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The vault of dreamers, p.23
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.23

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  I dressed swiftly. Omitting my sling for my sore arm, I put my walkie-ham in my jeans pocket and grabbed my camera and the penlight I’d stolen from the infirmary. I crept cautiously down the stairs, hugging the shadows, until I reached the ground floor. There I peered out a window beside the front door, watching for movement. I tried my walkie-ham one last time.

  “Linus? Are you there?”

  No reply. I was going out alone.

  26

  THE CLOCK TOWER AGAIN

  BY NIGHT, THE fragrant air pulsed with the drone of crickets, and the void of the prairie seemed to encroach onto the campus. Trees and bushes merged into the same lacy black, and the lawns dulled to gray. I stole along the edge of the girls’ dorm where the shadows were deep, and at the corner, I darted across to the film building to hide between the foundation and a dumpster. Broken bits of glass crackled beneath my sneakers.

  I watched and listened, but nothing moved. Then I hurried behind the hedge of the film building, keeping low, and crouched at the next corner with my back to the foundation. Across the narrow road to my right, the dean’s tower stood massive and still, and now that I was nearer, I saw lights in a first-floor corner office. That ruled out any chance of trying to sneak in there. To my left, the expanse of the quad was clear all the way to the auditorium at the other end. Before me, the clock tower ascended out of the rose garden toward a moonless sky. Its face was illuminated, and a green light blinked at the top.

  The door of the clock tower was my next goal.

  The only hiding points between me and the rose garden were a couple of oaks, an iron bench, and a garbage can. I didn’t delude myself. The cameras could easily track me across such an open area, even in the dark. If the dean or a security guard was watching, I would be spotted.

  I couldn’t go farther, not without a break of some kind. Ten long minutes I waited, and then half an hour while I debated how risky it was to stay put or run for the tower. Nothing moved in the quad, and no one was visible in the lighted office of the dean’s tower. I checked my walkie-ham, but Linus never came on. My elbow ached again, and mosquitoes found me.

  And then I caught movement beyond the rose garden. A man with stooped shoulders was walking slowly past the library steps. As he moved under one of the streetlamps, the light dropped on his gray hair and the shoulders of his yellow shirt, but I didn’t recognize his features. He continued along the sidewalk with a steady, unhurried stride, and when he came to the dean’s tower, he set a hand on the stair railing and leaned back to look upward.

  “Sandy!” he called. “Sandy, you old devil! Come out and play.”

  He bent forward, leaning over his shoes, and a moment later he straightened again. With his back to me, he urinated on the steps. I gasped, holding back a laugh.

  A moment later, the door opened and Dean Berg hurried down the stairs.

  The old man called out the dean’s name cheerfully, and the dean spoke to him in a voice too quiet for me to understand. He set a hand gently on the old man’s arm and backed him up a step or two, out of the mess. He passed him a handkerchief. The old man shook his head as he rearranged his trousers.

  “Nope. Not going back,” he said clearly.

  Running footsteps sounded, and Linus came sprinting across the quad.

  “Linus!” the man called in a buoyant voice.

  “Hey, Parker,” Linus said. He leaned over with his hands on his knees, winded. “What are you doing here?”

  “I came to see Sandy,” Parker said. “We’re going out for a drink.”

  Linus straightened and plucked at the neckline of his dark shirt. “You’re not supposed to be up here. I’ve been looking all over for you,” he said. “Otis is worried sick.”

  The man looked uncertain for the first time. “I told you. It’s on the calendar.”

  A security cart passed me then and rolled to a stop by the steps. It was followed by a truck that parked between me and the others, blocking my view. Otis came out of the driver’s side and headed around the vehicles, and in that instant, I realized I had my chance.

  While all of their attention was focused on Parker, I crawled out from my hiding place and bolted for the rose garden. I tore through the garden toward the side door of the clock tower. I pulled hard at the door and slipped inside, closing it softly just as someone convinced Parker to climb in the front of Otis’s truck.

