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Literature / Machine of Death

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Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories released in 2010, edited by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (Wondermark, Tweet Me Harder).

The anthology is centered on a premise from one episode of North's Dinosaur Comics: A machine exists, capable of predicting a person's future cause of death through a simple blood test and revealing it via a few words printed on a simple white notecard. The machine's predictions are completely infallible and always correct, though they are not always as straightforward as they seem: for example, "old age" could mean anything from an uneventful death of natural causes to murder by an octogenarian, and such ironic and unusual deaths abound.

The stories in the collection were selected from nearly 700 submissions. Each story is accompanied by an illustration, many of them by well-known webcomic artists. It is available online as a free ebook, while an audiobook version is being distributed as a series of podcasts (also free).


A second anthology (or a second volume of the same anthology, depending on your perspective), titled This Is How You Die, was released on July 16th, 2013. This volume included a number of short standalone comic strips between some of the stories.

    List of stories 
The name after the author's name is that of the illustrator.

Machine of Death

  • "Flaming Marshmallow" by Camille Alexa • Shannon Wheeler
  • "Fudge" by Kit Yona • Vera Brosgol
  • "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" by Jeffrey C. Wells • Christopher Hastings
  • "Despair" by K. M. Lawrence • Dean Trippe
  • "Suicide" by David Michael Wharton • Brian McLachlan
  • "Almond" by John Chernega • Paul Horn
  • "Starvation" by M. Bennardo • Karl Kerschl
  • "Cancer" by Camron Miller • Les McClaine
  • "Firing Squad" by J Jack Unrau • Brandon Bolt
  • "Vegetables" by Chris Cox • Kevin McShane
  • "Piano" by Rafa Franco • Kean Soo
  • "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" by Brian Quinlan • KC Green
  • "Exploded" by Tom Francis • Jesse Reklaw
  • "Not Waving But Drowning" by Erin McKean • Carly Monardo
  • "Improperly Prepared Blowfish" by Gord Sellar • Jeffrey Brown
  • "Love Ad Nauseum" by Sherri Jacobsen • Kate Beaton
  • "Murder and Suicide, Respectively" by Ryan North • Aaron Diaz
  • "Cancer" by David Malki ! • Danielle Corsetto
  • "Aneurysm" by Alexander Danner • Dorothy Gambrell
  • "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor" by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw • Cameron Stewart
  • "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face" by William Grallo • Scott C.
  • "Killed by Daniel" by Julia Wainwright • Marcus Thiele
  • "Friendly Fire" by Douglas J. Lane • Kelly Tindall
  • "Nothing" by Pelotard • John Allison
  • "Cocaine and Painkillers" by David Malki ! • Jess Fink
  • "Loss of Blood" by Jeff Stautz • Kris Straub
  • "Prison Knife Fight" by Shaenon K. Garrity • Roger Langridge
  • "While Trying to Save Another" by Daliso Chaponda • Dylan Meconis
  • "Miscarriage" by James L. Sutter • Rene Engström
  • "Shot by Sniper" by Bartholomew von Klick • John Keogh
  • "Heat Death of the Universe" by James Foreman • Ramón Pérez
  • "Drowning" by C. E. Guimont • Adam Koford
  • "?" by Randall Munroe • Kazu Kibuishi
  • "Cassandra" by T. J. Radcliffe • Matt Haley

This Is How You Die

Standalone comic strips are labeled accordingly.

