The Day the Death Clocks Stood Still

By Luke Mitchell

It all started on the day the Death Clocks struck zero.

Which is to say, for me, that it all started right about the moment I watched some balding dude in a spiffy green parka wrench a bike out of a poor commuter’s hands and throw the damn thing through the nearest shop window. It was one of those things that kinda just stopped you dead in your tracks, you know? Forced you to take a second. Process. Look at your fellow pedestrians. Gauge the reactions from the crowd. Is this a drill? Is this supposed to happen? Don’t fuckin’ think so, friend.

Me? I mostly just wanted to know what the hell had Parka Guy so jazzed for—what was it in there? Pastries? Freaking pastries!

So yeah. For that brief moment, I just wanted to know what the hell had this guy so jazzed for pastries that he couldn’t be bothered to use the door like a normal human. But before I knew it—before anyone seemed to know much of anything—it was just freaking bedlam. I swear to COG, it was like Parka Guy had gone and spewed the Airborne Crazies across the entire city block. Like that quasi-mystical pastry shop window had somehow been the only earthly thing holding the world together until that moment.

People just lost it. Or at least that’s what it felt like at the time.

If I could somehow go back to that moment with a nice, bird’s eye view, I’m guessing I might realize that Parka Man had hardly been the inciting spark of that rapidly exploding dumpster fire. I’m guessing I might see that “the crazies” had in fact been spreading throughout the entire city faster than any one man could be blamed for—and possibly well before our portly friend had gone and decided, “Hey, fuck it. Pastries!”

Like any half-sane citizen, I would’ve loved to have thought it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Instead, I just glanced down at the plain, utilitarian display that was blinking big red zeros across my wrist. Freaking zeros.

Well, that explains that, I thought. Right before something hard and fuck-you shaped punched the better part of consciousness clean out of my skull.

I think maybe I was supposed to die then. Couldn’t say. Certainly would’ve explained those zeros. Either way, I couldn’t have been down for more than a few seconds before my brain came clawing back to its spinning little slice of consciousness. Any longer than that, and I doubt I would’ve been getting back up. As anyone who’s narrowly survived a good, totally bat shit flash panic riot can tell you: death by stampede isn’t a freaking joke.

It’d be nice to tell you that those of us who’d previously seen one such catastrophic breakdown in societal order and common human decency (which is to say, probably most of the collective “we” in attendance that day) behaved in a calm fashion from there. It’d be nice to say that we acted quickly—used our COG-blessed words to regain control of the situation. It’d be even nicer to pretend like I didn’t bat a few of my fellow humans aside (and throw a few more to the wolves) in my drowning-rat rush to get the hell out of the streets. But the truth is that my actions aren’t important.

… Well, shit. I mean, don’t let my shrink hear me saying that. We’re all “important,” or whatever. But not this important. Not doomsday important. Which brings me back to the point. So, let’s try this again, from the top.

It all started on the day the Death Clocks struck zero.

Which is to say, just for you few wise souls who’ve managed to keep your heads in the sand and stay off the grid all these years, Anti-Chooser style, that it all started when the “United Coalition Relative Risk & Actuarial Probability Re-Classifier” readings went zilch, worldwide. De nada, just like that. Bob’s your uncle, and do not pass go or collect $200. $200 wouldn’t buy you a piss in the ocean anyway. Not these days. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The Death Clocks.

That’s what most of us call ’em, in one variation or another. “Us” being the good working-class folk. Or the ones who are supposed to look like good working-class folk, at least. You know, when we’re not busy tearing the COG-damned city down. Point is, we’re the peons in this here papier-mâché society, as opposed to the tight-sphinctered, veg-head bureaucrats who somehow decided it ever made sense to condense “United Coalition Relative Risk & Actuarial Probability Re-Classifier” down into the “uChoose wrapper” for short. The INFAMOUS uChoose wrapper.

We peons mostly agreed that “REAPER” would’ve been a much more apt acronym, once we realized what the hell was going on. But from there, it wasn’t long until we just started calling these damn wrappers on our wrists by what they really are: our ever-vigilant Death Clocks. What the hell else do you call the ticking digits of your sometimes-shortening, sometimes-lengthening, always-passing life?

