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At the Appointed Hour

by  scarborough

Posted: Monday, March 27, 2006
Word Count: 5819
Summary: A short story that's more Fiction than Science, but came from a random sentence scrawled in a notebook on a bus, and a lot of subconscious stuff left over in my head from my Master's Dissertation. Be warned, it's not the most cheerful thing in the world...

I always wondered when my brother would decide to die. For some reason, it had always seemed inevitable to me. Something in his eyes, the cliché would go, I imagine. But it was harder to define than that. His eyes had no trouble in them, they never did. On the contrary, they were sparkling things, windows to a soul that was so obviously, totally in love with the world, with this playground our new technology has crafted for us. So many times, he would come bustling into my house, carrying some new device, or holding forth about a band or an artist or an event I’d never heard of. Truth to be told, I don’t remember half of the things he used to bring in. I don’t really care about technology, not like Michael. He cared so much about whatever he was talking about, he always did.

When I think of him, I remember his arms, his hands waving like a madman and his eyes twinkling with excitement as he held forth about, well, whatever it was he had decided to care about today. Of course, whatever it was that he would find so interesting would eventually be discarded, as he moved on to the next great thing. I still have so many of Michael’s things in my house. A new form of VR, a psychoplastic sculpture that responds to your mood, or a thousand things besides. I can remember him introducing me to them with such evangelical zeal. Of course, a decade on, and he would have trouble remembering them. Some called him fickle (I certainly did, when we argued), but that was just his way. He lived faster than we do now, squeezing everything out of any experience that he came across.

His real passion was music; rock music, classical music, folk, electronic, so many different kinds, with such obscure names I suspected him of inventing half of them himself. He’d be as likely to be listening to a four hundred year-old folk singer who’d given himself a sixth finger so he could play like Nick Drake, as a Post-Electro Synasthetic collective full of didgeridoo players and samplers. When I find a new band, I take a year to savour it, album by album, sitting in my room at night, listening with the lyrics in my lap, until I’m completely familiar with their music, and it’s a fully integrated part of my private experience. Michael, well, he’d do the whole same thing as me, only in a day.
I guess he just consumed life. And eventually, he just got through everything.

It was a strange day, when he told us. We were eating together, in Father’s old house, and it was a happy time. We were all together. And then Michael said he had something important news. I had known something was wrong; he had been quiet all day. We were all quiet, that night, for the first time in our long centuries together.

The world moves so slowly today, because no-one is in a hurry. We have our therapies, our rejuvenation, our full-body rebuilds. Time is irrelevant, and life runs in a circle rather than a straight line. Eternal life is ours, if we choose, and we are a happy world full of wise old men and women, ticking round the years at leisure. Some decide to die, but not many. Those who do are rare, about one every century. Michael’s choice made him something of a celebrity, which of course he relished.
I remember watching him on a national Vidstream show, talking about his death.
’Tell me, Michael’ the tanned host had asked, ’is this decision to die anything to do with a religious belief? Do you believe that there is a heaven, or an afterlife like the Christians still do?’
Simon had taken a while to answer that question.
’No, no, I don't believe that. I’m not sure, really. I’d like there to be one; I’d like to be proven wrong in my disbelief, right after I die.’ he said. I smiled at that, when I watched the feed. He’d often said that when we talked about heaven and hell.
’And is that why you want to die? Is it simply an awfully big adventure for you?’ the host asked.
’No, well, not really,’ Came the emphatic reply. ’I simply think that my time is done.’
’That's a pretty heavy concept; you're willing to accept your own complete annihilation?’
’Yes, yes I do. I feel like my life is complete.’
’There’s no point in continuing?’
’No, what would I do? I’ve already done everything. I suppose I could go into Deep VR, but that would never be real. I’ve read what the re-emerged say, that they are never satisfied with the experience, despite how real the simulation gets, you know that something is wrong. Well, I’m no fool. I’m satisfied with my life. It was authentic. And it’s done.’

He said that last sentence staring straight at the camera. I watched it alone in my room, tears streaming down my face. I still replay it sometimes, bringing him back to life to explain to me once again. There is a serenity on his face that I never saw whilst he lived, not one other time. He always was so restlessly alive.

