Three Keys in the Desert (part 26 of 26)

Claudia wondered whether the school was always such a mess on Transfer Days. She supposed given that it barely functioned the rest of the time, it was no surprise that everything fell apart as soon as there was a time crunch. At least she wouldn’t have to be here for very long. If she got her new orders within the next few days she could leave with the supply ship.

The scheduled time for the meeting came and went, yet only Michael and the boy Key were present in her office.

When the girls arrived Claudia didn’t bother wasting time on chastising them. A ship had been docked in orbit since the middle of the night, and a message marked urgent had arrived for Claudia early in the morning. She had decided to postpone looking at it until she had to, but now she was anxious to be done with it. It was either a request for mundane details, like when to send the newly arrived children and supplies and in what order, or documents removing her from authority. Maybe it was both.

“Can I talk to Ebie outside?” the boy said, before the girls sat down. Ebie actually looked to Claudia for an answer, as if she thought more tardiness would be acceptable, before Michael said “absolutely not.”

Bo tried to protest but Ebie told him they’d speak over lunch. “Trust me, we’ll be here all day,” she added before taking a seat. She seemed more inclined to be patient with him than the last time Claudia saw them together.

“Before we start,” Vrei said, pulling her legs up under herself on the chair. Claudia couldn’t stop frowning at the habit. Underneath how little she cared about this job something deep in her core bristled at such casual departure from protocol. “I’d like to bring up the blanket situation. My district took in more used blankets last year than anyone—”

“And whose fault was that?” Ebie said, though she sounded more amused than angry.

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault, we just happen to have more daily wear-and-tear…” Vrei kept talking, and Ebie answered her and at some point Michael got involved in the argument, but Claudia stopped listening as soon as her eyes scanned over the first lines of the message from the supply ship’s captain.

After she was done, she read the text again, pausing over each word. Then she read the two attached documents, signed and marked with official insignia. Finally she looked away from the screen.

“Stop talking. There’s nothing to fight about, the supply ship is empty.”

Confused looks met Claudia on the other side of her desk.

“Tensions are rising all along the border,” she said. “This quadrant is increasingly unsafe. The school is being shut down. What’s in orbit is an evacuation ship, they’ll send down shuttles as soon as I give them the signal. Approximately 70% of the school’s population will fit inside. The rest will wait for the next transport, in a month.”

Everyone was still while Claudia talked. Ebie was the first to recover from the shock. “Evacuated? Where are they sending us?”

“You’ll have to ask at Central Processing.” Claudia had no idea where the children would be assigned, and she doubted anyone on the evacuation ship did either. They must have planned this months ago, a supply ship had never left harbor. They sent her here knowing the school was about to be closed—they’d wanted her to oversee its dismantling.

“Central Processing?” Vrei said. Her feet were back on the floor now. “That only applies to elders.”

Claudia steepled her fingers. “Perhaps I should have been clearer.” Her mind kept racing through the implications of the letter, of what might await her next. “The school is being shut down permanently. According to the paperwork I received, you’ll all be conscripted.”

Michael jumped up at that, peering over Claudia’s desk to see the documents spread on her screen. She plucked the screen from her desk and handed it to him.

“This is not a training exercise,” she said, while Michael paced. “I’ll need evacuation plans from you within the hour. I suggest the oldest students go first, with the younger ones staying on the planet.” She made a mental note to check with the man in charge of the youngest children whether it would be a good idea to keep them all, for now. The school would still need manual labor to function. “Staff and Keys, obviously, will stay as well.”

Michael collapsed into a chair, letting the screen drop to the floor. It fell with a heavy thud, but remained intact.

His surrender seemed to galvanize the children, as if it had finally made Claudia’s words real.

“This can’t be happening,” Ebie said, just as Vrei said “Are we at war?”

Bo simply stared at Claudia with his wide, soft eyes.

“It’s unexpected,” Claudia agreed, back in her chair. “And no, we’re not officially at war, though we will be. They’ll probably hold the announcement for a few weeks yet.” A few weeks during which she’d finish sorting out the school. A few weeks of her story being used by the press to justify whatever parliament wanted.

“This is about what you did, isn’t it,” Ebie said, looking at Claudia, her mouth a thin line. “They’re punishing you again, except this time they’re also punishing us.”

Claudia couldn’t help but smile to herself. Releasing her from running this hole was the opposite of a punishment.

“What about secondyears, thirdyears?” Vrei said. “What do they even do at Central Processing?”

Claudia shrugged. “I have no idea. But my assumption is that every delegate will want to postpone a draft in their territory for as long as possible. And that means conscripting every available body, so the numbers look good. I doubt most of you will see the frontlines. Probably it’ll be maintenance work.” Probably most of them would end up working in kitchens and cargo holds.

“I… I haven’t even taken Basic Principles of Strategic Planning yet,” the boy said, looking dazed. “I can’t even apply for officer school.”

The words startled a laugh out of Claudia, which she quickly tried to disguise with a cough. “I wouldn’t worry about it Bo,” she said, after gaining her composure. “No one from this facility will make it to the Academy, not even your fellow Keys. It doesn’t really matter what classes you’ve had the opportunity to take.”

