The Testing (Excerpt)

Check out The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, out on June 4—and don’t forget to take a peek its prequel, The Testing Guide, right here on Tor.com!:

It’s graduation day for sixteen-year-old Malencia Vale, and the entire Five Lakes Colony (the former Great Lakes) is celebrating. All Cia can think about—hope for—is whether she’ll be chosen for The Testing, a United Commonwealth program that selects the best and brightest new graduates to become possible leaders of the slowly revitalizing post-war civilization. When Cia is chosen, her father finally tells her about his own nightmarish half-memories of The Testing. Armed with his dire warnings (“Cia, trust no one”), she bravely heads off to Tosu City, far away from friends and family, perhaps forever. Danger, romance—and sheer terror—await.

 

Chapter 1

 

Graduation day.

I can hardly stand still as my mother straightens my celebratory red tunic and tucks a strand of light brown hair behind my ear. Finally she turns me and I look in the reflector on our living area wall. Red. I’m wearing red. No more pink. I am an adult. Seeing evidence of that tickles my stomach.

“Are you ready, Cia?” my mother asks. She too is wearing red, although her dress is made of a gossamer fabric that drapes to the floor in soft swirls. Next to her, my sleeveless dress and leather boots look childish, but that’s okay. I have time to grow into my adult status. I’m young for it at sixteen. The youngest by far in my class.

I take one last look in the reflector and hope that today is not the end of my education, but I have no control over that. Only a dream that my name will be called for The Testing. Swallowing hard, I nod. “Let’s go.”

Graduation is held in the colony square among the stalls filled with baked goods and fresh milk because the school isn’t large enough to hold all the people who will attend. The entire colony attends graduation, which only makes sense since everyone in the colony is related to at least one of the students crossing over to adulthood or celebrating their promotion to the next grade. This year is the largest graduating class the Five Lakes Colony has had. Eight boys, six girls. A clear sign the colony is thriving.

My father and four brothers, all dressed in ceremonial adult purple, are waiting for us outside our dwelling. My oldest brother, Zeen, shoots me a smile and ruffles my hair. “Are you ready to be done with school and get out into the real world with the rest of us slobs?”

My mother frowns.

I laugh.

Zeen and my other brothers are definitely not slobs. In fact, girls practically throw themselves at them. But while my brothers aren’t immune to flirting, none of them seems interested in settling down. They’re more interested in creating the next hybrid tomato plant than starting a family. Zeen most of all. He’s tall, blond, and smart. Very, very smart. And yet he never got chosen for The Testing. The thought takes away the shine from the day. Perhaps that’s the first rule I will learn as an adult—that you can’t always get what you want. Zeen must have wanted to continue on to the University—to follow in Dad’s footsteps. He must know what I’m feeling. For a moment, I wish I could talk to him. Ask him how he got through the disappointment that most likely is awaiting me. Our colony will be lucky to have one student chosen for The Testing — if any at all. It has been ten years since the last student from Five Lakes was chosen. I’m good at school, but there are those who are better. Much better. What chance do I have?

With a forced smile, I say, “You bet. I can’t stay in school if I plan on running the colony by the time all of you are married.”

Hart and Win blush. They are two years older than me and the idea of marriage and dating makes them run for cover. The two of them are happy working side by side in the nursery, growing the flowers and trees Dad has created to withstand the corrupted earth at the outskirts of the colony.

“No one will be doing much of anything if we don’t get moving.” Mother’s voice is sharp as she heads off down the path. My brothers and father quickly follow. Zeen’s and Hamin’s lack of marriage prospects is a sore spot for our mother.

Because of Dad’s job, our house is farther from the center of the colony than most. My brothers and father have made the ground around our small house bloom green with plants and trees, but a hundred feet past our front door the earth is cracked and brittle. Though some grass and a few scraggly trees do grow. Dad tells me the earth to our west is far worse, which is why our leaders decided to place the Five Lakes Colony here.

Usually, I ride my bicycle to town. A couple of citizens own cars, but fuel and solar cells big enough to run them are too precious for everyday use. Today, I trail behind my family as we walk the almost five miles to the colony’s community square.

Square is really the wrong word, but we use it anyway. It’s shaped more like a turtle with an oval center and some appendages to the sides. There is a beautiful fountain in the middle that sprays clear, sparkling water into the air. The fountain is a luxury since clean water is not always easy to come by. But we are allowed the waste and the beauty in order to honor the man who discovered how to remove the contamination from the lakes and ponds after Stage Seven. What is left of the oceans is harder to clean.

The ground becomes greener and birds sing the closer we get to the center of the colony. Mom doesn’t talk much on the way. Zeen teases her that she doesn’t want me to grow up, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Or maybe it is.

Mom and I get along fine, but the past couple of years she has seemed distant. Less willing to help me with my homework. More interested in getting the boys married and talking about where I will apprentice when I finish school. Any discussion of me being selected for The Testing is not welcome. So, I talk to her less and less and to my father more and more. He doesn’t change the subject when I speak about going further in my education, although he doesn’t actively encourage me. He doesn’t want to see me disappointed, I guess.

The sun is hot and sweat drips down my back as we trek up the final hill. The sounds of music and laughter from just out of sight have me quickening my step. Just before we reach the top, Dad puts his arm around me and asks me to wait while the others go on ahead.

The excitement over the hill pulls at me, but I stay put and ask, “Is something wrong?” His eyes are filled with shadows even though his smile is bright.

“Nothing is wrong,” he says. “I just wanted a moment with my little girl before things get too crazy. Everything changes the minute we go over that hill.”

“I know.”

“Are you nervous?”

“Kind of.” Excitement, fear, and other emotions swirl inside me, making it hard to tell what I’m really feeling. “It’s weird not knowing what I’m going to do when I get up tomorrow.” Most of my classmates have made choices about their future. They know where they will apprentice or if they will move to another colony to find work. Some even know who they are going to marry. I know none of these things, although my father has made it clear I can work with him and my brothers if I choose. The option seems bleak at best since my thumb is anything but green. The last time I helped my father I almost destroyed the sunflower seedling he’d spent months creating. Mechanical things I fix. Plants I kill.

“You’re going to get up and face whatever comes. I’ll be proud of you no matter what today brings.”

