The Testing

The Testing

The Testing 38

  Either that or we’re being watched.

  “Okay.” Will nods. “Who’s going to get in?”

  “Cia will,” Damone says. “She’s the captain and the smallest.”

  Both good reasons, but the idea of being locked inside a steel box and reliant on my team to release me makes me want to run far and fast.

  Damone notices my hesitation and says, “You picked this team, Cia. Don’t you have enough faith in your judgment to rely on us to solve this task on our own?”

  I look from Damone’s smirking face to Will’s, with its lack of expression, to Enzo’s concerned one. All three are smart. They wouldn’t be attending the University if they weren’t. Do I believe they will come up with the correct answer to whatever problem they are given? Yes. Do I trust them with my life? No. But I don’t have a choice. Damone has cornered me. Refusal will alienate my team. Even if we pass Induction, I will have made enemies.

  “Okay.” I say as I set the green team bag on the ground and climb into the cold steel box. As small as I am, I have to bend my knees and twist my shoulders to fit myself into the container.

  “Why don’t you give me your bags?” Will offers, and reaches for the straps. “That’ll give you more room.”

  “No.” I pull the bags tight against my chest. While I have been maneuvered into putting my life in my team’s hands, I will not trust them with my secrets. The Transit Communicator will stay locked in this box with me.

  “Here.” Enzo puts his flashlight in my hand. “We’ll get you out of there quick. I promise.”

  As I watch Will reach for the lid and pull it down, I hope Enzo is right. Metal closes over me. Everything goes black. I hear the snap of a lock that tells me there is no going back. Until my team comes up with the correct solution, I am trapped.

  I hit the switch on the flashlight. The small beam reflects off the silver of my prison. Even though I know it is futile, I push against the metal above me. It doesn’t budge. I run my fingers along the edge of the lid. The seal on the box appears tight. A click of the flashlight confirms my suspicion. There is no hint of outside light. Unless I am mistaken, this container is airtight. If my team does not release the locking mechanism in a timely manner, I will die.

  I need to conserve air, but my breath comes fast and harsh. Knowing my life lies in the hands of someone who in the past tried to kill me fills me with terror. The pounding of my blood in my veins rings loud in my ears, drowning out the sounds of the voices outside the steel walls. Or maybe the material of the walls is too thick to hear clearly.

  Pushing aside the panic that bubbles in my chest, I focus on my breathing. Measured breath in. Slow exhale out. Growing up, my brothers liked to play hide-and-seek. As the smallest of us, I could wriggle into the best hiding spots. And yet my brothers never failed to find me. Until finally Zeen explained that the excited sound of my breathing gave me away. It took practice on my part, but eventually my brothers needed to use more than just their ears to find me.

  When my breathing calms, I strain to hear what is happening with my team. The voices are muted. Mumbles tell me they are hard at work, but I cannot tell what the task is or how long it is going to take. Here and there, I make out a word.

  “No . . . second law . . .”

  “. . . force . . .”

  “. . . wrong . . .”

  In between the words are only silence and the pulsing of my heart marking the passing of the seconds. Minutes. Maybe hours. Time stands still. During that time, I think of Tomas and wonder what trial he is facing in his own Induction. I wish he were here with me now to help keep me safe. A whirring sound followed by a jubilant shout pulls me from my thoughts, but my prison door does not open.

  The voices outside are louder. I jump when something bangs against the box, but the lock stays firmly in place as my teammates continue to shout words that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot understand.

  The voices go silent. To keep calm, I count the seconds. Ten. Twenty. Sixty. One hundred. Still nothing. Just darkness and silence. Did my team fail at their task and suffer a penalty? Or did they succeed and choose to leave me behind?

  I close my eyes tight, clutch my bags to my chest, and continue to listen for signs that my team is still there. That I haven’t been abandoned. That I will not suffocate in this metal coffin. That I will not die here—alone.

