CHAPTER ONE (draft)

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QUALIFY

The Atlantis Grail (Book One)

CHAPTER ONE

March, 2047.

Today is a day like any other day. Only it’s not.

Today the Qualification tests begin—at all designated schools, and public sites in remote places where they don’t have schools, all across the country and around the world—and everyone in my family is trying to pretend things are as usual.

I am at the messy kitchen counter chewing the breakfast scrambled eggs while the smart wall TV is blaring in the living room. Mom has her back turned and she is leaning over the stove making another skillet, which apparently is burning. I watch Mom’s fragile stooped back, the collar of the flannel pajama top, and the yellow cotton scarf covering her head, bald from the most recent round of chemo. The air is thick with garlic and scalded toast and things unspoken. No one else is up yet.

“Need some help burning the house down, Mom?” I say, in-between tasteless bites. Normally I love cheesy garlic eggs, but not today. Today, nothing has a taste. Especially not my forced humor.

“Thanks,” she says, without turning around. “But no, I think I am managing just fine with the arson.”

“M-m-m-m,” I say. The skillet makes another grand hiss.

Voices of various morning news show talking heads sound from the living room TV smart wall. “Qualify or die” is repeated often. I imagine there’s a running marquee with that phrase, interspersed with stock tickers and national weather and the continuing coverage of the mystery of a missing plane that disappeared thirty-three years ago, while the footage of the asteroid and then the Atlantis ships hanging in the skies like balloons among the clouds is running on repeat in a small lower window of the screen. Unfortunately that’s the spot of the smart wall surface with the greatest number of bad pixels. Our old wall needs an upgrade, but it’s not going to happen now that the world is about to end.

They’ve been showing the same footage for the last three months. The asteroid is dramatic, a blazing white monster against black space. It’s hurtling at us head-on. And then it’s always followed by the video clip of the same famous spaceship disk, silvery metallic monolith, miles above the New York skyline. Most of Manhattan ground level is two feet underwater these days, but the skyscrapers remain active centers of business and make for a dramatic backdrop amid the street canals congested with taxi speedboat traffic. There are hundreds of other spaceships of course, all around the country and the world, but they only show the definitive New York one, with the Empire State Building in the frame. The ones here in Vermont, over Burlington, Montpelier, and St. Albans, don’t warrant national coverage.

George comes into the kitchen. His dark brown hair is sticking up more than usual, which means he’s been tossing and turning all night, and probably had very little sleep, much like me. He looks bleary-eyed too, and his good-looking angular face is stuck in a frown. He’s wearing black jeans and a grey hoodie.

“Hey,” I mumble at my seventeen-year-old older brother, and he only gives me the hard thoughtful look. How well I know it, since it’s the same look that I’ve seen in the mirror this morning as I tried to comb the snags out of my own brown hair, long, wavy and unruly, and stared into my hard blue eyes. Grumpy and thoughtful runs in our family. Or at least with some of us. George and I are alike that way, prone to serious, prone to scary quicksilver moods interspersed with sarcasm. And now that Mom’s really sick, we stopped laughing altogether.

Good thing our two younger siblings don’t particularly share this hang-up. Twelve-year-old Grace has always been a giggle machine and chatterbox—though lately she gets weird anxiety attacks at night and has trouble falling asleep, then can’t wake up on time in the morning, and is always late. Dad thinks it’s because she is right on the border of the cutoff age for the Qualification, and it can go either way for her today. So she’s been quietly freaking out.

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