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The Testing 69
Tomas leans back and looks at me again. His fingers brush my cheek, wiping away a tear I wasn’t aware had fallen. When his lips find mine again, they are still gentle, but instead of kindness, the kiss shimmers with desire. I snake a hand around the back of his neck and pull him closer, deepening the kiss.
There is nothing more I want than to feel this way forever. I allow myself two more kisses before easing away from his touch. If it were just about this moment, I would allow myself to get lost in Tomas’s embrace. If it were just about us, I would forget what tomorrow could bring. But I want a future that can happen only if we are successful in what we intend to do.
My breathing comes fast and my pulse pounds as I look up at Tomas, worried he’ll be upset that I pulled away. But his face is filled with tenderness as he asks again, “Are you okay?” The same question, but this time he’s asking about us.
I swallow hard and nod. “Are you?”
My breath catches when he doesn’t answer right away. Tomas webs his fingers through mine, holds my hand tight, and says, “It’s only been eight months since we left Five Lakes, but it seems longer. So much has happened. Some of it we understand, and much we don’t. But there are two things I am certain of. I love you and you love me. We’ll figure out what that means for us after all this is over. Until then, I’m grateful we’re here together. Okay?”
I lean up to kiss him. Then I grab the flashlight, walk over to my bag, remove the weapons, and dig out the pulse radio. The message light is on. The first voice I hear when I press Play is Raffe. He sounds raspy and is speaking so softly I have to strain to understand him.
“Professor Holt called a meeting for everyone in the residence. The medical team thinks Enzo will recover.”
One of the knots inside me eases.
“We’ve been given an order to report any sighting of you to the Safety officials or to Professor Holt. Any student who aids in your capture will be rewarded with the presidential internship and a special independent study with Dr. Barnes.”
Tomas takes my hand and I squeeze his tight. All students, including my friends, have now been given two reasons to betray me. If Stacia’s intent in testing Enzo was to help instead of hinder, I doubt she is still willing to aid in my plan. Not with an easier path to success in front of her. Frowning, I rewind and replay the last part of Raffe’s message. “Stay safe. Let me know if I should meet up with Stacia. I’ll do what I can to join you tomorrow.”
The recording ends but the light doesn’t go dark, which means there is at least one more message.
“Raffe didn’t ask you to tell him where we’re hiding.” Tomas frowns. “Did you already tell him how to find this house?”
I shake my head. “I told him about the street, but not which house we’d be in. He didn’t ask to confirm the location in case the signal was intercepted.” I changed the frequency to one I believe is not typically used, though there is always a chance another pulse radio within reception range could pick up the signal. But there is one person who I know has a pulse radio tuned to the same signal. I push Play again and hear her voice.
“I got Raffe’s message. Enzo must have decided to find the recording. Sorry about that, but I guess it’s better to know now if he can be trusted. Right?” Stacia’s tone is matter-of-fact. “Raffe, if you get this I’ll meet you first thing tomorrow morning so you can tell me where to find Cia. See you all soon.”
The light goes dark as the message ends. Stacia wants to know where to find me. In order to join in the fight or to report me to Professor Holt and receive her reward for that betrayal?
“Now what do we do?” I ask. “I don’t know if we should work with Stacia, and I can’t leave a message for Raffe without her getting one, too.” Will Raffe believe she is supposed to come here with him tomorrow? “I don’t know how to tell him to make sure to leave her behind and not let her know where he’s going.”
“You can’t.” Tomas looks at the radio on my hand. “Stacia knows too much to be left behind. She knows who is on our side and who our targets are. If we cut her out of the plan now, she will probably tell Professor Holt and Dr. Barnes everything she knows. By leaving her behind, we’ll decide her loyalties for her. And let’s face it, we need her.”
“There’s no way we can do this alone. We need all the help we can get, and Stacia’s proven she’s willing to do whatever it takes. Including turn on us if that’s the only way to be rewarded for her actions. It’s better to have her with us where we can see what she’s doing than wonder what she’s up to.”
Tomas has a point. I selected Will to be in my Induction group for the same reason, but then I knew we had the same agenda. Stacia wants to be rewarded for her actions. Who she plans on seeking that reward from—Dr. Barnes or the president—is still in question. But at the moment we have no choice in the decision we must make.
Pressing Record, I say, “Both of you be careful. I hope to see you tomorrow. And Raffe, if you have trouble, ask our other friend for help. He might know how to get away without being seen.”
“Ian?” Tomas asks.
I nod. “I don’t think he’ll leave the rebels, but he helped me get away tonight. I think he’d do the same for Raffe and Stacia.”
“That still leaves the problem of how Raffe will find us. All the windows are boarded up, so we can’t see when they arrive. You said there are people living on this street. Some might not react well if strangers come too close to their dwellings. How are Stacia and Raffe supposed to know which house we’re staying at without knocking on doors and alerting the people who live here to our presence?”
Good question. With the people on this street trying to live in the shadows, I’m sure they will not want the attention we could bring on them. To keep a low profile, they might ignore us, but it would be best not to test that hypothesis.
