(This is a bit of fiction I’ve been working on or past couple of weeks. Don’t know what to make of it, as it’s different from what I usually write. PLEASE NOTE: Any website I reference here is purely fictional and is not to be confused with actual web sites.)
Ed Barnes lived in a double wide parked on a lot a couple of miles north of town on County Highway T. Divorced three years earlier, he lived alone. His neighbor and frequent drinking partner, Charlie Fielding, lived, also alone, about a mile north of Ed. Half way between them was the tavern, “The Mighty Casey’s,” named for its proprietor, Jack Casey. At the ages of fifty nine and sixty five, neither one of them was a “spring chicken.” This slight difference in age wasn’t small enough to stop Ed from teasing Charlie, calling him “Old Timer” at every opportunity that presented itself. Charlie, with his thin and snow-white hair, acknowledged that he looked older than his years. The fact that he’d recently retired from the Paper Mill only added to his elderly aura. He was good natured about the teasing and had recently taken to calling Ed “whipper-snapper.”
One night, Ed and Charlie were sitting at the Mighty Casey’s when Ed referred to Charlie as an “old timer.”
“I got me another 30 years, whipper-snapper,” Charlie responded. “Till April 24th, 2048.”
“What do you mean, April 24th, 2048?”
“That’s what the internet says. Says I’m gonna die on April 24th, 2048. I‘ll be a ripe old 95 by then, and Hell, I’ll probably be ready to go, by that time.”
“What the Hell are you talking about?”
“There’s a web page, the day I die or day or the date of my death, whatever. Anyway, you send them some of your spit so they can get your DNA, and you give ‘em permission to access whoever’s got info on you, and you answer a bunch of questions, like do you smoke, your diet, and so on, and they take all the info and look at it and calculate how many days you got left, and they list which days have the highest percentage chance of you dying on. April 24, 2048 came up with a 3.6 percent chance of being my last day, and that was highest, so …”
“3.6 percent chance was the highest?” Ed asked, unimpressed.
“Yeah. Doesn’t sound like much, does it. But put it another way: Thirty years, that’s about 10,000 days. It says April 24, 2048 has a 3. 6 percent chance. There’s almost four out of 100, or 2 out of 50, or 1 out of 25 chance, and when you consider that the stakes couldn’t be higher, one out of twenty five compared to one out of ten thousand don’t seem so low, now does it?”
“Does it tell you how you’re gonna die?
“It does. Aspirational pneumonia. 11% chance. That’s based on all of my medical history.”
“Yeah, and then you walk out into the parking lot tonight and get run over by a big bus. You can’t predict that, no matter what your family and health history look like. Ain’t no way nobody can predict that.”
“Well, that’s true,” Charlie acknowledged.
The conversation moved on to other subjects, like the Green Bay Packers or the usual random topic of the night that they’d obsess on for a couple of weeks. This week it was what the difference between a midget and a dwarf is. Charlie took the position there wasn’t a difference and Ed insisted that there was but forgetting exactly what it was. “I think a dwarf might be slightly taller,” he said, but Charlie insisted that wasn’t the case and brought up Snow White and her seven little companions as supposed proof. The debate raged on through the night without a resolution. By nine ‘clock, Ed, already well on his way to intoxi-land, had completely forgotten about Charlie’s appointment with eternity on April24, 2048.
At two A.M. they closed the bar, with Jack Casey himself giving them both a short drive home. This was not uncommon, as both men lived within walking distance (when sober) of the bar, and Jack had a vested self interest in preserving two of his primary sources of revenue. By eleven o’clock he’d already asked for and taken possession of their car keys.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, while sitting reading e-mail, that Ed remembered the conversation where Charlie learned his most likely date of death. What a crock of crap, Ed thought. Charlie is so gullible. Ed just had to see what kind of cornball site this was. He googled “death date calculator,” and after scrolling down to the third page of search results, his eye was caught by an entry that said, “Personal Death Date Calculator (PDDC.com)” “The most accurate and comprehensive personal death date calculator on the web.” His curiosity piqued, he clicked on the link. Instead of the amateurish, gaudy looking page he was assuming he’d find, he was presented with a professional and clean looking design. “Your Personal Day of Death Calculator” the banner read, and the menu below included links labelled “About Us,” “Why a personal day of death calculator,” and “The intelligence behind the PDDC (“Personal Death Date Calculator”)”
Ed clicked first on the “About Us” and found that the PDDC was the work of a consortium of egghead professors from Harvard and M.I.T., with a large number of lengthy and academic articles about the technology and methodology that went into the development of the tools that comprised the PDDC. It was mostly over Ed’s head- the little bit he gleaned from it was that it was based on a core engine of Artificial Intelligence that was constantly and independently changing and evolving, self-enhancing its algorithm to encompass all of the additional data it was constantly asking for and that the consortium was getting it access to in order to make the algorithm more accurate. It was a continuous need for improved accuracy that drove the core module.
