And One's feet hurt from standing in line. She ended up hopping from one foot to the other, trying to let each foot rest. It had the bonus effect of keeping her awake.
She was waiting in line for the daily food rationing. There was always constant food shortages on the fleet, and all food had to be strictly rationed by the Primary Citizens to prevent mass starvation. Large eating tables filled the cafeteria, with the ration desks placed at the far end. Constant long lines stretched from the desks. They always composed of at least fifty people, even in the middle of the night. Currently there were a few hundred people waiting in line, with And One and her fellow students near the back. The large cafeteria was crammed with people, from doctors and instructors to cleaners and assembly line workers. And One got a strange feeling she would be joining the latter group when her Society Test was graded.
The test was a predictable disaster. And One wasn't sure about a single one of her answers. Nearly falling asleep half the time didn't help either. She had a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, the one you get when you finish a speech and realize no one's applauding. She looked for some way to distract her from her thoughts.
“So how do you think you did?” she asked Forty-Three, who was standing right behind her.
“Horrible,” Forty-Three said, her voice pessimistic. “I'm going to end up scrubbing hallways for the rest of my life.”
“Well I bet you weren't half asleep the entire time,” And One responded.
“I might have well have been with some of the answers I gave,” Forty-Three shot back.
“Did you feel like you were going to fall asleep on the touch screen?”
“Did you close your eyes and randomly press an answer to avoid making a decision?”
“Well how about being stumped on the first question?”
“The first question? I was stumped on all the questions!”
“Who said I wasn't?”
This exercise in futility would have continued if they hadn't been interrupted by a citizen with a food tray walking up. “Hey,” he said reluctantly. And One recognized him as the citizen who'd been outside the cabin every day. He looked very innocent, not authoritative in any way. Kind of cute, but definitely not handsome. His eyes darted back and forth, as if he was afraid of being followed. He wore the grungy colors of the cleaning crews. “You took your test today, right?” he stammered.
“Uh, yea,” And One said slowly, not knowing why he was asking.
“Do you think you did well?” he asked, avoiding eye contact with her.
“Um... I don't know,” she answered, “Who exactly are you?”
“I'm... um, I-” he stammered out before looking down into his tray. “I'm nobody, my number is Eighty-Nine... I mean one-billion, five-hundred and thirty two million, three-hundred and forty-two thousand, six-hundred eighty-nine. I'm sorry that was really rude, I shouldn't be so personal.”
“Well...” And One replied, thinking. “You call me by my last two numbers every day so why shouldn't I call you Eighty-Nine?”
A shy smile crept onto his face. It wasn't the best looking smile in the world. “You remember me? That's... great. I don't think I'm that memorable.”
“So why exactly are you talking to us?” Forty-Three asked. She sounded very impatient.
“Oh... Well it's just I wanted to see if you'd like to have lunch with my friends. You know... just kind of get to meet us. Not that you'll be working with us, you're clearly smarter then that...”
And One had better things to do then sit around with a shy cleaner's friends and make awkward conversation. “No, sorry, but I've still got to get lunch.”
“We have extra lunch, you wouldn't have to wait in line,” he stammered out.
“I'll eat with you!” Forty-Three shouted enthusiastically. She received hostile looks from up and down the line, including one from And One. “What? We won't have to wait in line for an hour to get food. I'm sold.” She turned to Eighty-Nine with a smile on her face. “I would love to have lunch with your friends, I'm Forty-Three.”
“Ok, I guess,” And One said, thinking she would keep a careful eye on the guy.
“Right, um, then, uh... this way,” the boy said, leading the way towards a table full of citizens that were dressed exactly the same way he was. Most were his age, or maybe a tiny bit older, but there was one very old citizen sitting there. “Everyone, this is, uh... And One. Oh, and her friend, Forty-Three.”
They were greeted by a few mumbled hellos. Only the old citizen extended his hand. “Hello, I'm Twenty-Seven, although I know I don't look it.”
A few of the citizens around the table laughed, one even emitting a snort. And One and Forty-Three looked at each other, a bit confused about what was funny. And One shook the old citizen's hand regardless. It was rough, dry, and seeped with age.
“Sit down, please. I always love to talk to recent test takers, especially ones that have yet to be decided. George, will you give the girls some food?” Twenty-Seven said, gesturing at Eighty-Nine to hand over his tray to them.
Forty-Three quickly started devouring the bread and potatoes, And One got curious. “What did you just call him?” she asked, gesturing to Eighty-Nine.
“George. It's his name, the one he chose.”
“What's a name?” And One was confused. She had never heard the term before.
“An expression of who you are beyond your number. I have all of my boys choose a name when they join my cabin.” Twenty-Seven had a way of talking that enthralled And One. It spoke of a hundred years of life, of knowing the answers to many questions. There was also a sense of the great respect that the boys at the table had for him. He was their leader.
“Your cabin? You're an administrator?”