As I consider the problem, I put the radio back in my bag and catch sight of the painting Raffe gave me. Of the symbol he created that gives an identity to what we have planned. Seeing the crisscrossing slashes of yellow gives me an idea. Digging through my bag, I find the black charcoal pencils I carry and say, “I’ll be right back.”
“What are you going to do?”
“This house is covered with graffiti,” I say, handing him the flashlight. “I’m just going to add a little more.”
Tomas helps shift the door wide enough so I can slip out. The night is quiet. Clutching the pencils, I walk slowly to the end of the structure. I peer around the edge. The street is empty. Nothing moves. But that could change at any moment, so I have to do this fast.
I carefully make my way to the front of the house, pick a spot on the stoop that is bare, and begin to draw. My artistic abilities are lacking. The lines I create aren’t filled with the same raw power as Raffe’s. But when I am done, the design in the center of the slightly egg-shaped circle is unmistakable.
Two crossed lightning bolts.
A symbol of power. Of the elimination of ignorance. And of a rebellion that must overcome insurmountable odds in order to succeed. A symbol that combines my past with my future. And the time has come for that future to begin.
WHEN I GO inside, I try to hail Zeen on the Transit Communicator. Never have I wanted to hear my brother’s voice more. When he doesn’t answer, Tomas convinces me that we should sleep. Lying on the blanket with the Communicator near my head and our hands linked, I listen as Tomas’s breathing evens out and try to clear my mind so that sleep can find me too. But there are too many worries.
Eventually sleep comes. As always, in my dreams I see the faces of those who died during The Testing. I see those who have fallen since, too, as well as the faces of students back home who I know might suffer the same fate if I fail. In the middle of them all is Enzo. His burned hand reaches out to me as Stacia appears behind him. I jerk awake with the image of Stacia’s unreadable smile etched firmly in my mind. It is only the sight of Tomas next to me that allows me t
o lie back and relax enough to sleep again.
When next I wake, small beams of sunlight peek through the windows. They bathe the room in a pale glow. For a moment I smile. Then I realize Tomas is not on the blanket beside me. I sit up. Both our bags sit next to the ratty sofa. Seeing them makes me feel better as I get up and go in search. I find him standing next to a freshly cleaned counter in the kitchen, cutting up apples he must have taken out of my bag or brought from his own residence. When he sees me, a smile lights his face.
I take the apple slices he offers and realize the counter is not the only thing Tomas has cleared. The broken table has been removed and the floor has been swept.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to tidy up a bit and check out the place, since we might be here for a while.”
We both know most likely we will not be here long at all, but it is nice to pretend if just for a moment that we can relax. That this is our house. That we are eating breakfast at the start of a typical day.
“I ran the water in this sink for about five minutes. That seems to have flushed out the worst of the rust buildup. I was worried the noise would wake you. I’m guessing you didn’t sleep very well.”
I put a hand to my hair and smooth it down. “I look that bad?”
“No.” Tomas tucks a strand of wayward hair behind my ear. “But I had trouble sleeping. I figured you might have, too. Yesterday was hard.”
I take Tomas’s hand. “Today will be harder.”
His fingers tighten on mine. “I know.”
We sit on the blanket in the living room with the list of names, the apple slices sitting on a chipped but clean plate between us. I treat my leg wound with more ointment. I’m glad when I see it is not as swollen as yesterday, and rewrap it with a fresh bandage. Then, in between bites of apple, I explain what Raffe told me about the people on the list.
Tomas takes a pencil and crosses out the names that I have indicated, leaving the other five. “These are the ones we have to find.”
“I think that Raffe’s father and Professor Chen have information we need.”
“What kind of information?”
I explain about Raffe’s sister’s disappearance and his search for her and the other students who were Redirected from the University program. “I think The Testing candidates from the first two rounds of tests were Redirected to the same place as Raffe’s sister. If we get these officials to tell us what they know, we might be able to find them.”
As much as I want to end The Testing, I am equally determined to find those who have not lived up to Dr. Barnes’s standards. My eyes glance at the bracelet on my wrist. I no longer have a use for it, but I have yet to take it off. I may have need of it again, and it reminds me of something Ian said on the day I moved into the Government Studies residence. He said the scales of justice symbolize the need for government to balance humanity and kindness with law and justice. Maybe if I find some of the Redirected students alive, it will balance the deaths I have been and will be responsible for.
Taking the recorders out of my bag, I explain, “I think Professor Chen and Official Jeffries know what happens to the Redirected candidates. If we encourage them to talk, we can record the conversation.” That evidence might not sway Dr. Barnes’s most ardent government supporters to end The Testing, but it will give us what we need to find Raffe’s sister and everyone whom Dr. Barnes sent away. “Once we record what they know, we’ll restrain them. The president and her Safety officials can be in charge of them after we have completed our mission.”
Tomas’s eyes darken. “If they are as connected to The Testing as the president believes, keeping them alive isn’t an option. Not if we want The Testing to end.”
“It has to be.”
“Because one of them is Raffe’s father?”
