, dude, there's all kinds of weird shit off this coast. The oil, you know, it causes mutations."

"Fish with three heads, that kind of stuff."

"It's not the oil, it's the chemicals from the refineries. Really bad shit. Last summer the water was, like, totally tainted for two weeks. These huge dead fish were washing up, the scientists couldn't even identify them."

"It wasn't just fish! There was this mass of jelly-like stuff that washed up, I saw it, it was the size of a city block..."

"I remember, they said it was an organism unknown to science..."

Rob's nodding, listening along. He's getting accurate information, for what it's worth; I remember the news from last year, but it's all old. Nothing about what was supposedly seen here yesterday. I'm starting to get frustrated.

And then it happens. The ground shakes; sand and spray erupt into the air. Screams echo across the beach as I fall to my hands and knees. What the hell, this isn't California! Brightly colored beach umbrellas are toppling like mown-down flowers, everywhere I look.

The shaking's dying down. Still on all fours, I twist around to look at the ocean. If a tsunami's coming, the water will drain away from the shore, giving us a few minutes' warning. If there's no such sign, I'll try to round up Rob and see if anyone nearby needs first aid. Institute personnel are expected to have disaster training.

The water's heaving uneasily, but doesn't seem to be going anywhere. The oil rigs are badly askew, though. As I watch, one topples sideways and collapses. I stagger to my feet. Water surges up the beach, retreats. I look down and see the sand streaked with crude oil. That can't be from the fallen rig, not this quickly. The quake must have breached an underground reservoir. This whole section of coastline will be contaminated, the cleanup's going to be hell, guess who'll be on the front lines?

Swimmers are staggering ashore, coughing and retching. They're coated with black slime. The water's edge is lined with oil-smeared people. Something's wrong here-- well, there's a lot wrong-- but the back of my neck is tingling with some kind of retroactive premonition, as if to warn me that an earthquake just happened.

Then I realize it's not retroactive at all. Something's rising from the water just offshore. At first I can't tell how big it is, or how far away; my brain keeps flipflopping size and distance measurements, because I cannot accept how big the thing really is. There can't really be a monster the size of a thirty-story building standing knee-deep... if it had knees... standing about one-quarter submerged in the bay. And I'm right, because it's not standing, it's moving towards the beach. Towards me. And though I can't seem to make knees fit to the thing's lower anatomy, or legs for that matter, its approach has a definite striding rhythm.

I make the mistake of looking up.

Up there, there's... a head. I think. Anyway, I think I see eyes. I know for sure I see a mouth surrounded by writhing tentacles. It's roughly the size of a three-car garage.

"Whoa," says a voice at my elbow. It's Rob.

People are running away from the water as fast as they can wade through the sand. It's no good; the striding monster is already at the waterline, its entire blasphemous body exposed to view, as it bends over and scoops fleeing figures into that hideous mouth. And though all my ears can hear is terrified shrieks, a titanic voice rips through my head. Food! Food! Flavored just the way I like it!

I fall to my knees, shattered by the psychic assault; having that voice in my head is unspeakably vile. The only thought my stunned brain can muster is: I will never eat calamari again.

"Dude!" shouts Rob. "Dude, oily food is bad for you!"

The monster pauses in the act of scooping up another couple of oil-streaked swimmers. The vast head swings toward us. Bad for ME? Do you imagine that anything merely material can harm ME?

"It's not about harm," says Rob with disdain. "Like, your body is your temple and you should respect it."

The immense voice howls, with amusement or rage. MY temple is drowned R'lyeh! Images sleet across my vision, obscuring the hazy sky. Huge blocks of stone, bigger than whole buildings, piled on one another at insane angles. Impossible geometry in shadowless twilight; vertigo grips my belly. Unfazed, Rob says, "Heinous architecture." It's the longest word I've ever heard him use.

Rob puts his hands on his hips and looks up; the thing is towering directly over us, blotting out the sun. I stare at its... the things on the ends of its... the structures that support it.

Fall to your knees, mortal! FALL!

I don't, because I'm already there. Rob just shrugs. "I don't play those head trips."

The monster pauses. I sense confusion, and feel a brief moment of kinship with this tentacled horror: Rob Wesley befuddles us both.

Can it be... I have been long asleep.
A tremor passes through the mass looming above us. Have mortals learned to resist ME?

Rob shakes his head slowly. "Too many chemicals in the ocean these days. Wrecks your health, saps your will. You need to do some serious purification. Like, fasting. Maybe a good sweat lodge. Get off the petrochemical treadmill. Check out some alternative health tracks, 'cause the pharm companies are all tied in with Big Oil-- they'll just get you more of the same..."

I can't decide which is more insane; the fact that Rob is standing here nattering on about hippie health to an extra-dimensional monstrosity, or the fact that the monstrosity is listening. Then I decide it doesn't matter. He's got its undivided attention. We're alone on the beach by now. I can hear cars starting up in the parking lot, keys turned by panicked, shaking hands. Tires squealing. God send nobody gets run over.

Tell ME more.

"It's all on the Internet these days." Rob actually sits down, cross-legged in the sand, and unships his laptop. "Lemme show you some good websites to start with. You can take it from there, no prob."

The gigantic horror settles to the sand beside Rob, peering (I think) over his shoulder at the screen. Rob winks at me, and I read the URL he's pulling up:

"Dude, they've got all the answers to what ails you, right here..." He types a bit and clicks a bit, then flips the laptop around and points the screen towards our unwanted guest.


I close my eyes and clap my hands over my face, shutting out the sight of the twisting distortion, the horrible emptiness of the gap in space-time that swallows the enormity. Writhing tentacles vanish into outer darkness. A brief burst of music... flute? I'm not sure. "All done," says Rob cheerily.

I force my eyes open and he's sitting there shutting down his laptop as if nothing was wrong. "Rob... what?.. Where?..."

"The Lovecraft Society posted the banishment on their website last week," he says, as if I knew what he was talking about. "There've been a lot of breakthroughs lately, y'know?" He frowns a moment. "'Course, they put the invocation on there too. That's not cool, but hey, information is free..."

I try to imagine what the world will be like an hour, a day, a year from now. It's no good; it's completely beyond me. One thing I know for sure is that I'm getting myself a job in North Dakota. I don't care if it's pumping gas or flipping burgers, as long as it's at least two thousand miles from the nearest coast.

Then I have a better idea. I pull out my cellphone.

"Dr. Grenville? Yes, we found it. No, it wasn't a rumour; there are probably a couple of hundred witnesses, if you can catch any of them before they head for high ground.

"An organism unknown to science, I think. I really think you ought to see it for yourself, though. I wouldn't want to make any premature judgements..." I cover the phone mike and mutter to Rob: "What was that URL again?"

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