Green. They were green. Not merely a pale cabbage color, either. These folks were the full comic book swamp monster, livid, glowing, putrescent green. Gills and the odd draping of slime would have really suited them. To make matters worse, there appeared to be nothing else wrong with them. No unpleasant pustular rashes, no intermittent life-threatening fevers, no unusual liver malfunction, not even a cough. They were just green. Damn them.
"Shitttt " breathed Martin Styles. The word came out long and a slow, as if it, too, were longing for a simpler life. "Why?" he added. Why did he have to take such a profound interest in this crazy-ass condition? And why did he work so late all those nights, just to be the first to identify the strange skin reaction that gave victims their distinctive hue? Sure, the consequent promotion to chief epidemiologist had been quite nice back then, but now he was the authority on the matter, and the whole country was screaming at him for answers. Answers he didnt have.
And prior to this particular little world crisis, he had always been so level headed! Something deep inside told him he had merely fallen victim to one of those inevitable ploys fate so vindictively uses to catch anyone trying too hard to mind their own business. He took another deep breath and turned to the last page of his teams latest report. Talk about an epidemic! It had taken only a month, but greenness had now swamped the populations of a number of the worlds western nations, most of the middle east, parts of central Asia and little pockets were even showing up as far south as Indonesia. The US, UK and Australia were hit worst of the West, where upwards of thirty percent of people were currently attempting to go about their business the color of a four-year-olds booger. Thankfully, infections had leveled out in the last week and seemed to be hovering at this proportion.
Not only was there a total lack of additional sinister symptoms, but a desperate group of very well-resourced, international experts had completely failed to identify any associated pathogens (and these guys would have merrily isolated the "travel bug," given a half decent grant!). Hence, the panic quarantines had now been lifted and all manner of imaginative public reassurances given.
Still, people dont turn livid green without wanting to know why. Nor were they shy about using any political support they could muster to push for answers. Martin often reflected that maybe, if so many of the countrys elite hadnt turned green, his life wouldnt be quite so miserable. They all seemed to be able to get his number from someone, and rang it at least twice a day. He spent a lot of time on the phone with very important people, trying to put a positive spin on the fact that he had absolutely no frigging idea why all their private parts were now the same color as Kermit the frogs.
All he had so far been able to establish was that the skin color was created by some kind of novel enzyme interaction. It couldnt be genetic, given the synchronized onset across people of widely varying ages. No water contaminants, food additives, nuclear energy leaks, or even abnormal solar radiation could be linked to the problem. They had tried everything and had nothing.
Of course, the media had its fun with greenness when it first arose. It had even pushed the latest little war off the top slot for a brief moment. Unfortunately, the war itself had now unexpectedly and inconsiderately dragged-on a bit, which wasnt good for ratings. The major networks sportscasts of hostilities had inadvertently stumbled into halftime, catching the victory cheerleaders still unprepared (although this was largely only because most producers still werent quite sure how they where going to fit both stars and stripes on those outfits!). Hungry executive eyes were hence seeking an intermission spectacle capable of tossing a little instant gratification to the hordes of increasingly impatient viewers. Greenness, or rather the lack of instant victory over greenness, was providing a perfect opportunity for a ritual venting of national impatience, while not appearing in any way unpatriotic.
Martin, now the CDC (Center for Disease Control) Chief Epidemiologist, undoubtedly looked an ideal sacrificial goat. The same boyish good looks that had made him a popular figure a fortnight ago, could just as easily be twisted into a clear indication that he was some kind of charismatic charlatan who had ruthlessly betrayed the trust of a nation. In his unfortunately vivid imagination, Martin could already hear the Jonestown and WACO comparisons. No doubt someone would eventually link him to either, or, if feeling particularly generous, both. After all, he had driven through Waco once (without actually noticing it), and in his medical student days he had spent some time completing an elective in Africa. So there you had it, proof positive!
It had all been reasonably manageable up until last week, but his superiors, frustrated at no longer having any good news to report themselves, had now started referring reporters directly to him. Hed begun to truly appreciate how the first few green ones must have felt, as friends, relatives and even alternate medicine practitioners had started to back away. It was like some kind of reverse schooling behavior.
While most species of fish have far too much compassion and self-respect to push sacrificial victims out into a predators waiting jaws, many humans lacked even the slightest of qualms in this regard. Martin knew his predicament well enough to realize that if he failed to find a cure for greenness soon, it was only a matter of time before he was solely to blame for it in the first place. He would then be lucky to get a job sexing mosquitoes in a second-rate malaria lab in rural New Guinea.
However, unlike virtually all of his immediate superiors, Martin wasnt green. A perverse and somehow intuitive pleasure in this fact kept him going. Also against the odds, none of his four-person team were green either. Mind you, he often wished it upon Jones.
Despite the best efforts of the State Department to foster international understanding (ie. that We think you-all did it!), Martin had still managed to make one useful contact in the middle east. Dr Mahamud Khan was roughly his equivalent in Jordan. He was possibly one of the few people in the world in as equally hopeless a position as Martin. There was therefore a huge amount of mutual respect between them, and they shared any useful information they came across, even if Mahamud had to go to an internet café and use a hotmail account to do so. Martin was somewhat amused by these precautions, but considering that greenness had brought a fair few militant clerics into the lime light, so to speak, it was probably justified. Martin often wondered why there was so much disharmony in the world, when groups as diverse as militant clerics and the US State Department shared so common an approach to fostering international understanding
Like Dr Mahamud, Martin had been given the opportunity to handpick his own team when greenness started appearing. They were all very good at what they did, but it just didnt seem to help. Nothing did. He was at a complete loss for what to do next.
Martin stopped himself. He was about to yell at Jones, but realized that it would have only been to vent his own frustrations. The fact that Jones insisted on sitting cross-legged on the table at all their meetings didnt actually interfere with his effectiveness, and Martin appreciated that everyone looked sincerely worried, even though they were all wise to the fact that the burden of failure would fall on the Chief Epidemiologist alone.
"All right, ideas please?" started Martin. "And better make them good!"
Gwen, her supposedly inscrutable Chinese features failing utterly to live up to their reputation, looked extremely downcast, but she still responded first, as usual. "Sorry boss, but I cant think of a single new avenue of research. Weve prodded, poked, tested, profiled, mapped and generally interrogated the greenies to the point where Im afraid weve started using it as a punishment for them not being of any help."
Martin noticed Jones slowly open his eyes at this point. This was unusual. If it wasnt for the occasional Tibetan chant, many might have justifiably suspected he slept though most meetings. Gwen finished, "In short, if we dont give it a break soon, it may start getting a little morbid."
Stan, the lab tech, was nodding in his normal silent agreement.
"Anything to add Stan?" Martin pressed.
"The tests were all good, but the results were all lousy; what can I say?" mumbled Stan rhetorically.
Finally, Martin turned to Jones. Jones wasnt his real name, but for some paradoxical reason, it suited the oversized Russian exceptionally well. Calling him something like "Crazy Ivan" would have seemed a droll stating of the obvious. Martin was surprised to see that not only were his eyes still open, but they had that twinkle in them.
