Monthly Archives: May 2010

Three Keys in the Desert (part 21 of 26)

Ebie wandered the dark streets of 942. She was dizzy, but not so much that she couldn’t stay upright.

It was done, finally. Classes were officially over and the workstations were all powered down until after Transfer Day. Ebie couldn’t force herself to stare at the walls of her office anymore.

She still had reports in the morning, and a meeting with the Head, but she’d gone over every detail, every room, every resident, and the district was ready for inspection. She walked, looking up at the stars, enjoying the quiet. For once, she had nowhere to be.

Tomorrow would be a long day, and the day after would be even longer. She had to sleep. Her eyes hurt when she blinked, a sharp pain that made her tear up. The darkness helped, like a soft blanket. The last days were always the worst.

She stopped in front of number 14. Parties weren’t allowed the night before the Shutdown, but the smell of sau was so strong it had to be coming from some get-together. She thought about ignoring it, walking more, until her body eventually gave up and surrendered to tiredness, but… this was Leo’s building. Leo had always been responsible. She’d never had to take care of problems at 14 ever since he moved in. He was one of the few people she’d slowly learned to trust.

And now he was two days away from becoming an elder.

Still, she had to be sure. Everything had to be perfect for tomorrow.

The smell was coming from the first floor. Ebie walked slowly, until she saw the open door, third on the right. Inside the dark room she could see over a dozen people, strewn across the floor. No one was touching the beds, which was probably Leo’s design. The room was mostly quiet, with people lying on top of each other like limp dolls. When Ebie stepped inside the smell of sau was so thick it made her cough.

She spotted Leo slumped against the wall by the window. He didn’t seem unconscious, which was a good sign. Maybe she could just turn and leave? Trust him to make everything presentable by morning? She was too tired for a confrontation.

She was startled by the sound of clapping. It was Leo, up on his feet, stepping over hands and feet to come closer to her. A few people joined in, slapping their palms together, apparently all looking at her.

“Come on,” Leo said, when he came close enough to see Ebie’s confused expression. His smile looked apologetic. “We made it through another year. You got us through it.” He bent down, picked up a pipe someone was holding and offered it to Ebie. “I promise everything will be clean by tomorrow.”

She hadn’t smoked in months. Between classes during the day and Key stuff at night she rarely had the time. Especially when she had to do all her exams early, weeks before everyone else, so she could focus on Transfer Day.

She could leave. She probably should. It wasn’t a good idea, getting high in public. But her legs felt so heavy, and tomorrow was important, and her body wouldn’t let her fall asleep for hours. She could feel her brain buzzing with restless energy.

She took the pipe and stepped over three arms and a stomach to sink into the corner of the room. Hunched over, legs pressed to her chest, she took a long hit. The smoke felt bitter on her tongue, and then sweet. Another hit and breathing felt easier. Like her lungs were unfolding, taking in more air.

She closed her eyes. In a few years it would be her last Shutdown. She’d have someone to train as a replacement. She wondered if she’d be sad when she stepped on the shuttle. People always said the sadness hit you right at the end.

She inhaled through the pipe again. It was too weird to think about.

The walls and the furniture were starting to blend together. Everything was spinning but not in a way that made her nauseous. In a pleasant way, like mild turbulence. At least she could still tell the wall against her back was solid. She took another hit. Around her there was nothing but darkness, soft and inviting, and in front of her… in front of her was Len.

He was hunched over too, like the room wasn’t big enough to contain him. The thought made her smile. He was probably imaginary. She’d been seeing him a lot when she closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Len said, and the smile slid off Ebie’s lips.

The Len in her head would never open with that.

“Should I go?” he said. His face turned away and Ebie’s arm shot out to stop him. She grabbed nothing but air but Len’s face came back.

“Stay,” she said.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked. The sound of his voice was making something solid form in her throat. Breathing was getting harder again.

“There’s nothing to forgive,” she said. The thing behind her back didn’t feel so solid anymore. She took another hit.

“You should sleep,” he said.

“I know.” She didn’t know how to explain that her room might as well have been at Central Processing. Her limbs were too heavy to move.

He gestured for the pipe and Ebie handed it over. He took a long hit, bending his head back and blowing smoke at the ceiling.

“Are you real?” Ebie said.

He smiled. She’d missed his smile.

“Come on,” he said, drawing his arms around Ebie. She hugged him back, but then the room really started spinning. The pipe was gone and so was Leo and she couldn’t feel the ground under her feet anymore.

But Len was here, warm and solid. She didn’t care about anything else. When she opened her eyes to see the door to her room she realized her arms were around Len’s neck, and his were holding her up. No part of her was touching the floor. She let him fish the room key from her pocket. Moving was still too much work.

