This week we had to write about the Machine of Death. It’s a machine that prints out a card, foreshadowing one’s death. It is never wrong. The story must also have a title, and that title must be the words on the card someone receives.
Dave Nguyen took a slow drag from his cigarette, allowing himself to taste the smoke rolling around his cheeks. He hated smoking. But he endured it for two reasons. The first was because he could. His status afforded him the opportunity despite the world-wide ban on tobacco production. The second reason was his intense dislike for living. If smoking shaved seven years off his life, Dave welcomed it.
He inarguably had the most important job a human ever had. When the fucking scientists figured out how to send a person through time, they also figured out this was a very bad idea. Even the most minor of changes in the past would have unimaginable consequences, the saddest being erasing the life experiences of every generation affected henceforth. And in this age of global government, that meant everybody. Dave’s job was to prevent this from happening. He was lead investigator of the TTP, the Terran Temporal Police. If somebody managed to send themselves back in time, he was to follow and terminate their right of existence.
Thankfully, this didn’t happen very often. There were only two time machines, one in Cape Town, the other in Zurich. They were highly guarded and required at minimum three people for its operation, and anyone near it had already undergone multiple stages of psychological testing. The machines were used regularly; international law only banned traveling to the past. Every so often, a scientist (and one time a politician) couldn’t resist the temptation. A bribe or two later and Dave had work to do.
Most who went back felt they were doing so for altruistic reasons. At least that’s what most told him before termination. The first went back to try and kill Gavrilo Princip. Dave was at Moritz Shiller’s Café long before his target, thanks to a tip from one of the scientists who helped send him back. No damage was done, unless you count the perp’s body in the bottom of the Adriatic. The second who went back decided he wanted to be the first person to see a live dinosaur. A very generous sarcosuchus did Dave’s work for him.
The Machine of Death—a prize brought back from the future–made Dave’s job a bit easier. Anyone who worked in or around one of the time machines had to first register and receive their death card. It helped Dave catch a guy last year whose card read ENOLA GAY. He found him near the imperial palace in Tokyo. An interrogation revealed he planned on warning Hirohito. Dave tied him to a post in an abandoned Hiroshima cotton mill.
Four months ago, a lady who worked in Zurich received a card that said DAVE NGUYEN. After two days of private deliberations at TTP headquarters, it was decided that Dave would make a preemptive strike. When Dave confronted her at her home, she quickly resigned to her fate, but asked him if he’d make love to her before she ingested the poison he brought. She was striking, and due to his work women were naturally afraid to sleep with him. But he declined, knowing that emotional detachment was crucial to his future success.
Rubbing out the end of the cigarette, Dave’s attention turned to the card he kept taped to the monitor. He was also required to visit the Machine of Death when he was awarded his current position. He now wished he had asked never to see the results after they were printed. He took the card and studied it, as if he thought hard enough about it he could change what it had told him. One word stared back at him.
Dave thought he was signing up for an adventure of a lifetime. But his life became smaller every day. There were no other travelers in his department, so he was always on-call. The pressure to prevent unauthorized jumps was enormous. His brain rarely shut off as he studied each person who worked with the machines, having to assume each one was capable of defection. But the terminations weighed heavy on his conscience. Knowing that each termination saved over 13 billion lives did little to quell the guilt.
He thought about suicide every day. The card forced him to. But in all the years with the TTP, he never really considered it. Depressed as he was, one thing motivated him. He wanted to prove the Machine of Death wrong.
His phone rang, which is to say the device implanted in his ear sounded an alarm.
“Unauthorized jump. Repeat, unauthorized jump.”
Dave was already heading for the door.
“Who is it?” Dave asked.
“How far back?”
“Two days, sir.”
Dave opened the door to the lab. Due to the time sensitive nature of his work, living right next to the time machine was a forgone conclusion. At least they had given him soundproof walls.
He found the director, who handed him his pistol–he refused to keep it in his home–as they walked to the machine. “Any ideas?” Dave asked.