As everyone knows, there is an unwritten law of dramatic ocular scintillation, which states that the sufferer is either about to come out with an exceptionally brilliant idea, or a very lousy joke. Martin held his breath. He knew from experience that this was one of the few concessions Jones ever made in regard to being law-abiding. "OK zhen," Jones began slowly, staring into space as if trying to peer up the nostril of some unsuspecting fly on the adjacent wall, "if ze damn greenies vill tell us nothing, zhen ve must ask someone else!"
Martin, still unsure which option Jones was delivering, felt the need to prompt with an exceptionally cautious, "Yyyyes ?"
"Dont you zee?" Jones continued, "Ve ave been so caught up with ze victims themselves, ve avent been looking at those that ze greenness overlooked."
"But there are still more non-green people than greenies. Where would we start?" objected Gwen.
"You are right as always, my little China-dolly, but when ze odds are against you, you must look for things vhich are against ze odds!" beamed Jones triumphantly.
Gwen failed to beam back. "OK, start speaking English, you idiot, or Ill start confusing Harpo and Karl again . . ." she suggested. (It should be pointed out that Gwen and Jones loved each other dearly, just not in a way that would ever encourage physical contact.)
"Alright, look . . . " continued Jones, his accent rapidly retreating, "yes, weve done the large-scale population demographics, but what about the microcosm? What if we look for exceptions within exceptions?" Gwen glared death rays at him.
"OK, OK!" Jones added quickly, "We find large families in which a much larger proportion of members have turned green than would be statistically expected, preferably the majority, and then look for the differences within those families. Between the green ones and the exceptional ones who remained normal."
Martin breathed out. He was glad that he wasnt the one whod have to work out how to render the approach statistically valid, but it was an idea! He might have even thought it a comparatively good one, had he any others to choose from.
Everyone now looked at Martin.
"Right! Ditch everything else and get onto it! I figure we have about a month before they pull the plug on us and call in the Ponds Institute " Under the circumstances there was little sense equivocating.
As everyone filed out of the meeting, Martin noted that Gwen was at the tail. He knew exactly what this meant, so he waited.
"Yes?" he asked, as soon as the others had left.
Gwen was uncharacteristically sheepish. "Umm , I did find something yesterday. Something that Id be glad not to have noticed if you want."
"Shit!" thought Martin and sat down, "OK, out with it!" he groaned.
Gwen went on, "Well, I was looking at some of the wider demographics, and thought I would cross-check them with the latest figures from the studies we did in the prisons. I logged into the Justice Departments mainframe, but it was late and I couldnt be bothered setting out all the stupid parameters yet again, so I just let it run overnight cross-checking against everything they had, not just the prisons data."
"And?" Martin asked defensively.
"Well, you know how green prisoners had a greater propensity to commit violent acts than the population at large?"
"Yes, but we didnt consider it unusual, given most of them were in prison for committing violent crimes in the first place!" Martin was a little impatient now.
Gwen hurried on. "Well, they dont! Not anymore. Not if you compare them to the green population outside."
Martin considered this for a while. "But, thats not such a bad thing is it?! You mean greenness seems to be calming the prison populations?" he said, relaxing slightly.
Gwen bit her lip, "Sorry boss, the level of green prisoner violence has remained static."
"Oh," Martin replied, as this stress levels raced his awakening understanding to the roof, "you mean greenies in general show a greater propensity toward violent acts?"
Gwen dumped the file she was clutching on the meeting table. Martin inspected the contents as one might handle a fully charged electric eel. Well, it wasnt too dramatic, but the correlations were clearly statistically significant, especially if you included self-inflicted injury, and both intentional violence and unintentional harm-causing acts such as road accidents, drunk-driving and misguided pranks. He knew he couldnt conceal this. "Just one thing," he added as Gwen was leaving. "Tell the guys, we now only have two weeks". She walked out.
"Tops!" he yelled after her.
"Great!" thought Martin sarcastically, though he often wondered why he bothered to be sarcastic with himself (it seemed such a complete waste of inference). The FBI had even wanted to place an agent on his team. He had only avoided it by pointing to the part of the report which explained that: "Although the higher propensity to commit violent acts within the green population easily swamped all ethnic and social class disparities, the correlations were still within the same order of magnitude as the statistical significance of correlations not related to either ethnic or social disparities. Therefore, the effect may not prove truly significant in a real sense".
Martin was an expert statistician. He had absolutely no idea what this meant, or even what Jones had intended the statement to mean, but it had worked beautifully. The consensus of blank stares was almost frightening. Finally an authoritative voice from the panel broke the silence.
"Well, of course we all realize that, Dr Styles," it had said. Martin even decided to forgive Jones his favorite pun, yet again.
In the earlier Special Joint Heads of Agencies Meeting, it was made very clear to him that there were to be no leaks of the matter to the public, "or ELSE!" They had also successfully given Martin the impression that the ELSE that had been wheeled out for this occasion was a particularly large and nasty one, and would probably require its own specially designed rail-car. He even decided there and then that he too had better use an internet café when he wrote Mahamud about it. In the end, they had given him two more weeks to find an answer, so at least he had something to feel smug about. Also, by their theatric attempts to appear in total command of the situation, it was clear they hadnt even the faintest idea of what theyd do after giving him the boot. He appreciated that.
Gwen burst into the office a split-second after her thunderous salutation, to be confronted by an icy Martin as he picked himself, the chair, the papers and the now irreparable stapler up off the floor. Four days had passed without progress. He was more than a little on edge.
Sucking a bleeding thumb that looked very like the work of the fabled pigmy office rattler, he took a long, slow, deep breath, and screamed "WHATTTT!?"
"Umm, sorry," Gwen began, "but its good news, sort of . . . Well, that is, weve found a great family for you! There are twenty of them, and only one of the eighteen children isnt green! Even Jones says the statistical likelihood of this occurring by pure stochastic chance is so small as to be effectively inestimable in significant correlative probabilities!"
Martin thought about this for a second, "OK... Great! Now I want you to do two things for me. First, get me a plane ticket to wherever this family lives, because if anyone is going to botch this final chance, its sure as hell going to be me!"Gwen looked at him strangely. "Errr, You know what I mean!" he finished.
"Right!" said Gwen. "And Boss?"
"Whats the second thing?"
"Oh yes," Martin remembered, "check Jones file, will you? See if he has any statistical qualifications whatsoever."
It had been a long trip. Flying to the nearest airfield hadnt actually put him very close in real terms. Luckily, the only vehicle available for rent in this particular region was a four-wheel-drive camper. It even had satellite navigation. Unfortunately, the technology only beeped blankly when he had fed it the street address in question. It had beeped with even less conviction at the town name. Hed done the last fifteen miles using a topographic map reference, and the navigation systems GPS headings.
Martin knocked. There was a shuffle, a creak, and then a very overweight and livid green elderly woman in a floral sun bonnet opened the door. She waited expectantly.
"Mrs. . . . umm . . . Brown, isnt it?" inquired Martin.
"Thats right! Im Ma Brown. And who are you?" asked the woman suspiciously.
She had opened the door just far enough for Martin to catch a glimpse of an equally obese, elderly green man quaintly sitting in a rocking chair next to a pot-belly stove. He even had the standard checkered blanket across his knees. He was cleaning an assault rifle on it. Just one of many military-looking weapons strewn about the kitchen.
