Excerpt from “D.E.A.T.H.” from Space Ships & Other Trips: A Short Story Collection Book II by Raven Oak – RELEASE DATE – 7/1/23
“Explain to me why I’ve been called in, let alone at 3 A.M. on Christmas?” The words tumbled from me as my office door bumped my heels. Carla, the new Q.A. detective, already sat beside my desk. What a day for the new job trainee to show up.
My captain, a gruff donut-eating stereotype, stood nearby, his foot tapping to the holiday carols that streamed from the ceiling.
Great. Work before sunrise and being assaulted by the reminder I was working a holiday. “So what’s up, Cap? Sev omega?” I asked as I slid into my chair.
He cleared his throat noisily, and I made a quick effort to tuck my blue shirt into my cargo pants. So much for making an impression on the rookie.
Carla frowned. “Is omega the most severe a bug can get?”
“Yeah, omega means end game. It means we could be out of a job, so if you’re called in on a major holiday during a month where the program shouldn’t be running, it’s time to sit down, shut up, and get to work.”
I hadn’t meant for the words to cut sharp, but it was 3-freaking-o’clock in the morning. Not even the coffee was running, let alone my brain. The sharpness of my captain’s stare made me shudder like I was still a rookie in the police academy. What had our death machine done now?
“I don’t wanna hear anything about how inconvenient this is since we’ve gotta stiff in the morgue. Evidence files have been sent your way,” he said as he sipped his coffee.
Where’d he get coffee?
“Carla’s our new rook, so she gets the first question. What are the rules for running the program?”
Carla’s cute brown bob bounced too much for early morning., as did her voice as she spoke. “D.E.A.T.H.’s algorithm is inactive in December and within two weeks of any major holiday worldwide, sir. It also won’t target anyone under the age of…um, thirty? It shouldn’t be active today as it is Christmas. The program also takes into consideration a person’s age, temperament, altruistic affairs—”
Captain Williams waved a stubby hand at her. “Good enough. So tell me why D.E.A.T.H. was activated last night and targeted a 25-year-old woman as she lay on her couch? I’ve got everyone from the mayor to the U.N. on the line demanding answers. Figure this bug out.”
Definitely severity omega.
“We’ll get right on it, sir,” I said as I leaned closer to my computer. In a flash it scanned me, and the Seattle Police Department’s logo brightened my screen.
The captain left, but before I could do more than open a file, Carla frowned. “I don’t know how much they told you about me, but I don’t know a ton yet about the Quality Assurance side of this job—I’m going to night school for that—but I’ve been on the force in homicide for the last five years.”
“Welcome to the largest program in the world. It’ll be baptism by zeroes and ones for you. Ask questions as you have them.”
“Kirkley, how often do you work holidays?” she asked.
Her brows furrowed as she contemplated this. “Never-never?”
“Look, no one wants to worry about population control, and who wants to lose someone on a day of celebration? D.E.A.T.H. makes things easier for the world by doing the job no one wants—choosing who dies each year. But there’re rules to it, as you so nicely stated. In the years I’ve worked here, D.E.A.T.H.’s never killed anyone unintentionally. The code base is solid.”
Carla ran a hand through her hair, where it lingered on the right-hand side.
“You won’t find it,” I said.
“The chip. It’s embedded too deep. Removing it requires brain surgery, but all of this should’ve been covered in your welcome packet.”
Her cheeks flushed. “I—I didn’t read it all yet. I figured I had a few more days’ vacation….”
I nodded. “So here’s the TL;DR: for you.”
“TL;DR;? Too-long; didn’t read. Sorry, sometimes the old phrases pop up in my vernacular. Anyway, D.E.A.T.H. aka the Destruction of Earthly Adults at Top Health—”
“Is that really what it stands for?”
“Probably. It’s not important. When scientists eradicated disease and aging, life was good for a spell. Population exploded, and then resources dwindled—”
“Until war broke out and everyone suffered. Yeah, I got that part, Kirkley.”
“Don’t interrupt. Anyway, everyone came together through the U.N. and W.H.O. and agreed to the program’s creation. ‘For the betterment of humankind,’ they said. So now, everyone has a numbered chip in the brainpan. Twelve times a year, the algorithm looks at people’s lives and decides whose number’s up. Our job’s to keep the program free from bugs and problems introduced by the progs.”
“Progs? Programmers, right?”
“Yep. This job’s unlike anything you’ve ever worked. Not only are we responsible for finding bugs, but we investigate any deaths bounced up to us from beat cops, regular detectives, and the medical examiner. If it reaches us, they suspect a problem with the code rather than a homicide or scheduled death.”
I walked her through login and showed her where to access the evidence reports.
“Let me guess,” she said as she opened a file. “Read these and report back ASAP.”
“Now you’ve got it.” I opened the program as well as my standard testing scripts. While my computer was busy doing its job, I’d be checking who made changes last and when. But first, it was time for some coffee.