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The rule of mirrors, p.30
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.30

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “No. The mining times won’t be regular,” he says. “They’ll be random. They could happen anytime. That’s better for the fear.”

  “You’re sick.”

  “I’m determined, not sick,” Berg says. “I’ll be honest with you. Once the news of Dr. Fallon’s success with Thea gets around, your dreams will fetch an exorbitant price, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t share in the profits. Thea’s parents have already sent out feelers to see if her original seed is available for patches when she needs them.”

  I frown, startled. “They want more of my dreams? Do they even know I’m alive?”

  “I think that’s going to be a point in your favor.” His expression turns darker. “And now we’d better get going. We don’t want to keep Thea waiting.”

  “What do you mean?” In my pocket, I use my thumbnail to push off the cover of a syringe.

  “I thought I told you,” he says, his voice lifting. “I’ve been dying to get you two together on the same bench.”

  He lunges for me.

  I whirl the stapler in a sweeping arc, and as he easily blocks my blow, I pivot and plunge the syringe into his shoulder. He roars and grabs me, but I’m able to shove in the depressor as we crash to the floor. Berg twists me beneath him and pins both my arms.

  “What did you put in me?” he asks.

  His face is a savage snarl above mine. I shove hard with my knee, but he’s too heavy for me to lever aside. He takes both my wrists in one hand and reaches for the syringe.

  “What is this?” he demands. He stares at it as if mystified and flips it over. “What did you give me?”

  “Sleep meds,” I say. “The same ones you use on me.”

  He slumps slightly, and I get one hand free. He grows heavier still, crushing my chest, but I shove violently to get an inch free.

  “How much?” he asks.

  “All there was,” I say.

  He presses a hand to my throat, cutting off my wind. “Where’d you get it?”

  I twist my head and struggle to pull his hand away.

  “Where?!” he shouts, and he releases my throat enough for me to gasp in a new breath.

  “Get off me!” I say.

  He tightens his grip on my throat again, and I seriously can’t breathe. I thrash, bug-eyed and panicking, and I’m seeing stars when his grip slackens slightly. I pull at his fingers, desperate for breath, and inhale raggedly. Then I scramble and push furiously to get out from under the sagging weight of him.

  Limp and unmoving, he watches me through hooded eyes.

  Gasping precious air, I reach into my pocket for another syringe. I flip off the cap and lean nearer. He waves a weak hand to fend me off, but I clamp his arm down and hold the syringe poised above him.

  “Where is Thea?” I ask. “Is she in the vault?”

  He leers. “Find her yourself,” he says thickly.

  I jab the next syringe hard into the meat of his arm and plunge in the depressor. That’s two doses, enough to mess him up for a good while if I’m not mistaken. Berg’s eyes dilate with fear, like he knows this is bad. He’s lying there like a toad, with a slick line of saliva drooling out of his mouth. He moves his lips, but no words come out, and I’m glad he’s conscious. I’m glad he knows how helpless he is.

  “How’s it feel?” I ask. “You bastard.”

  I have two more syringes, come to think of it. I pull them out and weigh them in my fingers, contemplating. Berg shakes his head at them, his eyes wild. It would be easy enough to give him the rest of the sleep meds. The likelihood is high they’d kill him. Then I’d be certain he would never come after me again. It’s tempting. Deeply. He deserves to suffer for what he’s done.

  His skin goes clammy and his eyelids droop, but then he regains his wild focus once more. He deliberately taps his own chest, right above his heart. Then he twitches a finger at me. “Nightmare,” he whispers.

  A shiver lifts the hairs on my arms. I can’t tell if he’s cursing me or accusing me. I reach for his shirt and pull it back to reveal the place he was tapping. He has a lump under his skin. A port, like mine. We’re alike.

  He’s still watching me to see what I’ll do.

  I draw back slowly. This taunting, vengeful person can’t be me. I don’t want to be a sick monster like him. I put the caps back on my used syringes, and put them with the other two back in my pocket. Then I feel through his pockets for two phones, mine and his. He doesn’t resist. He can’t. He’s a big body of slumbering flesh. May he rot.