With his left hand, Martin reached very slowly into his coat and removed his identification badge, showing it to the woman. "PA!" yelled the woman. Pa grabbed a nearby pump-action shotgun.
"Im a doctor!" yelled Martin. Pa lowered the weapon from Martins face. But left it cocked. "Whut? They gives doctors badges nowadays, do they?" said Pa, not sounding at all convinced.
"TINA! Get in here daughter! We needs some readin done, pronto!" bawled Ma suddenly.
To Martins enduring surprise, a very attractive, very brown, young woman, obviously of partial African-American decent walked through a doorway and into the kitchen. He had been sure this one was marked down as a fully Caucasian family, and despite being the color of lime Kool-Aid, it was obvious that Ma and Pa showed no African features whatsoever. He guessed she was about five or six years younger than his thirty-five. He also couldnt help but notice that she carried herself with an air of long-suffering resignation that would have blunted a knife in passing, and then gone on to give a chainsaw a really hard time. "This is Tina, our third eldest. Shes a sweet young thing, aint she?" said Ma meaningfully, obviously hedging her bets in case Martin really turned out to be what he claimed.
"Tina, whats this dang badge say?" interrupted Pa.
"It says hes Chief Epidemiologist with the Center for Disease Control."
The gun barrel jumped up again. "Coulda told ya he werent no Doctor, Ma!" said Pa. "Now whuts we gonna do with him?"
"Same as the last snooper!" suggested Ma.
"NO!" screamed Tina. "An epidemiologist is a doctor, a special doctor!"
"Well, why didnt you say so in the first place! Stupid girl!" spat Pa, putting down the gun. "Sorry mister, but you know kids today, just cant get a lick a sense outta em." Martin noted that the gun remained cocked.
"Youll be from the school board then, I expect," said Ma. "They said they was gonna send someone up to look into the medical reasons we give for not sending the younguns to school."
Pa placed his hand back on the loaded shotgun and said "We think schoolins bad for um. Gives em ideas! And thats all the medical opinion we need!" His finger caressed the trigger. When he continued, it was in a tone that went well beyond a nice healthy sweetness and had entered the realms of Turkish desserts. "I expect youll, be agreein with me, wont ya mister?"
"Yes!" replied Martin in a rather urgent voice. "I mean, no!" The gun was off the table again. "I mean that Im not from the school board!" Martin finally blurted.
"Well, who in hell is you then?" asked Pa.
"And whys you bin keeping it such a secret?!" Ma put in, looking sincerely put out.
"Hes here about the advertisement I saw in the newspaper," explained Tina.
With apparent growing disbelief, Ma very slowly looked Tina up and down, and then launched into a hysterical tirade at her daughter. "I thought wed sorted out that business about answering them newspaper advertisements after that poor eastun-Eu-ro-pee-uhn girl showed up, and we give young Billy-Bob a good hidin! Now its you, is it? Well, I never would have suspected such a thing from a full-grown girl like " Ma paused mid-flush, as if something had struck her deep inside, something that had made a resounding "DONG!"
"So, youre really a doctor then, are you mister?" she continued, changing tones and redirecting her questioning to Martin with bewildering rapidity.
"Umm . . . ,well, yes " said Martin.
After a prolonged, and somewhat repetitive, explanation, and with much help from Tina, Martin had finally imparted to Ma and Pa a basic understanding of why he was so interested in their family. Ma was actually quite proud, and blushed (turning a strange shade of blue), when Martin pointed out that they had been selected out of all the families in the country, because they alone might hold the key to curing greenness. Pa on the other hand, saw it as a bit of a useless imposition.
"Hell, greenness aint no problem. It dont even hurt! If ya wanna go about curing somethin, hows about makin it something worthwhile, like my dag-burned hemorrhoids!"
Ma had hushed him, but to no avail. It was only after Martin explained that the CDC would happily pay each family member examined for their time, that Pa came around. Or, more accurately, went around, hollering at the top of lungs for all his children to get themselves front and center this instant! It still took a fair while to gather them all; Pa had literally covered miles before the day was out. This wasnt a problem for Martin, as he soon had plenty to start on, and couldnt possibly have finished everyone that afternoon anyway. The Browns offered him their hospitality, but at the end of the day Martin needed some thinking space in which to compile his notes. With the whole tribe now gathered, thinking space was something of a rare commodity inside the Brown house, especially given the pervasive background of reality TV shows and play station sound effects. Martin respectfully excused himself and retired to his truck. He was just thinking about turning in, when there came a hesitant knocking on the side door. Recalling his near-death experience of earlier in the day, he opened it cautiously. It was Tina.
"Im really sorry to interrupt you Dr Styles, but Ma insisted I come out to see if there was anything you need," she said. The way she said it conveyed two things. First, that she was more than a little embarrassed, and second, that, while she knew that they both probably understood Mas game plan, she definitely wasnt intending to play by it.
Tina had been the first of the family hed examined, and it had been a much more awkward session than hed experienced for many years. Not because Tina was a difficult patient, but because . . . well, . . . well it was just awkward, thats all! Hed sensed that Tina had felt it too, but his well-practiced professionalism and her common-sense attitude had eventually gotten them both through. It had ended with a little unspoken bond established between them, much as happens when any two people share a difficult ordeal.
"No problem," said a tired Martin. "I was just about to jump into bed anyway." He gagged immediately, "Uhh , I mean Ive already finished working for the night."
Tina couldnt help a guarded smile at his verbal clumsiness, not least because she knew she caused much of it. The smile was breathtaking, and didnt help. A pause gestating triplets followed. Finally, Martin decided that hed better just be up-front. "Sorry, I didnt mean that like it might have sounded. You dont need to worry about me getting any silly ideas," he said.
"Thats OK. Im sorry about all this too. Mas kind of old-fashioned, just in all the worst ways!" Tina replied, relieved at his openness.
Martin knew from their conversation during the examination that Tina didnt usually live with the rest of the Brown family, but had seen the CDC advertisement and thought it might be a way to solve at least one of their current problems. Tina didnt have much in the way of a formal education, but she worked in the county library, and had apparently made up for earlier shortfalls by reading obsessively. The insight with which she had quizzed him on CDC theories about greenness had sincerely impressed him. Of course, this hadnt helped his awkwardness at the time, either.
"So, did you find anything to go on yet?" Tina asked.
"Nah, nothing," Martin groaned. "You folks really dont seem any different from the other families weve looked at."
"I thought maybe, my being of mixed blood might have helped," Tina half asked.
"Sorry, but no. More families than you might expect contain half-brothers or half-sisters of different racial mixes. We looked at a lot of them early on, when we were still hoping to find genetic links," Martin explained. "To be honest, weve already tried pretty much everything. Looking at families like yours was really just taking a tin-opener to the bottom of the barrel."
"No offense intended," he added quickly. "At this point, Im so open to suggestions that Im considering following up on Jones alien theory."
Tina smiled again. "What?"
"Jones. Hes a guy on my team. He said that aliens had finally gotten so seriously pissed off at being called little green men that they decided to see how we liked it. Im fairly sure he wasnt serious."
