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Chapter One - Ewin

“We have to leave Ewin,” a man called and the council chamber erupted in raucous complaint. “There is no choice,” he continued. His robes signified he came from the medical profession, which made his assertion even more concerning.

“An overreaction, surely,” Eustace said and Talien frowned. Panic had gripped the room, it had for some days now, ever since the knowledge of this bacteria had come to light. Many had refused to come today, she knew, but the chamber was still crowded. As for herself, she’d been told to represent her department as her superior had taken sick. Normally she didn’t attend the council meetings, but there was no one to represent the Department of Food and Agriculture otherwise.

“Calm!” Trifin Garmon called and the room quieted somewhat as their leader spoke. “Let’s not act through reaction.”

A grumble went through the crowd. Even Garmon’s assurances were starting to sound thin to many. People had started dying, more every day. So far Talien hadn’t developed the cough, but it worried her seeing all the people around her breathing and shouting. They knew where it came from. It came out of the soil, a natural bacteria that had always been there, but for some reason, it had changed. Something had changed and they didn’t understand why.

“It builds up in your blood,” the man in the medical coat shouted. “Each day, the levels build more. It is cumulative. We cannot stay. We are growing sicker, and will continue to do so.”

Everyone knew the hospitals were mayhem, overloaded with a stream of patients being brought in.  Rumor was circulating that there was little point going to the hospital. This sickness far surpassed the resources they had.

Further dismay spread across the chamber. This wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear.

“Calm!” Garmon roared. “The committee must do its work.”

“We have to get off planet,” Eustace said quietly to her.

“There is no time,” the doctor shot back. “We must evacuate.”

“How? Where?” Talien said. The few interplanetary ships they had had already left. They were owned by the wealthy, who had likely taken to them at the first alarm that something was wrong. They certainly didn’t have any means of evacuating.

Tugging on her arm, he pulled her toward the exit, forcing their way through the crowd while the leaders were still debating what they should do, and how to avoid panic.

On the steps outside, a man sat wheezing, a woman trying to help him. It was a sight Talien had seen more than she wanted to admit—the sight of someone getting sick. Seriously sick. Once the wheezing set in, it wasn’t long. And from what that doctor had said, they would all grow sick if they stayed here.

The hold still on her arm, Talien was being dragged through the street and into a transport pod.

“Goden mines,” Eustace said to the system and the doors closed them in silent coolness.

“Why are we going to the mines?”

“There’s a freighter in dock at the moment.”

Talien knew that Eustace’s engineering expertise was at times used by the mining company. “They’re not going to let us on.” Which meant what for them? They would grow sick, just like everyone else. Nausea bit into her stomach. This was so much worse than she’d realized. When she’d first learned of the sickness, she'd dismissed it as something that the scientists were interested in studying. Never had she imagined it would come to this, that the planet was slowly killing them. Apparently there was nothing 'slowly' about it. Eustace seemed to think they had to get out of the atmosphere immediately.

No doubt help would be called from nearby planets, but it would take them days to arrive.

“We’ll find away.”

Up this high, their world looked peaceful, but there was chaos down there. The news reports had stopped broadcasting the death rates. Maybe the statisticians had died, or were off tending to their families. Increasingly their society was breaking down. Deaths and panic were all they had now. It struck young and old, rich and poor alike. There was talk of some immunity which resulted in some getting sick while others didn’t. The exact mechanism of how people got sick was something the researchers hadn’t worked out—or they didn’t state it if they knew.

But the cough was the first symptom, then apparently rashes.

So far, Talien have escaped the sickness, but maybe it was just a matter of time. People just sickened and when they did, it was only a matter of hours before they deteriorated. It was the worst horror she’d ever known. Any of them could be dead by sunset.

“We need things,” she said, suddenly realizing that this meant he intended to leave with nothing but their clothes on their backs. “Eustace, we must pack.”

“There’s no time.”

This rush felt a little silly, but maybe it wasn’t. Eustace didn’t seem to think it was.

The pod flew over water and forest, then the towers of the mining settlement came into view in the distance. Another pod passed them, heading the other way.

Talien felt deeply torn, but intellectually she knew that this was wise. The medical man had said this was accumulating in their blood, so the faster they got off the planet the better. But she didn’t even know if that was true. It could already be too late—for all of them. Part of her wanted to crawl into her bed and just forget everything, as if pulling the covers over her head would block it all out. An immature reaction that she was much too old for.

The neatness of the city gave way to the utter functionality of the mining settlement. Pipes and cables, and buildings that look temporary even as they’d likely been there for decades. The ground was muddy and the tracks of large wheels scarred the earth. Fire licked the sky out of a stack.

So much stimuli, along with her tumultuous emotions, were getting the better of her. This all felt too overwhelming. Underneath it was the fear, for both herself and her community. What did this mean? Was this the end of their population on this planet? She’d never known anywhere else.

Talien had never been here before, while Eustace was leading them to a large hanger, that once inside must have been built into the hill behind it because it looked much larger than it appeared from the outside. Everything was dark and grimy.

Large containers were moved around by machinery, all of them automated. They dodged some of them. Eventually they reached what looked like an office and a man pushed past them as they got to the door, not even stopping to apologize. The air was cool inside the room, but it smelled bad, like old cabbage and stale sweat. Some kind of control room, Talien guessed as she looked around at the multitude of dashboards and panels.

“What you doing here, Eustace?” a gruff voice said. “We’re not operating. I suppose you want up on the freighter.”

