If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.Hamlet
There is one in every city. They all look the same: a large, squat building with few, if any, windows. White walls. Cold floors. Smells of antiseptic and… lemon.
They are always on the far end of town, just before there is nothing left but roads and fields and the space between things. Processing Center 467 is no different from any other, just like the people inside. Just like you.
It is sunset. You enter the open doors with wide and wild eyes, knowing you won’t remember going inside, or the stone beneath your feet, or the fear like rot in your belly, or who you were before this moment. After this, there will be nothing. Soldiers escort you, one on either side. Burn gun in one hand, a real one at their hip. You take one last look at the sunset, a swirl of red and gold and amber, Novan, colors, and you can’t decide if you hate the sunset or not.
You would think they would just Burn you and get it over with. Burn you instead of all of… this. It would be easier, after all, to Burn you quickly as soon as they come for you. To escort, you docile and sleepy, to the Processing Center. But where’s the fun in that? That rusty, flinty, dread anticipation of loss is the punishment for those doomed to Adjustment. You know that once you go inside this building, who you are will soon no longer exist. Soon there will be nothing for you but ignorance. And if ignorance is bliss, well… will there be bliss on the other side? You wonder.
You haven’t done anything too bad, nothing worth dying over, so you will be taken and erased from yourself to forever serve the Eternal Mother. You will keep existing, you will live, you will work, you will die, but you (who you are now) will never know about it. That is the real punishment. Your life, all your free labor, and everything after this moment is just gravy for the Mother.
You enter. Maybe you scream, maybe you beg, maybe you fight, but more than likely, you are dragged in silently, too afraid to speak. That is why the centers are always on the outskirts of town, because of the quiet. You’d think they’d put the processing centers in the middle of the city streets just to remind everyone to be good. If more people screamed and fought and cried, maybe they would. But even then, seeing and hearing something every day makes it normal. Even if every single person entered shrieking at the top of their lungs, it would soon grow mundane and ordinary. Noise you can drown out, noise you can get used to. But this terrible building is most terrifying when it is far away, distinct, separate, and quiet. There is nothing ordinary about this place. It is set apart, somehow holy. And there is no one to hear you scream.
Inside, you, the penitent, are taken to a little room. There is a table, chairs, a mirror, a shower, and a toilet. There the processing can begin. It is always the same.
- Wash and shave the Burner
- Take a photo
- Ask them why they are here
- Read them their crimes
- Burn them
You struggle before the Burn, but that is part of the punishment. There is never any hope of escape, but the instinct to fight takes over, filling you with adrenaline and a will to survive. After all, you have been taken in for Adjustment, you’ve already proven that you have a will. You are already a fighter. The desire to survive fills you like air filling up a room, invisible, sustaining, necessary.
And then there is a little, yellow needle.
And then you are Burned.
And then there is nothing.
“What is your name?” the Processor asks.
“My name? I… I don’t know. What is my name? I don’t remember,” you say, hazy and sleepy.
“That’s normal. No cause for alarm,” the Processor says with a smile. The smile is important. “I am here to help you. Your name is—”
“Are you sure?” you ask again. “That feels… somehow wrong.”
The Processor smiles. “It says so right here. And here’s a photo of you.” The Processor holds up the photo taken just a little while before. Your freshly shaved scalp shines from the photo, and you run your hand over your head. You look into the mirror for the first time and get to know yourself.
“What happened? Why don’t I remember?” you ask.
“You were born, bred, and bettered in Nova, and you chose to give up yourself in service to Our Eternal Mother. It was a noble and brave thing to do. We are honored by your loyalty. Welcome to—”
Then you are read your new assignment. Usually, a field hand or factory worker, something physical that takes little time to train. A packet. A jumpsuit. If you arrived too late and missed the last transport back to town, you are given a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. The transport will be by in the morning to take you to your new life. Sleep tight. That is all you get, and you are happy for it.
This bunk room is warm. The beds are soft, and the people kind. There is nothing to fear here. Your body aches. You have fresh wounds, maybe a broken limb, or bloody nose, but you don’t know why. These kind people couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with your injuries. They said they didn’t. A kind doctor tends your wounds and shakes her head in pity.
The next morning, since you arrived late yesterday, you are led to the back door where the transport is waiting to take you to you new life. The Processors are so proud of you. You have made such a sacrifice, and you should be honored for that. Are you ready?
Whatever fears and misgivings are sliding around in your belly, all is forgotten when the door opens, and you see the sunrise and the sky and trees for the first time. The horizon stretches before you like an ocean. Like stepping from one reality into another, from darkness into light, the world opens before you and bursts with the smell of grass and earth and dew. A warm breeze brushes your face. Fluttering leaves. Sunshine.
And you begin your new life.