Martin turned to Tina. She now seemed miles away, and stayed there for several seconds. "Maybe," she said finally, "its something so obvious that we all simply refuse to see it, even you doctors." Martin tilted his head slightly, much like a confused puppy. This was something Jones mightve come out with. He wasnt sure if he liked the implication. Besides, it was too damn dark to see if she had twinkling eyes or not.
"What do you mean so obvious we refuse to see it?"
"You know, like those riddles "
Martin gazed blankly at her.
"OK, not that I personally think this is a good one, but it illustrates my point," Tina continued.
Finally, in a resigned tone, Tina asked "Why do women wear make-up and perfume?"
Martin thought. He tried to think of witty answers. He tried to think of serious explanations that he could then turn into witty answers. He even tried to piece together all he knew of the female psyche, including that learned in his early student psychology lectures. All to no avail.
"Well?" he finally gave in.
"Because theyre ugly and they smell!"
Martin did his best not to laugh and failed miserably. Tina was clearly a little annoyed at this, but went on anyway. "A four-year-old boy told me that at the library last week. He didnt even know why it was a joke, he just kept telling it for the reaction it got. To him it was a perfectly natural answer."
Martin had recovered a little by now. "So youre suggesting I do the old thing about asking a bunch of children what they think causes greenness?"
"Well, maybe not literally," answered Tina, "but perhaps you could just stop filtering out the answers you sub-consciously believe cant possibly be the right ones."
Martin had to think about this for a moment, but he thought he got what she meant.
"OK then, Miss Smarty-Britches, maybe I should go one better and stop thinking about it altogether, and just ask you why everyone in your family but you has turned the color of toxic waste from a B-movie?"
Tina looked embarrassed again. "This is dumb, and a bit vain, I know, but sometimes I think it must be because Im the only clever one," she said.
Martin had no idea what she was talking about. "You mean you somehow outsmarted greenness?"
"Well, not exactly. But I do know that the traveling salesman who seduced Ma nine months before I was born probably supplied the only new genes to successfully fight their way into this neighborhood for generations," Tina continued. "Hell, Pa still thinks Im brown because of all the chocolate he and Ma eat. It is virtually their staple diet. Seems Ma ate an inordinate amount of it while she was carrying me. To Pa, it seemed to make perfect sense when I came out the color I did. Ma did her best to promote this belief of course, -mainly by telling him he was wrong. Seeing how most of our neighbors live in glass houses, no one ever openly commented about me. So the chocolate theory just became accepted doctrine."
"From the, um generous proportions of your siblings, it looks as though they all suffer from a bit of a sweet tooth as well. So why is it youre so trim?" Martin was comfortable enough now to throw in a seemingly innocent, but definitely intentional compliment.
"Migraines." Tina sighed, "Chocolates one of the worst things for setting them off. I even had them as a little kid. So, Ma soon learned not to feed me the stuff if she didnt want to be kept up all night."
"Theyre often hereditary, you know. So I guess its the price you paid for wisdom," Martin pointed out with mock cruelty. Then, in the usual play of making and avoiding eye contact with Tina, he unwittingly glanced at his watch. As the figures slowly registered, there came a panicked realization. "Oh Shit!" he thought. They had been talking for a good twenty minutes already. He was very much enjoying her company, but self-preservation is a powerful instinct. He turned on the sarcasm. "OK, great! So youve solved it then. Greenness is simply caused by plain old stupidity. If youre dumb enough to turn green, well then you just do! Congratulations! But sorry, I really have to finish that grant application for finding the rhythm gene before I can follow up on this."
Tinas laughed retort came very quickly. "Well, youd better ask someone unrelated for a DNA sample white-boy, cuz you sure wont have it!"
Martin rushed the conversation to a close. "OK, given youre starting to cut me deep, youd better go now," replied Martin. But, just to make sure she didnt think he was tiring of her company, he leveled with her once more. "And besides, we wouldnt want Ma to think shes had a win, or for Pa to feel the need to get that shotgun out again "
Tina smiled again. This time it was openly warm, and even a little intimate. It had the effect of gently, but irresistibly washing many of the immediate woes from Martins mind. (Oceans, tides and writing in the sand ---that sort of thing.) He slept pleasantly for a change.
So, this was what the end of the line looked like. Martin had always wondered, but being actually there, he experienced that little anti-climax often felt by novice travelers, when what was formerly a romantic notion turned out to be just another dirty, smelly, noisy city. The rest of the team had been so disappointed when Martin presented them with his findings, or rather lack thereof, he felt as if he had betrayed some unspoken trust. Gwen offered to double check his work, but he knew from the fact she offered, rather than just did so, that she already knew she wasnt going to find anything.
"Did the Browns zhemselves suggest anyzhing?" asked Jones. Even he was a little less animated than usual.
"The only one I could get any sense out of was Tina, and she just made a joke of it," Martin replied.
"Well, jokes are much better than no ideas at all So tell us!" demanded Jones. Martin reluctantly recounted his conversation of the night before with Tina, leaving out the slight innuendos, but covering the rest exhaustively. It seemed to cheer Jones up to no end.
"Zis Tina, she iz a girl after my own heart!" he declared.
Gwen had also swapped her downcast look for a more thoughtful one. "You know boss, I seem to recall that theres a lot of weird stuff in chocolate, especially these days. Maybe its worth following up on," she suggested. "After all, its not like anyone will have tried to look at correlations with chocolate consumption before, and besides, I need something to keep my mind off the fact that well all be thrown out of here by the end of the week."
"Whatever!" said Martin. "But I really wont mind if I see you guys doing something more productive---like looking for new jobs! Face it. Its beaten us. Perhaps some new people will actually see something weve missed".
"Thats the Spirit!" mumbled Stan sarcastically.
"Sorry guys", Martin sighed. "I guess Im just over-tired, it was a long, rushed trip."
Then, with an unexpected, but powerfully imparted finality, Jones leapt to his feet and declared, "You are right, my boss! You are tired and must have ze rest now. Let us worry about it all for the last few days. Ve vill make our own inquiries as ve see fit." Martin was not too tired to be worried in principle about exactly what Jones had in mind, but he was well past caring about consequences.
"Whatever!" he sighed as he left the room. "If any of you want me, Ill be down the street emailing Mahamud "
There was a brief pause.
"Jones, what the hell are you playing at?" Stan asked curiously.
"Never you mind my little ideas," Jones replied. "You just help my little China dolly here look into ze chocolate business."
As they filed out of the meeting room, Stan couldnt help overhear Jones giggle quietly, "Yes indeed, it is because zhey are ugly and zhey smell!"
Gwen must have heard it too. The file caught Jones square on the left ear.
It had been a hectic couple of days for Gwen. The fact that Jones had completely disappeared only partially compensated for this. She walked casually into Martins office, her nose so well buried in a file that it was difficult to see how she could be navigating without some form of sonar. This was common for Gwen, and had earned her a comparison to an "old bat" from Jones, which, in turn, had earned him a seriously bruised shin. "Boss, what was it you said Tina did for a living?" She sounded deeply suspicious.
Martin started up from behind his desk looking a little embarrassed. Hed been asleep again. Hed tried to blame his continual tiredness on the recent trip, but knew it was really just an escape mechanism of sorts. "Shes a librarian. Why?" he replied.
