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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Machine of Death: DUCK

Earlier this year the folks who brought us the anthology Machine of Death - which outsold both Keith Richards's autobiography and Glenn Beck's latest piece of crap on the day they were all released (at least, for long stretches of time) - put out a call for submissions for the second volume of Machine of Death.

Machine of Death is an anthology of stories about people who know how they will die. All the stories are required to follow a few simple rules, which I have simplified here:

- All stories have a shared premise, but not (necessarily) a shared universe.  The Machine of Death exists, which is able, from a simple blood test, to give a prediction of the manner of your death.  Predictions never change, and are always correct, though they may be correct in a vague, whimsical, or ironic way.  SUICIDE, for example, may mean your suicide, or the suicide of someone else, or you may be run over by a van from the Death Metal band Suicide.  Or it may mean that your 527th suicide attempt will succeed, but the previous 526 will fail.

- All story titles must be death predictions, though not necessarily of the characters in the story.  (Mine was originally ONLY going to be a joke, but I decided that would be stretching the rules a bit.)


This is the first of two stories that I submitted. (You were allowed to submit up to three stories. I came up with a third story idea several days after the deadline, but realized that I would have a hard time working it into a story anyway - each step of the story opened up more complications.) These are two of 1,958 stories that were submitted. The editors of the anthology have assured us that publication of our stories on blogs will in no way negatively affect the chances of our stories getting selected. I was going to hold off posting until the selections are announced in October, but, you know, carpe diem and all that. Who's to say that I'll still be around then?

This is the final version of the story, as submitted. Some friends received earlier versions during the rewrite process that were slightly different.  I also plan on doing an annotated version of the story, explaining where each and every piece of the story came from. For now, I give you this:

Machine of Death: DUCK

"...and so, see, he's dead, but he doesn't know that when he's writing all this. I mean, he died shortly after he wrote it, though it wasn't exactly unexpected. And the prison psychiatrist or whatever is presenting his memoir."

"Sounds unethical," I said. He'd been going on like this since we left Phoenix, and it was all I could do to hold up my end of the conversation. More a sort of two hour running monologue with occasional commentary by me.

"But the thing is, he's dead, she's dead, her mother's dead, his ex-wife is dead, Clare Quilty is dead. He killed Clare Quilty - without that there'd be no story, since that's why he's in prison, nobody actually knew about him and the girl until after he detailed it in his memoir, and he never knew that she died giving birth to a stillborn baby - I don't remember, maybe that happened after he died."

"But knowing that she was going to die that way, would that have changed anything? For him?"

"I dunno," he said, taking another sip from his travel mug. "Maybe he might have thought that it would be his baby, and he might not have used her the way he did. But when he wrote the memoir he asked that it not be published until after she died, which he figured wouldn't be for another sixty or seventy years. So, yeah, the story might have changed." He paused. "Of course, Nabokov knew all the while that she was dead. Oh, and so does the reader, because the when and how is mentioned in the psychiatrist's introduction to the book. Brilliant writer, Nabokov."

I looked at the road stretching before us, beyond the illumination of the van's headlights. "So, you drive this route very often?" I asked.

"Once every few months," the old man said. "Usually my nephew or one of his drivers do it. I'm mostly on local routes, shuttling folks around Phoenix. But something came up, and I was available. It isn't a bad route, just boring. Five hours of nothing. At least you weren't changing planes in Tucson. That would be worse - eight hours from there to Vegas. There's those two magicians from Vegas, whattretheycalled, Siegfried and Roy? The tall one and the short one?"

"Penn and Teller."

"Yeah, them. They made a video game once. Supposed to be a crack at all the anti-violent-video game folks, they made a game with no violence whatsoever. You just drive a bus from Tucson to Vegas. For eight hours. It pulls a little to the right, so you have to correct for that. If you make it all the way, you get to drive it back."

"That sounds...awful."

"Like I said, it was a joke. Hey, here's a joke: Guy's in Vegas, high roller, big spender. Sees this machine set up on the strip, kinda like one of those guess your weight, tell your fortune things, only this is a Machine of Death, all fancy brass and stuff, right there on the street. And he's feeling pretty good about himself, and he's never gotten a reading before, so he thinks, what the hell, I'll do it now. So he goes up to it, slips in a twenty, sticks his finger in the hole, waits a minute. And out pops his reading. And it says DUCK."

"'DUCK?'"

