The year is 2040.
Caring for the aged has become big business. There have been considerable advancements in medicine, drugs, and assistive technologies. Genetic profiling is a routine procedure at the age of fifty. Some forms of euthanasia are now legal, but only in some countries. VEATec, an India-based corporation with treatment centres in Tibet, offers a package of highly personalized Inference Extraction Services called VIVIEN (Virtual Information Vault and Inference Extraction Network). It has carved out a niche market by offering a bereavement package with both identity preservation and virtual after-presence (also known as VEA or ‘Virtual Ever After’). But, there is growing opposition to these types of services because they operate through loopholes in international law and cater to the needs of a privileged few at a time when the needs of the many are being threatened. Lobby groups and public protests are starting to sway public opinion against them and could threaten to close them down.
20:36 Sunday, April 1. Interior VEATec cryogenics treatment centre 3, Tibet. Sterile brightly lit corridors.
Clients choose when and how they wish to make the transformation to virtual ever after. Iris, dressed in futuristic clubbing clothes, inserts a white card into a slot in one of the pedestals placed at intervals down the corridor. An otherwise invisible door slides open revealing the interior of a sombre medieval church with dark oak pews and flickering candle lit aisles.
Iris. “Nnnnnnaa…that’s not quite right!”
Iris walks down the corridor to the next pedestal. A door opens onto a wild, strobe-lit party with crowds of people dancing to loud, throbbing music.
Iris (thinking). ‘This is more like it! Just what the doctor ordered…a good place to get distracted. The transformation portal could be offered anywhere at any time. Might as well enjoy the wait…and who knows….perhaps a chance encounter?’
Iris makes her way to the bar and orders an exotic highball. After the fourth drink she is feeling pretty mellow. A well-dressed man, considerably younger than Iris, initiates a conversation. After a few minutes he asks Iris if she would like to dance.
VIVIEN: REQUEST SIGNATURE
Well-dressed man. “Will you take my hand Iris?”
Iris cocks an eye at the man. She had not told him her name. She hesitates for a moment, then presses her hand into his.
VIVIEN: IDENTITY CONFIRMED. CASE 35077954……
IRIS CHICHLOWSKI. UK citizen. 57.
Iris. “There. I suppose it’s done.”
VIVIEN: ALLOCATE SERVER SPACE. BEGIN DATA COMPILATION
Iris comforts herself with the thought that she has done all she can for John. Now it’s time to take control of her own future.
VIVIEN: INITIATE CARE
Six months earlier.
14:50, Tuesday, October 4, 2039. Interior of John and Iris’ home, immersive communications room. John and Iris seated before hologram of their (remote) medical doctor. As the doctor speaks, Iris and John can interact with data displayed on the walls and furniture.
Doctor: “Here are the results of your genetic profiles. Your profile, John, shows that you have a predisposition to early onset Alzheimer’s disease. But, you appear to be experiencing no symptoms, so we can be optimistic there.”
“For you, Iris, the results, I’m afraid, are more worrying. They show that what we thought was a mild case of osteoarthritis. The soreness you’ve been feeling in your hips and knees (x-rays of these appear on the wall), is in fact rheumatoid arthritis. It is progressing surprisingly quickly.”
Iris. “Thank you doctor. Pause interview.”
The interactive systems freeze.
John. “Iris! What does this mean?”
In her position as senior immunologist at the Weathermore Institute of Molecular Medicine, Iris is well aware of the condition and of how, in her family, it has caused severe debilitation and premature death. She tended her mother through the final agonising stages of rheumatoid arthritis. She is also well aware of John’s dependency on her. If he does contract Alzheimer’s disease his dependency will grow.
John and Iris have a long and serious discussion about their future. Periodically they consult their personal assistant, which connects them to medical, financial, legal and social records. They receive live advice from their doctor, investment advisor and lawyer as well as family members and friends.
