The Assessment


Sloane stood in the center of a windowless, gymnasium-like training room, rubbing her sweaty palms over the biosensitive wicking fabric of the tracksuit designed just for her. The imposing space was intimidatingly empty save a small, square table in the center of the room, and just two members of the five-hundred-person crew that bustled through Basecamp’s matrix of underground corridors at all hours of the day and night: Eleanor, Sloane’s chaperone since arriving at Basecamp, and Wirat, the silent monk who followed Eleanor everywhere she went.

Wirat sat on the floor with his eyes closed, smiling blissfully as Eleanor tirelessly paced the length of the room. With a finger pressed to her ear, she issued commands, demanded answers, and intermittently cursed at whoever she was speaking to, her voice reverberating off the walls and making Sloane flinch. After several startling exclamations that involved the Prime Minister of Germany and something about “designated safety zones,” Sloane threw a pleading glance to Wirat—was this a bad time? Should she come back later?—but the monk remained still as stone, never stirring from his meditation.

Sloane waited near the table, unsure if she was supposed to be calm like the monk or high-octane like Eleanor—which energetic polarity was more likely to help her pass her assessment? God, this was so much more nerve-wracking than standing on stage in the packed auditorium she’d just come from. Sure, she and the other candidates had been introduced to the entire world via live broadcast by the president herself. And yes, Sloane’s life-sized avatar had been projected into just about every business, public toilet, and residence on the planet, including her father’s living room. But all she’d had to do was give a little wave when they said her name. Now, she would be put to the test—and not a pop quiz, either. Something major. Something that would determine whether she’d be sent back in time to save the planet from an environmental apocalypse, and whether she’d get to stay at Basecamp long enough to find the man she’d been dreaming of for the past ten years. But like every candidate who’d come before her, she had no idea what the test would be—or whether she’d have the slimmest chance of passing it.

She peered at the objects on the table in front of her, trying to slow her pounding heart. There was a Rubix cube, a partially disassembled laptop, and a small, circular device no bigger than a blueberry. Mystified, Sloane reached for the blueberry device just as Eleanor ended her transmission and marched purposefully toward the table.

“Alright, Sloane,” she said, producing a razor-thin, rectangular piece of glass from her jeans pocket. “This is just a quick skills assessment, okay? In the first round, I’ll give you three tasks to complete, and if that goes well, we’ll move on to the second round. Sound good?” Without waiting for a reply, she swiped her palm over the glass, and a menu appeared in the air next to Sloane. “Go ahead and choose a work environment, and we’ll get started.” In the left column of the menu was a list of places Sloane frequented back in Vancouver: West End apartment, her father’s house, the coffee shop where she worked weekends. In the right column was a list of places she’d never been: Koh Phi Phi beach bungalow, Montmartre café, Ittoqqortoormiit fishing hut.

“Does it matter where I—?”

“Wherever you’ll feel the most comfortable. And focused.”

Sloane reached out to touch the item marked “Coffee shop.” When her finger pierced the hologram, the room began to transform all around her. A 360-degree virtual view of the coffee shop overtook the training room, which disappeared behind a shroud of spinning pixels and shifting light. Wirat no longer appeared to be sitting on the floor in an empty training room, but beneath windows that opened onto bicycle-clogged Cordova Street. The Rubix cube, laptop, and blueberry device now appeared on the same table where Sloane and her coworker Lucas rolled silverware, and an avatar that looked just like Lucas passed behind the virtual register carrying a tray of hot drinks.

Eleanor scanned the objects on the table, deliberating. “For your first task, let’s go with...this one.” She picked up the Rubix cube and tossed it to Sloane.

“C’mon,” said Sloane, laughing nervously. “That’s kid’s stuff.”

“So?” Eleanor shrugged. “Let’s play. And if it’s so easy, go ahead and solve it.” Sloane hesitated, worried this was some kind of trick— was “solve it” code for something else entirely? But Eleanor stared at the Rubix cube expectantly, and within thirty seconds, Sloane tossed it back to her, each side a solid color. Eleanor examined it, blank-faced, then abruptly flung it over her shoulder. With his eyes still closed, Wirat reached up and caught the cube with one hand. A little thrill of excitement shot up Sloane’s spine.

