Rite of Passage
Jaeda waved her arms in frustration. Yards of fabric billowed as her aunt attempted to pin back two enormous sleeves.
"I hate ceremonial robes," Jaeda muttered.
"Stop moving while I'm trying to fix this," Aunt Shaena murmured, her mouth full of pins. "Aha! Got it!" She stood back and beamed. "Don't you look beautiful?"
Jaeda frowned at the wavy reflection in her aunt's best mirror. "Beautiful" wasn't the first word she would use to describe herself, not when she was covered with sunburn and freckles. The ceremonial robes, which were way too big, didn't help either.
"These were your mother's robes, you know," Aunt Shaena said proudly, spinning Jaeda around to get a full view of her. "You look lovely. Just as she did before her Passage."
Jaeda avoided her aunt's eyes. Talk about her parents made her uncomfortable. It had been a year since their parents died in a boating accident, a year since she and Kaedin had come to live with Aunt Shaena, whom they'd never liked. And now here they were, their Rite of Passage next month, with no parents to dress them for it.
"Hey, Auntie, are you done yet?" A sunburned, freckled boy pushed his face through the tent opening. His eyes fell on his twin sister, and he chortled. "Boy, does that looks bad on you . . ."
"Out! Out!" Aunt Shaena made shooing motions at him. "Your fitting's next!"
"Not today, it's not," Kaedin smirked. "Laeran and I are sailing. Coming, Jaeda?"
"You bet!" Jaeda yanked the ceremonial gown over her head and dumped it on the ground. Her aunt gasped in horror and snatched it up.
Jaeda brushed off the boy clothes she always wore, pulled on her sandals, and stuck her tongue out at her brother.
"Don't you dare leave!" Aunt Shaena cried. "We haven't finished our fitting yet!"
Jaeda turned back, trying to look innocent. "But, Aunt," she said, "where Kaedin goes, I go. Everyone knows that."
Aunt Shaena was still sputtering as she and Kaedin ran to the boat.
* * *
It was supposedly forbidden to go to the Isle before your Rite of Passage, but everyone did it anyway. The twins had gone particularly often in the past year, since they'd needed a place to escape from Aunt Shaena. Adults rarely came here.
"What do you think will happen when we go in?" Jaeda wondered aloud, running a finger along one of the carvings on the stone door. The carvings looked like writing, but no one could read it. "What talents do you think we'll get?"
"You'll probably become a dress-mage, like Aunt Shaena," Kaedin smirked.
Jaeda chucked a pebble at him. He ducked, laughing.
"Maybe you'll get magic," Laeran offered. "No one's gotten that in decades."
"I'd love magic!" Kaedin cried.
"Yeah, that would be practical," Jaeda snorted. "You're too lazy already."
"Hey, we're shoo-ins," Kaedin persisted. "The last people who got magic were twins, weren't they?"
"Identical twins," Jaeda shot back. "We're not."
Kaedin stared at her with wide eyes. "Since when?"
"Are you saying I look like a boy?" Jaeda asked indignantly.
"Maybe he thinks he looks like a girl," Laeran hissed.
"Hey!" Kaedin cried.
Jaeda rolled the pebble around in her fingers.
"I can't help worrying, though . . ." She swallowed. "I mean, no one ever remembers what happens there. And some people never come back. So suppose . . .?"
"We're not going to die," Kaedin scoffed. "We'll come back with magic."
"But they say it always takes the brightest and best -- doesn't that worry you?"
"Why should it? It's not like we've lost anybody we know."
"It took my brother," Laeran said quietly. "Six years ago. Remember?"
"I, uh . . . I forgot about that," he said.
Laeran grinned slightly. "Well, I wouldn't worry. You two are hardly brightest or best."
Kaedin made a face at him.
"Let's go," Jaeda said, standing. "I ought to finish that fitting before Aunt Shaena complains to somebody."
Kaedin looked relieved. "Okay. Good idea."
Laeran nodded and got up, silently.
* * *
"It's freezing," Jaeda hissed to her brother, shivering in her oversized robes. Aunt Shaena had refused to resize them, insisting that would be a waste of fabric. "Do we really have to go this early in the morning?"
"We were born this early in the morning," Kaedin said gloomily, trudging towards the boat beside her. His robes made him look like a bulky sack.
"I think I hate tradition," Jaeda muttered.
"Welcome, Jaeda and Kaedin," the village leader intoned, holding out his hands as they neared the boat. His robes fit perfectly. "Your twelfth birthday has come. The day of your Rite of Passage has begun. I shall show you the way to the Isle."
"Doesn't he know we've been there dozens of times before?" Jaeda hissed.
"I think he assumes people will obey rules," Kaedin whispered back.
The village leader rowed them to the Isle mind-numbingly slowly. Jaeda tried to grab the oars once, but the man smacked her hands away.
"Just trying to help," Jaeda muttered, slouching against her side of the boat.
They made it to the Isle, then to the stone door against the cliff.
"Place your hands on the sealed door," the village leader instructed. "It will recognize you as the proper age and permit you entrance."
Exchanging a glance, Jaeda and Kaedin pressed their hands on the door. They jumped back, startled, as the thick stone vanished.
"Magic," Kaedin breathed, looking excited.
"You must now enter," the village leader intoned. "I shall wait until the rise of the next sun. If you have not returned by then, a boat will be left in case of return later."
Both twins nodded. Jaeda's mouth felt dry.
The village leader stood there, staring at them meaningfully. It took several seconds for Jaeda to realize he was waiting for them. Kaedin reached out and grabbed her arm.
His hand was clammy. It was a relief to know he was scared, too.
Together, they stepped into the darkness.
* * *
At first there was nothing. Then came a blinding flash of light, and then --
Everything -- walls, ceilings, floors -- white.
"It kind of glows, look," Kaedin whispered, tapping one of the walls. There was a hollow sound. "This is weird."
Jaeda glanced back at the entrance, and yelped to see it was gone. Everything was solid, smooth, white wall now.
She spun, her heart pounding, and scooted closer to her brother as a stranger strode towards them. There was a dark doorway on the other end of the room that had not been there a second ago.
"Wh-who are you?" Kaedin demanded.
The man stopped about ten feet from them.
"My name is Railan," he said. He looked them up and down. "Are you twins?"
Jaeda nodded nervously.
The man laughed. "Excellent! I haven't seen twins in years. What are your names?"
"Jaeda?" Jaeda said uncertainly.
"Kaedin," Kaedin declared.
"Good. You're not as frightened as some. That's a good sign. May I show you something?"
Jaeda and Kaedin glanced at each other. Nodded.
The man pulled some kind of stick from his pocket and tapped it on the wall beside him. Pictures dashed across it, too fast for Jaeda to catch even a glimpse of each.
"Magic!" Kaedin cried, looking excited.
The man laughed and tapped the wall again. The pictures vanished. "No, no, science. Well, they could be the same thing, I guess."
"Who are you?" Jaeda demanded, fighting to keep a quaver out of her voice. "What are you doing you here?"
The man blinked. "Straight to the point, I see. All right." He cleared his throat. "I'm here because -- ahem -- Anthropological Experiment #649 requires authorization by all test subjects before beginning surveillance."
"What?" she and Kaedin asked.
The man coughed again. He looked uncomfortable. "The village you're from -- along with others, spread out across your planet -- was artificially created, centuries ago. We terraformed your world to be inhabitable and asked for volunteers to populate it. A few thousand came, agreed to have memories of their previous lives erased and replaced with new ones, and consented to have the rest of their life-memories recorded for our use after their deaths. This was in concordance with Ethics Law #276."
Jaeda stared at him, confused.
"Wait a minute," Kaedin said slowly. "You're saying . . . our world . . . our village . . . is fake?"
The man coughed. "Well, in a manner of speaking . . . yes."
"Why are you telling us this?" Jaeda demanded. "Do you get something out of it?"
"Straight to the point again, I see," the man said, looking amused. "And yes. According to Ethics Law #289, we can't continue the experiment unless we have each person's consent. So we bring you here at twelve years old, receive consent, and then implant a wafer to record your memories for the rest of your life. We naturally also erase any memories of time here, so we don't contaminate the experiment."
"The rest of our life?" Jaeda cried, appalled. "People are going to see our thoughts?"
"Not till you're dead," the man said hastily. "And in return, we give everyone a talent of their choice. It's a fair exchange."
"We get to choose our talents?" Kaedin cried, his eyes lighting up.
"I think we should discuss this first," Jaeda hissed.
"Magic!" Kaedin went on eagerly. "You can do that, right?"
"Magic?" the man repeated, looking doubtful.
"Yeah, moving things without touching them, and --"
"Oh, that . . ." The man looked uncomfortable. "Well, it's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it. The procedure's dangerous, and even with a volunteer, the number of deaths caused by --"
"Well, we don't care about risks." Kaedin rubbed his hands together. "We want magic."
"No, we don't!" Jaeda burst out.
Kaedin gaped at her.
"You don't want to be a dress-mage, do you?" he asked, horror in his voice.
"No, you idiot." Jaeda glared at him. "I don't give my consent. I don't want my memories recorded for experiments."
"Aw, come on," Kaedin pleaded. "It's fair. We could get magic!"
"No." Jaeda stared at the man, folding her arms. "It's not fair. I won't do it. Does that mean you have to kill me?"
Kaedin gaped beside her.
"No," Railan said slowly. "We don't do that. But without consent, we can't send you back."
"What then?" Jaeda demanded.
"Well, then . . ." The man swallowed. "Then you'd have to leave this world. Become a member of ours. And believe me, that would not be easy."
"Laeran's brother!" Kaedin gasped. "Is that what happened to him?"
The man nodded.
Jaeda focused on the walls. White. Stark white. So different, so strange. So alien.
She loved the village. She loved rowing, loved her brother, loved her friends' good-natured teasing. She wanted to learn to play the rock-flute. She wanted to be old enough to badger the adults to take her hunting.
Yes, their parents were gone, but she still had so much to lose.
Jaeda closed her eyes. The cost was high. But she still had to pay it.
"I'll do it," she said quietly. "I'll leave."
"No!" Kaedin cried. "Where I go, you go, remember?"
Jaeda ducked her head. She couldn't answer. Couldn't face him.
Silence reigned for a long moment.
"All right," Kaedin said, at last. "I'm going too."
Jaeda's head jerked up. She gaped at him.
"Where you go, I go." Kaedin lowered his voice. "Besides, I can always make them give me magic later."
The man had a curious smile on his face.
"Well, if you're sure . . ."
"We are," Jaeda and Kaedin chorused.
The smile widened. "Then you're in for the same path I chose. Please . . . follow me."
Available in print or e-book format through the Worlds of Wonder anthology.