Case #1: Grant
Four hours after Grant Rutherford completes his life’s work—a machine that extracts energy and matter from ambient sources to create exact copies of anything it scans—he passes out behind the wheel of his 2025 Ford Fusion, crests a highway embankment, and flips into a ditch.
Grant hasn’t slept since his wife died the previous week, the victim of a tumor caught too late. This diagnostic failure was partially attributable to the closure of the more accessible—but less profitable—local primary care offices in favor of a surgery center forty miles away, and partially attributable to Mrs. Rutherford’s doctors, who transmuted her fear and pain into the subversive signs of a traitor in their war on opioids.
Shamed, Mrs. Rutherford returned home and pulled herself up by her bootstraps until it was too late for anything other than palliative care, and Mr. Rutherford passed Christmas Eve by his wife’s bedside, watching as the color slowly dissolved from her face.
• • •
In the weeks before his fatal crash, it is Mr. Rutherford’s intention that the first thing copied by his Frankly Impossible Machine™, or FIM, will be an orange. He owes this sentimentality to his undergraduate days, when he fell in love with the work of Pablo Neruda. (And indeed, in another reality, Mr. Rutherford is a poet—but here, he blooms to adulthood in a grim place, one where publishers drive libraries to extinction and poetry is not considered a valid avenue for the investment of one’s professional time. Mr. Rutherford instead becomes a scientist—a pursuit better leveraged towards profitable ventures.)
As he enters his first career, his resolution to hold on to some shred of ethics narrows his choice of employer. He and his wife make the best of this. They have no children due to an amassed collection of student loans (and if there are grumblings of personal responsibility in the audience, I’ll remind you that you’re welcome to stop reading at any time).
For the Rutherfords, work is both life and legacy, and it is perhaps for this reason that years later, on the eve of his death, Mr. Rutherford still desires to replicate this orange, to put a carpel of himself inside this machine he will give to the world.
In the moments before he presses the button—four hours before his death—he decides he needs some part of his wife to be present, and so he also inserts her gavel.
Consider, if you will, this noble machine, still running in the basement when he leaves his house for the last time. We know now that the replication time of an object is proportional to its mass and the complexity of its composition. Far smaller and simpler than Mr. Rutherford’s noble piece of dimpled fruit or the well-worn wood of his wife’s gavel is his grief, which now forms a patina coating the inside of their home.
Perhaps Mr. Rutherford should’ve known better, but I would argue his failure belongs to us all.
• • •
I hope you will allow me some leeway here: in order to comprehend the events that are soon to unfold, we must accept that the next thing copied by Mr. Rutherford’s FIM is the machine itself.
How does it manage such a thing? Especially with Mr. Rutherford’s body lying in a ditch? (At the exact moment of replication, Mr. Rutherford’s core temperature has already dropped to 90°F due to the snowy conditions on that particular January night.) We may never know, although there are a number of theories involving a second, never-discovered machine, or tricks with a mirror, a rogue photocopier.
The point is that once we accept the existence of the second machine, we can begin to grasp the monumental shift in power dynamics that has just occurred. A single machine is a choke point, something for a government to leverage for its own purposes. But a second machine means an end to scarcity itself—or would have, if only things had turned out a bit differently.
My theory is that the machine knows this, has debated the ethics of such a revolution, and found it lacking. That it’s aware its creator is dead—and, in a moment of mourning and self-consolation, decides to copy itself, a thing it knows inside and out.
It makes copy after copy after copy, its entrails humming and whirring as it slowly sucks the warmth out of the room. There is nobody present to observe the way the air grows thinner and thinner, the way the room grows colder and colder (surpassing, even, the drop in temperature of Mr. Rutherford’s body, despite the brave struggle of the household thermostat). There is nobody to ask the machine whether its intentions are to destroy us or to save us.
I suppose, in a way, it achieves both.
• • •
Case #2: Mi-Young
And now, a day later, we come to a truly pivotal moment, like a spinning coin that balances precariously on its rim. If, for example, the police officer that comes to Mr. Rutherford’s house to make the death notification to his wife gets on his hands and knees and peers through the privacy-glass blocks of the basement window, he might notice something amiss and kick in the door. The FIMs find their way into the hands of local law enforcement, and who knows what the outcome will be?
