Machine of Death
by Annalise Addams
It seemed like everyone heard that public service announcement: “It’s the new CDS on the block!” Pronounced like “SIDS,” in that gravelly, action movie preview voice. It was only funny in that purely postmodern way in which absolutely nothing is held sacred. Only inoffensive to--and the hallmark of--that gap generation between X and D. Gen Y, or what have you. The “South Park” generation, we liked to call it.
You found this hysterical. And, with your claws in the tail end of Generation F, you were (however nebulously) living proof of the old saw that history repeats itself.
The disease hadn’t even been invented yet when we got our black envelopes the first day of kindergarten at that fancy, private, preparatory school. We’d never seen envelopes before except on birthdays, concealing corny, store-bought sentiments and disintegrating, old paper money, freshly re-starched at the bank. The last thing the professor should have said was to give them to our parents straight away, or to certainly not open them first--if ever. Her doctorate, incidentally, was not in child psychology.
We thought we were so clever, holding them up to the naked afternoon sun like you saw your half-sister do with sealed transcripts. A rectangular eclipse, a golden ratio black against the blinding sky, haloed--frustratingly impenetrable by UV. All these things, as adults and experts and people who “knew better” always said, you weren’t ever supposed to look at. But we always did anyway, if just once.
You gave in to temptation first, tore it open in the woods where the tree trunks were wrapped in green, bark beetle plastic. And then we all, now tangled up in the scandal, didn’t see the harm in succumbing to curiosity. In for a penny, in for a pound, they used to say, whatever that meant.
All the envelope contained was a black card with white letters in three neat rows.
James could read, kind of--he knew his name was printed at the top of his. Then there was a letter. I had an O. You had A; you were pretty proud of that. Violet only had an AB, crying because, after being told her entire life how special and lucky and perfect she was, she never believed it, not really. This only became further proof to her and all of us that most adults and experts and people who knew better were little more than tall liars and cowards.
Our third lines were all long strings of block letters no one could decipher until years later; by then the rest of us had, naively, all but forgotten about our own envelopes, the magic words. But you saw that ours matched. You decided we were best friends then, that day in the woods.
Those last words became sacred runes, an unspeakable incantation, a true name. You copied it into your notebook over and over until it was muscle memory, like a password, like it might unlock something, some day, make sense.
CYBERBRAIN DIS-INTEGRATION SYNDROME.
Full stop. Carriage return.
But you never saw it as a sentence.
* * *
A century-long legacy, the astringent scent of Pine-Sol is distinct, constant, a touchstone that draws her down into the moment from the non-color of fugue, that non-state between cyberspace and meatspace. An ache that reminds her of ready-to-pounce cats has grown between her shoulder blades; she’s gripped the rim of an industrial, yellow mop bucket until her acrylic nails ache in their cuticles. The plastic is waxier than she would have expected, its microscopic porosity a reef for years of pine oil and human grime. Thousands of soap-bubble mirrors, like spider eyes, stare at her with her own face, her own exhaustion, her own horror, her own eyes purchased from the show window of Samsung in Brooklyn. The mirror is gray-orange: Case’s blood in the mop water.
She can still drown. The meat still needs to breathe. She seriously contemplates this option--to kiss, to drink deep her yellow plastic purgatory--rather than face the hell outside, a world of her making, littered with the fruits of her labor: disembodied shreds of machines, people, someone else’s sanity. The meat isn’t certain which to fear more.
She retches again. Still nothing.
Visceral and plaintive, Case’s moan is like a dying animal, because the animal--the useless, fragile sack of meat that houses Case’s brain--is dying.
* * *
By the end of summer the dented aluminum bat was a part of your arm. You pointed it at the far fence, arrow-straight, gold and gleaming in the late afternoon like Artemis pulling her bow. You grinned as the outfielders backpedaled through the dry crab grass and dandelion.
“This one’s for Casey!”
The frayed ball hopped up at the plate, but you caught it anyway with a metallic crack that made my teeth sing. It was like you were a robot already, dialed in, intuiting trigonometry I was only beginning to learn in Talented and Gifted.
I thought my parents would be more excited about my other hand-delivered diagnosis: “IQ - 99.9th percentile, right brain dominant.” But even you wouldn’t have been so excited if we’d known what I was in for, what it would do to our friendship. Clean rooms, engineered diets, no strenuous activity, no risk-taking behavior--absolutely no sports, ever.