Father doesn't understand, and I think he never will. Though that brief time he spent raising us should be meaningless now, so many years later, he still has a sense of duty towards us. He was one of the last generation born before rejuvenation technology. He knew something other than this gentle stasis we live in now, and I think his family instinct, and as a result, our family bond, is strong because of these feelings. He likes to talk of himself as the old man, and stays grey-haired and serene despite the opportunities he has to regain his youth. By his own choice, he stays venerable, presiding over his dozens of descendents when we are all together with alternate joviality and ill-temper. He has been our anchor, our touchstone. Because of him, I always feel like my family is something of an anomaly. It is something I have cherished, however, over the years. We are more closely linked, more importantly linked, through his love, than most families I know. For most, parenthood is a fad, something to be tried out for a decade or two, the attendant feelings played with and experienced like a new and interesting game. Not our Father, though. I suspect he is what would have been called a dying breed, but that phrase, like so many that dealt with mortality, has fallen out of fashion somewhat. Father will not die.

He stays as our venerable patriarch, and so our family is bound together as few others are now, which has been both a source of great joy and a burden, at different times in my life. Certainly, more than one partner has felt more than a little intimidated by us, when we are together in our great gang. Whenever someone in the family has someone new, talk is always of when the lucky boy or girl will be invited into the madhouse. By this, we mean a family meal, one of our great sprawling free-for-alls around the dining table with plenty to eat and drink, and a long time to talk and be happy. The only time I can remember being anything less than exultant and delighted around that table is when I brought my first girlfriend, Clarissa, back. I had not long decided that I liked girls, rather than boys, and I was uneasy about it, rather more than everybody else, as I remember. As it was, of course, she was accepted, and got used to the noise, in time.
Michael was always the loudest at mealtimes, revelling being the centre of attention. He would conduct several conversations at once whilst also managing to eat at a voracious pace, sharing his wisdom with everyone who would listen (and sometimes those who didn’t!), laughing louder, listening long, drinking deep of life as he always seemed to do.

The family table seems quieter, now. For outsiders, it is still a wholly remarkable experience, as my latest girlfriend can attest, but I can feel his absence. Now Michael has gone, my family no longer feels permanent. There is no space free at the table, but somehow, there is always someone else where I expect him to be sitting. Father is quieter, too, and less liable to criticise than he once was. I’m not saying I want to hear him make fun of some junior great-grandchild more often, but it is a difference. I wonder if he blames himself. There would be no real reason to, but Michael was his. Father does feel these attachments.

After Michael announced his intentions, Father was angry, for a time. He couldn’t understand why anyone would throw away this life, and the ongoing pleasures it offered. He told Michael to get out of his house, which Michael did. Then he ranted at Mother for the next few weeks, until she became exasperated, and told him he was being a fool. She made him phone Michael, and the two of them were reconciled. They went on holiday for a week, with nobody else, and they were all right after that.

Years later, Father told me that during that trip, he had tried to talk Michael into going into space instead of dying. That is what a lot people do now, when they feel they have experienced all this world has to offer, or are sick of the overcrowding. They put their memories and their bodies into storage, and ship themselves out on the long journeys out to the stars. Maybe at some point we will hear back from the colony fleet, but so far, none have returned. That was not long ago, however; the first ship to leave was only two hundred years ago; we believe that they have not yet arrived. Of course, we have backups of all the people held on secure storage. In the event of any disaster, they would all still be safe.

If Michael had opted for this, we would still have lost him, for centuries at least. I wouldn’t have been happy with this, but it wouldn’t have mattered so much to Father. What he likes is the thought that his offspring will continue. Father is also a keen believer in the exploration of space; he comes from an age when we still held out hope of FTL travel. He tells us that when he was young, tales of different planets and alien races were all the rage, for about a century. When it became apparent that we would never truly leave Earth, however, this fad passed, and Space Fiction, I believe it was called, is now regarded as something of a historical curiosity. Much like death.

