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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing/6

Chapter 6
I TAKE DEEP breaths. I force my legs to move. All the while I am wondering, if this room from my father's subconscious is real, what else is? If my answers today don't make the grade . . .   No. I yank my thoughts back to the here and now. Worrying about what comes next will not help me excel on this test. Breathing, focusing, relaxing — those are the things that allow my mind to work best. I start with the first. Deep and low. In and out. I finger the yellow pencil sitting on the desk and out of the corner of my eye see Tomas watching me with concern. Shaking my head, I smile to tell him not to worry. I'm fine. I will be fine.   While I wait for the test to begin, I take in the other members of my group. There is only one other girl in the room. She has long red hair and the fabric of her black dress is in perfect contrast with her pale skin. Her back is rigid, her eyes forward. The boys are no less focused. Two blonds. One redhead. Four with varying shades of brown. And Tomas. Several are of slight build, but the redhead in particular has muscles that speak of a life filled with activity. As I wonder briefly what colony he is from, a tall, bald man in purple walks into the room carrying a large stack of bound papers.   The tests.   Paper is precious in our community since so many trees were destroyed in the Seven Stages. All paper usage is carefully monitored in school. Once the paper has been used and is no longer needed, it is sent to Omaha Colony for recycling.   Silently, the Testing official circulates in the room, stopping at each desk, never once meeting any of the candidates' eyes. The large booklet lands on the shiny black surface in front of me. The cover reads History. In the right corner is the design from my bracelet — the eight-pointed star with a lightning bolt. My fingers itch to open the cover and see what lies beneath, but none of the other candidates opens theirs. Heart pounding, I wait.   The Testing official reaches the front of the room. He does not introduce himself but says, "Complete the pages in front of you to the best of your ability. If you need a drink of water, raise your hand and water will be brought to you. If you need to relieve yourself, raise your hand and an official will escort you to the facilities and back. You have four hours starting now. "   He pushes a button on the front wall, which causes a small screen to descend from the ceiling. A timer. And the numbers are running backward.   Our time has begun.   Fingers trembling, I open the booklet to the first page.  Question: Explain the First Stage of the War of the Nations. Answer: The assassination of Prime Minister Chae, which fractured the Asian Alliance, sparked a power struggle among the other nations and a civil war. During the civil war, bombs were dropped on the Korean States, destroying most of the population and causing the meltdown of two nuclear reactors.   Question: Name the first two North American cities destroyed by the Mideastern Coalition.   Answer: Washington, D. C. , and Boston.   Question: What group was the first to declare war on the North American Alliance?   Answer: The South American Coalition.   Question after question, I scribble answers. Hoping I'm correct. Hoping the details I provide are what the Testing committee is looking for. Questions about the bombs dropped, cities destroyed, people dead. More questions about the earthquakes, floods, windstorms filled with radioactive air. Events that cut the world's population to a fraction of what it was. It still amazes me that anyone survived the horrors I write about let alone had the strength and conviction to turn things around. I answer questions about the man from Five Lakes who created the process to purify the rivers. More about the woman who genetically crafted grass hardy enough to thrive in the earth. Questions about a people and a world struggling to find their way back from the brink of destruction.   I look up at the clock. Three hours have passed. I roll out my neck, trying to free the knots. Flexing my fingers that have been clutching the pencil so tight, I contemplate asking for a glass of water and decide against it. While water sounds good, I don't want to risk losing precious minutes visiting the bathroom. Not while there are questions still to be answered.   Names. Dates. Foods created. Technology lost. Failures and deaths. All the happenings that contributed to me sitting in this chair. Taking this test. My eyes are tired and fuzzy, but I force myself to focus. To answer as many questions as possible. I flip to the last page when a loud buzzer sounds.   "Time is up. Please close your booklets and put down your pencils. The officials at the door will escort you upstairs to lunch. "   My leg muscles are stiff. I stand and bend my knees a couple times before I brave moving toward the exit. By the time we get up to the dining hall, my muscles are feeling more limber, but the idea of sitting down again has zero appeal. Since I know I need fuel, I fill my plate with roast beef, fresh spring greens, and slices of grilled tomatoes, and take a seat at what I now think of as our table.   