The Cottage was packed. All the chairs were taken and people were crammed up against the walls. More people were appearing through the doors, joining the press at the back. It was sweltering, the air heavy, stiff with heat. Little kids ran about getting under everyone’s feet, chased and called by their parents. I spotted friends from school but Ivan had seen Mum and Dad and he towed me behind him, pushing past the back row of chairs. The noise was deafening, everyone talking at once, chairs scraping on the slatted wooden floor as people got comfortable or turned to talk to their neighbours.
“I thought you wanted us,” Ivan said to Dad as we squeezed into the gap where they stood. He had to raise his voice to be heard. Mum and Marissa were standing together and I think Marissa, from her annoyed frown, had just asked a question and been told to hush.
“Not us,” Dad said. “Look.”
The crowds had closed around me and all I could see were tall adult backs forming a shoulder to shoulder wall in front. People kept telling me I would grow, but I was still waiting. If I’d been younger I would have had a better view. Dad would have hoisted me onto his shoulders and I’d have been above everyone. As it was, I only heard.
First there was the whine of a mic and a voice I recognized as Helen Beauchamp’s calling for silence. There was an instant decrease in the noise; rustlings, the creak of a chair, a few coughs and then quiet, interrupted only by the sound of a baby whimpering somewhere near the front. There were a few more creaks, heavy footsteps crossing the stage where they sometimes held concerts and where we performed our school productions every year for the anniversary festival. Then I heard Mr. Hanmer, the Mayor, clear his throat and start to speak. He didn’t sound quite as usual, not as bluff or as confident.
“My friends,” he said. “Our small community has faced many challenges. Each time, we’ve faced them with courage, with cooperation and hope. We are a family; we work together and we support each other, every one of us ensuring our community flourishes. I hope - no, I know - that we will face this challenge that is before us with the same tenacity, dignity and bravery that we have shown in the past.”
“Some of you,” he continued, above the murmurs that rippled through the crowd like wind on the wheat. “Will already know what I am about to say. To some of you, it will be news.”
“We are at war.”
The ripples became great washes of sound. People were shouting, exclaiming, and more people were shushing them, adding to the noise. A touch made me jump, but it was just my Dad’s hand closing around mine. I glanced up and saw his face was grey, stripped of colour, his hand gripping so tight it hurt.
“Quiet!” Mr. Hanmer called. “Quiet, please!” The two Harmony Peacekeepers added their voices to his and managed to enforce enough quiet that Mr. Hanmer could carry on. Our Peacekeepers were Prospect and Cope Oban, who were brothers. They never had to do much except make sure the drunk people got home ok after Festival.
“First shots were exchanged this morning between Republic and Separatist forces who have seized Paradis, Secia and NovaZiema in a coup. However, that is not all.”
“A cargo ship arrived this morning, bringing parts and new equipment. Also on board was a man, a stowaway. He was discovered dead during unloading. I was contacted almost immediately afterwards by a central government representative. They believe this man to have been a terrorist. Other similar occurrence have been reported apparently, stowaways were found who were sick and dying, all in ships docking this morning throughout our region. The government believes these people were terrorists who travelled specifically to spread a disease. Since the man was found dead, we have been given a low risk rating, but Harmony is isolated, quarantined for a period of three months.”
There was quiet; as quiet as a crowd of people can ever be and into that quiet someone spoke, querulous and quite beside the point of everything.
"What about the harvest?"