Something for the Machine of Death 2 compilation.
Asphyxiation (One Year)
Leaving the soot-encrusted municipal building, crushed hat in hand, Josef heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes at the clouds. The city thrummed, mostly silent autotransports; no pedestrians out in the smog to see him staring up without a rebreather on. It was not anguish on his face. It was not relief. It couldn’t really be called acceptance.
Josef had been predicted first when he was eleven. His dad found it prudent. Mom and Dad both got simple “Lung Cancer” – the most common, and it stuck with them. His prediction wouldn’t settle on an exact phrasing; as the machines got upgraded, the cards jumped from “Cerebral Hypoxia”, to “Global Cerebral Ischemia” in high school, and eventually settled on “Asphyxiation” with the current tech. Hypoxia had sounded magical when he was in school; some distant destination, perhaps, where the glaciers were pure white, and the sky was an endless blue.
He pulled a well-worn pamphlet out of his back pocket and stared at the type running smoothly over the giant, gleaming ship: “EUROPA NEEDS MINERS”. Little speckled spiders climbed over the ship, barely visible, tiny humans doing tiny maintenance on a grand plowrig making its way to the new frontier. He grinned, with a gritting of teeth that kept the confused tears at bay.
He yearned to ride one of those ships, soaring off past those grey layers of clouds and pollution, creeping slowly through the vacuum to make good on a distant moon. He knew this updated reading was going to put that finally out of reach. Nobody wants an astronaut with an expiration date that early. The pen-pushing Mongol hordes at the insurance office would laugh him out. Josef rubbed at his watering eyes; it was probably the pollution.
He pulled out his cell and messaged Karim the news.
Rummaging around in the crumpled seams of his hat, he found the paper and read it again. He wasn’t all that surprised by it. It was just a strange sort of confirmation. “Asphyxiation (One Year).”
It might as well read “Don’t Let This Guy Work a Ship (Ever)”.
Josef jolted from the reverie when his cell blipped, and started home through the piling dust clouds. He read Karim’s sarcastic response, “DIE YOUNG AND LEAVE A PRETTY BLUE CORPSE :)” and shook his head. He knew he had to pass the news on to his therapist, so he sighed and squeezed the cell.
“Hey Exy, it’s Josef.” Cough. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, just walking home to clear my head.” He listened, and shook his head. “Yeah, guy, of course I’m wearing the re-bee. Don’t need a headache on top of this.” He covered his earbud and coughed violently.
He half-listened for a bit. “What? Yeah, it worked just like they said.” Holding the card up and firing a grin at it, he read: “Same cause, one year. Yep, they definitely won’t let me on the plow now. They were leery enough before. Eh?” He passed through an empty, cracked intersection in silence. “Yeah. Yeah yeah, I’ll be fine.”
Clicking off, he mumbled “Fluxing robots.” Exy’s tonal deadpan and intentionally calming platitudes were not the root problem. He should really be cursing the judge who’d mandated the therabot treatment ever since the teenage incident. He barely remembered it – he sure didn’t feel like the same kid who had attempted suicide by cop back then. But now he was lashed to his fake robot friend for life, unless he wanted to get thrown in revi.
After the insurance industry flipped upside-down, therapy was the next service to get accidentally restructured by the machines, for the middle-and-lowering class at least. You couldn’t pay psychotherapists enough to listen to the whining that came along with the predictions. The college grads with psychiatry degrees all got excited to finally have a job market explosion, but it was much less exciting to hear the same existential stumbling over and over. The therapy bots some enterprising inventor had released were good enough to give small pieces of advice, steer people away from obsessing, and listen without getting angry.
Josef squinted at a garbage bin as he passed, and crumpled the reading into it. He coughed and hummed his way home, eyes on the ground.
He had too much time to think between mind-numbing shifts in the bowels of the multi-global insurance company that kept him employed. Day after day, Josef listened to spliced up one-sided conversations, transcribing sections and translating idioms that the computers didn’t know how to deal with yet. Which meant he was stuck in the belly of the English language, in the basement of a skyscraper, six hundred million kilometers from the moons of Jupiter, buried under ignorant and angry consumers.
