Three Keys in the Desert (part 5 of 26)

6 days until Transfer Day

Kim woke up with a start, nearly knocking his head against the top bunk. The air was chilly, and the room an unfamiliar shade of gray. There were weird noises coming from the hallway. He groaned and covered his face with the blanket. Why were people stomping around outside? The sun hadn’t even come up yet.

He tossed the blanket aside and put a careful foot on the floor. The stone was unpleasantly cold, but it was too early for socks. There had to be at least an hour until reveille. He was going back to sleep once he was done yelling at whoever was out there. He rubbed at his face and pushed his hair out of his eyes before standing up.

He was leaning against the bed, pulling on a pair of uniform pants, when he noticed the top bunk was empty. Tyen must have woken up from the noise before Kim did.

Every other bunk seemed occupied, although the light barely let Kim make out the shapes of his sleeping roommates. The hallway was better, even at this hour, thanks to a row of large windows. Kim shut the door to his room slowly, careful not to wake the others. The noise was coming from the direction of the stairs. Far to his right, he could see people rushing past the dark landing, running up one by one. Their boots and bare feet knocked against the stone, the sound amplified by the empty hallway.

Kim walked over, trying to be as quiet as he could, but before he could grab someone and ask them what was happening, Dej appeared. She was coming up from the first floor, dressed in pants and an undershirt. Apparently he’d missed her bunk being empty.

She paused when she saw him, but only for a second. “Hey,” she said, before taking another step, and another. A boy rushed past her, forcing her to grab the railing.

“What’s going on?” Kim said.

Dej kept moving, getting higher up the stairs and farther away from him. “Sol’s dead.”

Kim followed her, but there were already a few people between them. “What?”

“Woke up when Tyen left,” she said without stopping. “Caught up with him at number 8.”

“What are you talking about?” They’d been at Sol’s building? Maybe he was still asleep and this was a dream.

“I want to see them wheel her out,” Dej said.

Kim climbed the stairs faster, two at a time, to keep up with her.

“What?” he said. Ahead of them a girl stumbled, nearly hitting her head on the stone. Dej went around her, squeezing herself against the wall. They were nearly on the third floor and the stairs were getting even more crowded. Half the building was here.

“Where’s Tyen?” Kim said, raising his voice. A few more steps and he was on the landing.

Dej stood in front of him, waiting. Behind her he could see people plastered against the hallway windows.

“The Key is dead,” Dej said, slowly, using her hands to accentuate each word. The light was strong enough now that the burn scars on her arms were visible, scattered patches of light brown. Kim couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her without sleeves.

“Sol?” he said, still not sure whether he was awake. “Sol’s dead?”

“Come on,” Dej said, rolling her eyes, and dragged him to the windows.

The view was mostly of other buildings, strewn here and there across 942’s territory, but in the distance Kim could see the Compound, like a thick black line, stretching to the edges of the horizon. In the sunlight it usually gleamed, but now it just looked dull, like a void. There were three tiny figures dragging a flat object between them, moving quickly up the dusty path leading to the 942’s gate. Kim tried to stand on his toes to get closer to the glass somehow. It did look like the medics were wheeling out a gurney.

“She probably got high and hurt herself,” he said.

“I saw the body,” Dej said. “She jumped.”

“Or someone pushed her,” someone else said. It started a wave of giggles. Kim’s eyes stayed glued to the procession in the distance.

He watched the medics use some kind of special code to open the gate and wheel the gurney inside. He watched as the gate closed again behind them, probably locked again until reveille. People around him started to disperse back to their rooms, no longer bothering to be quiet. He kept watching the space where the gurney disappeared until Dej pulled him by the shoulder, forcing him to turn around.

“She’s not dead,” Kim said, because Sol couldn’t be. It made no sense. It couldn’t just happen like this, while everyone was sleeping. It had to be a trick or a misunderstanding.

“Her brains were all over the street,” Dej said.

Around him Kim heard the slamming of doors, someone shouting. He’d imagined Sol’s death so many times over the years. This was too quiet, too understated. Could it be true? Dej’s face told him it had to be.

“I wonder who did it,” he said, still feeling dazed. There was definitely no going back to sleep now. What did Sol’s death even mean?

“I wonder who’s in charge now,” Dej said.

Sol’s First would be the obvious answer, but they both knew Arai wasn’t up to it. She could barely do Sol’s paperwork. Which meant…

“Where’s Tyen?” Kim said.

Dej looked down at her boots, dusty from being outside. “Don’t know. Thought he followed me back here, but—”

Worry rose like bile in the back of Kim’s throat. “He was at number 8? He saw the body?”

Dej nodded, still avoiding his eyes.

Tyen should have come back by now, should have tried to find him. “How did he look?”

“Didn’t say much,” Dej shrugged. “I was keeping an eye on him but then he just… disappeared.”

Kim took a deep breath. He couldn’t blame Dej, Sol’s body must have been hard to look away from. “Shit,” he said, before rushing back towards the stairs.

