An Actuarial Tale

by M.E. Rostron

Interoffice memo:
To: Chief H. Fancher; Seattle Police Department Headquarters
From: Lieutenant  E. J. Olmos; SPD, Lower Queen Anne Sector
Re: Case 25987-456-2132626: Ethan Shute 

At approximately 1630 the afternoon of 06-26 officers Ford and Hauer entered Mr. Shute’s residence at no. 366, 604 West Roy St., after neighbors reported an unpleasant odor emanating from the unit. Officers found the partially decomposed body of the subject slumped over his terminal. (See attached images.) Coroner’s report (attached) indicates death by undetermined causes on 06-06. Mr. Shute had apparently died before sending the messages displayed on his terminal (attached). Due to the nature of the information contained in these documents, we have withheld the contents and notice of the subject’s death from the media. Please advise.

Message facsimile:

To my family, friends, and fellow Harvesters:

I offer this commentary on my working career up to the most recent events, with the hope that what I reveal will bring into the open that which has been hidden for so long. My fervent desire is that some of you will take action to change the status quo. I start by transcribing the very first entry from my work journal—that fateful day—to show you the state of my thinking when first I became a Harvester. 


They were both super-centenarians, had married young, and never lived apart. 

“It’ll be eighty-two years together in October,” the old man said, as his wife shakily served us tea. A few stiff white hairs protruded from his ears and nostrils, but otherwise the follicles of his face and cranium had ceased production decades earlier. 

“Well, that’s not entirely true,” the old woman interjected in her hoarse croak. “We shacked up for a couple of years before we made it legal.”

The previously inscrutable, crinkled and furrowed terrain of her face morphed unexpectedly into a yellow-toothed smile, and she actually winked at me. I experienced a striking impression of the woman as she must have appeared all those years earlier, nearer to my own age. The effect was augmented when they brought out an ancient framed photograph of their younger selves posing beside an antediluvian automobile. The nuptial transporter had been emblazoned with crudely painted phrases reading: “hot to trot,” “creaking springs tonight,” “baby-makers,” and other quaint expressions of licit lust. 

Subjects pruned as directed.

I recall that briefly, while I gazed at those faded photos and listened to their nostalgic chatter, I was tempted to abandon my errand—but it was only a momentary hesitation.

That was my first assignment, and the only time I ever vacillated. In time I grew accustomed to the employment that allowed me such a comfortable standard of living. Although I sometimes encountered an aged citizen who seemed especially sympathetic, attractive, or interesting, I never hesitated to do my duty. I always felt absolutely certain that I performed a crucial service. I did my part to ensure that everyone, even the impecunious, had their chance to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

I’m a retired Harvester. I took great pride in my work. I’m not bragging or exaggerating when I say that I was very good at my job. Officially, all my clients died of natural causes, or at least of nothing that would arouse suspicion, given their advanced ages. Of course not many aged cadavers are subjected to an autopsy. During my first term of duty those I pruned were without exception over ninety years of age, and a significant percentage much older. Centenarians are common enough now, but in the early years of my employment they were not so ubiquitous, which is probably one of the reasons I still remember that couple so vividly—that and the fact that they were my first assignment.

When Social Security payments ceased during “The Great Dissolution,” the mortgage and insurance firms were threatened. The problem was not with the actuarial tables. The statistical models of death rates had been refined to great precision decades earlier, but the mortgage and insurance underwriters were not prepared for what followed, specifically after the termination of federal retirement benefits and the eventual integration of the governments of the Americas after the break-up of the United States. In that era most retirees had no choice but to use their home equity for sustenance in their final years. Millions took out reverse mortgages or subscribed to annuity plans. 

But although Social Security payments ceased, life expectancy increased. Medical advances meant millions more lived into their nineties and beyond. The insurance companies had anticipated some of that, but a series of medical discoveries and innovations in the 2050s and 2060s made it common for those of even modest means to survive a century or more. The wealthy lived on two or even three decades longer. Annuity plans had been based on the old actuarial tables, which had forecasted only a gradual lengthening of life span. They hadn’t predicted the abrupt jump in average life expectancy. Even before the 2060s many firms were either failing or in serious danger of collapse. With pressure from major stockholders and the corporate owners, the first of the Harvesters began their work in the 2070s.

There were rumors that some companies contracted with agents of my profession even before the crisis. Some (mostly discredited) investigators reported unusually high death rates of certain annuity recipients in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps—but we were certainly not an organized association (albeit still a secretive and quasi-legal coterie even today) until 2079—three years before I joined this august corps. It was then that the professional Harvester Code of Ethics (HCE) was established, and an international system of training and certification began. 

