Authors: Brenda L. Harper
When all the girls were seated, a door near the raised platform opened and members of the council came in. There were four council members, each dressed in black coveralls, their hair shaved in an attempt to emulate the only known descriptions of the founding sisters, both of whom were described as bald and naked, their bodies burned black in places from the war they had somehow survived.
Each of the girls in the odd folded seats bent their heads low onto their chests in a sign of respect. One of the council members, Latvia, made a wide gesture with her hands, indicating that the girls could look up. Dylan studied her. She had been fascinated with her since her one visit to D dorm when she was in her thirteenth year. Latvia had come to the dorm to hear the girls present an oral history of Genero they had prepared just for her visit. Latvia had seemed bored through the presentation, but Dylan noticed that her eyes moved from one face to the next, searching the young girls as though she was looking for something specific. Dylan’s ability to hear thoughts had only just begun at that time, but she remembered hearing just a small snippet of Latvia’s thoughts.
She was looking for someone special. Someone she wasn’t sure she would recognize upon first sight.
It was the first time Dylan had felt real fear from another person.
She studied Latvia now. She looked calm. Happy, almost, as she gazed at the room filled with young girls on the cusp of the next level. But that fear, that uncertainty, bubbled underneath the surface of her outward façade.
Dylan couldn’t help but wonder why.
“Ladies,” Latvia said, her gaze indicating every individual girl in the room, “congratulations for entering this moment in your lives. You have each made it through infancy, made it through the trials and error of childhood, through the educational pitfalls of adolescents, to this moment. This is the moment all girls in our society fight to reach, the moment when you are eligible to test for that one job you were born to have.”
A quiet cheer went up in the room. Latvia smiled, raising her hands to acknowledge the noise before slicing them through the air to signal the girls to be silent once more. Dylan was a little surprised at how quickly the sound died down upon Latvia’s movement.
“The tests will not be easy,” she began again when the room was silent. “Some of you will face fears you never knew you had. Others will be forced to push your intellectual powers to the limits. Others will be placed in a position of responsibility that you have never wanted, and likely will never want again. Each of these tests is to show us, the council, where your strengths and your weaknesses lie. And when the testing is complete, each of you will be given the job your tests reveal would be your best fit.”
Twitters moved through the room, voices raised in question. Again Latvia raised her arms, and again the sound disappeared almost instantly.
“I know each of you still has many questions. However, you will have to wait until the testing is complete to ask them.” She smiled softly. “If we allow each of you to ask your questions now, we will be unable to begin the testing until tomorrow.”
Laughter filled the room.
Dylan glanced around herself. She had yet to make a sound. She was overwhelmed with the voices chattering inside her head. There were so many she couldn’t keep them all straight, couldn’t concentrate on just one. They almost drowned out the things Latvia was saying.
“So, ladies,” Latvia said, gesturing toward another door behind the raised platform, “each group will be called. When you hear your group number, follow the guardian through that door, and your tests will officially begin.” Latvia let her eyes move slowly around the room, allowing herself to study each face individually. “Good luck.”
Latvia and the other council members left the room through the same door from which they first entered. Almost immediately, the door Latvia had indicated opened, and a woman in green called the first number. Dylan and the others watched as the group stood and walked slowly through the door. Dylan could feel their fear almost more perceptively than she could hear it in their thoughts. It made her sick to her stomach. She almost doubled over, but she instinctively remained rigid in her seat.
, Davida had once told her,
you are always being watched. Do not let them see anything unusual about you.
Dylan bit her lip and again focused on that round wall.
Her group was called third.
Dylan followed the girl in front of her into another hallway, this one long and white, filled with strange, humming lights. There were doors all along the corridor, each with a small, square window in the center. The girls in Dylan’s group all walked with their eyes facing forward, as they had been taught when they were still in the nursery. But Dylan found herself attempting to see what was beyond the windows in the doors. The first few were dark beyond the window. But then one was not.
Dylan saw a deep room, filled with the same strange light as the hallway, with beds in neat little rows along each wall. There was a woman in that room, all alone, lying in a bed at the far end of the room. Her belly was grossly swollen, her belly button sticking up in the center like some sort of cherry on the top of a mini-cake. The woman looked toward the door just as Dylan passed, her eyes wide with something like surprise.
Don’t let them take him.
The thought was like a scream that reverberated through Dylan’s head. She had never felt anything like it, as though the woman had known Dylan could hear her and she had projected the thought directly to her. It made her heart jump in her chest, painfully jerking as though it were trying to break through her breastbone and make an escape. Dylan stumbled briefly, catching herself just before she landed head first into the girl in front of her.
“Dylan?” the girl from E dorm behind her whispered.
“I’m okay,” Dylan said in a harsh whisper just as the guardian leading them down the hall turned.
“Quiet,” she demanded as she gestured for the girl from A dorm to lead them through a door to her right.
The guardian studied Dylan as she walked by her, but she didn’t say anything.
The room they walked into was filled with computer monitors, not unlike the education room at the dorms. Dylan took her place behind the fourth monitor and immediately laid her hands on the glass-topped identi-pads. The monitor immediately lit up with instructions on how to proceed.
Dylan slipped the headset over her hair, but her thoughts remained on the woman in that room a few feet down the hallway.
What was she talking about?
What was a ‘him’?
