the divine machine
"God has been rebuilt."
Thomas sat in the cool, almost cold, lobby staring out the clean windows, so clean they seemed like they weren’t even there. A neon billboard glowed outside attached to the roof of the building across from the one Thomas was in. He read and re-read what it said. It was more than a slogan, it was a promise. "God has been rebuilt."
He remembered the commercial he had heard on his drive to work. The heaven religion had always promised could now be achieved through science. The afterlife that was an uncertainty and became an improbability was now a reality. Medicine had given humans full control over life. The vast majority of the population was healthy, life expectancy was higher than it ever had been, and most diseases were fully conquered, while the rest were manageable. Modern medicine put life in human hands; the Divine Machine gave mankind the same power over death.
There were many options. Thomas could choose how he wanted to die. What would it be? He had daydreamed, driving to work one day, of crashing his car, driving over the edge of the freeway overpass or swerving into oncoming traffic. He had imagined himself hurtling his body out of the 42nd story window of his office building. His co-workers would be shocked. He had such a good life. He had a wife and kids and an excellent paying job that equated to a large home with a pool out in the suburbs. His kids went to private school. His wife wore the latest fashions. Thomas hated all of it.
No, he knew how he would end it. It wouldn’t be some freak accident or traditional suicide. He would go out in style. He would take a gun, hide it in a backpack and go to the local mall on a weekend. People would be walking back and forth, window shopping, carrying heavy bags full of useless garbage, smiling and laughing and talking about the latest virtual reality television craze. They’d sit down at the food court in the pleasant air-conditioning as the temperature soared outside. Dozens, possibly hundreds of people would be milling around. And he’d go right into the thick of them, pull out the gun, and blow his own head off.
A nicely dressed woman walked into the lobby and smiled at Thomas. "Mr. Rolands, the doctor will see you now."
Thomas followed her down a long hallway, her shoes going click click on the reflective tile floor. They entered a small room with a desk and two chairs, one for Thomas and one for the man sitting behind the desk. He was short and balding, typing at a computer and squinting at the screen. His nametag read "Dr. Bernshaw," and he looked up at Thomas and the woman as they walked in.
"Ah, hello, um, sit down, I’ll," he looked back at the computer screen and stammered a bit, "um, I’ll be with you in a second."
The woman with the clicking shoes left. The door shut behind her. All Thomas could hear was the air conditioner. The doctor typed a few more things that faced Thomas. "Well, hello. I’m Dr. Bernshaw, we spoke on the phone."
"Yes, hello, Thomas..."
"Yes, yes, I know who you are, yes," he nodded pointlessly. "So, you understand how all this works?"
"Well, not completely."
"Alright. You see, we’ve invented a machine, we call it the Divine Machine. Essentially, this machine gives people what they’ve always wanted: the promise of a better life beyond this one. Now, we’re not trying to push any specific religious or philosophical view, so the machine reads your own mind, finds out what you expect out of an afterlife, and gives you that. And it’s okay if you’re not sure what you expect."
"Yes, that’s fine. That machine can read subconscious thoughts. Deep down, we all have a sort of buried desire for something beyond this life."
"And, I’m curious about the choosing how to die aspect, that’s...part of it, correct?"
"Of course. You can choose how to die. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. It can be a surprise. But if you want control over that sort of thing, this is what we offer."
"Yes, I’d like that. Do I need to tell you..."
"Nope, you don’t need to tell me a thing." There was an awkward silence. "Well, any more questions?"
"How exactly does this machine work?"
"Oh, well, we don’t need to get into the scientific details you know. Unless you really want to. It’s all quite technical and cumbersome."
"I’ve heard that it’s like an elaborate version of the virtual reality..."
"Oh, no, people who say that just can’t find the right words to describe it. Virtual reality isn’t real. You plug into the Divine Machine, and it becomes your reality. There’s no turning back, you see. And it stimulates all your sense, not just in traditional ways. It’s not just sight and sound and touch and smell and taste we’re dealing with. The surroundings are familiar, there’s a sense of place, a sense of reality. The world of the Divine Machine is identical to this world, except the world tailors itself to what you, consciously or subconsciously, want. There are no surprises, and it lasts forever. That’s what an afterlife is. It’s eternal. It’s immortality."
"I don’t see how that’s possible."
