On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was jolted awake by the discordant sounds of a car horn blaring outside and my mom’s fists banging on my bedroom door. I rolled over in bed with the agility of a sloth. 5:53 am — my birth minute. Happy birthday to me, I thought grudgingly.
Mom’s voice, teetering between stern and panicky tones, shouted at me through the door, “Sasha, are you awake? The taxi is here to take you to your HCTA. Sasha? C’mon, hurry up. You know what happens if you don’t show up for the HCTA.”
I was all too familiar with the ramifications of skipping your Health and Civic Trajectory Analysis, or HCTA for short. I’ve been lectured about the significance of the HCTA by relatives, teachers, and doctors for as long as I can remember. And those conversations always placed a heavy emphasis on the consequences of not participating in this mandatory coming-of-age procedure: a hefty fine of .02 Bitcoins and spending the last two years of your youth in a juvenile detention center where you’re inevitably forced to participate in the HCTA and begin your career placement training.
I got dressed hastily, threw my hair into a messy ponytail, and popped a breath mint into my mouth. I pressed my thumb onto the fingerprint reader on my door to unlock it, catching my mom in mid-knock as it slid sideways.
“It’s about time. Here, take this and run outside before the taxi leaves.” Mom said while thrusting a blueberry muffin into my hands.
“Mom, you know they’re not called taxis anymore, right? It’s an APTV.”
“Taxi, APTV, what difference does it make? I can’t keep all of these acronyms straight these days.”
I stepped onto our front porch as the APTV’s public address system made an announcement in a robotic voice. “Attention, Sasha Malone. Please board the autonomous public transportation vehicle waiting for you at 521 Carrbrook Court. Time remaining to board: five minutes.” This announcement was simultaneously broadcast to my personal cellular devices. Ok, geez. I’m coming, I thought as I jogged towards the APTV.
I unlocked the APTV using the fingerprint reader on the door which then swung upwards like a bird lifting its wings to take flight. I climbed in and the door closed automatically beside me.
The robotic voice returned. “Good morning, Sasha Malone. Your destination is the Department of Career Placement laboratory. Estimated travel time: twenty-two minutes.”
Normally I’d spend the next twenty-two minutes watching videos about cloning fails or hacking residential AI systems as a prank — but my mind was preoccupied with the potential outcomes of my HCTA.
The Health and Civic Trajectory Analysis was developed by the newly formed Department of Career Placement in response to the unemployment crisis that nearly crippled America following the COVID-19 pandemic in the early 2020s. According to my school history books, the HCTA utilized state-of-the-art DNA profiling to identify an individual’s optimal profession, mating compatibility profile, probability of having offspring, susceptibility to diseases, and estimated lifespan. The HCTA was quickly mandated for all citizens upon turning sixteen. Anyone who didn’t comply with their recommended career placement would face severe legal consequences.
Now, three decades later, the nation’s unemployment rate is at an all-time historical low and the economy is booming. What the government has failed to address, however, is the exponential growth of the depression and suicide rates in response to the HCTA rollout. It’s pretty hard to see the glass half full if you’re forced into a career you aren’t passionate about, told that your chances of having a family are bleak, given a laundry list of diseases you’re susceptible to, and predicted to have a shorter than average lifespan.
I started reminiscing about a popular fortune-telling game we used to play in grade school to predict our future HCTA results. Invariably you would end up with wretched outcomes and it quickly became a contest to see who was predicted to have the most miserable life. It’s all fun and games until someone’s life actually does become miserable. I tried shifting to a more optimistic mindset by making a mental list of careers I’d be most excited about. Something adventurous and meaningful. Deep-sea diver, search and rescue, astronaut—
“You have arrived at your destination.” The APTV said while opening its doors and interrupting my daydreams. I reluctantly left the comfort of the car and stood face to face with the laboratory that would soon determine my destiny.
Since the entire facility is operated by robots, I only crossed paths with one other human while I was there, a fellow teenager who was exiting the building as I approached the main entrance.
“Happy birthday,” I said with a timid smile.
“What? Oh, uh, yeah…happy birthday to you too.” He said dismissively, his face etched with worry.
I took a deep breath, opened the building’s exterior doors, and walked into the vestibule which contained nothing more than a small kiosk. “Welcome to the Department of Career Placement laboratory. Please proceed to the identification scanner.” A voice recording announced.
