The Empty Set
Fiction, 3100 words (15 min)
One morning DeathNet informed Mariel—with 76% certainty—that she would die in three weeks.
“Why did you ask?” Evan moaned. Perhaps this could’ve waited until after the morning coffee, which he had now stopped pouring. “That was the rule—never ask.”
“I thought it would say something normal,” Mariel said, “like eighty years. And, what, you’d rather it surprised me?”
They had spent weeks training DeathNet, first as a joke—obviously it wouldn’t work—and eventually, once it did, as a single-minded enterprise between graduate courses and time in the lab. Sneaking it onto the University servers, feeding it faces whose eventual deaths were already known—and once the guesses were accurate, impossibly so, it was simply too tempting.
“Well,” Evan said, hand on hip, with the usual disappointed-father flavors of tone: “this is a big problem for us.”
“Us,” she said. “We can’t move in together, or get a puppy, but this is a joint venture?”
“Yes,” he said. “Is that so unreasonable?”
They weren’t too worried, at first; there was no problem they’d ever taken three weeks to solve. By the end of the day, in fact, they’d decided on a strategy. DeathNet must have learned to model the lives of ordinary people. And ordinary people, on average, behaved rationally, like themselves…
“So do whatever you otherwise wouldn’t,” Evan said, “and the prediction will be wrong. You could blow me right now, for example.”
He shrugged: “Anywhere, really.”
“How is that unlike me?”
He made a face, What can I say? But in general the theory—vague as it was—seemed sound.
First she sold her car and bought a bike.
“Congrats on starting undergrad,” Evan said. “You know my place is three miles away, right?”
“That’s part of why I wouldn’t normally get one.” She smiled: “I hate bikes.”
Next to go were other convenient habits she’d settled into: her La Pavoni espresso lever (boxed away); all but three of every kind of clothing (mailed to her sister); the television, which Evan took, and the boxes of incense, which somehow no one took. Her house looked as it had when she’d just moved in, years of living scrubbed away.
“Will this be enough?” she asked. Evan had given up his morning brew in solidarity but kept eyeing the Mr. Coffee from different corners of the lab.
“Well,” he said. “You’re running out of furniture.”
So she checked, feeding a new selfie to DeathNet: five weeks.
“Not the worst news,” Evan said. “Technically it’s working.”
“I thought I’d get knocked off-course!” Mariel balled her hands into tiny fists. “Three weeks was supposed to be a fluke.”
She became a vegetarian. This was a real journey, the first days of which consisted entirely of roaming grocery stores for new foods, listening to nutrition podcasts in the shower, and losing ten pounds. (Ten pounds!) She learned to argue the cause during phone calls with her mother; learned to make the closest approximation of a burger for Evan. Her kitchen flourished with Indian spices and proteins: chickpeas, lentils, roti and paneer in the fridge. Evan spent their first vegetarian dinner wheeze-coughing, wiping tikkamasala tears, making hasty preemptive retreats to the bathroom.
Death Net said: two months.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said. She opened the door to her apartment and there—squatting, now, to pee on the hardwood—was a bite-sized Border Collie.
“Are you serious?” Evan pulled at his cheeks like his face was an itchy rubber mask. “We said—we agreed, no puppy.”
“Different circumstances!” She kissed his cheek. “I can work from home, I’ll handle most of the cleanup.”
“Are we not discussing these things anymore?”
“We’re discussing right now,” she said.
“Oh, Lord.” Evan sat on the floor. The border collie, tracking pee, climbed into his lap and fell asleep.
“She loves you,” Mariel cooed.
Two months, two weeks—Mariel thought about quitting her job, but living with Evan might not be all that unlike her. She started cycling to distant parts of town, less-than-good parts: crumbling parks, clubs with three stages of firearms screening, abandoned service stations where rust-bitten cars lingered with their windows down.
“It’s not safe,” Evan said.
“Everything’s safe,” she sighed. “I won’t be dying for weeks.”
She bought coke from a fratty college kid and tried it in the bathroom, while the puppy whined outside.
“What the fuck?” Evan made a face like she had pissed on the floor.
“Bear with me,” she said, “these are desperate times.” The coke hadn’t quite worn off yet; she had, in one dire session on the couch, chewed through most of the week’s work. “You know, this isn’t that different from a good espresso. I think the kid gypped me.”
