"This is unprecedented," the doctor exclaimed. His mouth was agape, which is almost never a good thing.
I steeled myself for the inevitable. The doctor would reveal some horrendous and novel way in which I would meet my demise. At least he wasn't repressing laughter. But the silence was uncomfortable, undercut as it was by the drone of the office air conditioning. "Don't leave me hanging." No pun intended.
The doctor headed over to the machine. "One of the nurses must've affected the calibration. I'm afraid you'll have to come back, Mr. Kaniki." Distressedly, he was tweaking knobs and dials, probably not improving things much.
"Come back? Why? What did it say?" I asked cagily.
"Nothing," he said, almost dismissively. Reading my disbelief, he showed me the Paper. "Literally nothing. It's blank. I'll have to have a technician come in and do some repair work. Make a follow-up appointment with the receptionist on your way out." His back was to me, at the machine again. I wondered, idly, if this would cost him any business. Probably not enough to make him miss a payment on his German sportscar, but oh well. I kidded myself that I'd beaten Death; well, its Machine, anyway.
* * *
Three weeks later, I was back in the office. We bypassed the physical and got straight to The Machine. And the result was the same. This time, it was less than a week before I was back, and there was a technician in attendance. This time, it was the technician's turn to be baffled. Both he and the doctor had tested themselves before me, and then again after, and then again after I was tested again. Each time, the result was identical. Theirs matched their existing Papers, and mine was blank.
My physician's disposition had changed somewhat; it seemed like he now felt he was on the way to publishing a remarkable discovery. The Machine wasn't that old, but it was in fairly widespread use by now, and nothing like this had been recorded. For my doctor, this spelled opportunity, in the form of a chance to get out of private practice, possibly into a cushy staff position sinecure somewhere, with quiet afternoons of golfing and loud evenings with women half his age. So he was hesitant, but eventually decided to get a second opinion, as it were, from a friend on staff at a hospital. And so it was that I found myself connected to a triple-redundant, industrial version of The Machine. I was amazed at the size of it. The expense could probably have run the smaller hospital on the poor side of town for a month. But people had to know how they were going to die, didn't they? Thinking about all the lives that could've been saved, I secretly hoped I'd break the machine. Immature, I know, but I had started to resent what it seemed I'd been dragged into.
I almost got my wish, sorta. Supposedly, they brought in a team of experts, including one of the inventors, to disassemble the machine and reassemble it piece by piece. Electronic vivisection and disembowelment. I wouldn't know. After that day's battery of tests, I asked for my Paper and left. I never looked back.
* * *
I said nothing to anyone, at first. I didn't know how I felt about having the only blank Paper in the world; or hell, what it even meant. But, of course, conversation at parties is often hungry for interesting stories, and has a nose for secrets. Rodney Turnbull had broken out his paper, and the gang was discussing his rather unusual pronouncement. "It says: 'THE OLD ADAGE', I kid you not."
"Are you sure it's not 'OLD AGE'? Let me see." Rod handed his slip of Paper to Ada. "Huh, 'THE OLD ADAGE', plain as day! What do you suppose it means?"
Rodney was a storyteller, and this was his cue. "Naturally, I've thought extensively about this. It could be anything from: 'A penny saved is a penny earned' to 'Meddle not in the affairs of dragons'."
Shirley seized upon the group's attention. "I had a cousin whose Paper said: 'SAY NO TO DRUGS'. He was a real straightlaced kid, never touched the stuff. Then one day, he was walking down a city sidewalk when a billboard fell on him," she offered.
There was a pause; Shirley was not the storyteller Rod was. Rod had an innate sense of narrative flow, and he probably would have supplied the prod if not nursing his stolen thunder. So it fell to me. "I fail to see the connection."
"That's just it," Shirley said, as if the answer were obvious. "The billboard said: 'SAY NO TO DRUGS'. Isn't that crazy?" We all agreed that it was, but then, events like this had become commonplace nowadays. To break the silence, Shirley returned to me. "What about you, Kal? Did you finally get your reading?" I immediately saw that I should not have spoken up.
It might've been the alcohol, or it might have been a certain smugness bubbling up in me, but I was filled with an abnormal sense of bravado that evening. Instead of deferring, as I normally do, I muttered, "Yeah." I was tired of being ostracized for not having a stupid reading done. I wanted to show them how stupid their Machine was. It didn't even work for me.
Rod, eager to get back to talking about the scenarios he'd prepared in anticipation of this evening, cajoled me. "Spit it out!"
