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The vault of dreamers, p.4
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.4

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  She smiled, and for the first time, I wondered if, in my own way, I was as intimidating to the other students as they were to me. Janice kept talking about class, and we went through the line together. Brightly lit stations made French fries glow and green nubs of broccoli shimmer in their cheesy sauce. I still couldn’t get over how much food was offered to us every day, and in such a variety.

  When we came out of the line, the tables were nearly full, and I scanned for empty seats. Janice hovered beside me. Above, designer LED lamps dropped down between crisscrossing beams of wood. I didn’t have to look closely to know the room was riddled with cameras, little button ones affixed to window frames, booths, and napkin dispensers. The blip rank board flipped its mini panels in another update, and I could feel how the fluttering noise fanned the anxiety in the room as students turned to check their ranks. I was at 87.

  Someone called my name. I turned to see Burnham sitting at a round table with a couple other first-year students. They’d found a sunny place near the windows, and Janice and I wound our way over to join them.

  I set down my tray across from Burnham, and Janice took the place between him and me. “This is Janice,” I said.

  “Burnham Fister,” he said, half rising to offer a hand. He was the first guy I ever saw who made shaking hands look natural and not weirdly grown up.

  “I think we’ve met before. At Camp Pewter,” Janice said. She smoothed her long hair over her shoulder.

  “That’s right,” Burnham said, smiling. “I didn’t think you remembered. Do you know Paige and Henrik?”

  Paige, slouching in a black leotard, said a quick hello. Her eyes were ringed with black, her dark complexion was flawless, and her lips were a deep, pouty red. Henrik had close-cropped brown hair and a chin-strap beard, and his thin summer scarf made me think Europe, especially when I picked up a slight accent. He was methodically adding sugar to the four cups of coffee on his tray.

  “You know, Paige, it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a person if you get cut,” Henrik said. “Viewers watching from home have no way to judge our inner worth.”

  “That’s not true,” Paige said. “Our inner worth is directly connected to the behavior we show on the outside. That’s why it’s going to hurt. It’s the ultimate rejection.”

  I glanced doubtfully at the two of them while I spread cream cheese on my everything bagel. Burnham, I noticed, was chewing the end of a straw.

  “But they’ve only been watching us for ten days in this totally bizarre, surreal place,” Henrik went on. “This isn’t who we really are.”

  “No? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been spilling my guts out on the dance floor,” Paige said. “This is who I am. This is everything I am.”

  “Are you saying a bunch of strangers knows you better than your own family?” Henrik asked.

  “I’m just saying they’re picking their feeds based on what they see, and this is who I really am,” Paige said. “Whether I make the cuts depends on if they want me or not. It’s that simple. Why can’t you accept a true meritocracy?”

  Henrik leaned over his coffee cups with a red swizzle stick. “If it’s that simple, everyone who’s rejected tonight will go home and slit their wrists.”

  “Holy crap,” Janice said.

  Paige smacked her hand on the table. “You have to put everything of yourself out there,” she said. “That’s the point. That’s art. You can’t hold back.”

  “Oh, please,” Henrik said. “Art is not all guts on the dance floor. Can you imagine the mess?”

  I let out a laugh.

  Paige glared at me. “What?” she demanded.

  “It’s just, guts would be sort of slippery,” I said.

  Paige leaned back, crossing her arms, and stared at Burnham as if to ask him, who is this moron?

  Burnham smiled around his straw.

  “Fine,” Paige said. “Laugh.”

  “Come on,” Henrik said, starting on another cup of coffee.

  “No, you have to admit Paige has a point,” Burnham said, taking out the straw. “It’s hard not to feel like our entire worth is wrapped up in our blip ranks. But Henrik’s right, too. If we exist only for our ranks, we’ll cease to exist once we leave. That can’t be right, Paige. There has to be something more.”

  “Why? Art is already more. That’s what we’re being judged on,” Paige said.

  “Your art and your blip rank are connected, but they’re not the same thing,” I said. “If you say your rank is all that matters, Paige, then you’re saying people with low ranks or no ranks, like people working in the kitchen, have no worth at all.”

