How are you doing, final five? Are you anxious for Survivor XIV?! Wait, we need to finish this first? Well, okay.

The most exciting writing season meets one of the most exciting prompts below. In each story, either the machine idea or story was great, and a couple pulled off both. Just one immuniteer will be crowned this week, so get nervous, bit…you know, I always say “bitches” there as a catch-all, but since this game is 80% female right now, it’s a little more specific-sounding than I’d like. Anyway, enjoy the third to last challenge.

Sarah Wreisner

“I beg of you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury – do not discount the usefulness of this machine. There are so many more cases than the ones you have heard presented to you today – many more, I’m afraid, than the opposition wants you to know about. Mr. Peterson has been quick to discredit my client’s work and the benefits of this machine. However, it’s more important to remember that my client has presented his patients with a tool to overcome the most crippling of mental roadblocks. Today, the entire future of the psychological field hangs in the balance. Please do not abolish this machine from use – its benefit to society is far too great.” The lawyer, a disheveled, likeable man in his mid-forties, clasped his hands and met the gazes of the jury members.

The lawyer presented the jury with several examples of the machine’s successes. Everyone was dazzled; some were openly moved, dabbing their eyes with tissues the lawyer produced in a dramatic display of sympathy. He paused and continued, ready to explain the darker side of the machine’s short history.

“We have never denied the machine’s understandable, albeit extremely rare, imperfections. We ask you to consider this question: should we destroy the chance for the machine to do its work because we are afraid of bumps in the road? Or will you support our mission and allow us to save more lives? Families have been salvaged. Human dignity has been fortified. Will you deprive patients of their chance to become happy and productive again? Will you deny them their chance to, dare I say, live? Can we depend on you to strike down this motion to block our innovative machine, which has been changing the future of human psychology?”

The jury was dismissed, left to pore over the facts of the case. There were so many benefits of the machine – yet, was it worth the occasional loss? The machine gave its users an unnatural gift: the patented goggles, when worn and calibrated properly, allowed patients to view the happiest moments of their lives. For 99.9% of qualified, preauthorized patients, these moments were set in their futures. The machine’s inventor was careful to allow only those whose pasts had been riddled with pain, suffering and misfortune to use his machine: this almost always guaranteed a future-facing glimpse at a better life, which the machine revealed beautifully. The machine gave these users hope, motivation, and, quite often, a reason to live.

Vinnie L. had crawled out of a gin-soaked depression, casting aside his substance abuse issues after one session with the machine. He’d seen a beautiful, legless woman in a white wedding gown; the ring he presented sparkled before a smiling mob of family and friends. Vinnie had been paralyzed in his teens; unable to live a sexually productive life, he had resigned himself to death. His experience with the machine had given him hope – and proof – that he only had to move forward.

Sandra and Benjamin C. had broken a suicide pact after a joint session which revealed a trio of small, golden-haired children glowing before a campsite. Clearly, the premature baby they’d lost last Christmas had been the only death they’d endure. They had testified that the machine had saved their lives – Sandra was pregnant with twins.

Little Sadie G., the third-grader who’d refused treatment after her father’s death, had been fitted with the machine’s goggles and had a complete psychological transformation. Although she never revealed the machine’s prediction (the machine’s printed results were confidential unless revealed by the patient), she had startled her mother (and the St. Joseph’s medical team) by happily consenting to chemotherapy and radiation. She’d made a complete recovery. No one doubted that her miraculous recovery was due, almost in full, to the machine’s involvement. The jury had been deeply moved when Sadie had turned to them, holding her stuffed frog in one small fist, to declare that her life “would be better than two thousand, one million unicorns”. Her mother had called Dr. Havrish, the machine’s inventor, “Jesus in a labcoat”.

But what about the others? Unfortunately, a small fraction of the selected patients’ futures were as hopeless as their pasts. Some patients, when granted a session with the machine, were cast deeper in depression, knowing what they’d always suspected to be true: their glory days, long over (and barely forgotten), were all they would ever have. One man, known to the jury as Scott M., had experienced the best moment of his life in 1972, when he’d been handed his high school diploma – he’d only fallen into a deeper depression after this knowledge. Janet J. had discovered her best moment in life to have had occurred in 1988, when, during a traffic jam, she’d successfully removed a splinter from her palm which had been bothering her for days. A Chicago man had hung himself after only five minutes with the machine: his greatest moment had been the purchase of a top-quality mattress: the same mattress his ex-wife had taken when she’d left him for the next door neighbor. He was still in recovery.

Was this margin of error acceptable? The jury discussed the cases at length.

The jury could not deny that the machine had saved lives – more lives, in fact, than it had ruined. They denied the prosecutor’s request to abolish the invention and awarded Dr. Havrish the win – with a stern warning: candidates must be better screened in the future. The lawyer beamed, facing the court in an open display of relief.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the court: my client, as a token of gratitude, would like to allow any jurors the fantastic opportunity to view this wonderful machine in action. I will present myself – yes, my own body and mind – as the machine’s next “patient”, as a demonstration of how psychologically enriching this creation is for an individual.

The judge shrugged; the ruling was delivered and the spectacle certainly could not interfere with court any longer. He allowed the presentation. The lawyer, winking at Dr. Havrish while he strapped the machine’s goggles to his face, gave a “thumbs up” to the jury and settled in.

The jury’s decision was overruled almost immediately. A cleaning crew was hired to remove the lawyer’s body from a large section of 8thAvenue, below the courtroom’s 14th floor windows. It was a great embarrassment to the judge and the machine was destroyed. The lawyer’s happiest moment, recorded on a special carbon-formula printout by the machine, had revealed the rape and murder of an elderly Indiana woman. The crime was to be committed 11 years in the future.

