Chapter 1: A Boring, Average Life
Lyra Macey yawned from her place in line, letting out a breath that fogged up the chilly air. She grumbled to herself as she looked at the huge group of women standing in line with her, all set to get their pictures taken.
Lyra couldn’t help it if she scowled at the women who bothered to get dressed up. There was no point in trying to look nice, not for these pictures. The only way they would be seen is if the photo’s subject was chosen as a participant, a fate she wouldn’t wish on even the most annoying girls here.
She herself hadn’t bothered to change her appearance. As always, Lyra kept her long brown hair up in a low bun and out of her face, her bangs pushed softly behind her ears. Her boring brown eyes stared out over the falling white snow around her. She shuffled her feet on the ground, comfortably slamming her heeled boot into the pavement in irritation.
If she could, Lyra would have worn her lab coat underneath her fitted winter jacket. Maybe if she was chosen, the reputation of a mad scientist would scare a few people away. She snorted at the thought of her being intimidating in any way.
In reality, Lyra was only a graduate student working as a scientist. If that didn’t make people think she was nonthreatening, the lab coat, goggles, and thin body frame certainly did.
The only thing that ruined her pathetic image was her eyes. Her piercing eyes and intelligent glare were the only weapons she had that could frighten people off, along with her no-nonsense attitude. Combined with her analytical mind, lack of emotional displays, and shy personality, not only did she seem cold, but she cemented herself firmly as a Virgo.
Whether that was a good or a bad thing, Lyra could never really tell. She sighed again as she shifted in line, her heeled boots stomping against the snowy ground. It was a nervous habit.
She understood why pictures were taken in the last two weeks of December, since they would be needed on the first of January, but what she didn’t understand was why they were needed at all, and why they needed to be current. The Zodiac Trials apparently needed to be perfect, requiring every possible participant photograph to be current.
Lyra was pretty sure her photo would have the same un-amused look it had every year since she turned twelve. It would continue to have that same look for the next twenty-one years until she was free of the Trials.
She stepped forward to accommodate the moving line, her boots scuffing the ground. Voices were murmuring and chatting around her in a storm of sound, every single woman here sure it wouldn’t be them who was chosen. It was admittedly unlikely with the thousands of individuals out there in the United Nations of America, so unlikely that Lyra didn’t consider the possibility herself either.
She did, however, swallow at the chance of something happening to one of her five older brothers. They were in their designated line for the men a few blocks away, probably joking around like the idiots they were. The oldest of them was thirty-two by now, but Lyra felt more mature than any of them at twenty-four.
She allowed herself a small smile. She would be staying with them and her parents for the next two weeks for the holidays and the subsequent participant selection that occurred as part of the New Year. It was tradition to stay with family for those weeks, and she was just lucky enough to have a good one to go home to.
Lyra let out a breath of relief as the line started moving again, finally allowing her entrance into the school that was being used today for pictures. She sighed when the warm air hit her, taking her hands out of her pockets to rub them together firmly.
Lyra crossed her arms and popped her hip, glaring at the people who tried to catch her gaze as she moved forward. When she did get to the front of the line, she was greeted by the poor sap of a government worker who had been chosen for this pathetic job. The lady worker seemed much too excited about all of this though, practically forcing Lyra into a chair before eyeing her critically.
“Sweetie, why don’t we take your hair down and get that ugly coat off? We want your picture to look as good as possible after all!” the woman said, blonde hair bobbing behind her.
Lyra gave this woman her best glare, slapping her hands away. “I like my hair like this. Just take the picture so I can go home.”
The woman didn’t seem all too pleased with such a brusque answer as she said, “But sweetie, you’ll look so much better if—”
Lyra stood from the chair and crossed her arms, using the height she had with her boots to glare at the woman. “Take the picture or I’ll take it myself.”
At least Lyra could say she was intimidating enough for simple tasks like this. The woman gave no more argument as she quickly snapped the shot and let Lyra go, heels clicking on the linoleum flooring until she was outside once more.
She stood for a moment and looked up at the grey sky, watching the flecks of snow as they stood out against the shadowy background behind them. Her breath fogged up the air in front of her, painting the scene with droplets of white. It was quiet out here with no one around and only the snow for company.
It would soon be 2076, and the next Zodiac Trials would commence. Lyra had grown up with the Zodiac Trials, fearing the day when she would turn twelve and be forced to get her picture taken, entering her name into the pool of eligible participants. It had been twelve years since then, and even longer since she began to worry for the safety of her brothers.
