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This Is How You Die
Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death
Narrator Dan Woren
Narrator Will Collyer
Narrator Robert Morgan Fisher
Narrator Mandy Kaplan
Narrator Erin Bennett
Narrator Rachael McCabe
Edited by Matthew Bennardo
Edited by David Malki !
Edited by Ryan North
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THIS IS HOW YOU DIE
Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death
The machines started popping up around the world. The offer was tempting: with a simple blood test, anyone could know how they would die. But the machines didn’t give dates or specific circumstances-just a single word or phrase. DROWNED, CANCER, OLD AGE, CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. And though the predictions were always accurate, they were also often frustratingly vague. OLD AGE, it turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by an elderly, bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machines held onto that old-world sense of irony in death: you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.
This addictive anthology–sinister, witty, existential, and fascinating–collects the best of the thousands of story submissions the editors received in the wake of the success of the first volume, and exceeds the first in every way.
Table of Contents
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Prophecies or predictions of death are not new in literature. Consider King Laius, the father of Oedipus. Or Shakespeare's Macbeth, erstwhile Thane of Glamis. Or J.R.R. Tolkien's Witch-king of Angmar.
Each of these characters is remembered in part because of prophecies detailing how they would or would not die—and in all three cases, the prophecies prove true. (More or less, anyway. Traditionally, the oracles who write such prophecies don't seem overly concerned with literal interpretations.)
This book is something of a continuation of that literary tradition, but it's also something more. You won't find many kings or thanes in its pages. Instead, you'll find lots of ordinary people (and some extraordinary ones) who find themselves confronted with the same kind of knowledge that Laius and Macbeth sought.
But this book is not full of doom and destruction. Neither is it full of ironic comeuppances. In fact, many of the heroes and heroines in this anthology exit their stories alive and well—but having learned something about themselves or having faced their fears or having overcome a challenge.
In short, these stories are a lot like the kinds of stories you might find anywhere else. The only difference is that we've asked our writers to add one new and fantastic piece of technology to the world—the Machine of Death, which can predict anybody's ultimate fate based on a simple blood test.
Beyond that, our writers were free to write about whatever and whomever they liked. In these pages you'll find science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, philosophy, and humor. You'll tag along with police officers, scientists, rock stars, middle school kids, aliens, and French aristocrats. Some of the stories are literary in style, while others are red-blooded pulp, and a few are something else entirely.
Above everything else, what we wanted from this book was for readers to be constantly surprised. Because that's the lesson that Laius and Macbeth learned centuries ago—even when you think you already know the ending, you still don't know it all.
—Ryan, Matt, and David !
The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn't give you the date and it didn't give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words "DROWNED" or "CANCER" or "OLD AGE" or "CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN." It let people know how they were going to die.
And it was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. "OLD AGE," it turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death: you can know how it's going to happen, but you'll still be surprised when it does.
We tested it before announcing it to the world, but testing took time—too much, since we had to wait for people to die. After four years had gone by and three people had died as the machine predicted, we shipped it out the door. There were now machines in every doctor's office and in booths at the mall. You could pay someone or you could probably get it done for free, but the result was the same no matter what machine you went to. They were, at least, consistent.
OLD AGE, SURROUNDED BY LOVED ONES
THE "COMING SOON" SIGN WAS GONE, and in its place stood a shining silver booth. Leah stopped, fascinated, looking at the machine.
For a brief moment, she waffled over the decision, but it wasn't in her nature to be indecisive. Leah got things done. Every performance appraisal she had ever received had said so—though sometimes there was a gentle hint that she didn't always have to act immediately, that she could allow herself to think things over a little more.
But even that slight criticism had never been partnered with any real examples of when she'd made the wrong decision.
Leah had instinct.
Had anyone who'd known her been nearby when Leah Cole stepped into the small booth, they wouldn't have been surprised. She read the instructions, swiped her credit card, agreed to the terms and conditions without really reading them, and then watched as the machine ran through its cleaning cycle and presented her with a single sharp needle.
She pressed her thumb against it, feeling the slight sting of the needle. The machine beeped, and she pulled her thumb away. The needle retracted.
A moment later, there was a slight hum and a small piece of paper clicked with finality into the tray. Leah reached down and picked it up with her other hand, tucking her pricked thumb into her mouth. Just as she pulled the small white piece of paper free, there was another hum and a second piece of paper clicked into the tray.
Leah blinked, then took the second piece of paper as well. She read them both.
After work, Leah dialed the 800 number on the back of the slips of paper and waited.
