For those of you too lazy to click on the link (most of you), know that the premise of the competition is that a machine is invented that can tell you with exact certainty how you will die, but not where or when. I hope you enjoy the story -- I am not a professional writer by any means, but I think this one turned out okay.
EDIT: Blogger is playing havok with my formatting. It should still be fine to read, but ignore the full width black lines that I can't make go away and that are cutting through one of my paragraphs. The short lines are supposed to be there.
EDIT 2: Please don't steal my story! :)
Katherine O'Connor leaned across the table, whispering in spite of the hum of conversation that filled the auditorium. “Keith!”
“What?” Her colleague was flicking through slides on his laptop.
“I hate giving these public talks.”
“You'll be fine, Katie. You know the process inside and out . . . it doesn't matter that James isn't here.”
“I know. It's just that he's so much better at this.”
“At . . . talking to people. Making them laugh. He's always so relaxed . . . I don't know how he does it.”
Keith touched her elbow. “Relax. It'll be fine. Besides, they're a bunch of academics, the more boring you are the more they'll feel at home.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks. That's SO encouraging.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I'll be here making funny faces at you the entire time. Like this --”
“Stop! Ha – stop it – haha!”
Keith had crossed his eyes and was waggling his tongue around. Katherine pulled away from him, trying to keep a laugh held back behind her hand.
“Look, just keep the slides moving, okay? Oh, bloody hell, it's time already, isn't it?”
Keith nodded. “Go get 'em, girl.” He winked, rolling his left eye around in its socket.
“Gross!” She smiled before moving to the podium.
The amphitheater was filled nearly to capacity. Row after row of faces turned to look at her as she approached the microphone. The expectant chatter gradually died away
even before she reached the stand.
“Good--” her voice was unexpectedly loud in the sudden silence. Katherine swallowed and began again. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank you all for coming here today. My name is Katherine O'Connor, and it is my honor to--” she shifted her note cards, “-- to present the Dr. James Leder's findings to the university. Unfortunately Dr. Leder himself could not be here today, as he has been unexpectedly detained by his work. I will be assisted by Keith Owens, my fellow doctoral candidate and the third member of Dr. Leder's team.”
Keith turned and waved to the assembled professors. “Howdy, folks.”
Katherine cleared her throat before moving to her third note card. “But before I begin outlining the results of the Dr. Leder's project, a bit of history is needed. I'm sure you've all heard of the Fatality Diagnostic Device, more commonly known as the Machine of Death.”
A brief murmur swept through the audience, and many heads nodded.
“The device was invented early in the twenty-first century, the byproduct of larger, failed work in experimental blood testing. By taking a tiny blood sample, it could predict with exact accuracy the cause of a patient's death before it happened, although not the time or place. Or that was the theory, at least.”
Next slide. A picture of twelve smiling scientists wave at the camera.
“The team that invented the machine was the first to test it, of course. Every single one of them drew 'suicide.' No fault could be found with the machine, but it was
dismissed as a failure and mothballed.”
Next slide. A newspaper headline reads, “Scientist Commits Suicide: Machine to Blame?”
“The Machine of Death was forgotten about until twelve years later, when the team's leader committed suicide. His death was followed quickly by several others on the team. The last surviving member of the team was found dead three years ago in a federal mental institution.”
Next slide. A circular flowchart.
“The use of the machine on living subjects was promptly banned, of course, by nearly every nation in the world. The deaths remain a mystery, but it is thought that knowing how one will die is too much for the mind to handle, resulting in untreatable insanity and eventual suicide – a self-fulfilling prophecy. The machine has since faded into obscurity as nothing more than a morbid footnote in history – until now.”
Next slide. A picture of a young James Leder kneeling in the dirt in the mountains.
“Dr. Leder stumbled across his idea while working in the burial mounds of Macchu Picchu. Use of the machine on the living was of course strictly prohibited . . . but could hardly be expected to harm those already dead.”
A grinning skeleton took the place of the previous slide, giving a bony thumbs up, and the audience laughed. Katherine shook her head at Dr. Leder's grim sense of humor before switching to her next card.
