All claimants shall be subject to assessments by the Camp’s appointed recruiting officer within seven (7) days of self-declaration to the Commander or any Captain. The assessment process is intended to determine the claimant’s quality through establishment of the following, by whatever means deemed fit by the recruiting officer: bondship status; medical history; fitness and endurance; pain tolerance; meaning and status of all Marks and tattoos; literacy and mathematics aptitude; firearms proficiency; loyalty to the collective human cause; capacity to accept and follow orders.
Recruitment quotas are contingent upon the needs of the Camp, and no claimant is guaranteed induction into the Human Defense Corps at any time. If no positions are available at a Camp, a claimant of sufficient quality is entitled to up to seven (7) days and six (6) nights of food and shelter, at which time quotas are re-evaluated. If there are still no positions to fill at that time, claimants are encouraged to seek recruitment at another Camp or return to their community of origin.
–HDC Manual, Section 4 § 7-8
“Alright, you filthy sacks of meat,” called out the woman in beige, loudly tapping a pencil on the edge of her clipboard as she paced a slow line in front of the newly arrived bondsmen. “Wrists crossed behind you, feet apart, chins up, backs straight.”
Sixteen year old Ellis Gray did as she was told, not at all interested in fucking up. Getting to this moment was all she had dreamed about for five years, and her escape from the clan that owned her had been weeks in the making. Three nights ago she’d stolen away and walked twenty-five miles through the waste to the nearest Corps outpost with nothing to her name but a bag of sunflower seeds and a teen of water.
Ellis fixed her eyes on the dusty tent ahead, on the far side of the quad. There was a small crowd of people gathering—mostly corpsmen, it seemed—and they looked on with everything from boredom, to interest, to cruel amusement at the spectacle. She ignored them and focused on what it would feel like to finally have a beige uniform of her own. To have two meals a day and access to doctors. To have rights.
The woman conducting the inspection made her way down the line, sizing up the six bondsmen—bonds—before her.
“I’m gonna get this out of the way first: how many of you can read? Hands up.”
Gray raised her scrawny arm and glanced at the others. All but one had done the same. The assessment officer pointed at him.
“You. You’re outta here.”
“You heard me. This isn’t kindergarten, bondie, we teach folks how to shoot, how to read flags, and how to stay the fuck alive. You need to learn your ABC’s from somebody else.”
The bondsman broke posture. “Wait! No, I-I mean, I can read a little. Just… just not big words! C’mon, please, I’m a crack shot! You’d love to have me here!”
“Get him out,” the recruitment officer said to another corpsmen standing nearby. He was a big guy, his arm dotted with bright pink puckers from old bullet wounds. Gray kept her eyes ahead again and swallowed as the bondsman was dragged away. After the scuffling and shouting quieted down, the woman picked up where she left off, stepping over to the next bondsman with a sigh.
“So how deep was that?” She pointed her pencil at a ragged scar on his arm.
“I… It’s… it’s very old, ma’am. Fell in a ravine when I was six or seven, maybe.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“I don’t r-remember how deep it was, ma-am. I-it healed quick once they sewed me up.”
“How much can you lift with it?”
“A good s-seven, eight gallons of water, easy.”
The woman marked something on her notes and moved on without even looking at him again. “We’ll ask you to prove that later.”
Among the onlookers was a small group of merchants with their horses, dressed in rich browns and yellows. Not all of the bonds up for inspection today were escapees. Some of them were being sold. The Corps was known to pay handsomely for “quality” bonds—it was one of the stronger motivations for bondowners to treat their assets well out in the wastes. Ellis imagined that the three merchants were expecting to get at least 150 slips for their investment; or perhaps they’d prefer to broker a trade. A half dozen gallons of high-proof alcohol, or a crate of ammunition, maybe. The Corps was known for employing the best powder-packers in the Southland.
“And you didn’t hold your hand up very high earlier. You can read?” the woman said to the bond next to Ellis.
“Pretty good, ma’am. I can write, too.”