"Well boss, your young lady couldnt have tossed us a more complicated lead if she was a think tank of Nobel prize-winning chemists."
Martin ignored the "your young lady" reference. He had protested the first time Gwen had referred to Tina this way, but apparently denial had only further ignited her feminine instincts. "Huh?" he finally managed.
"Here, just read this, itll be quicker " suggested Gwen, tossing a page onto his desk. He picked it up. It was fresh from the printer, but was strangely formatted and in an odd font. He read it slowly:
"Chocolate is a psychoactive food. It is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. The cacao tree was named by the 17th century Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus. The Greek term theobroma means literally "food of the gods." Chocolate has also been called the food of the devil; but the theological basis of this claim is obscure.
Cacao beans were used by the Aztecs to prepare to a hot, frothy beverage with stimulant and restorative properties. Chocolate itself was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests. The Aztecs esteemed its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Taken fermented as a drink, chocolate was also used in religious ceremonies. The sacred concoction was associated with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. Emperor Montezuma allegedly drank 50 goblets a day. Aztec taxation was levied in cacao beans. 100 cacao beans could buy a slave. 12 cacao beans bought the services of courtesan.
The celebrated Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) took chocolate before bedding his conquests. This was on account of chocolate's reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac. More recently, a study of 8000 male Harvard graduates showed that chocaholics lived longer than abstainers. This may be explained by the high polyphenol levels in chocolate. Polyphenols reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins and thereby protect against heart disease. Such theories are still speculative.
Chocolate as we know it today dates to the inspired addition of triglyceride cocoa butter by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879. The advantage of cocoa butter is that its addition to chocolate sets a bar so that it will readily snap and then melt on the tongue. Cocoa butter begins to soften at around 75 F; it melts at around 97 F.
Today, chocolate is legal, unscheduled and readily available over the counter. Some 50% of women reportedly claim to prefer chocolate to sex, though this response may depend on the attributes of the interviewer. More than 300 different constituent compounds in chocolate have been identified. Chocolate clearly delivers far more than a brief sugar high. Yet its cocktail of psychochemical effects in the central nervous system are poorly understood. So how does it work?
Chocolate contains small quantities of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid found in the brain. Sceptics claim one would need to consume several pounds of chocolate to gain any very noticeable effects; and eat a lot more to get fully stoned. Yet it's worth noting that N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine, two structural cousins of anandamide present in chocolate, both inhibit the metabolism of anandamide. It has been speculated that they promote and prolong the feeling of well-being that anandamide can induce.
Chocolate contains caffeine. But caffeine is present only in modest quantities. It is easily obtained from other sources. Chocolate's theobromine content may contribute to - but seems unlikely to determine - its subtle but distinctive profile. Chocolate also contains tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. It is the rate-limiting step in the production of the mood-modulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Enhanced serotonin function typically diminishes anxiety. Yet tryptophan can normally be obtained from other sources as well.
Like other palatable sweet foods, consumption of chocolate causes the release of endorphins, the body's endogenous opiates. Enhanced endorphin-release reduces the chocolate-eater's sensitivity to pain. Endorphins probably contribute to the warm inner glow induced in susceptible chocaholics.
Acute monthly cravings for chocolate amongst pre-menstrual women may be partly explained by its rich magnesium content. Magnesium deficiency exacerbates PMT. Before menstruation, too, levels of the hormone progesterone are high. Progesterone promotes fat storage, preventing its use as fuel; and thus elevated pre-menstrual levels of progesterone may cause a periodic craving for fatty foods. One study reported that 91% of chocolate-cravings associated with the menstrual cycle occurred between ovulation and the start of menstruation. Chocolate cravings are admitted by 15% of men and around 40% of women. Cravings are usually most intense in the late afternoon and early evening.
Perhaps chocolate's key ingredient is its phenylethylamine "love-chemical." Yet the role of the "chocolate amphetamine" is disputed. Most if not all chocolate-derived phenylethylamine is metabolised before it reaches the CNS. Some people may be sensitive to its effects in very small quantities.
Phenylethylamine is itself a naturally occurring trace amine in the brain. It releases mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure-centres. It peaks during orgasm. Taken in unnaturally high doses, phenylethylamine can produce stereotyped behaviour more prominently even than amphetamine. Phenylethylamine has distinct binding sites but no specific neurons. It helps mediate feelings of attraction, excitement, giddiness, apprehension and euphoria. One of its metabolites is unusually high in subjects with paranoid schizophrenia.
There is even a phenylethylamine theory of depression. Monoamine oxidase type-b has been described as phenylethylaminase; and taking an selective MAO-b inhibitor, selegiline (l-deprenyl), can accentuate chocolate's effects. Some subjects report that bupropion (Wellbutrin) reduces their chocolate-cravings; but other chocaholics dispute this."
Martin finally looked up again, "Wow! You found out all this in just two days?" he said, honestly impressed.
"Nope, that took two minutes."
"Its copied straight from www.chocolate.org," Gwen admitted. "Stan and I have since been working around the clock trying to eliminate all the possible factors it raised."
"And?" asked Martin
"Well, by this afternoon we had ruled out everything except the mesolimbic dopamine connection."
Martin started scanning the page again. "You mean the stuff thats released during orgasm?" he asked hesitantly. You didnt usually mention such things in Gwens company.
"Right!" replied Gwen, utterly unabashed. "Given the amount of kids the Browns had, we thought "
"I see!," said Martin very quickly. The last thing he needed right now was a lingering mental image of Ma and Pa Brown having sex. "And?" he asked again.
"Well, we were at a loss of how to follow it up. We were actually considering trying to get ourselves arrested by conducting an impromptu survey of passers-by out front of the office."
"Wouldnt have worked anyway," Martin put in, "you couldnt have been sure of how honest people were being."
Gwen hesitated for a second, "We had thought of that, and were going to confine our survey to women. Anyway, at the last minute Stan had a brilliant idea and just called some friends in the porn industry." Gwen hesitated again, "Of course, this time, we only looked at men."
Martin looked quite thoughtful, "And?"
"Zilcho!" Gwen admitted. "No correlation between frequency of orgasm and greenness, sorry!"
"Never mind, I suspected as much," said Martin, whose mind had been working a bit faster than normal. "If there had been, every male from age thirteen onwards would have been feeling a little self-conscious for the past few millennia."
Gwen looked puzzled, which reassured Martin a little.
"Well its absolutely amazing anyway! I never would have dreamed it!" he continued quickly to avoid being asked for an explanation.
"You mean all the stuff about the endorphins in chocolate?" asked Gwen
"No, that Stan has friends in the Porn industry "
Always one for the allegorical, Jones left it until the morning of the third day to make a triumphant return to the office. Hed immediately and ceremoniously herded everyone into the meeting room. Then he very deliberately closed and locked the door, and proceeded to search every nook and crevice of the room, mumbling something that sounded like, "vun never can be too careful "
Just a day before his scheduled dishonorable removal, Martin was not feeling particularly generous. "Just get on with it Jones," he moaned.
Jones turned on him, looked him defiantly in the eye, and said, "I know what causes ze greenness." The team held its collective breath, and due to some curious sympathetic reaction, this included Jones.
"Well?" Gwen finally spat.
