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The keep of ages, p.21
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       The Keep of Ages, p.21

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “Does Berg know about you, Arself?” Linus asks.

  “No. Only Rosie knows, and now you,” Arself says.

  “You must know something about Rosie’s parents,” Linus says. “We know they’re at the park somewhere.”

  “I’ve looked already, many times,” she says. “When Rosie first came to the vault and asked the doctors about her parents, I checked the cameras all over Grisly. The doctors spoke the truth. Her parents aren’t there.”

  But some of the cameras could be broken, I say. The system’s old.

  Arself takes only an instant to consider this before she starts a quick zip through our mental circuits again, and then stops, miffed. How can you stand to be so disconnected? she says. Then aloud, she adds, “Turn on the model of the theme park again. We’ll show you.”

  “Can you connect to it?” Burnham asks.

  “No, but we can work with Rosie,” Arself says. “You have us curious.”

  Lavinia sets up the puck on the bed as she did before, and soon, once again, the colored 3-D projection of the map of Grisly Valley appears in the space above the bed. I ease onto the bed, near the headboard. This time, my eyes dart rapidly along the sight lines of every building and test each tiny corner and grate. Through my eyes, Arself scans the entire park from left to right, and then again from top to bottom. Then she returns to the Keep of Ages, and I swear she’s memorizing each block of stone in the construction.

  “These are from the original blueprints,” Arself says aloud.

  “Yes,” Lavinia says.

  Now pay attention, she tells me.

  My eyes sting for a second, and I blink hard. Above the projection from the computer puck, another 3-D map of the theme park starts constructing itself chunk by chunk near the ceiling.

  Can my friends see that? I ask.

  No. We said, pay attention.

  Arself is creating the new map in my mind’s eye, but I can see it as clearly as if another puck were projecting it. The second map keeps filling in with more detail, until it is nearly identical to the one below it, but certain areas remain empty, like the holes of Swiss cheese, and no matter how hard Arself tries to fill them, I can tell that she can’t. The information isn’t there. When the last bits of data have settled into place, Arself fills the negative space in the top map with red light. Then she lowers the upper map down onto the first one until they overlap exactly, but now the places where the red holes were light up with red walls. Seven spaces, five aboveground and two below, are illuminated with red.

  Huh, Arself says. Show your friends. They can’t see.

  I shift forward on the bed, into the colored lines and planes of the 3-D projection, and I gently point into each red space, one after the other, to mark them.

  “What are you doing?” Linus asks.

  “This is what we couldn’t see,” Arself says. “These are the rooms with broken cameras. We never thought to search them. Anything could be inside them, or nothing.”

  I sit back, staring at the seven spaces one after the other. Hope and doubt circle in my chest. My parents could be there, I think. I don’t want to think of what shape they might be in. The negative spaces are all deserted rooms in the theme park, far from the vault and anybody who might take care of them.

  “Did you see the truck that brought Dubbs?” Linus asks. “That would have been Monday.”

  “I noticed a truck,” Arself says. “It was dark, before dawn. I didn’t see what it delivered.”

  I feel uncomfortably hot suddenly, and I press my hands against my temples and lean forward, eyes closed.

  As if surprised, Arself says, You’re tired. We’ll pull back.

  She glides out of me like blue water, and drains away with a trickle of noisy pebbles. I’m dizzy for a moment, and then simply weary.

  The warm pressure of a hand lands kindly on my knee.

  “All right?” Linus asks.

  I open my eyes and meet his gaze. I nod. “She’s gone, for now.”

  23

  ON THE PORCH ABOVE THE CLIFF

  I WILT BACK against the pillows and take a big breath. I stare at the seven places in the map. “At least now I know where to look,” I say.

  Lavinia covers her mouth as she yawns. “Clearly we’ll have plenty to do tomorrow, and I for one could use some sleep,” she says. “Take my computer if you like.”

  Linus rises from his beach chair and folds it. Burnham does the same. I take Lavinia’s computer and wish her a good night.

