Monthly Archives: June 2010

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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Three Keys in the Desert (part 11 of 26)

Three days into her new post, Claudia felt it was time to admit she’d managed to piss off her Deputy Head into ignoring her.

She still had mountains of paperwork and backlog reports to get through, but as Claudia lay on the narrow, lumpy bed in her quarters, breathing the artificially cool air in slow gulps to avoid exacerbating her headache, facing her office or Michael before lunch seemed unappealing.

Breakfast was unthinkable. The school didn’t have anything resembling an officers’ dining hall and Claudia wasn’t about to face a room full of children in her current state. Her head was still pounding, although any alcohol was long gone from her system. Michael had mentioned something about atmospheric pressure, damage to the moon’s surface during the War, but all Claudia remembered was the implication that the headaches she kept waking up with would get better eventually.

The day before had been spent finding her way around the paperwork left by the previous occupant. If this had been a real assignment—a job she cared about, that actually mattered—she’d spend the first few days inspecting every corner of the school. But the Shutdown would take care of that. A yearly, day-long super-inspection seemed like a colossal waste of time to Claudia, but it fit right in with the overall spirit of this place.

There were a few areas the Shutdown wouldn’t cover, however, and now was the perfect time to inspect them. Starting with the infirmary. It was past time to introduce herself to the local medics and medicine cabinets.

Claudia rose slowly, letting her feet get accustomed to the cool floor. She was used to deep-space vessels, where the floors were always kept warm by the circuitry underneath.

The school’s medical wing was inside the staff area, off-limits to students except for a few emergency doors they could access with a special card. At least that’s what Claudia had gleaned from Michael’s description of things. From Claudia’s quarters it should have been only a twenty minute walk, but of course there was no way of knowing whether she was headed for the kitchens or the supply warehouse or any other place. Every piece of the school that wasn’t her garden seemed to be comprised of identical gray corridors with no signage anywhere. Nothing better demonstrated that the place was an unfortunate attempt at salvaging a poorly designed warehouse complex than trying to navigate the halls without a map.

The door to the infirmary could easily have been confused with one of the many tech closets along the walls. Only a small, red symbol near the ceiling indicated that Claudia was at the right place.

The doors slid open to let her in, making a young man sitting at a desk lift his eyes from his screen. He was apparently the nurse on duty, as he summoned a small, gray-haired woman to the reception area as soon as his eyes took in the ranks on Claudia’s uniform.

Claudia struggled to remember the head doctor’s name as the woman expressed her surprise that Claudia hadn’t scheduled a visit.

It made Claudia wonder, briefly, whether catching the staff by surprise would give her a more accurate picture of things than if she’d called ahead. But she dismissed the thought—a place so far out of anyone’s way and with so few doctors, she doubted anyone here was worried about keeping their job.

“Everyone just calls me Susanna,” the doctor said when Claudia tactfully tried to inquire about her surname.

They went on a tour of the facility. Susanna began by showing her where they kept their restricted chemicals—information Claudia filed away for later—before moving on to the storage room full of painfully out of date medical equipment, the operating room that could only accommodate one procedure at a time, and finally the recovery area. The facilities were only slightly more modest than the ones on Claudia’s last ship, despite having to serve more than ten times the population. Of course, nothing surprised Claudia about this place anymore, not after learning that the children were allowed to raise themselves with no supervision.

“It’s pretty empty in here,” Claudia remarked, looking around. She hadn’t expected the place to be overrun, but there were only two occupied beds in recovery, and no other students in sight.

“Yes,” the doctor said. “Usually so close to Transfer Day the Keys run out of vouchers—that’s their only way to get medical attention, to keep us from being overloaded—so they’re especially watchful for any injuries.”

“What’s he in for?” Claudia gestured at a boy, no older than ten or eleven, reclining dazedly on one of the beds.

“Oh, that’s one of the youngest children,” Susanna said, as if that explained it. “Kai.”

Claudia couldn’t help but shake her head. “I don’t understand how they can all have such similar-sounding names. Do all the orphanages in the solar system coordinate with each other?”

For a moment Susanna’s face looked shocked, making Claudia regret her candor. Michael acted like every question Claudia had about the school gave him a fit, but the doctor had seemed like a more reasonable, relaxed person.

