Euan awoke to semi-darkness. He was vaguely aware that he had once been called Euan. He was somewhat less vaguely aware of the cold water that surrounded him. But all of that paled in comparison to the Hunger and against that, nothing else mattered.
Light shone down from far above. Drawn to it for no reason he could fathom, he struggled toward it, staggering up a loose slope of gravel and muck that shifted under each step. On and up he went, until he finally broke the water's surface.
A wave came up from behind him, lifted him high into the air, where wind hit him from the other direction, holding him there before another wave hit him and, in the brief space between wind gusts, threw him onto a sand spit.
He pulled his legs under him, falling four times before finally standing erect. Then he caught the scent, faint though it was, of that which stirred the Hunger. He moved slowly in that direction.
Night fell and still he walked onward. The wind stopped, and with it the scent. Uncertain which way to go, Euan also stopped. And waited.
Some time later, it became light once more and with it came the wind and with that the scent. After a while, he came to a collection of things that were not the same as the high rock surrounding the basin through which he had been trudging. He found a gap and wandered through it.
Inside was another thing, one that he had probably known from before. The scent wafted toward him. He followed it into a small void. He bumped into the back of the void. Through some impenetrable surface, he could see movement. He bumped up against it again and again. Something moved behind him, followed by a hissing sound. Still, he bumped, trying to pass through the surface. It slid away without warning.
Warm air hit him, laden with the scent. The Hunger roared within him. He stepped forward, tentatively at first. He locked onto the nearest person. That was the source of the scent and the means by which he might sate the Hunger. He lurched on awkward legs, then grabbed that person. He bit down on an arm, teeth finding flesh. At first, nothing happened. He bit harder, teeth finally shearing flesh. Blood welled out.
The person screamed. Euan bit harder, tearing off a chunk of flesh. He chewed briefly before going back for more. The Hunger sang.
Blows hit his body, over and over and over, until he fell back and onto the floor. He looked up. Other people surrounded the one had had attacked. Crying filled the air.
One person rounded on Euan, yelling at him, but he did not understand the sounds.
Euan staggered to his feet and lurched at the yelling person. He sank his teeth into the person's neck near where it met the shoulder. Blood sprayed out, wetting his face. The person screamed as he chewed, before falling away, leaving a chunk of flesh behind in Euan's mouth.
The person fell to the floor, scrabbling at their own throat, making gurgling noises.
A blow to the face sent him again to the floor. Then there were more blows to his flanks. He grabbed a leg and bit down. There was more screaming, more yelling, more blows, more biting.
Soon, the blows stopped, but the screaming continued. He staggered to his feet. There before him, people lay on the floor, each one holding whatever part of their body Euan had bitten. Some of them stared at him in horror. Others stared at nothing in particular. Still others held their eyes tight closed while they sobbed.
Euan locked onto the nearest person, one holding a bleeding leg. Euan lurched toward him, sinking onto his knees beside that person. The person said things, things Euan did not understand, but which carried strong fear. He bit down on the nearest part of that person's body, a hand that tried to push him away.
The person pulled the hand away. No matter. Euan bit down on an abdomen. There was more screaming, more crying. After a while, the person stopped struggling, stopped hitting him. Euan continued to eat. With every bite, every chew, every swallow, the Hunger stilled a little. After a while more, the Hunger had been reduced to little more than a murmur.
He finally looked up, a shred of flesh fluttering over his lower teeth, parts of organs in each hand. Some of the other people in the room stared at him. Some still cried quietly. Others lay unmoving. Blood slowly pooled out across the floor.
For a long time, he gazed unmoving, unblinking, unbreathing, at the broken people he had torn open. And they stared back in horror.
All motivation went out of him. In the absence of the Hunger, nothing mattered. And so he knelt there, slimy bits of flesh sliding from his grasp back to where he had ripped them.