K: Harlan Ellison wrote a short story a lot like this, where the protagonist learned that the happiest moment of his life was when he caught a ball to end a little league game. That story was so successful because it focused on one man; this one meanders a lot, leading up to a conclusion that would work better if there was some foreshadowing or at least a hint that the doc was central to the story’s payoff. This story’s not a bad idea, but it really doesn’t become a story until it’s just about over.

DK: This comes off a little clinical in its descriptions, but to some extent I think that fits this setting anyway. I really like this idea for the machine; it allows a lot of interesting examples to be examined, and it fits well with a legalistic dilemma. And that ending is the right amount of sick enough. SILVER

Shawn Ashleyawn Ashley

It was the kind of heat that hung in sheets, heat that you can almost see. He could feel it wrapped around his skin like a sweater, although he was completely naked.
The motel room was cluttered with remnants of the last few days. The ashtray was overflowing. Bottles of Michter’s Rye were scattered throughout. He didn’t care about much, but he wouldn’t drink shitty booze.
A drop of sweat fell near his eye and he turned his head back to look at her as she loomed above him. He could feel that he was inside of her, but barely. He watched as she labored on top of him, the vacant look in her eyes, the noises of fake ecstasy that escaped her throat every so often. A fly landed just above her sagging nipple and he watched as it scurried around until she thrust her hips back just enough to make it fly away.
She looked everywhere but in his eyes and he knew that he wasn’t going to come. He wanted a smoke and a drink.
He sighed.
She stopped. “What?”
He grabbed her hips and delicately moved her off of him and reached over and grabbed his pack of Camels, pounded one out and handed it to her. “Here,” he said with a tired smile.
She took it and looked at him skeptically as he lit it for her. “Am I not doing what you want? I can try a different position-“
“I’m just too drunk. It’s not you.” He lit a cigarette of his own and leaned back into the stained pillow behind him. He tried not to think of what it was stained with.
She obviously didn’t know how to proceed. “Don’t worry,” he said quietly. “I’ll still pay you.”
She smiled and somehow looked ten years younger. She flopped back onto the bed and puffed out a cloud of smoke.
“I quit smoking,” she announced and drew one leg into the air. “Used to smoke a lot. I was a dancer- not a stripper; well I did that too, later on- but a real ballet dancer. We all smoked. I remember being fourteen and huddling out back in the alley behind the studio, puffing on stolen butts from my parents’ ashtray.” She paused. “It feels good…to smoke.”
He didn’t look at her. “Don’t let it be a habit again.”
She giggled. “No way. Never.” She reached over and touched his arm. “You’re nice.”
He turned his head to look at her. “I won’t let that be a habit either.”
“Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Seems like you’d really have no problem doing this stuff with them.” She propped herself up on her elbow to look at him.
He shook his head. “I gave up on that stuff a long time ago. Probably when I was fourteen.” He gave a halfhearted smile. “My friends and me were at this fair, a county fair that everyone went to. Had a fortune teller there and we all paid to go chat with her. We knew it was bogus, but we had to check it out. Well, everyone asked her if they were gonna get married or have big careers, etc. I asked her about the love of my life. I’ve always been this weird, romantic guy. She told me that there was this machine next to her stand that predicts when you meet your soul mate. I mean, it’s kind of cryptic so you don’t really know but it tells you, vaguely. Of course, I laughed and didn’t believe her.” He paused and took a deep drag of the cigarette.
“Did you guys go do it?” She asked through the silence.
“Of course.” He let out the smoke slowly.
“…and?” She prompted.
“Everyone got a different slip of paper that shot out of the machine. My friend Tom got one that had a picture of books. David got a picture of an airplane. You get the idea.” He snubbed out the cigarette as he sat up. “Lo and behold, Tom met his wife, who is a librarian. David met his wife as he was boarding a flight to Milan. So now I’m a believer. I mean, I wasn’t back then. But I am now. And that’s why I have alllll of this,” he said as he gestured around the motel room.
“Wait, so what did yours say??” She sat up too, on her knees, enthralled in the story.
He let out a quiet chuckle. “Mine was blank. Pure white paper.”
She sucked in her breath. “So what does that mean?”
“I guess it means that I don’t have a soul mate.” He stood up and pulled on his underwear, not turning to face her. “You should go.”
“But everyone has a soul mate,” she exclaimed, ignoring him. “Everyone has someone just for them. I believe that.”
“I never thought I’d say this to a hooker, but, you’re an optimist.” He grabbed her ratty, off-colored bra and threw it her way.
“You have to go and try it again,” she said. “You do! I’ll go with you. You have to.”
“I don’t think it really matters how many times you do it. Your outcome is always going to be the same.”
She stood and turned him towards her and looked him in the eyes. “There is someone for you. Don’t give up.”
“Ha!” He laughed. “Well, you’re sweet to say that. But I’m not sure that’s how it works.”
“I’ll show you how optimistic I am,” she said as she dropped to her knees and peeled off his underwear.
***********************************************************************************
“Coffee, black,” he said, barely looking up at the waitress in the diner as he read over his paper. Ugh. His body- and liver- hurt from his week-long binge of booze, drugs, and hookers. He loved to make up different stories as to why he did the bender every year and this last one he told about the Soul Mate Machine was a pretty good one. He laughed to himself. He and his friends actually did do that when he was thirteen or fourteen and yes, Tom DID marry a librarian…but he hadn’t given up on life. He couldn’t care less about women right now. He had a career. THAT was what was important.
The waitress came back and set the coffee in front of him with a smile. He looked her over and thought about how pretty she could be if she just put makeup on. Or wasn’t a fucking waitress in a powder pink, polyester, ill-fitting dress.
Could it be possible that he was actually sick of women after this little binge?
He went back to his paper as he drank his coffee. When he was finished, he stood and threw some cash on the counter and walked briskly out.
He checked his watch impatiently as he waited for the light to change and mentally went through his ‘to-do’ list for the morning and as the light turned green, he stepped off the curb still lost in thought.
Unfortunately, a bus blew through the red light and hit him, sending him flying into the street, where he landed with a thud, not moving.