"It really is too much stupidity!" Jones revealed.
The following collective out-rush of air carried with it a divergent collection of none too complementary references to Jones. Martin was the first to recover from the disappointment. "Okay Jones, I appreciate your effort to cheer me up, but please stop before I do something silly!"
Jones looked around his colleagues, appearing more affronted than crestfallen. "Im serious!" he hissed.
"Youre a looney!" rebutted Stan.
"But, I ave ze proof!" protested Jones.
"What proof?" challenged Gwen, obviously losing patience very rapidly.
"Because I have developed ze most infallible test!" a now slightly angry Jones trumpeted.
"You!? Develop a test?" muttered Gwen in utter disbelief. "Why, you havent dirtied a beaker while youve been here ---except, of course, that one youre growing those special research seedlings in."
"Do not mock my ancient occidental wisdom, simply because you do not understand it eastern girl! My test requires no smelly chemicals or expensive equipment. All I need is merely two minutes of any non-green persons time," Jones declared.
"Prove it!" challenged Gwen again.
"Alright! But zhis information cannot pass beyond us four, so who here vants to go first?" asked Jones.
Gwens arm shot up. "OOOh! OOOh! Pick Me! Pick Me! Oh Do!" she yelled, as cruelly and sarcastically as she was able.
"All right zhen," boomed Jones. "So be it! You vill kindly follow me into zhe next room!" The pair left like a kitten with a sparrow. Neither Martin nor Stan were about to lay money on which was which.
"How long do you think we should wait before calling an ambulance?" Stan asked Martin dryly.
In a similarly laconic manner Martin replied, "Dont worry, it takes a full three minutes to properly strangle someone to death."
After two minutes Jones walked back in looking remarkably unscathed and very, very smug. Gwen was whole too, and still on her feet, but was walking extremely slowly and not in any consistent direction. Her face was pale and her eyes looked anything but oriental. They were like dinner plates, the really big ones you only see in expensive Italian restaurants. They were also way out of focus. "The fucking Russian bastards fucking right!" she semi-coherently mumbled to no one in particular. Gwen never swore.
"Gwen! Stop it! Youre scaring me!" cried Stan sincerely.
She turned and caught their eyes. Her look was enough. There could be no doubt.
Martin felt icicles start to grow on his basal ganglia. "OK Jones, enough parlor tricks! What have you done to Gwen!?"
"Why nothing, Mister boss. I asked her to do a few mental exercises for me, zhat is all!"
"Like what?!" Martin accused.
"Well first, I asked her to randomly think of five people she knew. Then I asked her to pick which ones she couldnt stand to be stuck in an elevator with for more than ten minutes."
"So?" Martin asked.
"Well, then I asked her to color them in!"
There was a pause so brief that it hardly deserved the name. "Oh, right! Very clever, but I hardly think that conclusively proves anyth " Martin started.
"NO! I AM NOT FINISHED!" Jones ruthlessly cut him off. "Zhen, I asked her to do the same thing with ten people, and zhen twenty, and zhen forty, and so on "
"Shit!" thought Martin, "the fucking Russian bastards fucking right!!"
There was now no doubt about it. Both he and Stan had gone on until theyd covered the meeting room whiteboard with over a hundred names each. Jones test was never wrong. Not once.
"But how?! How can this possibly be? And how did you know?" Martin asked Jones.
"Well, as for ze test, I worked that out during our meeting following your visit to the Browns. I knew then that ze young lady Tina, she was right was. I have spent the last two days trying to work out why! It took me the first day and a half to track down a truly genuine mystic. Disappointingly, most of the ones in the phone book were green, even my own spiritual guide!" said Jones with a hint of shock.
"And then?" prompted Martin.
"And then I just asked."
Martin tried to look dubious, but in truth, at this point, he was ready to believe just about anything. "Go on," he said.
"Well, it was odd, because this particular old Tibetan guy took pains to explain it in a way he thought Id understand best: "Of course Sir! This makes perfect sense Sir. No problem there!" he said, "Remember, all things are ultimately energy, or at least convertible to energy. No need for mystic business there, any physicist will tell you that! So, while many may believe it to be merely a lack of intelligence, perhaps stupidity is really another form of nervous energy in its own right, like anxiety, or stress. Why then, when it grows out of proportion, should it not manifest itself in physical ways? Even your western doctors know this to be true of other nervous energies. What is so different between a nervous twitch or stomach ulcer, and the body messing up the color it makes the skin? In all cases the physical manifestation is somewhat fitting. Anxiety unsettles you, stress eats away at you, and stupidity fucks up the simplest of tasks!"" Jones finished with "He really was a very cool old dude."
"It even quite nicely explains the higher prevalence of intentional and unintentional violent acts amongst greenies!" Gwen eventually admitted.
Suddenly Martin thought he saw a chink in Jones theory. "Ah! But wasnt the absolute prevalence of violence across the entire population still a little higher now, than before greenness appeared?"
"Have you heard all of those "greenie jokes" going around?" responded Jones rhetorically.
"Point taken " Martin conceded.
There was no use arguing. It must be true. The teams current situation even made the kind of paradoxical sense that Martin intuitively knew composed most of reality. They now had the answer everyone was screaming for. The answer they had tried so hard to discover. The answer they had wanted so badly. And, not only could they not tell anyone for fear of being committed (especially not any of those green politicians they were supposed to be working for), but it seemed a little difficult to suggest a cure for what simply appeared to amount to gross stupidity.
Even Stan was remarkably vocal by now, "But why didnt it simply correlate to IQ? Surely someone must have checked that, even if accidentally?"
"Ah yes" said Jones, "but there are many types of intelligence, only a few of which show up on IQ tests, and as my Tibetan friend pointed out, maybe true stupidity is more than just an absence of intelligence. Maybe being truly stupid requires an extra and concerted effort!"
"OK Jones, you seem to have all the answers at the moment. What the hell do we do next?" he asked.
"I dont know," Jones replied.
"Great!" said Gwen.
"But," Jones continued, "I do know who I think we should ask!"
To say Tina was surprised to find herself in the CDC headquarters would have been a criminally prosecutable understatement. Seven hours ago she had never even left her home county, and the most prominent trip she had had planned for the foreseeable future was to the Wal-Mart to get a much-needed set of tires for her pick-up. When Martin had shown up at the library counter, she had felt an intense flush of pleasure and panic. Shed almost run and hid, for fear of him embarrassing himself in front of so many people. Shed held her ground for two reasons. The first was that she was not completely certain that she alone formed the reason for Martins return. The second was that, if he was going to embarrass himself on her behalf, she wouldnt have missed it for the world.
Anyway, if Martin hadnt personally come down to get her, she wasnt sure if she could have actually gotten onto that huge airliner. Unfortunately, since their last meeting, Martin had apparently gone mad. He had started by trying to convince her that she had been right with the dumb quip shed made about stupidity causing greenness. Obviously the strain of failure had finally taken its toll. Strangely though, the fact that he had flaws made him seem even more human and attractive, so she had decided to stick around and try to help him pick up the pieces of his life.
