Planet Mahemahe, in the Syro Galaxy. A small town by the sea…
The elevator doors opened onto a long, empty corridor. The solid blue walls were interrupted every few metres by closed office doors, pot plants, a few paintings of dubious quality.
Q’razab Nassai stepped out into the hall – to the right was another closed door, but on her left was a reception area behind two glass doors. The silver heraldry for the Navy had been printed on top of the glass, the winged shield beckoning her forward with its particular siren song.
In the silence, the padding of her shoes on the carpet was conspicuous, as was the clink of her bag as she banged it unintentionally on the glass door as she pushed it open.
The reception was empty. A large counter partitioned off over half the room, which was bordered by a dozen hard-backed chairs. Q’razab was already nervous, but she swallowed it down and strode up to the unmanned counter, ringing the bell. Immediately, an older female popped out from behind one of the cubicles. She had a kind, round face, the faded white markings around her eyes a shade or two away from the pale cerulean of her skin.
“Uh, hi there,” Q’razab greeted her with an awkward grin. “I’m, uh, here about the Navy test?”
The receptionist handed out a clipboard with a pen dangling from it by a frayed cord. “The invigilators aren’t here yet, but you can fill out this form and hand it to them when you go in for the test. Do you have all your documentation?”
Birth certificate, photographs, preliminary medical exam. Q’razab gestured to her bag. “I think I’ve got it all.”
“Excellent!” The receptionist said. “Take a seat and we’ll be with you shortly.”
Q’razab turned and startled to see another person in the room, a boy about her age with a sullen expression on his face. She gave him a friendly look which was not reciprocated. He merely continued looking at her, unimpressed, from his slouching position on one of the chairs in the corner.
Q’razab shrugged it off and took a seat directly opposite from the boy, filling out her form in silence.
Her friends had all left to pursue higher tiers of academia in cities far away. Q’razab worked in a bakery, failing entrance exam after entrance exam to this academy or that. Not this time, though. She’d actually studied for this one. The military hadn’t been her first choice; it hadn’t even crossed her mind until recently. Nevertheless, Q’razab felt certain that today could be the day. The day when the concept of a life purpose ceased to be nebulous and became something real, something meaningful.
A few more people had arrived by now, youths around her age, but better dressed, better looking, and Q’razab adjusted her clothes self-consciously. Perhaps she could stand to lose a little bit of weight, but on the other hand, wasn’t that something basic training would fix? It pleased her to imagine what she might be like after the training. The experience would be transformative, of course, and Q’razab would thus become a hundred times smarter, cooler and better-looking, constantly surrounded by adoring friends.
Q’razab didn’t think she was bad-looking, per se, but she didn’t think she was anything special, either. She was of average height, for an Irjizi. Her face was nominally attractive in spite of its flaws and proportional deviancies, although it was spared the indignity of plainness by virtue of her eyes. A warm hazel in color, they were large and luminous in the powder white eye spots of her face. They were her one vanity; she liked looking into them in the mirror.
“Have we got all the people here?” A voice called out, breaking Q’razab out of her thoughts. Two tall officers, both uniformed, male and female, were standing by the counter, looking at a clipboard. The taller of the two peered out into the room, counting under her breath. “Fifteen on the list, only twelve here. I think we should press on without them, don’t you?”
“Agreed,” Her compatriot said. He was about as old as the receptionist and still had the vestiges of good looks in his features. “Would you all like to come around and follow me to the examination room, please? And do remember your forms and documentation.”
Q’razab got to her feet, unconsciously taking a place in line at the very back, just behind a vulpine-looking girl with expensive looking bracelets jangling around her slim wrists.
The examination room, for all that Q’razab had built it up in her mind, resembled nothing so much as a classroom: rows of desks faced a chalkboard and a few propaganda posters were pasted up on the walls. Q’razab took a seat in what she judged to be the healthy middle of the room, placing her bag underneath her seat and tucking it behind the heels of her feet. Around her were the squeaks of the others settling into place, dragging their chairs around.
