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Machine of Death Entry: Corporate Negligence, v.0.5, BETA RELEASE

UPDATE: This now has two versions- one with comments, and one without. To skip to the comments, click here.

This is the official "First Draft", complete with all of the major plot points that I want in the story. I'm looking for feedback on the general structure of the story as a whole, the specific characters that we've got, and the actual implementation of the core plot points.

CHANGELOG
v. 0.1 Initial draft release. A basic exposition of the core featureset of the story, released on Oort-Cloud only for early "alpha" phase feedback.

v. 0.2 Removed the "Syphilis" gag. Too slapstick and not dramatic enough. Replaced it with an allusion, relying on the reader's imagination to create the the most humiliating possible death.

v. 0.3 Expanded on the fiscal problems with the company.

v. 0.3.1 Fixed typos

v. 0.3.2 Expanded the research conversation more, added details, touched up wording.

v. 0.3.3 More typos, general maintenance.

v. 0.3.3.5 Documented the story, adding comments to improve the overall "critiquability" of the story. For the reader: comments are denoted using a "" and they're going to always be on their own line. In "production" releases of the story, they will be stripped out before distribution. Comments are my own commentary about my intent, ideas, and what I think needs fixing.

v. 0.4 Touched up the second board meeting/demo.

v. 0.5 Beta release. Added a conclusion. All major features are implemented.
v. 0.5a Version without comments.

----

"Explain to me, exactly," Greg Jones said with the deliberation of a thunderhead moving up on the horizons, "why sales are dropping?" He stood at the head of the boardroom table, dark against the glare of the projector. On the wall behind him glowed a graph showing sales figures over the past six months- a steady upwards climb was terminated by a sharp precipice. _Extremely_ sharp.

"You see," Greg lowered his voice, "I'm really curious." The last word was a threat, a promise and a loaded gun looking for a target. "I've got shareholders behind me and the devil himself in front of me _demanding_ an explanation, and it's the shareholders that I'm worried about." He slammed his fist into the table, causing the notebooks and laptops and BlackBerrys to jounce and clatter. Shocked, the VP of HR spilled her glass of ice-water. "There are bids on the table. The competition wants to buy us out, absorb us and get what little we have. We're a gimped seal and they're a great big bunch of killer whales and I want to know what the fuck went wrong!"

His exclamation floated around the table, watching and waiting for the first sign of weakness, the first outburst that would allow him to bring death and a severance package upon the transgressor.

Around the table, VPs of various departments looked askance at each other, trying to hold out so that someone else would open their mouths first, and hence draw President Jones's wrath onto them. "Sir?" Chairs creaked as everyone in the boardroom turned their gaze onto VP of Marketing, Alexis Patterson. "Look," she moistened her lips with her tongue as she fought for the right words to explain this and somehow dodge the bullet she had made herself a target for. Around the table gazes turned from concerned to hungry; they smelled her weakness. "That sales spike was a lie- a myth. That wasn't our real sales."

Greg Jones laughed menacingly. "Oh, _really_?" He stalked around the table, hands jammed into his pockets in a faux casual gesture until he was directly across from Alexis. "The shareholders definitely think they're real sales. And they're going to be very concerned when the dividends for this quarter are nonexistent."

"It was a bubble!" She exclaimed, the emotion in her voice signaling the end of her career in this boardroom. A few quick breaths calmed her down, and she continued, in an even tone of voice, trying to smooth over the social error in her outburst. "It was a bubble," she set her pen down on her notepad, a bit too roughly, in an attempt to stop fidgeting with it. "There was nothing in the market like the Machine. But the problem is- no one needs to use it more than once. The revenues from the doctor's office sales have been pretty static the entire time, but you'll notice the real drop was in publicly consumable Machines. I..." she started to lose steam, before powering up again and making it over the rise. "I've been warning against this from the marketing side for months," she reminded the table. "There's no future revenue possibilities- all you're going to get is this spike, and it's all downhill from here. I recommend we take the money we've made and recapitalize it into a different investment." A puff of air at the end of the sentence indicated that she was finished, and possibly in more way then one.

"Unacceptable," Jones said when she finished. "I understand the practical realities, but any VP of marketing worth anything should be able to make people buy things they don't need again and again and again. If you can't do that, we'll find someone who can." He glanced around the table, looking for more feedback.

Alexis slammed her pen down again, this time intentionally to draw the focus back onto her. "Look, you stupid ass, listen to the words I'm saying," she said, rising from her seat. On her feet, Alexis was surprisingly tall, built more like a mediocre transvestite than a wilting flower. She angled her gaze down towards Jones. "You're asking the impossible and you're wasting the shareholder's money while you do it. The Machine is a broken business model and the only way to fix it is to find some way to make the predictions something that changes each time somebody takes the test so they keep coming back."

Silence descended on the room, and Greg Jones's thundercloud burst, his slack jaw a momentary burst of sunlight . Alexis, certain of her fate, began gathering her things. "Miss Patterson, I do believe you can keep your job. R&D- what's the feasibility of Miss Patterson's suggestion?"