  “That’s not what she’s saying,” Henrik said.

  “No, that is what I’m saying,” Paige said. She stirred her yogurt. “Why be afraid to admit it? We’re on the show because we’re better than them. We’re more creative and interesting. And if we make the cuts, that says we’re worth more than the students who get cut. We’re intrinsically more valuable people.”

  I sat back with my lemonade and stared at her. Paige was crazy mean, but I sort of admired her elitist guts, the ones she put on the dance floor. I also hoped she’d get cut.

  “You probably think the hyper-rich are intrinsically more valuable, too, just because they’re rich,” Henrik said.

  Paige opened her hand. “Survival of the fittest. They’ve figured out how to rule the world. Ask Burnham.”

  I choked on my drink.

  “Can I strangle Paige?” Henrik said.

  Burnham’s dark cheeks had taken on a deeper hue, and he looked stiff. “Be my guest,” he said lightly.

  Henrik threw an arm around Paige’s neck and wrestled her into a headlock. She did something to him under the table that made him let go. “Hey!” he said.

  “All’s fair,” Paige said.

  “Which is this? Love or war?” Henrik said.

  “Take your pick,” Paige said, and took up her sandwich.

  From across the dining hall, the big blip rank board fluttered with another update, and I was surprised that none of my companions glanced over at it. I couldn’t resist. I was at 83. Janice, Burnham, Henrik, and Paige were all in the top twenty-five. I caught Burnham watching me, and focused again on my bagel.

  “Can I have your swizzle sticks, Henrik?” Janice asked.

  Henrik passed them over. “Why?”

  “I like them,” Janice said.

  “They’ve got a whole can of them over by the coffee,” Henrik said.

  “I like them used. That way they’re not wasted,” Janice said, drying them daintily on a napkin.

  “What do you do here?” Henrik asked her.

  “I’m an actor, obviously,” Janice said, drawling out the word. “Speaking of the cuts,” she added, reverting to normal, “I heard people can hack into the Forge Show database and falsify the blip ranks.”

  “Like who?” I asked.

  “Backers and advertisers,” Janice said. “Gamblers.”

  “Everything’s encrypted,” Burnham said. “The computer security has a ton of layers, and they change the encryptions regularly so people can’t hack in.”

  “How do you know about it?” I asked.

  He shrugged.

  “Have you tried to hack in?” I asked.

  His gaze met mine. “I have cameras on me all the time,” he said. “When would I have the chance to try?”

  “You could have tried before you came here,” Paige pointed out.

  “That would be highly unethical, wouldn’t it?” he said.

  He wasn’t saying it was beyond his abilities, though.

  I sucked a dab of cream cheese off my thumb. “If a person wanted to influence the blip ranks legally, would there be a way to do it?” I asked.

  “Sure,” Burnham said. “One way would be a group effort. We have a lot of influence ourselves, actually. If the five of us made a direct appeal to our viewers and asked them, point blank, to start following one person, that person would gain a major chunk
of our viewers all at the same time. They’d see a serious spike in their blip rank.”

  “Could we try it?” I asked.

  They all turned to me, and I felt a knot of apprehension. I was way too uncool.

  “Never mind,” I said quickly. “Forget it.”

  “No. It’s not a bad idea,” Burnham said slowly. He studied me a moment. “The effect would be even more conspicuous with a low-ranking student, and, no offense, Rosie’s rank is low.”

  Paige laughed, sitting back. “You want us to endorse little Miss Rosie here?”

  “Why not?” Burnham asked.

  “I don’t even know her,” Paige said. “Why should I use my influence for her?”

  Burnham smiled easily, but there was an edge to his voice. “You may be an elitist snob, but you’re also interested in a social experiment.”

  Paige considered me with her black-rimmed gaze as if I were some seven-legged bug.

  “You guys don’t have to,” I said. “Really.”

  “Why? Is it mortifying to be a guinea pig?” Paige asked. “Let’s all do it at once.”

