Three Keys in the Desert (part 20 of 26)

Vrei spent her morning arguing with a bunch of thirdyears about the ugly drawings on the walls of their room. She usually asked her friends for help with the rounds before the Shutdown, but this room had been cleared twice and there were still rumors of “decorations” floating around. Or rather, scratch marks traced with a mixture of sand and juice from the mess hall.

She had to admit the animals in the pictures looked pretty realistic, but the drawings had to be wiped off. The scratches were unfixable, but without the colors Michael might not realize they’d been trying to get artistic. She’d had to explain for the fifth time that covering everything up with piles of clothes and pillows won’t work. Then she had to stand and watch them clean the walls for real.

It was easier to promise they could fill in the colors again after the Shutdown. That and coming here before first bell, when they were in a rush to get to the Compound, made the argument shorter.

Olin came to find her when there was hardly any color left on the walls. She still looked like Vrei had caught her smashing workstations.

“She’s conscious,” Olin said.

It didn’t matter, Vrei thought on the way to Kir’s building. Compared to Sol, to the fence, to the new Head, this little lie was nothing. Olin had never lied before, Vrei was pretty sure. She worked hard and she was loyal. She never said no when Vrei asked her to do things and she remembered times and dates and details better than Vrei did. She was allowed a few perks, occasionally, like kicking some fourthyears out of their room. She’d earned it.

So why the lie? Why hadn’t she just told Vrei she needed a room? Why turn it into a secret, make Zher lie along the way?

By the time they got to Kir’s room it was past first bell, and Kir’s roommates were all at the Compound.

Kir was still in bed, looking worse than the last time Vrei saw her. There were dark, puffy circles under her eyes and red spots all over her face and arms. She looked weak, probably from spending the last day thrashing and sweating out the sau, but she wasn’t high anymore. Vrei usually dragged people to Susanna long before the sau poisoning got that bad.

Vrei dragged a chair over to Kir’s bed and sat down. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

Kir’s eyes met hers. At least they seemed focused and clear. “I didn’t do anything.”

“No one’s saying you did,” Vrei said. “I only wanted to ask you about a rumor. You’ve been telling people I owe you?”

Kir tried to sit up higher but her arms wouldn’t hold her up. The area around her bed was clean—no clothes, no dirty laundry. She’d clearly been sleeping somewhere else for a while, before Olin tracked her down.

“No, no,” Kir said. “I never said that. I just said I have something for you. A present. You’ll understand when you hear it.”

Vrei could hear Olin’s sigh, close to the door. She didn’t have to look to know she was rolling her eyes. It stung, that Olin had been keeping her own secrets lately.

“Who helped you deactivate the fence?” Vrei said, focusing back on the real problem. “How did you do it?” It was a gamble, but Kir wasn’t a good liar when she was like this.

“I wasn’t even there.” Kir shook her head frantically. “It wasn’t my fault.”

Finally. Having the lie out in the open was a relief. “Yes, you were,” Vrei said. “You’ve been on a bender since it happened. I need the facts, Kir.”

Instead of answering Kir turned her face to the wall and drew in air like a sob.

Vrei wondered if people did this to Ebie. She couldn’t imagine anyone trying.

“I don’t have time for this,” Vrei said. “I need to know what you did to the fence.”

“I was… I was high,” Kir said, after a long pause. Her voice was muffled by the wall. “I don’t remember.”

Vrei leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. Kir was clearly waiting for an offer, for Vrei to say she wouldn’t be punished. But Vrei couldn’t make that kind of promise until she knew the full story.

There was another way this could go.

“I can’t just send you to rehab,” Vrei said. “It’s the third time this year. Susanna won’t take you.”

Kir looked up, eyes dry and hopeful.

“She’ll want something drastic,” Vrei went on. “To prove it’ll stick.”

Kir took slow, labored breaths, eyes glued to Vrei. Her face was still sweaty. It would take another day for the sau to be out of her system completely.

“I could recommend,” Vrei said slowly, as if considering every word, “sending you to the Palace.”

Kir didn’t make a sound but her face looked like Vrei was offering to break her legs with a mallet.

“A structured environment,” Vrei went on. “The chores will give you something to do. It won’t even be that hard, at your age. I’m sure they’ll make an exception and let you skip classes for a while.”

