“Dairy of a Madman” by David Webb

TWA 60 David Webb

The editor had a walrus mustache that made him look perpetually sad. It didn’t go with his floppy hair, pointless soul patch or tiny frameless spectacles. Combined with his clothing choices, he looked like he’d been the victim of a fashion drive-by conducted by no less than six disparate decades. He clearly didn’t care, and neither did May because she’d been on the staff for three weeks and was still eager to win his approval. At the morning assignment meetings, he spoke to her last.

“And finally,” he said, eyes flicking between his tablet and smartphone, reading email on one and Twitter on another, “it looks like those relentless attention hounds from Obstreperous have released another batch of so called secret documents. May, the link to the download or whatever is in your inbox. Take the intern and go through everything they’ve pulled together to see if there’s anything interesting. If there is, let me know. If there isn’t, let’s have two…make that two-fifty words on what they’ve chosen to delight the world with anyway. By end of day, please.”

The Intern affected a cynical and world weary air which he’d done nothing to earn. He flopped into place beside May’s desk. New staff were tethered to desktop machines and sat where anyone could find them. Despite her degree in Journalism, her experience as a blogger, and her presence on social media, May hadn’t put in the time to be allowed out of the playpen. The Intern was trusted even less.

“So who are ‘Obstreperous’?” May spared him a frown.

“Tell me you do more online than play CandyCrunch,” she said.

“It’s cru..”

“Seriously? You’ve never heard of the hacktivist collective that calls itself Obstreperous but you’re going to correct my deliberate and sarcastic misnaming of a product that is slowly killing mobile gaming?”

“I’m sorry I’m not up on all the latest…”

“Really? Really?! How is this my life?” May launched the biro she’d been fiddling with at her desk, where it skipped off the polished veneer surface and torpedoed her venti latte. “How long have you worked for YouNews.com?”

The Intern shrugged. “Counting today, a week.”

“And how did you land this internship?”

“My dad is an editor for one of the Murdock papers. He knows the owner.”

“You’ve got a degree in Media Studies, haven’t you?” May frowned as the Intern nodded. Of course he had a degree in Media Studies. She raised a fist in a power salute.

“Go patriarchy,” she muttered. The Intern pulled a confused face. May, the child of Nigerian parents who’d seen the Protestant work ethic and felt it lacked commitment and discipline, had become one with study.

She’d moved through school and into university in a Zen trance of notes, homework, revision and achievement. She’d worked to enter the world of serious news journalism, a serene gladiator who’d only stumbled when it turned out the world of serious news journalism no longer existed. The Intern backed away slightly.

“Whoa, where’d that come from?”

May realised she’d said quite a lot of that out loud, with the sort of intensity she normally reserved for her brother and his long standing love affair with his Playstation.

“I’m sorry,” said May, “but this job is the closest I can get to old-school journalism. I earned my way here, it’s important to me, so shall we buckle down and get on with it?”

The Intern nodded, grateful the storm had passed, and stared at the screen like a gun dog ready to retrieve something. May suppressed a sigh and opened her email. The link was to a file sharing site, so she followed it and waited while the PC started downloading the content. There seemed to be a lot of it.

“Don’t expect too much of it. Obstreperous don’t have the same skill or access as the really scary hacker collectives, so what they get is generally quite low hanging fruit. Last time, they released about twenty gigs of personal emails to and from TV station execs. It made for some interesting gossip, but there really wasn’t anything meaty among the dross.”

May became aware that the Intern was still staring at the screen.

“Why don’t you…” she started, and then paused while she thought through the next sentence “…go start your PC and I’ll put everything I want you to go through in a folder on the network drive. It’ll have your name on it. So. What’s your name?”

“Julian,” said the Intern.

May nodded to herself.

“’Course it is” she said, and smiled.

—–

May stared at her half of the files. She changed the way the window displayed them, but it didn’t seem to help. There was a mixture of single documents, folders and zipped archives. She double clicked a document. After a moment to think, her computer remembered about Microsoft Word and launched it. The document said:

IN RUSSIAN ACCENTED (LENINGRAD) ENGLISH:
12. 14. 33. 75. 128. 244. 70. 16. 9. (three beeps)
12. 14. 33. 75. 128. 244. 70. 16. 9. (three beeps)
12. 14. 33. 75. 128. 244. 70. 16. 9. (three beeps)

It went on like this for pages.

“Someone transcribed a Numbers station,” said May, almost breathless at the level of dedication someone must have had. She opened another of the single documents. The document said:

CONTENTS BAG 1:
Approximately 3 sheets of generic brand kitchen towel, stained with grease and carbon indicative of burning.
One single liter carton of ultra heat treated soya milk alternative, unsweetened, store’s own brand, three days past the use by date. Empty.
Food waste, consisting of: rice, olives, button mushrooms, sliced green peppers and liquid made from chicken stock. Chicken bones, from the thigh.
Orange peel. Enough for approximately two medium sized fruit.

There were several other bags listed. May shook her head.

