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The keep of ages, p.25
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       The Keep of Ages, p.25

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  I push it open. My ballet flats brush over broken glass as I enter, and I’m careful to step wide.

  “Ma?” I call.

  The place smells of rubbish and rain, but also of something sharper, a hint of chemicals. I glance up to see a sagging ceiling, and a cricket chirps. Knowing this place is devoid of working security cameras, I take a chance with my flashlight and cast the beam around. A moldy mural of a tree with cheery woodland animals stands behind a short table shaped like a ladybug. An inner door along the back wall is closed. I step softly over and try the knob. This one is locked, too, and the door has no window. I press my ear to the door and hear a faint hum. I have to get in there.

  I throw my shoulder against the door. It holds, but it creaks enough to give me hope. A splintered seam has appeared near the hinge side. I back up a couple paces and rush at it again, barreling into the wood with all my might. The door bursts inward, its hinges busted, and I stagger into the next room.

  Two sleep shells are parked along the far wall with pale blue lights illuminating their curved glass lids. A sourness laces the air, and even as I hurry close, I’m thinking, Please, no. Don’t let them be dead. I stare anxiously into the first one and my heart stops.

  It’s Ma. Her pale profile is a motionless mask.

  As I push open the lid, the ghastly sourness is even stronger.

  “Ma,” I say, leaning close to hug her.

  She’s warm. That’s the first miracle. Her cheeks and arms are warm to my touch. I nearly start to cry. Her eyes are closed, but she’s breathing. That’s the next miracle. She’s breathing. She’s alive! My heart zigzags with joy.

  Rapidly, I check her over. She has an IV line going into her hand, but the pouch of fluids above her has gone dry. No catheter is coming out of her, and no pads are on her temples. She’s still in street clothes, a summer dress and sandals, with no restraints on her, as if she were dumped there carelessly with no concern for her comfort or fear of her resistance. I stare again at her wan features, her dry lips. Has she been left like this for six days? Seven now?

  How can she still be alive?

  “Ma!” I say again, gripping her shoulders. She doesn’t respond. I look over at the next sleep shell, where Larry’s burly form gleams in the blue glow. I shove up his lid, and he’s in the same condition as Ma: unresponsive but breathing. They’re both alive. But sour, so sour, like they’re spoiling.

  I check for poop but don’t see any. There’s some dried urine on Larry’s pants, maybe, but the odor is different, more like raw garlic. People can’t decay when they’re still alive. Can they?

  I have to get them out of here. I hurry back to Ma and try holding up her eyelid and shining my light inside. Her pupil contracts slightly, but she doesn’t respond otherwise.

  “What has he done to you?” I whisper, as cold anger replaces my first relief.

  Whatever sick way he’s managed it, Berg has drugged my parents into a long-term sleep. I have to believe it’s not something worse.

  I try calling Linus first, but he doesn’t answer. He must be underground. Burnham doesn’t answer, either.

  How am I going to get them out of here? Ma probably outweighs me by fifty pounds. Even if I could drag her out of here, I’d still need help with Larry.

  “Ma,” I say again, giving her another shake.

  Her head lolls limply on her neck. I can’t think why Berg would leave her and Larry here like this, in this dark hole. Why didn’t he put them down in the vault with the rest of the dreamers where they could at least be watched over by the doctors? His cruelty shouldn’t astound me anymore, but it does.

  Arself, I say sharply in my head. Where are you? We need help.

  We told you. We need to connect again. We can’t do anything like this.

  I need Linus and Burnham, I say. Do you know where they are?

  We would if we were connected.

  I gnash my teeth in frustration. Take a guess, I say.

  Burnham is probably still in the keep. Linus was following Berg, who was heading down to Negative One. This is nothing more than I know myself, I say. Can’t you help me at all?

  We can optimize your path to VIP Portal Number Twenty-two, factoring in the darkness to avoid detection.

  Is that where Berg went?

  Yes. Then we want to connect to the dreamers again.

  I assume she means getting back on a computer, like we did in the keep when she took over my fingers and raced my eyeballs over the screens. I have no desire to put her in charge again.

