“Is there a problem, Sierra?”
Claudia loomed over Sierra’s desk, a scowl on her face, the emerald-green orb on the head of her staff pulsing in unison with the blue luminescence that lit the walls of the classroom. The decorative blue lines matched the markings on the bodies of the Guardian orbs. Lines from historical texts meshed with code from the Guardian’s Program itself also decorated the room, meant to inspire and remind the class that life was merely the result of a well-orchestrated program.
The exam that glowed from her desk was the most important document she’d write during her school career. Her LPE, Life Placement Exam. The result would be an influential determinate of the path the rest of her life would take. It would dictate under which level of society she would continue her service to the Guardians.
The questions glowed from her desk, empty.
Despite what they were told, she knew what the result would be. Every practice aptitude test she took leading up to this moment had revealed the same result, no matter the answers she chose.
Curiosity had gotten the better of her while undertaking the practice tests, and each time she had changed her answers, just to see. Each one had produced the same result. Destined to work at the Core. Just like her mother. Just like her father, before he died.
Even now, she wanted to throw caution to the wind. It all felt so pointless. Each answer was multiple choice, and she was tempted to randomize her selection.
She couldn’t bring herself to do it, though. This exam was different. Her intuition aside, this one was real. But she struggled to bring meaning to what lay before her.
The questions weren’t hard, being word and image associations mostly. Supposedly there were no wrong answers. Only answers that would affect the rest of her life.
She just needed to focus. Something about today felt off. The exam, the hum of the Sphere, the tapping of screens throughout the room as her peers worked diligently at the task before them—something wasn’t right.
Sierra looked to the aging woman, still towering above her impatiently. There were few in the Sphere who lived past fifty. There was no way to tell for sure, but Claudia was rumored to be twice that age. Her jet-black hair declared otherwise, but the members of the Order didn’t age the same as others. It was one benefit of their service to the Guardians. Guardian implants, that’s what the other students whispered, but the Order kept their secrets close, and the adults hushed anyone that asked questions.
Most questions that would reveal secrets of the Guardians, of their Order, or of humanity’s past were dismissed.
There was nobody in the Sphere older than Claudia who could confirm her age, other than the Guardians themselves, so Sierra went without knowing.
Two orbs floated through the room, observing the few dozen students with their heads down, working away at the exams on their desks. These two orbs in particular were Scanners that were ensuring everyone was focused on their own test. But Sierra couldn’t imagine how one could possibly cheat if there were no wrong answers. Or cheat if it was rigged to begin with.
Claudia pushed herself farther into Sierra’s personal space, still waiting for an answer. For someone who had managed to defy aging, her breath was horrendous. Sierra nearly gagged at the stench, but she managed to keep her composure.
What was she supposed to tell her? Yes, there’s a problem—I don’t want to be relegated to the Core for the rest of my life Yes, I think this is a waste of my time? You’ve known since my birth where I would end up? This is all just theater?
“Are you listening, girl?”
She looked at the woman leaning over her desk. This was one of the few times an Order member was present in the classroom, never mind their leader. Meant as an honor for the students. They were the highest level of the social order, a handful of chosen ones who spoke on behalf of the bots, the Guardians. Claudia, the highest-ranked of them all, acted like she’d rather be anywhere else.
The privilege was meant to instill a sense of what could be achieved with the right acumen. Supposedly. The children of those in the Order snarking in the corner suggested otherwise.
The Guardians typically presented their lessons themselves, either through the orbs or through the screens in the room. Their human Order members carried out more of the politicking throughout the Sphere, ensuring the pieces of the society continued to move in an orderly fashion.
Of course, Sierra’s purple eyes made her easy to remember. So she was often picked out of a crowd for questioning. Today, it seemed, was no exception. Though as she looked around the room, only her classmate Wil was also silent on the keypad. So maybe it was her inactivity that drew the attention this time.
Great, lumped in with the likes of Wil.
“I’m just thinking, Master Claudia, my apologies,” she finally answered.
“In this world, my dear, the world you are about to enter, you must allow the Guardians to do the thinking for you. If you follow their lead, you won’t be led astray. Everything they do is to protect this last remnant of humanity and prepare it for a new future. This exam requires no thinking. Just answer with the first response that appears to correlate. The Guardian’s score metrics will do the rest.”
“I’m still the one who needs to answer the questions,” she muttered under her breath.
Claudia didn’t react and barely blinked as she looked down at Sierra, expectant of her answer. The only answer.
“The Guardians protect us,” she grumbled with the least amount of enthusiasm she thought she could get away with.
