The heavy iron gate clattered across its frigid rails. Heating this area of the prison wasn’t high on the list of the city’s priorities. A tall man dressed in a fine coat and suit, both black as night, stepped through the portal, gently tugging on his young ward’s hand. Dressed similarly to his role model, the young boy gingerly stepped across the rusted iron of the gate’s track. The guard bowed his head in respect before triggering the gate to trundle back into the closed position. A chorus of clangs rang out as the iron bars of the barrier rattled shut.
“Now, Matthew, remember what I taught you,” the man said calmly and confidently. “This is your duty – your right even. This is a special occasion, even more precious than your birthday.”
“Yes sir,” the boy managed to whisper, his breath hanging briefly in the air as a white cloud before dissipating in the thick atmosphere of the prison.
The light-yellow concrete walls were slick with a thin layer of condensation. Even the rigorous sanitisation of this hallowed area wasn’t enough to completely rid the area of the slight smell of mould. Matthew felt his heart leaping in his chest. He wasn’t completely sure of what he was here to do, but he had been pulled from his school specifically for this. The young boy wasn’t entirely sure who his patron was, however everyone around him did, and they treated him with a combination of fear and respect that not even his school’s principal commanded. Matthew changed into the clothes provided to him by his patron and sat silently in the chauffeured car as it wound its way from the private school to this distant penitentiary. It was the closest that Matthew had ever been to the Wall. From his home at the boarding school he couldn’t see the massive structure, but now it sat like a thick black border between the land and the sky, replacing the horizon. The boy was happy when the entered the prison and the Wall disappeared from his view.
But now, as they marched along the long, narrow corridor of empty cells, he was overcome with a nervous dread. This building was set apart from the large yard and the grey concrete dormitories that made up the general population of the prison. The cells inside were barren, furnished with little more than a sprung cot bolted to the wall, a small wash basin in one corner and a steel latrine in the other. A thin slit of a window was high on the wall; so high that you would only be able to see sky through it, and bordering the window were large numbers painted in black; stark against the yellow walls. The cells were separated from the corridor by barred gates like the one through which the man and boy had just passed. At the far end of the corridor was an entirely different door, one made of lacquered wood with a small glass window embedded at eye height. The other side appeared heated; the glass was clouded with condensation on the far side.
Then, Matthew saw him.
Unlike the green jumpsuits that the inmates that he had seen had been wearing, this man’s clothes were a deep red. Even as he sat on his cot in his cell, he was shackled at his hands, and his ankles were chained to a small loop of steel set into the wall under the cot. His breathing was shallow, and even in the numbing cold, beads of sweat were dotted across his brow.
“You see, Matthew, this city works because everyone has a very specific role to play. Every day there are a number of tasks to be completed to ensure our survival. Crops need to be grown and harvested, animals need to be raised, slaughtered and their bodies converted into food and clothing. Our scientists need to keep researching the secrets of the world around us, and our artists help add meaning to our lives,” the patron stated in a speech that even five-year-old Matthew had heard too many times.
“We all have our part to play,” he replied, like the response to a pastor’s prayer.
“Yes, that’s right Matthew. And people like you and I allow people a large degree of freedom in how they live their lives. So long as all of the tasks are completed, it doesn’t matter who completes them. Freedom of choice is the gift that we give our dependant citizens.”
This was a new part of the lecture, one that Matthew had not heard before. He tried, in vain, to swallow the fear that he could feel building in his gut. The man in the red jumpsuit stared at the well-dressed duo on the other side of the bars, his eyes appearing to plead with Matthew.
“This man, however, decided that he wanted to add nothing to our society, that he only wanted to take from it. In doing so, he has decided to abandon us, to leave our community. Sometimes, we can see hope for such criminals, some value that we can extract from them or some hope for rehabilitation. Those are the men and women that you saw outside.”
“But this man…,” Matthew whispered, barely audible.
