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I'm a computer.
They say that many years ago, before the Warming, computing was done by machines. Lots of things were. Machines counted and washed clothes and traveled about the City. Some people say the machines talked to each other, but I wonder if that's true. It sounds strange, don't you think?
Computers are people like me. My name is Callie Crawford, and I'm thirteen years old.
My parents tell me I'm pretty, but I'm not so sure. I have blond hair that shines red in the sunlight. My eyes are green. When I smile, I mean it. If that's pretty, then maybe I am.
I work with numbers. I put them together and take them apart. I juggle them in my head and write them in the stacks of books we keep. The City is a big place, so we need many computers. Our work is important. But sometimes I want more.
Do you ever wonder what's beyond? Beyond the City, with its tall buildings and narrow, twisting lanes. Beyond the land of Between, the wild place outside the City. Beyond the numbers that fill my head. Beyond the everyday things that fence me in and press me down. I think there may be something out there. I want to see it. I long for it, but I don't even know what it is.
Sometimes I catch a glimpse of it, like a flash on the horizon, like a rainbow dipping out of sight. Sometimes I hear it. It sounds like music or the silence after the music stops. I look. I listen. I edge forward, eager to touch it. I can't reach it, but someday maybe I will.
I love the old stories. My father tells them sometimes as we walk to work. Stories are his job. He's a keeper, which means he watches over memories of the past. His specialty is studying myths, stories that have been handed down from grandparents to parents to children, on and on over the years and through the generations.
"His name was Moses," said my father one spring day as we headed to work.
It was one of my favorite stories. My father grinned when he told it, not because the story was funny but because it made him feel good. He is a big man with a kind face and gentle hands. His hair is the color of copper, and his cheeks are dotted with freckles. He has an easy, relaxed way of walking. I walk the same way, or at least that's what my mother tells me.
She's also a keeper. Her specialty is studying old books and documents from before the Warming. She wasn't with us, because she works in a different part of the City. Each morning the three of us make breakfast and eat together, then go our separate ways. My mother was probably already at work, poring over documents that people had found in sealed chests, the upper floors of buildings, the tops of trees, and other places where water didn't reach during the Warming.
"Moses was born in the time of the Warming," my father went on, "when the days were hot and the seas were rising. Water was starting to cover the land, so Moses built a boat and prepared it to live on."
"Did Moses take his family?" I asked. I knew the answer but wanted to hear him say it.
"Of course he did," said my father. "He wouldn't have left them behind. He also took animals — always in pairs, male and female — and people who could do things: builders, planters, keepers, computers. The seas rose, and soon the land was gone. The boat was like a world, with everything the people needed. Babies were born. Moses watched over it all. He was wise and good, a leader of the people."
A group of walkers crossed in front of us, carrying a banner. Freedom Day, it said. Celebrate on the Square! The walkers filled the street, shouting and waving the banner. I started to push past them, but my father stopped me.
"Walkers go first," he said. "They let you compute. You let them walk."
I watched them go by. The walkers were always moving. Sometimes they held signs; sometimes they delivered messages; sometimes they carried water from the streams to the cisterns so we could use it for drinking and washing. Sometimes they just walked, their feet blistered, their legs strong and thin. Their shouts faded into the distance, and we started moving again.
"Years passed," my father continued. "Generations came and went. Then one day the people found land. One man got off to see if it was safe. He climbed a high peak and looked around. He saw a place with empty buildings and narrow roads."
"The City," I said.
My father nodded. "The people rejoiced. The animals scattered. The years on the boat were over. The City became their new home, and they lived happily ever after."
"How do you know they were happy?" I asked.
He shrugged. "They had each other. They had their work and their memories. What else did they need?"
Many things, I thought. A future to go with the past. A glimpse of what's beyond.
We made our way past the old buildings of the City. There aren't many new buildings, partly because they're hard to build and partly because we like old things. Old things are familiar and reassuring. They're comfortable. You can depend on them. We study old things — stories, books, objects. We treasure them and learn from them.
My father said, "Remember Mr. Gonzales? Your mother works with him. He studies old buildings. What he tells her is fascinating." My father pointed to a rundown structure of brick and concrete. "For instance, that one was called a bowling alley. He found some heavy balls inside but isn't sure what they were used for."
We passed a building that towered overhead, reaching to the clouds. "That's a scraper," said my father. "People actually lived and worked all the way at the top."
"How did they get up there?" I asked.