Their doctor offers some hope. A new drug treatment program is undergoing medical trials and may soon be licensed. At £10,000/month though, it’s an expensive long-shot. They are about to give up hope when they receive a call from a long-time friend and colleague of Iris’, Jasmine Gharra. She confides that, although they are illegal in the UK, she and her husband used an Inference Extraction Service (IES) to help them cope when he became ill and finally passed away. This option appears to offer Iris the hope of a life beyond pain, disease and death, a better chance for a cure and a way for her to continue making an intellectual contribution to the field of immunology. Iris and John compare a number of Inference Extraction Services and weigh their options.
Iris. “VEATec’s ‘VIVIEN’ package may offer us the best chance to get the kind of future we hope for.”
John. “They claim to get the best results when you are in good health. With this package your intellectual after-presence would be a considerable asset to them. They would look after you and the royalties it generates for us would reduce the cost of the program. Your Virtual Ever After presence would act on your behalf…”
Iris. “…to make sure that you get the best possible care.”
John. “If by a miracle there is a cure, there’s some money left over, I’m still alive and, oh yes, I haven’t lost all my marbles, we may yet finish the extension and live out our lives in something like peaceful retirement.”
…on reflection, I think I prefer the new drug option.”
Iris (visibly wilting). “It’s settled then, we’ll go with VIVIEN.”
13:30 Friday, March 30. London Heathrow Airport, passenger departure lounge.
John gives Iris one last hug and waves to her as she enters the security gate. The doors close behind Iris and she suddenly feels very much alone. On the flight she begins to have doubts about what she is about to do.
15:20 Saturday, March 31. Lhasa Gonggar Airport, Tibet.
Passengers arrive at the airport on special flights. As they exit the airport building a crowd of protesters with placards is waiting. A huge floating billboard showing a close up of a doctor holding a pill proclaims ‘Why buy months when you can buy eternity?. Protesters are grappling with the controls to pull it down while others wave placards, shout slogans and try to prevent visitors from boarding buses. Iris is forcefully jostled. But, she has overcome all her doubts and takes this opportunity to give as good as she gets. She slaps a bearded ‘lefty’ in the mouth and a free-for-all brawl breaks out. Iris manages to get on the bus. The doors close and with the crowd rocking the bus from side to side and pelting it with rocks it leaves the airport.
2 years later. John has struggled to live with IRIS, the Virtual Ever After echo of the real Iris.
After Iris left, John found that being able to have her presence on his personal assistant, which runs the household systems and accompanies him when he travels, was both a comfort and a help. Now it reminds him of everything that has changed. He has taken to turning it off.
For a while, John is also comforted by reflections of iris’ presence during quiet moments, such as at night when he reaches for her pillow or on Sunday afternoons when he takes a stroll that they both enjoyed. But now the reflections have turned to shadows that bring with them an even deeper sense of loss, and more frequently, regret.
John and Iris never had children. Iris’s career took precedence, even over his own. Thanks to the wonders of modern science, which has achieved separation of the intellect from an otherwise cryogenically preserved body, John occasionally sees Iris’ work cited in international news items or special reports on the critical state of world epidemics and the science of immunology.
John is lonely. But, at the same time, he is feeling a new sense of independence. He has kept IRIS and the Inference Extraction Service secret from everyone, including family members. But now he would like to bequeath some of his personal memories, along with those shared with Iris, to his nieces and nephews, and particularly his godson, Hercule, to whom he has become attached. The problem is, every time he starts to write or dictate his thoughts on the matter or to speak with someone about setting it up, the personal assistant claims to encounter a system malfunction. John becomes suspicious of IRIS.
7 years after Iris’ transformation. John has learned to avoid evoking IRIS during moments of reflection. He no longer grieves for the loss of Iris. Rather, his need of IRIS has been to assist his failing memory and to be a legal presence in their joint legal and financial affairs. These are primarily concerned with preserving the VIVIEN account. John has given up trying to bequeath anything to his nieces, nephews and godson.
When Jasmine Gharra becomes a regular visitor and their friendship turns to intimacy, John, for the first time in many years, feels wanted for who he really is. But communications between them break down irreparably over a series of inexplicable typos, bogus appointments and other personal assistant system errors.
