“Welcome to the biggest goddamn waste of time you’ll ever see, college boy!” laughed Mike, the driller. He was a real roughneck, big and raw-boned, with the stamp of the oil field on him like no one I’d ever seen; if you cut him, he’d have bled crude. He watched me unload my dust-covered sedan and then lead me over to meet the others on site already, Jim the pusher, Carlos the engineman, and Sam the fitter, all playing cards in the shadow of the drill rig. “Boys, this here’s the mud logger, Paul Katz, up from good ol’ LSU.”
“Here to join the boondoggle, huh?” sad Mike, taking two cards.
“At least there ain’t no danger of a blowout,” said Carlos, considering the pair of nines in his hand.
“Yeah kid,” said Sam. “You can take it easy. Ain’t no fuckin’ oil out here, is there boss?” Mike nodded and shrugged.
“Work is work, boys,” he said. “The Man wants a hole out here, we give him one, right?”
They all nodded in agreement and went back to their card game. I followed Mike over to the trailer, a shabby relic with just a hint of sour beer and weed that still clung to the upholstery. There was a desk and an optical microscope and boxes of sample bags, the usual mud logger’s gear. I tossed my duffel in the corner and nodded.
“You mud log before?” asked Mike, showing me corner cot I was to sleep in. I nodded.
“Out in Nevada, Elko Basin, and before that out near Taft in the Central Valley.”
“I been to Taft,” said Mike. “It’s a shit hole.” I laughed and agreed.
“Well,” said Mike. “I don’t know what ol’ Mr. Trophonius is thinkin’ sending a rig up here, but it is what it is.” He walked over to a map pinned to the wall and poked his thumb down on the spot where the rig stood, fifty miles west of Cape Girardeau, way out in the middle of nowhere Missouri. “Wrong rocks, and everything faulted all to hell. Don’t let the boys fool you, though – the way this here basin is chopped up, you’ll have your work cut out, sorting the stratigraphy!”
He was right. I peered at the geological map of the Shaver Basin. Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian – old rocks, the remains of warm coastal seas, deposited sometime between 480 million and 350 million years ago. Buried deep and kept whole, it might’ve been a good source rock, the organics cooking out into hydrocarbons, then migrating up through the stacks to some sandy reservoir, Cretaceous or Paleocene, say. But that’s not what happened. Mike was right; there’d be no oil here. It was crazy to spend a million dollars a day drilling in this spot but, from what I’d heard, personally hiring a single rig to drill yourself a novelty hole was just another day in the life of noted eccentric, Mr. Trophonius.
No one knew much about his background, but he was very rich, and he’d funded some pretty wild schemes before, stuff that made this Missouri drill site seem kind of boring in comparison. Expeditions after Mokele-Mbembe in the Congo, hunting for lost cities in the Amazon. He’d sent radar boats to the south Pacific where they’d circled various seamounts for months, and was rumored to have gone deeper into the mysterious caverns below Mt. Shasta than anyone else before. For a while folks thought he’d died somewhere out in the Rub’al Khali, but then out of nowhere he popped back up and, apparently, decided that unconventional oil exploration was his next project. I mean, it was good for me – a summer working here would help support another year of grad school, pad out the ol’ CV, all the stuff I needed. But it was damned weird.
“What’s the target unit?” I asked. Mike sighed.
“Not specified,” he said, shaking his head. “Just keep good records, and especially watch out for anything ‘unusual,’ that’s what they told me when they hired me, anything ‘out of the ordinary, unusual, or spectacular.’ I know, I know, but what are you gonna do?”
“And what happens if we find anything ‘unusual?’”
“Then Mr. Trophonius comes out to look it over,” he said simply.
“What, out here? Wow.” I blinked a few times. This might be worth it to meet a man who claimed to have the remains of a Yeti, shot in Tibet, on ice in one of his mansions.
The next day the rest of the crew showed up, tool pushers, line jockeys, all the people who risk their lives clambering around and through a huge machine designed to drill deep into the earth. They stacked five miles of casing next the fifty-foot platform, and then the mud truck showed up and we got to work.