He put her down on the bed, gently, like she was a pillow. She grabbed his arm when he tried to pull away.

She’d managed to keep everything quiet, do all the favors and deals and disgusting things she hated, and it was done, however tomorrow went. She’d gone behind Sol’s back, and Vrei’s. She’d paid the price she had to.

She needed Len back now.

He helped her peel the uniform off when her fingers wouldn’t cooperate, and then climbed in next to her. The bed felt crowded again, but it was like every muscle in her body could finally stop straining.

She rested her head on his shoulder as he settled, with his back against the wall. The room was too hot for a blanket, but her body felt cold from the sau. She remembered smoking it as a kid, how it made the weather more bearable before she got used to it.

Len pulled something soft over both of them.

She didn’t know whether her eyes were open anymore. The darkness was everywhere and Ebie wished she could just sink into it and never wake up.

Sol was staring at her from the floor. She was lying still, right next to Ebie’s bed. Her eyes were bigger than Ebie remembered, and there was blood slowly dripping out of her nose. Ebie tried squeezing her eyes shut a few times, until finally the floor was back to being clean stone.

“I’ll always protect you,” Ebie whispered against the skin of Len’s arm. Whether he was real or imaginary, he had to know.

She could feel his even breaths, chest puffing up on every inhale. “I know,” he said. “I love you too.”


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Three Keys in the Desert (part 22 of 26)

1 Day Until Transfer Day

Claudia found it astonishing how slowly new information spread through the school. News of her trial broke before she’d opened her eyes that morning, and yet it wasn’t until after breakfast that she could tell all the adults she encountered had seen the footage. The bulletins were full of pictures of the carcass of Claudia’s ship, official statements from her former subordinates taken from the court records, even holopics from the funerals.

No one said anything outright, but by noon Claudia was queasy from the awkward silences, the averted eyes. Her entire staff looked like they were trying to wrestle their questions to the ground. No one in this school had deluded themselves that she’d been sent here as a promotion, but they hadn’t expected her to be this big of a disaster.

The only person who seemed to be unchanged was Michael. Handing her the daily reports and going through her schedule, his tone was devoid of the insolence she’d almost grown accustomed to. Claudia didn’t have the mental energy to piece together why that was. Perhaps he was afraid of what she might do to him, now that the she had nothing to lose.

After breakfast, Claudia ducked back into her quarters for a few glasses of the precious liquid she’d brought with her. It was better to do that, she thought, than try to survive the day sober. The grand tour of the school would begin in an hour—she needed her strength.

She drank until the images she’d seen on the news that morning, that she kept seeing whenever anyone gave her one of those cautious, apprehensive looks, dulled and faded. Until she could look at the drab walls of her room and see nothing but the usual depressing decor. She wondered how soon she’d get her new orders. They probably wouldn’t let her stay here. Even in a place this backwards, she couldn’t be allowed to fill a senior role.

The worst part was, Claudia thought, she wouldn’t change anything if she could go back. She’d been given a covert retrieval mission, supplies in the buffer zone, abandoned during the War. She’d personally overseen navigation, spent weeks double-checking intelligence to make sure she’d have a clear route. Even the fact that all her precautions failed and they did end up running into a patrol ship from the other side shouldn’t have mattered. Her ship was supposed to have a civilian signature. Nothing Claudia could have controlled caused the mistake.

And the firefight, after… well. When she first woke up, in the hospital, she thought perhaps the death toll would be enough for the diplomats to smooth it over. Martin’s life alone could be considered a fair market price for avoiding another war.

She put the bottle to her lips again.

Claudia could have spent the rest of her life rotting here—she’d made her peace with that, mostly. But now… now a public trial was inevitable. She had to appreciate the irony—all that secrecy, and what they’d ended up with was a spectacle.

The fact that no one had informed her, given her a heads-up that the information had leaked… it made the outcome nearly certain. No one wanted to touch her now that she wasn’t just mildly toxic but a full blown nuclear disaster.

Claudia took one last sip before getting up. She was late for her next meeting.

A sixteen year old acting like she was entitled to Claudia’s professional attention was hard to take seriously on a good day, let alone when the girl in question was asking Claudia for a preposterous favor. A meeting, scheduled weeks in advance, just to ask that her XO be allowed to skip the grand tour of the school. Claudia wondered if this was a ruse, if the girl had wanted something else entirely but was trying to draw Claudia out, see how far she could push her to ignore protocol.

“The answer is no,” Claudia said. Did the children even have access to the broad information networks? Technically not, but Claudia wouldn’t put anything past Ebie.

“Michael’s already approved it,” the girl said, as if that meant Claudia should follow suit. “I’ve been leaving him in the district since the first year I was Key,”

That sounded likely. Claudia could easily believe the previous heads of this school let the students bend the rules any way they wished. If Ebie had hoped to catch Claudia unprepared, she was about to be disappointed. “If the other Firsts can do it, so can yours.”

