Chapter 1: Unpleasant Announcements
"Dude!" Julio screamed out as he crossed the open courtyard and headed to the table I had claimed to eat lunch. My friend had a huge smile on his face as he approached. "Did you hear about the announcement the President made last night?"
I pretended I had not heard him and continued to pull items from the insulated pack my mother provided to hold my lunch. She had included some leftover fried chicken in it, and I set the container down as I removed the bottle of half-melted ice that had been keeping it cold.
"Dude!" another voice called out just behind my left shoulder. I could feel someone step over the bench and sit down next to me. "Is that your mother's fried chicken?"
"No," I said sarcastically as I pulled out the bag of grapes that finished off the meal. "It's fried pet rat that my sister, Matti, made." I looked to my left and could see Jason sitting down. He was shaking his head, making his shoulder-length blonde hair flare out from side to side.
"Dude, that was not funny," he said. "You know I think your mother is the best cook."
I sighed. "Sorry, it hasn't exactly been a good day so far for me."
"Why?" Jason asked.
Julio slapped a tray down on the table as he began to sit across from us. "Guys! Are you not listening? Didn't you hear about the announcement made last night?"
"The one about the strange alien race coming to Earth with the plans of stripping it of all living things?" I asked. "No, I don't think we heard about that. It has only been the topic discussed in every class. But you missed class all morning."
Julio snorted. "Mother wouldn't let me out of her sight until after she went and got tested. She wanted to tell me all about the testing."
"Dude!" Jason said slowly. "What is it like?"
Julio frowned. I noticed several others had snuck up behind him and we're listening in. "She couldn't really say. At the testing center they took her into a room through a door. Two hours later she returned to the waiting room through a different door. All she told me was that she was asked a lot of questions."
"That's not really useful," Walter called out as he joined us at the table.
"Seems to be built into the test," I observed. "I've heard of a lot of people who have taken the CAP testing, and no one I have talked to about it says much more. It's almost as if you forget it the instant it's over."
"And now testing is mandatory," Jason said. "At least if you are fourteen it is. Julio, I'm surprised your mother didn't send you through."
"She wants me to take some kind of weekend refresher course she's heard about. Supposedly, it can improve your score by a full point," Julio replied as he picked a sandwich up. "She only scored a five point one and is desperate that her children have higher scores."
Walter was lowering his own sandwich from his mouth. I took advantage of the silence to take a bite from my fried chicken and look around the courtyard. Unlike most days when there would be a lot of loud talking, today everyone huddled in groups, and the conversations appeared to be quite serious.
"Mark! Hey Mark!" Walter was shouting. "Stop daydreaming and get with the conversation."
"Sorry," I replied. "I have a lot on my mind."
"So did you hear the announcement?" he asked.
"Who didn't?" I asked in return.
"What do you think about it? Haven't you already tested?" Walter asked.
"Nope," I said just before I took another bite from the fried chicken. I chewed slowly.
"God, I hate the fact that I have to wait to be tested," Jason said. "Why did I have to be born in June? The school year will be over before all the girls learn about the great score I have."
"One point zero will hardly be a great score," Walter replied calmly. "Well, it will be for the groups like Jessica and her little flock of worker bees."
"I think that would be swarm," I replied as I finished eating another bite of my chicken. "And I'm sure Jessica will hate being compared to a bee. She's allergic to their stings."
"Tough," Walter said acidly. "That blonde bimbo struts around the school showing off all the money her father makes. As far as I'm concerned she can kiss my ass once I come back with a score that will allow me to head to the stars. She'll have to if she wants me to take her."
I looked over at Jessica. As usual, her table in the courtyard had the best combination of sun and shade. Today, Jessica was wearing tight fitting jeans and a simple blue blouse. She was surrounded by eight or nine girls who were in eighth grade with us, as well as a few hopeful jocks who were trying to get dates with her or her retinue.
"I'm sure she's waiting with baited breath for that moment," I said.
"I wonder what her CAP score is," Julio muttered.
"I only know of two members of our class who have tested. Billy Shields, and Roger Berkey both tested last year and both scored in the mid-fours. They were rather upset about it, remember?"
"Did that happen the week after Halloween? Cause I remember a week where they kept trying to stuff just about anyone into lockers," Jason asked.
"That would be the week," I said. "I understand Billy made a pass at one of the cheerleaders from Central High, and she told him that if he got a six on his CAP she'd date him, but if he didn't, he could never ask another Central cheerleader out."
"But we're all going to be freshmen at Central next year, and those two promise to be star linebackers for the football team. You mean to say that they can't date a cheerleader?" Walter asked.
"That's how I understood it," I said. "It was a bet, and I've heard all of the cheerleaders at Central have already been informed about Billy's failure. It's not going to be easy to live with him next year."
