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1  Sonora VR ICU

"Therefore, something is shaped into what is; but its usefulness comes from what is not.” Lǎozǐ, the Tao Te Ching.

  In the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, named after a MAC operating system, in the heart of California's Gold Country lies Sonora, known as "Queen of the Southern Mines". There was established the first Intensive Care Unit which was entirely virtual. As the corona virus spread in America, with swathes of deaths amongst his electoral base, Leader Färt decreed that hundreds of these facilities be set up. The cost would be minimal, the effects beautiful, the most beautiful tripling of health care provision the world had ever seen. Certainly the cheapest. Sonora was the first, the prototype facility.

  The word 'facility' here simply meant 'facile', or 'easy'. Subversive elements in the now largely discredited liberal press named them Potemkin Hospitals, but the Leader for the Perpetual Interim had taken this, for once, as a compliment. The ICUs didn't even need to be located in the areas they served and were based on a single, moderately powerful computer in Washington. Sonora was just a partition on a disk. However a disused aircraft hangar near Sonora was repainted, designated a secure health area and, though empty, protected day and night by heavily armed guards, the absence of things, as Lǎozǐ said, being even more important than their presence. Like (it was explained to Färt) a hole in a golf course, or the space in a safe, where the money goes. "And documents," said Färt. "Er... yes Sir. Those... those too."

  Forget images of sick people lying in their beds at home wearing 3-D goggles as virtual nurses cared for them while their oxygen sats were monitored remotely from a USB pulse oximeter - the system was far more virtual than that. You logged in, and after a brief message of welcome from the late Leader in which he sang the system's praises, you entered (each time) your social security number, your credit card, held your driving licence up to the camera, gave the usual global permissions, and joined a queue of very sick people. But virtually. No risk of contagion. The safe distance of infinity was adhered to. To those who asked why they never actually talked to a doctor, a nurse or even an artificial intelligence it was pointed out in daily briefings by nameless officials standing underneath a large portrait of the Leader that just because they had a computer and were tech savvy enough to use the VR ICU, that didn't mean they could jump the queue. Who, it was asked by implication, did they think they were? And surely this was better than being in an endless stream on the phone. Also, had they not heard that quietly waiting in a queue, mindfully of course, often elicited the strangely pleasurable autonomous sensory meridian response? In case not, Färt's address was repeated every two minutes and a small cartoon raccoon gave out heartening hints, such as "You might be next!"

  As word grew that waiting times were extremely long - no one knew how long because ill people had to rest, and tended to log out after a few hours - more and more people joined the waiting queue. 'Fights' broke out over computers in hotel lobbies and other public places, people gesticulating at one another from the six foot real-life safe distance, and sometimes throwing tinned goods or pieces of wood. It was thus decreed that one could only log on from home. Since no one could meet a real doctor for less than several thousand dollars, the free market having been applied to all health related matters, the huge numbers of people trying to use the free VR system obviously meant that that was the smart way to go, so more and more joined. Until one day, statistics showed that although 100% overlap between the two groups could not be totally guaranteed, the number of people infected by the virus exactly equalled the number of people in the VR ICU queue.

  Every sick person was sitting in front of a screen somewhere. The app was deliberately unavailable for phones and tablets, you had to use a computer, Mac or PC (though it was generally agreed that on the former the raccoon sprite moved more smoothly) and so automatically self-isolating. Infection rates tumbled. People were either virus-free, and stayed so; or waited in the queue; or died at home, waiting. Those who died, WHDA: 'would have died anyway'. Their sacrifice shortened, in theory, the queue. Those who waited, waited. Some, not many, got better and rejoined normal life. Gradually, 'waiting' came to mean, for the majority, 'waiting to die'. Newly introduced brief interludes showed the weather, the night time sky or pastoral scenes from the variously located VR ICUs. You could log into any one of them, no matter where you lived. And of course they were all in Washington anyway: the only physical nodes were the irreal, guarded, empty buildings.

  This word, 'irreal' was quite current in government circles. Gradually, VI, Virtual Irreality replaced the former VR in most areas, though not the VR ICUs. Had not the eminent French philosopher Jean Baudrillard written that 'the Gulf War did not take place'? Was the absence of things not just as important as their presence? What, indeed, was it like to be a thing? What was reality? It existed, no doubt, but whilst waiting to find it, in the perpetual interim, surely it was best to remember that for the moment, everything was irreal? Some of the best minds at MIT's Virtual Irreality Lab worked on projects linking irreal genetics, conceptual art, quantum computing and OOOO, Ostensible Object Oriented Ontology, sponsored by the US Naval Ordnance Laboratory. Crime novels adopted the 'uncollapsed waveform' model, 'who might have dunnit'. You could join virtual courses in such subjects, though you might have to join a queue.

  Sonora, being the first VR ICU, was also the last. The other Potemkin hospitals were physically demolished, though they still 'existed' in the sense that you could log into the queue for one of them, even if their use was rapidly declining. Locally, people were told simply that the system was being improved. They were kept far away as the buildings came down, so they would not see that they were, and always had been, voids. Sonora alone remained standing, like a reverse Tardis, tiny and empty on the inside. Guards were doubled.

  Words beginning with 'irr...' became fashionable. People were irrelectant to accept Leader for the Perpetual Interim Färt (deceased) as their big brother. Had he not done what he had vowed to do, drive the virus from the streets of America? That money from before was now irredeemable was hardly a problem. The BS, Färts 'Beautiful System', provided everyone with enough, each according to what the system judged to be their needs.

  There were minor complaints, even occasional terrorist-protesters seen fleetingly, before the vans arrived. After all, if anyone had a complaint - the slightest criticism or gripe was welcomed! - they could always log on to the Sonora VR ICU, now rechristened the Interim Complaints Unit. Though there might be a short queue.

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