The White Dome ~ Chapters 1-4

By “Allison Carter”

ONE

The hourglass nestled in my hands continued to tick down to zero, to Test Day. The day when all members of the Domes that have turned eighteen on or before the day are presented with a simulation where they face their greatest fear. The only thing that terrified me more than the simulation itself was how long I could last without interaction. They said that the Testing ranged from as short as two minutes, to as long as three years, a record set by an individual with a substantial phobia of vomit.

My birthday was today, the fifth of April, and I was turning eighteen. But today was technically just like any other day, seeing as I hadn’t even known when my birthday was till yesterday, when the Mailcarrier had handed me a letter with the official insignia of the Government. They told me it was my birthday, and of how it was significant before the Ruination, but I knew better than to celebrate a random day;  it would go against the selflessness that had been drilled into me from an early age.

I was like any other teenager in the Blue Dome. Virtuous, moral, very much adhering to the Government, obsessed with the Test Day. We set ourselves very high over the other Domes, for we were the nobility, the best of all of them. We found ourselves glossing over the ruffians of the Green Dome, the beauty-obsessed people of the Yellow Dome. We were the example, and so we portrayed ourselves as posh and polite, following all the courtesy rules of the Government.

The hourglass itself, which I had begun fidgeting with nervously, was abnormally large and was completely black, with a low opacity that made it translucent and possible to see through. Inside it were not granules of sand, but tiny red stones with various numbers inscribed on their shining surfaces. As they continued to fall into the bottom, making a small plunking noise, I mused on whether I would go to the Black Dome to live out my days, or whether I would return home again to see the Blue Dome, my home.

My bedroom was very quaint and sparsely filled as most were in the Blue Dome. I only  had one small bed, a small bed stand, a desk with the government-issued Courtesy book lying on it, a bookshelf filled with several books on history, mathematics, and such, as well as a closet filled with an array of clothes that were quite similar to each other.. The wooden splintered floor was hard and rough on the leather shoes I always wore, but I was quite used to it after the many years spent studying and sleeping here. There was one window that looked out onto our small estate in the countryside, with around two acres of swampy land and plenty of space for the garden that Mother had grown earlier. It would smell like tomatoes to anyone else, people often told me, but the room had no smell according to me.  On the walls, the slogan of the Government was written in a bolded font that stared down the room:

DISSENT IS FOR THE WEAK

LOYALTY FOR THE STRONG

COURTESY FOR ALL

We had learned all about the Test Day in Scholastica Three, the Scholastica level before the one I was in now, but even with this I still had questions about exactly what it would entail. But more than that, I wondered whether I would pass and succeed as an esteemed member of Blue Dome society. I knew that my courtesy was very improved and I followed all the laws, but I still wondered whether I would have what it takes to face my fear.

As I continued to think about the Test Day, a sudden knocking on my plain wooden door roused me out of my musing. I quickly got out of my bed and opened the door, only to find Father there. He was wearing casual jeans and an ironed black dress shirt that clearly conflicted together but did not matter to Father, because he valued his tone and manner far more than his outfit. He had slightly grayed hair that still retained some value of brown and faded blue eyes that embodied his faded and grayed personality that clung to courtesy.

“Hello, Father,” I addressed him calmly in the posh voice I had been taught through the countless years of schooling at the Scholastica. However, I relaxed the tone a little, as one must do with family and such.

“Hello, son. I was wondering if you would like to come to the market with me?” he said in his deep voice that contained some form of pleasantry and kindness to it. “I need another hand to get some new furniture for your mother.” 

To tell the truth, the market was the last place I wanted to be at the moment. With Test Day coming up, I was superbly focused on finding out what my fear was, but as always, the Scholastica had taught me to obey my parents, and so I did again at the fear of leaving my Father disappointed.

“Of course, Father. What time shall we be leaving?” 

“I think in the next half hour or so. Please get ready by then.” 

“Of course, Father,” I meekly ended the conservation. 

Then, he left the room, allowing me to get ready. I quickly changed out of my nighttime clothes and hoisted on some blue jeans and a sweater with the words, Basketball of the 3rd Scholastica, which solidified my status as a player of the Scholastica’s basketball team.

I stared at my reflection in the sole mirror in my room. Dim icy blue eyes with a hint of grey stared back at me as I ran a comb through my dark brown hair that could never stay down properly. I styled it into a manageable quiff, and then applied sunscreen as my lightly tan skin was still too pale to prevent sunburns. 

I descended the brown bamboo stairs that led directly from my bedroom into a small hallway that led to four separate rooms. I entered the first one directly to the right, and there was Father, reading a news hologram about the Testing. The room was barely furnished, with a centerpiece in the middle, and a soft cushioned leather chair that Father was sitting on, but that was about it.

He looked up when I arrived. 

“Ah, good. We can go now since you are ready,” he said with an effervescently charming smile.

“Um… okay,” I answered and gestured toward the door. 

“Right, then. I will meet you in the Autran, Asher,” Father curtly nodded towards me and went to the door, opened it, and stepped outside to put his shoes on. 

“Yes, Father. I’ll wait for you,” I replied, then walked out the door to the Autran. The Autran was sort of a modern descendant of the automobile, it was much more sleek, and the windows were shaded and looked black on the outside. On the inside, everything was sort of like a 21st Century Tesla, which I read about in my Scholastica history book, except it was far more advanced. The word Autran was short for Auto Transitory Vehicle, which had been shortened to Autotransit in the beginning of the Domes, until it eventually became Autran.

We both climbed into the Autran, which was self-driving and already knew the destination as Father had inputted it before. As the Autran began rolling out of the gravelly driveway, I attempted to strike up a conversation with Father about the Test Day so that I wouldn’t get bored and have more information on what to expect.

“Umm… Father?” I hesitantly asked.

“Yes, Asher?” He did not turn to look at me, and instead kept his eyes on the rolling green scenery of the Blue Dome.

“What was your test like? What happened during it?” I questioned nervously, thinking such a question was against some courtesy rule the Government had drafted.

He then turned to look at me with an expression that indicated he was about to go on a lengthy tirade. 

“Well, I went into the laboratory, with all my other Testing companions, they told us all to lie down on a machine. Then, they injected a green serum into one of my veins on my left arm to determine my fear, and once they had found out about my terrible arachnophobia, they put me under a simulation.” He then fought the urge to turn pale and gag. “There were thousands of spiders, they were crawling all over me… and I had no choice but to eat every last one of them.” 

Father chuckled for several long seconds. “Then I was hauled out of the simulation and given the Phobiatory Badge, signifying that I passed my Test Days. I was applauded by everyone on a wide stage along with the hundred others who passed their Tests. As I looked and saw my Mother, Father, and Cecillia, I felt joy I had never felt before.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Of course I knew that, the Scholastica told us about the testing process, but I understood that Father wouldn’t be giving me any more information about what it was specifically. 

“Oh… okay. Thank you Father, that was very helpful,” I said, and I looked down at my hands in my lap, feeling annoyed and ashamed for no reason in particular.

