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The keep of ages, p.13
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       The Keep of Ages, p.13

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “They’ve been down here for almost two decades?” I ask, amazed.

  “I was with them back then, too, for a few years near the beginning. Four years? I think that’s right. I left for a while and then came back after my divorce,” he says. “A few others have come and gone from time to time, but we’re the core group.”

  “How did this all start?”

  He rests one ankle over the opposite knee, revealing an argyle sock. “I suppose there’s no harm in telling you,” he says. “After the earthquake and the Olbaid meltdown, people started dying from radiation poisoning. Not everybody, but enough. It was ugly.”

  “I heard about that. It must have been horrible,” I say, recalling Lavinia’s losses. “Wasn’t there a problem with a cemetery?”

  “Yes,” he says. “The dead weren’t actually radioactive, but their bodies had to be handled specially, and the local cemeteries were overwhelmed. They couldn’t take everybody. That’s where we come in.”

  I shift forward, leaning my elbows on my knees and clasping my hands together.

  “The park here was closed, of course,” Whistler goes on. “A total loss, but even so, the Grisly brothers were generous. They offered to store the bodies here until a proper cemetery could be founded. You know, a memorial cemetery for the victims of the meltdown. That’s what the survivors wanted. It irked some people to think of their loved ones stashed at a horror park, but it was a cheap, safe solution, and it was supposed to be temporary. Anyway, years went by. The burial ground was never dedicated, and the county had enough other problems to deal with. A judge decided that the bodies were technically ‘buried’ as long as they stayed underground, so that was finally checked off as the solution.”

  “So they just left the bodies here? All this time?” I ask, confused. “Why haven’t they decayed?”

  “The original bodies have all decomposed by now, of course,” Whistler says. “But you asked how we got started.” He sets one hand on the desk, and every once in a while, he rocks his chair back on two legs in a restless fashion. “It seemed a shame to let all the bodies just rot. They couldn’t even be harvested for organs because of the radiation. Then Anna got an idea. She had done some research with quantum computer biointerfaces, and she saw no harm in stimulating some of the brain tissue. ‘If you can get light from a potato,’ she used to say, ‘you ought to be able to get something out of a dead brain.’”

  “You can get light from a potato?” I ask.

  He turns over his hand expressively. “A potato can power a light, to be more accurate, but she was making a point. The dreamers had a potential we could not ignore, and we couldn’t do any harm. It was slow work at first. Grim, really. But the bodies kept coming, some very fresh, and once we could reboot basic systemic functions in a few, we started seeing results. Some of the dreamers’ brains, the younger ones especially, were perfectly viable for storing data, computer data. Brains are really just living circuits, after all, and connected with the right interface, they make a nifty computer network. That was our first success.”

  I’m agog. He’s goes on, bragging about their progress. He doesn’t appear to see anything wrong with what they’ve done, but it seems atrocious to me, and I can’t pinpoint why. I straighten again and lean a hand back on my cot. I’m all for donating organs, and I get that recycling bodies is just a stretch beyond that. It isn’t as if dead people could actually know they’re being used. And yet, if their brains are working enough to be useful, if they’re valuable enough to be used as circuits, aren’t they alive enough that they could notice?

  That’s what troubles me. Who can prove the dreamers are really dead anymore? I can’t get over how helpless they all look, and I can’t forget how much I hated being kept asleep and mined for months at Onar. No matter how much Whistler brags about their advances, this still feels wrong to me. These people, these dreamers, ought to have a choice. They don’t. That’s why this is wrong.

  “These days, we’re deep into the mining and seeding,” Whistler continues. “That’s where the most promise is. We have a whole bank of dreams now, the best in the world.”

  “You have a dream bank,” I say, trying to imagine that.

  Whistler absently touches his earpiece again. “Yes. We’ve worked with more than three thousand dreamers over the years, mining and seeding to see what works.” He hitches forward in his seat. “We can take a dream from a living host, like you, and implant it in one of our elite dreamers. It grows and multiplies and ripens there until we can harvest it and plant it again into other dreamers. In some cases, we have fifth-generation dream lines. Imagine that!”

