The Final Branding
by Wondra Vanian
There was a time in human history—long before the great and terrible sweep of racial cleansing that left everyone looking more or less (often more) like their neighbors—when reaching the age of one hundred would have been a cause for celebration. It would be easy to say, if one were given to bouts of nostalgia (which were, of course, now strictly forbidden,) that such times had been better times.
Better, for the wild and reckless lives our ancestors lived; everything imaginable at their fingertips and not a soul to tell them how to use it. Better, for the variety of, well, everything.
In those long ago days, sprawling concrete buildings stored foods from every nation around the globe, all in one conveniently located place. People went to jobs of their choosing, earned paper currency they could then exchange for just about anything they wanted. They ate what they liked, wore what they liked, married who they liked, even branded themselves in any way they liked.
That was when things changed, of course, with the enforcement of mandatory branding. It started with one man, a man who should never have been given a voice, let alone the power to inflict it upon others. A man who, after somehow climbing and scraping his way to the most powerful position in the world, turned to his supporters and said, “Brand them! Drag them out of hiding and write it across their skin! No one will be fooled again!”
A normal man, after being caught in bed with a woman who wasn’t his wife—who hadn’t been a woman all that long—would have apologized and chalked it up to experience. Not that man. As far as anyone knew, an apology had never once crossed his lips. It was easier to attack than apologize.
So, he attacked.
First, they went after the ones who had once been called “transgendered” but now were simply “inhumans.” Then, it was the turn of political activists, the dissenters, the rioters, and uppity women. From there, it spread across the prisons and metal health facilities. It was like a tsunami; once the first wave broke the shore of society, it became an unstoppable force. There was no fighting it, no stopping—nothing left but run and hope its path of destruction didn’t cut your way.
Which, of course, it would.
At first, one person demanded another be branded because it had been done to them. Murderers, branded with the grim skull of Death, wanted rapists to be known. Rapists fought to have fraudsters marked. On and on it went, through every dark walk of life, until there was a symbol for every sin imaginable. Then, they moved on to the unfortunates who had committed no crime worse than being born with a chemical imbalance.
Scholars said it was impossible to tell where branding stopped being punishment and became convenience. In an age when people spent less and less time communicating, mistrust flourished.
What if the cashier at your local supermarket—who seemed so nice while she was bagging your carrots—had voted to end your grandmother’s healthcare? Would you be able to return her smile? What if the policeman who patrolled your neighborhood at night marched in Pride parades every summer? Would you still feel safe?
How were you supposed to trust anyone when you didn’t know the first thing about them? How were you supposed to know anything about someone if you didn’t talk to them? It was a vicious cycle, but one there was a cure for.
Societies rise and fall. Governments steal power, only to have it stolen from them. Time moves on. Several generations after the assassination of the man who had started it all, branding was part of modern culture. It was just the way things were done. No one really stopped to ask themselves why they had to report to their local Branding Center on the anniversary of their birth, to have their brands renewed and a new line added to their birth brand; they just trudged along, friends and family in tow, to perform their civic duty.
For the most part.
There was no denying that branding was a painful process—less so, at least, than the old days, when branding could take hours under a needle-loaded gun. Branding had evolved since then. Brands were faster now, if nothing else. A person need only be held in place a few minutes while a government-issued brand was placed against the body, then a moment longer while hundreds of tiny needles punctured the skin and injected ink, all at once.
Children might only be in the Branding Center a few minutes, just long enough to add another line to their age brand. Or, several minutes longer, if they came from a disgraced family, in which case their family’s shame would have to be imprinted on their flesh for all to see. Adults spent more time in the Branding Center.
There was a brand for age, one for sex, another for birthplace, and more for schools. Then there were medical conditions, crimes, and achievements. Next came sexual partners, relationships, marriages, children, grandchildren, and—Creator forbid!—sexually transmitted diseases and deviances. Finally, places of service (which once might have been called employment,) skills, and years spent in the nation’s defense (which once might have been voluntary.)
Someone who had lived a full life could spend a great deal of time in a Branding Center on the anniversary of their birth. It was said that the current generation looked forward to their branding day; that they had grown up with a taste for the pain that the needles inflicted—though whether such knowledge was fact or government-approved propaganda was impossible to say.
Or, was that illegal to say? It had grown difficult to tell the difference…
Dolores could only speak for herself (having been born in a different time, when people were allowed to speak for themselves, she was given more leeway than most) but she most certainly had not developed a taste for the needle. Before the Great Golden Age, Dolores had never even chosen a brand. The first time one had been forced upon her, she had been found guilty of protest. Only one of thousands of women rounded up that day, no one had even noticed her screams the first time that gun penetrated her flesh.
And there Dolores was, more than seventy years later, the last survivor of a movement that had been scrubbed from history, waiting for the Branding Room to be prepared for her 100th birthday. Her final birthday, in all likelihood. Each year, the pain of the branding grew worse. Last year’s branding had nearly sent Dolores into shock. What would this year’s branding do?
Oh, Dolores knew very well what it would do.
It would damn near kill her.
Time and fear had tempered the wild nature of Dolores’s youth. Over the years, she had learned to keep her head down like everyone else; do the jobs assigned to her; give birth when it was required of her; to repeat government doctrine with absolute conviction, no matter how many times it might change to suit the new regime. Though she still bore the raised fist of protest, she was and had been a model citizen.
Where the hell had it gotten her?
Her very large family had somberly gone to take their places in the viewing room, leaving Dolores alone with her thoughts and regrets. So many regrets…
She could have joined the troop of women who had stormed the capitol that day, decades ago. It would have meant a swift trial and an even swifter death, but at least she would have been spared a lifetime of obedience. Of mind-numbing, soul-destroying conformity.
Yes, time and fear had tempered the wild nature of Dolores’s youth—but it was still there, barely a burning ember, hidden deep inside the old woman. In that moment, lost in memory and facing an agonizing ordeal at the Brander’s hand, the small ember became a roaring flame that ignited Dolores’s heart. There was only one way left to rebel but, dammit, she was going to do it. Hiking up the hem of her grey, government-issued cotton dress, Dolores ran.
She might have the heart of a twenty-something rebel, but Dolores had the body of a hundred-year-old, broken woman. Guards seized her before she could cross the building’s threshold. Dolores’s last battle was fought and lost.
The branding took place much later that day than expected. Dolores, her family, friends, and gathered officials were forced to wait for a delivery from the National Office of Branding. It had been nearly fifty years since the mark for a brand dodger had been inked on anyone’s skin. There was some difficulty in finding the sole remaining template but, finally, as one day melded into the next, the courier arrived and Dolores’s ceremony began.
Dolores walked into the Branding Chamber with her head held high. Refusing to meet anyone’s eye, she removed her gown and took her place on the Branding Chair. As the first symbol was placed against her flesh—a running figure, to mark her cowardice—Dolores smiled. For the first time since her first branding, Dolores didn’t scream as the needles pierced her flesh.