[ 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.

[ iii ]

Zhang Shàng Shi sat alone at her desk, elbows propped up on its lacquered brown surface, gloved hands steepled as she gazed intently at her holodisplay. Nestled comfortably into her ears, tiny earbuds loudly broadcast a popular song with a pounding rhythmic beat to drown out the world’s distractions as she focused intently on the data. She kept her straight black hair cropped short in a bob as befitted a woman officer of her station. Not a single hair was out of place, ever. As usual, her simple pine green uniform with the embroidered patch of the five golden stars against a rectangular crimson background and banded gold and blue epaulets was perfectly pressed. The three shiny silver stars on the starched collar denoted her rank. They had been lovingly and thoroughly polished to a shiny brilliance in the solid light of the overhead illumination, as they were every morning.

An officer of the Core, she would never tolerate unsightly wrinkles on her official garb. A mussed appearance was a sign of shoddy habits at best, complete lack of care at worst, and she tolerated neither. Every decision she made was carefully weighed and measured, from what she ate each morning for breakfast after her morning regimen to the most difficult choices she faced on a daily basis. As much as she demanded from her subordinates, those she managed with tie wan, she demanded still more from herself. A young woman finally gaining momentum in her career, she could ill afford to demand anything but the best and the most from herself if she hoped to continue rising through the ranks. Shàng Shi was merely a pit stop for her, hardly a role that challenged her mettle, and one she hoped to leave far behind soon for a more glorious responsibility.

Still, though, she had enjoyed her time in this office, and she hoped that she had proven to her seniors that she clearly could be entrusted with much more than she had been already given. Today would be the third time that she had been assigned the noble responsibility of proctoring what her generation had referred to as lai zi di yu de kao yan, but that now was known more simply as The Test. Every year this was the challenge all the juniors had to conquer in order to officially join the glorious Core. Those who were worthy would be promoted to the lowly rank of Er děng Bīng and be given the opportunity to prove that they deserved to remain and eventually to make something of themselves. Those who were unworthy could always attempt it a second time, she remembered, the following year when it was held again, but they rarely did. Rumor had it that The Test was even more difficult the second time someone attempted it. It stood to reason that if one were unworthy the first time, then one would likely be unworthy the second time, and the system enforced it. At least, it did according to rumor. It was impossible to know with any certainty because so few attempted it twice, and those who failed the second time not only proved to everyone and to themselves beyond the shadow of any doubt that they absolutely did not deserve to be a member of the Core, but they were banished quickly away from the other juniors so that their negative chi would not infect those who had succeeded.

Zhang had personally witnessed formally close comrades fail and drop out of the process, never to attempt it again. The Core was not for everyone. Like her, it demanded only the best, and failure was not to be tolerated. What a horrible realization it must have been for those who failed and learned that they had wasted all of their time preparing for a role in society that they could never hope to attain, that they had never deserved. It was pitiable but necessary. Wasting resources on those had been charitably allowed to join could only weaken everyone else who had rightfully earned their spots.

Zhang Shàng Shi drummed the tips of her fingers lightly against each other in a quick cadence as her sharp eyes scanned the rapidly-updating rows in her holodisplay. Though still relatively early in her career, she was nevertheless an officer of the Core, and as such, had been given the privilege of state of the art equipment. This was standard issue for any officer of her rank and utterly essential for her to carry out her duties. To an outside observer, the slender Zhang appeared to be sitting alone in her office on an ordinary black pleather chair behind a birch wood-facsimile synthodesk, printed to the original requestor’s specifications and passed down to those who had inherited this office and post afterwards.

It was an amazing piece of furniture. Lightweight, durable, stain-resistant, water-resistant, flame-retardant, and odorless, it would far outlast any of its temporary owners. Installed somewhere in the smooth edges and rounded corners of its manufactured frame was a series of emitters, and it was these emitters that populated the holodisplay. For those wearing specially designed and calibrated lenses, a three-dimensional collection of objects hovered in mid-air above the plane of the desk offering a wealth of information and freedom. With the paired haptic gloves, each object could be flicked, rotated, resized, created, destroyed, recreated, and any of a seemingly infinite number of other actions with simple gestures. To everyone else, there was simply nothing to be seen and nothing to be manipulated.

When Zhang first inherited the desk, as every officer had before her, she had searched curiously for the emitters. The engineers who designed office furniture really were brilliant. Despite her strong background in IT, try as she might, she could find no trace of the tiny devices or of their power source. Industrial Engineering nowadays was a complex fusion of engineering and design work, and to the uninitiated the NoT might as well have been true magic, even if the uninitiated was brilliant in IT. It had actually bruised her ego that she could not reverse engineer how the IEs had designed this desk’s display functionality. Even when she covered the entire surface of the desk with parchment, the holodisplay had been perfectly visible and responsive as always. It was truly a marvel of modern office design.

