[ iv ]

Angela blinked her eyes furiously. The overhead lighting was too bright, and her head throbbed painfully. Her eyes were filled with unshed tears despite her best efforts. She panted, exhausted from her sprint through the previous drone-filled chamber. Now that she had stopped dashing around so much, she felt her body heating up, and she was drenched with sweat. When she moved her hand away from her forehead, it was wet only with her sweat. Fortunately her collision with that last drone had not cut her. She wasn’t worried about gaining a scar, but facial cuts tended to bleed for a long time. Scars could be be repaired with a quick superficial dermal treatment, but a head wound might bleed into the eyes, obstructing her vision. Her bangs were plastered to her face from the sweat, and she touched gingerly her rapidly swelling bruise, checking her fingers repeatedly to ensure that all the wetness really was from just sweat and not her own blood.

In contrast to the vast chamber she had just passed through, the room in which she was now standing was small, decorated simply and cleanly like any physician’s examination room. In fact, it looked exactly like the last physician’s she had visited when she went for her physical exam the previous week, a task she and all of her classmates had needed to perform before being allowed to take The Test. The metallic floor here was cleanly swept and free of any clutter, as they always were. Unremarkable, shiny white cabinets had been built into the otherwise matte white walls, and a simple table sat in the far corner of the room facing the portal through which she had just entered. Behind the desk sat a lone figure, gigantic hands clasped together on the desktop. He had been looking towards her expectantly since she entered.

“Congratulations on making it this far, Miss Lu.” The older man’s voice was thin, but friendly and disarming. Though he remained seated, Angela guessed that he must be extremely tall, far taller than anyone she had ever personally met, and her friend Alex stood almost 193 centimeters. From the length of his torso and arms, he would tower even over Alex. Thin long arms reached more than halfway across the desk behind which he was sitting despite looking completely relaxed, forearms extended almost comically far beyond the end of the sleeves of his clean white medical frock. If his elbows were not bent, they would have reached even further. He was very skinny and senior, possibly reaching the end of his career, but his thin white hair, combed over to his right, still held vestiges of the vibrant brown it must have been earlier in life. He was fair in complexion, but even regular dermal treatments could not remove all traces of the brown spots that revealed his true chronological age. Like most people his age, his wrinkled skin lacked any trace of a healthy tan as he tended to spend all of his time indoors. There was little reason to venture outdoors nowadays when society and technology had advanced to the point where everyone was simply a few gestures away, and if you really needed to travel physically, all the main transportation centers were connected and shielded from the hot exterior world.

Though elder, his grey eyes beheld the world from beneath bushy white brows with a piercing gaze, and when he moved, it was with the energy and ease of someone much younger. Lenses on his eyes reflected the overhead lighting occasionally as he turned his head, causing his eyes to glimmer sometimes with a bright sheen.

Angela was not surprised that he knew who she was. No doubt he had been watching her running around in the fog with the droids and barriers in case she succeeded in getting past them.

“I am Rudnick Dàifu, but if it is easier for you, you may simply call me Doctor,” the man continued.

“I will be your proctor for this segment of your examination. Please, deactivate your PDS and have a seat.” With his left hand he motioned to the large pod sitting in that corner of the room. Angela realized that although the belt was still warm to the touch, she had forgotten to turn off her shield. What had once been a green line on the buckle display indicating a full charge was now a blinking red stub. Its power source almost completely depleted, it might not have been able to protect her from even one more direct shot. Pressing the buckle toggle she deactivated the belt.

Angela had noticed the pod sitting on a raised platform in the corner of the room when she first stepped in but had been distracted by the Dàifu. Now that she had a chance to focus on it, she recognized immediately that it was a holographic console. When activated, it projected three-dimensional holographic images in front of the viewer. The images could be of anything, from a simulation of a two-dimensional parchment and stylus from ancient times to a senses-encompassing virtual world the viewer could explore. Well, the visual and audial senses anyway. Technology had not yet reached the point that these types of consoles could produce convincing olfactory or tactile content. Through haptic gloves rudimentary feedback could be provided to the wearer, but that was the extent of the simulation. Truly simulating the sense of touch was still beyond this technology and likely would be for some time.