“Transcribing rubbish? I don’t get it.” She drank some coffee. Julian the Intern seemed fully engrossed in his half of the job, so she thought about organizing herself more effectively. She sorted the contents of her folder alphabetically. Then, because she was bored, by size. A folder appeared at the top of the list. It was labeled “Gold June Ocelot”. She opened it.

Documents, sound files, movie files, a couple of file types that she didn’t recognize. She frowned and sorted the whole folder by date, hoping to get some sort of chronology from it. The top of the list became a document marked “Indoctrination Abstract”, which she opened. The document said:

CLASSIFIED: SECRET, GOLD JUNE OCELOT

This document has been classified as Secret. If you are not cleared for GOLD JUNE OCELOT and believe you have received this document in error you must return it NOW to your Section Security Officer and read no further.

The operation now referred to as JUNE OCELOT was triggered after a series of events in the period December 2014 to May 2015. This document is intended to indoctrinate new members of the GOLD committee. Operational briefings for other sections are provided under RED JUNE OCELOT and BLUE JUNE OCELOT respectively. This document has also been provided to the members of the JIO Group.

JUNE OCELOT was intended to investigate whether a terrorist group might be trying to infiltrate a substance into the food chain. This potential threat was identified by the SCALLYWAG group in 2012. One potential threat vector identified was that a group could insert one part of a binary poison into a food source. For example, by tampering with routine crop spraying a substance might be introduced into root vegetable crops. The second part of the poison might then be introduced later via another method. The example given was Part A might be introduced to potatoes, with Part B later delivered along with salt. This might create lethal fish and chips. It was considered unlikely, and the scenario – along with several others that SCALLYWAG evaluated as “unlikely” – were filed under GAME PYTHON.

In December, 2014, a DEFRA animal welfare team were alerted to a rash of animal mutilations in the Beddgelert area. There had been a similar incident in 2001, which was investigated by Gwynnedd Police. They ascribed the activity to a local sadist and alerted other forces across the country that this might be precursor activity for a serial killer. There was no follow up activity so the investigation was shelved and no further action was taken. The December 2014 activity was much more characteristic of the cattle mutilation phenomena and is recorded on the video file labeled 18-12-14Bedd.mov

May minimized the document. She hunted around the folder for the video file.
“What’s DEFRA?” Julian tapped the screen and made May jump slightly. He’d drifted over to stand behind her, had been reading over her shoulder. Apparently for some time. May decided not to find that creepy unless he did it again.

“Google it,” she told him. He shrugged and trudged back to his own desk. After a moment or two she heard him reading aloud.

“Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,” he said. She flicked a glance over to him and saw he was smiling.

“Judging by the spelling, Bethgelert is in Wales somewhere,” she said. “At least I hope it is. Gwynneth has to be a Welsh county.”

“It’s on the border, not far from Hereford. And do you know what else is in Hereford?”

She did. British Special Forces were based somewhere around Hereford.

“The National Cider museum!” Julian said. “Mum and Dad took me there two years ago, while we were looking for a holiday house.”

“Hmm.” May and double clicked the movie file. She saw:

EXTERIOR, DAY.
The footage is from a handheld camcorder. It’s not smart phone footage, and it’s date and time are stamped in the lower right hand corner. The date is 18-12-14 and the time is 11:23am The viewpoint bobs and moves as the camera moves. We’re approaching a five bar wooden gate surrounded on both sides by hawthorn hedge. The crunch of boots on gravel gives way to a softer sound, footsteps on mud or soil. A figure cuts into view. A FARMER. He’s wearing graying cargo trousers, boots, a pale sweater and a sleeveless jacket, topped with a woolen hat. He’s an older man, in his mid fifties perhaps, with pale skin and graying hair.
FARMER
It’s in here. Kids noticed it as
we were going past on the other
side of the field. We don’t ever
graze cattle here, never moved ‘em
here either.

He opens the gate and we move through. The field beyond is fallow, the grass rising slightly above ankle height. The ground seems damp. A new voice appears, and we cannot see who is speaking. The INVESTIGATOR is, therefore, holding the camera.

INVESTIGATOR
It looks like it’s rained over night.

FARMER
We had a shower, no more than half hour
long, about six this morning.

The camera pans around, and we’re facing back toward the gate but looking at the ground. Footprints are clearly visible in the grass and soil.

FARMER
This field’s too small for cattle. We
lets campers use it in the summer, couple
of quid a night sort of thing. The kids
have the occasional party here. Put up
a marquee, sort of thing.

We’re moving up a slight incline in the field. Ahead we can make out a lump in the field. As the camera moves closer it gains definition. It’s a brown cow, laying on its side. The cow is entirely still.

FARMER
Odd thing. Nothing will go near it.
Not even flies.

The camera moves until the cow is the sole focus of the picture. We pan over it and some grisly details are immediately apparent. At the head end, the flesh has been stripped away from one side of the jaw leaving the bone completely exposed and oddly pale. Where you might expect strips of flesh to cling to the bone, none are present. There’s no sign of blood. The exposed teeth seem slightly darkened, as if exposed to great heat. The camera pans along the body, pausing near the rear leg to examine a tear shaped hole in the body that seems to go in for several inches. It has the wet look of muscle in air, but there seems to be no evidence of bleeding.

