Nativity Plague by Adam Browne

by Adam Browne

Mr Vale was allergic to advertising.

Even the mildest of ads caused him severe discomfort, afflicting his skin with sharply demarcated roseate areas like some unknown species of sunburn, as though he’d been sunbathing in the curdled glimmer of a neutron star…

It was a most inconvenient allergy — not least because he was a senior copywriter at Utility WordSmith 4.5 & Sons, the city’s preeminent advertising agency.

It also meant he could never leave his apartment. Ever.

Because advertisements were everywhere.

The industry, Vale believed, had lost control of its creations. Ads were an ecology all their own.

And they were growing cleverer.

Evolving, new varieties arising every day; idvertisements, convertisements, pervertisements… An eternal nightful of busy monsters — and Vale knew he was at the bottom of the food chain…
#
The doorbell rang. As it did at six every evening.

Since contracting the allergy, Vale had come to dislike answering the door. After bunkering himself in his apartment and purging it of marketing down to the microscopic level, he was loath to open it to a world steeped in advertising of every kind — seething with ads in every conceivable medium…

He opened the door nevertheless. Although she was humouring him, this visitor could be trusted to comply with Vale’s various antiadvertising protocols. She was a punctilious person with a keen understanding of hygiene. She was a doctor after all.

Not that she was here to attend to him.

Dr Uta Krebs was visiting Vale’s computer, which had also been ill for some weeks. It was a mammalian mainframe — a two-metre Caucasian flesh-cube hanging from the ceiling of Vale’s bathroom by a braid of gutty ducts. Fat conduits led to a pair of orifices labelled with tattoos: IN and OUT. The OUT conduit, from which a mustardy ooze issued, ended at a drain in the floor. The IN conduit was plugged with a dedicated feedline, its collar ruffed with a claggy crust.

Vale favoured the fleshly computer for the organic quality he felt it lent his work (less copywriting, really, than a kind of advertising husbandry) — but he found he was sometimes squeamish about seeing to its needs…

Krebs was dismayed. “Look at the state of this device,” she cried. “It’s demyelinated, dehydrated… Have you even bathed it today, Mr Vale?”

“I’ve been otherwise occupied,” he said as he audited his various skin predicaments in the bathroom mirror. “And please, call me Noah.”

“And here,” Krebs continued, “around these data sphincters: inflammation, oedema, scales and cutaneous sloughing… It’s as though it’s been exposed to the sun.”

Vale turned, noticing for the first time a scaly reddening in the peaches-and-cream complexion of the mainframe.

“It does almost look like sunburn doesn’t it?” he said.

“Or an allergy,” Krebs said, goading him. In her career, Krebs had encountered some outlandish hypersensitivities (including a patient with an allergy to antihistamines), but she believed in Vale’s allergy not at all. She maintained that his condition was purely psychosomatic; his crises of conscience — the copywriter’s equivalent of tennis elbow or housemaid’s knee — getting the better of him, manifesting in his tissues.

Not an allergy, she’d once said, but an allegory.

Vale wouldn’t be baited. He was rapt, examining the computer’s skin with an unhealthy fascination.

“Isn’t it time you returned to work, Mr Vale?” Krebs said gently. She too was an employee of Utility WordSmith, contracted to care for the company’s bio-IT. “They all miss you at the agency. Everyone was so excited about your dermatitis advertisement.” She was referring to one of his bolder campaigns — a pathogen tailored to infect consumers’ skin with a rash spelling out an ad for the only brand of lotion that could cure it.

“Yes, but –”

“And those blitz commercials of yours: coherent marketing beams; white-hot, pitiless — exponential smart-ads acquiring consumer profiles with pinpoint accuracy…”

“Well, they weren’t entirely –”

“You’re one of WordSmith’s most intrepid copywriters. I worry for you — if you stay away much longer, your position there may become untenable.”

