"The duration of the test is two and one half hours. Begin."
The Dean turned to the blackboard and drew a clock face on it. Quentin looked down at the blank booklet on his desk. It was no longer blank. It was filling with questions; the letters literally swam into being on the paper as he watched.
The room filled with a collective rustling of paper, like a flock of birds taking off. Heads bowed in unison. Quentin recognized this motion. It was the motion of a bunch of high-powered type- A test killers getting down to their bloody work.
That was all right. He was one of them.
By Lev Grossman
Hardcover, 416 pages
List Price: $26.95
Quentin hadn't planned on spending the rest of his afternoon — or morning, or whatever this was — taking a standardized test on an unknown subject, at an unknown educational institution, in some unknown alternate climatic zone where it was still summer. He was supposed to be in Brooklyn freezing his ass off and being interviewed by some random senior citizen, currently deceased. But the logic of his immediate circumstances was overwhelming his other concerns, however well founded they might be. He had never been one to argue with logic.
A lot of the test was calculus, pretty basic stuff for Quentin, who was so mysteriously good at math that his high school had been forced to outsource that part of his education to Brooklyn College. Nothing more hazardous than some fancy differential geometry and a few linear algebra proofs. But there were more exotic questions, too. Some of them seemed totally pointless. One of them showed him the back of a playing card — not an actual card but a drawing of the back of a playing card, mind you, featuring your standard twin angels riding bicycles — and asked him to guess what card it was. How did that make sense?
Or later on the test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then — honestly, what was the point? — questions about the made-up geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently
spoken. Then he had to translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning. Seriously. He always gave everything he had on tests, but in this case he wasn't totally sure what he was supposed to give.
The test also changed as he took it. The reading-comprehension section showed him a paragraph that vanished as he read it, then quizzed him on its contents. Some new kind of computerized paper — hadn't he read somewhere that somebody was working on that? Digital ink? Amazing resolution, though. He was asked to draw a rabbit that wouldn't keep still as he drew it — as soon as it had paws it scratched itself luxuriously and then went hopping off around the page, nibbling at the other questions, so that he had to chase it with the pencil to finish filling in the fur. He wound up pacifying it with some hastily sketched radishes and then drawing a fence around it to keep it in line.
Soon he forgot about everything else except putting a satisfactory chunk of his neat handwriting next to one question after another, appeasing whatever perverse demands the test made on him. It was an hour before he even looked up from his desk. His ass hurt. He shifted in his chair. The patches of sunlight from the windows had moved.
Something else had changed, too. When he'd started every single desk had been filled, but now there was a sprinkling of empty ones. He hadn't noticed anybody leaving. A cold crystal seed of doubt formed in Quentin's stomach. Jesus, they must have finished already. He wasn't used to being outclassed in the classroom. The palms of his hands prickled with sweat, and he smeared them along his thighs. Who were these people?
When Quentin flipped to the next page of the test booklet it was blank except for a single word in the center of the page: FIN, in swirly italic type, like at the end of an old movie.
He sat back in the chair and pressed the heels of his aching hands against his aching eyes. Well, that was two hours of his life he'd never get back. Quentin still hadn't noticed anybody getting up and walking out, but the room was getting seriously depopulated. There were maybe fifty kids left, and more empty desks than full ones. It was like they were softly and silently slipping out of the room every time he turned his head. The punk with the tattoos and no shirt was still there. He must have finished, or given up, because he was dicking around by ordering more and more glasses of water. His desktop was crowded with glasses. Quentin spent the last twenty minutes staring out the window and practicing a spinning trick with his pencil.
The Dean came in again and addressed the room.
"I'm delighted to inform you all that you will be moving on to the next stage of testing," he said. "This stage will be conducted on an individual basis by members of the Brakebills faculty. In the meantime, you may enjoy some refreshment and converse among yourselves."
Quentin counted only twenty-two desks still occupied, maybe a tenth of the original group. Bizarrely, a silent, comically correct butler in white gloves entered and began circulating through the room. He gave each of them a wooden tray with a sandwich — roasted red peppers and very fresh mozzarella on sourdough bread — a lumpy pear, and a thick square of dark, bitter chocolate. He poured each student a glass of something cloudy and fizzy from an individual bottle without a label. It turned out to be grapefruit soda.
Quentin took his lunch and drifted up to the front row, where most of the rest of the test takers were gathering. He felt pathetically relieved to have gotten this far, even though he had no idea why he'd passed and the others had failed, or what he'd get for passing. The butler was patiently loading the clinking, sloshing collection of water glasses from the punk's desk onto a tray. Quentin looked for Julia, but either she hadn't made the cut or she'd never been there in the first place.
"They should have capped it," explained the punk, who said his name was Penny. He had a gentle moony face that was at odds with his otherwise terrifying appearance. "How much water you can ask for. Like maybe five glasses at most. I love finding shit like that, where the system screws itself with its own rules."
"Anyway, I was bored. The test told me I was done after twenty minutes."
"Twenty minutes?" Quentin was torn between admiration and envy. "Jesus Christ, it took me two hours."
The punk shrugged again and made a face: What the hell do you want me to say?
Among the test takers, camaraderie warred with mistrust. Some of the kids exchanged names and home towns and cautious observations about the test, though the more they compared notes, the more they realized that none of them had taken the same one. They were from all over the country, except for two who turned out to be from the same Inuit reservation in Saskatchewan. They went around the room telling stories about how they'd gotten here. No two were exactly the same, but there was always a certain family resemblance. Somebody went looking for a lost ball in an alley, or a stray goat in a drainage ditch, or followed an inexplicable extra cable in the high school computer room which led to a server closet that had never been there before. And then green grass and summer heat and somebody to take them up to the exam room.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Copyright 2009 by Lev Grossman.