So, I recently entered the Machine of Death Short Story contest. It was a fascinating concept and you can read about it here. Today I got my rejection slip so I thought, since now I had permission, I would post it here for all of you to enjoy. SUBMISSION
I remember when The Machine was unveiled. I heard about it on CNN one morning as I waited for my morning caffeine hit to brew; MACHINE PREDICTS DEATHS WITH COMPLETE ACCURACY. Soledad O'Brien was appropriately skeptical as she reported on the "miracle machine" and she and her co-host delicately interrogated each other at the end of the piece, wondering if the other would go out and get their own little slip of paper. Soledad chuckled that the first one to go have the test and get their slip would have to report on the experience during their show. I made a mental note to avoid that segment if and when it rolled around.
The Machine was a bit of a joke in the beginning, at least to the literate and the jaded. "Oh, how cute!" society seemed to say. "Another interesting but entirely useless gadget." With only one machine in existence, and it a complete mystery to the medical, mechanical, and engineering communities, it didn't seem possible that the COMPLETE ACCURACY claim was anything more than a tired advertising ploy. A simple, harmless blood test that resulted in the creation of a slip of paper upon which were written one or two concise words supposedly predicting the manner of the test subject's death? It really was too absurd. The people who lined up like carnival-goers for their little slips in the first days after the report showed them to each other and laughed, albeit nervously. Death had been trivialized before but never their own deaths. Suddenly the "simple, harmless blood test" required didn't seem so simple or so harmless anymore.
The death predictions revealed to the tongue-in-cheek media mob those first few days ranged from the mundane to the utterly improbable. CAR ACCIDENT and OLD AGE seemed stale next to one middle-aged man's slip which read FRIED or the wealthy young fashionista's slip that read INDUSTRIAL NAIL GUN. It was clear she had no idea what an industrial nail gun was let alone would have willingly gone near one. Not everyone, though, thought The Machine was a joke. I certainly didn't. Appalling? Yes. Humorous? Not at all. A macabre morality play gone absurd. A modern-day Oracle at Delphi. A meddling with something that should have remained untouched.
Others looked past The Machine's novelty and ghoulishness and saw opportunity. One of them was Maryann Stallings, a young journalist fast on her feet, who quickly gathered 40 willing guinea pigs looking for their promised 15 minutes of fame and divided them into two groups. The first group went through the test normally, registered their results with Maryann and with the wider viewing audience. The second group went through the test normally too but instead of seeing their results, a third party issued them a number then sealed their results in an envelope which was then locked in a safe. In the event of a death from this group, the envelope would be opened to check for accuracy. Until then, no one would know what the slip said. Both groups consented to being monitored by Maryann during the following year. She called the groups 'We Know' and 'We Don't' and checked in on them during a weekly televised program.
I believed the show to be the pinnacle of the cheesy, sleazy reality television movement. The journalist and her producers made their cliche millions of dollars as the country tuned in weekly to see if anyone had died yet on "Death Machine". Water coolers all over Corporate America hosted spirited debates about how the participants could avoid their fates and whether or not they were smart enough to do so. Pools sprang up everywhere as the weeks wore on and no one died. Who would be first? Would it be someone who knew what their slip said or would it be someone who didn't? Would The Machine be right?
Four months into the show, anthropologists, sociologists, and other academicians began to notice something interesting. The people in the 'We Know' group began to lose their inhibitions, began taking more risks. The people in the 'We Don't' group began living more cautiously, began retreating into smaller, more fortified social circles. Careers blossomed or suffered. Relationships soared or collapsed. For the 'We Know' group, trust became a currency they paid to themselves and to others almost indiscriminately. For the 'We Don't' group, trust was something they hoarded to themselves, paying out the smallest increments only when absolutely necessary. The 'We Know' group almost unanimously entered into self-destructive and indulgent behaviors while the 'We Don't' group began to live more healthfully, more monastically.
