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The vault of dreamers, p.18
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.18

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  As I slid in farther, my hip bumped against a ridge in the wall. I squirmed to see it was a hinge, and upon close examination, I found the outline of a door cut in the wooden paneling. An unused, secret door was hidden behind the snack machines. It had no handle or keyhole. Intrigued, I pushed the door, and then I palpitated it to see if it would open on a bounce, but it didn’t move.

  I turned on my video camera to capture what I could of the door.

  Then voices came out of the bathroom again, and I held still, listening. The women were moving toward the elevator.

  “Did you hear what Bones said to me today?” asked the high, crackly voice. “My boy Burnham was finally talking to Rosie again and I was like, yes! He always gets a spike when he’s talking to her, though honestly, I couldn’t say why. Her rank’s always lower than Burnham’s. Bones says that’s not his fault.”

  I listened, curious. The woman with the high voice was evidently Burnham’s techie. Bones, I knew, was mine. It seemed like the techies competed.

  “I don’t want to talk about Bones. He exhausts me,” said the other woman.

  “I know, right? Anyway. Bones was totally hogging the best angles for his feed on Rosie, and when I told him, quite nicely I might add, that it’s okay to share, you know what he said?”

  A ding came from the elevator, and I could hear them moving inside. The crackly voiced woman continued: “He said, and I quote, ‘greatness isn’t made by sharing.’”

  Their voices were sealed off by the elevator doors.

  I sucked in my belly and squeezed past the first vending machine once more to get out. Considering what I had overheard, I suspected I had arrived in the dean’s tower as the last techies were leaving, but this seemed like an unlikely place for anyone to bring our sleep shells.

  I knew one person who would have answers. A flicker of fear made me pause, but not for long. I would be careful. I just wanted to see what the dean was doing on the sixth floor. Just for a minute.

  I headed up the stairs as silently as I could. One flight up, the stairwell met a big, shadowed foyer. The marble floor shone slick and cold, while above, a shallow, gold-leafed dome in the ceiling was artfully lit. I held back, wary of cameras, and took again to the stairs. The upper stairwell was dark, lit only by EXIT signs. Each floor had a big number painted on its door—3, 4, 5—and when I reached the sixth floor, I paused, staring at the door handle until my breathing slowed. Then I silently pulled the door back a sliver, just enough to see through with one eye.

  A big, dim room spanned the entire floor. Deserted desks descended from a central platform in semicircular rows, and along with their large computer screens, they were cluttered with coffee cups, snacks, spider plants, and blankets, as if people practically lived at their workstations. I slipped through the door and closed it noiselessly behind me. Then I dropped to all fours and crept to the aisle to see better.

  Far in the lower right corner, close to the windows, a motionless man sat with his back to me, facing a panel of screens: Dean Berg. He was tilted back in a swivel chair while before him, four different scenes were playing simultaneously. No sound came from the speakers, and the screens were too small for me to see any details.

  “No, that’s not it. The wings were a deeper purple,” Dean Berg said clearly.

  It took me a sec to realize he must have someone on his earphone. When he spoke again, I crept behind a row of desks and down a step. I pulled up my video camera, and then hesitated. Clicking open the shutter would make a noise I couldn’t afford. Uncertain, I lowered it to watch again.

  “It’s all right,” Dean Berg said. “You’ll get it. Let me show you again. Synch for me.”

  He reached forward, and a device the size of a hockey puck shot a narrow beam of light into the air. The light fanned out into a conical shape to make a 3-D field, and inside it, a human body appeared lying lengthwise on an examination surface, in full size and color, but faintly transparent and luminous, like a ghost. It was a young boy, about ten years old. He was sleeping, laid out in a pair of boxers. He flickered once, and then came into sharper focus.

  “Cortex,” Dean Berg said.

  The boy grew so that his body slid out of the frame and his magnified head filled it. Then the visual probe zoomed inside his skull, revealing the cauliflower-like substance of his brain.