A lot of rich kids had their appendices, tonsils, and wisdom teeth buds out all in one go; I had all of my organs replaced with bio-mechanical replicas--”upgrades,” the brochure called them--in the interest of keeping me alive as long as possible before this CDS thing finally caught up. But if I was going to die from my cyberbrain leaking, or whatever, wasn’t getting one only inviting, hastening the inevitable? The experts--also geniuses--their rationale was that by the time anyone contracted this as yet unknown disease (which seemed pretty rare, or at least rarely fatal, by the Machine’s statistics), conscious constructs might already be possible. All the Machine’s prediction entailed was the death of my body, not my soul, not my legacy.
What does a thirteen-year-old care about legacy? Legacy was the gypsy moth, the transistor, prenatal melanoma, the War on Carbon.
Of course, you were jealous. We were best friends; we did everything together. We shared names with characters from pre-millenium science fiction. We would eventually die in the same, mysterious and probably gruesome way. It only followed that we would both become robots, together.
You blamed the Machine. We never would have been friends at all if it weren’t for those black cards, you said. And that all geniuses were the same--they thought they were better than everyone else--that’s why they invented the Machine, to make normal people miserable and paranoid and discriminated, to build their grand technocracy. That I should just go bit-rot in a dumb little corner of the Internet while you would make glamorous billions playing baseball, because they didn’t let cyborgs go pro, anyway.
But I always came to your games, even the away ones, and you always called your ninth-inning home runs for me.
* * *
Face down on the floor, now, he stays there, unmoving except for sucking air and not doing very well at it.
The Machine did this, made her do this, made her this.
The bat finds her hand, is her hand, the grip molded by her grip.
“This one’s for Case!”
She twirls like the Discobolus, skips, steps in, and smashes the box off its welds. Trails a glittering rainbow of color-coded wires, mystery fluid, pure diamond wafer, pulverized.
Its capsule, its tiny brain, stands naked on a crumbling pedestal of age-old irony stamped into silicon.
She reaches into the heart of the Machine, tears out its soul. Carbon weave tendons strain against the Pyrex. Her whole arm vibrates with the effort, but she feels it give a nanosecond too late and it explodes in her fist. A thousand needles in her face, her hand--god, it’s everywhere.
Shock is a wave of black spiders and nausea, cold, numb, and timeless.
* * *
I don’t know how you managed it--you and your “meatbag,” you called it--but it was like you found a way to keep mortality from touching you. Too transient to be immortal; maybe you were dead already. No, you were outside the entire life and death duality, somehow. No one knew what Cyberbrain Dis-integration Syndrome was, when it would appear, who it would afflict, how fatal it would be. That uncertainty allowed you to hang in a sort of macroscopic superposition.
A lot of other people tried that: escaping mortality, escaping the Machine. The problem is, it’s never wrong. No one knows exactly why.
The “how” is a little easier.
When the Machine makes a prediction, it creates information. Known information crystallizes possibilities, collapses the universal wavefunction; things fall out of superposition, and reality becomes a function of that information. That sounds like a big deal, but it happens all the time. Any time anything is momentarily observed or forgotten forever, the universe’s potential balloons and flattens by orders of magnitude in the infinite. Any proposed reality in which you don’t die of some interpretation (however vague) of the prediction is paradoxical, which, by the Novikov self-consistency principle, is impossible; it doesn’t even exist in the universe, anywhere.
One of my Philosophy of Physics professors explained: Say you’re an avid skydiver. The Machine could tell you you’ll die of SKYDIVING, but then you could shoot yourself or go live in a bomb shelter for the rest of your life and die of not-SKYDIVING. So it literally can’t tell you that. That reality--that prediction doesn’t exists to be picked from. So it tells you something else, like HOBBIES, or MULTIPLE COMPOUND FRACTURES, or GRAVITY, or, hell, HEART FAILURE. Even if you never go skydiving again, there are lots of potential realities left to die from. The Machine just points reality in a direction, and the rest--all the eerie stuff--is just human pattern recognition.
However, in a many-worlds interpretation there is no collapsing or expanding, just universes where the Machine is fairly accurate, universes where the Machine is always wrong, and universes where the Machine is infallible--all by chance. There’s a chance--and with infinite worlds, an infinite number of chances--that any Machine in the reality I live in could be wrong at any moment. So why isn’t it?
* * *
It’s so small. Tucked in the hammock of carbon wafer processors and life support is this...beaker. A jam jar, really. It’s even labeled on the side.