  “Have you done that with my dreams?” I ask.

  “No,” he says. “That’s the problem. Berg’s been very stingy with you. Very stingy. We had to beg for some Sinclair Fifteen from Chimera, but we’ve never been able to get enough, until now.”

  My pulse chugs with fear, and my mind leaps.

  “You want to know what I think?” he continues.

  “What?”

  “We’ll duplicate your dreams and send them to clinics like Chimera, where they’ll be implanted into more coma patients, and bam, they’ll wake up. Your dreams will provide the cure for all of them.”

  I hug my pillow to my belly. “But if you’re implanting my dreams into all those patients, and they all wake up, won’t they all be me? Like Thea is me?” I ask.

  He stares a moment and then shakes his head. “No. They wouldn’t exactly be you.”

  “But you said you would use my dreams. Your cure for waking them up is based on my dreams,” I insist. “Thea has my personality. She has my memories. You’re trying to duplicate me.”

  “We’re really not,” he says. “It’s more like they’d be hybrids.”

  “You think that’s any better?” I demand.

  “Look, we’re just trying to help people. You should be honored,” he says.

  “I’m not,” I say. “And I don’t consent to any of this. I’m not dead. Or even pre-dead. I should have a choice.”

  Whistler rises from his chair. “We don’t need your consent. Your legal guardian has given his.” He nods at the paper cup with the pill. “Take your meds.”

  I crumple the little cup and hurl it toward him. It bounces off his shirt and to the floor.

  “I repeat: take your meds,” he says. He lets himself out, and I hear the click of the bolt as he locks me in.

  15

  CAPTIVE

  I HATE BEING IN MY CELL. For hours, I pace. I rage at the walls. I scream at the window in the door, demanding to be let out. I can’t believe nobody comes back. I try breaking the window glass with the chair, but it won’t shatter. I throw my tray. Still, no one comes. It feels like the height of callousness that they don’t have a camera on me. How do they even know what I’m doing? I could hurt myself and they wouldn’t know. In time, I’m hungry again. I scan the floor for crumbs that spilled when I threw my tray and dot them up with my finger to nibble.

  “Are you going to starve me? Is that the idea?” I yell. “I’m not taking my pill!”

  Finally, I wear myself down to exhaustion and crawl back onto my cot. I hide under my blanket, hating them. I refuse to cry. What are they doing to Dubbs? Where are my parents? Has Lavinia told anyone where I am? I don’t know anything. I have failed, utterly, and now I’m getting weak from lack of food.

  When I wake next, I try staying calm. I use the bathroom, wash up, and brush my teeth. I come back to my cot and neatly make up my blanket and pillow. I sit in the middle of the bed, my hands folded. My stomach growls. It’s then that I notice the crumpled pill cup still under the table where it fell.

  Bitter rage nearly blinds me. I slide off the bed and lean over to pick up the little cup. Sure enough, the pill is still inside. I tip it slowly onto the palm of my hand, and my heart sinks. If I start obeying, if I start taking my pill, when will it end? I lean my head back and close my eyes, trying to keep back the tears.

  Where’s t
hat starry, tingly feeling I felt before? Where did that go? I could use another vision now to take me out of this place.

  A slow, dark heaviness stirs in the back of my mind like a stone settling at the bottom of a pond, and then it goes still again.

  What, are you worn down, too? I ask mockingly. Am I not enough fun for you?

  Nothing replies.

  Despair consumes me. I have no way out. They have me.

  I toss my pill back and swallow it down dry. Minutes later, I’m asleep.

  * * *

  I wake to the sound of the door opening, and Whistler is back with another tray. I’m too weak to argue with him or complain. Instead, I start with a slice of green apple, and the tartness is sublime. I ignore the white cup with a pill in it. Whistler closes the door behind him and takes his former chair.

  “How are you feeling?” he asks.

  I don’t answer.

  “I’m sorry about that,” he says. “You’ll get regular meals as long as you take your pills.”

