Friday, 4 November 2011

Machine of Death

Just had a Machine of Death story rejected, so thought I might as well post it up, complete with ruined ending after an overzealous 4 am editing session.

The story, titled "Adventure", is after the jump. I originally wanted to call it "Deception", but that was the title of my submission to the last Machine of Death anthology.


Wallet? Check. Train ticket? Check. Keys? Damn. Oh, there. Tie straight? As good as it gets without a Windsor knot, which is just too damn complicated for a no-nonsense guy like Sam. Breakfast? There's no time for cornflakes when the fate of the country, perhaps the world, rests in the palm of your hands.

Outside it's muggy, the kind of day where socks itch and underwear never sits right. Sam didn't feel comfortable in a suit and tie, and by the time he was cutting through the small park across the road from his flat he could feel the heels of his shoes cutting into his Achilles. There would be blood this day.

Sam crossed Reading, Berkshire, a town eaten by the snakes of cars writhing their way around the one-way system. He weaved past people carriers at a standstill with stressed parents and children, darted in front of stationary sports cars with businessmen listening to reverberating R&B goldie oldies, and dodged past giant rumbling delivery trucks which hid the next lane, with the lurking threat of motorbikes unseen between the lanes. A bus crammed full of bored commuters passed Sam, its occupants unaware the deadly game of Frogger Sam played. The number 41 to Tesco at Kings Meadow, packed with fifty different deaths, but none destined to death by ADVENTURE, the fate that awaited Sam Wiseman.

When he reached Market Place, Sam looked at his watch, an OMEGA Seamaster Planet Ocean Co-Axial Chronometer with a black dial, and saw that it was 08:10. Based on past calibration runs that meant Sam was two minutes behind schedule, even more crucial given that the new draconian train guards, Argus and Cerberus of First Great Western Trains, delighted in closing the train doors ahead of the advertised departure time. Sam picked up the pace.
He ploughed on, and was almost back on target as he squeezed up and past other commuters coming down the stairway of the entrance to Reading Station. Sam could feel himself sweating under his suit. There was every chance he would make it --

-- Two of them, in a narrow passageway. No way past them, taking their sweet merry time, trailing their little wheeled suitcases behind them. They were more dead than alive, bubbles of inaction in the teeming station. Why they migrated to the station in rush hour no one could say. Some said that they were once vital members of society, and that hours of Eastenders and MTV reality shows had stolen their souls. Sam only knew that somewhere deep in the centre of their shallow husks they hated him, as he could see the 08:16 to Waterloo was at the platform. Perhaps today was a good day to be late, after all.

Finally past them, he scooted through the ticket barrier, smashing in to the raging human tide leaving the station. He could see queues shrinking as people embarked on the train. He pushed past the on-rushers. Would today be the day he finally missed his train? He broke free of the crowd, making a brief detour to pick up the free paper, proclaiming an unprecedented coming together of the FTSE 100 companies, who would donate their profits for the next 10 years to charity. Sam ran to the nearest door. Could he make it through? There were shouts.

"Get away from the train!"

Sam sprang forward, and for a moment the world seemed to slow down. "Mooooove awaaaaay frooooom the doooooors." Sam had made it! He was on board. Familiar chimes and a cacophony of whistles indicated that the doors were closing. It had been a close-run thing.

As the train lurched forward, Sam staggered along the carriage, in the slim hope that he'd find somewhere to plonk his bottom. Row after row was taken by people pretending to sleep, or staring into space while protecting a bag that occupied a full seat.  Eventually he found a place between two rather serious looking businessmen, twin pillars of Hard Work and Graft. One day, Sam thought, I might be like them, when I finally get around to job hunting, but today I defend my thesis, and will prove that the death predictions of the last thirty years or so were non-random.

