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Pestilence Goes Solo

I owe this one to Mark Nelson's Comedy Central In My Spam Folder.


Stage lights dimmed, spots focused on four cloaked and hooded figures The drummer began a mental countdown. The guitarists hefted their axes. Centre-stage, the vocalist began to sing:

"Boils, buboes, and brucell—"

In an 'A' seat, somebody coughed. In a 'P' seat, somebody coughed.

The coughs became a chorus, a cacophony.

Eugenia Stubbs (15¾) shakily put down the packet of dolly mixtures her mum had given her for the long coach trip from Lower Styxborough. She was the Riders' youngest fan, and dreamt nightly of returning home hugging War's underpants to her cheek. But not tonight. She clutched at her stomach, groaned, bent over.

"Hurggh. Yaargh! GGGHKK!" Semi-digested egg and cress sandwich, apple, crisps, Fanta and dolly mixtures splattered between the seats.

The theatre café's pet cerberus, dozing beneath an autographed photo of Earthquake, Hurricane and Fire, whimpered. It began to vomit up a hairball; then stopped, its heads unable to agree which gullet to use. Frustrated, they growled and barked.

In the audience, boils popped like champagne corks.

* * * * * *

At a warped oaken table, of the kind found in every tavern in every square in every hamlet in every fantasy blockbuster pentalogy in Borders, sat three figures. The figure on the left fumbled for change.

"Damn cloaks," he muttered. "No pockets."

"NO POCKETS IN A SHROUD EITHER," observed his neighbour.

War fished out a handful of groats, three obols, and a denarius. He handed them to the figure on the right.

"Another round," he said. "And this time, make sure they're full."

Famine got up and carried the tankards to the bar. When he got back, the three quaffed deeply.

"Nice beer," said War. "Dry, but hoppy. Good backtaste."

"WE ARE NOT HERE TO DISCUSS BEER," observed his neighbour.

"He's got to go," said Famine.

"It's for the good of the band," said War.

"You can't hear the beat," said Famine.

"You can't hear the lyrics," said War.

"We'll have to sack him," said Famine.

* * * * * *

The Sun shone over a desolate plain. Two figures — one cloaked and hooded, one stooping under a sack of turnips — pored over a tattered A-Z of the Land of Mythological Personification.

"Egress of Eternal Exile?" muttered the farmer. "I haven't got my glasses. Um ... Turn left — Oh, not that one, that only gets you as far as the Portal of Perpetual Peril, then it's a dead end."

He turned the A-Z upside down, peered at the next page, peered at the previous page, fingered the index, hesitated, pointed.

"Got it. Two miles straight on, second on the left, over the humpback bridge of death, then past the turnip silo and it's just on your right. That way to the Egress."

Whereupon he coughed, turned blue, and sprawled in the dust wheezing. Two gryphons and a roc that had lost its way plummeted to the ground.

"Damn," noted Pestilence. "I always forget." He remounted his horse.

Fretfully, the Sun shone on. It seemed to have an unusual number of sunspots. Had it hands, it would have scratched.

* * * * * *

Dimensions twisted, space-time shifted. A jogger, pushing past bracken below the highest peak of Oxford's Shotover Hill, stopped. She was sure she'd heard a neigh. Or half a neigh.

* * * * * *

Pestilence kicked an empty Coke can into the path of a passing bus. Thanks to him, Britain had seen its most virulent ever epidemics of foot-and-mouth, bluetongue, and swine vesicular disease: worse even than in 2001. Then, the bovine death toll had stood at a mere 6 million.

But emergency legislation had closed the footpaths, making it impossible to view his work close up. Like all artists, Pestilence would happily spend hours browsing over past masterpieces. He just painted on a grander canvas than most.

And anyway, farm stock were no challenge after the exotica possible in the Land of Mythological Personification. He still cherished memories of phoenix spontaneous decombustion; neck-rot and head-drop in ornamental indoor hydra; and centaur irritable double-bowel syndrome. Not to mention his outbreak of obesity, complicated by diabetes and forced landings, in cherubim. Amusing, how the authorities had blamed that one on cherubic over-indulgence in ready-meals from cheap manna takeaways...

