The Library City of Pnakotus, Earth
The Early Triassic
The clerk approached Tlalos on the landscaped path between the Archives and the Central Art Museum. The air hummed with traffic, and a gentle fog played around the base of the clerk’s cone-shaped body, awakened by the newly risen sun. The clerk shuffled hir ridges, edging closer, and dipped the bright globe of hir head in greeting.
“Ektraphon,” Tlalos acknowledged with a click of hir claws.
“I was hoping I’d bump into you,” the clerk clicked in response. Zie kept hir claws close, tilted respectfully towards hir body. “I need to ask you something.”
Tlalos blinked hir three eyes. “Of course, what can I do for you?”
“Do you remember the spore-sharing last year?” Ektraphon rippled hir minor limbs in suppressed excitement. "Well, we were successful, Tserius, Iunbe and myself. We have five children now, two of which show remarkable promise.”
Tlalos brightened the hue of hir cone. “That’s wonderful, but I don’t see how I could be of help-”
“I want them to be part of the next migration,” Ektraphon said quickly. “Maybe not all five, just the best two, they’re so bright and sharp. I know we have a long time left in these bodies, but I want to make sure that when we move forward, they’ll be coming with us.”
“You know I have very little influence in the selection progress,” Tlalos said, augmenting the clicking of hir claws with a new play of colour across hir skin. “If they test well, I can offer them a career in the library, but-”
Ektraphon dipped hir head even lower. “You’re eligible for election to the Council, and I know you’ve registered as a candidate. If you’re successful…” Zie paused, claws wavering half open.
“They would still need to pass the tests,” Tlalos said. “If they emerge from their second moulting and their minds are malformed, there isn’t a Yithian alive who could sanction their place in the migration.”
“I know, I know,” Extraphon clicked, hir cone flushing a flustered pale green. “But if they came to work with you, you could help to mould them. Send them out to other times, give them a taste of other beings, other cultures. Statistics show that individuals with a history of successful time travel have a far greater chance of being included in a migration.”
“If they pass the tests,” Tlalos reiterated. “Even if I’m elected, they’ll have to prove themselves. Patronage will get them only so far.”
“But you will be their patron?” Ektraphon’s green darkened, taking on an a bluish edge of hope. “I mean, you’ll think about it?”
Tlalos narrowed hir eyes and raised hir appendages. “I’ll think about it. You seem confident the people will vote for me.”
Extraphon’s colour drained and zie brought hir head up to meet Tlalos’ stare. “A document passed through my tendrils yesterday,” zie said. “You have good news on the way.”
It was Tlalos’ turn to flush green. “How good?” zie said, shuffling on the ridges of hir base.
“If I tell you, it goes no further,” Ektraphon clicked. “But I suppose it makes no difference, you’ll find out as soon as you get to your office.” Zie extended hir claws as though presenting to a crowd. “The Council has approved your application to expand the Vertebrate Research Programme!”
Tlalos’ eyes closed all at once, a surge of joy colouring hir tendrils with a tingling iridescence. When zie focused again on Ektraphon, the clerk was still in hir respectful, formal pose, the bloom of hope bleeding all the way to hir apex.
“Your stars are turning,” Ektraphon said. “Maybe soon they will align.”
Tlalos was too pleased to be aggravated by the mysticism. “It depends where you’re standing,” zie said. “Terra now, Yith when we were young. The stars are always aligned somewhere.”
Ektraphon raised hir head above the apex of hir cone, as though checking with all three eyes for observers. “But that’s the point, isn’t it?” zie said, and carried on before Tlalos could reply. “The stars are always aligned somewhere. The minor stars, the major constellations, it just depends where in the universe you happen to be. And when.”
“You read my application,” Tlalos clicked softly.
“It was brilliant,” Ektraphon said. “Daring, unconventional, blasphemous even, but brilliant.”
“Blasphemous?” Tlalos shuddered with amusement. “Have you been listening to the mono-chronic cultists?”
“Well… maybe not blasphemous, perhaps dangerous?” Ektraphon conceded. “Obviously, anyone who doesn’t believe in the rightness of the migration deserves to be left behind.”
Tlalos couldn’t argue with that. Zie looked up to the sky where a glowing red was giving way to the clearest, deepest blue. “Time travel will always be dangerous,” zie said. “The devices malfunction, integration with the host body isn’t always smooth. If I can find what I’m looking for, we can make travel - and migration - safer and faster. We can go further, we needn’t be locked into physical form.”
“I’ll take faster and safer over the rest,” Ektraphon said. “And so will the Council. I hear they weren’t convinced by the more esoteric aspects of your application, but on the note of faster and safer they think that it’s worth the risk.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Tlalos responded.
Ektraphon dipped hir head again. “Uh… you might want to know that the defence allocation has taken a very small snip to enable your new enterprise.”
“I’ll bear that in mind too. It’s always nice to know what your competitors can use against you when you’re up for election.”
Ektraphon shuddered politely, and hir colour settled. “Could I bring my best children to the library when they complete their first moulting? Just for a tour, I mean. I want to get them hooked on the idea of it.”
“Of course,” Tlalos clicked, and reached out two of hir minor tendrils. Ektraphon did likewise, twining a moment before letting go. “I’m sure we’ll see each other soon,” Tlalos said, and they parted ways in the growing warmth of the new day.
* * *
But it didn't stop hir looking. Long-dead Yith with its long-dead star were still alive and shining in the Terran sky.
A bright flash and a torrent of clicks brought Tlalos' attention back to the present, and zie undulated quickly to the edge of the terrace. On the path below, a soldier wrestled with a member of the intellectual elite, holding hir weapon high out of the other's reach.
"Alakos!" Tlalos clicked, but neither seemed to hear. Another soldier approached, tendrils outstretched in placation, claws chattering. Tlalos clicked hir irritation and wished for wings. Long-lived and sturdy these bodies were, but agile they were not. Zie would have wings in the far future, after their next migration, glossy and iridescent, a set of six to carry hir body to the clouds, and a carapace as strong as any armour to protect them when zie was at rest. The thought was somewhat soothing as Tlalos lumbered down the slope to the lower paths.
"Desist!" one of the soldiers was saying. "Please desist. Do you want me to fetch the police?"
"Of course not!" Alakos snapped. "Just give me... give it to me. I'll bring it back after, I give you my word!"
"Alakos!" Tlalos clicked as loudly as zie could. "Alakos, what do you think you're doing?"
"Stop calling me that!" Alakos rounded on Tlalos. "This is all your fault. You just can't stop meddling, can you? And here you are again, you meddler. Go back to your archive and leave me be."
Tlalos waved hir tendrils. "I'm sorry you're upset," zie said. Zie read the tags on the soldier's satchels. "Guardian Kirios, would you please leave him to me?"
"Him?" the soldier queried, peering at Alakos. "Excuse my abruptness, High Archivist. This is a Visiting Mind?"
"More of a permanent guest," Tlalos said. "He has freedom of movement."
"Really?" Alakos said, giving Tlalos a sharp glare with all three of his eyes in turn, necessitating a strange-looking spinning of his head. "If I have freedom of movement, why am I disallowed access to the basalt towers? Why does this" - he clicked at the soldier still holding hir weapon out of reach - "individual seek to prevent me from borrowing the light box?"
"That's a weapon, and you know it," Tlalos said. "Come with me, please."
Upset Alakos may have been, but rude he was not. He waved his tendrils in clumsy apology at the soldiers and slumped after Tlalos on the gravel path back to the upper terrace.
"Surely you can obtain for me a permit," he said. "I simply wish to investigate the ruins."
"That is not a simple wish," Tlalos told him. Zie gestured to the dome of the Archive, silhouetted against the stars. "There are so many other things you could turn your attention to. Don't you want to know what happens to humanity?"
"I know," Alakos said. "I knew before your usurper stole my body. We live, we thrive, eventually we fade into the void of time and the beetle race succeeds us. What relevance does that have to me?"