“May I clean up first,” Angela asked hopefully. She was still sweating profusely, and her drenched undergarments clung to her body uncomfortably. She felt like she was sweating even more than earlier, and the salt stung her eyes, causing them to tear continually despite her efforts to try them on her already damp sleeve.

Rudnick Dàifu looked at her for a moment, seeming almost to see right through her, then glanced up towards the knob that was swelling on her forehead and replied quickly and sternly, “You have very little time to waste, Miss Lu. You are relatively uninjured, and your comfort is of little import today. Please, sit in the console so that we can begin.”

Disappointed, Angela stepped onto the platform, brushing her sticky bangs aside with her hands. When she sat down on the brown pleathery seat, she found that it was surprisingly comfortable. It had been designed to support a universal form factor, and seats like that tended to be universally uncomfortable as well after a while, but the cushions of this seat inflated subtly to ergonomically support her body in a solid upright position. Sitting down in the oversized console, she felt like a little girl again trying to sit in her father’s favorite pleather chair. It had been cool to the touch and slippery, but once she climbed into it, she would sink in and be held in its pleathery embrace.

Now was not the time to reminisce though. Tiny white lights all about the peripheral of the seat came to life, glowing but not illuminating. These indicators that the console was active and the Dàifu’s reedy voice brought her back to the present. He was instructing her to put on the the haptic gloves that hung from the pod. She had not noticed them before, but now that she sat down and looked over, she found them on the other side, just out of sight from where she had been standing earlier.

The black poly nylon gloves stretched easily and comfortably over her hands. This was when she most appreciated the universal sizes. Because she was more petite than most of her friends, her delicate petite hands as well, handwear was never too tight for her. Though the material was strong and elastic, those with much larger hands often complained about how uncomfortable the universal haptic gloves were to wear. A miniscule detail though it was, at least she had that going for her.

The Dàifu was gesturing in mid-air and staring off into space, then glancing back and forth from side to side at something invisible hovering over his desk. It took Angela a moment to realize with some excitement that he was equipped with an advanced private console. He also was wearing haptic gloves, similar to the ones on her hands, but with probably much more advanced functionality and cost, and unlike her console, his display was invisible to anyone not wearing the proper eyewear. She was aware of such devices, but she had never been privileged enough to see one in person. Her interest piqued, she looked all about him curiously trying to learn as much about his setup as possible.

“Just a moment longer while I finish calibrating your console, and then we can begin. How is your head, by the way? That looked like a rather painful, though innovative, way to deal with the last obstacle.” He was making idle conversation as he worked, not even glancing directly at her. The tone of his voice was distant and removed.

“My head’s fine, thanks. It just hurts a little, “ Angela replied quickly, still watching the Dàifu’s movements. She gently rubbed the knob on her forehead once more and winced slightly as a twinge of pain shot through her body. “Once I finish this part, can you show me what your console looks like?” Her voice was hopeful.

“Once you finish here you will proceed swiftly to the next segment, “ Rudnick Dàifu retorted smoothly. “There will be no time for anything else today. Should you be admitted to the Core, then perhaps you will someday have a chance to see for yourself.”

It was as much as she expected, but she still had to ask. A few moments later, the lights in the room dimmed, and a hologram appeared before her. Ghostly with washed out colors, two small perfect translucent cubes hovered in the air before her eyes. If she looked just right, she thought she could almost see through them, though with the room lighting dimmed, there was nothing beyond them to discern, and they appeared almost like physical items – unrealistically high resolution almost-real items.

“How many objects do you see?” the Dàifu asked from where he sat in the dimness.

“Two. Two cubes.” Angela reached towards the one on the right. It was within easy reach in front of her.

“Good. Now rotate it up and down, then left to right. Move it forwards and backwards, and then side to side.” The Dàifu instructed, but Angela was already playing experimentally with the floating cube. Her hand waved over it from bottom to top, and it slowly rotated on a horizontal axis, the red face rotating up to be replaced by a green face. When she waved her hand over it from top to bottom, it rotated down, and the red face appeared again. From right to left, then left to right, she rotated the cube next on its vertical axis, each time returning back to the red.

Angela yelled a little too loudly in the small room, “I’m able to rotate the cube on the right.”

“Good,“ Rudnick Dàifu replied. “Now move it around.”

With her right hand Angela made a pinching gesture over the cube, then dragged it from side to side and then up and down. When she pushed it away from her it shrank slightly as she pushed, then grew back to its original side as she pulled it again towards her.

“I’m able to move it in every direction,” she yelled over to the proctor again.

“Good, now repeat everything with the other cube. There is no need to yell. Just as you are able to hear my voice clearly, your console amplifies your’s so that I can hear even your smallest whisper clearly.”

Quickly Angela confirmed that she could manipulate the cube on the left as easily as the one on the right.

“Excellent, you are ready to begin. Simply relax and let the system guide you. You will be presented with a series of problems to solve in order of loosely increasing difficulty. Some will require you to manipulate objects, and others will simply require that you think, “ the Dàifu explained. “I am here merely to ensure that the equipment functions adequately and to monitor your performance and welfare. Should your health be compromised in any way because of the testing process, I will ensure your safety.”

That didn’t sound right. “My safety?” Angela thought, or perhaps she said it out loud because the his words continued.

“You are young and healthy with excellent vitals, so I do not expect to need to intervene. My participation is really more of a formality than anything else. I will monitor your performance and then send you on your way once you have finished here. One more thing, once this test begins, you may not leave your console until it is finished, or else you will automatically fail. Now, shall we begin?”

Still thinking about the Dàifu’s cryptic words, Angela nodded in the dimness that she was ready to begin but quickly realized that though he could hear her, he probably could not see her well enough to notice something as subtle as a head nod. “Yes,” she stated, still a little too loudly.

At her spoken word, the floating cubes vanished, deleted from existence to be replaced moments later with a series of colorful geometric shapes. Shimmering rectangles were arranged in criss-crossing three-dimensional patterns and colors. The computer’s voice intoned, “Select the object identical to this one.” A new shape appeared hovering above the others. It too was a colorful arrangement of rectangles.

Angela pinched on the newest object, then pulled it towards her to get a better look. She  rotated it in all directions, memorizing its odd angles, then pushed it aside. Reaching forward she pinched on the first of her choices, but when she pulled it towards her it did not move. Perhaps her glove had malfunctioned, so she reached out with her other hand, pinching on that object and pulling it towards her, but again it did not move. She pinched again, harder though she knew that the amount of force in the gesture did not matter, and pulled again, but still it did not move. She waved her hand over it to rotate it, but nothing happened. She waved her hand over another object, with the same results. None of the other objects responded to her gestures either.

“Rudnick Dàifu, my gloves are malfunctioning,” she announced, but there was no response. “Hello? Can you hear me? My gloves still aren’t working properly.” Either the Dàifu could no longer hear her, or else he was ignoring her. Either way, she was on her own. She tried to pull the one object that she could manipulate towards her and was relieved to find that she still could. Rotating it between her hands slowly, she carefully compared it to each of the motionless shapes one by one, eliminating them all until finally all that remained was that one she knew must be its match. She had no idea how to select it though. It had not reacted to any of her gestures. She could not rotate, push, or pull it. She thought for a moment, then realized what she had to do. There was only one object she could manipulate. Perhaps she needed to bring it to her selection. Pinching, she dragged it down and positioned it so that it was superimposed over the one she wanted, then released it. There was no confirmation that she had chosen correctly or incorrectly. Instead, all of the objects vanished to be replaced a moment later with a new scenario.

It was another test of spatial geometry. More than a dozen curved polygons of various shapes and sizes littered the air before her. The computer’s voice intoned again. “Reassemble the sphere. If there had not been a curved side facing her on some of the pieces, Angela would not have guessed that these could create a sphere in any arrangement. She had never been very good at these mental puzzles, largely due to a lack of patience. There was always a trick to these things, and once you figured out the trick, was it really a puzzle anymore? What did solving puzzles have to do with anything in the Core anyway? She was tempted to ask how much time was allotted to this question, but she knew it would have been a waste of her breath. Moreover, she knew that she likely was being measured as much on how she tested as on completing the tasks successfully. This console must have been outfitted with biometric sensors to allow the Dàifu to monitor her performance and welfare.