Drilling holes is pretty nuts, when you think about it. A drill bit hangs on the end of a line, and you just start grinding away through the earth. As it goes, you pump what’s called drilling mud down the hole, a proprietary blend of all sorts of stuff. Mud goes down the hole, where it sloshes around and picks up all the rock chips and bits and fragments, and then it comes back up, bringing all that geological information with it. That’s where I come in; I crouch down next to the outflow and catch the rock fragments in trays. Then, when I’ve got a bunch of trays filled, and there’s a lull, I take them in to the trailer where I describe their lithology and interpret from where (and when) in the stratigraphy they came. That’s how the drillers know what’s down hole, what they’re drilling into and through. In oil exploration, you’re looking for specific types of rock and signs of hydrocarbons. Here, I was just looking for weird shit.
And we kept looking, all through June and into July. Thick sections of pale cherty limestone from the Bailey Formation, then the mottled purple and reds of the marly Moccasin Spring, down in the Silurian. McClure, Bainbridge, then the thick three members of the Sexton, before hitting a fault and starting all over, a thinner slice that had slid downward to reproduce the stratigraphy overhead. Late June we finally got into the Ordovician, shales and limestones and some good sandstones out of the Thebes, down low in the stack. More faults, more repetitions.
Every week I’d write up my report, and on every Saturday a black Mercedes SUV would drive down the dirt-road to pick it and the samples up. Usually the man, a bland guy in expertly tailored suits, seemed pretty bored with it all, nodding a greeting to Mike and smoking a cigarette while I loaded the stuff into the back of the vehicle, but one Saturday in July he showed up and seemed agitated. He’d brought donuts this time, too, which was out of character. Everyone was gathered, eating, and the bland dude was talking animatedly.
“Mr. Trophonius wants everyone to know that he appreciates everyone’s hard work here. He’s very pleased with the progress, especially with the speed of drilling, and wants me to thank you all personally on his behalf.” He turned to me, and smiled the phoniest smile I’ve ever seen. “He also wanted me to personally commend you on the thoroughness of your reports, and the clear descriptions and careful interpretations you’ve been making, Mr. Katz. Our employer appreciates expertise, and recognizes it in you.” I stammered a thanks and took another cruller.
“Now,” said the man, “given some of the signs Mr. Trophonius has seen and the results of some of the tests he’s been preforming on the samples, he believes we are very close to finding something here. It is very exciting, and Mr. Trophonius has decided to give everyone here a bit of a bonus for the excellent work that you’ve been doing.” Donuts and cash, all in one visit – the roughnecks were ready to vote Trophonius Employer of the Year right there.
“Excuse me,” I said, as the bland guy in the suit was preparing to leave. He turned to look at me, one hand on the handle. The smile was gone. “I was wondering if you could tell me a little about these ‘tests’ that Mr. Trophonius ran on the samples?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, well I mean,” I stammered. “I’m just kind of curious, you know? I’m a geologist, this sort of stuff is what I’m into. I’m always excited to learn more, you know?” The man stared at me for a while. I kicked the dirt, nervously.
“I’m afraid when it comes to,” he paused and pursed his lips, “technical matters, I’m hopelessly out of my depth.” He smiled to himself, apparently considering that a pun of some sort. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Trophonius when he comes to visit next week.”
“What?” I said, shocked. “He’s coming here?”
“Yes, next Saturday,” said then man, climbing into the truck and slamming the door. I coughed in the dusk cloud left behind, and then jogged over the platform.
“Hey Mike,” I said, “that guy said that Mr. Trophonius is coming out for a visit next week.
“Really?” said Mike, arching an eyebrow. He turned to watch the dust left in the wake of the SUV sink back to the earth.
“Man, I hope he brings more donuts,” said Jim.
Saturday’s dawn was faint, the sky low and dark with clouds and the promise of rain. We kept drilling, one eye on the sky to watch for lightning, the other on the dirt track leading to camp, waiting for Mr. Trophonius to arrive. All through the week, in the evenings during supper and over beers at night, we’d told and retold all we’d heard about him, shit straight out of the pulps. How no one knew what he made his money on, or why spent it the way he did, chasing ghosts and UFOs and searching for Atlantis and Mu. It had wound us up something good, and we were all anxious to see the man himself.
