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The Testing 25
Tomas fared better with his wounds. Whatever medical advancements they used left him free from scars. Although, from the way he and Will look at each other, I wonder if more scars aren’t inevitable. I’m thankful Testing protocol dictates that all weapons be removed from the candidates’ possession immediately after the completion of the fourth test. This rule is the only reason I can close my eyes at night.
I see Will’s eyes following me from across the room. When he notices me watching him, he gives me a smile and winks. He’s seated with a group of candidates, most of whom I’ve never spoken to. One is Brick. He has yet to speak to me and I am glad because I am not sure I could speak without seeing the massacre he wrought in my name. I wonder if he understands that the lives he took were human and if their bloody faces haunt his dreams the way they do mine.
On the other side of the room is Stacia. Her face is just as unreadable as it was during the test. She doesn’t sit with her travel companion, Vic, but instead is seated alone. Redheaded Vic is seated far across the room. Tracelyn, the girl who missed her boyfriend and so badly wanted to be a teacher, is nowhere to be found. I can only guess that whatever happened to her is the reason for the haunted look in Vic’s eyes and the knowing smile on Stacia’s lips.
Tomas and I do not talk to the others as we wait for the fourth test to end and the final interviews to begin. We spend mealtimes together and, when allowed, walk the grounds outside. In between talk of home, Tomas whispers in my ear that he might have found a way to retain our memories. While he was in the hospital, he overheard his doctors talking to a Testing official about the medication he and some of the other wounded candidates were taking. The Testing official was concerned because the medication had been known to interfere with the upcoming Testing procedures. He insisted Tomas and the others be strictly monitored so their systems will be clear of the drugs by the time the final University selections are made.
“They thought I was sleeping. The next time the nurses brought my medication, I pretended to take it. I managed to save one of my pills. I’m going to try to get a few more during the next couple medical checks. Some of the nurses are more easily distracted than others. It’ll depend on which ones I get.”
I’m not surprised that Tomas’s dimpled smile and clear gray eyes could distract the nurses from their duties. His kisses are certainly a distraction to me. Over the next two days, Tomas adds one more pill to his stash and five more candidates cross the white finish line. Each time one walks in, I feel my heart lift—hoping the last of the Five Lakes candidates has made it back. But it is never Zandri’s face in the doorway. And when an announcement comes during dinner, telling us interviews will begin tomorrow, I know she won’t be returning.
That night Zandri joins the cast of my nightmares. Her blond hair is spread out on the cracked brown earth. Her mouth open with surprise as birds peck away pieces of her eyes.
My eyes snap open as I bite back a scream. It takes me several minutes to realize I’m in the Testing Center. No longer on the plains. No longer in danger. Then I remember.
The interviews are today. The danger is far from over.
I stare at the ceiling, holding my Testing bag until dawn breaks. Without a roommate, I don’t need to sleep with the bag, but old habits die hard. When light streams through the window, I slide my legs over the edge of the bed and head to the bathroom. I take a shower and then dig through the pocket of the pants I wore yesterday. My fingers close over the vial containing the liquid I was instructed to drink before my interview. As promised, it was among my possessions when I was released from the medical facility.
Sitting on the floor, I roll the vial between my fingers and think back to the gray-haired man’s words.
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.
I said then that I had nothing to hide, but I was wrong. While I personally might not be in danger from my answers, others could be. If Testing officials ask about my father, Zeen, or our former teacher there is a chance my answers could betray or condemn. If this vial offers a chance at keeping them safe, I have to take it. Unless, of course, I believe Dr. Barnes and his Testing officials planted this drug in my hands as one more test? Will consuming it be punishable by illness or death? I wouldn’t put it past them. I have a choice to make. Do I drink the liquid or leave it untouched?
By the time the loudspeaker announces breakfast, I have yet to make a decision. But one will be required of me and fast. Soon they will wonder why I haven’t left my room and ask questions I can ill afford to answer. I have to decide what I believe.
I unstop the vial, then drink the contents. My family’s safety comes first. If this is the wrong answer, I will know soon enough. Grabbing my bag, I climb to my feet and head toward whatever the day will bring. For good or for ill, The Testing will end today.
Breakfast is a rowdy affair. Most candidates sit together in the middle of the dining hall as though proving they have nothing to fear from the evaluations. Will is in the center of the group, cracking jokes. He stops to watch as I walk by, take a table in the back, and wait for Tomas.
Nibbling on a piece of bread, I wait to feel the effects of the drug. I don’t notice Will until I hear a chair scraping the floor across from me and see him drop into it.
He takes a bite of an apple and considers me across the table. “I thought you’d like to know I almost died. The last shot you fired burst my appendix. Good thing I don’t really need it to live. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.” When I don’t respond, his smile disappears. “Okay, I know this probably sounds stupid, but I’m glad I didn’t end up killing you like I planned.”
“You’re right. It does sound stupid.” And because I can’t help myself, I say, “I trusted you.”