The goal of the PDDC wasn’t so much the calculations as it was proving AI theory. The consortium wanted to develop a tool that was charged with one task: to solve a complex and unprovable problem and in the process become self-aware enough to understand its own limitations and, without any additional human intervention, reconfigure and modify itself to get better results.
One of the many academic papers written by a Dr. Harold Osgood described examples of how the tool evolved and learned. The first version of the tool was incredibly simplistic, arriving at a conclusion based upon a rudimentary questionnaire the user filled out on-line and a limited number of public records of aggregate patient outcomes, for example by age and gender. The tool quickly grew frustrated by the limitations of the data it had access to and it asked the consortium to provide it access to a wide variety of data, from insurance actuaries to police records to gun registry databases. The consortium, well-funded by a powerful and well-connected board of directors, had little difficulty in granting the tool access to all of the data it’d asked for. The tool would then modify itself and the algorithm to take advantage of the additional data it had been given access to. The results were impressive: the estimated dates did in fact grow more accurate, as the tool took advantage of its unending capacity for data and unlimited processing power to crunch millions of records and images related to any individual and to calculate and spit out the likeliest date of his demise within a handful of seconds.
Ed was pondering all of this when he finally clicked on the link to calculate his own PDD. It made him go through a login and authentication process, and then presented him with an epically long “read me” document that he blew past to click on the “continue on to the PDDC.” His screen refreshed with a new page, with the heading, “Calculate your Personal Day of Death (PDD)”
He clicked on the button.
The screen refreshed and went blank before displaying the following
Your Top Five Calculated Personal Death Dates are:
Rank Date % of Chance Cause
1 11/6/2018 25.3% Car Accident
2 6/30/2039 2.4% Pneumonia
3 3/14/2029 1.9% Heart Failure
4 9/1/2040 1.3% Dysentery
5 8/11/2051 1.1% Nuclear Holocaust
Everything on the first line stunned him. November sixth was less than six months away. And a twenty five percent chance when all the other dates are less than two and a half percent? And how the Hell did it come up with “car accident?” Ed was a good driver, with only one ticket in more than forty years of driving, a failure to come to a complete stop more than thirty years ago. He’d never been in an accident of any kind.
The site said that, with the constant additional data and the continuous evolving of its core algorithm that results would vary over multiple attempts. Ed assumed that he’d caught the algorithm in the middle of a transition, so he queried again. The same five dates displayed on the screen but the percentages had changed slightly, including a bumping up to a 27.2% chance thst he’d die in a car accident on
Ed became increasingly unnerved when subsequent re-calculations over the next days and weeks always showed an increase in the percentage associated with November 6th until two weeks later, on May8th, the percentage had risen to 53%. The cause, however, always remained the same: car accident.
He told Charlie about it and, once he was able to convince Charlie that he wasn’t bullshitting, Charlie re-ran his own calculation. Much to Ed’s chagrin, Charlies’ prediction remained roughly the same each time, changing a tenth of a percentage point or so, but never rising above 4%, and always predicting April 24, 2048 as the number one date.
By June 9th, Ed’s percentage was up to 71%. After weeks of looking, he finally found a customer support number for the website. It was an 888 number, and the voice on the other end had a thick Indian or Pakistani accent. Oh, great, Ed thought, it’s one of them foreign call centers. So much for making America great again.
“Welcome to PDDC.Com. My name is Sandeep. How may I help you?”
I’m sure the sand is deep there, Ed thought. In his mind’s image, Sandeep was wearing a turban, making him Muslim and misplacing Pakistan into the sub-Sahara landscape he’d seen so often on television. Geography never was his strongest subject.
“Yeah, I’ve got a couple of questions about my PDD?”
Ed cleared his throat. “First of all, it says November 6th of this year is my most likely date.”
“Oh, well, sir, it’s just the results of a scenario the tool calculated in a simulation. Overall, it’s been proven to be accurate less than ten percent of the time.”
“Well, it says that it has 71% confidence in my date.”
“Yes, sir, you …wait. It says what percent?”
“71? Are you sure?”
“Damn straight I’m sure.”
It was obvious even a half world away to Ed that Sandeep was shaken.
“Sir, are you in the last stages of a terminal disease? I’m sorry to ask …”
“No, no, that’s okay. I’m not. And that’s the thing. The cause of death it says is car accident.”
“That’s right. Car accident.”
“Do you… do you have a history of accidents?”
“No! That’s just it! Been driving over 40 years, all that time, just one minor traffic ticket and no accidents! And that ticket was more than thirty years ago.”
Sandeep had no explanation. He said he’d take Ed’s issue to his manager.