“That’s right. There is nothing more that this man can do for us. So, just as the surgeon removes a vestigial organ, like an appendix, we shall remove this man from our society. And you, child, will help me do so,” the man proclaimed before turning towards the wooden door and nodding. With a clink the door opened, and two uniformed guards stepped out. They tipped their hats silently at Matthew and his patron before taking position in front of the prisoner’s iron gate.
“Open Cell Ten!” the guard called out, which was immediately followed by an electric buzzer and the cell’s door shuddering into life. The red-suited man shuffled against his chains but to no avail. Matthew’s patron placed his hand on the shoulder of the closest guard and nodded. The guard stepped back to allow the man access to the cell. Taking Matthew by the hand, he pulled the young boy into the cell. He knelt down in front of the man, who’s trembling breath sounded thunderous in the silent death row.
“Now, Matthew, I want you to feel this man’s face,” he said, forcing Matthew’s small hand against the condemned man’s cheek. The man recoiled initially with a snarl, but the guards drew their nightsticks and he settled, silently. “Feel how warm it is, how slick his sweat is, how he trembles at your touch. This man, clearly is alive. And, as you can see, he wants to stay that way. But, and this is important, Matthew, we all must die. We have thirty years before our Clocks run out. In that time, you can choose to make a difference, or to simply live out your days. That is your own choice. If you are a part of society, then society will accept you. But if not…” the man grinned sadistically, “…then I will remove you from this planet.”
Without warning, the man stood up, and the guards hurried into the cell, releasing the man from his ankle shackles, attaching a new set of cuffs to his feet and connecting them to the manacles on his wrists with a short chain.
“Dead Man Walking,” the guard called out to no-one in particular. They led the prisoner out of his cell and through the wooden doorway. The man put his arm on Matthew’s shoulder and led him behind the three men of the death party. Inside there was a wood-panelled room with a number of cupboards. Two black chairs sat facing each other; in one sat a man of faith, dressed in his formal garb.
“And here you see one of the principle pillars of society – compassion,” the man whispered to Matthew. The priest offered the condemned man a seat before opening a cupboard on the wall, revealing a miniature shrine, its joyous golden appearance a stark contrast to the purpose of this room. The guards took up position either side of the wooden door, sliding it shut and locking the door with a manual key. They then removed their hats, and the priest began is ministrations. His low whispering unnerved Matthew. He had heard the death ritual before, but only at funerals. The condemned man, however, was still very much alive. His eyes burned with fear and desperation, but it appeared that his body was unable to fight back.
Matthew shuffled in his suit. He was used to wearing fine clothes but this suit was brand new. The fabric rustled as he moved, trying to make it feel comfortable against his skin. This room was heated, and he was starting to sweat, causing the thin woollen fibres to rub against him, irritating his young skin. His patron looked down at him sternly and silently shook his head in displeasure. Matthew interpreted the meaning and stopped shuffling, biting his lower lip to distract himself from the itching.
The priest finished his incantations, lit an incense burner, and closed the door on the shrine. For the first time, the condemned man spoke in a broken, nervous voice. “C-can you leave that open, Father?” his voice was hoarse, his throat dry.
“My son, the good Lord does not wish to see what will transpire here. I will bear witness for him,” the priest replied in a calm yet irritated voice. The prisoner shivered before swallowing and slightly nodding.
The guards parted a deep blue curtain behind the prisoner, revealing the sterile death chamber beyond. Two concentric red squares were painted in the centre of the room, above which a thick rope hung from a pulley. One end was tied through a series of steel loops on one wall, the other lay coiled on the floor, tied in a noose. The guards gently guided the prisoner to the centre of the red squares, covered his head in a black hood, and put the noose around his neck. They turned him to face a floor-to-ceiling window, on the far side of which were assembled a number of witnesses; some dressed in suits and carrying clipboards, others pointing television cameras into the death chamber and the collection chamber below.
Matthew stood at the back of the death chamber, his sweaty palms grasping firmly onto his patron’s hands. Although young, he knew what was about to transpire, and it terrified him. His heart felt like it would beat out of his chest, and his throat was completely dry. He tried continually to swallow but he couldn’t gather the saliva to moisten even his mouth. Involuntary tears welled in his eyes, and he blinked furiously to try and keep them from running down his cheek.
