The Goat (Part 94)

So I have this reed screening fixed to the outside of my garden office (tin box), used as a kind of sun shield. It helps (slightly) to keep the internal temperature down. And now it is driving me insane.

Look at this:

Reed Munching Wasp

A plague of paper wasps has descended. They are stripping off the outermost layer of the reeds, gathering material for their nest. I am happy for them do this, but why must they make so much noise?

Munch munch munch. Munch munch munch. – from all quarters, all day long. It is like working in a giant bowl of Rice Krispies. Very distressing.

But never mind all that.

Ladies and gents, the time has finally come. Today I am posting the last part of my ‘short’ story. I know, I can hardly believe it myself. If you’ve been sticking with me through this arduous trial, then I thank you for reading. If not, then I don’t blame you…

Anyway, here it is: the conclusion of The Goat:

EPILOGUE

I glance at the screen.

Padding softly in slippers, I pass like a spectre through the wide and silent kitchen. Detecting my presence, and noting the hour, the automation system turns on under-cupboard lighting. A glow like gentle candlelight warms the cosy darkness, abating the glare from the LCD panel.

I glance at the screen.

Looking through the window at the forest under moonlight, I touch a wall cabinet and wait for it to open. Muted servos lift and fold the door; by feel I reach into the stacked rows of cartons, picking one at random. I take it to the sink.

I glance at the screen.

The fancy tap gives me instant boiling water. I peel the lid off my Pot Noodle and fill it to the line, stir it with the fork from my bathrobe pocket then set it down, steaming, on the black quartz worktop. In the window I can see my own reflection; long has it been since the sight upset me, but still I turn away.

I glance at the screen.

The kitchen is stylish, for those who like such things. As I wait for my food, I look wryly at the steam and convection wall ovens, the big blast chiller, the induction hob on the centre island. The black marble floor is a gleaming pool of oil, smooth as glass, mirroring dark inversions of the white handmade furniture: gorgeous fitted units all full of Pot Noodle.

I have a big house. It is a new-build mansion set on twenty one acres of private wooded parkland, grotesquely ostentatious but that’s okay. I don’t care what it looks like. I just needed the space, and the isolation. And I have always wanted a big house in the country. The Russian owner was keen to sell after everything that happened.

It cost a great deal to make it fit for purpose. But that is no concern. I tweaked Normon’s code, expanding the scope of his global man-in-the-middle attack, siphoning funds from online transactions. Maybe thirty grand a year was enough for him, but I intend to survive. I don’t consider it stealing. It’s more like a tax, a national insurance. Or protection money.

I check the clock, and give my noodles a stir.

I glance at the screen.

Of course I still rely on the botnets and the malware on corporate and government machines—that is how I get the video—but I try to contain things as much as I can now I have my own resources. The west wing is devoted to backup storage, the east to pattern recognition and geolocation. My servers are beautiful: rack upon rack of pristine hardware, like a Google data centre. Sometimes I just stand a little while in the dark, with my earplugs in, listening to the powerful roar of the fans, watching the flash of myriad lights—my own constellations.

I have dedicated fibre lines from multiple exchanges, with backup microwave and satellite connections. In the basement I have copies of all my equipment, sealed in waterproof, fireproof, bombproof vaults. Down there too I have my backup generators and fuel enough to run for eighteen months at capacity. In every room, every stretch of hallway I have 4K displays mounted on the walls. No matter where I go, I am always within reach of an access terminal.

It took eighty men sixteen weeks to gut the place, to build the extensions, the cooling tower, and install this madness. I stayed in the attic while the builders were here, but it made little difference. They kept collapsing from the stench. But if you pay your workers high enough they will tolerate anything.

I spared no expense.

I will never be that old man with a broken laptop. I will never go offline.

I intend to survive.

Opening the little sachet of sauce, I pour it on my noodles.

I glance at the screen.

And the precious things I lost from my home… There are new things now. I have perhaps the largest private collection in the world of old video games, old consoles and computers. They fill the entire third and fourth floors of the central building. An extravagance. I do not need these things but they give me comfort. If I have to live in a cage I will make damn sure it’s gilded.

My noodles are ready. I munch a quick forkful. I don’t really need to eat or drink any more—or even breathe, I think—but the rituals are soothing. There was a time when I ordered takeaways but the delivery staff became afraid of me. So Pot Noodle it is. I’m happy enough.

Holding my dinner—or breakfast? It’s probably both—I wander from the kitchen to the main hallway. It takes three minutes.

I glance at the screen.

The house has more than a mile of corridors. I try to make a full lap at least eight times a day. I never go outside.

