An average man lives 72 years. But what about the average man?
It was all a question of balance.
He called himself Henry this week; formal Brit-style names were on the upswing, according to the figures. Next week he might be a Joshua or a Mohammed, depending on who was winning the breeding race down in the 'burbs--or a nickname, Chilli or Turbo or Elex, if the summer swing towards youthCulture held out as it usually did. The only thing the trends didn't change was the number on his account, and that was how the government referred to him, so his roving nomenclature didn't bother them any.
017394782394-Henry prided himself on being the sort of guy you never looked twice at. Part of the job specs, of course. But he elevated it to an art form. He could have been thirty or fifty, Hispanic or Pacific or Native-A, you just couldn't tell. When he went into the Hendrix Burger Bar--once a week regular, to order "Whatever you've sold most of this week"--he often had to clear his throat a couple of times before the tired-looking cyberheads behind the counter slouched over to serve him. People bumped into him on street corners and blinked into his face like there was nothing there.
No one ever noticed (temporary)Henry. That was exactly the way things should be, he mused, chomping on a vegan WatchtowerBurger while wild guitars climbed heavenward on the permanent soundtrack and teenage Next Big Things cruised by in open-tops, blaring their beauty at an indifferent world. With so many bright and glorious individuals shrieking for their attention, why should anyone notice Mr. Average?
And that's how he got careless, how he ended up sitting with his back to a door both real and metaphorical, and that's how he ended up where he is now--free, happy, and totally and utterly screwed.
It started on a Wednesday, the most average day of the week. No one ever did anything wild on a Wednesday--and if they did, they were statistically irrelevant--so Henry didn't either.
That particular Wednesday, he was sitting on a bench uptown, watching the rainbow-colored pigeons pecking crumbs in the square. It wasn't fun, but, for reasons that eluded him, a lot of people spent a lot of time on benches. Consequently, so did Henry.
There was a big session going down tomorrow. A market test for a new soft drink or something--the company didn't release details in advance, in case the competition tried to bribe or infiltrate. Which was stupid. Average people didn't take bribes. Anyway, a big session; all fifty of the averagers, men and women, were being called in. There'd be a bonus payment, to keep their lips sealed until the product hit the marketplace; and since it was perfectly average to blow any bonus on something unnecessary and probably useless, he'd be free to spend it how he chose. Maybe a personal massager, like on the TeeVee. He might even consider a holiday. A real holiday. It wasn't entirely unusual for lower-middle income males to jet off to Europe and do the sights, not these days--and with Venice going down like the Titanic, he ought to go this year, while you could still sightsee without scuba gear.
Fishing in his pocket, Henry extracted the Probabilator and tapped in a few variables. Seventy-three percent probability of someone in his social bracket selecting a cheap guided package, only 24 percent prob that they'd go solo. Pity. He didn't like guided tours much. Well, that's the downturn of the job, as they'd told him when they signed him up.
He sat and watched the pigeons for a while, waiting for his perfectly trained, perfectly average attention span to expire. When it did, he got up, shook out his trench coat, and moved on, pressing buttons on the Probabilator as he walked. Go to a movie, 83 percent prob; get something to eat, 79 percent. Near enough to make no difference. And he took in the only decent movie of the month last week.
Turning left into Dissolution Avenue, Henry started scanning the luminous shop-fronts for somewhere suitable.
He'd done this a lot when he first signed up. Wandered around town, staring in the windows of the outfitters and the plastic surgeons, wondering how long before he could spend his money in there. Day never came, of course. They'd hired him as a B3 white-collar working stiff, and that was exactly how he had to stay. He even had to work still, to keep abreast of the tensions and camaraderie of the workplace. Only three days a week, so he could stay sympathetic to the increasing number on Assistance as the ArtiFlects ate up their jobs. He never did much; shuffled papers, drank coffee, listened to everyone else in the office complain. But that must be just about what an average working guy did. If he was straying too far, the Probabilator was programmed to protest.
No new suits, and no new face. They'd let him sign up with a whole bundle of bright shining illusions, when you came to think about it. There had to be laws against that.