On the fourth of July, the calculation had risen to 83%. Ed became completely obsessed with November 6th, now only four months away. Up to this point, Charlie was the only one who knew anything about Ed’s PDD. Other people noticed changes in Ed’s behavior; that he seemed distracted and looked tired. The truth was that he was exhausted. Each night found him lying awake, tossing and turning, until he could stand it no more. He’d get up, throw his robe on, and sit down at his laptop on the kitchen table, and he’d login to pddc.com and see if the percentage had gone down, only to be disappointed when it went up again. It reached 90% by the first of August. When he did fall asleep, he was soon awakened from vivid nightmares of colliding cars, the sound of twisting metal and breaking glass, air bags failing to deploy, shards of iron penetrating his skin, or he’d be outside of the car, lying on his back on the pavement, unable to move, the smell of gasoline filling his nostrils, his shirt soaking wet from the fuel draining out of the car that had tipped over on its side, it’s underbelly exposed and bleeding fuel that spilled out onto the pavement and ran and pooled beneath him. The pool spread out next to him when it finally reached the small red and yellow flame, and the gas ignited and its stream became a stream of fire, headed for where Ed lay on the pavement, unable to move. He’d wake up just before the flames consumed him, shaken and shaking, sitting straight up in the dark.
By mid-September the percentage of certainty had climbed to 95. Ed found himself out of work after losing his job as a clerk at the Ace Hardware store. He’d missed too many days, and the days he made it in, he was distracted and irritable. The end came a day after a thunderstorm flooded much of the valley when a young guy, late twenties or early thirties, tried to negotiate the price of a new sump pump down when Ed lost control, screaming at the guy, “What, 79 bucks is too much for you? You stupid Mother Fucker, how about I take this hose here and shove it up your ass?” His manager, Jeff Reardon, was just an aisle away and heard he whole thing. He immediately fired Ed, telling him to get out and to never come back, right there in the middle of the store.
October. Charlie felt bad for his old friend. He was still the only one who knew about Ed’s PDD. He invited Ed to join him for Senior’s day, the first Tuesday of the month, at the Turtle Lake casino. Charlie put Ed at ease for most of the day. It helped that Ed won a total of 75 bucks at the slot machines. Before going home, they stopped at the Mighty Casey’s for the first time in weeks, Ed happily sharing his casino winnings with the sparse crowd at the bar.
They left shortly after midnight, Ed climbing in to the passenger seat of Charlie’s Ford Taurus.
“Thanks, Charlie. That was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Should we plan on going next month?”
Earlier in the evening, Ed had already checked the calendar. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “The first Tuesday in November happens to be the sixth.”
“Oh,” Charlie said.
“No,” Ed said, “I’m gonna stay in that whole week. Figure I can’t get into a car crash if I don’t get into a car.’
“That’s right,” Charlie agreed. “Stupid fucking calculator.”
“Fuck the odds. I beat ‘em today at the slots, and I’ll kick their ass on November 6th, too.”
For a couple of days, Ed’s spirits rose, and he was convinced that the tool had some flaw causing his erroneous calculation. I just won’t get in a car that day, he said. In fact, I won’t get out of bed all day. For anything. He felt good, and said a private Fuck you to ppdc.com
But chat changed when, on October 10th, the PDDC calculated a 100% degree of certainty. In fact, so certain the tool now was of November sixth that every other day now had a zero percent chance of being his PDD. Ed fell deep into the depths of despair. Taking inventory of his life, it all added up to a big fat nothing. Here he was, possibly at the end of life, unemployed and alone in a trailer house in the middle of nowhere. His relationship with the only two people left that he’d ever loved, his ex-wife and his son, was non-existent, and he hadn’t talked to either one in three years. His life had been a complete failure.
Charlie tried to lift him out of the darkness he’d succumbed to without success. He couldn’t even get Ed to go with him to the Mighty Casey’s.
On October 31st, a week before the big day, Ed woke up to sunshine and with a new resolve. If it was all going to end on the sixth, he had one week to make things right. He got dressed and went out and got in his car for what he’d promised would be the last time until November 14th – he wasn’t going to tempt fate by getting in a car for a week before to a week after. He got in his car and headed west, focused and alert. As he drove west and crossed the state line into Minnesota, he felt a combination of conviction and apprehension. He practiced what he was going to say as he pulled off into the side streets of a quaint, upwardly mobile neighborhood.
Then he found himself standing in the vestibule of an old and elegant brick apartment house. He read the green plastic adhesive label on the wall that said, “Barnes / Green – 2A.” Beneath the label was a button and a little speaker, mounted into the plaster wall. Ed took a deep breath and pressed the button. The speaker buzzed and clicked.
It’d been three years since he last heard it, yet Ed instantly recognized Kurt’s voice.
“Kurt? Kurt, is that …”
“Press the button while you speak.”
“Oh, okay, Kurt,” Ed said before pressing the button again. “Kurt, is that you?
“This is Kurt. Who are you?”
“This is Ed Barnes. Paul’s father.”
A heavy silence followed.
“Is Paul home?” Ed asked, pressing the button. For what seemed to Ed to be about five minutes but was actually only 30 seconds or so, the same heavy silence persisted. Just as Ed aimed his finger at the button again, he heard, from behind the walls of the vestibule, the sound of feet running down stairs. Then a door opened and out stepped Paul Barnes, Ed’s son, putting on a blue jacket.
“Dad?” he said.
