Three Keys in the Desert (part 4 of 26)

Claudia couldn’t tell how long it had been since she’d dropped her bags on the floor of her new accommodations. She only knew her shuttle had landed during daylight—the heat had pressed down on her like a steel crate—but it was now dark outside.

She looked around her new quarters again. There was a sofa, a bizarre painting on the wall, and a doorway leading, presumably, to her bedroom. Bare and empty, just like her purpose for being in this useless place. She took another swig from the bottle, already half empty. The drink was smooth, sliding down her throat like thick honey. They used to brew it in field hospitals during the War—a mixture of cheap drugs and rough liquor. Claudia had managed to procure a few bottles, before boarding the transport. No sense in saving it—she’d likely be stuck on this rock for the rest of her life. Didn’t matter if the good stuff lasted her two weeks or two months.

Not that she was complaining. It wasn’t complaining, stating the obvious. Just like those bastards at her court martial—just stating the obvious. She took another swig.

She had a view of the garden from the sofa. At least she thought it was a garden—all she could see was a glass door and a few leaves peeking through the blackness. Apparently this place didn’t believe in proper lighting.

She remembered the instructions given to her by… her secretary? One of the admin staff? She couldn’t remember his proper title—could barely remember his name. Something with an M. He’d told her not to go outside. He’d said the air inside was conditioned to stay within reasonable temperatures—and that the garden—was it her private garden? Yes, he’d said that—was best enjoyed a few hours after sunset.

Across the room her uniform hung serenely on a rack, attached to one of the closet door handles. She couldn’t remember putting it there or even taking it out of her suitcase, but she must have.

Another sip of the bottle and she heaved herself up from the sofa and headed for the glass door. To her surprise it didn’t slide out of the way as she approached it. She tried touching the glass but nothing happened. She tried pushing again until finally her eyes slid down to the knob on the dark metal frame.

Incredulous, she tried twisting it and the transparent divide shifted and let her out of the sitting room. She’d known this school was backwards but mechanical doorknobs… she might as well have traveled two hundred years back in time.

Outside, the night air was muggy but tolerable. Something about its freshness, as opposed to the recycled air inside, felt pleasant on her skin. She took a few steps and noticed a metal bench hidden among the red-yellow bushes. She found her way to it almost without stumbling.

One thing was for certain, the stars were plentiful and beautiful in this place, with so little light from the surrounding buildings to obscure them. She took another swig from the bottle, smacking her lips. At least a nice view coupled with good liquor was something to be grateful for. The world seemed to swim in and out of focus.

They hadn’t told her where they were sending her, exactly, when her transfer orders had come in. Or perhaps they did and she just hadn’t cared enough to look at the precise name and location. Might as well have been Hole In The Middle Of Nowhere. As far as she knew the school was the only inhabited area on this entire moon, which was out of the way of every major trade route and nearly impossible to land on. They’d had to arrange for a special shuttle for her—this place only saw a supply ship once a year.

She hadn’t been expecting anything. Her war record could have carried her through a lot, but not through the aftermath of her last mission. Too many deaths, too close to a real disaster. A hasty public hanging, with the details obscured, was inevitable. Of course, an actual public hanging might have been preferable to this place. She pressed the bottle to her lips again and tipped her head back.

“Excuse me,” a voice startled her into spitting what she’d intended to swallow. Droplets landed on her palms, her thighs, the bench, the ground. She looked up to find a girl standing not four paces away, under a… spiky, tree-like thing that was barely taller than Claudia.

“Who are you?” Claudia said, trying desperately to remember what the man from before had said about the garden. She was the new head of this school, surely her quarters were off limits? Claudia couldn’t be sure but she didn’t remember anyone in the room with her, before. She tried to wipe at her mouth, in an attempt to focus, but the movement only made everything around her spin.

