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The vault of dreamers, p.1
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.1

           Caragh M. O'Brien
The Vault of Dreamers

  The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:

  For my husband,

  Joseph J. LoTurco


  Title Page

  Copyright Notice



  1 Night

  2 The Dishwasher

  3 Fister

  4 The Blip Rank Board

  5 The Infirmary

  6 The Losers

  7 The Fifty Cuts

  8 The Last Boxcar

  9 The Furniture Movers

  10 Fans

  11 The Clock Tower

  12 Fish Tank

  13 Gorge on Forge

  14 Walkie-Hams

  15 The Noose

  16 New Favorite

  17 The Game

  18 The Lady Knight

  19 The Lookout Tower

  20 The Cat Guillotine

  21 Chimera

  22 Roxanne

  23 Ghosts

  24 The Aftermath

  25 The Yellow Pills

  26 The Clock Tower Again

  27 Tryst

  28 A Deterrent

  29 The Observatory

  30 Real Use

  31 Catcher

  32 The Contract

  33 The B Button

  34 The Vault of Dreamers

  35 Dolphin

  36 The Leap


  Also by Caragh O’Brien




  I MISSED NIGHT. I had other reasons to disobey, too, like wanting to escape the cameras, but most of all, I missed the deep, vacant darkness of night.

  We lined up as usual, shivering in our bare feet and nightgowns. Rain streamed down the windows, obscuring the gray view of the prairie, and the patter sounded gently on the vaulted roof overhead. Orly passed out the pills, starting at the far end, and I watched as each girl obediently swallowed, climbed into her sleep shell, and slid her lid closed with a soft swoosh.

  When Orly reached me, I took my pill like the others but faked tossing it back. Instead, I lodged the disk up alongside my gums before I took a sip of water and opened my mouth for her inspection.

  She turned and went on to the next girl.

  I’d won. I climbed in my sleep shell, spit the pill into my hand, and wedged it under my pillow.

  “Close your lid,” Orly told me.

  “Do I have to?” I asked. “I like the sound of the rain.”

  “You can open it again after your brink lesson if you want,” she said. “Sleep well.”

  When Orly switched off the lights, the room went the soft, gray color of childhood naps. I pulled my lid closed to watch the brink lesson cast across the glass: a scene of a woman laying bricks, tucking them evenly in a row. What I was supposed to learn from it, even subconsciously, I couldn’t tell. Afterward, I slid open my lid again and rolled over on my pillow. Across from me, the next girl fell asleep easily and completely, and from the uninterrupted sound of the rain, I knew forty-eight other girls fell asleep on schedule, too.

  Myself, I was secretly, deliciously awake. As the hour brought the darkness closer, I lay fidgety with hope and relished how it felt to be alone, stealing back the real me. The windows darkened like a gift until I could see the faint, blue reflections of our domed lids in the glass. A nearly invisible glow fell over the dormant faces, making the girls’ skin gleam with faint phosphorescence, as if they had been chalked and scanned under a black light. I slowly waved my fingers before my face, testing. The glow gave my fingers a staggered trail of black shadows, like cartoon lines of motion, tracks in the air.

  Deep night came at last, bringing me more awake than ever. After nine nights of drugged sleep, my nerves seemed to have lost the trick of falling asleep naturally on their own, and now they worked in reverse, lighting me up within. To watch the night out my window was not enough. I wanted more.

  It was a risk, breaking the rules, but following them hadn’t done me much good, either. I had to face facts. With the fifty cuts happening the next day, this could well be my last night at Forge. I didn’t want to waste it sleeping. From outside, the bells of the clock tower tolled midnight, until the twelfth bong resonated away to nothing.

  Slowly, I sat up to look around the room.

  No alarm went off. No warning lights. Orly did not come running. Our fifty sleep shells, with their paneling below and full-length glass lids on top, were lined up in two rows as straight and motionless as so many coffins. Cameras had to be picking up my movements, but either no one cared that I was breaking the rules, or the night techies didn’t watch carefully. A third possibility didn’t then occur to me: someone cared very much, was watching very closely, and still let me continue.