She idly wondered how much time she really did have. Certainly it would not be as much as she would have liked. If everyone could take their time, the students after them would eventually get backed up, and that never happened. Was this segment like the other, in which she only had a few minutes? There was no countdown visible anywhere, so she had no idea how much time remained.

She pinched on one of the larger pieces that looked like a slice of melon and pulled it towards her. Maybe if the pieces were all larger and seemingly closer to her, this puzzle would be easier to solve. One by one she pulled them closer, grouping the ones that looked like they obviously belonged together. It frustrated her that the haptic gloves never provided any positive feedback so that she could know if she was making progress. There was never a vibration, or chime, or anything. Her body had begun to cool, and her sweat had dried clammily to her skin as she sat in the examination console, but now she could feel her body temperature begin to rise again as she grew frustrated. What a stupid question. When would she ever need to assemble a sphere out of junk parts? Not just that, but out of junk parts that she had never seen before. Soon she had several jumbled collections of parts, but if the task had seemed difficult before, it was nigh impossible now. She could at least imagine that the individual parts could be reassembled into the original sphere, but there was no way these disparate jumbles of parts sticking out of clumps in weird angles would ever come together to form a sphere. She had no choice but to take them apart and start again.

About the fourth time Angela decided that she needed to take the pieces apart once more, they abruptly disappeared as the computer announced, “Time exceeded. Progressing to next question.” She cursed under her breath. She knew that she had been taking too long, but she really had no other choice. Now she could only hope that failing one question would not mean the difference between admission and rejection.

A sequence of numbers appeared against a white rectangular background. “What is the next integer in this sequence?”

Angela stared at the numbers for long moments. Compared to trying to assemble that sphere, this question seemed deceptively simple yet impossible to calculate. There were only five numbers – 73, 113, 179, 347, and 709. What would come next though? She tried to mentally fit them into various math formulas, but could not think of one that could handle them all. She stared at them, hoping for inspiration to strike her, then suddenly, she realized what the answer was. It was as though someone had just put the number into her thoughts, peeling away the guesses and shining a spotlight on the one correct answer; and though she did not know how she knew it, she knew that she was right.

“751,” Angela blurted out excitedly. “That’s the answer. 751.” Again the object in front of her eyes disappeared without confirming whether she had guessed correctly or not, but she knew she was right this time. She just knew it.

Four objects appeared in front of her. These were the same four objects she had seen earlier, when she had chosen her PDS. Now, rather than icons, small three-dimensional replicas hovered in the air motionless. There was her belt model PDS-20, a telescoping staff, a CS-1000 stunner, and a grapnel gun. She glanced down to her waist, at the belt she was still wearing, and noted that the holographic simulation was an exact match for the real thing.

Below the four objects was a featureless black square. The computer intoned once more, “What is hidden?” Angela rubbed her head, massaging the hurting bruise. Her head was really beginning to ache, and she felt a little nauseated. Hopefully this test of her mental acuity was almost over. She could feel beads of sweat running down her temples, and her sinuses were beginning to act up, both signs that her body was in distress. She had no choice but to continue, but she could handle stress. She had been handling more than anyone her age could reasonably be expected to handle for a long time now, and she had survived. She would survive this too.

“What is hidden,” she repeated to herself softly. There was no way to know. No matter what she said, she would be guessing blindly. Well, obviously one of the four objects was inside, so she had a twenty-five percent chance of guessing properly, but this was a stupid way to test her. If they wanted to test how lucky she was, she could have just told them that she had no luck. They already knew that anyway, but she would play their little game if that meant she would be done more quickly.

“A PDS,” she guessed, chewing on her fingernail. It was a habit she had developed during childhood. She often chewed on her nails when she was thinking especially hard. This guess made as much sense to her as any. Maybe she was supposed to choose the PDS now because she had chosen it earlier.

Angela guessed incorrectly. The square faded away revealing a grapnel gun. After a few seconds the black square reappeared, obscuring whatever was behind it.

