The Testing 76
he Testing. Without the drug provided by Symon, you would have answered the interview questions truthfully. Your natural inclination to trust and your lack of killer instinct would have been apparent. Those qualities that have rallied friends to your side would have caused you to fail, because those characteristics are viewed as weaknesses by the selection committee. Today, you will prove that The Testing and the reasoning behind it are flawed. The president doesn’t believe students like you have what it takes to do what is required when your country demands it. By killing me, you prove that I am right in my convictions and she is wrong. Kill me, and this all comes to an end.” He places the gun in my lap, takes a step back, and folds his hands in front of him. “I am sorry, Ms. Vale, but after all that you have done, I have to ask that you take this one last test. You now have all the facts at your disposal. What will your answer be?”
Gun in hand, Dr. Barnes stands and walks the length of the room. “It’s hard to determine what makes a good leader and to test for those qualities. For the next ten years, The Testing was comprised of written and hands-on challenges meant to determine whether a candidate had the knowledge required to help lead the revitalization mission. Those who attended the University were the brightest and most promising minds our country had to offer. And yet, many of them faltered when it was their turn to lead. After all, no matter how intelligent and skilled a person is, it is impossible to know how a person will behave in a certain situation until they are faced with it. So my grandfather created two versions of The Testing as an experiment. One for colony students and the other for those from Tosu City.”
When Dr. Barnes turns away from me, I realize this could be my chance. Slowly, I slide to the edge of the chair. There is a knife in the side pocket of my bag. If I can reach it . . .
“The colony candidates’ Testing became harder. More stressful in order to see which students could succeed in spite of the pressure and which would break under the strain. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the largest advancements in genetic manipulation, medicine, and in cleansing our water have been made by those who came from the colonies and passed through The Testing. Successful candidates like your father and President Wendig. Over the years, The Testing has proven to be an effective tool, which is why President Collindar is now insisting that all applicants for the University, including the ones from Tosu City, be required to take part in it.”
Icy shock streaks up my spine. “That’s not true. President Collindar wants to end The Testing.”
I know Dr. Barnes is lying. Until recently, the president didn’t understand what candidates were forced to go through. Her desire to learn more about The Testing was one of the reasons she had me assigned to be her intern.
“No, my dear.” He sees my proximity to the bag and extends the gun in front of him. His eyes hold mine, waiting for me to make a choice.
Slowly, I sit back. With a smile, he lowers the gun and continues. “While you would like to believe differently, ending The Testing is the last thing President Collindar wants. After a hundred years, other countries in the world are reaching out. Some in friendship. Others . . . well, let’s just say that our leaders will need to stay strong in order for our country to survive what comes next. Despite my growing concerns about the elimination of so many bright minds through The Testing, President Collindar believes that those losses are minor compared to the number of casualties we’ll incur if our leadership should falter.”
My mind races back to my conversations with President Collindar about The Testing. In each, she talked of ending Dr. Barnes’s control of the process. Never once did she actually say she intended to eliminate The Testing itself. But that proves nothing. I look at the half-empty glass sitting in front of Dr. Barnes. Is he telling the truth now? There’s no way to know.
I tamp down the uncertainty rising inside me and ask, “What about the Redirected students? Does President Collindar know that you and your scientists are experimenting on them?”
“Ah, you have been busy learning all of our secrets.” But his frown and the flicker of confusion that crosses his face make me wonder if he truly knows everything that I have done. “Yes, the president receives monthly reports from Professor Cartwright and Dr. Bates that outline the success of their resourcing program. She’s fully aware of their progress in the study of human mutations caused by the wars, although she believes Professor Cartwright is being too cautious in his use of the subjects. Results are important. Especially if the reports we are getting from beyond our country’s borders are accurate.”
I want to ask about the reports he has hinted at, but as important as those are, it’s the faces of those who did not pass the first rounds of The Testing that haunt me and make me ask, “Where are they? Where are the experiments being conducted?”
“In Decatur Colony.”
“There is no Decatur Colony.” I would have heard. Everyone in the Commonwealth would have. Five Lakes was the last colony established, and that was more than twenty-five years ago.
“The colony isn’t like the others. It was established as a base for research close enough to the boundaries of the fourth test that unsuccessful experimentation can be released into a closely monitored environment.” It is the way he looks at me. Expectant. As if he is waiting for an answer. Unsuccessful experimentation . . .
Horror squeezes my chest. I see the eyes that met mine when I raised my gun on the unrevitalized plains and fired.
I remember the screams as my bullet made impact and took a life. If Dr. Barnes is to be believed, it might have been the life of a former Testing candidate who was Redirected. Turned into a resource and then discarded.
Before I can recover my voice, Dr. Barnes goes on. “President Collindar and I disagree on a number of things, which is why you, Cia, are here. I chose you to be our own personal test. A candidate from a colony we have not selected a student from in years. One who is unlike the type of leader President Collindar and the rest of the Testing committee insists will be necessary for our country to survive the future. The president was positive a student with your background would crack under the pressure, that you’d be incapable of doing what is necessary to keep your country safe.”
