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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing/18

Chapter 18
STRONG ARMS PULL me to the ground. Tomas drapes himself over me, acting as a human shield, as the sound of gunfire continues. From the asphalt, I see the watcher's sightless, bloody body hit the ground. Then I hear the cries behind us. I do not know the words. But I understand. Outrage. Anger. The need for vengeance. The group is no longer dozens of yards behind us. They are moving forward. Fast.   Tomas scrambles to his feet first and holds out his hand. I take it as another rattle of bullets sparks the pavement and sends wounded watchers to their knees. The bullets chew apart limbs, torsos, heads — creating a gore unlike any I have ever imagined. The mutated humans shriek as bullets cut their comrades off at the knees. I catch a glimpse of blond hair, a tall, muscular build, and the dark metal machine gun atop a three-story building as Tomas pushes my bicycle toward me and yells to ride.   But I can't. I know the boy wielding the gun. It's Brick.   "Stop shooting," I scream, waving my arms to get his attention.   Cries of anguish come from windows and doors that line the streets and mix with my screams as more watchers arrive. Dozens and dozens of them. And while I should be scared of their vengeance, all I can do is scream for Brick to stop firing and stare at the horror he has wrought. It is impossible to tell that the tissue and flesh on the ground were just moments before standing in front of us. The smell of blood makes my stomach rebel. From the retching I hear next to me, I can tell Tomas is not in much better condition. Doubled over, I see the rainwater streaming down the road toward us swirling with red blood. Red. The same as ours. Human. All human. All dead.   Amid the thunder and the guttural cries, it takes me a minute to realize Brick is shouting down at us. "I have you covered, Cia. Run! Hurry. Get out of here before they attack you. Go!"   "Stop," I scream. Tears clog my throat. Revulsion threatens to choke me. All these people dead. Killed by a boy I helped to survive. "You're killing people. They weren't hurting us. They're just people. "   But Brick isn't listening. He has opened fire again, farther down the street, at people who despite this horrific provocation are not attacking. All the living want to do is care for the dead. And now they, too, are among the fallen.   Tomas grabs my arm. I lose my grip on my bicycle, and it clatters to the ground.   "Pick it up. We can't help them, Cia. We have to go. "   I barely keep my balance as I cast looks behind me, willing Brick to stop. But he doesn't. Rattles of gunfire echo through the air. How many more dead? Because of me. Because I saved Brick's life and he in turn believes he is saving mine.   More than once I stop pedaling as the enormity of the massacre I witnessed overwhelms me. Tomas's patient voice is the only thing that keeps me moving forward. All I want to do is curl into a ball and weep.   And I do. On the outskirts of the city, Tomas spots a small building that looks sound and insists we stay there for the night. The downpour has ended, but our clothing, hair, and shoes are soaked through. He finds enough wood to build a fire on the stone floor near a window and encourages me to change out of my wet clothes. I follow his request even though my other shirt is stained from my first encounter with those people — when I, too, killed.   My body isn't up for food, so I pull my legs tight against my chest and stare at the fire, trying to imagine my family safe and warm in front of theirs. Tomas insists on treating my arm. He digs out some pain pills and makes me take them. Maybe the pills will stop my body from shaking. Thunder still echoes in the city streets as Tomas tells me how much he loves me and holds me as I cry myself to sleep.   My dreams are filled with gunfire and rivers of blood. When I wake, I remember the dreams were real and nausea rolls through me. I know I need to eat, but my stomach curdles at the thought of meat. I force myself to eat a pear and drink some water. Our boots are still damp, but we put them on, store the rest of our belongings, and step outside. The sky is a brilliant shade of blue. The wind is cool and refreshing. There are even a few flowers blooming under the brilliant sun. A perfect day that mocks the horror of the night before.   Out of habit we consult the map, wheel our bicycles to the road, and begin to pedal. According to the Transit Communicator, we have just under two hundred miles before reaching the end of the test. We pedal hard, as much to reach the end as to get away from the death behind us. As we ride up hills, we can see the fence line to the north moving closer. Perhaps as little as a mile separates the two boundaries. Yes. Our Testers want us to face each other. I wonder whether the Testers will have to make a choice when this is over. With what I have seen, it will be a miracle if twenty of us cross the finish line alive.   