So they weren’t the first ones with this idea.

“Seems the only safe place to be.”

“It’s a freighter. They’ve never been safe.” The wheeze in his voice snuck in at the end of the sentence. They all knew what it meant. “My game’s up,” the man said. Talien didn’t even know his name, but she felt sorry for him. This man was facing her worst fear.

“Get on the tender and I’ll take you up,” the man said. “You’ll have to go automated. There’s no one to drive you. It will be an uncomfortable ride.”

“Thanks, Tyra,” Eustace said and a silent moment passed between the two men. They must be friends, but one of them wasn’t going to be alive come nightfall. This was how it happened, people dropped like flies—people who were friends, respected colleagues. Family.

For once, Talien was grateful she’d lost her parents a few years back. Her mother’s nerves would have made this much more difficult. She could even imagine her mother being one of the people who refused to believe what was going on, or that they themselves could get sick. She certainly wouldn’t agree to ride an automated materials tender to a freight ship.

If she stopped for a moment, she would probably balk at this too, but right now, adrenalin and fear pushed her along, as well as Eustace’s hard grip on her elbow. All she could do was go along with it, because in her gut, she knew Eustace was right—or rather feared he was.

Soft mud squeezed out under her feet, her shoes at times disappearing into it. The coolness on her foot told her that one of them had disappeared, but they didn’t stop. This wasn’t the time to stop, they had to reach the tender, which turned out to be little more than a structure open on both sides. The floor was covered in mud and a large container stood in the center, full of a pale-yellow substance.

It had no doors. Talien could see nothing that looked like it would roll down. “How?” she asked. The force of it would suck them out.

The answer didn’t come, and she was distracted by a child crying.

“Come,” Eustace said, walking down the side of the container and she followed. Something sharp cut into her foot, but it wasn’t important right now. “There’s a control booth.”

That had to mean it kept an atmosphere as they got into space. That was how they’d survive this, because the tender itself would be open.

Through the grimy glass, she saw people in there. A man holding a small child and a woman looking around with terrified eyes.

The man smiled tightly as Eustace opened the door and they squeezed into the tiny control room that wasn’t designed for more than two people at the most.

Another couple was there too, making it an even tighter squeeze. Then a man came running, young and alone, squeezing his body into the small space. A ledge was pressing painfully into Talien’s hip as they all tried to fit into the tiny control room.

A jarring buzzing sound made the young child scream even louder, savvy enough to know that his parents were distressed. Another child was squeezed between them, a girl, about five, holding tightly onto her mother’s legs.

“It’s activating,” Eustace said quietly, and she felt an uncomfortable static pressing on her body before the tender lifted off the ground. The ledge ground bruisingly hard into her hip now and continued to do so with every jerk and shake. Then it rushed, the force of it pressing her body downwards, pressing her very lungs. Maybe there wasn’t much of a controlled atmosphere in here. This could be where she died. It wouldn’t be worse than coughing herself to death.  

The mother rushed to clutch the older child as the worryingly flimsy tender shook and groaned. It wasn’t flimsy, Talien told herself. It was built for this. It just felt that way as the force of the wind roared through outside the grimy glass. A plume of yellow filled the space outside. This couldn’t be safe.

Outside the tender, it grew darker and darker. Instinctively, Talien knew the air was growing thinner outside. They may even have left the atmosphere. There was a moment when the shaking stopped, when her weight lighten. They were floating, even as they were too packed in to actually float. Outside the control room was a vacuum and they would die if the door opened. How could it look so flimsy? It couldn’t be more than a normal door.

“Hold on now,” one of the men said and Eustace grabbed the ledge around her, embracing her with his arms.

“There will be a jerk,” he said. “A hard one.”

The man with his family quickly shoved his wife and children under the control panel, and when Talien looked up, she saw a wall of grey coming toward them at speed. They were going to crash. They wouldn’t survive this.

The impact was jarring and painful. Her feet lifted off the floor, while at the same time, a panel opened and the yellow stuff was catapulted up out by sheer momentum. Air rushed and the tender groaned with the forces and then it finally stilled. All the material in the container had been forced through the roof of the tender.

It wasn’t space outside anymore, instead a dark, filthy room where every surface was covered by dust.

The young man opened the door and, Eustace grabbed her arm again and drew her out. It smelled awfully, like something rotten. The sharpness of it stung her nose. The others followed and they walked toward a door that looked mechanical in nature. It didn’t open and they stood.

“Hey!” the young man yelled. “We’re in here.” He pounded on the door, which must be locked.

The air was thin, Talien realized, or maybe it was the stinging from noxious smell. Panic threatened, because she couldn’t breathe properly.

A scraping sound and the door opened a crack. It was heavy, but the young man shoved it will all his might. “Knuckle draggers,” he muttered under his breath and then got the door open enough for them to pass through.

There was no one on the other side, just a corridor that smelled a little better. The young man slammed a button that closed the door again. Grinding noise was so loud, Talien worried the structure was being torn apart. The guy looked through another window so dirty it was a wonder he saw anything. “It’s gone back,” he said, then walked off.

“We made it,” Eustace said. The relief in his voice was immediate. It was almost as if the strength went out of him. The hard panic lifted away. They had reached wherever he’d planned to take them. A freighter, she assumed.  

The family man seemed to know where he was going, while neither she nor Eustace did. At no point had he worked on the actual freighters from what she’d heard, so this wasn’t territory he knew either.

“Now what?” she asked.

Eustace looked at her and shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.”

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