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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing/13

Chapter 13
AT THE FIRST hint of light we are up, packing our bags, storing them on our new bicycles, and slowly riding off to the southwest. Arms wrapped tight around each other last night with our weapons a breath away, we whispered assurances that the screamer was far in the distance. That we were safe from whatever caused the outburst.   While Tomas's wound appears to be better, I can tell he is having a hard time finding a comfortable spot on his bicycle. Without the rubber tires to absorb some of the friction caused by riding over stones, twigs, and other debris, the ride is a bumpy one. There are also more trees, bushes, and intact houses the farther we get from Chicago. So we decide to head due south, where Tomas's map claims a large roadway used to exist. Even a road in disrepair will be easier to navigate than the terrain we're currently riding on. The other reason for our decision remains unspoken. Last night's scream seemed to come from this direction. We are looking for the girl whose scream kept us alert through the night. If she is injured, we have to help. I couldn't live with myself if we didn't at least try.   A flock of crows circling something from above makes my throat tighten. Without a word, we turn and pedal through the patchwork brown grass to whatever has attracted the birds. When we find it, there is no question about helping the screamer or what we would do if she asked to join our team. The body sprawled on the ground is past asking for anything. I think I remember the girl marching in front of Malachi and out the lecture hall door to take the first round of tests. Long white-blond hair that is currently matted with dirt and streaks of blood. Eyes that might have once been blue now bloody sockets as the birds feast. And there in her stomach, a sight that turns my nausea and pity to icy-cold fear.   A crossbow quarrel.   Her Testing bag is empty. Either she lost the contents, which I doubt, or the crossbow shooter took them after bringing down his prey. Which means he is out there somewhere, hunting.   "We should clear out of here. " Tomas gives my hand a squeeze as I stare down at the girl. "The road can't be too far away now. "   "You're right. We should go. The crossbow shooter might be nearby. " And yet I do not move. I cannot leave this girl to be pecked away piece by piece. While she is beyond caring, I am not. She has family. Friends. People who love her somewhere — who think she is safely ensconced in Tosu City, showing off her skills in math and science. Those people might never know her fate, but their love for her and hers for them demand respect. This is what my mother and father taught me. It's the Five Lakes Colony way of life.   Tomas finds a crack in the earth large enough for this slight girl's body. Together, we chase away the carrion crows and carry her to what will be her final resting place. I fumble with her identification bracelet until I find the right place to press. The clasp opens and the bracelet with its symbol — a triangle with a small eight-spoked wheel — falls into my hand. We then set her body into the fissure. An hour of daylight is lost as we stack rocks over her to keep the birds and other scavengers from claiming the rest of her remains.   I mark the grave with a large reddish rock and wish I knew the girl's name so I could at least bid her a proper goodbye. Instead, I clutch her bracelet to my chest and offer my silent promise that no matter the pressures or fears that come, I will not put aside the beliefs I grew up with in order to pass. Nor will I forget this girl's fate.   Tomas's jaw clenches as he gives the grave a final look before we mount our bicycles. Silently, we travel through the rest of the day toward the road we hope to find somewhere over the horizon. We stop only to test and purify water, gather dandelions and wild carrots, and eat the last of the opossum and our final apples. My legs are trembling with exhaustion, but the memory of the dead girl and her sightless eyes keeps me pushing the pedals over rocks and underbrush until darkness falls.   By late morning on the following day, we find the road. It's a wide paved path that travels far beyond what we can see, which should make me happy. Instead, the condition of the road fills me with dread. There are no holes. No breaks in the asphalt. Other than recent patches here and there, I see no signs of disrepair. This time Tomas doesn't question me as I dismount my bicycle.   "Do you think this is another trap?" I ask.   "After the pond, anything's possible. " He cocks his head to one side. "But I don't think so. Look down there. "   I squint in the direction he's pointing in and see it. Far in the distance is a line of bright blue cutting across the countryside. The southern Testing fence line. The one we are not supposed to cross beyond.   "I bet they fixed this road in order to install the fence. " Tomas digs into his bag and pulls out his book. "According to the map, this road goes all the way to the southwestern side of the old state and connects with another road that leads right to Tosu City. The officials have to have an easy way of getting back and forth from Tosu City to the start of the test. I'm betting this is it. "   The reasoning is sound. But it isn't Tomas's logic that sways me. It's the map itself, which tells me this road leads through several major cities on the way to Tosu City. My father's most vivid nightmare took place in a city where the buildings still stood. If the Testing officials are going to lay traps for us, those cities are the most logical places to set them.   "Let's throw a few rocks onto the road," I say. "If it doesn't explode, we should try it. "   Tomas laughs and looks around for some ammunition. His arm is better than mine, but between the two of us we land about a dozen rocks onto the pavement without incident, and we decide to trust it. After riding over twigs, rocks, and tree roots, pedaling over the smooth surface is like heaven. After the horror of burying the unnamed girl, I am glad for the wind and sun on my face. The freedom of riding fast. No matter the daunting number of miles that we still have to cross, I am glad to be alive.   After the initial joy of riding on the pavement passes, I realize taking the road has not only improved our speed. It has also increased our visibility to whoever might be watching from the thickets of trees and abandoned buildings along the way. I hope the crossbow shooter and any others intent on removing the competition have not yet found speedy transportation.   We ride over a long bridge that spans a wide, opaque river, and I suggest we camp near the water for the night. It's earlier than we normally make camp, but I am dirty, my hair is matted with grime and sweat, and my legs are starting to cramp. The abundance of water means an opportunity to feel clean for the first time in days. It's also a good place to forage for food and maybe even trap game.   Tomas is more than willing to stop, especially when he checks Zeen's device and sees we've traveled just over forty-five miles in a single day. We are now a seventh of the way to Tosu City. While it's still far, the bicycles and the road we travel give us both a more optimistic view of this test.   The river — like all untreated water sources — is tainted. But one look into the swirling waters tells us that at least some species of fish have adapted to the contaminants. While the contaminants make it dangerous to eat the fish raw, a pan and a fire will make them more than edible. I roam the banks of the river, gathering plants for dinner, while Tomas attaches a hook from his tool kit to a braided strip of sheet. He goes fishing using the last bits of our opossum as bait. By the time I return with a pot filled with wild onions, pickerel weed, and cattail roots, Tomas has caught and cleaned three medium-sized fish — two catfish and one that looks similar to the wide-mouth bass we catch near home. We boil the cattail roots and pickerel weed, fry the wild onion and fish, and have a feast.   With the sun still an hour or two from setting, I decide to wash. Our tests have determined the water contaminant is mild and won't affect skin on contact so I strip down to my undergarments and wade into the cool water. The current is surprisingly strong. I don't venture far from the bank as I scrub the mud, dust, and sweat from my body and the clothes I've been wearing for the past few days. When I climb out, I give myself a few minutes to air-dry before pulling on my second set of clothing and hanging the wet ones over a branch to dry.   I'm about to call to Tomas that I'm finished with my bath when I see him still and quiet, positioned behind a clump of bushes on the hill that leads to the road. His muscles are taut. His hand clutches the hilt of his knife. He has spotted something.   Gripping my handgun, I am careful to step softly — avoiding the rocks and branches, keeping to the grassy patches that will deaden my tread. Tomas jumps as I touch his shoulder, but then he points far down the road in the direction we have already traveled.   People. Three of them. At this distance, it is hard to tell whether they are male or female. But their feet drag on the ground, telling us they are tired, hungry, and possibly dehydrated. Even with the slow pace the three will be here before the sun sets.   "Do you want to pack up and move farther away from the road or should we stay put and see if they notice us?" Tomas asks.   "What do you think?"   Tomas frowns. "They look pretty tired to me. If I didn't know about our crossbow friend, I'd say flag them down and see if we can help. They won't expect us to travel with them since they're on foot and we're on bicycles. Still . . . "   I can finish his thoughts. There are candidates out there willing to shoot. To kill. To get a passing grade on this test no matter the cost. But we are not like them. As if to prove it, I say, "Why don't you catch a few more fish in case they make it this far before nightfall. They're going to be hungry. "   Tomas's eyes narrow as he studies the trio. After a moment, he agrees.   There are five fish roasting over coals when the three candidates step off the bridge onto our side of the river. All three look vaguely familiar. One gangly, freckled red-haired boy. Two girls. One is tall with olive skin and short dark hair. The other has long ash-blond hair and is several inches shorter. All three look as though they are ready to drop from exhaustion.   "Are you hungry?" I ask, stepping out from my hiding place.   Tomas is still behind the bushes with the knife poised in his hand. We agreed that the trio might be more inclined toward aggression if they saw both of us. I hope a single, smallish girl will inspire them to think before they react. The three don't look surprised at my appearance. I suppose the smell of food cooking alerted them to the presence of another human being. But their eyes gleam with terror as they notice the gun in my hand. I feel bad, but I don't lower it. I'm not that naïve. "You look like you're hungry and tired. I have fish cooking and some water down by the river if you'd like to make camp here tonight. "   The tall red headed boy speaks first. "Why would you want to help us?"   I give them the only answer I have. "It's what I was raised to do. "   Whether they believe the honesty of my words or they are just so hungry they can't resist the smell of the cooking fish, the trio follows me off the road. I warn them I'm not traveling alone, and while the shorter of the girls looks terrified at the sight of Tomas and his knife, the others don't appear concerned. Especially not when they spot the food and water waiting for them. They keep their bags close at hand as they sit on the ground. The tall girl starts to cry when I say, "Help yourself to the food. "   In between mouthfuls of fish, the tall girl tells us her name is Tracelyn. The other two are Stacia and Vic. All three are from Tulsa Colony. They were sitting together in the lecture hall when Dr. Barnes showed the map of the fourth test and, like us, they set up a meeting point. For them it was the fence line directly south of the starting location. It took them two days to find one another and they've been traveling near the road ever since, only leaving it to look for food and water. Food has been scarce, and they haven't wanted to venture far from the road to find more familiar plant life. The road has been their greatest source of safety since they can see people coming and hide if necessary.   "We were hiding in an abandoned building when you rode past," Vic admits, taking another helping of fish. "I thought you were miles and miles ahead, so it never occurred to me to look for bicycle tracks on the side of the road. I should have been more careful, but the smell of food distracted me. You guys seem to be playing things straight, but not everyone is. "   "We know. " Tomas meets Vic's eyes. The two seem to size each other up.   Vic looks at the knife in the scabbard on Tomas's belt, at the gun resting in my lap, and nods. "Someone took a couple potshots at me while I was getting out of the city," he says.   "With a gun or a crossbow?" I ask.   Tracelyn's eyes widen. "Someone's shooting at people with a crossbow? I just don't understand how anyone can do that kind of thing. I mean, the Testing committee said they're going to evaluate us on the choices we make. They can't possibly give someone a passing grade for shooting the competition. What kind of leader would that person be?"   "A strong one. " This from Stacia, who until now has sat cross-legged on the ground, eyes firmly fixed on her food. "The Fourth Stage of war would never have happened if the president of the United States had attacked the Asian Alliance. Instead, he tried to broker a worldwide coalition even when his own advisers said it was useless. He was a pacifist when the country needed aggression. "   Tomas shakes his head. "Striking first would have guaranteed a strike by the Asian Alliance. He knew the damage the first Three Stages of war had caused. He had to try and head off what he was certain would be the destruction of the world. "   "Fat lot of good it did. " Stacia laughs. "Isn't that the point the Testing committee was making when they dropped us in one of the destroyed cities? They're looking for candidates with a killer instinct. "   "I don't believe that," I say. "My father passed The Testing, and he's a pacifist. He believes in creating, not destroying. "   Stacia shrugs. "Well, maybe he lied in his evaluation and told the committee he took a few of the candidates out while making his way back to civilization. I mean, how are they going to know he lied? It's not like they can see what we're doing out here. "   Or can they? I remember the camera in the skimmer. The ones in the log cabin we lunched in. The cameras in our sleeping quarters back at the Testing Center. The most direct route to Tosu City from Chicago stretches seven hundred miles. Tomas figures there is a twenty- or thirty-mile stretch of land in between the fence lines. There is no way the Testers have planted enough cameras in the landscape to cover every inch of ground. But what if they don't need to? What if there is another way to keep track of our actions?   The conversation shifts from The Testing to talk of home. Tomas, Vic, and Tracelyn share information about our two colonies. Tulsa Colony has more than seventy thousand people living in the southern half of what used to be Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the countryside that stretches beyond the city limits. There is an oil refinery still active in Tulsa that Vic's father works at. Tracelyn's parents both work at the power plant — the largest operational plant in any of the colonies. Stacia doesn't seem interested in sharing information about her family. She just lies back on the ground and stares at the sky as the stars begin to shine through the haze. I wonder what she is thinking as the boys compare weapons. Both girls have knives. Vic has a handgun like mine. I'm glad they've been honest about their protection, but I have to wonder if I will sleep knowing candidates I don't fully trust are armed.   