When I was licensed in 2082 there were only a few hundred of us, and hours were long. We worked a lot of overtime in those early years. By the beginning of the twenty-second century the Harvesters numbered several thousand and were employed internationally. If anything, higher standards of living in Europe and Asia made our services even more necessary in those more advanced societies. Although I was several times offered lucrative transfers, I consider myself a patriot and have been proud to serve in the United American States, where I have labored laudably from Patagonia to Pangnirtung. 

There are two types of postings available to Harvester agents. For the more sedentary and those raising families the majority of positions are conveniently located in the mega-cities, where the pruning of the huge geriatric populations will occupy our order for the foreseeable future. I matriculated naturally to the second type of duty, and became a Roamer, with no permanent geographical assignment. Roamers travel frequently, which I have always enjoyed, and I’ve never married. I liked meeting people from different races, cultures, and backgrounds, and enjoyed listening to their nostalgic tales of the past.

The routine of a Harvester seldom varies. Before we come to visit, our clients receive an official communication explaining that their bank or insurance company is sending an agent to collect certain personal data, or perhaps to administer a customer survey, in order to determine better ways of serving their subscribers. 

The old pensioners, often isolated and hungry for company, invariably serve coffee, tea, and sundry snacks, and sometimes even invite us to stay for dinner. (Harvesters go through rigorous deportment training and are personable to a fault.) This affords us the perfect opportunity to accomplish our assignment. Harvesters are provided with various substances—colorless, odorless, and nearly impossible to detect—some of which don’t activate for days or weeks after they are consumed. It’s easy to drop the tiny flakes or capsules into their food or drink during the amiable interviews. This is the preferred method, though on occasion a second visit is necessary. Extremely rarely a subject refuses to receive us, and other less pleasant methods must be resorted to. But those cases are the exception, and an agent who accumulates too many such incidents will not last long at his or her job. I’m proud that during the years of my employment I received several awards, commendations, and bonuses for my efficiency in this regard, only having to schedule return appointments a half dozen times in my entire career. 

Two years ago my employment was terminated. The Harvester Code of Ethics (HCE 9.34c) requires mandatory retirement at age seventy. Harvesters with thirty or more years of service are provided with an adequate annuity and exceptional health insurance benefits. Our health care package provides for dental and eye restoration, joint and organ repair or replacement, spinal reconstruction, and genetic correction services to the age of one hundred—very nearly the same level of medical benefits enjoyed by the most affluent. In my own case, due to an unfortunate genetic inheritance from my father’s side, I’ve had heart valve and aortic repair, in addition to the usual knee and hip replacements, all employing the most advanced combination of stem cell and micro-mechanical technologies. 

My latest RTRMEM scan (Real Time Robotic Medical Evaluator Module) recommended a PGER (Personal Genetic Evaluation and Repair) procedure. Unlike the RTRMEM, the PGER is not performed remotely, which seems peculiar to me, as advanced blood and stool analyses have been done from the least sophisticated of home sanitation stations for decades.

The day of my appointment I had just exited the PGER clinic, when the IMP unit in my ear informed me I had a message from Demeter Harrison, my closest friend and one-time protege. The first six months after certification new recruits are required to accompany senior Harvesters. Demeter had been one of my earliest and brightest trainees. He had advanced rapidly to regional supervisor for the Seattle sub-district, in charge of more than a thousand agents who work a region with a population of over fifty million. Demeter was getting close to retirement age but hadn’t slowed down any. In addition to his regular duties, he worked part-time for our union branch. Since my knee replacements and shoulder repairs we had gotten into the habit of meeting up a couple times a month for a few beers and frames at the bowling alley. We were overdue for a night out, so his call did not surprise me, only the fact that he used my most private and heavily encrypted channel. But instead of suggesting a night out, he insisted he needed to see me immediately at the downtown union office.

“What the hell is so urgent that you had to beam me on my cipher line?” I asked him.

He didn’t reply, held his finger to his lips, and pointed to the back of the office. The union has a Privacy Module—a state-of-the-art three by three meter enclosure that is supposedly opaque to surveillance at any wavelength. There are no displays, terminals, light fixtures, or even any electrical outlets within. Just two chairs and a small table, with a couple of self-contained battery operated light fixtures for illumination. The door locks from the inside with an old fashioned deadbolt. Primitive, but secure. After a couple of high profile scandals a few years back, the UPH started using the modules for private interviews, and for negotiating with representatives from banks and insurance companies.

I said hello to Carol Newman, the long-time UPH secretary, who was already working the coffee dispenser. Carol placed a carafe, two cups, and sweetener and creamer on the table, and returned to her cubicle. Demeter didn’t waste any time with small-talk, but got right to the point.