The girl seemed lost for words for a moment. When she regained herself her expression was a far cry from her usual sullenness. “Please. He’s so exhausted by this point, If I drag him through the Shutdown I won’t get any help on Transfer Day. I need this, as a favor.”

Ebie normally had an odd, detached way of doing business. The sudden solicitousness was highly suspicious. “There’s no haggling in this office,” Claudia said. “You could send him to medical, but you haven’t. Now you expect me to make an exception so you can continue hoarding vouchers?”

The girl took a deep breath, as if trying to come up with more arguments. She clearly hadn’t anticipated Claudia’s resistance. She’d thought the morning bulletins would turn Claudia into a cowering idiot.

“If there’s anything—” Ebie began, but the door interrupted her, opening with a chime and revealing the head doctor’s face.

Claudia was already tired of her perpetual cheerfulness. She wasn’t looking forward to prison, or wherever they sent her next, but at least she could be certain after this post there would be fewer annoying underlings to deal with.

Susanna looked from the girl to Claudia. “I’m sorry, should we postpone?”

“No,” Claudia said, and then looked at Ebie. “Your ten minutes are up. Get out.”

The girl grabbed the edge of Claudia’s desk. “Colonel, please, let me just—”

“Get out,” Claudia said again, in the tone it had taken her a decade to perfect, the one she used to discipline her officers.

The girl got up, surrounded by a halo of violence. Claudia watched her carefully, almost hoping she’d do something, give Claudia an excuse to burst.

But no further response came. The doors slid shut and Susanna sat down. Claudia pretended to look at the numbers on the sheets Susanna pulled up and nodded along.

This day would be without end.


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Three Keys in the Desert (part 23 of 26)

Vrei’s hands were shaking. She smoothed her spare uniform, freshly back from the laundry, for the third time since getting dressed. She tried not to walk too quickly. The sun was already out, though it wasn’t as oppressively hot as it would be in a few hours. Sweat stains before the Shutdown even started were a bad idea. She needed to feel her best to make this work.

“It’ll never happen again, just so you know.” Olin said, after a short silence, walking beside her. “I’m sorry. I’m strong now, I promise.”

“Was it Zher’s idea?” she asked, because it was the one thing she had to know. Were her friends lying to her too?

It took a moment before Olin answered. “No. Not really.”

Vrei kept walking, looking straight ahead. She shouldn’t have asked. There was no place in her head for this today.

Of course Ebie and Len were already waiting when Vrei and Olin got to the Head’s office, even though Vrei had made sure to come early. When the doctors and maintenance workers and every other adult finally showed up the Head announced the first district to be inspected would be the 745. Vrei tried to hide her sigh of relief.

Ebie’s district looked even better than last year. Every floor was polished, every bathroom looked like it had been cleaned a few minutes ago. No matter what building Michael picked the people in every room stood next to their beds, backs straight, hands behind their backs, and only talked when spoken to.

After the 745 it was the 331’s turn.

The Shutdown had always seemed stupid to Vrei, before she became a Key. Even the Head had to know none of the districts really looked like this. It took a few months of Key meetings before Vrei understood.

The Shutdown was currency. It wasn’t about the day-to-day, it was about Vrei proving she was in control, that she could be trusted. For a year she’d have to fight for resources, ask Michael for favors, propose things, and all people would remember was the Shutdown. The better her district looked, the more power she had.

As they progressed through the buildings Vrei’s heart threatened to tear out of her chest. Her skin felt warm and clammy. Olin took over explanations and answers to Michael’s questions, like they’d rehearsed. Vrei needed some breathing room. She wouldn’t be able to pull off the lie if Michael’s attention was on her the whole time.

As they got deeper into the district, for a moment it seemed the Head would stop the inspection before they got to the fence. She looked half asleep and more annoyed with every moment.

“A few more, Colonel,” Michael said, as if he too could see her patience was running low.

Vrei felt her throat close up. She forced herself to keep walking.

Susanna was the first one to notice the hole, after everyone else had gone inside a new building. She gasped and grabbed one of the nurses, making the Head come outside, followed by Michael, and then Vrei was pushing ahead of everyone and running towards the fence.

“Stop!” she heard Michael yell, but she kept running. There were footsteps behind her and then someone grabbing her and pulling her back. It was Arai. Vrei struggled, but not too hard. They were only a few steps ahead of the others.

When Arai let her go Vrei collapsed on the ground, landing on her palms in the dust. She stared up at the fence with her mouth open before burying her face in her hands. When she looked up everyone was huddled around her. She pushed one of the nurses away when he tried to take her pulse.

