“Aeshdan, ma’am. Aeshdan son of Glenham, from the lands of Lord Hasham…I mean, from Cadaeren.”
The black-haired woman behind the desk didn’t even look up as she entered Aeshdan’s information on the screen in front of her with efficient taps of her manicured nails. “Age?”
“Well, I’m an aesh, clearly, and I’d prefer a job specializing in design, though theoretical research would also be of interest.”
Now the woman looked up. She took in Aeshdan’s white-trimmed red robe, his round, eager face, and shook her head. “You’re not an aesh yet,” she corrected him wearily, as if she had had this conversation a thousand times before. “You’re in Tonzimmel now. You can’t claim a designation without first obtaining the certifications that accompany it, which according to the central certifications database, you have not. Understood?”
Aeshdan swallowed his indignation and shoved away the tempting idea of calling a fireball to his hand. While that would certainly show the woman that he was what he claimed, it would also break the cardinal rule of aeshdom in Tonzimmel – Pretend That Magic Doesn’t Exist – and would lead to his immediate and permanent banishment by the Board of Aeshes.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said instead, trying to keep his tone affable. Just a few more hours of this, he told himself, and I’ll have a real Tonzimmelian design job. Aeshdan glanced around him, as he had done so many times over the past hour that he had been here at the Immigration Services and Employment Hub, taking in the beautiful streamlined devices that whirred and hummed and shone on every side.
Sleek wheeled machines gliding from desk to desk, carrying completed forms and memos. A map on the wall to Aeshdan’s right displaying the sectors of Tonzimmel in colored lights, which could be rotated or magnified at the touch of a button. Dozens of smaller gadgets sitting on the desks of the employees, displaying the time and date, beeping reminders, or cycling through pictures of awe-inspiring vistas so realistic they had to have been painted by magic. All of these had been designed and created by Tonzimmel’s aeshes; Aeshdan could feel the aesh-touch emanating from them, the magic fire that kept them running.
Soon, Aeshdan told himself, his designs would be here too. His new job was so close, he could taste it. It had taken him years to get to this moment: years of training his powers under his medrik, Lord Birmaesh, years of working at boring repair jobs to save up money, and what seemed like years (though it was actually only nine months) of correspondence with the Board of Aeshes to receive an immigration permit.
But it would all be worth it. People back in Cadaeren could say what they liked about how no one was happy in Tonzimmel, about how life in the city was mechanical and heartless. Aeshdan knew better. Once he was placed in a design job, he’d be happier than he ever could be in Cadaeren. Not even Tonzimmel’s cold rigidity would be able to take away the thrill of designing new machines, or the knowledge that he would be able to improve the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people. He’d even be able to send money back to his family on a regular basis – since King Kethel and Queen Tathilya had decided to send young Prince Alaric to live in Tonzimmel five years ago, contact and trade between the two nations was at an all-time high. Just a few more hours, and the rest of his life could begin…
The Tonzimmelian woman had stopped typing. Aeshdan leaned over and looked down at the screen. Desired occupation: Aesh, it said. That was all it said. Aeshdan frowned.
“I want to specialize in design,” he repeated, gesturing to the screen. “Could you put that in my form, please?”
The woman’s eyebrows rose. “I can,” she said, “but it won’t do any good. Your specialization will be assigned based on your aptitude scores, your personal strengths, and the availability of positions in your field.”
“My what?” Aeshdan recognized the words, but they didn’t make sense in this context. In the past hour that he’d been here at the Employment Hub, no one had spoken with him long enough to find out what he was good at or what his strengths were. In stark contrast, he’d been shuttled from desk to desk where cordial but cold individuals dressed in identical turquoise shirts and tan pants had plied him with long forms to complete.
“Your aptitude scores and strengths. Like these.” The woman behind the desk tapped her name badge. Ivee Fields, it read, Employment Specialist.
Winner: Veith Efficiency Award, L. Marleen Customer Service Award.
Strengths: Achievement, Discipline, Organization.
Top aptitude: Data Management II (87th percentile)
Aeshdan wrinkled his nose as he read. When he’d kissed his sister goodbye and left his parents’ farm, he’d known that people in Tonzimmel wore uniforms and didn’t believe in the Balance. Nothing in the correspondence he’d received from the Board of Aeshes, however, had warned him that his new life in the city might literally include wearing his personality on his chest for strangers to see.
