Bit Rot: A Reminder To Check Your Files...

Up until last week I thought I had my files well in hand. All my work stuff is managed with a version control system, with decentralised repositories mirrored automatically onto four backup disks (one internal, two external and one NAS). All my important non-work files (mostly family pictures and videos) are kept on one archive disk, which I keep synced with an external backup disk and two separate NAS drives. My not so important files are kept on two mirrored external drives. I log the S.M.A.R.T. status of all my disks, regularly check filesystems for errors, and keep everything spread around so that no single hardware failure can wipe out all copies of my data. I used to sleep soundly, knowing that my rsync backup scripts were keeping me safe…

And then I had to dig out some old files from the archive. I tried to extract them, but they just spat CRC errors in my face. No bother, I thought – I’ll grab one of the backup copies…

They were all the same. Every copy was broken. In a sick kind of panic I started going through everything. Out of ~3TB of data, almost 500GB was knackered. I curled up on the floor under a table.

Once the sobbing had subsided, I realised what had happened.

Bit rot.

I always knew that such a thing was possible, but had considered it a theoretical threat. The data on a hard drive are just microscopic patches of magnetisation on a film of ferromagnetic grains; it stands to reason that magnetic fields will degrade over time, and that’s before we consider the impact of cosmic rays flipping bits in memory, or the manufacturers’ own quoted ‘raw read error rates’ of ~1 in every 1016 bits… but surely this could have no significant effect in practice? I mean, modern hard drives have all kinds of in-built error handling and correction – if something goes wrong during a read, the disk should be able to rebuild data using error correction codes, and rewrite it to another sector, and give us a warning via S.M.A.R.T.

Well now I know different. Bit rot is very real indeed, and hard drives cannot be trusted. No matter what precautions you take, your data will at some point experience silent corruption. I found a paper which references a study performed at CERN: apparently they wrote 9.7 x 1016 bytes (97 petabytes) to state-of-the-art storage and after 6 months found that 1.28 x 108 bytes were permanently corrupted, with no apparent explanation or reported errors. That gives a figure of one bad byte for every 758MB written. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much, but consider: if you fill a 3TB drive, within half a year you’ll probably see ~28,700 individual knackered bits. And it only takes one flipped bit to ruin a JPEG image, or a Zip file, or any one of a hundred other types of compressed data.

And this is what happened to me. A few bad bits, and – POOF – that’s half my RAR files gone. A few more bits, and – POOF – that’s all my tarballs gone. And best of all: I had been backing up corrupt data. I had multiple nicely maintained copies of utter junk.

I was not best pleased.

Fortunately, my work was okay (any respectable version control system detects corruption automatically) and I managed to piece together one good set of files from the various damaged copies of the family album. But everything else was a crapshoot.

In hindsight, I realise it was my own fault. I broke the cardinal rule: Verify your backups. But who honestly does that? It takes so long. It’s so tedious. I bet 99% of people never give their backups a second thought… until the worst finally and inevitably happens…

Oh well. Such is life. At least I learned a lesson I won’t soon forget, and maybe my disaster will encourage someone else to take precautions with their storage. To that end, here are some tips and things that I picked up during the ordeal:

(NB: this is all from a Linux perspective; if you use Windows or some such, you’ll have to look elsewhere)

1. Checking what you can when you don’t have a checksum…

So say you’re like me: you have a disk full of files, you have a backup, and that’s as far as it goes. You assume that everything is good. But how do you know? Had you generated checksums, or used a “next-generation filesystem”, you could tell straight away. But you didn’t. And now you’ve found a picture that doesn’t look right, or an archive that won’t open. Perhaps bit rot is destroying all the things even as we speak…

Before you do anything, you need to verify what you have – and in truth, you’re probably stuffed. You have thousands, maybe tens of thousands of files, each of which you’ll have to examine with the Mark I Eyeball… but there are a handful of file types that you can test automatically without any prior planning: compressed archives, pictures, videos, MP3s, etc. Here is a list of commands you can enter in a terminal to check these common formats:

# ZIP archives (*.zip)
$ unzip -t <file_name>

# RAR archives (*.rar)
$ unrar t <file_name>

# 7-Zip archives (*.7z)
$ 7za t <file_name>

# Tarballs (*.tar.gz, *.tgz)
$ tar -tzf <file_name>

# JPEG images (*.jpeg, *.jpg)
$ jpeginfo -c <file_name>

# PNG images (*.png)
$ pngcheck -q <file_name>

# TIFF images (*.tif, *.tiff)
$ tiffinfo -D <file_name> 2>&1 | grep -i -e error -e warning -e bad

# PDF documents (*.pdf)
$ pdftotext <file_name> /dev/null 2>&1 | grep -i -e error -e warning

# Video files (*.mkv, *.mp4, *.avi, etc.)
$ ffmpeg -v error -i <file_name> -f null /dev/null 2>&1 | grep -i -e error -e warn -e invalid

# MP3 files (*.mkv)
$ mp3val -si <file_name> 2>&1 | grep -i -e error -e warning

Most of these commands should be installed by default or be available from the standard repositories of your Linux distribution. I think the only ones you might not find immediately are:

To run these tests on a whole disk’s worth of files I cobbled together a little script, which you can get here: NoChecksumScan.bash

Just download the script and make it executable:

$ chmod a+x NoChecksumScan.bash

Then run it by entering:

$ ./path/to/NoChecksumScan.bash <directory_path>

It will scan recursively through everything in ‘<directory_path>’, logging any corrupt files to screen and disk (log files are recorded as ‘<directory_path>/scan_log_<timestamp>.log’). If it doesn’t know how to handle a particular file, it will log it as ‘skipped’. (Feel free to add checks for additional file types…)

Note that some tests can produce false positives – or more correctly, a file that is nominally corrupt may still be usable. For example, a few bad bytes in a video might do no more harm than mess up a single frame; a few bad bytes in an MP3 file might just add one tiny click to part of the audio… But hopefully this script will pare down your data to a manageable list of ‘skipped’ and ‘corrupt’ files which you can then check by hand. If you do find damaged files in your main archive, then I suggest you run the script again on your backup and cross-reference the logs. Perhaps you’ll get lucky, and the rot will have affected only one of your copies, and you can restore the good data; if not, then you’re stuffed… but at least you’ll know what you’ve lost…

2. Monitoring file integrity

So let’s assume that you’ve got your files in order. You’ve laboriously checked your archives, and now you have a disk full of stuff that you know is good. But it could go bad at any second! You need to be able to test easily and automatically whether this has happened, so you can quickly restore things from your backup. (And likewise, you need to able to easily and automatically verify your backup…)

You could use a “next-generation filesystem”, such as ZFS. This is an excellent solution for many people: the filesystem itself will generate checksums for everything written, detect any unwanted changes and even provide automatic ‘healing’. I would probably have chosen this route myself, except:

To keep things simple I decided not to mess about with how my files are stored, but to generate my own checksums and use these to verify integrity. This can be done very easily from the command line. I started hacking up a script to build a database for all my stuff… but then I found that someone else had done it already, and far better.

So to keep tabs on your data I recommend a little tool called ‘bitrot’, available here. The home page gives no installation instructions, but all you have to do is type the following in a terminal:

$ git clone https://github.com/ambv/bitrot.git
$ cd bitrot
$ sudo python setup.py install

(This requires that you have both git and Python installed, but these should be readily available via your package manager)

Now you can just navigate to the top-level directory containing your files, and run the command ‘bitrot’:

$ cd /path/to/main/archive
$ bitrot

This may take a long time, as it has to recursively read every byte stored in the directory… but when it’s done, all files will be indexed in the database ‘.bitrot.db’ (located within the top-level directory). To check that your data are intact, just run the command again; it will scan the index, refreshing the database with any items that have been edited, added or removed intentionally, but warning of any files that have been corrupted by bit rot.

Thus you can always tell at a glance whether your files are how you left them. This only helps, of course, if you have a good backup from which to restore broken things, but the ‘bitrot’ command can ensure this. To perform a standard backup (e.g. using rsync, which everyone should be using anyway), you would merely type something like the following:

$ cd /path/to/main/archive
$ bitrot

[Pause to check that bitrot gives no errors; if all is good, then proceed...]

$ rsync --progress -a -v -H --delete-after --no-inc-recursive /path/to/main/archive/ /path/to/backup/archive/
$ cd /path/to/backup/archive
$ bitrot

[Pause to check that bitrot gives no errors; if all is good, then backup is a bit-for-bit clone of the original]

In-between backups, just run ‘bitrot’ periodically on both the original and the backup copies (I’d suggest once a week, or however frequently you can tolerate). All doubt is then gone: you’ll know whether your files are wholesome, and you won’t overwrite your backups with corrupted data. Lovely.

3. Preparing for the worst: adding redundant data to your files

If you have known good copies of your data on at least two disks, there is a negligible risk that bit rot will destroy every instance of a particular file. There is, however, a non-negligible risk that one of your drives will suffer hardware failure, or be wiped by a software bug or human error. If you find a bad file in your main archive, it is sod’s law that your backup disk will die before you can restore the unafflicted version…

Okay, I realise this is an unlikely occurrence… but if you have files that are especially precious, then why take chances? You should store them with additional parity data, which allows corrupt or missing information to be regenerated (up to a point).

One of the most common and best methods for adding redundant data to your archives is to use parchive: you just tell it what files to protect, specify the amount of damage you want to be able to absorb, and it’ll vomit out a whole bunch of parity files. There’s a nice write-up about it in this blog post, if you want to know more.

My problem with parchive is that it makes such an ungodly mess. You end up with hundreds of .par2 files everywhere, cluttering up everything. It just doesn’t seem manageable.

I much prefer to keep things clean, and the simplest way that I have found to bundle files and parity data together is to use the Linux command-line version of WinRAR. Yes, I know that ‘rar’ itself is shareware, and not ‘free’… but it’s widely available in the standard repositories for most distributions (in OpenSUSE you can install it from PackMan), millions of people use it every day, and no one seems to care about the ‘limited trial period’ (which in practice lasts forever). So that’s good enough for me.

To protect your files in a RAR archive, just use the ‘-rr’ (recovery record) option. An example: to store ‘my_file’, you would type the following in a terminal:

$ rar a -rr5p "my_file.rar" "my_file"

The ‘5p’ after the ‘-rr’ option means a recovery record of 5%. Thus you could damage up to 5% of the output ‘my_file.rar’ archive, and still extract the original ‘my_file’ successfully. To store a directory, don’t forget the ‘-r’ recursive option…

$ rar a -r -rr5p "my_directory.rar" "my_directory"

I have used a hex editor to twiddle bits and simulate bit rot on a large number of archives generated in this fashion, and all have been recoverable. (I wish I had known about this before my data loss…)

As noted above, to test a RAR file (e.g. ‘my_archive.rar’) for corruption you would enter the following:

$ unrar t "my_archive.rar"

UNRAR 5.00 freeware      Copyright (c) 1993-2013 Alexander Roshal


Testing archive my_archive.rar

Testing     pic/PICT4514.JPG                                           7%
pic/PICT4514.JPG     - checksum error
Testing     pic/PICT4525.JPG                                          23%
pic/PICT4525.JPG     - checksum error
Testing     pic/PICT4522.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4510.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4517.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4515.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4539.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4511.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4523.JPG                                          OK 
Testing     pic/PICT4513.JPG                                          OK 
Total errors: 2

Oh noes! It’s broken! But since we have a recovery record, we can repair it:

$ rar r "my_archive.rar"

RAR 5.30   Copyright (c) 1993-2015 Alexander Roshal   18 Nov 2015
Trial version             Type RAR -? for help

Building fixed.my_archive.rar
Scanning...
Data recovery record found
Repairing 100%
Sector 200 (offsets 19000...19200) damaged - data recovered
Sector 302 (offsets 25C00...25E00) damaged - data recovered
Sector 898 (offsets 70400...70600) damaged - data recovered
Done

This will generate a copy of the archive with an added ‘fixed.’ prefix, which can then be extracted normally:

$ unrar x fixed.my_archive.rar

UNRAR 5.00 freeware      Copyright (c) 1993-2013 Alexander Roshal


Extracting from fixed.my_archive.rar

Creating    pic                                                       OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4514.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4525.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4522.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4510.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4517.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4515.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4539.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4511.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4523.JPG                                          OK
Extracting  pic/PICT4513.JPG                                          OK
All OK

Phew!

I believe that a 5% recovery record is more than ample defence against bit rot, given that only a few bytes are likely to be affected in a bit rotted file (assuming time-scales of a few years, and otherwise healthy storage media). I know it’s not practical to archive everything; if you have a music or video collection that you play on a regular basis, then keeping it in a RAR file will cause nothing but frustration… but for important documents or irreplaceable stuff I think it’s worthwhile.

