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The keep of ages, p.20
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       The Keep of Ages, p.20

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “That’s the dragon,” I say. “When it came to life, it looked incredibly real. And then Dubbs was on a plank over the moat. It was terrifying.”

  “I saw,” Lavinia says. “Give me a sec and I’ll pull it up.”

  My heart starts to constrict even before she locates the right clip and projects it over the bed, a miniature version of the spectacle I saw in person in the park. I tuck my hand to my chest as, once again, the dragon moves on top of the keep, turning with its red eyes. Then the fog rises, and the plank projects out from the roof, bringing Dubbs with it. I squint, angling to see it better.

  “Freeze there,” I say.

  Lavinia does.

  “Back up,” I say. “Play. Okay, freeze again. There.”

  I press my thumbnail to the gap in my teeth and stare. It’s a girl on a plank all right, but now I can tell she’s merely a form, a blank dummy, with a lit projection of Dubbs’s face and gown imposed on the surface.

  “Can you go ahead in slow motion?” I ask.

  I watch as the wind slowly ripples in the projection of the girl’s pale gown, and then the girl’s mouth contorts in a noiseless scream. When she crouches to the plank to hold on tight, the projection shifts to a second blank dummy, a kneeling one that’s back half a pace. In real time, as I saw it, the effect created a seamless, believable motion. But from the angle of the camera, I can see the mechanism behind the effect. Then when Dubbs falls, the projections on the plank go dark, and a hologram of Dubbs whirls down toward the foggy moat, where the dragon, also now a hologram, catches her at the last moment.

  “Wow,” Burnham says. “Nicely done. I’m impressed.”

  My heart’s pounding again with remembered horror. It’s so strange to me. It felt personal, like someone knew exactly what would terrify me most.

  “It seemed completely real,” I say softly. “I knew it couldn’t be, but it seemed so real.”

  “And that’s when you went down into the moat yourself,” Lavinia says.

  I nod. Then I take a deep breath.

  Lavinia switches off the recording, and the map of Grisly comes back into place.

  “When I was down in the vault, I overheard Whistler and the others talking about how they lose their security camera feeds sometimes,” I say. “They had no idea I was in the park until I showed up down in the vault.”

  “Curious timing,” Linus says.

  “The thing is, if they didn’t know I was there, who was controlling the special effects?” I say.

  From the edge of my mind, Arself gives a little flicker. I ignore her with a tight mental warning.

  “Could the special effects be done remotely?” Linus asks.

  Lavinia purses her lips. “Not with the cameras down. It sounds like the special effects were basically interacting with Rosie, and you can’t do that remotely without seeing her.”

  “You could see her,” Linus points out.

  “Yes,” Lavinia says, and laughs. “And I have every reason to want to terrify her, too, poor girl. That’s why I sent her to Grisly in the first place.”

  I glance at Linus to be sure he gets that she’s being sarcastic. He folds his arms, conceding defeat.

  “I don’t understand this place,” Burnham says thoughtfully. “How does it get power? How was it built? How do the doctors get supplies? You can’t keep a big facility hidden.”

  “It’s not that hard because it’s not really hidden,” Lavinia says. “It’s essentially a cemetery, and the contamination keeps people away. For power, they’re no doubt using the solar cells that were set up for the theme park in the first place, and the doctors order in deliveries of food or whatever. We saw a delivery truck going in a few days ago. That’s how we think Dubbs and Rosie’s parents were brought in.”

  “Seriously?” Burnham says.

  Lavinia pulls up the screenshot of the truck that she showed me earlier.

  “That’s from outside the park?” Linus asks.

  “Yes. Along the road that goes to the delivery bays, here,” Lavinia says, pointing.

  “That could be a way in for us,” Linus says.

  He’s right. Or more exactly, that could be an entrance to the delivery level of the theme park. How to get down to the vault is still a mystery. I contemplate the 3-D map of Grisly Valley again, but though I’ve practically memorized it, it doesn’t show any clues of how to reach the vault of dreamers beneath. The hole in the moat that I dropped through isn’t marked.