  “Thalamus. Find the fourth ventricle, and shift to the pons,” Dean Berg said. The imaging moved lower and deeper, to a dense shape. “Mag one hundred,” he said, and then repeated: “Mag one hundred. You with me, Glyde? How’s the acetylcholine level?”

  The image zoomed in farther, until the 3-D screen was filled with gray and blue pulsing shapes. I had looked through a microscope at the cells of a leaf once in eighth grade, but this was completely different, like an organic, deep sea city at night, with traffic flowing through streams of liquid light.

  “Mag ten,” Dean Berg said. “Now wait. Cross-check with the optic tract.” He raised his pencil and touched the tip of it to the image. “You see here?” A tiny swarm of white beads flowed into the area he was touching and remained there as he sat back again. “No, don’t mine it now. Just observe. Let them settle. It’s always better to take your time.”

  He touched the projector puck again, and a new screen shot up. It expanded virtually to create a second 3-D screen, and after several flickers, streams of reds, yellows, and blues ordered themselves into a brilliant, birdlike creature. I sucked in my breath, fascinated. The bird flew swiftly over a polka dot sea, near to the waves, and then banked to soar upward into the air. It tipped its wings in golden sunlight, and arched them wide in a great, graceful curve of flight.

  “Right. Now mine,” Dean Berg said quietly. “That’s good stuff.”

  The creature careened back toward a cliff, skimming so close I could see the rippled shadow of its wings on the rock. A feather tore free, and then another, but instead of falling away, the feathers transformed into two more birds. The original one splintered into thousands of exquisite bits and each of those went spinning into a new piece of flight to glide and soar in the sunlight. Like snow on fire. Like something I’d never seen. Never imagined.

  Who was this boy? How did he have such incredible things in his head?

  “Hold on, Glyde. I have a call coming in,” Dean Berg said. “Can you take it from here? Thanks.”

  He leaned forward and swiped his touch screen.

  “Sandy here,” he said. He dragged a hand slowly around his jaw. “You do know what time it is here. I haven’t shaved.” He sat up abruptly, straightened his jacket, and ran a hand back through his hair. Then he touched the little puck projector, and both 3-D screens vanished. “All right. Of course,” he said, and touched his screen again.

  A woman appeared in a chat screen before Dean Berg, with a mini window of Dean Berg in the corner. She stood on an outdoor balcony, with a snow-capped mountain in the distance behind her, but she was in shirtsleeves and sunglasses, as if she were warm. Black, loose hair framed her paper white face, and deep red lipstick delineated her mouth. Her voice had a lilting accent even when her tone was dry, and I recognized her immediately as the woman I’d overheard him talking with before. What had he called her?

  “Working late again?” she asked. Her voice came clearly over a speaker, and then I remembered: her name was Huma.

  “I was just heading up to bed. What can I do for you?” Dean Berg said.

  “I was expecting more of the Sinclair Fifteen.”

  “I told you,” the dean said. “It’s too soon to mine her again. She’s fragile.”

  “Her episode in the observatory was weeks ago, Sandy. I can see for myself she’s perfectly fine,” she said.

  “It’s too soon,” he repeated.

  “I know what you’re doing,” she said slowly. “You’re seeding her, aren’t you? That’s why you won’t mine her for me. I bet you even gave her something about the observatory or Clarence.”

  “Wrong. It was just stuffy in there. She w
as dehydrated,” Dean Berg said.

  The woman shook her head and pointed a finger at him. “You’re a good liar, but you forget one thing.”

  “What’s that?”

  “I know you. I know how your crafty old mind works.”

  “Now I’m frightened,” Dean Berg said, sounding amused. “Is there another purpose to this call?”

  “I want to know if you’ve banked any astrocytes from Dolan Forty-Seven.”

  “I can get you those.”

  “Good. And the Radlewski Twelve?”

  “She’s almost tapped out, but I can get you a little more,” Dean Berg said. “I’ll send out a truck tomorrow night. Will that do?”

  Huma smiled, and the image of her flickered again. “Of course,” she said. “When are you coming to visit Iceland again, Sandy? Bring those lovely twins of yours and we’ll take them hiking. How old are they now?”


