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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Forsaken

PROLOGUE

 

At first I think the hammering sound is the noise of waves crashing down on white sand.  I'm dreaming I'm in Old Florida with my parents, before the government restricted all travel.

Then, as I start to wake, I realize the noise is something else.  Something real.  I pull a pillow over my head.  But the hammering gets more insistent.

I finally realize that someone is banging on the front door of our apartment.

I wonder why my parents aren't answering.  Usually they're awake late at night.  But tonight, there's no sign of them.

"Get the door already, jeez," I mutter.

I am ten years old.

I have no idea that tonight I will become an orphan.

The door to my bedroom bursts open, letting in a blaze of light.  My mom rushes inside, frantic.

"They've come for us!" she hisses.  I hear distant, guttural voices barking out orders.

I sit straight up, pushing the covers back, my blood turning to ice.

The military police are here.

"Hide!  Hide!" my mom whispers harshly.  She grabs my arm, hard enough to bruise it through my pajamas, and yanks me out of bed.

We're halfway across my room when I hear a deafening crack.  Our front door is beginning to splinter.

"Run!" my mom screams, pushing me into the hallway.  I see my dad at the front door, desperately trying to barricade it with furniture.

There's no time to hide.  No time to reach the kitchen and the hollowed-out space in the wall behind the refrigerator.

The front door gives way.  Armed police barge into our apartment, knocking the smashed door off its hinges, plowing the furniture out of the way.

My dad springs forward, tackling the first man who comes through the doorway.  But another policeman strikes him in the mouth with his assault rifle.  The police surround my dad and start beating him with nightsticks.  All of them are wearing dark visors and black uniforms.

"Alenna!" my mom screams as policemen race toward her.  "You'll be okay!"  But the look in her eyes says she knows the truth.

Our lives are over.

One of the policemen jabs my mom in the neck with an electric cattle prod.  Her body seizes up.  She goes crashing to the carpet.

"Mom!" I yell, rushing over.

My dad has already disappeared.  Before I can reach my mom, officers grab her arms and start pulling her away too.

I cling to one of her ankles, but an officer smacks my knuckles with his nightstick.  I fall back with a gasp.  My mom gets dragged across the carpet, right out the front door.  It's over lightning fast.

I barely remember what happens next.  It's just fragments, like a nightmare.  Policemen stand in the doorway, blocking it so I can't run after my parents.  There must be at least twenty of them crowding our apartment.

In numb shock, I walk back into my bedroom and crawl into bed.  I pull the covers over my head, clutching my throbbing hand.  Now that they've taken my parents, what's going to happen to me?  I want to fight back, but what can a ten year old do against the government?  What can anyone do?

Moments later, someone walks into my bedroom.  I curl up in a ball as the covers are peeled away.

When I look up, an old man in a dark suit is standing over me, smiling warmly.  Behind him, officers rummage through my father's frayed notebooks, slipping them into evidence bags in the hall.

"Alenna Shawcross, you are now a ward of the United Northern Alliance," the old man says gently.  "Come with me, and our government will take care of you—despite the treasonous crimes of your parents."

I want to scream at him for taking my mom and dad away. Hit him in the face and then run.  But I'm so stunned that I do nothing.  I just sit there and stare back at him.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he says.  "In fact, I'll take you to your new home.  Orphanage Forty-One in New Providence, about an hour down the Intercoastal Megaway."

"Why can't I stay here?" I ask, biting back tears.

"You're too young to live on your own.  Besides, there are lots of other girls your age at the orphanage."  He smiles again.  "Hurry up and put some shoes on.  A car is waiting for us downstairs."

A few minutes later, he leads me out of the apartment and into the narrow halls of our building.  I've lived here, on the thirty-sixth floor of Tower G-7 in New Boston, for most of my life.  I know that our neighbors must have heard what happened, but all of their doors remain closed.

"Today is the start of your new life," the old man tells me.  He puts a comforting arm around my shoulders.  "You're safe now, Alenna."

I nod.  But I don't feel safe.

And I can't imagine ever feeling that way again.

