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The keep of ages, p.11
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       The Keep of Ages, p.11

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  “Please,” I whisper desperately.

  But the whistling recedes, and I’m alone in the dark. Think, I tell myself, fighting back panic. Stay calm.

  With shaking fingers, I turn on my phone light again. I lift it high, casting a pale shimmer of light along one tunnel and then the next. They look identical. The third one inclines slightly upward. I don’t recall going up or down while I followed the whistler with his stretcher, so that’s no clue. The floor lacks the double tracks from before, so I have definitely wandered off the original route, but I can’t have come very far. It isn’t possible. If I can just find the tunnel with the two tracks in it, I can follow that back to the vault.

  That’s my logic. I have to be methodical. I can’t give in to panic, even though the battery life on my phone is now down to fourteen percent. I take off one of my socks, marking one tunnel as number one, and then I walk along it, counting my paces until I reach fifty. It has no intersections. No smell of fire or moving air. I go back to my sock and repeat my search in the second tunnel, with similar discouraging results. But in the third tunnel, the slanting one, at my thirty-fifth step, I find an intersection with the two smooth, worn tracks along the floor. Relief pours through me. I count backward again to where I left my sock and retrieve it, and then I return to the tunnel with the tracks.

  This has to be it. In one direction or another, I have to believe I’ll find the main vault again. I put down my sock again to mark my place, and I peer to the right. My phone’s battery is now down to eleven percent. I can barely stand to turn off the light, but I might need it even more later, so I do. Then I start forward, keeping my shoes on the smooth track and counting my steps.

  At twenty-three steps, the tunnel veers left. At fifty steps, I round another corner, and far ahead, I see the faint light of the vault again, reflecting on the puddle. My heart nearly bursts with relief. Forget my sock. I’m not going back. I put my phone back in my pocket and walk quietly to the end of the tunnel to peek into the vault again.

  In the five o’clock direction and near the center of the room, a couple dozen red lights are on above the dreamers. The whistling man with the headlamp is wheeling his cart out of the vault, through the nine o’clock archway, and he has a dreamer on top of it. Alarm rocks through me. I stretch up on my tiptoes and scan automatically for my sister. I can’t see exactly from this angle, but my gut already knows. Her sleep shell is empty. They’ve taken her.

  “No!” I whisper.

  And then my fear turns to raw anger. I have to stop them. I’ve had enough of being worried. And scared. I have to save her!

  I kick a stone by accident and it rattles down the steps into the vault. A red light goes on above the nearest dreamer, and I ball my hands into fists. Don’t do this, I think. I take a steady breath to cool my temper and frown at the light, willing it to go off. A moment later it does, and then, stealthily, I slide around the perimeter wall of the vault as I did before, circumventing the dreamers.

  At the nine o’clock arch, I pause to peer up the tunnel. This one is more cleanly hewn, like a hallway, with small lights set in the walls at ankle height. It smells different, too, with a trace of cleanser or disinfectant in the air. I slip inside and hurry along until the sound of voices makes me slow. Around the corner, ahead of me, light comes out of a larger doorway, and I stop, listening.

  Voices talk calmly back and forth. More than two. I can’t make out what they’re saying. A shifting noise is followed by some clicking. I back against the tunnel wall, flattening myself as much as possible, and then I peek in the doorway.

  Medical equipment gleams under bright lights, and five occupied operating tables are arranged in a star, with the dreamers’ heads toward the center and their feet out at the points. I can’t tell if one of them is Dubbs, but all the dreamers are child-sized. Two women in green scrubs and a man, Jules, stand around one, aiming their attention toward a nearby computer that swivels out by an arm from a central pole. It’s odd to see high-tech medical equipment in a room that’s rough-hewn from the rock. The black-topped counters near the back of the room remind me of the science labs in my old high school.

  I shift back out of sight and glance farther along the hall to a second door that would let me into the back of the room by the counters, but it’s closed.

  “Tilt that closer, would you, Anna?” Jules says.

  A series of quiet clicks follows, and then several squeaks and the shuffle of shifting feet.