  The metal surrounding me vibrates. Over my quickening breath is the roar of a skimmer motor. Once again, I have trusted where trust was not warranted. Once again, I will suffer the consequences.

  I should stay calm. I should breathe carefully to conserve my air supply until I find a way out of here. Instead, I bang against the lid of the box and scream. The sound of the motor might drown out my cries, but I keep screaming on the chance that those leaving me behind can hear my voice. I want them to know that I am alive now. That if I die, I do so at their hands.

  My throat is raw. My hands ache when I stop my pounding. By now, my team is long gone. If I want to survive, I have to find a way out of here. I shift in the tight space so I can reach the fasteners on my bag. My fingers hunt through my belongings until they settle on the handle of my pocketknife. A click of the flashlight bathes the small space with light. I struggle to shift positions in the tight space as I run the blade along the top and bottom of the right side of the box, hoping to find a flaw in the design. When I find none, I roll to my left so I can reach the other side.

  So intent am I on my mission, it barely registers when I hear something scrape against the outside of the box. I hear the sound again and hold my breath. Voices murmur. I knock three times on the lid, hoping someone will understand I am trapped inside. I almost cry with relief when three knocks sound in return.

  “Hang on, Cia,” someone yells. “We’ve almost got it.”

  The sound of a latch sliding confirms the words. The metal above me shifts upward. I squint into the sunlight and see Will’s and Enzo’s faces peering down. Will’s hand feels warm and strong in mine as he helps me stand and climb out. To my left, I see Jacoby and two other members of their team arguing. Their skimmer sits twenty feet beyond them.

  “I heard the engine and thought you’d left.” My voice is raspy from the screaming. Evidence of my lack of trust.

  “I would have thought the same thing.” Will hands me the green team bag and glances over to a grove of trees growing near the fence about fifty feet away. Glaring at us from the center of the trees is Damone. “If Damone had gotten his way, we’d have hit the road after getting the clue. He wasn’t interested in wasting time on the second part, to free you. It took a few minutes, but we helped him see the error of his ways.”

  The darkening bruise on Will’s cheek gives me an idea as to how.

  “You got it wrong,” Jacoby yells at the girl next to him. “Get out of the way and let me try.”

  “We should probably cut Damone loose and get out of here before they figure out the solution,” Enzo says.

  “I think we should leave him.” A smile devoid of happiness crosses Will’s face. “Give him a taste of his own medicine. It’s no less than he deserves.”

  I look at the steel box where Damone would have left me to die, and my heart hardens. Will is right. Damone should understand what it feels like to be betrayed. Leaders—real leaders—must think of others before themselves. They need to consider the consequences of their actions and only sacrifice lives when the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few.

  And I realize, as much as I want to penalize Damone for his cowardly actions, I cannot. Not without performing the same kind of act I am condemning Damone for. I am this team’s leader. I will not leave someone I am in charge of behind.

  “Damone is coming with us,” I say, digging my pocketknife out of my University bag. “Get the skimmer ready. We’ll be back in a minute.”

  Without waiting for agreement, I walk toward the cluster of trees. The gray cast to the bark speaks of the lack of revitalization in this area. But the state of the tre
es and other foliage does not hold my interest. Damone’s reddened face and angry eyes do. He goes still as I approach and says nothing as I walk around him to examine the restraints Will and Enzo fashioned. His arms are wrapped around the tree behind him and bound at the wrist with strips of sturdy brown fabric. The same fabric that Damone’s shirt is made of. Blood streaks his skin where it rubbed against the tree in his efforts to get free.

  “What do you want?” Damone sneers. “Are you going to pretend to leave me behind again? We both know you can’t do it. Can you?”

  For a moment, my knife stills. The urge to leave him and his insults behind is overwhelming. To do so would almost certainly keep him from a leadership position. I could prevent him from making decisions that would affect me, my family, and my country. I have only to walk away and betray everything that I believe in.

