I know what you’re thinking.
It’s 2020. Who the hell still uses fax machines?
You’re right obviously. There can’t be many people who are still using them in this day and age, but apparently, my office is one of them. They don’t actually use it of course , but it sits there in the printing room, unplugged and gathering dust. For some reason, nobody ever dared throw it away. My guess is that nobody from management ever took enough interest, or were worried one of the old guard would throw a hissy fit if it disappeared one day. I suppose it’s one of those relics people keep around “just in case”.
Whatever the reason, we’ve got one. And despite working in coding, whenever something electrical breaks in the office, I get asked if I can help fix it. (Here’s a life lesson - never show anyone at work you’re good with computers. Suddenly you’ll be working two jobs for the price of one.) Since I’m a sucker for a pretty woman, and too polite to say no, about four months ago when a pretty woman asked if I could fix the fax machine, you bet your ass I quit scrolling on reddit and headed to the printer room.
Turned out to be an easy fix - it was just out of ink. But, since pretty much all our cartridges are those rip off branded ones that only work with a specific printer, sourcing new ink meant I had to order some online. After searching the cubicles I finally found the girl to let her know it should be working in a couple of days. I was hoping for “My hero” and possibly a bit of light swooning, but she didn’t even look up from her phone and all I got was a “K, thanks”. She’d just been asked by her manager to do an inventory check and passed it down the line to me. Great.
This was back when Covid-19 was still just a rising trend on twitter, before the world went into full blown panic mode. Despite my best efforts to ignore current events, I still got sucked into the standard water cooler conversations that everyone was having, and I forgot all about the fax machine until the ink arrived the next week. Even after filling the fax machine up, one of its little lights was still flashing. The machine was so old, whatever symbol had been placed directly under the electric diodes had long since faded. Despite the missing symbols, I realised it was trying to print something but had no paper.
Ink and paper. Heroic fix, right?
The moment I loaded it with A4, this ancient little machine snatched the paper and began churning out page after page. It was that archaic nineties sound, when you could hear the ink plotter whirring back and forth. Just printing one page seemed to take almost a minute, but the pages soon piled up and just kept on coming. I supposed that even though the fax machine had been off all these years, it had just instantly resumed whatever print queue was still in its internal storage. If the fax number had been live all this time, it could well be processing every single file that had been sent to our company fax number since nineteen-ninety-whenever.
Looking down at the pages it had spat out, I could see how it ran out of ink. The pages were full black and white pictures. The resolution was terrible though. I hovered around for a minute, but this machine would not stop printing. Flicking through the images, I checked to see if someone had accidentally punched in too many zeroes when they chose how many copies to print, but each page was different. They all followed the same format though, a full black and white image, and a big number in the top right corner. I puzzled over it, trying to make patterns out of the numbers, but they were all over the place.
The images didn’t seem to form any sort of logical grouping either. They weren’t adverts or presentation materials. They didn’t look professional or creative. They were just random. People. Things. One was just a weird floaty ball thing; it looked like a space hopper, but for aliens. I let the pile of paper flop back down and scrolled on my phone. Eventually it would print everything, surely?
I was getting a little bit too distracted by the girls of ‘GoneMild’ when an abrupt halt to the fax machine’s endless whirring made me look up. It had finally stopped printing. When I moved closer to look, the light was flashing again. Out of ink....
Grumbling to myself, I headed to the supply cupboard to grab the bottle I’d bought. Luckily, I’d had to buy in bulk, so still had plenty left. Since the fax machine was running low on paper, I topped that up too. Knowing I couldn’t spend the whole day standing next to this fax machine looking at abundant cleavage, I scooped up the images, set them to one side and let the fax machine do its thing.
Just before I left for the day, I went to go check on it. It had stopped printing, but only because it had run out of ink. Again. Cursing whichever moron had sent an entire graphic novel collection to the fax machine twenty years ago, I tried to see if I could somehow clear the print queue, but the buttons didn’t do anything and there was no display panel, just lights that blinked when it needed something. There’s a joke about my ex-girlfriend there somewhere, but let’s not go there.
