Life Sentence

by James V. McConnell

Public Domain

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

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Outside, bells were ringing. “Happy New Year!”

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

“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 celebration...

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.

Shadows...

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 Aged.”

“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, uncomprehendingly.

“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 his.

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 understanding.

“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...”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

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 elbows.

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 eagerness.

“ ... 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.

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