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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