Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“I’m hurrying! I’m hurrying!”
Kazen wolfed down his breakfast of jam and toast. Normally there would have been eggs, but the provisioner had adjusted their rations for the month. It was a temporary measure—they said—but it was already the third this year. They issued new ration cards each time. They all had different colours. The first ones had been red, after those came blue, and then yellow. Now they were green. Kazen privately wondered what would happen when they eventually ran out of colours.
His mother put another plate in front of him, a third slice of toast with the last of the jam.
She shook her head.
“I’ll be fine. There are rolls leftover from yesterday, and you’ll need your strength.”
Grudgingly, he picked up the third piece of toast and ate it.
“Breakfast doesn’t actually have anything to do with how you do on the evaluation. If anything the rumour is that you shouldn’t eat.”
She went back to the sink.
There was no talking to his mother sometimes, and it had only gotten worse after his birthday. Every adult citizen took the test for military service. It was considered quite an honour to pass, a fact that probably had as much to do with the state-radio addresses and sponsored posters as it did with public opinion.
The sound of heavy boots filled the kitchen as his sisters came tromping down the stairs. His mom called to them.
“Morning you two! Breakfast is on the table.”
They’re names were Elizabeth and Remy—short for Remington. They were a few years younger than him, and still in school. Beth looked at his plate critically.
“How come you get an extra piece of toast?”
Their mother answered over her shoulder.
“It’s his evaluation today.”
Beth’s eyes lit up. She was in love with the military.
“Do you think you’ll pass?”
Kazen finished his food.
“I guess I don’t know. Most people don’t.”
Remy munched on her buttered toast.
“What if you do?”
“I suppose I’ll be drafted.”
By this point Beth was dancing in her seat.
“That would be so cool!”
His mother brought their lunch pails to the table. Her face was calm, but Kazen could tell she was worried. If he passed the test he would end up in the military for ten years, and there was a war on.
His mom picked up his plate.
“Will Mallory be taking the test with you?”
His sisters giggled. Kazen stood up.
“Yup. I’m meeting her at the bus station with Eddie. We’re all going together.”
She scrunched her mouth up into a line. His mother had never approved of his friendship with Edwin Grimsby. His father was a well-known bootlegger, and his brother was in jail.
Kazen grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. His mother called after him.
“Take the cap!”
He did as she asked, even though it wasn’t cold out. His father always left his cap at home when he went on site for more than a few days. He and his siblings took turns wearing it. Their mother insisted. It was a reminder that he loved them even though he was often called away for weeks.
The street outside was busy with the activity of the morning. Kazen watched as a guarded convoy of flatbed trucks rolled by, piled high with vegetables from the farm bases. Beth followed him to the door.
“I hope you pass.”
“It’s not likely. No one in our family ever did.”
He ruffled her hair. She yelped and squirmed out of the way.
“Hey, cut it out! I’ll have to redo it!”
“You didn’t used to bother.”
“I didn’t used to be in high school.”
“Looking to impress the brass?”
“You should put it in a braid.”
“I hate braids.”
“It’s the military fashion.”
She paused, turned an about face, and went back inside. Kazen laughed and stepped out into the street as Remy emerged. She called from the stairs.
He turned to face her. She stood with her arms crossed, leaning on the stout doorframe with her shoulders back. She looked austere. It had always been her way. Stoic and thoughtful.
He started to turn. She stopped him again.
“You know, if you pass we won’t see you for a long time. What should I tell mom?”
Kazen paused a moment before answering. She was right. He hadn’t thought of that. He took a deep breath.
“Tell her I’m proud to be a magician.”
Braid or tail.
Military personnel were required to grow their hair: a directive from the Ministry of Intelligence. The warriors of the Arro viewed short hair as a sign of weakness.
Taylor always had long hair.
Hers was a military family. Her grandfather was in the military—before the invasion, of course—as were her father, her aunt, and two of her three uncles. Her father had given her a gun on her eighteenth birthday…the family revolver. The cavalry piece had been passed down through the generations since the War of the Third Pretender. It still had bullets in it. They weren’t any good against the Arro, but she kept it anyway. Sentimental value.
She secured her braid with a dark green ribbon to match her coat. She wore the army’s colours with pride.
“Something to eat,” her mother said as she came downstairs.
She shook her head.
“No, thank you.”
“It’s tradition. Plus, I want to make sure I have time to walk if the train gets held up.”
The trains were controlled by the Ministry of Distribution, and were frequently re-routed to transport military or civil resources. It was prudent to have a backup plan, and there weren’t any bus stops nearby.
Her mother put her lunch in a backpack, along with some books, an old field survival guide, binoculars, a brass compass, family photos, and of course the gun. Most of those things would be confiscated and put into storage once she was drafted, but it was still a nice thought.
“Your father will be at the evaluation, but he promised not to dote on you.”
“You could be a little warmer towards him.”
“I love dad. He knows that. It just wouldn’t be appropriate for a cadet to be familiar with a general officer.”
“You’re not a cadet yet.”
Taylor buttoned her coat to the top of the collar. Five years at the academy; five years at war.
She was ready.
She spoke over her shoulder as she left.
“I will be today.”