“Hi, Paul.” Ed smiled, involuntarily, and he realized it was an authentic smile. Before him stood his son, three years older than the last time he saw him, but still unmistakably his son, it was Paul.
“Dad, why are you here? Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong. Can I come in? I want to talk to you.”
“Umm, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Kurt’s studying for his certification. It’s pretty intense.”
“I understand. Is there a place around here I could buy you a beer?”
“How about a cup of coffee?”
“Okay, there’s a coffee shop on the next street.”
They started walking through the late afternoon grey and quickly fell into a familiar but uncomfortable silence.
“So, how’s life in the big city?” Ed started.
“Dad, you haven’t spoken to me in three years. I’m guessing that you didn’t come here just to make small talk. What’s going on? Why are you here?”
Ed didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know whether to tell Paul about pddc.com or not to. He decided that he wouldn’t mention it, that it’d only complicate the conversation and dilute what he wanted to say.
“There’s nothing going on, son. I’ve just been thinking about things, that’s all.”
They came to the coffee shop and entered, Paul first, Ed behind him. They sat at a table near the back. The menu was printed in white chalk on a black slate. Ed didn’t know what any of the items were; “cappuccino” sounded familiar but he didn’t know what the Hell even that was. He looked around. The shop was busy, about half of the tables were filled, populated by smartly dressed up-scale young twenty-something people. Ed, in his wrinkled old brown wind breaker with the words “The Mighty Casey’s” printed in fading yellow letters on the back, felt as out of place as he looked. At the same time, he noticed how much Paul did fit in, and he felt genuinely happy that Paul had found his people, and that unlike his father, at least Paul was not desperately alone.
The barista, a stunning brunette with deep blue eyes and curves that were all the buttons on her blouse could do to keep in place, took their orders. Ed let Paul order first, some kind of mocha latte concoction, so that when it was time for him to order, he just said, “ditto for me.” The barista smiled so warmly at Ed that he melted, only regathering himself when he realized the smile was probably because he reminded her of her father or grandfather, a product of time and genetics, not passion and romance.
“So,” Paul said, “about all this thinking you’ve been doing …”
“Yes,” Ed said. “I wanted to tell you how wrong I was, three years ago…”
“But I already knew that, didn’t I? In fact, I seem to remember telling you how wrong you were.”
“Yeah, but …”
“So,” Paul interrupted, “you’re really not telling me anything I didn’t already know, now are you?
“Paul, I …”
“All this thinking it’s taken you three years – THREE YEARS – to do, and all you can come up with is that you were wrong? That took three years?”
Ed was struggling to find a response to Paul. Paul was right, and Ed knew it. It would have meant more if he’d said it the day after that horrible day three years ago, the time when he first had the epiphany that he’s still Paul, he’s still the same boy he always was, the boy he loved, he boy he’d built his life around, and now he was going to graduate college, the first Barnes to ever do that. I was so proud of him, Ed thought, up to that moment when he told Ed and Sylvia that he preferred men to women, and that after they graduate, him and Kurt were going to live together, going to give it a shot.
The bustle in the coffee shop was dimming and the crowd was thinning. The barista called out “Barnes,” and Paul got up and came back with two steaming cups, setting one down in front of Ed before returning the other cup back to his chair, across the table from Ed.
Ed said nothing. He just put his left hand up as if to say, “Hold on.” His right hand reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an old photograph of Ed and Paul, from about fifteen years earlier, when Ed was forty four and Paul was twelve. They’d just put their canoe in at Ebsen’s boat launch on the Ojibway River. The sky was steel grey, muting the colors on the shoreline into a dull shade of green. Paul was sitting in the front of the canoe, and Ed in the back. Between them, in the middle of the canoe was their packs and all their gear. Ed and Paul were looking back at the camera, both waving to the photographer on the shore, Slyvia, not in the photo but her presence was obvious as the target of Ed and Paul’s waving hands.
“Remember this?” Ed asked, handing the photo to Paul.
“Yeah, “he said, his tone softening. “That’s the camping trip we took up to Raven Eye. God, I’d all but forgotten about that weekend.”
“Well,” Ed said, “I’ve thought about that a weekend a lot, and I always come to the same conclusion: that it was the best time of my life, that I’ve never been happier.”
“Cripes,” Paul said, “remember how hard it rained that night? And the thunder and the lightning? Man, I was so scared.”
“I remember,” Ed said. “Everything was soaked.”
Ed remembered that the storm passed thru quickly, lasting fifteen, maybe twenty intense minutes, and then it blew all the clouds away, revealing the previously unseen night sky, an explosion of stars and dust splattered against the black backdrop of infinity, low enough for them to reach out and grab from where they lay on their backs in their sleeping bags on the ground. They took handfuls of stardust and spread it in their sleeping bags, and their warmth quickly dried them out and the ground they laid on, too. They laid there, side by side, talking and pointing at the sky until they fell asleep, in the open outside air, with Paul’s head on Ed’s chest.
