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The vault of dreamers, p.19
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.19

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  When I went over to the dining hall for breakfast, Linus was back in the kitchen measuring coffee into a machine. It took a second to remember that the last time the viewers had seen us together, at the lookout tower the day before, we’d been kissing and happy. My heart shrank at the prospect of trying to act like nothing was wrong between us.

  I joined the line and moved my tray down the counter. Across the distance, Linus met my gaze coolly. I knew, instantly, that something bad had come from me stealing his swipe key. He snapped the coffeemaker lid closed, and a few minutes later, as I finished filling my tray, he strode over, wiping his hands on a towel.

  His mouth smiled, but his eyes were hard. “Hey, Sinclair,” he said. “Wise choice on the cinnamon bun.”

  I hadn’t even noticed picking it out. He made no move to close in for a hug or kiss, and I was alarmed that he was going to give something away. Other students flowed around us as if we were two inconvenient rocks in a stream.

  “How was your night?” I asked, smiling with an effort.

  “Funny you should ask,” he said. “I wrote you a poem in my spare time, actually. I had nothing better to do.”

  Ouch.

  “Really?” I said. “I didn’t know you were a poet.”

  “Neither did I,” he said.

  “Nobody’s ever written me a poem before,” I said. “Thanks.”

  “It’s not a sonnet or anything,” he said. “Then again, it’s honest. I know how you appreciate honesty.” He dug a small, folded piece of paper out of his pocket. “Don’t read it until you’re alone.”

  “Linus,” I began. I didn’t know how to apologize in front of the cameras.

  “Yes?”

  I shifted my tray to balance it on one arm so I could take his poem and slide it in my pocket. “Does your poem rhyme?” I asked.

  “Should it?” he asked.

  I gripped my tray with both hands again. “Not if it’s in free verse.”

  “I guess you’d know more about that than I would,” he said. “You’ve had more schooling.”

  This was only getting worse. “Listen, do you want to do something later?” I asked.

  “Sure. When?”

  “I’ll come find you after my practicum,” I said. “Do you have a break then?”

  “I’m helping Otis this afternoon,” he said.

  I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth, or if he just didn’t want to see me. “Maybe later, then?” I said.

  “Linus! Are you working here or what?” Chef Ted called.

  “Sure,” Linus said to me. “See you.” He leaned deliberately across my tray and kissed me, hard.

  The kiss felt like a favor, a sham to appease the cameras. It was worse than a punch in the gut.

  * * *

  As soon as I could, I ducked into the girls’ room and hid in a stall.

  Linus’s poem was not a poem.

  Rosie, I know you took my swipe key. Berg asked me if I gave it to you so we could meet up last night and I told him yes. But then he said you swiped out of the dean’s tower and I didn’t know what to say. The dean’s tower? WHAT?!

  You stole from me. I tried to lie for you and it didn’t work. Berg told Otis and now Otis is furious. He doesn’t want me to have anything to do with you. Berg’s letting me keep my job, but he’s watching us both.

  What do you think you’re doing? Why didn’t you call me? It’s not like you were sleeping. Do you even have your walky-ham anymore?

  Don’t bother trying to use the swipe key again. It’s been deactivated.

  I don’t know what’s going on, but if you’re not going to trust me or talk to me, what’s the point? Find some excuse to break up with me on camera if you want. I don’t care what it is. I’ll go along.

  I clutched his note to my chest and squeezed my eyes tight. What’s the point? That killed me. I opened my eyes to read it again, and I could see his anger and disappointment in every sentence. And yet despite everything, he still offered to have a break-up scene with me on camera so our night relationship wouldn’t have to come out. He was still protecting me.

  I ripped the letter in pieces and flushed them down the toilet.

  Somehow, even though I felt both like howling in agony and snarling in my cage, when I walked out of the bathroom stall, I was going to have to pretend I’d just read a love poem. I let out a strangled laugh and blinked hard up at the ceiling.

