I wrote this story for Machine of Death, Volume II, a collection of short stories about, basically, a machine that can predict how (but not when) you’re going to die. Unfortunately, they had almost 2000 submissions for 30 possible slots, and this one didn’t get in. I’ve read some the other rejected submissions people have posted and it seems I’m in good company, so I can’t wait to see the stories that actually made the cut.
“Alright,” the group leader said, “Now, to get to know each other a little better, let’s play some icebreakers.”
I groaned inwardly, and several of the other counselors groaned outwardly. I don’t know why we had to play the same stupid games as the campers. For that matter, I’m not sure why we even made the campers play them at all. It’s beyond me exactly how going around the room pairing our names with an adjective (He’s Tim, and he’s Tall. She’s Betty, and she’s Beautiful. That’s Sam, and he’s Smart. I’m Henry and I Hate this game) is supposed to help people connect to each other besides uniting under the belief that the counselors are idiots.
Of course, I had more of a reason to hate these kinds of games. Without fail, they always ended up with the death card guessing game. Ghoulish enough in its own right, of course, but even worse for me because it meant that another group of people was about to find out what my card said, and I was going to have to go through the same embarrassment all over again.
Most of the cards were fairly predictable. A handful of car accidents, a cancer, even an old age. I had a feeling that the poor guy whose card said “Heroin Overdose” (Mike, who claimed to be Musical) wouldn’t be here long. There were only three of us (me, Terrific Tina and poor little Xenophobic Xavier) left by the time my card was drawn. The group leader stared at it for a few seconds, as if he couldn’t believe it was real. Finally, he wordlessly turned the card around.
“Seriously?” a woman asked (Susan, who is Single. That one was a little desperate, if you ask me, but what can you expect from someone doomed to die of STARVATION?).
“Dying of shame?” another giggled (Francine, who is not as Funny as she thinks, and will die of a HEART ATTACK, probably caused when someone finally gets sick of her and pulls a gun on her).
I began to experience the familiar feeling that, apparently, would eventually kill me. My eyes sank and my face turned red.
“Is it yours, Henry?” Rob (who is Rambunctious, and will die in a CAR ACCIDENT) guessed.
I nodded slowly.
It’s amazing how big of an impact these little cards can have on your life, even besides the fact that they tell you how you’re going to die. Five years ago, when the machines had first come out, I was running for Senator, and doing well. All the polls predicted I was going to win by a landslide. Then my opponent, Jack Yarborough, made a huge public spectacle about getting his prediction, which turned out to be OLD AGE. I had to do it too, of course, and publicly. The machines were still new enough that people hadn’t realized quite yet that almost nobody got old age, and so I had just assumed that’d be my result too.
Every major news outlet in the area was there, waiting for the card to print. I stuck my finger in the hole and felt the prick that would change my life. Smiling, I waved the bloody finger at the camera as if to prove it really was my prediction I was about to receive. Three seconds later, a small click announced the fact that the card had printed. Wiping my finger on my handkerchief, I reached for the card. Despite my calm exterior, I was terrified. Everyone claims to want to know, but when it comes down to the moment you first look at your card, you realize you don’t. Once you know how you’re going to die, you can never go back. But by that point it’s too late. And as soon as I looked at the card, I knew it was too late for me, too. I knew that I would never be senator. Smiling, I turned it around and showed the cameras the five big block letters on the other side of the card: SHAME.
Jack, or should I say “Senator Yarborough,” won by a 90% margin that November. The worst part was, later on I found out he had gotten his prediction privately beforehand to make sure it was a “good” one. I always knew that guy was a bastard.
Everyone had seen my prediction, or at least heard about it at some point during the next thousand times it was mentioned on the news or in Jack’s smear campaigns. Having to walk down the street with people recognizing you as the wannabe senator who would die of shame was terrible. It was even, if I may say it, shameful. I looked online to try to find out if anyone else had ever gotten the same prediction. From what I could gather, I was unique. Though I suppose if anyone else had gotten it, they would have tried to keep it pretty quiet. I know I did after I moved across the country to a place nobody had ever heard of me except for, maybe, a couple of people who’d seen the YouTube video of my death card.
Unfortunately, the machine has proven time and time again that you can’t escape from your death, and in my experience you can’t escape from the stigma of your death, either. Most companies these days require you to submit to a test before employment. After the stink with the military refusing to accept people with a prediction of “gunshot,” the Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t illegal to discriminate against people based on their cause of death if it’s likely that the death could be caused by the job or have a significant effect on the employer. Few precincts would accept police officers with a prediction of MURDER, X-ray technicians weren’t allowed to die of CANCER, fire departments obviously wouldn’t take you if you were fated to die of FIRE, and good luck getting any sort of manufacturing or construction job if your card read INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT.
