The room was white, plain and depressing. There wasn’t a single thing about it that should make it depressing, it was just a room like any other.
Maybe it was the lack of windows, or the slant of the flat, dimly buzzing lights. Whatever it was, darkness seemed to crawl over all the walls, reaching long, shadowy fingers to brush shivers down my spine.
There was another reason for the depressive atmosphere, but I was trying not to think about it. Today was Aptitude Day, the day when my entire future was mapped out for me. My entire school life had been monitored; every sneeze was on my record somewhere, telling the government where I was most likely to end up. As intimidating as that was, none of it meant anything compared with today.
And the testing had already started.
Supposedly I was being tested right now; the white room was a part of a series of trials I would have to go through. What they hoped to gain by watching me get really bored was absolutely beyond me. No-one knew what to expect in these trials. They were different every year and there was no possible way to cheat, the specialised serum was designed to only work once – and besides, the trials were supposed to be different for everyone.
Finally I couldn’t stand doing nothing and I started running my hands along the walls, looking for a way out. A crack in the wall, a hollow section, anything that would help me get out. As far as I could tell, there was nothing. I leant against the walls, hoping for pressure plates or hidden doors, but still nothing. Then I started on the floor. There had to be a way out, this was a test, right? Tests were made up of questions and answers. Doing nothing was not solving the question.
I thought I saw a darker area of floor, but it was just wishful thinking. My mind was trying to make a way out for me, just through the power of thought. If only.
After what seemed like forever, I had to accept that there was no possible way out. Just like that the room dissolved and I was left standing in a field of tall, yellow grass. Right I thought, blowing out a deep breath. So this was what? Accepting the inevitable? Great. I rolled my eyes and looked around, wondering what exactly I was supposed to do in a field. Probably face down a teacher or something. My record was supposed to have something about “authority issues” on it.
A low growl hummed through the air, the sound echoing from all sides. Oh no. Not this. A spike of adrenaline bolted through my chest and speared me to the ground. My thundering heart was no match for the growing sound of vicious snarling. Desperately trying to break my own paralysis, I succeeded in backing up a step, and the snarling escalated. I was surrounded with no way out, running wouldn’t help me. I had faced down these mutts before.
Eyes started emerging from the grass, big, red, glowing eyes framed by matted fur. Flashing, yellow teeth snapped at my legs, and I stood my ground. It was too late to run anyway. They would be on me the second I turned my back, ripping me to shreds. I had been here before. Maybe it wasn’t always this field, but the dogs were the same, always the same. They snapped at my hands, hands that were suddenly small and chubby. My hair fell about me in soft, midnight-blue wisps and the dogs tore at my little pink dress.
My racing heart and trembling limbs screamed at me to run as fast as I could, and as far as they would take me. If the scene hadn’t melted away, I probably would have caved to the pressure – Just like I had the first time, and the time after that and after that…
Then I was running. I didn’t remember deciding to run, but there I was, running through a forest – thankfully back out of my five-year-old body. A part of me was wondering at why they had chosen scenery like this. It was obviously not real. Not a single one of us had ever set foot in a field of grass, or even seen a tree outside of sims. I wanted to stop and take it all in, be that gaping tourist that always managed to get lost with a dopey smile on their face even as they are plunged so far out of their depth that by all rights they should have been crying like a little girl and begging to be rescued. Trees were just so deliciously foreign. We had all seen them at one point or another, up on the holo-screens with their grainy images and just slightly-off “realistic” recreations, but it had never felt real. Now they were about as real as they were ever going to get, and I just couldn’t stop to enjoy it. My legs kept pumping, hurtling me forward until I stumbled to a halt at the edge of a massive chasm.