  Still, I can’t exactly lie to Arself with a false promise.

  “We’ll see,” I say aloud. “Okay? That’s the best I can do. We’ll see.”

  Deep silence widens for a moment in the back of my brain. Then I feel a tingle in my right palm. I lift my hand, and as I watch, a faint, glowing, gold line appears in the soft skin of my hand. The light has a slight heft to it, like a string, and as I give a slight tug, the line of light extends out of my hand to the floor in front of my feet and travels forward, out the door and around the corner.

  I know the string of light can’t truly exist, but that doesn’t matter. Arself has created it in my mind and superimposed it onto my palm so that it leads into the landscape of Grisly.

  I take another look at my parents. They’re still breathing, still sleeping. They have no idea I’ve found them, and somehow that twists me up.

  If I leave them, will I see them again? I ask.

  We don’t know the future.

  It’s up to me. I’m the only one who can decide. With an ache of fear, I close Larry’s lid again, and then my mother’s.

  “I’ll be back,” I promise.

  Then I lift my palm before me and follow the string of golden light out the door of the Lost and Found.

  The night is cooler than before, and a breeze rustles the leaves of a tree to my right. I reach the corner and look left, along the Main Drag. The nearest security lamp illuminates the unicorn statue as before. The others drop their cones of light on the pavement, making blurry circles of gray, while the rest of the park is black. My string of light gleams faintly up the Main Drag, swerving into the deeper shadows. If I shift my hand away from it, the string disappears, but if I direct my hand back in the right direction, it lights up again, and my palm feels a trace of weight.

  Following my string, I sneak along the left sidewalk close to the storefronts. Then I cross the street through a patch of darkness and take the right sidewalk until I near the gift shop where Berg and Ian parted. The string of light runs under an unmarked door between the gift shop and a cookie bakery.

  This must be VIP Portal Number Twenty-Two, I think.

  When I push the door open, the string of golden light continues down a hallway toward a landing with an elevator and a staircase. I follow, and when the string veers right, toward the stairs, I descend a couple of flights to a VIP green room, barely visible by the red glow of an exit sign. A shadowy shape makes me jump before I realize it’s a pair of fake ficus trees. A sagging couch, gray with dust, is the only other furniture.

  Trying the next door, I peek cautiously out to a large, quiet food court. Chairs are clustered around tables, and many still have trays, as if the evacuation twenty years ago was a spell that froze everything in its wake. A curving bank of dirty windows faces into a dark, oddly shaped void, and it takes me a second to realize it’s the underground level of the moat, now empty of water.

  Spooky hallways lead off in various directions, and I scan them quickly for movement. I can’t help worrying that Berg or someone else might jump out at me. A detailed directory lists rehearsal rooms, the grand assembly, security, tech headquarters, archives, press, costumes, makeup, and future idea development. This place is huge.

  I slowly wave my hand in an arc, left to right, expecting the string of light to catch on my palm again.

  This is where the pathway bifurcates, Arself says. We can’t guide you any farther.

  I shine my flashlight onto the
floor to where a trail of scuff marks in the dust leads around the moat. I follow them to a door that is slightly ajar, and inside, I find a janitor’s closet. A faint whirring noise comes from behind a plastic curtain, and where a large sink or tub might typically be, I find instead a narrow spiral staircase leading down.

  I was expecting something different, I say. Bigger. For the bodies.

  There must be another entrance for them.

  Yet this must be the way Berg came, and Linus must have followed. Uneasy, I aim my flashlight along the stairs and creep down. Already, I miss the guidance of Arself’s golden string. Two dozen steps down, the whirring noise grows slightly louder, and the spiral ends at a straight, narrow, stone staircase. When I reach the bottom of the next flight, I’m at a small landing with a round window, and it looks out over the vault of dreamers.

  With a hitch of relief, I recognize where I am.

  I’ve reached the upper ledge of the dome, the circular hallway with the eight round windows. The oculus is dark at the apex, and I can feel air pushed by a nearby vent into the vast space. When I look back behind me, the staircase is dark and indistinguishable from other warrens I saw down here before. I can’t afford to lose it, so I check my pockets for something I can use as a marker.