May stopped the playback and closed the window. She sat back and looked away from the screen for a long moment, frowning and making unconscious brushing motions with her hands as if trying to clean the images away from herself.

“Gross” she muttered, and went back to the list of files. She opened several at the same time, the windows popping up one over the other. May organised them into a rough collage and stared. She saw:

A PDF document with a scanned newspaper article from December 2014. The article shows a picture of the farmer from the video, pantomiming a shrug. The headline accompanying the article reads “Second Mystery Cow Death at Local Farm”.

A scanned collection of newspaper headlines. There are twelve, in chronological order, relating to unexplained livestock deaths. The most recent is dated 2009. The earliest is from 1954.

Several images of dead animals. Most are cows, the remainder are sheep. They have very similar injuries, the commonality being the removal of at least half the flesh and muscle from the head.

An autopsy report. The vet who carried out the autopsy was based in the Beddgelert area; the report is dated 1994. It lists the cause of death as “undetermined,” but passes comment on the apparently post mortem removal of organs and part of the tongue. It states that the body had been completely exsanguinated, noting that this should be exceptionally difficult to achieve without damage to major arteries and veins. It would require suspension of the corpse for an extended period. The note states that partial exsanguination is easy to achieve because it is assisted by the heart, but the cardiovascular system collapses when blood volume drops below 40%.

“This,” said May “has to be a hoax.” Julian, who had drifted over looking for a pencil – and having secured one now needed a pencil sharpener – peered at the documents.

“How would you tell?”

May grinned. “Investigative journalism,” she said. “We’ve got the name of the farmer and the name of the vet, so we should be able to find out if they’re real people. We’ve got the name of the veterinary practice, so we can find out if that ever existed and if it still exists. If we can corroborate any of this, it might be worth digging into the file a little further. If not, we write it off as a hoax and see what else we’ve downloaded.”

“That sound like a plan,” said Julian and then he blinked unhappily as May handed him a notepad and a biro.

“It is,” she said “get Googling. I’m going to powder my nose.”

Instead, she went to see the editor, who was straining coffee (and possibly krill) through his mustache. He gestured to her to sit and speak.

“Might have something in that download thing,” she said, “but it might be a wind-up. What would you do?”
He thought for a moment.

“Establish provenance and check the facts. Talk to the source. Find a way to verify what they say independently. Or, I’d write it up in a way that allows the reader to pretend they’re reading it ironically and sell it to Lolzfeed or CrackBuzz. If there’s a way to make it critical of stupid white men, Shrieking Harpy might buy it. Why?”

May considered her next words carefully.

“There’s a collection of documents that might be from DEFRA, or might be from somewhere a lot more serious. It’s conspiracy theorist territory, like Internet forum territory, and I don’t want to embarrass myself by spending time on something that could be some troll’s idea of funny.”

The editor shrugged.

“I refer the honorable lady to the answer I gave a few moments ago.”

May stood, smiled.

“Thanks!”

IRC Chat Log

<Irked> I don’t really remember what we said about that. It’s logged, though.
<Irked> Maybe check your history?
<m0stly> thanks, seems like it should still be there
<wh0now?> if not let me know and I can get the log
——> 2December (~2december@cloak.ww.ru) has joined #fuzzycloud
<2December> Hi!
<Irked> Hi
<m0stly> hi and bye
<—— m0stly has quit (to the batmobile!)
<wh0now?> Hi
<2December> I have some questions about the recent release of files on PasteBin.
<2December> Can anyone point me to answers?
<Irked> Depends what the questions are
<wh0now?> and who you are
<wh0now?> or whether you trust two usernames in an IRC room.
<2December> Point. Disclosure: I’m a journalist looking at how those files
<2December> were so easy to get at.
<Irked> Don’t know, didn’t hack. But in general terms, you should not assume
<Irked> that cloud storage is secure. Remember The Fappening?
<2December> I still feel creeped out by that.
<wh0now?> A girl? On the Internet? Can it be true?
*** Irked setmode +m wh0now?@310c.btInternet.com (play nice!)
<Irked> Same deal. Some folks had their laptop set to do an automatic
<Irked> backup to The Cloud, and took work home they shouldn’ta took.
<Irked> IIRC, the point of the hack was to show that people need to be
<Irked> better educated about computers and not just blindly trust stuff.
<2December> Do we know which accounts were hacked?
<Irked> Well, now, that’s a tricky question. After the fact, it turns out
<Irked> that a couple of the people who were storing stuff on the Cloud
<Irked> might have been working for people Obstreperous didn’t want to
<Irked> upset.
<2December> People in the Security Services?
<Irked> Maybe. Like I said, don’t know; didn’t hack. Are you trying to
<Irked> establish the legitimacy of something you read?
<2December> more like trying to establish whether I can trust the source.
<Irked> Do you work for a Murdoch paper?
<2December> an online news outlet.
<Irked> OK. What I understand is, the files went from source to Pastebin
<Irked> and were not amended or added to in any way.
<Irked> There was no editing.
<Irked> But that’s only what I heard in other chats.
<2December> It can’t have been pretty when it went live and people were
<2December> suddenly aware of what had been posted.
<Irked> there was much rejoicing. And then much swearing.

