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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing 77


  Zeen. I can barely whisper his name as I kneel next to him, ignore the pain in my arm, and roll him over to see the injury he has sustained. I choke back a sob as I see the hole in his chest. Instinctively, I reach for my bag to find something to help, but my bag isn’t here and even if it were, I know there is no healing this wound. Zeen’s lungs have been damaged. Maybe his heart. It won’t be long before both stop working.

  Despite what I know to be true, I scream for Will and Tomas to find someone to help us. I don’t care if I am arrested and punished. Zeen needs to live. There has been enough loss. Enough death. Too high a price has been paid. I can’t lose him. Not now. Not when we are finally together again.

  Will yells that he’ll go to the Medical residence to find help and disappears out the door. When Tomas finally moves, I think that he too is going to look for aid. That he believes there is a chance Zeen could live. Instead, he kneels opposite me, next to Zeen, and takes Zeen’s other hand in his. I see tears streak down Tomas’s face. I want to cry, but there are no tears to wash away a loss this huge. Dr. Flint used to say that the severest wounds often cannot be felt by the victim because the nerves are too damaged to transmit pain. Seeing Zeen in my arms, struggling to breathe, has cut too deep for tears.

  He coughs and I smooth back his hair and whisper encouraging words like he used to do when I was little and scared or sick. I tell him that I love him. That I am so glad I am with him now. That everything will be okay. But it won’t. Because Zeen’s breathing is becoming shallower. His heartbeat is slowing, and his eyes are filled with anguish.

  “Do you still have your bag?” I ask Tomas. “Can you give him something for the pain?”

  Tomas looks down at Zeen and nods. He stands and walks to where he dropped his bag. He pulls out two bottles. One marked with a circle. The other with an X. I see the question in his eyes as he holds them out to me.

  Zeen coughs. His hand tightens around mine. His face has drained of color. His chest barely rises as he takes his next breath. I reach out and take the bottle with the circle on it and help him drink. Maybe it is selfish of me, but I want these last moments with him to last as long as they can. It will be hard enough to go on after Zeen is gone. I cannot be the one to bring about the final moment of his life.

  “Cia,” Zeen whispers. “Remember what I said when you graduated. And tell Mom and Dad I saved you. They’ll be proud.”

  They find us sitting with our hands joined. Tomas, Zeen, and me. Zeen’s heart has stopped. He is no longer in pain.

  I try to console myself with that as Safety officials do not shoot but instead ask us to stand. When I try, I find I cannot. I am too dizzy. Too tired. Too overwhelmed. They let Tomas help me into one of the chairs as a medical team works on my arm. Tomas sits beside me as they clean and bandage our injuries. When I ask about Stacia, anguish crosses Tomas’s face and I know before he says it that she is dead. Tomas tells me he’ll explain everything later, but that she died at Professor Chen’s house. When he falls silent, I don’t press for answers because I have had enough of death.

  My arm throbs, but the pain lessens when the medical team applies an ointment and begins to wrap the wound with a bandage. They have done all they can here and will need to treat me further to prevent infection or a terrible scar. As if anything they can do will prevent the scars I will wear from this night forever.

  A team of officials in purple appear. I think they must be coming to arrest me, but instead they walk to where Zeen lies. I scream when they try to carry Zeen’s body out. That’s when President Collindar arrives. She tells them to leave Zeen with us and orders her staff to remove Symon and to keep everyone else out. When the medical officials are finished, she asks them to leave us alone. She allows Tomas to stay, which is good. He would have refused to go.

  Once she is alone with Tomas and me she says, “There is much we need to discuss, but most of it can be done in the days and weeks ahead. My officials found Dr. Barnes down the hall. He and Symon are both dead. But that is not true of everyone on the list I gave you.”

  Dr. Barnes is dead.

  I close my eyes and try to feel relief that someone succeeded in killing him when I could not. After all, he is the reason my brother and so many others lost their lives. But there is no joy in his death. Only sadness and a sense of confusion, since I will never know whether his final words were the truth—that he believed The Testing should end and was willing to give up his life to make sure that it did.