“But the machine requires a blood sample to function correctly, and except in cases of the very recently deceased blood is impossible to find. Dr. Leder's key breakthrough was the blood synthesis process, where a tiny sample of the subject's DNA is introduced into donor plasma via a specially engineered virus. The machine can then read this sample as if it was the victim's own.”
Next slide. A list of applications appears; archaeology and law enforcement are two of the entries.
“This breakthrough has many implications for Dr. Leder's home field of archeology. Our current work has been focused on proving the technology's reliability in the field. Dr. Leder has been working alongside Dr. Armstrong's team in Virginia, performing a parallel analysis of corpsesfrom the American Civil War. If the machine can produce identical results as Dr. Armstrong's team, we will have added a new and powerful tool to the archaeologist's –”
Katherine looked up, startled. There was a raised hand at the back of the auditorium.
“Questions will be taken at the end, please.” She looked back at her cards and tried to focus. “. . . new and powerful –”
“Ms. O'Connor, what of the rumors that Dr. Leder has gone missing?”
Katherine looked up again. A tall man in a gray overcoat was standing now in the very top row, pencil and pad of paper in his hands.
“James is – Dr. Leder is – alive and well, thank you very much, just very busy.”
“So busy that he's missed every single speaking commitment he's had for the past two weeks?”
“I – I – but . . .”
Keith stood up. “Dr. Leder is engaged in very serious, time sensitive research. Any inquiries regarding his whereabouts should be directed to the university. Now, if you don't mind, this is supposed to be a scientific lecture, not a press conference.”
The sea of faces turned back to the reporter. He opened his mouth again for a moment, before shrugging and flipping his notebook shut. A few seconds later the door swished shut behind him.
Keith turned back to Katherine with a smile. “Now then, Katie, where were we?”
“Oh, god, Keith, it was a disaster!”
“Calm down, Katie. There's nothing to worry about.” He waved to the bartender for another two pints.
Katherine was holding her face in her hands. “Yes, there is! There are lots of things to worry about!”
Keith took one of the mugs, pushing the other across the oaken bar towards Katherine. “Here. Take this, it will help.”
She peeked through her fingers at the beer. “Keith . . .”
“You're not understanding how this works very well, are you? Here--” he took one of her hands from her face and wrapped the fingers around the glass handle. “Next, you open your mouth. Eventually we're going to start putting the beer in it.”
Katherine looked at the beer for a second, finally cracking a smile and turning away from him. “Dammit, Keith.” She took a swig before turning back to him. “But admit it, we've got problems.”
He turned to his own beer. “You know, technically, he might not be missing. Maybe he just felt like taking a vacation”
“For two weeks? Without telling us? Keith, James is gone. Gone! How much longer can we keep it a secret?”
“Only a little longer, Katie. We only need a little more time to finish the project. You know what
will happen as soon as the university finds out that he's missing, the whole thing will go up in smoke! All of our work, all of our samples . . .”
“They'll find out eventually anyway, and then it won't matter.”
“Not if we have data to give them. Good, solid data – it will speak for itself. They won't be able to ignore it. You know just as well as I that we're the brains behind this project.”
Katherine shook her head, but Keith kept going.
“Listen, James is a great guy for getting funding and talking to the board and all that people stuff. There's no way that we'd have even got off the ground without him,
but he doesn't have the smarts for this sort of thing. Your virus was genius, Katie, pure genius, and you deserve to get recognized for it. Not to mention that I'm pretty much a prodigy at getting bones out of the ground and into the right order, if I may say so myself.
Katherine broke in. “Keith, what if he's hurt? What if he's been kidnapped?”
“Katie, James is a grown man. If he wants to leave for a little while and blow off some steam, we should let him. He's got no wife, no kids; this project was his life. Even
if he was in trouble, he'd want us to finish it.”
“We've got to tell somebody.”
“And we will, soon! But we're so close. Another four days – maybe three, right?”
Katherine sipped her beer. “We ARE pretty close . . .”
“So let's finish his work, and then we'll talk to the authorities, okay? It's what James would want.”
“I guess you're right.” Katherine finished off her beer and stood up. “On that note, I'm headed back to the lab.”
“Now?” Keith was taken aback. “I was about to order another round . . . come on, you know you want one . . .” He grinned and pulled playfully on her hand.
She tried to pull away for a moment. “Keith . . .”