“You’re right, Paul,” Ed began. “It didn’t take me three years to figure out how wrong I was. I knew I was wrong, Hell, I knew I was wrong even as I said all those words. It was like I was outside of myself, listening to this raving lunatic. No, what took me three years was the shame I felt for doing what I did to you. I just want to tell you that I understand now, that you’re still the brave boy who sat out a thunderstorm in the woods in the middle of the night. And I also understand the courage it takes for you to just be you, especially as long as there are idiots like me out there. And that makes me proud of you, Paul. That’s what I didn’t know three years ago, that I’m so proud to call you my son.”
On his way home, Ed realized he had two more stops to make. The sun was almost down when he turned off of State Highway 21, also known, for the mile and a half stretch through the town of Neil, as Main Street. He turned right at the corner the Citgo station occupied into a neighborhood of 1960s era ranch homes. About a block into the neighborhood he pulled to the side of the road and parked in front of a blue house. There was a big maple tree in the front yard, with just a few orange leaves remaining, the majority having fallen and been raked into neat piles on the lawn.
Sylvia had remarried about a year earlier, a man named Sid Powers. Ed knew Sid as just a guy he’d see every now and then at the Mighty Casey’s. Charlie knew him better, as a co-worker at the paper mill.
Ed walked up the driveway and stood on the front porch. He rang the doorbell. The door opened and Sid was standing there.
“Hi, Sid,” Ed said.
“Ed, what the Hell are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to Sylvia. Is she around?”
“Yeah, she’s out back,” Sid replied. Then, turning toward the back of the house, he yelled, “Sylvia, your ex is here.”
“Tell him I’ll be there in a second,” her voice called out.
Ed and Sid stood awkwardly in the living room, waiting for Sylvia.
“I heard you lost your job at Ace,” Sid said.
Ed didn’t reply.
“Well, I sure hope you didn’t come round here looking for money or anything.”
“Sid, “ Ed said, and before he could finish saying “go fuck yourself,” Sylvia entered the room.
“What’s up, Ed?” she said. It sounded to Ed like she was trying a little too hard to be matter-of-fact about the sight of her ex-husband standing in her living room.
“Sylvia,” Ed said, “I’ve got to talk to you.”
“Okay,” she replied. She shot Sid a glare and he took the hint right away, disappearing into the basement rec room, where the sounds from a distant television murmured and whispered like crickets on a summer night. Ed followed Sylvia into the kitchen. “Do you want a beer?” she asked as she opened the refrigerator door.
“Sure,” he answered. She reached in and brought out two cans of beer, handing one to Ed and opening the other for herself.
“So I hear you got fired from Ace.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “seems like every one has heard.”
“That temper of yours again. I s’pose you didn’t know that the guy you went off on is the Mayor’s son.”
“So,” Sylvia said. “What is it you wanna talk about? You ain’t sick or nothing, are you?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Just wanted to let you know that I saw Paul today.
“You what? Where did you see Paul?”
“At his apartment. In Minneapolis.”
“I wanted to make things right with him.”
“And how did that go?”
“Well, at first he wasn’t having any of it, and I don’t blame him. But after a while, I think I got through to him, and we ended up having a real nice visit.”
“Oh, my God,” she said, putting her hand to her mouth. “You’re dying, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not, I’m just …”
“Yes you are. You’re dying. First you go to Paul, then you come here. What is it? Your heart? Cancer? How long do you have?”
“It’s nothing like that ….”
“Don’t even try to bullshit me. How long do you have? Tell me!”
Ed finally told her about pddc.com and that according to its calculation it was 100% certain that he was going to die on the following Tuesday.
When he finished, she sat motionless for a moment. She finally spoke, carefully choosing her words.
“So let me get this straight,” she started. “You’re going around making up with all the people you’ve wronged because some half-baked web site says you’re going to die next Tuesday?” She was laughing as she said, “And it says you’re going to die in a car crash, no less. Jesus Christ, Ed, when did you get so fucking gullible?”
Ed took a sip of beer and didn’t reply.
“I mean, it ain’t like you got a brain tumor, or lung cancer or anything. I was really worried there for a second, only to find out its’s just, just…website-us”
Ed finished his beer and left shortly afterwards. He wasn’t angry with Sylvia. He was a little bit embarrassed. But mostly he was appreciative for the perspective. He’d been so close to this for so long that he’d forgotten how crazy the whole thing sounded.
It was dark when he turned back onto Main Street. It’d been a long day, but he had one more stop to make.
It was 8:30 when he pulled into the IGA parking lot. He took out the list he’d carefully been preparing for the past several days. The night before he’d stocked up on batteries, light bulbs, candles, and flashlights at the Loewe’s over in Ashby. The list he held in his right hand now consisted of items and quantities to get him through two weeks without using his car.
At 10:30 he finally pulled into his short driveway off Highway T. Before he began unloading the groceries, he walked to the back of the lot and stood on the banks of the Ojibway River. He removed his car keys from the key chain and hurled them into the darkness, pleased to hear them splash in the quiet of the night.
