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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