  My knife slices through the restraints. Damone offers no thanks or show of gratitude as he stalks toward the skimmer. The anger I pushed aside returns. I take two steps and feel my foot catch. My knees and hands jolt with pain as I hit the unforgiving ground. Tears caused by my stinging palms, my anger with Damone, and my disappointment in my own desire to punish him prick the backs of my eyes. I ache for home. For my family. For Tomas. For people who love me. For people I can trust with my life.

  But they are not here and I need to get moving. I push to my knees and realize whatever tripped me is still wrapped around my left ankle.

  I reach down and find thin, pliable wire where I expected to find a vine or root. Carefully, I unhook the metal from my ankle and examine it more closely. No rust. No wear. Extending from where I sit to somewhere to my right. Sliding my fingers along the length of the wire, I follow it to its end, which is expertly secured around a small but sturdy bush.

  A snare. A simple one designed to catch an animal bounding through this grouping of trees. If an animal steps into or puts its head through the loop and keeps walking, the loop will tighten. As it did around my leg. The more the animal struggles, the more tightly it is trapped. Only, instead of dinner, this snare caught me.

  “Are you okay?”

  I turn and see Enzo standing near a scraggly tree, looking at me.

  “I’m fine.” I brush off my knees and glance around for signs of other snares. “My foot just caught on something.”

  There. Sunlight glints off silver metal. Only, this time the snare is located on the other side of the fence. As I take a step toward the fence, Enzo says, “If we don’t want the other team to pull ahead of us, we need to get going.”

  Enzo has a point. Still, I step toward the fence. “I just want to take a closer look at something. It’ll only take a minute.”

  “Cia.” Enzo’s voice holds authority and a whisper of nerves. “There’s nothing we need inside the air force base. We need to go back to the skimmer. Damone and Will won’t wait around for us much longer.”

  I look to the skimmer and see Will waving at us. Enzo is right. It is time for us to go. I cast one last look at the wire trap set on the other side of the fence before walking away. As we climb into the skimmer, I don’t think I imagine the relief on Enzo’s face or the tension that leeches from his shoulders. Being left behind is reason enough for worry, but does his concern indicate something more?

  The rise of the skimmer and the roar of the engine pull my thoughts away from what lies behind and refocus me on the task ahead. “What did the last clue say?” I ask.

  Enzo pulls a gray piece of paper from his pocket and hands it to me.

  The end is in sight. The next stop is near. In the foundation of our Commonwealth you shall search. Look for the symbol of where you now live and find what you seek upon its perch.

  The answer seemed straightforward enough. “The Central Government Building,” I say.

  “That’s what we thought,” Will says, his eyes fixed firmly on the road. In the seat next to him, Damone sits with his arms crossed as he stares out the window. Saving him from the snake and choosing to keep our team intact were the right things to do, but by making those choices, it is clear I have also made an enemy. Then again, maybe he was always my enemy and I just didn’t know it. Even after spending an entire day with Enzo and Damone, I know little more than I did before about their families or the values they’ve been raised on. With Damone, I can make a guess. His willingness to get ahead at the cost of others must have been a skill he learned from his government-connected father or the teachers who helped prepare him for the University. But Enzo is a mystery. From the way the others treat him, I can guess his family is not connected to the Tosu government. Who they are and what they believe in, I do not know. But the worry that sprang to his eyes when I made a move to examine the snares makes me determined to find out.

  By the confident way he directs Will through the scenery that changes from dirt and plants to roads, walkways, and small buildings, it is clear Enzo grew up nearby. Through the smudged skimmer windows, I study the landscape. The buildings and plant life surrounding the houses look well tended. More like the dwellings we create in Five Lakes than the ones I have seen in the heart of the city. Children stop their playing to wave as we drive past. Citizens on bicycles or the occasional motorized scooter steer down the streets as people hurry to whatever tasks await them.

