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The vault of dreamers, p.15
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.15

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “That’s my new favorite ice cream,” I said.

  “Mine, too.” He leaned near and gave me a coffee-flavored kiss. He touched my waist, lightly, and then kissed me again. “You taste nice,” he said. “How’d you manage that?”

  “Beats me.”

  I ran my fingers along his forearm and skimmed a dried drip of ice cream from when he’d been scooping. When I saw the fine hairs lift in goose bumps along his skin, I smiled at his sensitivity. I thought we might kiss again, but he held very still, even when I drew my thumb along the pocket of his tee shirt where a thread was frayed. The red of his apron did something vivid to his eyes, and his bruise was now almost completely healed. I leaned shyly away and scanned my gaze around the quad. We had cameras and real people to watch us this time.

  “So many witnesses,” I said.

  He laughed. “Tell me about it.” He got up from the bench, hitched at his apron, and reached for our bowls.

  I couldn’t wait to talk to him for real, at night.

  * * *

  I lived the rest of that Thursday impatient for bedtime, when my second life could begin again. It was such a routine by now, faking my pill swallow, that I grew careless when Orly was checking in my mouth and almost showed her the pill.

  Though Orly had overseen the removal of the extra furniture from our dorm the night of the fifty cuts, she never indicated that she knew about any other activity in our room at night. I was trying to put together who knew what, without much luck.

  Dr. Ash, for certain, knew what was going on at night. The bearded guy who’d given me intravenous sleep meds had to know, too, and so did Dean Berg. But Mr. DeCoster and the other teachers, did they know? Did the maintenance staff and the techies? If they did, then Dean Berg had an entire network of people keeping secrets. It just didn’t seem possible.

  As soon as it was dark enough, I turned on my video camera under my covers and reviewed my footage from the previous night. It showed me tossing and turning during the time I’d been listening to my walkie-ham, but the walkie-ham itself never showed. I simply looked restless, and then I went still. I fast-forwarded through the rest of the night, but nothing disturbed the dorm room.

  No one entered the dorm while we slept. No sleep shells were rolled out. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I wasn’t completely reassured, either. I would have to try again.

  I turned my video camera off, stashed it farther under my quilt, and checked my walkie-ham to see if it was dialed to channel four. A tiny buzz of static broke for a voice.

  “Rosie?” Linus said.

  I clicked the button to keep the channel open. “It’s me,” I said, so relieved and happy to hear him. “Where are you?” I arranged the walkie-ham so I could speak into it with hardly any voice. I had left my sleep shell lid closed, too.

  “Back in the lookout tower,” he said. “This is the only place we seem to get decent reception. Listen, I’m worried about you. What really happened to you in the observatory today?”

  “It was so, so weird,” I said, and I tried to explain how creepy it had been inside with the stench and the doves and the dean. “He was talking about the dead astronomer, and how he’d hanged himself in there. I could practically see the body.”

  “That’s strange, all right.”

  “I was having this weird déjà vu, too,” I said. “Like I’d been there before.”

  “In the observatory?”

  “With Dean Berg there,” I said. “He was part of it. At one point, it seemed like he was offering to show me exactly where they’d found the body, but I’m not really sure if he said something, or if I just thought he did.”

  “You couldn’t tell?” Linus said.

  “I thought he really spoke, but the whole thing was too morbid to make sense,” I said. “Could I have been hallucinating? Just thinking about it again is kind of freaking me out.”

  I heard a faint tapping from his end of the line.

  “Okay, I’m just going to throw this out there,” he said, “but maybe you shouldn’t be skipping your sleeping pills. Maybe it’s messing you up.”

  I was shocked. “Linus, I can’t just sleep. This place is dangerous. Somebody has to find out what’s going on.”

  “But it doesn’t have to be you,” Linus said.

  I couldn’t believe he was telling me to back off, to follow the rules. “Did Dean Berg ask you to say this? Did he tell you to tell me to take my pills? Or Dr. Ash?”