  • "Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones" by Nathan Burgoine • Danica Novgorodoff
  • "Rock and Roll" by Toby W. Rush • Meredith Gran
  • "Natural Causes" by Rhiannon Kelly • Leela Wagner
  • "Bear" (comic strip) by KC Green
  • "Shiv Sena Riot" by Ryan Estrada • Ben McSweeney
  • "Zephyr" by George Page III • c.billadeau
  • "Old Age" (comic strip) by Ryan Pequin
  • "Execution by Beheading" by Chandler Kaiden • Mike Dawson
  • "Dracula" (comic strip) by Anthony Clark
  • "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence" by Tom Francis • Les McClaine
  • "Drowning Burning Falling Flying" by Grace Seybold • Carla Speed McNeil
  • "Conflagration" by D.L.E. Roger • Sam Bosma
  • "Got Too Extreme" (comic strip) by KC Green
  • "Screaming, Crying, Alone, and Afraid" by Daliso Chaponda • Greg Ruth
  • "Apitoxin" by John Takis • Indigo Kelleigh
  • "Blue Fever" by Ada Hoffmann • Alice Duke
  • "Skydiving" (comic strip) by Kris Straub
  • "Tetrapod" by Rebecca Black • Carly Monardo
  • "Machine of Death" by Karen Stay Ahlstrom • Alexandra Douglass
  • "Unwise Decision" (comic strip) by KC Green
  • "Monsters from the Deep" by David Malki ! • Mike Peterson
  • "Toxoplasmosis of the Brain; Candidiasis of the Esophagus; Candidiasis of the Trachea; Candidiasis of the Bronchi; Candidiasis of the Lungs; Kaposi's Sarcoma; Pneumonia; Tuberculosis; Stab Wound in the Belly; and Bus Accident" by Gord Sellar • Nick Abadzis
  • "Cancer" by Ryan North • Lissa Treiman
  • "Massive Blood Loss" (comic strip) by Ryan Pequin
  • "Two One Six" by Marleigh Norton • Shari Chankhamma
  • "Blunt Force Trauma Delivered by Spouse" by Liz Argall • Emily Partridge
  • "Meat Eater" by John Chernega and Bill Chernega • Dana Wulfekotte
  • "Abandoned in Space" (comic strip) by KC Green
  • "Made into Delicious Cheeseburger" by Sarah Pavis • Becky Dreistadt
  • "Your Choice" by Richard Salter • Graham Annable
  • "Mauled" (comic strip) by Kris Straub
  • "In Battle, Alone and Soon Forgotten" by Ed Turner • Tony Cliff
  • "Lake Titicaca" by M. Bennardo • Dustin Harbin
  • "In Sleep" by Ren Warom • Claire Hummel
  • "Poison" (comic strip) by KC Green
  • "Cecile" by Hollan Lane • Ramón Pérez
  • "La Mort d'un Roturier" by Martin Livings • Aaron Diaz
  • "Bite Wound" (comic strip) by Kris Straub
  • "Not Applicable" by Kyle Shoenfeld • Chris Schweizer
  • "Eaten Alive by Insects" (comic strip) by Ryan Pequin
  • "Peacefully" by M.J. Leitch • Tyson Hesse
  • "Old Age" by Brigita Orel • Braden Lamb
  • "Furnace" by Erika Hammerschmidt • Trudy Cooper


This anthology's frame story or the shared elements of the stories contains examples of:

  • Black Box: No one knows exactly how the Machine works. It was invented by accident, and while it is easily and cheaply reproduced, its workings are impossible to understand.
  • Caps Lock: Nearly every story writes the Machine's predictions in all-caps, presumably to make them feel emphatic and mechanical.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: Surprisingly avoided for the most part; the majority of the stories don't end in the main character dying a terrible, ironic death, despite the premise, since the editors thought this kind of story was too obvious or tacky.
  • Death by Irony: The Machine's vagueness can lead to these, for example predicting death by OLD AGE, so a person believes he's safe, until he's killed by an old man, or the already vague NATURAL CAUSES.
  • Exact Words: The Machine loves this.
  • The Fatalist: Too many to count. If you know how you're going to die, some people just accept it.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Every story is named in the style of one of the Machine's predictions. In almost all cases, the title is also the predicted death of someone in the story (frequently the protagonist).
  • Prophecy Twist: Often mentioned in passing; occasionally also ends a story, although for the most part the stories end before we see how the main characters' cards work out.
  • Screw Destiny: Plenty of people adopt this mindset and go on living with their lives. It doesn't help.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Machine says you'll commit suicide. You commit suicide. But as several stories note, maybe you only went to the machine because you already had suicidal tendencies, and it only confirmed your prior urges.
  • Short Story: All the ones in the book, but taken to the extreme with "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle".
    "'Well,' I thought, 'that sucks.'"
  • Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: In most of the stories that go far enough into the future, the knowledge from the Machine of Death essentially consumes society and turns life into a state of constant paranoid madness while awaiting death at any moment. There are even groups that protest it.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Some of the stories set further past the Machine's introduction have a whole extrapolated future culture developed from the Machine of Death's existence.
  • Twist Ending: Usually a Prophecy Twist or Prophetic Fallacy. Usually.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The Machine is never wrong. What the Machine prints on your card is how you're going to die - though it doesn't have to happen in the most obvious fashion. This also means that circumstances will generally conspire to keep you alive (even against all odds) in situations that aren't printed on your card, in an odd inversion of Necro Non Sequitur - but your death can still sneak up on you in unexpected ways, like "Old Age" turning out to mean "shot to death by octogenarian."

