By Artem Belov
“Who’s next on the list?”
Fetisov fidgeted about in the passenger’s seat; he coughed and took out a piece of paper, folded in four. The years had taken their toll; Fetisov suffered from nearsightedness, but never could pick a time to go to the eye clinic. Looking down, Fetisov pressed a small button on the side of his mask. With a loud click, his lenses stuck out, helping him to read another name from the list.
“Melissa Kitch, fifty three years old, single. She lives in the fourth block of the city, in a ‘Tree of Life’ cylinder. Here’s the quote: ‘I am depressed, constantly fatigued, I see only nightmares. I am so tired of all this, so fed up, my soul demands your help! After many years of hard work, I now understand my whole life has gone down the slope. Only the Masterpiece can save me!’”
“Hmm…” Jorge grunted, carefully turning his car on the crossroads.
At least the fourth block was not so far away––only five minutes of driving. Too many people were suffering under the dead weight of their empty hopes and childish dreams. The rate of orders had kicked up sky high. Just a couple of years ago, the creative duo of Fetisov and Jorge had only two or three contracts in a week. Now they were raining down on their car, slithering through every street. Miss Kitch was the third contract in a single day! Everybody likes to see money piling up in their bank account, but this was simply too much. There had to be a moral break to this!
“What’s her occupation?” asked Jorge, the driver. But as Fetisov opened his mouth to answer, Jorge waved with his free hand, “wait, wait, let me guess. She’s a linker!”
“Right from the tip of my tongue.”
“Unbelievable, tenth linker in the last month. What a horrible profession indeed!”
“Grayness, friend. The life of a linker is one gray stain. Yet, despite the occupation, the human soul flies like a butterfly: it begs for sunlight and nectar. Which means art, obviously.”
The linkers were far from being rare in the twenty fifth century. Judging by the amount of specialists, the profession was among the popular ones… Was it worth it? The linker’s pact with the government was quite simple. In exchange for solid amounts of money, long needles drained the last crumbs of energy from each linker, transferring them through a complex network of tubes and pipes into the bodies of politicians, full of vigor. But what could a linker spend his colossal salary on? Their destiny was to hoard a fortune until one day they signed a contract with Artists, after facing their husk of a body in a mirror and realizing, at last, how dark and hollow their souls had become.
Fetisov glanced out the window furtively. The tall cylinder-hives that formed the city gazed back with boundless anguish. Some people never went outside in their entire lives, never stepped out of the ant hill they had built for themselves. What for, really? Everything is so close by: shops, schools, hospitals, malls, workplaces… Yet, those hives lack a single thing. An art gallery. The two friends had quickly realized––if people do not want to go out, but are hungry for art, why not earn a shiny coin by delivering it to them? Jorge ran his hand through his messy black hair; some years ago, when he had just teamed up with old Fetisov, working on the Masterpieces had been a grueling nightmare. The toil had drained him dry. It demanded devilish concentration, it exhausted the mind, flayed the soul, preyed upon sanity. After each workday Jorge couldn’t do anything but fall on his bed in a cramped flat, listening, as he tried to fall asleep, to his own blood pumping in his temples. Nowadays the young man was only afraid of a boring routine. He prayed to the Gods that the Masterpieces wouldn’t turn dull, like a linker’s life.
The car stopped smoothly, flinching a little at the very end. Jorge loved that moment the most; he always told Fetisov that nothing resembles the Artist’s work better than that. Inhaling deeply, he let go of the steering wheel and smiled widely, enjoying the moment. Fetisov waited in silence for his partner to still the inspirational thirst. After all those years of hard work they knew each other from the ground up. Jorge reached for the back seat and grabbed his little bag. He took out a tablet with a bright screen.
“Don’t you believe MY list? I told you the name of our client just a couple of minutes ago!”
“Your paper is a liar. You always drop ink on it… It’s outrageous you are still using those ancient pens!” Jorge looked into the rows of letters and nodded to himself, “alright, no differences from my list this time.”
Sighing, Fetisov stepped out of the car and looked over his shoulder.
“I’ll get the decorations. Go check on our ma’am, maybe she changed her mind.”
Jorge ran through the long hallway of the “Tree of Life” cylinder. A bored security guard sat there––the likes of him were ordering the Artists almost as frequent as the linkers.
“How can I help you sir?” he said the memorized greeting phrase.
The guard probably repeated it over and over several thousand times a day.
“Good day!” waved Jorge cheerfully; unlike Fetisov, he didn’t wear a mask, preferring the clients to see his face and live emotions, “could you please tell me in which module Melissa Kitch lives?”
Sniffing, the security guard stuck his eyes in a database. He rummaged through it for some time, then raised his eyes again.
“Floor one-three-four, module AP-RO-12. If you need anything else, please, ask me. Take some advertisement flyers to your right…”
Jorge didn’t listen anymore. He took the calling device and dialed the right number.
