Journey to the Heavy South

You leave in the morning
With everything you own in a little black case
Alone on the platform
The wind and the rain

I wonder what he did?

He stands there looking out to sea, stood on the platform like a lighthouse, eyes starkly watching the drizzly horizon.

The weather is filthy, but that’s no surprise these days. The so-called “Storm of the century” five years ago was followed by three further ones since then. The portents of the society we have created?

His case gives him away. A small, black cube with a silver handle. A sight that shocks most onlookers in to embarrassment. Not me though, I’m numb to it now. I know he deserves what he has got coming. Myself and the other Watchers monitor him closely, as we have ever since his conviction one week ago.

Some of the identities of the Convictees we know such as the ones that garrotte women in back alleys or set fire to churches. Is this man a political terrorist? We seem to be shipping more and more of those types off to the Heavy South.

The man maintains his gaze over the grey sea, waves are crashing upon the shore and seawater comes over the flood barrier onto the platform. Is he contemplating jumping in? Probably.

However, if he does 66,600 volts will penetrate his body via his neck. All four Watchers on shift have their fingers just half a second away from pressing the fizzbutton. They all try something stupid once. Rarely do they attempt a second time.

According to the shift-log this guy hasn’t tried once. He doesn’t look the type. Square-jawed, darkly handsome with close cropped grey hair. He looks a strong bugger. I’m not sure how long that will last.

The log also details his fears and phobias. This is the bit that still turns my stomach. I defy anyone who has seen what I’ve seen to not feel the same way. The Watchers are a grimly professional bunch but what awaits this bloke…

The train has slowly made its way to the platform without me even noticing. There are six Convictees and twenty four Watchers in today’s batch. None of the Convictees look well known. It seems the days of serial killers and political assassins are over. The Convictees are all men, as are the Watchers.

The only women are stood on the opposite platform. I can see them through both sets of train windows. Family members perhaps, or the oglers off to see the condemned men pay for their crimes. They all stand in silence as we all do on our side of the platform as the electric train arrives almost silently.

Six carriages – one for each Convictee. Our man finally breaks his gaze with the sea and turns and walks straight into the train. Most of the other Convictees do the same.

I glance to my right and one of the Convictees is on the floor shrieking that he doesn’t want to go. No need for the fizzbutton, two Watchers simply lift him up by his arms and carry him on to the train. A third Watcher pulls the case on board.

WIthin seconds of everyone embarking, the doors slide shut and the train quietly departs. A rather underwhelming departure when you consider where we are going and also compared to the crowds 19 years ago when the first Convictees were sent for their diabolical punishment.

I remember the day well. I was twenty-three and the second youngest of the Watchers. Due to the crowds there was twenty Watchers for just one Convictee as well as thousands of soldiers. The press called him the Demon Priest even though he wasn’t a priest, just used a lot of religious imagery in his killings and his letters to the media.

As the country had polarised and splintered crime had began to rise to record levels. After a lull of decades, mass serial killers returned to the streets. And none were worse or more gratuitous than Mark Marsh. A rather rubbish name for a renowned killer, I always thought.

Over four years thirty-three teenage girls and boys were murdered. They were always left in public places and heavily disfigured often in sickening biblical poses. As public and press intolerance of criminals escalated the Demon Priest became the most notorious murderer since Jack the Ripper. The government and police brought in ever more draconian laws. As the murders continued and became even more brazen the government brought in a radical punishment once he was caught and for any other serious criminal.

It was almost a game for the Demon Priest. His letters to the newspapers announced he had one more murder to go. The uproar in the country was at fever pitch and then it happened.

The nine year old Princess Elizabeth was found decapitated and her body placed in front of the royal palace. As the guards found her body they also saw the Demon Priest holding the young child’s head in his arms stroking her hair. Her eyes had been removed and placed on either side of his body facing the world.

Marsh was remanded in custody until the new punishment centre was built at a staggering cost. The day he departed to the Heavy South was a day completely unlike today.

An estimated three hundred thousand people had descended in forty degree heat to see the train depart. Pandemonium ensued and over six hundred people were killed in the riots, stampedes and shootings by soldiers that followed.

The Demon Priest laughed all the way there on the train. The next time I saw him three years later and all the times since he no longer laughs. Justice came to him. What about these guys here today?

It isn’t forbidden to speak to the Convictees but it is frowned upon. As group leader I have never spoken to a single one about their lives, just ordered them around.

I look at the impassive face of the man, trying to read him. It’s impossible and today won’t be the day I speak to him. The whispers around Watch Base 4 are that people who speak out against the government are the ones they are shipping away now. The threat of being sent to the Heavy South has seen crime drop to new lows.

The government may deny it but the papers are unable to find enough crime stories to print these days. They just reprint tales of the Demon Priest and others to keep the people scared of crime, encouraged by the government. I have it on good authority that there was less than sixty murders in the last year. Twenty years ago it was over eleven thousand.