“We’ve discussed this before, Doctor,” Vale replied tiredly. “Just to think of returning aggravates my symptoms — all those ads clamouring for attention; all declaring the exact opposite of the truth.”

Krebs shook her head resignedly and turned away. “Whatever you say, Mr Vale,” she said. Preparing to leave, she handed him a tube of ointment. “With my compliments.”

“What is it?”

“A dermatological cream,” she said, giving the mainframe a final inspection. “To be applied twice a day to the affected areas.”

“It’s for the computer,” he said with some bitterness.

“Of course. You know I’m not qualified to treat humans. You should consult a medical expert system.”

“I can’t. They’re always full of ads. It’s subtle, but I can sense them — a commercial ambience, a mist of advertising getting under your skin…”

He trailed off, noticing that Krebs’ eyes had glazed over. The little patience with which she bore his maunderings had worn thin.

With an effort of will he composed himself and walked her to the door.

And he wondered, perhaps unfairly, whether the bright little wave she gave as she left was intended for him or the mainframe…
#
Before bed, Vale tended to his aquaria.

Vale had a weakness for bathypelagic fauna. His home was cluttered with expensive deep-sea ecosystems; everywhere rococo monsters slinking through abyssal dark — slickheads and bristlemouths, beardworms and gulpers — all dainty and hideous and utterly alien. The apartment, too, was done up in a bathyscaphe style; rusted bulkheads, rivet-studded walls, workstations fitted with analogue gauges glowing baleful green.

Vale knew it was a dubious aesthetic, kitsch, contrived, claustrophobic. But he liked it. It suited him on some deep level, especially since he’d developed his allergy. Housebound — sheltering from the welter of marketing in the external world — he felt safe and cosy inside the apartment’s hull, its sturdy walls proof against the press of advertising mashing ceaselessly in from outside.

Feeling safe and cosy, he spent some time just gazing through the glass — the fleshy, vaguely obscene lures of anglerfish; the zooxanthellae wafting like extravagant snow; the luciferin sparkles of eelpouts nosing through biogenic ooze — and, not for the first time, the abyssal environment struck him as an elegant metaphor for advertising; the pretty lights giving no clue to the needletoothed grotesques skulking hungrily in the dark.

Advertising, he thought, red in tooth and claw…

Later, he downed some antihistamines, retired to his submariner’s bunk-bed and drifted swiftly into sleep.
#
The computer’s sleep, however, was unquiet.

Deep inside itself, down among its nerveworks, it could feel something stirring. Something eldritch and hot to be born.

An advertisement.

Vale’s most recent, abandoned piece, festering for a month in the system’s imagination. At first glance it seemed an ordinary, even modest ad, its mascot a realtime Christ Jesus — the Redeemer, the beautiful, wounded Lamb of God, all infinite compassion, all goldleaf and antique crimson — drumming up trade for a brand of reusable bubblegum…

On the surface, a standard advertisement for general release. But it was in its underbelly, among the ad’s intricate guts, where Vale’s genius had shone.

For this was something new. A fresh paradigm; advertising’s equivalent of the ancient fish that flopped up onto dry land to try out its new lungs. It was a thing tending towards the retroviral, a neoDarwinian entity designed to thrive in brutal extremes, in the dark pressures of the most forbidding demographies. It was profoundly amphibian, adaptive, compatible with all instrumentalities –capable of concocting entirely new media when none other was available…

After contracting his allergy, of course, Vale had been obliged to shelve the project: he’d forgotten about it weeks ago.

So the ad was still a work in progress, little more than a sketch.

But it already had its own agenda. An earnest imperative.

More than anything else, it wanted to be seen.
#
The next morning, Vale was woken, as he often was, by a terrible itching.

Today’s irritation, however, was more dire than usual; his skin twanging and twinging with bone-deep torment, his hands moving of their own accord, scratching at new lesions; mauve papules oozing and crusting; vesicular and pustular sores exuding stickiness.