  “It’s not mortifying, Rosie. It’s just an experiment. Let’s try it!” Janice said. “What do we do? Hold hands?”

  Henrik was shaking his head at Burnham. “Man, you are something.”

  “Keep it simple. Just look right at one of the cameras,” Burnham said. “Ask your viewers, straight up, to check out Rosie’s feed. Ready? On your mark, get set, go.”

  The four of them each turned to a different camera button and recited some version of “Follow Rosie.”

  Burnham slid his phone into the center of the tabletop and pulled up my Forge profile. Everyone hunched over it to see, and correspondingly, my profile showed us all hunching together. My blip rank put me in 82nd place. Then it jumped to 80, and then 78. It hovered there a moment. On the wall across the dining room, the big blip rank board began to flicker again with another update. I turned to watch it, holding my breath, as the numbers and letters spun, and when they settled, my blip rank was up to 69.

  I let out a laugh of disbelief.

  “My rank’s up, too,” Henrik said. “So is Paige’s. We all went up.”

  Paige was gaping at the big board. “Burnham’s at number nine.” She turned to him. “Unbelievable.”

  He shrugged.

  “Does this mean we all just got spikes for helping Rosie?” Janice asked.

  “Looks like it,” Henrik said, laughing. “I guess that blows your theory, Paige. Niceness trumps art.”

  “Don’t worry. It won’t last,” Paige said, rising from her seat.

  The others laughed and started getting up, too.

  “Thanks, you guys,” I said, pushing back my chair. “I mean it.” Despite what Paige had said, I was beyond thrilled. “You especially, Burnham. Thanks.”

  “You never know,” Burnham said. He reached into his back pocket. “Hold on. I’ve got something for you, if you want it.” He passed over a piece of paper, folded in quarters to make a kind of booklet, and I opened it to find a picture of Dubbs. He’d printed off a screenshot from when he’d played with the colors around her face. I held it up to peer at it closely, loving how cool it was.

  “You like it?” he asked.

  I hardly knew what to do with such thoughtfulness.

  “Are you always this nice to people?” I asked.

  “It’s no big deal. Really,” he said, and with a jog of his glasses, he turned and made his way between the tables.

  Janice grabbed my arm to hold me back. “That dude totally likes you,” she said.

  “He just met me,” I said.

  “Yeah, but still. Do you have any idea how rich he is? I can’t believe he’s even at this school,” Janice said.

  Burnham was kind of cute. I almost said it out loud before I remembered the cameras. It wasn’t just the viewers stopping me this time. Anything I said could make its way back to Burnham, and also to anyone else in the school. I glanced back toward the kitchen.

  “I’m supposed to go to the infirmary,” I said.

  “How come?”

  “I don’t know. The doctor wants to see me,” I said.

  Janice obviously hadn’t had the same request to report to Dr. Ash. For a second, I considered showing her the track mark on my arm to see if she might notice hers, but then what? I still didn’t want to admit, on camera, that I’d been awake at night.

  “It’s probably nothing,” Janice said.

  “I hope so.”

  We left our trays at the return counter, and I lingered a second, looking back into the kitchen for Linus. His pile of trays was gone, and he was on to washing a stack of pots.

  “Can I help you?” The chef stepped into my line of vision. “Chef Ted” was embroidered in blue cursive on his white jacket, and his jowly face was mismatched with a lean, wiry body. When I scanned his hand for bruising, I saw nothing but hard knuckles.

  “I was wondering if Linus is okay,” I said.

  “How’s that?” the chef said, turning an ear toward me.

  “Linus,” I said, louder. “I wondered if Linus’s eye is okay. From when you punched him this morning.”

  Linus didn’t stop working, but another one of the kitchen helpers, a frizzy-haired woman with a potato peeler, looked my way. A young man behind her set down a big tub of applesauce to watch, too.

  “Pitts!” Chef Ted called.

  Linus turned, and I saw the discoloration around his eye was worse.

  “I told you to get that checked out,” Chef Ted called.

  “I’m going to. Right after—”

  “Go now,” Chef Ted said. “And go to the infirmary, not the clinic in town.”

