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The keep of ages, p.10
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       The Keep of Ages, p.10

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  This room wasn’t on the map Lavinia showed me. It feels older and deeper, like it belongs to another world. It’s both wonderful and terrible.

  “How can this be?” I whisper.

  What am I possibly supposed to do about it?

  A lone butterfly drifts silently over the sleep shells, its wings as colorless as limpid glass. I watch it flit from one side of the cavern to the other before flying up into the oculus and vanishing into the deep purple.

  I’m still peeking from my archway when a red light comes on over the sleep shell that’s nearest to me. All the sleep shells, I notice now, have poles with lights and IV tubes attached, but the other lights are all off. Standing on tiptoe to look into the nearest shell, I see a pale young man with a straight nose and dark hair. Beige patches line his temples, and clear gel covers his closed eyes. Aside from his breathing, he isn’t moving, and I can’t fathom why his light is on.

  Then, far across the room, a middle-aged man steps through a distant arch and comes down a few steps. I quickly crouch down and press myself against the wall of the tunnel, angling my head just enough so that I can still see.

  The approaching man is a thin white guy in green scrubs, with black eyebrows, receding dark hair, and a worn, yellow handkerchief around his neck. He moves with a measured stride and winds his way through the sleep shells until he arrives at the one with the red light, mere paces from where I’m hiding. With his back to me, he opens the lid, flicks his wrists, and checks the dreamer’s intake IV line.

  “What’s troubling you, hmm?” the man mutters.

  He gives the IV line a little tap. Then he flips some switch so the blue light inside the sleep shell goes off and on again, like a reboot. The red light above goes off. The worker gives a satisfied grunt and closes the lid. At that instant, the red light goes on again, and so does a red light above another sleep shell, two dreamers down. Then a third nearby light goes on.

  The man taps his ear. “Kiri? Something’s going on down here,” he says. And then, “I don’t know. They’re restless.” As he looks up and partly turns, I catch a glimpse of his long nose and pale complexion. “No. The butterfly’s gone. I don’t think it’s that. Did you check upstairs? Are the cameras back on?”

  Me. I have the distinct, uncanny impression that the dreamers have sensed a stranger in the vault. A new jolt of adrenaline courses in my veins. Two more red lights go on.

  “Hold on,” the worker says.

  Then he turns slowly in my direction.

  Instantly, I shrink back out of sight. My heart pounds while I hold very still, listening. I’m dreading that he will come up the steps, look into the tunnel, and find me. For a long moment, I hear nothing, but then I catch the sound of him talking into his earpiece again, and his voice is dimmer, farther away. My relief is short-lived. I have to get evidence of the man before he disappears. I pull out my phone, tap the camera icon, and make sure the flash is off. Then I lean around the corner of the arch again to aim it toward the receding man, and I take a picture.

  My phone makes a camera clicking noise, and in the cavernous silence, it’s as loud as a gunshot. The man spins around. A dozen more sleep shell lights go red.

  Crap, I think.

  “Who’s there?” the man calls.

  I turn and bolt back down the dark passage. Blind and afraid, I skim my hand down the left wall, bouncing my fingertips along the rough surface so I won’t miss the doorway to the stream. Behind me, running footsteps come from the vault.

  Finding the door, I scramble to go through it, but as soon as I smell the water ahead, I stop, remembering. The stream is a dead end. I can’t get back up the chute. I’ll be trapped.

  The footsteps are coming nearer.

  On instinct, I reverse back out of the door and turn into the darkness of the unknown passage. I keep my left hand trailing the wall and my right hand stretched out before me. As fast as I can, I lunge through pure darkness, sucking in stale air, until it hits me I could blindly run off an edge and fall to my death. I halt where I am and drop to the floor, huddling as small as possible, and I turn to look back over my shoulder.

  The outline of the passage is dimly visible by the light from the far end, and the tall man is silhouetted as a black figure. He reaches the door to the stream, but he doesn’t go in. Instead, he faces me. He flashes a beam of light in my direction and takes one more step, but then he stops. I can hear him breathing heavily.

