The Mother Goose Crisis

by Keyan BOWES

'Dammit, there it goes again!' The computer screen blinks at me, followed by the tinkling sounds of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. At 'Up above the world so high,' the screen goes black.  A narrow band of light at the top contracts into a sparkling point. Exasperated, I turn to John Cheng, my (attractive) new coworker. 

'John? Are you having computer problems?'

'You mean Twinkle Twinkle? Yes. I turned off the sound.'

When I call Technical Support, I get only their voice-mail: 'Hi, this is Andrew. All our engineers are busy right now. If you have the Twinkle Twinkle virus, Mary Mary or Hot Cross Buns, please email us with your extension number. If the problem is Humpty Dumpty, please mark the message Urgent. For all other issues, we will get back to you as soon as possible.' 

After the final 'What you are!' the computer returns to the desktop. I open my notes for next week's presentation and type, 'Zoonoses: An Introduction.' 

That's the cool thing about working at a think tank; you never know what kind of project you'll get. Last month, genetic algorithms. This month, animal-vectored disease. So much more interesting than teaching preschool, which I did to make money while in college.

Accidentally, I hit the wrong button. The program closes, I'm returned to the desktop and the screen starts flashing. I groan as the twinkling star forms.  It's going to be one of those days. 

As others arrive and start their computers, I keep hearing the tune. Late in the afternoon, when Raj Sharma returns from a business trip, it's Mary had a Little Lamb. Someone explains the situation. He turns down the sound and waits patiently for the sheep to exit the screen.


By Tuesday, the Jack Be Nimble and Mary Mary viruses have joined Twinkle, together with a few Hot Cross Buns

Even John, usually so calm, starts getting annoyed. He looks rather appealing angry but I censor the thought. It's bad policy to date coworkers, even tall ones whose ears flush when they're excited. 

'It's running through every goddam verse now instead of just one!' John says, 'Did you know Twinkle has three verses? Three? That takes 90 seconds to run through!'

'We do now,' says Jodie Braganza from the Business section. 'How are we supposed to meet any deadlines around here?'

When I restart my computer, I find I've also got the longer version of Twinkle. This time I go to Tech Support in person and manage to grab a harassed-looking pair as they return to their workstations. They prove sympathetic rather than useful. 

'Someone loosed a whole class of Mother Goose viruses onto the web a few weeks ago. They've spread into our internal network. Your group got hit Monday. We have to fight them machine by machine, virus by virus. We clean off the Twinkle virus, you can still get Jack Be Nimble.'

'It's getting worse,' I point out.

'They're mutating. You haven't got Jack and Jill yet, that's even longer. The Hong Kong office reported it today.'

Mutating? Like in genetic algorithms? Isn’t a virus too complex? 


After lunch, music from un-muted computers makes it clear Hot Cross Buns has arrived. 

'What's the reference?' John wants to know, 'What are hot cross buns, anyway?' I describe the tradition of cross-marked sweet buns for Easter treats.

'Not these,' giggles Jodie. Across her screen, a gaggle of smoking buns quarrel and argue to the accompaniment of 'Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one a penny two a penny, hot cross buns.'

It gets worse. My machine gets the Humpty Dumpty virus. Humpty Dumpty, in the form of a desktop computer, sits on a wall, legs dangling. He topples off with a loud crash (somehow, the sound has come back on). The screen blacks out while a voice recites 'All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again' to the sound of hooves. The hoof-beats turn into a receding funeral march, and then all sound disappears. The screen stays black. I reboot. The same thing happens. My email to Tech Support is titled 'URGENT!!!' 

The systems technician arrives an hour later and inserts a thumb-drive prominently marked 'Humpty Dumpty’.  The computer restarts with a message 'Checking for Humpty Dumpty virus’, followed by 'Cleaning Humpty Dumpty virus’. The desktop comes back. Humpty Dumpty is gone; but Twinkle isn't. The technician produces another USB drive and cleans that off.

Then he disconnects my internet access.

'Wait, no!' I yell, horrified. 'I need internet for everything.'

'No choice,' the technician says. 'This is spreading like a plague. It's mutating, so we have to keep manually updating our anti-virus programs. Lucky we have the skills; it's all thanks to Andrew. Nothing’s spread this fast before. It’s a mess. Even worse than the time the newbie in our department disabled all the porn-traps.' 

The techie drops his voice. 'Actually, there's this rumour about cyberonoses...' He pauses, evidently expecting me to ask what he means. 

'Cyberonoses? Like zoonoses?' I'm incredulous.

'We're hearing some viruses leapt the silicon-carbon interspecific barrier. People are getting unusual symptoms.'

'That's got to be bullshit!' 

'Well, the systems engineers and software designers agree with you,' he replies. 'Andrew mentioned a joint industry statement to discount the rumour. I sure hope they're right. Guess who's had the most exposure to these things?'

'It’s an urban legend,' I declare.

'No, you're wrong,' says Mary Jameson flatly, passing us on her way to the restroom. Mary, an old-fashioned lady from Accounting, seldom even volunteers an opinion, let alone contradicting someone. 