  “She’s younger than she looks,” says a woman. “Look at this.”

  “That’s distress,” Jules says. “Isn’t it time to call Sandy? He’ll want to see this.”

  I need to see, too. Carefully, silently, I edge past the doorway. For an instant I’m exposed to their full view, but they don’t look up, and then I’m across.

  A telephone ringing sound, amplified through a speakerphone, comes from the operating room. I know the rhythm of the ring. I set my hand on the knob of the second door, and when the phone rings loudly again, I pull the door open and crawl inside. Then I pull the door nearly closed again. When the phone rings a third time, I shut the door all the way, with the softest click covered by the ringing. Then I creep behind the nearest counter. A familiar trace of vinegar laces the air and triggers my fear. I wait, motionless, to see if I’ve been noticed, but the phone keeps ringing and the doctors or whoever they are remain absorbed by their work.

  A generic voice from the speakerphone announces that the voicemail box is full.

  “Sandy Berg is the most exasperating person,” a woman says. “Can’t he tell time?”

  “He’ll know we called,” Jules says. “He’ll call back.”

  “When he’s good and ready, you mean,” she says. “What do you say? Do we park her again?”

  “Let’s just take a proper look,” Jules says. “No harm in that.”

  They go quiet. I’m bursting with curiosity and fear. Silently, I shift along on my hands and knees until I can see around the far corner of the counter. I hold my breath. From my angle, I can see the legs and undersides of three of the operating tables, including the one where the doctors are busy. They hover around in their green scrubs. A vast array of equipment extends down from the ceiling on metal arms and coils, and a complex network of IV lines and wires runs between the patients and the computers.

  A rustling comes from the doorway, and I shift to see the man from the oven, the whistler, enter with a large plastic bin. If I had stayed in the hall much longer, he would have found me.

  “Any word on our visitor?” asks the woman.

  She’s the same one who spoke before, the one Jules called Anna, and she has a low, cultured voice even when she’s exasperated. She stands with her back to me, so I can’t see her face, but she has a thick braid of gray-and-black hair tied off with a red band. Tall and slender, with a dark complexion, she rests one gloved hand on the patient’s arm.

  “Not yet,” the whistler says, setting the bin on a counter. He takes off his helmet, revealing a thatch of brown hair.

  “Might as well get the dogs,” Jules says.

  I shudder to think of being chased by dogs in those dark tunnels.

  “You know what’ll happen to the dreamers with that racket,” the whistler says. “Give her another day and she’ll come out on her own. They always do.”

  “Not always,” says the second woman. It’s the first time she’s spoken, and her voice is lighter and softer. I shift to get a better look at her profile. She’s petite and delicate-looking, with smooth dark hair, fine eyebrows, and brown skin. She seems younger than the others, and she’s wearing green sneakers with her scrubs.

  “Kiri’s right,” Jules says. “If she breaks her leg and dies back there, it’ll be a waste. I say we bring in the dogs. Give her a little scare, too.”

  “I hate the dogs,” Kiri, the petite woman, says.

  “Why didn’t our cameras pick her up when she was aboveground?” Anna asks.

  “It was one of tho
se shorts I’ve been telling you about,” the whistler says. “All the cameras crashed last night for an hour and then came on again spontaneously.”

  “You have to track that down,” Anna says. “Didn’t I say it could be dangerous if the cameras malfunctioned while someone was in the park? And now it’s happened.”

  The whistler sighs and sorts through a pile of white food containers. “I’ve looked. I’ll look again. Do you really believe Sandy will bring Rosie to us?”

  “He has to find her first,” Anna says.

  “Does anyone know if Linus is in touch with her?” Jules says.

  “Sandy could ask him,” Kiri says softly.

  “Linus won’t take Sandy’s calls,” Anna says. “Berg told me so, but he’s tracing Linus’s other calls, obviously. He’s talked with his producer, a pizza place, and the ophthalmologist, but not Rosie.”

  “I think they broke up,” the whistler says. “That’s what makes the most sense. Otherwise, why isn’t Linus with her?”