  No. I could do this. I just had to compartmentalize mentally. As long as I didn’t have to see him, I would be okay. Forget that he’d be able to watch my feed.

  I made myself a promise. It helped me calm down. I would call him that night, no matter what. He had to answer. He had to listen. I would apologize and explain and somehow make him realize that there was, actually, a point.

  Until then, I couldn’t think of Linus at all.

  * * *

  In Media Convergence, I sat down beside Janice and asked if I could use her phone.

  “Sure. What for?” she asked, pulling it out of her bag. “You texting Linus?”

  I didn’t even have his number.

  “I might,” I lied.

  “I heard he’s in trouble,” Janice said.

  “What do you mean? Who said that?”

  “That’s just what I heard. Is it true? Like he might get fired?”

  “No,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”

  She nodded at the phone. “Tell me if you find out anything.”

  I curled up on one of the couches and put my feet on the coffee table. The Forge cameras would see me using her phone, but they couldn’t pick up what I was looking for as long as I kept the little screen close. I slumped down, propped my chin in my hand, tuned out the noise of Ping-Pong, and peered down at the screen.

  I had little to go on from Dean Berg, but Huma had mentioned Iceland. I tried searching for info on Huma at a hospital or clinic in Iceland. Nothing came up. I tried dream mining and seeding, but there was nothing that looked legit. A couple detours on dreaming brought me to a site about dolphins. They had two brains, apparently, one that stayed awake while the other slept, and this helped protect them from predators.

  I wished I had one of those dolphin brains. Half of me would always be awake, vigilantly watching.

  I tried to think what else I knew about Huma. She was rich, obviously. She had a husband and kids. She sounded like she and Dean Berg went back a long time, and she had an interest in the school. I checked the donors who gave to the Forge School, and by scanning the annual reports, I discovered a Humaline Fallon who gave in the Guardian’s Circle, the highest class of donors.

  I had a name.

  21

  CHIMERA

  A PING-PONG BALL came rolling over by my feet, and Henrik followed.

  “Want to come play?” he asked.

  “No, I’m good.” I reached down for the ball and tossed it back to him. I glanced toward the green table and saw his opponent was Janice. Mr. DeCoster, as usual, had his feet up in the corner, and most of the other students were at the computers. Burnham was gnawing at the end of a pencil as he stared at his screen.

  I hunched over Janice’s phone again.

  With a full name to go on, it wasn’t hard for me to trace Humaline Fallon to a site for the Chimera Centre, a small hospital and rehabilitation clinic on a private island south of Reykjavik. Dr. Humaline Fallon was part of a team running clinical trials for a new kind of brain surgery.

  I scrolled down through the tiny print. In cautiously optimistic terms, the site introduced a breakthrough, experimental surgery for coma patients and others with severe brain trauma. The hospital was very selective about which patients it took on. They specialized in cases that looked hopeless, but where the patients were younger than thirty and where the accident that had damaged the patient had occurred less than a year previously.

  It didn’t look like a scam, but it didn’t look exactly credible to me, either, especially when it said they sometimes saw results in as soon as fo
rty-eight hours after surgery. That statement alone made me suspect they were feeding on the hopes of coma patients’ families. But video footage also showed a towheaded kid with dark-rimmed eyes in a hospital bed. A mini Patriots football was propped next to his elbow. He turned his face slowly to gaze at an older woman, and when he reached a feeble hand toward her, she beamed and cried.

  It choked me up.

  “What’s Linus say?” Janice asked, plopping down beside me on the couch.

  “Nothing,” I said. I hoped he wasn’t watching and thinking I was trying to reach him. “Do you need this back?”

  “No, that’s okay. You want a turn?” she asked, offering her Ping-Pong paddle.

  “Not really.”

  “Good, because I’m on a winning streak,” she said and headed back.