Q’razab caught the eye of the girl who stood in front of her and gave her best effort at a winningly friendly expression. The other girl’s eyes slid away from her, indifferent.
“Well, then, I’m Officer Lani and this is Officer Kotima,” The older officer beamed at them, bouncing on his polished boots at the front of the class. “What we’re going to be assessing at this stage is your academic aptitude – arithmetic, language skills and logic skills. I’ve been assessing these tests for quite a few years now since I joined the Reserves and I can tell you that it’s not tremendously difficult at all.” There were a few relieved sighs from around the room.
Officer Kotima blinked beatifically. “Still, we do wish to remind you all that much of this material that we are assessing you on is material that you would have encountered in your last year of compulsory education. If you do have difficulty on this test, I’d recommend studying up on that and then coming back in six months to repeat the exam. During the test, there shall be no talking, no looking at other people’s papers, no cheating – that sort of thing. We’re all adults here, so let’s act like it.”
The two officers began walking through the rows, handing out test sheets and pens.
“The test will run for twenty minutes – in that time, you may not be able to get all of the questions correct. That’s okay. It’s more important that you get as many correct as possible rather than rushing through. If you do have questions about a question, you may raise your hand and we will re-word it for you,” Lani said, slipping Q’razab her test sheet on his way past.
Q’razab looked at the exam on the desk. The paper was a pale pink, rough to the touch, so obviously recycled. It was stapled neatly in the corner and emblazoned with words to the effect that it was for testing and administrative purposes only.
“Can we do working out on the paper?” The sullen boy asked Officer Kotima. “Like, as in, working out equations and stuff?”
“You can,” She replied, “On the back of the sheet is an area for your calculations. Please do so there, don’t scribble over the sheet itself. Not even in the margins.”
Q’razab was beginning to feel vaguely ill. She hated tests. She hated feeling like a fool. The memory of her driving test was a permanent hot itch up her back – how she’d instantly had a panic attack the moment the instructor had entered the vehicle, the way she’d veered off the town’s single road and into a thicket of flowering bushes, and the way her apologetic entreaties were met with utter disdain.
This time, she was not going to fail.
She would conquer.
She would meet her destiny.
The invigilators rang the bell, Q’razab began and felt a lightening of the spirit. Language skills first, an easy section since Q’razab was pretty good at reading and writing. She wasn’t one of those literary-types who agonised over whether ‘snuck’ was a word, but she understood how to communicate and liked it well enough.
It took her no time at all to demolish all six of the language questions on the first two pages, and she flipped her sheet over, feeling a little more confident.
The feeling didn’t last.
Her old enemy, re-appearing at last.
Q’razab unconsciously started chewing on the flesh inside of her mouth. Printed on the pink paper were two parabolas, sitting atop a numbered grid, and beneath them, a question to which Q’razab knew she had no answer.
She stared at the page, her heart beginning to pound. ‘But I’ve studied for this…’ Q’razab thought to herself weakly, staring at the Pythagorian nightmare which was still mocking her. ‘Not enough,’ Another thought came to her, in a grim voice, already resigned to its fate.
Beads of sweat trickled down the back of her neck. The numbers on the page left their rightful places and began to swirl around the paper, bouncing around as if they were marbles in a bag.
She moved on to another question. Long multiplication – she gave it her best effort. She hoped no one saw her staring hopelessly at the scrap of working out paper, the way her four fingers danced as she counted them and counted over them. 698 seemed right. Right?
Next question. Long division. Now, that was a special day. She remembered it because on the day that concept had been covered in class, she’d taken a shortcut home and found a note of money on the pavement. As for the lesson herself – she’d not understood it then, and apparently she didn’t understand it now, because the logical part of her brain, the part that was supposed to handle sums and equations and all of that stuff, had become very quiet.