If I thought the tension was bad in the Testing room, I am in no way prepared for the level of anxiety that permeates lunch. All around is chatter about the questions, the answers. Did President Dalton order the first bomb dropped on London? Did the first Stage Five earthquake plunge the state of California under water or was it the second? Tears when a candidate realizes the answers she gave were incorrect. Elation over the smallest victory. I try to ignore the emotion swirling around the room and do my best to direct my table's conversation to something other than the questions we've been asked.   Zandri is delighted to change the subject. With little prompting she talks about our brief glimpse of Tosu City and the artwork it has inspired her to create. Soon everyone in the group is talking about the interesting things they've seen since being away from home. All but Tomas. He smiles and pretends to listen, but I can see by his eyes that his focus is elsewhere. Did he blank under pressure and fail the first test? I try to catch his attention to ask in silence what I cannot ask aloud, but his gaze is firmly fixed on the lemon cake in front of him.   We are all allowed to go back to our rooms to use the bathroom. I count the corncakes again. Still nine. Then it is time for the next written test. There are freshly sharpened pencils on all of the desks. The tests are passed out. This time the title of the booklet reads Mathematics. Word for word the Testing official gives us the pre-test speech about water, bathrooms, and the time we have to take the test. The clock once again descends, and everyone opens their booklet. The sounds of pencils scratching on paper and frantic erasing accompany my work.   If I finish a question too quickly, I check and recheck my work in case the question is not as simple as it seems. If a problem takes more time, I feel each second ticking by — stealing time from the other problems that are yet to come. I refuse to look around the room for fear someone is sitting quietly at his desk with his hands folded in front of him — done. I still have three pages to go when the buzzer sounds. My heart sinks in my chest. With so many questions left unanswered, I am certain I have failed.   The Testing official directs us to our escorts. I grab my bag and resist the urge to beg for more time. Ms. Jorghen at home probably would have given it. She loved when we showed dedication and determination. Here, they just want results.   We are allowed thirty minutes to freshen up in our assigned  quarters before we report for dinner. I'd rather crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head than have to eat and face the others. It's bad enough I have to confront Ryme, who's looking as fresh-faced as she did this morning. One glance in the reflector tells me what I already know. I am a wreck.   "How did it go?" Ryme asks with a sweet smile. "I thought the history section was a bit simplistic. Didn't you?"   I think of the final page sitting blank and shrug. "I think it covered the high points. "   "And the math section was long, but really — if someone doesn't know differentiation, they shouldn't be here. "   The calculus section was in the middle. At least she's talking about a section that I completed.   Ryme picks up the plate of corncakes and offers them to me. I just shake my head as she puts the plate back down and continues to chatter. "I would have thought the tests would have been more challenging. How else will they weed out the people who clearly don't belong here?"   The pitying smile she gives me makes my stomach roll. There is no question who she thinks should be the first to go.   I'm relieved when the announcement for dinner is made. I barely pay attention to what I'm putting on my plate before taking my seat next to Tomas. Our other colony-mates have yet to put in an appearance. Tomas gives me a half smile. He looks tired. The same tiredness I saw in the reflector a few minutes ago.   "How'd it go?" he asks.   Silverware clanks against china. People are laughing and talking louder and louder to be heard above the din. Everyone is either bragging about their intellectual prowess or steeped in misery. No one is listening to us. I decide to be honest. "I didn't answer all the questions. I ran out of time. "   His smile grows wider as he runs a hand through his hair. "I thought I was the only one. I don't know how they expect anyone to answer that many questions in four hours. I thought my brain was going to melt out of my head by the end of the math test. "   I laugh and feel some of the tension leach out of my body. If someone as smart as Tomas didn't complete the tests, I doubt many did. Tomas is that smart.   Malachi, Zandri, and their roommates arrive. Worry and fatigue color their eyes, and I wonder if they, too, left pages blank. I think of how relieved Tomas was to know someone else didn't finish the exams and weigh the reaction of those listening behind the cameras that no doubt are lurking nearby. After a moment, I come to a decision. "Well, I don't know about all of you, but I didn't finish either test. "   They all look at me with wide eyes, forks halfway to their mouths. After several beats, Nicolette admits, "Neither did I. "   "Me, neither. " This from Malachi. He looks at his roommate Boyd. "Did you?"   Boyd frowns at his mashed potatoes. "No. I left five pages of math unanswered. "   "I still had five and a half. " This from Zandri.   