The VP of R&D shrugged. "What suggestion? We don't know how the damn thing works- just that it does. What, exactly, am I supposed to change to make it randomize?"

"I think I can repeat my original comment to Miss Patterson, Victor," Greg threatened, "this is a merely technical problem that I am certain you can rectify. And now that Miss Patterson has shown us the basic suggestion, I'm certain we can develop a few spinoffs- if it gives you a varied prediction every time- what could this mean?"

"Personal predictors! One per person. Throw a limiter on so it's disposable and needs to be replaced ever ten uses." "'Premium' predictions where we take a few and average them using patented algorithms!" "A collectable promotion! Collect all the predictions for your mode of death! Trade them with friends!"

And so on- the suggestions flew from the board; Alexis collapsed in her seat silently relieved. Poor Victor though- she hadn't exactly intended to make an enemy of him. Every once in awhile, he glanced in her direction, right before throwing out a technical objection to the ideas that were flying about the room. She had done him the disservice of whetting their appetites for advancement, and he knew his department couldn't deliver. It wasn't a mere technical problem- nobody knew how the Machine worked- it was one of those accidents of manufacturing that couldn't be easily replicated or analyzed. She didn't let herself feel too bad over it though, it was the nature of the beast after all.

----

"Fuck me," James Trent said as the word came down from above in a carefully typewritten memo nailed to the door of the lab like a set of theses. The good news- R&D was getting money. The bad? R&D was going to need to work for it. "Shit on me," he added as he kicked open the door to the R&D lab. The lab was tiny, cramped, poorly lit and understaffed. Why the hell did they need an R&D department? A Machine that predicted your mode of death was an incredible advancement! They'd be millionaires! Fantastically rich! The R&D department was more of a formality, more of an afterthought- every big company marketing a product needed an R&D department.

"Sex and shit? Not for me thanks, but try putting an ad on Craigslist." Fellow lab rat Kevyn Bright stumbled in behind him, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the poorly lit laboratory.

"No, seriously," Trent wadded the memo up and chucked it over his shoulder at Bright. "They want us to change the design of the Machine."

"New form factor?" Bright bobbled the catch and had to scoop the ball of paper from the floor. After reading the memo, he spat his own string of curses. "They don't have the foggiest idea what they're asking, do they?"

Trent shrugged as he fell into a chair before an aging computer console. Piled around the desk were the various constituent components of the Machine, the innards exposed for their "research" and some basic tinkering. It was a struggle closer to that of Sisyphus, but at least they got a paycheck out of the deal. "They're management," he said it like a curse, "what the hell do they know on the best of days?"

Above the computer was taped a photograph of the first notable Victim, as Trent liked to call her. Young, pretty, and eventually crushed to death by the steering column of her car when a head-on collision drove it through her chest. He didn't remember her name, despite the news coverage when it happened. The only identification was a simple case number scrawled into the bottom edge of the Polaroid and the prediction: "Corporate Negligence". As an early test, they thought it had failed, until a subsequent investigation determined that proper safety precautions had been ignored and her death was the result of poor manufacturing. "Machine Solves Mystery" was the headline, if he remembered correctly. The research into the Machine helped spur the full investigation that confirmed the correct prediction.

All that had happened before Trent was head of the project, before he even worked for the company. Back then, all Machine related research was built around the work of Gary Young- who died of old age, as predicted by the Machine. He was the inventor, but his notoriously poor documentation and his poor understanding of what the Machine actually did left them all groping in the dark. With the initial success, there was very little emphasis on improving the Machine- which meant Trent spent his time tinkering and generally goofing off.

Bright pulled up a stool so that he was facing Trent, and shrugged heavily in his bulky sweater. "Okay- so what are the big problems with what they're asking?" This was his first sally in what was sure to be a long brainstorming session. They had these conversations every day, but rarely did it focus on work; more often it was their analysis of "Star Trek" versus _Star Wars_, what physical principles could be used to replicate a light-saber, which edition of _Dungeons and Dragons_ was superior and the best weapon with which to survive a zombie outbreak. These incredibly nerdy conversations evolved into a surprisingly advanced Socratic dialogue, so that when it came time to analyze an actual complex and practical topic, they were surprisingly well equipped.

"Well, the obvious- we don't know what the hell we'd need to do to make that happen. But there's already complaints from a lot of sources- skeptics and the religious claim we're a sham, that the predictions are general and interpretable enough as to allow room for any death to be accounted for. If we add in a randomizer type thing, that's just gonna feed that fire. Even if we could figure out a way to randomize it." Trent ran a hand back through his hair, which fell back according to the whims of gravity, cascading into his eyes.

Bright shook his head. "That's a sales problem, right?" His hands floated in front of him as he talked, absently twisting as he tried to illustrate what he said physically. "Could we just break the machine? Make it spit out, what is, essentially garbage?"

