First


When they told her about the first death, Lil felt betrayed. Not by her father, who brought her the news. Not by the medical team, who had worked around the clock to identify this new disease. Certainly not by Roon, whose body had lost its battle. 

Lil felt betrayed by Una itself. Una, the first solid ground Lil had ever walked, the first unfiltered air she had ever breathed, her first and last home. And she was Una’s first, too, the first human to step foot on her wide open plains. Most people thought that honor had gone to Hiram Wayland. Only Lil and her father knew that just before he had stepped off the landing platform, he had set her down first. From that moment until this one, Lil had felt that she and Una shared a bond. 

And now the planet was trying to kill her and all her people. 

Slowly, Lil stood up and brushed the coarse grit off her hands. She had been working in the gardens, covering the shift of one of the infected women. She was tempted to shake the dirt of Una off her feet, too.

She was being ridiculous, of course. To hide it, she answered her father quickly and in a steady voice, “Have they started the autopsy?”

“They gave Shar the chance to say good-bye first, but by now they will have begun.”

Lil nodded. Everyone had agreed they would need to act quickly in this situation, to gather as much information as possible. Shar would understand. She was a scientist herself. 

“How is she?”

“As you would expect. She has asked that I go along to tell the children. Po won’t understand yet, of course, but Ryn is old enough to need a man’s voice.”

Ryn was nine. Lil knew what it meant to lose a parent at that age, and she knew her father was boy’s best chance at feeling understood.

“I’ll go the medical center, then, to wait for the first reports. You shouldn’t hurry that.”

Her father didn’t answer. Likely because he had already known that would be her response. Twenty years since she officially became his apprentice, and she’d been sharing the duties of governor for the last five. At this point, they often finished each other’s sentences.

Lil glanced over as they walked. Her father’s hair had gone completely grey now, though he walked with the same firm steps. He spent more and more time with his camera and he’d begun talking about stepping away soon and giving her the official title. He seemed to be waiting for something, probably for her to marry and begin having children to carry on the work, though he never said so. Lil didn’t ask. It wasn’t time yet. The colony wasn’t ready to let him go. She wasn’t ready, either.

They arrived at the medical center just as Shar came out the front doors. Gab, one of the nurses, walked by her side, carrying a small bundle. Roon’s personal items. 

Lil stopped in front of Shar and looked into her eyes, witnessing her pain as her father had taught her. The shock and loss written there reminded Lil sharply of the day she had lost her mother, but she pushed the memory away. Today wasn’t about her loss. “I’m sorry,” she said, still holding Shar’s eyes.

The woman’s tears spilled over, but she smiled, too. “Me, too,” she said. “But the doctors think they may learn enough from him to save the others. He would have been proud to know that.”

“Yes. He always put others before himself.”

Shar pulled her into a hug, and Lil let her hang on as long as she wanted. 

When Shar finally pulled away and said goodbye with a little pat on Lil’s shoulder, Lil took a deep breath and stepped into the medical center.

It was cool and quiet in the small waiting area. No one was coming to the clinic these days except those who had contracted the disease, and they were in the hospital wing with their families. Twenty-two sick so far. Roon had been the third to show symptoms. 

Lil would visit them next. First, she went through the double doors marked RESTRICTED behind the nurse’s desk and into the hall of the laboratory wing. Here, every room she passed had people busy working. She made her way down to the chief’s office. 

Jun wasn’t there, of course. She’d be performing the autopsy herself. Her admin, Bev, was busy compiling notes at the desk, though, and she nodded as Lil came in. “I just finished sending the reports to your tablet,” she said. “Jun is dictating as she operates, and the transcription should automatically update every five minutes.” Bev was the best admin in the colony, and though Lil had sometimes wished they had her in the governor’s office, today she was thankful the woman was where she was most needed.

Lil scrolled through the report summary Bev had sent. All of the patients seemed to be passing through the same series of symptoms, though at different rates. First a rash. Then sudden weakness, fever, passing into elevated heart rate and blood pressure, often accompanied by agitated behavior. Then that passed into lethargy. The fever burned on, but the heart rate slowed more and more until eventually, in Roon’s case, it stopped. Six more patients had entered the lethargic stage. For some reason, Jer, the first case, was still showing agitation. He was younger than Roon, but only by a few years. The doctors had found no explanation for the slower advancement of the disease. 

Jun was convinced this was being caused by a new strain of bacteria. They had found it in the blood samples of all the infected patients. It didn’t respond to any antibiotics, though, and they hadn’t yet been able to find the connection between the infected patients. They were all ages, came from all shifts and job assignments. 

Why now? That was the question that plagued Lil as the feeling of betrayal surged again. Nearly twenty years they had lived on Una, and they had only lost a handful of colony members. For eight of those years, their diet had come chiefly from native products, with no ill effects. Why would this bacteria appear now? What had changed? 

If there was a physiological explanation, Jun would find it. She was brilliant, and her team matched her skill. In the meantime, Lil would search for changes, anything big or small that the colony had begun doing differently in recent weeks. 

She typed up a quick communication, asking the department chiefs to meet her at the med center with full reports. 

“Is there a room I can use where I won’t be in anyone’s way?” she asked Bev. 

Bev raised an eyebrow. “We’re at full capacity,” she said, “but you can set up in the off-duty room if you like. No one’s sleeping these days.”

Lil nodded and headed toward the door only to crash into the person who barreled through it. 

“Mia?” She took in the doctor’s face, and her heart sank.

“We just lost another one,” Mia said. Her face was drawn and grey. “Hol, five years old.”

Lil let the emotion sweep over her, concentrating on standing firm as her father had taught her, so that she’d still be there when it passed. It only took a minute. 

She took Mia’s arm, gently pushed her into an empty chair. “You need rest.”

“I need a cure,” Mia said. “Three more have gone still. We’re going to lose Jil any minute, and Hy isnt far behind. Engineering just brought a new case in, an apprentice who collapsed in their office.”

“We’re doing everything we can.”

“Lil, an epidemic will be the end of us.”

“The Plan took it into account.”

“Only to a certain point.”

“Then we won’t let it get to that point.”

Mia’s look said that Lil was being young and naive. Lil preferred to think of it as strong and determined. Her tablet buzzed.

“I have to go. Engineering sent the report I need, and the engineer who brought the apprentice is prepared to answer questions.” She looked Mia straight in the eye, witnessing her fear. She knew words couldn’t help, so she just let Mia see her understanding. 

Then she turned away and went to look for answers. 

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