The machines could just as easily be discovered by the stream of overworked and underpaid temporary relief rural mail carriers who shove letter after letter into the Rutherfords’ unattended box, desperately hoping it won’t fill before the regular carrier comes back from sick leave. (He never does, as he was the first to visit the house. Although he will eventually stop crying, he’ll never feel safe delivering mail again.) So many unexplored avenues exist in which the FIMs become the boon or the nightmare of either the state or the giant corporations that form its equivalent—but instead, the FIMs are found by one Mi-Young Cho, Mr. Rutherford’s old college roommate and sometimes friend.
Unlike Mr. Rutherford, Ms. Cho has chosen poetry and the poverty that comes with it—although it’s of the romantic sort, as her family would willingly rescue her, should she ever find herself in real trouble. This bifurcation of careers drives a wedge between Ms. Cho and Mr. Rutherford, one only recently removed. As a final olive branch, Mr. Rutherford has given Ms. Cho a key to his home, a bittersweet gesture of semi-patronage—and his way of putting his past to rest. At some point, we must all live with our choices.
And so, we arrive at Ms. Cho, her heart racing as she turns the key. She has a poem to read to Mr. Rutherford, and he hasn’t answered her calls, her texts, her email—and although she doesn’t expect him to be home and tells herself she is only leaving a note, perhaps some small, fearful part of her longs to see his face. He chose a life in which he is a scientist married to Mrs. Rutherford over a life of poetry with Ms. Cho, but that doesn’t mean she accepts his choices.
She pushes open the door and steps inside. Immediately she smells a curious ripple that reminds her of ozone. She tracks it to the basement door, which is cold to the touch. (Permit me, in this moment, another suspension of disbelief, for while no standard household door seals tightly enough to create a vacuum, when Ms. Cho’s ghost is interviewed, she will swear that when she turned the knob and pulled, the basement opened itself to her with a pneumatic white hiss. As she was the only witness present, we will have to take her at her word.)
She trails down the steps, spelunking into the basement’s frigid interior, and finds the machine, which has by now made exactly 422 copies of itself, each the size of a shoe box.
(In her interview, the ghost of Ms. Cho will staunchly maintain that the room sounded like new snow—deathly quiet, save her own panting breath. As if the machine was waiting to see what she’d do next.)
She looks at the room, packed floor to ceiling with boxy machines, arranged as neatly as a delivery on a pallet. She picks one up and looks inside. It’s empty.
Then it whirs. An instant later, an orange appears in the air directly in front of the machine. It drops to the ground, a bounce that becomes a roll—thud, thud, thiddle-thiddle-thiddle.
If, perhaps, the machine had created some other object, we would not be as lost as we are, although I doubt it. Some things are inexorable. When Ms. Cho picks up the orange and peels it, the sweet citrus spiking the air, she’s transported back to a night six months ago—the memory of getting sloppy drunk in a bar as Mr. Rutherford loudly proclaimed that being downsized from the NIH didn’t matter, anyways, because his machine was nearly complete.
That night, Ms. Cho had looked into her glass and contemplated how Mr. Rutherford would react to her leaning in for a kiss. She’d had a chance in college and blown it. Mr. Rutherford had immediately moved on, but Ms. Cho never gives up on the things she wants.
What machine? she’d asked. The sibilance of the word had been intoxicating, the way it mingled with the sounds of pouring liquid, of ice in glasses.
He had explained it. Told her the first thing he’d copy would be an orange. She had nodded shyly and moved in for the kiss, and he’d rebuked her and fled the room.
The evening had been so hot, she’d heard her sweat sizzle as she walked home. She had written that night, a poem about an impossible machine and an orange, and when she’d read it the next morning, it had contained a seed of brilliance (his, not hers, but she had ignored this fact). She’d sent it to a literary magazine before calling him, intent on either mending fences or giving him back his key.
Straight to voicemail. At first, she had taken it as a sign he wanted to be left alone—but then why not answer and demand the return of his key?
