Friday, January 25, 2013

Machine of Death: "Alien Abduction" [Short Story]

The following short story was written for the second volume of the sci-fi anthology, Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die. The story was rejected, so I'm presenting it here for free. If you're not familiar with it, Machine of Death is a collection of short stories about a machine that takes a drop of blood, and prints out a card with a phrase that tells you exactly how you will die. It doesn't say where or when, and sometimes the card is so vague that you don't even know what it means, but it's never wrong. The title of every story is taken from a machine of death card. So here's my take on it:

Alien Abduction
by Nigel G. Mitchell

By the time Thomas Wiseman found out his wife was dying, the debate was almost over. At the moment the hospital struggled to keep her alive, Wiseman prepared to give his killing stroke.

Wiseman drew a small, blue, octagonal card out of his coat pocket. He held it up in front of his face so it could be seen. The audience gasped at the distinctive shape and size of the card. Even so, Wiseman still said, "This is my prediction, produced by a death prediction machine at my doctor's office, just twenty-four hours ago. If the camera could zoom in, I think the viewers will find it enlightening."



The other three people on the stage of the TV show Fact vs. Fiction glanced at each other, then at Wiseman with quizzical looks. The audience murmured as the camera brought the card into view on the large TV screens mounted on the ceiling.

Wiseman smiled as he said, "As you can see, my prediction reads, 'Alien Abduction.' Aliens do not exist, so this prediction cannot be true. It might as well have predicted that I will die from an encounter with Bigfoot. That's how I know the machine of death is a hoax."

Aurora Kennedy, a slender woman with pink hair and unicorn tattoos running all along both arms, spoke up. Since she was from the Friends of the Galaxy, an organization that worked to "expand the consciousness of Mankind about the untapped mysteries of the Universe," Wiseman wasn't surprised that she said, "But you're wrong. Extraterrestrials do exist."

Wiseman chuckled as he slipped the card into his coat's breast pocket. "As the president of the Open Eyes Skeptics Society, I've spent most of my career proving that they don't."

Aurora's mascara-laden eyes narrowed. "How can you be so sure?"

"I would go into that, but this show is about the machine of death, not extraterrestrials."

Eliza Bailey, the host of the show, brought a microphone over a large woman in the audience, who said, "My brother-in-law said he knew a guy who got a death card that said 'chicken.' Two weeks later, he choked on a chicken bone."

Eliza took the microphone back and said, "What do you say to those, professor?"

Thomas waved his hand. "It seems like everyone has one of those stories. There are whole websites like DeathWatch, full of urban legends about the machine. I doubt most of them are true. The number of verified cases where the machine of death has accurately predicted someone's death is extremely small."

Jim Lazzarino, the older man across from Thomas in a cheap suit with a long white beard, nodded his head. He was the webmaster for the popular death prediction website, DeathWatch. "True. But that does make sense from a statistical standpoint. Simply knowing your death isn't supposed to increase your chances of dying. Even though there have been almost one million predictions issued, the predictor was only invented two years ago. The odds of anyone who received their prediction dying within that short period of time is very small. Over time, we'll be able to measure it more correctly."

"But so far," Eliza chimed in, "the death predictor is batting a thousand. Everyone who's died since using the machine of death has matched their prediction exactly. Like Terry Crenshaw."

Everyone in the audience murmured and nodded.

Thomas bowed his head. "Yes, the machine of death's defenders like to bring up Terry Crenshaw. He got a prediction that said 'BUS.' A month later, he was hit by a bus. It's very compelling, but it's also a coincidence. I prefer examples like Gabrielle Simiskova. Three months ago, she received a prediction of 'Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.' Unlikely, since she was twenty-two years old. She actually died of suicide, a gunshot wound to the head."

"I know that case," Lazzarino said. "She committed suicide because her newborn baby died of SIDS. So in a way, it was right."

