The Testing

The Testing

The Testing 62

  I slide a change of clothes along with my papers into my bag, and crawl into bed with the bag tucked in beside me. Despite the bulk of it, having my things next to me is strangely comforting. I slept like this every night during The Testing and survived. With a lot of luck and the right decisions, I will survive again.

  My sleep is filled with flashes of memories. The poisonous plants from the second test. Malachi as he touched the wrong part of the pulse radio, sending a nail into his eye. Annalise as she tossed her red hair and swaggered out the door. The city streets with only one path for escape. Will’s green eyes staring at me from behind the barrel of his gun as he fired.

  When I wake, sunlight is streaming through the window. I put my bag on the floor and slide out of bed. Today the president will announce that Michal is missing. The debate will be postponed. The countdown to the rebels’ attack will end as mine begins. And the images from last night’s dreams give me an idea of how to start.

  I shower, pull my hair into a knot at the base of my neck, and check the time. There is an hour until my first class starts. Time enough. I place two of the half-inch round trackers I took from President Collindar’s fifth-floor storeroom into my jacket pocket. The monitor I slide into my bag. Then, after a quick inventory of the mechanical parts I have stored in my bottom desk drawer, I grab my bag and head downstairs to get the other pieces I need. No one is working in the labs this morning. I search through all four of them before I find the items I require. Since I have to get to class soon, I put all the parts in my bag, grab food from the dining hall so I can work through lunch. Then I look for Ian. When I spot him at our usual table, sitting across from Raffe, I walk over and slide into the seat beside him.

  Putting one hand in my pocket, I quietly ask, “Do you have time to talk? I’m leaving for class in a few minutes but there’s something . . .” I drop my fork, get out of my seat, and kneel down to retrieve it. While doing so, I slip one of the small tracking devices into the side pocket of the bag at his feet. I’ve never seen Ian put anything in that pocket, but I’m hoping the disk will be small enough to escape his notice if he does. Grabbing my fork, I back out from under the table and take my seat again, keeping my eyes lowered so Ian will think I’m flustered by my mistake. In a quiet voice I ask, “Is there any word on when we’ll be able to leave campus?”

  “Not yet. Which is good in a way. Everyone can catch up on classwork. The campus lockdown is unusual, and I can’t imagine it will last very long. If it goes more than a few days, I’m sure some students will feel compelled to break the rule and leave anyway.”

  “What will happen if they get caught?”

  Ian puts down his fork. “Every head of residence is different. I’ve heard Professor Markum is pretty lenient about these things. Professor Holt, however, isn’t as easygoing. Unless, of course, you’re one of her favorites or someone she’s asked to do a job for her.” The way Ian glances across the room at Griffin leaves no doubt as to whom he is referring. Although Professor Holt has asked favors of Ian in the past, like spying on me, he could be one of those she allows to break the rules without consequence. The tracker will help me learn whether he actually does cross the University boundaries. If so, I will know he is working with Professor Holt. It is not a perfect test, but it is a start. Kind of like step one in The Testing process. Once I see what his movements are today, I can decide if there needs to be a round two.

  Raffe leaves the dining hall when I do and matches his stride to mine as I cross the bridge and head toward the center of campus. He glances over his shoulder then says, “The president is making her proposal to the Debate Chamber today. That has to be the reason none of the students are allowed to leave campus. Dr. Barnes and his administrators must not want us to get caught in the crossfire if the attack happens sooner than they planned.”

  That could be part of the rationale. Of course, Raffe doesn’t know about the rebel students on campus or their orders to remove any perceived threats to the rebellion.

  “So have you decided how you’re going to get around the tracking devices so we can do something to stop what’s about to happen? Or are you still trying to figure out if you can trust me?”

  “I do.” At least, I think we are fighting for the same purpose. But I believed that of Will, and Tomas almost died. “There are just some things I have to work out. Once I do, I’ll share everything I know.”

  “Well, you’d better do it quick, Cia.” Raffe frowns. “Because unless I’m mistaken, the time for thinking is running out. If we’re going to try to end The Testing and change this University, we have to do it before things are locked down so tight that we no longer have a choice.”

  Raffe stalks off in the direction of the Science buildings. As much as I want to follow, I don’t. I have only twenty minutes until class begins. I need to find Stacia. We don’t have any classes together until tomorrow afternoon, and Raffe is right. I do not have time to wait.

  I see her walking behind a group of older students toward the Humanities building and wave. When she doesn’t notice me, I yell her name as I hurry in that direction. She cocks her head as she spots me. “What are you doing over here? Don’t you have World History first thing on Monday morning?”

  I nod and look at the watch on my bag. Fifteen minutes. Not a lot of time, but enough to say what I need to. “There’s something I need to tell you and a favor I have to ask.”

  We sit on the stone bench near the walkway. I take out a book in order to look as if we are two students comparing homework.

  “What’s so important it couldn’t wait?” Stacia asks, brushing a blond lock of hair behind her ear. “Did Tomas and you break up for real?”

