“Lillis can never know why I have to go,” Dara said to her husband at the Terminal. “Ethan too when he gets older.” She glanced down the hall at the daycare where she knew their children were being watched.
Harry was already shaking his head. “No. They should know—they should be proud. You had the courage to do what I couldn’t—”
“And you never can, Harry!” Dara’s eyes were insistent. “You need to be here for the kids. They need you.”
“I need you.”
Dara grasped his hand. She’d known it would be hard to leave Harry, to leave her family, but thinking of his pain was unbearable. There was so much she wanted to say, but she couldn’t find the words. And even if she could, would it make a difference?
She peered over her shoulder as unobtrusively as possible and spotted the black uniforms immediately. She was being watched. It wasn’t safe to talk here; it had never been safe to talk, to put voice to her questions. She wondered how long they had watched her before deciding to interfere.
As much as Dara loved her job, she was by no means happy to board this particular ship. She knew once she landed at this destination, there would be no coming home.
“I’ll write,” she whispered. She knew it was a feeble promise, a temporary solution.
Harry grimaced. “But you know what will happen…once you get there.”
“For as long as I can,” Dara amended. “You know I will fight it.”
That elicited some laughter. Dara was glad to see him smile, at least once more before she left. “Dara, if there’s anything I know, it’s that you’re a fighter.”
Dara grinned, but fear gripped her again. “You need to promise me you won’t continue what we started. You need to let it go. I was a fool to ask questions. Lillis, Ethan—they can’t do that. They need to accept the system. To keep them safe, to keep them home.”
Harry nodded. They could agree on that much at least.
A garbled voice came over the intercom. “I think that’s my ship,” Dara said. She couldn’t believe it was already time.
“Hold on,” Harry said. “Don’t move.”
He sprinted back down the hallway to the daycare at the end, where Lillis and Ethan waited. The attendant handed him the infant, and he took Lillis’s hand.
“Why are we hurrying, Daddy?” Lillis had to run to keep up.
“Mommy wants to say bye one more time, honey.”
Harry rounded the corner, but Dara was gone. He spotted her red hair easily in the crowd, uniformed men pushing her towards the on-ramp. She turned her head and found his eyes, spotted Lillis and Ethan. Then she was out of sight.
That was the last time Harry saw his wife.
Lillis pulled on his hand. “I don’t see her. Where did Mommy go?”
Monday, April 11, 2157
“Hurry up Noah! We’re going to be late!”
I let myself inside his house and check my reflection in the mirror hanging in his front hall. My red hair clashes horribly with my bright blue top, but after years of wearing the school uniform I’m used to looking overly pale.
Noah Emerson, my next-door-neighbor and best friend, appears at the top of the staircase and smirks. “Calm down, Lillis, nobody’s going to be late.” He takes the stairs two at a time, nearly tripping on the last one. I try—unsuccessfully—to hide my laughter. Noah has gone through an enormous growth spurt in the past year. He’s nearing 6’2”, but his height leaves him lanky and uncoordinated.
“Shut up,” he mutters, and now I really do laugh. “So what’s the rush for today?”
I sigh and followed him outside. We’re instantly greeted by a warm breeze. “Dad’s making me check the garden.”
“Now? Before school?”
“Yep.” We cross the street to Archibald Park, making a small detour on our way to school. “Sorry Noah. I’ll be quick.”
He nods. We’re at the head of the pathway to the garden. “I’ll wait here,” he says.
The gravel crunches underneath my feet as I jog down the path. I can’t believe Dad’s making me visit the garden today of all days. Yes, we did just plant our vegetables for the season, and now is a critical time in making sure they are well-cared for, but I’m finding it hard to care about the garden today. I take a deep breath as I take the last turn down the path towards the gardens. I tend to get frazzled when I’m rushed, and today it is more important than ever that I be calm and composed.
