Emily Ward, Secretary of State for Immigration for the last eighteen years, was waiting outside the office doors. Seren tapped a button on her desk terminal to signal for Ward to enter.
‘You asked to see me, Madam President?’ said Ward.
Like many of the New Buzz movement, Ward had given up using her given name in place of her family name. According to the philosophy of the movement, this represented a “higher embrace of family over personalty”. To Seren it just made her wonder how they differentiated between people when the movement brought in entire families. Ward had explained that not differentiating between family members was “the point”. Seren had joked that taking a roll call at meetings must be very difficult. Ward had not laughed.
‘Yes,’ said Seren. ‘Thank you for coming. Have a seat. I need to speak to you about these disappearances I’ve been reading about. There doesn’t seem to be much information available. I was hoping you could fill me in on what’s going on.’
Ward sat down and looked rather solemn, Seren thought. ’There isn’t a lot of information available at this point, Ma’am. I sent out a team to investigate but one of them has not come back and the other two tried to wipe their own memories before they got back.’
A shiver of cold ran down Seren’s back at the mention of a memory wipe. She did not know why but she always felt uncomfortable when the process was brought up. Erasing part of a person’s memory always seemed like erasing part of the person. In the digital world, memory of past experiences was the only thing that truly made a person who they are.
‘So we have no clear reports at all?’ asked Seren.
Ward shook her head. ‘Not at this stage.’
‘Do you have any ideas about what is going on?’
‘It could be another suicide cult. The Pax Non Esse event is still fresh is some people’s minds.’
Pax Non Esse, literally “peace through non existence”, was a cult from the latter half of 2999 which believed the turn of the millennium would bring forth an age of destruction, with computer viruses emerging that would destroy the supercomputer clusters that ran the virtual worlds, including Carcer Ridge.
According to their leader, “Doctor” Francis Heron, whose title did not appear to have been granted by any university in the digital or material realms, the only way the digital worlds would survive was for everyone to end their own life processes, format all the computers in every cluster, and restart the realms from scratch.
How anyone had been taken in by such a cult was beyond Seren’s ability to understand. That someone would take their own life so others could live was one thing, but for someone to suggest everyone take their own life so new people could possibly live in the future was just crazy.
‘So you’re saying that if there is a cult out there, one of your investigative team was taken in by it? What about the others? I don’t think we’ve seen a brain wiping cult before, have we?’
‘No, we have not. However, I honestly don’t believe that’s what is going on here. In their reports, the two surviving investigators talked about “strange clouds”, “colours from outside the natural spectrum”, and a “black goat with a hundred spindly legs”. Apparently the sight of all this was too much for them and they wanted to rid their minds of the visions before they were driven to suicide by the “hideous thoughts” the visions had caused them.’
Seren held up a hand to stop Ward for a moment. ‘Hang on, a minute. Is all this for real?’
‘As real as you or I, Madam President.’
‘We are both computer-generated people sitting in a computer-generated room. Our real-ness, or lack thereof, has been debated for centuries.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Okay, let me put it another way. Haven’t we all seen some crazy stuff over the years? I went to an art gallery last May where the artist gave the impression that there were bubbles of reversed time floating around the gallery. Another exhibit was a recreation of the surface of Manticorius, including a working model of a village from the long dead civilisation archaeologists had found there. That was pretty damn weird, I can tell you, but there was nothing that made me want to claw my own mind out.’
‘I understand your scepticism, Ma’am,’ said Ward. From the tone of her voice, Seren suspected she was being diplomatic with the truth. ‘However, the consistency of the statements in each investigator’s report coupled with what little information we could glean from their memory snapshots suggest there is indeed something out there that is harming those that come into contact with it.’
‘I would like to see these memory snapshots.’
‘I thought you would, Ma’am.’
Ward offered an information transfer to Seren. The offer appeared in Seren’s mind like an epiphany.
She accepted the offer and stored the new memories in a walled-off area of her brain, for safety’s sake. When she accessed the memories she was immediately glad she had taken this precaution.