“What did his card, say?”
The director handed him a copy. OLD AGE is all it said.
“That’s odd,” said Dave as he stepped into the machine.
“Agreed,” replied the director. “It’s imperative that you bring him back alive.”
“But only one person can come back at a time.”
“New development. It should work.” The director attached the armband.
“Since now. Do it.”
The director turned around and nodded to the two scientists at the controls. Dave closed his eyes. It was easier that way. He felt a mild electrical pulse run through his toes, heard the usual popping noise, then opened his eyes again. He recognized his location from the personnel files. It was Igor’s home.
Most perps traveled to a desolate location, hoping to avoid being noticed or leaving a trail for Dave to follow. The scientists theorized that short jumps in time had less time variance. The typical variance was twelve to sixteen hours, but a jump this short would likely have a variance of twenty to thirty seconds. Perhaps that’s why Igor didn’t bother to cover his tracks. He was standing just two feet away, leaning against the kitchen sink.
“Hey Dave,” he said casually.
Dave drew his gun.
“I know you won’t kill me. You’ve seen my card.”
“I have orders to bring you back alive. You’ll die in a prison cell I’m guessing.”
“Can I say something first?”
Dave stared at him, unflinching.
Igor sighed. “Will you put that thing down? You and I both know you’re not going to use it.”
“My wife and daughter are upstairs, sleeping.” Igor approached Dave, obviously not concerned about him. “In about two hours, they’re going to wake up. Then they’re going to come down here to eat breakfast. Marta will have coffee and a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Yuliya will have waffles, sausage, and orange juice. They’ll turn on the radio to a station that still plays songs from the fucking Beatles. “
Igor took a breath. He seemed on the verge of crying or yelling; Dave wasn’t sure.
“And before breakfast is over, a man dressed as a priest will ring the doorbell and force his way in. He’ll tie my wife to a chair, and make her watch as he rapes my daughter. He’ll cut them up, hearing them scream in agony as they slowly bleed to death.”
Dave reached back, found a chair, and sat.
“I know you have a job, but I beg you to let me stop this. Please!” Igor wept. “Even if it changes things, it will just be the next two days. Nobody will know the difference except you. We can stop this fucker and go back together.”
Dave shook his head. “I’m sorry, Igor. I can’t make judgments.” Dave took a deep breath, but still felt he was suffocating. “We don’t know what changing the past will do. Killing this guy could have irrevocable repercussions that you and I can’t begin to imagine. And if we don’t kill him, he might go next door and do the same thing. Dammit, I’m sorry. But you know I can’t let you do this.”
Igor’s body went limp as he lowered himself to the floor.
Dave approached and knelt beside him. He grabbed Igor’s shoulder and leaned in. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, as he reached for the armband with his free hand. He heard a loud pop. Before he could turn around, he felt a pistol jam up against his neck.
“I’m sorry, too,” said the voice behind him.
Dave Nguyen recognized the voice. It was his own. In the second before the bullet scrambled his brain, his depression lifted.
I had other ideas, including a minister bringing an MoD to prisoners on death row, and also a person that was the Machine of Death. While none of my concepts were drawn out, it appears John and Brooks had somewhat similar thoughts.
I actually settled on the title of this story before the concept. Then time travel. Then I felt Dave might kill himself because he was forced to do things that were for the greater good but made his heart break. But it wasn’t until I was halfway through the story that I had the idea of him having to back in time to kill himself, to save himself from allowing Igor’s family to die. Of all the time travel stories I’ve seen, I’m not sure someone’s done that. I would love to see it visually, too. Dave shoots himself, and they both disappear immediately.
One mistake wasn’t caught by the judges. I said Dave had to get a death card as part of the hiring process for his job, yet I already established he had been lead investigator of the TTP before the Machine of Death was found. Whoops.
I didn’t win immunity, but the winner was very deserving. This competition has made me a stronger writer, and a good deal of that is being able to watch other great writers do their work.