"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 r
ight? 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.
I close my eyes, and the world falls away again.
When I open my eyes, I am standing on the roof of an impossibly high building, right near the ledge. Beneath me is the hard pavement, the streets all empty, no one around to help me down. Wind buffets me from all angles, and I tilt back, falling on my back on the gravel roof.
I don't even like being up here, seeing the wide, empty sky around me, reminding me that I am at the tallest point in the city. I remember that Jeanine Matthews is watching; I throw myself against the door to the roof, trying to pull it open as I form a strategy. My usual way to face this fear would be to leap off the ledge of the building, knowing that it's just a simulation and I won't actually die. But someone else in this simulation would never do that; they would find a safe way to get down.
I evaluate my options. I can try to get this door open, but there are no tools that will help me do that around here, just the gravel roof and the door and the sky. I can't create a tool to get through the door, because that's exactly the kind of simulation manipulation that Jeanine is probably looking for. I back up, kicking the door hard with my heel, and it doesn't budge.
My heart pounding in my throat, I walk to the ledge again. Instead of looking all the way down at the minuscule sidewalks beneath me, I look at the building itself. There are windows with ledges beneath me, hundreds of them. The fastest way down, the most Dauntless way, is to scale the side of the building.
I put my face in my hands. I know this isn't real, but it feels real, the wind whistling in my ears, crisp and cool, the concrete rough beneath my hands, the sound of the gravel scattered by my shoes. I put one leg over the ledge, shuddering, and turn to face the building as I lo
wer myself down, one leg at a time, until I'm hanging by my fingertips from the ledge.
Panic bubbles up inside me, and I scream into my teeth. Oh God. I hate heights--I hate them. I blink tears from my eyes, internally blaming them on the wind, and feel with my toes for the window ledge beneath me. Finding it, I feel for the top of the window with one hand, and press up to keep my balance as I lower myself onto the balls of my feet on the windowsill below me.
My body tilts back, over the empty space, and I scream again, clenching my teeth so hard they squeak.
I have to do that again. And again. And again.
I bend, holding the top of the window with one hand and the bottom with the other. When I have a good grip, I slide my toes down the side of the building, listening to them scrape on the stone, and let myself dangle again.
This time, when I let myself drop onto the other ledge, I don't hold on hard enough with my hands. I lose my footing on the windowsill and tip back. I scramble, scratching at the concrete building with my fingertips, but it's too late; I plummet, and another scream rises up inside me, tearing from my throat. I could create a net beneath me; I could create a rope in the air to save me--no, I shouldn't create anything or they will know what I can do.
I let myself fall. I let myself die.
I wake with pain--created by my mind--singing in every part of my body, screaming, my eyes blurry with tears and terror. I jerk forward, gasping. My body is shaking; I'm ashamed to be acting this way with this audience, but I know that it's a good thing. It will show them that I'm not special--I'm just another reckless Dauntless who thought he could scale a building and failed.
"Interesting," Jeanine says, and I can barely hear her over my own breathing. "I never tire of seeing inside a person's mind--every detail suggests so much."
I put my legs--still shaking--over the edge of the chair and plant my feet on the ground.
"You did well," Amar says. "Your climbing skills are maybe a little wanting, but you still got out of the simulation quickly, like last time."
He smiles at me. I must have succeeded at pretending to be normal, because he doesn't look worried anymore.
"Well, it appears that your abnormal test result was a program error. We will have to investigate the simulation program to find the flaw," Jeanine says. "Now, Amar. I'd like to see one of your fear simulations, if you wouldn't mind obliging."