Trent considered it, mentally diagramming out what little was known about the structure of the Machine, the behavior of its components and what would be needed to throw noise into it. "Maybe, but I think it'd be verifiably wrong. Like, GIGO." They fell silent, both of them considering their alternatives, when Trent sighed, frustrated. "It's idiotic. This whole Machine thing- people actually plan their lives around the fucking scrap of paper. They're idiots!" He kicked at the floor, childishly; the impact disturbed the pile of parts beside him, causing a small avalanche.

Bright nodded, considering the situation. He absently juggled the scrap of memo between his hands, rustling in rhythmically. "Okay, okay. You're right- people are idiots."

"A million businesses have minted money on that very premise," Trent drawled sarcastically.

"So let's lie, but be a little subtle. Take the output of the Machine, run it through a thesaurus, a couple of algorithms. Build it like a Furby."

"Excuse me?"

"Y'know those kids toys from a few years back? Everyone thought they had some sort of AI or someshit? That was all bull- it had a few simple expressive gestures, and people just thought it was more intelligent than it was. I saw an article in Wired or something about it."

Trent considered that idea, and as the idea settled down on him, his smile came back. This didn't require that they modify the machine- it was an add-on product. An after-market extension. "Do you smell that?" He looked around, wide eyed. "That's the smell of having a huge budget for a cheap solution."

"Which means new 'lab equipment'," Bright grinned, the prospect of a new, top of the line laptop certainly a motivation for the quick, easy and _cheap_ fix.

"To the whiteboard, Robin!" Trent called out dramatically, stabbing a finger in the air, before anticlimactically moving to the whiteboard to sketch out some design ideas.

----

The turnaround time was a week. A flurry of rather vitriolic communications flew between Victor in R&D and Alexis in Marketing as the implications of the design 'improvements' became clear. Accusations encoded in email, veiled insults and threats were the attatchments. As Victor became more confident of success, the exchanges became more polite, more relaxed and informal. By Thursday, he was working on positioning Alexis as his next mistress, because the success that his team had pulled out was nothing short of stunning- by his estimation. All was forgiven; the danger had turned into an opportunity.

"Allow me to demonstrate," he opened the board meeting. Greg Jones was, uncharacteristically, sitting at the head of the table, giving up his normal Colossus-like posture and Victor had the floor. Behind him were two identical version of the Machine, resting on their own tables. Trent hovered around them, a hen worrying over chicks. "First, may I ask, who here has taken the test before?"

Everyone's hand went up. "Oh," Victor was somewhat surprised.

"Our HMO requires it," Greg explained. For the benefit of the rest of the board, "Victor's wife works for the state and he gets her benefits."

"Yes, yes. They don't have that sort of requirement," Victor said. "No, that's good though. It makes for a more compelling demonstration. Could I have a volunteer then? Alexis?" He motioned for her to come up.

Reluctantly, she stood. "I'm not comfortable taking the test in front of anyone," she admitted, trying to hover near her seat and not move to take the test. "If it's okay... I'd like to..."

"Oh, just take the damn test," Greg barked, shocking her into action.

Despite herself, she stumbled to the front of the room. In a flash, Victor had her finger against the testing surface and a moment later, grabbed the slip that came from the output tray. Listlessly, she grabbed at it, trying to reclaim it before he read it aloud, but already she knew the cause was lost. Hopelessly, she turned penitent eyes on him, mouthing the word "Please".

Victor was initially ignorant of her pleas. He looked at the carefully printed block type, clear and crystal. Short, brief, words, yet they had a power over him, a power of shock, stabbing into his perceptions of Alexis. Stunned, he looked up at her, and became aware of her pressing desperation. He considered, for a moment, the stereotyped mother, imploring her son to "wear clean underwear," in case he was killed by a speeding car. "Wear clean underwear," lest she be forced to suffer the humiliation.

The humorous illogic was eradicated in the face of the real, true humiliation that was offered by that little note. Death was an intensely private matter, one that required discretion. Victor matched Alexis, stare for glare, plea for promise, and crumpled the small bit of paper tape in his hand. "Actually," he said, trying to work up the stomach to continue, "Alexis' death won't make that good of an example. Too obscure to really fit in our database."

"Cowards," Greg growled; his anger cascaded across the table and dropped onto the floor at their feet like a large weight. "I'll do it." A quick prick of the finger and a moment later, the results printed out. "Heart Attack" was clearly printed on the slip.

"Ah, that's perfect," Victor replied. "This one will make a good demonstration. Our esteemed President is headed for a heart attack- but as we all know, that's not a good guarantee. The Machine is somewhat... well, perverse, correct? Maybe my second, modified Machine can give us more information. Another finger, if you please?"