The soul of the thing--the Machine--it’s tiny, insignificant, in the midst of all this...nonsense. She’s transfixed by it; she feels it staring back.
Sudden vertigo: the sick-sweet eureka feeling that she only got what she wanted. But it’s gone all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She wanted to be the ghost in the perfect machine. Or maybe the machine around his bell jar, keeping him, killing him. Not this--this brain in a box, immortal dead-already thing, destroyer-creator, doing what it must because it can. They are the same, now, after all. All a function of the reality created by little black cards, white words.
Reality is wrinkling, pinching, a scream rising out of nowhere. The event horizon, the singularity, the paradox. He’s seen it. He knows. They can’t finish what they came to do.
She hates herself with all of her being--whatever is left of it--because she knows, too. She always knew, of course, in the futility of a predetermined universe, that the book is ruined if you read the last page, whodunit.
But the where and the when and the how and the why: she could pretend it isn’t written. She could save the last shred of good in her, in Case, from this. She can write the future, too.
The deus ex machina--the god out of the machine, the universe’s dry cleaner--is coming.
A bony hand grazes her shoulder: the psychopomp, the reaper. She will fucking kick its teeth in.
Her retribution is swift: an axe kick that barely misses her own face. She catches him in the shoulder, drives it to the ceramic. Another stomp, to make sure it’s in shock.
A shaggy black haircut makes a good handle. Two handfuls.
It wriggles in the air like a worm on a hook--if a worm made gurgling, sucking noises. Caved in on one side, that limb crumpled, looking small in the once-white jumpsuit. Grubby antibacterial fabric. Blood seeping into the weave, now.
It--he--Case croaks, makes sounds like, “...Chia...”
* * *
I don’t know if it’s an urban legend or what, about the guy whose card read, “THE MACHINE.” He ended up eating his gun rather than stick around to see how it would all turn out. It doesn’t take a fucking genius to see the irony in that.
So a lot of people blame the Machine for humanity’s “new” morbid, fatalistic outlook, like their shitty lives would be any different if they hadn’t known their fate. Well, that bit is true: their lives would be different, but nothing can change the fact that we still live in a deterministic universe. They’d just been ignoring it. I mean, no wonder everyone’s so fucked up about it, trying to reconcile a known future with the comforting illusion of free will. Yes, illusion--a feedback loop, causal deja vu. Just a little squirt of dopamine to keep you motivated, keep you breeding. Just a cheap trick of evolution.
The whole thing, all the angst, just made me uncomfortable, like people who put their lives in God’s hands. Acknowledging that things are predetermined doesn’t make them work out any better if you “just let them happen.” Your decision to abdicate all responsibility for your life is part of the equation.
I always preferred your brand of entropy, myself.
That was a universal absolute our generation had no trouble grasping. That and the Machine’s apparent sense of humor.
But the known fact that you would die of CDS wasn’t enough to convince you that, one day, you would be a cyborg. It’s funny, because most people, once they get their ticket off the planet, spend the rest of their lives trying to outrun their fate. You always ran headlong at everything. That’s what I liked best about you, I think.
I saw life through a film of medical grade plastic. It wasn’t until I was handed my first job in creative at PenumbrAd, lowly intern though I was, that I actually got to live it, so you did it for me. Running, screaming, beating up kids from the Church of Apple at the mall. Everyone said it was unhealthy, you and me, that I should get new friends and move away, but it wasn’t worth it to try. I knew you’d just chase me down again, suck me in again. You were my gravity. You were my muse. I couldn’t help it. We couldn’t help anything we did.
* * *
As one of the first permanent things up here since Mir, she thought it would look like a Space Age top, all raygun gothic, or maybe the Hubble, classic, poetic, spinning unnoticed in the dark. In reality, the satellite-station was a globular, lobed thing with girders like synapses, stringing it together between two battered, solar-sucking wings.
“Looks like a brain,” he says without thinking.
They only get one glimpse through the slitted windows before the tug’s owner, as well-paid as he was, hustles them down the gangway attached to the thing like a brainstem.
She wrinkles her nose. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised.”
Case has been more talkative the further they get from cozy Portland. She’s not sure she likes that. It’s as though he’s warming up for something, the big aria, their swan song.
Maybe he’s nervous about her. She doesn’t like to argue. Not with him. But if they want some quality time with the Machine, they’re going to have to do things her way.