“I know you’re not much interested in union business now that you’ve retired, Ethan, so I’m guessing you haven’t yet seen the latest directive from ass-mick.”

The UPH negotiates contracts with dozens of banks, mortgage companies, and insurance corporations, but our biggest client by far is American States Security Medical Corporation. ASSMC is the dominant health conglomerate in the UAS. They furnish financial and management services directly or indirectly to firms that provide ninety percent of health care coverage to more than six billion people in the western hemisphere, including our own health care provider, the International Harvesters Association Health Alliance, IHAHA.

“No—is that something I should know about?”

“Absolutely! Directive 276-66 lowers the minimum harvesting age to eighty-seven, and a subsection of the new rule allows for a maximum five percent survival rate past age ninety-eight for men, and one hundred two for female clients.”

“Shit, that is big news! When I retired the minimum pruning age was five years higher, and they allowed a ten percent open-ended survival rate, as I recall. What gives?”

“I wish I knew. We’ve never had a correction like this before. The news from headquarters is that ass-mick is offering two year temporary job reinstatements to retired Harvesters who are willing to sign up, and virtually unlimited overtime pay for agents to realize those numbers. It’s a windfall for anyone who wants to put away a little more credit for retirement. I wanted to tell you before the official recruiting announcement comes out next week. Technically I shouldn’t, but hell, we go back a lot of years, and I figure you’d do the same for me.”

“Thanks, Demeter. I really appreciate it, but what makes them think many will want to come back to work? Harvesters have it pretty good compared to a lot of retirees. I’m fairly comfortable myself,” I answered, which wasn’t entirely true.

“How about these incentives: a twenty percent wage increase; an expense account that covers luxury hotel costs for Roamers like yourself; and an all-expenses-paid vacation to the resort of your choice, if you fulfill the entire two year contract and make your pruning quota.”

Demeter turned on his portable holo-projector, and we were instantly plunged into a three dimensional model of the Necker Island Resort, complete with the gentle tropical breeze, smells of the seashore, and brown-bodied sunbathers sipping rum concoctions on the warm white-sand beach. I confess I’ve never gotten used to the sensation, and don’t myself own one of those gadgets. Call me a Luddite, but I find the effect disturbing and disorienting. 

“Okay, I get the idea. Turn that damn thing off before I get a sunburn,” I told him, after I had been poolside at several of the most exclusive resorts in the world.

The truth was the offer came at a most opportune time. A recent unlucky investment decision had left me feeling less sanguine about my financial future. A week later I was back on the ASSMC payroll, and on the shuttle from Seattle to Fairbanks, to spend the next two years pruning the burgeoning Alaskan population. The regions up north that hadn’t flooded in the last century from rising sea levels or permafrost melt had become increasingly populated, while the American Southwest and much of southern California had succumbed to drought and desertification.

Those two years passed quickly. The client list was long, and there was a huge territory to cover. I spent many a pleasant hour in the company of some genuine “sourdoughs”—as they tag the old-timers up north. I drank whisky laced coffee with fishermen who still remembered the days spent fishing with their grandfathers, before the salmon became extinct. (I spiked their cups with far more potent spirits.) I met ex-loggers who showed me images of now vanished forests that once carpeted the slopes of the once glacier-capped mountains. I listened spellbound to the stories of a one hundred and thirty year old Inuit woman, who still cherished vivid memories of Polar Bears, from before the arctic ice fields melted. Oh, the tales I could tell if it were permitted! But the Harvester Code of Ethics (HCE 6.23a…f) specifically forbids us from publishing anything about our clientele, or even to contribute to obituaries or necrologies.

When my tour ended I returned to Seattle to give my final report to Demeter and fill out the forms that would allow me to retire for a second time. I was looking forward to that promised premium in the Caribbean, as a welcome change from the moderate but moist Alaska climate. Demeter looked over my logs perfunctorily. He seemed glad to see me, but distracted. I asked Demeter if his supervisory responsibilities were weighing on him.

“Maybe so, Ethan. I haven’t had much time off since you left—haven’t bowled a frame, in fact. I could really use some R & R. How about tonight, after I get off work?”

We met at the usual spot, Billy Bob’s Bowling & Billiards. It’s a simulated mid-twentieth-century dive in West Seattle, complete with faux pinsetters that have been programmed to malfunction randomly, like the old mechanical ones. Of course the pins are holograms, but it looks, sounds, and feels like the real thing—or so the ads say. Demeter got off to a bad start. His form was terrible. He was jittery and quickly drained two pints by the fourth frame, which was hitting it pretty hard for him. I paced myself and scored a 149 to his 118 the first game—pretty typical for me, but really terrible for Demeter. Before we started the second game, Demeter sidled up close to me.

