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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing/9

Chapter 9
A TESTING OFFICIAL is waiting inside a small room containing a dark wooden table, a chair, and a control panel of some kind. It's probably what makes the light we watched go from red to green. The official's expression is pleasant as she leads me through a back door, down well-lit hallways to the bank of elevators. The Testing official stays on the elevator as I exit onto the fifth floor wondering how and when I will learn my fate.   I hear the sounds of conversation from the dining hall and realize that I might not need to wait. The person with the answer to whether I made the correct choice is right through those doors. My heart leaps as I see Tomas, Will, and Zandri sitting at our table, but I do not join them. Not yet. Instead, I scan the room.   I spot Roman before he sees me. Laughing with friends. At a joke or at those of us who might have been eliminated because we believed him?   Tomas calls my name, but I don't move from my position in the doorway. The girl next to Roman jabs him with her elbow. His eyes turn and meet mine. And I know. The disbelief and anger in his eyes tell me I was right not to trust him. I just wish I had figured out the truth sooner. If I had, Annalise might be seated at one of these tables. There is no sign of her red hair and confident smile. A small part of me hopes she is relaxing in her room, though if she is, I am almost guaranteed a failing grade.   I feel Roman's eyes follow me as I grab a bag of crackers from the snacks on the table and walk across the room to sit with my friends. Tomas, Will, and Zandri tell me about the problems they solved. From the way they talk, I begin to understand that while we all had the same types of problems to complete, every group solved them in a different order. Tomas answered the third question for his team — the math question Roman was supposed to answer for ours. Zandri went first for her team and answered the history problem. Will went second and was assigned genetics. Everyone from Tomas's group has returned from the exam. Zandri and Will are still waiting for the rest of their teammates to arrive.   As I watch the door, they ask which question I was assigned. In a quiet voice I tell them about my belief in my teammate's betrayal. My decision not to open the door. To leave before answering my question. My friends stare at me. A knot forms in my chest. Will recovers first and says he's impressed I trusted my instincts. That he was glad he never had to make a choice about trusting his teammates since Zandri was the only one who went before him. And, of course, he trusted her. Tomas looks at Will for several long moments before saying he's proud that I alerted Brick to my suspicions. Will tells a joke to make me feel better, but I don't. Zandri's wide eyes and trembling lips and the way Tomas frowns when he doesn't think I'm looking remind me that the verdict to this test is still in doubt. There is still a chance that I made a mistake. That I failed. And when Brick appears in the doorway, I am certain I did. My heart drops into my stomach. Brick had been adamant about following through with his promise. And when he passes my table without a glance, I'm positive he did exactly what he swore to do. Brick solved his question. He knows I was planning on not answering mine. Now I am forced to wonder — did I ruin the chance for all of us to pass this test and continue on?   Nicolette arrives full of stories about her teammates. Some were nice. One was pushy and arrogant. Her group made the arrogant boy go last — just in case he got any ideas about messing up the test for the others. I turn a cracker over in my hands and listen to everyone talk about the personalities of the candidates they were grouped with. Zandri shoots looks at the door as she watches for her other test teammates to arrive. I realize Tomas has fallen silent. He's watching our friends closely. Out of the corner of my eye I see him looking at me. Does he think I'm paranoid? Maybe I am.   Time passes slowly as more candidates arrive looking triumphant or tired. Sometimes both. Eventually, dinner is served. I force myself to eat. With every bite, I cast a look at Brick, willing him to make eye contact. To give me a sign of the choice he made.   As we finish with our meal, a voice over the loudspeaker says, "Phase three of Testing is now complete. Failing results will be delivered to candidates' rooms within the hour. For those who pass, I wish you a good night's sleep. Preparation for the final phase of Testing will begin tomorrow. "   My friends rise and head for the exit. I pretend to adjust my bag's strap and remain seated until Brick walks past. He never looks in my direction.   