Three Keys in the Desert (part 3 of 26)

Ebie was slumped on her desk, forehead resting on piles of paperwork, when the door to her office slid open. She looked up to see Len, finally returned, carrying a steaming cup in each hand.

She forced her spine to unbend and her body to settle itself upright in the chair. The trip to 942, the long walk in the sun, the stress of trying to not get caught, made the day feel a thousand times longer. She wasn’t usually this exhausted so early in the evening, even the week before Transfer Day. At least the bright, artificial lights in the Compound made falling asleep on her desk more difficult.

Len placed the cups on the least cluttered corners of her desk, before sinking into the only other chair in the room, opposite Ebie, with a deep sigh. “The fluffs in the kitchen were opening a new bag for the infirmary,” he said. “I got lucky, managed to get them to brew a little extra.”

Ebie let her lips curve into a smile. “Lucky? They wouldn’t have done that for me.”

Len huffed out a laugh. “You’re a Key. They’re scared of you because they think you decide which district they’ll go to.” He seemed even more tired, somehow, than when he’d left. “I’m just a First, they don’t know what that means.”

“Remember when we were fluffs?” She touched her cup gingerly, letting her fingers linger on the hot plastic a fraction longer each time. “I wanted anything but the 745.”

Len nodded. “I don’t miss fluff chores.”

Ebie took a sip of the tea. The spicy, bitter taste made her close her eyes, a sensation of calm sliding from her throat all the way down to her toes. Her muscles were sore, her head pounded with too little sleep and too many hours staring at impossible calculations. Her eyes didn’t want to open.

“Let me take you to bed,” Len’s voice said, and Ebie reluctantly let the world intrude back into her field of vision. “You think Vrei or Sol are up at this hour? You’re giving them an advantage.”

Ebie had a hard time picturing Sol working at this hour. Vrei, on the other hand… she frowned. Just thinking about Vrei made her want to hit something.

She knew Len was right, at least in theory. He’d done most of the legwork on the housing arrangements. She could delegate, let him go through all the resident requests, the supply numbers, cross reference the results with existing archival records. She could review his suggestions in the morning. He could do this, but he couldn’t go to Key meetings for her, where she needed to be sharp. Transfer Day was a crucial time.

But one look at Len reminded her that he was just as tired as she was. His eyes were puffy and red, rimmed with dark circles. She’ll let him take on more, eventually, but now wasn’t the time. No, as long as she could stay conscious, it was too early to give up. If she managed to get more than two hours of sleep tonight, she’d be fine tomorrow.

“You almost punched that Kim guy earlier,” Len said, still trying to convince her. “You get cranky when you don’t sleep, and you know how Michael hates it when you’re cranky.”

Ebie should have responded, but instead she looked down at the paperwork in front of her. The room was suddenly quiet. Someone else, someone better at people and feelings than Ebie was, would have found what to say by now, but she could only sort methodically through a stack of folders, waiting for the feeling of awkwardness to pass.

Len stayed quiet.

He didn’t deserve this, but making him feel like he’d done something to lose Ebie’s trust was better than telling him the truth. That would probably end with him dead, one way or another. Ebie couldn’t take the risk.

“I’m fine,” she said, finally, when the silence became unbearable. “Let’s do housing arrangements.”

Len straightened in his chair, the humor drained from his face. He could have asked Ebie why they’d gone to 942 in the first place, why she suddenly needed to go behind Sol’s back to hide an injured boy when she still had a few emergency medical vouchers left. But he had asked once, and she’d told him to drop it, and he’d followed orders as usual.

And all of this thanks to Vrei and her inability to keep track of the junkies in her district.

“Housing arrangements,” she said. There were dozens of buildings and hundreds of residents to sort out. “What did Leo from number 14 say?”

“Three fourthyears currently live in 14,” Len said, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. “And two of their friends are planning to move in, once Leo and three other elders leave on Transfer Day. No one else will want the two spare beds.”

Ebie nodded. People moved either to live closer to their friends or get away from abuse. Two beds weren’t enough of a draw for the former and Ebie had spent the last few years making sure the latter stopped happening. It had been over a year since someone had reported a serious case of abuse in the 745. She didn’t know everything, of course, but violence tended to show, even when it wasn’t physical it tended to spill over somehow.

“So,” Len said. “I don’t see any other option except giving the two empty beds to some of the fluffs who’ll be transferring from the Palace.”

Ebie shook her head. “We can’t put two kids into a building full of fifithyears. They’ll be completely isolated.” She leaned back in her chair and stared at the uninspiring, gray metal of the ceiling. “There has to be another option.”

“It’s only one year,” Len said, hesitantly. “Next year we’ll make new living arrangements and—”

“Next year those kids will be secondyears,” Ebie interrupted. “And I’ll need them to keep an eye on the new kids. They spend a year just trying to survive instead of making connections and settling in, they’re useless to me. How about number 6?”

Len shook his head, picking up his mug and sipping from it. “Went there and checked, they only have five empty beds and they’re all spoken for.”

Ebie sighed. Although the 745 was getting roughly the same number of fluffs as the number of elders who were due to leave for Central Processing, working out a scheme that would keep the peace for another year was always a nightmare. “I’ll go to number 9 tomorrow. There are two thirdyears in that building, we might need them to move to 14.”

Len was quiet for a moment. “Really?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Moving thirdyears to make room for fluffs? That’s… drastic.”

Ebie sighed. “Yes. Write it down.” It would cost her. No one liked the Key moving established residents around. There would be outrage. But the ‘kids get what’s available’ policy was convenient for everyone except Ebie. That system was why the district was such a mess when she first got promoted. “They’re the only thirdyears in that building, they’re not going to be significantly worse off in 14.”

“Are you sure?” Len said, pulling out the relevant forms.

“Yes. Write it down. We’ll review again in the morning.” Ebie sat up in her chair. The slouching was making her back ache. Rearranging herself only made her realize every other part of her body hurt too, like dull echoes of her growing headache. She was beginning to see spots, which meant she had about an hour of real productivity left.

“Did you hear about the new Head?” Len’s voice brought her focus back to reality. He was crossing out names and rearranging charts as he spoke.

“No. What’s the latest gossip?”

“Scars all over her face.” Len said, looking at his work. “Probably from the War.”

Ebie rolled her eyes. “Like they’d let a veteran sink low enough for this place? She’s probably never even seen a training base.”

Len looked up at her, arranging the papers into a neat pile. His eyes went dark with worry.

She forced herself to sit straighter. “Let’s talk about number 12.”

But Len’s expression didn’t change. “You can have my dessert tomorrow if you let me take you out of this office right now.”

Ebie couldn’t help a smile. “Tempting offer.” She hated desserts, but Len loved them—she used to bribe him with her rations all through their first year in the district.

“If you drop dead before Transfer Day,” Len said. “I’m pretty sure the other districts automatically get all our supplies.”

“I’m fine,” Ebie said, rubbing at her eyes. They were starting to get too sore to touch. “We need to figure out 12 and 7.”

“We’ve been over 12 and 7 twice already,” Len said. “Let me do it, go sleep.”

When she ignored him and continued to rifle through her papers Len sighed and sank back into his seat.

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