In their acceptance letter, the magazine’s editors had commented on their appreciation for the Neruda homage. Ms. Cho had pinned it to the wall, and in the intervening weeks, she had tapped it as she exited and entered the house—a sign that her luck was changing, a constant reminder of the meaning of an orange.
In a fit of pride, she’d called her whole family, even the distant cousins still in Korea. “Come visit me,” she’d said, the half-known language awkward in her mouth.
• • •
Ms. Cho apprehends the machine’s implications at once—and, like all artists, she believes she is uniquely qualified to save the world. She backs her car up to the garage and loads as many of the FIMs as she can fit into the hatchback. (She originally intended the vehicle to be a safety net in case she should ever find herself homeless, but clever Ms. Cho has always managed to find a way.)
By now, the machines are behaving differently. They still make copies, but more slowly, and the inside of the car is warmer than the house. Even so, Ms. Cho drives with the window down, because something about the FIMs makes her breath come in gasps. When she glances in her rearview mirror, there’s an odd pattern to the way the light falls over their square bodies, as if the laws of optics don’t apply to them. And once, when she’s cruising along at a steady seventy miles an hour, she looks back and sees a red glow spark in the corner of her vision—and then it races across the back of the car, machine after machine blooming and dimming in sequence, as if passing along some missive.
Despite the open windows, the car fills with the scent of oranges. Occasionally, a fruit shoots out at an angle and bounces before coming to rest on the floor.
Ms. Cho drives the six hours to Chicago, stopping once at a gas station and once at a grocery store for snacks. In both places, the staff can barely meet her gaze—and while she wonders why, she finds that examining their faces for too long makes her think about the creep to whom she gave her virginity, and this unnerves her enough that she looks away.
On her way out of the grocery store, she brushes past a family, and each child bursts into tears.
• • •
Ms. Cho locates the homeless shelter with the best reviews on Yelp (terribly dated, but technology isn’t her strongest suit). For the next week, she does her best impression of an undercover agent, sleeping on an uncomfortable cot and handing out machines from her car to those she feels are the most deserving. By then, she’s come down with a malaise she assumes is a cold, and before the shelter can kick her out, she drives the six hours back to the comfort of her own apartment.
She taps the acceptance letter pinned to her doorway one last time before lying down for a nap. Only then does the wave wash over her—of sadness, hollow and bitterly cold. She pulls the blankets up to her chin and comforts herself with the knowledge that she’ll soon see herself in print.
Before long, Ms. Cho hears the distant voices of women singing. The tune is so familiar that she can taste its sweetness, and yet for a moment she struggles to place it.
Arirang, she thinks, closing her eyes.
Her body never leaves her bed again.
• • •
A list of the ten things first copied by the FIMs:
- An orange
- Mrs. Rutherford’s gavel
- A $20 bill (copied 10 times in a row)
- A pack of cigarettes
- A vial of insulin
- A baggie of heroin
- One box of Kraft macaroni and cheese (copied six times)
- A cell phone
- A mouse (emerges cold to the touch)
• • •
After every seventeen items, each machine produces a copy of itself—although the speed of production varies, of course. (And again, I must impress upon you that while this may have been Mr. Rutherford’s intent, I believe it represents some agency on the part of the machine.) At the moment Ms. Cho takes her last breath, she has spent two weeks in bed, a figure that seems quite ludicrous—two weeks without food or water?—but her ghost, when interviewed, will be quite adamant on the subject.
If it really is two weeks, then by that moment—according to a number of mathematical predictions and extrapolations that we cannot hope to untangle—there are an estimated 7,289 machines in circulation. By now, news is spreading, from tweet to texts to machine tutorials on YouTube, comment after comment declaring the replicating boxes a hoax.
A number of agencies have slowly stirred awake, alert levels changing from jade to a medium olive green: information specialists tracking trending keywords, weather outlets noticing the rapid, unpredictable formation of cold fronts in the Midwest, health agencies marking the uptick of symptoms in the greater Chicago area—respiratory complaints, headaches, fatigue—their data fettered by how slowly the matter ascends the bureaucratic hierarchy.