During the fifth month, the first participant died. A 48-year-old, white, married, father of three who knew what his slip said: HELICOPTER ACCIDENT. During his time on "Death Machine", he went from a svelte man of 170lbs. to a man who weighed almost 300lbs. He had spent a lifetime worrying about his weight because diabetes and cardiac illnesses ran in his family. His little bit of ticker tape was, to him, a license to eat. And eat he did. Fried foods, fatty foods, ice cream, carbs. Alcohol, cream sauces, butter, and bacon. He once even ate a deep-fat-fried candy bar on screen to prove how unafraid of food he had become. After all, his slip said HELICOPTER ACCIDENT. And that didn't have a thing to do with trans fats or calories or high fructose corn syrup. As long as he stayed away from helicopters, he was golden. But then he had a massive coronary while eating at a fast food joint. Because of the severity of his condition and the inability of the local hospital to handle such a case, the decision was made to have a LifeFlight crew take him to the trauma hospital 45 minutes north. The helicopter crashed in a freak accident, killing all onboard.
That first death was a wake-up call for us all.
The entire country held its collective breath. The grief of Jim Wilson's wife and kids was almost accusatory in its intensity and the following week the viewership of "Death Machine" fell by more than 50 percent. True to Western Industrial Human Nature, though, the population rallied. Barely ten days after Jim Wilson's death, a conspiracy theory sprouted up that the producers of the show had engineered the death. Lawsuits and counter-lawsuits were filed and talk news shows started talking about the possibility of indictments. Several medical equipment companies bidding for the rights to mass produce The Machine dropped out of talks as the controversy raged. The lines of people waiting for their chance at The Machine drifted away.
Then another participant died. A 77-year-old grandmother on an outing to the zoo with her grandchildren watched helplessly as the youngest fell into one of the exhibits. When calls for help didn't seem to mobilize the zoo personnel, she handed her purse to the oldest grandchild, climbed the low concrete wall surrounding the shallow pit, and went after the little boy. As she handed the unharmed child up to a nearby cotton candy hawker who had come to help, she was bitten by the exhibit's only inhabitant, a male Komodo dragon. She died in the hospital a week later of a massive infection that was resistant to traditional pharmacological intervention.'The country largely ignored the grief of Geneva Washington's family. She'd been a member of the 'We Don't' group and the battling factions of conspiracy theorists and television producers--not to mention the rest of the viewing public--saw this death as the one that would finally resolve the issue. On live television, representatives from both sides of the argument stood by the show's host as the security company opened the safe and removed the envelope boldly marked with the number 15. A thin, bird-like man wearing a black suit and small round glasses was in charge of the opening of the envelope. He checked it against his clipboard, examined the envelope for mishandling with painstaking exactness, nodded once, and slit it open. A lonely slip of paper fluttered out into his hand. He read it to himself once without so much as a glimmer of reaction and then turned it around. As the lidless eyes of the cameras zoomed in on the tiny block letters, Mr. Clarence Sharp of Sharp, Jensen, and Lockwood LLP said in a clear, reedy voice "Komodo dragon bite".
We Americans are nothing if not fickle. The next episode of "Death Machine" not only recouped the 50 percent loss of viewership but doubled the highest ratings it had ever had. The public lawsuit war silently went the way of the much maligned "Cop Rock" and the conspiracy theorists went back to being the socially tolerated crackpots they had always been.
All told, five people from the show died that first year.
Jim Wilson, 'We Know', HELICOPTER ACCIDENTGeneva Washington, 'We Don't', KOMODO DRAGON BITEAnupam Gunturu, 'We Know', GUNSHOT TO THE HEADAlice Dufresne, 'We Know', PULMONARY EMBOLISMMagdalena Morales, 'We Don't', EXPOSURE
It quickly became obvious that the little slips of paper, while always right, didn't begin to fully explain the events that led to those deaths. Anupam Gunturu, a pacifist who loathed guns, shot himself in the head with a revolver he wrestled away from a local police officer who had come to notify him of his only daughter's death in a motor vehicle accident. Alice Dufresne broke her arm when she fell off the bike she rode to and from work every day. She died two days later when a blood clot from the break traveled to her lung and killed her. And Magdalena Morales took a pain killer for her bad back and went to bed early on the coldest night of the year. Her furnace, which had worked perfectly all winter, failed to turn on and she died of exposure in her own bed.
