The Man Who Died | Introductory sample
If it hadn’t been for the cake, Mo Gudmundson might have died on his three-hundredth birthday. To the whooped-up music, people clapping and dancing, he had leapt up onto the table, kicking off plates and cutlery, his friends and family shouting out, laughing. Just as he was about to do something extraordinary, contentment already written in his eyes, he slipped in the remains of the pink-and-yellow cake and fell, cracking his head on the edge of the table and knocking two of the guests to the floor.
In the high spirits of the jamboree and the commotion caused by his crashing fall, nobody caught sight of the ancient artefact that Mo had been about to pull out of his suit, and which skittered away under the table. The waiter who discovered it later, under a chair in the corner of the lounge, would see in it an opportunity to make a considerable number of bits. Mo was rushed off to the Hospital. His niece, as his nearest relative, accompanied him there out of decorum, while the others, knowing that he’d soon be back to annoy them, alive and kicking, carried on with the party.
Curiously, they regretted the accident. They had never seen the professor in such good spirits. It seemed a pity to lose the old bastard on the rare night that they weren’t the butt of his insults and ill-humour.
Mo was one of those people who are never happy unless they are miserable. Not that this was a problem for the Foundation: its programme of sustainable well-being was pluralist and broad-based enough to embrace his wilful misery. Mo’s anomie was classed as a permissible anomaly, along with sexual deviance, kleptomania and workaholism. The rule was: as long as it was kept within limits and did not cause distress to oneself or others, it was tolerated. Monitored, yes. Moderated by the Hospital, certainly, as was any pathology. Suffering didn’t make much sense when you were going to be doing it forever.
Professor Mo Gudmundson’s was a special case, all the same. As the senior of the three medical advisers at the Hospital, he was responsible for implementing the policies of the Foundation and fulfilling its contract with citizens, reflected in the motto: “Well Forever.”
Instructed by the caution Quid custodiet ipsos custodes?, these three were bound over by the Foundation to examine and fine-tune each other’s psychic health. A watched B watched C watched A. Mo tweaked –as he called it– Judith Waugh; Dr Waugh took care of Henry Lavell; Dr Lavell, in turn, scanned Mo and kept him in equilibrium.
For their part, the triumvirate oversaw the administration of colony’s “enhancement plan.” Which meant keeping people balanced while allowing for individuality. It was less a control mechanism than a guarantee. The Foundation, its Hospital and its insurance company, which amounted to different expressions of a single entity, couldn’t afford to let anybody die or be killed, accident or not. The city’s citizens, nigh on nine thousand of them, had signed up on a very large down payment, some two and a half centuries ago, for the opportunity to enjoy autonomy, quality of life – and an endless amount of it. The deal really was, well... forever. The Foundation had a responsibility to ensure that its members got their money’s worth. Besides, one careless act of violence and the Foundation’s insurance company would have to pay out an astronomical sum to the victim’s family.
Which was why the company had lobbied the colony’s administration to make death not only extremely difficult, but also illegal. As the colony was run, to all extents and purposes, by the Foundation, the law was swiftly passed and strictly enforced. Crime existed, but it wasn’t violent crime. Unhappiness, as well as happiness, existed, but not enough to drive people to desperate acts. Every week, the Foundation examined each member of the colony for signs of undue emotional turbulence or excitability and, whenever necessary, restored them to a healthy balance. If Professor Gudmundson’s characteristically bad mood and his discourteous manner were leniently passed over without being flagged by the Hospital’s psychic scanner, it was only to the extent that they were judged to constitute disgruntled content. Anything more than that meant a session of harmonics. Henry Lavell would then smooth out the highs and lows in Mo’s brain pattern with a choice of magnetic wave modulation or chemical targeting. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you any happier than I have to,” Henry would tell his scowling colleague.
Now, while friends –such as he had– and family were enjoying his 300th birthday celebrations, Mo was back in his place of work. Followed by Candy, his two hundred and eighty-one year old niece, clacking along in her party heels, an orderly wheeled the semi-conscious Professor Gudmundson past the busy laboratories of the Hospital’s east wing.
The place hummed. On a given day, as much as a fifth of the city’s population would be in here. Some for their weekly enhancement and general maintenance, others for regenerations. A heart, an eye, a pancreas only lasted so long and so stem cell-regenerated replacements were always available, keeping bodies young, or at least renewed and functioning. Even if the results were imperfect and scarring was inevitable, with sagging occurring around the stitching, a body could be kept going indefinitely. The Foundation made sure of that. Candy left him in the hands of the medics and waddled off back to the party, throwing her feather boa over her shoulder.
Two days later, she received a call from Dr Judith Waugh.
“You do know your uncle’s still in hospital?”
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