I arranged to meet with Dr. Qawi at his Cambridge apartment late the next morning.
“Welcome!” Dr. Qawi said as the door opened. “Won’t you come in? Have you had lunch yet? I could make us some tea and scones.”
Upon entering, it did not look like the kind of place in which I wanted to eat anything, especially food. More like a workshop than a place to live.
“Um, no. But thank you. Sorry that I’m late. Downtown Crossing was crawling with police, so the subway took forever. I switched to the bus instead of sitting through it.”
“That’s quite all right. I’m currently unemployed, as you know, so I have all day. Let’s talk in the living room.”
We sat on his couch, which was surprisingly new. On a low table in front of us, the Machine of Death loomed. Or so I saw it. Dr. Qawi probably saw just another black box. But to my eyes, it absorbed all the light in the room.
“Dr. Qawi, I’ve been thinking since we spoke last night, and I have an idea. But I don’t know if it’s feasible. So, the machine can see into the future, with magic or whatever.”
“It’s a simple –”
“Or whatever,” I repeated. “And right now it’s… ‘tuned’ or ‘balanced’ for future events that result in the death of the person whose blood sample it reads.”
“It is taking effort not to correct you.”
“Which is what makes it a Machine of Death. Now, you said that it used to look back, and it was a Machine of Life. Could you modify it to look at other important life events?”
“That would be considerably more difficult, since none of them are endpoints. But it should be possible, theoretically. As long as it would produce a detectable resonance in the quantum – I mean, as long as it… Well, which ones did you have in mind?”
“Can you make it,” I asked, “into a Machine of Love?”
Dr. Qawi worked for several hours. He occasionally asked for my help holding something down, but mostly I fanned away fumes from the soldering iron. When the job was done, he sat up and wiped his brow.
“All right. That ought to do it.”
“Great. So I’ll get a prediction, and it will read AMANDA WEBB. Then we’ll bring the machine to her, and… You know, I have no idea where she lives. But I’ll find her. And hers will read ERIC –”
“If it doesn’t have your name on it, all this work will have been for nothing. We need to test the modifications first. Unfortunately, all the sharps from modMatching were repossessed. But I do still have access to some of the blood samples.”
“Are they nearby?”
“They’re in the refrigerator in the kitchen.”
I stopped. And turned toward Dr. Qawi slowly.
“All right, look,” he said. “The repo men were packing up everything in sight, so I grabbed what I could. And I may only be a physicist, but even I know that you can’t just pour human blood down the sink! I was looking for a safe way to dispose of the samples, but if we can use them for science, then so much the better!”
Without further comment, I retrieved a rack of labeled test tubes from the refrigerator.
Dr. Qawi drew blood from one of the tubes into a disposable plastic pipette and dripped it carefully onto a slide. The slide went into the machine, which whirred, paused, and whirred again.
“You collected these under the guide of STD testing, right?” I asked.
“Which we also actually performed, of course.”
“But what about me?”
“Mr. Gunderson provided us with your full medical history. You… didn’t give it to him?”
“The next time I see Terry, he’s a dead man.”
The machine finished processing, and printed. Dr. Qawi tore off the result and showed it to me.
I grimaced. “Well, that’s not… wrong. But it’s not helpful. Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Not who someone should love, but who they will – or do – love.”
“It isn’t quite so exact. But I think I can make a tweak like that, yes.”
He dove in with his soldering iron, and I continued fanning. Twenty minutes later, it was time for a second trial.
“Let’s use someone else this time,” I suggested.
Pipette, tube, slide. Then into the machine, which now clicked as it whirred. After more processing than usual, the result printed. Dr. Qawi held it up.
“Huh. I think I’ve run into that person before,” I said. “But, no, this isn’t right either. Can’t you keep tweaking it?”
“I could, but I don’t think we can get it as exact as you want anytime soon. It took me months to convert it from the original Machine of Life. Besides, I ran a dating service. If I could easily have created a Machine of Love, wouldn’t I have?”
I sighed and sank back onto the sofa.
“There has to be something useful we can do with this…”
“If people won’t pay for it, then it’s not worth anything. So it’s not useful. Or so says Mr. Gunderson.”
Softening the blow.
Knowing in advance.
“Put it back the way it was,” I said. “Make it a Machine of Death again.”