She holds her breath when the airlock opens so she won’t be shocked by the difference. No time. She has to figure out murder in zero-g, and this is her only shot. Turns out it’s not so difficult, when you’re strong enough to break a neck with your thighs. She thinks of crab claw crackers and laughs.
Case tries not to look at the broken curator, still alive, probably, as he drifts up to what will be the ceiling once gravity sets in. He just sighs through his nose and sort of swims over to fiddle with a control panel set into a console on the wall--floor--whatever. He has a grace here she never knew, immediately at home in this world with no up. That spark of something beyond genius, like when he sketches furiously on a napkin, in a tiny wrinkle between his eyebrows.
In the corner a pixel-rotten screen loops a peppy, informational video about the Machine for all those space tourists who never came.
They begin to move; she finds a handle, swings to the floor with much less noise than the body made.
Case leads the way, the tour path through fake gravity vertigo. It’s almost clean at first glance, twenty years of fine mulch gathered in the corners, hiding under snakes of cable and grimy gaskets. They climb through cramped modules; past raspy carbon scrubbers spouting that overly-oxygenated, polyethylene smell; ever wary of the far away squinch of plastic covered shoes on a plastic covered floor. Everywhere, the trace scents of sweat and anxiety, stomach acid, previous caretakers condemned to this relic hanging in the abyss below broken Tokyo.
“Hey. Hey wait.” Blue jumpsuit rounds a corner; he looks them over. “You can’t be wandering around alone. Where’s Bear?”
“Goldilocks got ‘im.”
She puts her hand through him, grabs his spine from the front and yanks.
She’s made a mess now, thinking it’d be okay in the gravity, but the physics is all wrong--sluggish, light.
“Your hair is black.”
Case, ever the wet blanket, though he preferred the word “pragmatist”--preferred his own jokes to the cosmic ones. She moves to wipe her hands off on his coverall but he scuttles out of reach; she settles for her own. Orange and cherry, great together.
“Come on, we have less time, now.” He gives her the Look--the new one, where he doesn’t quite trust her and it makes him sad. “Unless you plan on murdering everyone up here.” He turns away slowly, ducks, steps over the coping of the door frame.
This is it: the Machine’s module, tucked into an inextricable lobe of this contraption, an inoperable cancer. She trips a motion detector and slats near the ceiling chunk open, sending up clouds of dust, shafts of hard sunlight to sear rarely exposed surfaces. The room is spacious, by space standards, cluttered with cased curios like lonely stones in a graveyard; or maybe the walls are scared of what they contain, retreating, like gums receded from rotting teeth. Unsecured electronics drip from the ceiling, snake along the floor, through water from a leak nobody could find. Mirrors make the room look larger, give the impression that they’re not alone.
There it is: in the corner, stashed unceremoniously in an alcove, caged, like a rat. It’s bigger than she would have thought.
He stands before it, his stance wide, like a twelfth-hour cowboy, his breathing deep and slow. Two Cases frown from the walls.
* * *
It became clear, as you danced out into oncoming traffic, that you were not, in fact, fucking around.
You wore a dress that day, the one I bought you. Eyelet cotton dyed safety orange, your favorite color. You spun in the frame, in the low hanging sun and the sodium vapor lamps, eyes full of neon, gold on gold on gold on gold.
Hanging from my knees from the overpass, you were a flame dancing on a black match head, whipping in the wind of trumpets blaring.
Sirens, now. I saw your smile as your face flashed by.
You were the center of a kaleidoscope, leaping, twirled in an impossible arc through the scream of steel and glass and light. I saw the violence of the ocean--a wave, a breaker, a salt spray of red: a whip crack, prismatic, of tail lights and blood.
I must have lost my grip, then. A boy and his camera, dangling, twisting on my bungee--like in grade school, strung up by a bully, useless.
We can’t say we never got what you wanted. Obliterated from the navel down, you begged to watch when they incinerated it all, afraid they’d try to stick it back on while you were under.
The therapist, with hesitation, called your progress “aggressive.” You chewed Oxy dry and grinned through the pain like a skull. White charcoal match stick girl, dead girl walking. Dead girl jumping. Running for first base at 50 klicks.
I liked your legs. The creases of your palms: the life lines ran short and deep. Babyskin perfect, new, untouched now, everything that had been taken from you.
In truth, the whole thing really simplified our relationship. We were from different universes. We were made of different stuff.
