She collapses, then goes still. The soldier rejoins his comrades.
I wish we could get our hands on one of the soldiers’ guns. A pretty weapon like that doesn’t cost much on the market—480 Notes, less than a stove. Like all guns, it has precision, guided by magnets and electric currents, and can accurately shoot a target three blocks away. It’s tech stolen from the Colonies, Dad once said, although of course the Republic would never tell you that. Tess and I could buy five of them if we wanted. . . . Over the years we’ve learned to stockpile the extra money we steal and stash it away for emergencies. But the real problem with having a gun isn’t the expense. It’s that it’s so easy to trace back to you. Each gun has a sensor on it that reports its user’s hand shape, thumbprints, and location. If that didn’t give me away, nothing would. So I’m left with my homemade weapons, PVC pipe slingshots, and other trinkets.
“They found another one,” Tess says. She squints to get a better look.
I look down and see the soldiers spill from another house. One of them shakes a can of spray paint and draws a giant red X on the door. I know that house. The family that lives there once had a little girl my age. My brothers and I played with her when we were younger—freeze tag and street hockey with iron pokers and crumpled paper.
Tess tries to distract me by nodding at the cloth bundle near my feet. “What’d you bring them?”
I smile, then reach down to untie the cloth. “Some of the stuff we saved up this week. It’ll make for a nice celebration once they pass the inspection.” I dig through the little pile of goodies inside the bundle, then hold up a used pair of goggles. I check them again to make sure there are no cracks in the glass. “For John. An early birthday gift.” My older brother turns nineteen later this week. He works fourteen-hour shifts in the neighborhood plant’s friction stoves and always comes home rubbing his eyes from the smoke. These goggles were a lucky steal from a military supply shipment.
I put them down and shuffle through the rest of the stuff. It’s mostly tins of meat and potato hash I stole from an airship’s cafeteria, and an old pair of shoes with intact soles. I wish I could be in the room with all of them when I deliver this stuff. But John’s the only one who knows I’m alive, and he’s promised not to tell Mom or Eden.
Eden turns ten in two months, which means that in two months he’ll have to take the Trial. I failed my own Trial when I was ten. That’s why I worry about Eden, because even though he’s easily the smartest of us three boys, he thinks a lot like I do. When I finished my Trial, I felt so sure of my answers that I didn’t even bother to watch them grade it. But then the admins ushered me into a corner of the Trial stadium with a bunch of other kids. They stamped something on my test and stuffed me onto a train headed downtown. I didn’t get to take anything except the pendant I wore around my neck. I didn’t even get to say good-bye.
Several different things could happen after you take the Trial.
You get a perfect score—1500 points. No one’s ever gotten this—well, except for some kid a few years ago who the military made a goddy fuss over. Who knows what happens to someone with a score that high? Probably lots of money and power, yeah?
You score between a 1450 and a 1499. Pat yourself on the back because you’ll get instant access to six years of high school and then four at the top universities in the Republic: Drake, Stanford, and Brenan. Then Congress hires you and you make lots of money. Joy and happiness follow. At least according to the Republic.
You get a good score, somewhere between 1250 and 1449 points. You get to continue on to high school, and then you’re assigned to a college. Not bad.
You squeak by with a score between 1000 and 1249. Congress bars you from high school. You join the poor, like my family. You’ll probably either drown while working the water turbines or get steamed to death in the power plants.
It’s almost always the slum-sector kids who fail. If you’re in this unlucky category, the Republic sends officials to your family’s home. They make your parents sign a contract giving the government full custody over you. They say that you’ve been sent away to the Republic’s labor camps and that your family will not see you again. Your parents have to nod and agree. A few even celebrate, because the Republic gives them one thousand Notes as a condolence gift. Money and one less mouth to feed? What a thoughtful government.
Except this is all a lie. An inferior child with bad genes is no use to the country. If you’re lucky, Congress will let you die without first sending you to the labs to be examined for imperfections.
Five houses remain. Tess sees the worry in my eyes and puts a hand on my forehead. “One of your headaches coming on?”
“No. I’m okay.” I peer in the open window at my mother’s house, then catch my first glimpse of a familiar face. Eden walks by, then peeks out the window at the approaching soldiers and points some handmade metal contraption at them. Then he ducks back inside and disappears from view. His curls flash white-blond in the flickering lamplight. Knowing him, he probably built that gadget to measure how far away someone is, or something like that.
“He looks thinner,” I mutter.
“He’s alive and walking around,” Tess replies. “I’d say that’s a win.”
Minutes later, we see John and my mother wander past the window, deep in conversation. John and I look pretty similar, although he’s grown a little stockier from long days at the plant. His hair, like most who live in our sector, hangs down past his shoulders and is tied back into a simple tail. His vest is smudged with red clay. I can tell Mom’s scolding him for something or other, probably for letting Eden peek out the window. She bats John’s hand away when a bout of her chronic coughing hits her. I let out a breath. So. At least all three of them are healthy enough to walk. Even if one of them is infected, it’s early enough that they’ll still have a chance to recover.