[ ii ]

For long moments, all was darkness. The doors sealed so perfectly that not even an outline of light remained around the edges. The only sounds were Angela’s, her breaths coming quickly from her heightened emotional state. With eyes wide open she was nonetheless blind in the complete darkness. Experimentally she waved her hand in front of her face, confirming that it was indeed pitch black here.

“Genetic scan complete. No contraband detected. P-zero biometric data recorded.” It was the same computerized voice. A rich baritone, it still lacked any warmth. “Welcome, Lu, Angela. You may proceed.” The greeting was a nice touch, but it did little to add any semblance of humanity.

Suddenly a wide arc of glowing magenta dots appeared hovering in mid-air a little ways away. To their right another another arc of glowing cyan, and to the left an arc of glowing yellow, all of the same size and floating high above. Their luminance grew in intensity, and then Angela could see that they were not actually floating. Rather, they outlined the high arches of a set of three portals. The little lights disrupting the darkness revealed a small square chamber containing nothing but the three portals. Reflecting over and over off the shiny metal walls, floor, and ceiling, they created the illusion of standing among a myriad of colorful stars as they continued to activate all around the edges of the portals.

Finally, three large circles the same color as the lights began to glow like deep phosphorescent pools at the foot of each portal. The portals themselves were closed, and despite the lights surrounding them, looked altogether like walls of stolid blackness.

Clearly Angela was supposed to step onto one of these circles. It was probably just a pressure or other sensor, and then the corresponding portal would open, but which one should she choose? It looked like this year there were three variants of The Test for the students to stumble through. It seemed that the administration always created at least two variants, usually with one that emphasized mental challenges while the other emphasized physical challenges, but what was the breakdown when there were three variants? What did it matter since there was no data by which one could make any sort of informed choice? And yet, every aspect of this process was deliberate. Data was constantly being gathered about each student, for each choice made, how long it took for that choice to be made, and for all the other aspects of their performance.

Angela scrutinized three three portals for long moments, gazing back and forth, from top to bottom, but for all her focus, she could discern nothing further. Except for the differently colored lights, they looked identical in every way. There was nothing else to differentiate any one from the other two.The computerized voice spoke up again, announcing that time was running out. “Time remaining: ten seconds.” Oh, that’s right. Every five minutes a new student had been entering this area, and for all the times that she had seen those doors slide open, she had never noticed anyone still inside. She had been standing in this darkness for less than a minute, but clearly the test administrators wanted her to make her choice quickly.

With the voice counting down, she chose the middle portal. She stepped forward fully onto the magenta circle on the floor and waited for the portal before her to open, but nothing happened. Illuminated from below, she looked in wonder at the dim ghostly hues dancing on her skin and clothing. Looking forward, she could faintly see her reflection in the metallic surface of the closed portal. Her eyes were the faintest pinpoints of light. Two more seconds passed, the computer voice continuing to count down, and still nothing happened. She was almost out of time!

Angela quickly stepped over to her right, onto the cyan circle, hoping that this would open for her. Once she stepped fully onto the greenish-blue light, the other two circles winked out. The portal in the archway before her slid open with the slightest of sounds to reveal a small brightly lit corridor, dazzling in contrast to the almost total darkness where she stood.

“Three… two…,” the voice continued to count down, and then Angela realized she needed to cross the portal’s threshold before it reached zero or fail The Test barely a minute in. Swiftly she stepped forward through the open archway. It closed swiftly and quietly, silencing the countdown.

The short corridor in which she was standing opened up into a large spacious area only a few meters away. The ceiling above her head was curved like the arch she had just stepped through. As in the waiting area with her fellow students earlier, translucent panels in the ceiling illuminated the entire area with a comfortable white light, and the metallic tiles of the floor were cleanly maintained. Most of one wall was occupied with a large touch display.

“Choose one,” the computerized voice, of course, announced from the display when Angela stepped closer to study it.

A timer had already begun counting down the seconds. It currently displayed 00:02:57. Four icons spinning slowly in place on the area of the screen below the timer showed objects in hyper-realistic three-dimensional detail — a trainee’s CS-1000 stunner, a simple wax wood/carbon fiber telescoping staff, a PDS-20 personal defense shield in belt form factor, and a G1-L2 single use wrist-mounted lightweight grapnel gun. The wall across from the display was largely covered with thin crisscrossing outlines of compartments where gear was stowed.

The students had of course been trained in the proper usage of all four of the items represented in the touch display. No doubt each would prove helpful in succeeding today, but she was only allowed to choose one. While she stood facing the touch display pondering her choice, the timer continued to count down.