Despite the extreme rarity of death, euthanasia laws are still on the statute books. Once, apparently, they were extremely controversial. That seems strange now. I suppose that when medical technology advanced to the point it is at now, it became blatantly obvious that there had to be some way of legislating for death. As a person’s passing is now never natural, fatalities are now officially classified as either accidental or deliberate, and a Certification of Intent To Die is needed to save police time and prevent negligence charges being brought against those closest to the deceased. I’ve never had to sign anything like that before, but I am one of the witnesses on Michael’s CITD. Father refused to sign it, objecting as he did the line about Michael being of sound mind. That was when Father was still angry, but Michael refused to make a scene of it, for once. He simply asked Mother instead. Her reaction was something similar to mine, I think; a sort of numb acceptance.
Another requirement of the legislative process is a cooling-off period of two years, during which time counselling is provided, and indeed mandatory. Much of that counselling, Michael would ruefully report, seemed to consist of a psychologist trying to find some reason to classify him as mad. ’Of course, that would make all the difference!’ he would scornfully add. ’We can’t let the loonies die, after all.’ And I suppose he is right. We do not the mentally ill, the disturbed, or the psychotic, die. They are simply placed into Deep VR programmes, where they are ostensibly given therapy with a view to long-term rehabilitation. This is commonly believed to be a polite lie, meant to comfort us. As a solution, however, it seems remarkably effective; a brutal psychopath can live forever in a world of terrible violence, slaking his bloody desires and revelling in his malice, and have it harm no-one at all. We are also spared the grisly task of judgement and execution, and so our collective hands remain unbloodied. Michael always called that hypocrisy. It is what we do, however, and consequently it is what we will always do. I cannot imagine anything changing.

Michael made great use of the two years he had, and was never seen as mad; he wrote a book, composed three short plays, and scaled Kilimanjiro unaided. He also found the time to have a casual affair with Violet, a strange young Goth girl barely fifty years old, who wrote him badly-spelt poems about oblivion, which he insisted on reading to me with great amusement. Apart from the obvious distress they provoked in me, I couldn’t help but think he was being unfair to her, leading her on and leaving her to deal with the emotional consequences after his death. ’Oh, don’t be silly, she knows what’s happening,’ he told me. ’I’m just a vicarious thrill to her. We’re not in love, she just wants to experience something she can’t get anywhere else. And I’m, well, I’m enjoying myself.’

I told him he was a pig, and didn’t speak to him for a week. How I rue that week now!

I never told him the real reason I wanted him to stop. It wasn’t her I was worried about. It was all of us. It was me, he was leaving behind. I thought he was selfish, that it was all about not receiving enough gratification from everyone around him. For a few days after his announcement, I had thought perhaps it was a bid for more attention, but that is not quite fair. Eventually, though, I had to face the fact that my feelings were somewhat selfish. I didn’t want part of my carefully-cultivated world to be removed.
Permanence is a thing all too commonly taken for granted. I simply couldn’t imagine Michael not being there any more. Consequently, it me took six months to realise just how much it was going to hurt. At that point, I went to see a counsellor of my own, but I stopped after the first few sessions. I just wasn’t ready to deal with it. Perhaps I never will be. Of course, never is an awfully big word, these days.
I am not angry with him now, I think; after careful review, I don’t believe his decision was selfish, or ill-considered, or thoughtless. I certainly wouldn’t have wished an eternity of unfulfilled existence on him, simply for the sake of sparing us. I feel sure that something would have changed in him, that he would have- faded, somehow, as he ran out of new things in life, and slowly turned into something less, maybe something meaner than he was. His mischievous streak would perhaps have taken a nastier turn. I don’t think he would ever have taken kindly to sitting still, and we do a lot of that, these days. It was always onwards and upwards for him.
When the time came, he held a party that lasted the whole preceding month. We took over the village, gave everything over to celebration of Michael’s life. Thousands came, some expected, some not, but there was a place for everyone in the end. There was something for everyone, too; alcohol, DreamStimm, and Shallow VR for those who liked their entertainment a little involved, and music, so much music.
Away from the bustle, there were also shady places under the trees for people who simply preferred to sit and talk. I saw friends that I had not seen for a century or more, and there are many memories, good memories, I will carry with me from that time. Chief amongst them, however, will be the presence of Michael, drifting through the crowds with that animated smile of his, stopping for a while here and there to talk to people, sometimes exchanging brief pleasantries or to share an old joke, sometimes taking someone off to a quiet spot for a long talk. He was everywhere, and wherever he went it was as if a spotlight followed him; as always at such gatherings, he was the star, and for all the right reasons; because of his effervescence, his talk, his way of being fascinated with every person in the room. Furthermore, there was nothing ghoulish, nothing voyeuristic, about the whole thing. Violet had broken off their affair six months prior, when it all got too real for her. All through that party, it was still a little unreal to me. I remember that last month as if it were a dream.

