Dr. Conway, or “the doctor,” as everyone calls her, is short and unfailingly erect. She stands at a lectern in front of a small lecture hall with a curved ceiling. She brings her glasses to her eyes and flips open a folder full of papers.
This place isn’t what Jack expected. He thought there would be some kind of underground bunker. Everything would be metal and black, with secret agents observing him from behind glass. Instead, the room is small, like a miniature college lecture hall with a floor that sloped down to the lectern. He, Maya, Chris, and Sabine sit near each other in built-in desks in the center of the room.
His brain is tired from the battery of IQ tests over the past few days, and now it seems like he’s in for more of the same. But maybe these tests will be more high-tech than the paper and pencil so far. There are tablets on each desk this time, angled up like easels.
“Under your desktops you’ll find a wearable device. It attaches to your forehead and over the ears, similar to a pair of glasses.”
Jack feels under his desk and finds a light plastic band that looks like a futuristic visor. He puts it on, glancing at the others. Chris gives the item a dubious look. Maya struggles to get it around her hair.
“You will have twelve minutes to complete a series of short tests,” she says, “tests for mental agility, empathy, remote viewing, and material intelligence. It’s important to answer the questions as quickly as you can, without giving them much thought. Your responses must be, as much as possible, instinctive.”
Jack looks over to Chris with a “here we go again” look.
“A series of questions and images will appear on the screen on your desk. Write the answers on the screen.”
Jack looks at the screen. There’s a government seal, and then it changes to a blank white screen.
“Begin,” she says. A green light flashes on the wall above her. She walks out through a side door behind her.
The screen shows a picture of an iron safe. The caption on the screen reads, Give three alternate uses for this item. Jack gives Maya a look. Maya raises her eyebrows.
Jack looks back at his test and writes, Bath tub, flour bin, flower pot.
A new image appears on the screen: a saddle. Give three alternate uses for this item. Jack tries not to think about it for a moment, and then writes, Wall art, skate park for mouse, knee pad for giant.
Questions like these flow by. They go quickly enough that Jack doesn’t take the time to look up at the others to see how they’re doing. He blows through the questions as quickly as he can.
A series of math problems follows. They aren’t difficult for Jack, at least at first. They’re just strings of numbers, like 12 + 10 + 31 + 22, sometimes with addition, sometimes with subtraction, and sometimes with parenthetical multiplication or division thrown in. They start to get difficult when they turn into fractions, square roots, and more advanced math, but as soon as Jack starts feeling out of his depth, the test moves onto something else.
Jack feels like he’s doing pretty well on these tests but is still clueless as to what they’re supposed to measure.
A series of What’s the next shape in this sequence? follows, which is similar to the IQ test he took a moment ago, but now the shapes are 3D, and slowly change into different shapes.
After a few rounds of questions, his screen goes blank. A red light fills the room for a few seconds.
“It’s like a dance party in here,” Chris says.
The doctor emerges from the side doorway and steps in front of the class again. She sets her folder on the lectern and flips through the papers.
“You will have approximately nineteen minutes to complete the next test. Concentrate on each one of these questions. Take as much time as you need. You will be judged by the number of questions you answer correctly, not the number of questions you are able to answer.”
Jack adjusts himself in his seat.
“Begin.” The green light comes on. She steps out.
There’s a drawing of a crowd of six people. Next to it, a written question asks to rate the demeanor of each person. Jack trusts his instincts in this area, and has a thought to throw the test, to put down wrong answers to screw with them, just for fun. But he remembers what Jewel said about following orders here, so he quells the impulse, and plays this by the book.
He writes, Mustache man, insecure. Child with cap, confident. Electrician, hesitant.
The images come faster and faster. The test appears to be adjusting its speed to keep pace with Jack.
The people change to inanimate objects, and Jack does his best with them, but feels like he’s just making stuff up now.
Bowling ball, happy. Table, stern. Monkey wrench, hopeful. Log cabin, secure.
Before he expects it, the red light comes on.
The doctor comes out. “In this next test, you will see four colored boxes on your screen. Relax your minds, and try to select which colored box has an image hidden behind it. When you believe you’ve selected the right box, touch that box to reveal what’s behind. Whether you get the wrong answer or the right answer, you will advance to a fresh set of boxes. This test is thirty minutes.”
She steps out, and the green light turns on.
Jack stares at the four colored boxes on the screen: blue, red, yellow and green. It’s like they’re trying to get him to read the computer’s mind. The thought strikes him as absurd. He tries one, and gets it wrong. There’s no picture. He gets the next one wrong, too.
Jack steals a glance at Maya, who glances back and gives him a funny look. He looks to Sabine and sees that she’s looking intently at her screen, touching boxes. Jack hears a rustling in Chris’s direction. He watches him take a pen out of his pocket, place it on his desk, then look intensely at it and twist his hand like he’s going to levitate it with the Force. Jack smiles. Chris can’t help but let a small laugh escape.
After just a minute or two, the screen goes blank and the red light turns on. The doctor enters.
“We’re going to begin that test again. You must take the test seriously. If you are smirking or joking, it will negatively impact the results of the test.” She looks sternly at each of them.
Jack can see Chris out of the corner of his eye cowering slightly, putting his pen back in his pocket.
She leaves the room.
This time, Jack, despite tremendous pressure to look over to Maya, or see what Chris is doing, focuses all his brainpower on the colored boxes. He looks at them and focuses on them so hard they start to become more like objects he’s imagining more than seeing. He touches them, sometimes getting an image, like a picture of a waterfall or a hot-air balloon, sometimes not.
The red light turns on.
Two men in white coats wheeling a cart emerge with the doctor this time.
Jack sits back in his chair. Chris whispers to him, “You staying awake, pal?”
“You said it.” Jack wonders if part of the goal here is to tire out their brains.
Maya drops her head on desk, muffling her voice inside her hair. “This is so unusual.”
Jack nods. “Yeah, right?”
Sabine gives them a reproving look and whispers, “Shh. You are going to get in trouble.”
“It’s okay, Sabine,” Jack says. “We’re between tests. Pretty sure we won’t get in trouble.”
Chris waves her off and whispers across the room, “Yeah, don’t sweat it, Sabine”
Maya laughs. Jack wishes he’d thought to put it that way.
The men bring the cart to the front of the room. On it is a cup of water, a bowl of dirt, and what looks like a head of cabbage.
“Which one of these things doesn’t belong here,” Chris sings quietly.
“This materials test will also be a competition,” the doctor says. “You will assess the materials in front of you. Think about the material, the atomic and chemical make up. Concentrate very hard.”
She begins to walks out.
“That’s all?” Chris says.
“That’s all,” she says without looking back or stopping. The two men follow her out.
Jack stairs at the objects, unsure what he’s supposed to accomplish by doing so. After a few minutes, he grows impatient. He wants to take a look around the room, but doesn’t want to get balled out again, so he acts like he’s stretching his neck and gets a look around. He notices a big camera in the back of the room pointing straight at the table of materials. He figures there are probably a lot more cameras in here.
He looks at the materials for a while longer, but feels himself disengaging. Jack recalls that the doctor didn’t tell them how long this part would go. It feels like hours. And he’s just looking at dirt. But he focuses as hard as he can. He really wants to come out the winner, whatever “winning” is in this game.
The red light turns on. Jack feels good about the test. He feels like he concentrated hard for most of the time. He looks at the others and wonders who it will be. He has a sense he might have nailed it. Maya looks tired. Chris points at him and gives him a smile and a nod. That’s just his confidence routine, Jack figures. Poor Sabine just sits straight in her chair, staring forward.
The doctor comes out. ”Each of your brain-wave patterns and activity is being monitored throughout these tests, both the non-competitive and the competitive sections. And for the competitive section, we have a winner.”
The four of them regard each other, looking amused but also hesitant.
“Congratulations, Chris. You had the most variance in your pattern.”
Maya turns around and says, “Chris rocked the house.”
Jack is disappointed, but doesn’t know how seriously to take this result. He throws Chris a polite “Nice job.”
Chris raises his arms and says, with joking self-depreciation, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Jack thinks if this is the kind of stuff they’re going to do in this place, he wants to get good at it, and win the next one.