 

 

 

 

1. THE UNITED NORTHERN ALLIANCE

 

{SIX YEARS LATER}

 

 

As our bus approaches the Harka Museum of Reeducation, I peer out the window at the soldiers standing out front in the sculpture gardens.  The sculptures are just broken remnants, long ago smashed under combat boots.  The flagpole flies our nation's flag, an eye hovering over a globe branded with the letters UNA, the abbreviation used by everyone for the United Northern Alliance.

The driver parks on a circular driveway in front of the museum's entrance, and I look up.  Marble columns sweep fifty feet toward a pediment that still bears old scars from rebel mortar attacks.

There's only one day left until I'm forced to take the Government Personality Profile Test—or GPPT for short—which is why our class is on this field trip.  The trip is meant to show us what happens to kids who fail the test.

A heavyset woman in a gray uniform stands up near the front of the bus as the door opens.  It's Ms. Baines, our Social Reconstruction teacher.  She ushers our class out of the vehicle and into the hot sun.  We stand on the asphalt, a diverse throng of kids.  Everyone, rich or poor, orphan or not, goes through the same public school system in the UNA.

"This way, class," Ms. Baines orders.  We follow her up a wide stone staircase, toward the massive front door of the museum that beckons like a hungry mouth.  Inside it's dark and cool.

The Harka Museum once held some of our state's greatest works of art.  Now, like most museums, it's a shrine to our government and its leader, Minister Roland Harka.  Instead of paintings, the walls display digital maps of the United Northern Alliance's global conquests.  Armies are rendered as colorful dots, and battles as pixilated cubes.

Being in this museum makes me think about our nation's complicated history.  At sixteen, I'm too young to remember what a real museum was even like.  I only remember reading about them, before most books and digital media were withdrawn from circulation.  That happened when I was eight, two years before my parents got taken, and just three years after the formation of the United Northern Alliance—a merger of Canada, the United States and Mexico into one vast, chaotic nation.

From what my mom and dad told me, the citizens of those countries weren't in favor of the alliance.  But food was scarce after a global economic meltdown, and people were turning to violent crime.  So the government leaders made the radical decision to create the UNA.

When angry citizens rebelled, military police used lethal force to stop the demonstrations.  The demonstrations turned into riots, and then into total anarchy as people turned against their own government.

Every week our building would shake as a car bomb detonated somewhere, and I'd often fall asleep at night listening to the crack of gunfire.  That was when Roland Harka, a charismatic four-star general, took office by force and appointed himself Prime Minster of the UNA.  For life.

After that, everything changed.  Minister Harka united the military by rewarding those who joined him with bribes, and imprisoning anyone who disobeyed.  He imposed savage penalties for breaking laws and snatched away the freedoms everyone took for granted.  All communication was restricted: no more cell phones, personal computers, or internet access.

Anything that could encourage subversion of the government, or simply draw a crowd—like religious gatherings—was outright banned.  Then the nation's borders were permanently closed.  According to Minister Harka, the entire country had to be united in isolation to achieve safety and prosperity.

He also mandated that all scientists immediately put their knowledge to use for the benefit of the government.  For Minister Harka, technological supremacy became the key to conquering the globe, amassing plundered resources from other nations, and maintaining order at home.

"Move it, Alenna!" Ms. Baines suddenly snaps, breaking my reverie and shooing me along a corridor.  I'm lagging behind my classmates.  We're heading toward a large display screen, thirty by fifty feet, hanging on a stone wall in the main gallery.  This screen is the centerpiece of every Harka Museum.  When I reach it, I jostle for position, looking up at the live digital feed.

There is a name for the place that we're watching—Prison Island Alpha—but nobody dares say it out loud for fear it might jinx them.  Some call it "The Land Across the Water" or "The Land Beyond."  To others, it is simply "The Forgotten Place."  I stare in fascination at the footage of stunted trees and verdant plains now flickering in front of me.

The kids who get sent to this island are the ones who fail the GPPT, a test that predicts a propensity for criminal activity years in advance.  It's administered to all high school students during the fall of their junior year, and can identify potential murderers, rapists, thieves, and psychopaths before they act on their impulses.  Because of this test, crime has virtually been eliminated in the U.N.A.

