# SF The Law of Averages

Editor’s Foreword

Often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, it was actually John Philpot Curran who said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Sure, they’ll start small, by requiring you get a doctor’s prescription for previously over-the-counter cold medicines; next thing you know, they’ll be labeling herbs as controlled substances, and you won’t be able to buy your favorite spices without a doctor’s prescription... Be vigilant!

The body had been found by a 9.8K working girl who said she came around the same time every week. Civic law enforcement had taken one look, seen no evidence of physical violence, and had backed off immediately. They claimed there was a lack of discernible extraneous variables that could account for the untimely and unexpected death. They called in the Feds, the fitness cops, the guys who did this stuff for a living.

Ben Shannon trudged into the aberration site, an ornate and over-decorated living quarters packed with the best collection of grown-up toys, new and old, that money could buy. He brushed past the red tape that had kept the area sealed off from nosy neighbors and grubby next of kin who might contaminate the cause-of-death parameters. He surveyed the room in one quick practiced glance, flipped open his electronic notepad, and accessed the relevant data file. The deceased, currently residing in the refrigerated holding tank in the basement of the Federal building, was one Mr. Charles Huffman, a 45K man.

Ben winced inwardly. Anyone above 40K was a problem. And worse, this guy had a lot of time left. The notepad readout showed that according to the current life-time formulas, the deceased should have been keeping his Thursday afternoon appointments for the next 12K plus days. At least that’s what had been projected by the best minds that federal R&D money could buy.

Ben reached into his hip bag and removed a container of bottled water, the second of four he was required to drink that day. He took a sip and then ran his fingers through his thinning, increasingly gray, hair. He knew what an unexpected stiff like this could do to his department’s statistics. It would drive this month’s confidence intervals through the floor and make everyone’s life hell until the numbers could be driven back to the mean. To accomplish that, somebody had to find a good explanation for Mr. Huffman expiring well before his expiration date. That somebody was Ben. He was a field investigator for the New York office of the US Department of Longevity, Anomalies Division.

Ben focused first on the furnishings in the room. Nice place, he thought, letting his eyes float over the plush clutter of expensive antique furniture, the fine-art hanging on every inch of wall space, the piles of gleaming chrome and leather electronic entertainment devices. Ben had seen too many living quarters of 45K’s, and some even higher, to be impressed. But still, after even all these K intervals, for Ben, a wisp of jealousy was inevitable. The late Mr. Huffman’s high K designation brought with it significant financial reward.

Long ago, the federal government, faced with a crisis of dwindling natural resources and no promising alternatives on the horizon, had decided that people with the genetic make-up to live long and hopefully productive lives would receive the lion’s share of what was left–a government guarantee of the best educations, the best jobs, the best lives. The thinking had been that these chosen would combine their genetic and government-subsidized privilege to help make the world a better place for the population in general. In reality, the high Ks used their advantages to line their pockets, lead cushy lives, and in general, make themselves pains in the ass to everyone who had to put up with them.

While Ben listlessly flipped through Huffman’s general background data, he reached again into his hip bag, pulled out a handful of dried figs, and popped them into his mouth. He had gotten hooked on them back in college, and so far they were one of the few edible snacks still classified non-detrimental. Chewing, he smacked a few more keys on the notepad until it displayed a summary of Huffman’s medical records. Ben saw they had been dutifully submitted each quarter K interval along with Huffman’s income tax forms. On the most recent, Ben noted, the man had been dangerously close to exceeding the legal limit for body mass index. Ben figured that explained the well-appointed food prep system he saw over in the kitchen/eating area. On the next screen, Justice department records noted no history of violent criminal activity, but they did indicate that Mr. Huffman was currently on probation for elevated blood pressure. Public health club records showed that at the time of death, he was participating in his court-ordered thrice weekly Tae-Bo class.

High K’s had it made. Everybody, including Ben, lived with that because there was nothing that could be done to alter their own genetic life sentences. But to the relief of all short-timers everywhere, there was a price. Genetics only went so far. Those that had cushy K ratings and wanted to keep them, needed to adhere to the strict exercise and diet regimen as outlined in the 34th Amendment of the US Constitution. And the higher the K, the tougher the requirements. In addition, the Department of Longevity was forever issuing new health and exercise regulations based on continuous data collection gathered, in part, by field agents like Ben.

