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The rule of mirrors, p.12
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.12

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “How far back does your plotting go? Did I get into the Forge School on my own, or did they let me in on purpose so the dean could mine me?”

  He shook his head. “Getting into Forge was all you,” he said. “You applied by your own choice and made it in. I never would have had access to you otherwise, but then you were right there, at Forge, where Berg was already mining seeds from his students. The temptation was irresistible. It felt like fate. I wondered if a seed from you might trigger something old of your father’s inside me.”

  “Did it work?”

  He shook his head. “No.”

  “Then you really don’t have any of my dad’s feelings or memories left?” I asked. “Not one?”

  Orson shook his head. “Do you feel any of Althea in you?”

  I didn’t, but I was wary about how to answer him. “Sometimes,” I lied.

  “How much? Memories? Feelings?”

  “I’m not here to talk about me.”

  “But you’re all that matters now,” he said. “Let me try to explain how important you are. In all of my experiments, only one seeding has resulted in a full-blown consciousness from the seed: mine. But now, you’ve recognized me as only Rosie could know her father. You identify with your seed, not your host. We need to study you. We need your cooperation. I’ve been dying to talk to you. I’ve begged Huma, but she says we’re morally obligated to suppress the Rosie side of you in favor of Althea.”

  “Nobody’s getting suppressed anymore,” I said. “I can’t believe what you’ve done. You had no right!”

  “You weren’t supposed to even know about it,” he said. “None of the other students ever did. It wasn’t supposed to hurt you.”

  “Not hurt me!” I exclaimed. I held the jar out before me. “Look what’s happened! Dean Berg stole my life from me! Look at me now! Look at me!” I stood before him in someone else’s body. I was so enraged that I could barely speak. I lifted the jar higher again. “I want to go back in my old body. Is she here? Can you put me back?”

  Orson lifted his hands like a catcher, ready in case I threw the jar. “You know it’s too late for that,” he said.

  I opened the incubator door again and held it open so I could aim my next throw inside, where it would do the most damage. “Where’s my body? Where’s Rosie?” I asked. “Tell me or I swear I’ll smash every jar.”

  “You can’t,” he said quickly. “Those are people’s dreams in there. You were once in a jar like that.”

  I threw a jar into the case where it broke a dozen other jars. Glass and sparks flew.

  “No!” Orson cried, leaping forward.

  “Stop!” I grabbed another jar and wound up again. I glared defiantly at Orson, who froze three paces away. “Tell me where she is!”

  “Sandy Berg keeps her in a storage facility in Colorado,” Orson said. “It’s called the Onar Clinic. It’s outside Denver. For pity’s sake, put the jar down.”

  “Is she still alive?” I asked.

  “She’s alive, I swear. Sandy’s taking very good care of her. She’s in a stasis, asleep. He was worried that she would harm herself, but this way she’s safe.”

  “Safe?” I said, appalled. I had been in that so-called stasis myself. It killed me to think that the original version of me was still there after all these months. “She’s in hell.”

  The crunching of glass came from behind me, and I whipped around.

  Diego stood tall in the doorway, surveying the damage. “What is all this?” he asked calmly.

  I kept my jar raised high. “I have to leave here now,” I said. “Can you take me home, Dad? Please?”

  Diego’s gaze flicked from me to Orson while I stood there between my two false fathers.

  “She isn’t Althea anymore, is she?” Diego asked.

  Orson shook his head in a brief negative. “I’d say she’s more of a hybrid at this point. We need to study her further.”

  I let out a bitter laugh. “Your daughter’s gone,” I said to Diego. The truth felt brutal, but I had to risk that Diego would respect it. “I’m sorry, but I’m all that’s left, and I’m not Althea. I’m begging you, get me out of here.”

  Diego peered at me a long moment, and then nodded. “I’ll call up the jet.”

  I smiled grimly and turned once more to Orson. “You said you tried one of my dream seeds on yourself once, right? But it didn’t do you any good?”

  “Yes, that’s right,” he said warily.