COG-damned wrappers, man. Keeping the count like we’re all nothing more than crisp greens, all-too-quickly wilting to mush on some forgotten shelf of the Great COG Fridge. Take the lift instead of the stairs—tell your pal Johnno you’ll join him for that drink—and watch your Death Clock reclassify your remaining time on this good Earth. Get a nice sprinkle of sun and water, and watch it go the other way. Watch the way those itty-bitty seconds and minutes start to pile up, and repent, ye dastardly sinner! Or, more pressingly, watch what happens when the whole damned world rolls zeros, all at once.


So, stick me on a shelf and call me kale, I guess. Fuck. I just needed to find some shelter. Ride out the worst of the storm. Just like last time. So, I did what I had to do, made my way into the nearest alley for the ol’ dumpster-hop-to-fire-escape one-two combo, and started climbing. Felt kinda messed up, how casually it all came to me. Like I was on autopilot. A minute or two later, I was looking down on the carnage from a cozy little rooftop alcove. And sure, it did look pretty bad in the moment—a young woman decking an old lady and running off with her fancy purse here, a group of tank-topped dudebros flipping a smoking smart car into the crowd there… Okay, yeah. It was bad.

But you know the most messed up part?

Bad as it looked down there, I honestly felt like maybe we didn’t have all that much to complain about. It’s not like riots hadn’t existed before. I mean, hell, have you heard of the ’20s? Sure, we had had one notable hiccup since the wrappers hit the mainstream, and it sure as hell seemed like we were looking at another one now. But honestly, living by the watchful eye of the Death Clocks probably still beat the hell out of what came before. You know, spirit beads, and all that shit. Coffee enemas. Anti-vaxxers. Essential oils and COG-damned chi elixirs.

Can you believe people actually used to shoot coffee up their asses, trying to live forever?

I wonder what those poor bastards would’ve said, if someone could’ve gone back, clapped ’em with a wrapper, and let our benevolent, all-knowing COG inform them that that miracle cure of theirs wasn’t worth the steaming coffee shit that followed. (Steaming, I mean, in like a “steaming dump” kind of way. Not in a “hot coffee” way. I don’t think that particular brand of Darwinian Champions employed hot coffee in their fearless quest for mocha-stained immortality. But I also can’t prove that, either.)

Point is—setting aside Riot Town, USA, for the moment—it’s not all bad, having an omniscient superintelligence keeping careful count of your every breath and twitch, letting you know exactly how much that extra cookie is going to cost you. Hell, if you go on full wrapper autopilot like half the good peons do these days, you might not ever even see a cookie again in your life. Not unless the COG deems it “situationally advantageous for morale” or what-the-fuck-ever. Of course, I wouldn’t count on that.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed that our benevolent overlord seems to be getting more and more stingy with the goods, each passing year. And yeah, the experts will tell you it’s all to be expected—that the COG is merely “modulating humanity’s hedonic sensitivity,” or some such scholarly bullshit. But here’s the thing: those experts aren’t exactly equipped to fathom the motivations of an honest-to-COG superintelligence, are they? That’s kinda the entire point of having a superintelligence run the show.

And pardon me, but Parka Guy’s “hedonic sensitivity” seemed plenty fucking intact to me.

Freaking pastries, man.

Me? I don’t know what to make of any of this. I sure as shit can’t explain why we’re all suddenly sitting on zeros. And I doubt the “experts” can either.

All I could think, looking down on that unfettered storm of raw humanity, was that the funniest part in all of this—the one you never could’ve explained to some curious passerby wondering at all the ruckus—was that, most days, most of the world couldn’t even be bothered to give two shits about their Clocks. With the brief and noteworthy exception of the Great Panic a few years earlier, most of us had more or less clocked out (pardon the pun) not long after Day 1. And that… Well…

That was the damnedest thing. A couple months of complete health-conscious zealotry early on, right when the wrappers hit market—everyone losing their shit over the tiniest things: this or that, yoga or pilates, sweet potatoes or yams, buying organic, and filtered water, and yada, yada, yada. And then… Nada, nada, nada, my friend. An easy slide straight back to maple bacon donuts and full-day couch potato binge marathons for half the world within a few short months. Well, either that, or you saw people going onto the autopilot and just clocking out in the other direction.