  The three of us move back into the living room, but we can’t talk there because of Dubbs sleeping on the couch. I quietly set down Lavinia’s computer on the counter, uncertain what to do. Linus points toward the glass doors that lead to the porch, and we head out.

  A breeze is lifting up along the cliff, bringing the rolling, eternal sound of the sea from below, and the night sky is clear. Impossibly clear. With no lights around, the stars are as brilliant as they are back home in the desert, and it takes me only a moment to locate the Little Dipper pouring into the big one. If I were alone with Linus, I might try to impress him by pointing out the few constellations I know, but I’m not going to risk astronomy while Burnham’s tagging along.

  I like the cool air, but it makes me shiver, and I cross my arms over my chest. Burnham and Linus stand against the other railing, Burnham’s silhouette slightly taller than Linus’s dark outline. The waning gibbous moon hangs heavy over the western horizon.

  “Pretty night,” Burnham says.

  “Sure is,” Linus answers.

  “You two are cute,” I say, smiling.

  “Thank you,” Linus says, and his face is just discernible when he turns in my direction. “By the way, what’s this promise you two have?”

  “I’m not supposed to tell my parents about how Thea’s connected to Rosie. With her dream seed,” Burnham says. “Why?”

  “Just wondering,” Linus says.

  “Do we have any other promises, Rosie?” Burnham asks.

  “You know we don’t,” I say.

  “I thought maybe we did. Relating to Atlanta,” Burnham says.

  “What happened in Atlanta?” Linus asks.

  “Nothing,” Burnham and I both say.

  Wind ripples the hair on my neck, and I catch the strands back in my grip for a minute. I’m afraid I’m blushing again. I wish I could see their expressions, but the dark makes it hard.

  “I may have tried to kiss her,” Burnham says. “Not that it matters.”

  “Why am I not surprised?” Linus says.

  “It does matter,” I say. “It was a mistake.”

  “Does it still bother you that much?” Burnham asks.

  “What actually happened?” Linus asks.

  I wait to see if Burnham will fill him in, but he doesn’t.

  “It was awkward, okay?” I say. “We were alone in his apartment and I had a nightmare.”

  “I made her hot chocolate,” Burnham adds.

  “I see,” Linus says. “Potent stuff.”

  “Nothing happened,” I say. “It was just weird. And now it’s over.”

  “It never started,” Burnham says.

  “Right. It never started,” I agree.

  “Then we shouldn’t have a problem,” Burnham says.

  He’s right. We shouldn’t. So why’s he trying to make trouble?

  “I don’t think you should come with us to Grisly tomorrow,” I say to Burnham.

  “What are you talking about? Of course I’m coming.”

  “You’ll slow us down,” I say. The moment the words leave my mouth, I realize they’re a mistake. Dishonest. Unkind. But I can’t explain why I don’t want him along. I cross my arms.

  “I can’t believe you just said that,” Burnham says, his voice low.

  “I’m sorry.”

  “I don’t think you understand,” Burnham says. “My whole life’s different since the accident. I can’t dive anymore. I can’t meet people without them staring at me, and then when they fi
gure out I’m that guy from Forge, it only gets worse. My old friends, they’re great, but they’re going on with their lives. They have no idea what it’s really like for me now.” He clears his throat. “But this? This fight against Berg. I’m part of this. I belong here. I’m going in with you.”

  I glance at Linus, who isn’t saying anything. It’s up to me to explain, I see.

  “It’s worse than you know,” I say, and I push my hands into my pockets. “Once I save my parents, I’m going to find a way to stop Berg once and for all.”

  “You mean kill him?” Burnham says.

  I don’t want to do it, but I don’t see any other answer. I’m not sure exactly when I decided what I had to do, but now I’m filled with quiet certainty.

  “You can’t do it,” Burnham says. “Rosie, even if you could, physically, it would eat at you forever.”

  “He’s never going to let my parents go,” I say. “There’s no other way. Now you see why you can’t come.”

  “But you’re not a killer!” Burnham says. “You’re not that kind of person. What do you think you’re going to do? Knock him over the head? Do you have a gun?” He turns to Linus. “You can’t seriously mean to let her go through with this.”

