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Today is Semi-Finals Day.

The early morning alarm claxons cut through my crazy stress dream of running through tall grass from some unnamed pursuers in great robot vehicles equipped with searchlights while giant evil alien ships close in from above, filling the night skies overhead with more terrible blinding lights. . . .

I blink, moaning from not enough sleep, while a familiar, sickening, queasy feeling comes to grip my gut. At the same time I realize it’s the overhead dormitory bright lights that have come on and mingled with my nonsense dream.

I have no idea how I’ve managed to fall asleep last night. Like most of us, I’ve gone to bed early, promptly by ten PM, back on training schedule hours, in a dormitory of suddenly quiet, serious girls. Before bed, some were meditating, others praying quietly. Only a handful continued to giggle and chat, up to the very last moment of lights out.

In that sudden darkness I vaguely remember lying awake for hours, tossing and turning, my mind burning in anticipation. Somehow I must’ve dozed off eventually. . . .

And now, it’s here.

The big horrible day.

I take a deep breath and sit up.

Laronda makes agonized noises in her own bed on one side of me, Hasmik on the other, and everyone is stirring.

“Good luck!” we mutter to each other.

A minute later, we hear the voice of Dorm Leader Gina Curtis, who blows her whistle and barks her commands at us. “Okay, Yellow Dorm Eight, it’s Semi-Finals Day, rise and shine! Rise and shine! Quick bathroom time, then uniforms and armbands! Downstairs in twenty minutes to get your numbers scanned! Go! Go! Go!

As she is haranguing us, I quickly grab my neatly folded uniform that’s been lying next to my bed, ready from the night before, plus my shoes, socks, underwear—and I rush to the bathroom. It’s a zoo, everyone elbowing each other, girls fighting for showers and toilet stalls. Claudia Grito manages to kick me in the shin as I move past her, but I avoid the worst of it by moving out of the way quickly. . . .

I make it downstairs, one of the first from my floor. The unfamiliar grey uniform fits too loosely on me. It’s a general large size that sort of hangs in an unflattering way over my torso and I end up tying it around my slim waist with the provided belt. At least the pants are the right height so I don’t have to fold them around the ankles like some of the shorter girls.

The cafeteria line is moving extra-fast, and there are additional guards strolling all around the dorm. Meanwhile our three Dorm Leaders stand in the Common Area, watching us anxiously. “Quickly now!” they say. “Come up here, get your tokens scanned with your Standing Score Number, then go line up! Line starts at the doors of the AC Building!”

And suddenly we understand exactly what they mean, about getting our numbers scanned. . . . As Candidates come up to the Dorm Leaders and their tokens are scanned by the hand-helds, a large black number against a square white background appears on the front and back of each person’s grey uniform. It looks like a number that marathon runners and other athletes get assigned in sports, except these numbers are not stuck on but “insta-printed” somehow on the fabric surface of our uniforms, which I am guessing is photo-sensitive or otherwise sensitive to image display.

Wow, I think, so, it’s a smart uniform.

I get scanned, and immediately watch how my own uniform fabric fades in the front into a white square and displays a great big #4,796. I know, without needing to look, that the exact same number has appeared on my back. Ugh, how lame and embarrassing. . . .

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