Three Keys in the Desert (part 22 of 26)

1 Day Until Transfer Day

Claudia found it astonishing how slowly new information spread through the school. News of her trial broke before she’d opened her eyes that morning, and yet it wasn’t until after breakfast that she could tell all the adults she encountered had seen the footage. The bulletins were full of pictures of the carcass of Claudia’s ship, official statements from her former subordinates taken from the court records, even holopics from the funerals.

No one said anything outright, but by noon Claudia was queasy from the awkward silences, the averted eyes. Her entire staff looked like they were trying to wrestle their questions to the ground. No one in this school had deluded themselves that she’d been sent here as a promotion, but they hadn’t expected her to be this big of a disaster.

The only person who seemed to be unchanged was Michael. Handing her the daily reports and going through her schedule, his tone was devoid of the insolence she’d almost grown accustomed to. Claudia didn’t have the mental energy to piece together why that was. Perhaps he was afraid of what she might do to him, now that the she had nothing to lose.

After breakfast, Claudia ducked back into her quarters for a few glasses of the precious liquid she’d brought with her. It was better to do that, she thought, than try to survive the day sober. The grand tour of the school would begin in an hour—she needed her strength.

She drank until the images she’d seen on the news that morning, that she kept seeing whenever anyone gave her one of those cautious, apprehensive looks, dulled and faded. Until she could look at the drab walls of her room and see nothing but the usual depressing decor. She wondered how soon she’d get her new orders. They probably wouldn’t let her stay here. Even in a place this backwards, she couldn’t be allowed to fill a senior role.

The worst part was, Claudia thought, she wouldn’t change anything if she could go back. She’d been given a covert retrieval mission, supplies in the buffer zone, abandoned during the War. She’d personally overseen navigation, spent weeks double-checking intelligence to make sure she’d have a clear route. Even the fact that all her precautions failed and they did end up running into a patrol ship from the other side shouldn’t have mattered. Her ship was supposed to have a civilian signature. Nothing Claudia could have controlled caused the mistake.

And the firefight, after… well. When she first woke up, in the hospital, she thought perhaps the death toll would be enough for the diplomats to smooth it over. Martin’s life alone could be considered a fair market price for avoiding another war.

She put the bottle to her lips again.

Claudia could have spent the rest of her life rotting here—she’d made her peace with that, mostly. But now… now a public trial was inevitable. She had to appreciate the irony—all that secrecy, and what they’d ended up with was a spectacle.

The fact that no one had informed her, given her a heads-up that the information had leaked… it made the outcome nearly certain. No one wanted to touch her now that she wasn’t just mildly toxic but a full blown nuclear disaster.

Claudia took one last sip before getting up. She was late for her next meeting.

A sixteen year old acting like she was entitled to Claudia’s professional attention was hard to take seriously on a good day, let alone when the girl in question was asking Claudia for a preposterous favor. A meeting, scheduled weeks in advance, just to ask that her XO be allowed to skip the grand tour of the school. Claudia wondered if this was a ruse, if the girl had wanted something else entirely but was trying to draw Claudia out, see how far she could push her to ignore protocol.

“The answer is no,” Claudia said. Did the children even have access to the broad information networks? Technically not, but Claudia wouldn’t put anything past Ebie.

“Michael’s already approved it,” the girl said, as if that meant Claudia should follow suit. “I’ve been leaving him in the district since the first year I was Key,”

That sounded likely. Claudia could easily believe the previous heads of this school let the students bend the rules any way they wished. If Ebie had hoped to catch Claudia unprepared, she was about to be disappointed. “If the other Firsts can do it, so can yours.”

The girl seemed lost for words for a moment. When she regained herself her expression was a far cry from her usual sullenness. “Please. He’s so exhausted by this point, If I drag him through the Shutdown I won’t get any help on Transfer Day. I need this, as a favor.”

Ebie normally had an odd, detached way of doing business. The sudden solicitousness was highly suspicious. “There’s no haggling in this office,” Claudia said. “You could send him to medical, but you haven’t. Now you expect me to make an exception so you can continue hoarding vouchers?”

The girl took a deep breath, as if trying to come up with more arguments. She clearly hadn’t anticipated Claudia’s resistance. She’d thought the morning bulletins would turn Claudia into a cowering idiot.

“If there’s anything—” Ebie began, but the door interrupted her, opening with a chime and revealing the head doctor’s face.

Claudia was already tired of her perpetual cheerfulness. She wasn’t looking forward to prison, or wherever they sent her next, but at least she could be certain after this post there would be fewer annoying underlings to deal with.

Susanna looked from the girl to Claudia. “I’m sorry, should we postpone?”

“No,” Claudia said, and then looked at Ebie. “Your ten minutes are up. Get out.”

The girl grabbed the edge of Claudia’s desk. “Colonel, please, let me just—”

“Get out,” Claudia said again, in the tone it had taken her a decade to perfect, the one she used to discipline her officers.

The girl got up, surrounded by a halo of violence. Claudia watched her carefully, almost hoping she’d do something, give Claudia an excuse to burst.

But no further response came. The doors slid shut and Susanna sat down. Claudia pretended to look at the numbers on the sheets Susanna pulled up and nodded along.

This day would be without end.


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