Machine of Death

Notes: That this short was rejected motivated me to write the infinitely better story, Mid-Life Crisis Syndrome, although it's funny to read about their prototype versions.

    "It's worthless!"
    "Then why are you so worried about it?"
    Some days, it just isn't worth getting out of bed. This day, more than any other, was proving to be especially bad, which did nothing to help my rocketing blood pressure. I mean, I'm not normally an overreactive person, but ever since everyone in the division had to undergo mandatory MoD testing, life became much more... well, let's just say death is really the last thing a girl wants on her mind, especially in my line of work.
    Rush wasn't helping.
    "Why did we all have to get our predictions?" I screeched at him.
    "Risk analysis."
    I had never wanted to kill my boss so badly before. "I can't believe you can be so... callous about it!"
    "Look, I understand your concern, but—"
    "Do you?" I shrieked hysterically. "Don't you realize the significance of my prediction? You know what I'm like. This is a death sentence for me!"
    He shrugged dismissively. "You don't know that. I don't know that."
    "But you're sending me with him anyway! He's the one person who—"
    "—has felt free to tell his prediction to anyone who asked. He's not the least bit worried, because all predictions are a gamble, not just yours. Think about the people who get 'TRAFFIC ACCIDENT' from their tests. Do they hole away in their homes afraid to go outside, much less into a car? Maybe, but even a strict pedestrian could get hit by a runaway vehicle. It's simply a matter of when it happens. Besides, you didn't have to learn your prediction."
    "That wasn't my choice! Your tactless lackey Crystal blurted it out in front of me!"
    "...oh." His expression remained unfazed—it was clear where I stood in the matter. "Well," he continued, "I shall have to speak to Ms. Kohr about that. If it's any consolation, though, I'll give you a considerable bonus if you make it back alive."
    I crossed my arms. "And if I don't?"
    He thought about this for a second, drumming his fingers on the arm rest. "I'll send it to your next of kin."
    My mouth fell open, aghast at his thoughtlessness. "You realize who that is, don't you?"
    That made him pause. "...I don't know what to tell you, Versa. This is a very important mission. I would sooner fire you—or fire at you—than let you simply turn down the assignment."
    "Why do you do this to me?" The pain in my head was throbbing out of control, as tightly as my teeth were grinding. Reflexively, I rubbed my jaw to ease the tension, but it didn't really help.
    Rush leaned heavily on his arm rest. "What I see is an impossible choice," he said, sounding as exasperated as I felt. "We have no other options. It's better to gamble on the prediction meaning later rather than sooner. Besides, it might not even be what you're thinking it is."
    "How could it not? There's only one possible interpretation that makes any sense in this line of work."
    "Perhaps you aren't being imaginative enough."
    I didn't answer, instead tapping my fingers angrily as I checked my watch. Imaginative enough! All that ever filled my head at night since learning my prediction was thoughts of how it would happen. I didn't have the right words to express my anger, which Rush clearly realized from my sudden silence.
    "Are you mad at me, or the prediction?"
    Right, I thought, closing my eyes. There were times when I had to remind myself what was going through the other person's head. It didn't do to go about making gross assumptions, as though my boss actually wanted me to die. This was his way of saying he understood my frustration, that he let me lash out at him yet had answered me as calmly as possible.
    "...I'm not ready to die today," I admitted, my voice trembling. It felt even worse after I said it.
    He nodded sympathetically. "It's rare when any of us are ready to die. Even without your paranoia, however, this is a life-or-death mission, and I wouldn't ask you to knowingly throw your life away if it wasn't."
    I felt deflated. "...yeah."
    Even though I looked away, I could still feel his eyes on me. "Believe me, Versa, if we had anyone else capable of the task, I wouldn't put you in this position. As it is, the two of you are the best chance we have. All of our other available operatives are on task at the scene as backup and damage control should anything go wrong. I'd send you alone, but your chances of success are much higher between the two of you."
    There wasn't anything else I could think of to say. I glanced out the window, with mixed feelings about what I would see. We had landed several minutes ago, but every minute we spent waiting was another minute closer to failure, made worse by having just now being told I would be working with... HIM. As perfectly alike as we were where it mattered, it was the extremeness of the differences between us that made working with him difficult for me—and punctuality was one of those differences.
    "Oh, if it isn't my evil twin at last," I snorted.
