"Have you looked at the news?"
"Not this morning, what's up?"
"Here, take a look," my colleague hands the data sheet to me, CNN's site is displayed on the glossy plastic.
Immortal commits suicide!
I sit down quickly as I let the article feed into my mind.
"What?!" my mind shouted at me, at the sheet, at the knowledge that I was feeding it, "WHAT?!" The shock of it was horrible.
Breaking news from Lake Charles, Kentucky, where high profile 17 year old teenager Gordon Fidelius Robertson has shot himself. The teenager, reportedly clinically depressed, was found by his parents after they heard a gun shot. Paramedics rushed to the scene but pronounced him dead on the spot. This is tragic but what is truly frightening about this case is the fact that Gordon was an immortal, one of the first group of children given the now common gene/nano-robotic treatment that makes them effectively immune to the affects of aging and disease. Doctors had hoped that Gordon, and all these children, would live far beyond the limit that aging puts on us. His reasons for this remain unclear; a note left to the parents has been found but not released to the news media. According to the report, Gordon's parents are devastated.
The newsfeed ends and the next story begins feeding through; I put the sheet down, the image of the anchorAI flashes from my optic. I look over at my colleague and he looks back at me, wondering what to say.
I break the silence, "He's dead."
"That's insane! WHAT THE HELL?!" my composure breaks on my confusion and anger and sadness. "He just SHOT himself? WHY!"
Nonplussed, Jayne replies, "I have no idea. Maybe you should call your patient's mother." It's amazing sometimes how easily a friend's words can cut through you as if made of chilled steel. He's right, of course, but that doesn't make what I have to do easier; his calm demeanor is almost as cutting.
I freeze and slowly calm myself; the floor reflects the glare of LEDs and old fluorescents. As I rise from the chair, I look back down at the sheet; its shining streams of stories from across the planet harden my resolve. Jayne levels a cool eye at me as I stride out of the office. As I approach the door I finally utter a reply.
"I'm going on a house call."
The August morning is starting to heat up and the traffic on the way out of the city is bad. It takes me four hours to get to the Robertsons's ranch, a sprawling yet modest estate produced in the last big housing boom. The Robertson family is part of that last little bit of upper crust who fled suburbia for smaller and smaller communities, hiding their identity and living fairly middle class lives. Their removal from conspicuous luxury made them less targetable by burglary and their lower profile made them worse candidates for identity theft, but their money and power still bought them perks. One of those perks was the ability to get their names on the list of families 'randomly' chosen from the list of volunteers. Bribery is bad, but funding is hard to come by, and twenty years ago it was controversial enough that only the rich and eccentric would give us any money at all. We were desperate, but so were they; they had two children when they came to us and both had died from leukemia. They wanted a child, but another tragedy would not be survivable. Jayne knew that, he knew what I had to do just as much as I did.
I stop outside the driveway, blocked by a police cruiser. I step out of my car, and walk through the afternoon Kentucky humidity. You'd need a well made katana to cut through that stuff; I remembered a few anime from my youth and imagine a Samurai leaping out of the sun and slicing the cruiser in half. I stride up to the car carefully while the deputy gets out of his air conditioned vehicle with some reluctance.
"Excuse me, sir, but I'm afraid I can't let you through here," he stated, for the record as it were, staring at me through large sunglasses which hid cheaply made ocular implants.
"I know what you've been ordered," I said, gathering what command I could muster, "but I must be allowed to see the Robertsons. My name is Peter Williams, I'm personally acquainted with them and was Gordon's doctor, many years ago." The heavy fact drops on him and he struggles to keep himself from showing any emotion. I won’t stop for him to regain balance. "Is there any way I could get in contact with them or your superiors?"
"I...hold on." He got back into his car and started fiddling with his radio; these days they mostly do it for show and to avoid being heard. After a few minutes of letting me stand in the heat, he let me through the gates.
The ranch hadn't changed much, a new set of landscaping, some new trim and paint, but it hadn't been torn down and replaced with an entirely new ranch, so the outside isn't very different. The entire sheriff’s office hadn't been there when I last was and that was the starkest change. I knock on the door and another officer answers it; she looks me up and down before asking me my name, as if she hadn't been told to expect me. Once admitted I found the Robertsons, sitting in a modest living room, datascreen quietly feeding the news to whoever took the time to interface with it; the warm glow of its shifting, near hypnotic colors bathe one side of the dark room, the curtains are drawn to help the couple pretend that they were only visited by a few police for a polite visit and not a full crime scene investigation. The feds will be here too, soon enough, the FDA will be very interested in this case.