  I went back to the Chimera site. In another video, a colorful image of a brain swiveled before a black background. Different sections lit up while an authoritative bass voice chimed in: “Each patient brings a unique case, with its own special challenges. In Kevin’s case, his injury occurred deep in the brain stem, impeding motor, memory, and linguistic capabilities. To begin his recovery, Dr. Fallon guides an optical tweezers to certain precise points in Kevin’s brain, where the worst damage is located. The laser light at the end of the optical tweezers is tiny, and the doctor can move it so slowly and carefully it doesn’t cut anything unless she wants it to. It’s delicate in the extreme. Sealing off the so-called dead edges or vulnerable fog can take up to twenty hours. In Kevin’s case, it was fourteen.”

  The shot moved in closer, reminding me of the virtual surgery I’d watched in Dean Berg’s office the night before. The voice continued, and colorful computer graphics illustrated his words.

  “With nanobots, Dr. Fallon delivers tiny nuggets of regenerative stem cell patch to the most promising places. Then she captures the wave pattern of the surrounding synapses, and sends that same wave pattern into the new nuggets. Before long, the new patches start learning, so to speak, from the circuits around them. They essentially regrow the tiny circuits of the brain.”

  I watched little wispy tendrils of light spread out in a dark zone, as if someone were drawing dot-to-dots in a galaxy of stars.

  In the next video, a young man in a lab coat strolled slowly down a gallery of gilt-framed paintings. “Think of a memory like a pointillist painting, one of those classic Seurat pictures made up of thousands of colored dots,” he said. The camera focused on a picture of a garden scene. “Stand back, and you can see the subjects of the painting, the people or the trees or the landscape. You consciously remember such a subject as a dear friend or a favorite holiday at the beach. But step in close, and you don’t have enough dots to make the picture clear.”

  The man moved out on a terrace with a sweeping view of the ocean behind him. “Each dot is a synaptic pattern. Some of our patients have lost the dots,” he continued. “They’ve lost so many dots that whole paintings are missing. But if Dr. Fallon can salvage enough original dots and provide the mind with a new canvas, we can get a pale version of the original painting. And it’s alive. Give the painting time, and the dots will fill in the gaps between them. They grow and duplicate, filling in the damaged area.”

  It was an amazing concept. I wanted more.

  “We can’t promise anything,” the man went on. “At best, it won’t be the same painting, the same memory. But the memories will be close. With a successful surgery, the patient will recognize his family and, more important, recognize himself. He can relearn enough of the rest. He has a chance to go forward. Once we essentially reboot the subconscious, the rest can follow.”

  The video ended, and I went back to watch it again. I knew the business about rebooting the subconscious was important, but I also knew something was missing. The doctor made no explanation of where the “regenerative stem cell patch” came from. But I knew. I had watched while Dr. Ash had sent those little white circles to cluster around a certain point in that kid’s brain last night. She had been taking synaptic patterns, dots that knew how to connect to each other.

  They’re mining dreams, said a faint voice inside me.

  This time, the voice didn’t frighten me because I knew it spoke the truth. Slowly, I reached to turn off Janice’s phone.

  Exactly, I thought back.

  Having more information didn’t make my decision any easier. If anything, it complicated it. Suppose it turned out that Dean Berg truly was the diabolical evil genius I thought he was, with Dr. Ash as his sidekick. I didn’t get why nobody else had discovered them yet. Then again, I still didn’t have any real proof that he was harming the students at Forge. I knew for certain that I’d been gassed in my sleep shell, but in a twisted way, that was a logical consequence for skipping my pill.

  I still didn’t know what to do. Until I did, I had to stick to my normal routine and try to pretend I was fine for the cameras.

  * * *

  Later that Wednesday, after my practicum, I was coming back from a run when I caught up to Burnham outside the pool house.

  “Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?” Only after I spoke did I notice he was texting.

  He glanced up absently. “One sec. Let me finish this.”

  With his black sweats riding low on his hips, a blue swimsuit showed below his sweatshirt, and swim goggles were strapped loosely around his neck. I went up a step so he wouldn’t be so much taller than me, and pulled my sweatshirt sleeves down over my hands. It was a sunny but brisk afternoon, and the coolness felt nice against my warm cheeks and neck.

