Written for the Machine Of Death anthology (for which it was not selected):
Write a story set in a world where people can undergo a cheap and easy blood test to find out how they are going to die.
All of Gustav's life he had been guided by a clear shaft of white light. Never absent, it had stretched away from him like a bright curving corridor amid a shadowy world, directing him where to go and what to do. He still remembered the first time, aged eleven, that he realised nobody else saw a similar light and began to wonder how they coped. Soon after, he learned that it was wiser not to mention the light to anyone.
He assumed it was his guardian angel.
The light was a guide and a companion. When he was eight and had lost his mother on Oxford Street the light had guided him back to her. When he hunted down his Christmas presents in the exciting late weeks of December, the light always indicated exactly where they were concealed so that he could shake them and maybe tear open a corner of the wrapping paper to peak at the box beneath. In exams the light always told him which questions to attempt, in multiple choice exams it clearly lit up the answers. When Gustav was considering university prospectuses the light picked out one above the others and then, later, in the bar on the first night of Freshers week, the light positively burned with intensity as it wormed its way through the crowd to illuminate one particular girl.
The light worked in mysterious ways. Not all the multiple choice answers were correct, and not all the roads it guided him down led him to his destination, and the thing with the one particular girl did not work out in the end. But the light found other one particular girls, and Gustav trusted it to always have some greater end in mind.
In later life his quick thinking and decisive manner won him success at work. 'Lay the options out in front of me,' he would tell his colleagues, 'and I will decide what to do.'
Sometimes in hindsight it seemed that the light had not picked the best alternative, but things pretty much always worked out, and his certainty was attractive and he was quickly promoted.
Until one day, when he was fifty-five years old, after finding it increasingly difficult to read small type for a long time, the light finally led him in to an opticians. The optician took one look in his eyes and asked if he sometimes saw lights.
'Yes,' he said, 'I see a light.'
'It's a mild retinal anomaly,' she said, 'it can be fixed with a simple operation.'
He would never have dared risk losing the light, except that the light pulsed and coiled around the optician in such a way as to indicate that he should have the operation, so he did.
When they took off the bandages the light was gone. The world in front of his eyes was simple, flat, and empty, just walls and furniture and people and empty space between them. He had never, not in his whole life, ever felt so alone.
When they asked him what he wanted for dinner, he did not know. When they asked him if he wanted to go out, he did not know. When the optician asked him which circle was clearer, the one on the green background or the one on the red background, much to her annoyance, he did not know.
Back at work his performance suffered. He dithered over everything, he saw risks and potential pitfalls in every choice, every advantage seemed to come with a twin disadvantage that negated it and it was never clear which was the best way forward. The department he headed all but ground to a halt because he could not make a decision, his subordinates complained that he would give no clear guidance, and after a few weeks he persuaded his doctor to sign him off with stress.
Without the light he was hamstrung, he could not cope.
Craving something definite, something he could hang on to, he decided to have his death read.
His wife and friends tried to persuade him not to. It was not considered a good idea - the information was often cryptic and rarely, if ever, helpful. People's lives were ruined by the knowledge of their deaths. They were told 'heart attack' and never fully enjoyed another meal, they were told 'drowning' and would never go swimming again, they were told 'car crash' and became quivering wrecks anywhere near a road.
Gustav, however, needed something to replace the light. If he could no longer see where to go next he would at least know where he would end up. He was desperate for certainty. Certainty of any kind. So he did it.
It said: 'knocked sideways.'
It was worse than anyone had warned him. They told him he would walk out a frightened man but that would have been fine, if he had known what to be frightened of. Instead he walked out confused, none the wiser - worse than none the wiser because the information was cryptic. What could it mean? Would he be physically knocked sideways? Perhaps by a bus? Would he be surprised to death? Maybe it meant death from shock? Or maybe it was something far stranger - would he knock on a door while standing side on to it and somehow that would be the end of him? Perhaps it meant the loss of the light? Nothing else in his life could ever be said to have knocked him sideways like that had. Had it already set in motion the cause of his death?
It was ludicrous. There was no hope of ever deciphering the machine's prediction. He sat down by the side of the road, dejected. There was no certainty in life, just endless endless unknowns, an ever expanding horizon of ignorance. And no true companions, just other people, unknown minds stuck inside the vessels of their bodies, peering out of their eyes equally as lost and as confused. Each a universe unto themselves, universe upon universe of solitude and confusion passing each other in the containers of their bodies, ever separated by their inability to know what the other universes were thinking.
For the first time he truly understood why he had been so successful all his life. People craved certainty, they lived without it all their lives and when they saw it in others they clung to it like they used to cling to their mothers. He stood up. This would not do. He might have lost his guiding light but he would not take it away from anybody else, least of all his colleagues and his family. He would go back to work and he would damn well pretend to know the answers. He had had enough practice over the years, all he had to do was act like he knew what he was doing and who knew, maybe he even did.
No, he thought, wait, it was probably not wise to turn up unannounced. He would go home and call first. He went to cross the road and was physically hit from the side, by a bus.
The last thing he saw was a brilliant corridor of white light.