It was January. They couldn’t have moved me far, because the air still had that penetrating cold that winter always brings. Blustery wind against the dark hood over my head, chilling my ears. My legs were cramping from the sitting in the van, hands drawn behind me. I was trussed like an animal with oversized plastic zip-ties, double-linked with casual precision.

So much for being paranoid.

Guided to an elevator, sinking down into the earth. No sounds except the two agents that intercepted me, a nice smash-and-grab job as I left the bar after work. I should’ve seen it coming, but then, I was distracted by something else much bigger.

Muted chime, doors opening. Yanked one way then the next, shouldered through a door and sat roughly in a cold seat. Hood yanked off, bright lights shining down, a pool of brilliance in a rather dim room. A plain gray table before me, and another man who had just lit a cigarette. Smoke coiling about his head.

“You will answer every question I ask, are we clear?”, he began, exhaling slowly, “It is in your best interest to do so, Mr. Dawson.”

I nodded, wishing I had my hands free to rub my eyes.

“You will begin by describing how you came into possession of materials pertaining to the MORTIS project.”

“I…”, stuttered, clearing my throat, “I’m just a researcher. The data I compiled came from your agency – or rather, I didn’t realize the data originated with you. I thought it was part of a research set given to me by my employer at-“

“Yes, an outfit named Chi Medical? We’d been tracking them for months. That still doesn’t explain the whole picture. Continue, Mr. Dawson.”, he took another drag of the cigarette, tapping his left thumb on the table.

“As you may know, we’ve been contracted by several insurance agencies to calculate environmental data that affects lifespans. Specifically as it relates to insurance premium schedules and payout rates for families of the deceased. In particular, I was using some custom models to see where our premiums should be crafted to avoid catastrophic payouts to insurance holders.”

Nothing. I guess I had his attention now.

“It became increasingly obvious over the course of my work that the usual environmental factors weren’t the only influence. With the data I was provided with, I began to see… signals.”

“I’m sorry you said, signals?”, the agent leaned back in his chair, looking slightly amused.

“Yes, signals. Or to put it another way, coinciding factors that when combined produced… mortality.”

“So, a patient who doesn’t stop drinking and ends up with liver failure? I don’t see how that’s relevant here.”, the agent shifted forward, elbows on the table, “Don’t waste my time, I need some actionable information out of you or you’ll be in a hole SO DEEP, nobody will ever SEE YOU AGAIN. Understand!?”

I did. Looks like I had no choice. Taking a deep breath, I continued.

“Like I said, signals. But nothing I’ve ever seen before. This wasn’t like you say, someone who disregarded their doctors advice and ended up dead. Nothing so cut-and-dried like that. This was deeper in the data, and I almost missed it, if it hadn’t been for the learning networks I set up to study it.”

“You mean neural networks? They’re quite simplistic, aren’t they?”, the agent folded his hands, cigarette poking into the air like a stick of incense.

“Well, yes, but I was working on something new. Not the usual back-propagation multi-layer networks you see in colleges and high-frequency trading firms. We had access to some advanced technology, and I adapted the data to run through that. That’s when I saw… the signals, as I call them.”

“Give me an example. And it better be good.”

“Okay.”, no turning back now, “Everything is online, every movement, every conversation and almost nearly every consumer habit. You’ve got reams of data on purchasing habits alone, not to mention specific medications, where they live, hell, even the specific branch of the water delivery system going into their homes. Thanks to modern cell phones, you have speech data, location and the ability to build psychological profiles from in the field. This is the perfect set of economic and biocentric data to build a … mortality profile.”

Again, nothing. Damn, I was close, wasn’t I.

“This isn’t just about sending someone a direct dose of poison in their drinking water, no, its much more insidious than that. Say you have your average male, he works at a IT firm and does basic support. You also know that he loves to masturbate to cosplay porn and he has a particular affinity for skittles and bacon-snackum-chips.”

The agent nodded, taking another drag.

“You change the timing of the lights on the way home from his work, he’s stressed. Elevated heartbeat plus an extra jolt of adrenaline when the right turn lane triggers early, causing a near miss. But his anti-lock brakes assist, which jar him against his seatbelt. In his shoulder, the injury he had two years ago is aggravated, but it only feels like a small stab of discomfort, nothing major.

He goes home, gets some mail, including one for an upcoming cosplay convention. He likes this, very much. Sitting in front of his computer, snackbowl ready, he reads an email sent from a friend he hasn’t heard from in a while. This makes him get up, go to the refrigerator to retrieve the photo – it has a number he wrote there months ago that he wants to call.”

“Now he’s in what you’d call ‘PRIMED’ condition. He has a latent injury affecting his nervous system, the strong desire to sit in front of the computer and jack off, and the snackum chips that he saw on the counter when he went to get the photo.

Heart beating faster, he starts to view some porno, when in the middle he shifts position to eat a chip – and his injury flares from the increased blood pressure, causing him to jerk backwards, topple over and snap his neck. The chair of course, was out of warranty and had been gradually weakened due to a specific design flaw that just happened to be delivered to his house.”

“So how does that relate to project MORTIS?”, the agent stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray, exhaling smoke.

“I think you get it. The light timing was changed by an operative of yours, human or machine, and casually arranged all the other pieces together to produce the end of someone’s life. No poison, no prosecution, just a neat and tidy accident that won’t even make it to the back pages of the newspaper.”, I bowed my head, knowing it would soon be over.

“I can neither confirm or deny such things, but it seems you’re out of your depth on this one, Mr. Dawson.”, the agent straightened up, and smoothed his tie, “I’ll have to speak to someone for a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

As he left, I heard him key a mic and speak into his lapel, “That’s right, a code black, I repeat a–” as the door closed behind him.

I sat there in the light, staring at the ground.

I was as good as dead.