Not too long ago, David Malki !, Ryan North and Matthew Bennardo put out a call of submissions for a new high concept short story collection called Machine of Death. The concept was simple. A machine had been invented that would give a simple, albeit mysterious, answer to the question “how am I going to die?” It was based on an entry in Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics.
I was fascinated, because I had always enjoyed the classic Heinlein short story “Life Line.” Which was based on the invention of a machine that would tell you exactly when you would die. And was the first short story Heinlein ever published.
So I lept into writing a story to submit for the collection. And after forty-five hundred words it was ready.
The problem was, I had written an updating of “Life Line,” operating from an entirely different principle. See, “Life Line” had detailed the reaction of the world — most exactly the insurance industry — into this discovery of the moment of death. And that fascinated me. Besides, I didn’t think there were enough dark fantasy/sf stories about actuaries.
Which meant my high concept wasn’t the high concept. I had a story about a machine that would predict the moment of death, barring lifestyle change or misadventure.
So I wrote another story to submit. And then, right as it was ready for submission (and had been read by several people with advice), I hit the same dry period that the rest of my writing and online contact hit, and so it never went to them. Ah well, I’ll include it here sometime.
In the meantime, please enjoy “Death is a Moving Target.”
*** *** *** ***
“What is that?” Michael asked Bruce.
“Mm?” Bruce took another swig of the thick, viscous drink. It seemed to cling to the edge of the plastic tumbler.
“That. What are you drinking?”
“Oh. Mucitol. High fiber. Cleans you out, I guess.”
“You having trouble clearing ballast?” Michael signaled to the waiter.
“Nothing like that. Doc just says I need better diet. You know how it is.” He took another swig. “So I took to high fiber. Lot of good things about fiber.”
“Yeah, well. I’m going back on Thursday. I didn’t like my Hafner/Baugh date. Gonna see if I pushed it forward any.”
“By drinking library paste?”
“Maybe. If I get a few more months out of this, maybe I’d feel better….”
“Better about not, y’know. Givin’ up the smokes.”
Michael closed his eyes. “You could decide not to smoke for my benefit, you know. You’re probably not doing my Hafner/Baugh any joys, you know.”
“Not worryin’ about yours,” Bruce said. “Too much to think about already.”
“Well, thank you very much.” Michael got up, digging for his wallet.
“No worries,” Bruce said. “I got this.”
“You didn’t drink anything from the bar.”
Bruce shrugged. “Night’s not over yet.”
Michael nodded, walking towards the door.
“Hey,” Bruce called back. “Goin’ to Lindy?”
Michael paused, looking back. “Maybe.”
“You should. Girl’s good for you.”
“When did you become such an expert on what’s good for me?”
Bruce chuckled. “Man, no surprise what’s good for you.”
“Whatever.” Michael kept walking.
“‘Sides. You get back with her, you won’t care if I smoke!”
Michael didn’t answer. He didn’t need Bruce to tell him Lindy was good for him. He had scientific proof of that.
Michael’s cell phone rang. They Might Be Giants — “It Could Be Worse.” That meant the call was from a work number. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and glanced at the screen. Tommy’s pudgy face gleamed on it. God damn it. He couldn’t ignore Tommy. He flipped the phone open. “Yeah?”
“I need you in,” Tommy said. “Massachusetts passed the Child Screening Act eight minutes ago.”
Two weeks before, Michael would have been thrilled. “Why do you need me in?” he asked. “The bid’s ready. The bid’s been ready for a month.”
“They had amendments. Potentially lucrative amendments. We need to brainstorm — nothing huge. I won’t take too much of your weekend. You’ll be back doing whatever you and Lindy in an hour and a half.”
Lindy and I don’t do much of anything, Michael didn’t say to his boss. “I’m not the most sober right now,” he said instead.
“Good. That’ll lubricate things. Get in here.”
Michael sighed. “I’ll need a cab.”
The cab took twenty minutes to arrive, more or less. Michael was just glad it wasn’t raining. He slid into the back and muttered “Two hundred east Rutherford B. Hayes” to the driver.
“No prob,” the driver called back with an undefined accent. “Radio okay?”