“Even if I don’t get accepted for The Testing?”

“Especially if you don’t get accepted for The Testing.” He smiles and gently pokes me in the belly. When I was little, that never failed to send me into fits of laughter. Today it still makes me grin. It’s nice to know some things never change, even though I doubt my father’s teasing words.

Dad went to the University. That’s where he learned to genetically alter plants and trees to survive in the blighted soil. He doesn’t talk about it much, or the colony he grew up in, probably because he doesn’t want us to feel pressured by his success. But I do.

“You think I won’t get accepted.”

My father frowns. “I think you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for. You never know who the search committee might pick or why. Five of us from my grade were selected and tested. The other four always did better in class, but I was the only one who made it to the University. The Testing isn’t always fair, and it isn’t always right.”

“But you’re not sorry you went. Look at the amazing things you do every day because of it.” The trees next to us are filled with blooms promising apples in the months to come. Bushes of wild blackberries grow next to daisies and other flowers I never learned the names of but know Dad was a part of creating. When I was small, these things didn’t exist. At least not the healthy versions dotting the hills today. Even now I can remember the empty ache of going to bed hungry. Food had been scarce as Dad worked with farmers to make things grow. And they had. In Five Lakes Colony, we are careful not to waste, but hunger is no longer our primary concern. My father is the reason why.

“I can’t be sorry about something I had no choice in.” His eyes go far away as the birds chirp around us. Finally, he smiles, although his eyes never clear of whatever memories are capturing his attention. “Besides, I wouldn’t have moved here and met your mother if I hadn’t gone to the University. Then where would I be?”

“Probably living at home with your parents and making your mother worry that you’ll never get serious about your future.”

The clouds disappear from their depths and his eyes twinkle as he ruffles my hair. “Sounds like a fate worse than death.” Which is what my mother makes it sound like every time she tells Zeen that life is passing him by. “Come on. Your mother is going to sound the alarm if we don’t get moving. I just want you to remember one thing. I believe in you. No matter what.”

Arm in arm we start up and over the hill to join the festivities. I smile, but deep in my heart I worry that Dad has always expected me to fall short of his achievements. That I will disappoint — no matter what.

 

Because the colony is spread out over many miles, this is the one guaranteed occasion every year when the entire population of Five Lakes gathers together. Once in a while we all congregate when there is a message from our country’s leaders that needs to be delivered to everyone, but those occasions are rare. At just over nine hundred citizens, our colony is one of the smallest and farthest from Tosu City, where the United Commonwealth government is based. We don’t rank much attention, which is fine by most of us. We do well on our own. Outsiders aren’t shunned, but they aren’t exactly embraced with open arms. They have to convince us they belong.

The square is quite large, but the space feels small with so many people dressed in their ceremonial finery. Shops for candles, baked goods, shoes, and all sorts of household items line the outside edge of the square. The shops will close when graduation begins, but now they are doing a brisk business as citizens who don’t often get into town purchase or trade for necessary items. The United Commonwealth coin is rare in our colony, but the few people on the government payroll, like Dad, use it.

“Cia!” The waving hand catches my attention as my best friend Daileen comes barreling toward me. Her blond hair and pink dress flutter as she dodges groups of chatting citizens to reach me. She clutches a cone with rapidly melting pink ice cream in her hand. Squeezing me in a tight hug, she says, “Can you believe you’re graduating? This is so exciting. They’re even giving away free ice cream.”

I hug her back, careful to avoid the melting cone. My mother will have a fit if I get a stain on my new dress before graduation begins. “Exciting and scary. Don’t forget the scary part.”

Daileen is the only one I’ve talked to about my fears of the future if I don’t get chosen for The Testing. She looks around to make sure no one is listening and says, “My father heard there’s a special guest who’s supposed to speak today.”

Graduation Day has a lot of speakers. Our teachers will speak, as will the magistrate and a number of other Five Lakes leaders. When the entire colony gets together there is never a lack of things to talk about. So the special guest doesn’t sound all that special until Daileen adds, “My father says the guest is from Tosu City.”

That gets my attention. “Someone from Tosu is here?” The last time an official from Tosu came to Five Lakes Colony was three years ago when our old magistrate died. Two men and a woman came to the colony to select the new colony leader. Mostly Tosu City communicates with us through proclamations or radio communications with our magistrate.

“That’s what my father heard.” Daileen licks the melted ice cream streaking the back of her hand. “Dad thinks he’s here to escort a candidate for The Testing. That could be you.” For a minute her smile falters. “I’ll really miss you.”

Daileen and I are only two weeks apart in age and have been best friends since the age of three. Her parents enrolled her in school at the mandatory age of six. My parents decided to send me at five, which is why we are not in the same class. She is the shyer, smarter, and gentler of the two of us. She is also the one less likely to make new friends unless someone else is there to get the conversation going. Without me pushing her to engage others in conversation during lunch and hang out after classes, she will probably eat alone and go home to an empty, sad house long before everyone else leaves the school grounds. Her mother died two years ago in an accident and her father, while nice, isn’t home much, leaving Daileen alone to deal with the chores and the memories. I try to keep her in good spirits while we’re at school, but some days the shadows overwhelm her. I worry one day those shadows will swallow her whole without someone to chase them away.

I give her another quick hug and say, “Every year there’s a rumor about a Tosu official coming to graduation.” Although a small part of me can’t help yearning for this year’s rumor to be true. To distract myself as much as Daileen, I add, “Now, I want to get some of that ice cream before it’s gone. Okay?”

I enlist other friends, many of them going into their final year of school, in our search for strawberry ice cream, hoping that one of them will take Daileen under their wing when classes begin again in a few weeks. If not, I will find a way to make things easier for Daileen.

My mother waves at me and frowns, so I leave a smiling Daileen with the other students and cross the square to the fountain where she waits. Almost everyone I pass waves or says hello. Our family moves to new dwellings almost every year — to whatever section of the colony the magistrate thinks needs Dad’s skill the most. All the moving makes it hard to feel attached to a home, but unlike most citizens, who know only their neighbors and former schoolmates, I know the majority of the people in our colony by sight.

Kids still too young for school, dressed in pale yellows and greens, dance around the twelve-foot-wide circular fountain, occasionally splashing each other with the water. But they avoid the area where my mother is seated. Her expression says that getting her wet will bring a scolding. Something I’m probably going to get no matter what.