We had paused to string new casing on the line when we heard the helicopter. It came in low, from the east, skimming the pine-covered bluffs and circling the camp twice before setting down a hundred yards off, in a flat patch of grass. The bland man hopped out of one side, and a pair of burly bodyguard types came out the other, carrying several long crates that they set, carefully, on the ground nearby. The helicopter blades wound down, and the bland man walked over to dirt road, speaking into a walkie-talkie and shielding his eyes. We watched, and waited.
A few minutes more, and three big black SUVs rolled over the hills and down the road towards us. They parked closer in and disgorged their own men, all in work clothes, who quickly unloaded the trucks and began to assemble a large round tent nearby. It was up in ten minutes, and then a surprisingly large amount of furniture was unloaded – three cots, several chairs, folding tables and desks and, oddly, bookshelves, as well as a singularly large wicker basket, big enough for a person to curl up in, complete with lid. The tent kitted out, the workers piled back into two of the SUVs, leaving one behind.
The bodyguards jogged to the helicopter. One of them unfolded a large, rugged looking wheelchair, while the other carefully lifted out a man from the back seat, a small, very thin man, holding him gently and, almost lovingly, helped him into the wheelchair. The deference shown to this figure suggested that this was our mysterious employer, Mr. Trophonius.
He was quickly wheeled into the tent, and then the helicopter took off. We all just sort of milled about, unsure of what was going on. Then the bland man exited the tent and walked over towards us.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Good to see you. Taking a break?”
“Ah, no,” said Mike. “Just, uh, stringing more bit is all. Getting the casing set, cement primed. Ya’ll have a good trip?”
“Excellent,” said the man. “I was wondering if I could borrow you, Mr. Katz – since there’s no drilling right now I expect you’re free? Good, come along, you can help me unload.”
The back of the SUV was full of boxes, and I helped the bland man carry several cases of groceries and beer into the kitchen trailer. Then we tackled the rest of the boxes, books mostly, very old and very weird books, all with titles in Latin or Cyrillic or other languages I was unfamiliar with.
Inside the tent they had made two “rooms” by hanging a heavy curtain right down the middle. On one side, the side I was in, they had set up the three cots and a table and most of the chairs. I didn’t see the bookshelves or the odd basket, or Mr. Trophonius for that matter; I assumed all that was on the other side of the dividing curtain. The bodyguards eyed me with professionally blank stares.
“Just set them here, these gentlemen will take care of them,” said the bland man, so that’s what we did, four big boxes of books, which they lifted carefully and carried into the back. When they bent over, I saw they had shoulder holsters on under their jackets, heavy automatics nestled close to their hearts.
That was plenty weird, but it was nothing to what came next. I saw the bland man struggling, pulling heavy cardboard boxes out of one of the back seats and stacking them behind him. Assuming I was still there to help, I grabbed one from the top of the stack and started towards the tent when, suddenly, the bottom gave out, and out onto the ground poured a cascade of white lumpish things, vacuum sealed in plastic and very cold. Cursing, I crouched down and started to shovel them back into the box; on the top of the pile there were two chemical freezer packs, icy to the touch, and below them, I saw what the whitish lumps were.
They were white mice, individually wrapped and sealed in plastic.
“No, no, that’s alright,” said the bland man, hurrying over and helping to fill the box. “I’ll take care of these, no worries, no worries at all, there we go, thank you, yes, you can return to your work now, yes, very good.”
“You see him?” asked Mike, as I climbed the steps to the platform. I shook my head, and told him about the tent set up and all the food they’d brought. Everyone was excited about the amount of beer I had seen, but when I got to the last part, everyone seemed a little freaked out.
“Mice?” asked Carlos.
“Dead mice,” I said.
“Like you feed to snakes?” said Jim. I thought of the big wicker basket and shuddered.
“Anyway,” I said, “there were a lot of them, hundreds at least!”