"Alexandria Corporation," a gentle-voiced man answered the phone. "This is Nicolas. How may I direct your call?"
"I took the test this morning at the new booth in the Byward Market," Leah said. "But I think your machine is defective."
Nicolas didn't sound bored exactly, but he certainly didn't sound worried about the state of the machine. "In what way do you think there's a defect?"
"It gave me two contradictory results, on separate papers."
Nicolas paused. When he spoke next, he sounded interested. "Two results?"
"Yes," Leah said. "And it wasn't someone else leaving a copy behind in the machine—they both printed out after I gave my blood sample. I checked your website—the ID codes printed at the bottom of the paper are identical. It generated two results for me."
"I'm going to transfer you," Nicolas said.
Nicolas transferred her to a woman named Alia, who then transferred her to a Dr. Lindsay Brine. Leah was growing impatient—not an unusual state—but she forced herself to take a breath and explained everything to the doctor.
The response sent a shiver up her spine.
"Are you a twin?" she asked.
Leah swallowed. Her throat felt tight. "Yes."
"Identical, I'd assume?" Dr. Brine pressed.
"We're mirror twins, if you know what that means."
"I do," Dr. Brine replied. "This has happened once or twice before. If you ask your twin to take the test and you get the same results, I'm afraid that's the only answer we can give you. I'll have my assistant, Audrey, refund your activation fee."
Leah said nothing. Her mind spun.
"Yes," Leah said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Dr. Brine seemed anxious to end the call.
Then she called Julia.
"Not on your life," Julia said.
Leah sipped her latte, looking at her sister with the same mix of feelings she always had: love, protectiveness, and total frustration.
Julia had kept her hair long once the twins had been old enough to make their own decisions. Their mother had always dressed them in matching outfits and given them the same short haircut, and while that hadn't bothered Leah, it had driven Julia crazy. Now that they were adults, Julia's chestnut hair fell just past her shoulders, unlike Leah's chic Hepburn style. Julia wore soft pastels where Leah favored rich jewel tones. Julia wore no jewelry aside from her wedding band. Leah decorated her ears, throat, wrists, and fingers with simple silver pieces she'd had made personally for herself.
And still the waitress had exclaimed, "You two are twins, right?"
"No," Leah had said. "This is my girlfriend." The waitress had flushed and stammered and taken their order.
Julia had given Leah a rare smile of conspiracy. "You're terrible."
Leah had shrugged and then launched into her reason for calling. "So. Here's what happened."
Julia had listened, frowning with distaste when Leah had begun the tale and then glaring by the end of the description of what had happened.
"And that's the problem," Leah said. "I've got two results, and they're mutually exclusive, so the doctor asked if I was an identical twin, which would mean that one of them is for me, and one is for you."
"I don't want to know what either of them says," Julia snapped, holding up a hand.
Leah sighed. "You don't?"
"Don't sigh at me. And no, I don't." Julia put her coffee down with finality. "I don't know why anyone would want to know. It's… morbid. What if it said something like 'childbirth'? Tristan and I are trying for a child—you know that. It would change everything."
"Well." Leah had frowned, thinking that Julia was missing the point entirely—you couldn't avoid death, she felt. Knowing ahead of time at least meant you could live accordingly. "It helps you plan ahead."
"Some of us like surprises."
Leah crossed her arms. "The doctor said that if you took the test and it gave the same two answers, then I'd know that this was the reason for the two results."
Julia hadn't taken any time to ponder the question. As she shut Leah down, Leah couldn't help but think that this was one instance where they were indeed identical.
Left with no way to confirm a flaw in the machine—or to confirm that she'd have to be happy with two options for her life's ultimate end—Leah had gone back to work, tucking the two slips of paper into her purse and pulling them out every now and then to look at them.
Just in case, she decided to stop drinking alcohol, though the rational part of her mind reminded her that so far, no one had ever managed to avoid what was printed on the little pieces of paper the booths handed out. They were always right. But if that particular result was hers, there was no way to know if she could at least delay things. She decided to try.
Life went on. Her sister and Tristan had her over for dinner for the big announcement and then e-mailed her pictures of Julia's ever-expanding belly over the weeks that followed. Leah immediately bought expensive clothes that Julia insisted were too much and too stylish for a baby to wear—especially since the baby would grow out of them so quickly.
Leah helped her sister decorate the nursery once they'd learned they were having a little boy and tried not to comment too strongly on the stereotypical blue color or the cowboy theme. After they'd finished putting up the borders, the two sisters had moved to the kitchen and sat down at Julia's table.
"Being pregnant suits you," Leah said with a smile.