My mother studies me. “Your hair is a mess. What have you been doing?”

My hair is always a mess between the curls and the frizz. I’ve suggested cutting it short, but my mother insists that long, cascading hair is a necessary asset for an unmarried young woman. If my hair came even close to cascading I might agree with her.

The sound of drums and trumpets compels my mother to stop her assault on my hair. My insides do a flip. Then another. It is time to take my place among the students. Graduation is about to begin.

My father and brothers appear out of the crowd and give me hugs before I head for the raised platform where my fellow graduates and I are expected to stand throughout the ceremony. It’s often said that getting through eleven years of school is easier than standing through the two or more hours it takes to leave it. I am hoping whoever said that was just joking.

We line up as directed across the back of the stage. Boys in back. Girls in front. Which I am thankful for, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see anything. My brothers inherited my mother’s and father’s height, whereas I am a throwback to another generation. At five feet, two inches, I am the shortest girl in my class.

Ms. Jorghen, our teacher, fusses with our positioning and reminds us at least a dozen times to smile, stand straight, and pay attention. This is her first Graduation Day in Five Lakes Colony so she is no doubt nervous. Once she is happy with our arrangement on the stage, she takes her place in the middle of the platform and the trumpets and drums sound again. Magistrate Owens appears in the doorway of her house — the only three-story structure on the square — and walks stiffly through the crowd. She is a robust, gray-haired woman with deep lines on her face. Her red dress is a darker color than most, more of a rust tone. The minute she reaches the podium at the front of the stage, she leans into the microphone that is set to amplify her voice across the square and announces, “Happy Graduation Day.”

We all say the words back to her and several citizens applaud. Magistrate Owens waits for the square to grow quiet again before saying, “Graduation Day is an exciting time for us all, but especially for the students behind me. After today, they will become a very welcome addition to our colony’s workforce. Twenty-five years ago, the United Commonwealth government decided to send 150 men, women, and children to this area. They created Five Lakes Colony in the hopes that our hard work could make the scarred earth that was once rich with farmland and forests thrive. The five lakes that we are named after were once called the Great Lakes. With the aid of our citizens, we are helping restore them to their original name. We have needed every member of our community to make this happen. Graduation Day adds fourteen of you to our cause and for that we are fortunate. Each step we take forward creates the need for more hands to help cultivate progress. Trust me when I say we can never have enough hands. I know many of you have not yet decided what careers you will embark upon, but all of us are grateful for whatever work you will do here in the years to come.”

The crowd applauds. My heart swoops with nerves and excitement as Magistrate Owens announces, “Let the Graduation Day parade begin.”

I bite my lip to keep it from trembling as the trumpets and drums take up a marching melody. My eyes blur with unshed tears, blinding me for a moment to the entrance of my soonto-be former schoolmates. Every year the students from the school parade into the square one class at a time to great applause. Each class makes a banner that two students carry at the front to announce what lessons were learned this year. After the ceremony, the banners will be displayed in the square and the favorite one will be voted on. There is often friendly betting among the adults as to which class will win. For the first time, I am not among those parading, and it hits me that I never will be again.

The youngest class leads the parade, followed by the next oldest and so on. They march around the fountain to the beat of the drums and over to an area left of the stage that is roped off for them. When all ten classes are standing near the stage, Magistrate Owens talks about the new train system that has been developed between Tosu City and ten of the other colonies and the plans to continue construction until all colonies are reachable by rail. From my place on the stage I can see the crowd’s excitement at the news. When she is done relating news from the United Commonwealth, Magistrate Owens invites the citizens in charge of water, power, agriculture, and other revitalization projects to make announcements. These take more than an hour and range from reminders about proper water usage to requests for volunteers to help build dwellings for newly married couples. Even my father makes an announcement about a new, hardier breed of potato that his team developed.

I blink and try not to show my surprise. Not at the new potato. That I knew about. The old strain of potato had a halfinch hard skin that turned black when exposed to air. Something to do with whatever genetic enhancement Dad gave it to survive in the blighted soil in the first place. For the most part no one cared about the black skin. Once you cut away the outside, the potato was safe to eat. But Zeen decided to try his hand at a new version and succeeded brilliantly. So, no, it is not the potatoes that have caught me off-guard, but the words Dad uses to announce them. Last week he told us that Zeen was going to get full credit for the project.

But he doesn’t. Zeen’s name is never mentioned.

I crane my neck, trying to see Zeen in the crowd. Does he look disappointed? This was supposed to be a moment of triumph for him. Is he as confused as I am? I find him leaning against a tree in the middle of the applauding crowd. Several people are slapping him on the back because he is a member of Dad’s team. But his smile doesn’t fool me. The set of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes tell me better than words that he has felt the slight.

Dad leaves the stage to more applause and our teacher takes his place. My stomach clenches and my breathing quickens. This is it. I am about to graduate.

Ms. Jorghen smiles back at us. Then she says into the microphone, “I am very proud to read the roster of graduates who today pass from their studies into adulthood.”

One by one she announces the names of our graduating class. One by one my classmates walk to the center of the stage, shake Magistrate Owens’s hand, and then take their place back in line. The names are read in alphabetical order, so mine isn’t called until the end.

“Malencia Vale.”

My legs are unsteady from nerves and stiff from standing. I walk over to the podium and shake both Ms. Jorghen’s and the magistrate’s hands while the crowd applauds. Daileen’s cheers can be heard above all others, and her smile makes me respond with one of my own. My heart soars. I’m officially an adult. I did it.

Still grinning, I return to my place with my class as Magistrate Owens takes the podium. The crowd goes silent. A ripple of anticipation makes my stomach churn. My hands clench and unclench in anticipation. If any students have been selected for The Testing, this is when it will be announced. I crane my neck, trying to spot an unknown face in the crowd—the rumored Tosu City official.

Only there is no Tosu City official. Magistrate Owens gives us all a big smile and says, “Congratulations to all of this year’s students and especially to our graduates. I can’t wait to see what your futures hold.”

The crowd cheers again and my lips curl into an automatic smile even as disappointment and tears lodge in my throat. I have been preparing for this day for years and now it is over. As are my dreams for the future. No matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t good enough to be chosen for The Testing.

