To Mr. Sims, it seemed as though they had walked along a hundred corridors, and as he followed Mr. Hoode, he felt as though he were taking the last walk to the gallows or the electric chair. When the director finally led him outside, Mr. Sims realized with a slight twinge of fear that he hadn’t really expected to see daylight again.
They were in the rich, rolling parkland at the rear of the palace and walking across the immaculate turf where colored fountains frolicked and shimmered in the sun. Lilting music floated out from a dozen hidden sources. The two men sat down on a seat facing the palace with its towering columns and vast marble steps.
“It’s a very nice place,” Mr. Sims commented, remembering that he hadn’t said a word for at least five minutes.
“I suppose it’s all right,” Arthur Hoode agreed, his thin nostrils twitching condescendingly. He was a small, sleek man with a habit of emphasizing his words with airy gestures of his slim hands. “That section of the palace is the part I consider most uninteresting. After all, there’s nothing but row upon row of stuffy little rooms where people come to die. And they take a long time doing it, too!”
Mr. Sims winced noticeably.
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t appear overly sanctimonious about death,” Mr. Hoode said, smiling. “It’s just that the other directors and myself decided we must take a realistic view of the situation. A place like this could become pretty morbid, you know, and there’s actually no reason why a guest’s last hours here shouldn’t be pleasant and satisfying.”
Pleasant and satisfying--the key words when you spoke of Sunnylands Palace, Mr. Sims thought grimly. Everyone used them--when not going there.
The words gave him a hollow, frightened feeling inside, perhaps because they made him remember the first time he had heard them used.
“It’s a pleasant place and quite satisfying,” Dr. Van Stoke had said. “There’s no need to think of it as some kind of torture camp.”
“But why should I go there at all?” Mr. Sims had asked. “I don’t want to die. I’m only fifty-six and I’ve got nine more years left.”
“Try and understand I’m doing you a good turn,” the doctor had said. “You’ve lived fifty-six good years; in your condition, the last nine won’t be so good. You’ll have pains, attacks, you won’t be able to do anything strenuous. You’ll hate to live under those conditions.”
“I could always give it a try,” Mr. Sims had protested.
Dr. Van Stoke had frowned bleakly over the tops of his glasses. “I know I’m a friend and family doctor,” the frown had said, “but I’m also District Referee under the Euthanasian Legislation and you are becoming a burden to society. So don’t make my job any more difficult.”
He had signed his name at the bottom of the form.
And Mr. Sims had had a hollow, anxious feeling ever since.
“There’s one thing I haven’t found out yet,” he said to Mr. Hoode. “Is it in order for me to ask how and when I can expect to die?”
“Certainly,” Mr. Hoode said. “It’s the reason I brought you here to talk. You see, anyone sent here under the Legislation is given a completely free choice as to the manner of his departure. Most people, although they realize this, show a distressing lack of imagination when the time comes. They seem unable to think beyond the ordinary methods of taking a pill, or a needle, or a poisoned cocktail.”
“I can’t say I’d thought about it, either,” Mr. Sims admitted.
“We have a service to assist you,” said the director. “We of the Sunnylands staff have discovered what you might call a Philosophy of Dying. For instance, if a man lives an active life, there’s no reason why he should be subjected to a sneaking prick of a needle in his sleep just because he reaches the age of sixty-five. We discovered that a few people objected strongly to such methods. There are some people who would prefer to die fighting. We had a couple who chose the firing squad, for instance. Another desired the guillotine and nothing would satisfy him but a ride to his fate in a real tumbril. Because of these--ah--pioneers, our advisory bureau has been set up.”
“You mean you obliged them ... with a guillotine and everything?” Mr. Sims asked.
“Certainly, though most choose the sneaking, cowardly way out. As far as I am concerned, they died as they lived--ignominously! It’s depressing. We have the best accommodation, food, entertainment, everything the guest requires during his three days here; then they go ahead and die their miserable deaths. Somehow it makes all the luxury seem like pink sugar frosting around a rotten cake. That’s why we’re always happy to find a guest with the proper spirit.” Mr. Hoode said.
Mr. Sims listened in silence to the sales talk, wondering absent-mindedly what the director’s personal interest was in other people’s death.