"Well, time is a tricky thing. I mean, it’s all in how we perceive it, right? You’ve been in situations where it seems like time is moving slowly, right? You’re at work, say, bored, not much to do, you just want to go home or what have you. And the clock seems to be moving at a snail’s pace. You can feel every minute. And then there’s other times where time speeds up. A whole day goes by and you’re left wondering where it went. Well, what we do is manipulate your sense of time to such an extreme extent that it’s as if you’re living forever. Living in the afterlife that is. One second of objective time is stretched out into a span of time that’s actually substantially longer than the human life span. It varies slightly, but you’re looking at one second equally about 239 years. And that’s just the way it is now. The Divine Machine is new. Just a week ago it was only 202 years per second. So, as you’re plugged in, the amount we’re able to stretch time will become larger, it sort of compiles geometrically. Of course, you won’t notice any of this. For you, time will be as it always is. A year will be a year. A day will be a day. Think of dreams. You can dream for an hour and do so much in that one hour. You can live out amazing things in that hour of dreaming. The Divine Machine is uncalculatably better than that."
"Oh." Thomas wasn’t sure what to say. He was ready. He had nothing better to do. He had no where to go. He had nothing more to talk about. "Well, when can I do this? Plug in, or whatever."
"After you fill out some paper work, you know, for legal reasons, we can do it right now. But if you need some time to think about it, talk it over with people if there are people to talk it over with, I mean, this is a hefty decision. There’s no going back. Once you’re in, you’re in."
"No, I don’t need to think about it. What do I need to fill out?"
"Here," the doctor swiveled the computer monitor over to Thomas and moved the keyboard in front of him, "the things you need to fill out are right there. They’re pretty lengthy, it’ll take a good half hour. And we only accept cash, obvious reasons. We have to make sure you’re actually paying when you’re paying."
"Yeah, I brought the cash. I read that in an advertisement." Thomas began filling out the form. The information it asked for was extensive. He hopped his wife wouldn’t end up having to sign off on anything. As he went through the form, he saw that she didn’t. He finished in slightly less than a half hour.
Dr. Bernshaw led Thomas down the tile floor hallway. They entered a room that required many codes and keycards for the doctor to enter. Inside, there were transparent tubes lying on the floor, nearly all of them were empty except for a bluish liquid that seemed to glow. A few of the tubes had people in them. They looked as if they were asleep, submerged in water, as peaceful as one could imagine.
The doctor went over to a closet and pulled out some white shorts. "If you could just put these on, take off the rest of your clothes. We’ll send all of your belongings to the address you put on the forms. If you left that part blank, we’ll send them to charity."
"I understand that. I read the forms." Thomas began taking off his shirt and tie.
"Yes, well, I’m just making sure." Dr. Bernshaw carefully opened one of the tubes. "You won’t be submerged in the liquid immediately. People sometimes panic when confronted with the prospect of breathing in liquid. So, we let you fall asleep first. A gentle gas will fill the tank, you’re face will be out of the liquid. You’re not claustrophobic or anything?"
"No, I’m not," Thomas removed his pants. He stripped down and put on the white shorts.
"Okay, just lay in here then."
Thomas was nervous. His stomach growled and his muscles tensed. He hesitated slightly, then stepped in. As Thomas lied down, the doctor attached some wires to his forehead. "Just lay back. Relax."
Thomas laid back but could not relax. He ran through all of this one more time in his mind. What would he do tomorrow if he did not do this now? He’d wake up in the morning beside the cold, boring wife. He’d be annoyed by his bratty, idiotic children. He’d drive to work thinking about suicide. He’d stare at the wall in his office, thinking about hanging himself, thinking about going to a shopping mall and blowing his brains out. Young children would witness this and be scarred for life. Old women would witness this and have heart attacks. His blood would be on the blouses and nice shirts of every single man and woman around him. People would notice. Maybe he’d even be on the news.
His head felt light. His entire body felt warm and comfortable. The tube closed around him. He felt dreary, his eyes fell shut. He wondered what this afterlife would be like. He walked through this world in utter boredom. There was nothing to do. No one paid attention to him and he paid attention to no one. Everyone just quietly walked by each other as if no one else was even around. Could there be anything different? Thomas smiled at the possibilities as he slowly slipped into sleep.