Q’razab skipped that question And she skipped the next question, and the next. Feeling a familiar despondent feeling rise up in her stomach, Q’razab moved onto the last section, logic. This wasn’t as bad as the maths, but it was still pretty bad. ‘If Farmer Afi has 24 hapa birds, and his wife buys two dozen parrots, how many wings are there in the barn?’
By the time the Invigilators had rung the bell and called for pens and paper to be put aside, Q’razab already felt a familiar sting behind her eyes and a swooping feeling in her gut. She looked around her – no one seemed to look the way she felt at all. The sullen boy turned in his seat to address the girl with the jangling bracelets (with far more courtesy than he had extended to Q’razab). “That was really easy, don’t you think?”
“Totally,” She chirped back. “I thought it was going to be like an Academy entrance exam, but it was just kid stuff, right?”
Q’razab buried her face in her hands, only taking them away when they adjourned back into the reception area. This time, she didn’t bother trying to catch anyone’s eye. She sat in her chair with her bag on her lap, running her finger around the faded silver button on the catch. When the invigilators called her name, she walked into the assessment office with dejected steps.
“So, you are…Q’razob?” Officer Kotima asked kindly.
“Q’razab,” Q’razab correctly as politely as she could. “My handwriting isn’t that great, sorry.”
Lani took a seat beside Kotima, shutting the door behind him. “It says here you are 24 years old?”
“That’s right,” Q’razab said with as much confidence as she could muster, sinking heavily into the chair opposite the two officers.
“The cut-off age for service is 25, so you could always re-apply in another six months,” Kotima said placatingly. “It’s never too late to do better.”
Ah, there it was. Q’razab willed her cheeks not to flush purple as a wave of shame rushed over her.
“You see, Q’razab, your language skills are acceptable but I’m afraid your maths score is very well below the line,” Lani said, gesturing ineffectually with his pen at an invisible graph. “That’s okay, though, like Kotima said, you can just study up and re-apply in six months.”
“Your also just missed out on clearing the logic section,” Kotima chimed in. “Such a shame! It was this question here, about the Farmer and his birds? You wrote that there are 96 wings in the barn, but, you know, people don’t really keep birds in barns, so the answer is 0.”
“Right,” Q’razab said, her face flushing in humiliation. They were both being too nice, which oddly made her shame even more unbearable. “I thought I’d gotten a few wrong there,” She laughed self-deprecatingly, falsely. “I guess I’ve been out of school too long, right?”
“Of course,” Lani and Kotima said in unison, nodding their heads furiously. “That’ll be what it is. Why, the next time you come in here you’ll ace it for sure.”
“I bet I will,” Q’razab said cheerfully, falsely, standing up to give a brief bow. “I’ll see you both in six months, then.”
“Nice to meet you, Q’razob!” Kotima called out as Q’razab left the room, and Q’razab cringed to hear her name’s mispronunciation. Not for the first time, she wished that her parents had given her something more common. She kept walking, eyes straight ahead, ignoring the stares of the others still waiting in the reception area.
Perhaps they might read in her confident stride a certain sense of victory, a palpable aura of triumph. She strode down the hall, stumbled into the elevator. When she left the Naval building, the sunlight was blinding and boiling and at odds with her mood. Ducking into the shadows behind a tree, Q’razab sank down next to the trunk and cried.
Q’razab worked at a small bakery at the very end of the main street of town. Her job was mostly just to be the front-of-house for the two kindly old people who did the actual cooking, although from time to time she had been permitted to help out with the machines. It wasn’t a bad job, really. She got free food and the pay was enough to enable her to rent a small room in one of the hostels a short walk away.
On this particular occasion, her bosses had allowed her to take the morning off so that she could attend to what they had been told was a physician’s visit. Q’razab had not informed anyone that she was taking any test, for fear of having to admit failure.