    The car that should have been waiting when we landed finally arrived, its passenger emerging lazily before strolling casually toward the jet. I glared as he swaggered up the steps and into the cabin as though he was the President of the Galaxy.
    "Wh'sup, Boss?" he asked. It bothered me how relaxed he could be about the situation.
    "Does Vice know what's going on?" I asked, indignant.
    "'course I do!" he retorted. "We got some... uh... terrorists doing..."
    Rush spoke on cue. "As you know, the Soviets are attempting a manned voyage to Jupiter. The launch is scheduled for twelve hours from now out of Cape Canaveral. We've received intel, however, that terrorists are planning to or have already infiltrated Kennedy Space Center and loaded nuclear warheads onto the rocket, with a high probability of redirecting the rocket to strike the White House or Pentagon."
    Vice scoffed. "What the hell? Why such a high-security target for loading nukes? It would be much easier to use a private jet!"
    "Rocket has a higher capacity. Possibly, we're dealing with copycat terrorists who just want to go out with a bang, as it were, and turn a unifying figure of the pursuit of knowledge into a divisive element of fear and hatred. However, it's difficult to tell their motive from the intel we've gotten alone."
    "Well, then! What are we waiting for?"
    "You," I sneered.
    Vice raised his hands in defeat. "Hey, there was traffic!"
    I threw something at him, but he caught it easily.
    "What's with the violence?" he complained.
    "It's your KSC uniform!" I snapped. "Put it on!"
    He looked at the tightly-pressed shirt now unfolding in his hands. I knew he wasn't one for fancy dress time, so I didn't expect him to wear it willingly. Shaking his head in annoyance, he stripped out of his Hawai'ian shirt and put on the proper one, though I noticed he didn't quite button it up correctly.
    Pleased, Rush stood, escorting us out of the plane again to the car that awaited. "I assume you've met Ms. Knight?" he asked me as we approached the driver.
    "Of course," I agreed. Jade worked at the Kennedy Space Center and was the perfect mole. "It's good to see you again."
    "Same here," she said, a hint of nervousness in her voice. I couldn't blame her, not with what was going on today.
    I leaned over, putting my hand up in mock secrecy. "He hasn't given you any trouble, has he?"
    "Vice?" she laughed. "Nah, I've got a brother just like him."
    "I'm sorry."
    At the sound of his name, Vice leaned over suspiciously. "Hey, I treated her like a lady! She's welcome to get in my pants whenever she wants!"
    "Shut it," I snapped, "or I'll tell her your real name."
    He shook his head at me disappointedly. "Man, ever since we were kids..."
    "Don't remind me."
    "Sure thing, Co—"
    Angry, I punched him before he could say anything else. If Rush or Jade were going to say anything, they didn't, for which they were saints. Eager to get the ball rolling, I got in the car and buckled up without another word. Whatever anyone said or did between then and when Jade finally drove us away I had tuned it out and couldn't recall if I tried.
    The drive from MCO to KSC was almost an hour. It put me on edge having to wait so long after waiting at the airport, but the timing made it awkward for everyone. Even so, the smarmy look on Vice's face was discomforting, and it always amazed me that he could act so blithely ignorant of the trouble we faced. I expected it came from spending so much more time in programming than in special ops. Still, it bothered me enough that I couldn't stand to look at him more than was absolutely necessary, and the passing interstate seemed spectacularly interesting by comparison.
    Something else was nagging at me, though—a feeling of something worse than a simple inability to work together civilly. I figured I might as well talk about it, to pass the time. "Hey, Vice."
    "How much stock do you put in these predictions of death?"
    He seemed not to think about it. "I think they're a crock," he said, dismissing the notion with a wave of his hand. "The machine can't possibly be right all the time. See, I knew this one crazy guy who was so determined to prove the MoD was wrong that he killed himself rather than die of the heart attack it predicted."
    "Really." I glowered at him in disbelief. "He committed suicide?"
    "By... what..." I thought for a moment, then cringed at the image that came to mind. "...stabbing himself in the chest?"
    Even without looking at him, I could feel Vice tense up. " did you know?" he asked.
    Disgusted, I groaned. "He ATTACKED his HEART? Good God."
    Vice paused and let this sink in. "Okay, okay—what about my friend's grandfather, died a few months back? 'HANGING' was his prediction, but he died from a concussion."