The cabbie grunted, pulling out and weaving into the streets. A bad pop song was playing, and Michael looked out the window. A billboard stuck out — muscular man and buff but feminine woman in bathing suits, next to a disgruntled skeleton in a cloak. All Pro Gym Workout, it advertised. Qualified Hafner/Baugh Physician on staff. Break your date with the Reaper!
“Sarah! Your date’s here!”
The pretty young woman on the television looked confused. “But I don’t have a date tonight–” Her face fell as the camera pulled back to show the Grim Reaper holding a rose.
The scene cut to a muscular man in a tee shirt and shorts, the girl working out on a Nautilus machine behind him. “We all have a date with the Reaper, but you can break that date with Tony Wilder’s All Pro Gym Workout! For an introductory price of just nineteen ninety-five and nineteen ninety-five a month with commitment you get access to our full facilities! And with a certified Hafner/Baugh physician on premises you can check your Hafner/Baugh date right here, once a week, and watch yourself break date after date with the Reaper!”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Lindy said, snapping the television off. “Would you look at me when I’m talking to you?”
“Fine,” Michael muttered, turning to glare at her. “Happy?”
Lindy rolled her eyes. *”No. *That’s what I’m saying. Jesus, Mike. Do you even care about this relationship?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Are you? I don’t think you’ve been here for months, Mike. And I’m sick of it.”
“So what do you want? Work’s been eating me alive!”
“Is that some kind of dig?”
“Jesus — no. I’m sorry that Hafner/Baugh ruined things for actuaries, okay? I’m sorry that Life and Health Trust decided they didn’t need you any more. But they still need me, all right? When do I stop being punished for something that isn’t my fault?”
“I work at Best Buy, Mike. I went from two hundred thousand a year to ‘would you like a protection plan with that?'”
Mike chuckled. “Same field, if you think about it.”
“Oh, Jesus, Lindy.” Mike pushed up out of his chair. “You don’t like it? Recertify. Get into health or pensions. Get into contingency theory.”
“No one’s hiring for those, Mike!”
“Because other morbidity specialists saw the handwriting on the wall and recertified early, Lindy! Hafner/Baugh means–”
“Hafner/Baugh’s a crock!”
Mike snorted, turning away. “No, it’s not,” he said. “And insurance workers who insist it is are the ones who end up at Best Buy.”
“It promises to tell you when you die, Mike. It says ‘this is the date you’re going to die.’ And you know as well as I do it’s not true.”
“Barring misadventure, act of God or lifestyle change, Lindy. You can’t–”
Lindy swore, storming to the other end of the living room.
“You can’t ignore that, Lindy. Yeah — the damn machine can’t tell a person they’re going to be hit by a car. The damn machine can’t predict if you’ll cut back on coffee or start exercising more. It’s a diagnostic tool — nothing more. But it’s a tool that works.”
“How many stupid people die every year because that machine tells them they’re invulnerable? Huh? You remember that snowboarder–”
“Jake Weiss was stupid. His Hafner/Baugh date was in — what, 2067? So he decided he couldn’t be killed. And he did a stupid stunt and he died. That doesn’t make Hafner/Baugh wrong. It means Jake Weiss was an idiot.”
“Yeah, well — actuarial science would have said he was an idiot. It would have said ‘health wise, Jake Weiss is in excellent condition, but lifestyle choices reduce his life expectancy significantly, and risk factors make him a poor candidate for life insurance.'”
“And if we still sold life insurance, that would mean something, Lindy. But we don’t. We sell accidental death and dismemberment. We sell property insurance. We sell End of Life Plans–”
Lindy snorted again.
“Yeah, you laugh all you like, Lindy. Give people a sense of when they’re going to die, and they focus on that. You sell them a product that helps them live well. You sell them a plan that both pushes back their Hafner/Baugh date as much as possible, gives them Accidental Death and Dismemberment, and gives them an estate they pay into for their funeral expenses and to leave their families a fu–”
“It was damn hard to become an actuary, Michael. It involves math that makes most people scream. It involves learning probability and economics and risk assessment. And it’s not glamorous, which is why there were never that many of us to begin with.”
“I’m sorry, Lindy. I really am. You should have been set for life.”