"Doctor Williams?" says Tina, surprised more at my arrival than anything else.
Her husband Brian shoots off the couch like a rocket about to explode. "YOU! It was you! It was what you did! WHY?! WHY DID YOU DO IT?"
It’s my turn to be calm. I wait for him to be as well. The man is nearly my age but years of privilege had taken their toll on his rationality. If too many people take the blame for your mistakes you stop believing you can make them. I'd seen that happen and I wasn't going to fall victim to it, but I wasn't about to take the blame for Gordon's suicide. At least not before I knew what had happened. The outburst is short; Brian's anger lapsed into sobs, the sobs of a man who has lost his last child. Tina looked close to falling back into her own world of maddening tragedy.
"What happened?" I engage her, sitting down next to them at a respectful distance. The sheriff hovers nearby looking like a bouncer ready to kick me out on my ass.
"He'd been going through a lot lately. He started dating someone, a nice girl it seemed at first but they fell apart a few weeks ago. And a few months ago he read about Frederick Merkle." That was a name I'd not heard in a while. Frederick Mercutio Merkle was barely ten when his mother got in a car accident. Freddy had been an immortal too, his parents hadn't been rich, but they still made the list. What was noteworthy was that Freddy was the first immortal to die in an accident. We knew it would have to happen eventually, we had hoped for the parents to take more care with the responsibility of raising someone who could effectively live forever. Each of those children grew up with counseling, to monitor them and make sure they didn't grow megalomaniacal, or too bratty. But Freddy's mother didn't take enough care to watch the road and so her son became the first immortal to die.
Tina stops, long enough for me to take this in and for her to recover some of her composure. She continues, "When Gordon and Aeris broke up he fell into the worst funk I'd ever seen him in. He barely left the house, he obsessed over little things. He started reading philosophy and that's when I knew something was seriously wrong. He was reading that one guy, um, Valletti or something." Another red flag.
"Valeretto?" I asked.
"Yeah, him," she states bluntly, aware of who he was but seemingly unaware of his writings. Valeretto was one of the central figures of the controversy surrounding the immortalization program. He was firmly against the concept of immortality on philosophical grounds and rallied a good deal of support around himself. His followers were often among the more conservative and sometimes violent groups and the few times I've had my life threatened were when they held protests against my research hospital.
"We brought in the counselor and Gordon was diagnosed with depression, we had him on some meds but we could tell he didn't like taking them. He seemed to be getting better, but then he became worse, he was almost violent. He went missing for a night and we...we were afraid he was dead in a ditch somewhere." Brian held Tina in his arms, now she began sobbing uncontrollably.
“I need to know, what was in that note?” I strike at the heart of the matter.
“I don’t want this to happen to other children; I want to stop this here and now if it is a problem that can be stopped and I will take responsibility for it if it is mine to take but I must have that note,” , I know I’d heard the news say that there was a note.
“I think you’ve gotten all the time and grief these people are willing to give,” says the Sheriff, now looming, closer than I thought. I try glaring at him but his manner, like anyone 30 years younger than me is arrogantly sure of themselves when it came to matters
I ignore him, turning to Tina to ask her once more before I’m turned out, “Please Tina, if you don’t want this to continue I must know what was in the note.”
And with that I am expelled. The drive back seems longer.
A week goes by; I am questioned by the police and FDA. Valeretto writes editorials from his prison cell. A number of Senators try to see about stopping the immortality program entirely. But the supporters and the families of the children quietly block this. The news frenzy catches up with me but I leave few comments and what little I do leave try to dissuade people from the idea that this is a medical problem. And then at the height of the frenzy I receive a letter from the Robertsons, and included with it is a copy of a handwritten letter of a troubled boy to his parents. It reads:
They don’t hear us. They don’t think about us. All of their growing horror is hidden behind the shabby walls of their chameleon homes. My parents won’t understand they know how it will end, in quiet peace as I watch on, as my life march on. They want to know I’ll be safe forever, but they don’t know what forever means. Am I supposed to just sit by their tomb for eternity, just watch as they rot away except in my memory. I hate them. I hate that they would consine me to a life like this, trap me in immortality. I can’t go quietly, I want to. I want to get cancer or something when I’m 70 and go in my sleep but I don’t want them to think that I’ll go on forever. I was hoping they’d understand, I tried to explain. But now I’m done talking, I’m done with life, I’m done writing.
It hits me like a train falling off a bridge. They want to die. What do you do when the immortals want to die?
I have no answer.