New Year’s Eve, and we all stand in line, but not for a party. Not yet, but maybe later for 90% of us. At 61 years old I’m one of the oldest people in this town, but this is the first time in my life that we’ve faced this date with genuine hope that the year ahead will be better than the one just passed.
This has not been a good year, with the ever-present poverty and shame giving way to nationwide mourning after the passing of our last king. The irony that the royal bloodline ended with the death of King William in 2066 was stark to me but lost on most people. There are few schools still standing, and those we have don’t teach history. At least, not any further back than the Civil War which started nearly 50 years ago now.
We won the war, and by “we” I mean The Rich. And lucky me, I was just old enough to fight in the last few years of it. I was only 18 when I served at the Slaughter of Salford, lauded at the time as our most noble victory, lamented nowadays as our most callous atrocity. It turned the tide of the war irrevocably in our favour, and was a key component in our ultimate triumph.
It was a pyrrhic victory. After years of fighting, and wasting all our resources to subdue or kill those less fortunate than ourselves, we ended the war poorer than our enemies had been at the start of it. We celebrated VP Day with stale bread and dirty water.
Guilt over the Civil War, and our failure to restore even the most basic levels of prosperity, have shaped both our national identity and everyday lives ever since. Countless initiatives have been tried down the years to solve these dual problems and all have failed miserably. But this latest invention promises to change our lives forever – The Redemption Machine.
Some people say it’s a product of genius, others that it’s a gift from God, while some claim that it’s just an infernal contraption which tortures indiscriminately or at the behest of the hierarchy. You don’t want to know what I think. Even I don’t want to know what I think. It’s dangerous to have opinions round here, and potentially suicidal to actually voice them.
What most people don’t know is that the machine was originally called The Decimator, but the council decided that the name had too many negative connotations. Yes, it would kill a tenth of the population, but only as part of the streamlining and self-improvement of the country as a whole. No point worrying the populace by selling it on its least appealing aspect.
It’s a magnificent and terrifying sight. A colossal mechanical beast, twenty feet high, ready to unleash its wrath. The technology behind it looks about two centuries out of date; it appears to be powered by steam and clockwork. I can see a vast, intertwining network of cogs, pulleys and pistons, but there is nothing whatsoever to indicate what might actually take place inside.
I watch the first man approach the machine. He seems to feel everybody’s eyes on him, because he looks self-consciously around as he steps in. There is a moment of complete silence. A collectively held breath. And then the screams begin. His howls of terror and agony transfix all of us stood outside, and the overwhelming sense of our own dread increases with each and every second that passes. Some in the line are shocked, but it’s just what I expected; nothing comes easily anymore, and redemption has its price. This year was always going to be the worst, anyway. On subsequent occasions we will only have twelve months of sin to purge, but today it’s our whole lives.
The screaming stops, and something amazing happens. The man re-emerges looking younger and infinitely happier than he did before he went in. He beams, waves to the onlooking crowd, and hugs the machine’s attendant in a warm and enthusiastic embrace.
The next person to go through is a young woman. I don’t know if the machine is chivalrous, but her ordeal appears to be much briefer and less extreme. However, when she comes out she doesn’t seem to appreciate this. She looks as if she feels cheated out of the transformative experience that her predecessor went through.
The people around me speculate that the machine inflicts the most pain for longest on the people who deserve the most punishment, but they in turn receive the most benefit from it. There is even some indignation at the perceived unfairness of them being thus rewarded for their misdeeds. Such talk ceases when the next man undergoes what sounds like an ordeal of unimaginable suffering, for a duration that seems never-ending. I wonder what he might have done to deserve such retribution, and am curious to see what state he’s in when he leaves the machine.
But when his cries finally come to an end, there is no sign of him. Instead, the machine’s attendant appears, addresses the crowd and announces “His body lives not, but his soul is saved. He is redeemed.”
Cheers go up all around me. I suspect they are celebrating their own increased chances of survival, rather the salvation of the soul of this presumably hitherto wicked man. We are here for redemption, but none of us want to join the ten percenters.
For the next few hours I watch a succession of people receive their penance and come out altered, or not at all. I try to count them, to keep a tally of the 10% quota and also because seeing them as numbers makes it seem less real. But inevitably, my mind wanders. It wanders back to Salford, and the faces of the children…
My turn finally comes, and as I step into the machine I just have time to think: I hope it doesn’t know about-