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The keep of ages, p.14
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       The Keep of Ages, p.14

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  So many. I stare in wonder. These have to be the dreams, disembodied. Canned. A faint tingle stirs in the back of my mind.

  A ticking noise from nearby makes me jump, and I hurry back to the hall. Around the next corner, I see the doors to the operating room ahead, and I tread as softly as possible. My earpiece is still silent, and I take that as a sign that Whistler isn’t missed yet.

  Quietly, carefully, I peek into the operating room. Jules, Anna, and Kiri are working over a dreamer, a person too short to be my sister, and the other four tables are empty. My mind flares with curiosity at the sight, and my eyes dilate wide, making everything too bright. I have to squint, but part of me is mesmerized, taking in each detail: the helmet on the dreamer, the angle of Anna’s wrist as she inserts a syringe behind the dreamer’s ear, Kiri’s calm expression as she focuses on the computer screen. Part of me cranes forward, craving more, and at the same time, I’m afraid that they’ll see me. I shrink back from the doorway, and as I cut off my view of the mining operation, my own, normal alertness snaps back in place.

  I need to go! I can’t dawdle.

  I hurry swiftly down the last stretch of hallway, and when I reach the archway to the vault, I’m startled to find a hint of natural light is coming in from above, mixing with the blue glow of the sleep shells. It must be day outside, far above. The opening of the oculus is gray now instead of pitch black, and the stone of the dome ceiling looks harder and colder than ever. I step softly through the arch, trying to see toward the area of the room where my sister’s sleep shell was before, and immediately, that curious hyperawareness flares again. It widens and spreads into a hum along my veins, like an extra layer of urgency jacking up my heart rate.

  Above the nearest sleep shell, a red light goes on.

  Oh, no, I think.

  Another jolt of adrenaline electrifies my nerves.

  Three more red lights go on. It’s as if the dreamers’ lights are an outward reflection of my inner alarm.

  Over my earpiece, Anna’s voice says, “Whistler, will you check on the vault? Do you see? We have four lights on.”

  I can’t hesitate any longer. I go down the steps into the vault, and instantly, half a dozen more lights come on around me. I take another step so I’m poised between two sleep shells. More lights ripple on above the sleep shells in an ever-expanding wave, spreading out from where I am across the entire space, until every single dreamer has a red light alert and silently gleaming.

  My heart goes still, then jolts on again. A tremor of inexplicable power hovers in the air.

  “Whistler?” Anna says. “Did you hear me? Where are you?” And then, “Okay, we’ll have to leave this. Meet us in the vault.”

  With a jolt, I run toward the center of the vault. If I can get to the middle and aim in the five o’clock direction, I can run out seven rows and find the place where Dubbs was. But I haven’t anticipated the invisible weight of the dreaming children. As I run between their sleep shells, I can’t help but be aware of their gelled eyelids and the blue glow on their skin. They’re a limbo sea of dreamers, silent and close, and they drag at my heart like an undertow. It seems to take me forever to reach the inner circle of the vault, and then I aim out toward where Dubbs was before.

  But when at last I reach the seventh row, I can’t find her. I run from one sleep shell to another, scanning the dreamers’ wasted little faces. I backtrack. I try again. They’re all wrong. All not Dubbs. They all wrench my heartache.

  “Dubbs!” I call. “Where are you?”

  I don’t dare look back toward the nine o’clock arch because I’m absolutely certain Anna and the others are coming. A twisting scurry of panic flickers in the back of my mind. In frustration, I slam my hand against the lid of the nearest sleep shell.

  “Tell me where she is!” I say.

  Around me, a dozen dreamers’ red lights turn off. The sleep shells look newly abandoned without them. Their normal blue glows look even more sickly. Then more red lights go off, vanishing in a ripple across the room and leaving a weird brown afterglow in their wake. The expanding darkness reaches the outer edge of the circle, and the last of the red lights go off, all except for one.

  One single red light keeps shining, far off in the two o’clock direction, small but steady under the vast, hovering gloom of the dome.