Lindy laughed. It was a desperate laugh, close to tears. “Maybe you can sell me an End of Life Plan.”
Michael looked down, then walked over to Lindy. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Look,” he said. “We… we can work something out. You have business and math skills — there must be–”
“I can’t do this any more,” Lindy said.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Michael said. “You need to understand that things have changed. The world has–”
“No,” Lindy said, turning to face Michael. Her eyes were red. “I can’t do this any more. We used to be equals. Now you’re an executive and I work at Best Buy. I can’t do this any more.”
Michael’s heart skipped. “Lindy–”
Michael sat up in the cab with a jerk. “What?” he asked, blinking.
“We here. Sixteen-eighty-five.”
Michael blinked again, looking around. They were outside of the Hartmann Building, where the corporate offices of Life and Health Trust were located. “Yeah,” he said, fishing for his wallet. “I’m gonna need a receipt.”
Tommy was in his office — an expansive, corner affair. He was dropping ice into old fashioned glasses as Michael walked in. Jenn was already there. “Michael!” he shouted, grinning. “How are you?”
“Drunk,” Michael said, dropping into a chair. “I thought the floor vote wasn’t until tomorrow.”
“Yes, well, politicians surprise you sometimes. But they passed it. Assuming the Governor doesn’t mess around–”
“He won’t,” Jenn said, a smirk on her face. “The Governor doesn’t want to look unsympathetic to the needs of children.”
“This is a banner day for L.H.T.,” Tommy said. “A banner day. Each and every student getting screened once a month. Each and every student taking home a report that lists their current expected date of death, along with all kinds of recommendations on how to push that day farther and farther away. Recommendations for sports, for nutrition, for–”
“You said there were changes? Amendments?”
“You’ll love this,” Jenn said. “At the eleventh hour, they forced through an amendment requiring schools to provide end of life planning as a part of the process.”
Michael blinked, accepting the glass of scotch from Tommy. “You’re telling me that public schools are — by law — going to have to help ten year old kids plan for their funerals?”
“Ain’t that a kick in the head?” Tommy asked, sitting across from Michael and Jenn. “Some days, it’s no bad thing to be a professional ghoul.”
“I resent that,” Jenn said. “We’re providing a service–”
Tommy laughed. “We’re hitching our train to a cultural death obsession. You know it. I know it. Michael knows it. The day these people found out how long they had to live, it was like nothing else mattered. ‘Make the most of life,’ they say, but what they mean is ‘push back the death date as much as you can, and be ready for it.'”
Michael shook his head, looking at the water beading on the outside of his scotch glass. “I wonder what an actuary would make of all this?”
“I am an actuary,” Tommy said. “And I plan to make several million dollars out of all this, thank you. So! How do we adjust the bid? Or are you too drunk to–”
“Do three levels,” Michael answered immediately. “Basic would come with the core bid — let the state pay the money they’re willing to pay, and give a basic End-Of-Life package with it. We can work out how much money goes into the account per year the student has basic, with an option of banking that for five years after High School graduation or turning it into a Collegiate package then. Either way, post college they can either get a sharply reduced payout with penalties and call that a benefit for having gone to school in the first place or–”
“Or convert to a standard End of Life Plan either through a workplace or on their own,” Jenn picked up. “That was my thinking. Two other plans?”
“Sure. For ten bucks a visit additional, a student could have… I dunno, call it ‘Living Well.’ Add in a discount with partnered health clubs. Add in nutritional counseling at partnered centers. Up the amount of money set aside for the eventual plan per year. Hell, you could loss lead it a little — give a kid who converts instead of gets the payout fifteen dollars a month at end of life for every ten he puts into Living Well, which means he’s invested into the product itself and he’ll want to stick with us.”
“And the top?” Tommy asked.
“We’ll need to go through the process, but we want to make this attractive. Make it more about status than security. You know the tapdance. Call it an investment in the future. Throw in financial planning. Throw in discounts at upper end stores with the card. And throw in an automatic conversion to Capital College Gold when they graduate, without the initiation fee. By the time they’re out of college they’ll either take a sharply discounted payoff that’s a lot more than–”
“I see what you’re saying.” Tommy grins. “Throw in a lot of Health and Wellness shit with it. I mean, remember — we want these kids living to ripe old ages. The longer they live–”
“The more money we make,” Jenn finished. “That’s the best part of this whole thing. We can be as greedy as we like and it’s still in everyone’s best interests that people live healthy, long lives.”