"That's the problem. If you stretch things around, you can make almost any death fit their prediction. The reality is that Simiskova directly died of a gunshot wound, not SIDS. If the machine was accurate, why didn't it just say 'Gunshot wound'?"

Eliza smirked. "Maybe the machine has a sense of humor."

"It's a machine, not a stand-up comedian."

Aurora pointed a black fingernail at the ceiling. "I believe in the machine of death. Mine said I would die from a head injury. I've been really careful ever since."

"That's another reason why the machine of death can't be real," Wiseman said. "If you know how you're going to die, then you can avoid it. What if you spent the rest of your life staying away from heavy objects or wearing a helmet? What if you got tired of waiting and slit your own wrists? Knowledge of the future allows you to change the future."

"Unless the future can't be changed."

"That's a whole other debate we don't have time to get into. I'll just say that I'm quite familiar with psychics, and have yet to meet one who could really predict the future. The idea that a machine could predict your future from a drop of blood makes as much sense as reading the future in tea leaves or the stars."

Aurora's scowl deepened. "So now you're trashing astrology, too."

Lazzarino stroked his oversized white beard. "Professor, there are those of us who believe the machine of death machine works on a more practical level. Blood can tell a lot of things. It can tell your cholesterol level, your sugar level, any diseases you have had in the past or currently have, that sort of stuff. Even before the death machine was invented, some websites would predict how long you would live based on your lifestyle, eating habits, and your level of physical exercise."

Thomas spread his hands. "That's entirely different. Those were all health factors, and even then, it was just an estimate based on probability, not a certainty. There's nothing in your blood that could tell you if you were going to be hit by a bus."

"Your blood has traces of everything you breathe, and everything your skin comes in contact with. The death machine could take the level of carbon monoxide in your body into account, so it knows you spend a lot of time around car exhaust. It might tell that you're heavy-set, so you can't get out of the way of a bus easily."

That got a laugh from everyone in the audience, including Thomas.

"And from what I understand," Lazzarino continued, "the machine also takes into account more than just blood. Our research shows that a large part of the death predictor is a computer that can take billions of random factors into account. The machine can tell your location, so it knows you're near a bus route. It can access the Internet, so it can tell whether you live in a city with a lot of mass transit, and how many people have died from bus accidents lately. There's any number of things it could be using to make its predictions."

Thomas shook his head. "No, those are all nice theories, but they don't add up. The idea that the death machine could predict a heart attack makes sense. The predictions that say 'Hot Air Balloon' or 'Yoga' are not. They're impossible to predict with any certainty. The so-called 'machine of death' is just as mythical as the extraterrestrials who lie in my future."

Eliza tapped the stack of notecards in her hands. "If you're so against the death predictor, professor, then why did you take the test?"

Thomas held up a finger. "To show that I'm not afraid of it. However, in the process, I proved that the death machine is a hoax. I would like to remind everyone that the machine claims I will die from an alien abduction. Absolutely wrong."

Eliza pushed her glasses up her nose. "To me, the only way you can really prove it wrong is by dying."

"Exactly. And I will die. In my own good time. But I assure you, it will be not be from an alien abduction. When I die, my quite boring death will prove once and for all that the death machine is a hoax."

Eliza tapped her cards to straighten them out in her hand. "But what if the death machine isn't a hoax? What if it's real? What if you wake up tonight and see a light shining through the window? Little green men pulling you onto a bed? Metal probes entering your body? And you die, knowing you were one hundred percent wrong? About everything?"

Wiseman placed his fingers together in a steeple. "Then the world will have the satisfaction of knowing that my life's work debunking supernatural phenomenon was in vain. But I'm not losing any sleep over that."

Eliza smiled up at the camera. "Well, we'll talk more about the death predictor after a break. We'll also meet Matthew Burlingame, one of the machine's co-creators, in just a moment. Stay with us."

The audience applauded as another stagehand signaled they went to commercial. The moment the lights came on, a stagehand rushed onto the stage to Wiseman's side.

