I try to feel nothing. This is always true, but now in particular, I make an effort to stifle any and all emotions that might threaten to sneak out of hiding and into my consciousness. If the proctor suspects that I am experiencing anxiety in such a way that it might inhibit my performance, I may be disqualified, even if I perform better than other students.
I inherited this weakness from my mother. She has schooled herself in hiding and stilling her emotions, but when I grew old enough to understand, she explained that her genetics have imparted this weakness to me. She feels things that she shouldn’t feel, things that Terugan law requires that we must breed out of our population, like love. Emotions are the inhibitors of progress, after all.
If I were a truly loyal subject, I would turn myself and my mother in for further examination. It is possible that our emotions are light enough that they would not lead to our exile. After all, the courts recognize that it is not possibly to entirely erase emotions from a human mind. If it were, we would feel no loyalty to Terugan objectives, and no drive to see them accomplished. The Imperious College wishes to improve humanity, and we stand behind them.
No, I suppose I should not doubt myself because of my emotions, faint though they are. I must force myself to perform well because I am always under heavier scrutiny than my classmates. Even one misstep could lead to my removal from the pool of viable breeders.
This is my father’s fault. He was injured, many years ago, and this caused him to lose his leg. He insisted that the injury — a construction accident — was no fault of his own, and since the court was unable to prove otherwise, neither he nor I were executed nor sterilized. Nevertheless, it feels as though the proctors of the exams always hold me to a higher standard than my peers.
Today we participate in a set of physical examinations. We are, of course, examined at all times in school by our teachers, who have the power to cull any students they see as underperforming. The exams are more intense and directly competitive.
To my left and my right stand a row of my male peers. Our skin tone has homogenized over the centuries of Terugan breeding practices. We are all a light, rich brown, with subtle variations that only close observation can detect. Rarely do I see an individual with a skin tone that varies greatly from my own, though it does happen. Expeditions occasionally bring in fresh breeding stock from outside of Terugan borders, since our scholars insist that fresh blood is necessary to maintain a healthy population.
The Hunters have a great responsibility to our nation, for they must find healthy, intelligent people who have happened, by chance, to appear outside of our strict breeding programs. The idea of being a Hunter is part of what drives me forth. It seems like such an elegant way to serve our cause while simultaneously exerting our superiority.
Terugan ideals do not require breeding for appearance, but I have seen people from outside, both in person and in illustration. We are much more appealing. Our hair is thicker, often with a gentle wave, and our eyes come in gemlike tones. Mine are a brilliant violet. Perhaps breeding for intelligence, physical fitness, health, keen senses, and resistance to disease merely begets a more attractive race, naturally.
Perhaps I am biased by the devotion I feel to Teruga.
The proctor will start the race soon. Myself and the other boys are stretching, preparing our bodies. We begin the day with a short dash, an all-out-run to the finish line to determine who is fastest. Then we will be tested on our strength, lifting progressively heavier weights to see who is strongest. Then, our endurance, in two ways: we must demonstrate how many consecutive times we can life our own body weight, then show how long we can run. This last portion will last until the end of the day. Then we will repeat it all again tomorrow, to show who recovered best from today’s exertions.
I am ready. I convince myself that I am not nervous. I will not be the fastest, I know that. I will not be the slowest, either.
The proctor holds his hand in the air, a signal to be ready to start. All down the line, my peers fall into position. I watch the proctor’s hand. My muscles tense. His fingers twist through the motions of a quick spell, which ends with him snapping his fingers. The sound echoes through the courtyard, louder by far than it would have been without the spell.
My feet touch the ground lightly, toes hitting first. I picture myself running across water. The light wraps on my feet are just enough to protect the from being damaged by errant debris. They and the cloth wrapped around my waist to protect my decency are the only clothes we are allowed to wear during physical exams, so that they don’t impede or artificially aid us.
We are all close. I can hear the other boys breathing as we run. There is less than the length of a forearm between the boy in the lead and the boy who is furthest behind. We would not have lived this long if we weren’t all quite close in our physical capabilities. I can’t tell what place I’m in, not with everyone so close together, but as I estimated, I am neither first nor last.
Halfway to the finish our positions have drifted. I am still in the middle, but two boys are struggling for first place, back and forth. I estimate that I have fallen further behind first place. I am not last.
I will not allow myself to be in last place. I want to do well, for my country. I want to contribute. I want to be selected to breed. Even if I am not, I want to be a Hunter. I want to go on expeditions outside the barrier, to see what life is like in the ravines. I want to bring new stock back so that Teruga can continue to prosper. We are the best. We deserve to be the best. I deserve to be the best.
I push hard. I imagine my toes gripping the world beneath my feet and throwing it backward as I launch myself forth. I gain slowly on the boy in first place. I am in third. I am in second. I am in first! A joy spreads up through my heart. I allow myself this emotion, for it does no harm. I am celebrating inwardly for the good of Teruga.
The finish line approaches. I keep my lead. I hold onto it, desperate, though my muscles scream at me. I am pushing them to their very limit — but that is what I must do. That is the goal of Teruga: to push life to its limit, and discover how great it can become.
Then, the pain.
Not just the pain of muscles pushed to far. This pain shoots up and down my leg like a bolt of lightning, like an electrified arrow has pierced my knee. I fall.
I am completely unprepared for this fall. I catch the ground with my face. I feel another, lesser jolt of pain in my mouth. Something loose and hard rolls across my tongue. I taste blood.
I push myself up with my hands. I spit out my tooth. I am now in last place, but I must keep going. The pain my my leg is intense. I thrust aside any doubts that it will hold my weight. I use my other leg to force myself to my feet.
The knee — my left knee, the same knee as the leg my father lost — gives way. I catch my weight with my right leg. I already know I have failed. I already know that this spells the end for me, and likely my father too. Perhaps — perhaps — my mother will be allowed to breed again.
Still, I must finish the race. I hobble forward, balancing on my left leg only for the brief moments it takes to swing my right leg around to take the weight again. I progress. Every time it takes the burden, my left leg nearly buckles. The pain has lessened. It became too much for my body to handle, so my brain is shutting some of it out. I grit my teeth. My remaining teeth. There is wet, hot blood on my chin and cheek from where they met the ground.
My peers have all crossed the finish line. They’ve stood there for several minutes, staring at me, emotionless, as I struggled to even make it that far. Some of them stretch in preparation for their next task, giving no though to me at all. When I cross the line I sit down on the ground. I make sure it is clear that I am sitting, not falling.
Two men in black robes approach me. I know why they are here. They pick me up from the ground. I allow them to take me away.