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The Testing 42
Once a dry-eyed Vance stands on this side of the bridge, Professor Holt steps from under the tree into the dwindling sunshine and asks us to gather near. “Normally, we would hold the Induction ceremony tonight. However, in light of this tragedy, it will be postponed until tomorrow so together we can mourn the loss of Rawson Fisk. Dr. Barnes and I will be available to talk to those who need help dealing with this terrible event. All leaders are forced to confront tragedy, but we are sorry that you have to face it so early in your careers. Please let an official know if you are struggling to cope with this horrible loss. We are here to help.”
Dr. Barnes puts his arm around a sniffling girl and leads her into the residence. His posture speaks of caring and concern, but I see the cold calculation in his eyes as they sweep across the mourning crowd. Is he making note of the students who cry or the ones whose eyes are dry? Does he believe tears make a better leader? Will the students who come to him in search of comfort find themselves suddenly placed behind the rest of the pack, or will they be considered worthier of a high leadership position? It is impossible to know, and I am not interested in staying here and finding out.
When Dr. Barnes and Professor Holt disappear inside the residence, I head in the opposite direction. Away from whatever new test Rawson’s death has spawned. When I cross the bridge, my throat tightens. I know I will see Rawson in my dreams and wonder for the rest of my life if making a different choice when selecting my team could have saved his life. Would he be safe inside, preparing to start classes on Monday, if I had picked him first instead of the person I thought would help my team come out on top? While I know Rawson’s death is not my fault, I cannot help the guilt I feel. My team won this Induction task, but that victory wasn’t worth the cost. No victory is.
One more tear slides down my cheek and into the darkness below as I stop at the end of the bridge and whisper my farewell to Rawson. I wouldn’t have counted him among my friends, but he deserved so much better. Then, taking a deep breath, I turn in search of Tomas and the answers only he can give.
The Biological Engineering residence is easy to find. Unlike Government Studies, Biological Engineering houses its students just steps away from the classrooms and labs they’ll be studying in. But while it is easy to find the red brick two-story structure, I’m not sure what to do now that I’m here. In the short time I’ve been assigned to my residence, I have yet to see anyone other than Government Studies students inside or around our building. If there are rules that govern how students of different designated studies interact, I’m unaware of them. Still, there’s a chance my appearance at the Biological Engineering residence could cause trouble. Tomas might not appreciate the unwanted attention, and I’m held in enough suspicion as it is.
I find a spot on the grass next to the building across the street from Tomas’s residence and pretend to stare off in the distance, all the while keeping the front door in my periphery. Several older-looking students come out laughing. A few students go in. I wonder whether the Biological Engineering first years are still undergoing their own Induction. Maybe that’s why I see so few students come and go. A metallic taste fills my mouth at the idea of Tomas and the others facing the same kinds of challenges we did. The same dangers. But then I see a familiar tall brunette strut out the front door, and I spring to my feet. I’d almost forgotten that Kit was assigned to Biological Engineering. If she is here, Tomas could be nearby. She might be able to tell me where to find him or pass along a message.
I follow Kit as she heads down the walkway and turns a corner. Once we are both out of sight of her residence, I pick up the pace. “Kit. Wait up.”
She stops and turns, and her eyes narrow. “What are you doing here? I thought people in Government Studies were going through orientation this week.”
“Who told you that?”
“Tomas. He asked his final-year guide if he could visit some of his friends in other designated fields of study and was told both the Medicine and Government Studies students were unavailable until classes on Monday.” She tosses her waist-length hair and smiles. “What happened? Did you get Redirected like Obidiah?”
The mention of Obidiahs’s name and the amused expression on Kit’s face combined with the fresh horror of Rawson’s death make my hands ball into fists. I want to lash out the way I used to do when I was younger and my brothers picked on me.
Swallowing the bitterness bubbling inside, I say, “There was an accident. Rawson is dead.”
The smug expression vanishes. “Rawson? Our Rawson?”
The tears that glisten in her eyes make the ones I’ve been holding at bay surface. Wiping the wetness from my cheeks, I nod. “They postponed our Induction ceremony so people could get counseling. I needed to get away.” It’s the truth, even if it isn’t the entire reason for my being here. “Do you know where Tomas is? I want to tell him about Rawson before he hears it from someone else.”
“I think he said he was going to the library. A few of our final years were talking about a new gene-splicing technique we’ve never heard of. He wanted to see if he could find out more about it.”
Before she finishes the sentence, I’m turning and yelling my thanks. Then I run as though I can outdistance the sorrow that threatens to spill over.
The library is large. Made of concrete, glass, and faded brick, the building somehow survived the worst of the wars with its contents intact. Most of the damage it suffered was caused after the wars were over by people using the books and furniture for kindling. No one knows how much of the history once contained inside is now missing because of the cold, sometimes chemical-laden winds that whipped through the Midwest during the Sixth Stage. When the United Commonwealth was officially established, one of its first laws banished the practice of book burning. Though our leaders agreed that warmth was important, they believed preserving the written documentation of our history and culture was even more vital. All citizens who had books were directed to bring them to this library, where an official exchanged the valuable pages for blankets, clothing, or other resources. The exchange allowed the country to retain memories from the past that could help rebuild the future.
