A century into the future society has changed in the slow, dull, and meandering ways that are completely baffling to those who would prognosticate by mere extrapolation from current trends. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the medical industry has radically transformed from a focus on procedure and medication to a greater emphasis on the psychological aspect of health. Not least of all in bringing about this change has been a pandemic that swept across the globe some years earlier. A vaccine was eventually developed, but many remain afflicted with the chronic, degenerative disease which eventually leaves the sufferer in intense pain and anguish, and which inevitably results in death.
The Verity Clinic is a provider of humane care and compassionate assistance for patients who make the decision to die before the disease leaves them in unbearable agony. Ultimate relief is administered in the form of a drug called La Verdad, which through much research has been shown to provoke in the patient a brief but real attainment of oneness with the universe, bringing a sense of true fulfillment and contentment which enables and elicits a joyful and sincere choice to leave the current world in order to rejoin the eternal. Society has in general come to see this as the most ethical and caring way of dealing with the terrible disease, for those who choose it.
Mildred Sheffield is a Nurse/Counselor at the clinic. Her role is to provide individualized and near constant attention to the patient assigned to her, anticipating and responding to each want and need and moment of pain, while simultaneously assessing the patient’s true desire and will to die before being naturally taken by the disease.
Nurse/Counselors at the clinic are chosen because of their greater than usual capacity for compassion and empathy, a trait which is reinforced and molded as its bearer is trained to recognize, direct, and control each emotion, no matter how small, in herself and in her patient. She is provided any psychological support necessary to fulfill the expectation that she give of herself all that she has, in order that she might ease the slightest suffering or discomfort of her patient, all the while making sure never to allow her own needs or wants to interfere. Emotional attachment to a patient is the clinic’s sole interdiction.
Mildred’s most recent patient is named Ada Noble, a woman of surprising calmness and perhaps wisdom. She is clearly suffering from the disease, resembling in most ways all the others who seek a graceful death, and yet she seems unusually capable of handling its ravages, less needful of relief. In their time together, the two women develop an easy camaraderie and then friendship. Ultimately, against all training and all rules, a profound and generous but not romantic love develops between them. Ada insists on calling her Millie, and Mildred for her part comes to see Ada as a sister, daughter, and mother all at once. Expected and inevitable as it is, Ada’s death tears Mildred’s life apart.
Certain that her reaction to Ada’s death has made it very clear that she has broken the clinic’s rule against attachment to a patient, Mildred simply walks out the front door without giving notice. She knows she cannot continue living the life she has thus far led. On her way home she calculates that she can sell her condo and live for some time off its proceeds along with her savings, renting a cheap apartment while still being able to afford to drink herself into oblivion, staying afloat long enough that she won’t even care what comes next.
That night she has a dream in which Ada tells her, “You can’t save me,” but in such a way that suggests that she did not believe she needed to be saved, that she did not choose to die in order to be spared the pain of the disease. Mildred awakens filled with the belief that her dream revealed a profound if cryptic truth to her: that Ada didn’t need to be at the clinic, that she hadn’t needed Mildred’s help, that she hadn’t really needed Mildred. Unable to make sense of what the revelation could mean, she abandons the previous night’s plan of throwing away her life, as she is now filled with both wonder and a driving need to understand what Ada was actually doing, certain that it was important. She calls her former coworker Kimball Brown to tell him about her relationship with Ada and about her new suspicions that there was something very different about her. She insists that he call her Millie now, like Ada had. Though bewildered by Millie’s transgression, Kimball offers to help with the mystery, even if neither of them has any idea where to begin.
Some time later while the two of them are in deep conversation over drinks at a night club, Millie’s attention is drawn to the powerful sadness and self recrimination in the voice of the singer of the live band that is playing, which she had previously been ignoring. The singer is Ada. Millie is stunned, but quickly concludes that the woman on stage, like Kim Novak’s dual role in Vertigo, must also be an actress whom the Verity Clinic had hired as some sort of test, a test which she obviously failed. Although she feels betrayed, seeing the Ada-woman again is the first clue about her mystery that Millie has been able to find, and she is deeply intrigued.
Millie and Kimball are unable to find out much about the singer, complete amateur sleuths that they are, but they do manage to discover some of the patterns of her comings and goings about town. For some time they surveil her from a distance, uncertain how to proceed. Meanwhile the time they spend together begins to be not only about solving the mystery of Ada Noble, but about spending time together because they enjoy each other’s company. A physical relationship develops, but Millie maintains an emotional distance which Kimball accepts with resignation.
Every week they observe the Ada-woman entering and then one hour later exiting a building in the center of town. The building is home to many psychologist offices, one of which is visited each week by Elizabeth Noble, who is trying to come to terms with the loss of her identical twin sister to the disease. Worse than grieving Ada’s death, however, she is wracked with guilt and shame over having pigheadedly refused to accept her sister’s decision to die or to take any part in it. Having cut her sister out of her life, she never had the chance to say goodbye properly, their last words together spoken in anger.
Eventually one day, impatient with her and Kimball’s lack of progress in discovering any real information about the Ada-woman, Millie confronts Elizabeth outside the building. She angrily demands an explanation, blurting out her agony at having lost someone so dear to her. Elizabeth is completely taken aback and confused, but then slowly realizes that she has been mistaken for Ada. She realizes that the yelling woman was present at her sister’s death, and she can tell by the anguish in Millie’s voice that her sister had died in the presence of someone who truly loved her. Elizabeth falls to her knees, clutches Millie’s legs, and sobs thank you, thank you, thank you over and over.
Still unable to find a satisfactory explanation for why Ada had chosen to end her life at the clinic, Millie nonetheless feels a sense of closure and serenity, once again firm in her belief that the love that she and Ada had shared was real. With the strength taken from the renewal of that belief, she realizes, perhaps like Ada towards her, that she doesn’t need Kimball in order to be fulfilled, but that she wants him all the more because she is now completely free to choose to have him in her life on her own fully conscious terms.