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The vault of dreamers, p.26
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.26

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  Cameras. They were my best tools now. I simply had to use them right, and I still had one video camera I had never checked. Several posts around the rose garden had button cameras on them, and I found the nearest one and spoke directly to it.

  “Linus, if you want to talk, I’m heading to the observatory.”

  Burying my hands in my pockets, I lowered my head into the wind and headed east out of the quad. I could never pass behind the art building without remembering my first kiss, but today the sight of the wooden spools left me wistful.

  I didn’t want loneliness. I didn’t want longing.

  I strode down the pasture path without waving to Otis in his tower, and I headed up the little knoll to stare at the place where Burnham and I had climbed the observatory. The ladder was gone. Even the holes where it had been bracketed to the stone had been filled, since yesterday, with tidy patch.

  Slowly, I closed in on the place where we’d fallen, searching for the exact paver where Burnham had hit his head. No grizzly hint of blood remained. I paused with the toes of my shoes aimed at two pavers, undecided. Resentful. I wanted to at least be able to blame a specific stone.

  So pick one, she said.

  I wiped the end of my nose with my sleeve and sniffed. Picking one wasn’t the same as knowing. I wanted certainty, and I wasn’t getting it.

  A flapping noise drew my gaze upward, and a dove flew feet-first toward a nook in the eaves. I strode closer and nearly tripped on a ladder that lay in the grass. It wasn’t the heavy, old one that had been removed from the wall, but a lighter, portable kind that a worker would use.

  Go on, said my voice.

  I pictured how bad it would be if I grew dizzy halfway up the ladder, and I rubbed my tender right elbow. How do I know you won’t mess with my balance? I asked.

  She shifted faintly. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it in the pit.

  That was reassuring, in a twisted sort of way.

  The road to Forgetown was still empty, so I turned toward another small camera, this one on the wall of the observatory.

  “Parker,” I said clearly. “If you’re watching, tell Linus to come talk to me. I want to see him. He’ll listen to you.”

  Wrangling the ladder up against the observatory, I bounced it a couple times to settle it on steady footing. I looked up the length of the ladder, eyeing the shiny rungs, and started up. My right elbow still hindered me. I’d gone up half a dozen rungs when the ladder did an infinitesimal shift and I froze, waiting to see if it would slip farther. Beneath me, the ground tilted. A muffled cooing noise came from somewhere above me.

  Then the tingling began, and the first hint of dizziness.

  “No,” I said, wrapping my arms around the ladder. You said you wouldn’t make me dizzy.

  That’s not me.

  Then help me, I said. I focused hard on the rung directly before my face, waiting while a fringe of blackness crowded the edge of my sight. Make it stop, I said.

  Then let me, she said.

  I quit fighting and closed my eyes. A sharp, driving pain scraped through my brain. For a vivid instant, I saw the stiff body of a dead man hanging from a noose, and then he imploded into a cloud of black particles. They shimmered, swirled once, and were gone.

  I should have felt wildly unstable on the ladder, but instead, I felt solid again. Purged. Healed.

  “What just happened?” I asked aloud.

  Pesky garbage. It’s gone now, the voice said.

  I rested my cheek on the cool rung of the ladder. She wasn’t the chattiest inner voice, but she made sense to me. Am I hallucinating you, or are you my subconscious?

  Ours, she answered. Our subconscious.

  That fit. I smiled, satisfied.

  I moved steadily up the ladder to the dome level, and then up the second, shorter ladder to the satellite dish. As I leaned into the dish, another gust of wind messed my hair, and light reflected brightly in the concave shape. The duct tape and plastic protecting I had secured around the camera were awkward to unwrap, but I worked the camera free and returned with it to the dome level.

  Sitting with my back to the sloping dome, I checked curiously through the footage. The video camera had captured one long, uninterrupted, two-week sequence of sky, from the day I’d turned it on until the camera had run out of memory and shut itself off. The summary bar of the video showed alternating light and dark stripes, for the days and nights, with cloud cover and rain. I turned up the little speaker on the camera and skimmed my finger back and forth along the footage, listening for audio spikes, where I slowed the audio to regular speed.