In the society she lived in, in the newly created United Nations of America, these Trials commenced every year, with the participants being chosen on January 1st. They weren’t chosen based on what nation they lived in, or even based on their skills.
No, they were all chosen based on their birthdays. Birthdays were used for everything in society. As early as fifth grade, students were asked to put in their birthdays on standardized tests. When they reached high school, standardized state tests, SATs, ACTs, and college applications used birthdays. Then came applications for rent, credit, and bills as an adult. Everything in society was based off of one’s birthday, even if no one liked to acknowledge it.
Birthdays were the mark of when a person’s existence began, when they grew another year, but birthdays were more than just a day to exist. Birthdays determined the signs of the zodiac. They were said to determine pieces of one’s personality, although rarely was that completely true.
It was true, however, that there was once a time when people believed it was. People thought that something as simple as a zodiac sign determined who a person was, which people they got along the best with, and if people shared similar interests and desires.
That led to the Zodiac War. The reinstatement of government and order led to the Zodiac Trials.
Even though everyone was meant to be equal, even though everyone was meant to be represented under one societal flag, the Trials were just another mechanism of control and power. They were meant to keep everyone in line, quite literally as they had their pictures taken year after year, until the anger and false blame of watching loved ones and innocents die and kill eventually overtook them and they forgot who the real enemy was.
Lyra Macey had known how the system really worked for many years, but like many other citizens, she wanted to stay as far away from the Trials as possible. Those Trials got people killed, even if they weren’t meant to.
The only permanent way out was to get chosen for them and hope she made it out alive; then she would be guaranteed to live a life free of worry, with all of her needs, and her family’s needs, taken care of until death. The only problem was that once a person was chosen, that life they wanted so badly would never be the same. There was no real escape except one’s inevitable death.
Lyra stared at the sky again, lamenting on the own date of her birth. Her birthday was on September 5th, a day she used to hate. It was right when school started, so no one had ever paid her any attention. Now she hated it for an entirely different reason, eventually becoming indifferent to the day. It wasn’t worth it to celebrate; she wasn’t anyone special.
To her eternal surprise, not everyone thought she was so bland though.
“Lyraaaaa!” was the only warning she had before she was picked up and twirled around.
For her own self-preservation, she held on tightly, wrapping her arms around the other person before she was set down feeling slightly dizzier than before.
“Orin…” she groaned, looking up at her youngest older brother, Orin Macey, with his crazy smile and rambunctious personality. He was a Pisces: an artistic type.
“Don’t make her fall over. I’m surprised she can even walk in those heels.” Lyra looked to Orin’s left, eyeing her next brother, Benny the Taurus. He was only twenty-seven, a year older than Orin, but he acted a lot like the guy in charge most of the time.
Lyra sighed as she stood up straight, putting her hand to her head and pushing her bangs behind her ears. “You want to borrow them? If your feet fit, I’m sure we could have a good laugh about you falling on the ice,” she quipped with an amused smirk.
Orin laughed at Lyra’s expression, putting his hands in his pockets and exhaling. Benny just shoved him like he usually did, but Lyra broke it up before one of them really did fall on the ice.
“Okay, you idiots, let’s get home. Were you two the only ones sent to get me or are the other three dorks lurking around the corner somewhere?” she asked seriously. She’d been surprised by her brothers more times than she could count.
“Just us,” Orin said easily enough. “Anthony, Phil, and Corey are already back at the house.”
Lyra nodded. Benny nudged her as they began walking. “How much glaring did you do? Seems like you’re in a worse mood than usual, and that’s saying something.”
He was joking, but it didn’t improve Lyra’s apparently bad mood much. “You know I hate these things. I always get asked to look nicer or dress more provocatively or take my hair down. I’m perfectly fine with the way I look, even if I’m not all that pretty.”
She couldn’t help it if she pouted a bit. Lyra knew she wasn’t beautiful with the permanent scowl on her face, but she didn’t need a reminder of the fact that she was single and prone to die alone every year.
Both Benny and Orin put their arms around her, walking on either side of her as she plodded down the street with a hand on both of their backs. Benny hugged her close. “Aw, come on Lyra, that’s not true. You’re just… harder to get to know than most people.”
“Yeah!” Orin piped in. “You’re super beautiful and smart.”
Lyra smiled slightly at their efforts, but she couldn’t say they were all that believable. “Coming from one brother that’s in a committed relationship, and another who has no problem getting dates, your words don’t mean much to me.”