The window in front of him was darker than the others, smoked glass, giving him glimpse of movement and candle-flicker within. Turn Of the Century Tearooms, real oldieQuaint. Thirteen percent prob, said the overgrown calculator in his hand, and he ought to be keeping his averages bang on so he'd be ready for tomorrow, spontaneous and natural and reacting like that mythical man in the street.
Hell. It was average enough to do something unusual sometimes.
Pushing the brass handle down, Henry opened the door.
It wasn't as gloomy as he'd expected; recessed lights in the wooden beams of the ceiling spread a gentle glow, and the candles burning on the tables and the windowsills were just there for atmosphere. Pretty busy, too. Moneymen at that table, in their flash suits, glancing automatically at their hand-held stock analyzers every few words, can't take their eyes off the markets. A gaggle of trophy wives in the corner, preening and giggling, watching him in a vast oval mirror on the rear wall.
A B3 white-collar ought to feel nervous as a rat in a lab, coming in here. But he didn't. He liked it. The mud-red tiles on the floor, the oak paneling dappled with years of wear. A passing waitress gestured for him to take a seat, and he picked a small table by the window--two-seater, modest and unobtrusive--and sat down.
The woman at the next table looked up and smiled.
Quondam-Henry smiled back. That's what people do, after all. People are polite. They smile and avert their eyes so they don't have to say anything, don't have to engage.
"Looks like I've been landfilled," she said, waving her hand at a street full of people, and none of them whoever it was she was waiting for. "May I join you? I feel so conspicuous sat here alone."
He didn't want this. Didn't want to be bothered with small talk and lies and trying to think of ways to avoid giving her whatever it was she wanted--sex or money or just time and attention, he kept it all jealously guarded so it didn't make much difference.
"I guess so," he said, one eye on the Probabilator balanced in his lap. Say yes, 93 percent. Get away as fast as possible, 99 percent.
She shimmied into the seat opposite and smiled again. It was a spontaneous smile, Henry felt, or a good imitation of one. A child's smile, not bothering to hide or to guard. From the way she was dressed, he decided she was a medium-income housewife. With expensive shoes. Maybe with a side job or a moneymaking hobby. That swirly gold jewelry she was wearing, the necklace and the bracelet, maybe she made that, small-scale, to help the budget along.
"Lori," she announced, and he realized that was his cue.
"I'm Henry. Pleased to meet you."
"You know, Henry, I'm sure I've seen you somewhere before..."
It was a sorry excuse for a conversation-spinner, but she looked like she meant it, so he shrugged and offered, "People say that a lot." Which they did. "I have a pretty average sort of face." Which he had.
"I wouldn't have said so," Lori observed, swirling the dregs of her coffee in the tiny porcelain cup. "You have a nice face. Too clever for whatever it is you do for a living."
Henry shifted position, gripping the Probabilator down between his knees where she couldn't see it. "Oh," he said, for want of anything better; and then the waitress was there, and he ordered tea and scones in a panic, without a glance at the probability, and offered Lori more coffee, but she said no, she was fine. And then they were alone again, and she said, "You're a collar-and-tie, for sure."
"Collar-and-tie, an office worker. Paper-pusher, people used to say. My father called himself that. A paper-pusher."
"That's... accurate. That's about all I do."
Probability of accepting an offer of sex, 89 percent. You are reminded that all sexual activity engaged in is at your own risk. The company accepts no responsibility for--
The tea arrived, in a dainty little pot with a handle he couldn't have got one finger through, and a cup with no handle at all.
"Allow me," Lori smiled, and poured for him. "Sugar? Milk?"
"Milk," he conceded. He preferred it black, but he had to get these averages back on track. The scones arrived while he was waiting for it to cool, and Lori accepted the offer of one with another riveting smile.
Probability of accepting an offer of sex, 95 percent.
"So, um," he said, looking for a way to distract himself from the hint of lacy vest below the neckline of that blouse, and thoughts of taking it off. "That jewelry's nice."
"This?" She pinched the necklace between finger and thumb, as if reminding herself what it looked like. "I stole it."