I tentatively approached the kiosk which seemed to feature nothing more than a small fingerprint reader at first glance. Seconds later a screen suddenly rose from within the kiosk until it reached eye level and then it extended towards me until it was just inches from my face.
“Please stand still and stare at the screen in front of you for the retinal scan.”
With that, the screen came to life and I could see an image of myself reflected in it. After the beam of infrared light passed over my eyes, the screen portrayed a portrait of me along with my name, date of birth, social security number, and home address. Well, that’s pretty snazzy.
“Please place your thumb on the fingerprint reader.”
After my thumb had been scanned, the display on the screen confirmed that my fingerprint and retinal scan matched and I was in fact who I was supposed to be.
“This concludes the identification scan. Your identity has been successfully verified. Please proceed through the doors directly in front of you to the laboratory.”
The screen in front of me went dark and disappeared back inside the kiosk which was positioned between me and the double doors leading into the laboratory. As I approached the doors they opened automatically, beckoning me one step closer to discovering what my future held.
I entered a small, brightly lit, clinical room. It was completely bare with the exception of a robotic contraption in the middle of the room which had a large open-ended plastic tube hovering next to it that extended upwards and vanished into the ceiling. My eyes darted around the room waiting for my next set of instructions. I just want to get out of here. This place is creeping me out.
“Please approach the robot and position your feet on the line on the floor. Now, extend your arm straight in front of you with your palm facing up, make a fist, and remain very still while your blood sample is collected.”
I stretched my arm out and focused on steadying my trembling fist like my life depended on it. The machine’s robotic arms suddenly aroused, unfolding and reaching towards me. A laser beam was used to scan the veins in the crook of my arm and then a ligature was tied a few inches higher. A needle and a small test tube materialized from within the machine. I noticed that the test tube was already labeled with my name, date of birth, and social security number. The needle slid into my arm effortlessly like an expired leaf gliding to the ground on a still fall day. The blood was transferred into the test tube which was then inserted into the large plastic tube next to the robot and sucked up into the ceiling and off to who knows where. The machine slapped a bandage on my arm, released the ligature, and collapsed into itself once again as if the ordeal was rather exhausting.
“This concludes the blood sample collection. You will receive your Health and Civic Trajectory Analysis results via hologram at your residence in approximately one week. Please exit the building through the vestibule upon which you entered.”
One week? Why does it take so long? This was pretty anti-climatic compared to all the hype I’ve been facing for the past sixteen years.
Later that evening I was sitting at the kitchen table, silently picking at the meatloaf on my plate, while Mom and Dad chatted with my younger brother Seth about his upcoming basketball season. Their conversation halted when our hologram pad in the living room chimed, indicating that we had an incoming message. I jumped up from the table and I was halfway into the living room when my dad shouted, “Sasha, in case you’ve forgotten we have the rule to ignore holograms during dinnertime.”
As I approached the pad in the corner of our living room the hologram emerged. I was standing eye to eye with the image of a woman I didn’t recognize. She was holding a tablet and wearing a white lab coat.
“Good evening, Sasha Malone. I’m Dr. Watkins from the Department of Career Placement. I have an important message to deliver but it’s imperative that your parents are present.”
“Mom, Dad. You better come in here.” I shouted.
Once my parents were flanking me the woman continued, “Good evening, Malone family. I’m Dr. Watkins from the Department of Career Placement. I’m sending this message to inform you that Sasha’s HCTA results have been expedited due to the fact that she has received a government-classified career placement. Agents from our department will be arriving shortly to permanently relocate Sasha to our training base. I’m sure this might be startling news for you. On behalf of everyone here at the DoCP I’d like to thank you for making this sacrifice for your nation.”
The hologram disappeared leaving a void that was filled with my mother’s agonizing sobs as she collapsed onto the couch. My dad was frozen with a look of utter shock on his face. I could feel a sense of panic rising inside me like a tidal wave. I looked back and forth between my parents desperately waiting for one of them to say something reassuring. A forceful knock on the front door made all of us jump and exchange glances. Dad was the first one to react, crossing the room to answer the door.