On through the ballroom, on into the library, I pass a bank of servers humming patiently. I open the door to the antechamber—the smallest room on the ground floor, refitted as my office—and shut it behind me. The space is sealed but for a ventilation grille, with no other doors, or windows, lit only by the glow of an eighty-five inch monitor. The walls are painted white, and I used to have bright fluorescent overhead lighting… but increasingly my eyes grow accustomed to the dark.

I glance at the screen.

Placing my noodles on the edge of the desk, I flop into my chair and lock the five-point harness. The seat, now altered for convenience, came from a decommissioned fighter jet: not comfortable as such, but solid and restraining. I can take the blows, but sometimes being strapped to a rigid support is helpful to me, depending on what happens.

Also, it came from a fighter jet. Coolest office chair ever.

I eat half the noodles.

I glance at the screen.

In a background window I have a live news broadcast. The lady newsreader is beautiful, but not the one I have a crush on. She is talking over footage of the day’s main event.

It is the ten year anniversary.

Or it was, yesterday. I guess it’s past midnight. The image on screen is of the hideous monument in Hyde Park, with the hordes of victims’ relatives, all suited and booted, laying wreaths upon the grass. They had a two minute silence at eleven in the morning. I thought that was nice.

Even now, I am amazed—or is it troubled?—by how quickly other people’s lives returned to normal. I know that it could have been infinitely worse: the corruption, starting in the heart of the city—focussed on me, as I came to learn—spread like fungal spores and would have taken the planet. I stopped it maybe halfway to the M25, and the rest of the country was mostly unaffected. The rest of the world? It hardly even noticed… at least until the accusations came to light. But nevertheless, in the face of such destruction, with so many dead…

The government covered it up, of course. I saw the documents. Unable to explain or understand the crisis, and fearing uncontrolled panic, they said it began as a simple riot. They had the police shoot a handful of young men and backdate the evidence, giving them something to decry as a ‘catalyst’. And then there were the terrorists, using the diversion to release a neurotoxin all across the city…

The media spun a fabulous fiction, spreading tales of the worst terror attack in history. It helped that the survivors had no recollection, their minds blank of those dreadful hours. Yet after the emergency relief effort, and the nights in refuge centres, the arrests, the rebuilding, the decimation of targets in eastern lands… after half a million immigrants said sod this for a lark, and decanted back to Europe… after all that, the people just got on with it. As people always do.

Still, it seemed to me a remarkable recovery… but I think my companion may have lent a smoothing hand. But in truth, I saw very little of what happened. On that first day, after looting some clothes and a fistful of money, I walked sixty miles north and found a cheap hotel with free Wi-Fi. And I started my work. I stayed in that room for almost a year, doing what I had to and relearning my craft in the moments it allowed. I stayed until its contact began to change me, to make me repugnant to others of my kind. But I had money by then. And now I am here.

I glance at the screen.

The news report is ending, switching to the weather. The presenter is that strange looking lady with the plump little belly and the large soft nose. I have a crush on her as well. I got stupid once, and sent a thousand roses to her home address. Anonymous, of course. I hope I didn’t scare her…

I wait for it to come.

I can usually tell. It is a kind of premonition, like that watery mouth thing before you vomit. I eat some more noodles.

Regardless of their lies, the government and media have been a boon to me. The initial state of fear and its heightened security, the increased surveillance… Every day there are more cameras, more excuses for violating privacy. Campaigners protest, but it only gets worse. It can only get worse. And for this I am thankful.

Sometimes I wish I could just tell the world: keep your smartphones on; keep your webcams connected; stand in plain view of the CCTV cameras. If I cannot see you then I cannot protect you. And I want to protect you. As humanity slips further and further from my reach, I grow ever more attached to what I leave behind.

I glance at the screen.

Sometimes too I wish there was another way. I love my computers but to live by them, and through them, at the total exclusion of all other good things, for the rest of my life… It wears on me. From the records I have seen, its chosen in the past had techniques of the mind: visualisations and meditations; summonings and spirit walks; contrivances that woke the connection it had made. In each civilisation, so far as I can find, the secret guardians—the cliques of mystics, shamans, demonologists—all seemed to live with so much more freedom than I. They could at least go outside…

But then again, they are dead. They failed, and it killed them, and their people are forgotten. And whereas they had others to share the burden, I am all that is left. And like the old man before me, this is the only way I know. So I do it without fail.

I glance at the screen.

I have extensive coverage of the modern world: the cities, the towns, the nuclear silos, the research laboratories. I have stopped, and will stop, any man-made Armageddon. Natural disasters are more difficult for me, but always in the case of extinction-level threats I have had cooperation. As for the blind spots… the plains of Africa, the great rain forests, the ice fields of the poles… the wardrobe in your bedroom… with these I can do nothing. I choose to do nothing.

My companion has to feed.