“Ok, think.” Angela often spoke aloud to herself to clarify her thoughts. “The stunner is obviously offense, and the PDS is definitely defense. So that means the staff might be the middle option. But what about the gun?”

She glanced among the four spinning icons, waiting for inspiration to reveal the one best choice to her. Occasionally she glanced up at the timer, noting only that it was still counting down. There was still a little over two and a half minutes, but was that how much time she had left to make her choice, or did she need to do everything else in that time?

Angela went quickly over to the end of the corridor to see what lay in the large room beyond. Tendrils of wispy fog seeped in lazily, curling around her leather boots before evaporating into nothingness. She cupped her hand and passed it through the fog, noting the chill, but when she brought her hand to her nose, there was no discernible scent. Odorless and cold, it might have been sublimating carbon dioxide. Crouching on one knee, she stood still for long moments, letting her eyes adjust yet again to the dim light.

She could tell that the ceiling was high above, almost out of sight except for glowing panels that provided dim lighting all the way down to the fog-covered floor. The rectangular chamber was completely open except for a few barriers that had been erected in seemingly haphazard fashion to create an obstacle course. On the far wall of the room there was a brightly lit rectangular cyan panel, and between them she could just see the faint cylindrical outline of drones patrolling the ground in geometric patterns.

Closing her eyes, she tilted her head from side to side, listening intently for even the faintest of sounds. She placed her palm on the cool metal floor to see if she could feel vibrations from the nearby movements of anything, but the floor seemed to be vibrating unhelpfully and constantly. She imagined that she could hear the faint whirr of the drone patrols as they awaited her. There was nothing else, but she remembered an old adage that she and her friends used to mock quote when setting up practice games for each other. Just because there were patrolling drone didn’t mean that there weren’t mounted ones as well.

Angela shivered from both the chill of the fog and with the excitement of the challenge before her. Now that she was about to begin in earnest, she could feel the adrenaline pumping through her body, supercharging her muscles and senses.

With a better idea of the first challenge that The Test had in store for her, she went quickly back to the touch display.

The timer now displayed 00:01:42. She was pretty sure that she had to get to the cyan panel before time ran out. If there had been no obstacles to avoid, she could easily reach it in seconds. She had always considered herself an excellent runner, and even though she had not been able to maintain, let alone improve, her physical conditioning as much as she would have liked over the last year, she had proven that for short distance sprints, she was still among the top among her peers. It wasn’t the distance that would be the challenge, however. It was the drones that she had seen, and more dangerously, the ones that were hidden or that she no doubt had missed in her cursory scan.

Those drones she noticed looked like they might be the same model as the ones she trained against in the PhysEd advanced training sessions. Though she could not see the details in the dim light and distance, they no doubt were each equipped with a sensor panel that would deactivate the drone for a few seconds if struck by the electrical payload of a stunner. Alternately, if the sensor panel were depressed with enough force like any mechanical switch, then the drone would also temporarily deactivate. That meant that the CS-1000 might be the ideal choice for the first challenge, but what about the next one? or potentially, the next ones?

Armed with the same same ammunition that the CS-1000s used, the drones in the PhysEd had been programmed with VIA, variable improvement accuracy, meaning that they were initialized with a low level of accuracy, but as they were deactivated and reset over the course of a practice session, their accuracy improved to provide ever greater challenge to the students. No doubt for The Test, they would have been set at a high level of accuracy, perhaps even at the maximum. It would be wisest to assume that was what she faced.

In her mind, there really were only two choices. The grapnel was useless against the drones. With the EM thrust system of the gun, it had a pretty good range, but because it was single use, at most she could temporarily disable but one drone, and that was if she managed to bonk its target panel with the two pound grapnel. Aiming one of these things wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It was hard enough getting it to catch properly on anything while standing still, never mind trying to hit a moving target while dodging stuns at the same time. No, the grapnel gun could only be an idiot’s choice.

The telescoping staff was hardly a better idea. Maybe someone who moved like one of those imaginary kung fu masters in the holovids could use it successfully. The wax wood was flexible and could be twirled quickly enough to deflect the drones’ stuns, yet it was also strong enough to disable the drones with a directed blow to the right spot — again, in the hands of one of those imaginary kung fu masters. Angela was hardly such a person. Really, in this day and age, who would willingly choose to go up against a stunner, or any other long range weapon for that matter, with an archaic staff anyway? That left only two potential viable choices.