“Boots!” Dej yelled after him, and Kim remembered he was still barefoot. He ran back into his room, swerving to avoid people in the hallway, grabbed his shoes and ran back out again before any of his friends could stop him. All his roommates were awake now, arguing about whether the rumors were true.

Kim rushed out of the building but then forced himself to stop and take a few deep breaths of the chilly air. Tyen could still be somewhere around number 8. He was good at hiding and the medics could have missed him when clearing the area. He could have gone back to his old room, in his old building, where he used to live before he’d met Kim. Sol had kept him there for over a year, letting a couple of fourthyears use him as a punching bag until they ruptured his spleen. Those fourthyears were elders now, and they wouldn’t give Tyen up without a fight.

Before Kim could decide where to go first he heard a loud, angry scream, coming from somewhere over his head. He looked up to see a silhouette on the roof of the building across from his, perched on the edge, swaying unsteadily. It was a boy, but he was smaller than Tyen, his hips too narrow, his hair all wrong. Kim bent over to let out a breath and felt his hands shaking.

On the ground, the boy’s friends were yelling for him to come down. They were all secondyears. The boy on the roof screamed again, and this time Kim understood the words. He wanted everyone downstairs to be quiet, he was trying to grab a cloud and climb on it. In a minute he’d be another body for the medics to clean up.

Kim pushed a few people out of the way as he ran over, rushing past the lobby of the building and running up the stairs. A few of the boy’s friends followed him, as if suddenly realizing getting to the roof was an option. The hallways were half empty, most of the doors shut. Word about Sol must not have reached here yet.

Kim ran up to the third floor, and then raced across the corridor to the rusty, metal ladder, hidden in a cove in the wall, that led up to the roof. The door to the roof was protected by a heavy mechanism, supposedly for maintenance crews only, though Kim had never seen anyone do any maintenance in his years in the 745.

The bulky, electronic mechanism on this one was broken, and covered in something dark and sticky. Kim pushed up against the door, the recoil so heavy he could feel it leaving bruises on his shoulder, until on the third try it lifted and let him onto the flat surface of the roof, which was covered in a thick layer of dust and sand. Kim pushed himself up to his feet and didn’t bother to wipe off the stains from his uniform.

The boy didn’t notice Kim, too busy reaching his hands out to the sky and yelling at the people downstairs to be quiet. There were at least ten paces between them, but Kim could already smell the sickly-sweet tang of sau. The boy must have stolen someone’s stash and smoked it while everyone was busy watching Sol’s funeral.

Kim was two steps away from the boy when one of the secondyears who followed him stumbled and fell, making a sound and drawing the boy’s attention.

The boy spun, disoriented, his foot slipping enough that he was only barely standing on the roof, but before Kim could reach for him the boy’s body gave out, making him collapse. Kim grabbed his arm and dragged him away from the edge, kneeling in the dust. He cradled the boy’s head, trying to get his eyes open. Like in every case of sau poisoning Kim had ever seen, there was nothing but white under the lids.

“Get him up,” Kim said to the boy’s friends, getting to his feet. There was nothing more he could do. “You have to get him to the Compound by first bell.”

“Is that… really going to matter today?” the girl said, draping the unconscious boy’s arm around her shoulder.

Kim was about to say yes, of course it would, Compound attendance always mattered because it was tied to how many vouchers the district got, everyone knew that, but then he stopped, words frozen on the tip of his tongue.

Sol was gone. Who knew what the rules were anymore?

“Get him to the showers,” Kim said, dusting off his knees. “Ice cold until he wakes up,” He was about to add bring him to Sol if he doesn’t. “Just… drag him to the Compound by first bell, either way.”

He had to find Tyen.

Back inside the building, the hallways were chaos. Crowded and noisy, the stairs were clogged with people trying to go up or down, Kim could barely tell. Vivid descriptions of Sol’s exposed bones sticking out of her skin, her eyes on the sand, were repeated around him as Kim tried to push through. He reminded himself that whatever Tyen saw, it was over now. All Kim could do was try to find him before someone else did.

By the time he finally managed to get back to the lobby and get some fresh air his head spun. He’d never been good with so many people in a small space. The last time he’d been on a transport, crammed together with hundreds of other ten year olds, he’d thrown up twice a day until the doctor had given him something to knock him unconscious.

He stumbled around the building’s perimeter until he found an empty, smooth patch of wall to lean against, and let his eyes focus on the slowly brightening sky. The warm breeze and the clouds helped calm the frantic beating in his ribcage.

“We have a problem,” Dej’s voice said, forcing Kim to open his eyes again.

She stood just out of arm’s reach, surrounded by a bunch of thirdyears. One of them had bruises running from her cheekbones to beneath the collar of her shirt, another was shaking, face red, clearly trying to hold back sobs.

“They’re asking to move in,” Dej said. “I told them we don’t have the beds, but they wanted to hear it from you.”

