The elevator stopped on the bottom floor of the Institute of Artistic Living. It stopped with the same little bounce that always made Gordon’s stomach roll. Empty, full, hung over. It didn’t matter. There was something about those three inches, when the elevator recoiled, that made his stomach want to commit suicide.
Still, something was off. There had been a man in Mr. Ether’s glass-walled office when he had passed. To this day he could not wrap his mind around the notion of an office with glass walls.
“Simple,” Mr. Ether had said during one of the quarterly meetings. Gordon had been surprised by the amount of grey hair on the CEO’s head. “It’s so people can see me work. So they—so all of you—can know that it does not matter what position is held: from clerk to manager, everyone is expected to work.”
Gordon stepped from the elevator into a narrow corridor with grey walls and recessed lights that felt like murder against his eyes. The doors at the end of the hall slid open and out walked Davey, a young kid, maybe twenty-six, dressed in black with a badge and a belt.
They both smirked.
Gordon’s office was a large circular room. His desk was a set of dual computer monitors fixed to the rails on a balcony overlooking the center of the room. Playfully hung between the two monitors was a crude wooden sign with drawn-in fangs and the word: Carnivore.
In a swivel seat next to him was Rein, the night coordinator. He was an older man with longer hair and a mustache, who held his soda cans suspiciously tight. As Gordon took the seat next to him he smelt the familiar scent of rubbing alcohol.
“What’s today’s lineup?” Gordon asked.
Rein handed him a tablet with a spreadsheet on its glowing display. “Four. First is ready to go.”
Gordon looked over the names. Of course he recognized none of them. He did not come from the same prestigious background these individuals did.
What he had been his entire life was a button pusher. Consequences were things he figured he might not live to see. There was always a chance he would be jumped in an alley and left for dead or a fistfight would quickly escalate into one with knives.
He figured he liked Davey because he was not actually a cop, merely a security guard. The last officer Gordon encountered had made a joke as he took his license and registration, when the badge wearing man leaned in to return the plastic cards, Gordon punched him in the throat. It was his last run-in since he started at the Institute.
“Sun baking out there yet?” Rein asked.
Gordon pressed several areas on one of the monitors and began the morning diagnostic runs on the machine. Below their perched position the dome whirred softly. The structure was frosted glass overlaid with four metal supports from each side that met at the very top of the dome.
“Eh. Typical summer in the city.” Gordon said.
Rein grunted. Below them the whirring stopped and a blue light illuminated at the top of the dome. Ready. Gordon touched the screen and pulled up the list of names. The first scheduled was Anita Rivent. Gordon pressed the screen and glanced at her bio.
Anita Rivent. Seventy-Eight. History of aiding developing nations achieve technological independence. Wealth obtained through stock in NeoClass Electronics.
Gordon rolled his eyes. Parade around as a savior all the while the money reaches your own pocket. He scrunched his nose. It had become impossible to differentiate between disgust and jealousy.
He pressed the screen and ensured the status of the machine was ready. It was customary for Rein to remain for the first job before heading home to wherever he lived. Gordon had respectfully declined every invitation to meet for drinks.
“Status ready,” Gordon said as he did each time. “Carnivore operating at satisfactory levels. Mediums are stocked and waiting. Anita Rivent, may you live on through your work.”
Gordon pressed the button on the screen. The light on the top of the dome flashed once and extinguished. A hissing sound filled the room as the west side of the dome slid open. Two metal arms lowered from the balcony and slid a metal board from the wall. On the board was a body wrapped in white. It was small, frail in its old age. The arms guided the tray into the opening of the dome.
The screens in front of Gordon and Rein illuminated as the structure resealed itself. Shadows moved inside the frosted glass. Gordon had given up attempting to see what happened.
The left screen displayed a swirl of grey and black against a white background. A shade of dark blue or deep purple twirled inside the spirals only to blend away, overcome by the greyish tone.
Music notes flew across the right screen as if they were stars during space travel. Quarter notes, eighth notes, half-rests and G-clefs. And in a flash they vanished and the right monitor went black.
Carnivore had decided. Anita Rivent would be a painting. Gordon slumped back in his chair. Songs were rare. There was always a chance but they were rare. Ninety percent of the bodies that were converted, Carnivore delivered as paintings. It amazed Gordon because they were always mixes of grey and black, maybe the slightest hint of the coolest colors on the wheel subtly blended in, but despite the lack of variety, each painting was unique.
Of course that was the point. It was meant as an alternative to burials. When land began to run out, any and all options had been considered. Carnivore proved to be the most controversial but also the most popular. The wait list—and the price tag—quadrupled with every day that passed.
A London division had opened in an attempt to appease the European nations. But even with two machines the demand was exponential. The process took time—hours, sometimes days—for a single body to be converted. And the resources it took to deliver the final piece to the family or to a waiting gallery were staggering. It was amazing how many people tried to steal a person’s final image.