“What!” Ebie exploded.

Claudia realized both girls were suddenly looking at her with anger and dismay.

She should have seen this coming, but it really wasn’t her problem. She wasn’t the one who’d been lying to them for years. “Michael?” she said.

He seemed to come alive at the mention of his name. Claudia supposed the gears in his head had turned sufficiently by now to realize that she was his only chance at a good placement, wherever they sent him next.

“Girls, you heard the Head,” Michael said, sounding faint. “I want evacuation plans within the hour.” He took a shaky breath. “Account for equipment as well, we’ll need to transport it eventually.”

“No,” Ebie said, rising. “I want to know why. It doesn’t matter anyway, right? So at least tell us.”

“I’m with Ebie,” Vrei said.

“Why doesn’t it matter?” Ebie went on. “Why couldn’t any of us be officers? They have late career development tracks or whatever, at the Academy. Our reference program isn’t great, but you’ve got to be worth something, right?” she said, gesturing at Claudia. “They’ll probably make you a war hero for letting your own ship burn in the buffer zone. You can write references for some of us, at least.”

Claudia glanced at Michael, but his eyes were hollow, staring at a spot somewhere on the floor. What had he fed them all these years? What fabrications had been necessary to keep these children in line?

The room was quiet, waiting for Claudia’s response.

She had nothing to threaten these children with, no incentives to offer, and she needed their cooperation. It was in her interests to get this done as quickly as possible; maybe if she gave them the truth they’d have less motivation to stall.

Maybe if she proved herself competent again she’d be assigned a real job.

“There’s no field training program here,” Claudia said, leaning back in her chair. “You’ve never gone on scouting missions, never worked on engines, you barely have navigation simulators. The curriculum is from before the War. There are narcotics growing freely in your living quarters. This school is run by a staff that wouldn’t normally be enough to maintain a moderate sized infirmary. You don’t have a sponsor program or psych training, you grow up like weeds. No supervision, no accountability.”

“I’m not getting on the shuttle,” Bo said, eyes wet and voice shaky. “You can’t make me.”

The girls stayed silent, each caught in her own thoughts. They didn’t echo Bo’s sentiments, which Claudia took as a good sign. It was better this way, at least they could move things along.

Condolences would probably make the children less upset. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You know this wasn’t my decision. If there was anything I could do…”

“Reports within the hour,” Michael said, his voice quiet. He got out of his chair, slowly, as if regaining his limbs. “If you do a good job we’ll… we’ll arrange some accommodation. References for exemplary performance. It’ll help you stand out, even without your finals.”

The boy got up first, avoiding Claudia’s eyes as he stormed out of the room.

“This was all for nothing,” Vrei spat at Michael, before following him outside.

Claudia couldn’t blame the children. It was obvious this kind of sudden announcement would not be taken well.

“Vrei, you need to get a hold of yourself,” Michael said, following her into the hallway. The sound of a loud argument penetrated the office even after the doors slid shut.

Ebie remained seated. Claudia gave her a moment to collect herself, but when the girl rose she approached Claudia’s desk, instead of heading for the door.

“Did you know when you came here?” she said. “What this place really was? That they could shut it down without even giving an official reason? I guess I always knew. I just… I never thought…” she stuttered, like her brain had just run out of words.

She was probably around sixteen. Claudia remembered herself at that age, certain that her school friends were the pinnacle of what the world had to offer.

“You were always going to leave here with nothing,” Claudia said. “That hasn’t changed. Before, your meaningless grades were going to get you a mechanic’s junior assistant post somewhere, maybe. After twenty years you might have climbed to second assistant. Now…” Claudia sighed. She thought about Martin’s body, about the images in the news. She thought about the scars she still carried on her body, that the doctors couldn’t wipe away, from the war everyone thought would be the last.

“War is messy,” she said, finally. “If you survive, you never know where you might end up.”

Ebie looked away, at a spot of rust on Claudia’s desk. “Are they going to give you another command?”

“I don’t know,” Claudia said. “Maybe. Probably not.”

She was aware, now, that this entire posting had to have been a test. They’d wanted to see whether she’d suffer the humiliation of this place, or whether the accident, the death of her crew, the trial, had pushed her too far. Whether, after everything, she could still be relied upon to follow orders.

Whether she was still loyal enough to do work that was beneath her.

“Take me with you.” Ebie’s hands were curled into fists, supporting her weight as she leaned closer to Claudia. “You know I’m a hard worker.”

“Maybe, we’ll see,” Claudia said, surprising herself with how much she meant it. “Meanwhile, I need that report.”

Ebie nodded, and turned away, pausing for a moment. Whether she wanted to say something else and thought better of it, or simply wanted to collect herself before facing the world, she was gone a few seconds later.

Claudia went to retrieve the screen Michael had dropped and placed it back where it belonged on her desk. She leaned back in her chair and began drafting a reply for the ship’s captain.

She’d made him wait long enough.

 

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