  The number of personal skimmers filling the roadway increases as the buildings grow larger and less spread apart. Some stand five or six stories high. Books tell us taller buildings once graced the city streets—some reaching hundreds of feet into the air—but they were too tall, too exposed to survive against the trembling earth and destructive winds. While the tallest buildings faltered during the final Three Stages of War, most structures in this city, while shaken and sometimes cracked, stood strong. Their smaller stature proved to be an asset. One a country could rebuild upon.

  Will’s face is a mask of concentration, and his hands tighten on the controls as the streets become more crowded. He speaks only to ask Enzo when he needs clarification about the direction he is going in. Finally, I see in the distance the riverbank that signals our destination is near. The flowing river sparkles. A carpet of green, healthy grass frames the river on either side. “So we just need to find a picture of a balanced scale,” Will says once he safely steers the skimmer into a vehicle zone and turns off the engine. “Sounds easy enough.”

  “Easy?” Damone shoots Will a withering look. “Have you been inside the Central Government Building? It’ll take a miracle to find anything in there.”

  I hate to think it, but as we walk toward the Central Government Building, I realize Damone’s right. The United Commonwealth Government was officially created a hundred years ago in a large structure that sits on the east bank of the river. Two stories tall with circular walls and a low-domed roof, the building has a short but sturdy design that helped it survive the worst of the natural disasters with little more than a few broken windows. The lack of damage and the large rooms that can accommodate thousands of people made it an ideal site for the survivors of the war beginning to lay the foundation for a new country.

  It is hard to imagine those first days when the earth quieted and people began to assess the damage. Corrupted rivers that caused illness or worse. Destroyed homes and a ground too contaminated for many plants to grow. A world filled with sorrow and fear. Instead of pulling closed the doors and cowering in the dark, people gathered here to pool their resources and restore hope.

  I glance at the large square building on the land just north of the Central Government Building. Now named Tosu City Hospital and Medical Research Center. I don’t know what it was called then, but it was used as safe living spaces for those without homes or those too old, young, or terrified to be alone. An enclosed walkway allowed people to pass safely between the two structures without having to brave the chemical- and radiation-laced elements.

  Leaders were elected. Laws made. Crews organized and sent outside to evaluate the city. Canned food was gathered and rationed. The dead found inside were buried in
a crevice opened by an earthquake on the west side of the city. A group was formed to scout around the city for signs of still-living plants, animals, and people. Water was boiled and filtered. Even then, drinking the water made people sick, which prompted leaders to send the surviving scientists to the University labs. The scientists used the equipment there to run tests on the river, hoping to discover a way to make it pure once again.

  One by one, buildings were repaired and deemed safe. Families left the safety of living with the entire community and moved into their own dwellings. Scientists found plants, like clover, that thrived in the damaged soil and began splicing their genes into less hardy vegetation. With hope, organization, and care, the world came alive again.

  And it all started here.

  People mill in the courtyard or stand talking in small groups. A hundred feet from our position is a small flight of stairs that leads to the entrance of the beige stone building. On either side of a fountain is a tall silver pole. At the top of each is a flag. The red, white, and blue one from the past that will never be forgotten and the other, displaying a stark white background trimmed with purple. In the center of the field of white is a single crimson rose. White to symbolize hope and purity of purpose. Purple for courage. The red petals of the flower signify the promise of a people determined to make the rose and the rest of the country thrive. I can’t help but wonder how The Testing was allowed to grow from that promise. Did those who conceived of it intend for the price of failure to be so high? How many people walking the halls of this building know the true nature of The Testing? How many more have feigned deafness because they don’t want to hear and recognize what, by ignorance, they condone?

  We walk up the steps, and I glance over my shoulder to look for the other teams. None are in sight as we step into a room buzzing with activity. The antechamber is filled with people. Large white panels hanging from the two-story ceiling bask the room in light. On the wall to the right is a mural of the colonies and boundaries of the current United Commonwealth. Directly in front of us are two large sets of doors that lead to the Debate Chamber.