“Read this.” He handed me a memory chip. As I scanned it he walked up to the lane and threw a gutter ball. 

It was a copy of an assignment voucher for the pruning of my parents! One of our perks is the exemption of immediate family members from the contract quotas. I wanted to leave immediately, but Demeter insisted we finish the game, and not draw attention to ourselves. He was acting really paranoid. Neither of us broke a hundred that second game.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked him, as we walked to the ferry that would take us back across Elliot Bay to the Lower Queen Anne district, where we both owned condos a few blocks from each other. The subway under Elliot Bay would have been faster, but we liked the ferry trip, with the view of the Seattle skyline, though that vista is no longer so iconic. The earthquake of 2084 toppled the Space Needle, and collapsed Smith Tower.

“I’m not sure. I think the exemption might have been a ruse all along. I did a little digging, and it seems pretty odd to me that the older relatives of our fellow Harvesters appear to be dying off at exactly the same rate as everyone else. You would assume they’d have significantly higher survival rates. I think we’ve been duped. There’s a guy at ass-mick headquarters who owes me a couple of favors, so I had him look into it, and he came up with the info. It’s not just your parents. Mine are on this year’s harvest list too!”

We waited silently for a few minutes in the queue for the ferry, then boarded with the crowd. It was a typical Seattle January night; partly cloudy with a blustery wind from the southwest, but shirt-sleeve warm, and the waning gibbous moon shining silver above the crenelated castles of the downtown skyline. My parents marvel at the change in weather. They say winters are ten degrees warmer than when they were kids. I thought about them as Demeter and I both stood silently at the rail, gazing at the foamy phosphorescent wake boiling out from under the vessel’s stern. Though well into their nineties, they were both healthy and spry and had adequate means. They could easily expect to enjoy life for another twenty or more years, thanks to the refurbishment and replacement treatments they had benefited from over their lifetimes.

“We don’t have to let it happen,” Demeter finally said. 

“I don’t see how we can prevent it,” I answered, dejectedly. 

The Harvesters have access to the latest tracking technologies, as well as any other information they need about the pruning subjects, compliments of ASSMC. No matter where they go, we find them.

“There’s the moon–if they can pass the physicals, and I’m pretty sure my parents can. The new Mars colony at Arsia Mons is only taking settlers under the age of fifty, but there’s no age limit at Shackleton Base.”

The colony at Shackleton crater was established in the 2050s, and staffed with a dozen astronauts on rotation from the space stations for the first twenty years or so. Other visitors in those early years included wealthy adventurers and well-funded scientific expeditions. By the 2080s the colony had grown to the size of a small town. After that the population grew more rapidly. There are three settlements, with a fourth one under construction, and the population of the moon now stands at close to twenty thousand. With the recent explosion of mining activity on Mars and in the asteroid belt, the need for settlers to help service and supply those efforts exceeds the supply of volunteers. So Shackleton Mining Industries has been actively promoting the colonies, offering good pay and free transport to those willing to leave Earth for a life on the frontier. 

The only hitch is—the tickets are one way. The expense is still so great that only the transporter crews, scientists, and wealthy tourists are able to make round trips beyond the near Earth orbit space stations. For the majority of the colonists—mostly desperate, poverty-stricken, or hopelessly fixated on the idea of becoming space frontiersmen–the situation is much like that of the earliest migrations to the Americas in the seventeenth century: a commitment to live and die without ever again going home. By comparison, the expanding settlements in the formerly ice-bound fringes of Antarctica and Greenland are luxurious. 

“Are Harvesters still banned from operating off-world?” I wondered. 

“Yeah,” Demeter answered. “No overpopulation out there yet.” 

“How the hell do we convince our parents to leave without blowing our cover? Going for a holiday is one thing, but leaving Earth and their families and friends forever—at their age… ”

As far as either of our parents–or for that matter any of our other relatives or acquaintances–knew, we were insurance agents for the ASSMC.

“We won’t have to tell them anything. Shackleton Mining and ass-mick have come up with a mutually beneficial plan. Shackleton is buying out annuity contracts by the thousands. The insurance companies pick up the transport fare, and Shackleton takes over the annuity payments. Even with the high transport costs, ass-mick stands to save hundreds of millions, and Shackleton gets older but skilled workers who, in the reduced gravity, should have many years of productive work left.”

“So, assuming that we would rather our parents be consigned to years of work off-world than to end their lives prematurely but painlessly in their own comfortable homes, what’s the bait in the trap?”