For the next hour I watch the clock in my room as the minutes tick past. I hear the sound of someone crying. I flinch as footsteps come near, but no one knocks or opens my door. After the allotted time passes, the hallway grows silent. I know I have passed. I should feel joy, but as I climb into bed there is only numb fatigue and the hope that I am up to the challenge of whatever tomorrow will bring.   The morning announcement comes with the dawn. We are to bring all our belongings with us when we report for breakfast. I dress quickly and lace up my worn leather boots as a sense of dread grips my stomach. My friends are all at breakfast the next morning. We have made it to phase three, although Zandri's red-rimmed, tired eyes and withdrawn demeanor show that success has not come without a price. I look around the room and spot Brick sitting at the back table. This time his eyes make contact. For a moment we just stare at each other. When he nods, I recognize his gratitude.   An hour passes before the loudspeaker invites us downstairs. Around the room I see people suck in air. Some, like Zandri, let out low whimpers. Others, like Tomas, look concerned but resigned. Even the cockiest like Roman show signs of fear. Yes. The Testing has exacted a price from us all and that payment isn't over. There is still one test to go.   Dr. Barnes once again waits for us in the third-floor lecture hall. Today he is wearing a serious expression that makes everyone in the room fall silent.   "Congratulations to all of you for making it to the fourth round of Testing. There were one hundred and eight candidates in this year's Testing class. Fifty-nine of you remain. Tomorrow will begin the longest phase of our Testing — the practical examination. University students are the future leaders of the United Commonwealth. Because some of you in this room will soon be designated as among those leaders, we believe it is necessary for you to understand fully the challenges you will face. You will travel to a nonrevitalized part of the country and be placed in a designated starting location. When the test begins, you must then find your way from that location back to Tosu City. Those who return will be given a passing grade and will qualify for the final evaluation. That evaluation will determine the candidates who will attend the University. "   Terror. That's the only word I can think of to describe what I feel. Alone in an unfamiliar part of the country. Or not alone. Not really. Animals. War-fallout mutations of animals that were once harmless but are no longer. And drifters — those who have chosen not to join the United Commonwealth. People who believed structured governments led to the Seven Stages of War and abandoned those who sought organization. Those people might be out there, too. And just me, by myself, to face them.   "Each candidate will begin the test independent of each other. That does not mean you have to remain alone. You may choose to team up with other candidates. You may also choose to impair the progress of your fellow candidates in order to ensure that you obtain a passing grade before them. What choices you make during the test will be considered in your final evaluations. "   Tomas takes my hand and holds it tight. The pressure of his fingers and the implied support calm me enough to focus. If I am going to pass this test, I need to focus.   A screen descends behind Dr. Barnes. A map flickers on the screen. At the bottom left corner of the map is a silver star. Next to the star are the words Tosu City. On the top right is a large black star next to a blue body of water. The black star is labeled Start. Aside from the stars, the one body of water, and the name of Tosu City, the only detail provided on the map are two lines — one red and one blue. The red runs on a diagonal from just about the starting point to a few inches above the silver star. The blue line starts several inches below the starred location and runs to just south of Tosu City.   "All candidates will travel from your designated starting position through the area in between the blue and red boundaries to Tosu City. Both lines indicate fences that have been erected by Testing officials to help you understand and stay within the boundaries of the Testing area. Any candidate who leaves the Testing area at any time will be given a failing grade.   "Please do not make us enforce this rule. "   Malachi's bloody face flashes in front of me. Ryme's bulging, bloodshot eyes. Annalise's now empty chair. Judging by Dr. Barnes's serious expression and the tone of his voice, there is no doubt what penalty a failing grade will bring.   "As soon as you are dismissed, each of you will meet with a Testing official who will give you further instructions. " Dr. Barnes sighs and slowly looks around the room, letting his gaze settle on each and every candidate. "Please be safe and smart. It is my dearest hope that each and every one of you returns to Tosu City. " He straightens his shoulders and tells us to watch the screen behind him. When our symbol flashes on the screen, we are to stand and join our assigned Testing official in the hallway. He wishes us luck and then leaves the stage, walking down the aisle and out the door without a backward glance.   The first symbol flashes on the screen and a boy down in front rises. Still holding my hand, Tomas leans over and whispers, "The starting point is Chicago. "   I think back to the map that flashed on the screen, consider the water and the distance between it and Tosu City, and nod. I'd been too stunned to recognize it from the maps we'd studied in school. Even without any additional identifying landmarks, I'm certain Tomas is right and wonder how we can use that knowledge to our advantage.   Tomas is one step ahead of me. Talking quietly in my ear, he tells me to find the tallest building still standing. Go there. He'll meet me. If we don't find each other in the first twenty four hours, I'm to travel due west until I reach the fencing that is the northern boundary of the test. We'll find each other there. Partners. We will do this together.   Two plans. Two hopes that I will not have to travel hundreds of miles on my own. I nod and squeeze his hand to show him that I agree, that I will do my best to find him, as a symbol of an eight-pointed star with a lightning bolt flashes on the screen. My stomach clenches. My mouth goes dry. I don't want to let go of Tomas's hand, but I convince each finger to uncurl. I move away from the strength Tomas's presence has lent me, and I stand. Hoisting my bag onto my shoulder, I touch each one of my friends — Tomas, Zandri, Will, Nicolette — on the cheek as I pass.   When I walk into the hallway, I can't help feeling a small burst of relief at the face waiting for me. Michal. His expression is stern, but I can see a spark of pride that I am still here. Or maybe I am just imagining that because, when he asks me to follow, his tone is formal. As though we have never met.   We take the elevator to the first floor and exit left down a long gray hallway. At the end of the hall, we stop in front of a large gray door. "This is the Testing storeroom," Michal says. "Each Testing candidate is allowed ten minutes inside this room. During that time you will select three additional items to help you successfully complete this test. I will log your choices as you make them. At this time, I am supposed to remind you to choose carefully. Your choices can mean the difference between success and failure. Of course, I doubt you would have made it this far if you hadn't already figured that out. "   This time I am certain I don't imagine the glint of pride in his eyes. He tells me my ten minutes start when I open the door. I take a deep breath and turn the handle.   Outdoor clothing. Sensible shoes. Food. Compasses. First aid bags. Travel gear. Fire-making kits. Fishing poles. Knives. Guns. And more. Everything you could need to stay alive. And I am allowed to take only three.   I feel Michal's presence behind me as I walk slowly past tables, racks, and shelves stacked with life-sustaining items. Once again, I am grateful for my broken-in boots. Most girls will need to exchange their fashionable footwear for something they can hike in. My thievery in the dining hall also has paid off. While a half dozen apples, rolls, and bags of dried fruit won't get me all the way to Tosu City, I know I have enough to get me by — for now. So I ignore those options and study the rest. All of it seems necessary. I feel the time I am allotted for my selection ticking away as I try to decide what I really, truly need.   Tucked in the corner is a deep green bag with a small stamp that reads H2O. My hands pull the bag from the pile and investigate. Inside are two canteens filled with water and a small kit of the chemicals we used during the second test.   I think back to the map. The testing zone is large. I am certain the area must be filled with lakes, streams, and creeks, though they hadn't been marked on the map. Between conversations with my father and Dr. Barnes's words, I know most if not all of the designated Testing area has yet to be revitalized. That means the water within the boundaries is most likely contaminated in some way. Not all contaminations will kill, but many cause illness — especially in the tired and malnourished. I will risk both during this phase of The Testing. I will not risk dehydration as well.   One choice made.   