“Thanks, but you probably won’t be doing any writing here. I see you’ve got bunions.”
“They don’t hurt much, ma’am. I can walk fifteen miles a day, you won’t hear a peep out of me.”
“Oh, shame. We need you to be able to do at least twenty.” She scribbled something down again. “With an eighty-pound ruck on your back. Come back when your feet’re feeling better.”
Ellis risked a glance at him as her palms dampened. The young man was shaking in disbelief. She could only imagine what hell he’d been through to get here, and now he, like the first bond, was living her nightmare: being turned away at the door. The woman waved him away from the line, and silently he complied. Ellis swallowed. It was her turn. The woman stepped in front of her and didn’t waste any time looking over the wiry sixteen year old as dispassionately as if she were inspecting a piece of furniture.
“And you. You know what I’m going to ask.”
“The caravan taught us all to read, ma’am. It made us more valuable.”
“Your owners were smart. And they kept you clean, too. A little too clean to be a runaway. What did you say your duties were?”
Ellis licked her lips for the moisture. “Night watch for the caravan, ma’am. I can spot Anakim in the waste at a hundred yards in good moonlight.”
She was hoping to impress, but whether or not it was this woman’s job to be impressed was another matter. “That’s cute,” came the casual sneer. The woman looked over her shoulder at the crowd, and Ellis allowed herself to hear the jeering laughter that erupted. “She called them Anakim. What’s your name, bondie?”
She was startled more than hurt by the sharp slap to her face.
“We don’t do given names here.”
“Gray then, m-ma’am.”
“Consider this your first lesson about how we do things in the Corps, Gray. Names are very important to us, aren’t they, corpsmen?”
The crowed sounded off again in what now seemed like deadly camaraderie.
“Our hardworking and dedicated ranks we call by their surnames. Both in combat, and out of combat. It is our reminder that we owe everything to the Corps, including our identities, and that we are happy to serve the human race in this way.” She paused for effect here, and Ellis—Gray—suspected that the woman had rehearsed this. “And as for our enemies? We encourage our soldiers to call the big, motherless, genocidal bastards any number of names, don’t we?”
The crowd roared.
“You won’t get in trouble for calling them Anakim, Gray. But if you want to make any friends here, you’d better start calling them ‘Naks.”
Gray nodded emphatically.
“And now for the most important question I’m going to ask you today. How do you react to the scent?”
“Th-the what, ma’am?”
The corpsman turned to the crowd again. “She doesn’t know! The scent, bondie.” She produced a small piece of cloth from her pocket, a dusty gray scrap of fabric spattered with dried blood, and held it up and away from her. “I’ve seen grown men piss themselves before it even touched their face,” she said, grinning.
Gray looked at the cloth, feeling a spike of unease. She kept her mouth screwed shut, her feet planted on the hot boards. The cloth came nearer, nearer, until it was inches from her nose. Gray’s heart beat faster, her breathing became shallow.
“Feel the squeeze yet? The panic?”
Gray shut her eyes, focusing on getting her breathing under control. What was this? She’d never felt anything like it before. The fear hit her like a summer squall as the corps recruitment officer pressed the dirty cloth to Gray’s face, covering her nose and mouth with it. It stank of old sweat, blood, gunpowder. Every instinct she had told her to push it away, to retch and run and not look back. It was going to suffocate her, envelop her and drag her down, down…
Don’t you dare move Ellis, her mind screamed. Don’t you dare!
The sixteen-year-old bond didn’t know what was happening, why the corps was playing this cruel trick on her in front of a hundred sneering soldiers. All she knew was that everything, her life, her future, depended on being able to withstand this. So she did.
And then it was over.
Gray could suddenly breathe again, open her eyes. The fear had passed. She caught the last glimpse of the rag being tucked away into the corpsman’s back pocket before noting something down on the clipboard.
“What was that?” Gray asked quietly.
“That, soldier, was the pheromone. More than their guns, more than their size, that is the enemy’s deadliest weapon. You’re dismissed, Gray. Pick up your Manual from the camp clerk in four hours.”