Figuring maybe it would finish overnight, I moved the fresh stack of printed pictures - still just numbers and images - next to the previous pile and reloaded the fax machine with ink and paper. It dutifully resumed whirring and spitting out new images.
It wasn’t a surprise the next day to find that the fax machine’s thirst for ink (and my time) had not yet been quenched. It almost seemed proud of its new collection of prints, and I quickly flicked through to see if this pile was any different, but it was just as nonsensical and bizarre as the rest. I could - and probably should - have left it. But I was curious to see how much longer this queue would last before I reached the end. Without sitting there and counting them, there must have been easily three hundred pages of weird images. How many more could there be? Besides, the ink I’d bought wouldn’t be compatible with any of the other printers our company owned, so I might as well use it. I topped up the machine again and left it humming and chewing through a fresh pack of A4.
Halfway through the day, there was a knock at my office door, and an extremely pissed off woman from upper management asked me what the hell I was printing on company time. She practically dragged me to the printing room, whilst I did a less-than-spectacular attempt at explaining the situation.
“Look at this!” she said, gesturing wildly at the fax machine. The light was blinking again, as if to taunt me. On top of the fresh stack of paper was the number ‘84’, and an image of a man’s face, close up, clearly in pain. Agony might have been a better way to describe it. Even with the pixelated and crappy monotone quality of the printer, you could see the man’s facial muscles contorting, eyes clamped shut, teeth bared.
“I haven’t printed any of this,” I said quickly, holding up my hands, “this is just whatever is left from the last time it was on.”
“Even so, you can’t just leave them lying around,” she hissed, splaying the pages and pulling them out to show me. I’d just been looking for patterns, but she was searching for offensive images, and in the stack of hundreds, there were plenty to choose from. Images of fire and blood, people wearing sinister masks, dead bodies just lying in the street. When she pulled them out and lumped them together, it didn’t look good. “This is completely unacceptable! Get rid of them.”
She picked up the rest of the papers and dumped them in my hands. As she scrambled around, the only thing I could think to mutter was “it’s still not finished printing.”
“Just leave it,” she snapped, pulling out the plug and sticking the fax machine on its old dusty shelf, “it’s 2020, who still uses these things?”
She was right, of course. I’d known the only reason they’d wanted it turned on was for an inventory check. Nobody actually wanted to use it. But I guess programmers are naturally curious about how things work. Or I am, at least. I still wanted to see how deep this particular rabbit hole went, but it wasn’t worth losing my job over. I’d not really noticed how bad some of the images were. I turned the pages upside down as I walked back to my office, to avoid anyone else seeing them.
Hovering over the bin, I was half tempted to keep them. They were kind of cool, in a weird way. But what was I going to do with hundreds of random images and numbers? I dropped the whole stack into the bin, and forgot about it. I browsed reddit, and when my colleague came in we talked about how crazy this whole coronavirus thing was.
That was before the lockdown. We started working from home before the Government shut down the country. It’s been a weird few months - like living in a really boring movie - but I was actually kind of glad to get back to work. I’m a creature of routine, I guess.
Not everybody was as eager or as willing to go back to the office as I was, so the place was pretty deserted when I got to work. I did a little bit of catching up with the few faces I saw and knew, then sat down at my computer. No word of a lie, it actually had cobwebs on it. I grabbed some tissues from my drawer and wiped the screen, then as I slid across to throw it in the bin - I froze.
The papers from the fax machine. In all the lockdown craziness, I’d forgotten all about them, but even the cleaners had been sent home when it all kicked off. The papers were still in my bin. The top page was still the one that I'd been yelled at for. The pained face, twisted in an excruciating grimace. Only there was a difference now that made the skin on my arms tingle.
I recognised the face.
The whole world recognised that face now. On a four month old piece of paper, printed in monotone black, was George Floyd.
When I’d first seen this image, I had no idea who he was. It wasn’t the face the TV was showing though; the normal photo of him looking into the camera, alive and well. It was the face that you had to go on internet videos to see. Pinned down. Knee on his neck. Dying.