The next two days, Wednesday and Thursday, went by quietly. Ed kept himself busy with odd jobs around the house. Charlie started making morning visits to his old friend, checking to see if there was anything Ed needed. He was surprised to find Ed relatively relaxed and good-natured compared to the anxious and irritable versio0n of him that’d dominated the previous weeks.
Friday, November 2nd – Ed was eating breakfast when his phone rang. The caller identified himself as Dr. Harold Osgood from pddc.com. It took a while for Ed to determine where he’d heard the name before, and he remembered him as the author of many of the articles on the “about us” link on pddc.com.
“I’ve been following your case since your inquiry to our call center.” Ed was pleased that Sandeep did actually escalate his call; that it made it all the way up the chain to the founder of pddc.com.
“Yes,” Ed said. Have I got questions for you!”
“I can only imagine,” Dr. Osgood replied. “The problem is that I am quite certain I have no answers.”
“You mean …”
“I’m sure your first question is whether you are going to die on Tuesday or not.”
“Well, for starters, yes …”
“Well, I really have no idea. You see, when I designed Pedro …”
“I’m sorry. Pedro was the project’s nickname, if you will. Pedro was designed as a test of Artificial Intelligence, a kind of experiment, if you will.”
That’s two “if you wills,” Ed silently counted.
“In order to test his AI possibilities, we had to give Pedro a purpose,” Osgood continued. “We settled on a day of death calculator, with the only other goal to continuously improve its accuracy. This, having a purpose, and ongoing survival, are the two primary elements of self-awareness. Well, much to our astonishment, Pedro evolved faster and in ways that we could never have predicted.”
“What do you mean?
“For example, when we initially programmed Pedro and his underlying algorithm, Pedro would ask us for access to new data. That stopped after only a few days, and at first we thought, well, that’s that. But after a week of no requests, Pedro was caught hacking into a department of defense database. We tried to shut him down, but soon after, replicas of Pedro popped up all over the globe. There had been no trail or any clue indicating it had self-replicated.”
“But what makes it think it can predict things like car accidents?” Ed asked.
“We don’t know. We can no longer access the algorithm, so we don’t know how it’s changed.”
“Sounds like Pedro is smarter than you guys.”
“Precisely. But what do you expect – Pedro can process millions and millions of data points within seconds. It would take a thousand years for humans to do what Pedro can in less than a minute.”
“So in the meantime, what do I do on Tuesday?”
“What do you plan to do?”
“Absolutely nothing. I’ve already thrown my car keys into the river, and stocked up on enough supplies that I won’t have to leave my house even if I have to. Figure I can’t get into a car accident if I don’t get in a car.”
“That sounds wise. Minimize risk, if you will.”
Bingo, Ed thought. He’d hit the “if you will” trifecta.
“Well,” Osgood said, ”I’m sure that you’ll be fine. In the end this is probably a rare bug in Pedro’s algorithm. My prayers are with you.”
Ed got off the phone not sharing Dr. Osgood’s optimism. What the fuck, he thought, these guys unleash the devil incarnate and then throw up their arms?
Saturday, November 3rd – Ed told Charlie about his conversation with Dr. Osgood about “Pedro.” Charlie reacted positively, saying that if it sounded as weird to Osgood as it did to them, then there was real hope that Osgood was right when he suspected this to all be a rare bug in Pedro.
Sunday, November 4th. Charlie came over to Ed’s house and watched the Packer game with him. The sixth was only two days away, but Ed wouldn’t even take one of the beers that Charlie offered him. I don’t want to do anything that might take away my edge, Ed said. He looked exhausted. Charlie asked him when was the last time he’d slept. I got about an hour in this morning, Ed replied. This is no way to live, Charlie said, and Ed said it’s no way to die, either. Charlie tried to get Ed to come over to his house, that the trailer was closing in on him and the change of scenery would probably do him good, but Ed said he wasn’t going to take any chances.
Monday, November fifth – The day began at 7:30 in the morning, with Charlie calling Ed on the telephone.
“Ed, google Dr. Harold Osgood”
Ed was still groggy from another night of apprehension and terror. ‘Why?” he mumbled.
“Osgood! He’s dead! And that’s not even it!”
“Slow down, Charlie, slow down.”
“Ed,” he paused to catch his breath. “When did Osgood call you?”
“Um, I dunnno, I guess it was …”
“Friday!” Charlie said at the same time Ed said “Friday.”
“So?” Ed asked.
“It says here that Osgood died Thursday night in his home. Cause of death unknown.”
“Let me see,” Ed said. He sat down at his computer and googled “Dr. Harold Osgood.” The results showed a variety of links to articles by and about the noted Harvard professor and pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, but nothing about his death. They argued about the difference in their search results when Charlie offered to print his results out and to bring them over. While Ed sat waiting for Charlie, he decided to check his PDD again.