"Then choose something else," Tlalos said. "What about Venus?"
Alakos snapped his claws and drew his tendrils in tight. "I still don't see why you can't go back. Send someone else to my time, send them to save me."
"It doesn't work like that," Tlalos said. "We must not go where we have already been."
"Not yet," Alakos said, his eyes wide and gleaming. "But it's possible. All of time and space are one, united in the being that is both gate and key. You know this."
"Hush!" Tlalos reached out to wrap hir tendrils around Alakos' claws, but Alakos drew back his limbs and continued in a soft whisper of clicking.
"I made contact once," he said. "But you know this too, don't you? You know know everything, you who meddle everywhere."
"We are aware," Tlalos said. "We have your book. Did you wish to continue your old research?"
"And the point of that would be what exactly?" Alakos demanded. "We wouldn't be having this conversation if I hadn't sought after knowledge you deny me. Let me into the ruins!"
"The elder ruins are off limits," Tlalos said wearily. "They're dangerous, the things within them will kill you."
"My body is dead," Alakos said. He shuffled to the edge of the terrace, one tendril curling around the strap of his satchel. "Unseen demons, shrieking devils, they killed me. Killed him... hir... the usurper wearing my skin."
"Hir name was Tserius," Tlalos said.
"And you know my name," Alakos said, "Just as you know what killed my mortal form, but the one you cannot pronounce, and the other you cannot bring yourself to utter. The dwellers in the ruins, the murderous unseen demons, they are the very same!"
Tlalos stilled hir claws. Alakos was glaring at hir, his cone darkened and his tendrils hunched.
He glowered. "You know this to be true.”
"I do," Tlalos replied calmly. "Do you seek revenge? Is that why you're so-"
"Revenge?!" Alakos quivered with a bitter laughter. "If I should seek revenge, it would be against those who had wronged me, not their hunters. The wind-creatures are your enemies, not mine. They came out of hiding to kill your Tserius, not me! No, I seek only understanding. That's all I've ever sought."
"Then come back to the Archive," Tlalos said.
Alakos shrugged his tendrils. "And do what?
"You cannot tell me you've plumbed the depths of our records and that your curiosity is fulfilled."
"Where my interests take me, I find only armed guards and restricted access seals," Alakos said.
Tlalos widened the reach of hir tendrils and lowered hir claws in welcome. "Then perhaps it is time to request a change in your status," zie said. "How would you like to join my personal research team?"
"That depends," Alakos replied. "What exactly is the nature of your current research?"
"Time and space," Tlalos said. "And the entity which forms both the gate and the key."
* * *
The Visitors looked at hir, stretching their necks. Tlalos clicked at them to go about their business, but zie may as well not have bothered. Most had never seen a youngster before, and some were so new to these bodies they still hadn’t got used to 360 degree vision, and kept turning their heads to bring Klatasos into view of all three eyes one at a time.
"Hello," Klatasos clicked, greeting the closest Visitor. "Is that cyrillic you're writing in? It's a fascinating alphabet. When do you come from?"
Ektraphon and Tlalos shuffled back so as not to intrude. "Zie tests very well," Ektraphon said quietly to Tlalos. "And hir curiosity is boundless."
"Indeed," Tlalos said. "But curiosity is only the first stage."
"Hir analytical skills are coming on apace. It is with regret that I cannot say the same for hir siblings."
Tlalos twined hir tendrils in condolence. "I heard you had to have them euthanised. I'm very sorry."
"It is the way of things," Ektraphon said. "We'd had hopes for Kirith, but after Tserius died hir scores fell and zie, well..." Zie straightened, a little colour restoring to hir cone. "We have Klatasos, and we can always try again the next sporing."
"Just you and Iunbe?" Tlalos said. "That's risky."
"We'll find a third," Ektraphon said. "And if we can't, at least we know that Tserius' old body is capable. Perhaps Alakos will indulge us."
Tlalos’ cone flushed grey in shock. "I honestly can't tell if you're joking," zie said, keeping a close eye on the interaction at the table. "Klatasos, we do not write in the Visitor's books!"
Klatasos hastily returned the pen to hir companion's tendrils.
Ektraphon glanced sidelong at Tlalos, and relaxed when it became obvious zie was amused. "I hear that you've taken Alakos on as a research assistant," zie ventured.
"He has certain specialisms we need," Tlalos replied. "I'll make sure he keeps away from Klatasos, at least until zie's old enough to accept the mind-body separation."
"Oh, zie understands."
"I'm sure zie does, but there's a difference between intellectual understanding and emotional acceptance. I won't risk hir development."
"Appreciated," Ektraphon said. "Although zie will have to meet him sooner or later. You know zie wants to travel? Zie knows what happened to Tserius, but that's not put hir off."
"Well," said Tlalos, "by the time zie's ready to make hir first journey, things should be a lot safer. I mean no disrespect to Tserius, zie was a true Yithian, but hir death was an anomaly."
"I truly hope so," Ektraphon said. Zie lowered hir claws, continuing quietly. "I didn't expect public opinion to swing so harshly against you because of that. I'm still angry with Nerenos for using Tserius' death to score political points. It was tasteless."
"The political world is harsh," Tlalos commented.
“Of course, you've served on the Council before, haven't you?” Ektraphon said. “I have a vague recollection, it was back on Yith. I’d only just emerged from my chrysalis.”
“That’s right, it was just before our second migration.” Tlalos had forgotten that Ektraphon had been born a grub. How wonderful it was to be old enough to have missed that stage of that particular host body’s life cycle. Zie still remembered having wings though, and the blasted mess it could be when zie needed to clean hir spines.
"Do you ever miss it?" Ektraphon said. "Flying, I mean."
"Sometimes," Tlalos admitted. "You'll enjoy our next migration. The wings make such a delightful sound."
Ektraphon shuffled hir tendrils, and Tlalos wondered if zie was remembering the buoyant joy of a thermal, the rush of a dive. "It's getting close to Klatasos' feeding time," Ektraphon said. "I should take hir to the refectory."
"Of course," Tlalos said. "Klatasos, it's time to go."
The smaller cone shuffled impossibly agile down the ramp, peering up at Tlalos with eyes full of wonder. "Thank you for the visit," zie said. "I have many questions, I will put them in writing." Zie went to move off, then paused, hir claws held close to hir body. "I'm sorry you lost the election. I'd have voted for you."
Tlalos wiggled hir tendrils at the youngster. "There's always next time."
* * *
Tlalos gently nudged hir intern’s limbs to a more seemly elevation. “We do not check on the caches,” zie said. When Klatasos only looked bemused, Tlalos continued. “To check would mean to observe, to observe would mean to excavate. To excavate would be to draw attention to the cache with the native sapient species.”
“No buts!” Tlalos waved hir tendrils. “It’s safer this way.”
Klatasos opened hir claws to form another ‘but’ and managed to turn it into a ‘What about!’ at the last second. “What about degradation of materials? What if the physical or metaphysical properties of the archival medium become unstable? What about geological upheaval? What about everything ending up under water!”
“Those are the risks we take,” Tlalos said. “We mitigate them as far as possible of course.”
“How?!” Klatasos demanded, tugging on the strap of hir satchel in apparent anxiety.
“Well,” Tlalos said, “we plan. Has Ektraphon not explained all this?”
“Ektraphon’s busy,” Klatasos said, “And Iunbe tried, but zie said you were the expert and zie’s just a soldier. Zie doesn’t know how the Archive works!”
“There is no such thing as ‘just’ a soldier,” Tlalos said gravely. “Come, let’s take the Visitors to the refectory, they could use a break.”
Following Tlatlos into the writing room, Klatasos ably herded the visiting intellects, gently encouraging them to put down their pens and brushes, to arrange their tendrils and shuffle in an orderly fashion to the exit. Some were still clumsy, so new to their conical bodies they had problems even undulating their bases, let alone adopting the smooth gliding motions of Klatasos and Tlatos.
