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The keep of ages, p.30
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       The Keep of Ages, p.30

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  “It’ll work,” I say. “You know her brain and mine are compatible. This is the best way.”

  I’m watching Orson closely, and I see the deeper focus in his gaze when he shifts from doubtful to interested. It’s the same look my dad used to have when he was excited about a new game we’d invented.

  Madeline, Diego, and Ma are stuck between unconvinced and outraged, but Orson gradually outlines a potential process to them, the same one I imagined, and they talk it over. Ma’s stubborn, but I can see her coming around. Orson puts in an order for an extra helmet and other supplies, and Tito asks him to start all the way over from the beginning again and walk them through it once more.

  Burnham snags me by the sleeve and I follow him over to the windows, where Linus and Tom join us. Baby Vali is asleep in the crook of Tom’s arm, and her perfect little face only adds to my determination. This baby needs both her parents. I know Thea would want me to fight for her life. She once told me she would give me her dreams if I needed them, and I only wish I’d felt as generous toward her then as I do now.

  “Are you sure you’re up for this?” Burnham says. “You know you could die, right? That’s what Orson means by ‘dangerous’ for you.”

  “What am I supposed to do? Let her die?” I ask.

  Burnham coughs briefly into his fist. “There are worse things than dying.”

  I arch my eyebrows high. “For her or for me?”

  “For any of us,” Burnham says.

  He is the last person I expected to be arguing against the surgery. Tom’s gaze is pinned on his daughter, and I can’t guess what he’s thinking. I turn to Linus.

  “Burnham just doesn’t want to lose you,” Linus says.

  “It’s not that,” Burnham says.

  “Then what?” I ask. “We have a chance to save Thea. What’s wrong with you?”

  “It won’t work,” Burnham says. “Why do I even have to say this? You’re not a surgeon. You have no idea what you’re doing. People don’t do brain surgery on themselves. There’s a reason for that.”

  The adult voices go silent, and tension hovers in the room. I can feel the others listening to us from across the room.

  I glare at Burnham. It bugs me that he’s actually being reasonable, but he doesn’t know how powerful Arself has become. He doesn’t realize who we are inside now. “We’re not going to let Thea die because of fear,” I say.

  “This isn’t about fear,” he says. “It’s about common sense.”

  “Then we’re not going to let her die because of that, either,” I say. “I’ve got this, Burnham. Really.” I lower my voice. “Arself’s helping me. She knows what to do.”

  He stares back at me, and then shakes his head. “That is exactly what I did not want to hear.”

  I smile.

  Tom looks confused. “Who’s Arself?”

  “You don’t want to know,” Burnham says.

  * * *

  When I slip into Thea’s room a few moments later, she’s resting exactly as she was before. My friends follow after.

  “I’m not going to do anything yet. I just want to take a look,” I say.

  In one of the cupboards, I find the scan helmet and lift it toward the window. This version is as light as a bike helmet, with delicate, retractable prongs. It’s strange to hold the device that I associate with helpless terror and recognize its potential as a tool I can use. While I’m fitting the helmet to Thea’s head and settling the nubs in her ears, I’m conscious of Linus and Tom watching. Tom, still cradling Vali, takes the chair by the window. I start up the computer and plug in the helmet. Linus brings a tall chair for me so I can sit beside the bed, see Thea’s face, and work on the laptop at the same time.

  I can still hear the grown-ups discussing details in the outer room.

  “Close the door, will you, Burnham?” I ask.

  He steps farther in and closes the door.

  I slide the computer closer and pull up Thea’s live brain scan with the typical cauliflower-like contours. Lights pulse on the screen, and it doesn’t take me long to get familiar with the controls. I can turn the image 360 degrees, and I can zoom in to find her hippocampus, then her amygdala, and then the gyrus. Though I never learned these things myself, Arself’s knowledge has become a seamless extension of my own mind, and I trust it implicitly. We focus in further on the dark spaces, the holes, and strategize a pattern for where we’ll go first, starting with a pocket of damage that’s the worst.

  Engrossed, I hardly notice when Orson comes in the door behind me. Apparently, hours have passed. My mother has agreed to the surgery, and everyone else is also on board. The extra helmet has been delivered. There’s no reason to delay.

