Three Keys in the Desert (part 8 of 26)

“How is everyone doing?” Vrei said, walking into the bathroom, followed by every kid living on the third floor.

The buildings closest to the damaged part of the fence were too far from the Compound gate and Vrei’s own building to show up in housing requests much. Most people either didn’t care or didn’t get a say in where they lived, if they ended up here. Which had its own advantages—in any other neighborhood half the district would know about the hole by now.

“This is good,” Vrei said, looking over the polished sinks, the floor free of sandy tracks. Her bathroom was usually dirtier than this, when she was their age.

The kids trailed her uncertainly, with wide eyes and tight lips. It was unheard of for a Key to do inspections personally, even the day before the Shutdown. She’d meant to come up with a better excuse to question them, but the morning had been… disorienting.

Vrei strolled into the showers, where taps hung in a row high on the side of each wall. There were a few stray hairs here and there, but overall the place was clean. “This is impressive,” Vrei said, turning to face her audience. “You’re all ready for Transfer Day,” she smiled.

The words made most of the kids look at each other with barely suppressed excitement.

“You know, once you’re secondyears, you’ll have new responsibilities. I’ll be counting on you.”

A few of the kids nodded, looking nervous.

“You’ll have to keep an eye on each other, the older you get,” Vrei said, pushing her hands into her pockets. The more casual she made this the more likely they’d be to talk. “Take an active interest. We all have to help each other out. Even I need help sometimes.”

Some of the kids nodded again.

“Like, if I asked you right now if anything weird’s happened lately, what would you say?” she smiled again.

“Someone died,” one of the boys said, looking earnest, and one of the girls shoved him from behind. “Everyone knows that!” she said.

Vrei looked over the showers again pretending to focus on a small patch of dirt on the ceiling. Of course this would be the first answer—the announcement was less than an hour ago. She forced the smile on her face to stay relaxed and welcoming.

“There was someone sleeping outside when I came out,” another girl said. “A while ago. They looked dirty. Maybe they didn’t have a bed?”

“Yeah? Do you know who it was?” Vrei said. The closer to Transfer Day the more people who didn’t want the whole district to see them covered in vomit crashed in this area after a night of partying. Of course the kids wouldn’t know that.

The girl shrugged. “I think it was a girl. I tried to touch her but she kept sleeping.”

Vrei sighed inwardly.

“I saw an animal!” said a boy in the back. “It was in the hallway and we tried to catch it! It ran away.” He looked guilty and excited at the same time. Clearly he’d been holding this back for a while.

“What kind of animal?” Vrei asked. The fence should have fried anything dumb enough to approach, but maybe there’d been a malfunction.

The boy pushed his way to the front. “It had three legs and really pretty skin and feelers on top.” He held his hands apart to indicate the size—it was smaller than Vrei’s thumb.

This time she sighed out loud. Insects usually stayed away from the grounds, the fence emitted some kind of frequency or something, but occasionally they got through. The rainbow-colored bugs were tiny and harmless, unless you ate them. A girl did that when Vrei was a secondyear and they’d had to regrow her stomach.

The other kids told her about weird wind noises and broken screens at the Compound. Nothing that sounded remotely useful. She needed a real lead, a name she could pass on to Michael if she had to, a truth she could build a plan around.

She met Olin downstairs.

“Anything?” Vrei asked, as they walked out of the building.

Olin shook her head. “They’re kids. They sleep through the night, they go from their room to the Compound and back.”

Vrei remembered her own first year in the district. Most days she was so happy to make it through the day, nothing else registered. Whoever was responsible for the fence was probably a thirdyear, at least.

She wished she didn’t have to deal with this on her own. Key solidarity didn’t extend to voucher negotiations, but Sol would have helped Vrei with this. She would have had an idea for how to fix it, for sure. Ebie would probably just frown and lecture Vrei about responsibility, if she knew.

Vrei’s vision turned blurry. She looked up at the brightening sky as they walked, as if she could make the tears roll back into her eye sockets.

Michael didn’t even offer to let them see the body. Vrei could guess what that meant. She couldn’t even muster the energy to fight about it, unlike Ebie. Sol was the one who used to tell them to take it easy, not burn themselves out, remember the limits of their power. Vrei didn’t know if she could do this job without her.

“Should I talk to the secondyears?” Olin said.

“No,” Vrei said, wiping at her eyes. “Chances are it’s no one from around here.” They could make a list of likely suspects, but questioning everyone who’d ever gotten in trouble in the 331 would take too long and make people suspicious. If the wrong person found out and this somehow got to Michael before the Shutdown—

“You really think the Head still might give us references?” Olin said. Her fingers were fiddling with a frayed string on the cuff of her uniform shirt. It looked like she’d picked at it until half the cuff had lost its shape.

Vrei wished she could take a break, just for today, from all this. Go back to being a fifthyear with no responsibilities.

Instead she gave Olin a steady look. “Even the guy who used to run 745 got one, and he set a building on fire.”

Olin didn’t smile, but she did take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Vrei didn’t add that that had been under a different Head, not this stranger who apparently demoted Keys on a whim and appointed kids to replace them.


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