  I take a sip of cool water, and then I start on my sandwich. This one is turkey and Swiss with avocado and Russian dressing. My taste buds go wild.

  “Where’s Dubbs?” I ask.

  “She’s fine. She’s resting.”

  “Does she know I’m here?”

  “She hasn’t woken up,” he says.

  You mean, you haven’t let her, I think.

  He takes off his helmet and sets it on the table. “You know, starving rats live longer than well-fed ones.”

  “What’s that have to do with anything?” I ask.

  “We’ve been talking about what makes you so tough.”

  “I’m not tough. I just gave in.”

  “That was the smart thing to do,” he says. “But it took you long enough.” He leans back in his chair and crosses his legs at the knee. “Jules thinks growing up in the boxcars made you a better dreamer.”

  “I’m not interested in his theories.”

  “Anna thinks it was losing your father at a sensitive age. Me, I think any age is a bad time to lose a father.”

  I’m even less interested in that.

  The lights flicker, and I jolt. When Whistler takes his helmet and starts to rise, I suddenly can’t stand the thought of being left alone here again.

  “Doesn’t it bug you, being down here all the time?” I ask quickly. “Doesn’t the darkness get to you?”

  “I can see sunlight whenever I want,” Whistler says. “I can see anything. Be anything. Go anywhere.”

  “I don’t believe you,” I say.

  He frowns a moment. Then he sits back down and points a finger at me. “You’re forgetting the dreams. We have a virtually endless supply. We can take them whenever we want, for as long as we want.”

  “Like a drug?” I ask. Even as I say it, I recall something I overheard long ago, a conversation between Berg and Dr. Fallon when she talked about using a sample on herself. Intoxicating was the word she’d used, or something like that. Berg was annoyed with her, as if she’d wasted something precious.

  “If they’re mainlined in the right dose, dreams are the perfect escape,” Whistler says. “No unpleasant side effects or aftereffects. We can pick where we want to go and be transported completely.”

  “Those are illusions,” I say. “They aren’t real. You’re no more alive down here than your dreamers.”

  He smiles. Then he rubs his knuckles in his hair and a few strands fluff up. “Let me ask you something,” he says. “In theory, if you needed a new heart, would you accept a heart transplant?”

  “Yes,” I say.

  He nods, like he expected no less. “And how about new eyes, or a skin graft? What if you needed an artificial limb, like a foot, or a new liver?”

  “Sure,” I say.

  “What if you needed all of them?” he asks. “What if you had replacements for everything, even a new face? People get facelifts all the time. And tucks and whatever.”

  “What’s your point?” I ask.

  “When’s the moment when you stop being you?” he asks.

  I consider a moment, thinking of Thea, who had her entire body changed. She started out as me inside, but her body gradually changed her. She couldn’t ignore a pregnancy. That’s an extreme example, but I don’t have to wonder if I would change if I had a different body. I know I would, but then the new me would be me, too.

  “I guess as long as I still have my brain, as long as I still think like myself, then I’m myself,” I say.

  “So you wouldn’t be yourself if you got old and senile?” he asks.

  That makes me pause again. I shift on my bed and pull my blanket around my shoulders against the chill. “No, that would still be me, too,” I say. “Getting old’s natural. Whatever happens to me, I guess I’ll face it.” If I ever get out of here, I think.

  He nods again, and then gestures to indicate alternatives. “So you can be old in your own body and your mind can be failing and you’re still you, or you can be young with all your body parts replaced but your mind still working, and you’re still you. Do I have that right?”

  It sounds a bit contradictory, but that’s where I am. “Yes,” I say.

  He leans back, tipping his chair again, like he’s enjoying himself. “What if I told you your brain’s just another organ, like your heart? It’s a lot more complicated, but it’s still just tissue and connections. It can be damaged or repaired. A drunk man is mentally compromised, but we don’t say he’s a different person. How much, or rather, how little of your brain still has to be yours for you to still be you?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “The thinking part, I guess.”

  “So you’re definitely still you even though we mined out some of your dreams,” he says.

