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The keep of ages, p.12
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       The Keep of Ages, p.12

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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“Not yet,” says Jules. He regards me narrowly, and I see his features up close for the first time. His cheeks are pitted with old acne scars, and his lips are thin and gray. “How’d you find us?” he asks. “Who else knows you’re here?”

  “You’re going to jail. All of you,” I say.

  Jules opens his big, hard hand and slaps me across the face. “I asked you how you found us.”

  I wince, stung. “Ask your dragon,” I say.

  Jules smacks me again, harder this time, and pain flares along my left cheekbone. “I’m asking you,” Jules says to me.

  I have to blink to regain my focus, and when I do, a surge of brute anger rises in me. I’m not taking this. My days of putting up with Larry’s violence are over, and I’m not cowering from anybody else, ever again.

  I spit in Jules’s face. “Go ahead and rot.”

  He turns red and winds up again, but just then, Anna steps between us.

  “That’s enough. Leave her alone, Jules,” she says in a stern voice.

  His eyes flash from her to me. He wipes his face. Then he crosses his arms over his chest and falls back half a step.

  Anna frowns at me, inspecting me closely. I stare back, defiant. Her dark face is broad, with strong, regular features, and the whites of her eyes have a tint of yellow. When she touches her fingers lightly to my sore cheek, I flinch back. She runs a hand over my pockets and takes out my phone, tossing it to Whistler.

  “See what you can find,” Anna says.

  Next she pulls out my keys.

  “She’s right, you know. What she said. It was the dragon that brought her,” Kiri says in her quiet voice. Sitting in a tall swivel chair by the operating table, she alone seems unruffled. “The dragon in the machine.”

  “What are you talking about?” Jules says.

  Whistler’s flipping through my phone, but he looks up at Kiri. “The fluke in the computer. The thing that ripples in the code and cuts out the cameras.”

  “Nonsense,” Jules says. “When was her last call?”

  Whistler returns his attention to my phone. “Three days ago,” he says. “A number in St. Louis. I’d bet Linus. Before that, a number in Atlanta.”

  I’m surprised. I must have grabbed my older phone.

  “Who’s in Atlanta?” Anna asks me.

  “Important people,” I say. “They’re going to call the police if I’m not back soon.”

  “Likely not, since you’re still technically missing,” Anna says. She taps a finger against the knife, and then sets it aside. “Not even Berg knows where you are. What a curious opportunity.”

  At some slight signal from Anna, Jules turns and starts prepping a syringe.

  My heart lurches. I twist my hands in my bindings, trying to get free. “You can’t knock me out. You can’t mess with my sleep in any way,” I say. “It throws off my dreams.”

  Jules pauses. “Baloney.”

  “It’s true! Berg likes me afraid,” I say, thinking fast. “He keeps me in a delicate balance of fear. Then, when I’m exhausted, I fall into a deep sleep and he’s ready to mine me.”

  Anna gives a half smile and shakes her head again. “Whistler, take care of her car,” she says, and passes him my keys.

  Jules takes a step nearer and I tense.

  “Stay away from me!” I scream.

  I try to kick out, but Jules pins me with a hard grip on my shoulder. A sharp pain pinches my neck, and numbness spreads outward from the injection. My neck goes limp, and my knees buckle. Jules holds me steady on the chair as my body collapses from within.

  “No,” I say. I cannot be back in this helpless situation again.

  But I am. They have me. It’s impossible to keep my eyes open. I try to struggle, but my body is already weak. I feel someone lifting me, and then I’m stretched out on a table. My wrists are untied and then my arms, heavy and limp, are strapped down to the table.

  The last thing I hear is Jules’s voice.

  “How convenient. She still has a port.”



  WHEN I WAKE, groggy, I’m in a small, underground cell on a clean, narrow cot. A soft blanket covers me, and I’m dressed in green scrubs. My mouth tastes bitter, and my left cheek hurts. As I slowly roll over, every muscle aches, like I’ve been beaten up from within, and I’m so hungry I could eat a goat. Carefully, I sit upright and hug my knees to my chest, letting my balance settle. I curl my toes in my socks. Something inside me is different. Partly, it’s the normal sludge-brain I always have when Berg mines me, but now I also feel a faint tingle at the base of my skull. It’s like an expectation. Like today’s my birthday, only it’s not.