Looking at the attendant faces, I turned over in my head what I should say, or how I would explain, or how they would react. I was not entirely sure this was a good idea. "'S blank," is all I managed.
"What?" I didn't see who'd asked the question; I wasn't looking. It seemed like a collective gasp of disbelief from the group.
"I said, it's blank."
"Bulls—" I had the Paper out and in Rodney's immediate field of vision before he could finish his sentence. Stupid bravado. He seized it, examining front and back.
"Let me see!" begged Shirley. "Kal, you kidder! This has to be fake. Where's your real reading?"
"That's it. Tested umpteen times on machines with triple redundancies built in. Each and every reading I've got agrees." I spoke frankly; fortunately, I was too tired to maintain the smugness.
Ada had the Paper now. "They print these on special paper, so that they keep; since so many people carry theirs around and break them out at social occasions." She was surreptitiously glaring at Rodney. "This is the real deal, alright. The Paper, at least. The reading could be a joke." Now her gaze was trained on me. "So which is it, Kal?"
"It's real. I have beaten Death. Or it's dumb little Machine, at least," I half-joked. The attention of the room was getting uncomfortable.
Rodney wasn't satisfied, either with my reading or with the way the evening was shaping up. "I still call bullshit. I have got to give you credit, though, you certainly know how to stage a prank!" His smile was genuine. He might've been jealous of the attention I was getting, but he was equal parts jealous he hadn't had come up with the idea first. The idea which I did not actually come up with.
Regardless, I wasn't looking to fight with them, and I certainly didn't want to be the focus of conversation for a minute longer. So I was glad when Ada handed my Paper back to me and started to talk about some famous hoaxes. I made myself as small as possible for the rest of the evening. At least I hadn't lost any friends. I aimed to keep it that way.
* * *
We went out to a movie the next Friday; Rodney, Ada, and I. Shirley almost always had a date Friday nights, so it wasn't unusual for it to be just the three of us. It also wasn't unusual for us to find ourselves at a diner on the far side of midnight. We liked it best when the place had largely cleared out. Just us and the other freaks, subverting cultural norms one vanilla milkshake at a time.
It'd been Rod's night to pick this week, so we'd seen an action-thriller. Those kinds of movies always got Rod worked up, and tonight was no exception. He was bouncing through the plot of the latest thriller he was writing. As I said, Rod is a storyteller. Ada and I were engrossed in his retelling, because Rod always had good ideas. I think he'd sell more stories, though, if he was better at tying them together; especially if he used characters that were more than 2-dimensional to do it. He probably would've been better off with a one-man stage show, if he weren't the type to get bored with telling the same story twice.
He wrapped up his tale and gave us his "whaddaya think?" Ada, who was sipping a delicious milkshake at that moment, clapped her hands together with a careful enthusiasm, so as not to break contact with her straw. She gave an emphatic "Mmm mm!" to show her support. I myself was pretty impressed. "Damn, Rod, that's probably your best one yet. Tell me you're going to publish it."
Rod had stretched his legs out over his half of the booth, his back against the diner wall. He put his arm over the back of the seat, and said cooly, "Nah, I'm already working on a better one."
Ada, taking a momentary break to stir her shake with its straw, asked him, "Oh, c'mon, Rod. What could be better than that?"
"Yeah, please tell me what tale you're working on next." I'd been convinced his last idea was a once-in-a-lifetime, even for him. Nobody's that creative.
"Yours." He let the word sit on the air as his eyes fixed on me. And, of course, it fell at one of those odd moments when everything in the diner seemed to silence at once.
"What are you talking about, man? There's nothing interesting about me."
"Your Slip. Your Paper."
"Hey, keep a lid on that noise," I hissed. I hadn't forgotten my black mark, the white Slip; but I'd hoped my friends had.
Rod swung his legs down so that he was now facing us. He leaned in close to me; his face, his eyes alight. "Kal, I've been thinking." Never a good thing. "What if the machine was not broken? What if you're not a special case? What if the machine was right?"
"What, like I'm going to die in the empty void of space?"
"Maybe. But maybe it's blank. Maybe you're not going to die."
Ada's jaw dropped at this point, causing the straw that had been stuck to her bottom lip to fall onto the table. She had that look on her face; the one that signifies the manifold gears that are always turning in her head had clicked on something.
Rod hadn't noticed her, though. He continued, intently, in a low whisper: "What if you're immortal?"
"Ok, mister smarty, now who's bullshitting who?"