Some bumped into the walls, and others came to a stop around them, unable to avoid the blockage, but eventually the group found its way into the bright vaulted loggia of the refectory. Klatasos passed them over into the care of nutrition specialists, and selected a meal for hirself and one for Tlalos from the given options.
“Sea vegetables today,” zie said, setting the dishes on a high bench. Zie dipped the end of hir feeding tendril in the soup, the conical appendage swelling slightly as it broke the surface tension. “I suppose it’ll be a while before you have sea vegetables again.”
Tlalos submerged the ends of two tendrils, feeling the pores dilate and the nutrients begin to absorb. “Some mammalian sub-groups eat sea vegetables,” zie commented. “I’ve been to cultures where they were prepared in very novel ways. But yes, the culture I will be visiting will be low on sea vegetables. We’ll have other things instead - potatoes and beef and pepper and salt. Very interesting textures, and the tastes…”
“I can’t wait to learn taste!” Klatasos said, hir waving claws only narrowly missing hir dish. “I can only imagine. Mouths are so strange. And chewing?”
“We had mouths on Yith,” Tlalos said with a prick of nostalgia.
“And we’ll have them again,” Klatasos finished. “I wish I was going with you.”
“You know that’s impossible,” Tlalos said. “Outside of a migration, we must always travel alone. It’s too risky otherwise.”
“I know, I know.” Klatasos fetched a napkin from hir satchel and wiped a dot of soup from hir claw arm. “You never did tell me why.”
Tlalos looked out over the sea of the Archivists’ bodies piloted by the visiting minds, every one of them absorbed in the process of absorbing. Now was as good a time as any. “Imagine,” zie said, “that spacetime is a fabric. A woven textile such as certain of the satchel-makers use.”
Klatasos kept hir claws firmly closed, watching attentively.
“A single mind will fit easily through the weave without disturbing the threads. Two minds set on the same path must by necessity force the weave to expand a little to let them through. They may attract unwanted attention.”
“What from?” Klatasos clicked, before wrapping hir own spare tendrils tightly around hir claws.
Tlalos shuddered a little, amused. “From beings who are not constrained by the limitations of space and time,” zie said. “When we migrate we have safety in numbers, and there are other safeguards as well. But for research trips it is by far the safest option to travel alone.”
Klatasos’ tendrils slowly unwound. “I still wish I could come with you. You leave so soon!”
“And I’ll return within a decade. And while I’m away, you will complete your internship and progress to Assistant Archivist under Senior Archivist Sakkas.”
“But what if-”
“I’m not Tserius,” Tlalos said. “I will come back.”
“And if you don’t?” Klatasos demanded, hir colour calm and hir eyes sharp. “We Yithians always have a backup. Always. You taught us that.”
Tlalos bowed hir head. “If I don’t come back, then you will go to Alakos and you will help him to finish my work.”
* * *
That was putting it mildly. Integration was a disaster. Tlalos had never met a body that put up such a fight. It was worse than their first migration on Yith, worse even than their first fumblings into the coleopterid bodies their minds would inhabit next. The native consciousness relinquished its hold with no small struggle, and the physical form was a nightmare.
Hominids were usually so easy. Four limbs, two eyes, a throughput digestive system, and a straightforwad mechanical action for oxygen intake. How simple! Or so Tlalos had thought, until zie met this particular human body.
Zie lay supine, unable even to open hir new eyes, and focused on respiration. The body was meant to perform the task automatically, but every time Tlalos’ attention drifted it started making horrible guttural wheezing sounds, and zie began to choke. At least breathing through a nose and mouth was novel. Zie thought of the conical body zie had so recently left behind, and the pleasant sensation of absorbing carbon dioxide through the skin.
It was night by the time the body’s automatic systems had become acclimatised to their new pilot and Tlalos was able to open hir eyes.
Orientation was almost as tricky as integration. While hir new body lay unmoving, Tlalos had at least been able to ascertain that zie was in an English-speaking country, somewhere between 1700 and 1980 by native reckoning. Mammal accents were an acquired taste, and the individuals who spoke around hir used a mixture of idioms zie had previously associated with separate cultures.
“Nathaniel? Nathaniel, can you hear me?” A figure was leaning over the bed, a woman wearing a perfume of lavender and rose, stray wisps of dark hair escaping her coiffure to sway over her face. She gripped Tlalos’ left hand and held it tight. “Nathaniel, you’re home, you had a fall.” She turned to the door. “Wingate, your father’s awake! Call the doctor!”
Tlalos studied her hand, her face, the lace of her dress, the small gold locket laying snug over her high collar.
“Nathanial?” She smiled at him, locking eyes for a moment before something Talos could not read passed over her expression. She let go of his hand and wrung hers together.
Tlalos drew breath to reply. Zie was Nathaniel now, that much was clear. Zie coughed to loosen hir vocal chords and made hir first attempt at verbal speech in three hundred years. “S… salutations...”
The woman fled the room.
* * *
At least it was more comfortable than the desert. This body was no good in the heat, far too delicate.
Zie squinted at the horizon, trying to guess how much longer they would need to travel. The horizon was a blur of half-formed promises, and the omnipresent ice shimmered with a boding iridescence.
Five years had passed since Nathaniel’s wife had fled the sickroom. As luck would have it, she and the children were the only people who would not accept Tlalos as Nathaniel. Academia at large was happy to admit him, and the cultural norms were fully accepting of a grown man dropping all pretence at a responsible life to travel the world with no explanation of his goals.
It would have been nice, perhaps, to have kept the family, if only for the sake of the stranded intellect under the Archive’s protection back in Pnakotus. Peaslee didn’t matter, not in the long run, but it wasn’t best practice to cause too much upheaval.
Tlalos tucked hir hands in the pockets of hir voluminous fur coat. Klatasos would have finished hir internship by now. Zie would have attained hir full height, completed hir final moulting, and graduated from the University the top of hir class. Would Sakkas have assigned hir to Peaslee, to watch over him and keep Tlalos’ body from harm? Or was zie preparing even now for hir first journey through time?
Each stage of Tlalos’ trip raised new questions and opened new avenues for research. Several were even appropriate to Klatasos’ age and experience. The safer journeys, Tlalos thought, to the humid subtropical cities where a stranger could pass unnoticed, or the stiff formality of the northern gentlemen's clubs where the Pnakotic cults recruited members whose lust for secrets outweighed their common sense.
Klatasos would travel in comfort hir first few trips, would visit places and times the Pnakotic cults were at their height, when a Yithian mind could be assured a warm welcome and enthusiastic conversation. And help too, when zie wanted to return. Zie would of course build the device to return hir mind to hir usual body, but zie would need a trustworthy pair of hands to disassemble it afterwards and ensure the components were never found.
Tlalos smoothed hir glove over the ice of the ship’s rail, and watched hir breath steam in the air. Ice crystals sparkled in hir short moustache and the stray locks of hir hair. “You’d like it here,” zie whispered to the thought of Klatasos, and smiled at hir sentimental urge.
Hir reverie was interrupted by the captain. “Sir,” he said in his heavily accented English. “We have arrived.”
“Already?” Tlalos replied in Norwegian. It was a tradition they had adopted; the captain wished to practice his English and Tlalos to augment hir conversational Norwegian.
“Already indeed,” the captain said. “It is here, the location you wish to see.”
Tlalos nodded. “Thank you, Captain,” zie said. Zie took out hir binoculars, conscious of the captain’s curious stare. The ice shimmered around them, but there was no island, there were no ruins. If the site still existed it was beneath the waves. “Bring the vessel to a halt please,” zie said, “and have your men bring out my equipment.”
It had been worth the wait. Three months of telegrams to various leaders of the northern Pnakotic cults had assured Tlalos of a crew zie could trust, a captain who knew something of what zie was and would not balk at hir investigations nor at a little esoteric chanting.