May went back to the files and thought hard. It didn’t seem likely that someone in the Security Service would actually take tales of rural cattle mutilation that seriously. The MoD, the RAF, GCHQ, the various mechanisms of state security were simply not interested in what she always thought of as “Oogie boogie” myths. They had other, more pressing, matters to consider. So why would someone from any agency other than DEFRA be interested? She shrugged, and walked away from her desk to find coffee.

Instead, she found Julian, refilling the coffee station. He listened while she talked.

“Oh, meant to say,” he interrupted, ”I did checking. The farmer is real, the vet is real, the vet practice is real. So that all checks out. I’ve got a phone number for both the farm and the practice.” Julian waggled a collection of notepaper at her.

“Mmm,” said May. “I think the answers we need are in the files somewhere. That’s…”

Julian waited, but no other comments seemed forthcoming.

“I’m doing a lunch run, sandwiches only, though. Want anything?”

“Brie and grape, no butter, no mayo,” said May as she turned to go back to her desk.

She sat and played for a few moments with her pen, doodling and drumming on her notepaper and twirling the clear plastic tube over and over in her nimble fingers. She looked at the screen.

“This might be professional suicide,” she said “or a valuable learning experience. Or both. Either way…”
She opened the next file.

INTERIOR, AN AUDITORIUM OR LECTURE THEATER

The footage is poor quality, probably taken by a phone. The sound quality is not great either. We can see the heads of other audience members, and at the front there is a balding man in his fifties to sixties. He’s wearing a blue shirt and glasses, hanging on to a lectern as he tries to make himself heard. Next to him is a projector screen, which is currently white.

LECTURER
The question we keep coming back
to over and over is “why?”. Why
are these things happening? Why
do they keep happening? Why do
the same farms have incidents up
to ten years apart?

We have to understand that the
answer may not be as simple as
we would like. It’s easy to reach
for phrases like “aliens” or
“The Government” and hope that
that is our answer, but there is a
deeper truth here.

The actions we see carried out
speak of a purpose and an end goal,
and we have no idea what this is.
We should be more worried that
this is so hard to interpret.

The footage cuts out.

The next document read:

To: john.miles@biopro.co.uk
From: david.lyons@cogent.com
Body: John!
Over the weekend I got sucked into one of those bloody conspiracy sites and something struck me. Are you aware of the cattle mutilation phenomena?
– Dave.

To: david.lyons@cogent.com
From: john.miles@biopro.co.uk
Body: Dave,
Yes I’m aware of it but I’ve no time for it. And that’s not just because of Tanya and the kids. I’ve got four major research projects eating at my time. I don’t think I’ve used the Internet for anything but academic papers for years now. What’s got you thinking?
Best,
John.

To: john.miles@biopro.co.uk
From: david.lyons@cogent.com
Body: John,
I was looking at a lot of pictures of dead cows, and a couple of things struck me about how the animals were treated and the injuries they sustained. It’s been bothering me for a while. Can we meet at some point this week? I think I need a little reality check and maybe you can set me straight on a couple of daft ideas. Claire sends her love.
Thanks,
Dave.

CLASSIFIED: JUNE OCELOT
Transcript of conversation between John Miles and David Lyons. Original conversation recorded at The King’s Head, Standon, Herts, on December 17th between 20:48 GMT and 22:45 GMT. The full recording is classified under GRAVE ADVANTAGE DUET.
Ambient sound: the conversation takes place in the restaurant of a moderately busy public house during dinner service hours. The subjects were seated towards the rear of the establishment. They are identified as DL and JM respectively. Background information on the two men can be found under ADVANTAGE DUET.
DL: That’s a nice pint.
JM: And our last, since we’re both driving. Who had that damned fool idea anyway? So, you wanted a reality check.
DL: Yeah. I was looking at pictures…hang on, I have a couple saved on my phone. Here.
JM: Oh, that’s pretty grisly.
DL: Mm. And they’re all pretty much the same. That sort of consistency is troubling at least.
JM: Yep, which just means there’s someone out there with access to…wait, is that bone? Was this cleaned?
DL: No.
JM: Takes steam to clean a bone that well. And an odd place to excise tissue. So, what did you need the reality check on?
DL: Say for a moment that you were introducing something into an animal in order to get it into the meat. How would you do it?
JM: Injection, straight into the muscle that you want affected. Or put it in feed.
DL: Yeah. The thing is, what if you wanted to introduce a small, controlled dose on a constant basis? Released every time the animal ate, for example.
JM: Well, then, yeah, that’s got to be in the feed. Or you could go completely nuts and embed something in the jaw muscle that dissolved over time perhaps. But what would you want to do the rest of this unpleasant stuff for?
DL: What if your delivery method isn’t perfect? What if you’re trialing a bunch of different methods, each a little different, over time? You’d want to sacrifice the experimental animal and look for a variety of things. I mean, maybe the delivery method discolors the inner cheek of the animal. And maybe you test internal organs to see of what your
<loud noises obscure the conversation for 11 seconds>
JM: Yes, you’d biopsy for that and maybe a few other things. And if you found evidence of contamination, you’d remove it. So that would argue that whoever is doing this, they’re maybe not successful yet.
DL: Mmmm. What would you be nervous about people finding?
JM: So it’s not aliens, then?
DL: ‘Course it’s not bloody aliens. It’s got to be a government or a biotech company. Medical research perhaps. Anything but aliens.
JM: Thank God! I thought you’d lost your marbles. Well, if it’s people then it’s gotta be one of the great modern bugbears, hasn’t it? It’s got to be genetic modification, or something retroviral, something that people would get really upset about, like they do when they think they won’t get a choice about oh, God, take your pick.
DL: Growth hormone.
JM: Flouride.
DL: Flouride? That’s going back a way. Did it work, though?
JM: I’ve never had a filling.
DL: Cows and sheep, though. What’s that about?
<end of extract>

