"I'm afraid I have bad news, George."
"Your appeal has been turned down."
The attorney brushed a lock of black hair away from his forehead. It was an affectation that the attorney hoped made him look younger than his 67 years. “I was hoping they would reconsider the sentence. After all, George, given the circumstances . . .."
His voice trailed into a dejected shrug.
"You shouldn't be so upset, Donald," George smiled reassuringly. "It was my conviction. In more ways than one."
"Of course," the lawyer nodded, "but it was my case. You know how badly I hate to lose a judgment."
George rose from his chair, strode across the room and patted his friend on the arm. "You did what you could."
"Yes, we did what we could. It's been difficult— even from the start." The attorney held his briefcase tightly as if the synthetic leather gave him a feeling of security, the artificial comfort of familiarity. He paused a moment, then coughed, a discreet cough, nervous. "Uh-h. Have you chosen—uh, you know—a way yet?"
"No," George answered slowly. "I haven't given it much thought."
The lawyer shifted uncomfortably, awkward in his embarrassment. "You really must, George. You only have another 48 hours."
George walked over to the window and gazed down at the street below, then up at the sky-blue dome above the city. "Forty-eight hours." He shook his head. "I feel like a prisoner, Donald."
"Well, in a sense, you are, but at least you were able to post bond. That's some consolation." The attorney propped his briefcase against the desk and headed towards the bar. "You mind if I fix myself a drink?"
"I'm sorry, Donald. I should have offered. Go ahead." He paused a moment, adding: "Not that kind of prisoner."
"Thanks. May I get you something?"
"No. I'm all right." George turned back to the window. The ice cubes clattered in a glass and there was the whoosh of soda splashing. "I went down to the library today," he said abruptly.
"What? Yes, yes. I imagine they would have a variety of literature on this sort of thing." There was a long pause, then suddenly: "Good heavens, I hope you're not planning anything exotic."
George laughed. "Donald, you worry too much. I have been condemned to death not to reality television show. I wasn't looking for a way to die, particularly, although a few bells ringing would be nice. Actually, I wanted to read something again."
"Listen, George," the attorney appeared by his side, drink in hand. "I was talking to Dr. Samuels last night. He recommended an injection. Said you would just drift off to sleep. No pain, you understand, just sleep. Now, it seems to me that--"
"I wanted to read the Phaedo again," George interrupted. "The account seemed appropriate somehow."
The attorney swallowed. "You referring to Plato's Socrates?" Donald rattled his glass. "Come now, George, That's a little dramatic, isn't it? I mean, reading about another man's death, and from hemlock, for crying out loud. I doubt if it even exists anymore."
"No. I wasn't thinking about poison. I was wondering how other people—condemned people—felt."
The attorney was standing by his side now, swirling the amber liquid around the inside of the glass, the ice cubes shifting and tinkling. "My advice to you, my friend, is not to think about other people dying. You don’t have all that much time. It seems to me that your family's future would be the most important thing right now. That and the-uh-oh, hell, you know what I’m trying to say, the choice of method." He pursed his lips, his paternalism changing to annoyance, awkwardly. “Damn barbaric, when you think about it. Demanding that a condemned man select his own form of execution.”
George smiled. "It supposed to be humane. And considering the circumstances, Donald, I think I should be the judge of what is important."
"Damn it, George. You have to get a hold of yourself. Be practical, man. You're not standing around waiting for some ship to come in. You've got a little less than two days to settle your affairs and make a choice." The attorney canted his head and raised one eyebrow, turning his flush of anger into a reprimand. "If you don't," he warned, "the Council will decide for you and there are still a lot of angry people out there."
"Don't worry, Donald, we'll handle it." George's tone was conciliatory but not chastened. "We always have. For your information, I've already thought of a way. I just want to think about it for awhile."
"Not too long, I hope. The Council expects me to notify them as soon as possible." The attorney stared down at his glass, empty now except for the ice cubes with their rounded edges and smooth, glassy craters etched out by the warm, watery whiskey. "There's still a lot of paperwork left, forms to be filled out." His voice trailed into a graveled swallow.
He's thinking how mundane his words sound, George thought, how ordinary. The attorney was worried that ordinary did not seem appropriate. "It is the little things, the ordinary things, that help us meet extraordinary circumstance," George volunteered. "We cling to commonplace activities like paperwork and records "because those are the things we understand. There is a world of comfort in the commonplace."
The attorney swallowed again, his face suddenly tired. "Why? Just tell me why, George. Give me some reason that makes sense."
George understood what the attorney really meant. It wasn’t about the act itself, the ending of Mercer’s life. George turned away from the attorney to keep his face from betraying his emotions. The why was quite simple. But in a society where no one had to die, where science had eliminated all biological causes of death, where antidotes had been found for every malicious bacteria, universal antibodies that prevented infections, where ways had been found to genetically engineer cells that never aged, that never deteriorated, where aside from accidents, suicide, and the hand of man, science had rendered every human immortal, murder was baffling not because there was a law against it, but because he who committed murder murdered himself.
Since natural death no longer existed, the punishment for committing murder was the life of the murder.
The why that Donald wanted to know was the why of the crime, the same why that the others had wanted to know. "What crime had Mr. Mercer committed which was so grievous in your eyes that it drove you to the most unpardonable treachery against our society?" the Chair of the Council had asked at the trial.
All heads had turned in George's direction. All eyes had stared at him as if he were at once some foreign and alien aberration and the focal point of a horrible and morbid fascination. All ears had waited for the revelation, waited for the intriguing answer to the puzzle that no one but George could answer. "Mr. Mercer," George had replied slowly, his voice calm and measured, "was an ass."