He tried to blink his eyes open, but they kept resisting. He could hear a dull ringing somewhere far away. A beeping close by. His eyes fluttered open into a haze of bright, white light.
“Mr. Anderson?” A voice asked.
He turned his blurry eyes toward the sound and a face appeared in front of him.
“Mr. Anderson?” The voice asked again and he could barely make out the shape through the white light. “I am Dr. Mills. You have had an accident but you are going to be just fine…Mr. Anderson?”
The white light slowly disappeared and Dr. Mills came into focus and he just stared at her. All pain seemed to leave his body. She had to be the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen.
“Mr. Anderson?” She asked again, putting her hand onto his forehead. “Can you hear me?”
He nodded slowly. “I can hear you,” he whispered. “But don’t stop touching me.”
She, in spite of herself, laughed and blushed. “Good to know you are with us, Mr. Anderson.” She self-consciously took her hand away and looked to one of the nurses. “He seems to be responsive. That’s good.” She looked back at him for a moment. Then hurried away.

His eyes slowly opened to an empty room and it took a moment to remember that he was in the hospital after an accident. Everything hurt. He tried to turn his head to see the clock when he saw Dr. Mills standing in the doorway.
“Hello, Mr. Anderson,” she said, quietly.
“Dr. Mills…” he said, surprised.
“It’s 3 am. I’m surprised you are awake.” She made no move to come into the room.
“I’m surprised by a lot right now.” He laughed.
She hesitated a moment, then, “You can call me Josephine.”
He nodded. “Nice to meet you, Josephine. I’m Paul.”
“I know.” She took a step into the room. “I feel a strange pull towards you, Mr. Anderson.”
“Paul.”
“Paul,” she corrected.
He nodded. And then he knew. The white light. The white paper. He started laughing.
“I hardly think it’s funny,” she said, offended.
“No, no…do I have a story for you…do you happen to believe in soul mates??” He patted the bed next to him. “Sit.”
K: I greatly prefer the first half (to the point where I wish the hooker had been his soulmate; that relationship was fun and interesting), but the payoff does take us somewhere we’d like to go, and we even get true character development, though it’s swift and brought on by a traumatic event. I love this lead character and his strange life trajectory. GOLD
DK: This one, on the other hand, takes a machine idea I like but don’t love, and executes it very well. The stage-setting in the beginning and the relative unreliability of the main character really pulled me into this world and made me intrigued to see how his machine-prediction would come out. Also strong usage of someone getting hit by a bus. GOLD

Margaret Martin
argaret
Bruce hurried along Broadway, past the glittering lights and tinny music sparkling from the open doorways. The energy in this area of town made his heart race. He could feel a swelling in his chest, and a growing agitation sucked his breath from him.

He kept his eyes down and tried to breathe slowly and deliberately, tuning out the flashes of wicked enchantment of theater as best he could. He had to get to work. He drove on, the glitz and confusion thinning until finally he stood before The Firm. Thank God.

The Firm appeared to have grown out of the sidewalk. Concrete slabs unfolded skyward, a pavement for the upwardly mobile. It was smooth, cool. At once he felt his heart throttle down, he felt his brain settle into its familiar dark pit. He stood in the silent shadow of the building, feeling the energy drain from his limbs.

Comfortable at last, he approached the door and entered. The Firm was arranged around a single box, a piece of strange technology that sat in the middle of the expansive lobby like the Kaaba inside the mosque of Mecca. There was always a crowd gathered around it, buying its gift of wisdom, sacrificing much to know the truth of their futures. A mother was dragging a child closer to the device, and Bruce smiled at the frightened little girl.

Bruce wasn’t even six when his father had pulled him along in one of the dreadful lines. Barely three feet tall, he couldn’t see anything beyond the fleshy butts of strangers. More than once he got caught in the folds of some woman’s skirt, face to ass in the mad crowd. He could still feel the pressure of his father’s hand, a hand made strong and ragged by a life of manual labor. His father sought to free him from a similar fate, so he had saved for years to bring his son before the wisdom of the device.

The beige box had been found in a basement somewhere outside of Detroit in the 40s. Richard Foster, who was squatting in the abandoned building with his girlfriend, Stormy, stumbled upon it after a problem developed in the first floor bathroom. Richard Parker had the bad habit of putting his fingers into finger-sized holes without knowing anything about them, and in short order he discovered that the machine would prick your finger, analyze your blood, and print out, on manila card stock in all caps, a career. For Richard Foster? ITALIAN CHEF.

Richard called a few people, and then a few more. They all tried the machine. The variety of careers was as great as the diversity of friends and family in Richard Foster’s circle, though most of them noted that none of those jobs existed in River Rouge – LANDSCAPE ARTIST. CHEMICAL ENGINEER. GAFFER. After a few gleeful hours of stoned interaction with the device, people ascended the stairs to the real world, and no one thought about STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER anymore. Some carnival toy, they decided, meant to entertain the drunks from the Great Lakes Naval Base. But Richard sat in the basement smoking a joint, surrounded by discarded manila rectangles, and stuck one finger after another into the hole in the machine. The printout never changed. ITALIAN CHEF. ITALIAN CHEF. It made him wonder a little. Was it telling him to become an Italian Chef? Or just to call one and order a pizza?

