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The rule of mirrors, p.28
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.28

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “I’m sorry,” Thea says quietly. “I never wanted to hurt you. Us. I never meant to hurt us. I’m really sorry, Rosie.”

  I still want to destroy everything in sight. I want to scream it to her again in my head: you left me! Thea’s chin trembles slightly. It hits me finally that she’s upset, too, only she contains it better. I take a deep breath and release my shirt. Thea isn’t the one to blame. She didn’t mine me. She only tried to survive. She just needed to do it a different way, and she’s paying, too.

  The chill of my anger redirects where it belongs, toward Berg, and like a poisoned black arrow, it drives deeper into my heart.

  I slouch back onto my chair, deflated, and jam my hands under my legs. “It’s okay,” I say finally.

  “Don’t be mad,” she says.

  It’s hard to look at any of them. They’re like a unit, all breathing and alive, teamed up against the monster on my side of the table. I focus on the coffee pot. “I’m not mad,” I say.

  I’m not anything.

  * * *

  Soon after, I excuse myself, pretending to need the bathroom. I collect my coat and bag from Linus’s room, and then I tiptoe back down the stairs. The others are talking softly in the kitchen like mature, reasonable people. I let myself out the front door, pull my cap low over my face, and head for my car.

  I drive out of town to a lot behind an abandoned antiques business and park where I can watch the wind moving over the prairie in long, slow ripples. In the wake of my anger, I’m strangely calm. Fatalistic. The stiff winter grass has yielded to new green, but the setting sun is painting it orange. Each blade is still perfect, making a sea of collective silk. The beauty brings a familiar pang of longing, and I wish I had my video camera. Without it, I have no choice but to live in the moment, so I do, memorizing it.

  When I call Burnham to tell him I’m ready to go in, he says to give him a couple of hours to prepare, so I settle in. I crack my window. Gradually, the big sky deepens into darkness. Sirius, the Dog Star, shows up first, followed by the trio of Orion’s belt, and then the other constellations, the ones I always wanted to learn the names of. Maybe I still will, but tonight their distant light seems aloof, uncaring.

  I don’t mind that the universe is uncaring. I can be uncaring, too. It’s a lot easier that way.




  WHEN ROSIE DIDN’T RETURN from the bathroom, I knew that we had trouble. Linus and Tom searched the house. I instantly guessed that she would head for the tunnel, but I’d promised not to tell.

  “She must have gone up to Forge,” Linus said. He pulsed his hand into a fist. “Did she say anything to you about where she might go?”

  “No,” I said.

  “Did she give you her phone number?” Tom asked.

  “No. Do you have it?” I asked Linus.

  “I don’t have one for her,” Linus said. “She called me last on a disposable phone.”

  “Are you serious?” I asked. “None of us can reach her?”

  “Burnham might know how,” Linus said.

  “Burnham Fister?” I asked, surprised.

  “She stayed with him a few days before she came here,” Linus said.

  She didn’t mention it to me. I felt vaguely left out. Then again, we were different people now. She’d made that abundantly clear when she’d yelled at me.

  “I’ll see if I can reach him,” Linus said.

  He took off for Forge while Tom took me to the nearest hotel and got us a room. He was convinced I was worn down, and he was serious about nurturing me. I played along, and as I shucked off my shoes and climbed onto my bed, I was honestly grateful to sink into the softness. I was anxious about Rosie, but I couldn’t do anything for her until I could shake Tom, and that was going to be hard.

  “If she doesn’t want to be found, she won’t be found,” Tom said.

  “What did you think of her?”

  Tom took off his boots one after the other. “No, thank you. I’m not getting in the middle of that.”

  “No, honestly. I want to know,” I said. “Did you like her?”

  “Honestly?” he said. “She seemed pretty dark and confused to me. It’s hard for me to believe you were ever like that.”

  I knew it wasn’t his intention, but I felt insulted.

  “She was in the vault much longer than I was,” I said. “I think she was mined a lot more.”

  “What does that feel like, exactly?” Tom asked.

  “The mining itself? I was conscious for it one time, and it was excruciating,” I said. “Normally, you don’t feel it, but afterward, you feel kind of frayed. Unglued. The headaches and déjà vus make you feel like you can’t count on yourself.”

  He stood before the window with his arms akimbo. “I should take you home.”

  “I’m not leaving Forgetown until we know Rosie’s all right,” I said.

  “I’m not sure that girl’s ever going to be all right,” he said. “At least call your parents and tell them about your headaches,” he said.

  “They’ll only worry.”

  “Because they should,” he said. “I’m worried, too. Something could be really wrong with you, Thea. I can tell you’re exhausted. You need the right supervision.”

  “It’s just that I’m pregnant,” I said. “I’m fine.”

  “But your eyes are pinched. You’re having a headache right now, aren’t you?” he asked.

  “No,” I lied again. It wasn’t a bad headache. Just a little, needling one at my temples.

  He sat on the end of my bed. “Call your parents. If you don’t want to, I can.”

  “They’ll make me go home to Holdum.”

  “Maybe that’s where you belong,” he said.

  Maybe nothing. He obviously thought so.

  “I don’t know why you don’t get along with my parents,” I said. “I swear you sound just like them.”

  Another Braxton-Hicks contraction tingled over my belly, drawing my muscles into a firm, rigid ball. I practiced breathing through the tension, and deeper inside, the baby rolled in response. As the contraction ended, I felt a tug on my toes, and then, wordlessly, Tom began to rub my foot. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, but he kept rubbing. Bliss traveled up my tired leg. My mind followed each sure stroke of his strong fingers under and around the arch of my foot. Then he tried the other foot. Tingles spread all along my nerves, even to my scalp. Gradually, my headache eased, and my limbs went limp.

  All right. He proved his point. I was exhausted.

  His blue eyes were grave. “Tomorrow we’re going back home, no matter what.”

  “Okay,” I said.

  “I could have killed for some of that spaghetti sauce,” he said.

  “I know,” I sighed. “Me, too.”

  “I’ll go find us some dinner.” He gave my feet a last squeeze and stood up.

  It was nearly impossible for me, but as soon as he left our room, I dragged myself out of the bed, put my shoes back on, and left the hotel. I scanned the street for Tom, and then headed down to the dairy barn. My plan was simple. I’d look for Rosie in the tunnel. If she wasn’t there, I’d come out again, no harm done. If I could find her, ten to one I could convince her to come back out. If I couldn’t convince her, I’d call Linus and Tom for back up. An hour at the most I’d be down there. Two hours, tops.

  * * *

  Only die-hard ice cream lovers were out that chilly evening, but they were the lingering types who took their cones from the small, brightly lit shop to the dairy barn out back. I ordered a cone of mint chip ice cream and wandered the well-worn path into the old, cavernous building. The smell of animal was almost too powerful for me to take. Rows of cows clanked in their stalls, chewing their cud, while suction cups attached to their udders milked them. Above, a rivulet of white milk trickled through a clear pipe and emptied into a vat in the next room.

  Licking my ice cream, I moseyed toward a promising staircase and looked down. A wide
, industrial-sized elevator chute dropped to the platform below. It would certainly be large enough to convey sleep shells or bodies up and down, assuming this was the way Berg had emptied the vault.

  I glanced over my shoulder to see that the other customers had left, and I checked the corners for cameras. There were none, which fit my theory that someone wanted this area private. I walked down the stairs to the lower floor, and there, right before me, was a large wooden door, just like the one I’d seen from the other side when I was exploring the tunnel. A bit of tissue showed white underneath. Bingo.

  I unlatched a heavy bolt, and the big knob turned easily from this direction. I wedged a scrap of wood into the opening so it couldn’t close the entire way, and then, with the light on my cell phone to guide me, I headed into the tunnel, toward the dean’s tower at Forge. The route was familiar by now and it didn’t feel as long. I knew where the floor angle would tilt upward, and where to expect the side door. Once the floor leveled out, I came to the glass room at the bottom of the clock tower pit, and then the broken light fixture on the wall. Finally I reached the door to the elevator landing and the wall of windows that separated me from the vault of dreamers. I instinctively looked for Berg, but he wasn’t there, and neither was Rosie.

  I hesitated, remembering my promise to myself. This was far enough. I couldn’t go searching further for Rosie. I might miss her in passing, and I’d certainly get caught, which wouldn’t do her any good. I turned for the tunnel again when the elevator doors opened behind me.

  Berg stepped out.

  My heart hammered up my throat. “Where’s Rosie?” I asked.

  Instead of answering, he lunged forward and grabbed my arm. I screamed. He pinned me against the wall and wrenched my arm up behind me. I cringed, trying to protect my belly, but he caught my other wrist, too, and tied it in a tight binding behind my back. I struggled against him.

  “You can’t do this!” I said. “Let me go!”

  Wordlessly, he hauled me back and lifted me bodily off the ground. I screamed again, shocked and writhing, but he carried me in a strong, painful grip.

  “Let me go!” I yelled again.

  But he was a silent, unresponsive machine. He backed into the vault of dreamers and slammed up against the light switches, which turned on. My fears jumped from mining to murder. He crossed to the operating room and set me down, holding me by my tied wrists. I could not believe how strong he was. He opened the door. I screamed again and tried to bite at him, but he twisted me around again and shoved me into the operating room. I fell against the wall and turned as he slammed the door.

  Panting, I heard a key click in the lock. A key, not some swipe pass. Through the glass of the door, I saw him wipe a hand across his forehead. He looked at me grimly and then turned away.

  I regained my balance in a wide stance. “You can’t leave me here!” I yelled.

  I spit out a strand of hair that caught in my lips.

  I charged my shoulder against the door. It shuddered but didn’t yield. On the other side of the glass, Berg strode across the vault and out of sight.

  “My friends know where I am!” I yelled. “They’ll come looking for me!”

  The lights went out.

  My heart slammed. I could see a faint glimmer of light from the direction of the doorway, and then that vanished, too. The blackness was complete. I screamed again, but only silence answered me.

  I was scared. Beyond scared. I had to get out. I squinted in every direction, still seeing nothing but black. I put my back to the door and felt along with my tied hands for the handle. It turned, but didn’t open. I braced my shoulder against the door and focused, twisting my wrists, straining and pulling against the binding. It was made of some smooth, narrow cloth that was cutting off my circulation. I used the door handle to wedge into one side of the binding, and I winced in pain as I extricated my right hand. I quickly untied my left hand, too, and shuddered with relief for that much freedom. I felt the length of the binding. A tie. It was Berg’s tie.

  I tapped my pockets. I still had my phone. I pulled it out swiftly and greedily tapped it on. No signal. Of course not. But it had light. I lowered the brightness to the lowest setting and checked my battery life: 45%.

  He couldn’t keep me here long. He wouldn’t. I aimed the glow of my phone up toward the ceiling and discovered a camera in the corner. Hope flared in my heart.

  “Hello?” I asked. “Is someone watching me?”

  No answer came.

  My belly compressed in a great, silent kneading. It was longer and deeper than any false contraction I’d had before, and I leaned over, bracing my hands on my knees. I willed myself to breathe through the pressure. Unreal, I thought. When the contraction eased away, I staggered back against the wall, my heart racing.

  This could not be labor! It was too soon. I wasn’t due for four more weeks. Even if I was in labor, it would take hours, and Berg could not possibly keep me here for long. That’s what I told myself, but in fact, I was terrified. I couldn’t have a baby down here alone in the dark! I wouldn’t know what to do! I would die!

  I lifted my phone again. It was down to 44%. At this rate, it would be dead in a couple of hours.

  I looked up at the camera. “Berg!” I yelled. “I’m going to have my baby! Get me out of here!”

  The camera did not reply. I was mad now. And stupid. I hadn’t told any of my friends where I was going, so no one would know where to look for me. I checked around carefully for anything hard and heavy I could use to break the glass in the door, but I found nothing. I tried jamming the glass with my elbow and kicking it, but it wouldn’t shatter.

  Don’t panic, I told myself. Do not cry. Think.