With practice, in ideal conditions Angela was a good shot, but not a great shot. She had showed great promise early on, receiving high marksmanship scores for her age category, but as she got older, she simply stopped improving with handheld projectile weapons. Although she might still have some untapped potential with rifles, she was utterly mediocre with handhelds. Despite that mediocrity, the ability to have some offense seemed like a better idea than relying on not getting hit. Automated targeting systems had long since marginalized humans’ ability to compete physically against any weaponized mobile. Drones were weaponized mobiles. Still, once the power cell in the stunner was exhausted, it would be as useless as a stick. It was common knowledge that the power cells of the 1000 series stunners did not have a large capacity. It was the entry level model and not really intended for real field use.

By contrast, even the smallest model of PDS, the PDS-20 had a decent runtime. It was an uncomplicated device, easy to use. The wearer simply snapped it in place around her waist, then activated it by pressing the embedded buckle toggle. Press it once to activate; press it once more to deactivate. Once activated, a fully charged PDS-20 had a runtime of several minutes minus some amount of time whenever it actively dissipated an energy attack. These shields were useless against projectiles, but they worked well against directed energy. The more powerful the attack that was dissipated, the more the PDS was drained.

Angela had no idea how many stuns a PDS could handle. She had never seen one used beyond its capacity, but she hoped it could handle at least a few direct hits. She might need that buffer if she chose the belt.

The choice really came down to offense versus defense. Weapon versus shield. Either might be a good choice for the next room and a horrible one for whatever came after, but she didn’t have much time left to ponder that. In fact, the countdown timer showed her plainly that there was only 00:01:16 left. That settled it. She reached forward and tapped the touch display, right over the icon of the PDS-20.

If there was one skill that she trusted beyond everything else, it was her ability to run. Even though she could never hope to evade a shot once a drone had gained target lock, if she could evade that lock-on for long enough, then she had a chance, and if she failed to evade, then a personal shield might gain her enough time to reach her objective anyway.

“PDS selected.” A compartment on the other wall, one of those outlined in the matrix pattern, opened with a click, and a drawer slid out as the computer confirmed Angela’s selection. Inside the drawer, in a velvety cavity, lay a personal defensive shield, belt form factor. It looked exactly like the icon on the touch display, except that it was full-sized. Designed for function over form, it was an ugly grey strip of a sophisticated polyfabric with embedded power cells. The elastic material would stretch universally around most waists, staying in place snugly, if not necessarily comfortably, once the ends were clipped together. The front of the left clip also housed a button that toggled the shield on and off.

Once Angela picked up the belt, a weight sensor embedded in the drawer noted her action and retracted the drawer into the compartment with another soft click. Quickly she put it in place around her waist and pressed the button that would activate it. She felt the hairs all across her body stand on end as an electromagnetic field sprang into existence in close proximity all about her. She was now protected in an invisible bubble for as long as the belt’s power pack lasted. This type of defensive field always played havoc with loose hair. She could see in the reflection on the touch display that her head, braid and all, was surrounded by a thin dark nimbus of charged hairs.

A line of indicators on the belt lit up to bright green. It was fully charged. The timer on the touch display showed 00:01:04.

Moving swiftly over to the end of the corridor, Angela crouched once more, kneeling where the bright unwavering light of the equipment corridor met the dimness of the obstacle course. The first barrier stood perhaps six meters away to the right. She glanced cautiously from side to side and noted that off in the distance the drones were still patrolling in their preset patterns. That would soon change though once they detected her.

“Here we go,” Angela breathed in a low voice. She rubbed her necklace through her shirt for luck, then, keeping her profile low to the floor, dashed as covertly and as quickly as she could to the right side of the room, to that first barrier.

Fog swirled with her actions, drifting all around her. The entire room seemed otherworldly now that all the floor around her was covered with the fog. Fully in, she could see that the source of the chilly fog was emitters embedded all about the room in the walls and also on the floor. Each step punched a hole momentarily in the voluminous fog, revealing metal floor below, and occasionally, the thin vent of an emitter.

The barrier behind which Angela was hiding was a rectangular cube of tough opaque plastic anchored into the floor. Peering cautiously through the opening that had been cut into it, she could see the other similar barriers interspersed throughout the room. Both a help and a hindrance, she could seek cover behind one but could not see through those off in the distance for obstacles that might be hidden right behind them.