Instead of a short slip, this time, the Machine spit out a long chain of responses. Trent's hands dashed over a few hastily added knobs and levers, baroque additions that would be automated in the release version. "We're running it in demo mode," Victor admitted. "It's going through and generating as many possible responses as it can come up with based on the initial prediction of a heart attack." As the paper tape began to pool on the floor, he scooped it up and began reading it aloud. "Heart attack; coronary; arterial blockage; corporate negligence; poor diet; bad health; stress; broken heart; medical malpractice; the FDA..." he started to trail off as the responses got more and more puzzling. "There's, ah- a certain degree of randomness in this whole thing," he admitted lamely, ready to hear cries of "Charlatan". The last few suggestions seemed... nonsensical.

"Thats... that's _amazing_," Greg was grinning wolfishly. The veracity of the predictions was not his interest, it was the allure, the draw they created. "That's fantastic- every time, it's going to give them a random response like that?"

"As many as it can come up with," Victor replied, secretly relieved. "There's between 5 and 500 responses for most possible deaths, or so my research boys tell me."

"What's going to be the cost of implementing this globally?" the VP of Finance asked.

"Incredibly cheap, actually," Trent said, taking control as they moved into the more technical topics. He fired up a Powerpoint slideshow and moved into the next phase of the presentation- the technical details boiled down into childish phrases that non-technical people could understand. Victor didn't understand the technical details well enough to explain them, and letting him handle this part would be an exercise of the blind leading the blind. As it was, the technical aspects were explained in meaningless gibberish, inaccurate to Trent's technical experience and too complex for management. Even so, one glowing point stood out bright enough to throw dollar signs into the eyes of those present. The randomizer was not, itself, part of the machine. It was an add on, a separate product that could generate its own revenue stream. That was something the board would understand, something that Trent said, without realizing the significance. The money was meaningless to him, but Victor, who finalized the presentation, knew how crucial that would be.

----

For Trent and Bright, the next few weeks were incredibly busy. With Victor towing them around, they had to do demo after demo. For the shareholders, the top shareholders, technology conferences. They were hounded by the board to implement spin-offs, prepare the add-on for production. Layer upon layer of management involved itself, until neither Trent nor Bright were completely clear on what their objectives were any more.

It was a Friday when it all came to a sudden halt. Trent had taken to starting his day at ten or eleven. This generally gave the flurry of meaningless management emails time to die down and resolve themselves, and that allowed him to focus on just working. It beat having to play email-tag in order to demonstrate how hard he was "working". He was running extra late on that particular day, for no particular reason, and found Bright already waiting for him. "Did you forget your keys?" Trent smirked as he pulled out his own key-ring, complete with swiss army knife and USB drive. The assembly clattered loudly as he fished for the appropriate key.

His sidekick and accomplice, Bright, looked on silently, a bemused smile on his face.

Trent tried to put his key in the lock. Then he tried again. He spent a moment, checking to make sure he had the correct key. Bright snickered. Another attempt, and finally Trent resigned himself, "Let me guess, you already tried this." Bright nodded. "Did you call anyone?" Bright shook his head. "Fine, fine." Trent's cellphone was in his hand an instant later, Victor's number pulled from a one touch dial so that it didn't look like Trent had dialed at all. He simply raised the phone to his head and heard Victor's voice.

"I was wondering when you were going to call," Victor sounded bad. His voice was slurred, his speech slow.

"You were expecting a call," Trent asked, his voice taking on a warning tone. He didn't like being dicked around. "You know, there's far more polite ways to fire someone."

"That's exactly what I said when I couldn't get into _my_ office," Victor answered. Trent had to hold the phone a bit from his head, Victor was talking so loudly. "But, as it turns out, we're all fired. Everyone. Done. Dead. Doornail."

"What!" Trent pulled the phone closer again. Bright moved towards him, his face concerned. He started to open his mouth to ask a question but Trent put him off with a raised hand. "What the hell happened?"

"Hostile takeover. We were bought out by Saferica- some fly-by-night ambulance chasing insurance company. They're shutting us down and running off with the Machine patents."

They both sat on the phone silently for a few moments. Finally, "Oh" was all Trent replied. Then, "Hey, can I use you as a reference?"

************************************************************

CHANGELOG
v. 0.1 Initial draft release. A basic exposition of the core featureset of the story, released on Oort-Cloud only for early "alpha" phase feedback.

v. 0.2 Removed the "Syphilis" gag. Too slapstick and not dramatic enough. Replaced it with an allusion, relying on the reader's imagination to create the the most humiliating possible death.

v. 0.3 Expanded on the fiscal problems with the company.

v. 0.3.1 Fixed typos

v. 0.3.2 Expanded the research conversation more, added details, touched up wording.

v. 0.3.3 More typos, general maintenance.

v. 0.3.3.5 Documented the story, adding comments to improve the overall "critiquability" of the story. For the reader: comments are denoted using a "[" and "]" and they're going to always be on their own line. In "production" releases of the story, they will be stripped out before distribution. Comments are my own commentary about my intent, ideas, and what I think needs fixing.

v. 0.4 Touched up the second board meeting/demo.

v. 0.5 Beta release. Added a conclusion. All major features are implemented.

