I wrote this story almost exactly a year ago on 17 September 2011 for a last-minute entry to the second Machine of Death collexion which I only found out about a few hours before submissions closed. I wasn't really sure what to do with the story, figuring that at some point I'd maybe put it up somewhere. Anyway, here it is, exactly as it was submitted:
Waves of fire engulfed the city streets as its denizens spilled into the nooks of alleys and through broken windowpanes, muffling their wounded and tossing homemade grenades or returning fire with whatever dilapidated arms the resistance had been able to accrue. Remote-controlled jets swooped overhead, photographing the culprits, as soldiers marched in three-tiered rows spanning the street with automatic rifles and heavy bullet-proof armour. Tanks crawled behind them, belching canister shots in the direction of any perceived gathering of malcontents. The thunder of battle finally reached Beijing Laboratory №918.
‘Continue working!’ shouted the supervisor, as he slammed the windows shut. ‘This petty nonsense will be over by the end of the day with all of those traitors dead.’ and walked back into his office. Lili gave a shallow sigh and pushed her chair away from the computer, quietly rising and moving to the water cooler at the opposite end of the room. Dongfeng watched her from the other side of the terminal, and wondered if she had been taught by her grandmother how to move so gracefully. She should not have been a programmer, he thought, but a ballerina for the National Ballet. Lili turned with a cup of water and began making her way back to the computer. Dongfeng quickly averted his eyes to the monitor and tried remembering where he’d left off.
‘Are you at all worried?’ Dongfeng froze.
‘I’m sorry. I was asking if you’re at all worried about this uprising.’ Lili said. ‘They’re right outside our doors, and Shu is keeping us here to work on this project for the Government. Don’t you think that’s risky? We could die.’
Dongfeng tried not to look too long into her eyes. He cleared his throat. ‘Well, the news says that this should all be over by day’s end. We have the most powerful military in the world: I don’t think that some armed hooligans are going to have the chance to topple anything.’
Lili sighed again. ‘You’re not answering my question, though. Win or lose, there’s warfare erupting right outside our lab. One stray or calculated strike, and it could be any of us being reported on the news as a statistic.’ Ah, a woman’s mind. Dongfeng raced to think of something comforting to assuage her with.
‘If they’re right outside, that means that the Army’s there, too. They’ll knock the insurgents back before you know it, and we’ll be riding the bus home for dinner like any other day.’
‘Maybe you’re right,’ she said, and took a long sip of water before returning to entering data. But the skirmishes raged on outside, the screams and explosions echoing through the concrete walls. Various blasts shook the building, and the yelling began to take more authoritative tones. Soon the slacking workers found their Internet disabled. Shu seemed to be answering the phone every few minutes until he finally emerged from his office, wide-eyed and covered in an oily layer of sweat.
‘Alright, comrades, how far along are we?’ he ejaculated. Down the line, all the various scientists came up in a positive that the machine was ready, and only waiting upon the programme to begin any further testing. ‘And the programmers?’ Shu asked, ‘What’s your status?’
‘I think that we’re all pretty much ready,’ Dongfeng answered. ‘But some of the code I’ve been reviewing is a little sloppy; I’ve been reworking some of it.’
‘We don’t have time for that,’ Shu barked. ‘Just finish whatever you’re on right now and get ready to upload it to the machine.’
‘Mr Shu, just give me—‘
‘No!’ Shu shouted, ‘This has to be done today. Those phone calls were from presidential aides and various secretaries for the Party asking to know when we would be able to present this machine. If we can’t get this completed, we might as well kiss our careers and livelihoods good-bye.’
Dongfeng shrunk back into his seat. ‘Yes, sir. I’ll start uploading the approved components now.’
‘Good man,’ Shu said, and went back into his office just as the phone returned to ringing. ‘Hello? Oh, hello, uh, yes. Yes. Very soon. Today, even.’ The door slammed and his nervous diatribe muffled.
Dongfeng rubbed his eyes and cracked his knuckles. He was a programmer - he didn’t work well under pressure. That was supposed to end with school. What was this, Japan? It was all right. He had this...
A few simplifications here, a few specifications there... ugh, such terribly written code. How did these people get hired? Dongfeng pounded the keys as fast as he could with an eye on the digital clock in the bottom left-hand corner. Some of the code was just too ugly and convoluted. There was no way that the machine would be able to function with garbage like this; and an hour wasn’t enough time to clean up their mess.
‘Hey,’ Lili called from across the terminal. ‘Dongfeng! Do you need help? We can split up the work, if you need. It’s just reading, right?’
He could feel himself hesitating, but knowing there wasn’t time to entertain his perfectionism. She didn’t have as keen an eye as he, but then again, there wasn’t time for that. He sighed, ‘Um, yeah, sure. Hold on a second, I’ll transfer some of this to you. Just send it back when you’re done, because I’m the only one with authorisation to upload the files.’
Dongfeng suddenly felt Shu hovering behind him. ‘It’s been over an hour,’ Shu said. ‘This better be the last one.’ It wasn’t, but Dongfeng realised that his compulsion had gotten the best of him, and that he couldn’t let Shu in on it.
‘Yeah, of course,’ Dongfeng answered, and uploaded the remaining files to the machine. Within ten minutes, it was finished. He felt a mixed sense of relief and guilt.