“They are all named centrally,” Susanna said, shock quickly replaced with her previous, pleasant expression. “It’s part of the admin system. Kids get a computer-generated name, along with their ID classifications. Some of the children have different original names on file, but I’ve never heard them used.” Susanna looked at Claudia apologetically, “I was also surprised, when I first arrived, which I suppose was quite some time ago,” she let out a short laugh. “Kai’s here because he stuck his hand down one of the laundry machines and nearly lost it. We had to give him something to keep him from ripping out the stitches.”

“So, is he one of the kids who work in the kitchen?” Claudia was still not used to the gaggle of actual children who seemed to be in charge of all the cooking, cleaning and carrying.

“I know, it seems a little strange at first that the younger children are the ones taking care of all the menial labor,” Susanna said, walking Claudia back to her small office. “Unfortunately we’re too low on resources to have fully automated cleaning systems or outside staff. There’s barely enough power to light up and cool this place. And believe me, it’s better to have the kids put in a year when they first arrive, help get them disciplined, than disrupting everyone’s lives with periodic chores.” Claudia couldn’t tell whether Susanna truly believed this or was parroting some long-established policy. Although, considering how long she’d been here, she might have been involved with instituting the policy in the first place.

“Have you spoken to Diego yet?” Susanna asked, when they were both seated in her office, two cups of tea on the desk, brought in by one of the nurses. “He runs the Training Center. The kids call it the Fluff Palace, don’t ask me why.”

“No,” Claudia said. The smell of the vile tea was slowly filling up the room. Claudia planned to requisition proper, normal tea on the next supply ship. She doubted she’d get used to this stuff in a year. “I believe the Training Center is part of the Shutdown, so there’s no hurry.” A question popped into Claudia’s head, inspired by every field hospital she’d ever visited. “The students must put some effort into stealing your narcotics. How do you replenish with such a rigid supply schedule?”

Susanna shrugged and shook her head. “That’s the least of my worries. Most of them try to steal bandages, disinfectant, basic medical supplies. They’re always trying to avoid using up their vouchers. They’ve got the Sau-ma plants for opiates, growing all over their living areas. The Keys usually keep it under control—it’s in their interests to keep the districts running. Of course,” she gave Claudia a quick glance. “The Keys aren’t always perfectly responsible when it comes to these things.”

“Right,” Claudia said, eager not to let the conversation drift to the dead girl. Michael’s attitude was more than enough. “I understand this area of the planet was hit the least, during the War?”

“Yes, this moon was mostly a supply station. What’s been reclaimed for the school wasn’t hit very hard, but there was little infrastructure here to begin with.”

With resources so low it had to be a constant balancing act between minimal personnel and enough bodies to keep the place running. No wonder they used the kids to do their laundry.

“You can tell by the numbering they use in the children’s living quarters, actually. The houses and districts and so forth, they were all originally warehouses.” The doctor looked at her expectantly, as if waiting to see whether Claudia had more questions before asking one of her own.

Claudia would rather avoid that for as long as possible. She was getting tired of people’s lack of familiarity with the words ‘security clearance’. “I looked at some of the statistics yesterday and this place doesn’t have a high rate of abortions. With the kids running wild, I would have thought you’d have your hands full.”

“Oh no,” the doctor said somewhat impatiently. “We’re on the recommended program. We lace contraceptives with their food. Everyone’s sterile, boys and girls.” Her lips parted in a small smile. “I’ve always thought it would be a good idea to add some sedatives, at least for the younger children. Makes them easier to handle. The Keys would thank us before anyone.”

Claudia gave a faint smile in return.

“Forgive me, Colonel,” the doctor cleared her throat. “I was wondering if I could ask you a personal question?”

“Of course,” Claudia said, trying to formulate an excuse to leave.

“Diego told me the news bulletin this morning mentioned a body, found floating beyond the treaty line. The Minister said there isn’t any information on how—”

Claudia marveled at her own ability not to grit her teeth and said, with what she hoped was a tone cold enough to discourage further questions: “All I can tell you is what’s been released to the press, I’m afraid.”

“It’s just,” Susanna said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair. “There have been rumors. Fear mongering, I’m sure, about the peace treaty. They say there have been rumblings about nullifying it, in light of some recent breach—”

Claudia wondered if this woman was afraid for herself or her family. She must have grandchildren eligible for the draft by now. Or perhaps she was scared of being pulled to the frontlines, losing her comfortable place in obscurity. “I’d stop listening to everything announced on the bulletins,” Claudia sad.