“Two more!” he called out to the bartender before turning back to her. “There's no way those samples are done yet anyway.”
“One more Keith, ONE, and I mean it.” She sat back down.
It took her two tries to key in her password on the lab's electronic lock. One more had turned into several more, of course. She'd only been able to coax Keith out of the pub by promising to go straight back to her apartment and not to the lab. He had walked her home to make sure.
Arriving at her door, she'd turned around only to find him standing much too close to her with his arm around her waist. They'd stood that way for a long moment before she'd ducked under his chin and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Keith,” she'd said, before pulling away and slipping inside.
She smiled to herself. The cheeky rascal . . . maybe some other night, but not right now. She had too much on her mind.
On her second try the keypad blinked green and let her in. She shut the door behind her, breathing in the comfortable smell of warm electronics. Server towers lined either
wall, humming quietly, while the rest of the lab sat in silence.
Katherine left the lights off, turning on only her own desk lamp. An animated waterfall disappeared from her computer monitor as she flicked the mouse. “Oops--” she sat heavily. “A bit too much beer, there, Kate.”
Her eyes scanned over the batches of samples that were running in the incubator. Sealed in the warming chambers were trays of tiny plastic capsules, each filled with a few drops of blood and the virus containing the DNA of a civil war soldier. Because Dr. Heder's method only required a tiny sample, they'd left the bulk of the remains in Virginia for Dr. Armstrong's team to study.
The virus required heat to work, but the blood would become unusable after too long in the incubator. This had been the trickiest part of the process to perfect.
Three trays blinked on her monitor, ready for testing.
Still a little unsteady on her feet, Katherine made her way to the incubator grid. She checked the
numbers on the trays and pulled out the first, laying it down on the testing table. The device (Keith had scrawled “Machine of DEATH” on the side in grease pencil, along with a skull and crossbones) was quite small and was mounted to a spring loaded arm over the table. A
sharp needle pointed down from the black box, while a cord ran back from the device to a receipt printer that had been rigged to print the results on a small strips of paper.
Securing the first tray, Katherine grabbed hold of the device. She plunged the needle into the first capsule with practiced care and waited for the machine to do its work. After a few seconds there was a brief buzz and a bit of paper spat out of the printer.
She tore it off. There was a garbled mess of numbers and letters. “Damn. Another spoiled batch.” The next capsule produced the same result, and the next. The entire tray was spoiled.
So was the second tray. She kept working through them, just to make sure.
Finally she reached the last capsule on the third tray. The needle bit into the capsule; the printer buzzed. She looked at the strip of paper and was startled to find:
“What?” She turned the paper over, almost expecting to find something else printed on the back. She closed her eyes and opened them again. The words stared back at her from the printed slip.
“It's got to be an error.” She looked at the capsule. “All the rest were ruined . . . I bet this one just got scrambled. Still . . . I'll run it again.”
Katherine retrieved her keys from her desk to open the sample cabinet. Reading the number of the anomalous result from the tray, she began digging through the containers of bone dust. “889 . . . 890 . . . 891 . . . ah, 892.”
Snapping on a pair of latex gloves, she removed the small plastic vial and unscrewed the lid, only to find –
“Empty? That's weird.”
The container was totally empty. She opened number 891 and 893, but they were both still nearly full. It was only container 892 that was empty. “That's odd.”
She sat down again at her desk, peeling off the gloves. After thinking for a moment, she penned a quick email to Dr. Armstrong explaining the odd result and asking for another sample from subject 892. She CC: ed Keith, and then locked up the lab and headed home. Her bedside clock read 4:17am when she finally collapsed on her pillow.
Katherine awoke to the persistent chime of her cell phone. Opening one eye, she saw that her clock now read 9:24am. The phone was somewhere on the floor, along with her pants . . . she reached one foot down off the bed, wincing at the throbbing pain in her temples.
“Ooooooh . . . too much beer, Kate, too much beer.”
The phone was deep in her jeans pocket; Katherine got it right as the call went to voicemail. A few moments later it pinged and was silent.
Katherine called her voicemail and turned on speaker phone as she staggered to the bathroom. There were two new messages – the first call hadn't woken her up. A woman's voice greeted her first.
