(This is the story I submitted when Machine of Death 2 was announced. It was rejected, and it’s not the kind of thing I can really rework to submit anywhere else. I promised I would post it here if it was rejected, and I finally decided to do just that. Hope you enjoy!)
The Machine caught his eye from the escalator, its air of neglect more compelling than a flashing neon light. He’d heard about them, of course. Everyone knew about the Machines that predicted your death—how you would die, not when. Several years ago a mad craze to know swept the world, and everyone from old age pensioners to hippies to right wing conservatives took the test. When people started to realise how vague or cryptic the predictions could be, and the ramifications of knowing, they mounted anti-Machine protests and booked hypnosis to forget their results. While not banned, the Machines eventually fell from favour, gathering dust in forgotten locations.
Steven, disoriented and lost in their new local shopping centre, noticed the Machine on his way to the jeweller. Hannah’s weakness was sapphires; as much as she hated his work, she loved her pretty rocks and he was happy to provide. A nice fat Christmas bonus meant sparkling blue stones for Hannah. His distractedness at the jeweller was taken advantage of, and he wandered back past the Machine several hundred dollars poorer, clutching a small package.
Steven stared at the piece of paper, frowning with disgust. He crumpled it and went to toss it in a bin but stopped himself. The buzzing mass of last-minute Christmas shoppers swirled around him as he smoothed it out, folded it and placed it inside his wallet. His face carefully composed, he rejoined the upstream flow that surged past the dusty Machine. He looked back at the dark corner sheltering the Machine of Death. No one so much as glanced at it.
Why did he test? A whim? Or was it a vague sense of unease related to this latest case? An underworld shooting—a high profile and morally murky case defending a paranoid lowlife named Vincent Maloney. The defendant was well-connected, fortunately. Steven had a bad feeling about Vincent, his instincts warning him the man was unhinged. The man’s notorious family was, however, prepared to pay good money for his defence.
The prediction was probably crap anyway. Machines can’t tell you how you’re going to die. Superstitious garbage.
Gritting his teeth, he headed for his car.
“You’re awfully quiet tonight.”
Steven flinched, startled from his thoughts. “Sorry love, a bit distracted.” He forced a smile at his wife. Hannah wasn’t fooled.
“What’s up?” She began to clear away their plates, watching him out of the corner of her eye.
“Difficult day.” He fought the urge to tell her more.
“Mmmhmm.” What she really meant was: If you didn’t work for criminals it wouldn’t be so tricky. He didn’t bother getting defensive, it was old territory.
His gaze lingered on her short dark hair, cropped in a pixie cut he disliked. It suited her elfin features but he much preferred her with long hair. Part of him wondered if she kept it short to punish him for using his law degree to defend ‘criminals’. Not criminals, he always argued. Innocent till proven guilty. They’re only accused of the crimes. She refused his justifications that innocent people deserved representation. He may have misled her into thinking he wanted to work for the Crown, but really, he’d thought after so many years she’d be over it.
He swallowed and realised Hannah was staring at him. “Sorry honey, did you say something?”
“I asked if you were coming to the appointment tomorrow.”
Steven glanced at the swelling of her belly and guilt made his skin prickle. “Shit, Hannah, I’m sorry. I got a call—urgent, from Vincent. I have to go in tomorrow.”
She waited a moment too long before replying. “That’s ok,” she said with a brittle smile. “I understand how much you love playing devil’s advocate.” She tried to take the bite out of her words by kissing him on the cheek.
“Devil’s advocate? Isn’t that a really bad movie?” He grinned. “From where I stand, there’s only one Devil. The rest of them are just people in various shades of grey.”
She squeezed onto his lap and snuggled back. “I know, I know.” She grabbed his arm and placed his hand gently on her belly. All seriousness, she twisted and gazed into his eyes. “This is important too, you know.”
“Nothing is more important, Hannah. I’m sorry about tomorrow.”
Her eyes softened. “I won’t pretend that I’m happy, but at least you’re no Keanu Reeves.”
Steven crept into the room, trying not to disturb Hannah. The clock on the table read nine pm; she tired so easily these days. The green glow lit her peaceful features and he stood in contemplation of his sleeping wife. Her words came back to him. You love playing devil’s advocate.
“Madness.” He exited the bedroom and went straight for his laptop, shaking his head at his folly. When the search page loaded he typed in ‘demon bargaining’. He sat with the cursor over the ‘search’ button, arguing with himself. His Catholic upbringing was deeply ingrained; he struggled with the idea of his immortal soul condemned for eternity. He thought about Hannah, tortured himself with scenarios where they killed her by accident, killed her on purpose, maimed her, raped her—his pregnant wife.
Shit, it was a long shot, but it was worth a try.
