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The vault of dreamers, p.3
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.3

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “Why would meeting you be worth a spike?” I asked. “Because I’m a student and you’re on the staff? Is that supposed to make us special?”

  “Don’t be dense.”

  I searched back and forth between his mismatched eyes, waiting for something in his words to make sense.

  He smiled slightly and spun a hand back and forth between us. “We have this,” he said.

  “This what?”

  “You know,” he said softly.

  I did not know. The fine, expectant buzzing in my chest had nothing to do with him.

  And then it did.

  His eyes warmed. “See?”

  I took a step back. The buzzing had exploded into wild wings of surprise.

  “You’re smiling,” he said.

  “I’m not.”

  “I’ll be here at quarter to five,” he said. “Just in case. I’m telling you, personal drama’s good. It gets viewers to care about you.”

  I backed up some more. “Get your eye checked.”

  “You do bossy very well, Sinclair,” he said, covering his heart. “Irresistible.”

  He was impossible. But he was also right about one thing. As I turned and ran for the film building, I was grinning and primed with hope.



  “TARDINESS IS A sign of disrespect or overinflated ego,” Mr. DeCoster said as I stepped into my Media Convergence classroom.

  “I’m sorry,” I said. Out of breath from running, I started toward the back where I usually sat.

  “No, sit here,” Mr. DeCoster said, clearing a box off a desk in the front row. It was closest to the windows, directly in front of the teacher’s station where hiding was impossible. Great.

  I plopped in my wheelie chair and turned on my computer. The large screen above was controlled by a smaller touch screen below. The guy on my right glanced over. I peeked at his screen, which briefly showed the green and gray terrain of a game world before he switched windows to an editing program.

  Forge students took three classes and a practicum daily, six days a week. I had Media Convergence, a required class for all incoming sophomores, followed by The Masters, where we studied artistic geniuses of the past, and then Space, my Math/Science elective. My practicum followed after lunch. Since everything had to be crammed into twelve waking hours per day, every minute counted. On Sundays, we were encouraged to call home, attend a religious service on campus, and relax, which didn’t come naturally to many. We also had myriad performances scheduled on Sundays, not to mention impromptu ones, like when students started singing in the laundry room.

  None of the schedule was going to matter if I was sent home, but for now, it did. Linus hadn’t done me any favors making me late.

  Mr. DeCoster was explaining how to sync audio and video tracks if they uploaded with a timing glitch. Such glitches could happen with low-grade field uploads, and he gave us each a fifteen-second clip with the sound off by a couple seconds. It was a persnickety, retro type of skill, and I didn’t see the point of it.

  “You’ll notice I’ve customized each of your clips,” DeCoster said. “Check in your E files in the K:Cloud under ‘SynchClog,’ as in s-y-n-c-h.”

  The pun evoked a chorus of moans and a brief laugh from the guy on my right.

  I glanced his way again. He was a husky black guy with glasses and thick, uneven hair that was long enough to tuck behind his ears. At his feet, his backpack had a pair of swim goggles looped around a strap.

  “This is a waste of time,” I said.

  “Questions, Rosie?” DeCoster said.

  “There’s got to be an automated program for this,” I said.

  “I want you to do it by hand,” he said. “It’ll open up different possibilities for you. Give it a shot.”

  When the teacher’s back was turned, I clicked open a new window on my computer and pulled up The Forge Show to check my blip rank: 85. It was up ten points since breakfast, and my heart did a little jig. Linus had been right about a spike.

  “That’s doom in a noose, you know,” said the guy beside me. He had a southern cadence to his voice. He nodded at my large screen as he kept skimming his hand over his touch screen. “Watching yourself. The viewers hate that. It’s cliché.”

  My Forge profile showed a live image of me facing my computer, and when I leaned forward, the image of me did, too, of course. I tried a wave and aimed it toward the active camera somewhere to my right. I leaned sideways and felt slowly through the air toward the camera lens so I could watch my hand get bigger on my computer screen.