Two uniformed men stood in the doorway brandishing DoCP badges. “Good evening, sir. I’m Agent Bricard and this is Agent Stamos. We’re from the Department of Career Placement and we’re here to transport Sasha Malone to a classified career training base.”
My mom rushed to my dad’s side and frantically said, “What’s going on? You’re taking her…right now? Where is she going? Will we ever see her again?”
“Ma’am please remain calm. There’s nothing to worry about. I can assure you that your daughter will be in good hands and she is going to be of great service to our country. You should be proud. Once Sasha has arrived at our undisclosed facility she will be permitted to send holograms to you, under supervision of course in order to protect the confidentiality of her work.”
I embraced my parents as if it was the last time because, for all I knew, it was. I urged my hands to memorize the strength of my dad’s muscular back which had sustained me for countless piggyback rides. I inhaled the sweet smell of my mom’s trademark perfume, committing it to memory as well. Then I followed the two agents, stepping out of my familiar, mundane life and into the unknown.
I was transported in the windowless cargo section of a government van so that even I didn’t know where our destination was located. After a considerable amount of travel time, the van came to a stop and the agents released me. We had arrived at a nondescript warehouse, the only sign of civilization, in the middle of a dense forest. The agents escorted me inside the warehouse and deposited me into a small office where the woman from the hologram, Dr. Watkins, was sitting behind the desk waiting expectantly.
“Hello, Sasha.” She said. “Sasha, that’s a great name. Do you know what it means?”
“No,” I said nervously.
“It means defender, helper of mankind. Isn’t destiny a beautiful thing?” She seemed to be lost in thought for a moment and then continued, “Speaking of names…I have a confession to make. I’m not actually Dr. Watkins and this isn’t the Department of Career Placement.”
I jumped out of my seat. “What? I knew this was crazy. Where am I? What’s going—”
“Calm down, Sasha. You’re safe here, I promise. Just have a seat and let me explain.”
I hesitantly lowered back into the seat.
“My name is Susan Jacobs. I run an underground organization and our mission is to overthrow the government’s restrictions on foster care children and restore their rights as citizens of this country.”
“Foster care children? What are you talking about? And what does this have to do with me?”
“Unbeknownst to most of the general population, our country has nearly 750,000 foster care children living in government facilities. The government has eliminated the adoption process that existed for hundreds of years, therefore, denying these kids the opportunity to be placed with a loving family. These children are provided a sorry excuse for an education and then forced into the worst, lowest-paying jobs that nobody else wants. They are prohibited from participating in the HCTA and discovering their true destinies. You are going to help us infiltrate the system and set them free.”
“Wow, that’s really messed up. How can they get away with that?” It was a rhetorical question so we were both silent for a moment while I digested this overwhelming information. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with me.”
“We’ve been hacking into the DoCP database for a while now intercepting HCTA results to find the ideal candidates to train for this covert operation. Your DNA profile and ancestry were exactly what we were looking for. You’re highly intelligent. You have many physical aptitudes and a spirit of adventure. And when I discovered the meaning of your name, defender, helper of mankind, I knew that we needed you on our roster.”
By the time I left Susan’s office at the end of that first meeting I was all in on her mission — hook, line, and sinker.
After two years of intensive training, I found myself sitting in an APTV parked in front of a small government-operated foster care facility. I was accompanied by two of my fellow trainees and we were all disguised as laboratory technicians. I took a quick glance at myself in the mirror before exiting the car to tackle the first of many infiltrations of foster care facilities across the nation. I barely recognized myself. I had been transformed into a machine, a human-machine programmed for compassion, ingenuity, and grit.
The details of our visit had been meticulously arranged. Susan had used her connections with universities across the United States to gain government approval for conducting scientific research on the DNA profiles of foster care children. We were welcomed into the facility under the guise of collecting blood samples for the research program. Our hackers ran those blood samples through the HCTA system and generated credible HCTA reports for every eighteen-year-old foster child from that facility who was on the verge of being released. We tracked those children down, equipped them with the new reports, and transported them to their respective career training facilities to embark on a journey towards their true destiny.
When I accepted this mission I thought I left behind my life and the world as I knew it. But in reality, I was simply evolving into the person that the world needed me to be. The person who sent the twenty-five children from that first facility, and many more after them, on a life trajectory full of potential which will yield ripples of influence for generations to come.