----

"Explain to me, exactly," Greg Jones said with the deliberation of a thunderhead moving up on the horizons, "why sales are dropping?" He stood at the head of the boardroom table, dark against the glare of the projector. On the wall behind him glowed a graph showing sales figures over the past six months- a steady upwards climb was terminated by a sharp precipice. _Extremely_ sharp.

[Greg is scenery, not a character. The "Pointy-Haired Boss" is an environmental hazard.]
[The financial trouble is foreshadowing- the entire "modified machine" will be brought to an end when the company is bought out, thus avoiding transgressing against the rules of the world.]

"You see," Greg lowered his voice, "I'm really curious." The last word was a threat, a promise and a loaded gun looking for a target. "I've got shareholders behind me and the devil himself in front of me _demanding_ an explanation, and it's the shareholders that I'm worried about." He slammed his fist into the table, causing the notebooks and laptops and BlackBerrys to jounce and clatter. Shocked, the VP of HR spilled her glass of ice-water. "There are bids on the table. The competition wants to buy us out, absorb us and get what little we have. We're a gimped seal and they're a great big bunch of killer whales and I want to know what the fuck went wrong!"

His exclamation floated around the table, watching and waiting for the first sign of weakness, the first outburst that would allow him to bring death and a severance package upon the transgressor.

Around the table, VPs of various departments looked askance at each other, trying to hold out so that someone else would open their mouths first, and hence draw President Jones's wrath onto them. "Sir?" Chairs creaked as everyone in the boardroom turned their gaze onto VP of Marketing, Alexis Patterson. "Look," she moistened her lips with her tongue as she fought for the right words to explain this and somehow dodge the bullet she had made herself a target for. Around the table gazes turned from concerned to hungry; they smelled her weakness. "That sales spike was a lie- a myth. That wasn't our real sales."

[Overall, I'm pretty satisfied with this section. There's nothing indicating major needs for repair.]

Greg Jones laughed menacingly. "Oh, _really_?" He stalked around the table, hands jammed into his pockets in a faux casual gesture until he was directly across from Alexis. "The shareholders definitely think they're real sales. And they're going to be very concerned when the dividends for this quarter are nonexistent."

"It was a bubble!" She exclaimed, the emotion in her voice signaling the end of her career in this boardroom. A few quick breaths calmed her down, and she continued, in an even tone of voice, trying to smooth over the social error in her outburst. "It was a bubble," she set her pen down on her notepad, a bit too roughly, in an attempt to stop fidgeting with it. "There was nothing in the market like the Machine. But the problem is- no one needs to use it more than once. The revenues from the doctor's office sales have been pretty static the entire time, but you'll notice the real drop was in publicly consumable Machines. I..." she started to lose steam, before powering up again and making it over the rise. "I've been warning against this from the marketing side for months," she reminded the table. "There's no future revenue possibilities- all you're going to get is this spike, and it's all downhill from here. I recommend we take the money we've made and recapitalize it into a different investment." A puff of air at the end of the sentence indicated that she was finished, and possibly in more way then one.

"Unacceptable," Jones said when she finished. "I understand the practical realities, but any VP of marketing worth anything should be able to make people buy things they don't need again and again and again. If you can't do that, we'll find someone who can." He glanced around the table, looking for more feedback.

Alexis slammed her pen down again, this time intentionally to draw the focus back onto her. "Look, you stupid ass, listen to the words I'm saying," she said, rising from her seat. On her feet, Alexis was surprisingly tall, built more like a mediocre transvestite than a wilting flower. She angled her gaze down towards Jones. "You're asking the impossible and you're wasting the shareholder's money while you do it. The Machine is a broken business model and the only way to fix it is to find some way to make the predictions something that changes each time somebody takes the test so they keep coming back."

Silence descended on the room, and Greg Jones's thundercloud burst, his slack jaw a momentary burst of sunlight . Alexis, certain of her fate, began gathering her things. "Miss Patterson, I do believe you can keep your job. R&D- what's the feasibility of Miss Patterson's suggestion?"

The VP of R&D shrugged. "What suggestion? We don't know how the damn thing works- just that it does. What, exactly, am I supposed to change to make it randomize?"

"I think I can repeat my original comment to Miss Patterson, Victor," Greg threatened, "this is a merely technical problem that I am certain you can rectify. And now that Miss Patterson has shown us the basic suggestion, I'm certain we can develop a few spinoffs- if it gives you a varied prediction every time- what could this mean?"

[The goal with the next paragraph is to have a strange contrast between the morbidness and salability of death.]

"Personal predictors! One per person. Throw a limiter on so it's disposable and needs to be replaced ever ten uses." "'Premium' predictions where we take a few and average them using patented algorithms!" "A collectable promotion! Collect all the predictions for your mode of death! Trade them with friends!"

And so on- the suggestions flew from the board; Alexis collapsed in her seat silently relieved. Poor Victor though- she hadn't exactly intended to make an enemy of him. Every once in awhile, he glanced in her direction, right before throwing out a technical objection to the ideas that were flying about the room. She had done him the disservice of whetting their appetites for advancement, and he knew his department couldn't deliver. It wasn't a mere technical problem- nobody knew how the Machine worked- it was one of those accidents of manufacturing that couldn't be easily replicated or analyzed. She didn't let herself feel too bad over it though, it was the nature of the beast after all.