The machine came up in conversation now and then in River Rouge, and then in Detroit, and eventually it crossed the ears of the Most Reverend Lance McVance. He found the home of one Richard Foster, River Rouge, Michigan. The Reverend, being a Godly Man, didn’t believe the device to be a carnival toy. He believed The Will of The Lord was imprinted in a man’s blood, and that the machine was a gift from The Almighty Himself! He believed that it could interpret The Will of The Lord!

He walked up to the machine and stuck his finger into the hole. PERSONAL ATTENDANT. Confusion crossed his face. He quickly stuffed it into his pocket before Richard Parker could see it. He tried again. PERSONAL ATTENDANT. Starting to panic, he glanced around furtively for any sign of the resident pothead, and then printed quite carefully, OWNER OF THIS DEVICE. He jumped with glee and called Richard over from the corner.

His ideal career, he claimed, issued forth by The Almighty’s device on the day of his pricking, was to assume possession of the device, promote the device, and offer access to the device for all. He moved the device to New York City and built an empire around it.

Richard Parker didn’t put up a fight. He had no interest in the machine or its endless ITALIAN CHEFing. He rolled another joint and scooped up a pile of Stormy.

The manner in which the device worked was unknown, despite many decades of technicians studying its configuration. But that never stopped the Reverend McVance from promoting its powers far and wide.

“Live not in the misery of human toil! Find the career that will launch you into success the way that I have found mine! Riches and happiness await you! Gifts from The Divine!”

And so it was, that on that gloomy morning, when they had finally reached the front of the endless line with an envelope of money and dreams of a better life, Bruce’s father held Bruce’s finger and inserted it into the hole. With a pop and a sting, the machine inserted a tack into his finger and drew a drop of blood. A strange whirring could be felt inside the machine, and then a manila card emerged from the slot. CUSTODIAN. He and his father stared at it. CUSTODIAN. It didn’t seem likely to bring them riches, but… well… happiness! Happiness was worth more than gold! That was what The Most Reverend Lance McVance had told them.

Bruce began a life of joy then, working as a CUSTODIAN, first at a school, then at a facility for the elderly, and finally, most joyfully, at The Firm itself, where the machine was housed. Bruce worked hard on his happiness, as hard as he worked on those vomit stains in the Berber rugs and on all that hair in the sinks in the women’s restrooms. He grew, over time, to see his happiness as a product of his work. It was predictable, yes, and reliable. It was basic, yes, and humble. It brought him closer to humanity, yes, and closer to God. He paused once again to enjoy his happiness, and then started when he realized that he was leaning on his broom rather than pushing it.

The crowd was thick as flies on a dead crow, and there seemed to be some ruckus brewing near the front of the line. It was the mother and the child he had seen earlier. They had finished the procedure, and the mother was clutching the girl’s cherished career in her hands.

The girl was shaken, visibly crying. “The Lord Almighty does NOT want me to be an ARTHROPOLOGIST! I HATE bugs. I hate them! It’s wrong, Mom! The machine is wrong!”

Another child near the exit heard her screaming and started screaming also. “I won’t be a NURSE, either! I hate NURSES! I want to be an ASTRONAUT!”

There was a great deal of shushing and embarrassment from both mothers. In vain they tried to calm the children, but the crowd had grown silent at the noise, and the children’s shrieks filled the great hall of The Firm. The noise reached the top offices, where The Most Reverend Lance McVance was resting. He opened his eyes, secure in his wealth and power, and walked onto the landing overlooking the hall below. He gazed with affection at the machine and all the people that it had brought to him. People with open wallets. It was a dream come true.

“What is the trouble, sons and daughters of The Almighty Lord?”

The little girl cried out, “Your machine lies! ARTHROPOLOGIST isn’t my dream career! It’s my nightmare one! It’s the worst possible one!”

“Oh child, no. The Lord Almighty is interpreting His Will as it lives in your blood. You may not know it now, but you will love that career. You will grow rich and happy! This is the Lord’s Most Holy Gift to us! Here, see my own card! I’ve kept it all these years!”

He reached into his pocket and retrieved a fat wallet. Hand-carved leather, stuffed with cash, it looked delicious. The audience craved all that The Reverend had.

From the wallet he carefully, slowly, extracted a frayed manila card. He held it up for the crowd to behold, and read its faded printing: “OWNER OF THIS DEVICE.”

“This card changed my life! I was a small-town preacher in a small-town church! I had nothing then. But I entered the house of one Richard Foster, and this machine, this gift from The Lord Almighty Himself…” He gestured toward the machine, and in that instant his card flipped out of his fat fingers. It hung for a moment, silhouetted against the sun streaming in through the luxurious skylight, and then fluttered down to the crowds on the floor.

Everything froze. Even the sniveling children held their breaths. The card fluttered, so light, so slow. It landed at Bruce’s feet. He leaned down to pick it up, grateful that he would be able to return it to his generous employer. Then he saw the faded print: PERSONAL ASSISTANT. He looked up at The Most Reverend Lance McVance, and saw panic and fear cross his face.

Others from the crowd gathered and saw the same. They started shouting. “A hoax? A hoax! He falsified his career! He never was supposed to be the OWNER OF THIS DEVICE! He was supposed to be a PERSONAL ATTENDANT.”