By luck or subconscious design Sam found himself opposite the most beautiful woman on the 08:16 to Waterloo. They'd had dalliances in the past, when he'd met her eyes and smiled in a way that said: "Hey, how'd you like to grab a coffee some time, just you, me and a frappuccino for two?" On at least a few occasions she didn't immediately look away. Now the relationship had soured, and it was like they didn't know each other. She was about six foot two, with skin like coffee and eyes like chocolate. Sam wondered if the height ever discouraged guys from hitting on her. It was her beauty that discouraged Sam. Maybe one day they'd be together, living adventures together, if he ever found a reason to strike up a conversation.

A short series of beeps emanated from the decrepit phone in Sam's inner jacket pocket. Sam reached inside, contorting his body to do so, and accidentally nudged Graft. Graft remained stoic in the face of provocation.

"Sorry," said Sam. Graft continued to stare straight ahead.

The text was from Kara: "Best of luck for your viva! See you for celebratory coffee afterwards..." Kara was Sam's best friend. Sam liked how Kara didn't use txt spk. She'd make a man very happy one day. Unfortunately, she was also one of those people who woke at 0630 because there was so much to do with the day ahead, and would pester you if you weren't out visiting galleries, interesting local art markets or the new trendy cafe in town. There was only so much fun and exciting stuff Sam could take in a day.

With a panic, Sam realised that he'd forgotten his man-bag full of notes. Sam could defend the main thrust of the work with ease; there was incontrovertible evidence that the chirpily named Machine of Death produced an overabundance of certain death predictions. Sam was somewhat nervous about the early theory chapters in his thesis, which Sam had largely cribbed from several other theses in the field, except for the healthy dollop of unverified 'facts' from Wikipedia. He'd skipped over revising the boring work in the field, and instead he'd jumped straight into all the jazzy new stuff. Still, he'd be expected to know the dull bits. He had no choice but to wing it.

He opened up the free newspaper, flicking past several pages until he arrived at the Delphi Award page, featuring particularly ironic deaths. The general theme of the page was predictable at this point, so he read on further, stopping to briefly digest some important celebrity news about some actresses in a soap opera he'd never seen, before finally skipping to the sports pages. His team, Manchester United, had been nineteen years without a league title, and were languishing in mid-table. Now that was something you wouldn't have predicted twenty years ago, and it always seemed odd to Sam that there weren't machines that could predict something other than death. The world cried out for the Football Results Generator, the Contraption of Financial Market Movement, or the Love Compatibility Calculator. Okay, the last one existed in many crappy bars, but they never work. Given his work showed that the death predictions were non-random, Sam had begun to question how much the very nature of predicting how someone would die influenced how people lived their lives. What if the predictions were systematic, chosen by a the Machine itself, and influenced human behaviour such that it churned out self-fulfilling portents? The very reason other machines wouldn't work is because they would collapse the waveform or some quantum mechanics crap like that. After all, who'd bother with sports if the results were known in advance? Markets would be stable if all traders had the same information and no 'edge'. You couldn't predict those things, as the very nature of making the prediction would destroy any random behaviour. Maybe the only reason the Machine of Death could exist was because death is the one inexorable constant, something that will always happen.

There was sufficient data available to say that some death predictions were becoming more common, especially the wishy-washy ones such as ADVENTURE, like Sam's, or LONELINESS, like Kara's. Over the last thirty years the Machine had been converging towards certain predictions more and more often.  In his giddier moments, Sam wondered if his findings would open up whole new branches of quantum physics or philosophy. Maybe he'd win a Nobel Prize.

Sam daydreamed for a while, about what he would do when he could finally put 'Dr.' in front of his name, but as that involved filling out forms to get the name on his bank cards the hypothetical scenarios soon degenerated into fantasies about future adventures with the gorgeous woman opposite, travelling the globe, seeing new and exciting things. Then he probably dozed, and while he wasn't entirely sure that he had nodded off, he was a little groggy and several minutes had just been erased from his memory, which seemed suspicious.

Sam traipsed through Waterloo station, stopping off to grab a over-priced coffee which tasted like it had been cycled through the innards of a rat. The one thing rat's piss had going for it over the coffee was that it didn't scald the inside of your mouth, although the numb pain induced helped disguise the taste. After four years of a PhD, the coffee didn't even cover the bottom of Sam's deep well of caffeine dependency. He hoped his viva would be short, if only because he imagined his examiners wouldn't take kindly to him napping midway through it.