After the conversation ended, I turned to stare outside the glossy windows out onto the meadowy landscape of the rural parts of the Blue Dome. The grass grew tall and wider here and there was no one to cut it down or mow it. The palm trees and conifers elegantly rose above the large roads and fields. The sky was cloudy as ever and the humidity levels were just perfect for a natural rosy complexion to the skin.

There were rarely insects in the Blue Dome for they were considered pesky and unnecessary, along with most other animals except for the ones that could cause no harm and were used for observation and experimental trials. Here and there along the landscape was a squirrel, or a racoon, or even sometimes a sloth hanging among the lush trees.

Eventually we passed the meadows and forests and entered the part of the Blue Dome which was officially the Capitol. There were several trees here and there that were planted as part of the Greentech Integration, an operation the Department of Environment had coined to get more environmental integration, but even with this, the Capitol was still very urbanized and filled with skyscrapers.

Instead of our lone Autran accompanied by several others on the wide roads of the countryside, the Capitol held narrow paved roads crammed with dozens of Autrans which somehow never crashed with each other. We passed several skyscrapers that were the headquarters of some government-run facilities that towered over the city.

The Autran continued to drive and as it did, I saw the Testing Center for Juveniles in the Capitol, which was known informally as the Testing Center. It was the place I was to go to tomorrow in order to finish my Test and get the Phobiatory Badge so I could be fully accepted as a member of society and given my adult rights, which included taking a job, voting in elections that never had a result, and partaking in the many various ceremonies that the government would run.

Jolting me out of my thoughts, the Autran announced, “You have arrived at 53 Hummingbird Street, Market Plaza 3. Please disembark from your Auto-Transitory Vehicle and lock the doors.”

We quickly got out of the vehicle, let the doors automatically lock, and began walking towards the large building ahead with the words, Furniture Market, on it. As we continued walking, Father told me he was going to walk to the Grocery in order to buy some sugar, raisins, and rutabagas, apples, and freshly cut cilantro, and other vegetables. I quickly nodded and we went our separate ways.

I entered through the sheen doors and searched for what seemed to resemble a  paint section, then continued. The Furniture Market was very large, and all the sofas and tables and chairs were all freshly and finely polished. I quickly grabbed a cart, checked the shopping list my father had given me, and grabbed some wood polish from Aisle 3 that I needed for the Scholastica structural engineering project I was working on at home. After shopping around for a bit, I finally got to the end of the list and saw that Mother wanted some maroon paint for her table. 

Suddenly, an attendant stocking some black, highly polished wood turned towards me and asked, “Do you need any help finding anything?”

I turned and that was when I saw a boy who looked about my age. He was about a couple inches taller than my 5 foot 11 inch stature. He had soft greenish blue eyes and his hair was a dark shade of brown. He wore a black apron that was tied in the back and a uniform that had the words, Jonah – 1st Year – Attendant, on it. 

 After I realized that I had yet to answer him, I awkwardly smiled and said, “I actually do need to find some maroon paint,” I said with a polite strain in my voice.

“Oh, well you wouldn’t find any here. The darker paints are over in Aisle 10 along with the sheen varieties,” he laughed, then pointed to another aisle. “Here, I’ll show you them,” 

“No, it’s fine. I’m pretty sure I don’t need an escort to get some paint,” I joked in an attempt to lighten my tone.

“It’s fine, it’s my job anyways, come on and I can show you the best brand of paint to get,” he beckoned me and then started walking. 

I followed him down the long stretching aisles until we eventually reached Aisle 10. I went deeper inside and finally saw an array of red paint cans. We kept walking on further until I saw a paint can with the words, Maroon Paint – 100% Quality, on it.

“So,” the attendant began with a long look at the variety of paints. “The best type of paint you’ll want is the Spaltar Paints– they’re the best, way better than the government-recommended ones.”

“Thanks,” I nodded towards him, grabbed the paint can and was about to make my leave right before I tripped over my shoelace and crashed on the floor.The paint can lid flew open; all of the paint went splattering out on the smooth tiled floor and the attendant’s clothes.

I quickly got up and spluttered out an apology. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to spill-” 

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” the attendant interrupted my terrible apology and smiled at me, “Seriously, this isn’t the first time this happened,” he laughed. 

“No, no, is there anything I can do? Maybe I could buy you a new apron or something?”

“No, it’s fine!” he began reassuringly. 

“No, I insist I must buy you a apr- ” I began before the attendant interrupted me.

“No, no, it’s fine, just buy the paint. I can take care of the spill. Have a good day, sir.” The attendant smiled at me and slipped through a back door.

I ashamedly got the maroon paint and began making my way towards the cashier line.  

Why would I let such a thing go? It was not usual of me to simply let someone deal with a mistake I had made; it was very much against courtesy anyways. I could have used the opportunity to buy a new apron, which would only earn me extra credit when time came for my Test, but instead I had let it go and shamefully allowed him to remedy my mistake. 

I continued to berate myself until the cashier, a young woman with dark brown eyes and dark skin wearing a market uniform, told me the total amount. I counted out my coronals. 

“The total is forty-three thronities and fifty-six pence, sir,” she said in a monotone that clearly signified her boredom of this job that she was probably only using for the meager wages.

I quickly handed her a fifty thronity bill, told her to keep the change, and left the store for the Autran. I left the cart in a cart alley just adjacent to the Autran and met Father just as he began loading the groceries. 

Without a sound we climbed inside the Autran and embarked from the marketplace. In order to break the silence, something that had to be done because of Courtesy Rule 3, I began a conversation with Father about the groceries. It was very light, nonchalant, and simple, and I had only started it because I wanted to get my mind off of how embarrassingly I’d disobeyed the rules with the store attendant.

“… of course they were out of bananas, what would you expect with the Green Dome producing less and less everyday? You know, I recently heard that the farmers were protesting for lower taxes, quite a strange thing…”

“Asher?” My name suddenly broke me out of my thoughts as my Father looked at me curiously. “Are you paying attention, or is your mind wandering off somewhere?”

“Of course I am Father, it was just that…” I was very much hesitant to ask the coming question, but I did anyway out of curiosity. “I’ve been very excited about the Testing, but I still have some qualms about it. Do you think I’ll be able to pass?”

As the Autran continued to pass through the city while just narrowly avoiding the rare but serious crashes, Father consoled me. “Asher, don’t even try to worry about the Testing. You come from an illustrious family and none of us have ever failed the Testing, so I have no doubt that you’re going to succeed. ”

I sighed in relief. “While we were on the subject of Testing, I was wondering: After the Testing….aren’t you supposed to leave your earlier family behind to start a new one and get married?”

He jovially smiled, which only made me more confused. “Oh yes, Asher, I have been waiting to tell you this for a while, but you are going to get married!”

“Wait, what?” I questioned Father, suddenly doubting that whatever he had planned for me was for the greater good. I had always known that marriage was arranged in the Domes, but I had simply no idea that it was time to begin commencing such a thing. During all my eighteen years of life, love had been a forbidden thing for me to experience, and now to suddenly be launched into it all was peculiar..

Father continued without any sign of noticing my deep thoughts. “Oh yes, we’ve found a lovely girl from the Yellow Dome, she is beautiful, and me and your mother know she will be an… ”

As Father trailed off with his talk about the girl he was going to marry me to, I began questioning my resolve, as I wondered whether this was the life I really wanted; a life of duty and false love in exchange for my marriage. 

TWO

We arrived back home at around four in the afternoon and as soon as we got through the door, Mother quickly hastened me to get ready to see the girl whom I still had qualms about.

“Now, darling,” Mother began in a matter-of-fact tone. “They shall be here in an hour and half’s time, so we must get ready. Madeleine, please go to the driveway to welcome them once they arrive, and you, Thomas,” She gestured to Father. “Please go fetch the dinner reservation holograms we pre ordered yesterday,”

As today was a momentous occasion for the family, Mother was wearing one of her most fine silk dresses, a beautiful dawn yellow one with painted roses adorning the sides of it. She was wearing dark red lipstick and had her light blonde hair flowing down her shoulders. 

Mother continued to pace around the room frantically, waiting for the other family to come, at least until she spotted me sitting at the dining table doing nothing but twiddling my fingers. She then said in a pleasant but concerned tone, “Asher? Is something wrong?”

She misinterpreted my skepticism as nervousness, and started on an unnecessarily long speech about the girl I was to court. I didn’t care enough to listen to the whole thing. 

“… Bianca is a very fine girl, the Yellow Dome girls are always beautiful, and so are the boys. She is from Italy, did you know that? I only recently found out that it was a country, such a strange word, before the Ruination. Her parents are very high-ranking in the politics of the Yellow Dome, very prominent indeed, I think you’ll like her very much Asher.” She continued rambling on about the Allugrettis and how they would make a fine family to marry into, at least until she heard the crunch of gravel.

“They’re here!” Mother began excitedly. “Everyone behave your best and follow all the courtesy rules!” As in line with Mother’s rules, Father and I sat down onto the large sofa in the living room, at least until Mother scolded us and urged me to go upstairs and father to the parlor, which we did. Before the door opened and they came in, she assumed a cold yet polite expression in order to signify to the girl’s family that they were one of many contenders vying for my love although in truth the girl was the number-one pick.

Our front door opened, and in came Madeleine, my sister, laughing as she politely made conversation with Sienne, Bianca’s younger sister who was close to Madeleine’s age. 

“Good afternoon, and welcome, to our house. I hope you find it catering to your needs,” Mother graciously allowed the family to sit down in the parlor, a large room just adjacent to the living room Father had been in four hours ago. She shook the hand of Bianca’s mother and father.

“Oh it should not be a burden on you, it is our pleasure to marry Bianca to your eldest.” the Allugretti’s patriarch incessantly continued with the formalities.

“Oh yes, we must discuss that, but first however, I shall call Asher down. He has been studying Mathematics for the last hour, he is quite studious, I have no doubt he shall pass Testing.” Mother had been playing this charade that I had been studying when in fact, I had merely been waiting upstairs for her to call me down to welcome the Allugrettis, the other family. It was a rare day when I could be caught studying when it was not for Scholastica or my parents had not requested me to, but today was that day; at least that was what the Allugrettis thought.

Bianca’s father smiled in jubilance at the thought of having a son-in-law who was that studious. At that thought, he then sat down on a plush, faded recliner.

“Asher? Please come downstairs!” Mother quickly walked to the stairs and called out.

I quickly hurried down the stairs and walked into the parlor as was planned and smiled at everyone jubilantly.

“Good afternoon, Mr and Mrs. Allugretti” I greeted, as Mother had told me to and my Scholastica teachers had done as part of Courtesy Rule 4.

Indeed, Bianca’s family topped the expectations I had had for Yellow Dome socialites. Their perfectly clear skin and charming smiles, all topped off with plenty of makeup for both genders, something unseen in the Blue Dome. Her father was wearing an elegant suit with several pins, one of which was the Phobiatory Badge that I so desperately wanted. Her mother was wearing a light green silk dress with different embroidery patterns upon it and Sienne was wearing a light pink cape dress, which showed off her olive skin eloquently.

“Good afternoon, Asher,” Bianca’s father smiled at me. “It is very nice to meet you and your charming family,” 

“The same must be said for you, Mr, Allugretti, I can already tell what a beautiful family this is.” I endearingly added in accordance with Courtesy Rule 6. I quickly gave a glance towards Mother to take in her approval and sat down on the sofa opposite Bianca and her family.

“Hello, Asher,” Bianca said, finally speaking in the thick but beautiful accent of the Yellow Dome people. She was indeed beautiful, as seen in her long dark hair which was styled into many tiny braids. Her gleaming dark brown eyes twinkled as she smiled at me politely. It was no secret that she knew her beauty, as she tossed her hair with a casual demeanor. She wore a sundress that was colored a beautiful yellow that had traces of orange and red. She had adorned herself with a feathery pale yellow hat on top that had the Allugretti crest on it.

“Hello, Bianca, you look lovely,” I said, then internally cringed because I was being quite tacky and I felt that Bianca knew it too.

“Yes, I know, and so do you Asher, that tuxedo looks particularly befitting for you.” she complimented my suit and gave a beautiful smile that would make any boy go wild.

“Why don’t you two go upstairs to talk about dinner plans, hmm? We surely will appreciate your feedback on the matter, and I am very sure you two have a lot to discuss together.” Mother interrupted cloyingly. She gestured for us to go upstairs.

“Of course, Mother,” I answered, then stood up, waiting for Bianca to gather her dress and get up along with me. 

We strode up the large staircase and barely muttered a single word to each other. I quickly got in front of her, opened the door as was tradition with Courtesy Rule 11, and allowed herself to settle in one of the comfy chairs I had in my room.

Bianca suddenly broke the silence, and in doing so, three courtesy rules. “I don’t really know about you, but I personally do not care for this engagement.”

I tried to ignore my obvious displeasure at her voice of concern and contemplated continuing on with the conversation, but in the end I decided to be honest with her as lies would only start a rocky relationship, as I had learned in the 1st Year of Scholastica. “I agree. I also do not wish to be married,” I informed her, still keeping in mind the courtesy rules.

She exhaled and then proceeded to make a lengthy confession. “There is another one I wish to marry, Asher. I do not mean to cause any discomfort or to be rude to you, but I simply cannot marry you, not while my dear Felix is in my life.”

“Don’t worry Bianca, I understand your feelings, but we don’t have much of a choice do we? Our parents have already decreed this, and going against their will would be foolish. There is also the fact that there have never been marriages that are not arranged, at least that’s what I know.” I sighed, trying to empathize with her even though I was definitely not in a similar situation.

“Yes Asher, there have never been marriages apart from arranged in your Dome, but in the Yellow Dome, love is considered beautiful and exotic, and even though it is rarely performed, it is often the subject of literature in our Dome. These fantasies have taught me that love is possible, and I truly do aim to get it,  ” Bianca excitedly said.

“I understand your love for Felix, but what can we even do?” I asked, thinking about the countless ideas she might have to get us out of this.

“Well Asher, I have an idea,” she enthusiastically began right after looking at the door to make sure no one was listening. “The Yellow Scholastica teachers have taught me many things, but one lesson they deeply imparted on me is to use what you have to your advantage.”