“Every occupation in Tonzimmel has been thoroughly analyzed,” Ivee continued in the easy cadences of an oft-given speech, “and matched with the sets of personal strengths and aptitudes which are most likely to lead to efficient, productive, and fulfilling careers in that occupation. Our job here at the Employment Hub is to identify which of those occupations would be best suited to your unique personality and talents. We do this through a patented mechanical process that Tonzimmel’s finest minds have perfected over the past hundred years.”
As the woman continued to talk about the “cutting-edge adaptive testing process,” a cold lump began to form in Aeshdan’s stomach. Getting a design job, it seemed, might not be as straightforward as he had thought. When he had thumbed the elevator button for the sixty-third floor of the First District Governmental Services building, he had expected to be interviewed by Tonzimmel’s Board of Aeshes and matched with an aesh master who shared his own interests and dreams, a master who could mentor him as an apprentice until he thought Aeshdan was ready to take on apprentices of his own.
The process that Ivee was describing, in contrast, sounded simplistic at best, and at worst, disastrous. How could any mechanical process, no matter how cutting-edge or “perfected,” actually understand what occupation Aeshdan son of Glenham, a newly-immigrated aesh from Cadaeren, would find most fulfilling?
The lump in Aeshdan’s stomach grew larger as Ivee pressed a button on her desk that glowed green at her touch. “Your employment profile is set up, Aeshdan,” she told him. “Please follow Emli; she will show you to the next available Testing Station.” She smiled then, a courteous gesture without any feeling behind it. “Best wishes with your future career.”
Every employee Aeshdan had interacted with had moved him along with that same empty phrase. He forced a smile to his face. “Thank you,” he said, trying to mean it.
The young woman that Ivee had summoned was already approaching, a courteous smile on her smooth-complexioned face. Her long blond hair was tied behind her head with a turquoise ribbon that matched her uniform. Emli Hare, her name badge read. Employment Assessment Associate. Strengths: Harmony, Organization, Positivity. Top aptitude: Assessor System Operation I (91st percentile).
“If you’ll follow me, please,” Emli said, motioning toward a hallway to her left, then setting off. Aeshdan followed, quickly losing his sense of direction as they turned down one wood-paneled corridor after another. Eventually, they stopped in front of a steel door marked “EMPLOYMENT ASSESSMENT” in large red letters. Emli punched a long access code into the keypad by the door; it beeped and opened.
“Station One,” she indicated, walking Aeshdan to the first of many three-walled cubicles in the room. Each cubicle, he saw, contained an identical column of machinery that hummed softly and glowed deep blue. Set into the machine at chest-height was a large touch screen, which Emli soon configured and then stepped away.
“It’s all set, sir,” she said. “When the Assessor prompts you, or if you have questions at any time, just push the white button here.” She pointed. “All clear?”
Aeshdan nodded and stepped up to the machine.
Welcome, Aeshdan of Cadaeren, it read. Press anywhere to begin.
Aeshdan wiped his sweaty palm on his robe. Everything would be all right, he told himself. Maybe this test actually worked the way it was supposed to. Maybe it would say what he already knew – that he was best fit for a job in design. Maybe it was even designed by aeshes for just this purpose.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t.
Aeshdan swallowed hard and touched the screen.
New text immediately appeared. You will have thirty seconds to answer each question, it said. There are no wrong answers. Please answer each question honestly.
Question 1: Which of the following statements best describes you?
A. I must be the very best at my job.
B. I must be in the top ten percent of people at my job.
C. I must be at least as good as most other people at my job.
D. I try not to compare myself to others.
Aeshdan frowned. This didn’t look promising. The question had nothing to do with being an aesh. He stared at the answers, glanced at the clock that was counting down from thirty, then tentatively tapped “D.” His frown only deepened as question two appeared. Did he work best alone, in a small group, or in a large firm?
Aeshdan didn’t know. He’d never worked in a large firm. And the other two options depended on the situation. Working in a small group was definitely preferable if you had good group members who got along with each other, but if not, you were better off working alone.
The timer was ticking. Aeshdan’s palms were sweating again. Who had designed this stupid test, anyway? Aeshdan stared at the options for a few seconds, then shook his head and selected “small group.”
The rest of the assessment was equally aggravating. None of the questions asked about Aeshdan’s skills, experience, or goals. None asked about his family background, his hobbies, or any of the other things that a Cadaerian aesh would take into consideration when taking on a new apprentice. By the time Aeshdan finished the last of the hundred and fifty assessment questions, he felt numb and slightly sick. Emli entered the room a few moments later, a printout in hand, and a cordial smile on her face.
“Congratulations,” she said. “Based on your assessment, we’ve identified several possible matches for your employment. They’ve been sent along to the Board of Aeshes, who will give you a technical assessment at four twenty-five this afternoon, and then inform you of their decision tomorrow.” She held out the printout to Aeshdan. He took it with trembling hands.
Aeshdan of Cadaeren, it read. Strengths: Ideals, Intellect, Strategy.
That seemed all right, Aeshdan thought, though he didn’t know what any of those words meant in this context. Maybe the test system did know what it was doing…
Not daring to breath, he continued reading.
Possible employment matches: Teacher’s Assistant – Engineering Specialist (two positions). Management Assistant – Engineering Division (one position). Hovercar Repair Assistant (three positions).
Aeshdan’s heart almost stopped. Teaching? Management? Repair? Each sounded worse than the last. “You…you must have someone else’s printout,” he stammered. “These…I can’t…this isn’t right!”
Emli glanced at the name on the paper, and shook her head. “No, sir. If you’re Aeshdan of Cadaeren, then these are the positions currently open in Tonzimmel for which your natural strengths suit you best.”
“But I have to go into design! It’s what I came here to do!”
The woman’s professional smile never wavered. “I’m sorry, sir, but it seems as though your strengths aren’t a match for the jobs in that field.” She paused, waited, continued when Aeshdan just stood there as if he’d run face-first into a boulder. “It will be for the best, sir,” Emli said. “If the Assessor didn’t match you with a design job, then it’s likely because you weren’t actually suited for that career path. It’s ninety-eight percent accurate in matching personal strengths with successful occupational outcomes, you know.”
More than anything, it was Emli’s continued cheerfulness that made Aeshdan’s blood run cold. He ripped the paper in half.
“I’m not going to be a management assistant!”
Emli’s smile had finally vanished. “I can’t help you, sir,” she said. “If you believe that you were physically or mentally unwell when you took the test, you may appeal to the Tonzimmelian Medical Bureau for an assessment and permission to retake it. However, the Assessor rarely, if ever, gives a different outcome.”
She took a deep breath, and pasted her smile back on her face. “I’ll show you to the elevator,” she said. “The Board of Aeshes is located on the thirty-fourth floor. Best wishes on your future career.”
Aeshdan’s hands felt clammy and his face burned as he waited in the lobby on the thirty-fourth floor half an hour later. Even the familiar circular seal of the aesh worked in red stone on the white marble floor – Haesh the fire-salamander, wreathed in flames – didn’t raise his spirits. He stared at the seal with unseeing eyes, crumpling and uncrumpling the torn printout in his hands.
He should have known better than to think that he could be happy in Tonzimmel. Hadn’t everyone warned him before he’d left? All the grandfathers and grandmothers in Lord Hashamai’s lands, all the itinerant white-sashes who had come through his small village, and especially his medrik, the nobleman who had first taught him to burn with the flames of the Balance.
No one was happy in Tonzimmel, they had all said. Tonzimmelians cared neither about people nor relationships, they said, only about contracts and test scores and gold.
Why hadn’t he listened to them?
He knew why, of course. He hadn’t wanted to spend his life tending fires and clearing snowy roads in Cadaeren’s villages. He’d wanted to do something that he would enjoy, something meaningful. He’d wanted to make a difference with his gift.
But the Balance, it seemed, had other plans.
And now that that had been made all too clear, Aeshdan thought, raising his eyes again to his unfamiliar surroundings, why was he still here? Why didn’t he just turn around, walk out the door, and go home?
It would be horrible, of course. He could only imagine the disappointment on his parents’ faces, the cold “I told you so” look in Lord Birmaesh’s eyes, Lord Hashamai’s smug expression as his rebellious subject came home, contrite and pleading for a new job.
Aeshdan shuddered. As shameful as it would be, he told himself, staying in Tonzimmel as a management assistant or repairman would be far worse. If he couldn’t have a job he liked, then he couldn’t force himself to live in this place that assaulted his eyes and ears with its flashing lights and constant noise, in this place where no one cared whether he lived or died. A place where no one even knew his name.
No, he had to go back to Cadaeren. Even as he decided it, he felt a piece of his soul die. He closed his eyes and swallowed, trying to forget his dreams, trying to go numb.
