Category Archives: My Fiction

Three Keys in the Desert (part 1 of 26)

Hello and welcome to part 1 of Three Keys in the Desert, my science fiction novella. Over the course of June 2017 I posted the entire thing on my website! To read the 26 parts of the story just scroll down and start below.

If you’d rather read the story as one book, you can buy the ebook. To stay updated on future projects, you sign up for my New Release Mailing List.


7 days until Transfer Day

Kim’s clothes clung to his skin, soaked with sweat. His head pounded from the heat.

He forced himself to walk faster. He’d walked home once before in daylight, years ago, discharged early from the infirmary with a fractured arm, but the painkillers had made everything a blur. He didn’t remember the heat pressing down on him, or the ground under his boots being this shade of yellow.

The shaded entrance to his building got closer, until finally he stood on cool, hard cement. There were no temperature adjustment systems in the district, the only place with electricity was the Compound, but still the peeling, gray walls of the lobby felt like a cool breath compared to being outside.

Kim paused before going up the stairs to the second floor. Supposedly “some woman” was waiting for him in his room. The kid who’d delivered the message couldn’t give Kim any more details, but it was pretty obvious this was one of Sol’s games. She wasn’t usually sober enough for something so elaborate, but once in a while she was known to make an exception. The only surprising thing was that she’d chosen the district to deal with him, in the middle of the day, when everyone was at the Compound.

On the second floor, the door to Kim’s room was slightly ajar. Of course she’d want to do it here, where he slept. Sol was never short on imagination when she wanted to torture people. At least none of his friends would be here to see it.

He braced himself before pushing the door open.

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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.

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 3 of 26)

Ebie was slumped on her desk, forehead resting on piles of paperwork, when the door to her office slid open. She looked up to see Len, finally returned, carrying a steaming cup in each hand.

She forced her spine to unbend and her body to settle itself upright in the chair. The trip to 942, the long walk in the sun, the stress of trying to not get caught, made the day feel a thousand times longer. She wasn’t usually this exhausted so early in the evening, even the week before Transfer Day. At least the bright, artificial lights in the Compound made falling asleep on her desk more difficult.

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 4 of 26)

Claudia couldn’t tell how long it had been since she’d dropped her bags on the floor of her new accommodations. She only knew her shuttle had landed during daylight—the heat had pressed down on her like a steel crate—but it was now dark outside.

She looked around her new quarters again. There was a sofa, a bizarre painting on the wall, and a doorway leading, presumably, to her bedroom. Bare and empty, just like her purpose for being in this useless place. She took another swig from the bottle, already half empty. The drink was smooth, sliding down her throat like thick honey. They used to brew it in field hospitals during the War—a mixture of cheap drugs and rough liquor. Claudia had managed to procure a few bottles, before boarding the transport. No sense in saving it—she’d likely be stuck on this rock for the rest of her life. Didn’t matter if the good stuff lasted her two weeks or two months.

Not that she was complaining. It wasn’t complaining, stating the obvious. Just like those bastards at her court martial—just stating the obvious. She took another swig.

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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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Three Keys in the Desert (part 6 of 26)

Claudia awoke to the realization that the pounding in her head had indeed been an echo of the incessant buzzing at the door. Unfortunately, she realized once she lifted her head up from the carpet, her skull had simply been waiting for the right moment to start pounding on its own.

It took her about three times as long as it should have to rise from the floor. Each sudden movement meant a spike of pain in her lower back. She couldn’t believe she’d let herself fall asleep lying flat on the ground like this. She usually knew to treat her old injuries better; her right side felt like it’d been regrown all over again.

The buzzing kept coming at steady intervals until finally Claudia struggled all the way up to press the button next to the door. At least she’d remembered to activate the door’s locking mechanism the night before.

The man standing in the hallway looked as distressed as he was disheveled. “My apologies, Colonel, I know you’re still recovering from your flight.”

What was his name? Mark? Michael? Michael.

“I’m afraid there’s been an incident.”

“What?” Claudia’s mouth was dry and her head felt heavier than a transport ship.

“One of the students in district 942 was found dead this morning. I…” His eyes darted anxiously between the door, the floor and Claudia’s face. “It… seems to have been suicide.”

Claudia wasn’t sure what reaction the man was looking for. All she could think about was how badly she needed to sit down.

“We’re still trying to determine the exact details…” He coughed. “I’m… I just thought you should know.”

Claudia yawned, using the opportunity to stretch her arms. Her back felt like one massive bruise. “Report to me once you have something concrete,” she half-mumbled and pushed the button again without waiting for his reply.