The value of Iris’ professional intellect and experience on the open market has grown considerably due to increased threats of global epidemics and needs for advanced immunisation programs. VEATec own usage rights to Iris’ intellectual capacity (although they pay a royalty to her heirs and estate). They are at liberty to exploit the opportunity by allocating more power and bandwidth to Iris’ intellectual feed. With every increase her ability to influence IRIS, her virtual ever after, grows.
10 years after Iris’ transformation. John has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. IRIS is instrumental in helping to arrange their finances and set up a program of care that includes providing power of attorney should John lose his mental faculties.
Small epidemics break out in isolated regions of the third-world. They don’t yet threaten the developed world, but funding is increased to support contingency measures, including immunisation plans. Protests against unlawful euthanasia become more militant.
13 years after Iris’ transformation. A small band of militant protestors manage to infiltrate VEATec’s high security cryogenic systems. They are apprehended, but an unknown amount of damage has been done.
John now has a permanent caregiver. His long-term memory has deteriorated and he’s prone to wild mood swings and sudden bursts of aggression. He spends hours simply staring blankly at a flickering TV.
The caregiver is unsympathetic.
VIVIEN/Iris: REQUEST SIGNATURE
IRIS. “It won’t be much longer now John. I will stay with you to the end.”
The caregiver produces a legal document and guides John’s hand to sign it.
VIVIEN/Iris: IDENTITY CONFIRMED. INITIATE PROTOCOL….
CASE:35077954 ALPHA ALPHA.
John starts to shake and lose control.
John. “IIIRISSSSS…godda mit…..Why why why why why…”
The Caregiver gives him an injection and he slumps back into a silent numbness.
Meanwhile, at VEATec Tibetan treatment centre, Iris begins to recover consciousness. Attending nurses and doctors, gowned and with masked faces, assist her as she comes round and tries to sit up. Iris goes into convulsions and she is restrained and given an injection.
A few hours later. Darkened room. Iris sitting in a wheelchair in front of a mirrored dresser. A towel over her head.
Iris. “So, my plan worked. John is pleasantly gaga. IRIS has all the burden of looking after him until he croaks (which can’t be too long now). While I, I am thirteen years younger than I would have otherwise been and the soon-to-be only heir to our little estate. I can start a new life anywhere I feel like and with whomever I choose. I fooled them all with that faked DNA sample and rheumatoid arthritis condition.”
Painfully Iris leans closer to the mirror. Slowly she pulls back the towel.
Iris. “Let’s see just how well preserved I am………AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!”
Somewhere deep inside VEATec HQ in a plush executive consulting room, twelve finely dressed executives sit around a large table.
Head of IT. “The security breach must have damaged the systems that control the cryogenic units in treatment centre 3. Looks like it threw the polarity of the units completely into reverse. We’re also getting weird readouts from the Virtual Information Vault. Some, if not all, of the Ever Afters may be down.”
Chief medical consultant. “For clients stored in treatment centre 3 the results are catastrophic. There’s widespread tissue damage and skeletal malformation. They are alive, but most are in critical condition and may never come off life support.”
Legal advisor. “There will be law suits. We’ll have to make some sizable settlements. When word of this gets out our stock will be in the toilet.”
02:46, December 14, 2056. Palliative care resident bedroom, interior.
A soft knock on the door.
John is asleep. Oxygen gauges flicker and the heart monitor shows increased activity. John stirs a little on his pillow.
Another soft knock on the door.
John. “Is that you Iris?”
The door slowly slides open.
Iris. “Hello John.”
John. “Iris? Is that really you?”
Iris. “Yes John. It’s really me. How are you?”
John hears Iris move over to the bed. He feels the air in the room move, then a slight pressure on the bed covers near his hand.
There is a long silence. John has lost his sight and can now barely move.
John. “You’re not THAT IRIS are you?”
Iris. “No John. It’s really me (John feels something like a hand cupped in his). I am really here and I will stay with you.”