Here’s a short story that I originally wrote last year for the second Machine of Death anthology, for which all stories must be set in a world with machines that accurately predict how someone will die. The anthology didn’t accept this story. I have to admit that I played fast and loose with the few basic guidelines that they set down for the submissions– they didn’t want the machines to ever be wrong. I would maintain that the machines weren’t exactly ‘wrong’, but I can see how they might disagree. Read the story and make up your own mind on the matter:
By Adam Rowe
My heart skipped several beats, like a rusty stick shift hitting high gear, before slipping into an accelerated pounding.
“Did you—” I stammered.
“Kill him? No,” Mr. Lucas answered. “If my bullets weren’t rubber, he might have had the foreknowledge to wear a bulletproof jacket today. Come on, stop standing like a moron.” He shoved me towards the elevator by the small of my back. “Walk like one instead.”
I stepped over the twitching security guard as we passed, a numbness delaying my shudder of response until our elevator was on the third floor. Mr. Lucas turned to me with a single eyebrow lowered in condemnation.
“You know, Ben, when I hired an assistant, the implication was that you would be in the proper shape to assist me.”
“The ad was for an assistant, not an assassin!”
“Hey, I told you, he’s not dead. I’m here to save lives, not steal them.”
“Whatever. I didn’t sign up for this,” I started, but broke off when Mr. Lucas pulled his gun to waist level, barrel pointing at my guts. College tuition wasn’t worth this level of crazy. I decided to shut up and avoid eye contact until I could get away.
The elevator kept cruising upwards. Its vast swath of buttons was a monochromatic wasteland with just a single light at the bottom, number eighty-eight. We would be going up for a while yet. At least we had a view; the glass doors looked out over the crowded metropolis of North Dakota.
“What’s your c of d?” Mr. Lucas asked before we’d gone up three more flights.
“Heart attack.” I wasn’t bothered by my prediction, unlike some people. It’s not like it affected my life much. Or at least, not that I’d noticed.
“No, it’s not,” Lucas said. That was the second craziest thing he’d done, right behind walking into the Death Corp headquarters and shooting some random security guard in the chest.
“Sure it is. The machines never lie.”
“They don’t. The men who run them do.”
“Ok, ok,” I said, forgetting my plan to shut up, “Let me guess. You got some prediction you didn’t like, went nuts, and decided to kill the president of the company that made all those terrible machines. What was your c of d? Paranoia?”
“It doesn’t matter. Mine was wrong too.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.”
We hit floor twenty-seven. I considered my chances of rescue, which were fat and slim. The only sign of consciousness (aside from a now unconscious guard) had been a handful of sluggish interns at the pay grade of pizza delivery boys clustered around the front desk.
“About a hundred and twenty-seven years ago, the machines started giving strange predictions,” Lucas said. “One little baby got a card that told him he’d die of an “APOCALYPSE.” Then a few more babies got it. Then more, and more, all over the globe. Death Corp’s covered the whole thing up.”
“They’ve covered up the end of the world?” I asked, as if this was a normal conversation. Lucas was logical, at least, even if he got an F in plausibility. Predictions would have had to start showing up about a lifetime ago, and increase until the very second of the apocalypse, when everyone in the world would have the prediction.
The light for floor sixty flashed for a moment before light sixty-one took over.
“Ok, I’ve got a problem with your little theory. Why haven’t we noticed that the predictions are wrong? If this is such a big conspiracy, someone would have caught on by now.”
“The only wrong predictions are those that were originally about the apocalypse,” Lucas countered, “Nobody’s going to die until it happens, and nobody’s going to find out about a wrong prediction until they die. So no one’s found out yet that they won’t really die of cancer or a car crash or whatever gibberish they were told.”
Arguing with this guy only made him seem even more right. He stared out over the highway, watching the translucent stream of cars with an air of self-righteous pity for the world.
“What exactly are you trying to do here?” I asked. “A suicide bombing? Because you’re forgetting one thing: you can’t change the future.”
The elevator hit eighty-eight and Lucas swiveled, pulling his handgun from his coat pocket. The doors opened at the junction of two hallways. The motif was an industrial concrete and fiberglass. True to crazy-person form, Lucas wasted no time in threatening the only man to be seen.
The guy had the neck flab of an upper-tier employee and was dressed in a poorly-fitted suit. As a result, he looked like a batch of biscuit dough trying to escape its can. Still, he had pleasant features, and seemed like a nice guy. He probably didn’t think the same of me. I tried to flip up my jacket collar.
“Where’s the prediction hub?” Lucas growled.
“I—I can’t tell you that,” the man said. Lucas jabbed him. A few seconds later we were headed one hallway down, to the right, and into the second door on the left, keeping our informer in tow.
Lucas stole the man’s badge to swipe us into the room. “If you’ve got the clearance to be in here, you must know all about the Apocalypse.”
Lucas shoved him into the room, which was filled with monitors and official looking computers. Oddly, no one else was around.
“Don’t play around with me,” Lucas said as he thrust a thumb drive on the vast array of knobs and blinking lights. “You know.”
The man broke down surprisingly easily. “You know what?” He didn’t snap the words at us, but might have if the gun wasn’t an issue. “It doesn’t matter anymore. The apocalypse hits today. We’re all going to die.”
“It’s today?” I thought about the phrase “at least things can’t get worse,” but clearly that hadn’t been true so far. “How can you know for sure?”
“As soon as all the predictions say ‘Apocalypse,’” Lucas clarified.
