I slide the cool material of my shirt over the five long, jagged scars on my arm and examine myself in the reflector. Blue, long-sleeved tunic. Gray pants. Silver bracelet with a single star. The star and the smudges of fatigue under my eyes mark me as an entry-level University student. My fellow classmates show similar signs of having studied late into the night for today. After six months of taking the same preliminary classes, all twenty of us will be tested and sorted into the fields of study that will serve as the focus for the rest of our lives.
My chest tightens. I used to enjoy taking tests. I liked proving that I had learned. That I had worked hard. That I was smart. But now I am not sure what is real or what the consequences of a wrong answer will be. While my classmates are concerned about the test affecting the years ahead, I worry I will not survive the day.
Normally, I pull my hair back into a thick dark knot in order to keep it out of my way. Today, I decide to leave it down. Perhaps the long waves will hide the evidence of months of restless nights. If not, maybe the cold compresses my mother taught me to apply to my eyes will help.
A wave of longing crashes over me at the thought of my mother. While contact between University students and their families is not expressly forbidden, neither is it encouraged. Most students I know have not heard a word from their loved ones back home. I have been fortunate. A Tosu official has been willing to pass along small bits of communication from my parents and four older brothers. They are well. My father and my oldest brother, Zeen, are creating a new fertilizer to help plants grow faster. My second oldest brother, Hamin, is engaged. He and his soon-to-be wife will be married next spring. His decision to marry has prompted our mother to look for wives for Zeen and my twin brothers, Hart and Win. So far, her efforts have been in vain.
Aside from my family, one other person has managed to get news to me. My best friend, Daileen, assures me she’s studying hard and is currently first in her class. Her teacher has hinted Daileen might be chosen for The Testing this year. She is keeping her fingers crossed that she will join me in Tosu City. I am hoping she will fail. I want her to stay in a place where the answers to questions make sense. Where I know she will be safe.
A knock at the door makes me jump. “Hey, Cia. Are you ready? We don’t want to be late.” Stacia’s right. Those who arrive late will not be allowed to take the exam. What that means for the future is unclear, but none of us wants to find out.
“I’ll be ready in a minute,” I yell as I kneel next to the foot of the bed and slide my hand between the bed frame and the mattress. My fingers search until they find the lump that makes me sigh with relief. My brother Zeen’s Transit Communicator is still safe, as are the secrets it holds.
Months ago, I discovered the symbol I carved into the device to help lead me to the recorder and the confidences stored inside. When I finished listening to words I had no recollection of speaking, I cut open the mattress and hid the Communicator inside. Week after week, month after month, I tried to pretend that what the device revealed isn’t real. After all, haven’t I seen evidence every day that my fellow students are good people? That the professors and administrators working to prepare us for our futures want us to succeed? Some of them are standoffish. Others arrogant. None of the students or educators is perfect, but who is? No matter their flaws, I don’t want to believe any are capable of the whispered, sometimes hard to make out words inside the recorder.
“Cia.” Stacia’s voice pulls me from my thoughts. “We have to get going.”
“Right. Sorry.” I slip into my coat, hoist my University bag onto my shoulder, and turn my back on my questions about the past. Those will have to wait. For now, I need to concentrate on my future.
Stacia frowns as I step into the hall. Her dark blond hair is pulled back into a sleek ponytail, making her angular features look sharper than usual. “What took you so long? We’re going to be the last ones to arrive.”
“Which will make everyone nervous,” I quip. “They’ll wonder why we didn’t feel the need to get there early and compare notes with everyone else.”
Stacia’s eyes narrow as she nods. “You’re right. I love psyching out the competition.”
I hate it. My parents taught me to value fair play over all else.
Stacia doesn’t notice my discomfort as we trek past healthy trees, thriving grass, and numerous academic structures. Not that she would say anything if she did. Stacia isn’t one for girl talk or idle chatter. At first her silences challenged me to bring her out of her shell, as I used to do for my best friend from Five Lakes. Now, with so many questions on my mind, I am grateful for the quiet company.
I wave at a couple of older students as they walk by. As always, they ignore us. After today, the upperclassmen assigned to the same field of study will act as our guides. Until then, they pretend we don’t exist. Most of my classmates have taken to ignoring them back, but I can’t. My upbringing is too strong not to be polite.
“Ha. I should have known he’d be waiting for us.” Stacia rolls her eyes and then laughs. “I’d bet my family’s compensation money that he hovered around you during The Testing, too. Too bad I’ll never know if I’d win that bet.”
My heart skips as I spot Tomas Endress standing near the front door of the four-story red and white brick Early Studies building. His dark hair blows in the late-winter breeze. A University bag is slung carelessly over his shoulder. His gray eyes and dimpled smile are focused squarely on me as he waves and comes bounding down the steps. Tomas and I have known each other all our lives, but in the last couple months, we’ve grown closer than I dreamed possible back home. When Tomas is with me, I feel smarter. More confident. And terrified that everything I think I know and admire about him is a lie.
Stacia rolls her eyes as Tomas kisses my cheek and entwines his fingers with mine. “I was starting to get worried about you. The test starts in ten minutes.”
“Cia and I didn’t feel the need to get here early and cram like everyone else. We’re totally prepared. Right, Cia?” Stacia tosses her blond ponytail and shoots me one of her rare smiles.
“Right,” I say with more conviction than I feel. Yes, I have studied hard for this test, but the whispered words on the Transit Communicator make me doubt I could ever fully prepare for what is to come.
Not for the first time, I wish my father were here to talk to me. Almost three decades ago, he attended the University. Growing up, I asked hundreds of questions about his time here. Rarely did he answer them. Back then, I assumed his silence was to keep my brothers and me from feeling pressure to follow in his footsteps. Now I’m forced to wonder if something more sinister lay behind his secrecy.
There is only one way to find out.
The three of us climb the steps. When we reach the front door, Tomas stops and asks for a moment alone