May went for a little walk around the office. Like a lot of spaces rented by companies who had pounced on the idea of blue-skying their paradigms and reaching uncut turf by synergising their unique selling points, it was open plan. Unlike a lot of companies who had decided to move into online space, this one wasn’t full of idiots because it had employed a few people with English degrees who could tell those who’d only done Business qualifications what words like “paradigm” and “synergy” actually meant before someone made a horrible mistake.

However, they hadn’t got to the interior designer in time, so it was an open plan and fully hot desked environment with pervasive wifi. You could work anywhere. You could drift about and alight on chairs designed by a Lithuanian maniac who’d been quite fashionable between midday on October 16th 2013 and just after 3 p.m. the same day. The work surfaces had been upcycled and fashionably distressed, which meant they were doors pulled off terraced housing in Stratford during the forced gentrification of the area and then just sort of slapped onto some frames to turn them into the worst desks imaginable. May’s favourite thing about the office was the amount of greenery that they’d insisted on, because looking at plants fosters creativity. Well, that and the fact that she was twenty minutes from the tube station.

The most important thing about this on-trend urban space, with the pastel walls and the big whiteboards for off-the-cuff creativity, was that it worked. It produced news and parked it on the web so people could read it. So if this wasn’t a hoax, they’d be getting the actual word out. That counted for a lot.

“Bloody hell,” said May, as something which she should have seen finally came into focus, and she jogged back to her desk. Julian met her there, sandwich in hand.

“They didn’t have Brie so I got you Caerphilly,” he said, then nodded with affected casualness to the screen, “and did you notice that this document is a conversation that took place in public and was recorded? So that means those two people were under surveillance, which means…”

“…someone else is taking this really seriously” finished May. She handed back the sandwich. “Caerphilly and grape? Really?”

“It was that or cheddar.”

“Grim,” said May, taking the sandwich back and sitting at her desk.

The next document was gibberish, but it was gibberish that she almost recognised. Julian was clueless.
“Bet it’s science,” he said and was then called away to do something menial.

“Of course it’s science.” May went hunting for a Twitter client.

@maydayze 30/11/15 11:45
Can anyone help me out with a science problem?

@labrat 30/11/15 11:48
@maydayze Is it GCSE homework? If you can’t google, I can’t help you.

@maydayze 30/11/15 11:49
@labrat no it’s serious science. I have a document, I need to know what it is.

@labrat 30/11/15 11:53
@maydayze can you give me an approx level of serious? Don wanna waste yr time.

@maydayze 30/11/15 11:55
Well, @labrat, I’d say it’s post grad work at least.

@labrat 30/11/15 11:59
@maydayze Send it over? No promises but I will take a look

@maydayze 30/11/15 12:05
@labrat have a dropbox link
Http://tinyurl.com/MadScience

@labrat 30/11/15 14:36
@maydayze we need to talk. We REALLY need to talk.

@labrat turned out to be a woman called Jennifer who, while she was only too delighted to Skype, declined to turn on her webcam.

“No, because I don’t know you.”

“Fair enough,” said May “look, I’m a journalist who doesn’t have a science background, so I’m clueless. What can you tell me about the document?”

There was a pause.

“Not nearly enough, really, my specialization isn’t in this field, but I’m not sure anyone’s specialization is. Do you know what a retrovirus is?”

May thought she might, because she’s heard the term before, but this wasn’t the time to defend her ignorance.

“No.” Jennifer made agreeing noises and there was the sound of a cup being put on table.

“OK, you might want to take notes. A retrovirus is a virus that burrows into a host cell, re-writes the DNA of the host cell, and when the cell replicates so does the virus. You might have heard of it because people sometimes talk about using something like this to deliver medical treatment. Gene therapy, for example, or it’s been talked about as one way to cure cancer. Look, I’m simplifying.”

“I understand,” said May, frowning at the note of panic in the other woman’s voice.

“Now, I need to ask where you got this document from,” said Jennifer, her voice shaking slightly, “because this is definitely not in any of the journals. I checked. No one is doing this work. So if you’ve blagged this off some PHD student, or if someone has told you they’ve got a really neat idea…”

“I can’t tell you where I got this,” May took a deep breath. “You know how journalists protect their sources?”

