Friday, August 7, 2009

fiction: machine of death

I believe I've mentioned that Ryan North does things that are intellectually and shirtily pleasing. One such thing that's in the works is the Machine of Death anthology -- for which you can find a convenient and brief history here, but in summary for lazy bastards:

The Internet at large was asked to write short stories based on this concept: What If a machine was invented that could tell you, through a simple blood test, how you were going to die? And the Internet responded! And, recently, a whole lot of faboo illustrators jumped on the project like long-haired cats on clean laundry.

Like besugared children on a trampoline? Like. Uh. An unwary Spartan on a shiny blue plasma grenade? Like an Internets on a short-lived catchphrase?

With astounding powers of words like this, perhaps you can see why my Machine submission was politely declined for publication. Perhaps they simply received a large influx of very high-quality work. Perhaps we shall stick with this theory.

There's no pub date set, but I'll let y'all know when they announce it... I'm excited to see what all everybody came up with. In the meanwhile, you can read my submission! Just think, the stories in the anthology will be better than this!

[p.s. -- Many thanks to BlogBulk for teaching me how to make this jump cut happen. Mwah!]

A Machine of Death story, ~1300 words

Any other greeting cards that were this particular shade of pastel blue and embossed with ducks would've read, “It's a Boy!” The Croftworth's, inevitably, read, “It's a Brian!” It was a family name three generations running, and another three back before the first and foolhardy Brain Croftworth III named his only son Jonathan. On the day that the cards arrived, all 80 of them fresh from the printer, shrink-wrapped neatly in stacks of 16 along with matching duck-embossed envelopes, it took Mrs. Cynthia Wellers-Croftworth every ounce of what willpower she possessed to resist her urge to burn them.

She'd had enough of the name “Brian” already for one day - for one lifetime, probably - without the additional 80 instances. Her husband, Brian the third, was sitting opposite her on their tan leather couch, his expression tight and worried. Her father-in-law, Brian the second, was in her kitchen along with her mother-in-law, giving the younger generation enough privacy to talk without actually impeding eavesdropping. And the little printout slip that she'd received from a Machine in her ObGyn's office that morning, now sitting on the coffee table between her and her husband, read, in neat block letters, “BRIAN”.

“It must be a mistake,” Brian said for the fifth time that day.

“The Machine doesn't make mistakes,” Cynthia replied for the fifth time, wearily.

“Okay, but does it ever make typos? Maybe it meant that you'll be killed by BRAIN. Or,” he floundered, “y'know, BRAN.”

“I bet lots of people are killed by bran.”

He stood up to pace again, arms crossed. “Yeah, that attitude's going to help.”

“Fine, I bet it did mean BRAN. What do we really know about bran, anyway? It could very well be the evil what lurks in the hearts of our colons.”

“Would you please be serious about this?” said Brian loudly.

“I am serious about this,” Cynthia said, even more loudly. “I'm the one who's going to be killed by you, or our baby, or your father, or your granddad come back as a zombie, or one of the other million Brians out there. Unless, of course, the Machine was picking up the baby's reading, though him being murdered by one of you isn't my idea of a lark either.”

Brian sat down again, staring at Cynthia's belly, which Cynthia was holding protectively with the hand that wasn't pressed to her temple as if something in her skull were trying to break out.

“You didn't tell me it might be the baby's reading,” he said.

“Dr. Naylor said that happens sometimes.”

What Dr. Naylor had actually said was that fetal blood cells are often found in maternal circulation during pregnancy -- and for years afterward, in fact -- thereby engendering some doubt in the gynecologic community about whether a woman who'd never had a Machine reading before pregnancy could ever receive an accurate reading, but Cynthia, at that stage in the appointment, had been finding it difficult to pay attention to details.

Just thinking about the conversation made Cynthia's headache worse. “God, I wish I'd never had it done,” she said.

“How can you say that? Our--our baby could be in danger. You could be in danger! At least now we know.”

“A fat lot of good knowing has done! Panicked the whole family, my mother's probably having hysterics on her cruise ship--”

“Knowing has to be better. At least we can prepare.”

“Prepare?! We--” Cynthia stopped suddenly. “Brian, we could change his name.”

“Change his—oh, no we couldn't. His name is Brian.”

“He's not born yet! He's the size of a sweet potato, why couldn't we change his name?”

“Don't you mean, the size of a ‘jumbo prawn’?”