  “It didn’t work on you because you’re death,” I said. “All this? It’s just death. And you’re the king of it.”

  I slid my last jar onto the counter where it flickered its tiny lights. Done. I was finished.

  15

  ROSIE

  GUARDIAN

  JENNY, THE YOUNGER SISTER, is usually friendly, but Portia keeps aloof. She makes a point of taking Gingerbread away if she curls beside me on the couch. They take their phones and computers with them when they leave for work and school, but they’re always generous with their food. It takes hardly anything to fill my shrunken belly at first, but I keep at it, and soon I can eat more. By the fourth day, they let me cook, and I take over the kitchen.

  Mac ’n’ cheese. Cookie dough. French toast. French fries. More ketchup. Grilled cheese with tomato soup. Pasta with ham and alfredo sauce. Fudge. As I start to regain weight, I itch to exercise. My strength is puny, but I find a yoga channel on TV, and every day I try the moves. I add in push-ups and sit-ups and squats, making it up as I go, doing repetitions until my muscles burn. My nights are riddled with horrific nightmares, so I nap during the day instead, as best as I can.

  And all the time, without discussing it, the time bomb’s ticking. Jenny and Portia are counting down to their mom’s return from overseas, and I know that’s when they’ll call in for the reward. I need a plan before then, but with no car and no money, my choices are limited. I don’t want to go public. That much I know. I refuse to surrender my life to adults who think they know what’s best for me, and one way or another, whether with Berg or my parents or Family Services, once the world knows where I am, I’m not going to be free anymore.

  The port in my chest is a mute, constant reminder of my helpless suffering in the vault. All I really want to do is kill Berg. Distance from the Onar Clinic has crystalized my resentment into a clear goal. I need to leave the sisters before they call for the reward, but not before I’m strong enough to take care of myself. This means that while they’re out, I practice jimmying the locks of their bedroom doors, adding oil to the workings and the door hinges, so that I’ll be able to get in silently and steal a phone when I need to.

  One Friday evening, twelve days after my arrival and two days before their mother is due home, the snowy yard turns the pure, violet color of twilight and beckons me outside. I’m taking a bag of garbage out to the bin at the end of the driveway when a Jeep comes slowly down the road, kicking up felty bits of fresh snow behind its tires. It disappears down the block, but the next time I glance out the window, it’s parked a few yards down the road. The lights are off, but a driver is sitting inside and I know, I just know this is bad.

  I say nothing to the sisters, but I take the binoculars from the hook by the door and peer out to the Jeep. Zooming in, I spy the soft fur that lines the driver’s hood and his hawklike nose. His wispy mustache confirms my suspicions.

  It’s Ian.

  He has found me. He must have been watching for me, but I don’t understand how he knew where to look for me. Did Berg send him?

  “What are you looking at?” Portia asks, coming into the kitchen.

  “Nothing,” I say.

  I lower the binoculars, and Ian takes that moment to start up the Jeep and drive away.

  She glances out the window. “Do you know that Jeep?”

  “No,” I say.

  That night, the Jeep returns to park in the same place, stalking me, and I know it’s time to leave. After the sisters go to sleep, I gently pick Jenny’s lock, sneak i
nto her room, and find her phone where it’s charging next to her bed. I steal it silently, then creep to the downstairs bathroom and close the door to muffle my voice.

  I’m paranoid about my Forge email being watched by Berg, but it’s also the most likely way Linus and Burnham would have tried to reach me, so I log in. My inbox has 5,662 emails in it. Impressive. I do a search for Linus and focus in on one likely message.

  From: Linus Pitts

  To: Rosie Sinclair

  Sent: Monday, November 1, 2066, 4:35 PM

  Subject: call me

  Rosie, if you see this, call me.

  314-287-4351

  L.

  Succinct. Works for me. I jot down the number and his email address on a piece of paper. Next I search for Burnham and find this:

  From: Burnham Fister

  To: Rosie Sinclair

  Sent: Friday, December 24, 2066, 11:42 PM

  Subject: ho ho

  Merry Christmas wherever you are.