The day the party ended, that was when it finally hit. Michael wasn't scheduled to die that day; no, he was going to stay around and clean up. As we trudged through the garden, surveying the wreckage, someone suggested that if he was going to die, he might as well avoid the dirty work and leave us to get on with it. Michael had countered with a gracious smile, and a long, rambling monologue, replete with examples, about how he always felt guilty leaving others with his mess. Mother smiled at that one, and reminded him pointedly about the time when he was thirty, and had come in blitzed at four AM and ruined her best sofa. "Well, I'll make up for it now," he'd said, and he'd looked suddenly very serious. We were under the cherry tree, and the dappled shadow of its branches fell across him as he stopped, thoughtful.
"Is there anything else I should make up for?" He asked. "I've been trying to make sure everything is done, but, you know, this is your chance."

The family all fell silent. He scanned us for a second, with those intense blue eyes of his. When he looked at me, I couldn't meet his gaze, but he took my chin in his hand, and gently turned my head back to face him.
"Hey big sister, no crying." I nodded, and the moment passed. I had control again.
He clapped his hands together, satisfied, purposeful.
"Right! Clearly I have nothing to answer for! Now, let's get on with this," and we set to work.

It was a long, silent task, one that we decided not to give to the Bots. Apart from anything else, our Bots are always in the habit of finding some piece of furniture that had sat in its perfect place for a century, and deciding it is rubbish. Father swears that it's a simple software problem, and is forever tinkering with them. It never really seems to make a difference, but as mother says, it keeps him busy in the spring. Some things are still the provision of humans, even the surprisingly mundane. That day, we all needed something to do.
Eventually, it was done. The garden was clear once more, apart from the several sacks of bottles and Stimmpacks that the Bots could now be trusted to take away. I found myself struck, once again, by a sense of aimlessness, and stood on the edge of the lawn, staring into the woods, not really thinking anything at all. I just stared into the deep shadows, listening to the idle song of the birds and the rustle of the trees. It seemed a strangely empty sound. It was mine and Michael’s playground, when we were children. As I looked, I could almost see our ghosts running through the trees, hear our laughter on the wind for a second. But then I snapped out of it. My memories have quite a power over me, at times.

The procedure was done the next day. We all drove, solemn and silent, to the hospital, together for the last time in Father’s old car. It is strange, because I always associate Michael with sound, with noise, with music, that my last day with him was so quiet. But that’s the way it was.

It had to be done in the hospital. The regulations are very specific. Though I would like to see them changed, and I have said so in public debates ever since. Hospitals are places we seldom go to; in a world where no-one gets ill, there is little cause. I wasn’t ready for it. Everyone was in uniform, everything was clean and still, and footsteps echoed from far off down the corridors. Each one looked the same, and we got lost, all fifteen of us, family and partners, milling about in anonymous tunnels. Finally, we had to stop and ask a busy-looking woman in a clinical gown. She was very professional; she gave us directions, and we were not late for the appointment.

The procedure was performed by a tall doctor with a grey crop of hair and a calm look on his face. He shook Michael’s hand, and handed him the documents he needed to sign. As Michael was looking over them, the doctor turned to us.
’Thank you for coming,’ he said. ’I understand this event may be difficult for some of you. I want you to have a clear appreciation of the way things will happen.’
We had been told all this six months ago. I knew exactly what would happen. But I had to listen. We all did. We were grasped by an obsessive desire to know the process; the different stages of Michael’s extinction.

First, there is an hour-long counselling session. The potential suicide is reviewed once again, they are asked to consider their decision, and to ensure that this is what they really want, and they have no doubts. If they request it, they can have a friend or family member with them in this session.

Michael didn’t want anyone with him. We cannot request a transcription of his interview, although one must, in law, be logged.
They then have an hour to address any final business they have. Once this is done, they are taken to the machine. It consists of a chair, a humane toxin injector, and a device that monitors the patient’s neural responses. This last device has two functions; first, it can determine when a suicide has died entirely, and secondly, it can assess whether or not they are in any pain. We are told that the poison they administer leads to an entirely comfortable death. That is the intention. After all, we can’t have them suffering.

