by Disva Dravir
A young woman dreams of being a hero. However, the price for such an aspiration is cruel.
|Abigail froze, the dayâ€™s mail quaking in her hands as she stared at the logo of the letter on top. The Metahuman Peace Force. There was only one thing that could be inside - her test results. Yanking the mail out, she slammed the door of the mailbox shut as she rushed into the house, pulling the door closed behind her with a bang before dumping the letters out onto the kitchen table.
She grabbed her test results, suddenly aware that she was sweating. Grabbing a butter knife, she pried the letter open, careful not to tear the paper. Pulling out the contents, she unfolded the page and quickly scanned over it, her eyes darting from word to word, barely comprehending them, simply looking for whether she passed of failed. â€śTo Abigail Reid...thank you for your participation...we at the...third MPF recruitment test...for the safety of...â€ť
There, right at the bottom. â€śAbigail Reid - Passedâ€ť. Abigail collapsed into a chair, reverently setting the results onto the table as she caught her breath. The third written test was the last and hardest of the preliminary tests. It was a curved test - only the top quarter of applicants advanced. She had nearly jeopardized her final semester of high school preparing for it - she hadnâ€™t even attended her graduation.
But it was done, and her agonizing three weeks of waiting for the results were over. Leaning back against the chair, she pressed a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes. A few moments later, she heard footsteps approaching her. Her mother had arrived, no doubt curious of what the commotion was all about. As she entered the kitchen, she stopped, seeing her daughter half-fainted with a pile of letters in front of her.
Abigail turned her head, opening her eyes and smiling up at her mother, blinking back tears. She couldnâ€™t speak yet, but the joy in her face was unmistakable.
Tamara rushed forward, pulling her daughter out of her seat and into her arms for a tight hug, beaming down at her, sharing a moment of triumph with her daughter. Abigail had been one of the last test-takers to receive her letter, and she had been obsessively asking the other participants about their results - of the 46 that took the third test, 10 had already been told they had passed. What had seemed like an impossibility five minutes ago was now confirmed, printed on government stationery.
Finally recovering her voice, Abigail pulled back from her motherâ€™s grasp, saying, â€śI knew it...I knew I did it. I worked so hard.â€ť
Her mother pressed a hand to her shoulder, gently squeezing. â€śYes, yes. You did it. Oh, sweetie, Iâ€™m so glad for you...but, whenâ€™s the final test?â€ť
She paused, doubt entering her voice. â€śI...I donâ€™t know, I didnâ€™t...hold on.â€ť
Abigail lifted the paper once more, now reading the sentences clearly. After a few seconds, she bit her lip, closing her eyes for a moment, before adopting a stoic, serious expression. The news was alarming, but it wasnâ€™t necessarily bad. She was ready to handle it. Even if it was right now, she could do it.
Calming herself, she let out a quiet breath. â€śOne week.â€ť
Her mother frowned, moving closer as she looked at the letter in disbelief. â€śOne? Thereâ€™s supposed to be at least two weekâ€™s notice...â€ť
She shook her head, setting the paper down. â€śThe letter arrived late, so, it only makes sense. Itâ€™s fine, itâ€™s not like Iâ€™ve been sitting around these past three weeks.â€ť
Abigail flashed a grin. In truth, she had been working herself to the bone, not only to prepare for the final trial, but also to work out the stress of not knowing whether she would have to wait another year before trying again. Even now, her muscles ached, burning fiercely to remind her of the torment she had put them through just the day before, but it was no matter. The joy she felt now was enough to let her ignore them for the moment.
â€śWill you be alright, though? The practical examination is tough, honey. Real tough. Youâ€™ll need a lot more sleep than youâ€™ve been getting.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll be fine, mom. Everyone else had an edge on me with the written exams - theyâ€™ve had more years to study, almost everyone there was three or four years older. But that doesnâ€™t matter, now. My skills are real, and all I need to do is show them that! â€ť
â€śTheyâ€™re harder on young recruits, you know that. Itâ€™s not so easy. They-â€ť
Abigail silenced her with a second hug, this one to calm her mother down, instead. Once she felt her relax, she smiled at her softly, her face even and unworried. There was nothing else to say, she was ready. Tamara smiled back, a hint of her sharp, shark-like teeth peeking past her lips.
The moment was broken by a buzzing in her pocket. She let go of her mother, who went to sort out the remainder of the mail as Abigail pulled out her phone. Hayden had sent her a text:
â€śgot coupons for roller skating, you in? my treatâ€ť
Normally, sheâ€™d take him up on the offer - itâ€™d help her with cardio conditioning, and it was more fun than swimming laps. But the practical exam wouldnâ€™t be a test of roller skating ability. There was somewhere else sheâ€™d need to go to prepare. Itâ€™d mean depleting the last of her funds, though. The Stone Arena was not the type of place to print 2-for-1 coupons.
â€śI canâ€™t, finally got word that I passed the third test. Going to Stone Arena. Iâ€™m going to be busy for the next week.â€ť
â€śi knew youâ€™d do it! ill meet you at the bus stopâ€ť
Abigail smiled to herself, putting her phone back in her pocket. Hayden probably couldnâ€™t afford to spend much time in the Arena, but no doubt heâ€™d spend everything he had for a chance to see her in action. She couldnâ€™t blame him, she put on one hell of a show.
â€śHey, Mom, Iâ€™m going to the Stone Arena! I-â€ť
Her mother crossed her arms. â€śWill make sure to be back in time for supper, Iâ€™m sure.â€ť
Abigail paused, frowning. â€śI was going to say that I wouldnâ€™t be able to make it...â€ť
â€śOh no you donâ€™t. Whatâ€™s the point of all that exercise if youâ€™re eating junk food downtown? Besides, youâ€™ll be spending enough money as it is - come home for supper, Gail. Do that, and Iâ€™ll pay half of the costs of the Arena. I know you donâ€™t have enough, and I donâ€™t want you taking anything from that poor Hayden kid. Heâ€™s too young to be giving out money like that - he hasnâ€™t learned you arenâ€™t giving it back yet.â€ť
She shifted her feet, jaw clenching as she listened to her mother lecture her. It meant cutting into her time at the Arena, but getting help paying for it probably meant more time overall. It just meant Hayden would be disappointed - no doubt, he wanted to eat at the burger joint nearby, and didnâ€™t want to go alone. But, there was nothing else for it. Sheâ€™d make it up to him once she passed.
She relaxed her shoulders, resigned. â€śAlright, fine. I will pay him back, though, once Iâ€™m a Peacekeeper.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll believe it when I see it. Now, go already! Youâ€™ll miss your bus! Itâ€™s already 10:12, the bus-â€ť
Abigail nodded, giving her mom a wave even as she kept talking. She turned and rushed out of the door, only stopping to grab her water bottle on the way. The air of Flagston, the suburban neighborhood sheâ€™d lived in all her life, suddenly felt fresher and cleaner than she could remember.
As she approached the bus stop, she spied the awkward, gangly form of Hayden. She gave him a tap on the shoulder, then stepped in front of him in line, pulling out her bus pass. He turned, startled, before recognizing her and relaxing.
Looking down at her friend, her green eyes lit up as a smile crossed her lips. Just being around the kid calmed her. â€śHey there. Been waiting for me long?â€ť
He shook his head, droplets of sweat flying off of his brown skin. No doubt he had ran here. â€śNah, just got here! But, hey, I still gotta congratulate you!â€ť
â€śYou did that already, over text. Itâ€™s fine, and thanks for coming along with me.â€ť
â€śNo, seriously dude! We really gotta celebrate! We should go-â€ť
The bus pulled up, cutting him off as the line moved forward, each person scanning their pass. Hayden fell silent, but as soon as Abigail grabbed a seat, he sat next to her and resumed talking, though much quieter.
â€śWe should, I dunno, go downtown and really cut loose!â€ť
She smirked, leaning back. â€śYouâ€™re 15, whatâ€™s your idea of cutting loose? Go karts?â€ť
â€śOkay youâ€™re only like, three years older than me, you donâ€™t get to act so smug! Besides, you like go karts!â€ť
â€śWell, yeah everybody does, but, thatâ€™s not the point. We donâ€™t have time to celebrate right now. The final test is coming up, Iâ€™ve only got a week. Every minute spent goofing around is a minute I donâ€™t spend preparing.â€ť
His brown eyes went wide as he leaned in, pleading. â€śYouâ€™ve been preparing for this, for like, your whole life! Whatâ€™s one week gonna do, anyway? You know doing things last-minute wonâ€™t help, youâ€™ll just exhaust yourself again. Letâ€™s just, yâ€™know, have fun!â€ť
Her jaw tightened as she sternly replied, â€śI havenâ€™t been preparing my whole life, Hayden, thatâ€™s you. I only got my powers at 14, remember? Four years of practice is nothing compared to people like you, whoâ€™ve had their powers their whole lives.â€ť
He went quiet, looking down and averting his gaze. He often forgot that, as he met her only a year back, when she already had begun mastering her abilities. To him, she had always been powerful.
As he fell silent, Abigail looked out the window, watching Flagston recede into the distance, the calm and cheery atmosphere of suburbia slowly giving way to the brutalism of downtown Harland. As they drew nearer, the street lights began to be wrapped in thick concrete barriers, the walls were notably thicker, hardened against attacks, and almost every building showed signs of having been newly-made.
Downtown had been almost completely destroyed a few years back, and when they rebuilt, they built it hard and mean. She couldnâ€™t blame them - that was the third time Harland had suffered major damage during an attack in forty years. No doubt, they were getting tired of rebuilding everything. In order to build anything downtown, now, you needed the materials to make a bomb shelter. Abigail smiled, watching a looming, thick-walled structure pass by - a pet store, by the look of the cheery sign. She liked the new Harland. It was tough, and it didnâ€™t back down.
They soon approached the Stone Arena, one of the few surviving buildings from the last big attack. Of course, it had been built like a bunker even before then - that was the point. It was probably the second-most defensible structure in the city - it even served as a designated evacuation site during disasters. The massive concrete dome had no windows, and bore hundreds of dark smudges along its surface, places where it had sustained attacks with ease. Just looking at it made Abigail feel like it was daring her to try and break through.
Once they left the bus, however, getting through the imposing bunkerâ€™s defences proved simple enough - an ID card and a hundred dollar bill were all that was needed. Five feet of reinforced concrete later, and they were inside. Despite the height of the structure, the ceiling was low, stiflingly so, matching the narrow, tunnel-like walls.
The two walked along the long, circular hallway of the Stone Arena, looking for chamber 17, the one on the ticket Abigail had bought. Suddenly, Hayden turned to her, breaking the silence.
â€śSo - youâ€™re really sure about this, right?â€ť
â€śA bit late for that, Hayden. I already bought the ticket.â€ť
He scoffed, â€śNo! I mean...oh, you know what I mean! Being a hero, Gail...you barely graduated a few months ago, donâ€™t you want to at least try college, or something?â€ť
She shook her head, scanning their ticket at door 17. The thick steel door opened with a hiss as the harsh fluorescent lights turned on one by one, revealing a high-ceilinged room made entirely of rough, heavily-scarred concrete. Errant cylinders and blocks protruded from the floor, which was sunk about a foot below the roomâ€™s entrance. As the two stepped inside, the door swung closed, locking in place with a click.
â€śI donâ€™t care about that. Neither do you, last time I checked. Thatâ€™s not what I want to do, and not where my skills are.â€ť
Hayden frowned, brow furrowing as he pulled miscellaneous objects out of his pockets, storing them in a wall locker. Abigail did the same, the two divesting themselves of any unnecessary weight. She wondered to herself why heâ€™d bring this up...was he doubting himself, or her? In the meantime, he got his thoughts together and turned to her, mouth opening, before she shushed him. While he was still shocked into silence, she brushed past him, heading for the stairs.
â€śWe talk in the arena. I only booked us eight hours, letâ€™s not waste it.â€ť
He stepped back, alarmed. â€śEight!? Youâ€™ve gotta be kidding me...â€ť
Ignoring him, she stepped down into the concrete basin that formed the majority of the room. Pulling out a hair tie, she quickly stuffed her unruly red hair in a ponytail, then glanced over her shoulder back at him expectantly.
â€śCmon, Hayden. One week to practice, Iâ€™m not letting any chance slip by.â€ť
Groaning, the boy stepped into the arena. He futilely brushed his shaggy brown hair back as it moved with a mind of its own, shifting to fall back against his neck. At the sight of Abigail staring him down, he couldnâ€™t help but give a nervous smile. This would be tough, he knew. But it was worth it, to see her in her element.
At six feet in height, Abigail had a slight height advantage over him, but his long limbs negated any advantage in reach. She wondered how tall Hayden would get - he was already nearly her height, and still had more to go, with his frame. She missed the days of towering over him, sometimes.
â€śItâ€™s not all sparring, right?â€ť he pleaded.
Waving a hand dismissively, she turned to him. â€śOf course not. Only four hours or so. Now, stop whining, letâ€™s get to it!â€ť
He sighed, defeated, and shrugged, the motion shifting his hair off of his large, pointed ears. Being Mutated, he had gained his abilities through birth, much like Tamara had. Despite not having the raw power that Abigail did, he had fifteen years of experience to her four. He had already mastered using his power selectively - something he demonstrated right away.
He swung an arm at her, his arm stretching and distorting into elastic slime along the way, sending a long, whip-like punch at her. His fist, still flesh and bone, arced with incredible speed towards her head. With his ability to turn his body into goo, itâ€™d be impossible to tell just what angle the punch would come at - he could change it at a momentâ€™s notice.
However, that fist soon struck solid ice, formed just before it would have reached Abigailâ€™s head. An icy wall now stood at her left, frost falling off of it in waves as she maintained it. The woman let out a shaky breath, then lunged, her right hand encased in an icy glove.
However, the threat proved useless, as Hayden merely fell straight down, snapping down into a puddle of slime no more than an inch thick. Immediately, the puddle slid off to her left, hiding behind a protruding cylinder. She swore under her breath, jogging after him.
Seeking an advantage, Abigail called out, â€śSo, what was it you were going to say? Why is it I ought to go to university, instead of pursuing my dream and becoming a hero?â€ť
After a slight pause, Haydenâ€™s voice, somewhat bubbly, replied, â€śI was going to say...you canâ€™t say that university doesnâ€™t line up with your skills. You managed to pass the Peacekeeper test at 18, thatâ€™s nearly unheard-of. You can study like a madwoman-â€ť
Abigail grinned as he spoke, quietly stepping around, trying to find the source of his voice. He never could find a way to keep himself quiet for long.
â€ś-how can you say that you wouldnâ€™t excel in university? Youâ€™d do great, youâ€™re the smartest person-â€ť
She rounded a corner, finding the source of the voice, and fired off a blast of ice. At the same time, however, she felt something whip around her legs and yank them back, sending her flat on her face. From her position on the ground, she watched as a thin, extended tendril of slime with a mouth at the end retreated back around the barrier and out of sight. Her blast had gone wild thanks to her fall, and part of the concrete cylinder was frozen over.
Looking down at her feet, she saw Haydenâ€™s main body, his partially-gooified arms wrapped around her legs. His face was missing a mouth and his body from the waist down was just a puddle of slime. The extended tendril slurped back into the pool at his feet, and moments later, his mouth re-appeared on his face.
â€ś-Iâ€™ve ever met! Even though you fell for this.â€ť, he gloated, a grin on his face.
Grunting, she focused, then quickly pushed off the ground with her hands, making two thick ice pillars, grabbing onto them tightly. Yanking herself up by her arms, she pried her legs out of Haydenâ€™s slimy grasp. Using her momentum, she launched herself forward and off of the poles, rolling behind the barricade, giving herself some breathing room. Despite his teasing jab, she was grinning from ear-to-ear.
She stood, catching her breath, her eyes scanning the area around her, watching for movement. â€śMy skill was never studying, you know! Itâ€™s drive, plain and simple!â€ť
Abigail leapt forward, forming a pillar of ice in front of her, then sprung off of it as it grew, launching herself backwards. She landed atop the rounded cylinder, now adding about eight feet to her height. From her new vantage, she spied Hayden, fully reconstituted and pressed against the side of a block some distance away. Ice began to swirl around the pillar she stood on. With a gesture, the ice flooded towards him, crashing around the obstacles like water.
As she watched him desperately scramble up to try and escape the frozen tide, she crossed her arms, delighted. The proctors had no idea what was coming for them.
Eight hours later, the two of them were collapsed across the stone benches of the arena. Hayden could no longer maintain cohesion in his limbs, they were pooled in a puddle beneath him. Abigail groaned, drinking bottle after bottle of water, replenishing her bodyâ€™s moisture.
Hayden slowly lifted up his head, grunting with exertion, then said, â€śYouâ€™re totally crazy if you think weâ€™re doing this tomorrow...â€ť
â€śCourse not. Tomorrowâ€™s going to be focusing on precision and control. I wonâ€™t repeat the same workout day after day, you know?â€ť
â€ś...Youâ€™re a monster.â€ť
A week later, Abigail lifted herself out of the bath with a soft hiss as her arms burned. The training had been rough. Brutal on her body, her spirit, and her wallet. True to her word, Tamara had alleviated half of the financial burden, but she was still completely spent, after so many days of training. There was nothing else for it - open usage of oneâ€™s powers, especially on such a wide scale, was prohibited in all but the most secure locations.
Thankfully, she had listened to her motherâ€™s advice and had taken the last day off. The previous day had been spent trying to recover and recuperate. She had to admit that she felt much stronger, much more confident now. Of course, that could also be Haydenâ€™s effect on her. Being around him always made her feel stronger - she just couldnâ€™t disappoint someone who believed in her so much.
After towelling off and getting dressed, she headed for the front door. Eating breakfast was completely out of the question. Though she had tried her best to calm herself down, the stress and anxiety she felt now completely suppressed her appetite. It was all she could do to not throw up. After so much struggle, after so much hardship, if she failed here...
She stopped, standing two feet from the door. She squeezed her eyes shut and slapped her cheeks, leaving angry red marks on her pale skin. The pain shocked her system awake, and once more she could breathe freely. She could do this.
Hearing footsteps behind her, she turned, seeing her mother, and forced a smile. She smiled back, though, if anything, she looked even more strained that Abigail did. The two were quiet for a moment, but it was her mother who managed to speak first.
Tamara fidgeted, voice quiet. â€śYouâ€™ll be alright, sweetie. Just get home safe, alright? I wish I could come cheer you on, but-â€ť
Squaring her shoulders, Abigail thrust her chest out and gave her mom a smile. A real one, this time. â€śI know, mom. The shop needs you. Itâ€™s okay, Iâ€™ll get home safe. And Iâ€™ll pass, too.â€ť
Her mother relaxed, then patted her shoulder. â€śI know you will. Good luck, hon.â€ť
Abigail nodded, then turned back to the door, throwing it open. Hayden was on the other side, grinning. He didnâ€™t seem nervous at all, though was clearly exhausted after what she had put him through for the past week. She paused, wondering just how long heâ€™d been waiting for her.
Taking advantage of her hesitation, he stepped forward, rummaging in a bag. â€śGail! Good luck with the test today! I brought you some food-â€ť
She suppressed a grimace at the prospect of eating, and just ruffled his hair. It shifted, curling around her fingers for a moment before releasing her hand. â€śThanks. I do better hungry, through. Weâ€™ll eat after. Youâ€™re coming with, right?â€ť
He paused, confused. â€śI canâ€™t even watch the test, though...they donâ€™t let anyone but the proctors in there.â€ť
â€śI know. But knowing that youâ€™ll be waiting for me outside will help. Weâ€™ve worked hard together, so let's go as far as we can as a team, yeah? Iâ€™ll buy the meal, since Iâ€™m getting the job anyway!â€ť
He grinned and started heading for the bus without hesitation. â€śOf course! Câ€™mon then, letâ€™s go!â€ť
She followed him, sighing quietly. He was a good kid. If she managed to do this crazy thing, itâ€™d be thanks to him. Sheâ€™d pay him back. No doubt heâ€™d need her help, once he did this himself.
Abigail looked out of the bus window, lost in thought as Hayden rambled. She was glad he didnâ€™t mind when she tuned him out. They passed the Stone Arena, that hulking structure shrinking into the distance as the bus drove on. Finally, they got off at the MPF offices, and looked over the fortified base that was the cityâ€™s last bastion in its all-too-common moments of crisis.
It was low to the ground, with thick, angled walls, narrow windows, and gigantic metal doors. Most notably, it was still nearly 600 yards away. Vehicles werenâ€™t allowed anywhere near the offices - massive concrete bollards and barricades stopped everything short of a tank from approaching it.
For three hundred meters around the building, there were no trees, no benches, nothing that could break the sightlines of the thick plexiglass windows. The only ornamentation around were some brightly-coloured banners hanging from the walls, which only served to highlight the drabness of the structure.
At the beginning of the textured concrete path to the front doors stood a 14-foot bronze statue of the Justicar. A stoic, muscular man with a double-headed hammer in one hand and a child in the other, he stared down at the newcomers as if to determine their worth. Abigail looked up at the statue, wondering if the hero had lived to see it erected. The odds werenâ€™t good.
Passing under the statueâ€™s watchful gaze, Abigail and Hayden walked the long concrete path in silence. As they approached the doors, he turned to her, sweat beading on his forehead.
â€śSo - have you decided on a name yet?â€ť
â€śYeah, I think Glacia works. Itâ€™s short and simple, gets the point across.â€ť
He frowned. â€śNot Beira?â€ť
She sighed, shaking her head. Hayden had come up with that one. The kid loved his mythology. â€śNo, it was too obscure. People wouldnâ€™t get it. Iâ€™d hate having to explain it again and again.â€ť
He opened his mouth to reply, but they had already reached the doors. Two large, black-suited guards stood by them, eyeing the two. Abigail presented her letter of admission, and the two were let inside. Hayden stopped, getting a visitorâ€™s badge, then continued along with her, his bright and cheery demeanor dimming.
The interior of the MPF offices were stark white and sterile, bright lights reflecting off of polished ceramic tiles, giving it the appearance of a hospital mixed with a barracks. Few people staffed the place - a single secretary behind a plexiglass window was the only staff member beyond security. The two were led down long, bright hallways, until they arrived at the waiting room.
Once they sat down, they were entirely alone, just the two of them in a small room filled with metal seats. Abigail kept her breathing steady and measured, refusing to let herself get psyched out. Despite that, she felt her heart racing, chest tightening as her hands shook. Hayden turned to her, unable to hold the silence any longer.
â€śYou know, I heard that, in the MPF offices, thereâ€™s actually...â€ť
Abigail closed her eyes, letting her friendâ€™s nervous chatter drone away, listening to his voice without hearing his words. Slowly, she felt her heartbeat return to normal, the thin layer of sweat on her skin drying. Her trembling hands stilled, and she took a deep breath, chest relaxing.
She opened her eyes, looking up to see a security guard holding a clipboard. She stood, doing her best to maintain her fragile state of calm, keeping her mind clear. She glanced back to Hayden and nodded, silently grateful.
Hayden smiled nervously, trying to look calm. â€śGood luck, Gail!â€ť
She nodded curtly. â€śDonâ€™t need it - but thanks. See you once Iâ€™ve passed, Hayden.â€ť
He gave her a thumbs up, grinning. She walked past him and approached the guard. Looking down at the suited woman, she said, â€śIâ€™m ready.â€ť
The guard nodded, taking out a pen. â€śRight. Abigail Reid. Desired code name?â€ť
â€śCreation, control, and modification of ice.â€ť
â€śSource of powers?â€ť
The guard paused, then flipped a sheet. â€śAre you Bound to codes that would interfere with the test?â€ť
Marking down her answers, the guard then gestured to the door. â€śThrough here.â€ť
She stepped through the door, keeping her breathing steady. One hallway later, and she arrived in a large white room, a low metal table sitting at the far end with three people sitting at it. The proctors. Her judges. The people who would decide whether or not she could be a hero.
The roomâ€™s speakers crackled, turning on. â€śStep into the red circle.â€ť
She walked forward to the red circle painted in the center of the room. From here, she could see her judges more clearly. Two of them, she recognized. Bernard, the head of the MPF branch in Harland. On his right was Chrysalis, on his right was someone she couldnâ€™t place. All were incredibly experienced, no doubt. Veterans who had earned the title of â€śHeroâ€ť.
The three veteran heroes stared her down, faces stern. No doubt, they had been apprised of her age. Tamara was right, they were harder on younger candidates. They didnâ€™t like letting in kids who didnâ€™t know what they were doing - young heroes dying was bad publicity. She had to prove to them that she was able to protect herself and serve her community.
She did her best to keep the calmness Hayden had given her, breathing deeply. Slow, measured breathing, controlling her heart rate. She could do this. The only thing she had to do for the next twenty minutes was not let them discover that she didnâ€™t have ice powers. So long as she did that, everything would work out.
The speakers chimed once, followed by Bernardâ€™s deep bassy voice. â€śThe test begins now.â€ť