  I stare at the words so long I can hear them in his voice. He sent it shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve, and I feel a wistful sadness as I think of Burnham in some bough-laden house, surrounded by colored lights, thinking of me. I wish I had a number for him. I’m tempted to write him back, but I’m paranoid enough to suspect my Forge email account isn’t safe. Berg can doubtless check it for activity. I jot down Burnham’s email address and log out.

  My heart’s doing odd little skips, because I’m back to staring at Linus’s phone number. I can’t forget that he goaded me into telling all my hard-won secrets to the cameras at Forge, and then he suggested I’d dreamed it all, so that I wavered and doubted myself. It was the absolute worst feeling. Yet later he’d tried to help me, too. He must have believed me, up to a point.

  I don’t know what to think about him, but I have this urge to reconnect with him and see what he’ll say. It feels like a risk just calling him, but I come up with a logical reason: maybe he can tell me something I can use to get to Berg.

  I dial his number carefully. I press my thumbnail to the gap in my teeth and listen anxiously through two rings.

  “Linus here. What’s up?”

  I nearly drop the phone. It’s his own voice, with his Welsh vowels and a dose of cranky sleepiness. He sounds impossibly near and familiar. My pulse goes haywire, and I squeeze my eyes shut.

  “Hi. It’s me, Rosie,” I say softly.

  A shifting noise comes from his end. “Okay, let’s hear it,” he says.

  No surprise. No concern. He sounds almost bored. It hurts. “I was calling to see how you’re doing, but if this is a bad time,” I say, uncertain.

  “How’d you get this number?”

  “From your email, remember? You sent it to me.”

  A creak comes over the line, as if he’s switching positions on a noisy bed. “When?”

  “Last November.” I’m getting irritated. “What’s going on?”

  “Rosie? Is it really you?” he says.

  “Who else would I be?”

  “I get a lot of prank callers,” he says.

  I can tell he doubts me still. Part of me wants to hang up, but instead I try to think of something that will convince him I’m me. “We talked on walkie-hams at night at Forge,” I say. “I stole your swipe pass from your pocket that time you loaned me your jacket.” I think back. “You used to make spaghetti and watch Shakespeare in Love with Otis and Parker when you paid your blood for rent. Do you still?”

  “Wow,” he says softly. “Where are you?”

  “In Colorado. I’ve been staying with some friends.”

  “Someone named Althea?” he asks.

  “No. Who’s that?”

  He mutters something I can’t hear. Then, “Some girl called me a couple weeks ago. She said she was a friend of Rosie’s. She knew everything about us, even the private things we said to each other at night. Are you sure you don’t know her? Althea?”

  “Never heard of her,” I say.

  “Then I was right,” he says slowly. “All that stuff I thought I was saying to you, you never heard. Why would she do that?”

  I lean back against the sink. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but I haven’t talked to you since last October, when you were leaving for St. Louis.” When we essentially broke up. “What sort of stuff did you think you were telling me?” I ask.

  “It was awkward.”

  “But was it nice stuff?” As soon as it’s out, I regret it. “Forget that.”

  “I’ve always tried to be nice to you,” he says quietly, and somehow that makes it worse.

  I’ve been alone for so long. I thought because he showed up down in the vault that he was on my side after all, but I don’t really know anything for sure where Linus is concerned.

  “Remember how you thought I was dreaming it all?” I say. “You made me look like a fool on The Forge Show. That wasn’t particularly nice.”

  “I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t understand yet.”

  “Did Berg ever mine you?” I ask. “Tell me this. When he had you down in the vault, did he mine your dreams?”

  “I don’t know,” he says. “I didn’t feel any different.”

  “You don’t feel different at first. At first, you can’t even tell. But then—” I gulp in a big breath. “But after a while, you’re not even really sure who you are anymore.”

  “Where are you, Rosie?” he says, sounding both sad and urgent. “Let me come find you. We need to talk in person.”

  “I don’t want to be on your show.”

  “Of course not,” he says. “I just want to talk.”