Shed never met Jones before, so she couldnt tell if his lunacy was a recent development, and that nice Gwen, and the quiet guy Stan, seemed totally normal except for the fact that they too were suffering from the same delusions. She had delicately tried to ask about any dangerous lab chemicals that might have been accidentally spilled lately, but they brushed her questions aside. Finally, Jones had tried to get her to play some crazy mind game, but had become quite frustrated when she embarrassingly admitted that, beyond her family, she didnt really know more than ten or so people, and had never even been in an elevator before that day.
Martin stood up protectively, "Leave her alone Jones, youre not helping!"
"Look Tina, I know this must seem crazy to you, but as a personal favor to me, could you just humor us for a moment. Ill try really hard to make up for all the trouble Im putting you through," he continued.
Tina was an independent, self-reliant and totally modern young woman, but hell, if he wanted to throw candy, she couldnt see much point letting it fall in the dirt!
"Well Okay " she said cautiously, "I guess its really just a matter of fighting fire with fire, so to speak."
"Yess ?" Jones encouraged.
"In fact, if you think about it for a second, the solution is actually very obvious," she said.
"Well, of course it is!" Martin sighed "but please dont let that prevent you explaining it in detail to the rest of us mere mortals."
Tina took a deep breath, "Okay, you know all the recent government rhetoric about either being "for us, or against us"? Well, in regard to the Greenness thing, we simply need to put you guys in the for camp, and invent someone else to go in the against camp. Then no one will dare touch you."
"Uhm?" Proffered Martin.
"Dont worry Boss," Jones cut in, "I think I see where shes headed with this."
"Fine! said Martin looking no less perplexed, " Tina, you continue, Gwen, you take notes, and Jones, you translate for the rest of us!"
"Are you really sure of this Dr Styles?!" demanded a skeptical Brigadier General Maguerre of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Absolutely positive, Sir!", replied Martin, trying to sound as much like a subordinate officer as he could manage. It had initially been difficult to get in. Seemed they had lots of people turning up claiming to need to urgently discuss matters of national security with whoever was in charge. Finally, he had produced his official badge. This got things moving. They seemed to respect badges.
"Sir, if I were not one hundred percent sure, do you think I would put my career on the line by bypassing my superiors and coming directly to you?" Martin went on. "I just wasnt sure who I could trust! Not that I want to accuse anyone of anything, but some of my superiors havent been very helpful towards my trying to solve this problem". Placed in this current situation, Martin had started wondering about the elasticity of the truth; he was subconsciously expecting a very loud "TWANG!" any second.
"You dont say " replied the General making a quick note. "I guess under the circumstances, I would have acted just as you have, son. But why would international terrorists want to turn people green? What good would it possibly do them, and why hasnt anyone claimed responsibility."
"Well Sir, these terrorists are obviously well organized. You see it is only the first step in a broader plan. Greenness is really just a marker to show them when the time is right to proceed to the next phase."
"And what do you mean by that?" asked the General, looking a little dubious.
Martin immediately went on the offensive. "Look Sir, Im very nervous right now and need to know I can trust you before I go on. Im sorry, but can I see a photo ID or something?" he said, ignoring the exceptionally prominent uniform. The general considered this for a second, then reached into his wallet and produced an official ID.
"Thank you Sir, I very much appreciate your professional treatment of me."
"Please go on now, son."
"Well, greenness is just an indication that another process is working successfully, a semi-hypnotic process that will eventually make people act against the National Interest." Martin actually tried to pronounce the capital letters.
General Maguerre looked absolutely horrified. This didnt surprise Martin at all, as the General also looked livid green. "So , so youre saying " the General stammered, "that the people who have turned green have been successfully hypnotized to betray the Nation at some point in the future?"
"Thats one way of putting it Sir," Martin agreed obtusely.
"But thats preposterous! Son, surely you know how many people in the higher Administration of this country have turned green. Why even He is green!"
Martin knew exactly who He meant, but was not sure, given his inside knowledge, that the capital "H" was now fully warranted in this context. He tactfully let it pass.
"Yes General, I am fully aware, and it worries me greatly. Whos to say that certain, key individuals havent been specifically targeted?"
It took a second or two, but the Generals aspect entirely changed. "But how are they fucking doing it?" he demanded.
Martin knew he had him now. "Using experimental statistical analyses of both geosensitive population demographics and stochastic recombinant dispersal models, my team have ascertained the following " It had only taken Jones about an hour to knock something up that squarely pointed the finger at every commercial television, cable and radio station in the nation. Jones claimed that given a little longer, he could have included a selection of print media too, but Tina said that it wasnt absolutely necessary.
Martin continued, "the greenness seems to be caused by some psychosomatic enzyme interaction, which is triggered as soon as the subliminal hypnotic conditioning is successfully implanted. I could read you some of my earlier papers on the effect ."
"Damn that! Just tell me if it can be cured!" yelled the General.
"Well Sir, there is a chance that if exposure to the subliminal broadcasts isnt maintained, then the conditioning, and consequently the greenness may wear off. I cant guarantee it, but I honestly think its our only chance," said Martin, again nervously awaiting the "TWANG!"
The General sat down. "Do you have any idea how long we have before they activate this conditioning?
"Well, Im afraid it may have already started on a testing basis," suggested Martin. "You must have heard about the increased levels of violent crimes being committed by green persons across the country?"
"Yes, of course! But how long have the rest of us got?"
"Well, given that the level of greenness in the population has now leveled out, I would say that it could come at any time now."
"You mean it could happen right now?"
"It does look like the upper threshold of susceptible individuals has been reached, so I see no reason why they should wait any longer."
The General looked very thoughtful for a moment. The look broke with a resounding, "SHIT DAMN! WHATS THE DATE TODAY, SON?"
"Umm, June twenty-seventh, I think " replied Martin a little taken aback.
The General quickly consulted the calendar on his wall. It was a promotional one from an arms manufacturer and had a tasteful picture of a semi-naked girl driving a tank. "Then son," he announced in a historic tone, "I would say we have just seven days to nip this thing in the bud!"
Martin blinked. Then it dawned. It was really nice to see fate go to work on someone else for a change. The General now positively glowed with proprietorial splendor. He hadnt merely taken hold of the baby, he was suckling it. "Alright Dr Styles, you know we must keep our discovery an absolute secret. We dont want general panic. Who else knows about this?"
"Just my team Sir, and one civil , I mean, uhmm, associate. Thats five people in all, including myself. And if it werent for the others, I wouldnt have this information, so I can personally vouch for every one, even the Russian!" Martin thought he owed Jones the final qualification, given the Generals age.
Good man! So, none of your superiors know anything of this?"
"Well Sir, I can honestly say that we all decided that the fewer people we told of our discovery, the better. And besides "
"Well Theyre all green, Sir."
"I see," said the General curtly.
"But they wont be very happy if I dont report anything. I was hoping youd have a way of keeping them off my back for a while," Martin risked.
He neednt have worried, the General was already there, boots and all. "We can have them all held in isolation at Guantanimo bay in under three hours"
Later, Martin was later thoroughly ashamed of the length of the pause which followed. "Maybe best to just keep an eye on them. We wouldnt want their disappearance to alert anyone" he eventually said. Martin couldnt believe it had all worked so easily, just as Jones said it would. He was elated.
"Well, Dr Styles, I guess we had better get you an upgraded security clearance! said the General collegially.