After a time, one of the people huddling across the room rose up and came for him. Their arm hung limply at their side, a piece of it missing. They tried to kick him, but slipped in the blood. The Hunger flared and Euan attacked. He grabbed a leg and bit into it, tearing through fabric and into flesh. The person beat at him with the good arm. Euan grabbed that and bit into it as well. Before long, the person lay thrashing beneath him as he tore and bit and ate. At last, the person went still. As before, the Hunger eventually subsided, leaving Euan to kneel there purposelessly.
Freya stared in horror at the screen mounted to her living room wall. She barely noticed her own jaw hanging open, barely felt Badim's hands holding her shoulders.
A camera in one of the habitats down on Aurora showed an entry room, a foyer of sorts, Euan kneeling in a pool of blood. More blood smeared his face, his eyes slightly milky, his expression vacant. Behind him, one of the people he'd killed and eaten struggled up off the floor. Its viscera dangled from a large hole in its abdomen. As Freya watched, the person attacked someone else, sinking teeth into flesh.
Freya turned her face away from the screaming and the blood. She might have cried, if she could. Somehow, simple tears, like the ones she'd shed when Euan had died the day before, were wholly inadequate.
“Well,” said Aram pensively, “now we know what it does.”
“How can you say that?!” Freya shrieked. She gestured at the screen, still unable to look back at it.
“Like Jochi said, we knew the infectious agent multiplied and killed its host, but we didn't know what else it did. And now we do.”
Freya blinked at him several times. “But...how? And how could Euan do such a thing?”
“I don't think it was Euan,” said Badim slowly.
Freya craned her neck around to look at her father. “What? What do you mean? Of course it was him. You saw how he...he...” She couldn't finish, but she didn't have to.
“I think,” said Aram, “that after the contagion kills its victim, or perhaps during the fever, it somehow overwrites the human nervous system, transforming the subject into an automaton, a host for the agent.”
“Could this be how it evolves?” Badim asked.
“Perhaps,” said Aram pensively.
“Stop!” cried Freya. “Stop, stop, stop!”
Badim and Aram both looked at her.
“But Freya, dear,” said Badim, “this does seem to be the case.”
“How can you be so calm about this? Our friends, our loved ones, died down there. They're still dying down there! And don't you dare lecture me about the circle of life! I don't care!” Freya sat down hard, shoved her fist into her mouth, and wept.
“Freya,” said Aram, “this really is a bad idea.”
Freya half-glared at Aram, then looked back through the glass at Euan. He sat inside a small sealed chamber, staring at nothing in particular. He looked awful. His skin had gone from its usual pale flesh color to a sort of blue-ish white. Muscle and bone showed through several unhealed scrapes and gashes. A section of his scalp had torn away to a bare skull. Both eyes had gone slightly milky, the left one misaligned. His mouth hung slightly open. He sat completely still, unblinking, his breathing imperceptible.
One look at him filled her heart with doubt. She had pleaded, cajoled, whined, and generally thrown a fit, until the others on the ship had grudgingly agreed to transport Euan up for further study. While a small landing party had been on the surface to collect Euan, Freya and Badim had chatted with Ship. Ship had not been in favor of the decision. In fact, Ship had expressed the mathematical risks in terms that Freya did not understand, but which had make Badim rub his temple and groan. That was something Freya had understood.
And she knew, even as she tried to deny it, that bringing Euan aboard had been a very bad idea. But her heart had overridden her head. It had always been that way for her, no matter how much she had been aware of it or how hard she had tried to resist.
And so it had been that two of the members of the landing party had been attacked getting Euan out. One had been bitten through their suit, the other simply bruised. But they all had voluntarily been quarantined. It was too soon to tell if any of them would become sick.
Freya had seen some of the video feed. It had shown some of the other colonists trying to attack the landing party. It had shown Euan attacking his would-be rescuers. No attempts to subdue him had been successful. The feed had shown him relentlessly and tirelessly trying to bite the others, even after his hands and feet had been restrained. It had shown Euan attempting to break out of his confinement just outside the shuttle bay, beating on the closed door nonstop for the better part of an hour.
She had wept to see it, repeatedly turning away to bury her face in her father's shoulder, only to turn back again. That had been so unlike Euan! Her mind and voice screamed it over and over.