Kazen met Eddie on the way to the train, propped on a lamppost with his hands in his pockets. It was a carefully crafted look. He tried to project both innocence and guilt. The first was for the Civilian Watch; the second was for the girls. Funny, one or the other never seemed to work. He waved.
Kazen answered with a casual nod.
“I only ask because you’re late.”
“I was having breakfast.”
“Hmph. They say it’s better not to eat.”
“That’s a myth.”
“You want to pass?”
“Dad doesn’t want me to. He didn’t say anything but I could tell.”
“Hoping you’ll enter the family business?”
“Even after your brother?”
“Especially after my brother.”
“Ehh, it’s not so bad.”
“You want to do it?”
“I skipped breakfast, didn’t I?”
The bus stop was three blocks over. They passed a district checkpoint on the way. The watchmen looked Eddie over with a wary eye before waving them through.
Eddie glanced back.
“I wish they’d get rid of those.”
“The checkpoints? It would certainly make your night job easier.”
“Part-time job, and it’s not just that. I mean, I know the watchmen have to lookout for the Arro, but the checkpoints are for us. Don’t you think that’s wrong?”
“It’s to stop the smuggling. If they don’t keep it under control the rationing won’t work.”
“Yeah, I know the ministry line.”
Kazen frowned and did his best to sympathize. Eddie’s brother had been picked up for smuggling.
Mallory was waiting outside the station. Her red hair was hanging loose around shoulders. Eddie gave her a hug.
“You look great, Mal.”
“Thanks. Ready, guys?”
“As we’ll ever be.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. Nothing to it. Like grabbing a live wire.”
Now it was Mallory’s turn to laugh. It brightened up her face. She had strong, sharp features. They lent her a serious expression most of the time. He and Eddie teased her about it relentlessly.
She flicked him on the nose.
“It’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
The testing centre was set up in the middle of Stage Plaza, so named for the theatre that used to occupy the south end. Like so many other points of interest, it had been destroyed when the Arro invaded, but the name stuck.
“You just grab the two ends?”
“Just grab the ends.”
Kazen looked at his hands.
“And then what happens?”
“If you’re a magician, you explode.”
Kazen looked over at Eddie. Mal smacked the back of his head and turned to Kazen.
“If it tingles, you’ve got enough potential for service.”
“And then they ship you off to the academy.”
Kazen thought, brooding.
No one knew where it was. The location was the most closely guarded secret in the NPA—that’s National Protected Area. It was all that remained of the old union, and one of the last territories of mankind held secure.
Executor Nightingale was seated on the dais. They’d missed most of her speech. She wore the long red jacket of the military high command. Her role in public affairs was twofold: first, she sat on the Executive Committee, one of three granted to the Ministry of War under the NPA’s provisional constitution. And second, she was the headmistress of the academy.
Eddie tilted his head.
“She looks unhappy.”
The line moved. They took a step forward. They’d been going for an hour here, and there were reports coming in from other districts over the public address system. So far nobody had passed.
Kazen went up on tiptoes to get a look. He’d been to watch the evaluation once or twice, but he’d never really thought about what it would be like to stand in the line. A girl with long blonde hair in a braid was next. Mal took in a breath.
Kazen looked at her.
“What? Who is that?”
“Taylor Lang. She’ll definitely pass. She has four relatives who went to the academy.”
Eddie craned his neck.
Mal crossed her arms.
“Shut up and watch.”
The young woman took hold of the contacts, which to Eddie’s credit did in fact resemble the two thick ends of a severed power line, at least from a distance. There was a moment of silence before she yanked her hands away with a gasp. Their ears rang softly with the high pitched sound of a tiny tunic fork, hanging invisibly in the air.
“Well, that’s one.”
The line marched forward. It started to move faster after that. The next person to pass was a young man with long black hair, combed back perfectly straight. He wore a black cloak, clasped with a jewelled pin that probably cost more than their houses.
The three of them chatted idly as the minutes passed and the new cadets were plucked up from the line. Kazen didn’t even notice when he suddenly came to the front of the line and the proctor beckoned him onto the dais.
He hesitated. Mal pushed him gently forward.
“Just go,” she whispered. “Don’t worry.”
He stepped slowly out onto the platform and stood in front of the equipment. The proctor stood at his shoulder with a clipboard.
“Please place your hands on the contacts. Hold them with a comfortable grip. There’s no need to squeeze. The test will begin in a few moments.”
He found himself suddenly nervous. He’d never really thought about life after the test. Beth would tell him to join the Civilian Watch. Keep an eye out for Arro. Eddie would remind him that it was just as likely he would end up policing people.
He frowned. He could always go work construction with his dad. It was honest work. He didn’t think he’d be very good at it though.
Maybe he could work at the neighbourhood deli, slicing cold cuts and pickling eggs for Mal’s parents. He was good at math. Maybe he could help with the books.
Nah, they would save that job for her.
The contacts were stubby and made from some kind of powdery white stone. His hands hovered over them.
The proctor waited.
Eddie shouted at him from the stairs.
“You’ve got this, Kaz! Nothing to it!”
He looked back across the dais to his friends. Mal gave him a little thumbs up. Eddie had his arms out, shaking and making a “Bzzz” sound. Kazen chuckled. Always good for a laugh. He put his hands on the contacts. Nothing happened.
Eddie was right. There was nothing to i—
Everything went white.
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