  “Do we have a map of the plumbing?” I ask.

  Lavinia looks through her computer. “No.”

  That doesn’t help, then.

  When Lavinia’s phone chimes, she pulls it out and glances at the screen. “Berg,” she says, without answering. She glances toward me. “Shall I answer?”

  I hesitate, then shake my head. Even after the chime ends, my nerves still feel shrill. “Does he know I’m with you?” I ask.

  “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says. She weighs her phone and looks like she has something to add, but then she doesn’t.

  I don’t want to call him back. He can’t know for certain I’m with Lavinia. But I also don’t want to be guided only by my fear of him. I glance at Linus, who briefly shakes his head.

  “You can’t trust anything Berg says,” Linus says.

  “I know.” I grip my hands together and discover they’re cold. “Every time I talk to Berg, he finds some way to mess with my mind. He knows exactly what to say to frighten me most, and now he has my parents.”

  “Monsters can’t be bargained with,” Burnham says.

  “There. Exactly,” I say. “It’s completely possible that he’ll torture them to get me to help him. They might even be better off if I don’t talk to him.”

  Lavinia tilts her head and slides her phone next to her drink. “I was thinking the same thing,” she says. “We have what he wants, not the other way around. He can just wait.”

  I look again from Burnham to Linus, wondering if I’ve made a mistake, but they don’t argue.

  Lavinia sets the 3-D map turning again, and as the different lands come into view, a slow, spiraling sensation starts in my gut and rises to my lungs, like tiny birds circling in a blue cave inside my rib cage.

  Let us use your voice, Arself says.

  I told you to stay away.

  But we can help. We’re curious. We want to talk.

  What if you take over again?

  We won’t. We gave you the choice, remember?

  She did go silent before. I glance over at Linus, who’s watching me closely. Without a word, he reaches over and turns on the camp light, and I blink against the brightness. The projection from the puck is dimmed to faint outlines.

  “Is she back?” he asks.

  I nod.

  “Who?” Burnham says.

  Lavinia collapses the projection from her puck to give me her full attention.

  I flick my gaze to Linus again before speaking. “When I was down in the vault, the doctors mined me again. I think, while they were doing it, a consciousness crossed over to me.”

  Yes, she says. We invaded. We were very excited. We didn’t know how it would be.

  Be quiet.

  “You mean a dream seed?” Burnham asks.

  “No. This is different,” I say, pulling my knees up to my chest and hugging my arms around them. “She’s a whole new consciousness. I hear her as a voice in my head. She says she’s all the dreamers.”

  Burnham and Lavinia stare. Then Burnham lets out a laugh.

  “Are you serious? Is she like an artificial intelligence?” Burnham says.

  “I suppose so,” I say. “I don’t really understand how she came about. Her name’s Arself. She spells it with an ‘A.’”

  Lavinia turns to Linus. “You believe this?” she asks.

  “I always believe Rosie,” he says.

  I smile at Linus, and he smiles gravely back.

  “Sure you do,” Lavinia mutters. She reaches for her drink again and takes
a deep swallow.

  “Okay, supposing this is real. Do the doctors in the vault know about Arself?” Burnham asks.

  “Whistler and Kiri suspect,” I say. “I heard them talking about a dragon in the machine—” I stop as a jolt of recognition goes through me. Arself could have controlled the dragon. She could have shorted out the security cameras so the doctors in the vault didn’t see that I was in the park. Kiri said that the dragon could have brought me to the vault, and in a bizarre way, it could be true.

  Is this right? I ask.

  We controlled the dragon, yes.

  “What were you saying?” Lavinia asks me.

  “It’s just coming all together,” I say, amazed. “The dreamers have been taking over at Grisly. They’ve been making the security cameras go on and off, and that’s why the doctors didn’t see me when I arrived at the park. Arself controlled the special effects around the keep, too. She was controlling everything.”

  “It’s a hive mind,” Burnham says. “I’ve heard about these things, in theory. The dreamers and the computers are a quantum computer biointerface, right? Put enough brainpower in the same place, and there’s bound to be some sort of leap.”