Pausing for only moments, Angela scampered from barrier to barrier, footsteps echoing on the floor, making her way closer to the panel on the far wall and to the drones that defended it. She had just made it past what looked like the halfway point, diving behind a protective plastic barrier when the room lit up with a bright flash. A streak of light shot past her, narrowly missing her feet as she pulled them protectively towards her body. Her breath was ragged, louder than it should have been. Whether the drones had detected her with audio or visual sensors made no difference. She had been detected by at least one, and so she did not need to worry about suppressing the sounds of her breaths. She knew that the drone that had detected her would already be advancing towards her current position.

A quick glance at the belt indicated that the shot had been a clean miss. The indicators still glowed a strong green, so no power drain had occurred. Making herself as small as possible, Angela peeked around a plastic corner and was immediately blinded by the bright flash of another shot. It was another miss, but not by much, from a second drone. The administrators had shown a little restraint and not set the accuracy level to the maximum immediately, not on this unit at least. The next shot, however, might not miss as the drones continued to approach. At least she now had a good idea of where they were.

Vision clearing rapidly, Angela waited nervously for one of the approaching drones to reach her. When the whirring sounds of its caterpillar tracks indicated it was almost on top of her, separated only by the opaque barrier, she ran around to the far side of the cube. Remembering where the next protected spot was, she sprinted towards it as quickly as she could. It was a long distance to run without any cover, but she had no choice. She was already being tracked by the two units, and doubtless the remaining drones would soon have her location as well.

Suddenly the room exploded with light. Reflexively Angela held her arms up protectively around her head and ran as fast as she could before diving for cover. Brilliant streaks of light split the darkness of the room as shots flew towards her from several directions. Once a shot passed just in front of her when the targeting system of a drone shot barely too far ahead. Miraculously, all of the shots had missed. She knew that not only did she have to deal with the drones, but that she must be running out of time by now. All about her were the the mechanical sounds of the drones as they surrounded her.  She could clearly see their squat cylindrical shapes as they lined up, waiting to fire when their stunners recharged.

This was Angela’s best chance. Stunners could only be fired every few seconds because each shot fully discharged their small capacitors. It did not matter if it was a handheld model or mounted. The principle was the same. Her eyes opened wide as she leaped to her feet, running around the corner of the barrier and straight for the cyan wall panel. There was no time to be cautious now. The drones were positioned closely enough that she could not hope that they would all miss again. In a flat out sprint she charged for the far wall.

Step by step she ran closer to the panel. Somewhere behind her a drone’s stunner finished recharging. It fired a shot that instantaneously struck Angela in the middle of her back, or rather it would have, except that her personal defensive shield dissipated the attack. Suddenly the invisible bubble surrounding her became visible, an orange sheen washing over her from back to front as the energy was quickly dissipated. Then another shot came, and another, each dissipated by the belt, sending the orange sheen over her again and again. The belt around her waist had quickly warmed up. She did not dare to check the indicators, but no doubt it would be depleted soon.

The cyan panel was just a short distance away on the wall. She was almost there. She had only to round the last barrier, then it would be within her reach. Other drones had now recharged as well. Their shots flashed past her, a series of near misses. With a desperate effort, she contorted her body and dove behind the last cube.

Her head exploded in stars and pain as she crashed into the hard metallic body of a hidden drone. A last obstacle, it had been placed there to offer a final surprise challenge for this first stage of The Test. Mounted securely in place, it had barely moved when Angela dove into it headfirst. She reflexively rolled to her side after the collision and lay on her back as she looked up at the silent machine hovering over her. Fearfully she scrambled backwards away from it, expecting the bright flash of the stunner to hit her at point blank range. Wisps of fog scattered with her motions seeped back towards her when she stopped, flowing over her body in pale rivulets. Her head was already throbbing, and pain filled her eyes involuntarily with tears.

Dazed and reeling, she realized that somehow, she had blindly dived at the precise angle to butt the drone’s deactivation panel with her forehead. In fact that panel probably sported a brand new dent the exact shape of her newly bruised forehead.The world was spinning crazily, and a greenish blob hovered nearby. Using the deactivated drone for support, she lurched to her feet as quickly as she could and staggered forward, stretching out a hand, the one that wasn’t clutching her head, towards the greenish blob.

Sensors in the smooth cyan panel registered even the slightest touch, and the drones ceased moving, their whirring gears falling silent the moment Angela grazed it. Having conquered this gauntlet, she leaned heavily against the wall and the now dark panel, rubbing her head and waiting expectantly for whatever was next. She was not disappointed. Quickly, speakers from overhead blared, “Lu, Angela. Proceed to the next zone,” and a previously unremarkable section of the wall slid up towards the ceiling to reveal a brightly lit hallway.

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