Authors: David Malki,Mathew Bennardo,Ryan North
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Horror, #Adult, #Dystopia, #Collections, #Philosophy
This book, unlike most others, started its life as an offhand comment made by a bright green Tyrannosaurus rex. This particular dinosaur is the main character in Ryan North’s “Dinosaur Comics,” and just a few pages ago, you saw how excited he got about his story idea.
And he was far from alone! After Ryan published the comic in which T-Rex laid out his “machine of death” concept, readers immediately began to speculate about this machine and the world it might inhabit. So we posted an open call for submissions, inviting writers to take the idea and run with it however they liked. Now, a few years later, here are thirty of our favorite submitted stories, as well as four by us, that explore that premise. It turns out that T-Rex was right: it’s a fantastic premise indeed.
Of course, some of the oldest stories in the world are about the dangers of knowing too much about the future, and a lot of these deal specifically with how people are going to die. (T-Rex would probably point out that he beat Shakespeare and the Greeks to the punch by at least 65 million years, but we’re still waiting for the dated documentary evidence to back that up.)
But the funny thing is that these kinds of stories have a way of always being compelling. If we’re honest, we’d all have to admit that we’d like to know at least some things about the future – no matter how often we say we don’t want to. Yet none of us really have any say in the matter one way or another. We will never get to stand in front of an oracle or a blood-testing machine and have to choose between knowing and not knowing.
Perhaps that’s why so many of these stories end badly for the characters who do want to know. We all want perfect knowledge of the future, but we can’t have it, so we make up stories to convince ourselves that we shouldn’t want it. Sour cosmic grapes. But don’t think for a moment that this is a book full of stories about people meeting their ironic dooms. There is some of that, of course. But many more of the stories take the premise as an invitation to explore all kinds of different and surprising worlds. All told we received 675 submissions from writers on five continents, amateurs and professionals alike, ranging across adventure, horror, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, humor—every existing genre and a few new ones as well.
You’d think that after the first 500 stories or so, we’d have seen it all. But right up until the very end of the reading period, we were still discovering gems—new insights, new characters, new worlds, new twists to the premise. As editors, our biggest challenge soon became picking stories that not only were all excellent (that was the easy part), but that also represented the true diversity of ideas and approaches that we received.
So sit back and take a moment to look over the table of contents. Start at the beginning or just pick the title that sounds most intriguing to you. Either way, there’s no telling for sure exactly what you’ll get. Prepare to have your tears jerked, your spine tingled, your funny bone tickled, your mind blown, your pulse quickened, or your heart warmed. Or better yet, simply prepare to be surprised. Because even when people do have perfect knowledge of the future, there’s no telling exactly how things will turn out.
— Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki !
The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “
AGE” or “
.” It let people know how they were going to die.
The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “
,” it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death: you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.
The realization that we could now know how we were going to die had changed the world: people became at once less fearful and more afraid. There’s no reason not to go skydiving if you know your sliver of paper says “
.” But the realization that these predictions seemed to revel in turnabout and surprise put a damper on things. It made the predictions more sinister: yes, skydiving should be safe if you were going to be buried alive, but what if you landed in a gravel pit? What if you were buried alive not in dirt but in something else? And would being caught in a collapsing building count as being buried alive? For every possibility the machine closed, it seemed to open several more, with varying degrees of plausibility.
By that time, of course, the machine had been reverse-engineered and duplicated, its internal workings being rather simple to construct. And yes, we found out that its predictions weren’t as straightforward as they seemed upon initial discovery at about the same time as everyone else did. We tested it before announcing it to the world, but testing took time—too much, since we had to wait for people to die. After four years had gone by and three people died as the machine predicted, we shipped it out the door. There were now machines in every doctor’s office and in booths at the mall. You could pay someone or you could probably get it done for free, but the result was the same no matter what machine you went to. They were, at least, consistent.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is my birthday,
birthday. The birthday everybody waits and waits for and until you get there you just hate that all your old friends already got theirs and you’re the only one without it yet, and sometimes you think
holy-freaking-eff, I’m never going to turn sixteen,
but then you do.