Reaching forward, Zhang pushed a floating window aside and pulled the one behind it towards her, zooming in on its contents slightly. She preferred her windows to be only a little translucent. Even with eyes as sharp and as quick as hers, she found it difficult to truly pay attention to the details of the objects that were not grouped immediately in the front of the stack and consequently ignored them unless a flicker of movement in the right location caught her attention. It was natural that she gravitated towards the technology both out of a sense of personal accomplishment and from natural interest, but what she truly enjoyed was watching the flow of data as it moved from checkpoint to checkpoint. Unlike most of her contemporaries, this Shàng Shi enjoyed watching the raw data as much, and sometimes even more than, the interpreted views the software automatically provided. Because she dealt with the data at such a low level, she felt she had a much stronger feel for it than others must. Any one data point was insignificant, but the aggregate of data had as much a claim to life and individual behavior as much as any carbon or silicon-based creature. Its behavior, in aggregate, could be observed, predicted, analyzed, and on occasion, might even be surprising as well.

As much as she enjoyed watching the flow of the data and individual data points as they traversed the system, today she had another reason for studying the data so hawkishly. She had received an order from her superior to pay especially close attention to one specific student who was expected to attempt The Test this year. The exact identity of this person was unknown as all students were, unbeknownst to them initially, assigned a UUID to keep their identities anonymous. This 256-bit universal unique identifier was assigned by the system and could not be modified or revoked once assigned. It would have been created the moment the student indicated interest in joining the Core, early in their childhood, and would serve as the index for the individual’s database records for all eternity. In this system, no one ever knew their own UUID. There was no need. Even Zhang had no idea what her’s was.

The order had been terse. If the target UUID appeared, monitor and study it, then submit a detailed profile and analysis. No doubt this same order had been given to all of the other proctors, for of all of those officers, the identifier would appear on only one holodisplay, and no one had any idea who, when, or where until it showed up. Zhang hoped to claim it as her’s.

Other than the demand to submit the DRI, the detailed report of investigation, before COD, there was no other direction given. Close of day? Never had Zhang heard of such an order being given. Like data points, any one junior attempting The Test was insignificant. Worse, he was unproven. There was a mystery here. Of course, any further information was above her pay grade. Otherwise it would have already been provided. Not only was it extremely unusual for an analysis on any one junior to be ordered before he had even attempted The Test, it was surprising that there was such urgency in this matter. In the last two years she had been a proctor she had not heard of such an order being given, nor had one ever been mentioned in conversation, casual or otherwise, since … ever, to her best recollection. With proper use of technology there was absolutely no need for anyone to get manually involved. The monitoring and data collection systems recorded every event that occurred far more accurately and quickly than a human being could. After this UUID had begun, and finished, The Test, a report could be automatically compiled and emailed to the appropriate parties for analysis. Still, today had presented another opportunity for her to shine, to show her superiors why she deserved to be promoted and given more responsibility, and she would take full advantage of it! In fact, she could guarantee that she would be the only proctor able to take advantage of this opportunity.

It had not taken Zhang Shàng Shi long to decide on her course of action. From a very young age, almost before she had told her parents that she wanted to join the Core, Zhang had known that she was destined for greatness. Unlike some of her compatriots, she felt she could honestly claim that nothing had ever been given to her. She had a great sense of pride, in fact, that nothing had come easy. Well, almost nothing. She had earned every one of her accomplishments, fighting and taking for her own whenever it was necessary. For her, The Test had been incredibly difficult to pass. She recalled that she had not even known that she had passed until they informed her. She had never been the biggest, the smartest, or the strongest. It was her iron will that set her apart from everyone else. Where they might fail, she willed herself to success, but it also did not hurt to do whatever she could to improve her chances.

Zhang had spent much time early in the morning, before the sun had even arisen as represented in the external weather tracker, working on her impromptu changes. With her background in IT, she had gained a useful working knowledge of how some of the programs she used daily interfaced with each other and with the backend data sources. It was an understanding that few of her peers had, even fewer still to the depth and facility that she commanded. For the most part such knowledge was the domain of those who were never seen and never heard yet who kept all of the systems of the Core functioning at peak efficiency. Since she had spent the time to gain such knowledge for herself, it was only right that she use it to advance her own cause. It even conceivably could have been considered a moral wrong if she had chosen to not do her best by holding back from using an advantageous skillset. It had not been easy, but it had not truly been difficult, not to her. It also helped that the software had obviously been designed to support such types of actions. One had only to understand how to enable or disable the desired functionality, if she had the proper security clearance, which, as an officer of the Core in her role, she certainly did. It had not been terribly difficult to locate the correct interface where she would be able to configure the monitoring system to notify her when the UUID first showed up. It had mostly been a process of elimination to trudge through many of the interfaces, and their sub-interfaces, and the sub-interfaces of those sub-interfaces, but finally she found what she needed. To override any default notifications and to only notify her instead of anyone else, however, was a different matter entirely.

If the UUID were already destined to be sent to her particular holosessions, then there was nothing to be done, but if it was destined to go to someone else’s, then she had to not only make sure that she was notified of the UUID’s activities, but she needed to disable the default notifications and also to ensure that the data was rerouted to only her. Finally, she had to lock her changes down with a TLSP so that no one could undo her work, and she had to complete all of this before anyone else did. Zhang loved time-limited secure passlocks. They were the perfect mechanism for locking down temporary changes to any system. Easy to implement, practically unbreakable, and self-deleting, they were perfect for the exact type of temporary changes she was making.