“Yeah,” Michael said, drinking a healthy gulp.
“Michael,” Tommy said, looking sidelong at him. “You’re not sharing in our joy, tonight? Do you have an objection?”
“Not remotely,” Michael said. “We’re gonna make a fortune. I’m entirely behind that.”
“Then what’s the matter.” His smile grew slightly knowing. “How’s Lindy?”
“Wouldn’t rightly know. I haven’t seen her for ten days.”
“I knew it,” Tommy said. “I thought ‘now why would Michael be drinking on a Friday night?’ Especially if he could hear his cell phone in the first place, which meant he wasn’t out celebrating. That’s a good girl, Michael. How’d you lose her?”
“That’s a pretty rude question, Tommy. How do you know I did something wrong?”
Tommy just snorted.
Jenn shifted. “Did she want you to quit?”
“Why would Lindy want Michael to quit?” Tommy snapped. “He’s doing good work here. Making good money–”
“She was doing good work here too,” Jenn said. “Until we fired her and everyone like her.”
“What? You want me to keep a pile of highly paid professionals I don’t need on salary? We don’t sell Life Insurance any more, Jenn. I don’t need people to make recommendations and build tables for a product I don’t sell.”
“Enough, guys,” Michael said. The scotch was making his face numb. “She made her choice. She decided that someone would want to hire her when L.H.T. dropped her. She was wrong.”
“You know. Hartford Life couldn’t adapt. That’s why they’re not in business any more.” Tommy’s smile was almost predatory.
“I really, really don’t want to argue about this,” Michael said. “Lindy’s brilliant. Sooner or later she’ll decide she wants to work in this world and she’ll make a change.”
“Where is she now?” Jenn asked.
Michael paused. “She’s working in the technology sector,” he said.
Tommy laughed. “See? There’s always a way to rebound. Okay. Let’s start figuring out campaigns. I’m going to get the ball rolling — get the word to the workforce that tomorrow’s a work day.” He half-stormed to his desk, ready to make the first call.
“So why are you drunk tonight?” Jenn asked quietly.
“Hm?” Michael asked.
“It sounds like she left you ten days ago. Why are you drunk tonight?”
Michael looked at the ice in his otherwise empty glass. “You think you know what kind of impact someone has on your life. But you have no idea, Jenn. You have no idea.”
“Go on?” Jenn leaned forward. “Seriously. I want to know.”
Michael sighed. “I saw my doctor this morning.”
“–looks like your range of motion’s back to normal. PT still going okay?” Doctor Rivers asked.
“Yeah,” Michael said. “Doug says I could get back on the golf course if you say it’s okay.”
“Well, I’m willing to say it’s okay if you’re willing not to go crazy on your swing any more.” He smiled. “A quick Hafner/Baugh screening and we’ll call you healthy.”
“Okay,” Michael said, slipping out of his shoes. “Hey, why do you screen every time I come in. Just to charge my insurance for the test?”
Doctor Rivers laughed. “Nice try, Mister Insurance Guy, but at this point the copay automatically includes a screening. In fact, I’d be liable if I didn’t screen you when I saw you.”
He began setting up the machine, nodding for Michael to sit in the chair. “Too much diagnostic potential. Don’t forget, death is a moving target. If you suddenly had your Hafner/Baugh date move up, that would tell us some kind of environmental or lifestyle factor had changed.”
“Yeah, I know,” Michael said. “But that doesn’t happen to me. My Hafner/Baugh’s been steady for years. June 17, 2061.”
“And we want to keep it there,” Doctor Rivers said. “No talking please. Put this in your mouth and hold these in your hands.” He stepped around to the machine, and began to work it. After a moment, it hummed and made a couple of ‘thunking’ sounds.
Michael stared up at the ceiling. Someone had taped a picture of a waterfall there. He supposed it was to calm the patients down. In Michael’s case it made him want to pee.