“Weird, man,” said Sam around the cigarette dangling on his lip. Then, with no sign of anymore activity from the tent, we all went back to work.
We didn’t see Mr. Trophonius that evening; supper was steaks though, huge gourmet cuts, and oceans of beer, so everyone was pretty happy. The bland man ate with us, and he took two plates back to the tent, presumably for the bodyguards. When Mike, who was the undisputed master of the grill, asked how Mr. Trophonius liked his steaks, the bland man demurred.
“Mr. Trophonius is on a strict, medically necessary diet, and he prepares his own meals,” he said, and that was that. Any hard feelings, like the rich guy was snubbing the working men under him of something, vanished quickly when, as the plates were being cleared away, one of the bodyguards appeared with a bottle of whiskey.
“Complements of Mr. Trophonius,” he said, plunking it down on the table. Mike raised it high and we all shouted “To Mr. Trophonius!” and drank it down.
He stayed hidden for three days, though the bland man spent most of his day with us, smoking cigarettes and watching the work. He kept close to me most of all, and seemed to be watching the mud as it came up out of the hole with particular interest. That evening, after supper, it was the bland man who brought another bottle over. Before I got my drink, he pulled me aside.
“Mr. Trophonius was wondering if he could see this afternoon’s samples?”
“I haven’t finished logging them,” I said, watching the bottle pass from hand to hand. You had to be quick if you wanted your share with those guys; they were like piranhas.
“No difficulties, he’d just like a look. Also, last time I was here, you expressed some interest in Mr. Trophonius’s methods of examination, and what he was looking for, yes?”
That piqued my interest. Shouting at Mike to save me some whiskey (he responded by giving me the bird), I hurried to the lab trailer and grabbed three of the afternoon’s trays, still damp with drilling mud, and ran them over to the tent.
It was quite a tableaux inside – one of the bodyguards was cleaning his gun, the other was reading a copy of “Soldier of Fortune,” while the bland man was busy adjusting his tie in a mirror hung on one of the tentpoles. The two guards looked me over.
“Ah! Very good,” said the bland man, turning towards me. “Bruno, if you would, please?” Bruno set down his magazine and went behind the curtain. “You may set your samples down on the table there Mr. Katz, thank you. James, get Mr. Katz a chair, please?” The other body guard popped a folding chair open and set it down for me.
The Mr. Trophonius entered.
I might have gasped, since both the bland man and James the bodyguard glanced my way. My first up close view of Trophonius was not what I expected, even knowing he was in a wheelchair and having seen his thin body from a distance. Thin, though, didn’t do him justice; he was cadaverous, emaciated. His suit hung loosely off his shoulders and around his one good arm. His left sleeve was pinned at the shoulder, and similarly I only saw a single Italian leather-clad shoe protruding from under the blanket on his lap. His right arm was long and stick-thin, and he wore white cotton gloves. The fingers were very long and always in motion, a subtle sinuousness to their movement in his lap. He was bundled up with a scarf around his neck and a heavy seaman’s cap pulled low over the ears. He had a thick black beard, so bushy I couldn’t see his mouth, and even though it was night he wore dark sunglasses. What little of his skin was visible was a deathly white color, with an unhealthy, waxy sheen that looked ghastly in the lamp light.
“Mr. Katz,” he said, his voice muffled and low. Something in the tone made me shiver; there was a shrillness to the voice, with an unpleasant buzz behind the way he pronounced the “Z” in my last name. I soon discovered that that buzz extended to all his spoken sibilance. “Theze are todayz zamplez, yez?” He slumped forward eagerly, his hand fluttering over them. “What unitz?”
“I haven’t had a chance to look at these yet,” I said, “but given the black chert all through them, I’d say these dolomites are from the Pecatonica.”
“Ordovician,” he hummed, rolling the word around. “Zeen it before?”
“Ah, yessir,” I answered, “a few times. Pretty busted up through here, sir, this close to the Symmes fault zone.”
“Zymmez,” he said. “Yez, many faults here.” He leaned back and tapped a couple of rock chips. “I will take theze for quick assay, yez? Wait here.” Bruno wheeled Trophonius away from the table while the bland man gathered up the fragments he’d indicated.
