To call this déjà vu would be an understatement. It was only a few days ago that I was released from this place — a hospital like none I'd ever seen before. But then again, what do I know about hospitals? The last time I even read about one was at least 40 years ago — before the accident in 2020; before the driverless truck that had spun out of control on an icy curve, slamming into my self-driving car; before the dashboard had exploded my vehicle's airbags and crushed my chest; before the lights had gone out. For 40 years I had clung to life by a thread. Then, after treatments that would never have been possible in 2020, after rehabilitation and re-socialization and re-everything else, I was released. I was gliding along the empty roads of Scotland with my old office pal Zeppy, walking across the rolling meadows under which our plant was humming, until, noticing a movement from the corner of an eye, I had looked up and seen a large gray wolf not ten feet from us, its alien intelligence focused on my face. “Only a bionic security system…” Zeppy had cautioned. But the shock had been too much for me...
Scenario 2060: Second Life
2060. Former patient Ambrose Turner begins to understand how he has been given a second chance at life as cardiologist Sheila Shelby downloads his “file” and explains the chain of events that allowed him to survive 40 years in an induced coma while the world’s population was decimated.
When I opened my eyes the light was low. A hospital, I thought. Hadn't I been here just a few days ago? Or had another 40 years somehow skipped by? Had I been seriously injured? But I noticed that this time there were no tubes, just a diagnostic sensor bracelet blinking in the soothing light.
“Mr. Turner,” a velvet voice spoke into my ear. I rolled over. “Good afternoon,” she said. “We were rather worried about you. You were rushed here by ambulance after a bad fall. You had lost consciousness. Those dreadful bionic security creatures! We should have warned you. Fortunately, this one recognized you at the last instant thanks to a biometric cross-check with our release files. But if it hadn't — I don't want to even think…After it realized who you were, it sent us a message expressing its regret. Can you imagine! Well, anyway, I see you've weathered your first shock to our brave new world rather well. Oh sorry, I'm Dr. Sheila Shelby,” she said, offering me her hand. “I was your cardiologist during key parts of your regeneration phase. But unfortunately I was called away to another center just before you were reanimated.”
Regenerated. Reanimated. Until that moment, I hadn't given my therapy much thought. In fact, to be honest, I hadn't really wanted to know. But this Dr. Shelby…my goodness, I thought as I gave her a long look, she could get me interested in anything! “Would you care to learn about your treatment?” She asked, as if reading my mind. “Oh, by all means!” I responded, realizing that I was feeling better already.
Body in a File
Moments later we were standing at a treatment table that, with its arachnid robotic arms, looked like a huge dormant insect. Each extremity was outfitted with needle-like attachments. “I'll have your file downloaded in an instant,” said Dr. Shelby as she touched a screen that had materialized in mid air. And indeed, less than a second later I was looking down at a body that appeared in every way to be mine. “Are you sure you'll be O.K., Ambrose?” she asked, her velvet voice resonating with genuine empathy. “Oh, fine,” I lied. “So this is what you call my file, is it?”
“It is indeed. If need be, we could reconstruct any moment along your last 40 years in its entirety. It is a comprehensive, totally integrated record — a learning record, complete with condition and maintenance data on all the systems involved. It is constantly being compared with other files around the world. Such files are of great value to pharmaceutical and robotic systems suppliers, insurance companies, and the worldwide optimization network — the quantum heir, several generations on, of what they used to call the Internet.”
“You didn't mention universities or doctors,” I said. “Aren't they benefitting from all this?” “It's a long story,” she said. “I'll try to explain. You've probably wondered why you were held in an induced coma for such a long time,” she went on. “It was not just that your heart and several other organs had sustained a major trauma, but that when emergency personnel arrived at the scene of the accident — given the fact that one of the doors had been blown off your vehicle — they performed a recently-mandated multispectral test to ensure that pathogenic organisms hadn't invaded your wounds. But what the medics found — and it must have been a bone-chilling discovery considering that one of them died only a week later of untreatable lung clots — were traces of a new hypervirulent fungus known as C. gattii, a member of the Cryptococcus family that actually thrives on humans' high body temperature. Nothing of the kind had been identified before. The fungus may have been deposited by a rodent. At any rate, it represented a potential health care emergency. You were taken to a biosafety level 4 facility. A team of specialists managed to stabilize your condition. But the authorities ordered the facility to put you into an induced coma pending discovery of a treatment for the fungus.”
Where the People Went
“And if took 40 years to find an answer?” I asked. “At the time, the World Health Organization had no fungal infection program and the drugs that were available produced such toxic side effects that no one in your condition could have survived them,” she said. “Besides, very few other people were affected by the condition for a long time. But then, about ten years ago, cases similar to yours started popping up all over. The fungus spread like an aerosol. Warmer temperatures, dry conditions and high winds carried it nearly everywhere. Now you have some idea why the roads are so empty. Our cities, universities and hospitals are no different.”
“Why didn't I die of the fungus?” I asked. “The key to overcoming the fungus turned out to be inside your body and those of a few other lucky survivors, myself included. It's a minor genetic anomaly that produces an enzyme that interferes with the fungus's ability to reproduce. Eventually, someone came up with a vaccine and the epidemic was brought to an end. But as you can see, there aren't many of us left.”
“Might I have been reanimated long before?” I asked. “No, Ambrose,” she said, shaking her head and reaching out to put her hand reassuringly on my shoulder. “No team of doctors could have saved you until fairly recently,” she answered. “What you needed were new organs, particularly a new heart. But no one was going to operate on you as long as there was a risk that they might be exposed to your latent fungal infection. And when they finally recognized your genetic anomaly, it became clear that almost any donated organ might have been lethal for you. What you needed were regenerated organs based on your own DNA. And that's what you have now. But there was no technology for creating such organs until recently. Here, let me show you how it worked.”
Dr. Shelby reached for the control panel and moved an icon along a line that appeared to fast-forward my “case” through many years. As she did so, the lines on the face of the man on the treatment table grew deeper and the skin softer. Within seconds, the young man had turned into an old one.
“Our robotic systems downloaded cellular-level, multi-modality scans of your damaged organs” said Dr. Shelby. “The scans were integrated, creating what is — for the robots — a transparent patient. Using multi-jointed needles, they aspirated the damaged parts of several of your organs, produced in vivo scaffolding for the replacement structures within your body, and then colonized the scaffoldings with your own stem cells. Decades ago I believe they called this 3-D printing. As you can see, it has come a long way since then. The process is remarkably quick and of course absolutely antiseptic. In the course of the procedure, the robots perform simulations of hemodynamics, pressure gradients, and electrical signaling to optimize the structures and functions they are in the process of rebuilding. Immediately after the procedure is completed, reanimation begins. I guess you know the rest.”
It was almost too much for me to take in. I felt as though I had somehow re-lived the last four decades in only a few minutes, and was now utterly exhausted. “Can you see me back to my room?” I asked. “Of course,” said Dr. Shelby. But not much later, as I lay in bed thinking about what I had seen, I heard the blood-curdling howl of a wolf from the half-open window and wondered what the morning would bring.