During the process of sorting and protecting my own documents, I grew bored of typing the whole ‘rar’ command and waiting for it to crunch data. So I wrote a tiny ‘quick rar’ function that you can paste in your ‘~/.bashrc’ file; pass it the name of one file or directory, and it will make an appropriately named RAR archive with 5% recovery and minimal (i.e. fastest) compression:

# Function to quickly RAR one file or directory (5% recovery record)
qrar() {
    if [ -z "$1" ]
    then
        echo "Usage: qrar <file or directory name>"
        return 1
    else
        local RAR_FILE=""
        if [[ -f "$1" ]]
        then
            # Input is a file -> remove extension
            RAR_FILE="${1%.*}.rar"
        elif [[ -d "$1" ]]
        then
            # Input is a directory -> remove trailing slash
            RAR_FILE="${1%/}.rar"
        else
            echo "Error: \"$1\" does not exist - exiting..."
            return 2
        fi
        rar a -r -rr5p -m1 "$RAR_FILE" "$1"
    fi
}

With this in place, you can just type:

$ qrar "my_directory/"

…and the archive ‘my_directory.rar’ will be produced.

Oh, and one last thing: during my scavenger hunt through the ruins of my bit rotted backups, I learned that the venerable old tarball archive format (so loved by all us Linux users) is not at all resilient to damage. If you mangle a few bits in the middle of a tarball then everything past that point is probably gone for good. Heck, I even tried flipping one random bit in a 1.8GB tarball of my email folder, and it blew up: I couldn’t extract a singe file. This is disappointing, as tar is often essential for preserving permissions and links when making backups…

But all is not lost! You can still use tar to make an archive, but then compress and protect it with ‘rar’. Here’s a simple one-liner that’ll do the job:

$ tar -cf - <file_list> | rar a -rr5p -si <archive_name>.tar.rar

…and to extract an archive produced in this manner, you can type:

$ unrar p -inul <archive_name>.tar.rar | tar -xf -

So there you have it: with backups, integrity checks and redundancy, you should be able to avoid the kind of crippling data loss that I suffered. Keep safe, and don’t let the bit rot bite.


Merry Christmas 2015

Crumbs. It’s more than ten weeks since my last blog entry. How slack I have become.

I would have posted sooner but everything is a heap of poo at the moment. No stories. No game development. Just poo.

Have you ever had bad neighbours? Proper nightmare neighbours? The kind that erode and corrode and rot away your life, like a cankerous tumour?

We got some earlier this year.

I don’t want to talk about these people because it makes me tired. But I’ll mention briefly what has occupied all my time since last we met:

For these and other reasons, it is not a good or festive time for me. This is all the Christmas spirit I can muster:

Glum Christmas

But I suppose one has to make an effort at this time of year… so in a vague attempt to raise a little cheer, I am making IUMENTUM available for free on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. If you haven’t done so already, make sure to grab a copy from Amazon.

I hope that you, dear reader, have a lovely Christmas and a New Year full of all good things. But for anyone finding happiness elusive, I would offer a few small words of comfort:

“No fim tudo dá certo. Se não deu certo, é porque ainda não chegou no fim.”

“In the end everything will be okay. If it is not okay, it has not yet reached the end.”

  • Fernando Sabino

The Hudl 2: Lollipop Update

Quite unexpectedly, Tesco have released Lollipop for the Hudl 2. This is very nice and decent of them, but it means that some of my old Hudl 2 Guide is obsolete… and since said guide is the most visited page on my website, I thought I should post some kind of update…

I’ve rewritten the initial setup stuff for compatibility with the new operating system; I’ll move onto this in a moment. But first, what is the impact of installing Lollipop on the Hudl 2? (i.e. is it worth it?)

Let’s look at the downsides:

This is mildly annoying, but not insurmountable – and apart from causing a slow boot, the encryption/disk speed issue seems to be of trifling concern: it may become apparent in benchmarks, but since installing Lollipop I have noticed not a single difference in the loading times or read/write performance of any normal app.

As for the upsides:

To quantify the performance boost, here are my 3DMark results before and after:

Test KitKat Result Lollipop Result
Ice Storm Extreme 7723 8309

That’s an increase of 7.6%! Here’s a screenshot, in case you don’t believe me…

Hudl 2: Lollipop 3DMark Results

(The ‘Sling Shot ES 3.1’ test now yields a score of 639… but I forgot to run it before updating, so can’t make a comparison… oops)

Everything runs more smoothly with Lollipop, and it makes the Hudl 2 even better as a budget gaming device. Thus I see no reason at all to stick with KitKat, and encourage everyone to upgrade. But not until you’ve read the following advisory…

Post-Update Shenanigans

Installing Lollipop is no trouble at all (unless you’ve previously rooted your tablet and messed about, in which case you’re probably stuffed). When you get the prompt, just follow Tesco’s simple instructions – although their ‘takes 10 minutes’ claim is bogus. Let the installer do it’s thing, and after 30 minutes to an hour the tablet will reboot into the new operating system.

Easy.

And then everything will go wrong.

Apps will lag or not open. Buttons will be unresponsive. The battery will drain at alarming rates.

My poor Hudl 2 was pretty unusable after the update, but any and all problems are fixed by a simple factory reset.

If you really can’t be bothered to do this, then I suppose you could take the scabby shortcut route – i.e.:

  1. Install Lollipop.
  2. Open the ‘Play Store’ app and touch the menu icon (☰), then ‘My Apps’, then ‘UPDATE ALL’.
  3. Reboot your tablet and clear the cache partition from the recovery menu (I could explain how to do this… but I’ll refer you to Tesco’s ‘cache cleaning’ guide instead, as it has pictures and everything)

These two actions may ‘fix’ your tablet… but then again, they might not. Worth a try, I suppose. But to guarantee proper operation, you’ll have to bite the bullet and perform a full reset. I would recommend:

  1. Manually backup any media/data from the internal storage to an external disk/Micro SD card/computer. Note that many apps hide things (e.g. game progress) in inaccessible locations, so you might be limited in what you can save. Don’t rely on Google’s automatic backups (enabled via ‘Settings → Backup & reset’); hardly anything of value is restored. Also, I would suggest not to use a dedicated backup app (such as Helium), otherwise everything will most likely be restored to the same broken state as before the reset. In short, plan on starting from scratch…
  2. Install Lollipop.
  3. (Optional) If you have a Micro SD card, remove it from the tablet.
  4. Perform factory reset. (‘Settings → Backup & reset → Factory data reset’ – full instructions here)
  5. (Optional) Before reinserting your Micro SD into the Hudl 2, mount the card on your computer (i.e. not an Android device) and delete the following folders from the root directory:
    - Android
    - .android_secure
    - LOST.DIR

Your tablet should now be minty fresh and glitch-free. Before restoring any backed up data, I would recommend that you move onto:

Initial Configuration

Here’s an updated version of the initial setup check-list from my old Hudl 2 Guide (a factory reset is like having a brand new device, so might as well start at the beginning). It’s almost the same as before but with a few subtle differences; for completeness I’ll just go through the whole thing. Open the ‘Settings’ app, and configure the following entries:

Under ‘Device’:

» Display «

» Sound & notification «

Under ‘Personal’:

» Location «

» Accounts «

» Language & input «

Press ‘Google Keyboard’ to enter the sub-menu, then select:


Now let’s return to ‘Account’ settings. Close the ‘Settings’ app, then launch the separate ‘Google Settings’ app from the app drawer. Change the following:


Almost done. Now close the ‘Google Settings’ app, and launch the ‘Play Store’ app:


Finally, you’ll be wanting to replace the Tesco Launcher. It’s actually improved a little since KitKat, but Nova Launcher is still so much better. Install and configure as you like, but I would at least recommend changing the following:

Nova Settings → Look & feel:

Bloat Removal

As with KitKat, the Lollipop installation comes with a collection of junk that you don’t need. Here’s an updated bloat removal guide:

» Tesco Bloat «

The main Tesco apps are now separated from the rest, and easily incapacitated (it’s almost as though they want you to disable them…). All of them can be safely removed. To do so:

For completeness, the apps that can be crushed in this matter are:

» Other Bloat… «

Any remaining system apps must be disabled the old fashioned way. Here’s a reminder:

All of the following can be removed without affecting system stability, so disable everything you don’t specifically need:

Wrap-Up

That’s about it as far as Lollipop-related changes go. If you’re new to the Hudl 2, then further tips can be found in my old Hudl 2 Guide; just read everything from the ‘Useful Apps’ section onwards. For everyone else: Happy hudl-ing!


A Command Line Movie Scraper For Dune Media Players

My WD TV Live Hub media player recently died after four years of faithful service. I was going to get another one but (a) it has been discontinued, (b) I was getting sick of the fan noise, and (c) the newer models seem cursed with firmware glitches and a general lack of support. So I began looking for something else.

I did consider building a home theatre PC, but my dabblings with Kodi were a disappointment. There can be no doubt that such a setup has enormous flexibility, with a slick interface and powerful library features… but the video quality simply wasn’t good enough. I imagine that top-end hardware combined with madVR would produce a beautiful picture, but I wanted something small, quiet and not too expensive. Everyone seems to recommend running Kodi on a Chromebox or an NUC, but these weak little beasts cannot compete with even the lowliest dedicated hardware media player. (In truth, I don’t think any general-purpose computer can beat the subtle magnificence of a Sigma Designs chipset…)

So I gave up on the whole PC idea. Instead, and after a long and traumatising search, I settled finally on a Dune HD TV–303D. And oh my goodness! It is superb. The video and audio are unimpeachable. It is the best media player I have ever owned…

But the menus are a little dull. After seeing Kodi, I was corrupted by the shiny. I wanted a pretty movie library, with descriptions and pictures and run times and all that kind of stuff.

Focussing almost entirely on playback quality, Dune devices have no inbuilt metadata/artwork scraping functionality… yet there exist many pieces of software (e.g. Zappiti or yaDIS) that can do the job externally, and turn a collection of movie files into something that looks halfway decent. But of course: none of these applications run under Linux (apart from YAMJ, which gave me the headaches). This vexed me greatly, but I then discovered that the good people of Dune have an open standard when it comes to user customisation, making it trivial to write my own little movie management thing.

I guess the number of Linux users with Dune media players is very small… but there must be some of you out there, so I thought I’d share my bit of code. But first, perhaps I should show you what it does. You essentially end up with a big movie folder that resembles this (name + cover image/run time):

Dune Media Player: Movie List

…and when selecting a title, you get a nice info screen like this:

Dune Media Player: Movie Info

(Once here, simply press ‘ENTER’ on the remote to start playing the video, or ‘RETURN’ to go back to the movie list…)

If that looks like something you could use, then please read on…

Installation

You can grab a copy of the script + auxiliary files here: DuneMediaScraper.tar.gz

It has the following dependencies:

…all of which should be available via your package manager. (In fact, it would be very odd if they weren’t already installed…)

Oh, and it makes use of the Verdana typeface as well (because I tried them all, and Verdana looks best). You should make sure that this is available on your system… (e.g. under OpenSUSE you would simply install the package ‘fetchmsttfonts’)

The script also assumes that you have:

  1. A single source folder containing unsorted movie files – i.e. no subdirectories, and with one file per movie. (Any subtitle files must have the same name, excluding extension, as their corresponding movie)
  2. A single destination folder (a network share, or the Dune internal hard disk) which can be accessed both by your PC and your Dune media player, to serve as a home for the generated movie library. (Alternatively, you could set the output to anywhere you want and then copy the library by hand, but you’re on your own there)

With that in mind, download DuneMediaScraper.tar.gz then open a terminal and enter:

$ cd path/to/download/directory
$ tar -xvzf DuneMediaScraper.tar.gz
$ cd DuneMediaScraper
$ ls -l

The first thing you should see is the file ‘dune_folder.txt’. You must copy this to the root of your movie library destination folder:

$ cp dune_folder.txt /path/to/Dune/movie/storage

This configures how everything is displayed when you navigate to ‘/path/to/Dune/movie/storage’ on the media player itself.

