I close my eyes, and I'm frozen; I can't even push myself off the roof. All I can do is tilt and fall. My stomach drops and my limbs fumble in the air for something, anything to hold on to, but there is nothing, only the drop, the air, the frantic search for the ground.
Then I hit a net.
It curls around me, wrapping me in strong threads. Hands beckon to me from the edge. I hook my fingers in the net and pull myself toward them. I land on my feet on a wooden platform, and a man with dark brown skin and bruised knuckles grins at me. Max.
"The Stiff!" He claps me on the back, making me flinch. "Nice to see you made it this far. Go join your fellow initiates. Amar will be down in a second, I'm sure."
Behind him is a dark tunnel with rock walls. The Dauntless compound is underground--I assumed it would be dangling from a high building from a series of flimsy ropes, a manifestation of my worst nightmares.
I try to walk down the steps and over to the other transfers. My legs seem to be working again. The Amity girl smiles at me. "That was surprisingly fun," she says. "I'm Mia. You okay?"
"It looks like he's trying not to throw up," one of the Candor boys says.
"Just let it happen, man," the other Candor boy adds. "We'd love to see a show."
My response comes out of nowhere. "Shut up," I snap.
To my surprise, they do. I guess they haven't been told to shut up by many of the Abnegation.
A few seconds later, I see Amar rolling over the edge of the net. He descends the steps, looking wild and rumpled and ready for the next insane stunt. He beckons all the initiates closer to him, and we gather at the opening of the yawning tunnel in a semicircle.
Amar brings his hands together in front of him.
"My name is Amar," he says. "I'm your initiation instructor. I grew up here, and three years ago, I passed initiation with flying colors, which means I get to be in charge of the newcomers for as long as I want. Lucky you.
"Dauntless-borns and transfers do most physical training separately, so that the Dauntless-borns don't break the transfers in half right away--" At this, the Dauntless-borns on the other side of the semicircle grin. "But we're trying something different this year. The Dauntless leaders and I want to see if knowing your fears before you begin training will better prepare you for the rest of initiation. So before we even let you into the dining hall to have dinner, we're going to do some self-discovery. Follow me."
"What if I don't want to discover myself?" Zeke asks.
All Amar has to do is look at him for him to sink back into the group of Dauntless-borns again. Amar is like no one I've ever met--affable one minute and stern the next, and sometimes both at once.
He leads the way down the tunnel, then stops at a door built into the wall and shoves it open with his shoulder. We follow him into a dank room with a giant window in the back wall. Above us the fluorescent lights flicker and twitch, and Amar busies himself at a machine that looks a lot like the one used to administer my aptitude test. I hear a dripping sound--the ceiling is leaking into a puddle in the corner.
Another large, empty room stretches out beyond the window. There are cameras in each corner--are there cameras all over the Dauntless compound?
"This is the fear landscape room," Amar announces without looking up. "A fear landscape is a simulation in which you confront your worst fears."
Arranged on the table next to the machine is a line of syringes. They look sinister to me in the flickering light, like they might as well be instruments of torture, knives and blades and hot pokers.
"How is that possible?" the Erudite boy says. "You don't know our worst fears."
"Eric, right?" Amar says. "You're correct, I don't know your worst fears, but the serum I am going to inject you with will stimulate the parts of your brain that process fear, and you will come up with the simulation obstacles yourself, so to speak. In this simulation, unlike in the aptitude test simulation, you will be aware that what you are seeing is not real. Meanwhile, I will be in this room, controlling the simulation, and I get to tell the program embedded in the simulation serum to move on to the next obstacle once your heart rate reaches a particular level--once you calm down, in other words, or face your fear in a significant way. When you run out of fears, the program will terminate and you will 'wake up' in that room again with a greater awareness of your own fears."
He picks up one of the syringes and beckons to Eric.
"Allow me to satisfy your Erudite curiosity," he says. "You get to go first."
"But," Amar says smoothly, "I am your initiation instructor, and it's in your best interest to do as I say."
Eric stands still for a moment, then removes his blue jacket, folds it in half, and drapes it over the back of a chair. His movements are slow and deliberate--designed, I suspect, to irritate Amar as much as possible. Eric approaches Amar, who sticks the needle almost savagely into the side of Eric's neck. Then he steers Eric toward the next room.