He slipped a paper into the professor's hand. "I'm sorry, professor, but we received an urgent call. It seems your wife is in the hospital. Here's the number for the ER. You can use the phone over there."

"Hospital? What?" Wiseman took the paper and rushed off the stage. Behind the curtain, the courtesy phone mounted on the wall rattled as he picked up the handset. It took a moment before he realized it was his trembling hand that rattled it.

When the operator answered, Wiseman said, "Yes, this is Professor Thomas Wiseman. I was told that my wife is in the Emergency Room. Vicki Wiseman?"

The operator connected him immediately to a Doctor Mohini Jadhaw, a woman who spoke with a slight Indian accent. "Professor Wiseman, I'm sorry to say that your wife was in a very serious car wreck. Right now, she is in critical condition. I would strongly recommend you get her as quickly as you can."

Wiseman felt a chill run through him as she spoke. Before the doctor even finished her last sentence, Wiseman blurted, "I'll be right there." He hung up and found himself in his Honda a few minutes later, racing to the hospital with his heart pounding in his mouth, unable to even remember the trip from the TV studio to his car.

As Wiseman walked down the hallway to his wife's room in the emergency wing, a woman in a University of Michigan sweatshirt and sweatpants came out. He recognized her as Carla Murphy, his wife's sister.

His sister-in-law hugged him tightly, wetting his dress shirt with her tears. "Oh, God, Tom. I'm so glad you're here."

An older, shorter woman in a white coat came out of his wife's room after her. She wore speckled horn-rim glasses that surrounded piercing gray eyes. She held out a small hand to Wiseman. "I'm Doctor Jadhaw. You must be her husband. I spoke to you on the phone."

"Yes. How is she?"

The doctor pulled off her glasses and slipped them into the breast pocket of her lab coat. "I'm sorry to say that I do not have good news, professor. Your wife's condition is quite serious. The driver of a semi-truck fell asleep and veered into her lane. Her car spun, hit the dividing wall, and was pinned underneath the truck's trailer. Your wife has compound fractures and third-degree burns on her arms and legs, fractures on her chest, legs, and skull, and bleeding in the brain. We're still waiting on some tests, but so far she's been unresponsive. I advised your sister-in-law the same, and I want to be honest with you. We are doing everything we can, but she may not survive the night."

Carla clutched Thomas' arm as she reeled to one side.

"That can't be," Wiseman whispered.

The doctor shook her head. "I'm so sorry. Please, go in to see her."

"Yes, yes, of course." Wiseman stumbled forward, struggling to grapple with the emotions flooding through her. His life with her kept flashing through his mind; the pretty young student in his class that he couldn't take his eyes off of, the moment he finally got the nerve to talk to her, the ice cream cone he dropped on her lap during their first date that made her laugh, the sadness of the discovery she couldn't bear children, the joy of her first sale at her clothing boutique. It all came to a sudden halt when he saw her lying on the bed.

The room had the antiseptic smell that he always hated about hospital rooms. It took a moment before he recognized his wife. Casts wrapped around Vicki's arms, legs, head, and chest to the point where she seemed to be nothing else. Under the multitude of tubes and wires, some of the bandages carried the dark, brown stain of blood. The only flesh Thomas could see were her closed eyelids surrounded by tape. An eerie calm filled the room, broken only by the occasional hiss of an oxygen tank, and the steady beep of an EKG.

"Oh, sweetheart," he whispered as he approached her bed.

Her eyes fluttered. The EKG's beeping changed into a single, unbroken beep.

Nurses rushed into the room, gently moving Wiseman aside to get to Vicki's bedside. They began snapping at each other about vital signs dropping and ordering medication. The doctor came in after them.

"She's going into cardiac arrest," the doctor said. "I'm sorry, we have to ask you to leave. CeCe, we need the paddles."

One nurse took Tom's arm gently but firmly. "I'm sorry, sir. If you could wait outside for a moment. We're doing all we can."