The weather outside was grim. A fine drizzle fell, the sort that leaves the skin clammy and an umbrella cannot stop. On top of the discomfort caused by the horrible weather, Sam had shaved the previous night, and now the emerging hairs were beginning to itch like a bastard. Sam trudged across Waterloo Bridge, his optimism seeping away with every step. When he arrived at King's College, he made his way to the Life Sciences Senior Common Room, to await his summons. No one he knew was around, so he idly flicked through an old copy of New Scientist, so that (a) he didn't look like a no-friend loser, and (b) he wasn't locked into a conversation with a stranger. His butt cheeks clenched with the fear that if he cocked up in the next few hours, years of laziness followed by periodic work and intense cramming would be flushed down the pan, with only some strange personality quirks to show for it. If nothing else, science did its best to prepare you as badly as possible for wider society.

Finally, a man in a sensible jumper, whose only distinguishing feature were the thick, bottle eyeglasses that he wore, popped his head around the door, and asked the room doubtfully, "Is Samuel Wiseman here?"

Sam raised his hand, and followed the man out of the SCR and down the corridor like an obedient child. They arrived at a small meeting room, already occupied by two men, including one familiar and famous face if you knew anything at all about the Machine of Death. There was a large desk in the middle of the room, with a chair set up near the door. Of the two chairs opposite, one was empty, while the other was occupied by a fresh-faced man who was possibly younger than Sam. He also looked cool, in a trendy vicar kind of way. The famous face sat in the corner of the room with one leg crossed over the other, and gave Sam a well-rehearsed smile. What is he doing here? Sam thought with mounting worry. The blinds on the windows were closed, and the sickly dental surgery lighting diffused through the room. An emergency root canal might be handy just about now, thought Sam.

"I'm Doctor John Cotton, your internal University of London examiner," said the plain man, shaking Sam's hand, "and this is Professor Stephen Boyle, who is a specialist in your field."

"How can you be a professor already?!" Sam didn't ask, as his hand was held in the Professor's death grip.

"Try to relax," said Professor Boyle, "and you'll be just fine."  Sam suddenly became aware of the immensity of this moment in his life, and tensed up. "Just call me Steve," added the Professor, making Sam twitch.

"You might notice that we have a guest with us today," added Dr. Cotton, "which is unusual to say the least, but it's a great surprise and honour. I'm sure he doesn't need an introduction, but he personally requested that he sit in. Please let us know if you object." He certainly didn't need an introduction. It was Harold Spencer, who not only was the son of the inventor of the Machine of Death, George Spencer, but was a renowned expert on the Machine himself, an occasional guest on BBC's Question Time and The Big Whopping News Quiz (a panel show taking a humorous look at the week's events), and general all-round person to call when you wanted a charming scientific English gentlemen. Sam couldn't really be the person who asked The Harold Spencer to leave the room.

"I hope you'll excuse the imposition," said Harold Spencer. "I'm sure this will go swimmingly." Harold brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over his eyes, straightened his dickie bow, and sat back.

Let's get this battle over with, thought Sam.

When Sam reflected back on his viva, he was astonished at how little he remembered, maybe because what happened after the viva profoundly altered his life.

He remembered the sinking feeling when Professor Boyle opened with the gambit: "So let's go through your thesis chapter by chapter. I'd like to spend a while discussing your theory chapter, and some of the things you've said in there."  There was the embarrassment as Professor Boyle led him step-by-crushingly-painful-step through the most basic principles in the field, most of which he knew in the first year of his undergraduate days. There was the free-wheeling exhilaration, as he rifled through his big stack of statistical keywords in the hope that they formed coherent sentences, trying to explain whatever the hell it was he had shown. Estimators, P-values, correlated set manifolds, unfolding by inversion of the response matrix and the old classic when you have no idea what's going on: "...and so obviously this implies that...." It was all technobabble that no one really cared about. Professor Boyle nodded enthusiastically as Sam threw out such words with wild abandon, while Dr. Cotton peered over the thick lenses of his glasses and studied the pages of the thesis from a distance of about two inches. Were they bullshitting as much as him? Harold Spencer viewed Sam sceptically during the hairier moments.