We leave the fire burning as we assign pairs to keep watch as the others sleep — Vic and Tomas, me and Tracelyn. Stacia doesn't even question not being assigned watch duty as she curls up in a ball and falls asleep. I give my gun to Tomas, since he has first watch, and close my eyes while wondering if these people are worthy of the little trust we have given them. If not, I doubt I will live to see the morning.   But I do.   Tracelyn and I are awakened after several blissful hours of sleep and together watch the sun rise on a new day. In the peacefulness, I learn that if she makes it to the University, Tracelyn wants to be a teacher. She is also in love with a boy back home and was planning on marrying him. He wasn't chosen for The Testing, which means they will most likely never see each other again.   "You're lucky both you and your boyfriend were chosen," she says with quiet sincerity.   "Tomas isn't my boyfriend. " I feel the blush on my cheeks.   "You could have fooled me. " She gives me a wide smile. "I think he's in love with you. "   "He's just watching out for me. You know, since we're from the same colony," I say, but I can't help the thrill I feel at her words. Deep down I hope she's right, because with every day that passes I am more certain that I am falling in love with him.   She changes the subject and we talk about our families, the tests we've taken thus far, and the distance we still have to travel in order to pass this test. She seems so genuinely sweet and a touch too trusting, which coming from me is saying something. I share our experience with the clean pond of water and the perfectly green glade of grass that ultimately exploded. Whether or not she believes me, I know I've tried to help make her aware of the dangers out here.   As the sun rises, so do our companions. Stacia sits far away from us as we eat breakfast. Tomas and I barely rate a glance as we say goodbye and head out before the others can follow. We find the thicket where we hid our bikes, carry them to the road, and begin to pedal. As the miles pass, I cannot help but think of the candidates we left behind and wonder if they will cross the finish line. There is a quiet determination about Stacia that makes me think she'll make it, but something about her fierce smile and the logic she ascribes to the Testing committee gives me concern for her companions.   As our bicycles eat up the miles, I think again about how the Testing committee will evaluate us when we arrive back in Tosu City. From everything I have seen thus far, I cannot believe Dr. Barnes and the other officials would be content with candidate reports on what occurred during the test. Which means somehow we are being monitored. If not all the time, then off and on. Enough for them to make their decisions.   By the time we pull off the road and find an abandoned farm to make camp at, I am certain I know how the Testers are keeping track of us. But I'll have to wait to check my theory until we have settled in for the night. If I'm right, the Testers will know if I deviate from the routine Tomas and I have set since starting our journey.   There are clouds gathering to the west that indicate a storm is coming, and neither Tomas nor I have any interest in sleeping in a downpour. A faded, gray wooden barn that tilts to the left catches our eye. Despite the leaning walls, the structure appears to be sound.   We step into the barn and startle a group of wild chickens. Four gunshots later we have three of them ready to be plucked and roasted. Their nests yield four light brown eggs, which we save for breakfast tomorrow. I try hard to act normal as we make and eat dinner, although Tomas shoots me more than one questioning look as we work. Finally, dinner is over. As I store leftovers in my bag, I use the opportunity to dig for something else. The minute my fingers close over it, my heart skips in anticipation and I pull it out into the light.   The identification bracelet I took from the girl we buried.   Every Testing candidate has one — two, actually, since a smaller band with our symbol is attached to our bags. We've all been instructed to wear them at all times. Since the clasps are hard to detect, I am certain most Testing candidates have heeded this rule. The bracelets are our identification. Could they also be an invisible leash designed to tell the Testers where we are and what we are doing?   The bracelet is a quarter of an inch thick and made of a silver metal. The disk affixed to the top contains an etching of the Testing candidate's design and the back . . .   There. In the middle of the area directly behind the etched Testing symbol are three small holes. Pinpricks, really. So small, I would never have noticed them if I hadn't been looking for something specific. But they tell me what I need to know.   Someone is listening.