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Notas Mortem

The bus seat be­neath me bumped as we re­turned back to the school from our grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony. I thumbed my own card, qui­etly con­fused, as I over­heard the other stu­dents on the bus share their re­sults. The bus was chaos. Some were cry­ing, some looked nau­se­ated, and even more were try­ing to yell across the bus to tell peo­ple their re­sults. Their des­tiny.

One of the guys in a let­ter­man jacket yelled from the back of the bus, “Tyler! I’m gonna– Tyler! I’m gonna die in a con­struc­tion ac­ci­dent!” He was al­most laugh­ing.

“Re­ally?” Tyler re­sponded from the front of the bus, “I got a heart at­tack! That’s, like, ex­actly what I wanted! A con­struc­tion ac­ci­dent doesn’t sound too bad. Jane over here got lung can­cer!”

A few heads turned to Jane, who had been silently cry­ing. A girl in front of her turned around in her seat to con­sole her. “Oh, honey, it’s not that bad. Maybe you get it when you’re old and gray!” Jane smiled back through her tears. “I got Alzheimer’s. So it’ll prob­a­bly hap­pen once I’m old too.” She showed Jane her card, which had the word ALZHEIMER’S printed across it in boxy, red let­ters. “But did you know it can hap­pen once you’re in your thir­ties? My mom’s grandma– ”

“Guys!” The par­ent su­per­vi­sor shouted from the front of the bus, “You’re sup­posed to wait until we’re back at the school to open the en­velopes, and you’re not sup­posed to be shar­ing the re­sults with each other! This is pri­vate!”

As if we wouldn’t share the most im­por­tant news we’ve ever re­ceived with our friends. It would have been im­pos­si­ble for me to stop talk­ing about mine if I was on the same bus as my friends. But since French is my first class of the day, I got to go back to the school with this lot. Re­gard­less, as soon as I got to school I planned to in­ter­ro­gate each one of my friends to find out who wrote my card. There was no way my card was real – some­one was play­ing a prank on me. That’s what I thought.

“Oh my god!” an­other jock shouted from the back of the bus, “Tom’s card is MURDER-​SUICIDE!”

“Wait, so does that mean he’s gonna get mur­dered, or he’s gonna com­mit sui­cide?”

Tom’s face was red. “Shut up!”

The breath­ing of the girl next to me was get­ting shal­lower and more rapid the longer the bus ride went on. At this point, she was au­di­bly wim­per­ing with each breath. Her fin­gers were white as she clutched her bag like she was cling­ing to her life it­self. She tried to speak to me, but her voice didn’t ac­ti­vate and it started to come out as a whis­per, which she stopped. She looked away and stayed silent as more peo­ple on the bus con­tin­ued to share their re­sults.

“I got HEART AT­TACK too! Jack­pot!”

“Mine just says TRIP AND FALL. I guess that’s not so bad. Never know when it’s gonna hap­pen. Kinda dis­ap­point­ing though. Like I’ve waited all this time just to learn noth­ing.”

“I know ex­actly when mine is gonna hap­pen. Mine says STABBED ON NEW YEAR’S EVE!” This one prompted some looks of ex­treme jeal­ousy from around the bus. As far as a nota mor­tum goes, one that states the day of the year you’re going to die is a golden ticket. It means you can be reck­less for the rest of the year and not have to worry about death.

“Whoa, give me yours! I’ll trade you for a heart at­tack! Get­ting stabbed sounds pretty rough...”

“You can’t trade them, idiot!”

The pale-​faced girl sit­ting next to me cleared her throat and tried to speak to me again. “Umm, ex­cuse me, what did you get?”

I replied, “I don’t think this is my real card. It’s not even pos­si­ble. I’ll have to get my real card from whichever of my so-​called friends thought this one was so funny.” I showed her my card. The red let­ters spelled ALIEN AB­DUC­TION.

She gig­gled a bit, and then smiled. “Your friends are ass­holes! I think I’d rather be in your po­si­tion, though, and not even know how I was going to die.”

“Is yours that bad?” I asked, ges­tur­ing to see her card. She turned it over. BUS AC­CI­DENT. “Hey,” I tried to com­fort her, “I’m sure you’ll ride the bus many times in your life. You don’t know that it’s gonna hap­pen on this bus ride. It prob­a­bly won’t.” I was lying to her. She would never reach our des­ti­na­tion.

