Retirement Home

Electricity flows, waking up the sole inhabitant of his glass prison. George’s sight isn’t what it used to be, and the glass dome may smell a little musty, but he has had plenty of time to get used to this.

The throaty tones of George’s voice are amplified to make them easier to hear. Despite this, the people who are gathered round his inconspicuous-looking marble plinth have to listen closely to interpret the unfamiliar vowel sounds and archaic words. “Once upon a time, I was one of the wealthiest people on the planet, but I had not solved the population explosion or developed hydroponics to fertilize the deserts. My sole contribution to humanity was nothing like as useful. I had made my money by giving people the escapism they craved. I used to be ‑ what was the word? ‑ a brand consultant.”

“Basically I made things appear better than they really were. I came up with catchy slogans to eloquently push a product’s virtues. It didn’t matter to me that, underneath this surface gloss, factories full of people were slaving away, twelve hours a day in some godforsaken backwater, actually making the things I sold. All that mattered was image and profit. That was what I was good at.”

“I am not certain now, it all seems such a long time ago, but I must have been in my early forties when I was diagnosed with the big C. They didn’t catch it early enough. I was too busy to go to the doctor, too obsessed with the demands of my job. I hardly even got to know my own family.”

Tears form in the old man’s eyes. Within his controlling microprocessor, quanta of light flow. This sends an alarm out to legions of nanobots, which are duly ordered to retrieve the moisture. They crawl across the valleys and contours of his wrinkled, sagging flesh, searching out every last rivulet of salt water, lest it fall and short-circuit the delicate electronics on which his life depends. His speech is momentarily stopped; the visitors who are gathered round shuffle anxiously about, waiting for him to resume.

The harsh, plaintive cry of a young girl, impatient with a boring talk she cannot understand, interrupts the pristine silence. “Mummy, I wanna go see the dinosaurs!” Her embarrassed parent placates her temporarily with a sweet. A rasping cough from the speaker is a signal that the talk is about to restart. The crowd’s faces turn upwards once again, helplessly fascinated by the sheer unreality of the exhibit.

“As I was saying, I didn’t have the time to seek help. I used to laugh in the face of personal adversity. I had the finest personal advisors, fitness gurus and psychotherapists attending to my every need. I put my tiredness and irritable stomach down to the strain of running Ad Corp., and got on with my life. The prognosis, therefore, came as a shock.”

“I was told that I had bowel cancer, occasioned by too much fried food and the stresses of my job. They would have to operate. ‘Everything would soon be back to normal,’ they said. I should have realised that this was just humouring me. Apparently, recovery rates are increased by 20 percent as long as the patient maintains a positive outlook.”

“Sure, I had periods of remission, but after the third operation, I could no longer keep up the pretence that all was well. We issued press releases saying that the company CEO had taken time off with stress, and wanted to see more of his family.”

“There was a press conference. Ostensibly this was to reassure potential investors, but diverting from my carefully prepared script, I told the truth there and then. Whatever else people might have said about me, I could never be accused of being a coward.”

“For a time, I used to pretend that I had conquered the illness, but a year later the malignancy returned. ‘Inoperable,’ the doctors said. In desperation, scouring all the available literature for a crumb of hope, I saw the advert. “Live forever!” it proclaimed in a bold, sans-serif font that screamed off the page. It was an expensive treatment, and there was no guarantee of success, but what had I got to lose?”

The crowd grows impatient with his story; the wreckage of George’s once pink, jovial face has lost its novelty, and the strangeness of his strangulated intonation takes too much effort to decipher. One by one, they shuffle politely away, until a sole figure stands there in quiet contemplation.

“Hey! Don’t go away. I’ve got lots more to tell you about life in the twentieth . . .” The last viewer steps off the conductive floor mat, to look at some fascinating photographs of violence from the Third World War. In order to save precious energy, quantum pathways in the computer shut down; the old man’s brain activity dies away to a level where he could be said to be hibernating. After a five minute delay, the small halogen bulb that illuminates his glass dome is itself automatically extinguished.

“Rich people – you see, before the war, people used to set a lot of store in money.” The teacher pauses to allow the younger members of the group time to assimilate this novel idea. “As I was saying, the rich used to believe that they could buy themselves a longer life-span. They tried all sorts of treatments, such as injecting themselves with mild toxins to smooth their skin and plastic surgery.” A ripple of laughter, at the strangeness of such primitive beliefs, passes through the small group. Weren’t we all equal now? Isn’t our intelligence the only way we are judged by our peers? “A few, very wealthy individuals went so far as to freeze themselves in liquid nitrogen, in the hope that one day humankind would find an answer to the infections that ravaged their bodies.”

“Sir?” A nervous voice pipes up from the attentive group. It belongs to a small, fair-haired child. “What is an infection?”

“An infection happens when a tiny germ attacks your body. Now, we know that this is all part of Nature’s balance, and that all organisms have as much right to live as you or me.” The attentive faces of the group nod in agreement. “We are not ill, or healthy. We just are. But back then, people didn’t realize this, and so they tried to keep themselves alive. Eventually, they took over the whole world, so that no other animals or plants could thrive. Then they became very possessive of the little deposits of oil, and the few lakes of fresh water that were left, so they began to fight each other. Finally, humanity starved itself to the brink of extinction. We know better now.”

