[32] Sage

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The sixth Trial is a nightmare.

I stare in horror at the desk in front of me, refusing to sit in the chair before it. There is an unused notebook sitting in the middle of the desk, opened to the first clean page, a pencil lying next to it. Incredibly old-school. They stopped making children learn to hand-write when my mother was in college.

And yet, the desk is a newer model - one with a built-in holocomputer. They were just becoming popular when I was caught.

Deirdre looks just as shocked as I do. Jake is already seated awkwardly in the uncomfortable desk, looking far too big for his chair, and Nicole simply stands at the ready behind her desk, face impassive.

"Sit, please," an Albino woman orders kindly, entering the room at a brisk stride. She smiles sweetly at all of us and I itch for something to drive into her perfect teeth - the weapons room was empty at the beginning of this Trial.

I hesitate at first, taking my seat only once Nicole does. Deirdre sees me following the polite command and does the same.

"Do you all know how to write?"

Jake raises his hand readily while mine goes up in a so-so gesture, as does Nicole's. Deirdre looks embarrassed, but remains truthful and keeps her hands in her lap, where their fingers work over one another nervously.

The Albino nods, smiling knowingly at Deirdre as if she already knew the answer to her question - which I'm sure she somehow did. "Deirdre, please give me your notebook and pencil." Deirdre stands, grabbing the objects and handing them over.

Once she has both, the Albino continues, "You must write a paper. It can be as long or short as you desire. You have as much time as you need to finish it and can write as many versions as you wish. The version you wish us to grade must be marked with a star next to your name, however."

The directions appear on the holodesk screens, shortened and arranged in bullet points, and I read them over again carefully. I can find no hidden messages or anything useful in passing this Trial. I am grasping at straws, hoping there is something more hands-on to all of this - I despise writing, especially what seems to equate to a school paper.

"Deirdre, you'll be using your holodesk and typing your paper. I'll replace the surface with a keyboard in a moment," the Albino adds as a side note. "Your prompt is this: Why do you think so much time, effort, and money was being spent for you four to travel to Mars? You start now." She smiles and turns around, walking from the room.

It is silent for a moment before Jake picks up his pencil and gets to work. He must have already had ideas about this topic, although certainly not in the sense that he knew he would be writing a paper about it. I, however, only have a few thin threads of a brainstorm.

Brainstorm! Isn't that what my teachers would always tell me to do, back before the Voice? Shrugging, I set my pencil to the page and start jotting down the first things that come into my head.

We're too dangerous

Experimentation

To kill (?)

To study

I pause, unable to think of any other motives. Rather than waste time attempting to brainstorm further, I decide to choose one of my thoughts - were we too dangerous? Did they want to experiment on us without fear of civilians' morals interfering? Were they going to kill us far away so nobody would learn of our unwarranted murders? Or did they want to study us because our brains work so strangely? None of them seem correct, but I finally choose experimentation, because it will hit awfully close to home with what the Albinos are currently doing to us.

Not that I think it will make them reevaluate their life choices, but at least it could make them think a little.

On my brainstorming page, I wrote as largely as I wanted, wherever on the page I wanted. Now I know that I have to fit my words to one line after another, and not all of my letters can be uppercase. Carefully, painstakingly, I begin the laborious task of writing.

*

After what I estimate as roughly an hour, Jake stands, stretches, and exits the room. Nicole  seems to be doing touch-ups alone. Deirdre is staring at her holodesk, seemingly frozen in place. I am still writing. This is my second attempt at a coherent paper, and it is no better than the first.

I'm not sure if the Voice is deliberately choosing not to help me, or if I have just finally found an area in which she does not dominate. Whichever it is, some helpful feedback would be greatly appreciated at this point.

Maybe you're just going to lose this challenge, a small voice - not the Voice - murmurs in my ear. Maybe you just need to try your best and accept your failure.

No. Failure is not an option, the Voice counters.

If the Voice can give me opinions, why can't it give me help?

Sighing, I turn the page and start my third draft.

*

Deirdre and I have been sitting here for what seems like hours. I feel like we have an unspoken pact between us, although it could just be my decision - we don't leave this room until we're both ready to leave. I've been sneaking peeks at her work, and it is quite clear that we have a while to go until either of us are leaving.

I think of Jake and Nicole, receiving valuable training time in the rec room right now, and sigh in annoyance. What is this dumb Trial even supposed to prove? Are we being assessed on our inference skills, our writing abilities, what?

I raise my hand and wait patiently. "If we're writing a paper, we're in a classroom," I mutter. "Teacher, I have a question." My words are biting and sarcastic, as is my growing mood.

Finally, a door slides open and the previous Albino woman walks through. Here's hoping she won't just shoot me on the spot.

"I refuse to write any more until you tell us what the point of this Trial is," I say breezily, meeting her gaze boldly.

For the first time ever, an Albino seems at a loss for words. The woman just stares at me, her eyes widened ever so slightly. Every other Albino has seemed so composed in interacting with us. I wonder if I have actually thrown her such a curveball or if she's simply a young, inexperienced monster.

I can practically see the moment where she caves and says, "We are assessing you in how well you are able to state and support an argument."

I groan audibly as she quickly leaves, as if already doubting herself. "I know you never reached this level," I call over to Deirdre, "but this is middle school. This is what middle school is." With that said, I bend over my notebook and begin rereading my paper.

*

Holocomputer: Your everyday laptop, but the screen is see-through, it's incredibly light, and it can project small images a few inches into the air in front of it.

Holodesk: An enlarged holocomputer used in schools. There is space next to the keyboard on which you can have conversations with your classmates during free time or in silent class discussions. Your activities are also monitored. If you've seen the movie "The Space Between Us," it's a bit like the desk that Tulsa had in her classes. It can fold into a large laptop that you carry from class to class.

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