It was like people just couldn’t handle it: actively engaging with their own mortality on a daily basis. Better to pick a course—good or bad—and just forget about it. Then came the Robbie Simms case, and the others like it. Might as well have been a lightning strike. All it took was one AC unit falling out of a window onto one poor bastard’s head—allegedly mere seconds after he dropped a, “Dude, my wrapper just bugged to zero,” to the John he was on the phone with—and suddenly everyone’s losing their minds. Suddenly, everyone cares again. Eat those veggies, fuckers. Take that bike to “work.” And then watch in indignant horror as the wrapper zeros you out anyway, and a freaking bus blows a tire and smears you to roadside paste. That was Emma Hobson, by the way. She was second in the developing string of “confirmed” cases that promptly convinced the world to lose it’s freaking mind in the Great Panic.

So sure, everyone cared again. For a moment. (And a freaking violent one, at that.) And of course, for that moment, probably thanks to said violence, you had the experts—programmers, and statisticians, and economists and shit—all sweeping in to dole out the government-approved lines: namely, that a couple dozen freak accidents hardly constitutes statistical significance against the global population, and that the whole thing was all just a fat lot of coincidence. Freaking opiate for the masses, man. But it wasn’t like they had to hold the line all that long against the world’s collective attention span.

Me? I just remember catching one of the early COG programmers—that guy Stanislaw Cherdeski, or whatever his name is—talking on this leaked dark stream channel about how he didn’t have any godly idea how his machines could’ve ever learned to do what they did with Robbie Simms or the others, or how anything short of an actual god could ever hope to use predictive modeling to do anything like it in a universe that doesn’t even appear to be perfectly deterministic. According to ol’ Cherdeski, it simply shouldn’t have been possible. Of course, to listen to him talk, he didn’t for one minute seem to doubt it was happening, impossible or not. He even guessed the only reason we’d only heard of a few cases was probably because the COG was basically “rolling out” the feature—debugging it with small scale performance tests to start, like any good programmer would. 

Freaking performance tests, man.

But then things did start to calm down—thank you very much, global attention span. If you were only following the mainstream headlines, you might’ve even gone and figured that guys like Mr. Stanislaw Cherdeski had just been a buncha self-important nuts (or just flat out wrong, at least), to see the way things bounced right back to normal in the weeks following the Great Panic. It was like everyone had signed some global pact to wake up the next day, look their neighbors straight in the face, and pretend like they hadn’t all been one Clock flutter away from murdering each other dead for a few cans of beans or whatever.

The thing is, if you were one of the weirdos like me—one of the ones who couldn’t stop wondering what else guys like Cherdeski had to say—you might’ve found yourself circling the rabbit hole as the world turned its collective attention back to which country was raising its dukes at which, and to who had said what (and to whom!) within our blessed celebrosphere. While the rest of the world was happily chasing the newest, hottest shiny thing, you might’ve realized that they were still happening, these perfectly predicted accidents. More and more, they were happening. More and more, the system was detecting finer details, more sophisticated and obscure complications. The COG was evolving. Becoming something truly breathtaking.

We just stopped caring. Again.

Ignorance is bliss—and so are maple bacon donuts, while we’re at it—so kindly pass the remote and shut your fucking face about it, right?

Seems to me like that’s about when the veg-heads should’ve really started asking the bigger questions—like whether we actually wanted these handy-dandy Death Clocks strapped to our wrists anymore. Like whether we petulant little mammals were even equipped to handle that mental burden, or whether our failure to do so thus far wasn’t maybe—just maybe—indicative of some larger problem festering just beneath the surface of our so-called polite society. Maybe they should’ve been asking the biggest question of all:

Just because we can do it… should we?

