I sigh. Abnegation is what I am. It is what I am when I’m not thinking about what I’m doing. It is what I am when I am put to the test. It is what I am even when I appear to be brave. Am I in the wrong faction?
The thought of my former faction sends a tremor through my hands. I have to warn my family about the war the Erudite are planning, but I don’t know how. I will find a way, but not today. Today I have to focus on what awaits me. One thing at a time.
I eat like a robot, rotating from chicken to peas to bread and back again. It doesn’t matter what faction I really belong in. In two hours I will walk to the fear landscape room with the other initiates, go through my fear landscape, and become Dauntless. It’s too late to turn back.
When I finish, I bury my face in my pillow. I don’t mean to fall asleep, but after a while, I do, and I wake up to Christina shaking my shoulder.
“Time to go,” she says. She looks ashen.
I rub my eyes to press the sleep from them. I have my shoes on already. The other initiates are in the dormitory, tying shoelaces and buttoning jackets and throwing smiles around like they don’t mean it. I pull my hair into a bun and put on my black jacket, zipping it up to my throat. The torture will be over soon, but can we forget the simulations? Will we ever sleep soundly again, with the memories of our fears in our heads? Or will we finally forget our fears today, like we’re supposed to?
We walk to the Pit and up the path that leads to the glass building. I look up at the glass ceiling. I can’t see daylight because the soles of shoes cover every inch of glass above us. For a second I think I hear the glass creak, but it is my imagination. I walk up the stairs with Christina, and the crowd chokes me.
I am too short to see above anyone’s head, so I stare at Will’s back and walk in his wake. The heat of so many bodies around me makes it difficult to breathe. Beads of sweat gather on my forehead. A break in the crowd reveals what they are all clustered around: a series of screens on the wall to my left.
I hear a cheer and stop to look at the screens. The screen on the left shows a black-clothed girl in the fear landscape room—Marlene. I watch her move, her eyes wide, but I can’t tell what obstacle she’s facing. Thank God no one out here will see my fears either—just my reactions to them.
The middle screen shows her heart rate. It picks up for a second and then decreases. When it reaches a normal rate, the screen flashes green and the Dauntless cheer. The screen on the right shows her time.
I tear my eyes from the screen and jog to catch up to Christina and Will. Tobias stands just inside a door on the left side of the room that I barely noticed the last time I was here. It is next to the fear landscape room. I walk past him without looking at him.
The room is large and contains another screen, similar to the one outside. A line of people sit in chairs in front of it. Eric is one of them, and so is Max. The others are also older. Judging by the wires connected to their heads, and their blank eyes, they are observing the simulation.
Behind them is another line of chairs, all occupied now. I am the last to enter, so I don’t get one.
“Hey, Tris!” Uriah calls out from across the room. He sits with the other Dauntless-born initiates. Only four of them are left; the rest have gone through their fear landscapes already. He pats his leg. “You can sit on my lap, if you want.”
“Tempting,” I call back, grinning. “It’s fine. I like to stand.”
I also don’t want Tobias to see me sitting on someone else’s lap.
The lights lift in the fear landscape room, revealing Marlene in a crouch, her face streaked with tears. Max, Eric, and a few others shake off the simulation daze and walk out. A few seconds later I see them on the screen, congratulating her for finishing.
“Transfers, the order in which you go through the final test was taken from your rankings as they now stand,” Tobias says. “So Drew will go first, and Tris will go last.”
That means five people will go before I do.
I stand in the back of the room, a few feet away from Tobias. He and I exchange glances when Eric sticks Drew with the needle and sends him into the fear landscape room. By the time it’s my turn, I will know how well the others did, and how well I will have to do to beat them.
The fear landscapes are not interesting to watch from the outside. I can see that Drew is moving, but I don’t know what he is reacting to. After a few minutes, I close my eyes instead of watching and try to think of nothing. Speculating about which fears I will have to face, and how many there will be, is useless at this point. I just have to remember that I have the power to manipulate the simulations, and that I have practiced it before.
Molly goes next. It takes her half as long as it takes Drew, but even Molly has trouble. She spends too much time breathing heavily, trying to control her panic. At one point she even screams at the top of her lungs.