  I hear a shout from behind me, but I don’t turn back. Instead, I charge toward the red light, running full speed between the sleep shells and heedless of how many I bump. As I near the red light, my heart almost bursts with eagerness, and when I can finally make out the face under the glass lid, I gasp in relief.

  It’s Dubbs. She’s inside, asleep.

  I throw open the lid. Her eyelids are covered with gel and her cheeks are pale, but she’s breathing. That’s all I need.

  “Dubbs!” I whisper urgently. I rip the tabs off her temples. “It’s me, Rosie! We’re leaving!”

  I yank aside her gown to find the connections to her ports, and I twist them free. Then I lift her limp body out of the sleep shell, scooping under her knees and back. She’s gangly, all skinny legs and arms, but I pull her securely against me so her head lolls forward beneath my chin.

  Then I run.

  More shouts come from behind me, closer now, but I still don’t look back. I plunge past the last rows of sleep shells and race into the darkness of the three o’clock tunnel. I know the underground stream is up ahead, if I can get that far. When I can’t see at all, I pause to flip on the headlamp on Whistler’s helmet, and with the beam of light bouncing before me, I keep running along the tunnel until I find the door on my left and shove through.

  “She’s in the three o’clock tunnel!” Anna says over the earpiece. “Whistler, for Pete’s sake! Get yourself out here!”

  The dank scent of the stream ahead makes something in me balk. I feel a refusal in the back of my brain, a sharp but wordless warning, and for an instant, I slow. But in another step, I can hear the trickle of running water, and then I see the first hint of a green glow.

  “I have no choice,” I mutter aloud, and I hitch my sister up again.

  At the next bend, I find the glimmering stream and the narrow bridge. The dock is empty, like before. The pounding of running footsteps comes from behind me. Without even looking up the chute again, I know it’s too steep for me to climb with Dubbs. My only chance is the stream.

  Swiftly, I sit down at the edge of the dock and swing my legs over. I turn off the headlamp, take a new, firm grip on my sister, and step down into the cold water. The current is knee deep and flows to my left. I go with the water, heading downstream, away from the bridge. Faint green lights eddy around my shins, and through my saturated socks, I can feel the uneven, slippery surface of the bottom of the stream. I let the faint glow in the water guide me. I’m afraid I’ll slip if I go faster, afraid I’ll fall with Dubbs in my arms, but I’m desperate to get around the first corner before my pursuers can see me. My own splashes sound absurdly loud under the echoey ceiling. I make it a dozen steps, fighting for my balance. Then a dozen more.

  “Where’d she go?” a man asks from some distance behind me. It’s Jules.

  With one more step, I make it around the corner and freeze, holding Dubbs. The cold stream flows between my legs, tugging the thin cotton of my scrubs, and I shiver once, hard.

  “She must have taken the skiff,” Anna says.

  “If it was here. Who knows where Whistler left it,” Jules says. “Kiri? She’s gone. I don’t know. She isn’t at the dock.”

  I don’t hear any replies over my earpiece, and I realize then it’s gone. It must have fallen out.

  My arm muscles are beginning to burn. Carefully, silently, I shift Dubbs’s weight a bit higher and arch back. She still hasn’t moved. I lean my shoulder to the cold wall to keep myself steady.

  “No, I saw her come in the three o’clock,” Anna says.

  “I say we bring in the dogs,” Jules says.

  “By the time we go get them and bring
them down here, she could be halfway to L.A.,” Anna says.

  “Not if she’s back in the tunnels getting lost,” he says. “Come on. I knew we should have put a tracker in her.”

  “I hear you, Kiri,” Anna says. “Find Whistler. Check the exits up in the park. We’ll find her. Don’t worry. She can’t get far.”

  Their voices are dimming, and I can finally exhale. Cautiously, quietly, I resume moving downstream through the cold water. They spoke of a boat, which means there must be a place where the boat goes, and that, in turn, means the stream must have an exit. I just have to find it.