“I don’t know. I think if I sur­vive this bus ride, I’ll be too afraid of rid­ing the bus to ever get on one again. Which means this will be my last bus ride. Which means I’m going to die today.” She started to get choked up again as a pair of arms ap­peared be­tween us. The guy from the seat be­hind us had leaned for­ward to talk to us.

“So, what did you guys get?”

“You first,” I re­sponded.

“Okay, I got SHOT­GUN. Kinda sucks, I was hop­ing for some­thing that might give me an idea of when it’s gonna hap­pen. It’s just one of those ones where it doesn’t re­ally tell you any­thing. I wish I had one that was more de­fin­i­tive.”

The girl next to me let out a sob. The guy, re­al­iz­ing she was cry­ing, said, “she must have got­ten a bad one, right?”

“Bus ac­ci­dent,” I whis­pered to him.

“Oh! That’s not good!” The guy cracked a ner­vous smile, look­ing around at the walls of the bus. “She’s not the only one. I heard Sam in the back has a bus ac­ci­dent card as well.” This was not com­fort­ing to the girl sit­ting next to me.

“Jesus. Should we, like, get every­one off the bus, or tell the teacher?”

The guy re­sponded calmly, “You can’t fight fate.” Though he did sit down in his seat and ad­just his pos­ture to brace for a pos­si­ble crash. I tried sub­tly to do the same with­out the girl next to me re­al­iz­ing I was doing it.

He was right. If you knew you were going to die of thirst and de­cided to carry around mul­ti­ple bot­tles of water with you wher­ever you went, you’d end up con­tract­ing some dis­ease that had ex­ces­sive thirst as a symp­tom, and the water would do you no good. Or if you were going to die in an air­plane ac­ci­dent and de­cided never to get on an air­plane, well... the air­plane would come to you. The notas mortem were ab­solute.

Some­one from some­where in the mid­dle of the bus yelled fran­ti­cally, “The bus is gonna crash! Stop the bus!” That’s three peo­ple with BUS AC­CI­DENT on their cards. Not good.

Most peo­ple didn’t seem to care. It was com­mon knowl­edge that you can’t fight fate. But I was start­ing to get wor­ried. I was the only one on the bus who didn’t know whether or not I was going to die in the up­com­ing bus ac­ci­dent, be­cause I was the only one who hadn’t re­cieved his ac­tual card yet. I looked at my card. ALIEN AB­DUC­TION. I wished I had my real card. This was an even cru­eler prank now that I knew I was going to be in a bus ac­ci­dent.

The girl next to me looked like a ghost at this point, and was shriek­ing like a ban­shee. She wrapped her arms around me tightly and buried her head in my shoul­der, still sob­bing loudly. It was at that mo­ment that the bus came to a sud­den and un­ex­pected stop...

The bro­ken glass from the bus win­dow cut into the skin on my face and the side of the bus pressed into my ribs. We had been over­turned in the ac­ci­dent. I looked up at the girl who was rest­ing on my shoul­der. She was silent and still, but the look of fear was stuck on her face, and her eyes were still open. A metal beam had pierced her neck and came out of the front of her throat, stop­ping a hair’s width from my chest. I pushed her corpse off me.

There must have been a fire some­where on the bus, as it was filled with smoke. I looked up through the smoke, and there was a gap­ing hole in what used to be the other side of the bus. The smoke glowed with bright blue light, which was com­ing from the other side of the hole in the bus.

“Come on!” a girl on the bus shouted some­where. Again she shouted it. Again. The voice was fa­mil­iar, but I couldn’t place it. A lot of the peo­ple on this bus were peo­ple I was fa­mil­iar with, but didn’t re­ally know.

A face ap­peared from out­side the hole in the bus, block­ing some of the strange, blue light from pour­ing in through the smoke. “Come on!” She was look­ing at me. It was the girl who died. The one I had been sit­ting next to. But now, she was alive and un­in­jured, and she was look­ing down at me.

I looked back at where her dead body had been. Still there. Still im­paled through the neck with a bloody, metal rod. Frozen for­ever in ter­ror. But back up at the hole, she was look­ing down at me.

“Yes, you! Climb up the seats and come to me!” The smoke was mak­ing it hard to breath, so I de­cided to fol­low the doppelgänger’s ad­vice and climb the hell out of there. When I was stand­ing on the side of the seat I had been sit­ting in, she was able to grab my hands and pull me out of the bus and into the other bus. The other bus?