“So I can’t drink coffee,” he said, “but you can do cocaine.”
“What, do you want some?”
“No, it’s just a double standard, is all.”
“Oh, perfect Evan, I’m so sorry.”
She offered it again—“it’s not heroin”—but in the end he joined her on the couch with an IPA, which she hated, offering her occasional sips.
“You know,” he said. “We could just enjoy these two months.”
She frowned: “You only want me for two months?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Good,” she said, “because that would be fucking stupid.”
They spent hours trying to understand DeathNet’s process, how Mariel’s choices affected the prediction, but to no avail: at every level the network was uninterpretable, the dynamics irreducible beyond what looked like high-dimensional noise.
“Not sure what we expected,” Evan said.
“Yeah.” She stretched with a yawn. “I guess if it made sense, we could’ve figured it out on our own.”
Mariel’s new self-perturbations served only to keep the two-month window moving, ever lingering, as she ran out of ideas. Nothing could shift her from under DeathNet’s thumb: yoga, hard liquor, tennis, trips to out-of-state conferences, a brief but disastrous foray into Catholicism. (“If God does exist,” she said, slouching home from a Saturday-evening mass, “He needs to spend more time with His franchisees.”) She would talk about those two months long into the night, brainstorming, venting, only sometimes noticing when Evan stopped nodding or speaking and simply fell asleep. This culminated, eventually, in an early-afternoon realization:
“I think I’m too comfortable.”
They were on a lunch break: microwaved nachos. By this point she had adjusted to vegetarianism, regaining four of the ten lost pounds. “I must be doing things I was only somewhat unlikely to do before.”
“What are you saying?” Evan smiled impishly: “Reconsidering the ‘blow me at work’ strategy?”
“I don’t know.” She looked out the window, at the student union. “I think maybe we should break up.”
He took a half-crunched nacho from his lips and set it down.
“This is an experiment, right? This is not a real break-up?”
“Well, it should be real,” she said, “right? Real enough to count.”
“I guess.” He looked down at the nachos. Evan was sweet, she thought, he didn’t deserve this—but another part of her was excited.
“It’s temporary,” she said. “Real but temporary. Is that okay?”
Evan sighed, but he was probably having some of the same thoughts.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s talk on the weekends. You can update me.”
It should be someone she couldn’t stand, of course. She sat in on a poetry seminar, where various mousy undergrads took turns reading to each other.
“I hated that,” she said, hand raised, after a particularly egregious performance. “Death is not some Celine Dion single.”
“What,” the author said, “you want to live forever?”
The author’s name was Nick, and he lived off-campus because he’d been kicked from on-campus housing.
“Drinking,” he said, “in a word.” Nick also smoked weed like it was not only legal in the Carolinas but governmentally mandated. He had the sort of messy, lush dark hair that only a freshman could maintain, and he couldn’t last five minutes without running a hand through it and quoting Rimbaud. She ate with him in the dining hall, transported back to her own freshman year: he subsisted entirely, it seemed, on pepperoni pizza, chicken strips, chocolate milk, and black coffee. He couldn’t solve a system of linear equations if forced to at gunpoint, nor could he do laundry without burning his clothes in the dryer (he cajoled his friends into doing it for him). He wanted to talk about feelings and their sources, as if they were mysterious: gems to be mined from some jagged fault in the soul. In these and other ways, he was the anti-Evan.
And he fucked her like she’d never known—she didn’t even think he would fit, until he did: a piercing, breathless revelation. They didn’t sleep at all for the first night; it was all she could do, really, to hobble to the bathroom during breaks. Their visits quickly fell into a routine: simple dinners on-campus; athletic nights in his room. She never brought him to her place, and he never asked about it.
“So, is he different?”
Evan and her had their own new routine: Saturday coffee at the place across from her apartment.
“Pretty different,” she said.
“What do you guys talk about?”
“Not work,” she said. “Or anything even remotely close. Which is nice, actually.”
“Do we talk too much about work?”
“No, I mean, we work together, it’s fine.”
“So—” he paused. “The sex?”
“Oh,” she said, “very different.”
Evan moved his macchiato to the side so he could clasp his hands, the picture of concern. “Are you saying it wasn’t good with me?”
