In which we step behind the doors

Photo of a modelling clay animal sleeping by Isla Kennedy - Medically Unexplained

*Just in case this comes across as a bit concerning, I’m okay! I wanted to explore the concepts below as speculative fiction, please note that there are potential triggers around suicide.

People come here to die. 

When you’re unwanted, or too old, too helpless, too ill. When you feel like you’re a millstone around your family’s neck, when your mind begins to go and you don’t want your children to see your emptying shell, when you can’t bear to watch your parents try to smile as your body wastes, when you’ve bankrupted your family and can’t look in your wife’s eyes, when you’re too lonely and can’t stand the quiet for one more day. When you cannot try any longer.

This is where you come. 

You press your hand to a digitised waiver. You walk down row upon row of brightly painted doors until you come to your assigned number.

The door opens at the touch of your palm to the plate, the lights flick on automatically. There’s a long chair in the middle, one that reclines all the way back with adjustable everything. There are monitor patches to stick on all over, so you have to strip off and slip one of their gowns over your head. There’s a box for your clothing and anything else you brought with you. 

Most people have nothing else to put in it.

Next to the chair is a dark grey VR helmet, padded and ventilated through gills at the side. Cords run from the helmet to the wall, snaking away into the unknown. You sit and lean backward until you’re nearly horizontal. The helmet slips over your face and –

There are hundreds of these places all over the country. Whoever designs them always seems to choose primary colours for the doors. Maybe they think that’s more cheerful than beige.

Once a client has settled into their room and become fully immersed in their chosen virtual reality simulation, a team of begloved carers inserts catheters and feeding tubes and hooks up the monitors. That’s the way things stay until the client checks out. Terminally. 

It’s meant to be a good way to go. You get to live in a virtual world that’s designed to avoid stressors and sources of misery, and they make it as gentle and pain-free as possible. 

There have always been stories, of course. The one about the self-storage unit that got raided and they found nothing but empty beds and a whole lot of organ transport boxes.

Or the one where they didn’t bother with any of the body maintenance so emaciated people were dying in a lake of their own piss and faeces.

Or the one where they set up a side business and let people in to do whatever they wanted with the bodies while the minds were hooked up to the VR. 

I guess there’s always some sicko looking to make an extra buck. 

The thing is, even the units that operate under the law have a major snag. That waiver you sign says you’re not allowed to change your mind: you’re never allowed to check out or be checked out.

I wonder how many people this no takesie-backsies rule has left trapped inside.

The state likes self-storage though. Way cheaper to run than care homes or state facilities, easier to deliver medical assistance, and the state gets to claim any assets to pay for care. They’re trialling it ‘voluntarily’ in prisons, so offenders get to feel like they’re free, and prison staff no longer have to deal with violence or drug abuse. 

There are more and more self-storage facilities springing up. Squat towers with corridors that wind around and around, each lined with an orderly array of doors.

Behind those primary coloured doors, a hundred minds spin away.


In which we journey to a future far, far (and hopefully further) away

Pencil sketch of a cat by Isla Kennedy, Medically Unexplained

They brought in S.H.A.M.E four years ago.

It stands for System for Health and Monitoring Efficiency, and it took the government years of bullying, bribes and blackmail to force companies into implementation. It was going to ‘transform productivity’, ‘improve stakeholder engagement’, and had to be ‘actioned immediately’.

Workers are pretty damn engaged. But mostly because they’re scared shitless.

It works like this: sickness and absence stats, start and finish times, and hours spent on productive tasks are all monitored by a national system that ties data to your National Insurance number and Health Service number. Everyone – from the CEO to the handyman – has to wear a digitised display badge with stats and rankings, and it emits an ear-piercing bleep every time your numbers slip. Teams get rewarded or punished based on collective performances. Productivity is the only thing that matters.

Once your stats drop too low, you can’t work for a company in the same tier any more – you have to move down to a lower tier company. Less pay, same badges. The sleep at the factory kind of deal with no-break shifts, no daylight, and no real money.

If your stats slip too far, there are no jobs. No one can take on a dud in case they have to fork out for rehabilitation training. S.H.A.M.E Central Services take the offender somewhere for a few weeks and drill into them that they need to be less shit. Then they get their badge numbers bumped up just enough so they can work in the lowest tier. “Rehabilitation” costs way more than most people can afford, and more than most companies want to pay.

No badge means no money and no health services.

The government says that measures are in place for S.H.A.M.E to work for everyone. It says that those with a confirmed diagnosis receive an allotment of extra points on their badge. It says that you can get a badge with larger font displays. Or with digi-braille. It says that anyone who’s fallen out the bottom has chosen to ‘not be part of a successful system’.

The government says a lot of things.

They’re launching S.H.A.M.E in America now, and half of Europe is a S.H.A.M.E zone. Apparently the UK’s been an astounding success case.

It’s like they can’t even see all those people sleeping on the streets.