Secondly, you’ll need to open the file ‘ScrapeMovies.bash’ in your favourite text editor, and set three variables. It’s easiest if I just post the relevant section of the code, then explain:

3   #######################################
4   # User variables                      #
5   #######################################
6
7   # This script accesses the following online services:
8   #
9   # - 'The Open Movie Database' (http://www.omdbapi.com/)
10  #   => Used to obtain movie info
11  #
12  # - 'The Movie Database' (https://www.themoviedb.org/)
13  #   => Used to obtain movie artwork
14  #      (Mandatory attribution notice: This product uses
15  #       the TMDb API but is not endorsed or certified by TMDb)
16  #
17  # In order to download artwork from 'The Movie Database' you
18  # will need to get an 'API key'. You can do this by registering
19  # for a free account at www.themoviedb.org (see this FAQ for
20  # details: https://www.themoviedb.org/faq/api).
21  # Once you have an 'API key', assign it to the following variable:
22  API_KEY="insert_api_key_here"
23
24  # Source and destination video directories...
25  SRC_DIR="/path/to/unsorted/movies"
26  DEST_DIR="/path/to/Dune/movie/storage"

Save the script, then go back to the terminal and enter:

$ chmod a+x ScrapeMovies.bash

Now you’re ready to go!

Usage

To format your unsorted movies, just open a terminal and type:

$ ./ScrapeMovies.bash

The script will iterate through everything in the source folder, using file names to search for movie info – you’ll see an output something like this:

##############################
Processing: Forrest_Gump.mkv
##############################

Movie found...

- Title: Forrest Gump
- Year:  1994
- Plot:  Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.

Is this correct? (y/n): y

If the particular file is identified correctly then type ‘y’ when prompted; artwork will be generated, and all relevant files moved to a new directory in the movie library destination folder:

Writing NFO -> /path/to/Dune/movie/storage/Forrest Gump (1994)/movie.nfo
tmdb_cover.jpg -> /path/to/Dune/movie/storage/Forrest Gump (1994)/
cover.aai -> /path/to/Dune/movie/storage/Forrest Gump (1994)/
tmdb_background.jpg -> /path/to/Dune/movie/storage/Forrest Gump (1994)/
background.aai -> /path/to/Dune/movie/storage/Forrest Gump (1994)/
Forrest_Gump.mkv -> /path/to/Dune/movie/storage/Forrest Gump (1994)/

Additionally, a preview of the info screen will be displayed (so you can check that everything is okay). Just close the image window to continue.

Sometimes the wrong movie is identified; if so, type ‘n’. Sometimes, too, nothing is found at all (e.g. when the file name has a typo, or omits punctuation or something). In either case, you will be prompted for an IMDb ID:

##############################
Processing: One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoos_Nest.mp4
##############################

Error - Movie not found...

Please enter IMDB ID: 

You can find this very easily by visiting the IMDb website and manually searching for the correct movie. Once you have found the right page, check the web address in your browser – it’ll be something like this:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073486/?ref_=chttp_tt_15

You need the segment consisting of ‘tt’ followed by 7 numbers: in this example, it is tt0073486. Just copy and past this into the terminal:

##############################
Processing: One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoos_Nest.mp4
##############################

Error - Movie not found...

Please enter IMDB ID: tt0073486

Movie found...

- Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
- Year:  1975
- Plot:  Upon admittance to a mental institution, a brash rebel rallies the patients to take on the oppressive head nurse.

Is this correct? (y/n):

…then carry on as before.

And that’s about it. Whenever you obtain new movies, drop them into your source folder and rerun the script. Nothing else is required.

I might write another script for handing TV episodes… but this is considerably more difficult. Maybe later. At the moment, I have too much game coding to do…


A Change Of Pace...

Having completed my serialisation of ‘The Goat’, I again find myself with a dearth of things to blog about. Writing a story week-by-week is a draining activity (it is nerve-racking to continually publish first drafts on the day they are written), but it did provide something to fill these endlessly gaping blank pages…

I’m not going to start a new story, not yet at least. I’m a little burned out. Even my other book, MORBUS, has been shelved for now (and has been for some time) because I need to exercise different parts of my brain. Writing fiction is all well and good, but my coding and drawing abilities have been getting flabby. I need to round things out, and to that end I am shifting my complete focus to the development of my indie game. This will give me plenty of blog material once I have pretty artworks and fancy game mechanics to show off, but that won’t be for a while. I’m keeping shtum until I have something I’m proud of… ;)

So in the meantime, what should I post? In search of ideas, I had a look at the statistics for my website to see what has been popular. And then I wished I hadn’t. It is very disappointing! I might as well have been dropping my regular articles straight in the bin. 99.99% of the visitors to my website look at only one of five pages:

It is splendid that people find this stuff helpful, but it demonstrates that the audience for my stories and general musings is negligible (NB: if you are one of the 0.01% that do read my others posts, then I love you). Moreover, for all the many thousands of visitors I have attracted, in the last year only one kind person has bought a copy of IUMENTUM. It seems therefore that I could spare myself a great deal of effort and time by eliminating the fluff from my website – that is, to write only when I have something useful to present, a guide or some such, that people might actually look at.

So this is exactly what I am going to do. Until I’m ready to talk about my game, I’m cutting back on the blog. I have a few obscure and interesting articles lined up, but the regular weekly slot is no more. Or maybe I’ll just take a short break, then go back to posting nonsense on a Friday. I’m not entirely certain. But either way, I hope you’ll stick around…


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

The Goat (Part 93)

I did have something vaguely amusing to post this week, but it’s taken me all day to get my bit of story done and I have no time left for fripperies. So I’ll just get on with the main event…

(By the way – it’s almost finished! All I have left to do is the epilogue. Hooray!)

“You’re scared,” I said.

FEAR IS MINE TO COMMAND

“You want me to stop you.”

I WANT YOU TO SUFFER—

And with harrowing strength it ripped me from its mind. The visions of its memory shattered into blackness, then spinning confusion—the thunder and tempest flaying my body, my brain whirling into squelching sickness—as it cast me down into the vortex of oblivion—

Yet I felt my hands resting on the floor; the prickly carpet tiles stinging my knuckles…

I clutched at the ground and felt its solidarity, clenching my face, my eyes tight shut as I tried to hold myself fast in the storm—fighting the nausea churning in my head as my mind told me I was falling, falling—

I CURSE YOU WITH SUFFERING ETERNAL

But the voice was changed: still dreadful and immense, merged of the screaming horde outside and the glottal eruptions of behemothic beasts drowning in phlegm, but the sound was cold now—flat, almost synthetic; a furnace roar grown anaemic of substance, loud to my ear but neutered of meaning…

I opened my eyes. The world reeled and I strained against it, squinting at the brightness, trying to grasp what was happening to me. Images ran like cascading vomit; I blinked hard but the smearing was inside me: my vision clotting as illusions fragmented, the layers melting and sloughing from my mind.

With head hung low I focussed on breathing, the pain in my lungs, grinding my fingertips into the carpet and gripping for balance as my senses disgorged. Through fading corruption I saw the feelers embedded in my chest: not spurs of bone, but glowing extrusions of gel-like matter; clear tendrils of blurred definition studded with pinpricks of scintillating light. In strange recognition I tried to touch them, pull them from my body—yet groping like a blind man, my fingers closed on nothing… but no, I could see it: the lucent tissue passing through my hands; my flesh warping, parting then reforming as I crossed its path…

“My God,” I said, almost in wonder… then panting, breathless, still dizzy and in agony yet knowing, remembering all that I had seen: “You bastard thing. You brought me here—”

And lifting my gaze I stared into its face—but it had no face, and my vision was clouding, fluttering with darkness, the shadows peeling like detached retinas… but I knew what it was now. Its delusions had no hold on me. I pushed them aside, and looked at this creature whose birth I had witnessed…

No tentacles. No spider legs. No head of glistening bone. Its translucent fabric spread as lace upon the air, dividing and shifting in living fractal patterns, raised in fluted structures like the wings of angels.

I saw the unearthly light of its body: the surface skin neither solid nor matter but distorted space—a membrane, a transition to another kind of place. It was too far beyond me: my eyes filming over at the sight of other planes, seeing only the sparkle—the boundless crystal of diamond constellations—as unfathomable energies caressed our dimension.

With effort I resisted the draw of its beauty, fixating instead upon the nucleus within: the core of its power; the axis of its mind; a globe of dark mass suspended like a yolk in the jelly of its albumen—black as the sucking void of singularity yet rimmed by a dazzling prismatic corona: lensed visions of worlds unseen…

Though it near overwhelmed me I stared in defiance, clinging to my sanity, wrestling with the knowledge so unbalanced in my head. I knew what this poison creature had done, and wanted to fight, to shout my accusation… but so too could I feel its alien indifference, my own insignificance—my rage, my will existing only at its sufferance…

I wanted to despise this thing that had hurt me, but it made no target: my anger spent in vain, as though pounding sand or the waters of the ocean. The placid darkness of its heart sapped my emotion, even soothed my mind… and though I tried to hate it, I knew what it had done…

“You saved me. Of all the people… it was me…

My eyes blurred with tears at the realisation, the ghastly implication…

I remembered the fire at home in my flat: the ball of flame, the scorched flesh… my hands, the blindness, the wetness coming out of me… the emptiness that came as I forgot how to breathe…

And again in the van: my blood draining to pool in the footwell as I fell into something deeper than sleep…

And with sudden coherence I thought of all the damage done to my body: the savage beatings and the fractured bones, the crushed organs, the blood in my lungs… the times I had lain so broken on the ground, losing myself as I wished for it to end…

“I died,” I said, the sound of it strange and heavy in my mouth. “I was dead. You brought me back, so I could…”

I choked as the pieces assembled in my mind.

“That mad geezer with the beard, and the policeman—it was you, you sent them… No, it was everything… Everything that happened… Christ, it was a test—

SILENCE MORTAL

I SHALL MAKE YOU BLEED

YOU WILL BOW TO ME IN UNYIELDING TORMENT—

“No,” I said. “No… Oh my God! You don’t even know what you’re saying!”

I could see it now. There was nothing in its words: no malice, no emotion. The creature spoke as a man to an insect, spraying it with samples of collected pheromone: testing blindly, until it found how to elicit the response it desired.

The words were my own. It drew them from my mind: my preconception of some vicious god…

But it was more than that: the violence, the hatred, the visions of monstrosity—all were reflections of my own fear. And the horrors it had wrought upon the world outside… it had only raised the darkness already in our souls, with no understanding of the evil it inflicted…

“You don’t have to do this.”

My voice felt distant as, almost in shock, I gazed at the creature: a thing so foreign I could hardly now connect it with the pain I had suffered.

“Please. Stop hurting us.”

YOUR DEATH IS MINE

“No. It’s not right. It can’t be right. We’re people, we have minds… Oh my God! You can’t just kill us—”

But I gasped at the crawling sensation in my brain as half-formed images crowded my head: patchwork fields of golden wheat; vines laden with rich dark fruit; penned herds of piebald cattle; a silver fish struggling on the line… the scenes dissolving in drool and blood as hundreds of mouths snapped in my face: the slavering maws of every kind of beast—their lips smacking, running with juices, their teeth mashing wads of pulp and meat—

“No,” I said. “It’s not like that! We’re not food, we’re not… Christ! We’re not animals…

But I trailed off as the truth of it struck me…

I MADE YOUR KIND

That’s all we were.

Just food for the creature…

“No! We’re more than that,” I shouted, warming now with the righteous anger of the fool who is wrong but needs to be right. “We’re human beings. You have no right… Oh my God! How many have you killed? How many millions…?”

War, murder, natural disaster… All kinds of disease…

Just food for the creature…

“You utter bastard. How can you do this? You don’t even care—”

I was shaking with rage—yet sick with it too: knowing the emotion was not my own, but what the creature wanted…

“Go on then! Take us! It’s what you want, right? You’re starving, innit. You want to kill the lot of us—so do it, mate! Put a bloody end to it!”

Silence from the creature.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

And I shook my head, leaking tears of frustration, of horror and dismay as I felt the weight of the burden it had put on me…

“So what am I? Your conscience? Is that it?” I gave a bitter laugh. “No… It’s the thorn in yer side, innit. The pebble in yer shoe…”

Silence from the creature.

“You slack bloody coward! You want to kill us all, but you’re scared it’s not enough. I dare you, mate! I dare you to try it. And then you can squat in the dark on your own, trapped here forever—starving to death cos you couldn’t bloody wait—”

ETERNITY IS MINE

“Yeah? Just as well, innit—cos it ain’t your time, mate. You can drool on us all you want, but you ain’t having none. You know it, mate. You can’t do nothing.