Tlalos supervised the construction of the simple mirrored device - not a device for exchanging intellects, not this time, simply a mechanism to focus the mind - and extricated hir notebook from hir deep coat pocket.
Zie cleared hir throat and began the incantation.
The crew knew the responses by now, and joined in with commendable enthusiasm. The air shimmered, the ghosts rose. And flickered, and died.
Tlalos tried again, and this time the air glittered like a broken mirror, shards turning, spinning in and out of hir perception. The city of pinnacles teased hir with its perverse nearness, its complete inaccessibility. The air warmed momentarily, a breath of long ago. A song rose from the past, a hymn to Yog-Sothoth. This was the place. Something had been here, something had worn down the membrane between this reality and the void itself. Something had called the spheres into being here, in a time and for a reason outside of Tlalos’ vast knowledge, and had attempted what? A request? A unification? An exchange?
“Ia Yog-Sothoth!” Tlalos cried, urging the spheres to return, calling out to the intellect which guided them. The crew sang with hir, but the shards were cracking like ice under a hammer and the vision of the gleaming city crumbled.
They tried again, and the ghosts came easily, but the city was distant, the song dim and fading. Tlalos gritted hir teeth in frustration and forged on. Had the supplicants of the past also failed? Was this why hir ritual - so well researched, so painstakingly recreated - had summoned only an echo of what zie knew to be there?
Tlalos’ vision blacked, hir ears ringing. Zie stumbled and the captain caught hir elbow, guided hir back to hir cabin.
“We can try again tonight,” the captain said, his eyes wide and a sheen of sweat on his brow. Tlalos nodded because there was nothing left to say, and lay hir borrowed body down.
* * *
Tlalos quivered, sensing the blue seep into hir cone, lifting hir claw arms and making hir first tentative click. Hir eyes opened all at once, showing a panoramic view of hir current surroundings.
Zie was in the Visitors’ sleeping stalls, a simple white vault above, a ribbed mosaic of terracotta below. Zie plucked the satchel from its peg on the wall and investigated the contents. Pen nibs shared space with a few scraps of ink-stained paper, and a small collection of wilting ginkgo leaves. Something moved on the windowsill, a tiny gliding reptile which looked at hir with curious eyes before launching itself from the open window.
A shuffle outside told that someone had heard Tlalos’ movements. “Do you require assistance?” the individual clicked.
“Not this time,” Tlalos said, and was overcome with a shaking amusement so much that zie could not so much as click hir claws.
The door opened smoothly, heavy hinges freshly oiled. “Is everything quite all right?” Klatasos asked, hir cone flushed a deep turquoise and hir claws held low.
“Look at you!” Tlalos cried, finally getting hir quivering under control. “You’re so tall now. Have you been looking after my body for me?”
“High Archivist!” Klatasos twined their tendrils, hir cone growing blue. “You’re so early. We weren’t expecting you for another two years at the least. Did something happen? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Tlalos answered. “Better than fine. Shall we take a walk? We can register my return with Documentation and then go to the garden?”
“Of course!” Klatasos replied. “I’ll meet you at reception, I just need to let Inerius know so someone keeps an eye on the Visitors.”
Tlalos’ body fit like one of Peaslee’s gloves. Familiar and comfortable, it cleaved to hir every impulse. Zie undulated to Documentation, gave them Peaslee’s satchel and swapped for hir own with its traditional collection of documents and keepsakes. Senior Archivist Sakkos came by and twined tendrils for a long moment. Even Alakos came out of hiding to say hello, although he kept his ink-stained tendrils resolutely to himself.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” Klatasos said when zie and Tlalos had made it to the breeze-blown terrace at the top level of the gardens. Below a sea of ferns waved gracefully beneath a few sentinel cycads. Even the spectre of a basalt tower looming behind the Central Art Museum couldn’t cast a shadow over Tlalos’ day.
“I’m glad to be back,” Tlalos said. “That body was ridiculous! All that hair! And of course I had to arrive twenty years earlier than planned.”
“Twenty years? But we calibrated the machine so carefully!”
“May 15th 1908 local time,” Tlalos said. “None of my summonings worked, more’s the pity, I think the stars weren’t quite right for it. But I did get a chance to study the copy of Alakos’ book held at Miskatonic.”
Klatasos’ colour faded and zie lowered hir claw arms. “Did you make the alterations? Were you in time before Wilbur…” Hir speech slowed as zie spelled out his name in the clunky phonetic speech Alakos kept encouraging them to use.
“I didn’t need to,” Tlalos said. “The incantation for calling forth was correct, Wilbur will have the information he needs. Last year… I mean in 1912 local time, Old Whateley performed the rite of procreation, based I have to assume on his own copy of the book, and the twins were born seven months before my return. They will have what they need to summon their father, we just need to get someone in to observe.”
Klatasos leaned hir tendrils into the breeze. “You didn’t want to stay and watch them grow?”
“Of course,” Tlalos said. “But the subject’s body wasn’t getting any younger. Humans fade so fast, and there’s only so much digestive instability I’m willing to put up with on any one research trip.” Zie raised hir tendrils, watching the colours shift. “I need a younger body for 1928,” zie said.
“We’ll find you one,” Klatasos said with a humorous blink of hir eyes. “So tell me, it can’t have all been bad?”
Tlalos lowered hir tendrils. “It wasn’t,” zie said. “I travelled the world, I saw the deserts of Arabia, the northern polar ice. I tried so many new types of food I can hardly count them. I even indulged in a few erotic entertainments. I won’t say they were to my tastes, but they were quite diverting.”
“I can’t begin to imagine!” Klatasos said. “Peaslee…” Zie spelled out the alien phonemes with care. “He spoke often of his wife. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to be reunited now.”
Tlalos managed to banish the slip of green edging into hir colour. “I’m sure,” zie said. “I should start my report soon.”
Klatasos’ cone turned a vibrant shade of blue, but zie held hir claws at a seemly level. “I can’t wait to read it,” zie said.
“Of course, I’ll need someone to conduct the interview,” Tlalos said, wondering how blue hir cone could get. “Perhaps I could prevail upon my old intern, now as my assistant?”
Klatasos’ tendrils shimmered. “I’d be honoured.”
* * *
“Indeed,” said Venitak from the nominal head of the table. Zie was the only member of the committee to also serve on the Octagon Council, and the only committee member to be at all clothed. Venitak’s claw arms were wrapped in a colourful textile, dried and beaten fronds of vegetation dyed in a pattern resembling the eyes of a rare form of trilobite. “We have no problem with Vegetable species, obviously, but Mercury as a destination after the beetle race? And are the bulbous inhabitants not a degenerate lost colony of Venus?”
“A lost colony, yes,” Tlalos said, “but hardly degenerate. Referring to chapter forty, verse two of my report, the Surrussa - that is their name for themselves - have, indeed will have by the time of our migration, manufactured and sustained an atmosphere on Mercury. They will have developed an eco-system suited to their needs, a rather ingenious shield and solar energy collection device to regulate the temperature of the planet and prevent the dark side from freezing, and divorced themselves utterly from their parent species.”
“And what of Venus?” Queka asked. “Will the Venutians not want their colony back?”
Tlalos curled hir tendrils in amusement. “By then, the Venutians will be extinct.”
“What will kill them?” Niatolos said, hir eyes wide and head straining forwards.
“Hubris,” Tlalos replied. “Rest assured their demise will be entirely self generated. And remember, the closer we get to the sun, the further we shall be from the Mi-Go, and from R’lyeah.”
Venitak shook out hir tendrils. “It is the opinion of the Council,” zie said, “that migrating closer to the sun carries risks inherent in the nature of the star itself.”
“Outweighed by the stability of the planet,” Tlalos said. “The last reported geological activity was so long ago we had not yet made our first migration to new bodies on Yith. If we were to create a cache beneath the surface of Mercury it would be our safest yet.”
“It sounds dull,” Queka said. “Why would we want to migrate to a tiny planet so close to a star which will, by then, be quite mature?”