If you’re asking me, I think we were quickly brushing up against some uncomfortable truths about humanity—or rather, some stiff ones about our relationship with technology. It was love on the rocks with no ice, you know? And we, as a species, had just been grinning and bearing it for too long. Ignoring the warning signs. Chasing that infinitely expanding state of better than before without ever bothering to figure out which direction we even wanted to be heading with all of our betterness. (You know, in my humble opinion, or whatever.)

And just to set the record straight, I’m not some mill-smashing Luddite here, proposing we should’ve wiped the board clean and let nature retake the Earth, or some shit. Honestly, at this point, I almost wish I could tell you that was me. On paper, it’s kinda starting to feel like a reasonable enough point of view. And don’t get me wrong, we could also probably do with a few more trees, and a bit less smog. Maybe a few less assholes bogging down the autoways. But as I stared down at that polite society of ours catching fire for the second time in a decade, I’d be lying if I said I was wishing we’d done the “reasonable” thing and just pulled the COG-damned plug on the entire system years ago, after the first Great Panic. Instead, all I could do was wonder.

The Death Clocks.

Freaking zeros, man.

What did it mean? What did it mean?

What the fuck did it mean?

I watched two dogs tear each other to pieces while their owners attempted to do the same, watched some dickhead shove what must’ve been his girlfriend straight at the gang of leering assbags holding them at knife point just so he could try to scamper away. I watched one of those assbags pull a gun and shoot him dead. Watched the masses streaming in and out of broken shop windows, carrying all kinds of shit that no one ever could’ve rightly even pretended they’d be needing in a survival situation. I watched it all from my perch, dreaming up all sorts of scenarios.

The COG’s got a plan in all of this. It has to. It’s sure as shit got us all figured out by now—knows exactly how to push our buttons. Never before has any single entity been in a position to so completely affect the course of the entire human race. And while we might not ever be equipped to truly put our finger on the pulse of exactly what a superintelligence “wants,” per se, I know it’s not some evil, omniscient death bot, like certain sects of the Anti-Choosers would have you believe. So, maybe it’s pushing us to something greater. Hell, maybe it’s pushing us to transcendence. Maybe I was wrong earlier, about needing to slow down and choose a direction before we rush on in the pursuit of better. Maybe we’re not equipped to figure that out, either. Maybe the COG’s teaching us an invaluable lesson, here. One we can only understand on the other side. Or maybe it just wants our attention back. 

I can’t tell you.

What I can tell you is that, by the time I’d thought to fish my phone out of my jeans, my theoretical landscape had expanded all the way to nuclear holocausts, alien invasions, and vengeful gods descending from the heavens. I wasn’t expecting there’d be much in the way of answers yet—and certainly nothing concrete—but I figured I might at least rule out one or two of those last scenarios with a glance at the news feeds. Failing some greater plan from the COG, my money was on nukes. Mostly because, well, it’d just freaking figure, wouldn’t it? We already had a veritable god in the making, offering us the soon-to-be possibility of COG-damned mathematical prescience, and we hadn’t yet bothered to stop beating our nationalist drums and flinging our sticks and stones across the world. Why stop now?

Maybe I should’ve been paying closer attention to my surroundings, what with the world ending around me and all that. Then again, with the racket going on below, I doubt it would’ve made much of a difference. Either way, I didn’t hear a peep of the man sneaking up behind me. Not until he hit a patch of crunchy pebbles right behind me and sent me spinning around like a freaking rotary jack-in-the-box—full on deer in the headlights—just in time to see the blow coming.

And dammit, I’d like to say I found some answers in the brief moment before that blow connected. I’d love nothing more than to say that time stopped, and that the COG itself reached down from on high and showed me how it was all going to be okay, and how this was all part of the Great Plan. But all I could gather in that fleeting moment, as that dark something came plunging for my face—all I could gather beyond my own fuzzy veil of morbid fascination, that is—was that the big burly bastard wasn’t even wearing a wrapper. Freaking Anti-Chooser, man, coming at me with an ax like some fucking viking of yore.

So call me kale, and come find me in the afterlife, when we’re done with whatever the fuck this is.

Because COG help me, I still wanna know how it all turns out.

The End

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