“Uh, if I may, what kind of tests are you running?” I asked as Bruno pulled the curtain aside.
“Telluric affinity,” Trophonius answered, and then the curtain closed.
Well, whatever the fuck “Telluric Affinity” was, it apparently took about ten minutes. I sat there, silently, with James the bodyguard. I smelled incense, something heavy and spicy, and heard strange mumbling from behind the curtain. I glanced at James, but he was good – not a sign that any of this was weird at all. I coughed and felt a little dizzy.
I must’ve dozed or something, because suddenly Trophonius was in front of me, positively wiggling in his seat.
“Good result, very good result. You have brought me good rock, Mr. Katz, very good!” He made a thick gurgling sound that I realized was laughter. “You are confused, though, geologizt, are you not? You want to know why I throw money away to drill here, where there iz no oil, where there iz no value?” More gurgling. “You would be surprised, yez, to know what there iz under our feet! Agarta, Vril-ya, K’n-yan, many names for it. Come, come,” he said. He reached under the blanket on his lap and withdrew a heavy leather-bound book with a tarnished brass catch and lock. He flipped it open and turned it towards me, and I read, in large black letters “Mundus Subterraneus.”
“That’s, uh,” I said, hunting for the word, “an old book.”
“Written by a fool,” he gurgled, “but one who had touched the truth. Attend,” he flipped through the book with practiced rapidity to a section in the middle. “Here: ‘The whole Earth is not solid but everywhere gaping, and hollowed with empty rooms and spaces, and hidden burrows,’” he read, tracing the Latin lines with one long, gloved finger. “‘In these occult and secret passages are all manner of life, animals given birth in the light of subterranean fires and who never know of the sun or moon or the stars. We must ask, what would happen if such as they found their way to the surface, following the flowing of secret waters or the tunnels through which the hidden fire of the earth finds passage to vent itself as the volcano or fumarole? Could they live here, among us? Could they thrive?’” Another fit of gurgling over took him, and he leaned back in his chair, exhausted. “I wonder indeed!” Trophonius giggled. He hunched back over the book, and continued reading.
“‘In the Phlegraean Fields, west of Naples, there are reports of an Earthquake fifty years ago, followed by choking fumes that came out of the cracks and rifts in the area that drove men away for many months. When the air cleared, they came to see how the land had changed under the terrible convulsions, and they found the remains of many strange animals, dragons and serpents and other things to terrible to name, or things without names, children of the Deep Earth that we have no knowledge of at all. Some, they say, lived yet, and threatened to rampage over the land until the Duke sent soldiers. A great battle was fought, but at last the surface triumphed over the expelled creatures of the Depths. There are remains of these strange beings that may be seen in the Museum of Naples, and some were sent to the savants in France for study, though none knew there what to make of them.’”
Well, I mean, what do you say to that? Trophonius swayed in his chair and sank down into the cushions, looking at me.
“That’s something,” is said, and meant it. Trophonius nodded.
“Certain zighnz in the rock you brought me zuggezt that we are cloze to finding zomething, yez, very cloze indeed. Tomorrow, the day after, who knowz. But zoon!”
My audience over, I was dismissed, and sent back to the camp.
“Did you see him?” “What’s he like?” “What’re we looking for?” they asked, crowding around me.
“First thing first,” I said, “I need a drink.”
Trophonius’s prediction proved to be correct. It was around three in the afternoon when we found something.
We were deep, three miles at least, when the bit suddenly gave a shiver. Jim dove for cover and Mike turned pale, visions of a snapped bit and high-tension cables cutting people in two in all of our minds, but nothing happen. The line bucked once or twice, then kept on going. Mike shook his head.
“Only ever seen that happen when we hit a cave,” he said. He looked at me, puzzled. I pushed thoughts of Mundus Subterraneus out of my head.
“No way,” I shouted. “How deep are we? Miles and miles! No open spaces down that far, c’mon. Probably just a big chert zone in the dolomites, density contrast caught the drill is all. Bet you ten bucks we get chert here in a few minutes.” I pointed to the slurry pit.