Sliding the green bag onto my shoulder, I consider my other options. The tent with its rainproof fabric and insulated floor is oh so tempting. But just lifting the case makes the decision for me. While it doesn't feel heavy now, there are more than seven hundred miles to travel. After the first ten the tent will feel more burden than blessing. Comfort must take a back seat to survival.   I skip by the compass since I have one on the Transit Communicator I borrowed from Zeen. I also skip past the knives and the fire-starting kits. I have the pocketknife I brought from home. I will make do. As for fire, it will take me a while to build one without the assistance of matches or flint, but I can do it. It is one of the first skills they teach new students in Five Lakes Colony. For the fire kits to be included here among the survival gear, I have to wonder if our small size and remote location made this a lesson unique to us.   The stash of crossbows, guns, and explosives catches my attention. If an animal attacks, I do not want to be caught unprepared. I've never fired a crossbow and immediately scratch that off my list. The explosives are unfamiliar and scare the crap out of me. I have fired my father's shotgun, and Daileen's dad taught us to fire his pistol. Daileen is a much better shot, but I can hit the center of the target at least 75 percent of the time. I finger the shotgun, which I am more comfortable with, but it only comes with a box of ten shells. My fingers shift and close over a small black handgun that comes with two boxes of ammunition. Lightweight. Easy to carry. Enough bullets that I can take a few practice shots without worrying about running out.   Second choice complete.   The gun and the two boxes of ammunition disappear into my bag as Michal warns there are two minutes remaining. My heart skips as panic sets in. Two minutes and I have no idea what else to take. Signal flares to help Tomas find me? A sleeping bag? A raincoat? A manual on hot-wiring old-fashioned cars? Will there be cars? I don't think so — but how can I know?   Closing my eyes, I take two deep breaths and make a list of what I do have. Food. Water. Clothes. A knife and small tools. A Transit Communicator complete with compass. A gun for self-defense. But what if I get injured?   I open my eyes and head for the medical kits. Each one contains bandages, a needle and thread, and antibacterial ointments along with some radiation tablets, mild pain/fever medication, and other bottles I don't have time to examine now. I shove the medical kit into my bag and sling it onto my shoulder as Michal announces, "Time's up. "   Turning my back on the supplies, I follow Michal out the door trying to ignore the nagging worry that I have made a mistake. But there is no going back. My three choices have been made. Whatever else I need I'll just have to find as I go.   Michal checks his watch and leads me down the hallway to a room marked with my symbol. He opens the door. Inside is a small sleeping chamber and an adjoining bathroom.   "You have an hour to repack your belongings or change clothes. " He looks at me and smiles. He knows I won't be changing into anything, but his words and expression let me know this is a script he must follow. It also tells me something else — if Michal is being this careful, there are people listening to what is being said. "If you need anything during the hour, please let me know. I'll be right outside. "   The door closes, and I sit on the small twin-sized bed. Everything in the room is decorated in shades of gray. Not exactly the most uplifting place I've ever been in, but it could be worse. In fact, I am certain it very soon will be.   I strip off my clothes, shower, and wash my hair. Once I'm clean, I contemplate myself in the reflector before pulling my hair back at the nape of my neck and twisting it into a tight knot. I have no idea what I will be facing when the test begins, but I cannot afford to let my cascading hair get in the way. If during the test I have to cut it off, I will. Vanity has no place here.   Boots laced up, I empty my bag on the floor and repack. I remove one canteen of water to keep handy and store the rest of the kit on the bottom of the bag along with my clothes. The medical kit goes in next. Then the food I took from the dining hall gets wrapped in a towel from the bathroom (no one said we couldn't take them) and stowed. Last the final canteen, Zeen's Transit Communicator, and the gun. The knife I stow in my pocket. I lift the bag. It isn't as light as it used to be, but I've distributed the weight well. I can run with it if I need to.   