I’m 16. Life should be fun, right? I should be meeting guys and throwing kick-ass parties with friends. Instead, the Knoxville Public Schools, the Tenn-tucky state government, and the Federal Union plan my life down to the last nanosecond. They believe they know what’s best. I disagree.
Here I am, Annabelle, late again, running down the concrete corridors I’ve whitewashed during detention. When I get to senior civics class just in time, someone slams the door in my face. Then a pompous voice blares over the loudspeaker, “All security-tracked students report to Auditorium B to meet Commander Samantha Hernandez.”
The voice is Harmony Director Surroc. Oh, joy. Another “hoo-rah” for the Mechanized Female Warriors. The mechs are always on my back, trying to get me to join–but I hate them so much I want to puke.
I head for the auditorium, past girls scurrying to class. The disgust in their stares is unmistakable. Yeah, yeah, you hate me because I’m a security-tracker. Well, joke’s on you. I hate being security-tracked even more.
I hold my head high. Out of habit, I scan my surroundings and contemplate escape. My chest fills with relief at the sight of my sister. Janine’s a year younger, smarter, and drop-dead gorgeous. She catches up and squeezes my hand for reassurance.
It’s bad enough that Surroc tracked me to security. It’s even worse that she tracked Janine at age 12. I’m determined to look out for my sister, make sure she finishes school and doesn’t turn into a rebel like me.
Eleven other girls stream into Auditorium B wearing the same “approved” outfits: bland navy skorts, bleached blouses, and flats. No makeup, jewelry or accessories, ’cause those hint at status and inequality. Hair can’t reach shoulder length because long hair is pretentious and thus disharmonious. So is dyeing. When my blonde curls hold their bounce, they’re off my shoulders. When they sag, because I refuse to wear my hair shorter, I get to spend quality time with Harmony Director Surroc.
Janine and I enter our small, windowless auditorium–just a classroom with a stage. I find us padded seats in the middle of the whitewashed hall. Boy, this place could use decorations, paintings, something. My wrist-com, standard security-track issue so cops can monitor my activities, shows I have two hours until lunch and my cop intern training.
Janine jabs her elbow into my side and whispers, “Captain Voss is here.”
Yep, our intern chief. Voss the Boss with her round cow-face. She tries to look serious in her ratty brown hair and navy uniform. But those sweat stains under her arms? And the way she paces back and forth on the stage? Nervous Nellie.
Next to Voss stands Commander Hernandez, who created the Tenn-tucky mech forces during the war. It’s her first time at our school. Usually she sends gung-ho warriors.
When Hernandez marches to the podium in her crisp blue military uniform with colonel emblems on her shoulder, my stomach churns. A scar runs down her right cheek. I can’t help picturing horns on her tight-cropped black hair. She’s the enemy telling me and other security-trackers to join the killing machine.
“Call me Sam,” Commander Hernandez says in a low bass. Her voice echoes in the small room and silences murmurs behind me.
Call you vulture.
Janine must notice my fidgeting; she touches my hand to tell me to stay calm.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the Mechanized Female Warriors called mechs or amazons,” the commander says.
“I assure you we’re not a mythical force. We’re girls like you defending Federal Union values. This is your chance to reach for the sky and serve your nation in need.”
How many more families will you destroy? Having Janine next to me halts my outburst and another detention.
“We have video clips to show what you can expect. Training is rugged, but don’t be alarmed. We train recruits well before they get into the tournament or the arena. See how with mech gear, our warriors can outperform Olympians in running, jumping, and various sports.”
A wide screen to the right of the podium shows a video of three warriors encased in black titanium-polymer shields and helmets. I hear that this gear can protect against a .45 at point blank range. The commander doesn’t demo that.
“Use of advanced hydraulics gives warriors the boost.”
I watch them perform onscreen against women who competed in the last Olympics in Bangalore. Compared to the robotic black-shielded mechs, the athletes look like kindergarteners. Impressive. While I’d love to have even old-model mech gear used by the cops, Captain Voss doesn’t think much of me, or my adoptive mom. Feeling is mutual. Voss lurks in the shadows, smirking.
“How would you like to enhance your performance to unbelievable levels?” the commander asks. “These are not toys, not video games. They’re performance aids. When you master new skills, you’ll be able to compete in our prized mech tournaments.”