I emerge from under the canopy of leaves and into the field of gardens. Most of the patches are brown or covered in weeds. People don’t have much interest in gardens anymore, at least compared to my fuzzy memories of afternoons spent here with Mom. Unlike me, Mom loved gardening. That was why she’d rented out the little patch here in Archibald Park. And okay, maybe I’d had fun coming down here with her to check on the lilacs and petunias, but in the 12 years since she’s been gone it’s a chore I do to keep Dad happy.
After all, who wants to hike all the way out here when you can buy your own flowers or vegetables from the store or keep a garden in your own backyard? The patches in the park were more of a fad in the late 30's and early 40's. I’ve tried explaining this to Dad many times, but he’d rather cling to the past than try to adapt.
Despite all this, a part of me can’t help but gleam with pride when Mom’s patch came into sight. I drop my backpack at the edge of the patch and dig out my flask of water. It’s supposed to rain later—a pretty big storm actually—so I’d only brought the one bottle.
Out of habit, I sprinkle the majority of the water on the bright blue flowers that surround the patch; they’d always been Mom’s favorite. The flowers are perennial, meaning they bloom every year, and I’m happy to see them starting to flower anew. The cucumbers and tomatoes on the other hand… I glance at the meager remainder of water and dump the rest on the desperate-looking vegetables. I hate to admit that Dad was right in saying I come down this morning. Hopefully it rains enough later to make up for my hasty job.
I glance at my watch before scooping my backpack on my shoulder. Almost quarter past seven. Noah was probably wondering where I am.
I jog back to the path and take one last look at the garden, ignoring the familiar tightening in my chest I get when I wish she hadn’t left. And despite my earlier anger at Dad for making me come, I’m glad to be here today. I know that it’s juvenile, but it’s easy to be mad at Mom, to hold it against her for not being a part of our family anymore. It’s easy to write her off, to pretend she doesn’t matter to me, that she never did. But in this moment I think of her. I remember the woman whose gentle touch planted the seed that would become the beautiful bush of flowers I continue to care for today. I remember her carefully teaching me its name: myosotis sylvatica. It would be years after she’d gone that I learned the common name for the flower was forget-me-not.
I turn away from the garden and make my way back from the gardens. Yes, Mom leaving was unforgivable, but despite what I said to Dad, or my little brother Ethan, or Noah, I need her. At least today I have the thought of Mom to make me strong, to give me courage for the Interview.
Noah’s waiting at the top of the path. “Geez Lil, could you take any longer?” He smirks infuriatingly.
I finish the last few steps up the gravel hill and punch him lightly on the shoulder in response. We start off down the sidewalk towards Glover High. Ever since the gas quotas started four years ago, the buses stopped taking us to school. I don’t really mind the walk, but mornings like this when we were running late made me wish we could afford a car.
“How’s the garden holding up?”
I picture the blue vivacity of the forget-me-nots and immediately discard the thought. “Vegetables could use some help.”
Noah laughs. “I told you, you planted those too early!”
“Hey, no mocking. Not yet, at least. You underestimate my gardening abilities.”
We walk in silence for a bit, and I’m glad. My mind is still stuck on Mom. Tomorrow she’ll miss my 17th birthday. It shouldn’t be a big deal. I mean, she’s already missed the last 12, but this one feels different somehow, more monumental.
“I know it’s technically not your birthday yet,” Noah says, “but I couldn’t wait. Here.”
He hands me a white envelope with my name printed on it in his messy scrawl.
“Thanks.” I slide my finger underneath the envelope and open it. I reach in and pull out two ticket stubs. “Oh my gosh!” I shriek. “No way! Nats tickets?!”
He grins. “I know we used to go all the time when we were little, and I thought it’d be nice to go to one last game together before we ca—before we graduate.”
I give him a hug, unable to find the right words. I decide to overlook his near slip-up, pretend not to notice he had almost said “before we can’t”.
I’m pulling the baseball tickets back out, but before I can find a date on them, Noah’s already answering, “June 3rd.”
A week before graduation. I put the tickets back in the envelope and then in my backpack, trying not to focus on the uncertainty that comes with graduation, where we will end up after high school, if Noah and I will ever see each other again. That’s hard not to think about, especially considering today.
“So, today.” Noah echoes my thoughts.
“Yep.” I kick at a pebble.
“What do you think?” His voice takes on a serious tone. “After graduation—after our Placements?”
“First,” I say slowly, “we get through our Interviews.” I kick the pebble again. “Focus on school, on putting ourselves in the best position we can to get the Placement we want.”
“You know what I mean, Lil.”
I do know what he means, but that doesn’t mean I want to think about it. I glance up and meet his warm brown eyes. Unfortunately, Noah has an annoying ability of getting me to talk about things best left unsaid. “I guess we just hope for the best,” I settle on. “Hope our Interviews go well. That we get good Placements, and we figure it out from there.”
When we graduate from Glover High School this coming June, we won’t just be given diplomas; like all graduating seniors we’ll receive our vocational Placements.
“What time’s your Interview?” Noah asks. The Interviews are a part of the screening process that leads to our ultimate Placements. Not everyone gets an Interview, though. Interviews are for Placees with good academic records and backgrounds that put them in optimum position for High-Placement Careers, or HPCs. Noah and I are luckier than most.
I nod. “What do you think they’ll ask us?”
“Well, I heard it’s more of a get-to-know-you.”
My heart speeds up at the thought of the Interview. It’s too important for me to take lightly. One screw-up and that’d be it; I’d lose the future I want forever.
Noah reaches for my hand and squeezes it twice, hard, the only sign that’s survived the made-up language we used as kids, meaning “It’s okay, I’m right here.” It might look like we’re a couple walking down the street, but there has never been anything romantic about me and Noah. I’ve never opened myself up to that possibility—I value him too much as a friend to risk losing him.
“Lil, I know you. You’ll be fine.”
“Aren’t you nervous at all?” I can’t believe he is so calm when today had the potential to determine the rest of our lives.
“Of course I am,” he says. “But worrying about it isn’t going to change anything.”
I know where his thoughts are headed then, because my thoughts go to the same place. We’re not only thinking of the Interview anymore, but of the one hope and fear, that tiny shred of possibility that we’ll both get exactly the Placement we want, and we’ll never see each other again because of it.
“What do you think it’s like up there?” he whispers. His eyes are wide, searching. He seems to have forgotten that I’ve deemed this topic off-limits.
“Honestly, I have no idea. And I really don’t want to find out.”
We walk the rest of the way to school in silence.
* * *
“Come on class, this isn’t that difficult.” Mr. Payton, my history teacher, scans the classroom hopefully, but no one responds. We’ve been reviewing for an upcoming test, and there’s only five minutes left of class until we are free to go eat lunch. No one is paying attention anymore.
“What event foreshadowed World War Three?” He repeats the question. “Miss Langdon? Surely you know.”
I tense, taken off guard. “Um, would that be the space race in the 20th century?”
“Precisely. The race to put a man on the moon directly foreshadowed the race to claim territory on Mars. Remember the race to Mars started in the year 2031 when the great World Powers allied with either the United States or Russia and started one of the most destructive wars in history, all in the name of space colonization. And how did this war end? Paul?”
“In a stalemate?” Paul sounds unsure.
“Yes…what about the treaty?” Mr. Payton asks.
“Oh yeah! The treaty was signed in, um…”
“2038,” Mr. Payton helps, nudging him along.
"Right. And it gave three countries the right to build colonies on Mars!”
“And which countries were these?” Paul is at a loss for words.
“The United States, Russia, and China,” Madison Green answers for him.
I take careful notes throughout this discussion, even though this is all common knowledge. Thus far I have glided throughout high school; my high grades are one of the factors that qualified me for an Interview. School is repetitive and boring at times, but it’s the key to me ending up in a Placement that I’m happy with, where I can actually make a change in the world. If there’s anything I’m convinced of, it’s that the world needs some changing, starting with Rutillterra, our Martian colony.
In fact, it's only because of the colony that we have Placement ceremonies. I’d written my honor’s history report last year on the history of Placements. Dad works at NASA headquarters and can sometimes be dodgy in answering any questions I have about his job or the colony.
