Day Three

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BY THE TIME THE cracks of the sun glowed through the clouds behind them, setting the sky a pewter grey, the rain had faded to a soft drizzle, the storm gone as quickly as it had come Raina awoke, her body shaking against the others, and lifted her head. Around them, the world barely breathed.

The quiet snuffed whatever words sat on her lips, and slowly, unable to quell the spasming in her hands and feet, she pulled herself away from the feeble heat of the group and struggled onto all fours. She could not feel her limbs.

Her body stiff and slow, she made her way a few steps down the hill to relieve herself. Her breath puffed in front of her.

When she returned, she found Maeve awake, staring wordlessly at the horizon as her teeth chattered. Their eyes locked for a moment, and then Raina followed her stare. The clouds stretched as far as they could see, and she eyed the ones in the distance, larger and darker than those of the night before. The system had not yet finished, was indeed still moving towards them. But with the unstable wind, Raina did not know how long they had.

They had rested enough.

Gently, Raina shook Rance awake, then Arleigh, then Zenia. Maeve did the same. They made short work of a few bits of food and then passed around canteens, already bordering on dangerously low. Even with the purifying tablets, Raina did not trust the water in the craters--they needed something better. The silence stretched and wrapped around them as they helped each other up and gathered their things. There was no crying. No whimpering. Only silent acceptance; no one could afford to deny it any longer.

Their new reality was here to stay.

They trudged through the mud and craters as quickly as they could, alternating shifts to help Zenia walk. Frozen stiff and immobile all night, the crew's pace was barely a hobble.

The sun climbed high behind the wall of clouds, but as the day wore on, the drizzle continued. After hours of silence punctured only by the occasional cough, and the squishing of feet, the mud began to harden, and rocks poked out of the ground. Raina focused on them with every step, drawing her mind away from the wretched cold that had burrowed deep inside her. Each was a shape entirely its own, scarred and chipped and worn by its history, a witness to the relentless pounding of the weather, of the world. While this place was anything but beautiful, the aching pull of nature, and the spell it cast on everything within its grasp, was enchanting, beckoning in the subtlest of calls. Something seized in her chest, and she felt it. Respect.

One could not survive in the sky without it. There was no such thing as victory over nature, over the planet; they had long abandoned the idea of conquering it. But back on the ground, the feeling was different, more thorough--even the smallest grain of dirt commanded the power that had nearly wiped out humanity. And to be so close to it all, to marvel at even a single stone, felt like a punch to the gut, a bruise that would not heal, perpetual awe and pain that reminded her that she was an intruder, and an unwelcome one.

Ahead, the ground began to flatten out, the craters diminishing, and trees began to thicken, to reappear, offering hope of a changing landscape and maybe--just maybe--shelter.

They breaked for lunch atop one of the final hills. In the distance, she could make out a river, and a small cliff overlooking it. If they harboured any hope of protection, they had to cross before the storm hit again.

As they resumed their trek, she thought back to their ship, to the rainfall, to the waves the storm must have thrown at it. She wondered if it had been dragged in, or flooded, or broken apart even further--how long before it vanished entirely? If they could not make it back up, if they did not survive, no one would know they had been there at all. She shivered and pressed on.

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