  I HATED BERG. I really did, with everything in me. Wherever Rosie was, I hoped she was killing him. I hoped she was blowing his scurvy brains out.

  I had been alone in the dark operating room for six hours, and I’d had enough. My contractions came randomly, but they came often enough to convince me my labor had started for real. Once, at the end of a contraction, I thought a bit of light came from the other room and Berg was returning, but then he didn’t. Now and then, I thought I heard a mouse. I would nudge my phone for a glimpse of light, but its battery was practically dead, and I dreaded being in the total dark with no relief.

  Another contraction rolled over me, and I focused inward and tried to breathe through the pain. With my knees and hands on my jacket beneath me, I tucked my head down and kept my eyes on the little glowing screen of my phone as if it could save me. The contraction eased just as the screen automatically dimmed to black, and I curled onto my side again, exhausted.

  A thump came from the other room. I listened hard as footsteps came running. A glimmer flashed in the window, and a voice came like mercy through the muffling glass.

  “Thea!” Rosie called. “Are you there?”

  I staggered to my feet, bursting with relief. Her flashlight blinded into my eyes.

  “Thank goodness!” Rosie said. “Are you all right?”

  She rattled the door from her side. I lifted a hand against the glare. Her flashlight fell to the ground and cast an angle of iridescence up the window that separated us. She tried the door handle with both hands, and for an instant, our eyes met through the glass, directly opposite each other. For an eerie second, I saw Rosie’s face glowing across from mine, exactly as if I were seeing my own reflection in a mirror. A keen wildness brightened her eyes. Then she dipped down for the flashlight.

  “Stand back,” she said, and tried slamming the flashlight against the glass. It didn’t break. “I have to get something bigger,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

  “Turn the lights on!” I yelled.

  She vanished. A moment later, light illuminated the main vault, and I had a clear look at the room that had imprisoned me all this time: the bare white walls, the dusty tile floor. The camera in the upper corner was as still as a patient spider.

  Rosie hurried back with a coffeemaker machine.

  “Stand back,” she said again.

  I gathered my phone and jacket off the floor, backed into the corner, and covered my face. A bashing noise sent splinters scattering everywhere. I peeked up as she pummeled the machine against the window again, whacking the glass shards at the edge of the frame.

  “Come on,” she said. “I’ll help you over.”

  I doubled my jacket over the lower edge of the window edge and gingerly gripped the sides, toppling over mostly backward to Rosie, who caught and shifted me through the opening.

  “How long have you been down here?” she asked.

  “Six hours. I’m in labor.”

  “Holy crap!” she said. “That bastard.”

  I put an arm around her shoulder to lean on her. “Did you see Berg?” I asked.

  “Did I,” Rosie said grimly. “I should have killed him while I had the chance.”

  “What did you do to him?” I asked.

  “Not enough.”

  My muscles ached deeply, and every bone felt brittle and heavy.

  “I have to know,” I said. “Did you talk to h
im? Does he know about us?”

  “Yes,” she said. “He wants to get us together and compare our brains.”

  “I hate him,” I said.

  “What are you even doing down here?” Rosie asked.

  “I came to stop you from going to see Berg,” I said. “I was worried you’d do something stupid. I’ve totally changed my mind.”

  “You, my friend, are an idiot.”

  Rosie kept her arm around me as we started down the tunnel. Each step caused a grinding wrench to my back. I couldn’t go very fast, but I focused on the beam from her flashlight and put one foot in front of the other. We passed the glass room, and ages later, the side door. The floor sloped down, went on forever, and then leveled off again. Rosie kept encouraging me, but I barely heard her. I knew the door to the barn couldn’t be much farther when another contraction hit me. I stopped to lean my head against the wall while my entire body clenched into a deliberate stone. I had to drop to one knee.

  “You are not having your baby in this tunnel,” Rosie said.

  I ignored her, curling inward. Breathe, I thought, but instead a gasp caught in my throat, and I locked on it until my lungs wanted to explode. The pain was even more intense than before, ten big notches up, and when it finally stopped, I was a panting sweat ball of exhaustion.

  “That was a bad one,” I muttered.

  “That animal,” Rosie said. “Maybe I should go ahead and get some help.”

  “If you leave me, I’ll kill you. I swear I will.”

  “Where are Linus and Tom?” she asked.

  Linus and Tom. It took me a second to even remember who they were.

  “I have no idea,” I said.

  “They must be looking for us,” she said. “Didn’t you tell them about this tunnel?”

  “No. You said not to. Remember?”

  “Unbelievable,” she said.

  I tilted my face to look up and found her scowling.

  “Don’t be angry,” I said.

  “I’m not mad at you,” Rosie said. “I meant it’s unbelievable that you kept your promise.”

  “You’d have done the same thing,” I said.

  Rosie looked at me oddly and let out a brief laugh. Then she offered a hand.

  “We’re going to get you out of here,” she said. “Ready?”

  I groaned as she hauled me to my feet. My legs were wobbly logs.

  “Gently now,” she said.

  She drew my arm around her shoulders again, and I felt her support around my back. She steadied me against her. Together, step by step, we kept on. The flashlight beam jogged over the rough floor and walls.

  “Another one’s coming,” I said, slowing.

  “We’ve almost made it,” she said. “I can see the door ahead. It’s just a few more paces.”

  But I dropped down to my knee again and braced myself against the wall. I was beyond caring how dirty everything was. My stomach, my back, and every other inch of me went tight with pain. A gush of fluid broke down my leggings, and I moaned.

  “Thea,” Rosie said. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”

  I heard her only dimly. More than anything, I wanted to lie down right there and huddle up, just conserve my strength during my precious stretch of painlessness before the next contraction set in.

  “No,” Rosie said, tugging at me. “Up! We’re not staying here!”

  You’re wrong, I thought. “Help me get my leggings off,” I said.

  I was afraid she’d argue, but she rolled down my waistband and guided my pants and underpants down my legs. She spread our two jackets beneath me. The next tightening began, and I leaned forward on my hands and knees. This contraction was harder and deeper than the last, a vice of pain that sucked in all the dark of the world and held onto it, laughing with evil joy.

  “I’m getting help,” Rosie said. She sounded frightened.

  No. Stay with me, I thought, but the words couldn’t get past my gritted teeth. I grabbed for her hand and kept her with me. The contraction suspended beyond what I could bear, and then it finally released me. I rolled carefully onto my side.

  I caught a glimpse of her anxious face in the flashlight.

  “Stay,” I said.

  She nodded. Her eyes were huge. “I will. Don’t worry. I’m here.”

  I lay panting in the dark tunnel, calm as a stone. For this moment between contractions, my body relaxed completely. I let every last muscle sag downward into gravity, from my fingertips to my ankles. Even the muscles behind my ears gave up and went smooth. I breathed slowly and deeply, preparing, because I sensed that the next few contractions would count.

  Without warning, a flashing, sunny image of a collie puppy surfaced before me. Gizmo. Gladness blossomed in me as the little dog turned his smiling snout my way and padded toward me on his oversized paws. A girl’s young, tan hands, my own, sank into the silky fur of his neck. Behind the puppy, Grampa sat in a porch chair, smoking a fragrant pipe and holding a new leash.

  “Like him?” Grampa said. “He’s yours.”

  “For real?” The girl’s clear voice was mine, and I was unmistakably Althea.

  I knew he’d say yes. I knew the puppy was mine. I had a dog!

  Then the next contraction came and slammed me back into the tunnel.

  Moaning, I pushed back up onto my hands and knees and tucked my head, which felt like the only way to be. Be ready, I thought. It won’t be long. My body said push, and there was no arguing. The impulse became a sustained urgency. I expected noise, flurry, fear. Instead, my baby was born quietly, sliding out into a beam of light. Rosie handed the newborn to me as I rolled back, exhausted and mind-blown, and when Rosie brought the light around so we could see this new life, the baby winced and gave out a tiny cry.