“Katherine, this is Dr. Armstrong. I got your email this morning, and I wanted to call you back because 892 is missing. I'll call you if we find him.”
“Missing, huh?” Katherine paused in the middle of brushing her teeth. She could feel the haze in her mind begin to clear. “That's weird.”
The second message was Keith. Katherine smiled when she heard his voice.
“Hey, Katie girl, good morning! I don't know what to tell you about 892, it's probably just a glitch. We'll check it out today. I'm at the lab already, I'll be by around ten to pick you up.”
“Ten! Argh, you energetic bastard . . . and you had more to drink than me, too.” Katherine twisted the shower knob.
Half an hour later, there was a single beep from the street below her apartment. She slid into the passenger seat of Keith's car, half a banana still in her hand.
“You know, you're not very good at listening sometimes.” Keith was smiling.
“I gave you explicit instructions to avoid the lab last night, and where'd you end up?”
“Maybe I was just feeling contrary.”
Keith laughed, a single short monosyllable. “Ha! That's for sure.”
Katherine raised an eyebrow at him, but he didn't look back at her. “I heard from Armstrong.”
“She can't find 892 either.”
“Really?” Keith turned to her for a second. “That's strange.”
“Yeah. She said she'd keep looking, though.”
“Well, I hope she finds him. Automatic handgun . . .” He shook his head. “It doesn't make any sense.”
Katherine was sitting at her computer later that day when her cell phone rang again. She called over to Keith. “It's Armstrong!” before answering.
“Hey, Katherine, this is Armstrong. Are you at the lab?”
“Yeah. Keith's here too.”
Katherine stole a glance at Keith before answering. He sidled up beside her from the other side of the room. “He's out, but he'll be back soon.”
“Mmm. Well, I'm sure you'll both want to know that we found 892.”
“Really?!?” Katherine leaned forward in her chair. “Mind if I put you on speaker?”
“Sure.” Katherine tapped her phone and set in on the desk. “Hi, Keith.”
“Hey, Doc. What'd you find?”
“We found 892 . . . somebody had moved him a couple days ago, I don't know how we missed it. Anyway, that's not the big news. The big news is that he's not civil war – he's modern.”
“Somebody's dressed him up pretty well . . . on the outside he looks just like the others, but when we dug into the femur to get your new sample, we found fresh bone. I don't know how we missed it the first time.”
“How did – automatic handgun – do you think . . . ?” Katherine couldn't finish her thought.
“I've contacted the police. They've blocked off the whole area, but I need to ask you a favor.”
“Uh . . . sure.” Katherine was still wrapping her head around what Armstrong had told her.
“Katherine, can you bring the machine here to Virginia? If you show the authorities Dr. Leder's process, maybe we can use it confirm the murder weapon. It would be a great chance to prove his process in the field.”
“I'd be happy to do it, Doctor Armstrong,” said Keith.
“Thanks Keith, but I'd rather have Katherine, since she did most of the work on the virus. Can you make it by tomorrow?”
“Uh, yeah, sure – I'll leave tonight.”
“Thanks, Katherine. Listen, I've got to go, there are police everywhere--”
“Not a problem, doctor, I'll see you tomorrow.”
Katherine turned to Keith. “I don't believe it – a murder?”
Keith shook his head. “I hope not. That's not exactly what we had in mind when we started this.”
“Are you okay to finish things here without me?”
“I think so . . . we're almost done, right? Just data entry at this point, really. Should be a piece of cake. Although if you have to take the machine with you --”
“I'll take the spare, don't worry.”
A beep sounded from Keith's terminal. “Hold on, I'll be right back.”
Katherine's terminal chimed as well. Turning to the screen, she could see that she'd gotten an email from Doctor Armstrong. It read:
Here's the info on 892 that I got before the police took custody of the remains. I thought you might find it interesting.”
Attached were several images and data files. 892 was a Caucasian male, around five foot, ten inches tall. He had been in his late fifties at the time of death –
“Ha, James is fifty seven, wouldn't it be funny if--” Katherine's breath caught in her through. What if . . . no, there's no way. It couldn't be . . .
She scrolled through the documents, eyes darting from entry to entry. Finally she came across another note: “Subject was developing arthritis in both hands.”