They’d tried her in secret to keep the incident contained, but Claudia wasn’t surprised the information was already creeping into civilian networks. The only surprising thing was that people here actually thought the military cared enough about them for it to matter.

 

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 12 of 26)

It was twenty minutes before last bell by the time Ebie made it to the corridor that connected her district with the 942. The emergency lock was a dusty box that forced her to swipe her card three times before the walls moved and revealed an unfamiliar hallway.

The guy, Kim, was sitting on his haunches, leaning against the wall a few steps away. He rose awkwardly and Ebie braced herself. From the moment the fluff found her at lunch with a “message” from 942 she’d been prepared for disaster.

“Talk,” Ebie said, as the walls slid together behind her.

Kim met her eyes with obvious effort. “I can’t help you anymore,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Of course. “Why is that?”

“I… I can’t take the risk anymore,” he said, chewing on his lower lip. “Everything’s different.”

Ebie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “So, Sol wasn’t a problem but Arai is? Or are you scared of the kid?”

“It’s not like that!” Kim said, suddenly angry. “Everything is falling apart, and I’m not like you, I don’t know how to do this. How to make everything… work.”

Ebie felt her fists clench. “Quiet.” If anyone saw her here… she had to deal with this quickly and get out.

“Why do you need me anyway?” Kim said, voice lower. “You have your Key privileges and your Key friends.”

Because some secrets required sacrifice. Because Vrei couldn’t keep her district in line. Because Len’s life mattered more than anything.

“That’s not important.” She grabbed Kim by the arm, fingers digging into his uniform, and dragged him through the nearest door into an empty classroom. “How did you even manage to be a problem for Sol?” She had to stall until she found something, some kind of leverage to make him change his mind. “How are you here, crying to me, instead of doing something? Go tell Arai to get another job. Become Bo’s new best friend or whatever.”

Kim rolled his eyes. She’d clearly chosen the wrong tactic.

“You think it’s that easy?” he said. “Sol was a useless piece of—”

Definitely the wrong tactic; she couldn’t do this right now. “Whatever she was, trust me my mentor was worse,” Ebie interrupted. “And I wasn’t born knowing how to do this, I learned. You know who else needs to learn? Your new Key.”

The meaning of the words didn’t hit her fully until she’d said them.

“You know what happens on Transfer Day?” Ebie went on. “He’ll give up everything, including your laundry rations.” It wasn’t strictly a lie.

There was a sharp intake of breath. Now she had his attention. Good.

She took a step forward, forcing Kim to step back, pressing him up against a workstation. “I could go easy on him. Make sure he doesn’t screw up too much.”

Kim’s eyes were on the ceiling. “I can’t.” He sounded conflicted.

She had to push harder.

“It’s one boy for one day,” Ebie said, infusing as much confidence into the words as she could. “942 has the biggest territory, it won’t even be that hard.”

Kim shook his head. “You don’t know what things are like.”

They were running out of time. If Len were here he’d know what to say. He was always better at figuring out what people needed to hear.

Ebie gave Kim a light shove. If he hadn’t been backed up against a workstation it wouldn’t have mattered, but his feet were stuck and the push nearly knocked him off balance. He looked up at her, startled.

“You do it or the kid doesn’t get my help.”

For a moment Kim was silent, but then he closed his eyes and nodded and Ebie took a step back, air rushing back into her lungs.

This was going to work. She was going to keep it together. She’d managed to prevent a disaster for now.

“Go.” There were only a few minutes until last bell and if he got stuck at the Compound it would only mean more attention. “And don’t waste my time like this again,” she said, as he pushed past her towards the door.

She stayed still, listening, until the sound of his footsteps faded.

 

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 13 of 26)

4 Days Until Transfer Day

Vrei couldn’t remember the last time she’d had lunch with her friends. It felt like she’d been eating alone, in a hurry, between meetings, for weeks.

“You remember when we were secondyears?” Zher said, grinning in between bites of spicy meat. Vrei still remembered how the spices used to make him vomit, their first week at the Palace. Everyone knew about the kid who couldn’t keep his food down. Susanna had him put on some kind of flavorless diet for a while. He used to look so sad, whenever they’d sit down to eat, like every day was a funeral for his taste buds. The memory made Vrei smile.