My gut sank to the floor and rolled away somewhere. Heights. I was no good with heights, no-one was. It was something about being born and raised in space. There were no heights, or at least no chance of falling. There were no ladders for public access, just lifts that had no inertia whatsoever. We just stepped onto a platform and stepped off again on the right floor. This was… I sucked in a deep breath and clenched my eyes shut for a few long seconds, letting the breath out slowly. This was terrifying, and my body wanted to get to the other side. I couldn’t explain it, but I needed to be on the other side of that chasm. I tried walking back the way I came, but my muscles locked up after a couple of paces and a panic started eating away at my lungs, chipping away at my air until I relented and turned back to the chasm.
Wandering to the edge, I chanced a glance down into the great pit and really wished I hadn’t. It went on forever. A rock that I dislodged with my peeking went tumbling down. I didn’t hear it touch the bottom.
“You have got to be kidding me.” I called out. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but if it was a reply, I didn’t get it.
Okay, focus. The first test was patience and acceptance or whatever. The second was facing fears? What the hell are they trying to get from this anyway? It doesn’t make sense! I couldn’t see anything else to do and even looking back the way I came felt wrong. I simply had to get across or… I don’t know what. I just had to get across. Maybe the dogs would reappear or something.
The panic was rising; if I didn’t act soon I would do something incredibly stupid. Maybe like this. I backed up a couple of steps and ran full speed at the chasm. My heart lurched as my feet found air instead of ground, and a shrill scream tumbled from my mouth as I started falling.
Falling, and then not. The chasm disappeared and I was standing back in the white room. This time I wasn’t alone. A man was sitting in a chair, his back to me. From here I couldn’t tell much about him. He was fairly average. Sky-blue hair, broad shoulders, darker clothing that could fall in any category from “casual” to “business.” If we were in a crowd I wouldn’t have paid any attention to him. He was the sort of person that could melt into the shadows of memory and get lost. So there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for me to be afraid of him, but I was. Terrified, and I hadn’t even seen his face. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
I was starting to wonder if the Aptitude Test wasn’t just some big joke played on all the graduates. Scare them all witless and then ask them where they want to go for their specialty training.
The lights flickered and I jumped. This place hadn’t gotten any creepier since I was last here, what ten minutes ago? An hour? Hell I could have been gone days and not known it.
The man wasn’t moving. I couldn’t even see his shoulders moving to indicate breathing. Curiosity, the sick, twisted personality it was, urged me forward. I circled the chair and stood in front of the man. His average look stuck with him, but that made him all the more frightening. The feeling that all of his features would slip from my memory the minute I turned away seemed to wrap around him in a dark aura, making him a black spot in the jeering, arrogant brightness of the rest of the room.
He didn’t look like he was breathing, and with a tentative hand, I reached out to touch his neck, to find his pulse. The moment I made contact, his head snapped up and another shriek escaped me as I jumped backwards. My heart hadn’t ceased its thundering and this wasn’t helping. It was entirely possible to die of fright, right?
“Choose.” He droned. His voice wasn’t human. It was flat, drawling, oozing with lifeless malice.
Before I could ask exactly what I was choosing between, two doors appeared, one at each end of the rectangular room. The man in the chair disappeared, and I couldn’t say that I was particularly sad to see him go. I didn’t want to run into him again.
There was writing, glowing golden script, over each of the doors. I guess they were riddles; I didn’t stop to read them. I had never been any good at riddles and I just wanted to get this over with. I chose the nearest one and fled through it into a darkened room, smaller than the one I had left.
The only thing in the room was a table, with a single tray. There was writing on the table. “One of these vials is poison.” It wasn’t original, but who needed original? The door closed behind me, sealing me in with the dimly-lit vials of glowing liquid. They all seemed the same – the same shade of angry red, the same consistency. I bet if I was to try each of them that they would taste the same too. I still wasn’t seeing the point of any of this. I had a one in three chance of dying here, at least virtually dying. The chasm had been what, a leap of faith? I had no idea of how any of this could help decide my future.
Frustrated, I picked the middle one, knowing that I would have to drink one of them to move on to the next pointless task, whatever that might be. I downed it, trying not to wince at the bitter taste. The room disappeared and I was sitting in a theatre. What now?