“What does that mean? Are our careers right? Or wrong? If he grew rich and happy on a DIFFERENT career, why couldn’t we? Why are we following the advice of this machine? Why?”

The little girl, who had also approached to see the card for herself, looked at Bruce’s stricken face. “It’s not the career you want. It’s the career you don’t want. It’s the career that makes you sad. It’s the career that makes you feel bad.”

Bruce held the card tightly, only letting go when a POLICE OFFICER came over to take it from him. Then he pulled out his own card, also safely stored in his wallet, and turned it over and over. CUSTODIAN. CUSTODIAN. The career you don’t want. The career you don’t…

The crowd was roaring, demanding compensation, and the hall was filling POLICE OFFICERS. Bruce slipped out the “Employees Only” door and started walking. He felt drunk, sick. The career he didn’t want. But he tried to be happy! He thought that calm predictability made him happy. Didn’t it? Didn’t it?

He knew it didn’t. He knew what did. Handing his broom to one of the people running to join the riot at The Firm, he ran as fast as he could down the street. He turned onto Broadway. The music, the lights, the laughter. He felt the familiar racing in his heart, the familiar skip in his step. He stepped boldly into the first theater door he passed, and got into the audition line.

K: Huh. This narrative sort of jumps all over the place, introducing and paying off a large number of stories, but in the end it somehow works. A kind of lighthearted whimsy runs throughout the piece despite the tension, and the ending is true to that spirit. I’m not sure I should like this as much as I do, but I do. BRONZE

DK: I really like the handling of the career cards here, including how the regular narrative continues the all-caps thing. I think jumping from scene to scene in the “existence” of the machine here somewhat robs this story of its character throughline – by that I mean, I lost a handle on Bruce as the main character partway through and didn’t really get a sense that he was meant for the main emotional arc until I realized he had been after the end.

Bret Highumret

It was not an imposing artifact. Starks claimed it looked exactly like a plastic stage-prop tree trunk that had been partially melted in a fire. I thought that sounded ridiculous, but it was a better description than any I could come up with. If it hadn’t been for the symbols embossed into the material, I would have thought it was just another piece of strangely-formed space junk. With the symbols, though- well, it was the first alien object we’d ever heard of!

Understandably, we were excited. Franklin ran every test that he could on it, and came up with little more than the general measurements. At 140 centimeters in diameter, almost 250 centimeters in height and a density comparable to gold, it was an awkward, bulky load, but nothing the three of us couldn’t handle. Within hours of finding it, we’d scrapped the rest of our surveying plans, loaded the object into our ship, and began studying it in earnest.

At first, the giddy excitement of such a wonderful discovery had us all bouncing through the ship, chattering back and forth. We slowly settled down, separating to complete our individual tasks. Leaving Starks running test after test on it and Franklin scribbling away in the ship’s log, I made my way to the aft viewport, where I could look out over the smoothly folded hills of this strange planet. Slowly, a peculiar malaise came over me, a weird dread gripping me as I stood there.

I could feel the presence of the object in the ship’s hold, like an earache, building pressure in interminable waves. The strain built and built throughout the day, so once I finished my duties I took a sedative from Medical and passed out on my bunk, not wishing to worry the other two with my overactive imagination.

I couldn’t escape it there, either. Whirling patterns fled through my dreams, swirling browns and greens melted together, the space around me constricting tighter and tighter as every whorl of color dissolved into another.

I woke with a thud when I hit the deck, sheets tangled around me. I fought my way free, sweating and cursing. The air tasted stale, metallic and bitter. I pulled on my trousers and went looking for company, smears of earth-toned hues staining the edges of my vision.

I found Franklin and Starks in the hold, sitting within arm’s reach of the relic. The pain in my head eased as I got closer, and I sat down next to it as well, the third point of a triangle around an ugly alien device.

Franklin spoke first. “So you’re feeling it too, Thompson?”

I didn’t bother to speak, just nodded.

Franklin spoke again, his normally animated face somber and still. “I’m hearing noises and vibrations, enough to put my teeth on edge. Starks is imagining heat and cold-“

“Feeling heat and cold!” interrupted the normally placid Starks. “Fine, you don’t feel it, but I don’t hear any weird noises! Either both are imaginary, or both are real.”

“Fine, fine,” said Franklin, gesturing his concession with palms held out. “So, same for you, Thom? Something weird going on in your head?”

“Yes. I’m seeing colors, out of the corner of my eye.” I looked directly at each of them in turn, trying to ignore the little worms of pigment that squiggled around the periphery. “And then patterns, flying through my head when I close my eyes. It feels like this thing is doing it, and then it gets bearable when I get close to it.”

They nodded in unison. “Shit,” intoned Franklin, solemnly. “That’s what we think, too.”

“I didn’t find anything that would account for this in my tests,” said Starks. “No radiation or emissions of any kind that I could measure. I feel sure that this thing is somehow doing this to us, but how? And why?”

“Great questions,” I replied, reaching out and placing my hand on the uncomfortable warm side of the object. “But what we really need to be asking is; what are we going to do next?”

A ratcheting Click-click-click came from the object, and we all scrambled away. Franklin ran blindly into a wall, and Starks and I got tangled up and ended up in a heap in the corner. About waist-high on the side facing where I’d been sitting, sections of the surface were rippling in and out like spinning gears, giving off a descending whine as the movement slowed. We all froze and watched it, until it finally fell still with a final tick.

“Is that a word?” asked Starks, as I pushed him off me. “Hell, guys, that looks like English!”

We crowded in close. It was, indubitably, English- LEAD.

“Lead? Lead who?” Starks asked, completely nonplussed.