“Remember the girl who lived with us for like a month?” Zher went on. “Who was afraid of the showers?”

Half the table groaned. Everyone remembered that girl. Vrei took another sip of her cold soup.

“Remember when she got back from wherever, in the middle of the night,” Zher went on, “and left all her clothes in a pile by the door?”

Vrei’s smile turned into a laugh, which turned into a cough thanks to the soup in her mouth.

“And you tripped over her stuff when you got up to piss and screamed so loud the whole floor woke up?”

Everyone was laughing now. Vrei remembered finding herself face-first in someone’s dirty underwear, in the dark. She tried to take another gulp of the soup but ended up spilling it and laughing even harder.

“What happened to her?” Zher said, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “I haven’t seen her in like a year.”

Vrei snorted. “I haven’t seen her sober in a year. She costs me more than all the kids combined.”

That triggered a fresh wave of laughter. Olin joined them just as it was dying down. She looked like she’d been awake since the day before. Vrei couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her calm and focused. She’d never been the steadiest person, but lately it had gotten worse.

Zher moved to make space for her on the bench. Olin’s hair looked like someone had used it to wipe the floor. Vrei probably didn’t look much better.

Zher wrapped his arm around Olin and squeezed gently as she took the first bite of her meat

“It’s almost over, right?” he said, looking at Vrei.

Olin gave Vrei a look that said next week might as well be two years from now.

“Almost,” Vrei agreed.

Olin ate quickly, and Vrei found herself gulping down her food too. The brief moment when she’d managed to forget about Transfer Day was over.

Zher kept telling stories, his arm subtly touching Olin’s. Vrei couldn’t remember ever wanting to be that close to any of the people she slept with. The last one had been… nearly three months ago. One of the fourthyears. She hadn’t even let him spend the night in her room. The memory made her frown. She was starting to turn into Ebie, with her weird fetish for her First and her general lack of interest in human company.

Vrei’s fingers tightened around the plastic grip of the spoon. She took a long, loud sip, tasting nothing but sourness. The soup was supposed to be a little sweet but the kitchen was running low on supplies.

Ebie and her shitty opinions and her endless judgment and her stupid moral code. Never late for a meeting, never stuck without vouchers, never desperate for a favor. Always alone. Vrei couldn’t live like that. No one could. Ebie thought it made her better, to act like a robot. Sol had never… she’d never been like that. Ebie had no right to pretend—

“Oh, wait!” Zher said, nudging Vrei with his foot under the table. “The thing you asked about! I found someone.”

Vrei froze, disoriented, with a spoon halfway to her mouth.

“Someone who saw something,” Zher clarified.

It took a moment before Vrei remembered—she’d told her friends to ask around, see if anyone had seen something weird in the neighborhoods closet to the fence lately.

She forced herself to swallow the soup before saying, “who?”

“Elad, the sixthyear?” Zher said.

Elad had spent the last two years living a few buildings away from Vrei, though they’d never been close. “What did she see?”

Zher shrugged. “She’ll only to talk to you.”

That sounded like Elad. It was probably just an excuse to try and get something out of Vrei before the year ran out.

Still. “Fine,” Vrei said. She looked at Olin. “Go talk to her tomorrow?” No one needed to know how serious this was.

Olin nodded without making eye contact. She’d always been a terrible liar.

 

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 14 of 26)

Claudia tried to concentrate on the meeting, the speech her Deputy was giving about… whatever it was, but the images she’d seen in the news that morning were too much of a distraction. Shields ripped open, charred corridors, dried blood on the landing deck—Claudia’s ship, just as she’d left it. Still floating in the buffer zone, close to the border. Although the footage was doctored to obscure all identifying details, of course. Had they sent someone specifically to take those shots? No, that would have been ridiculous. The rescue team must have documented things on arrival. She would have noticed it if she’d been conscious, probably.

But then, why the gag order? The secret trial? Why had she been disposed of quietly if they were going to leak it all to the press?

“The housing arrangements are already a nightmare,” Ebie was saying. She sounded angry; Claudia forced herself to pay attention again. “People will want to have teams, all the training would have to be before it got dark.”

Right. Michael had proposed—out of sheer brilliance or criminal stupidity, Claudia couldn’t tell yet—establishing a gaming tournament in each district, with a final, inter-district competition.