Sam was asked to wait outside for a few minutes, he was called back in, congratulated, and told that he had passed with only minor corrections necessary. He cared little about the PhD itself, which surprised even himself, but how wonderful it was to have the ever-present pressure bubble of the last few years popped. It seemed that only half an hour had passed, but the clock reckoned it had been more like three-and-a-half hours. His supervisor had left for lunch, probably to save the departmental sparkling wine, so Sam stayed around out of courtesy to his examiners. There were five minutes of idle chitchat as they discussed Sam's future plans, including fibs about staying in the field, before the examiners made their excuses and left.

Sam was about to leave himself, when Harold Spencer asked Sam if he could please step back inside the room, and close the door.

"First of all, congratulations on passing your viva. You should be very proud. I wasn't awfully convinced about most of what you said about your theory chapter, truth be told... thought they could have been a little tougher on you there. It was also hard to believe that you actually understood most of the terms you threw out at times." Harold smiled, a warm smile that made Sam forget the criticism, like some kind of Jedi mind-trick.

"In the end, as you say, we have the inescapable fact that has been clear for the last thirty years: that the Machine's predictions are, in fact, anything other than the universal whimsy most believe, and that many of the prediction fall within a pattern which bears the hallmarks of a grand design.

"It surprises me that no-one independent has picked up on it before. It's going to be rather nice to get the weight off my chest so let's get down to it: I'm responsible for it. All the structure in the death predictions is down to me."

This statement, only moments after The Most Momentous Moment of Samuel Wiseman's Life Up Until This Point, had this effect on Sam: his world was turned upside down and it was shaking frantically as it attempted to empty all the change from his pockets. To an external observer, Sam appeared to maintain his calm facade, until he opened his mouth and uttered the following statement, appropriate to the gravity of what he had just heard: "Eh?"

"Are you surprised?" asked Harold. Sam was getting nervous about the mad glint in Harold's eyes, the slightly frightened look of an acquaintance who is for reasons unknown about to divulge all of their secrets to you, even though you really wish they wouldn't try. "Certainly it's not easy to spot the structure. Funnily enough it was only this year, thirty years after I wrote the algorithms to fake the predictions, that I realised that I'd made the typical programming mistake: I'd done all the hard stuff well, but rather bollocksed up the easy bit. I used the terrible random number generator I was using for its speed in the debugging phase with the industrial-strength one intended for the final program. I didn't turn the bloody debug flag off, if you'll believe it.

"Anyway, long story short, that means there's now an overabundance of certain death predictions compared with what there were before, and not nearly enough of some others. Any questions so far?

Sam sat there, stunned. Harold continued: "You look horrified, with your mouth gawping like that. I could get you a tea, if you'd like, but I'm afraid I will have to lock you in the room."

"No, I'm fine," lied Sam. Was he witnessing a man having a total breakdown? Certainly Harold didn't seem like he would hurt Sam. But then the man had essentially said that Sam was his captive. Should Sam try and fight his way out? Sam hadn't been in a fight since he was ten, and then he had lost to Emma Bryan, a beast of a girl who had cheated by pulling hair, in clear contravention of playground rules. Harold certainly seemed lean and limber, despite the age difference. Sam looked at his beer belly accusingly.

"How can you fake the predictions? The Machine is always right. I know that from all the data I've seen."

Harold looked proud of himself. "The genius of it is in the detail. The Machine is always right. Every time someone takes the test, the Machine dutifully does its work, and automagically the death predictions are sent to our server centres in Hounslow and Texas. I can't reiterate this enough: the predictions are always, always correct. The Machine refuses to work if you try to stop it issuing the print command, honourable little bugger that it is. It was a design flaw that my father never managed to iron out. So we let the Machine go about its business, and it prints a card every time it takes a blood sample, assuming someone remembered to refill the paper tray."