  I blink hard and shake my head. The tingling sensation dims.

  A dozen small lights gleam in the rugged stone around me, and it’s so quiet, the walls seem to reflect back the sound of my own breath. Lifting my hand, I feel for the soft lump under my skin on my chest, and find my port is still there. I’m not surprised. Gently, I touch the back of my left ear, where I find the crust of a scab. Of course.

  I have no idea how much they mined from me, or how long I’ve been here. My fingernails are a little longer than I remember, which could mean a couple of days have passed, or more time if they’ve been trimmed. I step across to the main door, which has a narrow window looking onto a hallway. When I try the knob, the door’s locked. A second door leads to a tidy little bathroom. I do my business and wash my hands. A fresh toothbrush and small tube of paste are there for the taking, and as I brush my teeth, I glance into the mirror.

  A flurry of surprise skitters around in the back of mind, as if a thousand tiny stars are lighting up at once. I spit into the sink. I frown, doubtful, and lean nearer to inspect my sore cheek in the glass. It’s a nasty, bruised purple from where Jules smacked me, and tender to the touch. I meet my own gaze, assessing. My hazel eyes are still large and steady, my eyebrows dark. I touch the waves of my dark hair, which feels clean and soft, as though someone’s washed it lately. My lips look as dry as they feel. My teeth, clean now, have the usual gap in front. I angle my chin to see my jaw has the same, familiar contour. My complexion’s paler than usual, but my acne’s about the same, with one old zit healed and a new one getting worse. Two days, I’d guess. I’ve been down here about two days.

  It’s not a happy discovery, but in the back of my mind, that sense of tiny stars zips around in wild delight. I take a deep breath, dreading what I have to do.

  Who’s there? I ask cautiously in my mind.

  I haven’t heard an extra voice since Thea left me. I listen carefully now, but there’s no reply. Still, I’m distinctly aware of something new inside me, a feeling that doesn’t fit. I gaze at my reflection, puzzled, while this strange, eager delight plays at the edge of my consciousness. It isn’t me. It couldn’t be, because I have nothing to be joyful about. And yet it’s there, as clear and vibrant as warm sunlight would be on my open palm.

  I look down at my hand and turn my palm up, half expecting to see sunlight on my skin. The presence in the back of my mind twirls with silent glee.

  “What’s going on?” I ask aloud. “This isn’t funny.”

  A shot of adrenaline bursts through me, and my heart races. But no answer comes. What did the doctors do to me?

  I pad in my socks over to the main door and peek through the window at the hallway.

  “Hello?” I call. “Is anyone there? I need some food.”

  Listening for a reply, I hear only stone. I check my room for camera lenses but can’t find any. My heart keeps pumping, go, go, go! Then it does a little flip on itself, and I’m suddenly breathless and exhausted. I lean over and brace my hands on my knees. A flashing heat wave spreads out from my chest to my extremities, followed by a chill that seems to pull my blood toward the floor. Light-headed, I slide down to sit on the floor before I faint, and I lean my face into my shaky hands.

  I take slow, deep breaths, trying to steady myself, and then, without warning, through no effort of my
own, my vision is filled with an open, pearly sky and the wild, fragrant grass of the prairie in springtime. The horizon stretches into the deep distance, and I breathe in the fresh, cool air of dawn. Each tall, leaning blade of grass shimmers with an added glow, a piercing vividness. It’s more than a memory, more than a daydream, and I turn slowly to find Linus standing beside me. His eyes are grave, his mouth grim. He’s wearing his familiar black jacket, and when a breeze blows up his collar, I recognize this precious, poisoned moment.

  It’s the morning after Thea had her baby. We’re standing on a secluded knoll a few miles from the school, and we’re facing the likelihood that Linus has a camera in his left eye. The clear, caramel color of his iris shows no hint of a foreign lens, but I can’t think of any other explanation for how Berg had a film of me in Linus’s bed. The truth is inescapable. It kills me to know Linus has brought a spy along with him every time we’ve been together, for every glance, every conversation, every uncertain kiss.

  Don’t look at me like that, Linus says, pleading. Believe me. I didn’t know.

