The next chapter of my latest sci-fi work in progress.
In case you missed it, part 1 is here, where all is made clear (I hope). I'm sharing the first parts of this story as I write it so you can follow along and ask questions or make comments, so please do comment below – I read every comment.
This story is set in the world of Colony B – you don't have to have read any of those stories, but it will help if you have because they do follow on from each other. If you're interested, there's a link below the story.
The Rift Valley
Siobhan staggered through the banks of ferns, the soft ground giving way underfoot. A pain lanced through her stomach, and she gasped, stumbling to a halt and pressing her hands against her belly. It’s the bug, she thought. It finally got me.
The illness had been spreading through the settlers in the rift valley like wildfire, and no one knew what caused it. It wasn’t the grunge; the dreaded symbiont still hadn’t managed to invade their secluded homeland. The illness didn't even seem to relate to any pathogen that they could detect. Boiling water and food was of no value in preventing the spread of the sickness, and although they’d been as careful with their hygiene as their rudimentary huts would allow, every day brought a new victim.
Siobhan had been lucky so far, but today, as she’d gathered berries in the creeper patch, the cramps had begun. She’d tried to ignore the discomfort, carrying on working for as long as she could, but then the symptoms had begun in earnest, and she’d headed for home.
Sweat prickled her brow although she could’ve sworn she was freezing. Her vision blurred, her mind was fogged with pain, and waves of nausea swept through her. She needed to get back to her hut, to lie down and rest, to drink water and hope for the best.
But when she looked ahead, blinking to clear her vision, she saw only a muddle of muted colors, patches of light and dark. Was the illness going to rob her of her vision?
“No,” she whispered. “I must…must get home.” It was her only hope, and biting her lip to prevent herself from whimpering, she took one step forward, and then another. Was that dark shape the outline of a hut? No, it had vanished, slipped away into the looming shadows. And then she realized what was happening.
It’s the mist, she told herself. I shouldn't have gone out alone. The mists in the valley were unpredictable, springing up without warning and hiding every landmark. Like all the settlers, Siobhan had tried hard to memorize every path, every route, but when a mist came in, even the best of them could become disoriented and lose their way. As a rule, those venturing more than a few hundred yards from the huts went in parties of three or more, but with so many ill, Siobhan had taken a risk. And now, as the mist gathered its gray folds around her, every step left her more confused.
She squatted on her haunches for a moment, gathering her strength. She was still on the path, and so long as she followed it to the first intersection and then turned right, she should get back to the huts. But what if she’d made a mistake and taken a wrong turn already? The paths all looked alike, and even before the mist arrived, she’d been in a daze. What have I done?
She took a steadying breath, releasing it slowly. She wasn’t finished yet. And she wasn't alone in the valley. She was facing in the right direction, so if she called for help, the others would hear her. So long as someone was well enough to answer her call, she could follow the sound.
Clenching her stomach muscles, Siobhan stood, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Can anyone hear me? It’s Shiv. I need some help. Someone, please come and give me a hand.”
There was no reply, so she tried again. “Please, if you can hear me, call out. I’m lost. Just shout and I’ll follow.”
She tilted her head to one side, but there was no reply except for the gentle breeze whispering through the tall ferns.
Siobhan hung her head. On a clear day, the valley’s steep walls made mysterious echoes of even the smallest sounds, but when the mist hung in the air like a smothering blanket, voices were muffled and lost in the swirling clouds of tiny droplets. Even so, someone ought to have heard her, shouldn’t they? Where the hell was everyone?
Checking she was still on a path, she took a few hesitant steps, her head swimming with fatigue. This was how the illness took people, wearing them down, making it impossible for them to function. No one had died of the sickness yet, but no one had got any better either. It took hold of a person, draining their constitution, and it wouldn't let them go. It was only the care given by the healthy that was allowing the sick to survive. That was why Siobhan had gone out to pick berries; there were plenty who needed the sweet tea she could make from them. The sugars in the small fruits gave people strength and a little comfort, and perhaps their goodness would help her now.
She slid her backpack from her shoulders and opened it, reaching inside to take a few berries. She popped one into her mouth and squeezed out the juice with her tongue. The acid sweetness was good, reviving her spirits, and she ate another, closing her eyes as she chewed the fruit’s bitter skin.
But what was that? She opened her eyes. Someone was calling out. A woman’s voice. Perhaps it was Cate. Before Siobhan had gone out, she’d checked in with Cate. Cate had been tending to the sick, fetching food and water, mopping fevered brows and doing what she could to raise morale. She would know that Siobhan had been away for too long, and she would’ve seen the mist coming in. Cate would tell the others, raise a search party, bring help.
“Cate!” Siobhan yelled. “Cate, I’m here!”
She listened hard, her hope soaring, but only the distant call of a crow came to her through the mist, its hoarse cry as harsh as hollow laughter.
That’s all it was, Siobhan thought. Not Cate, just a damned crow. Siobhan pressed her fingertips against her forehead, trying to squeeze the pain from her temple. She had to go on. She had to get nearer to the huts. To stay where she was would be to accept defeat, to lay down and succumb to the illness. But when she stepped forward, the ground swayed beneath her. She stood still, holding out her arms to regain her balance, but it was no use. The mist spun around her, and she fell, tumbling to the ground, sprawling on her back amongst the wet ferns. The thick vegetation cushioned her fall, but she cried out, howling her frustration into the silence. Groaning, she rolled over onto her front, her stomach lurching. She put her hands flat on the ground, her fingers sinking into the soft soil, but when she tried to take her weight onto her arms, her muscles shook and gave way. She tried once more, pushing with all her might, but she was too weak. She collapsed, her forehead resting on the cold ground, the stench of wet soil filling her nostrils, and there was nothing she could do.
Siobhan closed her eyes, her mind tumbling slowly into the depths of a dark delirium, and she knew no more.
I hope you enjoyed this part of the story.
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