“Yeah. That’s your Achilles’ heel. Leaders are supposed to inspire trust. They’re not supposed to actually believe in it.”
“You trusted Gill.”
Pain flashes deep in his eyes. Then it is gone, replaced by a nasty grin. “My Achilles’ heel. After he left, I couldn’t focus on the second round of tests. They’ll call me out on that in my interview, but I think I demonstrated in the third and fourth rounds that I have an ability to focus on the goal.”
“Zandri didn’t mention you doing anything in the third round.”
Will laughed. “That’s because she went first. It wasn’t until you came out and mentioned Roman’s trick with your group that she started to put the pieces together. When the third test ended and none of the other members of our group returned, Zandri realized what I’d done.”
I stare at Will as his confession sinks in. Will made the same choice Roman did—to betray his teammates and eliminate the competition. I should have realized this, but I had been so distracted waiting for Brick to return that I hadn’t paid enough attention to my friends. If I had, Tomas would never have been shot. Then again, without Will, Tomas and I might never have survived our encounter with Roman.
“I thought you were a nice guy, Will.”
“I am a nice guy.” He laughs.
“Nice guys don’t kill.”
“Killing was the easy part. Kind of like killing a wolf back home. You just aim and fire and your problem is solved.”
“You think it’s that easy?” Bile rises fast and hot in my throat. “The blond girl you killed with your crossbow wasn’t an animal. She had a family. Friends. People who loved her. She was trying to survive the test as best she could. Just like you.”
I wait for him to defend his actions. Tell me how it was all necessary. His choice to get a spot at the University.
Instead, Will lowers his voice and says, “Her name was Nina. She was from Pierre Colony. One of the girls who made it to the end went to school with her.”
“Nina.” I think about her bracelet in my bag and am happy to have this piece of information. Knowing her name doesn’t make her any less dead, but it matters
Will nods. “And no. You’re right. It’s not that easy. The act of killing is simple. Living with it . . .” He looks off beyond me and sighs. “Well, maybe that’s what the whole test is really about. Leaders are forced to kill all the time. Then they have to learn to live with the decisions they make. Just like I’m going to learn to live with mine.”
“You really think that was the point of the fourth test? To learn if you could kill and live with it?”
He shrugs. “I guess we’re going to find out. Right?”
I think about Stacia’s words that so closely echoed Will’s and then of Dr. Barnes, who watched Ryme’s body being cut down while believing it was for the best that she died. And I’m scared Will’s right. That killing and learning to live with it was the point. Since I, too, have killed I do not have to worry about meeting the criteria. But I am no longer certain I want to be a leader. Not if my country values murder above compassion.
I see movement near the dining hall entrance, glance up, and, for the first time today, smile. Tomas. His jaw clenches as he spots Will, but he doesn’t come right over. Instead, he grabs a plate and fills it. If Will is smart, he’ll get lost before Tomas arrives.
Will follows my glance and groans. “I should have known you’d find a way to save him like you saved me. For the record, I’m not so happy to see him alive. No offense.” He leans forward and adds, “I hate to say it, but he still doesn’t deserve your trust, Cia. Or your love. Hell . . .” He looks around the room before his eyes settle back on me. “None of us does.”
Before Tomas can reach the table, Will gets up, gives me another one of his winks, and heads off to rejoin the group.
Tomas sets his plate next to mine, but his eyes are focused on Will. “What did he want?”
Good question. One I’m not sure I can answer. But I try. “To tell me he’s glad I’m alive. He’s not so happy to see you, though.”
A smile crosses Tomas’s lips. “Well, isn’t that too bad? Because I plan on staying here for a really long time.”
“I for one am happy to hear that.”
“I kind of hoped you would be.” He looks around the room at the kids laughing and asks, “Are you ready for the interview?”
I hear Will’s laughter ring through the hall and wonder if he was right about what the Testers are looking for. Shaking off the worry, I say, “It’s just answering a few questions. After everything else, how hard can that be?”
“Good morning.” Dr. Barnes smiles at us from the lecture hall stage. “Congratulations on passing all four tests. I cannot tell you how impressed we are by your intelligence, your resourcefulness, and your dedication. During the fourth exam you had a chance to see beyond the borders of your revitalized colonies and witness firsthand the challenges our leaders face. The tests we put before you were challenging and the consequences for failure high, but the challenges and consequences that our leaders face are higher still. We know what we have asked of you, and we are delighted so many more of you than expected have made it this far.”
I think of how small a group we are compared to when we started. It makes me wonder how few must have survived in years past for Dr. Barnes to expect less.
“Of course, you are all wondering about today’s interview. I’m happy to tell you that the interviews will be short and relatively simple. Thus far you have demonstrated your intellect and your ability to strategize. You’ve shown us your ability to survive under strenuous conditions and problem-solve when things have gone awry. We know you are smart. Now we would like to know more about you the person. We are going to ask questions about you, your family, and your colony as well as the decisions you’ve made during your time here at The Testing. Please be honest and open. In essence, we are asking you to just be yourself. Nothing you say will be wrong, unless, of course, it is a lie. As members of the United Commonwealth, we ask that our leaders be honest and forthright. Today, we ask the same courtesy of you.”
