The Testing Page 3

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 stomach 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 his- 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.


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 share 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 backward 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 left over 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.

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