  After we move an extra bed in beside Thea’s, I lie propped up beside her and hold my breath while Orson puts the second helmet on me. He carefully connects me together with Thea, and he has a series of a thousand nanobots ready to inject into my bloodstream. He has one computer, and I have another on my lap.

  Thea’s parents, and Ma, and our friends, line the back wall where they can watch. Linus gives me a tight smile of encouragement. For a fleeting second, I wonder if this is the last time I’ll see him, and then I feel a rise of excitement with Arself inside me. We’re near the top of a roller coaster, teetering before the plunge.

  “Ready?” Orson asks me.

  “Yes,” I say.

  At first, I try to watch my screen. I try to swipe on the touchpad to direct my view of my brain activity and Thea’s. I fully intend to stay conscious and in control, but soon my eyes feel too slow and my hands too heavy. I let them slip into inert silence, and suddenly I’m in the quiet, beige, private space behind my closed eyelids. Orson and the others disappear, and I feel a keen awareness take over, a sense of rightness. I belong here, like this, as pure, fluid thought.

  Arself guides me along, sightless, through a narrow tunnel and directly into Thea. We come to the circle where her thoughts should be brightest, but they’re not there. Instead, she’s a heaviness, an obdurate wall of loss and darkness. I’m unsure what to do. I call her name, but nothing replies. I flash back to myself and open my eyes, and focus on Orson.

  “Send the nanobots,” I say.

  “Where do you want me to direct them?”

  Arself supplies me with the right words.

  “Just put them in my posterior auricular vein,” I say. “I can take it from there.”

  My eyelids go heavy again and I sort through my dreams, calling up a blueberry ocean, a walk on the tracks back at home in Doli, a vibrant castle slipping into a sea of mud. I find a colorful, soaring songbird that flies through an underground tunnel, leaving whorls of light in its wake. I find the fish from the stream under Grisly, lurking just below the surface of the water.

  A series of golden pods shimmers into my view, and a sharp memory of pain returns to me. It was one of these pods that stole the vision of Dubbs from me, back before, when I was imprisoned in my dreams. I recall the rift vividly now, but without the helpless despair. The golden threads swirled around my sister and I tried to hold her tight so I could keep her with me. But in the end, the pod took both Dubbs and my other voice with her. They were both gone, forever.

  This is my chance now, to make that right. I control the pods this time. I can choose, and I choose a gift for Thea. It’s a bright dream vision from the galaxy moment when I connected to the dreamers, and all their shifting, brilliant power united me into something larger than I’d ever been before. I imagine that galaxy into the nanobot, where it pulses and strains with golden light, and I bring it over to Thea’s circle of quiet.

  Here, I say, and I let the warmth transfuse out of the pod and into her void. At first, the light simply vanishes into the darkness and is swept away, like an evaporation of stardust. But I bring more, and with my own hands, I pour my galaxy into her emptiness until finally, a bit of it takes. It clings to a fine, invisible thread of substance, like dewy light along a strand of a spider’s web. Then another s
trand catches light and grows stronger. I feel the heaviness begin to roll like a slow mountain against the night sky. I nudge her with my puny, hopeful strength, and I bring her more of the golden light. I deliver more of my dreams, more of my memories, until at last, I feel the spark of her consciousness coming online, right beside mine.

  She’s weak. She’s voiceless still, but she exists as a consciousness like before, back when we were only me, the two of us in one mind.

  This is what I’ve wanted, I realize. Ever since she left me, this is the wholeness I’ve missed. Thea! I say joyfully.

  Rosie? she says faintly. What are you doing here?

  I expand in every direction, spilling light and warm shadows like evening in a canyon. She’s smiling, too. I can feel it in my cheeks and behind my ears. I don’t need to explain anything to her because in less than a moment, she intuits everything I’ve done and believed.

  You’re hurting, she says.

  No. I’m good.

  But she guides me to the edge of my aching, down to the bottom of the canyon to a dark river, where I’m grieving for the dreamers and my father. For Larry, too, somehow. She grieves for them, too, in complete, endless sympathy. Loss and failure swim up-current through the river, tugging at me with their gravity.

