Charmaine can’t stop herself from wondering if the head can see her. She enters her code, verifies it with her thumb, stares at the iris reader beside the head box until it blinks.

“Thank you,” says the head. A plastic key slides out of a slot at the bottom of the box. Charmaine pockets it. “Here is your top-confidential Special Procedure for today.” A slip of paper emerges from a second slot: room number, Positron Prison name, age, last dosage of sedative, and when administered. The man must be pretty doped up. It’s better that way.

She keys herself into the dispensary, locates the cabinet, codes its door open. There’s the vial, all ready for her, and the needle. She snaps on her gloves.

In the assigned room, the man is attached to his bed at five points, as they always are now, so thrashing around, kicking, and biting are not possible. He’s groggy but awake, which is good. Charmaine is in favour of awake: it would be wrong to carry out the Procedure on someone who’s asleep, because they would miss out. On what exactly she’s not sure, but on something that’s nicer than it otherwise would be.

He looks up at her: despite the drugs, he’s clearly frightened.

He tries to speak: a thickened sound comes out. Uhuhuhuh... They always make that sound; she finds it a little painful.

“Hello,” she says. “Isn’t it a lovely day? Look at all that sunshine! Who could be down on a day like today? Nothing bad is going to happen to you.” This is true: from all she’s observed, the experience appears to be an ecstatic one. The bad part happens to her, because she’s the one who has to worry about whether what she’s doing is right. It’s a big responsibility, and worse because she isn’t supposed to tell anyone what she’s actually doing, not even Stan.

Granted, it’s only the worst criminals, the incorrigibles, the ones they haven’t been able to turn around, who are brought in for the Procedure. The troublemakers, the ones who’d ruin Consilience if they had the chance. It’s a last resort. They’d reassured her a lot about that.

Most of the Procedures are men, but not all. Though none of the ones she’s done have been women, yet. Women are not so incorrigible: that must be it.

She leans over, kisses this man on the forehead. A young man, smooth-skinned, golden under the tattoos. She leaves the mask in her pocket. She’s supposed to wear it for the Procedure to protect against germs, but she never does: a mask would be scary. No doubt she’s being monitored via some hidden camera, but so far no one has reprimanded her about this minor breach of protocol. It’s not easy for them to find people willing to carry out the Procedure in an efficient yet caring way, they’d told her: dedicated people, sincere people. But someone has to do it, for the good of all.

The first time she attempted the forehead kiss, there was a lunge of the head, an attempt at snapping. He’d drawn blood. She requested that a neck restraint be added. And it was. They listen to feedback, here at Positron.

She strokes the man’s head, smiles with her deceptive teeth. She hopes she appears to him like an angel: an angel of mercy. Because isn’t she one? Such men are like Stan’s brother, Conor: they don’t fit anywhere. They’ll never be happy where they are – in Positron, in Consilience, maybe even on the entire Planet Earth. So she’s providing the alternative for him. The escape. Either this man will go to a better place, or else to nowhere. Whichever it is, he’s about to have a great time getting there.

“Have a wonderful trip,” she says to him. She pats his arm, then turns her back so he can’t see her sliding the needle into the vial and drawing up the contents.

Off we go,” she says cheerfully. She finds the vein, slips in the needle.

Uhuhuh, he says. He strains upward. His eyes are horrified, but not for long. His face relaxes; he turns his gaze from her to the ceiling, the white blank ceiling, which is no longer white and blank for him. He smiles. She times the procedure: five minutes of ecstasy. It’s more than a lot of people get in their whole lifetimes.

Then he’s unconscious. Then he stops breathing. The heart goes last.

Textbook. If anything, better. It’s good to be good at what you do. She codes in the numbers that signal a successful termination, drops the needle into the recycling bin – not much sense in having sterile needles for the Procedure, so they get reused. Positron is big on anti-waste. She peels off the gloves, contributes them to the Save Our Plastics box, then leaves the room. Others will now arrive, do whatever is done. The death will be recorded as “cardiac arrest,” which is true so far as it goes.

What will happen to the body? Not cremation; that’s a wasteful power draw. And no inmates in any form, dead or alive, depart through the gates of Consilience. She’s wondered about organ harvesting, but wouldn’t they want them brain-dead and on a drip rather than plain old dead, period? Surely the fresher the better, when it comes to organs. Protein-enriched livestock feed? Charmaine can’t believe they’d do that, it wouldn’t be respectful. But whatever happens, it’s bound to be useful, and that’s all she needs to know. There are some things it’s better not to think about.

Tonight she’ll join the knitting circle, as usual. Some of them are doing little cotton hats for infants, some of them are working on a new thing – blue knitted teddy bears, so cute. “Had a nice day?” the knitting circle women will say to her. “Oh, a perfect day,” she’ll reply.

Excerpted with permission from The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury.