She was walking on water. Each time she brought her foot down onto the clear blue surface of the ocean, it would wrap around her feet and not let her sink. It was a wonderful feeling. She felt so empowered. If she could walk on water, she could walk anywhere, far beyond the tests and bells and classes of the fleet.
She walked along in the water quite happily for awhile. She stood still for a second to let the waves lift her up and down on the swells. The sun shone warmly down on her from a cloudless sky. It was all so peaceful. She let herself fall onto the waves, floating gently on her back. She drifted, weightless, on the waves for what felt like days.
Then she felt something poke her in the back. Something sharp. It was like a pin had been stuck in her spine. She arched her back up out of the water, trying to stop the poking. But then she felt it in the back of her head her head. She lifted that out of the water. Then it came in her arms, and when she removed them she was fully standing again. And then the poking came in her feet. She couldn't lift them out of the water. And then the pokes became faster, and faster, and she suddenly got the feeling that the sun was far to hot and it was burning her. Her eyesight dimmed and her arms felt heavy. She vomited into the waves, and she fell forward onto her knees. Instantly the pokes came to her hands and her legs, and every time the pokes came she felt weaker.
The sea was eating her. She felt tiny teeth rip at her bones, and tiny claws drag her further down, into the waves. Spasms ran through her body. She knew she had to do something, something to escape. But there was nothing she could do. She was being eaten alive by the sea itself, and there was nothing for miles except the sea. She tried to scream, she tried desperately. But the sea forced her head down into it's waves, and ate away at her, broke her down and digested her. And all that was left of her was white bones floating in the endless sea.
Citizeness one-billion, five-hundred and thirty two million, four-hundred and eighty-nine thousand, nine-hundred and one woke from the same dream she'd had for two time cycles in a row. It was a rather grim dream. She didn't tell anyone about it of course. You weren't supposed to dream.
She was covered in a cold sweat. Her soft sleep cycle clothing was soaked. Silently cursing the damage, she looked around the dark room. It was packed with strait, hard, cots, piled up on top of one another to conserve space. One of the first things anyone ever learned in the fleet was that space was at a premium.
She couldn't make out the clock, but it must have been the middle of the sleep cycle. Why did she always wake up in the middle of the sleep cycle?
Knowing from experience that she wouldn't get back to sleep immediately, she slipped out of bed and quietly slid over to the recreation area. She was paranoid about waking up the other girls, but her bare feet made almost no sound on the cool metal floor. She pulled an activity pad from the wall, and quickly muted it before the activation chime sounded. She also tilted the bright screen of the activity pad away from the cots, so the light wouldn't wake them.
The activity pads touch screen activated, and big application buttons filled it. There was one for communicating with friends on the ship, some for racing games, some for puzzle games, and then the “boys games” as nearly all the girls thought of them. They generally involved you shooting through an endless number of Enemies of The People, and liberating the backwards tribals from their oppressive chiefs. And then there was the application nobody but little kids ever used. The drawing application.
She picked her favorite puzzle game, Labyrinth, where you were caught in a maze and had to maneuver your way through dozens of traps, riddles, and monsters. Her avatar, a small but tough looking girl, much like herself, appeared on screen, and the maze rendered around it.
She got deeply into it, maneuvering past entangling plants and sneaking past Enemies of The People. She loved how good at the game she was. She could outwit any Enemy of The People while barely awake and see the clear cut solution for all the riddles. She had gotten so good at it that she started wondering if there was an end to it. No one had ever reached it if there was. It was just the kind of challenge she relished.
She must of lost track of time, because the next thing she knew, the new cycle klaxon rang into her ear. She tapped the save button and put the activity pad away.
A bunch of tired groans filled the cabin as all the girls woke up. A soft voice came over the intercom that was inside the black sphere in the upper-right corner of every room on the ship.“Today is the fourteenth day of the third season, year one-thousand four-hundred and seventy-eight from the Glorious Liberation. Today cabins eight, twelve, nineteen, twenty-four, twenty-seven, thirty-two, and thirty-four will take the Society Test.”
As soon as the announcer said Society Test, all the girls of cabin eight jumped into action. Today would be the most important day of their entire lives by a long shot.
The Society Test was one that everyone took in the sixteenth major cycle (or year, as some older instructors referred to them as) of their lives. It was a psychological test to determine citizen's and citizeness's optimal roles in the fleet. You took the test, they told you what job you were suited for, and that's what you did. For the rest of your life. If you came out as a solder, that's what you were. If you got engineer, that's what you were. If you got hall scrubber, that's what you were. Their entire futures depended on this day.
Citizeness one-billion, five-hundred and thirty two million, four-hundred and eighty-nine thousand, nine-hundred and one cursed her stupidity. She had completely forgotten the test was today. How could she do that? She was distracted by the dream, probably. No wonder dreams were so dangerous.
“And One, have you been up all night?” one of the newly woken citizenesses asked. It was not proper to refer to someone by their last numbers, but the girls of a cabin were very close.
“No, but I was up for about half of it,” And One responded, sighing heavily.
“You know what they say about getting enough sleep before a test,” the citizeness scolded.
“Yea, but come on, there are no wrong answers,” And One said with a hopeful grin, stating the test's official slogan.
“Only stupid ones,” the other citizeness replied, stating the test's unofficial slogan.
“Right Twenty-Nine, that's really encouraging,” And One said before heaving herself out of the chair and heading to the sanitation room.
