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The vault of dreamers, p.11
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.11

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “No.”

  “Do your parents work in Forgetown?”

  Linus shifted to lean his elbows on the railing of the pit. He clasped his hands over the void. “They’re dead,” he said. “My ma died back in Wales, and my dad brought me to St. Louis to live when I was eleven. He died a couple years later, and after that, I was on my own.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said.

  “It’s okay,” he said. “I have an aunt back in Wales. She’s my next of kin, but there was some hassle with the transit papers, and then we stopped hearing from her, so the state put me in a couple foster homes.”

  He spoke with such little concern, he could have been reading the weather report.

  “Did that work out?” I asked. I smoothed my hands along the railing of the pit.

  He glanced at me sideways. “Not really, and nobody looked too hard for me when I cut out on my own.”

  “So, how did you end up here?” I asked.

  “Otis brought me. I have a good setup with him,” Linus said. He gave a half smile and did the double jerk of his thumb to indicate the cameras. “You’re right. This is a little awkward.”

  “Would you go back to Wales if you could?” I asked.

  “And find my aunt?” He turned and leaned back against the railing. “I think about it. It would take a ton of money, more than I’m ever likely to see. But I would. I sometimes wonder if she’s ever watched The Forge Show and seen me here, in the background.”

  “Wouldn’t she contact you?”

  “I’d like to think so.”

  It occurred to me that he might be more visible now that he was on my feed with me. That could be a good thing. “You’re earning something here, right?” I said. “You could save up to go see her.”

  He laughed with genuine mirth. “Yes.”

  “So, maybe it will take a while, but you’ll get there,” I said.

  He looked at me curiously. “You’re really a dreamer, aren’t you?”

  “What’s that mean?”

  The clock made a shifting noise above us, and then the bells tolled out the four-note sequence of the quarter hour.

  I hunched, pressing my hands to my ears and grinning. The reverberations filled the space of the clock tower. In the din, Linus took a step closer to me and leaned near to my ear. I lowered my hands.

  “You were awake last night, weren’t you?” he whispered. “When I was in your dorm.”

  I shot my gaze to his. I nodded. I leaned close, cupping my mouth to his ear. “Something’s going on here at night. Something wrong. I have to figure out what.”

  He stared at me hard a moment. Then he leaned close once more. “Like what?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. The last of the bell resonance was fading to nothing, and I knew the microphones would pick up our voices again.

  Somehow his hands were on my waist and the tips of my sneakers dovetailed with his shoes. With a start, I realized how close we were standing. I knew that we had no privacy, but the air around us felt private.

  “I could be wrong, but I think you’re the same girl who kissed me yesterday,” he said.

  “That’s right,” I said. “Or you kissed me. Technically it was more of a mutual thing. With rain.”

  He smiled. “You’re nervous.”

  “No.”

  He nodded and silently mouthed yes.

  I lifted my fingers to his tee shirt where he was warm and strong under the fabric. He shifted a little, bringing me an inch closer, and I couldn’t decide whether to look at his eyes or his mouth, so I glanced at his nose, and then I just closed my eyes.

  I could feel better with my eyes closed, it turned out. This time, I was happier, and a little more certain, and his lips met mine with just the right pressure. The tingly, tiptoe nonsense I’d heard about kisses pretty much came true, only now it was mine, with Linus. I started to smile, until I discovered that kissing and smiling at the same time didn’t work so well. When Linus mumbled a laugh, it lit me up inside.

  His lips moved against my ear and his voice came as the softest whisper. “You’re safe as long as you stay in bed.”

  I couldn’t breathe. Then he kissed my cheek and reached for my hand, moving easily as if nothing was wrong.

  “Come on,” he said at regular volume.

  I broke out of my shock and stumbled after him, holding hands. I blinked rapidly as we left the clock tower and stepped into the sunshine.

  “You look properly dazzled, Sinclair,” he teased.

  “Sunlight will do that.”

  He smiled and tucked my hand more firmly in his.

