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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing 78


  But not if those in charge continue the practices that have been employed up till now. Because while many former candidates and students are content to be working in labs and helping to discover a cure, there are others who are bitter and angry. Who believe that the methods being used are wrong and who live in fear that they might be chosen as the next subject for experimentation. Dreu has already announced that he will limit research to subjects who have already suffered mutations and that those who are unhappy in their current work will be able to request a transfer to another project.

  Over the president’s objections, I insisted on taking two Decatur Colony residents with me—Raffe’s sister Emilie and Will’s twin brother, Gil. Both had been assigned to work in the labs and seem to be undamaged. It appears they had escaped scientific testing. After seeing what they could have been faced with, I am glad they are untouched. Both have been reunited with their brothers. The smile I saw on Will’s face was the same one I remember him wearing the first time we met. He and Gil exchanged jokes and finished each other’s sentences as if they’d never been apart. Seeing their happiness made me hold back the questions I will someday ask. About Dr. Barnes. The bullet holes. The credit Will gave me. But even without hearing the answers, I can see the truth when Will’s smile fades and he thinks no one is watching. He is living with the memories of what he has done. Something his brother and Emilie do not have to do.

  All memory of the time spent in Decatur Colony has been removed from them. The president and her advisors believe limiting the memory of those who return from the colony and the public’s information about the research done there is essential to retaining peace. Another secret kept for the good of our country. When I consider the president’s logic, I cannot disagree. And yet, part of me wonders if we can ever truly learn from what we have done if we continue to suppress or erase the past.

  And yet, there is hope that we have learned something. Last week, I watched from the Debate Chamber gallery as President Collindar kept her bargain with Dr. Barnes. Standing at the podium, looking out on a filled Chamber and observation area, the president announced the disbanding of the University selection process known as The Testing. Current University students will continue their education under the temporary direction of Professor Douglas Lee—head of Early Studies and professor of history. Meanwhile, the president and her office will work closely with the Education Department to create a new selection system for the University, one that will be the same for both Tosu City and colony students.

  The city is buzzing about the traitor who killed Dr. Barnes, Professor Holt, Official Jefferies, and Professor Chen. I know now that only three of them should be dead. In the days following the attack and Dr. Barnes’s death, I learned that Professor Chen was pushing for a reevaluation of The Testing’s purpose and the method of selecting new students. Tomas and Stacia learned of Professor Chen’s true intent when they went to her house. Once she was restrained, Tomas wanted to leave but Stacia refused. A bullet at close range from Stacia’s gun killed Professor Chen. Stacia was determined to follow the president’s instructions. The United Commonwealth president was Stacia’s leader. Not me. Stacia died moments later. Tomas says it was self-defense. I have not pressed him. Perhaps because I can see the real answer in the shadows that fill his eyes. Maybe someday he will tell me why he killed Stacia, but I doubt it. In his mind, what happened is over. It is time to move on.

  My name has not been mentioned in conjunction with Dr. Barnes’s death or the elimination of the others. Nor have the names of Tomas, Ian, Raffe, Stacia, and Will, though our friends from our former study group helped us create a marker decorated with the symbol Raffe created to honor Stacia. We placed it next to the one Professor Holt hung for Rawson. A fitting tribute, I hope, for a girl who wanted more than anything to be important. She and I might not have agreed on much in the end, but for better or worse, she was still my friend. I miss her.

  Thanks to the president’s official version of events, I can go on with my life without anyone knowing about the task the president gave me and the choices I made. Tomas is grateful. I suppose I am, too, although I have already told the truth to my family around the same kitchen table where I learned how to divide and multiply. I notice my brothers no longer tease me as easily as they used to. My mother tries to pretend nothing is different, but I have seen her watching me. I know she wants me to be the same girl who left home, and I try my best to act like her, but we both know I am not. My father is the only one who truly understands. Perhaps because he too has been Tested.