“She’s right,” said Eleanor. “That was too easy. Let’s try the laptop.”

Sloane peered at the open device, eyeing the processor and graphics chip. “What do you want me to do?”

Eleanor touched a finger to her ear, gazing briefly at the floor, glancing at Sloane and away again as she listened to whoever was in her ear. “I want you to fix it, of course,” she said.

“Oh! But...but it’s not broken.”

“It’s broken alright,” said Eleanor. “I did the honors myself.”

“Huh,” said Sloane, raising an eyebrow. “Well, the battery charged?”

“There is no battery,” said Eleanor. “It’s solar-powered.”

Sloane frowned, biting her lower lip. She carefully replaced the keyboard without touching any of the machine’s internal components, pressed the power button, and prayed her hunch was right. A glorious dinging startup chord rang throughout the room. The screen came to life, and she spun the laptop around to face Eleanor, splaying her fingers into jazz hands. Ta dah! Eleanor stared at the laptop, unimpressed, and Sloane immediately concluded she had failed. Her father’s voice filled her mind, searing and sharp. Sloanie strikes again! it said. Of course you’ve already ruined things. She tried to ignore it, swallowing back the old, recycled fear that nothing she did would ever be good enough and that no matter how hard she tried, she’d always find a way to ruin things.

“If you broke this,” Sloane ventured with as much cheer as she could muster, “you did a terrible job. There’s not a part out of place. And you must be thinking of a more recent model—these older versions weren’t solar-powered. They still ran on lithium-ion, and you’ve got 79% battery life left.”

Eleanor touched her ear and nodded once. “Very good, Sloane.”


Incredibly, Eleanor cracked a smile. “Final task for this round,” she said, holding the tiny blueberry device between her thumb and forefinger. “Have you seen one of these before? Just a military-grade wireless earpiece. It’s how we communicate with each other throughout Basecamp. Quieter than walkie-talkies. Less maintenance than wearables.” She dropped the earpiece on the ground and smashed it with her foot. “Fix it,” she said. “You’ve got two minutes.”

In the window of the coffee shop, a red countdown timer began its rapid descent to zero. Sloane scrambled after the tiny parts as they rolled across the floor in every direction. Each part was no bigger than a necklace bead, and when she examined them closely, she could make out delicate, perforated edges where the parts snapped back together—a brilliant design. Eleanor had applied just enough pressure to break the earpiece apart without completely smashing it. The big stomp was just for show.

After setting the parts on the table in a neat pile, Sloane dislodged one of the ten thousand Bobbie pins her stylist had used to restrain her rebellious hair. Using the pin as a tiny crowbar, she opened the laptop again, detached the network card, and broke off the thin metal separator from the card’s edge, using it to swiftly reassemble the earpiece and lock each part into place. With a glance at the clock, she placed the device inside her ear and disappeared behind the virtual counter of the coffee shop, saying a little prayer as she went.

“Hello?” she whispered with a finger to her ear, her heart pumping pure adrenaline.

“Hi,” said a warm, hushed voice.

All at once, it felt like tiny bubbles were rushing through her veins instead of blood. She flashed on the previous morning in the actual coffee shop, when the man she’d been dreaming about for ten years—a man she was convinced was nothing but a figment of her imagination—had walked into the café in broad daylight, a flesh and blood human being. When he’d stepped up to the register to order, he was so striking, so inexplicably familiar, she was struck dumb, unable to manage a “Hi,” let alone “How can I help you?” He, too, had sputtered and cleared his throat, croaking a single word—“Coffee.” Now, she compared the deep, husky timbre of “Coffee” with the warm, hushed sound of “Hi,” and realized that a person who was not supposed to exist had spoken to her in real life. Twice now.

“I knew you could do it,” he said in the same, intimate tone he used in her recurring dream—as if there were no one else in the world he’d rather be talking to.

