My annual test scores have come back with exemplary marks.
I am now eligible to apply for The Connection.
I should be happy. I should be ecstatic. I should be thrilled out of my mind that my test scores were so high, because with them, I could do any and everything I could possibly want. But the truth of the matter is: I am completely, and utterly, terrified. But it is not without reason.
Those eligible for the Connection get to face our God for what She truly is—the savior of our people.
As I stand here, within my assigned testing room, I try my hardest not to tremble, but find myself doing just that.
To see your God, a voice inside my head says. To know Her person, Her aspects, Her secret.
But could I, know? Could I really?
The last person to successfully connect with our God, and become a prophet as a result, was Alabaster Curito, and that was nearly forty years ago. According to some, he’s never been the same since.
But he’s the Illuminarium’s Holy Conduit, I think. Can you even begin to imagine what it would mean if you connected with Her?
I have. And can. And do. But right now, I’m trying to prepare myself for what will happen next.
Maybe I can get out of this. Maybe they won’t look at my test scores. Maybe I missed their criteria by just one point. Maybe… just maybe—
The door opens, and my face instantly pales.
Curtio is standing outside. Three Agents from the Extant Facilities stand alongside him.
“Ember Hillen?” Curito asks.
“Yuh… Yes?” I manage, attempting to swallow the fear in my throat.
“Do you know why we’re here?”
“I… I don’t… I think I—”
“Please,” the tallest and darkest-haired man beside Curito says. “Come with us.”
A primordial fear rises within me as I stand. Born in ages past, and tempered through the history of our people, it threatens to overwhelm me in an instant. Somehow, though—someway—I am able to withstand it, and begin to follow them from the testing room I have been seated within for the past five hours.
For so long I had considered myself an ordinary young woman. Now, I understand, I am something extraordinary.
But extraordinary people, while capable of extraordinary things, are not always promised them. No. Promise, it could be said, is simply a false platitude, upon which the unfortunate truth could be dangling.
As we make our way down the Illuminarium’s dark halls, through which run golden fluorescent lights along the edges of both the ceiling and the floor, I find myself thinking of my father, who knows nothing except that I will have been testing today.
Please, I think. Let me make him proud.
We walk for what feels like an eternity, but can surely only be a few minutes.
Come time we stop, I realize where we’ve arrived.
The Holy Conduit’s chambers.
The three men from the Extant facilities leave us be; and it is here that Curito turns to face me before saying, “Please, come in.”
He pushes his hand to a reader on the door.
It scans his palm.
The door opens.
Inside, Curito leads me to a single table, upon which there lies two cups and a kettle. From this he pours a sweet-smelling tea that reminds me of—
The scent wafts into my nose, and sets ablaze my delight.
“I knew it was your favorite,” the old man says as he continues to pour the tea.
“How?” I ask.
The Holy Conduit lifts his eyes and says, “Sit, Miss Ember Hillen.”
I seat myself tentatively, trying my hardest to keep from grimacing in the face of our greatest holy man. He is the Conduit of our people—the only surviving man who has touched our God’s conscience in years past—and he could either make my future bright or leave me in the dark.
I swallow the lump in my throat as he rounds the table, then seats himself across from me.
“Try it,” he offers, a smile curving his thin lips. “I will warn you: it’s hot.”
I sip the tea, relish its flavors, its textures. The cup is still sticky on the edges, which means that the honey is fresh.
Which means that they may have been expecting this.
A frown crosses my features as I consider this notion, and I lift my eyes to face the man soon after. “Sir?” I ask.
“Yes?” he replies.
“Why am I here?”
“Is it not obvious?”
I swallow a lump in my throat and try my hardest to remain composed, but find that it is nearly impossible to do so. My lower lip trembles. My heart pounds. Tremors in my hands cause the tea to shiver within the cup. I have to tighten the muscles in my arms to keep from showing more emotion than necessary.
With a long exhale, Curito sips his own tea and says, “Your test scores are exemplary, Miss Hillen.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It means: you may be our next Conduit.”
“What?” I pale as I consider this. “Surely you’re mistaken. The tests can’t be over yet.”
“Most of the tests ended hours ago, Miss Hillen. Yours were prolonged because our artificial intelligence realized your potential.”
“But… I’m just…”
“A girl who wanted to be a doctor,” I reply.
Curito smiles and says, “People who reach for their goals often find other opportunities presented to them.”
I’m unsure how to reply.
With a smile, Curito leans forward and presses a button on his side of the gray table. A panel slides out of place, revealing a touch screen, upon which there is varying amounts of information, beside which are test scores.
“Your marks,” the man continues anew, “are beyond anything we have seen in recent years. You understand history, biology, mathematics, our written language and its syntaxes and rules. You understand some of the greatest psychological phenomena related to the human mind, and are capable of deciphering problems from the tiniest of clues.”
“What are you trying to say? That I’m smart?”
“You are more than smart, Ember. You are extraordinary.”
There it is—that word again. Extraordinary. Something I feel I have never been, and never will be so long as I live.
“Tell me,” Curito says, drawing me from my thoughts. “Did you attempt to deceive the intelligence in any way? Possibly by giving untrue answers?”
“No,” I say, and frown. “Why would I do that?”
“Some are afraid of their true potential.”
“But why would I be?”
“That is a question only you can answer.”
I find that I can only stare.
With a smile, Curito stands, extends a hand to me, and says, “If you would.”
He leads me back to the door we entered through, then pulls it open before guiding me into the hall.
“Where are we going, sir?”
Curito doesn’t respond. Instead, he merely leads me through the many halls we initially passed through, then toward the Illuminarium’s Central Chamber. Normally, it would be full of people, who would be accessing the boundless information through the holocomputers. Today, it is empty, possibly because of the testing that has taken place.
At the door, Curito hesitates, then pulls the Illuminarium’s front door open.
Given that I have been in darkness for so long, my eyes struggle to adapt to the light that pierces in. Soon, however, they adjust.
The sight before us never ceases to amaze me.
Anyone looking in the sky at this hour of the day would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. For me, though—a girl who has just been chosen to attempt a connection to our God—I see something beyond the scope of mortal comprehension, and tremble as a result.
Our God floats in the sky above the city. Her head looks to the Heavens, the stone pillars that serve as Her wings descend at angles on either side of Her neck, and in place of where Her body would be there descends tendrils, which flicker with a bright gold luminescence that lights our world. A light wind is projected from somewhere deep inside Her skull, and wafts about the city with ease that I find wondrous to this day. She is marvelous, and an icon to our people. Most of all: She is our savior.
Curito smiles as he looks up at Her—as he takes in all Her wonder, Her majesty, Her Might. Then he opens his mouth, and says, “Be proud, Ember Hillen, for soon, you may know Her in ways few ever have.”
As I stare up at the God—whose stone head and emotionless gaze look forever to the Heavens—I find a flicker of doubt spreading from my heart all the way up to my brain.
Will I succeed? I wonder. Or will I fail?
There is no true way to know.