The slate in Rein’s lap dinged and an image of the CEO, appeared on the screen. “Gordon, my office. Now.”
Gordon felt his stomach drop. He had heard stories of people called to Ether’s office. The man kept a paper copy—something in and of itself unheard of anymore—of Machiavelli’s The Prince on his desk at all times.
Rein offered him a meager smile before turning to the machine and muttering, “I’ll wait until you get back.”
The walk to Mr. Ether’s office was short. And in that short time every moment—the ones he could recall—of his employment with the company flashed inside his mind. What had he done? There was the time he and Davey messed with the night receptionist and prank-called the place a dozen times. There was the joking sign they made like little children. Do Not Enter. We Eat People.
Inside Ether’s glass office was the man he saw earlier. He stood in the corner, under a hanging flat screen. He wore a button up shirt made from the whitest fabric Gordon had ever seen. His pants were grey and his shoes polished black. The man was thin with a narrow face and slicked back hair.
Davey stood next to Mr. Ether with a hand on his belt and leaning slightly forward.
“Hello Gordon,” the man said. “My name is Zachary Hills.” He held his hand out and began to move forward but Davey took a step towards him. “Well, I suppose we can forgo formalities.”
“What’s going on?” Gordon asked.
“We were discussing a possible donation to the Institute,” Ether said. “But this man demanded to have a meeting with you before we could finish our conversation.”
“With me?” Gordon’s mouth hung slightly open. He could feel the back of his neck tingle and his palms become clammy. “About what?”
Mr. Ether did not answer. He leaned back against his desk and folded his arms across his chest.
“I have a proposition I would like to make, a business venture if you will, which needs the attention of both Mr. Ether and yourself. You are the operator of the machine you have cleverly dubbed Carnivore, correct?”
Gordon looked at the ground and tried not to notice if Mr. Ether was looking at him. The machine was not supposed to have a name. The crudely crafted sign he and Rein had hung on the control balcony was hid away each time the CEO toured the bottom floor.
“You are responsible for the creation of brilliant pieces of art. Canvases and songs laced with the life of a single human being. Their essence captured forever. It is remarkable.”
Gordon breathed a sigh of relief. He had heard this conversation before. Someone wanted his or her recently deceased loved one to be jumped to the top of the list. Sometimes without donating to the institution, sometimes with a large amount of money. “Please, my wife wanted nothing else,” or, “My kid loved art, it was his life.”
“Look, if you want to have someone on the list there is a process that needs to be completed which I actually have nothing to do with.”
Zachary started to laugh. Gordon and Davey exchanged an uneasy look while Mr. Ether stared in contempt.
“I am not here for that. I am here for something else. I am offering to donate a sum of ten million dollars to the Institute of Artistic Living.”
All of their eyes widened. But Mr. Ethers’ returned to narrow slits the quickest. Common sense dictated that there is always a catch or an ulterior motive. Decades in business solidified these claims.
“I wish to be laid to rest in the machine.”
Gordon raised his eyebrows. The man was an idiot. Albeit a well-dressed idiot. Gordon was not sure he should even repeat the words. “I just explained that to you. If you want your body to be put on the list there is an application packet that you must fill out and then once you are deceased, or if it’s someone else who is deceased, they will go through the process.”
The man shook his head and smiled. “I am not here on behalf of someone else. And I do not wish for my body to be put in the machine once deceased.”
“Then what do you want?” It was Ether who questioned him.
“I want to be put in the machine. Today.”
The room became so silent it seemed still. Tiny molecules of air ceased to move, wrapped securely in blankets of tension and confusion. Gordon opened his mouth and simply closed it without saying a word. He raised his hand but could not find the ability to put his thoughts into words. A moment passed before he spoke. Zachary simply waited, his hands behind his back, the same warm smile on his face.
“You want to be put in the machine alive?”
“You’re an idiot.” Mr. Ether yelled. His cheeks were bright red and spittle fell to his beard. “This is insane. Mockery and nothing else. Davis, I demand this man to be removed from the building at once.”
Davey moved to abide, eagerly, but Gordon called for him to stop.
“I want to know why.”
“Excuse me?” Ether said as if the question was as outlandish as Zachary’s request.
“I want to know why he wants to do this.”
“Simple,” Zachary said. He took a step forward and addressed only Gordon. “When a person dies, they are remembered because they died. People will talk of their life sure, but the reason for these discussions, the sole basis for them is because the person died. The Institute has helped right that wrong. You allow a person to be remembered forever as a work of art. Their being will forever touch those around it. I have lived a very successful, very full life. But I don’t want the things I have done remembered because I have passed. I want them remembered because of my own choice.”
“So kill yourself.” Davey’s voice surprised everyone.