“Miss Kitch? It’s the Artists. We received your payment. Is our contract still on?”
“Sure! Come, quick!”
“Give us ten minutes to gather the decorations.”
Fetisov, puffing up, broke into the hallway with a mountain of the cardboard boxes on his shoulders. The mask distorted the sound of his breathing, making him sound like a hedgehog. His long, dark green cloak stood out against the gray citizens’ uniforms in the background. The security guard raised his eyebrows.
“So you are the famous Artist duo, aren’t you?”
“That we are,” winked Jorge, putting his hands into the pockets of his sky-blue jacket.
“You better help me, blabbermouth!” half of the boxes from Fetisov’s shoulders crashed on Jorge; his knees shook under the weight.
“How much for a Masterpiece?!” shouted the security guard, leaning over the information desk, as the two tall Artists walked away.
“Thirteen thousand Units, but you will have to wait a couple of months––we’re stacked with orders! You can buy it on our website.”
Finally, the elevator clanged and stopped on floor one-three-four; Melissa already stood in the open doors of her living module, waiting for the guests anxiously. Jorge noticed that she looked like a typical linker––lank cheeks, scanty silver hair on a spotted head, cracked lips… a walking skeleton.
“Here, please! Right here!”
Still puffing like a hedgehog, Fetisov put down the boxes. The Artists found themselves in a large guest room. It was richly decorated; countless digital paintings covered the walls––Melissa didn’t even need any paint or wallpapers.
“You have a real gallery here,” Jorge smiled, “one could right away spot a person that has a taste for art!”
‘Those digital paintings are worth nothing… I don’t even want anything anymore,’ Melissa wiped a tear that crawled down her cheek, ‘my soul can be saved only by a Masterpiece. I decided to spend my savings on it a long time ago! Can we start yet?’
“Don’t rush it,” Fetisov calmly answered, catching his breath back, “we’ll set up the decorations… We’ll make everything right. If you wish, we can send copies of the Masterpiece to your relatives.”
The friends started working. Soon a folding swing was hanging from the ceiling; Jorge stuck real roses into it, while Fetisov set tall, spiral-shaped candles across the floor. The square light-panel couldn’t compete with the smooth radiance of the candles. The dark cloth draped the walls like a curtain. Golden thread tassels gleamed against it.
“That’s… beautiful! I never had dreamed…” Melissa sat on the swing and breathed in the roses’ aroma.
“Just one more little touch…” Jorge sprinkled the flowers with water, and the drops froze on them like diamond beads.
“That’s ideal. You two are wizards!”
“Hope you’re pleased with our services,” Fetisov approached Miss Kitch and handed her a smartphone with an opened website on it, “Would you like to leave a positive comment?”
“Sure! What a miracle!”
The woman spend a minute sitting still on the swing, and then leaned back. She squinted like a cat in the sunlight, her face brightened with an expression that one could not mistake for anything else––relief, long-awaited peace.
Fetisov put his hands in his pockets. Jorge nodded and pulled the trigger. The gunshot thundered, making the living module’s glass tremble. Melissa Kitch sat with a smile of untold happiness. A trickle of blood crawled down her forehead.
“One centimeter to the right from the center, just how you suggested… an ideal match with the crimson roses. And the swing… I must admit, my friend, the idea was brilliant. I even doubted it for a second at first!”
“Your curtain,” complimented Fetisov, “is a real cherry on the cake. It’s great we work as a team. Otherwise we would be the worst enemies on the battlefield of art.”
“Precisely,” Jorge holstered his gun and took out a camera, “the Masterpiece is outstanding this time. Melissa’s relatives will be chuffed.”
The shuffling steps sounded behind the Artists. A pale security guard stepped in, trifling with his uniform.
“I’m sorry… excuse me, I stood behind the door when I heard the gunshot. Is the Masterpiece done already? So quick?”
“Come in,” waved Fetisov welcomingly, “we can allow you to take a peek. As an exception.”
The security guard lost his breath.
“Oh, this… this… I cannot find words for it! Look how happy she is! She’s so lucky! Walked away from her job, with such a bang!”
“Solace and an unasked departure into the kingdom of the dead. Such was the idea this time,” Fetisov raised his finger.
“Hmm,” grunted Jorge, feeling his heart tightening.
Why had she decided to be a linker? What did she expect, what she was even thinking? Did she seek happiness in money? No way; no one can find happiness in a heap of gold, no matter how long one would dig it down or pile it up. Maybe Melissa always wanted to meet such end. Being a linker was the shortest path to this. Through suffering.
In the car Fetisov looked at his list again, using his lenses. A lot of unfortunate souls to snuff out, people waiting on a phone call, for Jorge’s joyful voice. A sudden car turn––and the list escaped the nearsighted Artist’s grip, fluttering out in the wind.
“Told you your paper is a liar!” Jorge burst into laughter, “A traitor, too! Here, take my tablet. Who’s next on the list?”