Updated: Sep 30, 2022
My eyes struggled to adjust as I stepped into the backyard, sliding the glass door shut behind me. I took a deep breath, trying to enjoy the midnight springtime air as cool round rocks promised to trip me in the dark. After midnight, as curfew fell, the city noise always shifted from screeching cars and gunshots to the occasional footstep and soft voice, which actually made for peaceful nights.
I knew the New York nights better than most. I was usually awake through most of them, worrying or pacing or just listening, trying to calm myself. They used to say the first New York was the city that never slept, and I felt connected to that idea on a spiritual level.
The rough surface of the bricks pricked at my fingertips, but I drove my fingers harder against the wall until I felt a familiar line of cracked mortar wobble. I pulled at the loose brick, reached inside the wall, and brushed my hand along something damp and textured.
I shivered, pulling out the notebook. Amber always made fun of me for calling it that, since it fit snugly even in her little palm. Against my better judgment, I flipped to the last entry.
I’ll see you again soon, Row.
Reality hit me again like a brick wall. I turned to lean against the literal brick wall behind me, staring at her handwriting.
They took my sister away. In the yearly tests, she was labeled a basic and flown to some obscure lower-level school in France. I would have tried to follow her, but my grades wouldn’t merit it. I could fool the tests every year, but I couldn’t change the records: my grades were labeled as excellent. And even if I could manage a basic label, there’s no guarantee that I would end up anywhere near her. I could get shipped off to some other basic school in Nevada or Thailand or anywhere.
A wave of guilt washed over me, just as strong as it was the evening before when she received her results. I still remembered hugging her goodbye, telling her to be careful and work hard. We both cried. I had tried so hard to study with her, to raise her percentile above basic levels, but I couldn’t do it. Her brain just wouldn’t form the connections she needed.
A radical little voice piped up inside my head, reminding me to remember the bright side. I knew I had enough neural connections to make it to the stations. I’d known that since I built my first scanner at eleven years old, but I’d always had Amber to look after. Uncle Steve wasn’t around anymore to help keep her away from the violence and the raids, and if it were up to my parents she’d be out there with a bulletproof vest and a Dusk flag the day she turned eighteen.
But she was gone. My yearly test was only a few hours away, and I had nothing but gravity holding me to the planet.
I fixed the hole in the wall and stepped back inside the house, trailing wet footprints behind me.
* * *
The next day was the first time I’d ever been nervous for the yearly tests, which was ironic, since it was the first time I hadn't cheated. I felt shaky all morning right up to the moment I grabbed my backpack and sauntered through the kitchen. Tearing into a sandwich I had made the night before, I yelled a muffled goodbye to my parents while smoothing my hair in the mirror.
Dad gave me a halfhearted wave with his cigarette, and Mom mumbled “good luck” or something. Neither of them looked up, which wasn’t surprising. They were always exhausted in the morning after patrols and all.
I jogged the whole way to school, drinking in the sights and sounds. If things went according to plan, I knew, that city morning would be my last.
I passed a parking lot where a woman shook hands with a figure inside a tinted vehicle, pocketing one of those resealable plastic bags that became so rare once the oil ran out. Beyond them, I heard an engine rev and the echo of a gunshot.
Those everyday sounds still didn’t feel everyday to me, just like the huge wrought-iron walls dividing the city into Dawn and Dusk districts still felt wrong. Every day, I was more convinced I was actually living in some dramatic dystopian novel, not a real city.
And yet, I continued jogging, following the giant wall that led right up to my school. The metal detectors let me in without complaint just like they did every day, which was hilarious because I normally had so much metal on me. Seriously. It was unreal how much metal I could hide from those things, thin and invisible contraptions pressed like spiders against my scalp. My hair felt very free today without one.
A familiar voice rang out through the halls. “On this, the day of your final exams, remember that you have the ability to work for a better future.”