We head underground and the gradient decreases drastically. We are travelling seventeen miles below ground and every time I make this journey a little part of me dies. Only five months until retirement for me and I can’t wait. Speeding ever further underground, the red lights illuminate the way.

After twenty minutes we arrive. The doors open, the Convictees disembark and see the sign, in standard railway station font which simply states: “HELL”.

The impassive man’s face is no longer the stoic countenance it once was. He is breathing heavily, although the oppressive heat might also be a contributing factor.

The entrance level is like any standard police station with strip lighting and bureaucracy to endure. The anguished screams beyond this vestibule belies the apparent normality.

Our Convictee is led to the Hellguard, a wiry woman of around thirty years.

“Log,” she says to me. I hand it over. She glances at the top page.

“Heights,” she says, and a small, pursed smile passes her lips, “I think you know where to take him.” He drops off the black case. All his possessions had earlier been destroyed. The only thing it contains is a letter containing his sentence. 1000 years here in Hell.

I’ve clearly being doing this too long. My job is to walk the Convictee to his circle where he will spend the rest of his life. The Hellguards will take him from me and will monitor to him twenty-four hours a day.

As we prepare to enter the Great Hall a sign above unsurprisingly quotes Dante and still makes me shudder when I see it: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. So, so apt. The Convictee sees it, glances at me and we hold our gaze for a few seconds. Perhaps he can see in my eyes what is through the doors. His eyes are watering and he breaks my gaze as the doors slide open.

I keep a hand on his shoulder as we enter the new Hell. It looks like a demonic shopping centre. Nine huge ringed levels with virulently vivid colours and noise. It is quite easily the most overwhelming place in the country. It comprises about seven hundred individual cells and all the cells are open and visible to everyone.

The impassive man is sobbing now as he can see some of the sights as I walk him to the guardrail of the first ring. An old grey-haired woman is sat on a chair surrounded by what looks like thousands of squirming snakes. She is frozen in the chair as they slither round her beige leg, bleeding from multiple bites. I know she has been here over ten years.

A young lad of around twenty is being repeatedly dunked upside down into a pool of water. I tell the man almost robotically that this form of waterboarding happens to him about nineteen hours a day, every day.

Another young man is covered in a plastic spherical bubble with only his hand and feet outside. Inside the bubble are a multitude of bees. He runs around his cell screaming and collapses on the floor. The bees are stinging him repeatedly. A bunch of hellguards in protective outfits take him out of the bubble and pacify the bees.

“In an hour he will be placed in another one,” I say.

“It’s inhuman,” the man replies.

I don’t say anything but lead him up the levels. The man witnesses a multitude of abhorrent sights. Brutal sodomising of sex offenders is a common theme, a man scared of fire being in a room constantly surrounded by flames, a man being crucified upside down, a teenage lad strapped to a chair being slapped by a succession of young girls, a woman blindfolded in a room with an uneven floor full of scalding radiators.

We reach the top level where a fat male Hellguard takes the impassive man. He looks around at me.

“What will they do to me?” he asks, his voice cracking like the sound of walking on winter leaves.

Before I can ask the hellguard pushes the man off the ring. I watch him fall and hear him scream. He lands about eight metres below the bottom level. There is a safety net at the bottom and Hellguards will bring him back to the top for his punishment to be endlessly repeated. They will vary the punishments each time, tying him up or leaving him dangling for hours, if not days.

As I prepare to leave the Great Hall I head to see the oldest serving prisoner. The Demon Priest is held in a special cell behind the first ring level. Upon his initial entry into Hell his tongue and vocal cords were removed. He would no more utter his filth.

It had taken multiple experiments to find his weak spot. His love of masochism meant a lot of tests were run. This was not unique and the creativity of the Hellguards never surprises me.

During the days of testing, a strip of skin was removed from his arm leaving his bare flesh exposed. The reaction this received was manna for the Hellguards. They had found his weakness and his demeanour changed immediately from brash egotist to a very scared man.

A special germ-free, heated room was built and Mark Marsh was flayed over a period of weeks and kept under constant supervision. Despite his every attempt at killing himself by self-harming he was prevented from doing so.

I arrive at his cell and look through the window at him. He no longer looks human which befits a monster like him. By removing his skin his humanity has been stripped away. Nineteen years of this and he is beaten and broken. I always wondered if the public saw an image of this man would they say “no more”?

I head back to the train and wonder what the impassive man had done. The righteousness of what has been done to the Demon Priest has always quelled any unease I felt at the actions committed here. As the voices of despair fade I wonder if the atrocities we are committing now are the right thing to do and if there is anything we can do to stop it. Is there something I can do?

by Martin O’Brien based on Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat

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