  “Hey now,” said the guy.

  I’d entered his no fly zone.

  “One sec,” I said.

  I kept going, leaning farther over him, watching in my screen as my hand grew monster-attack large until I finally touched the camera lens, a button on Mr. DeCoster’s desk lamp. On my screen, my Forge profile switched to a new camera angle that showed me practically in the lap of the guy beside me. He was still working, peeking around me to see his own screen.

  “Any day now,” he said.

  “Sorry,” I said, laughing, and settled back. “I just had to do that.” On my computer, I closed out of The Forge Show.

  “I know,” he said. “I did it myself, back on day two.”

  He didn’t stop working to talk. He was splicing tracks, unlinking them, and shifting them around like bricks in a fluid wall. I watched him collapse the field, skim it sideways, and expand another section to drop in a segment of film from his closet.

  I felt a flicker and remembered last night’s brink lesson about laying bricks. It seemed suddenly like it could be related to editing. “How did you learn to do that so fast?” I asked.

  “Projects back home.”

  I’d been working with videos at home for a couple of years, using the editing options within my camera, but I couldn’t do half what he was doing.

  “What’s your name?” I asked.

  He shoved his glasses up his nose. “Burnham Fister.”

  “I’m Rosie Sinclair,” I said.

  “Hi,” Burnham said.

  I pulled my SynchClog file out and sat back as the first shot of the film clip appeared in my editing program. To my surprise, it was from my documentary on my sister, the one I’d used to apply to the Forge School. The first close-up shot of Dubbs’s face brought me instant delight.

  “Who’s that?” said Burnham.

  “My sister.”

  “Nice. How old is she?”


  I leaned closer to get lost in the monitor. I knew this section. I’d filmed it myself and watched it a million times. Every frame was precious and familiar to me.

  It began with Dubbs’s face up close, bobbing up and down as she rode her bicycle straight toward the camera. I’d filmed her five times so I could splice together the shots at different angles, and she’d been totally into it, every time. Next, the film showed her complete body in profile on the bike, bumping along the road in front of our train, with the orange light of the sunset coming through the gaps between and under the boxcars. Every color and shadow was deep and strong. I’d added a shot of my sister’s tan legs and her bare feet on the pedals. Her short red skirt swirled out behind her. The next shot showed her profile, and then came another three seconds of her face again, head on, until her hair flew across her lips as she turned to look to her right. There the clip froze, ended.

  Beauty shines out of my sister. You’d have to be blind to miss it. If you put her in a playground with a hundred other dusty second graders, all loud and teasing and running around, in all the commotion, your eye would light on her.

  Something inside me cracked open and homesickness poured in. At the same time, I ached to prove to her that I was good enough to stay at Forge.

  “She looks like you,” Burnham said.


  Dubbs is the delicate, light-footed, blond sister, while I’m the dark, sturdy one. Her crooked smile is openly charming and uns
elfconscious. My eyebrows are black, my eyes hazel, my teeth straight except for a gap in the front. In short, Burnham couldn’t be more wrong.

  “She does,” he said. “Around the eyes.”

  Maybe he meant how Dubbs looked determined. I turned to find Burnham watching me.

  “She’s my half sister,” I said. “We have the same mom.”

  He nodded. “Let’s hear the audio,” he said. “May I?” And he plugged his earphones into my spare jack.

  It was only fair, considering I’d practically sat in his lap. I put on my headphones and turned up the volume. It was natural sound, with the voice of my stepfather coming from off-screen. My sister called, “Coming, Dad!” and then rang her bike bell. The audio was delayed by a full second, and it was going to be a job to line it up again.

  Burnham unplugged. “Nice stuff,” he said.

  “Thanks.” I lowered my headphones and nodded politely at his screen. “What do you have?”

  He skimmed his touch screen and a dimly lit, underwater world appeared, with softly waving kelp below and the dark underbelly of a small boat above. There was just enough grainy blue light to see. A figure dove from the boat and a shimmer of pale, tiny stars trailed around his strokes as he swam down to the bottom, touched down, and sprang back up toward the surface.

  “How did you do that effect?” I asked.

  “It’s bioluminescence. It’s for real,” he said. “My brother and I went swimming last summer and I caught this.”

  “You shot that yourself?” I asked, amazed. “From the bottom of a lake?”

  “The sea. Yeah,” he said.

  And he thought my film was good. This was the sort of person I was competing against. I thunked my head down on my desk. “I’m dead.”

  He smiled. “Maybe you could switch to the drama queen department.”

  “Are you worried about getting cut tonight?” I asked. “Like, at all?”


  I laughed at his confidence and straightened up.

  “I don’t believe in worry,” Burnham added. “It doesn’t change the outcome, but it makes the now miserable, so I don’t do it.”

  “The now. That’s very Zen of you.”

  “I’m a third child,” he said, smiling again.

  He awed me. “What’s your blip rank?” I asked.

  “Last I checked, sixteen.”

  “Sixteen!” I said. Who was this guy? “That’s why you’re not worried.”

  “Ranks can change,” he said. “They’ll fly all over the place today. No one’s safe, and you shouldn’t give up hope.”

  “You’re too nice,” I said. “But thanks.”

  He flipped to the window with the computer game again. Squat cartoon knights brandished axes and maces. A little dragon came on and spouted purple fire. It was distracting, at first, to have Burnham whizzing around with his computer beside me, but after a while, I got into my synching assignment. I sank my chin into my hand, rested my left elbow on the desk, and sprawled while I worked the touch screen with my right hand.

  “Where are you from?” he asked.

  “Doli, Arizona,” I said. “How about you?”


  His clicking distracted me again, and I looked over to see a strange sketchpad box where the dragon fire changed from purple to green.

  “Wait,” I said, frowning. “Are you making that game with the dragon?”

  “Yeah,” he said absently. “I’m still working out the kinks. I didn’t create the engine or anything. I just developed the game.”

  Okay, this was a boy with serious skills.

  “What do your parents do?” I asked.

  “They’re Fister Pharmaceuticals.”

  “Come again?”

  “My mom’s a biochemist. She started the company,” Burnham said. “My dad invested and expanded it.”

  “You should get them to supply the sleeping pills for the Forge School,” I said. “They’d make a mint.”

  “They already do.”

  Of course they do, I thought. I was such a genius. How did I not put this together? Fister was a major advertiser on the show.

  Burnham took off his glasses and polished the lenses with the bottom of his shirt. It was an old shirt, a button-down that had once been red, but had faded to a soft, cottony color. He also wore an analog watch with a rectangular face. Nobody wore watches except old men. And Burnham, apparently. Burnham had to be richer than he looked. A lot richer. Burnham could wear whatever he pleased.

  “Awkward,” I said.

  He squinted as he put his glasses back on. “Might as well say it. You think I’m here because of my connections.”

  “Actually, I was just wondering how rich you are. How classy is that?”

  “Real classy,” he said, laughing.

  “Do you take the same pills the rest of us do?” I asked.

  “Yes, of course. Why?”

  “I don’t know.” I was thinking about Janice’s seizure again, and the track mark in my own arm. “Is it purely the sleep that’s supposed to make us more creative, or is there something in the pill that does?”

  “It’s just the sleep,” Burnham said. “If the pill could make people more creative, we’d be selling it by the millions.”

  “You don’t sell a lot just as sleeping pills?” I asked.

  “Well,” he said, “we do.”

  I laughed. I had a ton of questions, now that I thought about it. “Why does the school make us sleep for twelve hours?” I asked. “It can’t be just for the convenience of the repeat cycle.” One of the distinctive features of The Forge Show was that it showed the exact same footage twice, once as it happened live during the day, straight through for twelve hours, and again at night, while the students were asleep. Viewers could watch the same or different student feeds the second time through, focusing on their favorite moments of interaction.