  I’d made it. I listened for a shout or any commotion outside, but the only sound I heard was the pounding of my heart in my ears. The darkness of the tall, narrow room was impenetrable. I looked up, toward the gears, but aside from a faint, crescent gleam on one of the bells high above, I couldn’t see a thing.

  I pulled out my penlight to cast a cone of thin, white light before me and slid my sneakers forward. The railing around the pit appeared, and then the ghostly chains of the clock. Everything seemed bigger and colder than it had during the day when I’d been here with Linus. I aimed my light down into the pit, where the chains descended into darkness. The ladder rungs projected from the wall of the pit as a series of elongated U-shapes. I kept hoping my eyes would adjust and show me more, but the black of the pit was bottomless.

  This is a mistake, I thought. If I fell, I’d be dead.

  On the other hand, this was my best lead. I had to go down and see if the pit led to a tunnel the way I thought it could.

  I slung the strap of my video camera over my shoulder and gripped my penlight in my teeth, sideways, so I could use both hands. Then I carefully stepped over the railing into the pit and lowered myself down, feeling with my feet for each rung.

  My right elbow flared with pain each time I bore my weight with that arm. Linus had said that the pit was thirty feet deep, and I judged that each rung was about a foot apart, so I silently began my count, one rung at a time. I tasted metal, and my breath came fast around the penlight in my teeth. The farther down I went, the cooler and mustier the air grew, and once, at the count of seventeen, I had to skip a rung that shifted dangerously under my weight.

  My progress was painful and slow, but I didn’t dare go faster. At the twenty-fourth rung, I heard a winding noise in the clock mechanism far above. I froze. I wrapped my left arm through the rung and seized it in the crook of my elbow, preparing for a dong from a bell. It didn’t come.

  Shaking, I took the penlight in my free hand and shone it up. The darkness above me was complete. I was very deep, deeper than I’d guessed, but when I shone the light downward, past my feet, only the faintest glint of a reflection came back up to me, like a seam of water between stones. I was still far from the bottom.

  I fit the penlight back in my teeth, and kept descending, rung by rung. A rustling noise made me flinch. Mice, I thought, listening hard. Or maybe bats. Just as long as it wasn’t big black spiders, I would be okay. Those I couldn’t stand. I took another step and abruptly touched down against something solid and flat.

  At last. With shaking fingers, I took my penlight from my teeth and cast its beam around the bottom of the pit. Through a layer of thick dust, the walls had the perfect flatness of glass. I stroked a finger down one, and found it was a window.

  At the bottom of a pit, where even by daylight only a hint of sunlight could reach, I’d found windows. One of them had a small, round, metal knob.

  It was a door.

  * * *

  I looked above me one last time, up into the darkness where I knew I had an exit, and then I turned the knob. The door pulled toward me on squeaky hinges, and as I stepped through, I found myself in an old, deep tunnel that surrounded the windows of the pit and extended off in two directions. A few dry leaves were scattered along the corners. I scanned my light up the brick wall to where a broken light fixture dangled by its wires.

  A low, mechanical hum came from one end of the tunnel, so I chose that direction, and not long after, a line of light shone from under a door. I pocketed my penlight, listened carefully for a long moment, and turned the knob.

  I blinked at the s
udden light of a tidy, bright lobby, with an elevator on my left and a fragrant bouquet of flowers on a stand to my right. A door was marked STAIRS. The air smelled vaguely of burned popcorn, and I saw a small kitchenette counter with a microwave, a coffee machine, and a minifridge. Easing farther in, I scanned quickly for cameras. There were none.

  Then I looked past the flowers through a large, plateglass window, and my heart went still.

  Rows of sleep shells lined an underground vault, making the spacious room glow with the soft light of their lids.

  “What is this?” I whispered.

  It couldn’t be storage because the sleep shells were on. With a prickling sense of apprehension, I pushed through the door and looked into the closest one. Beneath the curved, glass lid, a young woman lay in a gray gown with a blanket covering her from waist to toes. Soft blond hair spread out around her face onto a white pillow, and her expression was a mask of calm. Her eyes were covered with a thick, transparent gel, and two small tabs were attached at her temples.

