"Naturally, we no longer have either the apparatus to execute anyone or an executioner. We do not believe that a stupidly unreasoning act should incite us to equally unreasoning reprisal, for we would then be as guilty of irrationality as you.
"We must establish our own precedent, since there is no recent one and the ancient punishments are not acceptable to us. Therefore, because we are humane and reasoning persons, the Court orders that the defendant, Oliver Symmes, be placed in the National Hospital for observation, study and experimentation so that this crime may never again be repeated. He is to be kept there under perpetual care until no possible human skill or resource can further sustain life in his body."
Someone jumped erect beside him, quivering with horror and indignation. It was his lawyer.
"Your Honor, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Court. No matter what the crime of the defendant, this is a greater one. For this is a crime not just against my client, but against all men. This sentence robs all men of their most precious freedom--the right to die at their appointed times. Nothing is more damaging to the basic dignity of the human race than this most hideous ..."
"... This Court recognizes only the four freedoms. The freedom of death is not one of these. The sentence stands. The Court is adjourned."
There were tears in the eyes of his lawyer, although young Oliver Symmes did not quite comprehend, as yet, their meaning. Hands, rougher than before, grasped his arms with strange firmness and led him off into ...
Shadows. They come in cycles, each prompted to activity by the one preceding it. They flutter in unbelievable clusters, wheel in untranslatable formations through the cerebric wasteland that is the aged mind of Oliver Symmes. They have no meaning to him, save for a furtive spark of recognition that intrudes upon him once in a while.
The woman in the green uniform, standing to one side of the window, smiled at him again. It was much simpler to care for him, she thought, if only one conceived of him as being a sort of sweet little worn-out teddy bear. Yes, that was what he was, a little teddy bear that had gotten most of its stuffing lost and had shriveled and shrunk. And one can easily love and pamper a teddy bear.
"Can you see the crowd all right, Mr. Symmes? This is a good place to watch from, isn't it?"
Her words fell upon his ears, setting up vibrations and oscillations in the basilar membranes. Nerve cells triggered impulses that sped along neural pathways to the withered cortex, where they lost themselves in the welter of atrophy and disintegration. They emerged into his consciousness as part of a gestaltic confusion.
"Isn't it exciting, watching from here?" she asked, showing enthusiasm at the sight of the crowd below. "You should be enjoying this immensely, you know. Not all the people here have windows to look out of like this." There, now, that should make him feel a little better.
His eyes, in their wandering, came to rest upon her uniform, so cool and comforting in its greenness. A flicker of light gleamed from the metallic insignia on her sleeve: "To Care for the Aged." Somewhere inside him an association clicked, a brief fire of response to a past event kindled into a short-lived flame, lighting the way through cobwebs for another shadow....
How many years he had been waiting for the opportunity, he did not know. It seemed like decades, although it might have been only a handful of months. And all the time he had waited, he could feel himself growing older, could sense the syneresis, the slow solidifying of the life elements within him. He sat quietly and grew old, thinking the chance would never come.
But it did come, when he had least expected it.
It was a treat--his birthday. Because of it, they had given him actual food for the first time in years: a cake, conspicuous in its barrenness of candles; a glass of real vegetable juices; a dab of potato; an indescribable green that might have been anything at all; and a little steak. A succulent, savory-looking piece of genuine meat.
The richness of the food would probably make him sick, so unaccustomed to solid food was his digestive tract by now, but it would be worth the pain.
And it was then that he saw the knife.
It lay there on the tray, its honed edge glittering in the light of the sun. A sharp knife, capable of cutting steak--or flesh of any kind.
"Well, how do you like your birthday present, Mr. Symmes?"
He looked up quickly at the woman standing beside the tray. The yellow pallor of her middle-aged skin matched the color of her uniform. She wore the insignia of a geriatrics supervisor.
He let a little smile flicker across his face. "Why, it's ... it's wonderful. I never expected it at all. It's been so long, you know. So very long."
How could he get rid of her? If he tried anything with her watching, she would stop him. And then he'd never get another chance.
"I'm glad you like it, Mr. Symmes. Synthetic foods do get tiresome after a while, don't they?"
The idea came with suddenness and he responded to it quickly.
"But where are my pink pills? I always take them at lunch."
"You won't need them if you're eating real food."
He whipped his voice into petulance. "Yes, I will! I don't care if it is real food--I want my pills!"
"I'll get them for you later. Go ahead and eat first."
"I can't eat until I take my pink pills! You ought to know that! I won't touch a thing until I get them! You've ruined my birthday party."
The whims of the aging are without logic, so she went to get the pills, leaving Oliver Symmes and the gleaming, sharp knife together, unattended.
Where should he start? The heart? No, that would be too quick, too easy to repair. Then where?
He remembered his studies of the middle Japanese culture and the methods of suicide practiced at that time. The intestines! So many of them to cut and slash at, so much damage that might be done before death set in! Maybe even the lungs! But he must hurry.
Picking up the knife, he pointed it at his appendix. For a moment he hesitated, and his eyes observed again the little feast laid out before him. He thought briefly about pausing for just a while to taste the little steak, to nibble briefly at the delectable-looking cake. He hated to leave it untouched. It had been such a long time....
The sudden memory of time, and how much of it he had spent hoping for this moment, snapped his attention back to the knife. Steeling his grip on it, he pressed it in hard.
His eyes bulged with the excruciating pain as he wrenched the knife from right to left, twisting it wildly as he went, blindly slashing at his vital organs with the hope that once and for all he could stop the long and eternal waiting.