“We were down to our last 150,000 non-Apocalypse deaths yesterday,” our suited prisoner chimed in. Pondering his imminent death appeared to relax him a bit. “By now they’re just about gone. I expect we’ll hear the earthquakes any minute now. They were the top choice in the office betting pool.”
“That’s why security’s so lax around here,” I said. “If you know that the world’s going to die, you don’t care as much about clocking in eight hours a day.” Either this whole thing made a lot of sense or I was being sucked into their delusion. Both options churned my bodily organs.
Lucas kept tapping away on the computer, but I didn’t bother watching the screen. The tech-heads were the only ones who could keep up with technology advancements, and as a poly sci major, I didn’t qualify.
“You should be ashamed.” Lucas said, still tapping away. He apparently chastised his victims while still executing the crime; if gentleman thieves actually existed somewhere, he was one of them. “Your corporation’s been lying to the world.”
“We’ve been helping them!” the man said, taking too much offense. The Apocalypse, in its simultaneous numbing doom and catalyzing urgency, had broken his reaction gauge. “If everyone knew the time they’d die in addition to the manner, they’d all lose hope. Society would collapse!”
“Mankind’s never lost hope,” Lucas pointed out. “That’s a fact.”
I had to agree. If political science had taught me anything, it was that humankind never stopped banging its collective head against a wall. Even now, I was still hoping that this was all a dream and that I’d wake up in Professor Guthrie’s Soc class just in time for lunch. Maybe that cute girl who sits in front of me would strike up a conversation, since I was dreaming anyway.
Back in the prediction hub, however, I’d given up on escaping. Even the Death Corps employee was more of a spectator than a prisoner, as Lucas opened the program that he’d loaded onto the Death Corp’s supercomputer. Between clicks on the computer, he’d occasionally wave his gun at me and the employee. He finally turned to us, consolidating his attention.
“You’ve heard of self-fulfilling prophecies, I know,” he said. “What’s the latest urban myth? A philosopher works himself to death trying to decipher the deeper meaning behind the c of d ‘PHILOSOPHIZES TO DEATH,’ or something like that. The death machines keep all those stories entertaining just by lending one new element — a touch of inevitability — the fact that the little slip of paper will always tell the truth, no matter how obscurely.”
“What, are you twelve?” the employee asked. He was sweating heavily now, despite suffering no worse exertion than sitting. Doom was exhausting. “Everyone knows that stuff.” He was right; acting like it was a revelation was about as cheesy as promoting the power of true love. Sure, love exists, but that doesn’t mean that I need to hear a lecture on it before I can get a lunch date.
“My point,” Lucas said icily, “Is that no one takes advantage of this. It boggles the mind why they don’t, really.”
“They can’t! Like you said, the machines are never wrong!”
“That’s right. Don’t ignore reality, but don’t accept it at face value either. Make your own future fit the machine’s.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, fighting the paralyzing fact that the Apocalypse was minutes away. Lucas had been in control up til now. Whatever he had to say was my last hope.
“Assumptions control everything. For example, you only tagged along today because I claimed I needed a chauffeur. Some assumptions power the world. Money only has value because we’ve all agreed it does. But if you make the wrong assumption, you get the wrong results. Instead of running from our predictions, we must embrace them.”
“This is nonsense.” With that, the Corps employee rocked back in his seat to give up talking in favor of wobbling in fear.
Lucas looked back at the computer and hit a key. “My program temporarily disables the machines’ computer system, making all predictions give the reason they’ve failed rather than the reason for death. And it’s retroactive.”
This time I matched the suited man in disbelief. Lucas staved us off; “No, I don’t understand how the machine works, but I can still piggyback off of the time-defying aspect.”
Our chubby businessman wasn’t even interested in that, however. “The reason for death? Do you mean you named it–?”
The flash drive even had a tiny tag on it, since the name was so integral to the plan. Lucas smiled, proud of himself. “The ‘Apocalypse’ was initiated two minutes ago, gentlemen. And we’re still alive.”
I didn’t relax for another five minutes. I’ve seen movies and knew that was practically asking an Apocalypse to sneak up on me. But nothing happened. There were no darkening skies, no ominous earthquakes. I was, however, suddenly aware of how annoying nervous sweat was.
“That program… is the Apocalypse?” I asked.
“Like I said, you need to adjust your assumptions. The future might be set, but you can still make it whatever you want.” Lucas slipped out of his chair much like a very dry fish. His sweat glands clearly hadn’t felt the need to stress themselves. “Come on, Ben, we shouldn’t stay.”
I left weakly, resolved not to face any more apocalypses for a long while. I was still shell-shocked as we waited for the elevator. Lucas amused himself by getting his real c of d from a tiny machine installed beside the hand sanitizer. “I actually did need a chauffeur,” he clarified while sucking a pin-pricked pinky. “So sometimes reality is as it seems. I guess. But you never know.”
Sometimes it was a comfort when reality was reality. Now that it wasn’t killing me in an apocalypse, I felt spurred to take advantage of it, and asking my cute sociology classmate to lunch might make a good starter.
The elevator’s ding heralded the slip of paper spat from the machine.
“BLAZE OF GLORY,” Lucas read.
“Wow…” I said, “Impressive. Going out with a bang, eh?”
“Ben, Ben, Ben,” Lucas said to the elevator interior with a theatrical sigh, “haven’t you learned anything today? I now plan to buy a retirement home in order to rename it ‘Blaze of Glory’.”