Freya stepped tentatively to the sheet of clear acrylic separating Euan from the rest of the ship. She placed a palm on its cold surface. “Euan?” she said.
For a moment, Euan didn't respond. Then he slowly turned his head and looked straight at Freya through those cloudy, unblinking eyes.
She found herself looking back into a pair of vacant, bottomless pools. The friend, and sometimes lover, she had known was nowhere to be seen. The only thing she saw looking back at her was a raw, feral hunger.
“Euan?” she asked. “Are you still in there?” Yet she knew, even as she spoke, the answer.
Euan opened his mouth, and moaned. Freya could not have imagined such a horrible sound existing anywhere in the universe. It made her hair stand on end and turned her spine to ice. Euan lurched toward Freya, slamming into the acrylic.
Freya leaped back reflexively and shrieked. Euan pounded on the other side, still moaning, seemingly oblivious to anything else. Freya stood, hyperventilating, as Euan pounded and moaned., the clear sheet shuddering under every blow. At length, she felt hands gently guiding her away.
“Freya?” said Badim. “Freya, it's not him anymore.”
“But, what?” she half wailed. “What did it do to him?”
“We don't know,” said Aram. “But we're going to find out.”
Freya almost didn't sleep that night. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Euan gazing back at her with those terrible, vacant eyes. She eventually did drift off to sleep, probably some time in the wee hours of the morning.
“We should go home!” Freya shouted.
Everyone looked at her. Each of the hundreds of faces she'd known all her life, all the residents of the Nova Scotia biome, reflected the same fear and uncertainty she felt in her own heart. First there had been the various crop failures and biological problems that had plagued the ship for as long as she could remember. And now, this whatever it was, the thing Jochi had called a “fast prion,” another kind of plague that threatened to kill them all even faster.
For a few moments, the silence was so thick, one could have cut it with a knife. For a change, Freya could easily hear all the other sounds that formed the background of her world—this hiss of the mechanicals, bird song, the occasional bark of a dog, even the gentle lapping of water in Long Pond. Then the chatter rose up again. Are you crazy? We can't take that back to Earth! We still don't know enough!
On and on. Most people had good points. Many of them, while Freya could follow them well enough, went in one ear and out the other as usual.
A lot of it came down to what Badim and Aram had been saying all along. In the two weeks since Euan--or the thing that had once been Euan—had been brought aboard, only a little had been learned about the infection agent. In fact, Freya could probably have written it on the palm of her hand.
It was transferred via body fluids, often from a bite. Anyone infected became ill within twenty-four hours, and died within thirty hours, only to reanimate roughly twelve hours after that. Those people immediately began to relentlessly pursue the living. When they caught someone, they immediately began to eat them alive. They needed no rest, no sleep, and showed no reaction to any stimulus but hunger. They feared nothing and felt nothing. They didn't even breathe.
Even those who'd staunchly supported bringing Euan aboard had begun to question their own judgment. After all, very little of value had come of it. Even worse, the contagion had, as the naysayers had loudly proclaimed, broken containment and begun to spread.
“I just want to go home,” Freya cried. In hindsight, she couldn't have explained why she wanted to return to a homeworld neither she, nor anyone aboard, had ever seen. It just seemed like something she had to do, and perhaps because it represented safety. It was where humans belonged, not out wandering the cosmos, discovering strange new worlds with new horrors.
That evening, she sat in front of a screen, just as her mother had done more times than she could count.
“Ship,” she said, “how many people are infected?”
“Excluding the colonists still on Aurora,” said Ship, “one hundred forty-seven currently show symptoms of infection. Eighty have died, thirty-seven of whom have reanimated. Twenty-four of the revenants are at large.”
“Can you track them?”
“Negative. The revenants have no life signs.”
“But we all have chips. Can't you track those?”
“Chips deactivate at death.”
“Cameras,” said Freya. “There are cameras everywhere. You can track them visually.”
“That is easier said than done, I believe is the saying. We are trying.”