And I felt the creature absorbing what I said—not the words, but the strength of emotion. I felt the implacable force of its mind crushing against me, so easily to kill me—but I resisted it with all I had, crippling myself as it let me fight back…

Think yer so big,” I screamed. “All this power… You ain’t nothing without us! You need us, mate, and we don’t need you, so go piss off down that hole in the ground, and—

SOON MORTAL

YOUR NUMBERS GROW

“Yeah, and I’ll be here, mate. I’ll be waiting. You want a fight? You got it. I won’t let you touch no one—”

AS YOU HAVE COME

SO SHALL COME ANOTHER

AND THEN YOU SHALL DIE

I barely broke stride, knowing it was true but not caring in that moment—knowing there was nothing else that I could do…

“Yeah? We’ll see. Maybe it’ll go that way—but not today. Not here. Not now. So get you gone, you piece of filth, or I’ll—”

My voice cracked as the pain erupted—the tendrils contracting inside my chest, piercing my organs, blazing with a heat that blinded my senses. In wrought agony I writhed on the ground: for an instant stunned, thinking I was wrong—that it would kill me after all—then feeling new life as the creature healed me…

No,” I screamed. “No,” in resentment as I felt the seal closing on my fate. “I defy you! You hear me? I defy you.” And with trembling hand, I stabbed a finger at its black heart—summoning every last ounce of my strength as I roared into the darkness:

“Get… the hell… out of my shop—

I pointed at nothing.

In sudden gloom, blinking as eddies of dust curled around me, I stared at the void where the creature had been. I sat, still pointing, breathing hard. A great and numbing silence hung upon the air.

For a time I couldn’t move. Then I saw the light and remembered the torch folded in my bathrobe. Nervelessly I dragged it out then played the beam across the walls and floor. A mess of splintered furniture. Strewn bits of hardware. No trace of the creature.

I coughed a mouthful of black blood, and spat it on the carpet. I coughed again, and the spit ran clear.

Outside, a soft cry sent ripples through the stillness. A gasp. A moan. A grief-stricken murmur…

Slowly I kicked away the rubbish at my feet, got my hands beneath me and made effort to rise. Everything ached as though worn to exhaustion, but my joints were supple, my limbs strong. I stood easy in the wreckage, looking down at my elbow, the wounds upon my chest. No scars. Nothing.

Pacing to the windows I pried apart the blinds, peering through glass at the alley beyond. Bodies filled the road: most slumped in death; some shifting weakly; a few survivors wandering aimless, sobbing in pain and distressed confusion as they tried to understand where they were, what had happened.

I knew what had happened. Oh God, the things I knew…

I had no idea how far the devastation spread, but the madness had ended. There would be no more killing. I envied these people; for them, it was over…

Turning away I shone my light into the workshop. I saw it in the corner, untouched, undamaged, where the creature had left it. The old man’s laptop, waiting to enslave me.

Perhaps someone else could have let it be. I wasn’t even sure that I cared about the world; it didn’t care about me. But I had no choice.

No matter what became of it, I loved my life…

So I took the laptop.

I brought it to the rear door and shoved aside the server rack, shouldering through to the stairwell and exit. I glanced at old matey slouched dead upon the stairs. My poor old mate…

“You was all right,” I said. “Maybe… Maybe I’ll see you again, yeah? On the other side. You take care, my friend.”

And I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t any more. All the tears had been burned out of me.

I stepped across his legs, and tried the back door. Of course it was locked. With a bare foot I kicked it open, pieces of door frame bursting out into the road.

One final time I gazed behind me, at this place I knew: this last fragment of the only life I had ever known. Oh how I wished that I could take it back… but everything was different now. Every thing depended on me…

So I stood in the doorway and looked outside, seeing the ruins, the mangled bodies, the fires in the distance. A sight to quell the stoutest heart… but there was no danger for me here. Nothing could harm me. Ahead lay hardship I could scarce imagine, but today… today I was immortal.

And holding the laptop tight in hand, for better or worse, I strode out into my strange new world…

#
© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 92)

I can’t think of anything worth blogging about this week… but I did finish the penultimate scene of my short story. So I guess that’s something…

A beast gave cry.

From ill dreams the creature stirred, confused then upset by the strange disturbance. Long ages in the fog of its own torment had dulled all sense of the world outside. It could not understand what had touched its mind.

Curling itself down in the abyss, it sought again the release of oblivion. Yet still it persisted: a vague simulation at the limit of perception…

A beast lost upon a rock-scrub mountainside, wounded and parted from the herd by a landslide: its last memory that of female heat-smell, of duelling with a rival, then screaming panic as the ground closed over—

Now broken, concussed, it bleated with pain: its head pouring blood from smashed horns and frontal sinus, its limp hind leg trailing meat as the beast dragged itself through a scree of loose gravel, trying just to find a safe place to hide…

The creature felt nothing. It hearkened to no cry. Life to it now was but a distant muted clutter: a background susurration below its awareness.

Yet something was changing. This presence would not leave it; this taint upon the atmosphere…

The beast stumbled, skittered to a rock ledge: a ridge of angled stone backing to a crevice. Drawn by the dark, the instinct of its youth to shelter in tight spaces, it squeezed itself through the crack in the mountain, on into a shaft steeply descending. Hooves slipping on slick limestone, it bleated as the ground fell away beneath—

It struck the wall, bouncing and tumbling down into the void. For two minutes it screamed in terror, then a thick, wet slap resounded in the blackness.

At the bottom of the pit cave, a shattered figure twitched faintly on the rock: its spine broken, its burst body spilling entrails on the ground… yet living still, gasping as its lungs dissolved into blood…

And the creature sensed it. At once the intrusion came clear unto its mind: the taint embodied by this thing of flesh that dared to breach its solitude; this foul farce of the life it had made, now come to violate its place of retreat—even to leak vile juices on its essence.

The creature formed a tendril of matter, raising it to smite the vermin from existence—

And then it stopped.

It could taste it in the air: this thing that had troubled it, roused it from slumber…

Buried in the stench exuding from the carcass—the blood and faeces, the glandular musk—it detected a unique pheromone: a compound hitherto unseen upon this world…

The creature pressed itself close against the body. As though dazed it ran feelers through the dense tufts of fur, probing with its tissues the shape of foreign molecules. It recognised the structure of 4-ethyloctanal: something it was certain it had known before—but where? How…? Then its mind turned giddy with the shock of recollection—

A time of hunger; the deprivations of that desperate journey through the life-sparse regions of galactic centre, ending at last as they found that first rich planet—

The creature remembered alighting on the surface, crowding with its brothers, their excitement contagious as they gazed upon the bounty. It saw in reflection the living titan masses—colossal of flesh yet lacking neural function—not caring for the beasts but the life that dwelt inside them: the countless intelligent blood parasites; beings at the vanguard of organic technology; each host body housing an entire civilisation…

Losing itself in sweet memory, the creature languished in that perfect moment: feeding to repletion after so long in famine; believing for the first time that their curse might be lifted—that this strange source of power could restore to them their lives. It knew again the joy of merging with its kind, sharing in their love and their newfound hope as they sensed now the abundance of life in the galaxy… as holding to its brothers on that ravaged world, it bathed in the emissions of 4-ethyloctanal bleeding from the scent glands of the ruptured titan masses…

In the hollow darkness of its isolation, the creature clung to the body of the beast, smearing itself with the trace pheromone and aching for the touch of its family. Not for two billion years had it felt such a connection, such closeness to the ones it had loved and lost. The strain of emotion split old scars that ran to its core… yet too did the pain slice into its apathy, clawing the haze of depression from its mind. And slowly, as though waking from a fevered sickness, weak and wasted yet burned of disease, it began to see all with a new, dreadful clarity.

It had forsaken its brothers. With a source of life yet remaining on the earth, it had abandoned its duty and condemned them unto death. Not only was it a failure but a coward, a betrayer.

For an instant, frozen with self-contempt it teetered at the brink: wanting an escape, but not knowing how to die… Then driven by guilt, a manic nervous compulsion, it threw its mind out across the planet—trying to see if it had left it too late, if there might still be a chance…

But the world in its absence had grown deviant and baffling, full of beasts deformed by evolution run wild. The creature blanched at the corruption of its work… yet still there was consciousness: strange, and of a type it had never thought worthwhile, but changed throughout the years into something unexpected. And amid the chaos one variant of being grasped its attention: a small and ugly tree-dwelling beast; a most curious brain; a thing with potential…

The creature realised it could start again.

It had the resource. It had the commitment. It would take this dross and raise it to the heavens: make of it a race even greater than the stranger.

And this time, this time… There would be no mistake. It knew now the peril of feeding too soon. Though it lose its mind to hunger and frustration it would breed these lives until there could be no doubt, no deficit of power. It must be careful. Pedantic. It must not fail.

It would do this for its family.

It would find its brothers…

And restored by faith, the challenge that awaited, the creature made at once to return to the surface… yet pausing, it remembered the beast in its cave: the foetid little thing that had woken its sanity.

With a fondness it had felt for nothing else on this world, the creature gazed upon the dead and broken figure. Again it touched the fur, distending its essence to enfold the head, tasting the last of the priceless pheromone. Gently piercing the flesh of the body, it took assessment of the cellular damage… concentrating briefly as it flexed a strand of power—

Limbs convulsed, the torn meat writhing as though charged with electricity. Wounds bubbled with expanding tissues, sealing and reshaping, the cavities inflating, the bones grinding wetly as they joined in alignment… as stuttering sparks reignited the brain—

The beast screamed, lurching like a newborn as it scrabbled for purchase—not knowing where it was, blind in the darkness, the stink of its own blood rank in its nose. It tried to run, slamming into rock then thrashing and bleating as something gripped its body—

The creature held the struggling caprid, feeling the life pulsing strong in its heart. Caressing the beast, it soothed it with a whisper:

MY CHOSEN

MY SYMBOL

I FEED NOT OF YOUR KIND

Thus together they rose from the depths of the earth, into the light of new dawn: the beast set down upon a verdant hillside; the creature expanding to encircle the planet, girding itself for the work that must be done… beginning again the endless, torturous, maddening labour…

And all this I saw as I looked into its soul.

Pinned against the shelves in the ruined workshop, bleeding and injured to the point of death, facing the end of the world as I knew it… I saw things that no mortal mind could comprehend.

But I saw enough.

I could feel the creature. I felt its weight of sorrow.

And at last, at length, I began to understand…

#
© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 91)

I’m too busy for a coherent preamble this week, so I’ll just post some random things that come to mind:

Anyway, here’s some more story:

It stood at the cusp.

Its masterpiece was ready.

The endeavour that remained almost defied conception, yet seemed as nothing to the creature after all it had suffered. To travel the blackest void of space, to consume a galaxy and break time itself… all was in its grasp. All would begin with this single event: this reaping of the harvest…

At once it commenced its final act upon the world: a scheme prepared through long study of the beasts, designed to take them with such force and speed that there could be no interference, yet slow enough that each would understand its fate; an act of ultimate shock and awe, of escalating terror, crafted to flay every mind of its defences—to open them for draining every vital drop of power…

And thus the creature made a brief excursion of two hundred and sixty million kilometres. It pulled a mountain from the asteroid belt, and tossed it back towards the planet.

Returning to its prison it waited in orbit, watching the approaching fist of Armageddon; watching as the beasts continued their lives, so assured of themselves, so ignorant of danger. Filled with love, it reached down and gave them pleasure: a day of peace, of perfect contentment; the last caress of a proud farmer bidding farewell as the herd was packed for slaughter.

And slowly the beasts began to feel unease: reports from scientists of some strange anomaly; stories in the media, humorously frightening, then ridiculed, redacted; silence, then articles from amateur astronomers; a growing body of independent work confirming trajectories and drawing bleak conclusion.

For a month the news was a passing concern. For the second month it was a national obsession. Beasts listened to the daily announcements first with a sense of angered denial, then nauseating tension, reducing at last to the numb and helpless sentiment that someone in authority should be doing something…

But as the prospects worsened, as society paused in philosophical reflection, across the world rose a new solidarity: the barriers of culture, race and country falling aside, old conflict abandoned, as leaders united to rally their people. The greatest minds were enlisted and endowed with unlimited resources, given carte blanche to invent a solution—bombs and engines, elaborate strategies to deflect or destroy. Industry redoubled as drafted technicians laboured relentless, accomplishing more in sixty days than in the last twenty years of their civilisation. The populace cheered each piece of propaganda, caught in the zeal of mounting belief: that their kind was the strongest, the brightest, the best that had ever set foot upon the planet; that for the first time in history a species existed that could counter a global extinction event.

But the scientists knew it was a fiction. They were too late. The threat had come from nowhere, at too close a distance. Engines would need years to divert its course. Nuclear explosions would only fragment it, spreading the collisions but not reducing damage. And nor did any project even reach completion: launch after launch ending in disaster, collapse or detonation as the creature’s sabotage crushed all hope.