Julia burst into tears.
Leah jumped up, embracing her sister out of habit, but lost as to the cause.
"What's wrong?" she asked, squeezing Julia's shoulders tightly.
"I took the stupid test!" Julia wailed. "I kept thinking about what we talked about, and then I started wondering, what if there was something horrible that was going to happen to me before our baby grew up? And then I thought about how our dad died when we were little, and how horrible that was… and I couldn't help it…" Julia sniffled, wiping her nose. "But I can't do it." She sighed. "I just… I just can't do it."
"I don't understand," Leah said.
Julia pulled out her purse and opened it. She dug inside, pulling out an envelope that she'd obviously gotten from an ATM.
"I didn't look at them; I just put them in here," Julia said. She took a shaky breath. "It gave me two. All I want to know…" She swallowed and handed the envelope to Leah. "All I want to know is that it has nothing to do with being pregnant. And that it doesn't say I'll die before I get to see my baby grow up."
Leah opened the envelope and pulled out the two slips of paper.
"They're the same as mine," she said, then looked up at her sister. "And don't worry. Neither of them is about pregnancy, and they don't say anything about dying young. In fact—"
"Stop!" Julia raised a hand. "I don't want to know."
Leah bit her lip, considering. Then she nodded and put the slips back into the envelope.
"If you call the company and tell them what happened, they'll refund your test payment," she said.
"I never want to think about that again," Julia said.
Graham was born, and Leah found out that she did have a mothering gene after all—though she truly enjoyed handing Graham back to her sister when she was ready to go home and have a long hot bath. Tristan was a natural at being a dad, and Julia had never seemed happier.
"I'm a mother," Julia kept repeating whenever Graham was sleeping in her arms. "I'm a mother." From her sister's lips, Leah thought this sounded like the highest accomplishment of humankind. Leah felt a surge of fierce love for her sister, and the two were closer than they'd been in years, spending more time together than they had since they were teens.
When Julia bobbed her hair short, Leah began growing hers out. Julia must have noticed, but she didn't say anything.
Leah babysat on Saturday nights, so her sister and Tristan could enjoy an evening out—usually just dinner and a movie. It wasn't a chore, even when Graham was grumpy and refused to sleep. Leah generally read a book, the baby monitor tucked on the table beside her, and found herself feeling oddly content.
The phone rang harshly on one of those nights, and she scooped it up, annoyed at herself for forgetting to turn off the ringer and hoping that it hadn't woken Graham.
"Hello?" she asked, ready to tear out the throat of a telemarketer.
"Leah?" Leah barely recognized the voice, it was so ragged and raw.
"Tristan?" Her heart began to pound. "What's wrong? Where are you?"
"We're at the hospital."
A truck had run a red light and slammed into the passenger side of their car. Tristan's head was wrapped with bandages, two cracked ribs were bundled tight, and he was covered in small scrapes and cuts.
Julia had been in surgery for nearly three hours.
Tristan lay in his hospital bed, staring out the window of his room into the night.
Leah sat beside him, waiting for the doctor to return. Graham was bundled in a carrier and fast asleep despite the background noises of the hospital.
When the doctor came in, his face said it all.
"No," Tristan said, and his eyes grew wet.
Leah rose. "Tell me."
The doctor regarded her a moment, then spoke. "There are some major internal injuries. She lost a lot of blood. We had to remove her spleen and one of her kidneys. And the other kidney…" He took a breath. "We had to stop surgery. But her remaining kidney has also been damaged. Once she's well enough for surgery again, we can go in and we might be able to correct the damage, but—"
Leah's eyes blurred. She gripped the arms of the chair and tried to hold on to consciousness. This couldn't be happening.
"—would be the preferred option."
Leah frowned, coming back. "What did you say?"
Beside her, Tristan was crying quietly.
"Oh, thank God," he said.
The doctor repeated himself.
Leah made a decision.
At Graham's first birthday, Julia watched him frown at the candle and laughed when Tristan tried to get him to blow it out. None of the children really seemed to understand what the party was about, but the parents had fun, and the cleanup wasn't so bad. None of the kids had much cake, and Julia knew she'd probably end up throwing most of it out—assuming her husband didn't eat it all in the next two days.
The presents had all been opened—an excruciatingly slow process given Graham's preoccupation with the shiny red paper on the first gift, which he would have been happy to play with for the entire afternoon. There was only one thing left, and Julia was dreading it with her entire being.
But Tristan took Graham for his nap, and she was alone.
Now or never, she thought.