Freya blew air out between her lips. It figured. As with most diseases, early containment was critical. With few exceptions, every epidemic in history had happened because the people with the power to do something about it didn't realize what was happening until it was too late.
The trouble with the current outbreak was that it happened because someone, or multiple someones, hadn't believed the dead could rise again. She had been one of them. It was, as Badim had stated, a case of denial. A denial that just might cost the entire population their lives.
Worse, Freya had an inkling of the sheer terror a person could feel while being pursued by one of the “living dead,” as Aram had put it. She had no doubt, however much she wished to ignore it, that Euan had meant to eat her alive.
“Are these infected people isolated?” she asked.
“No,” said Ship. “Infected individuals exist in every biome.”
“Do they all know?”
“Impossible to determine. Biometric readings of the infected and those around them indicate that some of them know, some suspect, and some do not know.”
“What do you recommend?”
“Quarantine all infected individuals.”
Freya exhaled. “We tried that. It didn't work.”
“Correction. Not everyone complied. The protocol is sound. It is established by law.”
“But they didn't do it.”
Freya let her head fall against the table top and groaned. “Why?” she asked without looking up.
But Freya knew anyway. Everyone knew about the usual risks, the familiar ones. But the new Aurora contagion was a contradiction. It pretended to revive its victims and because of that, surviving family and friends clung to the hope that their loved one was still in there somewhere, instead of dead and gone. Until they convinced themselves otherwise, the situation was not going to improve.
Freya paced back and forth in her living room. Or, rather, the living space she now shared with what was left of two other families.
“Freya,” said Badim, “you really should stop.”
“Why?” asked Freya without stopping.
“You're making us dizzy,” said Ingvild.
Freya stopped and peered at the girl. Ingvild peered right back through blue eyes set off by bright blonde hair.
“Yeah,” said Ingvild's brother Sven. “Don't you want to watch?”
“No,” said Freya.
She'd seen more than enough. For the last couple of weeks, there'd been nothing on any of the video feeds except revenants attacking and eating the living. Every time she'd walked past a screen, some new and hideous scene had played out before her.
A husband burying his teeth in his wife's neck, driving her to the floor amid gurgling screams of fear and agony. A mother eating her small, wailing child. A child gnawing on its sibling's leg. A toddler shuffling about, trailing its own innards across the floor.
She hadn't wanted to watch, but neither had she been able to look away. And for the past four days, only revenants wandered about many of the biomes. That had been the results of Badim's plan.
It had been a minor miracle that it had worked at all. That plan had called for ruthless quarantine of anyone infected with the contagion. As one might have expected, there had been considerable resistance. But as the situation had gone from bad to worse, most people had come around.
Not that it had gone smoothly, especially once the decision had been made to quarantine all infected in Torus A. Initially, those identified for quarantine had been sedated and then bodily moved through the spine and then made comfortable in someone's residence. In many cases, at least one friend or family member had insisted on remaining with them. And in each of those cases, that person had been immediately attacked once their loved one had reanimated.
Sometimes, and for reasons still unclear, the sedative had worn off prematurely. This had the unfortunate effect of leaving the infected with the terror of succumbing to the contagion, fully aware of the fate that awaited them, and their loved one with the horror of helplessly watching it happen.
Freya just couldn't watch any of it. Not for more than a couple of minutes at a time. After that, she knew it would all be more of the same and she couldn't bear it. Even if the forthcoming footage was supposed to be a little different.
Klaxons sounded in her building, out in the Fetch, all over Nova Scotia, and in the adjacent biomes of Torus B.
“Separation immanent,” said the voice of Ship. “All personnel keep clear.” Ship repeated that several times. Freya wondered why. Anyone affected by the separation would be in the spine. And there wasn't supposed to be anyone in there anymore anyway.
“Dramatic effect,” said Aram.
Freya hrmphed to herself. Dramatic effect, her foot.
A vibration shook shuddered through the floor and walls, then was gone.
“Torus detached,” said Ship.
The images on the screens split, one part still showing scenes inside Torus A, the other an external visual as seen from what remained. Freya watched as Torus A slowly receded toward Aurora. She felt another twinge of sadness.