Curious, I follow her and, as we stand at the washbasins, try to start a conversation. 'These viruses are getting old.'

'No, mine's quite new,' says Mary, 'I like it. It's Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?'

'Your namesake. I guess that makes it more interesting.'

'No. It's just a better rhyme than Twinkle Twinkle or Humpty Dumpty. It's got nice pictures, with silver bells and cockleshells and pretty maids all in a row.' She turns to go.

'See you later,' I say.

'No. I'm leaving early today.'

'Stupid. She's just being contrary!' says a woman standing at another washbasin. Then she sticks out her tongue at Mary's departing back. I'm gobsmacked. 

Until it dawns on me. 'Bet you didn't have a virus on your computer to cope with,' I say.

'Did too, so there!'

'Really? Which one was that?' I ask, my voice slipping into the tone I use with small children.

'Oh, just a silly one,' says the woman, now perfectly polite, 'There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.'

'Yes of course.' I don't reveal my suspicions. 'See you later.'

'You have a good day,' says the woman in a friendly voice.


When I get back to my desk, John's racing up and down the aisles and occasionally jumping over file-cabinets in lieu of candlesticks. He looks attractively athletic. Jodie has Hot Cross Buns and squirms uncomfortably in her chair, snapping at anyone who tries to talk to her. Raj has a small animal carrier beside his desk. I take a peek, expecting to see a kitten or a pup meant for Raj's son. Instead, there's a glossy black hen.

'Neat, isn't it? I picked it up at a farm-stall at lunch time.'

'Yes,' I reply, 'But really I came to ask about these computer viruses. Anything new with you?'

'Yes, Higgledy Piggledy, my black hen.'

A series of piercing clucks emerge from the carrier. 'She lays eggs for gentlemen, right?' I ask, as something white rolls up against the bars of the carrier.

'Well, that's what the man at the stall said.'

 Raj doesn't find it odd to have a chicken in the office. One advantage of working for a think-tank, I guess, no one is too formal. Still, a chicken?


By the week's end, everyone's badly behind on their projects. I've had to postpone my zoonoses presentation. John runs around nimbly and quickly. Since he can't focus on his spreadsheet, he says he might as well burn off some energy. Jodie stays home. Raj's chicken, still beside his desk with layers of wastepaper lining the carrier, has laid a lot of eggs. Sometimes nine and sometimes ten, undoubtedly. He's started offering them round the office, but only to the guys.

On Friday, my computer recites, 'Queen Queen Caroline, dip your head in turpentine, turpentine will make it shine.' Taking no chances, I turn it off and go looking for Tech Support.

No one is there. I call the number on a sign propped on a work-station. 

'Andrew here.' 

Andrew, head of Tech Support and Security, is the hired hacker. He could have been sent to jail but got recruited instead. He knows his way round the internet better than any of his team with more conventional systems training. 

He tells me he's working on the Accounts Department's computers. 

When I get there I ask, ’How did I get a new virus when I'm not connected to internet?'

'Some senior manager got to one of our new people and demanded access because they couldn’t work without it. So the poor guy opened the portal again, you know, from the intranet to the internet. We're flooded with new ones today. If yours is short why don't you just live with it?'

'Because I don't want to dip my head in turpentine?'

'Oh. That's crap. No way that thing is jumping the silicon-carbon barrier. I've been messing with every virus that came through. Hasn't affected me.' 

Just then, his mobile rings. He answers it then says, 'I'll be there in ten minutes.' He turns to me. 'That was my wife. Gotta go. My twins just fell downstairs, could be a fractured skull.'

The computer he's been working on plays a tune I recognise. 'Jill came tumbling after.'

'You're a carrier of the virus,' I tell him as he runs out the door, 'Bet you've been dealing with this rhyme since yesterday at least.' 

He doesn't reply, but his eyes widen.

'Try vinegar and brown paper.' 

He looks confused, so I recite the second verse of the old rhyme. 'Up Jack got and home he trot as fast as he could caper. He went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper.'

Sometimes teaching preschool has its uses.


Over the weekend, the headlines carry the story, ‘Mother Goose Viruses Infect Computers Worldwide’. The virus showed up in computers as far apart as the U.S. Department of Defence, and a sugar mill in Fiji. The articles mention clusters of people at several locations showing odd symptoms; scientists think it's hysteria.

By Monday morning a new crop of viruses has broken through. Andrew's son is in hospital with a fractured skull. Mary still contradicts everyone and John frequently skips down the aisle. Jodie, though, is back; a few days rest have restored her mood and her normal rear-end temperature. Andrew calls a meeting. 

There's something in my shoe. 'Tell Andrew I'll be right along,' I ask John as I slip it off and find a bent staple inside. He nods and goes to the meeting. 

But as I bend down to re-buckle my block-heeled Mary Janes, he's looking at me strangely through the plate-glass wall of the conference room. I must be late. I knock on the conference room door, drop into my chair and carelessly spill a mug of pencils. Picking them up, I arrange them neatly parallel on the table rather than putting them back in the top-heavy container. 

