Machine of Death

28 03 2007

This is my entry for the Machine of Death short story competition.

The basic premise is that there has been a machine invented which will predict a persons death. The machine is always right but can be vague. You know roughly how you will die but not the where or when…

See their website for full details.

My name is Mark. I work up there in The Facility. See? That big old building up on the hill? It was built in the early post-machine years. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of these places had to be built in those days. I mean, can you imagine how different life must have been fifty-sixty years ago?

They told us in history class that electricity had changed our industrial landscape and that the invention of the Net transformed the way we all did business but The Machine…man, can you just imagine what it must have been like not to know how you would die? I don’t get it to be honest. I mean I’ve always known, HEART DISEASE, like so what? Mum and dad got me one of those books when I was a kid. “Your Child’s Prediction Made Easy” I mean yeah I was embarrassed like but who isn’t at that age? Plus they chucked in all the stuff about sex about the same time at school and to be honest, at that age, that freaked me out way more than the dying thing. I mean dying’s just natural right? My dad says it’s easier on me because I’m a second generationer. Well…third generation really, though I’m nearly old enough to be a second. My dad still tells me about some of it. My grandad like so many in the olden days worked in insurance so you can imagine how different my dad’s family life ended up. He says after the big stock market crash The Riots were the worst war the world had ever seen. He’d even fought in a couple of them. They called them “Blue Collar Guys.” All the folks that worked in the big call centres, all laid off within months of each other. Wives and families to feed. Millions of them taking to the streets, and the banks trying to squeeze as much as they could before the whole system collapsed. No-one had imagined it could get so nasty.

And there was The Government, having seen everyone’s predictions in advance all prepared to go to war with China or the Middle East or whoever they thought was responsible. In the end its was our own bullets and bombs that did most of us in. The Government say that all the predications are confidential now, but man, they must know right? I mean they’re in charge and everything.

Anyway. That’s us here. I key the number in the door and give a nod to Martha on the front desk. I’ve worked here for the past five years. It started off as a summer job but they said I was good with them. We’ll meet John in a bit. He’s one of my favourites. He’s also one of the oldest Phobics we got in here. There’s maybe only a few hundred thousand of them left now. That was one of the things that really fascinated me in history, how such a big portion of our world got sooo fucked up by it all. But to understand them properly you’ve got to be able to imagine how they think and I guess, for them, it must have been a big deal. That’s why I’m good at my job, you know? I can like, put myself in someone like John’s shoes, try and feel it with him. You have to in order to do the job right? I know it’s hard to get your head around but John never had that sort of knowledge before did he? It would have been like living in the stone-age and suddenly ending up in Madison Square Gardens or something.

The ones who were predicted as BULLET WOUNDS all started planning for World War III, though like I said, a lot of them died in The Riots. The ones who had OLD AGE all thought ‘yippee,’ gave away their belongings and then had to pan-handle just to make ends meet after the economy crashed. My dad says for a while the things like aeroplanes and motor cars looked like they were going to be extinct, folks got so scared, but most of it survived. There were always collectors who kept hold of these things . But the Phobics….man. They usually were the first ones to be predicted as DROWNING or BURIED ALIVE or in John’s case it was ASPHYXIATION. A lot of the Phobics who are left had that one. Some folks got over it quick and just got back to their lives. Second generationers had it easier. They at least got to see that it didn’t really make that much difference what the ticket says. They say that when Death comes that is the day your biggest question is answered and that the “ahh…so that’s what it meant” moment is like, just the best feeling. Like probably better than sex I reckon. Maybe…

And I remember my Grandad telling me that there were some Phobics back then already thought they called them…what was it? Mental, I think the term was. But there were way ore of them after the machine’s got built.

They say it was easier in… what were they called, back then? I knew I should have paid more attention in history. The Developing Nations. Yeah. The poorer countries. My dad says he remembers Grandad telling him that back in his day there were huge famines and droughts and stuff and millions of folks died due to these but that the weird thing was, when the first machines got shipped out to these places the scientists thought they were faulty because they kept predicting OLD AGE and LUNG CANCER and hardly any mention of STARVATION or whatever. But then they hadn’t figured in the stock market thing. Shows how much more advanced our world is now though I guess. I mean, they used radiation back then, can you believe it? And burned coal to make electricity. Even elementary school kids could tell you that’s just stupid.

I go up through the corridors. Each section of the facility is slightly different depending on what exactly the folks are sacred of. Like, that section through there is for the SPIDER guys. That place gives me a headache. With all the white paint everywhere. Everything white. The other side of the ground floor is for the FALLING folks. Man, even the light bulbs are low down on the walls there. One time, we got this guy’s notes mixed up and put him in there by mistake. He went totally catatonic. We found him all wrapped up into himself and he had pissed his pants and the smell was just hellish. But of course he was an ELECTROCUTION wasn’t he? Yeah I know it seems like they are crazy but like I said, you got to see it from their messed up logic don’t you?