She pulled the sealed envelope from her purse and looked at the handwriting. Her sister's perfect penmanship had always annoyed her as a child. Leah's impulsiveness seemed at odds with her perfectly crafted letters, and Julia's own handwriting was terrible. Tristan said she should have been a doctor.
Open Me at Graham's First Birthday, the envelope said.
For a long moment, she wondered if she should just throw it out, but she knew she wouldn't. Finally, she slid open the envelope and pulled out the letter. It was a single page alongside two small pieces of paper, which were folded in half. Julia swallowed when she recognized them.
The letter wasn't long, which both relieved and saddened her.
The difference between certainty and a chance is love. I never thought I'd wish with all my heart to be the one getting the second result, but right now I do. I hope you will understand why I'm doing this, and I hope that you'll read this someday. The doctor said he could operate on your kidney and he might be able to save it. Or I could give you one of mine. I'm going to give you one of mine. I know what that might mean for me, but I know what it might mean for you, too. I promise you that I thought this decision through.
Kiss Graham for me.
Julia swallowed a lump and then fished out the two pieces of paper. She sighed, closing her eyes for a moment, and then opened the first.
Kidney operation, it said.
Julia felt her eyes brim with tears and allowed herself to cry. She opened the second.
It said, Old age, surrounded by loved ones.
"Thank you," Julia whispered, and then went to kiss her son.
Story by 'Nathan Burgoine
Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff
ROCK AND ROLL
"OKAY, KIDS, IT'LL BE JUST another five minutes or so. You just sit tight, now." The man flashed a hurried smile to the three young teens before disappearing once again. His unnaturally dyed hair portrayed an almost pitiful desire to look much younger than he was, to fit in with these kids who were easily thirty years his junior. His hair was matched by his shiny leather vest and spastically accessorized pants.
The man's words made Amanda suddenly aware that the three of them had been sitting in complete silence the entire time. She had been gazing at the laminated badge she had been given, attached to a green fabric neck strap. "Backstage Pass," it read in bold letters at the top, with the logo of the tour printed beneath it. The colors of the logo didn't quite line up, making the graphic appear as though it had purple shading on the left side and bottom.
The girl next to Amanda seemed to have the same realization and turned quickly to Amanda. "I'm Julie," she said, sticking out her hand.
"Amanda," she replied, clasping Julie's hand. Amanda blushed a little as she realized that her hand was sweaty because she was so nervous, especially compared to Julie's oddly cold palm. She let go perhaps a little early, embarrassed, and was flustered when Julie held on for another awkward second. Amanda thought she saw the hint of a smirk in Julie's face.
"I'm Austin," said the boy on the other side of Amanda. He was in a wheelchair and wore thick-framed, yellowish-tinted glasses. As Amanda turned to shake his hand, she was thrown off a little by his eyes, one of which seemed to focus on a point a little behind her. His hand was a little warmer than Amanda's, which felt a little weird—but she held on this time, determined not to have the same problem she had with Julie. She looked back at Julie, expecting her to reach over and shake hands with Austin, but she didn't; Julie just looked at him as if to acknowledge his presence while still holding on to the faint smile from before.
"I like your purse," Amanda offered, turning again toward Julie and trying to regain some of the power that the handshake faux pas had taken from her. She didn't really feel strongly one way or the other about the purse, but it did seem to be an expensive designer bag, or at least a knock-off. Either way it struck Amanda as being something Julie must be proud of.
"Thank you," Julie said politely, although without the glow of appreciation that Amanda was hoping for. Julie regarded the flawless black leather of the bag in her own lap as if it were the first time she had really noticed it and then opened her mouth as if to respond in kind. As she glanced over to Amanda's slightly worn cream-colored purse, though, she seemed to think better of it and instead looked up at Amanda with the same hint of a smile.
"So how many of Stephen's concerts have you been to, Amanda?" Julie had a devious sparkle in her eye. Amanda felt a knot form in her stomach, realizing that she couldn't answer the question honestly and still maintain any pretense of holding the upper hand. She resigned herself to her place, knowing at least that Stephen would not want her to lie about it.
"This is my first," she replied, mustering her confidence. "But I've been a huge fan since Death by Rock and Roll." She made sure to name-check Stephen's first album, if only to prove her devotion.
Austin chimed in, leaning forward to try to stake a claim in the conversation. "Did you know the slip on the album cover was his actual slip from his first reading in Portland?" He seemed to overemphasize the words to be more dramatic, but Amanda wondered if it was just the way he normally talked.