The individual stories contain examples of:

  • all lowercase letters: Used in "Natural Causes" for the Machine's predictions, in contrast to the usual Caps Lock. And italicized for good measure. This may be Foreshadowing, since the Machine in question is a fake.
  • Apocalyptic Log: In "Almond", kept by the Machine's operator.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: In "Meat Eater", the United States government is "detaining" everyone with a death prediction that suggests they might be a threat to national security. And testing is mandatory. For six-year-olds.
  • The Cassandra: Lampshaded with the Meaningful Name of the main character of the story "Cassandra". Instead of trying to warn others, she finds a way to circumvent her prophecy altogether.
  • Dark Secret: In "Natural Causes", the reason the fake machine doesn't get caught is that everyone in town hides the prediction they actually got from it, out of embarrassment at having such an Undignified Death.
  • Decadent Court: "Blue Fever" is set in one, and the lord at the head of it is the worst and most dangerous of the lot.
  • Death Seeker: In an oddly upbeat example, the protagonist of "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" thinks his predicted death is very exciting, and is saving up for a trip to Africa.
  • Death's Hourglass: While it's averted in most of the stories, there are a handful of exceptions:
    • In "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor", a leading politician has a prediction stating that he will be killed by a car when he is 57, and has built his entire campaign around it. Turns out to be a Prophecy Twist. The Exact Words of the prediction were "knocked down by a car aged fifty-seven"; when the man's death arrives, fifty-seven is the age of the car.
    • In "While Trying to Save Another", a very small minority of death predictions come with dates attached. The story focuses on a support group for people with these predictions.
    • "Zephyr" has computers (separate from the Machine) that extrapolate from the cause of death to compute the approximate time of death as well. Your chance of death remains zero until a few years before your predicted time of death; after that, you are "on the curve", meaning your odds of dying at any given moment get higher and higher, until they finally hit 100%. In other words, you can die a bit early, but you will never die late.
    • Subverted in "Apitoxin". Sherlock Holmes's latest client has been given the prediction "GARROTED THURSDAY NEXT". Holmes notices that this is the only example of a prediction with a date attached; based on this, the circumstances of how the prediction was made, and a close analysis of the slip of paper in question, he deduces that it must be a fake.
    • The infobubble predictions from "In Sleep" include the date of death. In at least some cases, the precision is down to the minute.
  • Despair Event Horizon: "Despair", naturally. Although the protagonist is fated to die by crossing the Horizon, she does not actually cross it in the course of the story. But she notes that she does get a little bit closer to it.
  • Dystopia:
    • "Loss of Blood" is set in a world where all the predicted deaths are organized by the government as soon as possible to prevent collateral damage from people who try in vain to avoid their fate.
    • "Not Applicable" uses the Police State variant, with a leader referred to only as "the Speaker". The reasons for the formation of the state are left ambiguous.
    • In "Meat Eater", the United States is either a dystopia or fast becoming one. See Big Brother Is Watching, above.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: There are a few stories where death predictions foretell civilization-ending or species-ending levels of destruction, including "Cassandra", "Conflagration", and "Monsters from the Deep".
  • Eternal English: Averted with tragic results in "Furnace". Archaeologists in the distant future uncover a Machine of Death, but their only Rosetta Stone for the English language is a disc full of porn. A critical mistranslation results in them assuming that the Machine predicts what will bring its users the ultimate sexual satisfaction, and things turn ugly when people start dying thanks to its "suggestions."
  • Evil Gloating: Dr. Jeth towards the American agent near the end of "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence." Though the "evil" part is questionable from the reader's perspective.
  • Fate Worse than Death: "Starvation". The main character, who got the titular prediction takes a very long time to die, legs broken in a hole and on top of that he is rescued, so now he knows what it feels like and he will have to endure it again.