  I heard bird noises, bongs from the clock tower, and occasional trucks. Nothing special. It shouldn’t have been a letdown, but it was. Another audio spike fell in a nighttime segment, and I switched it to normal speed and lifted the camera to my ear.

  A guy’s voice came in, thin with a poor connection, but just audible.

  “I’m in the lookout tower. You should see these stars,” he said.

  A girl answered him even more quietly. “Are you still upset about Paige and the face app?”

  It was Linus and me, I realized, surprised. It took me another second to recognize our first conversation on the walkie-hams.

  “Guys don’t get upset. Besides, you were right. It wasn’t really your fault. Gorge on Forge took down the footage of me, for what that’s worth. Are you awake every night?”

  “Yes. Since the fifty cuts. I skip my pill.”

  “You know that defeats the whole purpose, right? I mean, it’s great to be able to talk to you, but you have to sleep for your creativity to go into full effect.”

  “I know that’s what they say, but I’m not so sure that’s the reason. Why did you say that thing about how I’m safe as long as I stay in bed?”

  “Because students who leave their beds get sent home. I don’t want that happening to you.”

  The conversation kept going, and I listened, spellbound. How nice Linus sounded. I had been so eager and excited to talk to him back then. It was strange that I’d ended up getting caught out of my bed, just like he’d warned me against. If I had listened to him, things would have turned out so differently. I never would have known about the vault.

  When the conversation finally ended, I stared, stupefied, at the video camera in my hands. Another truth sank in. Just as the walkie-hams could pick up a rogue transmission, like mine had during the time I had overheard the dean and Huma, they could also transmit a conversation out to the airwaves. This video camera had picked up the transmissions via the satellite dish, which meant it would have been child’s play for the dean to tap the same airwaves and listen in. In fact, all he would have needed was a third walkie-ham on the same channel. I should have thought of this before.

  My nighttime conversations with Linus had never been private. All those times I’d poured out my heart and worried and questioned, we hadn’t been alone. I felt so stupid. What else had I said into my walkie-ham over the past few weeks? Everything. Assuming Dean Berg had listened in, I had never had any secrets from him. Not one.

  It must have been so easy for the dean to play me, all this time. Did Linus know? He could have been part of the game this whole time. He worked for Dean Berg. Or he used to. Or maybe he still did, and they were only pretending Linus was fired.

  “Rosie? Are you still up there?”

  I glanced over the edge.

  Linus was down below, gazing up.

  30

  REAL USE

  WITH THE FORESHORTENED angle and his hands on his hips, he looked annoyed, but not any more annoyed than I felt myself.

  “What are you doing?” he demanded. “Do you have a death wish or something?”

  “I had to get a video camera,” I said, sliding the band over my wrist.

  He braced both hands on the ladder. “I can’t believe they let you go up there. Are you getting this, Otis? Are you asleep, Bones? You should have sent someone to bring her down.”

 
I don’t need any rescuing,” I said, and I turned again to descend backward. I moved carefully but quickly down the ladder, without the least bit of vertigo. My inner voice had fixed the problem entirely.

  As my foot met the earth, Linus pivoted me into his arms. He had a new scratch on his cheek and a scab on his lower lip from last night.

  “What did you think you were doing?” he said. “You could have fallen again.”

  “I’m not going to live my life afraid of ladders,” I said.

  “You have a dizziness problem. When are you going to realize that?” he said.

  “You don’t have to shake me,” I said. “Why are you even holding me if you’re mad?”

  His lips pressed together in a line, but his grip on me turned gentle. “I’m not mad. I’m here to say goodbye. I’m leaving.”

  I went very still. Then I touched my fingers softly to his jacket. “Is this because of me? Because of last night?” I asked.

  Linus shook his head.

  “Yes, it is,” I said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

  “It’s nothing complicated,” he said. “Otis wants me to stay, but there aren’t any decent jobs in Forgetown. I can’t work here anymore, and I don’t count getting bled for Parker as a real job, so I’m moving on.”

  “Where will you go?”

  “I’m heading back to St. Louis,” he said. “I can get a ride there later today with a trucker who’s coming through.”

  “You mean Amby?”

  I felt his hands slide lightly down my arms, but he didn’t let me go completely.

  “I might have been wrong about Amby,” Linus said. “I haven’t found any proof about his deliveries. I shouldn’t have told you about that. It just gave you ideas.”

  I let out a brief laugh. “It didn’t give me ideas.”

  “Something sure did,” he said. He stepped back then and released me. “You know what I keep thinking about? I can’t help wondering what would have happened if you’d given me your video camera last night when I asked.”

  “I should have,” I said. “That was a mistake.”

  “But you didn’t trust me.” He slid a hand in his back pocket. “Isn’t that funny? When it came right down to it, you trusted the security guard more than you trusted me. I keep telling myself it’s just as well. If I’d taken your camera, I would have watched your footage, and this way, I never have to know for certain how much you made up.”

  “I didn’t make it up,” I said slowly. “Everything I’ve ever told you is true.”

  “No. It was a good story,” he said. “It definitely got me to care about you, but let’s be real now.”

  I searched his eyes. “You’ve never believed me? All this time?”

  “Actually, I did something worse,” he said. “I believed in you. That was my mistake.”

  I tried to think about it from his perspective, but a tight, aching ball in my chest was making it hard for me to breathe. “Then you think I’m crazy. That I imagine things.”

  “Don’t we all?” he asked quietly.

  I took a step back. My fingers felt suddenly cold, and the video camera slid heavily down my wrist. “I know the difference between imagination and reality, Linus.”

  “Come on,” he said. “If you could just admit it once, maybe we could still at least be friends,” he said.

  I choked on a laugh of astonishment. “Friends? Crazy things are happening at this school. Crazy things. But that doesn’t mean I’m the crazy one.”

  “Rosie, wait. No one said you’re crazy.”

  “Don’t patronize me. That’s exactly what you meant.”

  “I just want you to admit that you make things up,” he said.

  He reached for me again but I winced away, hugging my sore elbow.

  “I don’t make things up,” I said. “All this time, I thought you wanted to help me, but now that I think of it, you’ve been no help at all.”

  He dropped his voice. “You can’t really think that. I just lost my job because of last night.”

  “But you came because I amused you. You came looking to kiss me,” I said accusingly. “You didn’t come to be of any real use.”

  His eyes hardened and his jaw clamped shut. For one last second, he seemed to consider, and then he threw out his hand. “You want me to be of real use? Then be honest. Quit being so cautious. Tell people what you really think is going on here. I’ve listened to your stories. I’ve kept your secrets. Go on. You’ve got a whole world of viewers out there.” He gestured even wider. “What’s so evil about the Forge School? What’s going on here, Rosie?”

  There it was. I’d resisted my chance when I was before the trustees, but Linus’s goading hit at a deeper level.

  “I believe Dean Berg is doing experiments on us,” I said. “I think he mines us for dreams while we sleep, against our will.”

  I could feel the cameras aimed at me and the microphones picking up every word. It was terrifying and exhilarating.

  Linus urged me on. “Students like you?”

  “Maybe not all of the students, but some of us for sure, and certainly me,” I said. “And he seeds us, too. He plants ideas in us. It doesn’t show right away. It doesn’t seem to hurt or do any damage at first, but it made me dizzy enough to fall off that ladder yesterday.”

  “When you fell with Burnham,” Linus said.

  I nodded. “People are killing themselves when they leave here. They’re never the same.”

  “What you’re talking about would involve brain surgery, wouldn’t it?” Linus asked.

