I was the tenth girl in the line of seventeen-year-old girls, the line was not exceedingly long as it consisted of just fifteen girls. All of us walked as fast we could, like we always do, at the same time making sure that we are not loud, which, to be frank, is not the case always, toward the Medical Centre Wing of Grooming Tech.
The Medical Center is in the exact center of Grooming Tech, a hub right in the center of an otherwise mostly Pentagonal compound. Medical Center is a stark white place consisting of undecorated white walls along with white tables and white cabinets, the medical personnel also wear a white coat with their bland smiles. The only colorful thing in each medical room is the blue sheets covering the beds.
The Medical Centre smelled of bleach and disinfectant. Every student is required to have their physicals done every 3 months once, to make sure that we are all in good physical condition. Vials and vials of our blood were taken right after we had been put through a rigorous fitness regimen.
After the results of the tests came back, a dietician would alter our diet based on the various test results for those who needed a different diet plan, extra physical activity was scheduled for those whose test results came up with unacceptable body fat percentage, high-calorie food was added to the food of those who weighed too little, and medicines were administered to those who required it.
Medical Centre is also the place where the Branding took place. We were all prepared well by our Protector who told us that it would not hurt initially but there will be a dull ache for a few days after the banding when the numbing medicines wear off.
Frankly speaking, I am not at all sure if I believe our Protectors. They told us exactly what was required to prepare us for the Coalesce day.
I looked ahead at the intimidating double doors, and my stomach started doing somersaults. I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes just for a minute in order to settle my unsettled nerves. I wrapped my left hand around my right wrist squeezing it a little, but my grip soon turned so tight that it began to hurt ‘You are being silly’, I chided myself.
Every adult Citizen wore a Brand on their wrists. And since my protector deemed me ready for Coalesce, I was considered an adult now.
I watched as Lily, who was first in the line, pushed the double doors wide open and walked forward with confidence, holding her head high. Meg, her best friend, was not right behind her, as she always was. I looked over my shoulder and saw her lagging in the back, her face scrunched up anxious and uncomfortable. I glanced at Vivian, who was standing right behind me and a nervous frown made its way to my features. She put her hand on my shoulder and gave me a reassuring squeeze.
I smiled at her and whispered, “Thank you”.
“Everything will be okay” she whispered back.
I nodded my head and mouthed 'I know' before I turned back around facing the front of the line.
But I did not know if everything will be all right though, how could I? How could any of us know? We just knew what the Protectors and our trainers told us. And we were taught to accept what they said without questioning them. So, I put a smile on my face after taking a deep breath and held my head up a little higher, trying to convince myself that it was all going to be okay, and then I walked through the open doors.
Dr. Zena was waiting for us inside. She is one hell of a robust woman, muscled, and tall. I would often think she could easily pass for a man, especially with how short she kept her hair.
She is the chief female medical officer at Grooming Tech, always ordering her assistants around with a gruff tone and a stern look. I was a Year Seven student when Dr. Zena became a new addition to the medical team. She has not changed much since. If anything, her muscles have gotten bigger, but she certainly has not gotten any nicer.
We were led over to a line of machines, which had been brought into the medical center for this procedure. The Citizen Branding booklets explained the process but reading though it did not have much of an impact. Standing in front of the machines, with your own flesh about to be marked, that did.
“All of you will move in an orderly fashion and follow the directions of the medical assistants. You will work your way from the right side of the room to the left side. After receiving your final mark for the day, make sure to take the medicine cup from the table at the door, swallow all of the liquid in the cup, and then exit to the Main Hall for Coalesce” Dr. Zena's voice boomed. Her voice boomed all the way down the hall, to the back of the line, with ease.
“Congratulations, you are about to complete your first step towards becoming Citizens of Committee One” I whispered to myself sarcastically.
When I reached the first machine, the medical assistant took hold of my arm. She wiped the inside of my forearm with cold, wet gauze and then inserted my arm, elbow deep, into the round, open slot in the machine “This is step one: Sanitizing and Numbing. It will feel a little warm, and then cold, and then it will feel warm again. Stand still, count to twenty, and when the machine beeps, you may remove your arm. Then move on to step two” she explained through the mask that covered her mouth and nose.
She was unrecognizable. A non-descript face doing a non-descript job… one step up from a Protector but far from being a lady of society, like Gloriana.
I nodded my head at her and then started the mental count down. The machine hissed and steam escaped from the hole my arm was inserted in. It drifted up toward the ceiling, and as I watched it rise, a blast of icy cold air washed over my skin. There was the stick of a needle, and then a warmth crept up my arm, starting at my wrist and traveling to just above my elbow.
The machine beeped notifying of the end of the first step. I moved on to the next stop, the medical assistant squinted her eyes at me, the only part of her face I could see, before she began her explanation.
“This is step two: Initial Searing. As you are already numbed, there will be no pain. You must try to hold perfectly still. The vice will keep your arm in place, so it should not be too hard” I stared blankly at her “Did you hear me?” she asked looking up at me.
“Yes, I did” I answered.
“Also… I would take deep breaths and relax if I were you” she whispered, “Do not inhale through your nose though” I nodded my head in understanding.
She took my arm, placed it into the machine, and I immediately felt pressure on my skin as she tightened the vices around my arm, around my wrist, and elbow. I heard two clicks and they were secured.
“Now!” she whispered as I saw a spark of white light coming from inside the machine. I felt more pressure on my wrist “Count to twenty again” the medical assistant instructed in a strong, clear voice.
