There is an anthology out there you can download for free and disseminate anyway you please as long as you keep it whole and don’t steal it as your own. It’s called the Machine of Death. Here’s a link to go get it free, and another to go buy it.
When Ryan North called for submissions, I submitted a story for the anthology. Though I didn’t get chosen, I still loved this book. So here is my Machine of Death story. This is several years old, nearly as old as Kissing Demons. It’s never been published and I haven’t ever shown it to anyone except the submission board. So here you go.
Machine of Death: Jill’s Story
My parents took me to the Machine of Death as soon as they could leave the hospital with me. You might think they did this because I was born malformed or in ill health, but that was not the case. I was born a healthy baby girl, two eyes, ten fingers, ten toes. My loving parents were new to the whole parenting thing and didn’t want to take any chances on my life, so in an effort to be the best parents ever, the first thing they did with their brand new baby girl was take her to the MOD. As a result, I’ve known since I was able to comprehend death that I was, in fact, Sleeping Beauty.
That’s right, Sleeping Beauty. Fortunately, my parents didn’t take me to the machine before they named me. My name is plain ol’ Jill—my parents call me Jilly and my little brother calls me Jelly and I wouldn’t trade my name for the world. I’m not even sure where I would even encounter a distaff or spindling needle, but that was what the machine spat out: “Pricked by a spindling needle.” Of course, there is no good fairy to lessen my curse and there certainly isn’t a prince out there waiting to save me. No, I am going to die by spinning wheel and there is nothing I can do about it. That is what my parents learned, and that is what they taught me.
My parents learned from their mistake, though. They did not take my brother to the machine, so his death is a mystery to them and to him.
You see, when the machine printed off my reading and my parents read it for the first time, they realized two things simultaneously. First, everyone is mortal, including the precious bundle of joy my mother was coddling against her chest and knowing how their child was going to die was a torture too painful to repeat. The second thing they realized, right on the heels of the first, was that they wished they’d named me Aurora. Ha-Ha.
So, now I am 17 years old and I am sitting at the dinner table with my family, and my 15-year-old brother is pushing his food around his plate, looking like he might vomit at any moment.
“Mike, what’s the matter?” I ask softly, too soft for my parents to hear over their chatter about their work-days.
Mike glances up at me and immediately looks back at his mashed potato sculpture.
He should have known better. I am nothing if not persistent. “Mike, what’s going on?” I ask louder: loud enough to get my parents’ attention this time.
Mom looked at me and Dad looks at Mike, both with identical expressions of puzzlement on their faces. My parents were made for each other, and it’s moments like this that would convince a stranger off the street of that fact. “What’s the matter?” they as in unison ask. They both immediately smile, because they know how much we tease them for taking the whole “two become one” thing to a whole new level.
“Mike’s looking a little greener than usual,” I reply, indicating him with my fork.
Mom turns to Mike and the barrage of questions begins. Mom is one of the fastest interrogators in the Southwest. She can shoot off questions one after another until your head is spinning and all you want to do is confess to stop the inquisition. Usually, Mom’s methods are sure to get answers, but I have to give my brother credit. This time he gives nothing away—not a word to indicate the reason behind his sour expression.
Mom, convinced that her interrogation technique cannot fail her, is satisfied by his non-answers. I am not, but I can wait until I have him alone so I can use my own interrogation techniques. I finish my dinner and gradually the family disperses to do their own evening activities. I wait a reasonable amount of time, knowing Mike will be in his room on his computer as soon as his homework is done. At half past eight, with my parents will be in the middle of some crime show or another, I decide the time is optimal for the privacy I need to get answers.
Yeah, I’m the kind of sister that is all up in her brother’s business, but I recognize my faults and I am working on them, one at a time. Today’s fault is procrastination and I am not going to put off getting answers for another moment.
Sometimes, life imitates art. Just as I open my door, I see my brother standing there, hand raised to knock. I call that a “movie moment” because it almost never happens in real life.
“Hey,” I say in surprise.
“Can I come in?” he asks, looking past me with that same green expression.
I open the door for him and he comes in and sits on my beanbag chair—his chair. I sit across from him on my bed, and the scene becomes very familiar. This is our telling-each-other-something-very-important mode.
“What’s up?” I ask, letting all my plans for interrogation go.
“This stays between you and me,” he says, sounding very business-like.
