Tyree Campbell

One argument against the death penalty is that it's cheaper to give someone a life sentence than to execute them. Well, in most cases.

The young man pitched the I.D. into the open transfer tray, spoke his name--Jojon Rillard--and doffed his yellow plastic helmet to present a better view of his face, trying not to be intimidated by the twenty-foot concrete stockade. "I'm here to pick up my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather."

The guard levered the tray to his side of the window and examined both the I.D. and Rillard, daring a characteristic to differ. His sigh signified failure. "I can't let you in. Maximum security, you know." There was a metallic reverberation as he punctuated the statement with a whack of his zapper against the chain-link fence that enclosed the sally port. "'sides, technically you're not a visitor."

Rillard shrugged. He had anticipated "technical" impediments: delays, interviews, data templates to complete, background minutiae to disclose, ultimately their resort to the letter of regulation. Not that he wanted to enter the Carnation Center for Ultra-Maximum Security--who would? But he didn't want to wait outside in the Iowa sun while the security guard enjoyed the relative comfort of shade, either--who would?

Curious that the guard didn't ask for the name of his Gee-to-the-eighth grandfather. Surely some obscure statute required you to know precisely whom you were picking up, even if there were no one else it could be.

Wind stuttered, and a dust devil sieved through the chain-link. Rillard shut his eyes and held his breath. Grit hissed against the shatterproof window and ricocheted onto his blue leather outsuit, catching in the fibers of the collar-to-crotch ventral seal. It also blew up his nose. Rillard turned his face away and sneezed. The barren panorama fluttered like a monitor with a dying solar cell, then bounced back into focus. Half a mile to the north sprawled Verdania, a malchristening if ever there were one, neatly laid out by protractor and laser compass, aligned longitudinally to minimize overhead sunlight, not a single tree visible above the Sumerian mosaic of tangerine-tiled roofs. Beyond Verdania squatted the mininuke temple, beside it rose the exhaust ziggurat. Rillard could almost hear the steady mechanical whine of power feeding the air coolers and the fridges and stoves and culinary paraphernalia and God-knew what-all in the town built to support the Carnation Center and the incarceration of Clyde Ahmed Bedess Washington, Junior.

"He's dangerous, you know," said the guard. "And incorrigible."

Cab Washington had refused to register for a military draft or to kill Indochinese natives in a spat du jour. Instead, he had killed the two police officers dispatched to arrest him for refusing to kill Indochinese natives. The powers that be in Dallas, a predeluvian hotbed of death penalty passions, had elected to blunt protest marches and a shutdown of sanitation and janitorial services by suggesting to the prosecuting attorney that a prolonged incarceration would in this instance be acceptable, to say nothing of prudent. Cab Washington had been sentenced to 360 years in prison on each of two counts of murder of a police officer, terms to run consecutively, with time off for good behavior (chortle), one good day worth two days of sentence (snicker).

"He's served his time," said Rillard.

"He should have died. He was supposed to die."

"Then you should have imposed the death penalty."

"I just work here, Mister."

You and fifty others. The warden. The sergeant of the guard. The guards in the corner towers he'd seen while flying over the rammed-dirt road in the black skimmer with the yellow speed detailing and the kayak-shaped sidecar, now docked ten yards away in the vast but otherwise empty lot. The armorer for the weapons the guards carried. Guard shifts, working in pairs. Maybe a roving pair on the parapets, if the stockade had parapets. Someone to run the cafeteria, someone to serve the food, someone to clean up. Laundry, cleaning, maintenance and repair, transportation to and from Verdania for each shift, someone to operate the transport, someone to maintain it. Medical, dental, recreational, educational, nutritional.

You and a hundred and fifty others.

Wives, partners, children. Schools, teachers, nurses, student advisors, administrators. Grocery stores, grocers, clerks, deliveries, loaders. Pharmacies, pharmacists and assistants, more clerks. Furniture stores, and more clerks. Accountants, managers, assistant managers, recyclers. communications operation and maintenance, plumbers, electricians, solaricians, sheet-metal technicians for the air ducts and the radioabsorbent siding.

You and three hundred others. All utterly dependent on the lingering incarceration of Clyde Ahmed Bedess Washington, Junior, and the remuneration for the work and services performed pursuant thereto.

"They said you was the only one left," said the guard. "Last living relative."

"Where is he?"

"He'll be here." The guard, paused, drummed fingers, leaned his chair against the rear of the enclosure, squinted. "Think you inherited whatever it is he's got?"

The Washington name had died out five greats ago. But Canduca Washington had accommodated a vibro-artist named Xu Chali, and the issue from that evening eventually had taken up with Jayar Rillard. There'd been a lot of that going around, five greats ago. Whenever possible, survivors intermingled, because you never knew when you would get to intermingle again. Decades of planet-wide meteorological warfare and abuse will engender such uncertainties... but, then, peoples tend to react badly when their coastlines are inundated. Those who have coastlines. And those about to get them.

Rillard shrugged.

"How'd they find you, if you don't mind my asking?"