Ben walked out of the living area and into the sleeping quarters. It was a mess of discarded half-eaten meals and piles of dirty clothes. Everywhere, shells from sunflower seeds were ground into the carpet. Typical for 45s, he thought. Huffman probably didn’t let the cleaning staff into his inner sanctum. Next to the unmade bed was a teetering stack of slick gourmet magazines filled with garish photos of holiday banquets, treats like Pompano Amandine and potato crab cakes with crème fraiche. Ben just glanced over them. That stuff did nothing for him. A pile of dirty laundry concealed a government-issue rowing machine. A healthy layer of dust covered its moving parts. Ben walked over to the sanitary recess. Usual slop. He poked through the medicine repository, checking to see if there were any non-approved dietetic drugs or other contraband. But everything there was sanctioned by the Food, Drug, and Exercise Administration. He checked his pulse–normal for this time of day–while moving back through the main living area. One last look around, and then he left the residence.

As he punched closed the access port behind him, Ben summarized into the notepad’s multimedia jack. The guy was marginal, but within his rights. No obvious violations, nor any real bad habits that could justify his statistically improbable demise. He left himself an audio reminder to check with the morgue and see if Huffman had produced anything interesting on his tox screen. Ben had a high degree of confidence that with a little digging he could turn up something, some violation. Or even better, find a new variable, a food or pastime or chemical that nobody worried about.

Hell, he thought, maybe it’s the ink they use in those dirty magazines.

The government health club where Ben worked out was badly lit, cramped, and long overdue for a renovation. When he opened the door, the ever-present sour smell of compulsory sweat washed over him like a six foot swell washing up onto a polluted beach. Ben tried to stop here a few times a week. The gym wasn’t near his quarters, but it felt more comfortable than in some of the newer facilities downtown. Most of the people who came here were marginals struggling to stay within their K limits while staring in the gaunt face of a court-ordered reduction in food allocation, a remotely-monitored exercise procedure, or worst of all, a mandatory six-week stay in a federal health club. And that was just for first offenders. Ben was a 20K who had just celebrated T minus 6K, so he had a pretty light exercise requirement and not too much to lose.

Nicky Pete, thick, squat, and equipped with muscles in places Ben didn’t know you could get muscles, was at the main desk, as always. He handed out towels, stamped attendance vouchers, and made eyes at the ladies coming and going. Ben waved to him. Even though he was an 11K, Nicky was always in a good mood. He and Ben had hit it off the first day Ben had walked through the door.

One night, after the place had closed, the two of them had split an illegal bottle of bourbon in a darkened step aerobics classroom. Nicky had confided to Ben that he was sub-K, less than a thousand left, and he was going to make the best of it. The next morning, Ben had accessed the Nicky’s private DoL file. It was a file that Nicky wasn’t allowed to see. Another decision made by the high K’s. Guys like Nicky knew when, but they didn’t know how. The big K’s thought that such knowledge would needlessly skew the statistics. But Ben, with his government access, had found out that sometime soon Nicky was going to start to feel the effects of a small but rapidly growing brain tumor. It would ultimately kill him–probably right on schedule.

“Hey,” Nicky shouted, too loud even with the din of exercise machines droning in the background, “it’s my favorite law-enforcement representative. What’s shaking, my man?”

“Hopefully nothing that shouldn’t be, Nick.” Ben smirked. “What’s going on around here?”

Nicky looked around, as if someone would care these two were having a conversation and that they would want to overhear what was being said.

“That’s what I wanted to ask you, Special Agent Shannon. End of the month, you know. You got anything for me?”

Ben leaned into the scratched countertop that separated the two men.

“Yeah, I hear some things, nothing definite. But you never know. Where’s the big money going this month?”

Nicky reached under the counter and pulled out an laptop. It was so old the scratched case was worn down to shiny metal at the corners. He fired it up, somehow navigating around the keyboard with his stubby, callused fingers.

“Let’s see, word on the street is that California sun-dried tomatoes move over to the warning list, maybe even get pushed over to toxic. I know a guy who knows somebody who got hold of a recent medical report coming out of the University of Bologna.”