Tlalos glanced sidelong at Klatasos, who in hir nervous state still had hold of the pot Niatolos had almost knocked over. Zie tucked hir claws close and answered respectfully, “Because the cache will be safe, and because there is the possibility that the Surrussa have access to the one thing we have always lacked: powered space flight.”
This caused a commotion that lasted the rest of the meeting. Eventually Niatolos called for order and a recess. Tlalos and Klatasos were ejected with all due courtesy, and the pot of flowers left to its sad fate on the table.
“They will read the report, won’t they?” Klatasos asked when they reached the broad avenue shaded by breeze blown cycads.
“Of course,” Tlalos said. “And they’ll ask us endless questions and order supplementary research.”
“Good,” Klatasos said, then let hir tendrils fall flat to hir cone. “I’ve spent too long in mammal bodies, I keep expecting people to react as a hominid would. Is that… I mean should I be worried about that?”
Tlalos gave Klatasos a reassuring pat on the claw. “Keep it in mind,” zie said. “As long as you’re aware of it, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Klatasos shook out hir tendrils and hir hue brightened. “That’s a relief,” zie said. “I…” Zie adjusted hir path, sticking close to the trunks of the giant ferns where the shadows partly concealed the movements of hir claws. “I have a proposal to run past you,” zie said with hir limbs held close and hir claws hardly opening. Zie only continued when Tlalos dipped hir head in assent. “I want to go to Dunwich,” zie said, “at the time of the Whately ritual, just to observe. We’ve witnessed Wilbur’s death and his brother’s destruction. I think it’s time we witness their creation at first hand. Obviously I’ll take care not to cross paths with your past self. What do you think?”
Tlalos was silent a while, letting the proposal sink in. Then zie spread hir tendrils wide. “I think that’s a marvellous idea.”
* * *
They held the press conference in the square outside the Central Art Library. Pillars of quartz-veined granite and sculpted concrete rose stately behind a podium made of spun glass. Overhead a lone pteranodon rode the city’s thermals, and the air was alive with the hum of insects’ wings.
Tlalos ascended the ramp to the podium, hir base gliding over a mosaic of concentric curves. Klatasos was nowhere to be seen. Probably still with Alakos. The incantations were far from perfect and they hadn’t yet decided which civilisation Klatasos would project hir mind to in order to undertake the next experiment. They were so close Tlalos could sense it, a ripple in the fabric of spacetime, a gelatinous undulation pulsing at the base of hir neck. They had affected something when Klatasos snuck up to the edge of the Blasted Heath and watched events unfold on Sentinel Hill, and only time now stood between them and their rewards.
On the dais waited Niatolos with Councilperson Venitak. They welcomed Tlalos warmly, making effusive use of hir official title. Tlalos couldn’t help but notice that Venitak had dispensed with the arm coverings, and now wore a little cutwork ornament on the leather of hir satchel. A deference, no doubt, to growing public distaste for bodily adornment. Ornament belonged on buildings and the bindings of books, not on individuals.
Tlalos slotted into the curve of the lectern and looked out over the sea of bobbing heads. “Thank you for coming,” zie said. “This is a crucial time in the development of the Yithian race. We approach a global extinction event, and as such it is time for us to prepare our next migration. As you know, it is my research which enabled the discovery of the coleopteran race which will form our next home, and under my leadership the Archive has gone from strength to strength. We shall leave a cache of knowledge far safer and more secure, far more comprehensive, far more accurate than any we left on Yith, to be uncovered by our future selves.” Tlalos paused, giving time for a polite applause, and dipped a tendril into hir satchel. It emerged with a small bundle of paper. “My achievements since the last election,” zie said, and passed the bundle to Niatolos to be distributed among the crowd. “As you can see, I am perfectly placed to represent you, the people of Pnakotus, on the Octagon Council. I have worked tirelessly to improve the safety of our migrations, I have uncovered knowledge we thought long lost, and have taken the first step towards being able to finally recover the cache we left on Yith.”
This time the response was hushed, with a background rustle of tendrils on paper.
“But we can’t go back to Yith,” someone said. “The polyps-” Zie was cut off by hir neighbour whose tendrils were quick to wind around hir claws. But another voice quickly rose up.
“Yith is our past,” zie said, “we can’t trade places with ourselves!”
“And how would we transport it?” a third called out. “Memory will only take us so far.”
“We shouldn’t migrate at all!” a green-hued Yithian with violent yellow stripes pushed hir way to the front. “We should be grateful for the time we have! A species lives five million years, but we extend our lives indefinitely! We are not the elder gods, we have no business damning sentient minds to apocalypse after apocalypse just to prolong our own span!”
The Yithians to either side veered quickly away, leaving a growing space around the one whose ranting continued apace, although Tlalos had stopped looking at hir claws and could thus only catch half of the meaning. The gap was quickly filled with civilian police, and very soon they hustled the lone cultist away.
Tlalos clicked for attention. “Space travel,” zie said. “That is how we will recover the cache on Yith! Powered space flight, not just between planets and their satellites, but between star systems, across the very gulfs of interstellar space!”
“Impossible!” at least five people said in rough unison, while others raised their voices in query and demand.
“A peer-reviewed paper on the subject is available at the Archive’s reception desk for anyone who wishes to learn about this in depth,” Tlalos said. “You know by now I would never make a promise without ample supporting evidence.”
“One question at a time please!” Venitak cut in over the clamour of clicking. Zie gestured at random. “Yes, you.”
“Does this have anything to do with Mercury?” the indicated person asked.
“Yes,” said Tlalos. “If all goes well and the Far Future Committee approves it, Mercury will be our destination after Terra.”
This caused another clatter of questions, during which another body approached the podium and was allowed entry by the stewards.
“Sorry I’m late,” Klatasos said quietly, taking hir place at Tlalos’ side.
“Senior Archivist Klatasos,” Venitak said. “How good of your to join us.”
Klatasos had the presence of mind not to look embarrassed, and Tlalos winked at hir with hir closest eye.
“Senior Archivist!” someone yelled, taking advantage of a lull in the din. “Is it true that you were nearly killed by polyps the last time you swapped bodies with a human?”
Klatasos deferred to Tlalos with a wave of hir tendrils, which gave the crowd a few seconds to yell an alternate question.
“Tserius was killed by polyps!” someone else called, edging slowly away from the police at the edges of the square.
“Terius’ death was a tragic anomaly,” Tlalos said. “It only serves to show the magnitude of the danger we will escape.”
“A question for the High Archivist” another spoke up, glaring at Tlalos. “I am of the first spawning back on Yith, I remember our first ever migration.” Zie kept hir head high, eyes keen and tendrils flushed dark. “I remember the methods we tried, how many minds never made it through, how many people we lost! And I remember your rise to power before our second migration, your experiments. Do you remember, Tlalos, what happened the last time you had a place on the ruling council?”
“I remember it well,” Tlalos replied smoothly. “As I remember you, Iatare. Our migration was a success, we lost zero point zero one percent of migrating minds, compared to a previous rate of sixty percent. The migration was planned in stages, with-”
“I’m not talking about the stages,” Iatare snapped. “I’m not talking about integration or the migration itself! I’m talking about what happened before the second migration. I’m talking about the nature of your research, I’m talking about the things you created when you meddled with the fabric of spacetime seeking then as now to find a safer path through the aeons! These polyps we fear to even name, these things that stalk our nightmares and overshadow our days. The children of Yog-Sothoth!”
Stunned silence smothered the square, and Iatare shuffled forwards. “I don’t know how you did it,” zie said, “but you made them. The polyps killed us on Yith, and they followed us here, they swam through the vast gulfs of space and don’t you deny it, I can see by the colour of your cone, this is your doing and you know it. They got here before us and they waited, and we all know they will rise again to take vengeance on us for our arrogance!”
This stirred the law enforcers, who began to undulate towards Iatare.