The sec­ond bus, some­how hov­er­ing above the first bus, was an un­harmed copy of the first, down to the graf­fiti on the seats. As she pulled me up, I stum­bled and we both fell onto the floor of the sec­ond bus, with me on top of her, my face nearly touch­ing hers. She looked like she had looked be­fore the ac­ci­dent. I went to apol­o­gize for being on top of her, but then I no­ticed her eyes... Her eyes shim­mered with a strange light. A color I had never seen be­fore. A color I was not meant to see. It made me sleepy. I felt my body relax, and my lips and nose pressed into her face as I fell un­con­sious.

I woke up in a much dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment. No bus. No girl. Just dark­ness speck­led with pin-​pricks of light in all di­rec­tions. Stars. I was float­ing through space. I could feel ground be­neath me, but it wasn’t vis­i­ble. I looked up, and there she was, stand­ing over me, look­ing down. Her eyes had lost thier hyp­notic col­ors, but they still shim­mered like the eyes of a cat at night.

I sat up and looked at her. This was not the girl from my bus. The one who had clung to me for com­fort in the last sec­onds of her life. This was an im­pos­tor. An alien. I was re­ally going to die in an alien ab­duc­tion.

“What do you want with me?” I asked it. It had a calm ex­pres­sion on her face. “Are you going to probe me or some­thing?”

It laughed with her voice, and then spoke, also in her voice, “No, biped. I am not in­ter­ested in your bi­ol­ogy. You are rel­a­tively sim­ple crea­tures, and I can find out any basic fact about your bi­ol­ogy from my scan­ners.” It ges­tured to an in­vis­i­ble de­vice which must have been present, but I could see only the starscape.

“Then why did you take me from Earth? Are you going to eat me? Are you going to make me your slave?”

“I have all the nu­tri­ents my me­tab­o­lism could ever re­quire, and I don’t see how you could be of any use to me as a slave.”

“What then? If I’m such an in­fe­rior crea­ture, then why did you take me from my life? Just tell me!”

The alien had caused a strange, wide-​eyed smile to ap­pear on her face, but I couldn’t tell if this was in­ten­tional, or if it just wasn’t used to tak­ing on the form of a human. “My kind have trav­elled the uni­verse and un­locked many of the deep­est se­crets of physics, and in­vented all kinds of won­der­ful tech­nol­ogy. But de­spite our progress, one dis­cov­ery still eludes our grasp. Your notas mortem. I want to know how you pro­duce them.”

“What? I don’t know!” I screamed at the alien. “Why would you abduct me, of all peo­ple? Why not abduct one of the en­gi­neers be­hind the fate print­ers? They’re old, but I’m pretty sure they’re still alive! Ask them! Why abduct some high school stu­dent? You think I can tell you how to make a fate printer?”

“Of course not. In fact, I doubt any of you hu­mans could de­scribe to me the un­der­ly­ing mech­a­nism of your fate print­ers. I think it is clear from your lack of progress in all other areas that you hap­pened upon the notas mortem by ac­ci­dent.”

“Then why am I here? Where even is here?” I said as I looked around at the stars. The sun wasn’t even vis­i­ble from wher­ever we were – or at least if it was, it was just an­other star from our per­spec­tive.

The alien ig­nored the ques­tion about our lo­ca­tion. “The rea­son you are here is, de­spite all of our sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, we have not been able to dis­cover a way to cre­ate a fate printer. After decades of try­ing to em­u­late your dis­cov­ery, we have made no progress. So, there must be some­thing about the human bi­ol­ogy which makes the dis­cov­ery of such a de­vice so easy. So I am going to study you. In par­tic­u­lar, I am going to study what hap­pens to a human when they die.”

“You’re going to kill me? I guess I al­ready knew that.” I was sweat­ing and trem­bling at this point, but I knew noth­ing could be done to save me. You can’t fight fate.

“You are sur­rounded by the most sen­si­tive mea­sure­ment equip­ment in the galaxy,” it ges­tured to the empty space around me, “though your senses are not suf­fi­cient to per­cieve it all. When you die, every mol­e­cule, par­ti­cle, atom, quark, pho­ton, or vi­bra­tion in the space­time fab­ric will all be recorded and an­a­lyzed by this del­i­cate ma­chin­ery. But this may not be enough data. So I will use this lit­tle de­vice,” its hands clasped around a small de­vice which looked to me to be empty space, “to bring you back to life after you are dead. Be­fore the process of de­com­po­si­tion can begin. And then I will kill you again. And bring you back only to kill you again. And again. And again. Each time in a dif­fer­ent way, so I can max­i­mize the value of the data I ob­tain.”