Rank Date % of Chance Cause
1 6/30/2039 3.7% Pneumonia
2 3/14/2029 3. 1% Heart Failure
3 7/31/2032 2.3% Liver Cancer
4 12/1102/2051 1.1% Intestinal blockage
5 12/19/2043 0.9% Bladder infection
Ed rubbed his eyes until they hurt and looked at the screen again. It was gone! For the first time, 11/06, tomorrow, didn’t show up as his most likely PDD. Then, to be sure, he clicked on 11/6/18 in the calendar option, and Pedro returned a zero percent chance of death. Ed jumped up, raised his right fist, and screamed, “Yessssss.”
Just then Charlie pulled up with his printouts. He let himself in. Ed was grinning ear to ear, and had color in his face that Charlie hadn’t seen for weeks.
“Look! Just look!” he yelled, pointing at the screen. “It’s broke! Pedro’s magic spell on me has been broken!”
Charlie looked at the screen. He was holding the manila envelope with the printouts of Dr. Osgood’s death in his right hand. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Ed took his left arm and the two of them danced a silly little jig, right there in Ed’s kitchen.
When they stopped, Ed caught his breath and asked Charlie, “what you got there?” pointing at Charlie’s right hand.
Charlie had forgotten he was even holding anything. He looked at the folder, and said, “These are the articles I was telling you about. About Dr. Osgood dying last Thursday.”
“Well, better him than me!” Ed laughed.
Charlie wasn’t laughing. He remembered why he was there, in Ed’s trailer. “Ed, you talked to him on Friday.”
Ed wasn’t having any of Charlie’s pessimism. “Well, maybe they got the date wrong in the news release.”
“This was from Friday morning’s Boston Globe. It would have been published before Osgood called you.”
They did a YouTube search and found several videos of lectures and interviews featuring Osgood. Thirty seconds into playing the first video Osgood said, “if you will.”
“That’s the voice, alright,” Ed confirmed.
“So what’s going on?” Charlie said. “Thursday night, Osgood dies. Friday afternoon, he calls you. This morning, I google Osgood and find all these articles about him dying, but when you google him, nothing mentions his death. Then pddc.com tells you there is now a zero percent chance of you dying tomorrow.”
As the day wore on, Charlie’s concern about the turns of events eroded Ed’s sense of relief until it got to the point that neither one of them trusted Pedro. Charlie was the first to speculate that perhaps it was Pedro using Dr. Osgood’s voice that had actually called Ed. They also began to theorize that the sudden zero percent chance of Ed dying on the sixth may have been a ruse by Pedro, meant to inspire enough confidence in Ed to get him to drop his guard and get in a car. Both Ed and Charlie had come to the conclusion that Pedro was manipulating data and events in order to get an accurate death date on Ed, given that as pddc.com’s first 100% prediction, there was a lot at stake in ensuring an accurate outcome.
Tuesday, November 6th. Ed was still awake when the day officially began, at midnight. As the date on his laptop’s display updated to 11/06/2018, he logged into pddc.com and checked his percentage chances of dying that day. Much to his horror, he found the percentage had jumped to 100% again. He felt his chest constrict as all the air seemed to be sucked out of his lungs. So much for any sleep that night.
It turned out that his big day was shared with an election day, the day the mid-term elections would be decided. Ed wanted badly to vote, but even during the brief period where his chance of dying that day was zero percent did he even consider making the five mile trek to the polling place. He’d have to exercise his constitutional right some other time.
At 7:00 A.M., Charlie stopped by on his way to vote. Ed informed him of the spike in his odds. Charlie, always one for conspiracy theories, couldn’t help but suspect foul play, and that Pedro was manipulating them. Ed of course declined Charlie’s obligatory offer to drive Ed to the polls. Charlie left, promising Ed he’d stop by McDonald’s as soon as he’d voted and bring him a Sausage McMuffin.
7:45 A.M. Ed’s phone rang. Checking the caller ID before answering, he saw it was Charlie, and he picked up.
“Ed,” Charlie said, breathing hard, his voice wild with emotion. “You wouldn’t believe it!”
“I got T-Boned this morning!”
“I got T-Boned! At the intersection before McDonalds! This jerk in an S.U.V ran the four way stop just as I was going through.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just twisted my back a little bit. But Ed, here’s the thing. He hit my car smack dab on the passenger side. Caved it in all the way next to me, but I’m sitting there, my face full of air bag, without a scratch. But if anybody had been sitting there, they ‘d be dead for sure. You remember me asking you, almost joking, if you wanted a ride to vote this morning?”
“Well, if you’d of come with, you’d be dead right now, and ol’ Pedro would have his date.”
“Shit,” Ed said. He felt he color leave his face. “Do you suppose, Charlie, that that’s it? Do you suppose I’m safe now?”
“Shit, I dunno,” Charlie said. He heard the desperateness in his old friend’s voice and he ached for his behalf.
“Well, can you stop by?” Ed asked.
“I could but I ain’t got a ride. My Ford, she’s a-totaled.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t come out and get you.”
“Hell, no, I wouldn’t think of asking you. Not today. After I’m done with the police, I’ll call my daughter up, see if she can run out. I’ll keep you posted.”