Two actors were up the front, beckoning for me to join them, smiles on both of their faces. At least this scene wasn’t scary. I shook my head and remained seated. They pouted and then proceeded to whine at me. Then again, scary comes in different forms. I guess a natural-born performer would have jumped at the chance to get up and dance or sing or whatever, but not me. I just didn’t see the point.
A person appeared in the seat next to me. For several minutes she just watched the actors laugh and pull a few graceful moves up the front. Then she turned to me and held up her hand, projecting a holo-screen. Several images flashed across, a sun, a solar system, someone tinkering with bits and pieces, a dancer leaping across a stage, a dead body. There were more, but I froze at the body. It was pale, a sickly shade of grey that just screamed that something bad had happened. She smiled knowingly at me, collapsed the screen and disappeared with a wink. I wouldn’t be seeing her again.
This time when the scene disappeared, it didn’t just blink out, it faded at the edges, overlapping with a different image until I was standing at the start of a hallway. This was it. The last scene. I had been told going in that the last test would take place in a hallway with a red door at the end of it, and that it would be the most challenging one of them all. Of course it was. Biting back a sigh, I took a good look around, trying to figure out what exactly could be worse than leaping into a chasm that very probably had spikey rocks of death lingering around its’ base.
There was nothing there though – just the door, sitting perfectly still at the end of the corridor. Maybe there was no “final test” and I was just going to get to leave. They could have just been trying to mess with us. I wouldn’t put it above any of them; the serum was made by the same people who invented the “disco bomb.” Don’t ask – just, don’t.
Taking the first few steps down the hallway, I knew that it was just hopeful optimism. There was something I wasn’t seeing, which was hard to do since the walls were all mirrored. Dozens of reflections were rippling along the walls, mimicking my movements as I started towards the door. They seemed to move on their own, but every time I tried to catch them out they would still, mocking my every movement like good little reflections.
I stopped and closed my eyes. My heart was still trying to beat its way out of my chest and the adrenaline in my veins was pushing me onwards recklessly. I had to be smarter than that. Better than that.
When I opened my eyes again, I was standing in front of me. The walls were white and devoid of movement. All my reflections had pooled together and formed, well, me. She/Me, moved independently of me and started circling, trying to herd me to the end of the hallway and the red door. It wouldn’t open until I had “overcome” her. She was my final test and I had been told as much. It was a dead end and she would have the upper hand if she pinned me.
“I don’t suppose you talk?” I asked her, watching her head tilt in a calculating stare. It was a look I had seen in my own mirror one too many times to be comfortable with now.
“You are a weak and pathetic specimen of humanity.” She spat at me, closing more distance with menacing, intimidating steps.
“Of course, my evil twin.” I groaned, trying to keep the atmosphere light. The minute I started panicking, I was going to lose it completely and then I was completely done for.
“Oh, not evil.” She crooned, flashing a neat row of white teeth. “I’m just aware of your weaknesses.” Her blue-black hair swung in a long, straight curtain down her back as her wiry frame came closer. It was odd, seeing myself as others must. The insults were surely what gave her the air of complete darkness; I wasn’t that creepy, I hope.
“Right.” I said, trying to keep her talking. A fight would just be pointless. We would be too evenly matched and then I would never get out of here. “And the insults are just my inner thoughts surfacing and you are here to make me crack and get really, truly depressed.” I rolled my eyes, holding my ground and watched her purpling, fever-blushed cheeks as she came ever closer.
“Right.” She flashed me another sneer of a smile and walked right up to me until she was flush up against me.
“I’m not going to fight you, you know.” I told her, trying to keep my voice calm, cool and distant.
“Why not? You hate you.” He voice was silk, twisting and slithering through the air. Caressing me, taunting me.
“So?” I asked.
She didn’t seem to have an answer for that. Instead of replying, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me. I was too shocked to do anything but stand there as her lips folded against mine and she started to merge with my body, her skin flowing into mine until she was completely gone and I was the only one standing there in the now empty hall.