The result of that law is housed inside this building. Row upon row of books. Some filled with mathematics and history. Others with stories meant for entertainment. Books deemed too faded or damaged to be of use are sent to Omaha Colony for recycling. As revitalization expands the borders of Tosu City and the colonies, new books are found and added. Each colony has its own library. Our collection in Five Lakes is housed in a small waterproofed shed next to the school. But none can rival the pages of our past that can be found here.
I catch sight of a figure bounding down the library’s concrete steps. My heart swells as Tomas’s handsome face turns in my direction. I can tell the minute he spots me standing in the shadow of a tree, and I wait for happiness to light his face.
But it doesn’t.
Love doesn’t leap to his eyes. The dimple that makes me sigh stays hidden from view. His expression and the defensive way his arms are crossing his chest tell me loud and clear that my appearance is unwelcome. After the death of Rawson and learning that Professor Holt is monitoring my life, I should be incapable of surprise or of feeling more hurt. I’m not. Despair builds inside me, making it hard to breathe. A cold chill of panic follows closely behind.
“Hey, Tomas, wait up.” A small, wiry-haired boy with a pointed nose hurries down the stairs. Tomas turns so I can see only his profile, but it is enough to spot the dimple appear as he waves his hand in greeting. The other boy reaches Tomas and says, “I’ll walk back to the residence with you.”
“I’m not going back to the residence yet. There’s a plant I spotted yesterday by the chicken coop. Because of the Induction, I didn’t have time to look . . .” Tomas’s words trail off as he glances at the pointy-nose boy, who is sagging under the weight in his arms. “I could find the plant after I help you take your books back to our residence. They look a little heavy for you
to carry on your own.”
The boy frowns. “They’re not that heavy. I’ve carried far more than this back to the residence. Go ahead and track down your plant. I can take care of myself.” The boy shifts his grip on the books and trudges down the walkway as if to prove his point.
Tomas immediately walks in the opposite direction. Not once does he glance at me or encourage me to follow. But I do. Because, despite his earlier expression, I know Tomas. He will be waiting for me.
With classes out of session until Monday, few people walk the campus. Still, I am careful not to walk behind Tomas in case someone is watching. I leave the walkway and cross the grass, taking a more direct route.
The chicken coop doesn’t contain chickens. At least, it doesn’t now. Though a great number of animal species were killed off by the wars, for some reason chickens survived mostly unscathed. Scientists speculate that the genetic enhancements and antibiotics given to the female chickens to help protect such an important food source helped keep them immune from the worst of the postwar afflictions. Male chickens, however, were not as lucky. In the years leading up to the Seven Stages of War, roosters were given fewer drugs since they weren’t as vital a source of sustenance. Fewer of them survived the onslaught of chemicals released by biological warfare. Those that did survive suffered a variety of physical ailments, including partial paralysis, nerve damage, or cancerous growths. With so few living roosters, the chicken population began to die off, so this coop was created.
Through a great deal of trial and error, Commonwealth scientists boosted the roosters’ immune systems, filtered out the genetic changes caused by the wartime chemicals, and created a new breed of rooster that could thrive in this new environment. This old brick building was too small for most of the University’s needs, so it was chosen to house the new generation of roosters as they were studied and refined. During orientation, we learned that the building was last used to house animals over sixty years ago. Since then, the building had been cleaned of chicken feathers, but no other official use for it had been found. Instead it has become a destination for the occasional student looking for a quiet indoor place to study when the tension of the residence and the library gets too high. Of course, this is only when the weather is nice. The roof is known to leak.
The red brick of the building is faded. The bright sunshine highlights every crack in the mortar. I stand on the walkway in front of the door and look around the area to see if anyone is watching before I turn the handle and step inside.
The interior of the building is filled with bits of grass and dried leaves. My nose wrinkles as it catches the scent of a mouse or small animal who must have died somewhere nearby. Though it would be more pleasant to go back outside and wait, I do a thorough search of both the main room and the smaller one to the right for hidden cameras, all the while pretending to examine the electrical systems. If someone is watching, I don’t want that person to know I’m aware of it. When I find no signs of observation, I walk to a corner of the main room, where I will be out of view from anyone who might glance through a window, and slide to the dusty floor. Slipping the bag off my shoulder, I pull my legs up to my chest, rest my head on my knees, and wait. I shiver as the cold of the concrete seeps into my body.
More than once, I stop myself from moving around to keep warm or glancing out the window to see if Tomas is coming. Instead, I close my eyes and think about the happiness I felt when I first arrived at the University and saw this building. It was a week after The Testing. The sun was hot on my skin and I couldn’t stop smiling. I had made it through the Testing. I was living my dream of following in my father’s footsteps. Everything was possible, especially with Tomas holding my hand firmly in his. I hadn’t known then how precious that happiness was. How free I felt or how quickly I would realize that nothing about my life was as I thought. That I was trapped.