She looked at him and laughed, but he knew she wasn't joking.
"Are you shocked?"
He started to look to the Probabilator for guidance, but she was watching him too closely, she'd wonder what he was paying so much attention to down there. "Yeah," he said. "I guess."
"Haven't you ever done anything crazy? Just because you felt like it?"
"Well, I... not something against the law."
Lori shrugged. "Never mind. Couple more sips of tea, and you'll see what I mean."
There was a little gap in the conversation, while Henry realized that this was evidently the point that any normal person's alarm bells would start bringing the roof down--and that his were, self-evidently, not.
"Oh," he said.
Lori began to laugh.
Setting the teacup aside, Henry looked sternly at her for a moment. Yes, she could have had time to slip something into his cup while she was pouring for him. He'd been buttering her a scone, ungrateful woman, and he wouldn't have noticed. Perhaps she even had an accomplice in the teashop, drugging likely customers for robbery or organ theft or anything at all. He looked at the Probabilator screen, but it was wittering something about the probability of accepting that as a joke--which it quite obviously wasn't, what was wrong with the machine?
"Don't blow a valve," she grinned, her tone shifting abruptly toward some street slang or other. He could see now that she didn't belong in those clothes. The jewelry didn't belong, either, though with which image, he couldn't tell.
He was tired of sitting here talking.
"Let's go somewhere else," he said.
The Probabilator squealed like he'd sat on it--which he hadn't. It was still safe and sound on his knee. Maybe it was malfunctioning.
"In a minute," she said, smiling. "I want to finish my scone first."
Henry thought about what he wanted. It was a word he hadn't used, not properly, for a long time. He wanted to buy a bottle of wine, then climb up the face of the black granite Mother Of Suffering on the riverbank and sit there, drinking and throwing litter at passers-by. No, maybe not. Maybe he'd go down to the park, hang around watching the artists defacing the walls and plaiting rubbish into the tree branches, let them laugh at this plump, aging collar-and-tie for a while, until they'd maybe offer him a swig from those illegally-brewed bottles and try to explain their work.
The Probabilator was bleeping away like a cardiac monitor, and people were starting to stare. He picked up the cup and took another couple of gulps, almost draining it, and then said, "So. What did you put in the tea?"
"Specialized psychoactive. Knocks out social inhibitions. Don't worry, it'll wear off in about 72 hours. I'd hate to rob anyone of their livelihood, in these troubled days. After all, you've got one of the very few jobs that an artificial intellect can't do." Lori finished the scone, wiping her butter-smeared fingers on his napkin, and reached into her pocket. "You're going to be having some fun over the next couple of days, my friend. Why don't you allow TermaMarlCorp to express their gratitude in a... financial fashion?"
The Probabilator was going crazy. At this rate, he was going to have to sit on it or something. "Gratitude for what?"
Slapping a wedge of credit slips onto the table, Lori stood up and began buttoning her coat. "Screwing up the tests of our competitor's new wonder product, of course."
Of course. It was all starting to sound perfectly logical, Henry thought, spinning one of the credit slips on its gold-coded corner for a moment. He couldn't think why he'd been so worried about having tea with this nice woman. Damn machine, that's what it was. Ruling his life--or trying to. He'd show it who was boss.
"Have to rush," Lori confessed. "Lots more people on the employee list to be tracked down and invited to tea. Or beer, or a forced injection if that's what it takes... you'll be all right on your own, won't you, Henry?"
Lifting the lid on the teapot, Henry dropped the Probabilator inside and watched the firework display.
"I'll be just fine, thanks."
Ceri Jordan (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in mid-Wales. Her work has appeared in many U.S. and UK magazines, including The Third Alternative, Kimota, The Zone, and Not One Of Us. She is currently working on an experimental hypertext novel, and will be S.F. news correspondent on the new online magazine At The End Of The World. Her first novel is The Disaffected, (Tanjen Books, 1998).
InterText stories written by Ceri Jordan: "Handlers" (v5n6), "Making Movies" (v6n3), "Savannah" (v7n5), "Moral Minority" (v10n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Ceri Jordan.