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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing/17

Chapter 17
I DON'T BOTHER to take my weapon. If this person wanted me dead, he could have killed me days ago. The man's gray hair gives the appearance of age, but his eyes and the lack of lines on his face tell me he is years younger than I first guessed. He's wearing a gray sleeveless shirt, which shows off strong arms, and brown loose-fitting pants. In his hand is a bag much like the ones that he has tossed over the fence to me.   Pushing my hair out of my face, I say, "Thanks for the food. "   The man smiles. "You're more than welcome. " I wait for him to continue, but the silence stretches between us.   Jamming my hands in my pockets, I ask, "Who are you?"   "I'm a friend who wants to see you survive this journey. My name isn't all that important. "   Maybe not to him. His unwillingness to share it with me sets me on edge. "Well, thanks again for the food. "   I turn on my heel to leave and hear, "If you wait, I'll explain why I can't tell you my name and why I want to help you. "   My feet stand still. I look at him and wait.   "My name will mean nothing to you, but it might mean something to those who evaluate your performance when this test is complete. And while I trust you would not willingly share my name with the Testing officials, you might not have a choice. "   "Why?"   "They told you about the interview after the fourth test?" He waits for me to nod. "Before the interview begins, they will give you a drug to encourage you to answer the questions honestly, without holding back anything you wish to keep secret. "   While there are things I've done during this test I would rather not talk about, nothing I've experienced thus far would cause me difficulty if I'm forced to speak. My ability to remove the bracelets might cause the Testers concern, but wouldn't they see that as a sign of my resourcefulness? Even this strange man and his gifts of food are not dangerous to me. Dr. Barnes stated we could not leave the testing grounds. Nowhere in the rules did he mention not accepting food thrown over the fence.   Straightening my shoulders, I say, "I have nothing to hide. "   "Are you sure of that, Cia?"   The sound of my name on this unknown man's lips makes my stomach clench. I had assumed my encounters with this man were random. The fact that he knows who I am suggests something entirely different. "How do you know who I am? Are you a Testing official?"   He laughs. "Far from it. I'm someone who believes the Test ing process is wrong and wants to help you survive — not just to the end of this test, but through the challenges the University will bring. "   Up until now my goal has been to survive the Testing in order to make it to the safety of the University. The idea that the University might be filled with more tests sends a chill straight to my heart. But while questions about the potential dangers of the University spring to my lips, I know this isn't the time to ask them. I will worry about that if and when the time comes.   Instead, I ask something equally if not more important. "If you are against The Testing, why are you throwing us food and water? Why not help us escape?"   "As I believe the esteemed Dr. Barnes explained, Testing candidates cannot leave the Testing ground. The fences are harmless enough until a Testing candidate goes over them. " The man reaches into his pants pocket and pulls a silver identification bracelet from his pocket. The symbol is a triangle with what looks like a drawing of a human eye at the center. A memory nags at me from after the third test. Tomas pointing out the students in his group. A boy with a shock of untamed brown hair and a sweet smile. "The boy scaled the fence about a hundred miles back. He was dead by the time he hit the ground. The only thing we could do was bury him the way you and your friend buried the girl candidate you found. "   My muscles go still. "Only a Testing official could know Tomas and I did that. "   "Not all Testing officials agree with the current procedures. One even disabled several skimmers in an effort to keep officials from arriving at their designated colonies in time to pick up candidates for The Testing. Unfortunately, the part we had him disable was not as difficult to repair as intelligence led us to believe. Otherwise you would still be in Five Lakes Colony and I would be having this discussion with a different candidate. "   Was he talking about Michal? Is he the one who told this gray-haired man about me? Something tells me asking will not get me the answer. This man is here for a purpose. I have already been away from the Testing officials' listening device for too long. Too much longer and they might question my stillness. It is time to learn what this man's purpose is.   "Why are we having this discussion?"   