  “So old already?”

  Their talk shifted to colleges, and I started backing up toward the door.

  “Listen, I should really let you go,” Dean Berg said. “Give my love to Ivan.”

  Huma put her palms together. “I will. Always a pleasure talking to you. Bless bless.”

  Dean Berg leaned forward to touch his computer, and his second screen brought up a view of two dozen sleep shells in a long, dark room. With a pinch of fear, I recognized the dorm room as my own. I shifted backward, clunking softly into a recycling bin. I froze.

  “Glyde?” the dean said. He touched a hand to his earphone. “You there? We have a little problem. Rosie’s missing.”



  “LET’S GET YOU back up on the surface. I’d rather not get security involved unless we have to. Most likely she’s just in the attic again and I’ll see her when she moves. How much longer do you need with the Feinberg Ten?” Dean Berg asked.

  I went up the step and crawled behind the row of desks, toward the door.

  “No. That’s not going to work,” the dean said. “She can’t be far. Check the last time Linus swiped in. I thought he was too smart to meet her, but you never can tell. Jerry? Can you get on this?”

  I was silently opening the door when it hit me what he meant about Linus swiping in. Since I had used Linus’s swipe key, they would mistakenly believe that he was on campus. I was bringing trouble to him, too. I should have thought of that earlier.

  “I know. She’ll be amped up on adrenaline,” he said. “Are you up for another prep?”

  My veins chilled. He was talking about me. About a prep involving me. I was nothing more than a rat running a maze for him.

  I closed the door with the slightest click, and then I flew down the stairs. I rapid-fired my feet down each tread, and spun around the banister at each landing. All I could think was that I had to get away so he would never guess that I’d overheard him. I flew down past the floor numbers: 4, 3, 2. When I reached the basement, I bolted past the empty snack machines, swiped Linus’s key in the lock to the service tunnel, and darted inside.

  The lights came on as I ran wildly down the corridor. “First left,” I whispered to myself. I skidded around the corner. The distances felt shorter, now that I knew where I was going, and soon I was back in the basement of my dorm. The darkness stayed dark and the air had the comforting smell of laundry detergent.

  I stopped a second in a dark corner, far from an EXIT light. Uncertain, and half-panicked, I tried to think. I could leave right now. I could run out the door and sprint for Forgetown and beg Linus and Otis to help me get back home. I could go to the attic and move around there so the dean would see me and maybe believe that was the farthest I’d gone from my bed.

  What I couldn’t do was stay in that dark corner, wasting precious seconds. My gaze landed on the laundry machines. Quickly, I stripped off my jeans, sweatshirt, and sneakers, and crammed them in a dryer. I threw in my video camera, too, and shut the dryer door. Then, in just my nightie, I bolted up the stairs. I tried to stay quiet and close to the darkest shadows. When I reached the fourth floor, I took a deep, calming breath.

  Then I pushed into the bathroom and deliberately turned on the light. I blinked slowly, faking sleepiness, and scratched at my back. Then I went into a stall, used the toilet, and came out again as if I had nothing on my mind. No hurry. No concerns. Sure, I was out of bed, but otherwise, this girl had nothing to hide. I flipped off the light and went back to the dorm room.

  Moments later, I was back in my sleep shell, tucked beneath my quilt. My heart would not quiet down. Thirst dried my throat, and I couldn’t do anything about it except lick my teeth and try to work up some saliva. I didn’t dare reach for my walkie-ham.

  The dean wanted me for a prep. A prep!

  Another minute went by, and the quiet of the dorm stretched out, but I was still tense with fear. The dean wasn’t going to believe I’d only gone to the bathroom, not once he checked the swipe lock records for Linus’s key. Stupid! I should have left while I could.

  And then it hit me. The dean didn’t care that I’d left my bed. He had barely been concerned when he saw that I was missing because he was completely confident he could control the situation. In fact, it was perfectly possible that he wanted me skipping my pill and wanted me getting out of bed.