  “A GIRL,” THEA WHISPERS. She sounds as exhausted and amazed as if she’s taken a trip around the entire universe.

  I don’t know how she can be so calm when I’m on the edge of panic. This situation is way over my head. Thea has an actual, live baby snuggled against her chest. The tiny girl has still got the umbilical cord attached and a motley layer of waxy stuff on her skin, but she’s out. She’s breathing. I have no idea what to do next, but I am certain of one thing. We need help. Fast.

  “Thea,” I say gently. “I’ve got to get help. Just hold on and I’ll be right back.”

  “Don’t leave me,” she says.

  “I have to,” I say. I know this tunnel can’t be clean enough for Thea or the baby. There’s more blood, too. Things are oozing and pulsing in ways that can’t be right. “I’ll be right back. I promise.”

  “Don’t go!”

  But I have to. I know I do. I leave her the flashlight, and I bolt out of the tunnel. I charge up the stairs of the dairy barn. Nobody’s there but cows. When I try my phone, it has a real signal again, and I punch in 911.

  “My friend’s just had a baby,” I say. “We’re in the dairy barn in Forgetown. Down in the basement. We need help fast.”

  The dispatcher wants names and details. She asks if the baby’s breathing. She asks about the afterbirth.

  “What afterbirth?” I ask, alarmed. “I have no idea what that is.”

  “It’s all right. Stay calm.”

  I am not calm. I scan around the barn as if medical supplies might appear before my eyes and magically tell me what to do with themselves, but I’ve got nothing, nothing at all. Thea still needs me. Empty-handed, I bolt back downstairs. I grab an old mop and bucket to prop the door open so the medics can find us, and then my reception cuts out as soon as I’m in the tunnel again.

  “Rosie!” Thea calls, her voice husky and weak.

  “It’s okay. Help’s coming,” I say.

  Thea’s hunched and moaning. With feeble fingers, she pushes the baby toward me, and I take her, feeling helpless all over again. All I can do is nestle the baby against my shirt and tell Thea it will be all right, but I have zero guarantees.
I’m listening for voices, hoping the medics will find us soon, when Thea reaches out a shaky hand and grips my arm. Her gaze is fierce, but at the same time, her focus is wrong, like she isn’t seeing me.

  “Thank Thea for me,” Thea says. “Tell her to look after my baby.”

  A cool, light shiver passes over me. “You’re Thea,” I say gently.

  “Tell my parents and Grampa I love them,” she adds. Her voice lifts higher and softer. Her Texas accent is clearer. “They did right by me.”

  My throat tightens. Who is this girl talking to me?

  Her hand slips loose from my arm. Her eyes close. Her head tips limply back.

  Pure panic rises up in me. “Thea!” I scream. “Rosie! Althea!” I grab her shoulder. I’m still holding her baby and don’t know what to do for her. I can’t tell who she is anymore. She’s not responding.

  I’m still screaming when the medics charge in. They bring light and supplies and a stretcher. Four medics surround Thea at once, and I watch in horrified awe as they work over her. Another medic takes the baby from me with gloved hands. I’m backed against the wall, clutching my hands into my shirt where the baby just was. I’m trying to see Thea between the medics, but I can’t get a straight view. When Thea moans, I almost burst into tears at that sign of life.

  “Is she going to be okay?” I ask. “Tell me!”

  One of the medics looks over his shoulder at me. “Are you the one who called?”

  I nod.

  “Don’t go anywhere. The police are going to have some questions for you.”

  “Just tell me she’s going to be okay,” I say.

  “She’s lost some blood, but she looks like she’ll make it,” he says. “Her heart’s strong. She’s young.”

  He doesn’t know anything. He thinks Thea’s a normal girl. He has no idea that she was in a coma, and I don’t know where to begin explaining.

  “Do you know when she was due?” he asks.

  “She still had four weeks to go.”

  He nods and turns back to Thea.

  We need to call her parents, I think. And Tom. Someone should call him, too. Thea still looks awful to me despite the medic’s reassurance. They’re hooking up blood.

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