Three Keys in the Desert (part 2 of 26)

Vrei examined the bed by the window. It was clearly crooked, one of its four metal legs broken and another one cracked.

An unforeseen emergency in the district that Vrei had no idea how to fix, and it wasn’t even lunch yet.

“This is just great,” she said, crouching on the floor to examine the damage.

It was only Vrei’s second year as Key, but she wasn’t surprised at the last minute crisis.

Vrei’s First was quiet behind her. “Is there any chance that Michael…” she finally said, sounding like she already knew the answer.

The room was hot and stuffy, the afternoon sun pouring in through the window. The glare against the stone floor was forcing Vrei to squint.

“We’re out of vouchers, Olin,” Vrei said, rising. “Soonest we can fix this is after Transfer Day.” Assuming they got through the Shutdown okay, and the other Keys didn’t use last-minute bullshit like this to gut 331’s voucher allocations.

Vrei ran a hand through her hair, pulling it back behind her ears. It was getting too long. She’d have to ask one of her friends to cut it soon.

“Maybe the new Head will decide to be nice on their first day and throw me a freebie,” she said, wiping her forehead.

Having to leave the Compound during daylight was probably the worst part of being a Key. When she’d dreamed of having that freedom, before she got the job, she never imagined how much sweat would be involved.

Olin’s face was a subtle cringe, a familiar omen of bad news. “I read on the logs this morning, the transport’s delayed again. They don’t know when the new Head will get here.”

Of course. Maybe they’d delay the Shutdown, at least? How could there be an inspection without a Head to inspect things?

“The left leg seems fine,” Olin said, bending down to look. “We could prop it up with something.”

The girls who lived in this room told Vrei that morning that the bed had simply collapsed in the middle of the night. “Probably rusted all the way through,” Vrei said.

“Just seven days before we get re-supplied, right? It’ll hold.”

Vrei gave the bed another thorough look over. “I guess.” She turned back to the door. “Remember that room where a closet broke last year? Pretty sure they found a way to fix it themselves. Maybe we can ask them to help.”

“They’re all elders now,” Olin said, uncertainly.

“Right.” Elders didn’t care about anything but their exams this late in the year. Asking any of them to donate their precious free time would be like asking the bed to fix itself.

“Maybe Zher could help,” Olin said, as they walked down the stairs from the third floor. “Didn’t he fix a broken screen once?”

Sometimes Vrei forgot that Olin was a year younger than her, that they hadn’t been through the Palace together, that Olin didn’t know Vrei’s past as well as most of Vrei’s friends did. “Zher is terrible at that stuff,” she said. “The best he can do is ask the guys he plays stones with, I think one of them fixed a sink two years ago.”

They reached the lobby of the building.

“Talk to the girls who live in that room,” Vrei said. “Tell them I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do until Transfer Day.”

Olin nodded. “I’ll try to get some extra blankets, maybe prop up the bed until then.”

Outside, the air felt scorching. They were so far from the 331’s Compound gate that Vrei couldn’t even see it. Just a few oddly shaped buildings, the path winding between them, and dusty earth all around. She couldn’t imagine how the other Keys did it—her district had the smallest land area and she hated getting dragged out to the outskirts in the middle of the day.

The sky was the only highlight of being outside. The place where Vrei grew up, they spent most of their time underground. On the rare days she got to see the clouds, the sky was usually angry and red. Here it was always the same pale violet-blue, year round.

Standing in the shaded entrance to the building Vrei took a final deep breath before turning to head back to the Compound, the giant chunk of metal in the distance. Three steps later, however, before her boots could collect a single layer of dust, she stopped. There was a weird glimmer at the edge of her vision. She was used to squinting when she walked outside, but this was different. Like the sun was coming at her from the ground.

She shaded her eyes with her hands and looked around. The security fence, mostly obscured by the buildings in this part of 331, reflected the sun in a strange, unfamiliar way.

Vrei moved without thinking. Her feet carried her quickly, before she could register her own mounting sense of alarm, to the other side of the building she’d just walked out of.

“Where are you…” Olin said behind her, the words fading out as she, too, noticed the gaping hole in the metal criss-cross of the fence. Vrei felt her heart beating in her ears. The hole was about the size of her forearm.

She looked up at the sensor on top of the fence. It was dark and lifeless.

“How could this…” Olin said faintly. She came closer to the fence—a large section around the hole was brown-black, no longer covered by the normal blue-gray shimmer of the energy field. Olin’s hand hovered over the naked metal.

The fence went around every part of the settlement—all three districts and the Compound, including the off-limits staff areas. Vrei had never seen any part of it powered down, not even when glitches shut down the electricity everywhere else. She didn’t know if there was even a penalty in the school protocols for something like this.

“This is going to cost me my reference,” Olin whispered, fingers still dangerously close to the fence.

Vrei grabbed her by the elbow, forcing Olin to take a step back. “We need to keep this contained,” she said, sounding scared even to her own ears.

“How?” Olin said.

Vrei forced herself to look away from the fence. The sight of the endless, windy desert stretched out beyond the horizon made it difficult to think. If anyone used this hole to escape, if Michael found out about it…

Olin sank down to sit on her haunches. Her hands were red, the skin beginning to peel. She was too pale to be in out in the sun for so long. “We can’t fix this.”

Vrei looked up at the building. There were no windows on the side that faced the fence. “Someone must have seen something.”

“Without a reference, I won’t even be able to—”

“We’ll find whoever did this,” Vrei said, interrupting. “We’ll find a way to… to make it right, with Michael.”

Olin’s eyes were fixed on the fence. “He always hated me. He’ll never let this go.”

Vrei tried to think through her own panic. “Where did they even get the tools to do this? What can disable a fence?”

Olin looked up to meet Vrei’s eyes. “They’ll demote us for this.”

“No,” Vrei said. Olin was organized, smart, punctual, a hard worker, but Vrei didn’t choose her for her ability to stay calm in a crisis. One of them had to keep a clear head. “We just have to find whoever’s responsible.”

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