“If you’d asked me then,” she offered, “I would’ve said it was.” Evan had the face he made for stalled training sessions, segmentation faults.
“Is there something I should do differently?”
“It’s not like that,” she said, “it’s not…sex isn’t the end-all anyway, right?”
Then there was a silence, a fraught silence, the kind she hadn’t waded through in a while.
“Well.” Evan crossed his arms. “What’s the clock at?”
“Three months. I’ve hit another plateau.”
As they were driving back she asked, “Should I crash the car?”
“What?” Evan looked up from his phone. “Is that a joke?”
“I mean, it won’t kill me,” she said. “And it might jolt me out of this rut. I could drop you off first.”
“Mariel, God, no. No.”
She couldn’t explain her situation to Nick, of course, but she could orbit it, fill the dark of his bedroom with languid, situation-facing thoughts.
“You can define life in one of two ways,” she said. “It’s either the set of all experiences you ever have, or the set of all experiences you never get to have.”
“I’m not the expert,” Nick said, “but only two ways? There are more than two ways to unclog a toilet.”
“They’re equivalent definitions,” she said. “But one is so much larger, and kind of scary.”
“You know what else is large and scary,” he said, sneaking his fingers up her thigh.
“Oh, how poetic.”
Saturday evening Evan met Mariel for dinner at Father & Son, finding at the table not just her but also a dark-haired kid in a polo.
“Oh, great! He’s here!” Mariel took Evan by the arm: “Evan, this is Nick. Nick, my brother Evan.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Nick said.
“Same,” Evan said, missing only a beat. “Hey, Mariel, can I talk to you for a second? About Mom?”
They convened by the restrooms, behind a patterned screen, under a Rothko print.
“Explain,” Evan said. Mariel smiled:
“It was a stroke of genius. What would I be less likely to do than introduce my two boyfriends to each other?”
“This is absurd,” he said.
“That’s the idea, yeah.”
There was a moment of deliberation from Evan, but only a moment; he followed her back to the table and took his seat.
“Where did you two grow up?” Nick said. Mariel jumped in:
“Rural appalachia! Good ol’ country living.”
“Nothing quite like it,” Evan said.
“I’ll bet.” Nick sipped his ice water. “Who’d you vote for mayor?”
“Wow,” Evan said, “you really are in college.”
“It’s a fair question,” Mariel chirped, without answering it. They took ice-water sips in patterns: Mariel, Nick, Evan, Evan, Mariel. Evan ordered a glass of wine and, upon its arrival, began to drain it.
“So, Nick,” he said. “What are you going to do with your life?” Nick rolled back his shoulders as if this were a question he’d been asked before.
“I’ll be a poet,” he said. “Edit a journal, if I can. Maybe teach some.”
“Doesn’t sound like you’ll be much of a provider,” Evan sighed, almost under his breath.
“Hey!” Mariel slapped his wrist. “He’s very protective of me,” she said, smiling at Nick. In protest Evan ordered a second glass of wine, finished it quickly, and ordered a third. He leaned back and stretched:
“You know who wrote poetry?”
“Rimbaud,” Nick said.
“Okay,” Mariel said, “ha ha, brother, chill, please.”
“Stalin,” Evan continued, “Nero, Mao…”
Nick had begun picking at the complimentary bread on his plate. Evan, trailing off, finished glass three and motioned to the waitress. Nick and Mariel exchanged an uncertain glance—Mariel realized she should seem familiar with this, being the sister. She gave a little shrug, a Siblings, right? The waitress furnished Evan with a fourth glass and a worried frown, shopped it around to Mariel and Nick. Where the hell was the food? By this point Evan had begun to sweat a little, like someone unprepared for a humid walk outside.
“I have to tinkle,” he said, standing shakily upright. “Hey Nickey-boy, let’s go to the bathroom and show me your Nick Stick.”
“Sorry?” Nick smiled uneasily.
“It’s magic,” Evan slurred, “it’s the magic wand…” He wandered away. Nick looked to Mariel.
“It’s an ancient Appalachian custom,” she said. “The daughter’s family carries off the suitor and checks his equipment. To ensure the…safety of the family line.”