She badly needed a painkiller but whatever medical facility they had on this rock, she was in no condition to get there. How drunk had she been last night? She could remember bits and pieces. There had definitely been a bottle—where had it disappeared to? There were no broken pieces on the floor. She’d… gone out? Outside? Yes, that seemed likely. She remembered seeing the stars. And there had been a conversation, though she couldn’t remember with whom.

Claudia stepped out of the bathroom and walked slowly, her body still struggling to regain its balance, to her suitcase. She rummaged through the contents until she found something to wear that didn’t stink from three days’ travel and a night on the floor.

The buzzing at the door—sudden and loud—made her curse violently before getting up again. She’d been pondering a shower—she certainly needed one—but of course the man whose name was presumably Michael was back. This time he stepped inside, ignoring the absence of an invitation, and held out a cup of warm tea. It was a pleasant surprise that made Claudia reevaluate her previous impression of him as an incompetent idiot.

“There’s been a very troubling development,” Michael said, turning his back to her as he casually looked over the room. The familiarity of it was mildly disturbing; Claudia would have to set better boundaries with her new subordinates than her predecessor had managed to.

She took a sip of the tea and spat it out on the carpet. It startled Michael into giving her a surprised look. Claudia was torn between embarrassment and wanting to smother him with her bare hands for giving her the sourest, most bitter liquid she’d ever tasted.

“Sorry,” she bit out.

“No, I should have warned you,” he said apologetically. “It’s a local brew. Taste takes getting used to.”

Getting used to? There were probably better tasting sewers.

“As I said, there’s been a development. I should have asked you earlier, really, but…” He let his hands hang aimlessly in the air. “I had no idea you’d had a chance to meet her already.”

“Meet who?”

“Sol. The Key of 942.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Claudia said. Had she really met someone the night before? She should have known better than to get completely wasted her first night at her new post. All she remembered were fragments of Martin’s face.

“Colonel, I understand you were a bit…” He hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Tired, last night, but surely you remember talking to a girl in the garden? It couldn’t have been very late, Sol was seen in her district a few hours past last bell.” He paused. “There was a young boy with her?” He added hesitantly, as if afraid she’d lost her mind as well as her memory.

“I remember him,” she lied.

“Right. Bo. It seems you appointed him to be a Key, last night.”

His words lay in the gray zone between statement and question and Claudia felt that gave her the right to reply in kind. “I did.”

“Yes.” He seemed even more confused than a second ago. “Why did you do that, exactly?”

Claudia’s headache was getting steadily worse. “I asked for a status report,” she said. “What about the boy?”

“Right,” Michael said. “He was the one who found her. Sol. He told her First what happened. That you demoted Sol and appointed him to be the Key instead.”

Claudia closed her eyes and rubbed at her face, trying to remember. “Remind me what a Key is, again.”

Michael took a deep breath, as if trying to calm himself, and sank down unto the sofa. “I suppose you haven’t had time to read the reports we sent ahead.” He kneaded his forehead and leaned forward to stare at the floor.

If Claudia hadn’t already admitted to herself she’d made mistakes the night before she’d have put a stop to his tone. A conversation about hierarchy and appropriate respect was definitely in order. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time,” she said, letting an icy note slip into her voice.

Michael straightened his back. “Every few years we choose a student from each section of the living quarters and make them responsible for maintaining basic order. Between the Resource Conservation Act and the difficulty of reaching this moon, we simply don’t have the personnel to do it otherwise.” He paused, looking up at Claudia, as if expecting a sign that any of this information was familiar.

She gestured for him to go on, keeping her expression neutral.

“In exchange,” he continued, “they get a private room, a staff keycard, the promise of a good reference when they enlist. This morning one of them was found dead. She would have been eighteen years old in two days.” He let the words hang in the air for a moment, almost like an accusation. Claudia frowned.

Michael rose to his feet and his tone turned sharper. “Bo is what the students call a ‘kid’, someone who’s been at the school for two years but only transferred to the district less than a year ago. You can see how making someone like that a Key could cause problems, Colonel.”

He was probably right, but the fog in Claudia’s head made it difficult to be sure. How could she have let herself end up here, scrutinized by a man who didn’t even hold military rank? As if merely being stationed on this rock wasn’t enough. “If the boy shouldn’t have the job,” she said, finally. “Then rescind my order. I’ll approve the change or whatever’s necessary.”

Michael began to pace. “The rules state that the Head can appoint a new Key only once in the space of a year. Right now, the children consider the rules sacred. If we start undermining the Keys’ authority and they start losing faith in the system…” he trailed off, eyes staring straight at Claudia again.

The silent accusations were slowly grinding down the last shreds of her patience. This school had students effectively raising each other with no supervision—nothing she could have done last night could make things worse.

