Chapter One (US) – Trial By Multiple Choice

cover art for Queen & Commander

Cover Art for Queen & Commander from MAEI Design & Photography.

For months, Rhiannon hunched over borrowed old exams while her friends danced and sang outdoors. Her nights were consumed with studying. This day, Test Day, she’d learn whether all that effort could lead to the future she wanted. Not the future society wanted for her.

She stood in silence on the well-swept stone floor outside the classroom. The stitched ash tree on her uniform shirt scraped against her skin. What was the point of wearing it anyway, hidden beneath impractical, white formal robes?

At the head of the line, a boy palmed in under the proctor’s watchful eye. He collected his blue pad—embossed with the same ash tree symbol, officially encrypted—and entered the Test room.

Everyone shuffled forward a space. Rhiannon among them.

Soon enough, though, she’d be admitted. Soon enough, she’d read the familiar questions. Soon enough, she could change out of this formal wear.

They said it was impossible to study for the Test. Oh, you could study facts and figures. You could study poets and history. But you couldn’t study yourself into being an extrovert or into analytical inclinations. You couldn’t cheat all of society. And if you tried, you’d be found out. Or, at least, very unhappy in your unsuited life.

Rhiannon had studied.

When she was nine and her mother had died, she’d studied heart conditions; she’d studied doctors’ expressions as they swore it wasn’t her fault. When the other students in third form enthused over competitive choir, she’d studied the usual things—math, biology, poetry—but so ferociously that no one noticed her lack of choral talent. When Gwyn’s attention turned more to horticulture than her best friend, Rhiannon had studied plant genera and topiaries in order to follow her into this new territory.

This year, her final school year, she’d studied for the Test.

She looked beyond the proctor who guarded the door, checking whether she’d have a friend inside. Even if it was forbidden to talk in the Test room, she’d still prefer to sit beside Gwyn—or even Victor—than some stranger from the other side of town. She didn’t want to be alone.

The kid in front of her palmed in, collected his blue pad, and joined the other sixteen-year-olds, cutting her seeking short. The odd cough or bootscrape on vomit-yellow carpet surprised the hush of the room beyond.

Her turn. Rhiannon pressed her skin to the sticky, warm identification plate.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The proctor turned his pad to face her. It flashed a message: Report to room 203. / Cer i’r ystafell 203.

Her jaw resonated, hollow, with her measured breaths.

I’m not in trouble. Students get sent to new rooms all the time during standardized testing. Plenty of people might get reshuffled on Test day.

No one could possibly suspect her illicit studying. Everyone knew that life’s happiness flowed from honest answers. Ever since the first Test 120 years ago. One hundred twenty years in mlynedd Cymraeg, just over 135 Earth years.

She spared the room one more look. Gwyn sat near the window, somehow elegant in the too-small desk, twisting her near-white hair around a finger.

Rhiannon adored Gwyn’s snowy hair. She’d nicknamed her for it on the day they met. In a way, the name was Rhiannon’s mark, transforming Gwyn from random kid into Rhiannon’s friend as far as their teachers were concerned.

Gwyn beckoned her over, but Rhiannon shook her head. She had somewhere else to be, it seemed.

Everything was fine. She’d find room 203 and take the Test as planned. She’d prepared for this. Nothing could go wrong.

She flew through the halls, a mere fifteen minutes early now and unlikely to merit a good seat in this new room. The closer she got to the elevator, the fewer people she saw. She’d left the crowds of vibrating students behind. Oppressive emptiness rose up to swallow and mute the distant chatter.

She slowed her steps, double-checked the signs. No, the elevator hadn’t moved in the last day.

The clicking from her boot heels bounced off the lockers like a metronome. She found herself counting out the musical timing. Measures of four-four, two beats for each click. One, TWO, three, FOUR. If she trusted her voice, she could break into song.

She didn’t.

She continued counting as she rode the boxy elevator—free of sticky candy or torn papers on this auspicious day—to the second floor.

A floor she’d have sworn was closed off for teacher inservice during the Test.

The second floor matched the first. The same stone-tiled floor in the hallways, the same locker banks along the wall. But it was smaller, only five doorways long, and the interior carpets were pea-soup green. Walking the near-deserted hall was like walking into Annwyn’s Otherworld, another dimension just slightly different from their own.

Not that she believed in Annwyn or Arawn or Manawyddan. She danced in the groves on holy days, like her Mom used to insist, but that was it.

Four students waited in a loose queue in the stunted hall. No proctor stood before the door to bar the way. Rhiannon recognized three from her specialized placement classes in statistical analysis, legal analysis, and computational methods. They’d placed at the tops of those sections, though she’d never seen them in her poetry or theatre classes.

She didn’t know the fourth. Probably an analytical prodigy from a different school, taking the Test here for administrative reasons.

Rhiannon fell into her place at the queue’s end and joined the others in watching the closed door. This was it. She wasn’t even going to get to take the Test. She’d already been typecast as a Perceiver, and Dyfed needed all the Perceivers it could get. Needed anyone who could consistently predict the future’s needs, a rare talent. A Perceiver made sure important issues worked out right. The first time. Economic systems and defense strategies didn’t get do-overs.

All that studying! All that learning how best to answer Do you feel more energetic after attending a party or spending time alone? All that courage-sticking to dumb down her analytic answers, lest her Perceiver skills overwhelm her desired results.

All that belief that she could choose her own future…

Sniffling behind her made her turn. A sweaty, blonde boy had joined the end of the queue. He rubbed at his nose, pulled at his hair, and sidled from one foot to the other.