As I leave the stage and am given hugs of congratulations by my friends, I can only wonder, What will I do now?


Chapter 2

 

“Hiding?”

I startle at my brother’s voice. Zeen’s knowing smile makes the denial I was about to give die on my lips. Instead, I shrug. “Things have been kind of crazy today. I just needed a few minutes to catch my breath.”

Guitars, drums, and several horns play music in front of the bakery while dozens of people dance and clap their hands to the beat. On the other side of the square, roasted meats continue to be sliced and carved. A combination of torchlight and electricity illuminates the rest of the square where people laugh, sing, and play games. But the light doesn’t reach me in the shadows where I stand. For the past few hours, I’ve been dancing and singing because it is expected. To do anything less would be to show my disappointment, which would also reveal my arrogance in thinking I was smart enough to be chosen.

“Here.” Zeen hands me a cup with an understanding nod. “You could use this.”

The drink is sweet, but underneath there is the distinct flavor of something sharp and bitter. Alcohol. Since most fruits and grains that can be turned into alcohol are needed to feed Five Lakes Colony citizens, very little of the crop is turned into liquor. But a small amount is set aside every year for special occasions—like graduation night. Only adults are allowed to consume the special drinks, but my brothers have allowed me to sip from their cups in the past. The flavor isn’t to my liking, so I only take a quick sip and pass the cup back to Zeen.

“Feel better, kiddo?”

I look down to avoid his eyes. “Not exactly.”

“Yeah.” He leans back against a large oak tree and drains the rest of the liquid from the cup. “Things don’t always work out the way we hope. You just have to pick yourself up and find a new direction to go in.”

The edge to his voice makes me ask, “Is that what you’re going to do then?” In the past couple years Zeen had toyed with seeing what opportunities existed outside of Five Lakes. I would hate it if he did it now. Having him leave our colony would be sad. Knowing he’d be leaving mad would break my heart.

His hand tightens around the cup, but his words are mild when he answers, “I’m not sending an application to Tosu City, if that’s what you mean. The magistrate asked Dad to change his announcement today, so he did. You know me. I’ll be pissed for a few days and then I’ll get over it.” He shrugs, and his eyes shift to the party in the square. It’s getting late. While some will dance and sing until morning, many are already starting to make the journey home. Graduation Day is coming to an end.

After several minutes, Zeen says, “You could do it, you know.”

“Do what?”

“Talk to the magistrate. Send an application to Tosu City.”

The thought is both terrifying and tempting. Any colonist interested in working in Tosu City or another colony can fill out an application and file it with the magistrate’s office. The United Commonwealth government will then contact the applicant with an appropriate job assignment if one is available. In my sixteen years, I’ve known of only two applicants who were contacted and offered positions. After the disappointment of today, I’m not sure I’m ready to face another.

My uncertainty must show on my face, because Zeen throws an arm around my shoulders and gives me a quick hug. “Don’t worry, kiddo. You have lots of time to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.”

Too bad Mom doesn’t agree.

We all sleep late the next morning, but I’ve barely had a chance to get dressed before my mother says, “If you are determined not to work with your father, Kip Drysten has an opening on his team. You should talk to him before one of the other graduates takes the position.”

Kip Drysten’s team repairs farming equipment. While I like working with mechanical things, the idea of repairing brokendown tractors for the rest of my life is depressing. “I’ll think about it,” I say.

My mother’s frown speaks volumes, which is why I find myself climbing on my bicycle and slowly riding toward town in search of Mr. Drysten.

The Drystens live in a small, pretty cottage on the other side of the colony. Knocking on the front door, I swallow hard. I can’t help the swell of relief I feel when Mr. Drysten’s wife tells me that Kip left early this morning for the Endress farm. He isn’t expected back for several days. I’ve been granted a reprieve.

The day after graduation is a day of rest. Most businesses are closed. Families stay home to hold more private celebrations. My mother is planning a large meal later and even has invited a few of my friends over to share. I should probably go home and help with the preparations. Instead, I get off my bicycle when I reach the town square.

I lean my bicycle against a tree and sit next to the fountain. One or two citizens wave, but they are busy and don’t stop to talk. Which I prefer. Resting my head on my hands, I watch the water gurgle in the fountain and try to ignore the hollowness that has taken root since yesterday’s ceremony. I am an adult. Ever since I was little I watched my parents and the other adults and wished for the day I would be one of them — confident and strong. Never have I felt so unsure of myself.

The clock above the magistrate’s house gongs. Three o’clock. Time to get home before my mother starts to worry. I’m over halfway there when I spot my brother Hart speeding down the dirt path toward me. Crap. If Mom sent him to find me, I’m really in trouble.

But it isn’t my mother looking for me. “Magistrate Owens sent a pulse radio message to Dad just after you left the house. You’re supposed to report to her house at four o’clock to talk about your future plans. When you didn’t come home right away, Mom sent us all out to look for you.” Hart gives me a wicked grin. “You’d better hurry if you’re going to make it.”

He’s right. By the time I arrive back in the square, sweat is dripping down my face, my hair is a wreck, and my stomach is tied in knots. While my father and brothers have had occasion to be summoned to the magistrate’s house to talk about their various projects, this is a first for me. My future plans? I can’t help but wonder if this summons was prompted by my mother’s concern. Did she contact Magistrate Owens and enlist her help or has my lack of career path been obvious to others? The idea that my disappointment has been noticed by those outside my family makes my stomach roil with shame.

Preparing for a lecture, I run my hands through my hair and straighten my white short-sleeved tunic and gray pants before knocking on the magistrate’s front door.

“Good. You made it.” Magistrate Owens gives me a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Please come in, Cia. Everyone else is already here.”

Everyone else?

Magistrate Owens leads me into a large, carpeted sitting room and four faces turn to look at me. The three people who are seated are familiar. Gray-eyed, handsome Tomas Endress. Shy but sweet Malachi Rourke. Beautiful, artistic Zandri Hicks. They are fellow graduates. People I have known almost my entire life. The other is not.