----

[I want to do more with the following section, expand on it. I especially want to make it a bit less dry, and give us a bit more insight into these two nerds as they attack an interesting problem.]

"Fuck me," James Trent said as the word came down from above in a carefully typewritten memo nailed to the door of the lab like a set of theses. The good news- R&D was getting money. The bad? R&D was going to need to work for it. "Shit on me," he added as he kicked open the door to the R&D lab. The lab was tiny, cramped, poorly lit and understaffed. Why the hell did they need an R&D department? A Machine that predicted your mode of death was an incredible advancement! They'd be millionaires! Fantastically rich! The R&D department was more of a formality, more of an afterthought- every big company marketing a product needed an R&D department.

[Whedonesque banter fits the characters, but I'm not sure if it fits the story. Might be too "clever" (and I mean that in a negative way) for its own good.]

"Sex and shit? Not for me thanks, but try putting an ad on Craigslist." Fellow lab rat Kevyn Bright stumbled in behind him, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the poorly lit laboratory.

"No, seriously," Trent wadded the memo up and chucked it over his shoulder at Bright. "They want us to change the design of the Machine."

"New form factor?" Bright bobbled the catch and had to scoop the ball of paper from the floor. After reading the memo, he spat his own string of curses. "They don't have the foggiest idea what they're asking, do they?"

Trent shrugged as he fell into a chair before an aging computer console. Piled around the desk were the various constituent components of the Machine, the innards exposed for their "research" and some basic tinkering. It was a struggle closer to that of Sisyphus, but at least they got a paycheck out of the deal. "They're management," he said it like a curse, "what the hell do they know on the best of days?"

[The lack of a history to the Machine kills me, and at the same time, I don't want to dominate it. Ergo, I'm touching on it, implying some things, and throwing out a few ideas that are worth exploring outside of this story.]

Above the computer was taped a photograph of the first notable Victim, as Trent liked to call her. Young, pretty, and eventually crushed to death by the steering column of her car when a head-on collision drove it through her chest. He didn't remember her name, despite the news coverage when it happened. The only identification was a simple case number scrawled into the bottom edge of the Polaroid and the prediction: "Corporate Negligence". As an early test, they thought it had failed, until a subsequent investigation determined that proper safety precautions had been ignored and her death was the result of poor manufacturing. "Machine Solves Mystery" was the headline, if he remembered correctly. The research into the Machine helped spur the full investigation that confirmed the correct prediction.

All that had happened before Trent was head of the project, before he even worked for the company. Back then, all Machine related research was built around the work of Gary Young- who died of old age, as predicted by the Machine. He was the inventor, but his notoriously poor documentation and his poor understanding of what the Machine actually did left them all groping in the dark. With the initial success, there was very little emphasis on improving the Machine- which meant Trent spent his time tinkering and generally goofing off.

Bright pulled up a stool so that he was facing Trent, and shrugged heavily in his bulky sweater. "Okay- so what are the big problems with what they're asking?" This was his first sally in what was sure to be a long brainstorming session. They had these conversations every day, but rarely did it focus on work; more often it was their analysis of "Star Trek" versus _Star Wars_, what physical principles could be used to replicate a light-saber, which edition of _Dungeons and Dragons_ was superior and the best weapon with which to survive a zombie outbreak. These incredibly nerdy conversations evolved into a surprisingly advanced Socratic dialogue, so that when it came time to analyze an actual complex and practical topic, they were surprisingly well equipped.

"Well, the obvious- we don't know what the hell we'd need to do to make that happen. But there's already complaints from a lot of sources- skeptics and the religious claim we're a sham, that the predictions are general and interpretable enough as to allow room for any death to be accounted for. If we add in a randomizer type thing, that's just gonna feed that fire. Even if we could figure out a way to randomize it." Trent ran a hand back through his hair, which fell back according to the whims of gravity, cascading into his eyes.

Bright shook his head. "That's a sales problem, right?" His hands floated in front of him as he talked, absently twisting as he tried to illustrate what he said physically. "Could we just break the machine? Make it spit out, what is, essentially garbage?"

Trent considered it, mentally diagramming out what little was known about the structure of the Machine, the behavior of its components and what would be needed to throw noise into it. "Maybe, but I think it'd be verifiably wrong. Like, GIGO." They fell silent, both of them considering their alternatives, when Trent sighed, frustrated. "It's idiotic. This whole Machine thing- people actually plan their lives around the fucking scrap of paper. They're idiots!" He kicked at the floor, childishly; the impact disturbed the pile of parts beside him, causing a small avalanche.

Bright nodded, considering the situation. He absently juggled the scrap of memo between his hands, rustling in rhythmically. "Okay, okay. You're right- people are idiots."