Nicky paused and looked up from the glowing monitor, thick eyebrows raised. Ben gave his head a minute shake.

Nicky ran the local numbers. On the first of every month, the Department’s Toxic Studies Division released a list of newly forbidden foods and activities that had been found by leading medical experts to materially affect the K ratings of a statistically significant portion on the population. Once released to the general public, the list, unofficially known as the Malady Monthly, was poured over; everyone looking to see if their favorite dessert topping or carpet cleaner was now classified as an illegal substance. Before the list came out, its content was a major topic of speculation and, to the continuing annoyance of the senior staff at DoL, a wellspring for illegal wagering.

“Stay away from the tomatoes, it’s a sucker bet,” Ben explained. “That rumor gets started every three or four K intervals. My guess is that the Italians have never forgiven us for banning pesto and olives in the same quarter K.”

Nicky nodded, then punched a few keys on the laptop.

Ben helped Nicky out now and then. Nothing illegal, he just passed on rumors he heard inside the federal building. Besides, Ben had often thought, it’s not like Nicky is going to be around long enough to enjoy any gains from the inside information.

“All right then, health nut,” Nicky said looking up, “what should I be looking at?”

Ben scratched at his five o’clock shadow. He stared up at a water stain on the sagging ceiling and said, “I heard some stuff about barley.”

Nicky looked skeptical. “Barley, you gotta be kidding me. That stuff is so dull even you probably don’t eat it.”

“Watch it, Nicky,” Ben grinned, “I feel a surprise health inspection coming on.”

Nicky stood up straight, saluted and shouted, “Yes sir, anything you say sir.” Then, in a lower voice he asked, “Barley? You sure about this?”

Ben said, “Yeah, a lab out West will soon announce that they have identified barley as a potential source of liver cancer. Not barley per se, but barley mixed with some of the government bio-engineered protein additives they came out with a few Ks back. Everybody knows it’s the proteins, not the barely, to blame. But who’s going to admit that DoL approved a hazardous agents for the general pop? So barley takes the fall until they can quietly readjust the molecular structure of the synthetic proteins.”

Nicky whistled, but Ben knew that nothing could really surprise the man anymore. “O.K., barley it is. So, are they going to have to call out the Norms for this one?”

Ben winced. Nicky asked the same question every month, and every month Ben gave him the same official answer.

Whenever some new agent was declared dangerous, its affects had to be factored into the population’s normalization matrix. People who had been unknowingly eating the wrong stuff required an adjustment to their K rating. The adjustment was usually down, usually by only a few points, and rarely affected more than a small percentage of the population. Ben knew that most of the time it was no big deal. You win some and you lose some. Law of averages stuff.

But every once in a while there was a significant enough delta K to create a class of people who, by the single stoke of a bureaucratic pen, were no longer supposed to be alive. These people had suddenly outlived their expected lifetimes. Almost always the newly afflicted died shortly after being notified of their updated status. The government said it was expected and that it just proved how well the system worked. But most people knew better, they blamed the normalization squad, a semi-mythical team of parametric adjusters covertly dispatched by the DoL to zero out those deemed to be less than statistically valid.

“C’mon, Nicky, you know as well as I do that there is no such thing as the Norms. That’s just a rumor started by the same conspiracy lunatics who think DoL’s got a family of aliens keeping house somewhere out in the desert.” Ben spoke with more confidence then he felt.

He had heard some interesting stories around the office about a shadow organization within the DoL, but he had never really wanted to find out much more. He absent-mindedly reached for a fig and popped it in his mouth.

Nicky, before he turned away to help another customer, winked at Ben and said, “Sure. Whatever. Let’s hope that this barley thing hits. I think I can get some good odds. Really clean-up. We split 50-50 like always?”

Ben waved his hand, mumbled, and moved forward slowly, less than enthusiastic about beginning tonight’s sixty minute workout.

Ben spent the next few days running down routine cases, although Huffman was never far from his mind. A couple of ambitious college kids assembled a small-scale alcohol production facility in the sanitary recesses of their communal living center and dropped dead shortly after sampling their first production run. A case that Ben had seen a hundred times. Although historical records roughly described the process, most aspiring bootleggers failed to follow adequate hygienic practices. The cause of death entered into Ben’s notepad was bacteria inadvertently introduced during the distillation procedure.

