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Dan Speers

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Ringing Out 


By Dan Speers

 

"I'm afraid I have bad news, George."

"I know."

"Your appeal has been turned down."

"I know."

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?"

"Of course."

"Good. It's settled then."

 

 

 

II

 

 

That night, the last night, George held his wife, Elaine, in his arms, and stared into the darkness, listening to her soft "breathing as her tears dribbled down upon his chest.

"It's too late, now, isn't it?" Her voice cracked under the strain.

"Yes." He sighed. "It's too late."

"Why didn't you let me do it, George? We could have made it work. We would have been together. Don't you see?"

He knew he should answer her, but he couldn't. The arguments had all been exhausted. Elaine had talked to Dr. Samuels, too. The doctor was sympathetic. He would administer an injection and George would drift off to sleep, a deep, cationic sleep, one in which all life functions would appear to have stopped. Later, his body would be spirited away and he would be revived. Elaine's mother had agreed to build a secret room in the upper portion of her apartment, one where George would be safe, where .he could read and study, spend time with Elaine and wait—perhaps a century, perhaps not as long—until time had eased the shock of the crime, until the Council had time to regret its decision.

"No," George had said firmly. "First, if by chance, I were caught, then all of you would be arrested. And I would be executed anyway. Secondly, that room would be its own prison. How can I believe in freedom if I choose an eternity of confinement."

"But, darling," Elaine had countered angrily, "you would be alive. Stop thinking about yourself, and think of me for a change. I don't want you dead. I want you alive--even if you do have to stay in hiding."

"I love you," was all he could muster.

"Then prove it by staying alive."

"I can't," he answered simply.

"Then why did you have to pick such a silly way to go?" she wailed. "Everybody's talking about it. People on the street, perfect strangers, keep staring at me."

"That's because you're beautiful," he smiled.

"It's because you're crazy," she said flatly.

Elaine was not the only one who questioned his sanity. Dr. Samuels had come by earlier in the evening. "I brought the book you wanted," he said. "It's a little depressing, isn't it? I mean, I wouldn't have thought you would want to read something like this tonight."

"Why not? It is a eulogy, after all. It seems somehow, fitting."

"It seems somewhat morbid, if you ask me and of course you won't. You never take my advice anyway," The doctor shuffled into the room and immediately shooed away the cat to commandeer the most comfortable chair in the room. "So, you're going to go ahead with this damn fool idea of yours."

"The Council approved it—although I understand that Donald had to exercise all of his persuasive powers," George answered.

"I couldn't believe it myself," the doctor admitted. "The ruling was that you were to die at dawn, so if you step outside at dawn, it seems to me you are as good as dead anyway. For the life of me, pardon the expression, I can't figure out what all of the bickering was about."

George took the second best chair and grinned. "Well, some of the Council members complained that even though I was outside the dome, I might conceivably survive the first day, maybe even the second. Thus, the ruling that I was to die at dawn would not be followed to the letter. Some of those esteemed individuals are sticklers for the law."

"Stickers in the head is what they have," the doctor said derogatively. "So what was this compromise all about?"

"They're going to put me out an hour before dawn," George explained. "Since the outside temperature this time of year is only about 10 degrees, their conscience is clear."

"Balderdash. Wear some warm clothing, keep moving, and you'll be all right. Inside of two hours, the sun'11 warm things up to at least a hundred degrees. Damn inhumane, small-minded idiots. Even they could figure that out," the doctor released one of those heavy explosions of breath that had become his trademark.

"You shouldn't be too hard on them, Dr. Samuels. The Council is still a political animal that feeds at the public trough. It could be hard on them come the next election if they don't justify their decision."

"The Council, sir, to paraphrase you and somebody else lodged in my rather tenuous memory, is an ass. Glory be, that was beautiful the way you did that speech at the trial. I almost fell out of my chair laughing."

"So you were the one," George grinned.

The doctor leaned forward with an air of confidentiality, Frankly, son, a lot of people agreed with you. It's just that no one wanted to speak out against the social pressure," He tapped George's knee. "That's why Elaine's idea was not bad. You know, in time, this whole thing will blow over and you're liable to be vindicated. Crazier things have happened."

George laughed. "When that time comes, I'll just stroll in out of the desert and you can pin a medal on me."

The doctor's eyes narrowed. "You know, the human body is a marvelous organism. And we've made humans a lot better than they used to be, stronger, completely immune to every disease, a marvelous work of engineering. But, you know something, son? There is something we don't know and that's the limit of human endurance. That's a mighty hostile world out there, but some mutant animals have survived, and you might just make it."

"There's always hope."

"There's something else." The doctor looked around. "Where's Elaine?"

She stepped out for a moment to pick up a few things I wanted."

"Good." The doctor took a small cloth from his pocket and unwrapped it. Inside was a small red capsule. "I want you to take this with you. It works instantly. If you find yourself in some untenable position, maybe some animal has you trapped and there's no escape, then you swallow this. Knock you out like a light being smashed with a brick. It could save you a lot of pain."

