The True Test

Posted on: November 13, 2014

Max hesitates and looks up and down the antiseptic hallway, stark white and silent. Dozens of scanners glow next to dim portals, each leading to a bright exam room.

The watch vibrates an alarm. He’s going to be late. Max sighs and places his hand on the screen. The portal displays a series of numbers and biometrics, as well as the same terrible picture of a younger, pimply-faced Max. The portal spirals open and Max steps through.

A young woman with short, choppy hair is in his exam room.

“My name is Ren,” she smiles. “It was clear Dr. Rosen was not making any progress.”

“I wasn’t nice to Dr. Rosen. I didn’t know his name, though,” Max says, as though it makes a difference. Last week his test response was a thinly-veiled story about a clever boy imprisoned by a fat, evil king. Max has been paying for it all week with brutal drills in the SimRoom.

“I don’t expect you to be nice to me. Not when I look like the enemy.” Ren’s smile seems sharper, more pointed and ferocious.

“Don’t do that. You aren’t the enemy.” Max says. “You’re Japanese. Are you one of the survivors?”

“No,” Ren exhales and looks down at her notes. She drags her red pen across the paper, drawing sad loops.

They do not say the words they are both thinking, born from different memories of the same terrible day. Max does not ask her if she lost family during the Crimson Terror. Ren does not ask him if he joined the Academy because he was caught up in narrative driven by revenge.

Their expressions tell their stories: loss and hatred.

“I’m sorry,” Max says. “I didn’t mean — ”

“How did you know?” Ren asks. Her expression is a blend of sadness and curiosity. She wipes a stray tear away with an ink-stained finger, leaving a smear of violent red in its wake.

“My dad made me memorize the family tree back through the First Civil War,” Max says, “after World War II, my great-great-grandfather married a Japanese nurse named Ren.”

“Without that, would you have known?”

“Probably not,” Max admits. “But if you’re at the Academy, you have to be good, right?”

Ren does not respond. She taps on the table and dozens of blooms rise from its center. There are massive sunflowers and vibrant posies, curled fiddlehead ferns and drooping tulips in every shade Max can imagine. It is the most color he has seen in years.

“This is your thirty-seventh test, Max. Create a story,” Ren says.

“Wait,” Max says. He pulls a clean white screen cloth from one of the many pockets in his jumpsuit. He hands it to Ren, her wide brown eyes wet with uncried tears. She stares at it. Max gestures to her eye.

“You’ve got ink there,” he explains.

“Thank you,” Ren says, dabbing the stain until it disappears. When she gives the cloth back to Max, her fingers brush against his.

She pulls her hand away and taps on the table again. A wide ceramic bowl appears under the floating flowers. Max looks up and plucks different stems from the holographic network garden above him.

“He fell in love with the smartest woman he knew,” Max begins.

At the ninety-eighth test, Max requests a cipher.

“A cipher?” Ren’s voice is even, but her dark brown eyes light up. It is the only way they can laugh together.

“A key,” Max replies, his blue eyes wide and bright. He almost cracks a smile, but bites his bottom lip instead. Ren blushes and glances at her notes.

“Please, Ren. I’ve been telling the story all wrong! Flowers have different meanings, and if the man is in love with her, he can’t send her flowers that mean friendship or sympathy.”

“In your story, you assume the woman cares about the meanings of the flowers instead of the overwhelming affection behind the man’s efforts. Why does she care?” Ren asks.

“Because she’s smart and he isn’t, and if she knows this and he never did, she wouldn’t want him,” Max explains, his voice rough and deep.

“You have been telling the same story in every test I have given you. Some days you pick different flowers. Your flowers mean the same thing to the man. Why does a key matter?”

“I graduate soon. I just want to tell it right.”

“There are no right ways,” Ren laughs. “Now, tell me a story.”


The transport hovers over the East China Sea, its belly swollen with recent Academy graduates, high off propaganda and nationalism and eager for action. Max sees something spiraling up out of the water, a swarm of flashes and a low hum he could feel deep in his gut. He jams on his helmet and screams for autopilot to take over, and the last thing he sees is a shimmering black sludge that coats his visor. He feels his stomach drop as he falls.


“Your progress is good,” the doctor says, “and you’re integrating with the new tech nicely. You’ve gotten a few pings for visitor requests. Now that you’ve got full range of motion, I think it’ll be best for them to start coming by, get used to your new look.”

“They have to get used to me?” Max says.

“Soldiers who signed up as tech donor recipients have an easier adjustment to their new limbs or organs - except for the silver skulls, and nobody can get used to looking like a partial Terminator, though I’m told it’s terrifying in Occupied Shanghai.”

“Terminator?” Max asks.

The doctor shakes her head and leaves.

His parents come the following day. His father stares at his arm and shoulder, his mother cries, and his little sister keeps saying “Cool” and asking the doctor varying questions about the specs.

Ren comes the day after with a tray of flowers: real ones, wilted and sweet.

“Pick one,” Ren says.

Max curls his new slender, silver fingers around a blossom. He liberates one of the white roses from the tray and hands it to Ren.

“He fell in love with the smartest woman he knew,” Max says.

Ren smiles and nods.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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