So, here's what I know: Starting in the middle of the 21st century the United States government had built and prepared Rutillterra for human life, but it was missing one thing: human life. The government needed to start populating the colony, so they devised the Placement system. It had started off as a volunteer-based screening to see who was best predisposed for life on Mars, but only a few years passed before the screenings became mandatory. If we were going to expand our country into the depths of space, after all, it should be with the best we had to offer.
By 2075, the screening process had become refined and every high school graduate passed through it as part of their graduation requirements. More than that, everyone now received a Placement: an assigned career and place of residence for which each person is most inclined towards, whether it’s heading to a career on Mars, going to a university to study for a Knowledge-Based career like teaching, or becoming an Apprentice just about anywhere in low-level careers like customer service.
I sigh and stare out the window. If only history had been different. If we hadn’t colonized Mars, I wouldn’t have to worry about my Placement. The system is supposedly infallible, but I don’t like the idea of trusting others with deciding my future. Without Placements, I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving my family behind. I wouldn’t have to risk losing Noah.
The classroom erupts in chairs scraping across the floor and people chatting excitedly.
“Finish up the review packet for tomorrow!” Mr. Payton calls over the clamor, but I doubt anyone heard him. “And Lillis,” he says in a softer voice, “do you mind if I have a word with you?”
“Sure,” I say. Mr. Payton is one of my favorite teachers. “What is it?”
The classroom is empty by now. I finish zipping up my backpack and throw it over my shoulder.
“I was just curious as to how much you’ve thought about your Placement.” My mind reels at the topic. “My brother-in-law is on the Interviewing Committee here today and I happen to know they’re looking for a historian to chronicle the goings-on up there. You’re one of my best students—I thought of you. What do you think?” He has a grin on his face, as if what he’s just recited is supposed to be good news.
I try to formulate a response, but all I came up with was, “What?”
“This is a highly competitive Placement. I can recommend you—are you interested?”
I blink. “No, definitely not.” Mr. Payton’s face falls. “I’m sorry,” I tack on, realizing how rude I’ve just sounded. “I’m not interested in being Placed on Mars. I’m really hoping to study space, but to stay on Earth and research Earth-based solutions for our environment problems.”
“Oh. Okay then.”
“That was really nice for you to think of me, though.”
“Not a problem, just wanted to pass along an opportunity. But if your mind is made up…”
“Well, then. Good luck with your Interview.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Payton.”
Noah is waiting for me outside the classroom. “What’d he want?”
I get into step beside him. The hallways are crowded as people make their way to the cafeteria. “Wanted to offer me a recommendation for a Placement you’d probably kill for.”
“What?” Noah’s eyes look like they are about to pop out of his head. “What Placement?”
“A historian on Mars.”
“What did you say?” He rocks back on his heels impatiently.
I sigh. “Noah. You know I don’t want to go anywhere near Mars. Just because you’re so eager to go skipping off to Big Red doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly want to join you. Of course I turned it down.”
Noah looks like I slapped him, and I instantly regret my words. But there we are regardless. I’d finally voiced our big disagreement. He will do anything to get off Earth, to go millions of miles away and explore the colony on Mars, and me—I cling to my home as if my life depends on it.
“I never said that, Lil.” His voice is hollow.
“I know, I shouldn’t have said it like that, I’m sorry.” I’m quiet for a moment. “But still. We’re going to have to think about it, consider the possibility.”
I push open the side door to the picnic tables, where we’re allowed to eat on nice days, and we step outside into the balmy spring afternoon. “Wouldn’t you miss this?” I ask, gesturing around me. “The warmth, the color?”
I can’t help but be glad I’m safe in my decision to stay on Earth. There are roughly 300 Placements offered on Mars from the entire United States, so only people who really want to go are considered. People who list all three Requests for Placements as career options on Mars. People like Noah.
We sit down at a table and I pull out my lunch, taking another glance at my watch. 12:16—almost time to go.