  If this vision were pure memory, I would kiss him next, but it isn’t. Instead, I lift my right hand to cover his camera eye. He lets me, and I feel the warmth of his forehead under my fingertips. Sunlight slants across his lips, and his eyelashes blink a faint brush against the life line of my palm.

  My vision holds there, caressing the poignant details.

  This is my hand over Linus’s eye, proving that I left him because I couldn’t get past how he was part of Berg’s web. This is Linus holding still beneath my hand, helpless, furious, unhappy. This is me, wanting him and hurting him and failing to see how badly he needed me.

  Please stop, I tell my vision.

  My soul aches with regret. I want Linus, wherever he is, with whatever heart I have.

  When the vision finally drains away, I’m slumped on the floor. Cold invades my extremities until I’m shivering. My heartbeat is a sluggish throb. My breath hurts in my lungs. What’s happened to me? I swallow over a dry throat and push myself up heavily to sitting. This keen sense of longing is like a knife between my ribs, scraping at each breath. I don’t like it. I don’t want my memories co-opted and corrupted.

  “Who are you?” I ask.

  My invader doesn’t answer, but I know it’s there, lurking. Why this memory? I ask. Why did you pick this one?

  The fingertips of my right hand begin to tingle, and the sensation intensifies until it’s almost a burning. I stare at my hand, stretching out my fingers. They look no different, but the tingle continues like a command. On instinct, I trail my fingers lightly along my forehead and down my cheek in a slow, soothing gesture, like an apology. The ache in my chest releases its hold, and my next breath comes easier.

  The tingling in my fingers fades, and I’m left alone, puzzled, missing Linus. My heart feels raw where a frost of protection has thawed.

  I don’t want to be thinking about Linus and how much he means to me. He isn’t what brought me here to this cave. I have my family to worry about. Yet now, something in my own mind has thrust him forward again, as if my feelings for him are central to everything. I pull up my knees and sink my head down into my arms.

  I don’t need some other force inside me pulling up sensitive memories and toying with my emotions. Whatever this tingly starlight presence is in me, it needs to understand who’s boss.



  WHEN WHISTLER COMES LATER with a tray of food, I’m back on my bed, just waking again. My blanket’s twisted around me, and my green scrubs smell musty. I’ve completely lost track of time, and my eyes feel smudged and puffy, as if from crying. His soft, aimless whistling sounds incongruously optimistic.

  “Your cheek looks better. How are you feeling?” Whistler says.

  I push up onto my elbow, and the heavy, chill scent of the stone walls invades me again. “Like crap. Where’s my sister?”

  He angles the tray on the desk, facing me. “She’s safe with the others,” he says. He absently adjusts his earpiece, aiming the microphone nub toward his mouth. “We didn’t mine her, if that’s what’s worrying you. Just had a little look. Her dreams are very nice. Not the same caliber as yours, but that’s no surprise.”

  “What about my parents? Where are they?”

  “I have no idea,” Whistler says. “Berg isn’t the type to keep all his eggs in one basket.”

  “So they weren’t delivered with Dubbs?” I say.

  Whistler shakes his head slowly and rubs his chin. “Nope. Dubbs came alone. You should really eat. You need your strength. Aren’t you hungry?”

  I’m starved. He’s brought me a pita sandwich with fresh cucumbers, cheddar cheese, tomato, and creamy mayo, and I can’t stuff it in fast enough. I gulp down half a glass of ice water. Then I rip open a bag of chips and nearly swoon at the salty crispiness. There’s a brownie with some chewy caramel in it, and I devour that, too.

  “You like chocolate? I made those myself,” he says. He pulls the chair from the desk and sits awkwardly across from the bed.

  I close my eyes, savoring the sweetness. “They’re good,” I admit. “How do you guys get food down here?”

  “We have groceries delivered upstairs,” he says, like it’s no big deal. “If there’s anything special you want, let me know and I can get it for you.”

  I lower my brownie. He’s implying that I’ll be staying awhile.

  “You mined me, didn’t you?” I ask.

  “Just a little,” he says, and eyes me closely. “Can you tell?”

  Something’s different. That’s for sure. “Yes. How long have I been down here?”