That summer, while the show was on hiatus with the rest of television programming, the talk that had once focused on the mysteries of the machine now turned to larger mysteries. "How does the machine know?" became "What happened to free will?" People started wondering if there were thousands of paths to the final moment predicted or just one. And if there was just one path, what did that mean exactly? Was everything pre-destined or was only death pre-destined? It was a dizzying debate, made no less so by the thousands of religious leaders who suddenly felt compelled to put their two cents into the mix.
The premiere of the second season of "Death Machine" conveniently coincided with the release of the new mass-produced units. Now every mall, every doctor's office, every pharmacy, hell, every arcade could have The Machine. It was a compact little thing that put me in mind of what might result from the unholy union between a pharmacy blood pressure machine and a novelty photo booth and it had zero regulations. There were no age restrictions and no waivers. You didn't even have to sign your name. Maintenance on the machines seemed to consist solely of someone to refill the rolls of ticker tape, the ink cartridges, and the disposable needle belts, to empty the biohazard waste buckets, and to make sure the plug was still firmly plugged into the nearby outlet. They never seemed to jam or break or misfire. There were never any complaints of medical complications. And try as they might, no news organization could find one example of The Machine being wrong.
The first death of the second season happened just before the thirteenth episode. In between Maryann Stallings' quiet interviews with the next of kin of Sister Kpodo Boadu of The Church of the Holy Comforter, 'We Know', OVARIAN CANCER, a well-placed commercial aired and The Church of the Infallible Machine was born. Amidst all the consumer-generated, lowest common denominator sludge that had started spreading like a stain around The Machine--scams promising they could change the manner of your predicted death for a "low monthly cost" or death rating blogs that glorified the more obscure predictions--a different voice rose up.
The Church of the Infallible Machine firmly admitted that it could not change your fate. It did not cast judgment upon you for the manner of your future death, it did not promise to tell you when your death would happen, it did not claim to be able to intercede on your behalf with the afterlife, and it steadfastly refused to excoriate you with the type of fire and brimstone religion the right-wingers seemed to thrive upon. It simply posited that there were thousands of paths that could lead you to your forecasted end and--with the help of the Reverend Mother Ruth Summerlin--it claimed to want to help you find the purest of those paths.
For instance, if your strip of paper said GANG RELATED VIOLENCE and you were a member of a gang, The Church of the Infallible Machine wanted to help you find the most blameless path to your death. So that when you died of gang related violence, perhaps you did so as an elderly gentleman caught innocently in the crossfire during a turf war instead of as an active participant in violent, illegal behavior. That, in fact, was the church's hope for a young man whose boyish yet disaffected face filled my television screen that night. In halting, inelegant words, DeShawn Branden, known on the street as Diddy-Dog, told us about the dares that led him and his crew to line up at The Machine one night. Thirteen young men in all sat behind the industrial blue privacy curtain and got their papers. And when the thirteenth came out and showed his, DeShawn knew at that moment that there was something very wrong with his life. Every last one said the same thing: GANG RELATED VIOLENCE.
The day after the commercial debuted, DeShawn--accompanied by the Reverend Mother Ruth--appeared on Oprah. In the same unpolished words he had used in the commercial, he told of the confusion, anger and despair that his fate and that of his friends had caused. His crew had changed. He had changed. Some of his friends, wallowing in cynicism, determined that there was no point to anything anymore and went on dark, ever-downward spiraling crime sprees. DeShawn suspected most of them were already dead. One boy decided to "check out" until his time came, which DeShawn explained meant remaining in a crack-induced haze of existence. But DeShawn decided he wanted out of the life entirely and he went to an aunt who was living in North Carolina. Through her determined effort to find him some help, he had been introduced to Ruth Summerlin.