“I’ll be back in an hour. Are there any drugstores nearby? I’m going to buy every sharp they have.”
It actually took two hours. But with a box full of diabetic sharps, a folding table, and a Machine of Death, Dr. Qawi and I set up shop at the Public Gardens. A long period of boredom began. Neither of us had the natural showmanship needed to draw people in.
But when a police officer passed by to make sure that our operation was aboveboard, we managed to get him to participate. Fortunately, Dr. Qawi’s phlebotomy license from modMatching was still valid.
His prediction read KIDNEY FAILURE. Nothing that was on the job, nothing that would suddenly separate him from his wife, and nothing that would keep him from collecting his full pension.
Just like that, we had a police escort.
A young woman with a dyed-blue streak in her hair: TYPE 2 DIABETES. “If you go talk to Dr. Qawi, he can teach you how to use a blood glucose monitor.”
Our one-officer escort became two. Some grateful person donated a booth-sized tent to give applicants privacy, and help us look more legitimate. I called in sick to work. We made several readings every hour.
A man in his late forties, with a thick French accent: FROGS. “No, sir, we’re laughing with you.”
People who had already gotten their predictions were now bringing their friends and family members to get their own. We periodically paid people not in line to go to drugstores and buy new sharps, which happened more and more frequently. The line became long enough to start disrupting normal Public Garden services.
A woman wearing a headscarf, with no eyebrows: PANCREATIC CANCER. “I’m… so sorry. But no matter how many times you come back, it’s going to say the same thing.”
My sick days at work ran out, and I started burning through vacation time. Even that ran out, and I just stopped answering my cell phone. Several manufacturers of diabetic sharps sent us boxes of their product. They probably hoped for promotional consideration, but I tore the logos off. Between readings, I worked on writing down what I wanted to say to Amanda if I ever saw her again. Two mounted police officers trotted up and down the line, making sure everything was OK.
A high-school aged girl, clutching her boyfriend’s hand: LIGHTLY TOASTED, BUTTER ON ONE SIDE. “Yeah, I have to admit, that one’s a real head-scratcher.”
Work had long given up on getting me to come back in. I knew that my lies were exposed after giving TV interviews, and nothing was left for me there but a pink slip. The pile of index cards on which I poured my heart out to Amanda grew. The line for readings was so long that it was more of a crowd. People were waiting more than a day to reach its front.
A hyperventilating man: LETHAL INJECTION. “I… think it malfunctioned; this one’s blank. Come back in a week. Or two.”
People brought us newspapers from all over the world, showing how they had heard of us. Dr. Qawi had become famous back in Pakistan, and people there were sending his grandparents money in the hope that it would somehow reach him. What they expected him to do without any blood samples, I did not know. I long ago gave up trying to judge how big the crowd was. I just kept giving results.
A woman in a very pretty dress, with oversized sunglasses –
“Eric, don’t read it.”
She took off her sunglasses. “It’s going to be the same as yours. And the paper said that you haven’t gotten your own prediction yet.”
“I… just never saw the point. But I’m glad that it helps other people.”
“If you keep up this pace, it will be about a million people by the end of the month.”
“Only one matters to me.”
I stood up and started reading what I had written to her.
“Amanda, you said I stole your heart –”
But she smacked the cards out of my hands.
They caught the wind and floated over to the crowd of waiting people, falling like snow. People started reading them, each seeing one sentence, one thought, one expression of the feelings that I had worked so hard to distill into words. Even though none of them knew the whole story, the pieces were enough for many to figure out what was happening.
Amanda looked me in the eyes.
“It’s not stealing if I give it to you.”
So I kissed her.
And I honestly think I managed to take myself by surprise. The crowd cheered, and for an instant – just an instant – no one cared that I was holding up the proceedings. But reality and human nature set in, and the people near the front started to press in close.
“I think they’ve been waiting for a long time,” Amanda said.
“Not as long as I have.”
Dr. Qawi rolled his eyes. “Oh, get out of here. I’ll take over. I only built the damn thing, after all.”
As soon as we walked out of the tent, Amanda and I were on our second date.
Later, a third. A fourth, a fifth…
Eventually they stopped being dates, and they became just “being together.”
And since we seemed to like it so much, we decided to be together forever.