We can’t have suffering.
We got there before he did. It was a white, featureless room, with nothing in it but exactly the right number of chairs, a water cooler, and a glass wall that bordered onto the treatment room. We shuffled in, and were politely and efficiently greeted by a sharply-dressed woman with a professional smile.

We saw him strapped in. We saw him talking to the doctor. After a brief exchange, the doctor began his business, and Michael lay back. As the doctor strapped the sensors onto his cranium, Michael looked up. He smiled at us through the glass, his gaze flicking over the crowd of people that had come to watch his end. He looked me straight in the eye for a good few seconds, in that moment, I knew that he was truly happy. I also knew that I was losing him, that I would never look into those sparkling, intelligent, mischievous eyes again. I could feel myself starting to tear up. His gaze softened, and I could see concern there. I forced myself to smile, put on the best face I could. He had said this wanted to be a happy day. He saw my effort, and looked away. Like a laser, his gaze scoured the room, trapping us one after the other with that final, vital stare. It was like a wave of tragedy, crashing over us.

Eventually, the doctor’s preparations were done. The drip was attached, the system in place. There was then a few moments’ exchange between him and Michael. In our room, everyone was silent, and the air of the room was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, either before or since. Intuitively, I could feel that we were all on the verge of breaking down, but were holding on for him, holding on so Michael’s last moments would be of us smiling down at him, looking on in mute approval, saying goodbye with love.

Well, that wasn’t the way I felt about it. I wasn’t happy, I didn’t want to support him in his last seconds. I felt betrayed. I felt angry, on that day and no other, but God, what a fury there was in me! I was angry that he was going away, leaving us in this world without him. He was a part of us, and we would be diminished without him. I found myself reliving our life together, so many moments which I had shared with him. And now that communion, that sacred space between us, was about to become a secret. I was alone with my memories of him, and they would soon be dead. It was too much. I couldn’t bear it. I looked wildly round at the door, and thought of flight, out of here, this dreadful hygienic building which stole people from us, and of running to my room, hiding in the safest place of all, the place that never changed, that never would.

But that would have been a betrayal. Michael would have seen, and would have died thinking that his death had caused me pain. I would not have that. So I bit my lip, gripped the arms of my seat, and I tried my very hardest not to get up and walk out of the room.

I was still sitting there, in my chair, my hands twisting the chair’s leather coverings, when the doctor switched on a microphone, and spoke into it, sombre and slow. His voice boomed through the room, projected by unseen speakers.
’To those witnessed here, I give notice that the final termination of Michael David Hughes’ life is about to be carried out, in accordance with his request. This transcript is being recorded, in order to comply with EU law. Is there anyone who wishes to voice an objection to this process?’
I bit my lip harder than before, and looked around wildly, wondering if anyone would be braver than me. Everyone else seemed to be staring ahead. I felt eyes upon me, and turned to see Mother sat by my side. Her eyes, so large, seemed like deep pools I could just have drowned in. Mother was old, and wise, and sad, and she loved me. In that second, she held me again as she had when I was a child. In that second, I regained control. She smiled a little, bravely, encouraged, perhaps, by what she saw. So I took a deep breath, and looked back.

The doctor was continuing his speech.
’I will now pass this to Michael, that he can give a prepared final statement of consent to this process.’

Michael had a throat-mike, and a speech written down. I knew he had been working on it for several months. I heard his voice for the last time.

’I, Michael David Hughes, being of sound mind, do hereby consent to this procedure, which will be carried out upon me with the express intention to end my life. I do this without any coercion, hesitation, or uncertainty in this decision, and I call upon these witnesses here present to certify that this is an act of euthanasia, and that no criminal charges may be brought hereafter against doctor Simmonds, who has full authorisation to carry out this act in accordance with law.

Now, we have that out of the way, I can say what I need to you all.’

He was silent for a moment.

