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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