There are other, stranger symptoms spreading in ways not usually tracked by those same agencies: Reddit threads that explode with mentions of odd dreams, radios that bloom with the voices of recently dead loved ones, animals that stare at the clouds and whine. A particularly entertaining creepypasta about angels takes off like wildfire, its origins impossible to discern.
Nobody assembles these pieces until far too late, for the same reason that Mr. Rutherford never became a poet: profitability requires efficiency, which is supposed to require specialization and the elimination of all idleness. It’s only when deepfake analysts begin to wage vitriolic war over a video clip of the replication of the Sears Tower—to true Chicagoans, it is and forever will be the Sears Tower—that some part of the FIM diaspora makes the national news. By then, there are only a few holdout skeptics: too many people have seen signs of the ghosts.
• • •
Case #3: Byeol-Seong
When Gang Byeol-Seong hops onto Flight 1821, it’s with the clear intention of pilgrimage. Despite his means, he doesn’t take a direct flight to Chicago, as such a thing has become impossible thanks to traveler after traveler desperate to confirm the existence of the new Sears Tower, which sits in the middle of the Magnificent Mile. Instead, he flies to the city that has usurped its status as the Midwestern hub for international flights—Detroit—and for the pleasure, he pays roughly six times the normal price. (This arrangement will ultimately prove untenable, as the FAA will soon ground all air travel.)
Mr. Gang doesn’t know much about his distant cousin, only that she’s American and that they share an ancestor best known for battlefield strategy during the time of the Three Kingdoms, the subject of a recent Netflix documentary. He knows she is a writer, and finds this ridiculous, as he believes in only two things: the power of money, and the power of Jesus.
But Mr. Gang’s mother is a mudang (무당)—an urban shaman—whose refusal to find Jesus embarrasses him to no end, and she called him on Monday morning to tell him that she’d cast yut (윷). “The world might be ending,” she said. “Might be starting in Chicago.”
Despite his frustrations—yut isn’t even a valid fortune-telling method, just the sticks from a children’s game—cold trickled down Mr. Gang’s back. He had just gotten off the phone with his cousin, was still contemplating that his English is better than her Korean.
It takes him two days, but he buys his ticket, because there’s something odd and winding in his chest, a feeling not unlike the determined press of an index finger.
A few days later, he gets on a plane to Detroit. The flight takes the entire night, so long that Mr. Gang is forced to get up and walk the aisle, like a cow circling in a pen. Whenever he sits back down, the cabin seems to darken—and it’s a darkness that feels full, not with the bodies that pack the seats, but with the spaces between them. A darkness that watches him back.
He shuts his eyes and hears an odd tinkle, like bells. When he concentrates on it, his chest turns hard, as if it’s lined with stone. Grief fills him, so thick and cloying he can barely swallow, and the scent of oranges suddenly spikes the air. He makes a note to call his mother, to visit the grave of his father.
His eyes fill with tears, but then—
“This is your captain speaking. Though we were originally scheduled to land in Detroit in the next hour or so, due to unforeseen circumstances, we are being diverted to another location. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
The people around Mr. Gang groan. He blinks—his vision is blurry, his cheeks wet. He brushes his hand against his face and looks out the window, but he sees no lights in the dark.
The plane shudders suddenly, turbulence throwing a flight attendant to her knees. People scream as lights flare, as masks drop from overhead compartments, but the shaking shows no signs of stopping.
He prays to Jesus. Another wave of grief hits him, and his throat closes up—
The plane stops shaking.
(I submit that the following events are depicted as told by the relevant interviewees. Employ critical thinking when examining their accounts for veracity.)
Mr. Gang notices, then, how cold the air has gotten. How quiet it is, as if every person has stopped to hear his prayers—a quiet like new snow. He scans the seats—all empty—but when he swings his head back to the center, a spectral woman stands in the middle of the aisle, an empty metal box in her hands. She smiles and holds it toward him.
By now, the pain in his chest is so extreme, he reaches for his sternum and is surprised to find it intact. “Will this make it stop?” he gasps.