Not prized by me.
Hernandez shows clips of the televised events. Onscreen, girls in blue spandex tights perform amazing jumps, spins and evasions as they fight–not as spectacular as with mech suits, yet still intimidating. The Union televises tournament finals every six months, which Mom makes me watch.
I’m not impressed with girls pounding on each other. It’s upsetting to see how excited Janine gets over this. She even ignored my protests and followed me into cop internship three afternoons a week.
A compact woman with measured movements, Commander Hernandez resembles a proud mom showing off her girls. “Imagine holding your own with any of these opponents, and turning those skills into protecting our liberties.”
While separating families, I want to add. I keep my mouth shut. Getting suspended from basketball would hurt Janine more than me. She’s our star shooter.
The commander starts a new clip: the arena. I’m ready to bolt. Onscreen, a petite redhead faces a brutish man with thick muscles. He’s souped-up on steroids to make these contests more challenging. It reminds me of my dad. He had to fight in the arena like a Roman gladiator. My birth mother helped him escape. Then the mechs Dad trained captured my parents, executed him, and imprisoned her.
If only I could close my eyes so I don’t have to relive this. Classroom cams would pick that up, though. I’d spend more detention time with Harmony Director Surroc, or worse.
“This is the final test for a mech warrior,” Hernandez says. “Stand face-to-face with any man and hold your own in hand-to-hand combat. Overcome your fears. Focus your energies to accomplish amazing things. Become a mech and be the best you can be.”
You mean the best the Union will allow me. Why not let me create? Or be an architect. Let me do something other than security. Then I’ll reach for the sky and be the best I can be. Oh, well. Are we done?
Onscreen, the redhead hits the huge muscleman across the head, neck, and back. He strikes back; hits air. It’s like watching a bullfight. The man falls to his knees. She snaps her fist, open hand, and foot across his upper body until he falls face-first into the dirt. No, it’s an execution.
Girls cheer the brute’s demise, those around me in the auditorium as well as the audience onscreen. When Janine grips my hand, I force myself to assume the stony face I’ve cultivated.
Why do these videos encourage girls to sign up? And they make men look like brutes. Who knows what men are really like? Most fled to the Outlands before I was born.
The commander turns off the video and steps down from the stage. She’s my height, stocky, built like a brick wall. She shakes the hands of security students and addresses us by name. She must have reviewed our files. When she reaches me, it’s all I can do to keep my breakfast down. I shouldn’t have had those eggs. I can’t just take off without embarrassing Janine. My actions reflect on her, Mom, and the rest of my adopted family.
Hernandez nods with a look that says she has her eye on me, or sees through me. “Annabelle Scott,” she says. “Such passion and drive. If only you’d let me train you to focus that energy.”
“Thanks,” I mumble. Feeling naked, I close my mouth, hang my head, and taste bile. Strangely, her smile, distorted by the scar running down her right cheek, seems genuine. She’s disarming in ways that get my guard up. Vulture, you won’t get your claws into me. I smile and nod. Over my dead, cold bones.
The commander turns to my sister. “And you, Janine Scott. The sharpest mind in the security program, and a terrific basketball player. With the right training…”
I tense. Leave her alone, I want to scream. She’s too sweet for your killing machine.
Janine’s pinky locks mine behind our backs. Her gracious smile lights up her innocent face. “It’s great to meet you, Commander. We all aspire to serve.”
I pray she’s just acting when she says this.
She digs her fingernail into my palm. “Thank you for coming today, Commander. It was an inspiring presentation.”
I can practically taste honey drip off Janine, and all I want to do is hold and protect her.
* * *
After cabbage-faced Surroc dismisses us, I drag Janine down whitewashed hallways away from Auditorium B. She looks up at me with worried eyes. I say “up,” though she’s only an inch shorter, because she has a way of holding her head the way she did when she was little.
We burst into steamy sunlight and I’m ready to scream. Those eggs struggle to escape. They taste foul the second time around. How can I join the mechs who killed my dad for fleeing a nation that no longer wanted him? How can I forgive them for ripping my birth mother from my arms, sending her to prison, and not letting me visit, write, or even know where? I was only three, yet I remember that tear at my gut like it was this morning.
