Prompt: ageless; tall poppy syndrome
Anida flipped the gold coin across her knuckles and considered how many might follow it. Precise, fluid ripples of her fingers took it from one side of her hand to the other. She watched it, rather than the street, and let her feet follow the path home without thought. The bioluminescent exteriors of the buildings tracked her progress and cast a blue-green glow over everything. It made her dark skin look like the water in the harbor where it dropped suddenly off the edge of the continental shelf. She shivered, remembering the diving test that took her to the bottom.
A familiar voice called out her name then an arm wrapped itself around her neck. Rhyne pulled her into a sweaty embrace and ruffled her hair. “Hey, wonder child!” Rhyne towered over Anida, so his hug forced her face into his arm pit, still ripe after that afternoon’s combat test.
“Please, don’t call me that,” Anida said. She stuffed her hand, closed tight around the coin, into the pocket of her uniform. “Besides, if Sojan hadn’t deliberately tripped you, you would have beaten me to the goal.”
Rhyne gave her a good-natured shove. “Aw, quit being so humble. You’re making the rest of us look bad.” He must have seen her flinch, because he grimaced and looked away. “I didn’t mean it like that.” After a second, he said, “There’s a party, up on the Hill. We’re celebrating the end of exams. You should come.”
Anida nodded, feeling tingly with surprise. She had never been to a party before, had never even been invited, though she knew the recruits had one almost every month-end. She could not even imagine what they must be like.
“I’ll see you there,” Rhyne said, breaking away from her to head home. “It’s a beautiful night to be young forever,” he called to her before disappearing around a corner.
Thoughts of the party fled Anida’s mind when she stepped through the membrane door of her house and found her mother glaring at her from the kitchen table. She had out her budgeting records and looked to be in the middle of working on them. Anida knew better though. Her mother only worked on them outside of her private room if she wanted to ambush Anida over something. Anida shrugged off her pack, suddenly clumsy and slow.
“What did you do today?” Her mother asked and made it sound like an accusation.
“We had combat testing.” Anida swallowed around the boulder lodged in her throat. She had to say something; she could hide nothing from her mother anyway. “I had the fastest time. I broke the record.”
“So I heard.” Her mother’s voice held a sneer in it. “Did you cheat?”
“No.” Anida’s voice came out a whisper.
Her mother’s eyes flicked to an etching on the wall. Anida’s father stared down at them with frosted glass eyes, yet he seemed warmer than the woman sitting a few feet from where Anida stood frozen. “Your father set that record. He would be so ashamed to be unseated by someone like you. I don’t know how you’re even passing your tests at all.”
Anida wanted to scream that it wasn’t true. That her father would not be ashamed of her. That she worked hard to pass her classes and earn a spot in the ranks of the Ageless. She tightened her hand around the coin in her pocket, a talisman to remind her that she had earned that place–if she really did get it. “I would like to go out tonight.”
Her mother laughed once, a hard and hollow sound. “I suppose you think you can afford to waste an evening at some party. I suppose you think you’re going to be one of the Ageless and have all the time in the world.” Unspoken hung the memory of how being Ageless had not saved Anida’s father, had given him hardly any time at all. “Go study. You’re not going out.”
Standing in her room that night, Anida looked over the regimented rows of books and the racks of practice weapons. Order touched everything that came into the aura of her life. She got close to a thing and she snapped it into its place. Everything was right where it belonged. She always knew what others expected of her and she always did what they demanded and she never felt any satisfaction.
Except today. She had stood at the end of the combat course, shaking with exertion and about to fall as the fluttering muscles in her legs threatened to give out. She had felt her mouth quirk up in a secret smile, probably invisible to the other recruits panting around her. In her hand rested a gold coin, plucked moments before from the top of the final obstacle as Anida catapulted over it. The coin itself had little value–enough to buy her a meal or a trinket, if she wanted–but it meant something. She had the best scores in three courses and was in the top five for another six. She had reached the top of her class. Her acceptance into the Ageless program became a certainty in that moment.
Anida took the coin from her pocket and held it up to the light from the window. Inside and outside, bio lights glowed with that familiar color that made everything look like it had come from the bottom of the ocean. That coin meant she could run faster, hit harder, dive deeper than any of her classmates. Yet at her mother’s word, she could not leave the house to go to a party on the day of her greatest triumph. Even her triumph itself meant nothing to her mother. The only accomplishments that mattered had died with Anida’s father.
She squeezed the coin hard in her hand then opened it again. The coin left a ring on her palm and the faint outline of the profile molded on it. She told herself that she deserved to celebrate, but all she could hear was her mother’s voice telling her what a waste it would be to let someone like her remain Ageless, with the money and prestige that went with it.
Rhyne would be waiting for her, searching the crowds for her in vain. She held on to that thought as she threw on street clothes and sneaked out of the house at last. She wasn’t doing it for herself; she was doing it for him. But her heart sang with forbidden joy and illicit freedom as she jogged toward the Hill and the lights of something better than what her mother told her she deserved.