His mouth filled with the taste of blood. He spat it out through clenched teeth. It gushed down his chin, staining the cleanness of his robe. His lips parted to scream.
And then his eyes closed.
And opened again! He was staring at the ceiling, but the men and women standing around him got in his way.
Their lips were moving, their faces unperturbed.
"That was a nasty thing for him to do."
"They all do it, once or twice, until they learn."
"Third time for him, isn't it?"
"Yes, I believe so. First time he tried hanging himself. Second time he was beating his head against the wall when we came and stopped him. Bloody mess that one was."
"Nothing to compare with this, of course."
Oliver Symmes felt sick with fear of frustration.
"Nice technique you showed, Doctor. He'd been dead at least an hour when we started, hadn't he?"
"Almost two," someone else said. "An amazing job."
"Thank you. But it wasn't too difficult. Just a little patching here and there."
He felt his legs being shifted for him.
"Be careful there, Nurse. Handle him gently. Fragilitas Ossium, you know. Old bones break very easily."
"Not that we couldn't fix them up immediately if they did."
"I wish they'd try something different for a change."
"The woman in the next room lost an eye last year, trying to reach the prefrontals. Good as new now, of course."
He wanted to vomit at the uselessness of it all.
"By the way, what's he in for? Do you know?"
"No, I'd have to look it up."
"Or maybe even slander."
"Is that on the prescribed antisocial list now?"
"Oh, yes. It was passed just before the destructive criticism law."
"Think he'll try this messy business again?"
"They all do."
"They do, don't they? Don't they ever learn it's no use?"
"Eventually. Some are just harder to convince than others."
The pain was gone. He closed his eyes and slipped off into darkness again and into ...
Shadows. In slow and ponderous fashion they float across the sea of his mind, like wandering bits of sargasso weed on the brackish water of a dying ocean. Each one dreamed a thousand times too many, each separate strand of memory-weed now nothing but a stereotyped shred of what might have once been a part of life and of living.
With the quietness of deserted ships they drift in procession past his sphere of consciousness. Wait! There's one that seems familiar. He stops the mental parade for a moment, not hearing the voice of his companion, the woman in the green uniform.
"It's getting late, Mr. Symmes." She turned from the window and glanced at the wizenedness, the fragile remainder of the man, the almost empty shell. It was a pity he wasn't able to play games with her like some of the others. That made it so much easier. "Don't you think it's about time you went to bed? Early to bed and early to rise, you know."
That memory of a needle, pointed and gleaming. What was it?
Oh, yes. Stick it in his arm, push the plunger, pull it out; and wait for him to die. First one disease and then another, to each he happily succumbed, in the interests of science, only to be resuscitated. Each time a willing volunteer, an eager guinea pig, he had hoped for the ease of death, praying that for once they'd wait too long, the germs would prove too virulent, that something would go wrong.
"There, now, you just lie back and get comfortable," she said, walking over to the table. "But it has been fun, hasn't it? Watching the crowds, I mean." She felt he must be much happier now, and the knowledge of it gave her a sense of success. She was living up to her pledge, "To Care for the Aged."
Diabetes, tuberculosis, cancer of the stomach, tumor of the brain. He'd had them all, and many others. They had swarmed to him through the gouged skin-openings made by the gleaming needle. And each had brought the freedom of blackness, of death, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for a whole week. But always life returned again, and the waiting, waiting, waiting.
"I enjoy New Year's myself," the woman said, her hands caressing a dial. Slowly, with gentle undulation, his chair rose from the floor and cradled the aged tiredness that was Oliver Symmes to his bed. With almost tender devotion, his body was mechanically shifted from the portable chair to the freshly made bed.
One of his arms was caught for just a moment under the slight weight of his body. There was a short, snapping sound, but Oliver Symmes took no notice. His face remained impassive. Even pain had lost its meaning.
"It's a pity we couldn't have been outside with the rest of them, celebrating," she said, as she arranged the covers around him, not noticing the arm herself.
This was the part of her job she enjoyed most--tucking the nice little man into bed. He did look sweet there, under the covers, didn't he?
"Just imagine, Mr. Symmes, another year's gone by, and what have we accomplished?"
Her prattle seeped in and he became aware of it and what she was saying. New Year?
"What--what year--is this?" He spoke with great difficulty, from the long disuse of vocal cords. It was hardly more than a whisper, but she heard and was startled.
"Why, Mr. Symmes, it's been so long since you've talked." She paused, but realized that she had not answered his question.
"It's '73, of course. Last year was '72, so tonight's the start of '73."
'73? Had it been fifty years since he came here? Had it been just that long?
"What--" She leaned closer to him as he struggled for the word. "What--century?"
Her astonishment was gone. He was teasing her, like the woman on the next level. These old ones were great for that!
"Now, Mr. Symmes, everybody knows what century it is." She smiled at him glowingly, thinking she had caught him at a prank. It was nice, she thought, to have gotten through to him tonight, on the eve of the new year. That meant that she was living up to her motto the way she ought to be.
She'd have to tell the supervisor about it.
Oliver Symmes turned to face the ceiling, his mind full of dusty whispers. What century was it? She hadn't answered. It might have been a hundred and fifty years ago he came here, instead of just fifty. Or possibly two hundred and fifty, or ...
"Now, you be good, and sleep tight, and I'll see you in the morning." Her hand passed over a glowing stud and the room light dimmed to a quiet glow. Lying there in the bed, he did look like a teddy bear, a dear little teddy bear. She was so happy.
"Good night, Mr. Symmes."
She closed the door.