Uptown three anorexic housewives overdosed on a bad batch of cholesterol sponges smuggled in from South America. Ben got some good leads from the next of kin and gladly turned the whole thing over to the boys in the international branch.

Despite being busy most of the time, Ben checked his notepad every few hours, waiting to see if the medical sector had turned up anything on Huffman. They forwarded nothing, which was unusual. Most cases cleared, either by Ben’s group or the medical team, within a few days. Anything longer than a week would show up on a regional correlation chart, drawing unwanted attention to itself and the field office that had failed to do its job. After a month, anomalies were posted nationally, something that Ben had only seen two or three times in his 7K with the DoL.

On one of his free nights, when he had no workout scheduled, Ben stayed around the office after hours to run some of his favorite combinatorial algorithms against all health factors identified in Huffman’s apartment. He wanted to see if there was any unforeseen fusion of agents that had resulted in a one in a million situation. He ran as many variations as he could think of, like how cold Huffman liked his bath water combined with the brand of hair restorer he used and the dye in his workout clothes. The analysis, which consumed the bulk of the DoL’s main computing capability for over three hours, turned up nothing conclusive. Ben had figured as much, but was it was something that needed to be done for the sake of completeness. He locked up the deserted office and left.

After a ninety minute train ride, Ben sprinted from the concrete underground tube-station to the 100 story, stone monolith that held his and a few thousand other living quarters. He was still out of breath–hopefully not more than he should be, he thought–by the time he unlocked his access port with his pass card. The quarters were dark, so he muttered the right word to bring up the illumination setting. He was startled to see his wife, Alice, sitting stiff and straight on their hypoallergenic couch. She held a letter tightly in her fist, trying to squeeze the life out of it.

“The test results, they came today,” she said in a dull tone. “The test results, the third test results, are conclusive. That is, they are the same as the previous two.”

She spoke awkwardly, as though she was operating her body by remote control from a great distance.

Ben walked over to the food prep area, fixed himself a carrot juice on the rocks, and grabbed a handful of figs from the bowl on the shiny metal counter. He moved deliberately over to his favorite chair, the one facing the windows. He sat on the edge, careful not to spill the contents of his sanitized glass.

“Ben,” Alice pleaded, “isn’t there something you can do? I mean, don’t you work for these people?” She shuddered.

Ben shrugged, looking and feeling a lot older than his 14.1K. He took a sip of his drink, paused to look off in the distance, and finally shrugged again.

“The results are obvious, honey. There’s not much anybody could do. We have to face facts. It looks like it’s going to be pretty much a no-go.” He leaned back in his chair.

They had just received their latest and probably last projected offspring K rating. According to the enclosed pamphlet explaining the results, any child resulting from the combination of Alice’s and Ben’s chromosomes would in all probability have a short and painful life. The pamphlet went on to explain gently that in such a situation, a permit to reproduce was, understandably but with great regret, denied. Both knew that current legislature forbid them from seeking either a sperm or egg donor in hopes of improving the odds. Many K intervals ago, the high K’s had outlawed any such procedures, citing a need to protect the randomness of the gene pool. Everybody knew it was enacted to protect the monopoly on high K genetic material.

Alice had wanted offspring ever since Ben had known her. She had purposely accepted a job below her K status to be eligible to take leave once her babies had started coming along. Neither of them had expected this to happen. Apart, each had reasonable genetic material; problems arose only when they were combined. They had brushed off the first results as lab error, things like this were known to happen every now and then. The second test, with the same appalling predictions, caused them more concern, but there still was a small probability that someone, somewhere, had screwed up. This last letter eliminated any denial that Alice and Ben had been clinging onto.

Ben moved across the room and sat down on the slippery plastic couch next to Alice. He took her hands into his and held them, not saying anything. Finally, Ben looking down into his lap said, “Alice, I know how much having a baby means to you. We don’t have a lot of choices, but there are things we, I mean you, could do.”

Alice looked at Ben, eyes narrowing.

