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art by Justine McGreevy

Endgame

Canfield's phobias run to politicians, lawyers, and oil company executives. He likes dogs and beer.
"Death ensues within thirty seconds."
The voice conveying this warning was calm, restrained, devoid of any sense of urgency. It was matter of fact. But I was gripped by the same surge of adrenalin as I always was.
Thirty seconds! It was the barest fraction of an instant, it was the mere flicker of an eyelid. And it was a lifetime, it was all of eternity. Either perspective was equally valid. The one constant that always catapulted to the fore was a blistering intensity, a dropping away of all other cares and concerns. The world was reduced to a single overriding imperative--disarm the mechanism, short-circuit the equation.
I waited, hunched forward, tense and expectant. What followed was this incredible moment of lag, an interval of emptiness that seemed to extend out into infinity. And then: 29, 28, 27... The same calm, unhurried tone. A female voice, pitched low, with a certain husky intimacy to it, as though the approaching spectre of Death were a game of seduction, a courtship that led to but one inevitable conclusion.
I shut the machine down, stared at it with glazed, empty eyes. The designers had given the device an imposing, physically intimidating appearance. It bristled with switches and dials, featured sleek, silver, and black hard alloy casing. Its appearance played to one's own inner conception of Death--blunt, hard-nosed, unforgiving. It was disconcerting to realize that even Death could be manipulated in such a fashion, even Death was subject to such superficial ploys.
I unplugged the machine, hid it away at the back of the closet. Some people displayed the unit quite openly, setting it out upon a table as they might any other piece of bric-a-brac. I found such behavior incomprehensible. To face such temptation every day, to deny and overcome it, asked and demanded too much of any man. In the closet, at least, I could pretend that the device did not exist--even if the pretense was not wholly satisfactory or convincing.
"Death ensues within twenty seconds."
The pause again, hanging over the edge of the precipice. It was an exhilarating moment, a rush unlike any other. And then: 19, 18, 17... I terminated the count at thirteen, sat sweated to the chair. Death was parked right in front of me, a malignant viper, silver and black. I stared at it, fascinated. Was the device really an accurate representation of Death? Form followed function, or so it was said. But was this not rather one more interim step, one more way station, part of a process that would lead to Death but that would reveal itself only in the final shattering instant?
A pleasant lassitude settled over me. I felt drowsy and spent. I ran my fingertips over my skin with a slow, sensual movement, gratified to find myself alive. Still, something worried at my mind. I had detected a subtle shift in the voice as it counted down the seconds. The change was unexpected and unnerving. The voice had become marked by a tremulous quality, an underlying strain of emotion. It was too indistinct and undeveloped for me to define, however. For that I would have to wait, would have to push closer to the endgame.
"Death ensues within ten seconds."
The pause, stretching out to eternity, was taut as piano wire. Then: 9, 8, 7... I had tried to stay away, had endeavored to avoid the machine. But I had come back as I always did, helpless to deny it. I had become more and more intrigued by a metaphysical conundrum no one had yet succeeded in resolving: Did a man hear the zero?
That is, zero marked the point of termination, the final, irrevocable end of everything. But did a man hear it, did it register upon his consciousness? He heard the one, hanging out over the abyss. But the zero? Zero and Death would seem to be simultaneous, effectively canceling each other out. No one knew, not even those who had designed the unit, whether the zero manifested itself in a manner that could be comprehended and recognized. Or whether it was lost, swallowed, annihilated in the spiraling descent into Death. The only way to find out was to follow the string to the very end.
5, 4, 3... There was still time to bail on the process and for a fleeting instant I considered it. I might have acted had it not been for the voice. As the count approached nearer to the end the underlying dynamics changed. The voice assumed a more emphatic cast, abandoning the aura of carefully modulated neutrality. Substituting in its place--what exactly?
Shades of meaning resided in the tone that an entire lifetime might prove insufficient to decipher. Was the acid trill that now laced the consonants a warning, a plea to pull back before it was too late? Had the programmers installed a speed bump to deter those who embraced their product with too much enthusiasm--and with too little regard for the consequences? Yet the voice did not support such an interpretation. And then I had it, right on the cusp of the word "one".
The pitch and cadence had become infused with something unexpected, something I had failed to recognize precisely because I had not been looking for it. It was a blend of emotion that swamped any innate sense of caution which remained, that instilled in me a sense of triumph and vindication. It was envy, pure and simple, it was envy.
I heard the "one", stared spellbound into a dazzling vortex of silver and black. It receded into a distance so remote as to almost approach its own point of origin and so come full circle again. I thought that I heard the "zero" and reached out to embrace it--only to find that it had vanished, had never, in fact, existed at all.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 28th, 2012


One cannot help but be intrigued by the Dance with Death, the intricately choreographed set of moves and countermoves by which one confronts the Inevitable. There exists simultaneously a seductive pull and corresponding revulsion that contend for primacy--and that usually achieve a kind of balance. The one conviction one carries away from contemplating the ogre Death is that any mechanism for coping cannot be rooted in denial. I was attempting to capture something of that in this piece. Not possessing the moxie to jump out of an airplane, even with a functioning parachute, I decided to reenact the experience, and the drama, in a more sedate setting--and at a comfortable distance.

- Thomas Canfield

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