I stood and watched for a minute as Jada Breaker continued her streamed speech. It was pretty much the same speech we got from her every year, but suddenly it felt a lot more inspiring knowing I’d be up there soon. I mean, not that I thought I’d be on Alpha, obviously, but at least I knew I wouldn’t be stuck on a warring chunk of rock anymore. Even if I had to go to Alabaster for a year or two before getting a job on a station, it was nice to feel like I had a future ahead of me.
“You can make a difference. Support a better future for Earth by supporting forward motion. While we toil to find a way to unite the planet and the sky, work with us, not against us. Usher in the dawn of a new day. Together, we can make the sun rise on Earth again.”
Jada Breaker’s speeches always gave me chills. Her digital figure, displayed on a vertical screen the height of the school, gave its traditional dazzling smile and two thumbs-up.
I smiled back, and headed to homeroom.
Entering the room, I completed a quick mental roll call. Three giggly girls? Giggling as usual. Check. Three punks trying to flirt with them? Having a burping contest. Check. Jenna? Check. She flashed me a small smile, which I returned.
Jenna didn't smile much, but when she did, it was usually at me. I was glad to see that she was in a good mood.
Oh, yes. Two theater kids. Check.
Sitting at my desk, I realized I probably should have done more to get to know my classmates. I’d been so overwhelmed with tutoring Amber that my social life had gone out the window. Even more than that, though, I always had this feeling that I didn’t quite fit in with most of the kids at my school.
The smell of stomach fluids mixed with nacho cheese drifted over from the guys’ corner, strengthening that feeling. How that stench was supposed to help them impress the gigglers, I did not know.
I waited, bouncing my knee up and down in my seat, before getting up to assess my appearance in the mirror by the classroom sink. Pulling my trusty comb out of my back pocket, I repaired the damage inflicted on my hair from the morning's jog.
The rest of the class filed in eventually, as did our teacher, Miss McKinney. The punks and the gigglers had aptly nicknamed her Miss McSkinny, but they had all been frozen countless times by her signature glare. It didn't matter that she was half their height: that glare held the promise of death.
Miss McKinney shut the door, signaling the start of class. “Alright, everyone, we all know the program for today. Line up on the left wall for morning announcements, then we’ll get straight to testing.” The morning announcements told us which teachers had won which yearly awards, gave congratulations to the class presidents, and reminded us that today was the yearly tests, although I'd be deeply concerned for anyone who didn't already know that. They also ran through the pledge of allegiance, which I didn't participate in, as usual. Chanting a daily pledge of allegiance to anything seemed kind of creepy, and pledging allegiance to a country that couldn’t even get its act together seemed a little hypocritical to me.
When the announcements ended, Miss McKinney informed us that the tests would go in alphabetical order by last name. That put me right in the middle of the line.
We all watched as Mara Adams was called, and she sat down to start the testing process. Her hands ran through her curly black hair over and over as she stared at the paper in front of her.
The yearly tests came at the end of every school year, as a way to figure out who would be enrolled where for the next year. In eleventh grade, my grade, it was pretty much pointless. If we had been in the advanced schools all our lives, we weren’t suddenly going to be sent to a basic school or flown off to a station.
The test was made of three parts: factual, logical, and the brain scan. Factual testing meant sheet after sheet of questions on all the different subjects: math, English, history, science, geography, and so on. Since it was all multiple choice, we really just colored in bubbles, and it counted the least towards our final grade. Slightly more important was the logic exam. It posed brain teasers, number problems, and critical thinking exercises specifically crafted to test the ranges of our intelligence, which were usually a fun challenge. The last and most important portion of the test, though, was the brain scan. We supposedly had no control over our results for this part.
A tall, silvery machine scanned our heads and instantly counted up the number of neural connections in our brains. That was what really mattered to the system.
With the help of a certain spidery contraption, I managed to hide about a sixth of my connections from the machine each year. No one bothered to check for devices like that, because it was assumed that no one wanted to look like they had less brain than they did.