  “I know you’re listening,” he says. His voice carries easily through the silent tunnel. “I just want to talk to you. What’s your name? I’m Jules. We won’t hurt you.”

  Like I’d believe that. I try to still my own ragged breathing, but my heart wants to explode.

  “You’re going to need help to get out,” Jules says. “Those tunnels are a maze back there. Don’t be stupid and get lost. Hear me? ¿Habla español?”

  I still don’t answer him. I pull my knife out of its sheath and grip it tight.

  The man takes one more step and lifts his flashlight high. I wince, but I don’t think he can see me.

  “Okay. Whoever you are, you’re going to have to come to us eventually,” Jules says. “Just don’t disturb the dreamers when you do. Come quietly. We’re through the nine o’clock arch. This tunnel leads to the vault through the three o’clock, so we’re directly opposite. And don’t try to get back out again via the stream. If a storm comes, it gets flooded fast. I’ve seen it kill people before, and it isn’t pretty.”

  I hold still, barely breathing. I’m not leaving until I have answers, but I don’t trust him for a fat second. I wait, watching, until his figure finally recedes. Only then do I really realize why he’s content to leave me here. I’m trapped. This entire underground complex could go on for miles. The guy’s right. In an endless labyrinth, it would take one wrong turn and I’d be lost for good. If I don’t return to the vault of dreamers, I’m dead.

  * * *

  After he’s gone, I keep listening, half expecting him to return with reinforcements, but nobody comes. My suspicion is confirmed: they don’t need to bother. Slowly, quietly, I retrace my steps to the main vault and peek through the archway again. The red lights over the sleep shells have gone off again, and the lids glow with their calm, steady blue. The hush is deep, like a forgotten spell.

  What do I do? Much as I want to search inside each sleep shell for Dubbs and my parents, I can’t risk disturbing them again or Jules will definitely come back. I have to come up with another plan.

  By the glow from the sleep shells, I take a closer look at how the ancient, natural walls form the big room. The stone bulges and recedes irregularly, and in places, it’s streaked with dark patches as if water has dripped through. The floor is fairly level, and the general shape of the space is semispherical. Only the circular holes in the ceiling and the four carved arches testify to human ingenuity, but they make me wonder what this room was used for in ages past.

  Each archway has a few steps and a wooden ramp that lead down to the main floor. I look straight across the vault, to where Jules first appeared. He said his was the nine o’clock archway, and flat fluorescent light glows there. The arches for noon and six, on the other hand, are black and lightless like mine. I glance up again at the dome and the gallery of glassless windows. If I could get up there and look down on the dreamers, I might be able to see some faces.

  Quietly, barely daring to breathe, I take a step down into the vault. No red lights go on. I take a step to my right and press back against the wall. I hold still, waiting, and then I take another sideways step to my right. The nearest sleep shell’s light flickers red once, but then stays off.

  Okay, I think. Stay calm. It’s almost like they’re a sentient beast that can smell fear, and they won’t react to me as long as I stay calm.

  So many. How did they all get here? And when?

  I take another soft step to my right, and when the lights all stay off, I keep going, slowly, step by step. I study the dreamers’ faces as I
pass, watching in vain for a twitch of a reaction. They’re teens and children, all asleep. They remind me of the ones I saw in Berg’s control, with their systemic functions rebooted, kept suspended on the edge of death, breathing just enough for him to mine and seed their brains.

  Why are they here? Who are they? Are they just being preserved, or does someone mine them regularly?

  There’s so much I don’t understand. The logistics alone are mind-boggling. Somebody had to set this up. Somebody has to tend all the dreamers. And worse, beyond the scale of it, the pathos presses upon me to my core. Seeing each face compounds the tragedy. It’s like finding a children’s cemetery full of lives cut short and stoppered up at the exact moment they were lost.

  It tugs at my soul. How on earth am I going to find my family down here?