Nights, he argued with Karim over beers. They sat, sometimes watching whatever passed for popular sports, sometimes just watching the synthetic fireflies flicker.
Karim spoke up into the silence that had been growing. “I just don’t think it really affects me. Now, I mean. I was pissed when I got it, but I’m alright with it now, I guess,” He scratched at his beard. “I mean, uhh, at least I got something cool. I’m one of the last people with a gun card!”
Annoyed, Josef replied, “Well, it stuck with me, and not in a good way. I don’t feel like I can change it. It matters, but it doesn’t…”
Karim laughed, sipping on a beer. “Yeah, you would mumble some zen dust, Jiminy. You’re a freak. The rest of us try to–”
“Well, I guess I’m not the rest of you!” said Josef. ”I’m never getting out there…” He trailed off. “Pointless.”
“We’re all stuck in ruts of our own choosin’, man, doesn’t matter if you know the time or not.” Karim paused. “You know those nerds weren’t gonna give up until hell or revi’d, right? I heard the UNA had to step in and stop them from putting the exact damn time on there.”
“Crud, you think can they do that?”
Karim shook his head. “I bet it’s true, man, right up there, in the parentheses, ‘Nonahol poisoning, New Years Day at 2:30AM’, you know? I was talking to some coworkers the other day, guessin’ how the UNA did the dirt in the negotiations. Bet they got some secret stuff kept for themselves.”
“‘Ending Correct, Tee Em’, just like in the ads from way back, right?” Karim nodded. “They’re probably hard at work making simulated pictures of the scene at death.” Josef chuckled.
“Computer: ENHANCE!” They laughed.
Josef drank the dregs of his beer. “Talk about simulated failure, this beer is terrible.”
Karim nodded. “Nothing what it used to be. Nothing what it seems with those machines, either. All kind of crazy plans going on behind the scenes, you know it. They want it all the way down to causation, listing ‘responsible parties’” – he threw his hands up in the air at invisible forces – “and doing the tests without needing a blood sample. Predictions at a distance. Readings for people’s future children.”
“Future death cards for the imaginary future kids.”
“Damn, right. Whatever they do have, they just don’t want everybody running around with that info, dude.”
Josef nodded. “Yeah. Look what good the bloody partial knowledge has done to us, anyway. Maybe they’re like the obsessives…”
“People get it in their head they can change that stuff, guy. What a load. They think they’re gonna understand the whole flippin’ deal. Pffff.” Karim stuck his tongue out and mimed yanking it out of his head. “The corporations? Just like the people. They wanna believe. Not all of them want to turn around and ignore the readings like it never happen, like normal people.”
“Snrk – normal. Well, I still want know how it works. Can you believe people sign contracts to never have to see it?”
“What? The reading? Yeah, I guess it don’t surprise me, man, but is that any better? Your HMO gets it and you don’t?”
“Who the hell knows. The corporations are going to keep fluxing things, right?”
“Yeah, right. Better or worse?” Karim glanced at his cell and shook his head. “Man, I gotta be out. Early meeting tomorrow.”
“Thanks for stopping. For better or worse… it isn’t like ‘better’ or ‘worse’ meant much before.”
“You definitely right. Night.”
They clasped hands, and Josef sat back down, staring into space. He picked up his reader, tried not to think, and started to drift off.
Six months of gray days passed. As he rode the AT home from work, Josef stared out into the smog and remembered when there were seasons that changed. Then, his cell buzzed him with a high priority message. DMP? They wanted him back at the prediction lab again. Why now? The message didn’t actually say why; it just burbled with mealy-mouthed lawyer-speak and ended with a rather ominous clause, explaining that it would be a felony under UNAC 450.012 to not file for an appointment within the week.
He sighed and squeezed the cell as he stared out the window. “Yo, J!” squawked Karim’s voice in his ear.
“Hey man, they got me coming in again.”
“What? Who? Oh, sheez… the new provisions, right? Yeah, I heard around the office, some people gettin’ called back in close to their… uhh… time.” Karim paused. “How you been?”