  These things are part of us, she says. Try to forgive yourself for hating Larry and losing him.

  That’s impossible. I don’t know how.

  You have to, she says. We can’t let Berg sour us forever.

  I plunge into the black, cold current.

  I hate him still, even though he’s dead, I say.

  I know, she says. But because of him, you found Arself, and she knew how to bring you home. To me.

  The river flows less swiftly. I lift back toward the surface, and I ease back onto the shore. Thea’s smiling again, urging me on.

  You brought me your dreams, she says. You gave them to me.

  Because I love you, I guess, I say.

  She laughs. I’m back in the air, part of the light.

  And I love you back, she says. And we love other people, too. Vali.




  Burnham, Tom, Lavinia, Madeline, Diego, Tito. Althea, gone forever.

  It’s such a relief to be flying again, pure air and solace. The ping in my heart grows wider and ripples outward until we’re free.



  A CRACK OF THUNDER splits the night, and I jolt awake. Rain beats along the peaked roof of Thea’s bedroom, and a flicker of blue lights up the rivulets of water on the windows. A dim little light burns on the shelf in the corner, and when I try to sit up, an IV line tugs at the port in my chest. My helmet is gone. The computers that linked me to Thea are gone, too, but Thea is still in the bed beside mine. She’s helmetless, too. Her face is slack, her breathing barely discernible, but it’s enough to tell me she’s alive.

  Another tumble of thunder rolls over the valley, and a breeze of misty petrichor drifts in the farthest window. I have a glimpse of someone sleeping in the lounge chair in the corner: Tom, by the shape of him. For once, he’s not holding his baby, and I notice a lump in the bassinet. With an effort, I push myself up to my elbow and work my tongue around my dry mouth.

  Linus appears in the doorway. The dim light glows on his features, and from the way he’s blinking, I’d guess he just woke up, too.

  “You’re awake!” he says in a hushed voice.

  He angles near for a hug, and I breathe in his rumpled, cottony warmth.

  “Are you all right? Does your head hurt?” he asks.

  “No, I’m just a little thirsty. What time is it? How’s Thea?”

  “She hasn’t woken up,” Linus says. “Orson says she’s likely to at any time, but so far, she hasn’t yet. You’ve been out a long time. Nearly four days.”

  “It doesn’t feel that long,” I say. I push my hair back out of my face. My fingers are a little shaky, and when Linus hands me a cup of water, he helps me steady it while I sip.

  “It’s so great to see you awake again,” he says softly.

  His eyes burn with a bright, private light, and my heart does a neat little dive. He sets my cup aside with a faint click. Then he leans in to kiss me, and I close my eyes, tilting my lips to his. He’s warm, and perfectly right. Happy tingles go melting along my nerves and swirling in my belly. My fingers go around his neck and up into the back of his hair, and I can hardly think at all.

  Linus eases away, smiling, just enough so that I can see him.

  “I feel better now,” he says.

  I laugh. “You do?”

  He nods. “You had me scared, Rosie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”


  “As if you didn’t know it.” He kisses me again. Then, with seeming reluctance, he straightens. “The others will probably be coming in another minute,” he says. “The nurse started calling around as soon as she saw you were up.”

  I shift over on the bed to make room, with my back up against the pillows, and he sits facing me, with a layer of covers separating his leg from mine.

  “What did Orson say about how the surgery went?” I ask.

  Linus rubs his jaw, and I notice he hasn’t shaved lately.

  “He was pretty psyched,” Linus says. “He said he’d never seen anything like it. He showed us how the nanobots were moving around super fast, going back and forth between your brain and Thea’s. He tried to override them once, but they just kept going. Then Thea started to show more brain activity, so Orson said whatever you were doing was working.”

  “Arself was running all of it,” I say.

  “Were you aware of that?” he asks.

  “It’s more like I was meeting Thea again in my own mind,” I say. “She made me feel a little better about Larry and Berg and everything.”

  “You talked to her?”

  “It’s more that I just understood her,” I say. “It was nice.”

  He smiles. “Nice?”