"Damn," Julio said. "What about you? Your birthday is back in February. Haven't you tested yet?"
"When it was all about that silly dating show, I hadn't considered it," I replied. "I'll admit some of the high CAP guys they got on Average Joes were surprising, but you know how my mother is when it comes to dating."
"God!" Jason said. "Yeah, I remember last Saturday at your house when Mike came home just ten minutes late from his afternoon date. Your mother screamed at him for three hours."
"His date heard it all too," I said. "Mom forgot that Jasmine recently got her driver's license and wanted to drive to show Mike off. She was sitting in her car in the driveway while Mike was getting screamed at."
"How is that bad?' Walter asked.
"Think about it," Jason said. "I bet that Jasmine hasn't talked to Mike since. Who wants to date someone who has crazy parents? Oh, sorry Mark."
"For what?" I asked. "You told the truth. My parents are a bit crazy. That's why Mom has the four five and Dad the three nine for CAP scores. It's not like I can pretend they are great people."
"Three nine!" Julio squeaked. "My god! What's wrong with him?"
"Everything," I said with a sigh. "Officially he works for the city government as a foreman of the road repair crews, but the reality is he's some kind of union political thug. He's only loyal to that group because of the perks, but I've seen him betray them a few times when he realized he could snag a big payday and not get caught."
"Damn," Julio said. "What was his reaction of the president's announcement?"
"You don't want to know," I replied.
I closed my eye and visualized the previous evening. My father had received a phone call about ten minutes before the press conference. I had not listened in, but the voice on the other side was screaming so loud I could hear the distorted voice through two closed doors. The only thing I was sure of was that the voice ordered my father to watch the press conference and "start planning a political response".
I am positive my father still has no idea what kind of response he should plan. He first ordered Mom, Mike, Matilda, and me to sit with him to watch the press conference. Mike had already planned to watch it, but was going to stay in his room. Instead he came down to the living room with the rest of us. We scattered on the various couches while Father enthroned himself in his favorite lounger and pointed the remote at the television.
Father was making crude remarks when the newscast started. He hates most of the anchors on these shows and demonstrates his contempt by mocking them from the safety of his throne. Matilda was trying to ignore the whole situation by working on some of her sixth grade homework. I actually tried to follow the discussion on the set. It was clear that the anchors knew what was to be announced, but had been instructed to allow the President to break the story. So they offered up a few brief discussions on mundane things for about ten minutes.
Five minutes later my father was staring at a black screen. He had powered down the television, but remained in his chair. Mike had run upstairs the instant the explanation about CAP scores and who could volunteer had come out. I had sat in shock through the opening lines and was surprised when father abruptly turned the set off.
"This is bullshit," he snapped. "It's not his place to agree to terms like that. Men like me built this nation and keep the infrastructure usable. He can't just allow some wimp alien to snatch everyone away because of some stupid score created for a game show."
"Dear," my mother said softly. "I think the score was created for this. They used the game show to encourage people to take the test."
"What?" Father shouted as he threw the remote to the floor. "That's illegal. The Government and especially the military can't lie to the voters! They work for us!"
Mother rushed over to put her arms around Father's neck. I touched Matilda on the shoulder. When she looked up at me I nodded toward the kitchen. She smiled and jumped off the couch. I followed her quietly as my parents held each other.
Matilda had gone straight through the kitchen and vanished upstairs. I climbed the stairs to my own bedroom to find Matilda sitting on my bed and shivering.
"What does this mean?" she asked. "Mark, what will happen?"
"Matti," I said slowly as I sat down next to her and enveloped her in a hug. "For now, nothing will happen to you. You are twelve, and we both know that no one is going to select Mom as a concubine."
"What about Dad?" Matilda said with a giggle.
"If the CAP scoring is honest I don't think any woman scoring high enough to volunteer will be dumb enough to give him a second look," I muttered.
Matilda giggled again, but then used her arms to push me away. "Mark, do you think I'll be pretty enough to win attention?" she asked.
"Matti," I began. I looked over my young sister. She was a thin lady, with almost no fat on her body. Years of ballet had given her a grace that few women had. She was on the short side, but the promise of growing up and having long toned legs was already evident. I watched her cross her arms around her stomach and could see her biggest worry was her lack of breasts. She did wear a training bra, but so far she had little development, and three of her classmates already had impressive cleavages.
"I think you will be very beautiful when you grow up," I said. "You just need to give it time."
Matti sniffled and then threw her arms around me. "Thanks Mark. You are the best."
"I try," I whispered.
I felt an arm hit my shoulder, breaking me out of my daydream about the night before. "Mark! You are really out of it today," Jason muttered. "I asked if you had thought much about all of this."
"Not really," I sighed. "Look, I haven't tested although my mother promised to take me in to the center soon. Without a score I can't exactly plan anything."