Tomas motions for me to take a seat next to him and gives me a dimpled smile that makes it impossible not to smile in return. Magistrate Owens crosses the room, stands next to the stranger, and says, “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I apologize for pulling you away from your family celebrations, but it was unavoidable.” Her eyes sweep the room, looking at each one of us. “This is Tosu City official Michal Gallen. He intended on arriving yesterday for graduation, but was unavoidably delayed due to a mechanical problem.”

Tosu City.

My heart tilts as Tosu City official Gallen takes a step forward and pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He’s older than us, but not by much. Around Zeen’s age, with shaggy brown hair and a lanky awkwardness that belies the authority he must bring with him from Tosu.

His dark eyes are serious as he looks down at the paper and reads, “Every year the United Commonwealth reviews the achievements of the graduates in all eighteen colonies. The top students from that pool of graduates are brought to Tosu City for Testing to attend the University. Being chosen is an honor. The graduates of the University are our great hope—the ones we are all counting on to help regenerate the earth and improve our quality of life. They are the future scientists, doctors, teachers, and government officials.” The paper lowers, and he gives us a smile. “You four have been selected to participate in The Testing.”

A wave of excitement washes over me. I look around to see if I have heard correctly. Tomas’s face is lit with a smile. He is the smartest in our class, so it is no wonder he has been chosen. According to this Tosu City official, I have too. Four of us have. This is real. I won’t have to work with tractors. I have been chosen for The Testing. I did it.

“You will leave for The Testing tomorrow.”

The glow of happiness fades as the reality of the Tosu City official’s words slam into my chest. We leave tomorrow.

“Why tomorrow?” Magistrate Owens asks. “I remember there being more time in between selection and The Testing.”

“Things have changed since your colony last had a Testing candidate,” the Tosu City official answers. His voice is deep with a hint of impatience. “The candidates will begin the Testing process this week. I think you’ll agree they stand a better chance of passing if they arrive on time.”

“What if we don’t want to go?”

We all turn to look at Zandri. Her face is almost the same crimson shade as her tunic. At first I think it is from embarrassment. Then she lifts her chin. By the way her blue eyes glitter, it is clear she is angry. The fact that four of us were chosen for The Testing is astonishing, but Zandri being one of the four is perhaps the bigger surprise. Not that Zandri isn’t smart. She is, although many of us would think of her as an artist first and a scholar second. Zandri only excels at science when it helps her create new paints. And while she has never indicated a desire to continue her education, I am still surprised at her question. Who would turn down the honor of being chosen for The Testing?

The Tosu City official smiles, and I shiver. It is a smile devoid of warmth. “You don’t have a choice. The law states that every United Commonwealth citizen chosen must present him or herself for The Testing by the appointed date or face punishment.”

“What kind of punishment?” Zandri looks to Magistrate Owens, who glances at the Tosu City official.

The two lock eyes before Magistrate Owens says, “According to the law, not presenting oneself for The Testing is a form of treason.”

And the most common punishment for treason is death.

Someone, perhaps Malachi, whispers a protest. My chest feels as though someone has wrapped his arms around me and squeezed tight. All my excitement about being chosen is gone—replaced with an icy fear. Only, there is no reason to fear. I want to be tested. Punishment will not be required for me.

Or for any of my fellow candidates. At the word treason, the fight goes out of Zandri.

Seeing our shock, Magistrate Owens explains that the law that governs the punishment for not accepting our place in The Testing goes back to the very early days of the United Commonwealth. There were lawless factions that wished to tear apart the new government and tried to convince Testing candidates to rebel. There is talk of the law being changed, but these things take time.

I feel a bit better knowing the law hasn’t been invoked in decades, and the excitement that had been extinguished begins to resurface as the magistrate discusses the basics we will need to bring with us to Tosu City. Testing candidates are allowed to bring two changes of everyday clothing. Two sets of undergarments. One set of nightclothes. Two pairs of shoes. Two personal items. No books. No papers. Nothing that might give one candidate an advantage over another. Everything must fit in the bags we will be given when we leave the meeting. We are expected to be in the square tomorrow at first light, with our bags. Tosu City official Michal Gallen will be waiting to escort us to the Testing Center.

She then tells us how proud she is of our achievements and says she is certain we will all be successful in our Testing. But I know she’s lying. My mother has the same forced, overly bright smile when she’s upset. Magistrate Owens does not think we will all pass. Does she worry that our failure will reflect poorly on Five Lakes Colony?

I’m still wondering as we are escorted toward the front entrance.

Bright sunshine greets us as the door swings open. I am the last of the four to take a dark brown bag with the red and purple United Commonwealth logo on the front from Magistrate Owens. As I sling the thick strap over my shoulder, I realize the dinner party my mother has painstakingly planned will have to be cut short. Otherwise, I will not have enough time to pack and prepare for whatever tomorrow brings.

Zandri is already gone when I step outside, but Tomas and Malachi are waiting. For a moment the three of us stare at one another, uncertain what to say. I’m not surprised when Tomas is the first to find his voice. With one of his wide, heart-stopping smiles, he looks into my eyes and says, “I guess we should go home. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day.”

And I know he’s right. It’s time to go home and tell my family that tomorrow I will leave the house in the morning and I won’t return.


Chapter 3

 

The sound of my family’s laughter greets me as I open the front door. A congratulatory banner hangs on the far wall. The kitchen table is covered with plates stacked high with bread, meats, and sweets for my graduation celebration. Now it will also be a party of farewell.

“There she is,” Zeen yells as he spots me in the doorway. “I told you she wouldn’t be late for her own party. Not when cinnamon bread is involved.”

My father turns with a smile. The minute he spots the bag hanging from my shoulder, the smile fades and recognition blooms in his eyes. “You’ve been chosen for The Testing.”

The laughter disappears. Smiles falter as all eyes turn to me for confirmation. For all my happiness at being chosen, my throat tightens when I nod. University graduates go where United Commonwealth officials send them—where their skills are most needed. If I succeed in passing The Testing, the chances of my returning home are almost none.

The twins recover first. Before I know what hits me, the boys have me squeezed between them in one of their sandwich hugs, yelling congratulations. Hamin hugs me next. His excitement is less boisterous, but no less genuine. Then my mother is there. Her hands shake when she embraces me, but her smile is filled with pride as she asks what I’m allowed to bring and when I’m supposed to leave. I barely have time to answer or notice Zeen slipping out of the room before there is knocking at the door signaling the arrival of my friends.

