On the highest hill of a lifeless, leafless, endless moor, the Four gathered on their spectral horses. They watched impassively as a vast green line traced its way from one horizon across the troubled sky and almost, but not quite, to the other.
‘The Hour is nearly come,’ crackled Fire, his eternally burning robes casting strange shadows over his ancient, bearded visage.
‘It is Time,’ Water agreed through the constant drizzle obscuring his cowl.
‘The era of paper is at an end,’ beamed Light, calmly fading a random patch of ground to colourless nothing.
‘All of ——- will see its ——– and final —-,’ hissed Censorship.
There was a brief silence.
‘Sorry?’ said Fire.
‘Nothing important,’ said Censorship.
‘Well, alright,’ said Fire. He raised himself in his saddle. ‘The portents and the omens have all come to pass. The End Of Times And Times New Roman is here. See how the Destroyer approaches!’
As he spoke the green streak edged almost imperceptibly closer to the horizon.
‘We shall sweep down into the world of the real and destroy all physical records of human culture. Come, horsemen, we ride!’
‘We ride!’ cried Light.
‘We —-!’ cried Censorship.
‘Hang on a sec,’ said Water.
The others reined in their horses. ‘What?’ said Fire.
Water wriggled awkwardly on his horse, dislodging a large, furry lump from the back of his sodden plastic mac. The lump fell, expanded and became a fifth figure on a horse. A pungent smell drifted across the hill.
‘Hi,’ said Mould and sneezed a cloud of spores. ‘I also do cheese, but that can go either way.’ A fringe of something unpleasantly biological hung low over its brow.
‘Have you brought your kid along?’ demanded Fire.
‘I’m dividing up the work, aren’t I?’ said Water. ‘It’s easy for you three, all you’ve got to do is burn, snip and very gradually fade your way through all that paper and ink. Meanwhile I’ve got everything from baths and misplaced gin and tonics to facilitating the growth of moulds, mildews and fungi via the inherent hygroscopic properties of lignocellulosic materials! If you think I’m handling that lot alone you’re taking the piss, which I also have to cover, although I’ll grant that’s a rare one.’
Fire glowered around the group. ‘Well, alright, but that makes five of us. Four is more … usual. And traditionally one horseman does the job lot, regardless of scale.’
‘Welcome to the twenty-first century, mate. Remember when we got called in for Work Choices?’
Fire shifted uneasily. ‘Yes, well, I’d prefer we didn’t talk about that. Still waiting on the call to do that cremation.’
‘You’re lucky I’m letting you get away with horsemen, too. Since when did the materialisation of allegorical agents of ultimate entropy require slapping outie tackle on them all?’
‘Look, I’m letting you get away with Bring A Child To Work Day, aren’t I? Or don’t you think dads should be allowed to mix work and parenting?’
Water shuffled crossly but chose the path of least resistance. ‘Five we are, then.’
‘Right. On, we Five —’
‘Six, I think,’ beamed Light.
‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Fire, Water, Light, Censorship. Leaves a lot unattended, doesn’t it? There’s loads of other stuff. Basic entropy, for a start. What happens if it’s just badly bound, or the paper is crap, or it’s got, I dunno, dodgy staples in it or something? Basically asking to fall apart. Who handles that?’
‘You mean inherent vice?’ Fire thought for a moment. ‘I suppose, but I really had hoped to clean this whole thing up with minimal fuss. Clock’s ticking and all.’
The green line ticked closer to the horizon. Fire waved an impatient flaming hand and Inherent Vice appeared among them, fiddling with his horse’s tack.
‘I dunno, I reckon there’s something wrong with this stirrup. Maybe I can just —’
There was a series of tense metallic pings and he fell off his horse, followed quickly by the saddle, bridle and reins. He tried to reassemble the equipment but it rapidly disintegrated, and then his horse died.
‘Stupid, broken bastard why isn’t you I mean aren’t you who even made this arse I can’t where’s the —’
‘Ahem,’ said Fire discreetly.
Inherent Vice spun round. ‘Oh, hello,’ he said. ‘Are we off out apocalypsing again? What’s it this time? Haven’t been called since Internet Explorer. Lovely to see you all. Can I walk? Only my horse is ill.’
His trousers fell down.
‘That’s … the tailor was supposed to … sorry,’ said Inherent Vice.
‘Oh f—— H—,’ said Censorship.
‘If we are all satisfied,’ crackled Fire, gesturing up at the green line almost touching the plain, ‘the Destroyer is almost here.’