The test isn't something you can study for.  It's not even a test in the normal sense.  No one asks you any questions.  Instead, a serum gets injected into your veins, and then computers scan your brain, looking for abnormalities.

The kids who are found to have aberrant personalities—ones that will lead them towards a life of crime and violence—are labeled "Unanchored Souls" by the government and shipped to the desolate prison island.

I continue to stare at the digital window into this harsh world, waiting for something to happen.  On the grassy plain, between rows of crooked palm trees, stand the ruins of gigantic concrete buildings.  Behind them is a massive stone spiral staircase, leading up into gray clouds that hang above the landscape.

A balding museum docent steps forward, speaking into a microphone.  His reedy voice crackles to life in our government earpieces—the ones we have to wear each day from sunrise to sunset in our left ears.  Sometimes the earpieces play classical music—like Wagner and Bruckner—other times, recordings of patriotic speeches delivered by Minister Harka.

We can't control the earpieces, so I've learned to ignore mine.  But today I'm listening.  I want to hear what the docent has to say.

"When Prison Island Alpha was first populated, more than two thousand video cameras were placed inside.  We thought that the island would develop its own civilization—like penal colonies have in the past.  Most notably Australia in the eighteen-hundreds."  The docent pauses.  "Yet this never happened on Island Alpha.  Instead, the savages who call it home destroyed most of our cameras.  Only a few cameras remain, hidden in trees.  We now rely on satellite imagery as our primary—"

"Can't you drop more cameras in there?" a boy interrupts.

The docent shakes his head.  "The inmates use the raw materials for weapons."

"Doesn't the island get overcrowded?" another classmate asks.  It's Melissa O'Connor, a brunette with perfect hair and teeth, courtesy of her wealthy parents.

The docent looks over at her.  He has probably fielded a million random questions from students like us.  I wish I could come up with one he's never heard before, just to stump him.

"Overpopulation's not an issue," he explains, "because life expectancy on Island Alpha is only eighteen years of age."

The crowd burbles.

Eighteen.

I turn that number over in my mind.  I wonder what it would feel like to only have two more years to live.  My chest tightens.

I haven't done any of the things I want to do with my life yet.  I want to travel, but because of all the restrictions, I haven't left New Providence in years.  And I want to write music.  I've been playing guitar since my dad started teaching me when I was six, and the guitar was bigger than me, but I've never played in public, only at home.  And I haven't even gone out on a date with a boy yet, let alone kissed one.  For a sixteen-year-old, that's pretty pathetic.

I realize for the first time what being sent to the island really means—the total annihilation of hope.

I peer back up at the image on the screen.  I don't see a single person.  Just the desolate landscape, rotting under the sun.  I wonder if the inhabitants are hiding.

"Can the prisoners escape?" a nearby girl asks the docent, sounding worried.  "Build a boat and sail it back here?"

"Sometimes they try, but they always fail."

"What a bunch of losers," Melissa mutters.  Her friends titter, but not me.

I guess I just feel bad for any kid who gets sent to this place, even if I know they deserve it.  Maybe it's because of what happened to my parents.

They never even received a trial.  They just vanished.  My dad had been a philosophy professor, and my mom had been a genetic engineer.  At least before all the research facilities and universities were placed under government control.  My mom quit her job because she said the UNA just wanted to use her research to develop biological weapons.

I never found out exactly why both my parents got seized when they did, although I assume it was partly because of my mom's refusal to cooperate.  I was told their old jobs had just been covers anyway, and that they'd been plotting to form a terrorist cell and assassinate government leaders.

For a long time, I was certain this was a lie.  But these days, I'm no longer sure what to believe.  I loved my parents deeply, and I still hate the government for what they did to them.  But it's also true that the U.N.A. succeeded in restoring order.  There are no more bombs going off in busses, or people dying on the streets in rebel attacks.  Perhaps accepting the inconvenience of being controlled by the government is actually the price of safety, like Minister Harka says.

Sometimes I feel angry at my parents for doing whatever it was that got them taken.  They must have known I'd be stranded and sent to an orphanage if they got caught.  Why would they jeopardize our family like that if they truly loved me?

 I assume by now they're probably dead, because prison conditions are harsh in the UNA.  I often try to pretend that the first ten years of my life were a dream, and I was always an orphan.  It's easier that way.

I sneak a look at my classmates watching the screen.  For once, they look excited, probably hoping to see some onscreen violence.  Usually their faces are slack with boredom, their minds dulled from taking government-prescribed thought-pills.  The thought-pills are meant to increase concentration and help us do well in school, although they just seem to make most kids sleepy.  They've never had much effect on me.

In fact, I've always felt slightly different from most of my classmates.  This is partly because orphans with dissident parents aren't too popular, but also because the things other kids bond over—like military parades and government war movies—just don't interest me much.  And the things that I love, like music and books, don't seem to interest them.

"Oh my God!" Melissa yelps, startling everyone.

At the same instant, another girl shrieks, "Look!"

I stare up at the screen as a figure steps into view.

The instant I see his face, I gasp.  I expected to see a menacing juvenile delinquent.  Someone with a shaved head and blackened teeth with curved talons for fingernails.  Carrying a blood-spattered weapon.

Instead, I see a remarkably good-looking teenage boy staring defiantly into the camera lens.  No weapon, no blood, no talons.  His dark brown hair is disheveled, and his eyes are a magnetic shade of blue, set above high cheekbones.  He's lanky, but muscular.  Wearing beat-up jeans but no shirt, displaying his tanned, lithe torso.

The strangest thing of all is that the more I stare at the contours of his face, the more I feel like I know this boy from somewhere.  But of course that's impossible.  I instantly dismiss the feeling.  He's just a random Unanchored Soul fending for his life on a prison island, while I'm here on the mainland, on a school-sponsored field trip.

Still, I feel oddly drawn to him for some reason.  His blue eyes are piercing and intelligent.

"Ew, he looks so wild," Melissa spits.  "Like an animal."  Other kids instantly chime in with comments.

"I bet he hasn't bathed in a month!"

"Or a year!"

"He doesn't even own a shirt…"

Our earpieces begin playing classical music to calm us.

"Quiet!" Ms. Baines admonishes, but no one listens to her, least of all me.  I'm still mesmerized by the boy.

He's gesturing with his hands as his eyes remain locked on the camera.  At the same time, I see his lips start moving and I realize that he's talking.  He looks intense and focused, like he's trying to convey an important message.

I speak up, startling everyone including myself.  "Can you turn the volume up?"

The docent glances over at me.  "There's no audio.  We can't risk inmates trying to corrupt innocent minds with their madness."

"Yes, yes," Ms. Baines seconds, glowering at me for asking an innocent question.  "This boy's probably speaking in tongues."

"Someone should put him down like a rabid dog," a chunky kid named Jonas mutters.  He gets some murmurs of agreement.

"Stop it!" Ms. Baines snaps.  She glances over at the docent sheepishly, like our class is embarrassing her.  Then she turns back to us.  "The island will take care of Unanchored Souls like this boy."  Her voice rises in pitch.  "The island knows what to do with savage teenagers who don't fit in!"

Onscreen, the boy continues to talk and gesture fiercely.  His hands dash and twirl, drawing complex figures in the air.  I realize he's trying to use sign language to communicate his message, but I still can't understand.

It's then that another figure emerges from a cluster of trees behind the boy.

This second figure is huge and menacing—a good head taller than the first one—and he's wearing a long black robe.  I can't see his face clearly.

"Whoa, they're gonna fight!" Jonas and his friends begin yammering.  My heart starts beating faster.

"We can dim the screen," the docent says, no doubt trying to protect our tender eyes.  But Ms. Baines interrupts him.

"Don't.  It's important that they see this."

I watch as the dark figure edges closer, head down, slowly moving up behind his intended victim.  The blue-eyed boy is still looking at the camera, oblivious.

"I can't take it!" a girl cries.  But she keeps watching, and so do I, the breath stuck in my throat.  I'm surprised the boy hasn't heard anything yet, like the crackling of twigs underfoot.  But the dark figure is moving forward with methodical precision, like he's done this many times before.