  • Gamebook: The appropriately titled story "Your Choice".
  • Gratuitous Latin:
    • The illustration for "Cecile" has a banner with the words Is est vestri nex ("This is your death").
    • See also the subtrope Pretentious Latin Motto, below.
  • Historical In-Joke: "La Mort d'un Roturier" is set during a party in 18th-century France where the protagonist runs a clockwork-operated version of the Machine of Death for the amusement of the guests. She herself claims the device is merely a cleverly-built fraud, but all the guests receive the same inscrutable prediction nonetheless: "Guillotin."
  • Island Base: Dr. Jeth's island in "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence", where he is building the titular device.
  • Joke and Receive: "Cocaine and Painkillers": At a semi-shady small company that sells random products through Infomercials, the employees are trying to figure out how to sell the Machine...which they think is an instant drug-test machine. (Long story.) After a few weeks of trying to figure out how to sell a drug-test machine that keeps spitting out seemingly-random words instead of the names of drugs, they jokingly guess at what the machine is actually printing out; one of their guesses is "circumstances of one's demise". And then, one employee lets off some steam by cutting together a spoof infomercial about how the product is actually "The Machine of Death"...
  • Last of His Kind: The old man in "Nothing" is keenly aware that he is the last of his generation, and describes how it feels.
  • Long Title:
    • From the first anthology, "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face".
    • The second anthology gives us an even longer example: "Toxoplasmosis of the Brain; Candidiasis of the Esophagus; Candidiasis of the Trachea; Candidiasis of the Bronchi; Candidiasis of the Lungs; Kaposi's Sarcoma; Pneumonia; Tuberculosis; Stab Wound in the Belly; and Bus Accident".
    • Technically, the full title of the second anthology is This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Jethmalani of "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence" is a Deconstruction. He is a brilliant, obsessed scientist with all the standard trappings of a classic Bond villain: an Island Base, an army of loyal henchmen in charge of murdering the secret agents who show up, and even a touch of "Evil" Gloating once his "Evil" Plan nears completion. And what is his plan? He wants to invent a new kind of nuclear power plant that produces enormous amounts of power with zero waste for hundreds of years. And then share his research with the entire world. For free. But since most governments would prefer to hoard that kind of knowledge for themselves, and he doesn't trust most governments, he had to keep going to greater and greater lengths to continue his work in the way he wanted. You could argue that he was forced into villainy.
  • Memory Gambit: In the first book's final story, "Cassandra", the main character erases her own memory as well as all evidence of her fate (GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR) in an attempt to reset the quantum uncertainty of it and prevent it from occurring to the world.
  • Mission from God: In a very dark example, the killer from "Screaming, Crying, Alone, and Afraid" believes that he is reuniting his victims with God, and that their death predictions were God's way of expressing His desire for this reunification.
  • The Multiverse: The alien interstellar-travel-drive in "Drowning Burning Falling Flying" works by linking its passengers together with all of their alternate possibilities, and then "outbranching" to a version of themselves where they (and the ship) exist at their destination. The protagonist uses the word "multiverse" to describe this, but the aliens are hesitant to adopt the term.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Played with in "Apitoxin". The Machine is one-of-a-kind and its inventor is dead, but after it is destroyed, the protagonists do find the plans...written in a cypher that will probably take years to crack, if not decades.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" is shorter than its own title.
  • Open Secret: In "La Mort d'un Roturier", everybody knows which of the guests at the masquerade is King Louis XVI, but good manners require them to pretend they don't recognize him.
  • Operator from India: The protagonist of "Shiv Sena Riot" is an Indian woman working at a call center for Machine of Death Analysis, which tells people the most likely outcomes for their given death prediction.
