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The keep of ages, p.26
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       The Keep of Ages, p.26

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  My heart pricks again.

  “See this?” Berg says, nodding toward his computer.

  “Impressive response,” Jules says. “You should attach.”

  “Soon,” Berg says, turning the wire slowly where I can see it. Then he sets it aside and holds up a small jar that contains a shimmering substance, a thick, viscous liquid that seems to flash with miniature lightning. “Guess what this is.”

  “I have no idea,” I say.

  Berg smiles. “This,” he says, “is a failure. A very special failure. It’s a dream seed that I donated myself, but it isn’t purely mine. It’s been mixed with some of your dreams. In other words, it’s a hybrid, with your special kind of resilience. I brought it with me all the way from Iceland.”

  “Why is it a failure?” I ask.

  “Because I’ve tried it already,” he says. “I’ve been seeded with this hybrid to see if it can arrest and repair my Huntington’s, and it didn’t work. Apparently, the damage is already too great.”

  “Then why bring it here?” I ask.

  He tilts the jar, letting the slow liquid flow to one side. “Because it might work in Linus. Or you,” he says. He considers me with a calm, maniacal gleam in his eyes. “You’re my best chance, Rosie. It will be strange starting life over as a teenage girl, but it’ll be better than not existing at all.”

  I am completely stunned. “You’re out of your mind!”

  “I believe you’ve said that before,” Berg says calmly. “And now, Anna, if you would be so kind, pass me the scavenging line. We’ll mine one last sample of her dreams before we introduce the hybrid.”

  “No!” I say. “You can’t! Anna, help me! Kiri!”

  I see a needle catch the light, and Berg tilts my helmet slightly so he can reach the sensitive skin at the back of my left ear. I try to wince away from him, but it’s impossible. He swabs the place with cool disinfectant, and then I feel the sting of the needle entering my skin. Berg turns to his computer again, frowning intently.

  “See here?” Berg says. “We follow the fear in.”

  I hold my breath as the first hungry, feasting nanobots enter my veins, and a rush of anger wars with my fear.

  Arself! Help me!

  Hold tight, she says, and for one unspeakable moment, a cold, grim winter hardens my soul into pure darkness.

  In the next instant, Arself sends an electric tendril of herself through the scavenging line and into the computer. Light knocks me backward.

  Now, says Arself. We’re home.

  My lungs fill with desperate air. I’m starved and exploding at the same time. A flash of molten energy pours through my veins, and next I’m speeding and flashing through a thousand firing circuits along a million electric miles. I’m everything. I’m Arself and myself and every dreamer that ever offered up a shred of dream. Lightning carries me through and around the whole world, and then I’m back to me and Arself, here on this deathbed. My body’s motionless, but I hover, ready for everything, eager, alert, alive.

  Through half a dozen eyes, from different angles, I’m watching the scene in the operating room where time is expanding in slow motion. Berg’s features have barely registered surprise.

  We’ve lost so many of us, Arself says.

  With a pinging noise, we speed through the network and drop by each dark sleep shell in the vault. We gather the fine, ephemeral loss of each dead dreamer into our invisible arms. Then we swirl hugely, galaxy-like, with a golden spiral of wings, and time collapses into the cold, empty space around us. Breathless and wondering, I’m suspended in Arself in a realm beyond answers. I’m aware that my body is back in the operating room where my journey with Arself started, but at the same time, the true essence of me is everywhere else, glimpsing an existence so much bigger than anything I’ve ever imagined. Power and fragility. Connection. Bliss and loneliness. It’s like the stars have come with all their splendor to swirl and live in my own cupped fingers. They’re humming my language. They have secrets to tell me.

  And finally, I get it. Arself doesn’t have to translate it into human words for me because I can feel it. The dreamers were each precious on their own while they lived, but they aren’t individuals anymore. They’re part of us, and they’re safe in the golden wings with Arself and me. For a moment, I grasp this. I know it intuitively, to the roots of me. There’s no separation anymore. We’re us, all belonging and promise. I’m other, finally, like I was always meant to be. I feel a growing sense of victory in Arself, and it’s my victory, too. The starlight in my chest expands to a shimmer, and we breathe in the golden air.

  28

  THE VAULT OF DREAMERS

  FOR ONE BLISSFUL MOMENT, I understand everything, and then a poisonous hiss breaks through my ears. It brings me halfway back.

  There was once a boy named Linus, I think. Or maybe he was a fish and I was a bird.

  You have to return to your body, Arself says. Get back aboveground as soon as you can. It’s not safe in the vault.

  The golden light grows thin at the edges where darkness is seeping in, and then a sharp, vinegary smell smarts up my nose. With a start, I open my eyes.

  The operating room is dim, with only one overhead light on at the back of the room. Hissing blue fog is spraying down from several broken hoses above, making it even harder to see. I can just make out the shapes of the operating tables around me, but not Berg or the other doctors. How much time has passed?

  Twisting my wrist, I’m able to get my right hand free, then I release my left. The helmet is still around my skull, and it weighs heavily as I roll over. I pat my fingers around the helmet until I find a clasp under my chin. As I take it off, it snags in the scavenging line that’s attached in back of my left ear, and I gasp in pain.

  Disconnect that, and we’ll leave the dreamers behind forever, Arself says.

  That’s what you want? I ask, surprised.

  We must. Hurry.

  I check for where the other end of the line is still attached to a machine next to the computer, and the screen shows a burst of yellow and red color, like a sunset but with no horizon. I find the catch and release the line from the machine. The computer goes dark. Carefully, quickly, I tuck the loose end of the scavenger line down the front of my shirt, allowing enough give so that it’s not tugging at my skull where it’s still attached.

  “Linus,” I say, and turn to the next operating table.

  He’s lying motionless. I roll off my table, stumble over to him, and check anxiously behind his ear. No line goes into him, and the skin there is smooth and flat. I’m beyond relieved. Clutching his shirt, I give him a little shake. His body is warm and heavy beneath my touch, but he doesn’t respond.

  “Linus!” I say again.

  I shake him harder. He moans and turns his head slightly. A second moan down near my feet makes me jump, and that’s when I notice Berg, Jules, Anna, and Kiri are slumped on the floor, passed out. Keeping one hand on Linus, I lean down to get a closer look at Kiri, and she’s barely breathing. I look up at the hissing hoses again.

  I don’t understand. If the blue fog is a narcotic strong enough to knock them out, how can I be awake?

  We took care of you, but you can’t linger, Arself says.

  I shove the computer out of the way so I can get a real look at Berg where he lies on the floor. His head is at an unnatural angle against the base of an operating table, and his hand is clutching the opening of his shirt by his neck, as if he was struggling for more air when he went down. I hate this man. I hate everything he’s ever done to me and the people I love. I was prepared to kill him to get free. It seems almost too easy to leave him here and let the gas finish him off.

  A rumbling noise comes from deep in the stone around me. With a sense of dread, I recall that the narcotic gas is flammable. If it ignites, we won’t stand a chance.

  Let’s go! Arself says.

  I spin back to Linus and try to lift him from the table, but he’s as heavy as a sack of concrete. Or maybe I’m
just weak.

  You have to help me, I say. You helped me carry Dubbs before.

  A surge of adrenaline races through me and gives me a burst of strength. I grab Linus under the arms, hug his back against me, and haul him off the table, wincing when the heels of his shoes smash to the floor. Then I drag him backward out of the operating room. In the hallway, where the air is clearer, I hitch him up again, and he moans.

  “Wake up!” I tell him. “Breathe!”

  His head only lolls to the other side. A burn of heat moves through my arms, making me stronger, and I drag him farther along the hallway, toward the vault. He is such a load. It’s all I can do to keep us moving. As I reach the archway, though, a noxious smell makes me stop. I sag with Linus to the floor, and I gaze, aghast, into the vault.

  Half of the sleep shells have gone dark, and nearly all of the rest have their red lights on. Out of the entire room, out of hundreds, only half a dozen are still normal with their blue lids. Along the floor, the cloudy purple vapor has expanded into drifts that eddy slowly around the bases of the sleep shells. The effect is surreal. From above, around the oculus, a thin shower of dust trickles down as if the ceiling is set to crumble.

  Linus moans in my arms and collapses inward as he coughs.

  I give him another shake and peer into his face. “Linus. You have to wake up,” I say. “We have to get out of here.”

  “Rosie?” he says, his voice croaking. He tilts his head and blinks at me.

  My relief is instantly chased by a new jolt of desperation. I get my shoulder into his armpit, grab him around the back, and haul him to his feet.

  “Hold on to me,” I say.

  He can barely stand, but having him up is better than dragging him.

  “Where’s Berg?” he asks.

  I don’t bother to look behind us.

  “Dead,” I say. “Or soon to be. Come on.”

  I’m about to guide Linus down the steps into the vault when a clank comes from across the room. I freeze, and then I push Linus against the archway to brace him there. He’s breathing heavily and his eyes struggle to focus, but he doesn’t question my erratic movements. I peer across the vault and discern, far on the other side, Whistler wheeling his cart among the dreamers.

  In his gray coveralls, he’s whistling a tuneless melody. His headlamp casts a thin beam around the dark cavern. A gas mask covers his mouth and adds to his buglike appearance. He’s parking his cart next to a sleep shell, one of the unlit ones. He opens the lid, reaches in, and gently lifts out a limp child. He sets the child on his cart, covers the body with a gray sheet, and closes the sleep shell lid again. Then he shifts around the cart, gets a grip on the handle, lowers his head, and starts wheeling the cart toward the twelve o’clock archway.

  A shiver runs through me. Is he even aware of what happened in the operating room? He vanishes through the twelve o’clock arch, and the faint rumble of his wheels fades away into the tunnel.

  “Is it safe?” Linus asks quietly.

  We have to go through the same arch Whistler just did. And come to think of it, I have no idea where Ian is, either.

  “No,” I say.

  I still have Linus leaned up against the wall, and though he’s bearing his weight on his legs, he’s unsteady and his arm is heavy across my shoulders. Two hundred steps is what it will take, I estimate, to cross the vault to the twelve o’clock arch, and we have no time to waste. Another trickle of dust falls from the ceiling. It feels like the whole place is shifting.

  “Are you ready?” I ask Linus.

  He nods and straightens. “Yes.”

  I step down into the vault with him and guide him between the sleep shells. I warn myself not to look down at the dreamers’ faces, but in the hollow stillness, I can almost hear them breathing, the ones that are still alive. An eerie vibe emanates from them, as if they’re attuned to us. We pass a dozen dark sleep shells, and then, despite myself, I can’t help looking into the next lit sleep shell, one with a red warning light above it.

  The dreamer is a child with a pale, empty face, and his hands are clutched together under his chin in mute supplication. I take one more step, and another, still supporting Linus, but I can’t look away from the little boy. Wisps of brown hair cling to his forehead, and his eyelids are motionless under their smears of gel. He’s still breathing, this dreamer, and he’s doing it with all his heart.

  As I hesitate, torn, an uncanny, choral whisper rises from the dreamers around me: Stay with us.

  The sibilance ripples away into nothing.

  My feet freeze to the floor. My heart locks in my chest. I can keep Linus upright, but I can’t move. I can hardly breathe. I don’t want to look into the next sleep shell, a dark one, but I can feel it pulling my gaze like a duty. I know what lonesome suffering I’ll see before I see it. I know what the voices will say. And then they whisper again, all of them.

  Stay.

  As the whisper dissolves away toward the walls, a swish through the fog at my knees reveals the long, slick back of a swimming fish. Logic is gone, replaced by fear. The fish is surreal, perfect, and petrifying.

  Why is this happening? I beg Arself.

  They’re jealous. They don’t want to let us go.

  I search the fog, knowing the fish is coming back for me.

  “Rosie!” Linus says into my ear. He yanks me forward a step. “Come on!”

  I feel him tugging me, but I’m awkward and stiff, like my puppet limbs have turned to wood. Dream wood.