Now he's twenty paces away from the boy.

Now fifteen.

Now ten.

Now five.

At the very last second, the boy's eyes widen, and he spins sideways.  Melissa and her friends scream.  The attacker lunges forward, his mouth twisted into a toothy snarl.  I now see that his face is painted blood red, with black lines rimming his eyes and lips.

The blue-eyed boy raises an arm, and surprisingly, I catch a flash of something sharp and silver hidden in his palm.  It looks like a knife.  Almost like he was expecting the attack, and just biding his time.

Then the image pops and slips into a dizzying array of electronic glitches.  Everyone gasps.  The screen cuts to black.

The docent looks truly alive for the first time.  My classmates start babbling:

"Dude, what happened?"

"We want to see!"

"Bring it back up!"

"We lose the satellite feed sometimes," the docent explains, entering a code on a touch-screen pad.  "Not often, but it happens."

Our class is getting noisier, and Ms. Baines shushes everyone.  Our earpieces are practically blasting classical music now.  A moment later the screen flares to life again.

But the blue-eyed boy and the dark figure are both gone.  It's just the trees, the grassy plain, the buildings, and that strange stone staircase, sitting there in a lifeless tableau.

Goose-bumps run up and down my arms.  The boy might be dead, unless he did indeed have a knife.  Around me everyone is speculating about what might have happened.

The boy definitely didn't look like he belonged on the island to me, but supposedly no one can tell from appearances.  An Unanchored Soul is invisible to the eye.  Antisocial tendencies cut across skin color, gender, looks, and everything else.  Which is why the GPPT is so important.

At least I have nothing to worry about, I think to myself.  Of the millions of kids who take the test every year, only one thousandth of one percent fail and get sent to the island.  And I've never done a single thing that suggests I'm a burgeoning psychopath.  In fact, I'm pretty much the opposite of an Unanchored Soul.  I get good grades, I keep my head down, and I look forward to the future.

While life as an orphan in the UNA might not be perfect, it could be a whole lot worse.  So I know that the GPPT will show I pose no threat to anyone—let alone society itself.

Our class moves on to make way for another.  Yet something about the blue-eyed boy on the video screen continues to linger in my mind and unsettle me just a tiny bit.  What was he trying to tell us so desperately?  And why did he look completely sane if he's supposed to be an Unanchored Soul?  For an instant, I wonder if it's possible he got sent there by some fluke accident.

Then I put the thought right out of my mind.  There'd have to be some kind of terrible mistake during the GPPT for such a thing to happen.  And that would be inconceivable, because Minister Harka's government—as it so often reminds us—never makes mistakes.

 

 

 

2. SCANNED

 

When the next morning arrives, I slouch downstairs and sit at the long breakfast table at the orphanage, next to Sandy and Claudette—two other girls my age.  I've lived with them for six years, but we're not as close as we could be.  We orphans tend to keep to ourselves, even as we live on top of one another.  All of us know how much it hurts to lose people you care about, and it's hard to risk forming close bonds again.

"Sleep well?" Sandy asks.  I nod.

Sandy always smells like cherry lip balm and spends most of her time pining over government-promoted teen idols.  Claudette is thin and studious with short black hair.  Like many of the girls here, both of them lost their parents in the ongoing wars with Europe and Asia.

"Ready for our big day?" Claudette asks me, arching an eyebrow.

"I guess.  You think anyone we know will fail?"

Claudette peers at me over her bowl of cereal.  "Well, they probably won't send any orphans to the island."

"Really?" Sandy asks.

Claudette looks at her like she's stupid.  "Think about it.  It'd be like the government admitting they screwed up if they sent one of us to The Forgotten Place.  That they couldn't fix our brains.  They've raised us since we were little.  What would it say about them and their orphanages if we turned out to be Unanchored Souls?"

"Good point," Sandy agrees.