“You can stop right there,” Iatare said calmly. “This is a matter of public record if anyone could be bothered to look. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, you who were there for the second migration. You know why we had to leave Yith! People, hear me and think on my words. High Archivist Tlalos is experimenting with Yog-Sothoth, the gate and the key to time and space. Zie has done this before, and the polyps were created, our homeworld died! What will happen if we allow hir to do this again?”
“Nothing will happen!” Tlalos clicked loudly. “The polyps are merely an example of extra-dimensional fauna. They’re angry because we have dominion over Terra, not because of the essential scientific research that I and others undertook before the second migration to ensure the continuation and success of our species!”
“Besides,” Klatasos said, waving hir tendrils to encourage a hush. “Terra will soon suffer a catastrophic asteroid bombardment and subsequent climatic and geological upheavals. The basalt towers will fall. I’ve been to the future, I know. A few stray wind creatures do remain, fading with time. It is true that one of these murdered my parent Tserius, and it was perhaps the same one that attempted to assassinate me. But we are stronger than them, we are better than them. We will prevail, and they will be lost to the sands of time.” Zie raised hir claws. “We the people of Pnakotus, the children of Yith, will prevail. Our stars are aligning, and I can say with certainty that theirs will never align again!”
Tlalos’ colour settled as the crowd erupted. Iatare stared a while before shuffling off. Venitak clicked hir claws for silence and spoke up, “Perhaps now we can have some relevant questions?”
* * *
I’m finally back where I need to be,” Tlalos said. Zie let the door close behind hir, shutting off the buzz and clatter of the Archive and letting the gentle patter of rain through the open window provide a backdrop to their conversation.
“Of course you’d think that,” Alakos commented. “You don’t see your own hubris, it’s embarrassing.”
“You’re in a fine mood.” Tlalos looked over the open manuscripts. “You’re going to try the summoning again?”
“I’m looking for inconsistencies in the different accounts,” Alakos replied. “The entity has certainly noticed us, we need to make sure we can control our next interaction, and we don’t have much time.”
“We have all the time in the world,” Tlalos said.
“That’s an illusion,” Alakos snapped. “All of time and space are one. The entity anchored itself to twentieth-century Earth when it sired the Whateley twins. The same happened during the second migration when you created the polyps. I hypothesise-”
“That’s… Who told you that?”
“I hear things,” Alakos said, his eyes still skimming over the papers. “After the debacle at your press conference - and do remind me to congratulate Klatasos for saving you from yourself, I’m sure you haven’t thanked hir. Where was I? Oh yes, after the press conference people were suddenly happy to talk to me. I interviewed everyone I could find who was alive at the time of the Second Migration and came to my own conclusions. I’ve written a paper, it’s on the shelf.”
Tlalos rolled hir eyes. “Thank you for that,” zie clicked. “I hope you don’t expect us to include that in the cache.”
“Oh but I thought you were adamant about intellectual freedom,” Alakos said. “Besides, they’ve been talking to me.”
Tlalos picked up a scroll and unrolled it to scan the contents. “Yes, you said.”
“No, I mean them, the wind creatures.” Alakos paused, taking on a smug purple hue to his cone when Tlalos’ claws gaped.
“What do you mean?”
“They come to me in my dreams,” Alakos said. “Not always, just… When the moon is full and Jupiter is in the sky. They’re very angry.”
Tlalos let the scroll roll shut. “For how long?”
“Not long,” Alakos said. “A millennium, maybe two? You know I find the passage of time strange in this body. They don’t speak, I don’t think they can. But they’re masters of… emotional transference. They’re lost and they’re angry and they don’t like it. You tore them away from their native planes, and now they’re trapped in time and space, anchored to the present moment.”
“What else have they told you?”
Alakos shrugged his claw arms. “Nothing. They communicate with impressions. You think the basalt towers are their prison? Your trap doors and iron grates? Those are nothing. The here and now is their prison, and they ache to escape.”
“And of course you sympathise with them,” Tlalos said.
Alakos shrugged again. “I can write a paper about it if you’d like.”
“What’s got under your eyelids?” Tlalos asked. “Are you unwell? Is it the food? You were perfectly contented a month ago.”
It was Alakos’ turn to roll his eyes. “My wellbeing is no longer your concern, Councilmember.”
“Of course it is! You’re my responsibility.”
“I’m not sure you know the meaning of the word. Few here seem to.”
Tlalos put the scroll down and tugged a certificate from the front pocket of hir satchel. Zie laid it on the desk. “This is for you,” zie said. “I can understand if the idea is contrary to your moral leanings, but I’ve had you added to the list. You’re eligible for migration.”
Alakos’ colour mottled. “I’m… what? But I’m not a Yithian.”
“I don’t care,” Tlalos said. “Your research will go in the Archive, it will form part of the cache. Once the migration is complete we will retrieve it and continue with our work.” Zie lowered hir claws and undulated towards the door. “Just think about it,” zie said.
* * *
“I trust you,” Tlalos said. Zie stood at the apex of a winding maze of slopes leading into all areas of the Archive. Archivists and Senior Archivists undulated as fast as their bases could carry them, rushing to check and secure the vast archival holdings. Zie took the paper and smoothed it out on the flat top of the balustrade. “All those places we’ve been,” zie said, “all the things we’ve seen and done.”
“Do you always get sentimental before a migration?” Klatasos teased. Zie handed Tlalos a pen and waited while zie signed.
“I always think it’s like dying,” Tlalos commented. “Like dying and being reborn.” Zie caught a flash of red on the slope. “Iunbe!” zie called. “Come up!”
Iunbe twined tendrils with Klatasos, and greeted Tlalos with appropriate deference. Hir weapon was holstered, suspended in a harness attached to hir satchel. “Councilmember Tlalos,” zie said. “Or should I still call you High Archivist? It seems you’re still wearing that badge.”
“At least for now,” Tlalos said. “How’s the migration?”
“It’s progressing well. Forty-two percent of eligible citizens have already made the exchange. The newcomers exhibit the usual confusion and bodily incapacity, although some are recovering well.”
“Any difficulties?” Tlalos dipped hir tendrils.
“A few,” Iunbe said. “There’s always someone who works out how to use their new limbs and goes for a weapon, but we’ve isolated them.”
“What will you do to them?” Klatasos asked, putting hir paperwork back in hir satchel.
“We’ll train them to use our weapons,” Iunbe said. “We know they can’t prevail against the threat from below, but they don’t know that. It’s only fair that they feel like they have a chance.”
“The polyps are stirring,” Tlalos commented.
Klatasos patted hir on the cone. “The war isn’t due for another thousand years,” zie said. “We’ll be long gone by then.”
“And thank our stars for that!” Iunbe said. “I should get back to work. It’s been good to see you. I’m crossing over this evening, I’ll see you both before we go?”
Tlalos didn’t miss the nervous edge of green that blushed into Iunbe’s cone, and neither did Klatasos judging by how quickly she clasped hir parent’s tendrils.
“We’ll be there,” zie said. “We’ll cross over together. I can’t wait to have wings again!”
Tlalos looked down into the hall of winding slopes. “You and me both,” zie said.
* * *
On the plateau the drones had already begun the process of excavation.
“So this is Pnakotus,” Alakos said. He scrubbed at the mossy ground. “In my day all this was desert.”
“This is still your day,” Klatasos reminded him. Zie angled hir head to the sun. “We’ve got incoming.”
Tlalos looked up, trying to recognise the newcomers. But they were too new to these bodies, zie had trouble telling anyone apart. At least Klatasos still fancied those bronze clips, although now zie wore them on hir antennae, and Alakos’ hands were always spattered with ink.
“Councilmember,” said the first newcomer to land. Zie flourished hir six wings before folding them neatly away. Embroidered cloth bands covered hir forearms, and Tlalos’ antenna perked in relief.
“Venitak,” zie said. “It’s good to see you.”
