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´╗┐Title: Life Sentence
Author: McConnell, James V., 1925-1990
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Life Sentence" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.




 Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS

 _"Happy New Year!" she cried. But how often
 should one hear it said in a single lifetime?_

Outside, bells were ringing. "Happy New Year!"

The mad sound of people crazed for the moment, shouting, echoed the

"Happy New Year!"

A sound of music, waxing, waning, now joined in wild symphony by the
voices, now left alone to counterpoint the noise of human

For a while, Oliver Symmes heard the raucous music of the crowd. It
became a part of him, seemed to come from somewhere inside him, gave him
life. And then, as always, it passed on, leaving him empty.


The door to his room opened and a young-looking woman, dressed in a
pleasant green uniform, came in and turned up the light. On her sleeve
she wore the badge of geriatrician, with the motto, "To Care for the

"Happy New Year, Mr. Symmes," she said, and went over to stand by the
window. In the mild light, the sheen of her hair attracted attention
away from the slight imperfections of her face.

She watched the crowd outside, wishing she could be a part of it. There
seemed so little life inside the prison where the only function of
living was the awaiting of death. "To Care for the Aged." That meant to
like and love them as well as to take physical care of them. Only,
somehow, it seemed so hard to _really_ love them.

She sighed and turned away from the window to look at one of the reasons
she could not be with the rest of the world that night.

       *       *       *       *       *

He sat bunched up in his chair like a vegetable. She could have closed
one of her hands around both his arms together. Or his legs. Bones and
skin and a few little muscles left, and that was all. Skin tight,
drumlike, against the skull. Cheeks shrunk, lips slightly parted by the
contraction of the skin. Even the wrinkles he should have had were
erased by the shrinkage of the epidermis. Even in a strong light, the
faint wrinkle lines were barely visible.

After a moment of looking at him, she put a smile back on her face and
repeated her greeting.

"I said, 'Happy New Year,' Mr. Symmes."

He raised his eyes to her for a moment, then slowly lowered them,

"He looks just a little bit like a caricature," she said to herself,
feeling a little more tenderness toward him. "A cute little stick man
made of leaves and twigs and old bark and ..."

       *       *       *       *       *

_Shadows._ For so long there had been shadows. And for a time the
fleeting passage of dreams and past memories had been a solace. But now
the shadows were withered and old, debilitated and desiccated. They had
been sucked dry of interest long ago.

But still they flitted through his mind on crippled wings, flapping
about briefly in the now-narrowed shell of his consciousness, then
fading back among the cobwebs. Every once in a while, one of them would
return to exercise its wings.

"Did she say, 'Happy New Year?'" he wondered. "New Year's?"

And, at the thought of it, there came shadows out of the past....

       *       *       *       *       *

Young Oliver Symmes laughed. The girl laughed, too. She was good to hold
in one's arms, soft like a furry animal, yielding and plush of mouth.

"I love you, Ollie," she said; the warmness of her body close against

He laughed again and wrapped her in his arms. He owned her now, owned
her smile, her love for him, her mind and her wonderful body. She
belonged to him, and the thrill of ownership was strong and exciting.

"I'll always love you, Ollie. I'll love only you." She ran her fingers
in and out of his hair, caressing each strand as it went through her
fingers. "I love the strength of your arms, the firmness of your body."

Again he laughed, surrendering all his consciousness to the warm magic
of her spell.

"I love the shading of your hair and eyes, the smooth angularity of your
tallness, the red ecstasy of your mind." Her fingers slipped down the
back of his neck, playing little games with his flesh and hair. "I'll
always love you, Ollie."

He kissed her savagely.

During the daytime, there was his work at the anthropological
laboratories, the joy of poking among the cultures of the past. And at
night there was the joy of living with her, of sharing the tantalizing
stimulations of the culture of the present, the infinite varieties of
love mingling with passions.

For months there was this happiness of the closeness of her. And then
she was gone from him, for the moment. He still owned her, but they were
physically apart and there was the hunger of loneliness in him. The
months his work kept them apart seemed like centuries, until, finally,
he could return.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was walking through a happy, shouting crowd, walking back to her. It
was the eve of the new year, a time for beginnings, a time for looking
from the pleasures of the past to those waiting in the future. There was
a happy outcry inside him that matched the mood of the crowd.

