Chapter 17 by Benjamin Ralston

"Oh, God”. Rob’s heart stopped before whispering glibly, “I knew you’d be fine”, as if he had already forgotten his morbid thoughts from mere minutes ago. Nadia, still reeling from the realisation that Adi saw her as a pawn in his amoral capitalist pursuits, allowed herself a glimmer of hope before hissing, “Rob, what are you doing here!?” Her ephemeral relief was quickly replaced with cynicism. How could she trust anyone? Was Rob in cahoots with her cousin? The waves of uncertainty crashed against her like an existential dread that would inevitably drown her.

   

As Rob briefed Nadia on his and Tara’s schemes, her mistrust began to evaporate as quickly as it set in. Rob, simple Rob, was nothing like Adi. She allowed herself a moment to let the past few days sink in before releasing an exhausted sigh. “Rob, you need to see these files immediately”. 
 

As they pored over the research notes, the colour from Rob’s face drained. Nadia searched his demeanour for any form of emotional response, but she could only find disbelief. Nadia’s sanity temporarily wavered as she waited for something from Rob. Anything. “Say something, please”, she muttered cautiously.

“This runs deep, Nadia. We don’t know who else is involved in this. We need to be careful”, Rob sagely offered while Nadia glanced at him peculiarly. “This could be orchestrated by the government – or worse...." Aliens Rob's thought trailed off. Am I still kind of high? Rob became immersed in his own substance-damaged imagination for a moment before displaying the mental acuity required to free himself. He was grateful his tongue pushed back against vocalising his paranoia.  

“We need to send these to Tara” Nadia’s brow furrowed as she spoke with a sudden intensity hitherto unseen by Rob. “Where is she – do you have your phone?” 

“I-I ha-had to give it up to get in here” Rob conceded as he visibly grew distressed by his failure to plan out the minutia needed to impress Nadia. Think, Rob, think he demanded of himself as his thoughts grew quicker and less coherent. He had managed to find Nadia, surely, he was able to get them out of this. 

Her voice groaned with the realisation that she had no means of contacting Tara without Rob’s phone. “Where is it? Are you able to get to it?” Nadia’s thoughts returned to her ostensible immunity to Budlyt-19. What could this mean? Am I still contagious to others? Rob? Rob! She inaudibly gasped as the guilt swallowed her, but she recognised time was precious and time they did not have. 
 

In a sudden effort to maximise her ever-diminishing strength and cognisant of no alternative, she motioned to Rob. “We don’t have a choice. We have to get out before they realise I’m missing.” Nadia’s eyes narrowed as she explained to Rob that he would need to cause a believable distraction and fast. 

As Rob crept out of the room, Nadia grasped his arm with a tightness that belied her lithe figure. “Wait, the others – the subjects - do they know?” She paused before adding, “Are they aware of what’s happening here or are they like me?” 

Rob cocked his head, an uprising of the proletariats…, he pondered before abandoning that thought. “You’re right, Nadz, this could be our ticket out of here.” A moment of grandiosity swept across him before vanishing into thin air. Rob glanced at Nadia nervously. “Most are here for the easy money – that’s how I convinced Adi to let me join.” Rob looked down and muttered, “Some have sick family members and are here out of desperation to help find a cure”. He pushed those bleak thoughts to the back of his mind and breathlessly added, “What do we do?”
 

Together, they formulated a plot to return to their beds for the night, and tomorrow, slowly inform their co-inhabitants of their discoveries. Strength in numbers would be their tool but they needed to figure out whom they could trust. Once they were able to break free, they would be able to contact Tara.
 

As Rob crept back to his bed, he felt Ken’s voice surround him, chilling him to his core, “Is everything OK, Rob?” Rob’s breathing intensified as he turned around and saw Ken’s silhouette in the corner, heightened against the pale yellow light filling the hall. “You seem jumpy, Rob” Ken’s sardonic smirk revulsed him, “don’t forget, the trial begins bright and early tomorrow. I hope you’re ready”.

About the author:
Benjamin is a committed 29-year-old devotee of Fyodr Dostoevsky and Karl Marx, not only for their writing, but also their abilities to grow masculine beards. He believes that if they were Australian like him, he would drink them under the table.