“Hard at work already, I see,” Venitak said. Zie settled on the edge of the grassy outcrop and absently plucked a flower and stuffed it in hir mouth. Behind hir a pair of guards settled, ceremonial rifles in their hands.
“I can rest when I know the cache is safe,” Tlalos said.
“And you trust these drones?” Venitak asked.
“Of course,” Klatasos answered, coming up to settle beside them. “They aren’t sapient, but they’re clever in their own way. And of course they were engineered to obey, they live to be productive.”
“What a marvellous civilisation we have inherited,” Venitak stated.
“Inherited?” Alakos said. “Excuse me.” He gave Venitak a disgusted glare and launched himself from the outcrop.
“Please ignore his abruptness,” Tlalos said. “He’s having integration issues.”
“Is he really?” Venitak said, watching Alakos swoop gracefully down to the drones. Zie hummed happily in the warmth of the afternoon. “I’m sure Ektraphon has already told you, Tlalos, but we’ve approved the plans for the new Archive. Construction will begin as soon as we’ve run a risk assessment of our new building technologies.”
“I like their architecture,” Klatasos commented. “They do wonderful things with stained glass.”
“How many remain of the original population?” Tlalos said.
“A few thousand,” Venitak answered. “They’ve been rounded up for now, but I’m sure we can assimilate them.”
Klatasos stretched hir legs and opened the jewel of hir carapace. “I’m going to check on progress,” zie said, and took to the sky.
* * *
“Are we agreed?” Niatolos asked. Hir compound eyes seemed to reflect every face in the room.
Sakkas, formerly Senior Archivist and now Acting Head of Far Future Research, emptied the voting bag onto the table. Emeralds spilled onto the black and Tlalos hissed in pleasure. “It is unanimous,” Sakkas said. “When the doom comes to Terra, we will migrate to Mercury.”
“Wonderful!” Tlalos exclaimed, moving to stand, but Venitak raised one cloth-bound hand.
“We are not quite done,” zie said. “Councilmember Tlalos, I have something to say, and I speak for the other members of the Octagon Council as well as the Far Future Committee.”
Tlalos settled again. To hir left Klatasos shifted in hir seat.
“We acknowledge your great work,” Venitak said. “Under your guidance the Pnakotic cache was safeguarded, Yith lives on in us, our minds prosper and we grow in numbers and in knowledge. We cannot, however, allow any further practical experimentation involving the… being known as Yog-Sothoth.”
Klatasos’ antenna stiffened, and Tlalos tensed.
“It is not that we doubt your abilities,” Venitak said. “It is the consequences we wish to avoid.”
“With all due respect,” Tlalos said, “I think you have vastly underestimated the gains we will make. I run a cost-benefit analysis for each experiment-”
“We created the polyps,” Sakkas said, causing several of the younger committee members to shudder. “We’ve escaped them, yes, but what happens the next time we forcibly anchor this… entity to our reality?”
“But it is our reality!” Tlalos said. “Yog-Sothoth is not an abstract concept, it is the gate and the key to time and space, it is the fabric of the universe. When we can control it-”
“What do you mean when?” Sakkas gaped. “We couldn’t control it on Yith, we can’t control it now! We can cajole it, slip past it, even convince it to act in a way that is beneficial to us, and yes Tlalos I know this is because of your work, but it was my work too, and I can’t stand by and let you bring down another apocalypse!”
“There won’t be an apocalypse,” Tlalos said. “Aeons of research, millennia of planning, that is what we have. Do you think I go into this lightly? Do you think I haven’t run a full assessment of all the risks? This will work, I promise you.”
“What… exactly will work?” Venitak asked, as though zie didn’t want to know the answer.
“Intellectual transference,” Tlalos said with a smug wiggle of hir antennae. “We will act as one. Myself, Klatasos and Alakos. We will transfer our minds to Yog-Sothoth and take control.”
“Ridiculous!” Sakkas cried. “This is insanity!”
“This is the journey to perfection!” Tlalos snarled. “That is what this means. When we have control of Yog-Sothoth we will travel corporeal through all of time and space, the very cosmos will be ours to command. We will be gods! Don’t you want to be gods?”
“We are already gods,” Venitak said. Zie blinked hir compound eyes and stretched hir wings. “Councilmember Tlalos, you and your research team will refrain from carrying out this… highly inadvisable plan. You will abide by our decision or forever relinquish your current authority and all right to stand for elected office in perpetuity, is that understood?”
Tlalos froze. “Excuse me?”
Klatasos drummed hir sharp fingers on the table with a sound like their ancient claw-speech. “I wish to understand this correctly,” zie said. “We cease all practical experiments which seek to generate a corporeal manifestation of Yog-Sothoth, and everything continues as normal?”
“Yes,” Venitak said, looking relieved.
“What about theoretical research?” Klatasos asked.
“We see nothing wrong with that,” Sakkas said, “provided it remains purely theoretical.”
Venitak’s wings shivered. “Thank-you, Sakkas, but I am the voice of the committee on this matter. Yes, theoretical research is perfectly acceptable.”
“What about experiments on other planets and in other times?” Klatasos asked. “Surely the committee can have nothing against that. It would, after all, only be ourselves that we would be risking. And the benefits in safe time travel would be significant were we to succeed.”
“And were you to fail?” Sakkas said. “You’d be dead! Worse than dead.”
“Yes,” Klatasos replied. “But only us. If the risk is only to ourselves surely that falls under the Protection of Academic Freedoms Act, and is thus outside of the Council’s current proclamation?”
A babble commenced, and Venitak raised a hand for silence. Zie paused a while, hand in the air, and the others waited in a respectful hush. Eventually zie said, “That would be acceptable.”
Tlalos’ mandibles widened. “I will be pleased to see that in writing.”
* * *
The Library City sprawled beneath them, a bulbous hive of glittering crystal. It was renewed, improved, filled with the cache of books from the Age of the Cones, now large and bulky in the Yithians’ spindly insectile hands. The library was busy with the scratch of pen on paper, abuzz with the activity of a thousand intellects.
The proper infrastructure was in place, the scattered remnants of the beetle people had been assimilated into the new world order, and the Octagon Council were again the masters of all they surveyed. The first of the researchers were preparing to journey forward to Mercury, or backwards in time to continue work put on hold for the migration, and the Archival Assistants were preparing for the arrival of the first of the new batch of displaced minds.
“You seem proud of yourself,” Alakos commented, as he came in to land on the peak of a dune. A foamy sea advanced up the beach on the other side, the waves almost drowning out his voice. New Pnakotus was on the coast, a land of wind and salt, but there was no significant risk of flooding. Studies showed that sea levels were falling, and would continue to fall for another ten thousand years.
Tlalos landed, holding hir wings high to catch the tiny specs of surf. “I have every right,” zie said. “Once we make contact, we know everything we need to take control.”
Klatasos barrelled into the beach, kicking up sand. Zie laughed, and scrambled back up the dune, still beating hir wings. “It’s like you always said.” Zie nudged Alakos with one of hir minute secondary forelimbs. “It is but an intellect, like any other.”
“That it is,” Alakos said quietly. He shuffled on both sets of back legs, clearly failing to get comfortable.
“You’re having second thoughts,” Tlalos said.
“What do you expect?” Alakos asked. “We’re forbidden from performing the rite here on Earth, but if we seek to travel elsewhere we hit another issue. Three cannot pass together unnoticed through the fabric of spacetime.”
“We’ve been through this,” Klatasos said. “I’ll go first, Tlalos will approach the rendez-vous from a point three years distant, and you will come last. I don’t see the problem.”
“I do,” Tlalos said, his proboscis flicking bitterly over his mandibles. “He’s afraid.”
“Of course I’m afraid!” Alakos folded his forelimbs. “At this stage in your cosmic game, anyone who doesn’t exist in a perpetual state of existential terror hasn’t been paying attention.”
“It’ll be fine,” Klatasos said.