“I took the liberty of looking up your record,” Mr. Hoode continued. “I picked you out for a personal talk because I see you led an interesting life.” He paused in recollection with a theatrically thoughtful finger pressed to his chin, his eyes gazing skyward. “You made a small fortune in oil in Central America before you were twenty. That was followed by more success in hemelium mining in Northern Canada. An excellent Third World War record, too. Founder of Transcontinental Rocket Lines. Co-builder of the Venus rocket. Oh, and a dozen other things. Quite a career!”
Mr. Sims brightened a little. He smiled modestly.
“Too bad you had to come here at fifty-six,” Mr. Hoode remarked. “Heaven knows what you might have done with those last nine years. Heart trouble, wasn’t it?”
“So I’ve been told,” Mr. Sims said, slipping back into his former glum mood. He still did not believe he was a sick man, but perhaps this was because things had moved too fast and he had not been given enough time to get used to the idea.
“It’s a serious cardiac condition,” Dr. Van Stoke had told him at the annual examination, “due to an over-active life. I’ll have to recommend you for Sunnylands.”
And that had been the first mention of the subject.
“But I never had heart trouble in my life!”
“The graphs show the condition clearly. There’s nothing anyone can do to remedy it. I’ll have to submit your name.”
He had protested--threatened--pleaded.
“Overpopulation! Elimination of needless suffering! Burden to society! Duty to humanity!” The cliches had tripped glibly off the doctor’s tongue as he signed the form. “Will you please send in a member of the family? I’ll give him the final instructions. Save you the trouble of worrying over little details during the final weeks.”
Since then, things had moved more swiftly behind the scenes and he had had to do nothing except prepare himself--or adopt a realistic attitude, as Mr. Hoode would have described it. But he had lived too much to allow him to get used to the idea of dying in two short weeks. He hadn’t even started to get realistic about it, which was probably why he could sit talking so calmly about death at that moment.
“We could give your life a climax,” the director was saying. “A man like you shouldn’t just fade away in one of those little cubicles.” He waved a hand in the direction of the shaded windows at the rear of the palace. “You should die magnificently!”
“Magnificently?” Mr. Sims repeated. “What did you have in mind?”
“It’s what you have in mind that counts. I can offer you a lot of advice, but the final choice is yours. For instance, a large number of men like to die in some sort of combat, with guns or swords, or even with animals. We had one man who fought a tiger. Another fulfilled a life-long ambition to play the role of bullfighter. Perhaps I should explain that the government allows each guest a generous sum of money to pay for his departure. As most people do not use one hundredth of this sum, we have a rather large fund at the disposal of those who want to use it.
“The bullfighter was a good example,” he went on. “We had a large ring built for him. He was given horses, uniforms, picadores, and a bull specially imported from Spain. It was a wonderful afternoon.” He paused in contemplation of the memory, while Mr. Sims looked on, tactfully refraining from asking the outcome.
“Another time, we had a group of old soldiers who wanted to die in battle,” Mr. Hoode added. “We built them an old-fashioned concrete blockhouse, then gave them authentic uniforms, machine-guns, grenades and rifles, and had one group attacking and the other defending.”
“Did they actually volunteer for that?” Mr. Sims asked.
“Of course, and I’ll swear they enjoyed every minute of it. Right down to the last man. As a matter of fact, we’re planning the same thing on a larger scale with a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand to be held in 2013. One of the men in Research is working full time on that project. So far, we have a tentative list of 138 names. It’ll be held in the park over there.” He waved gaily in the direction of the quiet meadow which would one day become another Little Big Horn.
Mr. Sims moved along the seat slightly, as though his companion had started to smell. It was as if, for the first time, he had noticed the glazed, visionary look in Mr. Hoode’s eye. The director, he realized, would be capable of re-enacting Hiroshima if given the required number of volunteers.
“I’ll have to leave you, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Hoode, standing up. “But if you’d like to think the matter over some more, I can offer you a fine selection of books to read about famous deaths, duels, acts of heroism and such throughout history.”
“It’s an interesting notion,” Mr. Sims said. “I’ll think about it.”
Mr. Sims tried to avoid the director all that day and all the following morning. He tried hard to convince himself that this was because he disliked the other’s bloodthirsty tendencies, although he knew the truth was that his choice of departure was a cowardly one. Nevertheless, he argued with himself, it was his choice, his death, and his mind was made up. Besides, he felt lonely and this might be an opportunity to see the family again, even though they probably wouldn’t like it.