Ada by now had had time to articulate the thought percolating in her brain. "That's interesting, Rod. It makes me think of Greek mythology. In certain interpretations, the gods and demigods and so on were not immortal in some superheroic sense, but rather… I think the phrase was 'fated not to die'."
I turned to Ada, incredulous. "Ok, Rod, I can understand. He's merely using me for inspiration for his next story. But you actually sound like you believe it."
"It's a thought worth entertaining."
Entertainment and hypotheticals were both Rod's sphere. "It's not too far-fetched," he offered. "I mean, the only way you'd know, realistically, if you were immortal is to try to kill yourself and fail. I mean, assuming your Paper is right, which every single reading from the Machine has been since its inception, all you really know is that you're not going to die. It says nothing about papercuts, or stubbed toes, or burning your hand on the stove. But, fuck, man. If it's right, that's a hell of a responsibility."
"What do you mean, responsibility? You guys are freaking me out. Six days ago you were laughing at me and accusing me of pranking you, now you want to tell me you believe this nonsense? And to what end? For me to kill myself trying to verify some stupid, wasteful device that does nothing but invent new ways for the middle and upper classes to worry?" Seriously, if Ada wasn't sitting on the outside end of the booth, I would have left right there.
Ada, sensing my tension, tried to soothe me. "Kal, relax. No one's suggesting you kill yourself. But if I read Rod right, and I usually do, I think he's suggesting you put your… power, your reading, whatever it is, to use."
"If you can't die, man, think of what you can do. You can walk into a burning building and save a family." I'd never seen Rod so sincere, concerned, or earnest before. It was scaring me.
I considered. "Yeah, but maybe the Paper just means I'm going to die in a white-hot blaze inside that same burning building. Or maybe I'll be maimed by a falling beam, crippled for the rest of my life." But damn him, did he raise a good point. This was no mere story; this was human life.
"That's the chance you've got to take." It was not so much a sentence as a gauntlet.
* * *
Later that week, I was walking to lunch with Ada. I work for a hospital, fundraising; while she is a programmer (she objects to the term "code monkey", except when self-applied) for a large medical billing firm. So it turns out we work fairly close to one another, in a busy section of downtown, and it's not uncommon for us to do a meet-and-eat on the main promenade together.
We picked a small sandwich shop with tables on the sidewalk. It was a nice day, and we aimed to take full advantage of the sunlight and the cool breeze. We got seated with our orders and proceeded to eat in hungry silence. Ada kept looking at me as if she expected me to start up a conversation. "Nice weather, eh? I heard it's supposed to stay this way all week." She wasn't biting. "What'd you get?"
"Just a plain ol' pastrami on rye. You?"
"Turkey, bacon and cheddar." More silence. She was avoiding eye contact with me, so I asked her straight out, "What's up? Talk to me."
She looked down, counting the pores in her sandwich bread. "I'm sorry. I know it's not my place, but I just can't stop thinking about it."
"I guess I'm going to have to deal with this sooner or later, right?" I flicked a potato chip across at her, and she looked up, startled.
"You're not still mad?"
I took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't know. I don't know. I…" Now it was my turn to inspect the poppy seeds on my roll. "I've been thinking about this. Since before I told you guys. About what it all means, about life and the value of it." I looked up at her face, trying to read her. "I've got something special, something mankind has lost in recent years. I'm free. My ending hasn't been written yet. Or if it has, it's something utterly beyond comprehension."
"Yes, but it's like you said. There's no way to be sure what it means."
"Maybe that’s the chance I have to take. I mean, even if it's like I said, if I'm destined to die in the void of space, or maybe struck by lightning—"
"Or launched into the heart of the sun!" She put her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. "Sorry," she said, not entirely so.
"Yeah, yeah. Or if I go out in a white-hot blaze saving some family from their house burning down, at least it'll be a blaze of glory. But whatever happens, I'll face it with eyes wide open; not cowering in a corner with my Paper in hand, pissing myself at the irony of it all. All the Machine has given us so far is a new way to be afraid. Or maybe that's all we've taken from it, so far. But we've already seen time and time again how there's no way to avoid it. So nothing's changed, except for that last minute realization of 'so this is how it's going down'. But the stakes are the same. If nothing else, maybe I can show people what that means."
On the way back to our offices, there was a screech of tires and several screams cut the air. Up the hill from where we were, a bright white bus was swerving erratically downhill. "The brakes are out," Ada breathed.
"See you in the hospital," was all I had time to say as I ran out into the intersection to sweep a dumbstruck kid out of the way of the oncoming vehicle.