Society ended. Government, utilities, finance, transport, food supply… everything stopped as the world accepted that nothing could be done. Many grew insane. Many turned to violence. Many sought solace in their vacuous gods. Most simply waited in shock, in depression, crippled with the overwhelming sickness of fear as a new star emerged in the sky…

And on the last day, the creature watched as the scaled beasts stepped dully from their homes, silent, trance-like: the wealthy retreating to useless bunkers; a handful boarding experimental spacecraft; but almost the entire population remaining to gather in the streets, chittering softly as they nuzzled their mates, their bodies unkempt yet gleaming in the sunlight, the keratin plates shining like jewels…

And together they stood to face their destruction: hard, muscled, their tails lashing in instinctive defence, their talons flexed, feigning defiance… then shrieking with terror as the sky fell in…

The asteroid impacted, punching a hole in the atmosphere, blasting supersonic winds for thousands of kilometres… then hitting the earth with the force of a hundred million megaton explosion. Striking at the shoreline, it hurled into space ten trillion tons of rock and water, smashing through the crust, the sea boiling in eruptions of steam as it flooded the crater of exposed mantle. Megatsunamis upended the ocean—first from the collision, then from steam, then from the shifting of tectonic plates—sweeping the coasts and drowning half the planet. Ground shocks ripped across the surface of the world, heaving every loose object—every living beast—three metres in the air. Global firestorms razed the land as orbiting ejecta plunged back down to earth, heating by friction the entire atmosphere and baking the planet like an oven.

And the beasts died.

In agony, in horror, they died by the billion: the bulk of them killed in the hours after impact; the rest, the survivors, trembling in the cold of a dust-blackened sky, wounded and burnt, gasping at air depleted of oxygen… freezing to death, starving to death as they succumbed to acid rain…

And the creature fed.

Oh, how it fed…

Through countless channels of severed consciousness, the fires of creation roared into its mind: energies greater than any it had known; more than the share it had drawn from the stranger… and with no family to buffer the absorption, it stood naked at the focus of the tempest: pinned and screaming as unchecked power ruptured its essence.

Unprepared for the onslaught it drank in desperation, convulsing and vomiting the tissues of its body as it reached saturation—then knowing this was all it had, taking even more: bursting itself, its entrails bleeding out into space as it teetered on oblivion, struggling to contain itself by raw strength of will.

But even through the pain, the sudden fear that all might fail, the creature began to feel a change come upon it: a second metamorphosis; the real and incorporeal fabrics of its being at last responding—growing, fusing, condensing with power…

Cries of agony turned into groans of masochistic pleasure as the cleansing flame refashioned its anatomy. Long-dead extremities of body and mind, wasted by hunger, throbbed to life then exploded with vitality. The creature bellowed in pure exhilaration as it felt again the strength of its youth, the breadth of its consciousness spanning all dimensions…

Now with ease it held fast in the deluge, blazing with the light of a second sun as it harnessed impossible magnitudes of energy. Beasts vaporised with the force of extraction, snuffing from the earth as it drank them dry. The creature fed until bloated, sickened, its body dilating in the wrong planes of existence… and still it gorged as the power dwindled, the last rich minds fizzing into darkness…

And then there were none.

With senses distorted by its own strength, its density of matter, the creature gazed a final time upon its planet. A place it once had hated…

It thought of its arrival, long and long ago; the privations it had suffered; the doubt, the lamentation, the ceaseless exertion; the strange satisfaction; the overwhelming pride in all it had accomplished…

It saw there was life still crawling on the surface. Oddments. Fragments. But the creature wanted no more from this world. This unassuming rock that had given so much…

And thus it turned away, consigning it to memory, thinking instead of the great task that awaited. Sighting on the galaxy in which rested all its hope, it began the longest journey—with joy, excitement, yet almost with sorrow. It left behind the trifling star and misty gas giants, speeding onwards through vast clouds of ice, then fields of hot plasma, out into the blackness of the interstellar void… coasting near the speed of light for hundreds of years…

Yet slowly inside it grew a curious anxiety. All was well… but something felt wrong: its body, now altered, burning too much energy; the power within surely ample for the labour, but somehow at odds with its calculations.

Again it reviewed the distance, the time, the strength it would need to maintain survival…

And in utter dismay it realised the mistake.

It had been too weak.

None of its plans had accounted for weakness.

Never once had it considered that the first flow of power would be too much to contain. Never had it thought that so much would be exhausted replenishing the atrophied substance of its body…

It had captured but a fraction of its target. The energies stored would barely take it halfway. Even if it aimed itself and entered hibernation—chancing that nothing would deviate its course—still it would die nowhere near its destination.

In dazed refusal of the logic that condemned it, the creature tried to reason some extension of its power, some means to reduce itself and limit consumption. Then it looked in frenzy for another source of life: a nearer galaxy that it somehow must have missed. Finally, hysterical, it tortured itself re-gauging estimations, counting and recounting the lives it had raised, screaming as it understood how close it had been: if only it had let them breed for another thousand years…

It had lost everything for a moment’s impatience. Mindless with grief, with hideous self-loathing, it howled and clawed at the fabric of the vacuum. Then turning, it fled—running back to its planet, retreating to its only refuge in the universe.

And gaining sight of the precious orb—blue and green once again, recovered from the impact—the creature scoured every micron of its surface, hoping in vain that there could be some trace, some living remnant of the beasts it had made. But all were gone. It had known they were gone. All its work, its tireless achievement rendered unto nothing, and in its place…

Without its guidance, the worst and most foetid genetic material had risen like scum: small, soft things of minuscule sentience, rank with stench and matted fur, grubbing in cracks and holes in the dirt; eaters of detritus…

The creature stared at the thriving rubbish: these strains it had laboured so hard to repress…

It looked at the lands on which its beasts had roamed, and built their titan cities. It saw the ruins jutting through foliage, broken and weathered yet in places still remaining: the tallest towers of quartz-infused concrete, of reinforced glass, standing as a monument to its hopeless, crushing failure.

Before the creature even knew what it did, in frustrated anger it smashed the buildings down. It could not bear the sight of them: these objects of ridicule; this mockery of all it had done on this world…

The rage, once kindled, threw it into madness. It swept across the planet, uprooting and destroying every relic of its beasts: the cities, machines, the tunnels underground. Unleashed forces racked the world with thunder as it pounded and pounded and shattered the rubble, splitting it to atoms, grinding every article to base elements and driving them down into the ground from whence they came.

At last spent, the creature gazed at the swathes of desolation. As thought returned, it choked on the insanity of what it had done: the horrendous and futile waste of its power—burning in seconds the energy amassed through a hundred million years…

This final insult cracked its heart. It had reached the end, of hope, of life. It looked once more at the sky, the stars, what might have been… then it turned away. Unable to face the pain of defeat it sunk itself into the hollows of the earth, its mind growing numb with darkness and depression as it waited to die… yet even in sleep it fed on life above, enduring the ceaseless passage of time…

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 90)

I had to go to the hospital yesterday for another eye poking (i.e. glaucoma check-up). Lots of fun, as always.

Got there at 14:30 and waited. They call me in after half an hour, and I think ‘that’s quick!’ But no, it’s just for a glance at the eye chart, then back to the waiting room. I wait and wait. It is meltingly hot, and all the black filth on the sticky, nasty chair melts in my sweat and soaks into my clothing. I am now sticky and nasty. I wait.

After four o’clock, I get called for a visual field test. For those unfamiliar with such things, you essentially look into a box where a light is shone at random locations and you press a button if you can see it. The idea is to map any blind spots on the retina. I also have this test when I go to my regular optician, and because he is a wise and excellent professional there is never a problem.

At the hospital, however, someone has decided that you cannot wear your own glasses during the inspection. Instead, they take your glasses away and use a machine to measure their strength. Then they munge together some old lenses from a tray in order to give you something with the same prescription. This bodged copy is what you look through, while your good glasses sit on the table. It is very efficient.

Anyway, the man does his thing and I peer into the machine. I can’t see anything. The man fiddles about, and still I cannot see.

“Oh,” he says. “It’s plus. Supposed to be minus.

So he inverts the prescription, fiddles some more and I see a blurry mess.

“It’s no good,” I say.

“Yeah, we don’t have any lenses strong enough.”

I look at my glasses sitting on the table.

“But this is no good. I can’t see it properly.”

“Ah, don’t worry. Just press the button and I’ll keep going until you get it right.”

So that was a good and accurate test.

I then go back to the waiting room and wait. And wait. A man comes in, stinking of faeces. He sits next to me. And I wait.

It gets to five o’clock. Everyone in the room has been waiting for hours. Everyone is hot. There are no cups left for the water dispenser.

The time approaches six. Nothing is happening. Everyone is complaining. An elderly lady shouts at a nurse:

“I wait since half one! Where is doctor? Look! All doctor go home! You want me sleep here? Okay! I sleep here! You bring me dinner!”

Like old war veterans, everyone starts recounting how awful it is every time they come to this department. It is the black hole of the hospital. There are shorter waiting times in the morgue.

And still we sit. Or stand. The corridors are empty. We wait for someone to turn the lights off.

Then at last I get the call. I go in to see the doctor.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m afraid I can’t find your medical records. Um… What’s supposed to be wrong with you…?”


Anyway, it’s time for some story. I had every intention of finishing the scene today, but it got too hot in my office (35°C) and I passed out. So here’s the fragment I managed to complete:

Other life.

The creature could taste its imprint on the vacuum: vague and teasing—at first no more than a confusing scent of uncertain origin—but growing stronger with sharpened awareness; the subtle distortions taking shape as the creature began to understand the implication…

The speck of filth on which it lay was not the end. Not even the beginning. All around it, in space that had offered no promise of survival, now it could see the hidden constellations: webs of vitality spanning the horizons; galaxies, not just clusters of stars, but teeming hives dense with population. Even in grief the creature saw its potential: more life than its brothers could have ever comprehended; energy to last until the end of eternity.

But as the true abundance of minds became apparent, the creature stumbled to a realisation: with unlimited channels to feed upon creation, there was power enough to do anything it wanted… even to bend the laws of the universe.

Again, but now in panic, it reflected on the stranger—trying to interpret the knowledge it had gathered: the science of a unified field theory, of subatomic gravity, exotic matter… resorting to instinct as it struggled with the alien notion of equations…

Then all was clear. The creature understood how to save its brothers.

With the life distilled from a galaxy, it could focus itself and far exceed Planck energy—enough to boil the quantum foam… to make unstable the fabric of space-time, forming bubbles in the vacuum and opening a gateway…

It knew how to travel to a past dimension, a parallel reality: one in which its family had never met the stranger.

It could be with them again—and this time protect them: warn them of the poison of other kinds of life; tell them always to keep to their home, to seal themselves from the evil outside. Never would its kind learn the misery of hunger. Never would they lose the innocence of peace. And though it had no place in this pure dimension—its taint must be destroyed lest it spread to its brothers—the creature felt only elation at its fate: if it saw its family together and alive, then it knew it could find the strength to starve itself and die. It would be content. It cared for nothing but the safety of those it loved.

For an instant—a span of a dozen years—the creature relished the joy of hope, its roared ululations shattering the ice floes. It thought of its brothers playing in the stars… but then began to register the feat it must accomplish. To reach another galaxy…

Straining with all the focus it possessed, it probed the resonations of distant life—seeking the nearest, trying to grasp the vibrations with its mind…

And its hope expired.

More than two and half million light years. That was the journey it would have to undertake. On its own. With nothing to sustain it.

The creature weighed its wretched powers: barely enough to leave the planetary system. Had it still the ability to feed from stars, it could have harnessed a number and carried them in transit… but to cross such a magnitude of space without energy…

Almost in an act of self-flagellation, it started to reckon the power it would need: a billion times what it had on this planet. A hundred billion. A thousand billion. It looked at the worthless microbes that surrounded it—their non-existent minds—and cried in despair. To even begin to attain sufficient strength, it would need organisms that rivalled the stranger: a quality of consciousness unique in the galaxy; a world of the best, the most perfect lifeforms…

And after a spell of woeful contemplation… the creature decided to make them.

Using models from all the life it had consumed, and drawing on the stranger’s understanding of geology, ecology, planetary science, it set to work creating an Eden: slowly, so slowly, so frustrated by its weakness, relying on microbes to do the heavy lifting.