’I’ve called you here because I love you all, and because I want these last moments to be important. My life has been a glorious journey, and has been better with each of you in it. I have enjoyed each step on the road, but I feel that the road has finally come to an end. I’ve lived seven hundred years. Seven hundred. I’ve experienced so much more in my life than someone born even a hundred years before me could have dreamed to. And I’m grateful, profoundly so. But I have to leave you.

This world has stretched me thin. I noticed it a decade ago. Somehow, things were starting to lose their appeal. Everything was familiar, old.
When I was young, every time I met someone new, or opened another book, heard a song for the first time, I felt my heart sing. My mind would catch on fire with the excitement of what I was discovering. I had to learn all I could about this new, fascinating facet of the world. And then, of course, when this process had run its course, I would find myself losing interest, and moving on. There are many women who know this, to their cost. Julia is here today, and you have my apologies, dear, along with all the others. You didn’t lose your charms; I don’t think you ever could. It’s the oldest thing in the world, isn’t it; it’s not you, it’s me. And that’s the honest truth.’

I looked across at Julia, and saw she was smiling at that. He’d been a beast to her, as I remembered it. Instead of being honest, he’d avoided her for months, and started something new with someone else. I had been almost as angry with him as she was, when I found out, and she and I had remained friends even for that century she wouldn’t speak to him.

’And now it has happened to me again. But I have lost interest in life. You must understand, there simply isn’t anything for me any more. Yes, you are all here with me, familiar and loved, but I know everything anyone will say before they say it. Nothing is new, and I cannot live with memories.

Sister Lucy, now she is my opposite. She lives in a great construction of her memories, and she treasures them. Lucy, you should have been a curator.’

I felt all eyes on me, and felt my cheeks flush.

’And of course, I’ve probably just made you blush. I’m sorry, sister. Remember me in the woods.’

There was more, a lot more, to his speech. It had little messages for each of us, fond moments of love. I didn’t hear much of the rest. All through it, I thought about myself and Michael, running through the woods as children once again. Those games of Hide-and-seek, Run-from-the-Beast, and the endless dream-sequences where I and he were other people, elsewhere, games with no rules, games of being someone else.

And then the speech was done.

The doctor, who had been hovering discretely, pressed a few switches on his terminal. A few lights began to flicker. He then handed a switch to Michael. This was the last switch, the button that controlled it all. Michael’s death was entirely in his own hands.
Michael stared at it for a second, musing, turning it over in his hands as the machine it controlled whirred quietly, its lethal power ticking over, latent, ready to spring. As he did this, his face was almost disinterested. He smiled, briefly, and nodded. He looked across us all, raised a hand, and then sat back in the chair, eyes closed, his arms folded over his chest, the switch clutched tight. The chair tilted back, until it was almost a bed.
I didn’t see him press the switch. I just heard the whirring noise of the machine change its pitch, and saw the tube that led into his arm twitch slightly, as it began pour its gentle poison into his blood. His eyelids started to flicker, and his breathing slowed. I watched his chest as it rose and fell, feeling like the whole of the universe was contained within his slowly dying frame. I felt a hand grasp for mine at my left, and I clutched it tightly. It was mother, I think. I don’t remember. All I remember was the strange sight of my brother, ceasing to be. His calm, peaceful form, and the smile upon his face. So still, I hadn’t expected him to be so still.

After about ten minutes, the doctor punctured the silence.

’Ladies and gentleman, I call upon you to witness in law, that Michael David Hughes is dead.’

I am writing this in my room, at my old desk that faces the window. It has been two hundred years since my brother died. Not much has changed. I think of him every day, and yet I am not sad. This house is a little emptier, but only on the surface. Listen now, listen with me. Hidden underneath the rustling of the wind in the trees outside, and the low hum of the house machinery, there is another sound. Can you not hear it? It is the sound of Michael, his laughter, and his fiery lust for life. He is here, in every brick of the walls, every corner of the room. He is here in the dust that lies untended in the corners of his room, and in the deepest places of my heart.

Out of the window, I can see two small children running through the trees, a boy and a girl. They are running wild, laughing at the sheer joy of life. In the darkest depths of the wood is where they run, venturing out only rarely into the light. I have been watching them for some time now. When they step out from the shadows, they seem ephemeral, translucent, and some times it seems like they are not really there at all. But I know they are real, and I know their games. They will play them for me, as long as I sit here, until the long days of this earth are over and the world begins again.