  But talking to Linus is breaking something inside me, and I don’t want to feel weak. “If you’re so popular and powerful now, why haven’t you done anything to shut down Berg?” I ask.

  “That’s not the simplest thing to do,” he says.

  I let out a laugh. It shouldn’t be any harder than killing him, which I aim to do.

  “Where’ve you been all this time?” Linus asks. “Are you safe now?”

  “Berg had me at a place called the Onar Clinic, near Denver,” I say. “I escaped a couple weeks ago.”

  “Why didn’t you call me? I’ve been looking for you. I can help you, Rosie.”

  “I don’t think so,” I say. And it’s true. That’s what hurts. I thought I wanted to hear his voice. I thought reaching out to him might make me feel a little better, but he’s been in the real world having a real life while I’ve been buried alive, and somehow his offer of help feels worse than too late. I don’t want help from him. “This was a mistake,” I say. “What if your line’s bugged?”

  “The line’s not bugged. Just tell me where you are,” he says.

  I hold the phone away from my cheek, staring at the numbers. Ian is down the block. He could have some high-tech audio surveillance on the house. He’s probably overhearing my every needy word.

  “I have to go,” I say.

  “Rosie!”

  I end the call and listen attentively to the house, anxious for quiet. My stupid whim to call my ex might cost me everything. I have to leave now, before Berg traces my call, and before Jenny and Portia realize what I’ve done. I delete my call from Jenny’s phone. Stealthily, I open the bathroom door, and at that instant, the phone buzzes in my hand.

  I jump out of my skin.

  I scan the unfamiliar number, and a shiver of foreboding lifts along my arms. I answer and bring the phone to my ear. “Yes?” I whisper.

  “This is your guardian, Sandy Berg,” he says. His voice is the calm of a poised cobra. “Please tell me you’re somewhere safe.”

  My veins seize up. I have an instant of pure, mindless panic, and then I switch to survival mode and everything goes very clear.

  “What do you want?” I ask.

  While he’s talking, I move swiftly and quietly out of the bathroom and into the dark kitchen. Out
the window, the Jeep is still parked in the road with its lights off. I grab the binoculars.

  “You’re not well,” Berg continues. “I know this may not make sense to you, but you’ve been suffering from delusions. You’re liable to feel persecuted. Paranoid. You’ve left your treatment at a very critical time, and I’m afraid you could suffer a severe setback if we don’t get you back home immediately.”

  At my ankle, Gingerbread gives a soft meow. I gently, firmly shove her aside and keep my binoculars aimed at the Jeep. I can barely make out Ian’s figure.

  “You never give up, do you?” I say. “I’m not crazy. Quit telling me I am.”

  “Of course you’re not crazy,” Berg says. “But you’re not at your most stable, either, are you? Please, Rosie. I can find you from this number, but it’s time-consuming to search, and we need to minimize the press, for your own sake. Tell me where you are, and I’ll come for you myself.”

  He doesn’t know where I am yet, if I can believe him. Ian doesn’t seem awake, and he certainly doesn’t have a phone next to his ear. He’s a piece that doesn’t fit in the puzzle.

  “What home would you take me to?” I ask Berg. “Doli?”

  Berg sighs. “No, my vacation home in Colorado, where you’ve been recuperating. I’ve hired a team to take care of you, day and night. Everyone on the staff is very concerned about you. We’re all anxious to have you safely back.”

  “You’re lying,” I say. “I was in a vault at the Onar Clinic. Dr. Ash has been operating on me. You’ve been stealing my dreams.”

  “Dr. Ash has been working at the Forge School, like always,” he says. “I see her there every day.”

  “Don’t lie to me!” I say. “I’m not playing your games anymore. I don’t believe you!”

  “Okay, suppose, just suppose you’re right,” he says. “I’m not saying you are, but let’s suppose you’ve been in a vault like you say. Suppose you became resistant to your therapy, and I began to fear that your mind was decaying. Suppose I determined that the best antidote for your decay was to allow you to have a little autonomy. A little freedom.” A shifting noise comes from his end of the line, and his voice drops softly. “Is it exciting, being out on your own?”

 
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