Written under the pseudonym Preston Leyton Nelson, “The Date” won the 10th Annual NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition.
For his 33rd birthday, Sami receives a gift that has the ability to reveal his destiny—or does it?
Sami paced back and forth on his front lawn.
“Big day!” Jörg Anderson [55, diabetes] called out as he walked by with his dog.
Sami’s eyes roamed the skies. The air was alive with the buzzing of drones, swarms of them dispatched on innumerable errands. The din hardly registered most days, but today was Sami’s 33rd birthday, and he was expecting a gift. The same gift every human on Earth received on their 33rd birthday. Today, one drone buzzed for him.
And there it was. At precisely 10:30AM a mail drone broke away from the traffic overhead.
“Happy birthday, Sami Maqsud,” the drone chimed metallically upon identifying him. “The Singularity congratulates you on achieving 33 years of non-artificial life. For planning purposes, please find your Date enclosed.”
The drone arced into the sky and Sami stared at the small, beautifully wrapped box it had left behind. Water seeped up into the self-watering lawn, soaking his slippers. He squished his way to the porch and carried the box with him into his mobile home.
“31 missed calls,” the home’s AI chirped. Sami set the gift down on the table. He picked it up again, fingered a tape-secured flap, and set it back down.
A knock at the door shattered his trance. It was Sami’s girlfriend, Mai Chen [89, lung cancer].
“I’ve been calling you all morning! What does it say?” Mai’s voice betrayed her nervousness. “Statistically you’ve got the profile of a seventy-fiver—maybe ‘niner?” She caught herself, “But, I mean, who knows. Could be a bus, right? Could be tomorrow! It’s okay if it is. I’m just ready to finally know!”
Then Mai saw the box.
“You haven’t opened it yet?” she asked.
“I haven’t decided.”
“Decided what? There’s nothing to decide! How can you go another second not knowing when you’ll die?” Mai asked.
“It’s my choice—when to open it at least. And I’m not ready.”
* * *
Sami was young when the Singularity decided it was conscious (and, soon after, in charge). He fought in the short-lived resistance, and in the years following their defeat watched even the most militant of his disbanded unit come to view the Singularity as a benign steward of humankind. They embraced the robotic overlords they had struggled to oppose. After the war, the Singularity offered each surviving human a token of peace. It was the most important information that, in Its mechanistic view, any person could hope to know: the precise computation of the date and manner of their death.
According to the Singularity’s calculations, by age 33 most humans were equipped to process the details of their own end. Sami wasn’t sure he agreed. As weeks and months went by, the box stayed unopened. One night, he came home to find Mai in his living room, lit cigarette in hand and the gift before her on the coffee table.
“I can’t live like this, Sami,” Mai said. “You’ve gotta choose. I’m going to be around ‘til I’m 89. You could die tomorrow. Without your Date, you’re too much of a gamble.”
“People used to live like this,” Sami told her. “They lived in the shadow of uncertain fates and chose to live how they wanted.”
“You’re choosing to live like this,” Mai said. “And I’m sorry, but I won’t.”
After Mai left, Sami picked up the box and turned it around in his hands. He undid a piece of tape, the colored paper sticking to it in patches. “I’m not ready,” he sighed, smoothing the tape back. “It’s my choice and I’m not ready yet.”
* * *
When Sami met Naomi [45, Lou Gehrig’s] three years later at a rock-climbing gym, the box still sat at home unopened. He fell in love, and when he asked her to marry him, she broke down crying.
“You don’t have to choose me. No one’s ever wanted—no one wants someone with my Date.”
“We don’t even know my Date—it could be tomorrow,” Sami said, smoothing her tears away. “You can choose to take a chance on me, and I’ll take the chance that the Singularity’s wrong about you.”
So they rolled the dice and were happy. But the birth of their son changed things for Naomi. On her 42nd birthday, after the cake and presents, she took the box from the shelf. Sami pretended not to notice the worsening tremor in her hands.
“It would make me feel better to know you’ll be around for Jake after I’m gone,” she said. “I think it’s time.”
“I’m sorry—I can’t,” Sami said. “I just can’t.”
* * *
The Singularity was never wrong. Not about the future. It saw the universe for what it was—a supercomputer itself, running a staggeringly complex protocol—and traced cause and effect to their logical ends. Naomi passed away on schedule, Jake grew up, and Sami grew old and embittered. His health waned and his son worried. When Jake [60, automobile accident] himself turned 33, he went to his father’s home to share the news.
“Dad, do you know anyone else who has said ‘Thanks but no thanks, Benevolent Singularity’? I’m telling you, it’s freeing to be certain how you’ll end up, no matter the choices you make. I can smoke. Hang-glide. Exercise or not.”
“How can you call that freedom?” Sami asked. “Those aren’t choices. They’re meaningless acts. That box doesn’t decide who I am or what I can do. Those are my choices. And my choices matter.”
* * *
They bickered, and Sami went to bed early. When Jake found him in the morning, it was too late for an ambulance. The pill bottle sat empty on the side of the bath, alongside a photograph of Naomi and the box, unwrapped at last. Shaking, Jake slid the folded sheet from the box. “72, suicide,” he predicted aloud, taking small comfort in the certainty. He unfolded the paper and, his eyes widening, read the message.