Julie rolled her eyes. "From Tim's Broken Cup coffeehouse, yes. And he played his first concert there one year later." She turned back to Amanda. "So you have all his albums?" It was phrased less as a question and more like a statement of obvious fact.
"Yes!" Finally, a chance to prove herself.
"And the bootlegs?"
Amanda wished she could go back to the silent sitting from before. "Um—"
"My dad got me bootleg recordings of all the concerts from the Fate tour." Julie sat back in her seat. "They're very high-quality recordings."
"Wow… that's great," Amanda replied, fighting to keep a smile on her face, looking down at her purse.
"When did you win your ticket?" Austin spoke to Amanda in a quieter tone, as if to form a united front with her against Julie.
Amanda turned to Austin with a smile. "Just yesterday. My friend Mimi and I had been calling the radio station since the contest started! Two times, we were caller number four, and then one time we were number seven. We figured we had missed our chance, and then the deejay said they had one more ticket and backstage pass available!"
"Wow, no kidding?" Austin seemed genuinely interested. Amanda smiled in appreciation, finding his lazy eye less creepy now.
"Mimi said we should go for it, and if we were caller number nine, she would let me have them." Amanda felt a lump in her throat. "I couldn't ask for a better friend. She loves Stephen too, but she knows how much he means to me."
"That's awesome! And so you won! That's so great!" Amanda's eyes were just starting to tear up, and she nodded. She didn't want to speak for fear of breaking down, both out of love for Mimi and out of the anticipation of meeting him.
Stephen. Stephen Conrad. She had seen him onstage from the fourth row and it seemed like a dream—it all went by so quickly. She sang along with every word of every song, soaking up every bit of the experience. She had stretched out her hands to the stage to be nearer to him but knew that she needed only to wait: fate had arranged for them to meet, and that meeting was only minutes away.
She wanted to tell Austin. She wanted him to know that she was special. The arena had been full of thousands of screaming fans tonight, but Amanda was different. She wanted to tell him that, but how would it sound? Every teenage girl felt that way… but tonight she and Stephen would meet, and everything would change.
She sat back in her seat and opened her bag to get a tissue. As she rifled through the contents with her right hand she carefully laid her left hand over the top of the purse to keep the others from seeing inside, and when she found the small plastic pouch she pulled a tissue out quickly, deftly pulling the strap to cinch the opening with a single smooth motion. As she blotted the corners of her eyes, she noticed Julie looking in her own purse, and Amanda caught a glimpse of a strange-looking device inside, occupying most of the bag's small volume.
Amanda looked up at Julie with a quizzical look on her face, but Julie was already starting to talk. "I don't listen to the radio," she said condescendingly, without turning to look at either of them. She grasped her badge and held it up. "My dad bought me this for my fifteenth birthday, which is next week."
Austin leaned forward to look at the badge, which was identical to his and Amanda's. "I didn't know you could just buy them."
The smirk returned to Julie's face, much more obvious now than before. "Anything is for sale when you have enough money."
"What does your dad do?" Amanda asked, realizing now that the purse was probably not a knock-off. Knowing that she had bought her way in somehow made Julie seem so much less of a true fan. For Amanda, it was destiny. For Julie, it was just another soulless purchase.
"He's the CEO of Mortech, the leading manufacturer of death predictors," she replied with a mixture of condescension and pride. "You know, it was a Mortech machine that Stephen used at Tim's Broken Cup."
Amanda's eyes widened and she could feel her pulse speed up a little. She wasn't sure what to say and was relieved when Austin spoke instead.
"Whoa… so what do you think will happen to him? Do you think he'll die onstage sometime? I mean, his slip says ROCK AND ROLL, right? How else could it happen?"
Julie sneered a little. "Or drugs. That's how most rockers die, you know."
Austin looked confused. "But his slip doesn't say DRUGS…"
"Drugs and rock and roll are practically the same thing. It's the rock-and-roll lifestyle."
Amanda felt insulted. Stephen didn't do drugs… She had read in a magazine interview that Stephen hated drugs and alcohol. He didn't need them to be happy, the article had said, because playing his music gave him all the happiness he needed.
Austin seemed to have been following some other train of thought. "Do you think he'll have his prediction slip with him? You think he'll show it to us?"
Praise for Machine of Death:
"Machine of Death is a marvelous collection, riddled with intelligence, creative reach, and a frankness that makes the best use of the central gimmick." --The Onion A.V. Club
- "Recalls the best writings of Harlan Ellison and Charles Beaumont.... Machine of Death brought me laughs, terror and tears....Highly recommended." -Paradox Magazine
- On Sale
- Jul 16, 2013
- Hachette Audio