She almost wished she had been able to go down there. But only almost. The moon looked so beautiful from orbit, all watery blue with wispy swirls of clouds. Sometimes, Badim had told her, great beauty could hide great danger. It was really too bad. Yet, even if there had been no contagion, could people really have lived down there long-term? Despite copious computer modeling, it was, in the end, anyone's guess.
Freya focused on the external image. Torus A gradually shrank, smaller and smaller against the blue arc of Aurora. Then it began to glow, first a dull red at the edges, then brighter and brighter. Before long, it began trailing bits of burning debris as it plunged into Aurora's atmosphere. Freya's eye followed the streak of orange blazing across the blue. She didn't need to be a genius to guess where the wreckage might come down.
The orange glow receded, trails of white smoke mixed with water vapor now marking the descent of Torus A as it streaked over Greenland. Then it was gone, too far down to follow, the impact too distant to see without magnification.
The external image changed. Ship zoomed in on the impact site moments before the burning, twisted hulk of Torus A hit. Freya imagined the sound, the screeching of rending metal and the bang of impact as the whole thing slammed into the ground, much of it smearing across the burren. Then it was over.
That evening, through the subdued quiet that had descended on the entire ship, all seven hundred and thirty survivors, Freya sipped tea.
“What now?” Sven asked.
“Well,” said Aram, “down there? You see, we introduced our DNA. I expect it will mingle with the prion and in a billion years, who knows? Maybe we've just helped give rise to life on an alien world. And who knows? Maybe this was how life on Earth began.”
“You mean long ago, aliens from somewhere else found Earth, tried to settle there, and the same thing happened to them?”
“It's possible,” said Badim.
“When do we leave?” Freya asked. “What?” she asked at the questioning faces. “What else can happen?”
“Freya dear,” said Badim, “don't you know? We've already left orbit.”
“Oh,” she said, and sipped again. “Good.”
Freya sat on a bench overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. At least, it had once been a lake. A slightly brackish estuary, to be precise, kept mostly fresh by positive flow from freshwater streams draining the hills around it. The narrow inlet just up the road had once been the St. Peter Canal, a mile-long waterway with two locks connecting the lake to the open ocean--an ocean that had risen enough to submerge the narrow isthmus. Or so she'd been told. Old digital images and older, faded photographs supported that.
She sipped from a mug of cocoa, the beverage warming her up. Another slight gust of late autumn breeze cut through her thick sweater. She shivered. Or was it a shudder? Probably both. Even after a whole year on Earth, she still found herself adapting to it.
Most mornings, she still awoke disoriented. She had good days and bad days. Sometimes, she barely noticed it. Other times, her dreams were so vivid that she would have sworn she was still on the ship and that the return to Earth was the dream. Often, she cried after waking, especially if her dream had been a good one, or an especially bad one. Occasionally, the two ran together in a strange, surrealistic montage.
It didn't help that St. Peter and Bras d'Or Lake so eerily resembled the Fetch and Long Pond. Bras d'Or was much larger, of course. But all the elements were there. Coniferous forest mantled the slopes rising up from the shore, dotted with shrubs whose names she almost remembered blazing red from the autumn frosts. Sailboats and the occasional cabin cruiser bobbed at the berths of two marinas. Parks and restaurants, like the one where she sat, stretched out along the curve of the shore. Gulls squawked at each other.
Other things were clearly different. The wind rippled the water in a way the air-movers in the Nova Scotia biome never had. Many of the smells were unfamiliar to her. And, of course, the sky was wide, expansive, and threatening.
She had her good and bad days with that, too. Some days, she couldn't bring herself to leave her home. Others, she barely noticed. Most days, it was still a struggle to go outside. She usually compromised by spending time on a covered patio like the one around her.
She sighed and took another sip of cocoa, the new and wonderful beverage that had quickly become her favorite, with coffee not far behind. She peered again at the sheaf of papers on the table in front of her and shook her head slowly.