“It’ll be a mess,” Ebie went on. She sat with her hands in her pockets, wearing her usual sullen expression. Claudia remembered her screaming about murder the day the other girl died. Paradoxically, she seemed to be the most competent authority figure in the entire school, at least in what Claudia had observed so far. She exuded a natural sort of confidence and her file was impressive. Despite the abrasive demeanor, her district’s statistics were exceptional.

Michael turned to the other girl. “Vrei?”

Claudia wondered how much weight the children’s opinions really carried. Michael was still making an effort not to share anything he didn’t have to, which included the nuances of how these sorts of decisions usually worked. Claudia should have initiated disciplinary action against him days ago, but it would mean doing all of this alone and she wasn’t quite angry for that. At least not yet.

“It would depend on the type of game,” Vrei said, after a pause. She sat with her feet pulled up on the chair, her arms around her knees, apparently in the habit of curling up on whatever surface she occupied. She seemed a lot more calculated than Ebie, and far slower to take on responsibility. “Are you suggesting props? Like circles or ovals? Or trivia?”

“Something competitive, physical,” Michael said. “Foster teambuilding, that sort of thing. Reduce tensions, get people away from the Sau-ma in the evenings.”

Ebie gave him a defiant look. “You’d have more success with card games. People would definitely organize for that.”

Michael shot her a disapproving look in response. “I meant something productive, Ebie. Something new.”

If it weren’t for meetings like this Claudia would assume Michael was the sort of typical, backwater bureaucrat who cherished his position because it imbued his pointless life with a false sense of significance. But then, watching scenes like this, Claudia wondered if he had not also deluded himself into thinking his pedagogical contributions could matter to these children. As if this or that initiative would change anything about their futures.

“But why would people compete?” Vrei said. “As long as the supply allocations are the same. More vouchers aren’t going to be a huge incentive.”

“Well, there’s always medical,” Ebie disagreed.

“Yeah.” Vrei paused, considering. “But this won’t be worth it for a few extra medical vouchers.” She looked at Michael. “But if we could say that you’re fighting for an increased budget overall—”

Michael interrupted her by turning to the boy, who was scribbling in a notebook. “Bo? What do you think?”

He looked startled. Even Claudia could tell he wasn’t cut out for this. She wasn’t sufficiently invested in any of this to go against Michael’s recommendations, but keeping the boy in a position of authority purely out of respect to some school charter seemed a little cruel.

“More vouchers…” the boy said. “I guess that’s… good?”

Vrei looked at her shoes; Ebie stared at the ceiling.

Claudia couldn’t tell how long the two of them had known each other. They seemed to get along well, like old friends, but she was certain, after studying a map of the school, that children in different districts were prevented from having any contact with each other. The girls were not the same age, so they had probably never met during their year of chores. Perhaps they’d only gotten to know each other after being ‘promoted’.

“Would you like some time to think about it?” Michael said.

“Yeah,” the boy said, after a pause.

“Just think about the stuff you’ll have to do if this passes, ” Vrei said, turning to the boy. “You’ll have to start training people, or at least letting them train. Oversee try-outs so they’re at least mostly fair, rearrange housing…”

“All those things you’re so good at,” Ebie said.

“That’s enough,” Michael said.

“Do you even know how many people in the 942 play circle games?” Ebie asked Bo. “Rough number?”

Bo shook his head. Claudia could see his white knuckles gripping the pencil.

“Average night,” Ebie said. “You walk outside, how many people are out playing?”

“I… don’t know. I’m sorry,” Bo said.

“Not us you should apologize to,” Vrei said quietly, looking at her knees.

“All right,” Michael said. “We’ll leave this for now and talk about it again after Transfer Day. Bo, use that time to do some research, form an opinion. Talk to some of the older residents if you need help.”

“Please,” he said, in an entirely different tone. His eyes were on Michael, clearly carrying on a conversation that had begun long before this meeting.

Claudia sat up a little straighter.

Michael’s lips were a thin line. “Absolutely not.”

The boy turned his pleading eyes on Claudia. “Please. I can’t do this.” He looked like he’d drop to his knees if he thought it would help.

“This isn’t the time or the place,” Michael said, raising his voice. “You are a Key. You were chosen, by us. You have to accept responsibility.”