Sloane was peripherally aware of the rapidly descending clock, but she held a frozen vigil behind the virtual counter, bewitched by the silence that followed his words. He inhaled as if to speak again, but the breath caught in his throat. What was he going to say? Say it! She didn’t dare open her own mouth for fear she’d say too much, and say it wrong, and he’d retreat into the dream like a touch-me-not snapping its petals shut.

Thirty seconds on the clock. Twenty-five seconds. Sloane peeked around the counter to see Eleanor peering at her with concern, but she couldn’t break away—not when she could press her finger to the earpiece and potentially hear his voice.

“Can I talk to Eleanor, please?” he said finally. Sloane’s body responded before her mind could catch up, and she soared across the space toward Eleanor, plucking the earpiece from her ear. It was only when she watched Eleanor examining her work that Sloane realized she had just given away the thing she longed to keep.

“Does it work?” asked Eleanor, holding the earpiece up to the light. Sloane shrugged, waiting for the feeling to return to her face. Eleanor placed the earpiece inside her ear and tapped it. “Ohhh,” she said sarcastically, “it’s you.” Sloane’s chest constricted with envy; would she ever know him well enough to tease him like that? Maybe she could ask for the earpiece back. She could think of no better souvenir from her time at Basecamp than his voice, in her ear, forever.

“Well done,” said Eleanor. “You’ll move to Round Two.” With a single swipe over her glass, Eleanor dissolved the simulated coffee shop. In its place, she projected a grid of tiles that filled the air from floor to ceiling. Sloane immediately began ingesting every detail. Each tile was as tall as a person, and each contained a unique image. There were portraits of kings, paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, and sketches of Galileo’s inventions. A test on the Renaissance era, Sloane thought—Round Two should be a snap.

After a few moments, Eleanor asked Sloane if she’d had a chance to look at the tiles. “Yes...” she said warily. The tiles disappeared, and Sloane’s stomach dropped, realizing they weren’t representative of topics she would be tested on. She would be tested on the tiles themselves—on her memory of their exact order and position.

Her assessment for the Program was to play the goddamn game of Memory.

She squeezed her eyes shut, praying she could breathe the nausea away before it surged, but no—there it was. Her body’s Pavlovian response to being exposed for the freak she was. If she played this stupid game, it would be nearly impossible to conceal what her father called her “freak memory.” Beyond photographic or didactic, Sloane’s memory made every moment of her entire life—where she’d been, what she’d been doing, who she’d been with, and exactly what they’d said—instantly accessible to her. And while she could pull up a memory the way other people pulled up restaurant reviews on their phones, the memories could also descend without her consent, overlaying the present moment and making it look as if the past were happening again right now. Internally wrangling her memories was a dizzying feat that often left her stomach sour. But if someone else noticed her memory, or (god forbid) asked her to use it, the contents of her stomach would threaten to spill onto her sneakers.

Now, as the tiles loomed and her nausea surged, a memory overcame her with such force that the tiles fell away, the training room disappeared, and she was no longer a twenty-nine-year-old woman in the assessment room at Program HQ, but a four-year-old girl in her childhood bedroom.

She is sitting up in bed in her rosebud nightgown, the sheets damp with sweat, a cherry-flavored electrolyte drink in a sippy cup on the nightstand. Home sick from preschool, she is playing the game of Memory with her father, who is flipping the game cards over and back, over and back, his face growing redder and redder as they play. Slap, slap, slap. He slams the plastic cards on the floral bedsheet. Little Sloane throws up into the mixing bowl next to the bed. She wipes her mouth. Her father says nothing. She finds the matching rocking horse and adds another match to her towering stack. She knows her father is furious with her. He is furious that she remembers. It isn’t normal to remember. It isn’t supposed to be this easy, and if it is this easy, it’s because there is something wrong with her. She is ashamed. She is ashamed and nauseous and about to vomit again because of her memory. And from then on, that’s how she’ll always be.

Sloane shook her head, batting the memory away. She frantically scanned the training room for a sink or trash bin, but there was nowhere to be sick.

