The Vanishing Mediator

Having fun on the internet.

total eclipse

DTX, a story of the Machine of Death by Chris/0

It had been hammered into me by popular media and a certain friend that a man must wait three days – no more, no less – before calling a woman after a successful date. It was as good a guideline as any.

The first day seemed to go by in an heartbeat. The second was considerably slower, due to work. I woke up, took the subway in ate lunch, and went back home. Possibly even in that order. Little made its way into my long-term memory until about 5:30, when the phone rang. I thought it would be Amanda.

“Amanda?”

“Bar. Now.”

And Terry hung up. I swallowed my disappointment. Also, I apologized to my co-workers for jumping up and running out of a design meeting.

After work let out, I found the bar Terry meant on only my second try.

“Hey, there he is!” he shouted in greeting. “Come here and drink. I’m buying.”

“Such magical words. Don’t have to tell me twice.”

I snatched Terry’s shot out of his hand and drank it. Goldschläger, as usual. I set the glass upside-down in the bar, next to… one, two, three, four other shot glasses.

“Wow,” I said, “you aren’t messing around tonight. Something to celebrate?”

“Just the opposite! It’s a funeral. And the worst kind: A funeral for money. I pulled my investment from modMatching. They had this trial couple that they matched –”

“The Jenketts, yeah.”

“How do you know who they are?”

“Dr. Qawi told me.”

Terry ordered two more shots as he contemplated this.

“But not… everything. Right?”

“He let me skip all the paperwork, and he told me about… the machine.”

Terry threw his hands up in disgust. “Aw, that’s no fun! You were supposed to do the dexterity test, maybe take a turn in the Shouting Room, the whole shebang. Make it an experience.”

The shots arrived, and he drank his immediately.

“Terry, I know you have a high alcohol tolerance –”

“It is from fine Scandanavian blood!” he shouted with an affected – though Russian – accent.

“Sure. Still, you should slow down. Or it’ll kill you.”

“Nope! While I was waiting for the repo men, I figured I’d take that creepy machine for a whirl. Just for kicks, you know.”

Terry triumphantly reached into his breast pocket, pulling out a curled bit of paper. One that looked just like a receipt from the grocery store. Printed on it in crisp, black letters was one word.

DTX

No pronunciation I tried made sense. “What the hell does it mean?”

“Not a clue. But it doesn’t spell Goldschläger, so I’m in the clear forever. Ooh, Everclear. Now there’s a –”

“Terry, the Jenketts?”

“Right, the Jenketts. I guess I don’t need that cover story. They seemed like a perfect match. Went to high school together, were each other’s prom date, lost contact in college. Both had the same creepy prediction from that creepy machine. INFERNO.”

“That’s simple enough, as long as it’s not a disco INFERNO. Did they drown instead?”

“Nope, their house burned down this afternoon. Huge fire, took out two neighbors’ houses, too.”

“That just proves –”

“Mary died. Thomas survived.”

My jaw dropped. “Oh. Oh, shit.”

“No kidding. Something went snap in his head, and he blabbed the whole thing to the press. Guy’s tried to self-immolate twice already; he’s on suicide watch at the hospital. I pulled what was left of my investment, kicked all those… ametologists out, and started the shredders. The harder it is for the press to trace this back to me, the better.”

“You’re a monster.”

“Come on. I can’t have a business where the downside is that you might have the person you love ripped horribly from you by cruel, unforgiving Fate. That’s lousy marketing. Also, it’s how life works normally–no one would pay for it. So now I’m investing in this bar. One bottle at a time! Something good has to come out of this, geez.”

“Something good did come out of it. Something great. Did you read any of those files before you shredded them?”

He shrugged. “Of course not.”

“They matched me with someone, Terry. And she’s wonderful. She designs clothes, and she carries a parasol, and when she smiles, it… she just… Ah, I can’t even describe it. We had one date, on Saturday, but it feels like forever.”

“Well, you better hope she doesn’t read the newspaper. Because tomorrow, this story is going to be everywhere.”

“You’re right. I have to go call her right now.”

“Breaking the three-day rule, huh?”