  Anna lets out a laugh. “Since when are you so interested in the romantic details?” she says.

  “If they break up, it could be good for Ian,” Jules says. “Right, Whistler? Your boy has the hots for her still, doesn’t he?”

  I listen, agog. This man, the whistler, is Ian’s father? I need to get a better look to see if there’s a resemblance.

  “My son knows what he’s doing. He has good taste,” Whistler says.

  The others laugh.

  “That’s why you want Rosie down here,” Jules says. “You want to get Ian’s girlfriend back for him. He likes them dreaming, doesn’t he?”

  “Are you finding anything over there or just wasting time?” Whistler says.

  Jules’s next laugh is rather snide.

  “Really, Jules,” Anna says. “We’re not finding much, Whistler,” she adds politely. “She’s in a pre-REM mode. A bit restless but stable. I’m curious to see what her dreams are like.”

  A phone rings.

  “There he is, finally,” Anna says. “I’m putting him on speaker.” There’s a clicking. “Hi, Sandy. Anna here.”

  “Sorry I’m late. Did you start without me?” Berg says.

  His voice always gives me the creeps, and I can feel myself shrinking inside my skin. It sounds like they coordinated a time for this call.

  “We have Dubbs on the table. We’re just ready to go,” Jules says.

  My heart sinks. They are working on Dubbs, just as I feared.

  “Remember, no mining for her,” Berg says. “We’re just taking a look. Is she in REM?”

  “Not yet. We could boost her,” Jules says.

  “No. Leave her be,” Berg says.

  Kiri reaches up to adjust Dubbs’s IV, and I hear a few taps on a keyboard.

  “What’s the status on Rosie?” Anna asks.

  “Nothing new. I’m looking for her,” Berg says. “I’m sorry it’s taking so long. I know how important this is. She’s very good at disappearing, but she always surfaces, one way or the other. She knows I have her family.”

  “Have you tried getting any dreams from Thea?” Jules says.

  “No luck so far,” Berg says. “The parents have invited Orson over and he’s there now, but the girl’s resisting medical intervention. It’s a delicate situation.”

  “These are all delicate situations, Sandy,” Jules says. “We’ve been getting some strange ripples here in the dreamers.”

  “What kind of ripples?” Berg asks.

  I half expect Jules to mention that a visitor is in the tunnels.

  “We’ve noticed a turn in the organic code,” Jules says.

  “A hacker, maybe? A virus?” Berg asks. “Is it spreading? Is Whistler with you?”

  Jules looks toward the whistler and nods his chin.

  “Not a hacker,” Whistler says. “It’s internal. A spontaneous mutation, possibly.”

  “Track it down,” Berg says.

  Whistler laughs. “Sure thing. No problem.”

  Jules makes a face at him. “In other words, Whistler’s working on it,” he says. “The truth is, we only have so many hands down here. Rory Fallon’s gone back to Iceland to spend some time with his wife and daughter, and we don’t expect him back anytime soon.”

  “How are you doing with my hybrid?” Berg asks.

  “It’s coming along,” Anna says.

  “Be more precise, please,” Berg says. “When will it be ready?”

  “We’ve tweaked the CRISPR for your mHtt and crossed that with the Sinclair Fifteen, which appears to cut out the Huntington’s,” Anna says. “We’re running trials with the seeds in a dozen dreamers now, but we won’t know how it works in a live host until we try. Is your coma patient standing by? Has his family signed on?”

  “No,” Berg says. “I’ve hit a snag there. Chimera’s a dead end.”

  The doctors look at each other with varying degrees of surprise.

  “Then what’s the point, Sandy?” Jules asks. “I thought you wanted the Berg-Sinclair hybrid for a live host.”

  “I do. I’ll get you a host. Don’t worry about it,” Berg says.

  “You’ll get us one?” Jules says. “We don’t do live hosts down here. You know that, Sandy. Dreamers only.”

  “So you say,” Berg says.

  Jules shakes his head. Kiri lifts both of her hands in a what now? gesture.

  “Are you going to tell us who you have in mind as a host? Have you found a volunteer? Your son, maybe?” Kiri asks.