I nod quietly, knowing that sometimes it is best just to keep my mouth shut.
“The guys and I went to the Machine of Death after school today.”
“Ohmygod!” I am completely blind-sided by this confession. I would never have guessed that Mike would ever go have his death read. Mike has thought for a long time that the knowledge of one’s own death beyond the fact of death was more of a burden than a person should carry. He once told me that knowing that we are going to die is enough for humans, knowing how doesn’t add to anyone’s quality of life and he would never have his death read.
Mike raises his hand and holds out a strip of paper folded in half, offering it to me like the last sacrifice of a dying man.
I don’t snatch it out of his hand. I can barely bring myself to take it. My arm feels so heavy and my fingers are tingling with needles. Knowledge of death is not something I would have wished on anyone, much less someone I love so much. Both of my parents know how they are going to die and I do, and there is one thing that I have learned from our experiences: obsession is easy. My dad became obsessed with his manner of death when he found out. And for a few long years, it was torture living in this house with him and my mother. I can’t help but wonder what Mike will do with his scrap of paper.
“What’s it say?” I ask, hoping he will just tell me so I won’t have to touch the wretched thing.
He only shakes his head and offers the paper up higher.
I resign myself to my fate—I am going to have to read it.
I take it from him and open it. I turn it over to the other side, and turn it over again.
“What’s this?” I ask confused.
“That is what the machine gave me,” he replies quietly.
“Was it broken?”
“Tim got his before me and Jared got his after me. Both of theirs were fairly standard. Tim’s was old age and Jared’s was that biological weapon that half the country’s been getting—the one Dad got.” We both can’t help but shudder. Dad’s obsession with his death has given us nightmares. We do not like thinking about when Dad will die and we both pray every night that it won’t be until we are old and grey.
Mike continues, “I did mine three times and all of them came out just like that.”
I look at the paper again. It reads: AC_ERROR_PARAMETER_OUTSIDE_BOUNDS. “What does it mean?”
Mike shrugs a shoulder. “I looked it up in the support reference. It says, and I quote, ‘The parameter is outside the valid range.’ I have no idea what that means.”
Mike is turning green again and I hand him my trash can just in case he needs to hurl. “Let’s think about this, Mike. This means that the machine did not spit out a death sentence for you. If the machine was working properly then under what circumstances would it issue an error message like this?” I need to ponder this further and Mike has always been the best tack board for my ideas. He is able to sit and listen to me ramble on, interject a few ideas and remember what I said before. For several years now, Mike has also been able to connect dots that I couldn’t see.
“Ok,”I continue, thinking out loud. “The machine might spit out an error message if there weren’t words to describe your cause of death. Or maybe the government decided that it did not want anyone to know what was going to happen to you.”
“If that was true, the government probably would have stopped the machine from letting everyone know about an impending biological weapon attack that will be the death of half the country,” Mike says. He is at least beginning to look less ill as we hash out our thought experiment.
“True.” I mutter. “Ok, let’s get crazy. What if nothing will kill you. You won’t die—“ I stop short of my next idea and look at my brother. “You could be immortal,” I suggest with a shit-eatin’ grin. “After all, that would definitely be outside the parameters of the machine’s capabilities.”
Mike rolls his eyes. “That’s ridiculous, Jelly. No one is immortal. Even if a person never grew up, one gunshot wound to the head and it’s over for them.”
He’s right, of course. “Ok, fine. Why don’t we Google it?” I suggest, pulling my laptop from my bedside table and turning it on.
“Because, there are all kinds of death groups online and if there’s anyone else out there who’s received the same message as you, maybe they’ll have made a death group too.” I am amazed he didn’t think of this first. He’s the one who suggested that I start a death group for spindling accidents, after all.
Mike looks incredulous, but doesn’t say anything. It takes me about thirty seconds to navigate to the Error Message Death Group. “That’s weird,” I say, scanning the blog subjects.
“There are 13 other people who got the same message as you. The weird part is that they are part of a cluster group for people who have received future technology readings. There’s this one guy who’s MOD reading said he would be pancaked in a singularity,” I explain. I can’t help but feel a little bit weirded out by this cluster group.
Mike moves to sit on the bed next to me and looks over my shoulder at the laptop. “Pancaked by a singularity, shoved out an airlock, caught in a solar flare, bit by a—I don’t even know how to say that word.”