Nervous Ned? She gifted him with a polite smile before turning back to the door. What’s Ned doing here?

Rhiannon pushed her wavy, near-black hair back from her face, relieved when cooler air touched overheated skin. Ned didn’t have any Perceiver tendencies, except when it came to rocks. He hoped to become a Geologist, she knew. Sure, he’d learned the same analytic principles as the rest of the students in line, but he only used them for Geology. He didn’t have the obsessive-intuitive tendencies of a student who’d aced three cross-disciplinary analysis sections.

His presence broke her model.

One by one, the four students ahead of her went into the Test room. One by one, they emerged a few minutes later, shaking and smiling. One by one, they disappeared into the elevator.

The Test was a full-day event. They certainly hadn’t taken it. So what had they done in that closed room? Her turn to enter the room. It was claustrophobic. Antique physical books crammed into wall shelves, more piled on the floor. Someone had tried to brighten the windowless chamber with wrinkled flags from all Dyfed’s cities. Three-by-three, the flags overlapped the books.

A tenth flag dwarfed the local standards. It came from Earth. The real Welsh one with the red dragon. Under it, two adults sat at long, steel desks that teetered with stacks of papers. She’d never seen either of them at the school before. They had to be from some State office, probably the Senedd.

The man further back gestured to the chair at his desk.

He was decently old for someone who must be an official Test Administrator, maybe 90 or 100, with gray-streaked hair and a wrinkled jacket over his tunic. He had a severe hooked nose, tempered by surrounding lines that alluded to frequent smiles. Rhiannon decided he was the helpful but powerless type. If she asked him the right questions, she could harvest clusters of data.

“You’re not in trouble,” he began as she sat down.

She’d figured as much without his help, but nodded to encourage him to continue.

“In fact, you’re one of the lucky few who don’t have to wait until tomorrow to find out what the future holds.”

She painted a smile on her face, refusing to let her head fall forward. She’d tested out of the Test. Perceiver status and lifelong boredom, here I come. Hands clenched in her lap, she leaned towards him as if interested in hearing him pronounce her life sentence.

“A small percentage of students worry about their Test results each year, so much so that they over-practice. Point oh three six percent, actually.” His hands danced, shaping figures in the air, oblivious to her hidden disinterest. “You’re in an even smaller population. See, ninety-two percent of those students turn out to be Perceivers, or at least very high-level Analysts. But that remaining eight percent are really just nervous types who can belong to any skill and interest class.”

Her eyes flicked up to meet the administrator’s as he smiled at her. If she classed as one of the nervous eight percent, then what did he think she was? O patient Manawyddan, please don’t let all that studying be in vain. She still had a chance. She’d Tested consistently on her last twenty practice exams.

She wanted to be a Queen. Not because of the societal power. Not because it meant the boys would fawn over her like they did in films. But because she wanted to be with people. She wanted to build a family, a family she could trust. A family that would never leave. She loved her father and her best friend, but they were only two people in all the universe. A Queen had more. A Queen had perfect love and Devotion. A Queen had her choice of the male top tenth of a percent. And those men flocked to her banner.

If you don’t think I’m a Perceiver, Test Administrator, do my Test results tell you I’m a Queen?

“Now, you’re interesting, because your first practice results show strong Perceiver abilities.” He shook his head. “But no! That was one of your nervous Tests. You are a very lucky young lady. If that had been your real Test result, well…”

She breathed faster, willing him to speed up with her.

“Your subsequent practice results, though—did you know that you’ve answered every Test question three times over?—are split between Queen and Queen-Commander. Your third highest category was still Analyst, which might explain why our statistics are off this year.” He ducked forward conspiratorially. “If you’d actually been a Perceiver, we’d have held onto that ninety two percent Perceiver number, but…”

He trailed off, letting her fill in the blank. She did the math, looking off into the air behind his right shoulder as she visualized the numbers on each side of the equality symbol in order for there to be .92x = y where y is the number of students exempted.

“But don’t worry!” The administrator pulled her attention back to the conversation as he hastened to reassure her. “The university we’ve picked for you has a ninety-five percent counseling success rate in working that nervousness out. And even the remaining five percent still make tidy Queens, though not Commanders, in a variety of fields. Your scores aren’t career-limiting.”

He rambled on about her required counseling regime, cautioning her she couldn’t tell anyone about this way to avoid the Test.

But she ceased to listen.

She’d made it. She’d Tested as a Queen and Commander.

She thought of Earth’s great Queens: Hatshepsut, Elizabeth, Victoria. And now Rhiannon. She looked down at her hands shaking in her lap and admitted it to herself: she might be the slightest bit giddy.

Lucky Rhiannon, born on a world with Tests to fool and Queens to become.

Test after practice Test, she’d reworked her answers to What are your favorite activities? paired against different values for What is the difference between a theory and an hypothesis? Only last week, she’d consistently massaged her results to either Queen or Commander.

She should go home. But what would she do when she got there? She’d finished studying. She’d studied her way into a future she’d picked. She shouldn’t have been able to, but she’d done it.

Now what?

A slow smile pulled at her lips as she shook the administrator’s hand. In a daze, she waved Nervous Ned in for his turn. She’d won. She’d gotten the future she chose, not the one the Test would have predicted. She’d beaten the Test.

Manawyddan’s mousetrap! If she could do that, then she could do anything.

Her new status tasted like victory.

Continue to Chapter Two

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