For a moment, me and George just stared at each other. Then I reached down and slowly pulled all the papers out of the bin, shaking my head. Was I remembering things wrong? Had George died before lockdown? Even if he had, why was a fax machine printing pictures of his death? I pulled up google, and checked. George Floyd died May 25th 2020. We left the office the first week of March.
I just sat there, slowly spinning in my chair, completely unable to process the image in front of me. Then I remembered there were hundreds more pages underneath. Scattering them around the table, my mouth hung open as I began to recognise things I didn’t know the last time I saw them.
The weird blob that had just looked like an alien space hopper, my eyes now instantly saw it was the coronavirus, viewed under a microscope. If I’d have been paying more attention at the time, I’d have probably known. There were riots and protests, a police officer with bullet wounds in his chest, a black teenager hung in a noose, the dead bodies in the street were wearing face masks. A shiver wrapped its way around my entire body as cold realisation spilled over me. Only a few images made any sense to me, but every single one had happened after it had been printed.
It couldn’t be right. Someone must have changed the pictures. They were so low quality, I must just be seeing things. I snatched the picture of George up. It was him. There was no denying it. It was him. My eyes flicked to the ‘84’ at the top right corner. Should I put them in order? I slid the papers around, searching for an ‘83’ or ‘85’, then I paused. He died almost three months after this was printed…
Pulling up the calendar on my computer, I started counting backwards from May 25th. As my finger moved closer and closer to the week we’d left the office, I forced myself to count out loud, but each number just came out in a strangled whisper.
“Eighty-one, eighty-two, eighty-three…”
My finger pointed to March 3rd and fell away. I couldn’t physically say the number. But it was the same as the one printed in black above George Floyd’s final moments. Casting my mind back, I tried desperately to remember what day I printed off these pages. I knew I got the ink delivery on a Monday, and I was printing for one more day before I got told to stop.
March 3rd was a Tuesday.
The fax machine hadn’t just printed the future. It had told me how many days until it happened. As if it had been trying to warn me.
In that moment, I became extremely aware of how cold it was in my office, and how quiet. My hands slid by themselves to the pile of papers, rummaging around until I could find another to verify. All the rioters were too vague; I needed something more specific. At first I passed straight over an image of Big Ben and empty London streets, but then I realised that it could represent the UK going into lockdown. Only when I pulled out the paper did I see the number.
I couldn’t remember exactly how many days had passed between printing and lockdown, but somehow that seemed a little high. Maybe my day theory was just a coincidence with George. Still, here I was surrounded by hundreds of images that the fax machine had somehow known would happen before they did. I was just about to go and check the machine was still in the printing room, when my eyes landed on a page that made me pause.
It showed a man in an untucked shirt and jeans carrying a large box. One that looked a lot like the fax machine. And the man looked a lot like me, even down to the clothes I was wearing.
Despite the cold air, I was starting to sweat. Both my arms were trembling with faint shivers, and I puffed out a deep lungful of air, half to hear something familiar and natural, half to break the silence that was digging under my skin. I ignored the man who looked like me as best I could, and concentrated on the number. 128. Frowning, I turned back to the calendar and counted the days. One hundred and twenty eight days from March 3rd would be tomorrow. So, tomorrow I’d grab the fax machine? In the clothes I was wearing today? If I’d not seen the image, I would have gone to grab it and bring it into the office right now. Looking back at the picture, it was impossible to tell where I was going or even where I was. The background might as well have been a snowstorm for all the grainy blots and faded ink.
Why was it printing pictures of me, or at least, someone who looked like me? And why such a mundane event? Fighting the urge to rip that page into little pieces, I decided to go to the printing room and see if the fax machine was still there. Weirdly, I was sort of relieved when I saw it was. Maybe I was worried someone might have taken it, and the mystery would be over. Raiding the supply cupboard for the remaining bottle of ink, I scooped the fax machine up in one arm and headed back to the office. I didn’t want to hold it like the man in the picture was, but because of its awkward shape and weight, I ended up doing exactly that.