We waited, and watched. Then, a particularly thick wad of drilling mud bubbled up and spilled into the pit, and we all leapt back.
“Goddamn,” I heard Mike say, staring down at what was before us. I crouched down and picked out the largest piece I could, then dropped it in disgust when I saw I hadn’t been mistaken.
It was, simply, meat. Red, bloody, torn and ripped by the drill, with tiny fragments of bone in it. The hide was thick and pebbly, and there were patches of coarse bristly hair sprouting from the outer surface. And it wasn’t alone. More hunks of flesh and fat and skin and hair coughed up and out of the hole and ran down into the slurry pit, no more rock at all, just meat. The drilling mud was stained red with blood.
“What the fuck?” grunted Mike.
We turned to see the bland man running full tilt for the tent.
“We really want to thank you for your hard work,” the bland man was saying. Everything had stopped, and they were just about to finish withdrawing the drill bit from the hole. We were gathered around the front of the tent. The bland man, who was talking, was flanked by the two bodyguards, arms crossed and jackets off, pistols bright and shiny and very large in their shoulder holsters. We shifted nervously, waiting.
“It’s been an unusual job, we know,” he chuckled, “not knowing what you were drilling for, or when to expect it. And the, ah, oddness of the result is certainly striking. But, the important thing is that the work is done and, to show his deep, deep gratitude, Mr. Trophonius would like to offer you a little cash bonus.” He nodded, and one of the bodyguards reached into the tent and brought out a briefcase. He snapped it open, and we all gasped. “Ten thousand dollars, each, cash in hand.” The bland man reached in and grabbed three or four stacks, distributing them to the men in the front row. Then the bodyguard moved through the ranks, offering the case to each of us in turn. “Just one apiece now, no double-dipping!” laughed the bland man.
When everybody had their money, he clapped his hands and beamed at us.
“Now then, your work here is done. Please gather your things and head out, you have thirty minutes, thank you.”
“Waitaminute,” said Mike. “We gotta cap the well, it’s the law –”
“Yes, we assume all responsibility for that, it’s in the contract you signed. We have some research questions we need to answer, then it’ll be closed up, thank you!”
There wasn’t much left to do, and the two bodyguards had started to scowl menacingly when it appeared that there might’ve been more questions. Ten large in cash, who the hell were we to cause problems? We did as we were told, packed up, and got out of there.
I was one of the last to leave, the interior of my little sedan stuffy and cramped after being out of doors so much. I watched the rig vanish in the rearview mirror; it was strange to be leaving after a month and half, and especially after what we’d seen, but the weight of the cash in my bag reassured me, somewhat.
I was at a gas station, right off the highway, when I realized I’d left my wallet and my phone on the cot back at camp. I had to peel a hundred-dollar bill off my severance package to pay for the gas, and then nervously drive all the way back to the farm access turn-off where the dirt track to the rig site was. I can be pretty goddamn forgetful, but this was bad, even for me. I squinted into the sunset as I drove west – it would be dark when I got there, an hour or more driving. I thought of the bodyguards and their guns, and switched my lights on.
The hazy track of the Milky Way sparkled overhead as I pulled into camp, although I was a little too preoccupied to notice it. The SUV was gone, and the flaps to Trophonius’s tent flapped in the breeze. There was a loneliness in the air. The place looked abandoned, especially with the rig dark and silent and a slow whistling breeze blowing through the camp.
“Hello!” I shouted. The car was gone, but I didn’t want to surprise anyone, especially if they were armed. “Sorry, I forgot something in the lab trailer!” I waited for a response, but heard nothing. “So I’m just gonna run in there real quick!” I kept talking, the sound of my own voice reassuring. My palms were getting sweaty, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle and raise. It wasn’t the sort of place you liked to be, alone, in the dark. I hurried forward, dodging around the remaining casings and making for the trailer when I got my feet tangled in something. I had grabbed the pocket flashlight out of the glove box in my car, so I snapped it on and looked down at what I was wrapped up in.
