The Testing

The Testing

The Testing 40

  Enzo falls silent and stares out the skimmer window as the buildings speed past. I barely register the landmarks that announce our proximity to the University as I consider Enzo’s words. I grew up believing our leaders had learned from past mistakes. That, if nothing else, the Seven Stages of War taught us that life is fragile and precious. That those who survived have an obligation not only to repair the damage but never to repeat the actions that brought us to the brink of disaster. Distrust and anger caused governments to hurl angry words. Angry words led to bombs being dropped. A world destroyed.

  Perhaps it is the size of the population that allows leaders to neglect some of those who look to them for assistance. In Five Lakes Colony, Magistrate Owens knows every citizen living within our boundaries. She might not know them well, but she has seen their faces and looked into their eyes. Would she show the same kind of leadership if she were appointed to oversee a city the size of Tosu? Would she be able to in a place where more than one hundred thousand faces look to the government for guidance and resource allocation?

  During the early debates about whether to create a postwar government, many were vehemently opposed to the idea of a formal administration. They believed everyone should be allowed to survive in the way he or she thought best. Not forced to answer to the same kind of government that caused the wars in the first place. Some of the fiercest opposition went so far as to threaten the lives of those who were in favor of a new governing body.

  Despite their tactics, I have to wonder if they had a point. Maybe it wasn’t just the leaders but the size of the governments that caused the world to falter. The bigger the government, the bigger the population it can claim. The larger the population, the less our leaders feel personally accountable to each citizen under their care. It makes it easier to sacrifice a few for the good of others. To make choices that might otherwise be unthinkable—like sending unknown kids from families you never met to The Testing to fight not only for a place at the University but for their very lives. Meanwhile allowing students from families you have known all your life to be held to a different selection standard.

  Will’s celebratory cheer pulls me from my thoughts. I spot the large arching silver gate and the small plaque next to it that reads UNIVERSITY OF THE UNITED COMMONWEALTH. The sight fills me with a combination of pride, happiness, and fear. Pride that I have made it this far. Happiness that Tomas, the one person I love in this city, is close by. Fear at what is to come. Not just with this Induction, but everything that follows. This is not the end of the challenges I will face. There are more. Harder. Maybe deadlier. I must be ready for them all.

  “Now that we’re here,” Will asks, “where do we go?”

  “The Government Studies residence,” Damone says. “It has to be.” I can see Damone’s hands ball into fists as Will and Enzo look to me for confirmation. His fists stay clenched in his lap even after I agree. Will steers the skimmer past buildings that were created long ago. Glass. Stone. Brick. All constructed to encourage young minds to reach beyond what has already been done to something more. Something great.

  The Government Studies residence comes into view. I see the earthquake-wrought ravine that circles the grounds, and my heart sinks as I realize that getting back to the residence won’t be easy. The bridge is missing.

  Chapter 10

  MY HEART DROPS into my stomach as I climb out of the skimmer and look at the gaping crack in the earth between us and our final destination. Twenty feet across. Hundreds deep. Near the residence, Ian and Professor Holt are among a group of other people waiting for us to reach them. On this side are four small boxes next to stacks of boards, ropes, and tools. The most sophisticated skimmers can hover up to fifteen feet above the ground. The one we’ve been using has been lucky to rise as high as my knee. However, sophisticated or not, the propulsion mechanism that makes all skimmers operate requires there be ground somewhere underneath. If a skimmer glides over a large hole, like the one in front of us now, the skimmer stops gliding. We cannot travel to the residence in our vehicle. If we are to get across, we will have to find another way.

  While I’m surprised to find the bridge missing, I’m more disconcerted that I hadn’t previously noticed the bridge was built to retract. Ian never mentioned that when he first led us here. Slats and rails hang against either side of the ravine, waiting to be reconnected, and I wonder why University officials chose to build a bridge that could disappear at a moment’s notice. They couldn’t have built it specifically for the purpose of testing new University students. Which prompts the question: Did they build it to ensure people had to stay in or to keep unwanted visitors out?

