3. The Discovery
“Sleepwalking?” Luke asked. “Why a forum about sleepwalking?”
“I suppose it could’ve been any forum,” Nick said from behind the bar. “But that message was the spark.” He tore the bag of ground beans open and smiled as the scent wafted up, thick and heavy as a tropical fog.
“How?” Luke stood up, peered through the window, and sat down again.
“The link was a shortcut to the world’s biggest obituary,” Nick said. “Every death on record stored in one single file. The man had built a simple search function for it. You put in your name and date of birth, hit search, and the precise time and date popped up on the screen. Did you never try?”
“No,” Luke said. “I heard there was some crazy psychic website, that’s all. This guy back in the office told me to search for my social security number. He looked a bit wild, but I didn’t think twice before looking, so I searched online I found my name in a list on a news website.”
“There are copies of the list everywhere,” Nick said. “Thousands, probably. Or were; I reckon a lot of websites are down now.”
Luke gazed into the distance while his mouth worked.
“Is it true?” Luke managed at last. “Will I really die in a few minutes?”
“I think so.”
“That’s sick. It’s just evil. Why didn’t they stop a thing like this?”
“I’m not sure how you’d stop a blog,” Nick said. “It’s not exactly a runaway truck.”
Luke shook his head and made a chopping motion in the air with his hand, as if handing out important directives to an imaginary audience.
“They could’ve contained the rumour,” Luke said. “They should’ve stepped in and pulled the curtain down. Blacked it out, deleted the stuff. Or just burnt the place down.”
Nick shrugged and hummed noncommittally. He wondered who Luke’s they were, and what place they were supposed to have torched. Most likely, the man had watched too many shows in which law-upholding organizations or hackers with godlike skills could reach into computer networks and work magic. The truth was simpler, and maybe scarier: nothing stopped an online story. He checked a meter and nodded to himself; the water was almost hot enough.
“In the beginning,” Nick said, “there was no rumour to stop because no one cared. Scam detection is part of the junior school curriculums, and that post had all the hallmarks.”
“How do you even know all this?”
“I had time to read the news. One of the few perks of driving a cab.”
“Huh,” Luke said. “So did you try looking up your number?”
“Of course. Although I searched the news first and read about others who’d done it. Not everyone had got a result, and most of those who did had received a date twenty or so years from now. It didn’t mean much. But then I read about this one guy who’d called a relative in Maryvale.”
“And asked about the twister?”
“Exactly. And there had been a tornado there. Twenty-two people had died. The time was right, too.”
“Jesus Christ,” Luke mumbled and wiped his brow.
“And that’s when it went viral,” Nick continued. “People started to talk like there were no tomorrow. It’s no surprise that the loudest ones were those whose tomorrows, according to the website, really wouldn’t come at all. And there were surprisingly many. This will be a little noisy.”
Turning back to the espresso machine, Nick wondered how long it would take Luke to arrive at the question that had struck Nick when he’d read how many who were destined to pass away within a few days. Reading that piece of information had left Nick with had an unpleasant feeling that everything he did, every step and unspoken thought, were spreading like rings on a pond, multiplying and crisscrossing as they reached farther and farther away, across the day and into the next.
He let the hot water make its way through the coffee while he thought back on the hurricane of arguments that had followed the revelation about the twister. In the earliest hours, people had offered explanations, conspiracy theories, doubt and sarcasm.
A Seattle student and prominent member of the cynical faction had found that he would pass away the following hour after he’d found his day of death on the list. He gleefully posted a list of outrageous final wishes, and also promised to post the minute after his supposed demise, hoping to spit in the eye of fate as well as his opponents.
The student never reappeared on the blog. There were hundreds of possible reasons for his absence, and no proof of that he had been honest about his predicted moment of death in the first case. But whether because of a hoax, disinterest or a computer crash, the man remained offline.