Claudia barely managed to keep the surprise from showing on her face. This was certainly a change. At least she could count on the man to keep up appearances with the students, even behind her back.

“I don’t know anything about being a Key!” The boy said, his eyes wet. “Please, pick someone else.”

Vrei and Ebie looked like they were trying to will the boy into silence.

Michael sighed. “Bo, everyone wants the district to run smoothly.” he said. “You just have to give them a chance to help you. You have an experienced First, the elders in your district. Vrei and Ebie, if you need their advice. Sol kept you close for a reason, don’t sell yourself short.”

Claudia expected the girls to chime in, but they were both quiet, each unreadable in her own way.

For a moment she wondered what they’d look like as officers. They were not as incompetent as Claudia would have assumed, and they didn’t rely on Michael the way she’d expect children their age to do. Of course, that would never happen. Without sponsors, with nothing but references from the random, unimportant civilians at this school, they’d spend their careers on maintenance crews or as junior kitchen staff. Maybe, if they got lucky and did very well on their exams, they’d eventually make it into low-level tech staff.

Which was better than the alternative, Claudia reminded herself. The military could have left them to starve. It was only government foresight, compromise and the looming threat of a generation of criminals sweeping every moon and waystation that forced the opening of schools like this.

“Michael,” Claudia said, clearing her throat. “How soon can we replace Bo?”

Michael looked at her with a mix of surprise, thinly veiled annoyance and, curiously, relief. Of course, the idiot had been yearning for her to say something like this. Give him an excuse to sidestep his own rules, without admitting that he was steering the school towards a disaster. He began digging through his papers, as if checking whether Claudia’s suggestion could be implemented.

Claudia couldn’t be sure how or why details of her ship’s ‘accident’ were becoming public, but she was fairly certain it would end up meaning worse things for her than this dismal posting. She planned to reach out this evening, see who among her old contacts would still take her messages, maybe find out how the information about her ship got out. But whatever she could find out, she already knew her anonymity was in danger. They’d hidden her away to prevent escalation, cover up the first border skirmish since the War, keep the public calm. But if that plan failed, if things got agitated, Claudia’s head on a platter would almost certainly be the next peace offering. Nevermind that it had been a misunderstanding, that they’d been given the wrong ID codes by Central Command. That most of her crew died for nothing, trying to fix the mistake until they ran out of time. A small, unarmed cargo ship up against a border patrol.

She could be made to look responsible—it was probably why they’d kept her alive in the first place.

“He will have to serve out Sol’s term, of course,” Michael said, bringing her thoughts back to the present. “But I’ll start compiling a list of suitable applicants, Colonel.”

“No!” the boy said, tears staining his cheeks. “That’s too late.” He wiped his face with the back of his palm. “It has to be now. I can’t… I can’t do Transfer Day.”

At this rate, being pulled out of this school for a show trial followed by a public execution would be a mercy. At least she would not be surrounded by wailing children while she was in prison.

“You most certainly can,” Michael said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Claudia tried to imagine her younger self, being told she’d make it all the way to Colonel only to sit through meetings like this. She might have quit the Academy.

“Calm down,” Michael went on. “Get a hold of yourself. It’s not as complicated as you think.”

The boy looked like he was barely holding back a sob. He wiped his eyes again. “You don’t understand.”

Michael took it as a sign of capitulation. “All right, back to what we were discussing,” he said, looking at the girls. “About the new uniform allocations, Vrei you said you wanted to go over the figures again?”

Claudia made sure to straighten up in her chair, giving the appearance of paying attention.

 

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Three Keys in the Desert (part 15 of 26)

Ebie’s bed felt big enough to stretch on, for once. The room was quiet and chilly, perfect for sleeping. She had a luxurious four hours before reveille. Her head pounded, her eyes felt too heavy to open, but sleep still wouldn’t come. She’d slept badly for the last few nights, but today it felt impossible. The room felt too empty, too big. She let herself slip to the floor, when she couldn’t stand being on the bed for another second. She hit her knee on the stone floor, but making a sound was too much effort. She dragged the blanket down from the bed, to wrap around herself, and regretted it immediately. It smelled like Len.

She tried closing her eyes again, told her head the hard surface should make a difference. No distractions, no memories, no thinking about Transfer Day or the Palace or Sol, just a black void she could fall into.