Oh, how I wanted that frosted blonde woman to be a false prophet. While Ms. Winfrey asked quiet questions in that rich, velvet voice of hers, I kept my eyes on the Reverend Mother, wanting to see Satan's hand working through her. My own cynicism regarding the white American populace--even though I was a member of it--ached to be able to point to her and say "Opportunist!" But she wasn't. She took no money from her congregation. She built no ostentatious church, she gathered no "inner circle" around herself, she claimed no exclusive knowledge. She genuinely cared for DeShawn and wanted him to reach his Machine-predicted fate as blamelessly as possible so that he could meet his Maker with confidence and pride. She held nothing back, either. The Reverend Mother Ruth Summerlin had been to The Machine. Her slip of paper said HATE.
Halfway through the third season of "Death Machine", the show was cancelled. There hadn't been a single death amongst the participants since the year before and the problem inherent in a reality television show based on waiting for people to die suddenly became apparent. After all, the WiFi Society doesn't do waiting all that well.
I breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed that it was possible now for the cultural influence of this horrible machine to simply fade away. Another ill-conceived and unsightly fad, like bellbottoms or legwarmers, passing out of favor with a society always looking for the next new thing.
However, my fervent hopes would soon be dashed. Just because we lost our weekly voyeuristic view of the ripple effects of The Machine didn't mean that those ripple effects stopped. Within a year, the life insurance industry became embroiled in a number of lawsuits; some that claimed discrimination for unpaid claims and some appealing claims that they had already paid. What insurance companies wanted, of course, was the ability to legally require all clients to visit The Machine. Their short-sighted CEOs and Boards of Directors saw dollar signs--millions and millions of them--saved by stopping lawsuits before they even happened. By the time they realized the long-term reality of what they were asking for, it was too late. The entire actuarial field as it pertained to life insurance shifted wildly. Where once it had been a complex system of probability based on a number of unknown factors and risk assessments, it now became a betting system based on one factor: when. And "when" was a factor that resisted prediction with the same age-old steadfastness it always had. In short, statisticians were out and psychics were in. The Miss Cleos of the world suddenly had corner offices and stock options and expense accounts while actual actuaries fled to the other insurance industries, who themselves were experiencing radical change.
With the sickening inevitability of falling dominos, the face of professional interaction all across the nation changed, too. Some employers, wanting to cut down on worker's compensation claims, required their employees to visit The Machine and to reveal their test results to their HR departments. This ignited another firestorm of lawsuits. Employees claimed their test results were covered under HIPAA and therefore could not be compelled by their employers. Conversely, the employers claimed that death was not a medical condition and was not governed by the protections of HIPAA. Nor was it governed by the protection of privacy law because there was no expectation of privacy in the act of death. The Supreme Court eventually took the side of the employers though they made it clear they found the decision distasteful. They also made it clear that their hands were tied. They were bound by the laws enacted to date, none of which were clearly on point. In short, they'd had to "make do".
Before the lower courts could react and craft laws clearly on point, the celebrity-crazed media jumped on the bandwagon behind the corporations and began demanding to know the test results of people of renown. Everyday celebrities aside, the majority of the public seemed to want to know whether or not the President had taken the test. Suddenly we were a culture consumed by death. Not the violent, anonymous, dehumanizing death glorified in movies, television, video games and foreign policy, but individual death. Quantifiable death. It permeated every facet of life. We seemed to be drowning in it. To me, the quality of everyday existence had taken on the feel of a Charles Bronson movie: slightly nauseating and fully disgusting on almost every level.
The worst of it, though, seemed to invade the court system.