“Not leed,” I hissed. “Led. The metal! Like a shield for radiation protection! Hell, I was thinking that before, but you said there were no emissions, so I forgot about it.”

Revitalized, we racked our brains to think of where we could get enough lead to cover the artifact. Starks remembered the spare drive casing, and ran it through the machine press to fabricate a thin metal sheet that we bent into place around the artifact. For good measure, Franklin threw the x-ray shielding apron over the top. We stood there, covered with silvery smears from the soft metal, and waited to see what happened.

My spirits lifted as I realized my vision had returned to normal and the throbbing in my head had subsided. A glance at my companions showed that they had regained much of their normal attitudes as well. But there was still an elephant in the room…

“Well, is it an alien artifact?” I queried, feeling one of us had to broach the subject.

“I don’t know,” said Starks, running a scanner over the shield out of force of habit. “It communicated with us! Maybe it’s actually alien intelligence!”

“And maybe it’s just some sort of translator or mimic, who knows?” interjected Franklin. “Best way to find out is to ask it another question, I think.” Then he looked at me.

Starks was looking at me, too.

“Jesus, guys, I didn’t even ask it a question!” I blurted, feeling a little pressured. “I was talking to you two!”

“C’mon,” coaxed Franklin. “Just do it again, just like last time. Ask it if it’s alive, or something.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, seeing that I’d been elected by the majority. I bent back the buttery-soft metal shield and placed my hand on the device, just like before. “Are you an alien?”

Nothing.

“What are you?”

Nothing.

“Can you understand me?”

Well, that was a bust. I backed up, baffled. Starks took my place, but sat down on the floor, more like the position I had been in last time.

“Are you sentient?” he inquired. “Can you hear us?”

Nothing.

Frustrated, he looked over at us. “Guys, we’re obviously missing something. I think this is out of our league- we need some real specialists working on this. Is it time to head back to Earth?”

The clicking started again, and though we didn’t panic as badly as we had before, we all jumped and Starks banged his hand on the lead shielding as he jerked away. As before, it only took a minute to wind down, and we pulled the metal apart to see the new symbols on display. “LEAD” was gone, replaced by strings of numbers-

100001001010 1000 1100

“Gah,” groused Franklin. “What the hell is that? Binary?”

I stared at it. “Yeah, it’s binary. That’s 2122, 8, and 12. I think it’s a date- does that make sense? August 12, 2122?”

Starks snorted. “Nah, what would a date from a couple weeks ago have to do with anything? Sure, it’s binary and those are numbers, but it must mean something else, just like with the pronunciation of lead being confusing. What else could it be?”

“You’re right,” I conceded. “There’s got to be something else. And you’re right about us not being able to solve this whole puzzle ourselves. Are we confident in the shielding being sufficient for us to make the trip?”

Franklin and Starks glanced at each other. Franklin shrugged, and Starks puffed out his cheeks, exhaling.

“I’m good, I guess,” Franklin said, uncertainly. “I certainly wouldn’t be against adding some extra shielding, even if we don’t have more lead to spare. I’ve got some ceramic tiles and synthetic asbestos that might do something. I can get started on that if you two want to prepare for launch.”

“Sure,” replied Starks. “And let’s keep thinking about the numbers. If anything pops into your heads that it might be referencing, let’s talk it over.”

We went our separate ways, and got the ship prepared for the two-week trip.

The launch and entry into bubble-space were uneventful. Nothing did ever occur to us that the numbers could mean, though I tried flipping them around and running through various calculations. We gathered in the hold every day to unwrap the artifact and ask it questions, but with no further luck there, either.

We re-entered normal space a few orbits out from the OLLS (Opposite Lunar Launching Station), and immediately sent a radio message asking for docking permission. Starks went to work removing the extra shielding materials while Franklin and I performed the calculations for docking and monitored the radio, waiting for a signal to bounce back, a six-minute lag both ways.

The radio came on, solar radiation adding an occasional scratch of static.

“Scout Ship Copernicus? Are you having issues? You are cleared to depart… repeat, clear to depart.”

“Dammit, the command center can’t handle any sort of adjustments to schedule, can they?” snorted Franklin. He leaned over to key the mike again, but froze before he pushed it, staring out the viewport.
“Thompson?” asked Franklin, a quaver in his voice. “Do you see that?”

“See what?” I tried to follow his pointing finger, but nothing stood out against the specks of the stars that I saw. “What am I looking for?”

“Rockets,” Franklin said. “Hydrogen rockets. And… there!” A blue flash lit the void for a brief moment. “Did you see that?”

“I certainly did,” I agreed. “Someone just went into bubble-space. So?”

Franklin turned, and lowered his voice. “That was the exact same vector we left on. They’re going to the planet we were just at! What is going on?”

“Oh, come on!” I pushed his shoulder, playfully. “You don’t know that’s the same vector! It’s close, I’ll grant you that. C’mon, just radio them again.”

Still looking shaken, Franklin keyed the comm. “Command, this is Copernicus, returning from mission. Classified material aboard, require secure docking station and containment team. Please advise.”

Twelve minutes later:

“Copernicus, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you were supposed to have jumped out-system already. Return to station for debriefing.”

Baffled, Franklin sent an acknowledgement and went about his piloting duties, worry evident on his face. A sick feeling in my stomach, I went down to the hold to let Starks know something was wrong.
Starks was standing next to the artifact, pulling at the lead sheet, which seemed to have molded itself to the device. He stopped tugging when he got a look on my face.

“What’s going on?” he inquired. I didn’t even get my mouth open before it started whirring.

Click-click-click!

We bent in close, waiting for the letters, his question to me forgotten.