The end of my hour is signaled by a knock on the door. Michal is waiting. He takes in my hair, my unchanged clothes, the single bag hanging from my shoulder, and nods. "Follow me. "   He leads me through a series of hallways until we come to an elevator. This time he pushes a button for a floor I've never seen before. UG. When the doors open it is very clear by the mildew scent what UG stands for: Underground. According to Michal, we will travel by an underground moving walkway system to the outskirts of the city. A skimmer will then transport us to my designated starting area.   The tension and worry I've been carrying diminish when I spot the underground walkway. It is a large conveyor belt that hums along the floor, and I can't help but ask Michal dozens of questions about how it works, how large the network is, and how it is powered. He smiles and tells me he'll answer what he can while we travel. I stumble as I step onto the belt, but Michal catches me before I end up on the ground.   The walkway ride lasts the better part of an hour, much of it traveling through dimly lit tunnels. Several times we have to step off one walkway and climb onto a new one. I'm grateful for Michal's presence as he continues a steady stream of conversation. Concentrating on his voice helps me ignore the anxiety blooming in my stomach.   We arrive at our destination and step off the walkway. An elevator zooms us to the surface, where Michal says our lunch awaits. The elevator lets us off into a large room bustling with Testing officials. One official in purple holding a clipboard spots us and hurries over. He makes note of my identification bracelet symbol, scribbles something on his board, and tells Michal to take me to number 14.   Number 14 turns out to be a well-lit but airless skimmer docking bay. In the corner is a small table holding a large picnic lunch. Michal will stay with me here in this room until I've gone through the next step of Testing preparation — whatever that might be. A tiny window next to the table looks out onto a green field of grass. Beyond the grass is sparkling water. After being inside for most of the last few days and not knowing whether I will ever see healthy land like this again, I ask Michal if we can eat lunch outside. He is about to say no, but I must look pretty desperate because he tells me to wait here while he asks one of the upper-level officials.   I take one look at Michal's face when he returns and give a whoop of joy. Michal grabs the basket of food and tells me we have exactly one hour to spend outside. He presses a small button on the wall, and the docking bay door rises. A moment later we stroll into the fresh air.   Picking a spot near a large tree, I admit, "I'm surprised they let us come outside. "   "As long as I'm with you and you aren't able to communicate with other Testing candidates, there's no reason to say no. " He hands me an apple from the basket and smiles. "To tell you the truth, most Testing candidates are happy to follow instructions. The Testing committee is always interested to see which candidates show a bit more initiative. "   Even now, before we are thrown into the wreckage of our country, we are being tested. It shouldn't surprise me. But it does. My eyes run up and down the length of the tree, looking for signs that our words are being recorded, that we are being watched.   Michal smiles. "Don't worry. Our conversation isn't being recorded out here. The Testing committee is too busy to monitor everything leading up to the fourth test. That's what I'm here for, and I don't plan on reporting this conversation. If you want to talk, this is as safe as it gets. "   Do I want to talk? Yes. But do I trust Michal or is this just one more test to be graded? My father would instruct me not to trust him. As much as I want to be, I have proven over and over again since leaving home that I am not my father.   Michal hands me a sandwich from the basket and asks, "How are you holding up?"   My stomach is churning, but I make myself take a bite of the sandwich — beef, cheese, and a hearty wheat bread. It probably tastes wonderful. Swallowing, I say, "Malachi is dead. I watched him die. "   "I heard. " His eyes meet mine. "I'm sorry. "   I believe he is. The sympathy I feel radiating off him makes me want to cry. "Why? Why is he dead?" A poisonous leaf. A nail to the eye. Those are the causes. But the reason . . .   