  A quick study of the bridge support nearest our position gives me a good idea of how the retractable bridge works. The mechanism on each support is designed to slide each half of the bridge backward on iron tracks when it is retracted. When it is raised, the system first elevates the bridge ninety degrees. Then a separate machine must slide forward to provide the support necessary to withstand the weight of both the bridge and those who cross it. Once both sides of the bridge are raised, they hook together seamlessly. At least, I never saw the seams. The looks on my teammates’ faces say I wasn’t the only one who missed that detail. I find that of little consolation when I realize the controls for the bridge are all located on the other side.

  Enzo walks to the small black box marked with our number and pulls out the instructions for this task. “Come home.” He looks at the hole in the earth, the missing bridge, the supplies, and then back at the note. “Are they kidding? They want us to get across that? There’s no way.”

  “If they want us to cross the ravine, there has to be a way to do it without getting ourselves killed,” I say with confidence. This isn’t The Testing. They won’t kill students in full view of other students. But they aren’t going to make it easy, either.

  Will reaches into the pile and fingers a large length of thick rope. “We might be able to hoist this side of the bridge up with this.”

  Enzo shakes his head. “The bridge is probably locked into place. But even if it isn’t, we aren’t strong enough to lift that kind of weight.”

  Will frowns. “My brother and I helped a neighbor of ours build a rope bridge over a stream a couple years ago. We used trees to anchor the bridge on either side. The supports for the bridge that normally spans this are still here. We can use those.”

  “Brilliant. Of course, the only way to use the anchor on the other side is to be over there to attach the rope to the bridge.” Damone rolls his eyes. “Which would eliminate the need for building the bridge in the first place.”

  He’s right. While building a bridge is something I’ve never done, I understand the basic physics involved. The supports that are already in place will be strong enough to hold up whatever we build if we could attach it properly, but there is no way we can do that. And while I don’t think the University officials intend to watch us plunge to our deaths, I doubt they will lift a finger to prevent it. There has to be another solution.

  “Why don’t we break into teams of two?” I suggest. “One group can go north. The other south. Maybe we’ll find a better place for us to get across.” I doubt it, but the possibility needs to be explored.

  Will and Damone take the south. Enzo and I go north. We start out at a fast clip, certain we will find a way to cross the twenty-foot chasm of brown and gray rock and dirt that is between us and our destination. The crack begins to narrow, and Enzo and I smile at each other as we hurry ahead. That’s when we see it. Another rent in the earth that juts off from this fissure toward the west. Even if the fissure we are standing next to narrows enough for safe passage, we would still be forced to cross another gaping barrier. Crossing here will not be possible. We can only hope Damone and Will have had better luck on their scouting mission and have remembered I hold all the markers. If they have found a way across and have not waited for Enzo and me to go with them, they will still fail.

  One look at their dejected f
aces tells the story. More barriers lie to the south. If we want to get to the finish line, we will have to cross here. And night is falling fast.

  My three teammates study the building supplies and tools as I once again examine the supports and machinery. I shake my head. My skill is with machines. If the bridge’s controls were on this side, I’m certain I could make it rise. But they aren’t. And even if I could make the gears fire, I’m not sure I should try. Without our fully understanding how the mechanism works or how the two pieces of the bridge lock into place, attempting to cross the ravine could be akin to suicide. I’ve survived too much to allow University officials to push me into doing something stupid. And crossing on a contraption created with the tools and supplies provided would be even crazier. We could do calculations for days and still not be positive that the forces created by our weight and that of the bridge will balance with the upward force and properly absorb torque. A few more years studying with the professors here, and we might be able to pull this off. But now? How can anyone expect any of us to succeed at this task? They must realize it is impossible. Is that what Professor Holt and the others are waiting for? For us to fail? Why? What purpose would teaching us defeat serve? They want us to be leaders. Leaders are required to find solutions no matter what.

