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The keep of ages, p.29
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       The Keep of Ages, p.29

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “Look, darling,” Madeline says tenderly. “Look who’s here. It’s Rosie, your friend. All the way from California.”

  Thea simply lies quietly, not responding.

  “Oh, Thea,” I say. My voice drops low, and I can’t manage a real hello.

  Madeline runs her hand over Thea’s forehead. “She’s such a good girl,” she says.

  Don’t talk about her like she’s a toddler, I think. Then I feel rotten for being critical of Madeline. I clear my throat. “What’s the plan? I mean, how long can she be like this?” I say.

  Madeline crosses her arms. “We’re just taking each hour as it comes.”

  It’s the worst sort of answer. I can’t stand to be suspended in a state of not knowing. I shift closer and lift Thea’s hand, surprised at how light and cool her fingers feel.

  “Hey, Thea,” I say. “It’s me, Rosie. We’re going to get you out of this, all right? We’re not going to leave you in any coma. You’ve got a baby that needs you, and all the rest of us need you, too. Hear me? We’re going to bring you back.”

  No matter how much I want to believe she understands me, her face doesn’t change at all, and her hand is lifeless in mine. Even so, I’ve made up my mind. I was helpless to save the dreamers in the vault, but I can do something for Thea. I glance up at Madeline.

  “She can have my dreams,” I say.

  Madeline’s face crumples in pain, and she presses her fist to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just, I’m so thankful. But I don’t know—” She can’t go on.

  “If it will help?” I finish.

  She nods, sniffing, and wipes at her eyes. “She’s just been through so much,” she says in a tight voice.

  “I know. But we’re not giving up on her,” I say. “Let me talk to Orson.”

  She nods. Then she lets out a broken laugh. “I’m sorry. I thought I could keep it together. I don’t want to pressure you, but you’re really our last hope.”

  I smile. “It’s okay.”

  She shakes her head, wiping her eyes again, and then she reaches for a tissue and blows her nose.

  “Thank you,” she whispers.

  * * *

  My stomach’s uneasy, like when I’m on my way to school. I’ve been told Orson is coming up from the guest house where he has a room, so I’ve gone out to the porch to wait for him. I’ve tried to prepare myself, but still, when he first steps into view, crossing the lawn, my breath catches in my throat.

  This is my father. This is not my father.

  He’s middle-aged now, pushing forty, and as he passes under a tree into a patch of shade, he moves with a bowlegged, loose gait that’s achingly familiar. He lifts his hand in a cautious wave, but I’m too overwhelmed to respond. His movements match my frayed, threadbare memories of my father, but he also has a tidy, European appearance, with a gray, short-sleeved shirt tucked into belted, tailored pants. His loafers are the real anomaly. My father would never wear those.

  My mind flips, adjusting perspectives, because I’m not a little kid anymore, adoring a giant. His hair is shockingly black still, and unruly. A flash of memory brings me back to the moment when he pounded the nail into the wall of my bedroom to hang the photo of us. I can hear the sharp tap.

  As Orson steps into the sunlight again, he lifts his fist to his nose, hesitates, and then sneezes exactly as my father always did. I have to laugh from sheer amazement.

  “Excuse me,” Orson says, for the sneeze.

  “Bless you!” I say automatically.

  He smiles, trots up the steps to the porch, and offers his other hand. “You must be Rosie. How do you do?”

  His voice perfectly echoes the resonance in my memory bank, but as I stare at his outstretched hand, the lightness from his sneeze evaporates, and all I can think is that every precious, fatherly thing that I remember is about to be destroyed. My mind backs off a cliff of emotional confusion. I long wildly to reach for him, but rage and terror hold me back.

  “Why didn’t you call us, me and Ma?” I ask, ignoring his outstretched hand.

  We missed you. I missed you. Even after Ma gave up hope, even after she married Larry, I believed you were coming back.

  Orson lowers his hand, and his expression goes grave and polite. “I apologize,” he says. “I only meant to spare you additional distress. You know, of course, that I am not Robert Sinclair, but I owe him the debt of my life.”

  I’m having trouble reconciling this guy’s frank, unassuming manner with the evil genius I believe him to be. “You used my dreams without my consent,” I say. “Where was your concern for my distress then?”

  “I’m sorry about that, too,” he says. “I wasn’t in charge of acquisitions. My colleague Huma Fallon always handles that end of things. When I realized some of our dreams came from Forge students, I was appalled. But wasting them would have been even more unconscionable at that point. Don’t you agree?”

  He sounds less and less like my father with every word he utters.

  “I don’t know what to believe,” I say. He paints himself as blameless, but he’s at the heart of the dream research. He collaborated with Berg.

  “You’ve come from the vault at Grisly, haven’t you?” Orson says. “Do you know if anyone made it out? We’ve had nothing but silence.”

  “The dreamers, you mean?” I ask, deliberately misunderstanding him. “No. Nobody made it out.”

  He slides his hands slowly into his pockets. “I can see you have little sympathy for me. I don’t blame you. But I’m here to try to help Thea. Years of my work went into her awakening at Chimera. She’s one of a kind. She only exists because of you and me both. Isn’t that worth valuing?”

  I try to weigh what he’s saying, but it’s complicated by the way he looks just like my father. It feels wrong to be in conflict with this man, like I’m betraying my love for my dad. Yet how can I forgive the person who profited from the way Berg stole my dreams?

  Behind me, there’s a flurry of noise, and the door slams open.

  “Robert?” my mother says.

  Ma’s face is pale, and she’s perfectly still, as if she’s afraid to breathe and dispel a dream. Freshly showered and dressed in a new, beige sundress, she looks like an updated, vacation version of herself. Her eyes are locked on Orson, and her fist is pressed to her chest.

  “Robert,” she whispers. She takes a halting step forward. “Oh, Robert!”

  She flings herself forward into his arms. Orson hugs her back for one long, silent moment. Then he gently withdraws, extricating himself from her embrace until he has her at arm’s length.

  “No,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry. I’m not Robert. My name’s Orson Toomey.” He gives his old, self-effacing smile. “I’m just the doctor who’s borrowing your husband’s body.”

  Ma searches his face. I feel horrible for her, but jealous, too, that she got one good hug out of him. She lifts a trembling hand and fits her palm to Orson’s jaw. She smooths her hand lower, to his collar, and carefully, deliberately, she pats the front of his shirt.

  “No, of course,” she says. “My Robert’s gone.” She backs away, still facing him, and reaches back blindly for my hand.

  I grip her fingers and pull her beside me.

  “So is Larry,” Ma adds simply. “Both of my husbands. Gone.”

  “Please accept my condolences,” Orson says.

  Ma lets out a brief, shrill laugh. “If you’ll excuse us for a moment,” she says.

  Orson looks startled. He glances toward me briefly, and I nod toward the door.

  “Madeline’s with Thea,” I say.

  “Of course,” he says. “I’ll be inside.”

  Ma keeps gripping my hand until he’s out of sight, and then she slips slowly to the nearest chair. A soft breeze comes in from the yard and skims my cheeks. Ma gives my hand another squeeze, and then lets me go.

  “He’s really nothing like Robert, is he?” she asks.

  I’m not sure how to answer. He looks just
like him, and I’m too thrown to be fair. I was so angry when Thea told me about Orson, but now that I’ve seen him, I’m just torn. He’s like a magician’s trick, an imposter. If he would simply sit in a chair and never say a word, I could experience him as my father back from the dead, but he’s a different person.

  I shake my head. “It’s a lot to take in. When he sneezed, he was just the same.” I try again. “He’s Dad and he’s not Dad, but mostly not. I don’t know why, but I feel like my real dad is more dead than ever.” That’s what it is. The finality is different. And that’s not all. “I can’t believe I’m missing Larry. I feel so bad about him.”

  “Oh, sweetheart,” Ma says, leaning forward with her knees pressed together. She shakes her head for a moment, and when she looks at me again, her lashes are damp. “You know what I keep thinking about? The way Larry would hold his finger up when he was reading if he didn’t want me to interrupt him. You know? One finger. Just wait ’til I finish this page.” She tilts her head, smiling at me.

  I do the wait signal at her, one finger up.

  “Yes, exactly,” she says, and her smile fades. “I feel like I’m waiting again, like I did for your father. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

  I get a faint whiff of her shampoo and notice again her soft, new dress. Her entire life is changing, I realize. Mine, too.

  “It doesn’t have to,” I say.

  “No,” Ma agrees sadly.

  The door opens behind us and I turn to see Tom holding his baby.

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he says.

  “That’s all right,” Ma says.

  “What’s up?” I ask.

  He jerks his thumb toward the doorway. “Orson’s explaining what he wants to do for Thea now that you’re here. You should come.”

  31

  THE NANOBOTS

  MADELINE, DIEGO, Tito, Linus, Burnham, Dubbs, Orson, and the nurse are all in the sitting area near Thea’s bedroom when we arrive. Tom slides along the back wall, holding the baby, and he sways from foot to foot. Orson has commandeered the nurse’s desk, and he has the computer screen angled so everyone can see an image of a brain scan.

  “You can see here and here are the areas of the most decay,” Orson says, pointing to dark areas. “The amygdala and the inferior lingual gyrus.” He enlarges one spot to show a jagged hive of holes. “Once these gaps start opening up like this, it’s only a matter of time before the brain shuts down completely. Typically then, the patient stops breathing, and they’re gone. I’m very sorry to say this, but I’m afraid Thea is within hours, maybe a day of this point.”

  “But we have Rosie here now,” Madeline says. “She’s offered to give us more of her dreams.”

  Orson glances at me. “That’s very generous of you, to be sure, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” he says. “It normally takes weeks to grow a dream seed into a sample that’s fit to be implanted into another brain. We don’t have weeks in this case.”

  My gaze keeps zeroing back on the brain image on the computer, and my fingers start to tingle in a familiar way.

  “How do you actually insert the dream seeds?” I ask.

  “The actual technique, you mean?” Orson says. “We load up a series of nanobots with dream-seed astrocytes, the perfectly aged ones, not too mature, and then we insert the nanobots into a vein behind the patient’s ear. Then, with the helmet sensors on the patient for a mapping system, we can guide the nanobots to the amygdala or the lingual gyrus or anywhere else we need them to go.” He pauses, as if expecting questions, but then he goes on. “Once in place, the nanobots express out the dream astrocytes, and they cling to the existing brain cells in the patient. It’s a basic delivery system, but on a microscopic level, like little boats delivering packages to a steam liner. What really matters is the dream’s ability to take hold and mesh with the existing brain cells. That’s when they have a chance to repair damage in a fluid, dynamic way. Then even that takes some time. A few days, usually. Sometimes longer.”

  What he’s saying makes some sense. I can imagine the little nanobots as the golden spheres that once ripped a vision of Dubbs out of me. A germ of excitement starts growing around my heart.

  Are you there, Arself? I ask.

  She doesn’t say anything, but the itching in my fingers grows stronger.

  “Do you have a helmet here, and whatever other equipment you need?” I ask.

  Orson leans back and folds his hands together. “I do. I used the helmet to record Thea’s most recent scan there,” he says, aiming his chin at the screen. “It still doesn’t solve the problem of the time we need.”

  “Is there any way to speed things up?” Diego says. “If you harvest from Rosie today, when is the soonest you could try implanting her dream seed into Thea?”

  “Wait a minute,” Ma says. “Nobody’s harvesting anything out of Rosie.”

  The others all look at her. A hiss from equipment in the other room is clearly audible.

  “It’s not safe for Rosie,” Ma says. “I’m sorry about your daughter, Madeline, of course. My heart goes out to you all, but we’re not risking Rosie’s health for a girl who’s essentially dead already.”

  “Ma,” I say, shocked at how blunt she’s being.

  “We don’t even know this doctor,” she adds. “He looks like Robert, but that doesn’t make him a good person. He could be as evil as Berg.” She turns to Orson. “Did you ever collaborate with Berg?”