  I had no idea when my next contraction would come. Maybe that first one was just brought on by stress. Maybe if I kept calm, I wouldn’t have any more. My legs were still dry, which meant my water hadn’t broken. I was okay.

  Except I wasn’t. I was alone in the dark in the operating room of the vault of dreamers, and nobody but Berg knew where I was. And I was maybe having my baby. I let out a desperate, gulping laugh and slid down the wall to the floor.




  THE NIGHT IS HALF GONE before Burnham calls again.

  “Okay,” he says. “I think I can get us into Berg’s computer if you can put in your peg. Do you need me to dismantle the swipe locks in the dean’s tower?”

  I think back to my last trip to the sixth floor. The staircase opened directly into the big room, and I think the elevator did, too. “No,” I say.

  “Are you sure about this, Rosie? Linus Pitts called and left me a message. He’s looking for you.”

  “Did he say where he is?” I ask.

  “No, but he sounded worried.”

  I chew on my lip, frowning. Then I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going in.”

  “Then call me right when you reach Berg’s computer. You have the peg?”

  I glance to see it beside my flashlight and other supplies.

  “Yes,” I say. “I’m heading there now. Give me about half an hour. I’ll call you soon.”

  I don’t tell him that I expect to get caught.

  Returning to town, I drive slowly past Linus’s house. Only one lamp is still on in the living room, and I can’t see any action through the windows. I park farther down, near the water tower, and walk the last couple of blocks to the dairy barn. Up on the hill, at Forge, the penthouse apartment is a bright row of windows at the top of the dean’s tower. The rest of the campus is dark and sleepy, illuminated only by streetlamps that make lace of the leafless trees. Deep in my jacket pocket, I carry the syringes I prepared, four of them, one from each vial I stole from Ian, each with its own white cap.

  Outside the dairy barn, I pause, noting one car in the lot. I hear the sturdy clanking of the cows even before I enter, and then the penetrating scent of animal bodies fills my nostrils. At the far end of the barn, a farmer i
s dumping grain into a chute, and I duck low.

  Stealthy, keeping an eye toward the farmer, I creep along the far wall past the noses and munching noises of a dozen cows. It’s startling how huge the animals are with their heavy heads. The barn is a long L, with the cows in the long rectangle, and the milk pipes above. I’m searching for a door that matches Thea’s description when I discover an open shaft elevator, large enough to accommodate cargo. Or sleep shells. Beside it is a narrow staircase. When the farmer moves out of sight, I dash for the stairs and sneak down.

  Directly opposite the shaft elevator is a large wooden door, just as Thea described. It’s unbolted, and a bit of wood props the door open a crack. I stop, puzzled. Someone has been here recently. They might still be inside. A shiver of fear runs over my skin, and instinct warns me this is a mistake.

  But then my reckless heart warms to the idea. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ve already survived the vault of dreamers. I’ll kill before I let that happen to me again, and if I fail at killing, if I still end up being mined, I’ll do what Thea did and escape that way. I flick on my flashlight and venture into the tunnel.

  Clingy, ragged webs drape the walls and ceiling, and random leaves crinkle underfoot. This stretch of tunnel is old and decrepit compared to the tunnel I traveled when I was still a student. I cast my flashlight beam before me and hurry up the slope of the tunnel, never looking behind me. When I reach the dusty glass walls at the bottom of the clock tower pit, I breathe a small sigh of relief. Familiar territory. I hurry the last length of the tunnel, to the door that leads to the elevator under the dean’s tower.

  There, finally, I stop with my hand on the knob and wait, listening. Stillness expands around me, filling my ears like cotton. I turn off my light, and in the absolute darkness, I slowly open the door. Not even an exit light glows in the landing area. I turn on my flashlight again and scan the elevator, the counter area, the glass that separates me from the vault of dreamers. I know nothing is behind the glass. Thea told me so. Yet I feel images tugging at the corners of my mind: sleep shells glowing with their blue light, and children’s pale, haunting faces under glass domes. This was where Gracie lay dreaming with her teddy bear. I’m a few paces from the room where I was first mined for my dreams, and the dark power of this hangs in the air, making it difficult to breathe.

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