"Of course." Wiseman stumbled outside.

Carla waited in the hallway, her arms folded. "Did she tell you?"

Wiseman swept his hands over his eyes as the late hour struck him and dragged him down. "No, she's didn't say anything. She's unconscious."

"No, earlier. About her death prediction?"

For a moment, Wiseman couldn't understand what she was saying until he remembered his conversation with Vicki last night. It had been quite an argument, really. Vicki wanted to use the death predictor - known colloquially as the "machine of death" - to find out how she would die. Wiseman had gone into great detail about how using the machine would go against everything he believed.

"But you used it," she had protested.

"Only to prove a point," Wiseman had replied. "To use it as you're describing implies that you actually believe it would work."

"Well, maybe I do. A girl I know at work used it, and it said, 'Old Age.' She said knowing how she's going to die gives her a sense of comfort, even invulnerability, since she knows nothing would hurt her until she gets old. That's kind of nice."

"And I'm sure reading the horoscope every morning reassuring you that you'll meet a tall, dark stranger, and be lucky in love would be nice, too. But it's all a fantasy."

The argument had continued for several hours, ending with her agreeing not to use the machine of death. Or so he thought.

"Death prediction?" Thomas asked. "What are you talking about?"

"Vicki went ahead with the machine of death. She told me her results. 'Cancer.'"

Thomas rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, and began shuffling down the hallway to the ER waiting room. "Well, I'm not exactly thrilled about her using the machine of death, but it doesn't matter now."

He could hear Carla's sandals clapping on the tiled floor as she trailed after him. "Yes, it does, Tom. You have to get them to test her for cancer."

Thomas pushed open the double doors to the waiting room, spilling laughter from children running around the waiting room, and music from a TV set mounted on the ceiling to spill into the hallway. Thomas paused, then turned to look back at Carla. "Cancer? Why?"

Carla seized the door frame. "Don't you get it? If she doesn't have cancer, then she's not gonna die."

Thomas rolled his eyes and turned back to the busy waiting room. "Oh, don't tell me you believe in that contraption as well."

Carla ran around him to block his path. Her eyes shimmered as she took hold of his wrists. "Tom, I'm not a gullible person. I'm not superstitious. I never really put much thought into the machine of death before, never planned to get myself tested or anything like that. But the doctor - she's got the worst bedside manner. I mean, I know she's doing everything she can, but - but, that doctor says Vicki's already dead. Brain death, the doctor called it. She says there's nothing they can do. They're talking about pulling the plug."

Thomas stared at her for a moment, unable to process her words. "No. No, I don't believe her condition's that serious. There must be something they can do. Where's there's life, there's hope."

Carla shook his wrists as she held them more tightly. "Hope, Tom. That's what the death card is about. If they don't find cancer in her, then we know Vicki won't die yet. She's going to live."

Wiseman gently pried his hands from hers and took hold of them with her own. He looked down at her. "Carla, I know it's tempting to hold onto the idea of a higher power at times like these, but we have to be realistic here--"

"Just do it," Carla shrieked, causing everyone in the waiting room to pause and look. She glanced around, dislodging a tear from her right eye. She brushed it away, quickly, then whispered, "Tom, it doesn't matter if you believe me or not. I'm just asking for the test. That's all. They won't listen to me."

Wiseman slid his hands down to his sides as he looked down at her pleading face. "Does it really mean that much to you?"

"Yes."

Doctor Jadhaw emerged from the hallway to approach them, holding a clipboard. "Is everything all right over here?"

Wiseman nodded. "Of course. Just a little upset. Naturally."

"Of course. If you could step over here, I'd like to discuss something with you."