  Staying with my back to the wall of the vault, I skirt slowly around to my right, counterclockwise, until I’m one-quarter of the way around the room without disturbing the dreamers. At the twelve o’clock arch, I ease up the steps, and a faint breeze touches my face as I look into the next tunnel. No lights or signs of activity beckon ahead, but I have to see if I can find a way up to the gallery.

  The floor of this tunnel has two smooth, worn tracks, and I slide my feet forward one at a time, counting my steps. By twenty paces in, the black is a complete, inky emptiness. A plink comes from the darkness ahead of me. I pause to listen, waiting, and then another plink comes, like water dripping into a puddle.

  At the next step, my shoe hits sand, wet sand, and I don’t dare to go any farther. I turn on my phone light and cast the beam forward. The tunnel has a puddle of black water six feet across, and on the other side, the floor rises at a steady slope. Someone has dropped a pair of boards across the puddle, and I cross over one. On the other side, the tunnel is rough-hewn and narrow, with a turn ahead. I take a few more steps, doubtful, and at the turn, the tunnel branches in three directions. The one to my left has a staircase leading up, and my hope rises. I start up, counting my steps.

  At the sixteenth step, I reach a landing with a circular opening, and smile. I’ve found the gallery in the dome that overlooks the dreamers. I turn off my phone light, set my fingers on the stone ledge, and peer down into the vault. The circular pattern of the sleep shells is even more pronounced from this angle, and the dreamers seem to go on forever. I can’t help wondering if this is the vantage place where the photo I saw was taken from, though as I check now, I don’t see any cameras.

  I breathe deeply. Seeing the dreamers’ faces works well from here because I’m not that high up, and the angle is good. Quickly I realize I need a system, or I’ll lose track of which sleep shells I’ve searched. So I start at the outside edge, at the three o’clock archway, and I work my way around and in, row by row, moving carefully around the windows of the gallery.

  Even with a bit of distance, even with my determination to search efficiently, it’s painful to see all the still, eerie faces. Almost all of the dreamers are kids, from as young as maybe four years old to twenty, but once in a while I find an older person with a gray beard or silvery hair, and it’s almost a relief. At least that rare person had a longer life. Then the next one will be a preschooler, and I’m wrenched all over again.

  I can’t do this. But I have to. Without access to any records, there’s no other way, so I force myself to keep searching. Though each dreamer has unique features, their placid expressions give them an overriding sameness and anonymity, and as time passes, I find a numbness cocooning my heart. I don’t want to be uncaring, but I need to find my family. I can’t think of a better way.

  Minutes turn to hours as I peer into hundreds of sleep shells. My elbows grow sore from leaning on the windowsills. Occasionally, a red light goes on above one of the sleep shells, but a few moments later, it goes off again by itself, like this is normal. Nothing else changes. No one comes to look for me. Despair wears me down. Hunger, too. Without my backpack, I don’t even have my water bottle.

  I resume my search in the next row, and that’s when I find my sister.

  My heart plummets and zags. I know it’s her. I shift, leaning farther into the dome to see her better.

  Dubbs’s blond hair is smoothed back from her forehead, and translucent gel covers her closed eyes. She’s pale, but not deathly. In fact, compared to the children that surround her, she’s practically rosy. I’m wound so tight now, I can barely breathe. An IV line snakes under the neckline of her gown, and I instinctively touch my chest where my port is lodged beneath my skin. She must have one, too.

  “Oh, Dubbs,” I whisper. She’s really here. It’s my worst fear.

  How am I going to get her out?

  I straighten up again and count off the rows to pinpoint where she is, so I can’t lose her again. She’s in the five o’clock direction, twelve rows in from the outside wall, seven rows out from the middle. I check the other sleep shells near her, but my parents aren’t there. Do I keep looking for them, sorting through all the dreamers in view? Or do I try to rescue Dubbs?

  I instinctively check for cameras again but still can’t find any. The dreamers must be monitored somehow, though, because Jules came when a dreamer’s light stayed on before, and I’d be sure to disturb more dreamers if I walked to where Dubbs is. It’s going to be impossible to get her out without being noticed. I can carry her. I know that much. But I’ll need to move quickly once I get her, and before that, I need to know a way out.