The bakery itself was squashed between a small stationery shop and a post office. Q’razab’s hometown was small, but tidy and friendly, and the same went for its stores, vendors and merchants. The bakery’s door was open, and when Q’razab walked through the brightly-coloured plastic strip curtains she was greeted with the combined scents of cookies, cakes, cream and pies.
Behind the glass counter and its arrayed goods, a dusty old television was buzzing quietly in the backroom on a wooden table. The bakery’s two owners, Moana and Tepele, and their apprentice Sola, were crowding around it in rapt attention.
“Hey, guys,” Q’razab said with a cheer she didn’t feel, her shoes squeaking on the linoleum as she moved around the counter.
“What are you watching?” Q’razab asked curiously when they didn’t respond, placing her backpack on one of the hooks and placing her apron over her head.
“Something about the Rit-Phyr,” Sola said absently, wiping his floury hands off on a dish-towel, eyes still on the television. “Apparently they’ve got a new Ambassador. Maybe she’ll come here for a visit? They’re saying she used to be some big-time solider before she was re-assigned.”
Q’razab peered at the TV set. “Really? But they always say that they’re sending emissaries, and then they never do.”
“Who knows, with these aliens,” Sola muttered, stepping back into the kitchens. “Thinking about how big the Universe really is, and how small we are in comparison…It gives me the creeps.”
The Irjizi, Q’razab’s people, were now a client race of the Rit-Phyr. There hadn’t been much of a discussion on the subject.
One day, a spaceship had set down in the capital and an intimidating cohort of aliens , calling themselves the Rit-Phyr, had claimed the planet ‘under their protection’. The aliens lived in the same galaxy, or so they said, although the Rit-Phyr had claimed to have conquered most of it already. That had been news to the Irjizi, as had the revelation that the Rit-Phyr had been quietly observing the Irjizi for almost two centuries. Twenty-eight years ago, the Irjizi built their first rocket, which was used to send a small satellite into Mahemahe’s orbit. Shortly afterwards, the Rit-Phyr had initiated radio contact and the rest was history.
Q’razab thought the Rit-Phyr were glamorous and cool, but she’d never seen any in person, only the photographs everybody saw in school and on TV, of the Rit-Phyr envoys meeting the various world leaders over two decades ago. The mysterious aliens hadn’t set foot on the planet since, apparently uninterested in the affairs of the Irjizi, and Q’razab wasn’t surprised. She had never been to outer space, and probably never would, but she was pretty sure Mahemahe had to be the most boring planet in the whole universe, where nothing. Ever. Happened.
Q’razab usually loved hearing all about the Rit-Phyr, and all the other aliens. Other times it just depressed her, knowing that while she was stuck on Planet Mahemahe for the rest of her life, eking out a mediocre existence, amazing things were happening to extraordinary people in exotic places.
Sighing to herself, Q’razab picked up a small dishcloth, wetted it, and began to wipe down the counter in lieu of anything else to do. The rush at this job usually happened in the morning and in the afternoon when children were leaving school and had enough spare change for a sugar bun.
The hours ticked by, their passing marked by Q’razab cleaning the floor, re-stocking the egg puffs and fussing with the blackboard advertising the bakery specials. She occupied herself with the minutiae of the store, ill at ease. She’d failed the Navy entrance exam. Now what? Sure, she could do what the two officials had suggested and study up for the next one, but what if she failed then, too?
In her mind, the future stretched on ahead of her like an endless field and Q’razab had no idea how to fill it or traverse it. It was purposelessness, pure and simple, and it burned her up inside, but she was too proud to show it. Not to her friends who hardly ever wrote anymore. Not to the townspeople who would not have understood. And not to her parents who were worried and disappointed enough without having to deal with their only child’s sense of increasing ennui.
“Excuse me, are you listening to me?” A sharp voice broke Q’razab out of her reverie, and she blinked up stupidly into the frustrated face of an older female, who was jiggling a small child on her hip.
“I-I’m sorry,” Q’razab said, smoothing down the front of her apron with her hands and straightening up. “What can I get you?”
“Yellowseed bread, sliced, and twelve butter rolls,” The customer said curtly, as the toddler in her arms gurgled and stared at Q’razab with large, milky blue eyes.
“Coming right up,” Q’razab assured her, pulling out a large paper bag and tongs, and going over to place the rolls inside.
“Not like that,” The mother rebuked her coldly. “Put them in separate bags, and then put those bags into a bigger one!”
Q’razab didn’t see the point of that, but, flushing purple, she apologised and rectified the mistake, doing as the customer asked. She then moved on to fetching the yellowseed bread, the only difficulty was that Q’razab had forgotten which one it was. She stood in front of the bread shelves, scanning the loaves and trying to quieten her agitated mind.
“Oh, for Goddess’ sakes!” The customer huffed behind her. “That one, on the right, at the bottom!”
“Sorry,” Q’razab breathed, fetching the loaf and bagging it up, placing it back on the counter in relief. The customer stared at her.
“Are you dumb? I said I wanted it sliced.”
“Oh, right,” Q’razab said apologetically, removing the bread and holding it within her gloved fingers. She had been trained to use the bread slicing machine, but truth be told she had always been a little scared of the machine, afraid to saw off her fingers. She craned her head over to look in the back, thinking to ask Sola for help, but Sola and the others were gone. Perhaps they had gone on break. Q’razab hadn’t noticed.
Behind her was an impatient, angry groan, so Q’razab quickly lay the bread on top of the machine and turned it on, cringing at its roaring sound and gingerly putting the loaf through. A bead of sweat trickled down the back of her neck, but eventually the loaf was more or less evenly sectioned up, and sans any guillotining of digits.
Q’razab carefully gathered up the pieces and placed them in a cardboard box, taping down the lid and putting it in another bag besides the one holding the butter rolls.
The customer banged some coins out on the counter, and Q’razab counted them up slowly, mentally working out how much change was needed.
“What’s wrong with you?” The lady snapped. “I need back one note. Obviously.”
Q’razab looked up at her.
Her eyes narrowed.
Her nostrils flared.
“Well, excuse me, your highness, I didn’t realise you had somewhere you needed to be, besides back at home growing sea-grapes like practically everyone else in this stupid town! Oh, gee, I wouldn’t want to get in the way of your important business of watching fruit ripen! What’s gonna happen if the grapes are ready to be picked, but no one’s there to do it? It’ll be chaos! The world will end! ” She shouted, and the customer gaped at her, wide eyed.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Q’razab ranted breathlessly. “And you know what else? I’m not a slave. Okay, yeah, I work at a bakery, that doesn’t mean you have the right to talk to me like I’m not even dirt. Haven’t you ever had a bad day before? Who the hell taught you that it’s okay to be rude to service people? Life is hard; it doesn’t cost you anything to have a little bit of compassion.”
Q’razab threw the change in the customer’s face. “Now, get the hell out of my store before I throw you out. Don’t come back until you’ve learned some manners!”
Q’razab watched the lady stumble backwards in fright, dragging her small child by the hand, and scramble out of the store with her bags.
“Hello!” The customer shouted at Q’razab’s face, waving a hand in front of it, and Q’razab was abruptly broken out of her fantasy. “My change!”
Q’razab blinked, blushed, and silently, pathetically, slid over the single bill.
“Sorry about that,” She apologised. “I drifted off for a moment.”
“Idiot,” The customer muttered to herself as she finally (mercifully) exited the store, leaving Q’razab alone, feeling almost as much of a loser than she had that morning. Of course – not only was she not good enough for military service, she also was a total wimp with about as much spine as a tepid jellyfish.