“Dance with me, Case.”
You only stepped on me the once.
* * *
Slipping? She’s not slipping. Her traction is excellent. She has her claws in reality like her cleats in the dust, like his ideas in her subconscious.
She sees her face everywhere, now, rendered in his hand, painted up for the world to ignore, to forget. Pages torn from a magazine, wrapping paper for a gift, a magic box, a cage, a sepulcher. Put a bow on it, mark it up, sell the idea then the cure, don’t want it, need it, everyone’s doing it, but wait, there’s more, there’s always more.
He hates the buzzwords: guerrilla marketing, like it’s war; viral marketing, like it’s a disease. You can’t war against a disease, not from the boardroom. But even the streets have a boss, a code, a war drum rhythm. You can only defect to the other side of the Möbius strip. No exit, save death, and even then... Immortality is real, though it’s more like a stain that won’t bleach, and he doesn’t like to be reminded.
Falls into the work, into her and the selfless surrender, embracing the breakdown, the chaos, the storm--and he is the eye, unblinking.
He still gives her shivers, his fingers crawling up her spine, the skittering nerves, buggy still, like rats in the walls of an old house. But to run, to jump, to scream through the night and that hot, adrenaline bath of his smile...
Mama begged, cried until her nose bled, left a mess like Tokyo Bay in the bathroom. But at some point they, together, decided against going digital. They were to die of CDS, could only die if they had meat bodies and meat brains. She loved the world, she did, as fucked up as it was, and her with it. In the futility of existence, short and insignificant, they loved it, together, all too much to try to escape it. No, she just wanted to be a robot in that world, to see it, experience it all the more clearly. Buggy nerves, Astroturf, and everything. Everything.
He hates that, too, the poisoned grassroots, the cobra effect, and she loves that he hates things. They lie on their backs on the plastic grass. Bits of chewed up tires, trampoline mock-dirt, cling to the back of his neck. His eyes trace the rafters like an architect. She can almost see a star, tonight.
“What is it like?” he asks. He’ll keep asking until the answer is always the same, probably.
“I’m full of magic. Iron filings. Strange attractors...here.” She indicates a spot inside of her right shoulder, then rolls, reaching across him, puts her palm under his ear, draws an arc on his cheek with her thumb. “And here.”
* * *
No one paid any attention when they put a rat brain in a little robotic car and watched it act like a terrified rat for three months. The whole world went into hysterics when they put a lobotomized rat brain in a box and got it to tell people how there were going to die. A quantum fucking party trick.
That was the beginning of the end: those unknown scientists in Reading and their RC car half a century ago. Their neural mapping led to neural dubbing, which led to cyberbrains, simulated brains, fully quantized conscious constructs. Then, in a twist of globalized culture, the sudden ubiquity of all these things created a macroscopic petri dish Eden for the disease that would kill Chia and me. Just like the rat brain predicted all those years ago.
Between vaccines and cancer-eating nanobots, the eradication of almost all those pre-millenium diseases from our daily lives only made room for new ones to try their hand at killing us all in spectacularly uncreative ways. And we’d only done it to ourselves: It started with allergies and antibiotic-resistant staph. Then came neural net rejection and our own CDS, not to mention a whole slew of construct-related “errors” that earned the slangy misnomer “digital dementia.” Next up: some blue-blood epidemic the Machine calls NANOHACKING.
CDS wasn’t anything special--it wasn’t even all that fatal. But millions were afflicted with the trademark brain lesions and the symptoms they presented. “The Dees.” Kids learned how to rattle it off like English vowels: depression, dissociation, delusion, delirium, dementia (and sometimes death).
The ensuing panic of both the sick and the well tore humanity screaming through the aperture of what I suppose was the technological singularity. Once only a tool of the Nobel Prize committees and bereaved families of Alzheimer's' victims, humanity went construct-crazy, flesh-phobic. Dubbing themselves across the Internet like spores, they grasped at any shred of immortality, no matter how thin, no matter how artificial. There was hope in the notion that after the autoimmune reaction had rerouted your axons into an unintelligible wad of bio-quantum circuitry, some shred or shadow of your ego might carry on without it. The collective data-conscious was flooded with poltergeists and ghosts. Sentience became spin, an enumerated substance, a politic, a twenty-six page document, a shareholder in the incorporation of personhood. The net became a charnel house.
And all of those construct disorders? Well, my genius doctors were wrong. The Machine got all creative with those diagnoses, too.