  Or are they?

  Bombs were dropped. Millions of people killed. A world destroyed because the leaders of our country and those around the globe were not willing to declare failure. They could not admit that the path they had embarked on was doomed. Instead, they forged ahead. More bombs. More destruction. More need to prove that they were right. That others were wrong.

  I think about the Induction thus far. It has required us to carefully think through answers before putting them into action. To trust when trust is not only hard, but potentially deadly. To speak as an equal with the head of our government. All skills essential for government leaders. As is learning when to say enough is enough.

  Turning my back on those who watch, I walk over to where a tree stands thirty feet away and sit. After leaning back against the tree, I open the green team bag and take out my bottle of water.

  “What are you doing?” Damone yells as he notices me seated on the grass. “You should be helping us figure out how we’re going to get to the other side.”

  “He’s right, Cia.” Enzo frowns. “The only way we’re going to beat this task is if we work together.”

  “We’re not going to beat it.” I nod at the cluster of observers across the way. “They don’t expect us to, so there’s no point in giving them the satisfaction of seeing us try and come up short.”

  “They wouldn’t have given us this task if there wasn’t a way to pass it.” Damone throws a plank to the ground and grabs a hammer. He takes three steps toward me, eyes bright with anger. The hammer wielded like a weapon. “I am not going to fail this test because some girl from the colonies doesn’t want to make the effort to win. Get the hell up or you’ll be sorry that Will and Enzo were too soft to leave you trapped in that box where you belonged.”

  Damone lashes out with the hammer, and I scramble back out of its path. “Are you crazy?” I yell.

  He starts to swing again and is brought up short by a hand grabbing his wrist and yanking the hammer free.

  Will’s jaw is clenched and his eyes glitter with violence. This is the Will from The Testing. “Move away from her now, or you’re going to be sorry.”

  “Let go of me.” Damone tries to yank his arm free. “My father is going to hear about this. Do you remember who my father is?”

  Will holds fast. “I don’t care who your father is, but he might care that his son is so weak he had to be saved by a colony girl. She saved your life. She’s smarter than you. Than all of us put together. And you can’t stand it.” He releases his grip on Damone’s wrist, but keeps the hammer tight in his fist.

  Damone rubs his arm where Will’s fingers dug into his flesh and scowls.

  “Now, if you’re done demonstrating your lack of control to our viewing audience, Cia will explain why she thinks we can’t get across. I know I’m dying to hear it. I mean, while I’d love to impress the professors, I don’t plan on risking my life in order to do it.” His mouth curves into a half smile. “But I would be happy to risk yours, Damone, if you want.”

  The smile. The hammer held confidently in Will’s hand. Both scare the crap out of me. Damone, however, doesn’t look scared. He appears on the verge of rage. But Will, as is typical, has said the right thing. Damone shifts his eyes to the people across the way watching our every move. His jaw clenches. His breathing is fast and uneven as he fights for control. Something he probably hasn’t had to do very often. And he wins that battle—for now.

  “Okay.” He blows out air. “I’m not saying Cia is right, but I’ll listen.” Damone looks back at the wide stretch of emptiness behind him. “Prove to me that the final years don’t intend for us to be able to get across this on our own.”

  I have lots of reasons, but proof? “I can’t.”

  Damone’s nasty grin makes me want to scream. So I turn away from him and focus on reasoning with the rest of my team. “I think this Induction process has been about teaching us lessons. Teamwork. Trust. Government procedure.”

  “And failure.” Enzo completes my thought. “No matter how smart our leaders are, there are problems they cannot solve. This is one of them.”

  Will walks to the edge of the ravine and studies the drop. After several long moments, he shifts his attention across the divide to the people on the other side. His fists clench. Something intense flickers in his deep green eyes before he turns back to us and smiles. “So what should we do while we wait for them to realize we’ve given up?’