I am so happy to see them, especially Daileen. So happy I get the chance to say goodbye in person. There are more shouts of happiness and far more tears as I explain about The Testing and the others who were selected. Daileen’s happiness and sorrow are greatest of all. She tries to hide the sadness behind wide smiles, but as the party continues, I notice she slips more and more into the background, away from me, away from the others who she has always considered more my friends than hers. And I’m scared. While my family will feel the loss of my presence, they still have one another. Daileen will have no one.

Which is why, when my mother tells everyone the party has to end early, the first person I search out for farewell is Lyane Maddows. She isn’t bouncing with excitement or yelling to get my attention. Instead, she stands quietly near the door, waiting for my brothers to escort her home. Lyane and I aren’t the best of friends. We always say hello when we see each other, but rarely do we sit together at lunchtime or chat after school. But Lyane and I have a connection, which is why I invited her today. One I know she hasn’t forgotten. I hope that memory means I can count on her help.

As the girls still squeal and chatter behind me, I wrap my arms around Lyane and give her a hug. Her shoulders tense with surprise, but she doesn’t pull back. In her ear, I whisper, “Daileen needs a friend when I leave tomorrow. Will you watch out for her and keep her from being alone? Please.”

Lyane’s arms hug me tighter. I can almost feel her weighing my request. Her return whisper makes tears prick the back of my eyes from relief and gratitude. Daileen will not be alone.

Lyane walks out of the house without a backwards glance as I turn to say goodbye to the others. Daileen waits to be last. I can tell how hard she fights to hold back tears as she promises to see me next year in Tosu City. “I’m going to study harder than ever. They’ll have no choice but to choose me.”

It is only the sound of Lyane’s voice from outside calling, “Daileen, will you walk next to me?” that keeps my heart from breaking as I watch Daileen slip out of view. Lyane knows what the darkness of too much solitude can do to a person. I helped pull her out of that black place four years before when I found her at the end of the colony limits, looking over the edge of the ravine, preparing to jump. Only, I wouldn’t let her. Instead, I made her talk. About her father who was a government official in Tosu City and her mother who hated living in Five Lakes and took out her frustration and anger on her daughter. As far as I know, Lyane has never shown anyone else but me the scars she received at the hands of her mother. With my father’s and the magistrate’s help, Lyane’s mother joined her husband in Tosu City while Lyane was taken in by another Five Lakes family and found reasons to smile. I trust Lyane to help Daileen find those reasons, too.

With my brothers acting as escorts for my friends, the house feels larger than usual as I help my parents clear dishes and tidy up the main room. Our current house is large by most standards. In addition to the central living space, we have two other rooms in the back of the house. The one on the right belongs to my parents. My brothers and I sleep in the one on the left, although Zeen and Hamin snore so loudly that I have taken to sleeping on a pile of blankets in front of the fireplace in the main room. I smile. Going to Tosu City for The Testing means I might sleep in a bed again.

While we work, Mom chatters about what I should take with me and how I should behave while in the city. More than once she stops what she is doing and tears up at the idea of me being the first of her children to leave home. My father says nothing during these moments, although I can tell he wants to.

When all the dishes have been washed and stored away, my father says, “Why don’t we take a walk?” When my mother opens her mouth to protest, he says, “I know Cia needs to pack, but before the boys get back and things get crazy, I’d like to spend a bit of quiet time with my little girl.”

My mom sniffles and my heart squeezes as I head into the darkening night with my father.

My father takes my hand, and together we stroll around the house to the back gardens. A hazy moon and stars are starting to shine above us. They say at one time the sky was clear and on a cloudless night the stars looked like diamonds. Perhaps that was true. It’s hard to imagine.

Near the back of the house, Dad hits a switch. First there is a humming sound, then one by one lights flicker around the backyard, illuminating the beautiful daisies, roses, and vegetable plants behind our house. While the plants belong to Dad and my brothers, the lights belong to me. The colony has strict laws governing electricity usage. Production and storage of electricity in our area is limited. Most personal dwellings don’t use electricity at all unless the citizens can create their own. Not many bother to try since candles and firelight work perfectly well. A few years ago, I decided to take up the challenge and talked Dad into letting me experiment with some leftover irrigation tubes, scrap copper plating, and wire. I conned Mom into giving me some glass jars, a little of our precious salt, and a bunch of other odds and ends, and got to work. The result is a network of fifteen lights all powered by the energy my solar panels harvest during the day. While I could create a much more sophisticated system now, Dad insists on using this one. This is the third backyard it has illuminated. For a moment, I wonder how long it will be before we have to move it again. Then I realize that I won’t be here to help when the time comes.

Dad leads me over to the oak bench Hamin made Mom for her birthday and takes a seat. I sit next to him and wait for him to speak.

Crickets chirp. Wind rustles the tree branches above us. From somewhere deep in the lengthening shadows come the faint sounds of wolves and other animals prowling in the night.

After what seems like forever, Dad takes my hand and holds it tight. When he speaks, I have to lean close to hear him. “There are things I’ve never told you. I had hoped to never tell you. Even now I’m not certain I should.”

I sit up straighter. “Is it about The Testing?”

Dad has never talked about his Testing or much about his days spent at the University no matter how many questions I’ve asked. For a moment I feel closer to him, knowing we’ll share this experience. Then the moment is shattered.

“You should never have been chosen.”

The words slap me across the face. I try to pull my hand free, but my father holds on tight. His eyes are staring into the darkness, but the expression on his face says he is not seeing anything. The glint of fear in his expression makes me forget my hurt. A knot of worry grows in my chest as my father’s eyes meet mine.

“My parents and I dreamed of me being chosen for The Testing. Our family was barely surviving. Omaha Colony was one of the largest colonies in the Commonwealth. There were too many people. Not enough resources. There was never enough food for everyone. We all knew someone who had died from starvation. My parents believed I could help fix that. Restore balance to the earth. I wanted them to have the money the government gives Testing candidate families to compensate them for the loss of the student. And I admit that part of me believed my parents. I believed I could help. I wanted to try.”

That the government compensates Testing candidate families is news to me. I want to ask if he and Mother will be compensated when I leave, but I withhold my question as Dad continues talking.