“This…” she said, letting her nervousness affect her breathing. She looked up at Michael. “This… I don’t know… It wasn’t here yesterday.”

She climbed to her feet and came closer to the fence, slowly. Behind her she could feel everyone brace themselves. She ran her hand next to the shimmering blue wires, right next to the edges of the hole, before Olin grabbed her and pulled her away again.

Vrei didn’t struggle this time.

“It’s my fault,” Olin said, letting her go. She sounded a little stiff, but looked believably devastated. “I should have done another round this morning. I’m so sorry,” She turned to the Head and looked at the ground. “The Key didn’t know. I should have… I should have tried harder.”

That definitely sounded rehearsed. Vrei tried to make up for it. “It’s my responsibility,” she said, looking at Michael. “I… I don’t know how this happened. It’s my failure.”

Michael didn’t say anything. He came closer to the fence, examining the damage. The Head was quiet too. Probably waiting for him to decide what Vrei deserved.

“When did this happen?” Michael said, finally, turning to face Vrei.

“I don’t know,” Vrei said, trying to sound lost and overwhelmed. “It had to be last night or this morning.” She let her tone become more solid. “I’ll find out. I swear, I’ll find out.”

“A little late, don’t you think?” Michael said. He was frowning. She had to let him get angry. He liked to be right and liked it even more when people groveled. Vrei usually had other ways of getting what she wanted, but this one she had to play safe.

“I’ll turn this place upside down,” Vrei said with conviction. “I’ll find whoever did this, Michael. I’ll… I’ll find out why.”

“And how,” the Head said, startling Vrei. “They didn’t chew through steel and current.”

“I’ll find out,” Vrei said. “I’m just…” she buried her hands in her hair again, hiding her face. She rubbed her eyes against her arms, to make them seem redder. “I don’t know how this happened,” she said, finally, looking up at Michael again. “I don’t know how we can keep going. I just… I’m sorry.”

She looked at the ground, at Michael’s shoes—dark green, not like her blue uniform boots—and waited. He could call off the Shutdown, say they’d move on to the 945, which would mean he blamed Vrei for this. She wouldn’t get another chance to show him the district and the last thing he’d remember would be this.

“All right,” Michael said, exchanging a look with the Head before turning his eyes on Vrei. “I think we can proceed for now.”

“I swear, I’ll find out what happened,” Vrei said, not letting herself look up. “You can demote me right now, I won’t sleep until I fix it.”

She already had a plan to dump the tools Kir had buried in the kitchens tomorrow. No one would blame the fluffs, and beyond that every district had access. She’d send Kir to Susanna, let her start rehab, let Michael cool off for a few days before bringing him a confession. A junkie, alone, an accident. Everything about the problem would be taken care of already. It was the only way Vrei could get her reputation back.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Michael said. He didn’t smile, which would have been ideal, but he didn’t seem angry either. “Let’s go.”

The longer they stayed in the district now the better.

She kept up the act for the rest of the tour. She needed to seem distracted, angry, restless. She had to show Michael that there was no space for him to be any of those things too. They passed by Kir’s building and kept walking, and Vrei’s shoulders felt lighter for the first time in days. It wouldn’t have been a disaster if Michael saw Kir now, clean and presentable. He probably wouldn’t remember her. But it was easier that he hadn’t. It gave Vrei more freedom to spin whatever she had to, later.

Stepping out of the 331, finally, back into the Compound, felt like a rush. Vrei let herself get lost in the group, letting someone else take the lead. Her body felt like she’d been running for hours. It didn’t hit her until she was stepping out of the gate that it was Sol’s turn now.

She could barely focus, but to her eyes the 945 looked the same as the year before. The streets reasonably clean, the people all tucked away in their buildings. Vrei didn’t feel ready. There had been so much to do, she hadn’t considered this part. She didn’t remember where Sol lived, so with every new building she wondered if there would be a lock at the end of a hallway. She stayed close to Olin. Walking together felt better, somehow. She tried to catch Ebie’s eye, but Ebie was dealing in her own way, as usual. Her face was serious and heavy and she only had eyes for Len.

Inside the rooms and bathrooms things were worse. The younger residents didn’t know how to answer Michael’s questions and Arai didn’t always know to step in. The Head frowned at the dirty tracks and disheveled beds. Bo was mostly quiet.

It was selfish, but Vrei couldn’t help but feel lighter with every new flaw. The worse the 945 looked, the less Michael would remember the fence. How could he punish her in a year when Sol’s district looked like this?

And no one expected Bo to know how to wrangle everything. Michael wouldn’t punish him, but the mess still made Vrei look better in comparison.

She probably deserved every horrible thing Ebie had ever said about her for thinking like that.