George's eyes opened wide in amazement. "First you give me hope and then you take it away. What kind of a doctor are you anyway?"

"The best kind," Dr. Samuels nodded. "It's true I don't cure anything anymore, just mend a few broken bones, stitch a cut or two, fish a splinter out of a finger now and then, but I do know my patients. That used to be more important than it is now. And I know you, George. What you did saddens me, but I respect you for it. I just wish—oh, well, time for me to toddle on. You'll want to be alone with Elaine tonight."

And they were alone, holding each other, savoring the minutes, and George's feeling of regret returned for a time, his chest damp with tears. His mind wandered from moment to moment, memories crowding in one upon another from childhood to marriage, from long ago to just last evening when he sat reading the poem while he waited for Elaine, carefully marking the three lines and inserting a slip of paper in the "book to hold the place. He drifted into sleep briefly and was startled by the insistent tone of the telephone shoving the outside world into his bedroom.

"It's time."

"Thank you, Donald. I'll be along directly."

"Please don't leave just yet." Elaine's voice was misty and plaintive. "Just a few more minutes."

He relented and stayed but then had to rush through his toilet, sipping first one and then a second cup of the synthetic coffee, better some said, those old enough to remember, than the original. Lacing his toots quickly, he stood straight in the mirror, the last image of himself he would see. The goodbye was agonizing and tearful lingering again just a bit too long, then, with him leaving book in hand, Elaine standing at the door just the way he wanted, just as he had requested.

Donald was waiting in the state limousine by the curb. "I was beginning to worry," he said.

“I’m here," George answered, the rest of his thoughts swallowed by the silence as they rode to the perimeter station in pre-dawn gray of the artificial night.

"Everything is ready for you, sir," the young guard at the exit air lock said respectfully.

"Thank you," Donald answered and then turned to George. "We'll be able to watch you for awhile," he said, indicating the television monitors. "It’s being broadcast live, you know. Everybody’s watching. Infrared until dawn and "then visual. We should be able to see you as far as the first ridge."

"Think I'll make it that far?" George grinned.

"You'll make it," Donald said confidently. "Here, I brought something for you, a canteen of water and some food." He handed George the canteen and the parcel.

"Is it allowed?"

"I didn't ask," Donald admitted. "Figured it would cause another endless discussion."

"I have to let you out now, sir," the guard said reluctantly.

George turned to his attorney. "Donald, you asked me why. Here, I want you to read this poem, It's called In Memoriam by Tennyson. I marked the lines."

"George, I —."

"No. Please, just one favor. I borrowed the book from Dr. Samuels. It’s one of the few real books left. See that he gets it back."

"I'll take care of it."

"Thank you, Donald." George clasped his friend's hand in his own. It was not enough. Donald's arms wrapped around him a great hug, awkward and tender.

"Goodbye, Donald."

"Goodbye, George."

"Sir?" The young man was tentative. "Could I shake your hand?"

George felt the wave of emotion that engulfed him, his eyes filling with a rush of moisture. So it was all not in vain after all. There was hope. He shook the young man's hand, warm and tightly. "Stay free," he muttered.

"Yes, sir."

The inner door slid open and George stepped through. "Take care," Donald called as the heavy metal door clanged shut. He was alone. Slowly the outer door opened and a wave of cold air slammed into him. He bundled his collar close to his neck and walked outside. He would have to keep moving, maintain his warmth.

He walked slowly at first, then quickening his pace, set out briskly in the shadows of the city lights from the great dome. This was it. He was committed, step after step, farther and farther, exhilarated now as he found he could conquer the cold, his force of will stronger that the relentless assault of nature. By the time dawn crept hesitantly across the horizon, he was some five kilometers from the city and climbing the ridge. The path was harder now, his breath coming faster, his steps more labored.

He was beginning to feel depressed, angry with himself. Why was he so foolish? And then, as he reached the top of the ridge and stood beneath the canopy of silver morning light, he heard the sound of bells, the roaring clanging, peeling of hundreds of bells shouting from the loudspeakers on the dome far below, the clatter of ringing resounding across the desert and splitting the cool dawn into fragments and slivers of wild bells bellowing.

George grinned, deep and full. So Donald had read the passage. George could just imagine the lawyer frantically searching for the right tape, the right recording to carry the message. The lines tinkled above the peeling thunder: Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,  . . . Ring out, wild bells, and let him die  . . . Ring in the valiant man and free, . ..

So Donald understood. Perhaps the young man as well. Perhaps others in time. There was hope in going forth, a renewal of purpose, of ideals. And there was freedom. George waved his arm high above his head, waving back at the city, defiantly smiling, knowing they were watching with television cameras.

He turned and walked down the other side of the ridge, out of sight now, the bells still ringing as he walked purposefully into the horizon, out of the darkness of the land.

 

The End

Copyright 2010 by Daniel E. Speers


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