“That was weeks ago, and don't make fun of Dr. Naylor's fetus size comparisons, they're very practical. And don't sidetrack! We can still change his name.”

“No, we can't. He's a Croftworth, his name was Brian before he was conceived.”

“That's ridiculous!”

“Why do you think we got announcement cards so early? My mother was having it embossed on things while we were on our honeymoon!”

A cough that managed to sound both indignant and a little self-righteous came from just beyond the kitchen door.

Cynthia ignored it. “What if he'd been a girl?” she demanded.

“She would've gotten hell in school.”

Cynthia didn't smile.

“Look,” Brian sighed, “even if we change his name, nothing's saying it'd change your fate. Or his fate, whichever it is. We could decide to call him – I don’t know, Crustacean, and your next reading might say that instead.”

“At least that'd narrow it down… and introduce the possibility of my being offed by a lobster. God, never mind, I don't even want even want to know. I want to forget that I ever even saw this prediction.”

Brain leaned back on the couch, his arms crossed again. “It's still better to know.”

“Oh, easy for you to say, yours is straightforward!”

Brian had gone and gotten his reading done at their pharmacy as soon as it had received a Machine. His slip read “HEART ATTACK,” which had earned him a clap on the back from his father (“That's my boy! Likes a good steak and something hot and rich for dessert, eh? Always knew you'd go out with a bang!”), an admonition from his mother to drink more red wine and eat more salad (and she’d made a point since then of always having a big bowl of Caesar on the table when Brian and Cynthia came for dinner), and a birthday treadmill from Cynthia (who’d informed him that a heart attack was just fine - in another 70 years).

“Well, at least it won't be a surprise, will it?”

“Yes,” said Cynthia, “knowing about it is going to let me be positively serene while I'm--while I'm dying in childbirth, or when you go all Jack Nicholson on us, or when the copy boy at my office finally loses it and staples me to death, or when your father finishes going senile and mistakes me for a stag.”

A distinct “Well, really!” came from the kitchen, and Mrs. Croftworth chose that moment to come bustling into the sitting room with a heavily-laden tea tray. She deftly swept both announcements and Machine slip to the far end of the coffee table, set the tray down, and poured steaming water out over the contents of a cup.

“Here you go, dear, with lemon,” she said, handing the cup to Cynthia. “Decaffeinated, of course. And you still take sugar, don't you, Brian?”

Brian nodded, and received his own cup a moment later. “Thanks, Mum,” he muttered.

Cynthia glared at the carpet and didn't say anything, but she did take a sip.

Mrs. Croftworth stood looking at them for a moment that dragged itself out into a minute. “Have some sandwiches, dear, you'll feel better,” she said finally, and with as much sympathy as the human voice can inject into a statement about sandwiches. She bustled back to the kitchen, leaving her son and daughter-in-law to their tea.

“Do you think at least she'll leave off inviting me to special Machine-themed scrapbooking classes?” Cynthia said, almost managing a smile.

“Finally, something to look forward to,” said Brian. “Look, I'm sorry if I was short--”

“No, I'm sorry, I'm just--” she stared into her tea. “It's stressful enough, you know?”

And, as anyone might, regardless of whether they'd received a potentially dismal prediction about their death mere hours before, Cynthia took a sandwich.


Adam P. Knave said...

Huh interesting. You seem to hit that same tone point that Good Omens aimed at. Nice work!

the grammar monkey said...

=) Thank you! Yeah I'm not sure at which point in the writing process I decided that this story was gonna be really British, but there it went.

Anonymous said...

I would go with "ensugared," as "besugared" suggests a sugar coating.

"Shirtily" is definitely a keeper, though.

the grammar monkey said...

You've seen kids on a sugar high. Tell me that they don't seem to glitter with it.

TheLadysRevenge said...

I have to say that I really love the paragraph about sandwiches. It really does something for the moment and the characters. And it's about sandwiches and made me smile. Well done.

the grammar monkey said...

=) Thank you! I'm glad you liked it.

Sean B. Halliday said...

First off, I have to say that I LOVE cruise ships.
I spent over 12 years working on them as a Scuba Instructor,
Shore Excursion Manager and an IT Officer.

For 2 years I also worked shoreside in Miami as a database IT guy.

During my years on ships, I have to stay that many things happened
and that life is definately stranger than fiction on cruise ships.

Many people have asked me to share the stories I have collected over
the years, so I am complying with their request.

My site is:

If you had any stories of your own to add, please
send them to me and I will be happy to add them.

Sean B. Halliday