After the districts the Head inspected every part of the Compound, not that it mattered. It wasn’t like anyone would be punished if the medical equipment or the cooking machines or the maintenance gadgets were broken.

The last stop was the Fluff Palace. Since the Keys had no access to it, Vrei only saw it once a year. The fluffs seemed to get younger every year, arranged in orderly semi-circles next to their beds. Looking over the endless rows of bunks in giant, windowless rooms. Vrei couldn’t believe she’d ever felt at home here.

Another thing she couldn’t believe was how much Bo looked like one of them. He was small for his age, but seeing him next to the boy Vrei usually saw cleaning the soup dispensers was disturbing. Arai looked more embarrassed than she had at the 945.

After that Michael took them to dinner, in a large room that was usually locked, next to the Head’s quarters. Firsts weren’t invited. Vrei hugged Olin, letting herself breathe for a few seconds.

The worst was over. Whatever happened, Vrei had done everything she could.

She was the last one to step inside. Most of the seats around the giant table, cobbled together from smaller desks, were already taken. Ebie looked like she wanted to strangle someone and Bo looked like he was waiting for someone to strangle him, but Vrei was too tired and too hungry to care. It was dark outside and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Michael smiled while everyone unwrapped the bowls of food, waiting here since the morning, and didn’t look at Vrei specifically, which was a good sign. She wanted to be on his mind as little as possible.

Somehow the food at the end of the Shutdown always tasted better, fancier than Vrei was used to. Maybe it was that the fluffs knew it was their last day before transferring and did something weird with the machines.

The nurses passed around a bottle of clear liquid that smelled sweet and tasted like vomit. Vrei took a few gulps and pushed her glass aside. She could feel herself get lightheaded already, like after half a pipe of sau. She had to stay sharp enough to keep her food down, not look too disoriented. Michael couldn’t see her letting go.

She got up when Michael started shaking hands with everyone. She felt dizzy. Maybe she’d eaten too fast, maybe she drank more than she should have. Maybe it was the lack of sleep catching up with her. She could barely stand up straight while everyone said their goodbyes. She saw Ebie roll her eyes impatiently and finally walk out without waiting for Michael to officially let them go. Bo was stuck between too many people—he’d probably stay until the end. Vrei couldn’t afford to. She had to go back and check on Olin.

She managed to get out of the restricted staff area and into 331’s section of the Compound, but after that the corridors became impossible to keep track of, even though she knew them by heart. She realized she’d made a detour when the gate, leading outside, didn’t appear where it should have. She turned back. She had to be close to the exit. Another turn left and two more corridors and she found herself next to an emergency door. Suddenly the map clicked in her head—instead of being by the gate she was by the border, where her district connected with Ebie’s. She’d missed a turn a long time ago, but now she knew how to fix it.

There was a sound coming from somewhere. Heavy breathing, like someone was hurt.

No one could be in the Compound at this hour. If Kir had managed to sneak in somehow, or one of her junkie friends, Vrei would toss them at the Palace before the new fluffs even got off the shuttle. She checked a few of the nearest classrooms but they were empty, and the sound got weaker the farther away from the emergency door she got.

She thought about Sol, about waking up to Michael’s message, running to the Compound before sunrise. She thought about the moment when she realized Sol was really, really dead. She remembered feeling like the world had shifted while she was asleep and she could no longer find her place in it.

She came closer to the door, swiped the card and watched the heavy barrier go up.

Someone was lying on the floor, curled up in a ball. Vrei could see blood stains on their uniform. Before she could come up with a plan her mind recognized the nose, the hair, the chin. The size of the body.

She knew that face.

Once the door was all the way up Vrei knelt down. Len’s uniform was full of sand, torn in places, like he’d been crawling on the ground. The blood was coming from scrapes all over his face and arms.

He smelled like he’d smoked half the sau in the 745.

Vrei wondered if Ebie knew he’d be celebrating like this as soon as she was gone. He was sober just a few hours ago. And what had he done to his face?

Vrei tried to unbutton his uniform, check for other injuries, but as soon as her fingers moved past the first button his body convulsed. Len shoved himself away, violently, hiding his face.

“It’s me,” Vrei said, moving closer to him. He should be able to recognize her, even with the sau.

Len’s back was against the wall of the corridor. He didn’t move as Vrei leaned closer, but she could hear him murmuring, saying the same words over and over. She could make out “please” and “I’ll do anything”. He kept repeating himself faster and faster, like a broken workstation.

Vrei sat back on her heels. He was too big and too heavy, she couldn’t force him to go anywhere. Finding Ebie would take hours. She didn’t know the 745, especially in the dark. Getting her own friends to help would take even longer.

She’d never seen Len like this. Never thought it was possible.

Vrei looked down the empty corridor. The lights in the Compound never went out. There were no sharp objects around, no windows, no sau, and the gate would be closed until morning.