“Shut up.”

I toasted Courage, drank my shot, and headed outside. I hoped it would be quieter. And, frankly, I didn’t want Terry eavesdropping on the conversation.

It was raining. That should have been my first clue. The universe wouldn’t pass up a chance for a dramatic environment so easily. I ducked into a doorway and tried to protect my phone from stray raindrops.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Amanda. It’s Eric. Eric from… Eric.”

“Hi, Eric.”

“I’m calling because, um… I’m calling… you.”

I realized I should have thought of what to say before pressing Send.

“They shut down modMatching,” Amanda said.

“How did you hear about that?”

“It’s on TV. And it’s on the internet.”

I silently cursed the 24-hour news cycle.

She went on. “And there’s a man in Watertown who says he knows why. His wife died. He says he was supposed to die, too. That they have a box that tells you, in advance, how you’re going to die. And they’re using it to make money, of all things. So I’m thinking, That’s crazy. It must be crazy, right?”

“Tom Jenkett is… very depressed. He just lost his wife, and his house–”

“But the press didn’t release his name, or hers. They said they specifically can’t, not until he gets out of the hospital. Because he’s on suicide watch. You stole my heart, so I kept dismissing it before… But now I’m thinking, Eric knew the whole time. But I must be crazy. Tell me I’m crazy, Eric. Did you know?”

“I…”

“Just yes or no, please.”

It was a conversational zugzwang. Lying boded poorly in the long-term, and the truth hurt the short-term. I longed simply to say nothing, but…

“Yes.”

The sound of a stifled sob, and she disconnected.

I called back, but she didn’t answer.

Not a second time.

Not a third time.

“Damn, damn, damn! I told the truth. Isn’t everything supposed to be fine if you tell the truth?”

The urge to smash my phone was strong, but I convinced myself it wouldn’t help.

I paced back and forth in the rain. I needed to fix this. There had to be a way. I needed… something.

The machine.

It could see into the future, right? So I would… I wasn’t sure yet. But there would be time for plans once I had it. And for that, I needed Dr. Qawi.

Back in the bar, Terry was nowhere to be found. I went outside again and called him.

“Gunderson VC: It’s a privilege, not a product.”

“Terry, where the hell did you go?”

“Oh, hang on.” Muffled footsteps came from the phone for a few seconds. “So, after you left, I picked up a chick.”

“Already? But I was only gone for, like, five minutes.”

“One shot, one kill. What can I say? It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m wearing enough Axe to sink a battleship, so it was probably inevitable. Man, it’s one of the ametologists. I remember her, but I don’t know if she recognizes me.”

“Great. Good for you. I need Dr. Qawi’s phone number.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll get that to you. The train’s about to arrive. Wow, she’s impatient; she wants me to stand right on the yellow line.”

“Terry, I need that now.”

“God, fine.” Tapping sounds. “Nope, sorry. I looked through all the Ks in my contacts, and I didn’t see it. I’ll talk to you later!”

“His name,” I said through gritted teeth, “begins with Q. You wrote it down for me.”

“The train’s right here, and– That’s weird, she doesn’t look impatient anymore. Still, can’t I give it to you in the morning?”

“Dammit, Terry, quit screwing around and give me his phone number!”

A pause from the other end of the line.

“Wow. It’s not like you to shout.”

“Look, it’s just… You have all night together. You can be one train late. Help me out, will you?”

“This girl, she’s really something, huh?”

“She really is.”

“And it’s all because of me.”

“That’s… Sure, OK.”

“An accomplishment like that, I can take to my grave. Well, the train’s already left, so…”

Terry mumbled and tapped for a while, then my phone buzzed with a new e-mail notification.

“Did that make it through?” Terry asked. “I’m at Downtown Crossing; the data reception’s lousy.”

“No, I got it. Thanks. Sorry to steal your time like this.”

“It’s not stealing if I give it to you. And you’re right, it’s just one train. I wasn’t thinking. Or, I was thinking, just with my– Anyway, it’s OK if she’s angry. I love aggression.”

“Just go get laid.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice. Check you later, man.”

“Later.”