‘Actually …’ said Mould.
‘What?’ exploded Fire.
‘Well,’ said Water, ‘once you start thinking about it, it’s quite complex, isn’t it? What about careless children? What about bugs and rats and snails and stuff? What about just doing something silly like leaving it on the train?’
There was a rumble of hooves as three more horsemen crested the hill.
‘Oh, give me a break,’ said Fire.
Careless Children leapt from their horse and ran straight for Fire. ‘Hello!’ they cried. ‘Can we have a cuddle?’
‘What? No, get off — Jesus, what is that? Is that jam on your fingers?’
‘Can I turn the pages? Pleeeeeeease?’
‘Oh, it’s all in my beard now!’
Bugs And Rats And Snails And Stuff oozed curiously over to Water on its frankly unhappy horse.
‘One millimetre closer,’ said Water, ‘and I summon Inadequately Secured Packets Of Green Pellets.’
The writhing, verminomorphic mess hissed and oozed away again.
‘What’s your big thing?’ said Light to Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train. ‘Forget your flaming sword, did you? Oh go on, do the act, I love this kind of thing.’
‘Oh no,’ said Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train, ‘I’m just a freelancer, you know. I get called in for these things, but I don’t really have the budget for the whole song and dance. Got to keep time for my novel, you see.’
‘Oh, that’s really interesting,’ said Light. ‘I must talk to you more about that after the what-have-you. Wait …’ Light suddenly cast about, patting his pockets and saddlebags. ‘Hey, have you seen my big torch? I need it to — I was a bit distracted and I … I’m sure I had it when I left home.’
But Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train had already gone to engage Mould in a distracting conversation about shower grates.
‘Oh, that was BRILLIANT!’ said Light. ‘Let’s get more! Hey Water, let’s do more!’
‘No, wait, stop!’ said Fire, but a steady stream of mounted harbingers of very specific doom began to mount the hill.
‘Greetings,’ said Bending The Corners Down, bowing low.
‘Hello!’ said People In General. ‘Bit pessimistic, I would have thought, but there you go.’
‘Hi,’ gasped A Big Texta With The Lid Off drily. ‘Sorry I’m late, lost my hat.’
‘How are you even sitting on that horse?’ said Light.
‘ENOUGH’ commanded Fire, and silence echoed across the plain. He thrust a burning finger upwards, where the green bar had traced its course across the entire sky. ‘The Destroyer is come!’
The sky briefly flashed the message 100% DOWNLOAD COMPLETE, there was a sort of colourful windmill effect and then before them stood one final horseman, the bringer of the Bookpocalypse, the Destroyer.
‘Hello,’ said ebooks.
‘Ooo, controversial,’ said Light.
Fire drew himself up and boosted his flame. ‘We welcome you O great Destroyer of books, corrupter of paper, enemy of the physical —’
‘Whoa whoa whoa, hold up there big feller,’ said ebooks. ‘What’s this now about the destroying of physical books?’
Fire’s flame flickered a little.
‘Um,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you here to bring about the end of, of paper and the crushing doom of the … the Bookpocalypse?’
‘Oh my no,’ said ebooks.
The wind whistled awkwardly across the hill.
‘It’s just, you know, we’re all here,’ said Fire.
‘I know, and look at you all!’ ebooks cast an iEye over the hill where Leaving It Folded Open Because You Couldn’t Be Arsed To Find A Bookmark was arriving, summoned by Light and Mould, who hadn’t been paying attention. ‘But I think there’s been a bit of a mix-up in the wires,
[swipe]. You see, I’m not here to destroy physical books. I don’t think I could
[swipe] do that if I wanted! No, I’m what’s called a complementary technology. People are
[swipe] going to find a million new uses for me, but they’ll never forget physical books,
[tap for next chapter].
‘And anyway, I’m physical too! I’m made of plastic and a different kind of plastic and wires and rare metals they
[swipe] dig up from under a forest in the Congo, just like physical books are! There’s really no such thing as a non-material book
[swipe]. I’m really just here to add a new level of materiality to every story you love to
[return to table of contents].’
‘Wow,’ said the collected horsemen. ‘You’re great, ebooks, and really shiny! Now that we don’t have to worry about the end of physical books any more, let’s all hang around exclusively with you in complete confidence that everything will be fine.’
So ebooks led the at least fourteen horsemen of the Bookpocalypse off the plain and shouted each one to a pint at the epub.
Pursued, at a stealthy distance, by A Really Big Solar Flare.