  I’m scared. I admit it. The only way I know to get out of here is through the chute, but I can’t imagine how I’d crawl back up that, especially carrying Dubbs. There has to be another way. Jules warned me not go back out via the stream, which means he thought I entered that way. It must lead out, somehow, but that seems extreme.

  A better way out must exist. Logically, Jules and whoever else works here have to use a standard route. They can’t live down here always. I just have to find that other way back to the surface.

  A faint rattling comes from below, followed by a soft, tuneless whistling. One of the red lights comes on over a sleep shell, and then several more. A man, not Jules, enters from the nine o’clock arch, pushing a wheeled stretcher. He’s wearing shabby gray coveralls like an old-time janitor, and he has a bright, round headlamp on his helmet that bobbles a bit with each of his steps. A gray drape over the stretcher covers the contours of a body, which jolts slightly as the man wheels it over a bump. Three or four more of the dreamers’ lights go on.

  “It’s all right, everybody,” the man says amiably. “Nothing to see here. Go back to sleep.”

  The dreamers’ lights stay on. Another goes on, as well.

  Whistling again, the man pushes his cart through the rows of dreamers while red lights come on around him. Not all, but a few. After he passes, they stay on for a bit, then blink out. When he reaches the center of the room, Dubbs’s red light goes on, an outlier, and it stays on when he takes a left and turns in my direction. More lights come on and go off near him as he continues. Then the man pushes his cart up a ramp almost directly beneath me, through the twelve o’clock arch, and disappears. His whistling floats back behind him.

  My sister’s red light is still on after all the others have gone off, calling to me like a beacon. Then it, too, goes off.

  What do I do?

  Quietly, swiftly, I hurry back down the stairs and peek into the tunnel just as the man with the stretcher vanishes at the other end. For a last instant, a bit of his light reflects along the two smooth tracks on the floor, and then the tunnel is dark.

  I hesitate only an instant before I follow. I run lightly to the next turn of the tunnel in time to see his light at the other end of the passage before he turns again. I follow after him, running in the dark as quietly as I can. We pass several intersections with other tunnels, all just as dark, but I’m careful not to fall behind. I can’t afford to get lost.

  The whistler finally slows to a stop before a big wooden door. He pushes it open, leaves it ajar, and jockeys the
cart through. Peering after him, I see a wide, low-ceilinged room with two square metal doors at waist height. Black scorch lines smudge the walls above the doors, and the place smells ashy, like a kiln. I creep closer, hugging the wall, careful to stay out of sight. The man opens one of the metal doors, and lines up the stretcher in front of one of it. Then he grips one end of the covering and tips up the end of the stretcher so the body slides down, through the open doorway, into the oven.

  11

  THE STAR OF DREAMERS

  THE MAN LOWERS THE STRETCHER again and rolls his shoulders. Then he shifts the stretcher clear of the oven door, closes it, and latches it. Then he pushes a button. A hissing noise of a furnace comes on. The man slides open a peephole on the door and peeks through for a moment while bright orange light escapes. Then he closes the peephole and reaches for the fabric cover on the stretcher to fold it.

  I’m stunned. For an instant, I’m pressed back against the wall, bug-eyed and paralyzed. Then I turn and run as fast as the darkness will allow me. I have to get away!

  I stub my toe and bang into a wall, where I stop. Idiot. I can’t get lost back here. I need the whistling man. He’s my guide back to the main vault. How far have I come? I pull out my phone, but I don’t turn on my light because I don’t want him to see me. I stand perfectly still, listening. The silence is so profound that I can hear my eyes blinking, and the darkness is like thick, black poison in my lungs, stealing my breath and feeding my panic. Softly, slowly, I turn back the way I came, desperate for any sound or a glimpse of headlamp to signal that the whistler is still nearby. I reach a widening in the tunnel and feel around, discovering the three open gaps of an intersection. I have absolutely no idea which way to go. I listen intently another moment and hear, very faintly, a cadence of whistling melody, but I can’t be sure which tunnel it comes from.

 
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