  My fingers close on the smooth black stone Dubbs gave me. I set it in the nook of the bottom stair. Then I look more carefully down into the vault, hoping to spot Berg without being seen myself. The sleep shells, hundreds of them, are still arranged in concentric circles in the cavernous space below, but now the floor shifts with a thin layer of purple fog. A dozen scattered sleep shells have their red distress lights on.

  Two dozen others have gone dark completely, and they stand out as black voids in the expanse of blue.

  A wail starts up in the back of my mind. I press my fingers to my ears, but the inner lament only grows louder.

  Arself! Stop! I say.

  No! she says. This can’t be happening!

  Anxiety barrels through me like boulders in an avalanche.

  Go! she says. Get down there! Go, go, go!

  I turn to race down the steps. What is it? What’s happening?

  But she doesn’t answer. She’s transformed into a wordless, high-pitched keening, and it’s all I can do not to hyperventilate with her fear.

  I sprint out of the twelve o’clock archway to the nearest dark sleep shell, half hoping it will simply be empty, but when I look inside, a body lies stretched out, a boy with dark hair and eyebrows. Arself howls in my mind. At my feet, the purple fog shifts silently.

  “How can this be?” I whisper.

  Instinctively, I push up the glass lid to get a closer look, and a noxious reek wafts out at me. It’s different from the sourness that clung to Ma and Larry, more ominous. I hold my breath. The kid’s gray skin is stretched paper-thin, and his gelled eyes are unnaturally sunken into his skull. His dry lips are slightly pulled back from his little teeth in a rotting grimace. Desperate, I inspect the line that goes into the child’s port, but I don’t know how to tell if it’s flowing right.

  Close the lid! It’s no use! Arself says.

  I obey her, sealing the boy back inside his coffin.

  “Is he dead?” I whisper.

  Of course he’s dead! she says.

  “But what happened?” I say. I stare at the cadaver through the glass, bewildered and horrified. “These dreamers were alive just two days ago.”

  I look around again at how many sleep shells have gone dark. It’s more than a dozen. I can see close to twenty, just from here, and the magnitude is bewildering. Nothing before ever convinced me so completely that the dreamers are alive until now, when I’ve found one dead.

  It’s all my fault! Arself says. Her agonized cry starts up again.

  I press my ears again and bend over with the pain of her noise in my head.

  Arself, stop! I think at her. This isn’t your fault. You weren’t even here.

  They died because I left!

  Eyes closed, I shake my head. “You have to stop! I can’t think!”

  She stops so abruptly I feel like I’ve lost my hearing. I open my eyes. All the nearest sleep shells have red lights above them now. The soft whirring of the fan in the oculus is the only sound. Another red light goes on nearby, and another.

  The dreamers know I’m here. I’ve disturbed them. We’ve disturbed them. A dull thump comes from my left, and when I look over, a hand is pressed to the glass lid of a nearby sleep shell, one with a red light. I step over to look inside just as the hand slips down, leaving a sweaty smudge. Inside, the dreamer’s face is slack. He’s a young man, not much older than me. He has the same gelled eyes and blank expression as all the rest, but I have to believe he was signaling to me.

  “We have to help them, Arself,” I say. “What can we do? Tell me.”

  Her anxiety buzzes inside me like a subterranean swarm of bees, but I can’t decipher a clear train of thought.

  Then I hear a popping noise, and a sharp pinch stings my neck.

  My head whips toward the sound, and near the nine o’clock arch, Berg is lowering a small tranquilizer gun. My fear skyrockets. I touch my fingers to the sting and pull a small dart out of my skin, along with a smear of blood. I duck behind the nearest sleep shell, but it’s already too late. A fizzing slowness is invading my blood.

  No! Arself says. Not this. Run, Rosie! Don’t let him get us!

  A rush of jacked-up adrenaline courses through my veins. For a moment, it seems to negate the effects of the tranquilizer, but when I try to take a step away, I sag to the floor, landing on my hands and knees. A fluff of purple mist drifts away from my hands.