‘Wonderful,’ Shu exclaimed. ‘Will one of you boys over there start her up so that we can see if it works or not?’ With the press of a button, the machine, which seemed to share attributes with a tower PC, came to life. It hummed and clicked, soon displaying a blinking curser. Dongfeng walked over and typed:
The machine beeped and began to click some more.
As the percentage grew, it seemed to speed up until finally it had reached the 90s. Dongfeng suddenly realised that the room had become silent, as Shu and the other scientists carefully watched the machine come to life. The screen went blank, and then:
INSERT FINGER TO DRAW LOT
‘So, who’s going first?’ Shu asked. ‘Anyone?’
‘How about you?’ someone called.
‘Shut up, Wu.’ Shu retorted. ‘As a matter of respect, you should know that it’s none of your business what the fate of your superior is.’ The room fell silent again. ‘Now come on, before I choose at random. Someone stand up and be a man. I’ll even put a good word in for you when this is delivered to the party.’
Dongfeng stepped forward. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘Good man, good man!’ Shu said, patting him on the back. ‘Now just stick your finger in that socket and you’ll feel a little prick. Then we’ll find out your destiny.’
Dongfeng did as he was told. He felt the quick pinch of a needle and the dull pain of blood being pulled from his finger, and then it was over.
‘How long will this take?’ Shu asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Dongfeng answered. All of its components are military-grade. It should be pretty quick.’ The machine hummed between bouts of clicking and whirring. Dongfeng bit his lip in anticipation, wondering how it would all come to end. Presumably.
And then it hit him: Silence. It wasn’t just in the room, but in the streets as well. He looked to Shu, but the man seemed to not have noticed. Curiosity pulled Dongfeng towards the windows. As everyone else looked on, he traversed the floor to peer outside: it seemed as that everyone else had suddenly noticed as well.
A tank burned in the street, with blood and flesh encircling the fiery heap. Dongfend squinted to focus at the debris, looking for some sign of victory. Something stirred from behind the tank, a helmet – no, helmets. Why would the Army be taking cover? What had happened?
` And then it hit him.
‘Mr Shu, we need to lock and barricade the doors now.’
‘What?’ the man asked. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘They’re in the building. They’re using it for refuge and hostages.’
‘What?’ The machine beeped and printed out a card. ‘Wait a minute now, your lot has been cast,’ Shu chuckled. He clicked his tongue and shook his head.
‘This is serious, everyone,’ Dongfeng said. ‘We don’t have time for beta testing, if it even works.’
‘You’re doubting Project Fate?’ Shu asked.
‘What? I—no, I—well, fine, what does it say?’
‘Love,’ Shu said, walking over to the windows and handing him the card. Everyone seemed to chuckle and murmur to each other. Dongfeng looked over to Lili, who smiled back at him in surprised amusement.
‘Well, that’s obviously not going to happen any time soon,’ Dongfeng said, ‘Now will you pay some attention to the serious issue at hand?’
‘I would, but it’s utterly ridiculous, Dongfeng, and you know it. You don’t think that the Chinese Army can overpower a few amateur rebels? Come on, now.’
‘Take a look for yourself!’ Dongfeng motioned out the window.
‘I plan on it,’ Shu said, and walked to the door. ‘There’s nobody out there but employees. This is a secret facility disguised as an apartment complex. Nobody is going to storm in here for hostages they don’t even know exist.’ He opened the door and walked into the hallway. ‘Hello? Any traitors out here? Oh.’ He walked back in followed by a masked man holding a semi-automatic weapon.
‘Don’t be alarmed. Stay calm and where you are. Nobody is here to harm you. We are only concerned with fighting our common enemy, the totalitarian regime of the so-called People’s Republic of China.’ Dongfeng slowly began backing up to rejoin the crowd. ‘Hold it right there, brother,’ the man said, bringing his nozzle up to face Dongfeng. ‘Let’s just take it easy for a moment, shall we? I don’t want to distrust you, but I don’t know where you’re going and I can’t take the risk.’ Dongfeng could feel his teeth grating together.
‘Who said that?’ the man asked.
Lili stepped forward. ‘I did.’
‘Come over here,’ the man said.
‘Leave her alone,’ Dongfeng retorted. ‘Use me as a hostage. I’m the head of our programming department. I’m much more valuable.’ The man seemed to stop and consider.
‘Alright, fine,’ he said. ‘Let’s take the high road,’ and walked over to where Dongfeng stood. ‘No more sudden moves unless I say, alright?’ Dongfeng turned his head and spat in his eye, grabbing the rifle and trying to free it from the insurgent’s hands. The masked man punched him in the head and pulled the trigger, rapidly firing a barrage of bullets into Dongfeng’s chest. The scientists shouted and ducked for cover, Lili letting out a sharp cry. Shu stood motionless.
A tear rolled down Dongfeng’s eye. ‘Long live the People’s Revolution!’ he managed to whisper.
‘You sad fool,’ the man said, ‘this is the people’s revolution.’ A crumpled piece of paper fell from Dongfeng’s hand. ‘What this?’ the man asked, picking it up and examining it. ‘Love?’
‘It... it was how he was supposed to die,’ Lili sobbed. ‘He was supposed to die for love...’
‘Just what the hell are you people going in here?’ the man asked.
‘Project Fate,’ she replied, ‘A way to predict the deaths of every member of Government. It took us years to build that machine.’
‘Well,’ the man said, ‘I don’t believe in fate,’ and unloaded unto the machine.