But long minutes passed and she could still hear the sound of her own heartbeat, feel the dust moving around the room, smell the person she hadn’t slept without in years.

Finally she let out a deep breath and rose on her elbows. Getting up, going somewhere, felt impossible, but she couldn’t spend another hour lying here, letting the frustration and anger build up. She’d be totally useless tomorrow.

The hallway outside was dark, but Ebie knew it well enough to find her way to the showers. She didn’t bother putting on clothes, so fumbling with the faucets and getting everything wet wasn’t a problem. At least the cold water made her headache a little better. The soap felt nice in her hair. A shower always made her feel more human.

She grabbed a hygienic powder pack from the dispenser, chewed until her mouth felt like it was on fire and spit it out. Back in her room, she pulled on a pair of uniform pants and a clean undershirt and went downstairs.

The building she wanted was a ten minute walk away.

The streets were empty at this hour. There was some light coming from the Compound, like a soft glow meant to direct everyone there in an emergency. Ebie walked in the opposite direction, relying on the stars. There was an uncountable number of them here. When she was little she lived in a huge city, in a community house where the floors were all soft rubber and the plants were synthetic. Real flowers cost too much, but the ones in Ebie’s dorm would turn a different color every day. She always liked them better. The sky was always totally black, though. Even on camping trips to the suburbs. She’d never imagined there could be so many stars until she came here.

The room she needed was on the first floor. She’d given the elders living in this building a choice, and they’d all chosen to be closer to the exit. When she opened the door to the right room, it was mostly empty. Four of the seven beds were unoccupied, though the bottom bunk nearest the door contained two people.

The exhaustion was making it harder to think, harder to focus, and this was definitely not a problem she needed to waste her time on. She told herself elders knew better than to cause trouble.

A woman slept alone in the bottom bunk by the window. Ebie shut the door quietly and took two steps forward to lean against one of the beams connecting Lai’s bed to the empty bunk above hers.

Ebie hadn’t been in this room since last year. Just seeing this, remembering Lai’s rants about how sleeping next to the window was the only way to get oxygen at night, made her chest feel too tight for her lungs.

Ebie let herself slide down, too tired to think of what to do next. She stretched her legs out when her ass hit the floor.

Maybe just being in a room with people would fix her. She’d never had problems sleeping before she became a Key. Even when Len’s nightmares woke everyone up, Ebie never had a problem going back to sleep.

“Ebie?” Lai said, barely audible. She sounded groggy and unguarded. A rare echo of how Ebie remembered her.

“Hey,” Ebie whispered. She had to apologize for barging into Lai’s room in the middle of the night. That was probably the right thing to do.

Lai rose up on one elbow. She looked like she was still trying to decide if this was a dream. “Why… what are you doing here?” Her long fingers were clutching the blanket.

“Can’t sleep,” Ebie said.

Lai sat up fully, frowning. She squinted at Ebie, trying to make out her face through the faint starlight coming from the window.

Ebie stood up, slowly. She slung an arm over the top bunk to keep herself steady.

Lai pushed back her braids and rubbed a hand over her eyes. Her face looked softer than Ebie remembered, in this light.

“I could go,” Ebie said.

Lai gave Ebie a look that wasn’t quite annoyance. Ebie tried to brace herself. The walk back to her building would be torture, but she’d crawl there somehow. Maybe she’d just pass out in the hall and wait for someone to wake her in the morning.

Lai looked at her for a long moment before rearranging herself, pushing her back against the wall, and making space for Ebie on the bed.

Ebie didn’t try to hide her relief. “Thank you.”

Lai yawned, rubbing the back of her hand against her eyes. “Last time, kid.”

Ebie nodded and started toeing off her boots. She pulled off her uniform pants and kicked them under Lai’s bed. Lai didn’t like ‘real clothes’ on her clean sheets, that much Ebie remembered.

The warmth of Lai’s blanket felt like home. The smell of the pillow was so familiar, Ebie bit her lip to stop herself from speaking. Nothing she could say now would lead to anything good. Lai was leaving in a few days. They’d said everything they had to say to each other years ago.

Lai’s lips curled into a smirk as Ebie got comfortable. “Your First having trouble performing?”

It was a joke. One Ebie was used to hearing by now. She should have rolled her eyes and said something clever, but she was so tired. There were no words in her head except about how much she’d missed this. How much she’d give up to have it again.