* * *
A bright light woke Thomas. His eyes hurt; his body was wet and cold. A face was staring down at him, speaking.The words slowly came together. The face slowly became familiar. It was Dr. Bernshaw.
"I am so sorry Mr. Rolands."
Thomas was confused. He was still in the room with all the tubes. The wires had come disconnected from his head. The doctor was trying to help him out of the tube, along with the woman with the clicking shoes.
"I am so sorry, there’s been a slight malfunction. It should be all cleared up tomorrow, we just have to do some checks. All you got out of this was a nice sleep."
Thomas stumbled out of the tube. The few others were still in their tubes. He stuttered. "Well, what...um, about the...the rest...."
"Oh, once you’re in, you’re in. The problem was, you never went in. This has happened before. Of course, we’ll call you when everything is done. Or mail you if you prefer."
"Yes, as I’ve said," the doctor and the woman carried Thomas, who could barely walk, over to where a towel and his clothes were, "this has happened. It’ll not be more than a week. We’ll give you a call."
"Yes, yes, um, mail, we’ll mail you. We’ll leave you alone here to dress. You can always stop by and see if things are fixed too, you don’t have to wait for the mail, but we will mail you immediately."
The two of them left and it took a moment for Thomas to regain his balance and composure. His mind moved from one disconnected thought to another. He had to put his clothes on. Was he late for work? What did they do with his car? He had no desire to see his wife or his children. It was the weekend, wasn’t it? What time was it?
Thomas left the building of Divine Machine Inc. and found his car exactly where he had parked it. His gym bag was still in the back seat, his briefcase was still in the passenger seat, his fat son’s deflated soccer ball was still sitting on the floor in the back. He shook his head to recover poise. He stepped into his car and saw the clock. It was still early. He had no where else to go but home. And it was the weekend.
The freeway was nearly empty; the sun was barely lifting up. Thomas left the sparkling glass highrises of the downtown area and headed toward the flat, wide street grass lawn suburbs. He saw a billboard on his way home. It read, "God has been rebuilt. The afterlife promised to mankind for thousands of years has now been realized." A wave of anger shot through Thomas. There were no other cars on the freeway. There was no one to crash into.
The sprinklers were on as he drove into his garage. The kids were up watching cartoons. The wife was still asleep. Thomas’s one son and one daughter looked at him as he walked in. They didn’t say anything, just returned to their cartoons.
"You’re mother’s still sleeping I take it?"
His daughter answered, "Of course, dad, mom’s always sleeping."
"She thinks you’re having an affair," his son spoke. "What’s that?"
"That’s where daddy marries another woman," the daughter said.
"No it’s not. If anyone is having an affair, it’s your mother. Why don’t you too go play outside?"
"It’s hot outside."
"Go play in the pool."
"We’re bored of the pool."
Thomas opened the door to his bedroom and saw her lying there, slightly snoring, wearing an expensive nightgown. She opened her eyes and looked at him. She barked, "Where have you been all night?"
“I didn’t want to come home."
"Why not? You’re having an affair, aren’t you?" She sat up. "You know, I don’t..."
"I don’t see how you’re one to talk. You don’t think I don’t know what it means when you say you’re going out with the girls. Whatever. You can fuck whoever you want."
She stood up, "Don’t you turn this around, avoid the issue. You can’t just not come home one night."
"Did you bother calling work? Did you bother calling anyone? Did you lose any sleep over it, dear?"
"I’m going to the gym."
"Go to your fucking gym. I’m going back to sleep."
The kids said nothing as Thomas left the house. The sprinklers were still on when he drove away.
The weekend traffic was out, people going to the malls to shop, the beach to relax, the arcades and movies and all the other required weekend places of entertainment. Vans rolled by with massive, squirming families. Thomas had no ideas about these people. He didn’t understand there lives. He didn’t belong on the same planet as they did.
Had the Divine Machine Company swindled him? The thought made Thomas even angrier. They had his cash. They could have easily swindled him. He changed lanes haphazardly, didn’t signal, cut someone off, and then left the freeway. He sped down the street towards the gym. He couldn’t remember if it was open on Saturdays. Or was it Sunday? He had already forgotten.
Thomas showed the burly man at the front desk of the gym his pass. The place was already packed. He moved through all of the people, bumping into them, giving them cold stares which they ignored. He went into the locker room to change clothes. When he opened the bag, he saw it had nothing in it but a sawed off shot-gun.
