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The keep of ages, p.23
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       The Keep of Ages, p.23

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  Linus, Burnham, and I walk quietly around to the front, keeping to the cover of trees and kiosks as much as we can, until we reach Scylla Square, the open area between the end of the Main Drag and the moat. A couple security lights cast the cobblestones in a gray hue. Ahead, at the top of the steps, the big double doors of the keep are closed. The caged light shines above them.

  “I can see you!” Dubbs says into my ear.

  “Great,” I whisper.

  We cross the square toward the keep, and as we climb the steps, I look over the banister, down into the moat, toward the hole where I first fell down to the vault. I can make out nothing but shadows, dead leaves, a broken mannequin, and more bits of weathered litter.

  “There’s a drain down there,” I say to Linus, pointing. “That’s where I got down to the vault of dreamers before.”

  “We’re going to find another way down,” he says. “If we need to go.”

  At the top of the stairs, the big wooden doors are tagged with black graffiti, and a scuffed lockbox bulges over a modern knob. Burnham gives one of the big metal handles a pull, but the door doesn’t budge.

  “Do you have the code?” Linus says to me.

  Ten sixty-six, Arself tells me. Battle of Hastings.

  What’s that have to do with anything?

  The last security coder was a history buff.

  “Try ten sixty-six,” I say.

  Linus punches it in, and the lockbox gives a buzz of admittance.

  “Nice,” he says.

  When he pulls the door, though, it opens only partway before it jams against a buckled bump in the flooring. The gap is less than a foot wide, and the door won’t open any farther. I look doubtfully at the width of Linus’s trim waist, and then at Burnham’s. They’re both solid guys, and Burnham’s easily twenty pounds heavier.

  “Can you make it?” I ask.

  “No problem,” Burnham says. “Go ahead.”

  I squeeze through first, and with a grunt, Linus jimmies through behind me. Worried, I look back out at Burnham. He gets his leg with the brace through first, and then he works himself through the tight space. He adjusts his glasses and, breathing hard, he nods at me.

  “Now where?” he asks.

  Upstairs, Arself says.

  I take a look around.

  A broken section of the wall up near the ceiling lets in a glimpse of the night sky and enough moonlight to reveal the musty interior. We’re in a tall, narrow hall, with a big fireplace to our left. The head of a deer is mounted above the mantel, and two hooves are mounted below it, pawing out toward us. Some joker has placed a beer can on the deer’s head. A border of metal spears, pointing up and embedded into the walls, goes around the room, and many of the spears’ brackets bristle with birds’ nests. Poop has crusted below. Opposite us, the back door of the keep is closed. It’s equally as tall as the one we entered, and I can imagine how foot traffic once flowed through here and across the now fallen bridge outside. Two arched openings stand on either side of the back door, one leading to an upward staircase, the other leading down.

  I have to admit, I’m curious about what it was like before.

  Show me, I say.

  As I slowly pass my left hand before my face, a shimmer spreads across the scene. The dimness gives way to an inviting room with gleaming woodwork and a huge, triple-tiered chandelier. Each spear has a polished point, and colorful tapestries of hunting scenes and garden picnics line the upper walls. The beer can has vanished off the deer head, and burnished silver vases of flowers have appeared on the mantel. A lush carpet lies underfoot, worked with blue and gold threads, and a row of tall wooden chairs backs against the right-hand wall. To top it all off, a full coat of armor stands in the corner, with a red plume in its helmet.

  For a moment, I gaze around in wonder, and then the images begin to dissolve, giving way to reality.

  “What is a keep, exactly?” I say.

  “It’s an old tower,” Linus says. “We have lots of them back in Wales.”

  “It’s a defense,” Burnham says. “That’s its prime function.”

  My gaze drifts up again to the break in the wall and the night sky beyond it. “So why call this the Keep of Ages?” I ask.

  “Maybe they hoped it would stand forever,” Linus says. “It’s about timelessness.”

  “Immortality,” Burnham says.

  I smile. “Ironic, isn’t it, since it’s crumbling?”

