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The rule of mirrors, p.29
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.29

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  A shimmer of nightmare draws me irresistibly to the vault’s door, and I’m compelled to open it. I smell the vinegar, and something like tweed, as if Berg was just here. My beam trembles as I cast it around the empty room, and a shifting noise answers. Heart in mouth, I shine my light toward the sound, and a baby mouse runs wildly along the baseboard. It angles through the corner and vanishes into a crack. My light meets the door to the operating room. That’s where it started. That’s the place.

  I’ll die if I go in there, I think. What’s left of my brain will liquefy into black silage and run out my nose, and I’ll be dead.

  I swallow thickly and back out of the vault. I press the button for the elevator.

  “Come,” I whisper.

  When a scratching, rubbing noise, as faint as a whisper, comes from the vault behind me, I can’t tell if it’s the mouse or if I imagined it. My lungs contract with fear. The elevator doors open, and I step in gladly, wincing at the brightness. A rush of relief makes it easier to breathe. I push the button for the sixth floor, and my stomach dips as the elevator begins to rise. With a last reflexive shiver, I brush off my jacket and put my flashlight in my pocket. I can do this. I will win.

  The doors slick open, and I step into the landing. I peer around the corner to a large, unlit room. This is where the techies work by day. Rows of desks and monitors gleam faintly in the darkness and descend toward the windows. I’ve been here once before, when I eavesdropped on Berg, but now the lowest corner, where Berg sat, is empty, and I tread softly in that direction.

  I dial Burnham.

  “I’m here,” he says. “Show me.”

  It’s pretty dark, and I have a shoddy disposable phone, but I turn the lens to the room so he can see what I’m seeing. I slide into the seat where I once saw Berg working, and I’m hit by misgivings. This computer doesn’t look any different from the others in the room.

  “He had special projection pucks when I saw him before,” I say. “I can’t believe I didn’t remember until now.”

  “It’s all right,” Burnham says. “Put the peg into the computer before you start it up. We’ll know in a second if it has what we want.”

  It’s tricky to find a port in the dark, but I do and slip the peg in. “Okay,” I say, and turn on the computer.

  The screen seems dangerously bright. I quickly dim it down to the faintest setting. It’s a blank green rectangle, with no text or icons. It doesn’t even have a type box. My heart sinks.

  “It’s broken,” I say.

  “Just wait. Don’t touch the keyboard or the screen,” he says, and softly, I hear him typing in the background. A minute later, the screen comes alive with a watercolor scene of a dock at a lake. It’s about the last thing I expected. Then I recall that Berg likes to paint.

  “Burnham?” I say.

  “Hold on.”

  I hear more clicking. The image shimmers, and with a reverse-dissolve effect, four icons appear around a silver circle, like the points of a compass.

  “Good,” Burnham says. “Pick a direction. Go ahead. You can touch the screen now.”

  “West,” I say, and touch the left-hand icon.

  Up comes a spreadsheet listing names, ages, blood types, and other medical information. Half the codes I don’t understand, but I can see it’s a ton of information.

  “Are you getting this?” I whisper.

  “I’m copying it now,” Burnham says. “It’ll take some time. You said you saw maybe sixty dreamers in the vault under the school?”


  “There’s a lot more people listed here,” he says. “A way lot more.”

  “Should I wait or can I click back?” I ask.

  The screen splits in half, with one half showing a shrunken version of the files he’s copying and the other half showing the main icon compass again.

  “Go ahead,” he says.

  I try the east icon, which takes me to an informal scratch pad of blue ink handwritten on a white board. Very retro. A bunch of equations with letters, numbers, and honeycomb symbols reminds me of science class. Burnham hums pensively.

  “Can you tell what he’s brainstorming?” I ask

  “It’s chemical compounds,” Burnham says. “This looks more like he was explaining something to somebody. It’s practically scribbles on a napkin. Let me check something.” His typing goes again, and up comes a new series of equations in another box. “I don’t know what this means,” he says. “He’s got the chemical compound for a common over-the-counter sleeping pill.”

  “Does your company sell it?” I ask.

  “I’d have to look into it. We sell a ton of different meds,” he says. “See what else is there.”

  I try the north icon.

  At first, I think I’ve found a color wheel, the kind I’ve used to pick out a hue for a presentation project, but as I scroll over the wheel, different boxes expand upward toward me, and each box shows a different image that is predominantly the color in the wheel. A yellow dragon flies against an orange sky. A black castle melts into a gray sea. A roiling flash flood of blood and bones barrels through a slot canyon. I gasp.

  “Do you see this?” I ask.

  “Yes. Each file takes over 4G of memory,” he says. “There must be thousands. I can’t possibly copy them all.”

  “Are they dreams?” I ask. “Were they all mined?”

  “I don’t understand. These look like biological markers,” he mutters. “Let me try something.”

  Another screen pops up to show a boy gazing into a campfire. He’s a black kid with big glasses, wearing shorts that let his knees gleam in the firelight, and he looks familiar. A line of statistics flies past, and then still another screen appears in the corner. It’s a headshot picture of Janice. I look back again at the boy by the fire, and my memory jolts. I’ve seen this image before. It was back in Dr. Ash’s office in the Forge infirmary.

  “Is that boy you?” I ask.

  “Yes,” Burnham says. “It’s from when I was a kid at Camp Pewter, but it’s in Janice’s file. We knew each other there.”

  “Was it mined? Is it a dream?”

  “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s the sort of thing she might remember, or she might have stashed the image in her subconscious. Berg has recorded it, in any case.” He types a couple times. “I’ve never seen the format of these files before. There’s no way to tell if it’s a real memory or a dream or something she made up.”

  I skim over the color wheel again, looking at some of the other boxes. “This looks like a database of images, organized by color,” I say.

  “I think you’re right,” he says. “This is mind-blowing, Rosie. I’m trying to save a couple of these, but something’s weird about the files. It’s like they’re dissolving. Give me a sec.”

  My screens do a quick fly around, and when they settle, a window in the lower right shows a room with rows of sleep shells, all glowing the soft blue I’ve come to know. I peer closely, thinking it’s an old image of the dream vault under Forge, but the angle is from high up, and I realize the rows go on too far. This is a larger room, with more sleep shells. More dreamers. Dozens more. Over a hundred.

  A chill skims my spine. “Burnham,” I whisper.

  “I see it,” he says.

  “Where are they? Are they real? Is this now?”

  “I don’t know where they are,” he says. “I’m trying to sort for the most recent files in the system. What’s this?”

  A new image comes up, a close-up of a girl, me, lying asleep. It’s shot in black and a soft, blue-tinted white. I’m resting in profile, so the line of my nose and lips and chin is distinct over the dimpled pillow. My dark hair makes a distinct curve along my forehead and ear, and moonlight falls on my cheek. The angle feels intimate, the effect both ghostly and loving. I’m surprised to discover that I could ever looked so lovely, and then a hand comes into the frame and lightly smooths a tendril of hair back from my temple.

  The clip goes dark.

>   A shiver of dread runs through me. This isn’t some old, photoshopped picture. Someone took that clip of me live.

  “When was that taken?” I ask.

  “You tell me.”

  I grip the desk. “Burnham!” I say. “That looked like last night! But there weren’t any cameras in Linus’s room. I swear there weren’t!” I scramble for any explanation. “Could it be a dream?”

  “No,” Burnham says, his voice low. “That one’s a regular .avi file. No question about it. Somebody filmed you in Linus’s bed.”

  Not Linus. I refuse to believe he would film me. Especially not without asking. I can’t get over how completely and utterly wrong this is.

  “Hasn’t this been a fun evening?” Burnham says dryly.

  The computer flickers, and I think Burnham’s doing something new, but then the icon screen vanishes, and instead, I find Berg’s face looking at me.

  My fear explodes.

  Burham swears.

  Berg leans nearer, peering with his eyes narrowed. He’s found me.




  FOR ONE FROZEN SECOND, I can’t even think. Then I turn off the computer and rip out the peg.

  Berg knows exactly where I am. He’s found me at his computer, in his tower. It’s no less than I expected, but it’s far more terrifying. And I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to challenge him at all. He’s part of something much bigger than I ever guessed. I shove back from the computer and bolt up through the office toward the elevator. I’ve almost reached it when the door beside it bursts open and Berg runs out from the stairwell.

  I lift my phone, aiming at him so Burnham can see him, for all the good that will do me.

  “Stay back,” I say.

  “Put that down,” Berg says, breathing hard. His white sleeves are rolled to the elbow, and he holds his arms loose from his sides, ready. His piggy eyes gleam in his ruddy face.

  I keep the phone up. “I have proof this time,” I say. “We’ve stolen your files. You’re through.”

  “As your friend is no doubt discovering about now, my files are not hackable,” Berg says. “They deteriorate in ten minutes, but not before they infect whatever system copies them with a virus.”

  He moves with harsh, efficient speed and chops at my arm to make my phone fly out of my hand. Shocked, I scramble backward and grab a stapler. When did Berg get so strong and quick? I lift the stapler to protect myself. Berg crosses over to where my phone flew. He turns it off and slips it in his pocket. Then he pulls out a different one, his own.

  “Guess where your friend Thea is,” he says, tapping on his phone. He holds it up toward me, and the screen is mainly gray, with a small diamond of light. He steps closer so I can see that the diamond is the lit screen of a phone, and beside it, barely discernible, is Thea’s face. She’s lying on a floor, curled on her side with a cell phone before her, and she isn’t moving.

  My gut goes cold. “Where is she?” I ask.

  Berg snaps off the phone. He tilts his head, smiling at me oddly. “Guess.”

  The vault. The tunnel. Somewhere locked. She could be anywhere dark and hard.

  “You wouldn’t hurt her,” I say, backing away. “She hasn’t done anything to you. She doesn’t know anything.”

  He shakes his head and slips his phone in his pocket. “I don’t want to hurt anybody. Quite the opposite. I want to help. Who will take care of you when you start to decay?” he asks. “Who will take care of Thea?”

  Nobody’s decaying. I don’t know what he’s talking about.

  “Where is she?” I repeat. “Tell me.”

  “She came looking for you,” Berg says. “She came quite some time ago actually. She doesn’t scare easily, but I think she’s getting there.”

  “You can’t keep her hostage,” I say.

  “You’re right,” he says. “That would be completely inhumane. And so we’re going to bargain.”

  “Over what?” I ask.

  “Your dreams, of course. What else?” he says. “Let’s be clear on one point from the start. I very much want you alive and well. I’ve discovered the hard way that people need real life to feed their dreams. Too much time in the vault, even with the most careful monitoring, starves a mind down to nothing, and a steady stream of fear alone is poison.”

  “You’re never getting my dreams again,” I say. “I’ll die first.”

  He takes another step forward, and I retreat again, shifting to put a desk between us.

  “Don’t say that. There’s no one like you, Rosie,” he says. “I’ll admit some of the other Forge students are brilliant dreamers, too. They are. They’re much, much better than the dreamers from the pre-morgue. But so far, no one else’s dreams come close to yours. They aren’t just vivid and potent. They’re incredibly versatile, and I’ve yet to pinpoint why.”

  “Just my luck, I guess. Where’s Thea?”

  “No,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s never just luck.”

  He slowly rounds the desk, and I circle away from him.

  “I thought at first it mattered that you knew what we were doing,” he goes on. “I’ve tried recruiting dream donors and telling them point blank what we’re doing, but their dreams were doggerel. Worries and lust, food and cars. Useless.”

  “I don’t care,” I say. “Tell me where she is.”

  “The ironic thing is, you must have walked right by her on your way here.”