Benny would probably get married within the next year, and even though Orin was a free spirit, he didn’t have any problem at all getting to know people. It was only Lyra who couldn’t find the person who made up her other half.
“You sure it’s guys?” Benny asked after a moment. “Because it’d be fine if you were into girls. I mean we couldn’t intimidate her as much, but anyone who can put up with you definitely has some thick skin.”
That actually did get Lyra to smile. “Well, whatever gender person I bring home, I’m sure you’ll do a fine job scaring them away.”
They laughed at her comment, holding onto her as they huddled together on the way home. Normally Lyra would have had her motorcycle with her, but with the ice, she didn’t like her chances. Besides, there was no way she could fit both of these guys on with her.
That left the three of them fighting against the wind on that dreary day, snow slowly falling onto their heads and shoulders periodically. Lyra listened as Orin and Benny told her about their photographs, commenting on all the other guys who said they’d win the Trials if they were chosen.
Lyra could only roll her eyes at people like that; more often than not, those were the people who tried to run where their name was called on national TV. They were the same people that killed other participants out of panic to ensure their own life.
As they approached their parents’ home, Lyra wished the occasion for being home had been better. The only reason everyone went home at the end of each year was to spend time with family before the Acquisition. Every January 1st, the Acquisition guaranteed that twelve people would be taken from their homes to participate in the Zodiac Trials. For whatever reason, it was assumed that giving people the days off leading up to the 1st would make up for the possible deaths that could occur. It wasn’t a fair trade.
At the very least, Lyra was glad for the time spent with her brothers. Now that they were all grown up, they had all inevitably drifted to their own corners of society. It was nice to see them again.
She wasn’t exactly sure why she thought that when her next oldest brother, the middle brother Corey, ambushed her with a hug. He squeezed her so hard that the air left her lungs as his arms snaked around her waist. “A-ah, C-Corey! Too tight! T-too tight!”
Corey seemed to realize his mistake and set her down, holding her forearms to stop her from falling into the snow as she regained her breath. “Sorry sis. It’s just been a while,” he said. Corey was a Leo, and as such, had a tendency to get a little forgetful or overly passionate at times. His girlfriend seemed to love it, although Lyra would rather not think about why.
“It’s fine,” Lyra breathed out. “Inside, you idiots. It’s cold out here.”
Lyra had to admit that her parents had a nice home. It was a two-stories, but it had about five rooms so they each had to share with only one person maximum. Lyra had always gotten her own room for being the only girl when she wasn’t paired with Orin due to their close ages. To her left was the living room, the dining room stretched out to the right, and the kitchen was in the back. Two rooms were on the ground floor down the hall, while the other three sat upstairs.
Immediately upon entering, Lyra caught sight of her last two brothers. Phil was the second oldest, and also the only one with a boyfriend of his own. He was a Pisces like Orin, making him living proof that not all people of the same sign were exactly the same.
“Lyra,” he said calmly, walking over to wrap her in a hug. Lyra smiled. Out of all of her brothers, Phil had always been the calm one, and able to match her intelligence in some subjects too. Lyra wasn’t surprised his boyfriend married him so quickly.
“It’s been a while, Phil,” she said softly, pulling back to be greeted by her final and oldest brother Anthony. Anthony was a Capricorn, so his birthday was actually coming up at the end of this month. He was also calm and level-headed, with a temper that could frighten even the toughest men out there if someone threatened his family.
Anthony was a committed type of guy. He was someone Lyra had relied on since she was little, especially since there was a gap of eight years between them. If she ever needed help, she knew exactly who to turn to. It was no wonder he had found someone to marry early on. He even had a daughter seven years ago when he was Lyra’s age.
“Hey songbird,” he said, using an old nickname. Lyra supposed it fit, but she wasn’t a songbird by any means. She’d probably scare the birds away if she tried singing.
Lyra hugged her oldest brother tightly, reveling in his warmth. “Hey Anthony,” she said to him. She stepped back to look at all of her much taller brothers, wondering where her higher heels were. She would need them if she was going to spend her holidays with these giants.
“Where’s my niece?” she asked, referring to Anthony’s seven-year-old daughter, Naomi.
Anthony laughed a little. “With her mom. Naomi and Reyna will be coming later in the week after we go to see her parents.”
“But you’ll still be here for the Acquisition, right?” Benny asked seriously. They always liked to gather around to watch the Acquisition together, if only so that they could be with each other in case something happened.