"So I don't get it, how do you fake it?" And what was the point of faking it, wondered Sam.

"Ah, the brilliance of the best tricks is their simplicity. Remember the Machine redesign thirty years ago? Oh, of course not. Well, the Machines were redesigned thirty years ago, and almost every testing centre worldwide got one of the new ones. The only major differences were that printing commands for the correct lottery tickets were re-routed to our server centres, and our server centres sent new results, if necessary, down the network cables to the printers, where they were ejected into the hands of the person tested."

This, Sam thought, is too much to take in. He needed a pause to think things through clearly, to work out what Harold was telling him, and why. Sam had been blindsided with what, if true, must surely be criminal behaviour. There must be some kind of law to stop what Harold claimed he had done.

"Why fake the results, and how come no-one has noticed some of the predictions are wrong?" Sam asked. "Unless you can predict the future yourself?"

"They'd only be wrong if people started dying, and they haven't, yet." Harold pinched his nose and sighed. "Look, I'm going to be honest with you before I say more, and tell you that your research will never be published. No journal will accept it, as I will personally tell them I reviewed it and the results are flawed. Your thesis will be stored in Senate House, and likely no-one will read it again."

"Great," sighed Sam. In truth he didn't care all that much, but it meant that the academic job route was now closed to him, and Sam definitely wanted a job of some description, especially one that didn't involve fast food or a bar.

"What I tell you might shock you, even scare you. Most people won't believe you should you choose to tell them, but we won't place any restrictions on that. You couldn't do much damage on your own."

If this were anyone else, Sam would be disinclined to believe whatever came next, but this was Harold Spencer. The man was a demi-god in the field.

"I'm not proud of it, but every month those of us at the Institute for Machine of Death Studies used have a meeting, and at the end it became customary for us to read out something unique that we'd come across. In a meeting around thirty years ago, one of my colleagues read out GAMMA RAY BURST, and there was some debate about what it could be... perhaps a cosmic ray hitting the person, causing some unexpected side-effect, say cancer. You have to understand that when you work with death every day it becomes an impersonal thing. Then my good friend Sir John Daresbury joked that he had a similar one: COSMIC BANG, which he guessed might be a cocktail, perhaps one not invented yet. He laughed, but no one else did, and some in the room shifted awkwardly in their seats. Others looked a little ashen-faced and troubled. Everybody in that room had something similar noted down, and it was no longer funny.

"Now you can imagine that this was quite disturbing, and it wasn't long before it was clear that there was a real issue at hand. It escalated up to the highest levels in the land pretty damn quickly, and the same conversations were repeated in all countries that were permitted the Machine. The greatest minds were put on the problem, and questions asked about the validity of the Machine itself, but it had been infallible, and completely right at that, with occasionally allowances for vagueness, so why would all the machines begin to fail now? The conclusion was that that we were looking at a Mass Extinction Event, likely a gamma ray burst directed at Earth from within the Milky Way. Indeed, we even had a prediction that mapped a coordinate in the sky, roughly in the direction of Betelguese.

"Are you okay? You look rather dumbfounded."

"I wouldn't mind some water." Sam's mouth was completely dry, with a bitter metallic taste. The first thing he wanted to ask was if that was how his family would die, and Kara, and him, to know if they would die in this Extinction Event or if their predictions were correct. Was it selfish not to look at the bigger picture?

"I'll be back in a moment," said Harold. He didn't lock the door behind him. But why would Sam run now? If anything, he wanted to know more, understand what was he was being told. That was the scientific curiosity that caused him to pick life science as his specialty as an idealistic teenager. Who'd want to study something mundane when you could investigate life and death itself?

Harold returned, and handed him a glass of water.

"Thanks," said Sam. He gulped the water down, and placed the empty glass on the table. A second glass would have been gratefully accepted.

Harold continued: "So there we were, with a problem we could do nothing about. Did we throw money at it in an attempt to do something, create an Ark of some kind? There was no way to prevent it, that much was clear. The futility of our actions was overbearing, our helplessness complete and full. All we had was a location in the night sky, and a rough date, determined by comparing how many Extinction Event candidates we saw with actuarial tables, which gave us a clock that today is ticking down from 87 years.