"Happy New Year!"

Women stopped him on the street, asking for his affection. But he passed
them by, for she was waiting for him and he was hungry for the
possessive love of his slave.

He went eagerly into the building where they lived.

       *       *       *       *       *

The crowd was gone. A door was opening. The voice of his love, sudden,
full of naked surprise, bleated at him. And another voice, that of a man
standing behind her, croaked with hasty excuses and fear.

A change of hungers--it seemed no more complex than that.

He put his hand to his side and took out a piece of shaped metal,
pointing it at the man. A blast of light and the man was dead. He put
the weapon aside.

Young Oliver Symmes walked toward the girl. She backed away from him,
pleading with words, eyes, body. He noticed for the first time the many
small imperfections of her face and figure.

Cornered, she raised her arms to embrace him. He raised his arms to
answer the embrace, but his hands stopped and felt their way around the
whiteness of her neck. He pressed his hands together, thumbs tight
against each other.

Minutes later, he dropped her to the floor and stood looking at her. He
had owned her and then destroyed her when his ownership was in dispute.

He bent to kiss the lax lips.

       *       *       *       *       *

Shadows. As a man grows older, the weight and size of his brain
decrease, leaving cavities in his mind. The years that pass are a
digger, a giant excavator, scooping the mass of past experience up in
the maw of dissipation. The slow, sure evacuation of the passing decades
leaves wing-room in a man's head for stirring memories.

The withered man looked up again. The woman in the green uniform was
smiling at him through parted, almost twisted lips.

"I suppose that this time of year is the worst for you, isn't it?" she
asked sympathetically. The first requirement of a good geriatrician was
sympathy and understanding. She determined to try harder to understand.

The old man made no answer, only staring at her face. But his eyes were
blank--seeing, yet blind to all around him. She frowned for a moment as
she looked at him. The unnatural hairlessness of his body puzzled her,
making it difficult for her to understand him while the thought was in
her mind--that and the trouble she had getting through to him.

She stared at him as if to pierce the blankness of his gaze. Behind his
eyes lay the emptiness of age, the open wound of stifled years.

"I'll move you over to the window, Mr. Symmes," she told him in soothing
tones, her smile reappearing. "Then you can look out and see all the
people. Won't that be fun?"

Picking up a box from the table, she adjusted a dial. The chair in which
he was sitting rose slightly from the floor and positioned itself in
front of the window. The woman walked to the wall beside him and
corrected the visual index of the glass to match the weakness of the old
man's eyes.

"See, down there? Just look at them pushing about."

A rabble of faces swam on the glass in front of him, faces of unfamiliar
people, all of them unknown and unknowable to him.

Inside him the whisper of the wings mounted in pitch with a whining,
leathery sound. The images of dead faces came flying up, careening
across his mind, mingling and merging with the faces of the living. The
glass became an anomalous torrent of faces.

Dead faces....

       *       *       *       *       *

Four walls around him, bare to the point of boredom. Through the barred
window, the throbbing throat of the crowd talked to him. His young body
took it in, his young mind accepted it, catalogued it and pushed it out
of consciousness. And for each individual voice there was an individual
face, staring up at his cell from the comparative safety of outside.
Young Oliver Symmes could not see the faces from where he sat, waiting,
but he could sense them.

There came a feel of hands on his shoulder; his reverie was interrupted.
Arms under his raised him to his feet. A face smiled, almost kindly, in

"They're waiting for you, Mr. Symmes. It's time to go."

More words. Walking from this place to that, mostly with a crowd of
people at his shoulders, pressing him in. Then a door ahead of him,
ornate in carving, a replica of the doors to the Roman Palace of Justice
many centuries before. Again his mind catalogued the impressions.

Then, like the faces of the people outside his cell, the pictures of the
bas-relief faded away, melted and merged into a pelagic blackness.

The doors opened and, with part of the crowd still at his side, he went
through. The people inside were standing; stick men, it seemed to him,
with painted balloons for faces. The sound of the rapping of a gavel
caught his ear. The people sat, and the trial began.

"This court will admit to evidence only those events and artifacts which
are proved true and relevant to the alleged crime."

An obsequious clearing of throats. A coughing now and then.