    "Concussion from what?"
    "Er... a huge candlestick on the wall."
    Christ, I wanted to cry. "A wall hanging?"
    My brow furrowed as I waited for the sarcastic retort that never came. The sudden silence was eerie. "Oh... crap."
    I glanced back at him out of curiosity. "What?"
    He seemed a little unnerved at this point. "All this time, I was taking these predictions at face value, you know? It seems so impossible for mine to come true—'cause you know me, right?"
    "Unfortunately," I muttered.
    "Shit! I have no idea how this'll work now! I might die today!"
    "You and me both."
    "Let's just worry about the mission right now, or more people than just the two of us are going to die today."
    Vice cringed, clearly freaking out. "I hope there aren't a whole bunch of folks in the District getting 'NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST' results."
    Now Vice was as worried about the mission as I was. Good. That made me feel better, and hopefully it would get his mind on task. Then again, every time I gained my confidence, he lost his competence...
    Maybe upsetting him like that wasn't such a good idea.
    He didn't answer, instead slumping down in his seat and nervously biting his thumb. After a while, I ventured a question.
    "I've been trying to think of..."
    Still no answer.
    " you would die from 'love.'"
    He finally looked at me, but with considerable hesitation. "It would have to be a loved one betraying me, right?"
    "If so, who is it?"
    He shook his head. "We both know each other too well. I just don't see how it could happen. There's nobody."
    It was hard to disagree that Vice certainly lived up to his name over the years and isolate us both in the process, since he flagrantly disrespected everyone yet I somehow always managed to catch the blame for things he did. Still, try as I might to save myself from his negative influence, it seemed fate kept drawing us together, and now wasn't the time to push him away. More was at stake than my own sense of well-being.
    "So, not a loved one... then it would be someone, or something, else?"
    No response this time. I found myself even more upset by his passiveness, and my tone became lecturing, trying to get a response out of him.
    "Let's say it's a certain person, loved one or not. Would it have to be that person directly causing your death, or could it be indirect."
    "I really honestly don't know, Versa," he mumbled. "This prediction business really has me freaked right now."
    That wouldn't do. I preferred not to have a worried wingman covering me. "Well, in any case, what good would it do worrying about how it happens? Nothing you do would stop it from happening."
    "...I guess."
    "So, since there's nothing to say 'YOU WILL DIE TODAY' as such, it's better to just put it out of your mind and concentrate on the task at hand, right?"
    "If you say so."
    "Damn it, Vice!" I was getting frustrated at this point—talking with him always seemed like a mistake. "I don't need you failing on me today!"
    "Hey, you're the one who brought it up!" His attitude was starting to kick in again. "I had all my confidence up until you told me the prediction wasn't what I thought it was! If anything, I think you're the one worried about dying!"
    "...and if I am?"
    He looked startled. "...really? You are?"
    I turned away hastily. Said too much, damn it!
    "You are!" he laughed reflexively. "Bitter, antisocial Versa is afraid of dying!"
    It was difficult to think that he wasn't making fun of me. "What if I am!" I snarled through clenched teeth.
    What happened next was thoroughly unexpected...
    Vice hugged me.
    "It's okay," he whispered. "We'll be alright."
    My face burned. I could only imagine what Jade thought of it, and it embarrassed me to no end.
    "Stop it," I muttered, but I couldn't exactly push him away.
    When he finally let me go, Vice had a smile on his face again. "Feel better?" he asked.
    I sat, motionless. There were so many thoughts going through my head that I couldn't make heads or tails of them. At the same time, a new thought seemed to enter his.
    "I wonder if they did get predictions from the District," he mused.
    This broke my silence. "What?"
    "I mean, if there was a huge sample of 'NUKE' or 'RADIATION POISONING' in the District, and the Machine is 100% accurate, wouldn't that make our mission worthless? Why try to fight what's going to happen anyway?"
    "I can't believe you're saying something like that!" I shouted.
    "No, wait," he interjected, "I mean, that must mean we'll succeed, right? If no one there—or anywhere, for that matter—gets anything that potentially means a lot of nuclear death, then we can't possibly fail!"
    I sat there for a minute trying to process this logic. It did seem hopeful, but...
    "The flaw in the plan," I pointed out, "is if there isn't a significant sample made, then there's no way to guarantee success or failure."