"Yeah, DUCK. And the guy doesn't get it, he was expecting something like HEART ATTACK DURING THREE-WAY WITH CHEERLEADERS or something. So he thinks, this can't be right, and pops in another twenty and takes the test again."

"Big spender."

"Yeah, well, we all know the test will come out the same every time, right. Only this time, the letters seem to be a little bigger. But again it says DUCK."

"Huh."

"So this guy's got more cash than brains, so he thinks, Dammit, I don't want to get killed by a duck, or choke on a duck. So he pops in another twenty, takes the test again. And again, in even bigger letters, it says DUCK."

"Well, yeah."

"So he pops in another twenty. At this point he's running out of fingers, but he jams his pinky in the hole, lets the needle jab him, waits for the test result."

"...and?"

"And all of a sudden this crane on a construction project across the street breaks off its moorings, and falls halfway off a building, and the girder it was lifting goes swinging wildly across the street, and smashes the guy's skull right into the wall of the building he was standing in front of."

"Oh, my God!"

"And the card comes out and says, I TOLD YOU TO DUCK!"

I let out a laugh. It felt good to laugh, after getting our connecting flight canceled at the last moment. "Of course," I said, "that couldn't really happen. The cards can be vague – heck, sometimes they're downright whimsical - but they've always got something to do with how you're going to die."

The old man nodded, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. "There was a guy, once, actually got a card that said DUCK. He didn't think much of it, figured he'd choke on some roast duck or get killed by a duck crashing into his car. So he was on a plane, short commuter hop, and wasn't too concerned, even when he found out that other people on the plane had PLANE CRASH and DISMEMBERMENT and BURNED TO DEATH. He figured, as long as no ducks were involved, he would be safe. Then the plane hit a flock of ducks and crashed. Everybody died."

I looked at him. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. Things like that changed the way airlines do business. That's why they – well, the insurance companies, really - require everybody to be tested, to submit their certified tests when they get their tickets so they can feed all the results into a computer. They don't care about individual results, just patterns coming out of groups. Like, if everybody on a plane has PLANE CRASH or FALLING or BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA and the pilot has HEART ATTACK, they'll cancel the flight or split everybody up onto different planes. If you're on a plane where half the people have cards that say CANCER, odds are good it's not going to crash. Unless, like, the pilot suddenly dies of cancer."

"So that's probably what happened to us, then."

"Maybe. They never say. Confidentiality rules. But since they started using those programs, business has picked up for us, and all the other shuttle bus companies. Where are you guys going, anyway?"

"Dental Supply Sales conference. Annual thing, first time in Vegas."

We drove on. The road seemed to stretch out forever. The driver took another sip of coffee.

I broke the silence. "So, hey, you must hear a lot of death results. What's the weirdest one you ever heard?"

He laughed. "Heh, that's easy. SPLOSHING."

I blanched. "Oh, my God. That's horrible."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Guy who got it thought so, too. At first he had no idea what it meant. Had to look it up online. Damn near took a heart attack when he found out. I told him that would have been funny, to have the prediction come true so directly, with him dead at his computer and THAT sort of stuff on his screen."

"So I wonder how that's going to end up?"

"No idea. I'm thinking he may become fascinated with the thing, then obsessed with it, then decide to have a go at it at a club or whatever, and die there.” He grinned. "Like you said, horrible." He tipped the travel mug back, drained the rest of the contents. "Hey, could you do me a favor? Grab that thermos on the floor and refill this." As I poured, he asked, "So what about you? What's the weirdest one you've heard?"

"Huh. I guess that would be mine."

"Well, I don't want to pry, but..."

"DEFENESTRATION," I said. He paused a minute and chewed on that.

"No shit? DEFENESTRATION? 'Thrown out a window?'"

"Yep."

"I remember reading about something like that in a History class. The 'Defenestration of Prague.'"

"There were several, actually," I pointed out.

"Yeah. The one I remember, two guys, ambassadors or whatever, got thrown out a window and landed in a pile of manure. They lived because they landed in manure."

"Yep, that was one of them.."

"So, now think about it," he said. "Imagine some soothsayer came up to those guys the day before and said "Tomorrow you will be thrown into a pile of manure.' You think they would have said 'Hey, great, that sounds fantastic?' No, they would just hear 'pile of manure' and think, man, that sucks."

The van bumped along the road, over some long-dead armadillo or something. He looked at me sideways. "Hey, is your seat belt secure?"

I checked. "Yep."

"'Cause I was just thinking that getting thrown through a windshield might count as a defenestration also. Wouldn't want that to happen."