  Clutching my nightie close, I tiptoed the length of the room, past the other girls, and peeked through the doorway to where the hall was dark, empty, and cool. Barefoot, I crept across the smooth floor to the stairwell and touched a hand to the banister. Downward, a wide, dark staircase led to the floors for the older students, but upward, an old, narrow staircase led around a corner I’d never noticed. I took the old steps up to an attic, where the roof was close and alive with the rain’s pattering.

  I breathed deep. The aged, still air was faintly sweet, as if the missionaries who had raised the roof long before had also left behind a trace of incense in the wooden beams. I had just barely enough light to see, which also made me trust that the attic was too dark for the cameras to find me. I was effectively offstage for the first time since I’d arrived on the show, and the privacy was so palpable, it made me smile.

  Two large, old skylights glowed in the slanted roof, setting edges to my blindness, and I wound my way gingerly past a number of storage bins. Rivulets of rain were slanting down the glass. With a hand on a rafter, I leaned close to the first skylight and peered out. To the left, the dean’s tower was dark except for lights on the top floor, where I’d heard the dean lived in his penthouse. The techies who worked in the building must be gone for the night. It made sense, I realized. They couldn’t have much to do in the twelve hours of night while The Forge Show was on the repeat cycle, rebroadcasting the feeds of the previous day.

  With a shove, I pushed the heavy skylight upward on its hinge and propped its bar in the opening. The rain dropped in a perfect curtain just beyond my touch, releasing a rush of noise and tropical mist. The drenched roof tiles smelled unexpectedly like the metal of the boxcars back home, or maybe I was smelling the wet grid of a catwalk I spied running below the skylight.

  I ached to go out and feel the soft blindness of the night touching my skin with the rain. It would make me strong. When I rolled up my sleeve and reached a hand out, clean, colorless droplets fell upon my skin. They were warm and irresistibly inviting.

  Using a bin for a step, I hitched my nightie around me and crawled gingerly through the skylight to the catwalk. I gasped. The rain drenched me instantly, and I hunched against the downpour. It was so wonderful, so surprisingly not cold, that I had to laugh aloud. After nine days of guarding myself, trying fruitlessly to please the teachers and cameras, I was free.

  I grasped the railing of the catwalk with one hand and pushed my wet curls out of my eyes. This was good. Light from the dean’s tower cast outlines on the sloped roof of the film building next door and beyond that, I could see the sharp roof of the clock tower. A row of lamps illuminated the edge of the campus and separated us from the darkness of the plains beyond. E
xcept for the faintest flickers, the lights of Forgetown were lost in the rain to the east, and my home, to the southwest, was impossibly distant.

  I looked, anyway, employing my filmmaker trick. I imagined my gaze forward, high speed between the drops, to the boxcar where my kid sister was sleeping in the top bunk. I zoomed in large to picture her rosy cheeks and her eyelashes. Then I scanned past the curtain to the living room and put my stepfather in a stupor on the orange plaid couch. My mother I bent over a calculator, with some paperwork from the cafeteria, while the lamplight limned her profile. Home. In the next instant, I released them all to dissolve in the rain, and I was back at Forge.

  My homesickness wasn’t truly for home, I realized. It was for something more elusive. A silent, low-grade, unnamed yearning persisted inside me. It was always there, a reaching feeling that grew stronger when I was alone and listened for it. The rain understood what it was.

  I spread my arms wide and tilted my head back to let the night splash into my mouth. Too little of it fell in to actually quench my thirst, but the few drops that passed my lips tasted sweeter than anything from a glass. This moment was real, at least. This was worth remembering. If they cut me the next day and I left Forge as a failure, ashamed, I could always recall my invisibility on the roof in the rain this night, and I would know this moment was my own.