  She rolls her eyes and waits for me to laugh as I did when she’d say something like that a month ago. When I don’t, her expression turns serious. “President Collindar has asked me to assemble a team of people to help her bring down The Testing and eliminate the people in charge of it.”

  Stacia blinks. “This is a joke, right?” She looks at the group of girls walking by us and then lowers her voice. “You’re not joking?”

  “I wish I were.” I give her a quick synopsis of the tug of war happening over the Debate Chamber vote and the rebellion the president was counting on that has proved false. Only five minutes remain until the start of class when I say, “I’ve learned enough to know that The Testing needs to end. Unlike President Dalton in the Fourth Stage of War, President Collindar has chosen to strike against Dr. Barnes and the people who could plunge this country again into war. But I can’t do what she asks without your help.”

  Two minutes. I’m going to have to run to make it to World History in time. Hoping I have given her enough information to at least make her consider helping, I ask, “Can you meet me here in two hours?” The Calculus building is directly across from this bench. I can make it here easily after my second class.

  Stacia stands. “Sure. If for no other reason than I’m dying to hear what else you have to tell me.”

  “Don’t say anything to anyone until we speak. There are people . . .” One minute. “Just don’t say anything about this. Okay? Or we’ll both be really sorry.”

  When Stacia nods, I race across the grass, hoping I have not just made a mistake.

  Class is starting when I hurry into the room and take a seat in the back. Professor Lee’s raised eyebrow is the only indication that he has noticed my tardiness. While he begins the lecture, I fish a notebook and pencil out of my bag, then leave the bag open beside me so I can see the light of the monitor telling me if Ian’s position changes.

  The need to watch the monitor, the worry that Stacia will not heed the warning I gave her, and the knowledge that Professor Lee is one of the people I am supposed to eliminate dominate my thoughts. Professor Lee has always seemed so interested in his students living up to their potential. It seems impossible to believe he would be an advocate for a larger pool of Testing candidates. Could he really want to eliminate the potential of so many ad
ditional candidates just to provide more competition during the selection process?

  “What can you tell us, Ms. Vale, about Prime Minister Chae?”

  The sound of my name makes me realize that I have not been paying attention. I’m just glad Professor Lee said my name before the topic; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to answer now. Thankfully, this is a topic that was covered not only in our school back in Five Lakes, but in Early Studies. “Prime Minister Chae was the broker for the Asian Alliance. It was his refusal to accept defeat during the Sanai Summit that pushed the talks forward. He is also credited with helping maintain peace by encouraging compromise between the leaders of the Asian Alliance, but despite the public’s desire to see him lead, Prime Minister Chae refused to push himself forward to be the leader of the Alliance. Had he accepted leadership, his desire for peace could have prevented the escalation that led to the Seven Stages of War.”

  Professor Lee studies me. “Is that what you believe?”

  I feel everyone waiting for me to speak, but I have no idea what to say.

  Professor Lee smiles and glances around the room. “Is that what you all believe?”

  Now everyone has been put on the spot. And, like me, no one else knows how to respond. A few heads nod but Professor Lee doesn’t speak. It is clear he is waiting for someone to speak. So, I do. “That’s what you taught in Early Studies.”

  Professor Lee’s smile grows wider. “It is. We know certain facts from those years before the Seven Stages of War. We know Prime Minister Chae fought for unity and that while many believed he was out to create a power base for himself, he never tried to gain leadership of the Alliance. We also know that he traveled around Japan, China, and North and South Korea stressing the need to put aside differences and follow the new laws. After that, we know very little. Which is why you have only been taught and tested on those facts. Today, I’d like to talk about what we don’t know.”

  The confusion on my fellow students’ faces must be mirrored on my own. I’d heard about the sequence of events that led up to the Seven Stages of War before I started school. I have been tested on them in Five Lakes, during The Testing, and throughout Early Studies. The idea that there is more information that I have never been told has me leaning forward in my seat waiting for whatever Professor Lee will say next.

  His smile disappears. “Prime Mister Chae’s involvement in the great treaty, his call for peace, and his death are well documented. However, very little about the years when he stepped out of the limelight have been verified, which is why you have never discussed the possibilities behind those dormant years. I’d like to remedy that today.”

  Walking up and down past the aisles of desks, Professor Lee talks at length about the mystery that surrounds Prime Minister Chae’s decision to step away from the government for ten years only to reappear when the Alliance was threatened because Mongolia seized land from China. Prime Minister Chae reemerged and once again brokered peace. A movement developed in every Asian Alliance country. People demanded that the current Alliance leader step down and that Chae take his place.

  According to Professor Lee, books that survived that period suggest Chae spent the early part of those mystery years traveling throughout the Alliance countries, cultivating followers while professing to support the current leader. It has never been confirmed, but there were rumors that Chae was spotted in Mongolia not long before its president directed his troops to cross the border into China.

  “Since so much of our world’s history was only documented with technology that was lost during the wars, no one knows for certain whether these events are rumor or fact,” Professor Lee says, pausing near my desk. “If they are true, then I think it is very possible that Chae’s well-known selflessness was a cover for his true intent—to become the leader of the Asian Alliance by prompting the Mongolian president to create a threat that would thrust Chae back into the political arena. If this speculation is correct, Chae laid the groundwork so that it would appear he only took the reigns as head of the Allied governments by humbly accepting the will of the people.”