Two slender, fair-skinned male candidates sitting at the table behind Zandri turn to face us. Identical green eyes study our faces. Only their hair length distinguishes one from the other. One with long. The other with short. The one with hair pulled back at his nape asks, "Did you say you didn't finish the test?"   I see the others around the table stiffen, and I sigh. So much for thinking the noise covered our conversation. Lifting my chin, I answer, "There were just too many questions for me to finish them all. I got close on history, but I probably took too much time checking my work on math. "   The green-eyed twins look at each other. Without a word they rise, gather their plates, and move to the empty seats at our table. The longhaired one says, "You have no idea how good it is to hear someone finally admit they didn't finish the damn tests. " He sticks his hand out. "I'm Will. My brother Gill and I are from Madison Colony. "   Madison. Only a few hours from Five Lakes. My father has traveled there a few times over the past two or three years. Something in the earth has been killing their crops. From the way the twins have piled their plates and the unhealthy cast to their skin, I'd guess there still isn't enough food to go around. I'm glad they have food now because I can't help but like them as they tease that they should have been allowed to take the tests together. They point out that everyone always says they share one brain. Gill excels in math and science. Will is strongest at history, English, and languages.   Once we are done comparing thoughts on today's tests, Will and Gill plow their way through three plates of food as they describe Madison Colony and their family. They live in the city the colony is named for. Their father works in the paper mill while their mother is employed at a dairy farm. Life is clearly difficult for some in Madison Colony, but the twins are optimistic and upbeat. They regale us with hilarious stories of their attempts to milk a cow and their own family's difficulty in telling the two of them apart until Gill took pity and cut his hair. The rest of us share our own stories from home, and I can see more than one envious face turned toward our table as we laugh. The laughter feels so good. It brightens our moods, eases the tension in our bodies, and replenishes our spirits. When dinner ends, most of the other candidates disappear into their assigned rooms, but we ask if we can remain in the dining hall for a while longer. None of us wants to leave the comfort of friends.   We sing favorite songs. Tomas and I perform a duet that we learned in school. The words speak of the hope of springtime and the world being born anew. Our two voices entwine and echo in the hall. The officials cleaning up after the meal stop and listen to us. When we go back to our rooms we all walk lighter. The lightness stays with me even as Ryme expresses relief that tomorrow's exam will send people packing. And when I sleep with my bag tucked tight to my chest I spend the night free of dreams.   We all gather again at breakfast looking rested but feeling tense. No amount of talk can take away the anxiety as we mentally prepare for our next test. Science.   Periodic tables. Balancing chemical formulas. Physics equations. Those questions are first and easy compared to the ones that ask for scientific explanations for the mutated insects and animals that now populate the world. But the section on genetically altered plants is easy considering my hands-on experience. While my thumbs aren't green, I understand the concepts behind creating hybrids and the factors that influence their success.   Too soon time is up. Two pages left unanswered. Lunchtime, then part four: Reading and Language Skills. My eyes are sore and my body numb with fatigue when I finish and realize the clock is still ticking. Ten minutes remain in the testing period.   Panic floods me. Did I answer the questions too fast? Did my hurrying cause me to give incorrect or incomplete answers? My fingers itch to open the cover so I can fix the mistakes I must have made. And yet, I hear my parents' voices inside my head. The advice they gave me when sitting beside me at the kitchen table, quizzing me for a test. Take my time. Never second-guess myself. Almost always my first instinct will be the correct one.   I put my pencil down. Fold my hands in front of me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tomas do the same. He's finished. Glancing over, he gives me one of his single-dimpled smiles.   Five minutes remain. Four. Three. Two. Pencils scribble. Eyes flick up at the clock and back to the paper in front of them, the candidates desperate to finish one last answer. The buzzer sounds. Round one of The Testing is complete.   We are escorted to the elevators. A few kids give one another high-fives and celebrate. I just feel tired and relieved. I did the best I could. Whatever happens now is out of my hands. Tomas gives my hand a quick squeeze as the elevator doors open. Then he disappears down the hall with the other guys. I head in the opposite direction and am disappointed to see Ryme has once again made it back to the room before me. She's seated at the desk, bent over a silver figurine she must have brought from home. There are still nine corncakes on the plate. Her smile is bright, if a little manic, when she sees me walk in.   "How did it go?"   I shrug my bag off my shoulder and decide to give an honest answer. "I didn't complete the science section. "   Ryme's eyes narrow. She bites her bottom lip and studies me for several moments. I guess she's trying to determine whether I'm telling the truth. She'll probably decide I'm attempting to get inside her head since it's something she would do. Face it, anyone who brings a stack of corncakes with her and doesn't eat a single one isn't above screwing with someone's mind.   Finally she gives me a smug smile. "I guess Five Lakes Colony schools aren't as good as the ones in Dixon. Too bad. One of us won't be around much longer. "   A flash of heat streaks through me. My nails bite into my palms as I fight for control of my anger. I can't help myself from saying, "Our teachers did well enough. Tomas and I finished the reading section with time to spare. Did you?" I can see by the surprise on Ryme's face that she didn't, and I flash a mean smile. "I guess you're right about one of us going home. Too bad. Don't forget to pack your corncakes when you leave. " My tone is snotty — the kind I use when my brothers are ganging up on me and I decide to get in a low blow. A different heat fills me. Embarrassment. I wait for Ryme to take another verbal shot. I deserve it. But she doesn't. She just looks down at her hands.   "I'm sorry," I say.   Her eyes come back up to meet mine. Her lips spread in a wide smile. "Whatever for?" she asks sweetly. "You were just trying to make yourself feel better after admitting you didn't do well today. A lot of the inferior students at my school used to do the same thing, so I totally understand. "   Ugh. The girl is asking to get slapped. To prevent myself from doing something else I'd just feel guilty about, I flop onto my bed, close my eyes, and keep my back to Ryme until dinner is announced. Before the announcement is complete, I am out the door.   Dinner is an exuberant affair. Everyone is tired, but the stress of performing under pressure is lifted for the evening. The food also contributes to the happy atmosphere. Pizza. Warm and gooey and better than anything I've tasted before. I eat six slices before my stomach is ready to pop. Zandri gets the twins telling jokes, and we are all laughing as the loudspeaker hisses and crackles to life.   "Malencia Vale. Please report to the hallway. Thank you. "   The dining hall goes silent. My heart slams in my chest. Have the Testing officials already decided I failed? Everyone at my table looks at me with questioning eyes. I must look freaked because Tomas takes my hand and says, "I bet they want to ask you to teach classes instead of taking them. Make sure they offer you a lot of money before saying yes. "   Sure. I give him a weak smile and stand. All eyes are on me as I stiffly walk up the aisle, past all the other tables, and through the side door. Everyone in the hall is probably jockeying for position so they can get a good view through the glass wall. I clutch my bag and stand in the hallway, waiting for whatever comes next.   "Malencia Vale?"   I spin to my right at the sound of the familiar voice. The kindly gray-haired man from yesterday morning's assembly — Dr. Jedidiah Barnes. There are two officials behind him. All are in their ceremonial purple. "Everyone calls me Cia," I say.   He smiles. "Both are lovely. " I try to come up with a response, but fail. Thankfully, a response isn't required because he says, "Please forgive me for pulling you out of dinner, but Ryme Reynald's friends have expressed concern over her whereabouts. When was the last time you saw her?"   I blink. This is about Ryme. Not me. Not my Testing scores. Relief fills me. Confusion follows. "Ryme was sitting at her desk when I left for dinner. "   "And she was well?"   Arrogant. Irritating. Irrationally confrontational. "I think she was stressed after finishing today's tests. "   "Eight hours of tests for two days straight is enough to stress anyone out. " Dr. Barnes's smile is apologetic. "We debate every year about spreading out the tests over the first week, but we feel it is best to get the first section of Testing over with quickly. Too much time to think about the tests also causes stress. " He sighs. "Would you mind letting us take a look in your room? Ms. Reynald probably decided to skip dinner, but we would like to make sure. "   "Sure. " I mean, it isn't really my room. "Go ahead. "   He smiles again. "You'll have to come with us. The law states that Testing officials are not allowed into any candidate's room unless the candidate is present or there is an obvious emergency. "   I guess I'm glad they didn't test us on the United Commonwealth laws or I would have failed for sure. Irritated that Ryme has stirred up such drama and sucked me in for the ride, I head down the hall. Dr. Barnes's tread is soft, but the other two officials' boots clomp down the corridor. If Ryme is inside, she has certainly heard us coming.   Turning the knob, I push the door open and take a step inside. The smell, urine mixed with corncakes, hits me first. Then I see her. Dangling on a colorful rope. Hanging from the ceiling. Face red and blotchy. Eyes wide with horror. Neck gouged and bleeding where she fought from instinct or because she changed her mind.   I scream as the reality of what I see hits me. Hard.   Ryme is dead.