The guards finished their preparations and stepped back to the corners of the room.
“Have you any final statement, sir?” Matthew’s patron called out to the man.
“P-please tell me it’s not the kid that’s going to do it…” the condemned whimpered.
“I can tell you whatever you want to hear, but that won’t necessarily make it true,” was the reply. The condemned, his shoulders heaving in trembling sobs, stood silently.
“It’s time, Matthew,” said the suited man, dragging the boy by his hands to the control room adjacent to the death chamber. Three buttons were mounted upon the wall, each with a green bezel above it. Two were already lit; the third had a step ladder placed conspicuously in front of it.
“You know what you have to do, Matthew,” the man said in a low growl. He didn’t use this tone often, but when he did, Matthew knew that he had no choice but to comply.
“B-but…” he whimpered as he climbed up the step ladder.
“This is your destiny, Matthew. You have a great future – but I need to know that you can look after this society as I have, and my predecessors before me. If you can’t sacrifice this man for the benefit of the ten million that live within the Wall, then how can you lead them?” he growled.
Matthew didn’t answer, but he laid his tiny, trembling hand atop the button. He lost his fight to stop his tears flowing, and he felt them streaming down his cheek. He closed his eyes and hesitated.
“Do it!” commanded the man. Matthew’s hand moved automatically, pressing the button home. The trapdoor swung back with a thud, and Matthew watched the prisoner in his red jump suit fall into the cold, grey room below. The body bounced and the rope strained against the sudden strain, but stayed fast. Matthew watched in horror as the victim’s limbs flailed against the manacles, his feet tapping out a desperate dance. Matthew’s patron came and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, and the two of them watched as the man’s life slowly came to an end.
“It looks like they didn’t use enough rope. Oh well, it is more of an art than a science, really,” the man commented. “Come now, let’s go examine the results.”
Matthew discreetly wiped his cheeks on his black woollen coat before the man led him down the steel, spiral staircase to the concrete collection chamber below.
“Mr Director, a great show today! Is this the young man you were telling us about?” a man from the gallery called down into the chamber.
“Why, of course. This is Matthew Wingett, my protégé. Today is his 5th birthday,” the Director called up proudly, giving Matthew a fatherly squeeze on the shoulder. “Wave to the Chief Justice, Matthew,” he commanded. The young boy waved up at the gallery, and felt a slight twinge of pride as the assembled witnesses gave him a round of applause.
The guards in the death chamber above released the rope, and aides in the collection chamber laid the body out on a gurney, removing the black hood and rope.
“Come, let’s examine your work,” said the Director, leading Matthew to the corpse. The man’s eyes, previously so full of fight and desperation, were bloodshot and protruding from his skull, with blood-red bags under his eyes and cheeks flushed red in a fearful visage. His neck was stretched but not broken, bruised red, black and blue by the fall and strangulation. His tongue lolled out of his mouth, which was covered in a foamy spittle. Matthew also smelt the piss and shit that had passed from the man, staining the red jumpsuit.
“Look, touch him,” the Director said, once again pressing the young hand against the dead man’s cheek. This time, however, there was no reaction. Matthew could also start to feel the deathly cold that was spreading through the man. “A moment ago, he was alive; now he is dead. But, as a living criminal he had nothing to offer our city. Now, however, he has something to offer.”
Doctors in surgical robes appeared in the collection chamber and cut the man’s chest open. They removed his organs with ruthless efficiency; if they waited too long then necrosis would set in and the organs would spoil. They rushed the organs off through a door, before aides opened a small portal at the end of the chamber. A wave of hot air rushed from the red-hot cavity beyond. The aides pushed the gurney against the portal and then stuffed the mutilated corpse into the incinerator before closing the heavy metal door.
“And that, my son, is how we keep our society functional; by removing redundant parts. Come now, I think you’ve earned yourself an ice-cream. It is your birthday, after all.”