In March 2007, a short story contest was held at The stories were to take place in a world containing this machine:

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn't give you the date and it didn't give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words "DROWNED" or "CANCER" or "OLD AGE" or "CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN". It let people know how they were going to die.

The following was my submission.


by Bret Victor


It was an ancient mariner
who stopped me as I passed.
His legs were pegs of weathered wood.
His eyes were globes of glass.

"There was a ship," he hissed, and gripped
my arm with fingers pale.
Despite my fright, his hand held tight,
and here began his tale.

"The eve before we left the shore,
the tavern roared," he said.
"The crew caroused -- alive, aloud.
I drank alone, in dread."

"At sea await a thousand deaths.
A thousand deaths I feared.
I dreaded, drank, and dreaded more,
then drew the barman near."

"'Have you charms to ward off harm?
Cauls, and talismans too?'
The barman laughed, 'O fearful man!
Naught steers your fate but you.'"

"'Might this suffice? -- a grim device
which states how you'll succumb.
A thousand deaths snuff mortal breaths,
but you'll need fear just one.'"

"And as my crewmates danced and laughed,
and sang 'neath starry sky,
I took the barman's cursed machine.
I asked how I would die."

The mariner drew back his hand,
and thrice his chest he crossed.
Within his grip, a tattered slip
with one word: ALBATROSS.


"The blaze of dawn lit sapphire skies.
The breeze blew strong toward sea.
A merry crew bid land adieu,
merry all but me."

"Toward blaze of dawn, our prow was drawn.
The breeze ballooned our sails.
The crew sang jigs and raised the rigs.
I clutched my death's details."

"As land grew small, the captain called:
'The crow's nest needs a man!'
My gaze surveyed the look-out's perch.
My mind devised a plan."

"The mainmast spans from sea to sky.
From sea to sky, I climbed --
the barman's slip still in my grip,
a shotgun at my spine."

"I stood above the world now.
No movement missed my eyes.
The crew supposed I scanned the seas,
but no! I scanned the skies!"

"The sun, it flew through cloudless blue,
and plunged into the green.
The moon, it swam through glittered ink.
No movement went unseen."

"A sun, a moon; a sun, a moon.
My sight, no creature crossed.
A sun, again; a moon, and then --
my blood became like frost."

"The night's round face that peers from space --
did its eye just wink?
To the south, that gaping mouth --
did it yawn and shrink?"

"I shook with dread as shadows spread
across the moon once whole.
The shadows of a thing -- a wing!
It stretched from pole to pole!"

"The wing, it swelled; all light was quelled,
and all the moon obscured.
Then like a flare, the moon was there --
and gleaming bright, the bird."

"Its feathers, white like searing ash.
Its wings, a world across.
I faced my fated angel Death.
I faced the ALBATROSS."


"A crack like thunder cleaved the air!
All heaven heard the blast!
The shotgun pressed against my chest
propelled me 'gainst the mast."

"The deadly bird was not deterred.
Its wings veered not their flight.
It held me in its hell-black eyes,
framed with deathly white."

"Another crack erupted forth,
a blast all heaven heard!
And still it flew, and still it grew,
the ghastly ghostly bird."

"My trembling hands refilled the gun,
my eyes fixed on my foe.
I hardly heard the startled sailors
stirring far below."

"The wings arched now from stern to prow.
The wings consumed the night.
My senses swirled and all the world
was dazzling deathly light."

"A crack! A crack! I staggered back;
I crumpled to the floor.
And then the light of deathly white
engulfed the night no more."

"A wing fell east, a wing fell west.
They dropped as from a sieve.
And I, once mewling mortal man --
I rose, I stood, I lived!"

"'O Sisyphus! O Gilgamesh!
I triumph where you failed!
I faced the fearsome angel Death;
I fought and I prevailed!'"

"Once enslaved to dread the grave,
I stood now free and clear.
The wingless body fell to earth,
and with it fell my fear."

"It fell and fell; I laughed and praised
the barman's blessed device.
It fell and fell, the ALBATROSS;
it fell onto the ice."


"'Ice!' I heard the captain shout.
'Ice!' the crewmen cried.
I listened? No! I gloated so!
I laughed with glorious pride!"

"'Ice!' The ship shook savagely.
I saw the splinters fly.
The craft was dashed; I laughed; it crashed;
I knew I could not die!"

"'Ice!' The shattered ship collapsed.
The wreckage heaved and lurched.
The mainmast cracked, and still I laughed
while plunging from my perch."

"I fell and laughed and laughed and fell.
I laughed and laughed until
the hellish horror struck my sight --
the scene that's seared there still."

"Five and fifty mortal men,
my dear and merry crew --
their limbs were torn, their skin was shorn,
their lips and tongues were blue."

"Five and fifty murdered men,
my fault all fifty-five.
They trusted me to scan the sea,
but no! I damned their lives!"

"This horrid scene had no escape --
the mast gave one last crack.
My legs were snapped, my body trapped --
the wreck lay on my back."

"Seven days and seven nights,
this horror mauled my eye.
I ate no food, I made no move,
and yet I did not die."

"Seven days and seven nights
with every friend I'd known,
their lifeless blameless eyes forever
fixed upon my own!"

"O horror more than man can bear!
Upon the seventh night,
I seized the sharp-beaked ALBATROSS
and sacrificed my sight."


"Dark, so dark and comfortless.
Dark, so dark and cold.
And like a shroud of shame and pain
the sea around me rolled."

"Alone, adrift, for weeks or months
or more, no man can say.
The sun and moon were absent guests.
I knew not night from day."

"But time and tide are never still.
Waves wash all to land.
With time and tide, I heard the gulls,
and felt the furrowed sand."

"And friendly voices filled my ears,
and friendly hands, they gave --
legs of wood and eyes of glass,
but not the cure I crave."

"My life's a lurking shadow now,
a shame that shows no end.
And death, my fearsome foiled foe,
now seems a long-lost friend."

"This friend, I seek with every step.
A thousand days, I've sought.
A thousand towns, I've borrowed eyes
to see what I cannot."

The old man gripped his tattered slip.
He spoke his final words:
"Have you seen my angel Death?
Have you seen this bird?"

Thus asked the ancient mariner.
I stood too stunned to speak.
And when I finally found my tongue,
my voice was wan and weak.

"My father's father spoke of it --
wondrous, white and wild.
My father claims he saw the same
when he was just a child."

"But no such creature flies these skies.
They say the bird's been killed.
I've never seen the ALBATROSS;
I've heard I never will."


It was an ancient mariner
who stopped me long ago.
Perhaps he seeks his savior still,
and spreads his tale of woe.

The fear that steered the wretched man
is guest to one and all.
Until I met the mariner,
I suffered in its thrall.

But now this guest is dispossessed.
I waste no life on death.
I sing and dance and seek romance --
rejoice at every breath!

I fill my days in merry ways.
I need no grim device.
For while on earth, I'll prove with mirth
my birth was worth the price.