After a moment, he reaches for the box—
And then he’s somewhere else. A place filled with flowers.
• • •
Case #4: Geum-Ja
When Kim Geum-Ja—who has long submitted to being called “halmonee,” as any grandmother should—sits up in bed, it’s with the certainty that her son is both alive and dead. She accepts this, because part of the path to becoming a mudang is a cracking of the soul that lets in the miasma and sickness that seems to fill the whole world. Geum-Ja had undergone this change in her twenties, but unlike most of those of her calling, her training had never completely restored her spirit, resulting in two odd effects: she was never given a new name, and she also now shares her life with a number of ghosts. Most days, she wishes they would just shut up for a while, but they sometimes make themselves useful.
There are machines, says Hibiscus (무궁화)—who, like always, has chosen to pop up without warning. Her hair is perpetually wet, a symptom of having drowned, and she resides in a giant metal bowl that Geum-Ja sometimes uses to make gimchi when she isn’t around.
Geum-Ja is sitting on the heated floor, shelling garlic into a wooden bowl. She shrugs at the ghost. So?
So, you should probably draw down one of the goddesses and find out what’s going on.
Geum-Ja rolls her eyes. You could just tell me.
Hibiscus smiles and shakes her head—not hard, but still, droplets trickle to the floor. Geum-Ja tries not to roll her eyes—it’s hard to keep the linoleum clean when a ghost is always dripping on it, but if Geum-Ja doesn’t wipe it up, the hot floor makes the room smell like a wet dog.
I can’t tell you about the machines, says Hibiscus. It’s something I don’t understand. Something new. She cocks her head. Something old, too, though. As if they’re filled with han (한). And it feels like there are new ghosts all around me, but I can’t reach them, even to talk. Strange, don’t you think?
Geum-Ja shivers. Han is many things—grudge and pain, anger and sorrow. It can be passed from person to person like a virus, and its ability to trap spirits in this world is the main mechanism through which ghosts are formed. Where are these machines?
Hibiscus shrugs. America, mostly.
Geum-Ja clicks her tongue. Lately, the Americans are always doing something to end the world. Still, she is old enough to feel pro-American, at least some of the time. Who would be good? She asks out of politeness; it’s not like mudang can call down whoever they want. It takes time to build relationships with goddesses. With some of them, you just have to be a natural.
A pox goddess.
Geum-Ja furrows her brows. I doubt one would answer me.
For this, says Hibiscus, one might.
• • •
Geum-Ja pretends she’s not worried about her son, but she is. She can feel the pressure of grief growing in her sinuses, and the television is reporting more strange phenomena now—pink hail, the growing cold, tremblings from within the earth. Swathes of animals abandoning their posts. People are disappearing, and the ones they leave behind start crying and never stop. Others lie down and turn sluggish, as if afflicted with a fever.
And as bad as all that sounds, it’s nothing compared to what will come, given what Hibiscus told her. Bad things in the spirit plane are always bad for people. Geum-Ja pulls out all the stops to call down a pox goddess, despite the risk of pissing off the deities she consorts with the most. She makes the grandest offering table she’s ever seen, packs it so full of food and fruit and flowers that they spill onto the linoleum and right up to the door. She sings and shakes her rattle of begged and borrowed metal. She beats a drum and jumps on a blade, and then something deep within her guts pinches, like the way that clothes stick to thighs on a hot day, and she decides to try something she hasn’t in a long time—tying the knots that symbolize the first mudang’s journey to the underworld.
Halfway through, she hears a voice. Mother? Mother? Is that you?
She freezes. Son? What’s happening?
I don’t know. I think I might be dead.
Geum-Ja almost cries out—but she’s not fully herself anymore. Already, the goddess is stretching its limbs into her own, trying out her fingers and her eyelashes. She manages an answer in her mind only: Hang on.
And then she closes her eyes, and someone else opens them.
(And here, we must end our examination. Given the outlandishness of what follows, it falls outside the realms of our investigation. When the material falls short, what is left but belief?)
• • •
(Because You Can Never End on Four)
It’s hard, perhaps, to be a goddess of the pox. Very maligned, and nobody prays to you unless they want something.