“Don’t tell her,” Len’s voice said, and Vrei looked down. His face was still hidden between his arms, but his hand was crawling towards her ankle.

Vrei rose and took a step back.

That made Len look at her. His eyes were red, his bottom lip was bleeding. He looked scared.

Kir’s words rose up like sau smoke behind her eyes.

“Please,” Len said. “Don’t tell her. Please.”

He couldn’t mean Ebie. If she didn’t know he was here already she’d find out soon. Although… Firsts could keep secrets sometimes. Vrei knew that firsthand.

She swiped her key through the lock and watched the barrier go up again. She was already late to check in on Olin and her friends. Len was safe, and if he didn’t want to move, she couldn’t make him.

He’d be fine here. She’d talk to Ebie tomorrow.


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Three Keys in the Desert (part 24 of 26)

Transfer Day

Kim tried to close his eyes. The sun was going to come up soon. He’d never felt more tired, but his body refused to let him sleep.

Arai was slouched against the wall, by the door. If she’d tried to sprawl on the cold stone like Kim they’d have to touch each other, and nobody wanted that.

Bo was still snoring quietly on the bed. It had taken most of the night to calm him down. Kim had assumed things would get better after the Shutdown, instead he’d spent the entire night talking Bo down from tearing the room apart.

Getting Bo away from here had turned out to be complicated. There were apparently rules about Keys sleeping in other people’s rooms. He’d discovered that in the middle of a screaming match with Arai. Not that anyone would check where Bo spent his nights, but Arai had a point about Bo blurting it out accidentally and getting them into even more trouble.

The night after the Shutdown was always a giant party, so Kim hadn’t planned on sleeping much, but staying up with Bo had been torture. When Arai suggested getting a pipe Kim didn’t even fight her. Bo had been hiding under the bed, trying to scratch off his own skin. Kim held him while Arai lit up the sau. He stopped fighting after a few puffs.

By the time they got him to sleep all Kim wanted was to be unconscious.

He rubbed at his eyes. If they’d given Bo too much, if he slept through whatever was expected from him at the Compound… Kim tried not to imagine the possibilities.

They’d have to wake him up soon, make sure he’s at least semi presentable. The shower alone would take forever. Kim spent half the Shutdown with a boy from another district who was deaf in one ear and could barely walk and he’d still been more cooperative than Bo was going to be.

Kim tried to sit up but his head started spinning. He’d been awake too long.

There was still time, they weren’t in a hurry. He stopped resisting and let himself slide back down to the floor.

Arai had said they’d need to prepare Bo for voucher negotiations. Get his confidence up, go over whatever plans Sol left. But there was also Kim’s secret, the thing that would help Bo if he used it right. Kim wished he didn’t have to get Arai involved, but this was the one thing she had more experience with than anyone.

“There’s something I can give him,” Kim said, quietly, staring at the ceiling. “Something useful.”

“It’s probably a good idea,” Arai said, slowly. “He’d be easier to control.”

Kim frowned and looked over. Arai’s eyes were closed, head resting against the wall. “What?”

“With Sol, he wasn’t like this,” she said, her lips barely moving. “You’re right that it might help. I’ve seen how he’s always touching you, he’s probably desperate. There’s time before the Key meeting. It might calm him down.”

Kim sat up, leaning on his palms. He was dizzy again but he ignored it. “I’m not Sol,” he said, louder than he’d intended, “and he’s practically a fluff. You’re disgusting.”

Arai opened her eyes. “You think this’ll get easier?” her voice was calm but Kim could hear the panic underneath. “You know what a year on the vouchers he’ll get us will be like? This is nothing.”

Kim didn’t know much about vouchers and allocations but he had to believe Bo could get them the bare minimum. He had to believe they’d appointed Bo for a reason. Like the foreign Key had said, no one was born knowing how to do this. A week ago Sol was alive and Kim was afraid to walk past this neighborhood. He had to believe in Bo’s potential.

Of course, a different part of him said, if Bo trusted Kim even more, relied on him like he’d relied on Sol, getting rid of Arai would be easier. Kim could do more, help the people who really mattered. The people who’d been on the bottom for as long as he could remember.

Kim sat up fully, forcing the thoughts from his head, and crossed his legs on the floor. “Like I said, I have something real that could help. One of the other Keys owes me a favor.”

Arai’s face drew together into one tight spot of concentration. “Who?”

Kim tried to think about where he’d met the other Key. Which district was on the other side of that door? At least there were only two options. “The 745.”

“Ebie?” Arai said.

“Yeah,” Kim said, still uncertain. “I did her a favor so she’d go easy on Bo.”

Arai started laughing. She clapped her hand over her mouth to keep down the noise.