Placing it down on my desk, I unravelled the cord and plugged the fax machine in, topping it up with ink and paper. Almost immediately, it resumed screeching and chewing through the paper. Mind racing, I looked at all the printed images and numbers, spread chaotically all over my desk. Snatching up the image that looked like me, I clutched it in both hands and stared at it so hard, my eyes must have been close to boring holes right through it. It didn’t look like me. It was me. There was no denying it. Desperately glancing back and forth at the number and my calendar, I realised that most of these pages had been printed on Monday 2nd March, not Tuesday 3rd of March. By searching through them like a frantic idiot, I’d mixed them all up. If this one of me had been printed on the Monday, the number was accurate. 128 days until it had come true. The machine had predicted exactly what I’d do, and even though I saw the image, I still did it.
I threw up into the bin.
Some part of my brain had still been holding onto the possibility that somebody was messing with me, but the page clutched in my shaking hands was proof that this was something else entirely. The fax machine was printing the future. Hundreds of pages of events that happened after they were printed.
I threw up again, dry heaving until there was nothing left in my stomach.
Wiping my mouth, I screwed up the image of myself and the fax machine and tossed it in the bin. It wasn’t like the others, and I had to wrestle with myself not to grab a lighter and set the thing on fire. George Floyd and the others had been creepy. The image with me in it - that I’d literally just fulfilled - took my soul and shook it. I was sweating so much I began to stain the other papers as I ruffled through them. All the images I recognised seemed significant for one reason or another. The kind of events that history would document. How was I included?
Fumbling through my colleague’s drawers, I found what I was looking for. His cigarettes. I normally only smoke when I’m drunk, but needed something to stop my brain racing. As I lit it and took a deep drag of hot vapourised tar, I dimly realised I’d never had a cigarette sober, and there was a reason for that. Puffing out thick plumes of foul tasting smoke and biting down a cough, I searched through the other images. How many had happened? How many were still to come? Were there any that were wrong? Since I’d already messed up the divide between Monday and Tuesday, I decided to take out the ones I knew had happened.
It helped a little bit, and stacked together I could see my theory about the numbers equalling days needed some refinement. Images of the riots following George’s death had all sorts of digits on, ranging from 2.6 to 7862027. Since I knew they’d definitely happened, I played around with the numbers a bit, and realised that if I treated the big numbers as seconds or minutes, they would fit the timeline much better. The small numbers generally worked out as months or weeks. Except for some that I could tell were actually days. It didn’t take long for my head to start hurting, and I didn’t think it was the cigarette.
So the image showed what would happen, and the number referred to when, in varying time formats. I was trying to think how I could organise the remaining images when the fax machine stopped printing. Out of ink again. God dammit.
The top page was just money on a counter, and I noticed something that had eluded me on the other images. The fax machine didn’t print text. Other than the number in the corner, there were no letters or symbols of any kind on the image itself. The bank notes were blank, with Queen Elizabeth’s face the defining feature that let me know it was currency. The top left number on this one was very small. 0.0329
Placing the stack neatly on my colleagues desk - I did not want to mix these up with the others - I reached for the bottle of ink and my heart sank. It was practically empty, with only a few dribbles of black ink at the bottom. Immediately, I jumped online to buy more.
With delivery times, I’d likely have to wait a couple of days to print more of the future. I bit off a laugh. What was I thinking? I couldn’t just sit on this, this was more important than some office schmuck waiting for a parcel. I needed to tell someone. The government needed this, or the UN or something. Someone who wasn’t me.
Pouring the last remnants of ink into the fax machine, I took out my phone. Who to call? My boss? The police? My local councillor? My fingers hovered over the numbers, wondering how I’d prove it. All my proof had already happened. Only that angry upper management woman had seen them beforehand, and she didn’t exactly seem like someone who I could get easily get on board. I didn’t even know her name.