Michal looks over his shoulder and then tells me to eat, to pretend to laugh and enjoy myself. Otherwise someone watching at a distance might wonder what we are saying. As I eat, he tells me that the Testing process was designed years ago by Dr. Barnes's father, who believed that the Seven Stages of War occurred because world leaders did not have the correct combination of intelligence, ability to perform under pressure, and strength of leadership to lead us out of confrontations. That the only way to ensure the United Commonwealth did not repeat past mistakes was to test the future leaders of our country and make sure they had the breadth of qualities that would not only help our country flourish but keep our people safe. Over the years, several Commonwealth officials have questioned the necessity of such strong penalties for failing The Testing. Some even say that the Testers rig the outcome of the tests so that those who are too smart, too strong, and too dedicated are weeded out. For those are the ones who feel not only compelled to rebuild the Commonwealth but also to question its laws and its choices. Anyone who voices negative opinions about The Testing either is relocated to an outpost or disappears.   Michal laughs as though he has said something funny. I laugh, too, though nothing has ever seemed less amusing. What constitutes too smart and too strong? Does asking to go outside mark me a rebel? My head spins, but I continue to smile as though my life depends on it.   And it might.   I eat the entire sandwich, then another because it won't keep in my bag and I know I need to be well fueled when I start the next test. Michal leans back in the grass and watches. When the sandwiches are gone, Michal glances at his watch. Ten minutes of freedom remain.   "Are you scared?" he asks, handing me a bottle of water.   I take a sip and feel emotions crash against the carefree wall that I had erected. I nod. Yes, I am terrified. Trying not to lose my composure, I slide the uneaten apples, oranges, and rolls into my bag. My fingers tremble as I try to close the fasteners. Michal helps me and whispers, "Don't worry about being the first to arrive back. Every year candidates think the order you return in matters. It doesn't. Be smart. Be safe. Trust your friends from Five Lakes if you can, but no one else. Every year there are Testing candidates who think taking out their competition is the best way to ensure their entrance to the University. More often than not they are right. Don't let them be this time. "   The bag closes. I sit down as the world around me starts to spin and then fades to black. The last thing I remember is feeling strong arms lifting me while a soft, warm voice says, "You're smart, Cia. You're strong. There are people like me on your side who know you can make it. Please, prove I'm right. "   Then everything fades away.   The next thing I hear is water dripping. My eyes fly open. I am lying on a cot in what can only be described as a metal box. The whole thing is probably six feet by six feet. I try to squelch the panic I feel at being in such a small, confined space and take in the rest of my surroundings. There are electric lights illuminating the space. A small basket of food sits on the floor next to me. A toilet and tiny sink occupy the corner at the end of my bed. On the wall across from me is a countdown clock with a sign that says: TESTING BEGINS IN THIRTY MINUTES. No. Strike that. Twenty-nine minutes.   I use the toilet. Flush the grogginess from my eyes and the metallic taste from my mouth that are clear signs I was drugged. I think back to the water Michal handed me and feel a stab of betrayal. Then it is gone as I remember the whispered words. The drugs were part of Testing protocol. His words and the care they contained were not. For whatever reason, Michal genuinely believes I will make it through this test. He even claims others I don't know are offering their support. I will not prove them wrong.   As the clock counts down, I strip the bed of its sheet and stuff it into the bottom of my bag. Who knows when I might need the warmth. I then check the food basket. More sandwiches. Dried fruit. A bottle of water. A small box of crackers and three perfectly ripe strawberries. I eat the sandwiches, sniff the water for traces of drugs, and then sip at it while storing the crackers and the dried fruit in my bulging bag. If nothing else, I'll have enough food to see me through a week. More if I'm careful. One by one I eat the juicy strawberries as I watch the clock tick down. When it reaches five minutes, I wash my hands, dig Zeen's Transit Communicator out of my bag, and turn on the compass. The compass swings wildly, searching for direction, and finds none. I can only guess the metal box is confusing the signal and hope the situation remedies itself when I am able to leave.   Two minutes left to go.   I take one last sip of water and store the bottle in my bag.   One minute.   I realize anything could be outside that door. Putting Zeen's Communicator in the side pocket of my bag, I reach into it one last time. When the clock hits zero, I stand with my bag on my shoulder and the small black gun in my hand.   The side of the metal box swings open as a recorded voice says, "The fourth round of Testing has now begun. "