* * *
All of the familiar smells: the sun, the dust, cut grass, hot leather, sweat-infused neoprene, old aluminum--all of it had washed away, pounded into the dirt, obliterated by the ozone tang of acid rain. She was up to her knees with mud, now, all those scents converging in fine, gray paste. She knew it would never come out of her shorts. She didn’t care. She felt her polymer skin drinking it up. She liked that.
It took three zip-ties to secure the soggy, disintegrating paper onto an old ball. She tossed it experimentally, the plastic tags catching, wobbling as it spun in the rain.
One, two, up. A whitish smudge in the vertical blur. She swung with all she had, sent it out of the lot with a wet crack like a cantaloupe dropped into an alley from three stories up.
Case was the only clear figure in the night, standing dry under a comically large golf umbrella, still, sharp, even in the shadows.
“It’s started, the downward spiral.”
The rain ate her words but she knew he would hear her. Fancy cochlear implants, context-programmable, better than the real thing.
And he knew what they were in for, probably better than anyone. That publicity scheme, the PSA: that was all him. She just wished the real thing could be spun, could be thrown away as easily as an ad reel or a coded diagnosis strapped to an old baseball. What was she supposed to do, frame it?
Everything was just as the Machine had implied. Like it knew. Like it gave her the lesions. Like it made it happen. Just for a laugh. Or maybe it was scared of what she would do to it, if she ever got her hands on the mechanism, the magic in the box.
“Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, right? Which is this?”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Ah. Anger, then.”
She joined him under the umbrella. A bubble universe on the fringe of a rainy field.
“What are we going to do?”
His free hand found the small of her back, the thick, wet cotton clinging like laminate. “You look sane enough to me.”
“I won’t always be. And neither will you.” She waited a beat, but he didn’t reply. She repeated herself, even though she knew it annoyed him. “So what do we do?”
He blinked, twice. “The only thing we can do: what we will.”
* * *
I never would have thought we’d raise the airfare; but, apparently, between a hybrid league baseball starlet and a confidence man, it’s not all that hard. We weren’t going to the moon, after all, just a decrepit satellite hanging over the poison sea of Old Tokyo. They figured it’d be safe there--the tomb, the womb of the first Machine.
“I want to break it.”
We were tangled on the couch, watching cartoons from the twenty-tens on Boomerang, but you weren’t looking. Glancing across me to the coffee table, designs blocked out with fat markers on copy paper, old school. We did a lot of things old school, even those days. It helped me think.
“You said it’s just quantum.”
You turned your face up to me. You still had your freckles, then.
“So, all we have to do, to fuck with it, is take a peek.”
If it was a closed system, in superposition, or entangled, sure. Maybe. Why the hell not?
“Why?” I gave you a pinch, the way you always reminded me that the Machine was the only reason we were ever more than kindergarten classmates, once upon a time.
You made that sly face, your eyes and mouth wry lines, cartoon-like. “What might happen, do you think, if the predictions, the whole thing got...scrambled?”
I chuckled, ran my fingers up your scalp. “Want to rewrite our fate?”
Serious-face, suddenly. “Our fate? CDS?” A scoff. “The Machine’s the disease. Of the culture. Same as your bullshit--inventing, infecting new diseases, selling the cure that births the next one.”
But it was self-loathing in that twist of your lip. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it: that weird, robot sympathy; and it was far from the last.
“What if your genius wasn’t meant to sell people their own gilded nooses? What if you’re supposed to be the one to end this?”
I shrugged against you. “If I am, I am.”
Predetermination’s a bitch like that.
* * *
She let herself go, stepped off that precipice and into the chilly night. Lights, haloed, twinkling, whizzing by, were the only sense that she was descending, anything but cradled by the midnight fog. The ground punched through her dream, came up fast, terminal; she was ready to meet it. She was Thor’s hammer, Zeus’ bolt; her thunder splintered the prewar sidewalk.
The fall of man--the girl--ashes to ashes. The rise of the robot phoenix.
She stood and smiled.
Fingers found secrets, loose places in the mortar, her gecko shoes purchase on the old, baked brick, and up she went again. Limb over limb, six stories up.
And she was running again, vaulting in clean arcs over the black chasms of alleys, scattering the tarred gravel, denting rusty duct work with a very satisfying screech and thrum like a cookie sheet cooling, amplified.
This was better than baseball, better than sex.