After breakfast we line up with dozens of other juniors and head outside to board our bus.  The local testing arena isn't far.  Just a thirty minute drive down the Megaway, the twenty-lane highway that cuts across New Providence like a thick gray ribbon.  A decade ago, the arena used to hold football games.  But now it's been enclosed and subdivided into thousands of tiny cubicles, each one housing a scanning machine.

As we drive, I look out the window at all the U.N.A. billboards.  Most of them display images of Minister Harka's benevolent, smiling face.  With his dark hair, hypnotic eyes, and rugged good looks, he appears both attractive and paternal.  Even the large, diamond-shaped white scar on his left temple, sustained in battle, seems to enhance his appeal.  But he also seems curiously ageless.  Although I see new pictures of him everyday in the government media, he looks exactly like he did when I was eight.  Of course no one else seems to notice this, or if they do notice, they don't seem to care.

We eventually reach our destination and turn off the Megaway.  In the distance, the covered testing arena resembles the hub of a small city.  Doctors in white jackets lead teams of nurses into the gigantic domed structure, and mobs of kids cluster everywhere.

We drive down an access road and pull into the parking lot.  Miles of buses and cars sparkle under the sun, as automated shuttles transport people inside.  I hear a loud droning noise overhead, and I look out the window of the bus to see a military helicopter passing above us, flying low, its spider-like shadow falling across the crowd.

On the surface, everything seems disorganized.  But as I look closer, I see there's a network of guards, teachers, and social workers, guiding lines of kids along.

Our driver parks and we disembark.  Some kids look excited, while others look bored.  I just feel vaguely annoyed that I have to take a test I already know I'll pass.

I wonder how that blue-eyed boy felt on the day of his test, which probably wasn't even that long ago.  He must have suspected he was an Unanchored Soul, with malevolent, antisocial forces lurking inside his brain.  I realize that even though he seemed lucid onscreen, it was probably some kind of act.

I gaze around, taking in the sights before me.  I wonder how they even ship the few kids who fail the GPPT to the island.  Planes?  Helicopters?  Boats?  The whole system is shrouded in secrecy, but somehow it works.

We're led into one of the shuttles, which comes to a halt several minutes later at an entrance to the arena.  After we exit the shuttle, a guard takes us through a brick opening into a noisy atrium.  The sound of the teeming crowd echoes off the walls.

Sandy, Claudette and I are shuffled into a long line.  A government official walks down it, handing out paper cards with absurdly long numbers and barcodes printed on them.

Another official appears, barking orders through a megaphone: "Keep your GPPT scanning cards safe!  Do not bend them.  Do not tear them.  These are important government documents!  You will be led into a holding pen.  When you hear the nurse call your number, you will follow her into your assigned testing cell!"

The man keeps walking.  He repeats his speech all over again.  I realize he probably spends his whole day dispensing instructions.  A robot could do his job, and might even be nicer about it.

The line keeps moving relentlessly.  Warm bodies press against me, reeking of sweat and perfume.  Finally we reach a large octagonal waiting area decorated with framed photos of Minister Harka.  I realize this must be one of the holding pens.  I just stand there with Sandy and Claudette, getting jostled as more kids flood into the room.

But kids are exiting this room as well.  On the other side of the vast space are a series of openings.  They lead into narrow hallways lit with flickering fluorescent lights.

Every minute or so, a nurse appears from one of them and yells out a number.   I check my paper card each time.

Sandy's hair is lank and her face has gone pale.  "You'd think they'd have some soda-pop machines in here," she complains, twisting her fingers.

"You would think," Claudette mutters.  "But they don't."

I shift my weight from one foot to another.

"Number 014-562-388?" an unsmiling nurse finally cries, poking her head out of a long hallway to my right.

She starts repeating the digits, practically screaming them.  I glance down at my card and realize she's calling my number.  I double-check it quickly, like an eager government lotto winner, then blurt: "That's me!"

I wave goodbye to Sandy and Claudette, and make my way through the crowd toward the nurse.

She leads me past rows of closed doors until we reach an open room.  She takes my card, swipes it in an electronic reader, and gestures for me to go inside.  I do as she indicates.  She turns to leave, closing the door behind her.