It amazes me how easy it is to tune out everything else—thoughts of war on Abnegation, Tobias, Caleb, my parents, my friends, my new faction fade away. All I can do now is get past this obstacle.
Christina is next. Then Will. Then Peter. I don’t watch them. I know only how much time it takes them: twelve minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. And then my name.
I open my eyes and walk to the front of the observation room, where Eric stands with a syringe full of orange liquid. I barely feel the needle as it plunges into my neck, barely see Eric’s pierced face as he presses the plunger down. I imagine that the serum is liquid adrenaline rushing through my veins, making me strong.
“Ready?” he asks.
I AM READY. I step into the room, armed not with a gun or a knife, but with the plan I made the night before. Tobias said that stage three is about mental preparation—coming up with strategies to overcome my fears.
I wish I knew what order the fears will come in. I bounce on the balls of my feet as I wait for the first fear to appear. I am already short of breath.
The ground beneath me changes. Grass rises from the concrete and sways in a wind I cannot feel. A green sky replaces the exposed pipes above me. I listen for the birds and feel my fear as a distant thing, a hammering heart and a squeezed chest, but not something that exists in my mind. Tobias told me to figure out what this simulation means. He was right; it isn’t about the birds. It’s about control.
Wings flap next to my ear, and the crow’s talons dig into my shoulder.
This time, I do not hit the bird as hard as I can. I crouch, listening to the thunder of wings behind me, and run my hand through the grass, just above the ground. What combats powerlessness? Power. And the first time I felt powerful in the Dauntless compound was when I was holding a gun.
A lump forms in my throat and I want the talons off. The bird squawks and my stomach clenches, but then I feel something hard and metal in the grass. My gun.
I point the gun at the bird on my shoulder, and it detaches from my shirt in an explosion of blood and feathers. I spin on my heel, aiming the gun at the sky, and see the cloud of dark feathers descending. I squeeze the trigger, firing again and again into the sea of birds above me, watching their dark bodies drop to the grass.
As I aim and shoot, I feel the same rush of power I felt the first time I held a gun. My heart stops racing and the field, gun, and birds fade away. I stand in the dark again.
I shift my weight, and something squeaks beneath my foot. I crouch down and slide my hand along a cold, smooth panel—glass. I press my hands to glass on either side of my body. The tank again. I am not afraid of drowning. This is not about the water; it is about my inability to escape the tank. It is about weakness. I just have to convince myself that I am strong enough to break the glass.
The blue lights come on, and water slips over the floor, but I don’t let the simulation get that far. I slam my palm against the wall in front of me, expecting the pane to break.
My hand bounces off, causing no damage.
My heartbeat speeds up. What if what worked in the first simulation doesn’t work here? What if I can’t break the glass unless I’m under duress? The water laps over my ankles, flowing faster by the second. I have to calm down. Calm down and focus. I lean against the wall behind me and kick as hard as I can. And again. My toes throb, but nothing happens.
I have another option. I can wait for water to fill the tank—and it’s already at my knees—and try to calm down as I drown. I brace myself against the wall, shaking my head. No. I can’t let myself drown. I can’t.
I ball my hands up into fists and pound on the wall. I am stronger than the glass. The glass is as thin as newly frozen ice. My mind will make it so. I close my eyes. The glass is ice. The glass is ice. The glass is—
The glass shatters under my hand, and water spills onto the floor. And then the dark returns.
I shake out my hands. That should have been an easy obstacle to overcome. I’ve faced it before in simulations. I can’t afford to lose time like that again.
What feels like a solid wall hits me from the side, forcing the air from my lungs, and I fall hard, gasping. I can’t swim; I’ve only seen bodies of water this large, this powerful, in pictures. Beneath me is a rock with a jagged edge, slick with water. The water pulls at my legs, and I cling to the rock, tasting salt on my lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a dark sky and a blood-red moon.
Another wave hits, slamming against my back. I hit my chin against the stone and wince. The sea is cold, but my blood is hot, running down my neck. I stretch my arm and find the edge of the rock. The water pulls at my legs with irresistible force. I cling as hard as I can, but I am not strong enough—the water pulls me and the wave throws my body back. It flings my legs over my head and my arms to each side, and I collide with the stone, my back pressed against it, water gushing over my face. My lungs scream for air. I twist and grab the edge of the rock, pulling myself above the water. I gasp, and another wave hits me, this one harder than the first, but I have a better hold.
I must not really be afraid of the water. I must be afraid of being out of control. To face it, I have to regain control.
With a scream of frustration, I throw my hand forward and find a hole in the rock. My arms shake violently as I drag myself forward, and I pull my feet up under me before the wave can take me with it. Once my feet are free, I get up and throw my body into a run, into a sprint, my feet quick on the stone, the red moon in front of me, the ocean gone.
Then everything is gone, and my body is still. Too still.
I try to move my arms, but they are bound tightly to my sides. I look down and see rope wrapped around my chest, my arms, my legs. A stack of logs rises around my feet, and I see a pole behind me. I am high above the ground.
People creep out of the shadows, and their faces are familiar. They are the initiates, carrying torches, and Peter is at the front of the pack. His eyes look like black pits, and he wears a smirk that spreads too wide across his face, forcing wrinkles into his cheeks. A laugh starts somewhere in the center of the crowd and rises as voice after voice joins it. Cackling is all I hear.
As the cackling grows louder, Peter lowers his torch to the wood, and flames leap up near the ground. They flicker at the edges of each log and then creep over the bark. I don’t struggle against the ropes, as I did the first time I faced this fear. Instead I close my eyes and gulp as much air as I can. This is a simulation. It can’t hurt me. The heat from the flames rises around me. I shake my head.
“Smell that, Stiff?” Peter says, his voice louder than even the cackling.
“No,” I say. The flames are getting higher.
He sniffs. “That’s the smell of your burning flesh.”
When I open my eyes, my vision is blurry with tears.
“Know what I smell?” My voice strains to be louder than the laughter all around me, the laughter that oppresses me as much as the heat. My arms twitch, and I want to fight against the ropes, but I won’t, I won’t struggle pointlessly, I won’t panic.
I stare through the flames at Peter, the heat bringing blood to the surface of my skin, flowing through me, melting the toes of my shoes.
“I smell rain,” I say.
Thunder roars above my head, and I scream as a flame touches my fingertips and pain shrieks over my skin. I tilt my head back and focus on the clouds gathering above my head, heavy with rain, dark with rain. A line of lightning sprawls over the sky and I feel the first drop on my forehead. Faster, faster! The drop rolls down the side of my nose, and the second drop hits my shoulder, so big it feels like it’s made of ice or rock instead of water.
Sheets of rain fall around me, and I hear sizzling over the laughter. I smile, relieved, as the rain puts out the fire and soothes the burns on my hands. The ropes fall away, and I push my hands through my hair.
I wish I was like Tobias and had only four fears to face, but I am not that fearless.
I smooth my shirt down, and when I look up, I stand in my bedroom in the Abnegation sector of the city. I have never faced this fear before. The lights are off, but the room is lit by the moonlight coming through the windows. One of my walls is covered with mirrors. I turn toward it, confused. That isn’t right. I am not allowed to have mirrors.
I look at the reflection in the mirror: my wide eyes, the bed with the gray sheets pulled taut, the dresser that holds my clothes, the bookcase, the bare walls. My eyes skip to the window behind me.
And to the man standing just outside.
Cold drops down my spine like a bead of sweat, and my body goes rigid. I recognize him. He is the man with the scarred face from the aptitude test. He wears black and he stands still as a statue. I blink, and two men appear at his left and right, just as still as he is, but their faces are featureless—skin-covered skulls.
I whip my body around, and they stand in my room. I press my shoulders to the mirror.
For a moment, the room is silent, and then fists pound against my window, not just two or four or six, but dozens of fists with dozens of fingers, slamming into the glass. The noise vibrates in my rib cage, it is so loud, and then the scarred man and his two companions begin to walk with slow, careful movements toward me.