  Professor Lee smiles. “His plan could have succeeded had he not been assassinated. After that, you know the rest of the story.”

  Civil war broke out in the Asian Alliance as each country accused another of the assassination. The unrest prompted the Mid-Eastern Coalition to attack Japan. One by one, every country was pulled into the war as tensions around the world exploded. Eventually the rumors of Chancellor Freidrich’s involvement were confirmed, but by then the unrest was too great to turn back. Bombs were dropped. Cities leveled. The population of the world was reduced to a fraction of what it once had been. I thought I had understood the reason why our world was destroyed. But if Professor Lee is correct, we have only been taught part of our history. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how much was lost in the Seven Stages of War. Those who lived through the war were intent on survival, not on preserving our past.

  “It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Prime Minister Chae not been assassinated, and even more fascinating to consider what history might look like had he chosen to retain his role in the government and not pushed for more.” President Lee surveys the room and glances at the clock. Our time is up. Though after what I have learned I don’t want to leave. Not if there is still more to hear. My classmates must feel the same. Not a single student has begun to pack up.

  “And now for your assignment,” Professor Lee says. “I would like you to consider what we know to be fact about the state of the world governments at that time and write a paper telling me what you believe would have happened had Prime Minister Chae not been assassinated. I wish to be dazzled by your keen political and historical insight. Those who impress me most will be selected to participate in a special seminar. One that will discuss what is happening outside of the United Commonwealth right now and speculate on what might happen next.”

  He closes the book in front of him, grins at the stunned expressions of everyone in the room, and heads out the door. Despite everything that has happened over the past couple of days, I can’t help but feel a spurt of excitement at the idea of delving deeper into our past and discovering what is happening outside our country. Are there others fighting to restore the earth? Could the course of action I have decided upon affect more than just the Commonwealth?

  I want to believe that Chancellor Freidrich had Prime Minister Chae assassinated not to retain power, as some believe, but because the action would keep the Alliance stable. Instead it plunged nations into a war that led to the downfall of the world. Dr. Barnes is not Prime Minister Chae. He has not been an advocate for peace. Yet his work selecting leaders has helped revitalize this country. While I think The Testing is a terrible betrayal of everything I have been taught to believe in, others might not agree. I am betting that some Testing candidates, if their memories were restored, might even see Dr. Barnes as a savior. Will Stacia be one of them?

  I’m still thinking about this and the events that have made me resolve to employ some of the same principles used in The Testing as Enzo and I walk together to our next class—Advanced Calculus. I have not yet decided what test I can give him, and I wonder if the fact that he knows I killed Damone and hasn’t reported me to Professor Holt is test enough.

  But it isn’t, because I don’t know where his family’s loyalty lies.

  As we walk up the steps of Science Building 4, Enzo stops me and asks, “Is everything okay?”

  I blink.

  “I just know you’re going through a lot with . . . everything that’s happened.”

  Is he referring to my part in Damone’s death or to something else?

  He jams his hands into his pockets and keeps his voice low. “I just wanted you to know that if you need someone to talk to, I’m a good listener. My father always says the reason I seem smarter than the rest of my brothers is because I watch and listen to everyone else, instead of jumping in and getting my hands dirty.”
/>  “Jumping in before you know what you’re getting into is a good way to get hurt,” I say, wondering why he is pushing to bring himself into my confidence. What does he think I am doing, and what would he do with the information if I gave it to him? The intensity with which he waits for me to say something more makes me certain there is another agenda aside from friendship at play. Trying to sound casual, I add, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not ready to talk.”

  Enzo shrugs. “Well, I just thought since I saw . . . well, you know . . . that I sort of understood and that I can be trusted.”

  The more he tells me I can rely on him, the less I want to.

  “Thanks,” I say. “It’s nice to know you stand by your friends.” When Enzo shifts his weight and looks uncomfortable with my gratitude, I say, “Come on. We don’t want to be late for class.”

  It’s a good thing we aren’t. Our professor assigns eight pages of homework, most of which deals with equations he covered in the first few minutes. I am so busy writing notes I barely have time to glance down at the tracking monitor in my bag to verify that Ian’s device is still on campus. Where Ian said he was going to be. When the professor is done answering questions about the assignment, he announces that Professor Jaed is not on campus today. My next class, United Commonwealth History and Law, is canceled along with the others Professor Jaed teaches, which gives me a two-hour window until my next lecture. Time enough to talk again to Stacia and, I hope, construct an appropriate test for Raffe.

  Stacia is waiting where I last saw her. Before I can take a seat, she stands and says, “You don’t have to convince me that what you said the president asked you to do is the truth. At first I thought it must be an elaborate joke, but I know you wouldn’t joke about something like that. So, tell me what I can do to help.”

  “Just like that?” I ask. Walking here, I’d come up with all the things I could say that would convince her to be a part of this team.