“You of all people should realize that, child.”
Sierra raised an eyebrow at her before gaining control of her face. A raised eyebrow was not an appropriate gesture toward the Order leader.
She eyed the Order youth in the room’s corner, continuing to snicker among themselves. Another suggestion that the exam meant nothing. They were held in the highest regard, even in the classroom. It was nearly unheard of that one of them would be lowered to another status. Just as unlikely was someone from one of the lower occupations being lifted into their ranks, despite what they were told. Another reason Sierra believed this was all a charade. To what end? She didn’t know. And she didn’t dare dream of what would happen if she voiced the theory to anyone but Greata.
Of course, the handful of youth in the corner weren’t Order members yet. They had yet to earn the glowing light pattern that adorned Claudia’s robe, and as such, they would keep their thinly veiled opinions to themselves. It wouldn’t be long after the Placement Ceremony that the white robes would replace their standard gray ones.
But they were the children of the Order members. And just as Sierra was destined to follow her parents to the Core, the handful of uppity teenagers sitting in the corner would one day lead those who worked to maintain the Sphere that the Guardians had created. They would be entitled to the rule of law and already had the attitude to match.
Those youth had either already completed their exams or had long ago realized what Sierra had only recently discovered for herself. The answers didn’t matter. Those who were born into the Order were destined to their cause. Other than blatant blasphemy, or perhaps complete incompetence, there was no reason for them to become anything less. And no way for anyone else to become anything more.
Was it the fear of being sent to the Outside that had stopped anyone from calling them out? Even to themselves? Or did everyone truly believe they were designated to the placing they deserved?
Claudia didn’t move, waiting for further response from Sierra. As Sierra glanced up, the room spun and the woman before her and the world around her grew hazy.
Sierra’s vision clouded, and Claudia and the surrounding classroom faded into a fog. She tried to brace herself on her desk, only to find nothing beneath her. She gasped in panic as her vision waned and then came back in a flash of blue sky. The classroom was now gone. She was suddenly outside, but the blue hue that made up the dome and encapsulated the Sphere, the force field that protected their oasis, was nowhere to be seen. The toxic yellow fog of the Outside had been replaced by the blue of a sky so clear she had only heard of such a sight in stories of the ancients. Her mouth gaped, and she couldn’t help but stare. It was so beautiful, tears welled in her eyes.
The heat of a strong afternoon sun struck her face; the power of it was unlike anything she was used to. She was no longer masked by the fog that polluted the Earth’s surface. The sun she knew provided warmth, but never at this intensity.
As quickly as it appeared, the blue sky faded back to the familiar glossy white ceiling above her. Claudia still towered above her desk, looking no more impressed than before.
Sierra swallowed visibly. What had just happened?
“Why on earth are you crying, child?” Claudia barked, finger pointed at Sierra’s nose. “The practice exams were supposed to alleviate any anxiety. Haven’t you been listening?”
Sierra froze, her mouth still agape. Did she just have a vision? There couldn’t have been a worse time. Precisely the moment when the Grand Master of the Guardian Order was standing in front of her. She had precious seconds to answer.
“Sorry, I’m just really nervous about this exam. I know there are no wrong answers. I promise I am prepared. I’m finding it hard to concentrate,” she stumbled. It was a thin excuse, but the best she could come up with as she struggled to gain her bearings.
Students around her tapped away at the exams, lit up on their desks, ignoring the commotion she felt she was causing. The hum of the Sphere outside, though faint, was still audible, as dirt from a toxic storm was flung up against the force field.
“It seems you aren’t the only one.” She paused, and Sierra followed Claudia’s gaze to her classmate Wil. She didn’t know Wil well, but knew enough to keep her distance. Wil was constantly getting himself into mischief with his friend Marco. His lost stare into nothingness echoed how she felt. What was his story this morning?
“Are you nervous this morning as well . . .” The woman checked the data pad in front of her, clearly unsure of the name of the student she was addressing. “Wil?” At the mention of his name, Wil perked up, oblivious to what had been transpiring around him.
He looked at her with poorly masked fear in his eyes. Claudia was intimidating, but she wasn’t going to string him out in the fog for being inattentive. Something else was going on.
“I’m a bit distracted,” he said. “I’m fine.”
His friend, Marco, shot him a look; his brown eyes locked onto his friend in a silent plea to shut up. Neither Wil nor Master Claudia caught it, though.
The glassy displays of the two Scanners surveying the room blinked as if receiving a new piece of information from their network. Sierra believed she was the only one to catch that change as well.