“Not great, man. Hey, wait, did you get called too?”
“Nah man, you know, I’m still two years out…”
Silence fell over the line.
Karim piped back up. “You know, I heard some rumors that someone high up been leakin’ memos, saying people be getting dealt fake cards to ease their minds because the actual predictions are all poppin’ out with some junk about an alien invasion.”
“Yeah, right.” Josef shook his head, unamused. ”I’ll catch you after I find out what the hell is going on.”
Seated in the little white room again with the machine and a bubbly young operator who probably wasn’t even alive when the thing was invented, Josef thought back to Karim’s conspiracy theory, and had to chuckle a bit. As if the powers-that-be were competent enough to manage that.
“So, it was one year in May?” she asked, priming the machine with his blood sample.
Josef snapped out of his reverie. “Yep. Guess it’s coming up on my final checkup, doc.” He grinned without smiling, and she laughed nervously.
His fake grin faded when the operator’s eyes bulged at the paper, and it turned to confusion when her hands started shaking and she rushed from the room without a word.
A balding tech ran back into the room with her, out of breath, and turned to stare at Josef for a moment before rushing over to the machine, cracking a panel open, and prodding some of the innards.
“You double checked the DB? He was at approx six months?” he asked her abruptly.
“Yes, yes! I double checked it–”
“Err, sorry to intrude, but–” said Josef, as the man rolled away from the machine and gestured at the lab tech. She held up the card to him. It read “Asphyxiation (Two Years).”
“Congratulations. You’re the first to have your tee oh dee go up.” she said, with an absurd smile.
Josef was the toast of the town at the prediction labs after that. He quit his data entry job to become a well-paid lab rat; after signing a stack of NDAs, he got to see one of the rumored exact-time machines for himself. With that in action, he and the crowds of engineers could all marvel as his time of death ticked upwards on test after test in a slow asymptotic curve. July 5th, at 15:02 GMT. An hour later, July 5th at 18:22 GMT. The next day, July 16. Ticking forward instead of staying stable like everyone else.
Josef got ever-so-slightly famous for being “the man who broke the machines”, and went on a few talk shows, but the hosts were quickly bored with him. “What do you think caused it?” He didn’t know anything. “Well, Dave…” He wasn’t exciting to listen to. “What are you going to do now?” Nobody really cared about his story. “What advice do you have for kids out there?” Most people could barely look past their own cards, and someone who had gotten lucky and broken the system put a bad taste in their mouth. “So you’ve got no idea what it could be? Or how someone else could…?” He even disappointed the obsessive believers who thought they could disprove the machines.
The engineers still didn’t fully understand how their machine worked, and had no explanation. The physicists came up with crazy theories at least: perhaps he would somehow get trapped in a black hole – or a white hole – or a closed timelike curve – or some other barely-understood theoretical structure nobody had seen, let alone fell into.
“Man, what?” Karim had asked, confused.
“I don’t even know, guy. Can’t keep up with the eggheads. I don’t even know.” Josef sat there, shaking his head. “You get called in for your… errr, checkup?”
“Yeah. Tomorrow.” They fell back into their usual silence, listening to the music mix with the humming from outside.
The next night, Karim was furious. “I can’t believe I thought it would be different. Nobody like you, man. Nobody like you.” He slammed his beer on the table.
“So… it’s still…?”
“Yeah. Go to hell, man. Don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Maybe it’ll be… maybe you’ll get a… reprieve?”
“Flux that. Screw you, J. Seriously. You know it’s gonna happen.”
“You best make some good outta this. Don’t call me, alright? I don’t want to talk to you. I want to fade normal.” Karim glared at him, mouth tight.
Josef nodded once, opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it. As the door clicked shut, he realized there was nothing keeping him here.
He sold his q-dominium and dumped his huge stack of useless readings right along with the rest of his accumulated junk. After more than twenty years of choking, a strange pressure had lifted.
He was still going to die, but nobody knew when. To people back here on Earth, Josef was going to somehow live forever, with his last breath infinitely long.
That was going to be just fine with him.
It was time to see Europa and leave this oxygen-wrapped rock behind.