“What do you mean? I don’t unde-” I began before a knock rudely interrupted our conversation.

I quickly got up to open the door, and there I saw Father staring at me with a cup of tea in his right hand. Instead of the jeans he was wearing earlier, he was now wearing a smart suit that matched far better than before. He smiled uncomfortably at both of us and began saying, “We are going to dinner now. Please come downstairs so we can decide where to go.” He smiled at us once more and went down the stairs.

“Of course, Father, we’ll meet you downstairs,” I replied. 

I looked at Bianca and gestured for her to exit before me.

She then moved past me, out of my room and slowly walked down the stairs so as to not trip on her dress. I followed her down the stairs and walked into the second door on the left in order to enter the parlor that also held the exit to the front door.

“Ah good,” the Allugretti’s matriarch smiled at us. “Shall we go to dinner then?”

“Yes, of course,” Father replied.

We smiled at them and exited through the front door with the rest of them. The adults had decided, without any of our consent, that we were to go to Theologique, an upscale restaurant in the Biriesse Heights, a beautiful neighborhood in the Blue Dome. 

We separated into our respective Autrans. The Autrans quickly left our driveway and synced, following the same route.

The conversation in the car was very light, mostly consisting of what Mother or Father would like to order as a drink or something. Me and Madeleine rarely muttered a word.

We reached the restaurant twenty minutes after we had left our house, and all of us disembarked from the car. We met up with the Allugretti family, and then we proceeded to enter the restaurant. 

The restaurant was minimalistic, with a stucco gray interior and polished white tile floors. On top of the bar at the front was a sign written in neon-lighted cursive that said, Theologique. Below this sign was a series of words in a serif font that read in this order: Restaurant, Catering, Take-out. It was clearly for the rich, with its high prices of nearly 50 thronities for a simple meal of verdigreese, a cabbage stew with different flavorings and spices. There was no one at the bar, and instead a holographic screen requested for you to present your Domatic Identification Card along with what alcoholic beverage you wanted.

On a different hologram screen was written, Please Choose a Table. With a graphic display of tables, under each table was an estimate of how much time it would take to get the table.

“Don’t worry, I can take care of it,” Bianca’s father pressed a couple of buttons on the holographic screen in front of him, and soon we were guided by an holographic guide on our telephones to Table Eight, a table which only took six minutes and had a lovely view of the freshwater pond outside.

As soon as we sat down in our respective booths, we quickly opened the electronic options on our telephones, perused them, and ordered what we wanted off the menu. As for me, I ordered yesders, an appetizer consisting of small bites that are fried and have delectable fillings in them, apleson, an entree consisting of various seafoods and sauces, and for dessert, cocolanne, a sweet, creamy, version of chocolate with froth on the top of it that usually had a cherry hidden deep inside it as part of tradition.

After everyone had ordered, the adults were quietly murmuring to each other. I could make out the tiniest hint of something to do with gold, which was to be expected since there was a wedding to happen. Bianca, instead of quietly staring at her hands like I was, was staring at me without any apprehension at all. She continued to look at me even once I showed my obvious discomfort by squirming for a second.

 As she continued to stare at me, I suddenly felt a soft tap on my shoulder. I looked to my right to find Madeleine looking at me in a peculiar but concerned sort of way. She leaned over to me and whispered in a soft voice that no one but me and her could hear, “There’s something wrong, isn’t there?” 

I shrugged, “Is it really that obvious that I don’t want to marry her?” 

She smirked, “No one wants to marry at 18, but eventually you will grow to love Bianca; it happened with Mother and Father anyways.” 

I nodded and smiled at her in agreement. Even though she had yet to experience the intricacies of love, I knew that Madeleine could be wise in many profound ways that were quite unusual for a mere sixteen year old.

A few moments later, the waiter arrived with our food. He wore a lightly fitted tuxedo with a pin that had a crest and THLG below it. He had a full mustache and wore light foundation and eyeliner.

“Welcome to Theologique, one of the finest restaurants in the Biriesse,” he said in a monotone. “I wish you a pleasant dinner, and I hope you find the meals to your liking.” He smiled and set down the appetizers: yesders, breade, and assorted fruits.

Most restaurants in the Blue Dome prided themselves on their combination of technology and human interaction. While it was possible to order with holograms, drinks and serving always came with a waiter or waitress.

“Now then,” he said to all of us. “What would you all like for drinks?”

Father went first. “A strong brattlevine cocktail with lemon cider for me, please,”

Madeleine, Sienne, and I ordered limanest, a fizzy lemony drink with hints of pineapple. Bianca, Mother, and Bianca’s mother ordered plain water. Bianca’s father ordered blue wine, the restaurant’s drink specialty, with three shots of vodka.

The waiter smiled and left.

“So,” Mother jubilantly began. “I suppose it is time to discuss the wedding venue and such, but before we go on ahead, we must ask for Bianca and Asher’s approval?”

“Of course,” Adriana, Bianca’s mother, said happily. “It is custom to do so, and so we now pose the question Bianca and Asher,” She turned to both of us and asked, “Will you Bianca Allugretti, marry Asher Gildingham?”

“Oh, Mother,” Bianca eloquently began in a charismatic but manipulating voice. “It is not a question of if, but when,” she said, no doubt regretfully. 

Mother and Adriana smiled and looked at me expectantly. It was clear that they were churning with glee. The rambunctious expressions and frenzied looks made it very apparent.

I pretended to agree with Bianca and said, “Marriage and love is a beautiful thing, and now I believe I have found the one to make it with.”

“Well then,” Father clasped his hands together. “I suppose we have a wedding to plan,”

“Yes,” I offered graciously, “but when will the wedding be?”

“Some date after the testing I would think,” Mother quickly said.

“Yes!” Adriana began exuberantly, clearly excited because of the fact that this was truly happening for her daughter. “I have already picked one of the bridesmaids, we can do Sienne for one, and for the other perhaps we can have Madeleine!”

As Adriana continued her rant on what they might do for the wedding, the waiter abruptly put a stop to it by coming over and handing out the drinks along with my apleson, Mother’s verdigreese and collocks, Father’s browned potatoes with cuscorn, Madeleine’s daspels, and Bianca’s family’s meals. 

“Thank you,” all of us murmured in unison as we complied with Courtesy Rule 2.

We waited for the server to leave, then scarfed down the fried shrimp that I had been given as part of my apleson. My appetite allowed me to mask out most of the following conversation which revolved around the gowns that Madeleine and Sienne might wear, or the exact color of the topiary that Alessandria, a flower vendor in the Yellow Dome, might have.

“… but Luca, we must consider the fact that the makeup kits are not of high quality in Spierran Plaza, I think it would be best in the Bonourre District, yes.” The conversation continued to go around the table, with Bianca and Madeleine chiming in occasionally and me staying as silent as possible.

“Asher!” my mother whispered indignantly to me.

“Yes, Mother?” I looked up from my food hesitantly.

“Did you not hear Mr. Allugretti’s question?” Mother haughtily demanded of me with a bemused expression on her face due to the fact that it was unusual to catch me ignoring someone.