It was a suit of clothes, narrow and finely cut. A full suit actually, shirt, jacket, pants, everything. A single brown leather shoe was off to the side, and I noticed a single white cotton glove laying ahead a little ways.
“What the hell?” I said, lifting the shirt up. Something dropped to the ground, a heavy, floppy something that bounced plastically when it landed at my feet. I picked it up and then, with a shiver of horror, dropped it again.
It was Trophonius’s face, or a mask made to look like it, heavy silicon or something, with eyeholes that peered blindly up at me from the ground.
I stumbled backwards, crunching a pair of sunglasses under my foot.
I heard something from the rig, a rustling sound, like something being dragged over the metal floor of the platform.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello!” replied Trophonius. His voice was clearer now, and there was a cheerful lilt to it. “Itz the geologizt, yez?”
“I forgot something,” I squeaked. I heard Trophonius’s wet chortling.
“Good that you are here, to zee, to know. Come up, come up.”
My steps echoed dully as I ascended the metal stair. I swept the platform with the beam of my flashlight, but didn’t see anything. There was a noise from the engine shed to my right; I swung the beam over and saw the door swinging lazily on its hinges. From within, I heard Trophonius’s gurgling laugh. “Not yet, not yet!” he chuckled, and I shivered at the anticipation in his voice.
“Look, I don’t know what your doing,” I said, “but I think I just wanna go get my things and head on out, okay?”
“The hole,” groaned Trophonius. “Listen, listen!”
“What are you talking about? I don’t –” I stopped. I did hear something, a kind of sloshing or surging noise, like water backing up in a drain.
“Mundus Subterraneus,” Trophonius chuckled from within the engine shed. “Long time looking, many long lonely yearz. K’n-yan, Vril-ya, Agarta, sifting your legends and myths and memoriez, looking for a way in, and now I find one!” The bubbling sound from the hole got louder. I inched closer and shone my light on the edge of the drill pit. Just steel, and darkness.
“Your underground civilizations stuff? You think that’s real? Jesus Christ!”
“Oh, I know it is real, little geologizt.” There was a rattling from the engine shed, and then a kind of rhythmic thumping noise, then silence. I flashed my light over in that direction, and screamed.
There, stepping out into the open from behind the shed’s door was a tall, thin, ragged thing, long and sinewy and fibrous, like a length of thick twisted cord, or the filamentous growth of some huge fungus. It shone in the light, glistening, like it was wet. A line of gashes ran down its side, raw and ragged and purple, puckering and opening with a regular rhythm, like great gasping mouths. It twisted and squirmed in the beam of the light. Its lower end was dominated by a frayed mass of writhing tendrils, and I saw that it moved by expanding one side of these horribly, the tissues swelling and then contracting, causing it to lurch quickly one direction or the other. About two-thirds of the way up a thicker single tentacle erupted from the thing’s main trunk, bifurcating at the tip into five long, thin, tapering structures that pulsed with a bright red color. They waved delicately and were never still. The puckering gashes on its side convulsed, and I heard the gurgling laughter erupt from within them.
“Yez,” the thing that had called itself said, “you zee me now, yez? Better now, to be free, to feel ztarlight and the wind, to hear the ztarz. Do you zee now? Long have I zought for a way to my home, ever since the Earthquake that brought me to the zurface, zix hundred yearz ago!”
I felt my legs give out and I crumpled to the ground. The thing wobbled towards me, the arm weaving and bobbing, like a snake feeling its way in the dark.
“You’re from beneath the earth?” I finally choked out.
“Deep,” the thing murmured, “zo very deep. Taken prizoner, but ezcaped. Then, the long hunt for home.”
“And all this,” I gasped. “was to find a way to go home, for you to return?” At this the thing’s gurgling rose until it filled the night. Its body shivered with laughter, the arm tendrils grasping and clenching and waving around madly.
“A way home, yez,” it finally said. “But not for me to go down.” The sound in the pipe grew, and over the sloshing and splashing I could her a burbling and a gurgling, and whispers of words in a language I would never understand. “I looked for a way home, zo they could join me, so they could come up here, because here? Up here we thive!”