Three Keys in the Desert (part 17 of 26)

“I want a new uniform,” Elad said.

Vrei sighed. She’d probably end up skipping lunch for this.

“Brand new,” Elad went on. “Like yours.”

“You know that’s a special allowance,” Vrei said. “They requisition it without even asking us. I can’t get you one.” The truth was, Vrei probably could, but Elad hadn’t said anything useful so far. At least the fact that she was willing to talk about this here, in a small empty classroom in the middle of the Compound, with people walking by, meant she couldn’t know about the fence.

Vrei rose from the workstation, the idle screen flashing a pale pink. It was important to let Elad feel heard. “I promise I’ll help you get a newer uniform,” she said.

She heard Olin getting up from her chair too.

Elad frowned. “I thought you wanted information.”

Vrei shrugged. “Just trying to make sure everything’s good for Transfer Day.”

“Well there’s some junkie running around telling everyone you owe her. That she’s untouchable.” Elad crossed her arms over her chest. “Sound good to you?”

Now it was Vrei’s turn to frown. “What junkie?”

“Brand new uniform, Vrei,” Elad said. “I’ll be an elder in a few days. I’ve been sleeping on the worst mattress in the district for two years, I deserve this.”

That wasn’t true either, though Vrei vaguely remembered complaints about a mattress a while ago. Elad could have found lots of ways to swap with someone though, if she’d wanted to.

“I agree,” Vrei said. “And I wish I could help, but I don’t make the rules.” And someone running around spreading nonsense was definitely not worth lying to Michael.

“She threw up all over the hallway a few days ago,” Elad said. “The fourthyears came to get me because they couldn’t tell if she was lying about you owing her. Took an hour to clean up. Imagine that during the Shutdown.”

If only spontaneous vomit was Vrei’s biggest problem. If Michael saw the fence and she didn’t have a story ready the new Head would probably demote her on the spot.

There were also no fourthyears in Elad’s building.

“Who came to get you?” Vrei said.

Elad stayed silent. She sat behind a screen that flashed black-and-white, casting periodic shadows. An exam paused in the middle.

The trouble was, Vrei and Elad didn’t have a lot of friends in common. Vrei had made sure to keep the older residents on her side since she became Key, but none of them were close friends. She tried to run through the networks in her head, see if anyone she knew lived or slept with or partied with people in Elad’s circle, but every name she came up with was too distant. Elad didn’t have too many friends, and trying to get this information through a complicated chain of manipulation and gossip would take too long. A last resort would be to ask an elder for help, some of them had more authority with the residents than Vrei, but Elad was too old for that to work.

“I can maybe get you a shirt,” Vrei said. “Maybe.” She could tell Michael hers was destroyed, bring in some rag to prove it. “I can’t do better than that.”

Elad let out a huff. “I have a friend who lives in 81. I was over there for a game while the room on the second floor was occupied? The fourthyears saw me and figured I could help, I guess. I told them that junkie girl was probably lying.”

“What room?” Vrei said. “What do you mean occupied? One junkie was occupying it?”

Elad rolled her eyes. “It was when your First kicked everyone out. The weekly thing with her boy at 81? Fourthyears live in that room.”

When had Vrei asked Olin to kick anyone out of a room in that building? She tried to remember, glancing at Olin.

Olin who suddenly looked like she wanted to melt into the floor. Vrei felt a sense of wrongness spreading through the room.

“She was yelling something,” Elad went on, about the girl. “About knowing all your secrets, how you owed her forever. Supposedly it was that pale, skinny girl who hangs out with that weirdo you used to live with.”

Olin’s boy. That had to be Zher.

“The one with the broken nose?” Vrei asked, forcing herself to focus on the junkie in question.

“Yeah! She stole a blanket from my room once,” Elad grumbled.

Vrei remembered the girl. Her room wasn’t far from the fence, though she had no idea how often the girl slept there. She was one of the regular absentees on the monthly Compound attendance reports. Vrei wouldn’t be surprised if she spent most of her nights passed out outside on the sand.

She wanted to ask what Elad had meant about Olin, who else knew about the weekly “thing”, but it was time to go.

“You promised,” Elad said, again, before letting Vrei leave the room.

Vrei nodded. “Good luck on the test.”

“It’s Emergency Field Med 3352,” Elad said, cringing. Vrei gave her a sympathetic expression. The Field Med exams were all a nightmare.

Olin followed Vrei into the hallway in silence. “I was going to tell you,” she said, once they were far enough from Elad.

“It doesn’t matter,” Vrei said. She should have seen this coming. Olin had been getting worse and worse for weeks.

But the lie, that hurt.

Vrei couldn’t think about that now. Not until after the Shutdown, not until she figured out the fence. She just hoped Olin could function until then.

“I just wanted a little quiet,” Olin said, still trailing behind, as if afraid to catch up. “I’m so sorry.”

“Find Kir,” Vrei said, turning a corner and heading towards her office. She couldn’t be the one to calm Olin down right now, she was too annoyed. On top of everything, her First hiding things from her was just too much.

“Kir?”

“The girl Elad was talking about,” Vrei said. “Her name is Kir. Find a way to get her sober, I need to talk to her.”

Olin didn’t respond. Vrei walked a little slower, and Olin didn’t try to stay back. The silence between them felt awkward, but they walked together until they reached Vrei’s office.

“I…” Olin shook her head. “I just needed a little break, but I’m fine now. I swear.”

“Later,” Vrei said, mostly to herself. She took a step closer to the doors and they slid open. “Just find Kir.”

Olin took a step back, still looking haunted.

Vrei stepped inside her office and let the doors slide shut.

 

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