I clutched the medical certificate to my chest. Only two more people ahead of me to go. Above the chatter, I could still hear Father’s words ringing in my mind:
“Don’t screw this up, son. I’ve worked too hard to get you this far.”
The reminder did nothing. I’d worked hard, too. Because I knew I could flourish here. Given the chance, I’d learn to defend our people better than anyone. Certainly better than the pampered brats around me.
Up front, a teenager demanded to know why he couldn’t bring his favorite prize with him. Disgusting. Wars breaking out all over the planet, and this idiot acted like it was a vacation.
“Listen, we don’t have the capacity to allow trainees to keep prizes,” the recruiting officer recited. “Stand over here ’til I get someone to collect her.”
The idiot’s face burned red. Nevertheless, he obeyed and stood aside, much to the amusement of the other recruits. I’d be laughing if I didn’t stand so dangerously close to being collected myself. One screw-up here, and I was done. If I didn’t act just the right way, if I didn’t cover certain parts of my body at all times, everyone would turn on me and call me a prize. A woman.
It’s not fair. The thought that had plagued me so many times as a child now stabbed like a thorn in my brain. How she’s treated. It’s not fair.
Father had explained countless times that it was fair. Women were weak, stupid, incompetent. I was strong, smart, capable. Therefore, I was male. Who could argue with that?
“Next!” The recruit in front of me stepped forward. So close now. I ran shaking fingers along my arm, as I often did to reassure myself. The firmness of my muscles outclassed anyone else there. All that hung off their lazy bones were globs of fat. I could tear them down. As for the prize, I watched as her waiting owner made a game of prodding and pushing her around. Her thin arms looked especially fragile. If someone asked her to run the miles I did or climb the heights that I could, it would have been laughable. Like asking a sock to read you a book. Even now, with every shove, she just caught her balance and straightened like a pathetic doll.
Tell him to stop. My stomach turned. I hadn’t had thoughts like these in years, and I couldn’t start now. She didn’t deserve my defense. And even if she did, it would draw too much attention.
So? Get their attention. Show them your body and show them your strength. I wanted to scream. These weren’t ideas I could afford now. I was more than her. I was a man. I’d proven so by the very fact that I was standing here. All that remained was to cross this last obstacle, and —
Was it my turn? Lost in my debate, I hadn’t even noticed the last person leave. Now the recruiting officer stared at me with annoyance.
“Adrian Decus,” I told him.
He nodded, glanced at his clipboard, and made a small mark. “Straight ahead for your health inspection, please.”
I swallowed hard. This was it. I unfolded the paper I’d crushed in my nervous fingers and presented it to the officer.
“Pardon me,” I said, “but I’ve already had the health inspection.” Sweat built on my palms as he looked it over. What would happen if he argued? Father said the army permitted home doctors to complete inspections, that it was actually easier because it was one less thing for the officers —
“Looks good to me. Go on to your cabin, Adrian. You’re in number five.”
I blinked. When I spoke, my voice squeaked like a child’s. “Pardon?”
“Form looks good. Cabin five. It’s small, only space for two, but…” he gave me a knowing nod, “but I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
I wanted to punch him. While I didn’t put it past Father to bribe someone to get me through, I didn’t expect the person he chose to be so obvious about it. Still, the other officers said nothing as he motioned me along. I walked in a trance around the table while the trainee behind me stepped up to give his name. My heartbeat slowed for the first time in days.
Lost in my daze of happiness, I barely noticed when the idiot’s prize bumped into me as officers tried to lead her around the crowd.
“My apologies,” she said, bowing her head. No, it was hardly a bow, more like a nod. Did she think I was one of her fellow prizes, that she could treat me so casually? Fury building, I raised my hand and struck her on the cheek as hard as my muscles would allow. She toppled over, nearly taking the officer with her.
The prize’s owner rushed up to me. “What do you think you’re doing, hitting my prize like that? If you broke something, you’re paying for it.”
“Your prize is insolent,” I told him. By now, she’d managed to get on her feet, and I took great pride in the red mark I’d left on her skin.
Your kind’s the reason I have to hide. Your weakness makes everyone think I’m weak, too. It’s your fault.
“You offended me,” I said. “What do you say to a man when you offend him?”
“My apologies,” she repeated, bowing so low this time that her hair scraped the ground.
“Your apologies, what?” I said.
“My apologies, master.”
My fury appeased, I allowed her to rise and continue on. Perhaps it was not her fault. She’d spent a good deal of her life around a moron after all. But excuses or not, I would not be treated as less than a man ever again.
Katrina S. Forest is a Clarion West alumna who has sold work to a variety of magazines, ranging from True Confessions to Highlights for Children. Her two kids think she’s strange, but don’t say so because their vocabularies aren’t that big yet.