Twenty-Seven let out a long sigh. “No. It's not that anybody made me in charge. I wasn't elected, and I don't use such silly things as fear or speaking. Everyone just sort of agrees that I'm in charge,” he said with a slow, methodical method, one that sounded reused, but a the same time fresh. “Except of course for the higher-ups, who firmly believe that I'm enslaving these good boys with my old habits.”
“So... if I were to end up in your cabin, would I get a name?” And One asked, quite curious.
“Yes, I suppose you would.”
“What do you think it would be?”
Twenty-Seven smiled and laughed. “I don't choose my boy's names And One. They do. I have gotten some surprises over the years as to what names my boys pick. I have no doubt you would be one such surprise.”
“You keep saying 'boys'. Aren't there any girls?” And One asked, for whatever reason wanting to join Twenty-Seven's cabin and choose a name.
Twenty-Seven leaned back in his chair and sighed again. “You have quite a few questions for a young citizeness who will doubtlessly be more then a cleaner.”
“Oh right,” And One said, almost with relief. She had been thinking about what kind of name she would want. The thought was so enthralling it kind of scared her.
Everyone returned to their food. It was silent for some time as the boys wolfed down protein bars and flavored fruit packets. Out of the corner of her eye, And One saw Twenty-Seven glance up at the black sphere in the corner of the room and flash a “how do you like that?” grin at it. It was almost like he thought there was someone in there watching him. And One wrote it off as the actions of a crazy old citizen. Everyone knew the only thing in the black spheres was a speaker system.
Eighty-Nine glanced back up, and half-muttered to And One. “I was just, um... wondering. If you do end up like, uh, like, um, not that your going to it's just... If you do end up as a cleaner, maybe you and I could, uh, um... never mind forget it.”
His constant stuttering was kind of irritating. And One hoped not every boy talked like that.
The soft hum of the intercom sounded. “All residents of cabin eight, please report to the education hall for your test results.”
And One and Forty-Three were out of the cafeteria in seconds, without even saying goodby. Twenty-Seven smiled as they left.
And One and Forty-Three joined the other girls, none of which had gotten anything to eat, in the elevator. They all had thoughts racing through their minds as they approached the education hall. Some considered all the worst jobs they could be stuck with; cleaner, maintenance assistant, laboratory assistant. Others thought of the very heights they could get too; field agent, researcher, or even the most cherished job of all, a Primary Citizen.
And One didn't really think about those kind of things. She was more interested in getting some sleep. She had been hit by another wave of fatigue, and was half-way to snoring.
The elevator door finally slid open. “Education hall,” the intercom's voice said.
And One opened her eyes to find she was the last one still in the elevator. She ran out just before it closed.
The same instructor from the test taking was standing up on the platform. This time there was another citizeness with him. She had a short, efficient, hair, and seemed to have a air of authority around her. It was a different authority from the one Twenty-Seven had. Harder. Tougher.
And One slid into her seat just as the citizeness began talking. “I am Primary Citizeness one-billion, three-hundred and seventy-four million, eight-hundred and twenty-seven thousand, two-hundred and three. I will be reading your test results.”
A collective gasp ran through the girls. A Primary Citizeness was going to deliver the test results? Usually that meant a Primary Citizeness had been found as well. Forty-Three, whose seat was right next to And One's, flashed a grin at her, and And One flashed a grin right back.
“Now, as you know, everyone in the fleet is equal,” the Primary Citizeness continued. “If you become a researcher, you are higher or lower then a cleaner. Only Primary Citizens and Citizenesses are given the burden of command. And even though they can order another citizen, they are still the simple equals of everyone on this fleet. The results of this test are the most important you will ever get. They tell you what section of society is your niche. But remember, always remember, that no matter what you become, you will be a valued and equal member of our productive society. Now, citizeness one-billion five hundred and thirty-two...”
The Primary Citizeness began reading off numbers and the jobs that the test had given them. One girl ended up as a solder. Another became a medic. Another was a engineer. And One watched as Forty-Three became a food producer. The next three girls were assembly line workers. The next girl punched the air in victory as she became a field agent. All of the girls were slowly called up and given their jobs. None of them were Primary Citizens. And One felt a gnawing in her stomach, anticipating the possibility of her becoming a Primary Citizeness.
Oh, what power she would have! She would lead solders into battle, command ships through a storm, or order missions and expeditions to extend the Will of The People. The thought enthralled her. It wouldn't be beaten away. She was going to be a Primary Citizeness! As more jobs were distributed, with still no Primary among them, she became sure of it.
“Citizeness one-billion, five-hundred and thirty two million, four-hundred and eighty-nine thousand, nine-hundred and one!” the Primary Citizeness called out.
“Yes!” And One called back with all the confidence befitting a Primary Citizeness. A big smile was painted on her face.
“Congratulations, you tested to become a cleaner.”
And One's smile instantly disappeared. She was an idiot. She was a cleaner now.