Kim pushed himself away from the wall. A lot of people had gotten it into their heads over the years that his building was some kind of haven, as if surviving a few of Sol’s punishments gave him special powers. But people directly asking him for permission to move in was new. Usually they either begged or bribed Sol to let them do it, or moved in without informing anyone, and were eventually kicked out.

“Take it up with Arai,” Kim said, walking past them towards the street.

“Please,” said the girl with the bruises. “We can sleep in the hallway.”

Kim remembered that tone. Tyen had sounded like that when they first met, in the infirmary.

He shot Dej a pleading look.

“You got his answer,” Dej said to the girl. “Same as mine.”

Kim didn’t stay to hear the rest of their conversation. He walked ahead, past the crowd slowly gathering in front of the building. Everyone seemed to be rushing outside to find out the latest gossip. The streets were getting more and more crowded, each building took longer and longer to pass. He had to get to number 8 before reveille woke up whoever was still asleep, make sure Tyen wasn’t there at least.

He tried to walk faster.

Along the way he saw people tearing up their bed sheets and tossing them out of windows, like ropes. One fifthyear threw a chair at another and hit a building door, knocking it off its hinges. The smell of sau in the air was stronger than Kim ever remembered it being, even after a Shutdown.

Closer to the Compound the streets were clearer. Kim’s back straightened, his fingers clenched into fists. The buildings around number 8 were mostly occupied by Sol’s favorite elders, and the atmosphere here was quiet. It was a bad neighborhood to be alone in. He wished he’d remembered to put on a shirt.

A few people wandered the street here and there. He made sure not to meet anyone’s eyes.

The reveille sirens sounded, deafeningly loud so close to the gate. Kim had never been outside for them before. He stopped and covered his ears, though the sound felt like it was penetrating his bones. When it was over and he lowered his hands, instead of the previous quiet he heard screaming.

He turned around, trying to find the source, searching for any sign of Tyen. There was suddenly not enough oxygen to fill up his lungs.

Someone crashed into him, nearly knocking him down. It was a girl. It took a moment but he recognized her—they were in the Palace together. Her uniform was covered in blood, chest to thighs. He hadn’t noticed her running in his direction, but she must have. She looked as startled as he was. In her hand was a large, sharp piece of something shiny. Kim barely caught a glimpse of it before she got over the shock of his existence and ran past him, away from the gate.

He looked at where she must have come from—a few buildings away, the only place in 942 with a mirror in the lobby. There had to be other shards, and there would definitely be people eager to use them.

At the edge of his vision something caught Kim’s attention, a familiar shape by the gate. By the time his mind registered Tyen’s stooped posture, the way he slouched back and forth, as if waiting for the gate to open, the aimless look of him, Kim was already running, yelling out Tyen’s name.

When Kim got close enough to grab him by the shoulders, Tyen didn’t look surprised. His white undershirt looked clean, as did his pants. Kim spun him, a little forcefully, but Tyen didn’t try to object. His undershirt was dirty in the back, but not bloody or torn. Kim ran his fingers quickly over Tyen’s sides, his stomach, his kidneys, but there was no flinching, no bruises.

He felt the oxygen rush into his lungs, slowly. Tyen was in one piece, here, safe. Sol was dead and everything was falling apart, but at least this one thing was fine.

He was panting, from the run, from the entire morning.

Tyen’s eyes slid away to the ground when Kim tried to face him. They stood in silence for a few seconds while Kim caught his breath.

“Where have you been?” Kim said.

“Just… walking around,” Tyen said. He didn’t smell like sau, at least. That boded well.

His eyes suddenly widened, fixed on Kim’s stomach. “Did you…” his voice shook.

Kim looked down. There were a few smears of blood on his skin. It must have come from the girl with the mirror.

“No, no,” he said, grabbing Tyen’s shoulders again. “I’m fine.”

Tyen’s eyes still wouldn’t meet his, but his arms wrapped around Kim, comfortingly strong like always. Kim buried his fingers in Tyen’s thick curls. His hair was full of dust and sand, like he’d been rolling around on the ground.

The world around them was still. It was too early for anyone to be by the gate. Kim wondered how many people would even show up today.

“I saw the body,” Tyen whispered, mouth against Kim’s ear. “It was all in pieces. I think… I think she’s dead.”

Kim kissed the side of Tyen’s head. Although Tyen was a year younger they’d always been the same height.

“What happens now?” Tyen said.

Kim stared at number 8, beyond Tyen’s shoulders. It looked the way it did every morning, when Kim passed it on the way to the Compound, in the general stream of everyone trying to make it before first bell.

“Can you get home without me?” Kim said into Tyen’s hair. The air was starting to get warmer, but Tyen’s body heat still felt good against his skin.

Tyen was silent for a long moment. “I think so. Where are you going?”

“Find Dej,” Kim said, pulling away. “She probably has a plan by now.” He leaned in and gave Tyen a brief, shallow kiss. A taste of reassurance, before he let go.

“I’ll be there soon,” Kim said, and walked in the direction of number 8.


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