How do you want to die?
Everyone has to go through it, but for the right price, you could choose how, when, and where.
Travis is one of the world's most well-known Deathwriters, a very rare group of individuals with the unique ability to bring about death through the medium of the written word. A personalized death written on one's behalf usually comes with a kingly price tag, but after a close personal encounter with death, Travis begins to question the entire system.
How do you want to die?
Honestly, though. Everyone has to go through it at some point. Rich, poor, powerful, humble. But just for a second, imagine if you could choose how and when and where. What would you choose?
Probably something peaceful, something quick. Painless. Surrounded by people that you love. Maybe you'd want to go out doing something heroic. Burning building, daring rescue—the whole front-page ordeal. And what about timing? Most people say they want to live to be a hundred. Others say they'd rather not go that long, that they're afraid of slowly losing their cognitive and functional abilities. No judgement, of course. Everyone's unique.
But these are the kind of questions I ask you in our interview. I want to get to know you, know the essence of who you are as a person. Because when I write your death, I want to make sure it's meaningful for you specifically. Not some generic pre-packaged death from the government.
I know it's a hard topic—talking about death and all—but I try to make the whole experience as comfortable as possible from beginning to end. We'll head up to a little rooftop garden area, start off with a few refreshments, and just talk. No checklist paperwork or anything like that. Very informal. Nothing to be worried about. The whole process takes about half an hour, but we can always tailor it to meet your needs. I like to think of it as more of a heart-to-heart rather than an interview, really. It's not like I'm here to grill you.
Or feature you on late-night television.
"Okay, so let me get this straight. You're the most famous Deathwriter of all, you've written some of the most well-known deaths in the world—Piper Ellis, Sun Xi, President Dominguez most recently—and yet, you still live in a small, three-bedroom home in Hawthorne?" says Paul Beverly from Paul at Night, the question implied by his tone.
I nod my head. "Yup. Two more bedrooms than I need, really."
The audience laughs, but it sounds stereotypical and piped. Honestly, I'm just counting down the minutes until I can get out of here. I can only fake being charming for so long. The only reason I'm here in the first place is because my agent said it would be good for public image. Whatever that means. I'm a Deathwriter. I'm pretty sure only firefighters have a better public image. Maybe those activists who clean little duckies covered in oil.
"Alright, fair, fair. But still. Hawthorne? I mean, I'm sure you could splurge a little more for somewhere like, I don't know, Lawndale?"
"I don't know, Paul. Have you seen the price of gas lately?"
The audience laughs again, harder this time. It's all so fake. Fluffed up humor, like a marshmallow. People really watch this kind of stuff?
Paul composes himself with a glass of water and leans in a little closer. "Oh, come on. You've written for what, twenty, twenty-five people, probably? I've seen your price tag. You could be living it up in Malibu or Beverly Hills. Santa Monica if that's your thing."
I shake my head. "You know, a lot of that high price doesn't even go to me. A big chunk of it is actually government registration fees, paying the engineers who code everything, paying the man behind the curtain. I just get a little sliver off the top."
"Still, a sliver of that's not nothing."
I shrug. "Pays the bills."
"Pays the bills. I'll say," Paul chuckles. "You know, a lot of people say that's unfair. You know, only the uber wealthy being able to choose their deaths, while the rest of us working class get the luck of the draw."
"Oh, so you're working class now?" I counter. More laughter. "I get where people are coming from. It makes sense. I've thought about the same thing myself over the years. But it's actually a lot fairer than it used to be."
"Well, back in the Renaissance and the Dark Ages, Deathwriters—including some of my ancestors, actually—they worked exclusively for royalty and the elite of the elite. The common class was left to live their short, painful lives while the upper crust lived for ages. It wasn't until the famous human rights cases of the sixties and the advent of the computer and artificial intelligence that things started looking more like what they look like today. You've got legendary Deathwriter Nadir Okoro who came up with the modern Arbitrary Death Selection Algorithm used by the government today. That's when you started to see the rapid acceleration of life expectancy, both in the US and worldwide. Computers could now write the humankind death story and lift us all."
"Computers. Taking everyone's jobs, huh?"
Laughter again—this time I join in.
"Okay, but tell me. What's got you in business still, if the government's handing out deaths?"
"Well, it's the same reason there are private schools, commercial healthcare, and rideshare apps," I say, gesturing with my hand. "I mean, the public bus is great and all, but I'll start packing my own lunch and pinching my pennies if it means I don't have to sit in pee on my way to work."
"Don't tell me that happened to you."
"College internship in DC, 2013. Burned the pants after. Now, according to the Renault Principle, of course, the sum of all deaths still has to be random and varied so as not to introduce paradoxes into the mix, which is why Deathwriters are still in business. We're the only ones with the legal, technical, and biological ability to manage that matrix. Every death we write still contains some elements of chaos and uncertainty."
"You said biological? Like hereditary?"
"Right. The ability to write deaths with the power for them to become reality is carried through the mother's genes, actually. So, when my own kid comes in a few months, yeah, thank you!" I acknowledge the applause at the mention of my expecting wife. "But yeah, that kid's out of luck. Sorry June! But to answer your question from earlier—long-winded, I know—that's why the price stays so high. Or else everyone would be registering for the perfect death, thus misaligning Okoro's programmed randomness and violating the Renault Principle. Plus, there aren't enough Deathwriters to go around for all of humanity."
"Okay," Paul says, scratching his chin. "But if this service you provide still remains something only the rich and elite can afford, how has anything changed? You know, for us dirty peasants?"
"Well, the difference is in the average. We can't get around to everyone on Earth, but because of Okoro and the ABSA—"
"Sounds like the name of a band."
"—we're able to lift everyone up, even if it's not to the level of royalty. There are still some bad deaths, still some great deaths, but it all evens out to a higher average. As for me, I think there's something beautiful in that."
"Travis Warren, everyone! Give him a hand!"