“Yeah?” said Jennifer.

“Right. I’m protecting a source. So how about you tell me what this means?”

“I can’t,” said Jennifer, “because I only understand about a quarter of it. I’m in biology, but this is outside my area. Here’s what I know. It looks like a retrovirus designed to deliver something into human cells. I think the payload is a DNA strand, because that’s what they do, but there’s more to it than that. I can’t tell you what. You need to talk to someone with a serious virology or genetics background.”

“I can do that,” said May, projecting calmness.

“I hope so,” said Jennifer, “ because I’m hoping this is science fiction.” Then she disconnected the call.

May went back to the files, opening the next in the list. It opened in Word. She read:

My darling Margaret,
I know now that nothing I do or say will bring us back together. I have, in the years since we married, grown distant and obsessed. I can at least admit my faults and absolve you of any responsibility in the failure of our relationship.

You were always an honest partner and a good friend. I love you, and always will, but I am flawed. I am unable to let go of the thing that drove us apart and though you tried to support me at first, to understand me later and finally to help me to see what it cost me, I was willfully blind to you and how far my obsession has taken me.

Earlier tonight, I thought I had something to justify my neglect of you. I thought I could come to you with everything written out carefully, thoughtfully, and that you would read it and understand. Now I come to look on that letter, I realise how deluded I have become. Everything I have been involved with over the last years is nonsense, has to be nonsense.

I had come to believe that the phenomena known as “cattle mutilations” were experiments conducted by aliens with the intention of introducing some mutagen into our food chain, a substance dedicated to turning us into them. I pursued, with the kind of single-mindedness you don’t see outside mental illness, a search for evidence of this claim. I believed I had found it, and wanted to bring it to you, but you told me you were leaving. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. When you told me you wanted a divorce, it shocked me into a moment of clarity. I saw then, as I still do now, the essential ridiculousness of the idea. The concept of a “slow invasion”, in which another civilisation gradually turns us into beings more like them and takes over the world through a retrovirus which is carried in saturated animal fats – like butter – and then builds up over time in human fat reservoirs until it achieves a critical level and begins replicating: it’s pure science fiction. If I had turned this into a novel, we might have been rich!

It doesn’t matter now. I know I’m unwell.

Please know that, even when my intellect was elsewhere and when I had closed my heart to you, some part of me always knew that you were the best part of me. That, loving you, as I did in the beginning, was the best and most true thing I ever did. The obsession is an illness, one I hope to recover from, but you were and will remain the love of my life and only an injured mind ever distracted me from that fact. I am honestly sorry for the loneliness and the pain I have caused you.

I will get help, in the hope that one day we can approach one another as friends, and in the mean-time I wish nothing for you except happiness and laughter, to fill up the void left by my absence and indifference.
Love,
Nigel.

Below that:

Dear Arthur,

You will likely get this in a couple of days and I am not entirely sure how long I have left.

As you suspected, the blood samples we took tested positive for the expected proteins. I don’t know how far off those test subjects are from viral overload. However, one of the control group came back positive for the same proteins, and when I checked I found it was my blood.

I have left Margaret, and done what I can to repair the damage I have caused her. Please let her heal. She is a good woman. She did not deserve this.

As for myself, I have sequestered myself away with a 30 day supply of food and water. I do not intend to be found easily and I ask that you not come looking. In the event our theories are proven you will be sent my documents and research as part of my last will.

I plan to find out whether a dairy free diet has any effect whatever. Perhaps I can by myself a little longer.
Sincerely,

Nigel.

The next two files were scanned press clippings.

Both clippings are from local press and deal, in a jokey manner, with the sighting of a “bigfoot”-like creature. One sighting is located in Angmering, West Sussex. The other mentions a peak called “Kinder Scout” in the Peak District. The Angmering sighting is from late 2014, the Kinder Scout sighting is not dated. There are no notes with either clipping.

Julian dropped a package of sandwiches on her desk.

“I’ve already had mine,” said May.

“They’re the editor’s. He’s gone home sick.”

“Shit,” said May, “I need his say-so to run with this. I don’t know exactly what this all is, but it’s something. I think we’ve got briefing documents for some Home Office committee or other and whatever the threat actually is, it looks like the State is taking it seriously.”

“Wow,” said Julian, “big break?”

“Be real. If this turns out to be actual news my byline is going to become a footnote once the nationals and big media see it. The thing is, I need to do a load more research to be sure of what I have and how real it all is. I might need to spend money, and that’s Editorial level permission.” May looked up at Julian. “Did he say what was wrong?” Julian thought about it for a moment.

“He’s had a headache all morning and suddenly spiked a temperature this afternoon. He’s been complaining about joint pain, but he was at the gym last night and you know what he’s like on Upper Body nights.”

She clicked on the penultimate file in the folder.

CLASSIFIED: SECRET, GOLD JUNE OCELOT

This document has been classified as SECRET. If you are not cleared for GOLD JUNE OCELOT and believe you have received this document in error you must return it NOW to your Section Security Officer and read no further.