It was just one word, but it told me everything I needed to know. Since the Warming, machines haven't been allowed. We aren't supposed to talk about them. I wondered what kind of machine could take you up into the air, but I didn't ask.
Machines aren't the only subject we avoid. There are others: war, violence, art, music.
Some topics are fenced off, dangerous, too hot to touch. I wonder why. Is it really so bad to talk about them? What are we afraid of?
My father and I came to an iron gate. He stopped and gazed inside. Of all the places in the City, this was the most important. It was the cemetery. When I was young, my mother had explained what made it so special.
"It's where people go when they leave the present and join the past. They become part of history, the most precious thing we have."
At the time I didn't know any better, so I asked, "Why is history so precious?"
She smiled. "It tells us where we've been and what we've done. It's why your father and I are keepers. He says a City without history is like a person without memories. How terrible would that be?"
I joined my father at the cemetery gate and looked inside. "Are Grandma and Grandpa in there?"
He nodded. "And Great-Gran and Papa and on and on over a hundred years, back to the time of the ship. I'll be in there someday. So will you."
He took my hand. I shivered. "I like it better out here."
We turned and moved on toward the computing center. One of the few new buildings in the City, it was shaped like a giant box. There was no sign on it because everyone knew what it was. It was the City's brain. Some people thought it was a boring place, but I didn't. Numbers are many things, but they are not boring. They help me think. They form patterns in my head. I am good at making the patterns. But there are some questions that numbers cannot answer.
"Why am I a computer?" I asked.
"That's easy," he said. "You're good at it."
"What if I don't like it?"
My father glanced at me, surprised. "You don't?"
"Not just me. I mean anybody. What if you don't like your job?"
He said, "You stick with it. You learn to like it."
"That doesn't seem right."
"Callie, you know how it works. You go to school, and they watch to see what you're good at. When you're twelve, the choosers pick a job for you — keeper, catcher, computer. It's for the good of the group."
He studied my face. I must have been frowning.
"You're a smart girl," he said. "What if people could turn down jobs and do whatever they wanted?"
"Mom says it used to be that way — you know, before the Warming."
"That's right, and look where it got them."
As we approached the computing center, there was a noise in the street behind us.
Someone cried out, halfway between a yell and a scream. We whirled around and saw a young man racing down the street on a strange, two-wheeled machine.
"What is that?" I asked my father.
He stared at the machine for a moment, then recognition lit up his face.
"I saw a picture once in an old book," he said. "I think they call it a ... sickle."
The young man wobbled as he rode, weaving through the crowds, pushing the sickle with his feet. People jumped aside, staring after him. As they did, a group of catchers appeared. Their job was to patrol the streets and make sure people obeyed the laws. People who didn't were taken for counseling, to help them understand and improve. Some people couldn't, and they would be kept in a safe place where they wouldn't harm others.
The catchers closed in. The young man dug in his heels and tried to stop, but the sickle veered to one side and toppled over. The catchers were on him instantly, pulling him to his feet and grabbing the sickle.
One minute he was struggling with the catchers; the next, they had whisked him away. The crowds drifted off, and I turned to my father.
"He wasn't hurting anyone," I said.
"You know the rules," my father replied. "No machines."
"I wonder where he got it."
My father looked around nervously. "It doesn't matter," he said, draping his arm around my shoulders. "They'll put it away someplace where people won't be getting ideas."
He kissed the top of my head. "Time to work. See you tonight."
He left me at the computing center and moved off toward his office, a little cottage several blocks away. I turned and went inside.
That night, I dreamed again. I was beside a lake, singing. The music danced and swooped, filling the air and lighting me up from the inside. I was glowing, brighter and brighter. I was on fire. Then something moved in and snuffed out the light, like fingers on a flame.
The dream was gone. The music was silent. I was alone in the darkness.
"I have a question."
Dorothy sighed. "Again?"
"Why do people dream?" I asked.
"I already answered that one," she said.
"It wasn't a good answer."
Leif Caldwell poked me in the ribs.
"Ow! Well, it wasn't."
I'm Jeremy Finn. Some people say I'm a troublemaker. I prefer to think of myself as an inquisitive genius. I ask questions because that's the way I learn.
Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going and why? I keep asking questions, but no one wants to answer.
I'm a dreambender. My job is to poke around in your head, check out your dreams, and adjust them if needed. You know that dream you were having? Let's tweak it here, twist it there, give it a left turn or a double-inverted flip. Let's bend it until you cry for mercy — but you won't, because you don't even know I'm doing it.