He clicked search. The Wikipedia entry came up first, but provided few details for how to actually summon a demon. The next link gave him all he needed to know.
“A crossroads, hey? Hmm.”
It was warm, one of Melbourne’s hot summer nights. The sky was clear and the moon a thin sickle hanging above his head. Steven shone his torch on the gravel, setting down his backpack. The park’s website provided a map that showed walking tracks crisscrossing in the isolated bushland. It was hard to tell in the dark but he was fairly certain this was the ‘crossroads’. He got out his hand shovel and started to dig. When the hole was large enough he placed the wooden box in it and covered it over with the freshly excavated dirt.
He sat back on his heels and shivered despite the heat, wondering how long he should wait. Already he felt foolish and melodramatic. Dismissing his actions as superstitious nonsense Steven grabbed his backpack and turned his back on the crossroads.
The voice stopped him cold. It belonged to a woman; low and melodious. He winced as he looked back.
“I hope you haven’t changed your mind. It’s been a while since I’ve—done business.”
She stood a few inches shorter than him, with hair as long and black as Hannah’s had been when they first met. Glorious, midnight hair, which swallowed the starlight instead of reflecting it, framed her pale and coldly beautiful face. Her eyes, as dark and non-reflective as her hair, regarded him with amusement.
“Steven Mossman.” She sauntered forth, a tight-fitting dress of indeterminate colour sheathing her ripe curves, a seductive smile on her full lips. In the centre of the crossroads she halted. “A successful lawyer with a beautiful wife. What could I possibly offer you?”
The surreality of his situation rendered him speechless. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his wallet.
“No, no, I take payment in a different way. Put it—“
He waved the crumpled piece of paper at her, forcing his legs to carry him closer. She took it and glanced briefly at it, before shaking her head.
“I can’t help you, Steven. The Machine is out of my jurisdiction. I can’t help you avoid your death.”
He found his voice. “I guess that strikes immortality off my wish list then.” His level tone surprised him. “I understand that you can’t stop me from dying. What I want to know is—can you change the manner of my death? Delay it?”
Her brow furrowed. “Change it? Delay it?”
He took a deep breath. “I’m worried the prediction is linked to a case I’m working on at the moment. An underworld shooting. If it could be changed to something else, like OLD AGE—“
“No. I can’t extend your life. You were stupid enough to take the test, and even though the Machine doesn’t give you a time, the time is set. As is the cause.”
“Causes are so subjective though. Open to interpretation. That was always the problem with those damn things. Can’t you bend the prediction, just a little? Surely one with your power…”
She pouted and considered him from under spiky lashes. “Mortals are so tiresome. Why does the manner of your death matter anyway?”
“I don’t want Hannah caught up in it. The underworld is—nasty.”
“Ah.” A simple twist of her lips transformed her smile into something much more sinister. “And of course poor Hannah hasn’t taken the test, so you don’t know if she is or isn’t. You think changing the manner of your death will keep the gangs away from her?”
“I have to try.”
She stared at him, sharp white teeth chewing on her full lip. “Fine. I can change the prediction. You have to retake the test though; it will only be official if you replace the prediction with another. You have until midnight.”
His sigh of relief whispered through the night. “Fantastic.”
“Steven—you understand the price? You know what I want?”
He shuddered. “I do. My soul for a better death.”
“Did we say better?”
He opened his mouth but she was gone. “Shit.”
“Come on, seriously? How is this better? It sounds like almost exactly the same thing.”
She shrugged. “You added ‘better’ in after we’d already made our deal. There are other ways to lose blood, you know.”
“If you are gaining my immortal soul, I damn well expect you to fulfil your end of the bargain. There are precedents, and I’m sure you don’t want a disgruntled lawyer loose among your souls.” He rubbed his knee, bruised from where he’d fallen in the dark after returning to the park. “Isn’t there an easier way to summon you?”
She sneered. “You waste my time. Take the test again, if you dare.” The demon raised her slender arms, a malicious gleam in her eyes. “Three wishes, how delightfully romantic. Don’t you think so, Steven?”
Only a few stragglers remained in the shopping centre to take advantage of the extended trading hours for Christmas. Steven shoved the twenty dollar note into the Machine and inserted his finger. He waited for the prick and withdrew it, sucking on the tip. The Machine whirred before spitting out a piece of paper.
“What. The. Fuck?”
The lights flickered, and one by one they switched off. The escalators ground to a standstill. Shopkeepers pulled down their shutters and locked up. The dim security lighting couldn’t penetrate the corner Steven huddled in.
“What’s the matter, Steven?”
He jumped. “How—?”
“Never mind. Just say thank you for not making you go back to the park.” She noticed his worried glance. “Oh, don’t worry. No one can see me.”