After a brief shower, she put on her day clothes and joined the other girls in the cabin. There was no real way to study for the Society Test. It was all psychological, and the questions changed from year to year. No one knew how to answer questions so you would get the best jobs. Never the less, the girls quizzed each other on everything from mathematics to the Far World. And One had always been very interested in the Far World, although it was apparently a very grim time. Lots of inequality, racism, and unjustified war.
She started quizzing with Twenty-Nine. She didn't do so for long, as the “day starting” chime rang, and the cabin door clicked open. The girls poured out into the hallway. Unlike the cabin, which was carpeted and had a homely feeling to it, the hallway was bone white tile. The girls boots clicked on the floor as they walked, and they fell into the rhythmic march that was always used when walking in public.
The hallway was by no means empty. Citizens and citizenesses went about their business. They all wore regulation clothing, although it varied from job to job. Engineers wore tough, resistant, clothes designed to take damage. Doctors and scientists wore lab coats. Only cleaners, who had to deal with muck and grime, had any clothing with real color to it. The girls, as students, wore gray pants and white shirts, with white jackets that could be put on if it was cold. Everyone walked to the same beat, creating one loud clack every time their feet met with the tiles. Chatter was common among groups with the same occupation, and the girls were very talkative as they walked to the test.
“Hi And One!”
And One quickly looked to find the source of the greeting. It was a very young cleaner, who had briefly stopped working to wave to her, grinning like an idiot. She hastily waved back, but did not return the smile. That citizen in particular had taken his test only last year, but ever sense then had always been cleaning outside cabin eight whenever the day began. She didn't know his number, but he had always waved to her. It was kind of creepy. It was very creepy.
The girls piled into the elevator. They were joined by the twenty boys of cabin nineteen. One of the boys pressed the “education hall” button, and the elevator started up, carrying them rapidly toward the classroom. They made several stops along the way, taking in and letting out other passengers. The education hall was quite far away from the student halls. It had always seemed like a bad design to And One, but unless she became a ship designer after today, she wouldn't ever fix it.
The chatting slowly died down as they approached their destination. Everyone was preparing themselves mentally for the test, and talking would disrupt their concentration now. Except for And One. She had just been hit by a wave of fatigue. Spending half the night playing games was catching up to her. She closed her eyes and leaned against the back wall of the elevator. She stayed like that, half asleep, for the rest of the trip.
The elevator finally stopped. “Education hall,” the black sphere in the upper corner of the elevator said.
The students filed out in near silence. Some slowly breathed in and out, calming their tight nerves. Some of them whispered the six capitols of the great nations of the Far World. “Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, Deli, Berlin,” they said over and over under their breath.
The education hall was, much like the rest of the public parts of the ship, white walled. It was large, larger even then the main command center. And One knew because she had been there once. The desks were arranged in rows, and almost filled the room entirely. They had giant touch screens displayed on top of them. There was a elevated platform at the far end of the room which was used by the instructors when lecturing. There was an instructor there now, looking over the students as they entered the room.
Everyone sat down at their desks. Another elevator opened and the girls of cabin nineteen joined them. It took about ten minutes for the other cabins to file in.
The instructor was a old citizen. He slowly pulled out his attendance computer and started calling out numbers, making sure everyone was there.
“Citizen one-billion, five-hundred and thirty two million, four-hundred and eighty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and seventy-two,” he called. The boy in question raised his hand without saying a word. He continued to call out names.
And One felt her body telling her to go back to sleep. Her eyelids were heavy, and her mind kept jumping from subject to subject, unable to focus. She kept telling herself to concentrate, that her entire life was going to be decided, that she had to do well. But what was doing well on the Society Test? What qualified as success? And One shook her head to stay awake. She was getting off topic again. What if she ended up as a gunner? Or a engineer? She had always thought that she would be very bad at those jobs. She could never get all the numbers right in her head. What if she became a solder? Now that was her kind of job. You had to be clever, tough, and quick-thinking. She was all three.
“And One?” someone whispered, cutting into her thoughts. “He just called your number!”
Snapped back to reality, And One raised her hand. The instructor marked her present, then gave her a glare before continuing.
Focus, she told herself. She couldn't screw this up. She had to think clearly, and answer the questions rationally. But she felt so tired. Her eyes just wanted to close. She shook her head vigorously, trying to shake the sleep out of her.
The instructor finished calling numbers. “Everyone is here,” he said, putting the attendance computer away. “You will be taking a test today.” His entire voice had changed. It now sounded like rehearsed lines he had memorized the night before. He sounded bored. “The test will determine where you can be most productive in our society. All of the questions will be multiple choice questions. Answer them as truthfully as you can. Some questions you may not know how to answer. Leave those and come back to them later, with a new mindset. Be sure to think about each answer you give. No matter what the results of this test are, you will become a valued member of The People. There are no wrong answers.” And One could tell that under his breath he muttered, “only stupid ones.”
The big letters of the tests first question popped up on the surface of her desk. You're in the medical bay, waiting for treatment, but the doctor is not on call yet. A inured solder comes into the room, his leg is shot up and infected. What do you do?
A: Treat the wounds with an anti-biotic taken from the doctors supply.
B: Scream for help.
C: Amputate the leg.
D: Try to keep him calm.
The words seemed fuzzy in front of And One's eyes. She took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. She moved her hand toward A. But then she realized that she had no idea which anti-biotic to use in a situation like this. Better to leave nothing to chance and amputate the leg. But what if she didn't cut at the right part of the leg? Better just to scream for help. But that would disrupt the ships operations and panic the solder. Maybe it would be better to try and keep him calm, but what if he was to die before the doctor arrived? And One felt panic well up inside of her. She was stumped on the first question of the most important test of her life.