  Obviously, I think at first, but I don’t say it, because, really, I’m not exactly the same. The mining changes me. I’m more irritable and suspicious, and that’s just on the surface. I’m not going to tell him this, though. I’m not sure I owe him any honesty in this conversation. “What’s your point?” I say. “If you’re trying to persuade me about something or justify something, just tell me.”

  He lands his chair flat and runs his palms slowly down the knees of his trousers.

  “If we replace someone’s dying brain bit by bit, so the new pieces have a chance to learn from the old pieces before they’re gone, that person will be the same as he was before. That’s what I’m trying to say. He’ll be the same person.”

  It sounds completely unnatural, yet I see what he means. “Same person, but with a new brain,” I say.

  He nods. “That’s how we can get around time. To immortality. We’ll gradually replace the old brain with the new brain. The consciousness is seamless, the whole time, and it can go on forever.”

  He looks happier than I’ve seen him yet.

  “But that’s not what you’re doing here,” I point out. “You’re putting my dreams in someone else’s body. You want an invading mind to take over a host body. That’s not the same at all.”

  “Not yet,” he agrees. “But if we can do one thing, maybe we can do the other, too, in time.”

  A faint tingle stirs again in the back of my mind. It’s fainter than the first time I felt it, but still clear.

  “Did you seed something into me?” I ask.

  “No. We wouldn’t dare,” he says. “It would be disastrous, like poisoning the only well.”

  “Berg used to seed ideas into me at Forge.”

  “That was before he knew better,” he says. “We’d never do that now.”

  “I can’t believe he’s letting you mine me. I thought he wanted to do it himself.”

  “He does, but he can’t get away from Forge at the moment, and we had a deal. He’s given very strict protocols for how to handle you, though. He sends his greetings.”

  I scoff out a laugh. “I’m sure he does. What about Ian?” I ask. “Have you told him I’m here?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”<
br />
  He plucks absently at his chin. “He’s busy. He’s a busy boy.”

  “Tell Ian I’m here,” I say. “Tell him I want to see him.”

  “You’ll only use him like before,” Whistler says.

  “Maybe he wants to be used.”

  Whistler smiles easily and crosses his arms, tilting back. He nods toward the pill in the cup. “I like having you here,” he says. “The others say I’m foolish to think you’ll join us of your own free will, but anything’s possible, right? You’re a smart girl.”

  Not that kind of smart, I think.

  I stare at the little paper cup with the pill again, and deep, caustic rage builds inside me. I refuse to be a captive again. I am not going to waste away here indefinitely, entertaining Whistler whenever he wants to have a philosophical conversation and waiting for Berg to show up and destroy me once and for all.

  Whistler’s only one man. He’s strong, and I’m worn down, but he’s not expecting anything from me. He’s also still tipped back on his chair, with all the arrogant confidence of a troll.

  Before he can guess my intentions, I dive for the leg of his chair and jerk it savagely up. He and the chair topple backward and his head hits the wall with a nasty crunch. I wince as he slips to the floor and lies still. Before I can be shocked at what I’ve done, I pick his earpiece out of his ear and grab his helmet from the table.

  Then I’m out of my cell, running lightly down the hallway, thrilled and terrified to go find my sister.

  16

  THE FISH OF THE DEEP

  STILL RUNNING, I pull Whistler’s helmet on and tighten the strap under my chin. As I turn the first corner, I find a basic hallway with doors on either side, and I pause to wipe Whistler’s earpiece along my sleeve and slip it into my own ear. I notch up the volume, but I don’t hear any voices.

  Darting cautiously along the hall, I glance first into a small room with couches, desks, and a TV. It’s vacant for now. I pass a kitchen area, a workout room, and a library. A narrow room lined with tall, glowing incubators makes me pause. When I don’t see anybody, I can’t resist stepping inside. The incubators’ shelves are filled with little, clear, covered dishes. Each one is labeled with a name and a number, and inside, mysterious, viscous substances seem to be growing. Some catch the light or glow faintly. Others flicker.

 
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