“There were only fourteen colonies then. Seventy-one of us assembled in the Testing Center. They tell me The Testing for my class took four weeks. I don’t remember a single day. Sixteen of us were chosen to move on. The head of the Testing committee said Testing memories are wiped clean after the process is complete to ensure confidentiality.”

“So you can’t tell me what the tests will be like?” Disappointment churns inside me. I had hoped my father’s experience would help me prepare—give me an edge. No doubt this was exactly what the Commonwealth government was preventing by removing my father’s memories.

“I remember arriving at the Testing Center. I remember being assigned a roommate, Geoff Billings. I remember us toasting our bright futures with full glasses of fresh milk and eating cake. There was lots of food and excitement. We could barely sleep that first night knowing our dreams could end the next day if we didn’t perform well on the tests. The next thing I remember is sitting in a room filled with chairs being told The Testing was complete. I started attending University classes three weeks later. Geoff wasn’t there. Neither were the two girls from my colony who traveled with me.”

Somewhere in the night an owl screeches, but Dad doesn’t seem to hear it. “The University was challenging. I enjoyed my classes. I liked knowing I was doing something important. My parents were able to send word that they were safe and well and proud. I was happy. I never gave a thought to Geoff or the other Testing candidates who didn’t pass.”

He closes his eyes and I sit beside him, wondering what it would feel like to lose the memories of my friends. To only remember the day I met Daileen. To not remember the giggles and the adventures we’ve had. The idea makes me want to cry, and I lace my fingers through my father’s to make us both feel better.

“I went to Lenox Colony after I graduated. There was a botanist who was close to a breakthrough, and the Commonwealth thought my ideas might help. I worked there a year before I ran into a boy who reminded me of Geoff. That night I started having dreams. I’d wake up sweating, heart racing, not knowing why. Not a night would pass uninterrupted. My work began to suffer, and the government medics gave me pills to help with sleep. The pills didn’t stop the dreams. They just made it harder for me to escape them. In the light of day I began to remember the dreams. Just flashes at first. Geoff giving me a thumbs-up from across a white room with black desks. A large red-numbered clock counting down the time as my fingers manipulated three blue wires. A girl screaming.”

My father lets go of my hand and stands. I feel a flicker of fear as he runs a hand through his hair and then begins to pace.

“The flashes stopped. In their place was one recurring dream. Geoff, a girl named Mina, and me walking down a street lined with burned-out steel buildings. Broken glass covers the street. We’re looking for water and a place to sleep for the night. The buildings are so badly damaged that we’re nervous about using them for shelter, but we might have to because of the predators we’ve seen at night. Mina is limping. I spot a large branch and offer to make her a walking stick. While I’m working, Geoff scouts down the block. Mina tells him not to go too far. He promises he won’t. A few minutes later he yells he’s found something. Then the world explodes.”

Dad goes still. My heart pounds loud in my chest. Dad’s voice has gotten so quiet I have to lean forward to hear him say, “I find Mina first — half buried under a slab of concrete, blood running down her face.”

Dad swallows hard. His breathing is rough. His hands clench and unclench at his sides. I can tell he wants to stop talking. I want him to stop. This feels too real. I can see the blood. I can feel my father’s fear.

“I find one of Geoff’s boots ten feet away from Mina’s body. It takes me a minute to realize his foot is still in the boot and I start to scream. That’s where the dream ends.”

For a moment the night goes silent. No more sound of owls. No bugs flutter. Just the image of a boy not much older than me in pieces on an abandoned street. A boy who went to be tested . . .

“It was just a dream.” That’s what Dad used to tell me when I had nightmares. I always believed it. I want to believe it now.

“Maybe.” My father raises his eyes. The haunted despair in their depths makes me catch my breath. “For years I told myself it was just a dream. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I didn’t have a single waking memory of a girl named Mina. We made breakthroughs in our experiments. New plants I helped create began to thrive. I never told a soul about the dreams. Then the Commonwealth assigned me to work in Five Lakes. God, I was angry. Being assigned to Five Lakes was like an insult. Only a handful of University graduates were stationed here. I didn’t even have my own house when I first arrived. I had to sleep in Flint Carro’s living room.”

This part of the story is familiar. Normally, he tells it with a smile. Becoming friends with the colony’s doctor. Being dragged into the tailor’s shop by Flint. Seeing my mother sitting at a loom, weaving. Falling in love with her grace and kindness.

But that isn’t the story this time. And my father isn’t smiling.

“Flint’s house is small. There was no hiding the nightmares. Flint waited a week before he asked about them. I tried to brush him off. That’s when he told me about his own dreams. Not as scary. But disturbing. Faces of people he didn’t remember. Waiting for friends to return from an exam, but they never come. Over the next year, Flint and I talked to the other University graduates. There were seven of us then. We had to be careful because every Commonwealth employee is in contact with the officials in Tosu City. We didn’t want to jeopardize our jobs. I’m certain four of the others never lost a night’s sleep, but one, the head of the school, had a haunted look that I understood. She denied she had nightmares, but she must have.”

“You can’t know that.” I stand up and cross my arms over my chest, waiting for him to agree with me. I need him to agree.

His eyes meet mine. “No, but not a single student who graduated from Five Lakes was chosen for The Testing while she was in charge of the school. I don’t believe it was a coincidence. Do you?”

A shiver snakes up my spine. I don’t know what to believe. To believe my father’s dreams are something more than dreams is unthinkable. Tomorrow I leave for Tosu City. At the end of the week I will begin my Testing. To refuse is treason and all that implies. I want to scream and shout, but all I can do is stand there and shiver.

My father puts his arm around me and leads me back to the bench. I lean my head on his shoulder like I used to do when I was small. For a moment, I feel safe, but it doesn’t last.

“Flint says whatever process they used to wipe our memories could have caused the dreams. Our brains might be creating false memories to replace the ones that were taken.”

“But you don’t believe that.”

He shakes his head. “I was grateful when your brothers graduated and no one from Tosu City came to take them to be tested. Yesterday, I upset your brother by not publicly giving him the credit due to him because the magistrate received word a Tosu official was on his way. I didn’t want anyone questioning whether students should have been chosen before and whether past graduates should be reevaluated.”

He pulls me tight against him and rests his chin on top of my head. A tear falls on my cheek, but it isn’t mine. My father, who has always been so strong and smart and sure, is crying.