Not sure what to do, I sit in the lone chair, smoothing down my pleated skirt.  The chair is bolted to the cement floor in the center of the tiny room.  I can still hear the noise of thousands of teenagers thrumming away in the holding pens outside, like I'm in an angry beehive.

I glance around my testing cell.  It's cold, lit by an overhead bulb, with nothing on the walls but peeling yellow paint.  It's like a cross between a dentist's office and a school bathroom.

A laptop computer and a large silver box with wires running out of it sit next to me on top of a storage cabinet.  Electrical cables and a strange metal halo hang from the ceiling above my head, just under the light.

I hear a knock at the door as it opens.  A tall man in a white lab coat appears.  "Alenna Shawcross?"

I'm surprised he's using my name instead of a number.  "That's me."

He nods.  "Just making sure I got the right girl."

As he walks into the room, I check out his government nametag.  Oddly, there isn't even a name on it, just a bunch of cryptic symbols.

The man stands next to me, tapping keys on the computer and fiddling with knobs on the silver box.  "I'll be your scanning tech today, Alenna.  Roll up a sleeve, if you don't mind."

"You've done this before, right?" I babble, knowing it's a stupid thing to ask.  But I can't stand getting shots or having blood taken.  It always makes me nervous.

"Ten thousand times, give or take a few hundred."  He smiles and slips an electrode belt around my chest.  I reluctantly roll up one sleeve of my blouse.  "Now take a deep breath and hold it."  He adjusts the belt.  "Now relax."

Relaxing is hard, but I try to ignore the medical aspects of the GPPT.  Then I notice that the tech already has a narrow syringe in his hand.  Where did that come from?

"You'll feel a small poke," he says, as he suddenly sticks the needle into the crook of my left elbow.

"Ouch!"

He depresses the plunger and shoots the scanning fluid into me, and then withdraws the needle with a grin.  "C'mon, that wasn't too bad, was it?"

As I rub my arm, he dims the light and starts lowering the metal halo from the ceiling.  Right away, I begin feeling drowsy, but soon the pleasant sleepiness morphs into woozy seasickness.

"I feel kinda weird," I manage to say through numbed lips.  "Hard to talk…"

"Oh, that's normal," the tech replies blithely.  He brings the metal halo down farther and places it around my head, gently pushing back my hair.

"I don't have to… do anything… right?" I ask, my speech slurred.  I'm afraid I'm going to faint.

"Naw, the machine does all the work."  He adjusts the halo, tightening the cold metal around my skull.  "You can even fall asleep if you want.  Most kids do, once the serum takes hold."

"How long… does the test take?"

"Depends on the person."  He leans over and extracts an object from the top drawer of the cabinet.  It looks like a candy bar.  He unwraps it and hands it to me.  It's made of green plastic, with the texture of spongy foam.

"Put that between your teeth," he instructs.  "It helps calibrate the data."

Groggy and unquestioning, I do what he says.

"What happens afterwards?" I ask, forcing the muffled words out around the plastic.  "Do I just go home?"

"So many questions," the tech chuckles.  "You need to stop talking and start relaxing."

The plastic makes it difficult to talk anyway, so I lean back in the chair.  The tech taps a few keystrokes into the computer.  I shut my eyes.

But in the final moments before the injection puts me under, I hear something unexpected—other voices inside the tiny room.  I realize the door to my testing cell has been opened again, and that people are stepping inside.

I don't understand why they're here.  I'm probably just imagining things.  My eyelids are too heavy to lift now, and the metal halo has me immobilized.  I sense that the voices are talking about me.  Is this normal?  They grow fainter, and I realize that I'm about to sink into a drugged slumber.

Then, out of nowhere, an image explodes across my vision in the instant before the blackness claims me:

It's the blue-eyed boy from the island.

Beckoning me.  Calling my name.

And behind him is that mammoth spiral staircase, baking under the tropical sun.

I try to ask the boy who he is, and what he wants.  I try to reach out and grab his hand.  But he dissolves into a million shimmering particles, like cosmic dust.

Then waves of silky blackness well up from all sides, and I succumb to the darkness.

The Forsaken
by by Lisa M. Stasse