Paralysed, I looked back at the papers, as if they might help me. The one with the money. That was a small number. It should be happening soon. The currency was British. That meant I’d got both space and time within at least some close proximity. But what did it mean? Money on a counter. That could be anything. Everybody in the country had money. I could reach into my wallet right now and put money on the-
I took out my wallet and opened it up. Two fivers and a twenty. Comparing the size and the pictures didn’t take long to see that the image showed the same. There were coins on the counter too. I unzipped my wallet and began to dig out my coins. I had four, and the image only had three. Relief washed over me as I figured it was likely just an extreme coincidence. Then, as I pulled out the coins to check closer, one slipped from my fingers and clattered to the floor, bouncing and rolling away. I lurched after it, but it disappeared underneath a filing cabinet.
Cursing, I examined my remaining coins. They were identical to those in the image. The one under the filing cabinet wasn’t there. This was my money.
The fax machine sputtered to a stop and I leapt out my chair, half in shock, half spurred to action. It was my money in the picture. The fax machine was predicting what I’d do again. I placed my money on the table and stepped back, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did, of course. I even tried rearranging it, to closer match the image. Nothing.
Looking at the fresh papers, it hadn’t even finished printing the latest one. It was still half stuck in the machine. I carefully pulled it out, and my blood went cold. At the bottom of a set of stairs, was a tangled heap of limbs. The face hadn’t been printed yet, but I recognised the untucked shirt. The trainers too, I recognised, even underneath the blood. And tauntingly, just on the edge of the image, was the fax machine.
This was me. Dead.
Swallowing, I became painfully aware of the number printed above the image. 6.
Six? Six what, days? Years? Minutes? Seconds?
If I’d had anything left to vomit, it would have come out. I needed to get out of here. I needed to take this machine and prove it was real to someone else or smash it to bits and throw it in a river or burn it or -
Forcing myself to take long, deep breaths, I studied the image. What if seeing this image made me panic and leave with the fax machine? What if, in my blind panic, I slipped on the stairs, and that’s what made the image come true?
Calming down a little, I realised I could just wait. There were no stairs in my office. If I just didn’t leave for a little bit longer, that ruled out seconds and minutes. I still had seven hours of my shift left, so I could rule out hours too. That just left days, weeks, months and years to worry about, right? And I could worry about them later.
So I sat still for a few minutes, sickly smile growing on my face. After what could well have been six minutes, one of the lights on the fax machine lit up, blinking red. That particular LED had never lit up before, and I found myself wishing I could have some idea what symbol would have been underneath it.
I decided it was because I’d beaten it. I’d not followed the future it had predicted for me, and so it wasn’t happy. Jokingly, I fed the paper back to it.
“Want this back?” I said out loud with a smile.
My smile shattered when the fax machine took it. It snatched the paper out my hand and garbled it in reverse, spitting out a clean white paper back into the feed tray. There was the briefest pause, and then it began printing again.
Once more, it ran out of ink before finishing, and the image came out incomplete. It was almost identical. A mangled body wearing my clothes, blood covered pages scattered all around, and a fax machine lying on its side. Instead of stairs, skid marks of a tyre ran underneath the pages and my body.. My face hadn’t printed this time either, and the number 0.00476 hung ominously above me.
Part of me wanted to immediately run the numbers, to see how long I had to avoid roads to stop this becoming true. But part of me knew the truth. The similarity of the images was too striking. The exact same prediction, just a different cause in a different place. Same death, just slightly later. The fax machine was apparently convinced this was my destiny.
On my computer, I closed the calculator and opened a Word document. This Word document. In a moment I’ll save it and email it to you. Please note the timestamp.
I’ve managed to push back my destiny once. The fax machine has shown me what to avoid and roughly how long for. The blinking red light even tells me when it’s safe. I’ve got a few strategies to survive, but this is my failsafe in case I’m wrong. It’s not like I can stay in this office forever. The pictures are important, and I’m amongst them, which means my actions are important.
I can’t sit in my office hiding away, whilst the literal future of humanity sits in my hands.
I’m going to get more ink.
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