  I open my eyes and choose my words carefully as I reply to the president’s unspoken question. “Since Symon had a hand in creating the list, I decided it was best to learn what I could about the people on it. Of the twelve, only five were involved in the University and Testing process in a way that eliminating them would affect your agenda. Those are the ones we opted to remove.”

  “I’m impressed.” President Collindar smiles. “It is not always easy to lead with caution, especially with so much at stake. After giving you the list, I began to wonder if Symon included some opponents of The Testing. Had they been killed, you would have eliminated those who could have been influential dissenters.”

  Are her words the truth, or did she herself have reason to want those people removed, as Dr. Barnes’s explanation suggested?

  The president’s stolid expression provides no insight. “For your sake and the sake of your friends,” she says, “we will make a public announcement that the deaths of several prominent officials and members of the University came at the hands of one Symon Dean—the leader of a group created to destabilize the Commonwealth and our revitalization mission. He will also be blamed for the explosions that occurred here on campus and on the other side of town, as well as for the deaths of the students and officials who have been fighting tonight. I have already talked to the leader of the students who believed they were doing what was necessary to help end The Testing. He and his fellow students will be given amnesty for their actions, as will all those who followed Symon.”

  “And is that when you’ll announce that The Testing will end?” I ask.

  President Collindar straightens her shoulders. As she looks at me, I recall the words Dr. Barnes spoke tonight. Does she know that I was not the one who killed Dr. Barnes? Have my actions been sufficient to prove that I am strong enough to be a leader even though it was not my hand that accomplished that task? If Symon killed him before coming after me, then there is no one to tell her differently. But if someone else was behind the act, and Dr. Barnes was being honest, I’m not sure what she will do.

  “Yes.” She smiles again. “I will also announce that the University selection process known as The Testing will end. Once the University and its programs are legally shifted under the Debate Chamber’s jurisdiction, I will direct the Chamber to choose a new head of the school and institute some necessary changes.”

  “What kinds of changes?”

  “It will be a while before that can be determined, but I can promise you that none of the candidates for our University will have to go through the trials you did.”

  Her smile is reassuring but her words are not. My brother and my friends did not sacrifice their lives for half promises.

  “What about the students who failed to pass The Testing?” I ask. “The ones in Decatur Colony. What will happen to them?”

  For several heartbeats there is silence as President Collindar studies me. Gauging how much I know. How much she should say. “I’ve only recently learned that there is a research group known as Decatur Colony. Perhaps you will be interested in taking a trip there with me to see what work is being done.”

  I think of Raffe’s final request that I find his sister Emilie, and I nod. “I would.”

  “Good.” She smiles. “I assure you that changes will be made. There are a number of challenges ahead, and whether someone attends the University or not, I intend to see that the brightest minds from the colonies and Tosu City are put to the best use possible. Because of that, it is my plan to allow stude
nts who are unhappy with the University to request to return home to their families. I’m certain those who do will find a way to contribute to our revitalization mission from there.”

  Tomas’s hand tightens on mine, and I know he is thinking the same thing I am. We can go home.

  “Do you have any more questions, Cia?”

  I have dozens. But I’m sure I will never hear the answers to the most important ones. I look at President Collindar’s sincere expression and think of the tension I felt between her and Dr. Barnes the day I was assigned to my internship. I think of the worry she expressed at the number of candidates and students who came to the University and failed to graduate. She spoke of the desire to remove Dr. Barnes in order to end the practices that he perpetuated, and charged me with helping her create that change. I want to believe her. To deny that anything Dr. Barnes said about her was real. After all, he was the one who watched my Testing roommate’s body be cut free while explaining that her suicide proved The Testing’s methods worked. Could that man, who was responsible for so many deaths, have really wanted The Testing to change? Was he right about President Collindar? Is it true that she not only knows the fate of those who have been Redirected, as her own words indicate, but approves of what has been done to them? Does she believe The Testing should be made even more difficult and be inflicted upon more than just colony-born students? Despite what she says now, will The Testing that Tomas and I were forced to participate in really end?