At first I’m afraid I won’t be able to sleep. I turn off the light, but after lying in the dark for half an hour, I turn it back on. I look at the calendar hanging on the wall above my bed. I reach up, lift it off its nail with one hand and snuggle back under the covers, taking the calendar with me and running a finger over all the red Xs marked over all the days leading up to this one. It’s a little cold out, and the last thing in the universe I want to do is catch an effing cold the week of my birthday, so I snuggle down into the warmth of my flannel sheets even more. I know there’re going to be parties this weekend, and I’m going to want to go.
This is what I’ve been waiting for all these months. All these years, I guess, though before my friends started getting theirs, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. We were all No-Knows then.
Tomorrow, I’m finally going to feel like I belong.
Tomorrow, I’m going to find out how I die.
“Carolyn! Yo, grrl, wait up!”
At the sound of my name I turn around. It’s Patrice. I can see her bounding up across the commons toward me. Her super-long hair is braided today, and as she runs it whips around at the sides of her head like two angry red snakes with ribbons tied to their tails.
“Hey, Patrice,” I say, and clutch my books closer to my chest. I try to walk a little faster, thinking maybe she’ll get the hint. She doesn’t.
“Today’s the Big Day, huh?” she says.
She turns her head away, bites her lip. “Lucky,” she says.
I shrug, speed up even more. It’s not my problem she’s one of the smartest kids in our class and they moved her up a grade, like, four years ago. It’s not my fault she’s going to be a No-Know for another whole year.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Brad Binder. He is so effing cool—a burner, they say.
, I think, and then I laugh to myself.
“What’s so funny?” asks Patrice. We’re at my locker, so I balance my books on my knee with one hand while I fumble my combo-lock with the other. I pretend I don’t hear her, but she sees me flicking sly glances in Brad Binder’s direction.
,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You can’t be serious.”
“Shhh!” I try to shut her up. I wish I had some kind of freaking super power or something. I wish I could just concentrate really hard and make her go away.
Brad Binder pulls his letter jacket out of his locker, which is so close to mine, three other girls have asked to trade lockers with me. He shrugs his perfect—so effing perfect!—shoulders into his jacket and takes out just a notebook with a pencil shoved in its rings. No computer, no books, no nothing. God, that’s so effing cool. Just like a burner.
As Brad walks away, Patrice fixes me with one of those stares of hers. “He’s not that great, you know. I heard he kisses like a dead lizard.”
, I almost say, but I stop myself. I don’t want to stoop to her level, be so childish. I’m sixteen today and after school my dad’s taking me to the mall to get that slip of paper, and then I’ll know where I really belong. So I shrug again instead, let it slide off me, like egg off Teflon. “He’s a burner,” I say. “They’re pretty cool.”
Patrice snorts. “You know what his slip said? ‘Flaming Marshmallow’. That doesn’t sound like a real burner cause-of-death to me, no matter what he says. He should probably be hanging out with the chokers, instead. You wouldn’t think he was so tough then.”
I’ve had enough of Patrice. “You wouldn’t understand,” I tell her, and walk away toward Geometry class. Maybe Cindy Marshall will be nice to me today, it being so close to me getting my c-of-d slip. Maybe I’ll end up being a crasher, like her.
I’m almost late getting to class. Mrs. Tharple looks at me extra-sour, but I don’t give a flying eff. I slide into my seat right as the bell rings, and catch Cindy Marshall’s eye. I smile.
“Don’t even look at me, you No-Know,” she says to me, low under her breath as Mrs. Tharple starts handing out our pop-quiz. The other two girls behind her snicker. I can feel their eyes darting against my skin, sharp like the teeth of weasels.
“It’s my birthday,” I say.
She turns in her seat and looks at me full-on. I try to understand the look in her eyes, but I can’t. I feel like it’s something really obvious, like she’s trying to tell me something so, so, so obvious, I should already know it.
I feel really stupid.
Mrs. Tharple walks between us, places our blank quizzes face-up on the desks in front of us, glides on by to the next row and toward the front of the room again.
I look down at my Geometry quiz, try to concentrate, try to ignore the heat in my cheeks and the tips of my ears and on the back of my neck.
“Hey, you,” hisses Cindy Marshall.