George recalled the stunned silence that hung suspended like an immense vacuum of frozen disbelief before pandemonium surged into the gap George had punched into eternity. The Council Chamber erupted into exclamations of repulsion, cries of condemnation, and startled gasps of anger. The muttering began like the swelling of a tide and rippled through the chamber. Mercer died because he was an ass? What if society killed off all its fools? someone asked indignantly. Who would be left to kill the last survivor? But here and there like sheltered islands dotting a stormy sea there were tiny oases of comprehension, a tattered stream of approval spotting the blanket of criticism.
George waited until the uproar subsided, until the last sound echoing in the Chamber was the heavy rapping of the Chair's gavel slamming into the Lucite surface of the bar and nodded at George to continue his defense.
"What kind of society is this we have created?" George asked, his eyes scanning the faces of the citizens, his mind measuring their contempt. "Our medicines and bio-engineering have conquered mortal aging and disease, but we must live forever beneath this protected bubble on a wasted planet. We may not be trapped by an inevitable mortality, but our freedom has been surrendered to man's folly. Wars, assaults upon nature, excessive ravaging of resources-all have destroyed the very earth that spawned our race.
"But what, you ask, does this have to do with us? All those horrible things happened generations ago. It wasn't our fault. We made do with what we have, made the best of a bad situation, create a peaceful utopia that we all can enjoy forever. If you are truly this complacent, my fellow citizens, then you are committing the same folly as our ancestors. We may have destroyed the world, but we still have one resource left--our intellect. We are our own resource."
A nervous cough interrupted his words and he paused to look at his audience. How quickly their contempt had turned to "boredom. Still, it was his right to speak and still, they wanted to know why, a why they could understand.
"Mr. Mercer was an aberration, a confused throwback to the genes of our ancestors. Many of you here considered him a crackpot, a sincere and dedicated man, but a crackpot nonetheless. I won't take the time to go into his teachings, you all know them: a return to spiritual awareness, a surrender of one's self to a kind of supracosmic consciousness—a belief in the supernatural.
"Most of you thought him harmless—at least, at first. There were only a few followers in the beginning, then a few more. His ideas began taking hold. And the saddest thing of all was that his ideas were not ideas at all but a collection of bromides and proverbs, precepts and admonitions, a stifling array of homilies that replaced free thought with slogans. Still, you say, he had a right to say what he pleased just as we have every right not to listen. Sure, a gullible few might succumb to his preaching, but then, they probably couldn't think for themselves anyway. My fellow citizens, in this society we live forever. Can you imagine not thinking for yourself for all eternity?"
George paused. This was his last chance to plead for his life, his last chance to avoid the ultimate penalty.
"Ah, but what about his right of free speech? My friends, just as no one has the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, no one has the right to preach suppression of intellect in the area of free thought.”
George felt his audience slipping away. He looked down at the podium, sighed and took a deep breath. “If I had discovered and plugged a poisonous gas leak in our precious dome, you certainly would hail me the hero just as surely as you now brand me a murderer.
“I submit to you that Mr. Mercer's brand of evangelical spiritualism was every bit as insidious a danger to our society as an attack on the integrity of our dome and that his philosophy of cosmic surrender was in truth a tyranny of suppression that threatened to destroy not our intellectual freedom but everything we hold dear.
"There is no fundamental right of free speech for a dictator who would, as his first act, destroy the very foundation of free speech. No, my friends, I am not a murderer. I did not kill Mr. Mercer, the citizen. I cut out the core of a cancer that in time would have consumed the very vitals of our society."
"If only you had said it was a burst of anger," Donald was saying, "something emotional the Council could have understood." His attorney was right. In the end, the Council had not understood and in a seven-to-two vote, they had condemned him to death.
"It wasn't an emotional situation," George said. "I didn't dislike the man, merely his ideas and the impact they were having on our youth. Especially the youth. They were his biggest converts, you know. "
"Perhaps you should have concentrated on killing his ideas, then," Donald said forcefully.
"Perhaps. But in an odd sort of way, there wasn't time."
"My goodness, man. All we have is time," the lawyer blurted out, his face instantly turning red. "No, I'm sorry, George. I didn't mean to say that. We don't have much time at all. Listen, why don't. I go ahead with the will and the transfers and everything. At least we would have that part of it done."
"Donald, " George said firmly. "Did you know that everyone in Athens expected Socrates to bribe the guards and escape to freedom?"
The attorney stiffened. "Escape? Escape to where?"
George waved his arm towards the dome. "Out there. Outside the dome."
"Are you crazy? What with the radiation, the deserts and the mutant wildlife, you wouldn't last a day--maybe two at the most. It's sheer suicide."
George smiled. "Isn't that the idea? I mean, Council did say I have the right to choose my own form of execution. Well, then, I choose freedom."
Donald took him by the arm. "Freedom, my royal behind. Listen, let me tell you the facts of life. You go outside that dome, you will die of thirst, the radiation will fry your brain, the heat will "boil your "blood and some reptile will tear you limb from limb—none of which strikes me as a very pleasant way to die. No, you take Dr. Samuel's advice. This isn't any guilt trip. Go out painlessly, peacefully. Just go to sleep."
"No, Donald. I don’t think so. Socrates' commitment was to honor. He chose to end his life as he had lived, standing fast to the values he believed. I have to make the same choice." George placed his hand over his friend's. "I would like for you to do this for me. My last request, as it were. Will you inform the Council?"
"Good. It's settled then."