  Dr. Barnes said that my greatest asset is my ability to trust my instincts. I have to trust them now. Do I believe Dr. Barnes? I don’t want to, but I do. And now that he is dead, there is only one way to know if I am right.

  “Do you have any other questions for now, Cia?” President Collindar asks again.

  “Yes, I do,” I say. “Would you mind if I get my University bag from the interview room?”

  She rises. “Of course not, although you understand that any tools you might have borrowed to complete your task will have to be returned to the storage facility in my office.”

  It takes me two tries to get out of my chair. The room shifts but I stay on my feet. Tomas offers an arm to help me balance as I navigate the stairs, but I refuse. This is something I must do on my own.

  President Collindar follows us out. I feel her eyes on us as, side by side, Tomas and I walk to the end of the now brightly illuminated lecture hall. A purple-clad official wipes blood off the floor near the entrance to the interview room. Griffin’s body has been moved. As I step through the doorway, I see a body lying on the floor with a small gun near one hand. Blood pools near the head, matting the gray hair that had given the man an air of authority and wisdom. His face is turned away from me, and though I know who it is from the clothing and the gun, I move several steps closer.

  There is a bullet wound in Dr. Barnes’s shoulder that was not there when I last saw him. But that wasn’t what killed him. The three bullet wounds clustered near his heart are the obvious cause of his death. I wonder if those three holes will give me away, because never could I shoot with that kind of skill.

  “As soon as we leave, they will collect the body. I gave you this task, but I wasn’t sure you would be able to see it through. When your friend told me that you had, I was pleased to know that the faith I placed in you and your abilities was not mistaken.”

  “My friend?” I look at Tomas, who shrugs. He is not the one who claimed I killed Dr. Barnes. Then who?

  “Yes,” she says. “The dark-haired boy with the green eyes.”

  Will.

  “I saw him after I heard Dr. Barnes had been killed and asked him what he knew. He was worried you’d feel guilty after everything that happened and that you wouldn’t accept the credit for what you had done. He thinks you’re a hero.”

  “I’m not.” After everything that has happened, it is the only thing I am certain of.

  President Collindar smiles. “I had a feeling you’d say that. The decisions that leaders have to make are never easy. Including this one. You took a life, but just think how many more were saved.”

  Not Zeen’s. Lives were saved. Yes. But not by me. By Will.

  I look again at the bloody hole in Dr. Barnes’s shoulder and the three precise gunshot wounds in his chest. Symon must have caused the first as he ran to find me. Symon was injured when he fired. I am not sure he could have fired with the accuracy it would have taken to create the fatal wounds. But someone who was a known marksman, like Will, could have. His main skill lies with a crossbow, as he demonstrated in the fourth test, but I remember how he took down Roman and know his skill with a gun doesn’t lag far behind. Symon might have inflicted the three wounds that killed Dr. Barnes, but my gut tells me no. This was Will’s work.

  Will wasn’t here when Dr. Barnes explained his bargain with President Collindar. He couldn’t have known that crediting me with the kill was the only way to end The Testing we both despised. Yet, that is what he did. The Will I knew during the fourth test would have taken the credit for his actions. He would have wanted whatever reward he thought would come with bringing down the president’s foe. Instead, this time, he passed to me whatever accolades he felt would be delivered. Because Will isn’t just the boy who shot and betrayed. Just as I am not just the naive girl from Five Lakes. Now I have to decide for certain whether Dr. Barnes was the man I believed him to be and whether President Collindar is the person she says she is.

  Walking to the table, I look at the glass Dr. Barnes drank from, and the liquid that remains at the bottom. I put the glass to my lips and take a small sip.

  The flavor makes me grimace as Dr. Barnes did. Metallic. Bitter. The taste that I remember from months ago in this same room. When Dr. Barnes watched and waited and hoped that I would be confident and coherent enough to pass through to the University. He hoped I would prove that The Testing was flawed and that by my hand and through his sacrifice it all would be ended.