  Damone whirls. “No one is giving up. We’re going to do exactly what the note says and get to the other side. I’m not losing my chance to win this Induction competition and throwing away my future just because some stupid girl from nowhere says she thinks we should give up. I’m not giving up. None of you are giving up.”

  Will steps away from the edge, shoves his hands in his pockets, and saunters over to stand next to me. Enzo flanks me on the other side. Damone’s face colors as he realizes his words have had no effect. Right or wrong, Enzo and Will have chosen to stand with me.

  Damone’s eyes meet mine. Glittering in their depths are anger and hate. My muscles clench as I brace for the attack that is sure to come. Damone might have been smart enough to pass the Tosu City application exams, but he has demonstrated all day that he has no control over his emotions. Perhaps he has gotten this far based on people confusing bullying for strength of personality. Whatever the reason, he is unprepared for others to take charge. I am certain he plans on taking back control by any means necessary.

  “Hey, look,” Enzo says as a whirring sound fills the air.

  Damone stops his advance and turns as the east side of the bridge slowly begins to rise. The support shifts backward. Across the ravine, Ian stands next to the support. He pushes a button, and our side of the bridge begins to move. After several minutes, the beams shift and lock together with a resounding clang.

  Ian crosses to the center of the bridge and smiles. “Welcome back. You are the first team to arrive.”

  Will and Enzo slap hands and let out celebratory shouts before they race across the bridge. Damone glares at me before crossing behind them. Us finishing our Induction will not make him forget that I was right. That the others sided with me. That he wanted to be a leader and was pushed to the side. Vowing to do my best to stay out of Damone’s way in the future, I follow.

  As I pass Ian, his lips barely move as he whispers, “Meet me in Lab Two at midnight.”

  I want to ask why, but I curve my lips into a smile for Professor Holt, who watches from under a tree fifty feet away. The students standing outside the residence converge on me and my team. People slap my back and yell congratulations. Behind me, I hear the whir of machinery and know the bridge is once again being retracted t
o challenge the next group who arrives.

  “Cia. Enzo. Will. Damone,” Ian calls, and the voices around us go quiet. The four of us walk to where Ian stands next to Professor Holt. “Congratulations on returning with your entire team intact. Do you have the markers?”

  I dig into the green bag and hand the markers from the first three challenges to Ian. “We don’t have a marker for this task.”

  “There wasn’t a marker for the final test. This task was designed to be insurmountable.” Professor Holt takes the markers and gives me a small smile. “Ian was told to engage the bridge when we deduced that you had figured out that solution.”

  My heartbeat measures the silence until Professor Holt says, “It takes a lot of courage to choose to do nothing when you aren’t certain of the outcome. We believe this is an important lesson to impart to all University students and one many students find almost impossible to accept. I’m happy to learn that most on this team are more . . . open-minded.”

  I see Damone flush.

  Professor Holt hands the markers back to Ian with a small nod. Ian turns and gives us a wide smile. “Congratulations, Cia, Enzo, Will, and Damone. Since you arrived first with all of your markers, we are happy to declare you the winners. Once the other three teams arrive, we will hold a formal Induction ceremony where you will be officially welcomed into the Government Studies program. Until then, I suggest you get lots of rest. I’ve seen your class schedules. Trust me, you’re going to need it.”

  The students standing behind Ian laugh. As my teammates celebrate, I notice that Professor Holt isn’t the only one watching me. In the distance, next to the willow tree where just yesterday I stood with Enzo, is Dr. Barnes.

  “You should all be very proud of yourselves,” Professor Holt announces. “These Induction tasks have taught us a great deal about you and the way you approach problem solving. But more important, this process not only gave you a glimpse of the revitalization work that still needs to be done, but also allowed you to learn about your fellow Government Studies students. All of you will be competing for the top grades, but I hope these challenges have taught you also that success comes only if we trust and work well with those around us.”