“Now,” Eleanor continued, displaying the projected tiles again. “Put the images back in their original positions.”

Sloane swallowed hard, fighting the growing sickness, and forced herself to stare up at the tiles. There were forty-eight images in total, and she could see with a quick scan that they’d made twenty-three changes to what they’d initially displayed. They’d switched Galileo’s drawing of the moon with an image of the Mona Lisa. They’d swapped da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man with a portrait of a Ming Dynasty Emperor. She could see all twenty-three changes, all at once, and they all made her want to puke.

“I’m sorry,” she managed, struggling to make her voice audible. “I can’t.”

Eleanor said nothing.

“I said, ‘I can’t’—"

“Oh!” Eleanor cried, waving her glass emphatically. “Sloane, you don’t need to move the tiles yourself. Just verbally tell me where each should go. I’ll move them to the right spot with my iGlass.”

“No, I mean, I don’t know the answers,” Sloane said hurriedly. In tandem with the nausea grew an urgent need to flee the room.

“No worries,” Eleanor said. “No one gets them all. Just try your best, no pressure.”

Sloane stared hard at the Mona Lisa, which had been at the bottom row-center in the original configuration. “The Mona Lisa should be in the...upper-righthand corner,” she said.

She knew the portrait from the Ming Dynasty belonged in the lower left-hand corner. “And that portrait,” she pointed, her hand trembling. “From the Ming Dynasty. It should be in”

She waited, but Eleanor did not correct her obvious mistakes.

“Can I be done now?” Sloane whispered. In a flurry of robes, Wirat whisked her from the space, his comforting grip unable to suppress the tsunami of nausea that crested just as they reached the exit. The training room wall automatically parted to reveal the four other candidates, all sitting in the waiting area, staring at her expectantly. Debbie Allen, the blonde Texan whom Sloane had been paired with to give interviews—answering questions like “Who are you wearing?” and “Do you think you’ll fall in love in the past?” while the media asked the men what they hoped to accomplish—rushed toward her now, her arms outstretched.

Sloane wretched. She got most of it in the fiddleleaf fig planter, but a little bit of vomit got on Debbie Allen’s shoes.



In an alternate now ravaged by climate change, a time travel agency—the Program—sends carefully selected Heroes back in time on missions to reverse the course of history and prevent environmental damage before it happens.

SLOANE BURROWS secretly longs to be a Hero so she can restore the natural world of her childhood. Because of her superpower memory, Sloane is exactly what the Program is looking for, but her father raised her to believe her “freak memory” is a shameful flaw that should be hidden from the world. Sloane is desperate for her father’s approval, especially because he’s the only parent she has—her mother died giving birth to her. She gives up her dream of being a Hero and conceals her memory to the point of making herself sick.

Sloane’s only respite from the constant nausea and shame is her recurring dream, where a breathtakingly beautiful man knows about her memory and loves her more because of it. But when the man from her dream shows up in real life, Sloane’s world is turned upside down. He’s from the Program, and he wants her to do the one thing that will shatter her chances of ever winning her father’s approval—compete in a worldwide contest to become the next Hero, go back in time, and use her superpower memory to save the world.

Torn between pleasing her father and following her dreams, Sloane confronts her father, hoping for a reason to stay. When he belittles her like always, Sloane decides to travel to Basecamp, the Program's secret headquarters, where the man from her dream, BASTIAN, is waiting for her. An intern for the Program, Bastian is part of the superstar team that will train the next Hero for their mission to the past.

In the excerpted scene, Sloane arrives at Basecamp to take her assessment. If she outperforms all the other candidates during this mystery test, she’ll become the world’s 23rd Hero—and get to stay at Basecamp long enough to find out who Bastian really is.

Rebecca Anne Nguyen (she/her) is the co-author of Where War Ends (New World Library, 2019), a 2019 Foreword Indies Book of the Year Silver Award winner for Autobiography & Memoir. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, and on MSNBC, and her writing can be found in Mamamia, Frazzled, the Write Launch, and the Military Times. She lives in Milwaukee with two children, seven houseplants, and an incalculable number of Legos.