“No? I’m afraid I didn’t catch the question,” I directed to Mother, and then turned to Bianca’s father. “I apologize, if you don’t mind, could you please repeat your question?” I asked him. 

“Of course, Asher,” Luca, Bianca’s father, smiled. “I was merely wondering what your opinion was on the color of Sienne’s bridesmaid dress?”

“If I had to pick then perhaps it would be a feathery white interlaced with blue, but that is only my opinion,” I kindly said in accordance with Courtesy Rule 17, which dictated that opinionated sentences should be followed by a statement clarifying that it is in fact an opinion.

“I agree with you, Asher, I would pick that dress also,” Luca agreed.

After that the conversation drew to an awkward pause and so we took the time to begin feasting on our food. I dove into my herring, Madeleine began politely eating her daspels, Father drank more of his brattlevine cocktail and began eating his browned potatoes, and Mother started quietly cutting up her collocks and spooning her verdigreese into her mouth.

After we finished our entrees, the waiter immediately came over with dessert. “One cocolanne for you,” he politely handed me the frothy mixture of chocolate. He then proceeded to hand out the remaining dishes of aquissere, more cocolanne, benerets that Father and Mother shared, andulets, and apple potesserie.

We quickly finished our desserts without any further comment. Once we finished our meals, Father went up to the bar to pay for our shared meal. While he was paying, the nauseating conversation about the wedding struck up again. One thing that was different was that it was not an adult who began it, but it was Bianca, which was quite weird given that she did not even want the wedding to happen.

“I was wondering where I could buy my dress?” Bianca asked. 

“Oh, I believe that Asher’s mother, Madeliene, Sienne, and I could all go dress shopping together? It would make for quite the lovely combination, and oh, I almost forgot Bianca.” Bianca’s mother said, while looking to my mother for confirmation while smiling at Bianca at the same time.

“And, maybe the rest of us could go tuxedo shopping for Asher?” Bianca’s father asked grinning heartily at me with a false expression. It was quite easy to spot the distrust and questioning underneath, asking whether I truly was a good fit for such a girl like Bianca.

“Of course we will, we must plan both occasions, but I’m afraid that we must get going. Asher has an engagement at the Testing Center tomorrow, and it’s getting late,” Mother said, avoiding and answering the questions at the same time.  She quickly bustled up her purse and got up, making small sounds as her shiny black heels collided with the white floor.

“Of course, we also have things planned for tomorrow, so I believe we have to get on our way as well,” Bianca’s mother said, standing up along with the rest of us. “It has been a delightful evening, and the time we meet again to discuss the wedding will most certainly be a pleasurable one. I truly do hope to get to know your family better, you all seem wonderful.”

We all got out of the booth, and once Father was done paying and he had taken the Alcohol Pills that reduce drunkenness after drinking alcohol, we departed our ways and left the charmingly minimalistic restaurant that had begun the long and enduring process some might call love.

Even though some might have called it love however, I still saw this marriage as a brutal attempt to conform within the government’s norms. And so, as we departed in our separate Autrans, I still had a small spark of hope that Bianca had a plan to get the both of us out of this mutually terrible arrangement. 

THREE

The hourglass only had several small black beads in it now. As the Autran continued to drive towards the Testing Center, the beads only continued to drop down to the almost-filled bottom. I knew I would have to give up the hourglass soon, but it seemed like the one part of my life that had stuck through nearly everything, from the moment I was given the hourglass in the newborn ceremonies, to today, April 6th.

As I stared at the hourglass nestled in my hand, Mother began nonchalantly talking to me without turning from the front seat. “Do you have any idea of what your fear will be, Asher?”

“I have speculation as to what it is Mother, but no fully-fledged ideas,” I replied without much attention, automatically channeling courtesy.

“Do tell your speculation,” Mother inquisitively said.

“Well,” I began, making sure that Father and Madeleine were listening. “I’ve never really taken a liking to needles, with their sharp edges and painful insertions.”

“Ah, well,” Father said airily, talking for the first time. “I am sure you will pass no matter what happens in the Testing, you are one of the foremost examples of courtesy that I have ever seen.”

“Thank you, Father,” I smiled at him pleasantly.

“So, Asher,” Madeleine discreetly interrupted Father from replying. “Are you excited or scared?”

“To be honest Madeleine, I’m pretty excited. All the honors awarded to you after the Testing, such as the Phobiatory Badge and your adult rights, it all seems very exciting and I am ecstatic about it.” I lied when the truth was that I was feeling quite nauseous at the thought of a simulation of my worst fear. My emotions were a cloudy mix of fright, excitement, and countless others that did not have words to describe them.

“Of course Asher,” Madeleine sarcastically said while being sweet at the same time. She looked at me before continuing. “All you care about is passing your Testing, not what lies beyond; I haven’t even heard Bianca mentioned yet.”

I wondered what she had meant, and what game she was playing at, but Mother interrupted my thoughts before I could finish.

“Oh yes Asher,” Mother exultantly began as I internally groaned at the mention of her. “What do you think of Bianca? Isn’t she simply lovely?”

“She is very much lovely and one of the most beautiful girls,” I commented on Bianca while adding some light inflections to express gratitude for the arranging Mother had done. “But when will the wedding be? Surely such a significant event must be planned early.”

“Oh I suppose some time in June you know, we’re not going to wait very long, it is tradition to get married after the Testing.” Mother added without paying much attention towards me or to anyone that was not her mascara for that matter. She then added an afterthought. “But I do suppose we should get together to plan it with them, the Yellow Dome residents are very superstitious about marriage and it might be best to follow their customs.”

Mother’s thoughts began confirming my worst nightmares. It was not that Bianca wasn’t a fine woman and a good suitress, it was that I did not want to get married right after the Testing. I wanted to find out if I really could love her, but that would take time. I had always wanted to get a job and live my life before settling down and getting married. 

Even as my rebellious thoughts raged and coursed through my mind, I still smiled and ended the conversation with a simple thank you. The Autran’s speakers said in a monotone, “Welcome to the Testing Center for Juveniles in the Capitol, please remember to lock your Autran and follow all rules of courtesy.”

I opened the door with a press of a shiny black button and stepped outside into the glistening dim light of the morning. The weather was cool, at a crisp fifty degrees with the same white, cloudy sky, as usual. The wind was fairly strong and breezed through my hair and my suit, giving a ruffled impression to myself.

The Testing Center was very large and shaped like a dome. It had several floors of translucent windows and beautiful architectural designs and mosaics on the grass grounds of the building. On the front of the building, under a set of doors was written, Testing Center for Juveniles in the Capitol, and under, Caution: Level II Admittance Required, Only Enter if Allowed, and under that in small caps text was written again the motto of the Government: dissent is for the weak, loyalty for the strong, and courtesy for all. It imposed its stature over all the other buildings, which seemed to cower in front of it, and held several armed Peacemaker Guards making sure the right people entered the building.

As I continued to gaze at the tall building, Father locked the Autran with his airkeys, stowed them away, and ushered me, Mother, and Madeleine into the building with a rough push.

