The Warrior’s Key

by Sara Kathryn Puls

Andina had been walking around with her key for days. It wasn’t a fancy keycard like the TechNobles received when they stayed in fancy HoTeleportations, but a real skeleton key, the kind built for us; the Machinery. She probably thought I didn’t see it, or didn’t care, but I did. The key was small, but big enough to make one of her pockets stand out from the other. That unevenness was the least of my concerns, but it still irritated me.

She was also just four years old, which said a thing or two about the situation. Most children didn’t receive their key until age thirteen; that’s when I got mine. My parents likely received their keys around the same age. Even in my first memory of them–the day I turned three–Mom and Dad were depressed and sullen.

About a week after Andina’s key showed up, Dad’s incessant, thunderous snoring woke me for the third time that night. I needed to put more distance between us, even if for just a little while. I got up to get a glass of water from the drinking pail in the kitchen.

Andina’s bedroom door was ajar and the white light shined brightly into the surrounding darkness. I immediately tiptoed across the hall and poked my head through the doorway, carefully, quietly.

Andina’s curly mess of hair rested on the mattress, but her fully clothed body remained above the thin sheet. Those chubby little fingers held the key tightly, though the decorative part still protruded from her tiny fist.

I crossed the threshold and quickly snapped off the light. Since the TechNobility had been limiting our electricity–two hours a night, except for those willing to risk jail time–I knew Andina’s condition was bad. She was young, but still incredibly smart; she understood the Technobility’s Savings System as well as anyone. I could only hope the Worms would be kept busy with more serious crimes that night.

As I bent down to lay a kiss on her cheek, I carefully avoided touching the key. That was the first I had seen it so close. The top had the shape and detail of a delicate flower. In my whole life, I had only ever seen a real flower two, maybe three, times. So while the key was certainly pretty, it’s beauty made me doubly suspicious. I didn’t want to be the one to deal with it, but I knew the task would be left to me.

Telling myself that things could still be worse, that it would be a long time until Andina’s key took her from me, I left the room as quietly as I had entered.

I got some water and eventually a little sleep.

#

The next morning, though, everything did get worse. Andina’s bedroom was quiet and empty when I walked past. Filling up with anxiety and dread, my stomach refused to hold its proper position. I feared that the key had already taken my insatiably curious and spunky sister; that she would return from her door acting like a worn-out old machine–which was the post-key behavior for which our class of people got the nickname. But I forced myself to walk the few additional steps it took to get to the kitchen.

Mom and Dad were rambling on, just as dispirited and vapid as always. Neither of them had bathed in weeks; they smelled of sweat and liquid goat juice, which was the closest thing to meat we could afford. Neither of them realized I was standing right there. Or perhaps they just didn’t care.
I coughed.

Mom raised her eyebrows and muttered, “Oh, Felicia. Hi.” That was about all I ever got in the way of attention from either of them.

“Where’s Andina?” I demanded. There was no point in returning Mom’s half-hearted hello.

Dad barely raised his arm from his side. With a limp wrist he pointed to the table just around the corner from where I stood. The hodgepodge of a table–it had a wooden top and metal legs–occupied the space in front of the only window in our home. Glass and plastic were hard to come by for Machinery. Wood, too, for the most part. That meant our funny old table was a bit of a rarity.

Andina stood. She wasn’t just by the table, but on it. Most of her caramel-colored toes stuck out of her hand-me-down socks. Utterly motionless, she gazed out at the grimy grey streets of Shanty Square with the same studiousness I’d always admired in her. I found my own gaze shifting from Andina to the far off TechNobility Towers, where all the ‘Nobility lived. To me, those beautiful golden forms represented suffering and injustice, not our society’s advancements and strength. To me, they represented Andina’s impending demise.

Andina didn’t turn her head or even shift her weight when I approached. This was precisely what happened on the day a key led to its door–near total mental isolation. Each key and door was slightly different, but the initial symptoms were always the same. I began to panic. Even though she had just slept with the light on–a common warning sign–I still thought Andina had more time.

She had always been so cheerful and sweet. She wanted the best for everybody. Indeed, just weeks earlier she’d talked of becoming a healer or teacher–both of which the Machinery needed desperately. So as I watched her stand there, tightly gripping her key, I could barely believe all her hopes and dreams had already rotted away.