I counted again and when I reached twenty the pressure on my wrist and elbow subsided. The internal vice was released, and I withdrew my right arm from the machine and inspected it.
A bright black circle had just been seared into my flesh. The assistant sprayed my arm with something. The liquid bubbled around the edges of the freshly seared skin.
I continued to hold my breath not wanting to smell the burnt odor, but it invaded my nostrils anyway, along with the medicinal smell of the spray. I dropped my arm, trying to keep it out of sight. Medical Assistant Number Two pointed toward the last machine and I continued.
“You are almost done” the third assistant standing in front of the last machine said. I could hear the smile in her voice “It is really not that bad at all, now is it?”
“I hope not” I shrugged looking at the black circle "It is not as bad as the smell though!"
She patted the chair “This is step three: Ink blue Imprint. I will insert your arm, another vice will hold it secure, and then you should…”
“…count to twenty” I finished for her with a smile remembering how the other assistants instructed.
“Good for you” she nodded as she placed my arm inside the machine.
I did not bother to count this time and simply waited for the vice to release me and then I removed my arm. An ink blue circle was surrounding the black one so close that the black seemed to be bleeding into the blue circle just a little, there was a slightly hazy smudge where the two circles met.
“Please step forward for your bandaging,” another assistant said as she gripped my elbow and pointed to the last station.
My wrist was slathered with some sort of a clear salve, wrapped in a white gauzy band, and taped securely. I started to walk toward the door but was stopped by a tap on my shoulder.
I glanced to my left and met the stern gaze of a Protector 'She looks familiar' I remembered her red curly hair and pale white skin dotted with freckles. Freckles… well, that was not really her name. It was just what we called our Protector when we were Year Three students.
Freckles handed me the cup of liquid Dr. Zena had told us to consume and shook her head at me “Celestina, you always had a challenging time following through with all of the directions. You can’t cut steps and still reach the end!” she warned waving her finger at me “A good Citizen follows all the rules.”
“I forgot” I grimaced mumbling a “Sorry.”
I swallowed the bitter, amber-colored liquid, it was thick and layered on my tongue. I scraped my tongue across my top teeth trying to remove some of the residues. Freckles gave me a push forward and I stepped out of the medical center. I continued walking forward toward the connecting building, which housed the Main Hall.
Step one, Citizen Branding, had been initialized. In eight months, it would be finalized. Now it was time for Coalesce.
Our Protector was standing at the entrance to the Main Hall, and next to her stood a man. The sight of a male face that was younger than one of our parents was more startling than I thought it would be.
He was probably in his mid-twenties, like our Protector, but was still a dozen or more years younger than any of the fathers that attended Visitation days. He smiled widely as we were ushered into the hall.
“Girls on the left and boys on the right,” he boomed, making sure he was heard over the nervous chatter in the room.
“Swiftly,” our Protector urged us into the room.
I glanced around the room as we all scooted down the rows to find an empty seat. The boys were entering the room from the other door. Another pair of Protectors were guiding them to their seats.
Every person that is present, male and female, was wearing a new white bandage… and almost everyone was grasping their right wrist with their left hand. I looked down at my own arm and then at Vivian’s. We were both doing the same.
I released my wrist and pointed toward the stage, to where Trainer Alpha stood behind the large wooden podium. She was a tall, really thin woman, with white hair that was twisted into a tight bun at the very top of her head.
Her wire-rimmed glasses were perched on the end of her nose. I do not think she’d ever had a corrective surgery or a beauty treatment in her life. She wore her age proudly, something Gloriana, or any of the other mothers or grandmothers I would see on Social Visit Days, would never do.
Gloriana had so many beauty treatments that she could pass as my older sister. Except for the sheen on her face, she barely looked older than me. Trainer Alpha was the oldest looking person I have ever seen. But then again, I had been living at Grooming Tech for the past twelve years. Who knew what other kinds of people existed beyond the walls of my school?
“Young men and women of Committee, please find a seat and quiet down,” Trainer Alpha snapped into the microphone, her face contorted with impatience.
Vivian plopped down, grabbed my hand, and pulled me down with her. A hush spread throughout the room as everyone else sat down immediately, exactly where they were.
“You have almost reached the end of your stay at Grooming Tech,” Trainer Alpha began. “As Year Twelve students, it is time for you to complete your initial schooling and find out where your aptitudes lie. Some of you may go on to become medical officers, trainers, Protectors, tailors, or chefs. You young men can add armory, law, and mechanics, along with many other useful careers… and if you are fortunate enough, you might even become a member of The Chapter. Our special young women will do their social duty and have children, keeping the Committee’s numbers strong, and adding new students to Grooming Tech".
She paused looking over at all of us “Once you have successfully maneuvered through Coalesce and continue on to the Career Education Center, you will find out what the future has in store for you. Many of you will eventually have Marriage Contracts arranged. Some are destined for other things. Whatever is in store for you, it is your duty to be the best Citizens of Committee that you can possibly be".
She paused yet again looking over at us “As the head trainer, all of the young men and women here have had the pleasure of my tutelage. But our young women have never met my first officer, Trainer Beta. He is the one that is in charge of the male wing of Grooming Tech and will be assisting in all aspects of Coalesce. Please welcome Trainer Beta” Trainer Alpha stepped away from the microphone and gestured toward the man who was sitting quietly in the chair behind her.