  I stay to the center, where the streambed is more level. I don’t dare to turn on my headlamp, but the bioluminescence in the water creates a glow each time I step forward, and my legs have swirling trails and coils of green light around them. When the tunnel takes another bend, I pause, blinking into the darkness ahead. I step sideways until I can lean my shoulder against the wall. Then I prop a knee under Dubbs’s legs and get a hand free to turn on my headlamp again. It helps, a little, but I have no real way to tell how far I’m going. I make it around the next bend, and another. At first, the water is shallow, but the farther I go, the deeper it gets, until it’s as high as my butt. Walking with the current is treacherous. I keep trying to carry Dubbs higher, but I can feel the water dragging at her toes and her gown.

  As I make it around the next bend, another dark length of tunnel stretches before me with no end in sight. A flurry of warning swirls up in the back of my mind again.

  “Stop that,” I say aloud.

  I’m stressed out enough on my own already without some invader in my brain adding even more anxiety. I can’t go back. That’s not an option. I search the arching ceiling and walls for any hint of an exit. What I find instead is a narrow stone ledge that runs along the right side of the stream, like a pathway. Hopeful, I scramble up the ledge with Dubbs, and pull her close again. My wet scrubs cling to me, and she’s not much drier. We’re both shivering. I take a step, testing to see if the dark stone is slippery, but it’s not.

  For the first time, we can make real progress. The ledge takes us around another bend, and I have to step over a large pipe that sends a gurgling waterfall into the stream. Then the ledge meets a low archway over the stream and ends. The water looks deeper, the current stronger. We’re stuck.

  Gently, I crouch down and lower Dubbs to my knee. To see her shivering in her sleep is alarming. My arms ache from carrying her and clenching her tight, but I try to rub some warmth back into her.

  Then I lean over to look through the archway. Ahead, to the right, the stream takes another turn, and I’m doubtful. The lowness of this arch would make it difficult for a boat to pass beneath. I glance back the way we came, and then I see it: a long, narrow skiff tied up on the other side of the stream, opposite the large pipe with the waterfall. I went right past without seeing it, but now I can make out the stone landing and a narrow archway with a stone staircase leading up.

  That’s it. We just have to cross the stream and we’ll be able to escape. I’m sure of it. Just then, a dark, long shape glides through the water below me and swims under the arch to my right. The bioluminescence flows in a green trail behind it and swirls as it fades. I shiver again, watching to see if the fish will return. The water under the arch remains dark and undisturbed, except for the subtle, flowing ripples on the surface.

  “Is that what you tried to warn me about?” I ask.

  A dim affirmation flickers in the back of my mind. It’s almost as disturbing as the fish itself.

  Carefully, I lift Dubbs into my arms again and backtrack along the ledge. I climb back over the water pipe. On the opposite side, slightly upstream from the arch, the landing we need to get to is probably a good six strides away through the water. At my feet, the stream has its normal flow, with only the faint, random green glimmers, and it’s hard to tell how deep it is.

  A racking shiver runs through me. I can’t put this off.

  I slide in up to my thighs and step carefully toward the middle of the stream. My pants legs light up with bioluminescence like before, and each step takes me a bit deeper.

  I’m halfway across the stream when an ominous gurgle makes me look toward the arch. A black-and-green streak is swimming swiftly through the water right toward me. I shriek and plunge ahead through the stream.

  The fish races closer.

  My foot slips and I stagger, pulled down by my sister’s weight. She dunks into the water.

  Charged by terror, I pull her up and lunge forward again with all my strength. I leap for the edge of the landing, roll onto the stone with Dubbs, and get my feet out of the water just as the black thing skims beneath us.

  Teeth snap. The water churns.

  But we’re out. My heart’s pounding. I can barely catch my breath. I clutch my sister tight, and back against the wall. In the beam of my headlamp, the thing slowly circles in the water. Green bioluminescence scatters and twirls in mini whirlpools. One wicked, cunning eye rolls past us, getting a good look.

  “We made it,” I whisper. Then I raise my voice, defiant. “You didn’t get us, fish.”

  We’re soaked, cold, and terrified, but we’re alive. Another shiver ripples through me, shaking every bone until my teeth chatter.

  Dubbs is shivering in my arms, too. She has a bleeding scrape on her wrist and her gown is drenched, but she’s breathing. I hug her to me and kiss the top of her head.

  “I’ve got you,” I say fiercely. “Don’t worry.”

  I wipe the wet hair out of my face and look up at the stone staircase. Since the skiff is here, this must be a real route in and out of the vault, which is promising in terms of seeing daylight again, but it’s also possible that one of vault doctors could be waiting at the top.

  Still, what other choice do I have? I’m not going to take the skiff back upstream and try to find a different way out.

  Okay. Here we go, I tell myself.

  Taking a deep breath, I hoist my sister into my arms once again and approach the staircase. My headlamp casts a cool beam along the rock. The first few stairs lead straight away from the water, but soon the staircase twists and spirals upward through the stone. Dubbs feels heavier than ever, but I keep going, bracing my left elbow against the wall to steady me with each step. A faint breeze touches my cheeks, and then the flavor of the air becomes lighter. Fresher.

  The stairs stop at a flat landing with an old ladder, and looking straight up a shaft where the ladder goes, I see a hint of light. Two hints, actually. Two distant circles of light.

  I can’t believe it’s another ladder. Climbing one by myself is unnerving enough, but taking my sister up this seems impossible. I’m not strong enough, and I need both hands to climb. Yet I have to find a way. I can’t leave her behind, not even for a minute to see what’s above.

  A drip falls with a plink somewhere nearby. I need a sling of some sort, but all I have are my clothes and hers. I try settling her over my shoulder to see if that will work, but we’re top-heavy and awkward. I gingerly settle Dubbs at my feet so I can take my scrub pants off and wind them into a bulky rope. Then I wrap the rope around my back and over one shoulder. I hug Dubbs against my chest at an angle and tie the rope behind her, under her arms, so we’re knotted into a hug. It’s bad. One of her arms is awkwardly under my chin, but I can basically brace her weight on one leg at a time while I use my arms to reach up. In any case, if we fall, we’ll fall together.

  I take a deep breath and a last look up to the top, and then I start precariously climbing up the ladder with Dubbs. With my left knee bearing most of her weight and my left hand gripping tight to a rung, I can reach higher with my right hand to advance up once more. Then I do it again, and again. And again. I swear Dubbs gains ten pounds with each rung. Sweat breaks out all over me. Dubbs’s head lolls back, into the ladder, and I have to bounce desperately to bring her face back against me. The ladder groans inauspiciously. We’re only halfway up, and my muscles are already
dying, but I call on my innate brute stubbornness and refuse to give up.

  Rung over rung, I haul my sister higher. I think of nothing but the next grip, the next shift of her weight. I’m panting hard. Every muscle strains and burns, but I keep reaching up. I keep finding the next metal rung.

  A shaft of white sunlight lands on my fingers. I’m getting close to the top. A wild, unexpected eagerness barrels around in my chest and sends my heart pounding so hard that I can barely breathe. I grit my teeth and hold tight to the ladder with both hands, but that’s even worse. My muscles strain with pain.

  “Stop this!” I say. “We have to get out!”

  My inner stampede checks itself, and then a new infusion of strength surges through my muscles. My grip is suddenly strong, as if the force of my will has been forged into iron. I pull up on the next rung and keep going, rung over rung, until I reach the top of the ladder.

  Two small circles of light, the size of my fists, greet me, and they’re surrounded by a circle of smaller holes, too. I’ve reached the underside of a maintenance hole cover, and through the closest circle is a glimpse of pale, peachy sky.



  THE MAINTENANCE-HOLE lid is heavier than it looks. It takes me two tries to get the right leverage, and then I push it off with a grating, metallic sound. Mustering my last strength, I haul Dubbs out of the hole, and we collapse together on the ground. I’m utterly spent.

  “We made it, Dubbs,” I whisper, amazed.

  I take a quick look around, but we’re alone, and I’m happy for that, too. Smiling, I smooth the hair out of my sister’s relaxed face. She’s still sleeping, even though she’s shivering in her wet gown. She has no idea what we’ve gone through, mercifully. I reach behind her to the knot in my scrubs pants, and twist it to where I can see it while I work the fabric free. When my sister and I come loose from each other, I sit up to put my damp pants back on.

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