Thomas remembered. He had put the gun in there a few weeks ago. He had seriously thought of carrying out his plan, but didn’t have the nerve to do it. He had even driven towards the mall, but when he saw it he could do nothing but pass and go on towards work. What else was there to do now? He didn’t need the Divine Machine. There was no reason not to do it. Maybe he didn’t have the nerve then, but he did now.
The mall was only a few blocks away from Thomas’s gym. He arrived with all of the families. He walked in carrying the unassuming gym bag. There was actually another gym located in the mall. It was cheap. It was for those who couldn’t afford the one Thomas went to.
Thomas passed the mothers and sons, the fathers and daughters, the holding hand young couples, the joyously clinging onto life elderly. He passed the stores and the pretzel stands and the indoor fountains and mundane, uniform architecture. He watched children try to keep their feet within the tiles, to not step on any cracks. He watched the crying babies being pushed around in strollers. He passed the large advertisements with the underwear models and the glowing signs for the latest movie at the multiplex. He rode the escalator with dozens of others, chatting, laughing, filling the air with sound. He rose up and saw the food-court spread out before him. People were everywhere, eating hotdogs and pizza and drinking soda and dragging around shopping bags. He walked straight into the crowd, rubbing shoulders, nearly trampling small children, bumping into this person and that person, none of whom seemed to really care. It was crowded. It was to be expected. He was just another person. He sat his gym bag down on an empty table, an island in a sea of people. A man and woman were at a table next two him with a baby and a small son. A teenage couple were walking by, talking into each others’ ears and giggling. A group of old ladies were sitting at a table drinking out of paper cups and eating with plastic forks. Thomas pulled out the gun, shoved it in his mouth, and watched the back of his head explode onto all of these people.
It happened in slow motion. His body fell, the head was barely there, the hand clenched the gun. The blood flew through the air, landed in people’s food, in their hair, on their clothes. Pieces of his brains scattered, landed in the baby’s crib, on a child playing with a newly bought toy, on the table with the old ladies. Everything became silent except for the usually drowned out mall music, which now made the scene even more grim, as a happy sounding girl sung bouncingly about love as people fainted and a lifeless body crumbled to the ground, spilling blood out of the neck like a knocked over bottle.
Children broke out in screams. People began running. Some remained stunned. And Thomas just stood there, looking at his own body, looking at everyone running around in a frenzy. He then realized people were running through him. He looked at his hand, but it was no longer his hand. There was a faint, thin image of a hand, an outline really, and he could see right through it, right at the body lying on the tile floor.
Thomas moved through the mall. He walked straight as people scurried all around. He walked through them, they didn’t even notice him. Security guards were running up the escalator. They passed by his ghost without notice. Thomas realized what had happened. This was it. He was dead.
The police arrive. The paramedics arrive. Even the media arrived. Thomas watched all of it. He watched them swarm around his body. But there was nothing there. That was just his body, a mangled shell. He tried to speak but had no mouth. He had no voice. Policemen ran through him, people from the local news ran wires for their cameras through where his feet should be. People stood right where he should have been standing. He wasn’t there. No one could even begin to recognize his presence. But he could watch it all without fail.
The entire scene quickly bored him. He left the mall. No one noticed him in the parking lot. He tried to get into his car but found he could touch nothing. He could only move, almost as if floating, and watch. He had become a tourist, a viewer; the world was a screen he could not interact with. He walked through the city until it became dark. He walked through the streets as people passed without a word. Cars drove through him. Soon walls meant nothing. He moved through the world as if it wasn’t there. It moved through him as if he wasn’t there. He found himself floating along the freeways.
He found himself floating down his neighborhood streets. It was night. Not even dogs barked at him. Automatic lights did not turn on as he passed by. The sprinklers came on in a few of his neighbors’ yards. A solitarily car drove by. House lights turned off. Airplanes hummed in the sky. The stars were muffled by a permanent haze. Thomas floated into his house. The mirrors did not reflect him. His wife and kids sat huddled around the television. It was the news. They were covering a suicide at the mall. Thomas saw his own body being carted away, covered with a blanket. His wife turned the television off. She walked right through him. His son did the same, followed by his daughter. They didn’t say a word. Thomas stayed as the lights went out. He stared at the blank television screen. There was nothing for him to do. This was it. This was hell.
bryan e. ©2003