The way was clear for me to leave, so I did. The door dissolved into darkness and took me with it.
My eyes opened to reveal a plain white room. For a second I panicked, thinking that we were going to start this all over again. Did I do something wrong?
No, it was the real room, and I was staring at the real ceiling feeling the real pinpricks of needles being drawn out of my body. My heart was still racing and I could feel sweat coating my limbs. Normal serum-based sims had safeguards in place to prevent people from dying or even getting seriously injured in the scenes, but these were the same ones used for training troops, so whatever happens in the simulation also happens to the body. There had been cases of people dying from long-term injuries that weren’t treated fast enough, or from hypothermia or heat stroke. New safeguards were put in place after every “unfortunate incident” as the media liked to put it, until eventually the recreational simulators were altered to the point that nothing could happen physically barring an allergic reaction to the serum. The training simulators were a different matter though. They were still connected to the brain in a way that would open up fresh cuts or gouge out bullet wounds. If I was sent to the Demetrius, that was what I was in for. Training and simulations. None of the other ships used simulators in training, they didn’t need to. Holo-programs worked just as well for mock-machines or pretend patients, even for debate environments or serene meditative glades.
A nameless nurse hovered over me, pulling out needles and hauling me out of the pod. When I was standing upright, the pod’s lid fitted back over the top of it, and the whole thing shimmered from a glossy black to a bright white, blending in the with the rest of the room so perfectly that if I hadn’t stubbed my toe on the damned thing, I would have thought the room was otherwise empty.
I expected a door to open and to be led down a hallway to a panel of five Education Associates to receive my final verdict – as was supposed to happen according to the various rumours – but instead the wall in front of me faded into a larger-than-life image of said panel. The woman in the middle, a severe-looking older lady with her silvering midnight-blue hair pulled back in a tight bun, stood and walked around the long, white table. “Gwendolyn Andromeda.” She intoned, coming to a stand-still in front of me. “A verdict has been reached; do you have any final words for consideration?”
Did I? “No, Associate.” Better to be polite than risk them putting me somewhere in the janitorial department for my so-called “authority issues.”
“Very well. You have been assessed and found to be well-suited to the Militia. At the cessation of this meeting, you will be taken to your final graduation ceremony before being escorted to the Demetrius for further training pending final placement.” She began to turn back to her seat when I did something that, given everything I had ever been taught, was probably very stupid – re: authority issues.
“Um, I was just wondering.” My voice faltered and I trailed off. Wondering what, idiot?
She turned back. “Yes?” A perfectly arched eyebrow lifted as she regarded me, black eyes glittering.
“Well.” I was in for it now. I sighed and bit at my lip. Closing my eyes I got on with it. “I was wondering what any of those scenes had to do with Aptitude. It just seemed like I was running from something all the time.”
She was silent for a while. Too long. I was starting to think that I had over-stepped and she wouldn’t answer. She pursed her lips and frowned slightly, staring off into the distance. “You are the first to ask.” She said finally, thoughtfully. “There are only two pre-programmed scenes, the rest are challenges that you make for yourself. The computer is what judges your Aptitude based on the scenarios, your reactions to your own scenes and your reactions to the pre-programmed scenes.” She tilted her head, regarding me. “I think you will do well in the Militia.”
Well, damn. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
The wall turned back into a wall and the nurse stared at me expectantly. I guess I was supposed to go through the door that had opened sometime between the end of our little talk and my brain switching back on. Something in my gut balked at having to go down that hallway. The Militia definitely wasn’t in my family’s plans for me, but really they had to have expected that this might happen. I wasn’t overly good with technology, I didn’t like disassembling things or staring off to space and belting out ancient poetry. I was bored with political debates and religious preaching gave me a headache. The Militia was the only option left really.
So, muscles trembling with the loss of adrenaline – I refused to think it was anything else – I forced that first hard step down the hallway, and to my future.