  “Are you ready, Cia?” President Collindar asks.

  Everything Dr. Barnes told me was the truth.

  “Cia, are you ready?” she asks again.

  I look at the president and then around the room, my mind filled with questions. Only some of which I can answer. For the rest I will have to do what is necessary to obtain the truth.

  “Come on, Cia,” Tomas says, taking my bag from the table. “Let’s go home.”

  Chapter 21

  HOME.

  On the outskirts of Five Lakes I sit under an oak tree that my brother Zeen helped create. My father and I have visited this site every day since I have come home. Today, I am here alone. In my hands is the Transit Communicator that Zeen once owned. The mate to this Communicator is buried next to him. Tears that I could not shed the night he died fall freely now that I am surrounded by reminders of him. The night of my graduation, we stood under an oak like this. On that night Zeen spoke to me the words that in the moments before he died he asked me to remember. Back then the two of us stood in the shadows together, both disappointed about our futures. Me, because I thought I hadn’t been chosen for The Testing. He, because he felt trapped by the boundaries of Five Lakes and the lack of recognition for what he had achieved. In that moment he told me, “Things don’t always work out the way we hope. You just have to pick yourself up and find a new direction to go in.”

  Nothing about what has happened this past year has turned out the way I had dreamed of. Yet remembering Zeen’s words has given me comfort, and knowing he died to save my life has made me more determined to see that his sacrifice is never forgotten.

  Above me, leaves rustle on the tree. Sunlight, bright and filled with hope, shines on the four grave markers beside me. Each etched with a symbol and a name so that the sacrifices of those who died will live in the memory of everyone from Five Lakes. Zeen Vale beneath two crossed lightning bolts. An arrow under the name Malachi Rourke. A stylized flower and the name Zandri Hicks. And Michal Gallen with the symbol of an anchor. He wasn’t from Five Lakes, but I insisted he be i
ncluded. Honored for the help he gave and the sacrifice he made. Without him, change would not have come. And there has been change.

  Three weeks have passed since that night in The Testing Center. I spent much of that time in the University Medical building getting treatment, talking to Enzo, who is still in the early stages of the healing process, sitting with Tomas, and watching Raffe through a window as he fought for his life. The medical team is amazed that Raffe has survived this long and that each day his vital signs get stronger. Caught in the blast that was meant to kill Symon, Raffe is determined to live. And now he has an even larger reason to fight for his life.

  The president stood by her word. Three days after that night in The Testing Center, I accompanied her and her team to Decatur Colony. Since Tomas is not part of the president’s staff, he was not allowed to join us. I’m glad, because I am uncertain how he would have handled what we found there. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t a community twice the size of Five Lakes Colony with medical facilities more advanced than any I’d seen in Tosu City located on the outskirts of the colony. But unlike those wards, these contained patients in various stages of chemically induced mutations. Not as many as I would have thought, considering the number of Redirected students sent here every year. Four in each of the five stages being studied. Two male. Two female. Those in the worst stages arched their backs and extended their claws as researchers stood behind glass walls, taking notes. When I asked, I learned why there are so few. The others deemed beyond help were turned out onto The Testing grounds to mingle with the mutations that were created by war instead of by this lab.

  The scars on my arm tingled as I stared into their eyes and wondered if these patients knew the mutated humans I shot during the fourth test. I wish I knew their names, but the newly appointed head of Decatur Colony’s research team, Dreu Owens, does not know the identities of those I killed or whether they were research subjects or natural mutations like the ones scientists are hoping eventually to treat and cure. Dreu told me that after being assigned to Decatur Colony, he wanted to leave when he realized most residents and test subjects were former Testing candidates and Redirected University students. But he didn’t because, now that he understands the work being done, he can’t leave behind those who suffered. Not if there is a chance of curing them. And from the partially cured human and animal mutations Dreu showed us, I believe there really may be a chance.