Angela fidgeted, waiting in the sparse waiting area for her name to be called. When she was nervous, she often played with her hair. Dark wavy tresses normally flowed down past her shoulders while her unruly bangs tickled her forehead. It seemed that no matter how long or short they were, her bangs could not be contained or controlled, as if they had a mind of their own. Today, her hair was tied in a single french braid to keep it manageable. Nibbling on the tail of the braid, with furrowed brow Angela closed her almond brown eyes briefly and futilely tried to clear her mind of the chaotic thoughts that had been swirling around in it before bringing her attention back onto the present.
The room was intentionally spartan in decoration. Metal benches lined two of the walls, facing each other. To her left, nondescript double sliding doors whooshed open and closed as other students entered. The benches were already filled almost to capacity as students jostled for as comfortable a seat as they could manage in these crowded conditions. To her right, another set of sliding doors, identical in design to the ones on her left, imposingly stood closed. An unwavering fluorescent light illuminated the room with triple-pattern rows from above — three parallel glowing lines that ran across the length of the ceiling.
A large digital display embedded in the wall above the right side doors counted down the seconds. Those doors had whooshed open not quite two minutes ago, and now just under three minutes remained until those doors would open again. Most of the those seated, a randomly sampling of students from this year’s hopefully graduating class, had their eyes glued to the display. A few nervous pairs of eyes glanced around at their neighbors, curious to see if everyone was as nervous as they were. Occasionally a someone appeared to be not at all nervous, or perhaps merely had eyes closed in calming meditation for what was to come.
A large swarthy man with closely cropped hair seated just to Angela’s left was nervously shaking his leg, tapping out a machine gun rat-tat-tat with his heel. He gripped his knees firmly with large meaty hands, but his shirt was already drenched with sweat, and he smelled foul in his nervousness.The thin sandy blonde woman to Angela’s left was the picture of calm. She sat gracefully unperturbed with legs crossed as if she were merely waiting for a relaxing cup of instatea. Her eyes gazed off into the distance, hands folded peacefully in her lap, and she inhaled and exhaled through her nose deep breaths with slow regularity. The faint tightness of her lips, though, belied her calm.
When Angela looked up at the display again, more time had ticked away. In exactly one minute and forty-seven seconds, those doors would open again, and it would be the next student’s turn to step through. Who it would be was anyone’s guess at this point. Every aspect of The Test was shrouded in as much secrecy as possible for something that was the most common topic of conversation for the entire year. The instructors changed its format every time it was held, so knowing how it had been from previous years was little help to the prospective graduates — not that they didn’t try to learn all they could from those who had passed, or failed, it. Every year this day was the same. All the students who were going to attempt it were supposed to report to this waiting area and await instructions for what to do next. Each student had his window in which he or she was supposed to arrive to keep it from getting too crowded. Consequently, for most of the twenty-four hours of the day, someone was probably attempting to pass The Test. Too bad for those who couldn’t handle early or late hours.
Known simply as The Test, it was the most important challenge these students would face at this point in their education. It was the gateway to the future. It was everything. Pass The Test, and she was allowed to proceed to the next level to face another, more rigorous, test, and then several more, and then finally being an exciting career with the Core — what she would doing for the rest of her life depending upon how well she performed. Fail The Test, and she could not move forward. One could attempt The Test again the next time it was held, a full year later, or she could just stop and …. well, there really was no future in the Core for those who couldn’t pass on the first or second try. Those who didn’t, washed out, and no one who had passed paid much attention to them or even knew what ended up becoming of them really.
It was sad for those who couldn’t pass The Test on their first attempt. Even if they did pass it on the second, their classmates who had already advanced would forevermore be a full year ahead of them. There was always so much to learn that it might never be possible to catch up, not to mention the wasted childhood of schooling and training for those who failed it again on the second attempt. They simply washed out of the Core, all those years wasted. They had to find something else, something menial, to do for the rest of their lives.
“Tovar, Jose. Ready yourself.” An emotionless computerized voice from a speaker built into the display announced the next student’s name. The display itself showed thirty seconds remained before the doors would open.
A tall lean man from the bench across the room stood up. His skin was dark from much time spent outdoors under the harsh sun, or perhaps that was simply his natural complexion. He was gangly but moved with practiced grace.
He stepped towards the door slowly, seeming almost to hold his breath as he walked. His eyes were focused on the display as it counted down to 00:00:00. Angela knew him only superficially. He was nice, friendly, smart, strong, quick, and had a good mind. In her opinion, he was altogether above average. If he could pass The Test, then she should have no problem passing. Unfortunately, she would not know if he had passed until it was all over. If there was one pearl of wisdom that she had heard repeated above all others, it was that where The Test was concerned, you always knew when you had failed, but you never knew if you had passed until it was all over.
Finally the display reached all zeros, and the double doors slid open silently, with not even a quiet whoosh, or perhaps that was because the silence in the room was deafening. Some of the students who had just arrived peered in curiously, but the area beyond was a realm of darkness. They would not be able to see what was there until the administrators wanted them to see it.
“Tovar, Jose. Enter,” the display intoned. With but the slightest of pauses, Jose stepped through the portal into darkness. Once he had passed the threshold, the doors slid quickly shut, and the display reset to begin counting down again from 00:05:00.
So it went, with subsequent students’ names being called when the display reached 00:00:30 — Gripper, Leonard; Padmanabhan, Krishani; Ho, Leah; and so on — the doors opening at 00:00:00, and then the display resetting to 05:00:00 when the student had moved into the testing area. It seemed that the administrators had taken care to separate friends, to remove support when it was needed most, because Angela had not seen any of her small circle of friends enter this waiting room. Certainly from random chance one she should have seen one of them by now. Where were they, she wondered? Had they already stepped through the entrance doors, or had they been instructed to come later?