THE END

“Damn!” I cussed, thoroughly sick of this thing. “That doesn’t make any sense, either!”

Starks screamed, high and panicked, startling me. His hand was still on the machine, with a spike of cruelly barbed metal thrust through it. I reached for him, to pull him away, and another spike transfixed my arm.

Instantly the colors bled back into my brain, and the outside world faded away. Tighter and tighter wound the emerald streamers around the brown cords of my terrified consciousness, until nothing was left but a green blur.

K: There’s a plot here, and it really takes over while the action suffers; the scene gets really talky and all three characters come off having the same personality. A real easy way to deal with that would have been to punctuate the scene with the three maladies the men were suffering. This isn’t a far cry from being pretty strong, but it needs a pass through before it’s going to really pop.

DK: As usual, this is a great setting for me. I like too the idea of the machine having different effects on the characters, although I wonder if there could have been more purpose behind why each character sees the effects he does. Still, I like how the story builds and eventually climaxes its tension, that’s pretty effective.

Sarah Bizek

Collapsing metal sounded. Burning rubber assaulted his nostrils. A loud pop, and then pain spread across his face. The taste of pennies in his mouth. Blackness.
***
Flashing lights shrunk his pupils. There was crying. His son, Isaiah, from the back seat. His heart pounded in his chest. The same throbbing in his pelvis and legs. Blackness again.
***
Voices pressed into his head. Bright, sterile light reflected against stark walls. The odor of rubbing alcohol and latex. Glint of scalpels and clamps and syringes. The comfort of artificial sleep. Blackness.
***
When Ben Hampton awoke, there were warm blankets tucked in around him and up to his neck. A nurse stood over him, smiling. She was talking.
“Ben? Ben, can you hear me? Hello, Ben. My name is Shari. I’ll be with you here until you’re awake enough to head up to your room, okay?” She smiled and laid her hand gently on his arm. “Are you in any pain?”
Ben nodded.
“Okay, I can give you something for that.” She put a needle into his IV line, and a flood of heat spread up his arm and across his chest.
“What happened?” he asked her.
“You were in an accident. You broke some bones. Surgery to repair them went well. Your doctor will be by once you get upstairs to discuss it further, okay?”
“Where’s my wife? My son?”
“You’re son is safe. Your mother is here and has him with her.” Shari stopped speaking there.
“And my wife?” He remembered that Carolyn had been driving. They were heading to a birthday party for Ben’s sister.
“Why don’t you rest for a bit, Ben. You’ve been through rather a lot.”
Before he could protest, he saw Shari inject another syringe. His eyelids grew heavy, and, before he dropped off, he felt his body press into the bed.
***
The extent of Ben’s injuries should have been devastating to him. He had, after all, shattered his left ankle, fracture his right femur, broken his pelvis in two places, and suffered a concussion of moderate severity. Not to mention the broken nose he’d incurred from the deployment of the airbag. More devastating, though, for Ben, and a fact that dwarfed his injuries by comparison, was the knowledge that his wife had not survived the crash. He was suddenly a single father to a six-month-old son. Not having the use of his legs didn’t seem like such a big deal in the wake of that news.
His recovery was arduous. He was in the hospital for three weeks, and then in rehab for six more. It felt like an eternity. He did everything they told him to, despite the immensely overwhelming pain. He did exercises in his bed when he was supposed to be sleeping. He asked for added and longer physical therapy sessions. He pushed himself to his limit. And all the while, a great nervousness weighed on him.
He couldn’t stop thinking of Carolyn. At the very moment of her death, Ben knew, all of the fears that came with parenthood were suddenly his alone. The burden of those worries and anxieties were no longer shareable. He was suddenly a single father when he hadn’t really wanted to be a father in the first place.
Being a parent, after all, wasn’t safe like it had been when his grandparents had had children. They had been able to have as many children as they wished, watch them all grow and become who they would be as adults. The worries were fewer, the anxiety less.
Becoming a parent now meant knowing that you had only four years to prepare an exceptional child, one who would pass the reaping, because if you didn’t, you would watch your child die. Ben had gone through the reaping himself, and remembered it well. He remembered stepping into the machine, the machine that knew without fail which children would become productive members of an overpopulated society, and which would become a drain on vital resources. There wasn’t enough food. There wasn’t enough energy. Not for the world to exist as it once had. Now, each family was allowed one child. If that child survived the reaping, that was it. If it didn’t, they could bring another to the world and begin again, all the while knowing it could end the same way.
Ben knew he couldn’t remain hostage to his injuries. He was losing valuable teaching and shaping and building time for Isaiah. He fought and he worked and he struggled so he could return home and get down to the most important work he’d ever do. He couldn’t lose his son, too.
***
Three years, five months, and thirteen days after the accident, Ben received a letter in the mail; the letter he’d been dreading since he’d learned that Isaiah had been conceived. The envelope was addressed to Benjamin Peter Hampton, Father of Isaiah Benjamin Hampton. It was marked with the seal of the United States Department of Population Control. He fell to his knees.
Isaih wasn’t ready. Ben had enrolled him in piano lessons, and Isaiah had refused to touch the keys. Ben had enrolled him in a course in athletic training, and Isaiah displayed no improvement in coordination, teamwork, or sportsmanship. Ben had hired tutors in every subject imaginable, and Isaiah still could not read, write his name, or perform the simplest of mathematic equations. He had grown into a remarkably quiet child. He was somber and withdrawn in most situations. He spoke in a monotone voice and rarely smiled or laughed. Ben attempted to have Isaiah evaluated, despite the fact that pre-reaped children were disallowed from receiving services of that nature. His efforts were unsuccessful. Isaiah had sadly not grown into a well-rounded child; an exceptional child. Ben accepted the blame, but could not accept the fact that his son would never survive the reaping.