“You can’t,” Kir said, quietly.

Vrei put her hands in her pockets. “I don’t want to,” she said. “But you won’t help me.”

“Please, Vrei,” Kir said. “I have something better to tell you. Something valuable. The fence is… it’s over.”

Vrei looked at the ceiling. She hated when people made her angry. She smoothed her hands down the buttons of her shirt and got up.

“No, wait!” Kir said. “There was a… locker. Or, I don’t know, like a closet, in the Compound. It was just this panel sticking out of the wall, and it had all this stuff inside.” She swallowed, and Vrei could see her trying to sanitize what came next. “We took it, just to try. We were going to bring it back. It was mostly broken or something, it didn’t do anything.”

That was clearly a lie, but Vrei would have to deal with that later.

“There was this stick, it worked on electronics,” Kir went on. “It turned off a workstation, it made the gate open. But it always fixed things too. The workstations were all fine,” Kir added in a hurry. “But then it… it broke, I guess. I don’t really remember. The fence was just… not there after we used it. I don’t know why.”

Fantastic. Vrei gave herself a moment, let the information arrange itself in her head. Until now some part of her had been hoping the fence was fixable somehow, but no, she had to accept that Michael would see it. It was only a question of what she could come up with to make it sting less. A story about junkies and stolen Compound property couldn’t be it.

She had to find everyone who’d been with Kir that night, make sure the stories added up. Find out what else they’d managed to damage. Vrei bent over, took a long breath, tried to focus.

There was too much to do and too little time until the Shutdown. She had to concentrate on the essentials. “The tools,” she said. “Where are they?”

Kir looked at the wall again. “We buried them. Somewhere behind the building, I don’t know where exactly.”

She had to dig them up, or at least try. If things went wrong she could use them to show Michael she had things under control. She turned to Olin but they’d clearly been thinking the same thing. Olin nodded before opening the door. She could start rounding up their people so they could start digging.

“Who else was with you?” Vrei said, once Olin was outside.

Kir shook her head again. “We all blacked out. I barely remember what happened. It… it was a long night.”

More lies. Vrei could get Kir to spit out the details but it would take an hour at least. Vrei already had so much to do. She’d come back tonight, see if she could get anything out of Kir then.

Vrei stood up.

“Wait,” Kir said, with a new urgency. She struggled to sit up. “I can help you get more vouchers. I know about something you can use.”

Vrei needed to get back to work. This nonsense had lasted long enough.

“You remember Cecilia?” Kir said, as Vrei turned to go. “You remember when she left? You let me go to her retirement party?”

Vrei did remember. Most people preferred to saw off a limb rather than spend time with their fluff minder, but Kir got a personal invitation. Michael had given special permission to a few of Cecilia’s favorites. Vrei certainly wasn’t invited.

“She said I reminded her of her own kids,” Kir said, sounding desperate. “She used to tell me things. Like, about this boy, how he couldn’t stop crying the whole year he was in the Palace. Cecilia even let him sleep in her rooms for a while. He used to scream whenever anyone touched him, used to have fits, in the middle of kitchen duty, anytime someone got close. Susanna doped him up for a week and he still came out wrong!”

“Amazing,” Vrei said, opening the door. Kir’s bargaining was usually better than this. The sau must have really fried her brain this time.

“Listen!” Kir said. “He’s a First now. At one of the other districts.”

Vrei couldn’t help but turn around. “Wow. This is better than that time you tried to pass an exam by pouring soup on the screen.”

What did Kir even know about other districts? The only guy who was a currently a First was Len, who looked like he could break a building in half. Vrei couldn’t imagine him crying himself to sleep for months at the Palace. And the idea of Ebie picking someone like that?

“The other Key is keeping it a secret!” Kir said. “You can use it when you fight over vouchers, right? I’ve got so many stories you could use.”

So that was the connection. Vrei shook her head. It was original. No one had tried to bargain with her before with information about other Keys.

“Vrei, please,” Kir said.

“If you manage to stay clean until the Shutdown,” Vrei said, stepping into the hallway. “I might reconsider sending you to the Palace.” Kir was probably too weak to get herself a pipe in the next few hours, but who knew. Vrei needed her sober until she came up with a plan. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

She went down the stairs, walking towards the Compound. She needed a private meeting with Michael.


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