  Linus glanced toward me, his expression unreadable. He turned the hot water off. He started peeling off his gloves.

  “We appreciate your concern,” Chef Ted said to me. “You have a nice day now, hear? Good luck with the cuts.”

  Linus turned his back to me. From the angle of his elbows, it looked like he was untying his apron. I hesitated, waiting for another look from him, but it didn’t come. Why did I feel like I’d made a mistake? I’d only used my leverage, such as it was, on his behalf. He stepped out of view. I waited a bit longer, expecting him to come out of the kitchen and join me. Then finally I realized he must have gone out the back door.

  We were both going to the infirmary, but we were each going alone.

  5

  THE INFIRMARY

  THE INFIRMARY WAS an older, ivy-covered building with shiny wooden floors and a clock on the mantel. No one was manning the receptionist’s desk, but I could hear voices down the hall. I stood patiently, noting the retro phone next to the computer, and a few of the usual camera buttons inconspicuously mounted on the window frames of the waiting area.

  “Hello?” I called.

  No one answered.

  I wondered how long it would take someone to react if I started down the hallway, so I did. I wasn’t exactly sneaking around if thousands of viewers knew where I was.

  The first door showed an empty bedroom with a high ceiling and a heavy, old-fashioned radiator. In the next two rooms, I heard voices and I glimpsed patients lying half-concealed behind curtains. The next door was ajar, and a familiar voice came from inside. I tapped to announce myself.

  “Hello?” I asked, and pushed the door open.

  Books crammed shelves from ceiling to floor, and a red cardigan was draped over the back of a desk chair. I paused on the threshold, inhaling a trace of perfume. An old desk piled with papers was tucked between two tall windows. When the voice came again, I recognized the woman who had been in my dorm the night before, but she wasn’t in the room. The sound came from the computer, from a speaker. Linus’s voice came next.

  “Once before,” he said. “Same eye.”

  “And how did that happen?” asked the woman. The doctor.

  “Same way.”

  I was eavesdropping, wicked little me. The computer had to be wired to
a microphone system in the building, apart from The Forge Show, because Linus wasn’t a student on the show. I looked over my shoulder, but the hallway was still empty. A camera on the hallway ceiling was aimed toward me, but inside the office, I couldn’t see any.

  “A fight? When was this?” asked the doctor.

  “Three years ago, in St. Louis,” Linus said.

  “You could have mentioned it.”

  “I didn’t see that it would make any difference,” Linus said.

  “When I think I know everything about a patient and then it turns out I don’t, it’s disconcerting,” she said. “You don’t want to go around collecting hyphemas. Your eye hasn’t given you any trouble since that time?”

  “No.”

  I gave the door another nudge and took a step in. A large screen covered most of the third wall. It was divided into a grid much like the viewing setup of The Forge Show, but the squares did not show live feeds. Instead, they were filled with pictures: a brown castle teetering as it melted into the sea, a green caterpillar eating a sky scraper, a blindfolded child with red curls standing on top of a Ferris wheel. A dozen fantastic, impossible images created a kaleidoscope of color.

  “How long has it been since Otis tapped you?” the doctor asked.

  “What’s that have to do with my eye?” Linus said.

  “Just answer me.”

  “Only two weeks,” he said. “I’m not due again for a month.”

  “And you’re not selling your blood to anyone else?”

  “No.”

  “Linus,” she said gently. “You don’t have to let them tap you. You know that, right? I’m sorry for Parker, but I can’t see that it’s making any difference for him. I’ve told Otis that many times.”

  “Are we done here?”

  “We’re not,” she said. “Hold on. I’ll be back in five minutes. Here, tip your head back again. Right.”

  The conversation puzzled me. It sounded like Linus was selling his blood to someone who was getting no benefit from it, and Otis, the cameraman from the tower, was involved. Waiting to hear more, I peered again at the grid of pictures. One was a black-and-white Hamlet in a red scarf. The next showed a black boy who looked like a younger Burnham. He was sitting by a campfire, staring into the flames.

 
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