As it turns out, SHAME is vague enough that pretty much any employer could use it as an excuse. And most of them did. In the five years since I’d gotten my prediction, I’d been turned down or let go from more jobs than most people even apply for in their entire lives. Few people want to be associated with someone who is going to do something so terrible in the future that they will die of the shame associated with it. I would certainly never be able to get any kind of high-profile job. The risks would just be too great. I had a hard time understanding, though, how the fact I was going to die of shame meant that I couldn’t wash dishes at a local diner. Did they really expect that I’d die of shame from sending out a plate that I hadn’t cleaned well enough?
My wife had left me not long after I got my prediction (though she claimed that had nothing to do with it), and dating was difficult too, of course. These days, “what’s on your card?” had all but replaced “what’s your sign?” SHAME wasn’t nearly as exciting as a CAR CRASH, SKYDIVING ACCIDENT or even TETANUS, and like everyone else most women I met were afraid that if they associated with me my lethal shame would relate to them somehow.
By this point, I didn’t even know how I was supposed to die from shame. The shame that came as a result of having that prediction had gotten me pretty used to being constantly embarrassed.
I’d applied to be a camp counselor because I’d heard they don’t check your prediction. Officially, that was true, but apparently it was still impossible to avoid everyone finding out what it was. On the way out of the room, the camp director stopped poor Mike and started talking to him with a very apologetic look on his face. I was afraid he’d stop to “have a chat” with me too, so I waited until he was done.
“Hello, Henry,” he said after he was done, “Need something?”
“No sir,” I said. I left the room with a huge, goofy smile on my face.
The following few weeks were the most enjoyable time I’d had in my life for quite some time. Even though we inevitably played that damned icebreaker, the kids were young enough not to care. Most of them didn’t even know what “shame” really was. When I explained to them that it meant being embarrassed, they just laughed and didn’t understand how that could kill someone.
In short, things seemed to be going pretty well for me for once, until one day the camp director called me into his office.
“Take a seat,” he said, visibly uncomfortable. I’d never seen him like this before.
“What is it, sir?” I asked, sitting.
“Well,” he began, “Yesterday I got a troubling call from a parent of one of our campers.”
My heart immediately sank. I could tell by the tone of his voice that this wasn’t going to be good news, and I had a pretty good idea what the problem was.
“It seems that in one of the letters a camper wrote back home, they told their parent about the prediction guessing game, and apparently mentioned your prediction.”
Of course. My eyes began to lower as the familiar feeling took over.
“When they called, the parents brought up a…uh, good point,” he said. “You’re going to die of shame. Shame isn’t normally that big a deal. Lots of people feel ashamed all the time, so it would have to be something pretty terrible for someone to die of it…” he trailed off.
By this point, I wasn’t feeling shame, only anger. This was the worst rejection I’d had yet. “Are you accusing me of molesting campers?”
“No! No! Of course not!” he said, putting on his best “how-could-you-think-that” face. “It’s just that, well, these parents are a little concerned. I of course didn’t think that myself, but parents, you know how parents can be,” he chuckled. “If this gets out, they might not want to send their kids here.”
“What if I refuse to quit?”
“I would hope you’d be more reasonable than that,” he said, furrowing his brow. “But if not, we’ve been going over the budget the past few days. Camp enrollment for this year is quite a bit below what it was last year. It turns out we won’t need as many counselors this year, and so…” he shrugged.
It was a lie, and he knew I knew it was a lie. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do about it.
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Henry, I really am, but there’s nothing I can do. Like I said, enrollment’s down as it is, if people start worrying about our counselors, too…” he shrugged helplessly. “I suggest you start packing. The van will take you back to town in a few days.” He started walking towards the door.
“Sir?” I said, “Can I ask you a question?”
He stopped, and turned his head to face me. “What?”
“What does your card say?”
He paused, thinking, then his face hardened. “That’s none of your business,” he said, turning back around and heading out the door.
On my way back, I realized he was wrong, and that I and everyone I know had been wrong this whole time. There wasn’t going to be one event so shameful that I couldn’t survive it. It was the small, constant indignities that piled up. The burden of having to deal with my prediction was going to wear me down and eventually kill me.