For the first time he smiles. "Because, Cia, we know your family has secrets you don't want the Commonwealth to know. " The bag he has been holding comes sailing over the fence. "Inside that bag is a small vial. It contains a liquid that we believe will counteract the interview drug. Take it the morning of the interview if you want to keep you and your family safe. "   The tacit threat to my family scares me to the core. But fear won't help me. I tamp it down. I look at the bag in my hand and then back at him. "How do I know this isn't another test?" If it is, the liquid in the vial will probably kill me. Punishment for a wrong answer.   "You don't. " There's sadness in his voice. "You have only my word that I am not part of the United Commonwealth. " He takes a step back from the fence. "Hide the vial in your spare clothing before you cross the finish line. One of my friends will make sure it isn't discovered by the Testing officials and is safely hidden in your possessions again before the interview begins. Good luck, Malencia. I hope we meet again. "   Without another word, he turns and walks away. I watch until he disappears into the tall grass before retrieving my identification bracelet and my Testing bag. The sun is starting to set. I need to get back to Tomas, but I take a moment to think over everything I heard as I empty the brown bag. Yes, there is a small, unmarked vial corked with a black stopper. Carefully, I unwork the stopper and take a sniff. It smells faintly of roses.   I shove the vial deep into my pants pocket and look at the other items. More water. Instead of bread and cheese, I find a small container of raspberries, a heaping bundle of wild carrots, and several small yellowish fruits that I think are pears. The wild carrots and raspberries are plants I might find here in this area. I wonder if the pears are as well. I move away from the fence, and after a fifteen-minute search, I find not only a pear tree but also a thick bush ripe with raspberries along with several spots where an abundance of wild carrots grow. The bag isn't food just for me. It's food to be shared. The man beyond the fence must also know I never told Tomas about the bread and cheese. The man knows a great deal.   He implied he also knows my family's secrets. Was he talking about my father's nightmares? The fact Zeen is smarter than all of us and that knowledge was hidden from Dr. Barnes and his Testing officials? That leaders of Five Lakes conspired to keep their graduating students safe? Knowing there is a chance I might be asked about those things in my interview makes me break out in a cold sweat. Or maybe this is all just another test. Maybe the man is trying to scare me into drinking the liquid in the vial and failing.   This is a problem I will have to address at some point. But not now.   Arms filled with supplies, I trek back to camp and wait for Tomas's reaction to the bounty. I'm not disappointed as he helps me put the food on the ground and then picks me up and swings me around. The shadows of the past two days disappear, and it feels like we are back home in Five Lakes — safe and happy and whole.   We eat the last of the roasted meat and fill our stomachs with juicy raspberries and pears. We plan to collect more tomorrow before heading into the city. I check Tomas's backside, which seems much improved, and my own arm, which doesn't look so good and hurts like hell. I wash the wound clean in the pond, swallow a couple of pain pills to ward off the worst of the sting, and slather on more ointment knowing deep down that it will not do much good. But I have to try. Right? Tomas helps me rewrap my bandage, teases me about the berry stains on my mouth, and kisses them away. He is so like his old self that I find myself yearning to tell him my secrets. But I can't. Not yet. First I need to know. "What happened with you and Will after I left?"   "Will told you what happened. "   "A lot more happened than either of you mentioned. "   I feel Tomas stiffen. "Are you calling me a liar?"   "No," I assure him. "But I know you and Will weren't exactly getting along when I rode off. " Tomas moves his arm from around my shoulders, gets to his feet, and stares into the distance, doing his best to shut me out. Which hurts. I scramble to my feet and touch his shoulder. "Look, I know it's hard to trust someone under these circumstances, but I trust Will. "   "You shouldn't. " Tomas's eyes meet mine with blazing passion. "Didn't your father warn you not to trust anyone?"   Tomas's words stop my heart. He knows that someone is listening and that if by luck they hadn't been paying attention to our conversation before we reached Tosu City, then not taking care with his words now might put my father — my whole family — in jeopardy.   Swallowing hard, I say, "I trust you. And my father warned me that competition might blind some people, but that doesn't mean Will is one of them. "   "How can you be so sure? Because he makes jokes and was upset when his brother didn't make it through the first round? So what? You don't know what he's capable of. When we found your snares, he unpacked his bag to look for his knife. In the bag he also had a purification kit, a medical bag, a pair of binoculars, and a map book like mine. "   "And?"   "The numbers don't add up. We were allowed to choose three items. Three that we could add to two personal items. The knife. The gun. Add them to the others. "   I do the math. "Maybe he found the knife or binoculars along the way. "   "They both have Testing logos etched into them. Just like your gun. My knife. Which means he ran into at least one Testing candidate. "   The girl we buried flashes in front of me. I shake the image away. "Maybe a candidate lost their bag or he saw one asleep and decided to take their things. " Not exactly an admirable choice, but one I can almost live with. "Look, people do strange things under pressure. Just because he had a few extra possessions doesn't mean he hurt whoever he came across. The two of you met a candidate while I was gone and nothing happened to him, right?"   "Yeah. " Tomas drops his gaze and says, "Right. "   With all my heart I want to believe him. But I'm not sure I do. Tomas, who from my earliest memories has always been calm and collected, is filled with tension and anger and despair.   Trying to sound upbeat, I add, "I know you don't trust Will, but I want you to consider that there might be another explanation. The United Commonwealth is looking for a new generation of leaders. Even leaders have to trust sometime. " My tone, if not my words, seems to calm Tomas, and we settle back onto the ground to prepare for sleep — Tomas's arm wrapped around me, my head resting against his chest. But there is one question I have to ask before closing my eyes. One test I need Tomas to pass. "What was the other candidate's name?"   I feel Tomas's heart quicken under my cheek. His muscles tense. After a few moments, he whispers, "I don't think he said. If he did, I don't remember. "   He is lying. He would have asked for a name. He would have given his own in return. Habit. Common decency. The Five Lakes way. My stomach clenches with disappointment, and I fight the urge to retreat from his arms.   It is not surprising that both of us only pretend to sleep.   The snares are successful. Two rabbits and an opossum. While Tomas cleans and sets the game over a fire to roast, I gather more fruit and greens for our journey into the city. There are no morning kisses or gentle looks. Tomas is withdrawn as we pack up camp and begin to ride, which gives me lots of time to think.   The sky is overcast. My eyes drift more than once to the fence line as I look for signs of my mysterious benefactor. I'm not surprised when I don't see him. But I do believe he or someone he knows is watching. Rebels? He spoke of not being a member of the United Commonwealth. Of not agreeing with its methods of Testing. And yet he chose only to offer food and a vial of an unknown drug. Other than the friend who will keep the drug hidden, there is no offer of further assistance. No offer of escape. If he and the people like him could sabotage United Commonwealth skimmers, surely they could find a way to circumvent the penalty for escaping the test. Of course, according to the man my presence here is proof of their inability to beat the Testing officials. Still, even knowing the odds were against success, I believe there are candidates who are sufficiently scared, hungry, or ill and would leap at the chance to flee.   Or would they? We all left families back home. Families bound by the laws of the United Commonwealth. The government compensates our families when we leave for The Testing. I wonder if the law states what would happen to a family whose Testing candidate chose to escape.   A large metal arch towers over us as we follow the main road that travels around the outer rim of the city. The buildings stand taller than those in the city we passed through days ago, but these look to be in far worse shape. The scorched nature of some of the wreckage tells the story. This city was bombed.   According to Tomas's map book, the name of the city was St. Louis. Neither of us remembers if our history books say what kind of bomb was used here. Some bombs destroyed what was in their path. Others laid waste to water and soil. The worst contained poisons with potencies that, unless physically counteracted, do not fade over time. It is the last option that keeps our bicycles pointed to the west and our eyes fastened on the road that veers around the city. With a sufficient amount of water and food, we do not need to risk whatever tests this city contains.   The next few days we settle into a pattern of foraging for food, traveling, and camping. We find several small streams that help us wash away the stains of travel, and while we do not go hungry, our clothes begin to hang from our bodies. I wrap a long piece of cot sheet around the top of my pants to keep them from slipping onto my hips. Tomas is forced to do the same. We talk of only the most superficial things. Every once in a while I catch Tomas staring at me as though longing to say something. But he doesn't. And neither do I.   I jump at every sound even though there are no more animal attacks or strange humans — although twice we spot what look like other Testing candidates on the northern horizon. We pedal faster to avoid confrontation. The man from the other side of the fence does not appear again. Just day after day of travel. The shadows beneath Tomas's eyes get heavier. While he laughs and smiles, I can see the strain under everything.   