  “It’s a kind of microsurgery with lasers, I think. Dean Berg studied medicine when he was younger,” I said. “Dr. Ash helps him. They have an operating room under the school. They can wheel our sleep shells there at night and bring us back to the dorm before morning without us ever knowing.”

  “So it’s completely secret,” Linus said.

  “Yes, but the worst thing, the thing I discovered last night, is that he has a whole extra supply of sleeping bodies he can use for experiments,” I said. “Dozens. He has dozens of children stashed in a vault under the school, all asleep.”

  “You mean, in comas?” Linus said.

  I felt him guiding me forward with his questions, as if he were beckoning me toward him across a tightrope.

  “I don’t know what they’re in, exactly,” I said. “Possibly comas. They’re definitely alive.”

  “And how did you find them?”

  “I skipped my pill. I stayed awake. I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I did.” I pointed in the direction of the quad, beyond the nearest buildings. “I found the sleeping children down the pit in the clock tower.”

  “Everything you’ve discovered, you discovered at night?” he asked. His voice had turned unexpectedly gentle. “When you were supposed to be sleeping?”

  “That’s right. I tried to take video footage for proof, but it all got erased.”

  “So you’re the only one who’s ever seen this?”

  My heart ticked oddly. “What are you saying?”

  Linus turned toward the quad, and then back to me. He spoke carefully. “I just want to understand. I think you’re saying, if we go down the pit of the clock tower right now, we’ll find a room full of sleeping children. Is that right?”

  I paused, searching his eyes. Did he know something that would prove me wrong? Suddenly confused, I flashed to a memory of Dean Berg’s smug face. He’d had no fear of me, none, during the meeting with the trustees.

  Then the worst happened.

  A crumbling of doubt edged through me. I staggered back a step. What if it was all some elaborate nightmare I’d invented? What if I had concocted the whole thing, and none of it was true?

  Why hadn’t I told the board about the dream mining when I’d had the chance? Maybe I had been afraid to tell my secret because, deep down, I knew it was all false. The more twisted and elaborate the nightmare was, the more special I had felt all this time, figuring it out. Now that Linus had
pushed me to say it all out loud, I felt like I was betraying myself.

  This wasn’t only for the viewers.

  He wanted me to see it for myself.

  I stared at Linus and backed up another step.

  “You think I dreamed it all,” I said, awed. “You’ve been humoring me, all this time.”

  “If you want, I’ll go with you to the clock tower right now,” he said. “We can look down the pit. We can climb down, if you want. All the cameras can follow us down.”

  I could hardly breathe. If we went and looked right now, we should find the glass walls at the bottom of the pit, and the doorway that led to the leaf-strewn tunnel, which in turn should lead us to the vault full of sleepers with their eyes covered in gel. But what if we didn’t find that? What if the glass walls weren’t there? What if I’d imagined them? They hadn’t shown up on my footage last night.

  “Rosie, should we go see?”

  I backed up yet again. He was totally freaking me out. I was freaking myself out.

  My gaze shot to his, and his eyes were warm with pity. “Come with me to St. Louis,” he said gently. “Or I can take you back to Doli, if that’s what you want.”

  “I can’t,” I said.

  He had just made me tell.

  I was going mad.

  “What do you know?” I asked accusingly. “How can you be so sure?”

  “I don’t know anything. I’m just trying to understand you,” he said.

  Dean Berg had always been one step ahead of me, even when I was spying on him. He could have fed me anything he wanted me to believe. Anything. Everything. He could have staged whatever he wanted, to lure me in. To punish me. Even a vault of dreamers.

  “Can they block off the bottom of the pit? Is that it?” I asked.

  “Would you listen to yourself?” he asked, gently. Another gust of wind blew up the pasture and lifted his jacket collar against his throat. “Maybe you need some help.”

  “Not from you.”

  “I’m not the enemy, Rosie.”

  I let out a laugh. “You just work for him. Or you did.”

 
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