"DNA trace. Apparently I had enough to qualify as a next-of-kin."

"That's how they identified you."

Rillard jerked his head toward the skimmer. The movement dislodged a bead of sweat, launching it off the tip of his nose. "In that I get known. Someone zapped my comm."

"You're a runner."

"From here to there. It pays."

"Run contraband?"

Everybody runs contraband. That's where the money is.


Movement in the vague ochre sky to the south caught Rillard's eye. Seabirds, he reckoned, drifting north with the high-pressure system that scared the clouds off but not the ubiquitous haze. Whenever the breezes died, you could catch the faintest whiff of brine and decomposition from the Ouachita Islands in the Bay of Louisiarka. Surf fishing between the Bay and Keokuk Harbor was good this time of year, and he had been on his way there when the comm flashed across the datascreen on the skimmer instrumentation console. The false bottom in his sidecar contained eight fresh artichokes, to be delivered discreetly to the back door of the Life Mayor of Keokuk, whose partner had acquired a taste for them during a vacation to Fresno Beach. In exchange, he was guaranteed food and lodging to the end of the snook season, and a permit to fish them. Something he did because... well, just because. What other reason could there be? The detour to the Carnation Center cost him but two hours, easily made up. But he had assumed Cab Washington would be ready to go.

The guard's squint seemed a permanent affectation. "He know you?"

"I don't know. I don't think so."

"Why d'you suppose he lived so long?"

Why, indeed? For spite? Some old folks hung on just to watch the heir-expectants fidget. Some ripped the shroud off the Grim Reaper and played his ribs like a xylophone. Others simply gave up. What made a person want to live? To go on living? Especially nowadays.

Force of habit? The momentum of life?

"Maybe he thought it was funny," said Rillard, plucking at the damp fabric under his armpits, "the way it cost so much just to keep one man locked up forever. When I leave with him, this place will die, like an industry town whose company moves elsewhere. Like the sunken coal mines in the Appalachian Archipelago. Maybe it amused him to keep you occupied."

Whatever will you do, Rhett? Wherever shall you go?

"He was guilty, you know."

"After 273 years, who gives a fuck?"

"It was The Law put him here."

"And you."

"What's that s'posed to mean?"

"You need Cab Washingtons a lot more than they need you."

The guard pulled at his lower lip. "What're you going to do with him?"

"He's not on parole, or probation. He's free. He can do what he wants." Rillard looked away, at the haze and the seabirds. Already he could smell the snook and the smelt in the ancient iron skillet, hear the sizzle of the hot oil on the open fire, feel the sand between his toes. Maybe his Gee-eighth ancestor understood what it meant to be alone with your thoughts, your memories, your reveries, by a solitary fire on a dark beach. Maybe the incorrigible Cab Washington just wanted to go fishing. He could, now. He could do whatever he wanted.

"There he comes," said the guard.

Rillard couldn't look. How many wrinkles did Methuselah have? Or any of the Biblical patriarchs who lived to ages old and ripe? He sniffed, but the breeze deflected whatever fetid aromas emanated from the man. He flicked his eyes there, and away. A glimpse of a very black man, like an old pygmy, stooped of shoulder and hobbled of gait, pate agleam, attired in cafeteria whites and scarred brown slippers. Smiling.

He looked again, longer.

Not exactly a smile. Almost a smirk. But the weariness of the rest of his expression said the victory included a terrible cost.

In his knobby left hand Cab Washington carried a sheaf of documents. Rillard reckoned they pertained to his new status. The old man did not so much as glance at the guard as he passed. He gimped toward the black and yellow skimmer as if he knew it was waiting for him. He spilled himself into the sidecar, and finally looked back over his shoulder. Let's go, young'un. Rillard's neck creaked with the effort the old man made.

With a parting wave at the guard, Rillard boarded up the skimmer, initialized power and controls, and eased her out of the docklot.

"Put this on," said Rillard, passing the old man a battered orange helmet.

Cab Washington gave no indication that he had heard, or had noticed the helmet. He stared straight ahead, at the dead-brown roadway over which the skimmer passed without touching, at the eastern horizon where orange land met orange sky. With the sun behind them, they seemed to rocket directly into their own shadows.

"We off the grounds yet?"

The words startled Rillard into five seconds of silence.

"I reckon so."

"Thank God Almighty," cried Washington, in a fluid, prolonged gospel tone, and died.

Rillard slowed the skimmer. In and of themselves the words meant nothing to him, but in that tone they became a last will and testament. Gently he nestled the helmet on Washington's lolling head, and gradually reaccelerated the skimmer toward Keokuk Harbor.

"Let's go fishing," he whispered.

Tyree Campbell ( is a retired U.S. Army translator. His first SF e-novel, Nyx, will be released in 2001, and his second, The Dog At The Foot Of The Bed, is scheduled for release early in 2002. At present he is collaborating on an illustrated fantasy novel. When he is not writing, he is thinking about writing. Otherwise, he and Beth tend pets and plants and each other.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2001 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 11, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2001 Tyree Campbell.