“What is hidden?” the computer repeated again.

“A staff,” Angela guessed quickly. The black square faded away again, revealing a PDS-20. So it went. The square would reappear, the computer would ask her to guess what was hidden, she would guess, and then she would find out if she had guessed correctly or not. Most of the time her guesses were wrong, but occasionally, the square would fade away to reveal that she was finally right that time. The longer this continued, the more her head ached. She could feel herself sweating profusely, her clothes were once again soaked through. She was probably sweating all over the pleather seat as well.

Finally, mercifully, the guessing game ended. The holograms went dark for a few moments, and the only sound in the room was that of Angela’s labored breathing. Who knew that sitting could be so tiring! For more moments nothing happened, and the room remained dark. She knew she was not done yet, or else Rudnick Dàifu would have informed her, wouldn’t he? The lights in the room would turn back on, and she would be sent on her way to finish the rest of her test, right? Had she failed?

Suddenly her screen came to life again, startling her. A motionless image of some sort of hideous bipedal alien creature glared fiercely at her. Though she knew it was just a simulation, so vivid were the details that Angela shrank backwards in fear, kicking her legs out instinctively. Before she fell out of her seat to the cold hard platform below, she heard the computer’s voice loudly in her ears. “Identify this creature.”

The moment she left the examination console the overhead lights turned on and it powered down. The image of the creature disappeared instantly.

“What the frak was that?” Angela gasped, crawling to her feet, shocked to her core. Her head still ached, though the pain was starting to subside. Her arms left sweaty smears on the chair wherever she touched it, but when she finally stood she wobbled only slightly. She glanced back over her shoulder to where the proctor was sitting at his desk.

Rudnick Dàifu frowned as he stared at the invisible display that only he could see, hands gesturing rapidly as he interacted with his console.The petite girl’s data had already uploaded to the servers, but this was the first time he could remember ever seeing that particular image. He did not recognize the creature either. Dissatisfied with the data he was reviewing, he finally stood up to his full height and stepped quickly over to the examination console.

“How do you feel?” he inquired of Angela. Clearly she was in distress. Her skin was sallow, though color was returning to it slowly, and with her elevated body temperature, it was fortunate that she was sweating as much as she was, or else she would have quickly overheated. Without waiting for an answer, he pressed on a white cabinet door, triggering its opening mechanism, and retrieved a small bottle from rows of similar bottles. The cabinet reclosed automatically when he walked away.

“I’m fine,” Angela protested weakly but accepted the bottle anyway.

“Drink it all – two hundred milliliters. It will restore your energy.” He twisted the cap off after a few moments when Angela made no motion to open it.

Looking down at her hand, she was confused by the open bottle. Why had he given it to her? All she needed was a few moments of rest, then she would be ready to continue. Her face was uncomfortably warm, and she couldn’t stop sweating. Maybe some fluids would be good for her after all. She sniffed cautiously at the beverage. It smelled faintly sweet, like reconstituted but dilute fruit juice. Rudnick Dàifu waited patiently for her. She would drink it. They always did after they smelled it.

In one long gulp Angela swallowed the contents of the plastic bottle and found that she enjoyed the very faint saltiness mixed with sweetness. Without that subtle flavor she might have been drinking simply water.

“What was in that?” Angela asked once she had finished. She tipped it upside down and shook it to show the Dàifu that she had drunk it all.

“Electrolytes, analgesics, glucose, and sterile water. You will feel better shortly.” Rudnick Dàifu motioned for Angela to give him the empty bottle, which he then slipped into an empty pocket of his white frock. “Now I must prepare for the next student, so it is time for you to continue. Good luck.” He walked to the other side of the room, the side near his desk, and touched a panel on the wall. A portal opened up in response revealing another room beyond.

Angela shuffled towards the open portal slowly. She still felt exhausted, though her headache had greatly subsided. Remembering that the Dàifu had ignored her question, she asked it again before she stepped through. “What was that last thing I saw?”

“Perhaps you will find out someday.” Rudnick Dàifu smiled politely and then ruefully. There might even have been something akin to pity expressed in his eyes, and then he shooed her out of the room, closing the portal behind her.

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