  A tiny, mechanical hiss comes from above, but I can’t see exactly where. I feel a frisson of alertness.

  “Did you hear that?” I ask.

  “A camera, maybe,” Linus says. “The doctors in the vault probably know we’re here by now.”

  “Will they send someone up?” Burnham asks. “What’ll we do if they find us?”

  That seems a lot more likely now than it did when Dubbs asked the same question.

  “We’ll tell them I’m here to talk to Berg,” I say. “In the meantime, we’d better hurry,” I say, and I cross over to the upward staircase.

  Gray splotches litter the bottom steps, and I instinctively avoid them as I start up. At that instant, a winged flurry dive-bombs down at me. I yelp and duck as it flies past. Bat, I think, breathless. A disturbing rustle comes from above me, and then it magnifies into a whirl. As I crouch low, a flapping cloud of bats rushes down above me and flies past my head like a dark wind. The bats circle wildly inside the hall and then fly out the hole of moonlight, leaving the last one behind to flap against the walls before it vanishes, too.

  My heart’s galloping in my chest.

  “You okay?” Linus asks. He’s hunched right behind me.

  “I’m fine,” I say. “Just startled. Burnham?”

  I look back and see him ducked next to the fireplace with his leg at an awkward angle.

  “I’m good,” Burnham says.

  “Time for a flashlight,” Linus says.

  “Yes. Go ahead. After you,” I say. Chances are, we’ve been seen already anyway.

  Linus shines his flashlight up the staircase and starts up. I follow, and Burnham comes along behind me. The close confines of the stairwell oppress me, and even though the walls are encased in stone, I get the feeling they aren’t stable. After the first turn, the facade abruptly changes to flat drywall, and at the next landing, we reach a short, modern hallway with three doors. The left one is open to the turret room that we marked to search, but it contains only a long, dirty wad of pink insulation.

  “My parents aren’t here,” I say.

  Linus tries the right door and reveals a second empty room.

  The central door is marked “Special Effects,” and it has another lockbox over the knob.

  “Any ideas?” Burnham asks me.

  1869, Arself says. First transcontinental railroad.

  “Try eighteen-sixty-nine,” I say.

  Burnham punches it in and then shoves the door open.

  “Whoa,” he says. “Jackpot.”

  The room has half a dozen old-fashioned computer consoles and close to twenty screens, all dark. A film of staticky dust clings to their glassy surfaces. I notice two windows that overlook the moat are covered with a thin layer of blue plastic that’s peeling in places. At least we’ll be able to see from here if anyone’s approaching up the Main Drag.

  I can feel Arself’s surprise, and a hint of disappointment.

  What’s wrong? I ask.

  We’ve never seen this from the outside, she says. It’s so boxy. So dead. How do we connect?

  Burnham is already tapping at a couple of the keyboards. Nothing happens. He slides his hand behind one of the desks, and I hear a click. He tries a keyboard again, and the nearest screen lights up.

  “That’s what I’m talking about,” Burnham says. “Someone’s been here lately. Give me a minute.”

  He pulls over a rolling chair, the only seat in the room, and starts typing. The next instant, his screen shows a view of the main entrance with all the turnstiles. He rolls his chai
r over to the next computer, flips another switch, and types some more. Soon half a dozen computer screens are up and running, some with indecipherable lines of glowing numbers, some with views of the empty streets and rides of Grisly Valley, and some with colorful, scrolling banner ads. Two more show U.S. and world maps.

  Just above the central screen, one smaller screen shows a grid that seems strangely familiar, and as I step nearer, I’m surprised to see it’s running scenes from The Forge Show.

  “Is this live?” I ask.

  Yes, Arself says.

  Linus, from behind me, says, “Looks like it.”

  I glance over my shoulder to see Linus has paused just inside the door, like he’s keeping an ear tuned to the stairs. Burnham, on the other hand, is deeply engrossed by one of the other computers, and he answers as if he’s barely heard me.

  “It was already set up like that,” Burnham says. “I just turned it on.”

  This is so strange, I think, looking more closely at The Forge Show.