  I stand and look to the west. Far in the distance I see the current boundaries of Five Lakes Colony and the unrevitalized

  area beyond. There is much good I can do here. I love being home, even though once again I am sleeping in front of the fireplace to avoid hearing my brothers’ snores. Magistrate Owens has already asked me for ideas about enhancing our communications with Tosu City and the other colonies as well as my thoughts on better ways to create and manage our colony’s power.

  Tomas is happy because he has been offered a place on my father’s team. If he proves himself, he will be able to create a team of his own. Being home has lifted Tomas’s spirits. He’s more like the boy I knew before leaving for Tosu City. Surrounded by family, he’s begun to heal, though he too will never forget. Despite our not having graduated from the University, everyone here considers Tomas and me leaders. The opportunity we’ve been offered to help our colonies is exactly what we dreamed of when we hoped to be selected for The Testing. Tomas is eager to start working with my father, and to build our lives here.

  I long to stay. To be happy.

  But as much as I want to be with Tomas and my family, each day that passes convinces me that I cannot. Five Lakes is as wonderful as I remember. I will visit as often as I can and will always find peace here. I wish I could go back to who I was, but I’m different. This is my home, but it is no longer where I belong.

  Holding the Transit Communicator tight to my chest, I slowly walk to town, where Tomas waits for me. I’m going to tell him that I have to go back. But he will know my choice the minute he sees the bracelet that circles my wrist. This is not the path I dreamed of while growing up, but it is the one have to walk. Because the only way to be sure The Testing we had to survive never happens again is not to trust our leaders. It is to be one of them.

  I walk up the hill and into the square. Tomas stands near the fountain that sprays sparkling, clean water into the air. When he sees me, a smile filled with love spreads across his face. In his hands are daisies he must have picked on his way here. As I walk toward him, I smile back with all the love in my heart. Tomorrow I will return to Tosu City. I will move into a new room at the University and will complete my studies and my internship. I will tell Brick, Naomy, and Vic the truth behind what has happened. And when Enzo and Raffe recover, I will ask them all to help me keep watch over the president and our other leaders to ensure that nothing like The Testing ever happens again.

  If I have to travel the path I have chosen alone, I will. But as Tomas’s mouth meets mine, I hope deep in my heart that he will understand the choice I have made and will once again make the journey to Tosu City with me. Because despite what I have learned and what I have done, I am still the girl from Five Lakes who wants to lead and help my country. And there is so much still for me to do.

  TODAY IS THE DAY.

  I lean against the trunk of a thin, healthy tree and watch the sun crest over the horizon. Thirty feet from where I sit, I can see where green grass meets cracked earth. Brown, scraggly plants. The twisted branches of trees that fight for life in the corrupted soil. An area where my father and his team have yet to ply their revitalization efforts. But they will. My father is hoping I’ll be here to help. I have different plans. Today will determine whether all of the studying, pushing myself to learn more, will pay off. It has to.

  The wind catches the edges of the papers in my hand and pulls my focus back to where it belongs—study
ing. If I am selected for The Testing today, I need to be prepared. Being ranked first in my colony’s graduating class and being chosen to go to Tosu City will mean nothing if I am not prepared enough to pass The Testing and continue on to the University.

  I touch the words on the cover of the booklet in my hands: THE TESTING PREPARATION GUIDE. A knot of guilt forms in my gut as I think about the head teacher of Five Lakes Colony, Mrs. Bryskim. Just yesterday she was saying how proud she was of me for graduating first. How proud my father must be to have his oldest take after him. I wonder if she’d express that same pride if she knew I stole this booklet out of her desk drawer?

  Not that I wanted to. Stealing is not the Five Lakes way. But what choice did I have after Mrs. Bryskim refused to let me borrow it? I thought she understood how much I need to be chosen. To succeed. That I have to get out of Five Lakes colony and make my mark on the world. I don’t want to work for my father for the rest of my life. I need the chance to make my own mark on revitalizing our damaged world. To do that, I have to be selected for and pass The Testing. This booklet will help me grab hold of the future that is waiting for me.

  I flip to the opening page and read the first question: Describe each of the Seven Stages of War.

  Easy.

  In my head I list the stages—the first four stages of man-made warfare that started on the other side of the globe and tore apart civilization as people knew it. Then the next three stages, when the earth, corrupted by radiation and biologically engineered weaponry, fought back. Windstorms. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Until finally the earth quieted and the rebuilding process could begin.

  I smile as I consider how far we’ve come in more than a hundred years. Then I move on to the next question. Explain kinetic theory and write the formula that best explains how to determine the temperature of a gas. It isn’t a difficult question, but not as easy as the first. Pulling a piece of chalk and a black slate from my bag, I get to work. Though I would prefer to write on paper, I can’t. Not for this kind of practice. Paper is precious. In school, paper is used only for the most important tests. Once the test scores are determined, the paper is immediately sent off to Ames Colony for recycling. Trees are too precious to waste on frivolous things.

  “Zeen.”

  My head snaps up at the sound of my name coming from our dwelling’s kitchen window. “I’m out here, Mom,” I yell back, and go back to reading the next question.

  “You’d better be in here in the next five minutes or you’ll be late for graduation.”

  I start to yell that I have plenty of time, but then I notice the position of the sun in the sky. Damn. I shove my chalk, slate, and the booklet into my bag, sling it over my shoulder, and head for the house. I will have to study later. Mom is right. Graduation is important. I don’t want to be late.

  My mother fusses over every detail. I let her even though the way she frets and fiddles makes me want to scream. No matter how I brush my hair, it’s not right. Finally, Mom takes over, which makes my brother Hamin snort with laughter. We’ll see how funny he finds it in two years when Mom does the same to him.

  Finally, after more than an hour of buffing dirt and grime only my mother can see from my boots, and a lot of jokes from my twin brothers, Win and Hart, Mom declares me presentable. A glance in the reflector tells me she’s right. My blond hair is neatly swept back behind my ears. My chin is whisker-free. As I straighten the deep purple sleeve of my tunic, I smile. Purple. The ceremonial color of adulthood. I am a man.

  As the rest of the family hurries to get ready, I pull the booklet from my bag and take a seat at the scarred oak kitchen table, hoping there is time for just one more question.

  “Are you nervous?” asks my favorite voice in the world.

  Without regret, I push the booklet aside and smile into my little sister Cia’s deep brown eyes. “Not a bit. All I have to do is stand on stage and listen to a bunch of speeches. That’s nothing to be nervous about.”

  “Then why have you been getting up so early and studying like your life depends on it?”

  I laugh. Although her tiny stature and dark curls make my sister look younger than her ten years, she is smarter than almost anyone in Five Lakes. Except for our father, the magistrate, Dr. Flint, and me. It doesn’t come as a surprise that she has noticed my Testing preparations while others have not.

  “I’m just making sure I’m ready in case I get chosen for The Testing, kiddo.”

  Cia’s teasing smile fades. “You’re going to get chosen. Everyone says you’re the smartest student to graduate from Five Lakes in the last ten years. I overheard Mom talking to Dad about it this morning. She’s sure you’re going to be chosen and you’ll go away forever.”

  The tears lurking in my sister’s voice have me pulling her up onto my lap the way I did when she was a toddler. “What did Dad say?”

  “He told Mom that she should be more concerned with what’s going to happen if you don’t get chosen. He doesn’t think you’ll be happy living in Five Lakes with us. That’s not true, is it?”

  I do the only thing I can. I lie. “I’ll be happy no matter what. I promise.”

  “Good.” Cia wraps her arms around my neck and hugs me tight. Which I’m glad for, because it means she can’t see the anger that must show on my face. Our father went to the University. He should be pleased that I have worked hard to be chosen in order to follow in his footsteps. But instead of being proud and hoping for my success, my father is planning for how he will placate me when I fail.