  Her chest rose and fell in soft breaths, proving she was alive, but she was completely, perfectly asleep. I turned to the next sleep shell. A teenage boy lay in a similar state. The wispy fuzz of a first beard showed on his jaw, and his cheekbones were prominent, as if he’d been subsisting on an insufficient diet.

  “Can you hear me?” I whispered.

  He didn’t stir. With expanding horror, I looked into the next sleep shell at a child. A kid no more than five or six. He was asleep like all the others, and so small he was dwarfed by his roomy sleep shell. Stunned, I stared at the bleak rows of sleep shells. Over two dozen people were sleeping in the vault. What were they doing here?

  A network of tubes and cords crisscrossed an overhead framework and dropped lines down to each sleep shell. Along the far right-hand wall was another plateglass window and another door. I moved nearer, careful not to bump any of the sleep shells, and peered in at a dark room with a white table. The door opened soundlessly at my touch, and as I reached along the wall for a light switch, I inhaled a familiar scent of vinegar.

  I flipped the light. Three empty surgical tables occupied the center of a complete operating room. Trays of instruments were arranged within easy reach, while lights, monitors, and touch screens bulged on retractable arms from the walls and ceiling. This, I realized, was where Dr. Ash had been operating that night I’d watched Dean Berg advise her from the sixth floor of the dean’s tower.

  As I switched off the light and backed out, the impact of the two rooms hit me. The doctor could operate on everyone here. So could the dean. These people were being stored here on purpose, like living carrion, for the doctor and Dean Berg to mine and seed. What was to stop them from doing the same surgeries to Forge students? To me?

  Jerking my video camera around on its strap, I lifted it quickly and turned it on.

  “I’m under the Forge School,” I narrated in a frantic whisper. I panned the vault, including the entrance to the operating room. “There’s an operating room through there,” I said. I started quickly back the way I’d come, toward the lobby, and I zoomed in on the faces as I passed. One was a young girl with a scar across her forehead. In fact, at least half of them were children.

  I wanted to scream. Stumbling, I knocked into one of the sleep shells, and let out a gasp. The tube connecting to the ceiling swayed, but the boy inside didn’t move.

  You need to go, said my inner voice.

  She was right. I couldn’t get caught down here.

  Even if the dean hadn’t figured out yet where I was, he must have noticed by now that I wasn’t in my dorm. He would be looking for me. I did one last, wide sweep with my video camera, and then I rushed out to the lobby. The elevator and the stairs were no good. I didn’t know where they would lead. Instead, I pushed through the door to the dark tunnel again and used my penlight to guide me back to the pit.

  I slung my camera strap across my shoulder and pushed open the glass door.

  Above me, the cylinder of the pit rose as black as ever. I gripped the light with my teeth again, and started climbing. In my hurry, I forgot to count the rungs. Pulling myself up was ten times harder than coming down. My bad right arm was only strong enough to hold on for a moment while I used my left to draw myself up, and I had to keep testing each rung, fearful of depending on the one that was loose.

  Finally, my hand met the open space at the top of the pit. My heart nearly burst with relief. Grabbing the railing, I heaved myself over onto firm ground. Every one of my muscles was trembling. I took the penlight from my clenched teeth and flicked it off. I licked my dry lips and tried to calm my breathing, but my fear wouldn’t fade.

  Dean Berg had a vault full of living bodies hidden under the Forge School.

  I had just crawled, hand over hand, out of a nightmare.

  27

  TRYST

  I STEPPED TO the door of the clock tower and listened for any noise outside. Parker, Otis, and Linus must be long gone, but I didn’t know where Dean Berg or the security guard was. That guard was an unknown factor. Once before, when I was out of my dorm, the dean hadn’t wanted to get security involved. That could be an advantage for me.

