With a solemn flourish, the high priest pulled back the heavy velvet to reveal the sacred text. Stavion gasped, as did several of the other youths gathered around him. There it was! After all his years of study and training!
“Only the chosen few among you will be able to answer the questions and analogies of arcane wisdom contained within this text,” the high priest intoned. “And only those few will advance to next level of our society.”
Stavion nodded. This was the tradition of their people, established before anyone could remember. But was it really fair, that so much of their futures were determined by this one test? What about people like his sister, who suffered from anxiety? What about his best friend Merideen, who was more of a kinetic learner?
“There is also a quantitative reasoning section and a short essay,” the high priest continued sternly. “I hope you all brought a number two stylus.”
“Move me closer to the window, daughter. I may not be able to see the sun anymore, but I can imagine it.” Beckeen stifled a sob as she pushed her father’s hoverchair toward the light. The old man sighed as a sunbeam fell across his face. “Ah, that’s better. Thank you.”
It was more than Beckeen could bear. “I’m sorry, Papa. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” she said through the tears rolling down her face.
He found her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it tightly. “Beckeen, don’t you know how proud I am of you? You and your friends are heroes! You destroyed The Company! If only my generation hadn’t been so shortsighted! We thought that you young people were foolish to stay up all night watching vidsims and playing Likerace — but those turned out to be the very skills that saved our world!” He shook his head sadly. “Meanwhile my generation was working to pay off our AcademiDebt and sleeping eight hours a day. What fools we were…”
Beckeen was glad her father could not see her nod. Yes, he and the other Elders had been foolish, and even cruel, but it wasn’t their fault. They hadn’t grown up with her innate understanding of the Instaworld.
“Oh, my Ancestors!” Larissa gasped. “There goes Kasten, the captain of the phaseball team!”
Edgie snorted and stuffed another taro fry in her mouth. “So what? I don’t get the whole phaseball culture here in the Domain. Everybody acts like it’s the center of the universe, but meanwhile, innocent people in the Borderlands are being unjustly vaporized! It’s outrageous!”
Larissa rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know, things were different at your old art school in the so-called Free Zone. But Kasten is really gifted! They say an Interstellar Academy scout was at the game last weekend, but he left when Kasten and some of the other players bowed during the Fealty Oath. He put his whole future in jeopardy!” She leaned in closer. “Plus,” she whispered, “he’s pretty cute.”
Edgie glanced up at the tall athlete as he passed by their table, carrying a tray loaded with soya dogs and jackfruit. For a second his genetically enhanced blue eyes met hers, and she could feel her cheeks redden beneath her SPF 850 sunblock.
She tore her eyes away. “Stupid jock,” she muttered. “He can’t really be Awakened.”
Brosk opened his bedroom door to find his mother sitting on his bed, a small blue tablet in her hand. His diary.
“What is the meaning of this?” she shouted. On the screen was a livecap of a handsome young tabby with jade eyes and a smile full of wickedly pointed teeth. “You’re dating a Felinoid?”
“Mom, that’s private! Give it back!” He grabbed for the tablet, but she held it out of his reach.
“Tell me it isn’t true, Brosk! Tell me you’re not dating one of those… those things!”
Brosk took a deep breath and stood straight. This was the moment he’d been dreading and hoping for, all these months. “Yes,” he said. “I’m in love with a Feliniod. His name is Andanz, and he’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.”
His mother sagged, and tears sprang into her eyes. “Brosk, you know I’m no bigot, but this is dangerous! Interspecies dating is forbidden! If word gets back to Vice Admiral Pensk, he’ll have you sent to one of the re-education moons!”
“I don’t care!” he shouted. “Love is love! Pensk and his goons can make their laws, but they’ll never legislate my heart!”
Ginevra smiled, the lines in her ancient face crinkling. “I knew this day would come. I just didn’t think it would come so soon.”
“I’m a freak!” Shandie wailed. “I’m disgusting!”
“Not at all, child,” Ginevra soothed. “This is a perfectly natural change. All girls in our tribe come into their magicks at around your age. But yours is a more powerful flow than most, which means you are very special, Shandie. Here.” The old woman rummaged in her rucksack and produced a necklace, a simple leather thong from which hung a tear-shaped amber amulet. “You must wear this amulet to soothe your pain and to absorb the excess magicks until you learn to control them.”
Shandie took the necklace and looked at it skeptically. “But how can this little stone soak up so much magickal energy?”
Ginevra chuckled ruefully. “Don’t worry, child. The amulet is very absorbent.”