“Don’t say it, Ben. Laws or not, you know I’m not interested in anybody else’s genetic material.”

“Look, we went over this the last time. If you want kids, really want them, then the best thing for you to do is go out and partner with someone who has a better compatibility rating. Someone who can give you quarters full of healthy, happy kids. There’s no other option I can see.”

Alice sat there, tears filling her eyes, although not enough to run down her cheeks. Not yet, Ben thought. Those would come later.

“Let’s not talk about this, not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Sure honey,” Ben said, “whatever you want.”

The next morning, instead of heading up to the 110th floor to his office, Ben pushed the B-12 button on the elevator and descended to the in-house DoL morgue. He was one of the few people who came down here voluntarily. In a society where everyone knew almost to the day how much longer they had to live, facing death became harder, not easier. Ben could have simply checked Huffman’s long-awaited medical summary electronically; it had finally been downloaded the previous night. But he wanted to hear it directly from the chief DoL coroner, Dr. Lou Poisson. Besides, Ben liked the guy. He was ancient–so old that he didn’t have a K rating. Poisson was grandfathered under the old system. Every quarter-K he tore up the official invitation to come in and submit to genetic testing, shouting to anyone who would listen that he had nothing to gain by finding out that he should have been dead K’s ago. He was one of the few left who enjoyed such an option.

Ben found Dr. Poisson stooped over his ancient wood desk, surrounded by vinyl chairs, metal file cabinets, and stacks of paper files. Long ago the admin staff had given up trying to get Poisson to modernize his office. The room had a musty, organic odor that was certainty on the endangered species list, if not already extinct. Ben knocked lightly on the open glass door, paused, then entered.

“Hi, Doc. How goes business?”

“Ben,” the old man answered, peering up over old-style reading glasses, “I was wondering if you were going to stop by this morning. A hell of a case you dropped in my lap, young man.”

Ben smiled, few people in the office could call him that and mean it.

“Don’t tell me. This isn’t going to be one for the medical journals, is it? I hate’em. Give me boring any day. I’d like to close this case before it hits the national charts.”

Dr. Poisson smiled, “Sorry, not this time. Looks like it’s going to be a little more interesting.”

Ben cleared a stack of yellow, brittle papers off one of the chairs and sat down.

“O.K., let me have it.”

“First, cause of death, a simple heart attack.”

Ben looked up quickly.

“Heart attack, no way. Huffman showed no predilection to heart attacks on any of his quarter K med screens. His lifestyle indicators were well within norms, and there was no evidence of high-risk activities that could trigger a cardiac event.”

Dr. Poisson smiled, “Yes, well that may be, but undeniably, there lies Mr. Huffman, dead of a massive myocardial infarction.” The old man smiled at looked at Ben, a gleam in his eye.

Ben knew what he was supposed to do next.

“All right then Doc, you tell me, what caused it?”

“Well, I don’t have it all figured out just yet. But I can say that this is not an isolated case. I’ve seen four like it this last month, just here in the city alone.”

Ben whistled silently. “Four in the last month. Ouch. All high K’s?”

Poisson nodded. “Interesting part is that there seems to be no common vector among the deaths. The victims, if you want to call them that, displayed extremely low correlation factors.”

Ben thought for a second. “Is it isolated here, in the city?”

Poisson replied, “Uncertain. I released a net-bot this morning to search for similar cases recorded in DoL databases throughout the country. The results should be in soon. I’ll call you when I find something out.”

Ben stood up. “Thanks.” He looked on Poisson’s desk at the framed picture filled with young faces.

“How many great-grandkids you up to?”

Poisson smiled, “Who counts anymore?”

Over the next few weeks Ben turned up nothing interesting on Huffman’s death. Poisson transmitted daily updates on the search for Huffman’s killer, along with data on a growing number of disturbingly similar yet seemingly unrelated cases. The bosses upstairs started rumbling about deeply skewed confidence intervals, threatening a shakedown in Anomalies if solutions weren’t forthcoming. The national postings were coming up.

