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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