  We shared a secret now. We couldn’t talk about it, but he knew for certain I’d been awake. His warning to stay in bed was a promise that he’d understood me. This might have been small to him, but to me, it felt huge.

  I had an ally.

  12

  FISH TANK

  THE MORE I thought of it, the more Linus’s caveat piqued my curiosity. If he’d thought a warning would make me take my pill like a normal student, it actually did the opposite. He might have been simply reminding me that I risked getting sent home if I disobeyed the rule to sleep, but it was also possible that he knew something dangerous was happening at Forge. I couldn’t find out what that was if I slept.

  So that Tuesday night, for the third time, I skipped my sleeping pill. Again Orly checked my mouth and didn’t catch me. When my brink lesson finished, I opened my lid and listened to the quiet as the other girls grew still.

  Out the nearest window, the topmost leaves of a tree were silhouetted against the darkening sky. When they were no longer visible, I slipped out of my sleep shell, fluffed my quilt around my pillow so it didn’t look so empty, and stepped to the window. The dean’s tower was visible to my left, and without any rain to obscure it, I could see in the lit windows of the fifth floor. The angle was poor but not impossible, and half a dozen techies were working at computers. How nice it was to spy on them for once instead of the other way around.

  Or maybe they were still watching me. Just because night scenes at the Forge School were not broadcast to viewers didn’t mean the cameras went dead for twelve hours. I looked at a few button cameras and up toward the camera at the apex of the ceiling, but I could barely make them out in the darkness. Dr. Ash herself had explained to me that we were closely monitored at night, but apparently, for some reason, whoever was watching wasn’t reporting me for being out of bed.

  I couldn’t make sense of it.

  Maybe they didn’t notice immediately. Maybe the techies were less vigilant after the fifty cuts. Like me, a few of the other girls now slept with their sleep shells open, and since they were less visible without their faintly lucent lids over them, I figured it was the same for me. Then again, it could be that the techies has spotted me, but they were waiting to see how far I’d go. I wished I knew.

  My feet grew cold as I kept watching. Around midnight, the techies reached for purses and sweaters, and soon after, the lights on the fifth floor began going out. I was about to get back in my sleep shell when a light came on in the penthouse, and Dean Berg passed before one of the windows. Instinctively, I drew back a little. He loosened his tie and walked out of sight again. I waited, watching for him to reappear. I felt like quite the devious spy, and I hoped he would do something worth staying up for.

  Long minutes later, Dean Berg walked past a different set of penthouse windows and stopped beside a fish tank. He had taken off his blazer and tie, and undone a few shirt buttons. He appeared to be talking to someone I couldn’t see, pausing occasionally to take a drink from a gray mug. Dean Berg shifted out of view again, and a slender, dark-haired man in a white shirt and jeans stepped into view beside the fish tank.

  Linus. He was Linus. I about died. He stood with one hand in his back pocket and appeared to be concentrating on the fish. Then he shook his head, turned, and spoke. The dean walked slowly back into view with his mug.

  My heart thudded as I watched. I desperately
wished I knew what they were discussing. Neither one was smiling, but I couldn’t discern any visible friction or tension between them, either. The dean occasionally nodded. He paced back a step, talking, and Linus absently linked a hand around the back of his neck while he listened. A minute later, Linus passed out of view. He showed up once more, at a different window, holding a tray of dishes, and then he was gone.

  My curiosity was going to kill me. I pressed closer to the window, trying to see the front of the tower where Linus would come out, but the corner of the building obscured my view. I was ready to sneak out and find him when I heard a noise. Footsteps in the hallway.

  I flew back to my sleep shell, and burrowed under my quilt. Someone was entering the dorm room. I labored to even out my breathing, and I listened hard as the footsteps advanced and then stopped. A slight, shifting noise sounded from the middle of the room and then a whispered voice. A squeak followed, and a rolling noise moved away. I almost exploded with relief. They were taking someone else. I turned my face and opened one eye a slit.

  Down the room, a couple of people were rolling Paige’s sleep shell quietly toward the door.