“B–but...” I stut­tered ner­vously, “that doesn’t make any sense! If–if I don’t re­ally die, then how can what­ever data you get be use­ful? The notas don’t tell you about near-​death ex­pe­ri­ences, only the mo­ment of your ac­tual, true death!”

“I have con­sid­ered this,” the alien said calmly, still smil­ing eerily with the girl’s face, eyes shim­mer­ing, “and if that is the case, then only your final death will pro­vide me with any use­ful data. But just in case, it would be bet­ter for me to col­lect all the data I can, just to be sure.”

“Why are you so des­per­ate to find out how you’re going to die any­way? Can’t you just have one of your lit­tle ma­chines bring you back to life when you die?”

“The ma­chines of my peo­ple are com­plex, and com­plex­ity is frag­ile. They have been known to mal­func­tion. Still, my bi­ol­ogy is much more ro­bust than yours, and the chances of me ac­tu­ally dying for good are low as long as stars still burn and the ma­chines of my peo­ple stay pow­ered. What I re­ally must know is whether or not I will sur­vive the dying of the uni­verse. If there is some way to sur­vive the ever-​increasing en­tropy of our ex­is­tence. Will I make it out of this uni­verse and into the next?”

“You’re not sat­is­fied with a lifes­pan of a tril­lion years?” I stood up, fists clenched. “No won­der you aliens haven’t dis­cov­ered the se­crets of fate: what­ever an­swers fate tried to tell you, you would re­ject as not good enough! Has a crea­ture as ad­vanced as you re­ally failed to in­vent the fate print­ers, or do you just throw them in the trash when they give you an an­swer you don’t like?” I was yelling in its – her – face at this point. Yelling at the crea­ture that was cer­tain to kill me.

“Care­ful, biped. I can make this painful for you.” The alien raised its arm hold­ing some in­vis­i­ble ob­ject, with one fin­ger partly ex­tended. A gun if I had ever seen one. A few mo­ments passed and then I reached for­ward and grabbed the in­vis­i­ble ma­chine from the alien’s other hand and threw it to the ground.

Crash! Some­thing in­vis­i­ble shat­tered into a mil­lion in­vis­i­ble lit­tle pieces.

The girl’s face con­torted into a face of anger as the alien yelled through her, “You in­tractible bipedal scum! You per­verse–”

I reached for­ward again and wrapped my hand around the bar­rel of the in­vis­i­ble gun weapon. Her hand was wrapped tightly around the han­dle of the gun. The alien smirked with her face. “You can’t pull the same trick twice.” But I didn’t try to rip the gun out of her hands. In­stead, I pulled the bar­rel of the gun to my chest, and pushed on her trig­ger fin­ger.

Zap! A vi­o­let laser beam fired through my chest and into the in­vis­i­ble hull of the space­craft. I fell to the ground, and im­me­di­ately felt light­headed.

“You in­sur­gent worm! Fine! You have de­stroyed my re­com­bi­na­tor, so I can’t bring you back be­fore de­com­po­si­tion starts. You have earned your death. But I will sim­ply re­turn to your planet and gather more of your peo­ple. Maybe I’ll start with your fam­ily? And once I get the knowl­edge I am look­ing for, I will fire­bomb your en­tire planet! I will turn the sur­face of your planet into glass, and then shat­ter the glass, and then shat­ter your planet and fire all of the chunks of rock into your sun!”

“No, you won’t do that,” I said, my vi­sion turn­ing black at the edges. “Don’t you think I would know if all of my fam­ily mem­bers had notas mortem which said ALIEN RE­VENGE? If you were going to de­stroy my planet, wouldn’t every­one on the planet’s notas say some­thing like that?”

The alien scowled with the girl’s face. It stayed silent.

My tun­nel vi­sion was clos­ing in as I bled out on the in­vis­i­ble floor. “You know that you will never find what you’re look­ing for. Ac­cept your fate as I have ac­cepted mine.” My vi­sion went com­pletely black, and I lost con­scious­ness.