“Yes, well I suppose that is a possible solution. I was hoping for a different one though. I want this money to go to the Institute. To help artists, to support artists so that in turn their work can help others.”
“We would graciously accept any donation given, Mr. Hills.” Mr. Ether said, his voice stern.
“Then you will have no issue meeting my one condition.”
“No. It is unacceptable. If the public ever became aware that we placed a living human being in the machine they would have us shut down and condemned. Your donation would help no one.”
“It will be carefully arranged that this was done according to my wishes. I will leave behind video recordings and signed documents, which I have already prepared, explaining everything and indemnifying you against any negative consequence.”
Mr. Ether shook his head and laughed. “The answer is no. Now leave, or I will have you escorted out.”
Davey shooed Zackary from the office like he was nothing more than a homeless man begging for change. As the man left he looked from the floor at Gordon and nodded.
“Now listen to me,” Ether said. “If I find out you make this man’s delusions a reality, not only will you never step foot in this building again, you will spend the rest of your days behind bars drawn up on fraud and murder.”
That night Gordon lay awake. His ceiling was white, and the amber glow of the streetlight cast a yellowish tint upon it. His clock read three a.m.. He tore at the covers and threw them to floor.
He pulled his car to its normal parking spot on the second floor of the garage. He opened the door to the stair well and jumped back, stifling a yell.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Zachary stood with his hand on the railing. He wore the same bright outfit and knowing smile.
“What are you doing here?” Gordon asked. But the question was pointless.
“Come, let’s walk.”
They descended the stairs of the garage in silence and crossed the main entrance to the elevators. The night clerk at the front desk waved and returned her attention to the tablet on her desk. The elevator doors shut and Zachary handed Gordon a business card.
“That number is for a man named Samuel. He is the trustee of my assets. Upon completion tonight you are to call him, he is expecting you. He will see to it that the funds discussed are transferred to the Institute immediately. He holds copies of the recordings and papers that will release you from any blame or responsibility although I understand the man in charge may feel differently.”
Gordon stopped for a moment and imagined his life without the Institute. Returning to the empty hole. The elevator hiccupped as it reached the bottom and Gordon felt the lump in the back of his throat. He hesitated but could not bring himself to press the button marked lobby.
Rein swiveled in his chair, a tablet in hand. “What’s go—we’re doing it aren’t we?”
The tablet clanged to the table and Rein rubbed his palms together. He pressed the monitors and they blinked to life. Below, the hum of the machine grew louder. Zachary pointed to the crude fangs with Carnivore scratched on the wood above them. “Cute.”
“Hmm. Oh, yeah.” Gordon said as he fumbled with the monitors. “Look I need to say this. I don’t know what this is going to do to you. It could be quick it could be really painful, I just don’t know. So you know, be aware of that.”
“There is no point in glory if you do not suffer at least a little.”
Gordon nodded and continued with the monitors. When the status of the machine was satisfactory he led Zachary one floor below. They stepped into a darkened room with blue running lights along the base of its walls. A metal gurney lay in the center of the room on a raised concrete slab.
Zachary did not need prompting. He sat on the table and swung his legs up. “Remember, call Samuel. He knows what needs to be done.”
“You’re sure of this?” Gordon asked. He felt like he was wandering in a dream. Everything seemed real but he felt like he wasn’t actually there.
Zachary only nodded.
Gordon exhaled and left. With a hand on the doorframe he turned back into the room. “How did you know I’d come?”
Zachary lay back with his palms crossed flat against his chest. “Because Gordon, we all have a role to fill.”
Gordon and Rein stood in front of the monitors and recited the same preparatory protocols as they always did. Gordon exhaled, and with a heavy press, initiated the sequence.
The machine whirred louder. He watched as the metal arms pulled the gurney and Zachary to the machine. The doorway in the dome slid open and the tray was guided inside. Zachary looked as calm as the other bodies.
Seconds passed and both screens remained black. Gordon could feel himself getting anxious. He clenched and unclenched his fists. A minute passed. No screaming. No smell. Nothing. He turned to Rein and as he did both screens flashed a blinding white. Rein fell backwards in his chair and crashed to the floor.
Gordon stared at the glow as swirls of the brightest colors danced across the left screen. Notes flew at him, each one colored the brightest shade of every color. He gawked at the screen unable to move, unable to blink.
His ears twitched as music sounded from the monitor on the right.
“He’s a song. How about that? He’s a damn song.”
But the left monitor did not fade. The colors spun and spiraled into each other before pulling back and colliding with others. The streaks stopped fading and remained on the screen. The music continued louder. Strings and percussions. Trumpets and streaks of gold and blue.
“There’s no way.” Gordon stared at the screens as Zachary Hills painted and sang to him in a way no one else ever had and no one else ever would.