  “I thought I’d do it for her, when the time comes,” Linus says.

  I turn to stare at him. I hardly know what to say. It’s the most amazing thing anyone has ever said to me. I can’t let him do it, of course, but I appreciate his willingness.

  “Holy crap,” Burnham says. “And the other doctors down there? Do you plan to kill them, too?”

  I hadn’t carefully considered them. “No,” I say reluctantly. “I can’t do that.”

  “So then, what? They just go on with their research?” Burnham asks. “And what about the dreamers? Are you going to disconnect all of them? Or don’t they matter, either way?”

  “Of course they matter,” I say.

  “Why? They’re dead already, aren’t they?” Burnham says.

  I balk at his bluntness. Arself’s alive, and she comes from the dreamers, so they can’t be truly and completely dead. She’s privy to my thoughts, too, so I need to be careful. Honestly, it hurts me to think of leaving all the dreamers behind, trapped forever in the vault, or until they finally die enough for Whistler to bring them to the incinerator. But what else can I do? I can’t save them all. I can’t save even one of them. The most I can do is save Arself now that she’s in me. I listen in case she wants to surface and say something, but she’s silent still. It seems she decides for herself when she wants to come forward, and this moment doesn’t merit her input.

  “The dreamers may be dead individually, but together, they’re something alive,” I say to Burnham. “I’m going to leave them as they are. I’ll report the doctors to the police, or maybe the media, okay? Unless you have a better idea.”

  Another salty breeze comes up from the ocean while I wait to see what Burnham can come up with.

  “I don’t,” he says finally.

  I glance up toward the stars again. “How late is it?”

  “It’s nearly four,” Linus says.

  “You can’t say anything to Lavinia or Dubbs about killing Berg,” I say to both of them. “As far as they’re concerned, we’re only going back to get Ma and Larry.”

  “You could still change your mind,” Burnham says.

  Burnham can think that, if he wants. I know otherwise.

  “You still want to come?” I ask him.

  “I’m coming.”

  “Then let’s get some sleep,” I say. “Or at least try.”

  Linus opens the door, and we slip back into the quiet of the living room. Without turning on the light, I find my blankets and my pillow near the couch where Dubbs is still sleeping, and I settle in for the rest of the restless night.

  24

  SEVEN RED POSSIBILITIES

  I WAKE THE NEXT DAY feeling slow and stiff, and as I hear voices from the other room and realize I’m the last one up, I feel the chagrin of laziness and missing out. Blankets and pillows are strewn about the living room floor as if no one wanted to disturb me by cleaning up. I step over to Lavinia’s bedroom and peek in the doorway.

  On the bed with his back to the headboard, Burnham is typing away on Lavinia’s laptop. Lavinia sits beside him, looking on and holding a bag of lemon drops. The screen reflects on their two pairs of glasses. Linus, in one of the beach chairs, is poking at his phone. Dubbs lounges on the blue rug in a patch of sunshine, stroking Tiny and experimenting with what makes the cat flick her ears.

  “Why has Arself come to life now?” Lavinia says. She’s in a periwinkle outfit today, with golden ballet flats. “That’s what I don’t understand. If she can get into Rosie, can she get into other people, too? Maybe she already has, and we just don’t know about it.”

  “That’s unlikely. Rosie said Arself essentially infected her while she was being mined,” Linus says without looking up.

  “I don’t understand what Arself is,” Dubbs says from the floor. “How can a computer infect someone?”

  “She’s a different kind of computer,” Burnham says. “Quantum computers are incredibly fast, and Arself has a biomedical interface that connects her circuits to living tissue in the dreamers. She’s a hybrid organism.” He smiles toward Dubbs, whose doubtful expression makes it clear she isn’t following him. “Think of people who have fake arms that are controlled by their minds. Arself’s a little like that, only backward, like an arm that can think.”

  Dubbs looks at her own hand, turning it in the sunlight over the cat. “I wouldn’t like that,” she says.

  I smile at her. “No, you wouldn’t.”

  Linus lifts his head to meet my gaze. Wordlessly, he smiles at me, and my heart tumbles over.