“Of course I’d miss it Lillis.” His voice is urgent now, as though willing me to understand something vital. “But I can’t miss out on knowing what’s up there too.” He pauses for a moment. “I want to explore, to walk where humans haven’t stepped foot before. I want to help the government, to expand our land. Our future is up there, Lillis. I know it is.”
I nod. I could kind of see—maybe—where he is coming from. “Maybe your future is up there, No. But mine is here. I want to be with my Dad when he grows old and know my brother when he’s older. I want to find a way to help fix our planet so we can stay here, rather than abandon it for a new home. Dad told me at work, they’re opening a new department just to look for resources from space that we can bring back to use here. And it’s all run by rovers, robots, so it’s Earth-based.” My Dad works with NASA. “How cool would it be if I got Placed into that, Noah?”
I stare up at him, willing him to understand that there is a better way, that we don’t have to go running off to another planet as a human race. No matter that our Requests are turned in, that his Interview is over. He just has to understand where I’m coming from.
“I think,” Noah says, “that with that sort of determination you are bound to save the world someday.”
I punch him in the shoulder.
“Seriously, Lil!” He rubs where I hit him. “You’re one of the smartest people I know. If anyone’s gonna find the magic answer, it’ll be you. Heck, if your Dad told you about that new department, you’ve got an in, it’s probably all lined up.” He sounds almost jealous. “But me—I’ve got a one in a million chance of getting what I want. You’re worrying for nothing.”
My chest loosens at this undeniable truth. Noah certainly deserves to get Placed where he wants, but the probability, the numbers are not on his side. And, selfish as I am, this comforts me. Because I can’t imagine a life where Noah isn’t my best friend, where I can’t run next door and see him, where we don’t go to Nats baseball games every summer or race our bikes through Glover Archibald Park, right down the street.
“But how was your Interview?” I ask, feeling selfish for not asking sooner.
Noah’s face breaks into a grin at my question. “Really good, actually.” He takes a particularly large bite out of his apple enthusiastically, and swallows. “The Committee was really nice, and they seemed to like what I was saying, so I’ve got the best shot possible, I think.”
“Good!” I beam. “And selfish Lillis who wants you on Earth is gone, by the way. Just regular friend Lillis is really happy for you.” I finish the rest of my sandwich.
Noah laughs. “Thank you. What time is it, anyways? Your Interview’s gotta be soon.”
I look at my watch. “12:32. Oh my god, that can’t be right!” I jump up out of my seat and start throwing my stuff into my bag. “I’m such an idiot, how could I have not realized?” I throw my bag over my shoulder. “How long is the video?”
“I don’t know…five minutes? Just go now, you’ll be fine, okay?”
I run for the door, shouting goodbye over my shoulder. Stupid stupid idiot. How could I have gotten so caught up in our conversation? Couldn’t I have picked another time to get into that with Noah?
I race through the hallway, stumbling down the steps until I finally reach the office.
“Lillis Langdon?” the woman at the desk asks when I walk in. I nod. “You can go right in. They’re waiting.”
“They’ll show it to you inside.” She gestures to a door at the end of the hall. There is a large digital display over the door, flashing the time in bold red digits: 12:35, and beside it: Interviewing L. Langdon.
I try to get my breathing under control but quickly realize that it’s a lost cause. I push open the black door.
“Miss Langdon. How nice of you to join us."
“S-sorry I’m late,” I pant, heat rising to my cheeks.
“Please, take a seat.” The speaker’s voice comes from the center of a long table, where two men and one woman sit.
The room is dimly lit and empty, save for the table and the hardwood chair placed in front of it. I walk towards the chair, very conscious of the clicking sound my shoes make on the linoleum floor. I sit in the chair and look up to the man who spoke. It is hard to make out any of his features, or anyone else’s for that matter. The only light in the room is placed above my head, directly over the chair, so the Interviewers are obscured by shadows.
“Your tardiness allowed us to familiarize ourselves with your records.”
My records? I hadn’t realized I had any.
