“Yeah,” I say. I can’t deny it. “I’m glad to be back, though.”
Hopefully they can’t tell I’m lying, but I suspect they can. I caught sight of myself in a window on the way into the compound, and my cheeks and eyes were both bright, my hair tangled. I look like I have experienced something powerful.
“Well, you missed Christina almost punching an Erudite,” says Al. His voice sounds eager. I can count on Al to try to break the tension. “He was here asking for opinions about the Abnegation leadership, and Christina told him there were more important things for him to be doing.”
“Which she was completely right about,” adds Will. “And he got testy with her. Big mistake.”
“Huge,” I say, nodding. If I smile enough, maybe I can make them forget their jealousy, or hurt, or whatever is brewing behind Christina’s eyes.
“Yeah,” she says. “While you were off having fun, I was doing the dirty work of defending your old faction, eliminating interfaction conflict…”
“Come on, you know you enjoyed it,” says Will, nudging her with his elbow. “If you’re not going to tell the whole story, I will. He was standing…”
Will launches into his story, and I nod along like I’m listening, but all I can think about is staring down the side of the Hancock building, and the image I got of the marsh full of water, restored to its former glory. I look over Will’s shoulder at the members, who are now flicking bits of food at one another with their forks.
It’s the first time I have been really eager to be one of them.
Which means I have to survive the next stage of initiation.
AS FAR AS I can tell, the second stage of initiation involves sitting in a dark hallway with the other initiates, wondering what’s going to happen behind a closed door.
Uriah sits across from me, with Marlene on his left and Lynn on his right. The Dauntless-born initiates and the transfers were separated during stage one, but we will be training together from now on. That’s what Four told us before he disappeared behind the door.
“So,” says Lynn, scuffing the floor with her shoe. “Which one of you is ranked first, huh?”
Her question is met with silence at first, and then Peter clears his throat.
“Me,” he says.
“Bet I could take you.” She says it casually, turning the ring in her eyebrow with her fingertips. “I’m second, but I bet any of us could take you, transfer.”
I almost laugh. If I was still Abnegation, her comment would be rude and out of place, but among the Dauntless, challenges like that seem common. I am almost starting to expect them.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, if I were you,” Peter says, his eyes glittering. “Who’s first?”
“Uriah,” she says. “And I am sure. You know how many years we’ve spent preparing for this?”
If she intends to intimidate us, it works. I already feel colder.
Before Peter can respond, Four opens the door and says, “Lynn.” He beckons to her, and she walks down the hallway, the blue light at the end making her bare head glow.
“So you’re first,” Will says to Uriah.
Uriah shrugs. “Yeah. And?”
“And you don’t think it’s a little unfair that you’ve spent your entire life getting ready for this, and we’re expected to learn it all in a few weeks?” Will says, his eyes narrowing.
“Not really. Stage one was about skill, sure, but no one can prepare for stage two,” he says. “At least, so I’m told.”
No one responds to that. We sit in silence for twenty minutes. I count each minute on my watch. Then the door opens again, and Four calls another name.
“Peter,” he says.
Each minute wears into me like a scrape of sandpaper. Gradually, our numbers begin to dwindle, and it’s just me and Uriah and Drew. Drew’s leg bounces, and Uriah’s fingers tap against his knee, and I try to sit perfectly still. I hear only muttering from the room at the end of the hallway, and I suspect this is another part of the game they like to play with us. Terrifying us at every opportunity.
The door opens, and Four beckons to me. “Come on, Tris.”
I stand, my back sore from leaning against the wall for so long, and walk past the other initiates. Drew sticks out his leg to trip me, but I hop over it at the last second.
Four touches my shoulder to guide me into the room and closes the door behind me.
When I see what’s inside, I recoil immediately, my shoulders hitting his chest.
In the room is a reclining metal chair, similar to the one I sat in during the aptitude test. Beside it is a familiar machine. This room has no mirrors and barely any light. There is a computer screen on a desk in the corner.
“Sit,” Four says. He squeezes my arms and pushes me forward.
“What’s the simulation?” I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking. I don’t succeed.
“Ever hear the phrase ‘face your fears’?” he says. “We’re taking that literally. The simulation will teach you to control your emotions in the midst of a frightening situation.”
I touch a wavering hand to my forehead. Simulations aren’t real; they pose no real threat to me, so logically, I shouldn’t be afraid of them, but my reaction is visceral. It takes all the willpower I have for me to steer myself toward the chair and sit down in it again, pressing my skull into the headrest. The cold from the metal seeps through my clothes.
“Do you ever administer the aptitude tests?” I say. He seems qualified.
“No,” he replies. “I avoid Stiffs as much as possible.”
I don’t know why someone would avoid the Abnegation. The Dauntless or the Candor, maybe, because bravery and honesty make people do strange things, but the Abnegation?
“Do you ask me that because you think I’ll actually answer?”
“Why do you say vague things if you don’t want to be asked about them?”
His fingers brush my neck. My body tenses. A tender gesture? No—he has to move my hair to the side. He taps something, and I tilt my head back to see what it is. Four holds a syringe with a long needle in one hand, his thumb against the plunger. The liquid in the syringe is tinted orange.
“An injection?” My mouth goes dry. I don’t usually mind needles, but this one is huge.
“We use a more advanced version of the simulation here,” he says, “a different serum, no wires or electrodes for you.”
“How does it work without wires?”
“Well, I have wires, so I can see what’s going on,” he says. “But for you, there’s a tiny transmitter in the serum that sends data to the computer.”
He turns my arm over and eases the tip of the needle into the tender skin on the side of my neck. A deep ache spreads through my throat. I wince and try to focus on his calm face.
“The serum will go into effect in sixty seconds. This simulation is different from the aptitude test,” he says. “In addition to containing the transmitter, the serum stimulates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in processing negative emotions—like fear—and then induces a hallucination. The brain’s electrical activity is then transmitted to our computer, which then translates your hallucination into a simulated image that I can see and monitor. I will then forward the recording to Dauntless administrators. You stay in the hallucination until you calm down—that is, lower your heart rate and control your breathing.”
I try to follow his words, but my thoughts are going haywire. I feel the trademark symptoms of fear: sweaty palms, racing heart, tightness in my chest, dry mouth, a lump in my throat, difficulty breathing. He plants his hands on either side of my head and leans over me.
“Be brave, Tris,” he whispers. “The first time is always the hardest.”
His eyes are the last thing I see.
I stand in a field of dry grass that comes up to my waist. The air smells like smoke and burns my nostrils. Above me the sky is bile-colored, and the sight of it fills me with anxiety, my body cringing away from it.
I hear fluttering, like the pages of a book blown by the wind, but there is no wind. The air is still and soundless apart from the flapping, neither hot nor cold—not like air at all, but I can still breathe. A shadow swoops overhead.
Something lands on my shoulder. I feel its weight and the prick of talons and fling my arm forward to shake it off, my hand batting at it. I feel something smooth and fragile. A feather. I bite my lip and look to the side. A black bird the size of my forearm turns its head and focuses one beady eye on me.
I grit my teeth and hit the crow again with my hand. It digs in its talons and doesn’t move. I cry out, more frustrated than pained, and hit the crow with both hands, but it stays in place, resolute, one eye on me, feathers gleaming in the yellow light. Thunder rumbles and I hear the patter of rain on the ground, but no rain falls.
The sky darkens, like a cloud is passing over the sun. Still cringing away from the crow, I look up. A flock of crows storms toward me, an advancing army of outstretched talons and open beaks, each one squawking, filling the air with noise. The crows descend in a single mass, diving toward the earth, hundreds of beady black eyes shining.
I try to run, but my feet are firmly planted and refuse to move, like the crow on my shoulder. I scream as they surround me, feathers flapping in my ears, beaks pecking at my shoulders, talons clinging to my clothes. I scream until tears come from my eyes, my arms flailing. My hands hit solid bodies but do nothing; there are too many. I am alone. They nip at my fingertips and press against my body, wings sliding across the back of my neck, feet tearing at my hair.
I twist and wrench and fall to the ground, covering my head with my arms. They scream against me. I feel a wiggling in the grass, a crow forcing its way under my arm. I open my eyes and it pecks at my face, its beak hitting me in the nose. Blood drips onto the grass and I sob, hitting it with my palm, but another crow wedges under my other arm and its claws stick to the front of my shirt.
I am screaming; I am sobbing.
“Help!” I wail. “Help!”
And the crows flap harder, a roar in my ears. My body burns, and they are everywhere, and I can’t think, I can’t breathe. I gasp for air and my mouth fills with feathers, feathers down my throat, in my lungs, replacing my blood with dead weight.
“Help,” I sob and scream, insensible, illogical. I am dying; I am dying; I am dying.
My skin sears and I am bleeding, and the squawking is so loud my ears are ringing, but I am not dying, and I remember that it isn’t real, but it feels real, it feels so real. Be brave. Four’s voice screams in my memory. I cry out to him, inhaling feathers and exhaling “Help!” But there will be no help; I am alone.
You stay in the hallucination until you can calm down, his voice continues, and I cough, and my face is wet with tears, and another crow has wriggled under my arms, and I feel the edge of its sharp beak against my mouth. Its beak wedges past my lips and scrapes my teeth. The crow pushes its head into my mouth and I bite hard, tasting something foul. I spit and clench my teeth to form a barrier, but now a fourth crow is pushing at my feet, and a fifth crow is pecking at my ribs.
Calm down. I can’t, I can’t. My head throbs.
Breathe. I keep my mouth closed and suck air into my nose. It has been hours since I was alone in the field; it has been days. I push air out of my nose. My heart pounds hard in my chest. I have to slow it down. I breathe again, my face wet with tears.
I sob again, and force myself forward, stretching out on the grass, which prickles against my skin. I extend my arms and breathe. Crows push and prod at my sides, worming their way beneath me, and I let them. I let the flapping of wings and the squawking and the pecking and the prodding continue, relaxing one muscle at a time, resigning myself to becoming a pecked carcass.
The pain overwhelms me.
I open my eyes, and I am sitting in the metal chair.
I scream and hit my arms and head and legs to get the birds off me, but they are gone, though I can still feel the feathers brushing the back of my neck and the talons in my shoulder and my burning skin. I moan and pull my knees to my chest, burying my face in them.
A hand touches my shoulder, and I fling a fist out, hitting something solid but soft. “Don’t touch me!” I sob.
“It’s over,” Four says. The hand shifts awkwardly over my hair, and I remember my father stroking my hair when he kissed me goodnight, my mother touching my hair when she trimmed it with the scissors. I run my palms along my arms, still brushing off feathers, though I know there aren’t any.
I rock back and forth in the metal chair.
“Tris, I’m going to take you back to the dorms, okay?”
“No!” I snap. I lift my head and glare at him, though I can’t see him through the blur of tears. “They can’t see me…not like this…”
“Oh, calm down,” he says. He rolls his eyes. “I’ll take you out the back door.”
“I don’t need you to…” I shake my head. My body is trembling and I feel so weak I’m not sure I can stand, but I have to try. I can’t be the only one who needs to be walked back to the dorms. Even if they don’t see me, they’ll find out, they’ll talk about me—
He grabs my arm and hauls me out of the chair. I blink the tears from my eyes, wipe my cheeks with the heel of my hand, and let him steer me toward the door behind the computer screen.
We walk down the hallway in silence. When we’re a few hundred yards away from the room, I yank my arm away and stop.
“Why did you do that to me?” I say. “What was the point of that, huh? I wasn’t aware that when I chose Dauntless, I was signing up for weeks of torture!”
“Did you think overcoming cowardice would be easy?” he says calmly.