The Fear Trials

'Hello. My name is Shal. I’m ten years old, and I need to tell this before I either die, or curl up in a ball and never move again.'

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13. 13

 

As soon as she was gone, Ala turned on Mar. In a soft whisper she hissed, “I know, Mar. Just turn it in. You have no other choice.”

Mar blinked, doing her best to feign shock. “What do you mean?”

“You’re Kira’s best friend. She would have trusted you with anything. I was given her belongings, and this object wasn’t in it. She must have given it to you. Don’t think I didn’t notice how you reacted when that woman walked in.”

The false confusion on Mar’s face crumbled. She set her jaw, staring down Ala with a determined look. “I promised.”

Ala crossed her arms and stepped forwards. To her credit, Mar stared her down, which must have taken a lot of bravery. Ala can be intense when she wants to be.

Moving closer, Ala put her hands on Mar’s shoulders. Mar tensed up, and Ala spoke in a soft, firm voice.  “Do it, or we all pay the price.”

“But Kira-”

“Would Kira want us all to die?”

Mar hesitated, then let her head drop. There was defeat in her eyes. I watched, and felt a small pang of sadness. And with that was anger. They had let Kira die. And they were leaving Star, half conscious, maybe… maybe soon to follow. And here was a little chance of rebellion. I understood how Mar was so angry and miserable. She was the kind who wanted to stand and fight, not back down. I could tell she hated this.

A memory sparked in my head. Something I’d been putting aside. Zi and my Fear Trial. The hook mark. And a hypothesis. A guess, that, if right, might save us.

Mar went to speak, and acting on an impulse, I stepped forwards.

“Wait,” I said quietly.

“What?” Ala asked, turning to me.

“I know a place we can hide it.”

The older girl studied me curiously. For a minute I was worried she was going to pull her ‘older sister’ rule, and override me. Instead, she nodded.

“Where, Shal?”

I took a deep breath, ready for rejection. “In the Fear Trials.”

To my surprise, Ala didn’t instantly turn me away. Instead, she cocked her head, lowering her voice even further.

“How? The Fear Trials… they aren’t real, Shal. They can’t be. It’s not possible. How could you hide something in them?”

Talia cut in. “Each time one of us ‘dies’, we re-appear out of the Trials. Theoretically, hiding something would do the same thing, right? Besides, the geography of the Trials is always changing. We wouldn’t have a guarantee of getting to the same one anyways. How would that work?”

I glanced around again, before relaying my logic. “Think about it. They say the Fear Trials are made in our minds. You would think that the terrain wouldn’t change, in that case. But it does. Also, we start the Trials in one room, but end them in a different room. How’s that possible? Who knows. But it sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it? Have any of you ever considered that the Trials… that they might be real?”

Everybody fell silent as I let that thought sink in.

Finally, Jess spoke. “There’s no way, Shal.”

“But-” I started.

Lilli- ever the curious one- cut me off. “Shal, how can you explain us dying? If the Fear Trials really were real, then you, me, all of us… We should be dead. Many times over. How can you explain that?”

I hesitated, taking a deep breath. I had the logic in my head. But the possibility was frightening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to say it. It also involved telling them my secret… Kira’s secret as well.

But I had to tell them. We were all we had, after all. But… what if it was too dangerous? The smaller evidence first.

“Look.”

I flicked the back of Zi’s shirt. The others gathered around. Finally, Lilli spoke.

“What does this mean?”

“What does what mean?” Zi asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Zi… where the hook caught you… there’s… a rip,” I said softly. I explained to the others what had happened.

There was definitely interest in their eyes now. But they still weren’t convinced. They needed more. I sighed. Time to reveal my secret.

“Listen,” I said, my voice dropping even lower to a whisper. The others grouped around me, leaning in. “Becca is alive.”

Instantly, the group erupted into questions- thought quietly. Their voices lapped over each other, the volume rising bit by bit, urgency growing as they spoke frantically, each one trying to make themselves heard. I just stood there, my shoulders hunched, waiting.

“Enough.”

Ala’s voice cut through all the other questions, and everybody fell silent. All eyes returned to me again.

“Becca isn’t dead,” I said quietly. “I’ve seen her, and talked to her. She told me how to get out of the last Fear Trial. That’s why I passed. I owe her.” I glanced over, seeing Mar’s hopeful face, immediately guessing what she was thinking. “Kira might be alive, Mar, but don’t get your hopes up. Chances are a whole lot greater that she’s gone for good.”