“We noticed you have perfect attendance for the past four years, except for being tardy to school this morning. We found that odd. Can you explain why you were late?”
I blanch. “Um, yes. I was down at the park.” Geez. It sounds stupid even to me.
“Can we ask what you were doing at the park so early in the morning?” The woman speaks this time.
“Watering flowers.” I feel my chances at my Placement slipping away from me. “I have a garden patch there and have to check on it sometimes.”
“You do realize how important today is.”
My heart pounds, and my brain spins, trying to find a way to twist this in my favor, to make a favorable impression on the Committee.
“Yes,” I finally manage. “I keep the garden going to honor my mother and the vegetables have been doing poorly lately.”
More silence, then some hushed whispers.
“And you enjoy gardening?” Warning bells are going off in my head. Why are we talking about this in my Interview?
“Well, not like my mother,” I answer truthfully. Before they can say anything else, I continue, “What I’m really interested in is space.” I hold my breath and hope I hadn’t broken some rule by speaking out of turn.
“Yes, we see that,” says the other man, the one on the left. “You’ve listed all three of your Requests as Earth-based positions with NASA, correct?”
“Have you ever considered a Placement that would allow you to actually go into space and explore it for yourself?”
I’m anticipating this question, and I have a ready-made answer. “Yes, I have considered that, but I don’t believe such a Placement would be compatible with me.”
“I took the Compatibility Test recommended before turning in my Placement Requests, and it recommends highly that I require a home to return to each day. The test thought it inadvisable to actually send me on missions.”
“Yes, we have reviewed your Compatibility Test,” the woman says. “That does seem to be the case.” I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. “But I think we’ve strayed from our Interview too long. Let’s start at the prescribed beginning.”
I’m not sure what she means until a large screen drops down from the ceiling in front of me and flickers on. A woman in a sleek cobalt blue dress appears on the screen.
“Hello and welcome to your Interview. You’ve probably been looking forward to this for quite some time, but it is required that we inform you why you’re here.
“You, like all graduating high school seniors, will receive your Placement this June at the conclusion of your mandatory high school studies. Your Placement will detail where your life takes you after graduation. Will you study for a knowledge-based career or train for an apprentice-based career? Where will you live? What will your salary be? All of these questions will be answered at your Placement ceremony.”
The screen changes now, showing the woman onstage in a large crowd that I easily recognize from the TV broadcasting as a Placement ceremony. A clip plays showing a boy receiving his Placement to study and become a surgeon in New York City.
“But what goes into the decision? How is your Placement decided?” The woman is back in front of the white backdrop. “Your Placement is important to us, and we look at each person individually. Over the years, you have been accumulating a record. Grades, interests, family information, your Compatibility Test…we want to get to know you, so we can make the right decision for you. But you get a say in your future too. That’s why we offer up to three Placement Requests, so you can let us know what you’re interested in. The Committee will review your Requests and determine if the data we’ve collected projects your optimal future for yourself and society within one of these Requests. If you Request a High-Placement Career, or HPC, or your record indicates an HPC may yield your optimal future, then you qualify for an Interview. That is why you are here.”
I struggle not to roll my eyes as the lady gives the camera a perfect smile. Of course that is why I am here.
“Your future may be involved in an HPC such as a government Placement, a Placement on Mars, or a Placement in medicine. The Interview will determine if such a Placement is indeed right for you. The Committee will mostly ask personal questions that seem irrelevant to your Placement, but answer them as honestly as you can to ensure this June you end up with a Placement with which you can be proud and happy.”
The film ends with a shot of the boy from the earlier clip accepting his Placement certificate, a goofy grin plastered on his face.
With that, the screen lifts back up into the ceiling and the lights flicker on. I can see the Interview Committee clearly for the first time. They wear matching navy blue suits with United States flag lapels pinned to them. The man in the middle gathers a stack of papers together in his hands and taps them on the table.
“Okay, let’s start off with a few easy questions. Can you list your name and age for us?”
I exhale deeply. “I’m Lillis Langdon, and I’m seventeen years old…"