  “Sorry,” he said, putting his phone in his pocket. “What’s up?”

  “Nothing. Is everything okay?”

  “Just family stuff. You know,” he said. He rubbed at the back of his head. “Did you need help with your footage?”

  “I don’t only talk to you when I need your help,” I said, smiling.

  “But I like to help. Your ghosts are a challenge. I was thinking of taking another look back through your footage, if you don’t mind.”

  “Not at all. Knock yourself out.” I liked that he was interested in spying on the campus, too.

  He crossed his arms over his chest and did the double jerk with his thumb, indicating the cameras. “Will you do me a favor?”

  “Sure. What?”

  “Say hi to my mom. She’s watching right now. She’s a fan of yours.”

  Really? I thought. I located a little camera button on the nearest lamppost. Then I smiled and did a lame wave. “Hi, Burnham’s mom?”

  Burnham laughed. “That was perfect.” He tugged idly at his goggles, his smile fading.

  “You sure you’re all right?” I asked. “You seem a little, I don’t know, constipated.”

  He laughed. “Good one.”

  “But really.”

  He aimed his gaze toward the horizon. “I don’t know,” he said. “My family does this group text thing. It’s the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. We’re all thinking about him.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said.

  “It’s okay.” He bounced the toe of his sneaker against the step I was standing on.

  “Is your family close?” I asked.

  “Yes.”

  “You have an older brother, right?” I asked.

  He nodded. “Yes, Sid. He quit Harvard Medical School to work at Fister,” Burnham said. “And I have a sister. Sammi. She’s the oldest. She’s a civil rights lawyer in Washington.”

  “That’s cool.”

  “It is,” he said. “Except she hates that I came here. This place is the opposite of everything she believes in, like privacy.”

  A couple of guys jogged down the steps and passed us, while for a moment, the hollow noise and humid air of the pool wafted out the door behind them.

  “But you said your brother came here, too,” I said.

  “Yes, but I’m her baby brother. My sister thought she’d taught me better.” Burnham absently turned his watch on his wrist, and I sudde
nly guessed why the old-fashioned piece might matter to him.

  “That’s your grandfather’s watch, isn’t it?” I said.

  Burnham lifted his wrist briefly. “Yes,” he said, and didn’t elaborate.

  I thought I got it. It had to be kind of weird for him, talking about his grandfather here, with his mom and everyone else watching. He looked like he needed a hug, but I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to give it to him.

  “It’s a cool watch,” I said. “It works, doesn’t it?”

  He laughed. “Yes, surprisingly.”

  “I’m glad.”

  He adjusted his glasses and regarded me for a long moment, considering. Then he said, “My grandpa was a great guy. He died eight years ago. When he got lung cancer, he moved in with us so my mom could keep an eye on him. He called me ‘Partner,’ like we were cowboys.”

  “Partner,” I echoed. Burnham must have been a little kid back then, near to Dubbs’s age.

  “Yeah, but he drawled it, like a bad western cowboy. Pahtnuh.” Burnham tucked his hair behind his ears and settled his foot on the step, leaning into it a little, to stretch. “One night, when my parents were out, Grandpa asked me to bring him a bottle of pills from the medicine cabinet.” He shrugged. “I didn’t think twice about it. I just did what he asked. I was proud I could read the long words on the labels and find the right bottle on the first try, way up at the top.”

  Burnham leaned more deeply over his knee. When he didn’t go on, I imagined this chubby, helpful kid bringing a bottle of pills to his sick, weak, bedridden, old grandfather.

  “Oh, no,” I said.

  From the other end of the quad, the clock tower bonged the quarter hour.

  Burnham straightened up, frowning. “Grandpa was a pharmacist,” he said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. My mom found him later that night, after she came home.”

  “I’m so sorry,” I said.

  Burnham looked up toward the sky. “The weird thing is, each year, I understand a little better what he asked me to do.”

 
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