“Michael?” Doctor Rivers sounded off, somehow.
“I want you to come with me to the other examination room. I want to retest you in there.”
Michael blinked. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m worried about a misconfiguration, is all. C’mon.”
Michael followed his doctor into the next examination room. They went through the routine there — right down to the ‘thunking’ noises. Michael always imagined it was punching tickets when it made those sounds. All aboard the death train….
Doctor Rivers was frowning as he walked back into view. “We’re going to test you a third time, over at the ER,” he said. “In the meantime, have you had any significant changes in lifestyle since the last time you came in here?”
“What? Well, I’m not golfing right now–”
“We can compensate for recoverable injury, and there’s a predicable shift in Hafner/Baugh after laying off regular exercise in recuperation. I expected you to lose a little time from the date–”
Michael sat up, frowning. “Wait. What is my Hafner/Baugh date?”
“Like I said, I want to compare the result with a machine back in the ER–”
“Okay, but what result are you comparing it to?”
Doctor Rivers took a deep breath. “Well, both the practice’s HBS’s come back with April 8th, 2049.”
“Now, if the ER bears it out, we’ll start doing a test battery–”
“I’m not exercising as much,” he said. “My recovery–”
“Like I said, we could predict that shift. I’d expect something in 2057 or 2058 at the earliest. And you’ve been doing P.T.”
“There must be something…” Michael’s head was swimming. “Could this be a tumor or something?”
“We don’t know, Michael. But if it were cancer or even precancerous, it’s likely your Hafner/Baugh would drop a lot faster. And it’d be pretty new. We can do an environmental study–”
“Nothing’s changed in my environment,” Michael said, rubbing his head. “Could it have been developing? Something I was exposed to back–”
Doctor Rivers put his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Michael,” he said quietly. “It has to be a new change. Otherwise, your Hafner/Baugh would have reflected it all along.”
“That thing isn’t perfect,” Michael snapped.
“No, it’s not. But it’s very well tested. Now listen to me, Michael. We’re going to do everything we can for you. We’re going to verify the date on at least one other HBS. We’ll do a complete metabolic workup. We’ll run a lot of tests, and we’ll get you into nutritional and exercise counseling. And we’ll try to figure out what changed in your environment. Sometimes it can be the smallest thing–”
Michael stopped walking. His face felt numb. “Oh God,” he said.
“What is it?”
“I’ll talk to her — you won’t have to explain this to her alone, Michael–”
“No. No, you don’t understand.” He looked at the Doctor. “We broke up eight days ago. I mean, it sounds stupid, but… but do you think….”
Doctor Rivers took a deep breath. “It’s not stupid at all, Michael. We see Hafner/Baugh variations when relationships change. It happens all the time.”
“But I haven’t done anything differently since she left.”
“Not consciously. But your habits change at times like this. In men, often diet will worsen. You’re depressed. Out of sorts. And you lose the real benefits of her presence. Sometimes a loved one just makes life better — and there’s a real and tangible medical benefit to that.”
Michael slumped down. He’d mostly gotten over the heartache. Even the loneliness had gotten better. He had been adjusting. “Maybe… maybe once I get used to her being gone–”
“It doesn’t work like that, Michael. If you make some positive changes in lifestyle–”
“I’ll meet someone else. That’ll fix it, right?”
Doctor Rivers smiled sadly. “Maybe and maybe not. Maybe you’re the sort of person who needs someone. Anyone. Or maybe you need her. I don’t know. I do know this is a pretty big mortality jump.”
“What… what if we got back together?”
“I don’t know, Michael. I can’t make any promises, either way.”
“But it wouldn’t make it worse, would it?”
“Probably not. But come on. This might be unrelated to Lindy — we’re going to figure it out. All right?”
“All right,” Michael said. But he already knew the answer.
The Best Buy was like every one Michael had been in. Bright lights. Shiny gadgets. Some guys in black and white in the corner. Workers in uniform — however casual — working the aisles.
He found her just next to the high definition televisions. She was working on the budget DVD rack. Old movies for ten bucks. He’d never seen her at work before, wearing the cobalt blue jersey, the khaki pants. A yellow name tag. Her black hair was braided back — she looked maybe twenty-three or twenty-four, not the thirty-two he knew she was.