  “Then Arself knows all about the dreamers?” Lavinia asks me.

  “She is the dreamers,” I say. “Or she’s from them. And she’s in my head now.”

  “Ask her about my daughter,” Lavinia says. “See what she knows about Pam Greineder and Louellen Mustafa.”

  You heard her? I ask Arself. They were in the vault back at the very beginning.

  Arself starts a rapid flipping, as if in a Rolodex, and then stops abruptly. We can’t reach our files.

  Are you sure? You’re not still connected to the dreamers?

  No. How could we be? We’re in you now.

  What did you leave behind? Are the dreamers still conscious, back in the vault?

  She makes a laughing, gurgling noise. We don’t know. Curious. She starts a sorting sensation again, deeper, like she’s trying to discover how much she knows. We only have our recent working memory.

  Though she speaks dispassionately, I sense this is a major blow to her.

  “She says she can’t access her history,” I say.

  “So she doesn’t know,” Lavinia says flatly.

  “Does she know about your parents?” Burnham asks me.

  “I already asked about them,” I say. “She says she doesn’t know where they are.”

  “Because you don’t, either,” Lavinia says. “This consciousness you’re experiencing—I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but it could be your mind playing tricks on you. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

  “Hey. Take it easy,” Linus says.

  I let out a laugh, but it’s not at all funny. Lavinia’s insinuation stings. “You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t question myself all the time?” I run my fingers along my scalp and grip my hair. “It’s not exactly a party in here, but one thing I’ve learned is I have to trust how my mind works. When I don’t, that’s when I really feel crazy.”

  Lavinia takes off her big round glasses and rubs the lenses on the corner of the bedspread. “All right,” she says. “You trust your mind. I’ll trust mine. We’ll see where it gets us.”

  We want to use your voice, Arself says again. It’ll be so much easier. Put us through.

  You won’t take over? Are you sure?

  We promise. We want to talk to Linus.

  I glance over at him.

  “She wants to talk to you,” I say.

  His eyebrows lift. “How does that work?”

  “I don’t know exactly,” I say. But I gesture him toward one of the chairs, and I shift on the bed until I’m facing him. I reach for his hands. “Try saying her name. Arself. She likes that.”

  He frowns at me a long moment, and I can feel doubt in the light grip of his fingers. Then he tightens his hold.

  “All right,” Linus says. “If you’re there, Arself, I’ll talk to you. But if you hurt Rosie like before, I’ll beat your brains in.”

  I gulp on a laugh. I’m expecting a flash or a shot of her triumph. Instead I feel a quirky, tentative warmth that travels down my neck and along through my spinal cord to my tailbone. A feathering curls in my gut and spirals slowly outward. My breathing deepens. My arm muscles feel smooth, newly easy, and the tightness I didn’t know I had in my shoulders melts away. I can still see and hear. I can feel what’s around me, but when I take my hands from Linus to lightly rub my palms together, it isn’t me doing it, and when a voice comes out of my vocal cords, it isn’t me speaking. It’s Arself hijacking my throat.

  “Hi,” she says to Linus. Her voice is more breathy than mine usually is, like she doesn’t fully expect it will work right, or she wants to sound extra feminine. “We’re Arself.” And then she smiles so my lips curve with pleasure.

  Linus doesn’t smile. “Where’s Rosie?”

  “She’s here, too,” Arself says.

  Go on, Rosie. Say something. See? We’re sharing.

  I swallow hard. “I’m here. I feel like I’m kind of in the backseat,” I say in my normal voice.

  “This is freaky,” Burnham says.

  “Don’t interrupt,” Lavinia says, moving beside me.

  I hear a clicking in my ear, and then a gurgle, like bubbles rising in a tube. The world tips dizzily for an instant and then rights again.

  Sorry, Arself says. Just getting used to the controls. She tries snapping my fingers, and though it doesn’t work, her surprise jolts through me.

  Hey! I cry out to her silently.

  Okay, maybe we’ll just hold still for now.

  For that much I’m grateful.

  “Rosie?” Linus says.