    "Perhaps we should get somebody on it to see."
    I had a worse thought come to mind. Maybe they did and don't want to tell us, because failure to act would mean failure to do our jobs, even if our failure was guaranteed anyway.
    I didn't say it, though. It had been shaping up into another of those days when every decision I made seemed to be the wrong one.
    "Great talk, Versa. I feel better already!"
    I was somewhat surprised at Jade's silence during the entire trip, but in her position I didn't expect to say much, either. Perhaps she was trying to spare me further embarrassment. I would have to thank her for that later.
    Before I'd realized it, we arrived at Kennedy Space Center. Had I really zoned out so badly? We parked close to the Launch Control Center, where Jade escorted us inside. I had always wanted to see the complex when I was younger, and it disappointed me to have to visit on such trying circumstances. Even so, I still felt myself zoning out again before reminding myself of the situation at hand.
    "Where first?" Vice asked.
    "You can monitor network activity from my office, down this run," Jade said, pointing. "They just got me a new nameplate for the door and everything."
    "Great," he said, rubbing his hands together as he disappeared around the turn. "I can't wait to get started!"
    I pondered the layout of the facility and where the shuttle hijackers might be camping out. "Where are the newcomers stationed?"
    Jade looked pensive. "The newest employees I know about are just cafeteria staff. It's early for lunch, though, so most of them would be in the break room."
    "Can you take me there?"
    "Of course."
    She led me through a set of hallways until we came to an innocuous room far from the main corridor.
    "Oops," she remarked. "Someone turned off the lights."
    I stepped inside hesitantly. "Where's the switch?"
    The door slammed behind me, literally leaving me completely in the dark as a quick jingle and click told me I was locked in. I couldn't believe I walked into such a trap—betrayed by Jade, of all people! Did my brain just spontaneously decide to go on vacation? "HOW PREDICTABLE!" I screamed at the top of my lungs, whirling around to catch the faintest bit of light. As pissed off as I was, there was no time to waste—hopefully, Vice was on the ball. I still had my phone...
    Should I call him? It seemed that, in the event he hadn't been betrayed yet, that might make Jade do something more drastic than simply lock him in a dark room. Did I even dare to rely on him anyway, with my prediction hanging over my head? If not, who else could I call that I could trust who could prove useful? Everyone else I knew was stationed as damage control just about everywhere else imaginable.
    In any case, I needed to take action. Trying desperately to relax, I nevertheless strained my eyes for close to five minutes before my night vision started to kick in, and even then it looked like there was a whole lot of nothing. Running my fingers along the wall, I felt the gritty texture of the bricks. It would be a bit of a stretch, but I could conceivably scramble up the side and try to grab ahold of the ceiling frame. The panels were the usual slide-away fiberglass insulation kind found in offices, right? I took out my cellphone and flipped it open, using the dim light from the display to illuminate the ceiling. It looked like I had a chance, albeit a slim one.
    Well, now or never.
    After pocketing my phone again, I took a running leap at the wall, kicking off wildly and grabbing at the ceiling. My first attempt failed—I punched a panel but missed the frame—and I tumbled to the floor. Cursing, I nevertheless brushed myself off to try again. Focusing on the task before me, I leapt forcefully, willing myself to reach the ceiling.
    By some miracle, I barely managed to slip my hand under the closest panel and grab onto the frame, though it was painful hanging on. It took me at least a minute to pull myself up, as weak as my grip was, but I finally had my ticket to freedom.
    ...did I?
    It was difficult remembering the layout of the center, particularly in remembering where I could safely drop back down and complete my escape. Furthermore, was I even in the Launch Control Center as Jade had claimed, or was this a different facility entirely? My memory of the complex was diminishing in my frustration, and I cursed my clouded judgment. It ws difficult to think over my heart racing from the time constraint despite struggling to calm myselfdown. Cautiously, I edged my way out of the room, careful to put as little strain on the framework as I could with the low clearance.
    After several strenuous minutes of blindly feeling my way, I heard someone speaking. Considering the circumstances, it wasn't likely to be someone I could trust. Furthermore, time was running out.
    The voice came from below. It was difficult making out the words, however. I steadied myself and leaned down to try to hear better, but it was difficult keeping my balance on the weak ceiling infrastructure.