One evening, after his workout, Ben and Nicky Pete were locked away in one of the health center’s storage rooms, sitting on a pile of old exercise mats, splitting a celebratory bottle of bootleg champagne. Not the real stuff, but good enough, especially since nobody remembered what it was supposed to taste like anyway. Ben had been invited up by Nicky, who had cleaned up on the Malady Monthly and wanted to pass along Ben’s share. Ben was in no real hurry to get home. Alice would probably be out late again, something that Ben didn’t want to think about.

Nicky was in the middle of a story about the time he had been in some bootleg bar down by the transcontinental tube port. He had started matching shots with three licensed tissue donors and had ended up winning a couple of hundred credits by eating an egg raw.

“It was a goddamn honest to god chicken egg. Don’t ask me where those flesh peddlers got it,” Nicky howled, already feeling the effects of the drinking. Ben was laughing so hard the champagne was coming out of his nose. He almost didn’t hear his notepad chiming.

Ben pulled the device from his hip bag and flipped it open. The smile faded quickly from Ben’s face. It was a flash priority message from Dr. Poisson, who wanted to see him right away, not in his office, but at home. The message included Poisson’s private address. In all the K’s Ben had known Poisson, he had never seen him outside his basement kingdom. Ben replaced the notepad in its case and stood up.

“Sorry NP, I gotta shove off. DoL business calls.”

Nicky looked up, “Something for the Mal Monthly, I hope. I could use another haul like this one.”

Ben shrugged, “I’ll let you know.”

Nicky stood up. “I’ll walk out with you. Maybe call it an early night myself. I feel a headache coming on.”

Ben looked over at his friend. “Take care. See you tomorrow.”

From the outside, Poisson’s building was much like Ben’s, although maybe a little newer, a little less grimy, and not as big, only thirty or forty stories. Ben rode the elevator up with a couple decked out in expensive evening clothes. The wife was flashing diamonds that were too large to be fake and a body that was anything but real. The husband had that old-money look, third or forth generation big K. A 40 easy, Ben figured automatically. They looked Ben over with a sniff of distaste. Ben sneered at them. He had been snubbed by better.

Dr. Poisson must have already been alerted by some unobtrusive entry monitoring system because he was waiting outside the access port to his quarters when Ben stepped off the elevator.

“Ben,” he said in a quiet voice, “I’m glad you were able to come over directly.” Poisson looked up and down the hallway as he ushered Ben into his living quarters.

“No problem, Doctor. Is this something I can do for you?”

Ben looked around the dimly lit room. It was sparse and neat. There was very little furniture, and what was there was functional and unadorned, consisting of a single couch and a couple of wood chairs. In the low light, it took Ben a few seconds to make out the moving patterns on the far wall. It was a floor-to-ceiling metal rack that held fish tanks. In each tank were hundreds, if not thousands, of fish.

Ben looked over at Poisson.

Poisson shrugged. “I breed them like crazy. No plan, no scheme, just simple reproduction. It seems right somehow.”

He ushered Ben over to the couch. Both men sat down.

“What’s up, Doc?”

“I just wanted to tell you that the Huffman case broke this afternoon.”

Ben smiled, “That’s great. And before it hits the national numbers. Maybe this will get the boys on the 150th floor off our backs. I knew you would do it.”

Poisson smiled. “C’mon Ben. I didn’t do it. There were examiners working on these cases around the country. The odds that I would find the solution were pretty small.”

Ben shrugged. “Whatever you say. Anyways, what killed Huffman?”

Poisson paused. “The Soviets.”

Ben blinked. “Who? The Sovs? They closed shop almost 40K ago. Are you telling me they’re back in business?”

“Well, not exactly,” Poisson looked over his glasses at Ben.

“It starts out about 45K ago. The Soviet Union was playing around with some very interesting forms of bio-weapons, especially those that used agricultural products as delivery agents. One of the nasty surprises our former adversaries was working on was a two-part, or binary, weapon. The way I understand it, the project called for the introduction of a mutagen, call it part A, into some select food product, like corn, wheat, or rice. Next, the food, riddled with part A, gets shipped to the adversary, all open and legal. No counter-biological weapon scan is going to detect part A because it’s harmless. Let the other guy eat the stuff for five or ten years. Part A gets absorbed into the target’s human population and stays there, not doing much of anything. Except waiting. For twenty or thirty years, or whatever.”