She didn’t see him approach. He scooped up one of the ten dollar DVD’s — Lifeline. Science fiction thing that’d come out within a few months of the Hafner/Baugh process. “Did you ever see this?” he asked. “It got everything wrong.”
Lindy’s back tensed, and she turned. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I want to buy a new television,” Michael said. “Something really big and loud.”
“Michael — I don’t want to have this scene,” Lindy said, turning away. “I’m working.”
“I’ll want a three year protection plan, too.”
“Are you making fun of me?” Lindy demanded, whirling to face him again.
“I love you,” Michael said, quietly. “I need you, Lindy.”
Lindy stared, her eyes widening.
“I can’t… I can’t do this,” he said. “I need you in my life, Lindy. You have no idea how badly. I… it took me a pretty bad shock to figure out just how important–”
“Don’t,” Lindy whispered. “Don’t, Michael.”
“You missed me, didn’t you?”
“Just answer me that, Lindy. I know you love me. I know there was something there. Tell me you missed me. Or tell me you didn’t and I’ll leave.”
Lindy bit her lip, shivering and turning away. “Of course I missed you,” she whispered.
“Then come home.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I want to, but I can’t.”
“Is it the job?”
“Seriously. If it’s the job I’ll quit. I’ll fill out an application before I leave the store. The job doesn’t mean anything without you in my life, Lindy.”
“It’s not the job,” she said softly. “You’re bad for me, Michael.”
“We can go to counseling,” Michael said. “I’ll change–”
“That’s not what I mean,” Lindy said. She looked torn.
No. She looked guilty.
Michael felt his heart squeeze. “Is there someone else?”
“It’s all right if there is,” he said, a little too quickly. “We broke up. You… of course you would–”
“There’s no one else, Michael. You’re bad for me.”
Michael felt his breath leave his body. “What do you mean?” he asked after a moment.
Lindy turned her head. She clearly couldn’t look at him. “I got tested at my gym, the day after we broke up. I’ve been tested twice more since then.”
“Tested?” Michael asked, knowing all too well the answer.
“Michael… I gained two years on my Hafner/Baugh date. Two years. My therapist thinks it’s getting out from under the stress of the relationship–”
“We can change our environment,” Michael said softly. “We’ll go to the gym. We’ll eat better. We can–”
“Oh Jesus, listen to yourself,” Lindy said. “I already go to a gym, Michael. Besides, I’m an actuary, remember? All my training comes down to assessing risk versus reward.”
Michael took a breath. “Meaning?”
“Meaning you’re not a good risk, Michael. It’s unlikely we could make those two years up with lifestyle changes — at least without becoming pretty miserable in the process. So it all comes down to whether you’re worth two years of my life.”
Michael’s face burned.
“I’m sorry, Michael. I really am.”
“Yeah,” he said. “No, of course. You’re right.”
Lindy tried to smile. “Hey. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay, Michael. You’re young, you’re a hotshot executive. Hey — I heard the Child Screening Act got passed. You’re going to have a great year. Any woman would be glad–”
Can they give me eleven years of my life back? Michael thought. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I’ll… I should go.”*
*Lindy bit her lip, and hugged Michael. “It’ll be okay,” she murmured.
Michael held her tightly. He tried to memorize her scent….
Lindy let go. “Besides,” she said, trying wanly to smile. “Even with those two years you’ll outlive me by a year. Everyone wins, right?”
Michael felt dead already. “Death is a moving target,” he said. “I’m thinking I’m going to start taking better care of myself.”
The PA crackled. “Lindy to cash. Lindy to cash.”
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
Michael nodded. “I’ll see you around,” he said. He watched her leave. Watched her walk away. Eleven years.
More than that. He watched her walk away, and he knew he didn’t want her to.
He breathed out, slowly, and headed for the door. Time to see what he could do to push the Hafner/Baugh out a little farther. Maybe see a nutritionist. Get into a gym — maybe her gym, so they’d see each other at the gym sometimes. Or maybe not. Still. Now that his old life was over, it was time to start taking death a little more seriously.
Ain’t that a kick in the head?