Today's Reading

Something snagged in her throat, and she coughed, and then retched, doubling over.

Water.

The thought instantly became an urgent need, with enough force to tip her over the edge of the bed and into a sprawled half crouch on the stone floor. She pushed herself upright, leaning hard on the bed, and then crossed the floor, moving with a clubfooted awkwardness. When she reached the sink, she clung to it with both hands. The mirror in front of her was clouded and warped. The distortion had always unsettled her, with the way it caught her features and twisted them if she turned too quickly. But today the clouded surface was a relief. She didn't need a reflection to know how reduced she was. She felt shrunken, stretched too tight over her bones, her dark hair hanging lank and lifeless on her shoulders, her olive skin bleached to a sallow hue.

The tap sputtered, kicking out a little spurt that grew into a steady stream. She splashed at her face, the cold water forcing the shadows back to the edges of her mind, leaving nothing to hide that pitiless statistic.

Ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent dead.

Ten billion people scattered across space.

Zero point zero zero zero one percent of ten billion.

Ten thousand people should have survived.

Spread across how many populated worlds? Three hundred, or thereabouts. Thirty-three survivors per world. And a bit left over.

She had a nagging sense that her math was wrong. But then she was weak, reduced by her illness. It was making it hard to think clearly.

When the answer struck her, she initially felt only a little snick of satisfaction at figuring it out. All worlds were not created equal. Almost half the total human population lived on Earth and the capital planet cluster. There must be a couple of billion people on Alegria alone.

That meant two thousand survivors. Set against the ominous silence outside the cabin, that felt like a vast number, and she felt a flicker of relief.

But then there were all the fledgling colonies, right out on the edges of civilization, some of them numbering only a few hundred people.

Soltaire fell somewhere between those two extremes. Its single landmass was sizable enough—about the size of Russia, she'd been told—but settlement had been slow. There were about ten thousand people, most of them clustered around the port, or over in Laketown. Then a few smaller townsteads, and a clutch of smallholdings, as well as the two main cattle breeding centers, at Gratton Ridge and here at Calgarth.

Ten thousand people.

All the heat seemed to drain out of her body.

Zero point zero one.

Not even a whole person. There shouldn't have been enough of her left to do the math.

A cramp stabbed through her stomach and up into the space beneath her ribs, doubling her over.

Breathe.

It was just an estimate. Maybe other people had done what she'd done, and locked themselves away the second they'd felt that first itch in their throat. But then it hadn't been hard for her to follow the emergency advice. There was no one depending on her, no one wanting her close. But if she'd still been with Daniel, would one of them have given in and crawled to the other, seeking warmth and comfort and the reassurance of another heart beating near theirs?

Daniel.

His name slammed into her, and she put her hands to her head, waiting for the reverberations of that thought to stop, so that she could start feeling something.

Nothing.

Daniel, she thought, more deliberately this time. The man with whom she'd spent the last thirteen years. The man she'd loved.

Still loved.

Maybe.

No.

That was a distraction she didn't need right now.

She stood up straight, moving slowly and carefully as though the air might shatter at an incautious movement, and reached for the towel hanging beside the sink. It was a threadbare rag of a thing that looked as if it had been here since the first settlers, but towels were just one of the things she'd forgotten when she left Alegria. She'd arrived with just a handful of clothes and essentials, plus a few personal bits and pieces. Daniel had taken it as a good sign. Your stuff is all where you left it, he'd told her, in one of his mails. Whenever you want it.

Whenever you want me. That was what he'd really been saying.

I want you now.
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