Did Tomas know that then? I try to picture his face as we walked around the campus, discussing our futures. Were there signs that he retained his Testing memories? Did he understand then what our future really held? And if so, can I live with not only the betrayal of his silence but whatever actions his silence is hiding?
All thoughts of betrayal and secrets disappear as the door swings open and Tomas walks inside. When he opens his arms, I don’t hesitate for a second before rising and stepping into them. No matter what has happened, Tomas is part of my past. He is part of my home. In the warmth and safety of Tomas’s arms, the tears fall unchecked. As I bury my face in Tomas’s chest, the picture of Rawson stumbling into nothingness replays in my mind. I was too far away to see the look on his face, but I can imagine how the frustration over the task jolted into terror as he slid into the abyss. He left his colony to come here and provide aid to the country. So much hope. Gone in an instant.
Tomas says nothing as I soak his shirt in tears. His arms hold me tight, offering comfort and protection. When my emotions are wrung dry, he doesn’t ask for an explanation. He just places a soft kiss on my lips, tells me he loves me, and says, “I’m sorry it took so long to get here. I was worried you’d think I wasn’t coming.”
“I knew you’d be here.” It might be the only thing I really was certain of. “Were you worried someone was following you?” I know I backtracked once on my way here just in case Dr. Barnes had someone trailing me.
Tomas shakes his head. “I ran into Professor Kenzie, the head of our residence. He wanted to talk about whether I’d be interested in adding another class to my schedule.”
“How many have you been assigned?”
“Six. Agreeing to take the new class was the fastest way to get here to you, so I guess I’m now taking seven.”
That’s a lot, but still two less than me.
The tension I feel must show on my face, because Tomas’s eyes narrow with concern. “How many classes do you have?”
“Nine.” By the way Tomas’s eyes widen, I can tell none of the first years in his field of study have been assigned as many. I doubt anyone in any discipline has. Dr. Barnes has singled me out. Already, I feel the pressure. Pushing that aside, I ask, “What is your residence like?”
“At first it was great. There are ten labs in the basement for us and a greenhouse out back so we don’t have to walk to the controlled environment dome in the stadium. We were excited to get our class schedules and start work. Then our Induction started.”
Dread grips me as he talks about walking with his fellow first-year students into the large stadium at the edge of the University campus. Our Early Studies orientation instructor told us the stadium contained a greenhouse. Inside that greenhouse, the final-year Biological Engineering students had constructed an obstacle course designed to test the knowledge and resourcefulness of the incoming class. I try to picture what Tomas describes—seven stations where students were required to identify plants or animals by touch or smell or by reading lines of their genetic code. A correct answer meant passing to the next station. An incorrect one required the first-year student to face a physical challenge. Failure to pass the physical challenge resulted in elimination from the obstacle course and Redirection out of the Biological Engineering program and the University.
Bile rises in my throat. The word rings loud in my head, so I barely hear Tomas talk about the one question he answered incorrectly and the hundred-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide path filled with hazardous plant life he had to navigate before being allowed to proceed to the next station.
“Most of the ground and shrubs were covered with poison ivy. Not the kind with the pink veins, although I saw a few of those near the edges of the path. Mostly, it was the typical variety we have growing at the edges of my father’s farm.”
Tomas is healthy and whole and seated beside me, but I still let out a sigh of relief. The garden-variety poison ivy isn’t fun. I walked through a patch of it when my father let me tag along on a scouting mission when I was six. If it weren’t for the salve Dr. Flint put on my ankles, I would have scr
atched them raw. The red, itchy skin was unpleasant, but it didn’t kill me. Had I run into the other kind of poison ivy, I wouldn’t have lived. My father says radiation interacted with the oily allergen contained in the leaves, transforming that strain into something incredibly deadly. While brushing the skin with the allergen will only cause blister-laden rashes, a touch of the oil on the tongue or an open wound as small as a pinprick will allow the poison to penetrate. Once the poison is inside the body, it attacks the cardiovascular system and typically results in pulmonary failure. Burning the plant and breathing in the fumes causes an even speedier death.
My father and brothers have carefully destroyed several small patches of pink ivy around our colony, using gloves to pull the roots from the soil and a special chemical to kill the plant and counteract the effects of the poisonous oils. I shouldn’t be surprised that someone would think it appropriate to use such a dangerous plant as part of a residence initiation, but I am. Perhaps because I know from my father’s work that pink ivy has been spotted in only six colonies. Never once has it been reported in the area surrounding Tosu City. Students who grew up in the city might never have come across or even heard of the deadly plant. Unless they got lucky, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Tomas continues. “Your dad would have been able to identify all the plants there, but I couldn’t. I spotted poison sumac, prickly poppy, and the red-flowered jessamine that killed off Scotty Rollison’s goats when we were kids.”
The red flowers are another wartime mutation; they’re filled with pollen that attacks the immune system.
“Since I didn’t know all the plants, I tucked the bottom of my pant legs into my boots and stuck with the path I knew wasn’t going to kill me. I walked across the poison ivy, reached the other side, and moved on to the next station.”
Smart. Although, by the way he scratches at his left calf, I’m guessing he might need some salve.