Stumbling into the bathroom, he yanked open the medicine cabinet and smeared himself in triamcinolone, fluocinolone, methylprednisolone; in gaudy adrenal-corticosteroid ointments and dayglo interferon unguents until he resembled a reject from some sorry race of alien death-clowns.

He waited for the itching to stop.

It didn’t.

The irritation was unendurable.

It was as though he had been exposed to an allergen. As though the apartment had been breached by an advertisement.

But there was no time to think about that — the itch was growing worse. Too ambitious to restrict itself just to his skin, it was growing in scope, annexing his hair, his tongue, his teeth…

Moving on to his viscera — lungs, alimentary canal from throat to rectum…

Even his heart was itchy.

He could feel it inside him, tingling intolerably with every beat; the irritation sweeping through the muscle like radar, defining the fine structure of the heart’s vaults and chambers…

Suddenly he was in the kitchen with no idea how he’d got there.

There was a knife in his hand.

And he realised he’d been intending to flense himself, dig down under the skin to get to the source of the wicked prickling…

Then he saw Dr Krebs’ computer ointment, plainly labelled Not For Human Use — but Vale was beyond such considerations; frantic hands already removing the cap, daubing his sores with the colourless stuff in the tube.

The effect was instant and salutary, a healthful warmth radiating outward wherever the ointment touched; an erotic blend of gladness and deep relief sluicing through his tissues. It was a feeling so profound — almost holy, a cellular absolution — that he burst into weak tears.

Soon, he was overwhelmed by a wave of tiredness.

He barely made it to his bed before collapsing back into sleep, tumbling into abyssal deeps; dreams black and chill and unchanging…
#
The thing in the computer was growing like cancer.

Not that the mainframe, with its CPU derived from domesticated carcinomas, was unacquainted with cancer.

Cancer these days had many killer applications.

Sadly, however, this tumour was stylistically of an older school. It was impudent. Profligate. Maverick flesh metastasising without regard for other tissues’ needs…

The mainframe soon noticed it was starting to twinge a little.
#
Vale woke at about five that afternoon.

He climbed muzzily from bed, then collapsed. Not with pain, exactly: something weirder — something wrong with the soles of his feet.

They felt spongy, exquisitely sensitive.

As did his hands. The palms, the tips of his fingers.

They were spangled, he realised, with human nipples.

As were his wrists, his arms and shoulders.

And so was (he found when he raced gingerly to the bathroom mirror) his face.

And pretty much the rest of his body.

There were even nipples on his nipples…

He staggered from the room, the door closing behind.
#
Vale never noticed that the mainframe, too, was in some distress.

Indeed, had it possessed a mouth, it would have been using it to scream.

But Vale, who disapproved of talkative computers, had never had a mouth fitted.

So it suffered its agonies silently as the thing inside spasmed with insectile vigour, stretching and tenting the computer’s clammy skin, a vulval rip opening, drooling lymph…

A limb reaching wetly from the opening…

Vitreous bone, transparent jellyflesh, luminous nodes flashing purple and green…
#
Vale began hearing the noises from the bathroom soon after.

A series of gobbling sighs, a disagreeable snickering, the mushy crackle of flexed cartilage, a furious tinkling as of a chandelier in a high wind… Sounds that made him doubt his senses, that made him wonder if he was suffering auditory hallucinations — another manifestation, perhaps, of this latest phase of his condition…

Then the doorbell rang. And the noises stopped.

He answered the door to Dr Krebs, who was frankly alarmed by his appearance. “You used the ointment on yourself,” she said accusingly.

“Doctor,” he said, “I’ve been hearing… noises. I think there’s something in the –”

Not For Human Use, Mr Vale.” Krebs picked up the nearby tube of ointment and shook it at him reprovingly. “Don’t you realise this is a potent cytoplasmic determinant?” She sighed. “Your sores are of a new variety,” she said. “Not merely inflamed flesh, they are undifferentiated tissue; stem cells capable of ripening into anything: eyes, lips, anuses… Until, that is, they’re assigned a distinct identity by a topical determinant. Such as this ointment.”