  On the show, a thin girl in a blue dress and gold flip-flops is walking down the steps of the auditorium carrying a giant, plush bear in both arms. She’s no one I recognize, but plenty of viewers must know her because her blip rank is #1. She is currently the most popular student on the show. A flickering square next to her blip rank score looks like a pixel error of some kind.

  “Why is this showing here?” I ask.

  Is this your place? I ask Arself. Your headquarters?

  She laughs with her odd bubbling noise. We don’t need a headquarters. Look how clumsy and slow this is. Still, it’s something. Let us in there.

  Hold on, I tell her.

  Burnham reaches up and gives the Forge screen a tap. The pixel error remains.

  “Odd,” Burnham says.

  “Bad reception?” Linus asks.

  “No. Something else. A glitch.” Burnham goes back to typing. “Everything’s encrypted,” he mutters.

  My fingertips begin to tingle. My heart gives a lurch, and my skin grows warm. As if drawn by instinct, I move to stand behind Burnham and watch his fingers move over the keys. I don’t understand what he’s doing, but my eyes focus on the code he’s writing as if it’s a language I might be able to decipher simply by concentrating.

  I see, Arself says.

  Linus shifts farther into the room until he’s standing on Burnham’s right, frowning at one of the screens.

  “Would you look at this?” Linus says. “I think these circles are tracking viewers of The Forge Show.”

  He’s peering at the map of the United States, and I notice now it includes an overlay of blue circles that subtly shift smaller and bigger, lighter and darker. The biggest, darkest circles are centered on major urban hubs: New York, L.A., Chicago. Smaller, lighter dots are scattered in the less populous regions like Montana, North Dakota, and Utah. The next screen with the map of the entire world shows similar circles. The circles are all bigger in the parts of the world where it’s currently prime viewing time, and they shrink to nearly nothing in places where it’s the wee hours of the morning.

  The tingle in my fingertips turns into prickles, and then to burning. Arself is festering like black smoke in the back of my brain.

  Let us in there, she says again. Please.

  “May I?” I say to Burnham, setting a hand on his shoulder.

  He looks up at me, startled, and then vacates the chair.

  I take his place, uncertain what to do, but Arself confidently invades my hands. She reaches for an old-style computer mouse and, with an unearthly touch that reminds me of the guider over a Ouija board, she flicks the cursor to the flickering square of pixels next to the Forge School girl’s #1 blip rank. We click on it, and at once all of the screens go entirely black. Dead. The next instant, they light up with a grid of a thousand faces.

  The effect is stunning.

  “What is this?” Burnham says in a low voice. “They aren’t on the show.”

  At first glance, the faces all seem to be looking at me, but then I realize they’re looking not quite precisely toward the camera lenses that are filming them, live.

  I guide the computer arrow to the top left face and click on it. It enlarges to an eight-by-ten-inch split screen and shows a man eating a bowl of cereal. He’s facing toward me, his expression blank, and the flat glow of a computer screen is clearly reflecting off his features. He barely looks down at his cereal at all, and between bites, he appears to forget it entirely. He smiles dimly. He takes another bite of cereal and a drip of milk falls from his mouth back into the bowl.

  “Can this be what I’m thinking?” I say in a hushed tone.

  I told you before, Arself says. They’re The Forge Show watchers.

  “Arself says they’re The Forge Show viewers,” I say.

  “Unbelievable,” Burnham says.

  He borrows the mouse from me and clicks on another profile. It, too, expands, and this person is a young teen girl with a swollen bruise around one eye. Dim gray light flickers over her features. Her mouth is a soft gap. Her head is on a pillow, her bare shoulder is hunched near, and the room beyond her face is dark. She barely has her eyes open, and yet her gaze shifts enough to convince me she’s watching something.

  Burnham clicks on another profile, and another. Person after person is facing the camera and watching with varying degrees of interest and alertness. They are young people and old, of all races, in living rooms, bathrooms, and bus depots. What’s common to all is that they’re watching their phones or screens with solitary concentration.

  “This is mind-boggling,” Linus says. “Is Lavinia seeing this?”

  “Not too well,” Lavinia says into my ear.

  “She says, not too well,” I tell them. I take off my hat and pull my earphone plug out of the phone jack, switching over to speakerphone so we can all hear Lavinia’s voice and vice versa.

  Burnham nudges up his glasses. “Lavinia, is it possible The Forge Show is spying on its own viewers?”

  “It’s possible, in theory,” she says. “We already know the show collects viewing data for blip ranks. If each viewing device has a camera, the right cookie could activate that camera and send the data back to Forge. It would be highly unethical, though.”

  “Theory, my foot. It’s already happening. Look at these people,” Linus says. “They have no idea what’s going on.”

  “Wait. People are getting spied on through their own phones?” Dubbs asks.

  “Yes,” Lavinia says. “Or their computers or tablets. Whatever they’re using to watch The Forge Show.”

  “These are electronic trace codes, and these look like navigational coordinates,” Burnham says. “Longitude and latitude. We could physically locate each one of these people.”

  “Wow,” Dubbs says. “Freaky.”

  That’s an understatement. I’ve been wary before of someone watching me back through the cameras on computers and phones, but I’ve never had proof, and I’ve certainly never imagined it happening on a massive, systematic scale.

  “Unbelievable,” Burnham mutters again.

  He’s pulling forward more of the profiles so that they each enlarge in turn, face after face of real people. They’re not pretty. They’re not models. They’re regular humans, some as young as four years old, maybe three. What are they doing watching The Forge Show?

  I recall a time when Mr. DeCoster showed our class some video messages from fans who addressed us directly, a couple guys from Alaska, and a sick boy in a hospital bed, but that was different. Those viewers knew what they were doing when they recorded themselves and sent in the files. These people have no idea they’re being watched.

  I go back to the girl with the bruise around her eye, and her glazed expression seems unspeakably sad. It’s like she has nothing in her life but the show she’s watching. I hate to think I’ve felt that lonely, but I know I have been. I used to watch TV to forget myself, to see proof that another world existed out there, even if that world knew nothing about me a
nd made me feel more anonymous and insignificant than ever. I even watched The Forge Show like that a few times before our TV was broken. It’s disturbing to learn now that something could have been watching me back, silently witnessing my blank despair.

  “There must be a reason why this is happening,” Burnham says.

  Linus points to a screen that shows the scrolling banner ads. “Maybe it’s tied to their ads,” he says. “Maybe the show collects data from the viewers to determine which banner ads they get.”

  “This is much more invasive,” Burnham says. “It goes way beyond tailoring an ad and aiming it at a specific person to get him to buy more shampoo or whatever. This is blanket spying.”

  “But Linus is right, too,” I say. “Suppose Berg is doing this. If he can individualize subliminal messages to each viewer, he can essentially brainwash people. Then he can watch to see how they respond.”

  “It could be for anything. Politics. Votes,” Burnham says. He leans nearer to the screens. “Whoever runs this is like a god. He can control things everywhere. People everywhere.”

  I mentally recoil from the possibility. I stare at Burnham and Linus, aghast. “This is all just conjecture. We don’t have any proof that these people are being controlled,” I say.

  But Burnham’s excited. “No, but think about it. This is the ultimate power,” he says. “The viewers don’t even know it’s happening. That’s the genius of it. They think they’re all making choices of their own free will, but they’re being brainwashed. Berg can sway people however he wants and nobody will even know it.”

  “All because they watch The Forge Show?” Dubbs says over the speakerphone.

  It sounds ridiculous when she puts it like that. I didn’t realize she was following our discussion. My gaze goes back to the girl on the screen, the one who’s still staring under heavy eyelids at her phone. I feel certain we’re missing something.

  “How many people watch The Forge Show?” I ask. “Lavinia, do you know?”

  “Twenty million or so,” she says.

  I sag in the chair. This whole thing is so much bigger and more twisted than I ever imagined. All I wanted to do was find my parents. Now I’m looking at a brainwashing system that could take over the world. Maybe it already has.

 
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