  I knew what would be smartest: taking my footage public. The best way would be to reveal it during the day, on The Forge Show, when hundreds of thousands of viewers were watching. There’d be no way for the dean to undo the exposure, and authorities would have to investigate. All I had to do was make it safely to six o’clock the next morning. Then I could hook up my video camera to one of the big monitors in Media Convergence, and the rest would be cake.

  The only question now was where to hide my video camera so the dean couldn’t find it before morning and erase my footage. I didn’t dare leave it here in the clock tower. Maybe the laundry room would work again. I’d been lucky there before.

  I pushed the door open a crack, and when I saw no one, I crouched low and ran for the rosebushes. I crawled between them on the sandy gravel to where the garden met the quad, and stopped to watch again. The crickets were softer now. The first floor office of the dean’s tower had gone dark, but the penthouse was lit. When the quad stayed clear and quiet, I bolted for the side of the film building.

  Keeping low, I hurried behind the hedge, along the length of the building, and around the corner. I crept into the shadow behind the dumpster. From there, I peeked out. The girls’ dorm was next, across one last open space. I hesitated, watching the shadowed area around the back door, and just as I decided to go for it, a dense shape in the bushes moved slightly. I held still. Someone was hiding across from me.

  I backed up and pulled my walkie-ham out of my pocket. I could barely see the numbers as I dialed to channel four. “Linus?” I whispered, and lifted the speaker to my ear.

  “Hey,” he said. “You’re awake.”

  “Where are you?” I asked.

  “Right outside your dorm, but don’t come down. It’s been a crazy night.”

  “I know,” I said. “I’m already out. I’m right around the corner from you.”

  “Where?”

  “To your left as you face the door. Behind the dumpster.” I peeked around the corner again, and the dark shape shifted in the bushes.

  “Don’t move,” he said, and disconnected.

  I shifted back on my heels and braced a hand on the wall, watching the shadows. A minute later, Linus slid in beside me, behind the dumpster, and I cradled my sore arm close so he wouldn’t bump it.

  “What are you doing out here?” he whispered.

  “You’re not going to believe what I found,” I said. “There’s a vault full of bodies under the school. They’re alive. I don’t know if they’re in comas or what, but there are a couple dozen of them at least, and some of them are kids.”

  “Are you serious?”

  “I found them down the pit in the clock tower. I have it all here, on tape.”

  “Let me see,” Linus said.

  “We don’t have time,” I said. “
I don’t want to get caught here. We need to get this out to the authorities.”

  “Do you want me to take it?” he asked.

  I weighed the idea, uncertain. My video camera might be safer with him. He might be able to give it to the police better than I could.

  “Don’t you trust me?” he asked.

  The question made me doubt. Linus worked for Dean Berg. I’d even seen him in the dean’s penthouse.

  “What would you do with it?” I asked.

  “Whatever you want,” he said. “Better yet, you should come with me.”

  “To Forgetown?” I asked.

  His features were barely discernible in the darkness. “Rosie, if what you say is true, what do you think is going to happen once you show people?” he asked.

  I didn’t have any fear for myself. “Berg is the problem,” I said. But even as I spoke, I knew my evidence was going to bring chaos. The entire school was going to be ripped apart.

  A flashlight beam scanned across the pavement by the dumpster, and I instinctively crouched down farther.

  “Hold still,” Linus whispered.

  But it was already too late.

  “Who’s there?” a man called. His beam slowly scanned the steps to the girls’ dorm, then the bushes, and then returned to outline the dumpster. I didn’t dare breathe. “This is security. Come on out now, before you get hurt.” Footsteps came slowly nearer. “Sandy? You with me? We’ve got a disturbance down here. I think one of your students is out.”

  I felt Linus’s fingers grip mine.

  “I know you’re behind the dumpster,” the guard said. “Come on out of there. There’s no use hiding.”

  My gut instinct was to bolt, but even if I could outrun the guard, the cameras would identify who I was and where I went. I would be caught soon enough. It was smarter to try to talk my way out of this. I started to rise. Linus gripped my hand, keeping me down.

 
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