"Heh," I said. "Can't fight it. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

"You ever read the Koran?" he said suddenly.

"Well, no, can't say that I have..."

"I read it, or parts of it, for Theology class. There was a part that says that if you're called to war, and you chicken out and run away, and you survive the day of the battle, you should hang your head in shame because you would have survived that battle anyway. But if you were fated to die in that battle, then no matter where you run to, you will die."

"Not exactly the same thing."

"No, I guess not."

"Besides," I said, "I think we're safe with Jimmy back there." I nodded over my shoulder at one of my three fellow Dental Supply Salesmen sleeping in the back. "His card said URINARY TRACT INFECTION. That's basically the equivalent of 'OLD AGE.' That's something you get in a nursing home."

"Yeah..."

"Tom's is a little more interesting. EATEN BY COYOTES. I guess if we crash out here and he's trapped in the wreckage or whatever, that might happen."

"Yeah," the driver said. "Or maybe we could come across some cannibalistic smugglers bringing people over from Mexico. They call them 'coyotes,' too." He took a long drag on the coffee. "But there's coyotes all over the country, not just the southwest. Another thing: anybody confined to a wheelchair is susceptible to urinary tract infections. So say your buddy gets banged up, paralyzed or whatever, he could find himself in a wheelchair or stuck in a bed and getting a UTI anytime."

"Yeah," I said.

“You know,” he said, not breaking eye contact with the road, “I don't know how these Machines will work out economically. In the long run, I mean.”

“They're doing OK so far,” I said. “Most of the companies that make them are making tons of money.”

“For now,” he said. “But – hey, you remember compact discs?”

“Sure, I still own a bunch.”

“Well, when they first came out – well, not when they just just came out, because they hadn't got all the bugs worked out then, and the first CDs actually sounded not so great – but once they got over that, people realized that the sound was a lot better than what they had been getting on vinyl or cassettes. So they decided to replace their entire record collections with CDs. And CDs sold like hotcakes for a few years. And then they stopped.”

“Yeah, digital downloads wiped them out,” I said.

“No! This was even before digital downloads really took over. The problem was, people replaced their entire record collections, and then there was nothing left to buy but new releases. I mean, sure, you had remastered versions, and everybody who already owned every Led Zeppelin album on CD went out and bought them again in the box set. But you can only resell the same thing to people so many times.”

“So people stopped buying CDs because they already bought all the CDs they wanted to buy?”

“Right! And instead of buying a few dozen CDs a year, people were just down to buying whatever new releases they were interested in, and not many of those. And of course, the kids were getting their new releases through digital downloads.”

“So...”

“So everybody gets one reading from the Machine of Death. You could take the test a hundred times on a hundred different models, and you'll always get the same result. Most people are getting their kids tested before they're even born. So, see, you have a few billion people who are interested in finding out how they're gonna die, and in a few years, they'll all be tested.”

“And then...”

“And then it's just the people who haven't been tested. Mostly newborns, unborns, whatever. New releases. Instead of Machines in every doctor's office, coffee shop, bar, boardwalk, and amusement park, you'll see them mostly at OB/GYN's offices. Demand will crash. Machines will be sold for scrap. Manufacturers will go out of business. The stock market just might crash, again.”

We continued on. He slugged back another mouthful of coffee. At some point he was probably going to need to take a bathroom break.

"Hey, not to be nosy, but what the hell. What's yours?"

"ASLEEP," he said. "I kinda like that. I'm going to die in my sleep, I guess. I mean, there are other possibilities, but I like the thought of dying in my sleep."

"So it doesn't bother you, knowing that every time you go to sleep you might not wake up again?"

"Well, does it bother you thinking that every window you see might be the one you get thrown out of? No, way I see it, if I was going to die that way, I was going to die that way, so worrying about it won't change that."

I sat in silence a while, thinking. "Hey, I just remembered a joke I once heard," I finally said. "Guy says, 'I hope I die like my uncle, peacefully in his sleep, and not like the passengers in his car, screaming in terror.'"

We both laughed. It was a little more forced this time.

I looked at my watch, and the thermos of coffee by my feet. Nearly three hours to go.

"So...” he began again, after another slurp of coffee. “Everybody wants to get their results, but when they get them...well, it reminds me of what Shakespeare said...”

It was going to be a long three hours.

1 comment:

Stumblinn said...

Very creative. I enjoyed the humor in it too. Good luck in the contest.