“Shackleton takes care of everything. We just have to get our folks to accept their vacation package. The retirees are offered a steeply discounted off-world vacation from an imaginary tour company endorsed by ass-mick and ARP. Once they’re on the moon, complications will ensue. Transport rocket break-downs, communication difficulties, records lost, and so forth. They will find they must work to earn their keep, that their salary is surprisingly equivalent to the annuity and retirement payments they had previously received on Earth. Everything is rigged so they can’t ever save enough for a return trip.”

“What a ghastly choice—the modern version of being shanghaied!”

“True, but I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to encourage my parents to go, and I intend to join them myself. It might be interesting,” Demeter replied, without real conviction. “Anyway, how can we count on our own UPC contracts being honored in the future? They’ve lied to us about this. What if they decide we’re fair game for pruning as well? I’m not taking that chance.” 

The ferry docked and we went our separate ways. I had a hard time falling asleep that night. I knew from my schoolboy history lessons that families in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries were often forced to choose between seedy retirement centers or caring for their aged parents themselves, but at least they remained on the same planet. My choice was even starker; allowing them to be pruned, or colluding in their banishment. Either way I would never see them again, unless, like Demeter, I chose to go off-world too.

In the end I followed Demeter’s advice. We reviewed the paperwork in the Privacy Module a few days later, while drinking most of a pot of Carol’s coffee. It was no problem convincing my parents to take the fake vacation offer to Shackleton Base. Dad has always been a nut about space travel, and Mom’s as game as he is for adventure. Years earlier they had booked a ramjet flight to the upper stratosphere, which had cost them six months wages. The holos of that trip were among Dad’s most prized possessions. It was tough saying goodbye and pretending they were just going off on vacation, but unlike Demeter, I had no wish to spend my golden years on a stark and arid rock, where one’s entire existence is spent in metal cubicles or a claustrophobic space suit. I decided to put off that trip, at least for a few more years.

I wish now I had gone with them. They were killed in a freak accident a few weeks after they arrived on the moon, when the rover they were riding in threw a track that holed the vehicle, causing a catastrophic loss of pressure and the death of all eight people aboard. I comfort myself with the realization that they were doing what they had dreamed of, and knowing they would have been pruned within the year anyway, had they remained on Earth. 

But even worse than the news of my parent’s deaths, was the shock of the cryptic communication from Demeter, who had joined his parents at Shackleton Base, which I received a few days later.

Carol spiked our coffee. We have less than a month. Sorry about your parents. I miss our nights on the town. No bowling alleys on the moon. Good-bye old friend.

I’m not sure how he found out, but Demeter always had his sources. Perhaps she told him herself in the end, before he left for the moon. It all seems so obvious now. Carol Newman was an ASSMC plant. Demeter had stumbled upon information that would have destroyed ASSMC’s relationship with the Harvesters if word got out about the violation of contract terms regarding the pruning of Harvester relatives. ASSMC absolutely depends on us. So accurately are the actuarial tables computed, that they stand to lose billions from any significant interruption to the pruning schedule. I had suspected for years that Carol and Demeter were having an affair, though they pretended otherwise. Demeter must have confided in her, and she doped our coffee with a time delay formula that day in the Privacy Module. 

I don’t have much time left. I have only one dying request; that you disseminate the following message to UPH members. 

My comrades:

By the time you read this I will be dead—betrayed by the organization I served so faithfully. 

As you know PW-4 initiates systemic changes in the nucleus and mitochondria which are irreversible. But revenge is sweet like candy. Carol Newman will not live to read my obituary. She always had a weakness for fine dark chocolate. 

However revenge is not enough. Some may accuse me of disloyalty—far from it! I was a soldier like you, assigned the most difficult of missions. The Harvesters prune the innocent, those whose only crime is their longevity. We are assured this is for the good of mankind. We are owed the honoring of the UPH contracts at the very least, for an onerous assignment. Beware the betrayed soldier! We possess the implements of execution, which we know better than anyone how to utilize! 

Harvester brothers and sisters—call for the general strike! ASSMC’s vulnerability is their bottom line. They understand only profit and loss. You have the ability to cripple them financially, and if necessary to reap an awful harvest among the management and stockholders of ASSMC. They must negotiate, and they will accept your terms!

In solidarity,
Ethan Shute, Senior Harvester 12-2082-3666, Seattle
Union Of Professional Harvesters, Northwest Region

Writer and musician M.E. “Mike” Rostron is the author of three books: “The Kabul Conscript, “Cape Decision,” and “The Roving Fitzgeralds;” and the musical stage plays “Evermore” and “Outro.” 

He has resided in Whatcom County since moving from Alaska in 2002. 

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