  I listen to the back of my mind, wondering if I’ll hear a voice back there, either Thea’s or Arself’s, but I don’t. Instead, all I sense is calmness. A peaceful sureness or confidence. I’ve never had a serene mind before, actually. It makes me feel powerful and I have no doubt Arself is still with me, even though she’s gone quiet now. I wonder if I can draw on her abilities for anything I want to do. I’m sort of excited to find out. “I feel lighter, somehow,” I say.

  “I’m glad,” he says.

  Near the window, Tom sits up in his chair. He presses his fist to his eye and then shakes his head vigorously. “Hey,” he says. “You’re up.”

  “Yes,” I say.

  Tom stretches and gets out of his chair. He looks in on the baby in the bassinet, and then he moves over to Thea. “How’s it going?” he asks her softly, taking her hand.

  Her eyes remain closed, but they twitch with movement.

  “Did you see that?” Tom asks. “She squeezed my hand. Thea? Can you hear me?” He points toward the lamp. “Get the light there,” he adds.

  As Linus leans over and turns it on, I blink against the brightness. Thea lets out a moan. Then she squints, and slowly, groggily opens her eyes.

  “Hey, girl,” Tom says. “How’s it going?”

  Thea lifts a hand to her mouth and yawns. “Okay. Where’s the baby?”

  “She’s here,” Tom says. “She’s asleep in the bassinet. Want to see her?”

  “No, let her sleep,” Thea says. She turns in my direction and takes in Linus and me. “Slumber party?” she says.

  A thrill knocks through me, and I grin at her. “Sort of. How are you feeling?”

  “Thirsty,” she says. “I had the strangest dream.”

  “I bet,” I say.

  With a bustle at the door, Madeline and Diego hurry in, followed by my mother and Dubbs. Burnham, Orson, Tito, and the nurse crowd in last. The only one missing is the dog, and not for long. So many hugs go around. Li
nus shifts off the bed to let my mom get her arms around me. Diego moves in close beside Madeline to hover over Thea, and Tom’s openly weeping. When baby Vali wakes up and starts crying, Madeline tucks her gently over her shoulder and coos at her.

  “There, there, little Vali,” Madeline says. “Everything’s okay now. See? Your mother’s back.”

  As the baby quiets, Burnham closes the window so the rushing noise of the rain sounds far away, and then he settles back against the windowsill. He isn’t coughing as much anymore, I notice with relief. Tito turns on another light. Dressed in a bathrobe with matching slippers, Dubbs crawls up on the end of my bed.

  “I made you a card,” Dubbs says, pointing to a folded piece of paper on my bedside table. “Did you see?”

  “This?” I ask, lifting it. A dog is drawn on the cover in crayon, but the inside is blank.

  “Smell it,” she says.

  I do. It smells like lemon, and I know she’s written me a secret message. “Thanks,” I say.

  “I made one for Thea, too,” Dubbs says, pointing.

  Thea sits up a bit higher and reaches for her own card. She lifts it to her nose. “Thanks, Dubbs,” she says.

  “How about it, Orson,” Madeline says. “What’s the prognosis?”

  Orson crosses his arms and tilts back on his feet. “Good,” he says. “Thea’s latest scans show miraculous gains. She’s as healed as any patient I’ve ever seen. I’d like to follow up, of course, with both of them, but as far as I can tell at this moment, Thea’s out of the woods. And your brain, Rosie.” He shakes his head in awe. “You’re an inspiration. Absolutely. I would love to talk to you about what you did in there.”

  I laugh. “Maybe someday,” I say. Like never.

  “We’ll let you all catch up. Let us know if you need anything,” Orson says, and he and the nurse step out.

  The baby hiccups. We all laugh.

  Smiling, I look around the room and think of all we’ve been through. Tito has taken a spot next to Burnham, and they’re talking easily. Ma has her hands on Dubbs’s shoulders while Dubbs rattles on about the merits of getting a dog. Diego is setting a chair for Madeline so she can be closer to Thea, and Tom is openly adoring his baby again. I’ve never felt so lucky. When I glance over to where Linus leans against the wall, I find him smiling at me, his gaze warm and real. A spark of private happiness shoots between us, and for the first time in ages, the days ahead look sweet.

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