First published in Analog, May 1987
The blaaaaa of the alarm clock drove Jim Oliver awake. With his eyes tightly shut against the morning glow, he slapped at the top of the clock, hoping to hit the five minute button. His aim was bad. He knocked it skidding off the night stand. Eyes suddenly wide open to catch it, he lunged. He grabbed, missed, and slid off the bed himself, landing on painful comers with his head trapped between the legs of the night stand.
At least the alarm had stopped.
"...Clear skies through Friday, with a twenty percent chance of scattered showers over the weekend," the familiar voice was saying. Jim just rested in his contortionist position, content to wait until it got really uncomfortable, or until he woke up enough to move, whichever came first.
"And now for the fortune report: The National Bureau of Statistics reports new activity in the Central Texas area. Expect partly murphy conditions through the rest of this week with a twenty-five percent chance of isolated byxcs."
Jim winced. "No. Not today," he thought. "I can't afford any bad luck today." He twisted his arm to get some leverage to help himself up.
A loop of power cord pulled tight around the leg of the night stand. With a crash, it toppled over on top of him.
"What happened to you, Jim?" Jess Hammer's voice rang out across the open office area. He was an hour and a half late and a dozen pair of eyes turned onto him like air raid searchlights, pinning him there with his coat and briefcase in hand.
Jim eased over to his cubicle and divested himself of the incriminating evidence. "What do you mean?" he asked Jess in all innocence.
Jess was a large man. The finger that he pointed at Jim's sore eye looked like a blue steel .45 pistol. "That. Who hit you?"
Jim fingered the tender area. "Is it showing? I had a fall this morning."
Jess chuckled. "If it were any darker, you would look like Red Beard the Pirate. Did you have to go by the doctor's office? I notice you are a little late getting in this morning."
"No. Just traffic. One of those gravel trucks had a slight disagreement with a cement truck on the Montopolis bridge. I was stuck there with an instant barricade blocking my way forward and two million cars backed up behind me. The police showed up pretty quick, but they were more concerned about getting the cement spill off the bridge and into the river before it set than they were about getting the traffic unsnarled."
Betty Walker stopped outside his cubicle as he related the gory details of the accident. She waited until he ran down, then handed him a photocopy of a meeting notice.
"Mandatory attendance. Eleven sharp. The General Manager is in town and he wants to see everybody there. "
Jim frowned. "What's the meeting for?"
Betty let an evil smile creep over her normally dour face. "You know the rumors. It's layoff season again. Some people are going to get the ax today. Parker flew in just for this. As General Manager, he figures it is his job to be the bad guy." She looked at him carefully, as if checking him for lice. "I would hate to be in your shoes today, Jim Oliver."
"Why? What do you mean?" He could feel his heart start to beat faster. He had been dreading this day. He was a good worker. Surely they wouldn't cut him.
"Have you heard the fortune report today?"
"Sure. Partly murphy. Some byxcs around. "
She nodded. "You've got a byxc. I watched cable news this morning. Want to know the common factor this time?"
He didn't want to know! He nodded "Yes."
"Men with red beards. Jim Oliver, you're doomed." She shook her head, and walked off with an amused little smile.
Jess frowned. "A byxc. Oh, great!" He eased a step back. "I was sure our working group would be safe from this cut. But with a byxc around... Jim, I would advise you to get sick and go home. I've got to go."
Moving quickly, the big man got out of his cubicle and out of range.
Jim turned to his desk. It was littered with a half dozen little yellow sticker notes. He had missed two early morning meetings, a call from his girl friend, and he had papers to prepare, due an hour ago. He sighed.
It was a long day's work getting to eleven A.M. Everyone who walked past his cubicle glanced in at him. Everyone was aware of the byxc. Even his phone contacts seemed eager to cut the conversation short. He had a disease, bad luck, and it might strike anyone around him.
Jess came by, not stopping inside the cubicle. His face was grim.
"Jim, I talked to the boss about the byxc. He agreed it would be the best thing to send you home, but he can't. Word came down that he had to have everybody in the big meeting if he had to use a whip to do it.
"However," he continued with a grin, "we are going to try to isolate you. You are not to use the copier or the word processors, or the coffee pot. Steer clear of anything mechanical or electronic. Don't even go near the computer."
Jim said, "Do you really think that's necessary?"
The big man replied, "Sure! The phones convinced us."
"Yes. They are all out. Didn't you notice?"
Actually, Jim had noticed the phone going dead on him during that last conversation, but it had been so much like all the other minor catastrophes that had been plaguing him all morning that he hadn't thought it was anything more widespread. Perhaps the injunction to keep away from the equipment was a good idea. His stapler was seriously jammed, his file cabinet had a broken key stuck in the lock and his paperclip-and-scissors drawer was a quarter inch deep in coffee.
He felt a wave of sadness, a burning knot that turned in his stomach. His world was falling apart. And in ten minutes, he would probably be fired.
"Jess," he asked, "this has to stop. I can't take this pressure."
"Hang in there," Jess said cheerfully. "It's just a byxc. It will fade in less than a day. Use some elementary caution and you will come out of it with nothing worse than an after-dinner story to tell."
"What do you know!" Jim bit back, "You aren't the one with the black cloud over your head–the demon waiting to trip you up."
"Easy Jim." Jess eased his big frame into the cubicle. He pulled up the spare chair and tested it, as if he expected it to collapse under pressure. When it passed, he finally trusted his weight to it.
"Jim, what do you think a byxc is?" he asked.
A hundred news stories and sitcom situations passed through his mind. "It's a bad luck cloud. It follows somebody around and causes all kind of accidents to happen to him and the people around him. The government figures out when they are going to happen and reports them just like the weather."
Jess gestured with his big hands, "Almost. Murphy weather–byxcs, they have always been around. They are just human-scale variations in small-scale statistical mechanics. They are times and places where normal statistics falls apart. There is nothing evil about it. There isn't even anything intelligent about it."
"Then why is it always a bad luck jinx?" Jim demanded.
"It isn't really," he shrugged. "Just wrong luck. We humans aren't dumb. Let a stone age hunter find rabbits to eat by traveling the forest path and let him find big toothed nasties to hunt him on the swamp path, just in the normal run of luck, and he would certainly hunt the forest. If a byxc came along, he would find nasties in the forest. Bad luck for him. But if he had taken the wrong path that day, then it would have been his good luck.
"We humans bet our lives on the run of the dice. If the whole world was trapped in a giant byxc for a hundred years, we would still prosper–we would just have to learn the new way the dice bounced."
Jim thought a moment. "Do you mean that I could get in my car and race through downtown at a hundred miles per hour and not hit anybody?"
"Maybe. I wouldn't try it myself, but it is certainly possible. Your luck is different now, for as long as the byxc lasts. Today is the day to bet on longshots. Las Vegas pays very close attention to the fortune report. If you walked in with that beard, they would very politely usher you out.
"But for today, take no risks. Don't trust anything mechanical or electronic. If your byxc doesn't dissipate by the end of the day, let me bring you some food and a blanket and you stay here over the night. Automobiles are too hazardous–for you and for any innocent bystander."
"Okay. If I last the day.
Betty rushed up, "Phones are out. The eleven A.M. meeting is postponed until after lunch. One, at the auditorium. Got to run."