The crisp fifty degrees quickly turned into a balmy seventy as soon as we got inside the building. The warmth enveloped me, but in a way it also suffocated me. There was a line of about ten people that we joined in order to advance to a front desk that for some reason, did not hold a holograph machine, but instead held a person air-typing into a holograph machine. Perhaps it was for security reasons so that no one could fake an entry and fool the machine.

The inside of the building was very different from the restaurant we had been to the night before. Instead of the minimalistic features, this had an elegant more old-fashioned style. The floor was a red velvet carpet and adorned on the walls were hand-painted portraits of some of the most famous figures in Dome history. I could see someone at the front desk, checking everyone in. 

“Look, it’s Nicholas Ferrere, the founder of the Domes, and the first Domeleader,” Madeleine excitedly said as she was on Dome History studies in Scholastica.

I smiled and looked at the other portraits as the line slowly advanced. One was Penelope Smithlin, the Domeleader who imposed the first courtesy laws, and several others featured Sundeep Agramadan, the second Head for Testing who created the Black Dome. Their imposing expressions did not offer any kindness, but I still took comfort in them for their familiarity.

As I got closer to the front desk, I was able to see the man in a better light. He was a blonde, and he had light brown eyes and pale freckles dotting his face. He had a casual manner but also seemed to be taking his job very seriously, which he should since it was a very important step in the Testing.

“Next please,” the man shouted at the line. 

I briskly stepped forward and began telling him my details. 

“Please present your Dome Identification Card and be prepared to answer any and all questions regarding your ID Card and details,” he said in a bored tone that clearly indicated his annoyance at doing this all over again. While he was talking he did not turn away from the holograph machine, and he continued to press the air-keyboard hovering in front of him.

I fished out a silver card with the words, Asher Gildingham, Age: Eighteen, Date of Birth: April 5th, MF Status: No Risk, and a picture of me on it and handed it to the man. The card had been delivered to me by the Mailcarrier, along with the letter with the Testing details. 

He looked at the card for a second before saying, “Place your fingerprint here,” he indicated towards a finger pad as I reached toward it and placed my right thumb there, “Wait until the green light shows and then let go.”

I held onto the smooth glass surface until a twinkling green light came up on the screen. I waited for a couple of seconds as he air-typed.

“You’re good to go,” he affirmed as he finished his air-typing. “Please go to Atrium Three, there’ll be a signpost you can follow.”

I quickly nodded. “Bye Mother,” I began as I grinned nervously. I did this again with Madeleine and Father until the man at the desk groaned and beckoned for me to go. I waved a last goodbye and stepped past the red rope the man had lifted for me, through another set of emerald-green doors, and into a large hallway similar to the one before, except this one was barely furnished and only held several signposts and doors that led to each Atrium.

I began briskly walking past each signpost until I saw one that read, Atrium Three. I unhooked the red rope barring the door and opened the door to find a giant throng of people my age milling around and talking to each other.

The room was very large and had a wide stage at the front. At the top of the stage was written the motto of the Domes, along with the flag of the Domes and the flag of the Capitol. The floor was shiny white and tiled and on the walls the Courtesy Documents, the original list of rules for courtesy, were displayed in full. There was a giant chandelier at the top that held glistening candles that barely shone through the bright light coming through the giant skylights at the ceiling.

Several holographs walked amongst the audience intermittently saying things like, “Remember your courtesy,” or “Duty over all others,” They were like ghosts, sometimes passing through other people’s bodies and giving them a fright, and other times clashing with courtesy themselves as they accidentally break up a conversation by sliding between two people.

I quickly began walking into the crowd, hoping to find a familiar face. As I looked around the crowd, I suddenly bumped into someone.

“Sorry I-” I began before realizing who I had bumped into.

“Asher! How are you?”

“Hello Jack! I’m great,” I grinned at the prospect of seeing one of my friends from the Scholastica basketball team, Jack. Jack was one of the best-scoring students in the Scholastica and it was a rare day when he did not receive a comment from a teacher commending his abilities. His curly brown hair with blonde highlights was styled, as usual, and his eyes were a dark brown that shone in the sunlight. He wore the exact same uniform as we all did, the government-issued suit they had specially made for this year’s Testing.

The suit was black and had a red tie, like any suit, but one thing that set it apart was the crawling feeling that you got as you put it on, from the thousands of tiny sensors that stuck to your skin to detect your vitals, which reduced the need for a machine.

“So,” he said in an ecstatic voice. “Are you ready for the Testing?”

“Yeah, I think, but I have absolutely no idea what my fear is,” I answered in a friendly manner that masked my fear of my uncertainty.

“Oh, really?” he said. “I think mine is acrophobia you know, I’ve never liked heights.”

“Oh well, I’m sure you’ll pass your Testing no matter what your fear is,” I smiled at him.

“And the same to you Asher,” he said as he grinned exuberantly at me.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a microphone screeching, and I covered my ears. It came from the large stage at the front of the room, and as I glanced there I saw a woman waving, trying to get all of our attention. I quickly made my way over to a chair, and sat down, intently waiting for her to say something. 

“Ah, good. We may now begin,” the woman at the top said. She was clad in an orderly dark blue office suit with a skirt and tie that had the Badge of Honor and the Phobiatory Badge on it. Her shiny black four-inch heels clicked around as she paced along the stage. Her hazel eyes were accentuated with a lot of makeup and her blonde hair with streaks of gray was wrapped in a tight bun.

Murmurs erupted among the audience at the sight of Julianna Sessen, the famed Head of Testing, and according to Victoria Meers, the headline reporter for the Blue Day, the Arch-Domeleader’s mistress. The headline had emerged after Martha Keeswat, the Arch-Domeleader’s wife, found a golden ring belonging to the Sessen family under their bed.

Since then, several legal claims against Julianna Sessen had been filed in the Ministry of Justice, the ministry for legal proceedings, but none had yet ousted her from her office as the Head of Testing.

“Wow,” I whispered to Jack ominously as the others joined in the frenzied whispering. “Do you think she really slept with the Arch-Domeleader?”

“I don’t know,” Jack admitted. “But she probab-” 

“Please quiet down,” she coldly commanded in a loud tone that was further amplified by an ear speaker. “I did not come here today to listen to everyone talk.” She smiled devilishly and continued. “I have come to speak to you today about the annual Testing, and that is the only subject we shall talk about, understand?”

Once most of the crowd nodded in agreement, Sessen continued. “The Testing is a test specifically designed for each of you to face your worst fear, like heights, or spiders, or something like that. The test will be administered to you by an individual scientist that caters to you and only your needs. Now that you know what exactly we are going to do, we must divide you into groups to make the organization easier.”

She paused to look at a holographic list in her hand. “I would like all people with the last names A through E to go through the first door. Everyone with the last names F through I to go through the second door. I believe that is all for your Atrium, please go with your assigned door. Thank you for complying with protocol.”

I began walking over toward the second door to stand at my assigned place, in alphabetical order by last name. Once I finished I stood in a long line of girls and boys my age fidgeting nervously as the door slowly opened.

We shuffled through the door and emerged in a wide chamber filled with nothing but a multitude of doors. There were several scientists milling among the crowd asking questions and filling out holographic forms and such.