As soon as she awakens, the goddess recognizes that the air around her is clogged with ghosts, each one pinned to its spot like a butterfly to a board. They snatch things from the air and jam them into their mouths, greedy to fill the gnawing void that forms the center of every ghost.
She extends her slender fingers and pulls the pin out of one. The ghost roars to life, goes wailing toward the horizon in hopes of finding a wayward soul to eat. It leaves behind the object that held it in place—a humming metal box, the air growing cold around it.
The goddess brings the pin to her celestial eye and sees it for its true form. It resembles a bacterium, which is even more novel to the pox goddess than antibiotics or microbes that eat plastic. She shuffles it to her finger-pad and brings it to her tongue.
Her mouth fills with the flood of it. Pure, keening han. All at once, she understands what’s going on.
“Show yourself,” she orders, and when she turns around, he stands before her: the ghost of Mr. Grant Rutherford.
“Undo this,” she says, pointing to the boxes, the ghosts.
He shakes his head. He is early in the spirit change and still looks mostly human. “They killed my wife.”
“Yes,” says the goddess, trying not to sound exasperated. “They are always killing things.”
Mr. Rutherford shrugs. “I’m entitled to my grief.”
She waves at the ghosts, the particle-pins, the metal boxes. “Perhaps, but this isn’t just grief. This is han. You can’t just … manufacture it.”
“And yet,” he says, his voice cold, “I have. It stays. And even if I wanted to stop it, I’m—”
“A ghost.” She purses her lips. He might be too far gone to be reasoned with, but she doesn’t think so. “What if you could see your wife again?”
His face twists. How hard his choice must be, she thinks. For all he knows, she could be a liar, offering him a deal she has no intention of honoring—and he has so much to lose. The world didn’t care whether his wife lived or died, but now he is making it feel his grief. That is power, more power than even the goddess has.
But then, from deep within, Geum-Ja nudges her. Look in your pocket.
The goddess sticks a hand in her robes and pulls out a small wooden hammer, like a miniature version of the mallets used to pound rice cake. When Mr. Rutherford lays eyes on it, he falls to his knees.
She approaches him and holds it out. He takes it and bows, forehead to the ground, the small hammer held to his chest.
The goddess waits a long time. Longer, perhaps, than most human lives—but here, in this place, they are outside of time.
Mr. Rutherford looks up. He has come to a decision. “Show me.”
She waves her hand, and like the spread of night, they unfurl before her—the flower-fields of the dead. Filled with more blossoms than there are stars in the night sky, each of them named and legendary.
She plucks a flower and crushes it in her palm. The air fills with the scent of oranges, and then the blossoms part, and through them strides Mrs. Rutherford, beaming like the sun.
The goddess holds up her hand, and Mrs. Rutherford stops. She turns to Mr. Rutherford. “And now? Will you agree to let go of these machines?”
He runs for his wife. In doing so, he gives his permission—which means the goddess is free to reach out her hand and gather all the threads stretched between his spirit and the machines, the copies of his grief.
She does so. She pulls, hard.
All at once, the ghosts shake free of their pins. The machines fall silent, into eternal sleep.
“You know,” she says, just as she takes her leave from Geum-Ja, “I don’t have many followers these days. Others will tell this story; see that you tell it the best.”
• • •
Mr. Gang awakens not on a plane or in a field, but on his mother’s linoleum. She squats nearby, shelling garlic, and the scent dredges him into full awareness.
The sight of her face—dissolved into wrinkles, as if she’s aged twenty years—fills him with alarm. He gasps and reaches for her. “What happened?”
She smiles, the new wrinkles soft under his fingertips. “You wouldn’t understand.”
He bristles. “Try me.” After all, he now lives in a world where he can disappear from a plane and wind up in his mother’s house. He’s gained some flexibility.
She thumps a fist against her chest, an old sign of mourning. “Sometimes, we owe it to the world to help bear the grief of another.”
The words flow over him—in, and then out, like the tide. “You’re right,” he says. “I don’t understand.”
But when he touches his own face, his cheeks are wet with tears.