  “You like that?” I said, facing the sky. “Is that good enough?”

  It was for me.

  And the next second, it wasn’t. The truth was, I would do anything to stay on the show.

  A gust of wind blew me into the railing of the catwalk. This was a mistake. My stupidity astounded me. Why did I think, at any level, that doing something at night when the viewers weren’t even watching could possibly help my blip rank?

  I turned back to the skylight. Getting in was harder than getting out. I had to grab my drenched nightie up around my waist, and then I crawled backward into the skylight, reaching with my toes for the bin below. As I carefully reclosed the skylight, the chilly air clung to my nightie and set my skin prickling. I wrung out the fabric as best as I could and flicked drops off my legs with my fingertips. Then, quietly, I descended the stairs again.

  Wet and chilled, I raced silently along the length of the dorm. I hung my drenched nightie on a hook in my wardrobe and swiftly pulled on a dry one. Soon I was back in my sleep shell, burrowing into my quilt, and I waited, in dread, for someone to come for me.

  It took a long time. The rain made it hard to listen for footsteps, but finally, a quiet voice came from farther down the room. I tried to calm my heart and breathe normally. Another voice answered, just distant and soft enough that I couldn’t grasp the words. I waited as long as I could, listening, and then I turned toward the voices and slit my eyes open to see.

  Down the row, a man and a woman stood by one of the sleep shells. The lid was open, and their figures were dark in contrast to a soft light that shone on the student. I hadn’t made friends with any of the girls, and this one, Janice, I knew only slightly. She was twitching in spasmodic, unnatural tremors, though from her silence, I guessed she was still unconscious. The man, an older, bearded guy with a potbelly, held a tablet and a pole with an IV bag. The translucent line glowed as it led down to the girl’s arm.

  “Too much, do you think?” he said.

  “No, she’ll be all right,” said the woman. “She’ll settle. Just wait.”

  She leaned over Janice’s face, propping up her eyelids to shine a pen light in one eye, and then the next. A cushiony bar had been wedged between Janice’s teeth. The man touched his finger to the tablet, indicating something.

  “Just wait,” the woman said again.

  When she set the back of her fingers tenderly against Janice’s cheek, and then her forehead, the sleeve of the woman’s red cardigan took on a garish, flickering hue. Together, she and the man peered at the tablet again. The woman’s smooth dark hair slid forward, covering her earphone as she waited, and her expression stayed watchful.

  After a few more moments, she said, “See?”

  “Yes,” said the man.

  Janice’s trembling diminished, then stopped. She never once opened her eyes. The man straightened, relaxing. The woman reached to skim a finger over the tablet, tapped it, and nodded quietly.

  “That was close. I’ll admit it,” she said.

  “I’ll say. These new ones. You never know.” The man reached for the absorbent bar in Janice’s teeth and gently worked it free.

  The woman in the red sweater took out Janice’s IV, handed it to the man, and pressed a cotton ball to Janice’s arm. With her free hand, she touched her earphone. “There’s no need. She’s fine for now,” she said. And then, “Right. Of course.” She made a sign to the man, and then a circle with her finger that encompassed the room.

  The man turned, and I closed my eyes.

  “Yes. Of course. We will,” said the woman.

  I held very still, feeling my heart pounding, as the sound of footsteps spread out around the room. Soon I inhaled a faint trace of perfume. I could feel the presence of the woman hovering at the end, near my feet, and I breathed as evenly as I could.

  “This one?” It was the man’s voice, very soft. “What’s her blip rank?”


  “A shame.”

  There was a faint rubbing noise of fabric.

  I waited for more, a touch or a sound. A reply. I listened inside myself, too, distrusting my own body. Would a seizure hit me soon? My ears stayed primed, but I heard no reply, only the continued pattering of the rain high above. It took forever before there was another faint sound, a clicking from far down the room near the door. I exhaled in relief. I didn’t dare open my eyes again, didn’t turn my head or shift even when I felt the gentle tickle of a hair against my cheek.

