Barghest II – Chapter 4

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Unexpected Results

Dove, noun, pejorative. Person who supports a non-violent end to the Culler war, i.e. diplomacy.

Ex. The Smiths are all doves, they would hand over their own children if it kept them from having to carry a gun.

Clara waited outside of the testing center nervously. Some teacher had gotten fed up with students whispering and playing games in the line, and had set out chairs in the hallway with a meter and a half between each. The chairs had been pulled from storage and were old, hard, and smelled faintly musty. Clara’s had a tiny desk attached to one side, rather than the folding tray for tablets that was more common. Etched into the surface were a variety of doodles, stars, initials, and at least one poor representation of genitalia that had been overlooked when the custodial staff had halfheartedly sanded out expletives. The empty hall echoed slightly with her nervous foot tapping.

The student in line behind her glared, before pressing buds into his ears and turning up the volume on his music loud enough that she could hear the deep bass.  It almost distracted from the quiet drone of voices inside the testing center. It had been converted from an old classroom. Her dad had told her that it used to be for computer classes, back when not everyone had personal tech and the teachers couldn’t just transmit the lesson plans directly to the students. It had been retrofitted, when Greg Maker was still in school, to create a dedicate space for the semi-annual standardized tests – rather than interrupting regular instruction.  Of course, some of the tests were still taken in a traditional classroom with each student seated with their tablet and a teacher acting as a proctor. But the career field and aptitude tests, the psychological assessments, were conducted all or in part in a one-on-one setting. The cheap cubicles that had been built inside the testing center met the minimum standards for privacy, but Clara could still hear the rumble of proctors and students.

She was nervous. Not for the tests themselves – Clara was fairly confident she was not a budding psychopath or violence adverse pacifist – but for the specific results. She had been taking them, like everyone else, since the second grade, and her classes already reflected that. For eight years her elective time slots had been filled with increasing focus on communications and science. She had been taking two foreign languages, not including the Japanese lessons she had begged her father for, and had tracked into the upper level studies in life sciences. Clara was hoping for a verdict that medical was her career path. After her mandatory service she would be able to roll that into a degree in veterinary sciences if she wanted. Greg Maker supported that result as well, although he hadn’t said so out loud. Medics did not serve on the front line. They were posted on support ships, or even larger attack vessels – but they weren’t deployed planet-side during combat. Soldiers had field kits and, if the worst came to, medical bots for emergency care that couldn’t wait for injured to get back to a ship. Occasionally, medics were reported as serving in transport vessels, but that was tremendously rare. It was one of the safest assignments and best long-term investments in her future that Clara could hope for.

The door next to her opened and Larissa stepped out, followed by a thin older man. “Thank you, Ms. Lund. Please look for your results to be posted next week.” The proctor glanced down at his tablet and Larissa took the opportunity to flip Clara the bird. The motion was more out of habit than malice, and Clara responded with an eye roll. “Ms. Maker?”

Clara followed him into a small, uncomfortably cool cubicle. The cheap, clear plastic door shut with more of a snap than a slam, and she settled into one of the two available chairs. The proctor took a seat across from her, on the other side of a narrow little table. A box of individually packaged, sterile, disposable electrodes was tucked underneath.  “Well,” he said in that falsely cheerful way that government workers often assumed with repetitive tasks, “let’s get started, shall we?”

It took hours, much longer than any previous sessions she had been through. Clara was prepared for that. Her name fell in the middle of the alphabet, after all, and kids talked. In particular, she noticed the increase in ‘baseline’ questions. The simple queries had been explained to her, three times a year since she was seven, as designed to test her limbic and neural responses so that her scores could be calculated properly. Randomly, the proctor would show her an image – sometimes a picture, sometimes just an inkblot – and have her do word association. Although Clara had her suspicions that the test were supposed to help catch anyone who was trying to skew the results, all it did was give her a headache. By the time they were finished, she was sweating with nerves and her head was throbbing. Her stomach twisted painfully too, but she figured that had more to do with the creamed rice the cafeteria had served for lunch.  She stumbled out of the school, skipping the last thirty minutes of the day, and heading straight home.  As she fell into bed, Clara hoped that the career recommendation she received would be worth her migraine.