  “Two days? Yes. Two.”

  I can’t believe this is happening to me again. I glance behind him to the door, which is closed again. I didn’t see him lock it from the inside, but that doesn’t mean it’ll open. I wonder what it would take to get past him.

  “What you’re doing down here can’t possibly be legal,” I say.

  “Well, it’s not illegal,” Whistler says slowly. “The pre-dead are all slated for harvesting. We pay for them fair and square.”

  Pre-dead. I haven’t heard that term before. I guess that’s what’s kept in a pre-morgue.

  “Except my sister and me,” I say.

  He purses out his lips, like he might whistle, but then he doesn’t. “You represent a turning point, I admit,” he says.

  Anger hardens inside me.

  Without another word, he produces a little paper cup and sets it on my tray. It contains a small white pill suspiciously like the kind Orly gave us students back at Forge to make us sleep for twelve hours every night.

  As Whistler glances away, evading my direct gaze, I have my first glimpse of his resemblance to Ian. Where Ian is all protruding eyes and soft lips and wispy blond hair, Whistler has subdued, even features and normal brown hair. He’s sturdier, with more bulk to match his maturity, and despite his hint of chagrin as he looks away from me, he still exudes a quiet confidence that’s more refined than Ian’s contrived, boastful manner. He has changed into a different set of clothes, a matching gray set of shirt and trousers, and his helmet is cocked at a jaunty angle on his head, so the headlamp looks like an unlit third eye.

  I can feel him waiting for me to ask about the pill. Instead, I take another slow bite of my brownie.

  “Who controls the dragon?” I ask.

  “Pardon?” he says.

  “I mean the special effects upstairs, by the Keep of Ages,” I say. “How’d you make it look like Dubbs fell from the plank?”

  He tilts his head curiously. “The cameras were down when you came to the park. I didn’t see your arrival or anything unusual with the dragon. You saw the dragon in action?”

  “Yes. And my sister. Or an effect that looked just like my sister. She fell off a plank from the roof of the keep, and the dragon scooped her up and flew away. It was terrifying.”

  “That’s a little odd.” Whistler gazes at me
thoughtfully for a moment. “Back in the day, when the park was up and running, the special effects team could do anything they wanted. They frightened the bejesus out of the guests. Ian likes to tinker with the old programs when he’s here.”

  “But you said he’s not here.”

  “He’s not,” Whistler says. “I don’t have an explanation. Perhaps Ian put a show on a timer, so to speak.”

  I hardly think so. It was too perfectly timed to my movements. “Kiri said the dragon brought me here,” I say. “You agreed with her.”

  “I didn’t mean the dragon on the keep. It was more of a metaphor, like a monster in the machine,” he says. “We do have something unusual going on here lately, and I haven’t been able to track it down. We’ve had camera blackouts, and pressure changes that blow out the hoses. One day, a couple months back, five of the incubators in the storage room went off for no reason and then came back on again four hours later. We lost a ton of research. Jules nearly busted a gut.”

  “What do you actually do down here?” I ask.

  Whistler jogs up his helmet brim. “Me? I’m just a glorified handyman. The doctors do the actual research,” he says. “We started with simple data storage, but now we’re mostly experimenting with treatments for brain injuries, coma, Alzheimer’s, whatever. PTSD’s a big one. It’s all dream based. That’s our niche.”

  “And have you found any cures?” I ask.

  “Sure. Bits and pieces,” he says. “We share our findings with certain other labs. They often get the credit, but that’s okay.”

  “Like the Chimera Centre,” I say.

  “We do collaborate with Chimera. They’ve had some amazing breakthroughs there.”

  It’s a lot to wrap my head around. I pull my feet up on the bed and tuck my hands under my ankles. The longer I can keep him here talking, the more likely I am to get him to sympathize with me and maybe let me go. It’s like with Ian, all over again, but without the crush.

  “How long have you guys been down here?” I ask.

  Whistler’s shoulders visibly relax, and he sends his gaze toward the ceiling. “For me, it’s been three years this stretch. For the others? Let’s see. The meltdown was in forty-eight, so that’s nineteen years ago for Anna. She was the first. She set things up. Then Kiri and Jules came soon after.”

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