As for Britain's rabbits, stoats, shrews and voles — pah!

For a while, he had toyed with stiffhinge in Venus Flytraps and a satisfyingly large variety of wilt and root-rot possibilities inherent in cacti: his homeland had neither insectivorous plants nor xerophytes. But most indoor gardeners were quite capable of killing such plants without his help.

People, of course, were out. The multi-lingual cries and groans of plague-afflicted Egyptians, Hittites and ancient Greeks, Romans, mediaeval European peasants, were one thing. An Airbus dropping on your head or a reactor going critical as its operators collapsed was quite another. Besides, without people, how would he buy his guitar strings?

Pestilence mooched past a row of shops. Top Man, M&S, Dixons, Halifax, — . He halted, turned, nodded, smiled. It would be a lot of work. But he had lived a long time, and he had a long memory. Walking briskly now, he headed for the Job Centre.

* * * * * *

The Regius Professor of Historical Linguistics blinked at his inbox.

"It's a Rag Week prank, clearly," he said to the Senior Lecturer. "Some linguistics obsessive down in Computing."

"If you take it literally, then 'dek^', in an accepted transcription, is 'take'. Or 'get' or 'receive': there weren't many verbs back then. 'Nu': that's 'now'".

"But 'Nu Wiag^hróm dek^!'?" asked the Senior Lecturer. "That capital looks like a brand name. In Proto-Indo-European?"

* * * * * *

Halfway between Woodstock and Bladon, the Director of Y-Form Antigenics lolled in his chair, gazing idly at a sales graph that rose more steeply than the North Face of the Eiger. His gaze shifted, to the acres of manicured parkland, the Lake, the Column of Victory. He had always loved rural Oxfordshire. It had taken only a hint; whereupon David Cameron had discreetly kicked out the Duke and declared Blenheim a gift from a grateful nation, commemoration of a battle more important than any against the French. For without Y-Form, the Internet would have fallen long ago.

The Director's thoughts turned to business, and he began to muse about his employees. That programmer, the one with the predilection for black velvet ankle-length trenchcoats: somewhat Goth, or was it glam? The Director didn't know. But it wasn't the programmer's fantasy-game dress-style that mattered; it was his coding. Strange, mused the Director, how incredibly quickly he'd crafted his ingenious countermeasures against every new virus and spamstorm. It was almost as if he knew in advance which threat would come next...

* * * * * *

At the Heavenly Haystacks Rest Home, Lady Orsington-Smythe slit open an envelope and scanned the bank statement therein; then with a celebratory flourish, tossed a pork knuckle to her favourite labrador.

She had been worried about stabling the stranger's horse. He couldn't give her a pedigree; and he had regarded her in the oddest way when she had asked whether the horse had ever been exposed to contagious diseases. But it was worth it.Now she could afford to build that new stable wing for Heavenly Haystacks.

* * * * * *

The Regius Professor of Historical Linguistics beamed at his inbox. With the University's annual subscription to Y-Form Antigenics — to raise which, they had sold off the entire St Johns College wine cellar — 99.99% of spam was blocked by the new hyper-Bayesian filters. But the merest trickle, concocted somehow — no-one knew how — from languages now not much more than conjecture — leaked through, as if to remind the world of the threat that could yet be. He started to decipher the Unicoded hieroglyphs:

Request for urgent business assistance.

I must solicit your strictest confidence in this transaction. It is, by virtue of its importance, utterly top secret.

We are son of Pharaoh, grandson of Sun God. By virtue of our position, we are invested with gold, electrum, and protective amulets equivalent to US$41,538,000.09. Owing to plague of frogs, we have urgent need to transport said goods in Nile barge from our country, and we ask your aid as willing partner in return for share of value and guarantee of immortal Godhood...

Engrossed, the Regius Professor read on.

* * * * * *

In WH Smith, the assistant handed over a pack of blank white A6 cards. "Keep the change," murmured Pestilence. Supply and demand; demand and supply: that was the secret. His future secure, he sauntered towards the first newsagents with an advert board in its window.

"VOCALIST SEEKS BAND," he wrote. "My influences are ..."

It was time to get back on the scene.