She looked sideways at James' desk, vacant now for over two weeks. He'd been complaining about his fingers for a while before his disappearance . . . there was a nearly empty bottle of aspirins sitting on the tabletop.
Katherine turned back to the computer, heart racing. If that WAS James in the grave, he'd been shot. Murdered! But how? And who? Who could have disguised the body as a soldier, buried for almost two hundred years? And who could have broken into the lab and stolen the rest of the sample? For that matter, who even knew the details of what they were doing here?
The answer came to her in a flash. “Oh, no. No, no, no, no . . .”
Keith, the brilliant archeologist, always piecing together ancient skeletons from bits and pieces of shattered bones. Keith, the only one besides her and James to have access to the lab. Keith, who had been urging her to keep quiet about James' disappearance all this time.
Finally, at the bottom of the email, she read one final note from Dr. Armstrong. “Oh, and I sent this to Keith too. Let me know if he got it all right.”
Katherine's blood went cold. She stole a look at Keith's desk out of the corner of her eye. He was reading, expressionless.
“No, it can't be him, it can't be.”
But who else could it have been? Even if the body wasn't James, who else had the technological know-how and access to the equipment to pull it off?
“Okay, if it WAS him, what do I do?” Katherine looked around. “If Armstrong sent him this email, then he knows that I know. I have to get out of--”
A hand on her shoulder made Katherine jump nearly out of her chair.
“Whoa, Katie, did I scare you?” Keith was standing right behind her chair.
“Ha, no, of course not. I guess I'm
just a little on edge.”
“Can't say I blame you.” Keith removed his hand. “Anyway, I'm headed to get some lunch. You want some?”
“No – no, I'm alright, thanks.”
“Are you sure? Chinese?” Keith added the last word in a sing-song voice.
“No, I'm . . . packed my own.”
“Well, it's your loss. I'll be back in a bit.”
The door clicked shut, leaving Katherine alone. She looked around the lab once before shaking her head. “This is crazy. Keith didn't kill anybody.” She sat for a moment longer without moving before getting up and walking to Keith's terminal.
It was still logged on, but the screen had gone blank. She reached for the mouse, hesitating for a moment. Finally she pushed it. The screen blinked on, revealing Dr. Armstrong's email. At the bottom was a brief note. “Oh, and I'm going to send this to Katherine as well. Let me know if she gets it.”
Katherine stepped back from the terminal, shaking her head. “No, no, no! He didn't. If Keith was the murderer, why would he leave me here alone to go get lunch? Unless . . .”
Katherine slipped out of the lab. She crept down the hallway, past the dentist's office next door with its antiseptic waiting room, and peeked out into the parking lot towards where Keith's car was parked.
Keith had not left. In fact, he was standing in the parking lot with his back to her, rummaging around in the trunk of his car.
“Oh, shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit.” Katherine ran back to the lab. Her hands were shaking badly and it took several tries to key in the right password. Finally she got back in, and slammed the door shut behind her. Then she grabbed James' desk and shoved it in front of the door. The aspirin bottle skidded across the floor, rattling. She stacked a few other pieces of furniture on top of it before pausing, her chest heaving.
“I gotta get out of here.” There was one small, high window in the lab that had been sealed shut when they leased it. She got up on a chair and began tearing at the foam weatherstripping with her fingers. It tore off in great long chunks, and before long she was able to pry the window open far enough to slip through. Grabbing her handbag, she stuffed it with her purse, a bottle of water, and her phone. Then she paused for a second.
The machine hung from its spring loaded arm, black and alien. Taking a screwdriver, she undid the screws that held it in place, but her trembling hands stripped the last screw. “Damn, damn, dammit!” Katherine wrenched the machine from its final bracket, which sheared off with a sharp metallic snap. Grabbing a few extra needles and a vial of her virus, she shoved it all into her bag before tossing it through the window and climbing up and out the window herself.
Katherine landed on top of a dumpster in the alley behind her building. Grabbing her handbag, she slid off the dumpster and ran down the gravel alley, penned in by a long chain link fence. A short distance away there was a hole cut in the chain link fence that she squeezed through. She found herself at the top of an embankment above the expressway. Easing her way down the slope through the tall grass, she reached a concrete culvert and scrambled under the embankment to the other side.