"... And did you see the defendant, Oliver Symmes, enter the apartment
of the deceased on the night of the Thirty-first of December, two
thousand and ..."

"I did. He was wearing a sort of orange tunic ..."

Someone whispered in his ear. Oliver Symmes heard and shook his head.

"... You are personally acquainted with the defendant?"

"I am. We worked for United Anthropological Laboratories before he ..."



The blackness of the judge's robe puzzled him. A vestige, an
anachronism, handed down from centuries before. White was the color of
truth, not black.

"You swear that you found the defendant standing over the body of the
deceased woman on the night of ..."

"Not standing, sir. He was bending over, kissing ..."

"Your witness."

       *       *       *       *       *

Days of it, back and forth, testimony and more testimony. Evidence and
more evidence and the lack of it. Smiling lawyers, grimacing lawyers,
soothing lawyers and cackling lawyers. And witnesses.

"You will please take the stand, Mr. Symmes."

He walked to the chair and sat down. The courtroom leaned forward, the
stick men bowed toward him slightly, as in eager applause of the coming
most dramatic moment of a spectacle.

"You will please tell the court in your own words ..."

He mouthed the words. The whole story, the New Year's crowd, his hunger
for her, his arrival, the other man and his babbling, the woman and how
she looked, his feelings, his transfigured passions, and the deaths. He
told the story again and again until they seemed satisfied.

"You understand, Mr. Symmes, that you have committed a most heinous
crime. You have killed two people in a passion that, while it used to be
forgiven by the circumstances, is no longer tolerated by this
government. You have killed, Mr. Symmes!"

The face before him was intense. He looked at it, not understanding the
reason for the frozen look of malice and hatred.

"She was mine. When she betrayed me, I killed her. Is that wrong?"

The stick men snorted and poked each other in the ribs with derisive

There were more words and more questions. He looked at the face of the
judge and wondered, for a moment, if perhaps the color of the robe was
to match the apparent disposition of the man.

And then came the silence, a time of sitting and waiting. He sensed the
wondering stares of the stick men, wide-eyed in apprehension, suspended
from the drabness of their own lives for the moment by the stark
visitation of tragedy in his. They gabbled among themselves and wagered
on the verdict.

The man next to him leaned over and tapped him on the arm. Everyone
stood up and then, curiously, sat down again almost at once. He felt the
tension present in the courtroom, but was strangely relaxed himself. It
was peculiar that they were all so excited.

"Your Honor, having duly considered the seriousness of the crime and the
evidence presented ..."

The balloon faces on the stick men stretched in anticipation.

"... taking full cognizance of the admitted passion on the part of the
defendant and the circumstances ..."

The balloons were strained, contorted out of all proportion in their

"... we find the defendant guilty of murder, making no recommendation
for consideration by the Court."

The balloons exploded!

       *       *       *       *       *

Deafening and more than deafening, the uproar of the voices was beyond
belief. He threw his hands up over his ears to shut out the noise.

The gavel crashed again and again, striking the polished oak in deadly
cadence, stifling the voices. Over the stillness, one man spoke. He
recognized the black voice of the judge and took his hands from his ears
and put them in his lap. He was told to stand and he obeyed.

"Oliver Symmes, there has been no taking of human lives in this nation
for many years, until your shockingly primitive crime. We had taken
pride in this record. Now you have broken it. We must not only punish
you adequately and appropriately, but we must also make of your
punishment a warning to anyone who would follow your irrational example.

"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

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,

       *       *       *       *       *

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."

"Well, naturally."

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

He felt his legs being shifted for him.

"Be careful there, Nurse. Handle him gently. _Fragilitas Ossium_, you
know. Old bones break very easily."

"Sorry, Doctor."

"Not that we couldn't fix them up immediately if they did."

"Naturally, Doctor."

"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."

"Probably newness."

"Or taxes."

"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,

"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

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

"What--" She leaned closer to him as he struggled for the word.

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.

       *       *       *       *       *

Outside, bells were ringing.

"Happy New Year."

The ceiling stared back at him.

The mad sound of people crazed for the moment, shouting, echoed the

"Happy New Year!"

He turned his head to one side.

"Happy New Year!"

And again ... and again ... and again.

                                                     --JAMES McCONNELL

Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Galaxy Science Fiction_ January 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.

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Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.