***

“You have to go look eventually.” Clara’s older cousin, the only family member she had still in school, waited patiently with her in the lobby outside the gym. The wall display there had been cleared of the usual extracurricular announcements and lunch menus – thankfully, no creamed rice – to make room for aptitude results.

“Sure, you can say that, ‘cause you got what you wanted,” she muttered. She shifted her weight, the thin, silky feel of her running tights reminding her that she had already delayed too long.

“I was slotted for pilot training because I have worked hard at the courses.” He grinned, showing his genetically-engineered-to-be-perfectly-white-and-even teeth. “And because I was born to be amazing.”

“Hardy-har.” Clara tried to scowl at him, but his good humor was infectious. She sighed, “Can’t you just wait with me a couple more minutes?”

“I have practice, Clar, you know that. But why-” He glanced over at the display, and blew out a hard breath. “Look, if that bitch is bothering you, say something and the principal will take care of it – or I will.”

Clara blushed, but she followed his gaze to the thick, glossy brown hair and soccer practice clothes that Larissa wore with the confidence due a beautiful, moderately intelligent bully. “It’s fine, I can take care of myself.” Her assurance was met with a raised eyebrow. “I didn’t ask for your help, Seamus!”

“Nope,” he popped his ‘p’, “just asked me to wait here like your bodyguard.”

“I only asked you to wait because I was nervous about the results, not ‘cause of those morons!” she whispered furiously, noticing that Brady had joined Larissa. The tall, lanky teenager slung his arm around his girlfriend while they read the display. “And you aren’t helping anyway, so you might as well take off. Thanks for nothing.” She squared her shoulders and tightened her grip on her gym bag. It took a few moments for Brady and Larissa to notice her. In that time she found her name on the display. Maker, Clara Sadako: Primary, communication. Secondary, medical. She let out a shaky breath. It wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for, but lots of people got slotted into their secondary aptitude. And she still had a few years of school to work on bringing up her science scores.

“Minty Maker,” Brady’s sneer had only gotten less attractive since his voice had permanently changed. “No surprises here – it’s not like they have guns small enough for you to carry. Had to assign you to a desk job instead.”

“And what did you get, Brady? Do they have an assignment for someone with such a small brain?” Clara wasn’t really paying attention to his response – she didn’t care about Brady’s results. The jackass had probably been slated for infantry, or supply. She was more interested in the second set of results that came after each name. Maker, Clara Sadako: Primary, communication. Secondary, medical. IQ: 139. EQ: 141. CON: 66. VF: 98.

VF: 98.

“Brady got infantry. Big surprise,” Larissa said quietly. Clara was having trouble paying attention. VF: 98. The Vindloo Factor measured sensitivity to certain stimuli. The school counselor described it as helping to determine what kind of training each person needed to prepare them for their mandatory service – figuring out what type of motivation worked best.

“I am gonna kick some Culler ass!” Brady made a pop-pop sound and aimed his fingers like an imaginary gun.

“Cullers don’t have asses, moron,” Clara replied without thinking. VF: 98. Motivation. What a load of bullshit. Regardless of what the counselors said, everyone knew Vindloo Factor was a tilting scale measuring emotional endurance and ability to cope with killing. Low, and the person was a good candidate for special forces. Too low, and they maybe would end up drugged into complacency and spend the rest of their lives in a work colony. Too high, and the person was at risk for severe PTSD. Likely they would not be able to cope with war and would end up in a psych ward – or worse, getting their unit killed.

The scores only went up to one hundred.

“Communication? No surprise there either. Nerd.” Larissa’s flat tone penetrated the haze of horror that surrounded Clara.

Brady interjected, “Everyone has an ass – so you are the moron, Minty.”

Larissa shrugged his arm off her shoulder. “Do you ever listen in class? God, just go home. I’ll see you after practice.” He mumbled something about her blowing things out of proportion and then suggested that the time of the month might be responsible. Clara actually took a step back from the fire in Larissa’s eyes and the white of her knuckles where she was griping her goalie pads. “Go. Home.” Brady went. The two girls stood in silence for a minute, until the doors to the lobby closed and the sound of Brady’s car kicking up gravel outside faded away.