By The Machine's sixth year, eight out of every ten lawsuits revolved around it. The amount of time spent in court dealing with "Death Machine Discrimination" overtook and then outstripped the amount of time spent in court dealing with every level of criminal offense, from traffic tickets to treason. The government, looking ahead for once, saw the dangers that lurked in the shadows of this new culture and they made a quick and quiet decision to eliminate them. It was remarkably simple for them to do. Frighteningly simple. Horrendously simple.
First, they required all US citizens, aged 15 and older, to be tested and refitted the machines to transmit the results to the Social Security Administration where they would be dutifully logged. Second, they added "death status" into the federal discrimination protection language and back-dated it to the day The Machine debuted.
Knowing that forcibly leveling the playing field would take time and effort, they assigned a date two years from the date of their decision as the last day for all affected citizens to comply with the new laws.
Which brings me to today.
I never wanted to visit this creepy, mechanical Reaper. In fact, I wish the damned thing had never been invented. If I could, I'd brain the inventor with a baseball bat and never lose a night's sleep over it. That being impossible, of course, I've decided to get my test done at the last possible moment. You know, in protest. I will not take this ridiculous test one minute earlier than I have to, dammit.
I've got a few minutes. It's not quite 11:59pm yet. And there certainly isn't a line here. Charity Hospital is a dismal place to be no matter what the circumstances, but just before midnight on a Friday in rainy June, it's practically deserted.
The industrial blue curtain is dingy and torn and it hangs from only three rings on the bar. I try not to touch it too much as I slide it out of my way, the scrape of the rings loud in the silence of the lobby. Feeling a bit self-conscious, I glance around and see that there is virtually no audience to my protest. There's a fat security guard behind the front desk and an old man mopping the floor not too far away. His bucket sloshes and squeaks as he pushes it to the next patch of dirty linoleum in his path.
I enter the little box and take a seat on the cold aluminum bench built into the back wall. It's scratched and dull and the remains of ancient bubble gums cling to its sides. There's another curtain, this one over what was supposed to be the exit side of The Machine, but some genius has pushed this unit against a wall. I can just make out an unhappy shade of institution-green paint beyond it.
The dim overhead light supposedly there to assist me with the controls flickers and I look up. Then I look down and see the problem. The plug, inserted into an ill-conceived floor-socket, is frayed around the base. Rats, I realize. Rats or mice have been chewing on the cord. Disgusting.
I check my watch. Only a couple of minutes left. I sigh and enter my social security number into the tiny key pad.
"Sheep," I whisper, my voice filled with derision. "We're all fuckin' sheep." So easily led to this indignity. So passively buying the propaganda that taking this test will be better for us, will save us from anarchy and social collapse. Isn't this what the government has always said? Isn't this how we are always led--by fear of the unknown? And now death, the great unknown, is being recorded, monitored, quantified, and analyzed. Like a butterfly under glass, a pin through its thorax.
"Where is our freedom now?" I wonder. I hope there is still some measure of it somewhere beyond the taking of a last breath.
Sitting here in this dirty, claustrophobic post-modern Oracle, I wish I was the type of person that could just flout the law or who could steal someone else's social security number, but I'm not. I know this without a doubt. I'm a reluctant sheep, a stubborn sheep, but a sheep nonetheless.
I take one final moment to remember what life was like before this infernal machine was invented. When we were still blissfully innocent. When we played like children with this world that we ritually and continually abused, tearing it apart with the same gleeful cruelty a little boy employs in the ripping off of a fly's wings. I suppose I could hope that our loss of innocence will bring maturity with it, forcing us to really look at one another and at the state of this, our only home in the Universe, inspiring us to care for it better, to help it to heal, to bring it back to its pristine beauty. It is a last hopeful thought before the monitor prompts me to press the START button.
I insert my right hand--palm up as instructed by the universal symbol embossed in peeling red paint on the panel in front of me--into the cuff provided and the tourniquet begins to tighten around my wrist. I hear hidden hydraulics start up and slowly a needle apparatus descends over my middle finger. I grip the edge of the cold, gum-encrusted seat with my free hand, lean slightly forward, and take a deep breath. More hydraulics sound behind the control panel and a countdown begins on the monitor. One of my Birks slips almost off my foot as the muscles in my legs tense.