  I shut my eyes again, trying to think what to do. Should I stop them? I could demand to know where they were taking Paige. But if I spoke up, I’d be discovered breaking the rules. I would jeopardize my education and get kicked out of Forge before I’d discovered any real information about what was going on at night. That would be more stupid than brave.

  When the noise stopped, I guessed they had taken Paige down the elevator. I was just starting to relax when I heard soft footsteps again. They were coming back, whoever they were.

  And this time, the steps progressed down the full length of the room to me.

  My sleep shell vibrated with a slight touch, and my pulse skyrocketed. I lay as still as possible, breathing deeply, willing my muscles to relax. A moment passed. Then another. In excruciating suspense, I waited for another sound or hint of movement.

  Finally there was a soft rustling.

  “Rosie? Are you awake?” a man asked. “It’s okay to tell me. It’s not your fault.”

  I recognized his voice. He was the bearded man who had assisted Dr. Ash two nights before, when I’d seen them tending to Janice. Apparently, someone had noticed I was out of my sleep shell.

  I kept my face slack. Every inch of my body was alert, expecting him to touch me, and I didn’t know if I could keep from jumping. I sensed brightness through my eyelids as a nearby light was clicked on. I heard soft rustling again, and a clink. Then a ripping of paper.

  “Okay,” he said. His voice was very quiet and calm. “If you can hear me, I’m just adjusting your meds. It’s nothing to worry about.”

  I felt a hand on my wrist. I kept my arm limp. It took all my concentration not to resist. Next I felt a rubbery, binding tightness around my upper arm, and a couple of taps on my forearm. A swipe of wetness along my skin came next, and a moment later, the pinch of a needle.

  Liquid entered my vein, surprisingly cool, and a sense of easy security washed along my arm and into the rest of my body, erasing my tension. My face tingled, my jaw went loose, and in a simple, complete flood, everything in my body and mind let go. My last, clinging worry disappeared. I was out.

  Moments later, it was morning.

  I shot up in my sleep shell.

  The dorm was totally normal. Down the row, Paige was up and doing her ballerina stretches. Janice lay in her sleep shell beside mine, rubbing her arm over her face.

  “What day is this? Wednesday?” she asked.

  My heart was still pounding. Normal morning light was dropping in the windows, and outside promised to be another clear day. The other girls were getting up. Janice gave a great, loud yawn, and then smacked her lips. She reached for her shower caddy.

  “How’d you sleep?” I asked.

  “Good,” she said. “I think I’m getting an idea about how to play Hamlet in the scenes with her mom.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I left your camera in your wardrobe, by the way.”

  “Thanks.”

  She shuffled off toward the bathroom in her fuzzy, polka dot slippers.

  I checked my arm, knowing before I looked that I would have a scab, and I did, right where the needle had pinched me. It was faint, barely noticeable, and utterly real. I felt dirty. Violated.

  Angry.

  I climbed out of my sleep shell and checked its orientation beside my bedside table and my rug. The difference was so small I never would have noticed it if I wasn’t looking, but I was certain my sleep shell had been moved in the night, like Paige’s. We’d been taken somewhere. Something was being done to us while we slept.

  I had a choice to make. If I spoke up about what I knew, I’d reveal that I was awake at night, which was enough to get me kicked off the show. If I remained silent, I was basically accepting the night treatment not only for me, but for Janice and Paige and any other student they chose to wheel out. I didn’t know what to do.

  The other girls, who were heading off to the bathroom and getting dressed, all seemed fine. Totally and completely fine. Maybe whatever they were doing to us wasn’t that bad, but if it was harmless, The Forge Show would have no reason to keep it secret. It occurred to me that the bearded man had entered the dorm only after the techies had left, so maybe the other staff didn’t know about it.

  Linus had met with Dean Berg in the night. Linus might know something. If I could find a way to talk to him, maybe that would help. Or I could confide in Janice. I would have to talk to her in the shower, which would be weird, but possible. Then again, I wasn’t sure exactly what to tell her. Until I knew more, I had to pretend that I knew nothing.

  I stood to reach in my wardrobe for clean clothes and found my video camera hanging on the hook where Janice had left it.

  Too bad it wasn’t on during the night, I thought. With the door ajar. I gazed slowly around the room again, locating all the button cameras on the windows and furniture.

  Why couldn’t I do the surveillance backward? I was a filmmaker. I could film The Forge Show from the inside. In a place where everything was exposed, no one would think another lens mattered. Or two. I leaned back, letting my mind run. I could have a dozen of my own cameras if I could get them from the shop, and DeCoster had said we had endless supplies there.

  I let out a laugh.

  I could aim cameras wherever I wanted and leave them on all night. It would take work, and I would need a cover project to justify what I was doing, but I could figure that all out. I could pretend I knew nothing and be normal, just like everyone else, but all the while, I could find out what was really happening here at night.

  Yes. I had a plan.

  * * *

  After a quick breakfast with no Linus sighting, I headed into the library and down the steps for Media Convergence. I followed voices and the pattering of a Ping-Pong ball to the first room on the right, where Paige and Henrik had a game going. A domed lamp hung above the green table, just begging to get hit by a lob ball.

  “Eight, six,” Paige said, and let loose a serve.

  To my right, in the longer leg of the L-shaped room, students lounged on a couple of old, faux-leather couches before a fireplace. Their feet were up on an oval coffee table, along with a deck of cards, a Rubik’s Cube, and battered boxes of Dominion and Settlers of Catan. A dozen windows near the ceiling let in a view of passing feet, which underscored how the room was half-submerged below ground.

  In the corner, Mr. DeCoster sat behind an old desk, idly peeling pistachios as he watched his computer. He had pulled out the lower drawer of the desk and propped his feet on the edge so I could see the soles of his oxfords. Today, his bolo tie was made of some dark stone, maybe onyx.

  A dozen other computers lined the inner walls, and Burnham was working at one of them already. I figured he would ignore me, but he glanced over at me once before he began the ignoring for real. Like that wasn’t awkward.

  Janice came
in behind me and flopped over one end of a couch. “Sweet.”

  “I know. It’s nice down here,” I said, and stretched out in my jeans.

  “Hey, Mr. DeCoster. When are you going to start class?” Janice called.

  “I already did. Yesterday,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  Paige caught the Ping-Pong ball, and the silence hung.

  “Well, crap,” Henrik said conversationally.

  Janice moved toward a computer, and some of the other students paired up in teams.

  “Mr. DeCoster,” I said. “I need some gear from the shop.”

  “Fine,” Mr. DeCoster said. “Tell Muzh I said you could browse the shelves.”

  That sounded promising. I left my backpack by the couch and headed off.

  The shop, like our new room for Media Convergence, was in the basement of the library, but at the other end of a cement hallway. It had a half door with a ledge at waist height, and it reminded me of the athletic cage at Doli High where a student could sign out a basketball. A woman in a helmet stood at a workbench, soldering something in a vice. When she pushed up her helmet visor with her glove, I saw she was young with delicate, Indian features.

  “Are you Muzh?” I asked, wondering if that was a first or last name.

  “That’s right.”

  “Mr. DeCoster said to tell you I could browse,” I said.

  “Fine,” Muzh said. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

  “Explosives,” I said. “Just kidding. I’m looking for cameras.”

  Without releasing her soldering gun, she reached to open the door for me. “Aisle five, left side. Help yourself,” she said.

  She lowered her helmet again, and with the noise of her working behind me, I went in search of my gear. The shop was a cross between a hardware store and a flea market, with light fixtures and ceiling fans side by side with garage openers and toasters. The camera selection filled a wide, compartmentalized shelf, and the gear ranged from big, shoulder-harness film cameras to old, flip-open phones. I picked up one of the phones. It didn’t turn on, but it might if it were charged. A smudged cardboard box had a couple of old-fashioned gadgets and baby monitors in it, some so ancient they didn’t even have USB ports.

 
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