I'm not the last in after all; Raj is still missing. 'I'll go call him,' I tell Andrew, 'He must have forgotten, or be tending that chicken. Guess he can just bring it.' 

Moments later Raj hurries in. I follow with his pet-carrier. 

'Nine, ten, a big fat hen!' remarks John with satisfaction, and I blush, suddenly understanding his interest. One, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, knock on the door. Five, six, pick up sticks. Seven, eight, lay them straight. I've got the counting rhyme. 

Andrew starts the meeting. 'We switched off both portals to the internet yesterday, but one of them was re-opened. To prevent another such foul-up we're going to physically isolate our system now.

'We know this cuts off your access to information. For external clients, we're invoking force majeure. This is an emergency. Our own servers could get contaminated. If in doubt, don't even turn on your computer. My staff have been working 18-hour days ever since this hit, and we're barely started. We need volunteers.'

Everyone raises their hands. 

Andrew arms us with USB drives for every invading Mother Goose virus. The teams fan out, striding grimly from computer to computer. The radio news provides hourly bulletins while we work.

I'm flagging computers that need special treatment. Andrew's team writes modifications into the anti-virus programs as new ones come up.

'Here,' I say, 'This one's got a mutant Oranges and Lemons.' John tosses me a pad of yellow stickies. Switching off the machine, I place a note on the screen. 

As we work, I confide my fears about the breach of silicon-carbon barrier to John.

'Something subliminal maybe?' suggests John. 'That was big twenty or thirty years ago. Maybe someone did more research, and mated it to computer viruses.'


Heartening news reports start arriving. 'Britain, Denmark and Finland have declared they are free of this class of viruses. They have restarted their domestic computer networks.' A cheer goes up in the office. 

Andrew isn't cheering. 

'What?' I ask, 'We're winning, right?'

Are we? We'll clean our system, but what happens when we plug back into the internet?'

'Well,' says John, 'If everybody cleans their systems, and the sysops take care of all the servers.'

'Doesn't work that way. There are millions maybe billions of computers.'

'What we need is something that goes in after these viruses,' I suggest, 'Something that combats the nursery rhymes. You know? The equivalent of biological control?'

'Give me the ideas,' says Andrew. 'I can write any program you dream up.'

'Really?'

'Not really,' he admits, 'But close.' 


A few days later, I track down Andrew in a conference room, concentrating on several laptop computers back from business trips. 

'You'd think managers would have enough brains not to plug their computers into foreign commercial networks,' he said bitterly. 'Look at this. Six different viruses and two will need specially written fixes. I should just nuke the hard drives.'

I change the subject. 'You said you can program anything, right?'

'Yes,' he says warily.

'Here's my idea,' I tell him, handing him a folder. 'Nursery rhymes are for children, this is for adults. Rhymes are about words, these are about images. Nursery rhymes capture the heart, these appeal to other organs...'

Andrew opens the folder and blushes. 'You want me to program this? My wife will kill me!'

'It's the last, best hope of mankind,' I declare solemnly.


Three weeks later, late on Saturday, John calls me. 'Tune in to the news,' he says, 'Or even better, come on over. It’s working.'At John’s apartment we watch, transfixed, what the regular news channels are not airing. The Mother Goose viruses are being invoked, but then...

A scantily-clad woman makes eyes at Tom Tom the Piper's Son and he advances toward her, pig abandoned. The lyric now starts, 'Tom, Tom, the Piper's son went to town to have some fun...'

The twinkling star expands into a flashing star-shaped advert: FREE All naked live GIRLS!!! XXX! It morphs into a nude starlet on a red velvet casting couch, arms and legs akimbo, growling, 'Audition me, stud.'

Humpty Dumpty, emphasis on the ‘Hump’ part, is with a black sheep. Its bleats of pleasure are interspersed with ‘Yes, sir, yes! Sir!’

Mary's having her little ram.

The number rhyme now recites, with appropriate visuals: One two, let 's all screw. Three four, on the floor.

'Mary, Mary, quite contrary' has become 'Mary, Mary, Met a fairy,' and is about a drag queen’s sexual encounter. It’s not her garden that’s growing.

Hot Cross Buns now has an S&M theme, with whip-marked rears of male and female models.

'Andrew wrote my program!' I yell, pumping a fist in the air. 'Now the porn-traps will stop them before they can get through. They’re finished!' 

John looks baffled. I calm down and explain. 

'That's your idea?' he says, sitting down beside me on the couch. 'It's brilliant!'

I can feel his warmth next to me, and move closer as he puts his arm around me. To hell with it being bad policy to date co-workers. 


Keyan Bowes’ poetry and short fiction has been published in a number of online venues, including Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons, and Cabinet des Fees, and in a number of paperback anthologies including Beyond Binary, Art From Art, Queer Fish 2, and Not Just Rockets and Robots. She is a 2007 graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop


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