Twelve of us stand in the large, bare room at the school, and wait impatiently for Vala.
Some distract themselves with practice, while others just talk.
Vala is fifteen minutes late, unthinkable on a test day.
She is Gen.
So different from us, we who are tied to our small, fragile bodies.
Still, she knows that emotions run wild today.
The tests twist our hearts and thoughts.
They stand between us, and our dreams of becoming Gen.
We prepare for test day the whole week, every week.
We sit in class and listen, practice our exercises, and watch our skills grow.
Inside, we still doubt ourselves, and wonder if anything we do will help us pass.
Each test is a mystery, with secrets that only Gen eyes can see.
Alone, you enter a small empty room and seal the door.
The Gen master appears, and there is silence.
Stand quietly before her, and wait while she looks within you.
If you speak, you fail, no matter what she sees.
We are quiet, while she seeks the unseen.
The test lasts a few seconds or a few minutes.
Then the master disappears, and the door opens.
Outside the doorway, she waits to tell you your fate.
She claims she touches us with energy, and watches our energy body respond.
We of flesh, feel and see nothing.
Vala says that the test measures our energy as it grows and changes, deep inside us.
We are blind men, with light all around us.
Only the Gen see and understand.
The Gen are beings of pure energy, who change bodies as easily as we change clothes.
We who walk this world, tell ourselves that we die forever, and pretend that we are only flesh.
This is a lie.
Deep within us are rivers of energy.
We think that matter and flesh are real, but the Gen see past the hard shells of this world to the energy beyond.
The Gen say that all beings of flesh live at one of thirteen levels of energy.
As students progress from level to level, they learn and practice more difficult skills.
This we understand, but levels are a mystery.
Look at two students newly promoted to the same level, and you’ll often find nothing in common between them.
One student stumbles through his exercises, while his classmate performs the exercises perfectly.
Students in the first five levels study the Gen ways in group classes.
Each class holds students of a single level.
Ten to twenty students learn and practice together, with one Gen teacher.
Once a week, you’re tested to see how much your energy has changed.
If your energy reaches the next level, you go home, and wait to be called back for the next level class.
If your progress falls short, you stay in your class.
Disappointing, but not tragic.
Here’s the problem.
You only have ten weeks and ten chances to move to the next level.
Students give all their strength to the training, and the best students usually fail.
We can’t understand it, and that’s what we’re all afraid of.
I’ve been in this class for three weeks so far.
Most of the students have been here longer, and today is the the tenth test for some of them, their last chance to qualify.
If they fail today, they will leave the school, and they will never be Gen.
My cousin Ayka was in the class until last week when she failed for the last time.
Will I fail?
I think of the whisheeku on my palm.
It glows and aches on test days.
I feel that it will not let me fail, but where will it take me?
When Vala finally arrives, she’s angry.
“Practice!” she says to the rest of the class, and takes me out of the room.
“What’s wrong, master?”
“Vala,” she says, loudly and sharply, as she glares at me.
Yesterday, she told me to stop calling her master, without explanation.
“The Gen council is unhappy with the way that I’m training you.”
“I’ve ignored their rules countless times across the cycles, and they won’t tolerate it any more.”
“I don’t understand.”
“First level students attend class for ten weeks, before their energy levels are tested.”
“But I tested you the first day I met you, and I placed you in second level without consulting the council.”
“You think that the Gen are free, Neebol?”
“On this world, we answer to the council.”
“Teachers are the least independent of all.”
“We are told what to teach, and how to test our students.”
“Teachers are required to keep a mental link with council assistants during a test.”
“I’ve ignored that rule every time that I’ve tested you.”
“I don’t trust them, Neebol.”
“It’s better if they don’t know how powerful you are.”
“What will they do to you?”
“Nothing yet, but today they gave me my last formal warning.”
“The next time I ignore the rules, they will punish me, maybe exile me.”
“I don’t try to break their rules, but some are so stupid that I just can’t follow them.”
She seems about to say something, then stops.
“Tell me, Vala.”
I hear her voice in my head.
“You must never speak of what I’ll tell you.”
“The test is a lie.”
“The council decides who passes and who fails.”
“Most of the students pass the test in ten weeks, including your cousin Ayka.”
“Only a few truly fail.”
“I like Ayka,” she continues.
“I tried to convince the council to pass her, but they refused.”
“She has too much talent.”
“After two weeks in the class, her energy progressed to third level.”
“She passed after two weeks, and they rejected her?”
“They fail those with the most talent, because the talented ones are the hardest to control.”
“It’s an imperfect solution to a real problem.”
“Gen shouldn’t live here among you.”
“Their power can easily destroy the planet or enslave it.”
“Long ago, the council was formed to keep the Gen from abusing their strength.”
“The people who become Gen are no better or worse, no wiser than anyone else.”