I was so lost in thought that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. Looking down, I realized I had just stepped in a pile of dog crap. And everyone else in the bunkhouse was going to smell it while I packed to go home. How embarrassing.
Sure, there’s only five of you against a world full of reactionaries, but you have Revolutionary Spirit! You can’t possibly fail. Nothing can stand in your way! Now if only you could find your Revolutionary To-Do List…
I wrote this a while ago, and I kept telling myself I’d eventually go back and fix some of the (minor) problems with it. I guess I probably never will, so here it is as is.
It’s an “Interaction Fiction” about a guy named Karl who’s the leader of a ragtag group of Revolutionaries (never forget the capital “R”!) trying to take over the town of Freedonia. As you hopefully can see from the image this isn’t a serious political commentary (I hadn’t even read The Communist Manifesto when I wrote it). If you are offended by it, please turn off your computer immediately because the Internet is probably not a safe place for you to be.
I entered it into a contest and won a $25 Amazon gift card, making this the first (and so far only) thing I’ve written that I’ve ever been paid for. There is no justice in this world.
If you’re interested in playing it, you can do so in-browser. If you don’t know how to play, just type “help.” You don’t have to play through it all at once, either, you can type “save” at the prompt to save your game and it’ll give you a URL you can use to reload it.
I recommend you download and listen to the Revolutionary Soundtrack while playing.
If you’ve played IF before and have an interpreter program, you can download the game file. If you don’t know what that means, just ignore it and don’t worry about it.
Good luck, comrades.
Humanity had its first official contact with extraterrestrials in the mid 21st century. Apparently, they had been monitoring our television broadcasts for decades, watching our culture and waiting for us to show that we had something worth contributing to the intergalactic community.
What finally got them was a certain beer ad created in the late 20th century. They had been interested in the invention of beer for quite some time, it being apparently unique in the galaxy, but it wasn’t until they saw this commercial that they really felt they had to try it.
Unfortunately, when they got here they landed in St. Louis. Sorely disappointed at the quality of the beverage they found, they destroyed the city and were just about ready to blow up the entire planet as well, until a small group of alien exiles who’d been living in Germany radioed them and told them to give beer a second chance.
The expeditionary force headed over to Berlin, was greatly overjoyed at what they found and proceeded to get completely trashed. Humanity will never forget the events of that infamous night, the so-called Überverrücktefremdebetrunknenberlinernacht.
The next day the aliens met with the UN, bringing premium alcoholic beverages from across the galaxy. Pretty soon all the delegates were wearing lampshades on their heads and the treaty had been signed that made Earth a member of the Galactic Federation. The rest, as they say, is history.
Though I’m pretty sure they just say that because everyone was too drunk to remember what happened.
(Just joining us? Go back to the beginning of the story.)
Across the city, Alex Patterson — a young, hippy-looking man in his early 20s — stood outside the brand new Stately Hotel, protesting. Over the past few days he had noticed some strange things, like buildings collapsing, explosions and fires, or just how weird people have been acting. Today though, nobody else had shown up to protest with him. He flipped open his phone and called one of his friends.
“Hey,” Alex said, “Where are you? I can’t overthrow capitalism on my own!”
“I’m sick,” the friend said, “Not to mention have you not noticed the chaos taking over the city?”
“That’s probably a good thing,” Alex said, “It means anarchy is winning, I think?”
As Alex was speaking, he felt a hand resting lightly on his shoulder in a provocative manner.
“Hello?” Alex said, turning around, “Are you here to help with the protest?”
“Yes…” groaned the man behind him.
“Great! Here, I’ve got some flyers you can hand out,” Alex said, pushing the flyers into the man’s hands, “But I don’t know how well it will work out, the people around here don’t really seem that interested in anything.”
“Are you interested?” asked the man.
“Oh yes, we’re interested,” growled the people nearby, advancing on Alex. He laughed nervously.
“Well this is great! We can all stand here and protest this hotel then…”
The people moved closer and closer, eventually standing in a huge circle around Alex. They began putting their hands on him and touching him inappropriately.
“Hey, you know, maybe afterwards,” he said, “But uh, right now I’d like to keep my mind on the job?”
The people said nothing, but continued to surround him, becoming more vigorous with their movements.
“Hey look,” Alex said, panicking, “You all are really nice and all, you know, but I think maybe we should have dinner first, get to know each other or something.” He broke out of the crowd and ran into the hotel.
It was worse than anyone thought. These weren’t just zombies. They were sexy zombies.