The test was fairly simple. Dylan answered questions dealing with everything from science to history to mathematics. She had never been a dedicated student, but learning had always come easily to her. She finished the test a full forty minutes before most of the other girls. The computer shut down as soon as the test was over, so Dylan removed the headset and watched the others. She could hear some of them struggling with the questions inside their heads, their fears of being assigned a job they did not want overwhelming their common sense. Dylan wanted to go to each of them and tell them that it didn’t matter, but she knew that was the last thing she should do. So she stayed in her seat and waited.
When the last girl answered her final question, the door opened, and the guardian told them to follow her to another room. Dylan knew something was wrong the moment the door opened. A list of names floated to her through the thoughts of an unknown person. Half the girls in the room were to be separated from the others. Dylan was one of them.
Suddenly, the fear that sliced through her mind was her own.
Dylan stood, her movements clunky and ungraceful. She moved into her position in line but found herself turning, glancing around at the other girls in the line behind her. Her eyes hesitated over the ones who were not on the list, wondering if they were the lucky ones, or if she and the others were.
They followed the guardian out the door. In the hallway two more guardians waited.
One of the women, a petite, black-haired woman in green coveralls, smiled at the girls.
“Congratulations on the first step of the tests. Based on your results, we will be dividing you into two groups. Some of you will continue with the computer testing, others of you will be moving to more…” She hesitated here, making that fear slice through Dylan again. “…More intensive testing.”
“What does that mean?” the girl from G dorm asked.
The dark-haired woman glanced at her, but chose not to answer her question. Her thoughts were a bit ruder, making Dylan bite her lip to keep from saying something she shouldn’t.
The woman began calling out names, gesturing for those called to move to the other side of the hallway. Dylan took her place with the others, overwhelmed for a minute by the thoughts pulsing through her mind. Again, she pictured that wall, welcoming the silence that quickly fell over her mind. And then she followed the dark-haired woman down the hall, glancing once behind her as the others began moving in the opposite direction.
Dylan’s group was once again taken through another of those heavy doors with the square of glass in the center. This one was devoid of any furnishings, a long room with almost no light. At the far end was another set of doors. The dark-haired woman paused at this door and turned to Dylan’s group.
“L?” she said, staring at the small group. A tall, awkward girl stepped forward. The woman gestured at the door. “You go here,” she said.
“Alone?” the girl asked, glancing at the others as though for help.
The dark-haired woman gestured for her to move. When the girl hesitated, the guardian stepped forward and grabbed her arm, pulling her toward the door. The others just watched, all too afraid to say or do anything.
They moved on, exiting the room through another door and walking down yet another corridor. This one had the same buzzing light, but the floors were a darker shade of white, a dirty color that reminded Dylan of the color of dishwater after a dinner of lentils. Another door and another girl disappeared from the group. And then another and another, until only three girls were left.
Dylan felt herself growing more and more weary as they walked, her legs growing so heavy she was surprised she could still lift one foot after another. What was happening to them? Why were they being separated? What did this mean about their futures?
Dylan was afraid to release the wall in her mind and listen to the thoughts of the dark-haired guardian. What if she heard thoughts she did not want to? What if it turned out that they had all failed their tests and were being taken somewhere for reeducation? Or the type of tests that Demetria had been so sure would kill Donna?
What if they were all about to suffer Donna’s fate?
And then the guardian was pointing at Dylan.
“Your turn,” she said with a cynical smile.
Dylan felt her spine stiffen even as her heart fell to the tips of her boots. She walked with a confident stride, even as her heart pounded in her chest. She laid her hand on the doorknob, but hesitated. She glanced at the guardian and let her wall slip.
We’ll see how cocky you are against the beasts.
Dylan looked the woman up and down, letting her eyes skim over her like a physical touch. Then she turned and walked through the door, her heart pounding so hard she couldn’t hear a thing through the sound of it beating in her ears.
The room was dark. There was nothing to see at first.
Dylan stayed against the door for a long time, her thoughts whirling even as she tried to make sense of what that woman had been thinking.
And then she heard a sound in the darkness.
Dylan immediately straightened. She strained to see in the darkness, but she couldn’t make out more than a few nondescript piles of shadow here and there. She stepped away from the door, and a light suddenly flooded the room.
Again, that sound rattled through the huge, cavernous room.
“Hello?” Dylan called.
“Over here,” someone yelled back from somewhere in the center of the room.
Dylan began to walk, the sound of her boots reverberating off the walls. She glanced around, noting a few odd items here and there. A stack of odd, tool-like items on a shelf against one wall. Another stack of…something. Dylan wasn’t sure what they were, but it looked like the innards of a toaster oven that once fell in the kitchen of D dorm and shattered on the floor.
“You must be…” a little woman walked toward her, glancing at a list in her hand. “Dora? Denise? Dylan?”
She smiled as she waddled toward Dylan on tiny feet that were somehow even smaller than her baby-like hands. She held up one of these hands to Dylan. “Nice to meet you,” she said with great enthusiasm.
“What is this place?” Dylan asked, gesturing around her after the woman released her hand.
“A garage. Cool, huh?”
“Garage?” It was a word Dylan had never heard before. “What kind of room is that?”
“It houses vehicles for transportation,” the woman said. “You and I are going on a little ride.”
Before Dylan could ask what that meant, darkness descended over her head. She reached out and felt a rough material that was now pressed over her face. As she tugged at it, it was pulled tight against her throat. A voice in her ear warned her not to fight it too hard.
“You don’t want to stop breathing,” the voice said.
Dylan immediately dropped her hands.
Laughter tinkled in the air around her. “This one is well behaved,” the voice said.