“They’re ordinary, foolish, and hungry for power.”
“That’s why the council fails students with talent and ambition, and passes students who are easily led and controlled.”
“Every newborn Gen is watched, so that one question can be answered.”
“Is the new Gen dangerous?”
“Does she control herself?”
“If not, can she be trained and controlled?”
“Those who can’t be controlled are exiled.”
“The council keeps the number of new Gen small, so each one can be watched.”
“There’s another reason why the council fails most of the students.”
“People must think that it’s hard to become Gen.”
“If your young knew it was easy, they would thirst for Gen power, and focus on nothing else.”
“They would abandon their lives of flesh.”
“Who would work, or bond together to raise a family?”
“The world would fall into chaos, and your cities would crumble.”
“Are there so many of us, Vala, with the potential to become Gen?”
“More than half the population.”
“Yes, but they will never know it.”
“The council only frees a few of you from your flesh, and lets you fly among the stars.”
I feel sick, and the whisheeku is so hot that it burns.
I pull off the glove.
“Does the council know of the whisheeku, Vala?”
“No, Neebol, but I was foolish to let you skip the first class.”
“The council heard, and now they know that you have talent.”
“When they asked about you, I told them that you tested to level two.”
“They ordered me to fail you again and again until the class is done, and never let you reach level three.”
“What can I do Vala?”
“Calm down, Neebol.”
“I convinced the council that you must become Gen.”
“I told them about your vision of the towers.”
“The towers are an ancient Gen mystery.”
“You frighten the council, Neebol.”
“Only the most powerful Gen see a vision of the towers, and you are only a student!”
“Some of the council think you should be killed before you get any stronger.”
“Fortunately for you, most of the council has a hunger for power greater than their fear.”
“They want to understand the towers, and take control of the power hidden there.”
“I promised them that you and I will journey to the towers, once you are Gen.”
“Do you know how to get there, Vala?”
“Not yet, but I believe that together we will be strong enough to find the path.”
“I won’t help the council become more powerful!”
“Once we reach the towers, I won’t return.”
“I don’t want to help them either, but we have to tell the council what they want to hear.”
“Lie to them.”
“Give them false promises of help.”
“I’ll teach you how to twist your thoughts and feelings, so the council can’t read the truth within you.”
“How long will it take, Vala, before I become Gen?”
“It’s hard to predict, Neebol.”
“Ten or twenty cycles.”
“That seems like forever at your age, but I’ll guide you through it all.”
“Will I pass today, Vala?”
“Your energy has been shining at third level since I first gave you the esku.”
“I had to hide your progress until now.”
“In a few minutes, I’ll call you in for the test.”
“I’ll let the council listen in, and see your true level.”
“We’ll see if they let you move to the next class.”
“When will you let me watch a tournament?”
“Not yet,” she answers.
“The tournament would kill you.”
“The whisheeku makes you too sensitive to energy.”
“The stadium is saturated with Gen energy during a tournament.”
“An hour within that energy storm would make you glow like a sun.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You’re already racing through the energy levels, Neebol.”
“Your energy body isn’t ready for so much power.”
“Will I ever see a tournament?”
“When you’re stronger, Neebol.”
“We’ll discuss it again in another cycle.”
“You’ll never let me go, Vala, even a cycle from now.”
“There are too many Gen at the tournament.”
“One of them will scan my energy and see the black star.”
“It’s a big risk,” she agrees, “but the council expects to see you at the tournament.”
“They’re patient, but I can’t put them off forever.”
“You have to get faster and stronger before we can risk it.”
“When we do finally go, you’ll sit with me, and I’ll cloak the energy mark.”
“Still, if something goes wrong, you need be be fast to defend yourself, long enough to escape.”
I feel sick when I go back inside the class, and think of the council’s deceit.
They treat us like toys.
“Is master Vala coming?” the students ask.
“Soon,” I answer roughly.
An older woman approaches me.
“Will you join us at the next tournament, Neebol?”
I’m the only one in my class who hasn’t entered the stadium.
“Why won’t she let you go?”
I hate to lie, but I have no choice.
“I don’t know, but I think she hates me.”
“Some of the Gen are cruel to us, but not Master Vala.”
“Did you do something to offend her?”
“No,” I tell her, avoiding her eyes.
Vala enters the room, and leads us all to the testing room.
She looks strange as she tests me, but she promotes me into the third level class.
There’s always a wait between classes, but this one will be short, only three months.
Three of the students fail their tenth test.
I feel their pain and confusion.
All three are skilled, and the council crushes their future.
I hug the students, and then watch as they quietly leave the school.
Then I look at Vala, angry at her calm.
Did the students really pass?
Vala’s face tells me nothing.
I don’t ask her.
I know the truth, but I want to pretend that I don’t know.