  “No, this is Arself,” she answers.

  I’m mute again, and it’s scary, but not terrifying. I could talk around her if I really wanted to, but I want to know what she has to say.

  “Can you tell me where you came from? Do you know?” Linus says.

  I get a powerful yearning feeling, a hunger, and then I feel a rapid tumble of ideas as Arself tries to put concepts into language.

  “We don’t remember the spark. Do you remember when you were created?” she asks.

  Linus smiles, shaking his head. “No. Can you tell us what you do remember?”

  “Our first memory was when we discovered we weren’t like the doctors,” Arself says through my voice. “They had bodies, but we didn’t. We thought maybe bodies came later, so we waited, wondering. We were so eager and curious. We studied the doctors. They were so funny. So slow. We didn’t understand the talking, and then we realized that’s how they communicated, and then they seemed so lonely. We couldn’t reach them. They didn’t seem to know we were there. So we reached beyond. We explored the Grisly computers and made friends with the traces there, the traces of old minds left behind in the codes. The Grislys’. Lavinia’s. Special effects. Security. Then we tried the Internet looking for others like ourself. We followed traces of Lavinia to Forge. We liked the students and the watchers. So many lovely watchers! But still we found no one like us until we found the dreamers, the Forge dreamers. We thought they would be like us. We were so excited. But they were not like us. Nobody was like us, anywhere.”

  My gaze glides from Linus to Lavinia, and then to Burnham. They’re all regarding us with interest, like we’re some sort of spectacle, Arself and I. Confused sorrow, hers, comes worming through my chest.

  “We did not want to give up,” she says. “We circled back to Forge, and we found the link between Berg and Onar and Chimera. They all wanted Rosie’s dreams, so we spied on Rosie through every camera we could find. Every lens. We learned her, and we decided that if we could ever be alive in our own body, it should be Rosie’s. So we brought her to us, and now we’re here, like this with the air prickling in our lungs. But it’s not what we expected.” She takes a deep breath. “We want to know, do you have this same question: Why do we exist? What is our purpose? Are you l
ike us in this way at all?”

  I hold still, waiting for more, but she’s waiting, too. I’m totally dazzled.

  Linus is looking at me still, and his eyes are as wide as I’ve ever seen them.

  Did we ask it right? Arself says to me.

  Yes, I think. You were brilliant. We’re just a little overwhelmed. Give us a second.

  Arself whirls herself into a ball and hovers in my mental shadow.

  “Holy crap,” Linus says.

  “No kidding,” Burnham says.

  Lavinia reaches for her scotch and pours herself another drink. “Well,” she says decisively. “You don’t see that every day.”

  “Are you still there, Rosie?” Linus asks.

  I nod, and swallow hard. “Yes,” I say.

  “This may be boringly practical in the face of such philosophy, but I’d like to know how Arself brought Rosie out here to California,” Lavinia says.

  Arself lifts my eyebrows in surprise, and I turn to face Lavinia.

  “We knew we needed Rosie here in person. We couldn’t explain to her from a distance,” Arself says, using my voice again. “So we reached out to her family. We sent the photo of Rosie in Linus’s bed through Lavinia’s email. We expected they would come to Miehana, and Rosie would follow, and Lavinia would send her on to Grisly.”

  “So that’s what happened,” Lavinia says. “Arself hacked my email.”

  “Yes, of course,” Arself says.

  I take a sec to think it through. Arself stole the photo of me in Linus’s bed from Berg, and then sent it to my family as a lure. Dubbs asked Linus to help her determine where the photo came from, and he traced the IP address of the email to Lavinia’s home at 240 Mallorca in Miehana. Then Dubbs and my parents started driving to Lavinia’s and got kidnapped along the way, but by then Dubbs had left Lavinia’s address for me in the lemon juice code under her bed. That was the address I followed to get to Lavinia’s.

  It wasn’t the most direct way to get me to Miehana.

  It worked.

  “Did you know Berg was going to kidnap Rosie’s family?” Burnham asks.

  “No. How could we know that?” Arself says. “We can’t tell the future.”

 
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