“No.” Because watching Enzo in agony and seeing Kerrick die has taught me something valuable. While I’m capable of doing what is necessary, I’m not Dr. Barnes. “These officials have failed their country, but it’s not up to you and me to determine their punishment. If the president and the leaders of the Debate Chamber want them to be killed for their participation in and perpetuation of The Testing, they will have to be the ones to do it.” I have no doubt that the president will arrange for them to die, but their blood will not be on my hands.
“And what about the other three?” Tomas asks. “Do we detain them, too?”
“No.” The apple feels like lead in my stomach. “For them we have no choice. Symon’s hold on the rebels is too strong. Even if the Debate Chamber voted to remove Dr. Barnes and end The Testing, the attack Dr. Barnes and Symon have orchestrated would still happen. Who knows how many would die if that were allowed to take place? Zeen could be among them. If we want to end The Testing before Symon and Dr. Barnes have a chance to cause more death, we have no other choice. They have to be killed.”
Our eyes meet. In Tomas’s I see the resolve that matches my own. “Then let’s figure out how to do it. I brought some things I think will help.”
We empty our bags and lay our supplies on the floor. The apples, rolls, crackers, and cheese we put in the kitchen. Then we assess the rest. If Tomas is surprised by the weapons and explosives I’ve brought with me, he doesn’t show it. However, while he is willing to handle the guns, he avoids looking at the knives and flinches when I touch their handles. I move them to the side so he will not have to be reminded of Zandri every time he sees them.
Some of the items Tomas brought with him I expected—clothes, food, water, and the radio I adjusted for him. But I’m surprised to see specimen containers filled with plants, a mortar and pestle, two small burners, and matches. When he sees me blink, Tomas smiles. “I wasn’t sure what we would need, so I grabbed a bunch of plants from the lab before I walked out the door.”
I pick up the containers and look inside. “They leave this stuff lying around your residence?” While I understand the need for Biological Engineering majors to have easy access to the genetic materials they are asked to work with, some of the plants, like the Purple Poppy or the Pokeweed Roots, have properties that should be kept under lock and key.
“Some of it.” He shrugs. “My guide is in the advanced classes that study the best ways to negate the deadliest of the mutated plants. He prefers to work in a makeshift lab he created in one of his rooms instead of at the stadium. Our head of residence gave him special permission to take plants out of the greenhouse and work with them there. I went to his rooms to ask a question and had Kit drop by to distract him. While he walked her back to her rooms, I grabbed a few things out of his bag.”
Tomas and I separate the samples based on properties. There are three plants that will kill when ingested, two that are used most often as sedatives, and several that will be useful if any of us are injured.
I place the deadliest of the samples in the corner of the room. Then I take a seat next to the rest of the pile to figure out how to get the answers we need and eliminate Dr. Barnes, Professor Holt, and Symon—all in the next twenty-four hours. Raffe said that he and Stacia would join as soon as they found a way off campus. If we need them to bring supplies, we have to let them know in time to retrieve the message.
“Zeen will have to eliminate Symon.” My chest tightens as I realize that I still haven’t heard from Zeen.
“Even if he does,” Tomas says, “that leaves the four of us to question two on the president’s list and eliminate two others, all in one night.” Tomas looks at the array of materials next to us and frowns as he contemplates the difficulty of the task. “I guess we need to think of this like a mathematical proof. We understand the question. Now we have to list everything we know about the subjects, our skills, and the obstacles we face. Maybe then we’ll find a way to solve it.”
Easier said than done. There are too many variables: the extra Safety official patrols; our unfamiliarity with areas we will have to visit; no estimate on how long it will take to achieve our goal when we reach each location. It’s an impossible eq
uation with our current numbers.
While Tomas goes to the kitchen to grab rolls and water for lunch, I hear a series of clicks. Zeen. I pick up the Transit Communicator, take a deep breath, and press the button.
“Cia.” Just hearing his voice brings emotions I’ve held at bay to the surface. But I cannot let him hear me sound weak or scared or he will come find me. As much as I want to see my older brother, I need him to stay where he is.
“How are the rebels reacting to the postponing of the president’s proposal?”
“According to Symon, everything is going forward as scheduled. If the president really did postpone making her stand on the Debate Chamber floor, word hasn’t reached us. The attack is still being planned for the end of this week.”
Which means we have to complete our mission before then.
“Anticipation of the attack has emotions running high around here. That’s why I haven’t been able to contact you. This is the first chance I’ve had to warn you. You need to get off campus. Part of the attack is going to happen there. I don’t want you caught in the crossfire,” Zeen says as Tomas walks into the room.
“Already done,” I say. “Something happened last night.” I shake my head. This isn’t the time to talk about Enzo. “Tomas and I were able to get off campus and are currently hiding while we wait for some of our friends.”
“Good. That’s good. If you stay where you are until after—”
“I’m not staying here. The president has asked me to help end The Testing and save the rebels and I’m going to try. But I can’t do it without you.”
“You shouldn’t be involved in this, Cia.”
“Are you kidding? I went through The Testing. I became involved in this the minute they chose me to come to Tosu City. There are things I’ve been asked to do that I hate, but I’ll do them because the alternative is even worse. You can’t stop me. But you can help me. Where is Symon now?”