"Dude!" Walter said. "What if you do get a qualifying score? I've heard that only about one in fifteen or so kids our age gets a good enough score. You'll have your pick of the girls."
"And would they be there because they really liked me, or because they wanted to escape what might be coming," I said. "I'd love to see a real living breathing naked girl."
"You'd love to fuck her too," Julio interrupted me.
"Dude, that's just crude," I said. My friend frowned, but shook his head.
"Not like you aren't thinking that. I'm sure there isn't a boy our age in this nation who isn't hoping for a six five so he can lose his virginity," Julio said
"Except those who already have," Walter amended.
I leaned forward, putting my elbows on the table and my palms over my eyes. "I can't believe this." I muttered.
"Mark! What's wrong with you?" Jason asked. "You are already fourteen and can test."
"So can Walter and Julio," I countered. "Why is it that my future chances are being debated?"'
"Because you have a chance," Julio said. "All three of you know about my home life. You know how I can't stand up to my father. Do you really thing I'm capable of getting a six five on the CAP testing?"
"How would I know?" I asked. "There isn't a person in my family with a score above five. My father and brother aren't likely to tell me anything about the test. I haven't even looked into where I can get my test. I know of the one testing center, but I thought there were auxiliary locations."
"Only one place in town," Walter said. "And you have to test within three months of turning fourteen, so you have to test before the beginning of May. You might as well talk to your parents and arrange to go. Right now they don't require appointments."
"After yesterday's announcement that tests are mandatory, I'm sure there will be long lines," I said.
"Most people have already tested," Jason reminded me. "Ashley tells me that she's one of maybe three kids in the high school who hasn't taken the test."
"Why hasn't she tested?" Walter asked.
"She claims she's been too busy," Jason said. "I think it was more about some of the antics that occurred on campus last year. She never said much, but I think she felt a few of the high CAP boys were patronizing to the rest of the class."
"Ah, what we have is a failure to participate," I said in a faux southern accent. Julio frowned at me as Walter shook his head.
My comment appeared to end the conversation. We sat there and watched the other students continue their antics. Billy Shields tried to approach Jessica. The noise of all the conversation in the courtyard made it impossible for me to hear what was said. Jessica scowled when Billy shoved two of the other boys standing by the table and then stormed off.
When lunch finally ended, my friends wandered off, heading to their various classes. I had a small art class and gathered my colored pencils and sketchbook as I made my way to class. There I found that our teacher, Mrs. Greer had set up a number of vases on the table in the middle of the room.
"We are going to be working on still life drawings for the rest of the school year. For today, I expect everyone to create some initial sketches of the vases here. You can choose any vase, or even design your own as you draw, but I expect three pieces to be turned in by the end of the week. Color is not required," she informed us.
Most of the others had gathered around one vase that held a single large sunflower. I looked around and found one vase that had a single twig with a withered leaf in its mouth. I found a stool next to the vase and set my sketchbook on an easel.
I was concentrating on the vase. The twig was not uniform in color. There was still some fading green near the leaf, while the end vanishing into the vase was a pale tan color. The vase itself was a simple cylinder of blue crystal. I was starting to outline the vase on my sketchboard when someone touched my right shoulder.
I turned and found Jessica standing next to me. "May I join you?" she asked.
"Go ahead," I said as I turned back to scan the vase. "I don't think there is any penalty if we both draw the same vases."
"Mark?" Jessica asked quietly. "What do you think about the announcement?"
"Right now it doesn't really mean much to me personally," I said absently. "I haven't taken the test, so until I have; it has no real effect for me."
"Do you care what your score is?" Jessica asked.
"I'd like it to be high," I admitted as I kept drawing. I now had the vase blocked in, and was putting in some shading at the mouth.
"If it is high, what will you do?" Jessica asked. "Have you even thought about it?"
"I'll volunteer," I responded. "It doesn't sound like a great chance, but if I can save even one life I must try to do it." Once again, I tried to concentrate on my artwork, putting visible effort into tracing and then shading the twig and leaf on my sketch.
Jessica ignored my peevishness and continued to ask questions. "But shouldn't you look out for yourself? And how can you trust that this announcement is real? I mean we'd heard rumors that something had been found, and then they did talk about aliens, but now it's like real."
I set my pencils down and looked over at Mrs. Greer. She quickly ran over to check on me. The first thing she did when she arrived was look at my drawing. "Oh, that is so nice," she gushed. "What do you need me for?"
I pointed at Jessica. "Jessica and I need to step outside so we can talk without disturbing the class. I wanted to see if it was going to cause a problem."
Our teacher looked at Jessica's sketch. She walked back and forth looking at the easel from multiple angles before speaking. "Minimalist. I don't see many lines, but I can definitely see the still life. Interesting technique. Yes, I'd say that both of you are fine for the day. Step outside, but don't cause too much of a disturbance."