“Aeshdan son of Glenham?” a tenor voice asked, breaking through Aeshdan’s misery.
Aeshdan looked up. A lean middle-aged man with cropped blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard stood in the doorway at the end of the lobby. His silver shirt-and-pants uniform was similar to that of the receptionist behind the desk, but its differences stood out even to Aeshdan’s untrained eye: a bright gold bar and two red circular pins were fixed to his collar, and a large gold fire-salamander with scarlet eyes was embroidered over his heart.
Whatever encouragement these signs might otherwise have given Aeshdan, it was more than countered by the sight of an all-too-familiar printout in the man’s hand. Aeshdan looked away. He couldn’t meet the other aesh’s eyes. He couldn’t face rejection by one of his own alignment here in Tonzimmel; he’d get enough of that back home. He would just sit here until the aesh went away, then he would go back to Cadaeren.
“Aeshdan?” the other man asked again. Aeshdan heard footsteps, and looked up in alarm as the other man stopped next to him. “Are you Aeshdan?” he asked.
The young man nodded, his cheeks flaming in shame.
“Nice to meet you, son.” The older aesh smiled, and his blue eyes were cheery and warm. “You’re here for your assessment, right?”
Aeshdan mumbled something that didn’t even make it to his own ears.
“Sorry? Haesh didn’t give me that one, so you’ll have to repeat yourself.” The man chuckled at his own joke.
Aeshdan swallowed. “I…I was actually just going,” he said.
“Going?” The man raised his eyebrows, then glanced at the torn paper in Aeshdan’s hands. “Ah. So the Assessor system did its usual stellar job in assigning you to a career you’d hate?”
The man’s tone brought hope flaring back to Aeshdan’s soul. His mouth dropped open. “How did you…Did Haesh tell you…?”
“No, no.” The other man chuckled again, his eyes twinkling. “It’s all right, son. You certainly aren’t the first aesh to get thrown off a skyscraper by the esteemed efficiency of our Tonzimmelian friends upstairs. It’ll be all right – we’ll put you straight. I’m Master Matthaesh, by the way.” He reached out his hand.
Aeshdan stared at Matthaesh’s proffered hand, his thoughts still whirling. “You mean…you don’t have to…”
“Follow their suggestions? By the Balance, what a horrid thought. No, we may live in Tonzimmel, but we’re still aeshes.”
“But…the Employment Hub said…”
“The Employment Hub can say what it likes. If it ever complains too loudly about our inefficiencies, we remind them about the discounts they’re getting on their fancy tech, and they see reason. You all right now, son?” Matthaesh looked pointedly down at his still-outstretched hand.
Aeshdan looked at it, then reached out his own, slowly. The older man clasped his hand, his grip kind and firm, and Aeshdan felt as though his life were being given back to him even as he was pulled to his feet.
“That’s better,” Matthaesh said. “Where are you from, Aeshdan?”
“Lord Hashamai’s lands, sir.”
“Down in the Heartlands, right?”
“You’re a long way from home. I came myself from Lord Ekaesh’s lands, back, oh, I guess it would be twenty years ago now.” Matthaesh shook his head. “Time flies when you’re having fun, right, Aeshdan? Or when you’re carrying a clock in a hovercar. This way.”
Too stunned even to laugh, Aeshdan followed the older aesh to the doorway. As they walked through it, Matthaesh plucked the torn assessment from Aeshdan’s hands and threw the pieces, along with the printout in his own hand, into a small metal bucket. Flames roared up inside the container, turning the papers instantly to ash.
Aeshdan stopped and stared, his eyes wide. An unabashed grin spread across his face. “Who designed that?” he asked. “It’s brilliant!”
“I did, actually,” Matthaesh said, a twinkle in his eyes. “Thank you. I take it you’re interested in design, then?”
“It’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” Aeshdan said, looking with sudden hope into the other man’s eyes.
“Fancy that.” Matthaesh smiled, a thoughtful look coming into his eyes. “All right, Aeshdan. I’ll have some questions for you, then I’ll have you show me what you can do. First, why don’t you tell me about your family.”
By A.L. Phillips, Copyright 2013
To read more about Tonzimmel, Cadaeren, and their inhabitants, check out my new novel The Quest of the Unaligned at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Quest-Unaligned-A-Phillips/dp/1936670704.
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