“It won’t,” Alakos countered. “I know it won’t. If we’re successful this will change us, completely and utterly, physically and metaphysically.” He paused, compound eyes focused on Tlalos. “But that’s not what bothers me.”
Tlalos met his glare. “If not that, then what?”
“I don’t think we know enough yet,” Alakos said. “I think we’re children stumbling through the dark. We can touch the mysteries, but we can’t perceive them in their entirety. We can summon Yog-Sothoth, can even see it when the conditions are right, but can we truly claim to know it? Tlalos, honestly, can we really claim to know enough to take control?”
Still glaring, Tlalos rotated hir wings and laid them flat against hir body. “Yes,” zie said.
“No,” Alakos replied softly. “You’re wrong, you are so wrong.”
“Our principles are sound,” Klatasos said. “We’ve followed every possible lead, we’ve made careful study of all the available data.”
“And there we have it,” Alakos said. “All the available data. We don’t know enough. I’m beginning to suspect we could never know enough. It’s like I’m back in Damascus before the devils first sang to me, and everything is new and I know nothing.”
“You just need to trust in our conclusions,” Tlalos said, while Klatasos scratched hir mandible. “Our theory is sound, you can’t back out now.”
“No,” Alakos said. “I’m not backing out, I am in this until the end. I simply propose that we re-evaluate our current conclusions, and adjust our timetable accordingly.”
Tlalos’ wings beat harshly, pulling hir above the knife-sharp dune grass. “Klatasos? Don’t tell me he’s swayed you. You know we’re right, this is the time. This is our time!”
Klatasos raised hir hands in an echo of hir cone body’s claw-arm shrug. “A re-evaluation can’t hurt,” zie said. “If there’s something we’ve missed-”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
Klatasos stepped forward and brushed their antennae together. “We’re not turning back,” zie said. “This is just a delay. Remember, the stars are always aligned somewhere, somewhen.”
There was a long pause as Tlalos rested hir weight on the ground, and folded hir wings tight to hir body. Zie looked from Klatasos to Alakos and back again. “You are set against me,” zie said.
“Not against you,” Klatasos said. “Never against you. We just need more time.”
* * *
It was 2445 by local reckoning, the site of Pnakotus in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. Hir human body sweated, brown skin shining like the carapace zie had so recently worn. Zie ran hir fingers over close cropped hair, and took another swig of water from hir canteen.
If only Klatasos could be here, and Alakos, again in human form, to help hir chant the ritual, to share in the rewards. But they weren’t ready. They wanted to wait, to study, to find new ground to cover. It was the same story year in year, millennia after millennia, aeon after excruciating aeon. Alakos’ caution infected Klatasos, and nothing got done.
But Klatasos was on Mercury in the bright far future, and Alakos waited in the Archive of New Pnakotus, watching over hir body, guard and questioner of the displaced intellect.
Tlalos would be done before they knew zie had gone.
Still, zie wished they were here.
The basic ritual had not worked for Tlalos in Arabia, nor in the frozen Arctic wastes, nor in the Himalayas. But it had worked, more than once, in the ancient rolling hills of Massachusetts. It had worked in England and Romania and in countless other places in other times, only not for hir. It had worked but once for Tlalos, in the ice-rimed polar wastes of Yith.
Zie pulled hir notes from hir satchel, worn over hir shoulder in a manner that reminded hir nostalgically of hir Pnakotic form. The bag bulged, a set of rods poking through the top. This too had worked in the polar wastes of Yith, although the version Tlalos carried with hir wasn’t quite the mechanism zie had used before.
Zie abandoned hir camp - the bubble tent with its solar powered air conditioning, the electric jeep with emergency hover function, the roof-mounted water collection system - and walked out alone into the desert as zie had walked, alone and unencumbered, into the cold wastes of hir home planet so long ago.
Each step thumped through hir head, each gust of wind ground hir skin. Zie reached the stones weary, thirsty, hir satchel strap wearing a sore spot on hir shoulder. Zie knelt, brushing clean the nearest rock, exposing the weather-beaten carving from so long ago.
Peaselee had been here, had brought researchers, archaeologists. He had been to the Archive and cracked the vault, but he had stirred the polyps and he had fled, and Tlalos’ great enemy had been the unlikely protectors of the cache.
Not much had been lost, even Peaslee’s own book lay where he had dropped it on the floor. Klatasos had found his account of his terrible dreams in a psychology journal in New York, had visited Peaslee in later life, an old man in a fireside chair, bundled with blankets and surrounded by grandchildren. Zie had posed as an academic, and interviewed him at length until his son had returned and evicted hir with a frown and a glint of terror in his eye.
Tlalos smiled at the stones. This would do.
With a futile glance to the furnace sky and the multitude of invisible stars, Tlalos tugged the mechanism from hir bag and lay it on the sand. Free of its constraints, the device unfurled. A glassy flower, its mirror petals sighed open and its prismatic rods threw out a shower of rainbows.
The satchel hit the ground, quickly followed by the loose cotton of Tlalos’ long shirt. Zie made the sacred signs on hir own borrowed skin, the lines twining like branches, twisting like roots. Then zie kicked off hir sandals, arranged the papers in hir hand, and used hir feet to draw long curving lines in the grainy floor.
Tlalos worked as the sun set and the air cooled. The breeze smoothed the lines almost as quickly as zie could draw them, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t need to be visible to be there. They had been marked once, they existed, they could never be un-drawn. The device sat at their heart, cogs slowly turning.
As the final line drew to a close, a faint violet light shone up from the sand. Tlalos breathed deep, licking hir lips, and placed hir hands on the outermost rods. The world sharpened, reduced. The desert receded, replaced by stars on all sides, and Tlalos in the center, a prism in a web of violet.
Zie spoke the words as the device cradled hir mind. The world rocked as though on a precipice, and all at once Tlalos saw it - the descent, the sloping path that would carry hir to hir destiny.
All minds were matter, zie thought as the mechanism poured hir forward, all particles waves. The body continued to chant, dry lips cracking around words of summoning, cajoling, demanding. The branching lines erupted in a blaze of iridescent light; the spheres began to manifest.
Tlalos screamed hir command as the light waxed bright and the breeze slowed. Zie took a breath that lasted a lifetime, hir intellect thrusting forth, and breathed no more.
* * *
Zie awoke in hir body in New Pnakotus, hir mandibles chattering and hir antennae so stiff they hurt. Alakos was dozing by the octagonal cushion of hir bed, and zie smacked his carapace to wake him up as zie launched hirself into the air.
Tlalos’ mind had gone. Hir body crouched fearful in hir own private dome, shivering under the rainbow hues of coloured glass.
“I’m sure zie’ll come back,” Alakos said, while Klatasos snarled a curse and sped off towards Documentation.
Tlalos had been gone a month. Klatasos had some choice words for Alakos about letting hir go, but that turned out to be unfair as Tlalos hadn’t told him. And besides, it was only a month, a month was nothing.
The displaced intellect’s name was Trinity French. She’d been a student at the Queensland University of Technology before Tlalos had made the exchange. With the exception of the shock of Klatasos and Alakos bursting into her dome and waking her up, she was settling nicely. She had begun a record of the history of her time, and had even taken a few short flights under supervision. Klatasos couldn’t bear to look at her. That otherwordly scream was always on the edge of hearing, a ghost of a voice that called to hir in hir dreams.
It was a year before Klatasos travelled forward through time again to Mercury. It was a decade before zie learned to accept the scream as a natural part of hir journey.
It was a century before zie would stop saying “Give it time,” and “We should wait, Tlalos will be back.”
* * *
And now they followed the path the Yithians would soon take, a flight from Earth, swimming fast through the numb dark towards the ever-present sun and this star system’s tiny first planet.
They would land and burrow, and be forgotten. There would be no towers to alert the Yithians to their continued, damnable, existence, no basalt ruins, not even a lonely cave echoing with the yawn of a strange wind. They would wait and hide, and plan. And this time they would be sure. This time they would have their revenge.