After closing up the shop, and bidding farewell to her colleagues, Q’razab strolled the darkened streets of Avatele, her hometown. The darkening pink and orange sky gave the empty roads and wide fields a peaceful atmosphere, which soothed Q’razab’s simmering anxiety. She still felt a little sad, but the despair of the morning had faded into a general unease. The wind had been taken from her sails, and there was nothing more to do than idle in the harbour of unhappiness until something pushed her out of it.
She walked on, past closed up storefronts and vacant parks. A few children were still playing outside their houses as Q’razab approached, and then were called back inside for dinner. Q’razab waved at a few of the little ones who recognised her and said hello as she passed.
As was her preference, Q’razab skipped the walk through the woods to the run-down hostel she called home these days (of which she was the only tenant) and detoured to the east where the Manava Diner sat alone on the end of a quiet street.
It was a rail-car style building with an upswept, colourful roof and a buzzing neon sign. Inside, the flamboyant architectural style continued, with a red-and-white tiled floor and plush booths. There were only a few other occupants aside from herself. Old Moamoa, who was consuming a steaming mug of tea and reading the newspaper, a teenaged couple whispering together in a booth at the back, and the owner and proprietor Keo.
Keo was as jovial as he was voluminous, and as Q’razab came through the door, he looked up from where he was wiping down the counter and gave her a very toothy grin.
“Hey, kiddo, there you are! So, how did your exam go?”
By way of response, Q’razab slumped into her regular booth (the one with the ripped seat and blue stain on the table), and buried her face in her hands dejectedly.
Keo winced in sympathy. “Ooh, that bad?”
“I’m a loser,” Q’razab said from behind the hands still pressed against her face.
“You are not a loser,” Keo said firmly. “Look, I’ve got something that will cheer you up.”
“I hope it’s edible,” came the muffled response.
Keo inclined his head, reaching under the counter to produce a brown paper bag. As Q’razab’s hostel was located at the end of an otherwise deserted woodland path, and had no actual mailbox, she had found it was far easier to redirect her magazine subscriptions to Keo’s diner. As she and Keo were on very friendly terms, he had no problem hanging onto her packages, as long as Q’razab made sure to visit upon the diner her patronage.
“Look, Q’razab, a package for you,” Keo said coaxingly, and at last Q’razab sat up straight, her mood brightening a touch.
“Thanks,” Q’razab said gratefully, opening the package and sliding out her magazine, ‘Tales from the Beyond, Issue 33‘.
“Why do you spend your money on that? If I were you, I’d be saving up to move to the capital,” Keo tutted as Q’razab settled further into her booth.
“Move to the capital to do what?” Q’razab shrugged. “I have no skills. I’d end up living under a bridge. Besides, this magazine is one of the few pleasures I have these days – aside from your cooking that is.”
Keo shook his head. “It’s not right for a young kid to be moping about by herself all the time. I reckon you ought to leave this town and head somewhere new. Heck, I’ll buy you a bus ticket!”
Q’razab brushed off his concern. “I’m fine! I’m really fine.”
Keo came over and deposited a plate of something sweet and hot in front of her with a sigh. “You need to stop dreaming and start living, kid.”
“And you need to stop worrying so much.”
“Your parents asked me to look out for you, and I wouldn’t be a very good friend of your Pa if I didn’t do that.”
Q’razab hummed non-committally, jabbing her spoon into her meal and bringing the jumbled, custard-like mess into her mouth.
On the radio, the announcer was talking about the new Rit-Phyr ambassador again, and Keo jabbed at the device with his wooden spoon.
“You hear that? If that Ambassador really does come down here, then you should go and work for her on her ship. See the galaxy and come back and tell us what it’s like out there in space.”
Q’razab laughed between a mouthful of fruit. “Yeah, I’ll just go up and hand her my résumé .”
“Heck, I’d hand her my résumé. I’d go to space if I could. I wonder what it’s like up there on the moons?” Keo asked rhetorically, heading into the kitchen.
“I’ll bet it’s wonderful,” Q’razab murmured to herself, thumbing her magazine open and beginning to read.