Once a Machinery opened his or her door, everything changed. The dirt got inside and it got inside for good. The self-loathing, the depression, the pessimism; there was no going back.

I was lucky enough to get a dud. A lemon. A failure. I opened my door and there was nothing to see. Empty. It happened every once in a while. The TechNobles were never able to work out all the kinks in the product–never able to override the few ambivalent results that cropped up in each batch. That day was the best of my young life. Ambivalence was certainly better than despair, than being taken. Of course, I still had to play along. I didn’t want to be shipped off to the asylum on Planet Ihsan.

Stepping out of my thoughts, I reached up to touch Andina’s free hand. I had to tug three or four times, but she finally turned to face me.

“Pelisa! Good Moning!” Andina said in her best grown up voice. She sounded older already, though she still couldn’t say my name, or the word morning, quite right.

“I’m going with you. End of conversation,” I decreed as I pulled her down from the table. I needed her to have a real life; she couldn’t be taken. I would go through it for her.

Most everyone blamed the TechNobility for the Machinery’s malaise, and there was good reason for that. While on the job as a runner–which entailed running those fancy flat keycards to all of the fancy HoTeleportations–I’d learned about the TechNobility and Machinery alike.

I learned that many TechNoble keycards transported the wealthy to far off worlds on a whim, instantaneously. Others provided rooms full of delicacies and exotic drugs. The TechNobles had the privilege of ordering up just the right card–whatever struck their fancy that day–at any time. On busy days, I ran from the factory to the HoTeleportations ten times a morning. It was no wonder I was too skinny. The TechNobles could have allowed us more efficient means of delivery–I’d even have taken one of those dangerous old automobiles I’d heard they kept in museums–but they enjoyed adding to our misery.

I also learned that, for the Machinery, behind each door was precisely what the key holder believed she would see. I wished I knew how the technology worked, and why the TechNobility took the risk that we might see something useful. I assumed those in charge didn’t figure we had it in us. Or maybe they knew the risk was slight, since they’d kept us down for so long. But regardless, one look around Shanty Square confirmed that, whatever the whole key and door thing was, it was no illusion.

Andina tapped me on the hip. While she had been patiently waiting, with her plump little hand raised in the air, I had been daydreaming again. “Oh, right. Let’s go then,” I said, grasping her hand quickly. I knew it was time.

Mom and Dad didn’t even say goodbye.

#

Andina toddled down the rotting porch steps as fast as her legs would take her. Two kids not much younger than me sat in mud puddles on the ground just a few feet from our front door. They shared the same sad eyes and sunken faces. Must have been twins. By their stillness, I was almost certain they’d been taken.

When we reached the outskirts of Shanty Square, Andina turned down an exceptionally filthy street. It was as narrow as an alley. After five, maybe ten minutes, I could see that the street would soon reach a dead end. Her door was carved into the wall just a short distance ahead.

I sighed so loudly that Andina turned to look at me. This was the turning point. This was the point where I would step up and save her.

“Andina, give me your–” she wriggled free of my grasp and ran faster than I knew she was capable, faster than I could say the word “key.” I was so shocked that it took a few seconds get my legs moving again.

The hesitation was costly. I just managed to grab onto the back of Andina’s rag of a shirt when she plunged the flower-topped skeleton key into the rusted keyhole.

Before I could break down and cry at my massive failure, the door opened inward with one smooth swing. The light was the most radiant purple I had ever seen. There was no dirt, no blackness, and no death. It was nearly unbelievable, even for sweet Andina.

She stepped in and I followed.

“Look, Pelisa, look!” Andina exclaimed as she tried to point to everything at once. I was speechless. All around us were the most powerful tools we could ever seize.

In the middle of the room, there were stacks and stacks of books. Piled in two of the four corners were toys. Not just dirty dolls and old games, but stuff to truly spark the imagination. The two remaining corners held mounds and mounds of food. It wasn’t the bottled liquid stuff we Machinery were used to, but fresh, solid food. Floating in the air overhead were countless songs and laughs and dreams.

Andina plucked a strawberry from a pile of fruit and two more regenerated in its place. There were supplies enough to sustain a whole army. All the Machinery, even.

“Oh, Andina‚Ķ” was all I could manage to choke out as she tugged at my shirt.
But that’s when I knew. Andina would be our warrior. And she would be armed with weapons the TechNobility could never outdo.

The End