Jadhaw let them to a small room adjoining the waiting room. The sign on the door said "consultation," and the room contained only three small chairs. The doctor waited for both of them to sit down, shut the door, then looked down at the clipboard in her hands. "I waited to tell you this, Professor Wiseman, because I wanted to run some more tests. We've put her on anti-inflammatory medication to stop the cranial bleeding, but she is not responding to any external stimuli. The pupils are unresponsive, there is no corneal or gag reflex, or spontaneous respiration. Unfortunately, all indications are that your wife is brain dead."

Wiseman glanced down at Carla, whose face had turned pale. "Yes. I was told you actually considered pulling her off life support."

Jadhaw nodded. "True. I wanted to wait a little longer, but she just suffered a cardiac arrest, and her vital signs have fallen even further than before. If her condition does not improve significantly very soon, we will have to consider removing life support. Does she have a living will?"

Wiseman lowered his eyes and shook his head, still struggling to process what the doctor was suggesting. "No, I'm afraid we don't. Never thought we needed it, put it off, that sort of thing. But I'm not willing to give up on her just yet. I have a friend who's a neurosurgeon at Kings County Hospital. If you don't mind, I'd like to see if he can consult with you, come up with any suggestions."

"Of course. I don't mind at all."

Wiseman glanced over at Carla's wide eyes. "And, uh, I would also like to have Vicki tested for cancer."

It was Jadhaw's turn to glance over at Carla. "Yes, her sister suggested that. To be honest, the risk of cancer is the least of our concerns right now."

"Yes, well, just for our peace of mind, I'd like you to run the tests."

Jadhaw heaved a mighty sigh, shook her head, and began writing in her clipboard. "All right. We already have some scans we can look at and the bloodwork. I'll order the tests, but I must say that this seems a waste of time."

"I would agree, doctor, but I appreciate your help. What number can my friend call to reach you?"

The doctor gave her number, and Wiseman headed to the waiting room area for a courtesy phone. Carla whispered thanks to him as he left her.

In the waiting room, Wiseman called Dr. Steve Kuiper, a neurologist that he had consulted with on numerous alien abduction cases he had debunked.

"I'm so sorry to hear that, Tom," Kuiper said. "I'll reach Vicki's doctor as soon as I can, and see what we can come up with."

"Appreciate that, Steve, especially at this late hour."

"Not at all. Happy to help. Hang in there."

Wiseman hung up and slumped into a chair near a blaring TV set. He still felt numb, unable to process or accept what was happening. Just that morning, he had kissed his wife goodbye. Before the debate, he made plans to surprise her with dinner reservations on Saturday evening at Zuercher. Now this doctor was telling him he might never see her again.

A voice penetrated his thoughts with a familiar name. It took a moment for him to process the voice as coming from the television above his head, showing a reporter on the local news talking. Footage of the tattooed woman Wiseman had met at his debate appeared on the screen while the reporter said, "Aurora Dream, spokesperson for Friends of the Galaxy, has died from a head injury. She was twenty four. Dream, whose real name was Judy Heredia, was allegedly struck in the head with a beer bottle during an argument with her boyfriend, thirty-two year old Christian Lewis. He is currently in police custody, pending a hearing. Dream was pronounced dead on the scene. The incident has gained worldwide attention, thanks to a debate earlier today on the talk show Fact or Fiction where Dream announced her death prediction: 'head injury.'"

The screen cut to footage of the debate from earlier today. Wiseman could see himself looking on in the background as Dream held up a finger and said, "I believe in the death machine. Mine said I would die from a head injury. I've been really careful ever since."

The TV cut back to the anchorwoman, who said, "Dream brings the total to one million deaths accurately predicted by the death predictor or death machine with no wrong answers yet. Future Path is saying there has been a two hundred percent increase in their machine's usage since Dream's passing was announced earlier today."

It took Wiseman a moment to realize he was sitting and staring at the screen, but not actually watching the sports recap playing on it. His mind kept going over it again and again. It was one thing to read or hear random stories about the machine's accuracy. Wiseman had always privately suspected the deaths were either a hoax or an exaggeration or a coincidence. It was another to actually see the prediction playing out in front of him. He was there when Dream announced her prediction, hours before it actually happened.