What she saw in her mind was from the point of view of both investigators at the same time. This experience was disconcerting enough but the information came in short flashes of sound and vision before jumping forward in time, sometimes seconds, sometimes minutes. It was like being back at the time bubble exhibit again, only this time without any prior warning. Seren felt sick to her stomach just from the passage of time itself.
What she saw in the snapshot was a creature taller than the tallest trees she had seen in her childhood back in Ireland, before her transfer into Carcer Ridge. It walked with a slow, lolloping gait as if the digital world was foreign to it, or it was somehow not used to using the immense array of long, thin legs that sprang from its bulbous sides.
The legs were long, many-jointed and reached up above the bulk of the creature in an arch that reminded Seren of a spider’s legs, before swooping down to the ground and ending in a needle-sharp point that Seren had no trouble imagining would not leave a mark on even the most delicate surface. Each leg was covered in row upon row of tiny, black and immensely coarse hairs. The legs themselves were a deep grey that seemed to suck in light from around them, and yet they glowed almost imperceptibly with an inner energy.
The bulk of the creature was definitely goat-like in its overall shape but the body was bloated and wallowed left and right as the creature moved. Its matted fur was grey-black and shone by virtue of being caked in grease, which no doubt accounted for the fact that the creature stank like rotted flesh. The stench was so strong, Seren’s ancient gag reflex kicked in the moment the smell hit her nostrils and it took a herculean feat of dexterity to cut the connection to the memories and prevent herself from vomiting on the spot.
Her mind returned to the present. Ward was watching her with a look of concern on her handsome face. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked.
‘What was that thing?’ Seren asked. She was panting, her stomach was spinning, her heart pounding. She reached into her mind and turned off these vestigial portions of her anatomy, which now existed only because she was so used to them being there.
‘All we know is it is referred to as “the black goat”. We don’t know who made it, where it came from or why.’
‘We’re going to need to get to the bottom of this quickly, before anyone else gets hurt.’
Seren reached over to her desk computer and tapped a button on the screen. The image of Mortimatrius, the Secretary of State for Internal Affairs, appeared on the monitor. His image was that of a short, fat creature made from blown glass, with a blue tint. Inside his glassy frame, a dozen butterflies flapped their wings, flitting here and there in an apparently random fashion.
‘Madam President,’ said Mortimatrius. His eerie glass face flowed and morphed into a smile. ‘How can I be of service today?’
‘I need to see you immediately. We have a major national security problem.’
‘I’m on my way.’
By the time Seren had tapped the screen again to turn off the communication, the image of Mortimatrius was forming from a cloud of blue gas in the corner of the room. Seren and Ward waited for him to fully compose himself before continuing.
‘Thank you for coming,’ said Seren. ‘Ward has just briefed me on this “Black Goat” problem. Have you heard of it?’
‘I have, Ma’am. I received a report this morning. I have to admit I’m at a loss as to what this thing could be.’
‘I need you both to combine your efforts and put together a team that can investigate this problem. I want them to report back to me with preliminary findings in 48 hours.’
Seren willed a folder full of paperwork into existence on her desktop. She opened the folder and signed several forms, then passed the folder to Mortimatrius.
‘Here is authorisation to enter what areas you deem necessary, question who you deem necessary and request access to personal and top secret documents you deem necessary.’
‘Do you believe the situation warrants involvement in personal affairs?’ asked Ward.
‘I don’t know,’ said Seren. ‘But I would rather this were not held up while we debate the problem if it arises.’
Seren looked from Ward to Mortimatrius and back again. They were both clearly uneasy about what she was asking them to do but she knew both of her Ministers well enough to know they wanted an answer to this situation as much as she did.
‘I want you to find out why these people have disappeared and, if possible, bring them back home safely. Find out what this Black Goat is and whether it is a threat to Carcer Ridge or its citizens. If it’s a threat, find out who created it and why.’
‘We’ll do what we can,’ said Mortimatrius.
‘Thank you. That will be all.’
When the two Ministers had finished teleporting out of her office, Seren accessed her memories and, with a feeling of revulsion about what she was doing, deleted the imported memory of the Black Goat. As much as memory erasing was abhorrent in her opinion, some things were still best left unseen.