A piece falls into place. “Symon helped me during the fourth phase of Testing because you told him to.”
“I needed you to think clearly about your interview answers so that I could make a case for you being accepted to the University. Many on the committee had already expressed concern that you were too emotional and displayed qualities they felt were inappropriate in our leaders. I needed you to be in control during those final moments of The Testing so no one would ask too many questions when you were passed through to the University, which is what needed to happen. Because that was the only way you could be here at this, your final and most important test. President Collindar has agreed to abide by the results. If you pass this one last exam, The Testing program will end. If you fail, it will move forward as it currently stands and students will continue to die.”
“What is the test?” I ask. Vaguely, I am aware of the sound of footsteps and raised voices outside the door. But that doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except this moment. My throat is dry and my heart pounds as I stare into Dr. Barnes’s eyes, looking for the truth. “What do I have to do?”
“Why, that should be obvious.” He walks around the table to where I sit and turns the butt of the gun toward me. “It is up to you to make sure that I die.”
I stare at the handle of the weapon in his hands. In my mind, I take it. I aim. I fire. The Testing is ended. All of this is over. But all I can do is stare at the gun, trying to decide what new test lies behind Dr. Barnes’s words.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Of course you do.” He smiles. “I want to end The Testing. For that to happen, sacrifices need to be made. It seems only fitting that I am the one to make this one, since I have been a part of this process for so long. And truly this is the only way for The Testing to come to an end. The Testing has helped our country get through the darkest time in our history. People have come to trust the system and the leaders it produces. They believe in it.”
“Because they don’t understand what The Testing entails,” I insist.
“You aren’t that naive, Cia,” he chides. “They might not admit it, even to themselves, but more people than you think understand what The Testing involves. Most choose to pretend they’re ignorant of the facts because the system works. The idea of changing it scares them more than giving it their tacit approval. But you, my dear, are here to test whether the system really does function as well as we believe. In previous years, despite your grades and your performance in the fourth test, you would never have passed T
I WRAP MY fingers around the gun and stand. Slowly, I extend the weapon in front of me. I walked into this building resolved to kill, but I could never have imagined that Dr. Barnes would stand quietly in front of me asking me to take his life.
He created the tests, selected the candidates, and forced them into situations in which giving the correct answer was not enough. The president has asked for his death. Killing him will mean an end to The Testing.
His eyes fill with sympathy. The expression on his face is one of understanding and acceptance. I steel myself against the doubt that swirls inside me. Dr. Barnes calls this a test. If so, it’s one I don’t completely understand and one I cannot fail. I have to shoot. For Zandri, Malachi, and all those who did not pass. For Daileen and the others who could be a part of The Testing in the future. For me.
I jump at the sound of voices raised in anger. Running footsteps. Someone is coming. Friend? Foe? It doesn’t matter. All that matters are the gun in my hand and the man waiting for my answer.
My hand trembles as I search within myself for the truth. Something crashes into the door, making it shake.
Dr. Barnes’s eyes meet mine. “Your time is almost up, Cia.”
I do not take my eyes off the man who stands before me. Is he the monster I have always believed, or someone who is now making the ultimate sacrifice as a means of righting wrongs and finding redemption? The answer shouldn’t matter. But it does.
Everything depends on this moment.
I need to fire.
I need to kill.
But I can’t. No matter how much I want to succeed, I know that Dr. Barnes was wrong to choose me. Because I can’t look into the eyes of an unarmed man and fire. No matter what answer I give to this test, I know that ultimately it will cause me to fail.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the door to my right open. Lowering my weapon, I turn and see Symon standing in the entryway with his gun raised. Behind him are two more men. Both armed. And their weapons are all pointed at me.
“Put your gun down on the table, Cia. After your surviving this long, it would be a shame for it all to end here.” Symon takes a step toward me. His shirt is torn. Blood and char streak his pants. He must have still been inside Dr. Barnes’s house when it exploded. The hand that holds the gun poised to fire at me does not tremble. Symon’s eyes are flat and cold. He will not think twice about ending my life. I know I have no choice. My fingers tremble as I set the gun on the table next to me. Nodding, he calls over his shoulder. “Guard the elevator and the stairs. The president might have sent people here, too. Once we have a plan in place, we’ll be leaving.”
The two men hurry down the hall as Symon turns his attention to Dr. Barnes. “When you missed our meeting at your house, Jedidiah, I was worried. The person who attacked me and the bomb that went off there concerned me even more. The students here on campus have been leading an unauthorized assault on the officials Professor Holt assigned to keep the campus locked down.”
That’s what the fighting I heard outside was. Ian must have convinced the rebel students to turn against Symon.
Dr. Barnes frowns. “I thought you said you had the students under control.”
