Sam shared a smile with Jess as they finally reached the stern man at the front of the line. Three hours in line -- not counting their overnight campout in the parking lot -- had brought them to this moment. The man scowled at them as he issued the same instructions he had dispensed all morning. "Standardized intelligence testing will be performed on computer systems. It is an adaptive test, so expect it to be challenging. Once it is complete you will either be dismissed or asked to stay for further testing. Obey all instructions of the proctors."
As five people were released into the building, Jess whispered into her ear. "Meeting our first Angmari wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be."
"I would probably be in a bad mood too if I had to be on crowd control," Sam said.
"Or maybe the guy is just an asshole. Just saying."
"He sounds like your type," Sam said.
Jess stuck her tongue out in response.
They sat down in hastily erected cubicles before computer workstations. Following instructions on the screen she typed her full name, Samantha Margaret Wilcox, then let the webcam snap her picture and put her pointer finger onto a biometric reader. Then the questions began. Basic arithmetic. Logical word problems. Space science literacy. Calculus. Statistics. Engineering. Biology. Every multiple choice question timed. Sam estimated an hour had passed before the screen told her to remain seated and await further instruction. Around her, proctors scurried about to escort test takers from the room while she waited.
And waited. Sam looked to every person who passed her seat in hopeful expectation, until she began to suspect the system had somehow forgotten about her. Thirty minutes passed before someone stopped by to collect her. The old woman didn't speak a word, simply snapped her fingers and waved for Sam to follow her. They entered a small conference room featuring a table, four chairs, and little else. The woman seized Sam's hand and held it captive with a wiry grip.
The woman's first words erupted in a staccato burst. "Why do you want to join the Angmari fleet?"
"I . . . I like space."
"You like space."
"I want to go into space."
"Then why aren't you an astronaut?"
Sam tried to pull her hand back, which only resulted in the woman's death grip tightening. "Maybe I'm not smart enough. Or brave enough."
"But you are smart enough and brave enough to join a mission to leave your world behind forever and contribute to our society?"
"I . . . isn't that what the test was for?"
"It's what I'm asking you."
"Then you should look at my test results."
"I will. But why do you think you are good enough for our program?"
"You took me back for an interview. I must have done better than most candidates."
The woman squinted at her. "Why are you so fixated on the test results?"
"Well, it's an objective measurement, right?"
"As objective as the individuals who wrote the questions."
Sam shrugged. "Any bias is equal for everyone taking the test."
"I'm not sure you are actually brave enough for this program. If I asked you to leave your life behind today, right now, and take the next shuttle to the Angelship, would you agree to it?"
Sam stared into the old woman's hard eyes. "Yes."
"Then that is the condition of your acceptance. We will hold you in the cafeteria until the evening shuttle. If you stay here the rest of the day and board the shuttle with the understanding that you will never return to Earth, you made it. Congratulations, Samantha."
"It's Sam," she corrected automatically, then paused. "Do you know if my friend Jessica Mele passed her tests?"
"Does the answer to that question determine whether or not you will accept our offer?"
Sam folded in on herself. "No. I want this."
"Then I will let you discover the answer for yourself. Follow me."
She found herself abandoned in the cafeteria, a cramped space overfull with dilapidated furniture and exotic scents. Mace and ginger and lavender and rosemary and vinegar clashed violently in her nose as Sam scanned the sparse occupants for a familiar face. The others present mostly conformed to a specific archetype. They were mostly male, exemplified poor posture, wore glasses, and made extremely awkward eye contact with her. Sam found herself shrinking in on herself from the intense male scrutiny.
"We're living in a nerd fantasy," Jess whispered at her side.
Sam startled at the sudden voice. "Jess! Why are you sneaking up on me?"
"There was no sneaking involved. I've been hovering beside the door for fifteen minutes now, trying to decide if adventures in space are worth being mentally undressed by guys like this for the rest of my life."
"So you passed their tests?"
"Somehow. I suspect there may be some affirmative action happening to correct the insane gender imbalance. Lucky me."