  I’d forgotten my wet hair. They must have seen it. They knew what I’d done.

  But they’d said nothing.

  * * *

  When the morning alarm awoke us at six, I sat up slowly. My hair was dry in thick, post-rain clumps, and my mouth felt fuzzy. Orly checked in for a minute to be sure we were all up, but she paid no special attention to me. As I headed toward the bathroom with my shower kit and fresh clothes, I looked over at Janice, who was talking to one of the other girls. She seemed fine. She pulled her blond hair high over her head in a ponytail, and when her sleeve shifted, I saw a scab mark on her forearm.

  Do you tell someone she’s had a seizure in the night? You don’t, not if it would mean admitting your own crime of being awake. I passed her by without speaking, but I wondered how Janice could not instinctively know about her episode. She should at least notice the pinprick where the IV had gone into her skin. I pushed up my sleeve and glanced down at my own arm, and that’s when I saw it: a faint, healing track mark in the crook of my left elbow.

  They’d done it to me, too.



  SHOCKED AS I was, I knew not to show it. Cameras were following my every move from a dozen different angles. I headed straight into a bathroom stall for privacy, locked the bolt, and closely inspected both my arms. One mark was all I had, and I couldn’t tell how old it was, but they must have given me an IV, too, sometime fairly recently.

  I didn’t understand. Was I sick without knowing it? I felt okay. I also didn’t get why I wasn’t in trouble for breaking the rules during the night. Possibly they were waiting to call me in for discipline at a time that would be optimal for the show. I had no idea when that might be. In the meantime, the only thing to do was pretend everything was normal.

  I flushed my sleeping pill down the toilet, unlocked the door, and headed into the one other place we also had privacy: the showers.

  This was the day of the fifty cuts, a Monday when my life would be decided. The Forge Show posted minute-to-minute blip ranks for every student at the school, with the most popular in each grade ranked #1, for first place. We had one hundred first-year, tenth-grade s
tudents who had been on campus for ten days, but today, half of us were getting cut, which meant anyone scoring worse than 50 at 5:00 p.m. would be gone. The eleventh- and twelfth-grade classes, each with fifty students already, were safe. If I stayed at the Forge School, on The Forge Show, I’d have a shot at a dream life of fame and art. If I was cut, I’d be lost to the dead-end boxcars of Doli. Not to put too bleak a spin on it.

  Considering that my blip rank was 93, my chances didn’t look good.

  I toweled off, threw on my favorite skirt, boots, and a tee shirt, and headed to the dining hall for breakfast.

  * * *

  A crash behind the serving line of the cafeteria made me look up just as the cook pummeled his fist into a guy’s face. The guy staggered back, out of my line of vision.

  “I wouldn’t do that,” the cook said, lifting his big hands in warning.

  “It was an accident,” came the guy’s voice.

  “That knife’s no accident,” said the cook. “No way am I getting attacked in my own kitchen. Put it down.”

  Others in the kitchen moved warily nearer, but I still couldn’t see the guy who had been hit. A clatter came as something dropped on metal. The cook stepped out of my sight. I heard another smacking punch.

  “Clean it up, you royal bastard,” the cook said. “You hear me?”

  A shuffling clank and a stream of indecipherable words came next.

  “What’s that?” the cook demanded.

  “I wasn’t going to use it,” came the guy’s voice, clearly.

  Smack again.

  The girl beside me gave my tray a nudge. “You’re holding up the line,” she said. “Let’s go.”

  “The cook just hit somebody,” I said, edging farther along.

  “You’re kidding. Really? Where?” she said.

  I craned to look back in the kitchen, and when I caught a brief glimpse of a brown-haired guy crouching near to the floor, cleaning something, I stopped again.

  “Back there. He just hit him, hard,” I said. I had the tense, flayed feeling that I was supposed to do something about it, even though it was none of my business.

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