trying to claw my eyes out keeps flashing in my mind, causing my heart rate to spike again and again.
“Is the serum still in effect?” I say, clenching my teeth. “Making me panic?”
“No, it should have gone dormant when you exited the simulation,” he says. “Why?”
I shake my hands, which are tingling, like they’re going numb. I shake my head. It wasn’t real, I tell myself. Let it go.
“Sometimes the simulation causes lingering panic, depending on what you see in it,” Amar says. “Let me walk you back to the dormitory.”
“No.” I shake my head. “I’ll be fine.”
He gives me a hard look.
“It wasn’t a request,” he says. He gets up and opens a door behind the chair. I follow him down a short, dark hallway and into the stone corridors that lead back to the transfer dormitory. The air is cool there, and moist, from being underground. I hear our footsteps echo, and my own breaths, but nothing else.
I think I see something—movement—on my left, and I flinch away from it, pulling back against the wall. Amar stops me, putting his hands on my shoulders so I have to look at his face.
“Hey,” he says. “Get it together, Four.”
I nod, heat rushing into my face. I feel a deep twinge of shame in my stomach. I am supposed to be Dauntless. I am not supposed to be afraid of monster Marcuses creeping up on me in the dark. I lean against the stone wall and take a deep breath.
“Can I ask you something?” Amar says. I cringe, thinking he’s going to ask me about my father, but he doesn’t. “How did you get out of that hallway?”
“I opened a door,” I say.
“Was there a door behind you the whole time? Is there one in your old house?”
I shake my head.
Amar’s usually amiable face is serious. “So you created one out of nowhere?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Simulations are all in your head. So my head made a door so I could get out. All I had to do was concentrate.”
“Strange,” he says.
“Most initiates can’t make something impossible happen in these simulations, because unlike in the fear landscape, they don’t recognize that they are in a simulation,” he says. “And they don’t get out of simulations that fast, as a result.”
I feel my pulse in my throat. I didn’t realize these simulations were supposed to be different from the fear landscape—I thought everyone was aware of this simulation while they were in it. But judging by what Amar is saying, this was supposed to be like the aptitude test, and before the aptitude test, my father warned me against my simulation awareness, coached me to hide it. I still remember how insistent he was, how tense his voice was and how he grabbed my arm a little too hard.
At the time, I thought that he would never speak that way unless he was worried about me. Worried for my safety.
Was he just being paranoid, or is there still something dangerous about being aware during simulations?
“I was like you,” Amar says quietly. “I could change the simulations. I just thought I was the only one.”
I want to tell him to keep it to himself, to protect his secrets. But the Dauntless don’t care about secrets the way the Abnegation do, with their tight-lipped smiles and identical, orderly houses.
Amar is giving me a strange look—eager, like he expects something from me. I shift, uncomfortable.
“It’s probably not something you should brag about,” Amar says. “The Dauntless are all about conformity, just like every other faction. It’s just not as obvious here.”
“It’s probably just a fluke,” I say. “I couldn’t do that during my aptitude test. Next time I’ll probably be more normal.”
“Right.” He doesn’t sound convinced. “Well, next time, try not to do anything impossible, all right? Just face your fear in a logical way, a way that would always make sense to you whether you were aware or not.”
“Okay,” I say.
“You’re okay now, right? You can get back to the dorms on your own?”
I want to say that I could always get back to the dormitory on my own; I never needed him to take me there. But I just nod again. He claps me on the shoulder, good-naturedly, and walks back to the simulation room.
I can’t help but think that my father wouldn’t have warned me against displaying my simulation awareness just because of faction norms. He scolded me for embarrassing him in front of the Abnegation all the time, but he had never hissed warnings in my ears or taught me how to avoid a misstep before. He never stared at me, wide-eyed, until I promised to do as he said.
It feels strange, to know that he must have been trying to protect me. Like he’s not quite the monster I imagine, the one I see in my worst nightmares.
As I start toward the dorms, I hear something at the end of the hallway we just walked down—something like quiet, shuffling footsteps, moving in the opposite direction.
Shauna runs up to me in the cafeteria at dinner and punches me hard in the arm. She’s wearing a smile so wide it looks like it’s cutting into her cheeks. There’s some swelling just beneath her right eye—she’ll have a black eye later.
“I won!” she says. “I did what you said—got her right in the jaw within the first sixty seconds, and it totally threw her off her game. She still hit me in the eye because I let my guard down, but after that I pummeled her. She has a bloody nose. It was awesome.”