“So now what?” I squirm out of his arms and jump to my feet, angry. Angry that never once in all of our walks or conversations did he tell me these things. Never once when I was studying late into the night so I would do well on a test did he tell me what the consequences might be. “I leave in the morning. Why tell me this now? What good does it do?”

My father doesn’t raise his voice to meet mine. “Maybe none. Maybe Flint is right and our dreams are just hallucinations. But if there’s a chance they aren’t, it is better you know. Better that you go to Tosu City prepared to question everything you see and everyone you meet. That might be the difference between success or failure.” He crosses to me and puts his hands on my shoulders. I start to pull away, but then I notice the light reflecting off the tears pooling in his eyes. The fight goes out of me.

“Does Mom know?” I think she must, but at this point I’m not sure of anything.

“Your mother knows about the memory wipe and that I have nightmares, but not what they contain.”

I roll the words over in my head, testing them for the truth. “So, is that why Mom didn’t want me to be chosen?”

My father lays a hand on my face and rubs his thumb against my cheek. “Cia, I haven’t seen my parents since the day I left to be tested. To have a child chosen is an honor, but it also means loss. Your mother didn’t want to lose you.”

 

I don’t know how long we sit in silence. Long enough to hear my brothers’ voices announcing their return and my mother’s shouts chastising them for sneaking sweets. It all sounds so normal.

When my face is dry of tears, my father takes my hand and walks me back inside. We don’t mention Dad’s dreams or my new fears as Hamin teases the twins about my friends flirting with them. Mom puts out a platter of small cakes and sweetened mint tea as the boys pull out a deck of cards so we can all play one last game as a family. Even as I enjoy the laughter and warmth around the table, it feels incomplete without Zeen, who has yet to return. More than once I find myself watching the front door. I love all my brothers, but Zeen’s the one I go to when I have a problem I need to talk about. Zeen is always patient and insightful. He asks questions, and without fail I feel better after any discussion. Tonight I have a problem, but Zeen isn’t here.

When the game is over, my mother gently reminds me of the hour and of the task still in front of me. Excusing myself, I take the Commonwealth bag and slip into the bedroom I share with my brothers.

Knowing I may never see the room again makes me look at it with fresh eyes. A fire glows in the hearth nestled into the back wall. A square, worn brown rug sits in the middle of the room. Two sets of bunk beds are arranged on either side of the rug. Only mine, the bottom bed closest to the fireplace, has the sheets tucked in and the quilt smoothed. As soon as the boys graduated from school, Mom declared them old enough to tidy up their own beds. And they decided they were old enough not to care whether they slept in tightly tucked sheets.

We each have a wooden chest for our everyday clothes and shoes. The special clothes are hung in the large wooden armoire in the corner. Mother always talks about first impressions. I gnaw on my bottom lip and weigh the merits of all my clothes. Feeling confident is always easier when dressed in something special, but I hear my father’s voice replay in my head. I imagine the abandoned city street he walked in his dream. The two dresses I own won’t help me there. And even if the dreams aren’t real, I know in my heart pretty clothes won’t help once The Testing begins.

Ignoring the special attire, I walk to the wooden chest I’ve used since I was a little girl. I select two pairs of strong, comfortable pants and two sturdy shirts and my most comfortable boots. They are all hand-me-downs from my brothers. Knowing I have a piece of them coming with me helps ease the loneliness I already feel. I grab sleepwear and undergarments and carefully stow the selections in my bag. There is still plenty of room for the two personal items I am allowed to bring with me.

Sitting on the edge of my bed, I look around the room. Had my father not shared his dreams, I might have taken my flute or the silver necklace my mother gave me on my sixteenth birthday. Instead, I consider what might help me if The Testing is more than paper and pencil examinations.

After several minutes I slide off the bed and pull a small pocket hunting knife out of my chest. Each of my brothers has a similar knife—a gift from Dad. The knife also has a screwdriver and a few other gadgets attached. That’s one. Now for number two. There is only one other thing I can think of that might help, but it doesn’t belong to me. And Zeen isn’t here to ask permission.

Last year, Dad began letting Zeen experiment at work with his own projects. Some of those projects take him outside the colony boundaries. The boundaries were designed not so much to keep people or animals out, but to remind Five Colony citizens that the land beyond is potentially unsafe. Poisonous plants and meat-seeking animals are only part of the danger. During the last three stages of war, violent earthquakes ripped the fabric of the land. A lone traveler who falls into one of the earthquake-made fissures can easily find death waiting at the bottom from a broken neck, exposure, or hunger. To prevent the latter two, Dad gave Zeen a small handheld device called a Transit Communicator sent to him by the Commonwealth government. The device has a compass, a calculator, and a communication system that allows Zeen to contact a matching device in Dad’s office if ever there is a problem. I don’t know how it works, but I’m betting if necessary I can figure it out.

When Zeen isn’t working beyond the border, he keeps the device on a shelf next to his bed. Sure enough. My heart aches as my fingers close over the device. I wish Zeen were here to give me permission — to tell me he forgives me for being chosen when he was not. I want to tell Zeen that our father was trying to protect him when the announcement about the potato was made yesterday. That it wasn’t motivated by ego, but by love.

I wrap the Transit Communicator in a pair of socks to keep it safe and slide it into my bag, hoping Zeen returns in time for me to tell him I’ve taken a piece of him with me to Tosu City. Even though I know he will not. Zeen is the smartest of my brothers, but he is also the most emotional. While Win, Hart, and Hamin are loving and kind, they possess a carefree attitude about life that frustrates our mother. Zeen, however, is fiercely passionate. His temper is quick to flare, but his love is all encompassing. Which makes the loss of one he loves almost unbearable. He barely spoke for a month when our grandfather died.

Sitting on Zeen’s bed, I write a note that will serve as a request for his device and a reminder of my love. Not the farewell I hope for, but the only one I am certain I will have.

Now that my selections are made, panic sets in. Tomorrow I will be walking away from everything I know into something strange and potentially dangerous. What I want most in the world is to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Instead, I snap the bag shut, sling it onto my shoulder, and walk back out to my family, hoping to enjoy the last hours I have left with them.

 

The Testing © Joelle Charbonneau 2013

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