JACK FINISHED THE TEST, FILLING in the last bubble on the scan sheet.
The room was filled with the chalky, rough sound of graphite on paper, of the repetitive and heightened heartbeats of the kids around him, of the deep, jagged breaths Matt kept taking, the tap of Nicole’s fingernails on her desk as she thought.
He closed his eyes, and he could see them all. Every scratching pencil was like a GPS marker. He knew the exact direction of each one, the exact distance. It was like he was looking down on the room like a sheet of graph paper, and he could plot every student on it.
At least he wasn’t throwing up anymore. For a while that was all he could do. Eating so much as a piece of bread was a nauseating assault. He tasted everything, every tiny bit of improperly mixed flour, all the mold spores that were lurking inside, not even visible yet. Even water was a disgusting slime of minerals and oils.
He could hear everything. He could taste everything. He could see everything.
He could control it better all the time; he could focus his concentration on something—staring at the cinder-block wall and counting the dimples in its texture, or looking at his fingerprints as if they were under a microscope—and that helped to block out the unwanted senses. At least now he could sit in a room with other people and not get a headache from the noise. He could have the lights on without feeling blinded.
They’d moved him to a nice dorm room, with a real bed and a dresser and a lamp. It reminded him of going to the department store: rows of bedroom sets of all different styles. This entire facility seemed to have been constructed in the last few weeks; he wondered if the army had raided an Ikea to build the dorms.
“Pencils down,” the man in the suit said. He didn’t appear to be military. Was he FBI? A doctor? They’d gone through three tests already today: one that checked basic school stuff, math and science and reading, one that was more about problem solving, and now this third one was an endless true-or-false personality test: “At times I feel like swearing,” “I think I would like the work of a librarian,” “I am sure I get a raw deal from life.” Five hundred sixty-seven statements like that. When Jack finished and laid his pencil on the desk, his brain felt like mud.
As the man walked up and down the rows of desks, he seemed nervous, like he hated being so close to the kids. Jack wanted to jump, just to make him flinch. But really, Jack was one of the people in the room who couldn’t hurt anyone. He could just watch and listen and smell and taste.
And touch—ugh. No blankets were soft enough for him. Everything felt like sandpaper.
With the sheaf of questionnaires in his arms, the man turned back to the group.
“You’ll be meeting with me in the next few days to discuss the results of these tests.” Then he turned and left.
“Can’t wait,” said Josi, just as the door closed.
“What a wuss,” another boy said. “He acted like we were going to light him on fire. Can anyone in here do that?”
Several people laughed. Everyone knew what their abilities were now, and they were slowly getting used to them.
“Jack,” Matt called out from across the room, as Jack climbed back onto his bed. “Did you notice anything? Any Sherlock Holmes action to explain what that was all about?”
Matt asked Jack that after almost every person came in the room, but Jack never knew what he was supposed to be looking for.
“Deodorant, cologne,” Jack answered. “He had dandruff and looked like he bit his fingernails. Maybe if I was smarter I could put all of that together into a brilliant psychological profile.”
“I saw something,” Josi said.
Josi had one of the few powers in the group that Jack envied. A sort of photographic memory, combined with instant comprehension. It sounded like the kind of thing that would come in handy during a math class back home.
Everyone perked up. Josi had become a sort of de facto leader.
“We’ve all been classified,” she said. “I saw it on his paperwork as he was going through our names.”
“What do you mean, classified?” someone asked.
“The army—or the government, or whoever—has categorized us all according to our usefulness,” Josi said.
“Usefulness for what?” Matt asked, sitting on top of his desk. He didn’t sound pleased.
“Military use. They have a rating system to show how beneficial we’d be if we were in the army.”
“What the hell?” a girl said. “I’m fifteen years old.”
Josi shrugged. “I’m just saying what I saw.”
Jack called out, “So what is it? What are we?”
“We all have something called a Lambda rating. I don’t know what Lambda means—that wasn’t on the chart. Jack, you’re a Lambda 4T, which means you’d be best suited for tactical intelligence, which I think means reconnaissance. I’m a Lambda 4O—that’s operational intelligence. I’m not sure what that means.”
“What about me?” Matt asked.
“You had an asterisk,” she said. “That means ‘currently uncategorized.’”
“Figures,” he said, annoyed. “Not much call for basketball in the army.” Matt had been diagnosed with a very mild form of telekinesis: without realizing it, he’d been guiding all his throws by gently nudging the path of the ball.
Jack laughed. “Think of how well you could throw a grenade.”
“And that’s probably it,” Matt said.
“Laura,” Josi said, “you were the only five—a Lambda 5D, which means Direct Weapon Use.”
“Nice,” one of the guys said. “Kickin’ ass and taking names.”
Laura only smiled.
Josi went through the rest of the list. There were a lot of twos—designated as “Civilian Use” —and a couple of ones—“No practical use.” Eddie, with the hot breath, got that one, and he was pissed. So did a girl who could change something’s color by touching it. She laughed it off and said she was glad—she saw a life ahead of her as an interior designer.
The threes were all logistics—a kid who could fix anything mechanical, another who was some kind of human calculator, and a handful more.
The fours were all intelligence. Nicole got lumped in there, same as Jack: Lambda 4T. Little Cesar Carbajal, the kid who could instantly count anything he could see, was also put in intelligence, which seemed to make Eddie even angrier.
The fives were the weapons. Josi said this was broken down into several categories, but the only one in the room was Laura.
It was a 3L, a sort of healer, who asked the question on everyone’s minds. “Does this mean we’re all going to be drafted?”
“We’re too young to be drafted,” Jack said. “Well, most of us are. Who here is eighteen or older?”
Laura and Josi were the only ones who raised their hands.
“See?” Jack said. “And girls don’t have to sign up for selective service. We’re not going to get drafted.”
“Maybe it’s in case we want to join up?” Laura said.
Eddie shook his head. “Who would want to join up after this?”
“I don’t blame them,” Laura said. “They said that the terrorists have this same virus, and they’re using it against our country—against America. I’m not just going to go back to school and the mall and pretend we’re not at war.”