“But there’s a chance!” Mar insisted, eyes shining. “Maybe…” She got a crafty gleam in her eyes.

“Mar,” Ala said insistently. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t. We can’t let them know we have it- we’ll be punished. Get it into the Fear Trials, and get rid of it.

“But about us being dead-” Sim began again.

“They used a kind of technology to bring Becca back to life,” I said, shaking. If i was right, the possibilities were, well, endless. “That means they could… could be using the same technology on us! Maybe we should be dead!”

“Shal, that’s insane,” Talia insisted.

But now Lilli was warming up to the idea as well. Her eyes shone with the possibility of a new puzzle to solve. Lilli always enjoyed an intellectual challenge, and this definitely was one.

“No, guys, think for a minute!” she protested. “Shal, the logic lines up! Think. The first three deaths- Kinzie, Lilac, and Becca, all happened within their first Fear Trials! That means they didn’t pass. They died. We assumed that the fear was just too much. But that’s wrong, maybe! Maybe the technology didn’t work out! Then, when Becca died, they must have tested the tech on her, and after that, people made it more. But for Ana and Ainsley, we were told the Trials crashed while she was inside! But what if the technology to bring them back just failed?!” Lilli’s eyes gleamed with eagerness. “It all sets up! This is perfect! Shal, you’re a genius!”

“Thanks,” I said, blushing slightly. “I mean, it’s not definite” I had to admit, it had just been a vague theory, until Lilli started talking about it and actually trying to get everything to make sense.

“No, it fits together perfectly! It all works! Why didn’t we see this earlier?!”

I raised my eyebrows. I hadn’t expected my idea to be so… accepted. Just like that. But then again, it was Lili. She believed in plenty of crazy things. She was convinced that there was a secret mechanism to the Trials, and this just confirmed her crazy suspicions.

“Don’t take this as a definite,” I said quickly. “This is just hypothetical…”

“Truth truth truth,” Lili insisted, eyes sparkling. “You’re a genius, Shal! I can’t believe it- this makes so much sense! I knew there was a secret to it- I knew it, all the evidence was there I just didn’t see it… And now you’ve seen it, and proved my point!”

“Lili, keep it down!’ Ala warned.

Lili fell silent, eyes gleaming.

“So hypothetically Shal’s right,” Jess started.

“And hypothetically all of Lilli’s crazy logic is true,” Sim added.

“And hypothetically-” Jess went to talk, but Sim cut her off with a little giggle.

“And hypothetically, we’re going to overuse the word hypothetically.”

Jess and Sim fist bumped each other, exchanging a quick series of high fives that they called a handshake. From behind them, I caught Talia rolling her eyes. Leave it to the two of them to find a joke in a serious situation.

“And hypothetically,” Jess continued, grinning at Sim, “there’s an escape route to the Trials then, if they’re real. Another way out.”

Everybody turned to stare at Jess. She blinked in surprise, as if she had just realized what she’d said.

“What if there is,” Ala murmured. “We’d never have to take another Fear Trial ever again.”

“Safety,” Talia agreed.

“People like Kira wouldn’t have to die,” Mar chimed in.

“And we could find the world beyond this place!” Zi agreed.

I looked around at them. That- a promise of safety, more than anything else- seemed to get their attention.

“If, to use the word again, hypothetically, this is true,” Sim pointed out. “I don’t think they’d just let us waltz out of here.”

“We’d have to think carefully about this,” Ala said quietly. “There might be a secret way out. But we have to ensure we all get out together, or not at all.”

“We’re never in the same Fear Trials though,” Lilli pointed out, her bright eyes fading slightly. Leave it to her to be the one that also came up with a reason that our plan couldn’t work. She was like that. “There really isn’t a way for us all to get out. If only a few of us get out, they might close down the Fear Trials trying to figure out what happened. And that would ruin the entire plan.”

Everybody was silent as we exchanged glances. Finally, Ala spoke.

“None of us are going to say a word about this. Keep this to yourself, and we might find a way out of this place. Maybe. But remember. One slip-up, and we all pay the price. I don’t know what that thing is. I don’t know what it does, but it’s not worth our lives. Mar, your next Fear Trial, get rid of that thing. If it really works, then we’ll know we were right. Just… be careful.” Mar let her head drop, and nodded softly. Ala smiled at her in that motherly way she had. “Good girl. We’ll figure this out together.” She looked around at the rest of us. “No one talks about this again.”

We all nodded. We knew. It was time for us to play the most dangerous game of our lives.

 
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