My nightmares get worse. Friends, family, and foes find me in my dreams, but I am learning to bite back the screams that come with waking. I find myself touching the vial of liquid in my pocket to calm myself. More disturbing are the cuts on my arm. For the first few days I tell myself I am imagining the difference, but after a week passes, no amount of wishful thinking can change what is undeniable. The cuts have gotten worse. The scabs growing over them turn green and ooze a yellowish liquid. Whatever chemicals twisted the humans in this area have now infected me. I take more pain pills, drink more water, and hope I can make it to the end of this test without the infection doing permanent damage.   After more than a week of riding, we spot another large collection of buildings on the horizon. Here both the northern and southern fence lines are visible. The Testers are limiting the amount of space during these last two hundred miles. If there are other Testing candidates nearby, we are almost certain to come in contact with them.   Footprints and what look like tire tracks on the side of the road tell us at least two, maybe three, candidates have passed through this area. While we have moved fast, they have been faster. Now they could be lurking somewhere in this city's streets.   We wait until dawn before following their lead through the first streets. The city looks decayed, but the buildings are in moderately good repair. Until we turn a corner and the buildings come to an end. In their place is a deep crater that stretches as far as we can see. Ringing the edge of the crater are buildings like the ones we just passed through. Several streets deep. All that is left of a place where people once lived and worked and thrived.   We stare into the emptiness with our fingers clutching our handlebars. Miles and miles of scorched emptiness. While the land behind us is corrupted, there are still plants that have adapted. Things live. In front of me there is not a speck of plant life. Nothing lives here. I try to imagine what once stood in this space. How any leader could order a bombing that results in this — the kind of destruction that cannot be fixed with the right chemistry equation or a new breed of plant. The earth is resilient, but it's hard to imagine a time when this place will be anything but a terrible reminder of what we as a people can do.   With the crater stretching for miles, we have no choice but to take one of the roads that travel around it. This means going through the maze of streets filled with buildings. For no real reason, we choose to go to the right, walking our bicycles instead of riding. I am glad for the decision to walk. My arm is aching more. So is the rest of my body. The pain pills push back the chill for hours at a time, but it always returns. Maybe walking will help my body rest enough to fight the infection inside me.   After we zigzag through several blocks, I ask, "Do you think the people who bombed this city really understood the damage they were causing? Do you think they realized winning might mean killing everyone and everything — even themselves?"   Tomas shrugs. "Does the answer really matter?"   "Maybe," I say. During the past week, I've thought a lot about that question. Perhaps because the closer we come to the end of the test, the closer we are to becoming the next leaders of our generation. Many of my fellow candidates had demonstrated their belief that the end justifies the means. I have a hard time understanding that, but one thing is certain. The past cannot be changed. My nightly dreams are a testament to that. And sometime during the wakeful nights, I have realized that the length of this test is not arbitrary. The third test helped them learn what they needed to know about our ability to trust, strategize, and cooperate with others. From our behavior during that exam, I have no doubt the Testing officials could predict which candidates would use the provided weapons for survival and which would turn them on their fellow man during this test. While the fourth test measures many of the same areas as its predecessor, it's also designed to gauge not only the choices we make, but also how we live with those choices once we've made them. Do we learn from our mistakes and use that information to carry us successfully to the end of this exam, or will they swallow us under? From the shadows under his eyes and the slump of his shoulders, I know Tomas is being swallowed whole.   The image of Ryme's lifeless body flashes in front of me and I feel a stab of fear. Ryme was swallowed by whatever doubts plagued her. While I am not sure what memory is haunting Tomas, I am certain by the despair in his eyes that it has the power. I don't know what he has done, but whatever it is, he does not deserve to end up a victim of The Testing.   