“I was hoping to pay my respects, Colonel,” the girl said, oddly still. She had light eyes and straight black hair, parted into several thick braids. Her face was… young. Not much younger than Martin, when he died. His black hair had been fused to his helmet when they found it. It was the only part of his armor that had survived the skirmish. They’d used it to identify his remains.

“I’m sorry, did you hear what I said?” The girl looked confused. Like him, just like him. Claudia pressed the bottle to her lips and closed her eyes.

“Colonel?” Claudia heard her voice say. And then again, more hesitantly: “Colonel?” The girl said something else but Claudia couldn’t make out the words.

That voice. It sent chills down her spine, just like before.

“I told you not to call me that,” Claudia said. The world was blurry and all she could see was Martin’s face. Too young. She’d told him not to risk it, to leave the faulty comms alone. He was the youngest officer ever to serve as ship’s XO. She feared it would go to his head, and in the end, it did. He was brilliant, singular, and now he was dead. And they couldn’t even publish it on the logs or the press would start digging, and Martin’s ashes would bring the panic of the next war with them.

“Um… I’m sorry…” Martin’s voice was shaky. Always so unsure of himself. His features were losing focus in her memory, she couldn’t make out all the details anymore. “I told you,” Claudia whispered, or maybe shouted. “I told you the ID codes were wrong, you should have listened to me.”

“What? I don’t,” a voice said, somewhere nearby. Martin’s voice. “This is Bo, Colonel, he lives in my district, he’d be happy—” There were other words, maybe, but Claudia didn’t want to hear, couldn’t bear to listen.

Martin’s face was vivid. He was distracted, hunched over a console, frowning the way he used to when the systems had an unexpected glitch. “You can’t just fix something like that on your own!” Claudia heard herself shouting. “It’s not your decision!”

Pain shot through her knees, forceful and dull. She was on the ground, heart pounding. Her outstretched hands had saved her from a worse fall. At least her instincts were still good for something.

She looked up to see a girl in a strange uniform, standing next to a boy who looked about twelve. Claudia had to look down again. The sky was spinning, or falling, or maybe rushing to meet her and wrap her up in starry darkness.

“Colonel,” the girl said hesitantly. “I’m sorry to—”

“Who are you?” Claudia interrupted.

“I’m Sol, Key of district 942, Colonel—”

“Don’t call me that!” Claudia growled.

“I’m sorry.” The girl backed away. “I just wanted to say, for my district—”

“Your what?” The world was swimming in and out of focus. “You’re not supposed to be here,” Claudia managed, still breathing heavily. “You’re not Martin.”

The girl looked confused but quickly said, “This is Bo,” grabbing the boy by the shoulders. “He’s just a kid, but—”

“You’re just a kid yourself,” Claudia said, attempting to get back on her feet and failing. The bottle was still on the bench, nearly empty. “You don’t know anything,” Claudia said. “You’re just a kid.” Finally the bottle was in Claudia’s hand again and her throat burned pleasantly with the liquid. Her hands were shaking and she was suddenly aware of how cold it was. Her body was shivering.

“If the boy can be of any service to you, I would be honored,” the girl said behind Claudia’s back.

“That boy knows more than you do,” Claudia said, before the girl could get another word out. “He knows to keep his mouth shut.” She tossed the bottle at the darkness, at Martin’s ghost hiding between the trees that looked like giant yellow mushrooms, and heard it shatter against the ground. “You’re not the key to anything. You’re nothing. Absolutely nothing. You’re just a kid. The boy’s the one who should be telling you what to do.” Martin’s eyes still hovered, boring into Claudia. “I’ll wipe you from the face of this planet before I let you make any decisions again,” she said, and finally Martin blinked and faded. There were more words, maybe. Eventually Claudia noticed the garden was empty. It was just her and the stars and the nothingness again.

No memories, no visions. Blissful nothingness. There was something hard under Claudia’s face, digging into her back, her thighs. But the seconds seemed like hours, until finally the world dropped away completely.


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