“It’s not like that, with me and him,” Ebie said, finally.

“I know,” Lai said, after a pause, her face changing from a hard, closed off expression to something softer. Her fingers traced Ebie’s lips and Ebie had to hold herself still and quiet. “You picked the weirdest boy on the planet.”

Lai’s hand slid down to Ebie’s collarbone, pressing down, as if trying to memorize her skin. Ebie took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling Lai’s fingers rise and fall with it. When they’d met Ebie had been a nobody. She’d never met Sol, or Michael, didn’t even know what a Key did, exactly. Lai had explained it, one night.

She didn’t want to think about any of that. There were so many secrets she had to keep already, the weight of all these memories was too much. She could feel it pricking at her eyes, asking to spill out. In a moment Lai would notice it and Ebie wouldn’t be able to hold back at all.

She had to talk about something else. Maybe she couldn’t tell Lai the whole truth, but she could give her a piece of it, at least. Anything to stop thinking about how she never wanted to climb out of this bed.

“You know how I met him?” Ebie said.

“The Palace,” Lai said. Her hands were caressing Ebie’s stomach. Ebie was ticklish, but Lai kept her touch light enough that Ebie didn’t swat her away.

“First week, kitchen duty,” Ebie said. Her face felt unusually warm. She stared at the top bunk over her head. “They sent me to clean one of those giant food mixers. I climbed in there and didn’t come out for hours,” she swallowed. “The drugs, they… they must have not worked on me or something. When I was done there was blood everywhere. My pants were soaked, everything was dirty.”

Lai didn’t make a sound, but her hand froze, halfway under Ebie’s undershirt.

“I didn’t notice until they sent him to get me,” Ebie said. “It was right before dinner, they would have had to sanitize the machines all over again. Remember Cecilia, the old fluff minder?”

Lai’s face was covered in shadow, Ebie couldn’t see her expression. “She would have skinned you alive.”

“Yeah,” Ebie said. “And Susanna would have drugged me into a coma.”

Lai’s hand kept caressing under Ebie’s shirt. “He didn’t tell anyone?”

Ebie felt her lips curve at the memory. It felt good to share this in the dark. Easier. “He put his arm on one of those sharp bolts, the giant ones in the machine they tell you not to touch? Sliced himself open, elbow to wrist. Must have hit a vein. The blood went everywhere.”

Lai let out a huff.

“They thought it was an accident.” Ebie’s said, letting herself smile. “He started screaming. I had enough brain cells to make sure no one noticed my pants. We didn’t even know each other before that, never had any chores together or anything.”

“Good thing you picked him,” Lai said, after a moment. She bent down to press her lips to Ebie’s neck, pushing a strand of hair out of the way. “I would have just told Cecilia it was your fault.”

Ebie pulled away, took off her undershirt and threw it on the floor. She found Lai’s hand again and put it back where it was, warm against her skin. It was a little easier to breathe now. The pounding in her head was barely noticeable and her throat didn’t feel like it wanted to climb out of her chest anymore.

She turned over to face Lai, the two of them pressed up together. “I know people expected things, after I got appointed,” Ebie said. All of Lai’s friends expected her to become First, not Ebie’s weird friend from the Palace. A lot of people hated Ebie back then, for turning everything upside down. The district ran on a system: be friends with the Key and get favors, be a nobody and get left alone, be a kid or a weirdo or a weakling and hate everything about your life. Everyone expected Ebie to follow it, but she couldn’t. She’d never thought of herself as a strong person, just someone steady and firm, bad with people but good at keeping things organized. But she couldn’t keep letting the elders do what they wanted, relying on them to keep the peace. When Michael chose her, she knew she had to change things or die trying.

“I’m sorry,” Ebie said, feeling the moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes. “I had to do it my way.” It would cost her friends and parties and, eventually, Lai, but back then keeping herself isolated was the only way she knew to keep herself clean. People were never nice to a Key without wanting something. And she didn’t want to hand out any favors, intentionally or otherwise.

“Old news, kid,” Lai said, her lips curving into what Ebie thought was a half-smile. “Besides,” she went on. “You’d do it the same now. So don’t start apologizing.”

Ebie leaned over, so close to Lai that she could feel her breath, and Lai buried her fingers in Ebie’s hair and pulled her closer until their lips met.

 

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