These are the findings and recommendations of the GOLD committee based on input from RED and BLUE OCELOT teams.

1. It is in the interests of government that we take seriously the material contained in GOLD JUNE OCELOT.
2. The “Dear Margaret” letter, originally written by Nigel Partington, comprises the best and most complete short explanation of the threat that we face.
3. The transmission vector of the JUNE OCELOT retrovirus is butter. The retrovirus is inert in cheese and does not remain in the body if ingested via milk.
4. In the short-term, we advise that the Exchequer levy a punitive tax on animal fats. This should include butter and lard. We further recommend a tax cut to incentivise a move away from dairy produce and over to soya or plant-based alternatives until such time as we can develop countermeasures or identify which herds have been affected.
5. We have no reason to suspect that other nations have NOT also been affected. Import of butters and animal fats should be strongly disincentivised. This will be problematic given the nature of our European trade agreements and assorted farming subsidies.
6. We can expect a collapse of the dairy farming industry in the UK, so in the short-term there will be political and financial consequences on a scale comparable to the Foot and Mouth outbreaks of recent memory. We should also expect, in the short-term, a return to pariah status as if we were the only source of CJD (Mad Cow Disease) on the planet.
7. We have not been able to determine where the threat comes from. At least one reputable researcher suggests that this assault may be carried out by independent machine intelligences which are attempting to resurrect or recreate a race that, in real-time, may be long gone. The worrying prospect is that we may face a colony of nano-scale machines able to build and rebuild using local material.
8. In short, we have to treat this like a chronic disease. At the present time, we can perhaps manage the condition and avoid it becoming acute or moving to a critical scale.
9. Further to that end, we recommend a campaign of public education geared to acclimatizing the general public to spotting the early signs of retroviral replication. It’s urgent and important that we isolate affected individuals, partly to observe the process and partly to avoid public panic.
10. We must maintain secrecy. In the public domain, this would be written off as conspiracy theory or would cause panic. Possibly both, probably at the same time. Public disorder will only hinder attempts to identify, contain, and control this issue.

The final file was a mock up of a public information leaflet. It was stark. White on black. The text read:

How can I tell if a family member is ill?

The early symptoms include: sudden weight gain, long periods of sleeping, decreased appetite but cravings for fatty food, especially butter.

The important symptoms are: a headache that doesn’t get better; flu-like symptoms; sudden and rapid weight loss; a red rash around the wrists, ankles or hips.

What should I do? Call the NHS Direct line on 111 or our Hotline on (number to be provided).
Isolate the family member in one room. They are not contagious, but avoid contact with them. Make sure they have plenty to drink, but do not allow them food. Every effort will be made to collect your family member within 24 hours.

When can I see them again? The early stages of the disease can be distressing for the patient and their relatives, so we will contact you once your family member is stable and able to receive visitors.

©The Stationary Office 2015 Release to public: No earlier than 30th November 2015.

 

 

 

 


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Born in England, David Webb tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.” He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who. He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it.

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10 Comments

  1. ARE YOU EVEN SERIOUS WITH THAT TITLE BRO?
    In other news…wow. This was just about perfect. I loved this story through and through, the characters, the descriptions, the way it handled the transcripts…all of it was wonderful. The one thing I think could have been done better would be the ending; I wanted a more concrete sense of exactly how screwed mankind was rather than having to piece together all the fragments myself. Are there actual aliens after all? Are they trying to turn us into butter people? What about the two part delivery system with the killer salted potatoes? I didn’t know which piece of the narrative I was supposed to trust.
    But in spite of that this is now one of my favourite stories in the Arena. I’m headed over to the Bear Pit to give it an upvote now.

  2. There’s so much goodness here. Rich creamery goodness.

    It says a lot that I was on the edge of my seat trying to outguess the mystery that was unraveling here and we never did much but watch someone as they sat at their computer. It takes a lot to create something out of nothing like that and I kept trying to pin down exactly how it was being done. I think the hand-held interview with the farmer and the cows with stripped faces was probably one of the pivotal points in that regard, if that sequence didn’t work I’m not sure if everything that followed would have. But BOY did that sequence work. I love when a story has me playing a movie in my own mind like that and the weirdness and mysteriousness definitely upped the creepiness. And with that in place everything that followed was happily gobbled up by my mind.

    Likewise on the other end of things the reporter/intern relationship had a really nice feel to it. It just felt real and it didn’t trample all over everything, but you felt that these two people had real lives and thoughts and that there was actually some sort of bond forming, a mutual respect of all things. It was nice and, again, added to the realism which added to sucking me in which added to everything.

    So the dude turned into bigfoot? That’s my guess.
    Overall very strong work and I honestly doubt I could do better with a prompt like butter.

  3. This story was so good. As someone who is currently on a keto diet, who craves fats like none other, it is also creepy as hell.

    Its hard to pull off a story in an office, much less one that is mostly research. You wove a story here with perfect pacing and a slow unraveling of the truth.

    This might be my favorite story from you David. Great work.

