From White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1985:
I related the circumstances of my presumed exposure.
“How long were you out there?”
“Two and a half minutes,” I said. “Is that considered long or short?”
“Anything that puts you in contact with actual emissions means we have a situation.”
“Why didn’t the drifting cloud disperse in all that wind and rain?”
“This is not your everyday cirrus. This is a high-definition event. It is packed with dense concentrations of byproduct. You could almost toss a hook in there and tow it out to sea-, which I’m exaggerating to make a point.”
“What about people in the car? I had to open the door to get out and get back in. “
“There are known degrees of exposure. I’d say their situation is they’re minimal risks. It’s the two and a half minutes standing right in it that makes me wince. Actual skin and orifice contact.
This is Nyodene D. A whole new generation of toxic waste. What we call state of the art. One part per million million can send a rat into a permanent state.”
He regarded me with the grimly superior air of a combat veteran. Obviously he didn’t think much of people whose complacent and overprotected lives did not allow for encounters with brain-dead rats. I wanted this man on my side. He had access to data. I was prepared to be servile and fawning if it would keep him from dropping casually shattering remarks about my degree of exposure and chances for survival.
“That’s quite an armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”
“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”
“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”
“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”
“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”
“We took it right into the streets.”
“How is it going?” I said.
“The insertion curve isn’t as smooth as we would like. There’s a probability excess. Plus which we don’t have our victims laid out where we’d want them if this was an actual simulation. In other words we’re forced to take our victims as we find them. We didn’t get a jump on computer traffic. Suddenly it just spilled out, three-dimensionally, all over the landscape. You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real. There’s a lot of polishing we still have to do. But that’s what this exercise is all about.”
“What about the computers? Is that real data you’re running through the system or is it just practice stuff?”
“You watch,” he said.
He spent a fair amount of time tapping on the keys and then studying coded responses on the data screen–a considerably longer time’ it seemed to me, than he’d devoted to the people who’d preceded me in line. In fact I began to feel that others were watching me. I stood with my arms folded, trying to create a picture of an impassive man, someone in line at a hardware store waiting for the girl at the register to ring up his heavy-duty rope. It seemed the only way to neutralize events, to counteract the passage of computerized dots that registered my life and death. Look at no one, reveal nothing, remain still. The genius of the primitive mind is that it can render human helplessness in noble and beautiful ways.
“You’re generating big numbers,” he said, peering at the screen.
“I was out there only two and a half minutes. That’s how many seconds?”
“It’s not just you were out there so many seconds. It’s your whole data profile. I tapped into your history. I’m getting bracketed numbers with pulsing stars.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’d rather not know.”
He made a silencing gesture as if something of particular morbid interest was appearing on the screen. I wondered what he meant when he said he’d tapped into my history. Where was it located exactly? Some state or federal agency, some insurance company or credit firm or medical clearinghouse? What history was he referring to? I’d told him some basic things. Height, weight, childhood diseases. What else did he know? Did he know about my wives, my involvement with Hitler, my dreams and fears?
He had a skinny neck and jug-handle ears to go with his starved skull–the innocent prewar look of a rural murderer.
“Am I going to die?”
“Not as such,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Not in so many words.”
“How many words does it take?”
“It’s not a question of words. It’s a question of years. We’ll know more in fifteen years. In the meantime we definitely have a situation. “
“What will we know in fifteen years?”
“If you’re still alive at the time, we’ll know that much more than we do now. Nyodene D. has a life span of thirty years. You’ll have made it halfway through.”
“I thought it was forty years.”
“Forty years in the soil. Thirty years in the human body.”
“So, to outlive this substance, I will have to make it into my eighties. Then I can begin to relax.”
“Knowing what we know at this time.”
“But the general consensus seems to be that we don’t know enough at this time to be sure of anything.”
“Let me answer like so. If I was a rat I wouldn’t want to be anywhere within a two hundred mile radius of the airborne event.”
“What if you were a human?”
He looked at me carefully. I stood with my arms folded, staring over his head toward the front door of the barracks. To look at him would be to declare my vulnerability.
“I wouldn’t worry about what I can’t see or feel,” he said. “I’d go ahead and live my life. Get married, settle down, have kids. There’s no reason you can’t do these things, knowing what we know.”
“But you said we have a situation.”
“I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tap into your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”
“And this massive so-called tally is not a simulation despite that armband you’re wearing. It is real.”
“It is real,” he said.