“In that case,” she said. “I suppose there’s no going back. The boy’s appointed, I’m sure you’ll make it work.”

Michael paused. For a moment his face was a perfect portrait of shock—lips parted, eyes wide. But a second later his face was back to itself and he walked, hands in his pockets, past Claudia to stand by the door. “I’ve scheduled a meeting with the other Keys and Arai—Sol’s… you might say second-in-command. I hope that wasn’t too pertinent,” he said. “They’ll be waiting in your office in half an hour.”

 

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 7 of 26)

Ebie took the long way from the Head’s office back to her own. Her brain was a box of static She knew the part of the Compound that belonged to the 745 like the back of her hand, but instead of taking the direct route she walked from the entrance to the staff areas, at the heart of the Compound, all the way back to her district’s gate. At least the corridors were mostly empty at this hour, just after breakfast.

She walked into the mess hall, empty except for a few fluffs cleaning the tea machines. They startled when they saw her, making her walk right back out again. She couldn’t hide out here.

Eventually she would have to get back to her office. If she left the Compound now it would take her hours to come back, and she didn’t have that kind of time. Rounds, meetings, spreadsheets, check-ups, none of it could wait.

Her fists clenched as she turned around again, and walked back into a gray, metal corridor. Her feet wanted to keep walking but her mind was clear enough now that she knew she had to go back. She had to keep functioning somehow.

She didn’t register anything except her office doors parting automatically to let her in. Her chair, worn and thinly padded, had been a gift from Sol. She’d helped Ebie get rid of the old, rusted one during Ebie’s first week as Key. Sol had taught her how to trick the supply office into parting with one of theirs in exchange for a favor. Ebie’s predecessor had never spent enough time in his office to bother.

She didn’t notice Len sitting in his usual seat until she heard his voice say “How was it?”

Of course—she’d told him to wait for her after the meeting, before anyone knew what it would be about.

“I heard about Sol,” Len said, hesitantly. “They announced it while you were gone.”

She couldn’t look at him. Her jaw already hurt from gritting her teeth, her chest was already on fire. The things she’d done behind Sol’s back for his sake. It made her want to claw the skin off her own bones.

“They said it was suicide—” Len began to say.

“It wasn’t suicide,” Ebie interrupted. “She was a Key for four years. She would never—” her voice faltered. She cleared her throat. “She wouldn’t have just given up.”

“You think someone… killed her?” Len’s brows were furrowed in disbelief. “I know her district’s had problems, but—”

“I don’t know,” Ebie said. “Nothing adds up.” She couldn’t stay in this office, coming here was a mistake. She needed to be alone, and moving. But walking around the halls would mean questions, especially after that stupid announcement. Why couldn’t Michael have at least waited until after the meeting before announcing it to the whole school? She wished she could go back to her room, lock the door and not deal with anyone for a week.

“So, Arai’s in charge now?” Len asked.

Ebie felt the anger flare up again. “No, some kid. You’ve seen him waiting for Sol.” The words felt like picking at an open wound. “She used to drag him to Key meetings just to annoy me? Supposedly the Head appointed him last night.”

She could tell the exact moment Len’s brain supplied the right visual. He stared at her wide-eyed. “That kid?”

If only Michael had seen it that way. If only Vrei hadn’t folded so quickly. “The new Head looked like she just woke up from a bender.” Ebie rested her fingers on the desk, forcing herself not to grab the nearest pile of paperwork and tear it to little pieces. “Could barely say two words, Michael did all the talking. I don’t think she even remembers what happened.” If Arai had just kept her mouth shut Michael would probably never have known.

Len let out a breath. “At least now it makes sense.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in before they started to tug at Ebie’s insides. “What?”

“Killing herself,” Len said. “It didn’t make any sense before.”

Ebie forced herself to take a breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to find a thread of calm. If things were different, if she hadn’t been forced to… but she’d betrayed Sol just like the rest of them. Whatever Vrei’s mistakes were, Ebie had made her own choices. She’d chosen to go behind Sol’s back to get what she needed, so what right did she have to be angry?

Ebie slammed her hand on the desk. It felt good. The stinging in her palm felt like an anchor. She had to focus.

“Get out,” she said.

Len looked startled. “I’m sorry, Eebs. Obviously you knew her better than I did.”

He didn’t deserve this. But neither had Sol. “Get out,” she said again, quieter.

He got up quickly, chair screeching against the floor. “I’ll see you at lunch. Leo’s got a stomach thing, we need to—”

“I don’t want to see you,” Ebie said, “until further notice.” Her eyes burned, from her lashes to the inside of her skull to her throat. She had to make him leave before she lost control of herself, before she took the anger out on the only person who’d never fight her back.