“Guh-lidg-ep?” I suggest. The word is spelled G-H-L-Y-J-P.
“Sounds good to me. This is really strange. How have we not heard about this group before?” Mike asks, clicking on the link to the error message subgroup.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought to look for it if you hadn’t gotten such a weird message. And I probably wouldn’t have believed it if I had come across it.” I know that before today I would have thought this was another of those fake death-reading groups. There are plenty of them on the web. Some of them are ridiculous, like the group for alien anal probes, but some of them are a bit more believable, like the act-of-god group. I once read about a guy who claimed his read-out read Death by the hand of God. It turned out he was lying, though. It actually said he would be struck by lightning. If I were God, I would strike him down with lightning just for lying about me.
The error message group had two prominent theories about the meaning of the error message. The most popular was the immortality theory. Duh. Who wants to die? Given the option I would choose immortality too. The second was a theory that made all of the error message people even more special than immortality would: they weren’t actually alive. And this theory branched off into several different directions, from the no-soul theory to the imagination-of-God theory. I basically dismissed the Not Alive theory out of hand. My brother had a soul, he had a pulse, and there is no way I could have made him up if I tried.
“Whatcha think?” I ask, looking at Mike.
“I am in the these-people-are-crazy group.” Mike looks like he does when he’s about to lecture me for doing something reckless. “Immortality is not possible. No matter how long you live, you’re still human and the human body is extremely fragile. If not for our comparatively huge brains, we wouldn’t be where we are on the food chain.”
“Ok, so what if it’s limited immortality? Look at all these people who have gotten readings that are far beyond our technological capability right now. I mean, the guy who is pancaked in a singularity is not going to be on this planet when it happens, obviously. Otherwise, there would be a massive amount of pancakes out there, but so far he’s the only one. So what if humanity is evolving and we are either getting to the point technologically or naturally that the human lifespan is forever, unless you suffer a mortal wound?”
“In that case, all of these future techies would be explained. The problem is that I am aging at the same rate as every other person on the planet and eventually I will die from old age, if nothing else kills me first. According to our family doctor, I am normal in every way. Biologically speaking.”
“Because you are definitely not normal in any other way,” I tease him because he’s my brother and he left himself wide open to that one.
Mike rolls his eyes, but before he can retort, my mother bursts into my room. She’s crying, and right on her heels is my father, pale as a sheet.
“What’s wrong?” Mike and I ask in unison.
My mother throws herself at us and hugs us both so tightly I have a difficult time breathing.
“Dad?” Mike asks, scrunched up in worry.
Dad shakes his head and turns on my little TV. The news is on and a reporter is trying to explain something, but she keeps losing her voice. She’s on the verge of tears too. “The symptoms of the virus include sudden fever, hem—hemorrhaging from the ears, n—nose, eyes—I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” The reporter suddenly gets up and the screen goes blank for a minute.
“What happened?” I ask and I can see that my dad can no longer hold back his own tears. Then I notice they are tears of blood. “Dad!” I scream, throwing my mother off as I jump up to my dad.
Dad wipes his eyes and sees the blood. He clenches his fist and his face hardens. I’ve seen this look before. “It’s the biological weapon. It’s been in our water supply for a weeks now. Every person who’s used the tap has been infected.” My dad stares at his bloody fingers and I wrap my arms around him. We all know he’s going to die. He and mom went to have their deaths read at my insistence when I was ten. That was when he found out that he would be a victim of the biological weapon and my mom would die spelunking. .
My mother is sobbing loudly now and my brother is holding her closely.
“Dad,” I whisper. I don’t what else to say. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop what has already started.
Mom stutters something completely unintelligible, but she is wiping at my brother’s face and looking for signs of the infection. She thinks that my brother’s earlier malaise is a symptom of the infection.
My brother stops her hands and holds them tightly. “Don’t worry about me, Mom. I had my death read today and it is not the biological weapon,” he assures her, pushing the paper into his pocket so that she can’t read it.
My dad clears his throat. “Let’s get started. I want you all to have everything ready before I die.”
I look at Mike. We share a moment of dread. We had hoped that this moment would never come. Because of his obsession with his death, my father had created a plan of action for this very moment. The years during which I went through puberty, my father fortified our home so that we would be able to live in this house with almost zero contact with the outside world for about ten years.
“Let’s move,” Dad insists more authoritatively.
Mom and Mike get up and we all go to our assignments.
