Aria hadn’t expected the entire colony to descend into chaos from a single hunter getting sick, but the unexpected had been a constant companion ever since she was pulled from hypersleep and thrown into an emergency escape pod a year prior.
They had done well for themselves, eking something of a living from the dreary swamp in which they crash landed. Shelters had been made, crops planted, animals tamed, even a few careful trade relationships established with the neighboring tribes. The air was always humid and thick with flying pests, and the ground always soggy and treacherous, but by putting all of their heads together, they were able to make it work.
Deb got sick while out in the marshes looking for wild game. She’d been a doctor and sport hunter back on her home world, so her skills were vital on the new planet. Returning to base with several fowl in hand and a ghastly sheen to her skin, she shuffled directly to the meager medical facilities they had established. Few others had any sort of hospital experience but Deb luckily said they had the right supplies to get her back on her feet eventually.
The next day war-horns and battle-cries woke the colonists – the Faceeaters had decided to raid their humble camp, and Aria remembered grabbing her dented pistol and taking cover behind some supplies, trebling with fear. The skirmish was short, thankfully, but only because both sides took heavy losses. Zeke and Tanner were bleeding badly, Marla was unconscious from a head wound, and Hep’s leg was bent at a funny angle. It was all Aria could to do drag the infirm to the rapidly-filling makeshift trauma center.
True to her calling, Deb immediately started working on her fellow colonists, trying to ignore the fever and sweats that wracked her body and blurred her vision. She was a professional, and she was going to do everything in her power to save the colony, much as she had done upon their initial – rough – landing. Aria was the only camp member who hadn’t suffered terrible injuries in the attack; aside from a cut over her eye and the bruising on her left side, she managed to get away almost unscathed. She watched Deb work long into the night, doing her best to keep a wary eye toward the horizon, where other dangers may rise.
Within two days almost every colonist, whether their injuries had been successfully treated or not, came down with the same choking affliction that first struck Deb. Whether it was the close proximity in the infirmary, her working in truly bottom-rate conditions without the benefit of glitterworld medicine, or just by chance, nearly the entire population was incapacitated. Aria was okay, and though Hep couldn’t walk more than a few steps on his splinted leg, he was at least ambulatory.
Aria was able to communicate their plight to a passing group of traders, who after seeing the condition of the colony, backed away slowly, making religious hand signs of warding and protection. “Malaisy,” they called the disease. “Totemic Peoples have a cure, but expensive,” they suggested, referencing another group who made their home several days’ journey away. Between Hep and Aria, there was no question who had to brave the trip.
Strapping some of the colony’s most valuable possessions to a large muffalo – an oversized pack animal with a timid disposition and a fondness for chocolate – Aria said her goodbyes, promising to return as quickly as possible with the much-needed supplies. In further talks with the traders, it was unlikely any in the colony would survive a week without them.
In the middle of the second night slogging through the thick, swampy forest, Aria woke to the sound of stomping hooves and vicious hissing. Her dear muffalo was attacking a large snake that had thought to devour her while she slept. With quick strikes the viper lunges at the slower beast, fangs sinking in through its thick fur. Though it was quick and struck with agility, the muffalo only had to connect with one heavy foot to end its threat. Looking almost mournfully to Aria, the muffalo slumped over and fell to the sloshy ground, its breathing labored and pulse racing.
Having left as many medical supplies at the base camp as possible, she only had a few dry herbs the locals promised had true healing properties. Knowing she couldn’t make a trade for the drugs she needed to rescue her colony without the goods the great beast carried, she accepted the fact that if it died, they all likely did. As a summer storm began rolling in, she tried to form a makeshift shelter to keep the soft animal comfortable while it weathered the venom coursing through its veins.
For three days she tended to the muffalo as it fought the infection, running out of food rations and turning to regretfully eating some of the kibble that she had brought for her traveling companion. When that meager supply ran out she took it upon herself to go hunting. She wasn’t practiced but knew how to fire a gun, and was able to catch enough meat that the pair wouldn’t starve.
By the middle of the fourth day, the soft muffalo was regaining its strength, able to walk slowly through the swampy muck that served as a the ground. Anxious to get back on pace but knowing better than to push the placid creature in its weakened state, Aria set them back on the rough trail toward the Totemic Peoples.
More than a week after leaving her fledgling village behind, a dirt-caked and swamp-sore Aria made it to her destination, the shaggy muffalo dutifully following behind her, it’s bags packed with all of the colony’s worldly wealth and honors. She didn’t know the Peoples’ language, but had seen Zeke trade with them before, and eventually got her point across – two large doses of anti-Malaisy medicine, which appeared to be some sort of salvage from another doomed space ship, the container far more advanced than what the planet could produce, and enough rations to get her and the muffalo back home. She decided the muffalo looked like a George, and gave him a reassuring pat on the back – they were almost home.
Through the return trip took five days, making her absence almost two weeks in all, she walked into the camp beleaguered but triumphant, holding the plastic box high over her head.
No-one answered her hails.
The colony was empty – not of objects, for everything was where she had left them, but of people. A growing pit in her stomach, she finally found them on a small hill of firm ground not far from where they first landed.
Hep has started digging graves in the most robust soil they had access to, putting body after body inside to rest within the final embrace of eternity. Apparently succumbing to the same disease as the others, nobody else having been available to tend to them, his body was slumped over a shovel as if he collapsed mid-swing, unable to finish his self-appointed task of laying his companions to rest.
With tears in her eyes and not trusting herself to speak, Aria walked back to the muffalo’s pen, sullen and dour, plopping herself next to the big oaf, trying to find some measure of comfort in its thick fur.
With eyes red and sore, the sun disappearing below the horizon, and knowing she couldn’t stay outside all night, Aria heavily dragged herself to her small bedroom, a touch of peace among the tragic reminders of everything she had lost. Idly turning the much sought-after medicine in her hands, she popped open the plastic container. It definitely had to have come from another ship, perhaps even theirs – she doubted any of the locals had heard about advanced manufacturing processes and materials like plastic.
“Caution,” she read from the inside instruction guide, luckily printed in English among several additional languages, “vaccine protects against acquisition of terrestrial-based pathogens. Precautionary use only, can not treat symptoms once exhibited.”
Laughing in spite of herself, Aria fell backward onto her straw-and-cotton bed. Turning one of the capsules over in her hand, she shook her head. “At least I won’t get sick, for what that’s worth now.”
This tale comes from the emergent storytelling found in RimWorld, a base-building/survival game recently released by Ludeon. The events were wholly unscripted, and I give my deepest thanks to Emily S who allowed me to detail this consequence-heavy part of one of her games in narrative form.