  I’m confused. “The tunnel? The glass room under the clock tower? The vault? Tell me.”

  “You’re getting closer. I’ve come to believe that fear is a key element,” he says. “Or the overcoming of it. Hard to know which. There’s still so much to learn.” He takes another step toward me, lightly joggling the phone. “You know what I’m dying to do? I had no idea how important Thea was the first time I met her, but I’ve done some digging since then. Imagine my delight when I realized she’s a product of the Chimera Centre. Dr. Fallon was holding out on me. Shameful.” His eyes take on a strange glow. “How much of your mind is in Thea? Does she always believe she’s you? Huma wasn’t clear on that point, and my curiosity has been unbearable. Do you suppose she has the same dreams you do?”

  “Thea isn’t some ‘product,’” I say. “She wasn’t invented for you to play with.”

  He smiles slightly. “That doesn’t mean I should overlook a gift horse,” he says. “You must realize that you and your new friend constitute an amazing breakthrough. She’s living proof that one mind can be seeded into another and become conscious there. Once we perfect the process, we’ll have the key to immortality. Just think, a person could seed his brain into a young body, and when that body gets old, he could seed it into another young body, and so on. Imagine what people would pay to be immortal.”

  Is that what he wants, then? Is that his way around his illness?

  “It’ll never work,” I say.

  “People always say that when ideas are new,” he says. “They’re threatened by the prospect of change, even when it’s good.”

  “I’m telling the FBI,” I say. “They’ll shut you down.”

  He leans a hand on the nearest desk. “The FBI isn’t in the habit of believing minors who are just out of psychiatric facilities,” he says. “Besides, you won’t report anything. You’re going to do exactly what I tell you.”

  “Why would I do that?”

  “For Thea’s sake and your family’s,” he says. “Now listen carefully. For the last five months, you have been at a private psychiatric hospital receiving the care you so desperately needed after your last breakdown. I need you to go public and corroborate my story.”

  It was just like Linus’s idea.

  “I won’t,” I say.

  “Think carefully.” He drums a couple of fingers on the desktop. “I’m sorry to say there’s been an uptick in crime in Doli since you left. All kinds of random shootings have been happening back in your beloved boxcar neighborhood. It’s perfectly
possible that a little, innocent child could be gunned down just biking home from school.”

  “You wouldn’t.”

  “On the other hand, it has occurred to me that these dreams might run in families,” he says. “Dubbs could have the same rare kind of dreams that you do. But she’s only your half sister, isn’t she? She could be nothing like you. Hard to know for certain until I try.”

  The idea of him messing with Dubbs horrifies me. I clutch the stapler harder. “I’ll never let you hurt her.”

  Berg smiles. “Fear’s an interesting thing, isn’t it?” he says. “We feel it more for our families than we do for ourselves. Now you and I are going to learn to trust each other. We’re going to work out something fair to both of us.”

  Or I could kill him. That would solve a lot of my problems. I switch the stapler to my left hand.

  “Here’s how this works,” he continues. “After you corroborate that you were in a psychiatric hospital, we’ll say that you’ve recovered and you can resume your life. You’ll be free. In public. I assume you’ll want to meet up with Linus and other friends for a normal life, so you’ll need someplace for school or work. Another boarding school isn’t completely out of the question, but I suggest we skip ahead and set you up with a film production company of your own. It’s even conceivable that I could void the contract you signed and let you go back to your parents, though I can’t quite picture you in Doli. Can you?”

  Unbelievable. He really expects me to keep silent about everything while he goes on stealing people’s dreams.

  “No,” I say.

  “No,” he agrees. “The truth is, Rosie, I need you free and living your life for your own sake, and I need to mine you periodically, for mine. My research depends upon you, and I’m willing to pay what I must to ensure your cooperation.”

  “You think you’d mine me on a schedule?” I ask, backing up. I keep the stapler raised, hoping it will keep his gaze from my other hand, in my pocket, where I finger the syringes.

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