It took far longer for her to commit her changes than she would have liked, but she knew immediately upon finally navigating to the correct configuration interface that no one else had yet attempted to do what she was doing. For now, at least, she had the chance to claim ownership of the prize. A few moments later, her changes were staged. Even though she had needed only to drag the UUID’s virtual object over to the input area with a quick swipe, she quadruple-checked its 64 alphanumeric characters to make sure it was absolutely correct. With even one mismatched or out of sequence character, this unique identifier would represent someone else, or perhaps no one at all.

There was no reason for her to doubt the integrity of the software or any of the representations on the holodisplay, but Zhang had not risen so quickly through the ranks because of her blind faith in the system. One key way in which she had differentiated herself was by being more thorough than any of her peers. Only once she was absolutely certain that all was in order did she generate a TLSP to lock down her changes.

She had no idea when this UUID would show up. There had been no indication as to remotely when over the course of the day that particular junior to which it was associated had been told to attempt it. It would be annoying, but Zhang could simply navigate back to this interface if she needed to undo her changes before the TLSP expired so she set its lifetime to 86400000 milliseconds and activated it.

She involuntarily held her breath, a moment’s doubt creeping into her as she waited for the system to acknowledge her actions. Had she taken too long to lock down the system? In her desire to be meticulous, had someone else snuck past her and locked it down already, rerouting the data to his own protected holosession? The acknowledgement she expected, whether positive or negative, felt slow in coming, but finally it came. Her haptic gloves shivered with a brief vibration, a soft ding chimed in her tiny earbuds, and a miniature lock suddenly appeared, superimposed upon the requisite object in her holodisplay — all indicators that her change had been accepted. There was nothing left to do now but to wait. She allowed herself a few moments to celebrate delightedly in her own restrained manner, rubbing her hands together gleefully, or perhaps simply from habit, then settled in to wait for her monitoring agent to alert her. She glanced through the special lenses in her eyes at the scrolling rows of data in the upper corner of her holodisplay. It was scrolling rapidly, too rapidly to truly follow, and though there was no need, and possibly even no use, for her to follow the data, she could not resist staring at the ever-changing rows, feeling the patterns of the characters wash past her in rivulets.

Zhang Shàng Shi alternated between cycling through the various interfaces floating in her holodisplay with the standing orders they represented and stepping away from her desk over to the clear floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the area below where most of her subordinates sat on their cheap chairs behind their recycled little desks as they focused on completing their day’s tasks to the uncompromising standards of their superior officer. It pleased her that she had been able to mold them from disparate individuals of varying personalities and in some cases almost unacceptable skill levels into a valuable team. They had responded well to her tie wan, her management by iron fist. It had been much work for her, and there had been casualties along the way. Those who had failed to live up to her expectations had been booted quickly and without remorse. Finally, though, she had ended up with a well-oiled team capable of executing her orders properly.

The hours of the day passed mind-numbingly slowly. Excitement and anxiety had been replaced by mental fatigue. Waiting for the elusive UUID was beginning to try even Zhang’s considerable patience. As the hours melted away, the representation of the sun climbed higher in its holodisplay tracker, then began to descend, the background colors first brightening and then darkening in a faithful simulation of what was happening outside in a world that could not be seen from this office. The lunchtime meal came and went, and then her mid-afternoon snack came, both repasts delivered like clockwork by a faithful page familiar with her schedule and demands. Dutifully he had left everything on her desk and then left, silently backing out of the room with a deferential bow. Another page would return later to collect the empty trays and cups and utensils when it was convenient for her.

Zhang had not even touched her lunch. A simple partitioned plastic box with rice, pork, a small ration of fresh green vegetables, and another of pickled vegetables, it smelled delicious, but she rarely remembered to eat. There was always too much to do and too little time, and so usually food sat untouched on the other side of the desk, cooling until it was taken away by a page. She always drank the tea though. A cup of scalding hot green tea was good for the body and could always relieve her stress, no matter what sort of day she was having. She had just taken the first small slurping sip of tea when it happened. A soft chime rang in her ears, and a notification flashed into existence before her eyes, awaiting acknowledgement. Immediately she felt the adrenaline pump through her body, banishing the fatigue and frustration that had beset her. Finally that blasted student had shown up to the testing location to attempt The Test, and finally she could hopefully begin to find out just what was so special about this person that an officer, or officers, above her level wanted him studied even before he had joined the Core.

Zhang’s eyes were sharp, a thoughtful smile on her pursed lips as she calmly set down her cup of tea and swiveled her chair slightly to more fully face the holodisplay. Leaning forward as she often did when she was scrutinizing something, she reached out with her left hand and expanded the floating representation, isolating it so that she could focus without distraction upon its growing history and stream of data. Her unblinking eyes absorbed the data, learning what they could of the student behind the UUID.

[ 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.

[ i ]

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.

 

00:00:30

“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.

 

00:00:11

“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.

 

00:00:07

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.

 

00:00:03

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 …

 

00:00:01

One moment more. She was …

 

00:00:00

“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.