Having that thing on my head put me in the eighty-ninth percentile range, which let me stay home to take care of Amber. It also placed me in an average class where the work was easy enough that I could spend most of my time tutoring her.
“Here,” I said quietly, and I sat down to take the factual exam. I breezed through it: basic algebra, a couple history dates, a little bit of biology and psychology, and some English. I didn't understand why I had to diagram more sentences, but the test was what it was.
When that was over, I moved on to the logic problems. Which word is always spelled wrong? I wrote “wrong” and moved down the list.
Then, I switched chairs for the brain scan. Sitting on my hand to keep it from shaking, I breathed heavily and braced myself, preparing for a commotion. Like I said before, it was virtually unheard of for an eleventh grader to switch schools, unless they were moving to a different city or something. I wasn't exactly looking forward to being the center of attention, but it would be totally worth it to get to the stations.
The machine buzzed next to my head, then spit out the results to the computer on Miss McKinney’s desk. I heard her gasp, and, sure enough, every head turned to look at her.
My teacher looked at me, eyes shifting back and forth from me to the screen a few times. “Excuse me for a minute, class. Let me go get one of the advisors." She walked out of the room with no further sound except the tapping of her shoes on the floor.
Then, all eyes were on me, with mixed expressions of open-mouthed wonder and concern; well, all except for the eyes of one theater kid who was fiddling with his glasses. “What did you do?” asked one of the gigglers, a short little blonde. I found myself repressing a grin as I shrugged nonchalantly, enjoying being the center of attention more than I had anticipated.
Making eye contact with Jenna, I couldn't hold back a smile as she gave me a double thumbs-up.
A few more minutes passed with everyone looking around awkwardly before Miss McKinney returned with one of the advisors, an average-looking, dark-haired guy with glasses.
The pair sat by Miss McKinney's computer, with the advisor at the keyboard. I inched along the wall, craning my neck to get my ear closer to them.
"No computer malfunctions . . . just ran a self-diagnostic . . ." The advisor pressed a few more keys. "Doesn't look like the data was planted . . . looks somewhat consistent with past scans."
"I don't think this student would falsify the scans." It made me feel warm inside to hear Miss McKinney’s confident tone.
"Well, then the scans are accurate. This student . . ." he mumbled the rest so quietly that I couldn't catch it.
After a moment, he rose, shook Miss McKinney's hand, and walked out of the room.
"Apologies for the interruption, class. Please resume your testing."
My teacher glanced at me a lot throughout the rest of the tests, eyes wide, sometimes even shaking her head.
I waited quietly as the other tests wore on. A punk with pink hair chewed on his pencil. A theater kid sighed loudly at the logic puzzles. One of the gigglers fretted over whether the scan would mess up her hair. Jenna looked quiet and focused, as always, which I admired. To pass the time, I wondered which of the stations I’d be assigned to. Omicron? Nu? Theta? I’d heard that Jada Breaker was born on Theta. The science and tech scene there was probably phenomenal.
As the last of the class results were compiled on Miss McKinney's computer, we waited quietly in our seats to hear the results. Our teacher seemed to hesitate before announcing them, which was unusual for her. For a minute or so, she just sat, staring at the screen, before beginning to read.
"Mara Adams: Manhattan Advanced High School. Thomas Alston: Manhattan Advanced High School. Lorraine Aubrey: Manhattan Advanced High School . . ." The refrain of "Manhattan Advanced High School" continued until she reached my name.
"Rowan Miles: Station Alpha."
When I was able to feel my limbs again, I felt pride blossoming in my chest. Alpha!
There was a moment of calm in the classroom before the gasps and murmurings began.
This article was written by Nicole Adrianne.
Nicole Adrianne is an autistic author living in Stockholm, Sweden. She writes lush, compelling, and clean YA dystopian fiction. Check out more of her work by clicking any of the book covers below.