  “The twelve hours came out of a study the Forge School commissioned back when they were trying to find the optimal amount of sleep for creativity,” Burnham said.

  “When was that?” I asked.

  “Back before we were born. I’m thinking eighteen or twenty years ago?” he said. “The rationale is that we’re on a kind of hyper-life during the day while we’re here. We’d burn out without enough sleep. You get tired by six, don’t you?”

  “Yes,” I said. “Definitely.”

  “There you go.”

  I wondered if Burnham had any idea why a student would have seizures, but it seemed unwise to ask him in front of the cameras. I glanced out the window. Across a narrow courtyard, inside the glass walls of a ballet studio, a class was practicing at the barre. The dancers arched their arms over their heads, all in synch, like models for a Degas painting, but without the tutus. I wished I had my video camera with me to capture the movement.

  “Can I try something with your footage?” Burnham asked.


  He reached for my touch screen and swiveled it closer to himself. He pulled up a still frame of Dubbs. Then he pulled up a color wheel and started sweeping in bits of purple and blue around the shadows of the boxcar and its wheels. He worked so quickly and fluidly, it was almost like he was painting directly on the photo. A few minutes later, after a final click, he stopped and slid his hand away. He hadn’t touched Dubbs herself, but by deepening the colors and darkness that framed her face, he’d made her even more luminous than before.

  I stared, absorbing the effect, wondering how he’d done it. I touched a finger to Dubbs’s cheek, wishing I could have her with me in person. We walked on the train tracks together sometimes. She liked to hold my hand and randomly tug downward for an inside joke.

  “You like it?” he asked.

  “It’s very cool. Can you teach me how to do that?” I asked.

  Mr. DeCoster approached behind us. “Rosie, I’ve had a call from Dr. Ash,” he said, indicating his earphone. “She wants you to stop by the infirmary after lunch.”

nbsp; I clenched the edge of my chair. They had caught up with me. I swiveled to look at Mr. DeCoster. “What for?”

  “She didn’t say.”

  A student called him from the other side of the room, and I glanced over to see Janice with her hand raised. Mr. DeCoster reminded us to save our work before he headed off.

  “Are you sick?” Burnham asked.

  “No. I have no idea what that’s about,” I lied. I glanced at Janice again and wondered if she would be called to the infirmary, too.

  “You look, how shall we say, a bit constipated,” Burnham said.

  I let out a laugh. “It isn’t that. But thanks for the compliment.”

  “No problem.”

  The bell rang, and around us, students shuffled up with their backpacks and turned off their computers. I hadn’t finished my synching exercise. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be back to complete it.



  BY LUNCH, I was starved, and my anxiety about the cuts was gnawing at my gut. Every time I’d stolen a chance to check my blip rank, it was hovering around 85. All the other first-year students were checking their ranks perpetually, too, and some of them looked even more frazzled than I felt. From a distance, the older students gloated good-naturedly, as if they’d never gone through this torture.

  As I passed along the cafeteria counter once again, I peered into the kitchen for Linus. He was working at a back sink between mounds of dirty trays, scrubbing in water so hot it steamed up against his face. His red arms disappeared into yellow gloves, and his white shirt clung.

  A couple of students shifted out of line before me, and I realized the girl ahead of me was Janice. I couldn’t think how to ask her if she’d also been called to the infirmary, but I could at least try to get her talking.

  “Hey,” I said. “You’re in my Media Convergence class. Janice, right?”

  “That’s right,” she said. “DeCoster chewed you out for being late. How did you do with the synching?”

  “It was okay. I didn’t quite finish.”

  “Really?” she said. “You always look so badass in that class, like you can’t see anything but your screen.”

  I laughed. “You’re kidding. Me?”

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