Vale realised he was slimy with sweat. Although it didn’t smell like sweat — a wheyish fluid was expressing from the nipples on his forehead, under his arms…

He had begun to lactate.
#
In the bathroom, the advertisement’s nativity quietly continued.

The labour was a tortuous process suggestive of a child’s coin purse giving birth to a fullscale spy satellite crafted by mad Venetian glassblowers.

The mammalian mainframe did not survive the experience, and in sympathy the apartment also sizzled and died; phones, climate, lighting — all crashing irrevocably, the rooms plunging into bluegreen undersea gloom…

And the slimy thing did walk with legs upon the slimy faux-marble linoleum tiles.
#
The sudden blackout worried Krebs. It meant, she knew, that the mainframe was seriously ill, if not dead. And nothing would keep her from attending to it.

Vale tried to stop her, telling her again of the fearful sounds he’d heard — he even considered holding her back physically… but then hesitated, wondering if touching a woman with his benippled hands would constitute an importunacy, a breach of some posthuman etiquette…

By then, of course, she’d slipped past him, stepping through into the bathroom.

In the dark, Vale heard her take a sudden breath, about to speak or cry out…

The door slammed shut behind her.

“Dr Krebs?” Vale called.

No answer.

“Uta?”

A moment — then the noises began anew: a wheeping, a whickering; a pulpy ticking as of a gigantic clock made of fat; a wet eager rhythm evocative of feeding or some unsavoury sex act…

Vale feared the worst (although he found himself unable to imagine what the worst was). More than anything now, he wanted to be brave. He wanted to storm into the bathroom and snatch Krebs to safety.

Instead, he ran to the front door, wrenching it open, thinking in his panic that he might escape by facing down the ads outside…

Not a chance.

He was met by an advertising blitzkrieg: all the latest smart variants on the basic ad-form; invertisements, divertisements, oddvertisements; triphammer braindamage-ads and elegiac ads of epic length; ads advertising antiadvertisements and antiantiadvertisements and so on — an entire fulminating ecology lying in wait, it seemed, just for him…

He slammed the door and turned.

Face to face with the thing from the bathroom.

Finished with Krebs, it was hungry for its next audience.

In form, it was a giant marine christspider, the Messiah retooled for deepsea navigation. It was the Christ mascot admixed with Vale’s old files on abyssal fauna. Jesus’ immense transparent head (alien organs palpitating behind glassine skin) composed the body; around it, the flagella of the beard were plaited into innumerable legs, long limber spindle-limbs that scuttled the thing even closer to Vale.

Where it unfurled its lure.

Which was the distillation of all advertising.
#
With his experience in the industry, his understanding of its ploys and stratagems, Noah Vale resisted longer than most would have — a solid three minutes (trembling, moaning, milk-sweat running into his eyes) — before the lure broke down his defences…

Purest eye-candy it was, a gyre of bioluminescent purples and greens contriving the hypnotic key to unlock all desire. It was cupidity incarnate, the dirty essence of greed; wealth power sex fame rendered down to a cruciform wodge of luminiferous flesh borne at the tip of an articulated stalk…

Vale was happy just to stand and stare.

Until he felt a chill go through him.

Then a surge of profound weakness.

Tearing his eyes from the lure, he looked down to where the advertisement had buried its keen mouthparts in his ribs — anaesthetising the flesh — painlessly relieving him of his fluids.

And it was a moment of strange beauty, nippled Vale in the Rembrandt gloom with the suckling creature at his breast, the two posing briefly like some Martian Madonna and Child — before Vale collapsed with massive blood loss and severe refractory cardiovascular shock, and died…

And the advertisement tossed his husk away.

Ready now to go out into the world and be fruitful and become many and fill the earth and subdue it.

© 1998 Adam Browne

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