I grin. I’m surprised by how satisfying it is, to teach someone how to do something and then to hear that it actually worked.
“Well done,” I say.
“I couldn’t have done it without your help,” she says. Her smile changes, softens, less giddy and more sincere. She stands on her tiptoes and kisses my cheek.
I stare at her as she pulls away. She laughs and drags me toward the table where Zeke and some of the other Dauntless-born initiates sit. My problem, I realize, isn’t that I’m a Stiff, it’s that I don’t know what these gestures of affection mean to the Dauntless. Shauna is pretty, and funny, and in Abnegation I would go over to her house for dinner with her family if I was interested in her, I would find out what volunteering project she was working on and insinuate myself into it. In Dauntless I have no idea how to go about that, or how to know if I even like her that way.
I decide not to let it distract me, at least not now. I get a plate of food and sit down to eat it, listening to the others talk and laugh together. Everyone congratulates Shauna on her win, and they point out the girl she beat up, sitting at one of the other tables, her face still swollen. At the end of the meal, when I’m poking at a piece of chocolate cake with my fork, a pair of Erudite women walk into the room.
It takes a lot to make the Dauntless go quiet. Even the sudden appearance of the Erudite doesn’t quite do it—there are still mutters everywhere, like the distant sound of running footsteps. But gradually, as the Erudite sit down with Max and nothing else happens, conversations pick up again. I don’t participate in them. I keep stabbing the cake with the fork tines, watching.
Max stands and approaches Amar. They have a tense conversation between the tables, and then they start walking in my direction. Toward me.
Amar beckons to me. I leave my almost-empty tray behind.
“You and I have been called in for an evaluation,” Amar says. His perpetually smiling mouth is now a flat line, his animated voice a monotone.
“Evaluation?” I say.
Max smiles at me, a little. “Your fear simulation results were a little abnormal. Our Erudite friends behind us—” I look over his shoulder at the Erudite women. With a start, I realize that one of them is Jeanine Matthews, representative of Erudite. She’s dressed in a crisp blue suit, with a pair of spectacles dangling from a chain around her neck, a symbol of Erudite vanity pushed so far as to be illogical. Max continues, “Will observe another simulation to make sure that the abnormal result wasn’t an error in the simulation
program. Amar will take you all to the fear simulation room now.”
I feel my father’s fingers clamped around my arm, hear his hissing voice, warning me not to do anything strange in my aptitude test simulation. I feel tingling in my palms, the sign that I’m about to panic. I can’t speak, so I just look at Max, and then at Amar, and nod. I don’t know what it means, to be aware during a simulation, but I know it can’t be good. I know that Jeanine Matthews would never come here just to observe my simulation if something wasn’t seriously wrong with me.
We walk to the fear simulation room without speaking, Jeanine and her assistant—I’m assuming—talking quietly behind us. Amar opens the door and lets us file in.
“I’ll go get the extra equipment so you can observe,” Amar says. “Be right back.”
Jeanine paces around the room with a thoughtful expression. I’m wary of her, as all Abnegation are, taught to distrust Erudite vanity, Erudite greed. It occurs to me, though, as I watch her, that what I was taught might not be right. The Erudite woman who taught me how to take apart a computer when I was volunteering in the computer labs at school wasn’t greedy or vain; maybe Jeanine Matthews isn’t, either.
“You were logged into the system as ‘Four,’” Jeanine says after a few seconds. She stops pacing, folding her hands in front of her. “Which I found perplexing. Why do you not go by ‘Tobias’ here?”
She already knows who I am. Well, of course she does. She knows everything, doesn’t she? I feel like my insides are shriveling up, collapsing into each other. She knows my name, she knows my father, and if she’s seen one of my fear simulations, she knows some of the darkest parts of me, too. Her clear, almost watery eyes touch mine, and I look away.
“I wanted a clean slate,” I say.
She nods. “I can appreciate that. Especially given what you’ve gone through.”
She sounds almost … gentle. I bristle at her tone, staring her straight in the face. “I’m fine,” I say coldly.
“Of course you are.” She smiles a little.
Amar wheels a cart into the room. It carries more wires, electrodes, computer parts. I know what I’m supposed to do; I sit down in the reclining chair and put my arms on the armrests as the others hook themselves up to the simulation. Amar approaches me with a needle, and I stay still as it pinches my throat.