Vaughn Decker sat by the window, watching the riots in the street below, enjoying the sight of the yearning masses fighting their fascist regime. He wished he could be out there with them, but it wasn’t safe, wasn’t his time. Not yet, he had a plan. “And every good plan has to wait” he told himself aloud. Decker looked over at his book-bag, still sitting open on his table, half-packed with unlabeled tin cans and rolls of paper. He looked at his cellphone and was surprised to find that it was already half-past noon. Quickly packing the remaining supplies in his bag, he left his apartment and exited the building out the back door into a much less populated side street.
30 minutes later, he rendezvoused with the other resistance members about a mile from the part headquarters. Once everyone had arrived the group left for the objective. Vaughn knew that most of them would be dead by the end of the night, but he didn’t care. Tonight was the final retribution, payback for years of misery and neglect at the hands of the ruling party. He looked over at Irina, the love of his life as they jogged down the dark sewer tunnel. The light from the flashlight played through her hair… he hoped she’d make it. They finally stopped running when they reached a vertical tube leading up to the surface. Vaughn looked at his comrades for a sign of approval. They could turn back if they wanted to, but this was the point of no return. Climbing that ladder meant they were committed. Irina nodded at him that she was ready to go. Though he didn’t show it, this made him happier than anything in his life up to now. The group of resistance fighters climbed the ladder and fought for their freedom…
Nikoli gulped as he picked up the ringing phone.
“Yes Mr. President? Yes sir, we did, all of the rebels were killed. Of course there were casualties. Well, not any in the normal sense of the word. What? Oh, yes. Well uh… sir… they managed to uh… they TP’d the party building.” Nikoli’s subordinates winced inwardly when they heard the loud reply coming out of their Superior’s handset. Nikoli himself was ashen faced and trembling. He swallowed heavily and continued. “I have my men working right now to remove the toilet paper from the from the roof, before it rains.” He had to hold the earpiece away from his head during the response. “There’s one more thing I think you should know sir… they also managed to get a frozen bottle of shaving cream into your official car during the battle. We didn’t discover it until this morning, but the entire back seat is covered in shaving cream. They also sabotaged our tanks in the same manner. Yes, the guards responsible for security have been dealt with.” The pause was marked by a series of three gunshots out in the courtyard and Nikoli continued to listen to the abuse being doled out by the president for another five minutes before he was able to hang up the phone. The office was deathly quiet. None of the subordinates dared to make a sound or eye contact with their superior. Nikoli regained his composure and addressed no one in particular. Trembling, he said “Well, I uh… think I’ll go uh… freshen up then… in the bathroom…” The room continued to be silent, except for the slow footsteps of his boots as he crossed the room. He quickly stepped inside and closed the door. The analysts, deputies and subordinates all heard the faucet turn on followed shortly by a single gunshot and the sound of a body slumping over. The second in command thought for a moment and simply picked up his phone and dialed a three number extension.
“There’s been another one.”
Rick ran down the hallway, opening door after door and finding the same thing: E-Voting machines. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of them behind every door. Getting closer, beeping! Taking his yellow voter card! Crushing him! “Accidently” casting his vote for the Libertarian Party! Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!
Rick woke with a start and sat straight up in his bed, sweating profusely. Once he realized it was only a nightmare, he started breathing again. “It was just a bad dream” he said, laughing to himself. “All I need is a glass of water to clear my head and I’ll be fine.” Rick swung his legs out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. He gulped down a glass of water and stared at himself in the mirror, noting the disheveled look he had come to master over the last few days. He also noted that the magnet on the mirror wasn’t sticking. He pushed the mirror back into place and felt his heart stop. There was a sticker. On his jacket. The very same jacket he had worn that day. It said “detoV I”. He quickly spun around and ripped the sticker off his jacket. “I Voted…” he gasped. “No, I couldn’t have!” Rick dashed out of the bathroom and to the trash can in the kitchen. And there, sitting on top of a pile of junk mail was his empty Starbucks (large) Coffee Cup (Cream, no sugar). The one he had gotten for free. For voting. Rick thought for a moment. Voting wasn’t such a bad thing was it? It was his civic duty, right? Ok, fine, but then who did I vote for? Rick sprinted back to the bathroom and feverishly dug through the pockets in his jacket, looking for the receipt. Ah ha! There it is! He pulled it out and unfolded it, hoping against hope that it wasn’t what he thought-
Rick turned around and vomited into his toilet. Then he whimpered, fell down and passed out.