I go up the stairs to where John and his cronies live. The place has that hospital smell on account of all the tube feeding and stuff we do with this lot. John must be in his nineties now. His family was wealthy enough to be able to afford to put him in here. It was a wonder he survived, he was down to just 60kg and they say he looked like a little dried up prune. The staff in here persuaded him to get a line fitted so he didn’t starve to death. Kind of ironic isn’t’ it? I mean we all know he won’t starve to death but you can’t just leave folks to waste away the way he was can you? He’s sitting in the corner with old Tom and Mary playing poker. They’re ASPHYXIATION too. There are two others in the corner, I recognise them from the PAPERCUT ward. They’re playing chess and don’t look up as the others do when I come in.

‘Hey folks. How we all doing today then?’

John answers first ‘We’re just fine boy. Mary seems to be on a winning streak. I’m glad we’re just playing for matches or I’d be bankrupt by now. How’s yourself? Is your mother keeping better?’

‘Yes thanks, I think it was just a touch of the flu.’ At this Tom scowls at me screwing his ancient face up all suspicious, like. I know what he’s thinking and I try to change the subject but thankfully John is one step ahead of me.

‘So boy. Have you applied for that university course yet?’

‘I will John, I will. I just have to figure out how to write it all out, you know? ‘

‘Maybe we can help you boy?’ he lowers his voice, ‘Or what about them?’ He nods towards the PAPERCUT dudes. Man, he can be a sick old fuck sometimes.

‘Yeah John. I’m sure they’d love to.’ I’m getting out my equipment now and getting ready to change their lines over. John is first and he loosens his shirt and offers me the wrinkled skin at his collarbone where the line goes in. There is still a scar from where he had the accident. It’s like an angry jagged white line and the wrinkles are trying their best to grow over it. He notices me looking at it.

‘This is why you need to get your life sorted out boy. You’ve got a good brain in your head. You could go so much further than just mopping up after us old timers. Don’t’ want to end up doing what I did do you?’

‘Tell me John.’ I’d heard this story about a million times but I know John likes to feel like he’s “imparting his great wisdom” or something.

‘I’d just been tested. As you know boy, I was a maths teacher in those days, and every year that passed I hated it more and more. I thought I could make a difference but by then I knew. They didn’t really want to learn. I got up each day and did the same thing, day after day after day. I’d stopped caring really even before I got the test but when it said ASPHYXIATION that was the last straw. I already felt like my life was being sucked out of me. I had that feeling every night. As though I couldn’t breathe and then it started happening on the subway and I knew that the ticket was my great escape but I couldn’t bear for that machine to dictate to me how it would end. All my life other people had told me what I should do, where I should live. My parents were both teachers you see. They just wanted what was best I suppose but I’d always wanted to be a painter.’ this bit of information didn’t surprise me. I mean, you might not look at old John and see him as being like, an artistic type, but looking at him today with the sunlight pouring onto his wrinkled brow you could kind of see it. Something about the way his eyes gazed off just there. It was like, real, you know?

‘I had it all worked out. There was a railway bridge at the back of the school where I worked. I’d been going out at recess each day and timing the trains that run under the bridge. I did this for maybe four weeks and kept it all in my notebook. Eventually I had all the data I needed. I’d calculated that if I jumped off that bridge at the exactly 11.03 I’d have a 97% chance of meeting the 10.55 express train coming the other way. The only thing I had wondered was which bit of my life would flash in front of me as my flesh and bones ripped apart on impact.’

At this point Tom pipes in, ‘Yeah John but what happened?’ Like we don’t all know already.

‘The train had broken down that morning and instead of killing myself I ended up doing nothing more than breaking my shoulder’!

At this we all laugh. Mary is laughing so hard she’s started to like, choke and the other two stare at me in panic. I think for a minute I’m going to have to press the emergency buzzer but it’s just a cough. John’s line is in now and I move on to change over the other two.’The thing that scared me most though’ says John ‘was that I just felt nothing. On the way down, thinking this was it. Nothing.’ his face has changed again and the sadness and regret etches itself back onto him like shroud.

I’m done now and say my goodbyes. I don’t like to leave him feeling that but what can I do?

One day I think I might kidnap him. Take him like, outside of The Facility. Maybe go to a park with some watercolours or maybe a gallery. Something he could really enjoy. We’ve talked about it a few times and one time he almost agreed. But it was like man, that memory of facing death was still too much for him.

(2180 words)




One response

10 04 2007

I’m halfway through this, and I really dug it, especially the setup. I’m still working on my entry for the Machine of Death, but yours seems really good.

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