"Sure!" replied Martin.
"You have sat a polygraph-test before, havent you?" the General added.
"Shit!" thought Martin, and realized that he shouldnt have pushed his luck with fate probably still in the room .
It was going to take about half an hour to set up the polygraph equipment. Just enough time for Martin to excuse himself on a biological pretext, sneak back outside, explain to Jones that they all had to skip the country immediately, and then hightail it for any freeway headed south.
Jones was waiting right outside the front door. From the collection of hysterical rantings and gesticulations, an innocent onlooker might have thought Martin was telling Jones a joke. Had they kept watching, this impression would have been reinforced when Jones smiled broadly. They could also have hardly missed that, much as you might expect just before the tears of laughter arrived, his eyes twinkled madly
But he may have only anticipated the final punch line, because Martin had clearly not finished ranting and gesticulating yet, and launched into it again with renewed vigor in response to Jones reaction.
Had the bystander been completely incapable of minding his or her own business, it then may have appeared that Jones repaid the favor, by telling Martin a less politically correct one. He put his huge hands on Martins shoulders, pulled him very close and whispered something into his ear.
Obviously the shorter character was a bit slow on the uptake. He just stepped back and gazed blankly into space for a few seconds. He must have got it before he went back into the building though, because now his eyes twinkled madly.
Martin spent the next few days working round the clock, as personal advisor to General Maguerre. He soon managed to put in place most of Tinas finer details. The public was told that the EPA had discovered dangerous radiation levels in transmission lines and broadcasts of the major commercial networks, and blamed it on certain new, poorly tested, technologies. In the same breath, the public were told that this temporary shut-down was only a precaution, as the levels detected were roughly equivalent to what you might expect when standing too close to an acceptably leaky microwave oven. This self-contradictory doubletalk worked well, and was taken complacently on the whole, simply because people didnt know whether to be most worried about their health, or the fact that they couldnt watch their favorite soaps. It was so hard to decide, that they meekly gave up trying and switched over to the only available alternatives.
Under-funded public broadcasters, with their purportedly safer, older equipment were allowed to maintain services. Martin assured General Maguerre, that these stations were not implicated in turning anyone green, and further suggested that they would form a good contingency for National Emergency messages, should the need arise. Martin also made sure the public broadcasters were locked into their usual eclectic and mildly intellectual programming, in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy (and secretly prevent them being usurped by their frustrated commercial competitors).
To the teams huge relief, it took just a week for the first greenies to revert to their original colors. Martin, by arranging almost contiguous dinner and luncheon discussions with the intellectually challenging Jones and Tina, ensured that General Maguerre was amongst their number.
He, of course, was elated, and even re-offered to put Martins superiors (or "hell, anyone ya dont particularly like") away indefinitely, "No questions asked!"
This was an unnecessary nicety, however, as Martin and his team had already been mysteriously awarded perpetual tenure in their positions. It was especially mysterious because no CDC employment provisions whatsoever existed for conferring tenure.
After a month, greenness was back down to five percent. It never disappeared entirely, but after three months the Government could no longer ignore the media lobbyists, and allowed commercial broadcasting to resume. Martin was a little worried at this point, but to his, and no doubt many commercial producers surprise, reversion to the old programming formulas turned out to be a ratings nightmare. Peoples tastes had changed, it seemed. Most had acquired an annoying dislike for the old standard, lowest-common-denominator fare. In fact, it looked suspiciously like some bastard had raised the denominator again, after those years spent beating it down.
After their success, the rest of the affected western world had followed suit, with similar results. Martin eventually found himself addressing a top-secret meeting of heads of governments. Jones had written the speech the night before and emailed it from the internet café around the corner from Muhamuds office in Jordon. It was easy enough to sell his trip as a covert study tour, which was far from an inaccurate title anyway. Strangely enough, Muhamud hadnt acted the least surprised or incredulous when Jones had revealed their findings, though Jones gleefully reported that the had almost wet himself over Tinas "Leetle Joke".
"We must always remember that we have not solved this problem, only contained it for now " Martin recited.
It wasnt until two full weeks after his first meeting with General Maguerre, that Martin was able to make good on his promise to Tina. They were all staying in the same hotel, so once he had a little spare time, it was relatively easy to arrange. That evening, Tina came home to find LOTS of chocolates in her room. White chocolate. Martin had done his homework on migraine triggers.
Dinner was quiet, but then Martin took her dancing, just to prove that he did have the rhythm gene. He failed miserably, but she was smart enough not to say anything. Finally, they were sitting on the balcony of the hotel. It was fine, but cold, so Tina used the excuse to snuggle up very, very close to him. It was a sign even Martin could not misinterpret. He breathed something about having had a great night in her ear. She looked at him in a way which unmistakably said "kiss me you idiot" and just in case he wasnt listening to the look, she whispered it too. Martin leaned over, tilted his head slightly, closed his eyes and kissed . . . the palm of someones hand!
A spasm of fear coursed through him. Before he could open his eyes, hed imagined all nineteen other members of the Brown family closing in around him, and Pas hands were not empty. To his relief it was just Tinas palm. He was still very close to her and, as his eyes opened, they were met by hers. He couldnt help noticing how clear and focused they looked.
"Okay, just a few of things first! Maybe I can accept all this stuff about stupidity turning people green. The plan seems to be working too well for any other explanation to fit," she said. "But what happens when they dont find any evidence of terrorist involvement? Wont they get suspicious and ask all sorts of difficult questions?"
Martin sighed, "They won, didnt they? Whos going to bother about little details like evidence of any real threat? I can assure you General Maguerre wont let such things get in the way of him becoming a National Hero in his memoirs."
Tina looked a little unsure of this, but moved on anyway. "Alright then, how did you beat that polygraph test? And what exactly, did Jones tell you outside the Homeland Security building while the rest of us sat in the car watching?"
"Ahh," said Martin coquettishly. "These are important secrets which Im not willing to give up that easily!" Tinas look softened again. It was a nice look. A very nice look. Martin could actually feel his earwax melting. He spoke quickly, "Answer one, I told the truth. Answer two, he didnt tell me anything. He asked me a question." Martin then mimicked a Russian accent, but wholly failed to sound like Jones (Martins attempt sounded much too genuine). "Given all ve ave just discovered, if you had to name one group zhat fit the description of terrorists threatening the future of the Nation, who vould it be?"
Tina thought about this and smiled.
Then they kissed, and no one in the world might ever have been green.
Like most of his classmates from Classical History 101, Peter Wilson was on his way home. Unlike many others however, he was still thinking over the lecture as he walked along. Professor Raworth had been so adamant that the Romans hadnt seen the fall of their empire coming. Hed labored the point by demonstrating that all the well known writers of the time had so uniformly described their leaders as young and vigorous, "Indeed VIRIDIS!", the Professor had quoted.
Peter was sure this was just the normal brown-nosing one could expect in any culture, but had decided he was going to look up the word anyway.
The Latin dictionary lay open on his desk.
viridis -e [green]. Transf. [fresh , young, vigorous].
Peter wasnt what youd call quick-witted, but he definitely was a thinker. "Very interesting .", he mumbled to himself, as the evening news droned on in the background.