  “Rosie, no,” Linus said.

  But I was doubting him. “Did the dean tell you to meet me, that first day behind the art building? Did somebody send you out to the spools on purpose to tell me how to pass the fifty cuts?”

  “What are you talking about?” Linus sounded irritated now. “What is this?”

  “I don’t understand this place,” I said. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

  “Nothing’s happening to you. Listen,” he said, and I could hear him making an effort to speak calmly. “I get that you’re scared. You almost fainted today. But you’re kind of working yourself up, too. I’m not part of some big, complicated conspiracy here. Maybe you need to quit eavesdropping on conversations that don’t concern you, and take your pills, and get your sleep like the other students. You’re hardly giving this place a chance.”

  I felt a screw of worry tightening inside me. “You’re the only one I can talk to, Linus. If I sleep at night, we can’t talk.”

  “We can still talk during the day.”

  I let out a laugh. “Like that’s any good.”

  He was silent a moment.

  “I mean, having ice cream with you was great, of course,” I said.

  “Glad to hear it.”

  “Linus, I’m sorry. That didn’t come out right. It’s just, I want to be able to really talk to you.”

  “We might have a problem with that,” he said. “Otis has been asking me what I’ve been up to. He doesn’t want me up on campus at night.”

  “Did you tell him I’m staying awake?”

  “No, but he’s not dumb. He doesn’t want me to get in trouble, and he doesn’t want me blamed if you get in trouble.”

  “We aren’t sneaking out,” I reminded him. “We’re just talking.”

  “But is it really doing you any good?” he asked. “I think I’m making it worse for you. That’s what I’m saying. Maybe you’d be better off if you took your pill.”

  I got what he was saying. Sort of.

  “Does Otis know anything about what’s happening here at night?” I asked.

  “I don’t think so. Do you want me to ask him pointblank?”

  I had to think about that. I trusted Linus, more or less, but I was pretty certain Otis’s loyalties would have to lie with Dean Berg.

  “No. Not yet,” I said.

  “It’s up to you,” he said.

  “Thanks.” I shifted my quilt around my head and the walkie-ham again. “Could we talk about something else for a while? Something nicer?”

  “Like what?”

  “Anything.”

  “Okay,” he said slowly. “Guess what’s on the repeat cycle of The Forge Show right now? I’m watching it on my phone.”

  “What time is it?”

  “Twelve-thirty,” he said.

  The repeat cycle ran twelve hours straight through, so midnight in real life matched up with noon on the show. On the show he was watching, it had to be just after lunch. “Ice cream?” I asked.

  “Yes. And guess what your blip rank was when you had ice cream with me.”

  “I have no idea.”

  “Thirty-five. You’ll get decent banner ad money in that range,” he said. “That’s going to add up.”

  It was nice to know I could get a spike during happy times, too, and not just when I was upset. “My stepfather will be glad to know,” I said.

  “What’s he like?” Linus said.

  “My stepfather? He’s fine,” I said. “He’s had some bad luck with his job, but he’s tig
ht with the other strikers. What else. He likes to hunt. And read mysteries.”

  “You don’t like him,” Linus said.

  “I don’t want to complain. You don’t have any parents at all.”

  “He must be a total jerk.”

  I laughed. “Okay, truthfully? I can’t stand him,” I said. “My mom works two jobs and still she does all the cleaning and stuff while Larry sits on the couch, scratching his hairy belly. It drives me crazy. And he’s mean. He’s just ugly mean, for no reason.”

  “How mean? Does he hurt you?” Linus asked.

  I hesitated. “No.” It felt bad to lie, but I couldn’t tell him.

  “I take it you don’t miss home.”

  “I miss my mom,” I said. “She’s great. And my little sister Dubbs. She’s great, too.”

  “Dubbs is the one you walk along the tracks with?” he asked.

  He remembered.

  “Yes.”

  “What happened to your birth dad? Is he in the picture?”

  Long before I walked the tracks with my sister, back when I was little, I used to walk them with my dad. I could feel his big, calloused hand holding mine as I stretched my strides to land on each railroad tie. The wood gleamed with old tar under the dust, and the rails were rusty bright in the sunlight. My sneakers were small and red beside his boots, step after step. He liked to whistle. That was what I had left of my dad.

  “He’s dead,” I said. “I was four when he went MIA in the Greenland War, and he was declared presumed dead four years after that.”

  At that moment, I heard a noise from the hallway. I froze.

  “Linus, I have to go,” I said.

  “What’s going on?” he asked.

  “Someone’s here.”

  Before he could reply, I shut off my walkie-ham and stuffed it in my pillowcase. I scrambled under my quilt for my video camera and turned it on. I didn’t dare pull it out to capture any video, but the microphone would pick up the audio in the room if it was loud enough to be heard through my lid. I held super still, trying to breathe softly.

  Brisk but quiet footsteps came in the far end of the room and came on steadily in my direction. I kept my fingers limp, my shoulders loose, and then I heard a muffled click nearby. Not a word was said, and then a faint, weighty rolling noise headed back toward the door. I waited through a long minute of silence. Then I opened my eyes and shifted just enough to see down the room.

  Janice. The space for her sleep shell was empty. This time they’d come for Janice.

  17

  THE GAME

  FOR ONE MOMENT, I hesitated, full of fear, and then I thought, Forget this. She’s my friend. I had to find out where they were taking her.

  I slid open my lid, climbed out of bed, and grabbed my video camera. I aimed it briefly at the empty space where Janice’s sleep shell had been, and then I flew past the others to the doorway. I peeked out. The upper hallway was dark and empty, the elevator doors closed. I ran for the steps and raced down in the dark, flight after flight. I heard no hint to indicate where they’d left the elevator until I reached the basement, where the heavy click of a closing door sounded clearly.

  A service tunnel was most likely where Janice had been taken. I paused to listen for any more sound, and I lifted my video camera. Through my viewfinder, I saw that the EXIT signs glowed just enough to illuminate patches of the basement, which meant that the instant I left the deepest shadows, I would probably be visible to the school cameras, too. I had to get offstage as quickly as possible.

  I hurried past the washers and dryers in the laundry area, and past an elevator, scanning every wall and corner until I found, around the farthest bend, a solid steel door with a swipe lock.

  A swipe lock. I was stuck. I gave the door an experimental tug. It didn’t budge. I yanked again harder. It was no good. I couldn’t get any farther. Without a swipe pass, I couldn’t get through the door.

  I would need to get one. That was all.

  I hurried back through the basement and up the stairs, filming as I went and dodging the glows of the EXIT lights as best as I could. At the fourth floor, my dorm level, I looked up the last flight toward the attic, teetering between caution and the urge to know more.

  On impulse, I climbed up the old, narrow stairs to the attic again. The space under the eaves was silent tonight, and through my viewfinder, the scene was utterly black except for the slanting windows. I felt my way cautiously forward, toward the nearest skylight. A chill came through the rafters, and when I looked out, the stars had an extra crispness. Across the way, the dean’s tower was dark. Not even the fifth floor was lit, nor the penthouse. I could find no hint that they’d taken Janice over there.

  Then I noticed a dim glow on the sixth floor, in the corner. I adjusted my video camera and used the zoom to close in. A solitary man was leaning back in his chair, watching an array of screens. He had his chin in his hand, and he appeared to be lost in contemplation. He didn’t move, or reach for his touch screen. He barely seemed to breathe, and with only a faint reflection of light from the screen animating his face, it looked more like a mask than a true visage. Only when he finally turned did I recognize that he was Dean Berg.

  He pivoted his chair, slowly, until he was facing out the window, toward the girls’ dorm. Toward me.

  While I held my camera perfectly still, my heart began to pound. He knew where I was. He knew I was watching him. Button cameras covered this attic, just like they spied on every other place at this school. I’d thought it was too dark for me to be visible, but I had to guess I was discernible to someone who knew where to look.

  The dean obviously did.

  He must have been watching me all along.

  What are you playing at? I thought.

  If he expected me to say something, or freak out, he was going to be disappointed. A few of the pieces suddenly clicked together: the way I was allowed to sneak around at night, the way he’d personally helped me to get into the observatory, the way he was watching me right now.

  I didn’t have to understand every nuance to grasp that I was in a game, a weird, one-on-one game with Dean Berg. The school, the show, and the other students were all part of it, too, but they were mainly the board and the other unwitting pieces. I was the only student who suspected something wrong was happening at night. My opponent was the dean. I just didn’t know yet what the stakes were, or what it would take to win.

  * * *

  I was exhausted and thick-headed when I woke the next morning. Janice’s sleep shell was back in place, and Janice herself looked as healthy and bright as a sunbeam. The other girls were thriving, too.

  But I came to a resolution. The situation was too twisted and weird for me to handle on my own. I planned to show my footage to Mr. DeCoster in front of all the other Media Convergence students, so the viewers and Janice’s parents could ask for an explanation as to why Janice’s sleep shell had been removed in the night. After that, it would be out of my hands.

  Responding to a couple of friendly greetings by rote, I rolled my video camera into a towel to conceal it and headed for the bathroom. I just needed to check that my footage clearly showed how Janice’s sleep shell was gone in the night. I would face consequences for being out of bed myself, but hopefully, the school would be lenient on me.

  In the privacy of a stall, I checked the index of my video camera. The most recent clip started with the darkness from under my quilt. I skimmed forward, searching for the first flicker of when I’d brought the camera out of my sleep shell to film the dorm. But the video clip stayed dark. It didn’t show the dorm room without Janice’s sleep shell, or the stairs I had run down, or the basement, or the attic. The entire clip was a deep, unfocused brown-black.

  I didn’t understand. I checked the time stamp on the clip: 9.19.2066:00.43. Last night. After midnight. I knew what I’d seen, and I knew what I’d filmed, but my camera showed nothing.

  I gasped and fumbled with my camera, dropping my shower kit to the f
loor.

  “Are you okay in there?” one of the girls called from the other side of the stall door.

  The only explanation terrified me. Someone else had erased my footage. Someone had come to my bed while I was asleep and taken my video camera out from under my covers and changed the footage.

  “Rosie?” the girl said, knocking. I recognized Rebecca’s voice. “Is that you?”

  “I’m okay,” I said. “I just dropped my stuff. I’m fine.”

  I grabbed my things and wrapped my camera in my towel again. I clutched everything to my chest and tried not to hyperventilate. My mind scrambled for a better explanation, but there wasn’t one. When I was in the attic, Dean Berg had turned to watch me from the dean’s tower. He’d known all about where I was and what I’d been doing. Was it crazy to consider that he’d come to the girls’ dorm and taken my camera and messed with my footage?

  I let out a strangled laugh.

  I was coming unglued.

  I reined in my panic, thinking fast. I needed to be careful. Very careful. I didn’t know what to do yet, but until I did, I had to hold on to one thing: I couldn’t tell anybody what was happening.

  They’d never believe me.

  18

  THE LADY KNIGHT

  I WAS TOO terrified not to behave like a good student. That day, Friday, I worked hard in my classes, kept my nose down, and went for a run. In the cafeteria, I made a point of taking lots of vegetables and protein, as if I could fortify myself against my fear of getting back in my sleep shell by eating a healthy dinner.

  As I pressed the metal bar of the milk dispenser with my glass, Linus came out from the kitchen. He leaned his hip into the counter beside my tray.

  “Hey,” he said. “I saw you’re studying Del Toro in Masters.”

  “Yes,” I said, and moved my cup to the chocolate milk to make a mix. “I’m supposed to compare him to Poe and Mustafa as an innovator.”

  “That sounds cool.”

  I moved around him toward the canisters of silverware. “I’m trying to make the most of all my opportunities here.”

 
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