She imagined she could feel her new brain, a bio-mechanical lozenge nestled in the crown of her motor cortex, awake and buzzing: a little itch. And if scratching it was this freedom, well, that was just fine.
Finally, she came skidding to a stop over the buckling flagstones to catch her breath, snatched it back from the night. The mist tasted sweet, like him, and she wished you could catch it in HD, that vital essence of the thing, like so much else they tried to show the world.
When she turned around she expected to see Case standing there, contentedly neutral, not even tired, camera in hand. But she left him in the dust, now. And it wasn’t the same without him.
* * *
Chia cuts through the chain link like tissue paper. Finely tuned nerves humming, she manages to get the case open, even gently.
The moment I glimpse it over her shoulder, the inside of the Machine, I know. I don’t know why I had to see it first. I don’t even know why I know, but I know that we are fucked.
She just stares at the thing, her nose inches from the guts of it. But I notice on the inside of the door: a black card. With white letters.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, myopic genius. Why are we even here? Well, because we had to be.
See, reality is only ever a function of known information. And the Machine already knows how it will die. The wavefunction is already collapsed into a reality in which the Machine is never wrong and we will die of CDS. But I get it now, the nuance, the trick: I’ll never contract CDS, myself. I’ll die from hers.
It’s like the Machine did this on purpose, planned it all out, caused this whole star-crossed tragedy in order to outwit me, to solipsistically preserve itself. Because we only ever got what we asked for. Like the Machine wanted us to want it.
But I know it’s just a series of unfortunate coincidences and the human brain’s obsession with patterns that makes the motive, makes it seem ulterior. The Machine doesn’t give a shit either way. Reality is just ironing out of the wrinkles. Just dominoes set up billions--maybe billions of billions of years ago, universes ago.
That’s why the Machine is ever vague: not because it thinks irony is hilarious, but because I or anyone else would have just proved it wrong. If it’d said, “CHIA PET,” I never would have gotten close to her. I wouldn’t have let myself get sucked into her whirlwind of life and death and passion for being if it had said, “LOVE.”
But it might not have even mattered whether or not I ever knew how I would die. My fate has always already been a function of the Machine’s own. And in order to preserve the truth that it is infallible, I cannot live to create the paradox that it is not.
Chia is so still I imagine I can see her atoms vibrating. Sooner or later, she will come for me. She’ll snap, or she’ll slip, or she’ll die and not be there to save me.
I see my hand shaking, reaching for her.
There’s nothing to be done about it. We’re trapped in the pull of strange attractors.
* * *
Somehow, she forces herself to crawl back over to him. His coverall is torn to the waist to expose the ruin of his right side. He’s a mess of red--getting redder--almost black, on his chest, where the ballpoint pen sticks up like a poorly planted flag. She tried to poke the bones back in; it didn’t seem to help. She never paid much attention in college; she didn’t have to; she had him.
“You can’t die, Case. You can’t. Not from this.”
His color is all wrong. Too white, ashen, like his bloody coverall.
“You made me do it, you know. Your plan. It’s always your plan. Your chaos theory. Your math. You made me do it.”
Hiccuping now, she drags his torso into the cradle of her lap. He almost doesn’t cry out anymore.
“I’m so sorry, Casey. I didn’t know... It was you.”
* * *
Once upon a time, she held still, all of her, all she was. An exhale swept through her, down to the atoms. Ego surrender. The lines of her identity rubbed out. A placid, mutable thing, she lay loosely curled beside him, watching him breathe slowly in the dark. He was so...alive. She found herself envious--she had always been envious, in some way--of him.
She gently traced his side with her fingertips, inquisitively, unsure, as if she wouldn't be allowed in normal circumstances, even now. That spark she saw in him, the stillness, buzzing microscopic near to disintegrating, the effortlessness of his unnaturalness--it could never be owned.
He stirred, and his hip tugged at the desert of cotton that had cooled in the night between them. It rippled up, taught, drawing her into the shape of him, a gestalt circle of limbs and heat and the arc of heavy eyelids. A pin prick of hall light glimmering in a wet surface. She could see the blades of his irises contract against it, immutably and richly brown even in the desaturated dark.
He didn't move, didn't change, didn't murmur, didn't weep, didn't sigh, didn't smile. He just was, as he'd always been. That was the moment in which she loved him.
“Stay with me? Sickness, health, bitter ends and all that?”
“Sure, Pet. Till death do us part.”