[I wrote this story five years ago as a submission for the second Machine of Death collection. The premise behind the stories there, and therefore obviously behind this one, is that there is a machine which, given a blood sample, can infallibly predict the manner of someone’s death, though not the time or the place. The answers are often cryptic, but always correct. The story wasn’t chosen for the collection, but I’ve occasionally thought about expanding it out into a proper book and releasing it on its own. For now, though, it’s still in super-short story form. –M]
Timothy Higgins, forty-seven minutes old, is screaming. The world around him is cold and unpleasant, filled with a light that hurts his eyes and populated by shapes he cannot yet distinguish. Something sharp has just stabbed his finger, and he is howling at the unfairness of it all.
Doctor Liu feeds Timothy’s blood sample into the Predictor, glances at the readout screen and dutifully records “nova” in the section marked “Cause of Death.” He is puzzled, but privately relieved; better an ambiguous reading than the glut of violent deaths he has been seeing lately. Riot, war, starvation, suicide — Dr. Liu, for the first time in his life, is glad that his own prediction reads “car crash.” Whatever is coming, he thinks, he’ll be lucky to miss it.
Timothy Higgins is the first last man on Earth.
Timothy Higgins, eight years old, is cornered. Earlier in the school year, he and his friends had been comparing deaths to determine whose was coolest. Jerry had won with “immolation,” once they all looked up what it meant. Timmy had argued that a nova was immolation, only bigger, but the other kids had all laughed when Jacob had retorted that he probably just had an allergy to salmon.
Now, though, Jerry has a new sister. Last night, he stole a look at her birth certificate, and the prediction said “nova.” Jerry and the others have surrounded Timmy, backed him against a brick wall on the playground, and are threatening him. Jerry tells him to stay away from his little sister. Timmy tells Jerry to shut up or he’ll immolate him right now. Jerry shoves him. There is yelling and, before the playground monitor can break it up, blood and tears.
Later, Jerry passes Timmy a folded note. Inside is a drawing of a boy with an exploding head, a ring of tears flying away. Below the picture, it says, “You’re going to die in a tear nova, crybaby.” That night, Timmy sets the note on fire in his backyard, and hopes Jerry’s immolation comes soon.
Timothy Higgins, sixteen years old, is sick of jokes about Chevy Novas.
Timothy Higgins, eighteen years old, is safe. The government has instituted a draft for everyone 18-45 whose prediction reads “war.” The political battle over the law was long and vicious, but in the end, it all boiled down to one feeling: the Predictors were never wrong, so there was clearly going to be a war. Therefore, it was best to meet it with as well-trained and well-armed a force as possible.
Unspoken is the corollary — if there is going to be a war, better for it to be in someone else’s country. The world watches with trepidation, and soon each country begins its own preparations. Across the globe, protests break out. People gather to burn their birth certificates in symbolic protest. Hospitals are broken into, their Predictors smashed. The first of the riots begin.
Timothy Higgins, twenty-six years old, is hiding. The power has been out for days, and his cell phone has finally run dead. His stockpile of food and water is enough to see him through many weeks, but the feeling of powerlessness weighs heavily upon him. His prediction is no protection; tens of thousands of people now have “nova,” and in response, many of the recently-formed gangs have adopted the name. The last Tim heard, there was no sign of instability in the Sun, and so the Novas on motorcycles outside seem the much more likely danger. Therefore he hides, and wonders about his parents and friends, and hates himself.
The wars have not yet started, but everyone knows it’s only a matter of time. Most of the nations have broken off diplomatic relations with each other on one pretext or another. The governments are reluctant to send in their militaries to suppress the gangs; since many of the gang members carry “war” predictions, no one wants to pit another “war” group against them for fear of instigating The Big One. It is left to the citizens to form neighborhood militias. The ones with “starvation” predictions take on organizer roles; they have the most to lose by waiting.
Tim reluctantly joins a group, but quickly comes to love it. Though he is still afraid to die, he finds that the fear is better than the self-loathing that came with living like a rat in a hole.
Timothy Higgins, thirty-nine years old, is terrified. He and his wife have traveled over a hundred miles, negotiating their way through three gang border crossings, to reach a hospital with a working Predictor. The doctor is delivering their baby now, and Tim is in the waiting room, unconsciously wringing his hands. His wife banned him from the delivery room an hour earlier for pacing, and now he is by himself, just waiting.
The doctor calls him back in to introduce him to his son. His wife, wan but smiling, holds the baby in the crook of one arm. In her opposite hand is the birth certificate. Tim rushes in, takes the certificate from his wife with trembling fingers, and reads: heart failure.
Tim lets out his breath in an exultant laugh and joyfully kisses his wife and his infant son.
Timothy Higgins, fifty-seven years old, is at war. The report has come out at last — the Sun is failing, likely within the next century. This is a surprise to no one, as millions of people now have the “nova” prediction, but the confirmation touches a match to the waiting powderkeg. Several nations simultaneously declare preemptive war to protect themselves from invasion; others declare war in response to these acts of aggression. The gangs rise up as well, some to join in, some to fight back, and some simply to protect their territory. There is no safe place.
This time, Tim is the one to organize the neighborhood into a defensive unit. He works side by side with his family and neighbors to raise barricades, for although his family has been predicted safe, others have less certainty.
The group takes comfort in Tim’s stolid demeanor, and when the fighting turns their way, they are able to repulse the attacks and take care of their wounded in relative comfort. That night, Tim’s son compliments his leadership, and he feels an almost overwhelming burst of pride for everything he’s made of his small piece of the world.
Elsewhere, the violence escalates, and the nuclear bombs begin to fall.
Timothy Higgins, ninety-four years old, is crying. Two days ago, his son failed to come by with the weekly groceries, or answer the phone when Tim called. When Tim made his laborious way through the neighborhood to his son’s house, he found him still in bed, apparently asleep but unrousable.
Tim buries his boy next to his wife, and sheds tears for the son he always knew he would outlive. He is not alone, though; since the communications networks began to be restored a decade ago, the Nova Network has risen to prominence. At first just a collection of survivors with the “nova” prediction, it quickly became a force of repair in a broken world, reestablishing roads and utilities and rebuilding the Predictors. As more Novas joined, it almost inevitably became a political movement.
Although portions of the world are still cut off from the rest, it is estimated that no more than a hundred million people remain. Of those, over three-quarters are Novas. The inevitability has brought with it a sense of calm, a strange harmony. The Novas have been slowly gathering in the more inhabitable places, awaiting the day when they are the only ones left.
Timothy Higgins, one hundred and six years old, is resting. He is sitting on his porch and looking up at the sky, though he is no longer able to see anything more than patterns of darkness and light. The sun hangs low in the sky, huge and swollen like a rotten blood orange, oozing thick, red light over the landscape. Beside him, and filling the nearby porches, are other Novas.
The last known non-Nova died of lung cancer this morning. Without discussion, the Novas have gathered outside to watch the sky. There are no more accidents remaining, no more mishaps or genetic defects. There is only one end left, and they will all share it together.
As the sun swells to hurt even Timothy’s blind eyes, relieved only in spots by the shapes of people he can no longer distinguish, he hears the gasps of the surrounding Novas. Someone takes his hand, grips it tightly.
The heat washes over him, and Timothy Higgins, the last man on Earth, smiles.