  • Original Flavour: "Apitoxin" is a Sherlock Holmes mystery in the style of the original short stories. The first Machine has just been invented, and Holmes is hired by a man who is being extorted over his predicted death.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: "In Battle, Alone and Soon Forgotten" focuses on Grun, an orc in the service of an evil sorcerer who is told repeatedly - in poetry, no less - that all orcs are fated to be Cannon Fodder and nothing more. We never learn what his death prediction really is, but it isn't the one from the title - instead, he ends up fulfilling the sorcerer's death prediction, and writes his own poem declaring that the orcs have a right to Screw Destiny.
  • Passed in Their Sleep: The titular deaths from "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face" and "In Sleep".
  • The Plan: The protagonist of "Aneurysm", Sid, really hates party games. When his ex-wife tells him that she will be hosting a dinner party where guests will take the test then guess each other's deaths as a party game, he uses sleight-of-hand to toss in a forged death, "party game mishap", which simultaneously ends the game and makes it so he will never have to play a party game again.
  • Preppy Name: Cotton Remington Weathington-Beech, and his school friends, in "Prison Knife Fight".
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: In "Not Waving But Drowning", the Machine, or the company that makes it, has the motto Dum vivimus vivamus ("while we live, let us live").
  • Prophecy Twist: In one story, a man is told he'll die by suicide. He resolves to take the life of another in a way that contradicts their machine-predicted death, then kill himself—when instead, a suicide bomber was in line behind him and sets off the bomb. The machine never said he'd die by his suicide...
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Randall Munroe's story, "?", consists almost entirely of a rant against some higher power, the universe itself, or the author.
  • Schmuck Bait: The "NO SPIKES"/"SPIKES" lever in the comic "Unwise Decision".
  • Serial Killer:
    • One pops up unexpectedly in "Vegetables". It's the protagonist.
    • The protagonist of "Screaming, Crying, Alone, and Afraid" is on the trail of a serial killer in Zimbabwe. She hopes that the death predictions of the victims (ironically, taken post-mortem) will give her some kind of clue.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: This turns out to be the premise of "Not Applicable". Everyone who gets the titular prediction is fated to never be born in the first place after the timeline is re-written.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Several oddly internal examples, where stories from the second anthology make shout-outs to stories (by other authors) from the first anthology.
      • "Screaming, Crying, Alone, and Afraid" mentions a person who received the prediction "WHILE TRYING TO SAVE ANOTHER" and wound up dying in a fire, just like the main character in "While Trying To Save Another".
      • In "Machine of Death", one of the causes of death is "ALMONDS", which is apparently a reference to "Almond". There's also some discussion of how a line of poetry would make a good death prediction, which is the kind of prediction used in "Not Waving But Drowning".
      • In another possible reference to "Almond", the small town in "Natural Causes" is named Almond Hill.
    • One of the main characters in Ryan North's "Cancer" is loosely based on Henrietta Lacks, as he explains in an author's note at the end of the story.
  • State The Simple Solution: In "Lazarus Reaction Fission Sequence", the main character works for a Mad Scientist. His job is to kill intruders in ways that technically match what is on their slip. During one portion of the story, he struggles to come up with a way to kill a man whose slip reads "Victoria Falls." He eventually finds a two-thousand pound island tapir, names it Victoria, and drops it on the man's head. Afterwards, his colleague points out that since his boss owns the island, he could have just had him rename a waterfall.
  • Stupid Sacrifice: in the story "While Trying to Save Another", Timothy reaches the exact moment and circumstances of his death and knows he can't possibly save Isma either, but charges into a burning building anyway.
    • He could have just made the final decision to die with her; giving himself a noble death.
  • Subspace Ansible: "Murder and Suicide, Respectively" points out that the Machine could be used as one.