"A million businesses have minted money on that very premise," Trent drawled sarcastically.

"So let's lie, but be a little subtle. Take the output of the Machine, run it through a thesaurus, a couple of algorithms. Build it like a Furby."

"Excuse me?"

"Y'know those kids toys from a few years back? Everyone thought they had some sort of AI or someshit? That was all bull- it had a few simple expressive gestures, and people just thought it was more intelligent than it was. I saw an article in Wired or something about it."

Trent considered that idea, and as the idea settled down on him, his smile came back. This didn't require that they modify the machine- it was an add-on product. An after-market extension. "Do you smell that?" He looked around, wide eyed. "That's the smell of having a huge budget for a cheap solution."

"Which means new 'lab equipment'," Bright grinned, the prospect of a new, top of the line laptop certainly a motivation for the quick, easy and _cheap_ fix.

"To the whiteboard, Robin!" Trent called out dramatically, stabbing a finger in the air, before anticlimactically moving to the whiteboard to sketch out some design ideas.

----

The turnaround time was a week. A flurry of rather vitriolic communications flew between Victor in R&D and Alexis in Marketing as the implications of the design 'improvements' became clear. Accusations encoded in email, veiled insults and threats were the attatchments. As Victor became more confident of success, the exchanges became more polite, more relaxed and informal. By Thursday, he was working on positioning Alexis as his next mistress, because the success that his team had pulled out was nothing short of stunning- by his estimation. All was forgiven; the danger had turned into an opportunity.

"Allow me to demonstrate," he opened the board meeting. Greg Jones was, uncharacteristically, sitting at the head of the table, giving up his normal Colossus-like posture and Victor had the floor. Behind him were two identical version of the Machine, resting on their own tables. Trent hovered around them, a hen worrying over chicks. "First, may I ask, who here has taken the test before?"

Everyone's hand went up. "Oh," Victor was somewhat surprised.

[The HMO bit is another, important illustration of some of the serious implications. It's also foreshadowing, because guess who buys them out?]

"Our HMO requires it," Greg explained. For the benefit of the rest of the board, "Victor's wife works for the state and he gets her benefits."

"Yes, yes. They don't have that sort of requirement," Victor said. "No, that's good though. It makes for a more compelling demonstration. Could I have a volunteer then? Alexis?" He motioned for her to come up.

Reluctantly, she stood. "I'm not comfortable taking the test in front of anyone," she admitted, trying to hover near her seat and not move to take the test. "If it's okay... I'd like to..."

"Oh, just take the damn test," Greg barked, shocking her into action.

Despite herself, she stumbled to the front of the room. In a flash, Victor had her finger against the testing surface and a moment later, grabbed the slip that came from the output tray. Listlessly, she grabbed at it, trying to reclaim it before he read it aloud, but already she knew the cause was lost. Hopelessly, she turned penitent eyes on him, mouthing the word "Please".

Victor was initially ignorant of her pleas. He looked at the carefully printed block type, clear and crystal. Short, brief, words, yet they had a power over him, a power of shock, stabbing into his perceptions of Alexis. Stunned, he looked up at her, and became aware of her pressing desperation. He considered, for a moment, the stereotyped mother, imploring her son to "wear clean underwear," in case he was killed by a speeding car. "Wear clean underwear," lest she be forced to suffer the humiliation.

The humorous illogic was eradicated in the face of the real, true humiliation that was offered by that little note. Death was an intensely private matter, one that required discretion. Victor matched Alexis, stare for glare, plea for promise, and crumpled the small bit of paper tape in his hand. "Actually," he said, trying to work up the stomach to continue, "Alexis' death won't make that good of an example. Too obscure to really fit in our database."

"Cowards," Greg growled; his anger cascaded across the table and dropped onto the floor at their feet like a large weight. "I'll do it." A quick prick of the finger and a moment later, the results printed out. "Heart Attack" was clearly printed on the slip.

"Ah, that's perfect," Victor replied. "This one will make a good demonstration. Our esteemed President is headed for a heart attack- but as we all know, that's not a good guarantee. The Machine is somewhat... well, perverse, correct? Maybe my second, modified Machine can give us more information. Another finger, if you please?"

[Gotta work this one up a bit- clean up the responses, polish it. Attack the whole thing with a thesaurus.]

Instead of a short slip, this time, the Machine spit out a long chain of responses. Trent's hands dashed over a few hastily added knobs and levers, baroque additions that would be automated in the release version. "We're running it in demo mode," Victor admitted. "It's going through and generating as many possible responses as it can come up with based on the initial prediction of a heart attack." As the paper tape began to pool on the floor, he scooped it up and began reading it aloud. "Heart attack; coronary; arterial blockage; corporate negligence; poor diet; bad health; stress; broken heart; medical malpractice; the FDA..." he started to trail off as the responses got more and more puzzling. "There's, ah- a certain degree of randomness in this whole thing," he admitted lamely, ready to hear cries of "Charlatan". The last few suggestions seemed... nonsensical.