“I’m serious,” Kim said.

“Ebie asked you for a favor?” Arai said.

“Yeah,” Kim said. “Before the Shutdown. She said she’d help him in return.”

“Wow.” Arai let out a last huff of laughter. “Ebie usually keeps her promises. But today?” she shook her head. “Who knows.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Kim said. “I’m telling you so we can get him ready. You know the other Keys.”

“Sure. I guess.” Arai struggled to her feet. “I’m going to shower.” She opened the door quietly before adding: “Wake him up while I’m gone.”

Something about her smirk made Kim nauseous. She liked the idea of leaving him alone with Bo, now that she knew he didn’t want to be Sol’s replacement.

He should have told her that it was too early, and they’d have time to wake Bo when she came back. He should have told her to stay, wake him up herself.

He wanted to. But he didn’t.


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Three Keys in the Desert (part 25 of 26)

Vrei held her face under a stream of cold water in the sink, letting the shock of it wake her. She splashed some on her neck, her collarbone. There was no time for a shower; she’d woken up late. There was barely time for food before she had to be at the Head’s office.

All her friends were busy sleeping off last night. Outside, the streets looked deserted. She missed having one day a year when she could sleep past lunch.

The mess hall was the same. Just bowls of pre-prepared dry food, like every year, and no one to eat it. The only perk was that, for once, Vrei could steal some of it and eat in her office. Olin walked behind her, still bleary. Vrei asked her to grab enough for both of them and went to find Ebie.

Ebie’s office was unlocked. The doors slid open automatically as soon as Vrei approached. Inside, Ebie sat alone, surrounded by paperwork, no food anywhere. She’d probably gotten up before Vrei. Or maybe she hadn’t slept at all.

She looked up as soon as Vrei came in.

“Morning,” Vrei said.

Ebie looked confused. “We’re not late yet. There’s still a few minutes.”

“I know,” Vrei said. She sat down in the empty chair, not bothering to pull her feet up. This wouldn’t take long, she just needed to know. “I saw Len, after dinner yesterday.”

Ebie went back to rearranging her paperwork. “I know. He told me. He really overdid it last night.”

For a moment Vrei wondered whether she should let it go, but she’d spent all night putting these pieces together. If she didn’t ask Ebie now she’d forget in a few days. “Was it being in the Palace again?”

Ebie blinked. Her face hardened.

“Do you always clean up after him?” Vrei said. “Is that how it works?”

She could see the anger rise in Ebie’s face. It traveled like a wave of darkness from her neck to her ears. “He had an accident. It happens. And I didn’t clean up after him, he’s sleeping it off. I don’t need him for deliberations.”

“Look, whatever happened with him at the Palace,” Vrei said. “I don’t care. What I want to know is how some junkie from my district knew you were covering up for him. How could she possibly know that, Ebie?”

Ebie stared at her desk. Some of the anger bled out of her features, replaced with… something. Vrei had never seen that expression on her before. It was clear she knew who Vrei meant.

Ebie knew about Kir.

Which meant… did she know about the fence? Had she kept it from Vrei all this time? “Ebie, I swear, if you lie to me now…”

“A girl showed up in my district, a while ago,” Ebie said. She closed her eyes for a long moment. “I don’t know how she got there. She and some friends got into a fight with a secondyear who was… who should have been sleeping. I was doing rounds when I found them. Him. The boy, he was unconscious. I was going to tell you. Definitely, absolutely, I was going to tell you, but then… then this girl…”

Vrei waited for a few seconds but more words didn’t come. “This girl knew things Cecilia had told her,” she continued, where Ebie had left off. “That definitely weren’t secrets. Are you telling me no one who was in the Palace that year knows about Len’s… whatever?”

Ebie looked up at her sharply, as if suddenly realizing Vrei didn’t know as much as Ebie had assumed.

Great, there was even more to this.

Ebie shook her head. “Nothing ever happened in public. There was an incident that got him on Cecilia’s radar, right after we got to the Palace. She knew he was hiding something but he wouldn’t give her the full story, so she punished him. And then kept punishing him. For a year. Sometimes I didn’t see him for a week because she made him sleep in her room, and the official version was that he was helping her with maintenance or whatever. He’d wake up vomiting from nightmares and they’d send him to medical for a stomach bug. A guy tried waking him up, once, shook him by the shoulder and Len jumped on him and wouldn’t stop hitting until we pulled him off. They gave him bathroom chores for two weeks.”

Vrei shook her head. Everyone hated the Palace, everyone wanted to go home, everyone cried themselves to sleep the first week, between the headaches and the prospect of a year of nothing but chores. It was on her tongue to say Cecilia would never do what Ebie described. She wasn’t bored enough, she barely even noticed if you were alive, as long as you got your work done. But then Vrei thought about the annoying junkie girl she used to live with. At the Palace, the girl used to disappear sometimes, and people laughed, said she was probably tricking Cecilia into letting her off work.