“Every cop in a five mile radius has got to know he overrode the acceleration controls on his vehicle AI,” Clara said thoughtlessly.

Larissa snorted. “His uncle is a deputy and his dad plays racquetball with the sheriff. I don’t think it will be an issue, but thanks for the concern, Peppermint.”

Clara stiffened. “Right. I have practice too, I don’t want to be late.” She turned to head for the door, more than ready for the five mile run that would get her far, far away from Larissa, Brady, and everyone else.

“How’d you do it?” The confrontation in that short sentence crackled through the air, making Clara’s scalp tingle. She lifted her eyes and met Larissa’s hard, hot stare.

“What?”

“How’d you spoof the test, get the cushy comm assignment? And even your second – medic? That’s one of the softest jobs out there.”

“I didn’t-“

“Come on,” Larissa scoffed. “Does your grandma know somebody in the testing agency? She tell you how to answer?”

Clara’s spine felt so straight she thought it might snap in half. “Watch what you say, Larissa.”

“You’re going to tell me that’s all on your own? The gene reject hits the books and gets her pick of careers that will take her right into a university after the service? And I get this shit?” She stabbed at the display and it rippled out where she touched it, magnifying her selection. “No way.”

Lund, Larissa Grace: Primary, enforcement; Secondary, psychology. IQ: 122. EQ: 128. CON: 91. VF: 56.

“You’re going to be an MP?”

“That’s not the fucking point, Maker,” Larissa ground out. “Your Vindloo should have you restricted to filing forms at a Sol base, but instead you’re going to get focused extracurricular courses to toughen you up. I saw the orders on the counselor’s tablet. Why would they do that for you, if not because you are getting some special treatment? Your Grandmother called some of her old friends from the Senate. Admit it.”

“I didn’t get anything to help me with my test,” Clara said as evenly as possible. Her blood was pounding in her ears, and she wanted nothing more than to slap Larissa across her lying mouth. Through the anger threatening to overcome her, she noticed that Larissa’s usually perfect skin was blotchy. It almost looked like she might have been crying – or was on the verge of it. Clara ventured a guess, “You didn’t get what you wanted, but I didn’t either, so nobody here is happy, okay?”

“You’re really saying you would turn down comms, if you could?”

“You saying you wouldn’t turn down military police, if you could?”

They stared at each other, both breathing harder than they should have been just standing in the lobby. Gradually, the brown fire in Larissa’s eyes shuttered, and she relaxed into a more casual stance, eyes hooded and mouth pulling down into a smirk. The pose looked forced. “Excuse me, Minty – are you upset? Are you going to cry? That happens a lot, to people with your delicate mental structure, I hear.” She flicked her eyes over to the scores again.

“You-”

“Clar.” A heavy hand settled onto her shoulder and Clara glanced back to see her cousin standing behind her. Seamus was tall, muscular, athletic, and intelligent. Everything his genes could possibly make him. He was also loyal to family. “Good job on your tests. Nice to see the brains are hereditary.” He smiled at Larissa, who could do nothing but force a smile back at the senior boy who was at the top of his class. “If you are done with your friend,” he didn’t put any emphasis on the word, but both Larissa and Clara flinched, “I’ll take you home after your run. Leave your stuff in my car, and we’ll get a snack later to celebrate.” The pressure on her shoulder increased until Clara had to turn or risk getting bruised. “Congratulations to you to, Larissa,” he called over his shoulder as he pushed Clara to the door.

Clara didn’t hear a response, but she would spend the rest of the afternoon wondering why the snotty girl who was so much smarter than she let on would be upset about her results. And wondering if Larissa had been lying about the extra classes to lower Clara’s Vindloo score. She never would have called herself a callous person, but she didn’t think she was the type to breakdown under pressure or flake out if she saw combat either. The examinations were there for a reason, though, and Clara didn’t imagine the Confederation would spend the resources to test every student if the results weren’t proven. She would just have to work hard to overcome her weakness.

At least being a coward couldn’t be blamed on genes. They hadn’t found a correlation for that.

Yet.

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