Three Keys in the Desert (part 9 of 26)

Logically, Kim knew number 8 was just another building, with peeling paint and rusty cots like the rest. But some part of him had assumed that if he ever visited it again, he’d be dragged there unconscious. The shrill sing-song of first bell filled the air and a few people emerged from the surrounding buildings, walking toward the gate. Kim walked in the opposite direction.

When he was little, in one of the schools before this one, the teachers used to talk about spirits and how the dead never really went away. The glittery images of ghosts that hung on the walls used to give him nightmares. They were supposed to represent protection, but Kim had never met anyone he shared a blood connection with, so he kept imagining it was someone else’s family watching him sleep, which wasn’t comforting at all. He used to wake up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, for a while.

But that terror was nothing compared to the eerie feeling of walking into Sol’s building completely unobstructed. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to get out, go back to where it was safe. Except he wasn’t sure anywhere was safe anymore.

The hallways of number 8 were quiet. A few of the doors he passed were closed, a few open, but the rooms were mostly empty. The elders were probably at the Compound by now. Sol’s death didn’t change exam deadlines.

The sight of the door at the end of the second floor hallway, with the key slot above the handle, forced him to stop. Nothing bad had happened to him here, he reminded himself. Sol’s room was just for yelling at people, claiming to sort out disputes. The real damage happened elsewhere.

Kim dug his nails into the meat of his palms until his body felt like his own again and he could push down the handle.

For a moment he thought the door was locked, but then it gave, opening with a slight creek.

Arai sat alone, wrapped in blankets, on the only bed in the room. She looked furious, though not surprised to see him.

“Get out.”

“Have you been outside?” Kim said.

This room was much smaller than he remembered, with barely enough space for two bunk beds. It also smelled different. Like someone had thrown up all over the floor.

“What do you care?” she bit out.

He remembered the same tone, from two years ago. The last time he’d spoken to her directly. “We’ll run out of sau by lunchtime,” he said. “Somebody should do something.”

She stared at him. Her eyes were dry, her hair braided, like Sol’s usually was. He hadn’t expected her to look so… composed.

“You want to talk to the Key?” She ran her hand firmly over a lump of bedding. The lump stirred and Kim realized it was a person, curled in on themselves, facing the wall. “Talk to Bo.”

Kim wanted to roll his eyes, grab her by the shoulders and force her to listen, but the announcement from earlier was already replaying itself in his head. It had said something about a new Key. He’d ignored it because so close to Transfer Day it was obviously going to be Arai.

“He was appointed last night,” Arai said.

The lump on the bed let out a loud sob.

Kim shook his head. “That’s bullshit. Figures you’d be in here making jokes while the district is burning up outside.”

“They announced it, moron,” Arai hissed. “It wasn’t my decision.”

The shape on the bed was about half of Kim’s size.

“He can’t be in charge!” Kim gestured at the boy.

“Just get out,” Arai’s tone was full of disgust. “You’ve been dreaming about this moment. Her finally out of your way. He,” she gestured at the boy, whose sobs had turned into full blown wailing, “doesn’t know how many times you broke the rules, how much you loved making her miserable. But I do.” She rose from the bed, taking a step towards Kim, forcing him to take a step back. “And I remember how she handled you. Get out, now.”

Kim forced himself to meet her eyes. “You’re just going to sit here? Until everything—”

“Out!” she yelled.

Kim took another step back, until his back hit the door. The walls felt closer, somehow, than when he first came in. Like the room had gotten smaller. “I hope there’s something left of this place,” he said, “by the time they decide to fix it.”

Downstairs, in the stillness, he scrubbed his hands over his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He couldn’t go home, not yet. All the medical vouchers in the world wouldn’t be enough to clean up the 942 if someone didn’t take over soon. There’d be another body by tomorrow. And Tyen and Dej and everyone he knew would get caught up in it eventually.

Sol had always let the elders do whatever they wanted, in exchange for keeping the peace. She only handled the vouchers. The younger you were, the fewer rights you had, and who you got assigned to room with decided everything. Technically the 942 barely had any incidents of violence, except Sol’s little system meant half the people Kim transferred with from the Palace couldn’t get through the day anymore without a few hits of sau. By the time you were old enough to fend for yourself the damage was done. Either that or you were lucky, like Kim.

But none of that mattered. Sol always chose the strongest to be her allies, that was the main thing. With her gone, order didn’t have to disappear completely. The kids and secondyears would still listen to a bunch of elders if they happened to stroll into Kim’s neighborhood. They’d be angry and terrified, but they’d listen. That could help calm everything down.

Breakfast was nearly over by the time he made it to the Compound. He passed the entrance to the mess hall and kept walking, toward the classrooms farthest from the gate. They were quieter, and full of elders around this time of year.

He stopped at the first room he saw that was mostly full. A few dozen work stations, almost no empty seats. At least three people in the front row lived in Sol’s building.

Kim stood in the door frame, hands in his pockets. No one looked up from their screen. He cleared his throat.

“Hey,” he made sure it was loud enough to be heard over the audio scripts.

There was no response.

He’d never been in the Compound without a shirt before. The cold air was making him shiver. “Some of you probably know me. I’m Kim.”

A few annoyed glances shot his way from the first row.

One of the elders sitting closest to the entrance took out his earpiece. Kim was pretty sure his name was Jal. He’d been a fourthyear when Kim was a kid. Last year Jal had made a secondyear run naked through the whole district before first bell.

“You serious?” Jal asked, scowling.

Kim tried to keep his voice steady and passionless, but the words in his head were a jumble. How was he supposed to get them to understand? What could he say to make them listen? “It’s a mess out there,” Kim tried. “Some fluff is the new Key, and if we don’t get enough vouchers—”

“Does anyone know anything about vouchers?” Jal interrupted him, calling out to the room. It got a few muttered “no”s from people whose eyes didn’t leave their screens.

“Wait, listen, I just need half an hour, tops. People will listen to you,” Kim knew he sounded desperate, but there was no masking the truth. “No one can fix this except—”

Jal got up from his station, tossing his earpiece at the screen, and took the few steps necessary to stand next to Kim. They were almost the same size, but that wouldn’t matter in a room full of Jal’s friends. “I don’t have the time to shut you up.”

“Please, can you just—” Kim began to say, but at Jal’s darkening expression the words dried up.

“Bring him over here,” said someone behind Jal’s back. “He’s got a nice mouth on him and I could use a break.” Laughter spread through the room. “This Chemoplastics final is killing me.”

Kim took a step back, and then another, until he was back in the hallway.

It was useless. None of them would help. They owed Sol, and she was gone, and nothing that happened past Transfer Day mattered to them. He tried another room, but a woman shoved him outside as soon as he opened his mouth. At the next room they wouldn’t even let him come in. No one wanted a brawl in the Compound, not today, not even the elders, but they weren’t going to let him keep making noise either.

He passed a few more rooms before turning back. He could try again later, maybe, after dinner. If he made himself enough of a nuisance maybe some of them would at least hear him out, eventually.

In the meantime maybe he could convince a few people in his building to take shifts, guard the entrance. He couldn’t imagine what the 942 would look like after last bell.

Of course he knew it wouldn’t last, even if they managed to protect themselves for a while. Next week, next month, the district would still have a kid for a Key, and everything would still be a mess.

He didn’t realize where he was until he heard someone call his name.

It was Dej.

“We waited,” she said. “You didn’t come. After first bell… it was better to be here.”

They stood in a peripheral corridor, next to an emergency door to the infirmary. The orange light next to the lock blinked on and off. Dej ran her fingers over the slot intended for the Key’s card.

“He’s better, now. Studying,” she said, before he could ask about Tyen.

Kim nodded. He’d let her deal with the chaos alone all morning, and for what? “I’m sorry.”

She shrugged, looking at her boots.

“Everything is just…” Kim said, taking a long breath.

Dej nodded and started walking. Kim followed. She’d probably picked a classroom for the day by now.

“You think,” she said, walking a few steps ahead of him, “if we’d been assigned to some other district, would it still be like this?”

Kim thought about it for a moment before a new realization chased everything else out of his head.

He stopped.

“The deal,” he said, quietly, as Dej turned to look at him. “I have to call off the deal with the other Key.”


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