I can’t help but wonder how they will enforce this rule and what punishment will occur if we are not completely honest.
Dr. Barnes, however, has moved from that point on to the rest of the instructions. “Each of you will be interviewed by a panel of five Testing officials. Each evaluation can last as long as forty-five minutes. Please do not read anything into the time we take to question you. When your evaluation is over, you will be escorted back to your designated sleeping quarters to wait for the results. I warn you—our decision making might take a great deal of time. We ask that you be patient as we work to select those we feel are the very best candidates for the University. Some of us are known to be stubborn.”
He gives us one last warm smile. “The best of luck to each one of you. I look forward to working with many of you when you attend the University next year. I know we are going to do great things together.”
Dr. Barnes exits the hall and a gray-haired woman in a blood-red jumpsuit takes the stage. “When your name is called, please stand and exit into the hallway. From there, a Testing official will escort you to your evaluation room.”
Red-haired Vic climbs to his feet. He keeps his head down as he walks out. I can’t help but notice how thin and pale he looks compared to the boy I met a week into the fourth test. He’s changed. We all have. And as more names are called, I hold tight to Tomas’s hand and wonder if that isn’t why the Testers remove our memories. To turn back the clock. To turn us back into the kids who optimistically came here believing they could change the world.
I feel Tomas stiffen as his name is spoken. My lips brush his cheek for luck and then he is gone and I am left to wait for my name to be called. And that’s when I remember. Tomas has the pills. Both of them. Our one chance at keeping our memories of The Testing alive if we make it through the interview. I can only hope the Testing officials will allow us to see each other again before our memories are altered. If not, I hope Tomas will take them and remember for both of us.
One by one the room empties. I try to sit still, but I can’t help fidgeting as I think about the questions the Testers will ask and wonder what kinds of answers they’re looking for. Dr. Barnes said no answer we give will be wrong, but I know that isn’t true. Fourteen more candidates will be eliminated during this phase. The Testing committee has to be looking for something specific. I just wish I knew what it is.
My legs are uncertain as I stand and walk to the hallway. My heart thunders in my chest. I repeat Dr. Barnes’s words “just be yourself” in my head as I follow a Testing official to a doorway at the end of the hallway. He asks me to wait for a moment and slips through the door. Inside is the murmur of voices. I bite the edge of my thumbnail and stifle the urge to pace off the nervous energy building inside me.
After several minutes, the door swings open and a voice says, “Please come in.”
Just be yourself, I think as I take a step across the threshold. But instead of calming me, the words make my heart pound harder. Because I’m not sure I know how to do that. I’m no longer the girl who left Five Lakes Colony, who believed that Graduation Day actually made a child into an adult. I certainly wasn’t an adult then, and now . . .
After everything I have seen and done, I’m forced to admit I don’t know exactly who I am. But I know I need to find out fast because this final interview requires that I show them. And that test has just begun.
THE ROOM IS small and white. White walls. White floors. No windows. A long black table sits along one side of the room with five Testing officials seated behind it. Two in red. Two in purple. And Dr. Barnes beckoning me farther inside.
“Please, come on in, Cia. Take a seat.”
In the middle of the room is a single black chair that faces the Testing officials. Next to it is a small black table and a glass of clear liquid.
“Please have a drink.”
All eyes follow me as I cross the room and take my seat. Dr. Barn
es nods as I pick up the glass, making it clear the polite request is an order. There is no choice but to drink whatever the glass contains.
Water. Perhaps something else. There is a metallic aftertaste along with something slightly bitter. Almost immediately I notice the tension leaching out of my muscles. After being on my guard for so long, the relaxation in my limbs feels wonderful. I find myself smiling and decide there is more than just a muscle relaxant in the mix. Whatever else they gave me must cause euphoria and an overwhelming sense of well-being.
“Truth serum.” The words are out of my mouth the moment I think them.
Dr. Barnes nods. “So far today, you’re the first candidate to pick up on that without my telling them.”
“Or maybe they were too scared to mention they noticed.” Again, the words are gone before I think to control them.
Dr. Barnes laughs. “That is certainly a possibility. That’s why we give you the drug. It is designed to help your mind and your body relax. We know how stressful this process is. We don’t want the tension to interfere in our getting to know the real you.”
The haze of euphoria clears, and this time I think before admitting, “I’m not sure I know who the real me is.”
“That’s what we are here to find out. Tell us about your family, Cia.”
My family. I take a deep breath and carefully consider my answer. That I can stop and think before speaking makes me believe the liquid in the vial has counteracted the worst of the truth serum. Now I need to give them the answer they’re looking for. They must already know about my parents and my brothers. So what do they want to hear?