High Stakes

B.A. Booher

May 26th 2023


“There’s always one. No matter how much you’re warned, somebody thinks he’s figured out the system, figured he’s smarter than the rest of us, figured he can cheat on the Citizenship Placement exam. By this time tomorrow, one of you will be out on your duff as a burnout. You’ll breathe recycled air and drink recycled water. You’ll see sunlight on holidays. Course, you won’t mind the stink of the lower levels because you’ll be a burnout. And the government doesn’t care who it burns; a cheater’s a cheater. Any questions?”

Ty bit his lip to stop from laughing at the gen-mod sergeant and his rant. The irony of being lectured by a gen-mod about the importance of not using enhancements to achieve a goal was not lost on the sixteen-year-old. He supposed the sergeant was there to show the kids that the government was serious, but the kids weren’t stupid. If they didn’t understand the government was serious, they deserved to be burned.

Ornild Churles, resident saint and the boy beside Ty, raised his hand. “Why not just make cheating impossible?”

“Sounds like burnout talk,” barked the officer. “You think we want cheaters as part of our great nation? We give you the chance to burn yourself, and somebody in here’s going to take it. Understood?”

Ty used every bit of willpower not to roll his eyes.

“Last chance to opt out of the test. Doing so automatically reduces you to a tertiary citizen with secondary reproductive rights, but that’s still better than a burnout. Anyone leaving?”

The officer stared fiercely at Ornild, but the kid didn’t blink. “You’ve all been trained to use the testing system. Any wayward glances, implants, communication devices of any sort, or cheating in anyway will result in getting burned. Enter the testing site and find your seats.”

The class shuffled through the scanners at the front of the testing sight and into the room with his classmates. Metal helmets hung on steel stems above chairs bolted to the floor. The helmets came to life with a quiet murmur and a soft glow. Ty sat under the visor displaying his name, cracked his knuckles, and casually turned on the hypodermal implants in his fingers. He pressed his tongue against his fake tooth to activate his neural implants.

After a silent prayer, Ty rested his arms on his desk. When his hands covered the nodes, steel coils slithered around his wrists and midsection so that he could not move and they could gauge his biofeedback. A red beam from the helmet scanned him as the metal stem slowly descended. It pressed down on his skull uncomfortably before adjusting itself. The neural implants in his head sent a signal to the hypodermal nodes that would tell the testing devices everything was in parameters. Of course, if they discovered the neural implants or the nodes, Ty would burn.

The visor’s display intensified as the scanners started tracking Ty’s eye movement. He did as he had been taught and stared straight ahead until the red beam dimmed and the first question appeared. As each question was displayed, Ty’s neural implants helped guide his mental processes so that he could quickly remember the answer. His fingers whizzed along the bionic nodes in the armrests as questions ranging from math to morality were paraded in front of his eyes.

For over two hours, his cheats worked beautifully. The answers came effortlessly and quickly, but then something beeped. The hypodermal nodes scrambled as Ty’s pulse raced. A yellow warning light flared inside his helmet while the alarm in his ear grew stronger. Every possible failure of his implants flashed through Ty’s mind aided by the implants ability to pull his thoughts. His mouth was dry as he tried to focus on the questions but the coils around his chest made it hard to breathe. The very tools he had created to help him through the test were now making it impossible to continue. The warning light throbbed on and off.  They knew and they were going to burn him. It wasn’t supposed to hurt but only the burnouts really knew, and they didn’t talk much.

The questions stopped coming. The helmet vibrated as it powered up. Ty wanted to beg for a chance to explain, to plead his case but his fear kept him silent. The humming increased. His tongue turned dry, leaving words too hard for his sandpaper tongue.

The screaming started just as the yellow light flashed red, but it wasn’t Ty. It was Ornild Churles. “Please, I haven’t done anything!” he cried. “I don’t have any implants. I can’t see anything but the visor. I’m not cheating!” The rest was garbled. The smell of burnt flesh filled the room.

Relief washed through Ty as he realized he must have heard Ornild’s helmet beeping, not his own. He quickly answered the question he had been stuck on and the red light disappeared. Minutes later, the test was over and the helmets retracted to the ceiling. No one said a word as the burnout was led from the room, the crotch of his pants seared from the sterilization, the holes from the laser lobotomy still smoking.

A woman in a white coat had replaced the officer. She told the group to exit via the rear doors where they could pick up their links and check their scores.

As Ty neared the exit, three soldiers separated him from the herd. “What?” asked Ty, but the soldiers just shrugged and forced him into a small room with the gen-mod sergeant who had spoken earlier.

“Your implants are pretty good for homemade parts and self-implantation. You barely even registered when that Churles kid got burned. Administration likes your resourcefulness. We’d like to offer you a job.”

“You knew?” stammered Ty.

“We needed to see how you reacted under pressure.”

“So Ornild… was just a test?”

The sergeant grinned. “Like I said, there’s always one.”

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