  • They Would Cut You Up: The immortal grandfather in "Nothing" came to this conclusion, figuring that if the religious nutcases didn't burn him at the stake or force him to play at being messiah, then the scientists would try to kill him to figure out why.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: How the protagonist of "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" reacts upon receiving that prediction.
  • The Time Traveller's Dilemma: The protagonist of "Not Applicable" has an option to go back in time sixty years to stop the rise of an evil dictator. (No, not Hitler.) The catch is that nearly everyone he's ever known would be Ret-Gone. And his friends know they would be part of that group. They're the ones who help convince him to go through with it anyway.
  • Toilet Humour: In "Natural Causes", the main character gets the prediction "on the john". And so does everyone else in town; the machine is a fake.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The comic "Unwise Decision" shows a woman contemplating a lever with two settings: "No Spikes" and "Spikes".
  • Tomato Surprise:
    • The protagonist of "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor" is blackmailed with the threat of having his titular death revealed, which he believes would destroy his political career. He reveals his secret to the public himself, both to break his blackmailer's hold on him, and because he doesn't want to be Prime Minister. We find out at the end that he's only seventeen years old himself (there's an offhand mention of other teenagers running for office earlier in the story; presumably the laws have changed), which means the public didn't particularly care about him having sex with other minors. So he won in a landslide.
    • The protagonist of "Zephyr" turns out to not be one of the Ephemerals (soldiers predicted to die in battle) at all, but rather one of the Invincibles (soldiers predicted to die of other causes). He's assigned to Ephemeral units incognito to improve their combat effectiveness without impacting their morale.
  • Twins Are Special: "Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones": An identical twin receives two death predictions, their own and their twin's, with no way to tell which is which.
  • Undignified Death: Several examples. Though in some cases the "undignified" part is suggested rather than confirmed, since the predicted death has not yet come to pass and the Machine doesn't give that much detail.
    • Patrice in "Flaming Marshmallow" thinks that the titular death is going to be one of these.
    • The protagonist of "Vegetables" fantasizes about his boorish co-worker electrocuting himself by drooling into a power outlet.
    • A mathematician mentioned in "Cassandra" received an "unlikely and unpleasant" death prediction involving "sex and horses". And yes, it happened as predicted. (Doubles as a Noodle Incident.)
    • From "Natural Causes", the death prediction "on the john".
    • "Machine of Death" shows us a few, including "a boy accidentally shorting out an electric fence while trying to spray-paint his name on a cow", and a woman who crashes her car because she's eating a burger while driving.
    • "Monsters from the Deep" mentions that very few people would publicly admit to getting a death prediction like "IMPALED BY BRATWURST".
  • Weird Trade Union: The psychic-dreaming protagonist of "Drowning" belongs to Local 111 of the S.S.C.W.I. (Sub and Supra Consciousness Workers International).
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?:
    • The protagonist of "Flaming Marshmallow" (cause of death: "millennium space entropy"), if only because she has no idea what death-based high school clique she's supposed to join.
    • The protagonist of "Heat Death of the Universe" has nightmares about being the last living thing in existence.
  • Yakuza: The characters in "Improperly Prepared Blowfish".
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Despite the above, there has been one noteworthy subversion. In "In Sleep," it's possible to trade deaths with someone, as the protagonist discovers to her horror: her death, in peaceful slumber 80 years in the future, has been stolen from her by an influential political figure and exchanged with his own violent (and imminent) death by defrag weapon. While she's unable to avert this fate, she ultimately survives it nonetheless: she has a rare gift that makes her an ideal candidate for being transformed into a Machine of Death herself.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: A pretty standard one in "Peacefully". The zombies apparently get their own death predictions, separate from who they were in life.

Alternative Title(s): This Is How You Die