Once they all transferred, she mostly smoked sau, hung out with younger kids, barely bothered to show up at the Compound. She’d never really made friends.

Like Kir.

“I wouldn’t have noticed it,” Ebie said. “If it was anyone but Len. No one cares about Cecilia’s special projects.”

Vrei rubbed at her cheeks. She wished she could splash more cold water on her face.

“So,” she said, trying to make sense of everything. “Kir threatened to tell everyone about Len and you folded? Why? Cecilia’s gone. What does it matter?” But Vrei knew the answer as soon as the words left her mouth. She’d seen it the night before.

“If everyone knew,” Ebie said. “If he had to remember, every time someone looked at him… I don’t know how that would go.”

Vrei didn’t ask what Ebie meant. A week ago she would have laughed, but now, after Sol… Ebie must have thought about this for a long time. She looked certain, like she’d run the odds in her head and knew she wouldn’t be able to save him. That was probably the scariest part. Vrei had never seen Ebie admit something in her own district was beyond her control.

“So… you just let Kir go?” Vrei said, thinking out loud. “And no one found out. You managed to keep everything quiet.”

Ebie stayed silent, avoiding Vrei’s eyes.

“Except your little secret cost me,” Vrei said. She didn’t want to think about how the last week would have gone if Ebie had done what she was supposed to, reported Kir and saved Vrei all that panic.

There was so much Vrei wanted to ask, wanted to demand Ebie tell her, but one question felt more urgent than the rest. “Is this the first time?”

Ebie’s spine was like a spring, suddenly pulled taut. She straightened, eyes determined, looking almost indignant. “Of course.”

“I saw him last night,” Vrei reminded her. “How many times have you covered for him?”

“Never,” Ebie said, emphatically. “He’s never gone back to the Palace.” She began to say something but then closed her mouth and shook her head. After a moment she went on. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you. What can I do now? You want extra bedding? Medical vouchers?”

Typical Ebie. One second she was queen of the rules, giving Vrei lectures about keeping a better eye on her residents, and the next she was trying to bribe her way out of trouble. Vrei was so tired of her bullshit. For once, she was going to make Ebie explain herself, admit she had flaws like everyone else.

“I wish,” Ebie said, filling the silence between them, “I could have brought this to you. You don’t know how many times I wanted to.”

“So why didn’t you?” Vrei said. “That night, you had to know the girl was a junkie. You had to assume she’d done more damage than you saw. And who would I even tell about Len? We barely see each other!”

“I know,” Ebie said, looking uncomfortable.

“I’ve never lied to you, not like this,” Vrei said. She felt empty, like some important part of her disappeared, leaving her lighter. “After everything you said about Sol. How could you?”

“Because I thought…” Ebie said. “Doesn’t matter. I should have told you.”

Vrei wanted to hear the rest of that sentence. She needed to know. She stayed quiet until Ebie rolled her eyes and kept talking.

“You like… people who are strong. I wasn’t sure you’d get it. And I couldn’t take it back, once you knew.”

“What does that mean?” Vrei said, frowning. She wished she could feel anger, instead of this creeping sadness. Ebie was the toughest person Vrei knew. She kept herself at a distance from anyone who might discover she was human. Fighting her for vouchers was the hardest thing Vrei had ever done.

She was supposed to be the one who’d never do something like this. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d thought of Ebie as the most dependable person on this planet.

It made her think about Olin, trying to hide her nerves, going behind Vrei’s back for no reason. She didn’t understand it, still, but Ebie’s guilt-ridden face was making her rethink things. The idea that the people closest to her couldn’t trust her completely was like a cold knife aimed at her chest. But she could untangle that later.

It was Transfer Day, and she had to decide what would happen once they walked out of this room.

“Would you really give me fluffs or vouchers or whatever?” Vrei said.

Ebie was silent for the space of several long breaths. “I owe you.”

Sol would probably have screamed at Ebie until the Compound walls crumbled, then she’d have gone on a bender, then come back and told Ebie to never do it again. Let Ebie stew and suffer, feel like shit for a while. Vrei could definitely see the appeal.

She reached over the table, slowly. Her hand touched Ebie’s fingers, clenched into fists. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Sol had always said, Keys had to stick up for each other. Maybe that was the best use of this moment. Maybe building trust had to start somewhere unexpected.

“It’s done. You don’t have to give me anything,” Vrei said.

Ebie looked away but didn’t pull away from Vrei’s hand. “We have to go,” she said, finally. “The Head’s probably waiting by now.”

They stayed sitting for a few more seconds before getting up.


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