Three Keys in the Desert (part 6 of 26)

Claudia awoke to the realization that the pounding in her head had indeed been an echo of the incessant buzzing at the door. Unfortunately, she realized once she lifted her head up from the carpet, her skull had simply been waiting for the right moment to start pounding on its own.

It took her about three times as long as it should have to rise from the floor. Each sudden movement meant a spike of pain in her lower back. She couldn’t believe she’d let herself fall asleep lying flat on the ground like this. She usually knew to treat her old injuries better; her right side felt like it’d been regrown all over again.

The buzzing kept coming at steady intervals until finally Claudia struggled all the way up to press the button next to the door. At least she’d remembered to activate the door’s locking mechanism the night before.

The man standing in the hallway looked as distressed as he was disheveled. “My apologies, Colonel, I know you’re still recovering from your flight.”

What was his name? Mark? Michael? Michael.

“I’m afraid there’s been an incident.”

“What?” Claudia’s mouth was dry and her head felt heavier than a transport ship.

“One of the students in district 942 was found dead this morning. I…” His eyes darted anxiously between the door, the floor and Claudia’s face. “It… seems to have been suicide.”

Claudia wasn’t sure what reaction the man was looking for. All she could think about was how badly she needed to sit down.

“We’re still trying to determine the exact details…” He coughed. “I’m… I just thought you should know.”

Claudia yawned, using the opportunity to stretch her arms. Her back felt like one massive bruise. “Report to me once you have something concrete,” she half-mumbled and pushed the button again without waiting for his reply.

She badly needed a painkiller but whatever medical facility they had on this rock, she was in no condition to get there. How drunk had she been last night? She could remember bits and pieces. There had definitely been a bottle—where had it disappeared to? There were no broken pieces on the floor. She’d… gone out? Outside? Yes, that seemed likely. She remembered seeing the stars. And there had been a conversation, though she couldn’t remember with whom.

Claudia stepped out of the bathroom and walked slowly, her body still struggling to regain its balance, to her suitcase. She rummaged through the contents until she found something to wear that didn’t stink from three days’ travel and a night on the floor.

The buzzing at the door—sudden and loud—made her curse violently before getting up again. She’d been pondering a shower—she certainly needed one—but of course the man whose name was presumably Michael was back. This time he stepped inside, ignoring the absence of an invitation, and held out a cup of warm tea. It was a pleasant surprise that made Claudia reevaluate her previous impression of him as an incompetent idiot.

“There’s been a very troubling development,” Michael said, turning his back to her as he casually looked over the room. The familiarity of it was mildly disturbing; Claudia would have to set better boundaries with her new subordinates than her predecessor had managed to.

She took a sip of the tea and spat it out on the carpet. It startled Michael into giving her a surprised look. Claudia was torn between embarrassment and wanting to smother him with her bare hands for giving her the sourest, most bitter liquid she’d ever tasted.

“Sorry,” she bit out.

“No, I should have warned you,” he said apologetically. “It’s a local brew. Taste takes getting used to.”

Getting used to? There were probably better tasting sewers.

“As I said, there’s been a development. I should have asked you earlier, really, but…” He let his hands hang aimlessly in the air. “I had no idea you’d had a chance to meet her already.”

“Meet who?”

“Sol. The Key of 942.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Claudia said. Had she really met someone the night before? She should have known better than to get completely wasted her first night at her new post. All she remembered were fragments of Martin’s face.

“Colonel, I understand you were a bit…” He hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Tired, last night, but surely you remember talking to a girl in the garden? It couldn’t have been very late, Sol was seen in her district a few hours past last bell.” He paused. “There was a young boy with her?” He added hesitantly, as if afraid she’d lost her mind as well as her memory.

“I remember him,” she lied.

“Right. Bo. It seems you appointed him to be a Key, last night.”

His words lay in the gray zone between statement and question and Claudia felt that gave her the right to reply in kind. “I did.”

“Yes.” He seemed even more confused than a second ago. “Why did you do that, exactly?”

Claudia’s headache was getting steadily worse. “I asked for a status report,” she said. “What about the boy?”

“Right,” Michael said. “He was the one who found her. Sol. He told her First what happened. That you demoted Sol and appointed him to be the Key instead.”

Claudia closed her eyes and rubbed at her face, trying to remember. “Remind me what a Key is, again.”

Michael took a deep breath, as if trying to calm himself, and sank down unto the sofa. “I suppose you haven’t had time to read the reports we sent ahead.” He kneaded his forehead and leaned forward to stare at the floor.

If Claudia hadn’t already admitted to herself she’d made mistakes the night before she’d have put a stop to his tone. A conversation about hierarchy and appropriate respect was definitely in order. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time,” she said, letting an icy note slip into her voice.

Michael straightened his back. “Every few years we choose a student from each section of the living quarters and make them responsible for maintaining basic order. Between the Resource Conservation Act and the difficulty of reaching this moon, we simply don’t have the personnel to do it otherwise.” He paused, looking up at Claudia, as if expecting a sign that any of this information was familiar.

She gestured for him to go on, keeping her expression neutral.

“In exchange,” he continued, “they get a private room, a staff keycard, the promise of a good reference when they enlist. This morning one of them was found dead. She would have been eighteen years old in two days.” He let the words hang in the air for a moment, almost like an accusation. Claudia frowned.

Michael rose to his feet and his tone turned sharper. “Bo is what the students call a ‘kid’, someone who’s been at the school for two years but only transferred to the district less than a year ago. You can see how making someone like that a Key could cause problems, Colonel.”

He was probably right, but the fog in Claudia’s head made it difficult to be sure. How could she have let herself end up here, scrutinized by a man who didn’t even hold military rank? As if merely being stationed on this rock wasn’t enough. “If the boy shouldn’t have the job,” she said, finally. “Then rescind my order. I’ll approve the change or whatever’s necessary.”

Michael began to pace. “The rules state that the Head can appoint a new Key only once in the space of a year. Right now, the children consider the rules sacred. If we start undermining the Keys’ authority and they start losing faith in the system…” he trailed off, eyes staring straight at Claudia again.

The silent accusations were slowly grinding down the last shreds of her patience. This school had students effectively raising each other with no supervision—nothing she could have done last night could make things worse.

“In that case,” she said. “I suppose there’s no going back. The boy’s appointed, I’m sure you’ll make it work.”

Michael paused. For a moment his face was a perfect portrait of shock—lips parted, eyes wide. But a second later his face was back to itself and he walked, hands in his pockets, past Claudia to stand by the door. “I’ve scheduled a meeting with the other Keys and Arai—Sol’s… you might say second-in-command. I hope that wasn’t too pertinent,” he said. “They’ll be waiting in your office in half an hour.”


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