  I have worked too hard. There is no one who has worked harder. I can’t fail.

  But I do.

  I stand on the stage so proud. So confident. I look out at the gathering of our entire colony—just over nine hundred people strong—and smile. I don’t care how long the presentation is or how many announcements the magistrate and other leaders need to make. This yearly event is the only opportunity address the entire colony. Why should I begrudge them their announcements about building a barn or constructing a new fountain in the square in honor of the man who helped purify our water? While my fellow graduates fidget, anxious for the event to be over, I stand with my hands clasped behind my back. Patient. Because the prize I’ve waited so long for is coming.

  Only it never arrives. No Tosu Official takes the stage. No announcement about Testing candidates selected. Nothing but the stab of defeat followed by bone-chilling shame.

  The minute the sky turns dark, I slip away from the graduation celebration. No more smiling to hide the bitterness of disappointment. No more pretending to be excited to start work with my father.

  For the first time, I am grateful for the isolated location of my family’s dwelling. Normally, I get irritated being so far from friends. Today, the long walk by hazy moonlight gives me time to think. My father offered me a job working with him. Everyone expects me to take it. It’s only natural. I want to be part of the country’s revitalization. My father is doing important work.

  And yet, I don’t want to stay in Five Lakes, where I know every face and everyone knows mine. I could apply to Tosu City and hope they find a job for me in another colony, but the chances of that happening are rare. If I want to see more of the world than Five Lakes, I have to do it on my own.

  When I reach our home, I am glad to know no one will disturb me as decide what choices I still have left for my future. I pass through the living room into the bedroom I share with my brothers and sister and flip on the light Cia built out of spare wire and solar panels. As I cross the threshold, the purple tunic I’d been so pleased to wear hits the floor. I give it a kick under the bottom bunk of my bed and try to decide what to do next.

  I should get ready for sleep, but instead I find myself pulling on my work clothes and my most comfortable boots. I take several more shirts out of the wooden trunk at the foot of my bed. Three pairs of socks. Two pairs of pants. I grab my bag, pull the practice test out, and throw it on the floor. Funny how just hours ago those pages seemed so import
ant. Now they are nothing compared to the need to pack. To leave Five Lakes Colony behind me. To run far and fast from my failure. To do it now.

  “I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

  The sound of my father’s voice makes my heart stop. I’d been so focused on gathering my things, I never heard him come in. Taking a deep breath, I turn and face the man I’ve always been told I look like. The man I’ve always wanted to make proud. “I thought you’d still be at the party.”

  “Did you intend to leave without saying goodbye?”

  The bag in my hand feels impossibly heavy. “I don’t know.” The truth of the words makes the shame inside me grow.

  My father nods. “I know you wanted to be selected for The Testing, but I’m relieved you weren’t. Especially after seeing you now.” He points to my packed bag. “Your passion is one of your greatest assets even as it is your biggest flaw. You always lead with emotion and think through the consequences later. It’s the reason you’d never have survived The Testing.”

  Anger flares hot and deep in my stomach. “I know how to take a test. I would have passed.”

  “The Testing is about more than the right answers. A great deal more.”

  “How would I know what The Testing is about?” I throw the bag to the floor. “You never talk about it. It might have helped me get selected if you had, but never once did you tell me what The Testing was like.”

  “That’s because I can’t.” My father runs a hand through his hair. The hurt in his eyes drains away, leaving sadness and something more haunting behind. “The United Commonwealth has procedures in place to ensure that successful candidates can never reveal their Testing experience. But I can tell you this—the Testing doesn’t always reward the smartest or the fastest to finish the test. Unlike you, I was not at the top of my colony’s class. There were candidates smarter than me who walked through The Testing Center’s doors. Whatever happened inside was too much for them. They never walked out.”