Suddenly, a loud hoarse voice coming from a man with dark faded bloodshot brown eyes, dyed black hair with blue streaks, and dark brown skin came ringing across the room. “Please quiet down now,” he began wearily. “As you all know, I am now going to assign you to your individual doctors who will administer to you the simulation.”

Murmurs erupted among the throng and many started incessantly talking about the simulation.

“Quiet down please,” he said again but in a much less weary tone. Everyone snapped to attention as he continued. 

“We will call you up individually and give you your room number, and your assigned doctor will be waiting for you there.” 

He then began calling up people in alphabetical order by last name. They quickly dispersed into their assigned rooms. 

“Asher Gildingham!” he shouted. I went up to him and he continued, “The doctor assigned to you is Dr. Luisa Espinoza and your Testing will take place in Room 2. If you go down Hallway B and take a left, you should see your room.” 

“Thank you,” I said. I then followed his instructions down through the corridors to Room 2, where my Testing was scheduled to take place. There was a plaque with my name on the door, which I knocked twice on.

The door opened, and a woman quickly ushered me in. She wore a white lab coat and white shoes. Her dark brown hair cascaded down her shoulders in waves, and her light brown eyes crinkled as she smiled. 

“Hello, Asher, and welcome to your Testing. If you don’t mind, I need to run some tests on you before we put you under the simulation. If you would be so kind as to lie down, I will begin,” she said, gesturing to a black chair in the corner of the room. 

“Of course,” I said and then sat down. She brought out her grey and blue stethoscope from her lab coat, and I flinched as the cool metal hit my skin. 

“Sorry,” she apologized as she checked for my pulse. 

“It’s fine,” I smiled at her, and she continued giving me a standard checkup. I tried to keep my mind off the Testing and looked around at the small white-walled room filled with a sink and a cabinet and scores of equipment that I did not have the slightest idea how to operate. The floor was polished and wooden, and Dr. Espinoza was sitting on a stool with wheels. She got up and began logging some data into a hologram, and informed me that my checkup was completed. 

“So, what do I do now?” I asked her. 

“I just need to ask some questions and then your test will begin, but first, please lay down on this bed, this is where you will spend the test.” She pointed to a white stretcher next to the holograph with displays of charts and graphs and numbers she previously entered data into. I laid down in the stretcher and began preparing my mind mentally for the questions she was going to ask, just as she began asking.

“Asher, do you know of any moments in your life where you felt risk-taking, like a moment where you wished to do something you normally would not?” she asked as she scribbled notes onto an air hologram.

“No, not quite, I’ve always had a penchant for doing what must be needed and nothing more.” I truthfully said as I emptied out my emotions.

She smiled and continued. “Have you ever felt especially fearful? Not the usual kind of fear, but a strong kind.”

“Actually yes,” I said as I recounted a memory that I had long buried down. “There was a time when I was at the doctors and they were about to administer a vaccine. Long story short, I passed out..”

She smiled and nodded in approval. “Now Asher, I have all the information and we are ready for your Testing. Simply close your eyes and relax and we may begin.”

I nodded and closed my eyes as the room’s lights transformed from fully lit to dim, and the expression on the scientist’s face changed from interested to wary. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in my right arm and a deep blackness engulfed me and I was plunged away from sound, from reality.

FOUR

The blackness was vanquished by a growing light and I soon found myself awakening in some sort of cottage. The cottage smelled like salt-water and the sea, new words I had just found myself to have. The furniture was sparse and only consisted of the soft white rock bed I laid on and strange inscriptions in the ground. The inscriptions consisted of some strange hieroglyphics, another word I had recently discovered to exist in my mind, and they were all around the room, sometimes encompassing each other and rewriting other inscriptions. The room was completely constituted of white rock that seemed strange to touch, it was pliable but also rocky at the same time. The door was the only thing that wasn’t white; it was a light crimson that had a golden doorknob on it.

I looked down and found that I was wearing a white shirt with black shorts and black shoes. It was all very different from the usual clothing that I harbored inside my closet. The shirt had several inscriptions like the ones on the floor that were very difficult to make out, but upon closer look I found them to be quite similar to Inglich, the official language of the Domes, although there were other smaller languages like Italecco, Franche, Espagne, and Russ. It had some arcane form of an N, a version of an I without the three loops, a version of a K without the crescent at the top, and a version of an E with an extra line. The shorts had a different inscription, instead of letters, it was some sort of curvy symbol. The shoes were black and had a word I finally knew how to read, but could still not comprehend. The rest of the shoe’s words were smudged out by sandy streaks.

I quickly got out of the bed and began walking towards the door. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that this was no place in the Blue Dome, but perhaps it was a different Dome, I thought. Couldn’t this be the Yellow Dome, or maybe the Green Dome? Possibly even Red? But something was different about this and I knew for sure this was no place I had ever been to before. Everything had some sort of irresistible pull towards it, something magnificent about it that was unseen before by any and all life. 

My hand rested on the golden doorknob, and I contemplated opening the door. What if opening the door was how I could fail the simulation? I decided that it was highly unlikely that I would fail if I opened. I slowly turned the knob and opened the door with a creak as streaks of sunlight began to fall upon my face. I found myself in a bright landscape, filled with wet grass from the summer rain, a bright blue sky like none other seen before, a glowing sun that had never existed in the Domes, and a warm temperature that was natural and not regulated by the Temperature Commission. It was all very humid and the morning dew clung to the bright green grass heavily as I began stepping out onto the glistening earth.

The soil was warm and I continued to step out further. As I looked behind me I could see the cottage better. The white tiles overlapped each other, eventually making up a wall and a roof and so on until the entire structure was built. The door was the same on the outside, with its light crimson shade and golden doorknob. Except this for the brass knocker on the outside. But who would want to come back to such a dreary, enclosed space?

I continued to walk along the grass until I saw a hint of water up ahead. I walked closer towards this lake and it was just pure; there was no other way to describe it. The water was clear but also had a strange bluish tinge to it. The view was spectacular, with the lake glistening as the sun shone on its surface and the palm trees and conifers lazily waving in the mid-summer light warm winds. The water gently lapped against the rocks and as they did, I committed myself to resignation as I began believing I would never find my way back to the Domes.

But the beauty was too much, it was haunting, and I soon found myself pacing around the shore wondering when my fear would come up or even what it was. Why does this place seem more like a dream than a nightmare? Why is everything so idyllic and calm? 

My mind was racing with thoughts and anxiety concerning the simulation and soon I found myself becoming more and more resentful of the Testing. How could they even put me here? The Testing was supposed to be terrifying, filled with horror, something people experience in their worst nightmares. As more and more time elapsed however, it became clear that the place I was at was anything but a nightmare.

As I continued raving in my thoughts and unleashing a diatribe on the Testing, I heard a loud cry of help coming from somewhere far away along the shore.  I put away my thoughts for the moment and ran towards the sound. It led to a small hill around a hundred feet inland which had a young man around my age keeling in pain because of several large cuts on his knees and two scrapes on his elbows. He was clad in gray shorts with more strange runic inscriptions on them and a billowy white shirt that slowly waved around in the gentle breeze. The scene around him was as pleasant as the one where I had woken up, with the lake some fifty feet away and the sun shining as bright as ever. There were several large white rocks that he was splayed across on and it looked like he was in quite the uncomfortable position with the wet grass slowly drenching him with morning dew.