Sam turned away from the collective male gaze to give Jess her best doe eyes. "You're not going to back out, are you?"
"No, of course not. I just have to hope there will be more Rikers than Wesleys once we get up there."
"I'll take a Picard," Sam said.
Jess snorted a laugh. "At this point, I think I'll be happy if they don't harvest our organs or turn us into prostitutes."
"Oooh, I might get a Captain Malcolm Reynolds if I become a space prostitute."
"Way to think positive, Sam."
She nodded. "So we're really doing this? Leaving everything behind?"
"Not telling our families where we were going today is starting to seem like a really shitty thing to do," Jess said.
"I suppose we should call our parents."
"What, you don't want to ghost everyone you have ever known?"
Sam winced. "They will try talking me out of going through with this."
"If they succeed, then I guess you didn't want it as bad as you thought."
"I will need to sit down for this."
Jess found them a table where they could sit with their backs to the wall and they took out their phones to begin the process of breaking their mothers' hearts. Beside her, Jess held a conversation with both her parents that largely seemed to be awkward silences punctuated by anguished noises. Meanwhile, Sam listened to her father itemize a list of reasons why she shouldn't trust the Angmari to provide her a good life in their fleet while her mother sobbed softly in the background. The call went on for an hour before Sam had to end it for the sake of her sanity.
They went through the serving line to get some of the food on display. It was mostly rice and beans with very odd seasoning. Sam hated it. Grated ginger burned her throat, flowers weren't food, and for some reason everything tasted sour. Sam picked at the food in silence until her hunger diminished and threw away the uneaten portion. The room slowly filled as the day went on, but though many stares were directed their way, no one joined them.
She silenced calls from her family several times, not quite ready for another round of drama.
Jess finally broke the silence. "Do you think I should call Brad?"
"You broke up with him."
"Right. But would it be a bigger slap in the face if I called and told him off or if I didn't call him, like he meant so little to me that I didn't even think to let him know I'm leaving forever."
"You broke up with him because he was a controlling asshole and a deadbeat without a job."
"So you're against me calling him?"
"Don't call him."
"Are you sure?"
"A hundred percent certain."
Jess drummed her fingers on the table. "You're right. No call. But maybe a text? If I could get him to call me, then I could refuse to answer."
"Jess. No contact with Brad."
"Fine." Jess checked the time. "Should we check in with the parents one last time? We don't know how often we will be allowed to communicate back home once we are off world."
Sam winced. "Maybe in a few more minutes."
A siren's wail startled them. Its strident call lasted ten painful seconds before it stopped. Then a voice came over the speakers. "All applications, line up to be escorted. Departure will commence as soon as you clear processing. Any delay will result in your acceptance being revoked."
The room erupted into pandemonium. Uniformed Angmari began directing candidates down the hall with impatient gestures while more than a few of the people in the room decided they weren't quite ready to leave it all behind and went towards the other exit, the one with the sign that no one would be readmitted. The noise level precluded making another call, but Sam texted a quick goodbye to her parents, indicating that she was boarding the shuttle.
A gruff woman pulled them from the main line into a woman only one. They quickly reached the front of that one, where they were admitted to a room as part of a larger group and asked to change out of their clothes and into Angmari issued ones. Their personal items were all removed. Cell phones, hair barretts, rings, even contact lenses were taken from them. Sam tried to figure out how her contacts had been detected as she was shepherded forward in her plain gray uniform. She could barely see as the line of women moved outside, but the blurry outlines she could make out revealed a large vessel, one the size of a small building.
Inside, she was asked to put her finger on a biometric reader and state her name. Then she was left in a large hold with the other successful candidates.
"Well, I guess we are actually going through with this," Jess said from beside her. "I was expecting to be strapped into a chair for takeoff, but I guess the Angmari know what they are doing."
"Their shuttles ascend slow somehow," Sam responded. "I hope they replace my contacts soon. Otherwise this is not going to be an enjoyable new life.