"There is a somewhat happy ending to this tale. The nature of the Event forced almost all world leaders to get together to tackle the next steps together. It was decided that in exchange for certain pledges related to personal freedoms, the rich nations would provide those poorer countries with resources on a scale never countenanced before. You might remember the Tehran Accords from your school lessons. Governments sought to eradicate true poverty, both at home and abroad, and to improve the Human Development Index for all poorer nations. The idea was that if the human race was to become extinct, it could stand proud before the lights went out. With time, other world leaders outside of government, in the media, business, and almost every field you can think of have been included, and that is why the last thirty years have seen unparalleled levels of benevolence from all sections of society.

"And so when it was clear the problem was insurmountable, I was asked to deal with the problematic predictions, which we solved rather elegantly, as I have already told you. We did our best to replace the predictions with those shown through studies to have a net positive effect on someone's quality of life."

"Like ADVENTURE?" asked Sam. When he thought about it, it was a most unlikely prediction, and he wasn't exactly Indiana Jones. It made Sam angry to think that something he had taken for granted all his life might be a giant lie. What right did any of them have to make such decisions about people's lives without them ever knowing?

"Ah, I thought you might ask that as soon as I saw what you were down for. In your case that really was the prediction, but you'll have to take my word for that."

"But others I know could be living a lie?" So many people were oblivious to their true fates.

“Sam, even if their predictions weren't the ones they thought, at least they are living their lives in a better world."

"I'm sure that will be no consolation to the lives you've fucked up because of it, because you happen to think you can play god. I think I'm done here." Sam stood up abruptly. What kind of sick shit was this? To manipulate people like they were meaningless names on a page.

"We have a proposal for you, Sam. I say again that you are at liberty to do and say what you want, for that is the free world we all want to live in, even when it is inconvenient at time." Harold locked his eyes with Sam's, and placed both hands on the table: "I urge you to consider others in this, and the cost to their wellbeing should they know."

"Did you consider MY wellbeing by telling me all this shit?", Sam almost shouted this question. His mind reeled from all he had been told.

Harold rubbed his forehead.  "You and I both know you would have kept picking at this until you got at the crux of it. You might think you wouldn't have, but I know that feeling when you get the bit between your teeth. You wouldn't even admit to yourself that you were still invested in it. You would need to know why the data wasn't completely random, and as soon as I heard about your thesis I knew I needed to be the one to tell you."

Sam turned and walked towards the door, stopping to look back at Harold Spencer, a man who only hours before he had greatly admired. "This is some fucking bullshit."

"If you want to hear our proposal, come back tomorrow, please. You do not have to accept, but I believe it will be a worthwhile endeavour for you. When you are calmer you should hear what we have to offer you."

"A bribe?" Sam wasn't like them, he'd make sure they'd know that, but he'd be damned if he didn't use them for his ends first. "I'll come back on one condition: you tell me the true reading for my friend Kara Brooks."

"Sam, it would be highly irregu-"

"-It's the only reason I will come back. I've known her for years, and she bloody well won't die from loneliness. Not her."

Harold pondered this for a moment. Sam felt a measure of sympathy for the man. Maybe he'd been too quick to see things as black and white.

"I'll see what I can do," Harold said, reluctantly. "Promise me you will return tomorrow."

"I will," Sam said softly, and walked out without looking back.

Sam stalked out of the building, into a day even gloomier than it had been in the morning, although it was no longer raining. Stepping off the pavement, Sam stepped into a ankle-deep puddle. "Brilliant," he muttered to himself. He walked for fifteen minutes, vaguely in the direction of the coffee shop where he'd agreed to meet Kara, mulling over what he'd been told. It was like something out of an old B-movie of the sort he'd loved when a kid, such as 2012. The end of the world. In that they'd had a way out, but there was no way out of this. Surely people have a right to know what was going to happen?