Too quick to have gone in a toilet, Evan returned, a little wet around the eyes, gripping the table for support.
“Okay,” he said, “I can’t take it—I know this is necessary, and I’ll be here when it’s over, but I want to say that I—” he waved one hand high into the air—“am not happy.” Then he staggered backward, whirled around on one teetering heel, and stalked away.
“What did I do?” Nick looked beautifully bemused.
“You should’ve shown him your penis,” Mariel said, forlorn. “Now he’ll never trust you.”
That night she went home expecting to find Evan passed out on her couch, but he wasn’t there. She checked DeathNet, logging in through a secure shell on her laptop: nothing had changed. Lily, sensing Mariel’s presence, began whining and pressing against the walls of her cage.
“You and me both,” she said, kneading her forehead.
She called Evan the next morning.
“It didn’t work,” she said. “Are you happy?”
“You’re blaming me?” His voice was foggy with a hangover. “I made my contribution to the evening.”
“I’m surprised you remember it.”
“Well, bits and pieces.”
She wanted to scream, again, It didn’t work!
“Did you Lyft home?”
“Yep,” he said. “My car is still at the restaurant. Hopefully.”
“I can pick you up. Drive you over.”
“That would be great.”
On the way to him she thought again about crashing, felt her hands drifting. How easy it would be: to swerve from this life into a new one, to throw it all in a blender. Evan was wearing yesterday’s clothes when she picked him up; Father and Son hadn’t yet opened, though one of the waiters setting tables seemed to recognize him through the window.
“I think I pissed in the hall,” Evan said, “by the restrooms.”
“Under the Rothko?”
“On the Rothko.” He winced.
“Well, it was a print.”
He looked at her like he was expecting something.
“I’ve been trying to develop the theory,” she said. “Presumably, you can project different versions of a life onto, like, overlapping manifolds in decision space. Right?”
Evan was looking at his car, now.
“And those manifolds have to be pretty simple, or DeathNet wouldn’t be able to untangle them. I don’t have to do anything complicated, I’m just not—I’m just not doing enough.”
“I think I’m gonna take a nap at home,” he said, stepping away.
“You don’t have an opinion on this?”
“Text me about it.”
First, though, she texted Nick:
“This isn’t working.”
“Yep,” she wrote, in case it helped.
Evan saw her calling later that night, thought about it.
“Can you come over? I need some help with logistics.”
Thought about it.
It was only a few minutes’ drive to her apartment. When he opened the door she was sitting on the suede sofa, looking down the barrel of a Ruger.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
“It’s fine! Lily’s in her cage.”
“Mariel,” he said. “What the fuck?”
“I can’t die for weeks,” she said, “no godforsaken thing I’ve done can change that. It has to be drastic, Evan.”
Evan walked over and clasped his hands behind his head, winded.
“Where did you even get a gun?”
“This is North Carolina,” she said, “you’re three handshakes from an anti-tank rifle. Or a tank.”
“Okay—please put it down,” he said. “We can move in together, enjoy those weeks…”
“You don’t get it,” she was saying, when her finger over the trigger shuddered and the gun jumped in her hand. For a moment she froze, as did Evan, and then they noticed the thin trickle beginning from his chest, and Mariel saw the red mist covering the lampshade behind him.
“I never slept with anyone else,” he said, from the floor. She knelt beside him, as she imagined a movie’s Southern Belle would.
“That was your decision,” she said, as sweetly as she could.
The police were called, family were called, and genuine tears irrigated multiple conversations in which it was determined, eventually, that Mariel had done nothing wrong. This is why you teach gun safety, one cop said, Finger off the trigger until you’re taking the shot… She helped empty Evan’s apartment, leaving stacks of books like ritual monuments on the wooden floor.
And after the appropriate number of days she checked DeathNet, and found that she had sixty years in the tank. Finally! Evan would’ve wanted her to celebrate. She popped the champagne they’d been saving for a nebulous occasion, mulling ways to build on this foothold. Oh, sure, she would miss him, she’d keep a little photo by the bed—but what could she do? Life went on.
N.B.: I'm probably going to change the ending. Mariel will be sent to prison, realize she has gained a significant amount of extra time, and spend her days obsessing over how to extend it further, fully captivated by the idea, as her life grows ever more sterile and pointless.