  “Rosie!” Dubbs says. “Come sit here. By me.”

  I ease down onto the rug beside her. “Did you eat breakfast?”

  “Yes. Bagels.”

  I pull my ankles in, sitting pretzel style, and feel the warmth of the sunlight coming in the window.

  “Are you calling somebody?” I ask Linus.

  “No. Just answering a text from my boss,” he says.

  I hadn’t even thought about his job. “Are you missing work?” I ask.

  “No. We’re good. We wrapped up our last story earlier this week. Now we’re negotiating for next season. I can check in later.” He puts his phone away.

  It sounds important to me, and I feel a bit guilty about keeping him away from Found Missing.

  He smiles, shaking his head at me. “Don’t worry about it.”

  “Speaking of smart arms,” Lavinia says. “When I was a kid, I remember when researchers connected one rat to another, brain to brain, and the rats could share information on how to get through a maze. That was a big breakthrough. Back then, the most common A.I. was Siri on our phones. Then the Google brain folks had a translator that taught itself how to translate better. Things really took off after that.”

  “It’s the biomedical interface that makes the difference,” Burnham says. “The dreamers have a lot of computational power down there. Converted to data storage or digital processing, it has to be massive.”

  “What data would they store?” I ask.

  “Could be anything,” Burnham says. “Dreams themselves take up loads of computer memory. Remember those strange files we found when we hacked into Berg’s computer system at Forge?”

  “Yes,” I say.

  Lavinia pops a lemon drop in her mouth. “Of course. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier. The Forge Show needs a ton of computer processing to keep track of all its viewers and tally up the blip ranks. They’re changing every minute. That takes a lot of power. Berg could be using the dreamers for that processing.”

  “But Forge is miles away,” I say.

  “Distance isn’t an issue,” Burnham says. “The data’s collected from around the world, in every time zone. It’s sent to a central quantum computer, analyzed, and e
xported again in microseconds. No big deal.”

  “I knew I liked you,” Lavinia says to Burnham.

  “We don’t know this is happening at Grisly, though. We have no evidence that the dreamers are tallying the blip ranks for Forge,” Linus says.

  Lavinia clicks her lemon drop around her teeth. “We don’t know they aren’t, either,” she says. “If you ask me, it’s just the sort of thing Berg would set up.”

  “Arself said something about studying the Forge viewers,” I say.

  “How is she this morning, anyway?” Linus asks.

  “She’s quiet,” I say, listening.

  “She wears you out,” Linus says.

  I nod. “A little.”

  “Was I connected to the dreamers?” Dubbs says.

  I slide my hand over her sunny, warm hair. “Do you feel weird or hear any voices in your head?” I ask.

  She tilts her head as if listening. “No,” she says.

  “That’s good. The doctors said they were only going to observe you,” I say. “I think you’re fine.”

  She plucks her shirt out so she can look down inside, and I know she’s checking that the bandage is still over her port. “When are we going back to Grisly?” she asks.

  I glance urgently toward Lavinia, who nods.

  “Actually, you’re staying here with me,” Lavinia says to Dubbs. “I need your help to keep everybody coordinated. We’re command central.”

  “Rosie said I could go with her,” Dubbs said.

  “I said I wouldn’t leave you here alone,” I remind her. “I think you’ll be safest staying with Lavinia. That’s what Ma would want.”

  Dubbs frowns, and I expect her to keep arguing. Instead, she keeps petting the cat.

  “Okay,” she says.

  Burnham makes another distinctive tap on the laptop. “I have this ready,” he says. “Linus, can you get the blanket?”

  Linus hangs a dark blanket over the window while Lavinia sets her puck in the middle of the bed again. The 3-D map of Grisly projects up again, this time with the seven possible places that Arself helped me find already marked in red. My eye instantly locates the ones that are closest to the Main Drag because that’s where I assume Dubbs was when she looked out of the kidnappers’ truck. Unfortunately, there’s no highlighted room directly along the Main Drag. The closest is the Lost and Found, near the entrance of the park, and then I realize there are little rows of shops in other parts of the park, too.

 
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