The discussion spread quickly after that. More people searched the database to dip their mortal toes in the seemingly clairvoyant pool of ominous data. The file only held US records, and it was incomplete, but it was still large enough to predict the fate of most who explored it.
Within minutes, a terrified Florida banker posted a story of how she had entered her neighbour’s details earlier and found that he would die from heart seizure the same day. Afraid to appear superstitious, the banker had not told the neighbour, but when the ambulances had rolled up on the driveway next door, she had flung herself onto the forums and told her story in endless, guilt-wracked posts.
About that time, media perked up its ears.
A short news clip on a major channel drew worldwide attention to the mysterious database. With the number of people now involved, there was soon another foreseen death. Another predicted demise followed. After that, several others. And then, an avalanche. Society came to a sudden, confused, and violent halt.
People with presumed minutes to live caused mayhem as they wandered away from trains and offices, construction sites and airports, army bases and care homes. Churches were flooded with terrified men and women who had found themselves fenced in by fate. Stock markets turned into runaway roller coasters as exact life spans were factored into the global economy. Those who did not try the database watched, envied or feared the people who did.
Authorities everywhere had tried to block access to the file, but copies sprung up on countless new servers. Officially, governments claimed it was a scam. Unofficially, houses were stormed and threats were made in trying to find the source.
“Where was it, then?” Luke asked. “Some terrorist cell?” He glanced at the clock on the wall.
“What?” Nick said, frowning. “No, it was the Experiment. Another technician found the same data deep in the mountain of information they had unearthed.”
Nick lifted the two tiny cups of steaming coffee from the bar and carried them across the room.
“Morons,” Luke growled. “They must’ve realized how stupid it’d be to post it online.”
Nick sighed as he sat down in front of Luke. Again, the harried man thought they were to blame, as if the world was suffering from a platoon of anonymous, ill-willing goblins responsible for all that was wrong.
Another group of people stormed past the window. This time, it was a peaceful posse, laughing and singing as they swished down the road.
“They never intended to post anything like this,” Nick said. “From what I’ve heard, one of the technicians who had been poring over the sea of data had stumbled on the death records. Before telling anyone, he had searched for – and found – his own details, and learnt that he had only a few days left to live.”
“And he freaked out?” Luke guessed.
Nick nodded and slowly spun his cup on its tray.
“The files were still open on his laptop in his office,” Nick said. “I think he was doomed to die from a broken neck. Not a fun discovery if you were a die-hard believer in the data like he was.”
Nick wondered how that technician had felt when he’d spotted his own name. He’d rolled a ball down the corridor of time, and it had come back a bullet. Had he doubted what he saw, or had he immediately accepted the details of his digital tombstone? Had he regretted ever touching the data or been grateful for his insight? No one would ever know.
“I get it,” Luke said. “The technician posted the record online and then bolted. Am I right?”
“Exactly. Drink your coffee before it cools down. It’s losing flavour.”
Luke glanced down at his cup as if surprised to see it before him, but he did not touch it. Nick supposed the man did not trust him. He could not blame him.
“His car was traced to a cliff in a nature reserve. He’d abandoned his vehicle in the fog and wandered up the hillside. Perhaps the idea of dying in an office sickened him, and he hoped instead to die in a more scenic place. After all, how many graceful ways are there to pass away between nine to five?”
“There aren’t any pretty ways to die,” Luke said. “Death is messy, and I’m not having any of it. No one way is better than another.”
Nick shrugged. “To each his own,” he said.
Nick touched the cup to his mouth and tipped it over his lip. Images of large flowers and rich, brown dirt flared up in his imagination. Wild rivers of aromas stored inside a thimbleful of fine powder. A hundred flavours washed over his tongue and sank into his body, into his essence.
Grinning with pleasure, he considered the man who had disclosed the fateful database to the world. Liberator or antichrist, he’d been the ultimate protagonist of his time, and his legacy was in full effect outside the cafe’s windows.