My first job is to bring down the fortifications for the windows. Dad has already fortified the walls and roof, so as the stainless steel sheets cover the windows and the door descend, I know that this might be the last time I see the world beyond my house for several years.
My second job is in the hydroponics room. My dad built a basement the size of our backyard under the house. This is where he has stockpiled non-perishable items, dug an illegal well, and created a hydroponics chamber that grows fresh fruits and vegetables pretty much year round and an aquarium housing edible fish that will breed in a tank. This room actually account for the entirety of my daily chores. I am the green thumb of the family, so I take care of the plants and aquarium. Right now, I am switching the power to the tanks from the public grid to the solar panels that Dad has illegally put on our roof.
As soon as I change the power over, I start to cry. My dad is going to die.
My brother comes down to the basement. He pulls me into a tight hug. “Dad is waiting for us.” He doesn’t say where Dad is because we both know where he is. I secretly call it the death chamber. Dad wants to be cremated, so he built an oven that would heat the house in the winter, but would also serve as his crematorium.
“This is sadistic,” I say quietly.
“This is what Dad wants, Jelly.”
I can’t say anything, my throat has officially closed and any attempt at speak would just be feeble whimpering. I nod and follow Mike, holding his hand for strength and comfort. Mom and Dad are in the death chamber and I can see that Dad’s condition has worsened in the last hour. He’s lying on his deathbed, coughing up blood. He’s bleeding from his nose and eyes, but it’s only a small amount, for now.
Dad sees the horror on my face. He takes my hands and squeezes it. “I don’t want you to be here for very long, Jilly. I just want to tell you that I love you so much and I am so proud of who you are and who you are becoming.”
“Dad what is happening to you?” I choke out in a whisper. It’s the only way I can talk.
Dad looks at Mom as he starts coughing again. She holds a bloody rag to his mouth and looks at me. She looks much stronger now than she did an hour ago. “The news station said it was a strand of Ebola Zaire that has become airborne. He’s going to bleed to death and we decided that we do not want you to see that. We want you both to go upstairs. It’s going to be bad, but it won’t last for very long.”
I feel numb. Intellectually, I know that Mom is right and I don’t want to see what is coming, but emotionally all I feel is numb. I think it might be shock. I nod at Mom. I lean down and kiss Dad’s cheek. “I love you too, Dad.” I say it, knowing that it is true, but I am too numb to feel it. I turn around and go upstairs to the living room.
Mike joins me a little while later. I don’t know how long it’s been. I’ve been staring at the wall. Mike sits next to me and pulls me into his arms again. We sit there, holding each other, both of us in disbelief at how quickly life went from normal to unthinkable. There is nothing to say anymore, just shock, disbelief, and soon mourning.
Sometime later, I wake up. I hadn’t noticed that I had fallen asleep, but Mike is holding me and tears have stained his face. Mom is sitting in the recliner; she is wiping tears away with a soaking wet handkerchief. “Dad’s gone.” I know that she would not be here if he was still alive.
She nods and wipes her face again. For a long time, the only thing we share is the grief. Hours pass. Then days. Then weeks. Dad’s preparations save us from the worst of the aftermath of the virus.
After several weeks of nothing, one TV station starts broadcasting again. The information disbursed is the most honest transmission of news in the history of media.
A third of the world’s population died from the virus, and every species of frog in the world became extinct as a result of the virus. For the survivors, life is chaotic as the world’s economy has collapsed and most governments have collapsed. People are dying of starvation, disease, and war. The surviving governments are talking about uniting in order to restore order to the world. Scientists that have survived the pandemic have discovered some side effects of the virus.
About a third of the population was completely immune to the virus. That third gets to live their lives, have children, grow old and die—if they can survive. The other third of the population experienced sudden evolution.
Me, my brother, my mother—we all experienced the sudden evolution. Mom stopped aging—well, she stopped aging forwards and began aging backwards. Her body returned to what it looked like and how it performed when she was in her early twenties. Both Mike and I stopped aging when we reached our primes. We are forever young, though not invincible. Mike was right: no matter how long we live, one fatal wound, one deadly disease, lack of food or water and it’s all over for us. Humans might have evolved to no longer grow old, but we all eventually die.
Except for Mike. He still gets the error message whenever he goes to the Machine of Death.
And I wonder: will the Universe never end or will Mike somehow learn to live through the End?