First it addressed the state of glaciation: breeding black mats of cyanobacteria to coat the ice and absorb the warmth of sunlight, then letting them die, compounding vast quantities of inert organic matter that stripped the atmosphere through oxidisation. Taking strength from the spent lives—and from those of eukaryotes that died of suffocation—it cracked volcanoes to release carbon dioxide, and encouraged methanogens to feast on decay, loading the air with greenhouse gases. At length the planet melted, the heat and water triggering diversity, increasing the gene pool: more DNA for the creature to manipulate…

For the next billion years it created microbes that digested rock and metal, liberating compounds and generating minerals, enzymes: raw materials for future kinds of life. And all the while, taking sips of power—all that could be spared—until it had enough to break apart the single continent: dividing the earth and flooding it with water, constructing a world of tropical wetlands; accelerating the growth of organisms, and driving weather patterns to erode the soil, releasing more compounds…

And starved by its exertions, it brought another ice age: feeding off extinction, but also making niches for further evolution, and promoting photosynthesis… then cycling again, warming and freezing the surface of the planet as it fumbled like a child with a chemistry set—trying to find the perfect state of balance, screaming at the sluggishness of bioengineering as it grew overwhelmed by the layers of complexity.

Yet two billion years after losing its brothers, it had the climate, the materials it needed: the variety of compounds; the silica and calcium for skeletal structures; oxygen enough to build an ozone layer; the weak and floppy multicellular masses of its first productive ventures in forced speciation…

And activating networks of silent genes, it began to encourage more advanced formations: beasts with organs, shells, muscular function. It enticed them from the ocean and watched them struggle—then tried again: developing insectile land crustaceans, and crawling things of flesh with hard internals of bone… and slowly, as the life grew stronger and stranger, as the creature observed and mutated what survived, it started to feel the awakening of consciousness.

Almost it succumbed. After so many ages of feeding on refuse, of expending itself in perpetual exhaustion, the creature ached for the taste of true power. It saw the beasts, and needed them, craved them—wanted to slay them and gorge upon their minds. But thinking of its family, of all it had endured under so much hardship, and knowing now there was a chance to succeed, it threw itself into high orbit and screamed and screamed until fatigue numbed its longing…

And then it returned in devotion to its flock, tirelessly working to hone each genus: selecting the finest and breeding endless changes—trying to enhance the structures of the brain; to identify which species would become its salvation. Needing energy it turned to subtle measures, only culling lives and inflicting torture through means sustainable within the ecosystem: creating diseases to ravage the inferior; establishing relationships of predator to prey. On the weakened minds of the wounded it fed freely: the beast tormented by infection or cancer; the animal thrashing in terror and pain as pitiless carnivores ripped into its body.

Through millions of years the creature mastered husbandry, refining organisms of exquisite potential… then reaching stagnation. But never relenting, at each evolutionary plateau it forced mass extinction—by unbalancing the climate with microbial activity, and plants and volcanism, cooling, heating or poisoning the planet. Again and again it wiped the palette clean, providing opportunity for new and different strains—and with each annihilation gaining vast amounts of power to further enhance the emerging lifeforms.

At last it was born: the beast of its desire. A squat and ugly biped, grossly weaker than the animals that preyed on it and those it preyed upon, yet surviving—nay thriving—by raw wit and cunning. A beast with self-awareness and compelling curiosity, an impulse for invention, a broad capacity for imagination…

All the creature saw were the tissues of its brain: the unique folds, the abnormal connections that rooted it so deep into the well of quantum consciousness; the pulsing arterial thickness of its mind, so rich and juicy with the power of creation.

Again, temptation nearly ruined the creature: its body yearning with excruciating hunger as it bled itself into the fabric of the beasts, touching, tasting their beautiful minds… yet with self-control that gnawed it close to madness, it fed not but gave unto them visions—dreams of wonder, of fire and machines, of a world that was theirs to own and command…

It coerced them to grow: even suppressing basic instincts of survival—greed and promiscuity—allowing cooperation in place of domination. As groups began to share ideas and resources, it turned them from hunting to the concept of farming: abundant and easily accessible food, spurring reproduction and freeing time for thought and language, rapidly increasing their quality of mind.

From camps to villages, towns to cities, it watched them settle and swell across the land… while constantly injecting them with notions from the stranger—of civilisation—pushing them to make their lives easier and safer… making of the planet a contained breeding pen…

Yet even as it saw its plan come to fruition, the bounty of life broke its restraint. It looked upon the precious beasts and could not resist them: taking by the hundred, the thousand in fire and flood, and epidemics of disease, drinking sweet power through the channels of their agony. Swiftly it learned that the simplest way to break them was to use the pain inflicted by one against the other. With nervous apprehension it dabbled with their instincts, stirring rivalry, spawning intolerance, repressing their empathy: small experiments leading to hatred, oppression, suicide and slavery, murder and riot, the insanity of war…

Time and again its control slipped completely, plunging whole races into bloody conflict: empires falling in revolt and insurrection; genocide and conquest; nation fighting nation in rabid killing frenzy. All above the battlefields the creature felt them dying: the blades in their bellies, the bullets in their bodies, their limbs severed by the violence of explosion. In raptures of pleasure it feasted on their energy—then more as survivors were captured, tortured and dragged to the gas chamber…

And in each aftermath the creature wept, looking at the damage it had done to its creation, counting the effort it would take to recover…

But the beasts it had made were scheming and resilient. No matter their wanton foulness to each other, always they endured, always they replenished, raping the natural resources of the planet to fuel their insatiable need for expansion: multiplying faster than their evil could kill them til they numbered in the billions, their cites spanning the face of the globe…

And after aeons of labour the creature, so tired, gazed upon its work, trying to decide if it could finish and be done: gauging the concentration of minds, estimating power, again reviewing the journey ahead…

Then its heart lifted with a hope near-forgotten as finally it realised the time had come.

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 89)

It has been so stinking hot this week that every attempt to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard…) has ended in sweaty dehydration, frustration and misery. It is too hot to think, and my short story is rapidly melting into sludge. So I give up. I’ll post the only bit I have that’s still legible, and continue once this foetid heatwave is over…

The world expanded: a speck of orange, inflating to a green-rimmed ball of muddy haze. Too weak to make orbit, the creature aimed itself then yielded to gravity—the rags of its body tumbling in darkness then streaking with light as it punched into atmosphere. Down it roared through dense clouds of methane, its mind dwindling yet sensing the vitality so close beneath… a glimpse of hope, then nothing at all as it crashed unconscious deep into the ocean—

A kilometre-high wave of boiling water exploded from the impact. Trillions of microbes cooked or were ruptured. They knew no pain, but still their nerveless structures endured a stress response: a desperate compulsion to fight for their existence; a cruel awareness as their lives were torn away…

And the creature fed.

Without direction or sentience it leached into the water and entangled the microbes… diffusing through the cracks of their minuscule terror… drawing on the energy that gave them animation…

Like blood restored to a long-crushed extremity, the trickle of power scalded the creature: its matter reviving, igniting with pain as feeling returned to its macerated body. The starved tissues—both ethereal and physical—drained the tiny beasts until they popped like fuses. But the power was feeble, a goad that merely wakened and amplified the hunger…

In agonies of madness the creature started hunting, surging through the ocean to engulf entire colonies—feeding uncontrollably, ravaging a billion years of evolution… then screaming as it tried to restrain itself, foreseeing the path of its own destruction: this final oasis depleted of life; the last source of energy extinguished from the universe. Yet almost it continued, seeking to reject its chance of survival—preferring to die than exist without its brothers…

But thoughts of its family shattered it anew, and rendered foul the life force it tasted. In sudden revulsion it collapsed into the depths, crying for the loss of all it loved as it cowered alone in misery and fear… sensing the pitiful beings it had spared, and wanting them, despising them… hating the primordial filth of this world…

At length it tried to leave—at least to find vacuum, the purity of space—but lacking the strength could do nothing greater than drag itself along the ocean floor, then out onto land. With body distended like a beached jellyfish, it turned to the sky and looked for the stars: the clean and familiar light of fusion… the faint emissions from galactic centre, cherished by the creatures as a memory of home… Yet even this hollow comfort was denied. No starlight could penetrate the hydrocarbon smog.

And somehow the creature perceived it as an insult, an outlet for its pain. It railed at the clouds, trying to blast away the whole atmosphere—then failing, appalled by its own debility. But so breathless to forget the fate of its brothers, it grew obsessed with attacking the planet: striving pointlessly to clear the sky; to see once again the beautiful stars…

And with the fraction of power it yet retained, and using biochemistry learned from the stranger, it reached among the lifeforms still dwelling in the ocean… not feeding now, but giving of itself to change their fabric—to evolve them, to breed them…

It watched as the methanophile archaea it had made began leaching hydrocarbons from the atmosphere; as increasing sunlight encouraged photosynthesis, driving the explosion of cyanobacteria; as the rampant production of free oxygen further demolished the greenhouse gasses: a runaway cycle of more sunlight, more oxygen, disrupting the climate until the world tipped into global glaciation.

From its bed of ice, the creature wept as it gazed upon the heavens. Not only had it won its meaningless battle, but the oxygen—toxic to obligate anaerobic organisms—had triggered a mass extinction: countless microbes poisoned, tortured, opening pathways in their moment of death… and more, yet more, dying of the cold…

Almost without effort, without intention, the creature had sapped the enormous flow of energy: not enough to repair itself, but sufficient power to restore its senses. And though it mourned for its family, and knew little else but the suffering of loneliness, it felt somehow a numb anticipation: for in the quiet of absolute solitude it found its perceptions ranging ever farther, out into the blackness for millions of light years… detecting a presence far beyond the galaxy…

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 88)

I’ve just realised I haven’t posted any pictures for a while, and the blog is suffering from lack of colour. So here’s a photo I took last weekend of an ambitious caterpillar…

Ambitious Caterpillar (1)

…trying to eat an entire Gunnera plant all on its lonesome:

Ambitious Caterpillar (2)

Now if I possessed that kind of grit and determination, I would have had my short story wrapped up weeks ago.

Oh well. I’ll just keep plodding along…

And like kittens chasing butterflies they whirled amidst the fusillade, catching and containing the vast detonations. I saw creatures glowing as they drank the gifts of energy; others in high spirits returning it in kind, sending bursts of gamma rays that liquefied a planet… then pausing, bewildered, as its life seemed to vanish. Still others danced circles in the desolating holocaust, hooting as they skimmed across the surface of a world:

COME! OH COME! WE SHOW THE PRETTY THINGS!

I watched as behind them rose clouds of tiny figures: millions of beings sucked into space, their augmented bodies surviving the vacuum yet turning to vapour as they trailed through stars, or through the plasma jets of the singularity…

And as the military might of a nation collapsed—its weapons exhausted, cities bombarded, engines overloaded and rupturing in flame—I saw throughout the fleet creatures making planetfall: flocks of white shadows enveloping the spacecraft, trying to find which part of them would blend—seeking to merge their minds with the stranger, to share of themselves, and welcome it in love… but growing perplexed as they met resistance, the pungent taint of unfamiliar sensations…

A hundred billion dead in the streets or scattered through the void; twice that number yet clinging to their home, running and screaming or cowering in terror: one hour ago the masters of their destiny, now raving like beasts in the rubble of their kingdom—surrounded by monsters devouring their brains—

And I saw a creature flood with light as it found the connection… then others flaring in chain reaction, their bodies convulsing as they touched inside the stranger something awesome and appalling—

The minds of a race at the peak of evolution; intellects tortured by fear and pain, stripped of all thought, all barriers of will to expose at their core the secret that defined them: the interface that bound them to the seat of quantum consciousness; a doorway through dimensions to a higher space continuum—

Ignorant of pain, with no concept of suffering, the creatures lunged into the brilliance beyond… and burst the connection. Worlds screamed as billions and billions of minds tore open…

For the instant it took for a nation to die, the creatures breathed of another dimension. Through the splintered doorways they basked in the flux that underpins the universe: the origin of forces; the energy that drives the formation of reality; the raw and illimitable power of creation, of which consciousness is a manifestation…

It dwarfed any power they had ever known. The stars, the singularity, the rift that gave them birth… all faded out as they tapped the well of energy, their ecstasies of pleasure turning into panic as they started to burn. I watched them writhe, shedding matter into space as unbridled forces wrenched the planes of their existence—the fabric of their bodies splitting and changing, scarring and mutating even as it blazed with a new and dreadful strength—

And at once it stopped.

The stranger was dead.

All minds, all contact with creation lost.

Swiftly the creatures began to recover: the spasms subsiding, their forms reshaping as they inhaled loose material. All seemed unchanged… yet somehow different: their outlines harder, more stark against the void…

In strained silence they looked at what remained of the planetary craft—at this thing they had done. Twelve charred husks drifting in space.

And I felt among them a new emotion. A sense of disquiet. A feeling unknown to them: that something was wrong…

NOT LIKE US

I heard them think.

NOT FRIEND

And agreement from others:

NOT LIKE US AT ALL

And a dozen of them chased down the ruined worlds, pushing them quickly into the vortex… turning away as they disappeared from sight.

