Chapter Nine

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The agent crams us into a tiny room. He types a code into the panel beside the door. A force field buzzes to life, a shimmering blue wave of light we can't cross. I shudder. It's like we aren't patients—we're prisoners. This room is a prison cell, or worse. More like a kennel cage.

Two benches line either side of the cramped room. If I raise my arms and stretch, I can almost touch both walls—it's that tiny. They're made from completely smooth, shining metal. A couple blankets lay on the bench, which, to their credit, look like they've been cleaned recently despite the ominous brown stain on one. A single toilet is shoved into the back with no real makings of privacy.

Erin surveys the room, frantic despair etched into her downturned lips. "Where are the beds? Why is the toilet not private? I don't understand!" She eyes the toilet, her mouth quivering as if she needs to use the restroom but doesn't want to do so in front of us.

I purse my lips. "We can hold up a blanket for privacy." I grab the one nearest to me, noting its scratchiness as I do, and I shove one end into the muscled girl's—Nia's—hand before leaning back on the side of the wall. I nudge my head toward the makeshift bathroom.

Erin gratefully ducks under the blanket. It won't be much help from the fisheye security camera above the toilet, but at least it adds privacy from the outside hall.

But she's right; this kind of treatment doesn't make sense.

We each take turns relieving ourselves before we fold away the blanket. Air whistles through the vent above the toilet, which I have no doubt can be used for knock-out gas. No one talks for at least half an hour, but there's no clock here and no outside source of lighting, so the only real way to tell time is to count the seconds.

I don't have that kind of patience.

"He was right."

We all jump. Anitra, the curly red-haired girl who is probably the oldest of us despite being the shortest, stares blankly at the wall. Her dark freckles shine in contrast to her pastel blue hospital gown. She picks at her nails, absently whittling one to the pink part.

"Who was?" Nia crosses her arms over her chest. Out of all of us, she's definitely the most fit. Arms thick with muscle, and a bit stockier than most even with her height. Given that she's definitely had fitness training, she might have been hoping for a Special Forces career or something more physical.

"Luuk." Anitra meets Nia in the eye. I frown. According to Luuk, Anitra was one of the innocents who had taken their pill and still ended up here. "He tried to tell us, but I didn't believe him. Didn't want to believe him. But this... this isn't a hospital." She looks around the cell and doesn't have to point out all the things that are wrong.

"So what do we do?" Erin huddles on one of the benches with her knees to her chest. "We can't leave."

I tug at the collar around my neck, but it barely budges. Even if we did leave, I'm pretty sure the agents can track us so long as we have these things. That's if there's nothing worse in them. Something to sedate us if we get too rowdy, maybe. After that stunt they pulled when they took Luuk, I wouldn't put it past them. But who is "them?" This whole installation screams "not Community." But why are we here, if not to be treated for theophrenia? Are they planning to experiment on us? For what purpose?

I slide down the cold wall.

For now, we have to wait. Be patient. I face the force field and count the seconds and minutes until someone passes our room, and then I start again, staring across the shimmering blue field to the even less visible shimmering blue field across the hall. Another room...

No. This doesn't qualify as a room. It's a cell.

How many cells did I see as we came down here? Each crowded with four patients, all with collars. All Community...

Each as confused as I am.


The agents give us food that evening, and though it certainly isn't anything tastefully prepared, it doesn't leave us wanting, either. It doesn't seem like they plan for us to starve.

Half an hour later, when they take the empty trays, they corral the four of us from our cell to a small gymnasium. Push-ups. Sit-ups. Running.

They really like making us run while they stand back and time our laps. There's a doctor assigned to each of us. It's like the physical requirements class in school, except for the doctors, so no one complains. It's a chance to stretch—a relief after being in that cell. But goosebumps run up my spine every time I run past one of those doctors. They stare at us with hardened, dead eyes. They record our times, counting the number of push-ups we do before we wear out.

Nia, for all that she looks the strongest, has the worst luck. She barely manages ten push-ups before wheezing and complaining that this has never been a problem for her.

The doctors make a note.

Anitra exchanges glances with me when they do. It seems Luuk has scored another point for his theory, outlandish as it is. From the way Nia evades anyone's eyes when they mention the pill, I'd say she was like me and didn't take it.

But exercise was her thing. Her strong suit. Same as me and water, until we got the injections. I love swimming, and when I started seeing things, it was water that acted up for me. With the injection, everything feels too dry. That first day after seeing the doctor at the clinic, I couldn't get enough to drink.

If I really do have some kind of connection to water and the injection cut that off, my reaction makes sense. If Nia has some kind of physical strength ability, her sudden lack of strength makes sense, too—though both can easily be attributed to side effects of theophrenia.

But maybe...

Maybe that's what these people want us to think. I try to squash that idea, to shove it away in the back of my mind where I can think maybe I'm not sick, but it's not possible when there is nothing else to think about.

No homework. No swim practice.

Just running around a small gym as my legs get increasingly sore.

We only have half an hour before the agents stationed around the room with their rifles guide us back to our cell with a promise we'll be here again first thing in the morning.

They're feeding us. Keeping us fit.

But we're sleeping in cages.


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Thanks for reading! :-D

Come back next Monday for chapter ten, where Galina discovers the truth...

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