Of course, I haven't done anything yet because I'm still in training. There are five of us, sitting cross-legged in the Meadow under a starry sky. Dreambenders sleep during the day and come out at night when the City people go to bed and their dreams come alive.
Dorothy was our trainer and guide. People said she was so good that she could bend dreams before they started, before the dreamer had fallen asleep. Frankly, I had my doubts. To me, she seemed like your typical middle-aged teacher — stodgy, boring, gray hair in a bun, you know the type. She pursed her lips and gazed at me. Maybe she thought if she stared hard enough, I would go away.
"You may not like it, Jeremy," she said, "but the truth is that we don't know why people dream. It could be a way of resting or playing. It could be a mechanism for sorting our thoughts at night. Maybe it's like taking out the garbage. Whatever it is, we know that dreams can influence what people think and feel and, therefore, what they do."
"Shape a dream, shape a life, shape a world," said Leif.
He was a tall, handsome kid with just one flaw: he was perfect. He was also my friend, if it's possible to like someone who makes you look bad just by walking through the door. His blond hair and big shoulders made me feel puny by comparison. I'm short and thin, with black hair and eyes that are always searching the horizon, looking for answers. Leif was looking for answers too, but his were numbers. Leif loved mathematics and the order it represented.
"That's right, Leif," said Dorothy. "Those were the words of Carlton Raines, the first dreambender. You know the story. He grew up in the time when people lived on the ship. As a boy, Raines discovered that he could see people's dreams. He would lie in his bunk at night, and their dreams would come to him, in fragments and then fully formed, playing out on the ceiling of his room.
"After doing it a few years, Raines learned an amazing thing: he could change the dreams. At first it was little things — the color of a room, the tilt of someone's head. The more he did it, the better he got. Soon he was changing entire story lines."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he could," she said.
"Is that a good reason?"
"He was young — sixteen at the time. He was experimenting. You've done that, right?"
"Not with people's thoughts," I said.
Dorothy said, "If that was all he ever did, then it wasn't a good reason. But he was no ordinary boy. He began to wonder about his experiments. What are dreams? How do they affect our waking lives? He explored the ship, seeking out dreamers. Once he found them, he tried adjusting their dreams and then watched the results. Little by little, he learned how to influence their behavior."
I looked at the other students. "Does anyone else think this is creepy?"
One of the students shifted uncomfortably. She was Gracie Morales, a short, dark-haired girl who rarely spoke up.
"I guess I do," she said.
Thank you, Gracie. Maybe I'm not so strange after all.
Dorothy smiled at her. "I used to think the same thing. But you know what's really creepy? People running wild, doing whatever they want, spoiling the ecosystem and poisoning the planet."
"One life or many?" said Leif. "The Book of Raines, chapter four."
Dorothy nodded. "Raines believed we need to work as a group, not as individuals, and he thought dreams might be the key. As he experimented, he began to notice something. Every once in a while, he came across someone whose dreams couldn't be adjusted. He saw these same people in the dreamscape, watching dreams the way he had.
"Can you imagine what a relief that must have been? He wasn't alone! He scanned the dreamscape and found more people like them. It turned out there was a small group, an elite handful of people whose dreams couldn't be changed but who could see the dreams of others."
"The first dreambenders," said Leif.
Dorothy went on. "He showed them how to change dreams. It turned out he was the only one doing it. The technique is simple, but as you'll find out, it's not at all obvious. Luckily it can be taught, and that's what he did.
"As time went on, he noticed something else. A few of the dreambenders had children, and those children all had the gift. Think of what it meant. This amazing ability would be passed on. The group could perpetuate itself, adding new members as they were discovered. Over time, dreambenders could shape the future. It was a staggering thought.
"Led by Raines, the group met secretly over the next few years to decide how to use their powers. They bent dreams away from negativity, toward hope and confidence. They smoothed over conflict and stressed cooperation. They imagined a world without machines or pollution, a clean world that was simple on the surface but rich and complex beneath, a world they could create by adjusting dreams."
Dorothy continued, "They drew up an agreement, and all of them signed it. People think the new order began when the City was discovered, but it really started that day, when Carlton Raines and his friends pledged to create a new world."
She looked around at the fields and forests ringing the Meadow. Darkness covered the area like a warm blanket.
Excerpted from "Dreambender"
Copyright © 2016 Ronald Kidd.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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