He glared at her and threw the piece of paper on the floor. “Is this a joke?”
The demon plucked the fragment of paper from the tiles and read the printed words. Her laughter echoed through him like the clarion of discordant bells. “What could be better?”
“What the fuck does it mean? A stupid quote from some dead old man, a trite bit of philosophy uttered by idiots who think they can change the world. If the Machine isn’t under your jurisdiction why does it have your sick sense of fucking humour?”
She let the paper flutter to the floor. “Third time lucky Steven. Accept your fate, and know that I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Steven, what’s this?”
Hannah handed him the piece of paper. He rubbed his grainy eyes, wishing for several hours more sleep.
“It was in the back pocket of your jeans. I wanted to do some washing before I left. Wasn’t sure if I should throw this out.” She looked at him sidelong. “Are you writing poetry now?”
His cheeks burned and he rolled out of bed. “It’s nothing. Just some motivational memo.” He tossed it in the bin before remembering that he hadn’t put it in his pocket. A sick feeling churned in his gut. He could see a solitary word peeping up at him from the crumpled paper. SWORD. It wasn’t just a bad dream then.
She hugged him from behind. “Do you really have to go in today? Would be nice for you to come.”
Steven pulled out of her embrace. “Sorry sweetheart, if I could, I would.”
“I hate you going there. Be careful.”
“Honey, they’re behind bars. I’ll be fine. I should get ready.”
He kissed her. She watched him walk into the bathroom with one hand on her rounded belly and a sad smile.
“What’s so important it couldn’t wait for my next visit Vincent? My wife is pissed that I’m missing her antenatal appointment.” He opened his briefcase and took out his notes.
Vincent stirred. “Wait till the pig goes,” he muttered. The prison guard glared but said nothing as he ushered Steven into the consultation room. Steven’s weedy client sat at a bare white table in the middle of a sparse room. Steven pulled out the chair opposite and sat down with a grunt.
“You know the drill,” the guard said to Steven. “Ten minutes.”
Steven drummed his fingers on his briefcase, waiting for the door to slam shut. “What is it?”
Vincent sat sweating and fidgeting in his chair. “I heard a rumour, yesterday. Nuthin’ definite. But I’m worried ‘bout my health.”
Steven restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “Perhaps you should see a doctor.”
“You know what I mean, man, don’t be cute.”
Steven sighed. “I’ll see what I can do about getting you moved somewhere safer. Keep your head down, okay?”
Vincent scowled. He refused to meet Steven’s gaze. “I heard somethin’ else.” He chewed on a nail, glancing up at Steven. “I kinda thought the deal would’ve been cut by now. The family, they’re wonderin’ what the hold up is.”
Steven shifted in his chair. “The prosecution think they have a good case. Right now they see no need to cut a deal. We need to find out what they want.”
His client’s voice climbed several decibels. “And meanwhile my family is payin’ you by the hour. Fuck, man, not good enough.”
Discordant bells sounded in Steven’s head. He shook his head, trying to clear the haze. “Vincent, is the family upset—“
He was knocked back by Vincent’s savage lunge across the table. His client brandished a makeshift knife, and with icy clarity Steven saw the blade embedded in a pen as he fell. Words swam before his eyes. THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD. As Vincent pounced on him Steven gripped his own pen and stabbed it into his attacker’s neck. His client fell back, clawing at the pen, a gargling scream escaping from his throat. Steven gasped in relief before registering the red hot pain lancing down his leg. He reached a hand down and felt warm liquid; he wasn’t surprised to see that his hand was covered with blood. He took a deep breath and began to recite a prayer.
“You made a bargain.”
He twisted around and saw her standing in the shadows.
Steven gritted his teeth. “This isn’t what I had in mind.”
“You humans are never satisfied.” The demon smirked. “Besides, you’re not dying, Steven. This is just a courtesy call.”
She glanced down at Vincent’s body. “Poetic inspiration. I’m impressed.”
Steven felt dizzy, heard a commotion outside the door. “I’m not dying?”
“Not yet. I’m looking forward to our rendezvous though.”
“What does it mean, then? THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD?”
She shrugged. “I agreed to change the prediction, not the manner of your death. I’ve embellished it for you. You’ll find out eventually. And then we can have a nice chat about it.”
“Hannah?” He looked at Vincent, lying still and pale. “Oh shit. His family…”
“You’re a fool. You were so obsessed with the idea that your death was entwined with her fate. You should have bargained for her safety. I promised you nothing about Hannah.”
Guards rushed to Steven’s side. He squinted at the wavering apparition no one else could see. “It was all a pointless waste of time then?” The guards stared at him in consternation.
She tilted her head and considered his stricken face. “So it seems. Not so much for me. See you soon, Steven.”