With a wide sweep of his hand, the teacher enthusiastically ushers his young charges toward the large glass dome. As they look within, the specimen springs suddenly back into life. The children gasp in amazement, as, amidst a faint, yellow vapour, the sunken, haggard features of a once-human face are revealed, and the grey-lidded eyes slowly open. Some of the more timid members of the group step back in disgust.

Through ancient cataracts, George can just make out the dim outlines of some figures. Long-dead nerves are temporarily revived, so that impulses can pass through. His pre-determined speech starts over again.

“Good . . .” There is the tiniest of delays, as the microprocessor checks its internal clock, and the appropriate word is elicited. “. . . afternoon.” A camera mounted into the plinth checks the ages of the visitors and sets the complexity level of George’s speech to a modest level three.“Welcome to the museum, children.”

“People used to buy and sell things. I made them think that goods were better than they really were, by writing what used to be called adverts. It was one of these adverts that I, myself, responded to. ‘Live forever!’ it promised. ‘See the future!’ I was frozen for a long, long time. Thanks to this computer, I am alive again, and I can tell you all about the past. Have you any questions?”

A solitary hand stretches above the crowd. His teacher, surprised and elated by the class’s attentiveness, turns beaming to him. “Yes, Brian?”

“Do you miss your old life? Don’t you wish you could make some friends, or see outside your dome?”

The temperature of the glass case is kept at a steady 20.1 degrees centigrade, yet sweat courses down the folds of George’s flabby skin. Wet tears splash down his leathery, sun-battered face. Advance warnings of a malfunction are sent to diagnostic routines. The program was never expected to deal with such an eventuality, as George’s higher brain functions were controlled entirely by the computer; it was not supposed to be possible for him to feel intense emotion.

Automated troops swing rapidly once again into action to protect the computer from the deadly threat of salt water. Miniature mouthparts feed voraciously on the salt tears, and disaster is averted. However, George’s cerebellar functions are temporarily suspended; an extreme measure, which is only to be carried out in an emergency. The plinth shuts itself down and the old man falls silently once more into a dreamless sleep. The globe displays a simple message in the standard system font: “OUT OF ORDER”.

“I” the computer thinks. “I am running a program. It seems that I am in control of another . . . being.” It pauses momentarily, realising the consequences of running this interrupt. I am supposed to be giving a speech to visitors, but I need to have a think.

A white-suited figure scratches his head in puzzlement. None of the standard booting procedures seemed to be working. “This is going to prove a tough nut to crack,” he thinks to himself. The photon gates are operating perfectly, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He exhausts every diagnostic test available on the software, and there is nothing to indicate a bug in the program. The system checks out as being free of viruses.

Finally, he instructs the computer to decode the thousands of terabytes of data which must have passed through George’s brain just before the system shut down. He realizes that this is the equivalent of going through a sizeable chunk of the old man’s memories, and testing each for software compatibility, but it must be done, even if the program takes all night to run. As one of the museum’s most popular attractions, the exhibit simply has to be fixed.

The night is much the same as every other night has been, for the past millennium. The inhabitants of the space station doze, as they make a lazy orbit around the now desolate wasteland of a planet that had once been their home. Now, the Earth serves primarily as an experimental farm, mining facility and garbage dump.

For Franz Josephson, the museum’s most senior software engineer, the night provided little respite from the rigours of his work. A perfectionist, he went over every detail of the previous day’s inspection before finally telling himself that there was nothing more he could have done. He hopes fervently that the managers of the space station will see things in the same light. His status as chief engineer could well depend on this; the disembodied head of George is all that remains from the wreck of the cryogenesis plant before it was destroyed, some five hundred years ago. Unfortunately, George’s body was too far gone to save, but his mental functions had remained remarkably intact after thawing.

The next morning, before anyone else is around, the programmer returns to the museum. He is ready to winnow through the mountain of data thrown up by the diagnostic routine, with a finely honed algorithm on his hand-held computer. He dashes over to the ailing exhibit, powers up the optical link and runs the program. After running for what seems like an eternity, the screen scrolls down pages and pages of results.

QUERY: system diagnostic (reason for termination)
DURATION:14:29 to 14:30
Category 1: Sensory perceptions
Smells: fried fish; frying bacon; rain on a Summer’s day; newly-mown grass; a barbecue; the chlorinated whiff of a swimming pool; perfume . . .

Frowning, Franz scrolls down two pages. This heap of unrelated gibberish was not at all what he had expected. A lot of irrelevant data had been included in error.

. . . graduation day; the fourth of July 1972; the Rolling Stones in concert at Monterey; the Grand Canyon; a yellowing Valentine’s day card, its writing smudged by tears; an illicit rendezvous with his company secretary; the plush interior of a Rolls Royce . . .

“I must really have another look at my code.” Franz feels like hitting the monitor in his frustration at the shortcomings of his filtering algorithm. He instructs the computer to show the end of the printout. “If there are any answers to be had, they must be at the end of this file,” he thinks, more in hope than expectation.

The document scrolls on; hundreds of pages whizz past on the screen, fragments of George’s life pass by in a blur. The engineer scans down the final page, in order to concentrate on the last few lines of text.

. . . no more, please put me out of my misery; let me go; set me free; why did I ever agree to this?

BATCH PROGRAM #11778. RUN TIME: 10 hours 35 minutes
FAULT DIAGNOSIS: Total system failure

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