  “Arself!” he yells. “Are you controlling her? Let her go!”

  I’m one of them, I think. I’ve always been one of them, stronger asleep than awake. The dark fish is circling back again, with a rustling crescendo, until I feel it brush the back of my legs. The dreamers smile. I know they do. I don’t have to look at them to understand.

  Linus drags me into his arms and squeezes me so tightly I gasp in pain.

  “Rosie!” he says urgently. “Stay with me! Do you hear me? Don’t give in to them!”

  For a moment, I’m able to see him clearly again. I focus on his good eye, the one that gleams with blistering fury. It’s real. He’s real. I lift my hands to Linus’s chest and grip his shirt. This is me. This will be me, I tell myself. Awake. Alive. I tug him even closer and feel the crush of his arms.

  “Promise me this is real,” I say.

  “Of course it is!”

  He frowns at me, and then his lips meet mine. It’s an answer. A shock. A silence descends around us and I’m alone with him in a private, wordless space. Everything else vanishes—the fish, the fog, and the agonizing pleas of the dreamers—leaving just me alone and alive with him.

  An instant later, the silence disintegrates, and I hear another trickle of dust spatter down on the nearest sleep shell. Linus loosens his arms enough that I remember to breathe. With my next gulp of air, my vision returns with startling clarity. We’re surrounded by sleep shells and rising purple fog. The oculus above is still a dark circle, but the fish has retreated.

  I can’t believe we’re standing here, wasting precious time. Whistler could return any second. What if the whole place collapses or explodes?

  “Come on!” I say. “We need to get out of here!”

  I point toward the twelve o’clock arch, grip Linus’s hand, and lurch into a run. He’s right with me, awkward but mobile again. We reach the arch, hurry along the tunnel to the steps, and start up. At the top, I dart around the dome to where my sister’s stone waits in the nook of the next staircase, and I grab it as we pass. I lead Linus up the spiral stairs, too, scrambling in the dimness. At the top, I shove aside the curtain in the janitor’s closet with a plastic rattling. We hurry through the cafeteria, into the green room, and up the next set of stairs.

  When we reach the VIP portal hallway, I have to pause to catch my breath. The air is dry and dusty, but we’re almost out.

  “Are you all right?” I ask Linus.

  “Keep going.”

  In a few more h
eadlong steps, I reach the outer door and pull it open onto the Main Drag. Cool night air surrounds me, brushing along my warm cheeks, and I catch a whiff of smoke. Moonlight shines on the cobblestones, and I have never been so happy to be alive.

  29

  LOST AND FOUND

  “WE MADE IT. We’re out!” I say. It’s almost more than I can believe. The world we left below felt impossibly dark and intricate, a haunting, murky mess of nightmares. I have to touch my hand to the doorjamb to feel its solidity against my shaky fingers. I turn back to Linus. “We did it.”

  “Are you really all right?” he asks. Gently, he touches the medical line that’s still attached behind my ear. “Did Berg mine you again?”

  I make sure the line is still tucked into my shirt. “I don’t really know. Arself brought me out of it. She saved us. We can talk about it later. Now we have to get to my parents.”

  “You said Berg was dead? What about the doctors?”

  “I left them back in the operating room,” I say. “They were all unconscious from a narcotic that was pouring out of some busted hoses. Listen, we have to go. Ian’s still out there somewhere.”

  Linus turns toward the keep. “Where’s Burnham?”

  “I don’t know,” I say.

  I pull out my phone and try Burnham. While it rings, I search both ways along the Main Drag, which is as dark and deserted as before. A twitch of movement catches my attention, but it’s just a tumbleweed that’s lodged lightly against an old bench. Burnham’s number switches over to voicemail.

  “He’s not answering,” I say.

  “He’s probably waiting at the gift shop in the Backwoods Forest,” Linus says. “Where are your parents?”

  “They’re in the Lost and Found, over near the main entrance. They’re in bad shape.”

  A rumble under my feet sets me off balance, and I instinctively grab for Linus. He’s unsteady, too. Something rattles in the shop next door.

  “Is that an earthquake?” I ask, alarmed.

 
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