“I did, but things have started to unravel. Ranetta is refusing to deploy her teams around the city. Instead, she has convinced most of them, including many in my faction, to stay in camp. I don’t think we can wait for the rebels to hit first. If they’re going to be eliminated—”
“The rebels aren’t going to be eliminated,” Dr. Barnes says.
Symon goes still. “I don’t understand.”
Dr. Barnes smiles and puts his hand in his pocket. When he pulls it out, he is holding a small gun. “The president and I have come to an understanding. Too many people know about The Testing, the rebellion, and the Redirection project.”
“Not just the rebels, my friend.” Dr. Barnes’s face is filled with sorrow as he steps toward Symon. I am forgotten while they study each other. I slowly reach for my gun as Dr. Barnes says, “The time has come for all three to come to an end. The country is better for them, but they have served their purpose. I wish you had died in the explosion I created. After Ms. Vale’s heroics, I thought it appropriate. And then I wouldn’t have to do this.”
Symon understands the words a moment too late. I jump at the crack of gunfire. Symon reels back. Blood blooms on his shoulder, just inches from his heart, as he screams and fires back. Dr. Barnes shouts and another gunshot explodes as I turn to flee.
A familiar figure fills the doorway, blocking my path. Sweat glistens off Griffin’s head and he raises a large black gun. This time I don’t think. I pull the trigger. Surprise crosses Griffin’s face and he grabs the door. I fire again. Red spatters his face. As he falls, I run.
I race down the hall. Three shots ring out from the room behind me. Someone inside is still alive. At the end of the hall, I see the outline of a man raising a gun. I run to the left, toward the double doors, as he fires. I slip back into the lecture hall, close the door, and lock it. The lock will not keep them out for long, but it buys me a few seconds to figure out what I need to do next.
The room is black as night. The door handle rattles. I run my hand along the chairs beside me to keep my balance as I navigate the stairs as fast as I dare. There is shouting on the other side of the door. Two voices. Symon’s is the loudest as he yells for the other to stand back. I reach the bottom of the stairs and hurry across the aisle between the stage and the front row of chairs as five gunshots slam into the door.
I duck down behind the chairs as the door crashes open. Lights flicker to life above me. I hold my breath and crouch as low as I can while still remaining on my feet so I am ready to flee. To my right is the stage where Dr. Barnes once stood. The podium is there. Far to the left I see a narrow door. Too far away for me to reach now, but maybe I can find a way.
Someone is on the stairs. Another is near the back of the hall, moving down the aisle. From the hall outside the room, I hear more footsteps. The other man Symon brought with him? Two against one is bad odds. But three against one? I tighten my hold on the gun. I will only get one chance to fire. Whoever is with Symon will see me the minute I rise. He will fire too. I will die. But so will Symon. I will not allow myself to die without a fight.
The person coming down the stairs is moving slower that the one in the back. His footsteps sound heavier. Like a man who is injured. He will be my target.
A voice shouts from the hallway. Whoever is out there will be here in moments. Then I will face three opponents. I think of those I love and have the whisper of Tomas’s name in my heart as I swallow down my fear and stand. I was right. Symon stands three quarters of the way down the side aisle. His eyes widen in surprise as he sees me. Blood coats the hand holding the gun that takes aim.
The footsteps in the hall stop. Three figures appear in the door as I squeeze the trigger. Sound explodes around me. Symon drops to the ground and rolls down the last two stairs to the front aisle as searing pain pierces my right arm. I turn toward the man who shot me and fire again, but mi
ss as he darts to the left. And I’m not sure if I would have hit him anyway. The burning ache in my arm is making it hard to keep a grip on the gun.
Symon’s man turns and takes aim as a voice calls my name.
Another shot cracks the air. Symon’s man stumbles backward into one of the chairs. Blood seeps from the wound in his chest as he sinks to the ground.
My arm is on fire. The world spins in and out of focus, but none of that matters as Tomas races down the stairs toward me. His clothes are covered in dirt and a ragged cut runs down one side of his face, but he is here. Whole. Alive.
Over Tomas’s shoulder I see two other people running down the stairs. One is Will. The other, Zeen. I look behind them for Stacia but don’t see her. Did Tomas have to leave her behind because of her injury? Or is she looking to make sure Dr. Barnes is dead?
I am about to ask when my brother says, “I want my Transit Communicator back.”
Despite the pain I feel, laughter erupts out of me. Zeen flashes the smile that I grew up idolizing as he rushes toward me. I start to reply when I see movement to my left—the barrel of Symon’s gun as it is placed in position. I push Tomas to the side and raise my weapon, but I know I will be too late. That after all I have been through, I will die as Symon pulls the trigger.
Gunfire fills the room. A scream rips from my throat, but the bullet never finds me because Zeen gets there first. My brother jerks as the bullet punches into him and groans when he hits the ground next to Symon. I do not hesitate as I squeeze the trigger of my weapon. A wound blooms in Symon’s chest. A second—from Will’s gun—appears in his left temple, and Symon drops to the ground.