Wiseman shook himself. He was being ridiculous. The prediction had been "head injury," not "domestic abuse" or "beer bottle." Once again, he questioned why the machine would be so vague. Vague predictions open to interpretation had been one of the tricks his mother used to pull. Besides, there was no guarantee the story was even accurate. He expected it would turn out that Dream hadn't died of a head injury, after all. Or if she had, maybe Dream had arranged to have her boyfriend bash her on the head just to prove the machine right. It seemed like she was imbalanced to get herself killed just to prove a point. Otherwise, why would her death have come so quickly after her pronouncement? Quite a coincidence.

Wiseman told himself all these things and felt discomfort at how hard it was to make the eerie feeling in the pit of his stomach go away.


Morning came, shining the light of the sun through the soft curtains over Vicki's hospital room window. It found Wiseman sitting by the bad, watching her chest rise and fall along with the hiss of an oxygen tube.

Dr. Jadhaw came into Vicki's room, where Wiseman and Carla had set up a vigil by her bedside. Carla put down the bag of Cheetos she was eating and stood up.

The doctor gave them a calm smile as she said, "All right, so we've run the tests. No cancer was found."

"Oh, thank God," Carla whispered and buried her face in her hands.

"But Vicki's vital signs are not improving. In fact, they have been declining. I did speak to Dr. Kaiper, and I'm afraid we both reached the same conclusion. At this point, she is in a persistent vegetative state. There is little hope of her recovery. I'm afraid I must recommend that we remove her from life support."

"No," Carla blurted. "No, she's going to recover. This isn't how she dies."

Jadhaw stared at Carla, then looked at Wiseman. "All right, I have been very patient about this cancer thing. But your wife is suffering from numerous injuries, any of which can be considered fatal, and she is obsessing about some cancer that doesn't exist. Can one of you explain what is going on?"

Wiseman ran his fingers over his trembling lips. "My wife got a prediction that she would die of cancer. My sister-in-law believes that if Vicki doesn’t have cancer, then that means she's not going to die yet."

"Well, that is ridiculous. I have been a doctor in India and here in the United States for over twenty years. I can assure you that any predictions I make are based on scientific and medical facts. I am telling you that Vicki Wiseman is brain dead. All that remains is for her body to pass away from her injuries. That is why I am saying that removing life support is the most kind and humane option."

"No," Carla blurted, "this isn't her time. She's going to live. We can't pull the plug yet."

Jadhaw brushed her long, black hair away from her eyes and turned away to Wiseman. "I'm afraid it's not up to you, young lady. As power of attorney, it is the husband's decision. Professor Wiseman, what is your decision?"

Carla seized Wiseman's right sleeve. "You can't do this, Tom. She's not dying yet. You have to believe me."

Wiseman felt like the room swirled around him, words barely reaching him. The doctor stood on one side of him, Carla on the left, and in the middle he saw his wife lying on the bed in front of him. Her soft eyes were closed, and he tried to imagine them never opening again.

"No," Wiseman heard himself say. "I want to wait."

Carla sobbed and hugged his arm. "Thank you, thank you."

Jadhaw folded her arms over the clipboard as she glared at Wiseman. "I hope this decision isn't based on some superstitious belief in a silly machine."

"No, no. I just - I just need a little more time. I need to think about this. I mean, this is my wife we're talking about. I just spoke to her six hours ago. I can't just end it now."

Jadhaw held the clipboard tightly in both hands as she gazed up at him. "I understand. It's a hard decision. We can try to keep her comfortable, but past a certain point, keeping her on life support is hurting her more than harming her."

"I know. Just give us another twelve hours. That's all I'm asking. If she doesn't recover by then, well, then I guess we'll do what we have to do."

"All right. I'll keep you updated on her condition."