Family and friends not directly involved with The Test were not allowed to accompany any of the students at the testing site. This was a solo experience, and above all else, the students were taught to battle adversity on their own if at all possible. Over the long years The Test had been administered, it had evolved and improved in methodology, with the end result that every variable by now been measured, and every design element was there for a specific reason — to test the students in algorithmically targeted ways. In this way, it was no accident that the majority of peers Angela encountered were strangers to her, or at best, merely acquaintances.
Sitting there in that closed area, Angela felt that she was slowly becoming drenched in sweat as well. With all the bodies in such a confined space, the room had grown considerably warmer since she first arrived. Even with the doors opening and closing regularly, it stayed uncomfortably warm. It was laughable that any environment maintenance system would fail at this facility. No, it was deliberately warm in here, no doubt another designed aspect to test them.
Her black bangs were plastered against her forehead, and her clothing was starting to stick. She hoped that she didn’t smell like the guy sitting next to her though. Beads of sweat glistened on her face, and her usually pale cheeks were ruddy from the heat. The instructions that she had been given stated that she could wear whatever she wanted, but that she should expect to be tested both mentally and physically, so to dress appropriately for that, whatever that meant. Today she wore a comfortable dark fitted shirt, equally dark trousers, and supple leather boots, protective and comfortable. Beneath her shirt, nestled against her chest was the silver necklace her mother had given to her for luck and protection as a child, and which she never took off, even to this day. The tiny platinum charm dangling from it, the Chinese character for happiness, was occasionally a much needed source of inspiration and security.
She had reasoned that she would have full range of motion and little impediment with this outfit, and her trousers had deep pockets if she had need of them. The instructions had also explicitly expressed that she could bring nothing else with her — no bags, backpacks, tools, belts, or any of the gear upon which she had been training.
She closed her eyes again, focusing on her breathing as she had been taught. It was a technique to calm one’s self, but unbidden thoughts roiled in her mind like a boxed typhoon. This year, her twenty-first, was supposed to be her best year yet but it had quickly become her worst – her family’s worst. At times it was almost unbearable, unfathomable to her except that she had actually lived through it. She had always excelled at everything presented to her, and early on, she had heard that some people even considered her a prodigy. This year, though, she had proven that she was anything but. She struggled to keep up with some of her very average, in her opinion, classmates, and with The Test threatening at the end of the year, the worst thing that could happen to her was to lose focus. Yet, how could she not? How could she possibly have focused on her education after what she had endured?
Unwanted tears borne of frustration and sorrow seeped into her eyes, stinging. She did not know how to feel. Angry? Sad? Scared? Angela did not even want to be here today, but no excuses were acceptable where The Test was concerned. Not showing up was the same thing as failing. Worse. It was failing without trying. She had always been taught to do her best, no matter what, even if this year her best was not as good as it might have been. She could only hope that what she had left was enough, but she was so emotionally, mentally, and physically drained already, and she had not even begun!
She hated to cry. It was shameful to lose control like that. A moment’s compromise was catastrophic because once the first tear came, then came the second, and the next, and soon they flowed freely down her warm cheeks. The world was a prismatic haze of crazy colors, and she wiped her eyes clear with the back of her hand. A few of her neighbors looked at her with pity in their eyes. For them she was a welcome sight because her rampant emotions distracted them from their own self-doubts and nervousness. There was always someone who burst into tears in this room, unable to take the immense pressure The Test posed. How unfair it was to decide their fates on the outcome of this one test for which they could not even properly prepare!
Angela glared fiercely around her, her cheeks flaming a bright red from her strong emotions, banishing the pity from the staring eyes. Of course they pitied her. She had once been a prodigy. If anyone could have aced The Test, it would have been her, until she fell from her perch in a downward spiral of increasing velocity, and with no bottom in sight. Perhaps her quick understanding and mastery during her earlier years had only been beginner’s luck after all. With the poor showing she had this final crucial year, she would be lucky to even pass, let alone with flying colors.
One by one students who had been called stepped through the doors, and finally, it was her turn.
“Lu, Angela. Ready yourself.” The same emotionless voice called her name. She was not ready. No, she was ready. She stood up and walked closer to the doors, waiting for them to open. She squeezed her hands together nervously, enjoying the feel of the self-massage on her palms. She took several deep breaths, closing her eyes for a long moment, and felt her pulse slow. She had not realized how rapidly it had been beating from her anxiety until she felt it slow to a dull rhythmic thud in her chest.
“Baba, this is for you,” she mouthed soundlessly. Too little time remained, and excitement began to grow within her. She felt backed into a corner, and she had no direction in which she could move except forward. Angela shook her arms out, readying herself for what was to come next. She was ready.
She had spent years studying and training for the coming moments. She simply had to trust that she had done her best, and that preparation would carry her through today. She was ready.
Yet, the most critical year, this last, had been her worst. Having spent her childhood focused on being prepared for this exact day, she realized this year that being here today was not necessarily the most important thing to her. Perhaps it was not her fate after all to join the Core. She was not ready.
No matter what unknown challenge lay in store for her, it was her choice this day to conquer or to be conquered. She rubbed absently at her chest and felt reassured from the tiny links of her necklace and charm. Excitement, or was it anxiety, continued to grow within her as the room’s display counted down the seconds. She was …
One moment more. She was …
“Lu, Angela. Enter,” the computerized voice intoned, and the metallic double doors slid open. From beyond them, the darkness of The Test loomed. It was time. She stepped through the threshold, leaving her anxieties and doubts behind. Light faded as the doors slid shut behind her.
Angela was ready.