Len was silent for a moment. “Right. Sure,” he said, finally. The doors made a soft sound closing after him.

Ebie glanced at the desk littered with medical reports, requisition forms, housing requests. She sank lower in her chair and stared at the walls.

 

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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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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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Three Keys in the Desert (part 10 of 26)

5 Days Until Transfer Day

Ebie was sorting through monthly uniform disposal reports when the doors to her office opened. The noise from the hallway meant it was already past breakfast. She didn’t look up, bracing herself to see Len, only to be startled by Vrei’s voice.

“Arai came to see me.” Vrei sank into the visitor’s chair with a sigh. “She’s scared, apparently.”

Ebie hadn’t seen Vrei since the last Key meeting. She pushed the reports aside. “Yeah?”

“Some fourthyear over there is making trouble,” Vrei looked like she was already tired of talking about it.

Ebie wondered why she was really here. On two hours of sleep just looking at Vrei was clawing at her patience. She should have gotten at least a solid five hours, but falling asleep without Len had proven to be… annoyingly unfamiliar.

“Arai said he’s got friends all over, told her if she doesn’t take care of the situation with Bo, he will,” Vrei said. “I think his name is Kim.”

Ebie’s fingers dug into the edge of the desk. Her heart stuttered for a moment.

But Vrei was busy curling up in the chair, settling down carefully so the soles of her boots didn’t touch the seat. Ebie was used to thinking of it as barely big enough for a human but Vrei made it look huge.

“And what does she think we can do?” Ebie said, forcing herself to sound calm. If Arai suspected anything she would have come directly to Ebie. There was no reason for her to go through Vrei.

“I don’t know,” Vrei said, her hands hugging her knees.

For a moment they were both quiet.

“You know, Sol told me,” Vrei said. “The last time I saw her.” She shook her head as if trying to shake the memory. “She told me she was going to sneak into the Head’s quarters. We laughed about it. I thought it was a joke.”

Ebie could see it. Sol was always full of ridiculous ideas. Maybe if she’d mentioned it to Ebie instead she could have talked Sol out of it. Maybe. Not that it mattered now.

The silence stretched on. “What’s with you?” Vrei said, finally. “You’ve been weird lately.”

“Weird?” Ebie said, looking back at the paperwork. There were smudges on it from Len carrying reports in one hand and tea in the other. Nothing about today was normal, but she knew what Vrei meant. The sound of what Ebie couldn’t say was making Vrei nervous. Reassuring her would probably be the smart thing, but Ebie didn’t have those kind of people skills. “She’s dead. I said all I had to say about that to Michael.”

Vrei didn’t respond for a moment, and then her eyes went wide with indignation. “And I didn’t?”

Ebie leaned back in her chair and let her eyes meet Vrei’s.

The silence didn’t last long.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Vrei said, rearranging herself to sit upright. “Because your accusations helped? The Head almost kicked you out of her office!”

“You’re right,” Ebie said. “Sol wasn’t worth getting in trouble with the new Head. What did she ever do for you, right?”

Vrei climbed out of the chair. “You are unbelievable.”

“She deserved better. Especially from you,” Ebie said. “She could have destroyed you when you first got this job.”

Vrei crossed her arms over her chest. She looked like she wanted to say something, but Ebie couldn’t keep quiet anymore. “The Head’s here less than a day,” she went on, “and suddenly Sol isn’t good enough? No warning, nothing? Like that woman even knows what we do.” Thinking about Sol’s hands, the way she argued, the way she laughed, was making Ebie’s chest feel heavy. “Remember what Sol used to say? We get people to protect and people to answer to, and that’s it. We don’t get friends, not really. Just each other.”

She needed this conversation to be over. She was tired of lying, tired of guilt, tired of breaking the rules for other people’s mistakes. If Vrei had kept better track of her troublemakers Ebie would never have had to go behind Sol’s back.

Vrei was still for a long moment, either out of anger or shock or something else, Ebie couldn’t tell. Her judgment was clouded. Her head hadn’t felt like her own since Michael told them the news.

“She jumped out of a window, Ebie,” Vrei said, finally. She sounded hoarse. “You and I know she jumped. She barely passed an exam this year. She dragged that random kid to all her meetings instead of Arai. She was high half the time. And then getting demoted? She was a year from enlisting.” Vrei shook her head, staring at the floor. “I would have found windows pretty tempting.”

Ebie shook her head. “No, don’t even try—” she began to say, but Vrei interrupted.

“This?” She gave Ebie a bitter, angry look. “You’re really making her proud.”

The room was filled with echoes of noise as the doors slid open and shut behind her.

Ebie leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She let out a long breath before opening them again.

 

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