“Are you okay?” I asked, then berated myself because he was clearly not okay.  “Never mind,” I amended as I nervously stared at his deep wounds, “I can help, you don’t need to worry.” Remembering the basic first aid that I learned from the Scholastica, I looked towards the glistening lake.

“I need to clean the wounds first,” I told him. “Can you stand?” 

“Yeah,” he said, then slowly and painfully got to his feet. We slowly trudged towards the lake. Every step seemed to drain more of his energy and his face became deathly white and pale. I began thinking that he would collapse, but he still managed to make it to the shore.  “This might hurt,” I warned as he gently sat down onto the white rocks next to the lake.

He groaned from the pain, looked at me curiously, and said, “Hey, you’re that guy who spilled paint on me yesterday at the Furniture Market, right?”

I looked up at him, and I realized that he was, indeed, the store attendant I spilled paint all over two days ago. I blushed and went straight to apologizing. “Look, I’m truly sorry about that,” As I continued profusely apologizing, I took some fresh water from the lake, cupped it into my hand, and spread it over his wounds.

“No it’s fine just,” he groaned as I cleaned his wound, “Nice to see a familiar face… Do you know where we are?”

“No, but the landscape matches one of the tropical places that I learned about in the Scholastica. But those places were a myth, they never really existed; they were only created for Grande’s literature.” But even as I said those words, I realized that this place defied all logic and that everything inside my mind was just insane.

I finished cleaning the cuts and scrapes, then began looking around for something to bandage. All around me was an endless amount of sand and grass, which meant that I had nothing. Sighing, I quickly pulled my shirt off and tore it into little strips I could use as bandages, a survival technique we had been taught in gymnasia at Scholastica. Taking the strips, I began gently wrapping them on his legs and arms and he let out a hiss of pain. 

“It’s just going to hurt for a little longer, I’m sorry,” I told him. 

“It’s fine,” he said through gritted teeth. 

I finished wrapping his wound, and went back to the forever shimmering lake to wash my hands. As I scooped the cold water on my hands, I began asking myself the questions I had been delaying since I had found him on the beach moaning in pain. Why would he be in my simulation? Could he even possibly be my fear? Or was it something different? Either way, I decided, I would have to be wary around him because at any moment I could turn out to be his fear and he could attack me. I mentally cursed myself as I thought, if I had never heard his screams, this wouldn’t have happened. 

“Are you okay?” someone behind me said as I jumped surprisedly. “Your lips were moving but you weren’t talking.”

“No, I’m fine,” I smiled at him in order to ease the awkwardness and concerned expression on his face.

“Are you sure? You’ve also been washing your hands for the past ten minutes,” he pointed at my red hands.

I cringed. Suddenly, without thinking or hesitation I blurted out loud, “Why are you in my simulation?”

“I’m not. Maybe you’re in my simulation.” He challenged me with a smirk on his face.

“Look, I have absolutely no idea what my fear is and I don’t even know if I’ll pass my Test. What if you’re my fear? ” I pointedly said, not in the mood to joke with him. I hoped that he would understand just how serious this was.

“Look, if there’s one thing I’m sure of,  it’s that I am not a simulation, okay? And, I’m also sure that I’m not your fear. I don’t even know your name. I don’t even know you.” 

“My name’s Asher. You’re Jonas, right?” I asked him, remembering what I saw on his badge. 

“Jonah,” he corrected me. 

“Oh,” I blushed at my mistake, “Well anyways Jonah, how did you end up with all those injuries? What happened to you?” 

“I don’t remember getting cut or getting any scrapes. I simply woke up here on the beach to find myself in agony.” he said in a light tone that wondered many things, but was also confused at the same time.

“That’s a conundrum,” I said before warily looking at the horizon to find some dark clouds slowly approaching over the lake. The sky was still starting to lose it’s bright blue color and the sun grew smaller and smaller, disappearing under the horizon. “But we don’t have time for that right now, night’s coming. If there’s anything that the survival lessons at the Scholastica taught me it was that shelter is an absolute necessity. There’s a shelter that I arrived in, we can rest there until it passes.”

“Good idea,” He tried to smile but only managed to squeeze out a small one. He slowly got up from the large slab of rock he had been sitting on and began slowly walking, taking one varying step after another as we walked around fifty feet further inland, turned around, and began following my almost-washed footsteps across the sandy seashore. “So how far away is this shelter?”

I decided that lying to him would only make the walking worse and that talking in courtesy might calm him for the kindness that it offered. “Like a mile? Maybe. It’ll take about 10 minutes to get there, so don’t worry about it.”

He stifled a laugh at my attempt at the courtesy we had been taught all our lives but then smiled in sarcastic acceptance. We continued walking along the shore, as the thunder became louder and my fears of a storm became confirmed.

We sat in silence for a couple of minutes, until I couldn’t take it anymore and blurted, “What’s your fear?” 

Jonah looked up at me, with his brow furrowed. “I don’t know,” he replied. “What’s your fear?” 

“I don’t know either,” I replied, shrugging. 

“Maybe we could figure that out by starting with your fear. What are you scared of?” He posed this question as we arrived at the cottage and I opened the white door and allowed both of us to go inside.

“I don’t know,” I sat down, leaning against the stone wall, feeling frustrated with myself and the Government.  I was tired of not knowing. Why would they launch me into this world, of all things? “I don’t know what my fear is and I don’t have any idea whatsoever.”

“It’s okay, I don’t know what my fear is either. But we all have some sort of 

deep-rooted fear inside us, you just have to know where to look,” he encouraged, moving to sit beside me. “Well, when I think of a fear that I could have, I think of heights. All I have to do to remember that fear is to relive a moment when it went into play. For me it was in Scholastica 1, when someone pushed me off a ladder by accident. What is it for you?”

“Needles. They’re just horrible, with their pointy ends and painful insertions.” I sheepishly said.

Jonah looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Well, have you run into any vaccines or needles or shots yet?

I rolled my eyes. “Of course I did, there are always stray needles on the shoreline of lakes.”

Jonah laughed. 

Suddenly a giant roll of thunder came booming across the lake sound as it shuddered the cottage. “Wait here,” I began as I warily glanced at the door. “I’ll go check if it’s bad,”

I opened the door and went outside to find myself immediately drenched in a giant storm of frenzied winds, frantic lightning, and waves that slowly coursed closer and closer to the cottage.Without warning, a wave came drawing up in front of me and it was as if the world was in slow-motion, as I watched it slowly crash upon us just as Jonah limped out of the cottage and looked at me in horror.

“Asher!” he screamed. 

The wave descended upon us with a mighty crash, but that was the least of it. Just as the waves finished their assault and rampage, a deafening bang was heard from somewhere along the dark cloudy sky, and soon giant shards of rock and glass were falling upon us in their entirety and the sky collapsed. The clouds fell upon us, leaving a blank wispy blue that I only got a chance to see.

Just as the world began to dissolve and collapse, the dark image of the roaring waves and falling rocks and glass turned to fully fledged darkness as all light was vanquished once more. 

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