  “I did,” Orson says. “I purchased dreams from him. That’s how I developed Sinclair Fifteen in the first place.”

  “Without Rosie’s consent,” Burnham says. “Berg sold you dreams from the Forge students, and none of them ever gave their consent.”

  Orson shifts uneasily. “I have not always been the most rigorous in asking questions about where my supplies have come from. I admit that,” he says.

  “Okay. That’s final,” Ma says. She looks anxiously at Madeline. “Is that why you invited us here?”

  “Ma, it’s my choice,” I say. “I want to do this.”

  “The doctor himself said it won’t do Thea any good,” Ma says practically. “I may not get all that mumbo jumbo about nanobots, but Thea’s already too far gone. I can’t be the only one who sees this.”

  “We’d never force Rosie,” Madeline says. “Of course we never would.”

  “You’d just ask.” Ma gets to her feet and takes Dubbs by the hand. “Come on, Rosie. We’re going.”

  “No,” I say. “Wait. I need to see something.”

  I move over to the computer and let my fingers do what they’ve been longing to do on the keyboard. The image on the screen turns ninety degrees, and then zooms in on a certain section of Thea’s brain, going smaller and smaller until space opens up between the neurons. Too much space. I’m in a gap. I don’t have deliberate logic for what I’m seeing, but in the back of my mind, Arself is making sense of it all and absorbing what we need to know. My fingers adjust the screen again, pushing deeper and sideways, to a lit string of light.

  “What are you doing?” Orson asks.

  Ignoring him, I expand out again, shift to another area, and zoom in again. Faster than before, Arself switches the screen to a new area, and then another. Warm, slow pleasure trickles around my skull, and I know what she’s thinking even though she doesn’t put it into words. We’re going to operate ourselves. We’re going to get in there, into Thea’s brain, and make it right.

  Unless they stop us.

  I lift my fingers from the keyboard for a moment, and then drop back onto them, quickly bringing the image back to where Orson left it. Then I straighten away from the computer.

  “What on earth was that?” Orson says. “How’d you learn to do that?”

  I glance over at Linus, who’s starting to smile.

  “It’s just a little trick I picked up in the vault,” I say.

  “Did Berg teach you?” Orson says.

  “No,” I say. “He never taught me anything bu
t fear.”

  I take a deep breath and turn to Burnham, who shakes his head in a dazed way. I know my friends will support me, whatever I want to do. I could wait until later tonight, and sneak back down here, and try this myself after Ma and the others have gone to bed. It could be easier that way, but sneaking around is what I had to do at Forge, and I’m not going to do that anymore.

  “I have an idea,” I say. “I’d like to operate on Thea myself. I think, with Orson assisting, I could give her some of my dreams directly. It might help her heal, and it couldn’t hurt.”

  Diego’s jaw drops. Tito’s eyebrows shoot up. Madeline lets out a gasp.

  “You’re sweet,” Madeline says. “Honestly. But that is the wildest idea I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard my share of wild ideas.”

  Linus leans back with his arms crossed, smiling openly. “Here we go.”

  Dubbs scratches her head. “How can you operate?” she asks.

  I take a deep breath and plunge in. “First of all, we’ll need another one of those helmets for me to wear, so I can get visual input on what’s happening in my brain at the same time we’re watching Thea’s,” I say. “Then we’ll need to be connected up, she and I, brain to brain, with a supply of the nanobots that I can control. Or probably it would be better if Orson controls the nanobots in case I fall asleep. I can give him some guidance until then.” The procedure seems perfectly obvious to me, now that I have Arself outlining it for me. Her thoughts are so quick and so confident that I’m beginning to feel like we’re wasting time with these explanations.

  “This is preposterous,” Ma says. “You’re not a doctor!”

  Orson is frowning pensively. “What she’s saying about a transfer is possible, in theory,” he says. “I hadn’t considered a direct transfer of dreams. Berg used to hypothesize about it, but I’ve never had a fully live dream host side-by-side with a patient before. I’m still not sure it will help Thea, but it has a chance. It would also be dangerous for Rosie.”

 
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