Carla waited until the doctor left the room, then whirled to glare at Wiseman. "How can you even thinking of disconnecting her? She hasn't been in that bed even a day."

Wiseman rested a hand on Vicki's forehead. It felt cold and clammy from sweat, not warm and soft like he always remembered. "That's why we're waiting. But it's not like Vicki and I never talked about this sort of thing. She always said she didn't want to be - well, like this."

"But the card--"

Wiseman felt his anger burst out of him with a speed that shocked even him, and sent Carla stumbling back as he whirled towards her. "Enough with that stupid death machine! The machine of death is a myth, a toy, a stupid gimmick for stupid people! Vicki is not dying of cancer! She's dying from a truck that crushed her body into this! I don't want to hear anymore about it!"

Carla pressed her hands over her chest. She turned away. She took a few steps, then whirled to glare at Wiseman. "Why won't you believe in something? Anything?"

Wiseman felt the energy drain out of himself, replaced with slight shame at his loss of control. He turned away from her. "Not now, Carla."

"No, I wanna know. You've dedicated your life to disproving everything you can't see with your own eyes. Vicki never told me why. I need to know."

He raised his eyes up at her. "She never told you about my mother?"

"No. What about your mother?"

Wiseman chuckled. "My mother. Wanda Barrett, better known as Wanda the Wise. Or Wanda the Magnificent. I always liked Magic Wanda, she would use that in the small towns. When I was a boy, after my father left home, my mother and I traveled around the country. She was a psychic. Or she claimed to be. Her only power was being able to read people. Human nature. I learned all the tricks. You start out with broad statements like 'I see you on a long trip.' And if they get excited, then you know they were either planning or had just been on a trip. That sort of thing. I couldn't tell you how many people she conned over the years. Men, women, even children. Guys cheating on their wives. Mothers spending their childrens' lunch money. Old ladies spending their life savings. I just got so sick of it. Got to where I couldn't even be in the same house when Mom was doing her thing. I told myself that when I grew up, I would never lie to people the way my mother did. I would expose people like her. And I would never allow myself to be lied to like that."

"I understand. That must have been hard for you. I don't enjoy being lied to, either. But I do believe there are things out there that can't be explained by science. Still, it's not my decision, and I honestly don't want you to do something against your beliefs."

Wiseman went to Vicki's hand and touched it. "Well, that's the funny thing. I've always been skeptical of the death prediction machine. But early today, I met a woman who gave me her prediction, and I just saw on the news that it came true. And when it comes to Vicki, I find myself wanting to believe. Even if it's just to cling to some kind of hope. Logic says that I should let her go. But my heart--"

Wiseman clamped his lips tight as his eyes burned. It took a moment before he could whisper, "I used to believe that everything had an explanation. That I wouldn't support anything that I couldn't see or feel or test. And then I met Vicki. She made me believe in something intangible. She made me believe in love."

He rubbed his eyes with his fingers, trying to hold back the wetness forming in them. "Okay. We wait. I'll wait. But I can't wait until she gets cancer or something. She wouldn't want that. I'll give it just one more day. If she hasn't responded by then, I'll have to remove life support."

Carla wiped away tears as she nodded. "I understand. I'll go call my Mom and Dad. They'll want to know. Thank you."

As she left, Wiseman placed his hand on Vicki's forehead again. The ache inside of him swelled as he whispered, "I believe in you, Vicki. I believe. Just come back to me. Please come back to me."



Wiseman stared at the nurse's hands as they worked to disconnect the breathing tubes.

Doctor Jadhaw said, "Professor Wiseman, I want you to know that you're doing the right thing. This is the best thing for Vicki and for you."

Wiseman said nothing, only watched as they worked to put his wife's body to death. Carla said nothing either, only stood in a corner, sobbing. She had a rumpled card held tightly in both hands, Vicki's death prediction card.

"Cancer," Wiseman whispered, then said louder, "Doctor Jadhaw, what sign are you?"