The coffee shop was in Covent Garden, a little place in a side-street which was surprisingly quiet for a tourist trap. Starbucks worked well enough for Sam, but Kara preferred the quaint Covent Garden Bean House, with its twee little hanging baskets and South American decorations. He couldn't see Kara through the coffee shop window, but then remembered that he was supposed to text her when he was out of his viva.

Sam turned his phone on, and seconds later a text from Kara arrived: "What's up doc? When are we meeting?" They arranged to meet in half an hour, so Sam went on a stroll in the general vicinity, finding that preferable to sitting alone like Billy No-Mates. He returned five minutes early, which was a pointless gesture as Kara inevitably arrived late. Kara's eternal tardiness was a constant of their friendship; even when Sam tried to be late he turned up early.

Kara was halfway down the street when Sam spotted her. She was oblivious to the world, earphones in, head pointed towards the sky, a secret smile on her face. She had the bouncy gait she'd had since the age of eight, when their eyes had locked over a crowded classroom. He was the new kid in school, and she’d looked after him. When she arrived at the coffee shop, she looked at him like she'd only just noticed him. Kara narrowed her eyes.

"I passed," Sam said without much enthusiasm. For a moment, Kara's smile faded, then reappeared, sunny as ever.

"That's great! Let's get some coffee, and a pastry. I'm starving." She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the coffee shop door.

"So why so glum, chum?" asked Kara, with a mouth full of almond croissant, after they had sat down. "You should be chuffed."

"I don't know, just recovering from the viva, I guess." Sam idly stirred his latte, but he knew was she was staring at him sceptically. Kara's single eyebrow raise was well practised.

"Uh huh. You want to talk about it?"

"Talk about what? It went pretty much as I thought, tough on the theory, but I made it through. Now it's all done."

"Riiight..." Kara pursed her lips and poked her tongue into her cheek, the classic sign of annoyance. "Fine, if you don't to talk about it you don't have to."

What could he say? Hey Kara, there's a chance that most people on the planet aren't going to die the way they expect, and will instead be fried like eggs in a pan? The hurt expression in her eyes caused Sam to weaken. Was he as bad as them if he didn't tell her? Was he worse, because at least they helped the world become a better place?

"Okay, I can't tell you everything, and you might think I'd lost it if I did anyway. Let's say you found out something that affected me and I didn't know about it, but you knew that telling me might upset me, or make my life worse. Would you tell me?"

"If you know something about me, you'd better tell me. Did you see Scott with another woman? Because if that's it then it's fine, it's not like I'm seeing him anyway. He's cute, but we're only friends, so it doesn't bother me." That was a lie, Sam knew. She was hot for Scott in a way she hadn't been for anyone since little Danny Higgins in the sixth form. Kara bit the corner of her lower lip.

"It isn't anything about you," said Sam, desperately trying to suppress a smirk.

"I'd want to be told. Definitely. No matter what it was." A core of steel ran through Kara, and Sam was scared that one day he'd smash up against it.

"Don't worry, I'd tell you," Sam lied. The mood had darkened, and Kara glowered at him. If there was one thing Sam couldn't do, it was hurt Kara, or bear to see anyone else hurt her either. Sam looked down, and flicked a scrunched-up sugar packet at Kara.

"You fancy getting pissed tonight?"

"I thought you'd never ask. We haven't been for night out in weeks. To warn you, I'm going to want to dance."

Sam inherited all his awkward dance moves from his father and uncles. "We'll see," he muttered.

Alcohol and Kara were a dangerous combination. As always, Sam danced that night.

All Sam remembered about the journey into King's College the next day was his curdled stomach, the Sun blasting his retinas and his would-be lover on the 08:16 to Waterloo studiously ignoring him yet again. If only he'd stopped drinking at eleven.

Sam found Harold Spencer in the room they'd used for the viva. "Take a seat, Sam," said Harold.  Harold wore the same suit as the previous day, and looked at Sam nervously. Harold looks like he had even less sleep than me, thought Sam.

"I'll stand, thanks," said Sam. "You have Kara's true prediction?"

Harold produced a small envelope from his inner jacket pocket. "I haven't looked at it."