After a short climb up the slope on the other side of the expressway, Katherine abruptly emerged into an upscale subdivision. She passed a few houses that were still under construction before reaching the first intersection. Looking up at the street signs, she pulled out her cell phone. “Hi, can I get a cab at the corner of . . .”
Katherine's rental car idled in the early morning mist. The rolling Virginia countryside was bathed in it, although she knew it would disappear as soon as the sun became more than an orange glow on the horizon.
Her trip had been uneventful. She had been looking in her rear view mirror the entire time for any indication that she was being followed, but there had been nothing.
Just ahead was the dig site. Dr. Armstrong's team had been working the unmarked grave for several months, doing their best to identify the victims within. Now it was surrounded by yellow police tape that formed a barrier almost fifty yards wide in all directions. A small trailer stood inside, the archaeological team's mobile office.
Katherine turned the car off and stepped outside into the clammy air. Her shoes crunched across the gravel road.
Even at this early hour there were two uniformed officers standing at the entrance. Katherine presented her university identification to the guards and they let her under the yellow tape. She knocked on the trailer door. “Come in,” came a muffled voice from inside.
Doctor Armstrong was sitting inside at a cramped desk, bent over a stack of medical examiner's forms. On the long table opposite was a skeleton. She rose to greet Katherine. “You're early! I didn't expect you so soon, I've been up all night working on these --”
“It's Keith. Keith did it. He killed James.”
Armstrong stared at her. “Katherine, what are you--”
She pointed at the skeleton. “That's James, right there. He's the skeleton, and Keith killed him.”
Armstrong looked once from Katherine to the bones and back. Then she sat. “Tell me everything.”
And so Katherine did. She started with Keith's disappearance two weeks ago, and covered everything up to Armstrong's phone call. As she recounted the story she began to
sense the increasing absurdity of it all, and her voice began to falter. She hadn't actually seen anything that proved Keith's guilt, had she? Was it all in her imagination? Through it all Doctor
Armstrong listened without fidgeting or saying a word. Finally Katherine finished, and a brief pause settled over the small room.
“Am . . . am I going crazy?” she finally asked the doctor.
“No. But we need to do two things. First, we need to prove that he --” she pointed to the bones “-- is Dr. Heder. And second, we need to alert the authorities to James' disappearance. You might be right, but we have no proof.”
“No, you don't, do you?” came a man's voice from behind them. Katherine spun around.
“Keith!” The scientist was standing in the doorway. “How much did you –?”
“Do you mind if I come in?” Neither of the women said anything. “I'll take that as a no.” He stepped fully inside the trailer, shutting and locking the door behind him.
“Actually, you're missing two things,” continued Keith. “Proof, and motive. Why, Katie, would I ever kill Dr. Heder?”
“I . . . I don't know.”
“Without his backing, this project would never have gotten off the ground. This project, which, let me remind you, is due to make both of our professional reputations. Why on Earth would I kill him?”
Katherine stared at him, mesmerized by his slow walk around the room.
“Tell me, Katie, did you bring the machine?”
“Did you bring it?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Come, now. It was gone from the lab when I got back.”
Katherine hesitated for a moment, and then eased her handbag onto the table. “It's in the bag.”
“Good. Get it out.”
“I don't understand.”
“GET . . . it . . .OUT!”
Katherine was stunned. Keith had never raised his voice before. For a brief moment his calm mask had slipped away to reveal something very different. She opened the bag and removed the machine. Keith kept talking while she assembled it.
“Officially, it's known as the Fatality Diagnostic Device, but everyone calls it the Machine of Death. I think they're only partially right.” He smiled. “Is it ready yet?”
Katherine locked the needle into place. “Yes.”
He nodded. “Good. Use it. On me.”
Katherine shook her head. “No! You know that's forbidden!”
Keith opened his coat, pulled out a heavy black pistol and pointed it directly at Doctor Armstrong. A long silencer was screwed onto the barrel. “Use it, or Armstrong dies right now.”
“You'll go insane! Don't you remember what happened to the original test subjects?”
He sighed. “Katie, use it on me now or I kill the doctor.”
She glared at him. “Fine.” She grasped the black device. “Where?”