We travel throughout the day with only minimal stops. My arm is worse. I am sweating more as we ride, and my fingers on my left hand grip the handlebars with less assurance. But I force my legs to move around and around. I will our wheels to go faster and faster to the end. We meet no other candidates during the day, and there are 150 miles left to travel when we stop. Tomas holds me close again at night, kisses me gently, and whispers that if we keep up this pace we can make it to the end in three days. Just three days. I tell myself I can make it and hope I am right.   The sky is gray when we once again set out. My legs feel weaker, my arm more inflamed. I take more pain pills. Use more ointment. Know that both are useless against the poison festering inside me. Will they know how to treat the wounds when I get to Tosu City? Tomas says they will, but he will say almost anything to keep me from giving up. Funny, but giving up is the last thing I will do. Not after everything we have witnessed and the things we have been forced to do. Giving up would be like admitting none of it mattered. And it needs to matter. It needs to be remembered. But, now that we are so close to the end, I worry about the memory wipe my father said is coming. As we ride, I recall everything I've learned about the workings of the brain from our teachers and from Dr. Flint and when we break for lunch, I tell Tomas I'm tired and need a nap. Instead of lying down, I take off my bracelet and walk fifty yards away. After a few minutes, Tomas does the same.   "What's up? Is your arm worse? We can slow our pace a little if you need a break. "   I ignore the pain that has moved from my arm to my shoulder and down my torso and say, "We're almost to the end. "   His face breaks out into a wide smile. That familiar single dimple makes me want to cry. "I know. Another day. Maybe two and we should be there. " He feels my forehead and frowns, which only tells me what I already know. I'm burning up. "They'll fix up your arm as soon as we get there, Cia. You'll be good as new in no time. "   I might be. But I can't worry about that now. "According to Dad, they're also going to fix our memories so we don't remember any of this. "   "Maybe taking away these memories isn't as insidious as we first thought. Maybe they're trying to help us survive. Do you really want to live remembering Malachi die or watching Brick with the machine gun?"   "No," I say honestly. A lifetime of nightmares isn't my idea of a good time. But neither is being reprogrammed to forget what I lived through. What Malachi died for . . . What Brick did for me . . . "But I need to remember. Forgetting that it happened doesn't change anything. Nothing can change the past. My father's nightmares prove the memory wipe isn't complete. Now instead of being haunted by what he did and didn't see and do, he can only guess and wonder. Isn't that worse?"   Tomas kicks at the ground in front of him. I can see him struggling with my words and I can understand why. The idea of forgetting is seductive.   Looking up, he says, "Your father's and Dr. Flint's nightmares make me think the memory wipe isn't being done with surgery. "   I tend to agree. Dr. Flint says that the long-term and short-term memory centers of the brain are easy to find, but that every brain is slightly different. Trying to alter a specific path in the brain that only affects three or four weeks of memory would be tricky on one patient, let alone the hundreds who have graduated from the University.   "Drugs? An audio pulse? Hypnosis?" Counteracting all the options seems impossible, especially out here.   "My bet is drugs. "   So is mine, especially after talking to the man on the other side of the fence. I consider telling Tomas about the man, the vial he gave me and the truth serum the Testers will dispense to us. Withholding the information feels like a betrayal. Only, I don't know how to explain why I have not shared this information with Tomas up until now. I had good reasons, but Tomas might not understand. The last thing we need right now is hurt feelings or recriminations. I will have to find another time to tell him.   Instead of sharing my secrets, I ask, "How can we fight a drug we don't know or understand?"   "I don't know if we can. I guess once we get back to the Testing Center we'll have to figure out how they plan on administering it. Maybe one of the staff will tell us if we ask in the right way. If they put the drug in water or something, we'll have to act like we drank it. Then pretend we don't remember anything from before our arrival at The Testing. " He takes a step toward me and runs a hand over my cheek. "I've done and seen things out here I don't want to relive the rest of my life, but I can't imagine not remembering the first time I kissed you. "   His lips find mine with a passion that takes my breath away. Maybe it's the fever that causes me to shiver as he kisses my cheek, my neck, my lips. But I don't think so. I wrap my arms tight around his neck and return his kisses with my own — hot, urgent, needy. A deep yearning fills me as I struggle to get closer, although we are wrapped together so tight, I doubt air could pass between us. But it doesn't feel like enough. And when Tomas steps away, we are both left panting and wanting more.   But more will have to wait. We've been away from our microphones for long enough. Any longer and the Testing officials will wonder about our silence. Tomas places one last, incredibly sweet kiss on my lips, takes my hand, and walks me back to our camp.   When we arrive, I pretend to wake up, ask questions about what happened while I was asleep, and listen with a smile as Tomas weaves a tale about a squirrel he tried to capture. I don't know if those listening are amused, but I am.   We eat lunch and mount our bicycles, hoping to travel another thirty miles before dark. Only, I'm not sure I'm going to make it that far. The pills are no longer controlling the sizzling pain in my arm. Or if they are having an impact, my arm is worse than I imagined. Ten miles along, I find my body slowing down. Tomas encourages me to keep pedaling, and I do try. But my pace doesn't pick up. It is all I can do just to stay balanced and moving forward.   Another ten miles along the road, it is Tomas who stops and points out a shape running along the northern fence line. I squint into the sunshine, trying to make out the details of who it might be. Certainly another Testing candidate. By the gait I believe the candidate is male. Tomas then points behind us. Far in the distance is another figure stumbling along the road. Friend or foe? We keep moving forward, hoping to avoid answering the question.   Two more miles and I can no longer pedal. My head is spinning. My throat is dry. The wounds on my arm scream so loud it is hard to focus on anything else. I tell Tomas I have to stop.   Unwrapping the bandage, I prepare for the worst and find it. The wounds are swollen and hot to the touch. When I was a kid, I fell and opened a large gash on my leg. Dr. Flint was away from the colony, so Mom patched up the wound and made me stay in bed. Several days later, my leg looked a lot like my arm currently does. Luckily, Dr. Flint had returned and knew what to do. He gave me a small dose of something for the pain, broke open the scab, and squeezed yellow and white pus out of the wound along with a small piece of metal. The contaminated metal was the source of the problem.   I'm certain the scabs on my arm now trap whatever poison is infecting me. And there is no Dr. Flint. Only Tomas, me, and my need to survive.   Tomas starts a fire. He boils water and pieces of the towel I took from the Testing Center to use for bandages since I have used all the ones in the medical kit. Meanwhile, I sit down, take several more pain pills, and ask Tomas for the scabbard to his knife. He gives me a strange look, but slides the knife out, unstraps the case, and hands it over. Before I can question what I'm about to do, I bite down on the thick leather, grab the top of my left arm, and squeeze.   Had I not been seated, the pain would have brought me to my knees. As it is, my stomach heaves, my eyes tear, and my lungs gasp for air as my fingers dig into my flesh. Bit by bit the scabs break free of the skin and pus — yellow and green and swirling with milky-looking blood — streams out. I gag at the stench of meat left too long in the sun. I realize the meat smell is coming from my arm and begin to cry. But I don't stop squeezing. Pus runs down my arm. Tomas takes the bandage I removed earlier, dips it in water, and begins to dab away the infection as it oozes out. But no matter how quickly he works, there is more to take its place.   The world swims in and out of focus. I double over from the pain. And still I squeeze. My fingers move alongside the middle of the wounds and squeeze again. Then lower still.   Tomas talks to me, but his voice sounds miles away. I can't make out his words. Time loses meaning as I force the infection from my body drop by putrid yellow drop. I only stop when the wounds stream blood red. No yellow. No green or white. No infection — for now.   I free my fingers from their viselike grip and let Tomas clean the stinging open cuts with hot water. He uses the last of the ointment and wraps my arm in sterile wet cloths. He rocks me back and forth and whispers that everything will be okay. That I should sleep. He'll make sure I stay safe.   My dreams are filled with equal combinations of horror and happiness. Ryme and Malachi help me bury the girl without eyes. Zeen forgives me for stealing from him and reminds me to call home with the Transit Communicator when I get the chance. Roman grins as he walks through a door and abandons me to a group of watchers who scratch me over and over with their claws and then explode before my eyes. My father's arms rock me for hours the way he did when I was little. The rocking stops. He cocks his head to the side and tells me I have to get up. Someone is here.   My eyes snap open.   I can feel Tomas breathing in the dark beside me — slow, steady breaths that speak of a deep, restoring sleep. Taking care with my arm, I push my body to a seated position. I flex my fingers on my injured hand. They move easier than yesterday. The rest of the arm and shoulder doesn't feel as swollen, and either the medication has finally kicked in or the worst of the pain is gone. I blink back tears of relief, and out of the corner of my eye see something shift in the shadows. Holding my breath, I wait for it to move again. I catch a glimpse of its size in the fading moonlight. Big. Human. One of the mutated inhabitants of this area or a fellow Testing candidate? From the way the shadow moves, I think it's a candidate.   Our fire has burned out and we are camped in a ditch behind a set of bushes, which probably makes it hard to spot us. But daylight isn't far away, and the candidate doesn't look like he's in a hurry. He's slowly picking his way across the ground about fifty yards away and is coming in our direction.   Slowly, I reach out my arm, trying to find my Testing bag. I am panicked when I realize it's not nearby. Tomas must have moved it after I'd fallen asleep. And with it, my gun.   I squint into the darkness, trying to locate the bag, but its dark color camouflages it from sight. Without knowing our new neighbor's intentions, I don't dare move around. Lying back on the ground, I nudge Tomas and whisper in his ear, "Another candidate is out there. " His eyes spring open, alert and fearful. Then he nods to let me know he understands. Together we hold our breath and wait.   The snap of twigs and the rustle of leaves tell us our fellow candidate is closer. The first gray rays of dawn chase the darkness as I peer under the bushes. No one is there.   Tomas raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. He doesn't see him either. The other candidate must have already passed us by and is traveling toward Tosu City.   "I think we're safe," Tomas whispers. A branch snaps under him as he sits up.   I hear the whistling of the knife flying through the air a moment before I see it in the pale light. That extra second saves my life as I dive to the side and watch the blade sail into the bushes behind me. Our attacker gives an angry shout as I scramble to my feet and look around for my Testing bag. Tomas draws his knife and races forward as I spot the bag sitting on the ground next to my bicycle over fifteen feet away. The sound of metal on metal tells me our attacker has another weapon and Tomas and he are now engaged in battle.   Tomas cries out as the attacker's long, wide knife bites into his side. And that's when I get a look at the other candidate. His face is thinner and his cheeks hollow, but I would recognize that sneer anywhere. Roman. And now he is pulling his knife back and preparing to strike Tomas again.   My fingers fumble with the fastenings of my bag as blade sings against blade. I frantically dig through my belongings and hear another shout. This time Roman is the one bleeding, but he doesn't grip his wounded arm or flee. Letting out an angry growl, Roman lowers his head, charges, and tackles Tomas to the ground. A scream rips from my throat as a knife barely misses Tomas's neck. For a moment I am paralyzed, watching the two wrestle in an effort to gain the upper hand. And Roman does. He pins Tomas to the ground and raises his knife just as I pull my gun from my bag and take aim.   A shot rings out. Blood blooms on the right temple of Roman's forehead. The sneer is gone, replaced by surprise and then emptiness as the knife drops from his hand and he pitches forward — dead.   Holding his side, Tomas crawls out from under the dead boy and lets out a sigh of relief at being safe. But we aren't safe. Tomas doesn't know what I know. I didn't take aim in time. I was not the one who fired the gun.