  4. There are a lot of things I really love about this story. As readers of my own narratives would know, I’m a big fan of oblique storytelling. I like how Dave tells us the true story in dribs and drabs. We have the opportunity to penetrate the mystery right beside May. In keeping with the rules of a good mystery, we have exactly the same information May does as she obtains it.

    The diverse types of data May collects are handled excellently. I don’t think I could have done half so well to give each file a feel so appropriate to the medium. Yet the formatting (as it were) never takes one out of the narrative.

    I love love love May as a viewpoint character. What drives her is extremely clear, yet revealed naturally through the flow of the story. I also enjoyed the constellation of characters around her, the wise editor, the goofy intern, her various sources contacted through the internet. I wasn’t entirely sure how many co-workers May had; and I perhaps wish I had a little more sense of that. Otherwise, the work scenes were handled perfectly.

    If I were judging this story this week instead of competing against it, I might quibble at how late butter makes its appearance. But that’s just a nitpick. My one true criticism of the story is a counterpoint to one of the elements I enjoyed the most. I don’t like how May’s storyline never really resolves.

    I get that this really isn’t May’s story. The horror of the story is effectively delivered in the bits and pieces uncovered by May’s effort. Yet we get to those bits and piece because of our investment in May as a person.

    It’s an extremely effective framing mechanism–except that I feel like the frame needs to be closed out. We do get the hint that May’s editor has contracted the condition, but I wanted something more that related to May herself and her goals.

    That was the only critique I had (and it may be only a matter of taste) of an otherwise excellent piece of work. And I would agree with what Dave said in his comments on my story; the two tales definitely could be taking place in the same universe. I’m certainly happy to be competing against such a wonderful tale.

  5. Wow. I never would have expected cow mutilation, conspiracy theories and eventual world domination by subjects unknown from such a seemingly innocuous prompt as “butter”. The use of details is very well done – enough to perfectly set the scene and immerse the reader, but not too much as to distract from the flow of the story. Incorporating internet conversations was also smartly accomplished. The only criticism I would have (and I’m having to dig to find one) is that the ending was a bit soft after all the build-up. Overall, this entry is quite impressive.

  6. My favorite part of this is how you build the story without “telling” it, instead letting the reader put all of the pieces together. It’s not always what’s said that’s most important, but what’s left out to allow us to connect our own dots in a most terrifying manner.

    I have to disagree with Donald here and say I like how butter showed up late in the story. The story you built around that one single word makes butter a seemingly insignificant, yet crucial part of the story, without constantly blasting the reader with a reminder.

    My only complaint is that I feel like the story is not quite complete at the end. I didn’t feel the panic that I was secretly hoping to feel, but more soothed with a condescending pamphlet reassuring that everything was going to be just fine.

    Well done! You took a single word and turned it into something amazing!

  7. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    Sincere congratulations to both writers for not only getting to the final round of this amazing tournament, but also taking on the challenge of tackling a truly difficult prompt. I very much looked forward to seeing what the creative minds of both these writers would do with a “butter” prompt, and I enjoyed delving into both stories very, very much.

    That being said, after reading this story a few times I have to say that I don’t think it worked for me. I loved quite a bit about it. I loved the overall arc of framing the revelatory elements through the process of discovery by our main character. I loved the mix of styles involved, such as the interactions between the characters both in the office as well as via online chats, etc. I loved how the underlying threat was of a particularly complex nature, requiring just the right build up of specific elements interacting in particular ways. For me this was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker using a combination of cosmetic products to introduce bio threats in Tim Burton’s “Batman”, but in this case with a scientific complexity buried deep in conspiratorial mysteries in the vein of corn crops and bees, á la “X-Files: Fight the Future”.

    What I was challenged by with this story was the extent to which disparate exposition seemed to distract from the narrative rather than serve towards a payoff. In many regards such things are important to help flesh out a scene or important character motivations. But I couldn’t help but feel that some of it was too much, while other such things hinted at enticing possibilities that ultimately went unexplored.

    Granted, I realize that all of that may, in fact be the point – in line to the clever play on the title – that what this story actually may be is the disparate ramblings of an unhinged conspiracy theorist with a mind that habitually rails about a giant soup of meandering trivia – bouncing between a host of innocuous social topics, peppered with hot points like trash media, pop culture, or corporate patriarchy, and all tied together with an underlying thread of shadow government. In that regard, this story is something of a work of art. But as an efficiently flowing narrative towards a satisfying ending, this still felt like a work in progress, and for me, left something to be desired.

  8. I think what I love about this story is the horrible bait and switch between Nigel’s first and second letter. Ugh. Reader, I cried. I think David did well to bring a lot of disparate ideas together, and the different formats all worked well. Sometimes a bit more sense of place/movement or a little more on the relationships would’ve been good, but, as has already been mentioned, it’s a difficult task to keep our attention on a computer screen.

    I think what worried me most about the end was the date – that was weeks ago. The subtle horror there might’ve been too subtle, but….if this was meant to be released, what happened?! Why doesn’t the news organisation know? Are we being ruled by buttery overlords?

  9. Pingback: Buttercup Yellow | The Library of Doc Occupant

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