Then still in silence the creatures disbanded, each returning to the star in which it slept, to soak in heat and forget what had happened…

Yet none could sleep. None could find peace as they listened to the echoes, the memories absorbed by their coupling with the stranger: the exotic knowledge of a master race; the store of their technology; visions of their distant past… their wars… their violence…

For a thousand years not a creature moved, or melded with its kin, afraid that the taint in its mind might hurt another. Instead they rested and fed upon their stars, suckling for comfort on the energy of fusion. Suckling and suckling as they tried to forget…

And the stars died.

Cold and naked, the creatures looked about themselves. None could understand where the stars had gone. So each found another, and fed once again… drained it to extinction… and the creatures felt so cold…

In mounting desperation they swept the central cluster, star after star snuffing in their wake. They gathered at the black hole and drank of its plasma, the heat of its accretion disk, bathing in its x-rays… absorbing and absorbing, yet feeling ever colder… feeling inside themselves another new sensation: the torment of hunger. Their bodies no longer sustained by radiation, but needing a different, stronger source of power…

They thought of the stranger that had come to their home, and scarred them, and hurt them: this other kind of life that had seemed so like their own, but had been something else—something alien and dirty… They thought of how terrible, how sweet it had tasted…

And as the weight of misery settled upon them, their thoughts, their senses growing sharp with famine, they began to identify a presence in the vacuum: something that had been there since time immemorial, yet none had ever noticed; something faint and far away, yet spreading all around them; a thing they now could recognise…

That same kind of life.

That strength for which they hungered.

And I watched as the creatures left their home.

They spiralled out into the galaxy, sick with apprehension and holding to each other for kinship and comfort. Tracing the nearest spark to a world, they found a life like the stranger—but again, so different: beings with scarcely a mind at all; ocean-dwelling beasts beneath a crust of ice… Yet with reluctance they probed into the soft and doughy consciousness, feeling once more the fire beyond: a weak link, but a connection nonetheless… and as they slaughtered the beasts, it cracked wide open.

The creatures fed—a moment of bliss in which all was restored: their power, their joy, the serenity they had lost…

It wasn’t enough. The connection closed, and still they felt the craving…

With purpose they sought out the next world, and the next: feeding as the locust, the whale eating plankton, merely taking energy to quell the pangs of hunger. Barely subsisting, they learned without malice to exploit a mind’s potential: to pry and keep it open with agony and terror, using methods of torture gleaned from the stranger—concepts that none of them could truly comprehend… yet with each harvest they grew more sadistic: the extraction more efficient, their bodies more dependent…

As they journeyed farther from galactic centre, the trickle of life became a staggering deluge: half a billion planets rich with organisms; all levels of complexity; all qualities of mind. The creatures flew in frenzy, feeling at last the abatement of their hunger as they gorged on the consciousness of everything that lived.

For a golden age the creatures knew again the existence they had cherished: the pleasure of immersing in the heat of endless power; the joy exploration; the security of melding as one contented family. For a time they recaptured their earliest years.

And then there was nothing.

The last ashes fell on a depleted world, and the creatures extended their minds to find the next… and there were none.

No more life.

Nowhere else to go.

Glutted with energy, the creatures at first continued circling in the galaxy, unconcerned as they searched for new vibrations. Through barren space they cut an orbit of a hundred thousand light-years, looking ever outwards—then repeating the journey, their gaze towards the centre, seeking any presence they might have missed…

And there was nothing.

In a state of unrest they increased their orbit, incrementally expanding, scouring every cubic gigametre of space—growing hungrier, then ravenous, feeling for the first time the pain of true starvation. And still they travelled, not even understanding the agonies that racked them as they clutched at each other, bleeding emotion, screaming for their kin, their brothers to help them—

A creature died.

An immortal being from the dawn of creation: eternal, omnipotent…

I saw a glow as of an ember fade across its surface—a fraying of matter as the shell of its body split from the parts in deeper dimensions… A hulk of mass turning dark and gently coasting, crumbling as it dropped into the blackness of space.

And like a man gazing at the stump of a limb—the torn flesh where his arm had been—the creatures stared at this one they loved: this constant of reality; a being who had shared their lives for eleven billion years. In stunned denial they groped its broken body, tried to merge it with their minds… and each felt something its race had never known: the pain of bereavement; the chill grasp of death.

Unequipped and unable to cope with such concepts they fled their lost companion, running blind in terror as another of them fell—then another, and more: each loss a savage wound that ripped them to the core. On and on they sped into the arms of the galaxy, trailing a spiral of decomposing matter, trying to escape the horror that consumed them. A hundred left, then fifty, then eight: melding with each other as they cried in anguish—I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!—as they felt each other die… Then the rending scream as only one remained: the best of them; the strongest—demented by grief and rendered bestial by hunger, losing its mind as it ran into the void.

Yet even as it perished—its heart broken; its energy expended—it felt in the ether a trace vibration: the smallest, weakest, protozoic stirring…

Another life.

A fragment of life.

On nothing but instinct the creature raced towards it—incapable of thought but dying of starvation, craving any power no matter how hopeless. Following the curve of the spiral arm, it blazed like a comet: consuming itself, burning the very fabric of its body to fuel acceleration. It crossed ten thousand light years of interstellar space, and with the last of its strength plunged through an ice field, counting off the planets, the two gas giants, as it tracked the spark of life to a warm wet rock around a trifling star…

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 87)

Ho hum. I’m almost finished with my stupid short story, but the further I go the more I seem to struggle. Also, I still have fluff in my eye.

I guess I’ll just post what I have, and try to get the damn thing wrapped up next week…

(Oh, and I forgot to put in a scene break last time…)

#

A field of light; plumes of cloud iridescent with colour; abstract formations of orange and purple and brilliant blue, laid monumental on a boundless canvas…

I gaped at the sight of it: a living artwork that spanned the heavens; a thing of such scale, such aching beauty that it struck me almost senseless, my eyes glazing as the patterns inflated—

A brightness at the centre; space growing dense as pinprick lights resolved into objects: blazing bodies of white and blue, and titans of red…

I tried to look but it dazzled my vision: a jewelled sphere of incandescent gas crowded with the brilliance of countless beacons; a bubbling soup of turbulent fusion; millions of stars birthed and burning to rapid destruction; explosions of colour churning the cosmos… But then I was tumbling, caught in the well and plunging ever deeper—the matter hurtling past me as I fell into the core—

The mouth of the abyss: a seething vortex stripped of stars, flaming red and colossal in its power; a cyclone of superheated gas sucking inwards, drawn into the void—

I could see it but I couldn’t: the shape of its distortion; the light bulging as it lensed around the blackness; the jets of plasma venting out of nothing—a hole in space; a chasm in reality…

And as I watched, I saw a giant snared: a molecular cloud swept into the whirlpool, flayed apart by tidal shear… yet some of it surviving in eccentric orbit, the broken fragments compressing into stars—

Complex structures forming in the chaos; stars combining in runaway collision; a mass becoming critical, going supernova: its shell detonating in a blast of heavy elements, the core collapsing to a point singularity… a body trapped in descent to the abyss, radiation flaring as it ripped through the vortex—

I saw the impact: a trifling object, tens of solar masses, a mote in the eye of the beast that consumed it—yet both with their own unstoppable attraction, the force of gravity tearing at creation—

A joining, a crossing of event horizons; matter deforming, crushing together at relativistic speed; a galaxy lit by the strength of its violence—

I felt the upheaval pounding through my body: ripples in the tortured fabric of space-time; reality stretching between the singularities—

Time freezing as the universe snapped: a rift in the vacuum, tiny and unstable, starting to decay even as it opened… Yet just for an instant standing as a gateway: a conduit to another place, another kind of space; a channel spewing energies unknown in this dimension…

And in that moment, that chance arrangement of exotic matter seized in a crucible of fundamental forces, flooded with strange and unnatural power—

A spark of life.

A shining nexus of self-organising matter, transmuting at random from energy to mass… then blowing apart in sudden fractal explosion: its seeds scattered in the vacuum field, their forms condensing like crystals in the plasma…

I watched them grow: storm clouds of energy splitting from the tempest, sweeping wide orbits as each took fuel enough to birth a sun. I watched them blaze with the brightness of quasars as they spiced magnetic fields into the central singularity, tapping its measureless rotational power to drive a metamorphosis beyond imagination…

And then it was done. The cocoons of dust fell away, and I saw them.

Their beauty broke my heart.

Blinded by their radiance I tried in vain to follow as they leaped amid the vortex: these flawless beings, the essence of creation… barely sentient yet pulsing with life, their minds knowing nothing but the joy of existence.

Like dolphins playing they sped in exploration—keeping to their home, the place that spawned them, but circling out into the fledgeling cosmos: warming themselves in coronal fire, chasing each other in coltish elation as they rode the wave-fronts of exploding stars…

I saw the passing of a billion years: the creatures ageless, yet maturing in spirit, growing mellow as they found life’s comfort… the pleasure of sleeping in the heart of a star, absorbing the luscious heat of its power… the intimate sharing of each other’s minds as they melded the incorporeal regions of their bodies… the wonder of gathering to view the singularity, to look into the void and ask:

WHAT PLACE IS THIS?

WHAT ARE WE?

…but needing no answers; delighting in the mystery.

Time itself grew old and still the creatures endured: different stars, changing patterns in the sky, but their lives eternal… uninterrupted for ten billion years…

And then I saw it: a light in the distance; a group of lights; the creatures stirring, sensing the presence of something new—an energy almost like their own inner spark; a fluctuation in the quantum field…

Other minds.

Another kind of life…

A fleet of worlds on its final journey, entering a harsh and uninhabitable space…

A type III civilisation disillusioned with power, cursed by the only known threat to its existence: a crisis of conscience; its enlightened population, so bored, so unchallenged, turning inside itself and choking with remorse—tormented by the species, the planets and systems it had ravaged on the path to immortality. A people grown obsessed with the grace of creation, the sanctity of nature, deciding at length that they had done enough damage and should seek containment: a place of isolation; a hermitage far beyond the reach of reality…

I saw them in formation approaching through the stars, rushing headlong towards galactic centre: twelve perfect orbs; entire planets enclosed in strange metal, black yet gleaming with veins of fire—

Worlds travelling at half the speed of light, slowing as they closed upon the core accretion disk: their engines projecting buffers of neutronium to counteract with gravity the crushing deceleration. A hush descending as six hundred billion eyes stared out of viewports at the devastating spectacle: the supermassive black hole into which they planned to fall, to pass through the horizon—escaping the universe to live in seclusion in an orbit of the third kind around the singularity—

And as they paused at the edge of the vortex, I felt the gentle excitement around me: creatures emerging from a thousand stars, trying to identify this new thing in their home… touching the spheres with electrostatic feelers, discerning the pulse of a different type of consciousness… and wanting to embrace it—

A sudden impact; a technician glancing from its live probe feed, staring in awe at a bank of warning lights; commanders gawking at video screens as something breached impregnable defences; a whole population shouting in confusion as their sky disappeared, the shielding above them flaking off into space; subordinates wilting at screamed accusations, and running in frenzy to gather technicians, to reactivate decommissioned war machines; a godlike race reverting to instinct as it faced the threat of danger, unknown for generations—

I saw the dreadful release of power: worlds erupting with deflection shields of plasma; arrays of beam weapons glancing off creatures, shedding the coronas of distant stars; creatures struck by teraton warheads, the antimatter blasts fading everything to white…

And I heard the cries of pleasure:

OH BROTHERS! IT IS FRIEND!

IT WANTS TO PLAY WITH US!

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 86)

I have spent most of the week with willow fluff in my eyes. Why is no one else affected by this stuff? I did a Google search, and it seems there are no more than two references to the phenomenon across the entire internet. Clouds of hairy tree seeds fill the air, and everyone skips through them with impunity. Why are they drawn to me? What mystic force sucks them to my eyeballs? So much blindness and pain… A pox on you, willow. (But not on the film, of course, which is fluffless and awesome).

Anyway… Here’s the next bit of story, while I still have enough vision left to write:

The creature struck with terminal wrath, its malice honed to a razor’s edge: a guillotine blade plummeting to impact; an earth-splitting blow that sundered my consciousness, smashing to the root… but like a sword thrust glancing off bone it deflected, scarring but leaving my core intact. I felt it circling, its efforts redoubled as again it stabbed and tried to pierce the marrow—but I braced tight in the kernel of my mind, steeling myself as the force of its fury thundered upon me, enduring the storm through sheer determination… and I knew then that it wouldn’t take me: it could kill my body but it couldn’t have my soul, and I would fight the thing—I would fight it unto death—

Get away from me,” I shrieked at the world, straining against the contagion in my head… and with the laboured contractions of a woman giving birth I dislodged the clinging mass from my brain. Its tendrils grasped, tearing chunks of me with them, but I didn’t care—I couldn’t care how it hurt me—and with all my focus, the power of my will, I rejected the worming corruption from my mind—

A sudden and total relief overwhelmed me: it was out; I was free. In gasping exhaustion I threw back my head and screamed with the joy of it—alone in my mind; the pain ripped out of me, like rotting tumours cut from my flesh: its absence exquisite, the greatest pleasure I had ever known…

And for a moment I thought it was over.