The concrete courtyard, surrounded by concrete classrooms, concentrates the morning heat. Sweat soaks my thin blouse. Or is it that this reminds me of a prison? Across the way, I spot chubby-faced Emily Battani. As the governor’s daughter, she manages to dress a sliver better than the rest of us despite strict dress codes. Today it’s a hint of eye shadow, makeup to cover her zit-marred face, and new clothes.
I guide Janine away. I don’t need reminding how we’re all equal except I’m stuck with security while Emily has options. I bump into pinched-face Daphne and her giggly friends, probably the ones who slammed the door in my face. She gets to go into biology, probably medicine. She’s wearing the same blah clothes as me, yet hers are spotless and fresh each morning. She probably wears each outfit only once.
“Poor little security girls get grubby in the mud?” is the best Daphne can manage. Her mousy friends giggle.
Janine nudges me: be good.
I’d rather squirm in mud than believe blah is beautiful. I’d hate for any of these worm-brains to operate on me.
Cabbage-face watches us from the steps outside the auditorium. I don’t need another lecture on the importance of harmony. Mom has a phrase for people like Surroc: a True Believer. It’s from a banned book by Eric Hoffer in Mom’s private library.
“Tell your mom we’re watching her,” Daphne says.
Janine tugs me away and whispers, “Don’t mind her.”
I do mind. Mom, my adoptive mom, is a Tenn-tucky state senator. She’s one of the few sane people opposing Governor Battani. She fights for more opportunities for girls like Janine and me, but people are afraid. Janine is, I see. “Why don’t you go to class and let me walk this off.”
“I know you don’t like mechs, Belle. Why can’t you talk to me about it? I don’t like secrets between us.”
“I need fresh air. Promise me you’ll never join. If you want to be a cop, that’s okay.” I stop by her building.
“I’m not leaving you all wound up. Don’t skip school today. I know you want to.”
She knows me so well. “I’ll be okay, Babe.”
My wrist-com vibrates. Pictures flash of me caught skipping school last week. I “borrowed” an electric cycle to head up into the hills. I didn’t get to use it. Next is a doctored picture of me hanging from the clock tower over the administration building, with its broken dials. Surroc leaves them as a reminder of my disharmony. I don’t need reminding.
Janine views the images, turns off my wrist-com, and heads inside. “We’ve got a game tonight, Belle. Don’t get detention. I need you. Their captain’s Dara the Terror. They say she can play center, forward, and guard all at once.”
“Hype,” I say, though I’ve heard rumors the big ox punched another player.
My sister leads me up a narrow flight of stairs to the tarred roof to get my fresh air. I need to bust loose and get out of this prison. My baby sister is holding me back. Yet not a cell in my body can hate her for it. She’s no goody-goody. She never rats on me when I skip school or wander into restricted areas. That counts for a lot.
Janine stops at the roof panel. “Belle, don’t be mad at me for being nice to the commander.”
“I’m not, Babe, but I don’t want you to turn into one of those animals. You’re much too sweet for that.”
Grinning, Janine forces the panel. “That’s because I have you to protect me.”
Mom didn’t ask me to take that responsibility. No, I took it upon myself the moment I moved in. To get her to sleep with lights out, I let her sleep next to me. She’s followed me ever since, like my Siamese twin.
She doesn’t say anything when I move to the ledge to look over the Knoxville cityscape and wonder. What would it be like to go wherever I want? Instead, I depend on crowded city-buses with restrictions based on my student and cop intern IDs. Glancing toward mountains I can’t see–the Outlands–I tell myself someday, but how? Travel outside Knoxville is restricted even for cops.
With warm wind blowing through my hair, I imagine floating out there. At least the rah-rah video excused me from civics class. I couldn’t handle another lecture on the history of the Second American Civil War: how the year before I was born, our nation split into the Federal Union and the Outlands. Our Union promotes harmony–blah, blah, blah. If I taught, I’d spice it up with how harmony took my birth parents. I’d follow with how Mom’s husband had to flee with their son George. I’ve never met my adopted brother.
The only good part of security and being a cop intern is I skip school in the afternoon, though that further limits my options. Afternoons I go through cop training, which makes me wish I was in school.
Emily Battani joins us, and the world closes in around me.
* * *