Once Eric is standing in the middle of the room behind the glass, Amar attaches himself to the simulation machine with electrodes and presses something on the computer screen behind it to start the program.
Eric is still, his hands by his sides. He stares at us through the window, and a moment later, though he hasn't moved, it looks like he's staring at something else, like the simulation has begun. But he doesn't scream or thrash or cry like I would expect of someone who is staring down his worst fears. His heart rate, recorded on the monitor in front of Amar, rises and rises, like a bird taking flight.
He's afraid. He's afraid, but he's not even moving.
"What's going on?" Mia asks me. "Is the serum working?"
I watch Eric take a deep breath into his gut and release it through his nose. His body shakes, shivers, like the ground is rumbling beneath him, but his breaths are slow and even, his muscles clenching and then relaxing every few seconds, like he keeps tensing up by accident and then correcting his mistake. I watch his heart rate on the monitor in front of Amar, watch it slow down more and more until Amar taps the screen, forcing the program to move on.
This happens over and over again with each new fear. I count the fears as they pass in silence, ten, eleven, twelve. Then Amar taps the screen one last time, and Eric's body relaxes. He blinks, slowly, then smirks at the window.
I notice that the Dauntless-borns, usually so quick to comment on everything, are silent. That must mean that what I'm feeling is correct--that Eric is someone to watch out for. Maybe even someone to be afraid of.
For more than an hour I watch the other initiates face their fears, running and jumping and aiming invisible guns and, in some cases, lying facedown on the floor, sobbing. Sometimes I get a sense of what they see, of the crawling, creeping fears that torment them, but most of the time the villains they're warding off are private ones, known only to them and Amar.
I stay near the back of the room, shrinking down every time he calls on the next person. But then I'm the last one in the room, and Mia is just finishing, pulled out of her fear landscape when she's crouching against the back wall, her head in her hands. She stands, looking worn, and shuffles out of the room without waiting for Amar to dismiss her. He glances at
the last syringe on the table, then at me.
"Just you and me, Stiff," he says. "Come on, let's get this over with."
I stand in front of him. I barely feel the needle go in; I've never had a problem with shots, though some of the other initiates got teary-eyed before the injection. I walk into the next room and face the window, which looks like a mirror on this side. In the moment before the simulation takes effect, I can see myself the way the others must have seen me, slouched and buried in fabric, tall and bony and bleeding. I try to straighten up, and I'm surprised by the difference it makes, surprised by the shadow of strength I see in myself right before the room disappears.
Images fill the space in pieces, the skyline of our city, the hole in the pavement seven stories below me, the line of the ledge beneath my feet. Wind rushes up the side of the building, stronger than it was when I was here in real life, whipping my clothes so hard they snap, and pushing against me from all angles. Then the building grows with me on top of it, moving me far away from the ground. The hole seals up, and hard pavement covers it.
I cringe away from the edge, but the wind won't let me move backward. My heart pounds harder and faster as I confront the reality of what I have to do; I have to jump again, this time not trusting that there won't be pain when I slam into the ground.
A Stiff pancake.
I shake out my hands, squeeze my eyes shut, and scream into my teeth. Then I follow the push of the wind and I drop, fast. I hit the ground.
Searing, white-hot pain rushes through me, just for a second.
I stand up, wiping dust from my cheek, and wait for the next obstacle. I have no idea what it will be. I haven't taken much time to consider my fears, or even what it would mean to be free from fear, to conquer it. It occurs to me that without fear, I might be strong, powerful, unstoppable. The idea seduces me for just a second before something hits my back, hard.
Then something hits my left side, and my right side, and I'm enclosed in a box large enough only for my body. Shock protects me from panic, at first, and then I breathe the close air and stare into the empty darkness, and my insides squeeze tighter and tighter. I can't breathe anymore. I can't breathe.
I bite down on my lip to keep from sobbing--I don't want Amar to see me cry, don't want him to tell the Dauntless that I'm a coward. I have to think, can't think, through the suffocation of this box. The wall against my back here is the same as the one in my memory, from when I was young, shut in the darkness in the upstairs hallway as punishment. I was never sure when it would end, how many hours I would be stuck there with imaginary monsters creeping up on me in the dark, with the sound of my mother's sobs leaking through the walls.