"Thats... that's _amazing_," Greg was grinning wolfishly. The veracity of the predictions was not his interest, it was the allure, the draw they created. "That's fantastic- every time, it's going to give them a random response like that?"

"As many as it can come up with," Victor replied, secretly relieved. "There's between 5 and 500 responses for most possible deaths, or so my research boys tell me."

"What's going to be the cost of implementing this globally?" the VP of Finance asked.

"Incredibly cheap, actually," Trent said, taking control as they moved into the more technical topics. He fired up a Powerpoint slideshow and moved into the next phase of the presentation- the technical details boiled down into childish phrases that non-technical people could understand. Victor didn't understand the technical details well enough to explain them, and letting him handle this part would be an exercise of the blind leading the blind. As it was, the technical aspects were explained in meaningless gibberish, inaccurate to Trent's technical experience and too complex for management. Even so, one glowing point stood out bright enough to throw dollar signs into the eyes of those present. The randomizer was not, itself, part of the machine. It was an add on, a separate product that could generate its own revenue stream. That was something the board would understand, something that Trent said, without realizing the significance. The money was meaningless to him, but Victor, who finalized the presentation, knew how crucial that would be.

----

[For the conclusion, they get bought out by an insurance company. I need to implement that, which will require a bit of further build up. Probably, the revelation will come through the bottom-rung R&D kids.]

For Trent and Bright, the next few weeks were incredibly busy. With Victor towing them around, they had to do demo after demo. For the shareholders, the top shareholders, technology conferences. They were hounded by the board to implement spin-offs, prepare the add-on for production. Layer upon layer of management involved itself, until neither Trent nor Bright were completely clear on what their objectives were any more.

It was a Friday when it all came to a sudden halt. Trent had taken to starting his day at ten or eleven. This generally gave the flurry of meaningless management emails time to die down and resolve themselves, and that allowed him to focus on just working. It beat having to play email-tag in order to demonstrate how hard he was "working". He was running extra late on that particular day, for no particular reason, and found Bright already waiting for him. "Did you forget your keys?" Trent smirked as he pulled out his own key-ring, complete with swiss army knife and USB drive. The assembly clattered loudly as he fished for the appropriate key.

His sidekick and accomplice, Bright, looked on silently, a bemused smile on his face.

Trent tried to put his key in the lock. Then he tried again. He spent a moment, checking to make sure he had the correct key. Bright snickered. Another attempt, and finally Trent resigned himself, "Let me guess, you already tried this." Bright nodded. "Did you call anyone?" Bright shook his head. "Fine, fine." Trent's cellphone was in his hand an instant later, Victor's number pulled from a one touch dial so that it didn't look like Trent had dialed at all. He simply raised the phone to his head and heard Victor's voice.

"I was wondering when you were going to call," Victor sounded bad. His voice was slurred, his speech slow.

"You were expecting a call," Trent asked, his voice taking on a warning tone. He didn't like being dicked around. "You know, there's far more polite ways to fire someone."

"That's exactly what I said when I couldn't get into _my_ office," Victor answered. Trent had to hold the phone a bit from his head, Victor was talking so loudly. "But, as it turns out, we're all fired. Everyone. Done. Dead. Doornail."

"What!" Trent pulled the phone closer again. Bright moved towards him, his face concerned. He started to open his mouth to ask a question but Trent put him off with a raised hand. "What the hell happened?"

"Hostile takeover. We were bought out by Saferica- some fly-by-night ambulance chasing insurance company. They're shutting us down and running off with the Machine patents."

They both sat on the phone silently for a few moments. Finally, "Oh" was all Trent replied. Then, "Hey, can I use you as a reference?"

[This isn't the ending, I don't think. I'm not sure exactly how to wrap this up, although the asking for a reference thing isn't bad. This whole section needs rewriting, but it's an initial, draft, and brings us to the point of a working beta release.]

Definite improvement! I

Definite improvement! I think the language flows better, and the pace is good. You kept all the dark humor, and the ending works, though it feels a little too abrupt. You might try developing the idea there some more, stretch it out for another paragraph maybe.

And two other quick comments about very minor details:
- "more like a mediocre transvestite": not sure if 'mediocre' is the right word here.
- Two uses of the word 'surprisingly' in the same sentence here: "surprisingly advanced....surprisingly well equipped."

Otherwise, it looks on the right track.

Dameon's picture

Here's my problem with this

Here's my problem with this story: Those notes are just too distracting for me, as a reader, to get into the story and read it through. As well, everything I need to know should be expressed through the story itself. It'd just plain be impossible to read through the story and give any kind of effective critique so long as those notes are there. If you want us to read your story and give you feedback, give it to us without the director's commentary.

It's not intended for the reader

The idea was, for someone looking to edit my work, I thought they might be useful. The story is _not_ complete and everything you need to know is _not_ expressed in the story- yet. Also, there's specific areas I'm really looking for feedback on. Perhaps, I'll change this to use endnotes instead of inline comments? Would that be more readable?

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