The letter outlined the procedure: Ben and Isaiah were to arrive at the New Hampshire government center in two week’s time. They were expected at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, December 21st, the day after Isaiah’s fourth birthday. One last celebration of his boy’s life. How kind of them.
***
The machine was unbeatable. That’s what had always been said. No use trying to fool the machine, they’d said. But how could he not try?
Ben sat down with Isaiah, and he talked.
“Son, we’ve talked about the reaping, yes?” Isaiah nodded. “And you understand what could happen there?”
“I could die,” Isaiah said. His affect was flat.
“Right. I don’t want you to die. So I need you to do something when you go into the machine, okay? I need you to do something so that we can do everything we can to keep you alive.” Ben’s voice was fast and breathless.
Isaiah nodded.
***
Ben set to building a model of what he remembered of the inside of the machine. He paid particular attention to the seat and the slot into which each child would slide his arm for a blood sample. Each day for two weeks he sat with Isaiah and they studied the model. He made Isaiah close his eyes and talk through the steps of going into the machine. He made him draw a diagram of the model from memory. Isaiah grew weary of the repetition, but Ben beseeched him to stay on task. His life was at stake.
Ben had constructed a patch made of latex and hospital-grade adhesive. He’d calculated the area on Isaiah’s arm that could be struck by the needle and made the patch one inch longer. It was one inch thick to accommodate the depth of the needle. It hid perfectly beneath Isaiah’s shirt sleeve, and Ben made Isaiah wear it every day, all day. It had to feel as if it was one with him. Otherwise the plan wouldn’t work. And the plan had to work. It had to.
***
On December 21st, Ben awoke at 6:00 a.m. He went directly to the kitchen and he slit his finger open with a razor blade he’d laid out the night before. He bled it into the patch he’d manufactured, bandaged his finger, and woke Isaiah. He attached the patch right away so Isaiah’s body temperature could regulate the blood in the patch and keep it warm. They walked through the plan one more time. Isaiah knew it inside and out. It was their only hope.
At the government center, Ben paced up and down the corridor. Isaiah sat quietly watching his father wring his hands and mumble to himself. There were seven other children there. They played with their blocks and looked at their books and seemed otherwise unaffected by the ordeal they were about to undergo. It was clear, even to Isaiah, that their parents had not been so forthcoming with them as his father had with him. He took a deep breath.
The loudspeaker boomed the children’s names out one by one. With each name there came a gasp, typically from that child’s mother. Four children went before Isaiah. Two survived. Those who didn’t, they came out of the machine, terror on their faces. Their parents had five minutes to say goodbye, and then a sort of spontaneous combustion occurred. They were gone. As if they’d never existed. Weeping mothers, fist-shaking fathers. The curse words poured out of them. The other two families could barely celebrate. They took their children by the shoulders and led them silently out, knowing it could have been them. Knowing.
And then Isaiah’s name was called. Ben stopped stiff in his tracks. His eyes grew wide.
“Remember, Isaiah,” he called out as the boy was escorted away and into the machine. Isaiah nodded.
It seemed that a long time had passed. Ben was shaking, the anxiety overwhelming him. He had to be seated. A woman sat next to him and held his hand. Her daughter had yet to be reaped. The touch on his hand served to remind him how alone he was.
More time passed, and Ben resorted to openly weeping. The stress had become too much. Now both mothers sat with him, flanking him, holding him up.
Ben suddenly stood and tripped over to the counter.
“Where the fuck is my boy? He’s been in there for twenty minutes, for Christ’s sake!”
“It may not surprise you, sir, that your son has been a bit uncooperative. He should be out soon, one way or another.” The clerk was back to her paperwork. Fine specimen of “productive member of society” she’d turned out to be. Ben sniffed.
And then the door slid open and Isaiah emerged. No lights accompanied him, no warning of his having failed. Had he passed? Had the plan worked?
Ben ran up to Isaiah and hugged him, and then the room went quiet in utter astonishment. Both father and child had disappeared. Gone. As if they’d never existed.
“This, ladies and gentlemen,” came over the loudspeaker, “is what happens when you attempt to tamper with the machine. Be warned, the machine cannot be fooled, cannot be tricked, cannot be taken. And it’s too bad. The boy had passed.”
K: Oy. That is possibly the single worst ending I’ve ever had to read, and it’s the last story. I don’t mean “shitty” or anything. I mean “Shit, well THAT’S shitty.” I did sort of see this kind of thing coming, though I would have preferred to see the two of them defeat the machine, or at least to have the boy survive while the father was lost (ooh, there’s some dramatic intrigue). Enough about what it could have been, how about what it is? These characters grabbed me quickly, and I cared very much about what happened to them by the end. Even if the ending left something to be desired, a story that grabs hold of me as tightly as this one is just alright by me. SILVER

DK: I went back and forth on this one (in truth, it could use a proofread) but the central idea is pretty strong and the renditions of Ben’s struggle through the middle parts of the story are affecting. Also, the abruptness of the ending here I think adds to its successful impact as a tragic twist of sorts. BRONZE
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Though there was strength running all through this week’s stories, Shawn Ashley pulled off a pretty convincing immunity with the double-gold here and you must now vote for he-or-she-who-is-not-named-Shawn by tomorrow night at 9pm Central. The remaining two challenges will both be completely new (like most of this season’s challenges, actually) and this thing will be over in under two weeks, ladies and gent.

Let’s keep making this season memorable, eh? Cheers, Survivors.