It still amazed her that they wanted her to lecture at the University. Her, of all people! Of all the hundreds who had survived the trip home and that screaming crusher of a landing on Earth, why her? Badim had told her to go for it.
She'd protested that she had no idea what she was doing. He'd replied that it didn't matter, that she could make it up as she went along, just as she'd always done her whole life. The thing was, she desperately wanted to do it, but it just as powerfully terrified her. Not like the outdoors did. Not like the revenants had. No, it scared her in a different way.
She let her gaze shift across the table to Kaya, and marveled again at how she'd been so fortunate. Kaya, who'd helped her achieve her first victory over her agor-something. Kaya, who'd gone with her when she'd left California to begin a new project in Nova Scotia. Kaya, who'd held her while she'd sobbed from the nightmares and again when she'd buried her father just a week ago. Kaya, who'd asked her to marry him and who wanted to father the children she wasn't sure she could still bear.
“So?” he asked. “Are you going to do it?”
Freya smiled, took another sip of cocoa and tapped absently on the papers. “But I'm not smart.”
Freya opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again. They'd been over that many times.
“You know stuff,” said Kaya. “You have a whole life of it in that beautiful head of yours. You need to share it, all of it.”
“But the beach...”
“Will still be here. Or, well, it's going to be, once we've finished with it. And you've been a great help with that, don't forget.”
She nodded. It had been her memory of Long Pond and the Fetch that had guided the beach-building design team as much as the pre-rise photos and images.
Kaya reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently. “You're amazing, Freya. And everyone likes you. You'll be good at this. Besides,” he added, “you kind of promised your father.”
Freya forced back another choke of grief. Badim's death still felt raw on her heart. And they hadn't even recycled his body! Instead, they had put it into a box and buried it in the ground under a meter of soil and gravel. She'd protested, quite vigorously in fact. The dead were supposed to be recycled, to feed the crops, and thus live on in those who survived them. It still felt so unnatural to her.
She nodded, then stuck out a foot and wiggled the black leather high-heeled shoe that she still thought looked like a slipper with a nail stuck to it. “But first, I suppose I'll have to actually learn how to walk in these things.” She glanced up at Kaya. “And you say all women wear them?”
Kaya shrugged. “Maybe not all. And definitely not all the time. But, yeah, most women I know have at least one pair.”
She shook her head slowly before standing up, still unused to how the high heels shifted her center of balance. She had to admit, she liked the look and feel of leather. It never would have occurred to her to use a cow's skin to make shoes...or jackets or skirts or any other clothing. In her world, the parts that couldn't be eaten had always been recycled. Synthetic materials, which sometimes looked a little like the leather currently wrapped around her feet, had always been printed according to need.
She slid the papers back into their manila folder and tucked it under her arm before putting her broad-brimmed hat back on.
It still amazed her just how sensitive her skin was to the sun. Badim had talked about the light spectrum and how there had been parts of it that the sunlines in the biomes had never emitted and so everyone else on the ship had what Kaya had called “great skin.” He'd explained what he'd meant by that, and Freya had mostly smiled and nodded.
Kaya offered his arm, and Freya took it. Together, they strolled out to the street, her shoes making an unfamiliar hollow clicking sort of sound that she found to be quite pleasant. She only tottered a couple of times.
“It's perfect, by the way,” said Kaya after a few moments.
“What you're writing. 'Aurora,' you're calling it, right? After the moon where you were all going to live?”
“And 'Starship Girl.' That's a wonderful name for a first chapter.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely. It's your story, and it needs to be told your way.”
Freya smiled. “That means a lot, Kaya. It really does.”
“So, what shall we do with ourselves?”
She shrugged. “I hadn't thought about it.”
“The day is still young,” he said.
“Let's just walk. Just like this. Maybe out to the jetty?”
“Sure,” he said, and kissed her tenderly.
From somewhere down the promenade, a guitarist sang a haunting song.
Farewell to Nova Scotia, you sea-bound coast
Let your mountains dark and dreary be
For when I am far away on the briny ocean tossed
Will you ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?
Farewell to Nova Scotia: