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The vault of dreamers, p.30
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.30

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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“I just want to read her,” the dean said.

  “She’s not even asleep,” she said.

  “I know. But as you said yourself, she ought to be,” Dean Berg said.

  They had a quick exchange about doses of medication while I lay there, watching with my eyes but unable to move my head.

  “It’s like the other night when she should have been out,” Dr. Ash said. “She must have taken something else to counteract the sleep meds, some antidote, but I can’t see how she could have had access to anything.”

  “Could she have stolen something from the infirmary?” Jerry asked. He was taking off my second shoe.

  “No chance,” Dr. Ash said.

  “Suppose we ask her,” Dean Berg said. “Look here.”

  The dean, on my left, swiveled up a screen at an angle I couldn’t see, and on my right, Dr. Ash leaned over me to take a look. Her concentrated expression didn’t change, and she didn’t speak. I felt the soft weight of a blanket over my jeans.

  “Blot her eyes for me, Glyde,” Dean Berg said.

  “Why is she weeping?” Jerry asked. “Is she in pain?”

  “No. It’s the drugs. She can’t help it,” Dr. Ash said. She shifted back and dabbed at the corner of my eye with something soft. “You want the visa-gel?”

  “No,” Dean Berg said. “Jerry, we need you back on the surface. Let me know if you see anything unusual.”

  “What about Linus?” Jerry asked.

  “I’ll get to him,” Dean Berg said. “Can you put in a call to Amby? Ask him to report that he dropped Linus in St. Louis, in case anyone inquires. That will buy me a little time.”

  “Will do.”

  I felt Jerry give my foot a friendly squeeze on his way out. I still couldn’t move. My tongue felt thick and stupid in my mouth.

  Are you here with me? I asked, and listened for a reply from my inner voice.

  Instead of words, she sent a current of fear, followed by an image of wild animal eyes hiding deep in the dark of an earthen hole.

  A moment later, the dean spoke again. “You see this? Her serotonin levels? What’s going on?”

  “This isn’t a good idea,” Dr. Ash said.

  “Would you just look? I’m not going to mine her unless it’s perfectly safe.”

  “You said you were only going to read her,” Dr. Ash said.

  “Yes, but look at this,” Dean Berg said.

  At the edge of my vision, I saw him skim the surface of his touch screen. Dr. Ash leaned into my field of view again. Her smooth dark hair was back in a neat black headband. I blinked up at her. Despite what she said to caution him, her wide eyes were oddly bright, and color tinged her cheeks. As she saw me watching her, she smiled.

  “You’re all right,” Dr. Ash said to me and patted my hand.

  “I’m going to ask her a couple questions,” Dean Berg said.

  “Don’t hurt her.”

  “I’m not going to hurt her if she answers,” he said. His voice came nearer. “Rosie, I need you to answer a few simple questions. You can talk if you try. What’s your name?”

  I looked fearfully from him to Dr. Ash.

  The dean touched his finger to my lips, and at the same time, a jolt of electricity exploded in the depths of my brain.

  “Your name?” he asked again.

  I was tense with pain, sweating with fear that he would blast me again. I swallowed thickly. “Rosie Sinclair,” I whispered.

  “That’s right. Good. See, Glyde? She’s cooperating.” The dean leaned close and peered into my eyes with a penlight. “And who’s your sister, Rosie? What’s her name?”

  “Dubbs,” I said. I had to answer him. It frightened me how much I had to answer him, like the words were being siphoned directly out of my core.

  “That’s rather an unusual name,” Dean Berg said. “Is it a nickname?”


  He returned to his touch screen again, at the edge of my vision.

  “For what?” he asked.

  “For ‘W.’”

  Dean Berg laughed. “Of course. And what does the W stand for?”

  “Wanda,” I said.

  “A lovely name,” he said. “Do the bracket for me, Glyde.”

  “You know I wouldn’t object if I didn’t have serious reservations about this,” Dr. Ash said. “At least wait until she’s fully out. Whatever she’s on has to wear off eventually. Have some patience.”

  “You’re such a coward. We may never get another opportunity like this. The bracket, please,” Dean Berg said. He shifted nearer to me again, so I could see his pale eyebrows and bright expression. “What did you take to stay awake tonight?” he asked. “You must have taken something. I can tell if you lie, so don’t do that.”

  “Burnham gave me some pills,” I said softly.

  “Burnham?” Dean Berg said, clearly surprised. He and Dr. Ash exchanged a glance. “Have the Fisters said anything to you?”

  “No,” Dr. Ash said. “I would have told you immediately.”

  He turned to me again. “Do you know what the pills were that Burnham gave you? What drug?”

  “No,” I said.

  “You sure?”

  “I don’t,” I said.

  “Did you tell Burnham what you suspected about the dream mining? This is serious, now,” Dean Berg said.


  “Are you certain?”

  Another exploding burst of pain lit up the pit of my mind again, and I squeezed my eyes shut against the hurt.

  “She’s not lying, Sandy,” said Dr. Ash. “See for yourself. You’re tapped so deep, I doubt she’ll even remember this conversation when she comes around.”

  “She’ll remember it,” he said. “She’s conscious. She’s just sleeping, too.”

  “That isn’t possible,” Dr. Ash said.

  “Just look.”

  I’m like a dolphin with a double-duty brain, I thought, blinking my eyes open again. I wanted to laugh in despair and pain.

  Where are you? I asked.

  But she wouldn’t answer. I could feel her burrowed deep, trying to hide.

  The head of my examining table angled up slightly, and Dr. Ash passed a cagelike helmet above me. Then she fit it carefully around my skull, and I heard the sound of a clamp being screwed.

  “You’re going to feel something in your ears, to set an axis, and then a prick behind your ear,” the dean said. He lowered another light directly over my head. I had to close my eyes against the bright dazzle, and I could feel the texture of the illumination on my eyelids, as if microscopic tentacles were stroking my skin.

  Two cool probes poked into my ears, but instead of muffling the sound, they seemed to amplify it. A sharp sting shot under my left ear, just above the hinge of my jaw.

  “Felt that? Sorry. It should be okay again now,” Dean Berg said. “Are you dizzy at all, Rosie?”

  “No,” I whispered. Fear was making me cold. I was shivering through the limpness of my muscles.

  Dr. Ash dabbed at my eyes again.

  I tried to swallow, but my tongue felt thick.

  “She’s going,” Dr. Ash said. “See?”

  “I know,” Dean Berg said. “It’s a natural defense. I thought this might happen. I need one more thing, though. If we can tap fear, we can go directly in. Rosie, are you listening?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  “This is very important. Look at me,” he said.

  I opened my eyes to find his face filling my line of vision. Fine, blond eyelashes rimmed his eyes, and I could see the individual pores of his nose.

  “You’ve been perfect,” he said, smiling. “I want you to know that. Now tell me about something you’re afraid of. Something small.”

  “I’m afraid you’re killing me.”

  “We’re not. We’re absolutely not,” he said. “I’d never do that to you. Think of something else instead. Some small, everyday thing that shouldn’t scare you but does, like maybe dogs. Do dogs scare you?”


  “Then what else does? Be truthful now.”

  “My stepfather’s belt.”

  Dean Berg glanced toward Dr. Ash, then back to me. “Still too big,” he said.

  “Big spiders scare me,” I said. “Little ones are okay, but not the big black ones.”

  “Spiders,” he said softly. “Spiders will do very well.”

  He nodded to Dr. Ash again, and she aimed a screen in front of me, close up. In growing panic, I tried to look past the screen’s rim to Dean Berg, but it was too late. Together, they drew the screen so near it cut off any view of the rest of the room.

  “You’ll be all right, Rosie. I promise,” the dean said reassuringly. Then a moment later, “All set, Glyde? On go, give me a big, black spider, up close and hungry. Ready? Set? Go.”

  The spider appeared inches from my face, as big as a dog, snapping and biting. Pure horror shot into me. It ravaged through me, igniting and escalating my other fears. Burnham was bleeding to death under my mouth as I tried to breathe into him. My stepfather raised his belt to lash it down on me. Linus’s perfect head was crushed by a bludgeoning ax. My sister Dubbs came next, bicycling heedlessly into a rushing train. Wordless terror took over, nothing but teeth and fury, deep in my darkest core.



  I WAKE IN my coffin.

  Why call it anything else? My eyelids are covered with gel. I’m too weak to do more than twitch my thumb, but even sightless and immobile, I can hear and think. I am still alive in this world, no matter how tiny my box has become, and my rage has only intensified through simmering.

  The lid of my sleep shell makes a distinctive swish as it is opened.

  “I wish they’d clean themselves.” A lisping, tenor voice comes from directly above me, and I smell a trace of tobacco.

  “Careful there.” From the direction of my feet, a second man’s voice comes deep and smooth. “She’s more fragile than she looks. Ready?”

  My sleep shell rolls into motion, and my hope goes haywire. I could plead with the men to set me free.

  Don’t be stupid, she says.

  They could be my way out.

  They work here, obviously, she says. See what you can learn before you open your mouth.

  She’s right. I concentrate on listening for a clue that I could trust one of these men, but they aren’t speaking. My sleep shell vibrates with fine tremors. Then it slows and bumps over a doorsill. Increased light passes through my eyelids, and when I smell a familiar trace of vinegar, my hope shifts to dread.

  “How’s she look?” Dr. Ash asks.

  It’s better to have the doctor here than Dean Berg. That’s what I tell myself. But not by much. I work my tongue around inside my teeth, testing if I’ll be able to form words.

  “Good,” says the first man, the smoky tenor. “All her vitals are regular. Her heartbeat is up a little. I swear she knows when we’re coming for her.”

  “That’s normal,” Dr. Ash says. “Half of them do the same thing. Okay, now. Gently.”

  I’m lifted and placed on a new, cooler surface. By the way my stomach sinks inward, I can feel that I’ve lost weight. My right elbow is no longer sore. I have no clear way of knowing how long I’ve been living like this, but it’s been more than days. Weeks maybe.

  “Can I stay and watch?” says the smoky tenor.

  “You’ve seen this before,” says Dr. Ash.

  “But not with her,” he says. “She’s famous.”

  The other man’s voice comes from a distance. “If you don’t need anything else, Dr. Ash, I want to double check the rest of the order. You know the pickup is scheduled for four.”

  “Of course,” she says.

  His footsteps recede as someone lifts my hand and turns it over. I keep my fingers limp.

  “When was she last cleaned?” Dr. Ash asks.

  “Two weeks ago,” the man says.

  “For heaven’s sake,” Dr. Ash says. “Warm me up some cleanser. Be quick about it.” She takes a firmer grip on my hand, and a moment later, I feel her trimming my fingernails.

  “Why does it matter?” he asks. “She doesn’t know if she’s clean or not.”

  “The body knows,” Dr. Ash says. “They rest easier when they’re clean.”

  It frustrates me how little I know. Dean Berg mentioned that he was going to move the dreamers, so I assume we’re no longer at Forge. I don’t know where Dean Berg is, or what he told my parents, who have to be looking for me despite the contract we all signed. The dean can’t just keep me drugged and hidden.

  Dr. Ash lifts my right hand across my body, and while she’s trimming those fingernails, I surreptitiously rub my left thumb along my fingertips to feel the new shortness. The pleasure in touching my own fingertips is immeasurable.

  Play dead. How hard can it be? she says.

  You don’t get it. They’re going to mine me again, I answer. As soon as they finish cleaning me, they’re going to mine me, and then they’ll put me under again. I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to try to get out.

  It’s safer if they don’t know you’re awake.

  I don’t want to be safe. I want to be free.

  She abandons words and takes control of us by sending me a swell of brown color. Giant turtles pile in a black baby carriage that rolls slowly up a hill, and the bizarre image fills my vision. She’s learned how to cross over the barrier to enter my consciousness. I can go her direction, too, into subconsciousness, but I prefer my side, where logic still matters. Where I had free will once.

  You could at least send me a dream that will make me happy, I say.