Anthony made a face. “I’m not sure. If anything happens, it’s best if Reyna and I are together at the time with Naomi. We were here last year, so we might be over there with Reyna’s parents and sister.” He shrugged. “It’s important to Reyna.”
Lyra wished she hadn’t felt it, but she couldn’t miss the pang of loneliness that hit her heart when she heard Anthony’s words. This happened every year since her brothers had begun serious relationships. They usually stayed with Lyra every other year, but she was still selfish enough to want all of her brothers together in one place every time January 1st came around. They were all she had.
“If it’s any consolation, the rest of us will be here,” Phil said, his eyes flicking to Lyra. He must have caught the way her face fell minutely. He was always perceptive like that.
Lyra shook her head, shoving her disappointment away. “You all should get into the habit of spending the time with your significant others. You’ll all have families soon. Anthony and Phil are already married. There’s no need to worry about me.” Her voice fell softly as she shut her eyes calmly and crossed her arms. For a moment, she wished she was wearing her lab coat. That old white coat always somehow gave her the confidence she felt like she was missing.
She didn’t bother to look up, as she knew her brothers were staring at her with pity. What really hurt was the fact that Virgo in general didn’t have trouble finding romantic partners or people to love, so why was it just her? Knowing that she was the problem was perhaps the toughest pill to swallow.
“Oh, look how cute we are with all of us together again!” Orin said jovially in an obvious attempt to break the tension, grinning from ear to ear shakily. He patted Lyra heavily on the back, sending her forward a step.
Benny rolled his eyes and knocked Orin in the shoulder, but he was smiling again too. “I’m pretty sure Lyra gave the government worker a heart attack too.”
“As expected,” Phil said in mock-seriousness, causing Lyra to roll her eyes.
“I’m going to say hi to mom and dad,” she said instead, unbuttoning her coat and walking over to the kitchen. Predictably, her brothers followed after her.
Not only was Lyra the youngest, but she was also the only girl. Needless to say, her mother adored having another girl around, although Lyra often wondered if she had wanted someone who was a little more girly. Even if she did, she never loved Lyra any less.
Her mother, a woman by the name of Laura, with the same brown hair as Lyra, brightened up immediately upon seeing her only daughter. She put down the cookie dough she was mixing, by shoving it into her husband’s hands, and immediately came over for a hug.
“Sweetheart,” she said kindly, hugging Lyra closely. Lyra’s mother was the only one who matched her height, and after seeing all of her giant brothers, it was a satisfying feeling. Her mother was a Taurus like Benny, with a stubborn streak in her that made her quite the fighter. She still had this incredible warmth about her though, sparking a feeling like safety in Lyra’s chest just by being nearby.
“Mom,” she said with warmth in her voice. Her mother looked at her fondly, smoothing a hand over her hair before turning her to face Lyra’s father, a man with salt and pepper hair, glasses, and laugh lines all around his eyes and mouth.
He only had to open his arms for Lyra to lean in for a hug. Her dad, Steven, was the one person who made Lyra feel like she was special, even when she felt ordinary and emotionless compared to everyone out there. He was a Cancer, although when it came to her parents, Lyra didn’t need to think about their signs much anymore. Despite how young they still looked, they were over the age of 45 and therefore safe from the Acquisition.
Lyra smiled at her parents, taking her coat off fully and removing her heeled boots, lessening her height by a good few inches. “Hey dad,” she said happily, glad that she at least had him even if there came a day when all of her brothers weren’t home in the winter.
“Sweet pea,” he said by way of greeting, smiling down at her as her mother stole the bowl of cookie dough he’d been holding. “You’re going to have to tell me all about your research over dinner.” Her father never understood much, but Lyra always appreciated his continued enthusiasm and effort.
“But until then, would you want to help me out?” her mother asked with a smile. Most people would think Lyra hated girly activities, but she made an exception for baking. It was a lot like chemistry, which made it perfect to test her medicine-making skills.
“You guys think it’ll be someone we know this year?” Corey asked as they sat down for dinner a few hours later.
Lyra ignored the question entirely, not even allowing her mind to entertain the possibility. She could see some of the others tense up though, even her dad.
Her father was the only one who said something to Corey, his voice solemn over the clinking of forks. “With any luck, this year’s Acquisition will be as boring as the last,” he said, returning to his meal in silence.
Everyone followed suit. With a government as powerful as the one that watched over them, something boring was the best they could realistically hope for.
If only it had really turned out that way.