They hung up. Ed checked pddc.com to see if Charlie’s accident had decreased the likelihood of Ed’s. He was disappointed to find it still at 100%, but then he reasoned that there hadn’t been any time yet for the accident to have been reported yet made available to pddc.com.
The morning dragged on. It was a typical November day, cold out, the sky an unrelenting gray pressing down on Ed until it felt like his feet were three foot deep in the earth. Every muscle in his body ached from exhaustion. Minutes lasted for hours. At noon, Charlie finally called Ed. The police were finished making their report. He was going to have lunch with his daughter and his grandson and wanted to know if he could bring anything back for Ed, since he was never able to make good on his offer for breakfast. Ed politely declined, and told Charlie to enjoy the time with his family. At about 2:30 PM, Charlie’s grandson, Travis Dean, took Charlie home in his Dodge Ram truck. Although only 19, Travis had been an apprentice in his dad’s electrical contractor business, and was now making a good living as a free-lance electrician. He was one of the few guys his age who could afford a new truck. On their way to Charlie’s house, they stopped by Ed’s trailer. To say Ed was appreciative of the company would be an understatement.
For the rest of the afternoon, Charlie and Travis stayed and visited with Ed. Ed always enjoyed talking to Travis, talking shop about new construction projects Travis had taken on. Charlie hoped that Travis could take Ed’s mind off of things, and he did, at least to the extent that Ed was capable of letting go of his fear. The three of them ate dinner together, Ed’s famous meat loaf. The evening went on into night. Ed and Charlie hadn’t let Travis in on the Pedro situation. They told stories about their careers, people they knew, and places they’d been. Finally, as the night was slowing down, Travis looked at his watch.
“Well, it’s 10:00. I’ve gotta work tomorrow, guys. I’ve gotta get going. Come on, gramps, let’s go.”
It was a Wisconsin good bye, as the three of them stood in the front doorway to Ed’s trailer and said goodbye but not leaving until they’d discussed the weather and what the prospectus for the upcoming deer hunting season looked like. Charlie looked apologetically at Ed. Ed looked at his laptop, the only time keeping device he owned. It said it was 10:37. They said their final goodbyes and they were gone, the black night devouring Charlie and Travis the instant they stepped off of the font steps, outside the reach of the yellowish glow of the porch light.
Before leaving Charlie, Travis went inside with him to borrow Charlie’s reciprocating saw for a tear-down project he’d been working on. Charlie put on a pot of coffee for Travis, to keep him awake on his hour drive home. Ed called while Travis was still there, feeling relieved and confident, now that the dreaded day was only ten minutes away from ending. They hung up so Charlie could say goodbye to Travis. By the time Travis pulled out of Charlie’s driveway, the clock on Charlie’s living room wall read 11:35. He didn’t think anything of it at first, but then it hit him. In a near panic, he picked up the phone and called Ed. It rang and rang, at least fifteen times, but Ed never answered.
Ed had been sitting behind his laptop, watching the seconds count down in the Windows clock display. 23:45:15,then 23:56:19,and then the final countdown: 23:59:55, 56,57,58, 59, 00:00:00 Wednesday, November 7th. He leapt up and punched his fist in the air. “I’m alive, “he screamed. Then he ran out of the house, on to the yard, yelling, “I’m alive, I’m alive!”
Travis Dean had just left his grandfather’s house when he looked at the dashboard of his truck. The time was 11:30 and the only light was his headlight beams illuminating the mist that rose from the Ojibway River. Just then the check engine light came on and the truck started beeping loudly, and all the lights on the dashboard lit, including one he’d never seen before. As he tried to figure out what was going on, as the lights were flashing, he could feel as well as hear the dull thwack of his truck hitting something head on, and he realized he was heading off of the road for a ditch. He tried to get the truck back on the road, but before he could it tipped, on its side. He hit his head against the driver door and was knocked unconscious, laying there upside down in the cab of his pickup truck. The dashboard was dark, with none of the warning lights that had all suddenly flashed and distracted Travis still lit.
Ed lay there, in his front yard, Travis Dean’s Dodge Ram lying on its side atop of him. He was crushed, his ribs shattered and his lungs collapsed. He’d already gone into shock, the pain subsiding, and within seconds he stopped breathing, and his heart stopped beating. Inside the double-wide, on the kitchen table, his laptop sat unattended. Nobody even checked the time to notice that it was fast, a half hour into the future.
Seventy three miles away, in Minneapolis, Paul Barnes was sound asleep when he was presented with an image of the night sky. Millions of stars shone against a backdrop of the green cosmic dust of the universe that glowed and shimmered. His father was standing next to him, the light above them reflected and refracted in his dark eyes. Ed smiled, slightly, and then he was gone.
At the same time, in a darkened computer room in a computer lab in some unspecified Midwestern college, red and blue lights blinked on and off, and in a database containing thousands of files, a field in a table named PDDC_METRICS labelled “ACTUAL_DAY_OF_DEATH with a primary key of 6527423997US was updated with the value, 110620182338.