  “She’s over here,” Berg calls.

  His footsteps grow louder, and then he’s standing above me, a grim, loathsome man. His sandy blond hair is haloed in blue by the light from the nearest sleep shell. His glassy, piggish eyes seem paler than ever, and the fine ridges of his lips and nose stand out in sharp detail.

  “You should have answered my calls,” he says.

  I cringe, trying to crawl away from him under the sleep shell, but he moves nearer, planting his shoe in front of my face. I am not going to be in Berg’s power again. I can’t let this happen. I’d rather die.

  As my cheek slumps against the floor, I breathe in the vinegary taste of the mist.

  Help me! I say to Arself, pleading.

  Whatever you do, don’t tell him we’re here, she says.

  I can barely answer her. I might not have a choice.

  We’ll have a choice. Be strong.



  HEAVY AND LIMP, I’m unable to resist as Berg picks me up, but I muster the last of my strength and swipe my fingernails at his face.

  He reels back. “Stop that,” he says, and crushes my arm down.

  I wince at the pain, but I’m pleased to see a narrow stripe of blood rising on his left cheek, marring his ruddy complexion. He carries me in his arms like a giant baby, and I manage to turn my face away from his chest. This is exactly what I didn’t want to have happen. Why was I so stupid?

  Berg stalks toward the nine o’clock arch, and with my last glimpse of the vault of dreamers, I notice that more of the lights have turned red. When Berg carries me around the corner into the operating room, I see Linus stretched out on one of the operating tables. His eyes are closed and he’s not moving. My heart sinks. Berg lowers me onto the neighboring table and ties my wrists down, but not before I see the three other doctors busy with prep. Anna, beside Linus, is putting on surgical gloves. Jules taps the computer. Kiri closes an incubator at the back of the room with a soft thud and turns toward us. The only one missing is Whistler.

  “Tell Ian we found her,” Berg says. “He can come down and join us.”

  “He’s having fun with the special effects,” Jules says.

  “He’ll want to see her. Tell him to come down,” Berg says.

  Jules reaches for a phone and speaks quietly into it.

/>   “You need to let me go,” I say. “Linus, too. You can’t keep us down here.” I turn to Kiri. “Shouldn’t you be helping the other dreamers? Are you just going to let them all die out there?”

  “It’s too late for them,” Kiri says softly. “We’ll get others.”

  “Knock her out,” Anna says. “Let’s be done with it.”

  “No. I want you to see what I can do,” Berg says. “She’s better conscious, and since this is going to be the last time, we have to make it count.”

  Fear runs through me. “Don’t listen to him,” I say. “He’s a monster. You don’t have to do what he says. Let me go!”

  “Work yourself up,” Berg says. “Go on.”

  I grit my teeth and pull against my restraints. “He’s going to ruin all of this for the rest of you,” I say to Anna and Kiri. “All of your work. The police are going to come.”

  “The police don’t care,” Anna says.

  “Anna? The helmet, please,” Berg says.

  I wrench my head to the side, but Berg firmly tips my head up and Anna settles a helmet around my skull. It’s the same kind of helmet Berg has used on me before, and my stomach rolls with nausea. The rubber nubs are settled into my ears, and I hear the winch as he tightens the padding. Each small, fidgety adjustment heightens my panic.

  You have to me help me! I say to Arself.

  She doesn’t reply.

  Berg turns to his computer console and touches the keypad. A dozen different prongs extend in from the helmet until they touch my scalp and prickle into my skin. I don’t remember them from before, and they hurt. The glare of white lights from above makes me squint.

  “Too tight?” Anna asks.

  “No, that’s just right,” Berg says. Then he turns to me. “I want you to think of something that frightens you. Like the fact that I have your parents hidden away here at Grisly. They’re not doing well.”

  My heart leaps in terror.

  “Very good,” Berg says.

  “You’re despicable,” I say.

  He lifts a thin wire before his face and inspects the end. With gloved fingers, he screws a tiny, flexible needle onto the wire. “Now I want you to think about Linus. Our very own Linus, right here beside you.”

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