My eyes opened, struggling to adjust in the dark. Judging by the sounds outside, it must have been about three o'clock in the morning. Around that time of night, the noises shifted from screeching cars, usually involved in police chases, to the occasional footstep and soft voice. The never-ending rhythm gradually slid from an aggressive, pounding beat to a weary calm. I guess even the city that never sleeps has to get tired sometimes. And after hours of pacing, worrying, and listening, I fit right in.
Something seemed wrong that night. I searched the jungle of sounds for the most familiar: my sister's breathing. When I couldn't find it, I jolted upright in bed, anxiety pulsing through me. But then the memories hit me, a cold pike driven through my heart.
They took my sister away. In the yearly test, she was labeled basic and flown to some obscure low-level school in France. I would have followed her, but my grades didn't merit that. I could fool the test every year, sure, but I couldn't change the records: and my grades were labeled as excellent. And, even if I could manage a basic label, there's no guarantee I would end up anywhere near her. I could get shipped off to another basic school in Nevada or Thailand or anywhere else in the world.
A wave of guilt crushed me, just like the evening before, when she received her test results. I hugged her goodbye, told her to be careful and work hard, and we both cried. Her tear-stained cheeks right beside her huge, forced smile was my most recent memory, and maybe the last one I'd ever have with my sister. And it was all my fault. I tried so hard to study with her, to raise her percentile above basic levels, but I couldn't do it. Her brain just didn't form the needed connections, and that made me a failure, as a tutor and a brother.
See, that's the way it worked back then. The whole world was judged on the physicality of their brains. If you had a lot of neural connections in yours, it showed up on the scan. If you didn't, that showed up too. Percentiles were calculated based on the average of every known human brain. Anyone below the fiftieth percentile of neural connections got sent off to one of the basic schools; anyone between fifty-first and ninety-seventh were automatically enrolled in a local advanced school. And ninety-eighths to the one-hundred were flown away, up to the stations. That was everyone's dream.
Well, except mine. I knew I had enough neural connections to make it to the stations. There was always Amber to look after, though. Our parents definitely weren't going to do it, so that responsibility was all mine.
But now she was gone. My yearly test was only a few hours away, and I was determined to make my senior year count.
I turned over on my side and tried to sleep again.