Jadhaw stared at him for a moment before asking, "What sign am I? I don't follow you?"

"What astrological sign are you?"

"Uh, I don't know. I don't follow astrology."

One of the nurses smiled. "Doctor Jadhaw is a Leo."

Carla said in a thick voice. "I thought you didn't believe in astrology."

Wiseman gave her a thin smile. "Oh, I don't. It just struck me that when my wife passes away, this will prove the machine of death was wrong. I thought maybe someone would try to twist it around so that the doctor or the truck driver was a Cancer, so that's how Vicki died of cancer. That sort of thing. But the truck driver was a Pisces."

"All right." Jadhaw approached the bed as the nurses stepped away. "It shouldn't be long now."

The room fell silent as they all watched the bed. Vicki's chest rose and shuddered. It fell still. As Wiseman's chest grew tight with emotion, her chest moved again.

"Almost."

Vicki's chest rose and fell again. And again.

Wiseman checked his watch. "She's still breathing on her own."

Vicki's body shuddered from head to toe.

Her eyes opened. She drew in a harsh breath.

Wiseman felt frozen to where he stood, and only became aware that Carla had rushed over to Vicki, throwing her arms around his wife's neck. The next few minutes were a tornado with the doctor and the nurses rushing around the bed, leaving Wiseman in the center of a storm that broke when he heard his wife's voice croak.

"Tom?" she gasped.

Wiseman fell to his knees at the side of the bed. He took her left hand and squeezed it as tightly as he could. "I'm here. I'm here. Can you hear me?"

Vicki's eyes fluttered. "Tom. Cancer."

"What?"

"Cancer."

Wiseman jumped as her words penetrated his thoughts. "Oh, no. No cancer. You're cancer-free. You're alive."

He closed his eyes. "You're alive."


Tom's eyes opened as greenish light poured through his bedroom window. The air hummed with a distant throbbing that he could both feel and hear. The air smelled of ozone, like sparks flying. He lay in bed, unable to move, as thin and malformed shadows appeared in the bedroom window, chattering to each other. As the shadows moved closer, blocking out the green light, Tom watched them loom over him. Large, oval eyes looked down on his helpless form as long, gray fingers descended onto him.

Tom awakened with a shudder. It took a moment to reconcile the quiet peace of his bedroom with the nightmare he had escaped from. The mysterious green light had been replaced with the yellow-tinged light of the morning sun. Wiseman ran his fingers over his face, sloughing off a layer of sweat. He sat up and looked down at Vicki, sleeping peacefully next to him. She looked beautiful, just as she always had. The only reminders of her ordeal in the hospital were the pills lined up on the bedside table, and the walker she still used to get around while recovering her ability to walk.

Tom slid himself out of bed, wrapped himself in a bathrobe, and shuffled down the stairs to his office. This was the second week in a row that he had been having the same nightmare, and he knew why. In his office, Wiseman shuffled through his Rolodex until a name came up that he dialed.

"This is Shane Gjesdal," a familiar voice answered.

"Yeah, hi, this is Thomas Wiseman."

Gjesdal's voice took on a hostile edge. "Oh. Hello. What do you want?"

"Well, I wanted to see if I could meet with you to talk about alien abductions."

"I'm not doing another debate with you, Tom. I had enough the last time."

Wiseman held up a hand, even though he knew Gjesdal couldn't see it. "I'm not talking about a debate, Shane. Just me and you. Maybe meet up for coffee. I just want to talk."

"Talk? About alien abductions? I thought you heard what I had to say before."

"Yeah, I heard." Tom reached into his robe's pocket to pull out the octagonal card he had taken to carrying everywhere with him. "But I want to hear it again. To be honest, I didn't really listen the last time. I think I'm ready to listen now."

Once again, this story is based on the premise of the scifi anthology, Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die. All credit goes to them. If you liked this story, you'll love the full book. You'll also love my scifi technothriller, Dead Links.

1 comment:

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