Ben noticed that Poisson had slipped back into the old-style time measurement system.

Poisson continued, “Then, when the timing is right, like when a real shooting war seems imminent, part B is released. Maybe put in the water supply, or spritzed into the atmosphere from a high altitude. See, the genius here is that part B is harmless too, except to people that have part A lurking in their systems. Your soldiers can bathe in part B without even sneezing. But for those poor souls harboring A, well, two days of mild fever, then your heart blows out.”

Ben shook his head with a mix of disgust and admiration. “Damn, that’s actually pretty clever. But I never heard of anything like that. Was it ever deployed?”

“Not that anybody knows. But we are pretty sure it was tested on some unsuspecting volunteers in a couple of valleys in the eastern part of where Turkey used to be, right across from the old Soviet border.”

Ben frowned. “This sounds too crazy. Where are you getting it from?”

“It’s actually some damn clever work done by a colleague of mine out in Old Los Alamos. He seemed remarkably up to speed on the subject of binary bio-weps. I thought it best not to press him too hard why.”

“Okay, say it’s true. How does that kill Huffman and all the others?”

“The best we can figure, it’s those valleys in Turkey. The part A virus, which had been lying dormant there, somehow mutated. It doesn’t need part B to work its nasty charms, although without it, it takes a lot longer. But the results are still the same. The food grown there, edibles like sunflower seeds and grapes, is riddled with the substance. It was hard to trace down because only food grown in specifics locations carried the part A agent.”

Ben felt a dull pain start to throb behind his eyes.

“Okay, so why does Huffman, and guys like him, get hit first?”

Poisson looked at Ben, he knew that Ben saw where this was going.

“That’s the only simple part of this problem. It’s right in their dietary profiles. Those guys ate huge quantities of snacks like sunflower seeds because they are the few federally approved munchies for men of their size and weight.”

Ben reached into his hip bag and pulled out a fig. “What else do they grow in those valleys?”

Poisson took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Lots of stuff.”

Ben looked at the brown fruit. “Lots of stuff,” he muttered. He held his hand out to Poisson, “Stuff like this?”

Poisson nodded slowly, then said, “The Department is planning to release a priority one Tox-Alert.”

Ben slumped back into the hard, unyielding couch and asked, “What are the projections for the K delta?”

“Ben, if you ask me, it’s just a wild-ass guess. There’s not nearly enough data to support such a drastic adjustment. I bet that they revise it within the year.”

Ben knew better, “What’s the official call?”

“It’s going to be big. The number crunchers tell me that for a small segment of the population it will go as high as 7K.”

Now Ben knew why he had been invited over. He could do the math as well as anybody. A 7K delta would put him in the negative. He was about to become officially invalid. Both men sat in silence for more than a few heartbeats.

Finally, Ben asked, “When does this hit the streets?”

Poisson shrugged, “Not for a few days at least, but before the week is out.” He paused. “Look, Ben, if there was anything I could do... I just can’t see a way around this.”

Ben shrugged, “I always knew this damn job would kill me.”

Ben sat alone in his living quarters with the lights dimmed to their lowest setting. He took a sip from the bottle of alcohol that he had picked up from Nicky Pete earlier. He stared out the window at the lightening sky. At his feet was his notepad containing messages he had written to the important people in his life. He saw that there were too few and wondered why. Later, he knew, there would be a knock at the access port. He would stand, open it, and greet two colleagues from the Department. Colleagues who nobody wanted to admit existed, even though everybody knew they had to exist. Because without them the system wouldn’t work.

Ben figured that at least he would contribute his small part towards driving the normalization matrix back towards the mean.

 

About the Author

Bob Sorensen lives in Northern Virginia, USA and is employed as a computer scientist for a large, faceless corporation somewhere inside Washington’s Capital beltway. He has been writing science fiction for the past few years and has had stories appear in Orchard Press Mysteries, Bewildering Stories, and Futures Anthology MagEzine. Bob and his wife Jean have three children; they all enthusiastically support Bob’s writing efforts, mostly by letting him use the computer downstairs when everybody else wants to do homework, check e-mail, or play “RollerCoaster Tycoon.”

 

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