  Berg’s laugh comes over the phone. “Not my son. Someone else. I’m just working out the logistics.”

  Anna frowns. “You’re not going to ask us to put the hybrid dream seeds right back into you, are you? That won’t work, Sandy. You’re already too far along.”

  “I’m well aware, thank you,” Berg says. “I’m already taking the maximum dosage of tetrabenazine, and my chorea’s noticeably worse. No. I’ve got someone else. I need to make the leap, like Orson did. Like Rosie’s transfer into Thea.”

  The team exchanges glances again. Jules ducks back his chin and frowns. I’m getting a bad feeling about who Berg might want for his host.

  “Haven’t you learned anything from Orson, Sandy?” Anna says.

  “Many things. What’s your point?” Berg says.

  “Orson’s not the happiest of men,” Anna says. “What makes you think you’d be any better off than him?”

  Berg laughs again. “Let me worry about that. For now, keep your trials going and take care of Dubbs. No mining for her. Absolutely none. Understood? I need her for leverage just the way she is, and then I’ll mine her myself. I’ll bring Rosie down as soon as I recover her, and you’ll get your Sinclair Fifteen. First thing. That’s the deal.”

  Here. Berg means to bring me here. He means to mine my sister, too, afterward. I’m sick with horror. I’ve walked right into his plan. Again.

  “Very well,” Jules says.

  A loud hissing noise starts up.

  “Not again,” Jules says. “Can you get that?”

  “On it,” Whistler says.

  “Hurry,” Anna says. “That narcotic is flammable.”

  “I said I’m on it,” Whistler repeats.

  I peek through the opening to see the whistler step up on a chair and grasp a hose that comes from the ceiling. A cloud of blue gas is gushing out the end, and he kinks it to slow the rush while he works a lever halfway up.

  “What was that?” Berg says.

  “One of the narcotics lines, the backup ones,” Jules says. “The nozzles have been blowing. They’re old. This whole place is old.”

  “Is Whistler still with you?” Berg says.

  “Here,” he says, still holding the kink.

  “You probably know Ian’s gone to check on your mother. If you ever want help bringing her to Miehana, you only have to ask,” Berg says. “We could set her up in a cozy place in town, or you could have her down below with you. Either way.”

  “That’s very gene
rous of you, but for now, we’re all good,” Whistler says. He tucks the hose back up into a framework and then steps down from the chair.

  Berg says goodbye, and the connection goes dead.

  I hardly know what to think about all I’ve heard, but one thing is clear. These people are diabolically creepy and underhanded. I shift my weight on my knees, trying to get a better angle on my sister, and the floor makes a tiny creak.

  Anna straightens suddenly, lifting both her gloved hands. “Did you hear something?”

  I duck my head away from the gap and hold very still, trying not to breathe, but my heart is hammering with fear.

  “Whistler, sweep the room,” Jules says.



  I GRAB MY KNIFE out of its sheath. I’m going to have to run. Whistler’s head comes over the counter, and his eyebrows jog in surprise. I scramble to my feet and bolt for the door, but by the time I open it, Anna is on the other side. I slash an arc of blade before me, and she backs up.

  “Hey, now,” she says.

  At that moment, Whistler dives to tackle me from the side. We hit the ground. I try to get my knife into him, but he blocks my wrist and the knife goes skittering through the doorway. I scramble to my knees. He catches my ankle, jerks me back, and slams me to the floor. I shove and kick, but he lands on my back and nearly crushes the breath out of me.

  “Let me go!” I say.

  Whistler presses my head so my face is smashed to the floor.

  “Get her legs,” his says grimly, his voice near to my ear.

  Someone wraps my ankles together. Then my wrists are tied together behind my back. Whistler hauls me up and drags me into the operating room, where he dumps me on a chair.

  “Stay put,” Jules says, standing over me.

  I twist my wrists in my bindings and try to flip my hair out of my eyes. “Let me out of here!” I say.

  Whistler, panting, braces a hand against the wall.

  Anna leans over to pick up my knife. “We need to call Sandy.”

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