At first I thought I could stop everything, but if I starve it too long then it ignores me. I have to ensure that it takes what it needs… not much, not so many lives in the scheme of things… but people must die. Or else it loses control. Perhaps I still could stop it in such a state, but I do not know. I am not strong enough. Yet. So I let it feed where I cannot see, and convince myself not to think of it.

I glance at the screen.

It is close now. There is no indication, but I feel it near me.

I finish my noodles and drink the broth. Sitting firmly in my chair, I take hold of the armrests. The weather report is ending now, the lady presenter smiling like a loon.

I do this for you, you gorgeous thing! I lie to myself.

The mouse, the keyboard are no longer required. I have set the system to be fully automated. Somewhere out there it is caught by a camera, my servers sifting terabytes of streaming data, scanning each frame for the shape of its image…

I wonder what mood it will be in.

It is always impassive, yet it goes through phases. Sometimes it strikes me with raw brute strength, a heat and a pounding that I feel should destroy me, tear me into atoms. Of all that it does, this is almost the kindest: I just have to endure, to swallow the pain, and when the storm blows out I tell it to piss off. Sometimes it is subtle and malignantly spiteful, settling like a tumour inside my head and using my own thoughts, my memories against me. I hate this. It is the worst torture, and the hardest to escape. I have to taunt it, mock it, forming in my mind the picture of it stranded on a barren world, starving painfully to death. I have to maintain this as it breaks my very soul…

And then there are times when it does something else entirely: a cursory resistance, then… nothing. Nothing at all. It just sits with me, looks at me. It feels me.

And this is the saddest thing I know.

This is the tragedy that I must bear…

I am all it has.

We are both so very, so crushingly lonely.

And all we have is each other.

I think I am the first to truly understand it. Always throughout history, its chosen have seen it as a devil, a demon, a horned god or an evil spirit. In Normon’s files, he raves on and on about Cthulian mythology: he thought my companion was Shub-Niggurath, a member of the Old Ones. Certainly, it is very old, and there is only one, but that’s as far as it goes.

And driven by this logical misconception, all it has been shown is fear and hatred. All it knows of man is our worst emotions.

But my fear and hatred have long since passed.

In both senses of the word, I have spent the ‘best’ part of my life in made-up worlds: the games I have played; the books I have read. I am accustomed in my mind to the uncanny and the impossible. I have grown up fighting monsters with a gamepad in my hand, and of these times I have the fondest memories. And though the fight is now real, still these memories sustain me. Somehow I can find strange pleasure in the contest.

I cannot hate my companion. I understand that all it wants is to survive. I understand that I must stop it, but that does not mean I cannot keep it company.

In those rare quiet times, I try to convince it. I have looked up this place where it wants to go: from what it has shown me, it has to be Andromeda. I assume it must know that this galaxy approaches—that in four billion years it will collide with our own. I tell my companion that it only has to wait; that there is no need to destroy all mankind; that it can stay with me, and together we can nurture this world it has created. Thus far, it has not listened. I do not even know if it understands my words… but I think it likes that I speak them…

A harsh, shrill alarm shatters my reflections.

I look at the screen, the map shifting rapidly, zooming on a region of Western Australia…

The video feed opens in a window. It takes a moment—it always does—for me get my bearings. I see a yard bustling with people, shown at the oblique angle of a security camera…

I see it is a school. There are parents pulling up in cars outside, hordes of little children laughing and cavorting as they flock into the building…

I see a young man, crumpled, dishevelled, with stubble on his face, trembling slightly as he leaves a dented pickup truck. There are gun holsters strapped around his waist…

“Oh come on,” I say. “That’s just nasty.”

But I’m not angry. I like these ones. I like saving children.

And now I can see it, under a bush in a patchy stretch of border: a tiny figure, barely a shadow, yet clear to my eyes; its dear little face; its dainty little horns…

And this is how my connection works. If I see my companion, I can know its heart; if I know it, I can stop it…

The young man is turning, getting back into his truck…

I smile as the figure raises its head, as I shout in my mind:

Come, my friend! Come play with me!

And I feel its gaze; feel it rising to the challenge…

I have no idea how my story will end. I intend to survive. I will fight for as long as my companion lets me. If one day you wake up dead… if it decides that it has bred enough lives to fuel its journey… then you will know that I have failed.

But I will not let this happen.

I am not like those who came before me. I do not seek to kill the beast. I know that it loves me. And one day, one day… I will make it understand that we do not have to fight. I will open its eyes to the truth it has neglected: it does not need to travel to find its kin. We are already here. It built this world, and we are its children. It can make of us a family.

And if that happens, if it comes to us in friendship…

Oh, my people, what wonders we shall see.

But until that day…

I watch the goat.

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver