"His name was Viktor and his number was 014383. He arrived here on the 10th of February 2689 and on the 27th of June, 2701, he vanished. Disappeared without a trace. Gone, like a shadow into the dark" Glancing up from my notes, I greet the confused faces of Lana, Jasmine and Renee and the intrigued face of Val. Her brow is furrowed, her mind contemplating the matter. She pushes her glasses further up her nose.
"But his name returned no searches." She frowns, eyeing me sceptically. "How did you find this?"
"His name was Viktor, yes, but with a k, not a c." I grin triumphantly, proud of my achievement. It’s not every day you outsmart a genius like Val.
Val scowls, irritation flaring up across her face. "I should've known."
"How did he vanish?" Lana queries, perplexity staining her expression.
I shrug. "Nobody knows. Well, it wasn't elaborated any further than the word 'disappeared' followed by the date, so I assume it's still a mystery."
We're gathered in the showers, compressed into a tiny cubicle where no one can listen in on our conversation. Our voices remain hushed nonetheless; the walls are thin enough to not be soundproof and the matrons' rooms are right next door. Besides, anyone could walk in here without us knowing.
"What do we do now?" Renee's question hangs stiffly in the silence that has settled upon us.
No one dares to answer.
"You say it said 'disappeared?" Val frowns. Her train of thought sparkles in her eyes, hundreds of ideas and theories swarming in her pupils. "Hmm." She removes her notebook from under her arm and flicks through the pages, right to the last few pages.
"What are you looking for?"
"Ah, here it is." Val clears her throat. "Child 012965, name of Jane. Arrived on the 11th of March, 2653 and on the 11th March 2666, she 'moved on'." Same goes for child 039249, name of Oliver, child 055868, name of Sara, and a small fraction of others."
"What does 'moved on' mean?" Jasmine asks.
"It's when you turn eighteen and you get to leave," Val clarifies. "So, all three of them random strangers left and so do a few others. However, the majority of the subjects before us didn't." She clears her throat again. "For example, child 023876, name of Lila, arrived on the 5th of August 2680 then on the 27th of May 2688, she died. The illness killed her."
"So what are you saying, Val?"
"I'm saying, that there are only two ways out of here: you either 'move on' or you die. You grow up and claim your freedom or the illness claims you and you perish. No one has ever disappeared. Not a single person."
"Except for Viktor." Slowly, I nod my head, piecing together everything she's said.
"But we never get told when someone dies," Renee points out. "Why? How does that happen?"
"Well, when someone disappears, like many people have, we all just assume that the illness has got 'em. Nobody questions it because we're all too used to seeing someone here one day then gone the next. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that they're dead. But because no one's notified about it, no reaction is sparked. Hence why when Naomi saw Zach's body, she reacted the way she did."
"That's how they managed to cover it up." The words tumble from my mouth like water running effortlessly from a tap. "Everyone naturally assumed he'd died therefore nobody became suspicious."
"Exactly." Val nods her head, smiling in agreement.
"So he's the only one that's disappeared?" Lana's voice is choked with confusion. "But how can he disappear? How can you even leave this place in the first place? It’s…it’s impossible."
"Not how, but why. Why would he want to disappear?" Val shuts her notebook and slides it back under her arm. "He was seventeen when he disappeared so he had a good six months before he could move on. Surely if this place was so safe, so secure, you could at least hold on for a little while before you earned your freedom?"
"If what you're saying is true, Val, which I'm sure it is, then he wouldn't have disappeared." My face is grave, my eyes wide with concern. "He escaped."
"Then why would he want to escape?"
"Because there was something here that scared him. He discovered something dark, something...dangerous."
"Are...are we in danger?" Jas' voice is raw with panic, her eyes wide and alive with fear.
"No." Val's voice cuts through, sharp as a blade, as certain as the sun that rises in the morning. "Not yet, anyway."
"What do you mean, not yet?" I stare at her, puzzled and taken aback. “You mean we will be?” I let out my breath which I’d been unwittingly holding. I run a hand through my hair, shaking my head in disbelief. “I thought this would mean nothing. I hoped it would mean nothing. All I saw was a…a…”
“A dead body isn’t nothing, Naomi,” Val says gently. "And besides, they don't know that we know all this. They have no idea what we've discovered. If we don't tell anyone about it and just carry on like normal, nothing bad will happen. So long as this remains between us, we won’t be in any danger."
“I hope so,” I mumble to myself.
Val glances up at me, our eyes meeting with the same solemn expression etched into our faces. "We should get back." Val unlocks the door to the cubicle. "If Miss Lee finds out we're missing then they'll definitely suspect something's up"
After checking the coast is clear, we return to the dormitory one at a time: first, the twins, then Renee goes a couple of minutes later which leaves Val and me until last. After Renee closes the door, we stand in silence for a few moments. Neither of us dares to break the ice, dares to be the one to admit the truth. We both know it yet neither of us wants to say it, to believe it. But one of us has to.
"There's nothing we can do, is there?" My voice cracks, allowing the anxiety to seep out from where I've concealed it.
Val swallows, pushing her glasses up her nose instinctively. "No. No, there's nothing we can do." Her voice is quiet, defeated. Crushed are her words as they no longer make an impact.
Sighing, I grit my teeth and spin around to face the wall. Slamming my fists into it, I press my forehead against the cold tiles, the coarse sensation of chipped porcelain soothing my emotions. "We've got to do something."
"Didn't you hear what I just said? There's nothing we can do." Val's exasperated tone softens to a sigh. "We're just five girls who found out that somebody escaped. We can't prove anything other than what we interpret from it. There could be millions of reasons to explain what we've discovered."
Glancing over my shoulder, I regard Val's broken expression. Her eyes are tired, her forehead marred with stress. Her face looks older, wearier. Her eyes are no longer alight with flames of determination. Instead, they're nothing more than smouldering embers; the life has petered out of them, just like her perseverance has.
"You've changed," I croak. "Ten minutes ago, you were driven to finding the answers. You had the will and strength of a fighter. A warrior." I break off, biting my lip.
Val smiles half-heartedly at me. "Ten minutes ago I was keeping up their spirits. I was protecting them and you know it. How do you think they'd cope if I told them that all of this would be futile, that whatever we're trying to do is hopeless?"
"Well, I believe that if it means something to someone, then it's never really gonna be hopeless, is it?" I arch my eyebrows and turn back around, leaning against the wall and folding my arms.
The corner of Val's mouth curls. "What are you going to do?"
"I...I...I don't know."
"When has it ever?"
My eyes light up. "Dr Warren."
Val frowns. "What about Dr Warren?"
"She...she has his..."
"She has his what?"
"His...oh, what's it called?" Running a hand through my hair, my eyes dart around, searching, seeking out the answers. "Autopsy." The word escapes from my lips as a whisper. A ghost from the past.
"His autopsy. When they found Zach's body, she was there. She was in the group of doctors crowding around his body. I recognised her voice. She said she wanted to run an autopsy on his body. I didn't think anything of it at the time because I had no idea what it was, but since when do I ever-"
Val grins, relief flooding across her face. "Perfect. That's...that's perfect."
"What's an autopsy?"
"It's where they examine a body after the person has died to try and work out how they died."
I beam. “That’s perfect.” But by the look on Val’s face, it might not be as perfect as I say it is. “Something wrong, Val?”
She frowns, pursing her lips in concentration. “Not really, although I’m not quite sure why they would want to run an autopsy. It seems a bit pointless if you ask me”
“Why?” My face is blank, my brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Why wouldn’t they want to know how he died?”
“It’s not that, it’s just…” Val pauses, and alarm flashes in her eyes for a second. She shakes her head quickly. “Never mind.”
I open my mouth to argue then let it go, eyeing Val sceptically. She’s hiding something. “Alright.”
Val fixes a smile on her face. "So..."
“So what?” I raise an eyebrow, matching her smile.
“You gonna steal this autopsy or what?”