Keeping his gaze and the gun barrel pointed firmly at Doctor Armstrong's heart, he offered her his left arm. “Roll up the sleeve. Anywhere on the arm is fine, I've tested myself so many times now I can hardly feel it.”
“You've done it before?!?”
“Yes! RUN THE TEST!” he roared, still not turning his attention from Armstrong.
Katherine opened her bag and pulled out the printer. Reaching inside for the power cord, she also palmed one of the spare needles, moving it to the front pocket of her jacket as she bent down to plug in the machine. It came to life with a quiet whine, much like a television turning on. She rolled up Keith's sleeve, shuddering to think that this was the same arm that had been around her waist only two short days ago.
She pricked the inside of Keith's forearm with the needle. Immediately the machine began to hum, and after a few seconds the printer buzzed. A short slip of paper was
ejected, and Katherine tore it off.
“Read it. Now.”
She turned it over and read two words. “James Heder.”
“Now do you understand?”
“You tested yourself, and because the result was Doctor Heder . . . you killed him?”
“Exactly. I didn't believe it a first, of course, but after I tested again and again with always the same result I finally had to accept the inevitable. The science behind the machine is foolproof; believe me, I looked for any loophole I could find.” He shook his head. “There aren't any. It's always right. Just look at the inventors.”
Katherine shook her head, but Keith continued.
“I waited as long as I could. The plan was to finish this project first, and then to kill him. As you can see, I couldn't quite wait that long – the risk became too great.”
“So you killed him while we were here, and then disguised his bones? What did you do with the rest?”
“Boiling water to take the flesh off the bones, and stray dogs to finish the finish the flesh. As to disguising the bones, it wasn't hard. I was able to keep most of the samples from his skeleton from making it to the lab, but I missed one.”
“The one I tested . . . but when I emailed Doctor Armstrong about it, I sent you the email too and you knew all about it!” Katherine held her face in her hands.
“There was no way for you to know. It was a lucky break for me, though, finding out the night before that you and Armstrong knew about the skeleton. You're both too smart not to figure it out, especially after you sent that email to Katie, Doctor. It wasn't ideal, but I knew that I needed to stop the secret from getting out any farther.”
“So you went outside to get your gun and come back and kill me?”
Keith frowned. “Yes, and no, Katie. You see, I'm not a murderer, really. I killed James because he was going to kill me. As far as I see it, that was self defense. Killing you or Doctor Armstrong, though, is a little more tricky. I probably would have killed you anyway, Katie, but it would have been a rash decision. Too rash. Luckily for both of us, you made your escape.”
“What do you mean, luckily for both of us?”
“You see, Katie, I had some time to think while I was following you here. I was still resolved to kill both you and Armstrong to keep my secret safe, but I didn't feel good about it. Finally I realized that there's one sure way to see if I must shoot you both, here, now, or let you live. The machine.”
“Yes. It's genius, really. I'll test you now, and if the result is 'Automatic Handgun,' 'Keith Owens,' or something else similarly explicit I'll shoot you. If not, then I'll let you go.”
“And if it could go either way? What, will you flip a coin?”
“No, I'll probably kill you anyway just to be safe.”
“And if we refuse?”
“Then I kill you both with a free conscience, knowing that you forced my hand. Probably Armstrong first, as I'm pointing this pistol at her currently, although I'm not ruling out a reversed order.”
“If you say so. Now, if you would hurry up, please, and decide, my arm is getting tired.”
Katherine looked at the machine, whining quietly in her hand. After a moment's consideration, “Alright. I'll do it.”
“Katherine! No! You'll go as crazy as he is!” Armstrong tried to push forward but the end of Keith's pistol warned her back.
“Don't worry, Doctor.” She took the machine and pressed the needle to her skin. “I know what I'm doing.” She pulled the trigger.
There was a prick of pain, but less than she expected. A moment later, the printer was buzzing. She tore off the piece of paper but held it in her hand without reading it.
“Well?” Keith still hadn't taken his eyes off of Armstrong.
“I can't read it.”
“Is it illegible?”
“No, I mean that I can't bring myself to look at the paper. I don't want to know. You'll have to look.”
“Besides, how do you know that I won't lie to you? I'm not going to tell you if it says 'Automatic Pistol.' You'll have to look at it eventually.”