Then I saw the room laid waste about me, the air crackling with purple light… and the creature rising hideous before me: immense and unstoppable…

I tried to shout, to screech my hatred, my defiance of its foulness—but my voice squelched, my mouth spewing blood-spit as my senses dissolved in the creature’s roar… and I felt the barbs, the skewers in my lungs…

I looked at the feelers buried in my chest and remembered their pain, their sick violation. Crying in horror I clutched at the legs, the creature’s bones pressed into my body… and realising that my paralysis had gone, I understood that it wanted me to fight: to hurt myself as I wrenched at the spears rooted in my organs, tearing my own flesh as I struggled…

I wept at the damage done to me: the barbs grating against my bones as I grappled with the feelers, their jagged serrations stripping my hands as I gripped and pulled… and I couldn’t stop as I felt one give—as I dragged it from my body, a piece of my liver sucking from the wound…

Enough,” I sobbed, my voice failing, my hands falling, knuckles on the ground. “You bastard. Enough.

But as the creature advanced—the creeping segments of its limbs surrounding me; its tentacles arching over my head—I saw in the blackness of its eyes the satisfaction, the cruel anticipation…

It would never end. It would never let me go. I had beaten it in the only place I could, even shamed it somehow, and I could feel its rancour, its desire for revenge…

There would be no death. I knew that now. It would torture me for daring to defy it… torture my body to the brink of destruction and keep me there, holding me forever…

And that was my fate. I had fought so hard, suffered so much… I thought I had won… and this was my reward…

More than my wounds, the injustice of it crushed me. I remembered all the times I could have died—just given up and died—and I had clung on for nothing. No princess for me. No happy ending. Nothing but pain. And even as I stared in fear at the beast—this impossible nightmare come to destroy me—I felt the anger flaring inside, the bitter resentment of all that had happened—

Come on,” I screamed—and I couldn’t speak, but I shouted in my mind: “Come on, then. Do it.

And suddenly the heat of rage was upon me: a shaking madness fuelled by my terror. I grabbed a feeler sticking from my chest, and failing to uproot it I reversed my grip—started pushing it deeper, further inside me—

Do it, you bastard. Kill me! You coward!

Blood spilled out as it tore my lungs, and still I shoved it—and still I couldn’t die.

You can’t even kill me! You piss-ant—

The blood clogged my throat… but I coughed it up, hawking a mouthful of filth at the creature. I saw the legs, the tentacles bristling as my blood dripped off its face. I could see the venom, the power in its eyes… the devastating fury… and I didn’t care. I couldn’t make it stop, so I chose not to care. Instead I challenged it to hurt me. For no matter what it did, how it damaged my body, I refused to bow. I refused to let it break me.

Go on. Do it! Or piss off where you came from—

And as I spoke, the beast began to rot: the remaining flesh sagging from its body, dropping in rancid clumps to the floor; the hair and hide peeling from its face; the eyes deforming, running into jelly…

I watched as the goat head split and crumbled, burst by the mass expanding from within: a shapeless, glistening knuckle of bone, its surface creamed with thick white fluid. I saw at the centre the chasm of its mouth: the same black pit I had seen before, full of feathered tongues and the shadowed glow of strange dark light…

And blown from the depths came a scorching gale: the blast of its roar growing hotter and stronger, taking my breath and charring my skin—

DARE TO LOOK AT ME

I shrank at its voice, howling in pain as the burnt meat flaked from my chest… but the agony enraged me, only made me crazier, more recklessly defiant. I stared at the creature, willing it to die as I shouted my contempt—and even as the words grew lost in my throat, swallowed in blood, I gargled obscenities and spat in its face.

Even as the head began to swell, the rift in its centre gaping in my vision, I kept my gaze fixed on the creature—locked hard on the focus of my loathing. I felt it repelling me, driving me back—and in retaliation I reached into its core… I stared into the void opening before me, the blackness dilating, the lights coalescing…

I saw eternity.

The heart of the creature.

I saw the breadth, the depth of its existence—the dark constellations enfolded in its mind… I felt the truth of my own insignificance… the smallness of the world, of everything I knew…

I saw a being unrivalled in power. I felt its authority: its natural right to claim my life… to exert dominion over all that lived…

I saw a god.

And still I defied it.

To hell with you,” I shouted in the darkness, pushing forwards—into what, I couldn’t tell—as I fought for the hopeless sake of fighting: knowing I would lose but refusing to submit, trying just to get one blow against the creature—to hurt it somehow, and make it remember that someone disobeyed it—that no matter its power, someone dared to stand against it—

And suddenly it yielded: resistance collapsing as the forces parted; the dark energies surging to enfold me as I pressed into the void… time and space warping around me as I fell, screaming, losing myself in the creature’s mind—

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…


The Goat (Part 85)

I have a stinking summer cold at the moment, and I’m hardly fit to breathe let alone write a blog. So I’ll just dump a bit of story here, and go seek solace in the GOG Summer Sale

I tried to grasp what it was that had stalled it but the creature fought viciously, furious with spite, blinding me with pain as it slashed great lesions in the fabric of my mind. I felt the gashes in my head spilling open: raw red wounds gushing hot with blood…

But it wasn’t blood. It was the essence of my being, cascading like sunlight through the fissures in my soul. I could feel its warmth, its golden light—and with sudden clarity I felt it surround me: the truth of what I was; the forged identity; the pure, incorruptible moments that defined me—

The four-year-old boy at his dad’s 8-bit computer, typing code listings from old magazines: page after page, hour after hour, just to play a card game or Hunt The Wumpus… and having no tape, no means to save the program, just typing it again the next day and the next, until he knew the code by heart… until he understood what it meant and how to change it, enthralled by the magic of the thoughts in his head brought to life upon the screen… a child’s joy at the wonder of creation—

I took shelter in the comfort it gave me. And then it was destroyed. The creature tore the image bleeding from my mind, used it like a doorway: reaching through the wound to find the memories that made me—to find my weakness—dredging up hideous, suppressed recollections—

The nerdy kid, alone in the school-yard. The bullied child, his fear growing as the verbal and mental abuse turned physical: punches to the armpit and the softness of the belly, kicks to the groin, and joint locks, and forearm chokes; always beaten so the bruises wouldn’t show. A child broken, wishing he was dead as the gang of older kids chased and caught him, holding him down in the dirt on the ground: kneeling on his arms as the girls pulled his pants off—as they touched him and hurt him, and put things inside him—

A boy running home to weep in silence, taking refuge in his only friend—the only thing he could trust—as oblivious parents bought him blank cassette tapes, and shook their heads as evening after evening he worked in his bedroom, shielding himself from the terror outside: building worlds in his computer where the darkness couldn’t find him—

I felt the creature seething against me, striving to wrest control of my thoughts—but the memories were flowing now, and hardening around me—

His first dial-up modem: the elation of discovering a different reality—of meeting for the first time kind, like-minded people who reached through the screen to care for him and teach him. His days wasted, stifled at school, but his nights spent in compulsive fascination, exploring the depths of a strange new realm. Weeks without sleep as the obsession built inside him—the need to understand, to get behind the workings: his young mind developing impenetrable focus—

I screamed as the creature took grip of my soul, the claws retracting as tentacles enfolded, binding as to strangulate, crushing me with all the strength of its hatred. My brain crumpled, grinding within like fractured concrete, splitting and choking with the dust of my existence… yet still I remembered—

A boy grinning as he mastered assembly—and used it to crack commercial applications, merely for the challenge of outwitting their developers. His secret pleasure at being the first to break DVD encryption—more than a year before DeCSS—but keeping it hidden, scared of rejection, afraid to show his friends in case they laughed at his code. His brief crusade of attacking spam servers, and watching the chat rooms for perverts luring children: hunting them down from their IP addresses, and posting their names on the public forums…

But all of it paling as he planned his first real conquest: the excitement mounting as he gathered his tools and established the proxies, probing and scraping with delicate skill—expecting a fortress but finding at the fringes a vulnerable server, and hammering its login, gaining entry to a US government-funded nuclear research laboratory…

The sense of fulfilment: the joy of a child staring at data he couldn’t understand, feeling that somehow he had cracked open the universe—

With sudden horror I knew where it was leading. I tried to stop it, to hold on tight to that boyhood elation… but the creature was upon me, roaring in triumph as it feasted on the memory, sickening my mind with the poison of its bile—

The juvenile court case. His mother crying, his father sweating as they read the verdict. The boy almost throwing up on his feet as the Judge ripped into him, condemning his stupidity, describing the outcome had it been an adult trial. His mute acceptance of the punishment, so filled with shame that he couldn’t speak, or even look at his mother…

And worse—so much worse—than the sense of disapproval: his computer gone. His parents removing any access to the internet, all pieces of technology. His spirit fading as everything he cared about was wrenched from his life—

I struggled to forget it, denying the memory, the darkness inside me—but I had nothing left, no strength to resist as the creature stripped my mind—

The sobbing tantrums. The crushing boredom. The isolation. The hours spent sitting alone in his bedroom, staring at the wall, pining for distraction… imagining the feel of a keyboard on his fingers… thinking of his friends still messaging each other—going on without him, as though he were dead…

The long nights, awake in the dark, listening to creaks as the furniture settled… remembering the voices calling him names… remembering the hands molesting his body… crying to himself, and feeling so dirty…

His longest night, sat in reflection, looking at the desk where his life had been. Looking, and thumbing the edge of the steak knife, trying to decide if he could go through with it…

And the pain. The release. The numbing sleep. The bright white light as he woke in the hospital—

No,” I shrieked. “I’m not him. It wasn’t me.

But the creature had me trapped in the moment, living and reliving the bleak despair of it, drowning me in the pain of my torment—

It’s not me.

And I fought against it with all I had, knowing there was more and trying to reach it—

The stilted silences. The fake smiles. The brusque confusion. Everyone pretending that everything was normal…

The boy at last restored to his home. His uncertainty at finding a gift in his bedroom, a strange concession: an ancient console from the charity shop; a stack of old cartridges—

I felt the creature screaming with rage, throwing itself at the foundations of my mind—but something was changing, rising within me—

A new diversion: not truly what he wanted, but an outlet for his tension—his tentative trials soon becoming an obsession, his only stimulation. A feeling of control returning to his life as he played his way through Nintendo’s hardest. The old compulsion reasserting itself: to break things down, to discover how they work—manifesting as the need not just to win but to demolish every challenge…

The weeks and months of studying patterns, repeating each level thousands of times as he deduced algorithms and trained his reflexes. The no damage runs of Megaman and Metroid. The flawless speedruns of Ninja Gaiden and Ghosts ’n Goblins. The sweaty euphoria of beating the boss to complete Battletoads in the impossible time of twenty one minutes…

And finding in his victories internal validation: evidence of his own self worth…

And knowing, subconsciously, deep inside, that it was something more: not just a game, but the expression of his spirit. The child’s realisation, unformed, unvoiced, yet growing in his mind…

Acceptance that the world was beyond his control. Acceptance that people would always hurt him. Acceptance… and indifference. Because he had a place where he could always win; a place where the rules were his own for the making.

No matter what they did to him, or tried to take away from him, no one could touch him inside his own mind. And that was the key, the piece he had been missing: not to reach out into a world that defied him, to try and best it, to seek its approval, but to find what he wanted and bring it within; not to raise conflict in a world where he was weak, but to make his own challenges and pick them apart in the place where he was strong. That was the purpose, the joy in his life—and it made no difference: the toughest coding problem, the most difficult game, or something so common as fixing a computer… the pleasure came from facing it alone in his mind, from using the gifts he had known since birth: the tenacity, the obsessive dedication, the drive to understand… to bend things to his will…

For however feeble his position in the world, inside his head—his castle, his kingdom—he knew there was nothing that could stand against him. He had the resolve, the strength of will—the focus with which he had written his code as an infant child; the strength with which he had rebuilt his life—and he knew in his heart that nothing could break him—no power could defeat him—

Get out,” I screamed. “Get out of my head—

© 2015 - J. D. G. Leaver

To be continued…