    Two well-placed jabs shook the frame. I couldn't help it—I fell through one of the panels and tumbled to the floor. I scrambled to regain my footing, but it was too late. A pair of cuffs latched awkwardly around each of my wrists, and another pair bound my ankles before someone pushed me to the ground again. It jarred my skull trying to keep from biting my tongue on impact, and my head rang from the concussion.
    "C'mon!" one of my assailants shouted. "Aren't you carrying a piece? We need to get rid of her, quickly!"
    "In good time," mused another, gripping my face. "I need to make sure we're still in the clear."
    The voice chilled my blood, as did his touch. Despite all the kind words and reassurances, I did not in fact know him well enough at all.
    My words fell on deaf ears. It had been a joke for years that he was my evil twin, but now he was proving he actually was.
    "Why?" I growled.
    Wordlessly, he took my cellphone and flipped it open. "No outgoing calls," he reported, "and the network is still uncompromised. As long as you have scouts on the watchlist I gave you, we should be good to go." My eyes grew wide as he took out his Walther P38 and pointed it at my forehead.
    "Then do it, and let's get outta here."
    "Vice!" I screamed at him, terrified by my imminent death.
    He paused, and for a moment I dared to hope that he was reconsidering killing me. Instead, he laughed wickedly, and my heart sank.
    "You know," Vice teased, "I might've chickened out on the deal had you not gotten my courage back about my prediction."
    I stared at him, aghast. "What?"
    "You had me worried for a bit about whether I would die today, but then you also helped me get over it. I'll die when I'm ready, no sooner. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying a life of decadence with the commission I've been promised."
    My rage against him was furious. "I hope your love of money is greater than your fear of death," I spat.
    His expression grew cold. "Say that again."
    "You can't take it with you, you ass! You know every backstabber gets stabbed in the back! They'll kill you the minute they don't need you!"
    The look he gave me was indescribable. Was he so angry that his usually happy-go-lucky demeanor couldn't even process it?
    "Kill her, asshole!" the hijacker snapped impatiently. "You've got warheads to arm."
    With a swift motion, Vice turned and shot the hijacker through the chest, then turned to face me again. As quickly as my jaw dropped at the sudden twist, he doubled over, blood pouring from his stomach. In my confusion, it barely registered that a second shot had gone off.
    "Versa's right, you know," said a haunting voice. I glanced over my shoulder to see who it was but found myself staring down the barrel of a Smith & Wesson as another hijacker emerged from the adjoining hallway and kicked Vice in the side. I had expected from our intel that the hijackers couldn't possibly be mavericks from one race, carrying out the assault as a religious or political act of terrorism, but it frightened me to see that they were kids barely out of high school, except—
    "Jade..." he muttered, shuddering in pain.
    "You have a big mouth, Vice," she said coldly. "Thanks to your massive ego trying to woo me and your inability to shut up during the drive, I know how to arm the warheads. Now we're more than free to kill you and keep our money."
    "NO!" he cried.
    Unsympathetically, the hijacker raised his Beretta to finish him off.
    "This isn't how I was supposed to die!" The expression on Vice's face would have been amusing, if we hadn't been in the situation we were in. "My prediction wasn't 'SHOT BY A GODDAMNED BACKSTABBING TERRORIST'!"
    "Prediction?" the hijacker asked, eyes lighting up. "A MoD prediction? Oh, man, I'm a big fan of those! How can I help your prediction come true?"
    "You can die," Vice spat. That didn't seem to help our case, as Jade herself walked over and started kicking him as well.
    "Ask him his name," I muttered bitterly, disappointed with the turn of events. Might as well play them out, however.
    He seemed to consider this a moment. "Shuding Love."
    As the hijacker nodded, Vice's grin fell—it was strangely unsettling to see, sending shivers down my spine. In the tenseness of the moment, my eyes darted from Vice to Jade to Love.
    "So." Vice's voice was distant, as though from a faraway place. "That's it, then. My death is by LOVE..."
    Love smirked, pushing the gun dramatically against Vice's temple. "The Machine's always right," he said, cackling childishly. "Any last words before I cap you?"
    There was a moment of forced laughter from Vice as he accepted our fate, trying to regain his sense of humour one last time. "Actually, yeah... Hey, sis, what was your prediction?"
    My eyes were bottomless pits of violent hatred toward my brother. "VICE."