  She obliges by sending me Linus as I first saw him, in his white bib apron, leaning back against a giant wooden spool, but without his injury or his ice pack. As he aims his gaze toward the pasture, he is simple, calm, and so familiar it hurts. Leave him there, I beg her, but as if she can’t resist, she shifts to my last memory of him lying in the operating room of the vault.

  Stop, I tell her. My panic rises again.

  His table morphs into a black sleep shell and encases Linus like a coffin. When I rush into the dream to push back the lid, his body swells into a putrid mess, and maggots crawl out of his ear. They mutate into tiny flies that swarm at my face.

  I jerk back.

  Stop that! I say. We don’t know that!

  She tidies up by dissolving Linus entirely. She offers no apology.

  My heart’s still racing, but I refuse to accept that my nightmare could be true. As far as I know, Dean Berg has never actually killed anyone, and untethered fear is not what I need.

  I reassert control and surface into my surroundings again. My body tingles from being scrubbed, and someone is rubbing a soft towel over and between my toes. It tickles, and I almost laugh.

  “I love that. See her smile?” the man says.

  “Like I said. The body knows,” says Dr. Ash.

  I feel a hand stroke up my leg, slowly and lightly. That I don’t like. He reaches my knee and strokes higher.

  “Goose bumps,” he says. “See?”

  Dr. Ash sets down something with a metallic click. “You’ll treat them with respect, Ian, or you’re out of a job.”

  Her concern strikes me as ironic, considering she’s part of the team that has confined me here, helpless to defend myself.

  “Yes, Doctor,” Ian says. “I was just trying to show you. She’s responsive sometimes, more than the others.”

  “She was never damaged like the rest. That matters,” Dr. Ash says. “The gown, please. Watch the IV.”

  A drape of light cotton settles over my body, and I feel like a giant doll as a big hand moves my arms, one at a time. I hear snaps near my shoulders. The cloth is given a final tweak and I’m decent once more.

  “What are you going for this time?” Ian asks.

  “Same. I want to see how the old gap filled in. It should be regenerated by now, and our partners are eager for more.”

  “Can’t you just
multiply it once you mine it?” he asks.

  “We can. It’s harder to stop once it starts duplicating, though, and that can be just as dangerous as having too little,” Dr. Ash says. “Apparently, the surgeons get fewer tumors if they’re working with the raw material.”

  “It doesn’t hurt her, does it?”

  “Not any more than when I just cut her fingernails,” the doctor says. “A little closer, please.”

  She turns my face to the side, and when I feel a couple of familiar nubs in my ears, I know exactly what’s happening. I’m not so much horrified this time as agonized. A stinging prick pinches the skin just beneath my left ear.

  This is going to hurt, I say.

  Stay calm, she says. If you want to sleep, I can take you there.

  No, I want to listen, I say.

  “See that?” he says. “Is all that activity normal for her? Her auditory is lit up like the Fourth of July.”

  “That is odd,” Dr. Ash says.

  I’m startled by the gentle pressure of a hand on my arm.

  “Rosie?” Dr. Ash asks quietly. “Can you hear me?”

  My heart leaps.

  Don’t answer her! she says.

  But my brain scan has betrayed me already. I’m sure.

  What do I do? I ask.

  Stupid! she says, and she washes a calm through me. It’s pure, serene molasses, and I’m compelled to breathe deeply and evenly. She sends an image of my backyard at home in Doli, when the sunset glows orange over the ridge across the valley. I smell sage in the warm dusk. Dubbs comes to sit beside me, leaning her arm against mine. Even though we’re sitting and not walking, she takes my hand and tugs it down.

  “It’s just a dream,” Dr. Ash says. “She might be hearing music. I once mined a bird watcher who dreamed in birdsong.”

  “What happened to him?”

  “He’s back there. Stevens Eighteen,” Dr. Ash said. “And, we’re in.”

  I feel nothing. Every now and then, I hear a little click, and once I feel the doctor’s breath on my face when she leans close. I can picture her narrow features and her straight dark hair. She likes to wear a red sweater.

  Then a twinge, like a plucked chord of a guitar, shows me a cupcake with red and white sprinkles. Another twinge makes me plunge into the wet blue coolness of a swimming pool, and then it’s gone.

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