Taking a deep breath, I explain, "The whole point of this test was for us to see what terrible things were done and for us to learn from those mistakes. Right?" Tomas cocks his head to the side, and I forge ahead. "The best leaders make mistakes and then learn from them. The best leaders never make the same mistakes again. The only way you can learn is if you understand the mistakes that were made. "   Tomas looks down a street that ends at the crater and considers my words for a long while. When he looks back at me, I see some of the tension is gone. "I think the leaders knew they'd destroy the buildings and kill the people. The rest . . . " He sighs. "I can't believe they intended to completely destroy a world they wanted to live in. They had to realize they were making a mistake. They just didn't know how to stop. "   I look around at the buildings and nod. "Maybe that's the mark of a real leader. Admitting a mistake has been made and finding a way to stop it at all costs. "   We've traveled over halfway around our side of the circle when a shiver travels up my spine. I reach for the fever pills in my medical kit and shiver again. This isn't the fever. This is something very different. When I was little, my brothers made a game of talking me into doing things our mother wouldn't approve of — like sneaking bread from the pantry or taking her best sheet and turning it into a pirate's costume. I could always tell when Mom caught me by the tiny shiver I felt as her eyes settled on my back. The same shiver I feel now. Someone is watching.   Gaping windows, open doorways, cracks in the walls surround us. I see nothing in the ones we pass, but I slide my gun out of my bag anyway. The wind picks up. The sky turns gray. A storm is coming. Perhaps that is what is making the hair on my neck stand on end.   The wind whips a strand of hair free from the knot I've been wearing it in. I push the hair off my face, and that's when I see it. A face framed by a doorway. Large, intelligent eyes sunk in a wrinkled, sunbaked face. Tufts of dark brown hair on the head, the neck, the arm I see. My blood churns as I see the familiar razor-sharp claws at the end of the hand. Several inches long. Sharp. Poisonous.   The wind howls. No. Not just the wind. The wind has merely masked what I refused to hear as we walked. The low murmur of voices. Guttural sounds carried on the wind that tell me there is more than just this one. Slowly, I turn and study the shadows, counting the faces I see. Five. Ten. Two more in a second-story window. Too many for us to survive if they attack. But they haven't yet. They are waiting for something.   Tomas has yet to notice the faces. His eyes are fixed on the road, looking for danger ahead of us — not in the windows three stories up. I hold my breath as a light rain begins to fall. Tomas swears and suggests we climb on our bicycles so we can move faster. But I don't dare. Thus far the occupants of the buildings have done nothing more than watch. Perhaps walking seems unthreatening. But riding? I was riding when one attacked. If riding triggers their aggression, I will not repeat the offense.   "Cia, did you hear me? I think we should ride. "   I give a small shake of my head, put my hand on his arm, and whisper, "Look in the windows. " He stops walking. The quick intake of breath tells me he has spotted someone. Leaning closer, I say, "There are dozens of them. "   "They look almost human. " Tomas's hand fingers the hilt of his knife, and I see the watcher in the window shift.   "They are human. "   "How can you be sure?"   The rain falls harder, plastering the clothes to our bodies, making it more difficult to see the eyes following our every move. A watcher steps away from his spot in a doorway. His movements are fast and smooth. Tomas reaches again for his knife, but I put a hand on his arm and shake my head as the watcher comes to a stop ten feet behind us. His eyes are unblinking as he waits for our next move. My chest tightens and it's impossible to catch my breath as step by agonizingly slow step we begin to walk again. Thunder rumbles. The cuts on my arm burn. Two more watchers join the first in the street. They slowly follow behind us.   The rain falls harder still. Lightning streaks across the sky and reflects in the watchers' wide, never-blinking eyes. Another falls in behind us. Then another. Soon there are more than a dozen. Never moving faster than us. Walking with their strange hunched but fluid gait. They keep their distance, at least ten yards behind, but are ever present with their claws and their overwhelming numbers.   It is Tomas who first notices the distance between the watchers and us is growing wider. They do not leave the street, but their gait slows until it comes to a stop. Dozens of them stand in the street as we pick up our pace. Perhaps this too was a test. Maybe the Testers were curious to see whether we would attack these people without provocation — out of fear of the unknown instead of a real threat.   I see one more watcher in the doorway of a building twenty feet in front of us. Thunder rattles the windows as the watcher stares at us with unblinking eyes. I barely register the rattle of gunfire until the person's face is torn to shreds.