Keith considered this for a moment. “Fair enough. Put it in my free hand.” He held out the arm that Katherine had drawn blood from.
“Okay.” Katherine slipped the bit of paper into his hand. Keith brought it up towards his face, slowly. Finally his eyes flickered down to the writing.
Katherine pounced on him, tearing at his throat with the spare needle in her fist. The pistol went off, but Armstrong had ducked under his aim in the split second of surprise and the shot went into the roof. Katherine's momentum carried them into the wall, but Keith's arms pushed her away. Still holding the pistol, he cuffed her with the stock across the face, cracking her nose and throwing her onto the examining table. Bones crunched beneath her as the table collapsed, and Katherine lay dazed in the remains of Dr. Leder. Armstrong froze as the pistol swung back towards her.
No one spoke for a second . . . and then Keith began to laugh. Slowly at first, but then faster and more loudly. He was doubled over, wracked with sobs, but still pointing the weapon at Armstrong.
“You don't get it, do you? Neither of you can kill me, even if I gave one of you this pistol!” He lowered his aim, and then threw the pistol on the floor. “Only James could have done that, and he's dead. Even if they arrest me, I'll outlive any jail they put me in. I'll outlive every nation that there ever is – every species! I'm immort—”
He coughed suddenly, putting a hand to his throat. There was a thin trickle of blood down his neck, and the spare needle from the machine was buried more than half its length in his flesh. Katherine and Armstrong watched transfixed as grasped the needle and pulled it out, grimacing in pain. Another small trail of blood spurted from the wound as he jerked the last bit of metal out.
“Oooh, that smarts.” He touched his neck once, and examined his bloodstained hand. “As I was saying, Katie, you can't kill me. It was a nice try, but you missed. Hurts like the devil though.” He touched his throat again. With the look of someone suddenly remembering something he turned back to her.
“Oh! And I almost forgot! Do you want to know how you die?”
He staggered over to where she lay in the pile of bones. “Oh, but it's a humdinger of death. A real plum.” His voice was jumping up and down now like a used car salesman or a carnival announcer.
“No, Keith. I don't.”
He was leaning over her now, a few spatters of blood from his throat landing on her pants. “But you have to know! It makes James here look boring!” His breath was stale and metallic in her face. “Maybe I'll tell you. Maybe I'll tell you right now. You could join me, you know. We'd make a good team – once we fix yours, of course.”
“Keith. No.” She looked up into his eyes. They were wide and bloodshot; not at all the warm brown that she remembered. “I'm warning you!”
He smiled and looked at the piece of paper in his hand. “The way you die is –”
“No. You. WON'T!” Twisting around, she grasped a shattered piece of femur and thrust upwards with all her strength. There was a crunch, a grunt, and Keith was gone.
Katherine pulled herself up along the wall. Keith has sitting back on his haunches, a shattered piece of James Leder's femur protruding from his ribcage. He stared down at it, cross-eyed. “Oh,” was all he said, in a very small voice, before falling backwards. He took two more wracking breaths and then was still.
Katherine sagged backwards. “Armstrong, are you alright?”
Doctor Armstrong stumbled over to Katherine. “I-- I think so. Is he dead?”
“Yes. But there's one more thing.” Katherine dragged herself over to Keith's left hand. She pulled the fingers apart and removed the bloodstained slip of paper. Without reading it, she tore it into tiny pieces.
Armstrong looked at Keith's body. “You know . . . it was right. The machine was right.”
Katherine shuddered. “I know.”
There was a loud banging at the trailer door. Katherine jumped. “Doctor! Is everything all right? What's going on in there?”
Katherine looked at Armstrong. “The police! What do I tell them?”
The doctor shrugged. “The truth. The machine will back you up, and so will I.”
“But I killed him!” More pounding on the door.
“He was going to tell you something that has killed twelve – well, thirteen people, now. I think you can claim self-defense.”
Katherine looked at Keith's body, lying on its back with James's femur protruding between its ribs.
“Katherine, no one can handle that sort of knowledge. Keith proves that better than anything. You'll be fine.”
Katherine took a deep breath. “Yeah. I guess so . . .” She rose, and went to unlock the door.