Sam snatched the envelope from Harold's outstretched hand. Maybe Sam imagined it, but he swore that Harold flinched when he did so.  Inside the envelope was a single piece of card.
"It's really hers?" asked Sam.

"On my honour," said Harold.

Sam read the card, and then raised his eyes to look at Harold. "I suppose I need to listen to your proposal."

Harold outlined how in addition to all the resources that had been targeted towards charitable works over the last thirty years, a few idealistic billionaires allocated a relatively small sum of money, of the order of tens of millions of New Euros, to a programme cataloguing as much of the breadth of human culture as possible. This knowledge would be buried in the TauTona Mine in South Africa and the Macassa Mine in Canada, with a powerful nuclear-powered transmitter which would broadcast for the next two-thousand years, so if any of humanity were to survive they might learn of mankind's past.  Satellite transmitters would send the same information into space, in case there was any other life out there.

In exchange for Sam's academic career, which would be fraught with difficulties should he choose to pursue it against the prevailing winds, he would be added to the cultural collection programme, along with any partner, family or friends he might choose. Sam would travel to remote parts of the world, collecting as much data as possible about all those who inhabited the Earth. They’d ensure Sam led a productive life, full of exotic places and interesting people.

Once Sam had left, Harold pulled Kara's card from the envelope on the table, where Sam had left it. Printed in black type were two words: IONISING RADIATION. It had been a plausible lie. He threw the fake card into the wastepaper bin, located about three meters across the room. He'd had a knack for card throwing ever since he was a child. His father would sit with Harold in the fire-lit drawing room as they flipped cards into a battered old bowler hat. He could still picture the battered felt and the purple silk inner lining of that hat. It was only when Harry grew up that he realised how much his father had needed to confide in his son during those games, about his fears of the effect the Machine had on the world. Harold hadn’t understood most of what his father was trying to say to him. George Spencer had hoped his son would forgive his sins.

One day, while playing the card flipping game, his father had a grave look on his face. George Spencer looked sadly at the one person in the world who didn't see one of the great minds of the 21st Century, but the man who would never quite win at throwing cards in the hat. "Harry," his father said, hand on Harry's shoulder, "there are things in life that you must do which will be difficult but necessary. Never doubt that what you will do is worth the sacrifice you will make. The Machine plays god, but we are the priests who deliver the messages, and we must lead humanity to the promised land of peace and plenty for all."

In darker moments, Harold pondered the consequences should he confess the whole fraud. How his father was not only the inventor of the Machine of Death, but the silent architect of world peace. Once the Machine's credibility was established over several decades, Harold had used a backdoor in the Machine software designed by his father, which began to trigger fake readings. It was uploaded across the globe, and soon the predictions of a global catastrophe trickled in, uniting the world in a way never possible before.  Why fight for territory and resources when the world would end in a century or so? Sam Wiseman would die in a ADVENTURE, but Kara Stone would die of LONELINESS, just as her original card had said. Harry's own card was marked DECEPTION, and it was only when he was trusted with the plan that he fully understood the sorrow that never left his father's eyes. George Spencer blamed his noble intentions for his son's eventual death.

Harold expected that one of these days he would be killed for his lies. Each time he relayed the Extinction Event story, he wondered if this was the person who would react violently to his untruths. The Machine confounded expectations at every turn.

Weeks later, on a 08:16 runaway train to Waterloo, Sam Wiseman smiled at the woman opposite.

"Sam," she said, breathily, "I'm so glad you asked me."

After a change at Victoria and a perilous sea journey, they would be off to Greenland, to meet with the Kalaallit and document as much of their culture as possible over the next few years.

"I'm glad you could join me, baby," said Sam, with a grin and a wink, "even if you were late. A man doesn't find a dame like you every day, Kara."

"I'd punch you if I wasn't so tired after running to the station with my bag," said Kara, throwing a newspaper at him. Sam thought that one day he might tell Kara about her true fate, but not now. Life was finally an adventure, one that he would share with his best friend. He hoped she would forgive him when the time came.

No comments:

Post a Comment