“When the Guardians saved humanity over two hundred years ago,” Claudia said, amplifying her voice to speak to the entire classroom as she paced to its front, “they developed this system to ensure each of us would be placed in the role we are best suited for. As you know, this exam will confirm your placement. There is no right or wrong. It is merely a tool.”
Claudia returned her gaze to Sierra, cloudy eyes penetrating to the core of her.
“There is no need to be nervous.” Claudia grinned a terrifying grin, which did anything but reassure her. “Your practice aptitudes should have prepared you well for this day. The Guardians . . . protect us indeed.”
The Grand Master’s words didn’t calm Sierra as her heart raced, the gravity of her experience striking anew. She worried it might beat right out of her chest as her own pulse overpowered all other noises in the classroom. The exam and its consequences were the furthest thing from her mind now. She couldn’t get the image of the blue sky and bright yellow sun out of her mind. It was more than a daydream. She had been there. Where exactly that had been she couldn’t say. But she had been present under a foreign sky outside of the classroom. Out of the Sphere all together. Somewhere that shouldn’t exist.
She looked over to Wil. Despite the air-conditioned room, sweat dripped off his face. Why was he so sweaty? The memory of the sun’s heat began to fade from her skin. Maybe he had shared the vision with her? It seemed unlikely, but still, she reached up to feel her own forehead. Clammy, cool, not sweaty. Something else was bothering her classmate. If it wasn’t a shared experience, then she didn’t have the mental capacity to worry about what it could be. She had enough on her mind.
Like being found out. If Master Claudia had any indication that she had been seeing visions, Sierra would have more than the integrity of an exam to worry about. Anything so outside the norm would likely be touted as heresy. The Council could send her outside their protective bubble, doom her to be choked to death by the toxic air the ancients had left behind or turned inside out by the poison atmosphere, depending on if she believed the official accounts or the rumors.
Her friend Greata was the only one she could trust to discuss this with. Even then, she’d have to guard their conversation. Even her Keeper, Ember, wouldn’t understand. Ember would likely not report her, but she definitely wouldn’t engage any further about the subject and would tell Sierra to keep her mouth shut.
She poked at the exam that sat on her desk. As disillusioned as she was about its intent, she felt compelled to see it through. At least now it was something to distract her.
Most of the questions were associations. The exam presented a word, and she had to choose another word or image to associate with it. It didn’t appear that any of the questions were relevant to deciding her fate.
Despite her doubts, she resigned herself to filling things in appropriately. She couldn’t force herself to step out of line. She had struggled to do so even in the practice exams, but curiosity got the better of her. Knowing the outcomes of those weren’t permanent, she was willing to experiment. But this test was different.
She stared at the first question. The practice exams had all started with the same one.
The first word presented was the word Guardian. It always felt like a placeholder question for the ones that followed. From a list of four other words, she had to choose the one she associated the most with the first. None of the answers seemed like anything but what the Guardians would describe themselves as: Defender, Provider, Sage, Warrior.
Answers reflected how the residents of the Sphere saw humanity’s saviors. In theory, this question alone could indicate where your role within society could fall.
This time, however, there was a fifth word added to the list. She had to do a double take at the answer to ensure she was reading it correctly.
She paused and nearly checked her forehead again for sweat. A glitch? A trick? It was blasphemous to even suggest something so ridiculous. Even with her doubts on the validity of the exam, she would never have suggested an answer so egregious. She glanced around at the other students. They would all be much further ahead in their exams than she was, but none of them seemed taken aback by anything out of the ordinary. Surely someone else would have been tripped up by the offered response.
She looked to Claudia at the front of the room to see if the woman was still keeping an eye on her, maybe watching to see if she’d slip up. Claudia had become distracted by something else on her data pad though and was no longer paying attention to her.
She shook off the abnormality. Maybe this was just part of the test. She hit the option for Provider and continued to the next question. The ghosted word Liar lingered on the screen for a split-second longer than everything else. She blinked a couple of times just to get it out of her residual vision.
For the second question, an image of a bright yellow sun appeared. The association was not one that had been on the practice exams either. Until moments before, a bright yellow sun had only been something she had seen in videos and images of the ancients, in histories of a past that existed before their world was destroyed, forcing the Guardians to save the rest of humanity within this Sphere. A yellow sun wasn’t out of the realm of their studies, but it caught her off guard, and she shuddered.
She paused at the options below the image, and her heart sank.
Hope, Life, Star, Battle, Lies.
Something was wrong. Regardless of the outcome, she could feel within her bones that the exam would reveal more than just her career path.