  A soft humming noise started near my head. Startled, I listened, unsure what it could be. I peeked past the edge of my quilt just as the lid to my sleep shell finished closing, automatically. It had never done that before. My heart ticked in new alarm. Then I heard a soft hissing noise, and a dry, cool smell filled my sleep shell. I panicked. I held my breath and clawed at the lid, trying to push it open. The lid stayed shut. I scrambled under my pillow for my walkie-ham and turned it on.

  I had to take a gulp of air, but it was wrongly sweet, like butterscotch. “Linus!” I said.

  I yanked at the lid again and banged the glass with my walkie-ham. I tried not to breathe, but my lungs were starved and bursting. My fingers grew weak. I had to breathe in the gas. My panic turned to despair, and then loss, until I collapsed backward, asleep.

  * * *

  I’m slicing off the tail of a tabby cat with a hand-sized guillotine, slowly and mercilessly, while the cat screams and tries to scrape itself away from the blade. I can see the fur of its tail, the angled blade catching and cutting into the blood. I can hear the helpless screaming as the cat scrabbles its feet, trying to run. I feel the pressure of my hand bearing down, and at the same time, I’m straining to get away from the cat’s pain, but above all, I am the torturer, and my shame is exquisite.

  I woke in a sweat and bolted up in bed, banging into the lid of my sleep shell. I gasped for air and shakily pushed at the lid to slide it back. This time, the lid opened, but my fear was still as real as the dorm room at Forge. It was as real as the early morning light falling in the windows.

  Don’t hate me, Rosie, said a soft inner voice.

  I held perfectly still.

  I’d just heard a voice in my head. But that wasn’t possible.

  I set my fingers lightly on my knees and stared at my quilt. From the other end of the room came the airy drone of a blow dryer.

  Close your eyes, said the voice.

  No, I said back, speaking in my mind. Who are you? Get out of my head.

  Whoever it was slid a little closer, a real presence in my mind, just beyond my sight. She stirred softly, like a single leaf turning over.

  It’s easier if you close your eyes, she said.

  “Stop,” I said aloud.

  She rustled and slipped away, leaving me sweating and shaken. My mind was splintering apart. That realization was even more terrifying than the thought that Dr. Ash and the dean had rifled through my brain last night. Seeding. Mining. Whatever they did to me, was this voice a side effect?

  I leaned close to inspect the edges of my sleep shell. Tiny vents rimmed the upper lip, and while I’d always figured that they were used for ventilation, now I saw that the
y could be used just as easily to fill my sleep shell with gas. The dean didn’t even need to bother with sleeping pills when he could drug us with gas whenever he wanted.

  How he could he get away with it, I didn’t know. I ran my hands quickly around the edges of my mattress and found my walkie-ham in the crevice. They’d left it for me, inexplicably. Unless they still didn’t know about it. Faking nonchalance, I hid it again in my backpack.

  I needed to think clearly and figure out a plan, but as I cleaned up and dressed, I couldn’t settle. I dropped my toothbrush, twice. The torture of the cat still grated in me like a warning. I had too much I didn’t understand. The crazier the things were that I was discovering, the more impossible it was going to be to convince anyone that they were true. My parents would be the most incredulous of all.

  “Get a grip,” I said to my scraggly self in the mirror.

  Half a dozen other girls in the bathroom passed behind and around me like butterflies, completely unaware that a black hole had opened to consume their planet. Paige had a hefty, I ♥ TEXAS cosmetic bag on the ledge over the sinks. She leaned close to the mirror, her mouth slack, as she painstakingly outlined her eyes in black.

  My gaze caught hers briefly in the glass.

  “Lighten up,” she said, and she kept working her liner. “You’re on The Forge Show.”

  She was right. Until I decided what to do, I couldn’t show how distraught I was inside. I spat in the sink and rinsed my mouth. “Right,” I said.

  I took a few clothes down to the laundry, and in the process, I managed to bring my things from the dryer back up to my wardrobe. I was relieved to see my video camera was fine. The footage of the hidden door was intact, but since all it proved was that I’d been in the dean’s tower when I wasn’t supposed to be there, I deleted it.

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