In this last second before the quick punch of the needle, I realize that my hope is misplaced. Ever narcissistic and self-referential, I see that we, as a society will only become more so. Obsessed with ourselves, The Machine will turn us even further inward, corrupting the concept of "the brotherhood of man" as easily as it corrupted whole industries. The sharp burning in my finger pales in comparison to hollow sadness in my middle.
As the needle retracts and The Machine comes to life with sound and light, I find I am numb with resignation.
As the printing apparatus starts up with a gentle hum, it ignites a small spark within me. Without looking at it, I tear my slip of paper from The Machine and close it in my fist. It's small and solid and rough-edged, like a fortune cookie fortune with tiny teeth. My heart pounds in my chest. The Machine quiets slowly after the final transmission of my results to the SSA, like an old-time steam engine with the technological equivalent of pops and whistles and creaks.
It's so simple, of course. It doesn't matter what it says; OLD AGE, DROWNING IN THE TUB, or even PIE EATING CONTEST. Death by any means is just death. Still inevitable, still essentially unknown.
The smaller deaths are more important, more significant in life. The death of hope, the death of our dreams, the death of our innocence. The emptiness of a life lived in apathy. The blind assent that kills in spirit if not in body.
I won't go that way. I refuse.
I don't have to look at the paper so I don't.
I push aside the blue curtain only to find the janitor's mop bucket parked a few feet from me, apparently abandoned. I walk over to it and open my fist over its open maw.
The slip of paper flutters downward, turning over and over quickly like one of those seed pods we used to call "helicopters" falling from the tree in our front yard in early Autumn. It lands in the filthy water and hovers there on the surface--face down--until it succumbs to the caustic environment and dissolves like cotton candy does on the tongue.
I smile for the first time in weeks. Maybe, I think, just maybe there is still some freedom to be found on this side of the last breath.
It's small, but I'll take it anyway.
THE ENDLet me know what you think! I'd love feedback. :)Love,Erin
Ooh! Inspiration for this! :)
Ah yes! I shall get around to it eventually... ;)
this was one of those stories that just draws you in... even though i'm not normally a "first person" fan, you avoided all the usual pratfalls of the style and pulled me right into the narrative. the world you describe is real. the parallels between what we consider the "real" world and the world of the death machine make it easy to wonder and imagine if there were such a device... that this is the way it would be.thank you for letting us have a gander at it :)
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
I loved this!!! it was moving and detailed and just Splendid!! I'm not sure where I would have been in this story! I Part of me I'm sure would want to know, but I also know if it was anything other than in 'my sleep' I would be upset LOLstill though!! Wonderful!!
Thanks! Yes, I, too, don't know exactly what I would have chosen to do at that pivotal moment. Though I am one of those monumentally unlucky people who would have a very embarrassing public death. Like ACCIDENTAL DROWNING IN PUBLIC FOUNTAIN or something. LOL
I just wandered across this while searching for anyone who posted their Machine of Death submissions online and wanted to say it's very good. Actually, if something like this got turned down then I most certainly can't wait to see what actually gets chosen when the book is released.
Thank you very much. I am glad you enjoyed it. As for the book, I am looking forward to it too. I can't wait to see what others chose to write about. :)
Disturbing.Delightfully so, but disturbing in how accurately I feel you described humanity's reaction to something like this.*favorites* [And yes, I came across this way back when you posted the link on your journal, and I've had the window open in Firefox ever since, but I kept forgetting about it. Bad me.]
Thank you, dear! I am glad that you feel I got it right. And no, no bad you. See how long it took me to respond to your lovely comment?
Hey, at least you answer. Usually when that much time passes, I just forget.
Oooooooh! ICON LOVE!
Yours too! Angelina Jolie is, to quote a friend, t3h hawt.